Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Nester chooses Blake

Buy the book HERE
Visit Robbi at Red Room


          In my first year as an undergraduate in college, I entered another world. Up to that time, I did not find school amenable. In fact, I hated it. Given a choice, I would have cut class any day, and spent all my time strolling through the Franklin Institute or perusing the stacks at the library.
But college was a whole different animal. These teachers actually encouraged questions, and spurred on my enthusiastic response to the texts we studied. My favorite class of those idyllic early years was a multi-disciplinary course on the English Romantic period, exploring it from a scientific, philosophical, political, as well as a literary perspective. My favorite writer from that period, who had something to say about all those disciplines, was William Blake.
Blake’s most anthologized work is probably “The Tyger,” from his Songs of Innocence and Experience. Many critics have tackled this work, but they do not agree on its meaning or the light it might shed on Blake’s probable answers to the thorny theological questions it raises.
I chose this poem from among all those I admire because it seems a fit way to celebrate my own forthcoming chapbook, Balance, composed of 15 poems following a sequence of yoga poses developed by B.K.S. Iyengar. Mr. Iyengar introduced this particular sequence in his book, Light on Life, as a way of promoting emotional stability.
On the literary side, my book was inspired in part by Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, a poetic work based emphatically on a concept and one that integrates visual and verbal art. Despite their ability to stand alone, the lyrics in this work cannot be considered wholly apart from their context in the work as a whole or, for that matter, their place in Blake’s overall system.
Not being a visual artist, as Blake was, I sought out a willing and congenial artist to collaborate with me on my book, and ended up, by the grace of the Internet and her own generosity, working with my first cousin, Nina Canal, an artist, fabric designer, and musician residing in Marseilles, France.
For my cover, I worked with the photographer John Genesta, who, from the concept I conceived, produced the cover photograph you see here. I also cannot forget the craftswomen on Etsy who sold me the origami flower pictured in this photograph.
            Poet and publisher Karen Kelsay Davies labored long over the book’s layout, introducing me to the business end of writing as she went, and probably, in the process, learning more herself about yoga and Sanskrit that she ever wanted to know.
            Unlike Blake, who acted as poet, artist, and printer all in one [The Tyger etching at the Met here], I required a whole stable of collaborators to see this project to fruition, not neglecting to mention my good friend Marly, who helped give the project its impetus.


Supta Virasana by Nina Canal

Supta Virasana—Reclining Hero Pose

On the road to the studio, the hills
undulate under the clouds like fish
in the shallows, soft morning light
singing on their silver scales.
I want to lie down in that light
and become a hill, but my mind
won’t let me. Let me try again
to still the muscles’ long
sigh as legs enfold the hips,
tucked under like hospital corners,
the thighs pulled taut as a harp string,
the ribs pried open as I
lie back on the folded blankets
exposing my heart to the world.

Come visit my writer’s page:  http://redroom.com/member/robbi-nester
and my blog, http://robbi-shadowknows.blogspot.com
[You may buy books from Robbi there.]


