Dara Barrois/Dixon, “Capitalism”

Dara Barrois/Dixon has been publishing books of poetry since the late 1970s and her work has drawn comparisons to poets from Wisława Szymborska to Frank O’Hara. Previously known as Dara Wier, she’s originally from New Orleans and is also the widow of the poet James Tate. 


It makes me feel about as low
as asap makes me feel

as if someone is warning me
a snake’s in my path

only it’s a pretty snake
I’m in need of to make my life whole

there are so many kinds of us
coming in various versions of ourselves

and one another 
there is, for instance, a type whose

bold sense of entitlement
is bolstered by an unquestioned

innate sense of righteousness
heady combinations

something calling for constant comparison
something sometimes useful other times

blindingly obliterating to beauty grace
love empathy sympathy insight courage

insight courage humor love grace humor
wit foresight generosity love humor truth

empathy grace sympathy empathy sincerity
grace truth beauty with courage

adventuresomeness surprise love humor empathy
kindness withholding judgment love humor empathy

recklessness generosity love humor despair
understanding love humor empathy recklessness

love humor despair loving kindness love humor empathy
humor joy sympathy love kindness courage

from Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina, copyright 2022 by Dara Barrois/Dixon. Used with permission of the author and Wave Books.

I know you want to get right to the end, because that’s where most of the wildness, the pleasure, and the sheer cojones of the poem is. But before we get there, let’s spend some time on how she gets there, because there’s a lot to love along the way. 

Let’s start with the title, “Capitalism.” My first thought was: uh oh. A title like that often leads to a Marxist screed which may contain accurate socio-political analysis, but tends to make for lousy poetry. But let’s also assume that Dara Barrois/Dixon knows that. If an experienced poet is going to tackle a subject like capitalism, then she’s got to know what she’s up against. So when the poem opens with “It makes me feel as low / as asapmakes me feel,” it’s the wit of “asap” that first attracts my attention. Ok, yes, it doesn’t sound like this poem is going to be a paean to Adam Smith, but alongside the tone of complaint I’m also sensing a bit of fun? And some sonic play between capitalism and asap

A pretty snake.

The “pretty snake” that follows feels like another metaphor for consumerism’s attractions and dangers, though this one feels a little blurry at the edges – who is this person “warning me” about the snake? Is the snake dangerous, or a temptation, reminiscent of biblical midsadventures? Is capitalism the snake in the metaphor, or is capitalism the entity that tells us we need pretty snakes to make our lives whole? I’m reasonably clear on the general sentiment, but my sense is that it’s not just me who hasn’t fully worked out the details of the comparison. 

I want to say something about this feeling of the speaker “finding her way” in the poem. I’ve often written in these essays about how I enjoy traveling through a poem without fully knowing what’s happening, that a bit of confusion or uncertainty can add pleasure for my reading experience. But in this poem it seems to me that part of the reading experience is accompanying the poetic speaker as she figures out what she wants to say. The uncertainty is hers as much as it is ours. There are poetic traditions that foreground this approach – the New York School, in particular, which included Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery and Alice Notley, often emphasized this more organic, informal, style. It’s a different way of thinking about what a poem is — rather than a complete, perfectly-made language object, this sort of poem feels more like a visit inside an active mind. A mind that happens to be great company.

Of course, to a great extent this is an illusion – it’s no less difficult to compose a poem that feels off-the-cuff and exploratory than it is to compose a poem that is “perfect.” Ask a comedian about how hard it is pull off a “discovered” joke in front of an audience. But when it works, we feel a special connection to the human voice that’s generating the poem. 

I detect this exploratory feeling most around the fourth couplet: “there are so many kinds of us / coming in various versions of ourselves // and one another.” I get “so many kinds of us,” and I suppose I’m ok with “various versions of ourselves,” but where are we all “coming in”? And after the stanza break, that dangling “and one another” – is that attached to “so many versions of ourselves,” so that we’re also coming in various versions of one another? Or is this “and one another” a transition to a new thought? Is this still about capitalism? Which version of myself is coming to this poem? I still have a sense that the speaker of the poem is feeling her way, searching, finished with her first witticisms about asap and the snake, trying to connect them to larger ideas about what it is like to live under the power of, but also in some sort of resistance to, our prevailing economic system.

An upright tulip flanked by heady combinations.

The poem seems to find one way by focusing on those who thrive in capitalism: “there is, for instance, a type whose // bold sense of entitlement /is bolstered by an unquestioned //innate sense of righteousness.” Notice that this is the only part of the poem that has punctuation – the two commas around “for instance.” It’s a strange choice, because while it’s certainly grammatically correct, it’s not really necessary – we wouldn’t be confused by “there is for instance a type whose…” It does slow us down a bit, though. And the tumbling sensation I got from the previous section is now cleared up. As for the analysis: I’ve heard harsher critiques of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, et al. – in fact this description seems almost empathetic: that “bolstered,” sitting right under “bold” in the previous line, adds a bit of sonic comfort to the characterization — like a pillow! And the “heady combinations” aside almost – almost – seems to forgive these men for their indulgences. I mean, who could resist the heady combinations of a “bold sense of entitlement” accompanied by an “innate sense of righteousness”? Could you? Maybe. But that phrase, “heady combinations,” does something else: it ends the discussion on this topic. The poem doesn’t want to descend any further into a rant about Donald Trump or Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or Harlan Crow or whoever, although I suspect it could. So “heady combinations” will suffice – who knows, maybe if we all grew up the son of a semi-criminal industrial magnate, we’d… oh, let’s just stick with the poem.

So now we mercifully shift back to the original subject: “something calling for constant comparison / something sometimes useful other times.” Fair enough. That “sometimes useful” reminds me that I’m writing this essay on a laptop computer that I own in part as a result of capitalism. It’s a measured opinion, not particularly doctrinaire, even a bit bland, isn’t it? “something sometimes useful”? Where’s the Marxist screed when we need one?! For me, in this moment, it feels like the poem has almost given up, the “something sometimes” just can’t go full revolutionary, is on the verge of throwing up its hands. If we can’t even say anything truly nasty about spoiled billionaires, how can this poem take on capitalism the way a 21st century poem should?! Of course I admire the poem’s ability to side-step some familiar anti-materialist clichés, but I can’t help wanting more. 

