Monday, November 20, 2006

Thanksgiving and the holidays are nearly upon us; here is a poem from The Apparitioners (, remembering a man who lived in our town, and our ambiguous response to his act of giving during the season.

Holiday Cake

Christmas week
Paul would come, circling the block
In a maroon Buick
Minus its muffler,
Hard coughs to clear its throat of phlegm.
Starting around 11 a.m.
He’d visit door to door, hugging the curb
Like a paperboy, crunching furtive
Through the snow with
His gift:

Wrapped in foil,
Moist to the touch, substantial,
Studded with raisins, dates,
Candied apricots,
Sugared almonds, chunks of walnuts,
Cherries dipped in rum—so pungent
We stored it in the china cabinet
For a year, basted in cinnamon
To moderate
The taste.

Our parents
Would greet him, invite him in
For eggnog, but Paul sensed
We thought him odd—
Shabby down jacket, this mission
Performed yearly, no expectation
Of return—and declined. The year he died
We shouted carols at his doorstep
Until he showed,
Gaunt, pleased

For such friends.
The next Christmas we sat down
To supper, devouring
Slabs of lamb, plump peas
In butter, mashed potatoes, wine:
Too-plentiful preliminaries
To the sweet feast baked and simply given
One year ago. Remembering Paul,
We said a grace
And ate.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

I'm working on a new collection of poems that utilize the vocabulary of politics and faith--those two forces so powerfully joined and so persuasive to many of us. Some of the poems touch on current events, but I'm more interested in how those events are described to us by those employed to do so, and how we talk about them to ourselves, in private. Here's one:

Person of Interest

We’re looking for whoever didn’t board,
some face surveillance failed to match against
its database, an unknown alias,
drifter handymen driving stolen vans.
No one’s suspect; we’re ruling people out.
Your call remains anonymous unless
arrest begets conviction and reward—
you’ll be coming forward to collect, yes?
We’re working leads, questioning the neighbors
(unmarried men with meticulous yards),
hold details close to filter wannabes
from players, who might barter names for time.
(The pro-life laid-off middle manager.)
Liberty’s measured by the tangible:
licenses and passports, identi-kits
where teeth and childhood fractures correlate,
stray facts the Web collects like flies or dew,
cookies, emails, consumer vapor trails
(priests who download monuments and blueprints)—
receipts of daily life a hologram
we recognize in glimpses, as if strobed,
revealed by interims of light, then gone.
We only want what’s best for everyone.
Will you accept the blame if God forbid--?
We’re looking, but it’s out of hand when kids’
imaginary friends are terrorists.
(Whoever moves their lips while reading this.)

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Heat waves in California and the East: here's a poem from The Apparitioners, written and published during a drought years ago, that seems timely again.

The Country of Perfect Weekends

For months on end we had no rain.
The weekends wheeled by, spokes around
A parching sun that flung off light,
Satellite of drought transmitting
To our state. No one seemed to care--
Terrific day! was the watchword--
And while whole forests burned to ash
We watered our lawns, secretly
At night against the governor's
Decree, sprinklers drawing their fronds
Like pale girls in prom gowns over
Cool thick grass.
Lake levels slipped low;
We saw the bed for the first time
In years, how filthy it had gone
In the polluted interim.
A pall of muck, the drifted ash,
Clotted tires and matchbooks,
Stopped the mouth of an odd beer can
From gurgling its jingle and fouled
The bottom springs that fed the lake.

It became a pastime, looking
In: we saw these things through faces,
Ours, spread over them like clear shrouds
Preserving shapes as they decayed.
Three deep along the shore or poling
Out in longboats, our reflections
Vanished into fissures when the sun
Hit high noon and stayed, crackling dry
The lake, and our fair state became
A country of perfect weekends
Where no one traveled or complained.
Standing in shadows, to each his own,
We hunch like water birds above
The hacked lake bed, searching for us.

Monday, June 12, 2006

William Logan in The New Criterion reviews new books by Seamus Heaney, Louise Gluck (oh dear...), Geoffrey Hill, Anne Carson, Tess Gallagher (a pitch-perfect dissection), and introduces Don Paterson at

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Reading James Applewhite's Selected Poems: a substantial book from a poet too-often deemed "southern," somehow managing to be at once somber and lavish, a poet like Wordsworth of ideas advanced and developed as images. The "southern" in poetry as in prose has trapped more writers than honey has flies. Yes, there are writers who are recognizably, even professionally southern. Others who use the notion of southern as a point of attack--a stand from which they interrogate not only the South but the dominant other culture that has rendered so much of the South a colony. Applewhite might fit into this group. And then there are the Fred Chappells, the Charlie Smiths, the Cormac McCarthys: from the region, perhaps still of it, but outriders whose work frequently detaches completely from any affiliation with place. "Southern" has become a useless catchall that allows a vast range of writers to be kept in their place; once designated or identified as from the south, they are never allowed out of it. Do we do the same for the range of writers from/residing in New York? New England? The Midwest? The West (maybe the West, yes...though not so much for poets). While many of those regions have individual poets who popularly epitomize those regions--Frost for New England, Sandburg the Midwest, Hart Crane New York--it's interesting that all are from some years ago, writing during a time that America was discovering its own national and regional literature. Current writers from regions other than the South are not saddled with regionality, and therefore needn't escape it.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Reading Love, Amy--Amy Clampitt's letters, selected and edited by Willard Spiegelman--I'm struck by the difference between the jewelled surfaces of her poems and her life, especially her involvement in progressive activist issues and politics. We've all grown so accustomed to "knowing" poets through their work; there's a presumption of confession, that what we are reading is true or nearly so, and that presumption is heightened when we attend a poetry reading and hear an author's anecdotal introduction to each poem (often taking longer to relate than the poem does to read). Some poets play with that presumption and deliberately lie, as a way of expanding the possibilities of a given poem's "truth"; James Dickey's poems seem fully observed, utterly lived, anecdote made into myth, when in fact many of the incidents he describes did not happen to him. (Some of the famous "nature poems" were drawn not from witnessed nature, but from watching one of those PBS Nova shows about the African ecosystem or the North Pole.)

Like Wallace Stevens, Clampitt in her poems offers very few anecdotes from life, and yet her actual life was filled with the sort of political commitment that often makes its way into poetry, with mixed results. Her letters are unusually rewarding, showing as they do an author who is engaged with a life outside of poetry, rather than a life that depends on it.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

A poet whose work ought to be more widely read is Tina Kelley. Her book The Gospel of Galore is smart, exuberant, witty, original: poems that utilize science, faith, and natural history as jumping off points for speculation and playful digression, but remain connected to everyday events and situations. I liken her to Pattiann Rogers and Molly Peacock, but her voice is her own. (Interesting to note that like David Tucker--the NJ Star Ledger editor whose first book is receiving so much notice--Ms. Kelley is a working journalist, who writes for the New York Times.)