By Abriana Jetté
Brooklyn, NY, USA
Spring I.1. The place of rising or issuing from the ground; the source or head...
[OED, XVI, 346]
Spring and poetry have held one another's hands for centuries. Something about the way the sun lightens the forgotten stones etched deep into the sidewalk, how benches, again, are warm to the touch, and the heady scent of wisteria wafts down the street, enlivening the air around us, balances the weight of the everyday hustle and bustle, even for this veteran New Yorker. Finally, we are happy to show off our toes and breathe in the invigorating scent of a fresh start. April is poetry month, so festivals and readings galore are held in honor of the transcendental and universally understood art. Raymond Carver once wrote that "every great or even very good writer makes the world over according to his specifications." Even if you can't make an event celebrating the craft, the sights of poetry surround us. Take a look. What world would you write?
Perhaps a Google search inquiring about poetry has led you to this column, or perhaps you have been reading about emerging poets since my start at Stay Thirsty Media (for that I thank you). Regardless, this spring's column, marking my one-year anniversary as a promoter, lover, and critic of emerging poets, feels even sweeter because of the exceptional range of talent I've been lucky to share with you. Natasha Hakimi, Mike Brokos, Sophie Grimes, and Karissa Morton consistently surprise readers with lively imagery and unexpected language, and display, each of them, fine rhetorical craftsmanship. They are emerging poets, practically in full bloom, whose fresh voices and poignant images delight the senses, just like spring.
Natasha Hakimi, who has lived in Mexico, Spain, Boston, and Los Angeles, effortlessly intertwines her bilingual background throughout the wider range of her work, which does not categorize her as a language poet, rather a poet who is intuitively aware of her roots. This distinction is an important one: Hakimi thinks in different languages. Sometimes she struggles to translate her own thoughts and dreams with just one dialect. Such docility further emphasizes her comprehension that a single language is hardly satisfactory when trying to accurately articulate the ache of human experience. The speaker in Hakimi's poems varies depending on the content and nature of the piece. In one instance the voice may succumb to the sensual music of her mother's tongue, Spanish, in another she may fall under the exotic undertones of her father's Persian heritage, and in some cases the poem's subject is confronted directly through the clashing thrash and fall of idiomatic (and iambic) English. A single Hakimi poem can scan the world.
The brilliant "In Ushuaia" begins by asking readers to "find the southernmost / point in [your] mind", a hot place, where "the sun / strains to heat." Hakimi's instructions purposefully distance readers from our comfort zone, allowing us to enter a narrative dreamscape in which the speaker has total control. The poem extends down the page for twenty-two similarly structured lines, with no stanza breaks, and no true end-stops except for a comma at the end of one line, plus the grammatically necessary caesura here and there. Such skillful syntactical play maintains the ethereal and breathless currents of the poem, named after the capital of Tierra de Fuego, Argentina; the southernmost city in the world, the title, like its content, forces readers to dive deeply down into unexplored terrain.
"In Ushuaia" explores conflicting memories that have been pushed away to the corner of the speaker's mind, and that when confronted shake readers' imaginations and perceptions. Throughout the poem, speaker and readers have followed trails we never thought we'd reach, danced
next to their SUVS as if there [is] no end
to this thing",
and have been hypnotized by the foreign land's dark-spell. When readers and speaker have finally arrived
"at that corner
of [your] memory that even Magellan
failed to discover, where guano makes the islands"
we are not comforted by acceptance or understanding. In fact, nothing is absolved or forgiven. We do not find paradise. After readers have sojourned with the speaker as far as possible into forgotten territory, what we encounter raises the hair on our skin. The poem ends:
"you'll see you
and me feeding crackers to a frozen beast."
"In Ushuaia" lives in multiple worlds. That is, the layers of complexity Hakimi develops assist in the poem's approachability. Descriptions of dazed yet crystalline landscapes reflect the basis for the double-reading of the piece: the setting is in Argentina, the voice communicates in English. Travel and discovery often awaken a deeper awareness of the undiscovered self, so the psychological interpretation of "In Ushuaia" can't be avoided. Readers are told how to climb over distractions in order to get to the heart of the matter, the root of the memory, to the source of the speaker's anguish, which, as she recalls, is her and the other, and those crackers, perhaps ever so calmly, feeding the beast. Without saying it, readers picture crumbs dropping at the speaker's feet.