But then there’s a breath, a stanza break between the two parts of the sentence – and the fulfillment of a grammatical promise: sometimes this, other times that. And in the second half of the clause, the tether gives way. “blindingly obliterating” opens the floodgates. You can hear how suddenly the temperature changes with those two words – compared to “heady combinations” or “sometimes useful,” “blindingly obliterating” has an energy, a brilliance, an over-the-top-ness that is exactly what I’ve been waiting for. 

Quick musical interlude: this moment in the poem reminds me of the gorgeous Chopin Nocturne in F, which I can almost play. It’s starts off as a moody, aching piece with a simple descending melody. There’s a B section that’s a bit more active and fraught, and then a return to the A. Nice. But instead of just closing down after the return to the opening motif, the piece just goes completely haywire, descending from a great height, floating on a downward draft from its original minor into major as if someone going for a contemplative evening stroll accidentally stepped on a roller skate and was transformed into a butterfly. It’s around the 4:10 on both of these recordings, if you want to listen.

Here’s one where you can get a good look at the performer’s hands:

And here’s one where you can see how the piece compels expression from the pianist, who I think also may be chewing gum?:

The connection for me between the poem and the nocturne is that sense of uncertainty in the early parts, the parts that are tentative, but which are slowly building up a kind of subterranean pressure, so that when it finally breaks out, you feel like you should have known that thing was about to blow the whole time. 

Ok, so what happens? Nearly the whole second half of the poem is a list of abstractions. Clearly these are all concepts that capitalism is “blindingly obliterating to,” but it doesn’t feel like a complete list, or a well-organized one. And yet the chaos feels like part of the intent. Just as earlier we could sense the speaker searching around for a way to explain her frustration, why capitalism makes her feel “as low as asap makes me feel,” now we can feel her searching for the most valuable aspects of our lives that need to be added to the poem, as if to preserve them from complete destruction. It’s as if the poem’s careful, measured, and punctuated treatment of the “heady combinations” above have almost obliterated these deeper concerns from our vocabulary, and we have to rev the engines of our minds to find them again. Her desperation is what the repetition, and the incompleteness, conveys. This is what the poem has been looking for – it’s not that capitalism doesn’t have its uses and its logic, or even that there are other, more scientific ways to critique its structures. It’s that capitalism has no way to measure, nourish, or evaluate any of the aspects of life that are the most crucial to our existence. And that these values don’t come at us in a straight line, but in surges, in clumps, in cascades. Poetry understands this in a way that economics never will.

A few other things about the list you may want to know about:

  • Most of the alphabet is covered except for mnop, v, and xyz.
  • “humor” and “love” are the most frequently used words here (9 times each), with “empathy” next at 7 uses. “Love” also gets used as part of “loving kindness” so if you want to count that as another entry, “love” wins.
  • There are some darker aspects to the list: “recklessness” and “despair” appear as often as “insight.” Feel free to meditate on the significance of this.
  • “humor” is repeated three times in the second couplet, as if it is a springboard to other kinds of thinking, or as if humor is what the speaker returns to when she is doubtful or stuck. It also keeps us from taking this all too seriously. Doesn’t it? 
  • I want to add “community” and “transcendence” to the list. And “friendship.” My guess is you probably have a few suggestions yourself. I have a strong sense that the poem wants us to participate in adding to its list of values and concerns, and that the ending on the page is less about finishing the task, and more about handing it over to us to continue.

Poems are not capitalist enterprises. God knows they aren’t very successful in any of the ways that capitalism would know how to measure. And yet they persist, and we continue to value them. By the end of “Capitalism,” I feel uplifted, upset, amused, touched, motivated, understood, even bolstered by how Barrois/Dixon has given voice to my frustration, my helplessness, and my fury. 

Be bolstered.

Dean Young, “The Late Work of Pinkham Ryder”

I’m sad about the recent passing of Charles Simic, so I’m going to write about Dean Young. Young died last year, and along with Simic and James Tate (who died in 2015), formed for me a kind of triumvirate of surrealist dark comedy. They had a profound influence on my thinking about poetry, I met them all briefly in the early 1990s and never saw them again, and now they’re all ghosts. Who are their inheritors? Who will crack jokes with the executioners the way they did? Who will construct a brilliant bawdy prank as a thin disguise for generational trauma? Who will write requiems for the kazoo?

There was something wrong with Dean Young’s heart. He had a transplant in 2011 – Shock By Shock was the collection that followed. And so mortality, precarity, and a sense of being out-of-control are themes that show up a lot in the poems. But they don’t respond to those Big Ideas the way they should. They’re mischievous creatures. Which is why I love them.

The Late Work of Pinkham Ryder

My old friend stopped by
to see how my procedure had gone.
I’d arranged all the green rocks
of my collection, mostly fluorite,
at one end of the table
and was winding up the robots at the other.
Not bad for someone whose left hand
occasionally slapped himself
but I was in no mood to reminisce
now that the only decent café in town
had burned down. You had to drive carefully
in that area because engineering students
now wandered around like smoked bees
without a hive. I myself had to stare 
at a dandelion blowing out its brains
to steady myself. Not that I’d mention it
to my friend who’s one of those people
who think it’s an emergency when you pee
purple or your head’s even a tiny bit
on fire or you’re talking in your sleep
which, by the way, I’m doing now
not that that inhibits my field command. 
Robots, attack!

from Shock By Shock, (Copper Canyon 2015), used by permission

The first time I read this poem I blew past the title, so let me do so again here before we start worrying about who Pinkham Ryder is. The poem starts with a friend visiting the speaker after his “procedure,” and the speaker seems a bit ambivalent about it (“I was in no mood to reminisce”). We don’t know if the speaker is Dean Young himself, or a persona of some kind, but I can’t help but connect “procedure” to Young’s transplant, although calling that a “procedure” is an impressive act of self-deprecation. 

