SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: MANISHA SHARMA

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Millions of girls continue to vanish pre-birth in India simply because they are girls. The following poems imagine these vanished girls.


DEAR DAUGHTER

In my mind I cradled you in my arms
            I didn’t cage you
you latched onto my breasts
             I didn’t siphon life into you
you mumbled bilabial sounds, m…p
yet my ears did not hear you speak
I know you exist
              waiting to be reborn as my son
then, I will cradle you in my arms
              let you latch onto my breasts
              siphon life into you
              hear you mumble Ma, Pa
              welcome you as the heir
              who will carry your father’s name


WOULD YOU STILL BLAME ME?

You were like circles of incense
It wasn’t that we couldn’t feed another mouth
It was the kind of feeding we would do
For every roti soaked in ghee for your brother
You would get only one not soaked
Every glass of milk that went down his throat
You would drink chai with a hint of milk
Every pair of new clothes he would get each month
You would only get one pair a year
He would utter complex phrases in English
You would say soft words in Hindi and the local tongue
He would earn fancy degrees to do something great
You would master fine skills to please others
He would walk with his head held high
You would walk with your head bent
For you are leased property
Returned to its rightful owner in two decades



Today’s poems appear here today with permission from the poet.


Manisha Sharma: Born and raised in India, Manisha Sharma earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Virginia Tech. A graduate of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, she was a Spring 2016 poetry mentee in AWP’s mentorship program, where Shikha Malaviya mentored her. Her recent poetry and writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from TAB, a journal of poetry and poetics, New Asian Writing, The Bombay Review and The Huffington Post. More of her work can be seen at www.genderedarrangements.com.

Editor’s Note: Between 2000 and 2011 seven-to-ten million girls in India were prevented from being born simply because they were girls. With her important poetry and collaborations, Manisha Sharma tells research-based stories of these girls-who-never-were. Her work goes a step beyond giving voice to the voiceless. Sharma literally gives life — through her art — to those who never came into being because of their sex.

In today’s poems Sharma imagines these “vanished girls” from the perspective of the mothers who carried, but never birthed them. “I know you exist,” one such mother reflects, “waiting to be reborn as my son.” Another considers the gender inequity she wanted to spare her would-be-daughter: “It wasn’t that we couldn’t feed another mouth / It was the kind of feeding we would do/ For every roti soaked in ghee for your brother / You would get only one not soaked / Every glass of milk that went down his throat / You would drink chai with a hint of milk.”

It is heartbreaking to think of the lost souls whose sex alone prevented them from having a chance at life. But it is perhaps more challenging to consider the mothers who conceived, who carried the seeds of life inside them, and who made the choice — if they were given a choice at all — to terminate their pregnancies when they discovered they were carrying girls. One mother harbors no illusions as to the kind of life a girl child in India would have had to lead, while the other acknowledges that, despite the choice made, she suffered a great loss: “In my mind I cradled you in my arms.”

Want to see more from Manisha Sharma?
Gendered Arrangements
“Indian Girl Crumbling” in New Asian Writing
“#17”, “#18”, “#22”, “#23”, and “#25” in The Bombay Review

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: A ROSH HASHANAH POEM BY SARAH MARCUS

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By Sarah Marcus:


ROSH HASHANAH, 5774

The moon was a sliver of itself
the first night I thought of you
combing a new year’s honey
through our hair.

We are taught to repent, but
it’s a poor translation,
for Teshuvah is to return
to ourselves,
to come back to who we really are,
to return
to an original state

where we have nothing
but possibility laid before us.

And it is written
as everything will be:

someone’s grandmother’s hands
smelling of cinnamon and clove,
a testament to a world
created as an expression
of limitless love,
of refinement.

The Rabbi says that when you share your words
you are sharing a part of your soul. Each moment
has the potential to be deeply spiritual, my children,
stand in the hugeness of it all.

Autumn has lingered years
for your arrival,
each leaf turned
in anticipation,
even the branches
held their breath

              waiting for us to ask the right questions,
                      for us to stop looking to the sky.



Today’s poem originally appeared in the Green Briar Review and appears here today with permission from the poet.


Sarah Marcus is the author of Nothing Good Ever Happens After Midnight (2016, GTK Press) and the chapbooks BACKCOUNTRY (2013) and Every Bird, To You (2013). Her next book, They Were Bears, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications in 2017. She is an editor at Gazing Grain Press, a spirited VIDA: Women in Literary Arts volunteer, and the Series Editor for As Is Ought To Be’s High School Poetry Series: Gender, Identity, & Race. Find her at sarahannmarcus.com.

