Sandra Beasley, “Pop”

A couple of weeks ago I taught a workshop on metaphor for the finalists in the Poetry in Voice/Voix de Poesie program. This is a recitation contest for high school students (akin to Poetry Out Loud in the US) and is funded by the same good people who bring you the Griffin Poetry Prize. In non-pandemic years, the semi-finalists and their teachers are brought together and invited to participate in a variety of events to make it a kind of two-day celebration of poetry. I’ve been involved in one way or another with the program for a while, and have even had the enormous pleasure of seeing one of my own poems recited by immensely sensitive and dedicated students: 

So metaphor has been on my mind lately. In my workshop I tried to suggest to the students that metaphor isn’t only a way of describing something in a “poetic” way. Metaphor can make connections that change the way we see the world.      

Professorial moment, so we can be clear: officially there are two parts of a metaphor, the tenor and the vehicle. The tenor is the thing being described, the main subject; the vehicle is the “other thing” that’s brought in to help us see the main subject in a new light. (These terms were developed by Modernist critic I.A. Richards, if you really want to know.) In a metaphor like “My friend Frank is a tank,” the tenor is Frank, and the vehicle is the tank. The “tank” helps us see Frank a little more clearly, as big, unstoppable, maybe a little brutal, etc. Why “tenor” and “vehicle”? I dunno, ask Ivor Richards. 

Frank (tenor?) is a tank (vehicle).
Whose dream are you?

But of course, the best kinds of metaphor do more than that – they make links between two separate things that help us re-imagine both of them.  Think of Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem”: “What happens to a dream deferred? […] does it dry out / like a raisin in the sun?” Yes, the image gives us an idea of what happens when someone’s dream is put off for so long that it dries up like a raisin. But call me silly, sometimes when I grab myself a fistful of raisins, I look more closely at them and wonder about the grapes they were: “Whose dreams are you?” To put it in Richards’ terms, the tenor is also the vehicle, and vice versa.

So when I was reading Sandra Beasley’s latest collection, Made to Explode, “Pop” jumped right off the page and made me wish I had read it a week or two before, so that I could have brought it to the PIV students. Ah well, next time. 

.

Pop

.

.

We call an unpuffed piece

the old maid

.

but she’s just the one

who read the fine print.

.

Germ and sugar curled

in her hard hull,

.

deciding whether 

to shake out her sheets.

.

Sometimes it’s worth it—

pan, oil, flame.

.

Sometimes you must 

hold the steam within you.

.

  • Excerpted from Made to Explode: Poems. Copyright (c) 2021 by Sandra Beasley. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved

I’ve always suspected that some of the kernels in my microwave popcorn bag had just refused to pop, but I’d never understood why until this poem revealed it to me. Beasley seizes on how her family calls them “old maids” to make a connection between these incomplete morsels and women who might be similarly labelled. We may not use terms like “old maid” or “spinster” much any more (except in a card game) but they are recent enough to have a sting. And of course women’s lives are still often evaluated based on their marital status and fertility. Do we really feel frustrated by single women who are “unpuffed” in the same way we feel cheated by the unpopped kernels at the bottom of the bowl? And what is this “fine print” that these refuse-niks have been reading? 

While we wonder about that, let me back up and think about the title for a second. “Pop” is what the subject of the poem has not done. In fact, by not popping, the kernel of corn has refused to becomepopcorn” at all. It’s just corn. So in a way the title is misleading. But “Pop” is also a much better title than “Kernel of Corn,” and starts us off with a bit of energy and expectation. I can also think of a few aspects of the “fine print” for which the verb “pop” is used – we say a pregnant woman’s belly eventually “pops” when she really starts to show, for example – that give the title a little added resonance. 

So the subject of our poem is a kernel of corn that has not “unpuffed” in the pan or microwave. She’s the one “who’s read the fine print” – but which fine print is this? I mean, for a kernel of corn, it’s pretty straightforward: if you pop, you’ll probably get eaten. But what about the other “old maids” that might be resisting societal expectations to “pop” in traditional ways?

Rather than answering the question, the next stanza detours into a description of the kernel in its stubborn state. Can we pause briefly and appreciate the sonic pleasure of that third stanza? We don’t need it for the sense of the poem from a pure “meaning” standpoint. We could skip this whole sentence and go from “fine print” to “Sometimes it’s worth it…” if we just wanted clarity. But the detour is a delicious one: 

            Germ and sugar curled 

            in her hard hull

I count 5 hard Rs in that little couplet, and I’m suddenly made aware of how that letter (or at least the way I pronounce it, as a child of Southern New England) makes my mouth curl in on itself in the same way I imagine the corn kernel does. Also, as this very useful website from the State of Montana points out, the germ in a kernel of corn or wheat is the “embryo or sprouting section of the seed,” the part that contains the hope of a new plant. So the “germ and sugar” have lots of connotations for me with both the pleasures (sugar) and fertility (germ) associated with the activities (puffing, shaking out her sheets) that this particular old maid is refusing to perform.  

Some old maids.

This is the moment in the poem when we are very clear that we are not just talking about salty snacks. What we get, instead, is a kind of projection from the speaker of this poem, who seems to have some ambivalence about starting a family, or at least sympathizes with those who resist that pressure.

Once the poem has turned, and we are fully associating the language Beasley is using to describe the kernel with a woman who is deciding whether to pursue sexual/romantic/reproductive passion, then the final two couplets are a kind of winking with us. The “pan, oil, flame” is of course referring to the accoutrements of popcorn making. But it is also clearly referring –metaphorically – to other kinds of flame. At first the metaphoric linking of the kernel to the old maid was a way of re-imagining the corn – the kernel was the tenor, the old maid the vehicle, to use I.A. Richard’s terms. But now the kernel has become a metaphor for women rejecting a certain kind of life – now the woman is the tenor, the kernel a vehicle. 

This is all great fun, and the combination of the rich sonic pleasures I get from the poem and the nudge-wink of the “sometimes it’s worth it” would be enough to make this a satisfying short read. It’s already the best poem I know about popcorn. But there’s something about that last couplet that haunts me:

Sometimes you must 

hold the steam within you.

