August 12, 2014

Migrations: The Score by Olli Kortekangas

 A Poet and A Composer

Recently, I received a copy of the musical score "Migrations," by Olli Kortekangas of Helsinki, Finland, a Cantata for Mezzo-Soprano, Male Voice Choir and Orchestra. Intended as a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of modern immigration of Finnish people to Minnesota, the work was commissioned by Osmo Vänskä of the Minnesota Orchestra and will be performed in February 2016. 

The poems that Olli selected as the basis of his musical composition are from two books of my poems. The titles were changed on a few of the poems to enable the audience to understand the arc of this musical story: Two Worlds, Resurrection, The Man Who Lived in a Tree, and Music We Breathe.

"Two Worlds" (CB) explores the two worlds that each of us walks inside: our past and present, this world and the other world.  The mirror image created in the poem also occurs in the music. The next poem, "Resurrection," is the poem "Migrations" in Cloud Birds.  In the book, the poem has an inscription, a quote by HD, "In resurrection is confusion...."  from her long poem, "The Flowering of the Rod."  The third poem from Cloud Birds as well. "The Man Who Lived in a Tree," is a narrative poem about a Finnish immigrant to America who worked in an underground iron mine but contracted a lung disease and returned home to Kalajoki to die. While ill, he hoisted himself into the limbs of a tree and did not want to descend  The fourth poem, "The Music We Breathe," is titled "What Is Found" from the third section of Echo and Lightning.  Using the image of bird flight, this poem reaches beyond loss into new beginnings.

Migrations has long been a metaphor for me as a poet. All of my grandparents are Finnish, and I believe that immigration affects families deeply, particularly in relation to borders, language and landscape. Immigrants make massive transitions as they enter a new culture and language, and many feel that speaking a new language brings out different parts of the self. Some feel they are a different self in the new language. This is perhaps why my grandmother was reluctant to speak English; she wanted to preserve an important part of her self. She lived in Minnesota, but she rarely left Finnish language and culture. This was a border that she kept. I myself am most comfortable on borders, and less so in the midst of things. As a poet/artist, I also perceive the permeability of borders.  I can cross back and forth into Finnish and American culture.  My work is always narrative, but it does cross the border of genres and perhaps exists in a state of "between."

It is a great honor to have my work used in his music. As a composer, Olli Kortekangas has received commissions from ten countries. His music has been featured in concerts and at festivals around the world, and his works are included in the repertoires of many leading orchestras, choirs, and soloists. He has received numerous scholarships and awards in Finland and abroad. His oeuvre consists of more than 100 works, from solo pieces and chamber music to orchestral works and operas.  Recently, he used work by poet Wendell Berry in his music, "Seven Songs for Planet Earth," that was performed at the Kennedy Center in 2011.  New projects are underway for him. At our panel discussion in Minneapolis at Finnfest, Mr Kortekangas reflected that his great grandfather immigrated to the United States, but that he was lost on the way. Nobody in the family knows what happened, whether he died on the ship enroute or after he arrived. His grave is unknown. 

Migrations is an apt metaphor for change. We all encounter new cultures and new experiences with or without preparation.  Immigration is actually a gift, even though it is often perilous. It helps us understand the process and inevitability of change and it enriches American culture.

For more information about Mr Kortekangas: see

August 3, 2014

The Stairway of Surprise

Deep in our culture run archetypal stories. The Kalevala, Nordic Tales, creation stories, and fairy tales are stories of quest and strife, and heroism and love. These archetypal stories are told over and over in many forms. Star-crossed and tragic lovers, once and future kings, and quests emerge again and again in our contemporary literature. Jungian psychology has examined these with great interest because they reveal deep patterns. As a writer, and reader, I am drawn to their power. Ralph Waldo Emerson was inspired by Norse sagas and the Tales of King Arthur. Here is a poem that he wrote about Merlin:

I. Poems
Merlin I

THY trivial harp will never please
Or fill my craving ear;
Its chords should ring as blows the breeze,
Free, peremptory, clear.
No jingling serenader’s art,      
Nor tinkle of piano strings,
Can make the wild blood start
In its mystic springs.
The kingly bard
Must smite the chords rudely and hard,      
As with hammer or with mace;
That they may render back
Artful thunder, which conveys
Secrets of the solar track,
Sparks of the supersolar blaze.
Merlin’s blows are strokes of fate,
Chiming with the forest tone,
When boughs buffet boughs in the wood;
Chiming with the gasp and moan
Of the ice-imprisoned flood;      
With the pulse of manly hearts;
With the voice of orators;
With the din of city arts;
With the cannonade of wars;
With the marches of the brave;      
And prayers of might from martyrs’ cave.

Great is the art,
Great be the manners, of the bard.
He shall not his brain encumber
With the coil of rhythm and number;      
But, leaving rule and pale forethought,
He shall aye climb
For his rhyme.
‘Pass in, pass in,’ the angels say,
‘In to the upper doors,      
Nor count compartments of the floors,
But mount to paradise
By the stairway of surprise.’

Blameless master of the games,
King of sport that never shames,    
He shall daily joy dispense
Hid in song’s sweet influence.
Forms more cheerly live and go,
What time the subtle mind
Sings aloud the tune whereto      
Their pulses beat,
And march their feet,
And their members are combined.

By Sybarites beguiled,
He shall no task decline;      
Merlin’s mighty line
Extremes of nature reconciled,—
Bereaved a tyrant of his will,
And made the lion mild.
Songs can the tempest still,      
Scattered on the stormy air,
Mould the year to fair increase,
And bring in poetic peace.