It appears the speaker has been occupying his time with small meaningless projects like rearranging his rock collection and “winding up the robots.” Are the small-motor skills that these actions require part of the speaker’s recovery? And why green rocks and robots? The green rocks might be a gesture of optimism – green is usually a colour associated with life and renewal. But it’s also a colour we associate with infection, which is one of a transplant recipient’s greatest fears. And the whole idea that I’m trying to manufacture symbolic meaning into these items seems like a bad idea. Either way, my hunch is that “one end of the table” and “the other” seem to be about as far as the speaker can reach during his recovery, the horizon of his world. 

If that’s the case, though, why does he care about “the only decent café in town” burning down? Is it just another aspect of a general decline? It appears that the whole neighborhood is suffering from odd bits of upheaval. Who are these wandering engineering students? Are they in the neighborhood to repair, remake, or destroy? What sort of new world can they construct if they can’t keep themselves out of traffic? What the speaker does “to steady himself” – watching a dandelion “blow out its brains,” is also a problem. I mean, on the one hand, watching dandelions release their seeds into the world, when you have the time, is a calming and hope-filled activity, even if you are aware of what it means for your lawn. On the other hand, if you associate that image with “blowing out [their] brains,” then maybe calm and hope are not in the cards for you. But of course, the image is so inventive and funny, that I’ll never look at dandelions again in any other way. The poem has permanently transformed my understanding of this natural phenomenon. When spring comes, I’ll say to my neighbor, “There go the dandelions, blowing out their brains.” And my neighbour will inch away from me. 

Speaking of discomfort, I want to think for a minute about robots. Robots, or “automata,” are older than you’d think – here’s an article about them if you’re curious. Robots can, of course, be helpful and fun. But robots always carry with them an aura of the uncanny. They are like us but not like us. They can do things for us but they can also go horribly wrong. For every benevolent R2D2, there are countless Cylons, Sentinels, Borg, and Terminators. In the context of a poem about recovering from a procedure, I wonder about small robots that might have helped to keep our speaker alive. But what invasions must he now stave off in order to maintain his sense of self? 

That sense of the uncanny seems to permeate everything the speaker sees. He looks at dandelions and thinks of suicide. He is surprised when his friend is alarmed by alarming things like purple urine or personal flammability. There are robots on the table, yes, but is there a robot in his heart? Is his imagination alive and active or is he talking in his sleep? Is this whole poem just a fever dream or hallucination?

Maybe now it’s time to look up Pinkham Ryder. Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) was an American painter whose work from the late 19th century seems to be a bridge to Modernism. He often painted semi-abstract images of the sea, and was well-known enough to participate in the famous 1913 Armory Show that is credited with introducing Cubism and similar movements in painting to an American audience. 

Under a Cloud,” by Albert Pinkham Ryder, ca. 1900. Held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Here’s a remarkable thing he wrote in a letter about his creative process: “Have you ever seen an inch worm crawl up a leaf or a twig, and then clinging to the very end, revolve in the air, feeling for something to reach something? That’s like me. I am trying to find something out there beyond the place on which I have a footing.” Nice.

Another thing worth knowing about Albert Pinkham Ryder is that there is almost no “late work.” Though his reputation grew in middle age, after 1900 his output almost completely disappeared, and his behaviour got more and more “eccentric,” though he lived until 1917. So the title of the poem, “The Late Work of Pinkham Ryder,” refers to something that doesn’t exist, unless the pile-up of trash and half-eaten meals in his home could be considered “work.” 

So now the title starts to make a bit more sense. The ominous implication is that no new work is forthcoming for the speaker, or maybe for the poet either, and that his behaviour might start to get more eccentric. The delightful leaps of his imagination have been confined in his sickbed, and he seems on the verge of despair over the state of his world. His metaphoric observation about the dandelions is wonderful but he doesn’t even share it with his friend, whose concerns seem more prosaic. (He’s not wrong, though: I too would “think it an emergency” if my recuperating friend’s head were on fire or if his urine were purple!) It’s as if the fellow can feel his powers evaporating, and especially from a poet whose work is as absurd and lively as Dean Young’s, this worry feels desperate and profound.

But he’s not dead yet. The outlandish last line – “Robots, attack!” — is almost like the answer to a dare: what’s the most absurd last line of a poem ever written? “Robots, attack!” is not the utterance of a person whose creativity has completely abandoned him. It is a call-to-arms, an expression of defiance. It could be the cry of a villain mastermind on the verge of defeat, and I’m doubtful that the toys on his table will heed his orders, but who knows? He may be unhinged, he may have returned to a state of childhood where his mind is occupied with less prestigious creative activities. But for now at least, against the rational, the mature, and the medically sound, he will order the assault! 

And if we are reading this in a poem, then we can infer that the end of our speaker’s creativity has been put off for now. In addition to Shock By Shock, Dean Young managed to write one more collection, Solar Perplexus, before dying from complications from COVID. The late work of Dean Young is as wild and inventive as anything he wrote, full of poignancy and humour. It summons all of the forces at our disposal to defy the fate that will ultimately plunge us into permanent silence. 

Adrian de Leon, “ilog”


/isa/: a circumcision

at bedtime my father liked to trace the rush
	of the tenejero river into my homeland dreams

I crouched on the shore & watched the leeches lurch
	the gnawing soil a foot from my not-yet-callused toes

upstream boys bawled at the quack doctor’s cleaver
	before he shoved guava leaves into their mouths

magnguya ka	       chew until mush 	   dumura ka sa titi mo

the rouge river has no shamans 	not any more		just urologists
	or whom to play up your pain

binata ka na 	    di ka na supot
	the boy becomes man
between my legs & asks if adulthood had to hurt

						    	                                         and I spit
	these leaves at the rawness of an unhooded penis

—	from barangay: an offshore poem (Buckrider Books, 2021, used by permission)

This poem requires a bit of translation before we really begin. But it doesn’t take much work to situate ourselves – Google Translate is sufficient. Adrian de Leon is one of a number of immigrant writers from the Philippines who have emerged in recent years, so we’re working mostly with Tagalog here. In this case, “ilog” is the word for “river,” the title of the poem. If you had the book in your hand, you’d be able to flip the page and notice that this poem is a series with four sections, and it wouldn’t take you long to figure out that “isa” is simply the number one, signalling the opening section of the series. So we have a longer poem entitled “ilog,” or “river,” whose first section is called “circumcision.” 

