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.)

Sonnet’s Shakespeare Next Week!

Hello friends! My next How a Poem Moves essay is going to be on Sonnet L’Abbé’s masterful recent collection, Sonnet’s Shakespeare (from McClelland & Stewart Books), but I probably won’t finish it until late next week. It’s a doozy.

Thanks as always for your interest and continued readership.

Here’s a pic of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner hugging to comfort you while you wait.

Matthew Zapruder, “I Wake Up Before the Machine”

Matthew Zapruder, “I Wake Up Before the Machine”

I wake up before the machine

made of all the choices

we are together not making

lights up this part of Oakland

it’s dark so I can imagine

another grid humming in the east

already people are deciding

it’s election day

and I lie in the western

pre-decision darkness and almost

hear that silent voice

saying go down there

the coffee needs you

to place it in the device

its next form will help you remember

daylight is coming

but dreams do not go away

they just move off and change

your mind is a tree

on a little hill

surrounded by grasses

that look up and say

father wind

loves moving through you

From Father’s Day (© 2019 by Matthew Zapruder, used by permission of Copper Canyon Press)

At first the narrow form suggests a loping pace, in nice digestible bites, but the lack of punctuation makes me stumble while I sort out the sense of the sentence. What is “made” in that second line? Is it “I”? That seems possible, the familiar idea that “we are the sum of the choices we make” – but then I suspect it’s “the machine” that’s “made of all the choices / we are together not making” and which also “lights up” the speaker’s world. But what sort of machine does all this? It’s much bigger than an alarm clock, that’s for sure. Maybe something more abstract like the “machine” of society, or is it simply the sun? All of these possibilities linger in my brain as I proceed. 

For me, the confusion I feel early on, doubling back and clarifying my thoughts, mirrors how the speaker is also coming into his wakeful consciousness. But the eighth line, “it’s election day,” clears away the fog, grounds us in time, and sends us in a new direction. The speaker’s sense of how the political moment is working its way west towards him, and his implicit excitement about this, informs the rest of the poem. Now he is daydreaming about the east-coasters starting their voting 3 hours ahead of him, and how the day will define itself by the time it ends.                

Of course, we know what election this poem is referring to. Some poets try to leave specific references out of their poems so that they can feel more “generalized” in time, but Matthew Zapruder is not one of those poets. Later poems in Father’s Day refer directly to Representative Paul Ryan (remember him?!), Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement in 2018, child detention centres, etc. So it’s reasonable for us to assume that this poem refers to the election of Donald Trump in 2016. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the results of that election were not what this speaker was hoping for. (I will readily admit that the results were not what I was hoping for.) We can surmise that the speaker of this poem will wake up tomorrow with considerably less optimism and innocence than he woke up with today. 

I want to think about this a bit more deeply for a minute. The poem claims to be taking place on the morning of election day, but even if the first drafts of the poem were composed that morning, certainly by the time the poem was revised, sent out, and collected into book form (Father’s Day was published in 2019), and absolutely by the time we are reading it, the results have long since been determined. So whatever innocence and anticipation is expressed in the poem takes on a more complex or ominous tone, tinged with the emotions and events that have followed. A piece of me wants to shout back at the poem, “You won’t be so dreamy and hopeful by the end of the day, boyo!” But another piece of me yearns for that sense of optimism I too felt the morning of that election day. 

Of course, lots of poets have done this in one form or another. At the personal level, poems can recall childhood with a taste of innocence and wonder, poems of new love can evoke passion before any conflict or disappointment can blur the shine. In his poems about the Civil War, Walt Whitman included his early pro-war bombastic poems (like “Beat! Beat! Drums!”) written before he saw the carnage himself, as a way to call attention to his own complicity in the bloodshed. And poets of all kinds who have witnessed trauma on a grand scale reach back with longing and often an eerie trepidation toward the worlds that have vanished. It’s worth mentioning that this poem is placed near the beginning of Father’s Day, and that in the rest of the collection, Zapruder fully explores the aftermath of this moment in time. But I’ll leave you to explore those poems on your own. 


The fact that the poem still can evoke those feelings – the before-math – has a particular power for me at the moment. Remember when we would just walk into a coffee shop and shake people’s hands? My family watches movies now and shouts “Corona! Corona!” any time two characters get too close to each other. Hopefully our circumstances will one day return to the familiar and the casually affectionate, but for now, our images of these social interactions have the same innocence, nostalgia, and pain I feel evoked here. I love that Zapruder allows that snapshot of the before-times to stand, as a testament to what was almost possible. 

