from We Were There When Jazz Was Invented

Joy Harjo

copyright ©2015 by Joy Harjo

I have lived 19,404 midnights, some of them in the quaver of
   fish dreams
And some without any memory at all, just the flash of the
From a night rainbow, to an island of fire and flowers – such
 a holy
Leap between forgetting and jazz. How long has it been
 since I called you back?
After Albuquerque with my baby in diapers on my hip; it
 was a difficult birth,
I was just past girlhood slammed into motherhood. What a

Beyond the door of my tongue is a rail and I’m leaning over
 to watch bears
Catch salmon in their teeth. That realm isn’t anywhere near
 Los Angeles. If I dream
It all back then I reconstruct that song buried in the muscle
 of urgency. I’m bereft
In the lost nation of debtors. Wey yo hey, wey yo hey yah
 hey. Pepper jumped
And some of us went with him to the stomp. All night,
 beyond midnight, back
Up into the sky, holy.

Notes on the Poem

In the text just preceding the poem "We Were There When Jazz Was Invented" from the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, Joy Harjo declares "All the stories in the earth's mind are connected." In the opening two stanzas, Harjo weaves subtle connections illustrating this contention. The full text of that piece that perhaps introduces "We Were There When Jazz Was Invented", or perhaps is a thoughtful interlude between this and the previous poem in the collection, reads:
Each human is a complex, contradictory story. Some stories within us have been unfolding for years, others are trembling with fresh life as they peek above the horizon. Each is a zigzag of emotional design and ancestral architecture. All the stories in the earth's mind are connected.
Bearing in mind that "Some stories within us have been unfolding for years" it's interesting that the narrator of this poem measures out her life so far as "19,404 midnights" instead of 53 years. Even using such a granular unit of measurement, it's usually "days", not the intriguing "midnights" ... That echoes and connects to the reference in the second stanza ... "All night, beyond midnight, back Up into the sky, holy." Some of the narrator's living, however you mark it off, has been spent "in the quaver of fish dreams" ... connected hauntingly in the second stanza to "If I dream It all back then I reconstruct that song buried in the muscle of urgency." The "fish dreams" also reverberate again in the image of bears catching "salmon in their teeth". "What a bear" - what kind is she referring to in the first stanza? - connects to the fishing bears in the second stanza. The connections continue to flow - fascinatingly, musically, enigmatically - throughout the rest of the poem, which you can enjoy in either Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings or the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize anthology.

Family Ghosts

Abigail Chabitnoy

copyright ©2019 Abigail Kerstetter

Michael I wrote you
a story     I didn’t know
what you did
what we did
if I should dig
you up        but
it didn’t feel right
you should remain so far
from the sea
it didn’t feel right
I couldn’t see you

Is this the shape these things should take?

Notes on the Poem

Abigail Chabitnoy's 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection How to Dress a Fish sheds intense light on the suffering and injustice generations of her family suffered, focusing on what her great-grandfather went through and endured. The poem "Shebutnoy" uses driving refrains to emphasize the poet's steadfast unearthing of her family's history. This week's Poem of the Week, "Family Ghosts" takes a markedly different but still affecting approach to capture the poet's commitment to her family's story. In both cases, Chabitnoy indicates that the poems are about or are addressing her relative directly. In the rigorous unspooling of statements preceded with "Because" in "Shebutnoy", it is as if the poet/narrator is laying out a careful thesis for Michael Chabitnoy during which she is trying to keep her emotions in check. In "Family Ghosts", she is calling out to Michael in plain and more plaintive fashion. In fact, this poem, which opens the collection, is an unalloyed cri de coeur. As a literal cry from the heart, it's abrupt, ragged, almost struggling for clarity ... "I didn't know what you did what we did" but in very short order, it determinedly rights itself - interestingly, with a repetition of the phrase "it didn't feel right" to the final question "Is this the shape these things should take?" which is a statement of intent to forge ahead, the morphing of that cri de coeur from passion and entreaty to protest, seeking truth and shaping reconciliation on one's own terms.

Scorched Maps

Mira Rosenthal, translated from the Polish written by Tomasz Rózycki

copyright ©English Translation and Introduction Copyright © 2013 by Mira Rosenthal

I took a trip to Ukraine. It was June.
I waded in the fields, all full of dust
and pollen in the air. I searched, but those
I loved had disappeared below the ground,

deeper than decades of ants. I asked
about them everywhere, but grass and leaves
have been growing, bees swarming. So I lay down,
face to the ground, and said this incantation –

you can come out, it’s over. And the ground,
and moles and earthworms in it, shifted, shook,
kingdoms of ants came crawling, bees began
to fly from everywhere. I said come out,

I spoke directly to the ground and felt
the field grow vast and wild around my head.

