Poetry

Duck Sleeps

Duck sleeps
while rain wrinkles the pond;
clouded dream
punctuated by thunder.

Comments: In 2002, I worked at the Lan Su Chinese Garden, which at the time was called the Portland Classical Chinese Garden. The garden remains high on my list of PDX’s many treasures.

While manning the ticket booth and interacting with visitors, I came up with a few poems, as you do. This is the only one that has remained unchanged since I first penned it.

On a side note, even though it doesn’t fit the traditional haiku forms (either 5-7-5 or 3-5-3 on/morae/syllables and often using a kiru or kireji “cutting word”), I think of it as a haiku, insofar as it is short, condensed, a standalone image, and it operates on a principle similar to the kireji/cutting words, if I understand them correctly. Meaning that there is a juxtaposition of images that suggests a link between the two and opens the way to figuration and meaning-making. And even the acknowledged haiku masters didn’t always follow the format to the letter.

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Poetry

The Robot Lover

The kiss was sweet as ever, the lilt
of her tongue in my mouth. The slow
separation, her face falling
into focus, near. “I love you”,
I say. And she: “I love—lov—
zzzrvbbrrzz—lovyou.”

That robot smile. The grill of her teeth.
The same old recording: “I have been
discovered. Initiating
sequence 3184.”

“Not again,” I think, and reach
round the bed for the crowbar.
Her eyes begin that light-up danger,
her tensile hands extend for me. I cock back
and swing. The head caves
then separates. Droplets of circuitry
shower the sheets. “Erasing—
erahsih—
euhrahhwwvp.”
And another one ripe for the cleaners.
“Well,” I mutter, “Guess I’ll see if Julia’s free.”

Comments: This a first draft, basically, inspired by the following writing prompt: ‘You’re laying in bed kissing your significant other. They back away a bit, smile, and say, “I love yo…—zzzrvbbrrzz. Love you.” You lean back in horror as you realize they’re a robot. In a monotone voice, they say, “I have been discovered. Initiating sequence 3184.”

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Poetry

Blessing

for BLZ

You were the mean wit, ready and subtle,
agèd and slow, always on target, always
unexpected.

You were the late light and the burden
in my mother’s life; the millstone
that dragged at my uncle’s thoughts,
and the care that wore wrinkles
into his brow.

You were wispy, featherlight,
too stubborn to move. You laughed
and traded barbs with my sister,
asked every time we spoke
whether I’d met someone yet.

All of us, we were your children. In your own way,
you guarded our lives like your own,
made sure they were good.

For you, I’ll speak
the tongue you taught my sister to swear in,
the words you used to bless us.

“Gey gezunt, zai gezunt,
cum gezunt,” you’d say
when we left you.

“Gey gezunt, zai gezunt, cum gezunt,
and safe home.”

“You, too,” we’d say, like you were leaving us.
“You, too.”

 

Comments: An elegy for my maternal grandmother, Bertha Labunsky Zlochiver.

Poetry

Two Satellites Collide over Russia

Big ones. Old ones. One
malfunctioning. They don’t know how
many pieces. 270
miles above the
International Space
Station. They clatter into
the atmosphere. The fragments burn. Sky-
clutter. Rocket parts and
engines and junk. Failed
communication.

 

Comments: I like this one a lot—I feel the line breaks are particularly clever in the ways they play with and against the different meanings of words and phrases. (That’s probably a sign I should look closely at everything—when we get cocky, we take the quality of our work for granted, and then it’s very easy not to check everything thoroughly enough and to slip up.)

I had been concerned in previous drafts (even up until a few minutes ago), that the poem was too short—a fragment rather than a poem, not quite getting to the point. The issue for me was that the line breaks built tension by working against the natural grammatical units, and that tension never fully got released, or only sort of got released, depending on the version, so that the final phrase, which in meaning felt “right” and appropriate as a way of turning the satellite into a metaphor, just didn’t pack the right punch—it hit glancingly when it should ideally have hit full on, releasing all that tension into one final phrase. But I hadn’t yet managed that. E.g.:

Two Satellites Collide over Russia

Big ones. Old ones. One
malfunctioning. They don’t know how
many pieces. 270
miles above the International
Space Station. They clatter into
the atmosphere. The fragments burn. Sky-
clutter. Rocket parts and
engines and junk. Failed
communication.

