Two poems – “To Rule the Night” and “By Art or By Physics”

TO RULE THE NIGHT

The ground below is a black sea full of stars,
little constellations that signify nothing
but mapped isolation. I blink back.
I understand. I, too, am a dying star,

caught in the vast permanence of blackness
that endlessly receives our offerings of light.
The night sky is a shrine. Its ancient relics
foreshadow what fossils we might also become.

From my vantage point, I could be a priest
for all those little helpless ones gathered below.
But I know no incantation,
no rite, except my own
ritual of longing. I imagine I chant holy words
that I could never know, but by some dark mystery.
The little lights pour out their responsorial halos
onto the concrete below them.

They look like Christmas tree lights,
glistening and ornamental, magical,
and dim. Clustered together, they must think they are
lighting the sky.

BY ART OR BY PHYSICS

By its artificial and mysterious motion
the clock beside my bed spins the world around, and flings
another day into oblivion.

And I, by every power I can summon,
gape at the white space projected on the ceiling
from the empty diary beside my bed.

This is no canvas I could paint my dreams on.
This is a nothingness I know too well: the cold, white sum
of my disordered colors, my spoiled palette,
Memories and passions absorbed and lost
deep in my blood –

Deep,

Where by automatic and mysterious tic, the clock
inside my chest pulls up another sun.

 


Both of these are from my third book, To Kiss the Sun and Mean It. (I’ve discussed before where that title comes from.)
 
“To Rule the Night” was, as should be obvious, written on a plane. I was returning from a friend’s wedding in Atlanta, but that’s not relevant at all. It was night. I’m not sure what else I can say that the poem doesn’t say better. It’s not about anything in particular. It’s typical of my writing process, though – taking in an image and letting it resonate with a store of other images and moods and seeing what comes from the juxtaposition.
 
“By Art or By Physics” revisits the theme of white space… and if you’ve ever felt like your life is overfilled with a whole lot of nothing, you probably understand. White, of course, is—when speaking of pigments—the absence of color; when speaking of light, it’s the presence of all colors. I combined those facts, as a palette wouldn’t contain light (unless you’re on the computer, I suppose). That double meaning of white means that 1+1+1+1+1+1 (ad infinitum) can still equal zero. “The cold white sum of my disordered palette” can be a blank page. Good thing I paid attention to my color theory in school.
 
As Betty White said on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson (8:15-8:40 on that clip for context), “I didn’t do anything to get to be 91, it just happened!” The clock ticks, the heart tics, and time accrues. 
 
The title refers to those two central images, one being art and the other, physics.
 
Sylvia Plath got me hooked on the word “gape.” I’m pretty sure it was among her favorite words, she uses it so much. It’s a good one, isn’t it? Mouths can gape, caverns and canyons can gape, the abyss can gape, empty spaces can gape, and so can wounds. It’s a useful word.
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"New Year’s Eve"

I’m going to try something different – start with the poem, and comment on it after. I know some people prefer that. Let me know if you have a preference!

So from my first self-published book, 1997’s Deciphering Scars:

NEW YEAR’S EVE
 
Words hang in a thick fog between us,
hiding your subtle expressions from my view.
Our gestures have slowed to meaningless ritual.
The constant falling snow
is white air, tangible enough to almost grasp.
It covers up our footprints,

just like it smoothed over the wound where the sun
burned its escape-hole in the glacial sky.
We watch the sun fade,
fade away…

While we stand here, frozen,
waiting to succumb to some new Ice Age
and leave the bones of our interactions
for future paleontologists to decipher,

committing this scenery to be preserved
under the layers of our fallout.
In playful wisps
the drifting powder whirls like chimney smoke,
or ghosts of carefree autumns, summers, springs –
The past unwinds, driven by the wind.
It melts to nothing if you try to hold it on your tongue.
 
So winter lays its numbing pall on us: even
the glimmer in your eyes is
frosted over now, and dimmed…
From behind its glassy scar tissue, the glowing sun
winks smugly, sears into my breast
a yearning to also blaze
through the icy veil, into heaven,
and set myself among the eternal stars.
 
 
And now the commentary. 
 
Yes, the book title is from Joy Division’s song, “Exercise One.” The reason I used song quotes for book titles is that I was placing copies of my books in local stores (including the Ann Arbor location of Borders, RIP) and figured if anyone recognized the quote, they just might like my work. Between titles and cover art, I’ve picked up a fair amount of music that way, just browsing in stores – and also poetry books. So I was making books that might pique my own interest, I suppose. They didn’t sell much in stores, but why would they. While a few outlets bought the books outright, I also consigned them in stores and online (amazon and Barnes & Noble… B&N took up my offer to split 50/50 if they bought it outright, but they never paid me) just so people who heard me read and wanted a book but didn’t have cash on them would be able to go get themselves a copy somehow. I made bookmarks listing where the books were available and gave them out at readings.
 
