Thursday, December 31, 2009

Goodbye, Hello

On the last day of 2009, John Keats comes to mind. Yesterday morning, my grandfather passed away after a long struggle with Alzheimer's. One of his favorite things to tell me, when he was still able, was, "Life is a search for truth and beauty." This advice struck me as inspiring or infuriating, depending on the stage of life I was in at the time it was given. I wonder whether my grandfather would say he had found the objects of his quest. I never asked while he could answer.

While searching for John Keats' answer, I found Albert Einstein's: “The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives.”

And now Keats:

Ode on a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearièd,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea-shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul, to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

O Attic shape! fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," —that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

In Memoriam: Thomas Matthew Kelly, 4/17/20- 12/30/09

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Useful Ambivalence

Good news! The Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900 has chosen my extended critical essay, "Useful Ambivalence: Adventures in Lyric Essay Land," to be part of their 2010 conference. I will present the paper at the University of Louisville in February of 2010.

Here is the abstract for the paper (see below). I'd love to hear from anyone who has been working in the form. Why do you choose to make use of the dual possibilities of the lyric essay? What challenges does it present?


This essay, “Useful Ambivalence: Adventures in Lyric Essay Land,” explores the blurring of boundaries between poetry and essay, as well as the interstitial space between them where magic sometimes happens. What is a lyric essay? Why do writers seem to choose hybrid genres more frequently now? Are clear demarcations between genres meaningful? Can a lyric essay exist apart from its words? What is the role of Truth in this genre?

This work will examine the apparent interdependence of form and content in lyric essays. It will also seek to establish a working definition of the term “lyric essay,” look briefly at its origins, and closely examine three examples in the genre: The Body by Jenny Boully, “The Theory and Practice of Postmodernism: A Manifesto” by David Antin, and selections from Joan Didion’s The White Album. In the close readings, I will examine elements common to essays that have been termed “lyric,” either by the authors or by editors who anthologize their work. Excerpts of each of the aforementioned works appear in John D’Agata’s seminal anthology, The Next American Essay; a self-proclaimed lyric essayist, D’Agata will frequently serve as a guide throughout this study. This essay shall also posit explanations for the recent proliferation of works that resist categorization, i.e. what is to be gained from blurring the lines?

“Useful Ambivalence” will also investigate the craft of the lyric essay. How do the aforementioned writers use juxtaposition, negative space, jazz, narrative, and other techniques to render meaning? Finally, the study ends with an envoy addressed to readers and writers who might wish to continue investigating the form of the lyric essay.

Happy Thanking,

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Realizing Social (In)Justice in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Pink Dog”

Perhaps because it is one of Bishop’s travel poems, “Pink Dog” immediately caught my attention with its vivid, colorful imagery, playfulness, and conversational tone. I love the speaker’s initial observation of something so mundane as a hairless dog contrasted with the sights and smells of Rio De Janiero. The rhyme scheme, which is constructed with three end-rhymes in each tercet, (aaa bbb ccc…), is at first almost child-like in its simplicity and playfulness. Similarly, the speaker’s surprise at the sight of the dog, in its simplicity and honesty, achieves a conversational tone from the beginning stanza.

All of these initial impressions constitute a kind of lightness which is soon complicated by the speaker’s darker observations of the displaced and poverty-stricken populations of the city: “how they deal with beggars? They take and throw them in the tidal rivers / Yes, idiots, paralytics, parasites / go bobbing in the ebbing sewage, nights / out in the suburbs, where there are no lights” (ll. 14-18). The first effect of such a major shift in tone and subject inherent in the speaker’s juxtaposition of the hairless dog with the city’s poor and displaced is the immediate comparison. While she employs some hyperbole, the speaker recognizes that these people are being treated as if they were unwanted animals.

The poem evolves even further in the final four stanzas when the speaker returns to meditations on the pink dog and proposes that it dress up for the Carnival festival to hide its repellent condition. The speaker concludes by praising the festival which “is always wonderful!” (l. 36), and urging the dog to participate, “Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!” (l. 38). Such praise is tainted, of course, with a cynicism which informs the entire poem. Bishop’s investigation of the city’s treatment of its poor populations is also an investigation of the shallow and meaningless nature of festivals such as Carnival. Just as the pink dog becomes a metaphor for the “idiots, paralytics, [and] parasites” which a city cannot hide, Carnival becomes a metaphor for the ineffectual human endeavor to compensate for such social injustice. Because it is a Christian holiday, Carnival also becomes, in Bishop’s representation, a manifestation of the failure of religion to solve social problems of classism. Just as Bishop’s playful rhyme can only partially hide the dark themes of the poem, Carnival can only superficially obfuscate (and temporarily alleviate) human misery.

--Matthew Vetter


Rio de Janeiro

The sun is blazing and the sky is blue.
Umbrellas clothe the beach in every hue.
Naked, you trot across the avenue.

Oh, never have I seen a dog so bare!
Naked and pink, without a single hair . . .
Startled, the passersby draw back and stare.

Of course they’re mortally afraid of rabies.
You are not mad; you have a case of scabies
but look intelligent. Where are your babies?

(A nursing mother, by those hanging teats.)
In what slum have you hidden them, poor bitch,
while you go begging, living by your wits?

Didn’t you know? It’s been on all the papers,
to solve the problem, how they deal with beggars?
They take and throw them in the tidal rivers.

Yes, idiots, paralytics, parasites
go bobbing in the ebbing sewage, nights
out in the suburbs, where there are no lights.

If they do this to anyone who begs,
drugged, drunk, or sober, with or without legs,
what would they do to sick, four-leggéd dogs?

In the cafés and on the sidewalk corners
the joke is going round that all the beggars
who can afford them now wear life preservers.

In your condition you would not be able
even to float, much less to dog-paddle.
Now look, the practical, the sensible

solution is to wear a fantasia.
Tonight you simply can’t afford to be a-
n eyesore. But no one will ever see a

dog in mascara this time of year.
Ash Wednesday’ll come but Carnival is here.
What sambas can you dance? What will you wear?

They say that Carnival’s degenerating
—radios, Americans, or something,
have ruined it completely. They’re just talking.

Carnival is always wonderful!
A depilated dog would not look well.
Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!

—Elizabeth Bishop

Works Cited

Bishop, Elizabeth. “Pink Dog.” Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. 530. Print

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sulphur Hollow

This is a poem of mine that was recently featured in the Sept. 2009 issue of The Journal of Kentucky Studies. Enjoy!

-Matthew Vetter

Poem at Sulphur Hollow

I don’t need to tell you,
I have claimed the biggest,
moss-covered rock, to sit

with my son and watch
the black and yellow bird
who brought me here

dart from tree to tree.
What does she know,
I wonder, of the back half

of the Ford I found buried
in the hillside, the lock
of its trunk still shining

among the rust and decay.
All around us, mast from oaks
and maples waits to be

scavenged, stored, peeled.
The skin of the oak nut is scored,
divided like the fruit of an orange

into so many sections.
My son wants to gather
as many as he can, wants

to throw them into this small valley,
wants to add one small sound
to the winter roar of wind

blowing against a thousand
dead dry leaves all at once.
Now there’s a low wailing

across the fields, beyond
the tree line that borders
the edge of Sulphur Hollow.

I stand and turn my head.
I want to know the animal
that would cry like that.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I'm Your Butcher, Baby

I have been working with my brother to revise a sonnet that he wrote. We worked on it a few times, but he wanted to submit it as part of his college application. The catch was, it could only be eight lines. So I harkened back to Molly Peacock's lecture on the magical proportions of the sonnet and started hacking. In other words, we tried to keep the 8:6 ratio (roughly) while leaving the heart of the poem intact.

