So at The Word Works we have a unique imprint that is just gearing up for submissions. The catch? Only those who volunteer time at nonprofits that have a literary component to their missions can submit. In March and early April, nonprofits can nominate their volunteers and The Word Works will invite those folks to submit a mansuscript by May 1. The Hilary Tham Capital Collection then publishes two of the books each year, inviting a new judge each year to make the selections. For information or the nomination form, email email@example.com.
At the end of each semester I have my poetry students create a way to share their work publicly, either as a blog or as a chapbook. First we look at scads of groovy chapbooks that I have collected over the years, old and new, made by artist-bookmakers and by fellow students, well-known examples of the book-maker’s art and kitchen-table specials. We look at first-edition T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost; we look at last semester’s poetry students; we look at early efforts by the writers we have studied in the course. I show them numerous examples of chapbooks that evolved later into full-length books. We pass around chapbooks that unfold like puzzles; that can be read from either end; that incorporate visual art, that include CDs, that are bound with leather, cardboard, cloth, tin, tyvek, bark; that cost $10,ooo to produce or that cost, pretty much, nothing.
Luckily for us, the angelic staff running the behmoth at the campus copy center can format a manuscript into a saddle-stapled booklet, and the student only has to choose font, arrange page layout, print the ms, and present a simple cover design. Some students (once they’ve seen the rusty staples on the older chapbooks) opt to saddle stitch with linen thread. Some create elaborate covers and we have the copy center produce just the text booklet. While we only create enough for the class and a couple of friends, students leave knowing that any Kinkos or Staples can enlarge the print-run.
But we also look at the blog as a way to share work. Students can quickly brainstorm the pros and cons. On the downside, suddenly anyone in the world can see (and possibly steal) your work. On the upside, anyone in the world can see (and possibly appreciate and even respond to) your work. Speed, cheapness, ease, and “never go out of print” are other advantages that students notice.
I don’t introduce the blog option until I am sure everyone has fallen in love with chapbooks, and thus we reenact the movement in publishing of the last 20 years: some remain fiercely loyal to the actual pages in their actual hands, while others of the poetry-loving community realize that there is, oh yes, a magic to sharing your work online. Accessible to anyone, from anywhere in the world? To a writer who by the very nature of the beast works in such solitude, the idea of connecting beyond the backyard or the workshop is intoxicating. One of my students this fall shared that his blog had been visited by someone in Germany only an hour after he had created it. He had a reader! A stranger!
But one of the most moving things for me is watching them truly fall in love with the book as an object. Maybe it takes having someone assign you the task of sharing your work publicly, having then to imagine your own words inside a book, but very quickly they feel it: the cover, the page, the sequence, the binding, the table of contents, the titles, the page breaks, the proofreading, the font… These each take on an identity. A weight. Meaning. Beauty. The Book.
I am pretty sure that as long as there are poets around, the book cannot die.
Funny. I get post-gig depression after a reading, but never do I feel anything but madly energized after the circus of the AWP Conference and Bookfair. Living in the boondocks, I have to make this battery-charge last all year.
From the minute I pull up to the underground loading dock and start to recognize the faces of other vendors, to the final frenzy of box-packing and checkout four days later, I drink in the aura as deeply as I can with every breath, conversation, glance, laugh, and coveted cover art image. So many had good news (my books is out! I’m a finalist! a poem in X journal! an agent! a fresh angle on an old problem!) and so few were there merely to rant or to inveigle. My cup, however insatiable it is the other 11.9 months of the year, ranneth over.
This year at the elevator (poof) I bumped into Judy Halebski, whose chapbook I bought at my very first AWP. I loved it so much that I reviewed it, predicting that it would soon bloom into a full-length collection, and it did, so that the very next year when we ran into each other, she was shining with the good news; Space=Empty was out. Since then, her second book has also been published, Space/Gap/Interval/Distance.
