Every Course To Begin with a Poem

by Daneen Wardrop

In Meghan McCain’s eulogy for her father on the first of September, she mentioned that he’d memorized a poem he learned while a prisoner of war in Hoa Lo prison, Vietnam, also derisively called the “Hanoi Hilton.” Apparently, a fellow prisoner had “rapped it out in code” for McCain, and in this way he learned the poem by heart. I’d heard of the author, Robert W. Service, but not the work itself, “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” a rollicking, gothic echo-chamber of a work that makes you feel simultaneously disconsolate and pleased that the beginnings of American verse trail ineluctably through Poe. “The Cremation of Sam McGee” has an ungainly rhythm that includes seven accented syllables per line, occasionally going aground with arrhythmia. Its dark humor, though, strikes you as exactly the poem John McCain would choose to regale people—even, apparently, his wife-to-be when he was courting her, as Meghan recounted.

In John McCain’s own words, one interchange of such code rapping started when he gave the “shave and a haircut” greeting to the person in the next cell, after which McCain “started tapping out the alphabet—one tap for ‘a,’ two for ‘b,’ and so on.” Imagine wanting a poem badly enough to sit through such transliteration, letter by letter, as the prisoner communicated to him the long heptameter ballad, “The Cremation.” How odd to have such a tappity poem transmitted in a rapping code, the double paradiddles underpinning your “reading” of it as you sit in solitary confinement.

But my main purpose here isn’t to write about John McCain, though I know a lot of us have surprised ourselves recently by realizing a larger sense of loss than we anticipated. Nor is my purpose to write about poor, hapless Sam McGee. What I want is to praise the pragmatism—the utility—of poetry.

A type of ingenuity that remains relatively unlauded, poetry as utility becomes clear by way of its connection with beat, however insistent or subtle the rhythm. Even in a gruesome place, the arts restore uplift, steel camaraderie, buoy fellow feeling, encourage cross-identification, and enliven us to see the creative light in each other. These are survival skills. McCain learned “The Cremation of Sam McGee” for the most important audience in the world: himself, and his fellow POWs as they all attended to their own and each other’s sustenance. They worked to keep the sense of innovation intact and their creative souls whole, because that’s what creativity sways one to do.

On a basic level survivors know that song saves. They know internal rhythm rescues.

The utility of poetry arrives at a crux at which we register fully that verse is a basic human need—a need I’m convinced encodes us as humans. It delivers us.

Poetry rattles necessary meters through our bones, teaching us to feel and think at the same time, as Muriel Rukeyser describes in her apt phrase, “the truth of feeling.” The truth of feeling marries two forces seemingly at the antipodes into a strong union we might refer to, for lack of a better term, as the ability to “feel/think.” To encounter a poem is to flag humanness, to breathe—as respiration, inspiration—and to find the live crossing between emotion and thought.

Every university course should begin with a poem. Each class meeting of every university course should begin with a poem.

Yes, I mean a course in physics, a course in materials technology, a course in medicine, a course in business management. Start them all with a poem. In fact, let every gathering, everywhere, begin with poetry.

To speak only from feeling is dangerous—feeling alone gives way to conspiracy theories and sentimentality, for example. To speak only from thought is differently dangerous, resulting in corporate greed and institutional abuse, for example. Poetry relies upon the interlacing of the two. A cluster of words without this entwining will disintegrate before it can be said, before it can be a poem.

From the moment a baby is born, poetry, our birthright, curls a thin song in the aorta, and threads its fine connecting lines to the brain, and around again to the heart. Poems arise from such delicate wiring. Strength and resolve arise from this redoubled resource.

The wiring together of feeling and thinking attunes us—you might even say tunes us—to the only viable way to live when in extremis, as do prisoners, of course, but as we do right now, to a less extreme extent, as across the globe we are fighting political oppression. It tunes us to the most viable way to live in a treacherous era.

I suppose this little essay is another defense of poetry, though not one that starts from “I, too, dislike it,” as in the recent and astute argument of Ben Lerner, but instead that starts from “A Noiseless Patient Spider” who from a point of isolation flings filament after filament into the “vacant vast surrounding.” Though Whitman’s speaker seems not to be granted immediate connection, he or she still believes the “thread” will “catch,” just as a prisoner keeps tapping code on a wall until the listener holds a cup up to his ear on the other side of the wall. The search for rhythmic partnership delivered through rarified vibration creates inceptive, authentic connections. Even in solitary confinement.

In the combinatory graces of what it is to feel/think, voice enters. In those combinatory graces, voice stays.

AGNI Monkey

Daneen Wardrop Promo Shot.pdf.jpgDaneen Wardrop’s books of the last several years include Cyclorama, Life as It, winner of the 2017 Independent Publisher Book Award and, appearing just this month, Silk Road.  She has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and her poems have been included in magazines such as Virginia Quarterly Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Kenyon Review, and The Iowa Review. See what she’s published in AGNI here.


What Does Your Cat Want from You? A Writer’s Thoughts

by Anis Shivani

Cats know death better than anyone.