He shall not seek to weave,
In weak, unhappy times,    
Efficacious rhymes;
Wait his returning strength.
Bird that from the nadir’s floor
To the zenith’s top can soar,—
The soaring orbit of the muse exceeds that journey’s length.      
Nor profane affect to hit
Or compass that, by meddling wit,
Which only the propitious mind
Publishes when ’t is inclined.
There are open hours      
When the God’s will sallies free,
And the dull idiot might see
The flowing fortunes of a thousand years;—
Sudden, at unawares,
Self-moved, fly-to the doors,      
Nor sword of angels could reveal
What they conceal.

This can be read as a re-telling of Merlin, but this can also reveal Emerson's own penchant in his creative work.  He did not seek pretty words or sounds, but the warfare of good and evil, and tales of valor and the story of a community or fellowship of brothers and sisters striving for survival and hope. Valor is an old word from the 14th century, defined as courage, bravery, pluck, fortitude, daring, and spirited effort or dauntlessness. This is the admirable quality of many of the characters in the old tales, and many of the characters in contemporary re-tellings. Risk all, make things matter, understand that the stakes are high.  Take notes, writers and poets. Reach high, Emerson says.  "Mount to paradise/ by the stairway of surprise."   This metaphor obviously was important to Emerson.  In his notes, in a stray lecture-sheet these words occur: “Do not the great always live extempore, mounting to heaven by the stairs of surprise?”   

Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  "Merlin."  1904. Retrieved 3 August 2014.

July 25, 2014

New Projects

I strive to re-create the flows of the northeastern Minnesota landscape, and I borrow metaphors that express the pattern of change in individual stories and narrative poems: the erosions, floods, migrations, lightning strikes, industrialization, excavation, mining, roads, and harbors. Night Train Red Dust will become part of a new transmedia media project, and I can't wait to get started!

Vestiges / My Geology : short work sample from Sheila Packa on Vimeo.

In this short sample are several layers.

Vestiges began as an ekphrastic poem I wrote for a photograph by John Gregor. Near shore, several long timbers were visible beneath the surface of Lake Superior.  The timbers were long, cut square, and embedded were hundreds of large spikes, and the spikes broke the surface of the water. Perhaps this was the remains or footings of a larger structure: an ore dock or a loading dock, but as it is now, a hazard to anybody who might take a kayak through the place, especially if there were waves. The day that the photograph was taken was calm, a transparent blue in sky and water. A faint movement in the water caused by the flow through the spikes. On days like these, the water seems to breathe. (This poem and another called Concentric Circles were selected for the exhibit, Words to Art, at the Waterfront Gallery in Two Harbors in September 2013.)

The image brought to mind a conversation. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Bruce Liberty, a retired ship's engineer who had a career as Chief Engineer of the US Steel's fleet of ore boats. I wrote a profile about him for the newsletter of the Marine Museum. He was in his 80s. He was still a master engineer who was able to take anything mechanical or electrical and improve its function and design. He had designed a fuel delivery system that saved the company a lot of money. A colleague of his told me that after Bruce was done, an engine ran better than it did when it was new. He often redesigned and made improvements on anything he worked on. Bruce was dying of mesothelioma when I met him, and he told me many stories about shipping on the Great Lakes. His father was a steamboat captain, and as a child, Bruce spent summers on the boat with his mother. Keeping ship, they called it. He told me stories from his career in the Merchant Marines. Once, when he was young and traveling on a freighter -- this was in the old days, before the new ships were built -- a storm came up. The waves were large, and washing over the deck.  The storm was so intense, that the steel beams of its structure bowed, and the rivets and bolts flew like bullets into the wind.  The next day, it was his job to replace those. This was the kind of work he did. He tore apart ships' engines.  The pistons were so large that it was possible for a man to walk right into the bore, and he did that when inspecting damaged engines and supervising their repairs. He spent a good portion of his time explaining the mechanicals to me. So this came into the narrative of Vestiges.

Vestiges is thrown onto the screen where symbol fonts are floating and turning. We have made our own symbol fonts. They are much more lean than visual images, and they can evoke moods or environments.

Midway through the work sample, one can see typing. The words were entered live during the screenshot to demonstrate the capacity of the Graffiti Angel software that Kathy designed; it allows input from others on mobile devices as well.  The words I was typing are a fragment of another poem, still unpublished about the Iron Range.  I had auditioned some other poems my books. "When it doubt throw it out," is the motto nowadays.  This small excerpt was all that was needed.  Sometimes, the Graffiti Angel turns the text into morse code. The image also evokes the distress signals emitted by a ship going down in a storm.

"Beneath the map" served as a good transition because the first line was parallel to the first line of Vestiges, and it presaged My Geology, the second poem set in the abstracted video images of driving through the Oliver Bridge between Gary New Duluth and Wisconsin. It's an old railroad bridge on top, with the road running on a second level, beneath the tracks.  When we were searching for places to get bridge images, I remembered the Oliver Bridge. I drove back and forth through the bridge maybe twenty times while Kathy rode shotgun with the video camera. This video works well to evoke the industrial environment of mining.

My Geology is a poem that taught me how powerful is our landscape. I placed it first in my book, Night Train Red Dust. The places where we walk enter into us; in my case, as a child, I walked across the vein of iron and taconite on the Iron Range. There is an ASCII art image behind the video in My Geology that rotates on a near/far axis, evoking a map or contract or a train car.  In this section, numbers were entered into the input box, and they cascade like taconite down a chute into the hold of a freighter.  Both of these poems are published in Night Train Red Dust. The music used found sound (a soprano sax, both notes and the musician blowing air through the instrument) and cello by Kathy McTavish.

Anyway, I want to continue doing this kind of work, creating confluences between text, music, and images and finding ways to create maps where the viewer can get core samples -- layered story, image, and sound. I think of those who walked in the places where I walk, and often in the archives I find amazing stories. Besides people, I'm also very aware of the wild animals: birds, foxes, bear, wolves, moose, deer, fishers, rabbits. They have stories too. When these all are assembled in layers, the result is a moving and deep narrative.

