PLUME STAFF CHOICES
(…which I really did almost call “Plume Plums”…)
A brief note of introduction: to acknowledge and celebrate our 100th issue: we depart this month from our usual poet interview/poems format, in order to bring to you this special Featured Selection, comprising most-loved poems from across those 100 issues, introduced by some of our staff members. To a person, they – those staff members – enjoyed the work, and we hope you do as well. Thus, I am thinking, now, perhaps we’ll do it again, in some form or other, on a semi-annual basis. Stay tuned. But for now – enjoy!
from Leeya Mehta, Associate Editor-at-Large, on Rasha Abdulhadi’s “Clean Houses” Issue # 88, December 2018
Rasha Abdulhadi captivates in Clean Houses. They were the first poet to have a recorded voice on Plume. I still remember when I first heard them read their poetry and how much I wanted the world to know this particular writer. I remember waiting anxiously for Rasha’s new work, and was so excited when they sent it to us, bringing to Plume some of the most unique imagery in contemporary American poetry. I am drawn to writing that connects the experience of the body, the home, the natural world, and politics in the tight space of a poem. In America, in particular, the borderlands of past family experiences are retained in the blood of today’s citizens. This single poem evokes Palestine, Israel, the Holocaust, and the American South. The reader can feel the shame and the promise of humanity in the walls of their own heart. Poems like this showcase contemporary activist poetry, while simultaneously bring to mind a very long tradition of literary giants and traditions. I imagine that Clean Houses is therefore a poem which will be read a hundred years from now, the way we read The Stare’s Nest by WB Yeats.
It is the shame of country houses
that they could not stand against
the palmetto. At school, at church, in town
everyone pretended they kept house
tight enough to keep
the palmetto out,
and that was a lie–
those night buzz
ards dove from cabinet ledge
as my mother moved across linoleum,
always my father was quick
with the flyswatter used for these battles only.
I never saw him strike a fly, for he
could catch those cupped in the prayer of his hands.
When no one else was there to kill,
I crushed them, greasy packets of life,
and tried not to feel death’s rupture through my shoe.
With the bleached white insurance
of three paper towels quarantine between
their broken bodies and my killing fingers,
I carried a funeral wad to the trashcan
and buried it against all hope of return.
At night, the faintest feather on my face
or whisper of flight in my bedroom
was deep dread — I’d wake up
shaking mad, too fast to hold on to.
Those nights I could have killed with a thought;
and that is how I came to understand
the urge to exterminate.
As the daughter of a man of a people
driven from their homes by the children
and grandchildren of people who were driven
from their homes, I meet in my own heart
the nightmare fear that drives us to clean house
of the other creatures who were here first.
From Daniel Lawless, Editor, on Angie Estes’ LA LONGUE DURÉE, Issue #46, April 21065
Angie Estes is that rare poet whose body of work is so consistently good (great, astonishing), one might choose a poem at random and be assured of its ability to move one, to challenge and to inspire envy. All of these qualities are present in LA LONGUE DURÉE. In another work, Follain says, “Time piles up.” And so it does in almost every poem from Ms. Estes: how easily we move, here, from the “historic” to the personal, and back again; from London in the 17th century to ancient Greece, to the Nepenthe/restaurant—perched on the cliffs/ above the Big Sur coastline, once the home/
of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, only to make our way in reverse to August 27, 1783, [and] the inhabitants of the village/of Gonesse, ten miles northeast of Paris. And this in the only first seventeen lines – no mere parlor trick, either. With each locale comes a deepening of the sense of an ineffable concurrency that makes one shiver, a little omniscient god. To say nothing of the grand beauty of the thing itself —
of sequins skimming
the sky like the lamb’s-tongue
edge of prayer that rises
to an ogee arch, fingertips
pressed together …
and the thread of hope we see in the final lines, that makes the above-mentioned history personal, and vice-versa. Just marvelous, in the best, richest sense of that word.
the ginkgos finally give up
their leaves, but the ground beneath them
LA LONGUE DURÉE
It’s a far cry from the blaze we light
in our time, far from the rising
of the lights, from which eleven
persons died in London during the week
of August 15, 1665, the same period during which
three people died from grief. Nepenthe
was given to Helen of Troy to quell
her sorrows with forgetfulness. It’s Ancient Greek
and like all history, without grief, as in
let he who is without it
win a free trip to Nepenthe
restaurant—perched on the cliffs
above the Big Sur coastline, once the home
of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth—which offers
a quiet meal with a view.
