Wednesday, September 29, 2010

On our anniversary, a poetic interlude

Today this blog is two years old. Woo-hoo! What a wild old time we've had, my friends.

A time, anyway. With its ups and downs, its raves and rants, certainties and confusions. Threats of oblivion, promises of eternity. All this and more is no doubt in store as I proceed into year three. I hope you'll come along. There's a lot more red reading to do.

Now, to the matter at hand. I don't read much poetry, certainly nowhere near enough poetry, whatever enough would be. One of the side effects of not reading much poetry is that you become frightened, intimidated by the form. Overawed at its mysterious ways. Poetry is a strange, forbidding land to those of us who enter it rarely. We feel we haven't a passport. We most certainly don't know the language. Abandon hope all ye who enter here, as the poet said--not that poetry seems like hell, in fact it feels more like heaven, a paradise forbidden to we who haven't earned entry. And so you find yourself caught in a domino effect of your own readerly limitations, wanting, yearning even, to read poetry, but scared that poetry will reject you. Poetry the vast forbidding ocean, you a fiction-reading literal-minded landlubber of a dolt.

Nevertheless. I've read some poetry lately. A book and a chapbook. And it's been great.

The book is Blood Dazzler, Patricia Smith's profound, intense collection about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. These poems are pyrotechnic. Smith is a stunning artist. I have no idea how she does what she does with words.

The poems range upon the landscape (and seascape) of those terrible days five years ago. Many speak in a particular persona: a homeowner, an evacuee, the hurricane herself, other hurricanes, George W. Bush, a drag queen, even a dog. Even the Superdome itself weighs in. And, in a, yes, dazzling, heartbreaking series of short testimonies, a poem that takes the voices of 34 residents of a nursing home who were found drowned. Here's one:
And I am left, no deity hovering,
no black hair on my head,
all of me thinner than when I began.

Fingers of ice climb me,
reach my dimming light,
and choke my only angel.
Here's a bit from the amazing poem "The President Flies Over":
I babble the landscape--what staunch, vicious trees,
what cluttered roads, slow cars. This is my

country as it was gifted me--victimless, vast.
The soundtrack buzzing the air around my ears
continually loops ditties of eagles and oil.

There's much more but my best advice is for you to buy the book and read it whole. It will break you a little. What better job can poetry do? (Also see Tayari Jones' blog about a "choreoplay" based on Smith's book that debuted in New York last week.)

I also recently read a chapbook, Outside the Clinic by Andrew Rihn, a kind gift from the poet himself, who has done something unique here. This is a collection about abortion rights written by a man. If I heard that description without knowing anything else, I'd probably get my back up--what does a man know about it, what right does a man have writing about this? But Rihn isn't trying to speak for, and definitely not trying to preach to, women. Rather, he's thinking about the question of women's reproductive rights from his perspective, that of a man who supports it. What's on offer here is a series of meditations that, somewhat similarly to how Smith writes in various voices, looks at the question from various angles, from varying perspectives, not shying away from any. The result is a sort of opening up, an unfolding, of this fraught issue, that has a fresh, liberating feel.

Rihn's chapbook is inspired by the work of, and a reaction to the assassination of, Dr. George Tiller, the dedicated women's health provider who was murdered because he refused to stop performing abortions, including late-term procedures. One of the more moving poems is addressed to Dr. Tiller. From "Taking Heart":
The first woman you refused
had no choice, but chose anyway.
She went where she had to, without
options or safety, and she died
of that drought. What kind of man
could understand such thirst? Our
bodies are different, our barometers
read other pressures. Such harsh lessons
are taught every day in clinics
we never enter. We pass by them,
as men of good standing, ignoring
their calls to ruthless education.
It's good to have allies. Long live political poetry!