What comes next is the speaker urging himself to start his day, because he can “almost / hear that silent voice” telling him to make the coffee. Is this the silent voice of the East Coast Voter? Or the “machine of all the choices we are not making”? I don’t think so, but whatever it is, it has strong opinions about coffee!

the coffee needs you

to place it in the device

its next form will help you remember

daylight is coming

This coffee needs you.

As a coffee drinker, I find these lines hilarious, because I too believe that we all have a CRUCIAL ROLE TO PLAY IN HELPING THIS COFFEE FULFILL ITS DESTINY BY TRANSFORMING ITSELF INTO RATIONAL THOUGHT. But underneath the false formality of the sentence structure, notice how that move has shifted the tone of the poem as a whole. No longer bumblingly half-awake, but rather contemplative in the dawn light. There’s a piece of me that reads the rest of the poem as something spoken by that “silent voice,” the voice in the speaker’s head that compels him optimistically toward the day. It’s that voice, the voice of the speaker’s naked spirit, that can toss off a couplet about what “dreams” do, with an echo of Langston Hughes’ famous poem about a “dream deferred” (The one that ends, “Or does it explode?”). And it’s that same voice that can approach sentimentality with such nonchalance, comparing the speaker’s mind to a “tree / on a little hill,” like a drawing in a children’s book. 

This will not end well.

What do we make of this ending, the sentiment taking over a poem that purports to be about a significant day in history? Is Zapruder just trying to capture the feeling of gloopy confusion we often have upon first waking? Is there something deeper and more relevant in that gloopiness alongside the American election of 2016? Is the poem trying to preserve the childlike pre-election feeling of innocence and optimism? Is that why the images it calls to mind – the Hughes poem, the Shel Silverstein book – foretell frustration and grief?

One thing’s for sure: the speaker has a lot of voices calling upon him. The “grid humming in the east,” the election news coverage waiting to be consumed, the internal “silent voice” that gets him up before the alarm goes off, the grasses expressing wonder at the way the wind moves. That sense of connectedness, of responsibility, informs everything else. What is this poem, after all, but one of the breezes that blows through the tree that is the speaker’s mind, and which we admire as the grasses do? I’m not sure if we can ever again think of election day – or any day – with such innocent wonder, but I cling to those feelings here at the end of this poem, knowing that the approaching storm will not be kind to them.

Catherine Owen, “Sweetheart, I say to the river – good morning, beautiful”

Riven cover

I haven’t set my alarm in six weeks. I’m still an early riser, though, and there’s something about my morning rituals in the (temporarily) quiet house that are comforting, even meaningful. It’s when I do my best reading and writing, including this essay.

Catherine Owen’s new book Riven, is a series of aubades – morning poems – which trace a speaker’s grief after the loss of a lover. She is living by the Fraser River in British Columbia, and so her observations of the landscape – which includes wildlife and water, but also litter and the sounds of construction crews working nearby – merge with her ritualistic processing of her grief. Owen is also self-conscious about her process, about how writing these morning poems is not only a part of her grieving, but also something that needs to be thought about in and of itself, one of the other things that’s happening on the river. Here’s one of my favourites from the collection:


Sweetheart, I say to the river – good morning, beautiful


Sweetheart, I say to the river – good morning, beautiful, and I mean him too, kissing his

soft ghost – though working in minus weather his winter lips were raw, often bled, the men

in the luminous vests below suffer like he did – in other ways too – maudlin I guess you’re finding these –

revelations – these tugs dragging a lengthy boom of snow down past the Blue House, the shipyards, beyond where

I can’t watch anymore, dozens of white cylinders twisting in the current and bovine mixers back up, pour their guts

into the earth, make another parking lot, some hard place to land – language is not enough, I get it, and I never said

nature cares if I stick its loveliness in a poem – just – what else does one do with grieving – I can think of some poison

I could take – or a leap – but that’s already been done – so I sit here at dawn instead – craft a bit of music that is

nothing birdlike, nothing cadential as waves – only a small hum that has him in it and you and serves as a greeting of sorts, a going on.

from Riven, by Catherine Owen (ECW Press, 2020)


I’ve talked about aubades before on this blog. They are morning poems that often reflect on time’s passing, how love or life must give way to the demands of the new day that is dawning. So the context of this type of poem – its legacy – is one of reflection, wistfulness, perhaps affectionate regret. I’m mentioning this right away because our speaker seems aware of this legacy too, and knows that while in some ways it’s a cliché for her to situate herself in this tradition by writing these kinds of poems, in other ways that legacy is comforting, a ritualized way for her to confront her loss.

