The End of April and National Poetry Month part 2: the game of boxes by Catherine Barnett

calendarAs I said in “The End of April…part 1,” the month got away from me. What I mean is that all the great ideas I had for celebrating National Poetry Month were just that…great ideas. Just so much smoke. And so to make up for it, I am trying to put up several posts about a variety of poetry collections that I read during the month of April.

Back in the fall, I went to a conference of poets and heard Catherine Barnett read. I also bought her book The Game of Boxes which had just won the 2012 James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. And like too many of the books that I buy, it joined the stacks of “to read” books that are now towering next to my bed and next to my desk. Then, as if to increase my guilt for not reading it yet, in April, the Academy sent me a copy in the mail. (Fortunately, I was later able to give that away as a birthday gift to another poet.)

Assailed with the guilt of owning two copies and not having cracked the spine yet, I dived in. And was I glad.

the-game-of-boxes Barnett’s collection is divided into three parts: “Endless Forms Most Beautiful,” “Of All Faces,” and “The Modern Period.” The poems in each section are informed by a mature wisdom and wonder and understanding and befuddlement while dealing with those very issues that simply befuddle a younger world. Lust, love, family loyalty, parents and parenting, self, partnership, Barnett touches upon all of these, assuring us that none of us ever really get a grip on everything swirling about us. The middle section, “Of All Faces” is subtitled “Sweet Double Talk-Talk” and delineates the love/lust/comfort/discomfort of a partnership worn smooth over time. This is my favorite part of the collection.

From the outset, there is an immediate comfort in their age and a delight in their familiarity:

It’s a different beauty,
Your torso is stained and creased,
you say your an old man–

the backs of your hands
might be an old man’s hands
but the tips of your fingers —

little shocks of pure mind,
and I like theme there,, yes, ageless
persuasion’s design and rush. (Sweet Double Talk-Talk, i)

There is a weariness in famliarity:

Sometimes he’s everything to me:
yesterday, tomorrow, regret and shame.

And sometimes he’s nothing to me,
an old cushion on an old couch:

a pin-cusion:
something I think I can replace. (Sweet Double Talk-Talk, xvii)

But overall, there is a comforting lust and an accepted love:

I’m afraid you’ll die,
and tonight’s your birthday, it’s no different,
in fact it’s worse,
come drink some wine–

Let’s sit at the bar.
It’s winter,
so I’m in your coat,
I’m in your promises,
your smooth worn promises
sliding in and out of my own
love of death so slick
with want–

Soon, you say, your breath still warm in my ear. (Sweet Double Talk-Talk, xviii)

I cannot say why, but I love this couple. I love their honesty, their quirks, their enduring lusts, their enduring second-guessing. And while this section could almost be considered a narrative, each section is similarly anchored by a wise understanding of time and love and others.

The End of April and National Poetry Month part 1: Shackamaxon

flying calendarI begin each April–designated in the U.S. as National Poetry Month–with all kinds of grand ideas.  I will organize students into a poetry festival, we will stage poetry slams, another teacher and I will do readings together, we will invite celebrated, fascinating (and inexpensive) guests to speak.  And then before I get any of it done, May comes around and I’ve done nothing.

This month the most I did was organize a festival for the following year and set out to go to Philadelphia Stories’ “Party Like a Poet” benefit. I made my way down to the location (a subway and a bus trip away), got there far too early, and talked myself out of it — I returned home before it started.  Not very poetic, I guess.

But what I did do–not very celebratory or communal–was read a lot of poetry.  And I mean a lot.

Some of the titles were by veteran poets such as Mark Doty and Edward Hirsch and others newer names such as David Livewell and Catherine Barnett.  They ran the entire gamut of poetic offerings–free verse and formal verse; confessional poetry and nature poetry; poems about love, loss, sex and death; poems about animals and insects, planets and hardwiring. They were collections that I bought, that were given to me as gifts, and one that was sent to me by the Academy of American Poets.  Mark Doty’s was a National Book Award Winner, Catherine Barnett’s was a James Laughlin Award winner, and David Livewell’s was T.S. Eliott Poetry Prize winner.

And they were each unique and very different from each other.

And so in celebration of April “the cruelest month,” each day I’ll give a quick run down of one of those titles that have come across my path in the past month or so.

shackamaxon-david-livewell-paperback-cover-artShackamaxon by David Livewell was fun because he is a talented local poet and his work is situated in the places and neighborhoods I am very familiar with. (How fun is that when in a movie you recognize a street, a diner, a department store, a park?!) The title “Shackamaxon” was the Native American settlement where William Penn made his famous treaty with the Leni Lenape tribe and began establishing what is now the city of Philadelphia.

 Livewell’s work is gentle and honest and gritty and searing and, to a large degree, nostalgic, as he captures his blue-collar environs, the families, the struggles, the personal milestones and the larger changes over time.  Looking back at the hardscrabble neighborhoods where he was raised, he elevates his urban experience–both memorable and familiar–into art. My favorite is “Summer Elegy,” a nostalgic piece that reminds me of my own father and his generation–loyal to their perennially awful baseball team–and of the passions they passed on to their children.  Here is a short piece of it:

On the front step my Grandpop strained to hear
Harry and Whitey* call the Phillies game
from a crackling Philco hung on the wrought iron railing.
He’d grind his teeth and move a toothpick left and right
the way that on-dck players swung at air,
a rhthym to Harry’s baritone
and Whitey’s softer quips between the crowd
noises and vendor calls. He seemed to wait
on possibilities that hung like pop flies.
Gramps would tisk at strikeouts, whistle for homers,
and often blurt “About damn time!” or “Bum!”
And all around the neighborhood were men
from other families catching the baseball game…
(from “Summer Elegy”)

* beloved announcer (Harry) and color-man(Whitey) of the Philadelphia Phillies

Canadian Pennies, the Nation of Texas and a poem

April is National Poetry Month.  All sorts of organizations, schools, and institutions have all sorts of things planned to bring poetry into American life. But I heard a pretty cool one on March 30, a few days before it begins.

All Things Considered on NPR had done a story on the demise of the Canadian penny. (Canada is one of ten countries to jettison its lower denomination coins because they are just too expensive to make. The cost to make a U.S. penny is 2.41 cents–a losing proposition, but the U.S. has no immediate for its elimination, despite yearly pleas to do so. There must be a very strong “penny lobby.” ) All Things Considered had also done a faux “what-if” story on Texas seceding from the union and forming its own nation.  There were all kinds of speakers–serious and not–who took part in the piece.  My favorite was Kinky Friedman, the novelist, humorist, rockabilly guitarist who ran for governor a few years back. As foreign minister, Friedman felt that Texas should send a delegation to third world countries to teach the women how to have “big hair”!

So what has this to do with poetry?

Well, aside from its normal news day, All Things Considered also has taken on a poet in residence who follows the news team through a given day and then at the end must make up a poem on some aspect of that particular news day.

Yesterday there was Kevin Young  as the “news poet.” His task was to write a poem about anything he had witnessed, heard, learned throughout the day, and he chose the Texas story and the Canadian penny story. Here is the result, his poem “Anthem”:

ANTHEM

Kevin Young, NPR's Poet in Residence

Life is a near
death experience.

You can go
to hell, I’m goin

to Texas. It costs
more than a penny

to make a penny.
A dollar for your

thoughts, and a dream.
People have to breathe

where they live.
A town big

as her hair.
Aren’t there more

worlds than three?
Texas is finally

free, but not its lunch.
Cleave
can mean

to sunder
or to meet. The threat

must be imminent.
Look and see—

the daffodils, the rain sage
upright, the high

desert, fire warnings,
the scorched trees. Cloven,

clove, clave, cleavage,
cleft. Every day’s
a lottery. Hoods,
blood. The death

of the Canadian penny
means we all may need

to round up. Leaves,
left. Bereave,

bereft.

To understand many of the references you would have to have had heard the “TEXAS-AS-NATION” original story. (Click on link above). I was fortunate; I heard both the Texas story and then the poem.  (It seems he threw in a line about the Mega-Millions lottery madness that was happening that day, as well.) What a great way to end the week and to end the month.  To hear Kevin Young read the poem, click here. It’s pretty good for a poem that was made to order.