It seems that the primary reason they domesticated us, at the same time as humans became domesticated to agriculture and a sedentary life, was to remind us of the sensuous things that keep escaping us. And what is more sensuous than death? What is more luxurious, what is more eventful, what is more poetic? A cat contains the poetry of death—and indeed it is the highest form of poetry, because this poetry comes from silence and ends in silence—like nothing else on earth.

The cat’s every movement and gesture and sound and hesitation and flurry and escape and approach is designed to embody the idea of death.

The idea of death is a furry softness we touch and grope and fondle, thinking we are touching a cat. Squeeze a cat in the belly and hear him utter that half moan, half mewl, half plea, half grump, squeeze him and feel how delicate and fragile he is, how absurdly small despite his usual proclamations to be a tiger in a cat’s little body. He is small and he knows it but most of the time he doesn’t want you to know it, except when you rub him a little too hard, he realizes then you have penetrated the membrane of forgettability, you have raised questions!

A cat does not want to answer questions. This explains why he’s often not around to take them. Or not take them at moments inappropriate for him. Or he takes them on sufferance. Or he takes them as answers in themselves, not bodies he’s accountable for.

A cat has the most fluid sense of accountability, like you should as a writer, a cat is unaccountable and unknowable and unchangeable as you were in your best moments as a child.

Remember when the ocean of gratitude washed over you in the playground, as you ceased for that moment to try to grow into something, a viable man or a viable woman, a bigger, taller, stronger, hardier being? You paused in the stillness of the midmorning sun, unable to calculate, unable to add two plus two, unable to remember your name even; all you knew was that you had shown up in the world just that morning, unmade, unborn, unreal.

A cat is born into the world anew each morning. (This is what you misinterpret as his need for luxury, for conspicuous ease, in fact you misinterpret all his gestures as his need for luxury.)

Each morning he tells you, the writer, he is shocked to be alive. Is any of it real? Is he actually breathing, beside the slant acrostics of the sun, under that revolving fan that throws kooky shadows over the walls, is he actually breathing? In and out, in and out, watch his nose flutter, watch his eyes purr in disbelief, yes he is breathing something of the air we all share. (Air is nothing but the volume of unreality that rises and falls in proportion to the quota of tragedy that has been your lot for the day. You don’t believe that the air is thicker or thinner on any given day? Then you haven’t been around cats long enough, sorry.)

A writer knows that a cat reincarnates more prolifically than a person. A single cat may die and reincarnate twenty or twenty thousand times, reappear in all the different hotspots around the world to put his foot down and throw his scent around and lay out the smartest paths of escape. But here’s the difference from people reincarnating: a cat has no choice but to relive his finest instincts each time, the failure of nerve, unfortunately common to people, not a shortcoming he needs to reappear to correct.

It’s quite possible that cats invented reincarnation.

My original Fu, who died Oct. 13, 2015, after two years of illness; he ate a poisoned rat, otherwise he would have gone on to live till twenty-nine.
Foolittle, who was born around the same time Fu died, at six months old. A case of reincarnation? You decide.

A cat looks at food and insects and birds and trees and flowers and grass and pillows and newspapers and dogs and bookshelves and drinking fountains and socks and purses as objects in the process of reincarnation, things that have been here before and will be again, things that have always existed, so that it is not possible to conceive of their non-existence. Shouldn’t you, as a writer, be paying at least that much respect to objects around you?

So what does your cat want from you?

He wants you to be as indifferent as he is to solving crossword puzzles.

He does not want you to go out in the rain, because you will get wet and antsy, you will bring in a trail of sodden worldliness, the world drenched in the excess of the weather, the world as weather, the world crying from happiness, he does not want you to remind him that other forms of being overwhelmed besides the one he wants you to know are possible, so he does not want you to go out in the rain.

Actually, nothing is sufficient to explain why a cat does not want you to go out in the rain.

But he does want you to write as though the world had ceased to exist.

He wants you to be alone, a lot more than you have ever managed to be. He means alone in the sense of forgetting how to speak, occasionally, alone in the sense of carving out that big hollow ball of cautious fur where you can lay down away from the tyranny of seconds and minutes and hours.

He wants you to fail, fail at everything you thought was yours for the taking, for only in failing is there the reminder of death which is the only point of life, his and yours.

But he wants you to succeed too, only not in the way you thought you were going to, but in a different way, different not to the world but to you, because you experience success, meaning the world noticing you, as…well, this is the hardest thing to define, so let me have him, the cat, step in for a moment, and take a direct shot at it:

“The world is rain. Or shelter from rain. When you feel the glow of success it’s as if you’re sheltering in the rain. But what I like about you is when you can be in two places at the same time. Or many, many places, too many to count. When you recognize other people you cease being in more than one place at a time. Then I find it hard to speak to you, until you come back to me. And it’s even worse when other people recognize you. Strangers who have never poked at your ribs or puffed in your ears or clawed at your eyes, strangers who think they know you. Do not write for them. I will never recognize you in that familiar way.”

There, good job, cat!

The original Fu, the most literary cat there ever was; he read more books than most human beings will ever encounter in a lifetime, and was the author of at least seven, perhaps eleven, books.

A cat wants you, the writer, to rethink all you thought you knew about love. Love is not a gift, it is not a treasure, it is not a possibility, it is not a heritage. You can only experience love to the extent that you’re determined not to experience it. If you want to be in love, you cannot be in love. A cat knows that better than anyone, because he is a connoisseur of death, and you can see it anytime you look in his eyes.

