In his essay Between Things: On the Ode, poet Stanley Plumley argues, “whatever else an ode is, whether it praises or muses, we think of it as a lyric with size – whether in actual length or imaginative displacement,” and while reading Tyler Truman Julian’s Wyoming: The Next Question to Ask (to Answer), with its central metaphors and unconventional tumble from one poem to the next, I kept coming back to that idea: a lyric with size. As Linda Gregerson also notes, the “enduring feature” of the ode is its occasion, not its form. That isn’t to say this collection sacrifices form for the sake of occasion. Julian’s poems offer stunning symmetry, imaginative syntax, and a sharp intelligence guiding the expansion and contraction of language. Pragmatism struggles with sentimentality, but not against it. Identity is unabridged, yet divided at its core when both speaker and poet assert their desire on the page.
“West is just west / and it never runs out,” Sarah Suzor writes in The Principle Agent. It a quote Julian selected to preface the collection and its idea of immensity is felt throughout the collection. “West” is also the wellspring of frontier mythology in the United States, a demonstration of Manifest Destiny: the constant expansion of democracy and capitalism across the North American continent. It lies at the root of our sense of “American identity,” a longing for expansion in a world that, with its advanced technology and mobility, feels like it’s getting smaller. This is where we find the speaker in the collection’s opening poem.
has a little more
than half a million people;
its around 563, 626,
it’s just easier to say half a million.
All of us
are spread out
across 97, 914 square miles,
about 5 people per mile,
but your closest neighbor might really be 15 miles away.
Immediately we are told that limitations have been imposed. Wyoming’s physical expansion has been curtailed and the people who make up its population, much like cattle on a ranch, have been individually accounted for, but are also reduced to an idea, a single herd of “half a million.” We have the capacity to recognize them as individuals – the speaker wants us to know this – but not the desire to carry the distinction forward. A choice has been made to round down, to reduce the number, to homogenize the group. It’s a choice that sets up one of the abiding juxtapositions in the collection: the heart’s desire to connect on an intimate level with one person, occasionally manifesting as the desire to connect directly with the reader, and the psyche’s inclination to distance itself from the herd and sublimate completely with the land.
From this point forward we come to understand that capacity is easy; desire is more difficult. For the human beast, desires are myriad. Decisions require us to harness our desires, often suppressing or outright rejecting desire and diminishing our willingness to see the act through. It’s why someone dreams of moving beyond the borders of where they are, but is restrained by the pangs of imminent loss. In another poem Julien writes, “There is a fear, / in the isolation of a state, / where all know all, but hardly see one another, / that you will be forgotten.” In Julian’s Wyoming the simple act of seeing someone becomes an occasion worthy of a story to be told among friends who share gossip, activity reports, and conspiracy theories. To be unseen or unmentioned risks being unmade.
In Julian’s poem Wyoming, the speaker’s spinning presence forces the stars to “burn a little brighter / just for you” while “flowers wilt in the artificial light,” but the euphoric sense of intensity he finds in the landscape comes with a steep price: the pain of isolation, leaving him to hope to be born again not as a person, but as a thing: “as highways, as prayer cards, as beer, as memory / as all things that connect me to you, / just you.” Of course the stars don’t burn brighter for one person over another, but it certainly feels true and in a sparsely-populated landscape, it’s easy to feel umbilical connections to the land and sky – to see the stars differently and to believe they see you. To be seen is to be remembered and like the star in the sky, the speaker burns brighter in the line of sight: he also burns brighter “just for you,” suspending for a brief moment feelings of isolation.
Of all the poems in the collection, Haying is one I recommend spending time with. It’s the first poem in the collection where I felt the poet, as opposed to the speaker, step in and shift our perspective.
It’s all about patterns, geometry,
Spilled diesel around the pump.
Beautiful, tragic, money.
“But the hay’s good this year.”
It’s about screwing up, missing corners,
being too late,
“I lost the pattern.”
