We've tapped some very special guest bloggers to help us celebrate this summer's Word for Word Poetry series at Bryant Park. They provide a behind-the-scenes look at each event and divulge about the talented poets who share their work in the park. Experience Word for Word Poetry yourself every Tuesday through September 14, from 7pm to 8:30pm, at the Bryant Park Reading Room.
Anne Lovering Rounds on Word for Word Poetry, August 24
Who would have known it was summer? Last Tuesday, audiences braved a cool and blustery night in the park, gathering to hear four exceptional poets. Their poems of place, as organizer Tess Taylor called the work on the evening’s agenda, went far beyond the city, though in the end we were called back to Manhattan. Each of these poets engaged in questions of travel: literal journeys and metaphysical, explorations without and within.
Sean Hill read first, starting with poems from his 2008 book, Blood Ties & Brown Liquor (University of Georgia Press). The title alone is a clue to the way Hill writes colors—of urban environment, of nature, of skin—into his poetry. The poems in Blood Ties are set in Hill’s hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but to call them “historical” isn’t enough to capture their sensuousness. Listen to the ways the speaker multiplies the implications of “McIntosh Street,” a black business district: “like the apple red but not / red delicious red but red / like redeye gravy on grits / at Gus’s or red like stoplights / but they’re also green and yellow / like apples in Allen’s Market…” Hill takes what seems ordinary (a red apple) and carefully and consistently adds to the palette; different reds thicken the world. Again and again, shades and particular colors defined the spaces of these poems: “Ivory soap,” “graying water,” and “colored soldiers cross[ing] the slate ocean” in “Auspice”; the “yellow sunshine on a white plate,” a breakfast in “Uncle John”; hands the “black-brown / of crossties— / creosote soaked” in “Hands 1921.” Hill currently lives in Bemidji, Minnesota, a place he called “very white,” both in its harsh winters and in its racial makeup. His final poem, “Sam Kee, I imagine…” envisioned the life of an opium dealer, put on trial and acquitted in Bemidji, “left / in peace to make a living getting / their sheets as white as snow.” From jade green to blood red to snow white, Hill’s colors are gorgeous, intricate, painful; they are the hinges on which his poems turn, observing landscape, working out identity.
One of my college English professors used to say, “Some poets are great beginners. Others are great enders. Rarely do you find one who is both.” If Jill McDonough isn’t a great ender, no one is. McDonough shared several poems from Habeas Corpus (Salt, 2008), a sequence of 50 sonnets on, and often in the words of, prisoners the state has put to death. Part of these poems’ brilliance is the way they wear their research. Whether speaking from a 1715 or a 1953 perspective, McDonough makes the language, here, real, now. Equally impressive is her ability to do so within the formal boundaries of the sonnet. As if all English came out this way, there was not one compromise of sense for rhythm. In “June 19, 1953: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg,” perfect scansion only made the end more bitter: “…Before they stood / to go he kissed two fingers, pressed them both / against the screen, to hers: first white, then red. / Their final touch, through screen. So hard they bled.” As McDonough herself said, her focus is frequently on people in the act of dying (maybe another reason her endings are so memorable—in a death row poem, we know what’s coming, but the sonnet draws it out, makes us wait for it). But her more uplifting poems also confidently intertwine formal rigor with a diction we know from elsewhere, from everywhere (“stuff,” “of course,” “Hold it”). In “My History of CPR,” we heard how “In Second Kings, Elijah mouth-to-mouthed / a little boy…” And in “Annunciation,” the poem moved from a class trip to the rare books library, to Mary’s possible reaction to Gabriel’s message (“Just hold it right there”), to this last empowering ending McDonough left us with: “You might be that important. You never know.”
After Jill McDonough’s, Tess Taylor joked that her work might feel like comic relief. But Taylor’s poems also dealt with hard history—with decay and burial, with forgetting, with slavery and white guilt. “Ancestors, I would undo this if I could,” the speaker mourned in “World’s End: On the Site of Randolph Wilton”; or, elsewhere, “May our iniquities be pardoned.” But even as her poems traverse such difficult terrain, Taylor is committed to questioning, curiosity, to the expansion of the mind; her poems ask how we can fathom ugly pasts, but they do not yield to despair. I hear Elizabeth Bishop in Taylor’s work—in the way she is drawn to maps, to place names and their overtones (“Powhatan,” “World’s End,” Virginia pars”), to territory and the ways we represent it. (It’s easy to hear Bishop’s question about maps, “Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?” in the opening of Taylor’s “Jigsaw Puzzle”: “Does this purple belong with this blue?”) Taylor finished her part of the reading with “Feast,” a poem written for her husband on the occasion of their anniversary. This love poem was also an ode to oyster names—congratulations to any poet who takes “Pemaquid” as a rhyme-word (“I toasted. And you did”). “With lemon we downed our coastlines”: in “Feast,” as she had throughout, Taylor made geography both personal and rich with association.
Before she delivered a single poem, Rosanna Warren gave us evidence of her attentiveness to play of language, the marvels of sound. She would begin, she said, with “42nd Street,” a work that emerged from the moment when bankers “crashed their joyride.” What life in that expression, compared to familiar stock phrases like “economic downturn” and “depressed economic climate.” In “42nd Street,” wordplay and onomatopoeia populated a depressed New York, as “Brokers and the broken pass[ed] on the street,” “a truck clank[ed],” and “cars shush[ed] by.” Warren’s performance went by in a flash, some poems without interlude. “July” enumerated the pleasures of summer idleness; in contrast, “Diamonds,” a fantasia on store mannequins, gave us a hyperkinetic consumer culture where “the ATMs keep spitting out bills in a rat-a-tat-tat,” and “we leave a burn on the air.” Warren concluded with an excerpt from a long, big work on Central Park. Warren let us know the bloody history of the park, former site of a slaughterhouse, and described her poem as a consideration of the bond between slaughter and land. Warren moved expertly among the many kinds of discourse that the famous park (“a park. The park. Central Park”) has inspired, quoting from Frederick Law Olmsted’s letters, turning to an earth scientist’s vocabulary (“mica-schist at the core”), and theorizing the relationship between politics and landscape design (“democracy is space in which we flow”). The Word for Word poetry series may be starting to wind down for the season, but Warren ended this evening with epic.
Anne Lovering Rounds is Adjunct Professor of Humanities at Metropolitan College of New York and an editorial assistant at Cambridge University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University.