By Abriana Jetté
Brooklyn, NY, USA
I like to think the poets in this season's column came to me by chance, both literally and figuratively. With regard to Sandra Murray or Noah Warren, for instance, the muses must have brought us together in Massachusetts, some six hours away from my hometown, and we connected because of our shared passions for dedicating time to the craft. But I met Richie Hofmann in a way many poets meet these days, unknowingly, in the ebb of wireless connection. Piece after piece, these poets surprise me – a difficult accomplishment and a trait editors and readers alike are thrilled to come by. I have cradled these poets; I have taken their art to my kitchen, carried it with me through cities, their poems have made me scratch my head, I have read them until I've fallen asleep and I have woken to their words. This Winter I want you to get to know these poets, too.
Sometimes you are lucky enough to spend part of your summer rocking back and forth on the front porch, reading and writing poetry in a reconstructed Gingerbread home a few feet away from the few cerulean stretches left of the Atlantic ocean on Martha's Vineyard. The first time I met Sandra Murray she was doing just that, her hair wrapped in a red bandana, her feet bare on the chipping wood. I offer this image for it is definitive of Murray's poetry, which is both delicate and electric, and rhythmic, and honest, and economic all at once. What readers find in her work ranges from revelatory dialogues of melodic transcendence to philosophic quandaries of personal and cultural relevance.
"With", which recently won the Editor's Prize from Memoir Journal, is a wildly imaginative narrative, a sharp-edged conversation between Lance, and Lance's mother Renee, in "their blue kitchen on Cornell Street." In the poem, readers become voyeurs, intimately convened in Lance and Renee's kitchen, a joint space, and fixate, as is typical on a first visit to a new place, on the details and geometry of the home. The kitchen is blue, the bench is mahogany, Lance and Renee talk on the bench, which sits close to the door.
Murray sets the scene by numerically categorizing the various meanings of the word "with", and the conversation reveals itself chronologically through the seven definitions of the preposition. This resourceful structure renders the dramatic tension of the poem, allowing for purposeful meditations between interjections. As the intentions of "with" grow, so does the intensity of Lance's decision. To begin, Lance admits he does not want to go into the military. Renee's reaction monopolizes the second stanza:
- Next to; alongside of: Renee moved closer, sitting with Lance on the mahogany bench by
You know I agree. I just want
All your choices…
Time moves rapidly in the poem, and readers witness the unraveling of a relationship between mother and son. Tension builds as Renee recalls how Lance is "running out of road" and how he "flunked school"; simultaneously, the multiplicity of meaning "with" acquires plummets the poem forward. We experience the zing, the hurt and shame Lance feels when his mother tells him "Right, you can stay home; but I'm going to treat you/like the fool you are." Murray choreographs the poem so that readers discover the choice of "Iraq, the chemical weapons clean-up", at the same time as the future soldier's mother. By the end of the poem, Renee, Lance, readers, and speaker are all with one another, as in "Of the same opinion or belief as." In the poem's final moments, Renee takes the words right out of our mouths:
"Lord. Oh my God. Canada. How
much cash do we need? Oh Lord."
"With" satisfies all aspects of reader-speaker relationship: it is an intriguing aesthetic experience in which a narrative is shared with crisp lucidity through succinctly organized stanzas. The speaker in "With" takes on the role of a storyteller, as does the speaker in "FLOORMOP VanSOCKBOTTLE WRISTBOARD: A LIFE", though the intentions and tones in each poem differ drastically: a testament to Murray's range.
A seemingly playful account of a world where "men and women search all over the floor" for the "lost socks of the village", "FLOORMOP vanSOCKBOTTLE WRISTBOARD: A LIFE" expands and constricts through its immaculate use of repetition, specifically the recurrence of the words mentioned in the title. Murray understands the capacity of verbal play, and holds onto the words, thus images, strategically through the poem, the way a Villanelle or Sestina might require: mop, village, sock, room, floor, wrists, black, and the pine-tree wood boards all acquire phenomenological identities in the piece. Employing this valuable rhetorical device, Murray, whether consciously or not, provides a lesson on how the brain works. The Broca, the part of the brain controlled by language (syntax and grammar), produces its outcomes based on logical rationalization. The problem arises because the plot of "FLOORMOP VanSOCKBOTTLE WRISTBOARD: A LIFE" is anything but logical, at least in the sense that the use of repetition forges a particular absurdity within the world of the poem. Because readers follow the villagers, and their odd habits, from stanza to stanza, we want to project upon them some meaning or reason, we want to discover a higher purpose for what, and who, we have come to know. Readers are as disoriented as the men and women in the poem: "The village was floored by the beautiful words they couldn't decipher."
There exists concern over the floor. The speaker fixates on it, sharing that "Each wide board is a pine tree", in the second line of the poem, and that "The limbs have been lopped off, like wrists with no hands." This personification, and then jarring dehumanization, of the pine-tree enhances the mysticism and materiality of the wood. Representative of the cyclical and masochistic nature of mankind, the pine-tree serves as a symbol of resistance. No matter how contorted the tree may be, its roots still remember, and are still remembered. Even in its death the tree is used. Murray writes "knots that lose their knuckles and handless wrists still have a way to tell time." The tree, which turned into the floor, on which the "village men and women" crawl is "faded gold" by the second stanza of the first "chapter", a chapter in which the poet puts forth a strangely constructed universe where "crusty dishes and baby bottles" could use a good mop-up. The first chapter, consisting of three stanzas, ends with the uncorking of a "1964 Shiraz", and the wind dying down.
The second "chapter" addresses readers more intimately: "We sat on the back porch with the bottle." Readers wonder, who is this we? And is this porch made of the wood of the pine? The following stanzas proceed with a tone of finite assuredness, created in part by the end stops at each line. Enjambment disappears from the second half of the poem, and the delicately accurate statements like, "You can feel a pulse when you hold the wrist", or obvious, "The boards are unconscious", placed one after another, mingle images of the physiological with the inanimate. Once again, the symbolic resonance of the wood is brought forth: the wrist is part of the living, the floor is dead. Readers are made aware of time's fickle destruction: "Soon", we are told, "there are no sock shops left."
"FLOORMOP VanSOCKBOTTLE WRISTBOARD: A LIFE" is a darkly humorous tale of a mock-pre-apocalyptic village that evokes believability through its baffling, incantatory language. Murray juggles rhythm, repetition, and because this is a story, the romance of the unknown "we". The poem reads to me as a song on the end of the world, in it, through all the muck of histories colliding, the only thing that is permanent is time, and the desire for human connection. It ends:
"The hands of a clock have no wrists.
Pine tree boards are soft, warm and durable.
They stripped the floor, so we danced."
Poetry like Murray's leaves us perplexed and fulfilled at the same time. Her continuous exploration of the poetic imagination produces fresh, realistic, fictive, risky, emotive, and intimate work. Sometimes she is the speaker of her own work, and sometimes Murray's work is overtaken by an unknown voice: regardless, her language is electric. Readers can tell she has taken the time to consider how her poetry reads in the mind and how it sounds when spoken out loud. There is no one writing like Murray: she pulls lines from the marrow of experience, leaving us, leaving me, with an insatiable hunger for more.
