National Poetry Month, Day Sixteen: A. Van Jordan

A. Van Jordan’s “M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A.”

Click on cover to purchase from Powell's.

Click on cover to purchase from Powell’s.

A. Van Jordan’s “M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A” is based on the life of MacNolia Cox, an African American woman, who as a girl almost won the state spelling bee in 1936. She was thwarted when the (all White) judges used a word that was not from the official spelling bee list. As a child she wanted to be a surgeon, but instead became the house cleaner for a doctor. These deeply stirring, cinematic poems are written from the points of view of her husband, her, and others.

This Life

“Say this life and let it be enough, for once.” -Joe Bolton, American Variations

If you say obscenity, o-b-s-c-e-n-i-t-y
It doesn’t sound like a bad word;It sounds like the name of a child
On her mother’s lips; it sounds like my name

When slid from my mother’s tongue.
My pulse would shift into place
As her voice traveled through my veins.
Say MacNolia–M-a-c-n-o-l-i-a–

And let my name bless the one who named me.
I’d pronounce my name and people would
Mistake it for a flower. Can you imagine me
Correcting white adults? I said

MAC-nolia…. No, I mean it was 1936–
It wasn’t safe to spell my own name.
If you whispered it, a thought cloud
Grew over your head with the name, a colon

And the definition: a Negro w ho spells
And reads as well as [if not better than] any white.
Say summer rain running over a brown girl’s face,
And you cannot mistake it for tears;

The syllables are as gentle as summer
Rain running over a brown girl’s face.
Even at 13, I knew right from wrong:
Adam bit the apple and we all could see.

Say truth and let it be true, for once.
Watch the mouth take a bite;
Let the juice run over the lips;
Let the tongue know the taste.

If I had one breath of advice to give
To myself at 13, some language
That would have helped me understand
The grammar of my life, I would have said

What I still know: Girl, savor what you learn
And spit it back as best you know how.


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National Poetry Month, Day Fifteen: Edward Hirsch

Edward Hirsch’s “Special Orders.”

Click cover to purchase book from Powell's.

Click cover to purchase book from Powell’s.

Edward Hirsch’s “Special Orders” covers what it means to truly live life. For Holocaust Remembrance Day, I picked this poem of his.

Elegy for the Jewish Villages
–After Antoni Slonimsky

The Jewish villages in Poland are gone now–
Hrubieszów, Karczew, Brody, Falencia. . .
There are no Sabbath candles lit in the windows,
no chanting comes from the wooden synagogues.

The Jewish villages in Poland have vanished
and so I walked through a graveyard without graves.
It must have been hard work to clean up after the war:
someone must have sprinkled sand over the blood,
swept away the footprints, and whitewashed the walls
with bluish lime. Someone must have fumigated
the streets, the way you do after a plague.

One moon glitters here–cold, pale, alien.
I stood in the dark countryside in summer but
could never find the two golden moons of Chagall
glittering outside the town when the night lights up.
Those moons are orbiting another planet now.

Gone are the towns here the shoemaker was a poet.
the watchmaker a philosopher, the barber a troubadour.

Gone are the villages where the wind joined biblical songs
with Polish tunes, where old Jews stood in the shade
of cherry trees and longed from the holy walls of Jerusalem.

Gone now are the hamlets that passed away
like a shadow that falls between our worlds.

I am bringing you home the story of a world–
Hrubieszów, Karczew, Brody, Falencia. . .
Come close and listen to this song–
the Jewish villages in Poland are gone now–
from another one of the saddest nations on earth.

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National Poetry Month, Day Thirteen: Ono No Komachi and Izumi Shikibu

Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani’s translation of “The Ink Dark Moon,” poems by Ancient Japanese poets Ono No Komachi and Izumi Shikibu.

Click on cover to buy from Powell's.

Click on cover to buy from Powell’s.

Hirshfield and Aratani’s translation of the works of two women from Ancient Japan is a wonderful tribute to two of the most celebrated women poets of their times. Komachi and Shikibu, who were part of an ancient Imperial Court of Japan, cover mind, body, and spirit, with intimate and lyrical poems. Komachi longs after a love who can only be with her in secret. Shikibu’s secret affair becomes known in rumors and gossip.

