Jared Carter, “Wordless”

Jared Carter’s Darkened Rooms of Summer was the first book selected for the Ted Kooser Contemporary Poetry Series and was published in 2014 by the University of Nebraska Press. Carter lives in Indiana.

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Wordless

Step down. It comes up to your knees.
    The current stays
The same. In all this silence, be
    a mind that plays

Across the stream, unleashing line
    and tethered fly
Until such gestures recombine,
    and from this ply

Of light and water, language brims –
    as shadows know,
Without a word, where each has been,
    where each will go.

 


 

 

 

Sarah Dickenson Snyder, “In and Out of Focus”

Sarah Dickenson Snyder has three poetry collections: The Human Contract, Notes from a Nomad (nominated for the Massachusetts Book Awards 2018), and With a Polaroid Camera, forthcoming in 2019. Recently, poems have appeared in Artemis, The Sewanee Review, and RHINO. https://sarahdickensonsnyder.com/

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In and Out of Focus

At a lecture on Eavan Boland’s poetry,
I sat in the second row
behind a woman
whose shirt was inside out.

I couldn’t stop tracing
the pale blue splayed seams with my eyes,
the ‘medium’ tag large on her neck—
how rushed or distracted
she must have been and why.

I think the speaker spoke of similes,
and metaphors—their need to be organic.

When we were teenagers, my sister
walked into the kitchen one evening late after a date,
her shirt inside out—I stood behind my mother,
trying to alert my sister, feeling like a mime
in a comedy sketch, pulling an invisible shirt
over my head.

What is the best place—
imagining the papery flushed skin
of a pomegranate or seeing what is in front of you
that stirs the sudden movement of time.

 


 

 

 

Michael Henson, Essay on Akhmatova

Michael Henson is the author of four books of poetry and four of fiction. He serves as co-editor of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, the annual publication of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative.

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The Poem Is a Comfort in Affliction and an Antidote to Despair

“The Last Toast” by Anna Akhmatova may be the bleakest poem ever written. It’s a short, nine-line demitasse of a poem, a little, bitter shot of verbal espresso.

I drink to our ruined house,
to the dolor of my life,
to our loneliness together,
and to you I raise my glass,
to lying lips that betrayed us,
to death-cold pitiless eyes
and to the hard realities
that the world is brutal and coarse,
that God in fact has not saved us.

My guess is that the language of Akhmatova’s Russian original is even stronger, but in this translation by Stanley Kunitz, the poem is studded with a series of powerfully charged words: ruined, dolor, loneliness, lying, betrayed, death-cold, pitiless, hard, brutal, coarse. They populate this poem so densely that it seems that the other words of the poem are mere place-holders, that they are there just to create a frame for the harsh, dolorous words that are the bones of the poem.

“The Last Toast” takes the form, at first, of a rant against a faithless lover:

I drink to our ruined house,
to the dolor of my life,
to our loneliness together . . .

But it grows even darker and more globally hopeless as it proceeds:

and to you I raise my glass,
to lying lips that betrayed us,
to death-cold pitiless eyes
and to the hard realities
that the world is brutal and coarse . . .

Then, as if a coarse and brutal world were not enough, she presents us the startling final line:

that God in fact has not saved us.

I suppose one could read this poem as strictly personal and hear the voice as that of a jilted lover or bitter ex. “You have treated me shabbily,” the poet seems to say, “and the experience has darkened my entire view of life. Even God seems not to care.”

Such a reading might hold up perfectly well.

But Akhmatova reminds me here of William Blake and some of his not-so-innocent Songs of Innocence. For there is a shift from personal to global that starts in line five with those lying lips that betrayed us. These lips betray not just the poet, but us. If this poem were simply the poem of a jilted lover or a bitter ex, why would the line end in the plural? She could simply mean that the lover has betrayed what they had as a couple. But I believe that a more monumental betrayal is at work. This becomes more obvious when we consider those death-cold, pitiless eyes that emerge in the next line. These eyes could be the eyes of the guilty lover, but in my mind’s eye, they call up the image of a couple of Stalin’s henchmen sent around to make an arrest.

By the final line, the house of the poem is no longer a literal house left behind by a faithless lover; it has metaphorically transformed, at one level, into a nation ruled by thugs with dead-cod eyes and, at another level, into an entire world: ruined, brutal, and coarse, abandoned by the God of Christian theology who was born and died to save us but has managed to do no such thing.
Swiftly, subtly, within a few short lines, the poem has moved from a breakup note to a multilayered howl of protest against the brutality of the state and the cruel indifference of the universe.

*

My habit has always been to write when and where I can. On the bus, at the bus stop, in parks, at lunch, while I’m on hold, while I’m pretending to pay attention during a boring meeting, sometimes even at my desk. In this case, I am writing as I stand at a counter at an Aikido dojo as I wait for a friend to finish trimming plants before we have a meeting. I suppose I could be helping, but instead I have pulled this essay out of my hip pocket to tinker with it while I wait. Her son is also there, and I suppose he could be helping too, but he asks instead, “What are you writing?” He is a bright, sensitive fifteen-year-old. My friend has tried to protect him, but he has seen more than a boy should have to see. And when I tell him, “An essay on poetry,” he says, “I only read poetry when I’m depressed.”

