Harold Washington Library – Author Unknown

If anyone can direct me to the original source of the image in the link, I’d be much obliged.

The way things can be perceived as poetry is kind of fascinating to me; while in general I think there’s a set of writing structures that are easy to recognize as poetry (rhyming couplets, limericks, haiku, for example) what actually constitutes “poetry” is difficult to pin down. When we get to more freeform styles, it has more to do with there being a certain rhythm or intentionality about the way the text is read and structured on the page. Which, now that it’s pointed out to me, this script definitely weirdly has? I’m never going to be able to un-hear it.

The Old Astronomer – Sarah Williams

This is one of my favorite poems of all time, probably. I think a lot of people are, at least, aware of it; I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night is the oft-quoted line that I’ve seen all across the internet.

It’s a beautiful line on its own, but I wish the full poem was more widely read, because I think it provides context that makes the line even more beautiful. The way in which science is not only a love of facts but a wonder at the unknown; the way work is not only creating a thing for yourself but in building a legacy that you have to eventually let go of. The old astronomer confronts death, regretting not the incomplete state of his work (for what can ever be said to be complete work?) but wishing that he might have been more kind throughout his life.

As someone in a science field myself, I think sometimes we focus too much on individual genius and achievement, on a sort of science heroism. The old astronomer is most delighted of all that his pupil wants to carry on his work—still with the reminder that “Not to-day nor yet to-morrow can complete a perfect age.” The work will never be done; the best we can do is to pass our understanding on to those who follow, so that they can take it farther than we could ever imagine. Even Tycho Brahé “may know the law of all things, yet be ignorant of how / We are working to completion, working on from then to now.

The Hours of Darkness – W.S. Merwin

I had to look up a few things—I didn’t know who Vermeij was, for example, or Rumphius—and this is one of those poems where I really do wish I had one of those annotated high school discussion guides to expand on all of the references, because some I know and some I don’t. (Trying to google the part about the “black queen” and “alien lights” just got me links to stuff on the Alien wiki. Thanks, internet.)

I think I have some ideas about it, though—the opening stanzas discuss:

how often you return
to the subject of not seeing
to the state of blindness
whether you name it or not
do you intend to speak of that
as often as you do
do you mean anything by it

Vermeij and Rumphius were both blind—Vermeij from the age of 3, Rumphius from glaucoma—and the rest of the names he lists also experienced blindness at some point in their lives, it seems, from a casual combing through Wikipedia. Borges wrote in “Seven Nights”: “No one should read self-pity or reproach / Into this statement of the majesty / Of God; who with such splendid irony, / Granted me books and night at one touch” and went on to write more poetry on that topic in the collection In Praise of Darkness.

When we speak of “the subject of not seeing”, what do we mean by it? The men he references may not have been able to see, but wrote and discovered with a clarity that goes beyond the way we metaphorically use the word “blindness.” The second-to-last stanza I spent some time puzzling over and feels to me to say that there’s so much more to understanding the world around us than simply being able to physically see it, bright points in a vaster darkness that is yet not empty. “How small the day is / the time of colors / the rush of brightness.

White Heron Rises Over Blackwater – Mary Oliver

A persistent theme through Mary Oliver’s work is the natural world as both beauty and metaphor in one—to be admired and also to be learned from. This is one of those particularly meta-level works of writing that is at least a little about writing; here I think the act of writing poetry is a little undersold:

My kind of work, which is only putting words on a page,

The pencil

Haltingly calling up

The light of the world,

“Only” putting words on a page! The care taken to split the lines shorter on those three lines to emulate the world “haltingly”—that’s not just putting words on a page, although that bit feels knowingly tongue-in-cheek when coupled with calling it “calling up / the light of the world.”

Though, even then, she compares it as less bright than the song of the mockingbird, or the vision of a heron in flight: the light of the world bearing the light of the world. The heron is the inspiration she was looking for: “He is exactly the poem I wanted to write.” There’s a lot of back-and-forth on the topic of how to be as productive a writer as one wants to be—I see a lot of people asking for advice on writing blogs and columns who seem to be waiting for inspiration to come find them, chasing that “perfect” idea that hasn’t come to them yet. I think here in this poem it’s less that, and more being open to the inspiration that the world around you holds. Writing is a solo activity, most of the time, but it’s not something we can really do cloistered, especially since the ideal of most writers is to reach out to others and have them understand or feel understood.

(Though: speaking of understanding—I decided I wanted to write about this poem when I saw this post of the last line, written in lovely cursive, which takes on a completely different meaning out of context from the rest of the poem, ha ha ha.)

None of this is Appetizing – Niina Pollari

In the poems contained in Niina Pollari’s Fabulous Essential, the real and everyday takes on a fantastical and sometimes almost eldritch tone. In “None of this is Appetizing,” the image painted is one of a wide world full of people but nonetheless also one of quiet, stifling loneliness. There’s a longing for communication and connection (Who isn’t seeking a beating? / A well-timed secret? A discount on pharmaceuticals / from a stranger with a weird name?) but it’s one-sideded, impersonal, distant or all of those.

[…] The dead
letter box is filled with cards that say
Staggering vista, wish you were nearer
in oblique forgotten scripts.

(And even nearer rather than here creates an extra sense of distance.) Even in the city, people stay indoors, apart, shrinking from bad weather and each other. All the mail I get these days is catalogs and bills and business, and email is only a little better. I see plenty of people, and sometimes even then I can feel a little set adrift. I used to be able to make more time for friends, when I was younger, but I’m not sure I appreciated that until now. I’ve seen a handful of people my age talk about how hard it feels to meet people as an adult and really make a connection.

