Christopher Buckley on “Post-Structuralism”
Well, my title is freighted with irony, of course . . . never a subscriber to Derida, deconstruction, and the theory-driven. Hence the glib line from the ‘50s TV game show, What’s My Line, with John Daly, celebrity crew—
Bennet Cerf, Arlene francis, and Dorothy Kilgallen—and the mystery guest signing in.
Linguistically, logically in literature, I have always been a structuralist. Yet . . . when it comes to metaphysics—the view to the EXIT—and the structures purported to be the case, the situation of the invisible, I have lost my faith in the constructs offered by orthodoxy and convention. My hope is that the poem presents the mind, subjective as it is, wrestling with these opposites.
Alice Friman on “Swan Song”
Imagine a scene. A lake surrounded by trees, the kind that lean over the water, a type of willow I think, but not weeping willows, those I know. The sun playing on the lake’s surface, a blinding glitter, and in and out of the light and shade caused by the leaning trees, swans, giant pillows of white. If you have ever been to the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, you’ll know what I mean. We go there often, my sweet young thing and I; we’ve been married a long time, but to me he’s still my sweet young thing. I used to go there with my first husband too, well perhaps a better description would be I used to drag him there—but perhaps I’m not being fair—more years ago than you can count. So here it is, a beautiful Thursday morning, and my sweet young thing and I are walking by the lake carrying our Shakespeare, looking for a bench, the perfect bench for our morning read, when I suddenly stop, realize I’ve stood here before in this exact spot. A Proustian moment perhaps. And it all comes back.
J.T. Barbarese on “No Sellfies for Mary”
An accident—I never watched the series, but happened on it near the end of its run. It was the episode when Meadow Soprano quotes this poem (in Ferlinghetti’s translation) to Tony. I remembered how long, literally decades, I had been trying to translate it. Still trying.
The first and last poet I know of to write about Mary, mother of Jesus, was Yeats:
“The Mother of God”
The three-fold terror of love: a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.
Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
And gather all the talk?
What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?
She is a tragic figure, not the sappy sentimentalized figure standing on the world and crushing a snake but a typical Irish washerwoman, probably uneducated, a mother suddenly aged by circumstance and terrified by the possibility that she might actually be the “Mother of God.” His poem is a provocation, not a celebration. It wants you to imagine what it might have been like to be a woman in her early 40s suddenly thrust into public attention when her son, a terrorist or crackpot (take your pick), is publically crucified. According to history, there were thousands crucified by Rome in ACE 33. You can hear asking herself, Do they have to give him all this attention? Why me? I’m supposed to be proud? To me, she is a still youthful American mother standing at her son’s gravesite and watching the absurd display of “mourning” unfold around her while she worries about the dry cleaning and her mounting bills. Remember, Joseph disappears from the narrative early, never reappears, so he’s no help. Better off a widow, she might think, than this.
Jules Gibbs on “The furniture breaks…” and “When the bear finally arrives…”
These two poems are part of a longer series called Rain Sonnets, all written during a stay at an artists’ colony — Willapa Bay — on the coast of Washington one March when it rained nonstop. I’d never been to the Pacific Northwest before, and wasn’t prepared for the psychological effects of ceaseless rain. I live in Syracuse, NY, and have learned to steel myself against inclement weather, but this was an entirely different sort of phenomenon, and possibly extreme for that region, as even the locals were complaining.
I was there with five other artists, and we all went a little mad with it – we actually referred to it as our “rain madness,” and it was a primary topic of conversation (and concern.) It’s hard to explain, but it felt a little like a Victorian malady, as it rendered the bodies excessively impressionable — we succumbed to a malaise, a soreness, a sickness, an ennui. The rain overpowered us with its incessant syntax, trapped us in its mindless dissertation. Or was it a broken music? (Then just kill me, we all agreed.)
Of course the place was also soaked in beauty, Methuselah’s Beard lichen dripping from every branch of every lush tree, the piercing cry of eagles circling, the roar of the flat gray wintry sea, the silent herds of elk migrating through the mist — but the rain reigned supreme— it was our captor, our dominatrix, our Reverend Mother — it messed with our bodies first, then our minds, then our souls. We got up at rain-o-clock and ate dinner at rain-thirty. We dreamed of rain spilling from our faces when we tried to speak. We developed an Oedipal complex of/for rain. We (actually) watched Singing in the Rain. Twice.
So I did what any dedicated sufferer would do, and leaned into the disease; I stopped trying to think my way out of it; I surrendered. (Isn’t that how all poems are written?) The result was a new sonnet almost every day, attendant to both the physicality and strange logics of that waterlogged land, and the way it inflected almost every aspect of our lives for a month. The complete sonnet series will appear as a section in my new book, Snakes & Babies, which will be published this spring.
Cynthia Schwartzberg Edlow on “I’ll Be Fine”:
I’ve begun four paragraphs on the subject, each one laboring to decrease its haughty epoxy (and glad unsticky thanks for that), and dashed the same four, and I’ve a good gut feeling telling me this poet’s remarks, regarding my own poem, won’t shed any further, fuller revelation than your actual reading and reflection of the poem itself.
But I did come up with a few freshwater pearls strung haphazardly on fishline—
Never overlook an opportunity to pet and fawn over animals with the soft deep well of kindness and light emanating from their eyes.
Skip all the reptiles with the dead blank surface eyes. Especially the Komodo dragons, the sharks, and every brand of snake they’ve got. Throw in the mosquito, and those insects that zigzag right at your face with no discernible motive.