Enough of that; on to the poem at hand.
 
This one literally came out of seeing the sun buried behind snowy fog on a January afternoon. It looked precisely as I describe it in the poem. I had just arrived for my 4pm-4am shift in Master Control at WLNS-TV in Lansing, MI, and as I got out of the car, saw that sun. I went inside and wrote this. Boring story, I know. I worked at WLNS (channel 6, CBS affiliate) from October ’95 to March ’97, so I wrote this in January of either 1996 or 1997. Somewhere I have that information written down. Given that time frame—when I moved back to Metro Detroit in early ’97—I can’t believe DS was conceived, produced, and released the same year! I don’t recall what month, but it had to be late in the year. The first run was about 100 copies, I think, and the whole thing I printed on my laser printer and had professionally bound. Big mistake on several levels, but I’ll save that for another time, if anyone’s interested. For the subsequent runs of DS and WMCA, I printed the text on my printer but had the covers printed professionally.
 
One last note on the poem, though. There is a little allusion at the end to Jan Krist’s beautiful song, “Gravity” – specifically the stanza,

The stars are set up in sky
I’m asking simply why can’t I be partners
In their glory
With their sparkle in my eyes…

(For that link, you have to scroll down, or better yet, do a search on the page for the title.)


Since the commentary on that poem was a bit thin, I’ll give you another, tiny little poem from the same book. It certainly couldn’t hold its own blog post, even if it is a bit ironic given that I wrote it in my mid-20s…


COUNTDOWN

White space
clutters the page


And I grow old.


Indeed. That one would’ve been written in 1997. Well, 15 or so years on and I’m really not old yet, am I? The only comment I have about this poem is that in some of his prose I’d read, Baudelaire quoted somebody about “la page vide que sa blancheur défend,” and I was fascinated by the possible metaphors that white space or blankness could become.

Finally, as I’ve said a bit about self-publishing here: Perhaps after I’ve put some number of these old poems up, I’ll share a bit about zède publishing – including why I went that route in the first place. You’ve had a few teasers so far. I’m happy to answer questions about that, and also about any of my poems, about the writing/creative process, whatever. Thank you for reading this!

“There is No Nothing”

I won’t be posting every single day, but it seems like it’s not a bad idea at first, to get this thing going.

This poem comes from my third and final self-published book, To Kiss the Sun and Mean It. That book title comes from Bruce Cockburn’s song, “Dialogue With the Devil (Why Don’t We Celebrate?),” (© 1971 Golden Mountain Music Corp) which is on his True North Records album, Sunwheel Dance. If you don’t have that album, go out and buy it now. This blog post will still be here when you get back.

Great song, isn’t it?

If you know me, you know I have an irrational love for my hometown, Detroit. I have what I call a “chosen delusion” that when people hear I’m from Detroit, they’ll be jealous. Some of that creeps into this poem, and I think it’s related to Jerry Herron’s complaint regarding a LA Times article in the early ’90s:

“In what has become characteristic fashion, the reporter’s irony is founded on the still more ironic (if unself-conscious) assumption that a city so overfilled with human misery can be written about as if it were empty.” (AfterCulture: Detroit and the Humiliation of History. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993, p. 83)


Herron argues that the city (in general, and also, specifically, Detroit) has become unintelligible in the latter half of the 20th century, because, following suburbanization during the post-war period, the city no longer orders (most) people’s lives or scripts their (consumer) desires. Furthermore, many outsiders looking at Detroit don’t recognize anything that is central to their idea of what a “city” is, so they fail to see what is actually there. In this instance, the reporter had focused on vegetation taking over and pheasants roaming the streets.

However, this poem was written before I’d read Herron’s book, so what he says didn’t influence me directly, but I think it articulates quite well some of what I was intuiting.

Still, that’s not the whole story to this poem. Frankly, I don’t know what is. If you figure it out, leave a comment below – I’d love to hear your reading of this. I don’t know who “you” is in this poem. Many of my poems have a “you” in them, and it’s generally a placeholder, as if the poem were a template that might fit over a number of different “you”s and “me”s.

Other brief notes:

Once you’ve read enough of my poems, you’ll get the sense that I’m not fond of the color white. If you’ve met me, that won’t surprise you.

There’s a bit of a reference to Kierkegaard in the second stanza. Just a bit.

I was living in Palmer Park when I wrote this, presumably in 1999.

The lack of punctuation at the end is intentional.


THERE IS NO NOTHING

Absence is presence: the white space
that colors the page, gesturing form, forging
memories from static words and images;
Your absence is all that I have now.
A whitish light seeps in,
establishing the boundaries
of this stolid afternoon.
Life is only getting longer. This loneliness,
this treasure, hangs, useless
and empty, across this pallid room.