Hakimi's linguistic perceptibility and compelling appreciation for memory also emerges in "Honey Mead", a fourteen-line poem that follows many of the traditional rules of the sonnet: its iambic meter establishes, through its structure, a little song. It begins, in true Hakimi style, with an intense focus on the tangible:
"Years later now I unpack to find quarters stuck
The poem describes to readers the etymology of the "Honeymoon", which earned its name when
"The Celts made lovers gulp honey mead for
the first month they were married…"
or so the story goes. Soon, as it often does, the romance and passion fade away for the speaker and her companion, and together "like so many tales we were sold", they are left to rediscover their own false truths.
Currently, Hakimi is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American Literature at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain. She has received several awards for creative writing, including the May Merrill Miller Award for Poetry in 2008, and 2010, and the Ruth Brill Award for short fiction in 2010. She was recently a semi-finalist for the 2013 Dzanc Books/ Guernica International Literary Award. Hakimi has worked for AGNI and Los Angeles Magazine and is currently an assistant editor at Truthdig.com, and an Editor at English Tutors Live.
Mike Brokos's poems read so intimately because of his natural voice, a voice that varies in demeanor and background, but remains consistent in its perspicuity. One poem may stem from Brokos's wish to know how to ride a bike while in another his baroque utterances mimicking the famed Peruvian poet César Vallejo sift through the smoky aura of the art of translation. His work reflects a new wave of American modernism, he writes about acoustic music, baseball, floorboards, and home-repair. With all of our preconceived notions of masculinity, Brokos epitomizes the man's poet. His style, though, is difficult to define, as he excels in carefully metered verse, and the interweaving of familiar images and vernacular phrasing to disentangle the symbolism of the contemporary world.
In "Landscape Without Rest", for a quick moment, the speaker recalls how "no one ever / showed me how to ride" a bike. The poem is crafted with artistic sensibility, one that utilizes natural metaphors as a protective shield. The content is melodic and plainspoken; its focus, the incredibly ordinary action of walking down the street. The spondaic start of the poem, as the speaker describes, "I step aside", jumpstarts the zoom of the "boy who pedals fast"; the one who can't be caught, but can be felt. This unique perspective, constructed in the first stanza, situates readers with the speaker, watching the boy, his father, the day, life, seeing it all flash by, and standing still as it unfolds. Until the last two lines, all of "Landscape Without Rest" consists of enjambment, creating an unyielding freedom within the form, one that mirrors the boy's jovial nature, and clashes with the speaker's inability to follow that youthful, contagious spirit.
The incantatory pull that follows the first stanza, the soft rhymes of "pedals", "path" and "cedar chips", renders readers' anticipation to continue downhill, but the speaker doesn't, can't. This resistance isn't directly told, but experienced through the language that begins the second stanza, the description of how the boy's father ambled at "the crest, and fret against the grip of my own / vectors..." At this point, apprehension begins to surface from behind the speaker's façade. Readers must summarize the scene again in order make sense of the plot.
Here is what we know for certain: our speaker walked down the street. A boy and his father raced downhill. Our speaker stepped aside. The father tried hard not to enter the speaker's territory, aware of the fine lines that defined their individual space. In perfect dosages, Brokos layers "Landscape Without Rest" like an artist would his canvas, with thick layers of imagery, action, ambiguity, and masterful strokes of diverging focal points.
It would be easy to say that the poem depicts the speaker's wish to have had a relationship like the one described between the boy and his father. On first reading, readers might simply assume the poem is a manifestation of such inescapable loneliness present in the contemporary world. But Brokos is far more complicated than that.