We begin when the speaker greets the river and melds this greeting into one for her lost lover, his “soft ghost.” The image is lovely, but as soon as she comes up with it, the speaker realizes that the actual man she knew wasn’t always so “soft” when he was alive. His “winter lips were raw, often bled,” which probably made for less-than-optimal kissing. I like how the romantic takes on real flesh here – another poet might have revised “soft ghost” out of the poem, but that image hovers there even while parts of it are complicated or dispelled.

Thinking of his lips, our speaker then connects him to the construction workers she can see downriver, and acknowledges the “other ways” that he suffered the way they often do. In other poems from the book, mention is made of the departed’s struggles with addiction, and so we can conjecture about the pain and danger that’s happening downstream, out of our line of vision. The workmen and their troubles are elements of the landscape no less powerful than the salmon under the river’s surface who are tearing themselves apart trying to get upstream.

Fraser River
Beauty and buildup on the Fraser River (Photo Credit Globe and Mail)

Then something happens at the end of line 3. Who is being addressed when the speaker turns and says “maudlin I guess you’re finding these”? “These,” I assume refers to the poems themselves, the images and observations that the speaker has been recording at the riverside. But who is the “you”? My first thought is that it’s the river itself, to whom she addresses her first “good morning, beautiful.” Then I wonder if it’s her lost lover, and I wonder if maybe he wasn’t a poetry reader, or if he would be dismissive of her artsy way of dealing with his death.

But then I realize it’s also me, the reader: maybe I am finding this series of poems about grief sentimental. Even the line break and dash before “revelations” feels like an awareness that the project’s ambitions might be seen as a bit grandiose. I read those em-dashes like I’d read scare quotes, as if there’s an embarrassed pause before and after them.

That won’t stop her, though. After an aside about the machinery in motion all around her (the “bovine” concrete mixers is particularly nice), our speaker returns to the problem she has unearthed: “language is not enough, I get it, and I never said // nature cares if I stick its loveliness in a poem – just – what else does one do with grieving.” It’s not just an acknowledgement of the futility of the exercise, it’s also an appeal. What else can I do? The suicidal alternatives (“some poison // I could take”) are no less cliché than writing poems. Our speaker is paralyzed with grief, staring at the river while everything else – the workmen, the tug boats, the water itself – is in motion. Recording her morning thoughts – maudlin, mournful, whatever – is how she deals with her pain and sadness. And because she is a poet, she knows that we readers, looking over her shoulder while she writes, are an essential part of that process.

Her resolve, then, is to carry on, to write something, “a bit of music,” even if it isn’t “birdlike” or “cadential.” I want to pause a moment on that word, “cadential.” Literally it’s a musical term, referring to a cadenza at the end of piece of music, or to its rhythm, its cadence. For me this is the speaker’s acknowledgement of the loose construction of her poetic line – it’s long, a bit unkempt, sprawling, and does not hold to any regular meter. It’s meant, I suspect, to read like a series of entries in a notebook made while staring at the river. Which is what it is, obvs.

Dennis Lee
Dennis Lee up against the wall (photo credit The Canadian Press)

But there’s another reference there that I suspect Owen is aware of, from a seminal essay by Canadian poet Dennis Lee. Everyone in Canada knows Dennis Lee from his children’s books like Alligator Pie, but Lee is also part of a pioneering generation of poets in the 60s and 70s who tried to create a distinctive Canadian voice. An essay he published in 1972, called “Cadence, Country, Silence: Writing in Colonial Space,” puts it like this:

Beneath the words our absentee masters have given us, there is an undermining silence. It saps our nerve. And beneath that silence, there is a raw welter of cadence that tumbles and strains toward words. It makes the silence a blessing, because it shushes easy speech. That cadence is home.

The essay is worth reading and arguing about in and of itself (you can find it online here) but you can also probably sense from this short passage that for Lee, “cadence” is referring to more than poetic meter. He’s also thinking of the spiritual, the other-worldly, even the Divine. And so when Owen uses a word like “cadential” here, I suspect she’s both acknowledging and pushing against Lee’s example. He might be one of the poets who would find these lines “maudlin,” and Owen’s speaker has no clarity on a particular spiritual source, but Lee’s notion of “cadence” provides an example for how her speaker might reach out to her lover’s “soft ghost” and to carry on.

