Michael Broder for Word for Word Poetry, June 30th, 2015
Presented in Partnership with Mark Doty
On Tuesday, June 30, the Bryant Park Reading Room presented an outstanding Word for Word program introduced by Mark Doty and featuring Tina Chang, Robin Beth Schaer, Brenda Shaughnessy, and Tracy K. Smith, all of whom were Doty’s students in a workshop at Columbia University some 20 years ago.
Womanhood, the roles women embrace or refuse, as creatures of thought, feeling, and experience, as wives and mothers, as citizens—these were some of the prominent themes of the evening’s readings by these four astounding poets.
Milk in the batter! Milk in the batter!
We bake cake, and nothing’s the matter!
which serve as the epigraph to Chang’s poem. The comforting familiarity of milk in the life of the speaker’s son is a recurring motif of the poem: “In every definition of home, my son conjures milk,” the speaker says. But the poem becomes a meditation on boyhood and manhood, life and death, of the fears parents face for the safety of their children, as the speaker remembers the death of Leiby Kletzky in 2011, a Hasidic Jewish boy, who was kidnapped as he walked home from his school day camp in Boro Park, Brooklyn, and was found dismembered in a dumpster. “Tonight, I hold my son closer. As I put on his night clothes, I’m afraid of the world,” the speaker says.
|Robin Beth Schaer|
During the summers of 2009 and 2010, Schaer worked as a deckhand aboard the Tall Ship Bounty, a 180-foot full-rigged ship that went down in Hurricane Sandy. That experience of loss informs her much anticipated first book, Shipbreaking. For Schaer, however, the natural disaster of Sandy and the material loss of the Bounty are starting points for much wider meditations on love, loss, life, creation, and destruction, as in these lines from the poem “Fathom” (which appeared in The Awl):
Sometimes, the nets
raise a god in a flash of minnows.
Sometimes, matted ferns claim you,
their breath a weapon paused at the eye.
Always, we are capsized by the impossible
child in a thicket of empty books.
But unfortunately it can only travel into the future
at a rate of one second per second,
which seems slow to the physicists and to the grant
committees and even to me.
That is to say, life is our time machine, time is our time machine, and there is nothing we can do about it, as frightening and disconcerting as life and time may be. Nothing, that is, except to exit the time machine completely—returning, as the other poets did that evening, to themes of life and death, creation and destruction, fear and living on in the face of fear:
Thing is, I can’t turn it off. I keep zipping ahead—
well, not zipping—And if I try
to get out of this time machine, open the latch,
I’ll fall into space, unconscious,
then desiccated! And I’m pretty sure I’m afraid of that.
So I stay inside.
|Tracy K. Smith|
Life a function of time was on Smith’s mind, too, as she read her poem, “Impromptu Party,” which includes the lines, “To a single woman, time is like a scrap of meat, nothing you can afford to give away.”
Together, these four women, as poets, as friends, as students of a shared teacher and mentor in Mark Doty, did honor to their shared poetic inheritance and justice to their own individual creativity.
Michael Broder is the author of This Life Now (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014), a finalist for the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. His poems have a appeared in American Poetry Review, Assaracus, BLOOM, Columbia Poetry Review, Court Green, OCHO, and other journals and anthologies. He lives in Brooklyn with his husband, the poet Jason Schneiderman, and a backyard colony of feral cats.