The tightly woven six, three line stanzas, of "Landscape Without Rest" contradict the wily and free content of the boy's journey. Unlike him, our speaker is stuck in the present, and has resisted the thrill-raising flight downhill. The speaker's interjection of idiomatic phrasing eases readers into trusting that he has good reason to hold back. He admits, "we make a fine match"; those two opposing persona, he and the boy.
It isn't until the end of the poem that the speaker's intentions for standing still are revealed. In its closing moment, merging images of the modern and natural world, the speaker meditates on
"the way these widening lanes
make way for flashes of rubber,
flares of cottonwood leaves."
"Landscape Without Rest" is an immensely smart poem that simultaneously describes a youthful journey while indirectly addressing the poetic practice. Without the speaker stepping aside, who would have reflected on the ever-expanding highway lane, who would have noticed the gusts of leaves passing through the wind in the midst of traffic? Without the speaker those rubber tires spinning on the asphalt, the liveliness of everything that surrounds us, the landscape that does not rest, would not be preserved. For that, readers are happy to have stood still.
When juxtaposed, the nature of "Landscape Without Rest" is not so far off from "Singing Stone", a free-verse poem written after Vallejo. The poem combines organic landscape and alluring language to express the speaker's internal yearning to be heard, and proves Brokos's trajectory is unstoppable. It begins:
"My last cigarette proves suitable
as I, too, am burning to a stub. How dizzying,"
to hold the world between his fingers, the speaker continues; the reader already entranced. The fanciful sounds of "cigarette", plus the soft repetition of the "u" vowel sound in "proves" and the first syllable of "suitable", soothes readers. Then, the plosive second syllable "able" pulls us forward with the enjambment of the first line. Readers realize this is not, at all, a cigarette of accomplishment or rest. Rather, the speaker of "Singing Stone" is burdened with an acute sense of knowing he may never say exactly what he means. What he wants to express is "music not precisely music", the music of language, the music of verse, the music of words.
The clarity of Brokos's voice remains consistent throughout the form and tone of his poetry: some harmless ruminations of the ordinary, others universally recognized confessions of doubt and insecurities. Mark my words, Mike Brokos will soon change the way other emerging writers consider tone, phrasing, and choreography of scene; he is the new breed of the modern conversationalist. Brokos earned an MFA in 2012 from Boston University, and has received a work-study scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference as well as the Bread Loaf/Camargo Foundation Fellowship, during which he will spend the month of May 2014 in Cassis, France. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where he works as a writer and editor.
After I've decided to write about a poet I've never physically met, I undergo peculiar rituals in order to get to know his or her voice. I carry the work with me in my purse, repeat memorable lines during my walk to the bus stop, underline and scan stanzas on the train, and let particular rhythms, beats, and phrases cling to me, day and night. Taking Sophie Grimes around with me, and allowing her ingratiating rhythms to enter my soul, has been a true pleasure.
In one sense, Grimes's "The Homeless Man, Me" is a portrait of the living, yet through such illustrations the poem grows into a sharp reflection on the gender distinctions and class characteristics that exist between the female speaker and the ragged, perhaps disturbed, homeless man. The speaker's familiarity with the stranger, her keen observations on his dress, manner, and tastes, provide the foundation of their relationship. Because of these descriptions, readers trust that the speaker and this man have seen each other often, that they are aware of the other's schedule, and that these two strangers who never actually met are, indeed, familiar with one another as they crash into the other's life every other night. The poem begins:
"We snarf down sandwiches alike:
our life rhythms are similar. It's hard to deviate."
Grimes's flexible control of sound and syllable dazzle readers from the start. Her end-stops and caesuras pivot readers from thought to thought, ushering us down the poem like cattle, even more, like men and women rushing to catch an incoming train. "He brings his things with him like I do", the poet confesses, "We always need some book or sweater." Establishing this rich connection between herself and the homeless man, readers, too, recall how they cling to their things, throwing bananas or scarfs into over-packed bags, just in case. Grimes, effortlessly, makes us question what it is, actually, that we're preparing for.
By the third couplet, it becomes clear that this stranger reflects the insecurities of the speaker, of all of us, who may not be happily and energetically alive, but living to get by. Where the speaker heads to each day is never fully stated, but the dreariness of her day is reflected in her fear, or apprehension, to say the least, regarding the homeless man she can't escape.
