Goliath: Reading Kyle Dargan’s “Honest Engine” During the Baltimore Riots

cas-lit-dargan-150324

I read Kyle Dargan’s poem “Goliath” the night of the Baltimore riots. I was in Mexico City where the images of the riots made it to the Mexican presses before the story did—Freddie Gray, the police beatings, his snapped spinal cord. The details simply hadn’t been translated yet. But the beautiful thing about a riot, anywhere in the world, is that the literal image always translates. Every single time.

Even my barber who cares about nothing—not even his own kids, not even my hair—knew the real story was about dignity. We talked about that for a long while. And then we finally came to the semi-conclusion that the stakes of any riot is human dignity. Neither of us could articulate that thought further. So, I sat in silence.

I remember, thinking of something to fill the silence, that “Goliath” came to mind. But you quickly learn not to be that guy in the barber shop. You can talk about news or sports or sexy ladies but you can never talk about poetry. Nevermind that “Goliath,” like so much of Dargan’s newest collection, Honest Engine (University of Georgia Press), articulates the seemingly impossible, the incredibly nuanced.

Reading Honest Engine, you can’t help but feel haunted by Dargan’s poems. Haunted in your everyday life, in your personal moments—but also in the collective ones too—watching the news, shooting the breeze with your barber.

Continue Reading

The Poetry of Subtle Movement

blue-agateIn recent months, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has released two poetry collections that encapsulate much of what I love about poetry: James Lasdun’s Bluestone: New and Selected Poems and Devin Johnston’s Far-Fetched. Lasdun and Johnston are quite different in style and subject matter, but they are both masters of the subtle shift, the poem that starts in an unassuming place and leads you away from the old logical paths to a fresh perspective.

I first fell in love with Devin Johnston’s work while reading his 2011 poetry collection, Traveler, and his prose collection, Creaturely and Other Essays. There’s a Thoreauvian sense of wandering in all his prose and poetry—a wandering over the landscape, language, and history of the United States—coupled with a mastery of form uncommon in an American poet. In Far-Fetched the tone is usually serious (except when he’s skillfully imitating Scottish lyric or translating Catullus or bouncing through rhyming couplets) and there is a prevailing mood of quiet and contemplation.

Better to show than tell. Here’s “Orpingtons,” originally published in the July/August 2014 issue of Poetry magazine and included in Far-Fetched:

A pair of Orpingtons,
one blue, the other black,
with iridescent necks
and fine, ashen fluff
cackle through the dark,
their damp calls close enough
to chafe, a friction with no spark.

They settle down to roost,
two rests along a stave.
Each curls into itself,
comb tucked beneath a wing,
as the days grow long enough
to kindle in each a yolk,
the smallest flame of spring.

To me, the two most telling lines in this poem are, “They settled down to roost, / two rests along a stave.” In this musical metaphor, the Orpingtons become rests, the symbols for silence in a musical score. To the audience, the rest doesn’t exist (because a rest is precisely that which can’t be heard), but the rest exists for the musician because it is seen written on the page. It’s all about perspective. Through imagination (and we first see the imagination flare up in that synaesthetic phrase “damp calls”) the poem pierces the surface world of the observer and lets our perspective shift to the private knowledge of the observed.Continue Reading

THE NEUTRAL CORNER: Michael Hofmann’s “Where Have You Been?” And Gottfried Benn’s “Impromptus”

Bellows_George_Dempsey_and_Firpo_1924

The neutral corner is one of the two corners of the ring not used by boxers between rounds. It is also the corner a boxer must retreat to after he has floored his opponent. The Neutral Corner was also a bar in Saratoga Springs, New York, that I frequented when at Yaddo in the late seventies. Framed photographs of famous fighters, signed to the owner with effusive greetings, covered the walls. They would have been impressive except that the handwriting on each was identical.

This blog series, the Neutral Corner of Ploughshares, will bring attention to new books, mostly poetry, and to older books that have recently given me pleasure.

***

gottfried benn_michael hofmann_IMPROMPTUSMichael Hofmann’s most recent book of translations is Gottfried Benn’s Impromptus: Selected Poems and Some Prose (FSG, 2013). I love Benn’s dark wit, and find a kind of courage in his pessimism, as in the ending lines of “No Tears”:

please no tears
no one say: oh I was so lonesome.

Continue Reading

Our Spring 2015 Transatlantic All-Poetry Issue is Now Available!

3D Spring transparentWe are excited to announce that the Spring 2015 issue of Ploughshares, guest-edited by Neil Astley, is available for purchase! For the first time in our forty-four year history, we present a transatlantic issue focused entirely on poetry.

Acclaimed publisher and editor Neil Astley, founder of Bloodaxe Books, guest-edited this special issue, which features poets from North America, Great Britain, and Ireland. The issue contains a stirring diversity of work: the writers have roots everywhere from Guyana to Pakistan to Zambia, and have written not just in English, but also in Welsh, Irish, Gaelic, and Scots. Much of the work is from accomplished British and Irish poets who are still little-known in the States. As Astley writes in his introduction, the issue aims to break down “the illogical divide between readerships on either side of the Atlantic,” and spark a conversation that will enliven and invigorate both poetic traditions. This issue features poetry by Fleur Adcock, Elaine Feinstein, Nick Flynn, Tony Hoagland, Michael Hofmann, Roddy Lumsden, Paul Muldoon, Roger Reeves, Ahren Warner, Matthew Zapruder, and almost a hundred other poets.

With this issue, we’re offering a couple of blog-only extras: Below, watch a selection of the poets read the poems they contributed to the issue. Next Wednesday, check back for a special extended version of Neil’s introduction to the issue!

If you would like to read our Spring 2015 issue, and you aren’t already a subscriber, subscribe to Ploughshares today! You’ll get great reads, ideas for your own writing, and the ability to submit your work to us for free!Continue Reading

Easter 1916

Portrait_of_William_Butler_Yeats

“Easter—that’s a weird tradition,” says the comedian Jim Gaffigan in one of his imagined dialogues. He continues:

“The day Jesus rose from the dead—what should we do?”
How about eggs?
“What does that have to do with Jesus?”
Alright, we’ll hide them.
“….I don’t follow your logic.”
Don’t worry, there’s a bunny.

And if you’re Irish, the mix of Easter traditions can get even stranger. That is because during Easter week the Irish remember the bloody Easter Rising that occurred 99 years ago this year. So, in addition to the other more joyful images of Easter—of new life, growth, and freshness—the Irish also remember a time of intense struggle, death, and violence.

Strange.

But it would have been even stranger to be a poet at that time, especially a poet like William Butler Yeats. On the one hand, Yeats was an Irish nationalist. He had been working to revive Irish theater for a number of years, and he had written countless poems using Irish myths, legends, and folklore. But his battle for Ireland was a cultural one, not the kind carried out with fists and rifles. Like many great poets of the 20th century, Yeats believed in maintaining a separation between poetry and political action. Like his later compatriot Seamus Heaney, he believed that poetry lost its power when it became merely an “agent for proclaiming and correcting injustices.” Thus, Yeats had written a few years before the uprising in “On Being Asked for a War Poem”:

I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.

But when the uprising began on that Easter Monday of 1916, it was not far from Yeats’s Dublin home, and he couldn’t ignore his kinship with the more than 300 Irish who lay dead by the week’s end.

This time Yeats chose to confront the violence directly in his poetry. But rather than avoid the contradictions and uncertainties of the situation, he managed to embody them in a new style of writing. The result was the poem “Easter 1916,” now famous for its enigmatic refrain: “…Are changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.”

We might ask, What is a “terrible beauty?” What does it look like? Here Yeats breaks a foundational rule of creative writing by remaining abstract rather than concrete. And he also breaks the rule all pedantic freshman writing instructors hold to by using the passive voice. We know that they are changed, or are born, but we don’t know the precise cause of that change or birth.

Nevertheless, by the final refrain of “A terrible beauty is born,” we realize that the very texture of ambivalence has turned the poem strangely—paradoxically—into a great political anthem.

And that’s the genius of Yeats: he draws upon the material and even the sounds of simple political ballads, and yet he resists the temptation to offer easy answers. He creates a poem that is both passive and passionate, definite and ambivalent. And those contradictions reverberate across time, to 99 years and beyond.

When We Are Given a Feast of Flesh

Sunday_Book_Market,_Daryaganj,_Delhi

How do I remember spaces? Bedrooms, beaches, backseats, bazaars. The time between dreams. Night. The no-man’s land of a twelve-hour flight. I remember the world as words.

I spent my last few weeks in Delhi hunting for books. For relatives, for friends, but, finally, for my own sake: to call back India when I was back in the states, when I was back in the spaces that were so familiar they faded into blurred backgrounds. Reading often works as incantation: in a second I am summoned back to the bookshop where I first flipped through a novel or the waiting room in which I finished the final page.

A place is defined by what I read when I’m there, the words wrestling for attention before memories awake. My months in India involved a mix of glum history, map-filled guidebooks, critical theory with cracked yellow spines, and poetry. So much poetry, in fact, that I bought another grey duffel to check to ship it all back. “What’s in here? Bricks?” asked a friend, hefting one of my bags as we headed to the Indira Gandhi International Airport. Bricks of books that weren’t yet architectures of recollection, reminders of cows crowding the street, cars hugging curbs and honking hello, city skies shot through with smoke and sun.

Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh by N.D. Rajkumar took up only a little space in my grey duffel. The volume, at barely one hundred pages, contains poetry translated from Tamil by Anushiya Ramaswamy and is bookended by a critical essay examining the history of Dalits in India and their literature.

I bought the Rajkumar at the Oxford Bookstore in Delhi. At the time, I thought Oxford was affiliated with Oxford University Press, and I shrank at the idea of supporting a historically colonial enterprise with my purchase of “alternative” Dalit poetry, a poetry that rallies against caste and hierarchical Brahmin values. The Oxford Bookstore chain actually shares no affiliation with the Press, nor is it even based outside of India. The colorful and clean stylization of the bookstore’s orderly insides betray the ecstatic violence and vulgarities of Rajkumar’s verses, where “I watch the old woman in the moon / Clinging to her walking stick / Bend, spread her legs / And piss into the moon” (50). The next poem ends: “I strike the master in his heart.” Perhaps Rajkumar sings of insurrection, but could I even begin to approach this song in this place that sold expensive infused teas and cappuccinos? “If anyone not our kind / Happens to read this manuscript: / Heads will roll,” Rajkumar raises as an omen in the third song. The poems of Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh are not named, but numbered, like tallies struck against a maker.Continue Reading

The 2015 Emerging Writer’s Contest is Now Open

EWCbannerThe 2015 Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest is now open!

Our Emerging Writer’s Contest recognizes work by an emerging writer in each of three genres: fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. One winner in each genre will receive $1,000 and publication in Ploughshares.  We consider you “emerging” if you haven’t published or self-published a book.

For more information and to submit, visit our website.

Over the years, Ploughshares has helped launch the careers of great writers like Edward P. Jones, Sue Miller, Mona Simpson, Tim O’Brien, and others.  We were thrilled to publish last year’s winners.  You can read their winning entries on our website:

The contest is open until May 15. But don’t wait! Submit today!

(Writing) Exercise: Self-compassion

Mask image

I’m talking here of memory’s difficulty. Difficult not in the way I have to wrack my weak brain to remember what happened, but in the way I’m forced to face that time I let my brother, bleeding from the mouth, run the mile home alone. Difficult in the way that looking back prompts me to see myself, as James Agee puts it, “disguised as a child.”

And what an ugly costume it could be. Holding my youth at arm’s length makes clear how royally fallible I really was. I see my foibles for the first time. My limitedness had hid them from me—a kind of Dunning-Kruger effect. And this is difficult.

As in looking back on the stack of birthday cards from my grandmother I tossed out, thinking my desk had no room. Into the wastebasket that lets every memory in and none out. I didn’t know what should be kept and what chucked. I didn’t know I was in the room with my grandmother herself, who had touched the card at its edges, wheezing over the short note with her reading glasses on. And I didn’t know that the thrown-away card would become sad and inimitable when she dies.

My grandmother tried to warn me. She dated the card at the top right corner so that I too would know posterity as always looming. Of course I see this looking back. She dated it to please the grandfather she knew I’d become, on whose lap she sat with a little girl’s wide eyes, nearing the end, nearing the beginning.Continue Reading

“Bringing the Poem Back to the Actual”: An Interview with David J. Daniels

rural-jurorDavid J. Daniels writes poems that sneak up on you. Smart and worldly, emotional and funny, they convey a sense of life-as-it’s-lived: culture both high and low, our strivings and failings, the countless ways we let each other down and hold each other up. Because of the immediacy of voice and freshness of language, you might not realize at first that his poems also often rhyme and come to life in sophisticated formal structures. David’s first book, Clean, received the Four Way Books Intro Prize and was recently named a finalist for the 2015 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. He is also the author of two chapbooks, Breakfast in the Suburbs and Indecency, both from Seven Kitchens Press. He teaches at the University of Denver.

Matthew Thorburn: Two poems in Clean have postscripts – “Public Indecency” is followed by “The Casserole: a Postscript” and “Letter to Curtis, Dead at Twenty-Four” is followed by “Postscript to Curtis.” I love the idea of a poem having a sequel. Could you talk about how these poems came to be? Did you finish a poem and then feel there really was more to say?

David J. Daniels: Thom Gunn has two adjacent poems in his collection Boss Cupid, “In the Post Office” and “Postscript: The Panel.” The first is an elegy, delivered in second person to the dead, and the second begins fairly directly in prose form: “Reciprocation from the dead. Having finished the post office poem, I decide to take a look at the stained-glass panel it refers to, which Charlie made I would say two years before he died.” There’s a lot I’ve learned from Thom Gunn – his attention to rhyme and syllabics, his mix of high and low dictions, his use of asides – and these poems have lingered with me, the latter providing a commentary and new mode of interior inquiry into the former. I love that! Continue Reading

Between Optimism and Pessimism: How to Set Our Baby Monitors?

Adolf_Hiremy-Hirschl,_Die_Seelen_des_AcheronPessimism is not particularly hard. I thought of this last month when I spent an hour in my brother’s kitchen near the baby monitor through which I could hear my poor twenty-two-month-old niece hacking up phlegm. After an hour I began to mistake this noise for the wind, or for my own thoughts. Moments of quiet could only mean she had stopped breathing. This might as well have been the soundtrack to pessimism, or perhaps a microcosm of how it overtakes anyone who has lived long enough.

Colum McCann knew this well before and more keenly than I ever did (and better-scarfed). In his masterpiece Let the Great World Spin, the preacher at young Jazzlyn’s funeral declared that “goodness was more difficult than evil.” Goodness “had to be fought for.” And the fight is difficult, indeed—it took a funeral preacher to speak the words.

Let’s face it: there’s not a single day that the flag of any sensible adult should be above half-mast. Which is why I think being called optimistic is a gentler way of being asked, “So are there just no newspapers where you live?” McCann tells Nathan Englander in their postscript conversation: “The cynics of this world—the politicians, the corporations, the squinty-eyed critics—seem to think that . . . it’s cooler, more intellectually engaging, to be miserable, that there’s some sort of moral heft in cynicism.”Continue Reading