Karen Whalley, “Family of Hard Workers”

So many poets, so little time. I barely dented my book collection, and left out so many other favorites. Next year, thirty more?

For the last day of National Poetry Month, I am pleased to recommend the poetry of my friend, Karen Whalley. I have loved Karen’s poems for nearly 30 years, ever since our mutual professor, Nelson Bentley, put us on a Castalia Reading program together. This poem, from her collection, The Rented Violin (Ausable Press, 2003), resides in the vast class of “poems I wish I had written.”

If I were giving assignments, this one might inspire us to write about what-happened, vs. what-didn’t-happen, and what that might have looked like.

FAMILY OF HARD WORKERS

I would like to forget
That I come from a family of hard workers:
Grandfather of axe handles carved
For the Georgia railroad, Grandmother
Of thirteen children flinging feed for the chickens
From a fifty-pound bag, forgive me,
I forget you. And if my father glorifies
What is, in actuality, a certain lack of choices
On the part of his relatives
Who rose at the cock’s crow
And made a day so similar to the one before it
That if someone asked what they’d done that day,
They would stand with their hands in their pockets
Then give you their one answer:
I whittled an axe handle. I fed the chickens. 
Then forgive me for not doing that, too.

Once, I kept a carved statue of a horse
On my window sill,
The right front leg crooked, like a little finger
Which made the horse seem always in motion.
It’s all I remember about the horse,
The arched leg ready to step
Into the green pastures of my imagination
And thrum with its hooves,
Churning up grass, unhaltered, unsaddled,
Its huge head rivening the wind.
Better if my family had said:
You come from a family
Where beauty matters.
Look at the horse, now,
Running for joy. 

Finally, I can’t resist adding a link to Kathleen Flenniken’s The Far Field, with a poem by Professor Bentley: http://kathleenflenniken.com/blog/?p=1951

Carla Shafer, “Ten Good Lines”

My dear friend Carla Shafer is retiring from her job as a grant-writer at Everett Community College. (Click on her name to find an interview.)

Yesterday was the retirement party and today is the poetry reading. You kind of have to know Carla to understand why retirement = poetry reading. But I will be there, along with a few other poets, to read and pay tribute to this amazing person. Two o’clock, Russell Day Gallery, if you are interested. (Come early! It will be crowded!)

This poem is from an early collection of Carla’s, titled Rain Song, which William Stafford called, “a rich array…so sweet…so warm…and onward.” I have at least a dozen other favorites to choose from, but this one strikes me as a tribute-poem, through and through.

TEN GOOD LINES

Rilke says to wait to write the poem.
Experience must pile up like laundry.
Later picked through, it will relinquish
maybe 10 good lines. Worthy of one’s life time.

Once I watched William Stafford construct
a poem. Early in the day he planted seeds —
“…a picnic on the beach, a campfire in the sand.
You bring your violin, I heard we have a banjo player…
come…sometimes people choose to sing.”

Under a cool summer sky, kicking sand,
we gathered around the fire.
Bill was there early and stayed until the end,
collecting the scene’s pieces and
sensing careful phrases. The next day
he shared ten good lines.

So I thank Rilke for telling me that
I might spend my life to reap
a meager, but worthy, feast.
And I thank Stafford, who lives
each minute as a source for poems
cooked and served up daily.

Kevin Craft, “My Clone”

“[By the estate of poetry], I do not mean the estate over which the poetic imagination rules, whose bounds we do not know. Each poet has nothing more than a right of entry to it, and a patch of ground which he is at liberty to cultivate….by cultivating his holding each poet adds to the world of poetic imagination, and that therefore it can never be regarded as completely embodied — reason for discouragement and hope, and an earnest of the continuance of poetry.” Edwin Muir, The Estate of Poetry (1)

It had been awhile since I googled my friend, poet and editor extraordinaire Kevin Craft. It was a rewarding experience. Since our paths have diverged, his work on Poetry Northwest has continued to expand a well-deserved reputation. Here is a poem from his first book, Solar ProminenceMay there be many more.

MY CLONE

frowns when he finds out he’s not alone.
Was grown from cells
scraped from the inside of my cheek.
I’m nobody’s second string,

he insists to the talk show host
egging us on. (Loud applause
from the studio audience.) I’m a self-
made man, not the other

way around. Steely-eyed and neatly
groomed, he’s as brash
as a dressing room mirror.
Backstage he takes me aside.

Nothing personal, he admits, running a hand
through his long black hair.
They put us on to air our differences,
is all. Thought I’d play ball.

He does, in fact, play soccer
in the Italian leagues.
He was shipped at cell’s first division
to a western fertility lab,

so that we grew up on opposite coasts, a case
of nurture versus second
nature. He is savvy
beyond his years and makes me seem

thwarted and unsure. And now he sniffs
at the guestroom cabernet, smoking a fat cigar.
Is this what it means to turn the other cheek?
Perhaps, he says, stretching

out on the double bed as if
he counts the same sheep I do before sleep
or reads the Dadaists for moral instruction.
As for second guessing, he adds,

you’re not the only one.

