"The Sound" and the "Source": Thoughts on finding your voice

THE SOUND

Forty days and forty nights among the elements –
earth and water, wind,
and spirit’s fire –
After my ears have calibrated to this silence,
a polyrhythmic solitude
retrains my ear
To discern deep in the white noise of my loneliness
a holy voice,
its wild modulations crafting a new language
out of my words and its own.


This poem is from To Kiss the Sun and Mean It (2000). I thought it would make a good namesake for this blog. 

So while I’m revealing the source of my blog title, I might as well share this poem, from 1997’s Deciphering Scars:

SOURCE
 
I’m making notes by candle light.
Thoughts drip slow and hours hum,
unmoving, like this halo-glow
that barely aids my tired eyesight.
All this could change should morning light come.
Words, whose timbres sing through charged ozone
are clay that oozes sensuously
through jittery hands that cannot say
what they mean. The clay intones
this small flame’s simple melody.



So these are a couple poems about finding your voice. I’ve had to do that several times. I think anyone working in any art form can attest to the fact that you have to keep re-learning your craft from time to time, either to avoid stagnation or in response to changing circumstances. This blog so far is a place for me to re-publish my old material; in the meantime, I’ve been through that re-learning process yet again. It makes you re-assess your older material, too. This blog certainly will not contain the old material I no longer like! 

With the possible exception of this one. I still like it, but recognize that it’s not the best poem I’ve ever written. But it has a story:


PRAYER IN THE DOWN-TIME

Memories encoded in scars,
carved into this tender flesh by sharp-shooting stars;
Vision painstakingly sculpted by blind hope;
Eyes caress the boundaries that fingers grope,
and I wait for you
To call forth nothing from my masochistic ploys
   and to breathe life into my empty, fledgling voice.

 
Poetry for me had always been an art brut, sort of the equivalent of your typical teenager picking up a guitar and starting a garage band. I didn’t have a guitar or a garage, but I had pen and paper. First things first: I poured my feelings into all kinds of verse, realizing I didn’t have much to say, but that I needed to learn how to say what little there was. That would be the “clay that oozes sensuously through jittery hands that cannot say what they mean.” For a long time, my writing was driven by mood. Images and words would follow, and I would sculpt them. It was a technique that came to work for me, but it didn’t allow me to begin with an idea.
 
“Prayer in the Down-Time” precedes that particular technique, though. I hadn’t been writing for a few years, following a friend’s comment that “no one wants to listen to you whine.” Fair enough. But if I wasn’t going to “whine,” though, I had no clay to work with. 
 
One afternoon in my Lansing-area apartment, I was listening to Black Tape for a Blue Girl’s album, Ashes in the Brittle Air. For whatever reason, some words in the song, “The Scar of a Poet,” seemed to smack me upside the head and say, “The only voice you have is your own. Use it.” (The actual lyrics include the phrase I had tattooed on my arm a couple years later: “Revel in your gift”.)
 
I’d found a dollar bill in my possession that had “AABBDCC” scrawled on it. “That looks like a rhyme scheme,” I thought. So I decided to try it out. “Prayer in the Down-Time” is my response to “The Scar of the Poet,” using that dollar-bill rhyme scheme. What resulted was renewed experimentation with my poetic craft. I hope time proves that to have been a good thing.
 

What is your art form? (Even life is an art form, really.) How have you had to redefine or re-attune your voice? What are your experiences in the ongoing process of learning and re-learning your craft?

A little trilogy of poems

Tonight brings three poems from Deciphering Scars (1997). I’ve always thought of them as a sort of trilogy, even though they’re separated in the book. Maybe it’s because I wrote them around the same time (sometime between late ’95 and early ’97), or maybe it’s the sing-songy rhymes. More on that later; I don’t want to color your reading of the poems.

WARNING: May be triggering for people who wrestle with self-harm or eating disorders—especially the second poem. Proceed with care.


Here are the poems; some discussion follows.

NIGHTCAP

I’ve turned the dead-bolt and fastened the chain
to lock the night outside; but in my brain,
the night’s expanse and quiet amplify each sentiment—
then each sentiment drizzles down and freezes on the pavement,
While the moon, all secure in her impenetrable halo
keeps watch by the light of her cold, holy glow.


