Moral Issues in Poetry: David Baker, Ellen Bass, Joshua Bennett, Jenny George, John Murillo, Catherine Pierce collected by Sally Bliumis-Dunn

Moral Issues in Poetry: David Baker, Ellen Bass, Joshua Bennett, Jenny George, John Murillo, Catherine Pierce collected by Sally Bliumis-Dunn
November 26, 2022 Bliumis-Dunn Sally

Moral Issues in Poetry: David Baker, Ellen Bass, Joshua Bennett, Jenny George, John Murillo, Catherine Pierce

 

I am often impressed by – though rarely completely sure of its nature and scope— poems that offer a window into the speaker’s sense of morality. In hopes of some measure of enlightenment, I invited six poets to offer one such poem of their own and then talk about it with me. I am so grateful to each one of the poets for the generosity of their work and time.

 

 

DAVID BAKER

 

David Baker’s most recent books include Whale Fall (W. W. Norton, 2022), Swift: New and Selected Poems (2019), and Seek After: On Seven Modern Lyric Poets (2018). Long time Poetry Editor of The Kenyon Review, he currently curates the annual eco-poetry feature “Nature’s Nature” for the magazine. New poems are in or forthcoming in APR, New York Times, the New Yorker, Poetry, Yale Review, and elsewhere.  He lives in Granville, Ohio.                            

 

Checkpoint

 
These are the days when birds come back.
 
These are the days the birds.  These days
 
these birds.  These days are these birds.
 
Let us see these days these papers.  When
 
are these birds, and where are your papers.
 
Where are you going.  Come back answer
 
me where you are going.  Behind the barn,
 
the flame tree, our fire, our wings, these birds,
 
behind the trees the bursting winds the birds.
 
These days come back.  They do not, there
 
what color is your ruby-throat, your toothbrush
 
yellow-breasted warbler green flame blue-
 
jay marsh thrush among the light the lush, low
 
timid leaf she said by the river what fire
 
is your nova is your wife’s hairbrush
 
take off your shoes take your hands off
 
stop right there so many coming over as
 
so many millions fewer wings these papers
 
of fragile bones vanished they are not
 
where are you going I said come back.

 

 

“Checkpoint” is reprinted from Swift: New and Selected Poems (W. W. Norton, 2019) and appears by permission of the poet.

 

“Checkpoint” is a poem about migration. This was Emily Dickinson’s subject in the autumn of 1859 when she started a new poem to which she returned for more than twenty years in letters and revisions; her poem (#122, Franklin) gives my poem its first line.  This is one of only ten poems Dickinson published during her lifetime.  It appeared in 1864 in the newspaper Drum Beat.
 

Dickinson’s poem is about the birds in late summer, as it is late summer when I write this note.  A checkpoint is a stationary position that birders use in marking the birds—the species, numbers, dates, directions—in their migratory movements.  Dickinson was intimately in tune with the birds in her yard in Amherst.  In her poem she greets the day’s “very few” eagerly, marking also the certain leaving-taking they were commencing “thro’ the altered air.”
 

A checkpoint is also a place to regulate where people come and go.  It’s often at a border, often militarized, often a form of social control.  In my poem I try to move from birds in migration to people in immigration.  In fact, I have aspired to let this bifocal narrative happen inside the phrasing and syntax—letting it all slip, conflate, blur.  Some of the interrogations in my poem derive from a Buzzfeed article written to advise undocumented immigrants, should they be detained by ICE or questioned by other immigration police.
 

That is, I hope the tone of the poem moves from rather pure to menacing or perilous and then, finally, to something plaintive again, as I imagine the more permanent vanishing of people as well as the extinction of birds.
 

I offer this comment as a bit of backstory only, a glimpse into my process of imagining and revising a poem.  None of this may matter to your own reading of the poem.  I think the poet is the author, but the reader should be the authority.

 

 

SBD:

Thank you for illuminating your process with such care, David.
 
I really love the hypnotic swirl of syntax and phrasing and how the urgency in the voice builds from “Let us see…” to the strongly imperative “take your hands off” and then softens a little with “I said come back.” Those tonal shifts do indeed come across.
 
The intensity of the poem goes up a notch each time we hear a word of physical location, “where,” or location in time, “when.” The expectation that those words might pin something down was present in this reader’s mind, but that this expectation is never realized, adds to the floaty feeling of this poem.

 

DAVID:

Those words you note begin as statements but morph into questions, into the interrogating mood of the immigrant and police narrative.  The tones do shift, just as you say, from descriptive through interrogative to a kind of baffled or sorrowful plea.  Not just those adverbial conjunctions, but the syntax, the musicality of the phrasing, the elision of phrases—these are all part of the shifts in tone and in manners of drama I was hoping to achieve.
 
