AWP 2012!

I'm looking forward to attending the AWP conference later this week. For those who are also making the trip to Chicago, here are some places you can find me:

Thursday 3/1 at 7pm:
University of Missouri -- St. Louis Reception
Joliet, Hilton Chicago

Bookfair: Natural Bridge/UMSL Table O18
I'll be spending a lot of time here, talking about UMSL's journal, its program as well as Architrave. I'll have poems available for sale, as well.

I'd love to meet you, so stop on by and introduce yourself!


A Challenge For Readers

The Lifeguard, by James Dickey
from: Poems: 1957-1967 (Wesleyan University Press, 1967)

It’s my hope that as readers stay with Architrave, their poetic sensibilities will sharpen and they’ll be game for more challenging reads. This is just such a poem. It will resist its reader for a time, but ultimately rewards patient re-reading. This process is one of the things I love about reading poetry: how the nuances of the poem’s idea materialize out of repeated readings.

The first time through The Lifeguard, there are only the barest contours of a story: a child has drowned and the lifeguard on duty has slunk away to nurse the shame of his failure. What is meant by all the other language, all the images, exists as a fog. Slowly, then, maybe after five or six reads, the fanciful elements begin to separate themselves from the actual. I love how the mundane (boats, children, fish, lakes) is combined with the sublime ("sole upon silver," "my steep body flashed," "the ghost of a snowfield in summer"). The former provides a firm place to stand, something for the reader to grasp while the poem takes off into the latter.

I have never been a lifeguard, but I can identify with what he’s going through. I have certainly failed in spectacular, public fashion. And even though no one died, I still relived these failures privately, entering the realm of magical thinking where I can say or un-say, do or undo the essential thing, to will myself from failure into success. Just like in the world, the poem's language of magical thinking intersects seamlessly with the language of the everyday: "I wash the black mud from my hands" sits right next to "On a light given off by the grave/ I kneel in the quick of the moon." Just as in life, the border is present, but porous.
And therein lies this poem's greatness: its verisimilitude includes the surreal leaps a human mind can make in the face of failure. Like the lifeguard, I am always left with arms full of only water (or air, or a pillow as the case may be). This poem breaks my heart every time I read it. Mostly, though, I'm comforted to know I'm not alone in my magical leaps, which is why, twenty years after I first encountered it, I continue to read it.


A Book About Divorce & Death You'll Want To Read More Than Once?! Really?! Really.

Claudia Emerson's Late Wife (LSU, 2005)

Rereading Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife, I was struck by how warmly it welcomes its readers. Emerson’s “I” maintains a consistent identity, so much so that the book gains a narrator. That’s an unusual element for a poetry collection; in this case it offers the habitual reader of fiction or memoir something familiar, even as the book remains within the boundaries of poetry. There are metrical and formal virtuosities to spare, should a reader wish to look for them, but what inspires that second look is how the single lens of the “I” threads the poems together.

In Second Bearing, 1919, the narrator recounts her father’s boyhood story of how the family curing barn burned to the ground with an entire year’s tobacco crop inside. Frantic and trying to save something, anything, the family kept dousing a nearby peach tree in the hope it might survive. It did, and “in the late fall, the tree/ broke into bloom, perhaps having/ misunderstood the fire to be/ some brief, backward winter.” Even as it provides a glimpse of family history, this echoes two poems from the book’s first, more recent, section. In The Last Christmas, her soon to be ex-husband insists he rose from his sickbed to see her, outside chopping firewood, “small, mute beneath the window frame,/ [his] breath forming, freezing on the panes/ until [he] could not see [her].” In Chimney Fire, the couple’s “breathing had turned to ice” and one night when “the fire would not/ be kept; the chimney caught it, and we watched,/ heard it pour up into the tree.” But that’s not to say this book is all destruction. The winter returns in the penultimate poem, Leave No Trace, in the form of a frozen fog that “had left perfect white stockings on the trees.” 

The lens of the narrator joins all of these various iterations into a single, complex experience. Winter is what it is, but depending upon your circumstances, it can represent any number of states. In The Last Christmas  and Chimney Fire, winter’s death is foregrounded and threatens to consume the couple on their way to divorce. In Second Bearing, 1919, fire tricks the peach tree into spring production, but the missing winter means the fruit lacks a seed, at once “infertile, and endless somehow.” Winter, then, is a necessity for new growth. And last, in Leave No Trace, the winter is beautiful, putting its “opalescent sheen on every surface” while the new couple enjoys a picnic. But the season’s teeth are still there, just held at bay by the narrator’s state of mind. Near where the couple sits to eat, “A narrow stream/ still moved beneath its own freezing like the barest/ pulse that persists a while after the breathing goes.” 

That all sounds pretty depressing, but it’s not. The beauty of these poems is their joy of discovery, how the narrator pieces together an understanding of heartbreak as a simultaneously inevitable but impermanent state. It’s hard won, and makes the epigraph, by Theodore Roethke, perfectly apropos: “What else to say?/ We end in joy.”