The “steam” has the same passionate connotations that were referred to earlier, but this last statement also feels like it’s reaching towards something larger. Note also the sudden switch to second person: “Sometimes you must…” And while I personally am a man who has procreated (three times, God help us), I know exactly what the poem means when it suggests that sometimes I must hold the steam within me. Whether that “steam” is anger or passion or creativity or whatever, sometimes we want to keep it to ourselves until we are good and ready, no matter what the frying pan expects. That final discovery in the poem is only possible if we see both sides of the metaphor working on each other, and has the power of a proverb that I can take away with me long after the poem is complete.

Julie Joosten, from “Love Poem”

Julie Joosten’s second collection, Nought, includes a 14-page list poem that I think is just tremendous. A thorough exploration of the whole poem would require a lot more space that I make for myself here, so the only option is to chop off what I hope is a representative sample piece and spend some time with it. It’s a bit unfair, and takes away something of the momentum and atmosphere of the longer piece. But it’s the best I can do. And I did ask the poet for permission, so here we go.

from “Love Poem”

And you caught me crying in the kitchen.

Are you perhaps my superego?

I ride the train to you.

You’re a marvellous imp, though you hotly deny it.

And you sleep under my desk.

And when I glanced up, I saw you through the window, smiling as you read.

And you are your own hermeneutic system.

Will you be our baby’s godmother?

And you wrote that you heard their voices in this poem, but yours is here, too.

And we wag our whole bodies at you.

And I took my hand from yours / but not because I wanted to.

And you blush under your face mask.

And are the goddess of the backward glance.

And call me kuklamu.

And on your way out the door to school you say, pretend we’re married, and you kiss me passionately, the way people kiss in the movies.

While you were backpacking, you wrote me with pencil in a rainstorm / and when I opened your letter, only faint marks were left. 

And I have tobacco for you.

And you bark for the ball.

–from “Love Poem”, published in Nought © 2020 by Julie Joosten. Used with permission of Book*hug Press.

I’ve written about a list poem once before, on one of George Murray’s Diversions. (George has a Selected Poems coming out this year, by the way. Keep an eye out!) One of the things I say there is that many list poems are fun because they can take us anywhere: the absence of a cohesive narrative or argument allows the poet to flit distractedly from one impulse or image to another, so that we as readers can play with making connections without the usual connective tissue. 

Something else is at work here, though. The circumstances of the poem – a domestic situation, with a lover, a baby, and a dog – are consistent, and while the speaker of the poem wanders, her circumstances don’t really change. There’s a general feeling of contentment and warmth, albeit with a fair bit of distress or anxiety as well – why is she “crying in the kitchen”?

Along the way there are some nice musical moments: the repeated ks in “caught me crying in the kitchen,” or the rich interplay of sounds in “blush under your face mask.” And some nice snapshots of a couple in what seems like a space between new love and settled down – there’s plenty of passion but also an ease, a tranquility in the relationship despite the fact that they still live apart. This extract is from around page 4 of the poem, and by this point I get into a certain rhythm, accumulating detail and gesture, question and concern, in a way that amounts to a kind of mood.

An illustration from Topsell’s The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents, 1658. I stole the image from an article in The Paris Review.

All of this affection and play reminds me of the famous 74-line section in Jubilate Agno by the 18th century poet Christopher Smart that extols his cat, Jeoffry:

For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.

For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.

For he can catch the cork and toss it again.

For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.

For the former is afraid of detection.

For the latter refuses the charge.

For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.

For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.

You can find the rest of the cat section of the poem here.

Smart’s ode to his cat is about more than his cat, of course. As the title implies, it’s also a religious poem: for Smart, the beautiful playful perfection of his cat is proof of God’s hand in creation. Because who but a Benevolent Divine Will could invent a creature as full of fine quality as Jeoffry? 

Joosten’s poem is not so clear on the nature of the Divine, or of perfection. But the cascade of expressions has a similar cumulative effect, assembling a larger sense of joy, and of an appreciation, even of blessing.

Who thinks dogs are better?

Not to say that everything is perfect here; there are complicating factors that emerge throughout. The mentioned lover doesn’t seem to be living with the speaker (“I ride the train to you”), and their status sometimes seems a bit unresolved or insecure – “Will you be our baby’s godmother?” feels like a strange self-doubting question, and at other points in the poem (beyond what I’ve excerpted here) the speaker claims “we are not lovers,” though their intimacy (and the kissing in the doorway) seems too passionate to be anything else. Perhaps there are lingering anxieties about the status of their same-sex union (it’s clear that both of them are women): “And I took my hand from yours / but not because I wanted to” might allude to some kind of awareness of disapproval? Or maybe the speaker’s feelings include sexual desire but the loved one is conflicted on this point? Also, the lover’s pet name for the speaker, kuklamu, is derived from the Russian word for a doll, I believe, so I assume it’s an affectionate pet name, but my research into the Urban Dictionary tells me that kukla can also refer to the type of woman who is superficially concerned with appearances, so there may be a bit of a dig in there too. 

Other parts of the poem mention the loss of a mother, and of a dog named Cricket. The poem gathers imagistic and emotional data, taking its time to paint a fuller and richer picture of the life the speaker has with those around her, and like any life this one has its griefs and cares. I don’t need to know the exact details to get the general gist.

But there’s something else, and for me this last element is what makes this poem so remarkable. Let me approach it by way of a question: In the excerpt above, is the “you” who caught the speaker crying in the kitchen the same “you” who “sleep[s] under my desk”? Surely the one who wants to “pretend we’re married” is not the same one who “barks for the ball,” is it? IS IT? What little I know of psychology suggests that it’s unlikely that a “marvellous imp” might also be someone’s “superego.” So what’s going on with the pronouns here? Who is the speaker, and who the object of affection? Is the poem sometimes told from the perspective of the dog? And who the heck is speaking in a pronoun brain-twister like “And you wrote that you heard their voices in this poem, but yours is here, too”?!