And the reading I had proposed was a joy: Poets Look Back on Their First Books: a 20th Anniversary Celebration of Fred Marchant’s Tipping Point. Audience members commented afterward that the sense of mutual support and community were palpable, the warmth and integrity of the poets (Fred, with Nick Flynn, Laura McCullough, Joan Houlihan, and David Rivard) so invigorating. I felt the same way, and am strengthened for the year of work ahead by the presence of so much goodness there.
Some complain about the pushpushpush of Po-Biz: so much work and so little reward. Objectively, I know what they mean. I am terrible at the self-promotion the world of poetry calls for, and yet I just can’t feel the sour disappointment that poetry’s relative famelessness causes for many. With tireless colleagues like Karren Alenier (my partner in crime at The Word Works) and innovative colleague presses like Lisa Bowden’s Kore (with whom we shared a kick-ass reading), I feel the miracle, instead, of being part of a living, breathing organism that is this strange beast: poetry managing to stay alive, vital, and necessary in the land of malls and cell phones.
No depression here! Only gratitude and a certainty that I’m in the right place at the right time. I hope the rest of you feel the same.
When I closed the online submissions manager for the 2012 Washington Prize from The Word Works, having just trolled through hundreds of entries to make sure no one left incriminating acknowledgments pages or bios embedded, having emailed a few poets who forgot to submit their reading fee, having double-checked with readers to make sure they were ready to tackle a new bundle of aspiring books… I sat and wondered how we do it.
At the AWP conference this year, the strange plight of poetry in America was driven home again. More attendees than ever. More tables groaning with hot-off-the-presses writing than ever. Poets stopping by our booth to discuss their work, to browse and buy ours, to ask about our contest. Poetry readings so numerous the head spun, so audience-dense the heart beat with hope…
And yet. Almost all poets and most publishers of poetry work for free, funding our passion with other day-jobs. Tiny numbers of Americans read what we produce. Presses and journals go out of business every day. The media assures us the book itself is dying.
But poets keep writing, and poetry publishers keep looking for new work, keep trying to connect the writers to an audience.
Denise Duhamel quipped in a Rattle interview once that poetry is the last true art form because we can’t sell out. The reason for that? Nobody’s buying. So we can pursue our art in a pure environment, uncorrupted by filthy lucre, by the temptation to bend our art to the market.
At the “Write This” festival this spring in Troy, NY, one publisher pointed out that in some ways this is a wonderful time. If you love poetry, just start a press. Just start a journal. Just start a reading series.
We all nodded wisely: set your own standards. Contact the poets you love. Choose your medium. If you don’t have a rich aunt and can’t snag any of the rapidly shrinking grant money, what about POD? chapbooks? an online ‘zine? broadsides? a reading series? a coffeehouse night? an open mike? Nominate yourself, step in, and give away all the time and energy you want, in the name of the greatest art form known to our species. The angels will love you for it. The poets will love you for it.
Your neighbors may find you bewildering and your family may roll their eyes at the postage, the toner cartridges, the late nights, the disappeared weekends… But you know what you’re doing, and you’re doing it out of love.
This is my shout-out to the many volunteers who keep poetry alive and yes, even thriving. The writers, the readers, the editors, the judges, the promoters, the teachers, the students. At the moment, I’m especially grateful to all those who work so hard on the Washington Prize, a process I’ve been shepherding for a few years now. Twenty people give their time–days and days–to read and reread manuscripts, critique them, to slowly over the months narrow the pool until just one book emerges as “Da Winnah.” It takes a village to publish a book of poems, and I’m forever in debt to the denizens of this particular hamlet.
Wherever you live, there are similar people at work. Say thanks from me, would you?
By Barbara Ungar and Nancy White
After thirty years of writing poetry without publishing a book, Richard Carr, age forty-six, won a poetry version of the Triple Crown: three book prizes within a year—The 2007 Vassar Miller Prize from University of North Texas Press, the 2008 Gival Press Poetry Award, and The Word Works 2008 Washington Prize—with a fourth book also accepted Backwaters Press. How did he do that? Since then, he has gone on to publish more books, and looks not to stop anytime soon; check out his stunning ONE SLEEVE from Evening Street Press (2011).
