from Strange Birds; Twitching Birds

Sylvia Legris

copyright ©Sylvia Legris, 2005


Unshakable birds! (Being followed? Being watched?) Run run but never escape the flutter of wings in your chest.

Demon-faced birds stare daggers from building ledges and at every corner you turn (every corner you turn!) … Twitching birds (nit-crawling catastrophe carriers), Tourettic birds (odious-odious-odious), birds skulking in turrets (Stone-Feathered Gargoyles, your cries for help

just so much sputtering).

Featherless. Hopeless! Overwhelmed with bird urges and the compulsion to tic the compulsion to tic the compulsion …

Are you dreaming? Are you sleeping? (Dormez-vous? Dormez-cheep-cheep …)

Notes on the Poem

In a previous Poem of the Week examination, we have marveled at the methods Sylvia Legris uses to pack so much meaning and intensity into her poems. We are now pondering another section from the poem "Strange Birds; Twitching Birds" from Legris' 2006 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection Nerve Squall ... and are marveling anew. In just a few crisp, jittery lines, Legris captures with unsettling accuracy the mental and physical symptoms and manifestations of anxiety. "Run run but never escape the flutter of wings in your chest." captures precisely feelings of nervousness, restlessness and/or tension, doesn't it? "(Being followed? Being watched?)" is equally spot on at conveying a sense of impending danger, panic or doom. The poem's staccato repetitions mimic, if not induce, an increased heart rate and rapid breathing. Having trouble sleeping? The poem touches on that, too: "Are you dreaming? Are you sleeping? (Dormez-vous? Dormez-cheep-cheep ...)" So, can we possibly enjoy absorbing a poem that can make us feel so authentically, almost viscerally uncomfortable? (In fact, could such a poem be distressing to the point of being triggering?) As one Goodreads contributor comments on Nerve Squall: "I'm getting a headache. I think that's the point."

from Hawk

Kamau Brathwaite

copyright ©2005 by Kamau Brathwaite

I was standin on the steps of City Hall … in all that dust

and I knew that Terry [her husband the Captain of Rescue 11] wd have been

on one of the highest floors that he cd get to … in that building

for that’s what his Company does … and when I saw the building come down
I knew that he had no chance

Sometimes I start to worry that he was afraid … but … knowing him
I think he was completely focussed on the job at hand … sometimes it makes me angry

[she gives here a little laugh of pain]

but I don’t think that he

I think in the back of his mind … he was more concerned about where
I was? and the fact that I was far-enough-away … from the trouble?
But I don’t think that he considered … his not-coming-home

and sometimes that makes me angry … S’almost as if he didn’t choose me …?
But I can’t fault him for that he was doin his job … That’s who he was
and why I loved him so much

So I can’t blame him for that

His friend Tim told me he saw Terry going in and Terry said to him
We may not be seeing each other again
and kissed him on the cheek … and ran … upstairs [into the North Tower]

Notes on the Poem

Upon the very sad news of the passing of revered poet and academic Kamau Brathwaite, we turn again to some of the powerful poetry from his 2006 Griffin Poetry Prize collection Born to Slow Horses. In 2005, Kamau Brathwaite took subject matter that was still too fresh a wound for many to look at, and made that subject intimate and accessible without diminishing its fearsome power. In "Hawk" , he gazed unflinchingly at what the Griffin judges called "what may well be the first enduring poem on the disaster of 9/11." How he achieved that intimacy was in part by transcribing the voices of witnesses and survivors. How he made those transcriptions truly riveting was in part by employing a singular type treatment that makes the words, heartwrenching as they are on their own, even more startling. In this collection and previous works, Brathwaite has worked with a typeface of his own devising called "Sycorax Video Style" (which he explains in some detail here). Note the difference between the first stanza (rendered with the alignment of the original, but the default typeface of this web site) and the second (an image scanned from the book). The unique typeface seems to jump off the screen or page ... like a ragged shout of anguish. As the Griffin judges also noted: "Brathwaite’s world even has its own orthography and typography, demanding total attention to the poem, forbidding casual glances." He has indeed achieved that here. View some more examples of the unique melding of Brathwaite's words and type here.

He Sápa, Four

Layli Long Soldier

copyright ©2017 by Layli Long Soldier

is the small way to begin.

But I could not.

As I am limited to few
words at command, such as wanblí. This
was how I wanted to begin, with the little
I know.

But could not.