July 22, 2014

Marosa di Giorgio

In the Introduction to History of Violets, translator Jeannine Marie Pitas writes about the Uruguyuan poet Maroso di Giorgio (1932-2004): "Navigating the precarious terrain between recollection and creation, beauty and danger, religious transcendence and violent eroticism, her poetry brings a new world into being."  This sentence aptly describes the hyper-sensuality of this gifted poet. Although some reviewers have complained, in reviews of the recent publication by Ugly Duckling Presse, and perhaps found her too odd or hermetic or dwelling too much in childhood and fantasy, I find her work riveting.  

Leonardo Garet writes that she has created her own epic mythology: the first three books an account of creation, and the next three "the dance between Eros and Thanatos,"  and the last books tell the story of "the world on the other side of the looking glass."  This is a form of magical realism, and it brings the reader into a world that is innocent and erotic, dreamed and dangerous.

The daisies...were like deformed, circular birds with a single golden or silver head, surrounded by so many wings...burned the whole garden...the pungent fragrance of grapes, figs, honey, daisies set the whole house aflame. Because of them we were emboldened, like the insane, like drunks. And so we went on through the whole night, the dawn, the next morning and through the day, committing over and over again the loveliest of sins. 
This prose poem is from The History of Violets, and it illustrates the tenor and quality that the poet achieved.  It vibrates with a wild energy that reminds me of the liminal state Clarice Lispector induces.

In "I."  from Magnolia. Compiled is Los Papeles Salvajes I. Buenos Aires: Adriane Hidalgo, editors S.A., 2000, p 115.:
       That girl wrote poems; she placed them near the alcoves, the cups. It was the time when the clouds were floating through the rooms, and a crane or an eagle was always coming to drink tea with my mother.
       That girl wrote poems frenzied and sweet, with the taste of peaches and bones and birds' blood. This was back in the old summers of the house, or in autumn with its mist and kings. Sometimes, a druid would come, a monk from the depths of the forest, and he extended his skeletal hand, and my mother served him tea and pretended to pray. That girl wrote poems; she placed them near the alcoves, the lamps. Sometimes, the clouds, the April air came in, lifting them up, and there in the air they gleamed. And then the saints and butterflies crowded around, filled with joy, to read them.  

Her book The History of Violets draws from memory, but blends it with magical elements, and a fraught with tension between characters, between realities, and between internal states.  This poem has a pleasing repetition that grounds it to the childhood home with its breathtaking mythic universe.

The Native Garden Is In Flames (unpublished)
by Marosa di Giorgio

I went out from my house to my grandparents' house, from my parents' land to my grandparents' land. It was a gray afternoon, but joyful, peaceful. As the girls of the past had done, I disguised myself so as to pass unnoticed; I put on my rabbit's mask and walked among the old and new farmhands; I jumped across the meadow and reached the old house. I stepped through the rooms. All were happy; it was somebody's birthday. On all four sides they had placed parcels and jars of syrup and parcels. In the center of the table, an exquisite bird, a delicious corpse surrounded by little lights. Grandpa, who was always serious, smiled and laughed this time, and before evening fell he told me to go with him to the garden; he was going to show me something. And there the air threw down a coin; I saw it shining; when it fell, it changed into a piece of candy, from which a long, flowered gladiolus stem immediately grew out. I stepped out of its shadow, and it grew even more, and it lasted for weeks and weeks. 
I am from that time, 
the sweet years of Magic.
In the introduction to Diadem, translator Adam Giannelli writes: "One of the most innovative aspects of her work is how she lips seamlessly from prose into verse, often beginning a paragraph in the middle of a sentence, interrupting the syntax, like a line break. By mingling the fluidity of prose with the concision of verse, she creates a malleable form in which time contracts and expands."

 This poetry is strange and beautiful, and I recommend it. The translator Jeannine Marie Pitas has done a wonderful service to bring this important work into American literature.

Marosa di Giorgio

Di Giorgio, Marosa. The History of Violets. Ugly Ducking Presse, New York.  2010.

July 18, 2014

What Kind of Poet Are You?

Most poets dread this question and the question: what type of poetry do you write? The landscape, the elements (water, wind, fire, and earth), and the body capture my imagination.  I've written erotic poems, love poems, spiritual poems, and dreams.  In the past, I've done series about women and cars, fiber and cloth, birds and animals. I often collaborate with other artists and musicians--create confluences.  Like many other poets, I hesitate to label myself because labels are for jars.

Lately, I have become more project-based. The Community Arts Learning Project, Migrations, I led resulted in a book and several multi-media performances. This last project was based on Iron Range history and geology (landscape and immigration) and half of the materials are only available online, on this blog and on a bookmarking website. Much of the text evolved from media projects. The poems carry the narrative (several of the poems are about work), and the essays online examine creative forms, artistic process, artists, and writers. Increasingly, the boundaries of my work move across genres.The project also led me a full length manuscript of short stories. Mining lent me its metaphors and language. It also brings "solastalgia" or the homesickness one feels at home. This word was coined by Glenn Albrecht and describes the sadness related to environmental change. New work reflects a populist stance.

Media work requires a different kind of approach to text: more distillation, shorter lines, and language that is more succinct, more imagistic, haiku-like, evocative. Media work also demands more attention to visual aspects: font, spacing, kerning, and flows. Does the text arrive from the left screen or the right? Does if float or sink?  How does it relate to images and sound?  How does its appearance express meaning?

There are a number of ways to answer the question: what kind of poet are you?  One might consider the ways that poetry is evaluated:  formalist (using a particular form of poetry like sonnet, villanelle, etc) or free verse; narrative, lyrical or dramatic (another way to get at this is to ask: who is speaking? and to whom is the poem addressed?) Dramatic poetry borrows from theater forms: soliloquy or dramatic monologue. What is the musicality?  The Poetry Foundation has an article about creative ways to answer the question: vintage poems, video poems, or science poems.