Editor’s Note: But this is so much more than a Rosh Hashanah poem. This is a poem of the sacred and the secular. Of belief and being. Of awareness and action. This is the moment when memory becomes contemplation, when contemplation becomes questioning, when questioning demands more from us. Yes, this poem is stunning in its imagery and lyric. Yes, it is evocative and moving. Yes it is visceral and philosophical and spiritual. But it is so much more than that. For while “we have nothing / but possibility laid before us,” the very leaves hold their breath “waiting for us to ask the right questions, // for us to stop looking to the sky.”

Shanah Tovah u’Metukah to you, the faithful readers of this series. May the new year be sweet, and may you be the change you want to see in the world.

Want to see more from Sarah Marcus?
Spork Press
Booth
Nashville Review
The EstablishmentHuffington Post

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: SUSAN RICH

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MOHAMUD AT THE MOSQUE
By Susan Rich

                  ~ for my student upon his graduation

And some time later in the lingering
blaze of summer, in the first days
after September 11th you phoned –

if I don’t tell anyone my name I’ll
pass for an African American.

And suddenly, this seemed a sensible solution –

the best protection: to be a black man
born in America, more invisible than
Somali, Muslim, asylum seeker –

Others stayed away that first Friday
but your uncle insisted that you pray.
How fortunes change so swiftly

I hear you say. And as you parallel
park across from the Tukwila
mosque, a young woman cries out –

her fears unfurling beside your battered car
go back where you came from!
You stand, both of you, dazzling there

in the mid-day light, her pavement
facing off along your parking strip.
You tell me she is only trying

to protect her lawn, her trees,
her untended heart – already
alarmed by its directive.

And when the neighborhood
policeman appears, asks
you, asks her, asks all the others –

So what seems to be the problem?
He actually expects an answer,
as if any of us could name it –

as if perhaps your prayers
chanted as this cop stands guard
watching over your windshield

during the entire service
might hold back the world
we did not want to know.



Today’s poem was published in the collection Cures Include Travel (White Pine Press, 2006), and appears here today with permission from the poet.


Susan Rich is the author of four poetry collections including Cloud Pharmacy, recently shortlisted for the Julie Suk Poetry Prize and the Indi Fab Award. Other books include the The Alchemist’s Kitchen, a Finalist for the Washington Book Prize, Cures Include Travel, and The Cartographer’s Tongue: Poems of the World (White Pine). She is a co-editor of an essay collection, The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Crossing Borders published by The Poetry Foundation and McSweeney’s. Susan’s poems have been published in 50 States and 1 District including journals such as New England Review, The Gettysburg Review, Poetry International, and World Literature Today.

Editor’s Note: Today’s poem is a stunning and moving commentary on racism in America today. A thoughtful reflection, now, with the 15th anniversary of September 11th this past weekend. How far have we come in moving past anti-Islamic sentiment in America? In the world? And how many steps backward have we taken in America’s racism against black men? What of the poem’s notion that “the best protection” is “to be a black man / born in America, more invisible than / Somali, Muslim, asylum seeker”? And what of those asylum seekers? How, in a country whose emblem bears the words “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” have we opened our doors to Syrian refugees? And what of those Americans who are threatening to vote for a man whose response to our neighbors is to build a wall to keep them out?

Today, as much as it did when it was written, this poem asks: Who are we, America? Who are we, and how do we treat our fellow human? I, for one, fear that this America–this world–is “the world / we did not want to know.”

Want to see more from Susan Rich?
Buy Cloud Pharmacy from The Elliot Bay Book Company
Susan Rich’s Official Website
The Alchemist’s Kitchen – Susan Rich’s Blog
Twitter: @susanrichpoet
Facebook Author Page

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: BLACK LIVES MATTER POETRY





“It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.” ― Ta-Nehisi Coates



Editor’s Note: Every word I have attempted to write here has been wholly inadequate. I can only offer you poetry written by those who have lived an experience that I have only witnessed from the sidelines, in abject horror.


BLACK LIVES MATTER POETRY:

“Standing In Courage” by Jacinta V. White

“The All Black Penguin Speaks” by Roger Bonair-Agard

“Black Woman” by Georgia Douglas Johnson

#BlackPoetsSpeakOut

Black Lives Matter: A Roundup of Worthy Reads – The Poetry Foundaton

10 Artists of the Black Lives Matter Movement – Sojourners

Poets for Ferguson

Black Lives Matter – Renee Mitchell Speaks

‘Black Lives Matter’: A Poem by Nikkita Oliver

Anthony McPherson – “All Lives Matter: 1800s Edition”

Black Lives Matter/Freddie Gray Poem



SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: GEORGE MOSES HORTON ON LIBERTY AND SLAVERY

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ON LIBERTY AND SLAVERY
By George Moses Horton

Alas! and am I born for this,
To wear this slavish chain?
Deprived of all created bliss,
Through hardship, toil, and pain!

