By Abriana Jetté
Brooklyn, NY, USA
When my students read poetry, their initial reaction is to consider how the poem makes them feel. That gut reaction, I tell them, is where they might start scratching away to understand their own desires, not the poem's. When we read poetry – when we read anything for that matter – we unlock a part of our self yet undiscovered, an aspect of our own humanity that did not, could not, and would not have existed if we had not picked up those words.
As readers of poetry we carry the mighty power of taking on the speaker's voice. We can sojourn into the past or freeze time to relive a brief period in time. We turn to poetry to memorialize the moment, we turn to poetry to escape from the cruel truths of reality, and we turn to poetry to listen to something other than our own voice. Therefor, the voice of the emerging poet is the voice of the fiery present. Some might say it is the most important voice around. This winter, take on the mighty voices of Marty McConnell, Meg Eden, and Patrick Hansel. They will empower you and inspire you. They are the poets you should be reading right now.
Readers of all ages flock to poetry because of its boundlessness. Poetry, like much of the arts, serves as an outlet for those who feel they do not conform to any specified gender. Readers and writers of poetry can adopt any voice they want: a male may write from the female's perspective, a female may write from the voice of a flower – it doesn't matter who is speaking. What matters to the poem, to the poet, and to the reader are the words, the form, and the incantatory rhythms; how it makes the reader feel, and what desires it stirs. Marty McConnell's poetry guides readers into a world of obscurity and perspicuity; her voice is simultaneously smooth and sharp, logical and disjunctive. When she withholds, she connects. When she writes, she dazzles. She is a seven-time National Poetry Slam team member, the 2012 National Underground Poetry Individual Competition (NUPIC) Champion, and appeared twice on HBO's "Def Poetry Jam."
McConnell's work refuses to be pinned down. Each poem is a mastery of binaries; even when she is affirmative, a sense of wonder fills readers' minds. Take for instance the first line of "rochameau: rock, fire, water":
"Never make love for the first time when it's raining."
The line conveys sound advice that it seems like the speaker believes in, but why? For what reason should we refrain from seeking pleasure in the rain? Readers might crave an answer, but the logical expansion of the poem resists telling us until the very end. Instead, we are delivered strange soundscapes of truth. "If an organgutan in Omaha / can fashion a lock-pick from wire and escape", the speaker says, "surely we can make a bridge." That is, if this animal is smart enough to know when it's time to break out and leave, so, too, should the human being be smart enough to act upon the same instinct. The title of the poem also plays with readers' ability to understand exactly what the speaker is referencing. Whatever "rochambeu" alludes to (The French soldier? A term for rock-paper-scissors? Slang for a male-genital bashing game?), the reader is to understand its connection not to the physical but to the elements, fire and water.
The disconnected moments of the poem start to build into a kinetic force of revelation. Such spontaneity is enchanting and urges the reader to continue. In one of the most forwardly confessional aspects of the poem, the speaker writes:
someone who could not stop setting fires.
Therefore, I live amid bricks."
What's so stunning about McConnell's voice is the performative aspect of her sounds, her voice timbre. Her stanzas flow smoothly from liquids to plosives, inciting within readers a radical sensuousness. Consider the way "someone who could not stop setting" whirrs off the tongue compared the to forceful puckering of "bricks." In controlling our mouth, McConnell's poetry moves "like butter / on [the] tongue." The universality of her metaphor further engages her range of audience. "rochameau: rock, fire, water" is a map of emotional processing. The speaker is a rock: she will not break just because of some water or rock.
In "self-portrait as a lecture on reincarnation" McConnell explores the deep-seated and strained relationship between mother and daughter. It begins:
"Whatever made my mother is gone
like the incision the doctor made
to get me out."
These first three lines throb with poetic sensibility. They take readers into an ambiguous world; the first word we are introduced to is "whatever." But it is a dark world nonetheless, a motherless place. Further, the speaker reveals the experience of unnaturally entering this world, emphasized by the word "incision", alluding to a caesarian section. The second stanza continues: "I wanted / to stay, my heel hooked under a rib", and communicates such a corporeal image that it, too, hooks itself within readers: the image hurts. Though penitential, the vocabulary is fairly simple, and the simile is fairly easy to understand. The mother's absence evokes in the speaker the same longing as the pain derived from existing. The extensive hypotactic nature of the first sentence guides readers into the realization that mother and daughter are eternally and cyclically intertwined.
The pain of losing the mother, for the speaker, is as heavy as the weight of daughterhood because mother and daughter are innately connected within the poem. It is not only that the speaker understands that "whatever sweetness I own / I owe to the body that made me", but also the recognition that everything is connected, everything melts together, even "cucumbers surrender their flesh / to water." In a way, McConnell reads like O'Hara, especially in her use of abstract expressions of reality. In the poem, she conceives of a pastoral, modernized world (again her use of doubling) where the "trees" lean down "to touch the parked cars." Like O'Hara's "traffic halt so thick" as a way "for people to rub up against each other", she embraces contemporary constructs as vehicles into the surreal.