Noah Warren's syntax is ripe with sonic inventiveness, a skill that manifests itself through reassembled vernacular time and time again. Warren, who I met some years ago at a poetry reading in a black box theatre in Boston, intrigues readers aesthetically, formally, lyrically, and sonically. In "Yellow Field", a captivating poem that handles an imaginative constraint of voice, readers intimately convene with a speaker who has recently undergone a dramatic change in his thinking. The poem is a complicated narrative told from the tenacious point of view of a said newly altered man, following the aftermath of a sensual and sensorial shared experience. Readers are placed within an unknown time, and the only knowledge of geography given in the poem is found in the titular description. The obscurity of "Yellow Field" also grows from its title: are readers to perceive an open meadow of xanthous petals, or a wasteland of weeds waiting to be wished away? Its beginning clauses offer further displacement:
"I know when first they took me to the yellow field
No sound met me; then a profusion of choughs"
the misplaced "first" interrupts the ordinary rhythm and grammar the mind expects (typically, one might subordinate the "first" and "they.") If that's not enough, the masterful use of enjambment manipulates readers, extending the visually stimulating yellow field onto the quiet of the second line. At first, readers are soothed by the vast image of the field stretched across our imagination, but abruptly the solace vanishes; a flock of birds pass through the sky. Their black flaps signify a drastic transition in the speaker's world below. After fixating on the winged-things' flight, readers and speaker blink in a landscape of vibrant scenery.
Because of Warren's spondaic start, "I know", paired with the infiltration of drawn out nasals, strong consonants like M's and N's that direct air through the nose, he yields and releases readers' breath: the only sound produced is the exhale. A line is never just a line: each displays a masterful awareness of being.
Besides partaking in a reawakening of the speaker's self, the cathartic journey of "Yellow Field" belongs to the implications gathered from scattered wordplay, the roots of which Warren plants under complex surfaces of the poem. Take for instance the parallelism of
"She undressed me; he undressed her;
I undressed the other; she, him. Who paused?"
during which the repetition of the verb "undressing", an unexpected gesture, transforms into an ordinary, even expected, ritual, all in between three monosyllabic pronouns. This passionate moment of carnal and communal discovery prompts the speaker to cogitate his surroundings. As acute punctuation regulates breath, readers and speaker take a moment, to inhale, "look around", and, just as the birds before, "surrender to the breeze." The poem becomes, in cadence and content, a spiritual manifestation of semantics and verse. By now, the yellow field's insouciance is contagious.
A blanket has been "unfurled" and "skittered on tips of the stalks/Until tamped": on it, the speaker and three others; all around, open sky and yellow field. The purpose of what happens within that time, the speaker notes, is to understand that "What we had come to do in the field/Changed with how we left it." A whim of capriciousness thus entrances the speaker, and he endures uncharacteristic changes. Material goods no longer hold value, he becomes chaotically charitable. Readers are told of one such act of charity as the speaker recalls "what happened to him recently", which was that he noticed, upon walking home from the grocery store, a "drunk with one foot and a beard." After their first shared glance, the speaker took the man into his home, fed him, and invited him to sleep in his bed for the night. By the end of the poem the beginning scenes of birches and bayberries from the yellow field are replaced with "milk and beef"; the lyric substituted with carnal, fleshy images. In its final lines, readers bear witness to the lonesome image of the speaker's wife sleeping in their daughter's room, curled next to "the girl", for the night.
Warren's phonological dexterity may stem from his bilingual background, his natural ability to think in Spanish and English without consciously realizing the linguistic switch. Warren's bilingual perspicacity flouts any prevailing assumptions of rhyme, like the AA/BB rhyme-scheme employed in "Barcelona: Implication". In the poem, an innate "quest for childish wonder" connects the speaker, the speaker's mother, and famed Catalan artist, Joan Miro. The melody of the poem undercuts the severity of its content, generating a contained product: a piece of visual and literal art. The running of the lines redirects readers from hearing the heaviness of end rhymes like "art"/"part" and "wood"/"understood", and engages the poem's free spirit. Such a playful control of tone helps sustain the chiaroscuro of memory and facts presented throughout the four stanzas.
As it is a poem, not a painting, the words left unsaid are as important as the images presented in "Barcelona: Implication." The title eases readers into accepting that in this life it is okay to come to our own interpretations; as the speaker's father says, "we've all got an East River." The mixture of abstract colloquialisms, slickly woven semantics, and expositions of private life add textural depth to the poem. Disguised as praise, the speaker reveals the source of his anguish:
"Mom's impatient art
was proved to be the most effective part
of her mothering" --
In whatever way the mother has failed the way her colors spark life on the white resurrects her spirit. Rhythmically entertaining, and as catchy as a nursery rhyme, "Barcelona: Implication" is a lesson on the dynamism of metrical competence. The poem winks at readers while leaving one last darkly cunning command: "Gouache a widened eye low on the right/ So it can behold the left and the night."
Throughout the body of his work, Warren's semantic economy amplifies his verbal ingenuity. Warren, who holds a degree from Yale University, lives in New Orleans, where I imagine the antiquated eerie charm of the multilingual culture has already begun to infiltrate his poetic sensibilities: I am eager to see where his poetry will take me next.
"I have come again to the perfumed city.
Houses with tiered porches, some decorated with shells.
You know from the windows that the houses
are from a different time. I am not"
I could have started off by mentioning the many accolades Richie Hofmann has been granted, like the 2012 Ruth Lilly Fellowship, the John Ciardi Scholarship in Poetry from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Peter Taylor Fellowship in Poetry from the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, or his publications in internationally accredited journals like Ploughshares, The New Yorker, The Yale Review, Poetry, and countless others, but all it takes to realize the magnetism of Hofmann's work is to read him, so I began with the first four lines of "Fresco".
From its beginning, "Fresco", a title deriving from the commonly known artistic genre, exercises the power of oppositional forces. The mental capitulation of "houses with tiered porches" permeates familiarity, perhaps even a sense of domesticity in readers' minds, while the strong, long sound of the O in "houses" juxtaposed to the plosive "porches" forces readers' mouths to open, and in doing so we drop our jaw and literally let the poem in. The discordance of the words do not quite fit with the quaint neighborhood readers imagine, a polarity Hofmann feeds on to merge the mnemonic with the present. The poem earns its movement through its juxtaposition of frank intimate revelations of the present, and the descriptions of the ornate, dated homes of the past. Curt observations and acute punctuation launch readers from line to line, as we listen to the speaker's sense of self unfurl.
The fourteen line poem is not, by definition, a sonnet: there exists no strict rhyme scheme, quatrains, or meter, but it seems, at least to me, that "Fresco's" vulta, or turn, is sparked by the image of "little gardens separated by gates" near the carriage houses. This spatial constriction of natural beauty produces sections of colorful division in readers' imaginations, and prompts the speaker to reveal that "lately" he has "been thinking about the gates./The one ornamented with the brass lion." Again, Hofmann speaks to readers' unconscious, transforming the familiar recognition of fencing off property into a universal symbol of magnificent strength. Red poppies and wild weeds can't compete with the presence of the lion: the royal, the brave, the king. The specificity and focus on the material agency, "the brass lion", further illustrates the speaker's values implicit in the alternate world. Tables are turned on the speaker's self by the end of the poem. At night, alone, when his eyes close, the speaker admits, "it was not the lion" he pictured.
What's so intriguing about the speaker of Hofmann's poetry is that he understands history won't protect him. "Imperial City" begins: "From the outset I hated the city of my ancestors." Fearful because of what he knows has already happened, the speaker calculates the tour guide's speech as he lists "in German in English in French" all of the bishops, kings, and queens buried beneath their very feet. The speaker, joined by his parents, who he "sulked along behind" as they listened to "facts about the war", reveals his emotions aesthetically. As he lists the departed, extra space comes between the specificity of languages, perhaps nodding to the speaker's heritage. Regardless, the breathing room calls the attention to the relevancy of the unsaid, of all the words that could fill that space. Space produces fiction: it is human nature to want to fill the empty.
In a way, an elegiac introspection emerges from the tour guide's information, a tone complimented by the image of the clock on the gate that told "an ancient form of time." The mention of life's expendability compels readers to reengage with the syntax more urgently; the clock also provokes the speaker to contemplate his origins, the evolution of his own time. Landscape and personal history mingle in "The Imperial City", whose cultural and mythological implications stem from its ambiguous yet universally understood title. In thinking of the stories of his far away past, the speaker recognizes that there is always a second start, a new beginning, that one "could marry" even if already married, even "having already produced an heir", because of and "for love." The mention of the speaker's step-brother adds a new dimension of tension, "Imperial City" mulls over the formation of family, traces blood-lines, and expresses both anguish, (we began "from the outset I hated"), and sentimentality (we literally end reading on the word love.)
On his own work, Hofmann has said that he "feels pulled by competing forces: the simple and the ornate, the naked and the elegant." It's clear through "Fresco" and "Imperial City" that Hofmann utilizes universally recognized landscapes of mythological symbolism to conjure up tonalities of these "competing forces", but another geographical element Hofmann turns to is the majesty of the ocean. He recognizes tensions in "the patterned breaking of waves on the shore", and has listened, and been inspired by, the organic music of the tide. "Sea Interlude: Passacaglia" describes a brief moment, a small stop from water to land. Even in its brevity the poem contemplates the temporality of the human spirit.
As a musical term, "Passacaglia" derives from the Spanish "to walk" (passe) and "street" (calle), originating as a phrase to describe the melodies played to fill time in between dances, to let performers catch their breath or change their costume before the next round. Notice, again, the play on elements as the title, "Sea Interlude: Passacaglia", twists the geography, and implications, from the concrete (the street) to the fluid (the sea). It begins en media res:
"Pulling the rowboat into shallower water,
you wedged an oar into the rocks. I squinted
down at the fish, struggling to see them
like a memory"
Dramatic contrasts envelop the first four lines. Someone other than readers and speaker are in charge: this "you" moves us to "shallower", so assumingly safer, waters. The ebb and flow of the poem, its rhythm, accounts for the feeling of buoyancy; readers bob in the boat to the rhythm of the sea. We are hypnotized by liquefied linguistics, "pulling, shallower, row, struggling, memory" are all words that roll off our tongue, creating a slippery sense of language and ambiance. Readers struggle to visualize the fish below us, as does the speaker, for Hofmann holds off on his description of them for a few more lines, and simply tells us that they exist. This muddiness serves to accurately represent the moment one comes to shore, the fog before the light, the merging of two worlds, the expected and unexpected, the dueling elements of the real and the ethereal. It is human nature to fail to recognize the minute details around us, but often, when we do see clearly, grave individualized concerns arise. The ego emerges, it screams for theme, me, me. The comparison of the cloudy water as something as difficult to see through as a memory generates the image of a "Byzantine mosaic" with a "swatch of tiles missing". The brief moment, extended through a metaphor that evokes images of a past world, during which the speaker has to readjust his eyes in order to identify the life, those elegant scales, through the translucent sea, transitions readers into Hofmann's two modes of consciousness: the ancient and the contemporary.
Language flows from abstract to concrete effortlessly within the poem, which refuses to sit still. Still waiting for the water to clear, the speaker wonders what will happen to all of this, to his sea-mate's body, to that moment when the oar hit the rock and steadied the boat, "what will be there for me?" the speaker asks, "when the light" has found its way. "Sea Interlude: Passacaglia" poses the fundamental question of existence – the ambiguity of the answer is the agency which urges readers to revisit the poem over and over again. Hofmann handles the anxiety ridden philosophical quandary like a poet, with a simile. He questions if he'll notice the quicksilver fish scales "elegant as hammered gold", or, if he will
"have lost them already,
fallen through my hands, every one?"
The poem leaves readers in a sea of thoughts, and with a pounding sense that holding on is close to impossible. The speaker in Hofmann's work is consistent in "Imperial City", "Fresco", and "Sea Interlude: Passacaglia" as is the structure, they're all impressively restricted to fourteen lines. The layers of richness evident in Hofmann's work shake readers awareness of the power of the poetic form. Hofmann, who is pursuing his MFA at Johns Hopkins University in The Writing Seminars, has already gained a dedicated readership in the fickle land of contemporary poetry, and his work demonstrates his knowledge of our beloved craft's past, and his passion for sharing it.
For more about Noah Warren and his work visit click here.