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Happy Birthday, Structure and Style!

Today, we turn three! Three! We’re still toddlers, but we’re out of the terrible twos. We can walk and talk and run—and we’re potty-trained. (Did I just take that metaphor too far?) And we want to celebrate all of the things that we love: poets and poems and poetry lovers, line breaks and images and metaphors, and sound, sound, sound.

It’s been a hell of a year, both personally and professionally. S has been a featured poet in multiple readings, and I’ve gotten into a PhD program for English and Creative Writing. (I’m moving in less than two weeks!) But more importantly, Structure and Style has more readers than ever before, especially because we were featured on Tumblr Tuesday for National Poetry Month. (We still don’t know how to thank you, tumblr!) We also have more writers, because we’ve been featuring a guest star on the first Sunday of every month. We love the variety of voices we’re seeing and the things our poet friends are teaching us.

To celebrate our third birthday, we’ve got a few interviews with some of our favorite poets lined up for this week and next. Here’s a list of twenty of our favorite contemporary poets. Can you guess which ones we’ll be interviewing?

Check back this week and next to read our interviews!

Thank you for loving poetry, too.

-R (and S)

Your Eyes Are the Color of a Lightbulb Floating in the Potomac River

Just when it is time to say goodbye

I think I am finally understanding the lightbulb

but not milk or NAFTA or for that matter paper money

let’s not get into my stove top coffeemaker

I don’t even get how this book is fastened or why that orchid

seems happier or at least its petals a little whiter

when it is placed right up against the window

or how certain invisible particles

leave the wall and enter the cord and somehow make

the radio make the air become

Moonlight Sonata or Neighborhood #3

basically a lamp is a mechanism

to shove too many electrons into a coil

or filament a lightbulb i.e. a vacuum surrounds

the first filament was made in 1802 out of platinum

as soon as it was made to turn deep untouchable orange

the air took the electrons away

which left it charred like a tiny bonfire

just like ones we have all seen when we squint and hold

the glass bulb that no longer emits

soft white light when we flip the switch

I wonder if my fear this morning sitting in the dark

and listening to music is anything like

the inventor of the telephone growing deaf

and knowing all those poles and wires

were starting to cover the land and someday everyone

would be able to get exactly what they want

—Matthew Zapruder

I spend a lot of my time wondering how things work: relationships, unemployment, the economy, computers, poems. What makes a person decide to marry one person after dating everyone else? How do little pieces of plastic and metal convey zeros and ones—and better yet—how does that translate into the words you see on your screen or the photographs we take? Do we all see the same thing? And poems: how do you write one without trying so hard? How can it be so simple and so hard to write poems instead of prose? I have spent my whole life asking questions in order to understand better, and when I don’t understand, asking again. Sometimes I still don’t understand.

I don’t understand why I’ve spent the last two years unemployed and underemployed, or what I’ve done wrong with my life, in this economy. I’ll never understand why my father was stupid enough to grow 32 marijuana plants in his house as a retired cop, or who turned him in. Even after my parents divorced and I remembered all of the girlfriends my father introduced me to when I was a child and finally understood all of his addictions, this was the last thing, the last vestige of my childhood middle class identity falling away. I don’t understand why my aunt pointed her gun at my head on Christmas Day two and a half years ago; for months afterwards, I couldn’t think of anything but holding a similar Smith and Wesson 9mm. I held a 9mm Smith and Wesson in a gun shop because I needed to understand what my aunt was thinking, even though she said it was unloaded. I wrote about it. I still don’t understand. I suppose I accept these facts without understanding them.

It’s been hard to hold onto this sense of wonder as an adult, though, hard to feel optimistic even when I don’t understand. Poetry helps. I don’t understand everything about this poem, like why the lines of this poem are double spaced in Matthew Zapruder’s new poetry collection (Sun Bear, Copper Canyon Press 2014), or why the speaker starts to understand the lightbulb (“your eyes” from the title) “Just when it is time to say goodbye”—but he does not understand everything else. Relationships still seem like the biggest mystery to me. And yet I like this poem for the parts I don’t understand, because it does not over-explain, and somehow I know what Matthew Zapruder means anyway.

Mostly, I love that the last lines of this poem reference the telephone and remind me of an essay by Eula Biss called “Time and Distance Overcome” (in Notes from No Man’s Land, Graywolf Press 2009). She writes of Alexander Graham Bell in the second and third paragraph of the essay:

           Bell’s financial backers asked him not to work on his new
           invention because it seemed too dubious an investment. The
           idea on which the telephone depended—the idea that every
           home in the country could be connected by a vast network of
           wires suspended from poles set an average of one hundred feet
           apart—seemed far more unlikely than the idea that the human
           voice could be transmitted through a wire.

           Even now it is an impossible idea, that we are all connected, all
           of us.

I would like to think you understand what I’m saying, because I do believe we are—all of us—connected.

-R

Origin

The first cell felt no call to divide.
Fed on abundant salts and sun,
still thin, it simply spread,
rocking on water, clinging to stone,
a film of obliging strength.
Its endoplasmic reticulum
was a thing of incomparable curvaceous length;
its nucleus, Golgi apparatus, RNA
magnificent. With no incidence
of loneliness, inner conflict, or deceit,
no predator nor prey,
it had little to do but thrive,
draw back from any sharp heat
or bitterness, and change its pastel
colors in a kind of song.
We are descendants of the second cell.