The answer is Yes. To all of the questions. The “I” at the centre of the poem blurs from the I who comes and goes from the house to the dog who pads around in it, the lover who visits and even occasionally (I think) the baby, who maybe is the one who “took my hand from yours / though not because I wanted to.” Reading it again I had a marvellous time rethinking some of the lines as if the “you” were not so obvious – how the baby might “wag our whole body at you” or what it might mean for a dog to be someone’s superego, or a baby’s godmother.

Look, I’ve been married long enough to feel comfortable saying things like “We’ll drive you to Charlie’s,” when I don’t know whether my wife or I will be the one going. I don’t believe I was ever so gauche as to say, “we’re pregnant,” but I may have said “we’re expecting.” One of the pleasures of being a part of a group, large or small, is being able to speak about its ways of seeing, to possess and use a collective pronoun like “we.” In a larger context these statements can amount to a kind of cultural shorthand – “At our weddings, we eat more dessert and drink less beer.” 

But this is about something more than belonging. It’s a rearrangement of subjectivity, a level of empathy and connection to such a degree that the border between the “I” and the “you” and the dog and the baby is erased. Even in the most analytical terms there are ways our bodies overlap: the nursing mother, the slobbering dog with its fur in your mouth, the interminglings of sex, and the expansions of shared sensations and experiences. Maybe all of them are part of the same thing, a four-figured entity with its own perception and self-awareness.  The insight, as it’s revealed in the poem, is so striking because it’s so obvious – or maybe it seems obvious in the poem because of the gradual way it dawns on me as a reader. I don’t feel confused or disrupted as the “you” begins to diffuse. I feel welcomed into a small world made of language and illuminated by love.

Happy Love Day!

I hope you are all enjoying the Holiday of Love the best way you know how. Around here in the Sol household, we celebrated with chocolate chip pancakes and light bulb replacement. It was very romantic.

One small bit of excitement – I’m working on a new blog post, and it’s about a poem that’s so much about LOVE that its title is “Love Poem”! It’s from Julie Joosten’s terrific collection Nought, published by the good people at Book*hug Press. Hoping to have it ready by the end of the week.

Until then, stay safe, and give a squeeze to the ones who need squeezing!

Jericho Brown, “A Young Man”

Jericho Brown is the hottest poet working in the United States right now. His most recent book, The Tradition, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019, and his poem “Say Thank You Say I’m Sorry” was one of the first iconic works of art to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, so much so that the incomparable Alfre Woodard recorded a recitation of it on Instagram. He also makes for a great interview – he is charming, with a rich Louisiana accent and a quick wit, a generous dollop of self-deprecation, and a genuine appreciation for other poets. Here’s one example if you want to hear his voice.

I’m not usually in the habit of writing HPM essays on someone whose accolades have piled up as dramatically as Brown’s have. But I’m aware that some readers of this blog may not have encountered him yet, and that’s a problem I can help fix, in my small way. Also, there’s a poem from The Tradition that hasn’t gotten as much attention as others, and which I want to spend a bit of time with. Brown’s interview persona is so winning, and “Say Thank You Say I’m Sorry” is warm and open, but that is far from the only note the Brown hits in his work, and I want to focus on a poem with a darker tone. Not to be a downer in the new year, but to show you the complexity and depth of Brown’s artistry.  

A Young Man

We stand together on our block, me and my son,

Neighbors saying our face is the same, but I know

He’s better than me: when other children move

.

Toward my daughter, he lurches like a brother

Meant to put them down. He is a bodyguard

On the playground. He won’t turn apart from her,

.

Empties any enemy, leaves them flimsy, me

Confounded. I never fought for so much—

I calmed my daughter when I could cradle

.

My daughter; my son swaggers about her.

He won’t have to heal a girl he won’t let free.

They are so small. And I, still, am a young man.

.

In him lives my black anger made red.

They play. He is not yet incarcerated.

 from The Tradition©2019 by Jericho Brown, used by permission of Copper Canyon Press www.coppercanyonpress.org

You probably don’t need me to tell you that a Black American man has a 1 in 3 chance of being incarcerated at some point in his life. This compared to around 1 in 17 for white men. See these links if you want the data, from government and other reputable sources. The number is startling. But for those of us who are not Black, statistics like these aren’t sufficient to communicate its impact, the ambient fear and precarity that are a constant part of living inside a Black man’s skin. This poem, for me, is a step in remedying the gap between what I know and what I can feel.  But as usual, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up. 

The poem begins with a father and his children at a playground, with neighbors around who comment on how much the speaker’s son resembles him. I’ve heard some version of “[y]our face is the same” dozens of times myself at playgrounds. And so we begin with the very familiar, followed by the common fatherly sentiment that his son is “better than me.”

Three years old and he can read the funny papers.

I want to stop here for a second, with the stanza break. I haven’t written a lot on this blog about stanza breaks, but here’s an example of a poet using it to give us a bit of an extra gap between one half of a thought and another. The slight pause we read into the sentence, despite the fact that it continues uninterrupted by punctuation, hints at a sort of turn in the attentions of the poem, now that the scene is set. In that momentary pause, I have a sense that the poem could go in any number of different directions.

Because at this point, we don’t know what it is about the son that makes the father think he’s “better.” The gap between “when other children move…” and the rest of the sentence could lead us to any number of places – about the son’s physical grace, or his athleticism – the sentence could continue, “when other children move / my son dances” or “when other children move / away from his wheelchair, he doesn’t cry.” We are trying to find out what makes the son – in his father’s eyes – “better.” And the extra pause the stanza break causes allows us to invent an answer – temporarily, provisionally – on our own. 

