Although brief and seemingly spare, this section of Layli Long Soldier's poem "He Sápa" is dizzyingly powerful and provocative. How does she pack such potency into this selection from her 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Whereas.
Long Soldier takes as her inspiration for this five-part poem an isolated mountain range in South Dakota. Translated from the Lakota words Pahá Sápa, the mountains known as The Black Hills appeared dark from a distance, as they were covered in trees (as explained here).
The layout of this section of the poem is another example of Long Soldier's incisive use of concrete poetry - turning the poem or poem excerpt into visual art to convey its message. But if the poem is about mountains, as readers/viewers, we're not going to be handed a simple visual transcription resembling mountain peaks. There is a space here, framed by pointed and incantatory words. To take in all of the words, readers/viewers are literally compelled to change their perspective.
How do the words framing this space, this eloquent emptiness, this brimming void help us to decipher and interpret the message? John Freeman's May 2017 review of Whereas doesn't offer clues, but does provide insightful guidance:
You do not slip into this book on silken bolts of easy beauty, but scratch yourself raw on language disassembled into glittering shards: "He is a mountain as he is a horn that comes from a shift in the river, throat to mouth," starts "He Sapa," a poem about how many beings tumble forth from two words.
Once he comes to live on the outside of her, he will not sleep
through the night or the next 400. He sleeps not, they sleep not.
Ergo they steer gradually mad. The dog’s head shifts another
paw under the desk. Over a period of 400 nights.
You will see, she warns him. Life is full of television sets,
invoices, organs of other animals thawing on counters.
In her first dream of him, she leaves him sleeping on Mamo’s
salt-bag quilt behind her alma mater. Leaves him to the Golden
Goblins. Sleep, pretty one, sleep.
… the quilt that comforted her brother’s youthful bed, the quilt he took to band camp.
Huh oh, he says, Huh oh. His word for many months.
Merrily pouring a bottle of Pledge over the dog’s dull coat. And
with a round little belly that shakes like jelly.
Waiting out a shower in the Border Cafe; the bartender
spoons a frozen strawberry into his palm-leaf basket while they
lift their frosted mugs in a grateful click.
He sits up tall in his grandfather’s lap, waving and waving to
the Blue Bonnet truck. Bye, blue, bye.
In the next dream he stands on his toes, executes a flawless
flip onto the braided rug. Resprings to crib.
The salt-bag quilt goes everywhere, the one the bitch Rosemary bore her litters on. The one they wrap around the mower, and bundle with black oak leaves.
How the bowl of Quick Quaker Oats fits his head.
He will have her milk at 1:42, 3:26, 4 a.m. Again at 6. Bent
over the rail to settle his battling limbs down for an afternoon
nap. Eyes shut, trying to picture what in the world she has on.
His nightlight – a snow-white pair of porcelain owls.
They remember him toothless, with one tooth, two tooths,
five or seven scattered around in his head. They can see the day
when he throws open his jaw to display several vicious rows.
Naked in a splash of sun, he pees into a paper plate the guest
set down in the grass as she reached for potato chips.
Notes on the Poem
The title of this excerpt from C.D. Wright's 2003 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Steal Away has a tinge of the ominous to it: "What No One Could Have Told Them". But we know we're in good hands with Wright, and she will only take us down a treacherous path if necessary and with the utmost care and guidance. There is just as good a chance the foreboding of this title is in service to a tale told humorously and with generous helpings of self-deprecation.
And indeed, that's it. Once we launch into this lovingly fractured tale of the fraught discoveries of new motherhood and parenthood, we know each crisp episode with its vivid little moments and drama packs both an underlying punchline and resonant emotional revelations. What no one could have told them - however autobiographical, Wright ruefully holds the parents at third person arm's length - they are finding out for themselves, in spades.
Oh, to have had the chance to hear C.D. Wright read this poem, with her signature timing and gently sardonic tone. Such was the privilege of a student audience in 2005, as recounted on the Robert Creeley Foundation web site:
"The first poem she read was ‘What No One Could Have Told Them.’ Students reveled in the humor, and her reading of the poem opened many students' minds to the idea that poetry can be humorous and meaningful and touching and rich with craft. For the remainder of the reading, the students sat mesmerized, understanding poetry's meaningful nature and its accessibility. Her presence and her poetry were gifts to students that day, and the introduction to poetry for so many in attendance proved to compel them to grow to love the art form. Her legacy lives in those students' revelation and through their ongoing appreciation of poetry that she sparked in that encounter."
