Grief as Meditation, Grief as Art: Reading Meg Day’s Last Psalm at Sea Level

 

Meg Day_Last Psalm at Sea LevelWriting reviews can be extremely difficult. What’s ironic, though, is that I tend to find greater difficulty in writing a review about a book that I loved, rather than one I was unimpressed with. Perhaps this is because I tend to find some angle of merit in each work that I read—a particular writing technique, the story line, a character, the research process, etc.—but it’s often much more problematic finding only one or two favorite things to talk about from a work that I love. With a collection as stunning and powerful as Meg Day’s Last Psalm at Sea Level, I found myself entranced in its aesthetic and emotional range, as well as the sheer breadth of topics addressed. It kept me guessing, reeling at every turn, images staying with me and realizations haunting me as one poem connected to another, their layering. “Powerful” fails to cover this collection.

If I had to choose one or two favorite aspects of this collection, it would be the collection’s range, both in the sense of topic and writing technique. Many collections fall into the trap of focusing on one poetic form (let’s say, couplets) and/or one topic, or theme. While there is nothing wrong with concentrating on one form, or couplets, or doing a themed project, some of these collections begin to feel contrived or forced in their attempt at, almost, hyper-focusing. Day, however, is unafraid to push beyond these potential restrictions and moves through a variety of forms and topics that, in the end, reflect a sort of personal exploration and discovery in relationship to family, sexuality and identity, which unifies, both, the aesthetic and emotional ranges that might otherwise become disjunctive.

Day demonstrates a lovely mastery of lineation, white space, sound and rhythm in these poems, ranging from the short-line, one stanza poem (i.e. “Hymn to a Landlocked God”) to long, enjambed lines split into couplets, indented across the page (“Ghazal for Finally Leaving What Has Already Left”). Her writing is economical and creates a currency that I am aware of, envy, and strive for in my own writing: sharp, almost declarative (certainly confident, certainly demanding) sentences, beautiful line breaks that often create double-meanings in the line or otherwise surprise, as well as memorable and surprising imagery and depictions of God, of the Church, of faith, of family; the list goes on. The ability to do so much with the physical poem on the page, being able to work and twist and bend its limbs and how they feel and taste when rolling off the tongue, or how they appear when they are seen, there is so much here to appreciate—too much to cover in a single review.

And as if the collection did not offer enough by way of writing technique, there is the lack of emotional boundary. As stated previously, these poems largely focus on family and faith, sexuality and identity, and these themes are hardly achieved through the traditional or cliché; rather, they are discovered and refined through surprising imagery and sentiment. A sexualized relationship with God (and the images related), strange nature imagery when retelling family, and recasting oneself as several opposite sex relatives are only a few of the more surprising—and, in the end, absolutely beautiful—leaps that this collection makes. These moments are shocking, cut to the bone, and are highly, highly memorable. Characters on the front porch in oversized clothes, and the direct appeals to God in the title poem, among many other moments, continue to stay with me.

What becomes the most beautiful, the most startling, in the end, however, is this collection’s trials and representations of grief—both as a construct and as an entity. Perhaps what Day has mastered more than anything else is her skill of relating to the reader, presenting concepts and images that feel right to our hearts, whether or not they appear correct on the surface. This ability to relate is what leads these images to be so powerful, so memorable, and what makes these concepts of family and sexuality, etc., such a mainstay, rather than just another representation of the same constructs. If I may for a moment separate Grief and Sorrow as two different concepts, I see the collection largely as a representation of the grieving process, and as an address to Sorrow as an entity. Though not put in so many words, I think this is often how we move through grief, which makes this division all the more appealing, and relatable. While there are undeniably stages of grief, there is also this entity that we may find ourselves addressing along the way—asking why, wondering whether or not we can survive this, projecting memories of the grieved onto this sort of corkboard of process… All of those thoughts have to be pointed somewhere, to someone. For some, that would be a Higher Power; but for others, it may simply be the emotion itself: Sorrow of the body. Whether or not this collection is make an argument for or against turning to a Higher Power, or to Sorrow, is hardly my point; it’s more so this process of dealing and relating to that process, giving it a name and (almost) a face, something (or someone) to lean into when there often appears to be no one else. Like everything else in this collection—the elements of family, the humor, the wit—we’re made to understand pain, to stare it in the face, and what stares back stays with us long after the book is closed.

Really, that becomes the whole purpose of a collection: creating something memorable. That goal is tremendously achieved in this collection, read after reading. It’s stunning, it’s powerful, it’s intensely-composed… While this review is hardly exhaustive of this poet’s and her poems’ merits, her ability in range, and her representation of Sorrow as an entity, became favorite focal-points for me as a reader. It’s a collection that I will continue to return to, and a poet I admire and take influence from.

My advice? Read it, digest it, and then read it again.

I’ll be taking my own advice again soon.

 

MEG DAY, selected for Best New Poets of 2013, is a 2013 recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry and the author of Last Psalm at Sea Level, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize (forthcoming 2014), When All You Have Is a Hammer (winner of the 2012 Gertrude Press Chapbook Contest) and We Can’t Read This (winner of the 2013 Gazing Grain Chapbook Contest). A 2012 AWP Intro Journals Award Winner, Meg has also received awards and fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation, Hedgebrook, Squaw Valley Writers, the Taft-Nicholson Center for Environmental Humanities, and the International Queer Arts Festival. Meg is currently a PhD candidate, Steffensen-Cannon Fellow, and Point Foundation Scholar in Poetry & Disability Poetics at the University of Utah.

