Lorca, Arvio, Malcangio, and Thomson: New Work Up on AGNI!

We’ve got great work up on the main AGNI website—two Federico Garcia Lorca poems translated by Sarah Arvio, fiction by Tori Malcangio, and poetry by Jeffrey Thomson. Check it all out!


AFNI FGLAGNI SA“Spike of blue wheat
and white poppy

My soul
one delirious


from the Federico Garcia Lorca Poem “[The Mown Field],” translated by Sarah Arvio


AGNI TM“Studies say we’re living in a bright-light deprived society. Luckily, that and exercise are available in quick-dissolving tablets or easy-to-swallow capsules. Hunters and gatherers, they had it easy: sunlight by default, running a marathon for a meal, a free-range, paleo diet maintained on a single income and with negligible forethought. There was no blue light syndrome or carpal tunnel or boys dependent on prescriptions.”

from the short story “Catch & Release: An Apology” by Tori Malcangio



“first there is the matter
of your gargantuan patriotism
brandishing the stars and bars

of its own obstinate self-regard
to explore before the ekphrasis
of the pickup and the shotgun”

from the poem “The Country Western Poem” by Jeffrey Thomson


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Laurentiis, Hankla, and Topal: Three Extraordinary Books of Poetry

by Kelly Cherry

David Ebenbach has once again sent out a call for the AGNI blog, and I wish I could come up with another idea to write about, but my husband and I are going to a movie in a small while.

Still, even while I am without an idea, maybe writing about that is useful. I’ve been lucky; I’ve never had Writers’ Block. Not that I remember, anyway. But now I do have it. It is possible for the creek to run dry.

The question, then, is how to make the water fall.

The even bigger problem is that I don’t know how.

I’ve considered writing a poetry collection about Ancient Rome, which has long tantalized me. But I spent nine years writing Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer and that’s probably how long it would take to write one about Ancient Rome. I don’t think I have the time for that. At my age, some projects turn into traffic signs that say STOP HERE.

So I have been reading books by other poets and damn if I didn’t turn up three terrific titles. These writers manage to boost metaphor, energy, and gravity. Three brilliant books at once tells me that many more poets are undoubtedly doing similar things, but in the meanwhile I’d like to send a shout-out, or rather three shout-outs. If you haven’t read these books, they will…I want to say “blow your mind” but there must be a better term…but no, I’m saying they will blow your mind.

Rickey Laurentiis published Boy with Thorn in 2015. I don’t know how I missed it but I did. Boy with Thorn is a tough read, as are the others I’ll name. By tough I mean emphatically true, with no sugarcoating or soft lining. These writers are also stretching the English language, sometimes to the point that a grammar nut like me has to put it down, but they are stretching it for good reasons.

The Laurentiis book is from Pittsburgh, and Ed Ochester deserves to be proud of his selection.

Boy with Thorn is a sculpture from the Hellenistic Period. A boy, seated, has one leg on the “floor” or “ground” and the other crossed over his knee so he can look for the thorn, in his sole, that is irritating him. It is impossible not to love this image: a young boy, fixing what is wrong, by himself, with great concentration. What we have is a Roman marble copy of the lost Third Century BCE Hellenistic original.

Presumably, Laurentiis is identifying, to whatever degree, large or small, with this image. In any case, we enter the book with this image in mind. The poems are striking. The first is “Conditions for a Southern Gothic.” A head has been hacked off. There. That’s tough enough, isn’t it? The head reminds us of Orpheus, the poet-singer torn apart, his head continuing to sing. Here’s an even tougher line: “If God made us in his image, it was the first failure of imagination.” The first part of this book takes us back to those terrible days when white people hunted—hunted!—black people. We meet Emmet Till here. The second section gives us a group of fifty stanzas of varying lengths. The poem is titled “On the Leaves That Have Fallen” and it is beautiful. The third section includes the title poem, made up of six short poems.

The second book is Cathryn Hankla’s newest, Galaxies, from Mercer University Press. She has used the concept of galaxy as a center around which various items seem naturally to occur. Galaxies, after all, are gravitationally born. Stuff accumulates. Here we have a Labyrinth Galaxy, the Some Assembly Required Galaxy, the Galaxy of Six Women. This was a brilliant idea and it gives Hankla many different ways of writing about almost anything. In “Ghost Horses and the Morning Sky” she writes, “Above me this sky opens in the moment, an immense / thought caught in creation’s throat.”

