“A far sea moves in my ear”: Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song”

morning-song

Around this time last year, I wrote a quick poetry post to welcome our first niece into the world. I’m delighted to say that this week, we welcomed our second niece (the first on my husband’s side of the family)—she was unexpectedly early, but given her sweet countenance and perfect health, I suspect that, like a wizard, she arrived precisely when she meant to.

This week, then, I’m reading Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song,” a poem that might remind parents out there of their own first mornings with little ones. This stanza in particular had me strolling down memory lane:

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

Welcome to the world, Eleanor Hermione!

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“The cathedral in his sea-black eyes”: Ocean Vuong’s “Telemachus” from Night Sky with Exit Wounds

Night Sky with Exit Wounds

Recently I read Ocean Vuong‘s much-lauded collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds, his first full-length collection.

Night Sky with Exit WoundsIt is indeed a remarkable collection: so open, so intimate, so assured. I was impressed by the range of forms (including haibun, which I don’t come across too often), especially by “Seventh Circle of Earth,” which responds to the murder of two gay men. The poem consists of the numerals 1 through 7 spread out like a constellation over two pages; each number corresponds to a footnote, where the words of the poem reside. The effect is moving—the words are literally too small to do justice to the tragedy; the numbers are bleak.

Night Sky with Exit Wounds is—as you might expect from a book that deals with grief, displacement and the immigrant experience, domestic violence, suicide, sexuality, and love—intense. Take “Telemachus,” in which the speaker does not, as you might expect, assist his Odysseus-father in conquering  his lost kingdom. Instead,

Like any good son, I pull my father out
of the water, drag him by his hair

through sand, his knuckles carving a trail
the waves rush in to erase.

It’s an evocative poem, one that left me surprised at each turn. If you like “Telemachus,” which you can read in full here, then I commend Night Sky with Exit Wounds to your reading.

What poems are you reading this week?

“first rubythroat / in the fading lilacs”: Maxine Kumin’s “Whereof the Gift Is Small” from And Short the Season

Whereof the Gift Is Small---poetry, Maxine Kumin, poem of the week, poetry discussion, flowers, nature

Last week, I had the pleasure of reading And Short the Season, the last collection by Maxine Kumin (1925-2014). Usually I try not to read late collections until I’ve read a few early collections for reference, but I couldn’t pass up this beauty when we stopped in at Island Books in Rhode Island last month.

IMG_0019In the collection, Kumin writes about her New Hampshire farm, politics, the seventeenth-century writer Margaret Cavendish, and the approach of death. These poems, simultaneously elegant and earthy, made me want to pick up Kumin’s selected poems.

Today’s poem, “Whereof the Gift is Small,” refers to and quotes from a sixteenth-century sonnet often called “Brittle Beauty”  by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. (As you can see, Kumin also took the collection’s title from this poem.)

Here’s Surrey’s sonnet:

Brittle beauty, that Nature made so frail,
Whereof the gift is small, and short the season;
Flowering to-day, to-morrow apt to fail;
Tickle treasure, abhorred of reason:
Dangerous to deal with, vain, of none avail;
Costly in keeping, past not worth two peason;
Slipper in sliding, as is an eel’s tail;
Hard to obtain, once gotten, not geason:
Jewel of jeopardy, that peril doth assail;
False and untrue, enticed oft to treason;
Enemy to youth, that most may I bewail;
Ah! bitter sweet, infecting as the poison,
Thou farest as fruit that with the frost is taken;
To-day ready ripe, tomorrow all to-shaken.

(Carol Rumens has an excellent write-up of the poem in The Guardian.)

In “Whereof the Gift Is Small,” which opens And Short the Season, Kumin takes Surrey’s theme—that beauty is not only frail and transitory, but maybe even dangerous—and softens it considerably. Surrey, the last person executed on the orders of Henry VII, died at 30; “Whereof the Gift Is Small” appeared in print in 2011, when Kumin was past 80. True that beauty is swift to fade, she writes with the benefit of those extra fifty years; true that there’s “a honeybee bumbling in the bleeding heart / on my gelding’s grave while beetles swarm / him underground.”

But look, she seems to say, at the texture and richness of nature’s brief beauty; consider the beginnings made out of ends: the rubythroated hummingbird in the “fading lilacs,” the alyssum (an annual, usually cream-colored, that smells like honey), the bee in the bleeding heart (a flower that looks like its name), the green of the new grass eaten by the living horses. Consider the “bluets, violets,” the “little flecks of buttercup on my sneaker toes.” These delicate flowers (all of them small, or composed of very small petals bunched together) are a rainbow of color, and like a rainbow, short-lived.

While the speaker’s “wet feet, wet cuffs” and her sneakers suggest (to me, anyway) a child outdoors at first light, soaked with dew, the poem’s last line—“brittle beauty—might this be the last?”—reminds us that the speaker is no child, that this season, this gift, could be the last whose shock of color she witnesses, and versifies.

What poems are you reading this week?

“still the geese keep coming”: Meg Kearney’s “Loneliness”

Loneliness

Friends, I’m pretty sure I recommend Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry column at least half a dozen times a year, but here I am, at it again.

 

Last week’s column featured a short poem by Meg Kearney called “Loneliness,” a vignette that illuminates the title emotion.

It’s a little slice out of time; the poem could be describing something that happened last autumn or something out of a fairytale.

And the details are so effective at placing us in the moment: the goose’s foot that feels like the little girl’s hand, the V of the geese that is “two fingers / spread against a caution-yellow sky.” Two fingers in a V is the sign for peace, which the poet plays against the poem’s violence (the father is “about to bring down his third goose” of the day), echoed in the girl’s gesture of kindness that is a severed foot.

