poem-a-thon 23: serenading the madam

Gah, managed to get my four poems for today done before the end of work, thanks to a brief lull in things. This is for the NaPoWriMo post of doing a homophonic translation, which is to say, taking a poem in a foreign language and shifting it into English. This requires some clever use of orthography and/or some familiarity with the language’s phonology, plus a certain willingness to skim carelessly and just roll with the punches. My go-to language for such exercises is usually an Eastern European one (Hungarian and Serbian are favorites), but this time I went to Finnish, and the poem “Won’t You Close Your Eyes” by Olli Heikkonen. Here’s the original text:

Sulkisit jo silmäsi.
Heidän valonsa on muita valoja kirkkaampaa.
Se pakottaa silmiä ja korventaa niskaa.
Se tulee puiden takaa, ihmisten valo,
ja saa minut säntäämään
pensaisiin ja pitkään heinään
metsän hyiseen ytimeen.

Että millaista on pudota suohon
suorin jaloin, sorkat kuin lyijypunnukset.

Ihokarvat työntyvät turpeeseen,
jokainen huokonen
rävähtää auki. Rävähtää auki

sillä mudan ja liejun syvyyksiin
on juurtunut pehmeä valo,
sinne on juurtunut
yksinkertainen valo.

Which translates (according to Maria Lyytinen at this page) as:

Won’t you close your eyes.
Their light is brighter than other lights.
It aches in the eyes and scorches the neck.
It comes from beyond the trees, human light,
and makes me race
to the shrubs and tall grass
to the icy core of the forest.

And what it is like to sink into the swamp
with straight legs, hooves like lead weights.

Hairs push into the turf,
every pore
bursts open. Bursts open

for in the depths of mud and sludge
a soft light has taken root,
a simple light
has taken root.

But which I rendered — with my knowledge of Finnish phonology, ignorance of Finnish vocabulary, and a good deal of alphabet soup transmogrification — as some kind of frustrated love song to a bordello ex-baby-mama or something. Not at all in keeping with the rest of my stuff this month, but language and ignorance make strange bedfellows:

Serenading the Madam

Sulkily, I sit on your sill, massing
hate and valors on my values. Quick computations
see packets of similar conventions in the scar
you set me, putting talk into my stain. Value?
You say “minutes”, and tall men
penning sighs in a pinch can have no one
medicine. Who’s seen what I mean?

Add a million stars. Open dots of sun:
sun, or yellowing sores. Caught queen, looped and naked.

I, who carved out twins too vast to represent,
joke that I’m an awoken
raven, the owl key. Raven. The owl key.

Silly mother, you lie on your cervix in
one of your turned-out pay-me-off wallows.
Sins are on your tongue,
whose skin — certainly — is valued.

oulipost 23: cannibal

On a roll with the Oulipost prompts, at least. Today’s was to do an “inventory” poem, dividing up the words in a text by part of speech and working that into a poem. I took an advice column in the Voice responding to the reader’s question about whether to go vegan, and ended up with, um, this. Tongue planted in a very macabre cheek.

The italic bits started as direct quotes, but I cobbled them a little bit in the end. The four lists are verbs, concrete nouns, adjectives, and abstract nouns, respectively, drawn from the response. (There are some prepositions/articles mixed in for flourish. Sue me.) I tried to work in a bit of subtle sound similarity as well.

One more poem to go! I’m trying to get these done early in the day so I can relax this evening…

Cannibal Comes to Terms with Self, Diet

I clearly remember the day I decided
I don’t like people telling me what to do.
Prepare, continue, embrace.
Move, become, reclaim.
Should take, can do, must face.

Something that I once thought was pure evil:
occasionally I’d splurge.
Cow’s body, bird flesh, the dead.
Swordfish steak, bacon, eggs.
Vegan burger. Human head.

I enjoyed it more passionately.
I seemed to love it even more.
Unique, biological, honest.
Grotesque, bizarre, pure.
Full-blown, aware of the finest.