For this father, though, the trait his son exhibits that makes him “better” is how protective he is of his little sister. When other children approach, he “lurches like a brother / meant to put them down.” Already there’s a hint of something troubling – why does the girl need such attention? The first verb that refers to the son’s actions, “lurches,” is not one we usually associate with a child. When does a boy “lurch”? It strikes me as almost humorous, the way a boy sometimes tries to imitate a man’s gestures without being able to carry them off, or to fully understand their implications. The boy takes his role as a big brother seriously, perhaps even too seriously. What is he afraid of? The seed is planted in our minds that the world this family inhabits is pretty dangerous if an older sibling has to be so vigilant. We aren’t told how old the children are, so it’s hard to know if he’s protecting her from schoolgirl cruelty or more advanced (sexual?) dangers. But either way, his determination feels a bit extreme. 

Still, we might at first find this hyper-vigilance endearing in the child, or even be proud of the fact that he “empties any enemy, leaves them flimsy,” especially because this is an action that the “confounded” father cannot do himself. But by the time we understand that “[h]e won’t have to heal a girl he won’t let free,” I’m concerned. The boy sounds less like a protector now and more like a jailer. Where will this lead? He can’t protect her forever, of that we can be certain. Not to mention that she’s going to have her own opinions about his behaviour soon enough. 

(There’s the presence in the poem, then, of a gender dynamic of protection, possession, and threat that there isn’t space to cover fully here. Suffice it to say that the girl’s situation is no less fraught than her big brother’s. Brown deals more explicitly with this subject in other poems as well.)

The speaker is conscious of the differences between himself and his son. He might be a nurturing parent who “calmed my daughter when I could cradle // my daughter,” but he’s aware that the more drastic protective measures his son is capable of are beyond his capacity. And if his daughter is now too big to “cradle,” I imagine he’s not sure of his role. Immediately after the troubling “a girl he won’t let free” remark, he takes a step back: “They are so small.” The tone is almost wistful, and he recognizes that he, too, is a young father, still figuring things out. 

One other brief note about form: you may have noticed that the poem has 14 lines, and I’d suggest that any 14 line poem has to contend with the legacy of the sonnet. I’ve written elsewhere about sonnets and how the form has been adapted in contemporary poems (See my essay on Don Patterson’s “Mercies” in the book or this one on the blog). This poem doesn’t strictly follow traditional rhyming or metrical patterns, but it absolutely has a volta, the “turn” in thinking that is the sonnet’s most lasting legacy. 

The first turn is to the metaphorical. What does the speaker mean by “my black anger made red”? What is “black anger” in the first place? Is it just the “anger of being Black”? That doesn’t seem sufficient, although the connotations are certainly there. Are we to read “black anger” the way we’d metaphorically read “black mood,” as despairing and depressed, in contrast to the son’s anger which is “red” with passion or action? The history of those colour associations has its own problems. But before I can fully get my head around the implications of that penultimate sentence, the poem punches me in the gut with the last line.

Because while this loving father may not be sure (who is?!) about how to properly raise, care for, protect, and encourage his children, he does know one thing about his son: if he is the type of boy who puts himself at risk for the sake of those he loves; if he is the type of young man who is conscious of every slight; if he “won’t turn apart” from those in his charge; if the best tool at his disposal for dealing with threats is his own body, if his anger is “made red” – if all of these things are aspects of the son’s character, and if he is Black, then he is likely to have unpleasant encounters with law enforcement before too long. Our speaker knows this because as a young, Black man, the threat is real for him too. 

This is what makes that “not yet” in the last sentence so devastating. The idea that a father could look at his son, at the ways in which his son is better than he is, and know that the very (imperfect) traits that make him “better” are the same things that are going to land him in trouble, that may destroy his life – that idea is terrifying for me as the father of three sons. 

Let’s be honest: if my oldest son exhibited the same traits that are attributed to the son in this poem, if he were overly protective of his siblings, or even got into a fight with some school bully – I’d worry, of course, but would my first thought be that he is on a path to prison? Probably not. No, “He is not yet incarcerated” makes the poem about race, and police violence, and about a kind of despair. It is the worry of a father in a specific socio-political context. It’s a line that reminds me that while many of this father’s worries and doubts and affections are the same as my own, he has other worries that I am protected from. And it changes my way of looking at a familiar neighborhood scene that makes me more aware, more empathetic, and more troubled.

Lily Wang, “BOY”

It occurs to me that I haven’t written a lot about love poems on this blog. Maybe it’s my stage of life, what I’m looking for in my reading. Or maybe it’s less what young poets are doing with their work right now? Lily Wang’s “BOY” hardly counts as a love poem anyway – it’s clearly an expression of a desire for escape. But there are so many delightful quick turns here that, even during a rainy week with lots of distractions and depressions and other work to do, I wanted to steal a bit of time to walk through this remarkable little contraption. 

BOY

BOY has his own condo and I love to play house. BOY kisses my eye with his wet beer mouth. I nearly blinded myself trying to put on makeup. BOY says I can shower then BOY gets in with me. The water is hot and there’s no air. How can I sing?

                                                How can I sing?

– from Saturn Peach, (Gordon Hill Press, 2020), used by permission

First pleasure: the first two sentences are basically rhyming pentameter couplets. In my ear that first sentence moves very quickly so that it has five stresses – BOY has his OWN CONdo and i LOVE to play HOUSE. The second sentence has five stresses in a much smaller space, with three syllables in WET BEER MOUTH all emphasized in a delightfully sensual, sloppy mess. The couplet is also a lightning-quick snapshot about the status of the relationship: the Boy’s physical desire for the speaker is insufficiently self-aware, while the speaker’s focus seems primarily on her own development (“play house”) rather than on any interest in her partner. Using an all-caps BOY five times in this short space seems like the kind of shorthand someone might use while texting a friend, but it also serves to belittle him. He’s not MAN or MARCUS or even BAE. The implication I can’t quite shake is that maybe she’s only half-sure of his name?

