Newsletter #131 July 2022

Newsletter #131 July 2022
March 13, 2023 Christina Mullin

Michal Dyjuk, from Cows can smell the scent of death

July, 2022

Welcome to Plume #131 –

July, and of late a certain shadow, a darkness both fearsome and watchful has fallen on our, on so many lives.  That which casts it, in its multitude of forms, you know all too well. It’s with this in mind, and Plume’s penchant for addressing these moments aslant as it were, that I chose this month’s cover art, Michal Dyjuk’s photograph titled “Cows can smell the scent of death”. I hope, in its greatly reduced dimensions (enlargeable via the icon next to the artist’s name), you are able to make out the five pairs of bovine eyes peering from just beyond the light’s rim. We are in Augustow, July 1945, where, as the artist says, “in the forests Soviet troops rounded up thousands of members of the Polish resistance, who had fought against both the Nazi and Communist occupations of their country. Approximately 2000 were arrested, and at least 600 disappeared without a trace, their subsequent fate and resting place unknown to this day. The haunted atmosphere of the images is not just a stylistic exercise. “I was born here, and it is an idyllic place, with its forest, lakes, and rivers…[b]ut in opposition to this, the area used to be a constant battlefield. If you could peel off this layer of idyllic scenery, you would start to see a lot of bad things…”[italics mine].
Change the “used to be” to “is” and — all too familiar, no? I shivered when I first saw this image; honestly, I think you will, too.

All right.

Allow me to hand things off now to Joseph Campana, whose letters address both you, the reader, and Janet McAdams, regarding her poem “Earthling”, below.

Janet McAdams

That winter, that warm winter, no one
wanted to be ordinary. We sat
on a pile of plastic, threatened as a
farm where the dog is tied up barking.
Land, we meant to say sorry
–we are so sorry—
to the red dirt of your body.
We meant to say meat or dirty water.
We meant to say before our bones became lace
Before we had to lean forward to swallow.
You remember how the story goes: We came in peace.
But tell that to a drop of water trying to linger.

Dear readers,
A double epistle for July. I like to think of these monthly columns as letters about poems I love to friends I don’t yet know (and in times that make me need more poems and more friends in my life). In that spirit, this month I write a real letter to a friend who wrote a poem I can’t stop thinking about and that I hope you’ll read and think about as well.

Faithfully yours,

Dear Janet,

I meant to write to you after I received, in the mail, your book Búfalo en seis direcciones y otras poemas, beautifully published by Aldus in Mexico City. I wish I had the Spanish to read the translations, which I’m sure are marvelous, by Katherine Hedeen and Victor Rodriguez Núñez.

I remember you told me some poems of yours, including this one, that appeared in New Poets of Native Nations edited by Heid E. Erdrich, a volume I meant to read it and somehow didn’t after setting it on an ever-growing pile of good intentions: books I’d read when I had time. So many now the pile keeps falling over. How is it I have the same flash of rage and surprise every time?

I have had time but too little focus. I’m embarrassed to say, for most of the last few years, I’ve looked nervously away from the books around me, as if they want something I could no longer give them. I had to apologize, too, to another friend with whom I had dropped out of touch. And another I have yet to call. It’s not that I wanted to be so absent, but, somehow, I was. I forgot what it means to be in touch even as I talk all day long without saying enough of anything. That’s probably why it’s been so hard to write poems. Maybe that will change now.

I also realized, reading your book, that I didn’t understand, as I thought I had, two words: earthling and apology. The first, from ancient roots, an inhabitant of earth, which science fiction authors especially have liked. It also used to mean a cultivator of land, which I take to run counter to the earth in the poem that keeps trying to peek out from behind the piles of plastic and dirty water. What would the earth, what would the “red dirt” of the body be without the idea that somehow these imperfect [things] require human improvement? Other nearly-obsolete meanings indicate someone all-too materialistically attuned to the world, also known as a worlding. Sad earthlings: always so attached to the wrong things.