I’ve switched on all the lights and put on soothing music
to chase away this odd feeling. But by some trick,
the light obscures my vision, and silence shrouds the song,
which leaves me nothing in this waking sleep to move the night along.
So the moon rolls over, stretches out her silvery beams
in a shimmering yawn, and bids me pleasant dreams.

Too tired to even think of dreaming, I reply with a blank stare
and almost feel the melancholy borne in on clean night air
that urges me to yield to its Socratic care-of-soul…
But, true to habit, I deny that I could ever become whole.
Now the moon has wrapped herself again inside her light,
covered herself with a cloud, and left me to my night.


WORLDVIEW

Once back inside the quiet safety of my small apartment,
I start to pull off all the layers of today’s disguise,
trying to ignore the shadow that mocks my boorish movement,

and blinking back the day’s events into my tired eyes.

The Madonna on the wall looks coolly down on me.
She must be wondering why I don’t reach out with both my arms,

take hold of you, and commit this brutal loneliness to history—
But I revert to empty habits that only bring familiar harm.

So it might be such a self-destructive act, but all the same,
I’ve purged, and I’ve fasted, and could swallow you whole!
When I catch the slightest glimpse of you, or simply hear your name,
I want to draw the universe into my tiny soul.

But trapped inside the quiet safety of my small apartment,
I put a knife to my ambitions, and carve out mere routines,

sigh over a late dinner, wondering where the hours went,
and hope at least to spend a moment with you in my dreams.


DE PROFUNDIS

I’ve wandered off alone at night
and don’t mind that I’m hopelessly
lost, with no pay-phone in sight—


Lord, have mercy.

I’ve bruised myself inside and out
for no apparent reason.
I pray, neither from faith, nor doubt:

Kyrie eleison.

My ambitions dwindle to redundancy,
but I just can’t bring myself to care.

Christ, in your relentless mercy,
hear my prayer.


As I mentioned, these were written while I was living in the Lansing, Michigan area, sometime between late ’95 and early ’97. At the time, I was writing long lines—lines that, when hand-written, ran across a page of lined 8-1/2 x 11 paper —with a very simple rhyme scheme, for whatever reason. Maybe it had to do with what I was reading, or the music I was listening to…but I think it had to do with wanting these poems to sound a bit stilted and awkward, as they do from cramming uneven amounts of syllables into the lines and forcing a rhyme or near rhyme at the end.

The first, “Nightcap,” was written one night after I came home from work at the TV station (my shift ended at 4 a.m.). There was freezing rain, and the moon had the sort of halo it does when it’s drizzly outside. I would never go straight to bed after work; I usually went to bed when the sun started rising. So I really did turn the deadbolt, and put on music. I can’t remember whether my friend Shawna pointed it out to me, or whether it was an older joke and I pointed it out to her, but the brief mention of “Socratic care-of-soul” quickly became proof that I had used my BA in philosophy! 

I don’t remember much around writing “Worldview.” I do know that the “you” in the poem is a personification of that elusive sense of belonging and purpose in life whose absence (or, my imagining its absence) was making me quite restless at the time. That I was still undiagnosed and untreated for my bipolar illness certainly didn’t help. The Madonna on the wall was based on a college friend’s room—he was converting to Roman Catholicism, and had hung a picture of the Madonna and Child on his wall. Now, I have a whole lot of them myself—reproductions of icons, in my case. But I don’t feel the kind of gaze from her (any of her) that this poem expresses. Even if I don’t remember much about its composition, I’ve always loved this poem.

De Profundis” came from the same place, that restlessness. I was also reading a lot of Dorothy Parker at the time (both her works—poetry and stories—and a biography of her), and while this poem doesn’t sound like her style, it sounds (to me, anyway) more like her style than anything else I’ve written (that’s survived). I remember one professor in a radio or TV class (I was also a Communications major in college) recommending that in order to find your style, if you wanted to be an on-air personality, you should start by imitating someone whose work you respect. His reasoning was that since the imitation would still be coming out of you, it wouldn’t be exactly an impression, and eventually you’d find your own voice. I found that the same principle worked with poetry—writing out poems you like by other authors, in your own hand, so that you feel the lines flowing as if from your own heart as your hand is connected to your heart by your pulse, that great rhythm-maker. Anyway, I don’t remember copying Parker’s poems, but I raise this because if I feel like a piece of my own work reflects her style, others may not notice it at all. I had also started going to a truly liturgical church—Peoples Church in East Lansing, a multi-denominational church—and one of the Psalms the cantor sang was a de profundis, and the phrase stuck with me and simmered until it came out in this poem. For those who don’t know, it means “out of the depths.” The Latin titles of Psalms are generally the first line, or part of it. I don’t recall off-hand if there is more than one called De profundis. I had also just been introduced at that church to the Kyrie