The third sentence – “I nearly blinded myself trying to put on makeup” – gives us a better idea of a speaker who is only just emerging into adulthood. She’s dating a “BOY,” not a man; she’s “playing house” like a child does; and whether because she was in a hurry, or has not fully mastered her technique, she’s not yet adept at doing the kinds of skills that a “woman” should be able to do. I know, I know, perfectly capable adult women occasionally nearly blind themselves attempting to apply eyeliner too – I’ve heard my wife cursing from the bathroom – but the fact that this is one of the only things the speaker tells us about herself puts a certain weight on the detail. Also, why is she applying makeup before getting in the shower? Maybe she wasn’t sure the BOY would suggest it?

The moment of dramatic action in the poem, when the BOY offers his shower to our speaker and then joins her uninvited, gives us a whole host of situational problems to resolve. It’s easy to see how he might think of this as romantic and sexy. But given what we know about the relationship, it’s also easy to see how our speaker would feel this as an unwelcome invasion. “The water is hot and there is no air” certainly doesn’t suggest that she’s turned on by his actions. The sense of suffocation has now cemented my sense that it’s time for her to go. We don’t know what her response is in the moment – does she rebuff his advances and leave? Or does she feel too trapped to escape immediately? I can’t help imagining her trying to decide while her recently-applied eyeliner begins to smudge. 

The last two lines, the repeated “How can I sing?” with the unusual stanza break and spacing, do a lot of work for me. The space adds an extra pause in a poem that has been moving at a pretty brisk pace until now. The sensation for me is as if the first question is directed to herself, while the last one is turned toward to the camera, at me. The first one expresses frustration. The second asks for help.

Then there’s the suggestion that the heat and the lack of air are literally suffocating our speaker so that she is unable to get enough breath to sing, or shout. This evokes real danger. BOY’s initial intentions might be benign, but he now has her in a situation where, even if she wanted to escape, she might be physically unable to do so. So the stakes are higher, more threatening, even if just by implication.

Also, singing in the shower is something we can do for our own pleasure and no one else’s. The privacy, the acoustics, the feeling of being unencumbered and caring for our bodies, the illusion that no one else can hear us – all of these aspects make it a deeply self-affirming action. So the fact that our speaker cannot sing in this moment is yet another demonstration of how she cannot discover or cultivate her best self. If she truly felt comfortable with this boy, then singing in the shower with him might be something romantic and fun. Even if it’s not because she literally can’t breathe, she’ll never be able to expose or express her deepest, truest self with him. 

There’s one other association with the way this question is phrased that I can’t get out of my head. For me, “How can I sing” echoes of another lament, from Psalm 137:

On the willows we hung up our harps,

            for our captors there demanded from us words of song,

            our tormentors required mirth:

            ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

But how can we sing God’s song in a foreign land?

The Jews Mourning in Exile, (1832) by Eduard Bendemann (1911-1889)

The writer of this Psalm is in exile after the destruction of Jerusalem, mourning a way of life, a lost culture. I don’t want to over-reach here and suggest that Lily Wang’s speaker is in “exile” in this young man’s apartment – she doesn’t seem to be in a captivity that’s as communal or as dangerous. But the reference to the Psalms suggests to me that the search for her own voice, her own self, is her god-given mission in this moment, and the fact that she is prevented from pursuing that goal is a problem with quasi-religious consequences. It also reminds us that this problem is a very old one, despite the contemporary circumstances and language that is being utilized to describe it here. The speaker is far from the first young woman to wonder “How can I sing?” and, unfortunately, she won’t be the last. 

Is it reading too much into a short, gossipy poem about a mediocre love affair to attach it to a loss of land and identity; to summon perhaps one of the most painful passages in world literature and to connect it to a young woman’s search for a truer self? Perhaps. But perhaps it’s only by connecting her struggle to those who came before her that the speaker is able to find the strength to strike out on her own. By recognizing the spiritual necessity of finding a way to sing her own song, she will hopefully get herself out of the steam and onto the pages of the book we now can read. 

I’m Trying, People

My plan to keep this blog going at a once-a-month pace was always an aspiration, not a goal. And September is bonkers in my house, with the start of school, oldest son moving out, and the Jewish High Holidays. Plus, there’s a pandemic (have you heard?) and with the weather getting darker it’s hard to get much done when it feels like the world is preparing for a Long Night. So it’s been almost two months since my last post (on Claire Caldwell’s “Backcountry Almanac”). But I am zeroing in on a short poem I’d like to write about, something quick and clever with a vein of sadness that hopefully enriches rather than compounds. Probably early next week. 

Oh and hey, I’ve noticed that I’m getting clicks from various school search engines lately. (If you didn’t know, WordPress gives you some information about how people are getting to your site: if they are coming from a Google search, or from Twitter or Facebook, etc.). If you are using my blog in your class (whether you’re a student or a teacher), I’d love it if you let me know. Use the Contact link. No pressure, and I won’t come asking for royalties or anything. But it’s nice to know how the project is traveling. If a classroom visit is of interest, that might be possible too. 

In all cases, thanks for your continued support. More soon!

Claire Caldwell, “Backcountry Almanac”

Backcountry Almanac

Our guide is a goddess

in quick-dry shorts,

braid that could save you

from drowning. Says

weather’s just a function

of how many swims 

you take. A leech

in the pannikin

is worth her laughter.

The value of blisters

is praise. We slough

sunscreen, export

freckles, import spit

and bug spray.

The portage ends

when we hit the lake,

but meanwhile,

she’s mythic: Boreal

centaur, all hull

and hiking boots, 

mud-spattered legs. 

Guardian of time

and trail mix; nineteen 

but seems immortal.

And yes, she says,

if a girl falls

in a forest

she leaves a trace.

            – from Gold Rush (Invisible Books 2020), used by permission

Poetry’s efforts to create larger-than-life heroes are as old as poetry itself: Gilgamesh and Rama, Odysseus and Achilles, Aeneas and Beowulf are all figures brought to life not just by their feats of strength or courage, but by the poetic way their tales are told. 

Traditionally, those heroes have been male. There are exceptions: Antigone and Medea from Greek verse-plays, Mulan from Chinese folk poetry, Deborah and Yael from the Hebrew Bible. But by and large, it’s been up to more modern poets to create female (and other non-male) figures to rival and complement the masculine heroes in our literary legacy.

