Category Archives: Poetry

“Nations are born in the hearts of poets. They prosper and die in the hands of politicians.” -Muhammad Iqbal

Book Review: Memorial, by Alice Oswald

 

 

Heroes of iliad by Tischbein

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, The Heroes of the Iliad, 1829

This semester, for a graduate poetry workshop, I was tasked with reviewing a poetry collection. I chose Memorial, by Alice Oswald, and have decided to post it here for all to see, and also because most journals aren’t interested in reviews of books not written in the last few years.


The US edition of Alice Oswald’s 2011 poetry collection Memorial is subtitled “a version of Homer’s Iliad,” but the word “version” fails to capture the scope of Oswald’s epic. The original British subtitle uses the word “Excavation,” which is closer to the truth but still misses a key element. Instead, deployment more accurately describes how the Iliad features in the book, as a point of reference rather than a point of content. In this sense, like the dozens of similes repeated in pairs throughout the book, Memorial is like the Iliad, rather than a renewal of the Iliad itself.

Despite foregrounding the names of the 200 dead who come to populate Memorial, one of the most poignant moments is about namelessness, when the speaker declares “Somebody’s husband somebody’s daughter’s husband/Stood there stunned by fear/Like a pillar like a stunted tree” (Oswald 45). The sudden namelessness here is jarring in context, suggesting a more universal specificity: the dead are neither no-body nor some-one, but a mix of the two, a some-body, neither specifically named nor generally embodiable.

This is why the repetition of similes between characters’ biographies is so crucial for the lives of the commemorated. In one example, the character Asius “couldn’t stop/Having ridden those shining horses/Over the Selleis and the Simois/And all the stony way from Arisbe to Troy/Like when winnowers bang their shovels down” (44-45). To have a life, to have lived a life, is to have a referent elsewhere, or as Judith Butler puts it, “when attachment takes place, it does so in relation to persons and institutional conditions that may well be violent, impoverishing, and inadequate” (Butler 45). In Oswald’s world, death is rendered meaningful because it can be located through simile, because the dead live on in that to which they are compared, in a cycle of life, death, and comparison to something still left in the waking world.

One consequence of the book’s persistent lack of punctuation is that the story never stops with one or another character’s death, at least not syntactically. The only endings and beginnings come with line breaks and stanza breaks, which designate lives and scenes. The repetition of stanzas, one after another, and always as a simile suggests a constant recycling of grief.

This repetition also universalizes the act of trying to articulate grief, always repeated, always stuttered, always made necessary again by yet another death. No matter how gorgeously one describes death—“Like smoke leaving the earth” (51), or “Like the shine of a sea swell” (42), “Like suddenly it thunders” (16), “Like restless wolves never run out of hunger” (78), “Like when a lion comes back to a forest’s secret rooms” (67), no comparison seems apt enough to fully grasp its totality.

Oswald drags the reader into the awful challenge of her own book: When all 200 men are given equally beautiful similes through which we come to understand their lives and deaths, they start to flatten and blend, and despite the consistent resonance and talent of her craft, Oswald cannot keep the deaths of her characters entirely unique. They converge and become indistinguishable.

Finally, this fatal flaw implicates the reader’s inability to grieve for the dead, as all 200 characters becomes, in the last analysis, mostly forgettable when the act of grief overshadows those for whom we grieve. We can’t remember the 200 dead in Memorial. How, then, are we supposed to mourn for the dead of our own wars, let alone our own daily violent conflicts that now play out in our schools and shopping malls? How many poems can we write to keep up with the dead? Oswald is vicious and unforgiving in forcing us to confront the fact that we simply cannot; that despite our best efforts, tragedy is outrunning poetry.

-jk


Butler, Judith. Precarious Life. Verso, 2006.

Oswald, Alice. Memorial. W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.

Once More Unto the Final Poem

Frost

Since 2014, I’ve posted one poem that I’ve written in the past month on the last day of April, to celebrate National Poetry Month. This April, I’ve been unusually busy, and managed to write only one poem. But that still counts, so I’m going to post it, because this minor tradition in my life is more important than first publication rights.

After Wendell Berry

“Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.”

-Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

Is there even a right direction?
I get lost on the simplest trails
in the deep green forehead
of a someone else’s paradigms.

In the cemetery at sunset: a fox,
dissolving into the daylight’s gravel
between statues over strangers,
zigzagging like a Rube Goldberg machine.

