The News from Poems
One can get a lot of news from the poems in Philip Schultz’s most recent collection, Luxury. Schultz is the author of a memoir, a novel-in-verse and seven previous collections of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Failure. This new collection, which consists of twenty shorter poems and the four-part title poem, is written in Schultz’s emotionally direct style. In language rueful and compassionate, he explores contemporary complexities and preoccupations, whether at the grocery store, the Social Security Office, the wedding of gay friends, the 9/11 Memorial, the Women’s March or in his study with his border collie mix, Penelope. The opening poem, “Paraphernalia,” sets both tone and mood:
Yes, I’m quickly aging, feeling all filled up
with box scores and the ubiquitous world
of politics and tragedy. Right now, for instance,
my sixteen-year-old son is doing homework,
listening to SportsCenter, while my wife is on
the phone advising our older son on college classes,
half-listening to NPR relay the latest refugee calamity.
And here I am, worrying about the future my sons
will help make, while my soul waits patiently
at the door, hoping I’ll remember my sunglasses,
car keys and Penelope, in my hurry to be obsolete.
Schultz is alert to details and dramas that appear ordinary yet raise compelling questions. The poem “Age Appropriate” begins with the poet’s mystification at the behavior of his teenage sons and rapidly progresses from a sprained ankle and the doctors who refuse his medical insurance to reading Montaigne (“self-revelation is the purpose of discourse”) and concludes that “it’s good to know, even momentarily, / how to live, among the relevant, / the passionate, and the confused.” Reflecting on the nature of happiness, Schultz muses, “Happiness, I used to think, / was a necessary illusion. / Now I think it’s just / precious moments of relief . . .” (“Greed”).
Many of these poems are written in similar form—free verse lines of varied length spanning a page or slightly more. The line breaks are assured, the structure confident. There is a risk of sameness to the movement from anecdote to empathy to revelation, but within this pattern Schultz creates surprise, tension and momentum. The collection includes more austere, fourteen-line poems (“At the 9/11 Memorial,” “How I Became a Teacher”) and poems with no personal pronouns at all (“A Moment,” “Sacrifice”), definitions, perhaps extended metaphors, or meditations on their respective subjects. “Sacrifice” chillingly begins “A vest designed to explode.” And concludes “An argument, finally, between souls / and their bodies about being or not / gifts of God.” The lines in between seem historically complex and morally determined not to pass judgment.
One of the most topical and darkly enjoyable poems describes a pastime most people (certainly most writers of my acquaintance) will only sheepishly admit to doing, “Googling Ourselves.” The poem begins with descriptions of all “These strangers with my name, / busy being kidnapped, embezzled, / honored and dying at a frightening rate.” Progressively outlandish identity-theft scenarios follow, before a turn to Zarathustra—“Poets lie too much, who among us has not adulterated his wine?” The final stanza warns, “Late at night the Web is a dangerous swamp / of voyeuristic self-scrutiny and addictive impersonation . . .”
An elegy for Schultz’s friend, “Welcome to the Springs,” in the form of a graveside conversation amid the “loquacious silence of the dunes,” provides the transition from the earlier poems in this collection to its title poem. “Luxury” is a four-part meditation on the philosophical and practical aspects of “the absurd paradox of suicide.” Although the poet’s father did not actually commit suicide, a doctor’s haunting phrase, “he’s killing himself,” continues to fuel a private fascination with the act.
The poem’s five epigraphs frame a sophisticated and deeply personal meditation: from Camus to Kierkegaard, with epigraphs from three literary suicides—Ralph Dickey, Ernest Hemingway and Paul Celan—in the intervening sections. The poem constructs its own argument, one that leads the reader back to Camus and his argument (in The Myth of Sisyphus) that suicide is the only truly serious philosophical problem. “Luxury” is a poem on an insistent search for meaning; it ranges widely in space and time, various characters and interlocutors appear. Single-word and longer lines alternate, creating a staccato effect. Even the idea of luxury is elastic—from a 1955 Pontiac station wagon to a “future prolific enough” to contain the notion “as mysterious and improbable, / as fragrant / and luxurious / as happiness.”