How long have I in bondage lain,
And languished to be free!
Alas! and must I still complain–
Deprived of liberty.

Oh, Heaven! and is there no relief
This side the silent grave–
To soothe the pain–to quell the grief
And anguish of a slave?

Come, Liberty, thou cheerful sound,
Roll through my ravished ears!
Come, let my grief in joys be drowned,
And drive away my fears.

Say unto foul oppression, Cease:
Ye tyrants rage no more,
And let the joyful trump of peace,
Now bid the vassal soar.

Soar on the pinions of that dove
Which long has cooed for thee,
And breathed her notes from Afric’s grove,
The sound of Liberty.

Oh, Liberty! thou golden prize,
So often sought by blood–
We crave thy sacred sun to rise,
The gift of nature’s God!

Bid Slavery hide her haggard face,
And barbarism fly:
I scorn to see the sad disgrace
In which enslaved I lie.

Dear Liberty! upon thy breast,
I languish to respire;
And like the Swan upon her nest,
I’d to thy smiles retire.

Oh, blest asylum–heavenly balm!
Unto thy boughs I flee–
And in thy shades the storm shall calm,
With songs of Liberty!


(Today’s poem is in the public domain, belongs to the masses, and appears here today accordingly.)


George Moses Horton: (1798–1883) Born a slave on William Horton’s tobacco plantation, George Moses Horton taught himself to read. Around 1815 he began composing poems in his head, saying them aloud and “selling” them to an increasingly large crowd of buyers at the weekly Chapel Hill farmers market. Students at the nearby University of North Carolina bought his love poems and lent him books. As his fame spread, he gained the attention of Caroline Lee Whiting Hentz, a novelist and professor’s wife who transcribed his poetry and helped publish it in her hometown newspaper. With her assistance, Horton published his first collection of poetry, The Hope of Liberty (1829), becoming the first African American man to publish a book in the South—and one of the first to publicly protest his slavery in poetry. (Annotated biography of George Moses Horton courtesy of The Poetry Foundation.)

Editor’s Note: As Passover is coming up this week, I have been thinking about slavery and freedom. About histories of bondage and those who are still wandering in search of sustainable freedom today. As we remember our own slavery this Passover and celebrate our own redemption, may these words from another Moses help us to also remember the experiences of those who have likewise suffered, and to advocate for those who are wandering the world today in search of life and liberty.

Want to read more by and about George Moses Horton?
The Poetry Foundation
UNC Documenting the American South
Academy of American Poets

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: THE BOOK OF ESTHER BY STACEY ZISOOK ROBINSON

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By popular demand, in celebration of Purim we are re-featuring this stellar poem by Stacey Zisook Robinson, in conversation with your faithful editor at the crossroads of feminism and midrash.

By Stacey Zisook Robinson:


THE BOOK OF ESTHER

That blush on my cheek?
It’s paint,
And I have glittered my eyes
And robed myself in the finery
of silk and gossamer,
lapis and gold–
And whored myself for your salvation.

You asked for no thoughts.
You merely offered my body
to the king–
My life forfeit
If my beauty failed.

You asked for no ideas
And I gave you none,
Though I had a thousand,
And ten thousand more.

Diplomacy was played on the field of my body,
The battle won in the curve of my hip
And the satin of my skin,
Fevered dreams of lust
And redemption.

That blush on my cheeks?
It is the stain of victory
And of my shame.


Today’s poem was originally published on Stumbling Towards Meaning and appears here today with permission from the poet.


Stacey Zisook Robinson is a single mom. She sings whenever she can. She writes, even when she can’t. She worked in Corporate America for a long time. Now she works at her writing and looks for God and grace, meaning, connection, and a perfect cup of coffee, not necessarily in that order. Stacey has been published in the Summer 2013 issue of Lilith Magazine and in several anthologies including The Hope (Menachem Creditor, ed) and In Transit (BorderTown Press, Daniel MacFadyen, ed). Watch for her book, Dancing in the Palm of God’s Hand, forthcoming from Hadasah Word Press. Stacey has recently launched a Poet in Residence program designed to work with both adults and kids in a Jewish setting to explore the connection between poetry and prayer as a way to build a bridge to a deepened Jewish identity and faith.

