Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Garden of Verse: Words That Roll Through These Marvelous Poems About Bicycles, Hard Times, and 'Guys Like Us'



Some poems make music; some words just work together. These virtues are on display in many of the fine poems appearing in the January 2018 issues of Verse-Virtual, the online poetry journal.
            As, for example, in these lines by William Greenway in his poem "as she watches through the window":

...There are kids, I guess,
who live in a money-feathered nest
of Magic Kingdoms, Disney days
and firework princess nights,
the jingle-belled hooves and snowy thump
of Santa’s’ boots on the roof, every day
three-rings of enchantment until, inevitably,
the circus leaves town.

"Jingle-belled hooves," a musical combination in itself, grooves our ears for the flowing long vowels of 'boots' and 'roof .' And the phrase "boots on the roof" ring in the ear just a like a "snowy thump."
             The language in Greenway's poem "At the Writers Conference" -- a lament that captures the essence of any 'big name' conference (writing or otherwise) I've ever attended -- effectively conveys the poem's sense of the event:

Finally, all this hoopla and high-mindedness
came down to a lobster roll and some tandoori chicken
for this hick from the sticks and the tapped-out steel mills.

 'Hoopla' and 'tandoori chicken' strike me as the kind of words just aching to get into a poem on an oversold event. And the third of these three lines rolls at a pace and rhythm that a 'stick' might make 'tapping' its way home to the mills -- a folksy, fitting sound.  

            In Linda Fischer's "Digression," the magic lies in images that are just right to convey a wintry grinding down sensation. After whacking the snow off her conifers, the poet asks:

...What
would it take for the geese to change
their course mid-flight, the wind
swallow their cries and plow
them back to a creek swollen
with early snow?  Or the sap
to gather itself for one last
shudder before the darkening day
surrenders to one long night?
 

            The implicit answer, it appears, is 'nothing we could ever do.' The geese will not change their course, and the sap no longer flows.

            In Christine Gelineau's "Nothing To It," the language of the lines below sounds to me just right for the sensation they're talking about: the temptation (and appeal) of the unforgiving gesture, the burned bridge.

Demolition is the instant payoff
—volatile, thrilling, an aphrodisiac
of power.

In contrast, building something up has a stop-and-go pace. as the words in the next lines suggest:
                   Creation drags along
in slo-mo, a chick flick
of unfolding and relationships


And the language of the lines that follow illustrate their meaning by their own aural attractiveness:

how we’re drawn to the swing, the bang,
the rubble, rubbernecking by the wreck 

This final observation serving as the perfect summary of the lure of 'rubbernecking':

as if we thought
obliteration was some kind
of an accomplishment.  

            Sydney Lea's "1959" is an affecting poem about the power of certain moments to stay with us forever not because anything particularly wonderful has happened, but because their meaning cannot be captured by any clear message or storyline: they don't lead to happy endings, or new beginnings, or obvious crises, or moments of decision in which we take the right course, or the wrong one. They are simply (but also complexly) so real:

If I could just stay right there like that on that bench.
Those slight waves lisping. That gravel strand.
St. Jean de Luz. That breeze and mollusky stench.
That sun melting on the far Low Pyrenees.
If the people around me could just keep keeping quiet
like that, not because the music was good
                                    but because it was long and awful

Sometimes -- this poem says to me -- people, or nature, or the world, or our own minds do manage, in this poem's superbly apt phrase, to "keep keeping quiet."

            Another apt expression, "guys like us," appears in the poem of that name by Alan Walowitz. After a student is killed by a policeman in a minority neighborhood where the speaker teaches school, a previously friendly student begins to draw away:

I swear I saw him eyeing me each afternoon
as the cops escorted us to our cars which would take us home,
to a neighborhood safe for guys like us.

It's the 'the cops' escorting the teachers to their cars to go home to a 'safe' neighborhood that got to me. Though I was never faced with running that sort of gauntlet, I know I'm one of those 'guys like us.'

            In a poem about the pleasures of cycling, "A Bicycle Poem" by Robert Wexelblatt, lines like these below convey the speed and pleasure and sensation of freedom involved in the ride.  

Earbuds pumping out Brahms’ Second Serenade
or Soler’s Fandango as you outstrip mosquitos
on a Sunday morning—a moving Mass, solitary
Sabbath—biking past the SUVs arrayed outside
St. Aiden’s, communing with I-Pod, sky, and road,
the Camelbak preserving cold, sacramental water,
knees, hips, and muscles all in proper working order:
on the seventh day you pedaled and it was good.