William Blake may have been the first great outsider artist to crossover into the mainstream of the literary canon. In fact, he arguably exemplifies the Romantic concept of the poetic genius, though not in the Byronic sense we are used to.
“Tyger” emerges from a paired collection of lyrics, half representing the voice of Innocence, and the other experience. Though Blake gives a voice to each of these opposed qualities, we can never forget that each makes up but half of the overall work, embodying Blake’s proverb from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Without contraries is no progression.” Perhaps it is because one may discern this philosophy in “Tyger” that so many have chosen it to represent Blake’s poetic oeuvre.
We see in most elements of the poem Blake’s refusal to settle into any uncomplicated pattern or perspective. This is so of the poem’s poetic form, something critics often disagree about. The poem is composed of 6 four line stanzas with four beats per line, as I scan it. However, though Blake sets a pattern in the first stanza of largely trochaic rhythm, with an accented first syllable and unaccented second one, in the stanzas to follow, it riffs freely on the theme, varying the order of the stresses.
The last stanza largely mirrors the first, reflecting the tiger’s own “fearful symmetry.” In the same way, the work’s accentual rhythm allows Blake to vary the position of accented syllables over the course of the work to begin and end it as a sort of incantation, but emulate along the way the hammer of a blacksmith God, crafting the beast, the beating of the tiger’s newly-minted heart, or the shocked stutter of the speaker, rendered inarticulate before the wonder of God’s creation.
Syntactically and also thematically, the poem reminds us of the biblical Book of Job, particularly those passages late in the book, where, in a catalogue of rhetorical questions, God challenges Job to best his creative power.
In its penultimate stanza, Blake’s poem asks the most significant of the poem’s questions:
            When the stars threw down their spears,
            And watered heaven with their tears,
            Did he smile his work to see?
            Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
This is not the poem’s final stanza, since that comes full circle to repeat the incantatory first four lines, yet it poses the major question we are left with at the end of the work. The martial image of the stars “[throwing] down their spears” evokes both the fallen angels of Milton’s epic Paradise Lost and the Book of Job, where God tells how “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (38.7).
For the speaker of this poem, the joy of such celestial beings does not seem so apparent. They respond to God’s immanent act of creation with hostility and sadness, suggesting that in their view, there may be something suspect about the whole endeavor.
Here, as elsewhere in Blake’s work, we discern more than a hint of Gnosticism, a doctrine that brands all of material creation as inherently flawed, the product of a demiurge akin to Blake’s own Nobodaddy. Yet at the same time, these celestial beings “Water heaven with their tears,” an act that promotes the growth of this same creation.
The tiger is at once a beautiful creature and, like Job’s Leviathan, the fearsome object of our awe. Though it is both at once, we cannot so emphatically answer yes to the poem’s ultimate question, “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” Blake leaves the question unresolved.
In contrast, the resolution of the Book of Job strikes us as singularly unsatisfactory. Even if God replaces all of Job’s progeny with new offspring and returns him to full health and the respect of his community, does this make up for what he has lost? Not hardly.
The question of evil cannot be glossed over in any blithe way. It must remain a question, as Blake leaves it here in his poem, which I see as a response to that biblical book and to Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost.
Like  the other works in the collection, this poem appears on an illuminated plate Blake has etched. Many commentators have noted the oddly toothless demeanor of the tiger in this plate. Unlike the fierce and fiery beast described in the poem, emblem of divine creation or warfare, this tiger, with its slight, stuffed animal smile and rounded edges, seems oddly toothless. [The Tyger illumination can be seen here.]
While most regard this as an artistic failing, I see it as yet another example of Blake’s dialectical style, confronting things with their own opposites, and leaving us to puzzle out the meaning. Does this mean that the speaker of the poem is an unreliable narrator of sorts, who mistakes the nature of the beast he describes? Or is it an effort to remind us that the tiger, while it might gladly rend and consume human flesh, does so not out of malice but as a means of survival, as many of us eat other creatures’ flesh?
Blake’s questioning did not arise ex nihilo. He is known to have studied mystical as well as  canonical biblical traditions. Questioning the nature of divine creation is common among the mystics of Judaism, whom the self-tutored Blake may well have studied. Faced with evil circumstances as daunting as Job’s, the 15th century scholar Isaac Luria was part of the community Queen Isabella persecuted in the Inquisition and ultimately expelled from Spain. Faced with the conundrum of a monotheistic deity who allowed such evil to occur, Luria  crafted a creation myth to explain the existence of evil in the world we inhabit known as “breaking the vessels.”
In this myth, it is the act of creation itself that inadvertently leads to evil coming into the material world, since the “shells” of material creation, akin to clay cracking in the kiln, are too imperfect to contain God’s divine creative light.
The task of human beings, in this mythos, is to collect the shards of fractured divinity immured in unlikely and apparently evil places of the world and send them back to their source. This process is called “tikkun olam.”
Blake’s system similarly envisions a purpose for human beings of countering evil with imagination and artistic creation. In his view, it is our task to challenge orthodoxies of all sorts, and thus emulate God’s creative energy. Blake’s work exercises this capacity in his readers. 
Christian orthodoxy explains away the obvious rifts between the often capricious nature of the deity portrayed in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, and the God of mercy embraced by the Christian tradition. But characteristically, Blake challenges us to note these lacunae, and explains them by suggesting that these are indeed two different Gods, not faces of the same one.
Thus, when he asks “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” he is speaking not just of the material world but of the two traditions, two bodies of religious texts, with the Lamb taking on its symbolic meaning as Jesus, not just the companion poem to “The Tyger” in Blake’s work.
Yet at the same time, the merciful and gentle face of deity cannot account for the reality of the world we live in. The existence of this other tradition, other deity, other text is necessary to describe our world adequately. Ultimately, the creative tension between these two views is essential to spur us onward, toward our own divinely inspired acts of creation.



