Langston Hughes’s Grandma Mary Writes a Love Letter to Lewis Leary Years after He Dies Fighting at Harper’s Ferry by Erica Dawson

Back from 2011, appearing on Blackbird. 

There is so much to love in this poem. How Dawson creates its voice and persona. How she builds narrative, setting, and tone through hints and telling details rather than exposition (she excels at this in all of her work). How she begins with an all-but-inconsequential pondering of the sounds of language–a casual, playful, unselfconscious remark that you just don’t expect to find in a poem. How she closes with a devastating metaphor that brings you (along with the speaker) down to your knees (and with a nod to Whitman, as well). How she does this:

Damn all Octobers, sin,
Forgiveness. Dam the streams until
Oceans of buried brothers spill
Like grief beneath the skin

Of rivers. […]

Happy Birthday to the Upstart Crow!

Today is the birthday of William Shakespeare. Yves Bonnefoy has written a letter to Shakespeare, which you can read over at the Fortnightly Review. I found it very absorbing indeed, a richly textured piece of imaginative criticism. Here’s a passage where I felt sparks flying: “This stage with nothing but itself–this metaphysical place, in short–mirrors the dimensions of the hope we peg to language. It offers itself unreservedly to what is sought by poets, always much more than the letter of their work. It permits us to glimpse what is unsayable in their perception of the world, or hidden in their relation to themselves: two things that are inexpressible. Their conjunction, their mutual consumption, is the event of poetry….”

That’s just a little taste. I promise you, this piece will absorb you completely.

“First Born, Last Born” by A.E. Stallings

Check this out, over at Unsplendid. 

What I love about this poem is its perfect combination of wit and poignancy. Cleverness is often called out as a weakness in poems, either because it detracts from the communication of feeling or because the critic derides it as a matter of course. I don’t know what to say to the critic who will stomach no wit whatsoever, but I can say that, in the case of this poem, wit and sentiment perform a breathtaking balancing act. Phrases like “Your firsts were first” might be too clever without the balance provided by “We bit our lips if you were ever slow/to reach some milestone….” Conversely, if all the poem had to offer was this lip-biting, without the biblical allusions of “In the beginning” and “Your alphas are omegas”–it would perhaps descend into mawkishness. I’ve been a fan of Stallings since her debut collection, Archaic Smile, and this sonnet is a beautiful addition to her work.

“The Millihelen” by Matthew Olzmann

I would like to launch this blog by sharing a poem about the launching of ships. Several of my friends on Facebook shared this poem yesterday, and I have been reading it over and over. I love how it takes a little fragment of the linguistic whirlwind that is our current cultural climate (an entry from Urban Dictionary!) and expounds upon it, expanding it from clever shard of language into a whole world all its own. On top of that, Olzmann manages to employ Achilles, Odysseus, and the gang without resorting to a tired repetition of the same old stories. My favorite moment in the poem: “it sails/straight out of history into a night so unknowable,/not even the blind eyes of Homer can guess where it will land.” That, to me, is pure ars poetica. Sailing into the unknown.

Here is the link to the poem, published on The Drunken BoatOlzmann’s other contribution to the issue, “Wreckage Gallery,” also deserves your full attention. And his reading voice is golden.