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Ann Kjellberg, founding editor of Little Star, an annual journal of poetry and prose, and Little Star Weekly, its mobile app version, will be offering a poem every Sunday this spring. This is her eighth post. My term posting poems to this blog fortuitously spanned Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and I happened to have just the poem for each in the Little Star larder. (For Mother’s Day, see Abby Rosebrock’s “Future Baby” on May 11.) The two poems speak powerfully to me, and ring with each other in certain ways. Rosebrock addresses a hitherto nonexistent child, and the absences she magnifies; the child in Kirchwey’s poem is quite familiarly real, and his daily presence echoes back into the fatherly past, and into the parental relations that gird our art and sacred stories. But both poems are pulled by the tug of parental love into the embrace of celestial love; and both are themselves in miniature the gift of cherishing love that they identify in art. “Letter from Istanbul” is addressed to the speaker’s distant son from a church, and it begins with various parodoxes surrounding our sacred places and what they are able to communicate—Keats, claiming that he knew Homeric Greece more deeply from Chapman than the land itself, when all he knew of that was a squalid room in Rome; the speaker’s father, in mourning, finding in Greece the ability nearly to convey to his adolescent son an exultant vision of love, spiritual and physical; surely, given our locale, in the background Yeats’s “gold mosaics” that offer a transport from the diminutions of the body in old age. The tone—conversational and yet with only one speaker, the long sentences spread over long lines promising logical consequence but delivering a string of associative affinities. The son avers (from the past) that he doesn’t like to look at art in crowds, prompting the father, who is, though distant, looking at art with his son, to retort that one rarely has it any other way, and the views of paintings that he remembers as the poem moves outward are indeed crowded, but not with tourists: rather by the loops of love and grief gathering parents and children—Adam and Eve, Jesus and Mary, Anna and Joachim, as well as the speaker, his parents, and his child—from the ancient past to the domestic present. Kirchwey’s work, most visibly like Hecht’s, engages the ancient world—its art, its places, its literary forms—as a medium for engaging our continuous search for meaning, but Kirchwey’s search is less conflicted than Hecht’s, more exultant and warmly inhabited. His enthusiasm for Walcott indicates a confidence that our poetry's forms can be born into a living and organic present with their full freight of historic value. “Letter from Istanbul” has as its theme art as a gift between the generations. The speaker looks to his son and sees not a certainty but, thankfully, an opening, and reminds him to remain attentive to beauty, “let it speak, / and tell it... Continue reading
Posted Jun 15, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Ann Kjellberg, founding editor of Little Star, an annual journal of poetry and prose, and Little Star Weekly, its mobile app version, will be offering a poem every Sunday this spring. This is her seventh post. Maria Stepanova (b. 1972) would be read and remembered in her native Russia as a superior poet, had she not also distinguished herself in other spheres. It is impossible not to mention that she is also the founding editor of, the crowd-sourced independent online magazine of culture and the arts, with a readership now in the hundreds of thousands, that has persistently eluded the Russian state’s oft-remarked monopolism of ideas. Stepanova’s own poetry is not overtly political, but, as novelist Mikhail Shishkin observed last year in The New Republic, in Russia poetry has since its birth offered an alternative to absolute power and proposed with its very existence a notion of the individual never fully subdued by state control. We hear a lot in America about the submissiveness of the Russian citizenry to contemporary political propaganda, but we don’t seem to look very hard at the lives and work of those who do struggle, like Stepanova, to persevere on their own terms. Stepanova’s narrative poem “Fish” appears in the current issue of Little Star in a translation by Modern Poetry in Translation editor Sasha Dugdale. It is a kind of modern riff or romance based on the Soviet iconography of the polar explorer (Brodsky wrote one too). Stepanova’s variant introduces a female consciousness to this usually all-male preserve, in the form of a mermaid. The reader experiences the mermaid, as the the arctic team that fishes her up does, through an almost impenetrable veil of watery, fishy strangeness. Her good nature peeks through the purposefully clinical annotations recorded by her bemused hosts. Their world is not hospitable to her though; in the end she escapes their company in a flourish of freedom and autonomy, bearing her own mysterious scars. When we Anglophones hear contemporary Russian poets, even of the most avant-garde variety, read their poems aloud we are often startled by the strong undertow