Friday, December 20, 2013

From Dunya Mikhail's amazing "Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea"

Poem of the Week:   
Dunya Mikhail    

   Photo by Michael Smith          

excerpt from Part One of 
Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea

Through your eye
history enters
and punctured helmets pour out.

Frequent tremors occur in your land
as if invisible hands shake your trees day and night.

They blockaded you and banished the oxygen from your water,
leaving the hydrogen atoms to quarrel with one another.

Shouldn't the nations be disturbed by the face of a child
who shuts her mouth and eyes
in surrender to UN resolutions?
But they only opened their own mouths slightly,
smaller than a bud,
as if yawning or smiling.

We made room in our day for every star,
and our dead remained without graves.

We wrote the names of each flower on the walls
and we, the sheep, drew the grass
--our favorite meal--
and we stood with our arms open to the air
so we looked like trees.
All this to change the fences into gardens.
A naïve bee was tricked and smashed into a wall,
flying toward what it thought was a flower.
Shouldn't the bee be able to fly over the fence-tops?

Long lines are in front of us.
Standing, we count flasks of flour on our fingers
and divide the sun among the communicating vessels.

We sleep standing in line
and the experts think up plans for vertical tombs
because we will die standing.

-Dunya Mikhail

Used by permission.
From Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea
(New Directions, 2009)  

Dunya Miikhail is an Iraqi-American poet, born in Baghdad in 1965, who left Iraq for the US (Michigan) in the mid-1990s. She has worked as a journalist for The Baghdad Observer and her work was found "subversive." She was awarded the UN Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing in 2001, and her translator, Elizabeth Winslow, won a 2004 Pen Translation Fund Award. Her first book in English, The War Works Hard (New Directions, 2005, Carcanet, 2006) was shortlisted for the Griffin Prize and was named one of the 25 books to remember in 2005 by the New York Public Library. It was also translated into Italian by Elena Chiti and published by Edizioni San Marco dei Giustiniani (Rome, 2011). Mikhail'sDiary of A Wave Outside the Sea (New Directions, NY, 2009) won the 2010 Arab American Book Award. A new book of poetry, The Iraqi Nights, is forthcoming from New Directions in 2014.

Please feel free to forward Split This Rock Poem of the Week widely. We just ask you to include all of the information in this email, including this request. Thanks!

If you are interested in reading past poems of the week, feel free to visit the blog archive. 
Poem of the Week Open Call Closed 

Split This Rock's Poem of the Week series is booked through the 2014 festival. We will not be accepting any new submissions during this time. Keep an eye out next Spring when we will open up the submissions again. Thanks for understanding!
Support Split This Rock 

Please support Split This Rock, the national network of activist poets. Donations are fully tax-deductible. 

Click here to donate. Or send a check payable to "Split This Rock" to: Split This Rock, 1112 16th Street NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036. Many thanks!

Contact for more details or to become a sponsor.

Split This Rock 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Poetry in the Everyday Project: "Hope is the Thing With Feathers"

This is from Deena Ibrahim, who made paper cranes with Emily Dickinson's poem known popularly as "Hope is the Thing with Feathers."  It began as a project about Sadako, and morphed into this delivery system for poetry.  Enjoy.

Friday, November 22, 2013


Poem of the Week:   
Derrick Weston Brown   



for Sunil Tripathi of Brown University, named a suspect in the April Boston Marathon Bombing by Reddit although he had been missing since mid-March. His body was found nearly two weeks later. And for Salah Eddin Barhoum, an unnamed "Saudi Man," and "Brown Running Man," and all those who fit a description. 

Your brown skin is not a bomb.
Your brown skin does not mean bomb.
Though they doctor pictures.
Though they cry cowards.
Though drones may have your name on rolodex.
Though they cry why do they hate us so, with the ball of.....their foot on your neck.
Though they stop and frisk.
Though they shun background checks.
Though they throw stones and hide their hands.
Though they stroke gun butts.
Though they fondle sleek barrels in their sleep.
Though they run their hands through shotgun shells loose grain. 
Though their journalism is pale and piss colored.
Though they peer through their own monstrous veil.
Though they forget home grown rotted roots.
Though they pull weeds and crush seeds in other's gardens.
Though they flash your photos with reckless intent.
Though they posse up.
Though they scramble like keystone cops.
Though they shoot first.
Though they shoot first.
Your brown skin is not a bomb.
Your brown skin does not mean bomb.
Your breath is good mornings.
Your eyes are promises backed by
prayers uttered from the backs of throats
of those who love first and question later.
Your brown skin is a country

-Derrick Weston Brown

Used by permission.     

Derrick Weston Brown holds an MFA in Creative Writing from American University. He is the founding Poet-In-Residence of Busboys and Poets. He also teaches Creative Writing to High school and Middle school students in D.C. He is a native of Charlotte, North Carolina and resides in Mount Rainier, Maryland.  He was the 2012-2013 Writer-In-Residence of Howard County. His work has been published in such journals as, WarplandMythiumThe Drunken BoatTidal Basin ReviewLittle Patuxent Review and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2012. His first full length collection of poetry,  Wisdom Teeth, was released in 2011 on Busboys and Poets Press/ PM Press.  

Please feel free to forward Split This Rock Poem of the Week widely. We just ask you to include all of the information in this email, including this request. Thanks!

If you are interested in reading past poems of the week, feel free to visit the blog archive. 
Poem of the Week Open Call Closed 

Split This Rock's Poem of the Week series is booked through the 2014 festival. We will not be accepting any new submissions during this time. Keep an eye out next Spring when we will open up the submissions again. Thanks for understanding!
Support Split This Rock 

Please support Split This Rock, the national network of activist poets. Donations are fully tax-deductible. 

Click here to donate. Or send a check payable to "Split This Rock" to: Split This Rock, 1112 16th Street NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036. Many thanks!

Contact for more details or to become a sponsor.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


Naomi Ayala's "No. 13, for Remembering" (Split This Rock Poem of the Week!)

Poem of the Week:   
Naomi Ayala  

No. 13, for Remembering

Two blocks away
where yellow cabs
zip by without stopping
and the prostitute with the skinny legs
asks for a cigarette
from under her giant,
black umbrella,

in the corner's rain
where some children
are dangerous,
can tell our future
and bet on broken love
between the dreams,

I don't know where my hands begin
and my heart ends.

Oak trees line the sidewalk,
small birds carry spring twigs
above fast-food waste,
and the bold races of rats,
like ghosts of a lost memory,
point to the day of the week.

I don't know where the face of change
is not my own face.

A cold wind picks up.
A man abandons himself
to a tambourine and harmonica--
not praising, not denouncing,
only leaving this place with this sound.

I don't know where we will
end up and begin

but I want to note
that we have been here,
that we too were invisible
and we too were seen.

-Naomi Ayala

From Calling Home: Praise Songs and Incantations  
(Bilingual Review Press, 2013)

Used by permission.     

A native of Puerto Rico, Naomi Ayala is the author of three books of poetry, Wild Animals on the Moon (Curbstone Press), This Side of Early (Curbstone Books: Northwestern University Press), and Calling Home: Praise Songs and Incantations (Bilingual Review Press). She is the translator of a book of poems by the Argentinean poet Luis Alberto Ambroggio, The Wind's Archeology (Vaso Roto Ediciones: Mexico), winner of the 2013 International Latino Book Award for Best Nonfiction Book Translation. Among her other recognitions are a Martin Luther King, Jr. Legacy of Environmental Justice Award and Special Recognition for Community Service from the U.S. Congress. Naomi received her MFA in Writing and Literature from Bennington College.

Please feel free to forward Split This Rock Poem of the Week widely. We just ask you to include all of the information in this email, including this request. Thanks!

If you are interested in reading past poems of the week, feel free to visit the blog archive. 
Poem of the Week Open Call Closed 

Split This Rock's Poem of the Week series is booked through the 2014 festival. We will not be accepting any new submissions during this time. Keep an eye out next Spring when we will open up the submissions again. Thanks for understanding!
Support Split This Rock 

Please support Split This Rock, the national network of activist poets. Donations are fully tax-deductible. 

Click here to donate. Or send a check payable to "Split This Rock" to: Split This Rock, 1112 16th Street NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036. Many thanks!

Contact for more details or to become a sponsor.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

"Two-Sided Story": listening to the other

The Parents Circle-Families Forum--an Israeli/Palestinian dialogue and grief group composed of people who have lost family members in the conflict was featured in the film, "Encounter Point" (2006), and is again featured in "Two-Sided Story."  There are some who believe that such reconciliation groups are creating "normalization" when the conflict is still ongoing, a false personal peace; I hold with those who see such groups as laying the groundwork for a truly intercultural society which would include Israelis and Palestinians as full citizens.

In the film, Emmy award director, Tor Ben Mayor follows a group of 27 Palestinians and Israelis who meet under the frame of a unique project called "History through the Human Eye" led by Parents Circle-Families Forum - bereaved Palestinian and Israelis for Peace and Reconciliation. The project's goal is to acknowledge the narrative of the other. Together they create the conflict mosaic. Among them include Bereaved families, Orthodox Jews and religious Muslims, settlers, ex soldiers in the Israeli army, ex security prisoners, citizens of the Gaza strip, kibbutz members, second generation holocaust survivors, non violent activists and more. Each and every one holds his own historical truth, and carries with him his own emotional baggage.
They are not trying to convince each other that their narrative is right, nor are they seeking a political solution. They have simply been asked to listen, to clarify the differences between how they grasp reality and how they see the other side. The participants offer us an insight into their inner world; they share their personal experiences along with historical and political interpretation to key events in the conflict: The Nakba, the Holocaust, Occupation, bereavement, suicide bombing, Israeli army, the separation wall etc.
Will the group, in spite of the gaps and the natural tendency to stick to their former views, accept the reality that is reflected in the mirror of their colleagues? The same colleagues who outside are allegedly defined as their enemy?

Friday, November 1, 2013

"Love Song for a War God" by Maria Melendez

Poem of the Week:   
Maria Melendez Kelson 


Love Song for a War God 

Every part of you contains a secret language.
Your hands and feet detail what you've done.
Your appetite is great, and like the sea,
you constantly advance, lunge after lunge.

Unlike my brother sleeping in his chair,
you do not take reality with ease.
Your pain builds up its body like a cloud
rotating a collage of hot debris.

O Teacher! We have learned that all men's tears
are not created equal. We were wrong
to offer flames to quell your fires. Still,
I must dismember you inside this song.

Your mouth's dark cave awaits Victory's kiss;
blood is the lid your calm eyes never lift.

-Maria Melendez 

From Flexible Bones (The University of Arizona Press, 2010). 

Used by permission. 

Maria Melendez Kelson has published three poetry titles:How Long She'll Last in This World and Flexible Bones, both with University of Arizona Press, and a chapbook, Base Pairs, with Swan Scythe Press. Her work appears in Gathered: Contemporary Quaker Poets, and other anthologies. She is currently working on a mystery novel set in the redwood country of Humboldt County, California. She lives in Pueblo, Colorado, where she teaches at Pueblo Community College. Her poetry collections have been finalists for the PEN Center USA Award, the National Latino Book Award, and the Colorado Book Award. Her nonfiction appears in Ms. Magazine, and Sojourns, among other venues.
Please feel free to forward Split This Rock Poem of the Week widely. We just ask you to include all of the information in this email, including this request. Thanks!

If you are interested in reading past poems of the week, feel free to visit the blog archive. 
Poem of the Week Open Call Closed 

Split This Rock's Poem of the Week series is booked through the 2014 festival. We will not be accepting any new submissions during this time. Keep an eye out next Spring when we will open up the submissions again. Thanks for understanding!
Support Split This Rock 

Please support Split This Rock, the national network of activist poets. Donations are fully tax-deductible. 

Click here to donate. Or send a check payable to "Split This Rock" to: Split This Rock, 1112 16th Street NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036. Many thanks!

Contact for more details or to become a sponsor.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

What We Owe Each Other: A Review of They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013)

What We Owe Each Other: A Review of They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013) 

Flipping channels the other day, I was thinking again about the strangely narrow window of representations offered by television.  We are awash in reality stars, sundry undead, goofy ensembles of the bourgeoisie, drug-addled gangsters, pathological murderers, and quirky detectives.  Not only on TV, but in all the popular and literary arts, it is almost unheard-of to see a thoughtful, rounded representation of a self-described progressive political activist, someone who devotes their labor to societal change.  Even rarer is the sight of someone working to oppose war.

One can go back, of course, to The Iliad’s hump-backed Thersites—whose complaint against Agamemnon’s war brings derision and a swift beating—to note a long history of depicting anti-war voices as unwell, ugly, and deranged.  A contemporary analogue was sent to me by a Facebook friend when I asked for nuanced depictions of anti-war protesters: Rob Riggle’s Daily Show send-up of hippies and Code Pink in “Marines in Berkeley.”

Modern literature and film has brought us its share of anti-heroes and the occasional activist, but few anti-war activists or peace workers.  In literature, a few key non-fictional works have explored the inner and outer lives of the anti-war movement.  Among the most remarkable, William Stafford’s Down in My Heart (1947), Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night (1967), Daniel Berrigan’s Trial of the Catonsville Nine (1970) stand out as thoughtful depictions of the lives and psychologies of people drawn to resist war.  There have been some intriguing novels as well, including John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind (2006), Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document (2006), and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (2006), but they are rather exceptional.  

By focusing entirely on the voices of these activists—something I’ve seen nowhere else—Hilary Plum’s They Dragged Them Through The Streets (FC2, 2013) is a revelation.  Avoiding both caricature and heroizing, Plum creates an intimate and ruminative portrait of five friends whose activism against the Iraq War, spurred by the suicide of one of the friends’ brother, turns to acts of violent sabotage.

The book begins with a news report of the death of activist Zechariah Berkman from a bomb blast in his basement.  The aptly-named Berkman (echoing the well-known anarchist Alexander Berkman) remains the silence around which the story turns.  Has he died by accident, or was his death a suicide?

Through first person narration, the four surviving characters—A, Ford, Sara, and Vivienne—look back on what drew them together, how they came to take their actions to a level of violence, and what tore them apart.  In deft fragments laid out in a non-linear pattern, each character recounts their early passions, their isolation, their growing disillusionment, and their eventual breakup.  The novel is a postmortem in multiple senses: it occurs after the death of Z, after the breakup of the group, and amid the wider losses of the war.

The young activists, in their occupations and preoccupations, demonstrate a surprising range of gifts, sensibilities, and worldviews.  A has aspirations to journalism, Ford is a scientist, Sara is a nurse, Vivienne is a writer, and Zechariah is a political junkie.  Plum captures the sense of meta-excitement of being involved in a cause, as if they were characters caught up in a larger drama:

our sense of ourselves as protagonists: Ford stretched out on the couch, announcing his every idea; Vivienne in a chair in the corner, her quick replies; Sara arguing on the floor where she sat like a martyr she insisted on being—no, that was unkind; she stroked the dog’s head and he loved her. And Zechariah on the wooden chair pulled close to Vivienne, when he was not on the phone pacing the kitchen, his crisp speech floating out to us. (3-4)

Even A’s revision enacts that sense of complexity of character—that Sara may have occasionally had a martyr complex (as do some activists), but she was also loving.

Such diversity of character and talent reminds me of activists with whom I’ve worked, in Bloomington, Indiana, and Cleveland, Ohio, people who came together to oppose imperial interventions.  I think of Maria Smith, a lawyer, whose work in Nicaragua with Witness for Peace crystallized her lifelong commitment to nonviolence.  And Penny Allen, a health care provider, whom I saw birding one Saturday morning.  And Kadhim Shaaban, an Iraqi-American businessman who could not bear to see his people suffer under economic sanctions and spearheaded efforts to send medical aid to Iraq.  And Kathryn Bryan, who went to live in Rafah refugee camp in Gaza.  And Art Dorland, a veteran, who left a flyer under my windshield when we parked our well-stickered Honda at the Cleveland Metroparks. 

Since 2001, I’ve worked on an oral narrative project called “Stories of War and Peace,” and got to meet people from all walks of life who opposed the Iraq War.  They are people who have lost family members to the violence of war; who have witnessed firsthand the costs of war; who have religious or moral convictions about the wrongness of killing; who have political disagreements with particular conflicts; yet they all have seen themselves as agents of change, as small characters in a large and often dismayingly distant drama.

It is this last point—that these activists have labored distant from the scene of battle, and feel acutely their alienation and guilt both from the chauvinism that fuels conflict and the conflict itself—that Plum captures well.  It is the state of living at the center of empire, largely immune to its violence but complicit in it.  In Ford’s words,

I was never in that country, never saw the faces and can’t pronounce the names.  I didn’t stand with the doctors, staunching, stitching.  I wouldn’t know where to begin.  But every day the war went on and so did I.  We were secured, allied in our survival.  I was there to tally each day’s deaths.  I was hungry for the newspaper.  Every day the war resisted me, didn’t include me.  You will live on, it said, turning pictures toward me.  Limbs in ice, a foot protruding, absurd.  Soldiers’ faces turned skyward.  You will be fine.  (63).

That maddening security, “allied in our survival,” with a war that seems both real and utterly unreal, leads this group to try to breach the very real distance between there and here.

This real unreality draws the characters together, to make visible the invisible war, by choosing targets to destroy.  But they fight over every possible target, measuring the relative value and cost that each target might offer.  Here, the activists seem lost, groping for symbols, as locked in their abstractions as the war-makers themselves.  This is a similar situation that birthed The Weather Underground, in the wake of the post-1968 violence and the failures of the nonviolent anti-war movement. 

