I recently recorded a poetry craft talk for The Writing University Open Courses program, which will implement another session of its “How Writers Write: Talks On Craft and Commitment” series in the coming year. My talk will be released along with talks from numerous other poets; readers and writers all over the world can participate, join discussions, and hopefully find inspiration for their own writing. I spoke about the poetics of accretion and assemblage, so it seems appropriate to collect just a few bits and pieces to share here. I hope you tune back in for the rest of the talk, when it’s available.
In the talk, I note some moments when poets seem to speak in and through their poems to a process of poetic making — meta-commentary on the poetics of accumulation, accretion, collage, assemblage, curation. I found myself focused on Michael Dumanis’s poem “Joseph Cornell, with Box,” which presents itself as a monologue in the voice of the visual artist Joseph Cornell, while it also functions as a kind of ars poetica, a poem about this kind of poem-making. The poem begins:
World harbors much I’d like to fit inside
that the parameters preclude me from.
I’m the desire to have had a say.
I’m the desire to be left alone
amid brochures for Europe’s best hotels
behind a locked door on Utopia Parkway,
where Brother, crippled, rides his chariot,
where Mother’s all dressed up and going nowhere.
Together, sotto voce, we count hours,
fuss over newsprint, water down the wine.
When I was shorter, we were all divine.
When I was shorter, I was infinite
and felt less fear of being understood.
I am the fear of being understood.
Cornell himself is best known for his “boxed assemblages.” If you’re not familiar with his work, think of a diorama, but instead of a child’s representation of a scene, Cornell’s boxes contain fragments, gewgaws, photographs, bric-a-brac, odds and ends. Although Cornell didn’t think of himself as a Surrealist, he taps into the Surrealist strength of arresting juxtaposition. In Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell, the poet Charles Simic writes, “Somewhere in the city of New York there are four or five still-unknown objects that belong together. Once together they’ll make a work of art. That’s Cornell’s premise, his metaphysics, and his religion.” It’s no surprise that a poet, Simic, feels pulled to the work of Cornell, or that another poet, Dumanis, feels similarly. This sense of bringing together disparate things and finding the resonance between them, letting juxtapositions clash and reverberate, making meaning as the mind attempts to bridge their gaps — this sense is also the work of much of contemporary poetry.
In Dumanis’s poem “Joseph Cornell, with Box,” an imagined Cornell addresses his box directly:
You are the obligation, Box, to harbor
each disarray and ghost. I am the author,
the authored by. I am a plaything of.
Who makes who Spectacle. Who gives whom Order.
One might say the same of Dumanis, or any of us who tries to articulate our experiences of existence through the parameters of poetry: “You are the obligation, Poem, to harbor,” and so on.
Later, this version of Cornell and Dumanis says:
There is an order to each spectacle.
The poem ends:
I’m the ballet of wingspan, the cracked mirror.
Canary’s coffin. Sunshine breaking through.
Ideas of both spectacle and order seem crucial when approaching a poetics of accumulation from a craft perspective. A poem like Wallace Stevens’s “The Man on the Dump” shares a kinship with the Cornell box as well, speaking to the art-making inherent in a cumulative accretion of language. But order is what distinguishes both the haphazard piling up of a dump and the curated space of Cornell’s box from the poems that reflect upon either one of them—as opposed to the dump or the box which exist as places and things but not as events, the poem curates not only space, but also time. The poet guides our attention through the “objects” of the poem, and we encounter the curated objects, images, and so on in a curated order.
In this sense, to get an accurate sense of the craft of a poetics of accumulation, we might need to make a distinction: the poem is not “like” the assemblage itself, or the dump itself—it is the record of one mind, vision, and sensibility’s encounter with that accumulation.
The initial process of accumulating the materials for such a poem might be haphazard — a magpie’s attention to the shiny bits and pieces around us — images that arise from memory or observation, fragments of speech, even simply favorite bits of diction — words that strike our ears and beg to be remembered. We might not be ready to give these materials an aesthetic context upon our first encounter, but we inevitably order the reader’s encounter. In Dumanis’s final couplet, we have a little Cornell box of details, but we also have the “order” to the “spectacle”—the poet takes us on a particular, personal journey from image to image. What might appear an artful jumble to a reader, is in fact an encounter with that jumble, orchestrated by the poet himself.
While I focused on Dumanis in my recent talk, Cornell’s boxes also captured the poet Frank O’Hara’s imagination in his box-shaped poem “Joseph Cornell.” John Ashbery dedicated his “Pantoum” to the artist. Kristina Marie Darling wrote an entire collection, The Moon and Other Inventions: Poems After Joseph Cornell, inspired by Cornell’s techniques.
And the love affair between poets and Cornell went both ways. As Tamar Yoseloff writes, “Perhaps no other artist of the 20th century was so indebted to the poets he loved and read as Joseph Cornell,” citing the French Symbolists Apollinaire, Mallarmé, Nerval, as well as his “particular affinity” for Emily Dickinson, and his correspondence with his contemporary Marianne Moore.