 

 

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Reading Meg Day

 

THERE’S SNOW IN THE WEST

 

& there’s snow in the east
& there’s snow in our beds
icing the cabbage. Since you left
me alone, the wasp nest
swallowing the bulb
in the porch light has gone
leaden & each night the asphalt
is honeycombed in its half-
lidded light
                          while the laundry—frozen
stiff on the line—sways from its hinges
like the moon flag that waves
without wind.
                              I am not praying.
I’m longing: Please. Let summer
be a good shot, an untraceable track;
let the beautiful animal of this working
class winter loose its vise grip
on your throat before the kill.
The kettle is steaming the windows,
lined with bubble-wrap, & the peaches
are ripening in their cans.
                                                  Come home. Come home.

 

HYMN TO A LANDLOCKED GOD

 

Perhaps as a child
you, too, saw
these stallion clouds
& knew a sky
with no blue
was a sky too
reverent to be
overlooked
or understood.
Perhaps heaven
is the moon flag,
not the moon,
& you came
to know praise
as vertical only
because the earth
refused your reach.
Look up.
There’s a tear
in the sky tonight
like the shriek
of a frightened mare
or the long wail
a saxophone makes
on a corner at dawn
& this is how I know
you are a woman:
we are both broken
in two by our own
creations. I have
looked to the west
in search of water
& the sheer faces
of so many boulders
stare back, their bodies
bent in genuflection
at the altar of the sky.
Why have you made me
know the sea?
Make me a bird, Lord;
make me a man.
Make me a barn
with a spine so swayed
it pulls back my neck
to crane toward the sky.

 

GHAZAL FOR FINALLY LEAVING WHAT HAS ALREADY LEFT

 

I imagine there were angels once, or at least the sound of them,
trumpeting some broken hallelujah against the ceiling above that bed.

There must have been electricity—a current—to power
the elaborate maneuvering that kept me fastened to that bed.

I don’t remember much: the arrivals & departures blurred as healing scars
& the kitchen always quiet. There was little concern for bedlam or bedtime

& the mornings it snowed kept me close to the windows, screens thawing—
like my want—wired & damp. At night, a phantom weight beside me in the
          bed.

I imagine spring could have begun kindly & coaxed the steady stride
of summer into its measured snare—an entire season of sickness, bed-

bound alone with The Book of Hours—then swung hard into September,
pocket watches leaned open in palms like old men in gold rockers; beds

like deep yawns, yawns like gaping coffins. Lord, what was I
but made in your image: invisible. I come to you a cavern of bedrock,

rendered acquiescent. I arrive secondhand. You, Lord, are the woman I
          longed to be
or be with, the walking ache of so many confessions, the merciful repository
          embedded

in surrender. Come: weep in my arms. If you are the beginning & end, then
          let us be
what we are best: the slow departure, the unlikely subsistence, bedmates
          without a bed.

 

*

 

all from Meg Day’s Last Psalm at Sea Level (Barrow Street Press, 2014)

 


Moving Forward, Moving Back: Reading Jason Odell Williams’ Personal Statement

 

Jason Odell Williams_Personal StatementWe’ve all been there. We reached the final year of high school and discovered the college, the school, the job, the career that we wanted, and we attempted to move forward. We did everything we thought we needed to do—and more—to ensure that we would land one of the open seats in the version of the future that we wanted most. But sometimes, that “more” becomes problematic; we go in too deep, lose ourselves along the way, perhaps do some things we wouldn’t normally do—or for reasons we wouldn’t have previously considered. Jason Odell Williams explores these potential problems as he leads us down four very unique paths toward Ivy League schools, scholarships and higher positions on the corporate (or, in this case, political) ladder.

When I first started reading Personal Statement, I thought I would be reading four accounts of completely separate lives that only shared the difficult acts of writing the personal statement and applying to the “right college.” But it proves to be much more than that. These four characters either know one another or meet over the course of the journey, reminding us not only of how small the world can be but, perhaps more importantly, how our decisions impact others. Two of the main characters, Emily and Rani (pronounced “Ronnie”), are best friends on very different paths (though this is unknown to Emily Kim): Emily being the overly-driven, all-that-matters-is-getting-into-Harvard-no-matter-the-costs high school senior, while Rani is more or less burnt-out, looking for a much more easy-going, fulfilling, perhaps equestrian, lifestyle. Then there’s Robert, a homosexual African American student who wants only to start over in Europe, rather than pursue the college of his family’s choice; also, he met Emily previously at a student program, beginning first as friends, only to let their competitive natures get the better of them. Last, we see A.J. (or Alexis), a mid-twenties woman who has already gone through the personal statement process but who finds herself throwing herself into a new job suddenly, in the hopes of getting her foot in the door at the White House, which involves interacting with these teens directly over the course of a weekend. Each of these four find themselves looking for that final leg up, something to help them stand out—maybe some unique volunteer work? A hurricane blowing into Connecticut, perhaps?