If you were hoping that “circumcision” is a Filipino word for “splashy water” or something, though, I have some bad news for you. 

Once we get to the poem proper, we begin with a moment of tenderness, a father tracing “the rush / of the tenejero river into my homeland dreams.” In my mind I imagine a father drawing lines on his son’s back while he falls asleep, a physical tenderness. But it could also be a narrative tenderness, tracing stories of the river into his son’s imagination. It’s notable that a poem about circumcision begins with a moment of affection between father and son, so we are located in love before we approach the more fraught subject to follow.

I couldn’t find the “Tenejero River” online, but Tenejero is a region of the Philippines around two hours west of Manila (again, thanks internet), and I’m pretty confident that this region is the setting for the memories being evoked. The title of the collection is barangay: an offshore poem, and “barangay” is a word that means something like “municipality” but also “neighborhood.” Feel free to connect to the official Barangay Tenejero website and learn all about it. 

So we have a boy being reminded by his father of a specific region in his former home, especially a moment on the river. The next line, “I crouched on the shore & watched the leeches lurch,” is wonderful bit of music-making – all those ch and sh sounds evoking the water, or perhaps the damp soil at its shore. But I’m not sure exactly who’s speaking – is it the father, telling a story as a way of “trac[ing] homeland dreams”? Or does the father’s story about the river remind the boy-narrator of an event that occurred when he (the boy) was so young that his feet didn’t yet have callouses? That second reading feels more likely to me, though the possibility that the father may have a similar memory hovers in the background – either way, the boy with uncalloused toes is not yet ready for what’s happening upstream.

As a Jew and a father of boys I’m not going to get into a big debate on the merits of circumcision. It’s an old practice and one that is very meaningful for a lot of cultures and peoples, including my own. I’ve learned that in the Philippines, as in many Muslim communities, the ritual usually takes place around when boys reach puberty, rather than when they are infants. It’s worth pointing out, then, that Filipino men who have undergone this ritual will have memories of it that a Jewish man (who is traditionally circumcised when he is only 8 days old) will not. There’s a tension developing in the poem between manhood, pain, ritual, and memory that I will return to shortly. 

If you really want to learn more about this practice in the Philippines, which is usually called Tulì, feel free to look here or here or here.

You’re welcome for not actually including an image here.

But however we feel about circumcision in general, it seems clear that the version of it being remembered in this poem was brutal. That phrase “quack doctor’s cleaver” is especially potent because of the abrasive sounds of the repeated hard consonants – because we naturally crush the o at the end of “doctor,” the phrase reads like a brutal row of consonants – DoCTRSCLeaVR. And holy moly, a CLEAVER? REALLY? Yikes. Even the way the doctor “shoves guava leaves into their mouths” suggests that the person performing this ritual lacks even a modicum of empathy. Aren’t there mothers around to celebrate the rite of passage? If a boy’s entrance into manhood is ritualized to include pain, does it also have to include such cruelty? We want to say no, that this is a backward, even barbaric version of the practice, and there’s an accompanying temptation to fall into a paradigm of the “old world / new world” that makes me suspicious. The poem is prepared to deal with this topic, but we have a detour to make first.

The next line starts and ends with phrases in Tagalog, with an English translation of the first phrase in the middle. 

Ok, I need to pause on this subject for a minute. Recently there was a bit of a dustup online over how obligated a poet should feel to include translations or explanations of non-English words in their poems. An excellent young Canadian poet, Isabella Wang, uses Mandarin in her work, and made a bold statement on Twitter that “Readers, especially white readers, are *not* entitled to footnotes / explanations / direct translations of non-English words.” There was a reaction to the statement online, ranging from pearl-clutching to outright racist, and then a ferocious counter-reaction from Wang and her supporters. (Pro tip, by the way: do not pick a fight online with Isabella Wang. She’s better at internetting than you are, and her friends will skewer you like a marinated portobello mushroom.) One notable point was that when a poet uses phrases from French or Greek, there’s no similar backlash – see T.S. Eliot. 

Underneath the knee-jerk reactions, though, is an important question about clarity in poems. How much of a poem should be available to us at first reading? What does it suggest when poets deliberately use language that they know will be foreign to many of their readers? 

If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I’m a big fan of embracing my confusion when reading. Getting all the answers, especially on a first look, is not necessary for me to fall in love with a poem – in fact it’s often a sign the poem won’t stick with me. So, for example, when I’m not sure above if it’s the father’s or the son’s memory about crouching on the shore, my first response is to follow each possible answer as a way of expanding the possibilities in the poem, rather than get frustrated that I don’t know the “right answer.” 

On the other hand, I do prefer when a poet leaves me some bread crumbs to follow, to suggest questions to wonder about, or a gesture towards a subject so we can learn more on our own. In Isabella Wang’s case, part of what makes her poems’ use of Mandarin interesting is that she herself is no longer as fluent as she’d like to be, so the way some of the characters remain untranslated suggests the same sort of disorientation that her poem’s speaker is faced with in the language that she is supposed to feel is her own. It’s a demonstration of distance that we are compelled to share with her. In other words, the confusion is part of the point. To me that’s interesting even if I don’t dig down to translate every word or character. Besides, in the 21st century, it’s such a simple thing to search Google Translate – or whatever other platform you prefer – to answer questions when they come up. Is that too much for poets to ask of their reader?

Ok, rant over.

In this poem, the placement of the English suggested to me that “magnguya ka” means something like “chew until mush” but the other phrase, “dumura ka sa titi mo” is left unstranslated. My first read-through I left it at that, and kept going. There was enough there for me to wonder about why chewed up guava leaves are a part of the ceremony. When I returned to the poem and wanted to dig a bit deeper, I was granted another gift — Google Translate reveals that the second phrase, “dumura ka sa titi mo,” means something like “spit on your cock.” (I will shamefully admit that I got a small adolescent thrill from getting Google to use the word “cock.”) But while I was online I also learned that guava leaves have anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties, so chewing them and then spitting them onto one’s penis is conducive to healing. The quack doctor, while brutal, also gives some good advice.