Anyone who tries to write about love or nature or grief has to confront the problem that so many have attempted to do so before us, and that our efforts will never fully evoke love’s passion, capture nature’s beauty, or communicate the depths of our mourning. They certainly won’t bring back the dead in a literal sense. The best we can hope for is to create “a small hum” that connects these sensations to language, and reaches out to our departed, and also to a reader, whoever that Reader may be. For the speaker of Riven, writing these poems becomes a cathartic mourning ritual. As readers of these poems, we become a part of the support network – along with the river, the loved one’s memory, the writing itself – that surrounds her. We participate in the halting, uneven return of the speaker to her living life after loss.




Roxanna Bennett, “Intake Questionnaire”


I have not been as consistent as I’d like to be with these essays – the usual busy-ness. Meanwhile my son is posting on his basketball blog every other week like a boss. So props to him, and if you are one of those rare few whose interests in poetry and interest in basketball coincide, feel free to check it out.

Depending on whether you find it online or in the back pages of her book, Unmeaningable, Roxanna Bennett’s bio states that she is “living with disability” or “a disabled poet” in the first or second sentence. It’s something she frontloads in her literary identity, and her poems often investigate her physical limitations and discomforts, her experiences navigating the medical system, and the way disability impacts relationships in other contexts. She’s rarely specific about the kinds of challenges her poetic speakers are facing, but she can describe pain with an almost hallucinogenic power that I admire and dread.

I admit that part of me is curious, reading these poems, what exactly the speaker suffers from, what disease or injury or deficiency, and when there are hints, I seize upon them in my mind to extrapolate diagnoses and accompanying symptoms. But I’m aware that what I’m trying to do with that curiosity is to pigeonhole Bennett’s speaker, to categorize the poetic voice in a way that is reductive to the rest of her humanity. We are not the sum of our diagnoses, as this poem reminds us.


Intake Questionnaire


Are you rain

against the rec room window?

Are you air

uprooting the old willow?


Are you light

lancing the roof of the gazebo,

wood wreck left at the behest

of a former – ? Be patient.


Be bolted by meds, slow mo,

shunning group time.

Be cement, tonguing

narrow fault lines.


Or are you the lake, land-locked.

Or are you          radiant.


–from Unmeaningable (Gordon Hill Press, 2019), used by permission.

The title brings to mind the forms on clipboards we have all filled out in hospitals or doctors’ offices. But the questions here do not resemble the ones I answered before my recent stress test!

A couple of things to start with: first, the questions “you” is being asked offer a wide range of possibilities in terms of, to put it over-simply, power. “Rain / against the rec room window” is nothing that will make a lasting impression, a pleasant and unobtrusive visual image. “Air / uprooting the old willow,” on the other hand, is a gale force wind to be reckoned with. So the “intake questionnaire” seems to be asking about something more abstract than the subject’s health.

The other thing I notice in the first two stanzas is a weird kind of music. There’s the near rhyme with “window/willow/gazebo” that is familiar. But the alliteration that appears almost serves as a kind of barrier. When I read “rec room window” too fast I end up saying something like “weck woom widow.” “Wood wreck left at the behest” in the second stanza verges on a complete garble in my mouth, it’s literally hard to say. My point is that there’s something in the sonic tools Bennett is using that gives me a halting kind of discomfort, or a sense of being off-balance as I read. I’ve written elsewhere about how the music in some poems can add beauty or resonance to certain images or ideas. But here what it seems to add is complexity, difficulty, even a kind of artful awkwardness.

The second stanza adds another layer of ambiguity to the questions from the first. Is “light / lancing the roof” simply a familiar trick of the light that we’ve seen beam down through a gap in roof slats, or something more piercing and destructive? Remember, these questions are theoretically trying to determine who “you are,” and as such they’re metaphorical to begin with. So is it really so outrageous to imagine a spear of light literally tearing through the flimsy roof of an outdoor pavilion? “Is that what you are?” the poem asks, and the potential answers range from transcendent light to the wood rubbish left behind by someone who cannot be named. How can these questions be answered? And as the “you” pronoun keeps being repeated, I’m feeling increasingly cornered by all of the suggestions. Yes, the poem is imitating the language of a questionnaire, but wait a minute, is it talking to me?

The end of that stanza shuts all this dreaming down with a thump. “Be patient” also suggests “be a patient” to me. When we walk around in the wide world, we are people, workers, parents and children, point guards and power forwards, writers, readers and raconteurs. But when we enter a hospital, we are patients. And the only job of the patient is to be patient. And to follow orders.