All these elements, the pumping music (suggesting, of course, the petal-pumping muscles), leaving the heavy vehicles behind, the 'cold, sacramental water' of the biker-geeky Camelbak bottle, the glancing spiritual references, go together to sell the truth of the last line. We may at some moments in our life, this poem tells us, to be the god of our experience. And when that happens, as the poem persuades us, it surely is good.
             What a ride poems like these offer us.
             See these and more at http://www.verse-virtual.com/poems-and-articles.html
 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Garden of Verse: Looking Ahead, and Back, in January's Poems

    
      My poems in the January 2018 issues of Verse-Virtual look at the recent past, the anticipated future, and a recollection (with some nostalgia) for a distant decade. 
         The recent past for me is the autumn of 2017, and my poem They Fell Without Color is my attempt to deal with the diminished state (and in some cases pure absence) of the typical New England autumnal color that essentially defines the turn of the year from growing season to freezing season. I'm not talking principally about the mountains of New England or the Berkshire Hills, where color was significantly muted but not absent. I'm talking about the street where I live, my neighborhood, my Greater Boston regional location.  My own backyard.
         This was a home truth to me. Some weather pattern, a little too warm at the start, too cold at the end, a second consecutive dry season -- whatever the causes, the season was out of sorts. 
          They Fell Without Color seeks to register that sense of loss. Here's the final stanza:

They fell in the morning, were gone by the eve
No eye marked their turning, by nightfall they leave
They drop like the hour, the loss of the sun
They drop like the rainstorm, dark to our sight
They wrinkle and brown and crumble and fall
And scuttle in gutters, a brown boneless ball
And leave us alone through a long starless night
To ponder a year with the season undone


          To read the whole poem, and my other two poems, see: http://www.verse-virtual.com/robert-knox-2018-january.html

           The poem that deals with a more distant past is titled
That 70's Photo. The photo I used to illustrate the poem (seen above) is a view of Bash Bish Falls taken much more recently, back in November, on a visit to the picturesque spot on the Massachusetts and New York border. The visit, our first there in many years, reminded me of wheeling a stroller down that wooded path back in the late seventies when our first child, Sonya, was traveling on wheels rather than on toddler legs. The poem describes that path in this excerpt:


The long leafy way, like a carriage drive
designed for an 18th century gathering
of French grandees costumed as peasants...
 


            
           The poem that looks to the future is based on dire report on the future of planet Earth offered in the highly regarded book "The Sixth Extinction" by Elizabeth Kolbert, which I read a few years ago. Titled Sixth Extinction, my poem is largely a 'list poem' addressing the question of what will be lost in the coming, and widely predicted, die-off. Here's an excerpt:

What will disappear?
Toasters, roller coasters
Piled books on the night-table library,
the ever-unread and the old favorites tumbled together,
Star fish, sea urchins, the nautilus cephalopod
Snow-salted East End streets on "Call The Midwife"...


            Not to end on a pessimistic note, hardly any other poems in January's Verse-Virtual are about the end of the world. To see for yourself, go to http://www.verse-virtual.com/poems-and-articles.html

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Garden of the Seasons: The Last Days of Christmas... Big Snow, Small Temps, and the Moderately Absurd Struggle to Take Out the Trash



            On the Eighth Day of Christmas (Jan. 1, in calendar terms) the reality of the new year was settling in. (See the first seven days at http://prosegarden.blogspot.com/2017/12/the-garden-of-seasons-twelve-days-of.html )
Since the day was a national holiday, offices were closed, work options slim, all possibility of outdoor exercise laughingly obliterated by subprime temperatures unexperienced in the last century, the domestic celebration of the holiday season was reduced to two hours in the local Y. This lengthy holiday period was beginning to wear, overlapping as it did the metaphysical question of meteorological nonbeing: what does it mean to be below zero? To add a particular frosting (in the icy sense) on our predicament, it turned out that our local YMCA had proved a popular magnet, serving for everybody else's holiday port of last resort. The joint was jumping. The machines were humming.
            As a rule I begin my workout routine with a warming bout of stationary cycling. Approaching the exercise device-room clatter, though happily the metal-freak had not been allowed to pump his favorite torments through the crowd-control amplifier this busy afternoon, I was confronted by a rank of stationary cycle machines fully occupied in whole-hearted, and no doubt resolute, efforts to draw off those calories: Eight Maids A-Milking.
            You will permit Day Nine to be a little less festive. The world of work has resumed, zooping Anne out of the house at an early, arctic hour. My own interest centered on the progress of the most intriguing of my holiday season gifts, the indoor seed-starting kit that includes a substantial tray, three little square-bottomed metal planters, five packets of tiny herbal seeds (cilantro, for example, fall somewhere between microscopic and invisible), three label-sticks that resemble what you have when you finish licking your creamsicle. All this is accompanied by a grow-light unit that, when attached to a narrow ledge beneath a window, shines with a hot-pink fury that not only makes me want to stand up and grow, but glows through both the parlor and out onto the darkened street. A sure sign, no doubt, to passersby that they are entering a hot pink-light district.
            Summon the Nine Dancing Ladies.
            On the Tenth Day -- has it really been so long? -- we are taking advantage of a virtual thaw to explore new transportation options. The greater regional transportation, the notorious MBTA, having graciously created this opportunity for exploration by deciding to close down the nearby Wollaston train station for a modest two years to do a few long-delayed repairs and figure out how to build the elevator they have been putting off for 27 years since the passage of American Disabilities Act. This tardy decision gave Anne, who ordinarily trains from the nearby station, the opportunity to sample the MBTA's bus transportation system. Of which we have all heard so much.
            We spend the day with fingers crossed. Tonight we will learn the success (or otherwise) of this new throw in the game of commutation. If it does not go as planned, if the conveyance, say, fails to arrive on schedule to rescue those who shudder at the roadside in chilly dawning expectation of its momentary appearance, the powers that be will hear about it. Who be these powers? The Lord Duke of Baker, the Lord Overseer of the Duchy of MBTA, Quinzee's Lord Mayor of Coquetry, plus seven of the (good-lord, are they really?) city council sitters.
            And we will do our best to set these Ten Lords A-Leaping.
            As for self, in celebration of the day's heat wave spiking temps into the upper twenties, I mobilize local transport to pry around the neighborhood in search of simple needs; a planner for the now three-day old year of 2018.  (Struck out.) A parking space near the local library (got lucky). A visit to the High Church of Coffee with the Best Bagels. (Reliable as ever). A longer foray to an emporium of general merchandise (still need the planner); abandoned for lack of faith. But my perseverance had earlier been rewarded when the High Church of Coffee proclaimed a divine intervention to bless me with a free four-dollar coffee. A troubling gift: do I really pay four dollars for coffee?
            And when will the dubious gifts of this grateful season stop coming? On the Eleventh Day we are gifted from heaven by fourteen inches (and counting) of fresh white celestial product. I'm not sure who ordered it, or why so much. Is this what happens when I press the wrong button, or press the right button twice, on one of those many Amazon-like purchase sites. I recently donated the value of our house to the Massachusetts branch of the ACLU by entering some other value (mobile phone number?) in the wrong place. Good-humoredly, they gave us most of it back, but warned me not to do it again. Sue me, I said.
            But nobody, I fear, is taking back this snow. Considering our recent temperatures have been lower than those in most of Alaska, I sense a theme of misdirection in our weather that is seriously imperiling the festive mood of these last Days of Christmas. There is nothing convivial about worrying over loose windows and leaky roofs in the old houses of the old cities of older-by-the-day New England. Soon we will have hired folks clomping around our roofs to remove the burden of accumulated snow that refuses to thaw and go away, as it used to in the good old winters of yesteryear, but is like to be perma-glued in place by the current spate of single-digit temperatures. Then there is the matter, or specter, of frozen pipes.
            Vacation homes by picturesque lakes in Rockwellian towns like Stockwater and Lake Norman, I am told, are particularly vulnerable to this malady if their plumbing has not been adequately drained to the last drop. I am convinced that if I were to plow my way through the current storm all the way to the Bezerkshers, we would find whole neighborhoods fraught with worry and desperately seeking experts -- what shall we call them? those mavens of drainage? -- in this matter of dewatering their plumbing to the very last drop.
            Indeed, I am certain that we would straightway be confronted by Eleven Pipers Piping.
            If not more!
            And how many side-walk shovelers will this Twelfth and final Day of Christmas require? I cling to my pink gro-lights, call for my bowl (soup once again on the evening menu) and pipe -- not that kind; not the other kind, either, because I don't smoke, even on Christmas -- but the pipeline of screen-based diversion that nourishes the spirit in these dark and (rather excessively, in my opinion) frigid days, wherein we watch moral parables of loss and forgiveness.