Now you have two brilliant books to read, if you haven’t already read them, and if you have, reread!

The third book is still in manuscript and for that reason I don’t think I should say much about it, but it too is indeed brilliant. The title is “In Order of Disappearance.” It is by Carine Topal, who has published a couple of other books, which are also wonderful. The new manuscript may bring you to your knees. Well, if I did that I wouldn’t be able to get back up, but you will at least feel you should be on your knees. And for no other reason than that her book is brilliant. You must read it. You must read all three of these books. It’s true that if you don’t, the sky won’t open up and swallow you, but without doubt you will have missed three of the best books of poetry ever written.

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KellyPhoto1EditKelly Cherry’s most recent poetry collection is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. She has also recently published Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories (Press 53); A Kelly Cherry Reader (SFASUP); A Kind of Dream: Stories (U of Wisconsin); and a poetry chapbook titled Physics for Poets (Unicorn Press). Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

At 74, I Whistle

by Sydney Lea

George MacArthur was a great one for whistling through his teeth.

He was, however, more renowned for other things. During the autumn of 1929, for example, he cut railroad ties, or sleepers, as they were known here in the north country, out on Lake Wabassus, whose name local people have always shortened to “Wabass.”

George made it a point to memorialize every significant season of his life and labor in song. He’d borrow a well known tune for the melody, and string his own words upon it. That fall of ’29 resulted in “The “Wabass Cannonball.”

I remember each note and verse:

Listen to the jingle, the rumble and the roar;
You could hear the ice a-bucklin’ up and down old Wabass shore.
When I arrived at old Wabass Lake, ‘twas early in the fall,
And Belding’s crew was glad to meet the Wabass Cannonball.

 I asked Belding for a job, and he filled me with surprise,
When he said “Go take your sleeper axe and start in makin’ ties.”
There was about a week and a half when the sun never shone at all,
The air was filled so full of chips by the Wabass Cannonball. 

Then we went up to old Third Lake to have a little cheer,
And drove the length of Slaughter Point to try and shoot a deer.
Well, the big buck came down Slaughter Point, and he had no horns at all,
‘Cause his face was filled with buckshot by the Wabass Cannonball. 

Then the warden came into our camp and they thought they had us beat,
For cooking in an iron pot they found a little meat.
Then they hauled us into court but they had no case at all,
And the both of them were BEAT TO HELL by the Wabass Cannonball!

I may know why I thought about all this at dawn last May, alone in my room at the Park Hotel, which overlooks lovely Lake Bled in lovely Slovenia, even if this is a world about as far from Wabass as most I could conjure. I was to give a talk that day at a literary conference, in which I’d been asked to answer at some length this question: Where do poems come from?

If I had been completely truthful, as I wasn’t, I’d have answered by saying, “I don’t really know.” Fact is, poems just come. Or at least they used to. For the better part of my adulthood, they have simply been facts of life. I could say I learned as much from George: your experience brings you a poem—or not. Poems come—or they don’t.

Their coming is rarer for me now than in prior days, and at times I worry that my own will to string words onto experience may have retreated, indeed may have all but vanished. In any case, lately I often wake up with others’ tunes in mind.

Then I whistle them all day.

George could test people’s patience by the same habit: he whistled too, especially in hours of idleness, but at least the words in his head, I’m certain, belonged to him alone. I drive my poor wife to distraction with this all but tuneless whistling of compositions that have nothing to do with any creative spark of mine. It’s almost as though I’ve surrendered proprietorship of my own language.

Of course I’ve gone through similar periods of self-doubt before; they just haven’t been so protracted and unsettling.

Be all that as it may, I don’t romanticize when I say that George had a substantial literary influence on me. And yes, if it sometimes seems that what remains to me is just a patch on what my words once sought, if I can manage little but a less than birdlike song, this doesn’t mean I love those worlds any less than once I did.

This whistling is puny, and yet it’s likely still a stab at making the various worlds I’ve known or heard about cohere, no matter that the deeper those worlds sink into memory, the shallower my breath, the thinner my tune.