Yes, exactly. So we find these four characters colliding in a small town in Connecticut, offering up their (kindest? most sincere? intrinsic?) services, with the thought in the back of their minds of using this experience for a resume, personal statement or future job application. This is where the heart of the story is, where the sentiment is at its most complicated: we’re watching four people who want something so much that they are willing to do something wonderful (volunteering to help those in need at a potentially dire time) for the completely wrong reasons. So then we’re forced to ask the question, “Can performing a good deed ever impact our character negatively?” I feel Emily, Rani, A.J. and Robert spend much of their stories interacting with and answering this exact question, determining what can result from misplaced intentions, or perhaps wanting the wrong thing—or wanting something far too much.

Jason Odell Williams’ debut novel, Personal Statement, is a fine piece of young adult literature, teeming with humor and wit, and asking major questions about motive and priorities, as well as engaging with some of the more interesting developmental questions that come with adolescence (see, perhaps, James Marcia’s developmental model, which I couldn’t help but constantly think back to while reading these characters’ journeys). Rotating between characters chapter-by-chapter, I found this to be a difficult one to put down, wanting to continue listening to one character’s journey, and later marveling at their interconnectedness toward the end. Perhaps there will be some parents who will take offense at this, but I agree with earlier reviews that see this as a must-read for graduating seniors, their parents, and even their school counselors who may or may not assist in the college application process. Sometimes we have to slow down and reconsider our desires and how they are prioritized and what we’re willing to do and who we’re willing to be to gain those desires—and Williams’ novel is one to encourage just that.

 

JASON ODELL WILLIAMS is an Emmy Award-nominated writer & producer of the television series, “Brain Games”—the highest rated show on the National Geographic Channel. As a playwright, his work has been produced at regional theatres across the country and in New York City. Originally from Columbia, Maryland, and a graduate of The University of Virginia, Jason lives in New York City with his actress-singer-director-producer wife, Charlotte Cohn, and their daughter, Imogen, who is working on her hyphenates as we speak. Personal Statement is his first novel. For more please visit his website.

 

 


Receiving an Honorable Mention for My Chapbook!!

 

Wonderful news! My chapbook (or chapbook-length poem), Dear Earth / There Are Birds, received an Honorable Mention in this year’s Celery City Chapbook Contest.

Here is the list of Winners and Honorable Mentions:

CJ Giroux, Destination, Michigan, Winner
Marci Rae Johnson, Dictionary of Theories, Winner
Nicole Burchette, Influence, Winner
Eben Gering, (title not released), Honorable Mention
Kathleen McGookey, (title not released), Honorable Mention
McKenzie Lynn Tozan, Dear Earth / There Are Birds, Honorable Mention

In addition to publication, the Winners will receive fifty copies of their chapbook; and all of those above mentioned will be invited to read this Spring. I will post again about this when I have the details.

Thank you, Friends of Poetry, and the judges involved in the Celery City Chapbook Contest. I am greatly honored to be among those recognized this year, and I absolutely cannot wait to hear the others recognized at the reading this Spring!

 

 


Our First Night Home

 

                                       —after Ralph Angel

 

You wake me

in the middle of the night, and you
are hungry. You are ravenous.

The moon is moving again. The tremors
in your sides and stomach are small fountains

against my hands. A storm

is passing through: the windows
rattling, the pounding

of water, a tree falling.
I wonder if the world could cave in.

I wonder how much you would understand:

a newborn, your vision stalling
at the halfway mark. Half of a storm,

the tree falling halfway, leaning there,
half of a bed

of flattened flowers, leftover from the summer.

Your stomach fills. You are quieting
into my shoulder, small coos. I am lost

in the beauty of your small hand
around my smallest finger. Your feet

arching, legs stretched.

Others have asked how it feels
to be a mother, what it’s like

to hold you, to have you here now,
and I say—I say

what could be more beautiful than a dusting of crows

in a field and a brown paper bag
flickering down

a nearby road. Your face is here,
is there, in the distance.

 

 


Betsy Andrews to Read at IUSB This Wednesday!!

 

Mark your calendars! Betsy Andrews will be reading this Wednesday—October 1, 2014—at Indiana University South Bend, hosted by 42 Miles Press and the English Department.

Betsy Andrews_IUSB ReadingBetsy Andrews_The Bottom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Betsy’s poems are powerful and passionately-driven. They are urgent and accelerate the reader forward through their pages, their images, their truths, to a consensus of central issue and potential solution. They are largely ecological and political in their focus. New Jersey is a book-length poem that focuses on the New Jersey Turnpike, while The Bottom focuses on the anticipated environmental impact of Bush’s re-election. Her next book-length poem will focus on the air element and the many creatures involved (birds, planes, etc.), and she plans for subsequent poems to focus on the remaining elements, earth and fire. Her poems—and her reading!—should not be missed.

Her reading will take place at 7:30pm on the third floor of Wiekamp Hall (on the Bridge)—again, on Wednesday, October 1—and the reading is free and open to the public! Please also stick around after for a brief Q&A, small reception, and book signing.

Also, if you are interested in reading more about Betsy’s work, click here for a link to my review of The Bottom, and click here for my interview with Betsy about her writing life, research habits, influences and what she’s working on now.