Editor’s Note: This week we celebrated Purim, a Jewish holiday that commemorates Queen Esther (5th c. B.C.E.) saving Persian Jews from genocide. Esther’s rise to power, however, was problematic. Her predecessor, Queen Vashti, was summoned to appear in her crown, ordered to display her beauty before the king and his nobles. The implication, according to many scholars, is that Queen Vashti was ordered to appear wearing only her crown. She refused, and it was suggested that she should be de-throned and replaced by a “worthier woman” so that “all wives [would] henceforth bow to the authority of their husbands, high and low alike” (Esther 1:19-20).

And there’s your daily dose of female oppression, Bible style.

"Vashti Refuses the King's Summons" by Edwin Long (1879). Public Domain image.
“Vashti Refuses the King’s Summons” by Edwin Long (1879). Public Domain image.














A search began for beautiful young virgins. Those who made the cut were subjected to twelve months of beauty treatments before the king would even deign to lay eyes on them. The hopefuls then appeared before the king, who did not see any of them ever again “unless he was particularly pleased by her” (Esther 2:12-14). King Xerxes liked Esther best of all the young virgins displayed before him, and crowned her queen in Vashti’s stead. Plot twist: the king did not know that Esther was Jewish, for she had deliberately kept that fact from him. In the end Esther was able to use her beauty to bend the king to her will, and when one of his henchmen sought to have all the Jews in the kingdom annihilated, Esther stood up for her people and they were spared.

While it is this end-result that is remembered and celebrated each year at Purim, it is Esther’s degrading rise to the throne—and what it cost her to to save her people—that is the subject of today’s poem.

To come to power, Esther had to take the rightful queen’s place and become the poster child for the idea that “all wives [should] bow to the authority of their husbands.” To catch the king’s eye she had to strip away her personhood until nothing was left but her physical beauty. “That blush on my cheek? / It’s paint, / And I have glittered my eyes / And robed myself in the finery / of silk and gossamer, / lapis and gold.” It was not her devotion to her people that allowed her to save them, but that she “whored [her]self for [their] salvation.” Nor did her people care who she was beneath her beauty, or whether she survived her attempt to save them: “You asked for no thoughts. / You merely offered my body / to the king– / My life forfeit / If my beauty failed.”

"Queen Esther" by Edwin Long (1878). Public Domain image.
“Queen Esther” by Edwin Long (1878). Public Domain image.
















Queen Esther was a pawn in men’s games, as women of history have too often been. “Diplomacy was played on the field of my body, / The battle won in the curve of my hip.” She used her beauty and her sexual allure because, as a woman of her time and place, they were the only instruments of power available to her. But if she were given a voice, she might speak of inner conflict. She might tell us what it feels like to lack the ability to either refuse or consent. Queen Esther was a hero, but what did it cost her to package and sell herself in the name of the greater good? “That blush on my cheeks? / It is the stain of victory / And of my shame.”

Today’s poem does what all great feminist biblical interpretation and midrashot do: it examines, deconstructs, and reconstructs androcentric assumptions, biases, and perspectives in biblical literature, placing women, gender, and sexuality at the center of reinterpretation.

In a time when the Bible is still being used to justify the oppression of women, we need much more of the important work Stacey Zisook Robinson is doing with “The Book of Esther.”

Want more from Stacey Zisook Robinson?
Stacey Zisook Robinson’s Blog
Stacey Zisook Robinson’s Official Website
Personal Essays and Opinion Pieces on iPinion
ReformJudaism.org

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: DECENCY


Decency


From DECENCY
By Marcela Sulak:


selections from SOLIDARITY

vi. Virginity

It’s not that you get tired, it’s that it starts to be the only thing,
starts to disappear you.

Your parents phone you at college to ask: how is your virginity
doing? Did your virginity have a good day?

What does it want to be when it grows up? Your virginity sounds
a little sad this morning. What kind of cake does your virginity want

for its birthday? your girlfriends saw the most amazing shoes
that your virginity would look terrific in!

Want to go shopping? your boyfriends—would your virginity like to see
a movie? What about dinner?


ix. witches

My daughter is named for my grandmother, a midwife
who attended the births of 90 babies in rural Texas

before they had cars and after they finished having witches
but before there were doctors. Now you may understand

what I mean when I say another woman
gave my daughter a book called “The witches and the rabbi”

for her birthday. Here is the plot: a village is terrorized by a plague
of witches who fly from their cave when the moon is full,

on brooms through the sky except when it’s raining. I’m not sure
what the witches actually do to the village, since no one

actually goes outside on those nights. Gary, Indiana, could use
an infestation of witches—no stabbings

or gunshot wounds on evenings of full moons.
But one full moon when it is raining the rabbi shows up

with twenty townsmen. The witches
are so delighted they make them a feast of all the good things

they have. The rabbi tricks them into dancing with him and
the vigilante men, out into the rain,

which kills them. I knew her father’s mother was secretly
glad when I started to hemorrhage. She didn’t want me

to have a homebirth with a midwife.
“What kind of rabbis are these?”