I wrestle with the fact that I might have to choose
a version of myself that had existed before.
Thought in sin in sincerity.
Pleasure. Damage. Brutality.

oulipost 17: food cart veterans

Good thing, given my state, that the Oulipost prompt today was a relatively simple one: to haiku-ize three sentences from an article. I plucked a write-up of some of the Easter fare options in NYC, found my sentences, trimmed them to the (ugh) 5-7-5 format what’s standard for such things in English, and ended up with an amusing little pun in the title reflecting the two kinds of fare on offer at this phantom market:

Food Cart Veterans Explore Deconstruction

Vendors at market:
sour cherry, millefeuille with cream;
an alphabet brunch.

But then, because I never miss the opportunity to flex my Japanese a bit, I bastardized it into this, where some of the words have changed and some of the compounds (especially the last) would probably raise an eyebrow for the native speakers. But I think “ume” can be a seasonal word (though not sure which one: summer?), the images are pretty stand-alone, and I like the contrast between the second and third lines. So I’d consider it at least an honest attempt, and I believe I conserved the syllable structure in Japanese. Anyway, here you go:


ichi-dai ni
ume to dorayaki

(at the fair-tables
sour plums and custard pastries
an alphabet meal)

The Refinery: virginia layton

Three-day weekend, you are a harsh mistress, but I think I’ve got this down to a science by now. I managed to juggle four different social event type things (coworkers, friends, family), stayed off the computer for a whole day yesterday, got some free books and board game time out of it, and finished my laundry + groceries by noon today. And now there’s another 36 hours of uninterrupted hum to enjoy: poems, job applications (what a way to spend Labor Day), etc.

I am getting evicted, though. Not for another couple months, but still, it’s on my mind and needs some attention… damn landlords renovating and whatnot. We’re looking at November for a probable move-out, which I like: in theory, we’ll be able to tell where there’s functional heat, but it won’t be so cold that moving is absolute misery yet. Still, it’s likely I’ll have to leave Chelsea/Village area. Who knows? It could be the making of me; or, I suppose it could be just the obvious. What if I move to Brooklyn and have to learn how to ride a bike? You’re nobody in Brooklyn unless you can do that.

But let’s talk Refinery. Today’s poem is, “Teaism” by Virginia Layton!

Virginia says this piece is a composite of a couple different ones that have appeared on her blog, and sent two version of this one; I’ll use the revised version for the purposes of this post. She has also helpfully included translations of the two Tagalog words that appear in the text: umaga means morning, and áraw means sun. I’ll add that to the list of dozen words I picked up when I had a Filipino boyfriend many moons ago (like when I started this blog; yikes).

I drink my Irish Breakfast from a bowl
and look out the iron-clad
window into the once lushly
overgrown garden district, waking up umaga.

I dredge the river, brown with silt or soot,
straddle the Mississippi with careful
dirge and scat-skittering trumpet; its scent
a stiff drink makes my vision
cloudy, reminiscing my search fruitless
for those ephemeral moments on the park bench when the page
was love supreme: job security, maternity leave, levees broken never entering
the labyrinthine archways of the city where
our souls played hide and seek through back alleys, crumbling
stone chips squalor—áraw

glints from the ring on my left
hand, as I press gently the desiccated leaves unfurling
in tepid water; I sit on this stool with uneven legs
and I can’t let myself go
soft or move too much without losing—
what was it? Art Tatum scampers in my head,
his fingers tapping it, yes, fleet arpeggios jive
into the Duke’s Mood Indigo and I forget
strident cries, “Life separates us!”

I get ready to leave, slip
into the cool, emerge soap-slick hands slack.
What-to-do’s top heavy sink,
what-if’s submerged
bubble slowly.
Water hot and scald shock
discharged as hands wring: deliberate
pain disseminated, regret vaporizes.
The door’s locked ‘cause no one’s home.

And then off to the café where lonely rumors fly
in an earthy aroma, aphrodisiac for Fiona, legend
of naughty enticement,
a machine well-greased like Angelina
(Creole at ease with her sexy)
or like the way Yo-Yo handles a cello
(bravado upended) and the vision of the Crescent
City is a love flung far, a distance imminent…
craving undrenched.