 

BETSY ANDREWS is the author of The Bottom (42 Miles Press), winner of the 2013 42 Miles Press Poetry Prize, and New Jersey (University of Wisconsin Press), winner of the Brittingham Prize. Her chapbooks include She-Devil (Sardines Press), In Trouble (Boog Press), and Supercollider, a collaboration with the artist Peter Fox. She is also executive editor of Saveur magazine.

 

 


The Bottom: An Interview with Betsy Andrews

 

Betsy Andrews_The BottomClick here to view my review of The Bottom.

Betsy Andrews’ book-length poem, The Bottom, was published by 42 Miles Press in 2014 and received the 2013 42 Miles Poetry Prize. Sections of this poem appeared in such places as Kadar Koli, BoogCity, Stone Canoe and The Laurel Review, as well as Poets for Living Waters. In the following interview, I discuss with Betsy her thoughts on her writing and research life, the process behind The Bottom, and what she is working on now. I found her responses to questions about her favorite writers, and the influences for this book, and her overall process to be extremely compelling. I really feel I’ve learned a great deal from her, from reading her work and thinking of how her process applies to that work. I hope you find her thoughts here to be as rich and original as I did.

MLT: Hi Betsy! Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview! There have been a few questions that have been stirring around in my mind about craft and the realization of this book, ever since I first read The Bottom.

BA: Thanks, McKenzie. It’s a pleasure to speak with you about my book.

MLT: Just to jump right in, what type of environment do you need to write?

BA: Well, first we have to define what “to write” means. My work is very research-based. As I hope the “Tributaries” section in the back of the book shows, I do a ton of reading and note taking, scavenging facts and quotes and language from a huge range of sources—everything from the Oxford English Dictionary to the New York Times (the entire paper is fair game, even the Sports section) to Barbara Walker’s Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets to books on Marine Biology, ocean myths, sea shanties, you name it—and I always say I am writing, even when I am just in the reading and research phase, because that work is so inextricably a part of what I do. That research I can kind of do anywhere: at my kitchen table, in my home office, on the subway, in the library. Writing also happens anywhere in small nuggets in the notes app on my iPhone: on the beach, the street, the couch, whatever. But the actual creation of lines across the page, and those lines building into something that turns into a page in the book, well, that has to happen in quiet solitude. Sometimes it’s at home, but more often it’s on a writing residency, either a formal one or a self-made one, when I have a decent chunk of time (say, at least two weeks) and no other distractions except for nature, hopefully, and I can just really make a poem. I am fortunate to be able to do that about once a year, but no more than that. So it takes a long time for me to make a book.

MLT: Who are some of your favorite writers?

BA: Walt Whitman, of course. I adore his omnivorousness, his passion and mysticism, his earthy materialism and sexuality, his hearty appetites and joy and, also, sorrow at everything, his long lines, the way he made my city, New York City, come alive. I also love George Oppen for his staccato lines but also his materialism that results in a sort of mysticism, and the way he made my city come alive. Same for Frank O’Hara. I adore Elizabeth Bishop. I think that, perhaps, no other poet has had the power of description that she had. I can never get her “Fish” out of my mind. I love Czeslaw Milosz for his moral and spiritual consciousness, for the way he used irony in support of that. I have always been a big fan of Amy Gerstler; I just really dig her modern myth-making. I thought about her writing when I was working the mermaids into The Bottom. She has this awesome poem called “Siren” that I think was really an inspiration, though I didn’t quite understand that at the time. And, of course, Carolyn Forché, who was my teacher when I was studying for my MFA at George Mason University. She was my teacher, my mentor, and she’s my dear friend. Her work on poetry as witness has shaped who I am as a poet, and her book, The Angel of History, blows my mind, although basically everything she does in her life blows my mind. I feel similarly about Anne Waldman, though I never studied with her. Among my peers, I love the work of so many poets: Jen Coleman, Brenda Coultas, Marcella Durand, Julie Patton, Juliana Spahr, Lila Zemborain. I could go on and on. And those are just the poets. I haven’t mentioned the science writers, novelists, journalists…

MLT: What was your inspiration for this collection—writers, places, events, songs, etc.?

BA: Well, there are many layers of narrative interweaving in this book. First and foremost, there’s the story of the dessimation of the oceans. After my first book, New Jersey, which is a book-length anti-war meditation on the New Jersey Turnpike. It was after George W. Bush was re-elected, and I thought, “My gosh, what’s next?” I figured it would be the environment, a wholesale flushing of nature down the tubes. So, as a scuba diver, my thoughts went to the ocean, and I started The Bottom. At that point, I had decided that I was going to write a series of book-length poems engaging the elements: earth (which was New Jersey, the road trip book, the land-based book), water, air, and when I’m older, fire. I was on residency at Djerassi, east of Half Moon Bay in northern California, and I spent a lot of time walking on the beach. There were so many dead seals and sea lions on the shore, the victims of tangling in fishing nets, and also of complications from domoic acid toxicity, which comes from agricultural run-off. I became a supporter of the Marine Mammal Center, in Sausalito, California, which rescues and rehabilitates injured and distressed marine mammals. And I read marine conservation biologist Callum Roberts’ The Unnatural History of the Sea. And I went sailing with my partner and kid and my partner’s dad, which I try to do annually, to the Channel Islands. And all of those things became the foundation upon which the ocean story was built, upon which I layered so much other research and thought. There was also a love story—the story of my relationship with my partner, Jeanne Baron. And an elegy, not only to the seas, but also to my dog, Tai, who had died. My grandmother makes an appearance, poets from Anne Sexton to Yeats get riffed on, there’s astrophysics in it, etc. etc.