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author photo craftsburySydney Lea has recently completed four years as Vermont Poet Laureate. His most recent publications are his fourth collection of personal essays, What’s the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long, and his twelfth volume of poems, No Doubt the Nameless. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.


by Rick Bursky

Someone once wrote, “everything I ever learned about myself I learned while looking in a mirror.” Hmmm, interesting. For years I thought it arrogant. Followed by a couple of years thinking it was stupid. For the last few days I’ve thought about it and now I might actually understand. Every morning I brush my teeth while looking at myself in a mirror. Then I shave. Looking in a mirror. Occasionally, I think about what I see. Occasionally, I write about it.

The mirror was invented by accident, or so the story goes. I’ve written poems about/with mirrors. None were accidents. Pliny mentioned mirrors in his Natural History, written in 77 AD. Mirrors date back to 2000 BC in China. People have been looking at themselves for a long time.POST -- Bursky Rick Mirrors poem gray

Confusing the subject is easy. The poem was invented by accident, or so the story goes. Pliny mentioned poetry in his Natural History, written in 77 AD. Poetry date back to 2000 BC in China. People have been looking at themselves for a long time. Poetry.

Frustrated with a poem I was writing, struggling with, I held it in front of mirror and read it backwards. I was hoping some revision revelation might occur to me. It didn’t.

Mirrors are important to me. I don’t know why. Poetry is where you discover what’s important to you. Writing is exploring. But you already knew that.

There was a time I thought that the invention of photography should have made mirrors obsolete. I started to calculate how many hours I’ve spent looking at myself, in mirrors. While doing the math I started to become nervous and abandoned the idea.

In its simplest form, a mirror is a sheet of glass with a piece of aluminum or silver attached. Staring into a mirror for too long causes headaches and sadness. (Dr. Gorlick told me this.) There are occasions when staring into one is appropriate.

It is unfortunate the requirements of modern grooming have made mirrors a necessity. A world without mirrors would require more trustworthy friends. There’s something completely inappropriate about putting mirrors in wide, gold frames.

Mirrors should never be used as decorations. Large mirrors on the walls of restaurants make them appear larger, and to tell you the truth, I like that. Large poems on the walls of restaurants, I would like that, too.

We painted our faces in shades of green and black. This was when I was a rifleman in the army. Some of the soldiers used small mirrors from cosmetic compacts or signal mirrors from survival kits. Some soldiers preferred to avoid the mirror and have other soldiers paint their face. I was one of the latter and avoided the mirror. And after my face was painted, I painted his. Soldiers are like mirrors, you look closely at them you’ll discover a poem.

There was a mirror store on West Third Street in Los Angeles. Large mirrors in elaborate frames sat on the sidewalk and leaned against each other. A man walking past stopped, looked at himself in a full-length mirror and punched the mirror. A large piece of the mirror crashed to the pavement. He shook his fist and walked away. I was leaving the ice cream store across the street as this happened. I can’t tell you why he did this or what sort of damage he might have done to his hand. This is something better explained in a poem.

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bursky_bio_photoRick Bursky teaches poetry for the Writer’s Program at UCLA Extension. His most recent book, I’m No Longer Troubled By the Extravagance, is out from BOA Editions; the previous book Death Obscura, was published by Sarabande Books. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

Van Winckel, Chang, and Mills: New Work up on AGNI!

We’ve got great work up on the main AGNI website—excerpts of an essay by Nance Van Winckel, two poems by Victoria Chang, and fiction by Bronwyn Mills. Check it all out!


AGNI NVW“From hour to hour I’d long first for more of Me-In-Charge, then for less, then please, none. This lasted weeks. I’d stand in the purply dark—that swirling admixture of all colors—until the stars of bulbs in other houses flickered on.”


from the essay “Sister Zero” by Nance Van Winckel


AGNI VC“Control—died on August 3, 2015, along with my mother. Suddenly I was no longer in the middle of the earth. Suddenly I could change the angle of the liquid pen so that the rocket went the other way.”

from the poem “Obit” by Victoria Chang


AGNI BM“One night in Lisboa, Ö. went into a fado bar. He went in late, to take shelter from cold, damp weather. The place was darker than the grave; and inside sitting at a table, he saw an older man eating a lovely fish soup. The music was rising to a wail. The singer was only practicing, so the music would stop now and then, unexpectedly, in the midst of an anguished cry. Wanting to strike up a conversation, Ö. sat down next to the old man.”

from the story “The Story of Ö” by Bronwyn Mills



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In and Out of Books: Kinds of Poetic Knowledge

by Rachel Hadas

Robert Frost wrote in “The Figure a Poem Makes,” “Scholars and artists thrown together are often annoyed at the puzzle of where they differ. Both work from knowledge; but I suspect they differ most importantly in the way their knowledge is come by. Scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic; poets theirs cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books. They stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields.”

