The Homeless Poem Project (No. 02): Jean Voneman Mikhail

Coal Stove

You were the girl they wanted to send away.
Hot path under your feet, balancing your vessel
awkwardly on your head, zigzagging away from home.

But you stayed. You were the girl carrying water,
dousing the blue flames of your eyes
because fire, you decided, wasn’t the right element.

You were the girl they wanted to leave.
Their hints were subtle. Drafts kept the doors ajar,
cracks formed at the window. When a dagger of glass

broke off and fell one story, it didn’t shatter.
A wedge propped the window open all day
where the curtains sucked for air yet grew paler.

When everything invited you to leave, you crouched
down. You were the arch of the door, guard
to the fire, feeding it with each wooden step

she would pace. Her hums around the dinner table
reminded you of songs she used to sing before
you were born. You can go no further than her songs,

even though she doesn’t want you. You give the fire
your fodder, and listen to its own songs of forgiveness.

Of “Coal Stove,” Jean Voneman Mikhail says,

This poem began as a story my dad told me about a coal stove in his house, and a story about a girl who was not really wanted by her mother. I think I placed the two ideas side by side because of the idea of the hearth, of home, and the conflict experienced by those children far from home either as a place, or as an idea that brings them peace and comfort.

More About the Poet:

Jean Voneman Mikhail is from Avon Lake, OH. She has lived in Athens, OH, however, since 1982. She has a BA and an MA in Creative Writing at Ohio University, and a Masters in Library Science from Kent State. She has published in the Worthington Press, Riverwind and Fifth Wednesday Journal. She lives with her husband and three children and too many cats and dogs in Athens.

Photo (see above): Jean Voneman Mikhail’s writing space

 

 

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The Homeless Poem Project (No. 01): Sheila Black

Crawl In

I feel as if I have been waiting to write
this poem a long time—

I practiced rituals of forgiveness, scattering
sage on the threshold or

peeling the wax leavings off the red candle.
None of it quite did

away with the needle that stabbed through
at odd moments of the day.

I found myself saying junior high things
like “I thought we were best friends.”

What is it to do harm? In some sense the
results were dramatic for me—

I left and/or lost a home, a knowing of my place
and what the objects around me

might mean. Morning: a slight shiver as
rain streaks across the windshield and the

person before me in the take-out coffee
drive-through suffers some kind of fit of road

rage, begins pounding her horn for no
reason I can see. I don’t utter your name.

Along the river here, swollen with autumn storm,
a willow grows half in, half out of the

water, a leafing so intense when I duck under
through the long twiggy curtains of branches

I feel quite erased. There is that scene in
the story—we both knew it by heart almost—

where the witch opens the oven and asks
the girl to crawl in. She doesn’t, but we all sense

that moment of hesitation, the green thrust of
a trust that should be able to remain unbroken.

I don’t call you “witch,” though sometimes other
things equally unkind. But mostly I puzzle as over

a photo in a locket, that picture in my mind.
We are at a table over our poems, we pass the

papers back and forth, scrawling messages of
encouragement. Ice thins the windows and the

trees—we do not notice them—slowly turn
blue with it, blue and terribly silent.

Of “Crawl In,” Sheila Black says,

This is a poem I sent out for at least six months with no luck; it was always the odd one of the batch–the one that wasn’t chosen.

I think I know why, but I like this poem a lot.  It is about a difficult subject. A few years ago I had a very close friendship end very badly and really without much warning—at least on my end. There is a history of women writers trying to write about fraught female friendships–I think of novelists like Margaret Atwood or Hilary Mantel, who have both tackled this topic, female envy, female power, what women don’t know how to say to each other or admit feeling towards each other–the difficulty of sisterhood, the notion of betrayal.

The relationship story was long and dense and in some ways mortifyingly so–and I knew I had to write the poem in a way that didn’t get bogged down in the narrative; where I didn’t whine or moan (which I felt like doing) to the point that the reader lost interest.  I wanted it also to be a little bit an elegy or a poem that gave me a space for forgiving, but also one that recognized just how terrible the end of the friendship felt.

I think when painful things happen to you, especially things you feel in some way victimized by–that is often the hardest subject matter to write about in a way that is remotely credible–you feel so invested, you tend to lose any sense of perspective, the proportion necessary to make the poem move outside you.  I was pleased when I stumbled upon the image of the witch and the oven from Hansel and Gretel–that is such a moving moment, because the children– Gretel in this case, hesitates because she is so used to wanting to please the adults–everything she knows about being a good and helpful child. That’s what makes the moment where she hesitates so terrible—we all feel the betrayal that is about to happen.  I knew then I wanted that to be the heart of the poem–the way we conspire in those moments and also the ways in which we resist and why.