MLT: How long did you work on this poem?

BA: Six years.

MLT: Book-length poems have always fascinated me. What did your process look like for this poem? How did your process differ in writing a book-length poem, rather than a collection of poems?

BA: You know, I sort of decided to write book-length poems because I wasn’t exactly sure how to put a collection together, truth be told. The book-length poem, where the strands of narrative and consciousness and experience and emotion and meaning interweave to create one long, complicated braid just felt right to me, natural and organic. The collection of individual poems always has felt like a much more uncertain and less-organic project. So the book-length poem for me feels easier in a way. And I love the way I can pace a long poem, with characters coming in and out, and various stories intersecting. It’s really fun. And, afterwards, when I re-read it, I discover all these things that I myself didn’t even know were there. It’s a great and mysterious process for which I always say “I never know where I’m going, but I always know where I am,” which is just another way of saying how important craft is. I start by researching and musing and hearing snippets of conversation and whatever. I collect. I collect and collect, and I end up with hundreds of pages of notes. And then I start to squeeze those notes, condensing them down and down, grabbing bits of language and riffing on that language and changing it. I use the OED and a thesaurus and a rhyming dictionary as much as I use source material, because those tools help with discoveries, too. It’s really fun, actually. And then I write page by page. Usually I have the beginning and the end written first, and then I go on a crazy voyage in between on my way to my final destination. I construct each individual page of the poem as a complete work in and of itself. But through the construction of each page, themes and characters and narratives emerge. And those come up over and again. But what drives the poem forward is music, for me. I sang as a kid. I still sing for myself and my family now, pick up my ukelele and sing. And I hear the poem in my head. I hear the language. It sings itself in my head. So rhyme and rhythm are so, so important, especially in this book that is about the sea and so should, of course, have sea songs in it. It should have sailor songs and siren songs and whale songs and gull songs. Then when I have all those pages, I start to order and re-order them. But, in actuality, the final book is very nearly the order I wrote the pages in anyway.

MLT: I also noticed many instances of isolation in this poem—emphasis placed on one single conscience, one jellyfish, etc. This reminded me of the sheer vastness of our oceans, but also presented an irony of how busy some areas of our oceans are. Was this use of isolation intentional? What was your thought process in isolating these personas?

BA: I think you pretty much said it. Though the mermaids are never isolated. They are always the mermaids, a plurality. They are, in that sense, all women, and they represent the way women are endangered in a world where nature is endangered, but also the way we are empowered in our connection to nature. In terms of the other creatures and their isolation, I have mentioned the Marine Mammal Center. What I like about their work, though I also support many advocacy groups doing great work for the oceans, is that the Center recognizes that the endangerment of animals entails the suffering of individuals. I think if we realize that it’s individuals we’re harming, maybe we will be more in touch with our empathy and, therefore, our need to act more responsibly.

MLT: What are you working on now? Anything new we should be on the lookout for (publications, etc.)?

BA: I’m working on the next book in the series, which is about the air. There are a few short poems about birds, which have come out of my initial thoughts and research, coming out this month in White Wall Review.

MLT: What do some of your new poems focus on? How do you think your next collection might compare thematically to this one? Might we expect another book-length poem at some point?

BA: Yep, it’s a book-length poem about the air. So it will include everything from birds and bees to drones and bombs and spaceships. But I’m not sure about the form yet. There was something about the sea that elicited very long, rolling, wavy lines and singsong rhymes and actual singing. I’m not sure what will happen with air.

MLT: Thank you again, Betsy, for taking the time to discuss The Bottom! I can certainly say that I love this poem and can’t wait to see where you go next.

BA: Thanks a million! That means so much to me.

 

Below, Betsy has shared her poem, “Prospect,” which is a few years old and originally appeared in Canarium, out of Columbia University. She explained that the poem was “a bird poem [and is] a taste of things to come.” Enjoy!

 

PROSPECT

 

It starts with a duck.
A white duck
dumped on the cracked macadam after Easter
in the greensward, the forward-seeming, the open-extensive aspect,
the park. A snug room constructed of
dragonflies and damselflies, a stab at transporting moments.
It’s a bat box, a curio, the paddock for the calving of next year’s army,
their drawknives, their spokeshaves, their adzes and axes, their plumage;
the king is installed, a nestling, beard-tongued and blue-headed,
his chuck-chuck call, his maxims. Reinforced
with rods and cement to compose a rural geography,
he’s lush and naturalistic. He gleams his tiny gleaming.
He gleams he gleams he gleams.
The army slides its red ears on. The army is fiercely nostalgic.
The windows of the houses are beset with lamps, the windows of the houses
              are mirrors
in which vireos, finches, warblers, thrushes, chickadees, flickers and
              sparrows and doves
are bayoneted by light, the warp and woof of the mobbing existence,
the warp and woof of nostalgia.

