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Comma of God I am nothing compared to the Medicaid sneer I am nothing compared to the owner of the door I am nothing compared to the elevator of Heidegger I am nothing compared to the spokes of Vincent’s Belgian sunflower I am nothing compared to Rodin’s least mistress I am nothing compared to the frames of Hamlet I am nothing compared to a critic or chauffeur I am nothing compared to my old fire engine I am nothing compared to the breasts I see I am nothing compared to a tree in any season I am nothing compared to the escalator of Duchamp I am nothing compared to Marinetti’s future I am nothing to compare with Turner’s clouds I am nothing to compare with the lens of Claude I am nothing to compare with my mother in 1930 I am nothing to compare with the cockroach in the drain I am nothing to compare with the jew-hater’s snot I am nothing compared to the beak or the bill I am nothing compared to the past or the present I am nothing to compare with any suit on the rack I am nothing to compare to a loaf or a child I am nothing to compare with any syllable of Homer I am nothing to compare with the foot of a chair I am nothing to compare with the truth of your anger I am nothing compared with what I failed to do I am nothing compared with one note of Lester Young I am nothing compared to the images of Vietnam I am nothing compared to the furnace of Dresden I am nothing compared to the last drops of snow I am nothing compared to a bicycle with wings I am nothing compared to the comma of God _____ Milton Kessler taught for many years at Binghamton University (known as Harpur College when Milt was first hired) and co-founded the Creative Writing Program there with John Gardner and others. Milt was the beloved instructor of Camille Paglia, Molly Peacock, and many, many other poets and writers (including yours truly). Earlier in life, Milt had been a boxer, an opera performer, and an optician (a vocation that had a direct impact on his poetics). His book Sailing too Far appeared from Harper & Rowe in 1973, then Milt, much like Jack Gilbert, took a sabbatical from book publication until The Grand Concourse appeared from MSS Press in 1990. Milt passed away in 2000. “Comma of God” appeared in Best American Poetry 2007 posthumously. Continue reading
Posted Dec 19, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Primary It’s as if I were lying down in the colonnade, in the Lincoln Memorial, in the forest where every tree is so, in the field where the dragon’s teeth were, where we sowed the wind, Mr. President. And I was asleep, the fluids seeping out of the corners of my mouth and my eyes, my guts, my unsuspecting guts like an IED just lying there, in the road between the columns, through the impeccable forest of the National Mall, sentinel floodlights, dead angels, the whole thing. And you were outside roaming around, like Heathcliff, roaming across the moors and streets of Washington, DC, like a flag somebody was carrying through the streets, a furled flag in the darkness flashing between the buildings and then gone, like a flag the last live angel was carrying, running like a thief, like a lit torch in the bottom of a well, in the fathomless well of the national Dream, fathomless Deep, whirlpool, Moby Dick, the angel running and running like the last whaleboat, crazy malevolence, scarred Beauty, sublime Beast, terrible, beloved. With you aboard. Only you. It was like that. ----- "Primary" will appear in Sentence 8, which is due from the printer in a couple weeks, right about the time the 111th Congress ends and the 112th begins. Ann's most recent book, Beloved Idea, came out with Alice James Books in 2007. Continue reading
Posted Dec 12, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Information The boat is the story the ocean tells. The village listens intently and sings for fish. The road carries the carts in only one direction. Where it ends the railroad seems propelled by lights. Information The edge of night is propped up against the farm. The chickens are filled with a secret storm. Only the valiant lady is allowed to rest. Soon she will begin a search for tomorrow. Her guiding light is a man filled with wheat. Information The beards get on the train and remove their hats. Or they don’t remove their hats but instead open their books. Inside their books there are no boats. The women are all modest. In one, a rooster crows. _____ Bob Heman has been publishing his Information in many journals and in a couple of books for several years. The Information just keeps coming. He has been the editor of CLWN WR (formerly Clown War) since 1971. Continue reading
Posted Dec 7, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Will of God A balloon reaching for the altitude at which explosions occur. An aerial photographof a field taken by brush fire. The pollen, a spore from Texas, which genetically alters corn in Mexico. Potatoes planted in steps on the sunny side of a cold mountain. A person inside a drum, in a room beneath the bass report of footsteps, the talking of God. The thunder, the lightning, the face lit for a second and gone. The face followed by another face, the faces in acrowd, they bleed, they weep. The history of faces, their relationship to boots, to razor wire. The thud thud of boots, of faces being delivered to fire. The razor a man drags across his face successfully avoiding his eyes. The drapes behind which Mother died. The eyes of poor Oedipus, first one then the other. Tremendous accomplishments, Father hanging himself from a beam in the barn. Mother’s clotheslines cut in two, the question of what to do with the other half. Overcooked meat, uncooked meat, the living cow, whether to eat the cloned cattle. Each chicken protected from each chicken, the millions of chickens without beaks. A heat-seeking missile. A one-hundred-percent artificial heart. _____ "Will of God" appeared in Sentence 1, when Semana was known as Edward Bartok Barrata. His book Hands of Antiquity on a Modern Face is forthcoming from Firewheel Editions in early 2011. Continue reading