The poem avoids the cliché narrative of being inspired or changed by a stranger: a breath of fresh air for this reader. The poet admits "we watch each other separately ... / ... we hate each other and look nowhere directly." The lines are a couplet apart, and the extended rhyme assists in carrying the tension over from stanza to stanza. What this homeless man forces our speaker to recognize is the unhappiness weighing down her own self. His presence is urgent and hungry, and though he only stands ["(always the standing)", our speaker writes] in the street "bobbing, / the too-loud mumble", there is something he represents strongly enough to disturb the speaker's psyche. It isn't entirely fear, for she admits "My dreams are depressingly normal until he arrives", but it isn't altogether positive either.
The poem moves from a calm to frenzied pace, from reality to the depths of the speaker's imaginations. When readers are situated in the speaker's dreams, the poem's tempo is at its fastest, each line manically layered with darkly familiar desires.
"Do not take that book says the dream", but the speaker does, "because it is important. / And then, together with the speaker, with our eyes surveying the page, our hearts-beating faster, we run. Through the speaker's recollections of her dreams, readers gain insight as to why the homeless man possesses such a strong grasp. The homeless man is free, unconstrained; everything our speaker is not.
"The Homeless Man, Me" demonstrates Grimes's ability to marry sonic and metaphoric language with the ordinary. The laconic nature of the poem's title aids in blurring the separation between the speaker and man. Resonating on multiple levels, the poem leaves readers with little to do but question their own security. It draws to an end with a brave echo of a silence that is not quite silence:
"we both avoid each other
in the same places.
My spot. Then shut up, stupid girl.
It is not quite sibilance that is manipulated; the hum is not the hiss of the snake, but the unintelligible moan of the human being. In her last two words, Grimes expresses the incommunicable.
It seems to me that Sophie Grimes must go about her daily life considerably concerned with the sounds that surround her. There is no other way to explain her ability to express the mundane with such an exacting and vigorous cadence. Take the beginning of "New Job in College Town", during which Grimes literally controls the movement of readers' mouths:
"The apartment is carpeted
The repetition of the growling "ar" in "apartment" and "carpeted" creates a trilling movement that touches readers down to the teeth. The poem enters us through its rhythms; we swallow the speakers' woes. In the poem, Grimes offers readers a syntactically twisted and sonically wrenching recording of the first few weeks in a new town. Again, the content is clear. This time, Grimes adds another layer of complexity to her work through gnarled language:
no thing in there.
My ducks are all in order,"
the poet assures readers. The repetition of nasals in "no know-nothings / not" reminds me of the sprung rhythm of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the great Jesuit poet, whose sonic ingenuity transcended readers through its drumming tempo. Optically complex, the monosyllabic rhythm further demonstrates Grimes's ability to spar in the art of linguistic wordplay. The verbal élan manifested in each of her poems guarantee that her first collection, which we hope will be picked up for publication soon, will set a new standard for the replication of authentic experience through poetic verse.
Grimes has lived and traveled in China as an Oberlin Shansi Fellow, and again as a Robert Pinsky Global Fellow. Grimes holds an MFA in Poetry from Boston University and has had poems published in Spoon River Poetry Review and AGNIonline. Author of the Chapbook City Structures published by Damask Press, she splits her time between Oberlin Ohio, and Chicago and is working on her first full-length collection of poems.
Keeping to the already divulged practice of carrying poets who I would like to write about around with me, I must confess that I clung to Karissa Morton for months, since 2013, to be exact, before the New Year came upon us. "Self-Portrait as Lazarus Species" was the first poem I read of hers, and as I continued to look out for her name it became clear that she was one of the most ambitious and complex emerging poets I'd come across. Morton establishes a remarkable economy in the first stanza of "Self-Portrait", concretizing abstract ideas, and situating readers in a well-known story, one which is at the center of many Christians' faith. Any poet who tackles myth acknowledges that, as my literary hero Joan Didion once wrote, "we tell ourselves stories in order to live." The speaker in "Self-Portrait as Lazarus Species" assumes the persona of one who is touched, maybe afflicted, and reminds this particular reader of Lazarus of Bethany, from the Gospel of John, whom Jesus brought back from the dead after four days of lifelessness. The poem can be read as him telling us, his readers, his story. It begins:
"As a child, I ached to be undone,
to feel origin & birthcry, to be one of the chosen".