As friends comparing notes in 2008 after our first stints as contest judges, we were amazed to find we had, in two separate “blind” contests, chosen the same writer. We asked Carr to discuss with us his decades of writing and the changes that finally propelled him to a new voice, a new focus—and to his astonishing publishing spree. In retrospect, his life looks like X-treme Poetry Boot Camp, a recipe for producing intensity. It’s also a series of choices and “saves” that aspiring writers could benefit from studying.
Like most poets, he began early, in solitude, as a teenager. He wrote in his room in a big Victorian house on the edge of town—Blue Earth, Minnesota, out on the prairie. “It had windows looking west across a pasture and into the woods, but no heat. I remember sitting on the end of the bed, looking into the dresser mirror, writing poems—about trees, I think.”
Reflection characterizes his writing for the next twenty-five years, when, he says, “between periods of failing in and out of school, I looked into mirrors and wrote hundreds and hundreds of poems, whole books of poems, some long, some very short, and they were free verse poems, or rhyming, or spatial, or anything and everything, and some were miniscule and some were grand, and all were written looking into the mirror.”
Always a bit of a renegade, as a math major, Carr cut class to read Milton in his dorm room—aloud, the complete works, in three languages— and as an MFA student he feels he studied philosophy more than poetry. The son of career professionals, he describes his own work history as “patchy, alternating between computers and dishwashing, teaching and bartending.” Although he grew up in a house full of books (reading everything from Dante to Tolkien, Japanese poetry to science fiction, Greek tragedies to Blake and Bly), in his 20’s and 30’s he cultivated a motorcycle-riding, bartender Zen persona. And kept reading. Everything.
In 1993 he landed a book deal—“a collection about trees and pastures and looking into mirrors”—but to his dismay and even embarrassment (hadn’t he, as anyone would, told all his friends and family the thrilling news?) that fell through when the press went out of business.
Next at Bowling Green he took the MFA path, but didn’t cotton to it. “I was not ready to take advice, and since I didn’t connect very well with my teachers, I came away with no professional contacts. I take the blame, however. I frequently went to class drunk. One time, while offering an intoxicated critique of someone’s poem, I tipped over backwards in my chair—got up, kept talking. Sometimes I make a humorous anecdote about that; other times I am simply horrified.”
But there were mentors over the years—Jonathan Sisson and Bill Coggin— and Carr remembers their talks with gratitude, also noting “the big impact that a few well placed bits of practical advice can have, not to mention the vote of confidence.”
In and out of school and his many jobs, he always wrote poems. And then the watershed, a midlife crisis at thirty-nine: “The usual, I guess: broke up with my longtime girlfriend, lost my job, my home, my family (on her side), half my friends, a Steinway piano, a very large motorcycle, my precious, precious power tools, and pretty much everything else.”
Perhaps now we come to the culprit, addiction. Overall, decides Carr, “Probably the real hindrance to having earlier success, in writing or other career efforts, has been addiction—drugs and alcohol—and depression, combined with social incompetence and pathological shyness.”
In the wake of his losses, “without work, and especially without relationships,” Carr couldn’t find his footing. “That was the worst feeling, that existential barrenness. I was completely empty, directionless, derelict and, for a depressingly long time, heartbroken. Living in a motel room on the highway at the edge of town, I drank and smoked heavily—lifting a lifelong habit to smoldering, volcanic heights—until my money ran out.”
Salvation beckoned when two friends stepped in, offering work and a place to stay. Carr got a grip. “I quit drinking and smoking—at the same time, cold turkey.” He moved back to Minnesota, began teaching as an adjunct in the Minneapolis area, and most importantly, he chose poetry. “I cut myself off from almost all social activity, and made space around myself, big space, living alone, walking daily, writing daily.”
He calls it “the big turning point in my life—my Twin Towers crisis—which required me to decide who I am and what I want. I chose poetry. Finally. Poetry has been the one constant in my life, and I have finally committed myself to it. I have no other intention, no other worldly objective, but to write poetry. Other interests and activities will come and go, as they always have, but I mean to build and dwell in only one house now, only the house of poetry.” Indeed, when Ungar met him in Minneapolis to continue this interview, she was reminded of the focus, isolation, and intensity of Emily Dickinson.