Another binding image, the speaker focuses on "the way glitter gets into everything / and refuses to disappear." Glitter is an inescapable American aesthetic of girlhood, and in its direct association to the brilliance and annoyance of the sparkle, McConnell again utilizes the duality of language to signify the bond between mother and daughter. By the end of the poem, readers realize that while the strength of a mother's love is boundless and abiding, love is still the mother's best weapon; forgiveness, the daughter's.
McConnell is the author of wine for a shotgun, (EM Press, 2012), which received the Silver Medal in the 2013 Independent Publishers Awards, and was a finalist for both the Audre Lorde Award (Publishing Triangle) and the Lambda Literary Awards. She has performed and facilitated workshops at schools and festivals around the country, including The Dodge Poetry Festival, Palm Beach Poetry Festival, and more. McConnell's work has been published in numerous anthologies, including Best American Poetry 2014, A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry, as well as journals including Bellevue Literary Review, Willow Springs, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Crab Orchard, and Beloit Poetry Journal, among others.
Sometimes all you have to do is read a poem once to feel an innate connection to the speaker. Perhaps a recognizable rhythm dances in your mind or a phrase so particular to your own life bursts forth from the rest of the words on the page, refusing to leave your mind. Be it devilish or charming, the speaker of a poem relies on such control over readers to enhance the reading experience. Like McConnell, Meg Eden understands poetry as an oratorical art that requires a blending of behavior, sound, appearance, and rhythm. She credits her father, a woodworker, for instilling within her the ability to create what she refers to as "guy's tasks." She doesn't only question the role of the daughter; larger, more universal issues of identity and assumed cultural norms permeate each one of her poems.
In "Beijing Builds a Disney-Themed Amusement Park", which is forthcoming in Drunken Boat, the speaker expresses her desire to be "twenty poets" and "run whole-heartedly" in the wind of artistic freedom. The understanding that it is liberating to claim a voice other than the one you have lived with reigns strong through Eden's work. In the poem, even Mickey Mouse refuses to accept that he is a mouse, but insists he is a feline blessed with "unusually large ears."
In "A Reliable Narrator", Eden abandons tastefulness for truth. Her speech-like eloquence speaks to readers with an effortless comfort. It begins:
"Yesterday a customer came up to Camille
and asked if her hair was fake."
Immediately readers are thrust into the conversational workplace dialogue of gossip. Naturally, we want to know more: what happened? What did Camille say? But Eden is wise and turns the readers attention elsewhere. The speaker confides, "I know I'm not an expert on black-people-hair / but nothing about it looks particularly fake to me." Hair is an extension of the body. We tend to it, damage it, we cut it off without experiencing any physical pain; to change hairstyles is to change an aspect of the self, in a way, it is changing our identity. The fact that the speaker struggles to see the "fakeness" in Camille's outward appearance testifies to the uniqueness of Camille herself.
"Camille is a shape shifter", the speaker confesses, whose "hair changes every day." Unable to keep up wit her external ornamentations, the speaker focuses on the transcendence of Camille's inner spirit. Someone so confident seems almost unreal to the speaker, but she "never" questions "her authenticity." By the end of the poem, the speaker ascertains that Camille is not at all like any human being, but
"like those kinds of birds
that you can see even through the trees,
their feathers are just that bright."
By the end of the poem, Camille has wings. She is a dynamic, unstoppable force. On the surface "A Reliable Narrator" is a tender caricature of a dynamic woman, but on a deeper level it confronts imposed societal expectations of beauty. Eden further challenges these ideals in her poem "Bollystar", within which the speaker reveals that she does not "think of" herself as "one of the white girls", but as "dark like the henna Miti presses" onto her hand.
Miti, the speaker's high school friend, who used to "bring saris in the morning" for the speaker to change into, works "late shifts at Subway" and dates "a boy six years older than her." Like Camille, Miti violates preconceived Americanized constructs of the blue-eyed, blonde haired elegant beauty. In fact, in the poem "the blonde in art class" teaches Miti the word "fuck", a mockery, perhaps, of the contemporary archetypes of perfection. In all of her extraordinary strangeness, Miti is intoxicating.
It becomes clear that the speaker of "Bollywood" uses the otherly aspect of Indian culture as a mode of escapism. It is a poem mostly anyone who ever stepped foot in a high school can relate to. It is a poem that tells the reader exactly what it is through its final image. Eden writes:
"this is the scene where the heroine
sings about loneliness."
The description successfully situates readers in the consciousness of the young girl who feels she doesn't belong. Eden's speakers do not surrender to the jaundiced perspectives of insular communities; they sing in their own unique tone. Hidden within the sensational flow of her manipulation of the vernacular are political and societal undertones. Eden's poetry vibrates with a global consciousness.