Because this wanblí, this eagle
of my imagining is not spotted, bald,
nor even a nest-eagle. It is gold,
though by definition, not ever the great Golden Eagle.
Much as the gold, by no mistake, is not ground-gold,
man-gold or nugget.    But here, it is
the gold of    light and wing    together.
Wings that do not close, but    in expanse
angle up so slightly; plunge with muscle
and stout head somewhere between
my uncle, son, father, brother.

But I failed    to begin there, with this
expanse.    Much as I failed to start
with the great point in question.
There in muscle in high inner flight always
in the plunge we fear for the falling, we buckle to wonder:
What man is expendable?

Notes on the Poem

Another section of Layli Long Soldier's poem "He Sápa" from her 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Whereas was also a Poem of the Week selection. We found it powerful and provocative. Using different but equally subtle effects, we find "Four" haunting and holding our attention, too. As we mentioned previously, 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 described here). This poem section seems to want to start at something, then stops ... "But I could not." ... then starts, then stops again. "But could not." With what is the poem's narrator struggling? What modest but hopeful "small way to begin" is being thwarted? What might be stymying the reader from discerning what the narrator is trying to communicate? We observed in the previous section of "He Sápa" that how Long Soldier assembled words on the page literally compelled readers to change their perspective. Could that be happening here, too? In fact, a simple change in the text alignment from perhaps more customary left alignment - easy to scan because the beginning of each line has a common starting point - to a more disruptive right alignment could be the key. As this article on visual aesthetics in text layout contends:
"When you right align your paragraph, you’re creating a sagged, rusty saw-edge that the reader is supposed to use to start each line of your text. Not easy. This also happens when you center content. When you create this jagged edge, readers can lose their place easier, and it creates a visual blockade for the mind."
We would contend, however, that making your way down the "jagged edge" of this poem segment rewards the determined reader, with such gorgeousness as: "Wings that do not close, but   &nsbp; in expanse angle up so slightly" and such ultimately empowering words as: "we buckle to wonder: What man is expendable?"

Lake Michigan, Scene 3

Daniel Borzutzky

copyright ©2018, Daniel Borzutzky

The bodies are on the beach

And the bodies keep breaking

And the fight is over

But the bodies aren’t dead

And the mayor keeps saying     I will bring back the bodies

I will bring back the bodies that were broken

The broken bodies speak slowly

They walk slowly onto a beach that hangs over a fire

Into a fire that hangs over a city

Into a city of immigrants     of refugees     of dozens of illegal languages

Into a city where every body is a border between one empire and another

I don’t know the name of the police officer who beats me

I don’t know the name of the superintendent who orders the police officer to beat me

l don’t know the name of the diplomat who exchanged my body for oil

I don’t know the name of the governor who exchanged my body for chemicals

The international observers tell me I’m mythological

They tell me my history has been wiped out by history

They look for the barracks but all they see is the lake and its grandeur     the flowering

gardens     the flourishing beach

The international observers ask me if I remember the bomb that was dropped on my village

They ask me if I remember the torches     the camps     the ruins

They ask me if I remember the river     the birds     the ghosts

They say     find hope in hopefulness     find life in deathlessness

Locate the proper balance between living and grieving

I walk on the lake and hear voices

I hear voices in the sand and wind

I hear guilt and shame in the waves

I have my body when others are missing

I have my hands when others are severed

I hear the children of Chicago singing     We live in the blankest of times

Notes on the Poem

In previous Poem of the Week selections from 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Lake Michigan, we've observed the hypnotic and incantatory qualities of Daniel Borzutzky's poetry. "Scene 3" is another powerful example that has captured the attention and imagination of high school poetry recitation contest Poetry In Voice / Les voix de la poésie. The poem is potent on the page, but it also exudes tremendous potential to be brought to life as it is read aloud or recited. We've observed this same promise in poems such as "Eight" by Sue Goyette and "A Short Story of Falling" by Alice Oswald. What features of this poem do you think make it a good recitation choice? As it is catalogued in the Poetry In Voice poem database, "Scene 3" is classified as capturing numerous moods that, while cumulatively negative or problematic, offer tremendous dramatic and performative opportunities: angry, anxious, bitter, brutally frank, despairing, furious, helpless, hurt, melancholic, messed up, outraged, tortured. (Note, by the way, that the poem is also classified for older student recitations. Would it be fair to assume that the troubling subject matter and the ferocity with which the poem is asking for it to be conveyed would not best suit younger students?) Another feature of the poem highlighted as a recitation consideration is the use of repetition. Interestingly, the poem repeats words and phrases (such as "I don't know" and "They ask me") but also repeats and slightly varies with each repetition other phrases and sentences, such as those starting with "I" at the end. Would that kind of partial repetition actually make the poem more difficult to memorize? However future student performers approach this poem, we predict their performances of this stunning poem will be ... pretty unforgettable.

from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Border Dog (Not Collie)

Michael Hofmann, translated from the German written by Durs Grünbein

copyright ©2005 by Durs Grunbein / Translation and preface copyright © 2005 by Michael Hofmann


Now listen to this: in the obituary they wrote about me
In my lifetime, they said I was so sweet-natured
That they wanted to keep me as a pet.
It makes me ill to hear them drooling
About my loyalty, my affection, my trustworthiness around children.
Tripe! There’s a term for everything alien.
Looks as though time has caught up with me.
And my voice is swimming in the confession:
“I was half zombie, half enfant perdu …”
Perhaps eventually space gulped me down
Where the horizon closes up.
My double can look after me from here on in.
My orneriness is puked out, plus the question:
Do pets have lighter brains?

Notes on the Poem

There is much to learn and explore in Durs Grunbein's poem "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Border Dog (Not Collie)", translated from German into English with sharp intensity by Michael Hofmann. We previously considered the first of the poem's multiple parts, and now we're going to scrutinize the ninth of its dozen sections. The poem segment's sardonic opening immediately leaves us wondering ... "Now listen to this: in the obituary they wrote about me In my lifetime, they said I was so sweet-natured That they wanted to keep me as a pet." Has someone or something indeed died? We've determined earlier in the poem that the unfortunate dog suggested here and throughout the poem metaphorically represents a severely frustrated narrator. Has a death notice been written for a dog, for the narrator or figuratively, for some aspect of the narrator's existence? That the obituary, however it was composed, was written "in my lifetime" is a bit bewildering. Did the narrator see or imagine his obituary before he or some part of him died? Is there a clue in ... "I was half zombie, half enfant perdu ..." Some analyses of this poem connect it to "Enfant Perdu" by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856). Heine's defiant tribute to liberty captures Grunbein's narrator's yearning. This translation of the Heine poem also makes a jolting reference to "brains" that has a strange and haunting echo here: "Do pets have lighter brains?" Whoever or whatever has died here, that a ghostly presence still has things to say from beyond is telling and memorable. This review of books featuring deceased narrators sums it up powerfully: "Death’s portal opens in only one direction, but they are compelled to return, these revenants, some to watch, some to wait, some to want and want and not to have." As Hofmann's translated words declare with dismissive chagrin (but maybe a molecule of hope, as something seems to survive): "My double can look after me from here on in."


Margaret Avison

copyright ©Margaret Avison, 2002

Let’s go to the park where
the dogs and children
cluster and circle and run
under the sombre old trees – they are
hanging on to their swarthing
leaves – while the young
medallioned trees in the early
sun are dancing
among them.
The knapsacked students too
hurtle, always too late, focused
on there, blindingly
swerving out of the now and
here where children and dogs
and a few rather shabby, slow
old ones, straying, move
across the owners, standing with
loose leashes, intent on “their day.”
The benched but sleepless
mothers and nannies, watching,
are quieted here, warmed and fed
by the good old trees and
the shining little ones.

Notes on the Poem

Let's take a few moments to relish the simple pleasures of Margaret Avison's poem "Ramsden", from her 2003 Griffin Poetry Prize-winning collection Concrete and Wild Carrot. While we're at it, let's enjoy a reading of the poem by Avison herself, generously provided by her publisher, Brick Books. The poem is inspired by and situated in the real world Ramsden Park, which you can find here on the Toronto Poetry Map offered by the Toronto Public Library. In this brief poem, Avison packs in a lot of life and activity, capturing everything from the highly kinetic ... "The knapsacked students too hurtle, always too late, focused on there, blindingly swerving out of the now and here" ... to this fine image of the meditative that we uniquely experience with old canine companions: "slow old ones, straying, move across the owners, standing with loose leashes, intent on "their day."" The contrasting senses of motion Avison presents - slow, fast, deliberate, hasty - exist in tandem beautifully with contrasting representations of age and stages of life, from children and their counterpart young trees to "sombre old trees" and those aforementioned elderly hounds. Perhaps there are more than just simple pleasures at work here.