Sure enough, the next stanza begins with a pair of prescriptions, though how they are intended to help us is a mystery: be patient, be bolted, be cement. The possibilities seem to have narrowed significantly. To “be bolted” can mean to be secured, as in “bolted in place,” but it can also point to a kind of imprisonment. Being “bolted by meds” certainly doesn’t sound like the image of a light lancing the gazebo that we could have been a few lines ago. And this change in status also represents a kind of isolation – we are “shunning group time,” and my sense of “tonguing narrow fault lines” is that “you” worries these points of division rather than trying to surmount them.

The final stanza gives us two more answers that reframe of the situation. A lake, while beautiful and even perfect, is “land-locked” in a way that seems to keep it in isolation. For me it calls to mind those I’ve known who take medications for psychiatric disorders, but who describe the side effects as living under a kind of psychic gauze. On the other hand, that isolation of a lake also allows it to reflect light from above and contain its own ecosystem in a way that can be nourishing and rich.

To me, that last line is the beginning of a kind of resistance to the whole situation the poem finds itself in. Hospital questionnaires are a kind of self-analytical tool, meant to help others figure out what sort of person you are. But the information they predominantly care about is medical: are you diabetic, do you smoke, are you on medication, whatever. Our medical conditions, though, are only a small fraction of our “selves.” This is true even when our diagnoses are a constant presence in our lives, as they are for the disabled. In fact, I’d venture to suggest that it’s even more important to assert a “non-medical” self when much of your life is determined by disability. And so the answer to that last question seems to be a defiant yes: I’m not patient, I’m radiant. Even the small extra space Bennett places before that last word, a kind of deliberate pause, feels like a shoring up of the strength required to make this declaration. We sense the effort it takes, and we admire the speaker who summons the will to make it.


Lee Ann Roripaugh, “hungry tsunami / tsunami as galactus”

Lee Ann Roripaugh, “hungry tsunami / tsunami as galactus”



hungry tsunami / tsunami as galactus


the hunger of trying to hold back

the hunger a little longer


the hunger of restraint and pullback

churn and growl of beached fishes

in an agitated bouillabaisse

liquid silver squirming on an empty shore


to lick the gilding from the buildings

like golden drizzles of caramel


to take the cake / flick off the crumbs


to raze the fruit / spit out the pits


the hunger of sucked-out marrow

the unwillingly pried-open oyster

the cracked and pillaged lobster claw


to shuck / to husk / to unshell

her way to what’s most tender


to dismantle the protective scrims

that signal a cache of rawness


to demolish defenseless succulence


the hunger for the liquid center

squirt of ganache in a swiss truffle

chocolate lava cake’s molten fondant core


to feed past the end of greed


to feast past the end of want


to gorge past the borders of voraciousness

until she becomes the monstrous goddess

of binge / pure mercenary lack


the blooded face


blood in the water


the blood moon’s exposed sweet throat

with its lipsticked jugular bitten clean out


–From Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50 by Lee Ann Roripaugh (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2019). Copyright © 2019 by Lee Ann Roripaugh. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions.


When I get to the end of this poem, I want to roar. It’s so guttural in its language, brutal and luscious, the way a person eating lobster must verge on the barbaric in order to extract the best of the meat. So we begin our encounter with this poem through those overwhelming sounds – the rhymes and near rhymes of hunger/longer and gilding/buildings, but also the sonically ferocious phrases like “churn and growl of beached fishes / in an agitated bouillabaisse / liquid silvers squirming.” It’s a delightful mouthful, and it’s ok if it also sounds a bit over-the-top, even grotesque.

That’s because it is grotesque what Lee Ann Roripaugh is describing – once I get past the rich language, I remember that the poem is evoking gluttony as a way of anthropomorphizing a tsunami. The “hunger” referred to belongs to a wave system that is capable of laying waste to whole coastlines, and indiscriminately killing thousands. And so the sensual pleasure I get while reading the poem has a dark undertone, because the lobster being eaten is everything. In a phrase like “to unshell / her way to what’s most tender,” human beings are being shucked from their protective structures, not just molluscs.

The poem opens with a reference to a strange phenomenon associated with tsunamis. As National Geographic puts it:

A tsunami’s trough, the low point beneath the wave’s crest, often reaches shore first. When it does, it produces a vacuum effect that sucks coastal water seaward and exposes harbor and sea floors. This retreating of sea water is an important warning sign of a tsunami, because the wave’s crest and its enormous volume of water typically hit shore five minutes or so later.