—Sarah Lindsay

This bone-chilliing, heartrending poem is a surprise. Sarah Lindsay has written a mere sixteen lines of chaotic facts about cell division and the simplicity of nature, and the language is comprehensible, the poetics clear and vibrant. The soft “s” sounds begin in the first line with “salts” and “sun,” extending to the second line with “still thin,” and transition to assonance and repetition of “s” sounds again with “simply spread.” These are unsophisticated watery sounds, liquid and bright—utopic even.

But, the sounds begin to morph with the movement and growth of the single, first cell. In the fourth line, when the ancestral cell rocks on water, or clings to stone, the language mimics movement, and the liquid sounds take form, become more active, and rise from the sludge in a kind of poetic relief.

Throughout the poem, Lindsay allows the beauty of scientific language to showcase itself, to pin its precious self neatly to a square of paper-covered cork for all to see. The beauty of “endoplasmic reticulum” needs no further embellishment. Likewise with the Golgi apparatus, though she reminds us of the lyricism of this singular historical moment with her mention of “incomparable curvaceous length.”

Then, we have six basic lines of didactic work. Lindsay teaches us in the negative, or reminds us about everything the first cell was not. The uncomplicated, uncompetitive nature of first life is revealed, and we begin to grow wistful, nervous even, until she turns the penultimate corner, trepidatiously approaching the end of the poem with the first cell’s changing “its pastel colors in a kind of song.” The incomprehensible beauty and simplicity of that line, and that existence, make us pause.

But, with the final line, retroactively, the poem teaches and astounds. Until the moment of the last line, we associate ourselves with a singular set of circumstances, ideal in every way, but Lindsay’s final words here remind us that perfect peace and ease are not our birthright. By nature, as descendants of some hidden portion of that ideal picture that was not at ease, we are not victims of some greater problem. We are the problem itself. For moments extending long after the poem is read, we puzzle over all that we thought we were and all that we are not and cannot be. It is a humbling and frightening realization.

However, reading this poem and others in Lindsay’s new book, Debt to the Bone-Eating Snotflower, comforted me in the same way that watching old episodes of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos does, him in his turtlenecks and camel hair, reminding me gently that I’m not the center of the universe, and that therefore the world won’t end when I do. For me, and in spite of my Charismatic/Pentecostal/Primitive Baptist upbringing, there is no approach to mortality more consoling than various reminders of how insignificant I am. Life goes on.

Until I was introduced to Lindsay’s work, I’d never heard the term “didactic poetry.” Didactic, which means “intended to teach” or “instructive,” is generally the last thing I think of when I think of poetry. The poems I choose to read—and I don’t think I’m alone—are usually heavy-laden with pathos. Good poetry is conscious of this (sym)pathetic burden, but nevertheless, when we sit down to read a poem, our intention isn’t necessarily to be witness to the inscrutable clockwork of the impenetrable physical world.

Of course, this wasn’t always the case. There was a time when science and poetry were sister disciplines, when all art was permeated by investigation, and all inquiry showcased through lyricism. Scientists understood intuitively that the lens of poetry renders everything more palatable and fascinating. Erasmus Darwin, Hesiod, and Lucretius are just a few examples of classic scientist-poets (or poet-scientists) who utilized poetry quite pragmatically as a conduit for providing material insight to the masses, though this practice died, most agree, sometime between 1900 and 1915 with the birth of the Modernists, when poets and scientists experienced the messiest of divorces, and no one could determine who was to blame for the split, or what should be done with the children.

But, Sarah Lindsay has revived didactic poetry in verse that amazes and astounds, taking full advantage of a symbiotic tradition whereby scientists reap the benefits of lyricism and the way it can reveal the hidden beauty of dry investigation. Poets, in turn, become recipients of a new inheritance of ideas and secret parlance that excites and entertains.

In an interview with Guernica Magazine, Lindsay says of science in poetry: “I think I’m seeing more references to it—maybe because I’m looking, maybe because there’s more popular-science writing available for dilettantes and browsers like me. Ecological concerns are daily news now (alas). And poets have been writing all along about stars and roses; it’s not such a stretch now to bring in the Hubble telescope or dark matter or genetics.”

-Shawna Kay Rodenberg

*Shawna Kay Rodenberg is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars. She works online as a writing instructor and moonlights as a poetry editor for the Southern Indiana Review's poetry prizes. She is also the founder and host of Slant, a monthly poetry reading in Evansville, Indiana, which accommodates both professional and amateur poets. Her work has appeared in New Millennium Writings and is forthcoming in Structo, drafthorse, and Free State Review. When she is not writing poems or teaching, she works part-time as a registered nurse, caring for elderly nuns. She is also an unschooling mother of five (two days in college) and she lives and works on a dairy goat farm in southern Indiana.

——

On the first Sunday of every month, Structure and Style features a guest post by a fantastic writer. This is our tenth month with a guest post.