The frequency and tendency of displays of utter non-displays for genuine heed and respect, and the unchecked peering in the mouth of immense good fortune, can only be immoderate on levels plain as day. View the day, monitor the levels, and the findings are self-evident.
Desserts. Don’t fall victim to the 22K-gold-leaf chocolate torte. Waste of gold. Oreos, on the other hand….
Elizabeth Metzger on “What We Do With What We Are”:
This poem, written on the cusp of conceiving my first child, explores the unconditional nature of mother love and the insatiable desire and wonder of the eternal child in each of us who continues to need and seek mothering in and from more than one source. How can such a singular role also be collective? In trying to figure this out, the idea of a mother became less pure and limited for me. There is something freeing, mystifying, and terrifying to me about the omnipotence of the mother role in such multiplicity, especially when it isn’t given but hunted down in strangers by a speaker charting her own new abilities to love and be loved. Do we become mothers by becoming mothers to ourselves, splitting ourselves up into the potential mothers we seek and seek to be?
Donald Revell on “Ubi Amor Ibi Oculus Est”:
This poem was prompted by the spiritual pressure of mirage. In the Mojave Desert, just after a storm, colors begin to change places with one another: black becomes white, earth becomes cloud, and pillars of airborne moisture assume the shapes of gypsy dancers moving off towards the horizon, enticing the eye towards horizon and beyond. Everything is, for some moments, precipice and a thrilling sense of isolation and of pause. The feeling one gets, however illusory, seems to me very much like the feeling God must have had, just before Creation….an essential vertigo, a love without an object, a sense of self prior to Being itself. It is a loneliness full to bursting.
Lisa Russ Spaar on “Magical Thinking Madrigal”:
This poem is part of a series of sonnet-haunted pieces I’m calling madrigals—a “madrigal” being a short, complex, often polyphonic song. I’ve been writing these 14-liners since my most recent collection, Orexia, appeared in 2017, and I have about 250 of them now – when they’re working, they allow me to muse on something rather large and metaphysical within a fairly compressed space, and I’ve loved the challenge of trying to do that. In this poem, the enormity is domestic violence, but the sonnet’s constraints are perfect for the tight space beneath a desk where the speaker and her dog crouch and hide (“the sullen fist striking wall // has sent her here, too”). The rhymes and off-rhymes emphasize the animal instinct to self-protect that speaker and dog share. “Magical thinking,” with its whiff of talisman, of superstition is, of course, a uniquely human phenomenon and moves beyond the animal instinct to believe that if I just sit crouch here quietly, I’ll be invisible to harms. “Husbandless” is a clue to the speaker’s magical thinking, which goes back to her childhood (“Tuck within. / Be unseen” when in proximity to chaos). But she acknowledges that love exists nonetheless, though it may abide elsewhere. The poem itself is the “signal flare” from her place of hiding.
Matthew Zapruder on “3:14 PM”:
This poem owes a debt to Nazim Hikmet’s “On Living,” in which he writes (in the translation by Blasing and Konuk), “you must live with great seriousness/ like a squirrel …” and in which he says of the earth that it “will grow cold one day” and “like an empty walnut it will roll along/ in pitch black space.” I was also thinking about the old days I miss so much of what Russians call “kitchen life,” the times we used to sit around a table and talk endlessly because, thankfully, there was nothing else to do. The end is a mystery to me.
Jan Freeman on “My Father Was a Honey Bee”:
I interviewed my mother about her childhood, adolescence, and married life during the year before her death. In this interview format, she spoke about events that she had never talked about with family and most of her friends. I learned that my perception of home was mostly false. My father and my mother were not the people I thought they were. Veils slowly lifted, and I began to understand the dangerous environments in which my mother lived, in which I grew up. As always, poems saved me as I integrated these new truths, often writing without knowing what I was writing about until the first draft of a poem was complete. And metaphor — in this case, the honey bee — and humor helped me to understand my own life as well as my mother’s. Writing sideways. “My Father Was a Honey Bee” is part of my new manuscript, Mobius, which spirals through grief, identity, and the fallacies and legacies of fallacies in family.
Timothy Donnelly on “The Human”:
I wrote “The Human” this past spring as a kind of bonus track for my book The Problem of the Many, which will be published by Wave Books very soon. As the manuscript progressed through the stages of production, I began to worry increasingly that its overall vibe might be too hopeless and even specifically down on humanity, so I tried to imagine how I might be able to sneak in one last affirming high note at the end. On an airplane in April as it took off I put myself into a kind of prayer-state in which asked myself what it was that I felt most thankful for in the human, not in particular humans but in the human in a general sense, and in answer I pictured a vaguely human form, inspired by Kubrick I think, shambling out of the darkness of its cave and into the sunlight, suddenly adapting its respiratory system in service to the earliest ever speech act. I also felt there would be others behind him collecting in response. It doesn’t seem very scientific to imagine it ever happened that way, one odd hominid deciding to make a sound that awakens others, but picturing it like that made me feel the invention of language was the most valorous and miraculous and innocntly beautiful human accomplishment ever. Only later did I remember I had written about a very similar moment in an essay I had written a few years before, so I think this scene must be playing in my reptilian brain over and over. Also I would be remiss not to note that the light of the late afternoon sun as it graces the buildings and bridges in Dumbo, Brooklyn is the fuel the poem runs on. I would never have guessed I could come to love the sun as much as I do the moon, but I do now.