Claire Caldwell’s “Backcountry Almanac” offers a new icon for our consideration, a “goddess in quick-dry shorts” who leads a troupe of campers on a trip through what appears to be northern Ontario. (I’m using details found in other poems from this section of Gold Rush to locate us – references to Tom Thompson, Muskoka, etc.) 

The poem opens with an alliterative exaggeration (“our guide is a goddess”) and some crisp physical details about her outfit and her hair braid. I suppose that most worthy hair braids could save someone from drowning if you clung to one in a river, but to my ear there’s a weird sense that the braid might just do it on its own – the paranormal shimmer from the “goddess” in the first line threads through this image and will continue throughout. 

Then we get a slice of her matter-of-fact philosophy: “weather’s just a function / of how many swims / you take.” I love this bit of wisdom, at least in part because I have no idea what it means. Is one swim enough for a hot day, but you need two to get the mud off on a wet one? Or is it the opposite, you need to take multiple swims on a hot humid day, whereas you only need one in the rain? Call me a hopeless city boy who has not been trained by someone as adept as our poem’s subject! In the poem, the line brings up the type of effortless, offhand, practical advice that a guide and counselor can provide, the kind of truism that permanently becomes integrated into the minds of those who learn from her.

This is an important point, because just as significant as the description of the woman herself in the poem are the ways she makes her followers behave – if this guide isn’t going to slay any dragons or bears in the wilderness, then the measure of her power is how she is able to train and encourage those in her charge. That’s why I want to think a bit more about the “we” that keeps appearing: “our guide,” “we slough sunscreen,” “we hit the lake.” Who are these kids? What do they need to learn from their mentor?

First off, I have a sneaking suspicion that this is an all-girls troupe. I may have imported this information from other poems in Gold Rush too, and I may also be wrong, but something about the way Caldwell uses the collective “we” over and over makes me think so. Second, they’re not complete novices: they’ve learned some terminology (pannikin, portage), and under the guidance of their leader, they manage the portage and “hit the lake” with what sounds like momentum and energy.

And they worship their guide: “The value of blisters / is praise.” My guess is that these are blisters from paddling, and of course the kids who paddle the hardest (earning praise) are the ones most likely to get blisters. Same with the leech in the pannikin (a pannikin is a small metal drinking cup, for you fellow non-campers out there). At first I thought our hero’s laughter was brought on by a prank – someone slipped a leech into her pannikin.  But when I look more closely, the phrase “is worth” makes me suspect that, for these kids, the terror and disgust of finding a leech in their own drinking cup was “worth it” if their reaction caused their leader to break up in laughter. In other words, any horror they may have felt in the moment, or any embarrassment afterwards, was washed away by the pleasure of the young woman’s laugh. There’s something almost romantic in the sentiment: “It was worth it to see you smile” is a line from a 1997 Tim McGraw song.

I know I’m digging in a little deep here, but I want to emphasize that what makes this woman special is how her charges respond to her, and how those habitualized responses will stand in good stead for these girls as they mature. If, in the future, they are proud to earn blisters by working hard, and are able to laugh off moments of gross discomfort, their lives will be greatly improved. 

This is why the comparison of our guide to a “boreal / centaur” a little further down the poem is so spot-on to me. On its surface, I think the image is meant to evoke the woman carrying a canoe over her head, so her form appears to be “all hull / and hiking boots.” Centaurs, you may recall, are mythological creatures who are human from the waist up and horse from the waist down. But there’s more to this comparison than just the human/nonhuman shape. The most famous centaur in Greek mythology, Chiron, is an honoured tutor for just about all the great heroes: Heracles, Theseus, Perseus, Jason, Achilles, even the god Dionysus, all of them live in the wilderness with Chiron for a while and learn from him. His reputation for nobility and wisdom then are also paired with his skill as an educator, someone who not only possesses knowledge, but who can also transmit that knowledge to young people who are not always such diligent pupils. Young demigods are often hard to pin down to the lesson plan. 

“The Centaur Chiron Instructing Achilles,” by 18th century French painter Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée

Similarly (if I may), getting a crowd of 13 year-old girls to summon enthusiasm for a rigorous portage and camping trip takes a special kind of guide and counselor. So the image is another way to praise our guide. But the other implication of the comparison, the one that stirs me the most, is that among the intrepid young campers struggling to portage in this poem, there are other epic heroines in the making. If she is like Chiron, then they are like Perseus, Theseus, and Achilles.

This is all very positive and affirming, and would be sufficient as an uplifting poem of praise for an affectionately-recalled mentor. Lurking underneath, though, especially at the end of the poem, is our adult sense that this nineteen year-old woman, however adept she is at leading and teaching her pack of pre-teens, and however powerful and omnipotent she may have seemed to the girls in her care, is in fact human and vulnerable. The key word in “nineteen / but seems immortal” is the word seems.

This is driven home in the final sentence, in which she asserts that a “if a girl / falls in a forest / she leaves a trace.” The line reminds me of the “take only memories, leave only footprints” mantra around wilderness tripping that is attributed to Chief Seattle. It is also play on the old philosophical thought experiment, “If a tree falls in the forest with no one to hear, does it make a sound?” But this seems a bit spooky to me in this context. Why would a girl fall in a forest? Why wouldn’t she leave a trace? 

On one hand, our heroine has surely “left a trace” in the mind of the speaker of this poem, and no doubt in many others like her, and so if we strain we can explain away the ending as further assertion of her positive impact. But in a world where violence against young women remains a brutal fact of life, where thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women have not been found, “leaving a trace” when you “fall in a forest” has implications that I can’t help but read with a tone of ominous warning. We have no idea how this icon of feminine power came to lead canoe trips, and we have no idea where she is now. We don’t even know her name.

On the other hand, if the dangers did not exist, we would hardly need heroes. Despite the obstacles – natural and man-made – facing these intrepid voyageurs, despite the risks of drowning, blisters, sunburn, leeches, insect bites, embarrassment, and whatever else might lurk in the forest, this poem provides us with a heroine to rival the figures of mythology in our minds. With guides like her to lead them, how can they fail?

