Poetically Speaking: I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, (340) by Emily Dickinson

This year I’m bringing back Poetically Speaking for National Poetry Month (April) to discuss some of my favorite poems. Today’s poem is “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, (340)” by Emily Dickinson:

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –
I honestly can’t believe I hadn’t talked about this poem before! I love Emily Dickinson. She is always timely and resonant and that is such an amazing thing when you think about how long ago she lived. I think about this poem a lot when I have a headache or raw nerves. The imagery is so powerful and so evocative and, of course, the word choice is always stunning. There isn’t really a bad line here but “Wrecked, solitary, here -” is one that lives in my head rent free.

Poetically Speaking: Myth by Muriel Rukeyser

This year I’m bringing back Poetically Speaking for National Poetry Month (April) to discuss some of my favorite poems. Today’s poem is “Myth” by Muriel Rukeyser:

Long afterward, Oedipus, old and blinded, walked the
roads. He smelled a familiar smell. It was
the Sphinx. Oedipus said, “I want to ask one question.
Why didn’t I recognize my mother?” “You gave the
wrong answer,” said the Sphinx. “But that was what
made everything possible,” said Oedipus. “No,” she said.
“When I asked, What walks on four legs in the morning,
two at noon, and three in the evening, you answered,
Man. You didn’t say anything about woman.”
“When you say Man,” said Oedipus, “you include women
too. Everyone knows that.” She said, “That’s what
you think.”

Sometimes the entire payoff for a poem is in the last line. I’ve been thinking about that “That’s what you think.” ever since I read this poem. Rukeyser really brings the flaw of male default thinking (as detailed in Invisible Women) to the forefront here and, furthermore, highlights its prevalence in all arenas–including history and classical literature. Hat tip to Laura Amy Schlitz for direction me to this poem when she mentioned it in her novel Amber & Clay.

Poetically Speaking: The Stolen Child by W. B. Yeats

This year I’m bringing back Poetically Speaking for National Poetry Month (April) to discuss some of my favorite poems. Today’s poem is “The Stolen Child” by W. B. Yeats:

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.

I think about this poem a lot. Especially when the song by The Waterboys gets stuck in my head. I love the visuals and the way Yeats’ verse draws you into this strange and eerie world. It’s perfectly complimented by the music The Waterboys composed for their recording where “Come away, O human child! / To the waters and the wild / With a faery, hand in hand, / For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” becomes the song chorus–lines that truly resonate with every listening.

Poetically Speaking: Manic Pixie Dream Girl by Olivia Gatwood

This year I’m bringing back Poetically Speaking for National Poetry Month (April) to discuss some of my favorite poems. Today’s poem is “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” by Olivia Gatwood:

Manic pixie dream girl says, ‘have you heard this record?’
Manic pixie dream girl says let me save you with this record.
Let me put the headphones on for you, and smile, while you listen;
cut to your point of view, watch me smile while you listen.

 

Hear that? That’s the sound of you becoming a better person.
I’m gonna paint a picture of a bird on your beige wall without your permission and you’re gonna love it.
And you thought you hated birds.
See me? Encouraging you to take risks?
Manic pixie dream girl wants you to do something you’ve never done before.
Like go swing-dancing, or smile.

 

You wanna know my name? You never call me by it anyway.
If I had to guess, it would probably be a season, or after a dead actress who you loved as a child.
But this isn’t about me!
This is about you, and your cubicle job, your white bedroom, your white Honda, your white mother.

 

Manic pixie dream girl says I’m going to save you.
Says, don’t worry, you are still the lead role. This is your love story about the way I teach you to live.
Everything they know about me they will learn when it is projected onto you, watch the way you pick up my bad habits and make them look good.
Manic pixie dream girl talks too much. Says bad words out loud and cries at the commercials.
That makes me a funny woman, right?
The kind people like to laugh at?
It’s easy to root for you when I act like this, so disagreeable, such a manic dream, dream girl, your almost broken accessory.

 

Manic pixie dream girls says let’s play make believe with my body.
I’ll be a vintage dress in an empty prescription bottle, good girl, just bad enough, a burp and a curtsy.
Let me be not too pretty, hair fried from all that pink dye, sex when you need it, puppet when you’re bored.
Let me build myself smaller than you, let me apologize when I get caught acting bigger than you.
Let me always wait for this, let me work for this.

 

The convenient thing about being a magical woman is that I can be gone as quickly as I came.
And when you are a whole person for the first time, the movie is over.
Manic pixie dream girl doesn’t go on; there’s no need for her anymore.
Manic pixie dream girl is too dream girl, and you just woke up.

 

Once, I told you I was afraid of my father, and for a moment, I looked so human, the audience lost interest.
You saw the crow’s feet at the sides of my eyes and a small chip on my front tooth.
I looked just like everyone else.