Factories Are Everywhere in Poetry Right Now

We are watching a crayon being made, we are children,
                     we are watching the crayon become crayons
and more crayons and thinking how can there be enough
room in America to make what makes it up, we are thinking
all America is a factory by now, the head of it churning out
           fake oranges, the hand of it churning out glass bottles,
                              the heel of it churning out Lego men.
We are watching lifelike snakes get made, we are watching
lifelike rats get made, we are watching army men get made;
          a whole factory for magic wands, a whole factory
for endless scarves, a whole factory, America, for the making
of the doves, a whole factory, America,
                                             for the making of long-eared
rabbits and their love of deep dark holes. We are watching
a marble being made, how does the cat’s eye get in the marble
and how does the sight into that, how does the hand get
on it, how does the hand attach to the child, how does the child
attach to the dirt, and how does the dirt attach to its only name,
America. The name is manufactured here by rows of men in airless
                       rooms. Sunlight is accidental, sunlight is runoff
from the lightbulb factory, is ooze on the surface of all our rivers.
Our abandoned factories make empty space and our largest
factory produces distance and its endless conveyor produces miles.
And people in the basement produce our underground. Hillbilly
          teeth are made here, but hillbilly teeth are made everywhere
maybe. The factory that makes us is overseas, and meanwhile we,
America, churn out China, France, Russia, Spain, and our glimpses
of them from across the ocean. Above the factory billowing clouds
            can be seen for miles around. Long line of us never glances up
            from the long line of glimpses we’re making, we could make
            those glimpses in the dark, our fingertips could see to do it,
                                           all the flashing fish in the Finger Lakes
have extra-plus eyes in America. The last factory, which makes last
lines, makes zippers for sudden reveals: a break in the trees opens
     ziiiip on a view, the last line opens ziiiip on enormous meaning.

—Patricia Lockwood

Happy Independence Day, America! Today, I give you the only thing I can give you, a poem I’ve been thinking about since I finished Patricia Lockwood’s new poetry collection, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (Penguin 2014) two and a half weeks ago. It’s a poem that contains multitudes of America, the enormously complex feelings most of us have about such an enormous and strange country.

Five lines into the poem, the speaker says “all America is a factory now,” which sometimes feels true. Factories produce uniform pieces on an assembly line which makes even the smallest things: gaskets, gauges, bottle caps. So many factories, so many pieces someone has to assemble. You see the metaphor for America here, right? All of our groups are tiny factories (the NRA, pacifists, Democrats, Republicans, Catholics, Protestants, atheists) of people that have to fit together to work.

Or maybe that’s too much of a stretch. Maybe Patricia Lockwood is just amazed, as I am, by all of the possibilities of America: fake oranges, glass bottles, Lego men, lifelike snakes and lifelike rats, Army men, “long-eared / rabbits and their love of deep dark holes.” (It took me a couple of readings to realize she’s talking about a vibrator, and now I read that line each time with glee.) America, you strange country, no wonder Lockwood spends a few lines of the poem repeating the words “how does.” How does it work, and why? Why do we “churn out China, France, Russia, Spain” and why is it necessary to counterfeit them? Depending upon the day, I am either deeply amused or somewhat ashamed of everything we’ve manufactured.

After all of that wonder, the last three lines of this poem are quiet, questioning: “The last factory, which makes last / lines, makes zippers for sudden reveals: a break in the trees opens / ziiiip on a view, the last line opens ziiiip on enormous meaning.” If you unzip this country, what do you see?

-R

My Gift

When there were backwoods, when a person was
badly cut and bleeding, it used to be

the bloodstopper would come. She’d focus on the wound,
and chant a Bible verse, a secret charm,

or only the command, Stop, blood, stop.
And it would be stopped, by her will. Who today

would call that woman’s way of fixing her eyes on another
a perceptive art? We do not have to keep things back now,

but break the tradition of holding in,
the grace of people closing up where they’re weak.

We draw them out, the reddest admissions.

—Rose McLarney

I spend a lot of time thinking about poetry, writing poetry, reading and re-reading it, analyzing it, pinpointing poetic elements, looking for new ways to consider it and write it and learn from it, and I often forget that one of the most basic and important things poetry does is empower us. It has been a complicated week for women, considering the recent decision by the SCOTUS. I have read all of the arguments on both sides and I am still heart broken. Why? Because this decision is about so much more than access to particular kinds of contraception. The SCOTUS’s decision shows that corporations are far more important than any person. This decision marginalizes women, and I fear it will lead to other decisions that will hurt even more people. I truly believe we will never improve as a country until we start putting people before money, and I am afraid that might never happen. I’m not trying to start a political argument, and I am very aware the parties involved in this particular case aren’t as cut-and-dry as either side makes them out to be.

What I want to point out is this: we’re at a pivotal time in history. Decisions are being made that affect the lives of millions of people. Gay marriage has been legalized in several states this year. Women are fighting for equal pay and treatment. More people are calling others out for their racist comments, actions, and beliefs. But, we have a long way to go, and when we start to feel beaten down, art can bring us back to what is most important to us.

I really like this poem because it emphasizes a strong woman. And this woman isn’t a Hillary Rodham Clinton. She is a local woman, a bloodstopper, but she has the power to heal through her words. Isn’t it an empowering thought to know words can heal? It makes me proud to be female. I love the lines:

We do not have to keep things back now,

but break the tradition of holding in,
the grace of people closing up where they’re weak.

We draw them out, the reddest admissions.

These lines are reminders to speak up and stand up for what is right. We shouldn’t be afraid of the things that make us seem “imperfect” in another’s eyes. We should not be afraid of the judgment of other people. We should use our strengths and our weaknesses to make a difference in the world around us. I’m not trying to sound melodramatic at all. Sometimes, we just need a gentle reminder, and, at a time when I’ve felt conflicted about so many things, poems like this remind me I have a purpose, I have a gift, and I should use it. What is your gift? What are you going to do with it?