that their intense history of formal invention still pulls in their verse. Dugdale preserves this admirably; we feel the poem’s rhythms emerge from the initial, no-nonsense note-taking of the speaker as he puzzles, relevantly, over the mermaid’s language, and in it we feel some of the rhythms of the sea that are the only real home for the mercurial consciousness that is our fish. The lines’ mesmeric rhythms and the memory of the fish seem to draw the speaker of the second half of the poem toward madness—the fragmenting influence of a wilderness that is beyond the scrutiny of his instruments and their pragmatic, conquesting spirit. The poem is romantic within its pastiche of romanticism. Russia’s renewed conquest of the Arctic reframes the mermaid’s assertion of autonomy—both female and artistic—from its grainy, black-and-white Soviet mise-en-scène. Maria Stepanova is the author of ten books of poems and the editor-in-chief of... Continue reading
Posted Jun 8, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Ann Kjellberg, founding editor of Little Star, an annual journal of poetry and prose, and Little Star Weekly, its mobile app version, will be offering a poem every Sunday this spring. This is her sixth post. Though Geoffrey O’Brien’s criticism is very richly furnished and densely populated—with genres, artists, languages, milieux, characters high and low—his poetry is spare almost to the point of invisibility. Indeed, the boundary between being there and not being there is very often his theme, as in “Another One for Joel”: “This is not the poem, / this is just the place / where the poem disappears.” In “The Chimes,” the intervals between the chiming of bells demarcate time and isolate its worldly cargo. Each chime, announced by a numbered stanza, creates a cross-section of time that the poem scrutinizes for evidence of being: “The nature of time // Is to dissolve / Into reverberations // The character of dusk / Is to proclaim them.” O’Brien’s characteristically short lines are another manifestation of this inquiry: the poem keeps returning to the point of origin ( “2 / I am once again / where I never was before”). They look from a narrow ledge into an expanse of emptiness. This scrutiny creates a synesthesia in which the evidence of different senses is interchangeable, tested for its truthfulness: The chimes “sound like shivers of light”; “like the sound of glass.” A sky “seen from inside itself” reveals “blue glow // Flame color / Not seen but heard / Not heard but // Apart from.” These isolations invoke Zeno’s problem: how do the items of presence that we perceive coalesce into the continuous world we know? (“Unending coincidence / Of separations // A walk / Through frosty air”). The language of description is both an alternative in a range of presences and an estranging mechanism itself. The resulting hypnotic repetitions transport the reader into a zone where sensation is thought and feeling is inquiry. They register a mournful remoteness from experience within their tender regard for it. The “unidentifiable archways” past which the poem returns home in the last stanza summon the possibilities of art—De Chirico? Piranesi?—without engaging them. But that homeward journey, these crystalline poems’ yearning extension toward the world we know and feel, is their heartbeat. Read twelve more new poems by Geoffrey O’Brien in Little Star #5 (2014). He is the author of, most recently, a book of poems, Early Autumn, and Stolen Glimpses, Captive Shadows: Writing on Film 2002–2012. The Chimes 1 The nature of time Is to dissolve Into reverberations The character of dusk Is to proclaim them 2 I am once again Where I never was before In a town unknown to me Even when I lived here 3 They sound like Shivers of light Clashing Like the sound of glass As it shatters Into shadows of shadows 4 They sound like The inmost lock Springing The subtlest catch Coming loose 5 Or a bundle of keys Dropped on a metallic sky 6... Continue reading
Posted Jun 1, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Ann Kjellberg, founding editor of Little Star, an annual journal of poetry and prose, and Little Star Weekly, its mobile app version, will be offering a poem every Sunday this spring. This is her sixth post. Glyn Maxwell is sometimes considered a “difficult” poet, but not in the tricky, jocular manner of John Ashbery or Paul Muldoon. Maxwell challenges because the progress of his poems follows their inner, musical logic to an unusually intimate degree; his poems compel his readers to learn another way of thinking. For his signature poem “This Whiteness,” a kind of ars poetica, we are lucky to have a Rosetta Stone of sorts in his newish book On Poetry. On Poetry reminds us that the poet facing the blank page is also the poet facing extinction; the whiteness on the poem’s right side is nothingness pressed back, by the something of the poem. The whiteness of the poem is also silence, and its darkness, its mark, is breath. The whiteness is also time, and the poem its conquest—the conquest of time through form. Hence in “This Whiteness” the poem begins threatened by an avalanche—an annihilating onslaught of whiteness that also threatens suffocation and extinction. The poem, set