I could say that my work tends to be imagistic, objectivist, and sometimes narrative. The sound or musicality is subtle, based on vowel and consonant resonance more than rhyme. I think about texture and rhythm. If I use rhyme, and I have used it more often lately, it is usually internal to emphasize a word or image. In media work, I seek to employ the tools of poetry, to use the concept of confluence, to achieve a poetics. 

A better way to answer the question is to think about perceptions and the relationship to reality, fantasy, and consciousness.  My perceptions are shaped by the two languages spoken in my home when I was growing up, even though one I am not able to speak. Perhaps that makes it even more powerful.  In reading and writing, I don't seek to escape. I don't use fantasy or enjoy 'genre writing.' I'm an existentialist. I like philosophical fiction, and I like the essay form.  I like art. When attempting to articulate one's personal style, one might look at the things that one likes to read, watch, or listen to.  They are key to our own personal voice.  The following categories shed light on this:


Realism or naturalism takes for its subjects things from the ordinary experience. According to Text Etc, it favors the use of images instead of symbols. It avoids theatrical devices. Perceptions are not intensified, and the author's commentary is muted.  An interesting note from the website about readers of poetry:

...are unimpressed by the clever games with language, and are bored by a haphazard portrayal of plain life. They expect some aspects of Classicism: sense, shaping, beauty. They expect Romanticism's sense of the unfathomable, one that will clear the wellsprings of their emotional lives.

Some believe these expectations expose the shortcomings of Realism. But as a corrective to poetry's tendency to inbreed and create its own conventions, Realism plays a vital part, widening its remit and making it more relevant to its common readers. The attitude alone cannot create poetry, since poetry is an art form governed by aesthetic requirements, and in fact, at least till recently, poetry with the more realistic subject matter has generally felt the need to balance that freedom by increased attention to form.
Based on this, I could say that my recent project was more realist than the Echo and Lightning project. Night Train Red Dust is strongly narrative, and Echo and Lightning has stronger mythical references. I prefer not to insert a lot of commentary or 'thoughts' because I like the reader to participate in the meaning. The images should be clear, the metaphor should be strong, and sound elements should be effective.  I prefer not to interpret them for others, and I don't tell others what to think.

Visceral Realism

This term was coined by Roberto Bolaño in his book The Savage Detectives, a novel about a band of poets.  Since then, the term has become popular.  William Little says the term refers to Bolaño's actual group, the Infrarealists.  “One of the visceral realists’ basic poetry-writing tenets is a momentary disconnection from a certain kind of reality” says the character Juan García Madero, in The Savage Detectives. Or from the Infrarealist Manifesto:

“Chirico [the surrealist painter] says: thought must move away from all that which is called logic and good sense, must move away from all human problems, in such a way that things appear under a new aspect, as if illuminated by a constellation appearing for the first time. The infrarealists say: We are going to fill our heads with all human problems, such that things begin to move inside themselves, an extraordinary vision of man."

To claim yourself a visceral realist alludes to Bolaño, and you would likely be a fan of his work.  

To Read More about Visceral Realism, see the website for the Society for the Proliferation of Visceral Realism. The subtitle is: Subverting Mystification in Art, Memory, and Consciousness Internationally.

I like the term visceral realism. I believe that good poetry is visceral poetry. It connects the reader physically to the scene or image.  I believe the five senses should be engaged always, and the poem needs this connection to the physical body and to the earth.



In the Manifesto of Surrealism, Andre Breton wrote:
SURREALISM, noun, masc., Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.
ENCYCL. Philos. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association heretofore neglected, in the omnipotence of the dream, and in the disinterested play of thought. It leads to the permanent destruction of all other psychic mechanisms and to its substitution for them in the solution of the principal problems of life.

The Academy of American Poets says surrealism involves:
...the use of techniques, such as automatic writing, self-induced hallucinations, and word games like the exquisite corpse, to make manifest repressed mental activities. The second definition lays out the surrealist view of reality and expresses the surrealist desire to open the vistas of the arts through the close observation of the dream state and the free play of thought.
The subconscious is a wonderful source. Dream images yield good material, because they carry  symbolic and deep meaning. 

Magical Realism

The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende or the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez illustrate magical realism. 
Magic realism or magical realism is an aesthetic style or genre of fiction in which magical elements are blended into a realistic atmosphere in order to access a deeper understanding of reality. These magical elements are explained like normal occurrences that are presented in a straightforward manner which allows the "real" and the "fantastic" to be accepted in the same stream of thought. It has been widely considered a literary and visual art genre; creative fields that exhibit less significant signs of magic realism include film and music.
Imaginative work like this often occurs in poems, but I don't think its identified as magic realism. It's identified as effective metaphor.  Readers expect this. Poems often have shifts in time and space, and these occur swiftly and associationally. 


This term is heard less often, but it is an interesting concept.  Kafka is an irrealist, for example, and Marquez was a magical realist.  Irrealism has a more absurdist, unpredictable story line.  G.S. Evans differentiates irrealism from magic realism.

