First Reads: Like A Fat Gold Watch

I have a confession to make: I have not read much of Sylvia Plath. I remember reading The Bell Jar in high school, but as a poet, I have not spent much time with her work other than the “famous” poems. Not because I don’t  like what I do know – on the contrary. I have taught and treasured “The Mirror” for years, and the sounds in “Mushrooms” have been a textbook on sonics for me.

But in reading the new anthology Like a Fat Gold Watch: Meditations On Sylvia Plath and Living, I realized how much of Plath’s work and life I do NOT know. This new anthology, edited by Christine Hamm, is a digest of response to and literary conversation about Plath’s poems that both introduced me to Plath in a new way and also to new writers. As I did in my initial First Reads post, I will not seek here to intellectually dissect the anthology but to give my impressions upon first read: what jumped out at me, what I enjoyed, what I will want to return to again.

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The Big Picture: In her introduction editor Hamm writes, “Plath’s work is a rebellion against the rigid prison of femininity identity–she writes about ugly, impossible, unpleasant, threatening things. The ugly female body, its scars, its blood, its hunger.” This sets up the scope of the anthology as well as pushes against the vision of Plath as “the saint of emo teenage girls and self-harming woman,” preparing the reader for multiple contexts in which the contributors have experienced and responded to Plath’s work.

Structure: The anthology has each author’s bio and a brief statement about their included work as a preface to the work itself. I enjoyed this structure as it allowed me to know a little about the writers and how they had engaged with Plath before I read. I had never seen this before–author notes and bios usually are placed at the end of an anthology –but this structure was interesting to me, especially since I didn’t know some of the Plath references. Many of the contributors are Plath scholars, and this intense scrutiny of her work has inspired me to be a better student of poetry in general.

The Variety of Responses: I had imagined that the anthology would be all poems, but it is not. Poems are here, yes, and good ones (I’ll mention some favorites later), but there are also essays, short stories, visual art, & explications of Plath poems. The poems themselves take several different forms from free verse to a sonnet crown to complicated collage work. The variety made the anthology well-paced and engaging.

 

The Quality of the Work:  There is much to love here, and I cannot quote every piece, but I will highlight a few pieces to which I know I will return. Tasha R. Cotter’s essay “Explication of Three Ariel Poems” was both intelligent and interesting, something hard to find in critical essay. I will now attend to these three poems with Cotter’s essay as a guide and a touchstone for my own opinions. Lisa Cole’s poem “The Truth Pulled From Her Mouth” is lovely, ominous and hopeful all at once, ending with “To become that which hurts us/is to thrive, to conquer.”  J. Hope Stein’s poem “Ted & Sylvia” offers a glimpse both into the relationship between Plath and Hughes and into the speaker’s relationship and desire to be Sylvia: “When we first met,/you asked me to be Ted./& I said to myself, come on,/what would Sylvia do?/When I say SPRING I mean SPRING.” Angela Veronica Wong’s “In Spring” provides masterful line breaks and stunning lines like “My crabheart scuttles like a nightmare.” And Sarah Busse’s “Four Letters to Sylvia” are both homages to the poet and their own universes of words: “Dear genius, dead girl, what can I tell you of sea/or moon, more than you know?”

A good anthology not only draws a thread thematically but allows each individual piece its own space to create a world. Like a Fat Gold Watch does this quite well, giving each piece the opportunity to shine on its own merits as well as enter a larger conversation with a poet who most people know of, but now will want to know more deeply.  I recommend this anthology not only to anyone who already has a relationship with Plath’s work, but also to Plath “novices” like myself. I guarantee that you will enjoy this collection either way.

 

 

 

2016 Reads:ABCs of Women’s Work by Kathleen Kirk

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This is about literary community. And laziness. Yes, you read that correctly. Laziness. Since I read a good amount of poetry but really struggle to keep up with an online reading record (like Goodreads- I just can’t ever seem to remember to log things there)- I thought I would do my best to chronicle my reading here. (Since I also do not post here often enough, it will hopefully prod me to do that as well.)

My first delightful read of 2016 was Kathleen Kirk’s newest chapbook from Red Bird entitled The ABCs of Women’s Work, an abecedarian of sorts, with each poem starting with a consecutive letter of the alphabet. These poems address truths about the complex and beautiful ways that women work. Not work as in labor, although there is labor here. Not “women’s work” as in traditional gender roles. But the work of living.

