October 5, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: Rebecca Morgan Frank on “Completion of the Jackson Ferry Shot Tower” by Corrie Williamson

I’ve always loved the term “word-music,” because to me it encompasses what I love most in poetry, the way the music of words can carry us with its tune, linking our bodies to the poem while the words by nature ground their own music in the cerebral work of meaning and persuasion. When word-music works, we cannot imagine any other words, any clearer or more complete image, any other song. When it works, there is that sense I get of falling into poetry, as if lured by the Sirens, but given all of the tools to navigate my way through the poem.

How could I not fall into those first lines of Corrie Williamson’s “Completion of the Jackson Ferry Shot Tower,” with its rich word-music? After letting myself get swept up in the momentum of the poem for a few reads, I find myself wanting to track her path, to see how she has swept me so effortlessly through the poem, as if I am the shot. So here I am, weighing in like a sports commentator:

Freefall perfects the form. A fire

Williamson has slipped five “f” sounds in here, she’s really done it! But here I am wondering, suspended in the suspense of how freefall perfects form, for I have not yet having looked up “shot tower.” I read on.

roars at the tower’s height, turns

Oh, tricky poet, we’ve also had four “r”s up there and this descends us right into roar, which echoes in “tower,” which morphs into “turn,” doubling the t and the r!

lead molten, moon-faced. It slips

Ahh, yes, it seems we had a turn at “turns.” Of course we leave those sounds behind and slide right into lead, molten, moonfaced, luxuriating in the repeated “l”s and heavier “m”s, as the words stay weighted in the echo of the “n” in “turns.” And then enters the “s’ sound, joining the “l”– see how she’s gliding along and now I see the shot, for the image has cleverly been given form in the act of its own creation.

through copper sieve, each drop
pulled into sphere by descent

And here there is a clear sonic break with “through copper,” and then she pops us across the enacted “drop,” tying it in sound back to “copper” while we’re being pulled right into “pulled” with those “p” sounds. Those opposite actions create a wonderful tension, but we’re already moving forward, propelling through the motions as the “s” spirals us right into that descent from sphere.

I’ll stop sports commentating here, as I’m already dizzy and spinning with delight, annotating the poem out of pure need, as if I were one of my students sent to analyze the sounds for my homework. At this point, we’ve had four couplets that bring us in free fall down toward earth. Now, at this midway point in the poem, the sounds slow down, the images grow concrete, earth-bound. The shot has landed.

And then comes the poem’s darker turn, to the next flight of the shot, its path toward death “through the breath & blood.” At first, the shot has no agency, plummeting as it has in creation. But then it “navigate[s] the flesh” and “drag[s] back to earth its native ore.” The paradox has landed fully: the shot is returned to earth, with an illusion of wholeness and return, but this has happened through the act of destruction, the original destruction of the earth, the destruction of a life.

The poem has ended, shooting me right back to the beginning to read it again and again.

Rebecca Morgan Frank is the author of two collections of poems, Little Murders Everywhere (Salmon 2012) and The Spokes of Venus (forthcoming Carnegie Mellon 2016). She is co-founder and editor of Memorious.


Be A Man

September 28, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: Benjamin S. Grossberg on “Halloween” by Chad Abushanab

“For Halloween this year I’ll be a man.”

Why does the poet want to “be a man”? Isn’t he one already?

What I love about Abushanab’s “Halloween,” a poem which is half elegy for his father and half criticism of him, is its understated emotional complication. That complication is there from the first line, which is clearly ironic in some way, though we can’t yet know how. The poem’s stakes unfold slowly.

Over the next stanza and a half, it becomes clear that Abushanab is referring to a very particular kind of man: a drinker, a fighter. It isn’t until the sixth line of this fifteen-line poem that his father is even mentioned, and that mention is off-handed, not explicitly connected to the desire to dress up. “A man should fight, my father said.”

But by the second mention of the father, halfway through, it’s clear this definition of manhood was his, the one he embodied and encouraged, and which the speaker, it seems, hasn’t lived up to. (Again, you don’t have to dress up like something you already are.) Am I reading too closely to note that the form of this meditation, a poem, might well be understood as standing in opposition to the father’s model of masculinity? The booze, the bloody rags, and the speaker with his elegant terza rima—unpacking his heart with words, to quote another son haunted by a hyper-masculine father.

So behind the poem is the father’s ideal of masculinity and the son’s failure to realize it. And that’s touching enough. But it’s not so simple. The son seeks to remedy this failure through a Halloween costume, and that in itself criticizes the ideal. Traditional Halloween costumes are ghosts, skeletons, and the like. Is the father’s version of masculinity similarly frightening?

The last lines of Abushanab’s lyric drive home his ambivalence. He writes, “On Halloween, we’re closer to the dead. / His teeth were crooked and his hands were red.” The penultimate line feels like a statement of real loss, a moment of purer elegy. What the son finally wants is just a way to be “closer to the dead”—even if it requires him to become something he isn’t. But the very last line retreats from mourning. We close on an image of the father which, though it may well be accurate—it’s not uncommon to have crooked teeth or reddish hands—suggests a monster from a B-movie, a kind of zombie, the undead. The poem’s tension, then, remains unresolved: the poet’s sense of failure—but of failing to be something which isn’t all that appealing; and the poet’s mourning—but mourning someone who, at least in his embrace of violence, was frightening. For this reader, that ambivalence heightens the heartbreak. Isn’t it more moving to say, I knew you, who you really were, and I found it terrifying, but I miss you anyway and long to be—somehow—closer.

Abushanab’s ambivalence is delivered with sharp imagery and bound in graceful terza rima. He knows when to interrupt his iambic pentameter, such as the enjambment onto the trochee “sometimes” in line seven, suggesting that mostly the father was about winning, that the exceptions were notable. (Does the poem itself count as a loss for the father—the fact of a poem, rather than booze and bloody hands?) And the music of closure, created by Abushanab’s exact quadruple rhyme, is watertight.

Benjamin Grossberg’s most recent book of poems is Space Traveler (University of Tampa, 2014).  His earlier books include Sweet Core Orchard (University of Tampa, 2009), winner of the Tampa Review Prize and a Lambda Literary Award. His poems have appeared widely, including in the Pushcart Prize and Best American Poetry anthologies.  He is the Director of Creative Writing at the University of Hartford.


Once the Birds Have Taken Flight

September 21, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: Dan Pinkerton on “The Stone is Worldless” by Gina Franco I was never a dedicated reader of Shakespeare and haven’t so much as glanced at one of his plays since college, some twenty years ago. My memory is so porous I remember only bits and pieces: Lady MacBeth trying to scrub the imagined bloodstains from her hands, […]

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Of Sonnets, Deer, and Media Saturation

September 14, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: Carol Quinn on “Child Bride Dies of Internal Bleeding on Her Wedding Night” by Benjamin S. Grossberg Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain unfolds from the premise that pain is inexpressible, and more than that: that “pain comes unsharably into our midst as at once that which cannot be denied and that which cannot be confirmed.” We […]

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A Car Wreck in Slow Motion

September 7, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: Kathleen Winter on “more or less” by Lauri Anderson Alford Besides gun violence, no disaster is as essentially American as a fatal car crash. Combined with the near ubiquity of car ownership and the automobile industry’s more than century-long national prominence, we have the car wreck deaths of cultural icons James Dean, Jackson Pollock, Wallace Stegner, Bessie […]

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