at an alpine ski resort, “begins” four times, each time nearly defeated by whiteness and rallying. Its speaker envisions himself first as a skier, outracing an avalanche of snow, “motion caught.” Then a climber sheltering himself in “these little stanzas” against a predatory wildness, the whiteness. Each start moves closer to his human reality. In the third start he’s in the town at the mountain’s base and spots an “angel,” an emissary of whiteness (“I ran from a word like that but I didn’t make it”). In On Poetry Maxwell writes that for a poem to thrive against whiteness it needs “a heartbeat,” and here, as so often, it finds its heartbeat in yearning (the love song, the elegy). The angel disappears of course (“I’m bereft like she was everything”), but the speaker, lingering without purpose, has “earned a stripe from whiteness”; they spend the day together; it leaves its card. It’s lovely that this existential confrontation plays out in the wry imagination of a person not skiing at a ski resort, a marginal plight if there ever was one, watching the day unfold as changing light on snow (whiteness becomes blue by the end of the day, like the sky, the celestial infinity). Its concluding valhalla (small v), where heroes linger: a café table with a view on an empty chairlift, quite a quotidian Jacob’s ladder. For Maxwell form is a poem’s musculature, but his form, recalling Frost’s, is deeply organic. Its repetitions and shadows are the instruments of his logic, and that’s why his poems can seem so hypnotic and mysterious. The line-break, as he writes in On Poetry, is the poem’s fortification against the nothingness of the white side, and mastering it is the foundation of poetry’s power. In “This Whiteness” skiing is the shadowy metaphor... Continue reading
Posted May 25, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Ann Kjellberg, founding editor of Little Star, an annual journal of poetry and prose, and Little Star Weekly, its mobile app version, will be offering a poem every Sunday this spring. This is her fourth post. In 2011 the poet Melissa Green wrote a series of poems in the voice of Mad Maud, from the pair of anonymous early seventeenth-century songs, “Tom A Bedlam” and “Mad Maud’s Search.” Tom O’Bedlam, and with him his paramour Maud, became a stock character in English literature and folklore—an “Abram Man,” a vagrant-beggar-con man ostensibly sprung from the Abraham Ward at Bedlam (the Bethlehem Royal Hospital for the insane in London). Although Bedlam denied releasing its patients to itineracy, and there seems to have been a certain amount of theater to the Tom O’Bedlam vocation (part of the songs’ color), the joke of the songs overlay a terrible reality about the long ostracism of the mad. Green’s Maud reflects on the cruelties, not so different from our own, then suffered by the insane, her “ancestress[es]” who “carried the gene for mental illness. I was haunted by generations of women who would have been burned as witches or would sit in the urine and shitsoaked straw of Bedlam, chained to the wall.” But this note of sympathy and reconstruction is only the beginning. Maud’s language, the language of Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals and King Lear’s Edgar, who took on the persona of Tom O’Bedlam in order, like the Fool, to disguise the truth in nonsense, participates both in English literature’s notably earthy origins and its most exalted lyric flights. Maud’s home, like Blake’s, is Albion; the spaces in her lines reflect both her broken thinking and the strong caesuras of English verse’s alliterative origins. In Maud’s day wild boar were caught and trussed by the river, but people were also a hair’s breadth from, on the one hand, magic, and, on the other, revelation, as they stretched their laundry out on rocks. And indeed Maud’s “broken mind” is a torment, but it also admits wonder. Her language is its expression and cannot pass beyond it; for Maud her madness is as elemental as the sky, and yet it is kin to the sensitivity of her perception and her capacity for love. Green writes, one wonders whether Tom and Maud could be “figments of one another’s imagination.” In “Mad Maud’s Four Dreams,” below, as in several of the poems, in the vanishing point is a place of final blankness and extinction (a few last lines: “that place where no light ever comes”; “I fell out of the world without a sound”; “there’s mist between us now—or murk—or vanishing”; “he trod upon the stars and put the morning out”) and yet the encompassing world—the cathedral of nature and the soaring language in which the poem contains it—seems to offer a compensatory exaltation and consolation. And a complicity with those inducted, across time, in the language’s underground fraternity. The diction of Green’s poems is often archaic and not demotic... Continue reading