Foolittle, who hasn’t yet tried to get into reading and writing, is mostly interested in eating raw venison every couple of hours, chasing the laser beam and flying around the house, keeping me up all night and trying to eat my feet, and in general being a 24/7 cat YouTube highlight reel.

What exactly do you, dear writer, see in a cat’s eyes?

They are full of emerald beatitude, and the end of the world in a sunny explosion, and layers of truth in the moment of death, of course they are full of all these things, but what else do you see in a cat’s eyes?

A cat wants you to see in his eyes a trail of sadness and laughter that ends because it cannot end, the fluid glass container of grace that takes its own measure, glassy poetry that does not blink, does not pause for the sake of the pause alone.

A cat is, almost, a futurist, but not quite.

A cat moves from one thing to another without the blank aura of questioning. Do not ask the wrong questions. Do not waste time asking questions with no answers. In fact, do not ask any questions. This is the nature of a cat’s curiosity that a writer likes best. It is not about questions and answers, it is about not visibly and transparently moving from one moment to another, not traversing moments in a nuanced, atmospheric, observable way, but just being in one moment at a point in time and then reappearing in another at a different point in time—without transition!

This is the only thing that negates death. Well, not really, but the only attitude, this simultaneous reappearance in infinitely many guises, that plays death’s own game, does not try to cheat it but pays it due homage.

A cat is every moment paying homage to death. A writer should likewise always be paying homage to death. Together cat and writer grow into a languid sunflower that graces the noontime doorway, a rain that desires to idealize every evening as it accompanies the sun on its exit, a middlebrow butterfly that has yet to be called the sum of its parts, a bantering rabbi trying to discover the prayer that will negate all lazy prayers, a child playing in a doll’s house which is the only house that exists after the world has ended, a scholar tripping over a tower of books and laughing about atrophy and disappearance, a fish and a bird and a squirrel twisting this way and that in the sun over the churchly pond which will not abide intemperate moisture and grime.

A cat is not a puzzle to a writer. A writer is not a puzzle to a cat. A cat, when he takes you in his confidence, does so from the only heroism he knows.

AGNI Monkey

Fu4Anis Shivani’s recent books are Karachi Raj: A Novel, Soraya: Sonnets, and Literary Writing in the 21st Century: Conversations. His work appears recently in Black Warrior Review, Subtropics, The Journal, Boulevard, West Branch, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He has previously been published by both AGNI’s print magazine and the blog. His forthcoming novel, A History of the Cat in Nine Chapters Or Less, imagines the evolution of the feline-human relationship at key turning points throughout history—all from the point of view of the most perceptive cat there ever was. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

Radical Sacrifices: Three Questions on Translation with Eugene Serebryany

American author Paul Auster has referred to translators as the “shadow heroes of literature.” Too often unsung, these linguistic cryptologists “make it possible for different cultures to talk to one another…to understand that we all, from every part of the world, live in one world.” Eugene Serebryany here discusses his English translation of a poem by Marina Tsvetaeva, featured in AGNI 87 under the title “Sunrise on the Rails.”

Lauren Peat/AGNI: Literary translation is frequently described as a game of gain and loss: when smuggling a text from one language into another, the freedoms and constraints of the “new” language often diminish certain nuances within the original, and magnify others. When translating Tsvetaeva’s poem from the Russian, how intentional was your reckoning with gain and loss? Was there a particular element within the original that you felt was most important to communicate in the English version, and if so, were any sacrifices made to achieve that end? 

Eugene Serebryany: There were plenty of sacrifices—if one takes a literal view of translation, then almost everything was sacrificed. The original poem has highly regular iambic meter and is divided into quatrains with the classic ABAB rhyming scheme. The translation keeps none of these things. Translators often say that a poem’s tone is the most important thing to convey—yet even the tone had to be subtly altered. “Sunrise…” is an emotionally intense poem. I judged that strong emotions are expressed in modern English poetry in a more subdued or indirect way than in the Russian poetry of Tsvetaeva’s time, so my translation has fewer exclamation marks than the original. There are a few images in the original that I downplayed in the translation; several others I emphasized. A few others I had to interpolate, either to make explicit cultural and historical allusions the original’s Russian reader would understand implicitly, or to recoup in another way some of the original’s tonal intensity.

What was gained in exchange for these radical sacrifices? A syntax more natural to English, for one thing. I felt that a poem this personal, this intense, could not stand with a stilted syntax or with word choice affected by meter or rhyme. A greater clarity was gained, I hope, because this poem is not only personal: it is journalistic, historical, and political, too. Those broader themes had to be conveyed—and where needed, clarified—if I were to avoid footnotes. Above all, I hope the translation gained a greater capacity for fostering empathy between the speaker and the reader across differences of time and place. I took care also to preserve or allude to the technical lexicon, drawn from civil engineering—that is, the railroad terminology Tsevtaeva’s original leans on. Something about this vocabulary seemed essential: the way it connects art and science, mental and physical construction; the way it grounds the poem in something solid, hard, and international.