It is difficult for me to choose a favorite, but Kirk has a magical way of weaving the familiar and the strange into song that is perfected in “Doorknob”:

It fell out onto the fiberglass
floor of the shower
right in the middle of my breast
*
self exam, my doorknob
of a heart. Loud, echoey bump
and clatter as when
*
the ritzy shampoo
my daughter uses falls off
the wet ledge.
*
Porcelain itself, and scallop
edged, it didn’t break.
Neither did the floor crack.
*
Everything went on as usual.
Dried my hair, tucked
the doorknob in a top drawer
*
under an embroidered
hankie from my grandmother.
I might have expected
*
emptiness. Or blood. Maybe a scar,
difficulty breathing?
But something keeps
(
opening, opening.
*
There is so much to admire in this poem. Let’s start with the line breaks. We have the line break on breast (making us imagine the worst we can imagine when we hear breast), then the break at doorknob (making us think the actual object has fallen), then the surprise of the metaphor for the heart.  Bump reechoes the panic of breast, and the line break of drawer connects through slant rhyme with scar, before the repetition of the final word. (Oh, that ending. More on that ending later.)
The poem then leads us through a generational lineage using domestic images (a daughter’s shampoo, a grandmother’s hankie). When the heart leaves the body in the poem, we assume some great “emptiness” – a death, a child leaving the home -and these are both possibilities. One would also medically expect damage -“…blood. Maybe a scar,/difficulty breathing.”  But what we have instead is a miraculous opening – and it can mean so many things.
A literal opening in the body where the heart has fallen out. An opening of the drawer where the heart is stored but cannot be held captive. But most importantly, an opening of doors, the purpose of doorknobs, after all; the heart that continues to open itself to change and possibility despite being ripped from the body.
Other highlights for me included the ekphrastic “Repose,” the quiet power of “Meditation in a Room of Women,” and the reflective “Funeral Flag.” Kirk is a talented writer and a tireless supporter of other poets, and her chapbook deserves your support.  You can click on the cover photo above to purchase from Red Bird Chapbooks.

Sally Rosen Kindred’s Darling Hands, Darling Tongue

Sally Rosen Kindred’s Darling Hands, Darling Tongue (Hyacinth Girl Press) could be seen as just a book of persona poems based on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. However, the more time I spend with the chapbook, the more I see that this is a book about desire, about the dark sides of fancy and childhood, about how little parents can really do for their children and how much. It is about claiming who you are as opposed to who others want you to be. It is about how nothing – not even the things that are supposed to – will last.

The collection begins with “Tinkerbell Thinks About What She Wants” (full text here in diode), one of my favorites in the collection.  After the beginning with a Barrie epigraph that explains Tinkerbell’s common position as a mender of pots and kettles, the dismissive short i sounds in the first lines make clear what the fairy thinks of her position and her name –

“Tink. Tink. Makes me sick, the lick

of their soft calls, this flighty work:”

Toward the end of the poem, she expresses her desire for Peter, wishes she didn’t need his “pretty mouth to/tell me over, make me more/than a sliver of a dead child’s laugh.” But the highlight is the ending, full of the spunk and fury we expect from Tinkerbell, but in a much more mature way:

“Kiss me kettle-hard: yank

 my sorry ass from Never.

Somewhere I’m skin without wings.

Somewhere my name means tough as light.

Several of the poems in the collection deal with the issue of mothering – Wendy as mother to the Lost Boys, Wendy’s mother, Peter’s mother, and the mothers who now share this story with their own children. The descriptions of mothers are sometimes longed-for, barely-remembered ideals:

“and the warm wind of her moving in

off the edge of the bed, to hover

by cool sheets and bring her hands

down on your face

like rain? We were safe there,”

            from “What Wendy Darling Tells Her Brother”

and sometimes tinged with a hint of menace or sadness:

“This is having a mother:

being drawn down, filled

with the amber breath

of clarinets, promises warm

as their terrible weight.”

            from “Peter Dreams – “

In “Wendy Darling Remembers Falling” (full text here at diode), the memory of the mother is far from idealized, making the mother almost ineffectual. As Wendy recalls falling down slate stairs, she also recalls her mother’s hands, desiring

“the leather of her warm fingers in my hair,

even the smooth-glass drag of her ring.”