-S

*”My Gift” is from the collection Its Day Being Gone, published by Penguin Books. The collection was picked as part of the National Poetry Series by Robert Wrigley in 2013.

Bedding Down

Sometimes, when we are lying here,
I have the urge to pull up my hand
from your breast, ball it into a fist,
and smash your near-unconscious

face. It’s like the fear
of calling out
in a silent theater
during the most important
part of the play.

The audience turns in their seats,
the actors on stage pause,
and I’m dragged away.

I wanted to see the show
as much as I want to lie here
whispering, Love.

—Cynthia Lowen

This poem is published in Lowen’s collection The Cloud That Contained the Lightning (University of Georgia Press), is part of the National Poetry Series, and was chosen by Nikky Finney. The collection as a whole is based around J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, and deals with the consequences we face and the emotions we feel because of our actions.

I picked this particular poem to share because I wanted to talk about the way this poem manipulates the use of a turn. In poetry, there should be some sort of turn, often near the end (though not necessarily), where the poem heads in an unexpected direction. We can sometimes sees this in the form of a revelation or even a shift in image or language.

"Bedding Down" basically starts with the turn. Right away, we’re given the unexpected. When we read the phrase "bedding down" and the lines "Sometimes, when we are lying there, / I have the urge to…" we more than likely expect something sensual, sexual, or romantic. We certainly don’t expect something violent like "smash your near-unconscious / face" to follow. This creates tension. We understand right away that something is wrong and that there are complicated emotions at play. We’re not sure why the speaker wants to be violent, but we do see that he or she is conflicted (I’m assuming the speaker is a he, mainly because many of the poems in the collection are told from Oppenheimer’s perspective).

We further understand the conflict in the lines that follow, with the example of someone shouting out during the quiet section of a play. The person doing the shouting creates a disruption, just like it would disrupt the moment in bed if the speaker were to hit his beloved. But the urge to do so is still there.

The last stanza is where we realize we’ve been deceived. In the very beginning, we thought we knew what the poem was about (sex or love), but then we’re thrust into this sort of anti-love poem. The early turn pushes us into the tension, but in the last stanza that tension is heightened because we don’t discover why he wants to hit her. That would provide a resolution. What we’re given is this: “I wanted to see the show / as much as I wanted to lie here / whispering, Love.” We don’t know why he wants to hit her, but we realize the urge to do so is as strong as his love. Then we’re left hanging. Why are we left hanging? Why aren’t we given an explanation? Why don’t we understand what could cause him to feel this way? It’s because the lack of a resolution leaves us feeling guilty. Do we sometimes feel this way, too? Have we ever, if just for a moment, felt this conflicted? It might not be in the same terms, to love or to strike, but most of us can understand that pull and tug.

The lack of a resolution exacerbates the difficulty of the situation and heightens the emotion. I don’t think the end of the poem would be as effective if it were written in a different order or if we weren’t presented with a turn from the expected so early on in the poem. I kinda love this poem, even if it makes me shiver when I read it.

-S

Unpeopled Eden

                        We died in your hills, we died in your desserts,
                        We died in your valley and died on your plains.
                        We died ‘neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
                        Both sides of the river, we died just the same.
                        “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportees),” Woody Guthrie

I

                         after the immigration raid

Beneath one apple tree the fruit
lies flung like the beads from
a rosary with a broken string.
Another tree stands amused
over the strangeness of a shoe
that pretends to be an apple
in its redness, though it’ll never be
an apple with that lace stem
and a pit where a core should be.

The tree at the end of the row
will weep over the pillage
all week. Around its trunk, debris:
straw hats, handkerchief, a basket
going hungry for what’s out
of reach. Somewhere in the orchard
a screech goes weaker by the hour.
A radio without paws, it cannot claw
its chords to end its suffering.

But silence comes, eventually,
and the apple trees will rest,
gathering the shadows to their roots
as the flame inside each apple
falls asleep. All the while, finches
perch among the branches—patient
vultures waiting for the fruit to rot.
For a wasp, intoxicated by the sugars,
this is the perfect place to nest.

The colony will thrive inside
decay: the apples softening until
their wrinkled skins begin to sink,
the seeds poking through like teeth.
The trees will sway without the wind
because the ground will boil
with larvae. A bird will feast
until it chokes and ants will march
into the belly through the beak.

II

                         after the ride by bus

A strand of hair pretends to be
a crack and sticks to glass. A piece
of thread sits on a seat, pretends
to be a tear. The bus makes believe
no one cried into their hands and smeared
that grief onto its walls. The walls
will keep the fingerprints a secret
until the sheen of oils glows by moon.
Rows of ghosts come forth to sing.

Until that keening rocks the bus
to rest, the fumes intoxicate
the solitary button—single witness
to the shuffling of feet and a final act
of fury: the yanking of a wetback’s
shirt. The button popped right off
the flannel, marched in the procession
and then scurried to the side. The lesson:
if wounded, stay behind to die.

The bus breathes out the shapes
turned silhouettes turned scent
of salt and sweat. The steering wheel
unspools, every window shaking loose
the wetness of its glare. And now
a riddle squats over the parking lot:
What creature stands its ground
after evisceration? Roadkill. Clouds
close in to consume the afterbirth.