Roripaugh transforms this into the “the hunger of trying to hold back / the hunger a little longer,” which gives the tsunami a strange emotional complexity. The “beached fishes…squirming on an empty shore” seem to be the result of this, as Tsunami pauses in the moments before letting loose her appetite. I think about how, at the end of Yom Kippur, when family and friends are ready finally to break the fast, I’m often tempted to just wait a moment longer, with our bagels and kugel spread out before us, and there’s an exquisite (self-righteous?) pleasure that comes from that last pause before I open my mouth. Here in the poem Tsunami takes a similar breath before gorging herself.

If you see this, it’s too late to run.

But Tsunami’s hunger transcends my bagel by more than a little bit! The lines that follow, with her “lick[ing]the gilding from buildings” remind us of her destructive power, so that as the imagery of appetite accumulates it becomes more and more monstrous. By the time the poem gives us “the squirt of ganache in a swiss truffle,” we are no longer just thinking of gastronomical pleasures, but also of horror. Roripaugh has transformed Tsunami into “the monstrous goddess / of binge,” placing her alongside other badass ravenous goddesses from various traditions like the Harpies or Kali.

I want to think for a minute about this gesture, the poem’s transformation of a destructive force of nature into a mythological creature with human characteristics. Of course, we have always done this, whether it be ancient peoples deifying volcanoes or contemporary meteorologists giving hurricanes names like Katrina or Sandy. On the one hand, if a volcano has human desires, then perhaps its wrath can be appeased by gifts the way ours sometimes can. We can debate the efficacy of that approach, but even in our contemporary discourse about climate change there’s an awareness that humanizing “Mother Nature” can make it easier for us to articulate the necessity to act in order to “save” her.

There’s another side to the anthropomorphizing of natural phenomena, though, that has more to do with the way we project our fears and obsessions away from ourselves so that we can isolate and confront them. The way that snakes have been characterized in myth as sinister and conniving has little to do with the real reptiles and everything to do with our sense of how dangerous and hard-to-pin-down this sort of behaviour is in people. Volcanoes do not feel “rage” any more than pimples do, but by equating human anger with volcanoes, we try to understand how internal pressures in us can lead to an eruption that hurts everyone around.

It’s easy enough to see how the ravenousness that Lee Ann Roripaugh attributes to Tsunami in this poem might be a projection of the sensation we sometimes feel that we want to devour everything in reach – damn the diet, damn the expense, the mess, the indigestion I know I’ll have two hours from now. Tsunami in that sense becomes a projection in this poem for the irrational side of our desire to consume. Feel free to derive planetary implications from this if you choose.

One quick aside about form: you’ll notice Roripaugh using a backslash (/) sometimes instead of a line break. To my eye, this functions as a sort of half-line-break, a way of directing the rhythms of our reading in a poem with no other forms of punctuation. I also can’t help but notice that the accumulation of these slashes in lines 9, 10, and 14 start look like a bit like a series of waves interrupting the text.

Galactus deciding whether or not to eat us.

There’s another connection to the other-worldly this poem makes in its title. Galactus, you might know, is a “cosmic being” in the Marvel Comics universe. He’s a huge demi-god who literally eats planets for lunch. He makes numerous appearances in comics and films in which he must be persuaded to refrain from devouring Earth. Like a tsunami, Galactus destroys without any real awareness or concern for the creatures he devours – if he considers them at all, it is only as we might consider a colony of ants living on land slated for new condo development. He is driven only by his gargantuan hunger.

I get a big kick out of comparing Tsunami to Galactus here, granting the oceanic phenomenon the same ravishing hunger and using the term “tsunami” as a name (Tsunami) to humanize her.  The poem reminds us of the connection between comic book superheroes and mythological creatures. The title of the collection, Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50, further evokes the 1960s Japanese monster movies like Mothra vs. Godzilla or Gamera vs. Guiron that we think of now as quaint with their laughably antiquated special effects. (Mothra makes an appearance on in another poem from the book.) Roripaugh’s savvy consideration of what “Tsunami” might be in a pop-culture context calls attention to our taste for disaster, whether we are reading comics or watching the news.

Gamera vs Guirion
Gamera vs. Guiron, 1969. Those are definitely not people in costumes.