I believe that you faded away into night,
drawn into the womb of that becoming
by the gravity of your longing: now Eternity
illuminates the scope of your being.

Out my window, there is your shadow: my alley view,
flat-lit by stagnant sun; the same mundane scene
sprawling. Urban changelessness. Undying decay.
I want to climb down to the street,
scoop up armfuls of garbage, kiss
the liquor bottle shards, caress the brokenness
of potholes, run my fingers through the weeds
that push up from the sidewalk cracks. I want

to know the sacred absence here,
even through its suffering: these rich wounds
bleed a richer promise,
a destiny of dying
to become



PS: I should note that I sought, and received, gracious permission from True North to use that Bruce Cockburn quote for my book title. In one of life’s weird coincidences, I received the permission on a Monday (or a Tuesday – I don’t remember now) in a week when I was going to see Cockburn play the Crisler Arena in Windsor that Friday. At the show, he played that song, introducing it by saying he finally understood what it was about. I’d love to know what he’d concluded – I have my own reading. But what timing, eh? He’d been on tour for a while, presumably singing that song all along. Still, I was floored to hear it live in that moment.

And so it begins…

Alleluia, Christ is risen!


April Fool’s Day seems as good a time as any to finally begin using this blog I signed up for once upon a time. Especially when April Fool’s Day appropriately falls on Easter Monday!

I’ve decided that I’m going to begin posting poetry. (Scroll down if you want to just read the poem and skip all this other chatter.) To start, I’ll post old poems from the three books I self-published (as zède publishing, Detroit) in the late 1990s, since those books aren’t generally available anymore. (I still have some, but as I don’t care for about half the material anymore, I’m not eager to give them out, you understand, except to very close friends and other poor saps…) Often as posted here, they will be modified a little from the books. First, I’ve abandoned the old convention of capitalizing the beginning of each line, because it’s just silly. Second, I will often have made modifications in punctuation. But there may also be more substantial changes. So if you have the books, see if you can spot them! Yeah, that’s not going to be a terribly fun game.

So here’s one of my all-time favorites. It’s from my second book, When Midnight Comes Around. A bit of explanation first.

I enjoy reading biographies, especially biographies of creative persons, because I’m fascinated by people and their creative processes. Usually, when I finish, I’m left with a lot of images that coalesce into a poem or two. I would never claim to be writing about the person whose biography I’d just read, so when I post these biography-triggered (the word “inspired” is over-used) poems, I’m normally not going to say whose biography it was. My poem is not about them, usually.

So this is one of those biography-triggered poems. It’s a pantoum, the only one I’ve ever written – and a form I highly recommend trying. It’s like doing a crossword puzzle. All you have to do is look at one (my model was Baudelaire’s “Harmonie du Soir,” although at the time I was unfamiliar with the form) and you will know what to do: 8 lines, each repeated in a pattern to form a 4-stanza, 16-line poem. As you’ll see if you follow that link to Baudelaire’s poem, there’s a bit of leeway: you can keep the repeating lines identical, and sew it up neatly like I did (being a perfectionist and all), or you can allow some slight modification to the lines that repeat in order to place them in their new context. You can also, as Baudelaire did in “Harmonie,” leave the poem open-ended by not repeating all the lines.

I chose to fully close my poem, but only because of my perfectionist bent. I didn’t know what I was doing at the time, but it worked out perfectly because it creates just the claustrophobic feeling that this poem needs. I hope you can perceive the transformation that takes place as the “incantation” (to use the description from the poets.org link above) circles in on itself.

There’s also a small allusion to an image in Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Contusion.” It’s an image which, in her poem, is somewhat inscrutable to me, but I get it anyway. So I used it. It fits in with the central image of my poem of feeling walled-in. Please feel free to say anything in the comments, whether it be criticism, suggestions, or questions. You might even be able to get me to reveal my sources…I have often explained where this one came from, so many of my readers will already know.

Happy April Fool’s Day, and Happy Easter. This poem may seem strange for the start of the Easter season, but I think you could argue it actually fits.


40

Must this dark picture be my destiny?
In your penned note, I hear my own voice call…
The windows change to mirrors at night-fall
as I act scenes from your blind prophecy.

In your penned note, I hear my own voice call—
the woman you were, I will one day be.
As I act scenes from your blind prophecy,
I watch my life drip slowly down the wall:

The woman you were, I will one day be.
Here, in your last words, you describe it all—
I watch my life drip slowly down the wall;
I grope to salvage what is left of me.

Here in your last words, you describe it all.
Must this dark picture be my destiny?
I grope to salvage what is left of me.
The windows change to mirrors at night-fall…



PS – A fellow by the name of Jeremy Mullins (Optimist Park) took up my challenge on hitrecord.org to set this poem to music. You can hear his excellent work here.