All right, there’s a lot going on here. Let’s do what we can:
– The first thing I’ll say is that I don’t like this in two parts. I know it’s a composite, but here’s a rule of thumb I recommend: only separate the poem into discrete chunks like this if you feel that the themes/angles you’re working with are completely unable to be woven together. (And then, in that case, always err on the side of the ratio of one part to one such angle.) Take a look at all we have in this poem: a meditative experience with tea, a wistful (tragic?) portrait of the narrator in a city (New Orleans?), this musical angle, mixed with the domestic and moving from place to place (house and café?), and a sort of tension between loss and desire. Lots to work with, but I think it has the potential to be all married together. What I’d recommend for having multiple themes like that is to examine the arc you want them to take, then decide whether each stanza of the poem will advance that arc a little bit, or examine the entire thing from a unique point of view. Only break it into sections if you don’t have confidence the reader will consider it one unified whole, because that ends up being the effect.
– The risk we run with such a complicated poem is becoming too cryptic for our own good. Brevity is indeed the soul of wit, and with such a piece of machinery as this poem, it takes a lot of effort to find ways to keep it trim and moving. It’s not a problem to make personal allusions the reader won’t get, or refer to events that have significance for the author only. However, you have to make up for it by making those images equally enticing, with the potential to be meaningful to the reader in their own way. Take a look at the Art Tatum section, for example: even if you don’t know who he is, you’ve got his full name (Google away!), what he does, and how he relates to the overall narrative. There is emotion and connection in the way he’s presented. But in the last stanza, I have no idea who Fiona is, all I can think for Angelina is Angelina Jolie, and Yo-Yo is, I assume, Yo-Yo Ma. I’m not sure what they’re doing in here and how they relate to the narrative. Sometimes it’s better to cut things altogether than to leave them half-cryptic, and make room for the ones which can develop further.
– And thirdly, there are a few odd moments with the language. Overall, I’m very happy with it (which I’ll get to below), but the poem rockets pretty strongly a few times between a casual, everyday mode of speech, and a florid one. There are plenty of poems that do this, and generally it’s not a problem: but I suspect the effect created here is not one Virginia wants. (I could be wrong.) “I drink my Irish Breakfast from a bowl” is a killer opening line, very plain yet distinctive, with that highly specific gem tossed in the middle. To go from that style into “reminiscing”, “ephemeral”, and “labyrinthine” makes me wonder if there’s a focus on the elaboration of memory and vision; I think that distracts from the meatier themes in the poem. Some of the lines also get a lot longer as a result and disrupt some of the poem’s flow. I’d rather see more Tagalog (maybe a whole line?), and more of the pattern with very simple language elaborated through unique structure and sudden detail.

– Continuing my previous point, there is great value to linguistic quirkiness. I don’t mean the SAT words that turn up in poems just because they are, admittedly, wonderful words that deserve a second chance outside a sophomore English class. In my opinion, the goal should always be to use words everybody knows in ways they’ve never considered ordering them before (with the possible specific or unknown word they have to reach for, woven in, naturally). Lots of spaces in the poem demonstrate this: I like “slip into the cool” better than “deliberate pain disseminated”, “I dredge the river… straddle the Mississippi” better than “crumbling stone chips squalor”, “off to the café where lonely rumors fly” better than “a distance imminent… craving undrenched.” As I said above, both modes are fine, and even having both in the poem are fine if that’s the effect you want, but in my opinion, the poem as a whole works better with just that first mode.
– And part of the reason for that is, it creates a more believable Voice, with a capital V. There seems to be very little contrived about the poem: I can completely picture the speaker in my head as the center point around which the poem is revolving. Consider that combination of daily domestic and meditative relaxation; the careful description of her surroundings blended with memory; the details of Tagalog and proper nouns to define her setting. Always ask yourself when you write a line in the first person, “would my speaker (who doesn’t necessarily have to be me) say/write this?” I think this poem only breaks down in that regard when it goes out of its way to use these long, fancy words.
– Finally, there are also some nice things going on mechanically in the poem. With one huge exception (see below), I think the line breaks follow the general rule of good line breakage: end with an interesting word always, start with an interesting word if possible. There is some carefully done alliteration and sound similarity that might have even been subconscious on Virginia’s part: “once lushly overgrown garden district” has a lovely chain of vowel harmony and L, G, D alliteration in there. (This is, to me, always preferable to in-your-face alliteration; “soap-slick hands slack” is a bit much.) And there is a rhythm to the poem that keeps it moving at a nice clip. We lose steam at a few points, but always come back, an important quality in a poem of this length. I’d hazard that trimming some of the fancy language that isn’t needed, and maybe entirely removing some of the distracting references the reader won’t understand, would help even more.