Posted Nov 28, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
In the Field The bungalow is empty now. The clock swings in silence. (I see Grandpa taking me to the urine bucket on a mossy floor, where bamboo curtains moldered.) The bigger room of the first uncle is filled with webs; over there, the second uncle’s smells dusty; the third room (used to be a pig sty) was built for the third uncle, now a monk in the mountains. Outside the door, dogs hear the squeak. You ride me on the bike, like those mornings when we had shadows—don’t be sad the rice paddies are full of weeds. In the field, fireflies shine with your favorite stars; they are friends saying good-bye. They call out your name: Peace Pine. Peace Pine. It isn’t far and let me walk with you—cross the bridge of orchids, So Long, my pine, So Long, my pine. ----- J. E. Wei's prose poem appeared in Sentence 6 and in Best American Poetry 2010. He teaches at St. John's University in Taiwan. Continue reading
Posted Nov 21, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Hawk Sometimes I awake with a headline stuck in my head: Doctor in Bangor Treating Elvis for Migraines; Pharmacist Completes History of Drive-InMovie Theater—and I write it all down in my little red notebook. But there are other nights when blood rocks my heart, and people I’ve injured or thedead appear, hovering above the ceiling fan. The city is asleep, the city is awake, the city is napping. Does it matter? I think, climbing insomnia’s creaky stairs to an attic that doesn’t exist, trying to remember what is good, what is right.Yesterday, my student fell from a tree and died. That morning I knelt before the dog’s crate and kissed her goodbye. I stopped to buy cough drops and a backscratcher. I was cut off twice and beeped at once. My student wrote a story about the Civil War, about heroism. He wrote about an uprising of Christmas reindeer, about a boy and his imaginary camel. He drew a cartoon called the “Devolution of Man,” and he once wrote: “Artists have to try, no matter how hard to love their enemy because it is up to artists to save humanity.” Because he believed in what he wrote, he wasn’t my best writer. He wasn’t a liar, he wasn’t waiting for applause. The clap of crows emptying a tree was enough for him, the simple architecture of an egg. He had climbed, I think, to gain a different perspective, like the hawk that mysteriously appeared today. I was walking to class and sensed his dracular presence, then heard a squirrel’s lament no more than ten feet away—a bone-crushing sorrow for life, for death. ----- This prose poem by Peter Johnson appeared in the first issue of Sentence. Peter's Rants and Raves: Selected and New Prose Poems is out from White Pine Press, and it caps off a sequence of four books of prose poems by one of the subgenre's most significant practitioners in recent years. Peter was also the editor of The Prose Poem: an International Journal. Continue reading
Posted Nov 14, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Gaston Leroux Frankenstein was the creator, but the name in time came to refer to the creation. Were someone to identify a human being as God, the inevitable response would be ridicule, if not concern for psychological wholeness. Dracula, befitting a vampire’s sinister and Christ-stripped immortality, has surpassed the intentions of his demiurge. The implacable descendent of Attila the Hun removed his elderly, mustached figure from the crypt of Bram Stoker’s epistolary novel to be transmuted into a morphine-destined actor’s signature role, clean-shaven and tuxedoed, to be transmuted again and again, diminished ever further. The Phantom of the Opera is a deceptive fellow, too. The era of his fictional environs notwithstanding, 20th-century imagination manufactured him. Gaston Leroux published the novel that introduced the misshapen titular character in 1910, two years after the debut between book covers of Ezra Pound’s poems. The Phantom is only five years older than J. Alfred Prufrock. Leroux was the artificer, but had no hand in this progeny’s reputation. The French-born Phantom metamorphosed into the alter ego of Lon Chaney, whose Grand Guignol makeup was awarded eternity as an icon of American silent cinema. Leroux’s exposition of the forbidding face was sketchy and rendered through the stunned recollection of the Phantom’s obsession, Christine: But imagine, if you can, Red Death’s mask suddenly coming to life in order to express, with the four black holes of its eyes, its nose, and its mouth, the extreme anger, the mighty fury of a demon. An unspeakable birth defect, indeed. No one can tell what guided Leroux’s design. Chaney’s models were disfigured World War I soldiers. Leroux’s Phantom was an architect alienated by his hideousness, by the inaccessibility of heterosexual love. Filmmakers and theatrical impresarios reduced him to a deranged musician. The febrile Renaissance man became a pathetic acid-scarred violinist, became a bargain-striker with the devil, became a Broadway tourist attraction. Leroux’s Phantom died quietly and romantically. Diagnosis: a broken heart. The Phantom’s maker did not leave in such grandiloquent penny-dreadful fashion. Gaston Leroux died in 1927 of uremia. ----- A mini-essay/prose poem in belated celebration of Halloween. One of the pleasures of editing Sentence has been publishing work like this that straddles conventional boundaries of genre (or subgenre) and thereby extends ideas of what a "prose poem" (and thus a "poem") is or can be. This particular piece will appear in Sentence 8, which will appear shortly. I also love the way this piece takes a kind of pop culture approach to a pre-pop-culture era--in particular the era of High Modernism, which also happens to be the era of the birth of cinema, the most pop of pop culture. Continue reading