Here is the most "finished" version (the lines are really long):

DNA created me. I am one plus one, the reaction of an act not correlated with a thought of me.
What am I if not a continuation of people who lived before my creation? Accident or surprise,
no one hoped or planned for me. If I were a part of God’s plan, then I should have purpose.
But I could find so many purposes, meaning falls away.
I lean toward nothing.
I am not thankful for the happiness belief brings. Absolute Truth breeds division.
What am I but another organism on the chain whose links make up existence?
I am everything and nothing. I refuse treatment for my cancer.

Both of us were pleased and amazed with the results. The original was far more wordy. Almost an essay. Now the lines pop, especially the short one at the turn.

It was a good exercise. If only I could be as ruthless with my own work. I aim to try.

Happy haunting,

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Lunar Eclipse

Here's a poem I wrote in February of 2008 which was just recently published in the Autumn 2009 Issue of The Midwest Quarterly. I hope that it will speak to you on your own terms; but, for me, this poem represents an early phase in my discovery and initial investigations of secular humanism. Thanks for reading,


Lunar Eclipse
February 20, 2008

I like how you throw your cigarette to the grass
and leave me with the wooden rocking chair,

the wetness of you breath lingering
in the frozen air after you have shut the door.

I imagine you, going from room to room,
turning off lights, shutting the cabinets

I have left open. See how stones from the river
enter the eyes of our children? What beautiful

stupor sleep ushers. What will I give them?
The night is theirs, this shadow passing

over the moon makes everything around it
explode. I will not pray tonight. To pray

is to confess solitude. I am not alone.
To pray in gratitude is to confess coincidence,

to admit to luck or chance, but everything
here I have made, or helped in the making.

To pray in exaltation is to celebrate
that which is not your own. To pray in

petition is to beg. I will not pray tonight.
I beg for nothing. I have seen the light

between each star brighten as the red moon
goes dark, then bleeds, then goes dark again.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Transformative Metaphor in Updike's Early Stories

As I continue to read The Early Stories, I am taken by Updike's use of metaphor. Two, in particular, have been so startling and apt that I would call them "transformative," in that they transport the reader out of the story for a moment, only to drop her back in with a changed view of the world of the story. When combined with Updike's exquisite descriptions, these metaphors make for a sublime reading experience.

Here is the first, from "Still Life":

He felt she quite misjudged his seriousness and would have been astonished to learn how deeply and solidly she had been placed in his heart, affording a fulcrum by which he lifted the great dead mass of his spare time, which now seemed almost lighter than air... (205)

It's so shocking that it completely takes the reader out of the narrative, but so apt that one is able to reenter without much trouble.

And then from "Who Made Yellow Roses Yellow?":

How tender of Clayton still to drink beer! By a trick of vision the liquid stood unbounded by glass. The sight of that suspended amber cylinder, like his magic first glimpse of Clayton's face, conjured in Fred an illusion of fondness... [they exchange a few words, then:]

Fred felt not so much frustrated as deflected, as if the glass that wasn't around the beer was around Clayton. (230)

One is aware of a keen intellect at work-- keen eyes to make the observation in the first place; keen mind to make the connection. And the reader's thoughts about the relationships between people--in this case, strangers barely turned acquaintances-- is forever changed.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Transgressive Desire and Action in Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

These past few weeks I’ve been obsessing over one of Frost’s most simplistic poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I can remember memorizing and reciting the poem in second grade and I decided to memorize it again. Most of it came back to me fairly quickly, and I’ve been reciting it for my two boys after their bedtime stories. Through the processes of (re)memorization, I’ve also been revising my interpretation.

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Like much of Frost’s work, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is highly accessible on a certain level, even to children. In fact, Frost published a collection of poetry intended for children titled You Come Too: Favorite Poems for Young Readers.

My more recent analysis, however, would more than likely not be included in an elementary school teacher’s lesson plan. I believe the major mode of “Stopping by Woods” is not pastoral but transgressive, a mode which early critics failed to consider.

John T. Ogilvie, for example, focuses on the “dichotomy” of two environments in the poem: 1) the speaker’s intense fascination with the dark manifestation of the natural world and 2) his social “obligations,” the “promises to keep” (l. 14). Ogilvie further asserts that these two environments are given equal consideration: “The artfulness of ‘Stopping by Woods,’ consists in the way the two worlds are established and balanced.

Perhaps a definition of my terms is in order. By ‘transgressive,’ I’m referring to the mood of the poem which asserts a general breach of social order or convention. Such a mood cannot operate within Ogilvie’s balanced dichotomy because the transgressive mood threatens to cancel out the second part of such a balanced equation, the speaker’s obligations to society.

One of my constant slips in the process of memorization occurred in the third line of the poem, which I mistakenly recited as “He will not mind me stopping here” instead of “He will not see me stopping here.” Such a slip is indicative of my own ordering of the poem’s narrative. It makes sense that the speaker might consider the land owner’s possible objections, but this is not the case. Instead, the speaker only considers whether or not he will be noticed or ‘caught.’ Such a distinction is small, but it sets the transgression of the poem in motion with the simple act of trespassing. The transgressive mood is further defined in the final stanza of the poem, as the speaker celebrates not only the act of trespassing, but its achievement, the place: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” (l. 13).

More recently, critics have identified the transgression of the poem as emblematic of the speaker’s desire to permanently sever all social ties. “The theme of ‘Stopping by Woods,’

Jeffrey Meyers asserts, “is the temptation of death, even suicide, symbolized by the woods that are filling up with snow on the darkest evening of the year.”

Such a dark interpretation may be justifiable, but its specificity is restrictive. Perhaps it is more useful to identify the speaker, as so many of Frost’s speakers, at the very intersection of indecision, malaise and social obligation. He yearns for and even idealizes transgression because he believes it may allow an escape from such uncertainty.

Works Cited

Ogilvie, John T. "From Woods to Stars: A Pattern of Imagery in Robert Frost’s Poetry." South Atlantic Quarterly. Winter 1959.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Robert Frost: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

American Hybrid

So I started reading American Hybrid, which is a Norton anthology of contemporary poems that combine elements of formal and experimental poetry edited by David St. John and Cole Swensen and, and I have to say, it put me in a foul mood. I mean, I'm all for playing with language, but I get irritated when the experiment is not at all accessible. I don't need a narrative arc, but I do appreciate the suggestion of meaning, or a hint of sense. Some reason to read other than to exercise my decoding skills.

There were a few exceptions. Mark McMorris's work struck me a particularly readable and rhythmic:

Everything falls, to pieces, to the victor, to someone's lot
falls like a girl falls or a blossom, falls head over heels
like a city or water and like darkness falls, a dynast
a government can fall, or an apple, a cadence, the side of a hill... (p. 272)

This continues for 16 more lines, the accumulation of colloquialisms and new thoughts about what it means to fall create a layering that spins the reader's sense of the usual in a provocative way. McMorris works in sound and poetry performance, and when I read this piece, I could almost hear the lines speaking themselves off the page. I really loved it.

On the back of the book, Matthew Zapruder, editor of Wave Books, says, "Next time anyone asks you if American poetry is still relevant, necessary, or alive, hand them this book and walk away." I just think that's silly. First of all, it's closing down a conversation where one could otherwise blossom. I like the hand them this book part, but the walking away is so arrogant. It's like quoting a passage at the end of a paragraph in a literary essay and expecting readers to just "get it."

This anthology is difficult, and perhaps it is not a bad thing to be knocked off my rocker a little, so I'll not give up yet. I'm curious to know what others who may have read this are thinking. I've handed you this book. Now I'm standing here waiting for an answer.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Invitation to Oblivion

In honor of my little brother's 21st birthday. I offer the following. It's an anonymous (which somehow seems very appropriate) ancient Greek poem from the Hellenistic period (c. 323-31 B.C.).

Invitation to Oblivion

Why was I born? Where did I come from?
How do I happen to be where I am?
Knowing nothing, how can I learn anything?

I was nothing, and yet I was born,
and before too long I'll be nothing again,
nothing at all, of no value whatever.