(Xinhua/Wang Ying via Getty Images)

Sonnet L’Abbé, “CXXVII”

Sonnet L’Abbé, “CXXVII”

Ok, let me warn you: I have a lot to say about this poem. I will not be able to stick to my usual ~1200 words. This essay is closer to 2000, so if you need to brew a bit of coffee first, go ahead. I’ll wait.

Ready now? Here’s the poem:

I’m staring at Shakespeare’s poem. Blocked. Carnage because Black was not counted fairly. Torn into faithless weather because literature assured Black bodies bore no right to beauty’s name, because until now is Black’s traumatology streaming in successive waves. The critics never unpack the intestinal douleur of one’s own beauty slandered with a bastard shame. Informed since I could read by the monarchy’s hand on the throat of English, I’ve put on an enunciative face, trusting the figure of speech’s power to fair the ink of English thinking. The foreign anguish, language! With art’s facelessness I borrowed legit face; with my sweet syntax, a beauty that they couldn’t disown. Shame on who? Shame on who? I’m literally bowed over the keyboard of my computer. Sometimes you see yourself profaned. Sometimes you’re profaned–nothing unusual–by the archives you’re working in. Why feel disgraced in two thousand seventeen? Le professeur francophone que j’ai rencontré on Bumble blanks at my imaginary stresses: okay, your poems are about race, but we don’t have to think in black and white over dinner, do we? Somebody doesn’t. This situation suits some bodies just fine, and they will date me, if I don’t bring work home. I’m churning through Shakespeare’s sonnet, contemplating easier occupations. My children, who were not born into fairness, who no beauty ever lacked, who never happened at all, read this grudging creation over my shoulder. They are with me always, as I fail at ease. They don’t exist, as I cleave to my poetry like a significant other who never asks anything of me, who isn’t hurt by my inability to lighten up. Nothing’s coming, just a gust of weather, a failure to work through a sonnet’s hatred. Slavery’s tongue is in my head, kissing me, saying smile, smile, beauty shouldn’t look so hard.

– from Sonnet’s Shakespeare© 2019 by Sonnet L’Abbé, used by permission of Penguin Random House Canada, McClelland & Stewart.

Sonnet L’Abbé’s 2019 collection of poems Sonnet’s Shakespeare invents a form that I haven’t seen before, at least not in the sustained way she uses it. You may be familiar with “erasure poems”: these are poems that take a text, maybe a legal decision, or an advertisement. The poet then removes some of the language to produce a different message. Erasure poems can be visually striking on the page, with text sometimes blacked out so that it might remind us of a piece of censured governmental correspondence. There’s a fairly recent but growing tradition of erasure poems worth reading. Perhaps I’ll get a chance to write about one sometime, but in the meantime here’s an example. And here’s a whole essay about the use of that form in the work of Srikanth Reddy and others.

What’s particularly interesting to me about erasure poems is how they reveal something beneath the surface of an existing text – maybe it’s a layer of threat underneath a block of bureaucratic pap. Maybe a voice of pain or desperation underneath some cheery advertising copy. Either way, the poet’s job is to remove language from our line of vision in order to reveal something else. It’s an act of curatorial creation, or of radical re-reading, similar to other experimental forms that work with “found” texts. See my essay on Madhur Anand’s “Especially in a Time” for another version of this. 

In a sense, what Sonnet L’Abbé has done is the opposite of an erasure: in each of the poems in this collection, she takes one of Shakespeare’s sonnets and overwrites it: that is, she writes her own poem on top of the familiar one by Shakespeare. For example: the first phrase from Shakespeare’s Sonnet CXXVII is “In the old age.” See if you can find it in the first lines of L’Abbé’s poem:

            I’m starNg aT sHakEspeare’s pOem. bLockeD. carnAGE

You can spend an hour, if you like, tracing the location of each letter in Shakespeare’s sonnet as it appears in L’Abbé’s poem. It’s all there. In other poems from the collection, L’Abbé helps us by printing each letter from the original sonnet in lighter typeface. She doesn’t do that here, but there’s a certain obsessive pleasure in seeing how the poet converts Shakespeare’s letters and half-words into her own thinking. It’s a way to feel Shakespeare’s words bubbling up under the surface. But it’s not necessarily the way everyone likes to read.

It is helpful to have Shakespeare’s sonnet on hand, though, to see how L’Abbé’s poem speaks to, with, and against its source-text. So let’s have a look:

            In the old age black was not counted fair,

            Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;

            But now is black beauty’s successive heir,

            And beauty slander’d with a bastard shame:

            For since each hand hath put on nature’s power,

            Fairing the foul with art’s false borrow’d face,

            Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,

            But is profan’d, if not lives in disgrace.

            Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,

            Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem

            At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,

            Slandering creation with a false esteem:

                        Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,

                        That every tongue says beauty should look so.

There isn’t space here to dive very deeply into the Shakespeare, but suffice it to say that the speaker of his poem contrasts his mistress, the famed “Dark Lady” of the sonnets, to the “fair” standards of beauty that were common in his time. There are some disparaging remarks made about makeup – “fairing the foul with art’s false borrow’d face” – and the suggestion that the loved-one’s eyes, so black they seem to be in mourning, might single-handedly reverse fashion trends, so that “every tongue” now believes that “beauty should look so.” There’s also some good punning around the word “fair,” which can refer to light-coloured skin or hair, but also to beauty itself, which is just the standard Shakespeare is critiquing here, because it’s not “fair.” 

So it’s a good poem for brunettes. And the implicit critique of any rigid standard of beauty is there for analysis. But while he refers specifically to hair and eye colour, it is unlikely that the “blackness” to which Shakespeare refers concerns skin tone. Shakespeare’s record on depictions of racial difference is… well, let’s just say it’s “contested.” 

Enter Sonnet L’Abbé, whose very name forces her to live with the legacy of the Bard. A poet with the given name Sonnet, for goodness sake! The legacy is as weighty as it would be if a musician were named Wolfgang or a rabbi named Jesus. 