Philip Schultz is a poet for whom autobiography transparently serves as poetic infrastructure: the bridge between past and present, the road from there to here, the electrical grid that illuminates. From this he creates a synthesis of homespun experience and honest empathy, informed by a philosophical sensibility and urged forward by existential explorations.
Carl Phillips’ most recent book of poems (fourteenth for this prizewinning, acclaimed poet), Wild is the Wind, takes its title from the jazz standard made famous by Johnny Mathis and later by Nina Simone and, still later, David Bowie. Like the song, the collection’s thirty-five poems contemplate the nature of love in all its hunger, restlessness and risk. Along the way, the poet meditates upon the past as history versus the past as memory, juxtaposing gratitude and despair, communion and estrangement, hope and loss.
Phillips plunges right in. The collection’s opening poem, “Courtship,” begins in medias res and prepares the reader for the experience of disparate conjunction:
—Both things, I think. But less the hesitation of many hands
touching the stunned dethronement of the master’s body, than
their way of touching it again; again. Each time, more surely.
Phillips’ poems often proceed as a series of switchbacks—the mind moving, unveiling, turning, then doubling back on itself, skeptical of, even resistant to, its own observations. Phillips’ poems are always carefully constructed, finely attuned to grammar and syntax and the effect of those choices on the muscularity, the firmness and give of his lines. It isn’t often that a semicolon can be made so expressive and eloquent.
Phillips finds contemporary resonance in classical allusions and references. Not only in the poems that specifically mention Homer (“And Love You Too”), Virgil and Marcus Aurelius (“Not the Waves as They Make Their Way Forward”), but also in mythmaking. Here we encounter a ship called Late Forgiveness and a dog that “I mostly call Sovereignty, both for how sovereignty, / like fascination, can be overrated . . .” There are other tropes that readers familiar with Phillips’ work will recognize: navigation, the sea, the sky, a forest. The notion of navigation is central to Phillips’ work, conceptually and formally. “The sea was one thing, once; the field another. Either way, / something got crossed, or didn’t” (“Brothers in Arms”).
The span across Phillips’ poems ranges from the erotic to myth and metaphor, where memory can be “an exit wound,” or, as in the title poem:
About what’s past, Hold on when you can, I used to say,
And when you can’t, let go, as if memory were one of those
mechanical bulls, easily dismountable, should the ride
turn rough. I lived, in those days, at the forest’s edge—
In the poem “Swimming,” history (“always restless”),
here means a history of storms rushing the trees
for so long, their bowed shapes seem a kind of star—
worth trusting, I mean, as in how the helmsman,
steering home, knows which star to lean on . . .
In “The Distance and the Spoils” the poet writes:
Half a life; a life . . . So much turns out to have
been neither history nor memory, that mirage
of history, in which I want you came at least
briefly close. Sometimes
disclosure’s a pretty
flower and that’s the end of it . . .
Like mythmaking, metaphor can only take you so far.
The refrain of the song from which the collection’s title is taken seems to rustle through the poems in motifs of leaves and wind. The poems enact the song’s plaintive notions of “clinging” like leaves and “blowing” like wind through the heart. It should also be noted that Phillips has a gift for startling, song-like poem titles that illuminate his turns of mind. I found my gaze and my thoughts drifting back up to the title after reading the poems; it is both an intricate and unobtrusive structural element.
Although Phillips’ poems are descriptive and personal, the reader will find few traces of physical place or autobiographical fact—his poems are deeply interior meditations in which identity is less shaped by the external realities of race (he is biracial), sexual preference (he is gay), and circumstance (his peripatetic military childhood) and more by the poet’s inner life and private thoughts. In Phillips’ work, the “thoughtscape,” if you will, is elegiac and autumnal; the pronoun “you” might indicate an alter ego—the self in argument with itself—as often as it might a partner. His argument is ongoing; here is the concluding poem, “The Sea, the Forest,” quoted in its entirety:
Like an argument against keeping the more
unshakeable varieties of woundedness inside, where
such things may best belong, he opened his eyes
in the dark. Did you hear that, he asked . . . I became,
all over again, briefly silver, as in what the leaves
mean, beneath, I could hear what sounded like waves
at first, then like mistakes when, having gathered
momentum, they crash wave-like against the shore of
everything a life has stood for. —What, I said.