Posted Nov 7, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Coracobrachialis A deep muscle of the armpit, its action is adduction--put the arm against the body. It can permit love letters to be folded near the chest and stuffed into envelopes, but it cannot raise them to the mailbox (elevation is the action of larger counterparts). Cramped little muscle near the heart. ______ I offer this short prose poem by Douglass Guy this week because I love very short poems, especially when they do a great deal in very little time and space. This prose poem appeared in Sentence 7. Continue reading
Posted Nov 1, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Arf Dogs give commands to me in one syllable, the same one again and again. I speak back in polysyllabics above my one great bark. It's like my dreams falling all night in technicolor splendor. I can't remember what. When I open my eyes and look back I'm just grateful I fit my body through this space as big as a bark. And the conversations I have with myself each day... They're like those silver balls on poles across which gags of burnt electricity arc. And I'm laid out below, inert, until my head smokes and I stagger off with a grunt-thought, cough-out, my smashed send-off. The same thing happened to my friend Larry who claims he never woke up at birth. So for $45 the holistic doctor placed a bouillon cube on his forehead and a lump of cheese over his heart, and Larry woke up and coughed and coughed in dog language and we knew to bring him water. It was a miracle! Only we're not sure what. I imagine that's why we have the public flasher who is able to prepare us for the right moment on some random day when he'll drop the blinding light of his body down in front of us: "Bark!" He makes us feel exact. My intuition tells me yes even a stone can bark. Only the sound it makes is millions of years long and I'm standing in the silence and dark between its two great phonemes of need, going to sleep, waking up, going to sleep. In last week’s post I mentioned Jack Myers, a greatly underappreciated poet who published over a dozen books and taught for many years at SMU and in the Vermont College MFA program. Jack passed away about a year ago. He was one of the first poets, to my mind, who mastered the post-confessional/conversational/serious-by-way-of-humor mode that many other poets subsequently have become much more famous than Jack for writing. This poem is from Jack’s National Poetry Series-winning book As Long as You’re Happy (Graywolf, 1986). Seamus Heaney, in selecting the book, called Jack’s poems “stylish in their pretence of being without style, wise in their pretence of just fooling around”; exactly so. Continue reading
Posted Oct 24, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
A Traveling Monk Observes I have noticed in my travels that people do not put Kleenex out for guests. They do not even put out trash cans to put the Kleenex in that they do not put out. I have noticed in my travels that people do not put towels in their restrooms for their guests to wipe their hands on after they wash their hands. I have spent much time meditating on why this is so while I have waited for my hands to dry, usually in a dog paddling or bicycle tire pumping manner. I confess I sometimes discretely use their decorative towels to wipe my hands on, but I always feel guilty and end up rolling around on the floor asking the host to please forgive me. About half of the hosts do forgive me and the other half usually include the shell in the scrambled eggs they cook for me at breakfast. I crunch and smile and determine to mend my ways, but decorative towels loved this much make me want to puke on them; I don’t like to get sick so I’ll just go on meditating while my hands dry. I have noticed in my travels that people do not put a lamp near enough to the guest bed if at all. Aha I see now. I do not need a Kleenex, a trash can, a hand towel, or a lamp because I am a Traveling Monk and I meditate, I meditate, I meditate, and I meditate in the dark. __________ If you live in New York or San Francisco or Chicago or the Twin Cities, you may not realize that in much of the rest of the country poetry is a traveling monk of sorts, scrounging to find a home where it is welcome. Many towns have a resident community poetry group or two, and those little groups of poets (who usually pride themselves on not being academics) are largely responsible for providing the life force of poetry outside colleges and universities in this country. My hometown has the Wednesday Night Poetry Series, which has been booted out of a couple of coffee shops recently for being a bit too rowdy, for (gasp!) selling books of poetry without sharing a cut with the building owner, and for not generating the proper level of coffee sales. Apparently the musical acts still hosted at those venues inspire far greater desire for caffeine than did the poets. The WNPS now meets in a local community center, which is probably its proper home. My former home city, Dallas, has a burgeoning literary scene that now boasts many venues for poetry and poets’ groups such as the Dallas Poets Community (despite the almost universal death, as in most cities, of the independent bookstores like Patty Turner’s Shakespeare Books that once were the de facto home of such groups). The current health of poetry in Dallas is due in part to the leadership of the late Jack Myers, Thea Temple,... Continue reading