This is how the poem complicates the “backward old country” scene above. In the next line, “the rouge river has no shamans       not anymore                    just urologists,” seems to suggest that the speaker of our poem has had what we can probably call a less traumatic experience than his older peers on the Tenejero. (The Rouge River, by the way, is in Scarborough, in the eastern suburbs of Toronto.) And I can’t help but see a bit of humour in the word “urologist,” which is so clinical and absurd after all the musical care that has been taken with language until this point. But also notice that “not anymore,” which reminds us that there may have once been “shamans,” or their equivalent, practicing rituals by the Rouge River. Whatever cruelty the quack doctor practices with his cleaver, it’s not genocidal. 

guavas and their leaves

And it feels like the shaman’s voice echoing across the ocean that suggests the chewed guava leaves which the speaker “spits at the rawness of an unhooded penis” in the final line of the poem. Are chewed guava leaves better for promoting healing and protecting the area from infection than some urologist-prescribed ointment? I have no idea. Does it matter? Absolutely it does. In this poem, the guava leaves are an essential part of the ceremony that reminds the speaker of what the ritual is for: not just to mark his passage into manhood, but also to mark his emergence as an adult in his community, even in its diasporic context. Guavas, especially with leaves attached, are not always so easy to find in Canadian grocery stores, so someone had to make sure there were some on hand — perhaps the father, who has not been mentioned since the first lines of the poem, but whose presence lingers. Who would have made the arrangements with the urologist, who would have insisted on this ritual at all? 

That’s the question that is left unresolved in this poem, the central question about the value of circumcision: or as the poem puts it, why “adulthood had to hurt.” On the one hand, entering adulthood (male, female or otherwise) inevitably will include pain – the burden of responsibility, the pain of loss, the whole catastrophe of grown-up life. On the other hand, couldn’t there be other, less invasive ways to usher a young man into his community? The image we are left with, of a young post-procedure teenager in the suburbs chewing guava leaves and crouching over to spit the mush into his own penis, is hardly one that evokes an ideal of acculturated manhood. Are these humiliations essential? Should they continue? Will the speaker of this poem, if he is one day blessed with a son, prepare for his Tulì in the same way that his father did?

Last point: forgive me, but I want to think for a minute about the sound of the word “penis.” It’s always struck me as an ugly-sounding word, though I’m not sure why – there’s nothing wrong with “Venus” or “peanuts.” Maybe it’s the hiss the word ends with. Or maybe, when we have so many other, more evocative and lively words for the male genitalia – in every language on earth – “penis” feels like a concession to the assimilated, “appropriate” man the speaker is being asked to become. I doubt that he would trade the sterile procedure he’s undergone for the quack doctor’s cleaver, but there’s something unresolved between the world of the river and the shaman and chewed guava leaves, and the “unhooded penis” that he now possesses. He will tend that wound for the rest of his life.

Steven Heighton, “Night Skaters, Skeleton Park”

If you are connected to CanLit in some way, you probably heard the news a couple of weeks ago that Steven Heighton had passed away from cancer. It’s a great shock – Steven was only 60, a prolific and accomplished writer in multiple genres, universally admired. I didn’t know him well, but we met a few times at literary events, and exchanged congratulatory emails when new books came out. He was generous with his praise and attention, and had a way of looking directly at you that forced you to take your thinking a bit more seriously. He was leading-man handsome, often sporting sideburns and a leather jacket that seemed both slightly dated and also effortlessly cool. When it came to poetry, he was a real craftsman – not an experimentalist, necessarily, just someone consistently writing really good poems with clarity, vision, and care. It’s a great loss.

Here’s one of his later poems from Selected Poems 1983-2020, published by House of Anansi last year:

Night Skaters, Skeleton Park

Puck pummels the boards, a wrister
rings the crossbar, whispers in netting,
razoring strides shave up crystal grit. Plays
unwitnessed score their own applause —
mister, it’s like making the finals,
only finer —
		a mosaic, ice-frieze, fresco,
the scratched and cross-hatched drafts of a poem.
Rink lights fade but your blades grind on,
plying tunes from the grooves
like needles do on white-hot vinyl.

                            Used with permission from House of Anansi Press

This poem was commissioned by the Skeleton Park Arts Festival in Kingston, where Heighton lived. (Feel free to find out more about the Festival here.) And so it makes sense that the first pleasures of the poem come from the way Heighton evokes the sounds of the skaters playing shinny at the rink.  He starts with some basic alliteration – puck pummels and wrister rings the crossbar – in language that manages to be both familiar and fresh. My favorite phrase here is “razoring strides shave up crystal grit.” Say that one out loud – it’s a glorious mouthful as it tries to imitate the sound of the ice that is somehow scalp-itchingly dry, despite the fact that its medium is frozen water.

Moving beyond the physical descriptions of the game, the poem turns its attention to another pleasure of sports: “Plays / unwitnessed score their own applause.” I don’t think the poem is suggesting that there’s anything highlight-worthy of the “plays / unwitnessed” referred to here — it’s just a community rink, after all, and the game is likely amateurish. There are few fans in the stands, so the plays themselves have to “serve as their own applause.” And yet I suspect that all of us who regularly play sports appreciate the well-timed pass, the deft save, the well-turned double-play, the consistent 15-footer. That is to say, the regular plays that we are all capable of, and which don’t earn any more praise than the satisfactions of the game, and maybe a quick tap from a teammate.

When we say something like “mister, it’s like making the finals – / only finer —,” you know we’re exaggerating. But we’re not making the finals, never-ever, and the rush from scoring the winning goal in a pickup game of shinny might be as good as it’s going to get. That’s still pretty good, as long as we keep it in perspective. For me, part of what the poem is celebrating is the way community rinks, courts, and fields give gawky teenagers, late bloomers, stressed moms, nostalgic has-beens, and grizzled old vets the opportunity to achieve these unspectacular moments of grace. 