The moment came without instruction,
so without a cue I chased the animal
across the grass and between the grief,
getting lost above the strangers.

Or maybe the fox was never there,
another trick of the rusty dusk.
This moment also came without instruction,
so I learned to chase myself,
but learning is a generous word.

-jk

Poem Published in an Anthology

1I’m pleased to announce that I have a poem in an anthology titled Arizona’s Best Emerging Poets, from Z Publishing. The poem is called “Spring Gift,” and is in the anthology’s section on nature and environmental poetry. For me, this was the first publication that came from another publication. An editor at Z Publishing found a poem of mine at The Tunnels, my Alma mater’s undergraduate journal, and contacted me to suggested I submit something new for their upcoming Arizona anthology.

This publication comes at a strange time. It is April, and National Poetry Month. This is the first month in years I have not tried to write a poem a day, because I’m swamped with other obligations. In the MFA program here in Moscow, Idaho, I have classes to take, classes to teach, work for the literary journal Fugue, blogging for the MFA program, and other activities.

I haven’t written a poem in a long time, over a year, maybe. This will change, because sooner or later I’ll have time for poetry. I don’t want to leave it behind, but juggling genres is hard. I’m glad I have this poem, this call back to my home state, as a reminder of what I’m capable of. If you take a look at the anthology one way or another, I’d be honored. If not, I hope, there will be more poems to come in the future.

-jk

Yet Another Final Poem

Floor waterIn a blogging tradition that dates to the early Enlightenment-era philosophers, I post one poem on the last day of April to celebrate the end of Poetry Month. This poetry month, I wrote fourteen poems, a record mediocrity (which is the title of an upcoming collection). In any case, the following poem is dedicated to the Floor Water Collective (or my graduate cohort who shared/trashed an office this past year). They will be missed, by someone, probably.

Dear Future Occupants of Our Office,

A word of caution: the doors are untrustworthy
and you might get locked out, or worse, locked in,
or better, locked in with people you trust.

The coffee is best made from a garbage can
if you don’t want to stain our office (we
did), and the kettle is closest to an outlet
on the floor, which you should lie down on
listening to music when the world boils.

That will happen a lot, in and out of the office.
Our decorative rhetoric has remade it
a pilgrimage site for the curious and passionate,
as a reminder of what we used to be.

The office is exhausted inside and out,
but like us it’s used to being used as a means
of production, a clogged factory,
a closet of disconnected cogs, an easy target,
and inside the doors break, the floors are ant-trodden,
and everything is stained one way or another
with blood, sweat, coffee, tears, pizza sauce,
the list goes on. Whatever bright shine the office had
a year ago is now replaced with a language
that will be scrubbed away over summer.
It will look perfect again for you, but the flaws
are well-hidden in the design.

This office is a good place to go when the world
slams its many doors on you. It’s a good place
to have your heart and idealism broken,
to be comforted alone during your worst thoughts
on an uncomfortable couch under a friend’s blanket,
Future cohort, we dare you to match our worst days, to survive
the way we did, together, while our worlds boiled.

-jk

List: 30 Ways to Celebrate National Poetry Month

Umbrella Brick Wall 2.JPGApril is National Poetry Month, so here is a nifty list of things to do to celebrate poetry, nationally.