This poem introduces a new authoritative voice to the collection, one that threads in and out of subsequent poems. When we refer to patterns and geometry, we know we’re speaking directly about landscape and agriculture, weather and human nature, but, in this poem, we’re also talking about language and desire. At this point I returned to Plumley’s assertion: a lyric with size. I also thought of G.M. Hopkins and John Keats and their ability to “build vertically” within a poem. Wyoming: The Next Question to Ask (to Answer) is also a collection of patterns, voices in poems that edit themselves as they move down the page; and geometry, four distinct sections arranged within the collection, calling and answering to each other. Occasionally a voice reaches out in direct address to the reader, a surplus of emotion that registers outside the defined lines of the poem echoing the “[s]pilled diesel around the pump.” When Julian writes, “I want you to understand / where the others don’t get it,” we sense that both speaker and poet are addressing the you of the poem as well you, the reader.
I still talk poetry to people who don’t get it,
(or they do)
but that’s haying
(or is it).
In his introduction to Ritsos in Parenthesis, Edmund Keeley writes, “[t]he two signs of the parenthesis are like cupped hands facing each other across distance, hands that are straining to come together, to achieve a meeting that would serve to reaffirm human contact between isolated presences.” Again, we return to the struggle between desire (to come together) and capacity (the inability to do it). Cupped hands will never be parallel lines laying side by side. It’s a structure that seeks closure, but by its own nature rejects it. Parentheses are meant to be filled with ideas or instances of emotion that don’t quite fit the line or would otherwise disrupt the thought. There is no syntax more capable of expressing the pain of separation than a line break followed by parentheses. It’s an idea beautifully expressed in Julian’s The Next Question:
The next question
to ask (to answer), to be forgot:
Here the first parenthesis lets us know the answer will not lie parallel with the question – that it might bring clarity, but not resolution. In all likelihood, the answer will be perpendicular to the question: the lines of the question and the lines of the answer crossing each other at a fixed point in time and space, but moving in two directions like water from the continental divide. The second parenthesis let us know we have arrived a thing forgotten or erased from our line of sight, perhaps something that was born unutterable. It lies before us confined within the parenthesis like a state within its borders or like a dissolving face cupped between the hands that hold it. It is something we can sense, but can not know it well enough to commit it to memory or call it to the line.
Julian writes, as the final couplet of the collections first poem, “One might ask, naturally: / Who does leave this place and why?” It’s a recurring question and one the poet never answers, and yet there is great satisfaction to be found for both the poet and the reader because finding the answer isn’t the objective. It is enough that the question is the occasion around which the poems are built. It is the question that leads us to answers that don’t belong to it. That is the beauty of the ode. It takes us in unexpected directions, forces us to move in gigantic leaps, and, like Wyoming: The Next Question to Ask (to Answer), it always brings us home.
A debt of gratitude is owed to the following essays from Radiant Lyre. I do not have the words to express how highly I recommend this book for any writer who wants to learn more about the lyric.
Stanley Plumley, “Between Things: On the Ode,” Radiant Lyre, edited by David Baker and Ann Townsend (Saint Paul, Graywolf Press, 2007)
“Ode and Empire,” Linda Gregerson. Radiant Lyre, edited by David Baker and Ann Townsend (Saint Paul, Graywolf Press, 2007)
Tyler Truman Julian is a native of Wyoming, residing in New Mexico, where he is a graduate student, studying creative writing in New Mexico State University’s MFA Program. Though he currently lives in the desert, his work tends to focus on the areas of boom and bust, cold, isolation, and hard living that make up the American West.
Julia Beach Anderson received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a Master of Fine Arts from the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa. She lives and works in New England as a graphic designer and content writer. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Occulum, Barren Magazine, and Flypaper Lit.
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By: Julia Beach Anderson
Guided by my first inspiration I conceived another thinker, a naked man, seated on a rock, his fist against his teeth, he dreams. The fertile thought slowly elaborates itself within his brain. He is no longer a dreamer, he is a creator.
