I’ve completed a draft of the full manuscript for the How a Poem Moves book! Still lots of editing to go, but it’s a nice hurdle to clear, and I’m excited to work with the good people at ECW to get this out into the world. Stay tuned!
I’ve completed a draft of the full manuscript for the How a Poem Moves book! Still lots of editing to go, but it’s a nice hurdle to clear, and I’m excited to work with the good people at ECW to get this out into the world. Stay tuned!
Poetry As Prayer: Sana Mohtadi on Kaveh Akbar’s “Morning Prayer with Rat King”
Morning Prayer with Rat King
gravity accounts for the distance between weight
and mass it can also mean alarming importance human
bones are so full of gravity it’s hard for us to
swim I lost my glasses chasing a branch in the ocean
which is far too deep to dredge sometimes
I imagine the sea’s made of actual
tears this would explain the salt think of all
the disconsolate toddlers weeping right now into
the earth the tears must go somewhere it’s important
to consider everything to name what we’re able oceans
give us rain but we don’t call rain ocean knot a dozen
rats together by the tail and you’ve got a roi de rats
which is harder than rain to hear in the night and
far less welcome who mourns a rat king
frustrated chthonic always the biter never the bitten
they give us the evil we need to stay moored to
good still I would break any promise to avoid finding
one O Terrible God of the Mechanical Age I am
your favorite pilgrim yet even I am finding it impossible
to speak to you now without asking for protection
— first publication in Poetry (March 2018), used by permission of the poet
Kaveh Akbar’s “Morning Prayer with Rat King” is not an ordinary fajr (dawn prayer). Akbar is an Iranian-American poet and professor, who currently teaches at both Purdue University and Randolph College. A vibrant voice in contemporary poetry, he is known for founding the online interview project Divedapper, as well as his debut full length collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, published by Alice James Books in 2017. Akbar often references his Shia background in his latest collection, so “Rat King” fits comfortably within his oeuvre. In spiritual poetry, it is often challenging to determine whether a poet identifies with a religion or uses it as a literary device. In Akbar’s case, Islam may be both: his morning prayer is a meditation on the varieties of evil we encounter in our lives and the urge to protect ourselves with revelatory writing, be it poetry or the word of God.
Akbar’s speaker considers himself God’s “favorite pilgrim,” implying that he is no stranger to prayer. His “Morning Prayer with a Rat King” is a devotional piece for those of us who can’t keep our mind focused during worship. Perhaps that’s why obligatory prayer is such a powerful force in the lives of people of faith. The ritual of prayer overrides the constraints of time, location, and mood. Thus, the poet’s prayer is far from standard or perfect. The speaker’s mind is occupied by pocket-sized evils–not Satan or hell–but the horror of a rat king.
A grasp on the puzzling phenomenon of rat kings is crucial to our understanding of the poem. A rat king is not a single royal rat, but instead a group of rodents attached by the tail by excrement, sap, or some other adhesive substance. The rarity was first recorded in the 1500s, when the rat king became known as a bad omen, perhaps because of the common association between rodentia and the plague. Additionally, the German translation of “rattenkönig” was an insulting nickname for the Pope, who was believed to be supported by a pack of minions, like a leader rat. Consequently, the rat king has continued to occupy the minds of those swayed by myth or fascinated by science. Cryptid or not, the speaker considers such a creature (or collection of creatures, rather) as his partner in prayer.
Akbar’s rat king is buried within the poem, unmentioned until its third stanza. The first stanza of the poem potentially addresses the poet’s search for meaning; nautical imagery allows the speaker to unify his relationship to higher power with a gnawing nihilism. The speaker believes that human bones are too “full of gravity,” or rather “alarming importance,” for us to swim easily. He seems to glance into a void, the “ocean,” and blind himself in the process, losing his glasses attempting to grasp at a branch. The “ocean which is far too deep to dredge” lends itself to interpretation. On the one hand, the depth and vastness of the sea may reflect God’s infinite wisdom and power, which inspires the speaker to humble himself before Him and ask for protection. On the other hand, a gaping ocean that extends as far as the eye can see, with or without the speaker’s glasses, is a reminder of the possibility of the His nonexistence. Akbar’s manipulation of vaguely scientific language such as “weight” and “gravity” juxtaposed with the more literary “alarming importance” illustrates the struggle between disbelief and faith that comes with prayer. The poet’s proposed antidote is to “name what we are able.” The act of naming something lends it importance, a beginning and the possibility of an end. Without a name, the rat king remains a disgusting accident; given a title the creature is mythologized, granted enduring significance.
