John Hoppenthaler on “Nocturne”:
Bruce Bond and Dan Beachy-Quick on “Therapon III, 5:
This pair of poems is from a larger sequence entitled Therapon, where Dan Beachy-Quick and I engage in a dialogue of near-sonnets, 13-lined investigations, both personal and cultural, that explore the unfinished, haunted, and unrepresentable nature of selfhood as best suggested and enlarged in gestures of exchange. Inspired by the work of Emmanuel Levinas, this book interrogates not only our ethical relation to others as beyond the pretense of our grasp, but also the notion that otherness inhabits each of us, however individuated and misunderstood, and makes our language possible, unstable, and inexhaustibly resourceful. In this way, Therapon finds in dialogue not only its medium but its fascination, a sense of setting forth in friendship, and in friendship the mercies of the strange.
Lee Upton on “The Cormorant”:
The cormorant, a long-necked water bird, was used in a traditional fishing method once common in many parts of the world, although purportedly now practiced only in southern China, and usually for tourists. A snare is placed around the cormorant’s neck. Diving, the bird catches large fish, but because of the string tightened around its neck, the cormorant is able to swallow only the smallest fish. When the snare is loosened by a human the cormorant chokes up the large fish. How could I avoid writing about the cormorant once I learned these facts? This manner of fishing suggests elements of our shared life, particularly instances of exploitation and oppression—where one’s labor is appropriated and not fully rewarded. That the snare is placed around the cormorant’s throat is suggestive, too, of threats to speech, as words may be choked off to serve the interests of the more powerful.
Carol Frost on “ORCA” and “PISMIRE”:
“Pismire” started as a simple observation of a writhing (rising) worm on my sidewalk being bitten, no, eaten alive by fire ants. The worm seemed to be growing, the ants all over it forming a bigger and bigger body. Some ants died, ingested by the worm, but more and more arrived for the meal. How not to think of all things related to predation, ant mounds, worms, the fire bombing of Dresden, etc.? The pleasure in writing a poem is in the common leaps of memory and language that arise from sensory material. Emotions collide – wonder and hate. Have you been bitten by fire ants? Pismire comes from the smell of ant mounds; I remember the smell of formaldehyde when dissecting an earthworm. Who loves a worm? Summers heat up. The equator grows.
Killer Whale would have been too obvious, but I’m starting in the middle of my thinking about “Orca.” Initially marine biologists trying to sort out why the orcas in the Gibralter Strait were breaking rudders and keels on sailboats caught my interest. I loved the names the scientists had given the pod members that were doing the damage, names derived from a French taxonomy done in the 1700’s. Then I imagined the mammals’ coloring, shape, and the tall dorsal fin. I knew they rarely hurt humans and they relish the livers of whales and great whites. I consulted Pliny the Elder, which gave me the Balaena whale and an end rhyme with Tarji and Tamari, and sea.
I held off from meaning in the poem; I always do until the end when I have to take responsibility for what language sounds and imagination’s play have given me and what I had to leave out to make the poem.
I kept coming back to the dorsal fin and deep fear but also the inscrutable brain. Is our unkind jesting theirs, too? As orcas throw seals into the air, do we toy with worlds?
Anytime I thought I needed to change course in the poem to see if what remains unanswerable could come together in the lines, I leaned on end rhyme.
Recasting Rilke: Steven Cramer on “Last Judgment” and “Blue Hydrangea”
The book project containing these two departures from Rilke’s New Poems—inescapably titled Departures from Rilke—began with a bit of hauteur and ended in reverence. Rereading Rilke’s first great poetry—via my own word-by-word decrypts, the English translations I knew best, and Microsoft Translator’s word salads—I heard the intricate syntax and prosody of Rilke’s German flatten into metered prose, clunky with adjectives and adverbs. I admit that this thought flirted through my mind: I can do better than these. I didn’t; instead, I skirted the vexed debate about what makes a good translation by playing editor to Rilke and his translators, wringing a line’s-worth of wordiness out of each stanza and, whenever possible, turning modifiers into nouns, verbs, and images. The 56 departures that resulted took progressively greater opportunities to be unfaithful to the prompting texts, but I hope not faithless to Rilke’s compelling and chastening presence. “Last Judgment” and “Blue Hydrangea,” read in tandem, represent two poles of Rilke’s lyric imagination in New Poems—one a grand guignol retelling of Christian apocalypse; the other a two-toned color palette refracted into a spectrum of memory associations. I’m gratified that Danny Lawless paired these two.