Carol Muske-Dukes, a self-described “genre-leaper,” has written eight collections of poems, including Sparrow, a finalist for the National Book Award. She is also author of two essay collections and several novels; a founder of Free Space, a creative writing program at the Women’s House of Detention at Riker’s Island; a former teacher and founder of the PhD program in creative writing at the University of Southern California; and California’s Poet Laureate (2008 to 2012).
Blue Rose, her most recent collection, consists of thirty-two poems in four sections that alternate ever-present hardships, particularly of womanhood, current concerns and elegy/homage. Muske-Dukes’s poems are an active resistance to erasure; they elevate, explore and elegize the experience of women who have already been erased by circumstance, society and history: female inmates, hijab-clad cancer sufferers in Kashmir, young women at an abortion clinic in 1979, and forgotten pioneers of art, science and culture.
The poem “Requiem for a Requiem” is multivalent: social commentary on the plight of the female artist, homage and elegy for the German Expressionist painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker, now acknowledged as the first woman to paint the female nude. For Modersohn- Becker, the journey from artistic ambition to accouchement to deathbed unfolded swiftly. The painter (and friend of Clara Westhoff, wife of Rainer Maria Rilke) died days after childbirth, at age 31 in 1907, from an embolism. Today it is easy to forget how heartbreaking, unpredictable and dangerous childbirth could, and still can, be:
. . . She listens
to her own breath dying. So like each breath
at the start. Says: Did you know Death
cheers at each conception? As Love looks to her
in the mirror: sweet murder. Chance-
implacable is the enthroned soul, but she rises on
each brushstroke. Deathless, her way
to unveil the woman’s body. But “Schande!” she cries,
her dying word, holding her newborn daughter to her
breast. Shame! Soul, come claim the body.
Also notable among Muske-Dukes’s homage poems are two about Ina Coolbrith, poet laureate of California (like Muske-Dukes) and the first poet laureate ever named in the United States. Many, if not most readers will not be familiar with her intrepid story, but Blue Rose provides some helpful endnotes. Consistent with one theme of this collection, I kept misreading the name as “Coolbirth,” a not entirely inapt misprision.
Muske-Dukes’s skill in these poems is her ability to ground her public and private concerns so firmly in compelling images, graceful allusion and lyrical cadence. A reader could easily read this collection in a single sitting, but that would be a missed opportunity. The carefully braided unity of the four sections reveals pleasures and epiphanies that bubble up slowly. There are intimate experiences (“Live/Die: a Ghazal,” “Audition,” “The Year the Law Changed,” “Rose,” “Judge”), dizzying observations (“Ferris Wheel,” “No Hands,” “Mayhem,” “Seminar: Zebra Fish”), thoughtful observations (“Translation Class,” “Workshop”), as well as myriad formal pleasures. The inventive ghazal variation, “Live/Die: a Ghazal,” combines several of these strengths, opening with lines that alternate living and dying:
The door of the hospice room in which you die
stays open. Dreaming you drift there, dying
in that floating bed of fierce arguments that live
on, until that moment when you no longer live.
This pattern continues until the penultimate couplet and final, profound resolution:
. . . You won’t acquiesce, Mother. I cannot die
for you. I don’t know how. You brought me here alive.
You taught me everything, but how to let you die.
“Gun Control: a Triptych,” consists of three vignettes: a near-fatal accident between brothers, a school shooting and generalized gun violence (gangs, drive by shootings, mass murders). The poem moves from family tragedy to community tragedy to numbing societal violence. The poet concludes,
. . . You, great god Gun, in whom some trust:
in bunker-mind, underground condos. O say it in Homeric
chanted dactyls: I sing of arms & the punk, self-pumped-
up lovers of the Silencer. Dickinson wrote it first,
living god of Gun, you are “without the power to die.”