In the next four years following his recovery, he wrote five books of poetry. And the poetry erupting from this new life was, truly, new for him. Instead of being driven by the depression which has haunted him and “which drove me inward,” he began “really for the first time looking outward consistently, carefully, and sympathetically.”
“I quit looking into mirrors—and started writing about other people, and then as other people, starting with the son of a famous (fictitious) mixologist in MISTER MARTINI, followed by HONEY, written from a young woman’s perspective, and culminating in the full-on persona poems in ACE. I can only speculate, really, but I think these three manuscripts rose in the contest ranks because they are coherent, complete collections that tell a story.”
Denise Duhamel, who’s never met Carr but agreed to write a blurb after reading the manuscript for ACE, confirms that narrative cohesion helps create the book’s appeal. She also sees his work as part of an invigorating trend of “genre-blurring and poets taking on larger projects.” Beyond narrative, elegance of form charges the book, she says, and she “was really drawn to the grittiness of the characters.”
The adoption of a “truncated sonnet” form (a free verse structure of two quatrains, with optional final couplet) caught Ungar’s eye, too; Carr calls them microsonnets, each serving as a chapter in the development of HONEY.
Carr’s ability to weave a tale hooked the panel awarding The Washington Prize. “It’s that rare thing in poetry,” said one judge, Steve Rogers, “a page turner.” As a fellow judge, I (Nancy White) agree. All the finalist manuscripts contained poems that compelled utterly, but only one manuscript, as a whole, had that grip on the reader all the way through.
Is the secret, then, the triumph of “Negative Capability” and narrative over the author’s ego? Carr elaborates: “I wouldn’t write anything at all if it didn’t help me understand myself and my predicament in the universe. My ego is still there; I remain reflective. And yet by walking in someone else’s shoes, I am suppressed, to a degree, and the resulting poetry is less self-conscious, self-pitying, self-regarding—all of which mar my earlier work.”
In the end, “maybe waiting is not such a bad thing.” After all, he says, it’s not the early influences, or which MFA program is chosen, or the presence or lack of mentors: “Poets still make themselves, as they always have, through reading and practicing.”
And how does publication feel, now it’s finally come? “I didn’t know it until I got it, but I needed that validation, someone outside of family, friends and colleagues to say, ‘Your writing is good; it’s important; it should and will be published.’”
First the word from Backwaters Press; they wanted STREET PORTRAITS. “A certain amount of hooting and hollering” naturally ensued. Within days of Carr’s signing a contract with Backwaters, The University of North Texas Press called. When he heard that Naomi Shihab Nye had selected MISTER MARTINI for their Vassar Miller Prize, it seemed “a poetry deity had reached down from the heavens and touched my forehead with her finger. I felt the jolt of it, a rush of happiness as though I had received a blessing that could never be taken away or turned to ill use or diminished in any way.”
MISTER MARTINI came out in April, 2008, and in May the phone rang again. Gival Press calling, to say Barbara Ungar had chosen his book HONEY. This time, says Carr, he was speechless. “Ask the editor and publisher Robert Giron—I barely managed ten words.”
He likens the experience to a time he got lost hiking in the Swiss Alps. “I lost track of how far I had gone, what route I had taken. I halted, but a powerful urge to go forward—my curiosity to see the top, the true summit—pulled me upward as though there were a rope around my neck constricting while I hesitated. Suddenly I felt afraid and alone, and for a long time I couldn’t decide which way to go. Likewise with HONEY. I was bewildered.”
Two months passed. In August, Karren Alenier phoned Richard from the judging table in D.C. “On the other end, it wasn’t just the editor or publisher—it was the whole editorial staff! I could hear everyone in the background. They cheered! They applauded! It was like a surprise party and I was the guest of honor. That was really gratifying.”
Carr clearly feels a sea change in his relationship to the world, one he’s still adjusting to. “All my publishers have been hugely generous and enthusiastic regarding my work, and for me, that’s a big part of getting published. Holding the physical book in my hands is a delight, but the esteem of editors and publishers is beyond bounds. I didn’t understand that at first. It becomes their book too, and your hopes are their hopes, and they love the poems truly, much as you do, and no one else is going to have this kind of relationship with your book. It’s intimate, like family.”
Considering that in his poems Carr prowls the dark alleys of family-forged, family-twisting pasts, that’s a satisfying resolution to his story. Of course he moved right on to writing books five, six, and beyond; of course he plans to keep writing. But in spite of his fabulous rash of acceptances, he sees no silver bullet, cautioning fellow contest-entrants “not to copy a certain style or form or procedure.” He himself had to “let go of youthful themes and forms,” but each writer develops uniquely. His only certain advice we have heard before: “to persevere, to focus on the thing you love, to hang on, be strong, abide.”
Carr’s story may reinforce the fantasy that “getting discovered” lurks just around the corner. But it also highlights that, as Duhamel says, “all writers are wounded in some way, or maybe more attuned to loss.” It’s what we make of the loss and the waiting that matters. Just the right smelting of self and other, of story and form, of study, perspective, practice, history, discipline, reading, perseverance, and passion—and sure, it could happen to anyone.
We still suspect it helps to be talented, too.
I published my first book through a writing contest. After a year of rejections (maybe 50? maybe 100?) I received the magic phone call: “This is Barbara Goldberg, from The Word Works. I’m calling to tell you that you have won this year’s Washington Prize.” I was speechless. Dear, wonderful Barbara couldn’t help pouting just a little: “I was hoping you would scream,” she admitted. I coudn’t; I could barely breathe.
You think it will never happen. And then it does. There’s a long gap between my first and second books, and many kinds of satisfaction that came my way during the intervening years, but nothing will ever match the high of that one day. Out of almost 600 entrants, my book was chosen. I was…The chosen one!
Many years later, I approached The Word Works president, Karren Alenier, for advice about starting a small poetry press. She urged me, instead, to join the ranks of The Word Works volunteers by serving as a judge for the Washington Prize, then to look around for how I might get involved in their long-established organization. A glimpse from the inside? I said yes.
That first year of judging was fascinating, to say the least. The twelve finalist manuscripts were dang dog-eared by the time I showed up in DC for the day-long meeting to choose one winner. That year was unusual: we were almost unanimous in our selection of Richard Carr’s Ace, and I was awarded the honor of making the call to let him know he was about to be published. Oh! And he’d receive a check for $1500, which would perhaps replace what he’d recently spent on postage, ink, paper, etc., in his life as a poet.
Carr, like myself, was speechless. In fact, he had to call me back because he was having trouble marshalling his thoughts. But that’s another story! (We were his fourth book publication acceptance in the course of a single year, after 20 years of waiting.) Richard and I worked together on the manuscript, and the fine and striking book came out in 2008.
I became more and more involved at The Word Works. I joined the board, served as editor, and in 2010 became president (to give Alenier a rest!). During that time, I ran the process for, helped judge, and edited the Washington Prize winner. Here’s some of what I’ve learned:
- No contest survives without volunteers. Even the ones supported by university presses are now gasping for breath as budgets are cut and the arts suffer. The readers, editors, and even judges (who are paid peanuts, if anything at all) serve purely out of their love of poetry and keep the entire process moving forward. When you send in your manuscript, your fate is in the hand of folks much like yourself. For better or for worse, Famous Judge (if that’s how the process concludes) only sees the manuscripts forwarded by at least one round of screening. At The Word Works, we have two rounds of screening: first and second readers successively narrow the pool to about a dozen books.
- Personal taste does have a role to play, for better or for worse. Still, I have been impressed at how often one of the readers, whose taste I’m familiar with, forwards a book that is nothing like his or her own style or preferred school of poetics. This is reassuring, isn’t it? I’ve seen an experimental poet forward narrative work; a confessional poet forward very philosophical formalism; a writer of colloquial persona poems promote the most imagist, mysterious book in the pile. Keep in mind that your book is highly unlikely to be read in two successive years by the same reader; it’s well worth submitting more than once.