LP/AGNI: Tsvetaeva led an intense and deeply tragic life: she lived through the Russian Revolution of 1917, as well as the subsequent Russian famine. In an effort to save her daughter Irina from starvation, Tsvetaeva committed her to a state orphanage in 1919. Irina died shortly thereafter. With her remaining family, Tsvetaeva then spent time in Berlin, Prague, and Paris, where they suffered increasingly desperate conditions. In 1941, upon returning to Russia, her husband Sergei was executed on charges of espionage; Tsvetaeva committed suicide that same year.

Written in October of 1922, “Sunrise on the Rails” recounts Tsvetaeva’s experience as a refugee from Russia. It is shot through with the pain of the grieving—of someone who has lost, but still harbors hopes of retrieval—as well as the pain of recognizing that things have irrevocably changed. “I can still keep Russia / Intact,” Tsvetaeva writes:

I can still stitch it together
From the drab fog, like a playhouse
For orphans—quickly now,
Before the switchman wakes.

I was certainly struck by Tsvetaeva’s biography. Do you think that your translation was marked by your own understanding of her life? Or were you more consciously motivated by the original Russian itself?

ES: Yes, certainly the tragedy of Tsvetaeva’s own life influenced the translation. Tsvetaeva’s daughter, as you mentioned, had died in an orphanage; her husband had been forced to flee Russia earlier (because, as a royalist military officer, he had fought against the Red Army during the civil war). So conveying the feeling of orphanhood was definitely important. The broader historical and political context of her life was very important also: her contemporary readers knew it and had lived it, but now, a century later and a continent away, I felt it needed some explanation. This is how the description of sunrise as a “red thumb” got into the translation—that’s not in the original at all, but was my attempt to briefly conjure up the history and outcome of the Russian Civil War and Tsvetaeva’s relation to it. The early stanzas, up through the passage you quote, were the ones where I took the most liberties of this kind, to set the stage; the latter ones hug the original more closely.

In fact, the passage you quote is a good illustration of the fairly radical approach I resorted to in those early lines. The original has no orphans in that particular stanza; what it does have is a juxtaposition of the word сырость (“syrost’,” dampness) and серость (“serost’,” grayness/drabness). The word сырость is repeated multiple times in the poem, building up the tension until it gets finally resolved by another wordplay that juxtaposes сырость and сирость (“sirost’,” orphanhood). By this language trick the one is “revealed,” in a sense, as the other. I decided not to attempt a comparable wordplay in English, so the notion of orphans had to be there from the start. Likewise, the original has no stitching and no playhouse; it talks only generally of “re-constructing” Russia. But the sense that the poet’s life as well as country had been torn asunder, and may yet be stitched back together by some furious feat of imagination—this made the choice seem natural (natural for English, that is!). And, of course, the entire poem is an act of constructing a sort of “playhouse for orphans”—an imaginary city, an imaginary home for herself, her remaining daughter, and her fellow refugees…. This stitching, this re-construction, is a self-consciously quixotic act, in a way: it recognizes itself as a game, a self-delusion, a stage of grief, even as, on a parallel level, it’s also an act of journalism, a show of determination.

LP/AGNI: Philosopher and biblical scholar Friedrich Schleiermacher (and later translation theorist Lawrence Venuti) famously entertained the idea of translation operating between two poles, even extremes: the first “foreignizing”—whereby a translation is made to reflect the “foreign” quality of its original—and the second “domesticating,” whereby a translation is made to fit seamlessly into the landscape of the new language. What is your own view of this theory? Do you align with either method, or do you have your own understanding of the relationship between a translation and its original?

ES: Yes, I was certainly conscious of where on that spectrum the translation would end up. After struggling through many drafts that preserved the form of the original (the rhyme, the meter, the exclamation points…), in the end I opted for a radically higher dose of “domestication,” as well as my explanatory interpolations. As you point out, there is an ideological choice involved. I am an immigrant myself, and Russian is my native language. So the greater challenge for me is usually to avoid over-foreignizing: creating a translation that is too syntactically awkward or culturally obscure for most of its intended readers to empathize with. A translation has to create cultural connection, this cross-cultural, cross-generational empathy, to convey the image of a mind or of a felt reality that is inaccessible without it. To create such a connection, especially with a text rooted in a specific cultural and historical moment, the translator has to intervene in the text in some ways, like a guide to a foreign landscape.

Such a “guided tour” might seem heavy-handed, but in cases like this I think it’s justified. Translation necessarily implies analysis, interpretation, explanation, and finally a new synthesis in another tongue. Even the most cautious translators can’t be completely transparent. They choose which poem to translate, and when, and for whom. I felt that the time and place that we inhabit needed this poem carried across, and that there was urgency in connecting to it. What if somewhere among the war refugees of our own time there is another Tsvetaeva? What if she could speak for some of them?

AGNI Monkey

ES reading photoEugene Serebryany was born in Moscow, Russia, and moved to Massachusetts as a teenager. He attended Yale University, where he was strongly influenced by Peter Cole’s course on literary translation. His translations of XX century Russian poetry have appeared in AGNI, Cardinal Points, Inventory, and Modern Poetry in Translation. In his parallel life he is a scientist. He obtained his PhD in biochemistry from MIT and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University. His scientific interests include protein folding, protein aggregation, and cataract disease. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

Peat Photo


Native to the rolling British midlands and the great metropolis of Toronto, Lauren Peat is a current poetry MFA candidate at Boston University and an intern at AGNI.