Says my rabbi, stopped by for a quick hello. My daughter
wanted to show him that we had a book about rabbis. “They’re

engaging the poor witches
in mixed dancing and leading them astray,” he says.

This is the broom which sweeps the sky of the stars you have
to be too drunk to write about, as Daisy put it.

This is the housework the princesses do disguised
as village maidens. These are the constellations that form

in the shadow of the stars.
Silent are the women in the village

who took their cloth packets of herbs and were silent
when their husbands rushed off to kill the witches in that story.



CHOCOLATE

The day I won the custody case my lawyer gave me a bitter chocolate
in black and silver paper. Once I saw cacao pods
drying in a Venezuelan village square

during Easter week; through the open church doors, peeling saints sniffed
        and were carried
like colicky children through night streets. The local hot chocolate
was thickened with cornmeal and canella bark

somebody tore from the trees. To reach that village we found a fisherman,
        plowed
through rows of porpoises, then hiked five kilometers
inland through banana and cocoa trees,

which like shade. Once only men could drink
chocolate. Women were permitted cacao beans as currency,
to buy meat or slaves or pay tribute. It feels good to imagine a single seed,

hidden in the forbidden mouth, the tongue
curled, gathering the strength to push. The Aztec king discarded
each gold-hammered cup after its initial use; his chocolate was red as fresh
        blood.

He was a god to them. It was frothy,
poured from great heights. When we bathed in the village river, girls
gathered around me, whispering, why is your skin so pale? Why is your
        hair so straight?

Can we braid it? Dime, eres blanca?
The judge, our lawyers, her father, and I decided the fate
of my child. The dark liquid we poured was ink, initialing our little
        negotiations.

Who can know the heart of another, the blood
spiced with memory, poured from one generation to the next
over great distances? The Mayan word for chocolate means bitter. The
        village

used to be a plantation; now it is a co-operative, owned by descendants
of the former slaves. At Easter Vigil the women lined up
behind the most beautiful, in a long sky

-blue dress adorned with gold stars. Between the decades of the rosary she
        called out,
while we shuffled our feet in merengue beat, bearing the saints
through the streets, someone shot off a Roman

candle. The men’s procession paused for rum. I know I’ll be paying for it
        the rest
of my life. The Mayan word means bitter water. The cacao
tree was uprooted from paradise.



HOW TO USE A NAPKIN

Understand the napkin
has been unnecessary
for most of human history.

Understand the world is filled with people
eager to bend
things to their will.
We shall practice on the napkin.
When you have finished eating
place your napkin loosely
next to your plate
.

It should not be crumpled or twisted,
which would reveal untidiness or nervousness;
nor should it be folded,

which might be seen as an implication
that you think your hosts
might reuse it without washing
.
.
It is a delicate affair.
Don’t argue with me
said my husband

who had called for my advice
about the apartment he was renting
when he didn’t want to live with me.

It is largely
symbolic today
except for barbecues.
Lightly dab the lips.

I suspect the word
argue is the space
in the mouth for things
to come apart in.

The napkin must not be left
on the chair, it might seem
as if you have an inappropriately

dirty napkin to hide
or even that you are trying
to run off with the table linens.

It takes great trust
to use a napkin.
It takes an act
of faith to leave
the table.



Today’s poems are from Decency (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), copyright © 2015 by Marcela Sulak, and appear here today with permission from the poet.



Decency: Poetry. Jewish Studies. Women’s Studies. Decency celebrates the spunky wenches, the unfortunate queens, the complicated translators, the wistful wives who have been hustled off the spotlit stages of history. Through the lens of Victorian manuals of etiquette, through the unfolding of religion from the Middle East to the American Southwest, Decency thinks through the brutal things we do to one another, recording the ways the individual operates in relation to society’s mores and harms. From the Sumerian queen Puabi to contemporary female recruits to the Israeli intelligence’s “Honeytrap” operation, Decency is a mix of the documentary and the lyrical, the wrathful and the joyful.