- The beauty of it all: a good contest reads “blind.” No reader knows who anyone is. You can have three books out already or you can be just starting out; male or female; in your teens or your eighties: no one knows for sure. At the final judging session, we sometimes indulge in some wagers about the writer’s gender or age–but only after we know which book we’ll be publishing. And please note: we’ve often disagreed and so each of us has been dead wrong. We’ve learned from that: never assume! Once I am returning manuscripts, I do look at the author information page. Why? Sometimes I’m rejecting someone I know, and I want to include a note. Also I want to get a sense of the breadth of our submissions geographically. Lastly, I do want to see what kind of publishing history our entrants are presenting. I do it because it’s interesting.
- Sending out those “No…Sorry…” letters is one of the hardest things I have to do all year. I know from personal experience how hard it is not to take that “no” …personally. So at The Word Works we provide some feedback to all semi-finalists and finalists who request it. As far as I know, however, we are unique in this regard. And I know why! I give most of the month of August every year to this project. But then the thank yous start arriving: “I said to myself that if it didn’t win this time, I would stick this ms in a drawer and forget about it forever. Now I have ideas for revision and the energy to keep going.” I know that book, which was a semi-finalist, will see print eventually. It’s grueling to find a publisher, but it’s going to happen if that writer sticks with it. The book had some snags, but it was original, powerful, full of juice.
- This year six manuscripts were withdrawn because the writer received an offer of publication elsewhere. This was especially striking because not one of those manuscripts had made it to the semi-finalist round in our contest process! See what I mean about individual taste playing a role? And perseverance? I look forward to seeing those books in print, and I’m grateful for the number of small presses out there who are also getting poetry out into the world. I guess my advice to poets looking for a home for their books is not to rely on contests alone; troll websites like P&W or SPD to find out who’s publishing poetry, check the individual websites, find out who accepts unsolicited work, check out their authors online to see if there’s any sympatico vibe–and SEND.
- It’s true that I do see more than one book in the submissions that I’d love to publish. What to do? Find more money. Find more volunteers. Start another contest. Start an open submission period. Find a rich aunt. Befriend the heirs to Microsoft. I have many ideas, but only so many hours in the day. Over and over I come back to this thought: thank god for the many poets who have decided to donate some time in order to help the publishers of poetry keep the wheels moving during this time when there’s no money IN poetry. As I’m sure you know, that’s what those perishing fees are all about.
If you want to learn more about what “works” and what doesn’t, vis a vis rising up out of the slush pile, the best thing you can do is become one of those volunteer readers. The new readers I solicited in 2009 to help out all reported back that it was an enlightening experience. Each one began to view her or his own manuscript(s) in a new way. Three of them have since had books accepted–one by…you guessed it…a prestigious national poetry book contest.
[This review first appeared in the Fall 2009 Sow's Ear Poetry Review. By arrangement with the editor, these reviews appear one issue later here on my blog. For the most up-to-date reviews, subscribe to The Sow's Ear!]
Christine Hume, Lullaby (Ugly Duckling Presse 2008)
Eleni Sikelianos, Body Clock (Coffee House Press 2009)
Barbara Ungar, Origins of the Milky Way (Gival Press 2007)
We write poems not just to cram our own experience into a stranger’s head, but to push ourselves through the membrane of ego. Out beyond, the “I” might dissolve (terrifying to contemplate) but also might unite with the enormous, difficult beauty of Otherness.
What forces us to this place in daily life? Loss certainly does. Jolts of transcendence also cause us to reach for the pen. Joy. And our fascinating miseries! But motherhood, which hurls us into all of these conditions, and which will not take “Must rest” or “Oops, I’m not ready!” as an answer, is one of the best catalysts. The subject has been hijacked, candy-coated and polluted by such powerhouses as Victorian culture and the post-war Fifties in America. Luckily, artists and feminists set out to rescue us from the sickly-sweet ideal that had shrink-wrapped the experience and denied the complexity of the role.
Three recent volumes of poetry refuse to pussyfoot around the subject: no false promises of effortless pastel harmony, no platitudes about nurturing. These books enact motherhood’s cosmic rearrangements, the way it dissolves and reforms the mother, the way she creates the Other from her intimate body and then sets it free. Motherhood leads these writers not to hover gloating over the cradle but to existential outer space, to political and quantum questioning and our genderless best nature.
Christine Hume fills the handsome chapbook Lullaby: Speculations on the First Active Sense with a single long poem. The child in the womb hears the voice of its mother before it knows “she” and “I,” before any introduction to the world. Or are we eavesdropping as the universe speaks to the mother, who hears in new ways? The poem mingles these perspectives in a fusion/confusion/transfusion of oceanic oneness.
Themes of voice and rhythm steer the poem, lifting it beyond the biographical:
You are used by that rhythm
Carried into a patch of stars that pitch mnemonic-deific-amnesiac fits
Rhythm localizes the infinite
The poem asserts that rhythm reveals the parts of us that arose before language, memory, dichotomy and dialectic, before the idea of self:
Rhythm repairs a fragment
There is no argument, there is hypnotic pass
By instinct and by pleasure, it hovers
The poem itself builds rhythmically to its climax. A driving energy in the lines, like contractions, forces us out:
Hearing the cry, you mindlessly fill with milk
It keeps you learning to swim
Adjusting your rhythm to that of the waves, the undertow
Pineal gland gladdening
That havoc of rocking again
Faraway a train trembling like fire
A sound that wants to interfere with your wakefulness
Rhythm liberates what rhythm would contradict
Lullaby unselves you as it sugars you up
Listen your mama is gone, your papa is gone
Listen, listen lullaby goes on
This song transcends the traumas of birthing, the necessity of loss. It reminds us that where the life force is strongest, comfort is found. Mother and child are both urged not back toward the union and isolation of their private bond, but out into the world. Though this world needs saving from its own “contaminated branches,” we love its brilliance and music.
Barbara Ungar’s erudite, gutsy, read-’em-to-your-friends Origins of the Milky Way marvels at the entire process of gestation, from the strange and beatific invasion of pregnancy to the division back into independent selves. Deceptively accessible, the poems are crafted and clever without losing heart or depth. Musicality, metaphor, and allusion are so interwoven with the story of each poem that no strain or self-consciousness taints the reader’s pleasure. If I had to recommend one book to give all your friends on this subject, Origins of the Milky Way would be my pick.
We begin pregnancy in wonder, in “This euphoria/as if someone rubbed petals//of opium poppy all over/me, inside and out.” One source of wonder is that in spite of oneness, otherness is never forgotten: “I’ve become a door./Someone’s knocking.” Ungar’s “other” grows from “A butterfly wing…a liquid hiccup?” to
No more tadpole or darting fish—
when you move now, the slow coils
of a python rearrange their knot . . .
Mothers will recognize the muscular truth of this imagery. Other readers can taste the eerie, visceral delight.
Ungar’s images are both frolicsome and tough-minded. In “Coup,” she pictures:
My uterus, swollen with power,
has taken over Central Command:
on auto-pilot, bones loosen, ligaments
go soft, hormones flood, all systems
to blast-off . . .
concluding that the uterus is “the Juggernaut,/the Great Beast, Mother of us all.” Even describing labor she manages to make us laugh: “Dante, had he watched,/would have fainted.” In “Riddle” she is almost teasing:
There’s a penis deep inside me,
getting bigger every day.
I’m growing balls
& big teats all at once.
I’m of two minds, two mouths,
I’ve got a pair
This double-heartedness carries through to the dual duties of mother and poet. The mother’s unflagging kindness and the poet’s absolute truthfulness pull against each other, forcing the mother-poet to the edge of language. How can a mother announce, “sometimes I step on a landmine/of rage and have to put you/ down”? But how can the poet not write it? This mother-poet is true to both imperatives.