Like burrs…or maybe more like ticks, which are plentiful in the long grass this early July in Vermont. But we don’t want burrs and ticks to adhere—we strip them off when we come in from the fields—whereas presumably we do want knowledge to stick. So that (as Frost observes in his talk “Education by Metaphor”) at some point the analogy breaks down. Ticks and burrs don’t nourish us (on the contrary); knowledge does.

“Knowledge” is a clumsy and imprecise term for the kinds of connections I find myself making when, every summer, we come up here and I find myself walking through the fields. One kind of connection is derived from poetry. In the silence as I walk or pick wild strawberries or weed the vegetable garden, a line from some neglected corner of my memory will suddenly detach itself and slot into place, lighting up the moment.

Last week I was fretting about the long-neglected flower gardens my mother dug and planted here half a century ago. If my mother, who died in 1992, is anywhere, I believe she is here in these gardens, now overgrown and bushy but still retaining more than a hint of their original beauty. And I think of e.e. cummings’s poem that begins “if there are any heavens my mother will(all by herself have/one.” But “all by herself” sounds lonely, solipsistic—even though cummings then swiftly corrects that solitude by introducing the courtly ghost of his father into the paradisiacal setting the reunited lovers share.

When I think of my mother’s gardens, when I think of this house, I think of people—family, children, grandchildren, friends, various connections rippling out from a center of, yes, spacious solitude and meditative silence. Gardens and houses create space both for solitude and for company. But as the Greek poet George Seferis notes, in another line that came back to me recently, “Houses, you know, grow resentful easily when you strip them bare.” (The poem is “Thrush,” translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.) Part of the furniture of this house, and of my mind, inheres in poems. So that’s one kind of knowledge.

I’m also thinking of another kind of connection for which, again, “knowledge” isn’t quite the right word. The idea is captured, though, in phrases my father, the classicist Moses Hadas, used in the titles of two of his books: Old Wine, New Bottles and the subtitle of his

Hellenistic Culture, which is Fusion and Diffusion. For Moses, who had a strong impulse to democratize the study of the classics, those new bottles would be the fresh container of translation. According to the parable, new wine will burst the old bottles; but Moses saw that the old wine would benefit from a new delivery system. And Fusion and Diffusion aptly evokes both the transformation and the expansion that attend on cultural transmission. If fusion suggests a coming together of previous separate entities and the possible creation of something new, then diffusion evokes an opposing outward movement. In the 21st century, surely the digital world is both the new bottle and a powerful new diffuser.

The apple (as Frost might have said) doesn’t fall far from the tree. I’ve recently completed verse translations of Euripides’s two plays about Iphigenia, spellbinding dramatizations of war and politics, family dynamics and trauma. As I worked, and particularly when I was finishing the translations and teaching “Iphigenia in Aulis” last November, there was no need to underline the alarming yet also perennial relevance of a story which was already old wine when Euripides decanted it into the new bottle of drama.

Another recently finished project sprang into being unexpectedly in January 2017, when our granddaughter was born. We knew the child would be a girl; and according to the custom of her father’s Guyanese family, her name would begin with the same initial letter as her mother’s. A C-name then; and (I proudly claim credit here), I thought of Camilla, the warrior maiden, the swift runner, in Virgil’s Aeneid.

The name met with approval, and soon I found myself returning to the Aeneid, particularly to the poem’s dark second half, which one rarely reads in high school. It didn’t hurt that I was on sabbatical and had no classes to prepare or papers to correct. Almost every day I’d read a few pages in Sarah Ruden’s translation, moving to the Latin whenever something struck me. Here were extraordinarily vivid depictions of war fever and hysteria, anxiety attacks, sleepless nights, fearful mothers standing on the battlements watching their sons march past.

If the cummings and Seferis poems cited earlier were already somewhere in my mind, the Aeneid was more like a field through which I found myself intentionally but unhurriedly striding, always ready to pause and pick up a treasure.