Notes on the Poem

The poem "Scorched Maps", written in Polish by Tomasz Rózycki and translated into English by Mira Rosenthal, wastes no time in suggesting one direction, then moving disarmingly in another. Out of constraints of form and an accumulation of images with negative connotations, a surprising message of hope emerges. Many of our Poem of the Week selections use (and sometimes subvert) the sonnet form, a stalwart and evergreen poetic structure (that "arose in 13th-century Italy", as the 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize judges point out) with which much can be achieved. The 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Colonies is a sequence comprised entirely of sonnets, written in Polish by Rózycki and maintained in the fundamental 14-line format when translated into English by Rosenthal. How does the discipline imposed by the form, employed by the poet and honoured by the translator, inform the poem? Rosenthal's attentiveness to Rózycki's use of the sonnet is clear from her translator's introduction to the collection:
"My task in translating the present work was to remember that sound drives sense, not the other way around. I put the musicality of the English before any strict idea of fidelity in an effort to write alongside the Polish, not from it. Instead of adding or altering ideas in order to replicate end rhyme, I played up the natural sonic texture of the English and used the strong iambic meter of the English sonnet as a way to impart the kind of incessant music that we find in the original Polish. Yet a translator's hands are inevitably bound by the ties of meaning. Ró?ycki breaks with the form often enough, expanding the line in Polish, that it was necessary at times to depart from the pentameter line in English in order to convey the breadth of ideas. But my overall intent was to use form as a means to resist simply following meaning, in order to strike real poetry in English."
While applying this focus to the work and balancing that with striving "to strike real poetry in English" - which she does beautifully - Rosenthal takes us as readers from a macroscopic view of things ... "I took a trip to Ukraine. It was June." swiftly and crisply (remember, there are only 14 lines with which to get it all in) to a microscopic view, populated by ants, bees, moles, worms, grasses and leaves, all viewed at ground level. The person taking the trip is on a sad journey ... "I searched, but those I loved had disappeared below the ground" but before the sonnet's 14 lines are used up, we're swept back up to this illuminating conclusion: "I spoke directly to the ground and felt the field grow vast and wild around my head." In short and exhilarating order, we and the person on this wistful sojourn have gone from contemplations of loss and decay to acceptance and signs of new life. The life that continues and thrives after death swirls "vast and wild" around us.

Mountain Pine Beetle Suite – II. summer: mating season

Chantal Gibson

copyright ©Chantal Gibson 2019

the female plays house    between
the bark & the sapwood    she is
hard-wired for love    in the phloem
her scent on the walls    she rubs
her Avon wrists together    & waits

the male finds her intoxicated    they
make love    under the trees    legs be-
come arms    hands grow fingers    nails
scratch    tiny love notes    in the bark

summer is short here    little time
for courtship in the North:    the cold-
blooded retreat to the woods    veins
pumped with antifreeze    the female
bores deeper    into the sapwood    she
drags her smokes    & her big belly    up
the tree    carves her birthing chamber
and her coffin with her teeth

Notes on the Poem

The poem "summer: mating season" is the second of four pieces comprising the "Mountain Pine Beetle Suite" from Chantal Gibson's 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection How She Read. Let's look at it standalone, as well as considering how it is a powerful moving force within the sweep of a larger poetic statement. A suite is "a group of things forming a unit or constituting a collection". When those things are, for example, musical compositions, they are often intended to be played or performed in a specific sequence. This second of four pieces in a suite named for a North American insect that has become invasive and destructive stands on its own in some striking ways. We've examined previously different poems that wield anthropomorphism to remarkable effect. The attributing of human characteristics, reactions or behaviour to non-human entities, including animals, is deployed in humorous, satirical and telling fashion in "Autumn News from the Donkey Sanctuary" by Ken Babstock, "Beagles" by Paul Muldoon and "Flies" by Alice Oswald. But the creatures creeping through Gibson's poem are chilling both in their mundanity ... "she rubs her Avon wrists together" ... and their unsettling cradle-to-grave tenacity, as ... "she drags her smokes    & her big belly    up the tree    carves her birthing chamber and her coffin with her teeth" Add to that chill this haunting observation about the insidiousness of the mountain pine beetle, taken from the Wikipedia page we inevitably seek out to learn more: "It may be the largest forest insect blight seen in North America since European colonization." We have also contemplated the fourth piece of this suite, "Obituary", as a previous Poem of the Week. The deathly life of the creatures here in "summer: mating season" are neutralized and vanquished by the life force memorialized in "Obituary" ... "she has every intention of coming back"

from Liquid Flesh

Brenda Shaughnessy

copyright ©2012 by Brenda Shaughnessy

I’ve been melted into something
too easy to spill. I make more
and more of myself in order

to make more and more of the baby.
He takes it, this making. And somehow
he’s made more of me, too.