– Auguste Rodin
In front of the Cleveland Museum of Art, resting in a courtyard for over a century as though spellbound by a mystical power, is a man carrying the weight of the world inside his mind. His expression never changes and though naked, the upper half of his body remains an ideal reflection of the philosopher poet: shoulders broad as winter, muscles thick with resistance, and a profile to rival Dante.
Yet, unlike Dante, who passed through the gates of the Inferno and descended on foot with Virgil through the circles of Hell, this man can not walk. If granted a miracle by his creator and given the ability to move his muscles, he would find his “shrapnel” legs unable to make the journey after being damaged by a blast of dynamite tied to his pedestal on March 24, 1970. He is The Thinker. To his creator, Auguste Rodin, he was known as The Poet. In Darren Demaree’s new collection of poems, “Bombing the Thinker,” he is the central metaphor: a damaged thinker around which violence, both contained and unleashed, transforms the landscape.
Leonard Bernstein once wrote that our reply to violence would be “to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” It’s a statement I thought of frequently while reading “Bombing The Thinker,” not only because so much of the collection interrogates the transformative nature of violence, but because the act of writing poetry is, itself, a violent act. As poet Josh Bell said in an interview with Washington Square Review, “when you break the line, you control all space and time.” That’s heady stuff and there is no better place in which that kind of power could rest than in the hands of poet Darren Demaree.
In the poem “Blown Up By Radical Protestors” he writes,
How much salvation
could they dislodge
with their bomb placed
between The Thinker’s
legs? This was dark
times they wanted filled
with light? He lost legs
& would have seen his
penis dart down the stairs
While it seems redundant to blow the legs off a man who is condemned to sit for eternity, it is the simplicity of the act that renders it spectacular. The Thinker, in his solemn repose, appears both unaffected and overly burdened by his surroundings. As a statue he is immune to the post-Vietnam, Cold War chaos that sent shockwaves through American culture on the nightly news, but as The Thinker he is cast in the role of symbol and gatekeeper of the ruling class comfortably resting behind the locked gates of their privilege where money ensured their children would not return from combat with broken bodies. As Demaree notes, it isn’t satisfaction the statue’s bombers sought, it was salvation, literal preservation from ruin. Here, salvation is a thing to be “dislodged” from the space between the legs of the statue and the pedestal he rests upon, between the thing that is admired and the structure that elevates it. It is not only the blast of dynamite, but also the spark of separation that illuminates the darkness of our predicament. It is a theme that Demaree returns to throughout the collection.
In what is the most tender poem in the collection, “A Damaged Thinker #40,” Demaree imagines an alternate universe in which the now Damaged Thinker has the ability to chart his own course and follow his own desire. Demaree imagines that he “would simply leave” if he were capable and reject his role as “a landscape / for the Ohio academics” who discuss and debate his worth. In a world full of sculptures, there are a limited number of Rodins and among that circle, there are a limited number of Thinkers. Yet among all the casts of The Thinker, there is only one who has become The Damaged Thinker. The act of violence that renders him immovable, less perfect is the same act of violence that gives him permission to have an identity apart from all the other Thinkers who exist in multiplicity and sameness. It is our “perfectly flawed” Damaged Thinker who rests in Cleveland and dreams of going “back / to Europe for a while” so that he can find his missing counterpart:
I would go back
to Europe, for a while,
maybe find a Greek
with both of her arms
gone, lost to time
& looters, we could
try not to lose too much
skin as we rested against
There is a restlessness and a longing inhabiting both the voice of The Damaged Thinker and the form of Demaree’s tercets, a constant desire to push forward, follow desire, and defeat expectation. It is not the state of being whole or perfect that The Damaged Thinker desires; it is the desire to be connected to the other fragments of his origin, other versions of amputated beauty, that drive him forward. It is a desire also reflected in Demaree’s syntax and arrangement of poems within the collection. In the image of the two fragmented statues resting together, recovering the intimacy of touch after a trauma, we see the echo from “There Was Still A Pedestal,” in which Demaree notes that Cleveland was city that never “needed to own art, but did / because art is always pulling // close to other art, creating a home.”