Peoples Church in East Lansing had been originally founded by 4 members of different denominations cooperating to create a Protestant church for the Michigan State University community. When I was there, it was still a member of four denominations—Presbyterian USA, American Baptist, United Methodist, and UCC. (I was told at the time the church had been founded by 11 different denominations, but most of them subsequently founded their own churches in the area and pulled out. However, their website says it was always just the four denominations.) I became a member, because I didn’t know how long I’d remain in the area and I was searching for some form of belonging. I had visited many different churches in the area, and enjoyed all the visiting, but I liked the ecumenism inherent in Peoples Church. I wasn’t able to get very involved there before I did leave (other than once delivering altar flowers to three shut-ins, none of whom were home), but I have a couple fond memories of the place: First, there was a city-run recycling center (well, unattended recycling dumpsters) just behind the church, so I took my recycling with me on Sundays. It felt like a spiritual practice, going to church and then unloading my recycling! Second, and best of all, I was a voting member, and voted yes, when we decided to purchase the McDonald’s next door, raze it, and make it into a parking lot. That a church would level a McDonald’s for a parking lot just seemed like a beautiful thing.

The Odd One Out

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  [John 20:24-25, NRSV]


As a kid, I had a recurring nightmare. My sisters and cousin (my usual playmates) were just outside our grandparents’ farm house, and I was a ways off, swinging on the swingset near the edge of the lawn, my back toward the large, disused field now overgrown with weeds and wild raspberries and criss-crossed by animals’ trails. In the dream, suddenly, everyone would go inside, and I was left out in the yard alone. I would leap off the swing, and start running to catch up — but, as childhood nightmares go, some terrifying monster I couldn’t even see had leapt out from those weeds and wild berries behind the barbed-wire fence, and was right on my heels as I found myself running but gaining no ground. And, apparently, I wasn’t missed by anyone.

As the baby of the family, I always hated being the odd one out or the one left behind; hence the recurring nightmare. I guess that’s my lens for yet another reading of this rich story of “Doubting Thomas.” I feel like he’s been maligned — at least in some circles — as if any of us would have just taken the other disciples’ word and can criticize St. Thomas for his “doubt.” (Especially in our scientifically-minded world, where empirical evidence is everything!) But put yourself in Thomas’ shoes: The risen Christ, who apparently can walk through a locked door, somehow can’t calculate when all his friends would be assembled together, and appear to them all? He had to pick the moment when Thomas was out?

Of course, I don’t know why Thomas wasn’t with the others, and the text doesn’t tell us. But maybe Thomas isn’t so much a skeptic here as a member of the group who feels slighted and wants to be included in this wonderful experience everybody else got to have except him. Did no one say to Jesus, “Hang on, Thomas isn’t here”?

Thomas isn’t actually chided for a lack of faith. Rather, Jesus honors his request. And that’s where we’re drawn into the story, because, well, we weren’t there either, were we? As he honors Thomas’ demand for a personal experience of the risen Christ, Jesus adds, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” [v. 29] Perhaps, with those words, Jesus is inviting us to demand of him our own “proof.” Be forewarned: the proof is an up-close and intimate inspection of his wounds. But as St. Ignatius of Loyola would remind us, that is a very safe place to be:

Within your wounds hide me; never let me be separated from you.


Don’t ever be afraid to make such demands of Jesus.






I wasn’t going to include a poem of my own with this meditation, but between the two themes of nightmares and scars, I can’t not share this one. The title, hopefully (a friend gave me the Latin all those years ago), means, “Remember to live,” or a reminder that you will live. It’s a play on momento mori, a reminder of death. From my 1998 book, When Midnight Comes Around:

MEMENTO VIVERE

The imprint of your eyes
has stained this thick, rough skin with shadow:
jewel-toned memories
bled out of my emptiness
toward the epicenter of your touch.

This after-image of your presence
lingers: damage to my flesh;
but in my dream of you,
all pain dissolves in comfort;

And waking with a scar
means everything.

 

Happy Second Sunday of Easter!
Continue reading

"Social Contract"

Here’s a prose poem, from Deciphering Scars (1997). 
 