What do you think of the poem?

“An interval like summer passed”: Jana Prikryl’s “New Life,” from The After Party

New Life

When I read Jana Prikryl’s The After Party* last week, I struggled to connect with most of the poems in the collection. I felt this was a failing on my own part; Ms. Prikryl is a senior editor at the New York Review of Books, my favorite non-book publication, and she has contributed poems to some of the best magazines in the world.

IMG_7418Still, while I respected the craft at work in these poems, and the ingenuity of “Thirty Thousand Islands,” a long poem in forty-two parts that makes up the second half of The After Party, it wasn’t until I read Dan Chiasson’s thoughtful review in The New Yorker that the collection really opened up for me. He examines The After Party through the lens of loss (Ms. Prikyl’s older brother died suddenly in 1995), while I’d been trying to understand the poems in the context of migration and exile.

I went back and re-read most of the book, and was rewarded.

This week I recommend Jana Prikryl’s “New Life,” which you can read at The Baffler**.

Its imagery is arresting (the opening lines are: “From the fields of a calendar, its snow / packed firmly into squares, I farmed you.”) as is the speaker’s address to the brother who lives in her memory. The form is unobtrusive, but underscores, I think, the control it takes to examine a deep loss.

What poems are you reading this week?

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

** Full disclosure: I occasionally work for The Baffler on a freelance basis.

“clouds arranged like asphodel”: Janet McNally’s “Maggie Says There’s No Such Thing as Winter”

Janet McNally_Maggie SaysJanet McNally’s “Maggie Says There’s No Such Thing as Winter” is a gorgeous gem of a poem, tender and clear-eyed.

The speaker sits with Maggie in summer, under the shade of a tree, as Maggie strings blue stones together; Maggie has memory trouble (the language suggests she may have been in a coma), and has difficulty processing the speaker’s gentle descriptive reminder of the way seasons change, a change enacted in the poem itself, which begins with an invocation of winter (something I’m sure Ms. McNally, who teaches at Canisius College in Buffalo, knows a bit about) and then travels into summer and beyond.

This is a rather colorless description, I’m afraid, of a very fine poem. Here are my favorite lines:

She forgets that sometimes things don’t stay
where you leave them, that the sky fades

to white even before snow begins
to fall.

What’s your favorite poem about winter?

“It was many and many a year ago”: Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee”

Edgar Allan Poe, circa 1849. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Edgar Allan Poe, circa 1849. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps you, like me, associate Edgar Allan Poe with the city of Baltimore (maybe it’s their professional football team, which I believe I’m contractually obligated to loathe since I grew up in Cleveland even though I am a lifelong Bills fan and no longer watch football).

However, Dear Readers, EAP was a native of fair Boston, much as he hated the city (and now there’s a statue to commemorate him), and thus your Boston-based book blogger is amused to bring you his creepy “Annabel Lee,” just in time for Halloween.

Annabel Lee

by Edgar Allan Poe

It was many and many a year ago,
   In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
   By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
   Than to love and be loved by me.

 

I was a child and she was a child,
   In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
   I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven
   Coveted her and me.

 

And this was the reason that, long ago,
   In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
   My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
   And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
   In this kingdom by the sea.

 

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
   Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
   In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
   Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

 

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
   Of those who were older than we—
   Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
   Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

 

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
   Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
   In her sepulchre there by the sea—
   In her tomb by the sounding sea.

“something brighter than pity for the wingless ones”: Derek Walcott’s “The Season of Phantasmal Peace”

Photo by Rowan Heuval via Unsplash

Photo by Rowan Heuval via Unsplash

Recently I read Derek Walcott’s 1984 collection Midsummer (which I highly recommend–it’s heavy and heady with summer and heat, like a ripe peach). This week, when it’s finally starting to feel like autumn around here (I nominate 2015 for Boston’s strangest year of weather award), I’m reading his poem “The Season of Phantasmal Peace,” which you can find here. 

This poem is an interesting contrast with last week’s featured poem, which was “Light” by C. K. Williams.  It’s a pairing that makes me miss teaching; I’d love to discuss with students how the two poets approach light and darkness, expand on a small moment, use imagery and form. Ah well.

P.S. True story/shameless name-dropping: Derek Walcott is the only Nobel Prize winner I’ve met. I had the privilege of sitting in on one of his playwriting courses, and once he held the door to the English department open for me.

“Then he unlocked the back door / and stepped out into the garden”: Paula Meehan’s “My Father Perceived as a Vision of St Francis”

Photo courtesy Breno Machado via Unsplash

Photo courtesy Breno Machado via Unsplash

A few weeks ago, I was reading about contemporary Irish poetry (living life in the fast lane, as always), and I learned a little bit about Paula Meehan, named the Ireland Professor of Poetry in 2013. The Irish Times had a feature about her this winter, in which Ciaran Carty wrote,

“It’s more than 40 years, and nine books, since Meehan emerged from childhood in the inner city Dublin tenements to give voice to the disenfranchised everywhere, less in anger than with compassion and an intuitive understanding that, through verse, imbued their lives and memories with mythic dignity.”

Sounds pretty good to me.

Professor Meehan’s poems are a little tricky to find–she doesn’t have an entry at The Poetry Foundation, which is my go-to poetry site, but you can read “Ashes” at Poets.org. The poem that really caught my eye was this one: “My Father Perceived as a Vision of St Francis,” over at The Poetry Project, which is a site devoted to Irish poetry. It’s a lovely poem, anchored in everyday detail, but transcendent all the same.