Akbar’s playful language is that of a wandering mind, as seen when the poet puzzles over why “oceans give us rain/but we don’t call rain ocean.” What at first sounds like a deeply philosophical question is really a bridge to the rat king mentioned in the poem’s title. Akbar is concerned with the elasticity of language in two ways: first, how deceptive names can be, and second, whether a poem itself can be a prayer. He encourages the reader to imagine a sea made up of tears, simply because it would “explain the salt,” and obviously,“tears must go somewhere.” If the benevolent ocean of the first stanza is only the runoff from a tot’s tantrum, what is a rat king really and why does Akbar feel such a kinship to it?
Fittingly, Roi de rats is a grotesque misnomer. Akbar writes, “knot a dozen/rats together by the tail and you’ve got a roi de rats.” His offhand tone in this single line is a departure from the melancholic language of the previous stanzas, ending in a neat French rhyme. His instruction is straightforward, dismissing the mystery of the rat king’s origin as a simple case of tying tails together. Yet, he pivots again in the following lines, lamenting: “who mourns a rat king/frustrated chthonic always the biter never the bitten/they give us the evil we need to stay moored to.” Akbar’s sudden gravity suggests that the speaker’s mind has come to halt. He is no longer musing ironically about how the ocean got its name or whether it’s full of tears. Instead, Akbar has fixated on the rat king as the epitome of evil. The creature, which Akbar describes as “chthonic” or underworldly, is the closest thing to Satan in the poem. For one thing, hell in the Bible or Quran is difficult to comprehend. The extreme suffering outlined in holy books, complete with unimaginable fire and violence, seems more like a fairytale than a legitimate destination. The rat king, relatively small and cartoonish, is a less abstract “evil we need to stay moored to,” prompting revulsion and questioning. Perhaps the speaker sees his sins and fears as rats knotted by the tail by scum and muck, a sum total of wickedness. Perhaps he has received a bad omen which inspired him to pray. It’s possible that the speaker t has allied himself with the rat king itself; the speaker is self aware, conceding that he would “break any promise to avoid finding one.” Obviously, the creature fascinates the him, interrupting his stream of consciousness and refocusing (or “mooring,” a nod to the ocean) his prayer, as emphasized by the sudden enjambment between “finding/One,” and further, “one” and “Oh Terrible God.”
Thus, Akbar’s morning prayer raises the questions, “Is there a right way to pray? And if so, does a poem count?” Perhaps the answer lies within the words of the poem. “Morning Prayer with Rat King” contains all the elements of worship that varying faiths can agree upon: humility and respect, fear and love of the Creator, an acknowledgement of human frailty and the possibility of a greater beyond. In organizing his consciousness into a series of loosely connected images and naming them, Akbar is both successful in his fajr, but also in mourning the rat king, which has no one to pray for it, who is “always the biter never the bitten.” Akbar’s rat king is a pesky companion, and an enduring reminder of the evil that is both external and internal.
Sana Mohtadi is a rising sophomore studying English at the University of Toronto, born and raised outside Boston. Most recently, her poetry has been published in the UC Review, the literary journal of University College at U of T.
As you know, this blog has been on hiatus while I’ve been putting together the How a Poem Moves book that ECW Press will be publishing next year. I’m busy editing the 25 essays that are here already, writing 11 new essays and an introduction, and completing the other paperwork that goes into turning a blog into a book.
Meanwhile, in my classes I’ve been occasionally assigning “How a Poem Moves” essays to my students. Whenever I’ve done so, I promised them that if any of their submissions were strong enough, I would publish it as a “Guest Post” on this blog. I hoped that would be a motivator. For some students, I think it was.
So I’m very pleased to let you know that later this week – probably Thursday – there will be a Guest Post on the blog from Sana Mohtadi, a student who just finished her first year at the University of Toronto. She’s written an insightful essay on a terrific poem by Kaveh Akbar, one of the more dynamic new poets to appear in the American literary scene in recent years. A new voice on a new voice.
I’m sure you’ll enjoy it, so stay tuned.
This blog has been active for a year, and I’ve published 25 essays on 25 different poems. I’m very proud of it, and hope it’s giving you readers some pleasure. Now it’s time for this project to migrate into another medium.
I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve just finalized a contract with ECW Press to publish How a Poem Moves in book form.
The book will contain some of the essays you’ve found here, as well as new work and an introduction that I’ve been promising for a while but thus far have not delivered. Needless to say, I’m very excited, and want to thank Michael Holmes at ECW for helping me gestate the idea. The plan is for the book to come out in the spring of 2019.
This means that this site will go quiet for a while. I have to write some essays that will be exclusive to the book, and I need time to sort through what’s here, to re-organize, and to re-imagine the project for its new manifestation.
It’s likely that I will return to writing individual essays for this blog once the book is up and away, but for now, I want to thank all of you for your enthusiasm, your encouragement, and your input. More to come!
An ekphrastic poem responds to a work of art in some way. Often, as in W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” there is a description of the piece (usually a painting) that puts its images into some other context. But that isn’t necessarily the case. Sometimes the painting is a jumping off point for the poem, or a point of contention.
A lot of poems in Richard Siken’s War of the Foxes could be called ekphrastic. But Siken is a painter himself (as you can see on his website here) and often his subject seems as much about the creation of an image or painting as it is about our response to viewing it. I know of other poets who were also visual artists (William Blake first and foremost) but Siken is the first poet-painter I’m aware of who delves so deeply into the problems of creation, whether that creation is on paper, canvas, or in the imagination itself.
Before I go too far down this road, here’s the poem:
I erased my legs and forgot to draw in the stilts.
It looks like I’m floating but I’m not floating.
Sometimes I draw you with fangs. I tell you these
things because I love you. Some people paint
with whiskey and call it social drinking. Some people
paint drunk and put dots of color everywhere.
In the morning the dots make them happy. I am
putting dots of color everywhere and you are sleeping.
Something has happened in the paint tonight and
it is worth keeping. It’s nothing like I thought it
would be and closer to what I meant. None of it is
real, darling. I say it to you. Maybe we will wake up
singing. Maybe we will wake up to the silence
of shoes at the foot of the bed not going anywhere.
— from War of the Foxes, ©2015 by Richard Siken, published by Copper Canyon Press, used by permission
The first thing I respond to is the unsettling emotional context. Our speaker admits to occasionally imagining his loved one “with fangs.” I imagine the image is probably not one the lover would find flattering. On the other hand, our speaker claims that he’s reporting this vision “because I love you.” I suppose that in some ways honestly divulging one’s nightmares about one’s partner is a good thing? If the poet-artist has also severed his own legs, and wants to tell his partner about that as well, perhaps this sort of dark sharing is a regular part of their relationship?
There’s some fun to be had projecting this couple’s regular dinner-table conversations (“How did you imagine me today, darling?” “With porcupine quills.”), but for me there are important questions about the creative mind that are involved in this exchange. Can our imagination incriminate us somehow, especially as it’s expressed in art? How much of what’s churning in our brains do we need to take responsibility for? Is altering the way we experience reality damaging to the reality we are portraying?
Before a simple answer comes too quickly, the poem proceeds with a clever counter-argument: the speaker reminds us that “Some people paint / with whiskey and call it social drinking.” The deadpan tone sounds like social commentary but is really an idea about perception – that some of us, by applying alcohol to our body chemistry, deliberately alter our perception of the people and situations around us. We think of this as “social drinking,” and it doesn’t seem like such a great sin. So what about changing our perception of others using color, as art often tries to do?
A brief aside about the “dots of color” that are referred to a few times in the next lines, as well in the title. It’s hard not to think of Georges Seurat, the French post-Impressionist painter who developed pointillism and is best known for A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.
Siken’s description of the speaker’s works in progress – with erased legs, people with fangs, etc – makes them much more surreal than anything Seurat conceived. And it’s unlikely Seurat painted much while drunk. So I doubt Siken is referring directly to Seurat here as a subject, but Seurat’s development of pointillism was based on contemporary scientific ideas about color perception. That is, he was very conscious of creating a vivid deception for the eye to enjoy. And whether or not those principles still hold true, the painting still makes most of us happy.
There’s a point, then, in lines 6-11, where the poet-painter-lover seems to be content riding his distorted inspiration, applied while his lover is sleeping, whatever the implications. As he reports it, “Something has happened in the paint tonight and / it is worth keeping. It is nothing like I thought it / would be and closer to what I meant.” These lines will sound familiar to any artist, poet, or musician who has been happily led to new territory by an inspired mistake or tangent. Of course, the line is also somewhat deceptive – how can something happen “in the paint”? And how can the speaker know what he “meant” to accomplish if the painting that fulfills that intention is also “nothing like I thought it / would be”? The misperception of the paint moving the creative process forward – or the alcohol, or the romantic tension, or whatever – is part of how this painter convinces himself to move forward with his art. Misunderstanding seems crucial to the endeavour.
By the time we get to “None of it is / real, darling,” I sense that Siken is talking not only about the painting, and not only about the poem itself, but also about the whole nature of perception. The sentence sounds partly like a Katherine Hepburn quip and partly like Caliban from The Tempest (“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.”) The idea seems to be that we can make ourselves crazy trying to discover what is “real,” but we’re much better off being content with the misperceptions that delight us.
Of course, our painter’s creative success won’t necessarily solve the romantic tension in his house. “Maybe we will wake up singing” feels promising, if unlikely. But “Maybe we will wake up to … shoes … not going anywhere” immediately summons the counter-image of the shoes going somewhere, leaving, stomping off, whatever. Maybe, maybe not. Love sits uncomfortably with creative inspiration: on the one hand, the artist’s multi-coloured visions of his lover are partly what fuels his desire and creativity. But his pursuit of those visions, and their occasional brutality, also seem to have widened a gap that the poem struggles to bridge. Embracing the strange and surreal may help in the pursuit of art, but that doesn’t make an artist easy to live with. This poem seems to acknowledge that problem with a wry grin, showing a bit of fang.
My brother comes to me
They are at the red gate
of my grandmother’s white house
The gate is taller than them both
The mother, who is my mother, is holding her son’s hand
The boy, who is my brother, is only four years old
She, our mother, is going crazy
She wants to take him with her
A blood stain has spread permanently on my brother’s white shirt
I am at the steps of the house, like a bride
I am fifteen and calling to my brother, “Come to me”
Her teeth are bared They are not pearls
“I am your mother,” she shouts
We are all crying and all our tears are all different
Our mother’s hair is a flame above us
This poem moves very fast to describe a moment of such power and desperation that it seemed to me on first reading that I had missed something. At the center of it all is a boy with “A blood stain” on his shirt. We don’t know how it got there, and we don’t exactly know why the women around him are acting the way they are. There’s a power struggle between the speaker and her mother, and the conflict hinges upon a choice the bleeding brother must make between them.
Of course, we know already what the boy chooses, because of the title. And because it’s the counter-intuitive choice (wouldn’t a bleeding child usually go to his mother before anyone else?) we search through the poem for clues as to why, what in the situation makes the boy’s choice different from what we’d expect.
A couple of things about language to get us there. First there are no periods but there are commas, quotation marks, and standard capitalization. To me, the missing periods make the sentences fall over on themselves, increasing the speed of the reading, especially when the sentence breaks happen in the middle of the line (“Her teeth are bared They are not pearls”) but the commas and other punctuation make sure that there is no misunderstanding, that everything, while moving very fast, is also perfectly clear.
This is reinforced by the matter-of-fact tone. Mostly the speaker relates the events in straightforward subject-verb sentences without a lot of complicated line breaks or excess detail. The gate is red, the house is white, the boy is four years old. She sees the gate and measures it against the height of the boy and his mother. She sees the shirt and knows the stain won’t come out. What’s emerging is a speaker who, in her memory at least, looks back with a ruthless, pained clarity on events that changed her life and the life of her family.