Troy Jollimore on “Alert”:
Why doesn’t my phone send me pictures of Keats? Why does it seem to assume that I care immensely about free meal offers from Uber Eats? Or about ongoing trends in my screen use time? Surely what matters more is what is on the screen when I am looking at it. Surely what matters is not that I have Google Maps open, but where I am trying to get to, and what will happen when I get there. My phone, somehow, seems to miss all of the important stuff. Despite the best efforts of its designers, I don’t think that it really understands me.
I think very often of Thoreau’s observation: “’We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” That was over a hundred and fifty years ago, but he got it. He saw what was coming. So did Keats; just reread (or reread, I hope) “When I Have Fears.” That poem is still as current as it was when Keats wrote it, and more current, undoubtedly, than whatever might have happened to pop up on your Twitter feed this morning.
Bruce Beasley on “Undertaking”:
It’s a peculiar rite of passage to surpass the age at which your father died, becoming oddly older than he ever got to be. And it’s a stranger rite to realize with a shock 15 years later that your father is held in an equipoise suddenly, dead exactly as long as he was alive. A dream taught me that: my father insisting I throw him another funeral, exactly 48 years after he died at age 48, as if he were dying into a new realm of death and wanted me to undertake that going-across with him. I’m not especially a believer in psychics, but once visited one who uncannily knew things she could not have known. She told me my parents, who died five years apart when I was 15 and 20, would speak to me in my dreams, so I started intently listening. It’s been certainly strange since then to feel closer to my father in my dreams than I ever was to him alive. This poem is a downpayment on the debt of closeness I have owed him all these years.
Beatriu Delaveda on “A new Odyssey Concordance”:
This poem came to me more easily than many others and, like a lot of my work, began with just the first two lines. From there, I found it kind of wrote itself as I went through an old copy of the Odyssey and revisited various incidents in it. It’s always been an inexhaustible resource.
Sandy Solomon on her four poems:
On Heaney in an Irish Pub, Washington, DC
I used to live in Washington, DC where, just out of university, I worked as an advocate for cities and their poor and minority residents. During those years, I spent a lot of time considering the difference between art and politics—both, arguably, necessary enterprises (though I sometimes felt as though the contest was between Eros and Thanatos). After a Heaney reading, I was part of a group who took him out for a drink. That evening, after I’d watched him talk to the band members, I could hear how Heaney’s generous spirit and, through the band’s appreciation, his work could resound through a room in which he was almost completely unrecognized—the strong underlying, transformative power of art.
I’ve written a series of poems with titles that are both nouns and verbs. I like the way the fact and the action shimmer around each other. As to the subject of this poem: my mother used to send me to school with sandwiches on brown bread—sandwiches with fillings over which she took extra time, fillings that were decisively not the run-of-the-mill bologna or peanut butter on white. I didn’t throw my lunches away, but I wanted to do so. This story about another person in another time therefore struck me when I heard it. That desire to fit in, to be average not odd, is, I suspect, common to many until we become more comfortable with ourselves, with who we are, where we come from. But all I knew when I sat down to write was that I understood that young boy.
In the Bishop’s Garden: Hide and Seek
When I lived in Washington, I would spend many of my non-workdays reading on a bench in the Bishop’s Garden at the National Cathedral, a compact, formal English garden planted with herbs and roses, boxwood, and, at that time, a couple of big shade trees. I also spent a portion of those days looking up from my book at the people who passed through the garden. I don’t usually know when I’m starting a poem what it’s about until, through the writing, I discover why my subject interests me so. The poem, by watching on the page the father comfort his son, reminded me about how the cure to what ails me is usually outside me, in the world.
Lost in China
Robert Pinsky has said that each poem should have a single infinitive at its center: “to feel lost” here applies to not knowing what to do, to lacking direction—how I feel in the moment of writing may in a hidden way attach itself to the substance of the poem before me and add to the strength of a given poem’s emotion (not to mention, determine the story I am choosing to tell) . The movement and rootedness of the people around me in the poem—images I most remembered—provided a stark contrast with this sense of confusion.