Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Allow me to talk about Billy Collins’ poem Japan for a moment. Written in 12 tercets (that syllabically are not haiku even though the subject is) that takes the haiku to new dimensions, Collins' poem centres the speaker’s experience with, and reaction to, poetry.

Japan by Billy Collins

Today I pass the time reading
a favorite haiku,
saying the few words over and over.

It feels like eating
the same small, perfect grape
again and again

I walk through the house reciting it
and leave its letters falling
through the air of every room.

I stand by the big silence of the piano and say it.
I say it in front of a painting of the sea.
I tap out its rhythm on an empty shelf.

I listen to myself saying it,
then I say it without listening,
then I hear it without saying it.

And when the dog looks up at me,
I kneel down on the floor
and whisper it into each of his long white ears.

It’s the one about the one-ton
temple bell
with the moth sleeping on the surface,

and every time I say it, I feel the excruciating
pressure of the moth
on the surface of the iron bell.

When I say it at the window,
the bell is the world
and I am the moth resting there.

When I say it into the mirror,
I am the heavy bell
and the moth is life with its papery wings.

And later, when I say it to you in the dark,
you are the bell,
and I am the tongue of the bell, ringing you,

and the moth has flown
from its line
and moves like a hinge in the air above our bed.

The first tercet introduces us to the haiku that will possess the poem, "the few words over and over" (3), though the haiku the speaker references is not described until the seventh tercet. Each subsequent tercet gives us new and wonderful images to digest, like a "small, perfect grape" (5). The third tercet, for example, simply and cleverly plays on the idea of leaves as letters and as the poet departing the room.

Phrases like "the big silence of the piano" (10) stop the senses, and the image of the speaker whispering into the "long white ears" of the dog (18) is moving. And then the turn on the speaker’s ideas about the haiku are dizzying. First, the speaker feels "the excruciating / pressure of the moth / on the surface of the iron bell" (22-24) in the haiku. Then, while looking out of the window, the speaker identifies with the moth resting on the bell as the world. While looking in a mirror, the speaker becomes "the heavy bell" (29). Finally, the speaker becomes the "tongue of the bell" (33), ringing his/her lover and the moth is moving like a spirit over the bed.

This relationship between speaker, moth, and bell is, in my opinion, a reflection on the reader and poetry. Our perspective when we read a poem informs which parts we most readily identify with. Collins’ Japan, however, suggests something more than this. Our perspective informs what we initially ‘take’ from the poem, how we see the poem, but then, somehow, the poem begins to shape our perspective. The poem, listened to, said, and absorbed, becomes the way in which the reader sees the world, him/herself, and the lover. All of this expressed in direct, but simply beautiful and affecting, language. Raw material, simply expressed, and it lifts the hair up off the scalp; this is now a favourite poem.

NaPoWriMo (also belated)

Scribbling Love

Am I the ink, and you the pen?
Or are you the page I'm reading? My mouth
on your words. Perhaps
I am the page beneath you writing,
writing me.

I think we are neighbour pages nestled
within the binding strength,
the diamond stitching, of Love's book;
reading each other in the dark,
translating the rough prose
into verses of light.

NaPoWriMo (belated)

Mentally in Time Square, NY

I don’t know how to drink coca cola. swish it around in my mouth, feel the sugar invading and my brain suddenly percolating

some drink more than 1 bottle of this a day

there are no rules about sugar or caffeine for coca cola in Mexico
how do they get to sleep?

they should advertise at time square for coca cola
a lot of people go there every day, looking for an image

in New York, everyone eats apples with never a worm to be found
I can’t fool myself, this coke is bad stuff

if you ever have sex while drinking coke I have some recommendations
first of all, don’t leave it sitting on the nightstand without a cover

after a month in the fridge, I found this bottle of coca cola and opened it
the man who left it there was in the process of being left himself

coca cola cures most types of illnesses, especially constipation and
general drab; if you find a coke bottle on the street, chances are it was fated long before

you were born

by Stephanie Bolster

Side by side in our chair, we are two bent women
at a leaded window. It’s overcast. I take notes
as you intone your catalogue of loss, sons and sister
gone, husband, love, who’s left? I reach

for your wrist but you tear yourself from me,
cry Go away, as though I’ve backed you
into this corner. Did you dream me old
to cure your loneliness or have you become

the grandmothers I didn’t sit beside as they died?
I was young, a hundred years beyond you,
and let myself fall from full colour into
monochrome. We’re grey with loss of childhood,

we make believe it was all perfect then.
Remember, you begin—and all shimmers to a bit of sun.
To not foresee: that lack was what we had, and lost
as we enlarged beyond our photographs.

You still believe a shutter-click will reunite you
with yourself. I take my camera out. But, my aged
mind elsewhere, I leave the lens cap on:
aim at you and photograph a blackness absolute.

"We’re grey with loss of childhood,” and "a blackness absolute.” Now that Alice has grown old and lost so many loved ones that it is necessary to ask “who’s left?” she is depicted as a darkened photograph, absolute absence. “In Which the Poet and Alice Are Suddenly Old” draws a complex portrait of a pair of women who appear at the end of a life, but not necessarily at the edge of death. By ending the poem with “a blackness absolute,” Bolster overcasts our image of the two women that she has just presented, suggests the effacement of Alice as a character and questions her own ability to represent Alice and herself clearly.
The self-consciousness of Bolster as a poet is revealed through her questioning of whether Alice dreamed her, but it is also relevant to wonder whether she dreamed Alice, particularly because the White Stone collection is a series of meditations on a certain woman who has been dead since before Bolster was born. By bringing in the grandmothers at this point in the poem, Bolster points to a cyclical quality of human lives; we have already been informed that the poet is “suddenly old” and that her companion has undergone much loss and can no longer count who remains.
The characters “enlarged beyond [their] photographs” and when the poet attempts to take Alice’s picture, she is not able to. After Alice’s losses have been recounted, the narrator asks, “who’s left?” and seems to answer the question with “I reach,” ending with an image of reaching beyond or toward the ones that have been lost.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

for today's NaPoWriMo . . .

a given rose, yellow leaning
to orange, edges lit with red:
friendship igniting into love

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

I was quite intimidated to write about this poem at first. John Smith's poetry resides in a metaphysical realm that I only dream in...