A cursory exploration of the duck:
a white duck dumped on the macadam
a white duck rushing full-tilt.
The little lordling, the yellow-legged king, in his beautiful flute-like
              impatience,
fences the bedraggled middle of the decade, orders up heavy machinery.
The sharp-shinned kinglet improves upon nature;
he knocks it about in his splendid dish. The army gets trapped among
              skyscrapers,
dazzled. The army sinks into the records.
The white duck, an orphan of baskets, paddles park air with her wide-lobed
              feet,
the white duck approaches for meaning.
The king has the humble valleys disrobed, the king conquers the wind caves.
The army, stockyard dummies the lot, reaches a crumpled appearance of
              repose.
Nobody says a word. They stare. All at once, the flashcubes are popping.

Months pass.
Four thousand tadpoles grow up and croak.
The lake is a giant bathtub in which the white duck discovers “to float.”
The tenacious earth clings to its dogwoods and yews.
The king is x-rayed for bullets pell-mell.
Time is not kind to the gatehouse.
There is a certain sylvan beauty to the trees
as the weight of their own limbs pulls them asunder.
The king cuts the weather to ribbons. He sighs. The army will winter over.
Arguably an eyesore, the shapeless stump of the Sybil
arches her drab brown brow. Have you considered the prospect,
she asks plain-spoken, that your duck might be a goose?

A white goose. Or a white duck
interpreted artificially, sleeping in the moonlight upon a park bench,
a vagrant, a tin-cup philosopher.
The king coughs an enchanting cough. The army pounces upon it.
Whole families take to lunching on graveyard grasses, grazing like common
              sheep,
while the duck tucks one knee up
so as to occupy the smallest of spaces.
On the orbital and radial roadways, in the viaducts and tunnels and
              aerodromes,
at the docks, in the rail stations, bus depots, promenades, the king arrives,
he squints his eyes,
decreeing allegorical landscapes.
The dictionary is announced to the world.

 

BETSY ANDREWS is the author of The Bottom (42 Miles Press), winner of the 2013 42 Miles Press Poetry Prize, and New Jersey (University of Wisconsin Press), winner of the Brittingham Prize. Her chapbooks include She-Devil (Sardines Press), In Trouble (Boog Press), and Supercollider, a collaboration with the artist Peter Fox. She is also executive editor of Saveur magazine.

 

 


Rhododendron

 

I am unsure as to where this flower ends
or where it began. The small connecting limbs, hidden behind

the round series of heads, the seeding
centers, their odd tears around the edges

like teeth.

There is something oddly promising
about these flowers—you see, they have appeared

in my poems before. As children, as wind, even
a voice—never

as themselves,

in all their fierceness, in all their beauty. I love them
like I love so many things that are hidden

out-of-doors. Under all that sun, behind
another root system, in the neighbor’s

backyard. Sometimes I spy them in stranger places—

a vacant
frying pan, pieces shredded

in a bird’s nest. You could bring them to me
and I would plant them.

You could bring them to me

and I would be happy. In the quiet way that these flowers
are beautiful.

Bring them. I promise—
like wind.

 

 


We Could Do Better, You and I: Ecology, Design and Poetry: Reading Betsy Andrews’ The Bottom

 

Betsy Andrews_The BottomClick here to view my interview with Betsy Andrews.

When I first began reading Betsy Andrews’ book-length poem, The Bottom, I was reminded of an incident that occurred nearly two years ago now. In October of 2012, an article appeared on Slate.com regarding a large, startlingly-blue eye that had washed up on a Florida beach. Its size and opulence could not immediately be placed with any one undersea creature; and its dismemberment, washed up, created a stir. I remember when the article first appeared, there was a buzz of conversation: a guessing game of potential creatures and legends, not to mention the calendrical proximity to Halloween. But though these exchanges were entertaining, if not thought-provoking at times, I couldn’t help but think of isolation.

You see, when I think of the ocean, I visualize that deep blue, waves crashing, a tan beach—yes—but I also see a lot of open space: room for the sunlight to cut through, for the shadow of ships overhead, and the occasional creature—a shock of color and contrast. An eye, perhaps. I couldn’t tell you what led me to this visualization, or why it’s the first image to come to mind when I think of great expanses of water, but it is. I can imagine, too, the reefs and the wreckage and the pollution, etc., but I’m plagued with this concept of isolation. It’s hardly the conceptual journey you would expect after the mind-numbing push of Finding Nemo and “Under the Sea,” which embrace the fun, color and activity of undersea life… but I think what I see delves deeper, somehow; I end up in a place where I can see the beauty and the power, in all that richness, and perhaps a hint of what’s become of it.

For me, this is largely where The Bottom comes in. Ecopoetic and political (as I feel there can be a division between these two schools), it first emphasizes the problem and specific connection to nature, or the ocean, and, second, points us toward a solution—a wish, even. This poem took me back to the works of Robert Hass, Gary Snyder, Lorine Niedecker and, particularly, Eva Saulitis, each of whom have thrived in developing that connection between nature and their personal selves, their physicality and their lifestyles, through their works. Through the engine of this poem, the speaker challenges us to look at the role we’ve taken in the cycle of the ocean, presents to us a personal wish and tests our perceptions of what the ocean is, all of which may construe our understanding of the human condition.