Posted May 18, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Ann Kjellberg, founding editor of Little Star, an annual journal of poetry and prose, and Little Star Weekly, its mobile app version, will be offering a poem every Sunday this spring. This is her fourth post. A batch of poems by a young poet named Abby Rosebrock was sent to me by a scholar-friend in 2011. I was astounded by them. Each one was as bold and confident as a banner, and said something I have never read in a poem before. It should perhaps not surprise that Rosebrock is an actor and a playwright (her web page is a welter of performances, under klieg lights and in cellars, as it is this weekend, with new work at The Rule of 7X7 at The Tank and New York Madness at Playwrights Horizons). Her poems are monologues and in them an utterly singular being comes fully to life and vanishes within the poem’s single act. The speaker is both nakedly there and ingeniously crafted. “Future Baby,” in its courageous bid for absolute tenderness, was the triumph of the bunch. The boggling truth that a baby in its final vulnerability becomes a locus of total love, an expression of even the possibility of total love, and that this consuming totality comes to rest in a being so tenderly specific, is at once intimate to the experience of being a mother and capacious in its scale. The reciprocity with which love reaches through the generations in the poem becomes an affirmation of the unity of experience and the illusoriness of time. Love clings to us as we crawl away from the disaster of death. Love makes a future baby as real as a living one. The baby is “the whole point,” a vanishing point, that organizes everything and gives it value in the infinite distance; and then, in the poem’s closing lines, as the baby opens its mouth, as babies do, its “glass-clear spittle” becomes lens or a crystal ball, both revealing truth and magnifying love. Where the dragon’s teeth sowed warriors, the spaces where a baby’s teeth will be within baby who does not (yet) exist, beatitude. Within the homeliness of the poem’s dirty snow, its elbow, its bottle cap, its spittle—like an image in a glass bead in a baroque painting—resides the image of mother and child that haunts our art and poetry, a nesting place for eternity. The poem’s long lines yearn toward its absent object; its alternating couplets and single lines express the poem’s paradox: in love, we are two in one, one in two. Read more of Abby Rosebrock’s poems in Little Star #3. Her monologue in the voice of spring (“What does your heart encompass, how do its contents compare / to my foliage, my Hellenic arsenal of metaphor?”) is in our mobile app Little Star Weekly this week. Future Baby The way you will reach for me. The supernatural luckiness of being reached for by the one I reach for. That you should cry for me—when... Continue reading
Posted May 11, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Ann Kjellberg, founding editor of Little Star, an annual journal of poetry and prose, and Little Star Weekly, its mobile app version, will be offering a poem every Sunday this spring. This is her third post. A couple of years ago the young Chicago poet Anthony Madrid published a book, I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say, apparently consisting of sixty-four ghazals; we published one of them, “Beneath Your Parents’ Mattress,” in our app, Little Star Weekly. The ghazal is an ancient classical Eastern form that pervades the literature of multiple languages and traditions. It had its origins in a sixth-century Arabic panagyric but found its full expression in the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Persian of Rumi and Hafiz. It spread, partly through the energies of Sufi mysticism and Islamic court traditions, throughout the Middle East to Turkey, North Africa, and Northern India (whence Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali brought the ghazal to modern American literature with an anthology of new ghazals by dozens of English and American poets in 2000). The classical ghazal is an exacting form: ten to thirty lines of rhyming couplets and identical length, with the second line repeating a refrain and the last couplet playing off the poet’s name, either literally or figuratively. (Read more ghazals in Little Star.) But Madrid’s book is anything but an academic exercise. His completely original take illuminates a paradox lurking in the ghazal’s biography: that a form so highly structured became the foundation of an ecstatic religion that embraced music as a vehicle for revelation and eroticism as its germinal metaphor. Madrid’s ghazals, like Rumi’s and Hafiz’s, often find the speaker in the clutch of love, and driven from there to further reaches of apprehension. The poems of the ghazal masters were set to music and became the vehicle of an ecstatic religious practice. In both love and verse, a constraint becomes a provocation. Madrid’s poems are divided into chapters and even identified, somewhat jokingly, in a way that looks scriptural: “1.1,” “1.2,” etc. And constraint has its own place in them, as we’ll see. (That he likes a constraint can be seen too in his sixteen limericks recently published in Little Star #5.) True to form, “Beneath Your Parents Mattress” offers a hilarious, sexy cosmology inside a profane poem of love. Generally, Madrid keeps the ghazal’s couplets but not their metrical constraints; in this one however he starts off with a bravura metrical stroke: two dactylic lines with pyrrhic caesura. That we are speaking of one’s parents’ marital bed in such a form throws a strobe light on the ghazal’s invitation to ontological sex play. The first couplet sets up a kind of joke Divina Commedia in which the cosmic architecture springs up and down from the terra firma of one’s own conception. The joke is redoubled by the appearance of moles in the second couplet as some kind of genealogical–temporal astronauts. In the third stanza we meet our heroine, who surfaces throughout the book as a... Continue reading