Whew. A lot to get through. But of course, I must throw a few more things in as well:
– Is the stanza break after áraw an error? It’s so distant from “glints”. Not fond of this.
– The poem’s title calls to mind a tea shop in DC I used to go all the time, and a play on the word Taoism. If either of these was intentional, well-done, I say.
– An ellipsis! Get it out get it out get it out.
– Although the narrative is sometimes tough to tease out for the reasons mentioned above, there does seem to be a simple (but thoroughly explored) narrative here. I dig that. This is getting an after-mention because pieces of this concept are already covered in the longer talk.
– I’m not wild about a couple of the grammatical structures, though. “Silt-brown” might be better than “brown with silt or soot”; and how about “what-if’s bubble slowly / as they’re submerged”? What would the poem’s narrator say?

That’s a wrap. Virginia, I hope this has been helpful, and gives you the confidence to further tweak the poem; you’ve got something good going here! And for everyone else (who are, of course, always welcome to send poems as well…), here is a prompt to get your brain-juices flowing:

Pick a mundane event during your day and describe how you do it differently from everybody else, in whatever small ways: use specific, but not uncommon, words. Then pick an event you (sometimes) do/that happens immediately afterward, and describe it in the same way. Free-write for a bit, and explore the tension between the two, and what memories/emotions they summon up: separately, together, and placed against each other. Let this be the basis of your poem. Try to write in a voice that is the Most Honest Version of yourself; try to get at least three points where a complex chain of sound similarity (several vowels and consonants alliterating and in harmony) sneaks in under the radar.

A lot of work, for this one! But I think you all can handle it, you superstars, you.

The Refinery: andrew geary

Oh man, there’s a video of the reading from Sunday online. I won’t say where (if you dig, you’ll find it, I’m sure), because I’m super embarrassed. But I suppose it’s pretty cool. I’m watching myself be all gawky onstage, and thinking of things to work on for the next reading. (There will be others, yes!)

And at last, we have some Refinery business to attend to, with another one on deck that I’ll be posting in the next few days. This one comes to us from Andrew Geary, who says he’s been tinkering with the poem for a while, and feels it has potential that needs to be realized. So, without further ado, his poem, “The Poet’s Horse“:

The horse was awkward
as it tried to tear itself
from the mud’s grasp.
Gracefulness died
after its misstep, struggle
slumped into the ease
of slipping.

The poet relayed this tale
and told me it represented
humanity. He also told me
that an artist digs the dirt
of reality and uncovers
the pearl, receives the music
from the noise and breaks
the impenetrable block
to free its beauty. So the poet
pulled the horse from death
and gave what he thought
was true.