Throughout this entire poem, there are suggestions of our influence and involvement in the natural world, from the dumping of a Tide bottle to references to Alice in Wonderland to absolute demolition for the construction of yet another Burger King. These references are feisty and poignantly-inserted into these otherwise-snappy and quickly-moving sections. One after the next, we move from images of a single jellyfish riding a Tide bottle to a mermaid killed on collision to a small whale caught in a Brooklyn waterway. These images are striking, painful and brutally honest; Andrews does not spare us with sentimentality but, rather, of a more scientific mind, presents hard image as fact. In each of these sections, isolated on their own page, given their own white space, these creatures and their tragedies return us again and again to the isolation performed by nature, by pollution and human involvement.

This is where the wish—the call to action—comes in. Being one of her strong suits, Andrews employs the art of repetition as a calling from the main speaker to an other, as portrayed through “you and I” and “my love” throughout the course of the poem. Being placed within such a scientific, factual and political poem, this move, at first, startles. However, as the first connection between the speaker and this other is achieved on the very first page, we, as readers, are given an opportunity to emotionally connect not only out of logic, but empathy. Here is how the first section (the first page) of the poem ends:

My wish is: We are on the shore, we are looking out at the water.
You are lying beside me, curled.
The sun is coming up. I am turning you over
I am going to see your face
The sun is coming up, I am turning you over
I am going to be able to see your face

Not only does this passage achieve a connection between these two personas, but it also provides an emotional longing that stands throughout the poem, and it performs Andrews’ subtlety. The ending punctuation disappears when the certainty, when the present-tense, is no longer in the speaker’s possession; so, too, the variance of the third-to-last and final lines, which may represent the difference between potential outcomes and the hope for potential outcomes. While these may appear to be small achievements, they represent an opening-up: a scope of what is come in this larger project of calling for action, calling for connection (between human and human, and human and creature), and calling for an end to isolation or disparity. By pointing out the difference between what could be and wanting what could be, Andrews calls into question the very center of political poetry: the difference between an action that will cause change and an action that only could.

Finally, we reach this point (which really began with the inclusion of the D.H. Lawrence epigraph) of interpreting what the ocean really is—which becomes the question, why we should care about it. I save this particular aspect of my review for now, because I think this question ties everything together. Lawrence describes the ocean to a baby tortoise as a “huge vast inanimate,” which had my mind reeling for a large portion of the poem. Stemming from my own personal visualizations of the ocean, I have a difficult time seeing it as an inanimate (though, yes, I understand it is the creatures that live within the ocean that are animate, rather than the whole body itself); because of all that occurs within it, because of it, and because of what happens to it (pollution, etc.), I have difficulty seeing this body as an inanimate one, as opposed to large, feeling and living. And I think this idea is one that the speaker similarly contests, given the natural protectiveness that occurs throughout this poem—toward individual creatures and the larger ecosystem alike. Perhaps, too, this relates back to the speaker’s “you and I” sentiment that occurs throughout; not only could the other be a person (connecting, again, to our human condition) but also the ocean itself (developing a connection between the human and nature). Yes, this takes us back to the ecopoetic edge of The Bottom, relating man to nature, but (again) there’s also this empathetic connection that we’re able to develop, by perceiving the “you” as human, as ocean, as living.

What’s so beautiful about all three of these themes is not only how Andrews achieves to tie them together into one poem, but her techniques in doing so—and how those techniques greatly mirror that of the ocean itself. Andrews has a beyond-admirable understanding repetition, rhythm and humor that, when thrown against such a large issue as harming our oceans, is striking and impressive. Haunting, even. The repetition of images (say, the mermaids and the shipwrecks), the repetition of the relationship (the “you and I” and “my love”), the continued vastness and isolation—each of these create an echo, a thread, an arch, that keeps us moving along, connected, over the course of this book-length poem. Add in, too, Andrews’ use of rhythm and rhyme (both direct and slant), as well as revision of phrases (such as the third-to-last and final lines on the first page) that keep us coming and going, that throw us into a rhythm that could easily be connected to the ebb and flow of the ocean itself, its breathing, the waves. Finally, while this poem is extremely unrelenting, extremely brutal and challenging, the humor contained not only sharpens that brutality but can almost give us split-seconds of reprieve, allowing us to judge ourselves and laugh at ourselves when we realize the absurdity of “Have It Your Way” when compared to the complexity, beauty and importance of an ocean. The combination, here, of taking us back to previously-stated lines and images, to revising a line, to propelling us forward through rhythm, to complicating our understanding of the situation through a combination of harshness and perhaps even harsher humor, it leaves us off-balance, ebbing, which very well may be the whole point: we should be thrown off by the depth of our involvement in what’s happening to our oceans, our planet. And maybe we should be even more thrown off by what it’ll take to correct it.

What Betsy Andrews has created here is stunning. Her gathering and mastery of information, her understanding of this wide and complex creature, is compelling, enriching and (dare I say it) enviable. She reminds us of the ocean’s power but also its weakness, its dependence on our actions. She teaches us about its dichotomy. While this world is, in fact, beautiful and full of wonder and reasons for celebration, it contains darkness, too—some of which stems from the truths of survival and others from our blunders as human beings. Like all of nature, our respect should be a combination of our love for its beauty and understanding of its harshness. Unrelenting, powerful and musical, Andrews reminds us of this duality of this mysterious space, the light and dark of its reach. Like a wide, startlingly blue eye, we may lose sight of its origins, its connectivity… but Andrews largely earns that connection back, through her creation of a speaker and their connection to an other (whether human or ocean), and through her mastery of language, which represents those many nuances, movements, emotions, and breaths of these wide bodies of water of which we so easily take advantage.