The reader of a successfully written irreal work will be confronted with a piece of literature that cannot simply be translated as a fantasy or a satire, or as a symbolist work of one sort or the other. Thus cut off from their familiar mooring in the possible, or the conventionally (and ultimately explainable) impossible, they will be left alone, so to speak, with the absurd. Thus a tension is created in the work, one that the physics of the work will not allow to be resolved (as, indeed, the tensions and anxieties it is reflecting are not resolvable). And it is this irresolvable tension that helps to explain why it is possible to describe works such as Kafka wrote as being, to quote Shimon Sandbank, "so many pointers to an unknown meaning."
Although not an absurdist, I have used irrealistic writing to create worlds. In Cloud Birds, I have a section of bear poems. Some poems I did receive wholly in dreams (erotic, ekphrastic poems in the "Torrent" section of The Mother Tongue), and some that arrived through trance states induced by music (underwater poems in the middle section of Echo and Lightning).  These are dreamlike. It was not my intent to present fantasy, but it was my intent to describe spiritual experience.  They are "vedic."  In the Hindu beliefs, Vedas are texts of ancient India. They are understood to be "given" by a god, as opposed to be remembered or recorded by a person.  The Vedas are metrical, and they are chants, hymns, or mantras.

Nature Poetry

'Tranquility' emerges from nature poems. The work of Wendell Berry provides an excellent example.  
It was the tradition of natural poetry that William Wordsworth had in mind when he proposed that poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” This tranquil state might be most easily inspired if the poet would go out into nature, observe the world around him, and translate those emotions and observations into verse.  When I write about things in Nature, they are usually not tranquil. 
My poems are not tranquil, generally.  I believe that people are not separate from nature. We dissolve into it; nature expresses our experience: floods, earthquakes, tidal waves, lightning strikes, rain. In the animal world of predator and prey, I draw metaphors. The effect is unease or anxiety--moments before death.  Nature poetry has become more political recently, which makes sense because land is now a diminishing resource.  In Canada, corporations have been interested in mineral exploration on lands set aside for park use.  The new eco-poetry has grasped this tension between development and preservation.  I look forward to new work that illuminates these concerns, and I know to write about a place--the trees, the animals, the water--strengthens it.

Mission is important. Vision. I search, using images and sounds. It's taken me many years to answer this question, and in a little while, I might write something completely different about my work. It changes. 

July 11, 2014

Poems and Objects

Dinggedicht, defined by the Oxford Dictionary, is the German world for "a poem focused upon an object, though the object frequently fulfills a symbolic function."  Object poems, poems about things, originally seemed to focus on art objects, making ekphrastic poems. Now they focus on any simple object.  It can be a household object, a tool, a treasured object or a discarded or found one. The poet can convey a great deal with the very narrow focus of this form.

In the following example, Simic makes a familiar thing seem strange. The narrator in the poem could be Simic, or it could be a character that he has assumed. Description provides the main content of the poem.  Many object poems are in 'third person' or they take the voice of the object itself, but this poem is written with a 'second person' point of view.  
FORK / Charles Simic

This strange thing must have crept
Right out of hell.
It resembles a bird’s foot
Worn around the cannibal’s neck.
As you hold it in your hand,
As you stab with it into a piece of meat,
It is possible to imagine the rest of the bird:
Its head which like your fist
Is large, bald, beakless and blind.

Note that word "it" appears five times in this brief poem.  It is short and percussive. The poem is basically a simile, a poetic device that uses the words like or as to make a comparison. The fork is compared to a severed bird's foot, and then the head of the bird is compared to your fist. Some sound elements are the e sounds in crept, hell, neck, rest, head.  This is called assonance.  Simic has chosen not use a long vowel sound like an ō or an ā.  These long vowels slow down the sound and make words solemn or resonant.  It seems the short e sound and the mix of long i and short i sounds fit his image the best. Alliteration is also happening in the poem with b sounds: bird, cannibal, stab, bald, beakless, and blind. The last three fall in the last line and make a strong concluding phrase.
Simic's poem is obviously symbolic and somewhat ironic. Humans portray brutality here, and they are likened to birds of prey. I notice the contrast between the sharp claw of the bird, and the bald, beakless and blind fist.

André Breton, a surrealist, made an interesting contribution to the form.  This image is one of his constructions, Poèm Objet, 1935. Collage of object and inscribed poem on card on wood.

The National Galleries of Scotland exhibits this fascinating art piece as his unique fusion of poetry and object. "Although not an artist himself, he was eager to explore any technique that required minimum artistic skill, such as the collages and assemblages. In 1924, Breton called for the creation of objects seen in dreams. He made about a dozen of his own assemblages in the 1930s and early 1940s, calling them ‘Poème-Objets’. The text on the plaster egg in this work translates as ‘I see / I imagine’ and the poem beneath is deliberately cryptic." The poem reads:

    A l’intersection de lignes de force invisibles
    Le point de chant vers quoi les arbres se font la courte échelle
    L’épine de silence
    Qui veut que le seigneur des navires livre au vent son panache de chiens bleus

This is the translation:
    At the intersection of invisible lines of force
    To find
    The focal point towards which trees give each other a leg up
    The thorn of silence
    That wants the lord of the ships to give the winds its panache of blue dogs

Curator’s Note: The poem was produced through automatism. It’s not “deliberately cryptic” per se; rather, it’s a confluence of consciousness.

In the creation of this Poem-Object, Breton preferred the subconscious imagery of dreams.  'Automatism' is a piece of writing that avoids or tries to avoid conscious thought in favor of language that has a wilder associative quality or an arbitrary or mechanistic method of combining images.  Ordinary thinking might travel along too well worn paths, and he was striving for originality.  At the same time that he was working on these, Carl Jung was writing about the collective unconscious, and French poets such as Verlaine and Rimbaud were exploring surrealist or exploratory methods in poetry.

Breton's poem engages. First it locates a place of energy. Then it presents a verb on one line, a transitive verb.   The next two lines begin with nouns, the focal point and the thorn.  The third is a restrictive clause that would seem to provide specific information about the thorn of silence.  It has images, it has movement, and it has mystery.  Stephan Mallarmé, a French symbolist poet said to be one of the major influences of surrealism, once said that good poems should hold mystery.  Symbolism, according to the Google Dictionary, is described as "an artistic and poetic movement or style using symbolic images and indirect suggestion to express mystical ideas, emotions, and states of mind. It originated in late 19th century France and Belgium, with important figures including Mallarmé, Maeterlinck, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Redon."