Tyger! Tyger! burning bright 
In the forests of the night, 
What immortal hand or eye 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire? 

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet? 

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp? 

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee? 

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry? 


Tuesday, February 7, 2012


As the Lydians--the Stoners? the Lydian Stoners?--seem to give me all feast or famine, and I am either awash in finished posts or else have nothing, I think we shall have to wait a bit for a next post! 

See you then--shall announce on Twitter, The Palace at 2:00 a.m., and facebook.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Almost "The Lydian Stones"...

Adams on Szymborska:

"Yesterday, when I heard the news, it seemed ironic and coincidental that I had just taken down her book and quoted from it here two days before. But then again, perhaps it wasn't so odd, because, as I said, I re-read her poems often. It was Szymborska who I had planned to pick for Marly Youmans' "Lydian Stones" project - a choice that would probably seem too obvious now. But at the time, looking at the jacket photograph with her ever-present cigarette, I had wondered how she was doing, with no idea she was in the process of leaving the world."

Take a love at Beth's tribute to the just-departed poet here.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sharpe chooses Gautier

Yolanda Sharpe in Krasnoyarsk
About Yolanda Sharpe

Yolanda Sharpe, originally from Detroit, Michigan, lives in upstate New York. She is a painter, whose mediums are oils, encaustic, and watercolor. Ms. Sharpe is a Professor of painting and drawing at the State University of New York – College at Oneonta. She is also a 2011 United States Fulbright Scholar for the Russian Federation. In early 2011, she traveled to Krasnoyarsk, Russia, a city in northern Siberia, to teach graduate students about various advanced processes for watercolor painting. During this time, Yolanda presented her drawings and encaustic paintings in two exhibition venues: Crazy, a group exhibit in the city, and Fragments, a solo exhibit at the Krasnoyarsk State Institute of Fine Arts gallery.

The Aerospace Academy of Krasnoyarsk invited Yolanda to present information about the topic, Art + Business to their students. This was a lecture and discussion format, and the topic focused on many practical skills for contemporary artists in that region to help them navigate the world of commerce, galleries, and art business via the Internet.

Yolanda Sharpe has exhibited national in the States, and will exhibit Urban Fragments, a solo presentation of encaustic paintings, at the Birmingham-Bloomfield Art Center, Birmingham, Michigan fall, 2012. Please visit her web site at: yolandasharpe.com.

Ms. Sharpe is also an accomplished vocalist (soprano) who performed in various solo concert venues. A recent performance was at the Music Hall in Krasnoyarsk, Russia. A forthcoming concert is April 2012, in Cooperstown, New York. It will be a benefit concert for the local Food Banks. Yolanda sang and performed supernumerary roles for Glimmerglass Opera several times, and also performed-in-training title roles, Aida, and Norma, several years ago in Binghamton, New York.

About the poems from Les Nuits d’Été – Villanelle, and Le Spectre de la Rose

The songs are a result of combined work between two notable 19th century artists:  Théophile Gautier (August 30, 1811 - October 23, 1872), a French poet, dramatist, novelist, journalist, art critic, and literary critic, and Hector Berlioz (December 11, 1803-March 8, 1869), a French Romantic composer. Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’Été was written in 1856. Many of his songs were originally written for amateur singers, and were later adapted and orchestrated for professional concert performance.

Studying this background of this particular body of songs, I learned that Les Nuits d’Été, which I always thought of as a six-song cycle, was never intended for performance as a single work. Berlioz never did so. Thus I have selected to sing some songs from the entire collection this coming April. Performing only a sample from Gautier’s poems is no crime, indeed!

Villanelle is buoyant, evoking the colors and energy of early spring. It is the season for love, and I like the way the poem and music are blended to remind us that the detritus of winter and gray skies are dissolved into the various pictures and images that this piece conjures up. To sing it, one has to be ebullient, and focused on the gem-like mirth that comes from each note and word.

Le Spectre de la Rose is a gorgeous melody that is layered, rich, and luscious. For me the Rose becomes so many things. She is generous, loving, sad, resigned to her premature death, and yet triumphant. The Rose is content to be placed on the breast of the man who carries her everywhere. He is unaware of her love for him, and the fact that she lives forever. Because she returns to her original home in paradise, she has an aroma that is eternal. I think that I should sing clear legato lines for each word-phrase to convey the beauty of this glorious flower and her fate.

Rose I, encaustic on panel, 23 by 22.5 inches (2009)

by Théophile Gautier 

English translations by composer Edward Lein here


Quand viendra la saison nouvelle,
Quand auront disparu les froids,
Tous les deux nous irons, ma belle,
ur cueillir le muguet aux bois ;

Sous nos pieds égrenant les perles,
Que l'on voit au matin trembler,
Nous irons écouter les merles
Nous irons écouter les merles siffler.

Le printemps est, venu ma belle,
C'est le mois des amants béni,
Et l'oiseau, satinant son aile,
Dit des vers au rebord du nid.

Oh! viens, donc, sur ce banc de mousse
Pour parler de nos beaux amours,
Et dis-moi de ta voix si douce,
Et dis-moi de ta voix si douce : "Toujours".

loin, bien loin, égarant nos courses,
Faisant fuir le lapin caché,
Et le daim au miroir des sources
Admirant son grand bois penché ;
Puis chez nous, tout heureux, tout aises,
En panier enlaçant nos doigts,
Revenons rapportant des fraises
Revenons rapportant des fraises des bois.

Fragment from Yolanda's "Green and Still Moon" from the "Watercolor Revisited"
show at Wayne State University (2011). Photo by Gilda Snowden.


Soulève ta paupière close
Qu'effleure un songe virginal!
Je suis le spectre d'une rose
Que tu portais hier au bal.
Tu me prise encore emperlée
Des pleurs d'argent de l'arrosoir,
Et, parmi la fête etoilée,
Tu me promenas tout le soir.
O toi qui de ma mort fus cause,
Sans que tu puisses le chasser,
Toutes les nuits mon spectre rose
A ton chevet viendra danser.
Mai ne crains rien, je ne réclame
Ni messe ni De Profundis,
Ce léger parfum est mon âme,
Et j'arrive du paradis.
Mon destin fus digne d'envie,
Et pour avoir un sort si beau
Plus d'un aurait donné sa vie;
Car sur ton sein j'ai mon tombeau,
Et sur l'albâtre où je repose
Un poête avec un baiser
Ecrivit: "Ci-git une rose,
Que tous les rois vont jalouser."

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Next up--

Slight delay... I am waiting on a small but essential bit of information about the next piece. It is quite interesting, featuring the choice of painter (head of the SUNY-Oneonta art department for twelve years) and singer Yolanda Sharpe, so please come back for a look!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Farmer chooses Reece

Double portrait of Jonathan Farmer by Caroline Luther.

Jonathan Farmer

Jonathan Farmer is the Founder, Editor in Chief, and Poetry Editor of At Length. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his amazing wife and is a founding member of The Hinge Literary Center.

About the poem

There are two places where I’m most in love with this poem: the first two lines (“Those mornings I traveled north on I91,/passing below the basalt cliff of East Rock”) and the run of description that begins with “blue, spider-delicate in a nest of tubes.”) And then there’s one more that I love even more, but couldn’t love without those: “It is correct to love even at the wrong time.” Each one exemplifies a characteristic of Spencer Reece’s talent:

The first, his incredible ability create a metrical line so varied it sounds almost sculptural, a product of (I suspect) incredible patience that somehow stays in the lines even after that slow work is done.

In the second, his phenomenal talent for phrase-making, which is, I think, the aspect of his writing that is easiest to overlook, because it seems least consistent with his over-riding humility.

And finally: his ability to move, without warning, into these short, generalizing sentences that seem less to summarize than to articulate a need; they are, I think, the perceptive after-image of an intelligence that has taken Reece’s own advice from another poem: “We can never be with loss too long” (which also happens to be another of those generalizing lines.) I typically find these more consoling than convincing, a well-earned act of compassion extending, finally, even to his own compassion.

Which brings me to the mystery of this poem, for me: why am I so happy to have it, this piece of writing that seems to put Reece (Reece’s speaker) at the center of a story about the suffering of others? I usually hate that. It usually reeks of narcissism. But here it just breaks my heart (and, one of the oddities of art, heals it too—but more on the healing of hearts in a bit.)