Meg Eden's work has been published in various magazines, including Rattle, Drunken Boat, Eleven Eleven, and Rock & Sling. Her work received second place in the 2014 Ian MacMillan Fiction contest. Her collections include "Your Son" (The Florence Kahn Memorial Award), "Rotary Phones and Facebook" (Dancing Girl Press) and "The Girl Who Came Back" (Red Bird Chapbooks). She teaches at the University of Maryland.
In a world of a million poets, it is easy not to be heard. There are voices out there that have been speaking for years, but perhaps their work was not taught in the classes you took or featured in the journals you may have read. And while it seems likely to discover a new, fresh voice anywhere, whether in print or on the subway, the thrill of finding a poet whose voice you somehow have failed to stumble upon all this time is still exhilarating. For me, it always feels like being reconnected to a lifelong friend. When I first read "Quitting Time" by Patrick Hansel, I felt this sense; I felt I had known this speaker my entire life, that these descriptions were familiar to me. I felt simultaneously the thrill of surprise and the comfort of recognition.
The poem begins by directly grabbing readers into the past:
"I sweep up the hair that lies like pigeon's feathers
on my father's shop floor."
Again, the symbol of human hair appears as an extension of the self. These disconnected pieces of men, the "Callahan's, Slavinskys, Knauers… / and one blonde Swede", scattered about the floor memorialize the efforts of an honest and good working-class father, a man often confided in by his patrons, a barber. The speaker transports readers directly in the sphere of the barbershop, taking careful notice of the how "Dad double counts the till" and "snap caps back", "grunting" with the "weight of the day." Along with the men who "smoke Camel Straights", even the "scissors and razors and combs" utter whispers of significance to the speaker.
Hansel utilizes the drama of semantics to eternalize the memory of his father's shop and the men who he met in it. One sentence, which finishes the poem, containing appositive after clause after appositive, lasts thirteen lines. Just like a piece of stray hair can follow you from city to city, so do the lives of these men stay with the speaker. While the title, "Quitting Time", evokes a sense of mortality, the content of the poem honors the stories of these men, as well as the bond between father and son. Throughout the poem, Hansel displays a stylistic consistency in voice: he is mellifluous, exact, and offers gorgeous visions of the ordinary.
To be connected to language is to communicate with a higher source other than the self. It is to enter into a third realm of the universe where image and word struggle to fit together for the sake of accurate representation. In Hansel's rewriting of the creation story, "At the End of the 6th Day", the speaker, thus the poet, takes on the voice of God. "My fingers stub on Adam's clay", it begins, with a precise focus on the fingers/hands as the source of power. Drawing attention to the fingers from the very first line, Hansel indicates a direct connection to the creation of mankind and the creation of the word. After all, we write, we create, with our hands.
Genesis states, "man was made of the slime of the earth" (Genesis 2:7), and Hansel's speaker echoes this, choosing "dirt, the hardest earth" to mold his Adam, but he also rolls him in "sage and mint / to flower his skin." This clean scent is a bold contrast to the slime of the New Testament. It is a refreshingly sensorial account of the narrative, and most importantly, the description has not been done before. As Ezra Pound famously said, it is the poet's job to "make it new."
The complexity of "At the End of the 6th Day" does not lie in its evocation of the physicality of the human being, but in the way it conjures connections between poetry and religion. Like the poetic process, the creator of man has doubts. Reconsidering the making, the speaker admits "I should have bathed him out of water", and that "man making taxes me"; such are the anxieties of creation: it is exhausting. The writing process is often a time of catharsis, an emotional purging. The writer's time spent struggling, waiting, writing, listening, rewriting, and waiting some more to find the best words to express a specific feeling or honor a particular time or thing. And once those words are done, once the struggle has more or less ceased, the poet is finally able to breathe. In Hansel's poem, the speaker empathizes with the divine and imagines what creating man must have felt like, how mentally and physically debilitating the job must have been. With the making-process, there is always a should have, could have, would have, but in the end the speaker learns, like we all must, that sometimes it's best to step away and let go. Heightening the sense of fatigue felt by the creator is the title. Readers, I'm sure, are familiar with what comes on the seventh day. Rest. Quiet. Sweet sleep.
The poem ends with a triumphant sense of ambiguity. "This is the only / creature I will name", Hansel writes, and one line later, "the only one I will send away / with a task." Was creating Adam a worthwhile endeavor? Is the poetic process a worthy endeavor? The answer comes in the last line, and is a resounding yes. There is a task at hand. For the poet, this is the duty to tell.
Selected for the 2008-09 Mentor Series in Poetry at the Loft Literary Center in Minnesota, Patrick Cabello Hansel has published poems, short stories and nonfiction in over 30 journals and anthologies, including Hawai'i Pacific Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Passager, The Ilanot Review and The Meadowland Review. Hansel was selected for the 2008-09 Mentor Series in Poetry at the Loft Literary Center in Minnesota, and was a 2011 Minnesota State Arts Board Grantee. His novella Searching was serialized in 33 issues of The Alley News. He is co-pastor of St. Paul's Lutheran, a bilingual church in Minneapolis, where he lives with his wife and two daughters.