Poems for Camilla consists of twenty-nine poems written between January and May 2017. Some of their titles have a contemporary ring: “Poetry Out Loud,” “Filing System,” “Weaponized,” “Special Effects,” “Anxiety Attack”; some, like “Iron Sleep,” go straight to their Virgilian source. Neil Gaiman and David Copperfield, Riverside Park and Central Park, all make appearances, and the unnamed menace of President Trump broods over several of the poems. Camilla is there—both Camillas—and my husband’s beloved younger brother, his fidus Achates. Lavinia, Amata, Latinus, Euryalus, Nisus, the Sibyl, and of course Aeneas are recurring presences.

Poems for Camilla will be published around Camilla’s first birthday. Will she read these poems when she’s older? The intention is there, at the very least, the possibility. When and if Camilla is ready or curious, the poems will be available. I love this durability of the intangible. Last week, in the first reclamation project of this particular summer, we replaced the grubby old kitchen stove (had mice been nesting in the oven or in the burner coils? So it seemed, but who wanted to know?) with a new one. “This should last your time,” said the cheerful Sears delivery man. The bittersweet expectation is, of course, that the next stove, the next roof repair, the next revisioning of the garden will be the task of the next generation. Whereas the beauty of poems, of the classics, of the kind of knowledge we accumulate without having to go to the appliance store, is that that they never need to be replaced. By definition, they outlast our time.

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rachel_hadas_hiRachel Hadas’ verse translations of Euripides’s two Iphigenia plays are forthcoming in 2018, as is a poetry collection, Poems for Camilla. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Revisitations: Two Questions with Dilruba Ahmed

AGNI: You use repetition to great effect in your poem “Choke” (AGNI 85). How do you know what bears repeating in your work, and how does the repeated word or phrase change (for you, hopefully for a reader) as you bring it back again? In other words, what do you expect repetition to do?

Ahmed: First, thanks for your kind words about my poem, David! My poem “Choke” is sort of a retelling of “Jack and the Beanstalk” in two voices: an unidentified interviewer, and a rural Indian farmer. I can’t say I really know what bears repeating in my poems, but in this case, the voice of the interviewer seemed loud and insistent as I wrote, as though the urge to repeat the questions arose from the interviewer’s dissatisfaction with the initial response. So maybe the interviewer’s repetition stems from a desire to both clarify and undermine the farmer’s replies. At the same time, by giving the farmer a chance to reply more than once to the same question, I think I hoped to create a sense of accumulation, with a larger story emerging bit by bit from snippets. I also hoped to convey a kind of layering and revision that would compel the reader to question both the interviewer and the respondent, with the farmer at times responding to the inquiry with a kind of counter-inquiry. In addition to repeating some of the interviewer’s questions and part of the farmer’s replies, I tried playing around with the repetition of the word “choke.” I was interested in thinking about the various connotations and uses of the word, both the physical act of choking or being choked, as well as the more abstract uses of the term in “choke off” or “chokehold.”

AGNI: One of the things that stands out in your poem “The Feast”(also AGNI 85) is your use of camerawork; you use description to move the reader’s attention from the speaker’s father to the food, from the food to the river, and then on to the children, and so on. How conscious were you of this camerawork in the writing process? How did you know what needed attention, and when?

I wrote “The Feast” about a year and a half after my father died of multiple myeloma. I was visiting a new river park with my kids, the kind of picnic spot my parents visited frequently when I was a child. For a long moment, I felt as though I had somehow stepped outside of time as we conceptualize it, as though the past and present had collapsed. While I did not actually “see” him, I felt my father’s presence very deeply in that park. I suddenly became hyper-aware of all of the seemingly concrete, physical details of the setting: the grass, the trees, the moss, the water. But all the while, I was aware of something else happening. The experience was strange but somehow comforting, as though I’d been given a chance to revisit a familiar dream that was meant to represent real life. So I think that, as I wrote the poem, I was compelled to convey the sensory details of the land and water, perhaps as a counterweight to the strange alteration of time that I had felt.

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Photo credit: Mike Drzal

Dilruba Ahmed’s debut book, Dhaka Dust (Graywolf Press, 2011), won the Bakeless Prize. Her poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, American Poetry Review, New England Review, and Poetry. New work is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Copper Nickel, 32 Poems, Ploughshares, and Aquifer. Her poems have been anthologized in Literature: The Human Experience (Bedford/St. Martin’s), Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry (University of Arkansas), and elsewhere. Ahmed is the recipient of The Florida Review’s Editors’ Award, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Prize, and a Katharine Bakeless Nason Fellowship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.