I think the answer is only partly poetic. Or: I think the poetic part is dependent on something else. It’s risky to conflate biography and writing. But it’s also worth noting the obvious fact that writers are people, and that we write within the interplay of emotions, experiences, expectations and obligations &c. that add up to an identity. And while I wouldn’t love Reece’s poems without the virtues I mentioned above, I love them in large part because they are so kind—a word that (both ancestrally and actually) has a lot in common with kin.

And there is a profound sense of human kinship in Reece’s poems, a sense of the slow and patient work of such belonging—work that seems to have started long before the poem, back in the life the poem describes, and which stretches a person beyond the ease of being among his or her familiars. Reece the poet and Reece the speaker feel not just humble but humbled, so thoroughly that it does make sense, finally, to extend compassion to oneself, not because “I” matter more than anyone else, but precisely because “I” don’t. To explain it in another way (and then on to the poem, I promise), here are a few lines from a poem by Czeslaw Milosz that I turn to for consolation in my worst moments. I often think of them when I’m reading Reece:

Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills….

 The poem


For A.J. Verdelle

Those mornings I traveled north on I91,
passing below the basalt cliff of East Rock
where the elms discussed their genealogies.
I was a chaplain at Hartford Hospital,
took the Myers-Briggs with Sister Margaret,
learned I was an I drawn to Es.
In small group I said, “I do not like it—
the way so many young black men die here
unrecognized, their gurneys stripped,
their belongings catalogued and unclaimed.”
On the neonatal ICU, newborns breathed,
blue, spider-delicate in a nest of tubes.
A Sunday of themselves, their tissue purpled,
their eyelids the film on old water in a well,
their faces resigned in their see-through attics,
their skin mottled mildewed wallpaper.
It is correct to love even at the wrong time.
On rounds, the newborns eyed me, each one
like Orpheus in his dark hallway, saying:
I knew I would find you, I knew I would lose you.

Poem used by permission of Spencer Reece.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Hicks-Jenkins chooses Youmans

Clive Hicks-Jenkins, "Journey's End," 1999

Clive Hicks-Jenkins earned the honor of being the first to turn in a piece for The Lydian Stones.  However, to publish it immediately meant that the very first post would be about the person behind the site, and that smacked of self-love to me.  So I have delayed it until now. However, I am quite pleased and honored that Clive wanted to write about a poem of mine, and the post is a good celebration of a friendship that began through encounters with words and pictures.  If you want more, be sure and visit him at his site, where you can see many a jeweled "story, wings, or saint" and visit the Artlog.  I should add that my upcoming collection of poems, The Foliate Head, will feature four foliate heads by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, one on the cover and three as division pages. 

About Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Clive Hicks-Jenkins is a painter living and working in the Ystwyth Valley in West Wales. 2011 marked his sixtieth birthday, an event celebrated with a career retrospective at the National Library of Wales, where over two hundred painting, prints, drawings and 'private press' books were assembled for the exhibition. He has produced two book covers for Marly Youmans, Val/Orson and The Throne of Psyche, with several more planned. Marly is one of six poets who produced works linked thematically to the artist's paintings, compiled as The Book of Ystwyth: six poets on the art of Clive Hicks-Jenkins and published earlier this year by Grey Mare Press.

About the poem

Perhaps it will be considered partisan to have selected a poem by a friend about one of my own paintings, but as the painting sprang from a significant event and the poem has assumed significance because of its beauty and insight, then so be it. Marly and I forged a friendship through the medium of e-mails. We had been forging away for some time when out of the blue tumbled five poems from her together with a dedication proclaiming them a celebration of my forthcoming sixtieth birthday. All five were extraordinary, stand alone works that didn't require the proximity of the paintings to validate them, though poems and paintings are reproduced together in The Book of Ystwyth. The Blue Marches takes its theme of loss from a painting made as a memento mori after my father's death. To this day I don't know how the poet captured so much that I was intending in paint that couldn't be conveyed, by me at any rate, in words. I can't recall sharing my feelings with her about my father's death. However Marly has an extraordinary intuition wedded to empathy, which in part must account for the illusion that she opened a secret door in the back of my head, stepped in and took a stroll around. That requires curiosity, tenderness, subtlety, and something that I can only describe as poetic genius. For me that's what Marly is, a poet of genius. I believe she will be discovered by those who love poetry. I believe she will be remembered.

The Poem


                  “. . . this early painterly approach to objects
                  can be seen in Journey’s End, the little still-life/landscape
                  painting of my dad’s tea mug standing in front
                  of Tretower Castle.”  –Clive Hicks-Jenkins

There’s nothing here bejeweled with twig and flower,
No wolfish fur that burns as if a kiln
Had been flung wide to let in sprays of salt,
And most of all, no story, wings, or saint.
Instead there is the seepage of a blue
Not twilight:  low, continual dim glow
Dispersed from borderlands beyond this world.

So here is landscape as the stillest life,
So here is still life hunkered in the grass,
Estranged from lamplit houses, grown outscale.
There’s nothing here but cup and keep and tree,
And tree resembles keep, and keep is tree
Truncated—cup is stump of leaning tree.

No teller yet, unless the tale be one
Older than the famed white book of Rhydderch,
Older than the red of Hergest, older
By far than these… Fetch me a magic fruit
So I can taste its glistening cells and gulp
The stubborn words that linger out of reach.

In blueing light, a father’s mug might be
The grail, might be Welsh cauldron, wombed with life,
Might over-brim with death-drink, colorless.
There’s nothing but a shadow in the cup!
Its clipper ship in sail is doldrum-glazed,
Forgets the fragrance of darjeeling seas.

The motte, a mound of good Welsh earth, was his,
As was the tower vacant to the sky,
The kingdom known as Powys long ago,
And all the rainy borderland of blue—
All things that flee and hide in borderlands
Between the earth and sky belonged to him.

But now he has passed through that realm of dreams
And left you wondering by hills of earth,
And long you’ll muse, and long you’ll meditate
And never understand the world you brushed
Across that sheet of paper:  world where tree
Is keep, and keep is tree, and cup can loom
As high as high Tretower or a tree.

                        Journey’s End, 1999

Reprinted by permission of the author.
Offered by a reader, following some posting confusion, and used with thanks: "Comments are most welcome. If you have no Google account (or AIM, etc.), choose 'Name/URL.'  It is not necessary to add the URL unless you have one and choose to do so." 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Reeser chooses Gioia

"Reeser chooses Gioia" will be the post until after Epiphany, since this is such a busy time of the year...

Poet Jennifer Reeser chooses a poem by Dana Gioia.

About Jennifer Reeser

Jennifer Reeser is the author of two collections, An Alabaster Flask, and Winterproof, and is also creator of the Shakespearean series Sonnets from the Dark Lady. She has contributed poems, scholarly articles and translations of French and Russian literature to such journals as POETRY, The Hudson Review, The Formalist, Light Quarterly and The National Review. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Longman’s An Introduction to Poetry, and Phoenix Rising: The Next Generation of American Formal Poets. She is the former assistant editor to Iambs and Trochees. She is a poetry consultant on faculty at the West Chester Poetry Conference. She lives amid the bayous of southern Louisiana.

About the poem

Noon. It is the strongest, brightest time of day. Artists are advised to examine their subjects in this full spectrum white light, in order that they may clearly see all variegation in temperature and value.  Light from the noonday sun is the hardest light spill possible, the most accurate revealing light source available to the eye.   In this poem, I most appreciate the repetitive, ongoing aspect of perception – the interrogative -- set unexpectedly in the day, as opposed to morose, covert, romantic, deadening night.   However rueful the speaker’s message may be, the manner of his presentation is optimistic. This is (after all) the better man being given life, allowed to speak, the poem taking issue with its message, arguing against itself.  The reader learns that this is the man who is not, and yet here he is, regardless; the very fact of his presence, a positive statement.  The music of stanza three is irresistible, with its caesuras and alliteration, the “spin” of its last inquiry, as it were, spilling over into the unforeseen image of the rose. Horticultural wisdom goes that roses would rather drink than eat.  I find the poem’s fierce vulnerability to be appealing, and its refusal of irony to be a relief.   Its courtly diction overarches, beautifies and mitigates like a garden arbor the choler taking place beneath. As a reader, I feel a sense of inclusion through the speaker’s insistence on meaning. For me, the final line is unforgettable.

The poem


Just before noon I often hear a voice,
Cool and insistent, whispering in my head.
It is the better man I might have been,
Who chronicles the life I've never led.

He cannot understand what grim mistake
Granted me life but left him still unborn.
He views his wayward brother with regret
And hardly bothers to disguise his scorn.

