The Poem Stuck in My Head
May 6, 2013 | by Luling Osofsky
Pen names have long been a means for writers to inhabit another identity—to attain privacy, assume the acceptably literate gender, or play with the freedom of a psychic unburdening. But at what point does a pseudonym become obfuscation, transgression? What happens when a poem of witness—a poem set in the aftermath of the August 6, 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima, a poem more compelling than many of its peers for its haunting, even oblique and morbid surrealist humor—is in fact written by a middle-aged white community college professor named Kent Johnson, rather than a hibakusha, or actual Hiroshima survivor?
April 16, 2013 | by Casey N. Cep
It was Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, so the bazaars in Istanbul were closed. We walked along the silent streets, wondering how thirteen million city dwellers could go so quiet and how we were going to spend our leftover lira before our departing flights in a few hours. Toward the Galata Bridge, we found a commotion of doves and pigeons by the Yeni Cami.
Birds of a feather do flock together: leading from Eminönü Square was an avenue lined with animal stalls. A menagerie of birds—cranes, ducks, fancy chickens, peacocks, and pheasants—called from their cages. In other wire cages, puppies, kittens, and rabbits formed furry masses. Another set of aquatic stalls had turtle hatchlings and goldfish. Bags full of seed, dry food, and wood shavings spilled into one another—supplies for every sort of pet.
We stopped before a collection of three-gallon drums. “Prof. Dr. Sülük,” read placards at the top of all the drums, each of which was two-thirds full of cerulean-tinted water. A man stood beside the drums, resting his weight on one of them, shifting his baseball cap with the other hand, gray hair falling from underneath.
“I saw a Man before me unawares: / The oldest man he seemed that ever wore grey hairs.” This was not the Lake District, but in this busy market I thought of William Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence.” Facing these tiny barrels of leeches and their keeper, all I could think of was the Romantic’s leech gatherer.
Several hundred leeches writhed. They gathered like a black belt round the middle of each container, near the water’s surface. A few ambitious leeches left the waistband, inching their way toward the lid; a few fell from those curving heights to the bottom of the barrels. Read More »
January 16, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
When my brother and I were small, our parents would read to us each evening. When it was my mother’s turn, she generally read poetry. I don’t know from which children’s collection she read, but it was terrifying: in particularly heavy rotation (at my request) were “Don’t Care,” in which the insouciant protagonist is made to care by being “put in a pot / and boiled til he was done,” “Ozymandias” (I found the idea of the head lying in the sand frightening), and my favorite, “Strange Visitor.”
When I decided to find the poem online, I came across several variations; in the original, compiled by the folklorist Sir George Douglas, the dialect is Scottish; in other adaptations (including that anthologized by George Jacobs) more modern English. The plot is always the same: a woman, sitting at her spinning wheel, wishes for company. A series of mismatched, disembodied parts come in—knees, shoulders, neck, hands—and the figure gives a series of gnomic answers to her questions. “What have you come for?” she asks at last. “FOR YOU!” the reader shouts, leaving any listening children in a state of blissful petrification. The following is Douglas’s transcription, and his stage directions.
January 7, 2013 | by Lorin Stein
If you grew up going to church, you already know Psalm 139. Even if you didn’t, parts of it are floating around your brain. It is a favorite of pro-life people, because it talks about God recognizing us in the womb, taking care of us, and knowing how we’ll turn out. (It is also—I’d bet money on this—the source of our hundred-year-old American expression “search me.”)
Psalm 139 gets my vote for being the most beautiful of the psalms in the King James version. The other day I happened to read it in French and it left me cold—it conjured up surveillance—whereas the high-low diction of the King James translators sings and is intimate, because you would only sing this way to a God you loved: “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me.” It’s like an advertisement for the English language. Read More »
November 12, 2012 | by Ali Pechman
Liars and lovers often find themselves to be bedfellows. It seems to follow that government officials will forever have to publicly disentangle the lies they tell about their lovers. But a scandal, after all, means evidence or admission, the end of the lie. Only the person who kept it secret so long knows the real terror of the birth and life of the lie, and perhaps it is poetry, rather than the news cycle, that is sensitive enough to trace a portrait of such a slippery subject.
After hearing about the resignation of David Petraeus on Friday, I immediately turned to the Dylan Thomas poem “I Have Longed to Move Away.” I first read it, by chance, when I was harboring a huge lie myself, one that had seemed to follow me into the pages of an innocuous-looking poetry book on a friend’s shelf, opened at random. From the first line, the poem not only captures the feeling one gets from living the worst lies; it seduces liars themselves. Like the speaker, I longed in that moment to move away to some foreign place, at least on the page, but once I’d begun the journey, I was led back where I’d come from: there was my lie, staring me down again in the next line. The steady meter interrupts on the unexpected and sinister “hissing,” then come the strong two beats of that unavoidable “spent lie” which is equated to a “continual cry.” It is not just a lie; it has been assigned a heavy weight and value by meter, rhyme, and meaning.
July 11, 2012 | by Eli Mandel
Sometimes in life you get yelled at. No matter your moral fiber, it can’t be avoided all the time. It happens in Marine Corps boot camp; it happens in rush-hour subway cars; it happens if your mother catches you reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover at an impressionable young age. But one place you don’t expect to get harangued, one place where the lid’s supposed to stay on the pot, is poetry.
So cracking open D. H. Lawrence’s seemingly innocuous Birds, Beasts, Flowers is a bit of a shock. Lawrence is, of course, better known for his novels and short stories; verse can unleash in him an irritating Whitmanesque mania, an exhibitionist verbal autoeroticism. But that’s not the case here. You flip past the title page and the index to the first poem, “Pomegranate,” and before your eyes can adjust to the typeface, you’re in trouble. Big trouble: