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

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

                                                How can I sing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the willows we hung up our harps,

            for our captors there demanded from us words of song,

            our tormentors required mirth:

            ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

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

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

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

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

I’m Trying, People

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

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

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

Claire Caldwell, “Backcountry Almanac”

Backcountry Almanac

Our guide is a goddess

in quick-dry shorts,

braid that could save you

from drowning. Says

weather’s just a function

of how many swims 

you take. A leech

in the pannikin

is worth her laughter.

The value of blisters

is praise. We slough

sunscreen, export

freckles, import spit

and bug spray.

The portage ends

when we hit the lake,

but meanwhile,

she’s mythic: Boreal

centaur, all hull

and hiking boots, 

mud-spattered legs. 

Guardian of time

and trail mix; nineteen 

but seems immortal.

And yes, she says,

if a girl falls

in a forest

she leaves a trace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Xinhua/Wang Ying via Getty Images)

Sonnet L’Abbé, “CXXVII”

Sonnet L’Abbé, “CXXVII”

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

Ready now? Here’s the poem:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            In the old age black was not counted fair,

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

            But now is black beauty’s successive heir,

            And beauty slander’d with a bastard shame:

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

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

            Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,

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

            Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,

            Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem

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

            Slandering creation with a false esteem:

                        Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,

                        That every tongue says beauty should look so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Shakespeare image manipulation by Eli Sol.)

Sonnet’s Shakespeare Next Week!

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

Thanks as always for your interest and continued readership.

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

Matthew Zapruder, “I Wake Up Before the Machine”

Matthew Zapruder, “I Wake Up Before the Machine”

I wake up before the machine

made of all the choices

we are together not making

lights up this part of Oakland

it’s dark so I can imagine

another grid humming in the east

already people are deciding

it’s election day

and I lie in the western

pre-decision darkness and almost

hear that silent voice

saying go down there

the coffee needs you

to place it in the device

its next form will help you remember

daylight is coming

but dreams do not go away

they just move off and change

your mind is a tree

on a little hill

surrounded by grasses

that look up and say

father wind

loves moving through you

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

the coffee needs you

to place it in the device

its next form will help you remember

daylight is coming

This coffee needs you.

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

This will not end well.

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

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

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

Riven cover

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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