Then there’s what’s not being said, really the two most important things. First, what actually has happened to the brother? A blood stain on his white shirt could be from a nose bleed or a gunshot wound. We wonder, how desperate is this moment? A few lines later the two women are each trying to convince the boy to come to them, and if the choice is really his, then the blood must be from a wound less life-threatening than a gunshot. Still, the question hangs in our minds: how did it get there? Was it the mother? Someone else who is not in the scene? By cutting out the explanation and only providing the physical fact of the red stain on his shirt, Yanique leaves us off-balance and on edge.
One quick thing about “permanently”: it’s the only four-syllable word in the whole poem, a jarring bit of over-explanation. Of course the word literally refers to the bloodstain on the boy’s shirt that will probably not come out in the wash. But the word also reminds us that the scene itself, the terrible choice the brother has to make, will leave a permanent mark, both on him and on the woman recounting the story.
The second unanswered question concerns the mother “going crazy.” The proximity of this line to the brother’s blood at first made me think she is reacting to her son’s injury, the way many mothers would if their child were bleeding. But when we see her teeth bared and that they “are not pearls,” we start to wonder if the speaker means “crazy” literally. That would of course explain why the sister has, from the steps of the house, compelled the boy to leave his mother behind. The sneaky little pun on “going” works here because it seems that, wherever the mother is planning to take her son, it’s clear they’re also going to be going to “crazy.”
But the sister, our speaker, is now daring to replace that mother: “Come to me” is not just a suggestion. It’s the type of command a mother gives, which a child knows to obey. Meanwhile the mother’s line of dialogue “I am your mother” sounds like the self-absorbed pleading of a disappointed adolescent. We have found the sister and her mother at the moment when they exchange roles. And the speaker’s comparison of herself to a bride in the previous line makes it clear that she knows her situation is about to change permanently, as she takes on the care for her four year-old brother.
How terrible for a boy so young to have to make a choice like this! How terrible for the girl, who must urge him to make it. And how terrible for the mother, whatever her madness, who realizes that she must release the grip she has on her son’s hand in the fourth line of the poem – no four year old boy could break out of a mother’s grip if she is not somewhat willing to let him go. No wonder they all shed their different tears.
We don’t know what happens after the child goes to his sister, how the mother reacts, or how the family – sister, brother, grandmother – set about making lives for themselves in the aftermath. As I’ve said many times in this blog, a poem doesn’t have the same obligations that a story has to complete the narrative and show us what happens next. But by honing in on this terrible moment of decision and change, Yanique gives us a vivid glimpse of three lives in crisis, with a complexity that continues to unfold into the unknown. That she does so in such a small space, with such plain language, is a remarkable achievement.
The connection between comedy and tragedy, or between laughter and darkness, is well documented. The trick, in poetry as in any other art form, is the balancing act – if there’s too much fun and silliness, then any attempt to add gravity feels false or awkward. If there’s too much tragedy, then the jokes fall flat.
Jennifer L. Knox has made a career out of high-wiring the balance between raucous comedy and searing tragedy. Here’s a poem from her book Days of Shame and Failure:
The New Let’s Make a Deal
The bedazzled tribe of yahoos has returned
with a new too-tanned, top-heavy prize bunny
swishing her porny French manicure ‘round a Frigidaire.
Monty’s boorish plaid: swapped for Wayne Brady,
dapper in gray. A woman dressed like a bumblebee,
penciled brows arched in permashock, weighs her options:
a bright pink bow-tied box, or the unknown thing
behind curtain #3. She squints into the din of hoots,
wrings her hands. Life could be made easy in an instant.
“I pick the curtain.” Attagirl. The box was a gag: a ham
with straps attached to it. A ham bag. Get it?
Wayne takes a bite to prove the meat’s really real
and the audience goes totes bonkers… we’re interrupted
by news of the hurricane. U.N. delegates have gone on
hunger strike until “a meaningful outcome” is reached.
God, give us one hundred more years until the dawn
of the Kingdom of Roaches, until the sea reclaims Death Valley,
until the end. Hey, what kind of poem is this? Behind curtain #3:
a combo washer-dryer bright as a mirrored iceberg.
Bee lady does a shrieking pogo while a guy in a dinosaur
costume mouths, “I love you, Mom!” into the camera.
It’s that kind of poem: a poem for the end of the world.