Note: Jane Hirshfield’s book of essays on poetry, “Nine Gates,” has a wonderful chapter on translations which mentions her work for “The Ink Dark Moon.” Since this book honors two women, I present a poem from each.


“When My Desire”

When my desire
grows too fierce
I wear my bed clothes
inside out,
dark as the night’s rough husk.

-Ono No Komachi

“I Cannot Say”

I cannot say
which is which
the glowing
plum blossom is
the spring night’s moon.

-Izumi Shikibu

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National Poetry Month, Day Twelve: Francine J. Harris

Francine J. Harris’s “Allegiance.”

Click cover to purchase from Powell's.

Click cover to purchase from Powell’s.

Francine J. Harris’s “Allegiance” works with undertones of violence, sexuality, and alienation. It doesn’t shy away from those uncomfortable places. Fair warning, this is a heavy read.

Note: For some reason my wordpress is being difficult and it wont keep the indents I type up. So here’s a screenshot of what the poem should actually look like.


why i haven’t written

because there’s a storm coming and nothing to say
and the paper shortage and the last time
we opened windows            from the fever, until daybreak
and the house was dirty
and we were snowed in
and we wondered how close we really were and we said, let’s wait and see.

nothing worth being new.                 since you married, we only speak
of road trips the way one pretends to remember the cross streets of gory accidents
aside from chatter about old friends (who also haven’t written) because

i loved you, the way only a coward can, head cocked and hands out
and because to write would be to bring up the dusky sunset where there
used to be a carnival
every spring for the neighborhood kids. now it’s an empty lot.

and i haven’t written you
because you raised me, and to write would be to traipse a barbed wire
across distance, admit it
would be to erect a cage
to show off what we can’t say.
the days you once woke me
in winter, before school,
are over, and without them                  we are failing.

all of this, i told you the last time i wrote, from the last state,
that i wouldn’t write in case of war, should i suddenly feel
ashamed, and turn up gathering in mobs, or joke about needing
evidence of good people. script gets to be a parasite
looking for soft spots in the skin.

and i haven’t written you
because we are still sharing handfuls of licorice,
and you stick around until it’s gone, and in my head
it’s all over everything while we sort through boxes of old journals, find
space to walk in, the leap of years.

if i wrote, i would need a thousand days for one
to fret that place to place, the pickup in your names turned to echo,
a pollen carried like a praying mantis in white sheets
beneath the desert blades of a fan. and to write
when the fuse blew would be to turn it with my hands.

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National Poetry Month, Day Eleven: Eduardo C. Corral

Eduardo C. Corral’s “Slow Lightning.”

Click on cover to purchase from Powell's.

Click on cover to purchase from Powell’s.

Eduardo C. Corral’s “Slow Lightning” removes labels and external limits to focus on the reality. He looks at the view, instead of the prison bars, then from the view back into the bars. His poetry is not “full of music,” it is music: a sensual, rhythmic flow which undulates on delicious sounds like a dancer would move her hips in heat.

Full Disclosure (again): Eduardo is yet another brilliant poet I am lucky to have worked with. Also, my copy of “Slow Lightning” is signed: be jealous!

Note: I try not to use the first poem in the book, but in this case I did. This poem just moved me deeply, so I had to.

Our Completion: Oil on Wood:
Tino Rodriguez: 1999

Before nourishment there must be obedience.
In his hands I was a cup overflowing with thirst.
Eighth ruler of my days, ninth lord of my nights:
he thrashed above me, like branches. Once,
after weeks of rain, he sliced a potato in half
to remind me of the moon. The dark slept in the small
of his back. The back of his knees: pale music.
We’d crumble the Eucharist & feed it to the pigeons.
Sin vergüenza. Escuintle. He who makes Things Sprout.
In the margins in a book of poems by Emily Dickinson
he scribbled: she had a pocketful of horses/Trojan/
& some of them used. Often I mistook him for a storyteller
when he stood in the rain. A su izquierda, huesos.
A su derecha, mapas de cuero. When I’d yawn,
he’d pluck black petals out of my mouth.

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