Marcela Sulak‘s poetry collections include Decency (2015) and Immigrant (2010), both with Black Lawrence Press. She’s translated four collections of poetry from the Czech and French, and, most recently, the Hebrew: Orit Gidali’s Selected Poems: Twenty Girls to Envy Me (University of Texas Press, July 2016). She’s co-edited the 2015 Rose Metal Press title Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres. Sulak directs the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University. ​​


Editor’s Note: If there is a question driving the poems in Marcela Sulak’s sophomore collection, it is a question of the ways in which we are and are not decent to one another. As individuals and as countries. As intimates and strangers. Both within and across the (real or artificial) divides of race, creed, culture, and nationality. Sulak pursues the answers to this question with the keen eye of an academic and a researcher, then relays her observations and discoveries with the skilled and deliberate abandon of an artist. These questions of decency are considered and depicted through the lenses of history, relationship, and etiquette. The result is a brave yet dainty collection. A powerful yet vulnerable collage. A work that charms the reader with its quaintness so that its harsh truths and difficult revelations go down like chocolate–bitter yet sweet, delicate yet bold.

Among the many long poems in this collection is one that stopped me in my tracks when I heard the poet read it aloud at the book’s New York launch last year. “Solidarity” is a stunning inquiry into rape–its ramifications and its afterlife and the endless experiences that collide with sexual violence in concentric circles. Today, for example, are Sulak’s reflections on misogyny and witch hunts, virginity and agency. Of virginity she writes, “It’s not that you get tired, it’s that it starts to be the only thing, / starts to disappear you.” Determined that her daughter know the truth about the history of hysteria, misogyny, and women healers, she considers witches through the skewed twin lenses of history and scaremongering: “Silent are the women in the village // who took their cloth packets of herbs and were silent / when their husbands rushed off to kill the witches in that story.” If I could have, I would have reprinted this long poem in its entirety. But then, you really ought to buy the book so that you can read this breathtaking work for yourself.

Throughout this masterful collection the poet’s own experiences are coupled with the larger lenses of the book–history and etiquette, for example–so that what is gleaned by the reader is at once deeply personal and delightfully educational. “The day I won the custody case my lawyer gave me a bitter chocolate,” Sulak writes of her unique experience, then later, in the same poem, writes of the history of chocolate: “Once only men could drink / chocolate. Women were permitted cacao beans as currency, / to buy meat or slaves or pay tribute.” Yet these ideas are not disparate; they are finely woven together by the poet’s skilled hand. The genius of this interrelation is beautifully evidenced by moments like this, in a poem that appears to be about the history of the napkin, but is equally about the poet’s leaving her husband: “It takes great trust / to use a napkin. / It takes an act / of faith to leave / the table.” The art of the poem–like the collection that houses it–is enriched beyond experience and information by a powerful lyric: “It feels good to imagine a single seed, // hidden in the forbidden mouth, the tongue / curled, gathering the strength to push.”


Want to see more from Marcela Sulak?
Marcela Sulak Official Website
“Jerusalem” in the Cortland Review
Decency” and “Raspberry” in Haaretz
Buy Decency from Black Lawrence Press, Book Depository, or Amazon

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: KEETJE KUIPERS

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GETTING THE BABY TO SLEEP
By Keetje Kuipers


Sometimes the baby can’t reconcile
the self with the self: too hungry
to eat, too tired to sleep. I know

the feeling. O, America, on those nights
when you are too beautiful for me
to continue to forgive you any longer—

for allowing us to kill each other
with your graceless bullets, or exile
our neighbors across your fictitious

border, or argue over the ownership
of each young girl’s body as if its freedom
is a lie she must stop telling herself—

I go out into your radiant embrace.
The baby and I drive through your streets,
over the bridge and its light-chipped

waters, under a moon so big, so full
of itself that though I know it belongs
to the world, it can’t be anything but

American. I hang my arm out the window
and skim the air like touching skin.
I breathe you in, and the baby sleeps.


Today’s poem was originally published in Blackbird and appears here today with permission from the poet.


Keetje Kuipers has been the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Resident, a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, and the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College. A recipient of the Pushcart Prize, her poems, essays, and fiction have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best American Poetry. Her first book of poetry, Beautiful in the Mouth, won the 2009 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and was published by BOA Editions. Her second collection, The Keys to the Jail, was published by BOA in 2014. Keetje is an Assistant Professor at Auburn University where she is Editor of Southern Humanities Review.

Editor’s Note: Today’s poem absolutely blows me away. It is too powerful to contain, and yet it is perfectly wrought as if chiseled from marble. It is metaphor and life, politic and country, as near as a closely-held infant and as far as the moon. It is the American affliction: needless gun violence, our backs turned and hearts hardened against immigrants and refugees, our deep seated fear of women’s sexuality, freedom, independence. “O, America, on those nights… you are too beautiful for me / to continue to forgive you any longer.” Absolutely stunning. Heartbreaking. An outcry in the form of a quiet, contemplative drive, cruising America in an attempt to get the baby to sleep.