In Body Clock, with its non-narrative style, Eleni Sikelianos provides a quirky contrast. Dense and lush, her layered lines make quixotic leaps. These poems teeter at the brink of obscurity, but they never tumble over. Sikelianos’s instinct for image burns past the cunning to the brilliant. Each line enters us with such confidence that every dendrite salutes. Whereas Ungar dances with before and after, bliss and frustration, male and female, Sikelianos puts other pairs in organic tension: conscious and unconscious, productive and destructive, controlled and uncontrollable.
Body Clock struggles with the fact that the most complete and miraculous creation the speaker will ever generate is beyond her control—impossible to will in any conscious way. There is no “artistry,” no talent proven by procreating. She is on the one hand “an agent having power/ to reduce, destroy, or consume,” “a doggess sciomancer divining love/ and hate by means of shadow and cloud,” but on the other hand as small as the black palmetto bugs who make it
through the dark halls of cryptography,
nanotechnologists of the celled night
in us: 100 trillion tiny containers,
apartments for vacant lots / thoughts & makings
of vacuoles . . .
This is by no means a stance of hopelessness. In the new form of creation, “A creamy froth comes.” Images of fertility and generous expansion abound, which “the earth sprung forth, kernel by kernel.” As motherhood catalyzes humility, it stuns us with perfections, from Palmetto bugs to the rock that “makes a/ thought, spinning/ out (its word/ alters us).” We become “the embroiderer’s thread moving.”
Sikelianos’s core image is the body clock. It conveys her new experience of time: a spring moves us, unwinds us. A simple moment bends space, so that her daughter arrives “from the placenta’s vascular sheets//touching all the quantum fields she walked through to/greet me.” In one section, she tries to convey time’s physical shape. She sketches a minute (which looks a bit like an orange), writes about the attempt to draw it, and tells what time felt like as she drew. The palpable, intense newness of the mother’s world magnifies time:
watch a yellow
curve, curve yellow—can you? and a
pool of shadow. How the lemon
dives into its own (shadow), or is birthed
from an umbilicus
of it like
Venus on a darker wave.
Two pools of shade intersect. You learn
that the lemon has a half-life
of light. This lemon might
hurl itself from space
torpedoing like a sun-field into
the baby-sphere. Yellow [f]lies down in the bed
of the lemon, wakes
the baby who was sleeping there
like a hard bar of sunlight.
Still she cannot tell “What are the parts between the minutes, the seams between, how to count such silent machinery?”
Again and again, Sikelianos pushes metaphor to a startlement, as when we see “the blossom misplaced its minute, I mean its tiny smog-dusted microscope” or we hear “A’s and E’s—vowels so/radiant they’re waterproof,” or
a bead a bead in the long
string of living
the Ferris wheel of Barcelona will show you more world.
Transformed by motherhood, we inhabit a new country. Each atom and color and fence is new, both lighter and more dense with reality.
Love drives these three poets to ask, Can we rectify what has been done to the world? At first the political theme seems secondary, but cherishing what is gives birth to the desire to rescue what is harmed. No saccharine kindness, this drive has the urgency of our age and its precarious perch on the edge of irretrievability. After all, Sikelianos reminds us, the child “puts flesh on the future.” Hume’s speaker won’t lie; the child faces a “hair-raising childhood,” maybe “an abyss in every word.” Ungar says, “If I wanted to spare you, I should never //have brought you here.” Sikelianos’s Robot Angels rise
with eyes of industrial imagination
Sky rolls back to its black
bones & hooks; We hang.
There is no easy fix. Ungar admits that “Since his birth, I dissolve/at the merest pinch of death.” But when she catches her infant son chewing up a grisly newspaper story just for the feel of the paper on his gums, she sees him sitting “so beautifully, upright and plumb,/smiling young Buddha/who eats all suffering.” Sikelianos owns her “true human monster,” but promises “you too shall be honeyed/in palindromes of gold.” From these poets we learn to mix ruthless honesty with love. Perhaps that is grounds enough for hope.