Wright's down to earth examination of the foibles of motherhood in this poem is cited in a scholarly paper from 2016, Embodied Poetics in Mother Poetry - Dialectics and Discourses of Mothering by Sandra L. Faulkner and Cynthia Nicole. That paper's abstract provides an intriguing approach to the poem as a whole (which readers can enjoy in the 2003 Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology or in Steal Away):
"Mothers are evaluated by society and one another based on what they do and don’t do, and even what they think and don’t think about mothering (the action) and being a mother (the role)."
In addition to the meditation on motherhood and the lively, poignant storytelling the poem encapsulated, Wright apparently reveled in playing with individual scenes and elements in the poem. As this critical piece observes:
"C.D. Wright is a collector ... she organizes scraps of memory that seem relevant to whatever feeling she’s trying to capture, then she overlays bits of overheard speech, road signs, song titles, newspaper headlines, and sets them one after the other on the page, separated by spaces like courtroom exhibits."
Read further in this piece to find out which scrap from this poem fascinated her ...!
Children of the world,
if Spain falls — I mean, it’s just a thought —
if her forearm
falls downward from the sky seized,
in a halter, by two terrestrial plates;
children, what an age of concave temples!
how early in the sun what I was telling you!
how quickly in your chest the ancient noise!
How old your 2 in the notebook!
Children of the world, mother
Spain is with her belly on her back;
our teacher is with her ferules,
she appears as mother and teacher,
cross and wood, because she gave you height,
vertigo and division and addition, children;
she is with herself, legal parents!
If she falls — I mean, it’s just a thought — if Spain
falls, from the earth downward,
children, how you will stop growing!
how the year will punish the month!
how you will never have more than ten teeth,
how the diphthong will remain in downstroke, the gold star in tears!
How the little lamb will stay
tied by its leg to the great inkwell!
How you’ll descend the steps of the alphabet
to the letter in which pain was born!
sons of fighters, meanwhile,
lower your voice, for right at this moment Spain is distributing
her energy among the animal kingdom,
little flowers, comets, and men.
Lower your voice, for she
shudders convulsively, not knowing
what to do, and she has in her hand
the talking skull, chattering away,
the skull, that one with the braid,
the skull, that one with life!
Lower your voice, I tell you;
lower your voice, the song of the syllables, the wail
of matter and the faint murmur of the pyramids, and even
that of your temples which walk with two stones!
Lower your breath, and if
the forearm comes down,
if the ferules sound, if it is night,
if the sky fits between two terrestrial limbos,
if there is noise in the creaking of doors,
if I am late,
if you do not see anyone, if the blunt pencils
frighten you, if mother
Spain falls — I mean, it’s just a thought —
go out, children of the world, go look for her!…
Notes on the Poem
Readers of poetry in translation feel they're in good hands when renowned translator Clayton Eshleman transforms into English the work in Spanish of César Vallejo, captured so generously in The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition, which was shortlisted for the 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize. "Spain, Take This Cup From Me" is one of the fine examples from this extensive collection.
Readers put their trust in translators when reading works in translation for which they (the readers) do not know the original language of the work. The 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize judges clearly were confident in this translator's stewardship of the poet's original work when they observed in their citation
"[how Eshleman shows] respect for the original, verification and confirmation not only of what one recognizes as alien or unknown, but of which one seems to know, invention of words in English that will work in a way similar to the Spanish words coined by Vallejo, absolute awareness of the fact that one is creating something else, a different music, different possibilities of sound, wanting only to stay level with the original intentions, turning the already said into something sayable again."
Interestingly, other translators can consider the same source material with the same thought and meticulousness ... and craft a notably different translation. That does not necessarily mean that one translation is qualitatively better than another, nor that readers should withhold that trust for one but not the other translator or translation, but the different interpretations will afford readers different experiences, perhaps subtly, perhaps more dramatically. With Eshleman's translation here before you, consider as well this translation by Sandy McKinney (which we'll open in a separate browser window for you).
Both renditions have a consistency of tone and voice. Eshleman's parenthetical "I mean, it's just a thought" characterizes a voice that seems somewhat warmer and more colloquial than McKinney's, which renders the same phrase as "I say, it's a manner of speaking", which sounds a bit more formal. Both address the audience directly as "children", although one uses "of the world" and the other "of the earth". Does that difference matter to the reader?
Each translator arranges word and meaning with different levels of simplicity or complexity ...
"How you'll descend the steps of the alphabet
to the letter in which pain was born!"
"How you are going to go down the steps of the alphabet
to the letter in which grief was born."