            We are all ready, I think, to toss out the holiday spirit. The spirit, or at least its wrappings, have piled up in our house. Day Twelve has a humble goal: make sure the trash gets picked up. We missed trash day a week ago while making our airy little way back to Massachusetts from the great New York City, arriving home via the Blue Hills (you will recall) just in time to see the garbage truck turning off of our block. This week trash collection was moved back one day in recognition of that secular feast, New Year's Day (or Eight Maids A-Milking, you will also recall). That meant pick-up day was Thursday. But no one was picking up anything on Thursday. Rather the heavens were dropping about a foot and a half of fast-lying white-faced precipitant on our unprotected noggins. All this leads to Fearful Friday.
            Will the streets be cleared sufficiently for the city's trash removal service to free us from our overflowing burden? Can we manage to clear our own pathways sufficiently to haul out the receptacles and plant them on the half-cleared streets? What sayeth the city's bonnie website? It sayeth nought. What sayeth its friendly Facebook page? Mister Mayor Longface on video speaking sadly of the flooding, long-facedly of the power disruptions, the traffic accidents, the strandings, the public shelter opened in the high school. But nary a word on the prospects of a Friday trash pickup. If we are compelled to live another week among our leavings, we will require yet another plastic trash container. We have already topped off three, one beyond our usual two (one of these, perforce, solely for recycling), for it fell out that in the time before these magical days of the Feast of Christmas were accomplished, way back at "Partridge in a Pear Tree," our domicile was home to four and even five revelers instead of the usual two, and unsparing were we all when it came to wrapping paper, ribbon, cardboard containers, witty misdirections, other such oddments of packaging, not to mention eat, imbibe, and be reasonably, fittingly merry, and maketh such comestibles as cranberry quickbread from scratch (not so quickly), and mulleth over cider, leaving leavings of orange peel and husks of nutmeg, and the occasional carapace of bourbon.
            So, obviously, lots of trash. In despair, I fell into a slumber, bidding my goodwife to wake me at the first sound of an advancing Trash Removal Vehicle of considerable girth.
            When the call came I had not yet left my bedchamber. Goodwife however has already legged it down to the train station. "Rouse thyself, husband, from your bucolic stupor," she urged, via the landline, "for I hear the music of the Giant Beast that Eats Garbage already in my ear."
            What happened next is not easy to tell. Sleep-fogged, eskimo-clad (though lacking finer points: where was that hat?), I was shocked to find that the path punctiliously cleared the previous snow-slurred afternoon had been re-whitened with blow-hard. Somehow this new load of snow had acquired a girth the airier precip of an earlier day lacked. Each shovelful strained second-day muscles. And then, my waterloo, my trial of tears, I discover that I have failed to lay even a single shovel on the passageway between the narrow canyon of sidewalk and the deeps of Mr. Trashmore, where the filled-to-brim receptacles await me. I slog my way through. Cold around the ankles, the calves, the vulnerable knees. I grapple the weightiest of these, old over-sized blue-skinned re-munchables.    
            I haul it, bucking and moaning, through the uncleared passage to the sidewalk canyon and then venture the similarly uncleared and, not to exaggerate, the freshly mountainous driveway, thanks to the timely attentions of the plow, at which moment I am verbally accosted by a well-intentioned neighbor. Who, mid-speech, witnesses my stumble and plunge into this freshly snowed summit, calving glaciers as I fall.
            I gather my snow-spattered dignity, rising like a frost-tattered Prometheus. "What's that?"
            "The driveway. We'll take care of it."
            Ah. I realize he is referencing the presence of his home-for-January-break daughter's red battery-powered vehicle next to our own more battered conveyance in our off-street parking area.
            Naturally, pride in my own resurgent vitality forces me to gainsay. "Oh, I'll work on it later."
            Later meaning after I stick these garbage cans somewhere out in the street where the goddam trash service can finally do its job and I can stop thinking about it.
            He repeats his vow of clearance as I grapple my burden anew.
            The snowed-in, plowed-out, hellishly frigid Twelfth Day of Christmas proceeds. When I look up from the breakfast table, my blue giant recyclable-receptacle is being machine-handled into the trash-eating dragon that grunts its way down the semi-cleared street. One down. Sometime later when the tasks of solitude have reclaimed my attention I notice that the other two black plastic containers have been emptied as well and, in their lightened state, are preparing to roll around the neighborhood, victims of every Arctic-day gust. When I venture out to reclaim them I discover, sure enough, the driveway has been handsomely cleared to the roadway sufficient to allow the egress of the two side-by-side vehicles.
            After gathering up the containers, relieved that the trash crisis over, I turn my back on this newly restored order of transportation, or ways and means. The sun glares, the wind roars. Beyond my sphere of attention the world gathers. The postman arrives; the afternoon paper. The parties of snow shovel-wielding entrepreneurs, nowhere in sight the day before, come stalking down the now-cleared strip of sidewalk, some choosing the roadway instead. Chanting loudly they offer of their services to the imperiled householder.
            "Clear! Clear! Have no fear!
            "We are the boys who clear the snow! The quicker you pay the harder we go!"
            "Twenty for sidewalk, fifty for drive! We are the boys who will keep you alive!"
            They come in threes, and then a pair, swiftly pursued by a shovel-raising foursome. I watch their parade from a sunny, pink-glowing window. There they go!
            Our Twelve Drummers Drumming!
           

