Ars Poetica: Poems on Poetry 2018
My memory is loose, our dry cleaner says, emerging from the racks
of shirts wrapped in plastic.
It is the morning after a heavy rain and I have to agree, I have
even forgotten how to end my sentences
and they run like rainwater down the storm drain, or pool
in the gutter if leaves have clogged the drain
as happens so often during these November rains that strip
the trees of their late bloom of color
while my sentences go nowhere, or double back to the moment
when I still remembered how it all began—
the morning after the storm, sky clearing, sun rising earlier
thanks to the clocks we turned back an hour last weekend
so there was enough light to see the last anemone glowing
beside the wine-dark leaves of the Japanese maple.
[first published in About Place Journal; included in Travel Notes from the River Styx (Terrapin Books, 2017)]
The Blue Notebook
After spending a little time with eternity,
I stepped out of Sacré-Cœur
into the sunlight,
an old man on the cathedral steps
with all the young people and their selfie sticks,
romantic couples taking portraits
as they fell into a pristine and hopeful love.
I looked down the hill
as if I were looking into the past
and grieved for time lost.
I remembered from earlier visits
that down the hill on Montmartre
there is a street named for Pierre de Ronsard,
the 16th-century Parisian “prince of poets.”
A cultivar of rose is named after him
in remembrance of his sonnet
comparing fleeting beauty to a dying rose.
Yeats in his book,
“And, nodding by the fire, take down this book,
and slowly read….”
I remembered the first time
I heard those stories. I was a student
and rushed to the library to read the poems.
When I was young
and traveling for the first time to Paris,
I sat on these same steps beneath the white cathedral
and earnestly wrote in a blue notebook—
I always had a notebook when I was young—
that having no house or garden to call my own,
I would return home and plant roses in my father’s garden.
I figured Virginia was a good place to grow roses,
even though I knew I would travel on
long before the roses bloomed.
I imagined seasons passing
and my elderly father—
his shears shining in the early sun—
carefully pruning the blossoming bushes,
grown generations old.
I envisioned a metal water-bucket brimming
with long-stemmed roses he would carry
with his unsteady gait back into the empty, quiet house.
I wanted him to arrange and leave the vibrant flowers
in a cut-glass vase to sparkle by the window
for my mother to discover. Even now
I see her smile shyly
as she pulls back her graying hair,
closes her eyes, and bowing, inhales the rich perfume.
I Confide in Charles Baudelaire about my Divorce Again
February, peeved at Paris, pours
a gloomy torrent on the pale lessees
of the graveyard next door and a mortal chill
on tenants of the foggy suburbs too.
—Charles Baudelaire, “Spleen”
I tell him, “Charles, I was thinking about you when I ordered that glass
of absinthe at the end of the meal. And maybe I ordered it not because
I wanted it but because I knew that I would write this poem.” I don’t know
what else to say to him about the last dinner I had with my ex-husband,
what details stand out. I dropped an olive on the tablecloth when I tried to spear it
with my fork, we talked about his family, my family. We talked about his
what—wife? girlfriend?—how she recognized me in the Edgewater
Whole Foods that day when I was grading. Baudelaire listens, sympathetic
as ever, and like any good poet (“since the tomb understands the poet always”),
hears what I’m not saying, knows that I’m only telling the story because
it happened and not because it matters. I would rather talk about the treasures
I find at my neighborhood antique stores, knowing that he lived above
one once himself, filling his rooms with strange and beautiful things.
A few months ago, I bought a fringed paisley bedspread that wouldn’t have
been out of place in his Paris apartment. I want to wear it as a cape
or a long trailing dress, want the fringe to wrap my waist, skim the last snow
from the ground. Baudelaire was never married, and in a way, neither was I.
Sometimes I speak in verse—
iambic lines, or worse,
trochee. It’s like a curse
I cannot stop. Perverse,
the rhymes infect, transverse,
coerce my brain. “Disperse!”
I shout. “Be still,” my nurse
responds, his voice so terse
I know I’ve gone insane.
He binds my wrists. I strain
against the bed, my brain
awhirl with mad disdain
until the meds constrain
the meter gone profane
and bold: a hurricane
of poems I can’t explain.
“Spondee,” I moan.
“Sestina. Sonnet. Koan
And then the heavy stone
of anesthetic thrown
from syringe to bone
descends. I wake alone.
No ode, no pain, no throne
composed of metered tones
and stately palindromes
contaminate my words.
My mouth a hearse—
dead letters disperse
against my teeth. The nurse
appears. His smile is vain.
He says, “We’ve fixed your brain.”
I scowl. He frowns. I feign
civility. “My purse?”
I ask. “The universe
awaits.” He shoves it close.
I ease the zipper wide
to show the poems I hide
for rainy days and snide
restraints cannot divide
my mind for long. I hide
my plans, re-versified
and calm. For now. They tried
to break my muse. I bide
my time until the worst
miasma fades, and Verse
slips back into a poem
or two, or more: a tome!
Oh, poetic loon,
how sweet it feels to croon
aloud the song of moon
and line. Iambic swoons
and dactyl foot balloons
unhinge my afternoon—
a perfect honeymoon
from sane pursuits too soon
applied with syringe or spoon,
a brutal, dulling dose
of anodyne. No verse.
No rhyme. Just prose. A curse
devoid of rhyme. “No pun
for that!” I say. The nurse
returns. I close my purse
Guide to Writing Modern Poetry
Write like you don’t mean it.
Spill nothing but soft vowels
into hard consonants that roll
heavily over everything, obliterating
sense. Scatter in the strange words
that mesmerize: shiny objects
to distract from your lack of reason:
to make meaning is treason.
Pangolin scales articulate.
Ribbons spool like gastropod shells.
A paper nautilus is an argonaut—
wait: that means something. Scratch that.
What I meant to say is nothing,
then put it on your plate for you
to unscramble and digest like sand.