It’d be easy to say that we have more methods of communication than ever and less talking, but I wasn’t good at this either when I was younger and communication wasn’t oversaturated—you know all those friends you make at summer camp and then never write to or see again? When the fact that you tried somehow makes it feel lonelier.

(None of this is Appetizing appears in Fabulous Essential from Birds of Lace.)

A No Good Way To Wake Up – Alexis Pope

The way the lines of A No Good Way To Wake Up break inevitably in the middle of a thought, only to more-or-less continue a short pause later reads like waking up feels, in a way—trying to organize disjointed recollections of what needs doing for the day, trying to distinguish the line between dream and waking.

I have heard / if you drink too much water you need  / more. Like sleep, everything we need & are told we get too much of. How can this be? I am notoriously bad at getting myself up in the morning; better than I used to be, definitely better than in worse personal times, but I’ve never been good at getting out of bed ever, possibly because I have also never been good at getting enough sleep. I don’t think it’s just me; this is a society obsessed with lifehacking ways around actually giving ourselves the things we need to live. The vitamins next to the bed so I can / remember — I go right from waking up to remembering all the things that need to be done, the things I haven’t done yet. The way the lines break in the middle feels like the way sometimes even in the course of ordinary day-to-day life it feels like there’s never a real break, only a moment to take a breath.

(Available in “No Good” published by H_ngm_n Books)

Rain – Raymond Carver

Would I live my life over again? / Make the same unforgiveable mistakes? That’s a hell of a question, isn’t it, brought up almost casually on a quiet, rainy day.

I think a lot about my mistakes. I think a lot of people do, really; I think in these times more than ever there’s an increasing record of every thought, every action, every embarrassing thing you did as a teenager. (I’m so glad there wasn’t as much social media when I was a teen—or that most of the ones I was on have passed from mainstay to artifact of the early web, and that my teen internet life was mostly pseudonymous.) Well, and like any person with even a bit of anxiety, I can’t help but try to recurse through conversations and situations I think I could have handled better. Would I make the same unforgiveable mistakes? And the answer is, God, I hope not.

This poem, though, illustrates a moment—it’s not even a particularly special moment, just at home, in bed reading, listening to the rain, and that feeling of—if it took all those mistakes to get me here, that’s fine. I’d do it again. I think I feel that, every now and then, and I feel like that more often than I did a few years ago.

There’s Nothing in this Cave Worth Dying For – Rave Sashayed

Look, so I do really like poetry that plays really well to form—a professor in college once called me a formalist after hearing a music composition I’d put together for an assignment, and I think he was probably about right. (Stay tuned for my eventual review of The Little Book on Form, which I own in hardback and is not remotely describable as little.) Playing to a set of rules rather than not can produce more interesting results when the form fits the content; here it manages to evoke the memory of old songs about dramatic shipwrecks despite being at its heart a joke post.

(Things I am also a fan of: terrifying cave diving stories. Plumbing the spooky, alien, never-before-seen depths of the world is amazing—places on our planet as unknown to us as outer space!—and also I would definitely never do it, because I am both a bad swimmer and don’t have a death wish.)

Archive – Karen Solie

Archive struck me in leafing through the collection it was published in, “Pigeon,” on account of the fact that it doesn’t look like one imagines a poem; it is written in long paragraphs, telling the reader about the contents of a woman’s photograph.

It looks like prose, but it is not so much a story in and of itself but a cataloging—or archive—of the stories a simple photograph and its circumstances contain. Why the photographer chose a disposable camera, the history of the bridge she stood upon, the way the very beginnings of spring are there but not visible in the photograph. The photograph contains more than just the actual visual image—it contains meaning borne of experience and history and interpretation. Solie calls this out: The photographer’s read that the mind fills in dimensions of a viewed object based on the experience of objects of its kind. That, often, we believe in things we see the same way we believe in things we don’t.

Every moment that we’re aware of is just a snapshot, a frozen frame in time. A passerby not in the photo—having walked by a moment before its taking—with a bright blue jacket and a yellow dog, “mov[es] like someone with a backstory.” Sometimes I think I’m not really very interesting, as a person, but there’s something that feels beautiful about the way she puts everything in and around the photo down to the smallest thing into focus, even if for just a moment.

Prypiat – Still Life – Oksana Zabuzhko (tr. Lisa Sapinkopf)

The room is empty. / No witnesses. / But someone was here.

It’s both alien and fascinating to try and think about what people will think of us when we are gone—even the idea of someone existing in one of my vacated past apartments strikes me as odd.

That this is about Pripyat, the site of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, also brings in the thought of the far-flung future; while Pripyat is now a ghost town despite being relatively benign now, the places where we leave our nuclear waste need to leave signs for whatever society will look like ten thousand years in the future to let them know of the danger. But here—the signs left over are personal. A half-finished sweater, a full ashtray, tears shed.

Something like: this place is a message, and part of a system of messages—pay attention to it, but not about what we were afraid of, but for once about how we lived, and what we loved, and who we were. How do we pass on those things? Zabuzhko’s former occupants of the house feel like they only just left: On the floor by the armchair an apple, / Bitten but not brown.

How do we preserve these things? These days it’s so easy to publish everything perfectly synced into the cloud, but at the same time others are discussing what fears they have about the double-edged sword of unchecked technology, of what happens in the event of a disaster. What happens when the servers are gone? Absent that: where are the monuments to our lives? I’m not sure I have an answer yet.