III

                         after the detention in the county jail

A mausoleum also keeps these gems:
precipitation that hardens into diamonds
on the cobweb stems, streams of urine
that shimmer like streaks of gold.
Lights coax out the coat of polish
on the floor and what’s solid softens
into water stripped of ripples. Stilled
and empty, a river that has shoved
its pebbles down its throat.

The cell holds out three drops of blood
and will barter them for company,
hungry for the smell of men again. Janitor,
border guard, or detainee, it’s all the same
musk of armpit, garlic breath, oils
that bubble up from crack to tailbone,
scent of semen from the foreskin,
fungus from the toes. Without takers,
the keyhole constricts in the cold.

IV

                         after the deportation plane falls from the sky

A red-tailed hawk breaks through
the smoke and doesn’t drop the way
the bodies did when the plane
began to dive and spat pieces of its
cargo out the door. No grace, the twitching
of such a great machine. No beauty to
its blackening inside the pristine
canvas of majestic blue—a streak of rage
made by a torch and not a paintbrush.

The hawk lands on the canyon
and snaps its neck in quick response
to the vulgar cracking on the boulders,
to the shrill of metal puncturing
the canyon, to the burst of flames
that traps a nest of mice within the lair
turned furnace, burning shriek, and hair.
Stunned host of sparrows scatters.
Fume of feathers, pollution in the air.

Poison in the lungs of all that breathes.
A darkness rises. The blue absorbs it
the way it dissipates a swarm after
the crisis of a shattered hive. Heaven
shows its mercy also, swallowing
the groan that spilled out of the hill.
No signs of tragedy by dusk
except a star splayed over rock,
the reek of fumes—a disemboweled god.

V

                         after the clean-up along Los Gatos Canyon

What strange flowers grow
in the shadow. Without petals
and with crooked twigs for stems.
The butterflies that pollinated them
were bits of carbon glowing
at the edge. The solitary lone wolf
spider doesn’t dare to bite
the scorched caul on the canyon.
It packs its fangs for brighter lands.

The footprints drawn in black
do not match the footprints
in the orchard though they also
bear the weight of the unwanted.
The chain gang called upon to gather
the debris sang the Prison Blues
all afternoon: Inmate, deportee,
in your last attempt to flee
every bone splits into three.

VI

                         after the communal burial

Twenty-eight equals one
deportation bus equals one
cell in the detention center, one
plane-load of deportees, one
plunge into the conayon, one
body in the coffin although one
was a woman—sister not alone
anymore among the chaperone
of angels with wings of stone.

Manuel Merino, Julio Barrón, 
Severo, Elías, Manuel Calderón,
Francisco, Santiago, Jaime, Martín,
Lupe, Guadalupe, Tomás, Juan Ruiz,
Alberto, Ramón, Apolonio, Ramón,
Luis, Román, Luis, Salvador,
Ignacio Navarro, Jesús, Bernabé,
Rosalío Portillo, María, y José.
Y un Deportado No Identificado.

No papers necessary to cross
the cemetery. The sun floods
the paths between tombs
and everything pushes out
into light. No shame to be
a cherub without a nose.
The wreath will not hide
its decay. Cement displays
its injuries with no regrets.

This is the place to forget
about labor and hardship and pain.
No house left to build, no kitchen
to clean, no chair on a porch, no
children to feed. No longing left
except a wish that will never come
true: Paint us back into the blank
sky’s blue. Don’t forget us
like we’ve forgotten all of you.

—Rigoberto González

I am always hesitant to post long poems because I’m afraid people won’t take the time to read them, but I really wanted to share this one because of its use of rhyme and meter. I’m not going to go into too much detail, but the poem is written in alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and trimeter Tetrameter has 4 feet, or 8 syllables, while trimeter has 3 feet, or 6 syllables. Iambic verse means the stress falls on the second syllable in each foot. The use of meter works to create a rhythm throughout the poem.

Often when we think of poems that incorporate the use of rhyme and meter, we think of really old poems—the ones everyone knows (think Shakespeare and other dead guys). It’s been a while since I’ve read a collection that so deliberately uses rhyme that reads so subtly to me. There is some end rhyme in this poem, but there doesn’t seem to be a complete set pattern to it. It’s mixed with a strong use of enjambment and slant rhyme. So sometimes there’s exact rhyme, but we don’t see it at the end of each line. We see one word at the end of a line, and then it rhymes with a word in the middle of the next line. Look at the first stanza. Flung rhymes with from. Beads rhymes with strings and tree. Amused rhymes with shoe. The variation in the use of rhyme works in two ways: it enhances the musicality of the poem and it makes us keep reading.

Read this poem and the entire collection, also titled Unpeopled Eden, and study it because of all the poetic devices it incorporates. Each poem in this collection is so carefully crafted and I’ve already learned a lot just by reading it and typing it to share with you. The poems all center around the people who cross the border between the US and Mexico, particularly the plane crash in Los Gatos Canyon and the deportees who were killed. Check it out.

-S

af·ter·glow

af·ter·glow \≈\ n. I. The light. esp. in the Ohio sky after sun-
set: as in the look of the mother-of-pearl air during the morning’s
afterglow. 2. The glow continuing after the disappearance of a
flame, as of a match or a lover, and sometimes regarded as a type
of phosphorescent ghost: This balm, this bath of light / This
cocktail of lust and sorrow, / This rumor of faithless love on a
neighbor’s lips, / This Monday morning, this Friday night, / This
pendulum of my heart, / This salve for my soul, / This tremble
from your body / This breast aflame, this bed ablaze / Where you
rub oil on my feet, / Where we spoon and, before sunrise, turn
away / And I dream, eyes open, / swimming / In this room’s pitch-
dark landscape.

