Monday, May 19, 2008

Letters to the World: The Poems

In my last post I mentioned that Letters to the World is a unique anthology for several reasons. It is the first collection to emerge from an internet collaboration and is the largest collection of poems by living women poets, but more than that, it is a collection of wonderful poems. Here you will find poems by American poets such as Judith Barrington, Lynnell Edwards, Mendi Obadike, Kathleen Flenniken, Marilyn Hacker, Judith Johnson, Alicia Ostriker, Katha Pollitt, and Evie Shockley. Since the collection reflects the global nature of the listserv, you will also find such poets as Ren Powell (an American living in Norway), Anny Ballardini (Italy), Farideh Hassanzadeh-Mostafavi (Iran), and Crystal Warren (South Africa).

As I always do when reading a collection. I circled page numbers in the Table of Contents to indicate favorite poems, ones I planned to return to later. Here are two poems that brought me back again and again. The first is by Paula Bohince.

Acrostic: Queen Anne’s Lace

Quietly tatted, silent, they edge the snowball bush—
unlit, without judgment. Theirs is a vision I’ve always wanted:
eiderdown-colored, stained as lace in a cupboard,
emblems of a softer life.
Neglected, they lean neck and neck with each other.
Audit of sixty years: one tablecloth, one draft card, one confession…
No one else to do it: emptying his house of its sorry
nests, cubbyholes filled with flannel and moth-eaten deer heads.
Entropy and decay, he said. A house is a kind of bondage.
Strangled, the weeds have no one to kill them. Difficult to
leave them alive, these last witnesses to his last days, who
act blameless, cowering beneath brambles, who
cannot tell me a fraction of what happened. Who did this? You
ears, you idiot eyes that cannot close.

I appreciate what this poet does with a form that we often think of as belonging to elementary school teachers, a form used to engage young students in word play. Bohince's poem shows that the acrostic can have real substance. I also like how this acrostic plays with the sonnet form. And I admire how the poet begins with a simple wildflower and moves so gracefully into something else. Such a seamless shift.

Good news: This poem will appear in Bohince's first collection, Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods, forthcoming from Sarabande Books this July. Click the cover image to be taken to the website where you can pre-order.

Another of my favorites is by Charlotte Mandel.

Still Life

Transfixed within the scrolled frame of marriage—
Glossy, still as a Flemish nature mort—
You are the basket’s woven lines,

I the overripe purpling grapes. What is marriage
without realism, plain detail, the more
examined the more discretely outlined?

Gleam seizes shadow, motionless. Marriage
of canvas, oil and turpentine. One more
scrape of the palette’s umber and aniline’s

blue thin menace. I animated marriage
cartoons as a child, bright crayon, not a mor-
bid thought in view. Polka dot curtains lined

window frames with daisies: picture marriage
as bungalow tilting, blue skies evermore,
uplifted arms diaper-pinning the line.

Watercolors risk salt: over marriage
tides flow. Initials carved in sycamore
erode the jackknife wriggle of their lines.

A playhouse, yet a serious marriage.
Undeclared we knew the stakes, how much more
asked of us. Anniversaries fall in line—

patina thickens—varnish conceals—marriages
shiver apart—ours strains its well-mixed mor-
tar—surfaces enhanced by spider line.

Who sees us defines us by this marriage.
Hand in hand, smile / click. To viewers, a maud-
lin sentiment. To ourselves, still, life line.

Again, I was initially attracted to the form of the poem, its 3-line stanzas and its repetition of end words, 1-2-3, 1-2-3. I also like how Mandel follows her pattern, yet has some fun with it by altering the words a bit. And I like what she has to say about a long, happy marriage. I asked Mandel about this form. It seems she was trying to write a tritina, which I believe is an invented form, but she couldn't remember the pattern, so she invented one something like it. Her students affectionately named the result a "charlottina."

More good news: This poem will appear in Mandel's collection, Rock Vein Sky, forthcoming soon from Midmarch Arts Press.

Challenge: Try your hand at one or both of these forms. For Bohince's try to come up with a 14 letter combination, a single word or a phrase. Make it something from nature--or maybe something far removed from nature. For Mandel's bring in some opposite idea, eg, write about a brief, miserable marriage or the single life. Or anything else.

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  1. Nice challenge! -- just what I'm needing right now, thank you.

    And thank you for the taste of Letters to the World, I want both of those collections.

  2. Hi Marie--Although I've posted twice about Letters to the World, it's one book, not two. But it's worth the price of ten!

  3. Sorry, yes -- I meant I also want to get both of the individual poets' collections you mentioned. I should've said I want ALL of those collections!

  4. I , too, thought of the acrostic as an elementary form, until I saw Bohince's "Acrostic: Outhouse" on Poetry Daily. I've begun using the form with my high-school creative writing students. they love the assignment, and have had great success with it.

  5. Thanks, I didn't know about Paula's other acrostic--just visited Poetry Daily and found it. Since it mentions Bayonet Wood, I imagine it will be in the forthcoming book. Another mature acrostic is by Jean Marie Beaumont. I think it's called After Apple-Picking. First appeared in The Gettysburg Review.


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