I’m a mother now.
I run to the bathroom, run
to the kitchen, run to the crib

and I’m not even running.
These places just scare up as needed,
the wires that move my hands

to the sink, to the baby,
to the breast are electrical.
I’m in shock.

One must be in shock to say so,
as if one’s own state is assessable,
like a car accident or Minnesota taxes.

A total disaster, this sack of liquid
flesh which yowls and leaks
and I’m talking about me

not the baby. Me, this puddle
of a middle, this utilized vessel,
cracked hull, divine

design. It’s how it works. It’s how
we all got here. Deform
following the function . . .

But what about me? I whisper
secretly and to think,
around these parts used to be

the joyful place of sex,
what is now this intimate
terror and squalor.

My eyes burned out at three a.m. and again
at six and eleven. This is why the clock
is drowning, as I said earlier.

I’m trying to explain it.
I repeat myself, or haven’t I already?
Tiny self, along with a tiny self.

I’ll say it: he hurt me, this new
babe, then and now.
Perhaps he always will,

though thoughts of the future
seem like science fiction novels
I never finished reading.

Notes on the Poem

"I’ve been melted into something / too easy to spill." Although the exact phrase appears further on, this line at the midpoint of this stirring selection from Brenda Shaughnessy's 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Our Andromeda could be the precise inspiration for the poem's title, "Liquid Flesh". As 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize judge Mark Doty further observed about this poem's and this collection's inspirations ...
"[Shaughnessy's] art has been transformed by a galvanizing sense of necessity into a more riveting, sometimes fiercely direct consideration of what it is to love a child, to care for one whose ability to care for himself is profoundly limited."
We've looked before at the intensity of emotion and commitment in Shaughnessy's poems from this collection, such as "Hearth". With "Liquid Flesh", we move to and through intimate and specific details, from physical pain and frantic anxiety ... "I run to the bathroom, run to the kitchen, run to the crib and I’m not even running. ... I’m in shock." ... to sleep deprivation ... "My eyes burned out at three a.m. and again at six and eleven. This is why the clock is drowning, as I said earlier." ... culminating in a kind of existential despair that, incredibly, melds with steadfast determination: "I’ll say it: he hurt me, this new babe, then and now. Perhaps he always will" Hilton Als' review in The New Yorker zeroes in on what Shaughnessy achieves in this scalding, fiercely loving picture of a mother's devotion:
"Again and again, she calls attention to our collective isolation by describing imperfection, the difficulty of creating new worlds for ourselves when we’re pulled by the world that has created us."
It's a perfect description of how Shaughnessy perfectly describes an imperfection many not only face and contend with, but would have no other way.

Liverpool Disappears for a Billionth of a Second

Paul Farley

copyright ©Paul Farley 2006

Shorter than the blink inside a blink
the National Grid will sometimes make, when you’ll
turn to a room and say: Was that just me?

People sitting down for dinner don’t feel
their chairs taken away/put back again
much faster than that trick with tablecloths.

A train entering the Olive Mount cutting
shudders, but not a single passenger
complains when it pulls in almost on time.

The birds feel it, though, and if you see
starlings in shoal, seagulls abandoning
cathedral ledges, or a mob of pigeons

lifting from a square as at gunfire,
be warned, it may be happening, but then
those sensitive to bat-squeak in the backs

of necks, who claim to hear the distant roar
of comets on the turn – these may well smile
at a world restored, in one piece; though each place

where mineral Liverpool goes wouldn’t believe
what hit it: all that sandstone out to sea
or meshed into the quarters of Cologne.

I’ve felt it a few times when I’ve gone home,
if anything, more often now I’m old,
and the gaps between get shorter all the time.