You can watch Gatwood read “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJjJfE_QNMY

I found this poem last year after picking up Gatwood’s collection New American Best Friend. You can find Gatwood’s work online and buy her books on Bookshop.org

This is the kind of poem that I wish I had written myself. I love the imagery, the distinct details, and the way the poem dismantles the supposed mythic beauty of the manic pixie dream girl trope.

Every part of this poem is haunting, particularly the conclusion, but I especially like this line: “The convenient thing about being a magical woman is that I can be gone as quickly as I came.”

Poetically Speaking: Forgetfulness by Billy Collins

This year I’m bringing back Poetically Speaking for National Poetry Month (April) to discuss some of my favorite poems. Today’s poem is “Forgetfulness” by Billy Collins:

The name of the author is the first to go
 followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
 which suddenly becomes one you have never read, 
never even heard of,

 

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
 decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
 to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye 
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
 and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
 the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

 

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember 
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
 not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

 

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
 whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
 well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those 
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

 

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night 
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
 No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
 out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

During the pandemic I started doing weekly generative meetings with my writing group and began contributing some prompts. I came across this one when I was working on prompts about memories and forgetting.

I’ve started to think of this poem as the definition of bittersweet. The writing is so lyrical and conjures these poignant images even while talking about those same memories inexorably slipping away.

The Poet X: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Poet X by Elizabeth AcevedoXiomara Batista may not know exactly who she is, but she knows who she isn’t. She isn’t the devout, proper girl her traditional Dominican mother expects her to be. She isn’t the genius like her twin brother. She isn’t the quiet girl that her teachers would probably before. And she definitely isn’t whatever it is that the boys and men who catcall her expect either.

Xiomara is tough. She is a fighter. She is unapologetic. She may not believe in god–or at least not enough to complete her communion classes the way her mother wants. She might be falling for a boy for the first time. And, after discovering slam poetry in her English class, she is starting to realize that she is a poet in The Poet X (2018) by Elizabeth Acevedo.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Poet X is Acevedo’s powerful debut (verse) novel. It is also a National Book Award and Printz award winner.

Individual poems come together to tell Xiomara’s story as she journals her way through a tumultuous year in high school as she tries to reconcile expectations placed upon her with the person she wants to become.

Familial conflict is tempered with a sweet romance and Xiomara’s journey from quiet observer to a poet ready to take center stage. Questions of faith and what it means to be devout are also constantly on Xiomara’s mind as she tries (and fails) to be the kind of Catholic girl her mother expects.

The Poet X is a fierce, engaging, feminist story that explores what it means to create and live on your own terms. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali, A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhatena, Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson and Emily Carroll, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, 500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario, Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty, Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough, Pride by Ibi Zoboi

Kissing in America: A Review

Kissing in America by Margo RabbEva Roth’s father died two years ago. She tells everyone it was the result of a heart attack because the real answer–that he died in a plane crash–is too sensational and messy. No one asks more questions about a heart attack.

Eva’s father was always the one who understood her, the one she’d sit with and write. In his absence Eva feels more friction than anything else when it comes to her women’s studies professor mother–something her mother suspects is at the root of Eva’s love of romance novels.

When Eva meets Will Freeman it seems like she might have found someone who really understands. Someone who can possibly help her to move past her grief. Until he moves away.

Afraid of losing Will and everything he promises, Eva and her best friend Annie Kim make a plan to travel across the country to find Will again. Along the way Eva and Annie will see unexpected pieces of the country and learn some surprising things about love in Kissing in America (2015) by Margo Rabb.

Kissing in America is Rabb’s followup to her YA debut Cures for Heartbreak. This novel treads similar territory as Eva tries to find her way through grief and her teen years. Although it is often touted as a light romance and a summery read, this story is filled with melancholy and very much mired in Eva’s grief.

Rabb’s writing remains superlative and evocative. Eva’s love of poetry also plays out in the novel with references to and poems from Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, Nikki Giovanni, Marie Howe, and other authors add another layer to this story. While this book is marketed as a romance, it is really Eva’s relationship with her best friend and with her mother that makes Kissing in America shine.

Eva’s mother in an interesting character who is a vocal feminist and a women’s studies professor. She terms Eva’s love of romance novels as a rebellion which never quite rings true as the romance genre is one where women are able to dominate the market and a genre that is often referenced for its feminist elements and even promoting female equality. That this never comes up in the story remains a frustrating omission.

Kissing in America is a thoughtful and witty road trip story about best friends, family, grieving and, of course, love. Recommended for readers looking for a smart read that will have them smiling through the tears.

Possible Pairings: Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, Black and White by Paul Volponi, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson

Poetically Speaking: The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams

This year I am doing a stripped down version of Poetically Speaking with a post every Friday about a favorite poem.

so much depends
upon

 

a red wheel
barrow

 

glazed with rain
water

 

beside the white
chickens.