... but the relative meaning remains intact. Or does it? Does the direct "descend" lend a different connotation than "going to go down" that in turn changes how the reader feels about the destination, which in turn is characterized subtly differently as "pain" in one, "grief" in the other?
"if the blunt pencils
"if you are alarmed
by pencils without points"
again vary in directness and, in turn, perhaps in the seriousness of what the poet and the translator are trying to convey.
Discerning readers can read each version as a whole and contained work, and find good reasons to trust them both as accurate representations of what the original poet intended.
Long enough since the genre was popular
we’ve forgotten what to call it: weird mix of quotes and collectibles, private
thoughts and uncensored meditations in brief, like locks of hair and
child height charts of your considerations
and ponderings. An abandoned art, you practise it with care: each quote
equal to the other, simple entries like coordinates of unmarked
in the sky – twenty years, over
8,000 days – the weather is “what you make of sunshine,” and only
make a man successful,” haven’t you heard
“God is the messenger, and we are all brothers and sisters,” organizations
of hate “must be fought with the ultimate crest: humanity,” and you
note a quote with a love reserved
for precision and the unattained, and I
suspend like cracked meteors in the ether
of your common message: go to bed, what is truly important in this world
has already been said.
“When people deserve love the least
is when the need it the most,” we are the axis
of cliche, “like mother like daughter,” sign your name
on this one before I turn out the light
and resume my interrupted prayer.
Notes on the Poem
We miss Priscila Uppal's vibrant presence. We are so grateful she left us countless gifts of her urgent, provocative and stirring words, in myriad prose and poetic forms.
There seems to be a tussle going on in Priscila Uppal's poem "Common Book Pillow Book", starting right from the title. Let's revisit what it might all be about.
The "common book" in the title is probably what the poem's narrator means as a commonplace book. Notebooks used to collect various kinds of information of interest or pertinent to the note taker, commonplace books are not meant to be diaries. They are supposed to be compendiums used as aids for remembering concepts and facts. Of course, no commonplace book capturing someone's interest in a subject or subjects is likely to be utterly dry and devoid of perspectives.
A pillow book, by contrast, is intended to encapsulate personal work - observations, musings, sketches, fragments of poetry and more. Even the name, in comparison to the commonplace book, sounds much more intimate.
Has Uppal then created some kind of hybrid, in what she describes as a ...
"... weird mix of quotes and collectibles, private
thoughts and uncensored meditations in brief, like locks of hair and
child height charts of your considerations
Is that mashup of the factual with the wistful creating tension for the "you and I" of this poem? The dismissive
"go to bed, what is truly important in this world
has already been said."
... seems to suggest that, don't you think? But as we revisit this poem, perhaps what we originally perceived as dismissive could also be read as practical and, in its way, strangely comforting.
The opening half of "Where do you feel?" by Donato Mancini is simple but striking, in several respects. How does this selection from Mancini's 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted Same Diff achieve such a profound effect?
The spare phrases, all tersely answering the title question, are demarcated by generous line spacing, which creates surprising heft, weight, impact, almost simulates strained breath between words. The way the words are arranged and cascade down the page confirms, as the Griffin Poetry Prize judges remarked on how Mancini's "strong design impulse" caused the words in another poem in this collection to "snow down the pages".
Towards end of this segment, the answers or observations start to become more specific, more alarmed, peevish and verging on complaint, building tension. The forceful momentum of each line and chunk of space after each line has a perverse energy, even as it cumulatively and ironically suggests failing strength.
Further on in the poem (with you can read in The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology 2018 or Same Diff), feelings are described in even more detail. The increasing density of words causes the sense of urgency and anxiety to mount further, as the lines wrap and space between each exposition compresses.
The judges celebrate in their citation Mancini's words' presence and power on the page, how, among other accomplishments "he offers a way to recover a self, not through self-assertion but by attending to the voices and needs of others." Persuasively, almost unnervingly, this poem has that very influence on the reader.
How easy the inquisitor’s questions are!
Compare them, he says, with the questions
I sometimes dare not ask myself:
What hidden tribe gave you gangrene?
Are you utterly untainted by power?
Have you broken all the mirrors?
From what weaknesses do you draw your strength?
What taboos govern your rectitude?
Why do you pay only lip service to the scope of your ignorance?
Do you not sometimes settle for a mere approximation of what you really wanted to say? Are you not sometimes annoyed by your own most righteous passions? Do you not sometimes tend to curse your fine reasons for living?
Are you not a little prone to play the martyr?
Notes on the Poem
This week's Poem of the Week is an excerpt from "Skinned Alive", from the 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted In Praise of Defeat, a collection of the work in French of poet, novelist, playwright, translator, and political activist Abdellatif Laâbi, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. These crisply presented lines offer a sharp twist on the poetic device of rhetorical questions.
The first line, one of only two that are punctuated with something other than a question mark in this section of the poem, is perversely sprightly.
"How easy the inquisitor's questions are!"
No one can possibly imagine an inquisitor asking easy questions, so what exactly is going on as the questions ensue? And as they ensue, to what a cascade of mounting urgency, cynicism and, surprisingly, spirit the reader - bewildered but morbidly fascinated - is subjected. In fact, at the pace at which the thorny, provocative, perverse queries proceed, the reader experiences a psychological bombardment not unlike that of the inquisitor's victim.
"Compare them, he says, with the questions
I sometimes dare not ask myself"
Is the inquisitor genuinely being self-deprecating? Of course not. He's playing ornate mind games, games buried in the spaces between the words assembled into labyrinthine and subtle multiple negatives and deadly pitfalls. It's a challenge to slow down the battery of questions so one can try to carefully parse words such as "hidden", "untainted" and "taboos". Every question is deceptively succinct, treacherously loaded and menacing.
The ominousness of the final line in this section ...
"Are you not a little prone to play the martyr?"
strongly suggests the narrator / target of the inquisitor cannot possibly prevail in this encounter, which is undoubtedly one of many. But there have clearly been many meetings between questioner and questioned, so has the cynical humour of that opening line served as a survival mechanism?
These words, so complex and astringent in translation, clearly illustrate how attuned the translator (Nicholson-Smith) is to the original questions and how they were posed by - and perhaps to - the poet (Laabi).
I do not regret the things I said to that wall
stories about hand ratios in brawls
and a hotel kitchen entrance killer
and steamboats where they dedicate their one-night stand to
While we look at all the pretty kingdoms floating
over our tents
While we get the surplus treatment
Don’t put your shoe on my shoulder
And call it a hand (one building makes a jail)
“that’s a lot of people for
only a little bit of commotion”
The bookshelf looks alive to me
Alive and my opposition (until the devil lets me go)
My sidekick is the bootlegger
I tied up our friend as soon as a couple rich people acted like they
cared about him
A painting of a sun watched me end lives
The point I was making began scaring other patrons in the pool hall
“who would name themselves after this city?”
– to which I reply, “the only woman for me.”
Calling my drug the scoundrel and cousin / an axe handle in its
five minutes as a twin
Painting my walls with pieces of other walls
I wandered to the edge of the parking lot
Notes on the Poem
Of the collection from which Tongo Eisen-Martin's poem "Three buildings make a tide" comes, the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize judges observed "Heaven Is All Goodbyes moves between trenchant political critique and dreamlike association, demonstrating how, in the right hands, one mode might energize the other — keeping alternative orders of meaning alive in the face of radical injustice." Line by line, we can feel the movement the judges describe, and yes, we can feel the clash of allusive, at times elusive, at times propulsive energies at play.
From the start, a line like
"I do not regret the things I said to that wall"
has us willing to take the words literally, or to accept that we're willingly entering an edgy and treacherous dream world. From "brawls" and "a hotel entrance killer" to tying someone up (again, literally?) or wielding an axe handle (where is the blade?), a sense of foreboding shifts back and forth with benign whimsy the likes of "pretty kingdoms floating". Where have we followed the poem's narrator to, and where are we going next? In fact, is the narrator menacing ...
"I tied up our friend as soon as a couple rich people acted like they
cared about him
A painting of a sun watched me end lives
The point I was making began scaring other patrons in the pool hall"
... or being menaced?
"The bookshelf looks alive to me
Alive and my opposition (until the devil lets me go)"
Perhaps loosely akin to the medieval literary form of the dream vision, Eisen-Martin leads us through the mists of a threatening, bewildering dreamscape to the promise of stark, crystal clear revelations at "the edge of the parking lot" ...
According to our scholars, the newly birthed Milky Way
was rhinestoned with souls, which proved the soul’s
existence. The lifeguards, when asked, said they’d tasted
the hard candy of the soul when they tried reviving
an ocean victim. But we’d always been suspicious of souls.