Dick Talk

by Mark Dow

The decision to cut the dick was a no-brainer, and it might have been the wrong decision.

After my poem “With” appeared in The Threepenny Review thirty years ago—it’s the first poem in my new book Plain Talk Rising—a reader found my phone number and called to say she liked the poem and that it was brave of me to publish it. I didn’t agree, and I don’t recall asking what she meant, but I assumed she was referring to the fact that the poem’s protagonist (all right, author) describes rolling onto his side, in bed as a teenager, “to hide the erection” from his mother, who is there to wake him. The reader/caller was also interested in the biographical note, which said that I was working at a Boston-area school for autistic and developmentally-disabled children.

One of the “low functioning” children was a pre-pubescent twelve-year-old boy with the mind and language of a five-year-old. Or so we thought. One day when the girls and boys were separated, he asked me why some words for “private parts” were “appropriate” while others were not. I said something about adults needing to make rules. I was in my mid-twenties. I didn’t try to address connotation, much less tone, something I still struggle to characterize. “Tone” doesn’t refer to quite the same thing in music as it does in poems, but in both, I think, mastery of it is what separates the men from the boys.

My friend Laura Wittner, Argentine poet, sent me this message while translating “Perforated Evening,” which is also in Plain Talk Rising:

“I always have this problem when I need to translate ‘dick.’ Because here, in rioplatense Spanish, let us say, we have ‘pito’ (which sounds childish, really, it’s what little kids say, but also some adults—I’ve heard my dad say it once or twice), and ‘pija,’ which is what we adults say, though not all of us, because it can sound offensive in a way I don’t think ‘dick’ does. For instance, I always said ‘pija’ but when I met _________ I found out he almost never said it and can’t help but show some disgust when I say it. . . .

“Of course there are other words, like ‘verga,’ which is what I ultimately use in translations because it is understood everywhere. But, for me, it is even more gross (!) than ‘pija.’

“So. Does “dick” have at least a little element of grossness?”

Laura went with “pija.” In the English—“piss trickling from an old man’s dick”—the word was never in question.

In “With,” after several years, “erection” seemed problematic. “Hard-on” and “boner” were no better. But, really, the issue was larger than the single word. Readers of the earlier version might hear the testing of tonal boundaries, impossible to show clearly with excerpts:

Less often (more often) her hand on my chest,
to my shoulder then onto my back as I
rolled onto my side, knees up, then stomach,
to hide the erection, wanting her
or myself to not exist . . .
and always the smell, lipstick and coffee . . .
Hello again object of my hesitant infatuation . . .

Eventually I removed the word, the explicitness, and a couple of stanzas, including the lines now shown here. Was it out of embarrassment that I hid the hiding, or was I right about the faulty tone? Or are these the same question? I’m not the best judge. Maybe I didn’t make the poem better or worse but simply made an “alternate take,” a possibility and practice that always intrigued me on jazz albums.

Writing words which refer to things is one thing. Revising the words is another thing. And reflecting on reasons for the revisions is several more.

Johnson, willie, pee-pee, cock, prick, schmuck; genitals, Genesis, genius, pathogen, gentle, engender.

Plain Talk Rising opens with “With,” as a boy retreats from the mother’s touch. It closes with the prose “Water and Light,” in which a father-to-be is sent back home through time, to where someone snipped a clipping from his clapper just to show that he was hers.”

“I was a body inside of my body,” says one narrator in these poems.

I think he thought that the appropriate words might bring the two together. I can’t be sure of that either, though. It seems like he’s still hiding something.


Note: The Threepenny Review archives are available through JSTOR and the magazine’s website. “Perforated Evening” first appeared at Fascicle; “Water and Light” appeared on Word Riot. The latter two websites are, at this writing, defunct or on hiatus. I am grateful to all three editors: Wendy Lesser, Tony Tost, and Jackie Corley, respectively. Here’s a link to a PDF of the first version of “With.”

AGNI Monkey

FullSizeRender Mark Dow’s Plain Talk Rising was a finalist in the Colorado Prize, New Issues, and Yale Series competitions, and a semi-finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award from Black Lawrence Press. Dow is also the author of American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons (California). He teaches English at Hunter College in New York. See what he’s published in AGNI here.


by Rick Bursky

If George Orwell hadn’t said “myths which are believed in tend to become true,” I would have. And you could probably say the same about truth in a poem: “poems which are believed in tend to become true.” Truth is important but never let it become an obsession. There are more versions of truth than lies.

That something might have actually happened is not the most important part of truth. The emotional truth is what’s critical. With this said, every word I’ve ever written is true. I would swear on a blood-stained bible that each and every one of my poems happened as written…and my fingers are not crossed behind my back.

