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Elizabeth Powell
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One of the questions poetry asks us is how do we live in a fractured world? Suicide rates in the United States over the past two decades have been on an alarming rise. According to the American Psychological Association there has been a 30 % rise between 2010 and 2016. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in our country. Mental health is still less understood and accepted and treated as is physical illness. The brain is a complex organ. Poetry is art and art knows truths that science doesn't have terms for yet. Medical studies on the effectiveness of treating emotional disorders is mixed, but expressive writing in psychological therapies has long been used. Confessional poetry was birthed from the womb of psychiatry. Today, the medical humanities and the study of literature as a means to heal and understand is gaining traction, deepening understanding, and building bridges. Robert Frost once said that every poem is a momentary stay against the confusion of the world. And so it is with Didi Jackson's forthcoming book of poems from Red Hen Press, Moon Jar. To heal from the terror and pain of surviving the suicide of a loved one is a tall order. Moon Jar seeks to find wholeness in the fissure through art and the natural world. I spoke with Jackson about the title poem recently. Moon Jar is an ekphrastic poem that uses ancient Korean ceramics as a way to build a metaphor and allegory. The moon jar’s beauty lies in its imperfection. The surface of the moon jar is like the surface of skin, full of various markings and freckles, but perhaps the better for it. The moon jar defines beauty to include imperfection. Here, ekphrasis understands that nothing is perfect. It reminds me of quilters of yesteryear who used to make sure to have one imperfection in their quilts because only God is perfect. The idea of modesty in the act of creation informs the tone of this achingly beautiful lyric. The finely hewn couplets and elegant syntax draws us down the page using assonance and shorter lines. The poem has a quiet power in its own testimony. The speaker is lit up by the moon’s nudge toward epiphany, which allows the speaker to merge with all color, all light, a kind of redemption that fills the fissure. A momentary stay. Moon Jar My wedding ring is missing one small diamond, and I like it that way: a reminder of the imperfect in all of us, like that keyhole size of grief that remains crystalline. In Korea, ceramicists for centuries have made moon jars: testimony to the virtue of modesty: asymmetrical warping on the wheel, slumping in the pine-heated kiln, impurities when fired — black dots and pocks on its surface like freckles on skin. I have been kept awake so many nights by the moon: its pull on the pines and night birds and who, like a monk, keeps a sharp order of time. Never a... Continue reading
Posted Aug 10, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Just down the steep hill from where I teach at Northern Vermont University in quaint Johnson, Vermont is a precious artistic resource, Vermont Studio Center. Known for its artist residencies since it began in 1984, the rural Vermont enclave hosts a series of talks and readings by visiting artists and writers for the surrounding community. What a score! It is part of the rich fabric of the arts that Vermont inspires and makes possible. Through Vermont Studio Center programming, I have had the pleasure of being introduced to new work and making new friends and acquaintances. Indeed, it was through VSC that I met up with the dynamic duo, sometimes known on their reading tours as The Ladies Lazarus, also known as poets Erin Adair-Hodges (author of Let’s All Die Happy, University of Pittsburgh Press) and Jenny Molberg (author of Marvels of the Invisible from Tupelo Press and forthcoming Refusal: Poems from LSU Press). They inspire me. I love their smart, stunningly brilliant poems. They also are editors at the prestigious Pleiades Press, which is woman-run. Little did I know that there is a poetic renaissance brewing, a feminist literary scene with chops, in the Kansas City area. Kansas City, Here I Come! The area boasts other formidable women poets that I am a fangirl of, such as Hadara Bar Nadav, Traci Brimhall, and Bridget Lowe. Next February I will be featuring their work in a special issue of Green Mountains Review. Here’s a sampling of their fine work. First, Erin Adair-Hodges’, Unmappable, a poem that tries to locate the source of feminine dislocation. The poem interrogates the vast expanse of Kansas, how it can make the speaker disappear not only in size or scope but also through the political and social oppression of women in Kansas. Like Emily Dickinson’s “done with the compass, done with the chart,” Adair-Hodges’ speaker will find her own way, following the power of lightning, which also has power over the landscape of Kansas. “Anyone can be buried” in this place, but the