Justin Petropoulos on Word for Word Poetry, June 21, 2011
Featuring the poets from Blue Flower Arts
It was a balmy evening in Bryant Park. The movie screen on the lawn, half drawn, like horizontal Venetian blinds, sun as if shot through smoke, settling between the buildings. The persistent rumble of jackhammers and people on their way to or from. Chess players flocked around the tables just behind the statue of William Earl Dodge. Paul Romero made a few quick announcements and introduced Ofer Ziv, the Senior Speakers Representative, from Blue Flower Arts, an organization that represents writers of all genres and is committed to fostering U.S. and International authors. Ofer introduced Blue Flower Arts to the audience and then introduced all three readers in order of their appearance.
Sophie Cabot Black opened the evenings proceeding, situating herself on the stool behind the podium. She matched the microphone to her posture, her silver and turquoise rings spooling the threads of sun fraying though the leaves. Sophie began by talking about the poems from her latest collection, The Exchange, which contains cycles of poems dedicated to love poems, war and the economic downturn, but she started with a cycle documenting her struggle watching a close friend in the process of dying. These poems really stuck with me, which I will confess, is strange because economics is one of my favorite subjects. She read four pieces, which shepherded the audience from diagnosis, through treatment, to the struggle, both speaker and friend have accepting death and finally the longing that comes with surviving someone we love.
The first of these poems, “Biopsy,” is a lyrical poem in which the speaker helps a friend navigate his emotions upon entering a hospital room where he will undergo a biopsy, but it is also about shared experience and the power of naming. What was most remarkable to me was Sophie’s ability to capture so much her images. She writes about the experience of a being a patient in a hospital, “People dressed in the exact clothing of each other walk in and never look at us.” The image itself is so quiet and exact, but what currents under it is the surreality of an ‘institutional’ experience, the isolation of illness, the detachment that comes from being (un)observed. While Sophie was reading, her voice lilting slightly, mixied with the noise of the park and I found myself staring at the tiny backhoe cordoned off with green tape to the right of the reading room, it’s clawed shovel resting in the gully it had excavated. It seemed appropriate somehow, almost tender in the still heat. In the poem, the speaker tries to comfort her friend by taking part in the process of the hospitalization, but for the speaker it is only ritual. Sophie writes, “He is still afraid so I lie down first, which is to say nothing except that I am not him.” In that moment the speaker realizes that she can never truly connect with her friend’s experience, that he is alone in a way she cannot reconcile just by being present. It is a theme present in many poems in the cycle. The poem draws to a close with a description of the hospital room ceiling, “the sky below which we lie picking out stars, as the needle enters the vein”. This image sets the stage for a final gesture that illuminates the hope located in the possibility of naming, of identifying cause, however fleeting that comfort. She concludes, “and we search for any possible constellation, something familiar to name.”
Sophie followed that with the poem “Chemotherapy,” which has one of the most incredible description of that treatment, “My friend is going through the fire on his knees,” it also further documents the speakers attempts, as in “Biopsy,” to connect with the her friend’s experience of illness. The speaker claims him, he is ‘my friend,’ and that simple act of possession expresses a will to shared experience, to take someone, pain and all, into yourself, no matter how impossible. In the poem “Finally He Speaks About Dying,” there another moment where the audience is offered a glimpse, albeit one that is externalized, of how the speaker conceives of the relationship with her friend in general and specifically regarding his life with cancer. In the midst of the conversation the speaker is having with her dying friend, she sees, “…a couple walk[s] by tucked into one coat as if against a wind,” and it is in that proxy couple that the speaker finds shelter from the painful severance her dying friend secures when he repeats, “he wants to do this alone.”
The last poem Sophie read from the cycle was “It Never Goes Away,” the speaker tells her friend she wishes “…to know death exactly as you do,” but she can’t. Her final attempt at connection is unsuccessful. The poem’s speaker admits, “You never know how much it takes, this business of departure. You stare into ocean outdone by all you want. Enough of what continues.”
Jill Bialosky. She is an acclaimed poet and novelist, who recently added non-fiction to her repertoire with a memoir, titled A History of a Suicide: My Sister's Unfinished Life, published this year by W.W. Norton. After settling into her seat, Jill told the audience that she was going to read from her most recent collection of poems, Intruder, which she explained is a book obsessed with art, motherhood and love.