And such is the lot of everyone. I say,
therefore, brim the mixing bowls with wine,
for only in oblivion is oblivion braved.

From: Greek Lyric Poetry. Trans. Sherod Santos.


Friday, August 21, 2009

More Mary Oliver

A couple of years ago, at the request of my cousin, Jason, I started a yahoo group for my mom's family. She is one of ten children, so you can imagine keeping in touch is sometimes a challenge, especially once you move out to the next generation. So it's been a good tool; folks post little updates, links to photos, recipes, and the like. My uncle, Tom, often posts poems he likes, after which ensues a little impromptu poetry discussion. It's fun. Here is his latest choice, which I found interesting since Mary Oliver has been appearing on our blog regularly. I love the lightness with which she approaches the dark.

Walking to Oak-Head Pond, and Thinking of the Ponds I Will Visit in the Next
Days and Weeks

by Mary Oliver

What is so utterly invisible
as tomorrow?
Not love,
not the wind,

not the inside of stone.
Not anything.
And yet, how often I'm fooled-
I'm wading along

in the sunlight-
and I'm sure I can see the fields and the ponds shining
days ahead-
I can see the light spilling

like a shower of meteors
into next week's trees,
and I plan to be there soon-
and, so far, I am

just that lucky,
my legs splashing
over the edge of darkness,
my heart on fire.

I don't know where
such certainty comes from-
the brave flesh
or the theater of the mind-

but if I had to guess
I would say that only
what the soul is supposed to be
could send us forth

with such cheer
as even the leaf must wear
as it unfurls
its fragrant body, and shines

against the hard possibility of stoppage-
which, day after day,
before such brisk, corpuscular belief,
shudders, and gives way.

"Walking to Oak-Head Pond, and Thinking of the Ponds I Will Visit in the Next
Days and Weeks" by Mary Oliver, from What Do We Know. © Perseus Books Group,

Isn't it beautiful?

Like Matt, I will begin teaching next week. English 112: Exposition and Persuasion. It's an online section, so I never actually meet my students fact to face. Unless of course they show up at my house, which has happened. I'm looking forward to it.


Sunday, August 16, 2009


To balance out Jill's good news, I offer up my own latest rejection slip from the editors at Jelly Bucket, Eastern Kentucky University's MFA Journal:

Mr. Vetter,

Thank you for your recent submission to Jelly Bucket. Unfortunately, we cannot use any of the poems you have submitted at this time. We wish you the best of luck in publishing these poems elsewhere.

All the best,
Tasha Cotter
Poetry Editor/ Editor-in-Chief
Jelly Bucket

In other news, BACK TO SCHOOL. My five year old started Kindergarten last week and my wife and I are back at our M.A.s and G.A.s tomorrow for the second year. I'm teaching a 10:20 section of Eng 100 and looking forward to taking some classes.

Thanks for reading,


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Good News, At Last

I am happy to report that I recently heard that three of my poems-- "Eating the Tree," "Two Rooms," "Watching Cloudring"-- have been accepted for publication by Flowers & Vortexes, a literary magazine that is actually based right here near Madison, Indiana. Double excitement! For a town of 13,000, Madison never ceases to amaze.

In reading news, I finished Moby Dick, plus all the bonus critical essays at the end (from the 1950s). D. H. Lawrence's was by far my favorite. No women critically essaying back then. At least none that were deemed fit for the Bantam Classics volume.

I'll be starting Ender's Game next. My brother Harlan recommended it to me a while back, and I'm on a mission to get teenage boys reading more, so I've got to delve into that genre (books boys might like, that is). Jon Scieszka (author of the Time Warp Trio and The Stinky Cheese Man) has started a non-profit for the same purpose called Guys Read. It's cool. Shocking statistics about boys lagging behind girls. Guess we've seen a reversal since the 50s.

That's all for now.

Enjoy the week,

(Art by Sonny Koren, Age 4)

Monday, July 27, 2009


What's better than watermelons in the summer? I love this poem by Jane Hirschfield first because she's able to evoke metaphor so briefly and simply. I'm always drawn to poetry that employs common language to do uncommon things, and "Green-Striped Melons" is a perfect example of this. The free, three-stanza form emulates the very essence of poetic discourse in its most fundamental distillation: observation in the first stanza, analogy in the second, and discovery of the significance of that analogy in the third.

The poem also reminds me of those bad watermelons--and perhaps Hirschfield intended this, and perhaps not-- the melons that look amazing on the outside but when you cut them open they are too ripe, too red, too sweet. Maybe even rotten. Are "some people like this as well-?"

Green-Striped Melons

They lie
under stars in a field.
They lie under rain in a field.
Under sun.

Some people
are like this as well—
like a painting
hidden beneath another painting.

An unexpected weight
the sign of their ripeness.

Happy Reading


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Giving the Gift of Poetry

One of the ways I have been able to motivate myself to write poems lately is by dedicating them to specific people and giving the resulting poem as a gift. I figure I am following in the great tradition of Emily Dickinson, who also made presents of her poems, attached to home-baked goods. I don't do the baking, though. Just the writing.

Here's a recent one:

What it is All About
Father’s Day 2009

Sometimes during a gig
when Tony is soloing
and I am plunking out my homemade bass line
Your hands striking the congas
pah da la da
puh de le duh
we look up, can’t help smiling.
We’re in a rock band! you say.

When I was very small
you used to ask me
What’s it all about?
as we walked the quarter mile
home from grandma and grandpa’s
singing Starry, Starry Night.

Now I think of cold winter mornings.
You would wake early,
start the fire in the woodstove,
and lay out clothes for my sisters and me
near the stove in the shapes of our bodies.

When we woke, we’d race down
and dress in a flurry, the heat
cloaking our skin.
The smell of wood smoke
followed us to school.

Now I have my own little bodies
to care for, and as I snuggle my daughter
into my body to nurse,
I think I finally know:
this is what it is all about. This transfer
of heat and light and love and life.

Happy writing,

Friday, July 3, 2009

Literary Assaults

Hello Readers!

This week I'm preparing my assults on a handful of literary journals. To be honest, I'm becoming less interested in the more established mags (POETRY, APR, etc) and more concerned with smaller independent organizations.

Among my targets are:

Weave Magazine

"Our aesthetic encompasses work that makes the mundane magical, finds humor even in dark situations, and gives the feminist voice a space to express itself."

The Barefoot Muse A Journal of Formal and Metrical Verse

2River Online and Print Journal with poem podcasts


Journal of Food.

Apple Valley Review

In other news, I'm trying to get my chapbook manuscript "Domestic Violets" polished enough to send out---anyone interested in lending a critical eye? email me at

Hope everyone is enjoying the warm weather!


Monday, June 15, 2009

Good Readers Reread

Since I have no news of publications to speak of, I will write about what I am reading, or rather, rereading. In my teaching, one of the main tenets I attempt to drill into the heads of my students is: "Good readers reread." It sounds simple enough, and most of us know it intuitively. For example, if you don't understand a sentence, you read it again until you do. If you find a poem confusing (intriguing, mystifying, perplexing), you re-enter it, looking for footholds until you can at least partially ascend some measure of understanding. What struggling readers do not understand is that they don't have to get it the first time. Struggling readers read something once, and if they don't understand, shrug and go on. So that's the first form of the tenet: the micro.

On a macro level, I teach my students that good readers reread old favorites, because a good book has more than one lesson to teach and always rewards second, third, fourth (if you're four, maybe a ninth, tenth, one-hundredth) readings. One of my old favorites is Moby Dick. I recently finished Ahab's Wife, or the Star-Gazer, by Sena Jeter Naslund. I enjoyed it so much that I was inspired to go back and reread Moby Dick as well.