More About the Poet

Sheila Black is the author of House of Bone, Love/Iraq (CW Press), and Wen Kroy (Dream Horse Press). She is a co-editor of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, named a 2012 Notable Book for Adults by the American Library Association. A 2012 Witter Bynner Fellow, selected by Philiip Levine, she lives in San Antonio, Texas where she directs Gemini Ink, a literary arts center.

Photo (see above): Sheila Black’s writing space 

One Never Eats Four, by Samantha Duncan

Samantha Duncan. One Never Eats Four. Washingtonville, NY: ELJ Publications, 2014. 40 pages. $14.99, paper.

In the chapbook, One Never Eats Four, Samantha Duncan speaks with a raw intimacy that demands our attention. Though much of her focus is on relationships, these are not typical love poems. “I loved / every moment, every second- / hand smoke you gave // me,” she says in “Memoir,” and we know there’s nothing conventional about this book. At once coy and honest, mysterious and blunt, these poems ring with a dazzling truth, which becomes more apparent with each reading.

Duncan creates tension between the appearance of spontaneity and the discipline obvious in her tight line breaks and well-crafted stanzas. The title poem begins,

How would I discover – in play all along,

an additional functioning part, an erect,

homogeneous switch under my chaptered eyelid?

 

Would I weave a sweater for my mouth?

Gigabytes of inaugural speech pulses with

red foreheads and quarters govern from

 

hallway closets, overstuffed pies heat

the groundswell for level tangerine alarm,

under staircases ignorant of their use.

Duncan’s language is often startling, and each line delivers an unexpected jolt of discovery. We feel the push and pull of chaos and control, but the poet’s attention to her craft is always apparent.

Though Duncan is masterful at the unpredictable metaphorical leap, many of her poems display remarkable restraint. One such poem is “Camera,” which I include here in its entirety:

I think of being a wet stone

you’ll step on

for the last time,

 

it fills me with a

cloud wet I find

on internet forums

for lonely pets.

 

I typed

“womb”

into a search engine once.

I typed “accident.”

 

I mounted a seesaw and typed

“step on a wet stone.”

I clicked “images.”

As with most of us, not all of Duncan’s relationships are with people. In her final poem, “Era,” she speaks of the ocean, which she describes as both a sister and a siren. “She sang / when I didn’t know what / side of the window I was on. // At night when I visited, we sat closer than lovers, as / the wind cooked us.” Duncan continues, “Her salt whispered / through my ducts / not to leave yet.” The ocean shares a tender confidence with the speaker, and we too feel the lure of this bond.

In her essay, “Madness, Rack, and Honey” (published in the book by the same title), Mary Ruefle says, “Metaphor doesn’t actually exist, insofar as it doesn’t reside in nature, but it exists insofar as it spontaneously arises in the human mind as a perpetual event.” This describes well Samantha Duncan’s use of metaphor. Each poem is a small, spontaneous event, and when we reach the final word in this lovely chapbook, we do not wish to leave yet.

More About this Author:

Samantha Duncan is the author of the chapbook, Moon Law (Wild Age Press, 2012), and she serves as Associate Editor for ELJ Publications. She lives in Houston, blogs occasionally at planesflyinglowoverhead.blogspot.com, and can be found @SamSpitsHotFire.

The Aphasia Poems, by Donora Hillard

Donora Hillard. The Aphasia Poems. San Francisco: Solar Luxuriance, 2014. 16 pages. $5, pamphlet.

Confession: upon first seeing the chapbook, The Aphasia Poems, I was skeptical. The volume is tiny even by chapbook standards. Its size is deceptive, however, because the project itself is quite ambitious. In this series of poems, each untitled, Donora Hillard resists grounding us in a specific place and time. She defies our expectations of poetry by privileging words as words and eschewing the use of imagery and its metaphorical strategies. These appear to be Found poems, “adapted with permission from my work as a mentor to those with linguistic disabilities” as Hillard tells us in the “Afterword.” She continues,

I find the connections between fragmentation induced by poetics and the fragmentation in modern life to be striking; I know I am not unique. The parameters of language ignore anyone unable to communicate through traditional means, and those considered “normal” also write/speak/scream along a vast continuum. In employing the rhetorical theorist Thomas Rickert’s concept of a postpedagogy, something is always out of place, sticking out, slipping, in error. Therefore, let us listen more carefully. We are all in this house, and we are all in pain.

Hillard’s choices for this book—deciding which snippets of speech to include, how to break the lines, whether or not to use punctuation—are where the artist in her comes through in this collection. Through this small work, Hillard reveals her empathy and her intellect, and gives voice to those who struggle to communicate.