Even prose writer Jonathan Safran Foer is captivated, and prompted other prose writers to explore their connections with Cornell’s work.
Simic’s poetic prose in Dime-Store Alchemy is a lovely place to begin reading about Cornell, and a lovely place to begin assembling poems inspired by Cornell’s techniques is… absolutely anywhere.
Years later, my mother would tell me how it worried her, my childhood obsession with The Mosquito Coast, which my family owned on VHS and which I insisted on watching repeatedly. If I stayed home sick from school, this was the movie I requested. My mother would hit play on the VCR and leave me to spend a few hours staring transfixed at the screen—at the jungle and the waterways and the promise of a new world discovered wild and untouched.
My mother thought the movie was too adult, too nightmarish for her nine-year-old daughter. But she let me watch nonetheless, peeking into the room now and then for a hint of what had so captivated me. Harrison Ford played Allie Fox, a brilliant but untethered inventor who moves his wife and four children to a primitive settlement in Central America to escape the evils of American consumerism. They make a new home in a jungle characterized by wild creatures and “savages” and all forms of uncivilized danger. River Phoenix plays the eldest son, Charlie. It is through Charlie’s eyes that the story unfolds.
The film is based on Paul Theroux’s 1982 novel, which I would not read until adulthood. But it was clear even back then, from the opening scene, that the movie I loved came from a book. Against the backdrop of American farmland, Charlie narrates:
My father was an inventor, a genius with anything mechanical. Nine patents, six pending. He dropped out of Harvard to get an education, he said. I grew up with the belief that the world belonged to him and that everything he said was true.
At nine years old, I didn’t yet know for sure that I wanted to be a writer, but the dark unraveling of the events in The Mosquito Coast made me pay attention, like I was filing something away for the future. It was an adventure tale about a regular American family packing up and running away to the jungle. It was a father-child story about power and ego. It was a story of survival, pride, and spectacular failure, and it was always Charlie—thoughtful, somber, good-hearted Charlie—who guided us through the story in his own voice. His father was the bigger character, the bright flash of genius and charm, but Charlie was the one who controlled the narrative.
Charlie’s voiceovers offer a reflective context for the crises the family faces as Allie descends into delusion. Allie builds an ingenious settlement in Jeronimo only to destroy it with his own invention, a massive ice-making machine. As the movie progresses and the family’s situation becomes desperate, Charlie views his father through an increasingly cynical lens until, at last, his hatred cannot be contained: “I hated his shoulders, his greasy hair, the slant of his spine. I imagined how it would be to stick a knife in it, just below his ragged collar.”
It took courage to admit those violent fantasies, I knew, even if only to yourself. Maybe that’s part of what drew me to The Mosquito Coast: the complexity of admiring and simultaneously despising someone you’re meant to blindly love.
As much as I was drawn to Charlie and how he chronicled his new world, I was still a nine-year-old girl who couldn’t entirely see herself reflected in this older boy. As with other movies I watched as a child, I found myself unconsciously searching for the girls—girls whose stories were usually told on a much smaller, narrower scale. These girls served as mere background for the male characters, but I sought them out anyway, hoping for a glimpse of something I might recognize as closer to my experience.
The Mosquito Coast did nothing to dispel my ingrained understanding that it was men and boys who were the central characters in a story, particularly an adventure story like this one. But I did have something to hold onto during my repeated viewings: Charlie’s five-year-old twin sisters, a pair of red-headed little girls who play a passive, but not coddled, part in their family’s journey.
The twins make only minor appearances in the film, but I couldn’t get enough of them. How young they were, how marvelously identical, how brave to face the jungle. Soon after reaching their new home of Jeronimo, one of the girls shrieks in distress; a leech has attached to her leg. This scene lasts only seconds, but I waited for it with anticipation every time I viewed the movie. The scream, the mother’s desperate rush to find her, the fact that a five-year-old was able to wander out of sight in the jungle in the first place—it stunned me. I could identify with those twins, could imagine myself into their place. I was at once terrified and enthralled at the prospect of entering such dangerous land unprotected, where a leech or baboons “as big as men” could upturn my whole world.
Like the twins, Allie’s wife, played by Helen Mirren, has a limited role in the film. The novel portrays this character as sometimes skeptical and often wise, but even in the book, she is granted no name. Instead, she is simply “Mother.” Early in the movie, on the morning Allie is packing up his family for Central America, Mother stands before a sink full of dirty breakfast dishes. “Leave those,” Allie tells her. “Leave them. We’re getting out of here!” She hesitates, but when she looks back at the steaming, cluttered sink, she smiles.
“She feels free,” my mother said during our first viewing of the film, which we watched as a family. “She’s happy to leave it all behind.”
In this way I understood that my mother, too, was drawn to the dark unknown. That some part of her wouldn’t mind abandoning conventionality, to take a boat deep into the jungle just to see what was there. To live a new kind of life.