Again, that’s largely the point: more than one thing is happening here.  I wanted to write a poem like a multiple exposure in photography, and I’m trying to configure a number of the poem’s tactics in order to achieve that blendedness or multiplicity.

 

SBD:

Can you talk about the intensification of the poem’s music from, “What color is your ruby-throat….hairbrush”? Was it to heighten the near physicality of the human and avian world merging in the poet’s mind, or something else?

 

DAVID:

 Some of the questions—or details within the interrogations—come from the Buzzfeed article I mentioned. It’s a tactic of immigration police to try to trip up people who are making the assertion that they are married, which might enhance their chances of being approved to stay. So, some of the questions are about the details a married couple allegedly knows about each other. It’s not just insulting, bullying, but absurd.  I have to say, I have been with the same partner now for 16 years, and I couldn’t tell you what colors are her hairbrushes or toothbrushes.
 
Others of the questions derive from ornithology, in the tracking of migratory birds, their habitats and pathways, their identification through physical characteristics.  In both cases the landscape is important, too, the borders, the river, the fire. Is it a backyard?  Is it a fenced-off or policed zone?
 
I hope as those things conflate into a more and more pushy or ominous prospect, the music of the poem—the rhythm, the syntax, the pitch—also becomes more amplified, quickened, probably a bit more contrapuntal as well.  But the sorrow in both narratives aligns at the end, I hope.

 

SBD:

Can you say anything about the poem’s form?

 

DAVID:

Form is always fun to talk about. Since the first line comes from the Dickinson’s #122, and since her poem’s first line is loosely iambic tetrameter, I followed that approximate length for the rest of my poem. Dickinson, I’ll note, writes her poem in a fairly unusual form for her; it’s in triplet stanzas, of iambic tetrameter, iambic tetrameter, and iambic trimeter. It’s like she adds a line of tetrameter to her normal couplets of four and then three beats. Her rhyme here is intricate, too, where her first two lines rhyme in each stanza—as couplets—but the third line’s rhyme carries into the next stanza’s third line, leaping from stanza to stanza. Instead of end rhyme, I’m trying to be attentive to audible repetitions both at the ends and in the middles of lines.
 
I also tried an unusual (for me) tactic of composing the poem in double-spaced lines.  I hope that enhances a bit of hesitation and adjustment, as the images repeat but also as those images morph from one narrative to the other—from the bird migration to the immigration episodes.  There are gaps, expanses being traversed, again and again. I also put considerably more pressure on varieties of enjambment than Dickinson does in her poem.
 
Something I wanted to do was to release the formality of punctuation, as the poem intensifies and as the narratives blur.  That is, there are fewer and fewer punctuation marks, as the interrogation seems to get more heated and perilous, more hurried, more panicky.
 
None of these tactics was foremost or clear when I started the poem. They emerged in revisions, in curiosity, as I’d try one thing, then another, working toward a form that seemed right for the narratives of the poem itself.
 
I really do appreciate your care, Sally, in your questions and engagement with my poem.

 

 

ELLEN BASS

 

 

A Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Ellen Bass’s most recent book is Indigo (Copper Canyon Press, 2020). Among her awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship, NEA Fellowship, four Pushcart Prizes, and The Lambda Literary Award. She coedited the first major anthology of women’s poetry, No More Masks! (Doubleday, 1973) and coauthored The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (HarperCollins, 1988). Bass founded workshops at Salinas Valley State Prison and teaches in at Pacific University’s MFA program.

 

