Friday Jul 19

JulieBrooksBarbour 2015 I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how poets write about difficult subjects, how they find language or how they almost get close, since language can be slippery. We use the words we have for what we want or need to say, and keep trying, over and over, to get it right. I go to poetry more often these days to hear truth, since what I hear elsewhere is very often questionable.

Recently I came across a poem by Robert Hass in his book Time and Materials. “The Problem of Describing Trees,” is about just that: the problem of describing something to someone else with accuracy. “There are limits to saying, / In language, what the tree did,” Hass writes, and then, this line follows, and it has been playing over and over in my head since I read the poem:

“It is good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us.”

Earlier in my life as a practicing poet, I went to poetry to find beauty and wonder. Now I ask poetry to tell me the truth, to help me find language for difficult experiences, to help me make sense of a world that sometimes doesn’t make any sense at all.

Sometimes we need a poet’s honest voice to bring us clarity, and in that kind of clarity is also hope—the hope of what’s possible in our lives if we stay honest, if we “stare into the middle of things” as Tony Hoagland mentions in his book The Art of Voice:

In a world where, socially, we often feel stranded on the surface of appearances, people go to poems for the fierce, uncensored candor they provide, the complex, unflattering, often ambivalent way they stare into the middle of things. In a world where, as one poet says, ‘people speak to each other mostly for profit,’ it is exhilarating to listen to a voice that is practicing disclosure without seeking advantage. That is intimate.

I want the “uncensored candor” of poetry that Hoagland describes here. I want a poet to speak to me in full disclosure of how they experience the world so I can feel, not less alone, but part of a community of people who pay attention to the world, who look at it with honesty, who are not “seeking advantage,” who want to tell me what they see because they have to tell me even if it keeps me up at night, even if it brings me to tears.


It’s this act of full disclosure and honesty that I also love about the work of our featured poet, Sara Henning. In an interview, I talked with Sara about finding the right container for a poem, whatever form that might take, and writing about grief. I have been a fan of Sara’s work for years, and her new poems in our May poetry column are absolutely stunning.

DavonLoeb Associate Poetry Editor Davon Loeb brings us some striking work this month:

Kolleen Carney Hoepfner’s “Take Fountain” is more than a poem—is more than cadence and line break—more than discourse and rhetoric; it’s a battle cry; it’s guttural and fist-clenched and hot-tongued; her words are bloody. She writes, “For every predatory / man there is a man—/ no— scratch it. / For every man / there are a hundred women. / And they have discovered / they’ve always had teeth / to tear.” And Kolleen’s writing is as much about this uproar as it is about place, California, Los Angeles, Hollywood. So not only does she recreate the city’s atmosphere, the “steady fall of ash” and “the air [that] is just smoke,” but she reanimates its people, the homeless, the rich, the men and women—and how they all seem to be enmeshed, an entanglement of bodies that are “on fire.” And in between all this chaos and commotion, there is love for the city—a criticized but strange love that I think Kolleen is still mulling over, and that uncertainty, to say the least, is so beautiful.

We have a beautiful poem by Hedy Habra about memory and place, wherein a father-in-law remembers his youth while harvesting olives in a new neighborhood. I love Habra’s description of the act of preparing olives: “Then, he’d delicately smash their firm skin one / by one in a stone mortar before stacking them / in tall jars, adding salt and vinegar, slivers of lemon, // garlic cloves, oregano sprigs and lots of olive oil.” By this action, we are transported back not only to the past but also to the landscape of his youth, revealing the power of memory.

Associate Poetry Editor Ösel Jessica Plante brings us wonderful work by two poets. About the first of these poets, she writes:

Osel Jessica Plante Dean Julius’ elegiac poems build on nuance, detail, and image to create intimate portraits of loss, trial, and love. He writes of the quotidian, of vegetarian meatloaf and parking meters, alongside eternal questions about death, regret, and peace. “I have skipped meds four times this week,” the poet writes, “I’m ash.” This is the essence of poetry, a very real problem that becomes something else, a substance that allows transcendence. Threaded throughout Dean’s poems are moments like these, that put the reader slightly off kilter and surprise in beautiful ways.  

Patricia Clark’s lovely poem “ After Seeing a Fir Down at a Nearby Cemetery” begins with, actually, just that: a fallen tree in a cemetery. The speaker then takes us on a journey of where to rest not the body, but the spirit. “I don’t desire that vaulted / dark,” the speaker states, musing on places of permanence. We leave darkness for the river and its movement, for “ the body’s spirit who adored / motion, rocking ,” setting the spirit into continuous, immortal motion.

We close our column this month with the second of two poets from Associate Poetry Editor Ösel Jessica Plante:

These epistolary poems by Tares Oburumu transect global geographies and geographies of voice. The words: “hybrid,” “identity,” and “homeland” mix with invocations of Whitman, Satre, Walcott, and Homer. The poems themselves carry us from Africa to the Thames and the Caribbean islands with crisp images and surprising juxtapositions. The poet writes, “ I stand before a continent that has been inviting me / for a feast of global intersections,” and that is what these poems do for us, too.

Thank you for visiting with these poets! As a reminder, we’re open for submissions until the end of May, and all of our columns will be back July 1st. Have a wonderful start to summer wherever you are, and we’ll see you soon!