I understand this perfectly.

*

Sometimes, like my friend’s son, we come to the poem with our pain. We are sore of heart, perplexed, in a muddle of grief and regret. We are like Dante, lost in a forest of unacceptable options.

In such times, we often look to our friendships, our mentors, our therapists, our clergy, our loved ones. We do not go to them for answers. In fact, if our friends, mentors, therapists, clergy, or loved ones start hitting us with advice and solutions, we will often turn away. If we want knowledge from them at all, it is knowledge of their experience (to borrow a phrase from the Twelve-Step world), their strength, their hope. We do not want their advice. We do not want to be cheered up or encouraged. We want their attentive ear. We want to hear them tell us we are still human—that no matter how we have failed, our failures have not made us monsters. These friends, mentors, etc., by acknowledging the bleakness of our situation, may even help us see ourselves as human.

This is what we want from the poem as well. We can trust the poem to tell us certain truths. We want to feel that, no matter how lonely we feel, we are not alone. Ordinary words, like the words of these sentences, can tell us these same things. But they only rarely tell us these things at the level of the poem because they have not the power of the poem to reach the places within us that a poem can reach.

Anna Akhmatova had plenty of reasons in her life to feel depressed. She came of age as a poet in a time of war, revolution, terror, famine, and betrayal. Her first husband, suspected of conspiracy, was shot by the Bolsheviks in 1921. Their son was later arrested several times and spent years in prisons and labor camps. Friends and lovers were arrested, imprisoned, or killed. Others were driven to exile or suicide. After some initial success and recognition, the official poets of her day denounced her. For much of her career, she was denied publication and had to rely on samizdat distribution of her work.

Still, she persisted. Under crushingly difficult conditions, she produced a large body of work, some of which has been lost, but a great deal of which has survived and is available in English translation. She survived to earn honors and recognition, internationally and in her beloved Russia.

All of us face difficulties in life, and anyone who puts pen to paper faces difficulties—not only in the writing and in writing true but in being heard. For a poet like Anna Akhmatova, however, the difficulties in life and in art are beyond what most of us can imagine. Poetry was her salvation; it was what she called her “cup of consolation.” And yet poetry, because she wrote true, put her at risk of the Stalinist machine. “Fear and the Muse,” she said in one poem, “stood watch in turns.”

Anna Akhmatova’s poetry can be read, I believe, as a lifelong attempt to find comfort and meaning in a world gone coarse, brutal, and bereft of any apparent salvation. Her work is at once elegiac and exasperated. “I want to name the names of all that host,” she writes in “Requiem,” her extended elegy for the victims of the Gulag.

But they snatched up the list and now it’s lost.

Since she cannot name the names of the numberless lost, she has to find another way. And so,

I’ve woven them a garment that’s prepared
out of poor words, those I overheard . . .

Her mission is to create a garment of words, poor words, that can give back to the lost, at least within the bounds of the poem, some belated sense of wholeness and sanity. The words might be “poor” (her work is noted for its simplicity), but they do not deny; they face squarely what has happened. And so, memory is key to her project:

Because even in blissful death I fear
to lose the clangor of the Black Marias and
to lose the banging of that odious gate
and the old crone howling like a wounded beast.

She does not dare forget these horrific memories from the gates of prison because she might also forget the gifts of the Muse.

And from my motionless bronze-lidded sockets
may the melting snow, like tear-drops, slowly trickle

and a prison dove coo somewhere over and over,
as the ships sail softly down the Neva.

*

I think that even the bleakest poem, properly understood, is an antidote to despair.

How does that happen?

Anna Akhmatova almost certainly had moments in her life when she was close to utter despair. Several of her friends, as I said earlier, committed suicide. Though she was never arrested, she suffered greatly from the arrests of others. Her son, whose arrests and imprisonment were a great distress to her, blamed her for not doing enough to get him released.
Despair must have hovered closely.

Here, I believe, is how she escaped despair:

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now, she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):

“Can you describe this?”

And I said, “I can.”

Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.

—Leningrad, 1 April 1957

“Can you describe this?” the woman asks the poet.

The poet answers, “I can.”

And the woman smiles, just a frozen flicker of a smile, which is all she can afford to give.

Why does the woman smile?

We cannot know for certain, but I think the answer lies in the power of the poem to tell the truths that break down barriers. Repression, and the lies that are at the core of repression, the big lies of the dictator, the petty lies of the abuser, have the power to isolate, confuse, and demoralize. Just look at the power of lies in our own politics.

To consider this in another dimension, part of the pain of spiritual crisis is the intense isolation it brings. The true darkness of the dark night of the soul is that we enter the darkness alone.

But the poem, if it is a true poem and not a falsification cast into verse, has the power to clarify, to bring the truth to ground, to undermine the lies that keep us divided.

The woman at the prison gate does not ask favors of the poet; she does not ask for cheerful words, for encouragement, for inspiration, not even for consolation. Anyone can tell a truth that is convenient or conventional. For that woman waiting in front of that prison, perhaps it is a comfort just to know her story can be told, nothing more than that. Perhaps it helps her to know she is not the only one. Perhaps it lifts, for just a moment, her despair.

 


 

 

 

Richard Craven, “Sonnet 56”

Richard Craven is an Anglo-Canadian Doctor of Philosophy based in Bristol in the UK. He writes long-form high-burlesque literary fiction, dystopian short fiction, and formal verse specializing in iambic pentameter. He has written four novels, 155 sonnets, including one in French, and a play, The Senseless Counterfeit, which he describes as a comedy of manners in the form of a Jacobean revenge tragedy. He is presently working on a fifth novel, Helix Folt the Conservative, and a second play, Sir Jawn’s Parasite.

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Sonnet 56

The editor considers Pope passé,
but is quite partial to a shopping list.
“Stick to Sauternes, Prosecco’s far too gassy.”
She grips my elbow with a tiny fist.
“The fashion’s not for polished, mannered wit.
The ossuary’s sediments of slime—
think Heaney, Hughes, subjective feel. Think shit
and squirt it out, jarringly, and unrhymed.”
She leaves me worrying about my voice:
a cleverclogs in thrall to formalism,
a meter maid, cuckold of my own choice,
vas deferens for watery old jism.
I thank the oracle for her advice,
and help myself to orange juice and ice.

 


 

 

 

Richard Craven, “Sonnet 53”

Richard Craven is an Anglo-Canadian Doctor of Philosophy based in Bristol in the UK. He writes long-form high-burlesque literary fiction, dystopian short fiction, and formal verse specializing in iambic pentameter. He has written four novels, 155 sonnets, including one in French, and a play, The Senseless Counterfeit, which he describes as a comedy of manners in the form of a Jacobean revenge tragedy. He is presently working on a fifth novel, Helix Folt the Conservative, and a second play, Sir Jawn’s Parasite.

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Sonnet 53

When in despond I grind my jaws and crunch
the keyboard’s grinning rows of rotten teeth,
my wandering mind wonders what is for lunch,
and hates itself for being its own time’s thief;
wishing for focus and initiative,
it finds elusive others’ get-and-go
—the grafter’s craft, craftsman’s prerogative—
aspires to their estate, but falls below.
Then rogue conceit haply amuses me,
so that, as if some privy sluice, once blocked,
now gushes forth in rude fecundity,
the words, from in whatever recess locked,
burst from their sour confinement sore enraged
to stain with viciousness the virgin page.

 


 

 

 

Todd Mercer, “Ole Yeller as Empathy Test”

Todd Mercer of Grand Rapids, Michigan, was nominated for Best of the Net in 2018. Mercer won first, second, and third place of the Kent County Dyer-Ives Poetry Prizes. Recent work appears in: The Lake, Leaves of Ink, Praxis, and Six Sentences.

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Ole Yeller as Empathy Test

Dog’s
shot.
Grown folks
cry like kids
in the theaters,
except sociopaths—dry-eyed.
“It’s only a dog. Why do snowflakes cry over dogs?”
We can’t explain that we should care
to sharks in shallow
waters. Child’s
dog died.
Swing
low.

 


 

 

 

B. S. Dixon, “Bar Mitzvah”

B. S. Dixon is putting together his first chapbook inspired by his work with those dealing with homelessness in Boston, MA. His newest work will be printed in upcoming issues of the Front Porch Review, Unbroken Journal, and Nine Muses Poetry.

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Bar Mitzvah

(For Marco)

You’re fifteen, you’re trembling. The only working street light flickers and omits an ominous orange glow. Everything else is dark–the night, the thoughts in your head, the gun in your hand. The car slows as you approach the corner. There they are, Uncle Joe whispers. Tonight you become a man. Sweat oozes from your pores and clots in the newly sprouted patches of peach fuzz on your chin, chest, pits and balls. You remember everything Uncle Joe taught you. You remember how he took you in when no one wanted you. You remember how he cared for you even though Vietnam left him “scrambled.” You’re thankful for Uncle Joe–and he scares the hell out of you. You put your finger on the trigger and raise the gun to the open window. This is it boy, he whispers. Just like I showed you. You notice how heavy the gun feels. NOW, he says, NOW. You’re frozen. You can’t move, but you feel everything. You feel your heart trying to leap from your sunken chest. You feel the cold barrel of a gun press against the back of your head. You feel Uncle Joe’s warm, wet breath on your neck as he whispers, Do it now or I’ll do them and do you next. Your thoughts evaporate. There’s the pop of shots. There’s screaming. There’s screeching tires. You hear none of it–only ringing in your ears. Uncle Joe puts a blade under your nose with a clump of white powder on the tip. Here you go, he whispers. You snort. The powder burns your nostrils and throat. Get all of it now–remember this–when you catch feelings out here, you die. When you catch feelings, you get rid of them. You got that, man?

You realize he just called you a man.