In “The Last Option of Mounting the Sculpture In Its Damaged State Also Had Significant Ethical Implications” Demaree brings us to a truth we often try to avoid: once we “have the pedestal / in place it’s tough to give up / the statue.” In many ways, it is this poem where Demaree distills the essence of the conflict surrounding The Thinker, his bombing, and the interconnected problem of nostalgia, legacy, and violence in America. What we choose to admire – whether it is a sculpture, a person, or a poem – is often caught in an endless cycle of elevation and destruction – vision and revision – but our desire to elevate and destroy appears to be, like the pedestal itself, a permanent fixture in our world.
One of the things I admire most in this collection is the precise arrangement of poems within the book. Most of the poems in the collection could fall into one of three categories: monologues from The Damaged Thinker, letters written to Auguste Rodin, and poems written in the voice of witness. Braided together, these voices create a narrative that simulates not only a timeline of events, but also a conversation about violence, loss, and the trauma-induced cultural amnesia that sometimes renders us incapable of fully embracing the purpose of art.
Poet Frank O’Hara once said that statues “present a total attention and they are telling you that that is the way to be.” The poems in this collection are indeed at total attention, completely present with their warning: when empathy is not enough, direct experience has to be. It’s what the activists who damaged The Thinker got wrong; it’s what Demaree gets right. No voice is ever abandoned; no fragment ever completed. It is this unmatched openness toward voice and toward the line that makes the collection of poems found in “Bombing The Thinker” so incredibly rare. As Demaree writes “We learned then that / even if you whisper / the conclusion, it doesn’t actually / end anything.”
Finishing Line Press
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By: J. David
When you think Phil Levine, you think: narrative, working-class, and a deep sense of empathy. Yet, behind each of these three, on the flip-side of his calling cards, is the capability to world-build around violence. Focusing on the hardship experienced by blue-collar workers, Levine’s portraits of working class America, often centered in Detroit, navigate the traumas associated with poverty and struggle, finding ways to turn towards wonder, meaning, or even joy. In Airs Above Ground, Jill Mceldowney shares this skill of world-building around trauma, but instead finds a way to turn towards strength and agency. She employs the nomenclature of equestrianism and horse-themes in confronting violence and its experience by women (Found): “Woman. / I am better prepared for that surge of contact, / of hand to body. / What I mean is / I thought I knew the silence / that goes on / like a horse after the rider falls.”
For her uses, Mceldowney deconstructs the common Christian lexicon and repurposes it into the language of the violence: (Better Talk Now) “From the beginning. I tried to be nonviolent / but this year’s length is measured in trauma / the hound changed to wolf, to a scythe. / Speak / of the devil and he will shatter me at the good…” She takes the common narrative around “victim” and overturns it. Instead of steeping it in a necessity for protection and brokenness, Jill avoids the softness around healing and gives the speakers agency to take up space and reclaim the world on their own terms. She treats trauma not as a bull in a china-shop but rather the same riderless horse in the poem, with the freedom and space to do whatever is necessary. It raises the question: What could women make of violence if given the space and agency to deal with it as they see fit?
This is a book about space, what you become when having it taken “a wall of teeth,” “the dog you have chained,” “beaten water;” or when it is given “to calmly go wild, to live yellow eyed and perform.” This is a human book, one confronting the hardness of healing and the terrible instinct we possess inside (Better Talk Now): “There is still plenty of tonight, a part of me that deserves you / that wants to / hurt you like I want to—” With the lyrical deftness of Ruth Awad and the frenzy of a Berryman dream-song these poems uncover want and longing alongside healing and fear, the most human of conglomerances, the most ferocious kind of belonging.