One of the characters even suggests blowing up a hospital, though the idea is shouted down by others in the group.  In fact, they agree on very little, except the impossibility of living without making some kind of concrete action.  But there always seems to be a reason not to bomb.  What makes them activists—their ability to imagine, to witness even from afar, the physical and psychic damage of violence—is precisely what makes it hard for them to bomb anything. 

Some of the most powerful writing in They Dragged Them Through the Streets occurs around the characters’ apperception of the vulnerable human body, wrenched by war.  If we could nurture a citizenry for whom the bodies and minds of others are nearly as precious as their own, we would have another world. In the words of Sara,

So I’m here. All wars come to the shelter in time. The skin smoothes over the nub of an amputation.

My parents think this is noble work, but they don’t want to hear about it. If they ask questions I sanitize my answers. There’s no way to say how beneath my hands I can always feel the hair on the back where I press the stethoscope, the blood that browns around sutures.    
What I want to end with is not violence, but something else.  As Muriel Rukeyser wrote, in The Life of Poetry, the poetry of 1930s social protest failed because of the “blood-savagery in it, ranging all the way from self-pity—naked or identified with one victim after another—to actual blood-lust and display of wounds…[it was] begging for attention and sympathy in the name of art that was supposed to produce action” (211).  Sometimes anti-war activists have relied too much on shocking imagery of destruction, rather than offering an alternate way of seeing and being.  Or, as A says—after watching a journalist’s carnage-filled presentation on the war, intended to disgust people into opposition—we owe the victims more than a repetition of their death or victimization:

I am no different from anyone, I said, after a pause.  I was thinking of that journalist: I threw up outside after, he’d said, standing before the slideshow, on the screen one body’s imperfectly closed eyes, lids too swollen.  He thought we would sympathize.  But you were one of the last people to see them, I thought.  Didn’t you owe them more, than to let disgust be your last gesture, the last thing they were offered?  To sit and watch them, watch the flesh bruise and dampen on the stone, that had been blossoming becoming decay, no one coming through that place to tidy, and why should they be tidy?—that’s not what we owe each other.  (120-121)
What we owe each other is the question of the book, and indeed, the question of all ethical relation—and in a more intensified way in a globalized world.  The answer will not be easy.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

“crying most of the way out and laughing most of the way back:” Bob Hicok’s Elegy Owed

“crying most of the way out and laughing most of the way back:” Bob Hicok’s Elegy Owed
Review by Danny Caine

In his eighth book ElegyOwed, Bob Hicok cracks wise, especially when confronting death: a smartass in the dark.  “Love” contains this symbolic anecdote:

After I told my wife the story of Lev and Svetlana, she went to the ground
and put her hands around a dead plant and screamed at it to try harder,
she looked foolish and I loved her even more and joined her in screaming
at death, it made me feel Russian, and obstinate and eternal, all good things
to feel

That “screaming at death” makes the poem’s narrator “feel Russian, and obstinate and eternal” could itself act as a review of this collection.  It’s a collection, after all, that includes the line, “if this is the end, I have successfully / never worn cargo pants.” Such levity in considering the specter of death is a departure from Hicok’s previous book, 2010’s Words for Empty and Words for Full.  In that book’s section about the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, committed by one of Hicok’s students, Hicok turned a necessarily serious eye towards life’s end. In Words’s “So I know,” Hicok writes “You did not/do enough, I write to myself, about the kid/who turned in writing about killing/a few buildings from where he killed.” 

Such directness is absent in Elegy Owed’s absurd lyrics. The distinction stems from the books’ difference in how they approach death: in Words for Empty, Words for Full Hicok writes of the tragedy of deaths that have occurred and the question of whether anything could have been done to prevent them. In Elegy Owed, Hicok writes much of death not yet happened, either his own or that of those close to him, which he finds funnier because he knows he can do nothing to prevent it. 