What Did I Love

What did I love about killing the chickens?  Let me start
with the drive to the farm as darkness
was sinking back into the earth.
The road damp and shining like the snail’s silver
ribbon and the orchard
with its bony branches. I loved the yellow rubber
aprons and the way Janet knotted my broken strap.
And the stainless-steel altars
we bleached, Brian sharpening
the knives, testing the edge on his thumbnail. All eighty-eight Cornish
hens huddled in their crates. Wrapping my palms around
their white wings, lowering them into the tapered urn.
Some seemed unwitting as the world narrowed;
some cackled and fluttered; some struggled.
I gathered each one, tucked her bright feet,
drew her head through the kill cone’s sharp collar,
her keratin beak and the rumpled red vascular comb
that once kept her cool as she pecked in her mansion of grass.
I didn’t look into those stone eyes. I didn’t ask forgiveness.
I slid the blade between the feathers
and made quick crescent cuts, severing
the arteries just under the jaw. Blood like liquor
pouring out of the bottle. When I see the nub of heart later,
it’s hard to believe such a small star could flare
like that. I lifted each body, bathing it in heated water
until the scaly membrane of the shanks
sloughed off under my thumb.
And after they were tossed in the large plucking drum
I loved the newly naked birds. Sundering
the heads and feet neatly at the joints: a poor
man’s riches for golden stock. Slitting a fissure
reaching into the chamber,
freeing the organs, the spill of intestines, blue-tinged gizzard,
the small purses of lungs, the royal hearts,
easing the floppy liver, carefully, from the green gallbladder,
its bitter bile. And the fascia unfurling
like a transparent fan. When I tug the esophagus
down through the neck, I love the suck and release
as it lets go. Then slicing off the anus with its gray pearl
of shit. Over and over, my hands explore
each cave, learning to see with my fingertips. Like a traveler
in a foreign country, entering church after church.
In every one the same figures of the Madonna, Christ on the cross,
which I’d always thought was gore
until Marie said to her it was tender,
the most tender image, every saint and political prisoner,
every jailed poet and burning monk.
But though I have all the time in the world
to think thoughts like this, I don’t.
I’m empty as I rinse each carcass,
and this is what I love most.
It’s like when the refrigerator turns off and you hear
the silence. As the sun rose higher
we shed our sweatshirts and moved the coolers into the shade,
but, other than that, no time passed.
I didn’t get hungry. I didn’t want to stop.
I was breathing from some bright reserve.
We twisted each pullet into plastic, iced and loaded them in the cars.
I loved the truth. Even in just this one thing:
looking straight at the terrible,
one-sided accord we make with the living of this world.
At the end, we scoured the tables, hosed the dried blood,
the stain blossoming through the water.

 

“What Did I Love” is reprinted from Like a Beggar, Copper Canyon Press, October, 2015
 

Writing “What Did I Love” was an inquiry into my experience of slaughtering chickens. I’d found it deeply compelling and I wanted to explore it. The question of the title was a genuine one for me–-what did I love? As I think about this now, I notice I didn’t ask why I loved it, but what. That what led me to recount and examine every aspect of the day–-or as many as I could. In that process I came to some discoveries:

 

I’m empty as I rinse each carcass,
and this is what I love most…
and
I loved the truth. Even in just this one thing:
looking straight at the terrible
one-sided accord we make with the living of this world.

 

To back up a little, I’d gotten into this slaughtering of chickens because my wife and I had become increasingly concerned about the way the animals we ate were raised. As we did a little research, we learned that even “cage free” or “free range” could mean terrible conditions. About that time a friend was raising chickens on his own in his large pasture and he asked us if we’d like him to raise twenty for us. We happily agreed. Three months later, he called and said it was time to slaughter the chickens and asked if we wanted to help. This hadn’t occurred to me, but I said yes because I thought that I should be willing to kill what I was willing to eat.
 
Having those chickens–-all 88 of them alive in my hands, killing them, reaching into their bodies, handling every part of them, heightened my appreciation for each one of them. Not that that meant anything to the chickens. Which is why I say I didn’t ask forgiveness. I had no illusion that they were agreeing to be killed. But since I did kill them, I didn’t want to waste any part of their lives. We made stock from their heads and feet and every time we ate one of those chickens, I was keenly aware that it was a creature. It wasn’t an item on the menu of a restaurant or a pack of boneless thighs I tossed into my cart in the market.
 
Poems don’t always (or even usually) solve moral questions. Or solve any questions at all. They are much better at asking those questions. So the questions remain about what it means to take the life of another animal so we can eat it.
 
Also the word love is so complex that it, also, raises moral questions that aren’t answered. What does it mean to love killing chickens. Years back I had a challenging email exchange with a woman, a child of Holocaust survivors, who initially found the poem horrifying. She compared me to a Nazi who loved torturing Jews. It wasn’t the killing of the chickens, but the loving it, that appalled her. We wrote long letters back and forth to each other and because both of us were willing to hang in like that, truly trying to hear each other, we eventually came to a place of deep and hard-won understanding.

 

SBD:

Thank you so much for all you wrote about “What Did I Love,” Ellen. I would like to ask about what you describe aslearning to see with my fingertips” which seems connected to descriptions that are at first elegant and then sacred. Early on in the poem, when you first mentioned the ‘stainless steel altars” did you know that your experience in writing was going to move in this direction: “the small purses of lungs, the royal hearts… And the fascia unfurling like a transparent fan” and then to the churches and the experience of truth and transformation for the speaker? Just wondering if you can pinpoint the seed or word that set all of this in motion.

