Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Garden of Verse: A Poet's Brain, A Starving Child, the Universal Longing for a Really Big Hit

            Among the many notable poems in July's Verse-Virtual John Allman's urbane postmortem on a bizarre historical-poetic footnote, "On the Removal of Whitman's Brain," tapped me on the shoulder and commanded attention. According to Allman's note on his poem, "​During the attempt to remove Whitman’s brain for storage in a jar," somebody dropped the goods:
"it must have rolled
when it hit the floor...
it must have formed like a
flower about its clipped medulla, gone flat
as a nebula seen edge-on.."

I'm not sure why Whitman's brain was being removed to put in a jar, but they did things like that back then. The poem's allusions to Whitman's oeuvre and its Whitmanic reaching for big images and exalted ideas made me long to hear more. The poem's stylish language, phrases such as "his hump
of metric custard measured by trembling fingers,"

heighten the effect, like a filter passed over a photographic image.

In Sharon Auberle's affecting poem on the death of a friend, "On the Last Leaf Falling from the Gingko Tree," the leaf becomes an emblem of life, of life's last transformation, and an image of its endurance. These wonderful words for that transformation,
"that day I didn't see how     
for just a moment
you turned into light..."

precede the poem's unsentimental but satisfying conclusion. I won't quote it here but you can find it at

The poem that totally knocks me out is Robert Wexelblatt's "Last Night's News" with its combination of beautiful writing and terrible message. Three six-line stanzas, including some rhyming couplets and repeating lines, particularly the line "A starving child on the news last night"(with some variants), fit together like a song. It's a poem that both writes about its subject and about the act of making poetry, or any sort of art. Here's an excerpt (though every part of this poem is quotable):

"Someone yanked off her knitted cap so you
could see the brittle hair and, even more,
what hunger does and someone else’s war..."

The craft of the poetry makes a reader feel quite certain that something good has happened. And yet the poem tells us, uncompromisingly, that neither the writing, nor the reading (nor quite possibly even the TV report) will do the starving child, and so many like her, any good.

Among the poems about being young, Kenneth Pobo's "A Tommy James and the Shondells Childhood" will likely stay with me for a good long while. It captures the hopeless yearning of an American adolescence at a particular point in time. I suspect the same thing happens today (in some appropriately contemporary, no doubt digital form) that happened back then, when the poem's speaker followed the progress up the charts of a Tommy James and Shondells' hit.

postered my ears while I slept, left

footprints on my eyelids."

Music is different in different decades, and the hip-hopsters who replace Tommy may be equally forgettable over the long run, but young psyches will still be longing for something really big and meaningful to happen. (What will happen, if they're lucky, is time.) Still, the poem's conclusion has the ring of the universal: 
"we waited
for the next hit that would change our lives
forever, the one that never came."

Poems, like 'hits,' may not change our lives forever, but they make us feel alive.

Verse-Virtual is certainly alive. 
This note comes from editor Firestone Feingberg:
"Statistics from Google Analytics show that for the month of June 2016 V-V had 21,698 page views, 3,092 sessions, and 1,611 unique users."