We knew they could escape because we often heard
their hooves, the slap of their tails. They’d wander off
at night and when we’d wake, we’d feel emptier,
our great finned souls swimming against the current
and further away. We’d cover our mouths when we laughed,
when we yawned. Once they broke out, souls were just a nuisance
to coax back. There was a trap of words the poets had sugared
and we’d take classes to learn how to enunciate without sounding
desperate. When they returned, we’d have to swallow our souls
like the pit of a plum or a vitamin. It could take several days
to feel enriched, to see the sky in the puddles again.
Notes on the Poem
In her 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted poetry collection, Sue Goyette creates a singular character, with distinctive presence and personality, out of an unlikely entity - the ocean. The poems of Ocean depicts the eponymous subject as, by turns, feisty, mischievous, threatening and mercurial. When she takes on something so immense with such imagination and verve, it's not surprising that she can work similar poetic alchemy with the soul.
As the 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize judges observed in the citation for Ocean:
"The ocean is its own character – or characters – a pet, a starlet, a dragon, a pacing old man."
Those are rather unusual symbols for or depictions of the ocean, don't you think?
This set of guidelines for using symbols in visual communications prefaces its examples with the contention that "some symbols, ... have become so ingrained within our cultural sphere that they carry an almost universal meaning." The guidelines go on to reference the butterfly, fire, rain, darkness and witches as symbolizing souls or aspects or states of one's soul. While readily recognizable, could "so ingrained" also mean that using those symbols could render a piece perfunctory or cliché?
Well, we don't have to worry about that with this poem. Goyette depicts the soul as everything from rhinestones and hard candy and a creature with hooves and slapping tails to a creature with fins, a wayward nuisance and something to be regained by swallowing it "like the pit of a plum or a vitamin."
By referencing the less likely, the more unconventional, the unexpected and even revelatory, Goyette makes the mystery of the soul somehow less elusive, perhaps something with which we can be less intimidated and can come closer to understanding.
TORONTO – September 19, 2018 – The trustees of The Griffin Trust For Excellence In Poetry are pleased to announce that Ulrikka Gernes (Denmark), Kim Maltman (Canada) and Srikanth Reddy (US) are the judges for the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize.
i fall into the opening between subject and object
and call it a condition of possibility.
when i speak only the ceiling listens.
sometimes it moans.
if i have a name
let it be the sound his lips make.
there is no word in my language for this.
sometimes my kookum begins to cry
and a world falls out.
grieve is the name i give to myself.
i carve it into the bed frame.
i am make-believe.
this is an archive.
it hurts to be a story.
i am the boundary between reality and fiction.
it is a ghost town.
you dreamt me out of existence.
you are at once a map to nowhere and everywhere.
yesterday was an optical illusion.
i kiss a stranger and give him a middle name.
i call this love.
it lasts for exactly twenty minutes.
i chase after that feeling.
which is to say:
i want to almost not exist.
almost is the closest i can get to the sky.
heaven is a wormhole.
i first found it in another man’s armpit.
last night i gave birth to a woman and named her becoming.
she is four cree girls between the ages of 10 and 14 from northern saskatchewan.
we are a home movie
i threw out by accident.
all that is left is the signified.
people die that way.
Notes on the Poem
Billy-Ray Belcourt's 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection This Wound is a World offers, from beginning to end, a poetic journey both elucidating and starkly affecting. Each poem along the way manages that dual achievement differently, but helps build meaningful momentum over the course of the book. In "Gay Incantations", Belcourt renders the poem even more moving by using language in seemingly counterintuitive ways.
From the poem's opening lines
"i fall into the opening between subject and object
and call it a condition of possibility."
Belcourt uses the technical language of language, in effect, to show how feelings and interactions can be depicted dispassionately, in fact coldly, as intersections of grammatical components. One can fall into that clinical void between words, be left unsignified ("there is no word in my language for this"), even be dismissed as "make-believe."
At the same time, Belcourt calls out those linguistic constructs for creating isolation and alienation when the opposite is so urgently needed. Most poignantly, this plea comes at the aching heart of the poem:
"it hurts to be a story."
The audio version here of Belcourt reading a slightly varied version of the poem has the not unpleasant cadence of someone carefully but not perfunctorily, but also wistfully rhyming off a list. That delivery balances what we've just observed, a struggle between what is depersonalized because it is seemingly reduced to a mere list, but cumulatively cries out for connection before it is reduced and dismissed. The poem's title is the clue: these are incantations, perhaps unlikely in form and content - sometimes intimate, sometimes grim, but all evoking hope for something magically transformative.
If words can't bring back "four cree girls between the ages of 10 and 14 from northern saskatchewan", the plea is that words can somehow at least keep them signified and remembered. The last line of the poem is an emphatic full stop.