But there’s a limit to this playfulness. The poems in Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50 are concerned with a very real tsunami which occurred on March 11, 2011 and which, among other kinds of destruction, led to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The “Fukushima 50” were workers at the nuclear power plant who stayed at their posts in order to try to contain the damage done to the reactor. And while other poems in the collection give voice to various witnesses and victims of the events, granting those people a mythical heroism as well, we know that they didn’t “defeat” Tsunami the way Gamera defeated Guiron. They may have heroically protected the public from greater harm, at great personal risk, and in that sense deserve heroic art to be made in their honour. But the violence in comic books and monster movies doesn’t really hurt anyone. The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami caused the deaths of more than 15,000 people. fukushima

For me, after all the momentum and poetic relish that occur in the poem transforming Tsunami into a ferocious and attractive “goddess of binge,” the last four lines of the poem pull us up short. “the blooded face // blood in the water” are not particularly musical, and the repetition feels hesitant, even deliberately clumsy. It’s as if the narrator of the poem has stopped herself. After all, Tsunami is not like Galactus, or Mothra, or the Harpies, because she is real, she has been seen on this Earth, she has devoured whole cities, and she will return. Those were real people in the water, some of whom have never been found. The brutality of the last image – with the “lipsticked” mark of this feminized monster murdering without thought or even hunger – leave us with a resonant sense of the danger faced by those who live even now in Tsunami’s shadow. The shock of that realization cleans out all the fun like a wave cleans out a sandcastle, leaving us suspended between fascination and fear. There’s a word for that combination of feelings that this poem articulates with rich language and a swirl of allusion and image: the word is awe.






Getting Back on the Horse: Alison Smith’s “What We Loved to Love About Prison on TV”

Time to get back on the horse.


A lot of great poetry has crossed my couch in the years since I started this blog in the fall of 2016. I took some time off from posting in order to finish the book (How a Poem Moves in print! Get your copy here!), and to focus on other projects, but here we are, it’s the fall of 2019, and I’ve got oodles of poems I want to tell you about.

One phenomenon of working on this project is that now, when I’m reading poetry, I often  say to myself (in addition to “wow that was great!”) something along the lines of “I could write an essay about that.” So the impulse to get back to this form has persisted. And when the occasion came to write on Emma Lazarus’ famous poem for The Toronto Star, I found the form still suits me. So I’m going to try to start this up again, probably at a rate of one essay per month. We’ll see how it goes.


I first encountered Alison Smith’s poems at the annual Poetry Weekend that’s held in Fredericton every fall. In fact, this year’s festival is starting today. I don’t usually get to go because of teaching responsibilities, and because the Weekend usually falls right smack in the middle of the Jewish High Holidays. But I did manage to go last year, and among my discoveries there was This Kind of Thinking Does No Good, a whip-smart, funny, deceptively-subversive collection by Nova Scotian Alison Smith, published by Gaspereau Press.


Alison Smith, “What We Loved to Love About Prison on TV”


what we loved to love about prison was the radical separation

what we loved about the separation were handwritten letters

what we loved about letters was the first-person narrative

what we loved about the person was tragedy

what we loved about tragedy was a glimpse of gallows humour

what we loved about the gallows was revenge

what we loved about revenge were the rules about snitching

what we loved about the snitch was language, inside

what we loved about inside was the passage of contraband

what we loved about the passage was ingenuity

what we loved about ingenuity was the chance to win respect

what we loved about the win was ‘what they do to the pedophiles’

what we loved about what they do was adherence to a code

what we loved about the code was a saint-like purity

what loved to love about saints were the bones


– from This Kind of Thinking Does No Good (Gaspereau Press, 2018, used with permission)

I have two initial questions when I read this poem: first, how does she get away with it? That is, how does Smith manage to repeat the beginning of these lines “what we loved about…” so often and not seem repetitive or boring? The rhetorical term for this sort of repetition at the beginning of successive lines is anaphora, but the repeated phrases in anaphora don’t usually dominate the whole line the way they do here. And she does it fifteen times! “What we loved about” becomes a sort of mantra on the one hand, cataloguing all of the things “we loved,” and there’s a kind of progression to the way the poem analyzes the attractions of Prison on TV, almost the way a nursery rhyme like “The House that Jack Built” accumulates. But the poem has a weirder sensibility than most nursery rhymes, and the logical leaps it makes, off-kilter and rather dark, keep me engaged and curious about where the poem is headed next.

Which bring me to the other question: who is the “we”? This is the question I want to dig a bit more deeply into, because as I try to answer it, the poem becomes richer and more interesting.

