The Lives of the Alchemists

Charles Simic

copyright ©2004

The great labor was always to efface oneself,
Reappear as something entirely different:
The pillow of a young woman in love,
A ball of lint pretending to be a spider.

Black boredoms of rainy country nights
Thumbing the writings of illustrious adepts
Offering advice on how to proceed with the transmutation
Of a figment of time into eternity.
The true master, one of them counseled,
Needs a hundred years to perfect his art.

In the meantime, the small arcana of the frying pan,
The smell of olive oil and garlic wafting
From room to empty room, the black cat
Rubbing herself against your bare leg
While you shuffle toward the distant light
And the tinkle of glasses in the kitchen.

Notes on the Poem

Our Poem of the Week is “The Lives of the Alchemists,” from the 2005 Griffin-winning collection, Charles Simic: Selected Poems 1963–2003 (Faber and Faber). by Charles Simic. Of the collection the judges said: “Charles Simic is something of a magician, a conjuror. Out of nothing it seems, out of thin air, the poems appear before our eyes. One apparently casual observation leads to another, and suddenly, exponentially, we are spellbound. It is a trick many have tried to imitate but few have achieved. At the centre of Simic’s art is a disarming, deadpan precision, which should never be mistaken for simplicity. Everything appears pared back to the solid and the essential, and it is this economy of vocabulary and clarity of diction which have made his poetry so portable and so influential wherever it is published.” Listen to Charles Simic read from Selected Poems 1963–2003 here.

[I won’t be able to write from the grave]

Fanny Howe

copyright ©2000

I won’t be able to write from the grave
so let me tell you what I love:
oil, vinegar, salt, lettuce, brown bread, butter,
cheese and wine, a windy day, a fireplace,
the children nearby, poems and songs,
a friend sleeping in my bed—
and the short northern nights.

Notes on the Poem

Our Poem of the Week is from the 2001 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection, Fanny Howe: Selected Poems (University of California Press) by Fanny Howe. Of the collection the judges said: “Fanny Howe’s lyric meditations on matter and spirit, the soul exiled, and the wondrous strangeness of human life on earth are akin to Dickinson’s in their fierce wit, musicality and intelligence. Gathered from nine of her books spanning more than two decades, these poems articulate the inquisitive grace and courage of a secular contemplative, restoring to language its power to question the sacred in the interests of corporeal joy.” Listen to Fanny Howe read from Selected Poems here.

January 1, Dawn

Ani Gjika, translated from the Albanian written by Luljeta Lleshanaku

copyright ©2018

After the celebrations,
people, TV channels, telephones,
the year’s recently corrected digit
finally fall asleep.

Between the final night and the first dawn
a jagged piece of sky
as if viewed from the open mouth of a whale.
Inside her belly and inside the belly of time,
there’s no point worrying.
You glide gently along. She knows her course.
Inside her, you are digested slowly, painlessly.

And if you’re lucky, like Jonah,
at some point she’ll spit you out on dry land
along with heaps of inorganic waste.

Everything sleeps. A sweet hypothermic sleep.
But those few still awake
might hear the melancholy creaking of a wheelbarrow,
someone stealing stones from a ruin
to build new walls just a few feet away.”

Notes on the Poem

Our Poem of the Week is from the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection, Negative Space by Ani Gjika, translated from the Albanian written by Luljeta Lleshanaku. Of the collection, the judges said, “With a lesser known original language, the more precious the gift of translation! Luljeta Lleshanaku’s Negative Space offers a rare glimpse into contemporary Albanian poetry. Effortlessly and with crisp precision, Ani Gjika, herself a poet, has rendered into English, not only the poems in Negative Space, but also the eerie ambience which resonates throughout the book, the deep sense of impermanence that is one of the many consequences of growing up under severe political oppression. ‘Negative space is always fertile.’ Opening trauma’s door, we’re met by a tender and intelligent voice with stories illuminating existence in a shared humanity, thus restoring dignity. In a world fractured by terror and violence, Lleshanaku’s poetry is infinitely exciting, soothing us, its citizens.” Listen to translator Ani Gjika and Luljeta Lleshanaku read from Negative Space here. The Griffin Poetry Prize is accepting submissions for our 2022 Prize until December 31st. It is one of few international prizes accepting literature in translation. Please follow this link to learn more about our submission guidelines.

From “Skinned Alive”

Donald Nicholson-Smith, translated from the French written by Abdellatif Laâbi

copyright ©2016

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 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 know not sometimes tend to curse your fine reasons for living?
Are you not a little prone to play the martyr?

