December: and how it has crept upon me: not the weather or the holidays – though that, too – but the occasion of our 100th issue. I won’t rehearse our origin story (it’s very Plume-like, however, in its modesty and serendipity, if I can say so); suffice it to say that I never imagined we’d reach this landmark. And I’ll spare you the Academy Awards-esque list of breathless thank-you’s (who am I forgetting?! etc). Contributors of all stripes and all years, you know who you are; your work endures, properly credited in our Archives. By way of “celebration”, we’ve cooked up a new kind of Featured Selection: each Staff member has selected a poem she or he loves, and introduced it. Honestly, it was a joy, and the consensus appears to be that we’ll make this a semi-annual event – a Christmas in July sort of thing. I hope you like it. Perhaps I’ll ask contributors to participate next time.
Anyway: much gratitude, one and all. Now, let’s play two (hundred).
But, let’s turn now to this month’s “secret poem”, as always, wonderfully introduced by our new staff member, Joseph Campana. This month, it’s “Celery,” from James McMichael.
As I’m writing this, my husband is upstairs finishing some dishes to bring to a friend’s house. Roasted squash, sage, and wild rice; spicy cashews; cranberry chutney. My friend Christina started inviting us over for Thanksgiving the year Tedd was diagnosed with cancer and the worst two years of our lives began. The worst had not even yet begun that first Thanksgiving, but we were still too exhausted for cooking or conviviality, but the prospect of being with friends was more appealing than, say, sitting at home pretending we weren’t thinking about cancer. Christina makes the turkey, her husband, Jack, makes the desserts. Everyone else pitches it. Eventually, when Tedd had to be admitted for a series of obliterating rounds of chemotherapy, Christina visited him in the hospital. Also Lauren. Also Sydney and Alec. And Catherine, who brought snacks or socks or anything she thought might give Tedd a lift. And many others.
This is all a way of saying, I’m grateful for many things, not least of all that my husband is in remission. And my experience of gratitude is not limited to this one day a year and to what I have always found to be the most awkward holiday on the calendar. What isn’t awkward about it? The myth of a founding occasion versus the grotesqueries that followed? That it’s insane to cram roads and airports and train and bus stations with millions of desperate bodies all the more desperate for the holiday’s short span? That it is, at it’s worst, a literally overstuffed holiday, a glut of overconsumption leading to collapse? Harvests I understand, even the ceremony that may surround them. Thanksgiving I never will.
By this point you can tell this isn’t a missive from a service sending poems for every occasion. I suppose what I really want to express is a certain frustration with this season of gratitude. It’s not that I don’t feel gratitude. It’s more that when forced to express it the resentment of coercion overwhelms the good work gratitude can do. Gratitude works by occasion and perhaps more convincingly than a generalized feeling of gratitude. Something that triggers the experience. A kind word, a helping hand, an unexpected boost on a bad day. Nothing ruins it more than being forced to remember a triggering occasion, as when someone keeps reminding you of a gift you’ve been given. Goodbye, gift. Generosity and gratitude, flip sides of a coin, can’t be compulsory. They give rise to occasions, not the other way around.
So, as I thought about what poem to write about this month, I ruled out gratitude. I’ve been trying to think about a poem about the small gestures that give rise to a feeling of gratitude. Or things. Or, on a holiday like this one, the foods, for those of us who are fortunate and for whom holidays actually are times of abundance and companionship. I remembered a series of short poems by James McMichael, each on a different vegetable: artichoke, cauliflower, asparagus, potatoes, corn, celery. When I first read them, I can’t quite recall. I’ve always been intrigued by those poems that attune themselves to animate life. The result is not an object or a prop or a symbol. Nor do these vegetables speak to us, as in “The Song of Celery” or as in “I, celery, speak to you now of my celeriac desires.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that. What I admire about these, particularly, is the way each vegetable is an occasion for meditation. Magic happens when the poem creates the intersection of literary form and life form.
Of these poems, I find “Celery” the most appealing, although in truth it is a vegetable I’ve never cared for. Tedd tells me it’s the secret of so much cooking—a strong foundation laid with celery and carrot and onion called mirepoix, which sounds so much more elevated and less stringy than celery. Mirepoix comes, I learned, from the Duc de Mirepoix, who got credit for his chef’s culinary techniques. As a base or a foundation, one might expect the earthiness of the carrot or the onion, but it is the liquidity of celery that James McMichael asks us to think about.
What an elegant opening, an opening of aspiration: “The hope with / water is that it / will conceal nothing.” And like most hopes, this one lives under a constant threat. The threat is not articulated, and in fact it’s a virtue of the poem that it sustains that feeling of perhaps-unrealized aspiration without suggesting the conditions of interruption. We hope for transparency although celery—water as it is—is not clear. Not even quite translucent. But we hope for clear waters, a clearing after a storm, or clear air over water. We have to hope because we know such hopes often are not always realized. And we can allow clearness, lucidity, transparency, and freshness to radiate from this humble celery, to become conditions of life for more than a vegetable. What I love about “Celery” is that the poem doesn’t precisely have anywhere to go after this statement of initial aspiration. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We often refer, pejoratively, to circular logics or loop statements. And we often want poems to go somewhere and to say something. Sometimes they do, of course, and to great effect. But maybe sometimes, like gratitude and generosity, a poem is, in fact, something that shouldn’t be coerced and that gives rise to occasions more powerfully than occasions give rise to it. Maybe circularity isn’t so bad.