You’d think to be an earthling is to be a creature of the earth, derived from it and therefore also taking its lead and character from the very soil under the feet. The earthling follows from the earth: not the other way around. Only it’s 2022, so we know better. You would think it would be a good thing, a time when “no one / wanted to be ordinary.” But it was a warm winter, a winter warmed by earthlings who want desperately to be exceptions and thus have had such a disastrous impact on the weather and the earth. No wonder the sad earthlings of the poem sit on a pile of plastic not knowing enough to feel sad so instead they fell “threatened.” (I am, just now, sitting on a pile of plastic called a chair, wondering if I should feel safe where I live). I love the wonderfully paranoid simile here. How threatened, really, is this farm? What if the dog barks because someone tied up a dog that wants to be free to roam?

No wonder, too, someone wants to apologize—a gesture that can be so heartfelt and so nothing all at the same time. How, at this juncture in history, does the apology still even work? The proforma apologies. The apologies unspoken until too late. The apologies from those least to blame. The lack of apologies from those most to blame. The insincere, the ambivalent, the all-too-brief. Amazing that the idiom “sorry, not sorry” became so spoken in recent years. It barely touches the swamp of complication underneath the feet of any apology. And after all, “we meant / to say sorry” means we didn’t say sorry at all, not even the almost-urgent “we are so sorry.” Always it is time that frustrates the apology: either there was no time or too much, it happened to quickly or too slow. And time eats away at so many things. I love that phrase “before our bones became lace”: beauty and ruin all in one fragile package.

It’s easy to expect a poem to land a final punch, but I’ve always admired the way your sneak up and strike a reader with exquisite obliquity. “Earthling” is no exception:

You remember how the story goes: We came in peace
But tell that to a drop of water trying to linger.

So here is where those different ideas of “earthling” all collide: the ones who live on earth by claiming earth as property. The lines draw us in—we are the ones meant to remember the story of those who settled land that was not theirs because we are those people. And so too do these lines remember that all the language honed amidst the colonization of lands was that used in science-fiction stories about earthlings and other beings. And so the red dirt a kind of experience of the land and of the body I do not share, coming from people from many lands some of whom settled the territories of the Mohawk people in central New York State. I appreciate how the poem both finds a common earth and a common body while also hanging onto the varying experiences of land and flesh of those who might shelter in the “we” of your poem.

All this comes into view in contemplation of the end of all things, be it worries about climate apocalypses or the contemplation of the end of a life, which is so much like “a drop of water trying to linger.” That, too, is how a lyric feels: it lingers in spite of itself. As does “Earthling.”

Biography from Poetry Foundation:
Of Scottish, Irish, and Creek (Muscogee) ancestry, Janet McAdams is the author of The Island of Lost Luggage (2000), which won the Diane Decorah First Book Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas and an American Book Award in poetry. She is the author of the poetry collection, Feral (2007), and a chapbook Seven Boxes for the Country After (2016). McAdams is also the author of the novel Red Weather (2012).
She earned her MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama and her PhD in Comparative Literature from Emory University. She teaches at Kenyon College as the Robert P. Hubbard Professor of Poetry and is an editor-at-large for Kenyon Review. Her poems have been widely published in such magazines as Poetry, the North American Review, the Kenyon Review, the Women’s Review of Books, and TriQuarterly. In 2005, she founded the award-winning Earthworks Poetry Series for Salt Publishing in the UK.

What else?

Ah, of course: Plume Poetry 10. Due to the usual shipping problems, we now have a release date of September 1– sooner if somehow things now-fall into placeWe are in the final printing now, and will resume partnered readings from the book before long.

Again, our cover art this month is Michal Dyjuk’ “Cows can smell the scent of death”. For more information on the artist, a good start might be made here and here.

Finally, as usual, some recently published/forthcoming books from Plume contributors:

Rosemarie Waldrop               The Nick of Time
Tomaž Šalamun                     Opera Buffa
Paul Muldoon                         Howdie-Skelp
Troy Jollimore                         Earthly Delights
Fabias Radna,                        Habitus
trans. by David Colmer

That’s it, for now.
I hope you enjoy the issue!

Daniel Lawless
Editor, Plume