The first time I read it (in college), I finished it at breakfast in Commons, and after sitting stunned a few moments, had the rare urge to dive right back into the first page. Unfortunately, I had a class in five minutes, so my reread has been delayed until now. I just finished "The Whiteness of the Whale" last night. What a voice. The compiling of almost all possible associations of "white" is really quite remarkable. If that had been workshopped, folks would probably have said, "Just give a few examples and leave it at that. Don't try the reader's patience." But the exhaustiveness of the list works so well, of course. It's almost like the heaping on of colors (all colors, in fact) that makes white. In Melville's words:

Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows-- a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? (186)

Rereading this reminds me of Updike's "ghastly blank," but also makes Una's answer to Ishmael in Ahab's Wife all the more poignant for me: that we are a part of them, and they are a part of us. When I told Sena I was sorry when Ahab's Wife ended, she said, "You can always reread it." I think I will.

Happy rereading,


Monday, June 8, 2009

Poems at Literary Mama

I'm excited to have two poems (Penny Horse and
Measurements) featured in the June (Father's Day) issue of Literary Mama, an online magazine for the "maternally inclined." Thanks go to poetry editor Sharon Kraus, who so carefully read and responded to my (late) submission and senior editors Amy Hudock, Rebecca Kaminsky, and Shari MacDonald Strong. This is such an amazing journal; it's an honor to have my work up with so many talents.



Monday, June 1, 2009

The Story of Endless Good Fortune

The Mary Oliver poem has really stayed with me since I read it in Matt's last post. It seems to exist in my mind fully formed as an image, but I think I would like to assign myself the task of memorizing it in order to learn how the lines and stanzas work to produce that image. It seems like a simple enough poem, but knowing Oliver, I am sure there are subtleties that would reward memorization.

As promised, I bring you more Updike. First, a stanza from the longer poem "The City Outside: December 11, 2008":

I'm safe! Away with travel and abrupt
perspectives! Terra firma is my ground,
my refuge, and my certain destination.
My terrors-- the flight through dazzling air, with
the blinding smash, the final black-- will be
achieved from thirty inches, on a bed.

This reads as nothing more than a man whose sentence has been handed down, the date of execution, if not set, looming. What struck me about this stanza is the forsaking of an old fear (of flying) for a new, more terrifying certainty. The fear of flying is not really a fear of flying so much as a fear of not flying, ie dying. But the fear of flying is an indulgence of the young and full of life. The remote possibility of the crash is sweet in its slimness. Now the speaker lies safely abed, yet confides that this seemingly safest of places will be the location of that most feared crash-- not from a dramatic airborne vessel, but from a humble thirty inches.

I also love the trick he plays with terra firma: ground, refuge, and my certain destination. The tone is only mildly bitter, mostly resigned. The lesson: we are none of us safe, even when we most think ourselves to be.

Now, "Fine Point: December 22, 2008" (in its entirety):

Why go to Sunday school, though surlily,
and not believe a bit of what was taught?
The desert shepherds in their scratchy robes
undoubtedly existed, and Israel's defeats--
the Temple in its sacredness destroyed
by Babylon and Rome. Yet Jews kept faith
and passed the prayers, the crabbed rites,
from table to table as Christians mocked.

We mocked, but took. The timbrel creed of praise
gives spirit to the daily; blood tinges lips.
The tongue reposes in papyrus pleas,
saying, Surely-- magnificent, that "surely"--
goodness and mercy shall follow me all
the days of my life
, my life, forever.

What a word: "surlily." And here is quite a different narrator, one that wants to hope. What's the loss, he seems to say? Why not a little make-believe to ease the darkest fears. Thus the move from surlily to surely, a wonderful rhyme, so wonderful he repeats it. The only word more wonderful is "forever," which he also repeats. It's that same story the bones (in Oliver) prefer: the one of endless good fortune. It's the same way Updike ended his short story, written in the seventies, "Pigeon Feathers." The narrator, looking at the intricacies of the feathers of the birds he has just killed, concludes by saying that surely the creator of such beauty would allow him to live forever. What a conclusion! How nonsensical. And yet, so tantalizing.

So that's what I've been thinking about. I actually wrote a new poem this week-- yay! And I've been thinking of writing one about sleeping children (no, not a spell) for some time now. But now the sleeping one is awake, so I'll sign off.

Happy June!

Friday, May 29, 2009


I've been thinking about snakes lately. Last weekend I took my two boys camping with my brother and his sons. Just as it was beginning to get dark, another camper pulled up to our site in a pickup and motioned for my brother to come over. The camper showed my brother Eddie something in the back of the truck, and Eddie motioned us over. The boys and I walked over and peeked over the tailgate: a rattle snake lay curled up in the bed, its head somewhat coarsely chopped off I assumed by the knife hanging from the camper's belt. The camper addressed the boys directly, warning them to be cautious. After the truck had pulled away, we returned to our spots around the camp fire, and something my brother's eight-year-old said has stuck with me all week. Somewhat despairingly, he wished he had never even looked in the back of that truck. His comment got me thinking about the way adults pass on fear to children, especially regarding snakes. It's made me want to write a poem, too. But I feel intimidated by such an enormous subject. To remedy this intimidation: I've made a list of what I want my snake poem to do.

among other themes, I want such a poem to confront:
1) as I've mentioned, the ways in which adults hand down fear to children: the purposes and ramifications of such a lineage.
2) the intersections of fear and religion. while it's tempting, i don't think a snake poem can ignore the judeo-christian symbolism attached to the serpent.
3) the more secular and pre-christian symbolism: archetype as well as freudian symbolism
4) the very visceral reaction humans exhibit when confronted with a snake. there's a kind of very specific physical response snakes produce in me, and I'm assuming many others: a corporeal manifestation of fear. How to produce this? not sure, but i think it's important to address this as well.
5) the sentiment voiced by my nephew, the desire for ignorance when faced with fear. the wish to remain unaware of the dangers that surround us, on both specific and universal levels.

These are the things which seem immediately necessary to me. What do you think? Any other requirements for a snake poem? I'll be meditating on the poems below as I work this out. As you read these poems, perhaps you'll be inspired as well. Although, I have a feeling this kind of inspiration comes most forcefully from some kind of direct contact, even if it is dead and decapitated in the back of a pickup. Enjoy!


The Envoy


One day in that room, a small rat.
Two days later, a snake.

Who, seeing me enter,
whipped the long stripe of his
body under the bed,
then curled like a docile house-pet.

I don’t know how either came or left.
Later, the flashlight found nothing.

For a year I watched
as something—terror? happiness? grief?—
entered and then left my body.

Not knowing how it came in,
Not knowing how it went out.

It hung where words could not reach it.
It slept where light could not go.
Its scent was neither snake nor rat,
neither sensualist nor ascetic.

There are openings in our lives
of which we know nothing.

Through them
the belled herds travel at will,
long-legged and thirsty, covered with foreign dust.

The Imagined Copperhead


Without intending to hide,
the imagined copperhead
hid on the path ahead,
unseen on bronze leaves, unheard,
and a mortal likelihood
at every step. This was childhood,
mine, the wood’s jihad
against a boy who’d
intruded among monkshood,
wasp, tick, and nettles haired
with needles. Scrub brush abhorred
him with a horde
of  welts, bites, and stings, but he’d
never seen a copperhead,
though he’d looked hard
taking, as he’d been ordered, heed.
The snake wasn’t a falsehood,
though, to him. Dread
was his nature, and he hared
through sunlight and shade, head
swiveling for the copperhead
he’d begun to covet, the ballyhooed
killer a camouflaged godhead
on which his inborn faith cohered,
and his priesthood.



I saw a young snake glide
Out of the mottled shade
And hang, limp on a stone:
A thin mouth, and a tongue
Stayed, in the still air.

It turned; it drew away;
Its shadow bent in half;
It quickened and was gone

I felt my slow blood warm.
I longed to be that thing.
The pure, sensuous form.