The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams is arguably one of the best known and most significant modern poems. It’s iconic. It’s one of the first poems I read as a student of poetry in college and it’s probably part of why Williams is a favorite poet of mine to this day. I’ve always thought of him as a poet of the people–there’s something for everyone to love in his work. His poems are easily remixed and retooled and most of them are even social media friendly. I am certain that Williams would have loved Twitter.

Williams is part of the modernist poetry movement. He wrote poetry when our ideas of what a poem could be and what a poem should be were changing; he’s part of why those ideas changed. You can see why with “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

This poem is sleek and elegant but it’s also earthier and more subtle than many earlier poems (like Shakespearean sonnets or Romantic poetry from writers like Blake or Shelley). Williams brings the same intricacy and thought to this poem–that’s the whole basis of what a poem does, after all–but it’s still a bit shocking.

This poem is stark. It’s a flash. A moment. Blink and you might miss it. Read it too fast and the beauty is lost. Unlike many other poetic forms, this free verse poem is also deceptive. Williams effectively draws the reader’s attention away from the complexity of this poem. The simplicity of the wording and the form belie the underlying thought and intricacy. Looking at the way the words are laid out, it’s clearly a deliberate decision. More so, in conveying such an evocative scene with fifteen words (none of which repeat) in just one small sentence gives this poem added weight and significance.

The poem itself seems to be imploring the reader to slow down and really pay attention–a sentiment that is mirrored neatly with the content of the poem. So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens. Why is that so? Williams doesn’t need to tell us. Just by saying it, by drawing our attention to it, the scene becomes significant largely because we are observing it as readers.

Poetry is timeless. It is intensely personal but it can also be universal. I wanted to close out Poetically Speaking 2017 with “The Red Wheelbarrow” because it exemplifies all of those things. Our world isn’t the one that Williams inhabited. It may not be the one readers will see if they stumble upon this post a year from now or even further down the line. Everything changes but poetry and ideas endure. In a time when everything is moving faster and faster, this poem is one of the best reminders to stop for a second. To breathe. To look around and to look up. And to remember that so much can change because of one small moment observed.

I hope you enjoyed spending Fridays this month talking about poetry here. I’d love to hear your thoughts about “The Red Wheelbarrow” (or any other poems) in the comments as we close out another National Poetry Month.

Poetically Speaking about Antigonish [I met a man who wasn’t there] by Hughes Mearns

This year I am doing a stripped down version of Poetically Speaking. Check back every Friday in April to chat about poems with me.

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…

 

When I came home last night at three
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door… (slam!)

 

Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away…

Antigonish by Hughes Mearns is the kind of poem that I feel like everyone knows. It’s catchy, just a bit creepy, and it’s been long enough to worm its way into its fair share of popular culture.

Mearns wrote this poem in 1899 as part of a play. According to the Internet it was inspired, apparently, by reports in Antigonish, Nova Scotia of a roaming ghost. In some ways it makes perfect sense that the poem is meant to evoke a ghostly presence. The cadence and rhyme scheme are just a little eerie as is the concept of a man who isn’t there.

Interestingly, the poem feels much more whimsical and childlike when read in its entirety whereas reading the first stanza in isolation feels much more sinister and seems to refer to more than a mere ghostly presence.

Rhyming poetry can be a bit controversial. People either love it or they hate it. Rarely is there any kind of in between. I’ve always been a big fan and I think this poem is a good example of the versatility that can be found even within the restrictions of an ABAB rhyme structure.

What do you think? Is this poem as much a part of the zeitgeist as I think? Do you think it’s creepy or funny? Let’s talk in the comments.

Poetically Speaking about The Return of Persephone by A. D. Hope

This year I am doing a stripped down version of Poetically Speaking. Check back every Friday in April to chat about poems with me.

Gliding through the still air, he made no sound;
Wing-shod and deft, dropped almost at her feet,
And searched the ghostly regiments and found
The living eyes, the tremor of breath, the beat
Of blood in all that bodiless underground.

She left her majesty; she loosed the zone
Of darkness and put by the rod of dread.
Standing, she turned her back upon the throne
Where, well she knew, the Ruler of the Dead,
Lord of her body and being, sat like stone;

Stared with his ravenous eyes to see her shake
The midnight drifting from her loosened hair,
The girl once more in all her actions wake,
The blush of colour in her cheeks appear
Lost with her flowers that day beside the lake.

The summer flowers scattering, the shout,
The black manes plunging down to the black pit —
Memory or dream? She stood awhile in doubt,
Then touched the Traveller God’s brown arm and met
His cool, bright glance and heard his words ring out:

“Queen of the Dead and Mistress of the Year!”
— His voice was the ripe ripple of the corn;
The touch of dew, the rush of morning air —
“Remember now the world where you were born;
The month of your return at last is here.”