Wally showing off his athletic prowess

But I want to pause on this moment in the poem for a minute. Who’s speaking this line? Who’s this “mister”? Is it a bit of captured dialogue, a local speaking to the poet or some other witness at the park? Or is the poem speaking to us, his readers? “Mister” is a bit archaic, a bit formal, hearkening back to a time I associate with black-and-white television, like something Wally Cleaver would say to a passerby: “Hey Mister, can you throw our ball back over the fence?” I’ll come back to this.

To this point, the poem is a rich response to what I assume was Heighton’s assignment: to write something that could be inscribed on the walls of the rink, or on a plaque nearby, celebrating the space, the game, and the community that surrounds it. Mission accomplished by line 6. 

Then there’s a bit of a turn. Our attention zooms in on the ice itself, and what it looks like in the aftermath of the game: “the scratched and cross-hatched drafts of a poem.” Here my ears prick up – yes, the chicken-scratch of the blade marks might resemble someone’s bad handwriting. But if we’re reading these lines in a poem, suddenly I’m also reverse-engineering the metaphor: could these marks – on the ice, on the page – be linked as the remnants of efforts to achieve grace in a small-scale community venue that promises little hope of ever “making the finals”? Are the pleasures of writing a poem like the pleasures of playing rec-league hockey? 

Now the idea that “your blades grind on” even after the rink lights have been turned off has additional resonance for me – the loneliness of this kind of practice, the absurd dedication required to improve or even to maintain one’s skills. Notice also that this is the first moment where a real pronoun appears, and it’s you. This might be referring to the night skaters from our title who are still playing, but it could also now be the you who is scratching and cross-hatching at that poem in the dark. Now we can look back at the beginning of the poem – the crisp wrister, the clever turn of phrase – and recognize how much work it took to pull it off. It’s the hours spent after the rink lights have faded that earn you the skills to write a line like “razoring strides shave up crystal grit.”

What is this ancient contraption?!

The poem’s final image adds another connection: the late-night work is compared to “plying tunes from the grooves / like needles do on white-hot vinyl.” Just as with the “mister” in the first half of the poem, this strikes me as a bit archaic – I mean, apart from hipsters and aficionados, who owns records any more? Even the phrase “white hot vinyl” recalls 60s radio disk jockeys. Why these gestures to the past? Of course, if we want to connect the speaker of the poem directly to Heighton himself, we might imagine that he had fond memories of playing records and calling people Mister. 

But for me it’s more than that — the slightly out-of-date images and terminology call our attention to the legacy of these pleasures even when they aren’t the latest trend. Someone who, in 21st century, thinks of his music collection as “white hot vinyl,” or someone practicing his moves long after dark at a community ice rink, or someone writing precise and artful poems in the age of TikTok, probably is aware his efforts aren’t cool or worthy of applause. And yet here we are, all of us, at the end of the poem (and the end of this essay), feeling the line, and recognizing its heat, even on the choppy icescape of a public park in Kingston. The groove we are searching for is its own reward. 

Steven Heighton will be sorely missed. 

Kaie Kellough, “alphabet”

I haven’t written much on this blog about oral poetry, slam, sound poems, or other forms of poetry that rely on performance to achieve their effects. I’m still learning and exploring as a reader/listener in these fields, and this essay is part of that exploration. 

Kaie Kellough is novelist, short story writer, and poet, who has had success in a number of styles and genres, including winning the Griffin Prize for his collection Magnetic Equator in 2020. He also collaborates with jazz musicians in really interesting ways that you can watch here

The recording posted below is 10 years old, and so is older than what I usually write about here. But I only just discovered it, thanks to my friend Jake Mooney, who re-posted it on Twitter recently. Thanks, Jake. 

If this is your first encounter with something like this, you’re probably wondering, What’s happening? What should I be listening for? Where’s the imagery, the sentiment, the actual words?! There’s clearly something very playful about the piece, but the artist also seems to be quite serious. What sort of poem is this? These are not unreasonable responses. But let me repeat my mantra about “meaning” being only one of the things that poetry does as it moves across the page or, in this case, through time. Again, if your first question when you approach this poem is, “What does it mean?” you’re probably going to be frustrated. Instead, I’m thinking about what the poem is doing. So, what’s it doing?

First off, it’s a vocalization of the alphabet. That’s in the title, and as soon as we get accustomed to Kellough’s approach, the “text” of the poem is quite clear and familiar, even when he turns it around and starts heading backwards. (One of my favourite moments from the crowd is when the poet starts working his way backwards, and someone shouts out, “Oh no!” knowing where the performance is now going.) If you’re quick enough you can even begin to anticipate some of the sounds Kellough is going to use and how they might blend together. In that sense you can predict the text even as it occurs, which is unusual in a poem you’re encountering for the first time. 

You can also tell right away that Kellough is an outstanding, confident performer – he interacts with the audience, changes tone and stance to engage different sections of the room, uses his hands to emphasize but not to distract, and maintains a pretty fast pace. When I reached out to him to ask permission to write on this piece, Kaie revealed to me that the night this recording was made was only the second time he had performed it live, so there was still a “raw element to the performance,” as he put it. I therefore want to call some real attention to his virtuosity: the clarity of his articulation so that we can clearly hear all of the letters in succession, the elements of discovery, surprise, range, and a kind of vocal muscularity that is on display. 

Quick bit of background: sound poetry goes back at least as far as the beginning of the 20th century, when it was allied with the surrealist Dada movement that deliberately abandoned meaning for various artistic and political reasons. If you’re curious you can dig in and learn about Hugo Ball, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, and Tristan Tzara. The PennSound archive has some great recordings of more recent sound poetry, including Christian Bök performing a Hugo Ball poem, and the contemporary sound artists Jaap Blonk and Tracie Morris

There’s much more to say about this – about poetry’s attraction to jazz, especially bebop, and about the blurry line between performance poetry and musical genres like rap. This isn’t the space – and I don’t have the expertise – to say too much more. I just want to suggest that Kellough is working in some well-established poetic traditions that are worth exploring further. 