—A. Van Jordan

I’ve been reading and rereading Jordan’s collection M·A·C·N·O·L·I·A for the last couple of weeks. It takes me a while to get through it because along the way I see something in a poem that inspires me to either write a poem or revise one I’ve already written, and “af·ter·glow” is one that has helped me to look at my own poetry in a new light.

Throughout the collection, there are poems that are formatted like dictionary entries. Some of them use actual definitions as part of the poems, while others, like this one, simply provide a new definition for the particular word. There are two things that strike me about this particular form. First, it offers a frame and context for the poem. If you know the heart of a poem is in this one word or image, then you can build on it from there. Writing the poem in the form of a definition can be freeing in a way because it helps you lock your focus in place; it helps you be extremely specific and detailed without getting lost along the way.

The second thing that really strikes me about this is the form itself: it’s a prose poem. I’ve never been a fan of prose poems and many people argue that prose poems don’t exist: they either aren’t really poems or they are poems that simply lack enjambment of any kind. One thing that is particularly interesting about this prose poem is that it includes the / to indicate a pause. Typically, you consider a line break as a short or brief pause in a poem, and you break a line in a place that draws the reader forward. This doesn’t mean that when you read the poem aloud you should pause at the end of each line, but it is a place for a short breath or for emphasis. I’ve written extensively about the various ways the individual lines can function in a poem and how a line break can add weight and meaning, but in a prose poem, you don’t have line breaks. You start writing at the left and basically move to the right until you run out of space, like you would in fiction or nonfiction.

The inclusion of the / in this poem provides a caesura or pause in this poem where there otherwise might not be one. A caesura is a pause in a line of poetry. We know that we pause at a period or a comma, but there are other ways to create a caesura, and these strong pauses help to create musicality and rhythm within a line. How does the / function as a pause? It makes us stop and take note of what we’ve just read. Even if it’s for a brief moment, it creates a break in the text, and that can affect how we read, hear, and process the poem. Consider the line “of phosphorescent ghost: This balm, this bath of light / This.” Here the / helps to add emphasis to the phrase “This blame, this bath of light.” By placing the / after “light,” we pause, then we read the word “This.” The / slows us down and that draws our attention to particular phrases. The two other lines where I think this technique works especially well in the poem is in the lines, “pendulum of my heart, / This salve for my soul, / This tremble” and “away / And I dream, eyes open, / swimming / In this room’s pitch-.” In these lines, the / works to slow us down and that adds as much weight to the poem as it would if the lines themselves had been broken.

I really love A. Van Jordan’s collection and will probably write about at least one other poem in it in the future. However, you should really consider reading it. I’ve already picked up two new techniques for my own poems: writing a poem as a definition and creating more caesuras in my poetic lines.

-S

The Great Fires

Love is apart from all things.
Desire and excitement are nothing beside it.
It is not the body that finds love.
What leads us there is the body.
What is not love provokes it.
What is not love quenches it.
Love lays hold of everything we know.
The passions which are called love
also change everything to a newness
at first. Passion is clearly the path
but does not bring us to love.
It opens the castle of our spirit
so that we might find the love which is
a mystery hidden there.
Love is one of many great fires.
Passion is a fire made of many woods,
each of which gives off its special odor
so we can know the many kinds
that are not love. Passion is the paper
and twigs that kindle the flames
but cannot sustain them. Desire perishes
because it tries to be love.
Love is eaten away by appetite.
Love does not last, but it is different
from the passions that do not last.
Love lasts by not lasting.
Isaiah said each man walks in his own fire
for his sins. Love allows us to walk
in the sweet music of our particular heart.

—Jack Gilbert

Poems talk to each other the way you and I do: they overlap, agree, finish each other’s sentences, baffle, frustrate, interrogate each other. Lately I’ve been making my way through Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems, smiling and nodding when one of his lines sounds like one of mine and banging my head against his startling change-ups, his juxtapositions. I found myself loving his craziest poems the most: “My Marriage with Mrs. Johnson,” in which he marries the great lexicographer’s wife; “Losing,” where the poet has a cameo role as a terrorist; “Don Giovanni in Trouble,” which is more about horses than the fabled lover.

Most of all, I found myself perplexed by Gilbert’s seemingly straightforward statements. There’s a joke about two psychoanalysts passing each other on the sidewalk, and one says, “Hello,” and the other thinks, “I wonder what he meant by that.” Exactly: when Gilbert says that extraordinary acts are meaningless in “The Abnormal is Not Courage,” does he mean that or is he asking us to crack the nut of his line to find the secret inside? How good these poems are! I said to myself, how bewildering.

In addition to my dialog with Jack Gilbert, at the same time I’d been having another conversation. From time to time I’d send a poem to my two Honors students, Landis and Kelsey, and then we’d discuss it. Since this was on Facebook, we also swapped book suggestions, music videos, movie trailers, blurry pet photos, and recipes, but mainly poems, and especially poems I, the professor, didn’t fully understand—I wanted to learn more about poetry with these young women, not ambush them. (Don’t get me started on how central I think Facebook is to the lives of poets, or at least this poet. There are a dozen poem ideas on every page, and new ones arrive every second.)