Posted Oct 17, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Navel 1. Button sewn to our skin, the thread bitten off by the eternal seamstress, the darner of celestial socks. Sewn to our chests that way, you would think it holds body and soul together, the only button on the flesh coat. But it’s more like the flower that never bloomed nine months after it was planted—the tight, waxy petals a scar from a wound we had nothing to do with and know nothing about. 2. Every now and then I imagine the dead lined up for as far as I can see outside a telephone booth in a railroad terminal. Everything is silent. Nothing moves. As if the dead waited endlessly for the phone to ring, part of a museum exhibit where the locomotives bulk cold and still in the background. 3. When young we stare at ourselves in the mirror, poking and prodding it, giving it our full attention. Later, admiring the beauty of our bodies reflected in the glass, we forget that it’s there, don’t even notice its mark between heart and groin. Old, we stand with arms at our sides, staring at what we’ve become, the sagging belly, the flaccid breasts, and with a longing we can’t understand, our eyes return to its puckered circle, the plugged connection, the scar we never understood, the waxen bud that never bloomed. Mort Marcus paid good attention to the world, and, like Francis Ponge, he paid good attention to the language we use to talk about the things of the world. Time after time Mort created object poems like “Navel” that serve as evidence not only of his attention to the world and to objects and to language, but to the relationships of people to objects and language, which is probably why so many of his fellow poets loved and admired him. Peter Johnson says of Mort: What I remember most about Mort was his generosity and absence of ego. Certainly, Mort was a fine verse and prose poet, moving effortlessly between the two forms, but it was his interest in others and in life’s particulars that informed his life and work. When I invited Mort to my college, the gig was to visit one class and do a reading. Mort did three classes, and would have probably taught three more if they were available. He didn’t do the extra work to be nice or so he could hear himself talk endlessly (though Mort could certainly talk). He was always in the state of perpetual intellectual agitation. Sometimes he could seem belligerent about it, but you knew no one-upmanship was involved. He realized life was short, so why screw around being nicey-nice about ideas. Let’s go at it and try to discover why the hell we’re here and how poetry fits into it all. Probably what I’ll miss most about Mort is his optimism, especially at a time when so much contemporary poetry is laden with fashionable irony and cynicism, so that it often sounds like dialogue from a... Continue reading
Posted Oct 10, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
The First Laugh The first laugh was God creating the universe. That guffaw is still exploding in all directions, hollowing out and filling the farthest reaches of space. What could have been so funny? The idea of light and sound after all that darkness and silence? After the eons of brooding and grumbling? It must have been something bigger than we can imagine, something that elicited more than a cackle, a chortle, a chuckle or giggle, a snicker or titter. Something say as big as a billion chandeliers of stars, millions of spinning galaxies with super nova popping like flashbulbs inside them. Or maybe not. Maybe something as small as an ocean or a mountain, a whale or an elephant, or even us. About 18 months ago, when Morton Marcus knew that he was terminally ill and was preparing the manuscript for his phenomenal final book, The Dark Figure in the Doorway (White Pine Press), Mort sent me a batch of poems that he wanted to include in Sentence, which he had so generously supported with his work, his money, and his good will. Because I have always admired Mort’s humor, intelligence, humility, and reaching after “something bigger than we can imagine,” it was my pleasure and my honor to be able to include some of Mort’s final work as a tribute to a long and various career, which included not only poems and prose poems (see his excellent Pursuing the Dream Bone from Quale Press) but film criticism and a public radio interview show in California. One of his many guests on that show was Christopher Buckley, who says of Mort: I was always impressed with his poems, and equally with his writing on poetry—clear, direct, accessible, specific, accurate, historical, all in service of poetry rather than the poet himself—whether in interviews, informal or formal critical evaluation/appreciation. But the great energy and character of the man was the thing. I found that especially evident in the prose poems, but regardless of form, what I always found was a generosity and a wide-ranging embrace of experience of life on the planet. Near the end, when the diagnosis was bad, but before he was feeling the worst effects, he sat down and wrote up his essay, “My Life with Weldon Kees”, for the anthology in homage to Kees that Christopher Howell and I were editing. He worked hard and consistently and sent me a hard copy with a disc and a note saying he wanted to get this done before he was done—he was dedicated to the work, to contributing to the larger project of poetry. Mort always worked hard, on his own work and on appreciating the work of others. I recall the radio interview I did with Mort for his NPR radio show from Santa Cruz —I was amazed and a little embarrassed that he had invested so much time and attention on my new book, was so supportive. He always made time for you and let you know... Continue reading
Posted Oct 3, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Oct 2, 2010