By: J. David
I enjoy poetry that is murky enough to leave room for the individualism of readership; saving space in the poem for you as you are, inviting you into the world it imagines— what emerges is entirely a matter of self, what has been brought into the poetic imagination mingled with the work on the page. Upheavals is like this, with the potential to inspire whatever conversation is necessary within the reader. Some of the important ones that come to mind: the border between reader accessibility and exploration of content/form, the visibility of male survivors of abuse, among others. Within myself, these poems inspired a conversation about the way the large umbrella of “entertainment” covers mental illness and suicide— “entertainment,” being books, music, movies, art, television, etc. etc.
So often in depiction, mental illness becomes a spectacle: something viewed from the outside-in. Pop culture is ripe with examples of mental illness (depression being particularly in-vogue at the moment) being used to further a narrative, functioning as a character gimmick, or the ole tried-and-true protagonist befriends sad person and fixes them (my favorite flavor of this is the “good [insert gender here]” falling for the “edgy” [insert gender here] with generational traumas and substance abuse). This commodification of depression has permeated everything from Thirteen Reasons Why being a tragically destructive and terrible debacle (an aside: I read this book almost ten years ago, for my Freshman English class and it was the catalyst for a great discussion about mental illness that lasted an entire semester, so I look favorably on the book) to all the bullshit indie junk Urban Outfitters rolls out (half of their shirts have some sort of problematic nonsense on scribed across the front, and in 2016 they had the bright idea of selling both flasks shaped like pill bottles and “Shampoo for Suicidal Hair”).
To be clear, I have no issue with the attempt at representation in popular culture. What I take issue with is blatant misrepresentation and representation that functions to romanticize mental illness. Let’s be honest, books have a huge impact on people— always have, always will. What you put in your books matters. What you put in your books matters. What you put in your books matters. That includes people with mental illness too. We are responsible for how we engage with and present it also, and some people (hem hem John Green) do a disservice in their presentation of mental illness.
I can’t speak for anyone else when I say this, but I will say that what I needed most during bouts with mental illness when I was younger was someone who had words for the feelings and things churning within me I could find no way to name. To know I wasn’t really alone. I preferred this person be older than me— so I could look and see some potential of survival. Name the demon and it shall have no power over you, while that isn’t true, it’s a start.
Had I read Upheavals at 16, maybe it would’ve made a difference. I can’t say for certain but I know I wish for some younger self to be able to have engaged with it. Zackary Lavoie captures within it words for the sometimes unnamable- the disconnect from body simmering into a callous indifference to impermanence (take the blood from my willing corpse and boil): “ tell me how / to admit to my body i no longer / covet it ”; the propensity to notice death everywhere, the way in which every facet of your life somehow becomes permeable to it (early October): “ this morning i watched a leaf die i watched / the supple life drain from / its stem and saw rust inhaled from its imperfect edges / i die the same way / from the outside in. ”
The titular sequence of poems in the book engage with suicidal ideations and struggle in a way that neither romanticizes or encourages them while still offering no shame or condemnation, my favorite one being upheaval of the ideation: “ i spent this morning on the bridge above / comparing bodies to mountains / and how happiness can leave the body through sublimation if / the surrounding air is hot enough. ” This book is for the sad boys (the sleepy boy) to read and hopefully lead them into moments where they “rise— Unbent” (aubade to rest after abuse).
Half Mystic Press
Buy It Here
By: J. David
Medical students at Duke University, as part of training during rotation periods in the pulmonary intensive care unit take an in-ICU poetry course— recognizing the ability of poetry to interrogate grief, sadness, and guilt, common experiences in medicine. Crowd Surfing With God is medical in the sense that it’s interested in pain and healing, a recovery narrative of sorts.