Liz Howard

copyright ©2015 by Liz Howard

I just want to go back
into the bush and eat
more blueberries
growing wild as she
drops me off at the lumber
mill I’m fifteen and a janitor
cleaning out the urinals
at the debarker I find
pubic hair the lumberjacks
have left long barbs curled
to “put me in my place”
debarker: where they
keep the machine that
cuts the bark away from
the trees years ago my
blood cousin fell in
and emerged skinless
that was before this brain
sprouted from my spine
in an allegory trees
would be distributed
evenly throughout the
narrative in a gesture
of looking back over
my shoulder as mom
pulls away from the
yard I have on a hard
hat that is orange and too
big over my weird bleached
hair I have only the same
rag for the toilets as the
dishes when I look up the
sky is obscured by smoke
I can never tell what
they’re burning

Notes on the Poem

There is so much packed into the slim, breathless column of poetry that is Liz Howard's poem "Debarker", from her 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent. Let's revisit this piece and debark from the poem its many-layered cargo. Yes, just one of many meanings of the verb "to debark" is "to unload, as from a ship or airplane". While the titular meaning refers to a type of hydraulic equipment that removes bark from logs, there is much else to unload here. Another meaning of the verb is "to disembark" and from the outset of the poem, it's clear the narrator would like to step off from where she is being taken and "go back into the bush and eat more blueberries growing wild" Yet another meaning of "to debark" is to reduce or eliminate a dog's ability to vocalize by surgically altering its vocal cords. The young narrator of the poem is harassed and intimidated "to "put me in my place"" She is being prevented from communicating, but as she observes ... "that was before this brain sprouted from my spine" ... it's clear her wit and determination will prevail. We've observed before how Howard wields features such as line length to dramatic effect in her poems. The crisp, taut lines of "Debarker" rush forth - almost like a bracing hydraulic burst - with no seeming demarcation of sentences or thoughts, save for one punchy bit of punctuation near the poem's midpoint. Not only is the narrator conveying her thoughts and feelings, but slid into that torrent of observations and emotion is her sly and very fine revenge on those who would torment her.

from Venus Velvet No. 2

Gjertrud Schnackenberg

copyright ©2010 by Gjertrud Schnackenberg

My pencil, Venus Velvet No. 2,
The vein of graphite ore preoccupied
In microcrystalline eternity.
In graphite’s interlinking lattices,
Symmetrically unfolding through a grid
Of pre-existent crystal hexagons.
Mirror-image planes and parallels.
Axial, infinitesimal bonds.
Self-generated. Self-geometrized.
A sound trapped in the graphite magnitudes.
Atoms, electronics, nuclei, far off.
A break, without apparent consequence.
Near-far, far-near, those microfirmaments.
Far in, the muffled noise of our goodbyes.

The surgeon, seeking only my surrender,
Has summoned me: an evening conference.
We sit together in the Quiet Room.
He cannot ask for what I’m meant to give.
No questions anymore. Just say he’ll live.
A world of light leaks through the double doors,
Fluorescent mazes, frigid corridors,
Polished linoleum, arena sand
Where hope is put to death and life is lost
And elevator doors slide open, closed,
The towers of the teaching hospital.
The field where death his conquering banner shook.

My writing tablet, opened on the table.
I touch it with my hand. The paper thins.
The paper’s interwoven filaments
Are bluish gray and beige. No questions now.
What is the chiefest deed that’s asked of us.
No questions anymore. No questions now.
I turned my back on heaven for good, but saw
A banner shaken out from heaven’s walls
With apparitions from Vesalius:
A woodcut surgeon opening a book
Of workshop woodcuts, skilled, anonymous,
The chisel blade of the engraver felt
Reverberating through the wooden blocks
Among eroded words, ornately carved:
Annihilation, subtly engraved:
All those whom lamentation cannot save
Grown fainter through successive folios.
A seraphy turns a page above: he’ll live;
Then turns a page again: he can’t survive.
I turn the page myself, and write: he’ll live.
Smell of my sweat embedded in my clothes.
The surgeon says: we’ve talked with him; he knows.
A seraph leaning near, Oh say not so.
Not so. Not so. My wonder-wounded hearer,
Facing extinction in a mental mirror.
A brilliant ceiling, someone’s hand on his.
All labor, effort, sacrifice, recede.
And then: I’m sorry. Such a man he is.