The title poem, “Blue Rose,” describes a premature birth, a baby born “danger blue,” “eyelids bruised / as new petals,” “her brain’s opening rose.” For centuries, the notion of a blue rose captivated the imagination of artists and writers as well as horticulturalists. A genuine blue rose is not possible in nature, as roses do not manufacture delphinidin, the pigment that makes flowers blue. In art and literature the blue rose has been symbolic of both intense longing and infinite possibility. In the final lines of the collection’s concluding poem “Microscope” (a microscope does not permit the viewer to avert her gaze), Muske-Dukes asserts,
. . . To see in this light you must be
fearless. So I see only this: my blue rose,
Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead has made an appearance on just about every top list of poetry books for 2017, and it is easy to see why, fiercely engaged as it is with two potent political themes: America’s long history of racism and the contemporary realities of queer life. Smith, it should be noted at the outset, is black, gender-fluid and HIV positive, and prefers to be referred to by the third-person-plural pronoun “they.”
For Smith, an avowedly political poet, there is no ironically distanced “speaker” of their poems. It is, as they have said, Smith’s voices that amplify the reality of black experience, challenge conventional narratives and insist on an imaginative attempt at redemption. The poem “dinosaurs in the hood” starts off disarmingly with humor (“don’t let Tarantino direct this”) and ends with the moral urgency to create a world in which a little black boy can ride on a bus with a toy dinosaur “. . . his eyes wide & endless // his dreams possible . . .”
Smith, though not yet thirty, has already won coveted awards and been nominated a National Book Award finalist. They have also successfully navigated the leap from stage to page—the performative element of their work, the urge to entertain (in the most positive sense of engagement), even on the page, is undeniably part of its appeal. Smith’s poem “dear white america,” set forth as a prose poem in the book, has amassed close to half a million viewings on YouTube. Fundamentally, in a deeply polemical protest poem, Smith imagines leaving Earth “in search of darker planets, a solar system revolving too near a black hole.” The poet urges the reader/audience to “take your God back. though his songs are beautiful, his miracles are inconsistent.” In this universe, the poet creates a “new story & history” that cannot be stolen or cast aside, or, for that matter, jailed or shot.
Occasionally, the poems on the page are less successful than they might be spoken, or performed, relying on orthography (“litany with blood all over”) or bumper-sticker epiphanies (“everything is sanctuary and nothing is a gun”), but Smith has carefully thought through stanza patterns (couplets, a sonnet crown, prose poems) in what appears to be an attempt to instruct the reader on how their poems should be heard. Like e. e. cummings, they shun the uppercase, perhaps not so much as a matter of style as in furtherance of democratization and inclusion.
Don’t Call Us Dead opens with a twenty-six-page sequence (“summer, somewhere’) that imagines a world in which “boys brown / as rye play the dozens & ball, jump // in the air & stay there.” This is a fantasy world of possibility, a world “not earth not heaven,” where
. . . we can’t recall our white shirts
turned ruby gowns. here, there’s no language
for officer or law, no color to call white.
if snow fell, it’d fall black. please, don’t call
us dead, call us alive someplace better.
we say our own names when we pray.
we go out for sweets & come back.
The urge to name and reclaim is a persistent theme in Smith’s work. Another recurrent theme is blood—particularly black blood—spilled in violence but also treacherous in love (“seroconversion,” “1 in 2”). Smith is unflinching as they look at both. In “every day is a funeral & a miracle”:
hallelujah! Today I rode
past five police cars
& I can tell you about it
to do with my internal
inverse, just how
will I survive the little
cops running inside
my veins, hunting
white blood cells &
Violence, Smith acknowledges, can come not only from oppression and injustice, but from our own desperate hands, from our own despairing need for love (even Cain makes an appearance in “summer, somewhere”). Smith has created in this book a universe of boys—black boys, brown boys, sexualized “bois,” but for every struggling, injured or dead boy, there is a heartbroken mother, a grieving grandmother, a fractured circle of friends—a community joined by loss. Smith has managed to leaven this pathos with praise, humor, and the hope of redemption.
Literature, Ezra Pound famously said, is news that remains news. It is a current lament of our age that “news” constantly bombards us from multiple social media, television and print platforms: cable news’ endless crawling chyron, the cacophonous “fake news” allegations, and the real and tragic news of our times are with us every minute. In “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” William Carlos Williams’ rambling tribute to his wife of forty years, he wrote “it is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” As these four poets remind anyone who claims membership among “the relevant, the passionate and the confused,” we should perhaps turn this familiar quote on its head—we might live less miserably every day by getting more of our news from poems.