What she gets is quite different:

“because all her hands had done

was find her lips

and rest against them

as I slapped and slid my hard way

to her shoes: their refusal,

that alien brown shine.”

Kindred gives voice not only to Tinkerbell, Peter, and Wendy, but also to a lost boy tasked with Tinkerbell’s autopsy and to Tiger Lily, whose character actually has a voice in these poems as opposed to in the story. But two of my favorite poems in the collection are not character poems at all. They are poems that use the story – the reading of it to children and the world it creates – as commentary about parenting.

In “One Ending,” the speaker reflects on how stories (both written and lived) can always have different endings. In an epigraph from Peter Pan, Kindred shows how the lost boys stand chastened in front of Mrs. Darling, hoping that she will have them. The speaker, reading to her son, reflects:

“The boy in my lap

who holds my thumb to the page

is called adopted, too. Have his hands

been on that island?”

The boy tells her he can remember a time before she was his mother, a time of mushrooms, flags, and red tigers. When he wakes later to a nightmare, she comforts him:

“holding him warm to my skin,

and tell him hard that he’s home.”

But we don’t end so easily –the next lines bring back the uncertainty and menace of mothering:

“That’s one ending.

There’s always another one,

with tigers red

as mouths, their soft paws smearing

the sides of the house

that is his sleeping body…”

And in “To Mothers Reading Peter Pan,” the speaker asks mothers if they will be able to read the story:

“knowing no children live on this island

without wishing their mothers cold

knowing the waters are filled with fathers

who swam for home but missed the reedy shore

and may appear

only as the bitter ends

of pirates sharpened by sons

into tools

silver and weak.”

These lines to me are the heart of the collection. Children do make their parents into villains, and parents do fail in their children’s eyes. This poem for me questions how we make our children aware of the freedoms they have in the world and prepare to let them go while still keeping them safe:

“Can you wake

can you tell

so someday he’ll be free of you

as the spiders beneath this house

who weave their own names

from the silk of the island’s storms

coming in off your lips

Will you tell

Will you tell

Will your words help

him make land”

This will be a collection I will read over and over and over again. Its layers are worth exploring, and its language is cohesive and surprising. Get one for yourself and see – you will not be disappointed. You might even learn to fly.

The Daily Poet – A Review

Many writers like to believe that their drafts are pearls of literary wisdom that just need to be harvested and polished, that all drafts are gems-in-waiting. I am not one of those writers. I write a LOT of drafts that never see the light of day, at least not in anything near their original form. I subscribe to the “get it down” school of thought: something, anything – brain dump, word vomit, whatever bodily function you want to attach to raw drafting – because writing is a bodily thing.

Just like a person must exercise in different ways to develop all of his/her muscles, writers need to “exercise” as well – they need to write about things that make them uncomfortable and maybe even hurt a little (rather like doing lunges or side planks). Sometimes writers need to just metaphorically drag their sorry asses out of bed and go for a run, even when they are tired and have a sore throat and don’t feel like moving. Prompts do that for me.

Although the internet is rife with prompts, many of them are simplistic: write about a color, write about a kitchen utensil. There’s no context, no meat. Well, finding good prompts just got easier. Poets Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano have written The Daily Poet, a book of 365 writing prompts to give you NO excuses. Whether you write to prompts on your own or you use them when you meet with writing groups or with a friend at a coffee shop, there is something here for everyone.

The format of the book is simple – one prompt for each calendar date, starting with January 1. Prompts in the book sometimes correlate to the selected date – the birthday of a famous artist, a historical event, etc. – but the variety here is endless, and the prompts certainly do NOT need to be used in chronological order.

You will find references here to Dickinson, Twain, Bishop, and Millay, but many of the prompts also reveal the personalities of the authors; for instance, at least four prompts mention John Lennon/The Beatles, and The Simpsons, Batman, and tilt-a-whirls all make appearances. The voice is playful, yet informed – writing is work, but it should also be fun, and that is evident here. I highly recommend the book for ANY writer – although some of the prompts are poem-specific, most could be used to free write into any genre of writing.

