Archive for the ‘Gregory Lawless’ Category

Gregory Lawless: Two New Poems

And this morning we bring our feature of Gregory Lawless to a close with these two new poems. Thanks to Greg and to everyone who followed along. Please look for Greg’s books online through Back Pages Books and BlazeVOX, his publishers. — AS




Stained-glass misgivings / Dawn-filings / Fissures
of photographic time



Watching your mother lie down / Hands to temples
or chest



The alone part / The ringing with wrench and
bucket to scatter these starlings now



Hay-field finale of threshes / From the highway,
just miles and miles of bales




I’ve Seen Thee Far Away

I’ve seen thee in the brush, a scrawl of buckthorn
tenting thee, thy fangs sleeping, thy bread gnawed
down to rind.


I’ve seen thee dying like a man who must ask how
to die.


I’ve seen thee grow tree shadow and thy lapping at
the creek.


Thy car is nettled and thy wheel wells stir with


The world-flower has eaten thee.


The dirt speech of her petals — she spooks thee with
her thorns.


Come here, the moon sugars the scrap barrels. The
cinderblocks rough the meadow. Come ring thy
empty tin of turpentine.


Lift the field cat from its crate. Trudge thy fingers
through its mange and chew what fleas away.


Name it, thy precious wreck.


Thy darkling. Thine orphan. The black friendship of
thy days.


Notes on Gregory Lawless’s Foreclosure

Here we have Zach Savich thinking through Greg Lawless’s new chapbook from Back Pages Books


Frost, snide in 1935:


Science put it into our heads that there must be new ways to be new. Those tried were largely by subtraction—elimination. Poetry, for example, was tried without punctuation. It was tried without capital letters. It was tried without metric frame on which to measure the rhythm. It was tried without any images but those to the eye; and a loud general intoning had to be kept up to cover the total loss of specific images to the ear, those dramatic tones of voice which had hitherto constituted the better half of poetry.”


One may think, OK, but so what, I’d like to see the results of those elminations.


Or: perhaps, but what matters most is what motivates those trials—not the techniques themselves, but the sensibilities behind, what made the hitherto insufficient.


Or: but doesn’t subtraction, adhered to adamantly enough, produce largeness, as in the case of toning down ambient light for stargazing or seasoning only with salt or killing with your hands? And what of the dramatic tones he couldn’t hear.


But a reader today might also think:


Is there something to this? E.g., do we even know what he means anymore by “specific images to the ear”? (I suspect Gregory Lawless’s line “I toss this swatch of birds with a whistle” would count, and not just because of the whistle.) Or have we given up too much, seeking distinction primarily through reduction. This poet eschews metaphor, this one strips syntax, another uses only phrases the broadest public will get, or writes only about shoes. What’s left of prosody—and the world—is only voice. Technical features bolster its transmission: “I don’t write in form, I write in the voice of a contemporary formalist,” “I don’t write in damp pollen, I write in the voice of continental drift.” Content is also only voice, personality. Connect this to social media. “Your novel is indistinguishable from the thousand status updates I just read about it.” The teacher asks our opinion about Egypt but we just keep saying “here,” like all’s only attendance…


Though it makes sense to exercise one muscle at a time, before you really dance. And if we see the dance as a communal act, maybe it’s enough if I’ve developed my quads grotesquely, you can do the jousting…


And isn’t Frost just celebrating another set of constraints rather than…


I hate prose, I don’t mean any of this, ideas can only apply to poets who are boring, all the poets whose work I love are rich beyond constraint, beyond prose, they reduce the sauce, braise with it, eat it up. My point: Gregory Lawless’s poems don’t eschew. They build voice through image, nuanced rhythm, narrative, fragments that hover despite their lithe density (“sleet pelts the cucumber patch,” he writes, and I hear the sleet loudly, but, somehow, I also see it suspended, slashing over the garden). Here’s my blurb line: By not foregrounding superficial subtractions, the poems in Lawless’s latest collection, the chapbook Foreclosure, inhabit deeper loss.




As the book’s title suggests, that loss concerns houses, housing, towns. In response to our recent topical collapse? But the poems are less ripped from the headlines than insulated with old newspapers; the weather report you find on the front page applies oddly to this afternoon, so do the obituaries. In one of the poems that shares the book’s title, Lawless depicts a home that you might call abandoned (thinking of Frost’s “Directive?”), but is it? No, at the least, someone is in there, seeing it closely, and others could be coming back; the feeling is of greater abandonment, alien terrain, the separation (which includes ecstasy) of one who knows the names of things, and names them, so the world, part by part, might continue, a kind of foreclosure that a bank’s verdict can only confirm. These poems know that foundational crises of the real estate crisis started long ago. Lawless writes:


Jar full of screws and washers. Moisture clouding the glass with remembered breath. Rusted-swing-set color of sunset. The swing set is blue. Hammers, nails, tires. Country car in the crabgrass by the shed. Crows in the tulip trees.”