Want more from Keetje Kuipers?
www.keetjekuipers.com

The Myth of the Apolitical American Poet

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The Myth of the Apolitical American Poet

by Michael T. Young

 

 

I recently heard a poet complain that the poets he friended on Facebook seemed more like activists than poets. He was considering leaving Facebook until after the election so he didn’t have to listen to the ranting and debating. I thought this was a good thing—the activism that is. It was also proof of what I’ve always argued: that American poets are deeply engaged in the relevant issues of our day.

 

There’s an assumption that American poets don’t engage politics or social issues. We’re believed to be only concerned with our personal lives and to write only about that. To most Americans our poets are all confessional in the worst sense of the word and write only an obscure, self-absorbed poetry and this is why they aren’t read. However, this is a myth. Although we engage personal issues, it is through them that we engage the true social and political issues of our day and this is the way to be most fully engaged. Take a poem like “Charlie Howard’s Death” by Mark Doty. Charlie Howard was a teenager who was murdered in 1984 because he was homosexual. Three other teenagers chased him down and threw him over a bridge into a river, though he protested that he couldn’t swim. Doty wrote a poem that is not only personally relevant since he is also a gay man, but one that is emotionally powerful and complex, aesthetically beautiful and socially relevant since gay rights are among the most relevant of socio-political topics of our time. Much of Doty’s poetry deals with gay issues, and these are both personally relevant and relevant to the larger cultural setting of our day.

 

Another poet who engages both socio-political topics and personal issues simultaneously is Gerald Stern. For instance, in his poem, “The Same Moon Above Us,” he imagines a homeless man as the exiled Ovid, which also allows him to identify with Ovid as a poet and thus the three become one and the poem on one of its levels is a commentary on poverty in America. Poverty is exile, and like the exile they are granted no voice because judged already. Who among the homeless are our exiled Ovids, which of them may be an unsung Milton or Keats? Another of Stern’s poems is “June Fourth,” which with subtlety engages the perspective of a worker and the authority that oppresses him. In a short span it ropes together everything from the metaphysical to the economic in a nuanced language about power and what creates the fertile ground of revolt. The poem is set in the world of factory life for Bethlehem Steel. It confronts the core issues embodied in the Occupy Wall Street Movement though written decades ago.

 

This kind of socio-political engagement can be found in many contemporary poets such as Cynthia Atkins, Okla Elliott, Barbara Elovic, Richard Levine, Djelloul Marbrook, and Joe Weil, just to name a few. Furthermore, many poets are politically active in some respect. Richard Levine identifies himself as a political activist and is quite busy working against fracking in New York. Djelloul Marbrook is a former journalist and, for many, is a source of alternative views to the standard media outlets like the New York Times or CNN. And it is not only these poets who are not nationally known or winning our biggest prizes who are so engaged. For instance, Wendell Berry, in addition to being a magnificent poet, and a recipient of a National Medal of Arts and Humanities, has spent his life writing about and defending small farmers against large corporations and monopolies. In many ways, he was fighting the power of the 1% long before those in Occupy Wall Street were born.

 

To highlight both their political activism and their engagement with issues in their poetry, is not to argue that our poets use poetry in service to politics or as a mere linguistic soapbox. Nothing could be worse or a greater artistic torture to endure. Our poets know this. If not explicitly, at least implicitly, they know what George Oppen argued, that “the good life, the thing wanted for itself, the aesthetic, will be defined outside of anybody’s politics, or defined wrongly.” Thus to engage the socio-political concerns of our time or any other, is to do it from the point of view of the personal, of the individual life lived. Our poets are in the position to be more clearly engaged with the real issues because they approach them from the point of view of living and not from the stance of rhetoric.

 

As the myth about the Romantics being non-political crystalized around their actively creating this image, so too the American poet as an apolitical writer intent only on the reality of his immediate world was created by those poets. Our poets often insist on concrete rather than abstract work, the immediate and visceral rather than the remote and intellectual. I think that insistence in theory has resulted in an image that is not true to practice. One reason for it may be that our poetry’s language is the opposite of political speech, which is always evasive, abstract, an incantation of generalizations meant to charm you to sleep and vote. Poetry is meant to wake you up.

 

Most of the Romantics were active supporters of the French Revolution, much of Blake’s poetry is charged with socio-political concerns and Byron himself died fighting in the Greek War for independence. The critic, Jacque Barzun, wrote a brilliant book called Classic, Romantic, Modern, which debunked the myths about the Romantic poets, one of those myths being that they had no interest in politics. In much the same way, a book could be written debunking this same myth about American poets. But I think a better thing to do is read American poetry and pay attention to the socio-political realities underlying their themes.

 

If Americans spent a little time reading their poets, they would wake up to the fact that America is rich with a poetry that engages every relevant issue of our time from the personal to the political, and might even learn that most poets realize these can’t be separated. To live life in a democracy is to be political. To grapple with the issues of your daily life and to write about them is to comment on and confront the reality of the republic in which we live. It might also give us, as a country, pause to wonder why exactly our poets are not more widely read since it is not because they don’t address issues relevant to our lives. They are, in fact, more concerned about what’s happening in our country than most. And maybe that’s really why they aren’t read, not because they don’t engage the important issues but precisely because they do. Most other Americans would rather watch a sitcom, wrapping themselves in its humorous triviality, like a child imagining the blanket he pulls over his head can protect him against anything that might emerge from the darkness while he sleeps.

 

 

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: JAIMIE GUSMAN


Jaimie


By Jaimie Gusman:


BABY

The baby carriage on top of the roof is too much. The husband says to his wife, it has to end here. Years before they were in love, the kind of love that was quiet but infectious. The kind of love that made their friends feel all the complexities of love with great jealousy and excitement. Now, the baby carriage is on the roof again, even though he brought it back inside just yesterday, after 13 hours of work at the shed. He was driving home when he saw it – navy blue with periwinkle-ruffled trim.

She sewed that trim herself. He remembered her pregnancy, her sewing. She made sure the detail was just right for their little boy. Her friends all said ooh and ahh and complimented her dedication and creativity. He remembers being proud of his wife, how that pride filled him, heated him up and up where the atmosphere was tempered by a soft breeze.

When they lost the blue baby she held him close. She sang him the lullabies she practiced late at night when she couldn’t sleep. She put him in the carriage and showed him off to the other mothers in the ward. And after even that, she did not want to let her blue baby go. Friends and family were worried. She sang lullabies all the time.

One day, her husband came home to a dozen watermelons swaddled in a bright cerulean celestial covered fabric. Our blue baby is safest at night. His wife put her head against the cloth of one melon. She looked bright. Sweet boy, she sang, dissolving into the fabric. And he thought that was enough, this tone, this textile. That she could be happy with this.



BIRDSONG

I hold my wedding dress tight,
the bottom, like tissue paper
prepped for plastering to a mannequin.
All the other brides, too,
hold white birds
against their thighs.

When we get to the altar,
the men pour forth.
They step up, one by one,
and point to a dress. A dress!
The man then opens his mouth,
and a bride crawls right inside it.

None of the brides are terrified,
but I can’t help but be disturbed.
These are swallowed women,
women that cling to rhinestones,
while layers of organza and silks
sway with an effortlessness numb.

When a man chooses me
I blush, but try not to.
He grabs my hand, lifting me
to the altar. I know what’s next,
I know I must get in position
and drop the dress so the train
makes a trail of feathers. I do.

What happens inside the mouth?
Nothing! A dark wet corridor
leads to another dark wet corridor.
I find a cool bench and listen
to his echoing thoughts.
I love this man, I begin feeling
and then saying out loud.

Where are the others?
Where are the glistening waistlines
that so briskly walked down
aisles before me? History?
I search my own wet echoes.
Hello, is this thing on?



Today’s poems are from the chapbook Gertrude’s Attic (Vagabond Press, 2014, © Jaimie Gusman ), and appear here today with permission from the poet.


Jaimie Gusman’s work has appeared in The Feminist Wire, Moss Trill, Sonora Review, B O D Y, Trout, Mascara Review, Unshod Quills, LOCUSPOINT, Capitalism Nature Socialism, Hearing Voices, Hawaii Women’s Journal, Tinfish Press, Spork Press, Shampoo, Juked, Barnwood, DIAGRAM, and others. She is the 2015 Rita Dove Poetry Prize winner, and has three chapbooks: Gertrude’s Attic (Vagabond Press, 2014), The Anyjar (Highway 101 Press, 2011), and One Petal Row (Tinfish Press, 2011). She lives and works in Kaaawa, HI.

Editor’s Note: What I love about today’s poems is the stories they tell. The lives–both inner and outer–they reveal. Stories reminiscent of beloved favorites like “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” and “The Story of an Hour.” Brimming with social commentary and strong with the struggles we don’t always speak of, these are the stories that must be told. And how brave, moving, and enchanting they are when Jaimie Gusman tells them.

Want more from Jaimie Gusman?
Jaimie Gusman’s Official Blog
One Petal Row
Gertrude’s Attic
The Anyjar
Two Poems in The Feminist Wire