Certain scenes from The Mosquito Coast remain with me today, scenes that my younger self watched over and over without tiring of them: How Allie tries to transport an ever-shrinking block of ice through the jungle, only to unwrap the banana leaves at last to find only water. The monstrous ice machine exploding into flames. The family escaping, dirty and scarred and traumatized, on a boat.
These are moments full of failure, danger, fear, and conflict. I think of my child-self watching these scenes, and I wonder what she was learning about story and character. At the time, I was just starting to realize that maybe stories had rules, a structure for how they were told—and even if I didn’t yet understand that structure, I was compelled by it. This was no less clear than at the end of the film, which cracked open my conception of how stories could be made.
As The Mosquito Coast nears its conclusion, Allie lies injured with a bullet wound. During my first viewing with my family, I wondered aloud if he would die, and my older brothers laughed at me. They said that was impossible because Allie was the main character, and main characters never died.
At first I took their words for truth, assuming they knew some unspoken storytelling rule that I didn’t. For half an instant this rule made sense to me in a comforting sort of way: When we tell a story, the protagonist has to remain safe in the end. I could see how such a rule might make the world of story orderly and sane.
But The Mosquito Coast would prove to be an education. Allie does indeed die, shattering my new understanding of storytelling before it had a chance to set in. And not only does Charlie lose his father, but he seems stronger for it.
“Once, I had believed in Father, and the world had seemed small and old,” Charlie narrates. “Now he was gone, and I wasn’t afraid to love him anymore, and the world seemed limitless.”
This final voiceover is set over the last image of the movie: the family’s boat moving downriver to the ocean. More than anything, it was this scene I loved. I was drawn to the quietness of the family’s escape, the grief and the acceptance, and how I knew Charlie’s story would continue even after the credits rolled. It was a tragedy I felt safe watching from the safety of my home, where my mother hovered nearby and where I could learn how stories came alive and how they came to an end.
I watched The Mosquito Coast again and again for this ending. I watched it for the jungle, the river, the twins, the risk and the rage. I watched it for the final image of the family’s boat heading out to sea. I watched it for all the possibilities in the world.
In many of my columns for the Kenyon Review blog, I’ve been exploring what we hold onto and what holds onto us. What do we try to discard? What haunts us? What do we keep and cherish; what do we lose despite our best efforts? I’ve meditated on everything from the books we keep, the friendships we cut loose; the trauma of a loved one’s sudden death; the postcards fluttering at the corners of our desks.
In this final post, I interview fiction writer Rachel Hall, whose first book, Heirlooms, grapples with the enormity of what it means to lose your home and the people and places by which you know yourself. Heirlooms considers the losses incurred by refugees and immigrants during the Second World War. Hall writes about the effects of the war on four generations of a Jewish family, beginning in France and ending in the American Midwest in the 1980s.
Heirlooms, forthcoming from BkMk Press this September, is the winner of the 2016 G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction. Hall is a professor of English in the creative writing program at the State University of New York at Geneseo. Her family’s wartime papers and photographs, the inspiration for these stories, were recently donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Our conversation occurred over email this July.
What images, ideas, or questions inspired or drove the writing of Heirlooms?
I grew up looking at family photo albums and listening to family stories. I’m lucky that my mother is an excellent storyteller, as were her adoptive parents, my grandparents. I loved their stories about the war in France, loved hearing them repeated, and in particular the way a new detail might emerge.
At some point I began wondering what was left out or smoothed over or forgotten altogether. I also had questions that couldn’t be answered. We knew so little about my mother’s biological mother, for instance, because she died at twenty-seven, just as the Germans were invading France. In each photo we have of her, she looks very different. My grandmother didn’t talk about her much and when nudged would only say the same few things: she was an excellent seamstress; she was jealous; she could be very fierce. In Heirlooms, I was interested in exploring memory, erasure, and loss.
These stories are based in part on family stories. How did you decide to write the book as stories and not creative nonfiction essays? And having chosen fiction, what differentiates linked stories from a novel?
Heirlooms is inspired by my family stories and many of the events in the book happened in real life. For instance, the situation in “La Poussette,” in which the neighbor woman refuses to share her bounty, is something that really happened. I don’t know if that woman denounced my family, but someone did and my mother and grandparents had to flee the farm in haste. In my research, I learned that there were two and half million letters of denunciation sent to French prefectures during the Occupation. Many were motivated by jealousy and possessiveness, rather than an affinity with the Vichy racial laws.
Fiction allows me to wed what happened with my research and try to understand why someone might act as they did. I can’t know what the neighbor woman thought or felt, but fiction allows me to step into the shoes of these characters, to invent and imagine and suppose. I think fiction brings the reader closer to the events than CNF can. I guess, too, I wanted to stay out of the stories in a way I didn’t think CNF would allow. And of course, there are stories in the collection, which are more invented than others, which wouldn’t have been possible with CNF. In “A Handbook of American Idiom,” for instance, I allow the Latours to get rich from the shampoo Jean brews in his basement. The real life situation made for less compelling—and believable!—fiction.