She began with poems about art making. Jill then asked how many people in attendance were writers or artists, searching for a connection, as if saying: I wonder if you have gone through this, and you will understand my concerns in this piece at the same time, and went on to explain that in her first poem “The Figure” she was exploring the dichotomy between living in the real world and exploring the imagined. The sound system projected her voice clearly enough for some of the passers-by to take notice of the question, one of them, wearing a tee-shirt with a huge semicolon on the front, stopped a raised his arm to half mast, unsure if the question was rhetorical, then stood on the perimeter to listen to a few poems before continuing on his way. “The Figure” she explains is a poem inspired by a visit to a school art classroom, one that recalled for her, her own life with art beginning at a young age. The poems opens with canvas developing its image, and continues on to question that image, its nature, re-enacting the formation of an artist’s relationship to their own work. She writes, “From a blank canvas sprang a swirl of color and emotion, a mysterious figure emerging from a dark thicket. Was he beautiful? Did it matter? For once ugliness could be a form of beauty, an equivalent to prove the souls existence.” I love these two questions in combination. They are so straightforward, an honesty that is usually never given voice. She then, as writers and artist must do, answers, if only partially, her own questions, and in doing so the poem seems to imply, strengthens her the relationship to art making. It becomes part of the speaker. Jill writes, “Dried paint like a second skin on our hands, its oily smell.”
The poems Jill read from Intruder are meditations that use, by her own admittance, moments from her own life as triggers from which she goes on to explore the philosophical. This is evident in the structure of many of these poems, which begin with an image or situation and move though that image, both questioning and declaring, and from each declaration, the need to question grows. In the poems “The Poet Contemplates the Nature of Reality,” and “Music is Time” her second and third poems of the night, Jill talked about watching her son learn the violin and how much we can learn about art making by watching someone attempting to grow a relationship with art. These poems combine two of her themes, art making and motherhood, but maintain an observers distance and authority, because of their third person speaker. Each of these poems contains a few lines that really speak to the struggles of making art of any kind and how in the making, the art also shapes you. In “The Poet Contemplates the Nature of Reality,” she writes, “He has established a relationship with his violin. He knows that it takes practice to master it, the accuracy of each note, to wrestles his feelings to the listener, but he’s impatient. Sometimes what he hears and feels are not always the same.” And in the poem, “Music Is Time,” she declares, “how will your violin know who you are unless you make it speak.”
Peter Cole, was the last member of the Blue Flower arts family to take the microphone. He slid the stool aside, opting to stand, which was a sign of what was to come. Peter is an incredible performer. His voice modulates from conversational tonality to that of chant, from a whisper to a shout, as seamlessly water moves around river rocks. He began his set with a poem called, “Competing Sounds,” a litany in prose form that catalogues everything from “a sinking feeling with the water running the kitchen” to “a president trying to form a sentence.” The poem, Peter told the crowd, seemed appropriate considering all of the ‘competing sounds’ of Bryant Park and its surround, reminding the audience of the jackhammer at work up the street that had faded into white noise since the beginning of the reading. The poem ends with the gorgeous shift to silence created by “the sound of rain giving way to snow.”
Peter then set the stage for the rest of his poems by introducing the two ideas, translation and location as two forces that have come together to influence his work. He explains that he lives in Jerusalem, and how the Middle Eastern landscape along with the languages of the region, comingle in is work, with the cultures of medieval and modern European and English, with the hopes of creating new literary compounds. Peter’s work modulates between and through language, time and locale, to form what he called, verbal spaces, which are at work in his latest collection, Things On Which I’ve Stumbled, which were the focus of his reading.
Peter’s second piece, “Improvisations On Lines By Isaac The Blind,” is a poem, which demonstrates this idea of verbal spaces by presenting imagery that locates the exterior world within the human body. He writes, the grass and oxalis by the pines grow, are within us, petal and blade. The poem closes, however, by metaporizing words as sap, a nourishing language, one that like the landscape of the previous lines is taking into the body. This is not a language that reacts to or is part of any intellection, rather it can only be known by being acted upon or with, in this case, and the action is a sort of suckling. Peter concludes, “ …but only by sucking not by knowing that sad of the word through the world is flowing.” In the poem, “Valent Lines For A,” a Valentines poem for his wife, he further complicates the relationship between language and place when he writes, “Delicacy of an intricate mesh of our thought and meals and talking has brought me to this exaltation of syllables and a speechlessness.” His interactions with his wife act as vehicles, which deliver him to the place of exaltation, to place those syllables. Their interactions also bring Peter to a place in time, –to December dusk, and desk, and skin in the amber of our listening. What I love about these last lines is how open they are because of the use of the word ‘amber,’ which here could refer to the light at dusk or the encasement of language and place in listening bodies.
Marsh Hawk Press Poetry prize. His poems have appeared in A cappella Zoo, American Letters & Commentary, Anemone Sidecar, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Crab Creek Review, Gulf Coast, MiPOesias, and Portland Review, as well as work forthcoming in Mandorla. Justin received his MFA from Indiana University and is a co-curator of Triptych Readings. He lives in Brooklyn with his pet octopus Siete.
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