Poetry and Connecting/Illuminating the Unseen

I love poetry for numerous reasons:  how it makes me feel, the way it conjures rich vistas in the mind as though with a paintbrush, the way it provides a container for paradoxical and contradictory ideas, the way it links those ideas together in a way that echoes a puzzle piece falling into place (as though nothing really made sense until those pieces clicked into place), and the way all of these things combine to reflect our lives back to us in an artful, thought-provoking, formative, and radical way. To me, poetry is nothing short of revolutionary for its ability to reveal and illuminate truths, and reconnect us to our innate humanity. Like food, like air, like shelter, I cannot live without it.

There are thousands of poems that evoke those emotions in me, but I couldn’t possibly begin to recount the collective totality of my readings in this blog post. I can, however, share a poem that represents many, if not all, of the things I love about poetry.

Several years ago I was standing next to a woman at a writer’s conference, and started talking to her only to realize part way through our conversation that she was Rae Armantrout. I was stunned at not only our chance meeting, but our chance conversation. Rae Armantrout is one of my favorite poets. And her poem called “Advent” is one of my favorite poems. I promptly gushed about what her poem means to me, and she said “You wouldn’t believe how many people have told me that. It’s so interesting. What is it about that poem?”

I’ve been thinking about her comment ever since. And I realized just as I was sitting down to write this post, that it evokes so many of those things I mentioned in my first paragraph. It contains contradictions, paradoxes, truths, illuminations, fresh insights, rich images, and yes, radical revelations and recastings of the stories we tell. With it’s religious title of “Advent” and its finely-tuned juxtapositions of seemingly unrelated word/ideas, this poem can seem dense and difficult to glean all the implications of its language, despite it’s very short, terse phrasing.

But packed within this tightly controlled and spare language is nothing short of a bomb that exposes and recasts the conceit of human creation. It speaks directly to the stories we tell ourselves, who’s telling those stories, and what the deep underlying truth of those stories really are. The way I read it, it’s nothing short of a manifesto stating where we’ve been and where we’re going as women reinvent the world in which we live. And that is nothing short of revolutionary.





Immigrants As Humans

Sometimes I’m astounded at the need to say certain things. Such as the title of this blog post. But in the time of Trump, and in the wake of #shitholegate, some things become necessary. After all, a full third of Americans have lost their minds and are still devoted to this Taunter-In-Chief. And so it’s more than necessary to say that immigrants are humans. It’s more than necessary to actually provide evidence of that humanization. And it’s more vital than ever that we never lose sight of the fact that we are all connected, all one, despite our differences.

Take this poem by Agha Shahid Ali called “A Lost Memory of Delhi.” What I love about this poem are the many layers of humanization happening in it:  the tender memory of his home country (Shahid Ali immigrated to America from India), the imagining of his parent’s lives before he was born, and the ever-present mystery of one’s lineage. There isn’t one of us alive who doesn’t have this story, a home country, a parent(s) who brought them into being, a lineage (known or unknown). We all have it. There is no escaping it. This is what it means to be human.

A Lost Memory of Delhi

I am not born
it is 1948 and the bus turns
onto a road without name

There on his bicycle
my father
He is younger than I

At Okhla where I get off
I pass my parents
strolling by the Jamuna River

My mother is a recent bride
her sari a blaze of brocade
Silverdust parts her hair

She doesn’t see me
The bells of her anklets are distant
like the sound of china from

teashops being lit up with lanterns
and the stars are coming out
ringing with tongues of glass

They go into the house
always faded in photographs
in the family album

but lit up now
with the oil lamp
I saw broken in the attic

I want to tell them I am their son
older much older than they are
I knock keep knocking

but for them the night is quiet
this the night of my being
They don’t they won’t

hear me they won’t hear
my knocking drowning out
the tongues of stars

Oblivion: A New Year’s Prayer

As we make the turn from one calendar year to another, let us remember this: “whatever returns from oblivion returns to find a voice.” That applies to the personal, the political, the metaphorical, and the planetary. It is this phrase that has helped see me through the past few months, that I didn’t even realize I was subconsciously meditating on until it rose to consciousness one day. It’s from one of my favorite poems by Louise Glück, “The Wild Iris,” from the book of the same title.

I first read/heard this poem in 1993 when I was 19 years old. And to be honest, I was very unimpressed and unmoved by it. I even heard Glück herself read it at a reading (where she, and I want to say Donald Hall?) were reading in Ithaca, NY. And aside from the fact that this poem wasn’t the style I was into (think spoken word, narrative poetry), it makes complete sense to me that I didn’t like the poem. I was 19. What did I know of oblivion and long lost voices? I was just beginning to discover my voice, having never really had much of one before. My entire life was trying to foment. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I rediscovered the absolute brilliance of Glück and this poem.

And so for anyone who has lived some real years on this planet, and who has been at all conscious for the past apocalyptic year, I challenge you to read this poem and not take something from it. What if the “speaker” of this poem was a long lost part of yourself, dormant like some sort of flora or fauna underground through a long winter? What would s/he say as s/he rose up out of the ground again? I ask myself these questions every time I read this poem. And every time, the answer is different. We change, we evolve, we grow, we become aware, we become oblivious. Then we do it all over again. Such is my prayer for the new year.

The Wild Iris

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.

Hear me out: that which you call death
I remember.

Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.

It is terrible to survive
as consciousness
buried in the dark earth.

Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.

You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:

from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.

Inequality, Plain and Simple

I stumbled upon a deceptively simple poem called “beverly, huh.” by Jamila Woods the other day. Woods is one of the recipients of the 2015 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowships. I’m always interested to read the poets that win these fellowships both as a measure of the poetic climate and a chance to read great writing. Sometimes I’m disappointed, but other times I’m deeply satisfied that such a great writer was recognized. This holds true for Jamila Woods. Her poem immediately struck me as being in conversation with the likes of Lucille Clifton, Jude Jordan, and Gwendolyn Brooks, yet having wholly her own voice – 2015-style.

beverly, huh.

you must be
made of money.
your parents
must have grown
on trees.
bet you’re black
tinged with green.
bet you sleep
on bags of it.
bet your barbies
climb it.
bet you never
bet you never
had to ask.
bet you golf.
bet you tennis.
bet you got
a summer house.
bet you got
a credit card
for your 5th birthday.
bet you played
with bills for toys.
bet you chew
them up
for dinner.
bet you spit
your black out
like tobacco
that’s why you talk so
bet you listen to green day.
bet you ain’t never heard of al.
bet your daddy wears a robe
around the house.
bet his hands are soft as a frog’s belly.
bet your house is on a hill.
bet the grass is freshly cut.
bet you feel like a princess.
bet the police protect your house.
bet you know their first names.
bet your house has a hundred rooms.
bet a black lady comes to clean them.

The repetition of the “bet” that’s woven through this poem gives it an informal, conversational feel, a grounding and intensity as the things Woods “bets” on become more and more layered. The stakes keep getting upped with each and every “bet” and the way the poem spills down the page in a freestyle, spoken word kind of form, adds to the heightening. No fancy words. No clever phrases. No capitalization. Just plainly stated assumptions. And those assumptions touch upon that place where race and class intersect, and this is what makes it so accessible and moving. Regardless of where we are on the color spectrum or the class scale, it’s something we all experience – consciously or not – being a part of a race, a part of a class.

There’s so much humanity in Woods’ “bets” that it’s hard not to feel sympathy for the speaker. In this time of the greatest income inequality we’ve ever seen in this country, and the way that inequality disproportionately affects people of color, it’s poems like this one that need to be seen, heard, and shared.

Coal on a Snowy Day

It’s the first snowy day in Massachusetts. We’re about to light a fire in our old coal stove and I was reminded of the poem “Coal” (in the book of the same name) by Audre Lorde. A poem that is decades old, this poem struck me as being as relevant as ever in today’s culture wars over whose voice gets to be heard and who are the gatekeepers of such listening. It also took on new meaning as we stare down the threat of repealing the Net Neutrality laws that allow us the same access to the same information, rather than creating a channel of corporate-controlled information to a chosen few who can afford it. Yes, all of these things were triggered by rereading Lorde’s poem. And I think she’d be pleased to know that, because she was the ultimate fully integrated human being, aware of the systems in which she lived and carving her own blazing path through that darkness in a time when voices like hers were so marginalized: woman, African American, lesbian, feminist. This poem today reads as a bit of a manifesto of these times to me, as I imagine it must’ve felt to her when she wrote it.


is the total black, being spoken
from the earth’s inside.
There are many kinds of open
how a diamond comes into a knot of flame
how sound comes into a word, coloured
by who pays what for speaking.

Some words are open like a diamond
on glass windows
singing out within the passing crash of sun
Then there are words like stapled wagers
in a perforated book,—buy and sign and tear apart—
and come whatever wills all chances
the stub remains
an ill-pulled tooth with a ragged edge.
Some words live in my throat
breeding like adders. Others know sun
seeking like gypsies over my tongue
to explode through my lips
like young sparrows bursting from shell.
Some words
bedevil me.

Love is a word, another kind of open.
As the diamond comes into a knot of flame
I am Black because I come from the earth’s inside
now take my word for jewel in the open light.


Here’s to Audre Lorde, a woman deeply of, and ahead of, her time. And here’s to hoping that we take every person’s word as jewels “in the open light.”

The Once-in-a-Decade-Book You’ve Been Waiting For

Go buy Rachel McKibbens new book of poetry, blud, printed by Copper Canyon Press. It’s that rare book of poems that reminds you how and why you can’t live without poetry. Ever. This book is that essential, that haunting, that seething with rage, that heartbreakingly and unflinchingly honest, that full of the blood-jet of powerful writing, that it takes all your willpower to put it down and go back to the humdrum of the day. Every poem in this book rails forward with the momentum of a runaway train. There are no “filler poems” or lulls in the story being spun. The insights she gleans, the language she uses and how it informs and/or receives inspiration from her imagination and narrative, are all wonders to behold on every page. Take this fine poem near the beginning of the book:

a brief biography of the poet’s mother

There was
a child
the blue song
of her brain,
an early maggot

Her mother,
a jealous
with looking-glass
hands & a tub
full of bleach

thieved & thieved
until the child
a quiet room

a silence born
of interrogated

Girl is the worst season.
Mother no guarantee.

No clothes or meat,
no heavy tit wrecked
with milk.

So the blue song
became a dirge,
then the dirge
became a girl.

This is the first of several poems in the book describing her relationship with her mother. In a span of 78 words, we learn that the girl was born with a “blue song / of her brain,” her mother was a jealous sort and “thieved & thieved” from the child until a silence took root in her “interrogated / flesh,” and then finally that the girl’s “blue song / became a dirge / then the dirge / became a girl.” We’re told that being a “Girl is the worst season.”

Story, imagination, musicality, and form are all present and accounted for in this poem. What’s more, they’re executed well. And that’s why this poem packs an emotional punch at the end.

Nearly every poem in blud contains these elements. It’s what Gregory Orr calls the “four temperaments” of a poem. Even just reading the title of each poem in the table of contents feels like a dare to enter each temperament: “maybe this will explain my taste in men,” “poem written with a sawed-off typewriter,” “letter from my heart to my brain,” “deeper than dirt,” “fairy-tale pantoum for my seven-year-old self,” and “dead radio apostle.”

But aside from all this dissecting and polemicizing, ultimately what makes this book the kind that feels so rare is it’s emotional register. There are plenty of really great poets, and plenty of really great poems. Some even exist collected together in a singular book. But there are few books that standout like blud does. Emily Dickinson famously said, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” That is the visceral experience I had reading blud. And also being punched in the gut, sunk in the heart, and razed in the soul.

Writing the Unspeakable: Trauma and Transformations

I’m drawn to dark poems. When a poet is able to reveal some kind of past pain or trauma, and do it in such a way that new understanding is gleaned, where something beautiful is created out of the depths of that darkness, I feel part of that new understanding as though I too am part of a community of self-reflection and healing. The very act of the poet writing a trauma is radical and wholeness making. But I also see many poets go terribly wrong in this arena.

Some writers try to capture the trauma by simply recounting the event, telling it detail for detail. The effect is one of recreating the wound all over again, fetishizing it, re-perpetrating it. Rachel McKibbens new book of poems Blud is an example of how not to recreate the wound all over again, but to transform it, to make it into a reckoning with the beauty of language and a catalyst of self-awareness. Her poem “The Sandbox” walks a very tight line between letting the reader in on what this trauma was, and buoying us with the necessary transformations of art-making.


for Lisa or Laurie

We held each other / in silence / mouth against mouth / blood & thunder
scorching the grass / Behind the shed / I played the husband / brutish
breadwinner / choking her flesh / in my troubled hands / pulling her head
back / to lick / from neck to ear / in frenzied thrill / The kind of love / I
learned from movies / & what light swamped the air / as I shoved my bald
pelvis into hers / blood ripening into wolf brine / burning a girl-shaped
hole in the clover? / Every afternoon I became a god reinventing sky /
expert forger of the dry hump / I asked Who’s your daddy? before that was
even a thing / Once the recess bell rang / I released her back / into the
quiet unwild / to no-longer-mine / to fat white tubs of minty paste / &
songs about Jesus / From across the room / I watched my bride / make
eyes / with the real boys / & knew I could kill for her / drill a body down
into the earth / boy in the Polaroid / a grisly figurine / The white horse of
masculinity bucking wild on the inside / I bit my lip & did as I was told /
After school / I wanted / to hold her hand / she always wanted a divorce /
When the big kids followed me home / calling me / lesbo / homo / wetback
/ faggot / I held my chin out & challenged to fight them all / every time /
& why not? / Might as well / we all knew / I would never / win / anything.

I love this poem for so many reasons. First, I relate to the childhood exploration around sexuality and what’s acceptable behavior within the societal hetero-norms that we all experience. Second, I love how controlled she is with the telling of what happened, and the language she accesses to do it.

When she says she “played the husband” and then further defines what her already absorbed societal notion of a husband was like as “brutish breadwinner / choking her flesh” we’re let in on the cultural messages that a child’s mind receives and how it plays out within their relationships and interactions with other kids. Whether or not we’ve ever had the exact experience McKibbens recounts becomes irrelevant, since it’s the universal experience we all have of grappling with what those hidden messages are that we all receive as children.

In McKibbens’s case, she’s revealing that she’s aware now of what those messages were. And whether or not we write poems, this is something that we all have the ability to do, to come to terms with how this culture has shaped us and encoded us with implicit and explicit biases. McKibbens demonstrates this awareness again and again in this poem. She’s aware that she was exploring her own masculinity inside of a female body, and what the “rules” were around this exploration. Despite her intentions, she knew that she could never truly embody the masculine nature that she wanted because the boys were the only ones truly allowed to embody this persona. As she says at the end, she knew she’d “never / win / anything.”

This “winning” seems to be the crux of the poem’s meditation on gender norms and acceptable sexual expression. She knew, somewhere inside of her as the child she was, that she wasn’t going to “win” at this game she was playing. This is the major transformation of this poem. When you begin at a place of not understanding the pain you’re experiencing, to then naming that pain, you’ve forever altered your ability to dwell inside of that place. It’s not just a scary dark beast that torments you. It’s flesh and blood of a different form: it has a face, a name, a characteristic, a way of moving in the world.

How we come to terms with these parts of ourselves, determines how easily we can move within the sphere of ourselves and the cultural space we all occupy. We didn’t create the world we were born into, but we are all actively creating/re-creating it on a daily basis through our ability to transmute the unspeakable/unknowable/unseeable into something intimately alive and seen.


Pablo Neruda, Spaciousness, and Love

“I love the handful of earth you are.” This line from Pablo Neruda’s “Sonnet XVI” is one of my favorites for the way it conveys the deeply rooted nature of love, and how love is the very body we live on. Love is as elemental as the stars in the universe. Yet poetically, it’s one of the hardest states to capture on the page. It’s so easy to slip into the usual metaphors, the usual language. It’s also difficult to capture the magnitude and weight of being in love, the real and imagined things at stake. Pablo Neruda’s “Love Sonnets” are some of the most erudite, passionate, and prescient love poems I’ve ever read. Specifically, “Sonnet XVI” and “Sonnet XVII” slay me every time I read them.

Sonnet XVI

I love the handful of the earth you are.
Because of its meadows, vast as a planet,
I have no other star. You are my replica
of the multiplying universe.

Your wide eyes are the only light I know
from extinguished constellations;
your skin throbs like the streak
of a meteor through rain.

Your hips were that much of the moon for me;
your deep mouth and its delights, that much sun;
your heart, fiery with its long red rays,

was that much ardent light, like honey in the shade.
So I pass across your burning form, kissing
you — compact and planetary, my dove, my globe.


Sonnet XVII

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:
I love you as one loves certain obscure things,
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that doesn’t bloom but carries
the light of those flowers, hidden, within itself,
and thanks to your love the tight aroma that arose
from the earth lives dimly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you directly without problems or pride;
I love you like this because I know no other way to love,

except in this form in which I am not nor are you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close with my dreams.



Part of what’s so masterful about these poems is the way Neruda uses relatively simple language and achieves both the descriptive and emotional complexities of love. But what really touches me about each of these poems are their sense of spaciousness. There is at once a rendering of the minute details of his lover in both concrete and metaphorical terms (“Your hips were that much of the moon for me”), and a gesturing towards the enormity of the feeling of being in love (“I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.”)

In “Sonnet XVI,” I love how he goes from the first line “I love the handful of the earth you are” to the lines in the second stanza “Your wide eyes are the only light I know / from extinguished constellations.” This leap from the “earth” of the lover’s body to the eyes being like light “from extinguished constellations” sews the sense of spaciousness that permeates these poems. It’s as though the poems are breathing with the enormity of earth, and earth’s place in the greater constellations of space. In other words, love is so massive in understanding and feeling, that the only way to place it, to truly reckon with it, is within the scale of the universe itself.

This is also why I love the lines in “Sonnet XVII” that say “I love you as one loves certain obscure things, / secretly, between the shadow and the soul.” The lens has been directed inward on a microcosmic scale: we don’t ever fully understand the soul. It’s specific enormity within us is just as vast as the outer world we can never fully grasp. These lines are no less beautiful in the native Spanish language Neruda wrote them in: “te amo como se aman ciertas cosas oscuras, / secretamente, entre la sombra y el alma.” Further testament to how translatable and universal in scope love is.

On Wounds and Power

More than 20 years ago I started a relationship with a poem called “Power” by Adrienne Rich. I describe it this way because of how many times its meaning has perplexed me, evolved, shown itself to me in momentary illuminations that slip away as quickly as they arrive, and reflected who and where I am at different points in my life. The poem begins with a meditation on what’s buried in the earth and uncovered, then recounts a rather famous story about Marie Curie, a Polish/French chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity in a time when there were very few female scientists. In other words, its premise is deceptively simple as far as poems go. A fact that further baffles me over the way I’m at times blind to its meaning despite its apparent translucency and straightforward communication. It’s the ending that does this to me, again and again and again. Here it is in entirety:


Living in the earth-depositis of our history

Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil

She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
her wounds came from the same source as her power

The last stanza is what I’ve grappled with for as long as I’ve known of this poem. If we’re to read this poem in all its literal content about Marie Curie and the way her research actually poisoned her body, the ending cannot be understood in the same context as the rest of the poem. We understand the first part of the last stanza, that Marie Curie was famous, and died from her wounds, but that she also denied that she was wounded by the very thing she researched for so long. This seems easy enough to follow along with given the context of the rest of the poem. But then we’re told again, that she denied “her wounds came from the same source as her power.” And it’s this revelation that blows the lid off the literal interpretation of this poem. How can a wound come from the same place as power? If we’re powerful, isn’t that very declaration at odds with the notion of being wounded? What Rich has done is highlight one of those contradictory energies that we’re prone to assuming cannot coexist. Surely if someone is powerful, they’re not wounded. Conversely, if someone is wounded, then that would mean they’re not powerful.

And yet, what Rich honed in on the many decades ago that she wrote this poem is something that, if we really pause to think about it, reveals that the two energies of being powerful and wounded are inextricably tied together. The more I think about my own life, and what ways I consider my own self powerful, it becomes nearly impossible to see any of that strength or power as being able to exist unless I had been wounded in that very spot at some point in my life. Being open to this painful observation in turn produces even more power by summoning a sense of understanding over the paths I’ve travelled in life. This seems to be the very heart of why this poem’s meaning eludes me at various times.

Sometimes I’m deep within the wound, unable to see its connection to my own power, or how it can transform into anything full of light. And sometimes I’m only within my power, pulsing with all its radiance so that I forget the darkness that it started out as.

Cheryl Strayed used this poem and those very last lines to illustrate her own wrestling with wounds and power in her memoir/movie Wild. I loved this book, and remember that at the time I was reading it, I was in yet another space where the last line of Rich’s poem was unknowable to me. I remember I even had trouble connecting it to the place that Strayed was in along her own point of reckoning. I couldn’t see how her wounds and power were connected, or that of her mother’s. I’m fascinated at the way I can so clearly know this line and find it impenetrable.

Rich hit upon a universal truth so elemental that it goes to the very heart of our nature as humans. By examining our own darkness, we find a light that transmutes to a self-guiding power. To avoid the darkness or wounds of our actions or behaviors or thoughts, is to cut at the very source of our power. And this relationship can work in the inverse way as well: our power can cause a wound. We can be vulnerable in that very place we are strong because the body remembers what seeded the strength to begin with, and maintains a proclivity that for that same pathway. This poem has enriched my life in countless ways over the years, and I cannot imagine living without it. And I suspect that I’ll never be done reflecting on its meaning since its close to the very marrow of what it is to be alive.