And I may be, some time.

What the Rattlesnake Said


The Moon's a little prairie-dog.
He shivers through the night.
He sits upon his hill and cries
For fear that I will bite.

The Sun's a broncho. He's afraid
Like every other thing,
And trembles morning, noon and night
Lest I should spring and sting.


BY D.H. Laurence

A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.

In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before me.

He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the
edge of the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,

Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second-comer, waiting.

He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.

The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.
And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.

But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?

Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.

And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!

And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid,
But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.

He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.

And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into
that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.

I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.

I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in
undignified haste,
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.

And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.

And I thought of the albatross,
And I wished he would come back, my snake.

For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.

And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness.

The Black Snake


When the black snake
flashed onto the morning road,
and the truck could not swerve--
death, that is how it happens.

Now he lies looped and useless
as an old bicycle tire.
I stop the car
and carry him into the bushes.

He is as cool and gleaming
as a braided whip, he is as beautiful and quiet
as a dead brother.
I leave him under the leaves

and drive on, thinking
about death: its suddenness,
its terrible weight,
its certain coming. Yet under

reason burns a brighter fire, which the bones
have always preferred.
It is the story of endless good fortune.
It says to oblivion: not me!

It is the light at the center of every cell.
It is what sent the snake coiling and flowing forward
happily all spring through the green leaves before
he came to the road.

Friday, May 22, 2009

(1) Seed Across Snow and (2) John Updike

I just finished Seed Across Snow, Kathleen Driskell's new book, and I loved it. After hearing her read many of these at Spalding, some of these poems felt like old friends ("With a Shiner, My Husband Enters the Flower Shop," "Why I Mother You the Way I Do," and "Wedding Ring"). Others were wonderful new discoveries. One poem that particularly struck me was "Forgive." The poem begins: "Short, really short, I said, but I was in fact, not thinking/ of him, was looking out the wide windows, the traffic passing" (1-2). The effect is one of distraction, confusion, and the reader must sift through the details to locate the scene as the poem progresses, which is that of a boy in a barber shop.

The "him" is, as we learn, but not until line eight, the narrator's ten-year-old son, who is suddenly severely shorn. The narrator conjures up horrible imagery of prisoners of war and a "plucked bird," then says: "His crime? To have a mother whose head could be turned/ from him so easily" (13-14). The rhythm of these lines pounds the sinking realization of the narrator home. And the line break (beautiful place for it, on "turned") slows the pace just enough to emphasize it even more. The line does what the narrator cannot do in the beginning: slow her thoughts enough to turn them toward the present, toward her son. The last word there, "easily," falls softly from the tongue, making the indictment more tender.

Of course, I recognize myself in this poem: I too am the distracted mother, whose worst fear is that I will be distracted at the wrong time, and it will be too late to make up for it. I also love the end of the poem, "his furious attempt to turn this poem to cinders." Again we see the verb "turning," only now it is the son's doing. He is not successful in burning the words, which oddly magnifies the central conundrum of the poem: the son is in some ways less powerful than the mother's words, than her mental life, yet he becomes "the sun," exerting upon his mother the power of guilt.

Just a few thoughts. It was a fabulous poem, as they all are. I recommend reading Seed Across Snow.

Now for (2), John Updike, but briefly. I'll say more in a future post. I came across an excerpt of his Endpoint poems in a March issue of The New Yorker. As the title suggests, they are his ruminations on the death that is imminent for him. They are stark, heart-breaking, and achingly hopeful, but only half-heartedly. My aunt and I had planned to read some of his early short stories together, so I then turned to his Olinger set. Reading "Pigeon Feathers," which is basically an autobiographical account of one of his sweeping "fear of death" waves, after reading the poems had a profound effect on me. It has been one of those major shifts that happens after reading something so honest and brilliant that it can't help but change the way you think about life and the world and your small space in it. I continue to read from The Early Stories volume. More on that next time.

Happy, happy Spring-almost-Summer,

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Poems at Semantikon

After a few delays, some of my work is up at Semantikon, a community based online journal. I hope you'll go check out the poems and also explore the rest of the project. I think you'll find it well worth your time.

Thanks go to Mick Parsons (Guest Editor) and Lance Odditt (Editor) for supporting my work.


Literary Feature:


Sunday, May 3, 2009

Coleridgean Poetic Failure

The following is a portion of an essay I'm writing about aporetic modes in the poetry of Coleridge. The first (smaller) part is my attempt to provide a declaration of Coleridgean poetic failure. In the second part, I'm looking at C's "Dejection: An Ode." I know. Not very accessible or contemporary, but so much of what Coleridge accomplished in the early nineteenth century is still being attempted today. "Castor Oil" by Charles Bernstein is a perfect example.

Here's a link to Coleridge's "Dejection"



The poetic failure of Coleridge exists when one or more of the following are fulfilled: the speaker of the poem 1) admits that poetic language fails to provide emotional or spiritual catharsis, 2) paradoxically acknowledges the failure of language within a system of language, 3) is made aware of the unbridgeable différance between perceived and perceiver, signified and signifier, 4) apprehends that observations of external realities cannot alter, alleviate or modify internal states, 5) asserts that observations of external realities allow no obtainable truth concerning those realities, such observations are only capable of producing a realization of the processes of observation, 6) explicitly acknowledges the failure of the poem within the poem.

“Dejection: An Ode”

The first five of these principles are especially applicable to “Dejection: An Ode” which begins with the speaker’s notice of the weather conditions and his hope for a storm that “might startle this dull pain, and make it move and live” (l. 20). Coleridge’s use of the subjunctive signifier “might” in the line and its parallel in the line immediately previous initiate the poem’s hypothetical and aporetic mode. In the second stanza, the speaker identifies the particular melancholy he experiences as:

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
A stifled drowsy, unimpassion’d grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
In word, or sigh, or tear— (l. 21-24)

It is an extraordinary grief especially because it is explicitly irresolvable. The speaker’s acknowledgement that the “word” cannot offer “outlet” or “relief” creates the inherent metapoetic paradox of the ode which is written to alleviate emotional trauma yet admits to the impossibility of such an alleviation, a paradox which is immediately and intrinsically related to the “self-undermining” processes identified by Ayon and Coleridge’s own assertion “that a man can know one thing and believe the opposite” (Biographia Literaria 395). In the remainder of the stanza, the speaker briefly introduces a “Lady” who he apostrophizes throughout the ode but turns quickly and comprehensively to descriptions of the act and processes of an instance of observation-the object being the “western sky” and the moon and stars which fill it:

And still I gaze—and with how blank an eye!

I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel how beautiful they are! (l. 30, 37-38)

The distinction between visual observation and emotional perception made in the final line is indicative of Coleridge’s attempts to identify the essential separateness of the external sphere and the impossibility of an authentic perception of this sphere by the seer, who may observe beauty but fails to understand it. In the third stanza, the speaker again confesses to feelings morose and melancholic while expounding on internal and external différance: “I may not hope from outward forms to win / The passion and the life, whose fountains are within” (l. 45-46). For the speaker of “Dejection,” observations of outward forms cannot alleviate internal states of emotional anxiety. In stanza four, the speaker again apostrophizes the “Lady” and asserts that the only obtainable epistemological systems are those which come from within, “O Lady! we receive but what we give, / and in our life alone does nature live” (l. 47-48). Nothing may be obtained from observations of the external object but the processes of this observation. This is further expounded in stanza five as the speaker realizes that even this obtainment is not certain—but dependent upon the perceiver’s emotional state:

Joy is the sweet voice, Joy the luminous cloud—
We in ourselves rejoice!
And thence flows all that charms or ear or sight,
All melodies the echoes of that voice,
All colours a suffusion from that light. (l. 71-75)

In stanza six, the speaker reminisces on his happy past which enabled him a poetic ability and laments his current emotional state which “suspends what nature gave me at my birth, / My shaping spirit of Imagination” (l. 85-86). Such contemplations motivate the speaker to shift his gaze from inward to outward in the seventh stanza, as he attempts to provide a description of the wind “which long has [raved] [unnoticed]” (l. 97). This shift demonstrates the paradox of the poem yet again as Coleridge maintains the futility of external observation as he practices such observation. Furthermore, because of such a paradoxical and dual mode, it must be assumed that Coleridge’s textual representations of “wind” represent nothing in the external sphere. Instead, these representations betray their compositional processes. His personification of wind, therefore, must also be viewed as a personification of his own identity. Coleridge himself is the “Mad Lutanist,” the “Actor, perfect in all tragic sounds,” the “Mighty Poet, [even] to frenzy bold!” (l. 104, 108, 109).