However, Adrienne Novy’s book is not a recovery narrative in the sense that it gets from point A to point B by dealing in instructional wisdom. Instead, it is a recovery narrative still in progress, understanding that each person’s tunnel is of a different length and width and holds a different thing at its end. These poems are kind (let make this a game):
“you the sick kid, were so brave today,
swallowed the hospital library whole,
called it taking your medicine."
This book is interested in growth, the tough conversations where we allow ourself permission to believe in something better of ourselves (if the honey bees die, then we will die with them):
“we will burst with light to greet the world again… a fresh & new &
She writes for the punk rock survivalists who never managed to get clean after the party ended and the ones they left behind, steady in the pursuit of being (punk pop bible):
“& this was the first blessing to Helena that faded out like a song & the
prayers ended with so long and goodnight & god stayed alive for another
night & then another night & then another night & that meant the night
These poems are permission to live, permission to love the rough parts, permission to be comfortable in your skin. These poems are documentation, that if nothing else we were here, and we loved, and we loved so damn hard (if the honey bees die, then we will die with them):
“I call Carrie my Space Mom to make myself feel closer to the newest star
of grave soil.”
These poems are for the longwinded and frantic, whose own voices, they’ve been dying to hear for the first time.
By: J. David
In most thesis courses the professor sends out a survey at end of the semester. Typical questions included: What do you intend to do with your degree? Have you secured placement with either a full-time job in your field or a related graduate studies program? Where do you see yourself in 5 years? What do you see yourself doing in 10 years? The point of this exercise being to provide enough data for your college to list headlines like “98 Percent of graduates either employed full-time or in grad school within six months,” “[X] ranked for the third straight year as one of the top research schools in the country,” “For the past forty years our alumni have been changing the world in big ways, join us in wishing our newest grads luck as they continue this tradition (followed by a long list of the students all the other kids wish they turned out like).”
I don’t answer the questions. I close the survey and open a new document: Most days I have a hard time. I haven’t thought about tomorrow in weeks, folks like me don’t get that luxury. Our brains never let us. We’re stuck in survival mode, always fighting today, always meeting whatever grief waits at the door without any say in the matter. I never imagined making it to 23. In fact, I thought any number past 17 to be too large, and had I not failed so miserably at suicide the few times I tried, I could have been right. I think the problem is we’re too compartmentalized; we like to pretend one aspect of our life doesn’t have an impact on the others—pulling the rug out from underneath one foot always throws your balance, no matter how many rugs you’re standing on. Whether it be mental illness, poverty, grief, or any other member of the litany, some of us don’t get to dream about tomorrow—we’re far too busy with today.
I email this to my professor instead of filling out the survey, and close my computer. After, I pull The Afterlife by Larry Levis from my bookshelf. Critic Steven M. Wilson said of Levis “his [poems]… are moving, insightful meditations on living. Levis uses his life, but also looks outside himself and beyond the events he remembers to find connections with broader truths… [considering] the issues involved with being human.” Poets like Larry Levis and Phil Levine have always appealed to me because of their attentiveness to the present. Their poems often stay rooted in the moment and care about the complexity of humanity, as if genuinely reaching out to know and welcome you—regardless of where you are at the moment. Surprisingly, you’ll find yourself in their poems time and time again; and maybe this isn’t surprising—Phil Levine cared deeply about correspondence, to young poets driving trucks, or working on farms, or waiting tables, or college students. He frequently got into trouble for letting older poets who couldn’t afford college tuition to sit in on his classes, and firmly believed in having more than one kind of poet with one kind of background.
Steve Abbott’s book A Green Line Between Green Fields follows in the footsteps of Levine and Levis. Steve, like them, pays excruciating attention to what’s going on around him and acts as a gentle listener that asks of you: what have you been meaning to say? Done with the full intent of making your voice heard. (Pulling Yourself Up By Your) :
“ bootstraps will do nothing
but leave you where you are,
knocked on your ass…
a form of hyperbole
describing the impossible.