As far as stories versus novel, there are several answers. I love that linked stories allow me to slip into a number of different character’s perspectives and points-of-view. I also appreciate that with stories, I can make leaps in time between events. Remember, too, that I was inspired by family photo albums, and I think the story form is true to that inspiration, providing glimpses into lives from different angles and at different times. But also, honestly, it was less daunting for me to think in terms of stories rather than a novel. As soon as I wrote the second story, I thought of this project as a linked story collection—but my agent called it a novel. It does move chronologically, too, like a novel.
How did you come to “Heirlooms” as a title?
“Heirlooms” was first the title of the story by that name, a story that is about all the things that get abandoned or sold or lost during war and immigration. It’s about the lack of tangible heirlooms, really. I’ve always been interested in old things: antiques and vintage clothing, old houses. I’ve often been envious of things my friends have inherited—pearls, furniture, candlesticks—not just because these are lovely things, but also because they act as memorials and markers, calling to mind those relatives who first used them. I’m also interested in what can’t be cast off—anxiety, fears, hopes and dreams. Some of these get inherited too, we now know.
How important was research in the writing of this book and how did you research what you needed to know or learn?
My grandmother was a painter, and the stories she told me were like her art—impressionistic, vivid, colorful. From her, I got a sense of how she felt during the war but I didn’t always get information about how things worked. For instance, she always told us that as soon as she heard that Jews were to register with the City Hall, she took my mother—a toddler at the time—and fled for the Unoccupied Zone. I needed to research to find out what sorts of papers were necessary for her to do this. I had to consult maps a lot, too. I’m fortunate that my mother, who was a child at the time of the war, has since studied France during the Occupation and could recommend books and supply information too. She’s also fluent in French and helped translate letters and papers.
I found journals from the war years to be especially helpful. Two in particular that were critical for this project were The Journal of Hélène Berr and Agnès Humbert’s Résistance: A Woman’s Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France, in which Humbert writes that she began her Resistance work after Paris fell to the Germans out of a need to speak with like-minded people. This was an explanation for risking one’s life, as she and others did, that I found utterly convincing. I’m not a big risk-taker, but I’d have a hard time not being able to speak my mind. Imagine if we couldn’t commiserate with friends about Trump, for instance.
What is something you figured out in the process of writing this book that you think you will carry into your next project?
I was surprised when I finished writing all the stories, a process that spanned many years, that they held together. I didn’t work methodically from beginning to end; I wrote out of order, following my interests. I’m not an outliner or particularly good at big-picture stuff, so I worried that I might have lost sight of things or dropped balls. I learned to trust my process. I hope I’ll carry that with me into my next project, but I suspect this is one of those things I’ll need to learn over and over.
What is something you are currently reading or paying attention to that feeds your writing?
I remain interested in history as a source for my fiction. Mark Twain has said that history doesn’t repeat, “it rhymes”; and that is, for me, what makes history such rich material. We feel some familiarity with the events because they remind us of current events, but we also feel a strangeness. People might have held different notions, but human nature is essentially the same: Velcro wasn’t invented, nor minivans, but the desire to fasten and transport was there.
I’m reading Luke Mogelson’s stunning story collection These Heroic, Happy Dead, which looks at those damaged by recent wars—both soldiers and their families. I’ve got Emma Cline’s The Girls set aside to read next. I’m also intrigued by the way technology is changing our lives and relationships, so I’ve got Nancy Jo Sales’s American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Life of Teenagers set aside, too.
A few years ago, I scrambled my first boulders at Old Rag Mountain, reportedly one of the most challenging and dangerous hikes. Coming and going, the nearly nine-mile hike itself took us the entire day as my friend, his father and I stopped every now and then to enjoy the views and rehydrate; it was June, and what began as a cool morning soon warmed up. When we got to the boulders, I watched his father climb them first. Then my friend followed suit, turning to take my hand if I needed help. Sometimes I did, but I was stubborn and wanted to climb them myself. Sometimes I was successful.
After the hike, we showered and then went out for chicken and beer. I was woozy (it turns out I didn’t drink enough water, which one should when a hike is that long and strenuous), but felt a new sense of accomplishment. I liked feeling this kind of exhaustion, the exhaustion of pursuit, the exhaustion of returning to your life below. Somewhere in the course of our long dinner, my friend noted I had a “natural athleticism” that, in his opinion, was unfortunately marred due to my predilection for daydreaming. Scrambling boulders had taught me to focus, he’d said, but he noticed during the rest of the hike that my mind would wander, that he’d try to pass me the water canteen and I’d turn to him with a dreamy look in my eye, my thoughts elsewhere.