It Starts
by John Smith

It starts with three or four raisins balled up
and tied into a square of sugar-sacking. That’s what,
as an infant, they give him for pacifier.
It gets him through the difficult years. Later

he becomes an avid romantic, spends his life
evoking the undefinable: sweet
bolus ever out of tonguetip’s reach.
Possession would be anticlimax:

the whole point is to push beyond formulation,
to rest in nothing. Importance lies in grey areas
or dark matter that surrounds—not in the hard

crusts and centres everyone else seems to take for real,
but in guesses and glancings, in vanishings before contact,
the unique satisfactions of a pristine planet of

anticipated joy encountered as joy remembered.

Also, isn't that ball of raisins kind of a kind of sticky, yucky way to describe the essence of youth???
It is the confusion, or defamiliarization, of time in this poem that is most jarring and amazing at first. John Smith is able to manipulate the reader into the complex world of the poem by soaring quickly through a man’s life from infancy to adulthood; and yet, all of these moments are constructed to be happening simultaneously. The final line “anticipated joy encountered as joy remembered” hails a time that is past and future as well as present. This feature of time as well as the marvelous image of “hard / crusts and centres everyone else seems to take for real” immediately brings the reader of this poem into a position where it is necessary to question his or her assumptions about time, poetry, and how meaning is determined.
This poem demands to be unraveled. It is as “undefinable: sweet” as its elusive imagery and as the “bolus ever out of tonguetip’s reach.” I could say that “Possession” of this poem, enunciating exactly what Smith is accomplishing “would be anticlimax,” let alone impossible. The poem resists reductionist readings, and pushes beyond the boundaries of poetry that I normally, abashedly expect.
The poem begins with a concrete image of a ball of raisins, a fathomable idea of a pacifier for an upset child. The images that follow widen and deepen until we reach an abstract questioning of the nature and common assumptions for the grounds of reality, or what is “real.” This poem, and presumably the entire collection, exemplifies the ability for a concrete image to ground a complicated idea. “It Starts” reminds us that poetry can extend beyond the everyday into questions of what the everyday is.

Monday, April 10, 2006

What is it about John Keats? On the one hand, he drips Romanticism like a leaky faucet with no plumber in sight. On the other hand, his poems have punch . . . still. I've been reading some of his sonnets today. Oh! how I love, on a fair summer's eve is quite lovely (one must use 'quite lovely' when one is describing Keats) -- "The silver clouds, far -- far away to leave / All meaner thoughts, and take a sweet reprieve" (4 & 5). The one I 'got into' this afternoon, however, is as follows . . .

Sonnet by John Keats

Before he went to feed with owls and bats
Nebuchadnezzar had an ugly dream,
Worse than an Hus'if's when she thinks her cream
Made a Naumachia for mice and rats.
So scared, he sent for that 'Good King of Cats'
Young Daniel, who soon did pluck away the beam
From out his eye, and said he did not deem
The sceptre worth a straw -- his Cushions old door-mats.
A horrid nightmare similar somewhat
Of late has haunted a most motley crew,
Most loggerheads and Chapmen -- we are told
That any Daniel tho' he be a sot
Can make the lying lips turn pale of hue
by belching out 'ye are that head of Gold.'

Thursday, April 06, 2006


Like Shanna Compton my daily poems for national poetry month will replace the poem from the day before. This way, you must catch them while they're hot and before they get packaged and shipped out to my poetry files...

Monday, April 03, 2006

Wow, a poem-a-day challenge! I will start on day 3 of National (USA??) Poetry Month to join the monkey robot poem army.

Coming up ..!


Had I not seen the sun
I could have borne the shade;
But light a newer wilderness
My wilderness has made.

Emily Dickinson

This poem demonstrates Dickinson’s telegraphic and powerfully explosive poetics with a profound single-sentence. In a poem this short, a repeated word warrants attention; “wilderness” is a word that we are encouraged to ponder. Though the speaker reveals that light has entered her wilderness and has changed it, the wilderness of her life and world remains a wilderness. Something in her awareness has shifted, and yet her world is still unknowable and wild, or perhaps even more so now.
We are not given any clues as to what the “light” is that has entered the speaker’s consciousness; and exactly what change has occurred is also unknown. Dickinson, consciously or unconsciously, evokes Plato’s notion of the cave in which the inhabitants of the cave -- with their backs to the open door --are only a head-turn away from discovering an outside world. The other cave-dwellers who have seen this outside world cannot communicate what they have seen because their friends who have never turned around have no possible way of understanding.
We can also see 116 as a love poem in which the speaker tells of a new love that has entered her life and who she can no longer imagine living without. Perhaps if she had not met this person of "light", she could have easily imagined living without him or her; yet, now that she has known this love, she can no longer bear the “shade” of their absence.
The sun could also be a reference to an immortal life force, with the wilderness as a stand in for the earth and the mortal world. Knowledge of an afterlife or a so-called higher or maybe universal power has changed the speaker’s attitude about life, as she sees that there is more to her world than she is able to understand. Whatever the case might have been when Dickinson wrote this poem, our ability to interpret this in numerous ways attests to its power, longevity, and universality.

There is so much more I could say about Dickinson, but I'll keep this focused on the one poem for now...