A particularly indicative example is the dazzling “To speak somewhat figuratively for S,” which I will quote in full:
We went to the top of a building to jump off.
She could no longer deal with having been raped.
I was tired of falling asleep by looking forward
to never waking again. It was a perfect day
to watch a documentary on famous parachute-
folding mistakes. Then we had a final meal, final smoke,
final shower with the window open and pigeons watching.
Are you sure you wouldn't rather shoot the man
who did this, I asked, adding that guns are easier to buy
than "get well soon or whenever you want cards." Of course
I knew her mother would never forgive her
if she shot her father. She'd have to shoot her mother too,
which would anger her sister, also raped, who'd wonder why
she didn't think of that herself. The only time
they talked about it, they were drunk on the steps
of our brownstone and throwing peanuts at cabs
until one cab backed up and a man got out
who was three feet tall but his arms were eight feet long
and it was the arms that did the talking. They ran.
A three-foot-tall man dragging eight-foot-long arms
is an interesting nightmare to watch run. They ran the whole night
together, all the way to Brooklyn and bloody feet
and crying most of the way out and laughing
most of the way back, I think what's known as a bond
was formed. Still she wanted to die and I wanted
to be with her, so we went up into the winds
people don't realize are in love with tall buildings
and debated a long time the virtues of taking turns
or going as one by holding hands and not shouting
Geronimo. I've often wondered why people shout that
when they jump and not Ulysses or Grover Cleveland,
I'm sure there's a reason like I'm sure her father
could explain himself if she held a knife to his dick.
We didn't jump—this is a poem—but she's still raped
and I still wish I could articulate the point
of breathing and her sister's still fun to have around
because she juggles really well and they lean
against each other in doorways without knowing
they're the only two trees of a very small forest,
in which I think of myself as a wild animal
sheltered deep within their shade.

“To speak somewhat figuratively for S” demonstrates so much of what makes reading Elegy Owed so enjoyable. The plainness of the language paired with the seriousness of the subject matter leads to more-complex-than-they-seem phrases like “She could no longer deal with having been raped” and “I think what’s known as a bond/was formed.”  The dissonance between the straightforward language and the tragic/comic subject finds a parallel in the progression of the poem’s ideas: one of Hicok’s gifts is his ability to spin a string of thoughts that shouldn’t make sense together but somehow do. This poem, after all, includes parachute-folding mistakes, a short man with very long arms, how winds are in love with tall buildings, and suicide, yet it never doesn’t make sense.

In fact, “To speak somewhat figuratively for S.” is surprising from its opening lines.  The scenario—two people walking to the top of a building to jump off—is shocking, but also shocking in how straightforwardly it’s presented. There’s no implication that this is an extraordinary act. Hicok accomplishes this feat of obvious nonobviousness elsewhere in the collection: “A very small bible” begins

Jesus with amnesia walks
among the dead and wonders
why they don’t rise, at least
one of them, as he seems
to recall someone did 

The reader has no time to get used to the idea of “Jesus with amnesia;” the poem marches on, not indicating how ridiculous or unexpected its own premise is. “Notes for a time capsule” opens, “The twig in. I’ll put the twig that I carry in my pocket / and my pocket and my eye, my left eye.”  “Another holiday has come and gone” begins: “It’s shoot-an-arrow / into-your-ceiling day, I’m out of arrows.”  The way in which Hicok opens his poems by presenting something extraordinary as ordinary creates a constantly surprising reading landscape.

Yet poetry cannot live on surprising openings alone, and as Hicok drives deeper into his poems they spiral into a world that’s clever, wry, rooted in reality and absurd all at the same time: in short, Hicokian.  Lines four through six of “To speak somewhat figuratively for S.” demonstrate this: they begin in irony and progress to something that’s half wisecrack, half elegy. Two characters prepare to commit suicide on “a perfect day,” isolated by a line break.  Then we realize they’ve watched “a documentary on famous parachute-/folding mistakes.”  Later, we see levity interrupted by menace again as the poem’s “her” and her sister throw peanuts at cabs only to be chased down the street by the ghoulish short man with 8-foot talking arms.  In Hicok’s world, theirs is the attitude with which we face death: “crying most of the way out and laughing/most of the way back.”  

Indeed, Hicok’s attitude towards death in this collection is its most compelling feature.  He seems to dance around it, at times mournfully engaging with the idea, at others keeping an ironic distance.  The play is present even in its titles: the collection has poems called “Elegy with lies,” “Elegy to hunger,” “l ah g,” “You name this one,” “Elegy to unnamed sources,” “Elegy’s,” and “Absence makes the heart. That’s it: absence makes the heart.,” Two later poems, “Elegy ode” and the titular “Elegy owed” introduce a pun that underlines Hicok’s shifting perspectives: are these elegies or odes?  The presence of both modes allows Hicok to be at once mournful and lyrical, elegiac and clever.  

Again and again in the collection, the way out of the problem of death is writing itself.  The final turn in “To speak somewhat figuratively for S.” is a clear example: “We didn't jump—this is a poem.”  In “l ah g,” Hicok writes of “the dream / of the yellow pencil with which I wrote her name / to keep it lithe in the body of cursive.”  Often in Elegy Owed, writing becomes embodied. In “Excerpts from mourning” Hicok writes of “Wondering if I am inventing you/by remembering you or remembering you by writing of you.” It’s as if he must write these poems to make sense of his eventual death, and the deaths of those he loves. Yet the sense he makes doesn’t make sense in any conventional sense. This is most clearly felt in “Sunny, infinite chance of rain.”  The poem begins with the fear of some unnamed “her” dying: one of many instances in the collection detailing the fear of losing a loved one. Midway through the poem, Hicok presents yet another unobvious obviousness:
            At the funeral, she wore a tricycle being pushed by her father
            when she was five, her legs out to the side

Yet the next lines complicate and root the Hicok-reality to actual-reality:
That’s only true in this poem, like the cloud I’m looking at
                        Is only true in the sky.
                        In all other skies, this cloud is a lie.

                        It’s about to rain, not in the poem but in the thinking
                        that led to the poem,
                        the poem that helped me recall
                        I can still touch her entire body.

Ultimately, this is how Hicok anticipates and attempts to cope with eventual loss: poems. Writing. Words. Fortunately for us, his words are clever and almost always surprising, with a foot on either side of the border between ironic and mournful. Though the truths of these poems may only be true in these poems, there’s still truth in these poems. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

"A Poetics of Hiroshima" by William Heyen

“A Poetics of Hiroshima” by William Heyen

Imperial Air Force pilot Sachio Ashida, unable
to fly over the burning city to report
to his superiors what had happened to it,
landed his plane, borrowed a bicycle,
& pedaled into it.  He’d remember
a woman in front of her smoldering home,
a bucket on her arm.  Inside the bucket
was a baby’s head.  The woman’s daughter
had been killed when the bomb fell.

This is atrocity.  You’ve just now descended
from a stanza wherein a baby’s head—
were its eyes open or closed?—was carried
in a bucket by her mother.
An Imperial Air Force pilot stopped his bike
in front of what had been her home.
I’ve wanted us to breathe ashes & smoke,
but we cannot.  This, too, is atrocity.

What’s true for me is probably true for you:
I’m tired of trying to remember this.
Somewhere in Hiroshima the baby’s head
is dreaming, wordlessly.  No, it is not—this, too,
is atrocity.  Ashida went on
to live a long life.  He felt the swing & weight
of that bucket on his arm.  No,
he did not.  He did.  He sometimes dreamed himself
pedaling backwards away
from that mother.  I don’t know whether
he did or not.  Meanwhile,

we rave about the necessity of a jewel-center in every poem.
I’ve used a baby’s head
in a bucket on her mother’s arm.  Whether
this is art, or in the hands of a master could be, or whether
art is atrocity, or not, I’m sick of being,
or trying to be, part of it, me
with my weak auxilliary verbs which vitiate
the jewel-center, me
with my passives, my compromised stanzaic integrity,
my use of the ambiguous “this”
which is atrocity.  No, it is not.  It is.

For years my old high school coach visited my home
with dahlias in a bucket,
big red-purple & blue-purple heads
my wife & I floated in bowls on our tables.
Have I no shame?  This, too, this story
that evokes another, this narrative rhyme, this sweet
concatenation of metaphor,
is atrocity.  Coach fought on Iwo Jima
for ten days before & ten days after
the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi.
He returned there fifty years later, brought me
a babyfood jar half-filled
with black sand from one volcanic blood-
soaked beach.  He did.  But at Marine reunions,
he couldn’t locate any of his buddies
from his first outfit.  No, he could not.
He once laid out on my desk aerial photos of runways
the Japanese used to “wreak havoc”—his words—
& said that hundreds of thousands of GIs would have died
if HST had not given the order.
As a participant in necessary atrocity, I agreed.
I still agree.  But it doesn’t matter if I agree—
what matters is whether poetry itself agrees. Incidentally,
Ashida was in training to become
a divine wind, a kamikaze. 

1945.     I was almost five.  Col. Tibbets named
our Enola Gay for his mother.
The 6th of August.  Our bomb, “Little Boy,” mushroomed
with the force of 15 kilotons of TNT.
“A harnessing of the basic power of the universe,” said HST,
as though the universe were our plowhorse.
In the woman’s home, her daughter was beheaded.
I don’t know if Ashida learned exactly how,
though we & the art of atrocity would like to know.
In any case, what could this mother do?
She lifted her daughter’s head. She laid it
in the aforementioned jewel-center.
She was not thinking of the basic power of the universe.
Did she place oleander blossoms on her baby’s face?
Did she enfold her daughter’s head in silk, which rhymes with bucket,
 & sick, & volcanic, & wreak havoc? …

  (Buckets appear often, as a matter of fact,
in the literature of exile, for example
in Irina Ratushinskaya’s prison memoir Gray is the Color
of Hope—coal buckets & slop buckets,
ersatz food placed in what were toilet buckets.
“Time to get up, woman.  Empty your slop bucket.”
Irina drags her bucket daily to the cess pit.
She doesn’t know if she can ever become a mother.)

Ashida attained the highest black belt, went on
to coach the American Olympic judo team.
He did.  I spoke with his daughter
at an event where I received a poetry prize,
a check for a thousand George Washingtons
& an etched glass compote
for a book on the Shoah.  I said I once heard her father
lecture on Zen—the moon in the river,
River flowing by that is the world with its agonies
while Moon remains in one place,
 steadfast despite atrocity.
I remember that she seemed at ease,
she who had known her father
as I could never.

While teaching at the University of Hawaii,
I visited Pearl Harbor three times, launched out to the memorial
above the Arizona.  Below us, the tomb
rusted away—a thousand sailors,
average age nineteen—for nature, too, is atrocity,
atoms transformed within it, even memory.
We tourists, some Japanese, watched minnows
nibble at our leis.
No, we did not.  This was my dream:
I knelt at a rail under a Japanese officer with a sword,
but now there are too many stories for poetic safety,
for stanzaic integrity—woman & daughter,
Ashida at his lecture, my high school coach carrying heads
of dahlias grown from bulbs
he’d kept in burlap to overwinter in his cellar,
even persona Heyen at Pearl Harbor
above the rusting & decalcifying battleship that still breathed
bubbles of oil that still
iridesced the Pacific swells as jewel-centers iridesce
our most anthologized villlanelles….

A bombing survivor said, “It’s like when you burn a fish on the grill.”

I end my sixth line above with the word “home.”
My first draft called it the woman’s “house,” but home
evokes satisfaction, mmm, a baby’s
contentment at the breast, the atrocity
of irony, & home hears itself in arm, & bomb, & blossom,
& looks forward to shame & tomb.
I cannot not tell a lie.
Apparently, I am not so disgusted with atrocity
as I’d claimed to be—my atoms
do not cohere against detonation, but now time has come—listen
to the mmm in time & come—for closure,
as, out of the azure,

into the syntax of Hiroshima, “Little Boy” plunges—
I’ve centered this poem both to mushroom
& crumble its edges—
& “Fat Man,” 21 kilotons of TNT,
will devastate Nagasaki.  What is your history?  Please don’t leave
without telling me.  Believe me,
I’m grateful for your enabling complicity.
I know by now you’ve heard my elegiac ē.
I hope your exiled mind has bucketed its breath.
I seek to compose intellectual melody.
I fuse my fear with the idea of the holy.
This is St. John’s cloud of unknowing in me.
This is the Tao of affliction in me.
Don’t try telling me my poetry is not both
beguiling & ugly.

“There was no escape except to the river,” a survivor said.
but the river thronged with bodies.
Black rain started falling, covering everything the survivors said.

I have no faith except in the half-life of poetry.
I seek radiation’s rhythmic sublime.
I have no faith except in beauty.
I seek the nebulous ends of time.
This is the aria those cities have made of me.
I hope my centered lines retain their integrity.
I have no faith except in atrocity.

“A Poetics of Hiroshima” previously appeared in Great River Review, in The Seventh Quarry (Wales), and in A Poetics of Hiroshima (Wilkesbarre, PA: Etruscan Press, 2008). Reprinted by permission of the author.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Talking "A Concordance of Leaves" with Dee Perry, on NPR's "The Sound of Applause": Reading with Philip Terman at Mac's Backs This Saturday, August 17th, 7:30pm

I was grateful to get the chance to talk with Cleveland's own Dee Perry--longstanding supporter and promoter of the arts--on her NPR show "The Sound of Applause," about the recently-published A Concordance of Leaves, a book-length wedding poem and travel diary of a village in Palestine.

Poet Philip Terman and I will be reading at Mac's Backs on Coventry this Saturday at 7:30, and talking Middle East peace.