  1. Read a poem every day.
  2. Write a poem every day.
  3. Go to a poetry reading.
  4. Stick a poem in your pocket.
  5. Having already exhausted the ways people traditionally celebrate Poetry Day after four activities, think briefly about going back to prose, then read more poems or something.
  6. Write a poem and tape it to your office window so people outside can enjoy it.
  7. Read poetry you found on a sign or a movie poster.
  8. Take down your window poem after somebody complains to your boss, then passive aggressively write sequel poems to it.
  9. Try to write a haiku in under 140 characters.
  10. Realize that writing twitter haiku is too hard, and instead tweet a picture of your haiku written on a page in your moleskine notebook.
  11. Write poetry on the sidewalk in chalk before vindictive bicyclists run you down while humming the music from Jaws.
  12. Submit your poetry to journals until those $3 Submittable fees match the amount you spend on wine per week.
  13. Speaking of wine, Holy Week is in April, so you could write a poetry suite using Catholic imagery to talk about your feelings even though you are not Catholic and you have no feelings.
  14. On Good Friday, write another poem that pretentiously uses commas to somehow represent the nails in crucifixion.
  15. Realize that fourteen people online have misinterpreted your religious poem and want to know why you are taking away their right to choose.
  16. By Easter, lose fourteen of your Facebook friends over that one poem you posted.
  17. Share your favorite poems online, checking seven times to make sure you spelled each poets’ name correctly, because you really only read their work during April, even though you insist on how much their work means to you the rest of the year.
  18. Read early drafts of poems you wrote three National Poetry Months ago and die a little inside after counting the number of times you used a flower metaphor.
  19. Go to an open mic night and sit through four harmonica soloists before the poets get on stage.
  20. Research poets whose work you have never read. Chances are high that there are at least several.
  21. Go to a reading of new or recently published poets. They could use the moral support, especially if they’re grad student poets.
  22. Buy a new collection of poetry, then make time to read only half of it.
  23. Read poets recommended by your friends.
  24. Read poets recommended by your enemies.
  25. Write poetry in a coffee shop.
  26. Realize that “writing poetry in a coffee shop” requires four hours of sipping a latte and people-watching before writing down any words.
  27. Revise the thirteen poems you wrote in the past twenty-seven days and call it a statistical success.
  28. Find the good poem out of the thirteen you’ve written (the chosen Messiah of your poems) and revise it again.
  29. Select the Messiah poem as the best of your poems and post it on your blog on the last day of April, then take it down after worrying about its quality, then resurrect it back onto your blog three hours later.
  30. Relax. Poetry is about a lot of things, but first and foremost, it’s about paying attention to the small details around you. You could sporadically write many poems, but you need things to write about: the way your shirt smells like smoke the morning after a campfire, the way the smell clings to you as you listen to the seesaw of traffic over the hill. Or something like that.

-jk

In the Tradition of Poems for Dogs

IMG_0128

Recently, I read Andre Alexis’s novel Fifteen Dogs. Among the many delightful things in the novel (that it starts with the gods Hermes and Apollo in a bar in modern-day Toronto, that the characters are mostly sentient dogs, that it’s filled with excellent descriptions and dog-drama) is that one of its main dog characters, Prince, becomes a poet who uses a unique poetic form intended to make sense to both humans and dogs.

The French poet Francois Caradec invented this form of poetry for dogs, and Alexis lends him credit for its invention. The form requires the sound of a dog’s name to be embedded in the poem. In this way, dogs will hear their name if the poem is read aloud, and respond in their dogly way by wagging their tails and analyzing the poem from a critical dog studies perspective.

An example from the novel, for the dog named Prince, is as follows:

“Longing to be sprayed (the green snake
writhing in his master’s hand),
back and forth into that stream–
jump, rinse: coat slick with soap” (Alexis 81)

The name Prince can be heard in the words “jump, rinse,” and supposedly a dog named Prince will hear it in the poem. The rest, apparently, will be the usual human nonsense Prince is used to hearing by now.

I wrote a poem in this form for my own dog, Pete, who has seasonal allergies and enjoys scratching his face on various surfaces, including people:

Rough carpet scratches
snatch up every face-itch
on the floor, sensations
to make easy sleep. Eat, sniff, dream
until the next itch, then scratch.

Do you have a dog? A pet? Write them a poem and see what they think.

-jk

Alexis, Andre. Fifteen Dogs. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2015

The Tunnels

Brick wall triptych 1.jpg

The English department at my Alma mater, Northern Arizona University, has released a cool new student literary journal called The Tunnels, and I’m pleased to announce that I have two pieces published in its inaugural issue: a poem, “List of Lists,” and a creative nonfiction essay, “Between Brick Walls.” The first was written after a First Friday Art Walk; the second is about photography, forest fires, and climate change. Both pieces are part of my never-ending love affair with Flagstaff, AZ. However, I mostly want to advertise the journal as a whole.

Two wonderful and talented professors, one in creative writing and one in literature, are the journal’s editors and creators, but it is heavily student-run. Last year, I was a reader for its earlier iteration, JURCE. The Tunnels is an academic and literary journal, and features literary criticism as well. One of my friends has a paper on one of Isaac Asimov’s stories; another friend of mine has a paper on Luigi’s Mansion. The whole journal is an excellent collection of literature and criticism, and a lovely reminder of how many people from Flagstaff and NAU have inspired and continue to inspire me. It also makes me excited for future editions.

So feel free to take a gander at this hip new journal, and I hope you enjoy it!

-jk

P.S. I listened to “Paper Moon” by Chic Gamine while writing the poem and “She Got Lost in the Observatory” by Motionless while writing the essay, to get in the right writing mood.