And still she did not speak, but turned again
Looking for answer, for anger, for command:
The eyes of Dis were shut upon their pain;
Calm as his marble brow, the marble hand
Slept on his knee. Insuperable disdain

Foreknowing all bounds of passion, of power, of art,
Mastered but could not mask his deep despair.
Even as she turned with Hermes to depart,
Looking her last on her grim ravisher
For the first time she loved him from her heart.

Sometimes finding a new poem is a bit like magic. My mom and I have a Tuesday night ritual: we watch mysteries on PBS. Recently that has included The Doctor Blake Mysteries which is set in 1959 Australia and follows the eponymous Doctor Lucian Blake as he investigates murders around Ballarat in his capacity as police surgeon. Anyway, it’s a great show and The Return of Persephone by A. D. Hope was a pivotal part of this week’s episode. Despite being fascinated by the myth of Persephone since I was a teen, I had never encountered this poem (or the poet) before. I was relieved when I later found the entire thing online (having heard only the last stanza on the episode).

“The Return of Persephone” doesn’t focus on the usual part of the Persephone myth in that it doesn’t start at the beginning. We don’t see Hades get struck by one of Cupid’s arrows (at Aphrodite’s urging) and fall in love with Persephone. We don’t see him kidnap her although it is alluded to in the middle of the poem. We don’t see Demeter’s search for her daughter and the subsequent famine when she refused to allow anything to grow until her daughter is returned to her. Hope doesn’t even show Persephone eating a pomegranate seed forever binding her to the underworld for half of each year.

Instead Hope assumes readers have that knowledge coming into the poem beginning at what is typically the end of the story. The bargain has been struck and Persephone now splits her time between the underworld with Hades and the world above with her mother Demeter. Hermes is coming to bring Persephone back to the land of the living.

I really like that even with a knowledge of the myth, this poem feels unexpected. When I read it for the first time I didn’t realize we were starting with Hermes’ arrival and the revelation feels like a shock–the same jolt Hades and Persephone must have when they realize it’s time.

Hades is, to put it mildly, kind of awful. He kidnaps Persephone and holds her captive. Depending on the version of the story you read he also rapes her and then, to add insult to injury he forces her to eat a pomegranate seed to bind her to him forever. Hope hints at that here when Persephone looks back on Hades and thinks of him as “Lord of her body and being” while he watches impassively from her throne.

I also love the third stanza as it describes Persephone’s transformation back into the maiden of spring as she prepares to leave with Hermes and the way it seamlessly blends into the next stanza about her initial abduction.

And then we get to the end of the poem. Persephone is leaving with Hermes but she’s also watching, waiting, to see if Hades will try to stop her (again) or if he will react at all. And maybe it’s my abiding love for this myth or maybe it’s Hope’s deliberate choice, but it feels like Hades has resigned himself to this parting. He closes his eyes to it and let’s it come to pass. He’s used forced, he’s schemed, but he has to let Persephone go and now he’s left with only “deep despair” as she goes to Hermes and prepares to leave.

Writing this I’ve also realized that my love of Persephone’s story is all folded up with my fascination with Fire and Hemlock–one of my favorite books of all time. In it, Jones offers up a sly retelling of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer borrowing elements from various versions of the story. Like Hades in Hope’s poem, Polly–the heroine of Fire and Hemlock–has to make a choice to let someone go (though Polly’s intentions are purer and her choices stems from hoping to save Tom and not a mandate issued from the gods). As Polly let’s Tom go she realizes with striking clarity that it has to be forever because “To love someone enough to let them go, you had to let them go forever or you did not love them that much.” And Hades doesn’t do that, of course, because Persephone will be back in half a year.

But it still gives Persephone pause. “Looking her last on her grim ravisher  / For the first time she loved him from her heart.” I love this last couplet. It’s the reason I tracked down the poem after hearing it on Doctor Blake. Hope cuts right to the heart of the dynamic between Persephone and Hades–all of the problems, all of the reasons it’s such an enduring story–in those two lines. Persephone looks at Hades and she knows everything he has done, all of the horrible things that she can’t forget or forgive, but she also sees him letting her go and regretting their parting. For the first time she’s seeing that there might be more to him. Because of that choice to let her go and the vulnerability in watching it, Persephone cares for the first time. It’s such powerful imagery. I can’t stop thinking about it and it is but one of the reasons I absolutely love this poem.

Have you heard of A. D. Hope? Was this your first time reading “The Return of Persephone”? What did you think of it? Am I crazy for thinking Hades has some redeeming qualities (or at least the hint of some)? Let’s talk in the comments.