At 5:45 on the evening of
August 27, 1783, the inhabitants of the village
of Gonesse, ten miles northeast of Paris,
saw what appeared to be the moon
descending from the sky. Some ran, some
knelt, while others pelted it with stones, chased it
down, tied it to the tail of a horse and dragged
that first hydrogen-filled balloon, launched
from the Champ de Mars,
back to Gonesse.
From the balcony, we watched
the moon rise above Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat
because it was the brightest and nearest
moon of the year, a sequence
of sequins skimming
the sky like the lamb’s-tongue
edge of prayer that rises
to an ogee arch, fingertips
pressed together. But it’s too late
for Pluto, who’s now planet-struck
as I was when I was
seven: my mother pressed each tight
curl of hair flat with an X
of bobby pins so that all night, sputniks
orbited my head.
High above the sea
on the crest of Cap-Ferrat, Béatrice de Rothschild
built Villa Ephrussi, her fin-de-siècle
Creamsicle with its ex-voto gardens
in the shape of a ship, immune
to bouleversement. My mother
always asks each time
the moon appears, how long do you think
it will stay? When November’s cold
snaps, the ginkgos finally give up
their leaves, but the ground beneath them
From Chard deNiord, Associate Editor. Criticism & Essays, on Stephen Dobyns’ “Ambushed” Plume Poetry 7
In his poem “Ambushed”, Stephen Dobyns succeeds at accomplishing one of the most difficult tasks of writing lyric poetry, namely, crossing over effectively from himself to his reader with intense feeling in tow. Dobyn’s poem “Ambushed” (Plume Anthology #7) is one of those rare poems whose imagery, self-affirmation, and verbal economy combine so artfully that the reader forgets the poet in favor of simply overhearing the poem’s speaker write so memorably about his subject. With razor-sharp discretion, Dobyns cuts a deft line between maudlin and grievous emotion in recalling his absent beloved amidst her immense particulars. A master practitioner at transforming minutiae into charged imagery, Dobyns succeeds at both memorializing his wife and effecting vicarious sorrow in his reader via a catalog of evocative details that capture “her atmosphere”. “Ambushed” leaves the reader feeling not only that also, but hurt in a way that’s deeply ironic: more human and alive than before she read the poem.
The woman’s odor hovers in her coats,
the ones worn in winter, spring jackets.
The normal distribution, so when her husband
opens the closet door, it’s like a history
of their time together, not that he sees her;
no, rather that her atmosphere surrounds him,
the perfumes worn when they leave home
together and smell of her hair. Then when
they fight and he leaves to fetch his coat
for a soothing walk, he is suddenly over-
taken by a collection of bright occasions—
a jazz quartet they heard last week, a hike
in the state park, an accretion of events
nearly forgotten. It seem unfair. While
she still fumes in the kitchen, he has been
unjustly sidetracked by her surreptitious
renderings and distillations taking shape
before him with each fat memory layered
and overlapped. Shrunken by indecision
by the closet door, he might wait all night
with crossed arms and a righteous frown,
hoping his impossibly stubborn helpmate
might hurry to disrupt him in his goodness.
from Nancy Mitchell, Associate Editor Special Features, on Amy Beeder’s “The Madness of Crowds” Issue # 67, February 2017
I love that Amy Beeder’s poem “The Madness of Crowds’ begins, as Frost says of poetry, “in delight but ends in wisdom.” From the first line of the first section of Tulip, we’re lickety-split down the slick slide of sound, line to line, blipping over the friction of alliteration, surprised at the short glides along internal rhyme. When we’re spit out at the end of each section we ask “holy shit, how did we get here?” then climb back up to go down again— this time more carefully, more slowly to take it all in. We find lines studded with bizarre, appalling and esoteric facts—gems, really, facets honed by imagistic and aural juxtaposition, and individually packed with the precision of a honeycomb. Like children charmed by nursery rhymes, we have learned something we did not know. Yet, the real pay off is how, by poem’s end, the poem earns its title, and in the process imparts it’s wisdom; universal human nit-wit-ery.
The Madness of Crowds
Long thought wrongly to be Turkish for turban
but as it was fashionable in the Ottoman Empire
to put tulips on turbans perhaps the translator
was confused having gone astray in alleys of Ordu
or Constantinople, where the flower had long been
popular. Ladies in the garden at Augsburg thieving
pollen, augment! Barges bright on the Zuyder Zee
komen fill your holds with these immortal tubers:
each species well-recorded in these colored plates.
Pompeius de Angelis! Lipsius of Ledyan! You
middle classes of Amsterdam and Hoorn: a silver
drinking cup, two grey horses & three tons of butter
for one rare bulb of Semper Augustus, the very same
a Harlaam sailor was deposed for plucking
thinking it an onion, some relish for his herring.
