Merridawn Duckler on “Gonzalez-Torres at the Solstice” and “Why they Revere the Alcoholic Neighbor”:
I once thought I’d be an art historian and now I’m the sole writer-member of a cooperative art gallery so the ekphratic.is my autonomic impulse. A foundational text for me in that genre is Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts with his grand truism that opens the poem and then proceeds to propel the reader into what I consider true artists territory—seeing all that our eyes miss. Not the foregone conclusion we can do nothing about but the world of background where we live and breathe, plain lives in which we’re just trying to get the job done, ploughing fields behind the tired butt of that horse. This juxtaposition of grand, mythic tragedy and the quotidian is the real “mirror to nature” (which recall Hamlet says while he’s giving advice to a bunch of itinerary, bit players) for this dissonance is what makes our world our world. Renaissance artists would often paint new work over an old canvas and my pentimento lays Auden’s poem under the work of a modern master, Felix Gonzalez-Torres who mined unglamorous everyday items like candies, bedsheets, the billboards we whiz pass to create a profound and moving metaphor for the AID’s epidemic, which claimed his own life. Minutia, the routine, dailiness is my stardust. Icarus’s fall is to Auden as (billboard of an empty bed) is to Gonzalez-Torres at the Solstice.
I wanted the form to comment on this notion of the grand vs the commonplace and how there is no vs so I used the rhyme scheme of a formal sonnet but messed up the metrical construction to make space for bulldozers and Big Gulps. The solstice is an event that at one time probably inspired extraordinary ceremonial awe—the start of the end of the light. Today it’s scarcely noted, we’re electric now, we can just bag that light for later. The truth is that we can’t survive without both, the grandeur of the tightening caldera and the glint of the utilitarian car grill. These are the oars by which we row through the day.
If I hadn’t tried to articulate this for Plume, I would probably not have noticed that the second poem also connects to this theme. Differently, through another lens. As a playwright (and such a lurker) I find ordinary every day conversation to be filled with more authentic drama than practically any declamation in some grand theatrical experience. Here two speakers pass the time waiting for something, maybe waiting for the barista to fill a drink order, just in a line of cars, and a nondescript beat-up truck sparks a memory. So they end up having a casual conversation about near-death experience. We know very well that at every moment our self, our child, is skating the edge of the pond. Here’s an instance where the title is a crucial element of all that comes after. Our innocence is shattered, it must be, and we don’t even know it and we move right along.
V. Penelope Pelizzon on “A Gazehound That Hunteth By the Eye”:
- Bad leadership is a curse on the people, as WS knew.
- What is my inheritance? is among the most difficult questions.
- What have I inherited from those who would hate me? is another. (You may have your scorn but I will have my joy.)
- Also crucial: What will I plant and who will I feed?
- The plain style is still a style, i.e. a product of artifice (though if you haven’t thought about it much it may be someone else’s artifice you’re inheriting). I love a good plain style. But only when I began playing with the theatricality, the extreme tactility and mouthfeel of syllabics, was I able to embody some of the private/national/international dramas of 2020.
- I see from my notes that this poem started on April 16, 2020, with a few images related to Covid and the then-administration: “Might as well watch witches prick pins in sleeping men’s testicles. Might as well look on as hags blow murrain into another sheep’s lungs” and then something scratchy about H’s Chronicles and how being childless during lockdown meant watching friends’ homeschooling nightmares on Instagram. It went through about 60 substantial drafts over the next eleven months with pauses to work on some other things and, as is often the case with my poems, became very long before a lot of it was cut away. My genius friend Averill Curdy read a draft sometime in the fall and made suggestions that resulted in my restarting with what was once a middle stanza. I see that it reached its final form on March 10, 2021. This, for me, was a fast poem.
Chard deNiord on “Bronchoscopy” and “The Widow At Point Reyes”:
I observed many of my father’s chest surgeries and procedures as a young adolescent, finding them to be intensely dramatic and sobering events, but difficult to write about until only recently, when I realized they were about more than just medicine; they were also about the imagined lives of the patients who lay unconscious on the operating table, one of whom was an elderly engineer for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad who suffered from terminal lung cancer. How to capture this man in health as the driver of a Brobdingnagian locomotive outside the clinical setting of the C&O hospital? How to celebrate him in his seat high above the tracks along the James River, while at the same time recounting what happened to me while observing his bronchoscopy: getting an eyeful of sputum when he coughed at my father’s behest. I realized while writing the poem that life telescopes outside of time in memory. That the bronchoscope was also my telescope for regarding him as the larger than life figure I imagined him to be in good health as an engineer, like those other engineers I waved to when I sat by the tracks of the C&O as a boy below my house and watched the endless trains pass by.
“The Widow At Point Reyes”
I wrote “The Widow At Point Reyes” after visiting Abbotts Lagoon at Point Reyes in California a few years ago. This poem went through several dozen revisions, starting out as a leaping stream of consciousness poem before I realized that somewhere inside the sprezzatura-like beach imagery and philosophical rambling that filled my early drafts an elegiac muse was calling out to me to make a little continuous sense about the transience of life; to let the setting of the dramatic Pacific beach speak for itself with a grieving human figure at its center. The result turned out to be this semiformal poem that insisted on a metrical cadence that complemented the crashes of the giant waves that pounded the shoreline. I regretted abandoning the poem’s original spontaneous and disjointed free verse, but kept its early drafts in the hope that I would turn them into another poem someday, which I have yet to do.
Leslie Harrison on :”Voyager parable” and “Parable of the Little Ghost”:
I grew up in coastal New Hampshire; on hot summer days, my mother would take us to York to the beach, and we’d end our day with a sunset visit to the Nubble Light—a lighthouse also referred to as the Cape Neddick light. It is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the world, which I didn’t know for a long time, as it was just part of my childhood in the sand, granite and cold salt water of a Maine beach. But I discovered recently that a photograph of it is included on the so-called Golden Record that was sent into space aboard the Voyager spacecraft. And it seemed such a strange thing that a part of these memories of family, of joy, of sunscreen and heat and the icy waters of the Gulf of Maine—such an individual, ordinary, extraordinary thing— was carried into space and will be out there for a very, very long time. We build enduring objects, often of startling beauty—buildings, art, poems, ships—and we send them into the future, without us, and always without knowing where and how that thing, or the image of it, will persist, resonate, and mean.
Another gift from my mother: she loved Donne’s famous meditation. And so I know that the Nubble Light sails through space with the Taj Mahal and China’s Great Wall. And that connects me, via a radical curation—of all of our endeavors, of all Earths’ natural beauty, they chose to include this place—to all of humankind. A gift, that.
1. Every poem I’ve ever written could be titled something like “Self portrait as a constellation of obsessions.”
2. Once upon a time, a poet I admired greatly (and still do), said of my work that I have a fine way of bursting out into the obvious. This stung for a long time—it made me feel stupid because I’m not sure anything is/seems obvious to me.
3. I took a class as an undergrad with a legendary teacher. It was called Religion and the Literary Imagination. We read a lot of parables by Kafka and Borges, and plays by Pirandello and Pinter. Parables are one of my obsessions.
4. There’s a tonal reach in this poem, for something that exists somewhere between irony, excoriating bitterness, and humor. Excoriate: to remove the skin of something, from the Latin. To remove the skin is to make something naked and also dead, is to make a visibility and an invisibility—is to make a ghost.
5. Wallace Stevens: “let be be finale of seem,” as if being could be a finale of anything, and yet…
Margo Berdeshevsky on “OF SILK AND MISSIVE” and “BETWEEN TREE AND ROCKET”:
Someone out of my past writes to me. I don’t remember him. Someone dies. Someone else lives until they die. Given our present time on earth, and my own—we each seem to promise ourselves to live until we die. And maybe we do. An ugly war is fought yet again and damn it, again. The dead are caught in the spokes. The dead are left. As a poet, as a thinker, as an “artist” when I dare to use such a holy word,” I am often a collagist. I rip and tear and gather and paste. I amass elements like ragged strips of old colored cloth and new black and white papers. And bidden and forbidden event, and memory, and soul. And in the dark that insists on becoming another dawn-light, even when I am most afraid of it, I wind some of them together. I wait for the music of words. Glue them together. Remember them differently. And add the bitter juices of history as I am living in it. Almost remembering it. Or I kneel before them and ask for a poem. A thread. A river that runs through, to wash my words in, and I begin to whisper them. When I read them aloud, as I have done for the recordings and publication of these—I hear my voice, but it is altered by breath and craft and solitude reaching out. That is how these particular poems have happened. Yes, a man I once knew wrote to me out of the long ago dark. I began to recall and to invent and to wonder if he made me cry. Yes, yet another horrendous attack murdered humans with no more care than the exploded dust of the Middle East, and somewhere birds hid in vines, if there were vines. And in the same space of days—a neighbor was found cold as stone. I tried to understand how such puzzle shards become pictures that become poems. They do. Thus: a prose poem, and a cri du coeur: OF SILK AND MISSIVE and BETWEEN TREE AND ROCKET.
Jona Colson on translating Miguel Avero’s “The Piece”:
I kept coming back to the sound of this poem. I wanted to match as closely as possible the sounds of the original. Also, I like the idea of building in this poem—the interior and exterior, and sounds are a way to mirror that. There are some references in the poem that I wasn’t sure would translate well, but I think they have become evident, or they may require the reader to do a little work, specifically, with “the wedding of the foxes,” which is an allusion to a Japanese legend that says no human can witness the marriage of the foxes without losing their life.
Gabriella Tallmadge on “Poem Beginning with a Line from Levis”:
On a literal level, it upsets me to see dead animals on the roadway. I have a deeply visceral reaction to them. So this piece began, as many of my poems do, as an exercise in thinking critically about why something might be— a way to solve for x. While I was in the early drafting stages, I was having a hard time finding an entry point and emotional location for the piece so I turned to Larry Levis. Sometimes if I’m stuck, I’ll read a certain poet or a specific poem several times over as a way to absorb its cadence, tone, narrative handling, etc. I kept reading “Elegy for Whatever Had a Pattern in It” from the book Elegy and realized that I could use the third-the-last-line as my poem’s first and use it as a way to continue a conversation. I can’t keep up with Levis in any sense, but I felt so engaged by the poem’s essential questions that I wanted to ask some too. I still don’t know if there’s such a thing as a true representation of the self or if the only way to be released from the pattern of suffering is to dissolve the ego, but it’s fun to think about.
Dong Li on Translating Song Lin’s Qinghai and Tengchong:
Wherever Song Lin goes, there will be poems. He never brings his poetic ego with him, but takes “a bath in the hot springs” of the local. The simple readings of the political and the ecological don’t interest him. He enjoys being where he is and simply sees what is there and remembers what was there. Located on the Tibetan Plateau, Qinghai was shattered by an earthquake in 2010 with remnant “invisible fissures.” As the catastrophe flashed through his mind and woke him up from his slumber on the slow train to Hoh Xil, “Yellow River ripples in bilious light.” Still, it “flows into sunset” as “a prayer flag” crowned every hilltop in sight. Here’s not a tourist of poetic appropriation and exploitation but a pilgrim paying respect. As “tourists balloon up to inspect the wounds of the earth” after an earthquake in Tengchong in 2014, what first came to Song Lin’s mind was the Yi people in the region and how they use the volcanic ashes to “build villages” and “bury the dead.” “The memory of dead souls” are thus invoked, as “a thunderbolt bursts out singing / and jolts the sky.” As Song Lin gently weaves and welds a welter of images, a sense of these places comes feelingly and vigilantly. Here’s his invitation.
Sasha West on “Cassandra”:
This poem comes out of a series of Cassandra poems in a manuscript about climate change. The other poems explore what it feels like to be the repository of difficult knowledge, full of an imagination that seems to reach into the future but is actually tethered to—and limited by—the present. This poem was written as a counterpoint to those; the speaker tries to escape the bounds of that doom into a (still somewhat tarnished) future hope. She grabs at an imagined moment as a kind of comfort (here a distorted version of the last scene of Le Temps du Loup—her vision being still a received thing).
It was important to me that the poem’s form show the tenuousness of Cassandra’s hopeful vision. I was thinking about twinned spaces: first, the way that forms of repetition like the villanelle and pantoum lend themselves to the obsessive thinking that attends both difficult emotions—grief, anger, disbelief—and trying to talk oneself into hope while feeling hopeless. Fractured syntax heightens this: Even as the speaker thinks the thought, it slips away into nothingness. I was also thinking about the incantation of Stein’s “Portrait of Picasso,” where the repetition calls up an image of the painter through the cubist lens of language. Repetition can surround us, call up an illusion. Cassandra here is trying to cast a spell over herself, trying to believe there will be salvation in the single acts of kindness she can only half-imagine. I can’t decide if her comfort in the poem is restorative or toxic.
Didi Jackson on “Medieval Notation” and “Mercy”:
Both of my poems for this issue of Plume came to me through some sort of trauma. I wrote “Medieval Notation” early during the 2020 covid pandemic. Spring in Vermont still feels like winter to me, a woman who, prior to moving to South Burlington, lived forty years in Florida. So often I felt tricked by spring, the small bits of green emerging only to be covered over by several inches of snow a few days later. But what the snow did reveal was the life of the forest that I regularly wasn’t able to see. While out hiking in the Green Mountains National Forest, I soon found myself thoroughly focused on discovering and decoding the tracks of various animals, and it wasn’t long that I began to imagine the various forms of communications; the prints resembled like Medieval notation or square notation both of which are early forms of four-line musical notation. And though the forest is active year-round, it feels like the natural world becomes even more impatient in spring. My heart would break for the moths that came too early only to freeze to death outside our windows. And so, I considered how the rhythms of the world move with or without our consent. This includes most poignantly the rhythms of life and death.
I intended for “Mercy” to be a poem in which I declare my overwhelming love for the beauty of the world and in particular the fall season in the Green Mountains National Forest in Vermont. As I sat at one of our favorite spots after a hike and watched the forty or so blue jays tumble down the mountain at sunset, I thought of my late husband who took his own life ten years ago this year. It was then I questioned how could anyone give up on all this beauty? So, in the poem (where anything is possible) I invite his ghost back into my arms. Here, I can I comfort him. Here, I help him see and remember the beauty he chose to leave.