 

ELLEN:

The experience of “learning to see with my fingertips” is the way, when reaching into the cavity of a chicken you feel with your hands what you can’t see. The language wasn’t there in my very first draft. I wrote “stainless steel tables,” but there were two forces that moved the language. One was that I wanted to give respect to the chicken and to the process. I wanted to honor the gravity. And so words like “altars” and “royal.” The other was that I didn’t want the poem to sound like instructions for killing chickens so I had to work with the language, the music. Dorianne Laux had written some poems in which each line ended with the same consonant and I used that strategy. I chose the letter “r,” a soft sound and one that was already there in the first few lines. I loosened the requirement of ending on an “r” and so the last words in each line in this poem have an “r” somewhere in the word, but not necessarily at the end. You’ll also notice that there are a few lines where the last word doesn’t have an “r” at all. Originally they ended on “r”, but a few were just too wonky ending that way, so I changed the lineation a bit. The important thing about a strategy is not to follow the strategy absolutely, but to use it to help you make the poem.
 
The move to the traveler entering church after church arose on its own, as many of the best metaphors do. And surprised me, as the best discoveries do. The sameness that I was experiencing of reaching into chicken after chicken led directly to the feeling of the sameness of entering church after church and finding the same figures of the Madonna and Christ. I call this kind of opening a window–-a window in the poem where you can let the air in, let something from the greater world enter.

 

SBD:

“I loved the truth. Even in this one thing:/looking straight at the terrible,/one-sided accord we make with the living of this world.” Was it your intention to lift away and broaden this idea of truth beyond religion, for it to become more simply the beauty of truth, or did you intend to keep the two, religion and truth, entwined?

 

ELLEN:

My intention was always to try to find out what I loved, what made this experience so compelling. And this is what I discovered. “I loved the truth. Even in this one thing:/looking straight at the terrible,/one-sided accord we make with the living of this world.” I don’t think of it as a truth beyond religion or entwining truth and religion. The philosopher, Simone Weil said, “Absolute attention is prayer.” And many other writers have said this in similar ways. So this was an experience of absolute attention and in that way touched the sacred.

 

 

JOSHUA BENNETT

 

 

Joshua Bennett is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth. He is the author of five books of poetry, criticism, and narrative nonfiction: The Sobbing School (Penguin, 2016)—winner of the National Poetry Series and a finalist for an NAACP Image Award—Being Property Once Myself (Harvard University Press, 2020), winner of the MLA’s William Sanders Scarborough Prize, Owed (Penguin, 2020), The Study of Human Life (Penguin, 2022), and Spoken Word: A Cultural History (Knopf, 2023).

 

For his creative writing and scholarship, Joshua has received fellowships and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, MIT, and the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. His work has been published in The Atlantic, The Best American Poetry, The New Yorker, The Yale Review, and elsewhere. Alongside his friend and colleague, Jesse McCarthy, he is the founding editor of Minor Notes, a Penguin Classics book series dedicated to minor poets within the black expressive tradition. He lives in Massachusetts.

 

TRASH

General consensus in our home was candy or soda could kill us,
or else rot our constitutions in some larger, metaphysical sense.
Body&Soul, to cite the old wisdom. In protest, my big sister
& I would sneak the stuff through customs whenever we could:
Swedish Fish & ginger beer, Kit Kats, Mary Janes & Malta
lining the sides of each pocket like the contraband spoils
they were, smallest joys, our solitary arms in this war against
the invisible wall our parents built to bar our world of dreams.
Now that we are older, the mystery is all but gone. We were poor.
Teeth cost. In the end, it was the same as any worthwhile
piece of ancient lore: love obscured by law, our clumsy hands
demanding heaven, forgetting the bounty of our bellies,
the miracles our mother made from Jiffy mix & cans
of greens, all the pain we never knew we never knew
held there, against our will, in the citadel of her care.

 

Used by permission of the author from The Study of Human Life (Penguin,2022)
“TRASH”is reprinted from The Study of Human Life (Penguin, 2022) by permission of the poet.

 

This poem is from a cycle in my most recent collection, The Study of Human Life, entitled “Trash.” Therein, I’m thinking about the imposed sense of disposability that so frequently circumscribes the lives of black poor and working people, as well as the innumerable practices of care that make such a situation survivable. Quite naturally then, the central action of the poem involves my mother, my big sister, and the various strategies they employed to beautify our everyday lives. The fact that their approaches were often at odds—in this section of the cycle, their conflict takes the shape of a disagreement over the redeeming qualities of junk food—provides some of poem’s core tension, to be sure. But the real question at its heart, I think, is this one: how do we preserve the vulnerable forms of life entrusted to us? I’m always working through this question in one way or another. Especially now that my son, only a few weeks away from his second birthday as I write this, grows more adventurous, more daring in his kinesthetic brilliance (e.g., trying to climb up on the dinner table, or leap across the full length of the couch without warning) each day. I have much more grace for everyone in this poem now, in a way. I have a much better understanding of the stakes. I’m learning from the people in it how to be both more careful, and more courageous, than I previously thought possible.

 

SBD:

Was there a reason why the poem is in one solid block as opposed to stanzas? It is fifteen lines. Was it meant to be just off-sonnet?

 

JOSHUA:

The poem comes from a sonnet crown in my new book, “Crown of Thorns,” which constitutes the middle of the collection’s first cycle of poems: “Trash.” In keeping with the theme of the larger cycle, almost all the sonnets therein are meditations on death and disposability, the unheralded and discarded. In writing the sonnets, I kept thinking about Wanda Coleman’s own description of her American sonnets in a 2002 interview with Paul Nelson, where she decided that they “would be as open as possible, adhering only to the loosely followed dictate of number of lines. I decided on 14 to 16 and not to exceed that, but to go absolutely bonkers within that constraint.” Between reading this interview years ago, and then turning to Dianne Seuss’s recent collection, frank: sonnets, I felt my own approach to the sonnet begin to open up as I was finishing The Study of Human Life. Suddenly, there was much more room to experiment, and a new way to honor the ethos of the book.

 

 

JENNY GEORGE

 

 

Jenny George is the author of The Dream of Reason (Copper Canyon Press). Her poems have appeared in the New York Times, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Narrative, Granta, Iowa Review, FIELD, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Jenny lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she works in social justice philanthropy.

 

The Traveling Line

The sun on their backs is a stroke of burning gold.
They smell the bright dust of the yard.
The pigs are loaded onto trucks.
The pigs are prodded through a passage.
They roll their many eyes.
They see the hind legs of the one ahead.
They call to one another like birds.
The pigs become a traveling line.
Moving up the ramp the fever rises.
There is the clank of metal.
They hold still inside confusion.
A current passes through their bodies.
Blood comes from their mouths in strings.
By the ankle they are swiftly inverted.
Blood comes from their mouths in strings.
A current passes through their bodies.
They hold still inside confusion.
There is the clank of metal.
Moving up the ramp the fever rises.
The pigs become a traveling line.
They call to one another like birds.
They see the hind legs of the one ahead.
They roll their many eyes.
The pigs are prodded through a passage.
The pigs are loaded onto trucks.
They smell the bright dust of the yard.
The sun on their backs is a stroke of burning gold.

 

“The Traveling Line” is reprinted from The Dream of Reason(Copper Canyon, 2018) and used by permission of the poet.
 
This poem thinks through the experience of an animal in the meat processing system. I wanted the consciousness of the poem to be inside—or at least imaginatively near—an animal’s consciousness: What would pigs be sensing? How might pigs experience the movement, urgencies, proximities, and violence of that fate? The poem pivots on its middle line and reverses; at the moment of death, the pigs are no longer their own witnesses. And the form tracks my own impulse to back away from an unbearable image, to step out of the poem line by line and be released from complicity.

 

SBD:

I saw the poem as a reversal, but it was so helpful that you described the reversal as an “impulse to back away” from the killing of the pigs. Were there any discoveries, particular lines in the writing of this poem that transformed the experience into something new and/or more bearable in some way?

 

JENNY:

The notion of animal suffering is both horrifying and magnetic for me, which is why I used poems to help me think about it in my book The Dream of Reason. Wherever there is a tangle of fear and fascination, or aversion and the desire to repair, there is fertile ground for poems. This is because poems allow for paradox, for the admixture of feeling and knowing. When I began to reverse the lines in this poem, I felt two things at once: the way this society looks away from our impossibly complex, often brutal relationship with animal life; and a kind of magical relief for the subjects of that violence.

 

SBD:

The line on which the poem pivots, “By the ankle they are swiftly inverted”—
did the line lead to the inversion of the poem because it was a description of what was occurring?

 

JENNY:

Yes. Out of that image of physical inversion—which does happen in industrial slaughterhouses—came an impulse to flip the language as well.

 

SBD:

I was wondering if you could speak a bit about the title, Jenny. In my mind, there is the line of pigs going to be slaughtered and the moving line of the speaker’s proximity or distance from the killing. Were there other ideas that went behind it? I found the title really haunting.

 

JENNY:

I think both of those ideas are in the title. I wanted the sense of inevitability, of inexorable movement towards something—death, encounter, transformation—which the form of the poem also troubles by reversing. I wonder if we aren’t all, in a way, part of a traveling line through the cycles of time, through experience—continuous, collective, and unfixed?

 

 

JOHN MURILLO

 

 

John Murillo is the author of the poetry collections Up Jump the Boogie (Cypher 2010, Four Way Books 2020), finalist for both the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Pen Open Book Award, and Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (Four Way 2020), winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Poetry Society of Virginia’s North American Book Award, and finalist for the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, Believer Poetry Award, Maya Angelou Book Award, Hurston/Wright Foundation Legacy Award and the NAACP Image Award.  His other honors include the Four Quartets Prize from the T.S. Eliot Foundation and the Poetry Society of America, two Larry Neal Writers Awards, a pair of Pushcart Prizes, the J Howard and Barbara MJ Wood Prize from the Poetry Foundation, an NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellowship, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Cave Canem Foundation, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing.  Murillo’s poems have appeared in such publications as American Poetry Review, Poetry, and Best American Poetry 2017, 2019, and 2020.  Currently, he is an associate professor of English and director of the creative writing program at Wesleyan University.

 

Upon Reading That Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Birds,

I think first of two sparrows I met when walking home,
late night years ago, in another city, not unlike this — the one
 
bird frantic, attacking I thought, the way she swooped
down, circled my head, and flailed her wings in my face;
 
how she seemed to scream each time I swung; how she
dashed back and forth between me and a blood-red Corolla
 
parked near the opposite curb; how, finally, I understood:
I spied another bird, also calling, its foot inexplicably
 
caught in the car’s closed door, beating its whole bird
body against it. Trying, it appeared, to bang himself free.
 
And who knows how long he’d been there, flailing. Who
knows — he and the other I mistook, at first, for a bat.
 
They called to me — something between squawk and chirp,
something between song and prayer — to do something,
 
anything. And, like any good god, I disappeared. Not
indifferent, exactly. But with things to do. And, most likely,
 
on my way home from another heartbreak. Call it 1997,
and say I’m several thousand miles from home. By which
 
I mean those were the days I made of everyone a love song.
By which I mean I was lonely and unrequited. But that’s
 
not quite it either. Truth is, I did manage to find a few
to love me, but couldn’t always love them back. The Rasta
 
law professor. The firefighter’s wife. The burlesque dancer
whose daughter blackened drawings with m’s to mean
 
the sky was full of birds the day her daddy died. I think
his widow said he drowned one morning on a fishing trip.
 
Anyway, I’m digressing. But if you asked that night —
did I mention it was night? — why I didn’t even try
 
to jimmy the lock to spring the sparrow, I couldn’t say,
truthfully, that it had anything to do with envy, with wanting
 
a woman to plead as deeply for me as these sparrows did,
one for the other. No. I’d have said something, instead,
 
about the neighborhood itself, the car thief shot a block
and a half east the week before. Or about the men
 
I came across nights prior, sweat-slicked and shirtless,
grappling in the middle of the street, the larger one’s chest
 
pressed to the back of the smaller, bruised and bleeding
both. I know you thought this was about birds,
 
but stay with me. I left them both in the street —
the same street where I’d leave the sparrows — the men
 
embracing and, for all one knows (especially one not
from around there), they could have been lovers —
 
the one whispering an old, old tune into the ear
of the other — Baby, baby, don’t leave me this way. I left
 
the men where I’d leave the sparrows and their song.
And as I walked away, I heard one of the men call to me,
 
please or help or brother or some such. And I didn’t break
stride, not one bit. It’s how I’ve learned to save myself.
 
Let me try this another way. Call it 1977. And say
I’m back west, south central Los Angeles. My mother
 
and father at it again. But this time in the street,
broad daylight, and all the neighbors watching. One,
 
I think his name was Sonny, runs out from his duplex
to pull my father off. You see where I’m going with this.
 
My mother crying out, fragile as a sparrow. Sonny
fighting my father, fragile as a sparrow. And me,
 
years later, trying to get it all down. As much for you —
I’m saying — as for me. Sonny catches a left, lies flat
 
on his back, blood starting to pool and his own
wife wailing. My mother wailing, and traffic backed,
 
now, half a block. Horns, whistles, and soon sirens.
1977. Summer. And all the trees full of birds. Hundreds,
 
I swear. And since I’m the one writing it, I’ll tell you
they were crying. Which brings me back to Dolphy
 
and his transcribing. The jazzman, I think, wanted only
to get it down pure. To get it down exact — the animal
 
racking itself against a car’s steel door, the animals
in the trees reporting, the animals we make of ourselves
 
and one another. Flailing, flailing. Stay with me now.
Days after the dustup, my parents took me to the park.
 
