1. I learned how to read poetry when I read Sylvia Plath's Ariel. I didn't know it at the time. Initially, she, the persona, was just my suicide girl, the promise that if life got to be too complex, and too frightening, I could "rise with my red hair," and "fly into the cauldron of morning." And everybody would be sorry, and miss me terribly. When I was nineteen, I visited my peripatetic father in Ft. Lauderdale to see the new wife, and the new children. Before I left, I hand wrote "Elm," like a secret, and left it on his dresser. I wanted him to see me. He never mentioned it, never thanked me for my message:
I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root:
It is what you fear.
I do not fear it: I have been there.
And in retrospect, I think I can understand his confusion. What bottom, he might've asked himself, and then quickly discarded the question. Too much information about his nineteen-year-old daughter, a girl he hardly knew. Of course, I have the first copy of Ariel I've ever owned. And of course, my lover bought it for me, at Waldenbooks, in a suburban mall alongside Orange Julius and JC Penney, in 1976. Here is part of her inscription:
If you should hear footsteps
It's only me beside you...
That love affair flamed out after a few months, but her words proved prescient. Those footsteps weren't hers, they were Plath's; that rhythm, that drum beat, stayed with me. It became my heartbeat, showed me poetry is the only religion to rely on. Poetry is the place with the answers to your questions, and poetry is the door that you open with your dreams. And years after my formal education, where I studied Aristotelian poetics, the poetics of deconstruction, feminist and postcolonial poetics, and queer poetics, I can say, I know what I like. Don't whisper platitudes about red roses and bright stars in the sky, and the gentle touch of your lover's hand. It means nothing to me. Instead, ask a question:
O my God, what am I
That these late mouths should cry open
In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.
The voice is Promethean. She is well aware of the price of stealing that light, and she will do it anyway. After Ariel, I looked for that fire in everything I read. But first, I let go of the suicide girl's admiration for self-annihilation. It's really not what Ariel is about anyway. It's about a woman who becomes a god, who inhabits a mythology of her own making. Like all good myths, it is generative. It is a landscape of bone, and ash and fire. It's where tulips and poppies have mouths that are both obscene and beautiful. Daylight brings either destruction or redemption, and the moon, "cold and planetary," shines down on yew trees. It's where Ariel, the archangel, and a lion of god, flies through the air, destination unknown, but it's got to be better than standing still.
2. When I read poetry, I want to be confronted. I want dialogue and dreams, and a voice that is insistent. I want a real landscape. I love Paterson, Deaths and Entrances, 45 Mercy Street. I want to be as stoned as Coleridge was when he wrote "Kubla Khan." I want to walk the streets of Baltimore in "Incident" with Countee Cullen, because that place is real. Prufrock, of course, is the sexiest beast, and the boys in the pool hall, in We Real Cool, are the most poignant. I want peak experiences in poetry because it's the most difficult form—it demands compression, archetypes, collective memory, or else what is the point? Why bother? In the words of Audre Lorde, "...poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence."
The women who live in Cynthia Manick's Blue Hallelujahs, the women who are conjured up, are beautiful. Black women and their bodies, black women and their lovers, their mothers, and their mother's mother. The question: How to construct an identity and a life, in the shadow of Jim Crow, under the cloud of separate but equal, structural racism, constant erasures. Here's the story of a little girl who "...craved closed / spaces, bright veneers, the smile / of Rudy Huxtable, or on bad days / Shirley Temple. No one notices / a mouth when Bojangles is dancing." The reference to minstrel shows, to that ugly history, is pointed and brilliant. It's diamond sharp, and it will cut you. More questions: How do you move when you've been told to stand still? What do you do with a body so visible and so provocative?
In "Bop: Big Sister Dreams," the woman who proclaims, "I'm a hardworking Dixie peach in a one-room / shop," a woman who wants "Dap Daddies, and big bellied men," is the same woman, or rather the same girl, a few generations later who lives in constant fear of extinction. In "When I Think of My Father":
I'll be pulled back to muddy toes
And great pear trees. Praised for wide hips
And a silent mouth that wants
To scream, echo, grunt, but can't.
And she's the same adolescent riding the F train with her mother "in her own negro caravan." But it's never present time, in Blue Hallelujahs; it's time out of time. This voice rises up from collective memory, and the story she tells is both transpersonal and immediate. It's the eternal now, right now. We know that little girl is still riding that train, even today, because "we don't choose what haunts us." I can't get that line out of my head. It's the very definition of the word haunt.
3. In the first group of poems in Marc Zegans's The Underwater Typewriter, the controlling metaphor is salvaging the wreckage. Water is everywhere; it seeps into every single page. We are at the bottom of the sea because something has drowned; a life, a romance, a childhood—and something is being saved, conjured up, from the depths:
I dreamed you just now, exploring the mossed
Wreckage of an ancient wooden ship.
Who is she? I don't think it's a specific woman. The speaker isn't Heathcliff roaming the foggy moors. He might be salvaging his anima, the Yin to his Yang, in the manner of Jung. Yet in other poems, it reads as the mother, the trope of unconditional love. Maybe that is the story—a grown man, in the wreckage of the past, far beneath the sea, is looking for that constant, that reassurance. But she has a shifting identity. It's a hall of mirrors. Sometimes she's a lover, sometimes she's a mother, and sometimes, it's the feminine in himself he's seeking. And this whole process of excavation, of raising the drowned ship with all these women on board, is bloody, and it's hard work, but it's also fucking exhilarating. Whoever she is, he needs her.
When I, a Rumanian
Landsman, would stare
Over swell, and beds
Of kelp, wondering
If once more you
Would rise for me.
When I read that, I thought, honey, I'd rise for you. The call is plaintive, but it's also sexy as hell. Henry, the infamous and voluble speaker in John Berryman's Dream Songs, is demented, but you cannot deny him. His desire speaks volumes. It is writ large against the sky. This section of The Underwater Typewriter speaks the loudest, because the voice is so traumatized, yet sexy, beautiful and broken. And also because the mythology of the sea and its dreams is so evocatively written:
I turned diving deep into the kelp bed.
When I reached the ocean floor, she was there
Laughing gently, opening her seal coat.
The selkies, the seal women, are serial shape-shifters who lure men to their deaths or everlasting love, and maybe they are one and the same. They are sirens. They are enigmatic. He doesn't offer much resistance to their glamour, or their danger. And why should he? These are coming-of-age poems, the archetypal bildungsroman, a story of conflict and redemption, a growing up and out, as a man, as a person. Except there's a kink in this narrative. Of course there is. Nobody ever returns to the shipwreck, but he does. He isn't done with the past or the women who people it. In fact, it seems as if the speaker will be submerged far into the future, and I don't think he minds this at all.
Whew! There was some poetry in that prose, wasn't there? All of my thanks to Lillian for guesting this edition of the newsletter. Is this your first time receiving this newsletter? Welcome! The archives are located here. In general, you can expect to receive these e-mails twice a month, on Fridays (at least when life and the technology cooperate).