When I read Gilbert’s “The Great Fires,” I fell hard. All poems are love poems, but only Gilbert would have the nerve to write about loving love. All poems are about poetry as well, and “The Great Fires” reminds us that the rules of poetry are unwritten, and they’re all meant to be broken. For one thing, whereas I’m always telling Landis and Kelsey to be concrete, this poem is 100% abstract—there’s not an image in it.

Too, there’s an easygoing musicality here that you don’t always see in Gilbert and an almost-Scriptural tone that isn’t always there as well. In “The Great Fires,” then, the poet addresses huge topics in a way that seems familiar and yet not. What could be more enticing?

And then there were all the aspects of the poem I didn’t get, which is when I sent it to my two students along with a simple what-do-you-think message asking them to get back to me when it was convenient. Kelsey was the first to reply, saying, “Well, the definitions of passion and love dance around each other, like fire. Each is alive and personified, moving eagerly between one another, aflame. The content and images coexist and enlarge because of both combined.”

Ah! Kelsey brought me back to the idea that motion is central to the poem, that even abstractions grow bigger and brighter when they collide. It’s okay to watch a single dancer, but two people in sync are a true delight as they twirl and weave and even step on each other’s toes, as love and passion do here.

A few minutes later, Landis weighed in with this: “It is a beautiful nudging argument. Each line hinges on the last, answers it or clarifies it in a way that pulls you into your own ‘particular heart.’ It is never forceful, but it is always firm or at least steady. You feel comfortable sinking into the authority of the poem.” I love how Landis uses this idea of authority. Steve Jobs said it’s not the customer’s job to know what she wants. He was talking about Apple products, but the same thing happens when we read poetry and are convinced of a truth we weren’t even thinking about five minutes earlier. From the writer’s point of view, isn’t that what we poets want, to write poems in which the reader is nudged, but gently? Where the authority is undeniable yet comfortable as well?

I’d been reading Gilbert a lot, I told Landis and Kelsey, “and I think he spends a lot of time saying everything possible about a topic (love, in this case), so he can say, at the end, ‘Hey—I finally figured it out! The truest thing about love is that it ‘allows us to walk / in the sweet music of our particular heart.””

And so I moved toward a better understanding of a poem about motion by engaging in a dance of sorts with two other readers. Being their professor, I was obliged to point out to my students that “The Great Fires” is an “anatomy” in the way of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). The idea is that you walk around and around an abstract subject, I told them; “you look at every aspect of it, as Gilbert does with love, and you work your way toward a conclusion.”

It’s a great template for poem-writing, isn’t it? The reader gets to see you thinking out loud and thinks along with you and realizes what you do at the same moment. In this case, while the poet begins by trying to define love, midway he realizes that it can’t be defined—when I say “I love you,” neither you nor I know what I mean. But that’s not the point. The way Gilbert uses it, the word “love” isn’t meant to be defined but to set us in motion so that we can enjoy the sweet, the particular.

By the way, I’m not the greatest typist in the world, and when I wrote Landis and Kelsey that Gilbert wants you to “work your way toward a conclusion,” it came out “work your way toward a concussion.” That said, I’d rather be beaten over the head by a Jack Gilbert poem than caressed by anything softer.

-David Kirby with Landis Grenville and Kelsey Schurer

*David Kirby’s collection The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2007. His most recent poetry collection is A Wilderness of Monkeys. He teaches English at Florida State University.

Landis Grenville and Kelsey Schurer are completing their Honors theses in English at FSU and will graduate this fall.

——

On the first Sunday of every month, Structure and Style features a guest post by a fantastic writer. This is our ninth month with a guest post.

A Small Gesture of Gratitude

I have to tell you something. There is an actor in the world
called Joaquin Phoenix, and he’s been acting pretty strangely
lately (messy beard, monosyllables, not promoting random

blockbuster, etc.). Two robots who embody barely one
percent of everything worth hating about the media were
on a 24-hour news channel “analyzing” his “controversial”

interview with David Letterman, a talk-show host.
These polished zombies were speculating about “this whole
controversy” under unkind studio lights, quizzing each

other about whether this actor is acting or actually crazy
or on “drugs”—desperately dry-humping the finer points
of one of the least crucial issues of our moment—

and whether the talk-show host, who all but patented
mainstream deadpan irony, was in fact pissed off
at this actor for appearing on his eponymous talk show

and creating a “controversy” that the human lampreys
who dole out the news with coffee spoons could fasten
themselves to, thus escalating ratings, ad sales, etc.

I have to tell you that I was in a public place, scribbling
about this completely irrelevant but also kind of excellent
Warholian non-interview, and at the very moment my pen

was poking into said cloud of pop-culture effluvium,
I overheard two women behind me, talking about the self-
same non-controvery—let’s call it a nontroversy.

I think it’s an act I think he’s crazy He’s on drugs I don’t think
so You don’t? But I can’t turn around because I’m afraid
that if I see their faces—let alone make eye contact,

acknowledging in even the smallest way that I am complicit
in the nontroversy—a huge blood-crusted mortar and pestle
will descend from the ceiling and grind my head into a paste.