And in this park was a pond, and in this pond were birds.
Not sparrows, but swans. And my father spread a blanket
 
and brought from a basket some apples and a paring knife.
Summertime. My mother wore sunglasses. And long sleeves.
 
My father, now sober, cursed himself for leaving the radio.
But my mother forgave him, and said, as she caressed
 
the back of his hand, that we could just listen to the swans.
And we listened. And I watched. Two birds coupling,
 
one beating its wings as it mounted the other. Summer,
1977. I listened. And watched. When my parents made love
 
late into that night, I covered my ears in the next room,
scanning the encyclopedia for swans. It meant nothing to me —
 
then, at least — but did you know the collective noun
for swans is a lamentation? And is a lamentation not
 
its own species of song? What a woman wails, punch drunk
in the street? Or what a widow might sing, learning her man
 
was drowned by swans? A lamentation of them? Imagine
the capsized boat, the panicked man, struck about the eyes,
 
nose, and mouth each time he comes up for air. Imagine
the birds coasting away and the waters suddenly calm.
 
Either trumpet swans or mutes. The dead man’s wife
running for help, crying to any who’d listen. A lamentation.
 
And a city busy saving itself. I’m digressing, sure. But
did you know that to digress means to stray from the flock?
 
When I left my parents’ house, I never looked back. By which
I mean I made like a god and disappeared. As when I left
 
the sparrows. And the copulating swans. As when someday
I’ll leave this city. Its every flailing, its every animal song.

 

from Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (Four Way Books, 2020)

 

There was a hidden-camera reality show a few years back called What Would You Do? where production would stage certain events—a shopkeeper hurls racist comments at a shopper, a man at a bar sneaks something into the drink of a stranger while her back is turned—that called on witnesses to intercede on the behalf of others.  To see how, or whether, onlookers would do much more than look on.  More often than not, those being filmed would step in, would intervene, on behalf of the people being wronged.  And when the cameras, boom mics, and hosts sprung from behind bushes, clothing racks, or jukeboxes, and asked why people chose to intervene, they would always say something about courage, duty, and how basic morality required one to “do the right thing.”  I used to watch this show and wonder how I might do if put into one of these situations.  Push come to shove, do I have it in me to do the right thing?  I’ve always been interested in the dilemma posed when the right thing runs up against the imperative for survival and how, in many of our communities, “staying out of other folks’ business” is one of the first, and most lasting, lessons.  In the Dolphy poem, the speaker is not courageous (unless one considers examining one’s own cowardice an act of courage.  I’m not sure I do.) and, having been presented with ample opportunity to test their mettle, to do what is “right,” has fallen short each time.  The poem traces this realization as well as the speaker’s attempt to come to terms with it as best they can.

 

SBD:

I was struck by your title and how one artist can give a kind of opening or inspiration to another with their work. In this case, Eric Dolphy’s efforts to transcribe the calls of certain birds. In your poem, there is so much conflation of human and bird, beginning with the second verb you use, “I think of the first two sparrows I MET…” which is a verb that is more often used with people meeting people.  And “They (the sparrows)  CALLED to me.” Can you describe a little of the process, how Dolphy’s work entered your poem. Did you listen to some of his pieces while writing? Do you play an instrument yourself?

 

JOHN:

I do not play any instruments.  Not for real, anyway.  I used to mess around with the djembe and congas many years ago.  During the pandemic, I started trying to teach myself guitar.  Recently, a good friend tried to teach me some basics on the harmonica but I’ve since forgotten everything he told me.  I think for me the issue is time.  Learning to play an instrument–even poorly–takes time, and I always feel pressed for it.
 
As for the process of writing the Dolphy poem, it started with the sparrows.  An incident just like the one described in the opening few couplets.  The problem is that no matter how I tried to find my way into the poem by writing about the incident, I couldn’t.  I sat with that incident for many years, coming back to it again and again, but nothing budged.  Then one day I read an article in the New York Times, I think, about Dolphy that mentioned his practice of transcribing bird calls.  It struck me that he heard something earnest and wanted to approximate that in his own compositions.  The article took me straight to my own sparrows and their song.  The poem, from that point, pretty much wrote itself.  The first draft anyway.

 

SBD:

I was wowed by many of your line breaks and the order in which you give the reader information. As Coleridge said, poetry is, “best words, best order. I would like to ask you to speak about one area of sequencing in particular:
 
“….why I didn’t even try/ to jimmy the lock to spring the sparrow, I COULDN”T SAY/TRUTHFULLY, that it had anything to do with envy, with wanting/ a woman to plead as deeply for me as these sparrows did,/ for each other. NO I’d have said something, instead,/ about the neighborhood itself….”
 
What first struck me here is that the break between “I couldn’t say” and “truthfully. First the reader is led to believe that the speaker cannot say. Then that the speaker’s abandonment of the sparrows did not have “anything to do with envy, “ until we get to the “NO. I ‘d have said instead…” which makes the reader reverse what they were thinking vis a vis the envy as being causal.
 
Could you speak a little bit about your process in creating this passage?

 

JOHN:

The speaker in the poem is working through something.  He is processing a memory–an event, his response to it, what he actually did and might have done differently–and the syntax, I believe, makes room for that kind of uncertainty.  Syntax and lineation.  Digressions, returns, reversals, asides.  We poets talk a lot about the line, but for me it’s the sentence–and the play between sentences, and between sentences and lines–that really gets you to the good stuff.

 

 

CATHERINE PIERCE

 

 

Catherine Pierce is the Poet Laureate of Mississippi and the author of four books of poems, most recently Danger Days (Saturnalia 2020). Her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry, the New York TimesAmerican Poetry ReviewThe Nation, the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day series, and elsewhere. An NEA Fellow and two-time Pushcart Prize winner, she co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.

 

Strategies for Mothers in the Age of This Age

 

For one, skip past “Sloop John B”—that flute
might send anyone right into the abyss.
 
Stop ferrying errant house spiders to the yard—
let’s not waste our ache-space on arachnids.
 
If there’s a solar eclipse, stay in. It’s too much
to watch the erosion of light we thought was certain.
 
But let’s not call it terrariumed. We’ll still hold
the same escalator railings, ride in the same
 
commuter trains, carry the same signs and groceries
and guilt. We’ll just snag a little less. Mothers,
 
I know we used to wander our dark like spelunkers.
I know we had head lamps and ropes. Like bats
 
we knew the pings of our limits, and unlike bats,
pushed past them. But now with the news alerts
 
buzzing. Now with that starving polar bear.
Now with the “Gun-Free Zone” signs on the doors
 
of the kindergarten. Now with everything balanced
on the thinnest of threads that we know not to test
 
for tension. So what if we armor ourselves
with horn sections? So what if we recite state capitals
 
in the shower’s echo chamber, or avoid the sad
billboard eyes of the boat donation girl? So what
 
if sometimes we set down the armfuls of nails
and brambles, shut off the radio? We know
 
the shutting off is so we can listen. We know
the setting down is so we can pick up and carry.

 

“Strategies for Mothers in the Age of This Age” is reprinted from Danger Days (Saturnalia, 2020) by permission of the poet.

 

This poem began out of an impulse to clarify and justify that particular version of coping that looks like not-coping. It went through many drafts and modes of address before arriving at its final iteration; the earlier drafts were not instructions but explanations, pleas for understanding. Over time, as I worked, I realized that I didn’t want the poem to sound apologetic; I wanted it to feel assertive, and to acknowledge that this mode of coping is a common and valid one. The small avoidances catalogued in the poem aren’t borne from a desire to hide, but from a need to stay strong enough to engage, protect, and fight.

 

SBD:

I love that the process of writing the poem allowed you to find a self-accepting, even self-assured moral stance towards our complicated lives that are filled with ambiguity. That this was the poem’s gift to you, the journey to the discovery of places where you could go easy on the self in order to do the larger carrying.
 
I loved, in particular, the spider which I associate with a web, the spelunker’s rope and the “thinnest of threads” from which our current world hangs. Can you talk a little about the progression of these images?

 

CATHERINE:

All three of those images—which I imagine as accrual more than progression—come back to this idea of trying to hold things together, and recognizing both the precariousness and the strength of that holding. Everything is balanced on the thinnest of threads—but like the spider’s seemingly impossible web, it is balanced, it is holding, at least for now.

 

SBD:

And I was particularly struck by the “o” sounds in the last two couplets. Kind of a sound-making argument. “If sometimes we …shut off the radio,” “we know,” “is so.”  The “O” sound read to me as kind of an “aha” or a more plaintive “oh.” Was this conscious or just the way the words fell?

 

CATHERINE:

I love that read of that last section of the poem. I wasn’t making a conscious nod to what the O sound might specifically suggest, but I am very attuned to sound, and read everything out loud as I’m composing. The assonance here satisfied my ear musically and rhythmically.

Sally Bliumis-Dunn teaches Modern Poetry at Manhattanville College. Her poems appeared in the Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, Plume, Poetry London, the New York Times and PBS NewsHour, among others. Her third collection, Echolocation, was published by Plume Editions/Madhat Press in March 2018.