The record quotes one Margaret Arnold. Your Honor:
Myself I saw the children swallow bees, then vomit
crook’d pins two-penny nails, splinters & a vile froth
On her pillow we found cakes of feathers large
as crown pieces, placed in a curious order.
(Making radii, your Honor—)
a star-shaped onion, some bewitched pigs, a mouse
that thrown into the fire shrieked like any whelp
(the maid-servant—was she deposed?)
Their wives having transformed themselves into cats were burned forthwith.
They kept a careful record of the names.
Cherry Ripe! Cherry Ripe! Ripe I cry,
Full and fair ones
Come and buy
London Hospital 187—
My Dearest Zee,
I keep a record of their faddish songs:
The aforementioned Cherry Ripe was a plague
lasting near nine-month. Young men & old,
wives & widows, maid servants, were all alike musical
fishermen, loose women, all the idle in town—
My dear, the popular humors of this great city
are a constant source of amusement to me
whose sympathies are amenable enough
to embrace this madness though I be refined.
The ice bathes having failed, they try a sugar cure
In Paris is kept with great care a thorn
nail-clippings mulberry Christ’s tears bottled
& on the street they’ll sell you hanks of hair
toe bones encased in their own small coffins.
Come and buy!
(happy is the sinner)
Astray in Naples shreds of garment from the luckless
Masaniello, a fisherman raised high by mob favor
then shot like a mad dog, spat on & quartered
by & by he was unburied & arrayed in royal robes
his poor torso, at least, and the village women
later tore his wooden door off its hinges
( Z, the fisherman—was he?)
from Amy Beeder. Editor-at-Large, on Tom Sleigh’s “From the Ass’s Mouth: A Theory of the Leisure Class” Issue 17, November 2012
How could I not love this poem about a boy who falls under the spell of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “performed/clumsily by me reading out Bottom’s speech,” and is forever changed? It might be partly because I was similarly captivated after seeing MND when I was about ten, but it’s mostly how deftly the poet speaks about huge subjects like the fluidity of identity and the transformative power of language through such precise and compelling images: “the “years and years” that go by while the boy pedals home with “my ass’s head, my human head,” the way he stands before the bathroom mirror in the donkey’s painted papier-mache mask, “Shakespeare’s words booming/back from the head’s suffocating hollow.” It knocks me out.
Up on stage in the three-quarters empty auditorium,
the lights turned down, up where the auditorium resounded
to Midsummer Night’s Dream performed
clumsily by me reading out Bottom’s speech when he turns
from an ass back into a human while the rest of the class
sniggered or flirted, sat back and chewed gum,
the words in the auditorium lived out their hour—
and after rehearsal, when I got on my bike, red bike, fat tires,
to pedal home under cottonwood trees, I turned round corners
I’d never seen in our tiny mountain town,
years and years went by, I was still pedaling—
it wasn’t a dream except maybe in the way logic works in dreams—
I had two heads now, my ass’s head, my human head,
my ass’s bray more eloquent than my human bray
of wonder at my change: The eye of man hath not heard,
the ear of man hath not seen…my stumbling
tongue piecing through Shakespeare’s
bitter oratory about no bottom to Bottom’s dream…
I put my bike in the carport and started throwing
a tennis ball against the brick wall, thinking
over and over, no bottom no bottom—
the harder I threw, the more the words
weren’t mine, the ball smashing brick
while there in the auditorium the words
were like a taunt, like Theseus’s
taunts spoken behind my back because I was just
an ass not Duke of Athens: but after the play, the cast
gave me the papier-mache
ass’s head and I kept it first in the room I shared
with my two brothers, putting it on to sniff
the dried glue, feel the claustrophic fit, and stumble
half-blind to the bathroom mirror where I looked
out at myself through holes in the muzzle,
the ass’s painted on eyes and lips what people saw
when they saw me, Shakespeare’s words booming
back from the head’s suffocating hollows
coming straight from the ass’s mouth, not mine.
