February 20, 2017

Contributor’s Marginalia: Lisa Russ Spaar on “Solstice” by Chelsea Wagenaar

I was thrilled to see Chelsea Wagenaar’s beautiful poem “Solstice” on the verso and mine on the recto (pages 2 and 3) of 32 Poems, Volume 14, Number 2, Fall/Winter 2016.

Ever since I first met Chelsea (she was my undergraduate student in the Area Program in Poetry Writing at the University of Virginia), I’ve felt in poetic, soul-sister conversation with her and her work. So the felicity of discovering our poems appearing side by side in this marvelous issue, like two wings when the journal is open, like puzzle pieces fitting when the journal is closed, was a particular joy for me.

In thinking about how I might respond to Chelsea’s poem, several things came to mind. If I were musical, I might have composed a tune to accompany her words (her poems could create a new hymnal). If artistic: a painting or photograph. As a “critic” and reviewer of poems, I could say much about this lyric, its shout-outs to Lowell, the Psalmist, Milton . . . and about Chelsea’s pitch-perfect ear, her ardent heart.

I noticed that her poem was about twice as long as mine. I settled on attempting to create a cento, pairing every other one of her lines with one of mine to create a kind of drunk-on-beauty, tipsy equinoctial balance in a way that would allow our poems to mesh and converse.

Chelsea’s poem arrived in winter; at the time I’m assembling our cento in February, the light is beginning to lengthen (O, Lent cometh) and we are looking forward to spring, especially in what has been a gray season on so many levels. Although her poems never eschew the dark and difficult (“some darks too dark”), they are always suffused with the fluent embers of her faith and vision, something for which I’m abidingly grateful.

               a cento, for Chelsea

It’s obscurity inscribed on the air,
windowsill cornucopia that sundown reddens,

the moon a blurted secret at both ends
with salt-glazed resins, fallow volution,

with nothing but moon and eyeglow,
petrified morning glory, souvenir, ocean relic.

I could ask the darkness to hide me,
intricate as the alleyways of the inner ear.

The answer, the wild approaching dark barely fronded
is the long-gone inside that flees, refracted.

Windows crypted with frost? I heard
pinings for its rented house, indifferent artifact.

Milton—going blind as he wrote:
the spiraling room our bodies make, numinous.

Not even the fires give off light
when we—what will become of that? When one of us–?

Some stories are too true to finish.
I bring this bony shell-piece to my lips.

Blackbirds fling upward from a field
to worship every second we have left.

Beneath each wing a startling ember
facing down every lonesome mirror

into the deepening firmament
in which we’ll never see ourselves again.

Lisa Russ Spaar is the author of many collections of poetry, including Glass Town (Red Hen Press, 1999), Blue Venus(Persea, 2004), Satin Cash (Persea, 2008) and most recently Vanitas, Rough (Persea, December 2012).  A new collection of her poems, Orexia, will appear from Persea in February 2017.  She is the editor of Acquainted with the Night:  Insomnia Poems (Columbia University Press, 1999) and All that Mighty Heart:  London Poems (University of Virginia Press, 2008), and a collection of her essays, The Hide-and-Seek Muse:  Annotations of Contemporary Poetry, appeared from Drunken Boat Media in March 2013.  She is the editor of a recent anthology, Monticello in Mind:  Fifty Contemporary Poets on Jefferson, which appeared from the University of Virginia Press in 2016.  Her awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Award, a 2016 Pushcart Prize Anthology award, the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize for Poetry, an All University Teaching Award, an Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, the Library of Virginia Award for Poetry, a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities fellowship, and the 2013-2014 Faculty Award of the Jefferson Scholars Foundation.  A 2014 Finalist for the National Book Circle Critics Award for Excellence in Reviewing and one of three national finalists for the 2016 Cherry Award for Excellence in Teaching, she was recently appointed the Horace W. Goldsmith NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Virginia for 2016-2018.  Her poems have appeared or forthcoming in the Best American Poetry and Pushcart Prize Anthology series and are frequently reprinted on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily.  Her poems have recently appeared in Poetry, Boston Review, IMAGE, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other journals and quarterlies.  Her commentaries and columns about poetry appear regularly or are forthcoming in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.  She has been a master teacher at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, Seattle Pacific University, and the Vermont Studio Center, and she is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.


Scent, Sex, and Roofing Tar

February 13, 2017

Contributor’s Marginalia: Maryann Corbett on “Introduction to Desire” by Chelsea Rathburn

I will never, alas, be a fragrance aficionado. Most fragrances set off in my throat a histamine cascade that turns my nose to a spigot, even fragrances I remember loving years ago, like Chantilly or Tea Rose or Chanel No. 22. Worse, some chemical odors—bathroom cleaner, say, or furniture polish—trigger an old inflammation in my bronchi, leaving me gasping, bent double on stair landings, helpless to get enough oxygen. It wasn’t always this way. Something I inhaled did this, some danger in the air.