While at the time I argued that I was simply blown away by the natural beauty of Old Rag, that I made sense of the world in concrete, crowds, and crossing block after block (due to my city-dwelling life), I understand now that I do daydream, and quite often. This happens whether I’m in a ballet technique class or playing one guard in a basketball game. Of the latter I can envision elaborate plays to set up players so best utilize their skill, but then once the game gets going, that’s when I get distracted. Because that’s when the writing happens.
When my husband and I walk home from dinner on these hot summer nights and I see kids and adults alike glued to their phones playing Pokémon GO, a game largely unsuited for people like me who like to wander in body and in mind. In motion, I cannot focus for long because, for lack of better words, it’s when I’m walking that I hear the music—by which I mean I hear the poems or prose I’m going to write.
And it’s when I write that I am intensely focused—often I forget to eat, do the laundry, or answer the endlessly ringing landline when I’m in the thick of it. I lose track of time. It’s just that getting there requires me to let my mind drift and stray. So my writer self scrambles boulders: all there is myself-and-the-boulder, and climbing to the top. My in-progress self is the dreamer, the castle-builder in the desert, the deserter, the dissenter, the touch-and-go of the world around her, from which she enters and departs; all of this together is what I mean when I say “hearing the music.”
All that said, I still enjoy scrambling boulders, and I’d rather play sports (however badly) than watch them. There is one exception, and that exception has existed since 1997, when Tim Duncan was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs as the first pick.
I might be alone in saying that Tim Duncan was one of the most exciting players to watch. Because in every game, Tim Duncan was scrambling boulders. He arrived, already a step closer to the summit. And flash won’t get you anywhere on a boulder; it’s all about focus.
It’s all about hearing the music.
* * *
In 1997, the Twin Tower era was born and San Antonio was a serious team to contend with, winning their very first championship in 1999. With Duncan by his side, David “The Admiral” Robinson retired as a champion in 2003; I was living in Jerusalem at the time and could only watch the highlights online until almost a year later, when my brother bought me the DVD set of those games along with the Sport Illustrated issue where Duncan and Robinson were named 2003 Sportsmen of the Year. When I left Jerusalem and had to leave many things behind, these came with me. Because in Jerusalem, and now in New York City with not one but two basketball franchises, I remain a Spurs fan. And among us Duncan is not only Duncan, TD or The Big Fundamental, but also known as Timmy.
Any Spurs devotee will tell you that our kind of fandom is a whole different animal. Despite the “beautiful game” argument, there’s been many an article explaining why the Spurs aren’t as exciting as other teams, on or off the court. Perhaps our biggest celebrity claim were the Tony Parker-Eva Longoria years. And if you wanted the insane-fancy, if you wanted pizazz, you watched Manu Ginobili execute passes like this and three-point shot-clock beaters like this. Timmy is solid. He is all about the perfection of the fundamentals, about playing the game as it was meant to be played: as a team. (Side note: Kobe Bryant, who also retired this year, recently stated that TD is “More cutthroat than people give him credit for. I loved everything about him on the court.”)
The lack of flash and personal ego set him apart from other legends of the game, and even after Robinson retired, there was the one and only Gregg “Pop” Popovich, the anti-Mark Cuban if you will, whose no-nonsense, blunt style often turns the tables on reporters and puts in “a league of his own.” Off the court, Pop’s quiet pursuits include a passion for wine, “foreign films, Dostoyevsky and fine food“; you’re not going to hear of Page Six exploits. And there could not be a better match in this world than Pop and Timmy, even if Popovich hosted a news conference in the Big Fundamental’s honor—without the player present. The usually straight-faced Popovich got emotional. I imagine Spurs fans everywhere did as well. I know I did.
* * *
It was a great disappointment that Duncan did not retire winning one last championship, like Robinson. I’m not going to argue whether or not he was The Best Player in the last twenty years or some other honorific that Duncan himself most likely would not care about in the first place. Let his career show what he was. He’s played for nineteen seasons. If he felt it is his time to retire, then it’s his time to retire. The only thing worth arguing about, at least in my eyes, is that TD was never boring. He was a graceful, loose-limbed, who-you-turn-to player that, as Kobe stated, definitely had a fierce, contagious determination to win. Some have made precious the iconic image of him hugging the ball before each game; I see it as something more telling of his focus and dedication, his constant physical and mental adjustment to a game that wears out the body and mind as the years pile up. For Duncan on the court, the spiritual is the what-you-did. It’s not a promise but the proof, a moment of stillness in a packed stadium. It’s the hard work put in, the nothing-came-easy, the silence he could find amid the screaming fans.
Below are tributes from two poets and a musician who played on the drumline during a Spurs NBA finals game. I’ll always remain a Spurs fan; after all there’s still Parker and Ginobili, as well as incredible talent like Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw, LaMarcus Aldridge and veteran David West. But the sadness is real, knowing he won’t return next season. In that conference in honor of a player who shies away from such things, Popovich said it best when he said:
“He’s made livings for hundreds of us, staff and coaches, over the years and never said a word, just came to work every day. Came early, stayed late, was there for every single person, from the top of the roster to the bottom of the roster, because that’s who he was, in all those respects . . . He’s irreplaceable . . . We’re all unique, but he’s been so important to so many people it’s just mind-boggling.”
Here’s to you, Tim Duncan. Here’s to hearing that music that came from deep within you, that music that will never end, that will outlive all its courts, their summits, and those who seek them, who endlessly, achingly, seek them.
* * *
In 5th grade, I started playing basketball for the first time. I was at a new school, desperate to fit in, and basketball was the one thing all the boys at St. Paul did. I wasn’t much into sports; I preferred playing Pokémon and watching Twilight Zone reruns. I liked the Sonics, but they were my hometown team and I was supposed to.
To get me to take the game more seriously, my dad told me to watch the Spurs and Tim Duncan. He knew I was quiet and reserved, told me I could be like Duncan: unassuming, quietly good. I became enamored with Duncan. I started following the Spurs religiously, rooting for them in the playoffs. When they beat the Sonics in ’05, I was only mildly disappointed. In Duncan, I found someone who I thought was like me, someone I could identify with more than Kobe or Kevin Garnett. More than that he kept me interested in basketball when the Sonics were moved to Oklahoma City, and I no longer had a home team in the NBA.
So, thank you Tim. Thank you for making me a basketball fan. Thank you for keeping me one. Simply: thank you.
The last time grown men cried, one who many deem the greatest entertainer, to have ever lived, had died. Grown men cried again July 11, out loud, in the cybersphere, in our houses—and I, along with them, grief over what we know will never be replicated again, and if one comes close, it will be a rarity. Duncan is generational.
In each case, we lost an era, in my eyes and in those of many—the Beethoven of their respective industries, the true star power of a time. We know this—their predecessors, The Great American songbook and sports-book of names, were their loudest appreciators—in the first’s case: Bernstein, Astaire, Sinatra, Mandela—in the latter: Russell, “flattered” to be compared, Duncan was to Russell what Russell was to Jackie [Robinson], Robinson’s favorite athlete to watch [in any sport]; the NBA logo, West, stitching strings of praise for Duncan; Magic’s “I love everything about Tim Duncan.” Jordan, claiming Duncan could have played in his era. Pundit Marc Stein offered this, two months back, saying he is “the closest thing to Russell . . . we’ve ever seen.”
Singular in the best of ways, victor, champion, king—Atlas—he carried this team on his back, still so in the quieter years; he was the anchor, the boat, and the sea—nothing, there, without him, would be—golden. The way his defense and offense would sing, my God does he deserve this outpouring.
The second most playoff wins in NBA history?! Forty years old, two decades of humble power. My eyes never left him during the minutes he played. He was key. I studied his defensive moves; the non-statistical, where he’d discombobulate triple teams; his sky hook that sang like Beethoven’s highest note in his grandest chorale; his crosscourt pass; the speed and accuracy of Marino and Montana, strong shoulders heaving, as he hurtled the ball to the open man he spotted down the length of the court; the keen eye of knowing. Alert. And “always” ready. His one-legged, one-handed Hail Mary, him falling back, and it went in. Clutch. Especially in the OT.
Shaq said, THE UNBREAKABLE CHAMPION. Power. Grace. The way he backed up a defender, defending, all the while, even as he was on the offensive, ready to spin—jab step, once, twice, fake-out, pump fake, pump fake, pump fake—again; like breath in poetry, like dancing, the brain in chess, timing, and brawn—sinews tight; he backed you down, his whole body heaving, steady—muscular overtures, but loose enough to spin, and bank that geometric shot off the glass, and in.
To me, he was The Ninth Symphony. And he “rocked, steady.”
Musicians always joke about how many (or, more often, how few) people they’ve played for. I joke with my buddies about that little gig that one time: drumline on the court, playing the intro for the Spurs starting line-up. And not just any lineup, but the post season lineup. It was the playoffs, baby, and at the moment, we’re in the NBA Finals.
So there I was, center-court, Spurs logo beneath me. It was a very, very dark and sold out AT&T Center; for the next few moments, because I had the intro, I was completely in charge of that building. Boom! Spotlight, muscle memory, drums, a final note and an eruption of cheers that took my breath away. The lineup starts as we leave center court and shortly after I hear it, “Tiiiiim DUNCAN!!!” Crowd goes nuts, drumline floats off court and we’re done.
I have a bucket list and this was definitely not on it. Of course, I was ecstatic and eagerly added it to my new and improved bucket list. Playing on the biggest stage for the team you love, in a city you love, while the people you love are watching somewhere in another state.
The best part was not playing with my friends or being where so many dream to stand. It was not playing for 5 million viewers or the temporary social media rock star status. The best part was playing for five million and “21.” I’m beyond thankful for that opportunity and I’ll never, ever forget it.
Thank you, Tim Duncan.
—Michael K. Gomez aka “The DMG”
Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Lighting the Shadow. Four Way Books, 2015. 136 pages. $15.95.
This fourth collection by Rachel Eliza Griffiths transforms what the eye sees; as a gifted photographer as well as poet, this poet is definitely up to the task. The majority of these poems display emotionally subjective meaning: the speaker nimbly drops into moments of import and rapidly gifts image after image, with the splendid attentiveness of her language bringing the reader close. Other poems do reveal their interiority to the reader, using a mixture of lyric and narrative in language that bends the knowable, such as “The Woman and the Branch”: “Carrying the glass / inside my skin to school, I was young. / Show us what you have, the world said.” The theme of womanhood appears immediately, with four poems in the first section using some variation of “woman” in the title, and one discovers that womanhood is essential to nearly all the poems. Griffiths builds thematic layers to create intersectionality, for history is a crossroads for women—the history of just-passed moments and ancestral history, too. Another theme is violence, but rather than relying upon terrifying physical spectacle, Griffiths translates trauma into beauty, and, in turn, presents political transgression. As one reaches the end of the book, Griffiths continues to braid political images through her lyrics, threads that tug the reader through mentions of various forms of abuse: police brutality, violence towards women, and various instances of inhumanity. But throughout this book, glimpses of joy: “Sometimes prayer.” Last words: Though themes reoccur, what is most striking about this collection is Griffiths’s amazing innovation. She revisits themes, yet her familiarity is never stale—she never writes the same poem. Instead, in the words of the ancestors, she “troubles” the moment. —HFJ
Patrick Ryan Frank. The Opposite of People. Four Way Books, 2015. 80 pages. $15.95.
Patrick Ryan Frank won me over to his broadcast when, in “Commercial for a Weight-Loss Plan,” he imagines what really happens between dieters’ before-and-after photographs. The gap advertisers blithely skip past is filled, according to Frank, with “the swearing of a girl who kicks the slow / untrained dog of her body, then feels bad / and feeds it every sweet scrap she can find.” Frank’s scathing sympathy is all too familiar: we project ourselves ambivalently onto characters flickering across our small screens, seduced but also horrified by our own fascination. Frank’s second collection pays tribute to television-watching in poems that are often short, funny, and strongly metered. His is a retro project—don’t we all just binge on Netflix now?—but the book’s wistful mood deepens its meditations on television trickery. The best poems, in fact, remind me of Philip Larkin’s envious sense of having lost out. “The Comedian Takes the Stage,” for example, presents a memorably cringe-inspiring monologue—who gave this guy a microphone? The intermittent “Patrick Ryan Frank as . . . ” series is also especially well cast. In “Patrick Ryan Frank as the Alien,” for example, Frank manifests with a “theramin voice,” inspires disgust in the heroine, then reflects, “No one / lives beyond the planet of himself.” C’mon, tune in—this is smarter and more entertaining than that reality show you’re streaming. —LW
James Byrne. Everything Broken Up Dances. Tupelo Press, 2016. 76 pages. $16.95.
Poets are makers making them attuned to creation’s dark opposite. What’s a poet to do with damage? Mourn, sing, and dance is one answer from James Byrne, whose Everything Broken Up Dances tours the wreckage of the early twenty-first century—Burma and Syria and Libya but also New York and London. In the Greco-Roman ruins of Sabratha, Libya, the persistent remainders yield a lyric ambivalence between making and breaking:
my face sang
in the glasshouse of the tragic actor
and was neither healed nor lured
by the attending lyre of Bacchus
or Concordia’s matted scarf of serpents
I sat in the mosaic hall of the three graces
smelling out the tarry bitterness of human meat.
Some poems sing, others fire staccato shots in a barrage of sensory detail, recollection, and damning impressions:
mirrorlicker. you snooze, you win.
A loud selfie to cure worrywarts.
the dust particulates. no tallying
the bodycount. scene in Damascene.
hearse ears. silence is a threshold—
the buzzfeed echoes like hills.
This is a poetics of witness that exposes a gruesome and ecstatic truth. Poems are built on the bones of others. This may not, however, be cause for only alarm. In “Night,” set in Lattakia, Syria and dedicated to Adonis, darkness provokes a question: “How to rinse out the ears of the world / so the world might see itself in this night?”
How indeed? Bombs burst and bullets ring out nearly every day of late. Byrne poses questions evermore urgent because the answers are evermore uncertain. —JC
Eduardo Chirinos. Medicine for the Ailments of Falcons. Trans. G.J. Racz. Literal Publishing, 2015. 174 pages. $19.95.
Eduardo Chirinos curiously begins his nineteenth and final collection of poems in 1385 with the story of Chancellor Pero López de Ayala, once taken prisoner by the Portuguese army. Chirinos and his longtime translator G.J. Racz tell us the poet’s body sheltered the chancellor as a “lodger.” Chirinos reveals:
I wrote these poems as a prisoner for this inmate, beneath the somber flapping of a mordant, demanding raven or, perhaps, a falcon that demanded medicine to treat its maladies and alleviate its ailments, as did I.
What follows are twenty-eight poems that blur the line between the poet’s lived and unlived experiences, mirroring the sense of both captivity and displacement from his own body. Although written during Chirinos’s battle with cancer, Edwin Madrid in the Latin American literary journal Cuadernos hispanoamericanos tells us: “This is not a book strictly about his ailments, but about the possibility of writing while ‘a lodger’ undermines his body” (my translation).
Chirinos followers will find the poet’s signature themes of music and animals interwoven with a particular focus on colors, senses, language, and world literatures, as if the poet were trying to experience them on the deepest possible level. In “On a Poem by Victoria Guerrero” he writes:
“All combinations are perfect tonight, all
combinations are possible.” I read this sentence
over and over (on page 19, dated 9/2) and I think
about López de Ayala in a Portuguese prison,
about all the colors in the world, about the words
I should be able to pronounce without stumbling
Cyclophosphamide, Methotrexate, 5-fluorouracil).
The poetic subject constantly turns through new and old memories and, while López de Ayala is not explicitly present in all but two poems, we’re never quite sure who or what is behind the pen at any particular moment. Yet, one thing remains quite clear: this is a collection of poems beyond just one body. “I write about animals / to forget my body to escape from myself,” Chirinos divulges (“Poem Written on the Seventh Day of Autumn”).
Racz’s skillful translation has the feel that it too hosts a lodger: Chirinos’s original Spanish. This act of an inner and outer body, total surrender to another’s words is unique to exceptional works of translation. Here, Racz gives English-language readers the gift of reading the great Eduardo Chirinos one last time. —OL
Jesus Castillo. Remains. McSweeney’s Poetry Series, 2016. 107 pages. $20.00.
If you are a fan of quiet and meditative epic poems, then you should have Remains fall into your hands. One of Castillo’s critiques of contemporary poetry is its tendency to be solipsistic and cryptic, “The subject matter and context of a line can be mysterious, but the feelings in it, the intentions behind it (multiple and contradictory though they may be) should be clear.” Remains covers a plethora of mundane thoughts in unelevated language over its six sections. Inspired by Silliman, Lerner, and Spicer, Remains is a long collection of short vignettes following no clear pattern or organizational structure. The project is structured in what Castillo calls “self-sustaining sections” which were first contained on index cards. While there are phrases or single lines that may stand out from one vignette to the next, there are no clearly quotable elements or phenomenally outstanding markers from any section that give insight to the collection as a whole. What readers are left with are rain-covered emotional responses and the overarching themes of exile/loss, technologically induced loneliness and societal alienation—fractures and fractals of contemporary life. The lack of headings or titles outside of the numerical sections also leaves readers with no hints of how to prioritize or categorize the self sustaining sections found on the page—a truly democratic, nonhierarchical presentation of the work. As with any good meditative practice, you leave the last page of this collection with a mind empty of the concerns you began the process focused upon and full of the possibilities of the process itself. —SO
Khadijah Queen. Fearful Beloved. Argos Books, 2015. 120 pages. $16.00.
Khadijah Queen’s compelling third collection (she is also the author of three chapbooks) examines the power of fear, its damages and outcomes. “In some bodies / you are not learned but I learned” she writes in one of the “Dear Fear” poems appearing throughout the collection. These epistolary poems—there are eighteen—are one of the threads that structure the book, along with the title poem, which is interspersed section by section through the collection. It is a rich and complex book, an aggregate of modes and formal patterns. In writing about the book, I find myself having to resist words like “interwoven”—even my use of “thread” feels overly delicate for a book as robust as this one—because I think Queen is up to something more complex than weaving a seemingly seamless garment here. The shifts between and among different poems and modes and voicings here sometimes abrade and often unsettle—as a reader, I found myself telescoping between intimacy and distance. In the hands of a lesser poet, this might make for cacophony, but Queen is a virtuoso of voice, and these intimacies and distances are also between voice and body. The title poem details a love affair continually under siege by one lover’s fearful history: “Bleed nothing: she pulls back at the slightest hint of / annihilation.” In “Coronado,” the imperative voice—“Ask a woman who has had her nipple bitten off if she liked it”—suggests both the denials of a social order that refigures sexual violence as pleasure and the denials by which trauma victims sometimes reckon with unspeakable acts. The body is not just written about but metaphorically indexes interior life, from the “girl [who] checked herself in the mirror for emotional seepage” to the “18 [tender] places in muscles for collecting / hurt,” a reference to a diagnostic tool for fibromyalgia, a condition Queen writes about in a handful of poems in the volume. Because Fearful Beloved is not an easy read, its rewards are significant ones. The final poem tells us:
I think I’ve discovered your secret & a secret
weapon against you, which isn’t a secret
if you listen—not you, fear
but us, as you—deciding how to exist.
On Joyce Carol Oates’ Wild Nights! Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway and Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of the Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, & Martin Johnson Heade
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