Which explains why
those on top keep
telling everyone else
that’s how they did it. ”
He is interested in our shared griefs and joys, the threads that have been running between us for years, but what makes Steve special though, is his interest not only in meeting you in your today but also in the things we take for granted. Not just as humans in the broad sense but also as individuals. In doing so, his poems sometimes meditate on the ways we each store joy where it is accessible for when it is necessary (Shells):
“ At the nursing home, others brought only distress
or annoyance, claiming to be daughters or
nephews, most looking—for all her squinted effort--
like faces in a stranger’s photo album…
On a nightstand I found a fishbowl shaping
a collection of seashells culled from both costs…
When I carried it to her, she studied the globe
like a child, frenzied beyond containment of
a miracle. Her fingers traced the open face
of the jar as she named what seemed parts of
her own body: scallop, mussel, cuttlefish, cowrie
limpet, retrieving a vanished litany
trapped beneath the barnacled surface of her
own voyage. It’s years. ”
If nothing else, this book is an ode to the journey; an ode to reaching today (Arriving at This Point):
“ In the end, it’s everything
you expected. The animal
instinct told you…
the words you said
to yourself in the dark
are pouring out of you. ”
and no matter where we go from this point, whether we have planned the road or are walking hands-first though the dark—this life, all of its joy and pain and wonder, is going to be so worth it.
By: J. David
Of poetry, Kevin Stein says (https://northamericanreview.org/the-show-and-tell-of-poetrys-show-tell-by-kevin-stein):
“To read a poem is to engage beguiling Show & Tell. [One] learns the voice of her wondering, worrying, singing, or dissembling about those matters. One is enthralled or one is bored…
Much of what poets call work resembles friskily serious Show & Tell… Its performance—both the writing as making and the co-making also known as reading.”
Much of good modern poetry has become audience facing, a choice to write into the here and now for the everyday (read as: not poetically trained) person in an effort to seriously grapple with the forces at work in society. What makes this kind of poetry so efficacious is its balance between showing and telling. A poet’s greatest ally is imagery—deployed well it can embody a whole universe of possibilities; there is no limit to the poetic imagination.
The brave part of the whole endeavor comes on the coin’s other side—the audacity to say with any measure of certainty that anything is true: the telling. If we are being honest, we are compelled to admit how little we actually do know, how grand of a space the wide unknown occupies. To make any statement of truth is to open up the possibility of being wrong. In For the Love of Endings, Ben Purkert is fully aware of this (IDEAL WORLD):
"in an ideal world there’s no history:
no chicken before the egg broke
in the beginning there was
light without words for light"
Ben invites us along with him as he works his way to the truth, adept in the practice of uncertainty, and honest about the process of the search (TODAY IS WORK):
“I’m searching for the right verb
for a dead frog. I want one
large but not so full it floods
my eyes. The verb should stand
on its own without support
from viewers like you & you
really are a viewer”
In an almost prescriptive format Purkert, with surgical precision from the spacing to the line breaks, often begins his poems a statement of fact (MIRROR I DON’T KNOW):
“I’m far from the dead center of things”
He then does as Plato’s Socrates suggests and follows the evidence where it leads into the poetic imagination (MIRROR I DON’T KNOW):
“Each afternoon spent in four coordinates:
Me, Me, Sunlight, Ache. You, leaving warm prints
on whose mirror I don’t know”
Finally ending with an action, the way this new knowledge manifests in the world and its result of sitting in the body (MIRROR I DON’T KNOW):
“Dearest pin on my screen, I’ll drag & drop you.
I’ll hold down on + until I’m larger than life.
To exit this window, I claw my way out”
Cloistered in the thought of losing your planet, your lover, and yourself is the idea of identity. Purkert, in exploring the ways out of a planet on the brink of destruction or a heart-break where the road corners either death, or apathy, or hurt; demonstrates with each poem a new thing we are capable of losing, slowly stripping away what we are comprised of in an attempt to uncover the fundamentally human: that which cannot be taken away.
