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.

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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. 

Sandra Beasley, “Pop”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pop

.

.

We call an unpuffed piece

the old maid

.

but she’s just the one

who read the fine print.

.

Germ and sugar curled

in her hard hull,

.

deciding whether 

to shake out her sheets.

.

Sometimes it’s worth it—

pan, oil, flame.

.

Sometimes you must 

hold the steam within you.

.

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

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

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

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

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

            Germ and sugar curled 

            in her hard hull

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

Some old maids.

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

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

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

Sometimes you must 

hold the steam within you.

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

Julie Joosten, from “Love Poem”

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

from “Love Poem”

And you caught me crying in the kitchen.

Are you perhaps my superego?

I ride the train to you.

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

And you sleep under my desk.

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

And you are your own hermeneutic system.

Will you be our baby’s godmother?

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

And we wag our whole bodies at you.

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

And you blush under your face mask.

And are the goddess of the backward glance.

And call me kuklamu.

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

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

And I have tobacco for you.

And you bark for the ball.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For he can catch the cork and toss it again.

For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.

For the former is afraid of detection.

For the latter refuses the charge.

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

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

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

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

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

Who thinks dogs are better?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Love Day!

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

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

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

Jericho Brown, “A Young Man”

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

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

A Young Man

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

Neighbors saying our face is the same, but I know

He’s better than me: when other children move

.

Toward my daughter, he lurches like a brother

Meant to put them down. He is a bodyguard

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

.

Empties any enemy, leaves them flimsy, me

Confounded. I never fought for so much—

I calmed my daughter when I could cradle

.

My daughter; my son swaggers about her.

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

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

.

In him lives my black anger made red.

They play. He is not yet incarcerated.

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

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

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

Three years old and he can read the funny papers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lily Wang, “BOY”

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

BOY

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

                                                How can I sing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the willows we hung up our harps,

            for our captors there demanded from us words of song,

            our tormentors required mirth:

            ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

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

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

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

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