Archive for the ‘One thing I admire…’ Category

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.


One thing I Admire about Mary Margaret Alvarado’s “First Hector, Then Achilles, Then Troy”

A poem with identifiably large ambitions does not often realize those ambitions quietly. From its title, calling in nothing less than the most storied military conflict on the western cultural record, to its 1st-section capitalized attribute-identifier names and children called “Not My People,” this poem opens up widescreen. The speaker is dismayed to find herself at the drive-thru liquor mart when her own country bombs another – how American. The sad music plays and the timbre of the image is ironic, satisfyingly so. It looks like a poem that will engage its political situation with barbs, with spurs.

The motion of the poem, however, is away from such loud and widely identifiable exterior states. It moves very literally towards silence, the inability to speak, the stitched-shut mouths of detainees that calmly implicate the speaker even through – even because of – the ironic distance she maintains, at the liquor mart and in the airport security line, from the official actions of her country. It’s easy to imagine the self-stitched mouths of detainees back through the millennia to Troy, and the many self-satisfying nations responsible for those gestures of injury – but in spite of its opening ambitions, the poem does not force  such conclusions upon itself or upon us.

The mouths of the detainees are a powerful resting point because, in its middle sections, the poem has moved from blockbuster to film decay, from exterior  to interior conditions, from the declared to the meant-to-say. It’s this poem-sized motion, amplifying as it goes the local precisions of image and register (“Somewhere in America the airbrushed moons are glittering”), that I most admire, and which leaves me disconcerted and quiet. Political poetry is so often notable more for its noise than its impact. Here though, I exit the poem unfurling into layers of silence, implication, and identification that I can’t move past merely by speaking.

One thing I admire about Sam Reed’s “Regarding the Domestication of the Horse”

When immersed in a summer full of childhood, its trips to the beach, the playground, the pool, its lunches to pack, grocery store snack searches, toy car processions extending endlessly; when a day opens fifteen hours from the dawn and every minute is full in its turn; then my manner of meeting a poem, like every “adult” activity I attempt, undergoes a change, is imbued with something like hope, hope for a brief encounter with ordinary (though what is more ordinary than a child’s summer?), a bit of it that I can carry around inside my mouth all day like a gift I’m not required to give.

In this poem, built on a series of epithets and grandish claims (“Gods who make everything but promises,” “the wind does not deserve them”) that I have admired for years without forgetting, I find finally that the line that best fits my mouth is its quietest, its most ordinary line: “This is the prairie of shale and arrows”. I say ordinary, but maybe I mean reliable. Either way, though I haven’t visited a prairie of shale and arrows in years, the manner in which those three nouns enhance one another sonically is sufficient poetry for me this summer, this fatherhood, is sufficient language for me to see my just-mowed lawn for the prairie it isn’t and look back at the children from a richer vantage.

Should poetry hope to do more than that? The rest of the poem believes so, and so do I. But sometimes a line will do, sometimes a line that marks the essential smallness of cause poetry opens from (Valery said this somewhere) is enough to sustain a poem, or an hour, or a day, full of other impulses, other demands.


Note: the “one thing I admire” series is intended as a place for saying small things about poems or books of poems, and as an invitation for anyone reading to say something they admire about that poem or book of poems, via comment…AS