Chiasmus

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Watch what happens in this lovely poem by Karen An-Hwei Lee:

Dream of Ink Brush Calligraphy

In prayer:

quiet opening,

my artery is a thin

shadow on paper—

margin of long grass,

ruderal hair, sister to this

not yet part of our bodies

your lyric corpus of seed

in rough drafts of pine ash,

chaogao or grass calligraphy

in rough drafts of pine ash—

your lyric corpus of seed

not yet part of our bodies:

ruderal hair, sister to this

margin of long grass,

shadow on paper,

my artery is a thin

quiet opening

in prayer.        

A Better Way to Fail

 Colorado. 1955.

The crumpled piece of paper had gotten stuck in the back corner of the cubby, wedged into a gap in the cherry veneer. I had been slowly working my way across the row of shelving, clearing out the academic residue of another sixth grade year. With a bit of wrangling the paper came loose, unfolding to reveal an old Latin quiz I had given my students months earlier.

Radical Correspondence

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We are happy when for everything inside us there is a corresponding something outside us.

– William Butler Yeats

I was twenty when I learned what is essential about metaphors. The poet Albert Goldbarth asked his introductory class to open the bundle of photocopied poems he’d made, and directed us to a page that lay, purposefully out of time, between Wordsworth and Sappho. Upon it were twenty words by Gregory Orr:

Washing My Face

Last night’s dreams disappear.
They are like the sink draining:
a transparent rose swallowed by its stem.

I well recall the pedestal sink and pipe that Goldbarth drew with chalk to ensure we saw the shape the poem made. And I remember the way he drew the shape within the shape: surface petals made of water draining into a moving column of its making. And surely then he must have noted the iteration of that shape within us, for it comes so readily to mind: atop a column, the wakeful brain, an outgrowth of a stem. Further and further, he led us into the poem even as he led us deeper into ourselves. We talked of the cleansing agency of dream life, of the ways water and dreams relate. Only the clock stopped us.

Though I did not know Emerson’s work at the time, I was starting to see what that cheerful visionary said was “easily seen”: metaphors “are not the dreams of a few poets, here and there,” but essential offshoots of our nature. Man, he said, has been “placed in the center of beings, and a ray of relation passes from every other being to him.” He described this relationship as a “radical correspondence,” root-level connections that allow the world and ourselves to feel “full of life.”

Wakeful life is draining; it can come to feel empty. That is why I read, and why I write, and why I try to teach. It is twenty-four years since first I felt a ray arriving from Orr’s transparent rose. Now I am the teacher with the bundle of poems, endeavoring to draw the water.

Bright and Shining

MICHIGAN BAND

I finished revising my debut novel and graduated from an MFA program in the same month. I am tired. I don’t want to read. I don’t want to write. Of course, one of the first apocryphal rules you learn when you start writing is do it every day. Put that butt in the chair and fashion yourself after the Postal Service. Snow? Sleet? Debilitating fatigue? Doesn’t matter. Put those words down, son.

Have you been writing lately?

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In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us…

It’s hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from,
when so often they’re put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.

- From “Ars Poetica?” by Czeslaw Milosz

“Have you been writing lately?” I cringe a little every time I’m asked that question. There is no good answer:

Yes, I’ve been writing and no, you can’t see it; or

Yes, I have been writing but it’s all terrible; or

No, I haven’t been writing, and please please please don’t ask me why.

Writing poetry is not a pleasant process. Any writing is uncomfortable, I suppose, but there’s something uniquely dreadful about poetry. Czeslaw Milosz says a poet is a demoniac city; poems rise up like devils, unannounced, before they are exorcised by page and pen. A poet’s demons are caught, subdued, and arranged in neat stanzas for other’s perusal.

Pinning down your demons to be scrutinized like bugs under glass is a profoundly uncomfortable experience. No human is comfortable being openly frail and vulnerable in front of other people. When a poet writes, they struggle to capture the total essence of their humanity; their fear, rage, ecstasy, sadness, and joy. It is not easy to display yourself at your most human and your most vulnerable.

Yes, I have been writing lately. It is not a comforting process. No poet’s process is. Poetry is wrestling with your demons like Jacob wrestled with the angel; it’s private, it’s desperate, and, hopefully, there’s redemption at the end.