My favorite prompts are the ones that provide some type of linguistic framework: a line, a list of words, or a form suggestion. As an example, here is the prompt from December 24, reprinted here with permission:

In The Beginning

Write a poem today using one of these opening lines:

Beneath the moon I saw…

Because the day was rushed…

In my pocket I keep…

Some days disappear like…

At the party s/he discovered…

I want to be more like the color red…

For extra credit, write a six stanza poem in which each of the above opening lines begins a stanza.

********************

There is much about this prompt that I like. It provides starting language points and gives options. Any one of the lines is an evocative start. And I love the idea of extra credit – it provides an opportunity to use the prompt in more than one way and to keep the language flowing when it may stop. In order to show how this prompt worked for me, I will share my first two draft attempts.

(First Attempt)

Beneath the moon, I saw a heron, still

and silent in the fogged waters

of the lake, slow curve of feathered neck

sculpted in shadow. Such strange grace.

*

Because the day was rushed, I almost missed

the cardinal perched outside my classroom

window, slow burn of its feathered neck setting

small fires. Such fleeting flame.

*

In my pocket, I keep a speckled stone,

plucked from a wild Galapagos beach, finches

darting overhead, slow roll of feathered waves

teasing the black sand. Such simple peace.

*

Some days disappear like stones inside

a pocket, like the tide hushing in their swell

over the shores of jagged coastlines, a child’s

drawing, wild and uncontained.

*

At the party, I discovered a stillness in the crowd,

a fog of voices swirling as I curved my back

against a mirror, in the shadows, not alone

but solitary. ??????????

*

I want to be more like the color red, like

the cardinal whose plumage shouts its presence.

Instead I tuck my head beneath a wing and curl

into the shadows, nested, camouflaged.

*

This first attempt had elements that I liked – the repetition of images used in different ways, etc. – but some of the language and structure was too heavy-handed for my taste, and the order didn’t seem to make any sense to me. I put it away for a few days and tried again. This is how it looks now:

(Second attempt removed as it has been revised for submission…)

It is certainly not a finished poem, but it is a draft that I feel has potential. I’m not sure about the sections- will I keep them separated or look for connective tissue? Will I eliminate the prompt lines altogether, or do they anchor the other ideas in place? I’m not sure. But I never would have had any of those opportunities without this well-crafted prompt. Get the book – you won’t be disappointed.

The Daily Poet is available from Two Sylvias Press at the following links:

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/1492706531/ref=as_li_ss_til?tag=kyes-20&camp=0&creative=0&linkCode=as4&creativeASIN=1492706531&adid=1TVQ073NVBMF1VNV5RXY

Kindle:   http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00G2GJFLG/ref=as_li_ss_til?tag=kyes-20&camp=0&creative=0&linkCode=as4&creativeASIN=B00G2GJFLG&adid=04KXXZW0R5FB9QCD7REM

And make sure to stop by Kelli’s blog: http://ofkells.blogspot.com

and Martha’s blog: http://bluepositive.blogspot.com

Collin Kelley’s Render

I was introduced to Collin Kelley’s work when we did multiple readings of his poem “Wonder Woman” for Nic Sebastian’s Voice Alpha site. So when Collin’s book Render was released from Sibling Rivalry Press, I wanted to see if the other poems were as charming as both “Wonder Woman” is and Collin seems to be. (I only know him in the virtual world, but we share many interests including music and Doctor Who, so I’m sure we’d get along fine in person.)

The collection is firmly rooted in the turbulence of the 70s and 80s – early mentions of Vietnam and Three Mile Island hint at the domestic and personal implosions that will follow. The reader is whisked into the family album and shown not just the best photos – the ones in frames or carefully-pasted scrapbooks – but the candids, the blurred shots, the ones that company usually never sees. These narratives of descent into family disintegration and of the wild upward splash of emerging sexuality are firmly rooted in popular culture – a Barney Rubble bank saves the day when the car breaks down, the Members Only jacket means belonging, and Pam Grier and Wonder Woman are role models. No details are spared, although some of them may be a bit folded, faded, and rounded at the edges like old Kodak prints from the 70s.

The opening poem “A Broken Frame” sets up the idea of the narrator as outcast as its refers to a relative “marked/out, maybe with black wax,/which runs to the bottom corner/where the frame is cracked.” The manuscript is divided into sections – in the first, called “aperture,” we read of a childhood and young adolescence marred by the infidelity and illness of the speaker’s mother and an awakening sexuality in the speaker. In “blowup,” the speaker’s sexual life (from first crushes to one-night stands to hustling to acceptance of his bachelor life) is both simple and explicit enough to be real. And the last and title poem provides us with a “resolution” that uses photography terminology in a more experimental form.