So what does she do? She colonizes the Shakespeare. She buries him under her verbiage in the same way that, say, European settlers buried the civilization of the Mayans, so that there are traces left but they are hard to pick out. The idea of a multi-racial Canadian woman swallowing Shakespeare to write her poems is a bit of narrative reversal that I like to think Shakespeare himself would enjoy.

Now, a nervous traditionalist might ask, “What’s wrong with Shakespeare? Why spit on his legacy?” First off, as L’Abbé well knows, the Shakespeare Sonnets aren’t going anywhere. Feel free to Google them and find dozens of versions online, with learned commentary, student complaint, and flowery background imagery. While her over-writing implies a kind of linguistic violence, and while there’s plenty of mistrust and critique of literary history in the voice of her speaker, L’Abbé’s work unquestionably builds on Shakespeare’s legacy rather than dismisses it. His words, after all, are the skeleton on which L’Abbé’s poems are constructed. It’s the kind of homage that a rebellious child would offer, but that makes it no less an homage. 

Let’s go back and see what the poem is talking about. The opening freezes the speaker – she’s “blocked.” Remember, this is Sonnet #127 in the series, so to me this suggests some exhaustion with the project. But it is also a shocked recognition. Shakespeare’s poem is, after all, about blackness, even if L’Abbé is taking what he means by blackness a bit father than he intended. For the speaker of this poem, Shakespeare’s words strike a chord that is both resonant and troubling. The phrase “beauty slandered with a bastard shame” is transposed completely from Shakespeare’s poem, and points to the speaker’s efforts to overcome her sense of rejection from the traditions of English literature. The next sentence reads: “Informed since I could read by the monarchy’s hand on the throat of English, I’ve put on an enunciative face, trusting the figure of speech’s power to fair the ink of English thinking.” That “enunciative face” the speaker has “put on” is a “false borrowed face” the way Shakespeare refers to makeup, full of bitterness and and only partly hidden by its formality. (Enunciate being one of many ways the “uneducated” are revealed, but here something the speaker can put on when she needs to.) Note too the use of “fair” as a verb – literally to lighten the colour of the ink, but also, hopefully, to make more just the metaphorical inkstain of generations of prejudice. 

The problem with trying to use erudite literary traditions to overcome centuries of literary prejudice is that the very structures and tropes are built on exclusionary ways of thinking. As Audre Lorde put it, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” So this poem is caught in a double-bind – by mastering the linguistic complications and allusive traditions of “high literary poetry,” it evokes the very misogyny and racism it is trying to overcome. 

Speaking of allusion, I should mention that this poem is full of them, some of which I caught, others I suspect but can’t place, and I’m sure others that I missed entirely. One reference I want to make particular mention of is “foreign anguish, language,” which is from Zong! M. Nourbese Philip’s 2008 book.  Zong! is an experimental book of poetry that scrambles the language of archival documents concerning the murder of slaves on a slaveship in 1781. The reference here is a tip-of-the-cap to Philip as a sort of godmother to this booklength project. But it’s also a crucial concept here: a recognition that the language L’Abbé is using – Shakespeare’s language, in one way and another – is a language that transports pain and racist history even as it also provides the poet/speaker here a pathway to make meaning, argument, and poetic beauty.

So is the poem trapped by the forms and standards of a racist and misogynistic literary tradition from which it can’t escape? Or is it mining those forms to find a new way of expression? The question must remain unresolved, but the poem that results from the struggle is deeply compelling to me.

I’ve already gone on too long here, but let me just point to couple of other aspects of the poem that I think are really interesting:

  1. First, the issue of childlessness, mentioned in the last quarter of the poem. If you’ve studied Shakespeare’s sonnets, you’ll remember that a number of them urge the object of desire (male and female) to procreate so as to perpetuate their beauty. Essentially, the message is: “As you get older your beauty will fade, and when you’re dead, your beauty will vanish, so you’d better have kids so that your beauty will continue on the earth.” This theme gets addressed more directly in some of L’Abbé’s other sonnets, but here I sense that these concerns about family, are also at play. “My children…who never happened at all.” If the speaker is willing to meet up with a “professeur francophone” that she’s met on a dating app, and to put up with his dismissive remarks about her life and work, then she must also be very lonely. It should go without saying that this “failure at love” is at the core of Shakespeare’s sonnets too, so it’s another way that L’Abbé’s work is riffing off of Shakepeare’s themes.
  2. I love the range of tones that L’Abbé manages to generate here, from the vicious wit of “Somebody doesn’t” when talking to the francophone professor, to the unabashedly erudite arguments with literary tradition, to the creeping self-doubt – about the project, about her romantic life, about her “beauty” and how it’s defined. It’s a lot to take in on a first read, but there’s richness there that’s worth returning to.
  3. The word “cleave,” in the 3rd-to-last sentence, is one of my favourite words in the English language, because it means its own opposite. To cleave to something means to cling to it, to join with it; but “cleaving” is also a dividing, a separation. The speaker here says, “I cleave to my poetry like a significant other” – the “to” makes it sound as if she’s using the word in the joining sense. But if her poetry is “a significant other,” then it’s also a cleaving from, a separation, as if writing these lines is a way to expel some of the doubt and pain from her body into a form that is outside of her.

Taking on Shakespeare’s sonnets is an act of massive literary hubris. To be done well, it requires a scholar’s level of engagement and a revolutionary’s distrust of established practice. The fact that poems like this one also let us in on the hesitation, frustration, and hope that accompanies the project reveals a level of mastery that I truly admire. It can be slow going at times – the language can be sometimes a bit academic, sometimes downright prickly. But how else can a poet evoke the range of complicated emotions she experiences when entering into conversation with the greatest Master in literary history?  As for me, I don’t think I can read Shakespeare’s sonnets again without carrying Sonnet’s Shakespeare along as a challenge, a companion, and a guide. 

(Shakespeare image manipulation by Eli Sol.)