Here, celery has become a fountain or perhaps more precisely a cycle of water drawn from pool through the vegetable stalks of the celery and then as if rising up and becoming the cloud that makes the rain that falls back down on trees which drip into a river. And, well, there we are at the beginning again: looking for clearness, trying to conceal nothing, touching the delicate drops of water that have traveled so far to slake our thirsts and hungers. For clean water and good food and good people gathering—I suppose, I haven’t ruled out gratitude after all.
The hope with
water is that it
will conceal nothing,
that a clearness
will follow upon it
like the clearness
after much rain,
or the clearness
where the air
reaches to the river
and touches it,
where the rain
falls from the trees
into the river.
For biographical information on James McMichael look here.
Joseph Campana is a poet, arts critic, and scholar of Renaissance literature. He is the author of three collections of poetry, The Book of Faces (Graywolf, 2005), Natural Selections (Iowa, 2012), which received the Iowa Poetry Prize, and most recently the The Book of Life (Tupelo, 2019). His poetry appears in Slate, Kenyon Review, Poetry, Conjunctions, Guernica, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Colorado Review, while individual poems have won prizes from Prairie Schooner and the Southwest Review. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Houston Arts Alliance, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He has reviewed the arts, books, media and culture widely and is the author of dozens of scholarly essays on Renaissance literature and culture as well as a study of poetics The Pain of Reformation: Spenser, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Masculinity (Fordham, 2012). He teaches at Rice University where he is Alan Dugald McKillop Professor of English.
Once more: If you enjoyed Joseph Campana’s piece in this newsletter, and last month’s — and how could you not? — all of the Plume newsletters are now archived under, well, Archives, on our homepage.
I have the unenviable task of announcing the departure of our Book Reviews Editor, Joshua Cory, whose time with our journal has been thrilling – having reviewed or overseen reviews of some extraordinary poets, from Joseph Donahue to Michael Anania, from Katy Bohinc to Amish Triverdi and Marosa Di Giorgio, and many more, always with insight and…verve. It’s been a great run, and we at Plume wish him well.The good news, though – Josh will continue to contribute reviews from time to time, and for this we are most grateful.
And while we’re on the subject —
Ah! Let me say, again, that I am proud, and a little shocked, honestly, to announce two new additions to our staff: the esteemed poets Chelsea and Mark Waagener will become our Book Reviews editors beginning with the January issue. And the equally accomplished Mihaela Moscaliuc will take of the position of Translations Editor. Plume will be much the better for their presence, I am sure. Staff bio notes, photographs, and more on this as that month approaches.
Plume Poetry 8 has wrapped – at the publisher as I write. Much gratitude to all involved!
And now, another plea: In the past, we have debuted the anthologies at AWP with a blow-out reading. Unfortunately, I have yet to be able to secure an off-site venue (bookstore, library, restaurant/bar, church, community center – we’ve used them all) in that city, which to my regret I have never visited. If you know of such, or know of a friend of a friend who has contacts there, please, write me – plumepoetry@gmail,com I understand we are some months away from the conference, but these sites are snapped up quickly.
(Almost) penultimately, again a request. As you will note, I try to highlight recent of soon to be published books by Plume contributors at the conclusion of this newsletter. My method for gathering these materials is haphazard, to say the least. Now, I want to rectify that to whatever degree that is possible. So – if you have a new book — or have won some award or grant or other, perhaps send me a quick email – I want to highlight your many wonderful achievements here. And a little PR never hurts, right?
Our cover art this month comes from Tania Franco Klein, whose work has been reviewed and featured in Aperture Foundation, The British Journal of Photography, I-D Magazine (UK), The Guardian, Paris Review, Der Greif, Fisheye Magazine Vogue Italia and has been commissioned by clients like The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Aperture Foundation and Dior. Her work has been exhibited across Europe, USA, and Mexico, including international fairs such as Photo Basel, Photo London, Photofairs SF, Getxo Photo and during the Los Angeles Month of Photography. She has won the Sony World Photography Awards for two consecutive years, The Lensculture Exposure Awards, the LensCulture Storytelling Award, The Felix Schoeller Photo Award of Germany Nominee, FOAM Paul Huf Award nominee, and recently received the Photo London Artproof Schliemann Award as the best emerging artist during Photo London fair 2018 and her first publication Positive Disintegration (2019) was nominated for the Paris Photo Aperture Foundation First Book Award. Interested? Find more in Lens Culture, and Paris Review.
And finally, per usual, a few new releases from Plume contributors: