Nin Andrews on ‘Soul Mate’:
Years ago, I heard a speech by the late Tibetan lama, Gehlek Rimpoche (Allen Ginsberg’s teacher), in which he made fun of the American interest and love of the concept of reincarnation. He wasn’t sure he believed in reincarnation himself, but he said that if it happens, he was pretty sure that it’s nothing like what we expect or hope. He surmised that only what is unappealing about a person returns. Only what is not yet cleansed of troubles. And so I began to entertain the possibility that the soul itself might be the source of my unhappiness—that I was born with a dirty soul. Thus, year after year, decade after decade, even life after life, I have not been able to wash it properly. I wrote this poem with that thought in mind.
Stewart Moss on ‘Holiday Candle’:
Back when many of us were still taking pen in hand to write thank you notes, this poem emerged from a few simple lines I wrote to a colleague who had kindly given me a candle as a holiday gift and knew I wrote poetry. Since my handwriting is atrocious, I first scribbled a draft and then transcribed it as legibly as I could onto a greeting card.
After I’d sent her the card, I went back to my draft and reflected on the meaning of candles in general … how, in addition to their practical functions of illumination and decoration, they are symbols of devotion, enlightenment, and remembrance. So I decided to add to the few verses I’d already written and let the candle light my way as the poem moved forward. In the process of writing, I found myself – almost like Aeneas entering the underworld to find his father, Anchises – searching for my own father, whom I’d greatly loved but who dwelt only in memory, some photos, and in a drawer of artifacts he’d left behind with me before he died.
Thus, unexpectedly, the poem became not only an elegy to my father, but a meditation on the impermanence of my own life, and also a remarkable journey that composing a poem can be if we simply allow it to guide us.
Richard Kenney on ‘Madonna in Blue’:
The University of Washington has a branch campus in Rome, and I’ve taught there many times over the last two decades. Augustus may have banished Ovid to the Black Sea, but he couldn’t banish the poet’s influence. That remains everywhere in evidence, in all the arts, by way of the myths that inform them. Many of those involve a human-divine encounter; many of those are violent. The lexical item “rape” has over the last half-century taken on considerable toxicity in the word-magic department; its older sense was less incendiary, something more like “abduction,” conserving the raptorial etymon. But the gods were raptors, and the violence shrieks, and the #MeToo era doesn’t take it kindly. My own feeling is that, insofar as it’s the business of art to help us come to grips with dangerous psychic realities, one should suppress the urge to shoot the messenger. But emotions are tidal in this vicinity, and only the greatest art can clarify them. Yeats did. These things were in my mind, in Rome, standing in front of a particularly striking Annunciation.
Rebecca Lehmann on ‘The Afterlife’:
I wrote “The Afterlife” in the notes app on my phone while I was watching the series finale of Hell on Wheels, a fictionalized account of the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Some of the imagery at the beginning of the poem comes from that sort of Old West tableau. I write a lot of poems on my phone now that I have kids, because I’m always juggling three or four things at once. I was also thinking about my grandfather’s home in Wisconsin. He was widowed young and spent the last 25 or so years of his life living in relative seclusion in a small cabin he built himself on a little farmette. Where I grew up, there always seemed to be lots of remnant electric fences, put up around family farms that were maybe still operational, and maybe not. Lots of farms were folding. I was taught to be very careful of electric fences because you could never tell if they were still on, even if the farm looked abandoned. That’s where the image at the end of the poem comes from, and it certainly pays a bit of homage to Frost’s “Mending Wall,” and the boundary that’s outlived its purpose, yet still must be maintained. I guess the whole poem is about boundaries, like the boundary between life and death, and questions what happens when you cross a boundary, or want to. The poem is the last poem in my second book, Ringer, which is out from University of Pittsburgh Press in September 2019.
Jack Ledbetter on ‘Turd’:
As a boy growing up on a Southern Illinois farm with an outhouse, I was early aware that poop was a big part of my world, and when Sears and Roebuck catalogs were gone in the fall, then it was corncobs. Don’t ask, don’t even think about it. But you may imagine my joy when my grandmother died and we found many years of the Greenville Advocate stuffed in her closet: we splurged. The family took seconds. Rev. Nobs of the King of Glory Heart of Oak Baptist Church preached his last sermon while sitting on the throne. Don’t ask about that either.
So it’s part of every living thing, excepting, maybe, a small white flower bending on the hill, tipping out last night’s rain, and with it a Gibbous moon. Maybe not that.
Kristina Bicher on the translation of ‘Eight Poems’ by Marie Lundquist:
A Swedish king once yearned to emulate the great palaces of Europe but, alas, found his riches were counted in birch trees. So he commanded that the rust flake remainders from a copper mine be employed to paint his kingdom red. A little linseed oil, a handful of rye flour, and from a distance, the lowly wood might pass for brick.
Soon, everyone clamored for the look: nobles, then merchants, clerics, then farmers. At the height of the 19th century, artist Carl Larsson’s own classic deep red home with white trim became the ideal. Its hold on the Swedish national imagination was secured.
The paint – Falu red or Falu rödfärg – is named for the copper mining town of Falun, capital of the province of Dalarna which is the folkloric soul of Sweden and home of the popular painted Swedish wooden horses. According to the website of a Welsh building supply company, “Falu Rödfärg is not just a house paint, it is Swedish cultural history in a tin.”
So where am I headed? In one of the Marie Lundquist poems that I’ve translated in this issue of Plume, the speaker has any number of excuses why he can’t commit to a woman: just need to be a hermit for a bit… just have to call my wife… gotta go now and rödfärga the house. Rödfärg: the postcard, the dream, the whole herring. And yet entirely missing from my translation.
I suppose one literal option might have been: got to go, must apply historic red pigment to the wood planks of my home. Or would this be equivalent? Got to go put up some vinyl siding? In the end, the poem’s protagonist just says he has to “paint the house,” sans all that cultural context.
Was this a cop-out? Or does it make some sense since to a Swede, rödfärg is so ubiquitous as to be unremarkable? But there’s more. In Finland, they say, “punainen tupa ja perunamaa,” meaning a red house and a potato field are all one needs for domestic bliss. So there’s the deeper irony of the reference in a decidedly anti-domestic poem. Another irony is that the red pigment is so durable, its color can hold fast nearly a century, unlike this flighty guy.
Ultimately, this being a poem, I yielded to its music. Perhaps, too, I wanted it as my little translator’s secret, a word that sits and softens in my mouth like an August pear… wait, that’s another Lundquist poem here…
Nance Van Winkel on “Little Goldie”:
Apparently Nova Wenkl was my name in 1881. She’s been busy again in 20??, composing Little Goldie in America, an untold true and exact story in verse. Goldie, hired to work as a nanny, has arrived in America, but hasn’t found it the land of her dreams. Her dead sister haunts her. So does a left-behind beloved. She suffers from a mysterious illness and is forced into treatment under an odd doctor. Meanwhile all the wealthy, happy Americans dance gaily around her. Ms. Wenkl thanks you for reading.
Patricia Clark on ‘Les Rochers de Belle-Ile [after the painting by Claude Monet]’:
As a poet, I ask myself often, “Where do you rest your eyes?” I mean, partly, literally, but also the mind’s eye. What is bugging me, hurting me, giving me joy, causing me concern? Some days are seamless, easy to track—you hear a word, a tune, and start writing. Other days are marked by more struggle. I keep things around me—I try some regular paths. Art sings out to me, pulling me in—and the landscape where I am disappears and I’m fully transported to a place. Though I live in the Midwest, I’m a person of saltwater, rocky beaches, seaweed and kelp. I gazed at this Monet postcard and gradually felt myself tugged toward the place—an unbeautiful Monet, I think, in its harshness. Maybe I was thinking a bit of “The Open Boat,” the story by Stephen Crane, of nature’s magnificent indifference to us. It’s a story where some men alone in a small boat confront the sea. The collision of sea and rock made me think of the obsessive mind and its tired repetitive loops—and then it wasn’t a seascape or landscape any more but the mind, tormented, made visible.
David Rivard on “Spit”:
“Spit” might well have been written in the hard shadow of this comment on Rimbaud by Stephen Berg: “Bourgeois to the core, aware of the narcissistic mask of a lie intrinsic to middle-class sympathy-without-participation for the poor and disinherited, he was a deluded perfectionist—i.e., either a person lives his or her values and beliefs or he must rebel against himself and society as impossibly sick, dissonant identities.” These days it mostly feels as if America is a sort of bardo, though it’s one we nailed tight ourselves. It’ll take some kind of second-sight to get us out of it. Memorial Day weekend, & even the lilacs smell a little sour in the vase this year.
Scott Withiam on “Occupation”:
Occupation. There’s a scary word. Not in terms of work . . . well, no, there’s the fear of useless, mind-numbing jobs as well. Scariest, though, if considering the occupation of a whole country—from within (hello) or from outside— or of someone’s mind (hello?) by an outside source. And then, the occupation of obsessing about these, going on and on. How should I be occupied, if I can help it?
In terms of where I am now, in terms of occupation as a job, part of this poem has its roots in a job I once held as an assistant property manager. In the building I managed lived an elderly woman in a wheel chair. She visited me early mornings in my office (after a Russian immigrant banged on my window and mumbled, “Bureaucrat”) to use the management company’s copy machine. Each week she produced stacks of reading material for a youth literacy program she ran called The Star Program. I admired her spunk, her resolve. She had a simple motto: “There will always be more work to do.” To her, the battle never ended, and if I thought it did, I was sleeping. She believed reading was key to knowledge and freedom. She believed in working for oppressed (haven’t heard that word in a while) people who didn’t have the same opportunities. She believed they might have a better chance of participating, contributing, mattering, improving civilization(?) if they could read, think, weigh. To weigh— as the speaker does in the poem— she believed in voices able to speak, and for herself, believed making that happen was work that mattered! Mattered.
The Star Program. In terms of peepers in the poem, I used to live near a cranberry bog. On starry nights in spring, I could walk down to the bog, look up at the stars and commonly think there were almost as many peepers as stars, that peepers were the stars’ voices. I could be swallowed up in their deafening plea. And then, if I took a step and made a noise underfoot, the whole bog went silent, as if it was my turn to speak, to say something important. Again. And again. Always.
In terms of the fish coming out of the water and swallowing the frog on shore, that too, really happened. On a different night. A party on a lake. I’d walked away from a what I do/where I’m going group that I felt very uncomfortable participating in. I didn’t like the direction the conversation had taken. I felt swallowed. I’d walked down to the shore to get away from the party, but didn’t.
Julia Shipley on “Barn Red”: