and i am the man / laughing: “Connel, Morning”

Image: Port of Spain, Trinidad, posted at Flickr by Georgia Popplewell under a Creative Commons License.

If you have spent any time at all in Port of Spain, you will know — like this poem knows — that it is worth writing about.

“Connel, Morning” comes from the section of You Have You Father Hard Head that focuses on travel: international to inside your backyard, these poems call on their travellers to remark on what is both remarkable and fascinatingly mundane, from flies to skyscrapers, doubles vendors to the devil in the details. Here is a poem that holds it all in the size of a postage stamp calling you into the nation’s capital.

The speaker of the poem has been summoned into town to retrieve “a lost belonging / years of sensitive data”… a laptop, maybe, filled with private correspondences and splendid assignations? The poem doesn’t say, because its speaker is far more entranced with the sights, smells, sounds, and every other possible sensory configuration of Port of Spain waking up in front of him. It’s a wildly imaginative poem, not because it traces for most Trinbagonians an imaginary space: no, the space is as real as you reading this, or me writing. The bravery of the poem, and the innovation, is in giving us a space we know well and saying, with loving audacity, here, hold this. Look at we place, again, closer. Look and listen to this gridwork of dirty streets, doubles vendors, metal-grille shopfront, government plazas, all near to dubious, reclaimed waterfront, and tell me you eh love this place bad, as much as you cuss it.

“the stream of collared workers emptying
from the mileslong procession of redbanded maxis
as far as the eye can see

the sun has risen in my face
the hint of bagasse still wafting
and this is home”

Maybe you’ve made that journey into town from Arima, from Chaguanas, from Vessigny or Basse Terre, day in day out, Mondays to Fridays, dreading that fold-out seat in the scrunched-up small maxi, or the big ones with the lump where your feet should fit neatly. Maybe Port of Spain is nothing but day wuk and slog and tedium to you; if so the poem’s strength is that it doesn’t preach to you in an attempt to force beauty where there is only, mostly rigour. It is the speaker’s rigour, here, to bring tenderness to the urban, rank, unwashed places of their capital, searching hard for love, surprised and something like elated to find it — to paraphrase another great poet, much like a hibiscus sprouting from concrete.

This is the fifth of seven reflections in “and i am the man / laughing”, close readings of the poems of Colin Robinson. Each of these poems appears in Colin’s debut collection, You Have You Father Hard Head (Peepal Tree Press, 2016). Robinson, a beloved and pioneering poet, activist and columnist, died on March 4th, 2021 following a prolonged battle with cancer. He was a powerful creative and transformative force, an ally without comparison, and a truly irreplaceable comrade. He will be missed, and his work will live long and impactfully.

and i am the man / laughing: “I Have No Name for my Father”

Image: Black Boy Booty, posted at Flickr by nathanmac87 under a Creative Commons License.

We are who we are because of those who made us, or so we’ve been told. We model our lives in the shadows and the halos of our parents, and their parents before them: it’s part of what makes us get through the hard, hard grift of living, sometimes — this notion that we’re acting for our legacy, and in defense of the legacy left for us. Be the kind of woman your mother would be proud to call daughter, or, he’s every bit his father’s son, and that’s a good goddamned thing.

“I Have No Name for my Father”, a poem from the section of You Have You Father Hard Head that also bears that name. The phrase “You have you father hard head” is further embedded in this poem, in a line from a mother to her son as she stresses over the unruliness of her child’s hair. The mother figure is a passive speaker here, in that she does not address the reader of the poem, but there is nothing docile or minimal about her impact. Her frustration at the gone father, the one nameless in both her “disappointed woman’s pain”, and the son’s immersion into the deep lake of that teaching, is written everywhere in the poem’s overt and quiet spaces. The mother’s fraying wig is a tactile symbol of more bedrock fissuring. The boy’s indoctrination into self-loathing, sole male pitted against/cradled within three generations of women who teach him feminism and also introduce him to pervasive self-hatred, permeates to every physical part of him that is fatherless. His body lacks the image and measure of a man named father, as much as he intellectually, emotionally mourns the loss of that figure, that man who might never have been there at the beginning.

The name of the missing and vanished man is known, the poem’s speaker tells us in the poem’s opening lines. Yet there is a great distance between knowing a name, and having it. Having implies possession, implies ease or certainty of ownership. There is no having of this father, though the knowledge of his name permeated the speaker’s childhood, was with him as he sat between his mother’s frustrated knees under the bitter tutelage of her fine-toothed comb.

“You have you father hard head”. It’s worth it to pay attention to the echo and reverb of these words, so significant to the poem, this movement of poems, this collection entire. Linguistically it catches the subject in a vise not of their own making: the you have indicts the speaker into an uneasy, almost unsanctioned ownership, saying “You may know nothing about this man; he may have had nothing to do with you, but in your hair and his there is an unbreakable bond. It’s up to you to live with that.” We add to this the knowledge that “hard head” speaks not only of hair, but of an emotional language so many of these poems’ speakers falter and fight to finesse on their journeys: tenacity; ownwayness; vexation; obdurate ire; stubborn troubling of the waters; ignorance — but the Trini definition, allyuh.

We move through this brief poem as though it is much longer than it is — a skill of the poet, compressing an entire life’s searching, questioning for fatherhood in short, taut verses that do not only occupy the page, but trouble it. Towards the poem’s end, poised once more on a platform that can provide no easy answers, no graceful names:

“A grown man now has no names to own
the blankness that I feel
to silence the longing
What is the name for father I can
sound into the darkness for rescue”

What about you, adult and immaculately poised on the balcony of your own life? This feels strongly like an invitation from the poem, not only to focus on this speaker’s pain, but to taste the unnameable borders of our own. What name do we hold in our soft viscera, hoping to mewl it into the night? What name do we want to wave hard, like a flag?

This is the fourth of seven reflections in “and i am the man / laughing”, close readings of the poems of Colin Robinson. Each of these poems appears in Colin’s debut collection, You Have You Father Hard Head (Peepal Tree Press, 2016). Robinson, a beloved and pioneering poet, activist and columnist, died on March 4th, 2021 following a prolonged battle with cancer. He was a powerful creative and transformative force, an ally without comparison, and a truly irreplaceable comrade. He will be missed, and his work will live long and impactfully.

and i am the man / laughing: “The Plural of Me”

Image: Red Gift, posted at Flickr by Eric Martin under a Creative Commons License.

If we are lucky within our sorrow, those who die before us tell us exactly how they wish to be mourned.

You can take “The Plural of Me” in this spirit. For me, right now at least, it’s difficult to read this poem without wondering if this precisely is how Colin the human being would like to be remembered, would choose his loved ones to live with him. In the poem, the speaker makes a simple exhortation of their future mourners, gathered casketside to send them to a respectful and well-appointed grave. “leave no funereal instructions / to coffin my mourners”, the speaker asks their audience, and it is a deliberate gesture on the poem’s part that we do not know to whom the speaker speaks: will this listener, or group of faithful beloveds, be in attendance at the future funeral, too? Is the subject of the funeral a hazy, too-many-rum-punches-over-brunch hypothetical, or is it ensnared in the specific; is a calendar date assigned to the hour of passing?

These are not questions for which there are ready answers. So it is, with what death leaves us and what we are left to take, two-handed and bewildered, from her sovereign wake. It’s as if we are resident within a poem where the speaker already knows this to be true, already knows there will be an “inventing memory from desire for my / respectability achievement bodyparts worthiness”. Faced with this certainty that they will be misremembered, unevenly allocated, imprecisely configured in the minds and testimonies of those left to mourn them, the speaker issues a simple addendum to this necessary pageant.

Box me up in little packages, they say. Let the people of my life and now my afterlife live with me as they may.

Ahh, this shifts the goalpost, or the procession standard, of the terms of the death-deal, doesn’t it? The speaker allows the expected rituals of congregation and varying reports of their stature, but also insists, “if public health allow” (a swiping unintended brutality of the poem, written years before anyone knew our public health crisis of 2021 would make gathered mourning a heavily curtailed transaction), that these mourners must also literally take their beloved home. It matters, the poem tells us gently and sternly, not only how we wail and rend and pulpitize on the day of mourning, but how we live with the departed beloved after there are no guestbooks left to sign, when it is only you and your grief and your remembering: only you you must hold to account for well or ill you served as friend, as ally.

“parcel my cremains like wedding cake
small ribbon-tied boxes
for everyone to travel home with
stamp and spit and pee on as they curse
or smear themselves to rapture”

The poem understands, and waits patiently for us to understand too, that the many stations of death have their own allotted times: that there is the public-facing death, and the several that fewer and fewer know about, til you are distilled to the one death you can hold in your hands, can scoop into your mouth or lay on your tongue like ashes.

It is impossible, and I will not try, to say I can read this poem and not miss Colin. I miss my ally. There is a void and an aching that this writing about his work creates, and I would not wish it otherwise. I want to curse, and smear my ash.

This is the third of seven reflections in “and i am the man / laughing”, close readings of the poems of Colin Robinson. Each of these poems appears in Colin’s debut collection, You Have You Father Hard Head (Peepal Tree Press, 2016). Robinson, a beloved and pioneering poet, activist and columnist, died on March 4th, 2021 following a prolonged battle with cancer. He was a powerful creative and transformative force, an ally without comparison, and a truly irreplaceable comrade. He will be missed, and his work will live long and impactfully.

and i am the man / laughing: “Waiting for your Gun”

Image: Jump, posted at Flickr by Scott McLean under a Creative Commons License.

We never know when we’ll be called on to dive.

Robinson’s erotic poems have long been footsoldiers in the frontlines of my heart’s reaching for meaning. If I am ever unsure I’ll find it in living, I know I’ll feel it in poems like “Waiting for your Gun”, which poises a speaker on the slippery edge of a diving board, holding them there in self-censuring shame over the roundness of their gut, the enormity of their appetites. Our speaker begins by telling us they are awaiting permission: the work of the unravelling poem that follows is to claim that wanting out loud, without a by-your-leave. In effect, the body of the poem splits off from the head, hunger doing backflips and handstands under the water, while the unspoken wanting and waiting treads calmly on the surface of this narrative. Everything you want you can find, this poem tells us — you just hadda go deeper.

I want Colin Robinson’s poems of wanting in my life forever because they do exactly this: show us the entanglements and delectable agonies of wanting, in a world where nothing is as simple or as uncomplicated as a man desiring another man. You will notice in “Waiting for your Gun” that there are no sweeping pronouncements of desire for/of an entire community. There is only this springboard of hunger, the speaker contemplating the directions given by the object of their need, the preparation of that active flame that vaults the reader through positions of athletic poise. We move from springboard to racer’s starting tracks in a tautness of diction that is both anticipatory and avid:

“i was all ready in the starting blocks
not wanting to jump your gun
risk disqualification
you were ripe
and sweeter and bigger and closer
than i had imagined”

The wanting becomes so acute that it transmogrifies into Christmas, that ultimate crucible of desires unwrapped. In those final movements of the poem, the speaker feels childlike again with spitwet fingers peeling ever closer to the epicentre of discovery. Regarding a tree ornament in the hand of a two year old takes on a crystalline urgency, a sense that, in the poem’s last line, “call me i’d hold fast tug and the globe would shatter”. There is no precious holding or handling here. The world of the poem runs on ferality, wrapped in a round belly rippling with its secret stresses of ardour, strong calves tensed to dive, a man the object of desire, just about ready to peel and scarf completely.

The poem asks us, what do we do when we get to the brink of our potbellied, penis-throbbing want? What would you do? Can you declaim it in lines as hot, and holy, and activated in sweat and sulphur, as these?

This is the second of seven reflections in “and i am the man / laughing”, close readings of the poems of Colin Robinson. Each of these poems appears in Colin’s debut collection, You Have You Father Hard Head (Peepal Tree Press, 2016). Robinson, a beloved and pioneering poet, activist and columnist, died on March 4th, 2021 following a prolonged battle with cancer. He was a powerful creative and transformative force, an ally without comparison, and a truly irreplaceable comrade. He will be missed, and his work will live long and impactfully.

and i am the man / laughing — “I Want to Bite”

Image: moonwall, posted at Flickr by stuartanthony under a Creative Commons License.

The poem is telling us about shapeshifting.

One of the earliest poems in Colin Robinson’s You Have You Father Hard Head, “I Want to Bite” is a spare, enigmatic offering, showing the reader vignettes in eight movements. I am fortunate enough to be a nameless stagehand at these scenes, not remotely pivotal to them in any way, but a certain kind of present, a particular sense in which I was both there and not there. The actions of the poem all occur at the 2010 Cropper Foundation’s Residential Workshop, a three-week long creative writing intensive at which I met Colin, along with several other writers whose work, like Colin’s, is as valuable to me as any vital currency.

If you were there, as I was, some of the instances the poem rethreads seem and feel familiar: they hearken to events that happened, as the poem describes them, in 2010: there are tableaux of accusatory linens flapping in the Toco breeze; undersalted food served at a broad table; a visit from a poet who speaks of an intense attachment to lagahoos. There is some satisfaction in the being there, and especially there is a kind of aching elation at not being pinned to any of these scenes: a kind of richness begins to unravel, red and soaked in memory, from seeing the space as Colin the person and poet remembered it, the events that happened in that strange, wild, transformative time when writers gathered as strangers to each other to write and tell each other in kind and unkind terms what they thought of each others’ writing. There is pleasure in seeing the poet transmogrify on the page that which was experience, lived and actual, into the matter of poetry, which needs to express no full fidelity to fact or fiction.

Perhaps one of the greatest powers of the poem is that each of its eight movements, set interspersed at opposite alignments on the page (i starts on the left hand, ii on the right, and so forth) is that you, the reader, do not need to have been there to feel that the world of this place is real: that biting and transforming are crucial to its strange, unheimlich manifestations. In the first verse, both soycouyant and la diablesse are summoned entirely without speculative fanfare, but as simple declarations. Brown blood wells in the second movement, the action of the speaker dislocating their scabs; we move from one brownness to another in movement three, with the advent of a small brown insect visitor, unwelcome and leggy on the speaker’s bed.

Held in suspension from each other, these movements might resemble a disjointed quarrying of the mind over days spent in one place. Yet when the poet tells us, in movement seven,

a poet
hung a lagahoo’s picture
over his bedhead
to seduce verse”

and we turn the page of the book to read the poem’s conclusion:

we should not be ashamed
shift form”

we must acknowledge that this is no idle quarry; this is a rich and unsentimental hoard: eight steps through brown blood, soiled linen, lagahoo energy and too little salt to say a heraldic suck your mudda to shame. That it has no place in these motions of writerly living, though so much writerly living is embedded in shame, the secret, the unaddressed. In so few lines, Robinson addresses so much of it, allowing us to partake in these recollections made poetry, these observances of how life has passed through the poet in a specific place, how the poet, like any good and watchful poet, has taken those memories into the mas of the poem. And what we have, as you can, see — oh, how it transforms us.

This is the first of seven reflections in “and i am the man / laughing”, close readings of the poems of Colin Robinson. Each of these poems appears in Colin’s debut collection, You Have You Father Hard Head (Peepal Tree Press, 2016). Robinson, a beloved and pioneering poet, activist and columnist, died on March 4th, 2021 following a prolonged battle with cancer. He was a powerful creative and transformative force, an ally without comparison, and a truly irreplaceable comrade. He will be missed, and his work will live long and impactfully.

Dearly Departed: A Conversation with Anu Lakhan

Novel Niche is thrilled to unveil this exclusive interview with Anu Lakhan, Trinidadian poet, fiction writer, editor and debut chapbookist. First published by Argotiers Press in 2018, Letters to K is hilarious and heartbreaking, audacious and abashed, like no other letter-set to a dead writer you’ve ever read before. 

Here, I sit with Lakhan over metaphysical tea, and let her tell me all about the elusive J_L_, our protagonist writing missives to Kafka. I might know less for certain at the end of this interview than at its beginning: rarely is a fate so entrancing as when Lakhan’s pen is in the inkwell.

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Novel Niche: Letters to K lets us in on a writer’s deep love for Franz Kafka. Tell us how you feel about Kafka, yourself.

Anu Lakhan: Does she love him? I think there’s a way to go before she feels love—real love—such as one might feel for a mother or a pet. Right now she’s really just looking for someone to talk to.

I, on the other hand, definitely have something rather like love for him. It is very easy to love and admire a dead man. I already know he will not contradict me or shame me in any way. I miss him as if there’d been a time when we were together. Not only his fiction, but his letters and journals are so extensive it’s hard to understand how more people do not find themselves feeling this loss.

He was really quite a noodle. Funny. A funny, silly man in many ways. And yet the work is sharp, dangerous, immaculate. Impossible not to love him.

NN: The chapbook is a perfect vehicle for a series of (one-sided) letters. Is this your first standalone epistolary project? How did it come into being?

AL: This is the longest one so far. I’ve done one-off missives to Kafka before (in which an adolescent girl emails him to ask for help with her homework); to Dorothy Parker (in which a wife writes an agony aunt letter to Ms Parker about uncomfortable, bargain-priced beds); and most recently to the bracing poet Eric Roach as part of a Caribbean Literary Heritage project (in which I break off our engagement because of prevailing weather conditions and extinct animals).

Still want to know how we got to the letters from J_ L_?

J is a character who has long been looking for someone she feels comfortable with. She’s tried—over various stories—to be fine with her own company, with family and friends, and friends of the family (outcomes unsatisfactory). She has enjoyed and found solace in cats, dogs and horses. Occasionally it occurs to her that she should make some greater effort with other humans. So what kind of person would suit? She does not think like Kafka, but she likes how he thinks. She does not believe living as he did would work for her but she admires that he tried. That doesn’t seem like a bad place to start imagining a good companion.

NN: Fundamental loneliness, the narrator J_ L_ tells Kafka, is one of the truths she best shares with the deceased author. Do you think that the lonely turn frequently to the dead, in letters or outside of them?

AL: Not enough. Sure, lots of people talk to deceased loved ones. They may even keep journals that look like they’re addressing specific people.

Dear Mother,
I really needed your help with the garden today.

Dear X,
I miss you and would prefer to be dead at the bottom of a well rather than go another day without you.

That sort of thing. I hear it’s quite soothing. And of course, as Caribbean people, the spirit world is never far from us. But I don’t know if we’ve worked out healthy, non-desperate ways to engage with those not living. This answer holds for both the lonely and the not-so-lonely.

NN: Would the register and intimacy of these letters change if they were purely digital? Would VoiceNotes to K, or WhatsApps to K, be a different sort of endeavour?

AL: They would not be sent by J, so from the beginning the undertaking would be very other. If she seems confuffled in writing, only imagine how she’d trip over herself with VoiceNotes. How many times have you started sending one simple message and ended up saying everything wrong and had to send three or three dozen more to clarify your original thought? Or worse: she might start and after two words be reduced to whimpering. The shame. WhatsApps—equally a no-go. She’d go mad waiting to see the little blue ticks and then she’d fret about his lack of response.

These other options are not open to her because they have a force of immediacy. She’d fall prey to expectations. That wouldn’t do.

NN: Would J_ L_ Skype with Kafka, in another place, another time?

AL: Again, immediate and intimate. It’s too intimate. Kafka could barely bring himself to endure face-to-face meetings with his myriad fiancees. Whenever personal contact was threatened, he wilted. Unless they both kept the video off, Skype would have been a disaster.

The letters were the only things that made sense because they made sense for him as well as J. The same beloved women he couldn’t face, he harassed them into writing him. He demanded letters. Three a day if possible. Gods! They had jobs. They were busy. He was busy. Prague and environs must have had the best postal service ever. If in this time, present time, we had anything like such a good service, email might never have been dreamed up.

NN: Letters to K made me reach for my old, secret correspondences, patterned boxes of love-and-eventual-hate-mail. Which published or private letters do you reach for, in your own life?

AL: I don’t. They usually hurt. I write new ones.

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NN: I read this book aloud for pure pleasure: it would make an excellent audiobook. Who would your dream narrator be? Would you give them any directorial notes?

AL: If J is a young Trinidadian woman, it would be my niece Jaya with her gorgeous sandy voice. Imagine Stevie Nicks young. And Caribbean. And less nasal. That’s my niece.

If J can be from anywhere, I have in mind Saoirse Ronan (as is), Dolores O’Riordan (alive) or Sinéad Cusack (younger). Apparently any woman with a tricky Irish name will do.

I didn’t have much of a J voice in my head (really had to think about it). I heard Kafka reading the letters to himself. Sometimes quietly, sometimes riotously. Kafka would be Adrien Brody with a German accent. Obviously he’d have to spend months in front of open windows, naked, in the Prague winter, preparing for this. Because, of course, K was all about that kind of thing.

Apart from the Brody-naked-window thing, no directions. That’s because I think I’d be a maniac as a director. Better to leave those things to professional maniacs.

NN: An illustration of a piano, done by Kevin Bhall, falls as if in slow-motion throughout the chapbook. What music is on the sheets we see, fluttering to the floor?

AL: A few songs, actually. The pianist who was unfortunate enough to lose his instrument in this—tragically—the most common type of piano fatality, was playing around with:

Scenes from an Italian Restaurant – Billy Joel

Coronita de Flores – Juan Luis Guerra

Last Dance – Donna Summer

Sweet Child of Mine – Guns N’ Roses

It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) – Duke Ellington

See, it doesn’t matter what’s playing when a piano is ready to fall on your head. I’ve found the happier the music being played, the more likely it is the piano is on its way down.

NN: “I am not trying to elevate myself in the literary world,” J_ L_ explains in one of her early letters to Kafka. A writer as a hermit, scornful of and stressed by the literary social scene, is a popular trope… but do you think it makes for better writing?

AL: Oh, hell no. It’s horrible. I know some of the finest writers have lived like this but I think their work is brilliant in spite of such a disposition, not because of it. That is a bitter, bitter world. Somebody is paying in blood and insomnia for it.

By the by, J is not trying to elevate herself in the literary world not because she disdains it but because she’s not in the literary world. She’s not a writer.

NN: In the last of her letters, J_ L_ tells Franz that she’s always felt like an outsider. Are the best stories told from the fringes, and not the centre?

AL: I’m afraid this question is beyond me. I don’t think I’m always sure of the difference between fringe and centre. And as told by whom? The narrator or the writer? Do we always know we’re in the middle? Isn’t it beyond dreadful when we discover we’re on the outside when we’d been thinking we were in?

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Buy Letters to K here.
Read Paper Based Bookshop’s spotlight of Letters to K here.

Letters to K is Anu Lakhan’s first chapbook. She is a poet, writer, editor, friend to cats and Kafka. Born and living in Trinidad and Tobago, she has never knowingly sent a letter to anyone in Czechia, living or dead.

All images © Anu Lakhan.

“The Whistler” – A Mary Oliver Primer

Image: The whistle, posted at Flickr by Amanjeev under a Creative Commons License. Image cropped.

Willa Cather says, “The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one’s own.” What might strike some as an inscrutable terror – how dare we be denied ultimate knowledge of our most intimate? – is an occasion for joy in Mary Oliver’s “The Whistler”.

The scene is tender, domestic, everyday: the speaker is reading in the upstairs bedroom, and their companion, who is downstairs, bursts into a twittering of unexpected whistles. No one is more surprised than the speaker. “It was thrilling. At first I wondered, who was / in the house, what stranger?”

The quality of the companion’s birdsong is key to understanding the speaker’s response. We hear this whistling as if from “a wild and / cheerful bird, not caught but visiting”: what could be more precious code than this, for the truth of human-to-human cleaving? Not caught, but visiting. Perhaps we are happiest when we are forever in the process of visiting each other, liberally and with boundless, urgent affection. There is such an unshackled wisdom in learning you can never fully know another, not even a lover, not even a mother. It doesn’t scare our speaker. No, in fact, they listen long, because it is “finally”, some time after, when they ask, “Is that you? Is that you whistling?”

We are treated to interlocking delights in “The Whistler”. First, there is the speaker’s rapturous wow, upon hearing this companionate whistling for the first time. Secondly, we witness the companion’s own thanks, at rediscovering what she’d forgotten she could do:

“I used to whistle, a long time ago. Now I see I can
still whistle. And cadence after cadence she strolled
through the house, whistling.”

There is no hint of accusation here, no sense that one partner has denied the other a vital emotional lock, to stuff into a locket. Nothing has been concealed, and nothing is to be regretted. As in “Wild Geese” and “The Fish”, there is a gentle pedagogy here: keep yourself open to a total wilderness of unknowing. Recognize you can only ever know someone, anyone, so much, and that there’s joy in the forever-promise of discovering them anew.

You could read the last stanza of the poem as a turn toward the darkly contemplative: “do we even begin / to know each other? Who is this I’ve been living with / for thirty years?” There’s a reason it’s a rom-com trope, right, the guy or girl or un/other-gendered protagonist sitting at the bar, shirtsleeves dismally crumpled, knocking back another amber tumbler of liquid, dryly moaning, “I’m just saying, you think you know someone after xx years? And then. And then…”

Call me rose-tinted, but I just don’t read the ending of “The Whistler” that way. To read it like that, I’d have to believe that Oliver intends “dark” and “lovely” to be opposite states, and I don’t. The dark is often fodder for our nightmares, our skeletal fears, but this poem is a reminder of darkness as resurrection, as rebirth. It’s in the clear, dark beauty of their companion’s whistle that a true revealing opens for the speaker. This is resurrection: a coming to life of an energy, an ability, that the companion herself thought long dead.