narrator rides the Plathian arrow away from the deadly cooing of wheat and into the bullseye of her own unmappable power. Unmappable Kansas coos me into its wheat. Done with direction, I follow the lightning, God’s arrows insisting even the desolate can be a destination. In the black and white of a winter dawn a train zippers the wetland to a sky clouded with intention. It looks more like a photograph than a photograph resembles the moment it captures, its frame diverting, its filter slanting truths. Say I make of this a photo— what would the evidence show? That I was in a body here for awhile and I wanted this to mean something? Is this the alibi or the crime? And who is the jury to receive this—no one knows I’m here. I loaded the car in Technicolor and drove east—had done milked the west of fresh starts—but the time changed so I don’t know when I am. Kansas says it... Continue reading
Posted Aug 9, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
“In the dark times. Will there be singing? Yes, there will be singing. About the dark times.” These words by Berthold Brecht have been on my mind a lot lately even from my privileged point of view in rural Vermont, where peace is mostly as abundant as the long sweep of hay and cornfields. Still my television set blares the discord and hate, a technological vomiting that gets harder to subdue. The Brecht poem appears in one of my favorite poetry anthologies, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poets of Witness, edited by the esteemed poet Carolyn Forche, who has recently published a highly anticipated, lyrical memoir What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance about her time in El Salvador in the 1970s bearing witness to the horrors of war and human rights abuses. With the brutality and crimes against humanity happening along our southern border, in addition to bloodshed from white supremacist terrorist attacks in El Paso and Dayton, it is hard not to think we have firmly crossed the threshold into our own dark times. Language has consequences. It has been said, our lives are human documents. What is written in those documents is us. Philosopher/theologian Martin Buber once said,“Whoever speaks one of the basic words enters into the word and stands in it.” Poetry is one way to enter into the words of witness. This autumn I will be using Forche’s 1993 anthology as part of my poetry workshop at Northern Vermont University, where we will learn all we can about the poetry of witness. I can’t stress this enough in my blogs this week: “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there,” William Carlos Williams once said in his poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”. We are collectively staring into an abyss right now. It’s important to remember history. What is past is prologue. People are dying right here, right now. I began reading Carolyn Forche’s seminal book of poems “A Country Between Us” when I was in college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1980s. In hindsight, I see how her writing and witness about El Salvador helped bring to light, along with other organizations for which she worked like Amnesty International, the brutality and horror of what was happening, bringing a palpable awareness of human rights onto campus. One of the most important poems to me from that collection has been “The Colonel”, a poem that recounts a harrowing experience when her friend and mentor Leonel Gomez Vides, an El Salvadoran revolutionary, brings her to a dinner party at the home of a Colonel, who confronts them in a terrifying manner on the eve of all out war: “…He spilled many ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves….As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves. He swept the ears on the floor with his arm and held the last... Continue reading
Posted Aug 8, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Walking the lush, wooded trails near my home in northern Vermont, I have come to appreciate the beautiful, sometimes elegiac, liminal spaces between heaven and earth. I have grown to love that fuzzy line between what is and what I cannot know. As a teenager I thought I knew everything. How exhausting that was! Youth mostly believes in sheer will mixed with magic, at least mine did. Sometimes I yearn for that solidarity of mind and opinion, but mostly not. This week on my walks, while communing with raspberries and Queen Ann’s lace, mosquitoes and moths, I have been contemplating this saying: “The number of things unknown to Buddhas outnumber the grains of sand on the bank of the Ganges.” Indeed, we have only a finite understanding of the ineffable world, and poetry seeks to remedy this human dilemma. This week our Vermont State Poet Laureate has reminded me of these eternal questions in his splendid and resplendent new collection of poems due out next year from the University of Pittsburgh Press. In his forthcoming collection of poems, In My Unknowing, Vermont’s own deNiord explores the nuances and paradoxes of unknowing. The inviting, lyrical voice in these luminous and accomplished poems extends a hand to the reader to come on the philosophical/spiritual voyage of the via negativa. Indeed the ars poetica at work in this collection is a kind of via negativa. These searching poems seek to explore the white light of unknowing and knowing coexisting inside the room of a poem. For as soon as we think we have acquired knowledge, something in the natural world reminds us that all is flux, that to grow spiritually and otherwise is to unburden oneself into a quiet, questioning wisdom. For, as the poet Richard Wilbur once wrote: “Love calls us to the things of this world.” The book’s first and title poem, In My Unknowing, recognizes that in order to begin to understand we must, as the Psalm 34.8 says, “ taste and see” what is good—understand it with our earthly senses first, in the physical way our bodies can “know”. Our senses are one force of understanding, but there is also a counterforce that exists in the world that seeks to not know because the prime mover of this world, whether one believes in God or not, is ultimately unknowable. Our greatest knowledge is to know that we do not know. Why is that? These poems are deeply searching and smart, engaging with the immutable, and the epistemological insights that delve into these human conundrums of understanding. Further, this work reminds me of deNiord’s generation’s clarion call of “we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden” sung about in the song “Woodstock” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. In writing “Woodstock”, the great Joni Mitchell implored that we all must work toward making heaven on earth, an Eden, especially during tumultuous times, and let’s face it most of the times in America have been tumultuous and full of suffering,... Continue reading
Posted Aug 6, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
The Poetry of Kerrin McCadden and the Opioid Crisis This week I will be reporting from my beloved home state of Vermont. Summertime is short here, but it is filled with literary and music festivals, readings, conferences, workshops, art shows, ballet on the farm. Vermont Studio Center, Brattleboro Literary Festival, Bookstock, Bread and Puppet, The Painted Word reading series, Feast and Field in Barnard, Monday night poetry readings at the Lamp Shop in Burlington, Bread Loaf. Poems are singing themselves into existence. We have a large population of writers and artists. Here, even the Burlington Chief of Police is a writer with a book contract. But lately what troubles sleep, whatever sleep it is, (to reference our state’s inaugural Poet Laureate, Robert Frost) is not a bumper crop of apples and the hard work of harvesting. Lately Vermont has been harvesting bodies. The nationwide heroin epidemic hides here behind bucolic vistas of Holsteins, quaint white clapboard houses, craft breweries serving farm to table gluten free pizza, and old-timey country inns. Even here many suffer poverty of pocket and soul. “Men die miserably everyday,” William Carlos Williams once said, “for lack of what is found” in poetry. So what is it about poetry that can heal us? For starters it bears witness in dark times. There is much despair in the air. Many feel what is unseen in the zeitgeist of our troubled and troubling times. On top of that mountain oftentimes opioids are cheaper and have “more bang for the buck” than a suitcase of Bud. How can poetry help? It gives sustenance to the human soul with the lyric enactment of narrative. Sharing stories is an ancient human way to ease the suffering of another, to develop empathy and understanding, to share solutions or ways to stay alive. The psychiatrists of the confessional poets surely understood this: Poet heal thyself. If one can speak the truth through narrative, it will heal shame and trauma, roots of addiction. My dear friend, Dr. Anne Johnston, recently passed away, she was a world-renowned neonatologist in the area of mother/infant opioid addiction. In an interview with the Times Argus newspaper before her death she said: “I would say that all have shame and the shame is particularly bad when you are pregnant and you are using. I think that fear dominates in terms of coming forward. Most women who get pregnant and who are using opioids and are dependent upon opioids say ‘OK, now I’m pregnant. I’m going to be able to get myself off.’ The reasoning of it doesn’t follow through to the actual disease of addiction and you can’t reason yourself out of an addiction.” Vermont poet Kerrin McCadden understands this intuitively, poetically, and gives us the perspective from the poet’s eye in her forthcoming chapbook, winner of the Button Poetry prize (March 24, 2020), Keep This to Yourself. On the loss of her brother to this crisis, McCadden says “poems are our secular prayers. They are the way we name... Continue reading
Posted Aug 4, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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Aug 4, 2019