These are good examples of "making" by two noteworthy poets. Both, the poem about an object and an object poem, use imaginative and startling juxtapositions to open a door. 

July 3, 2014

The ABC of Grief

Carolyn Forché
Poets pay attention to forms. A lament is a very old poetic form that expresses the grief of an individual or a community. Finnish shamans perform laments as did ancient Mesopotamian cultures. The Hebrew Bible contains examples the form. Nancy C. Lee writes: "Lament in the Hebrew Bible is an expression of sorrow, a description of distress, or a protest about injustice." It can be a dirge, a poem of sorrow, a prayer.

Laments are ritualized crying, and they occur in fixed and non-fixed forms, in ancient and contemporary poetry. Blue Hour by Carolyn Forché provides an eloquent example.

The Psalms are songs and laments and grapple with loss. As part of a religious and community ritual, the lament gives voice to emotional devastation. It provides a container for grief, one could say, and it's helpful to put it down somewhere. The psalm form does have a pattern.  Lee writes:
While there are a number of parts that may make up a lament, the description of distress and the plea itself are most essential. The following is an outline of the typical literary structure of lament as prayerful plea found in the book of Psalms:

(1) address to the deity (second-person speech)
(2) complaint or description of distress, often with questions
(to or against the deity, about one’s enemies, or about one’s suffering)
(3) expression of trust in the deity and/or remembrance of past saving actions
(4) plea/petition to the deity
(uses imperative verbs; may include call for vengeance)
(line inserted to suggest possible transition, lamenter was helped)
(5) assurance of being heard
(6) vow of praise
(7) praise of the deity
Many Psalms are also prayers. In some, the prayers are answered, and in others, the questions or pleas are unresolved.

The Book of Lamentations

In his essay about the Book of Lamentations in the Bible, Schwind examines the use of the alphabet acrostic in the Hebrew version (it is not evident in translations).  He notes elements of poetry in Lamentations, metaphor and metrics (a "limping" 3-2 meter not apparent in translation), and he says:
Perhaps the most striking feature of Lamentations is the fact that the entirety of each of the five chapters is an alphabetic acrostic poem in which each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet appear in order as the first letter of each verse (Chapters 3 and 5 show some variation but still hold to the general acrostic form). 
Recently, the abecedarian (this is the world used for an alphabet acrostic) seems to have lost this association with the spiritual. It has been often used in children's poetry as a way to teach the alphabet. According to the Academy of American Poets, the form of an alphabetic acrostic has historic links:
The abecedarian is an ancient poetic form guided by alphabetical order. Generally each line or stanza begins with the first letter of the alphabet and is followed by the successive letter, until the final letter is reached. The earliest examples are Semitic and often found in religious Hebrew poetry. The form was frequently used in ancient cultures for sacred compositions, such as prayers, hymns, and psalms. There are numerous examples of abecedarians in the Hebrew Bible; one of the most highly regarded is Psalm 118 (or 119 by King James numbering). It consists of twenty-two eight-line stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chaucer‘s "An ABC" is an excellent medieval example of the form. He crafted his translation of a French prayer into twenty-three eight-line stanzas that follow the alphabet (minus J, U, V, and W).   
Schwind concludes that this form is more than a mnemonic device, and that the abecedarian form does confer additional meaning to the text:
In the course of this study, the acrostic form in Lamentations 4 was shown to convey a sense of completeness, and the fact that the unspeakable has occurred, both of which are explicitly developed in the text. In addition, a sense of hope is conveyed by the acrostic form through its imposition of order in opposition to the chaos described in the text. This meaning is not explicitly developed in Lamentations 4 but appears to be a key theological theme that the poet wished to impart. 
The sense of completeness is key: the form has allowed the speaker a beginning, middle, and an end. Psychologically, it's an exorcism. The use of meter in laments is also an opportunity to consider how well irregular rhythms express the emotional content.

The Blue Hour

There is a contemporary example of the abecedarian form in The Blue Hour by Carolyn Forché.
Carolyn Forche's Blue Hour (2003) takes its title from the translated French phrase for dawn.  It also clearly associates the book with grief. In The New Yorker Magazine, the book review says:
In such lines, Forché’s persona—unflinching witness and eloquent mourner—prevails, but in the centerpiece of the collection, “On Earth,” her obsessive documentation of inhumanity overwhelms her best lyric instincts. Forché cleverly chooses the abecedarian form—where the initial letters of the lines form a progress through the alphabet—to portray the agonal flickers of a dying mind, and yet the poem’s collage of horrifying imagery feels gratuitous more often than it does inspired.  
Forché inscribed the book with a quote from the Jewish philosopher of religion, Martin Buber: "These moments are immortal, and most transitory of all; no content may be secured from them....Beams of their power stream into the ordered world and dissolve it again and again."  She refers perhaps to Buber's early transcendent mystical experience, that he later distanced himself from, or the "commotion of human life," a vortex of images, voices, events. It is unfortunate that the book reviewer did not comment on the long tradition of abecedarian forms to express laments, nor the fact that Forché can speak the unspeakable, and that this might be a profound act of witness and healing.

Blue Hour captures the ineffable, and goes forth broken, blind and believing in the transformational power of language. In Forché's hands, the abecedarium is heaped with alliterative sound and evocative image:
a chaos of microphones
a city of a thousand years
a city shaken and snowing 
a coin of moonlight on the shattered place
a confusion of birds and fishes
a consciousness not within us
a corpse broken into many countries
a cup of sleep
a desire to live as long as the world itself
a door opening another door
a feather forced through black accordioned paper
Her catalogue of grief is thorough as the Book of Lamentations. Several phrases are broken off from earlier poems in the book and echo. In her notes, she writes: "Gnostic abededarian hymns date from the third century A.D. Along with Christian and Buddhist texts, they were recovered from small towns on the northern fringe of the Taklamakan Desert early in the twentieth century. The texts were written in seventeen languages, including Sogdian and Tocharian, as well as Aramaic and the "Estrangelo script," a script for Syriac."  This attests to the universality of the need to speak about loss.

"On Earth," in Blue Hour, the alphabet provides a structure that stitches together the first word in each of the many lines. The structure gives the poem an order and sequence--a litany of w's prevails--while the ends of the poetic lines are allowed freedom.  Some are short and some are long; there are parallel structures. By freeing the meter and rhythm and in this way, the lines create a pulse that falters but beats. The poet Jane Miller praised the book and called it a “masterwork for the twenty-first century.”

Meter and rhythm of the language can reinforce or provide a relationship to the meaning of the words. While reading, I came across the words of Susanna Aarnio (a shaman, lament singer, and artist) and Tuomas Rounakari (shaman, violinist). Aarnio says the function of the shaman is to perform laments as well as travel in the spirit world for the purpose of healing. Rounakari demystifies the trance states he uses in music as well as in spiritual practice. All of us fall into a trance at least twice a day, going to sleep and before waking.  In fact, the "flow experience" of creative work must be a trance state.

Ruonakari had interesting things to say about meter as well. The part of the brain that we use most often is the linguistic part, but the brain has other layers. The analytic part has a bit slower rhythm, and the symbolic part even more slow. In the world, free meter is often found in the form of laments, he says.

According to him, the lack of beat allows access to deeper and more symbolic parts of the brain, and it heals. He seeks random tuning of his violin and wants to play with a free meter instead of the common 4 beat or 3 beat rhythm. He prefers to think of meter or beat as a "pulse."  He seeks to play music in a trance state, in theta brainwave state.

Often the decision about meter and rhythm is made for the poet by the poem itself, because there are inherent sounds and music in language.  The poet listens for and enhances the patterns.  If we consider meter and rhythm as a pulse, then it help us shape the overall form and sound of the poem. Is the pulse soft or strong, fast or slow, regular or irregular? Is it spirited?

Do poets, like shamans, have spiritual guides to help them in their work?  I think Forché used the lament form effectively to do this. In exploration, intuition, and deliberation, poets and shamans use rituals of healing.

Work Cited:

June 26, 2014

Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing

Hélène Cixous, a French writer, wrote Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. The book was published in 1993, and she has written many others, but I continue to reread this one because her secrets of writing are fascinating.

She says writing is a "strange science of farewells. Of reunitings."  The reader is plunged into the book with a marvelous speed.  "Writing in its noblest function, is the attempt to unerase, to unearth, to find the primitive picture again, ours, the one that frightens us. Strangely, it concerns a scene...we are the audience of this scene...witnesses to an extraordinary scene whose secret is on the other side." This sentence is key to the beginning of the writer's voice because each person has a unique extraordinary scene that they have witnessed. It awakens consciousness.

The School of the Dead

Writers commonly begin writing soon after encountering loss or death, according to Cixous.  "The first dead are our first masters, those who unlock the door for us that opens onto the other side, if only we are willing to bear it." In her philosophy, death is the key to understanding life.  

"We need to lose the world, to lose a world, and to discover that there is more than one world that the world isn't what we think it is. Without that, we know nothing about the mortality and immortality we carry. We don't know we're alive..."

And in addition, writing makes us foreigners even inside our own families. "When I write I escape myself, I uproot myself." She cites many examples of writers and artists who explore "the other" in their work, and who are essentially unknown or absent to their families in the process of writing. The same is true of reading, she claims. It makes us strangers in joy. Of the writer Montaigne, she says is true of many writers: "No sooner do we enter than we take flight. In the first paragraph we already have a series of directions. And each one of them will be pursued, none of them will be abandoned by the text."

She uses examples of Edgar Allen Poe who said that we pine away during the process of writing, we erase ourselves, seal ourselves up inside a tower. This is an allegory for what happens in creation. It happens symbolically and literally in many stories.  Poe she says executes the narrator.

"The only book worth writing is the one we don't have the courage or strength to write." Cixous says, "We have to become two to say that to ourselves: I the living one and I the dying one."  and "We go toward the best known unknown thing, where knowing and not knowing touch, where we hope we will know what is unknown."   In this way, writing becomes an act of discovery for the writer as well as the reader.   She continues, "...books are exactly those steps that should lead us to the point where oppositions meet, and coinciding, suddenly open up to what Kafka would call 'the Holy of the Holies.'"  And this is the place where the writer must take everything off, shoes, clothing, and all expectations to approach the place of the "last hour" where we are going in the direction of truth, and if we cannot speak it, because it cannot be spoken, at least we can "unlie" and avow the unavowable.

The School of Dreams

"All great texts begin in this manner that breaks: they break with our thought habits, with the world around us, in an extreme violence that is due to rapidity. They hurl us off to foreign countries. In fact, dreams are the route to the place of the dead without our dying." Dreams are a sacred place. She continues to explore her thoughts about farewells and reunitings in this section of the book. Dreams send us places against our will, we flee ordinary times and places and enter the extraordinary. Time collapses. "Dreaming and writing do have to do with traversing the forest, journeying through the world, using all the available means of transport, using your own body as a form of transport."  In the same way, good books transport us.

She writes that dreams instruct the writer in four ways to write without transition, with speed, with fear (a better way to approach the concept of "conflict" because it takes us deeper into what is at stake, and with magic. All of this comes to the turning point, the place of transformation.