“Elbow and ankle- / Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic.” These have been the stations of desire at which the speaker (who we might think of as *the listener*, here) has worshipped their lifelong betrothed. These are the stopping places by which they imagined their mapping complete. Isn’t it thrilling, then, to learn the map has secret places? To learn, and to accept, that no cartography we make of another can ever be complete? There’s freedom, in that, and humility, too. There’s the making of enough room in our houses of commingling awareness and unknowing, to hum a merry tune.

give feral thanks

Give Feral Thanks: A Mary Oliver Primer runs from January 21st – 31st.

“The Fish” – A Mary Oliver Primer

Image: Lion Fish, posted at Flickr by Dave Scriven under a Creative Commons License.

I’ve seen fish being caught off the rocky outcropping of the North Coast at night. What transfixed me most was how violently, how viciously they struggled against death: it’s been years, and still, vividly, I can summon the muscular thrash of a fish torso, the rippling menace of tail sluicing seawater through the black sky, the mute outrage at being plucked from the water with a hook in its mouth. It did not go gently. Good, I thought. Good for you. 

“The Fish” frames three movements for us: first, a capture; second, a consuming; third, a symbiosis. On this tripartite structure are so many religious doctrines founded — yet see how gently, how sternlovingly, Oliver gives us an entire sacrament, a fully-infused transubstantiation, in a poem that could be scrawled on the back of a napkin. Death is everywhere in this brief ode to the absolute truth that we are who we devour: after all, the poem’s speaker doesn’t tell us this is the first *and last* fish. No, we sense, dabbing scales away from our lips with moist towelettes, this is the original fish, the prime meal.

There is nothing to regret in it, and our speaker leaves no room for remorse on the gutting table. We receive a gift, instead, as the narrator “opened his body and separated / the flesh from the bones / and ate him.” If this fish-killer grapples with internal conflict, she doesn’t share it with us, unlike the speaker in another famous poem entitled “The Fish”, by fellow late American woman poet, Elizabeth Bishop. In that poem, there is a squaring off, a metaphysical showdown between fish and woman, one that ends in release from the angler’s line:

“He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely.”

Bishop’s fish is a grizzled veteran of the tides, wearing old hooks from former tangles with death, like survivor’s jewellery. Bishop’s narrator doesn’t have the heart – or has too much heart – to put him down after a hard-won life. By contrast, who can say how old Oliver’s fish is? We know it fights, we know that it “flailed and sucked / at the burning / amazement of the air” before it perishes at the bottom of the pail. Its gradual death, in one of the poem’s most seemingly effortless lines of beauty, is “the slow pouring off / of rainbows.” All of this grappling endeavour, all of this ungently going into the good night: she who kills the fish eats every morsel, every scale and eye of experience.

This, we sense, is part of the alchemy of Oliver’s “family of things”. Specifically, it is a poem of place in the strata of that great world tree. “The Fish” is a ritual map: a promise, if you like, of what will happen when you kill, when you feed. The third movement of the poem opens the speaker, mirroring the speaker’s opening of the fish:

“Now the sea
is in me: I am the fish, the fish
glitters in me; we are
risen, tangled together, certain to fall
back to the sea.”

We will never travel alone. That is the assurance of this poem, which it makes without sentimental overture, without any truths but the truth of a fish’s carcass, each flesh-picked bone a skeleton key of certainty. It is an examination of the sometimes-grim, sometimes-gay covenant we make with the subjects of our pain. What we kill and eat becomes part of the ledger of our living: we eat its pain, its life, its every silvery thrash in the sea. Everything we murder for our survival, we give permission to one day, cosmically, ache us right back.

give feral thanks

Give Feral Thanks: A Mary Oliver Primer runs from January 21st – 31st.

“Wild Geese” – A Mary Oliver Primer

Image: Wild Geese, posted at Flickr by liz west under a Creative Commons License.

In Las Lomas where I grew up and still return every Sunday morning, wild parrots wake me up, the incantation of their united screech a resonant, strangely innervating chorus. I have always felt the press of the wild more closely in Las Lomas, and it is a complicated wilderness. I have had a calamitous, giddy lifetime of loving the bush but not always loving myself there. I think Mary Oliver would have understood this. I think the work she produced proved that she did, long before I took my first steps down to the rich, uneven dirt of my family farm.

“Wild Geese”, published in 1986, is a disarming of a poem. If it were a person at the funeral of someone you love(d), it would be the stranger in the sensible shoes who makes you a cup of coffee — inexplicably, perfectly as you take it — passing it into your trembling hands without demanding you say a word. The only confession the poem asks of you is one you make to yourself, holding up the ledger of your life like a mirror scrawled with your own red-lipsticked secrets.

We see how simply Oliver begins.

“You do not have to be good.”

When James Baldwin spoke in 1984 of writing a sentence clean as a bone, this, surely, is what he meant. The poem is full of them, lines that strike deep and true to the marrow of the worst sins we’ve committed, the thousand and one minor dishonesties that take us through the day, the times we’ve struck our children after promising we never would, the divorce papers we sign while sick to the stomach, the evasions in tax and in tenderness. This poem may be the only forgiveness forthcoming. This poem may be the only opportunity for the worst we’ve done to rise to the surface, to be boiled off like frothing scum.

What an unburdening of a poem we have here, what a permitting, soothing assurance. Oliver gentles without tranquilizing, tempers without a full euthanasia of mercy. For there is still the despair of the world, at one’s doorstep; the poem makes that as plain as the balm of self-forgiveness. The cure for too much human spirit on the earth, “Wild Geese” gently, sternly proposes, might be the earth itself, unfettered of us.

Hearkening to nature is its own morality, of course — “the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain”, “the prairies and the deep trees”, “the mountains and the rivers”. Built into the poem is the subtle, yet vibrant suggestion that nature provides its own testing: after all, the cry of the wild geese above us is as harsh as it is exciting… and excitement itself is no antidote to danger. Yet, if you were to choose a way to be a more complete you, to be a you less shackled and conscripted to a desert of penance, this is the thrill you should choose, exhorts the poem.

Above all, whether your appetites are natural or nuclear, “Wild Geese” is a poem of the imagination as heroic instrument. It is the mind that will save us, or flay us. A different, as-necessary poem, Nicole Sealey’s “A Violence”, ends with:

“A body, I’ve read, can sustain
its own sick burning, its own hell, for hours.
It’s the mind. It’s the mind that cannot.”

Where do you turn, when the incendiary notion of your forced goodness threatens to kick you out of yourself? You turn to your mind. To its inviolable queendom. Even if you sicken. Even if you suffer. Even if there’s no forest for miles. Tune into yourself, and you will find as many wild geese as you desire.

give feral thanks

Give Feral Thanks: A Mary Oliver Primer runs from January 21st – 31st.

“How to Fix a Dancer When it Breaks” – Genevieve DeGuzman

Image: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet – Teatro Arcimboldi, posted at Flickr by Elisa Banfi under a Creative Commons License.

The Dhammapada gives us what might be one of the most perfectly concentrated poems:

“There is no fire like passion;
there is no losing throw like hatred;
there is no pain like this body;
there is no happiness higher than rest.”

The fact that there is no pain like this body is the root, the seed, and the fountain of so much that calls itself poetry. “How to Fix a Dancer When it Breaks” is cut from that vast fabric, too: an understanding of the body as an active site for pain, perpetrated by one who both wounds and repairs it.

DeGuzman sets a narrative stage of trauma: “bull / horn temper breaking china” threatens the grace of the speaker, whom we read as the dancer. Undeniably, the dancer suffers, but retains a resilience that can withstand their aggressor/medic’s worst violence. The poem takes us through the aftermath of one kind of violence, through the routine of another, ‘healing’ ritual: the repair of the dancer, which is its own tenderness, and, we suspect, its own subversive brutality too.

I best like the ways in which DeGuzman renders the body for us, in terms both medicinal and mechanical: “Life begins in the joints / and facets, yanked cords and pulley systems. / Lumbar and sacral spine spindle.” Though the dancer’s body is ostensibly at rest while being sutured and scoured clean — a “clean slate” and “restart, erase” — the poem sparks, grinds and rotates with an uneasy kinetic energy.

The speculation of repair — its possibilities, its limitations — is under the microscope in this puissant, fierce poem. At its end, we’re given the speaker’s resolve to hold: told to ‘bear it’, they say they will. But we don’t know what will be broken the next time, no matter what arts of medicine and malice may emerge.

Read “How to Fix a Dancer When it Breaks” here.
Genevieve DeGuzman is a poet and writer of fiction. Visit her website here.

bon voyage.jpgThis is the twenty-sixth installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.