SOCIAL CONTRACT

 
Under the ethereal haze of fluorescent tube lighting fermenting in a liquid base of cigarette smoke and stagnant air that has become the shared content of all our lungs

dizzying scenes of human interaction and boredom and distraction and countless miscellaneous encoded expressions combine to form an isolating wall of Plexiglas
 
too transparent to allow me to ignore the world it separates me from
 
too blurred to let me understand
 
this random mess imposed on a framework of assumed order, these loose elements somehow unified, by noise, or by action, or perhaps by mere proximity
 
while all apparent contact terminates on surfaces of skin, of eyes, of the barriers that shape us
 
into individuals, define us by what we are not. This too we share in common, we
 
flickering bits of smoldering ash still huddling for warmth around the chaos lingering in the afterglow
 
of the Big Bang.
 
 


 
When I was in college at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, I loved shopping at the original Borders…and when they moved into the old Jacobson’s building across the street—which, it turns out, was when the Borders brothers sold the store to Kmart who made a chain out of it, but I didn’t know that at the time. In both locations, I liked to stop by their “untranslated foreign literature” section and browse the plays and novels by French existentialists. I’ve gotten over that phase, as you do. But it’s probably pretty evident in this poem, written a few years out of college. In fact, I remember writing it while sitting at xhedos in Ferndale (directly north of Detroit), most likely enjoying an Italian soda and live music and the company of my good friends. Not at all the scene in the poem, but it sets the date of this poem to 1997.
 
In Ionesco’s novel, Le solitaire (The Hermit), there’s a scene in a restaurant where the main character finds he can no longer understand the language everyone around him is speaking, and feels isolated from them. To be honest, I don’t recall whether he feels he’s behind glass, and my copy of the novel is packed away right now. That’s where the Plexiglas® image comes from. 
 
We all know what “social contract” theory is about: in really broad strokes, that human beings are atomistic individuals who relate to other human beings only through social contracts which can be broken at will. I could never figure out how one is supposed to have entered into such a contract with one’s mother (and other family members), but I’m probably ignorant of some deep intricacy in the theory. But I’m of the belief that “I am because we are.” Just in case you didn’t pick that up in the poem.
 
I suppose if we root around in this metaphor, the “shared content of all our lungs” is a clue to our basic unity as humans; breath has long represented spirit, or essential nature—from ruach in the Hebrew Scriptures to pneuma in the Christian Scriptures to spiritus in later Church tradition, the word for “spirit” is, essentially, “breath.” In an environment where humans believe they’ve created themselves and don’t need each other, that shared breath has become toxic and suffocating.
 
Metaphors are interesting, aren’t they? I suppose it’s because I’m a poet, but I’m convinced that metaphors are useful not just for expressing thoughts, but also for thinking them. Once you find a metaphor for something, by investigating the metaphor, you can often learn about the thing it stands for. For example, in a paper I wrote for a seminar on creativity last spring, I investigated the metaphor of houses, or architecture, for systems of thought. By thinking about houses (I proposed), you can discover truths about thought systems.
 
I think that’s a huge piece of the revelatory power of art. Even non-verbal art forms serve as metaphors. A few years ago I was in a class where Peter Selz, a well-known art historian and curator, now Professor Emeritus at UC-Berkeley, was asked how he decides what artworks to include in an exhibition—in other words, what makes for “good” art? He thought about it for a week, and came back with this response: “Good” art is “a visual metaphor for significant human experience.” Notice he said nothing about beauty or novelty or even technical expertise. And, of course, you can replace the word “visual” for other art forms. 
 
Isn’t that a brilliant definition?
 
So works of art take on a life of their own, beyond what the artist herself or himself even intended. A good work of art will continue to speak to its audiences/viewers; and as a metaphor, it serves as a sort of template for various human experiences. That metaphor allows us to gain insight about the human condition, precisely because it relates to our experience.
 
I don’t know whether this or any of my poems stand up to such high standards. But we can all think of works of art that do.
 
PS— Peter Selz referenced that question and his response in the biography by Paul J. Karlstrom, but he misquotes himself. Somewhere I have the paper where I (like my fellow students) immediately wrote down exactly what he said, but I committed it to memory right away. “A visual metaphor for significant human experience…” That’s the revelatory power of an experienced art historian!

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.

"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.