Notes on the Poem

"Paul Farley is a poet of wit, sensuality and warmth. His work engages with the commonplace and the overlooked, the absurd and the catastrophic, the scientific and the mythic, in ways that make us stop and think again about what it is to be living in this particular world, at this particular moment in our history." So observed the Griffin Poetry Prize judges in their citation for Paul Farley's 2007 shortlisted collection Tramp in Flames, from which the poem "Liverpool Disappears for a Billionth of a Second" comes. We're keen to visit it, in all its intriguing renditions, again this week. "Shorter than the blink inside a blink" is about as laser sharp a focus on the moment as you can get, isn't it? Not only is Farley's incisive look at and pointed call to be conscious of the moment startling and powerful, but it's fascinating to discover that he has interpreted his own poem several times. The evolution and cumulative effect of those interpretations over time will intrigue and haunt you. Farley's first presentation of this poem to make it online appeared on Youtube in late 2009. In a brief companion interview clip, Farley discusses how his hometown of Liverpool continued to be a "work in progress", and the city's "filmic" qualities made itan arresting backdrop for the poem. His words in the interview are kinetic, with an eagerness to depict the city's energy visually that comes through in the poem video. In impenetrable sunglasses, Farley has an insouciant demeanour, and he delivers the poem in a cocky, bemused fashion with just an undertone of ... hmm, perhaps menace? Two years later, this rendition of the poem appeared: It might come as a surprise to discover during the video's credits that Farley also presents the poem here. Not only is his voice disembodied, but it's notably hushed. By comparison, he sounds ... awestruck? sinister? older and wiser? It's strikingly different than the first version. Late in 2015, a new version of the poem became available: Farley gazes directly into the camera - contrast that to his sunglasses in the original video - and his delivery is crisp and confident. This is a picture of a poet who has lived for a few years with a signature and evocative poem within which he's had room to grow and, in a way, extemporize the performance without changing the original words. Is the feeling that perhaps the "gaps between" have indeed become "shorter all the time" ...?

from mantra of no return

Kaie Kellough

copyright ©2019 by Kaie Kellough

the rainforest is a mixing board with infinite inputs and infinite outputs.
exponential root strata. riotous snakes. quarter-inch jacks & heads. male /
female. holes and plugs. slithering, electric water. liana cables. bloodvine is a
wire entering, plugging arrival in. line. current will be routed through the
circuit. i am an overproof, alcoholic signal, outbursts clipping. the levels
runneth. hover. kaieteur’s torrents kiskadee over. crackle & bloom in the
woofer. georgetown bubbles & skanks tougher. smoke thunder. the old chief
in the canoe gone to his mythmaker. makunaima overlooker. el dorado lover.
destroyer. high wine drifter. black & brown in the fever together. mix it darker.
mix it redder. babylon haunting the jungle swelter.     a tear, amber.
rupununi resistor, a decible louder. turn up the hemisphere. boost the mighty
rainforest’s canopy into the stratosphere. exceed ire. essequibo deliverer.
many rivers branch & spiel, spell black across the atlantic. liquid archive
parser. the wires crisscross & the curve is logarithmic. turn the dial on the
mix. haunt the tidalectic. run the console. channel one channel check. spin the
tape, magnetic. warble & flutter. wow & static. increase the gain ’til we overdrive
the terrific. boo. boom a lick. boost the lower end, swell the lower end, theorize
the lower end, occupy the lower end, the 99%, the apocalytic fundamental
fretting in the bass lean, the nothingness become boeing, becoming

          a body, a continental jut
       a density of times past
          an assemblage of others who are you, a being made of beings

Notes on the Poem

This excerpt from "mantra of no return", from Kaie Kellough's 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection Magnetic Equator, illustrates vividly how music informs and is fundamental to his work. This selection packs within its glorious cascade the fascinating technical language of how music is conceived, classified and performed to the sheer musicality of words as they are assembled and vocalizations. Yes, "the rainforest is a mixing board with infinite inputs and infinite outputs" ... so is the poet himself. The wordplay is steady and lively: "quarter-inch jacks & heads. male / female. holes and plugs." and "bloodvine is a wire entering, plugging arrival in. line. current will be routed through the circuit." and "the levels runneth. hover." ... but calibrated to never distort (in fact, no "outbursts clipping"). The wordplay is so vibrant it demands the power of an exuberant bird wielded as a verb: "kaieteur's torrents kiskadee over." Not only is there "warble & flutter" amidst this shimmering poetic cataract, but musical vocabulary permeates the poet's tweeting too: Read this and more of "mantra of no return" (not to mention more of Magnetic Equator) aloud to hear even more of the music. The poetry here and throughout is driven on sonic waves to new connections and realizations, spilling from one page to the next. In addition to his accomplishments with the written word, Kellough is a sound performer. His collaborations and explorations of how words and music so beautifully collide are clearly ongoing, as evidenced by this very recent project with musician Jason Sharp, developed for the Aga Khan Museum: Let's sit back, learn more and just let the power of the poetry and music wash over us.

Judges for the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize Announced

TORONTO – October 14, 2020 – The trustees of The Griffin Trust For Excellence In Poetry are pleased to announce that Ilya Kaminsky (Ukraine), Aleš Šteger (Slovenia) and Souvankham Thammavongsa (Canada) are the judges for the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize.

Continue reading “Judges for the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize Announced”


Louise Glück

copyright ©2009 by Louise Glück

A cool wind blows on summer evenings, stirring the wheat.
The wheat bends, the leaves of the peach trees
rustle in the night ahead.

In the dark, a boy’s crossing the field:
for the first time, he’s touched a girl
so he walks home a man, with a man’s hungers.

Slowly the fruit ripens—
baskets and baskets from a single tree
so some rots every year
and for a few weeks there’s too much:
before and after, nothing.

Between the rows of wheat
you can see the mice, flashing and scurrying
across the earth, though the wheat towers above them,
churning as the summer wind blows.

The moon is full. A strange sound
comes from the field—maybe the wind.

But for the mice it’s a night like any summer night.
Fruit and grain: a time of abundance.
Nobody dies, nobody goes hungry.

No sound except the roar of the wheat.

Notes on the Poem

Louise Glück's "Abundance" is a lush celebration of life and the sense of plenty, buoyed subtly but powerfully by layers of sensory pleasures. We are all feeling incredibly celebratory at the news this past week that Glück has been recognized as the recipient of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature. A vibrant selection from this very worthy, newly minted Nobel Laureate is just what we need! In "Abundance", Glück has all five senses covered, either captured outright: "the leaves of the peach trees rustle in the night ahead" or beautifully, tantalizingly and vividly suggested: "Slowly the fruit ripens— baskets and baskets from a single tree so some rots every year" Can you find an example or suggestion for all of sight, smell, sound, touch and taste? As the poem burgeons with life and growth, it only just teeters but does not yet turn to slowing, decay and death. In fact, it states confidently: "Nobody dies, nobody goes hungry." The only clue, perhaps, is the mention of rot - which at this juncture is a byproduct of all the abundance, not of any sense of decline.

Homage to Gaia / At Ursula’s

Derek Mahon

copyright ©Derek Mahon 2008

A cold and stormy morning
I sit in Ursula’s place
and fancy something spicy
served with the usual grace

by one of her bright workforce
who know us from before,
a nice girl from Tbilisi,
Penang or Baltimore.

Some red basil linguine
would surely hit the spot,
something light and shiny,
mint-yoghurty and hot;

a frosty but delightful
pistachio ice-cream
and some strong herbal
infusion wreathed in steam.

Once a tomato sandwich
and a pint of stout would do
but them days are over.
I want to have a go

at some amusing fusion
Thai and Italian both,
a dish of squid and pine-nuts
simmered in lemon broth,

and catch the atmospherics,
the happy lunchtime crowd,
as the cold hand gets warmer
and conversation loud.

Boats strain at sea, alas,
gales rattle the slates
while inside at Ursula’s
we bow to our warm plates.

Notes on the Poem

As we note with great sadness the passing of revered Irish poet Derek Mahon, we are comforted to be able to turn to his fine and wondrous words. Join us in revisiting a selection from his 2009 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Life On Earth. Derek Mahon's "At Ursula's" draws you in swiftly from "a cold and stormy morning" to a haven of warmth and sensory delights. Part of Homage to Gaia, a nine-poem sequence at the heart of his collection Life On Earth, the poem is clearly reveling in creature comforts. Let's enjoy exploring this poem once again. Those delicious sensations spill out in the tumble of succinct, rhythmic lines that comprise the poem. You can feel the radiated literal warmth of the room and the figurative glow of the gracious, friendly greeters and servers in Ursula's place. And oh, isn't the menu rolled out with a riot of mouthwatering tastes and colours and scents, from "red basil linguine" to "mint-yoghurty and hot" to "frosty but delightful pistachio" to "strong herbal infusion wreathed in steam"? Your tastebuds are devouring this poem as much as your eyes are leaping over the lines. Combined with the joys of a jaunty rhyme scheme, the whole occasion of being at Ursula's fine establishment is lent an air of celebration of everything toothsome and companionable. Even the increasing hubbub in the room - something that might annoy at another time - adds to the cozy pleasures. But in the midst of the lunchtime festivities, these lines strike a slightly dissonant tone: Once a tomato sandwich and a pint of stout would do but them days are over. Has the narrator or has Ursula changed and become pretentious in their culinary choices since their more down to earth days of simpler, local fare? Is the narrator making light of one or both of them with his reference to "amusing fusion", suggesting they've become a tad ridiculous, maybe even wasteful with combinations of Thai and Italian influences, of squid and pine-nuts and lemon broth? But then that suggestion, and the larger world with its storms and troubles, is conveniently shut out in the clatter of dishes and conversation ...