 

BETSY ANDREWS is the author of The Bottom (42 Miles Press, 2014), winner of the 42 Miles Press Poetry Prize, and New Jersey (University of Wisconsin Press, 2007), which was awarded the Brittingham Prize in Poetry. Her chapbooks include She-Devil (Sardines Press, 2003), In Trouble (Boog Press, 2004), and Supercollider (2006), a collaboration with the artist Peter Fox. Her writing has appeared widely in publications ranging from Fence, Stone Canoe, and Phoebe to the Yemeni newspaper Culture. She is a graduate of the MFA program in poetry at George Mason University. Betsy is also the executive editor of Saveur magazine. She has taught numerous courses on poetry and creative writing as well as food writing.

 

 


Reading Betsy Andrews

 

to sound like itself is what water wants, to look like itself, to feel wet
walloped by cinderblock, spars and bottles, the wanting-locked water lay down
the wanting-locked water stank without lustre, it stank without lustre and we
cut it with knives, we cut it with scissors, the wanting-locked water, we cut it
with radars, we ginned it, the wanting-locked water was ginned and engine,
we engine and cinch-lipped and quicksilvered water; the water was baited
with nixies and bogles, it was looted of moon, it was piss-and-shit crooked;
the water engaged in protective reactions—it limped, it wore bright orange
              pants
the wanting-locked water was orange with panting, it was orange and panting,
it stank. “I want a clean cup,” interrupted the Hatter: “let’s all move one place
              on.”
One place on, the octopus burrowed into a crevice of the Duotex blow-up boat,
by the recessed valve between the self-bailing floor and the thermobonded
buoyancy tube, the octopus burrowed, slender and orange, the wonderpus
burrowed, thinking, “this is coral, it’s rock crack, it’s shell”; its slot-box eyes
clanging like bells on hillocks, its ginger arms stroking; the sun beat down, the
stories were told of the last of the last of the last Martian race,
with bodies like mazes and three beating hearts; the day went on day,
the sun turned away, the octopus turned a Duotex grey, and, finally,
from the captain’s fingers it slipped, dipping its quill in its damning pot and
scribbling rage at the lot of us on the illuminated page of the ocean, fuck you
in the name of the tide pools and shrimp haunts; to eat is what the octopus
              wants,
its excitable beak, its gifted locomotion, what the octopus wants is to live

 

the mermaids raise their hands; they would like to ask a question
they are unfamiliar with microphones, and the flotational devices of the press
              pool
but they recognize a wave when they see one—
they can mimic the speed of sound in air;
when called on, the mermaids manage their mouths into the shape of “What is
              that?”
it’s a riddle twice as inflated as Texas; it’s six times the weight of the plankton
              seas
it’s a teaser rendered in styrene with the acronym PCB
it’s albatross innards decoded as omen; it’s a starfish-crossed pleas
it’s a whopper, and the flack leaves the bait on the hook
the mermaids listen up: audible distortions and the deafening roar of “No
              comment,”
which the mermaids jot in their books
but even if the stowaways are thrown to the squids
the commodores can’t keep a lid on the story; it’s leaked
in the driftwood, in the rookery, in the dory in the belly of the catch;
the coda is, “It’s trash”
it’s sorrow dog’s chew toy, and worse—
it’s the skeleton ship’s cargo, it’s clamshelled desires and seventy brands of
              thirst
Water bottles everywhere, far, far too much to drink

 

sea fairy, sea wizard, water-horse, sea-bean
picked clean on long conveyor belts and sorted by shape and size
how completely the meat is scooped from the shell; the world’s fell
form the skies past the satellite that guides ships beyond reason
in the season of bone-sad tides; are they wise, the drowned,
who’ve found stillness while the rest of us flail? the Northern Passage,
the Artic’s third rail: fried fish and a polar bear rug,
our collective shrug as lethal as a blast pressure wound,
evidence forgotten as soon as it’s archived; just the rats remember
that this spit of concrete between the highway and the street was once a
              wetland;
they scratch at the cracks here, hoping for water, and the daughters of the
              sinkholes,
the cloud-covered mermaids, sit down with soot in their fins

 

It’s a planet made of ink on the arm of a sailor tricking in the head
where the slim wrist of morning is cuffed to the sink
to the bottom. The sea-dogs howl foul weather at the skies.
Whence the sea-dogs rise, there must be a kind of day,
for every dog has one; there must be some bed
where sleeping dogs lie and wake up without fleas.
When we’ve managed to pirate every molecule of the seas,
and replaced them with replicas rendered in plastic,
there, where the tail wags the sea-dog something fantastic,
will they witness our bathtub-ring finish, from space?
The face—if it’s face—turns to the observable; a purl of blue,
a dusky scratch, a naked singularity cast in a font 10 million years gone;
still, the unmistakable signature of the presence of absence;
past the moon named Egg and the moon named Eggshell,
a crack in the well of the night, hydromantic and, perhaps,
just bright enough for you to find us
humble telescope,
find us

 

*

 

all from Betsy Andrews’ The Bottom (42 Miles Press, 2014)—pages 16, 20, 42 and 52