(Here, the final break separates an adjective from its associated noun, continuing the build in visual-grammatical tension, which remains unresolved because the poem ends just after that small grammatical unit.)

Or:

Two Satellites Collide over Russia

Big ones. Old ones. One
malfunctioning. They don’t know how
many pieces. 270
miles above
the International Space
Station. They clatter into
the atmosphere. The fragments burn. Sky-
clutter. Rocket parts and
engines and junk.
Failed communication.

(Here, the grammatical mini-unit remains intact, but there isn’t enough space, enough visual pause to set it apart and allow the eye to come finally to rest on it. It still reads too much like a fragment in the middle of a thought, rather than the finishing note to the poem.

Of course, if I put it entirely in a separate stanza, then there’s a clash between the frequent agrammatical line breaks up above and the unbroken noun phrase in the final line.)

Anyway, in getting the poem ready to publish, I played around because I was unsatisfied and it really rubs me the wrong way to post something I am unsatisfied with. And I found something that works, at least for now.

 

Poetry

Drought/Draught/Draft

This is about the significance of small changes.

Once I began a poem in which a writer played a game with a lover. The lover, to motivate the writer, stripped bit by bit and then moved slowly closer as the writer completed pieces of a manuscript. The ultimate reward, of course, would come when the manuscript was done.

I originally imagined the story in the third person, and so the first version I considered “complete” looked like this:

Drought

She spent three weeks lounging naked around the house
while he revised his draft. She wouldn’t make love
until he had finished, and she kept moving closer with each word,
as initially she had one by one removed
an article of clothing for each penned paragraph. He couldn’t kiss her, even,
until he had put down the last period,
and then,
her body held over him like a storm cloud,
she gave him a kiss like the first drops of rain.

But one of my teachers, or maybe one of my workshop fellows, asked why it wasn’t in the first person. And they were right. It’s more powerful, more personal and direct that way. So for a long time, this was the final version:

Drought

She spent three weeks lounging naked around the house
while I revised my draft. She wouldn’t make love
until I had finished, and she kept moving closer with each word,
as initially she had one by one removed
an article of clothing for each penned paragraph. I couldn’t kiss her, even,
until I had put down the last period,
and then,
her body held over me like a storm cloud,
she gave me a kiss like the first drops of rain.

But yesterday, I pulled out the poem to show someone, and I wondered all of a sudden why the lover had to be “she”, and why it couldn’t be “you”. Wouldn’t that make things even more intimate, while at the same time opening up more gender combinations and making for a more inclusive poem? So here is that version:

Drought

You spent three weeks lounging naked around the house
while I revised my draft. You wouldn’t make love
until I had finished, and you kept moving closer with each word,
as initially you had one by one removed
an article of clothing for each penned paragraph. I couldn’t kiss ou, even,
until I had put down the last period,
and then,
your body held over me like a storm cloud,
you gave me a kiss like the first drops of rain.

So now I’m curious: what do you think?

EDIT: Corrected copy/paste error so that now the poems actually are different.

Poetry

Joe Imagines Speaking to His Wife

I think I have been tricking myself.
I stay at work late, wait
till the others leave. I’m working hard,
they think. I pack my briefcase,
straighten my suit and head out
as if I’m going home. I don’t go
home. I go to Central Park,
every night, like a compulsion. No dinner,
maybe a hot dog from a vendor,
a soda. This is my ritual.
Walk deep into the park, far from the windows
of the city. Find the privacy of trees, not to be
surrounded by buildings. It’s a frightening feeling,
Harper. I’m alone and all I want to see
is grown men fucking. It’s horrible,
God it’s horrible, but I want to watch.
I can’t not watch. I want it,
Harper. I wish I wanted you.
Drive these thoughts from my head.
Make things right.

Central Park is nice. Lovely 
in late spring. People out like
flowers displaying their wares. Maybe I’ll bring you here
on Saturday, Harper. Maybe
we’ll fall in love again.

Comments: As promised, here is one of my persona poems. It was originally titled “Joe Speaks,” and then, when I realized it wasn’t necessarily clear who Harper was, it became “Joe Speaks to His Wife”, and then again when I realized that wasn’t what was happening—it wasn’t some alternate universe Angels in America in which Joe actually does voluntarily come clean to Harper—I felt it was necessary to make it “Joe Imagines Speaking to His Wife”. Even though I’m still attracted to the short simplicity of the first title. The sacrifices we writers make for clarity.