In the final stanza, the speaker again returns to concerns for his “lady” friend, and wishes her joy and sleep, two accommodations which he does not allow himself. Ultimately, the speaker’s sadness is irresolvable and unalleviated. Whether or not the woman is Sarah Hutchinson, an unrequited love of Coleridge’s, is irrelevant. What is significant is the tension created by her resolved state and the speaker’s unalleviated sadness, a tension which remains unmitigated and, it might be assumed, unbearable. Eddins makes a similar conclusion in “Darkness Audible” as he asserts that Coleridge’s final apostrophe to the Lady represents a hypothetical allusion which provides no relief for the poetic failure of the poem. However, Eddins’s analysis departs from my own in another significant way. Eddins recognizes a conflux of failure in the “metapoem that is at once a lament for vision’s loss and a prayer for its return” (409). The latter aspect emerges as the poem’s central redemptive (aesthetic) quality. This redemption is symbolized in the poem as the approaching storm, which characterizes the possibility of the re-attainment of voice and vision. A similar interpretation is made by Thomas M. Greene in “Coleridge and the Energy of Asking.” Employing one of Coleridge’s many notebook fragments as an access point to the body of the poet’s work, Greene identifies the dominant symbol of “privation” within this fragment and asserts that “the suggestion that all imaginative writing derives from a certain experience of privation needs to be considered seriously” (908). Greene further contends that Coleridge’s creative confrontation of privation is redemptive, even in a poem of negative capability such as “Dejection: An Ode,” which Greene identifies as Coleridge’s discovery of the “metaphoric generativity of the storm” (927). What both of these critics fail to consider is that the metaphor of the storm is fully realized. The transference of tenor and vehicle occurs within the aporetic progression of the poem and the speaker’s personification of himself (discussed above) as the “Mad Lutanist,” the “Actor, perfect in all tragic sounds,” the “Mighty Poet, [even] to frenzy bold!” (l. 104, 108, 109). To identify the possibility of aesthetic redemption within the storm metaphor is to neglect the narrative of the poem. This transference, (this possible redemption) has already occurred in the poem and has already failed. In Coleridge’s words, “This, however, transfers, rather than removes, the difficulty” (BL 404).

Eddins, Dwight. “Darkness Audible: The Poem of Poetic Failure.” Style 34 (Fall 2000): 402. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Camden-Carroll Library, Morehead State University. 28 Mar. 2009.

Greene, Thomas M. “Coleridge and the Energy of Asking.” ELH 62 (Winter 1995): 907-931. Project Muse. Camden-Carroll Library, Morehead State University.
12 April 2009.

Halmi, Nicholas, Paul Magnuson and Raimonda Modiano. Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose. New York: Norton, 2004.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sarah Mitchell Sonnet

I don't know why I always turn to sonnets when I think of writing in forms. The sonnet is entirely unnatural to me. It counters my narrative instinct. Maybe that is why I seek it out. For limits. For balance. Anyway, I have attempted at last the Sarah Mitchell poem. I see now that it will have to be a series, sonnets or no, but here is one offering. Matt's own poem from his March 25th posting inspired me to post one of my own. Reactions to this poem are welcome, since it looks like it might turn into a long term project (if it wasn't already!).

X: In which Potawatomi braves capture Sarah "Sallie" Mitchell, "sister-cousin" to Nancy Hanks

Just as we approached the river, Dan
stopped. Thinking I'd ask if this were the Rockcastle,
I opened my mouth, but he half-spun and ran.
Just like that, the Indians surrounded us until
they formed a knot, became a ganglion, a net.
My mother fell. Run, Sallie. Salleee!
she screamed. Or was it Dan? His hand out,
a shaky bridge across the water. My knees
pushed against my skirts. I hiked them up.
My twelve-year-old body a single pulsing thought:
Run! Thought moved muscle into motion, but
how could I not pause to look toward Mama
where she lay, a heap of skirts. His knife
would take her scalp but slice in two my life.

I'm not sure if that ending is cheesy. I think it might be. The idea I am trying to convey, or rather the image, as I have said before is the one of the blade of the knife separating two eras. I don't think I've been successful, but it's something, and it's on paper (on screen?). Let me know what you think.



P. S. The image is artist Bradley Schmehl's rendering of the capture scene.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Reverse Ekphrasis Project

I'll be reading two poems April 23 at the Reverse Ekphrasis Project Literary Reading. The project is sponsored by Morehead State University and will take place in the Claypool-Young Strider Gallery at 6pm, (on the campus of MSU). The event showcases collaborations of visual and literary artists: (artists are assigned literary texts and produce visual representations). It's an exciting project facilitied by Crystal Wilkinson. I'm looking forward to the interpretation of my poems. If you're around the area, I invite you to join us. 


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Cold Spring Day

Beautiful poem, Matt. I particularly like the nod to Maxine Kumin. One can easily see why poets celebrate spring.

Here it has been cold the last few days. Green. Blooming. And cold. "April is the cruelest month." The weather also makes me think of Leonie Adams's "April Mortality":

Rebellion shook an ancient dust,
And bones, bleached dry of rottenness,
Said: Heart, be bitter still, nor trust
The earth, the sky, in their bright dress.

Heart, heart dost thou not break to know
This anguish thou wilt bear alone?
We sang of it an age ago,
And traced it dimly upon stone.

With all the drifting race of men
Thou also art begot to mourn
That she is crucified again,
The lonely Beauty yet unborn.

And if thou dreamest to have won
Some touch of her in permanence,
'Tis the old cheating of the sun,
The intricate lovely play of sense.

Be bitter still, remember how
Four petals, when a little breath
Of wind made stir the pear-tree bough,
Blew delicately down to death.

Even though I've longed for the return of spring, I can't help but notice the inherent decay in all this birth. The already wilted daffodils. The falling pear blossom. The snowflakes? Wait, that's just nature's April Fools. But the newness fades so quickly. Gosh, what a downer.

It'll be warmer tomorrow.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Essay on Spring

What's a poetry blog without poetry? Here's something I've been working on today, sans punctuation because that's always the last thing. Enjoy,


Almost always first the pear tree
Smelling like some stray dog you found on the side of the road
Starved but looking good, good, all white
And bobbing in a sea of new green
Then Daffodils, what you call Easter flowers
Clusters of Tiger Lily reeds
And the strange, familiar smell of warm growing things
Like cowshit, the effluvia of straw and wild onions
On the first day of sun
Real sun that melts like butter on your face
And days of rain too, with wind scattering the water
Across your neck almost like the salt spray of the ocean
And the tiny hairs sticking up for a moment
Just long enough for you to remember
The morning walk down the long hallway
Slouched a bit to hold your son's hand
Rows and rows of artwork covering the walls
Tiny handprints on colored construction paper
And in each classroom
Tucking a length of hair behind her ear
The teacher turns and bends among the children
The miniature tables and chairs
In the closest room, voices begin to sing
Good morning, good morning, good morning to you
The day is beginning, there's so much to do

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Readings and Captives

In a word, Kathleen's reading from Seed Across Snow was wonderful. I only wish it had been longer! Her long poem, "Overture," which she jokingly called the trailer for her book, captivated me as her poems (and her voice) do, especially the image (I almost wrote "scene;"it really was cinematic) of the stricken neighbor and the fluttering red envelopes. So beautiful. I tried to get a copy, but the bookstore closed right after the reading, much to my dismay. So I have ordered it from Village Lights, our new independent bookstore in town. Expect more commentary on Driskell's poems soon.