At times, Hillard’s work resembles L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry with its jumbled word order and lines that defy interpretation in the traditional sense. She wants us to experience this confusion to evoke how it feels to talk with these speakers, but she also hopes to enact on the page their own confusion. For example,

I there is a do you know there is a up

around in the there is a it’s a long I know

he didn’t know what I could do

The speaker here acknowledges that “he” underestimated her abilities. We don’t need to know more about this situation; the strong, clear statement at the end surprises us, and we know the speaker has succeeded in her attempt to convey something important.

Throughout the book, Hillard avoids the use of end punctuation and capitalizes only the pronoun I. This strategy is effective as it calls more attention to the fragmentary nature of aphasia. As Heather McHugh states in “Broken English,” an essay on fragments, “All poetry is fragment: it is shaped by its breakages, at every turn.” Though this is a statement about all poetry, it applies quite well to Hillard’s work in this chapbook. Hillard is aware of what is unsaid—or, rather, what cannot be said—and the poems’ breakages allow the reader to feel this as a loss. The frustration of the speaker is particularly clear in the following poem:

this you should see what

tell me what you see

I’ll say it is this way but not quickly, that’ll kill

 

not ever heaven could be and not

it begins not for me

 

there won’t be one that is

I’ve got to use you because

I’m trying to tell you something

Most of us take for granted our ability to string words together into a comprehensible sentence and to make our desires, needs, and thoughts known to others. Those of us who write poetry are free to fragment our language in the service of our art, but we don’t often consider what it would mean to lose this language, to be left with only the fragments and never the fully expressed ideas.

Donora Hillard helps us to empathize with those people who are affected by profound linguistic challenges. Though the instinct of other poets would be to speak about or for these individuals, Hillard allows them to speak for themselves. The voices in The Aphasia Poems do not demand our sympathy, however; they merely ask that we listen.

More about this author:

In addition to The Aphasia Poems, Donora Hillard is the author of Covenant (Gold Wake Press, 2012) and other collections of poetry and hybrid text. Her work appears in Hint Fiction (W.W. Norton & Company), Monkeybicycle, Pedagogy, Women in Clothes (Penguin), and elsewhere. The projects she has been involved in have been featured by CNN, Lybba, MSNBC, and the Poetry Foundation. She teaches medical humanities in Ohio, where she lives with her fiancé.

The Insomniac’s Weather Report, by Jessica Goodfellow

Jessica Goodfellow. The Insomniac’s Weather Report. Tokyo, Japan: Isobar Press, 2014. 108 pages. $15, paper.

Jessica Goodfellow is obsessed. Her obsessions include water, the weather, insomnia, as well as questions philosophical, mathematical, and celestial. She keeps lists. She jots down ideas and crosses them out. She riddles the page with her wordplay. She marries and remarries. She is somewhat enigmatic, but always charming. In The Insomniac’s Weather Report, her second collection of poems, many different voices emerge, interweave, creating for us a linguistic chorus that is uniquely Goodfellow. Originally published by Three Candles Press, an outfit that folded soon after printing about a hundred copies, Isobar Press took it on and brought it back to life for those of us lucky enough to read this gorgeous collection.

Goodfellow’s performance on the page is nuanced; experimental without seeming like a gimmick. In some of the poems from the final section, titled “Alphabet Fugue,” she crosses out key words and phrases, enacting the drafting process, the discarding and transformation of ideas and metaphors. Language is as much about what we don’t say as what we do say, but in many of Goodfellow’s poems, such as “Map: Glass:” what is not said is said:

A map of wind is usually called glass.

Subtract motion from wind, and oh! what’s left

is window, map of subtracting self from motion gravity

particulars.

 

An absence of glass is usually called shadow.

You’d thought it was the opposite lack of light, but no,

it’s liquid dissolve of motion – you, trapped between god.

 

A map of self is usually called whisper weapon window.

Fusion of sand, lime, ash; sacred translucent barricade

against elements, motion. As if the self were other than.

 

A map of self is usually a window of god gravity smoke.

Childhood home burning, panes bursting outward.

Homeless, mapless, sparks rising like little yellow birds.

These poems, of course, are not drafts. In drafts we wish to kill the unwanted phrase, but Goodfellow wants us to see what was there before, to show us the metaphors that cohabitate in the same sentence, the same line, and therefore, also cohabitate in our minds, giving them yet another kind of marriage outside the poem.

What Heather McHugh says of Emily Dickinson’s use of dashes seems apropos here: “Whatever was cast is recast in the heat of the reader’s presence, and the poem which was a motion in the author is a motion again in the reader.” Goodfellow’s work suggests an affinity for Dickinson. Dickinson’s poetic dashes unite her ideas, connect them, and in a way, Goodfellow’s act of striking through her own words creates a similar effect. We could easily skip past the “missing” words and still be dazzled by her language. We are uniquely implicated in the building of these poems inside our own minds, laying down multiple images and metaphors like so much brick and mortar.

Early in the book, Goodfellow limbers up with some linguistic acrobatics reminiscent of Wallace Stevens. “How to Describe the Desert Without Saying Water” is a good example. I won’t include this poem in its entirety here, but what follows are the first and final stanzas:

Wanted: bauble of milky mouth.

Fat knee of shameless need, kneading.

Wanted: fontanel ticking, a fist

of collateral tightening. Frightening

whorl of faintest resemblance – thin

as glaze, angle, or desire.

* * *

And now. My moon blooms amphibian.

Glory, my taproot has plummeted.

My matrix is configured. Hosanna.

Madonna figure, de riqueur,

who once beleaguered be.

Full regalia my penetralia is.

The final lines bring to mind Stevens’ “Let be be the finale of seem” (from “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”) and “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (from “The Snow Man”). Goodfellow’s wordplay illuminates her intelligence and her devotion to the transformative nature of language.

There is a strong sense of play throughout this book. My favorite to read aloud is “Chance of Precipitation,” because of its descriptive list, its tongue-twister-ish charm:

Rain’s tonal ticker tape

tarmac tarantella

rooftop timpani

water glitterati

articulate in triplicate.

 

River, all glissando

glossolalia

liquid limerick

we tessellated

littoral lateral lullaby.

 

Ocean’s hush-hush hoodoo

whispering womb

chez chartreuse chanteuse

fugue soothed in blue

a wish awash in white noise.

 

The insomniac longs to transliterate

rain into human alphabet –

French, maybe. A lullaby, a chanson,

a hymn. A baptism of sleep

as unstable as water.

Say that ten times fast, the poet seems to say. I dare you.

In fact, Jessica Goodfellow dares us in many ways throughout this poetry collection. She challenges us to see the world through the prism of her syntax and her linguistic play. She wants us to understand the metaphorical connections among such concepts as weather, water, marriage, identity, and philosophy – all of which crop up and intermingle again and again throughout these poems. Wallace Stevens, in “Three Academic Pieces,” discusses the metaphor as a way for poets (and therefore the readers of poetry) to discover resemblances between things. These resemblances in poetry are what give us pleasure, because when we recognize them, we also recognize ourselves. Goodfellow’s powerful use of metaphor prods us toward a new vision of our world and of our own humanity.

[Blogger’s Note: The formatting of “Map: Glass:” is a bit off. The final word in the first stanza (particulars) should be alone on the line, but should have been indented to the end of the previous line. This blogger struggled with the formatting. Apologies to Ms. Goodfellow.]

More about this author (from The Insomniac’s Weather Report):

Jessica Goodfellow is the author of the chapbook A Pilgrim’s Guide to Chaos in the Heartland (Concrete Wolf, 2006). Her poems have been featured in the anthology Best New Poets 2006, and on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac. She was a recipient of the Chad Walsh Poetry Prize from the Beloit Poetry Journal, and has been honored with essay and short fiction awards from the Emrys Foundation. After receiving a master’s degree from Caltech, she has worked as a financial analyst, a math teacher, an ESL teacher, and a scientific and medical editor. Raised in the greater Philadelphia area, she lives in Japan with her husband and sons.

 

Welcome to MaybeSoPoetry!

I created maybesopoetry to share my musings about poetry and the writing life with an audience wider than my kid (who is actually super-insightful), my dog, and my three cats. It’s embarrassing to admit that I talk poetry with my cats, especially since I can’t abide their theories on post-modernism, but it’s a fact that the older I get the fewer people I have readily at hand to discuss writing, poetry, and literature.

I plan to also use this blog to review books and to promote the work of women poets and writers. As the youngest of three sisters, I’ve been inspired by women throughout my life. I’m drawn to women’s voices in poetry, and I’m amazed at the energy and innovation I see in their work. If you’re a poet or writer who would like me to consider reviewing your book on this blog, please contact me. Chapbooks are welcome, too! Down the line, I envision including in this blog feature articles and interviews with poets and writers I admire.

Because this is a new endeavor, I don’t know where it will lead me. It’s a bit scary to eschew conversation with my cats for the sake of a human readership, so I appreciate anyone who takes the time to read and respond to my posts here. I welcome the dialogue!

Thanks for visiting maybesopoetry!