Notes on the Poem

It's time to revisit Gjertrud Schnackenberg's arresting collection "Heavenly Questions", which won the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize. It's epic in scope, abounding in rich classical references, mythology, science, mathematics. She majestically marshals those themes and sources to circle and zero in on her own pain. This portion of the poem "Venus Velvet No. 2" illustrates well her ability to swoop from the immense to the intimate. As the narrator of this poem awaits devastating news, her pencil and paper are like talismans. Contemplating the organic miracles that make the objects possible distracts her and takes her to other marvellous realms ... where perhaps other miracles are possible. "Atoms, electronics, nuclei, far off." But does the scientific wonder that is graphite, now in her hand, also make her confront the science that can do no more for her own personal situation? "Far in, the muffled noise of our goodbyes." Spiralling in and out of levels of awareness, from the microscopic to the broadly universal and cosmic ("microcrystalline eternity"), Schnackenberg struggles to find where in that vast spectrum she can face and deal with her immense grief and bewilderment. The harsh reality of her situation brings her up abruptly in the midst of this contemplation: "No questions anymore. Just say he'll live." Just as the results of a pencil touching paper can endure for a while, Schnackenberg acknowledges that all ultimately fades ... "Annihilation, subtly engraved: All those whom lamentation cannot save Grown fainter through successive folios."

The Metal and the Flower

P.K. Page

copyright ©P.K. Page, 2002

Intractable between them grows
a garden of barbed wire and roses.
Burning briars like flames devour
their too innocent attire.
Dare they meet, the blackened wire
tears the intervening air.

Trespassers have wandered through
texture of flesh and petals.
Dogs like arrows moved along
pathways that their noses knew.
While the two who laid it out
find the metal and the flower
fatal underfoot.

Black and white at midnight glows
this garden of barbed wire and roses.
Doused with darkness roses burn
coolly as a rainy moon:
beneath a rainy moon or none
silver the sheath on barb and thorn.

Change the garden, scale and plan;
wall it, make it annual.
There the briary flower grew.
There the brambled wire ran.
While they sleep the garden grows,
deepest wish annuls the will:
perfect still the wire and rose.

Notes on the Poem

Not only does "a garden of barbed wire and roses" deeply intrigue, but its startling juxtaposition of beauty and menace inspires striking interpretations. What new form does P.K. Page's poem "The Metal and the Flower" take when it is lifted from the pages of the 2003 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Planet Earth: Poems Selected and New? Contemporary classical music composer Haralabos (Harry) Stafylakis set the poem to music, and then arranged for it to be performed for a tenor singer, accompanied by piano and accordion. The piece is a haunting, simultaneously arresting and jarring, and undeniably moving companion to the poem's text: The composer notes:
"This musical setting ... embraces both the graceful, calm tone of the poet’s scene and the cold violence of its constituent elements, highlighting the former in fluid song reminiscent of Romantic lieder and the latter with jagged rhythms and melodic contours drawn from popular (metal) songcraft."
Learn more here about how P.K. Page's poem inspired Stafylakis' award-winning rendition.

The Mule-Cart

Michael Longley

copyright ©Michael Longley, 2014

An engineer, you would appreciate
The technique for yoking the mule-cart —
When they fasten a wicker basket on top
And take down from its peg a boxwood yoke
With knob and guide-hooks for holding the reins
And bring out the lashing-rope – fourteen feet long –
And settle the yoke on the well-polished pole
And slip the eye of the rope over a peg
And tie the rope three times around the knob
And secure it all the way down the pole
And twist if under a hook and thus yoke
Strong-footed draught-mules to the mule-cart.
(What’s the function of the peg exactly?)

Notes on the Poem

Last week's Poem of the Week had us thinking about the journey of the poet and their words to arrive at the page before us, the readers. This week, let's consider how the poet and the poem can send us from the page and down interesting paths. Michael Longley's "The Mule-Cart" from his 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection The Stairwell does just that. Longley inventories with apparent precision the surprisingly complex steps and components associated with yoking a mule-cart, acknowledging the presumed reader of the poem as someone technically inclined or educated. The rhythm of how he spools out these details is rather hypnotic and assuredly poetic. But wait. He doesn't acknowledge the living, breathing aspect of the operation until the end, after which the parenthetical question suddenly seems like an oversight ... and rather alarming. With concern, this reader departed the page to google a demonstration of the task the poem describes: This instructive video factors in the living creature from the outset. It's certainly not as sleek and polished a presentation as Longley's poem, but it's rather reassuring to see the people in the video riding off down the road happily and securely - the functions of all pegs et cetera accounted for - at the end. This reader returned to the page with renewed appreciation for what Longley was really itemizing here.