In other news, I had a reading of my own Tuesday. It will be a good story for the Humble Beginnings file. It was supposed to be a "poetry in the round" affair-- one other poet showed up, and the bookstore owner and my two month old daughter, Esphyr, were our audience. But this is not a complaint! Nita West and I read back and forth to each other and had a blast. Time flew! She has promised to send me an offering for the blog, so you can look forward to that as well.

I have another solo (gulp!) reading tonight, also at That Book Place (that's really its name) at 6pm. My parents will be there, if nothing else.

As for my little captive heroine poem, it is still nascent, alas. But growing. As are all living things that have been so long dormant. Get outside! Enjoy.


Saturday, March 14, 2009


In my last post, I mentioned some upcoming readings. One of these took place at the Kentucky Philological Association Conference (KPA) a couple weeks ago.

I could complain about how poorly my own reading went; but I'd rather take this opportunity to remember the poets whose work was so astounding.

Don Boes, author of The Eighth Continent

Gregory Hagan, editor of Gadfly, read a hilarious poem entitled "Why I Cross-dress"

Mari Stanley, an old friend and fellow Spalding graduate, whose poem "Marooned" can be found at Garbanzo!

Kelly Moffett, author of Waiting for a Warm Body to Fill It

Donelle Dreese, author of A Wild Turn

Nettie Farris, lecturer in the Depart of English at University of Louisville

Charles Daughaday, editor of Tales from the Plum Grove Hills (Jesse Stuart)

Thanks for sharing your work. I really enjoyed everyone's selections.

-Matthew Vetter

P.S. In other news, Spring Break! and (almost) Spring-like weather conditions.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Writer Who Doesn't Write

Since Matt opened the door, I thought I'd make a full confessional. I haven't been writing. I have actually done some research for the Sarah Mitchell poem. That's the girl who was captured by Native Americans/Indians, whichever you prefer. Now I am torn. I don't know whether to write something long and sprawling, like a ballad, which was my original intent, or taut and tense, like a sonnet or a small open verse poem. The painting that my cousin sent me is of course the latter, because, well, it's a painting, so it has to freeze time in a single moment. So if I'm working from that, then the small lyric makes more sense. And if I listen to Simonides, I should work from that: poetry is painting that speaks, painting is poetry that is silent. It's a useful test. I'm very interesting in the image of the blade. In the painting, a warrior stands over Mitchell's mother with his knife raised. I know from the historical accounts that she was scalped. So I'm going to sit with that frozen-moment image for a while.

A few things I am looking forward to: 1) Kathleen Driskell and Tori McClure's readings at Spalding next Tuesday. 2) A couple of readings of my own the following week here in town at That Book Place. Hopefully, some of the poets in Women. Period. will join me for at least one of those. Must get the word out. If you are reading this and your poem is in the book, email me.

Alright, I must go out and enjoy the sunshine. It's 75 degrees!

Happy days,


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Readings , Observations, Papers


I spent an exhausting weekend writing up a couple papers for classes. One on Pride and Prejudice, one on Ellen Glasgow's Barren Ground which, if you've never read, is an amazing novel. Tuesday, my dept. chair at MSU sat in on one of my classes to "observe." I think I did fairly well. I fumbled a little bit in certain spots of the lesson, and I lost some sleep replaying those parts in my head last night. I'm awaiting an assessment. Of course, with all this paper-writing and teaching- I haven't been making poems, and for the most part, when I don't make poems, everything else in my life seems to fall apart. I do have a couple readings coming up, (check out and I'm hoping those get me rolling again.

I hope you are reading and writing poems.


P.S. My new favorite pastime:

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Process, Projects, and Ballads

Have you ever been approached and asked to write a poem? Multiple times? By the same relative? This is my story: my first cousin twice removed (don't you love genealogical terms? I come from a big family, so I get to throw them around a lot) kept appearing by my side at family gatherings, no matter the seriousness, weddings, funerals, reunions, like that "bery, bery sneaky" guy in the Adam Sandler movie. "Have I ever told you about Sarah Mitchell?" he'd say in a near-whisper. And then he'd launch into the saga of Sarah Mitchell, who escaped death, but not capture, at the hands of "the Indians" way back when. I suppose I brought it on myself, having written a ballad about my great-great-great-grandmother. At first I was amused, then I was exasperated, and finally, I'm interested. He sent me some information. He asked the Kentucky Historical Society to send me some information. He sent me a sketch of the scene by a Kentucky artist. It just so happens that she is related to Abraham Lincoln, so this ties in very neatly with the bicentennial. Now I am armed with background material for the perfect historical ballad.

So that's my current project. From here I plan to scour the material and hum some old ballad to myself while I stew over the lines. "Caleb Meyer," by Gillian Welch seems a likely candidate. It begins: "Caleb Meyer lived alone/ in them hollering pines/ And he made a little whiskey for himself/ said it helped pass the time." Those are the happy golden bygone days of the story. Things get dark. If you've never heard the song, I recommend it. Just don't blame me when you wake up singing it in the middle of the night. It gets under your skin.

But I haven't decided whether to set this to music or not. Which is a decision that I usually make early in the process. I tend to write songs with melodies rather than lyrics and music separately. So if it's going to be a poem "only," then I can stop listening to the wind chimes for possible notes to steal.

Still getting rejection slips in the mail, but I got two encouraging parcels amongst the sludge: 1) 94Creations's long awaited first issue came out. I have an essay in that one. And 2) Women. Period. finally came out, too! I have two poems in that one. Both are beautiful to look and fun to hold in the hand. I love the cover designs. As I'm still reading them, I'll refrain from reviewing at this moment, but so far, so good.

Happy poeting,


Monday, February 9, 2009

The Poetic Prose of Josephine Johnson's Now in November

I just finished reading Josephine Johnson's novel Now in November. First published in 1934, it's a tragic narrative of the poverty and mental illness suffered by a family of five during the Great Depression.

Johnson's prose is beautifully lyric throughout, but I was most impressed by her use of the ellipsis, especially in a passage about halfway through the story:

At no hour did life suddenly change, nor was there any moment which could be said to have altogether made or altered us. We were the slow accredtion of the days, built up, like the coral islands, of innumerable things.--The moment of evening air between the stove and the well outside...the sound of wind wrenching and whining in the sashes...the flesh of corn-kernerls...fear--fear of the lantern's shadow...fear of the mortgage...cold milk and the sour red beets...the green beans and the corn bread crumbling in our mouths...fear again...and the voice of Kerrin singing to herself in the calf lot...the sense of safety in mother's nearness...the calm faith that was in her and came out of her like a warmth around...the presence of each other and a lusty love of being, of living and knowing there was tomorrow and God knows how many more tomorrows and each a life sufficient in itself...We were added to by the shadows of leaves, and by the leaf the blue undulations across the snow, and the kingfisher's rattling scream even when creeks were frozen over. (58-59)

Johnson's close attention to time throughout the novel is apparent here. Her usage of the ellipsis serves as a reminder that the narrator is functioning from memory, that all of the tragic events of the novel have passed through the prism of time before the narrator can recall them in often fragment and incoherent forms.

But the ellipsis does more than that. It gives the prose of these two pages a poetic glow they would not ordinarily possess.

Happy Reading,


Monday, February 2, 2009

Dance, Dance Revolution Part III

Happy Groundhog Day. I finally finished DDR. I think I will be a long time understanding it. Poetry Magazine's podcast features Park Hong reading from the book, which helps. Hearing the guide in the poet's voice helps. It's more fun to listen to than to read. As may be true of much poetry. Here's the link:

Wish I could offer more wisdom. Happy listening,


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Problem of Describing Color

Snow fell on Kentucky last night. This morning, I looked out the bedroom window and saw a cardinal perched in the apple tree. There is always one or two in the winter; but the small blot of color against all the white seemed especially beautiful. It reminded me of this poem by Robert Hass which begins with a similar observation.


If I said - remembering in summer,
The cardinal’s sudden smudge of red
In the bare gray winter woods -

If I said, red ribbon on the cocked straw hat
Of the girl with pooched-out lips
Dangling a wiry lapdog
In the painting by Renoir -

If I said fire, if I said blood welling from a cut -

Or flecks of poppy in the tar-grass scented summer air
On a wind-struck hillside outside Fano -

If I said, her one red earring tugging at her silky lobe,

If she tells fortunes with a deck of falling leaves
Until it comes out right -

Rouged nipple, mouth -

(How could you not love a woman
Who cheats at Tarot?)

Red, I said. Sudden, red.

Happy Reading,


**** UPDATE 2/2

The snow that fell last Monday night turned into ice and freezing rain Tuesday and Wednesday causing significant damage, and leaving 700,000 in the dark statewide. My cardinal began to seem more and more trival as the week went on. Today, my thoughts turn to my fellow Kentuckians who are without power and/or stranded at home. Hang in there!


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Puking and Mewling

Last Wednesday, my husband, son and I welcomed a new daughter into our family. Esphyr Dorothea was born at home on January 14th. So far she is a very happy girl. My course of reading, as you may expect, has been derailed. So I promise to give you my final word on Dance Dance Revolution next time around. For now, a celebratory poem:

To P.J. (2 yrs. old who sed write a poem for me in Portland, Oregon)

if i cud ever write a
poem as beautiful as u
little 2/yr/old/brotha,
i wud laugh, jump, leap
up and touch the stars
cuz u be the poem i try for
each time i pick up a pen and paper.
u. and Morani and Mungu
be our blue/blk/stars that
will shine on our lives and
make us finally BE.
if i cud ever write a poem as beautiful
as u, little 2/yr/old/brotha,
poetry wud go out of bizness.

-- Sonia Sanchez

So that is all for now. Except: speaking of celebratory, how about that inaugural poem today? I liked the line about love being the mightiest word.

Happy everything,

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Prevalence of Custom (Continued Discussion of Anne Finch)

Good Morning Readers,

What follows is a continuation of my discussion of Anne Finch. See post from Monday, Dec. 8.

A humorous, narrative poem written in Heroic Couplets, “The Prevalence of Custom” describes a wife’s attempt to break her husband’s drinking habit. Finding her husband unconscious after a night of drinking, she transports his bed to a “vault,” dresses herself in black clothing, and prepares a meal. When the husband wakes and does not recognize his wife or his surroundings, he questions her. The wife tells him he is dead and buried, that what he smells is the quick decay of bodies (brought on by their consumption of liquor) and it is her job to provide food for him. With this knowledge, the husband asks for a drink.

If “The Prevalence of Custom” and “Glass” are any evidence, it seems Finch had some contact with men who were prone to excessive drinking. The poem is much more playful than what I’ve read of her work so far; still, it demonstrates a particular effect of her work with the heroic couplet. As satire, it questions and undermines the preexisting and traditional use of the couplet by applying it to such a gaudy and degraded subject. Furthermore, its comical and degrading representation of men, by comparison, elevates women by demonstrating the wife’s moderation (or abstinence), persistence, and cleverness.

The Prevalence of Custom

A Female, to a Drunkard marry'd,
When all her other Arts miscarry'd,
Had yet one Stratagem to prove him,
And from good Fellowship remove him;
Finding him overcome with Tipple,
And weak, as Infant at the Nipple,
She to a Vault transports the Lumber,
And there expects his breaking Slumber.
A Table she with Meat provided,
And rob'd in Black, stood just beside it;
Seen only, by one glim'ring Taper,
That blewly burnt thro' misty Vapor.
At length he wakes, his Wine digested,
And of her Phantomship requested,
To learn the Name of that close Dwelling,
And what offends his Sight and Smelling;

[Page 23]

And of what Land she was the Creature,
With outspread Hair, and ghastly Feature?
Mortal, quoth she, (to Darkness hurry'd)
Know, that thou art both Dead and Bury'd;
Convey'd, last Night, from noisie Tavern,
To this thy still, and dreary Cavern.
What strikes thy Nose, springs from the Shatters
Of Bodies kill'd with Cordial Waters,
Stronger than other Scents and quicker,
As urg'd by more spirituous Liquor.
My self attend on the Deceas'd,
When all their Earthly Train's releas'd;
And in this Place of endless Quiet,
My Bus'ness is, to find them Diet;
To shew all sorts of Meats, and Salades,
Till I'm acquainted with their Palates;
But that once known, then less suffices.
Quoth he (and on his Crupper rises)
Thou Guardian of these lower Regions,
Thou Providor for countless Legions,

[Page 24]

Thou dark, but charitable Crony,
Far kinder than my Tisiphony,
Who of our Victuals thus art Thinking,
If thou hast Care too of our Drinking,
A Bumper fetch: Quoth she, a Halter,
Since nothing less thy Tone can alter,
Or break this Habit thou'st been getting,
To keep thy Throat in constant wetting.

Source: UPenn

Happy Reading,


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

In-view: Dance Dance Revolution

Apologies for the lateness of this post, first of all. Life distracts, and the reading has been slow going. I confess I had a resistance to returning to this book (Dance Dance Revolution, that is). The tour guide's voice, while intriguing, is off-putting, part huckster, part trickster coyote. While this unsettling presence is obviously by design, it prevented me from wanting to dive back into the book. I did, however, return to the book and found it rewarding. I have just finished the second section, "Stirrings of Childhood that Begin With," and discovered what Adrienne Rich called the "historical consciousness" in this collection to be especially striking. The historian's annotations and memoir passages helped to ground this reader, providing a welcome relief from the tour guide's spiels.

This section also seemed to take on language itself more directly. The tour guide begins to speak of her family as in "The Lineage of Yes-Men," and to also distinguish herself from them: "...He like mine grandfather yessed y yessed, nodded/ til no lift him fes up. In his deathbed... sayim to me,/ Ttallim, you say no, no, no, you say only no..." This assertion of the negative, particularly in regards to one's family and language, seems an important part of what occurs when a culture is stretched between wars, revolutions, the gap of global society. This father may be no different from other fathers who want better for their children, but we learn from the Historian's footnote that the guide's grandfather was a pro-Japanese collaborator during Japan's colonization of Korea and trained as one of the "butchers" who murdered Korean nationalists. Under such circumstances, the difference between uttering "yes" or "no" widens to worlds apart.

"The Importance of Being English" follows immediately, in which the guide begins to quote long passages of very "correct" English. She turns the Historian's (and our) attention to the role of the English language in a globalized society. In this case, it is the role of the conqueror, the occupier, as seen in the recollections of her elders. Sounds eerily familiar. The poem ends: "...You can't chisel, con, plead,/ seduce, beg for your life, you can't do anything, because you/ know not their language. So learn them all." The tour guide is again quoting, but also subtly listing the uses of language as she perceives them.

Directly after that, the Historian includes an excerpt from her memoir in which she describes an incident with her own father. The excerpts are written in prose in the form of what could be called lyric essays. This particular one (page 47) focuses on a single moment in which the father, whose rotten teeth were capped, begs his daughter to use a Water Pik at least three times a day. The moment is rendered starkly, and its emotional impact is all the stronger for the lack of elaboration.

This is a fascinating book in almost every way: structure, subject, style, characters. I look forward to reading and reporting on the rest.

-- Jill