Posted May 4, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Ann Kjellberg, founding editor of Little Star, an annual journal of poetry and prose, and Little Star Weekly, its mobile app version, will be offering a poem every Sunday this spring. This is her second post. Hospice I wore his hat as if it was the rumpled coat of his body, like I could put it on. The coat of his hair, of his brain, its glitter he gave it to me, something he’d worn. He didn’t touch his dog, touch was too much, he didn’t let her go. I felt his hat on my head, like a hand, though his hat was on the floor, just by my chair. I went on drinking water as if there was more water. I went on living on earth as if there was still life on earth I remembered like an islander   my island like a calving iceberg, air like jazz rumpled like its glitter worn hand by my chair • I thought I’d have to listen, hard, I didn’t even swallow. But nothing from you stopped. After: Isn’t there something Isn’t there something in me like the dogs I’ve heard at home who bark all night from hunger? Something in me like trains leaving, isn’t there something in me like a gun? I wanted to be loud squirrels, around the trees’ feet, bees, coming back & back to the wooden porch, wanting something—and wooden planks, wanting something. To go back into a tree? I want to go back to you, who when you were dying said “There are one or two people you don’t want to let go of.” Here too, where I don’t let go of you. After: Down on the street Down on the street a man’s voice, every night at ten— God  God  God  I love you  God Halleluia  God Halleluia   God  God Everyone breathing hard to get through, to get through soon to the air, a word in everybody’s mouth— You must have trusted some word that time in that half-underwater cave when you dove and came up someplace else, and called to me, Come on —Jean Valentine Continue reading
Posted Apr 27, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Ann Kjellberg, founding editor of Little Star, an annual journal of poetry and prose, and Little Star Weekly, its mobile app version, will be offering a poem every Sunday this spring. This is her inaugural post. The sixteen poems by James Stotts that we published in our very first issue of Little Star were, I believe the first poems he ever published, or nearly. I received them from my colleague the poet Melissa Green, who wrote to me, “Oh, my dear, but we've found one of the Tribe, the James Stotts I wrote to you about. I just haven't had time to send you his poems—he's coming to my new digs with my old roommates […] and we're going to give him succor and kindness and welcome him in. This young man is quietly chewing the bark off trees, alone and without a community—[…] He was born in the Rockies, studied Russian, went to Russia, married a Russian, reads Russian—well I can't tell how well, but his house is full of all our beloved poets—and he seems to have them all in a cellular level...” He certainly did. Most of Stotts’s poems seemed to share the same horizon, where a dull half-lit sky meets a blighted earth, and a lonely man, hung-over or a little drunk, navigates his way among the world’s last things. He is saved not by answers but by song: the rhymes come closer, the rhythm approaches the heartbeat, and at the end the language itself seems to offer some simple orientation, a firm bed on which to plant a foot. His unwavering commitment to the lower case requires a moment of adjustment but suits him fine. The reader feels they are eavesdropping on his thoughts, in which he sets so little stock he does not even bother to clothe them in type. And yet these thoughts are born up from beneath by a stately rhetoric as old as Herbert—and indeed the pivot at his final couplets often calls the metaphysicals to mind. In “sonnet where i sober up” the speaker looks up to find a sky where the old furniture has fallen into disrepair. The celestial corridors of Tiepolo have been replaced by a parkway with its littered median; the halos surround cop cars’ flashers. Instead of angelic choirs, scuffed bones and hair hoarded by rats. The image shifts to an inadvertent reliquary: our fragments are stashed behind a blind wall by scavengers. The speaker, hung over, feels the shadow of death in his own body; like Odysseus and Aeneas he’s had a brush with Lethe, but in his Lethe had the upper hand. And then, the turn. “I piss” (naturally) and “brush off the skin and earth into a little death nest.” Then for the second time he addresses an unknown “you.” We first met “you” in the first stanza: “this is the hidden meaning of morning by your own admission.” Now, “this is, in your own words, not such a bad place to begin.”... Continue reading
Posted Apr 19, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Apr 18, 2014