A poem is a list one hears himself making, so the barest catalogue comes to be a vision of the mind, not just of a decorated world. This is what poets who avoid description, or those who describe only for frosting and conceit, miss: the lingual eye, thinking its way further in, showing through seeing. The sunset shares a color with a rusted swing set. That rusted color must also be blue. Who knew? I do, now, thanks to the poem. The car is a “country” car. Tulips are a tree.


The poem’s second section begins with an observation that may seem dream-like, but is really like describing something you haven’t sensed precisely until now:


You call me back to the car. The way a man loses his hands between ladder rungs.”


Nothing so well described is abandoned or a dream.




Griefs are a form of a patience,” Frost says later in the essay quoted from above. He’s distinguishing between grievances and grief. Youngsters too often write only grievances, he says, which are more politically useful, but he’d rather “grievances [be] restricted to prose if prose will accept the imposition…leaving poetry to go its way in tears.”


I’ve often done the writing assignment with teens where you say OK write a grievance, then ten minutes later you say now write about the same topic in a way that moves us to grief, and the difference is clear. Another version of Yeats says a quarrel with a self is a poem quarreling with other selves was prose.


Grievances, then, are impatient, but they can be satisfied, or think they can. We agree to not not build this dam.


Lawless’s poems are patient. Can you satisfy them? Well, you can watch them thinking, which might be better. Here’s a whistling swatch from the book’s first poem, “Factoryville Eclogue”:


Parabolic birds.

The color of stories. Maybe not. Everyone has a neighbor

who shoots them. Not everyone has a neighbor,

thank God. Thank God for what? For winter, the sound

of ravens sorting ferns in the snow. My wife thinks

I look too much. At what? You look too much,

that’s all. It’s fall. A truck from Dalton Lumber’s

tipped over in the field. Everyone is alive.”


By sustained patience, simply looking (“that’s all”), Lawless’s poem grieves as it preserves, and continues. “Everyone is alive.” How different this line is from Berryman’s “Nobody is ever missing.” The poem ends, gorgeous:


The field-kill dressed in ice, a lumber

spill, generations of ravens in the fir. No snow

yet. Is that a blessing? I don’t know. Who’s in charge

of these blessings?”




His watching often involves something like a prayer, not for intervention, but for endurance, which becomes a way to spare us:


Far-feeling, like watching a penny fall from a building


And the wind / keep it / from killing”




Did I live with Lawless in a farmhouse in 2004? I did. But he’s done a lot of things. “I used to paint vulture eggs in Petaluma,” he says in “Factoryville Anabasis.”


He’s also the author of the full-length collection I Thought I Was New Here (BlazeVOX, 2009). I often thought Lawless’s poems spoke with a voice older than I had known him to be; in the first collection, that voice sometimes divides into two modes. There’s the hard-bitten, plaintive descriptive one—“A half-mile back from the last split-level shack / on Shadrach Street,” begins “Night Poachers,” in his first collection—and a lusher, dreamier one, that can veer toward the comedic—“The night fails its Breathalyzer. / Stars wobble out of the clouds / to doze on the frozen lake,” begins the poem on the facing page. I like Greg and I like his first book. You should buy it. Reading Foreclosure, though, I’m as astonished as if I’d never lived anywhere: Lawless stunningly combines empirical and visionary modes; the result is chilling and honed. “Loon howl, some filings of moon still,” begins “Knife, Fire, Map.” Can you tell me which part of that phrase is description and which is visionary gleam?


I’d call it a “mature style,” but it also seems like a beginning. I look forward to reading more.




Kevin Goodan, Andrew Grace. Poets to put in an anthology with Lawless, which would probably start with something by Frost, James Wright’s “On the Skeleton of a Hound,” some petals nesting in a car part each of these poets would know the precise name of but name inexactly.


Enflamed and yet keeping their distance. Comes from a knowledge of the heat of the flame.




Riprap,” the third poem in Foreclosure, is a tremendous poem. To description, to vision that catapults dream into daylight, it adds history, reading, politics, family, our time, with a tone that can veer from dry sneer (“Poor loud-mouthed / spook, selling fake explosives in some shattered / souk,” Lawless writes, describing a friend’s father who works in Istanbul) to careful rumination (“I was thinking of Tolstoy’s / princes, and how the most beautiful passages / are less about peace than dailyness: / a wolf hunt, say, or waiting for horses / in some forgotten inn”—how fitting to hear Creeley in a poem that, at first, doesn’t seem like him at all: “I thought the instant of the one humanness / in Virgil’s plan of it,” writes Creeley in “Heroes”). Tempting to quote the poem in full. It is full of cancellations, remainders, substitutions, but no subtractions. But better for you to order the book from its publisher, Back Pages Books

Public Letter: Gregory Lawless

My son was born nine months ago. Back then he was an un-interpretable lump, surly and noisy, and I didn’t know what to make of him. Whenever I tried to talk to him, he would scream or puke.


He is something very different today. He’s a person, hounded by sharper degrees of self all the time, which I alternately cheer and grieve.


And he is a great consumer! He eats beautiful foods, fruits ground into bright mush, dripping yogurts, boiled oats—a satyr raiding a rich village in the Cyclades 2,000 years ago would have faired no better.


But he eats more than food. He eats memory, too. My wife will sometimes remind me of past sleepless nights, tantrums that blackened a few squares on the calendar, then were gone. And it takes some effort to remember them, even though they walked me so far down the plank of psychosis.


I’m not a person of character, capable of bearing great hardship or mustering much in the way of sacrifice. But, at least, with my son in the picture, I tend to think more about the next thing I have to do, and less about what I did, or was.


So, I have a hard time remembering this book, written in the prehistory of 2011 and 2012. No matter. I enjoy its growing strangeness. I don’t see myself very clearly in the work anymore, but I see the work okay. In general, I think it’s a permissible book, full of omens and weeds. I like all the junk and hay fever. It reminds me of home.


But it doesn’t remind me of me. I hope there’s another kind of poem to write in the future when I have a little more time to spend on these things. I would hate to have to imitate the person who wrote Foreclosure. These poems are scabs and eyesores, broken together by a kind of strain and rage that doesn’t make much sense to me now.


Now I feel like a great forgetter. I have to work hard to think backwards, and I don’t know if art has any room for dispositions like that, but we’ll see. In the meantime, here’s the book. The book, like its author, is from Northeast Pennsylvania, where difficult things (fracking, stagnation, and the like) are happening. Check it out, if you like reading about difficult things.

One thing I admire about Gregory Lawless’s “Exchange of Territory”

Maybe poems make the worst masks in the world.


I’ve heard poets say it often enough, that whatever your device or your aesthetic is, the poem gives away the person that you are. I’ve heard it said often enough to mistrust it (habit), and when I read my own poems I certainly want it to not be true (my voice on the answering machine: that’s not what I am).


But reading poems by a friend — and Greg Lawless is a friend, albeit one I haven’t seen in nearly a decade — I so frequently see the person I believe I know that I might as well admit it as not: poems give us away.


Paul Celan wrote that he saw no basic difference between a poem and a handshake. He  probably meant that differently than I understand it, but if I can misunderstand it for a moment, I’ll say that when I read the final line of “Exchange of Territory,” I might as well be shaking Greg Lawless’s hand.


“But what was there to wonder?”


A line as rich and complex as it is apparently flip. Full of the wonder it negates, the hope that accompanies discovery and the despair that accompanies the knowledge of where discovery leads. Some attitude on the surface and something genuine welling up underneath.


“But what was there to wonder?”


I’ll stay and wonder awhile. The territory exchanged comes up to my neck.

THERMOS 4: Gregory Lawless

Today we begin a week-long feature of Gregory Lawless’s poetry on the THERMOS blog, in honor of his new chapbook, Foreclosure, out now from Back Pages Books. Stop by each morning to read commentary from us and from Greg, along with some new poems. These first poems are from our fourth issue, which came out in 2010, around the time that Greg’s first full-length collection of poems, I Thought I Was New Here, was set to come out from BlazeVOX. We hope you enjoy the poems and the feature! — AS




I was swimming laps in the pool, snorting and huffing through the water.

It was cold. I was tired.

I wanted to get out and show my shame to the birds.

But, anyway. I kept going.

My wife threw her cigarette into the pool. You’re dying, she said.

The birds knew I was dying and stared down from the trees.

Hey, I said, thrusting my head out of the water.

I’m not dead yet.

I throbbed and kicked wildly, swinging my arms.

I’ve lived a good life, I thought, but really I hadn’t.

Bubbles poured out my nose like shreds of sky that didn’t belong in the water.

My life didn’t belong in the water, either, but my death was another story.

Waxwings, grosbeaks, little finches in the trees.

My wife just stood there, shaking her head.

Watch this, I said.

Look at me go, I said.




I fill it with water
and an hour later
I unscrew the cap

and pour out
dribbles of smoke
and sick wind.
I fill it

with curses and spit
and hand it
to my neighbor
and she says I’m not
falling for that

one again. Then
I plant innumerable

seams of corn
inside the canteen

and come harvest
I twist open
the top and inside
the villagers
are still hungry

and their scythes
are gleaming and sharp.



Exchange of Territory

I could not deem these Planetary forces
But suffered an exchange of Territory—
Or World—
Emily Dickinson

Early one spring, in what was left of the spring, I came across a gas station by the river.

Inside there was a mirror, sashed with ash and fine scratches, and a little cot, and the nubs of candles burnt away on a crate.

I made myself at home, if this is ever the case.

With winter, I thought, I would have to topple the shack, and drag the wood to a cave, and burn it there, in order to sustain.

But in the meantime, I would dream.

I would shiver.

And look out at the wick-colored world through the surviving glass and wonder.

But what was there to wonder?