Now, it’s probably true that every poem about game shows is actually a poem about the apocalypse. But before we get to the bottom of things, let’s take a bit of time to admire how much Knox packs into those opening lines – the language is rich, dense, and hilarious. I want to suggest that there’s something about the rampant use of trochees that adds to the tumbling, brutal absurdity of it all. (Trochees are the opposite of iambs, they go DUM-dum DUM-dum, like a heartbeat.) So “BUNny / SWISHing her PORNy…” or “MONty’s BOORish PLAID.” Like a good standup comedian, Knox has chosen her language very carefully, to pack the biggest punch, and it’s only when we look again that we see how well-crafted it is. I’m not going to, but trust me when I say I could write a full paragraph on the brilliance that is “She squints into the din of hoots.”
There’s also an element of scorn that I want to highlight, because despite its wit, the attitude our speaker takes with the “yahoos” on tv isn’t something we are meant to feel 100% comfortable with. It’s easy enough to make fun of the contestants on shows like Let’s Make a Deal, especially their cartoonish enthusiasms. But we also know that they’re being cast and coached to “go big” for our entertainment. And as the poem progresses, our own role as active audience members is increasingly implicated. And so while the speaker of the poem is mocking them with gleeful precision, there’s a cruelty here that’s going to turn on itself momentarily.
Meanwhile, as we pass by, stick a pin in “Life could be made easy in an instant.” This desire for simplicity, for an easy life, is also something I want to put pressure on.
The poem makes a big turn at the end of line 13 – from “totes bonkers” to news of a hurricane. A storm big enough for the NBC affiliate to interrupt its daytime programming. And our speaker calls it “the” hurricane, as if she already knows about it, as if this isn’t the first update she’s heard. From the hurricane we travel to more bad news about U.N. delegates on a hunger strike. As far as I know, the only actual example of a UN delegate launching a hunger strike is when Naderev Sano, from the Philippines, did so in 2013 to urge the UN to take stronger action on climate change. This was in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, the deadliest on record in the Philippines, which killed over six thousand people in that country alone.
Knox isn’t necessarily referring to these particular events, but the point is that there are serious, even cataclysmic, things happening in the world. Meanwhile, we are watching Let’s Make a Deal. The lines that follow indicate that our speaker realizes how desperate the situation is, but her prayer for “one hundred more years” isn’t really a solution. In fact it’s a tremendously selfish desire – don’t solve the problem, God, just give us one hundred more years, after which I’ll be dead anyhow. Is praying for a solution to climate change beyond the imagination of this speaker? I mean, as long as we’re praying…! Why are her desires merely for a stay of execution rather than a dismissal of the sentence?
For a moment, then, as a reader I am prepared to turn against the speaker of this poem, and to judge her as just as superficial as the game show contestants she’s been mocking. But then Knox turns the tables on me once again: “Hey, what kind of poem is this?” That’s my voice asking this question. Knox catches us just before we are tempted to leave the room. Whether it’s because of my ethical doubts or because we want to finally, FINALLY! find out what’s behind curtain #3, our impatience finds voice inside the poem, and the poem returns us to what’s most important.
Tell the truth, when you were reading, you were a little glad that the poem turned back to curtain #3 and that Bee Lady won her washer-dryer, weren’t you? You weren’t hoping for more lines about Typhoon Haiyan, or any other terrible storm, or hunger strikes or climate change or the UN. Whatever well-meaning actions you as an individual reading this blog have performed today to avert climate change, it is most definitively not enough to solve the problem. Whatever you can do, it’s not enough. You are powerless before the forces – meteorological, economic, political, historical – that doom us to destruction. And so no wonder we long for our easy entertainments, including the entertainment of making fun of those who give us easy answers. The world is careening towards destruction, but Bee Lady has a new (energy efficient? water conserving? nah.) washer-dryer to make her life easier and good.
This is partly why this poem really is about the end of the world, as it admits in the final line. We have pivoted from the game show and the disasters to the subject ultimately being about our childish, understandable response to our powerlessness. That’s the real tragedy underneath the comedy.
To me, these daring leaps are what separates Knox’s poem from other poets, whether they are climate activists or pop culture satirists. The fact that she can get all that into one poem, as well as our wavering between moral horror and simple glee, is totes bonkers.