mother always called it the quick
so that was always still is its name
that bit of fingerflesh around the nail sewn
by magic into the wrapped fingerprint we all have
embossed on our extremities unique index thick
opposing thumb she might catch me gnawing and when she did

she’d say be careful or you’ll be done
chewed it all down into the quick

my teeth pulling at the splinter of skin going thicker
into the sensitive crease it should have a name
that crease but I’ve not heard should have
taught me something the way it hurt like a sewing

needle pressed and wriggled so
it reddens swells maybe bleeds she did
warn me I should have listened I should have
that moment back but watch it skitter away so quickly
what if every moment had a name
we could never remember them no matter how thick

the books where we kept them and no matter how thick
the shelves to keep the books no matter how stiff the spines are sewn
our very lives would burn them history’s fuel a comet trail of names
of moments and minutes hours and days what’s done
and undone it was years before I learned that quick
means alive versus dead and dead the part I’d chew until I had

hit nerve that bleeding cuticle sting that has
a lesson someplace about blood that nothing is thicker
and what we know about moments that nothing is quicker
see how simple children could sing it on a seesaw
tick tock up down until the shrill bathtime mothercall but do
you leave no you play until snatched awake by your full name

hurled from the kitchen door a great net woven of your name
and you’re waving goodbye to the neighbor boy who has
that same blue jacket from last year and in just a minute you don’t
quite see him in the dusk that descended so soon so thick
just the glow of clouds stretched pink raw and sewn
with veins of yellowing light and suddenly your steps are quicker

until you find yourself under the thick blanket with the soft-sewn
edge tucked under your chin quick quick tick tock sleep has
taken you alive even though it doesn’t know your name

A Few Poems

People keep asking me “what did you do with all that literature education & poem stuff” … well, I wrote a bunch of poems. I still write them now and then, but haven’t been terribly focused on it for a good while. I used to have some of the ones I’ve published up on the blog, and in the move from one blog host to the next, they ended up lost in the shuffle. Here are a few of them, again, for posterity’s sake.

Continue reading “A Few Poems”

Salt Water Amnesia – Jeffrey Skinner

Jeffrey Skinner, my mentor from what seems a previous life, recently published a new book of poems: Salt Water Amnesia (published by Ausable Press, and also available on Amazon.)

I realize it came out in September, but it’s still “recent” by poetry publishing standards.

I’m awaiting arrival of the book to my mailbox, but I’ve read a lot of it already in the things I’ve seen published hither and yon. Excellent, wonderful prose-poems that play along the cracked peripheries of the “lyric voice.”

Here’s one of the poems, The Long Marriage, at Slate — you can also listen to Jeff read it in audio.

Also, Ausible has a few of the poems here.

Howl's semicentennial

There’s a glowing paean over on AlterNet (via Common Ground) on ‘Howl’ at Fifty, about Allen Ginsberg’s first public reading of his seminal poem.

The article says he “brought American poetry back to life,” but I’d have to disagree. The Beats certainly helped things along, but American poetry was doing quite well already, thank you. The Modernists had kicked plenty of ass before WWII, as had the Fugitives (who, if you count the critics who were born of their numbers, were unbelievably influential) and then after WWII (and somewhat before) the Black Mountain School was powerfully influential, setting the stage for a lot of what the Beats celebrated.

Evidently what he means is that the Beats “… brought poetry down from the sacrosanct halls of the academy. It took poetry off the musty printed page into the lives of listeners.”

It engaged more regular folks on the street? That would seem like an odd way to define “back to life” — we don’t hold other art forms to that standard. Charlie Parker injected new life into American music, but only people who loved Jazz “got it” at the time.

This is terribly ignorant … poetry was far from sacrosanct and academic. It was thriving in America, in journals and small magazines and readings, correspondence and publishing. There’s something about the Beat-to-Hippie cultural event that allows people to glom onto it and not think any more about anything else. Because everything else is “musty” or “academic.” Hey, maybe I sound like a curmudgeon here, but that’s just lazy thinking. And it’s the sort of thing for which Ginsberg would’ve cuffed you about the ears.

I met Allen Ginsberg, and had the blessing of spending a couple of days in his company, about 12 years ago. He was downright spry, and in constant search of macrobiotic food (“for the diabeetus”), and furtively snapping pictures with his Leica. He wore a suit the whole time.

He ran a poetry workshop on campus one day (yeah, a campus, one of those musty academic ones) in which he drilled everyone on basic poetics and referred to some very old examples of poetry as models. In fact, he mentioned none of his contemporaries when discussing the best influences for poetry, that I remember. And when he performed his poems, he took about 15 minutes of the reading to sing some of William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” with his little squeezebox for accompaniment.

I love the Beats. I just don’t worship them as the one great thing to happen in literature in the last 60 years. And I don’t think any of them would welcome the sort simplistic sanctimony in which so many little beatlings hold them.

So, when I find myself hearing a lot of “populist” poetry — say, for example, the stuff on HBO’s “Def Poetry” — I realize that the most successful poems, the ones people respond to the best, still hold to the same practices that all those musty poets used in their best work: specific, arresting imagery; effective rhythm; original and provocative insight. Yeah, this happens in many forms and styles, but it doesn’t happen in a vacuum, whether the writers/performers and audience know it or not.

All that said … “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” is still pretty dang cool.

Sharon Olds RSVP's

Poet Sharon Olds wrote back to the White House (to Laura Bush) her reasons for not attending the National Book Festival as a featured writer & speaker. It’s reprinted at The Nation. The quotation below is something she leads up to, and doesn’t just come right out and say in the beginning. In fact, the letter is somewhat disarming for a bit, somewhat chatty and warm, but then it suddenly turns downward and ends with:

So many Americans who had felt pride in our country now feel anguish and shame, for the current regime of blood, wounds and fire. I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and I could not stomach it.

Olds has a knack for plain, visceral imagery that takes ordinary words and weaves them for extraordinary effect.