All right everyone, let’s do what we do best:
– The first thing is alliteration. Here’s a theory I have: alliteration works in very small, careful doses, but we’re taught in school that poetry should have more of it because a) poetry must be distinguished from “normal” writing and its rules, and b) Anglo-Saxon and other poetries ancestral to English made extensive use of it, so its traditional. But there is such a notion as too much of a good thing, and if you’re going to use alliteration at all, you should treat it like any other device: use only when necessary for the sake of, in this case, the sound. The subtler, the better. “Grasp” and “gracefulness” hook my attention and don’t let it go for the rest of the poem, to its detriment; I keep waiting for the next pair, and don’t listen to the content. Same with (maybe “struggle”,) “slumped” and “slipping”. Pairs like “tale” and “told”, and even “poet”/”pulled” are less noticeable, but in every case, one ought to think: is this necessary? Is there a better word that would serve the poem more? Which is more important at this point: advancing the piece, or the sound? The answer to that one may vary from line to line.
– While we’re on the subject of too much of a good thing and sparing use, metaphor also gets a pretty heavy helping in the piece. Our workshop moderator is fond of talking about the “of machine”, where “the (concrete noun) of (abstract noun)” is used descriptively. It’s a widely-used structure, to the point of cliché (“the milk of human kindness”, etc.), and not to say that you can’t use it, but think carefully before you do. Regarding other metaphors in the poem, the second stanza is chock-full of them, to the point that it obstructs what I think is the message of the poem. We see that the horse is not real, and so I understand that the metaphor helps build a reported-tale kind of frame. But this is poetry. You can get away with saying “X is” rather than saying “X is like”, albeit not too far. Think about how much more powerful the poem becomes if the theme and message are happening in the moment, raw and direct, rather than after the fact. The poet watches his horse stuck in mud, unable to free itself, and knowing that he cannot save it, begins to think about how he will immortalize this horse in verse. The way it’s presented now is just an object lesson, a metaphor built upon other metaphors– and you must be careful of doing this, lest it collapse like a house of cards.
– Some of the language seems slightly stilted to me. Overall, the vocabulary is fine: I’m okay with the occasional word like “impenetrable”, but some of the syntax is rubbing me the wrong way. I think the two which stand out the most are “Gracefulness died… slipping,” and “gave what he thought was true.” They have a vaguely epic feel that doesn’t seem to suit the subject matter, unless this was a kind of epic horse, or there’s a larger point to be made about the poet turning even a simple horse into something epic. And what’s going on with “struggle slumped”? It’s not that I don’t understand what it all means, in a literal sense, but you want a poem that arrests the reader for the right reasons. If I have to pause and figure out what you’re trying to say at a given point, and why you make the syntactic/metaphorical choices that you did, I’m spending time that could be otherwise spent moving through the poem, getting to other images that support your ergodic* imagery. You want them to pause only when they’re taken particularly aback by a particularly beautiful and unique line. This saves time so that they will go back and read it again! I think of musician Joanna Newsom as a good example for such stunners. Two favorites: “the sky was a bread roll soaking in a milk bowl” and “the hills are groaning with excess / like a table ceaselessly being set.” I don’t have to do any work to figure out why she chose these or phrased them like that (I know exactly what she means), but my breath catches for a moment as I’m swept by their beauty.

* I’m borrowing the term ergodic from Espen J. Aarseth, who uses it (thanks Wiki!) to mean text which requires a “nontrivial effort” on the part of the reader.

Now, all that aside:
– The theme is a good one, and should be explored. I don’t want to say explored thoroughly, as I like the length/terseness of this poem (see next point). Often, I’ve struggled with the same impulses of turning these life tragedies into something lyrical or artistic (trying, at least). As I said before, I think this could be driven home even more strongly by giving us the situation in media res, where the poet is the viewpoint speaker rather than this nameless narrator. That line about the horse’s struggle representing humanity is brilliant, and I want to see it explored more than the following line, showing these different art forms. (The concept is important, but it takes up too much of the poem’s mass.) And if the narrator is kept, I find myself wondering about the third dimension here: does the narrator agree? Disagree? What are the narrator’s thoughts on the poet’s opinion?
– Not that this is a haiku or anything, but there is an appealing spareness to the length and tone of the poem. Gracefulness is the only word that sticks out at me as anything other than natural, fluid, and simple, with the possible additional exception of impenetrable and slumped. (Not hard words, just more florid than the others in the poem.) Andrew has made good use of the economy of vocabulary here, though I think he spends too much of the time on elements I don’t care as much about (like that pearl, block, etc. line). I would want to see even more attention devoted to “show, don’t tell”, though I hate that dictum: if it needed to keep that reported speech element, the title would be a good place to hide it, which frees up at least a few lines for other, more interesting things.
– I want to zoom in especially on that first sentence, the first three lines. You’d be hard pressed to find a better opening, with the possible exception of replacing “was awkward” with a more animating construction. (Maybe “wriggled” or “flailed”? Or some truly jarring verb like “wrenched”? An adverb could fit in there too.) I think this is part of what makes gracefulness so offensive to me: it follows an excellent chunk of language. That, and, it could be reduced to just grace without losing its power. The third sentence and fifth sentence of the five in the poem are also fairly good, although the end loses its way a little bit, as I’ve already noted. The poem is at its best when it has that cool simplicity, and I wouldn’t want to see its length expand much, if at all; probably it doesn’t need to contract either, though.

A few more things:
– The digging pearls really bugs me. Pearls don’t come from the earth, right?
– I really like the sentiment of receiving music and art as something one must be receptive to rather than hunting for…
– …but really, we don’t need all those art forms. Keep the sentiment, stick with the poetry only, I think.