Valerie Martinez, “Rock and Marrow”

I came across VALERIE MARTÍNEZ at the Taos Summer Writers Conference, several years ago. I attended a reading, I think, though maybe it was a panel, and I bought her book, World to World, which I have been lucky to own ever since, and will be giving away in The Big Poetry Giveaway. (See my blogpost on April 13 for more information.)

Lisa D. Chavez calls these poems “lush and lovely” and notes that they “speak the secret languages of desire.” I like that “languages,” plural. Although the poems are in English, reading them you can drop through, into other levels of language, like the “dark coin” of a child’s eye, or the doors that “become doors.” Here is something short, but richly evocative in exactly that way. You may also notice that with the “you” of the sixth line, and the directive of the sentence after, it becomes an instruction poem.

ROCK AND MARROW

Yes, yes, the inside of morning
is cheekbone, elbow, pelvis.
Elsewhere, as the chlorophyll shrinks
earthward, so does the steady rain.
I imagine the center of the planet
hot and colorful. You see,
it needn’t always be vivid and visible.
Lie low in this monochrome
tangle of limbs. I like it
vague and warm at the center
of the densest of things.

William Dunlop (1936-2005)

A quick reminder, that if you want to take part in the drawing for the Big Poetry Giveaway at this blogsite, you need to comment here (the post from April 13). Visit Kelli Russell Agodon’s blog for more opportunities. Happy National Poetry Month! I hope you’re writing!

In addition to being a fine poet, William Dunlop was my professor when I was an undergraduate at the University of Washington, and trying my hand at Victorian studies. What I remember best about him is how he would lean against the chalk tray on the blackboard and get chalkdust all over the back of his tweed jacket. I also remember him peering out the window at anti-war protesters in the quad below, and saying, in his British accent, “Ah, it makes me miss the dear, dead days.” (I presumed he meant the sixties, but who knows?) I remember that when we studied Thomas Hardy, he made us read the poems, too. I also remember that when the class thought he was reading aloud the first chapter of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, I noticed that he wasn’t turning the pages and was actually reciting from memory.

So here is a poem from his book, Caruso for the Children & Other Poems, published by Rose Alley Press in 1997.

FINAL DIRECTIONS

I hate a tended grave. Save me a place
to go to seed in, growing so absorbed
some craft beyond a common practice shapes
my plot and has me, breathless, utter
what comes most natural. There’s a point
where skillful trimming is the work of hacks:
death should be one word no-one can compose
neat settings for. With life ruled out at last
it’s time to wax romantic, and go dead.

If there’s a stone, I want that soon to sag,
lurch in the fetters ivy loops about it,
relinquish all distinction. I trust the various weather,
lichen, and snail make epitaph a cipher,
and name a blank. I hope the fat
swags of rank grass, weeds bogged in succulence
thrive on what contributions I submit
to snag and ramble: let extravagance
brag in green garbled tongues that they compound
and bring to light what I could not account for:
slips of the tongue, jetsam of dreams, stray tags
of nonsense rhymes, the potpourri of fancies
a lifetime’s editing rightly rejected.

I want my bones’ allotment to run mad: that small
cloudburst of wilderness tell the passer-by
no more of me than, when I came to die,
confusion was my style: I lost control.

Joannie Stangeland, “An Hour for Practice”

It’s hard to say if the music of poetry creates the emotion in a poem, or if it is the poet’s emotion that creates the music.” –Kenneth Koch

Over at Joannie Stangeland’s blog, where she is offering a poetry prompt per day this month, today’s prompt is about sound. A perfect day, it seems to me, to share one of Joannie’s poems. I have two of her books on my shelf, A Steady Longing for Flight, which was (in 1995) the very first book chosen by Floating Bridge Press for its chapbook series; and Into the Rumored Spring (Ravenna Press, 2011). I am also happy to recommend her new book, In Both Hands (also Ravenna). You can read more about Joannie at this site.

Joannie wrote “Into the Rumored Spring” for a friend with cancer. Here is a poem from that collection in which the subject listens to her daughter practice her music. It is luscious to read out loud.

AN HOUR FOR PRACTICE

Thrum to the hum of her heart,
a drum — and from the next room
the boom of the bass, the chase
of the cymbal, sticks racing
a paradiddle on the snare.
Get the triangle and tambourine,
castanets clacking like the flicker
that pecks at the streetlamp, clapping
like the sound of a book snapping shut.
Let the beat bounce off the walls
while down the hall the other daughter
blows the bassoon. Scales and arpeggios,
wood in the wind, a song of the forest
here, in the house. Oh,
banish all hush.

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)

“Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

—from Extravagaria (translated by Alastair Reid, pp. 27-29, 1974)

What I would really like to do is have you listen to my friend Madelon read this poem aloud.