TV news is killing us and the people who own it are killing us
and the criminals at whose behest they concoct more nontroversies
are killing us and the tons of hairspray and makeup they smear

on the toxic marionettes who mouth nontroversies are killing us,
as is our ignorance of the reality of everyone killing everyone.
If it’s true to say the incubus fills us for the succubi to suck us dry,

why shouldn’t I? Pointing into bottomless, topless, sideless
madness is what scads of poets do and have been doing all along:
we take facts and/or feelings, herd them like butterflies

into killing jars, then run pins through them for the aesthetic
and/or ethical scrutiny of a tiny audience made mostly of other
butterfly-killers. I have to tell you something else:

I have “invented” and am promoting a neologism
for the perineum: the boyband—as in,
“I’m walking funny ‘cause I just had my boyband waxed”—

injecting something useless into the lexicon, if you will;
messing on a micro level with the zeitgeist, if you won’t.
I’ve been running this new term—the boyband—

by a number of people recently, thus exposing
and/or confirming myself as the frivolous, vulgar idiot
I frequently am or act like; but that’s the kind of behavior

everyone has come to expect from Americans anyway,
so I am in this scene as American as anyone else.
This poem is turning into a shuddering black hole

of broken rules, much like the Cheney/Bush regime,
albeit silly rules I tend to bray at my students about not
breaking: referring to the poem itself and (worse) to myself

writing it, invoking Penelope and Eliot and celebrities,
hawking awkward similes, referring to “teaching poetry,”
overusing quotes and/or italics, pay no attention to tenses,

not caring whether I’ve inadvertently stolen
a phase or an image, deploying the word “reality,” etc.
Maybe certain poets should have breathalyzers

connected to their computers or typewriters or hands
so they can’t do what I’m doing right now to this poem.
Next week, if I accidentally meet President Obama

because someone I adore performs an amazing feat or merely
something “controversial,” gets invited to the White House,
needs a plus-one, figures I’m good for a laugh, brings

me along, and I get 15 seconds of face time with
our new commander in chief, I’ll just fuck it up: forget
to mention Prop 8 or Darfur or health care or education,

instead squawk some idiocy about how I’ve decided
we should all call the taint the boyband or hey,
what about that Joaquin Phoenix, so crazy! Maybe not

as scandalous as Grace Slick, a singer, who came this close
to dosing Richard Nixon, another president, with LSD, a drug;
but either way, whether Obama cracks up laughing,

high-fives me and says, Yeah, but what about the girlgroup?
or has the secret service 86 me, or barely blinks and moves on
to the next guest, some perfect mound of reptilian excrement

like Rush Limbaugh will catch wind of this non-event and funnel
it into one of his flatulent Hindenburgs of “controversy,”
so folks can be distracted by “that whole boyband thing,”

or christen it Taintgate—once a thing has a -gate, you can stop
calling the thing “that whole ________ thing”—and I’ll take
only this notoriety to my early grave. Nonetheless, I’ll be known

for something—like Penelope, who loomed, or Orpheus, who lyred.
By the way, thanks for nothing E. Spitzer, R. Burris, T. Daschle,
R. Blagor;asld,gkjp—at least S. Palin isn’t, at the time of this

concocting, melting our collective American face off
with her down-home hubris, end-times agendas and meth-
cooking, wolf-killing kin. Has anyone else come up

with the phrase lipstick on a Dick yet? Probably—I call
it The Anxiety of Coincidence (see above for annoying
tics). So much to do, so many rules to redo. But now,

my beloved friend who takes me to the White House,
unwitting kindling for the media blaze, I tell you
this: I’m sorry. Also, you’re welcome. And to those

witnesses who prefer to be protected from poems
and butterflies, I tell you that I’m sorry some insidious force
led you here, but that you, maybe most of all, are welcome.

—Mark Bibbins

This poem is such a beautiful thing, a piece of art that works on multiple levels. There are pop culture references up the wazoo: Joaquin Phoenix (remember that beard?) and David Letterman (“who all but patented / mainstream deadpan humor”) and the 24-hour news cycles (I’m thinking Nancy Grace and Laci Peterson and all the small stories that become large because THEY HAVE TO FILL THE AIR). Obama’s here! Grace Slick, lead singer of Jefferson Airplane, tried to get Nixon to take LSD in the White House! Rush Limbaugh is described as “some perfect mound of reptilian excrement”! Prop 8, Darfur, and Sarah Palin—all terrible things—are here, too.

But there are also the effortless literary references that you are no worse for if you don’t know. I think LOST used to call these “easter eggs,” so we might as well adopt these TV terms here. Mark Bibbins alludes to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” because Prufrock measures his life in coffee spoons, too, uses lampreys—bloodsucking fish that bore into flesh—as a brilliant metaphor for 24-hour TV “experts” like Nancy Grace, coins a new word, “nontroversy,” and references Greek mythology—Penelope and Orpheus—that I’m not even that familiar with. But I don’t have to be familiar with Greek mythology. It’s not necessary to understand the easter eggs in order to understand this poem.

This poem is for all of us that like pop culture and coining new words and discussing taints and mentioning “lipstick on a Dick" and using "fuck" and "dry-humping" in poems. Mark Bibbins is not judging you. He is breaking his own rules about referring to writing the poem and referring to the poetry community (butterfly-killers) and not watching his tenses. I’m glad. Fuck the rules. And if you don’t believe me that you’re the intended audience, whoever you are, read the last two lines again: "I tell you that I’m sorry some insidious force / led you here, but that you, maybe most of all, are welcome."

This poem is from Mark Bibbins’ new collection, They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full. He also edits poetry on The Awl.

-R