Avoid interpretation, she writes. Interpretation is death for the dream. One must enter it and leave it free. "We must let ourselves be carried on the dream's mane and must not wake up--something all dreamers know--while the dream is dictating the world to us." The dream takes up down to the depths, and here is the next lesson for writers.

The School of Roots

Cixous remarks on a strange association between women, birds and writing. She finds it in the Bible, and in several texts, and she connects it to the discovery of hidden joys and the passage of all frontiers. Writers need to look to his or her roots: to the name that they have been given, to their birth certificate, to the place where they were born and grew up, and to what fed them in their life.

As an example, the beginning of her book begins with the letter H. I is part of the letter, and it can be considered the "I" or writer. It represents the language the writer is born into, and each language bears the culture and thousands of emphases and meanings carried by the language. H is a significant letter in French. The other part of the letter H, the second I stands parallel. Perhaps it is the "other" that the writer also becomes, or it is the reader.  It signifies the language of the other. Notice there is a connection between the two that "forms a passageway between two shores." Between one language and another, between the breath of the writer and the breath of the reader, it forms the shape of a ladder, and it is this ladder that we use to descend and ascend as readers and writers. H is the first letter of Hélène Cixous' name.

These are her secrets of good writing, and I have only provided a short glimpse at her book's structure. She fills in these ideas much more thoroughly and provides examples of various texts.

Cixous, Hélène. Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. Columbia University Press, New York. 1993.

June 25, 2014

Book Review by Julie Gard: Night Train Red Dust

Book Review 

Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range 
Reviewed by Julie Gard 
New World Finn, Summer 2014

In Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range, Sheila Packa fearlessly explores the Finnish and Northern Minnesota roots of her life and language. Family history, landscape, industry, and the animal world are all essential elements of the poet’s psyche and vocabulary.

In “My Geology,” language is excavated, hard-earned and fiercely chosen: “I claim my words from the broken / English, damaged roots, / Finnish syntax and geomagnetic fields.” Access to language and a place in history is claimed not just for the poet, but for her entire community. Packa’s voice is bold and Whitmanesque in poems like “Zenith City,” which is a playful, polyphonic tribute to Duluth, and “Strange Highway,” which encompasses multiple generations and experiences:

 I travelled with the magnetic pull of iron
around river now reservoir now pit
 fell on the frozen ground
 where horses and carts
carried out logs and carried
in steam shovels
 on the Vermillion Trail

This “I” is powerful in its range and inclusivity as the poet claims and unites multiple identities and experiences.

 At times the broad, bold scope of the poems narrows to a single perspective, such as in “North Star: “In Hanko, Finland / a young woman boards / the vessel in the Baltic / for a ship across the Atlantic. / The North Star shines in the sky.” A grandmother’s journey begins and so does the poet’s journey, as described in “Old Music,” as “an egg inside an egg.” The long road of adaptation and blending of old and new ways is detailed in this poem: “My grandmother remained at the border / unable to cross into the new language. / She pushed us over.” The poet takes her mother “into the American vernacular, / drive[s] her language to its destination, / play[s] the volume on high / in a minor key, old music.”

Night Train Red Dust is rich with metaphors for writing, for how language, once claimed, can be worked with. In “Blind Pig,” dedicated to the poet Lorine Niedecker, we find the poet “[i]n the distillery / underground, / work[ing] to make ruinous / beauty.” Mining itself is both physical reality and metaphor in Packa’s poems, “all excavation” and “working below the surface “ (“Metaphor/The Mine”). Writing is one of many forms of creation and industry.

These poems pay careful attention to animal as well as human experience, often showing their commonalities. For example, the poem “Neighbor,” about a woman abandoned by her husband at the side of the road, appears right before “Grouse,” which is about a bird “along a deserted road,” “between shadow and light.” Fear and endangerment resonate throughout both poems.

Recurring themes of speech and silence are extended to the natural world in “Timber,” where in the voices of wolves, the speaker:

heard not the day’s wind
but the wind of many years
arriving, departing
light falling between worlds
into dust and wings
away from motors and wheels
into a strange music for way-finding

The present is never just the present, and one world leaks into another. Concrete and vivid imagery is often used to capture a sense of impermanence. “The Cost” is a pared-down, resonant poem that describes the transience of all things, including writing itself: “I write myself / in the river, in the wind.” In “Elements,” the speaker loses and finds herself in forms such as charcoal, light, water, and stone, constantly shape-shifting. The poem “Red Star” links humanity to space and a coffee tin to a “distant star” that is “burning through the elements -- / or giving birth.” The magic and mundane are one.

Altogether, these poems vividly capture personal and collective experience and serve as a powerful example of how a writer can help to shape the identity of a place. The collection ends with haunting traces, silence, and smoke. Language emerges from and disappears into wind, “[e]ven after all the ink” (“Dictate of Wind’), yet Packa’s words leave a lasting impression. As in “Consanguinity,” “Her incantations come.”

Julie Gard is a published poet, and teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin in Superior, Wisconsin.  Recently, she learned that her new manuscript is a finalist in the New Rivers Press book competition.   Visit her website at

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June 20, 2014

What I've Learned About Poetry: A Manifesto of Sorts

It begins with an ache. 
Nothing is too small not to notice.
Let it tell you what it is. 
Fall into a crack.
Create a motion.
Stay in the body. Write inside.
Stay in the body of earth. 
Consider the object to be a symbol and then a tool. 
The beginning must lead the middle to the end. 
Leave room for shadows or ghosts.
Remember the workings of tiny gears inside the clock.
Repeat in a way.   
Be thorough in whatever you are doing.
Stay true. 
What you are given more than suffices.
If you are going in the right direction, the universe will synchronize and give you a gift.
Time falls away from the beginning.
If a sacrifice is needed, it’s the ego. 
Simplicity is your direction.    
The ending happened before you stopped.