Notes on the Poem

Our Poem of the Week is from the 2017 Griffin-shortlisted collection In Praise of Defeat by Donald Nicholson-Smith, translated from the French written by Abdellatif Laâbi. Of the collection, the judges said “...Laâbi can move from the simplest short poems about the delight of the body to complex meditations on war, violence, and prison. That he does so in such an open, generous voice (so well communicated by the dedicated translator, since this must have been an epic labour of love for him) is one of the admirable aspects of Laâbi’s mind and art. The rhetorical pitch is perfectly judged. There is nothing glib about the eloquence, nor is there anything uncontrolled or self-indulgent about the fury when it rises. The poems are public in the best sense in that they address the reader as an equal, not as from a tower in the street.” Listen to Translator Donald Nicholson-Smith and poet Abdellatif Laabi read from In Praise of Defeat here. The Griffin Poetry Prize is one of few prizes accepting literature in translation. We are accepting submissions for our 2022 Prize until Dec. 31st. Please follow this link to learn more about our submission guidelines.

From Homer: War Music

Christopher Logue

copyright ©2001

Ever since men began in time, time and
Time again they met in parliaments,
Where, in due turn, letting the next man speak,
With mouthfuls of soft air they tried to stop
Themselves from ravening their talking throats;
Hoping enunciated airs would fall
With verisimiltitude in different minds,
And bring some concord to those minds; only soft air
Between the hatred human animals
Monotonously bear towards themselves.
No work was more regarded in our times,
And nothing failed so often. Knowing this,
The army came to hear Achilles say;
‘Pax., Agamemnon.’ And Agamemnon’s: ‘Pax.’

Notes on the Poem

Our Poem of the Week is from the 2002 Griffin-shortlisted collection by Christopher Logue, Homer: War Music. Of the collection the judges said, “Christopher Logue is one of those all too rare poets whose ability to tell the story transforms each word of it to a freshness and a presence one had feared was lost. What could be more intimidating than Homer’s great epic, the Iliad? Yet Logue’s War Music (which collects the first three volumes of his brilliant adaptation) ‘makes it new’ with all the vigor and invention the old recountings could no longer carry. If ‘translation’ is literally a ‘carrying over,’ then War Music is a vivid and reaffirming instance of its power. First and last, Logue is a poet whose own authority here is as timeless as his master’s.” To celebrate the acquisition of his archive and the release of War Music as an audiobook, The British Library organized Arrival of the Poet in the Library: A Celebration of Christopher Logue, with Tariq Ali, John Hegley, Rosemary Hill, Christopher Reid, Harriet Walter and Astrid Williamson, hosted by Andrew O’Hagan.

From “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings”

Joy Harjo

copyright ©2015


Recognize whose lands these are on which we stand.
Ask the deer, turtle, and the crane.
Make sure the spirits of these lands are respected and treated with goodwill.
The land is a being who remembers everything.
You will have to answer to your children, and their children, and theirs—
The red shimmer of remembering will compel you up the night to walk the perimeter of truth for understanding.
As I brushed my hair over the hotel sink to get ready I heard:
By listening we will understand who we are in this holy realm of words.
Do not parade, pleased with yourself.
You must speak in the language of justice.

Notes on the Poem

Our Poem of the Week is an excerpt from Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (W.W. Norton & Company) by Joy Harjo, shortlisted for the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize. Of the collection, the judges said: “Joy Harjo has been a crucial figure in American letters for decades, and her latest collection, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, presents her at the height of her powers. Intermingling Mvskoke storytelling, rock-and-roll lyrics, cityscapes and personal address, Harjo’s poems are at once sweeping in their concerns and intimate in their tone and approach. Harjo’s is a poetics that is not afraid to speak directly when the moment warrants, nor to refer to traditions – literary traditions, folk traditions, musical traditions – with effortless erudition. Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings is a book of transitions and transformations, inhabiting liminal spaces like hotel rooms and deteriorating natural landscapes. The poems urge engagement, but they also encourage a wider perspective, because for Harjo even ‘the edge between life and death is thinner than a dried animal bladder.’ In the midst of profound change both personal and global, these poems offer guidance and empathy, ceremony and admonishment, wisdom, comfort and song.”

Digressive Parenthesis

Hoa Nguyen

copyright ©2016

Make heart-shaped cakes
for the Queen of Heaven

Things that make you cry:
Geode stone pulse

That plant named wizard’s herb
When the state of Michigan sells

“pristine treaty-protected land”
to make a limestone mine

I dreamt the spider crossed
my eye and I crushed it

into my eye     Why is the first
day the hardest day?     The city

susurrus     Are us     especially
if you get to keep the money

Notes on the Poem

Our Poem of the Week is “Digressive Parenthesis,“ from Hoa Nguyen’s 2017 Griffin-shortlisted Violet Energy Inglots (Wave Books). Of the collection, the judges said: “Hoa Nguyen’s poems tread delicately but firmly between the linear demands of narrative and syntax on the one hand and between registers of speech and forms of address on the other. There are spaces for breath, and asides hovering in parentheses. There are also the slippages in language, in the slide from, say ‘staring’ through ‘starving’ and ‘starring’ to ‘scarring’. Everything is at once tangential yet surprisingly direct.” Don’t forget to check out Nguyen’s latest book, A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure (Wave Books), finalist for the 2021 National Book Award and winner of the Canada Book Award.