The speaker confronts the source of tension from the first line of the poem, admitting to readers that death, for lack of a better word, would be a godsend. In the most natural state of innocence, childhood, the speaker craved sweet release, and ached to go back to wherever he came from.
But one day "a man will pick you, lemon from tree", says someone in a voice that sounds somewhat darker than the first one readers met in the first few stanzas. Slowly, the poem grows into a manifesto for the unfortunately blessed, for those who desire nothing but darkness and are given endless light. One wonderful aspect of "Self-Portrait as Lazarus Species" is that the speaker seems to have grabbed the throat of this man Lazarus and stolen his voice, but an even more splendid part is that it is not necessarily Lazarus of Bethany. The worst thing to do when reading a Morton poem is to believe we know what will happen.
Morton's particular emphasis on the poetic line intensifies the emotional gravity of the poem. When she writes
"But all in its time, said the universe – I promise"
readers are both haunted and healed: pharmakon. The line's unique punctuation winks at readers, and its calming rhythm serves as a shield for its paradoxical nature. Is this a foreshadowing of heartache to come, or a calming consolation that there is reason for the speaker's pain?
A useful technique when approaching a poem is to focus on the lines, words, or stanzas that shake confuse, or seduce the mind, body, and/or (when we're lucky) soul, rather than considering the poem as a whole. Remember, it is never about what the poem means, but how the poem speaks, what it reveals, and how it reflects an aspect, be it meager or wholly encompassing, of our own unexamined self. Poetry is art, and, after all, art doesn't have to be understood.
The final line of "Self-Portrait of Lazarus-Species" emits the rancid stench of decay while contemplating the self as a whole – Morton can juggle things like that. The poem draws to a close after the rebirth of Lazarus as the speaker remembers the "sour tremble of [your] wholeness."
"Self-Portrait as Lazarus Species" plays with readers, dangling them along a thrill-ride of verse. To creative this effect of swirling and carrying readers, Morton employs complicated, extensive sentences throughout her work. This wise syntactical device is used to leave readers on the edge of misinterpretation, just to be saved, at the moment it seemed our will to understand expired, by a concrete image or familiar idiomatic phrase. A thoughtful rhetorical move, Morton begins "Milk Teeth" with the coordinating conjunction "and." It begins:
"& I know what it means when you write of horses"
Readers are taken full throttle into the darkened, fantastical world of "Milk Teeth", understanding the truth in the speaker's acknowledgment that "what we wish for, we are most afraid of." Lines like these solidify Morton's place in the world of poetics: prophetic, simple truths. "Milk Teeth", in all of its abstract and dramatic images (take: "its body boneless / and free" or "the child left to rot in the sun") refers to those baby teeth we all begin with, then lose. The poem admits that letting go is never easy.
Morton's poems capture so accurately, through contorted soundscapes and delicate imagery, the cry of the unnoticed that it is difficult to imagine the future of poetics without her voice. In years to come, there will be trademark Morton: twisted syntax, intricately developed subject matter, and the ampersand.
Morton is a writer-teacher-editor originally from Des Moines, Iowa. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Bowling Green State University, where she currently teaches creative writing & composition. She is the Co-Editor-in-Chief of Poets on Sports, poetry editor of Revolution House Magazine, and a writer for American Microreviews & Interviews. Currently, Morton is working on three poetic projects: (1) her first poetry collection that explores the (dis)connect between the female self and body in situations of familial physical violence, sexual violence, and incest, (2) a hybrid-genre work that interrogates the mythology of the nymph/nymphet character, and (3) a true testament to her passion for spreading poetry across the nation, a collection of poems about the NFL, written with Justin Carter.