Taking away piece by piece until there is nothing left to take from us, and with that, discovering where we go next (IN ZERO GRAVITY):
“…who really cares—the truth is so much
less engraved. The truth is
sailing across the sea & the sadness of
not wrecking. I remember the boats
upon boats. If one fills with water,
it veers away
from what it knows
starts a new life entirely.”
By: J. David
In anything we write there is both a decision and a discovery to be made, and that is the important part of the whole storytelling ordeal. Everything else is to the two of them speaking back and forth at each other— new discoveries moving you forward into more questions that must be answered. As writers, we must decide what these answers are or be candid in the fact we are still uncovering them ourselves, anything else would fall short of the honesty required to truly connect with a reader. Every good story has an element of unveiling— where what we’ve been chasing after all along starts to become clear, and expected or not— we are left to contend with whatever is there.
At first glance, Set to Music a Wildfire appears to be an attempt to answer the questions “where do I belong,” and “how do I belong,” chasing after an ever-elusive definition of home. Ruth Awad documents her father’s life, from his early days in Lebanon during the bloody civil war to his immigration and later life in America, offering us two competing definitions of home: “the people and places we allow ourselves to belong to,” and “the place we come from and the place we are going.” In the end Ruth does not tell us which one is right, and until the fourth time I read through the collection I couldn’t figure out why she left that part out. It was because, all along, the collection had been about the things which we are capable of surviving. The search for belonging was most obvious in the poems, because that is the chief search of every human, but the more important question that Ruth continually revisits is “can I survive this?” Or to rephrase: “I know I am not home yet, I still have farther to go, but I wonder- will I survive this, what is it that I can lose and still survive?”
Can you survive the innocence lost when you discover just how cruel this world is capable of being (Sabra and Shatila Massacre): “How else do you say it—I stood on them / what seemed a tarp-drawn embankment / a hummock of corpses. / Quicksand…” Can you survive in spite of war, in spite of your world tearing itself apart (Gulls): “Men can run- / what else? / What else / will save them from / the world they’ve burned?” Can you survive in the shadow of death, in a world eclipsed by fear (Interview with My Father: Names): “When someone dies in Tripoli, we write their names on paper, / next to their pictures and post them where others can see. / Walk the street where the names wave from the walls, / flutter from windows, buildings grilled with sheets— / breathing paper, beating paper, the streets are paper—“
Can you survive the upheaval of leaving your life behind to come to a place that doesn’t love you (My Father Is the Sea, the Field, the Stone): “Why choose a coast / when my hands are stone? / Why carry a rifle when my blood is a field? / I carry these suitcases full of rain / because I can’t take my country. / If it’s a choice you want—I’ve never known / a world that wasn’t worth dying for.” Can you survive the strife of poverty and the label of strangeness (Lebanese Famine in America):
“I push a mop to pay rent, / steal mustard packets / to dress bread slices, / and tell myself it’s enough / it’s enough it’s enough.”
(Migratory Patterns): “[we] watch our signal slip past the old frame / and out to the small town that never wanted us—what, with our ratty socks and too-short bangs / and our names. I want the town erased / if it means I’ll never hear Muslim snarled / like a slur…”
Can you survive heartbreak and the monumental weight of grief (On the Night You Ask for a Divorce):
“Sleepless beside me, you turn / all night like a wave… I inventory what the night does not erase:
your coldness, / amphibious raft I envy with my heart.”
(Lessons in Grief): “…here I am / half wet and stung / with the mercy of living / where your robe trailed / like a thought across / the kitchen floor… I’m a clockwork animal tied / to fading light, but the days / never stop coming.”
The answer Ruth uncovers time and time again is yes.
(Let me be a lamb in a world that wants my lion):
“…the black night ahead, and I think, My God, will I ever not be / surprised by what I can survive?”