Paul Muldoon

copyright ©2002

The lion stretched like a sandstone lion on a sandstone slab
of a bridge with one fixture, a gaslight,
looks up from his nicotine-worried forepaw
with the very same air my father, Patrick,
had when the results came back from the lab, that air of anguish-awe
that comes with the realization of just how slight
the chances are of anything doing the trick

as the sun goes down over Ballyknick and Ballymacnab
and a black-winged angel takes flight

The black-winged angel leaning over the sandstone parapet
of the bridge wears a business suit, dark gray. His hair is slick with pomade.
He turns away as my mother, Brigid,
turned away from not only her sandstone pet
but any concession being made.
The black-winged angel sets her face to the unbending last ray
of evening and meets rigid with rigid

as the sun goes down over Lisnagat and Listamlet
and Clonmore and Clintyclay.

Feckless as he was feckless, as likely as her to be in a foofaraw,
I have it in me to absolutely rant and rail while, for fear of the backlash,
absolutely renounce
the idea of holding anything that might be construed as an opinion.
The lion still looks back to his raw
knuckle and sighs for the possibility that an ounce
of Walnut Plug might shape up from the ash
The angel still threatens to abandon us with a single flick of her pinion

as the sun goes down over Lislasly and Lissaraw
and Derrytrasna and Derrymacash

Notes on the Poem

Our Poem of the Week is “Homesickness” from Paul Muldoon’s 2003 Griffin-winning collection, Moy sand and gravel, which also won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry that year. Of the collection, the judges said: “Reading Paul Muldoon’s poetry is like looking through a kaleidoscope while he jiggles your elbow. The complex rhyme-schemes, the repeated words and phrases, the refrains, the wonderful patterning unexpectedly dislocate this poet’s deep sense of place and shuttle the reader between order and chaos and back again. He reminds us that rhyme used with great resource does not restrain: rather, it is aleatory; it beckons the random and the risky.” Muldoon's fourteenth book of poetry, Howdie-Skelp, is out this November with Faber & Faber in the U.K. and Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the U.S. Paul Muldoon and Paul McCartney recently collaborated on a two-volume book, The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, which illuminates the stories behind 154 of McCartney’s song lyrics — “as close to an autobiography as we may ever come,” said Muldoon.

How she read

Chantal Gibson

copyright ©2019

Oh, how she read this. Girl
beloved daughter of daughters
blood, kin, and kind

sagacious grammarian
post-fly phoneticist

every syllable she say be sapphires

Oh, how she read that Girl
beloved daughter of daughters
blood, kin, and kind

sassy semiotician
post-def decoder

every book she crack parts oceans,
sends waves rushing back to their shores

every page she turn sets free a caged bird,
whose wings are spread and ready for flight

Oh, how she read, this Girl
beloved daughter of daughters
blood, kin, and kind,

post-dope dissenter
mos-bomb seditionist

every word she speak be a teeth-sucking act of resistance

every word she write be a battle cry

every tap of her pen be the beat of an ancestor’s drum

Notes on the Poem

Our Poem of the Week is from How She Read by 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize Canadian shortlisted poet, Chantal Gibson. Of the collection, the judges said: “Chantal Gibson invites scrutiny of where language maps, or fails to map, the quiddity of the world. Here the English language carries and transmits the burden of its service to the imperial ‘adventure’, in schoolbooks, in literature, in historical artifacts and through image and portraiture in paint and photograph. Her interanimation of the visual and the verbal energises a private mark-making, a resistance poetry to the coded, at times subliminal, oppressions of history. To detox the soul then, to be free and creative as citizens, we deserve to read each mark with schooled attention. And trust in our own mark making, our right to speak it the way we see it. This is a fabulous primer, ludic and ferocious, in the grand tradition of liberation handbooks.” We also invite you to check out Gibson’s new book With/holding, now out with Caitlin Press here!

From The Dyzgraphxst

Canisia Lubrin

copyright ©2019

Cansia Lubrin

I pull off I’s toes and leaves them near the sea, I’s sea,
back to the sea as before, yet an hour’s drift from
Manzanilla, which is no place but a word I loves,

I knows what begins the act of saying things, what is lodged there
a promise of some life, not unlike this coal-grey sky, not unlike
the not-good marching band a street away throwing madness

out with I’s lonely discography, I says “please,” without toes
but what about these feet now that they are not ceased
in their act of making things, disappeared things

things given over to the gesture, the method, to the field
awash and undertow, what is love but the hand returning
to claim the dust red, white, black as a coal-swept evening

Notes on the Poem

Our Poem of the Week is from The Dyzgraphxst by our 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize Canadian winner, Canisia Lubrin. Lubrin was also recently featured in Fiery Sparks of Light, an augmented reality poetry experience spotlighting Canadian women poets presented at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where Canada was the guest of honour this year. Click here to learn more about Fiery Sparks of Light and watch this video to see how the holograms work! Produced with the participation of Telefilm Canada, Fiery Sparks of Light is a Canadian Film Centre / CFC Media Lab and York University Immersive Storytelling Lab co-production, in partnership with The Griffin Trust for Excellence In Poetry, and supported by OCAD University.