"Who is the person you pretend to be?"
He asks, "The failed saint, the simpering bore,
The pale connoisseur of spent desire,
The half-hearted hermit eyeing the door?

"You cultivate confusion like a rose
In watery lies too weak to be untrue,
And play the minor figures in the pageant,
Extravagant and empty, that is you."

"Interrogations at Noon" reprinted by permission of Dana Gioia.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Owen chooses Frost

Here's what wired.com says about James and this book.

About James A. Owen

James A. Owen is a Merchant Prince, in training to become a Philosopher King. He writes, he draws, and he never leaves skidmarks at the edge of a cliff. In his spare time, he is redesigning an entire town. He is allergic to cats, among other things. And he can do Jeff Bridges' smile from TUCKER with uncanny accuracy.

About the poem

This is my favorite poem because of the last stanza. The rest is just a delivery system to get to those lines, which embody my most passionate goals in life. Work being play for mortal stakes may sum up my life's choices - conscious and otherwise.

The Poem


Out of the mud two strangers came
And caught me splitting wood in the yard,
And one of them put me off my aim
By hailing cheerily "Hit them hard!"
I knew pretty well why he had dropped behind
And let the other go on a way.
I knew pretty well what he had in mind:
He wanted to take my job for pay.

Good blocks of oak it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good,
That day, giving a loose my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You're one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle of March.

A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume,
His song so pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom.
It is snowing a flake; and he half knew
Winter was only playing possum.
Except in color he isn't blue,
But he wouldn't advise a thing to blossom.

The water for which we may have to look
In summertime with a witching wand,
In every wheelrut's now a brook,
In every print of a hoof a pond.
Be glad of water, but don't forget
The lurking frost in the earth beneath
That will steal forth after the sun is set
And show on the water its crystal teeth.

The time when most I loved my task
The two must make me love it more
By coming with what they came to ask.
You'd think I never had felt before
The weight of an ax-head poised aloft,
The grip of earth on outspread feet,
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.

Out of the wood two hulking tramps
(From sleeping God knows where last night,
But not long since in the lumber camps).
They thought all chopping was theirs of right.
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
The judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax
They had no way of knowing a fool.

Nothing on either side was said.
They knew they had but to stay their stay
And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man's work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right--agreed.

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.

--Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Poem in public domain.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Stephenson chooses Robertson

About Hannah Stephenson 

Hannah Stephenson is a poet and instructor based in Columbus, Ohio. Recently, her work has appeared in Contrary, Huffington Post, The Nervous Breakdown, MAYDAY, qarrtsiluni, Spoonful, and Fiddleblack. For more of her work, visit her daily poetry site, The Storialist (www.thestorialist.com).

About the poem

I first encountered Robin Robertson’s “New Gravity” in what is arguably the best way to discover new poems we come to fall in love with: in books we select from shelves in bookstores for no reason, when we aren’t looking for anything. I didn’t recognize the poet’s name, but I liked the sound of it, and the look and feel of his narrow, sparse book A Painted Field (and its dark cover showing an enormous expanse of dark sky, and a very thin strip of water).

This poem is the first in the book, and the first that I read. When I bought the book, I put two little dots around the title of this poem in pen, maybe to preemptively help me fish it from my mind.

I’ve returned to it often in the decade since I first read it. It’s only ten lines (and two sentences!), yet I admire how much story and scene Robertson gives us. We know the season (fall, I assume, based on the fallen leaves), the cemetery setting, and the people present.

More than that, the simple earnestness of this poem is staggering. Robertson’s voice is so un-self-conscious and calm here--when I read this poem, I think, “This is the only way the poem could be.” He shows restraint, too--gives us just the right amount of detail. I admire how trusting he was of his own voice in writing this, how certain that this moment mattered and he wanted to give it to us. Sincerity and clarity are powerful tools. I need this reminder.

The poem
New Gravity

Treading through the half-light of ivy
and headstone, I see you in the distance
as I’m telling our daughter
about this place, this whole business:
a sister about to be born,
how a life’s new gravity suspends in water.
Under the oak, the fallen leaves
are pieces of the tree’s jigsaw;
by your father’s grave you are pressing acorns
into the shadows to seed.

Note from Marly:  I have failed in getting in touch with Robin Robertson for a permission, so this one could be temporary--however, I hope that if he finds his way here, he will like finding his words with Hannah's comments about discovering wideness and clarity in ten lines.