Knowing this—knowing too that as I age my sense of smell is dulling—I am especially aware of smell as a conundrum, in writing as in life. In writing, it’s a difficulty so well known that the most basic of writing instruction confronts it: smell is hard to describe. “All attars are unutterable,” writes Amit Majmudar in the anthology The Book of Scented Things. Diane Ackerman, in A Natural History of the Senses, calls smell “the mute sense, the one without words.”

Approaches to this problem are as various as poets. Most often we get at a smell obliquely. It’s a detail, operating with others as part of a scene. Think of the ripe roots of Roethke’s “Root Cellar,” or “the beautiful, useless tang of eucalyptus” in Heaney’s “Skunk,” or the nameless unguent of Catullus 13. Rarer is the poem that confronts the smell itself, directly. Sometimes such a poem concentrates and compounds a smell we already know, as in Ondaatje’s “The Cinnamon Peeler.” At other times, it works by complete evasion. A poem called “Smell” by Trevor West Knapp seems not to be about smell at all but about the exquisite details of the act of breathing, as if that act were something new—as it is for the poem’s subject, a fact we become sure of in the poem’s final lines about the infant’s scent-wise awareness of his mother. Nothing in the poem describes the smell itself, only what the smell accomplishes. Emelihter Kihleng’s “The Smell” is evasive, too, describing the scent mainly in a Pacific Island language English speakers are unlikely to know. Michael Donaghy’s “The Incense Contest” references many scents, yet its climax is not a smell, but the chaos of memories that the smell brings back.

And in all these examples, smell operates to make the poem more physical, more visceral, and often more sexual. Chelsea Rathburn’s “Introduction to Desire” does that, too, but not in the way we expect at a first glance at the title. At the literal level, the desire in the title is for a smell in itself, but an unlikely one: the smell of hot roofing tar, “almost-death/ almost-perfume, dark and vertiginous.” (Vertiginous is unexpected here; it conveys the feeling of falling headlong into the tarry barrel, as if into hell.) The smell works, not by itself, but as part of a collage of summer effects, described as the child narrator would see them: “like a bush/ in flower throbbing with bees,” heat rising off the tar barrels “like a cartoon pie’s visible vapors,” the child in summer idleness thinking in terms of cartoons. The smell is enjoyed as part of the physical activity of seeking it, “pedaling up and down the street/ as slowly as I could without falling. . .” All perfectly childlike, and at the same time, that other desire insinuated by the title is present. There is the pull, the lure, the absolute attraction of a bodily sensation. The pedaling slowness, to make it last as long as possible. Even a touch of embarrassment (“What did the roofers think?”) And finally, with high school and the end of childhood, there is the letdown, the once-pleasing smell

. . . clinging to my clothes
till I was sick, a betrayal I taste
each time I turn down a freshly paved road.

It’s the same old betrayal always, all the marvelousness of the world and the body, all of it letting us down. It’s just as I said. Sooner or later, the air itself is dangerous. Breathe deeply.

Maryann Corbett lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is the author of three books of poetry and two chapbooks, most recently Mid Evil, the 2014 winner of the Richard Wilbur Award. Her poems, essays, and translations have appeared in such magazines as Barrow Street, Christianity and Literature, Dappled Things, Ecotone, First Things, Rattle, River Styx, Sewanee Theological Review, Southwest Review, and Subtropics and in anthologies like Imago Dei and Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters. New work appears in Able Muse, Crab Orchard Review, Thrush, and others. Corbett is also a past winner of the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize and a past finalist for the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award. A fourth book, Street View, is forthcoming in 2017.


Western Wind

February 6, 2017

Contributor’s Marginalia: David Yezzi on “Western Wind” by V. Penelope Pellizon “Western Wind,” the fifteenth-century lyric that came down to us though sixteenth-century musical settings, is my favorite poem about the weather: Westron wynde, when wylle thow blow,              The smalle rayne down can rayne? Cryst, yf my love were in my Armys              And I yn my bed […]

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Almost Anything

January 30, 2017

Contributor’s Marginalia: Sarah Blake on “Coupling” by Hilary Jacqmin I love poems that play with a reader’s expectations. I’m reminded of Donald Barthelme’s “The School” when I read Hilary S. Jacqmin’s “Coupling.” In what might be the sweet, innocent setting of two people who have just moved in together, there is a butcher block “spiked…with knives” and […]

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Fourteen Things I’m Thankful For

January 23, 2017

Contributor’s Marginalia: Maggie Smith on “Taken In” by Anders Carlson-Wee 1. Poems that grab me by the throat in the first sentence. This one is deftly enjambed across two lines: “The fear of growing older less than the feeling / of failing to do so.” 2. The verb raking. The sense-memory of fumbling in the dark, smoothing […]

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