I don’t remember how, but it ended in an alcove
above the carport where it softened
on the chicken wire, the paper sagged
and began to flake away, the muzzle and the eye-holes
shrivelling into a gray, ulcerous mass—
when we moved from that town it got thrown
into the trash, taken to the dump and burned:
onion eaters, garlic eaters, hard-handed men,
that’s what Bottom and the mechanicals were—
and that’s what I was, what I’ve always been,
riding along on my bike’s fat tires
while that half god half man Theseus
laughs his courteous contempt of us whose
words come out like a tangled chain—which is
why there’s no bottom, why there’s never been
a bottom if you’re just an ass who speaks prose
to the Duke’s verse—an ass who kissed the Queen
of the Shadows and never got over it, my long,
scratchy ears and hairy muzzle pressed
to the ethereal, immortal, almost-not-thereness of her skin.
from Mihaela Moscaliuc, Translations Editor, on “Via Appia” by Justyna Bargielska, translated from Polish by Benjamin Paloff Plume: Issue #77 December 2017
Although I do not read Polish, as soon as I step on “Via Appia” (whose title probably references the Roman road built 312-264 BC), I experience the intimacy of my guides’ synchronized work: Justyna Bargielska opens me to landscapes whose exterior interiorities feel surreally familiar but also bewildering, suffused with loss, numbness, longing. Her voice is unlike any I have heard in a long time. Benjamin Paloff honors the laconic wit, the jarring precision, the scapes ’ cinematic shards. Wherever they are journeying together, I am going.
He was taken with me, so I took him.
And so much for the green screen on whose background
I was unfaithful to you. Because, you see,
your wife came into the compartment,
and she told me it’s no problem, she prefers to ride backwards,
and she told me thanks for watching my seat,
and then she told how you died. And the meadows, the rivers,
and me on those meadows, those rivers, a dog that thought
it would cry, begged to finally apply those words
and had to swallow those words
before it learned them.
from Amanda Newell, Associate Editor for Social Media on Stephen Dunn’s “Another Argument with Jim About the Soul”, Plume #2, August 2011
Who is Jim? I know better than to ask such questions—it shouldn’t matter—still, I can’t help wondering if Jim is real. Is he another poet? Imagined? An alter ego? I could ask. But what difference, really, would knowing make? This, I realize, is the rub: we’re barely into the poem, yet we’re immediately thrust into the position of not knowing, which is the very metaphysical condition that the speaker and Jim are contemplating. I love this about Dunn’s poem—the way it enacts the tension between knowing and not knowing, how it both seeks and resists answers.
The tidy, closed stanzas are suggestive of certainty—despite the fact that this is yet “another” argument—and hint at the possibility of knowing something of the essence of the soul, who “loves/a good rampage now and then”, or who may be “more like a night janitor/nodding off on the job, unaware he’s/waiting to be made alert by dawn.” Dunn’s line breaks, though, work against this sense of certainty. Most of the line endings coincide with a natural break in syntax, or they’re end-stopped. But the very first line break of the poem occurs after “if”, which means we place more stress on that word, so it mimics the flow of conversation—Jim is about to make an important point as if to prove his rightness—even as it embodies uncertainty, forcing us to dwell in—well, iffiness.
At the end, when the speaker admits, “I know I’m wrong/”, that slight pause at line’s end indicates that he might just be willing to concede the argument to Jim, but only so far: he realizes he is “wrong/to mock anyone’s sense of the unknown”—which is precisely what he proceeds to do when he purposely misquotes, of all people, Nietzsche, making the soul “a white ball/of slop” that turns into a “[f]ucking blazing ball/of fire!” In other words: we can’t quite get a hold of it . . .
Another Argument with Jim About the Soul
You say I’d know it exists if
I were someone who had experienced
those inner brush fires that arise
without warning, and who loves
a good rampage now and then,
and even the weary solitude
that might follow it.
but I believe the soul exists, too.
Mine, though, is a ravenous thing
when it’s awake. But mostly it sleeps,
waiting to be nudged, pricked, startled.
Around this time we invoke a thinker –
you, Emerson — me, Novalis —
to bolster the weakness of our thinking.
You offer another example —
I’m not sure of what – of an old love
knocking on your door as if a miracle
had occurred, and say, “As St. John
of the Cross says, my dog called Ego
had gotten off its leash.”
Then you swear a rope ladder
suddenly dropped from the clouds,
and an angel descended
proclaiming the end of celestial lies.
I stop you there, and say
that saddens me because celestial lies
are my favorite lies, but what does that
have to do with soul? Rather than being
miraculous or grand, my soul
is more like a night janitor
nodding off on the job, unaware he’s
waiting to be made alert by dawn.
When I cite Wittgenstein, and a passage
from Bertrand Russell to prove my point,
I think you cannot help but assent.
You’re a pain in the ass,
you say instead, I’m talking fire here,
I’m talking rampage and old loves,
and you’re talking about this little dead,
sleepy thing wearing overalls.
I know I’m wrong
to mock anyone’s sense of the unknown,
but I say, Look, the soul is a white ball
of slop, and attribute it to Nietzsche.
Blazing ball of fire! Fucking blazing ball
of fire! you scream, as if you know
the quote and are correcting me.