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Garden of Verses: The Year's First Business is Saying Goodbye


        The January 2018 issue of Verse-Virtual.com, the online poetry journal, is dedicated to poet Dick Allen, who passed away on Dec. 26.  
         "He was an active member of V-V since April 2015," editor Firestone Feinberg states. "A brilliant poet and an extraordinary person, Dick was good, kind, wise, compassionate— and so much more — a man full of love and care not only for his family and friends but for humanity itself."
          When I became a contributing editor for the online journal -- which essentially means somebody who contributes poems every month and tries to pay attention to what the other poets are writing -- I did not know who Dick Allen, Poet Laureate of the state of Connecticut from 2010 to 2015, was. That's a sign of how little I know about who's who in American poetry today. 
           Lots of other poets, including contributors to Verse-Virtual, were not only familiar with Dick Allen's work, but regarded him as an influence on their work, and in some cases as a mentor. 
           The comments I'm summarizing below come from the "tributes" page in the January issue.
           Poet Sydney Lea first encountered Dick's work in the 70s. He notes a guiding principle throughout his many volumes: 
 "the notion that the most important realities lie behind the scrim of preoccupations, anxieties, and aspirations that we all experience.  I will hold Dick– and on my better days, his example– close to my heart for as long as I tread the earth. R.I.P., good man."
           Poet Judy Kronenfield did not know him personally, but treasured his poems. 
"His poetry is steeped in and has totally absorbed literary tradition, but wears it lightly, and for his own purposes..."
            She quotes from his poem "Then":
When the “white horse” comes “galloping toward us,” there is “No road / of words we might take”...

          John Stanizzi was one of the poets who regarded Dick Allen as a role model and influence: 
"Dick's name was the name in poetry in Connecticut. Every young, aspiring poet around these parts was well aware of the presence of this great artist, and if he were reading somewhere, we (my gang of juvenile poets and me), would find a way to be there."

           Verse-Virtual contributing editor Barbara Crooker is an example of a poet that Dick Allen reached out to. She writes that she was "awed by his brilliance" and his attention to other writers.
"He was unfailing in his kindness to me, sending notes when I had a poem appear on The Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily, etc. Later, he asked if he could be my mentor, something that those of us outside the loop of MFA programs never get to have." 
                 I have to admit to knowing what Barbara means by being "outside the loop."
            You can find these and many other tributes at this link:
http://www.verse-virtual.com/tributes-to-dick-allen.html

             And here's the poem that Dick Allen sent to Verse-Virtual for publication in the current issue. In both the technical stuff, its deft handling of a rhyming structure, and meaning -- speaking to us in words we need to hear -- "Quagmire" typifies the value of his art. 
               In his note on the poem, Dick said that he wrote it
"considerably before the Trump administration, as a poem that would apply to almost any quagmire individuals or the nation might have entered.  But it may seem most appropriate now, in these deranged times."



Quagmire 


In it, we try to walk and talk
at the same time:
steps and words, steps and words
so undermined
 

nothing seems safe, no way seems out,
mud lies everywhere,
and the stink of the place, the shiftiness of it,
its murky air.

Do we crawl back?  Do we muck on,
slosh to one side?
Left seems right and right seems left.
Nothing’s verified.

Had we found clear rivers, we
could follow how they run;
had we talked the clouds apart
we could trail the sun.

But swamp and marsh and bog and fen
stretch all around.
The buzzard’s on the crooked branch
and there’s no high ground.

-This Shadowy Place: New Poems (St. Augustine’s Press)