First and foremost, “we” are people who love Prison on TV. I suspect that’s partly because the people who make up this “we” don’t have any first-hand knowledge of real prison. (Do people who are in prison like Prison on TV? I admit I have no idea, because I am not a person in prison nor am I a person who loves prison on tv. But I imagine that if the speaker of this poem, if the “we” being referred to, were in prison, we would have a different set of reasons to love Prison on TV).

You’ll notice one clever trick about Smith’s use of the “we” throughout – even as I read and try to explore the poem, I find myself going back and forth between including myself in the we, and referring to the “we” as separate. This give-and-take about whether a reader identifies with the poem is one of its pleasures. As I read through, I sometimes think, “Oh yeah, that is why we love tragedy!” with a shock of recognition. And at other times, I think, “Oh, that’s interesting that these people loved separation because of the hand-written letters. What quaint romantics they were.” Throughout, I’m rarely anticipating where the poem is going next, so that even when the sentiment (“what we loved about..”) isn’t mine, I find it engaging.

There isn’t space here to explore every logical leap the poem makes as it moves around its subject – which is not actually Prison on TV, but rather “what we loved.” Suffice it to say that what attracts “us” to Prison on TV doesn’t seem to be exactly what might be expected by producers of The Night Of. There’s something in here about how as viewers we repurpose and manipulate the art we encounter. The speaker on the one hand leans toward the romantic, and the self-consciously literary, but does not seem averse to enjoying the violence that often appears in these shows as well. In my mind I’m formulating a certain portrait of this group of people by their likes and interests.

PousseyNewBut I want to skip to the last three lines because they haunt me in a particular way. The “adherence to a code” is a familiar trope in all kinds of dramas that involve criminals. But for the speaker of this poem, “adherence to a code” brings up “purity,” which is not at all what I connect to the codes of behaviour we find in prison. On the one hand, I’m reminded of characters like Poussey from Orange Is the New Black or John Coffey, the saint-like character from the film The Green Mile, or maybe Morgan Freeman’s Red from The Shawshank Redemption (which we now mostly see on TV). But I’m wondering all of a sudden whether “adherence to a code” might have special relevance for this group of people. The romanticism at the beginning, the darker attractions in stylized violence, and now this interest in “purity” seem to me to point to a specific set of concerns I associate with teenagers.

So now I’m imagining a group of teens binging on Orange Is the New Black while struggling with the social norms of their high school. But just when I think the poem might give us a deeper hint about this particular social group, the poem sends us packing with “what we loved to love about saints were the bones.” The entrance of religious themes deepens my sense that what is at stake here is more than entertainment choices. Stories of saints often include imprisonment or martyrdom, and point us to beliefs and principles (“codes”) that some are willing to sacrifice themselves for. But “what we loved to love” about them are not the beliefs, but the detritus of those sacrifices – the bones. We transfer our conflicted emotions about the codes themselves into a passion for the concrete and even grotesque remnants of those beliefs. For the “we” in this poem, bones and prison shows are the only way to access values that might grant meaning and clarity in what might otherwise be a jumbled mix of influences and bad answers.

saints bones

Last point: all of this is in the past tense. The litany of things “we loved” is, apparently, no longer true. Something about this era has passed for the reporter of the poem. It makes me wonder how things have changed for “us.” My first suspicion is that we have grown up a bit, and perhaps no longer have the time or inclination to spend our leisure time watching Prison on TV. But more deeply, I wonder if the search for values and codes that connected the speaker to her love of prison shows when she was younger no longer has the romance or drama that it once did. The “radical separation” and “chance to win respect” that seemed so important long ago no longer have the same appeal. It makes me wonder what the speaker would “love to love” about her current entertainment choices. Or is “loving to love” something no longer so central to the equation? What have we lost or gained by shedding the passions of our youth?

New Essay!

Hello everyone,

For a while I’ve been thinking about whether or not to start writing HPM essays again. But then an occasion arose for me to write one, when US acting Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli made some… uh… remarks referring to Emma Lazarus’ famous poem, “The New Colossus.” It’s the one that contains, “Give me your tired, your poor, / your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” and is cast on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty.

My friend Martha Sharpe suggested that I write a HPM essay about the poem, to “set the record straight,” so to speak. I reached out to someone at the Toronto Star, did a 24-hour binge-write, and behold!:

A new How a Poem Moves essay, with historic content, hosted by the Toronto Star. 

I did not create the headline. (The answer to its question is No.) Otherwise, it’s a bit of a rush job, but if you’re looking for new essays, here you go.

Thanks for your support, everyone! And feel free to comment if you think I should start posting new essays again or if I should just pack it in and let what I’ve done stand.