But let’s talk truth: if this fella’s going to try to pronounce the alphabet, he’s also got to contend with the performance that truly dominates this space. The Alpha Precedent, the ORIGINAL alphabet vocalization, you know the one. It’s by that inimitable performer, Big Bird:

Big Bird’s performance is attached to a conventional chipper melody, but it is similar to Kaie Kellough’s in that it posits the alphabet – what we usually think of as the tools used to make language – as a pronounceable piece of language itself. There are also important differences, though. While Big Bird repeats the whole word over and over again, and lyrically articulates his struggles to understand it, Kellough sticks to the text itself, works his way through it, plays with different parts, repeating some, and then of course doing the whole thing backwards. It’s a more fluid reading, and a more creative response to the materials, as if he’s rediscovering or re-examining the alphabet while traveling through, and allowing his audience to draw inferences of what is at stake in the poem. 

Pakoras? PuQuRuhs?

Another thing I notice is that Big Bird keeps insisting that the thing is a word – “it’s the most remarkable word I’ve ever seen.” He also seems to desire some coherence – “If I ever find out just what this word can mean, I’ll be the smartest bird the world has ever seen!” Even for children watching, this desire makes Big Bird seem naive and quaint – Susan will have to correct him after the song is complete. abcdefghijklmnopqurstuvwxyz isn’t a word any more than a pile of bricks, wood, nails and a hammer is a house. For Kellough, “what it means” is not a primary concern, although there are some remarkable moments when coherence seems to momentarily emerge. Around the 1-minute mark, when Kellough lands on PQR, he almost seems to land on a word, “pakwera,” pakora?, that seems to interest him so that he repeats it a few times. And near the end, around 3:50, going backwards, he comes to FEDC, which he repeats enough that I can hear “for etiquette” bursting to get out. I can’t help but occasionally try to assign meaning to the sounds that emerge from Kellough’s mouth – it’s just a natural instinct of my mind. But I’m aware that that reaction is not necessarily in the text itself; it’s my imposition on the letters. The fact that Kellough repeats those pieces of near-words a few times lets us know that he can hear it too. 

One final difference I notice is in some of the pronunciations: Big Bird’s is the vowel you hear in flat or hat, exaggerated even further by Caroll Spinney’s pronunciation and emphasis. Kellough’s is more like an “ah,” as in palm or Mama, but also like it is usually pronounced in other languages – portage in French, or adios in Spanish. From the beginning, then, Big Bird’s alphabet is recognizably American, or at least North American, whereas Kellough’s seems more worldly. Is there an implied critique in Kellough’s version of the alphabet for those of us who might incorrectly assume that it belongs to a single language or culture? Perhaps. Other letters – H, around the 0:26 mark – get connected to the body and the breath in ways that we aren’t always aware of when we pronounce them: watch how Kellough’s abdomen forcefully contracts as that H gets vocalized. 

So if Big Bird’s song is meant to help children learn the alphabet, to feel comfortable and familiar around its shapes and sounds, then Kellough’s performance seems intent on the opposite. Even if we could anticipate his pronunciations of the letters, his repetitions and reversals would throw us off balance. In a sense then, my experience is a defamiliarization with the letters, making me newly aware of their contours and suggestions, so that I don’t just take the sounds and order for granted. After all, the alphabet is the most basic tool of our written language, and yet in many ways we are disconnected from that tool’s range, history, and limitations. Why is P after O but before Q? Why, when I want to suggest the sound my closed lips make when humming, do I make a shape with two humps? Why do I have one letter that can represent a “ks” sound, but need two letters to represent the phoneme “sh”? And then, on the other hand: could Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi and Thai speakers create parallel performances of their various alphabets to the same effect? What would they sound like to my Anglophone ears?

The first time I watched Kaie Kellough’s performance of “alphabet,” the source of my delight was one of pure discovery – I’d never heard the alphabet spoken, almost sung, in that way before. But the more I listen to it, the more seems to be suggested and explored. And yet I still get the same rush of pleasure at the sounds, the combinations, and the dynamism of his delivery. The poem seems to me to ask fascinating questions about our basic linguistic structures, all in a dynamic sonic package that feels full of humour, critique, and surprise. Not bad for just a bunch of letters. 

Broken Dawn Blessings

It’s here, people!

I have a new book of poems that’s just been published by ECW Press. If you’re a regular reader of this blog (or even if you’re not!), I’d love for you to check it out.

You can find a couple of the poems from the book here, and another here. There’s going to be a launch this Thursday, October 7, and wherever you are in the world, you can access it here or here. It would be great to see you.

I’m trying to work on a new HPM essay, but it’s pretty busy right now, so I can’t make any promises for when it’ll be done. Hopefully soon.

As always, thanks for reading.

Dominik Parisien, “After Convulsing in Public”

First off, a warning to any secondary school teachers out there who are using my blog for their students (hi, by the way! thanks for coming!): there’s a BAD WORD in this poem. It’s right there in the first line. It’s one of the most flexible and sonically satisfying words in the English language, so feel free to turn your shock into a lesson in etymology, or the psychology of swearing. I may also spend a bit of time discussing this word and its role in the poem.


After Convulsing in Public

I like to fuck in protest of this body.

I’m told the caring treatment afforded
my unconscious self
is a testament
to the kindness of strangers. I do see in it hope
& my own dissolution. Convulsing, I lose
the possessive body, become
a receptacle for concern, just a thing
touched everywhere through kindness
left perfumed with the sweat of another’s care.

I seem ungrateful because I am
permeable in those moments,
a body bursting with strangers.

Sex is then the privilege of choosing
who participates in the choreography 
of my limbs. My partner’s hands
become a knife, carving other fingers from my skin
to help me shape myself again.

-from Side Effects May Include Strangers (McGill-Queens University Press 2020), used by permission.

Once you get past the shock/titillation of the word “fuck,” the first line reads like a thesis statement for the rest of the poem. The challenge, then, is for us to explore what it means to “fuck in protest of this body.” Why does the speaker want to protest his body, and what does fucking have to do with it? 

