I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we confront the unknown, not just as writers but as humans. This semester in my freshman composition class I’m preparing my student writers to be comfortable with the unknown as they start asking their own research questions, and reminding them that no one has the final answer in an ongoing discussion. This also has something to do with a Diane Seuss poem I read recently, “Toad,” which asks questions of grief that are never answered, not by the dead, “safely/ underground,” or the emissary of the dead which is the toad, “the seam of its mouth glued shut.”
If we aren’t looking for answers when we write or read, what are we looking for? A way to speak after being silenced. A way to deal with history, personal or collective. A way to cope with disaster, no matter what form it takes. We come to the page not only to ask questions or look for patterns, but to seek solace, hoping that other people feel the way we do, that we might connect through similar experiences.
If we only sought answers, there would be no reason to share our lives with others. None of us have the answers; we have experience, but that experience changes as our lives change. We may be confused at times, but that means we’re alive. Poetry brings that life to the page. The questions poems ask don’t let us off easy, either as readers or writers. But that’s the joy: we feel life when we read a poem, the surge of blood and breath running through us.
With that same joyfulness that poetry brings to us at Connotation Press, we share some wonderful work with you this month. Associate Poetry Editor Davon Loeb brings us an interview and poems from our lead poet, William James Lofton-Jackson. About this work, he writes:
William James Lofton-Jackson’s poems are liberating. His work reminds readers of how poetry, unlike other forms of literature, can and rightfully will take on whatever form it wants. And so, these poems are structurally free—following this storyteller’s enigmatic and profound voice, rather than a set scheme or pattern. William also creates a physical space between words that offer an organic inflective break in syntax. He writes, “ You can't bring your hustle before God as if he's some street corner.” Furthermore, these poems are loving, frustrating, and incredibly powerful.
Ellen McGrath Smith returns to our column with two new poems that investigate the ways in which we judge others, and the urgency of our surrounding landscapes. “Pilgrims on Farragut” begins with a common act of porch-sitting and watching people pass by, but as the speaker asks questions about the inner nature of the man walking his dog, the speaker also parenthetically wonders, “ Are we/ most evil when we project it/ on somebody else?” In another poem, Smith ruminates on the aftermath of strip mining: “what could the headless mountain know,// except for absence?” Throughout the poem, the landscape is filled with loss. In these poems, Ellen McGrath Smith reminds us to be watchful of our actions.
Our new Associate Poetry Editor, Ösel Jessica Plante, brings us an interview and poems from Christine Poreba. About this work, she writes:
New York City, Southern France, San Francisco, Rhode Island, Moldova—Christine Poreba’s poetry creates a geography as it investigates history, language, and the magnitude of what falls between what is, and what gets left behind. Her work weaves its way through her experiences of motherhood, stories about her grandparents, and a family history that includes migrating to New York from Poland in the 1930s. This geography also extends to her experiences as an ESL teacher. As a craftsperson, Poreba uses a delicate yet trenchant method as though she is tracing breadcrumbs to a place which, in the end, seems not to exist. Her writing makes soft leaps, “Like a scent of smoke / transporting the mind back to a house in Southern France / then a summer in Rhode Island at an Abbey school.” We find ourselves moved, searching alongside the poet in her process of self study, of reclamation. In her interview, Poreba comments on the “momentary time travel” that occurs when looking at old photographs. These bits of time travel add up, but the map we are left with, she hints, can never be complete because everything is in the act of disappearing. Loved ones, “might have walked here moments earlier,” and our own knowing becomes “the difference between “dew,” as in water on the grass, and “do.”
Ösel also brings us poems from Alexa Doran and Christos Kalli:
“I’m sorry I keep confusing / me for the goddess of electricity” Alexa Doran writes, and these lines could sum up her poetic talent. Her language is musical, rhythmic, and alive. It is also in your face, and making no apologies about it. I can’t help but compare the raw center of her work to Sylvia Plath. “…I want the night // to sputter or the sky to rip apart. To unleash.” Her line breaks stun. This is the kind of desire that is honest, powerful, and willing to be exposed. The theme of her work is motherhood, but not the motherhood we are used to reading about. There is nothing submerged, or dulled. In the poem “They want you to sleep in a different bed,” we meet the kind of mother who is not afraid to admit: “Son I am angry / that I am not the sun that reaches your cheeks,” who trusts that she “holds the Ace, / the one who gave your first taste.” The music of Doran’s poems is percussive, and alliterative. It is, “…the warm bustle / of your body to bank against me, / the sheets spread out like waves.” There is a largess in the poet’s work here that demands notice. Doran is one to watch.
Christos Kalli’s world is on fire. It is “almost-cold lava”; it is “the night machine” where the poet is Prometheus, and Prometheus has an obsession. Fire, eyelids, the smoking minutia of suffering. As Maggie Nelson says, “Loneliness is solitude with a problem.” Though it is not exactly loneliness that permeates these poems, it is more the isolation that comes from having an hyper-imaginative mind, one that knows the existential distance between that mind, and the material world. Kalli’s is a distance I recognize and understand; it is “trying not to think / of what these faces scream in climax”; it is the sense that, on some level, to be human is to be, “chewed and spat back in the autumn streets.” While the material world believes in God, in Kalli’s world, he says, “I keep making Gods believe in me.” Wrapping this surreal package is Kalli’s rapid pace of images, his surprising juxtapositions. “This house belongs / to the cold. As much as this cold belongs / in this house,” he says, which is basically like saying Prometheus must reckon with his own burning. If we’re lucky, that reckoning will happen on page after page of poetry from Kalli.
We have two poems from Julie Swarstad Johnson this month that revolve around water: drought and thirst, and the journeys rivers take, some of which we never see. In one poem, we enter a surreal landscape that remains with the speaker long after an exodus had taken place. In another, the speaker imagines how bodies of water flow into other bodies of water, and how our bodies flow from one moment to the next, perhaps with no clear reasoning at the time. These poems create inspiring and haunting landscapes that last long after the final line.
Davon brings us work from two additional poets, Tori Hook and Andrew P. Dillon:
Reading Tori Hook’s poems is as if being on a tour, in an obscure town, with a guide who knows the street names as thoroughly as she knows its inhabitants. Tori writes, “The Mississippi is strange love/ life buried deep under dead catfish/ and the plastic handcuffs that hold/ packs of Miller Lite in dozens.” And while these poems are vitalized by place, they are also rich personal narratives about community, identity, and family. This is where Tori Hook is from.
Andrew P. Dillon’s poems are as much lyrical as they are didactic. He teaches readers the nuances of life, intimately and universally, while still writing with an ear closely pressed to sound and music. In both poems, Andrew calculates line breaks that near perfectly match natural cadence. He writes, “If you’re in to self-pity, echo Prince’s lines as a meditative object— in this life, / you’re on your own.” And while in life, we might often feel on our own, Andrew reminds us that poetry is what can always bind us together.
We close our September column with a poem from Ananda Lima where the speaker cleans a colonial house while ruminating on colonialism. “ But notwithstanding/ our differences/ I lovingly sweep your strange/ wooden floors in the kitchen,” the speaker states. Lima does in this poem what I love best about poetry: confronting an idea by drawing out its complications with imagery and song.
Thanks for visiting our column this month! We hope you enjoy the work of these poets.