So, Andrew, I hope that was helpful. I think you’re right that the poem does help potential, and I think you can find it within the poem already, without having to turn elsewhere for additional inspiration. Keep at it! And for those of you who need a prompt, you are in luck because I have one just here:

Think about a tragedy that affected you, but not too strongly or deeply; free-write a bit about your creative thoughts that stemmed from it, for better or for worse. Try to come up with an adage or aphorism that states Something True about the world, which you could tell someone, and which your creative thoughts support. Work these into five sentences, with the aphorism at the end. In each sentence, have exactly one concrete image, and don’t let emotion show through anywhere except in your word choice. Try to delete the “I” entirely.

A little Zenlike and complicated, maybe. But I have full faith in you guys.


Oy, it’s been a week. A few things:

First, there are two poets lined up for Refinery! I promise you both that I’ll get to them, and I have read both poems already. I just need to find some time to actually put the thoughts in order and craft them into a post. It’s been incredibly busy at work (the boss is away), so I haven’t been able to work on it then. The evenings have also been pretty chock full of things to take care of, with the roommate away. My hope is to get at least one up by Friday (so Margo will have something to report!), and the other this weekend.

Second, one reason the weekend was so busy is that, holy cats, I did a reading on Sunday evening. So I was freaking out for a few days leading up to it about what to read, would people like it, etc. (I’ve done an open mic here and there, but this was the first time I was a “headliner”, and people paid to get in, and I was up first.) I think it went fairly well; I read eight poems, which got various amounts of applause, and the almighty “Mm!” which is the reading poet’s best friend. Anyone can clap, whether they feel something or not; it takes an actual emotional response to get that Mm!, and you can hear how the audience feels in it. (Fantastic magical realism poem about my grandmother’s house? A wistful, charmed one. Poem about my friend who died of AIDS? One that was ripped out of their throats.) Hoping that there will be other readings to follow, at some point.

And then, the third wrinkle this weekend was a domestic dispute upstairs, followed the next day by a fly infestation in the hallway ceiling, which had me really paranoid for a little while. (I called my roommate from DC, who majored in forensic science, to see how long a body took to start producing flies.) The infestation has blown over, and I don’t think my neighbor killed anyone, but it threw me for a loop. That’s what I get for writing a poem about swarms of black insects, I suppose.

Enough housekeeping natter. Here’s a poem without much substance and originality. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” pretty much did the theme as well as it needed to be done, back in the 1600s. But I don’t have rosebuds, I have berries outside the window, and that’s that.


Every morning the temptation by the window:
rain dripping from leaves and berries from vines
climbing the trellis. White paint cracks,
green globes grow red-violet, and pockets
heaped with adverbs give up their loads:
slowly, eventually, soon. The sun escapes
to drop sugarcubes in a pale chipped afternoon.
Thoughts clip to modal verbs: I will, is promised,
I should, is said. A wrapped bolt of summer heat
and summer fruit dangles before the eyes.
Wet, then dry. Who allows the clumps of color
to blacken and fall? Who allows the sparrows
to swallow them, purple staining their beaks
and their music, their shit on the garden wall?
Then consequence closes in like evening glory.
Participles make mist from hot summer ground,
a backwards-traveling song. Its key is minor,
its moral threatening, going, is going, has gone.

The Subjunctive

You know, I bet I could write a better poem called “The Subjunctive”, but at the moment, this is an exercise for NaPoWriMo (and the last!), to take a short poem we like and turn every word/phrase in it on its head. A recent find is Ada Limón’s “The Conditional”, which you can read here. I liked it as soon as I saw it, at least partially because of the grammatical reference, so I went back to it for the exercise. I think my poem is more similar than I thought it would be, even though I did my best to really alter a lot of elements. Ah well. Language, she is the universal beast.

The Subjunctive

Let yesterday tumble in.
Let the sun unfold its tropical bloom.
Let rhubarb bend with reddened youth.
Let the moon glint as a pure blue monocle.
Let the cat’s nose flare valleys.
Let snakes coldly leave no trace.
Let his cap be a velvet planting-pot.
Let me always keep on watching: the squinted
past, trickling like water on rock, always
orbiting, always changing its light.
Let me meet him again and again. Always him.
Let me waste that first forever glancing away
from each other, back to shy back, catching
a butterfly and letting it crawl the cool sea.
Let it be worth something. Let it never be
enough. Let him say he’s done: not I, buried
elsewhere, ignorant with joy.