These poems give us narrative scenarios that function much like scenes from a movie. Kelley is also a fiction writer, and those skills show in this collection of poetry. Each poem has a narrative arc and, more often than not, loops back to the opening detail in some way. My favorite piece in the collection is “Broken Things” which begins “My mother hovers now, whipping this world/with damaged blades, her selective amnesia/is rudderless, requires a stabilizing hand/from my father, the elephant who never forgets…” The poem revisits many of the themes in earlier poems and ends “and even from this distance I can hear/her distress call, waiting for a message/that I have forgiven her, and I have./Even broken things can still fly.”

You can find the book at the link above. If you are a child of the 70s or like your poems with a strong narrative bent, then Render will be a collection you want to read.

Poetry Mixtape 41: Braiding the Storm by Laura E. Davis

I was so pleased to receive Laura E. Davis’s chapbook Braiding the Storm in my mailbox last week, and even more pleased to have time to read and digest it over the past week. In Laura’s book, the body reigns. These are visceral poems in both the literal and the figurative sense – poems of the body making sense of the larger physical world in which it lives and also making sense of the infinite internal landscape of emotion. There is both trepidation and embrace of the aging and failing of the body, both tenderness and anger in recalling relationships, both uncertainty and fearlessness in facing the inexplicable or the unknown.  In other words, this little book packs a big punch. One of my favorite poems in the collection is “Remedies for a Long Winter.” Take a moment to go read it at qarrtsiluni.

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Welcome back!  This poem is certainly one to learn from in terms of using image to drive a poem. I especially love the “human measurements of time:/dusk, a jiffy,a teacup of fallen oranges.” I also like the marriage of natural images with images of the home and the body. Throughout the chapbook, Laura combines images in a way that is new and fresh and sends the reader back into the poems for second, third, and fourth helpings along the way.

You can visit Laura’s blog Dear Outer Space to read more of her work online. Or, better yet, go to Finishing Line Press to purchase her fine chapbook. You won’t be disappointed.

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If you want to write:

1. Write a remedy for spring, summer, or autumn, using Laura’s technique of focusing on images to reveal insights to your reader.

or

2. Use the following words from Laura’s poem as inspiration for your own: millipede, artichoke, atmosphere, pinecone.

Shine by Donnelle McGee: A Review

What’s up with the name Shine? 

His eyes, man. You never seen his eyes?”

Shine by Donnelle McGee is the story of Bray “Shine” Philips, a street hustler with a voice that immediately draws the reader into his world. A new release from Sibling Rivalry Press, McGee’s story defies categorization: is it a novella, an extra-long short story, a little of both? However you label it, this work of fiction is affecting and original in its approach.
The short fragmented sections of the narrative – the longest at two and half pages, the shortest at one word – vary in tone, length and voice. One section may be Bray’s internal dialogue and the next a poem written by his ailing mother. All sections work cohesively to create a picture of not only the main character, but the other planets orbiting around him in his universe.

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It is remarkable in that, despite its economy of language and lack of extensive exposition, the reader connects with each character well, from Bray himself to a detective named Armstrong who circles the edges of the drama. For all of its compression, it covers a sweeping emotional landscape of identity, sex, disappointment, confusion, illness, empowerment, discovery, and love. When I finished reading, I was left with the feeling that Shine’s story is both uniquely his and a part of the larger human narrative.

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I admired McGee’s ability to convey all of this in these short (mostly paragraph length) segments of chapters. There are seventy-nine of them, but the book is easily read in one sitting and pulls the reader forward with cryptic pieces of conversations, tight descriptions, and frequent point-of-view changes.

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McGee’s stance of writing with an observer’s indifference, of letting the circumstances tell the story, heightened the impact of the emotion for me. Although there were moments toward the beginning that were disorienting – I wasn’t exactly sure who was who or who was talking- those quickly passed and changed to a need to find out the fates of these characters.

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If you are frustrated that I am talking around the plot or not giving more of Bray’s story, all I can say is that it would do the book a disservice – McGee’s structure and storytelling method are so different and engaging that to tell you more would ruin your reading experience. And that is something I don’t want to do.