We get a hint towards answering the first question in the title. The implication is that the poem was written after an unpleasant medical episode. (Some sort of seizure? We don’t know exactly.) But rather than give us the descriptive details that we might expect from a poem with this title – “I woke up with sand in my hair and a leathery taste in my mouth” – we start from an uncomfortable distance from the subject. 

The next stanza begins with an almost clinical tone: “I’m told the caring treatment afforded / my unconscious self / is a testament / to the kindness of strangers.” On the one hand it makes sense that the speaker would have to be told about who cared for him. But the legalistic language here – “the caring afforded / my unconscious self”?! – speaks to what almost sounds like suspicion. For me, it’s not that the speaker doesn’t believe there are good people out there in the world who are willing and able to care for someone in medical crisis. It’s that he has such a hard time conceiving of what happened to him that he’s not taking anything for granted. 

I can’t help but be reminded of one of my favourite Emily Dickinson poems here: “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” whose first stanza goes like this:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes–

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs–

The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’

And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

You can find the rest of that poem here, and there’s lots to say about it, but the link to today’s poem, for me, is that disorienting feeling after trauma that makes you a little unclear about whether or not you are inhabiting your own body. Was it you who just underwent these things, when did it happen, who helped – it’s an almost existential confusion. And that the feeling in response to this strangeness in Dickinson is “formal” points exactly to what Parisien is doing with the language here.

As the stanza continues I sense the speaker trying to get a hold of himself: the emphasis of “I do see in it hope” (my italics) is a kind of concession to the people who cared for him. But why does that lead to the speaker’s “dissolution”? One would think that the speaker is reconstituting himself after his ordeal, rather than dissolving. 

This is where the poem really gets interesting to me. It’s not just that the convulsions themselves have torn a rift into the speaker’s sense of agency or control. Anyone who has fainted, or had the hiccups, knows what it’s like to lose some control over the body, and how disorienting that can be. But for this speaker, it’s also the very fact that he needs others to care for him, and that the way they care for him necessitates manipulating his body, perhaps inserting a needle into his skin, any number of caregiving activities that might feel invasive in other contexts. He’s not a person, he’s a “receptacle for concern.” And while he may be “left perfumed with the sweat of another’s care,” that too feels like a kind of intrusion. “Perfumed” has almost religious connotations for me (as in the perfumed oil used for the Chrism Mass), but it’s also a little creepy, smelling a stranger’s sweat on your own body. 

One sense I get by now, by the way, is that this is not a one-time thing for the speaker of this poem. The title isn’t conclusive, but I’m sensing that these episodes occur frequently enough that he’s had some real time to consider how they affect him. “Convulsing, I lose..” rather than “When I was convulsing, I lost…” This poem appears midway through Dominik Parisien’s Side Effects May Include Strangers and, as the title of the collection implies, this phenomenon of being in others’ care is a recurring one. 

The sum of all this, then, is that the speaker of the poem is aware in numerous ways that the borders of his physical self are not stable. As the next stanza puts it, he is “permeable in those moments.” Of course, to some degree this is true for most of us – scientists have told us about the benevolent bacteria in our gastro-intestinal systems, the micro-organisms in our hair and our mouths, and how pheromones are emitted from our bodies to blur the lines between what is “me” and what is not. And we’re all more aware than we used to be about the micro-particles that are expelled from our bodies when we breathe. But nevertheless most of us have a fairly stable sense of the edges of our bodies, most of the time. This poem’s central figure, however, has been deprived of this stability. He’s a body “bursting with strangers.”

Think about it: how often do we let other people put their fingers in our mouths? And yet one of the things we used to be told if we see someone in public having a seizure is to put a wallet or spoon in their mouth to prevent them from swallowing their tongue. (This was never medically true, by the way. Please don’t do this.)

Those who are under frequent medical care have to acclimate themselves to medical professionals handling their bodies, manipulating and prodding, clinically examining, inserting needles. If a chemo patient has a port installed in her body to facilitate the administration of an iv, is that port a part of her body? When the needle is inside you, is it of you? How long from when the blood is drawn from your arm does that blood cease to be yours? For me, that notion of a “permeable” self is a powerful reminder of the boundaries most of us take for granted. 

There is, however, another kind of activity in which our bodies can be permeable, but whose affects are very different. Here’s where we come back to fucking. 

A lover can know your body with more detail and nuance than you know your own. Certainly they apply a kind of attention to our bodies that we do not lavish on ourselves. And the idea that our bodies blur when making love is so ubiquitous that it has become a cliché of popular romantic song:

Sing it, Reba. Tell us all about it.

To put it more simply: during (consensual) sex, the permeability of the body is a good thing.

But this poem isn’t going as far as Reba does. The poem doesn’t describe some sort of mystical communion between two romantic partners – it’s not something this speaker is ready for. Note the change over the course of the poem in how this activity is described: at first, “I like to fuck” seems to be a defiant statement of bawdy purpose. Later, in the last stanza, we start with “[s]ex is then the privilege of choosing,” which balances against the loss-of-control we saw earlier but hardly seems to be worthy of a Valentine’s Day card. Even the more evocative “choreography of my limbs” is notable for its choice of pronoun: it’s only my limbs that have choreography. The speaker in this poem isn’t ready for a connection beyond the physical, and the fact that he is “choosing / who participates” suggests that he’s choosing a variety of partners. Even who the sex is with seems tangential to the fact that the lover’s touch helps him reformulate his physical self, differentiating the sensations that are his to enjoy. The sex described here does not seem to be a part of a committed relationship. It is casual, maybe even anonymous.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Far be it from me to poo-poo anyone’s pursuit of consensual sex, with whomever is interested. This is not a love poem. It is a poem of protest. In a body that seems bent on providing the speaker with nothing but uncertainty and discomfort, sex is a defiant reclaiming of pleasure and agency. But the repercussions of his medical circumstances seem to prevent him from making the kind of connection that Reba McIntyre might hope for him. For this speaker, in this poem, that will have to suffice. Because while sex certainly has its pleasures, and we can see how it’s a crucial act of reclamation for this speaker, sex won’t change his diagnosis. He can only “shape myself again” until the next convulsion.