I used to date a lovely, young lawyer. We would often go SCUBA diving. In a poem, I once wrote: “Kathy…was futzing with her equipment.” She was angered by this line, claimed it never happened. (Imagine, a lawyer lecturing a poet on truth! That’s when I began making notes on what will one day be a book on truth, a book that will become a textbook in the most prestigious law schools.) I tried to explain to her that something didn’t actually have to happen for it to be true. What made the line of poetry true was she could have futzed with her SCUBA gear, and I knew her well enough to know that once we surfaced she was thinking of how she might readjust her equipment—she was thinking of futzing! And a thought is as close as you need to come to action to make something true. Of course, she argued that the entire poem had little to do with reality. I disagreed; the problem was that she was only aware of a small slice of the world.

Truth is much larger and includes what didn’t happen, it includes what could have happened, and more importantly what you wanted to happen. Kathy complained that literary journals should have a girlfriend rebuttal column. She now works for the government—go figure. Oh, Kathy might not be her real name because while I believe poetic justice gives me license, a lawyer suggested I tread carefully when writing about the truth––again, a lawyer lecturing a poet on truth…huh?

Truth is a poetic device. Use it sparingly. Lies, on the other hand, are boring. Use them even more sparingly.

Poetry occupies a strange place in the minds of literary civilians. Is a book of poems fiction or non-fiction? If you’re making stuff up, many would believe you’re writing a short story. People have a tendency to believe what’s in a poem. Though surrealism shows its hand and can’t get away with this. Confessional poetry runs into trouble with truth when it tries too hard to appear honest.

The difference between propaganda and poetry is not something I’m prepared to discuss. It should suffice to say that they share goals. A tuning fork struck against a line of poetry and a line of propaganda would sound strangely similar. That’s why intent is critical to understanding truth. Or, to be exact, intent is a more accurate stage for truth. When reality is at odds with even the most fundamental interpretation of emotional truth, reality always loses.

I write to discover truth. I write to remind myself of it. Everything you write in a poem will eventually happen to you. Write carefully.

When you write something honest with a fountain pen the ink dries faster. Pen a lie and the ink shines wet for hours. That’s probably the etymological root of the word smear.

Writing about truth in poems requires a different form of truth than writing a poem, an honesty altogether different from anything I’ve previously discussed. You can trust me.

AGNI Monkey

BurskyRick Bursky’s most recent book, I’m No Longer Troubled By The Extravagance, is out from BOA Editions. His next book, Where the Ocean Spills Its Grief, is also forthcoming from BOA. His poems have appeared in many journals including Field, American Poetry Review, Gettysburg Review, Conduit and Iowa Review. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

Frost and Gilmore: Poets of Humanity

I’ve always liked Robert Frost as a poet of humanity but, until very recently, I didn’t understand how important his poems were to me. When I write poems I want to stand in that little horse’s shoes (“Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”) and feel an easy wind and downy flake and wonder why my owner has stopped in the woods. I want the surprise ending that emanates from “The Road Not Taken.” The one that made all the difference! Surely, if I can create these sensations, my reader will experience them, too?

This came to me as I made an early spring walk around The Point, a piece of land that juts out from my town into Long Island Sound. The pathway is edged by sea water on one side and forest growth on the other. Both absorb my attention. There are migratory birds checking in but, right now, the trees and shrubs on my right are bare. Where do the deer, usually hidden by summer foliage, go in winter? Why can’t I see them?

Robert Frost would be able to skilfully capture my questions and observations, but I must find another way, not a Frost way, but my own way. How could I pen something like these lines below, which bring my senses to a standstill? There is nothing complicated here, yet my heart almost stops in contemplation of their perfection.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
“Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Robert Frost (1874-1963)

The mind wanders when one walks, sometimes creatively. There are many contemporaries of Frost whom I admire but I tried to think of women poets who also captured an identical humanity. Elizabeth Bishop and Emily Dickinson certainly delve into a well-spring of emotion in their individual ways but, because I was born in Australia, I recalled an Australian poet of the twentieth century, Mary Gilmore (1865-1962). Her insightful poetry addresses down-under life, landscape and history.

Gilmore was born nine years before Frost and they died within a year of each other yet I doubt they ever met. Without going into their respective experiences, suffice it to say they were both a product of rural life, of travel (he to U.K, she to Paraguay), and of the two world wars that consumed the literary mind of the twentieth century. Each of these familiarities gave them plenty of writing material and became the poetry tangle and mesh of their lives. Both wrote hundreds of poems, some more brilliant than others. Many are truly memorable. I rushed home to see what I could find. Would I hear Frost in Gilmore or vice versa?

It is a lovely thing to hear a bird,
And hear it through the leafy shadow of
The night! To seek a wing that goes unheard,
And trace its flight through some dim place above!
“The Mopoke”

Here’s a similar stanza:

The west was getting out of gold,
The breath of air had died of cold,
When shoeing home across the white,
I thought I saw a bird alight.
“Looking for a Sunset Bird in Winter”

Which poet wrote each stanza? The rhyme schemes for both are standard for poems of that era, and both poems describe the beauty of a particular landscape as a bird takes flight, using the senses to appreciate the act. In fact, there is very little to differentiate each writer. However, the Mopoke is an Australian bird, while Frost’s reference to snow in the third line of the second stanza gives away his northern location. One cannot distil the complete oeuvre of the two poets in these small examples but there is ample evidence in each body of work to show how similar they were in their writing styles and subjects.

In “The Soldier,” Robert Frost writes:

He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled
That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust
But still lies pointed as it plowed the dust.

The poem goes on to say that, despite the man falling too soon in battle, the forward trajectory of his spirit is a far greater accomplishment.

Gilmore’s patriotism is equally moving:

And we swear by the dead who bore us,
By the heroes who blazed the trail,
No foe shall gather our harvest,
Or sit on our stockyard rail
“No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest”

Significantly, the two poets dovetail in their use of language itself—language that could be described as unsophisticated but which exhibits a superb mastery of technique. Both poets capture the core of human nature, while simultaneously exploring more obscure concerns. In “Devotion,” Robert Frost recognises the infinite relationship between shore and ocean, but also appears to question a life spent upholding a single idea

The heart can think of no devotion
Greater than being shore to ocean—
Holding the curve of one position
Counting and endless repetition

In her poem “Nationality,” Mary Gilmore recognises the value of the unity of mankind but, when it comes to sharing, her kin must come first.

All men at god’s round table sit,
And all men must be fed;
But this loaf in my hand,
This loaf is my son’s bread.

Both poets were members of literary groups: Frost of the Dymock group, which included Edward Thomas and Ezra Pound, and Gilmore of the Bulletin school, a radical literary group in Sydney. It is clear that the influence of other writers was a factor in their work. Frost’s mark was made early though his volume “North of Boston” published in 1914. He received four Pulitzer Prizes, and the Congressional Medal in 1960.

Gilmore’s rise to fame took longer although she published about the same amount of poetry as Frost. Her patriotic poems ensured her popular place in Australia’s history, and in 1937 she became the first Australian to be awarded the Order of the British Empire for services to literature.

Did they read each other’s work? I tend to think that Gilmore would have been aware of Frost’s poetry, especially through his early volumes published in the U.K., which would have been available in Sydney bookshops. Still, I can’t be certain of this. Did Frost read Gilmore’s work? Perhaps. As she became more famous down under, her work would have reached the eyes and ears of Frost’s literary circle. Even so, she was, and still is, largely unknown in the United States.

While there are a number of parallels in their poems in terms of topics and technique, Frost is undeniably American, Gilmore as equally Australian. Frost speaks of northern seasons: of trees, of birds of the East coast, of farms and stone walls. Gilmore’s work is peppered with indigenous words, with Australian native birds, with outback life and the seasons of the southern hemisphere.

But it’s the merging of their resemblances that stirred me to return to these poets and inspires me to write in a way that is unpretentious yet distinct from them. A paradox of a goal, I must admit. But a writer must write in his or her own way. The language of Frost and Gilmore has moved on, even the many things they were concerned about have changed, but it is not difficult to find examples of their practical language with regard to issues of importance.

In “Mending Wall,” Frost takes us on a journey with his neighbour as they walk each side of their wall, replacing fallen stones as needed. Frost’s speaker speculates as to why they need to do this—

My apple tree will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says “Good fences make good neighbors.”

As the poem progresses, we learn that the neighbor inherited this phrase from his own father and the time spent rebuilding parts of the wall, while not truly necessary to the well-being of the farm, is what binds each man to the other and, consequentially, each following generation to his neighbor.

The desire to be a good friend is also the theme of Gilmore’s much shorter poem, “The Wish,” in which the poet asks not for “wealth, nor length of days, nor pride, nor power, nor worldly praise”—

But just a little quiet place
Where a friend may come
Laying his hand on the door
As though it were home.

Both poems demonstrate very simply how friendship is reinforced, Frost with his refrain of “Good fences make good neighbors” and Gilmore with her quiet welcome to a friend “as though it were home.”

Those deer in winter. I’ve been told they’re hidden in forest depths. They’re conserving their energy, waiting for Spring; waiting for me to reflect on how best to describe not theirs but any quandary. Putting the finger on the keyboard is only one step. Reading Gilmore and Frost can ensure that we don’t lose what we already have—a way of engaging with the world using language that is both unaffected and lasting.

AGNI Monkey

Rowley406612007-010Judy Rowley, who was born in Australia, began her writing life while living in South Korea as a “trailing spouse.” To deepen her commitment to poetry and literature she completed a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies at Manhattanville, NY, and an MFA in Poetry at Bennington Writing Seminars, VT. She writes poetry and essays, which have been published in several journals, and has recently published a memoir called Expected Home, A Memoir and a Mystery. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

The Gospel of Grief & Grace & Gratitude

by Melanie Rae Thon

Love is life ~ All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love ~ Everything is, everything exists, only because I love ~
~ Leo Tolstoy

Writing, like prayer, must be a daily practice. For almost thirty years I’ve kept what I once called a “Book of Wonders” and now, in my age of awe, refer to as “The Gospel of Grief & Grace & Gratitude.” I have no rules or purpose: my apocryphal gospel includes songs of loons and visions of owls, flowering saguaros, hungry grizzlies—the last words of my father’s last days—my sister Wendy playing Beethoven on our grandmother’s piano. A hurricane splits trees, opening a smell deep and dense as the earth’s consciousness cracked open. My brother kneels to wash and bandage the open sores on my father’s feet. At twilight, soft copper light holds my sister Laurie as if it has chosen her above all others. Yes, we are safe now. A grasshopper leaps in the lake, and my mother calls me down to the dock to save him.

New words and phrases—poiesis, indolent infection, fastidious microbe—bring bemusement and revelation: words themselves amplify what I am able to perceive in the world. Photographs illuminate the gospel; lines of half-remembered poetry enter: the tulips are too excitable. It is spring here, not winter; still, I am nobody. I have never been so pure. I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love for me. Long ago Sylvia Plath’s lines pierced me with intimate despair: in my age of gratitude & grace, tulips blaze gold and orange, immaculate white, deepest violet: there is no happiness like mine: two rogue red tulips bloom at the edge of the creek: they enclose and unclose me, open my most secret self, petal by petal. . . . Even now, opened by love, I know if it be their wish to close me, i and my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly, as when the heart of these flowers imagines the snow carefully everywhere descending.

The gospel feeds my life as a writer, teacher, sister, friend, daughter—as a customer at the grocery store, a stunned patient walking the corridors of a hospital—I am all; I am nothing—just one more transient being trying to understand infinities of sorrow, learning to surrender, hoping to find peace in this unbidden surge of co-passion with the afflicted everywhere. We are vast and devastated by and by. A PICC line from arm to heart opens me petal by petal, cell by cell to the broken world. I know it is a mistake to call the light tender, but not wrong now to feel its indiscriminate love touching my mouth, the bones of my ears, my heart, my fingers.

In my age of grief, I am unknowing of everything.

One brutal Boston winter, I filled the pages with blizzards and birds, a sculpture of starved horses, my frigid attic room, a hundred homeless children. They entered my dreams, cold hands on bare skin, and I tried to tell their stories. I needed to imagine how they survived on the street while I struggled to stay warm in my apartment. Pigeons flapped at my tiny window. The snow melted and froze, and another storm roared in from the Atlantic.

The Kingdom is here, on Earth, waiting for us to step into it. Ansel Adams says: I believe in beauty—I believe in stones and water and air and soil—people and their future and their fate. If we believe in these things, then the love and contemplation required to evoke them for our readers becomes sacred. Art is an Affirmation of Life—not only our separate lives, but our lives within the endless body of all living things, our lives as they are connected to stones and clouds and wolves and spiders.

Write every day for the rest of your lives! Fill your pages with fiddlers swaying in the wind and white roses waving. Don’t forget the lizard with its crooked tail or the cactus wren nesting in your mother’s teapot. Eat poetry! Let Ink run from the corners of your mouth! Lift lines you love, photographs you’ve taken. Make a cento, an erasure, a collage. Draw what you’ve seen or not seen whether or not you think you are good at it.

Intoxicated joy teaches us to pay attention. All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.

I see an ant carrying a dead moth, and another one lifting the bleached leg of a crawdad. What is my strength compared with yours? I see a whole tribe of ants, each one holding a single pink petal. They move in a meandering line across the sidewalk. Some carry their blossoms straight above their heads, floral crowns of rose and purple. The petals are five times the size of the ants and seem to float around them. That’s what I notice first, floating petals—and then, those astonishing beings beneath them! I follow the ants down a slope to discover they are covering their little hill with torn flowers. I don’t know why—do the petals keep the anthill moist and cool, safe from the blazing sun of Arizona—are the ants drunk with sweet scent—enchanted by the silky texture?

Years later, a vision comes to me at the edge of sleep, an utter profusion of flowers—bed, floor, walls, ceiling—each petal glowing as if lit from inside, so luminous they cannot hold their shapes: they dissolve into particles of light until they are only fiery sparks surrounded by vast darkness.

Then bliss comes, and sleep takes me.

I realize I have had my own vision of Rabbi Luria’s description of the beginning of the universe: these sparks of holy light are hidden in everything and everyone, everywhere in our shattered world. It is our blessing and our joy to recognize and restore them.

Notes :

Taking many liberties in phrasing, ellipses, and punctuation, I have lifted and transformed lines from Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips” (the tulips are too excitable . . . ); Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry”; (there is no happiness . . . Eat poetry . . . Let ink run . . . ); “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond” (they enclose and unclose . . . if it be their wish . . . i and my life . . . ) by e.e. cummings; and Michael Martone’s “4 Fe + 302 —› 2 Fe203” (we are vast and devastated . . . ). Paul Maclean’s words (All there is to thinking . . . ) are quoted by his brother Norman Maclean in A River Runs through It.

In The Anthropology of Turquoise, Ellen Meloy keeps what she calls a “Gospel of Wrath,” which has led me and my students to contemplate titles for our own apocryphal gospels.

AGNI Monkey

Melanie Rae by Andi editedMelanie Rae Thon’s most recent books are Silence & Song, The 7th Man, and The Good Samaritan Speaks. As a teacher and writer, she is devoted to the celebration of diversity from a multitude of human and nonhuman perspectives, shattering traditional limits of narrative consciousness as she interrogates the repercussions of exile, slavery, habitat loss, genocide, and extirpation in the context of mystery and miracle, the infinite wonder of cosmic abundance. Originally from Montana, Melanie now lives in Salt Lake City, where she teaches in the Creative Writing and Environmental Humanities programs at the University of Utah. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.