Fuego en la Noche

Yesterday was the 4th Annual Cambridge Music Festival here in Vermont. Between sets of great music, there were other things going on…

POEM
Fuego en la Noche
or, Chasing Away the Hooky Spooks

Last night in blackness, between
music while the bands went on break,
we gathered round in a semi-circle
just beyond the burning cups
placed in careful spacing,
intentional line not to cross.
The rain had stopped
though the sky still pressed
against us. Wet. The universe
lay compressed between ankles
and oppression just above
our heads, as self-contained
as a coffin. Music, low, floated
in and a bare-footed woman
picked up chains with burning
cups at the end. She spun
them as a spider would spin
a web of fire, swinging flames
behind her back, crisscrossing
chains, flashing light against
her shoulders, flinging fire
across saturated grass, streaks
of orange-red opening the night.
We may have glanced
at her face in concentration,
but we couldn’t keep our eyes
from following the slashes
of danger that chased away
los diablos. For a moment,
even the full moon glanced
at the earth, and –
I kid you not – the sun
returned in this morning’s sky.

ELEMENT
Poet Highlight: Christina Rossetti

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
Goblin Market, Christina Rossetti’s famous narrative poem.
Cirque de Fuego
Cambridge Music Festival - don’t miss it next year!

Stanzas

I haven’t written much this summer and am easing my way back into it, allowing myself the paradigm shift needed to return to living a poet’s life. This means slowing down to observe and reflect, stopping at the station instead of hurrying past it with engines working constantly, full steam ahead.

POEM:
Stanzas

Lucy and sheep in the field.

Lucy and sheep in the field.

I.
I dream of sheep, my sheep, locked in the barn and I,
unable to get to them
due to ice and hills, and a car crash thrown in for good measure, and they, silent in their patience, moving as sheep do, as one, around the inner perimeter
of their confines, waiting
for grass, light, air.

 

II.
Was that you I saw
with straw hat, kerchief
around the neck, long-pants
in the ditch with a scythe?

III.
I have closed the door on the dog.
Don’t worry; it is the bedroom door,
and although her fluffy doggy bed
is in here, she will sleep elsewhere,
on the couch or on Great-Grandma
Dugan’s antique loveseat,
quite comfortable, free
of remonstration, of guilt.

IV.
The ocean frightens me, makes me
want to head back to Iowa, lie
my body flat in between the stubble
of corn stalks or sit in a deep ditch
where, my mother once told me,
wild roses grew before the pesticides
of the 1950’s, where you can hide
from jumping tornadoes, where,
in my blue jeans and sweat,
the four-foot grass hid me,
and after the dust-cloud settled
from a passing car, I smelled
the ocean in an endless sky.

ELEMENT:
Stanzas

Recently I was reading Mouth to Mouth: Poems by Twelve Contemporary Mexican Women, edited by Forrest Gander (Milkweed Editions), and came to the poems of Elva Macias. In her section there were poems under the heading “Stanzas.” Longer, in general, than haiku, but shorter than one might expect a complete poem to be, I liked the short musings she offered such as this:

III.
The balcony frames the branches of the cypress,
an insect slips
through the blades of the fan
and the mosquito net is a small cloud
spilling over desire.

And this one:

VII.
The breeze parts the curtains,
kisses sea snails
that keep their doors wide open.
It lulls you.
Over the afternoon
your dream
is the same as yesterday
and you almost laugh.

Interestingly, Macias had shorter creations that she has titled and that stand alone as a poem:

Sunflower along the barn last week.

Sunflower along the barn last week.

Nostalgia
The sunflower
even torn from its stalk
still follows, attentive, the movement of the sun.

What is the difference between a stanza, a strophe, a poem?

Posted on the website Literary Devices, the stanza is “a division of four or more lines having a fixed length, meter or rhyming scheme. Stanzas in poetry are similar to paragraphs in prose. Both stanzas and paragraphs include connected thoughts and are set off by a space. The number of lines varies in different kinds of stanzas but it is uncommon for a stanza to have more than twelve lines. The pattern of a stanza is determined by the number of feet in each line and by its metrical or rhyming scheme.”

And according to the website Poetry Archive, the stanza is “a group of lines within a poem; the blank line between stanzas is known as a stanza break. Like lines, there is no set length to a stanza or an insistence that all stanzas within a poem need be the same length. However, there are names for stanzas of certain lengths: two-line stanzas are couplets; three-lines, tercets; four-lines, quatrains. (Rarer terms, like sixains and quatorzains, are very rarely used.) Whether regular or not, the visual effect and, sometimes, the aural effect is one of uniting the sense of the stanza into one group, so poets can either let their sentences fit neatly within these groups, or create flow and tension by enjambing across the stanza breaks.”

This is as opposed to a strophe, defined by Encyclopedia Britannica: “strophe, in poetry, a group of verses that form a distinct unit within a poem. The term is sometimes used as a synonym for stanza, usually in reference to a Pindaric ode or to a poem that does not have a regular metre and rhyme pattern, such as free verse. In ancient Greek drama the strophe was the first part of a choral ode that was performed by the chorus while it moved from one side of the stage to the other. The strophe was followed by an antistrophe of the same metrical structure (performed while the chorus reversed its movement) and then by an epode of different structure that was chanted as the chorus stood still.”

But enough definitions already. I like to think of a stanza as what its etymology tells us it is: a little room, station, stopping place. These are the roots of the word in Italian.

If I think of writing a stanza instead of a poem, a huge weight is lifted from my shoulders. Why? Because I can manage being in a little room. When I enter a room, or stop at a station, there are unknowns to deal with to be sure, but the space and duration of my stay are confined. Even if the room is uncomfortable or the layover long, I know there are boundaries; there is a finite time I’ll be there and a sure way out.

Now imagine leaving that safe little room. You’ve shut the door behind you and have stepped outside into the end of summer, as it’s getting to be now. Image yourself at the edge of a cornfield where the corn is as tall as you or even taller. In front of you is the entrance to a corn maze. Entering this maze is like entering a poem. Both can be quite overwhelming and there is risk involved. They both beg the same questions: Which way do I go? How many wrong turns will I take? What will I discover? When will I come out? Perhaps, when you find the exit, you will have found a little cottage constructed with sweet stanza-rooms, or a mansion full of richly filled stanza-rooms, or a tumbled down shack with pathetic stanza-rooms that needs to be razed and begun anew. One never knows at the beginning of a maze.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):

What is poetry? Some interesting definitions of poetry. Where are the definitions by women?

 

Nothing Saved Us

A quarter of a year has passed since my last posting, and when I think of this, my stomach sinks. My excuse is that a lot has happened to me over the spring and summer, but now it’s time to get back on track and recommit to poetry.

One of the exciting things that has developed since April is the publication of my first book, Nothing Saved Us: Poems of the Korean War, which will be going to print in the next couple of days and is currently available for ordering at www.WINDRIDGEBOOKSOFVT.com.

The book is a collection of poems that I wrote after interviewing my father over the course of two years about his experiences as a Marine during the Korean War. On January 29, 1953, six months before Armistice, he was shot with machine gun fire in an ambush by Chinese troops. He was twenty years old at the time, yet the physical and psychological effects continue to take their toll, over sixty years later.

The second half of the book chronicles the life of a Korean woman civilian during and after the war. I wrote this part of the book as a long sequence of three-line stanzas, loosely based on the Korean poetry form, sijo. With this narrative, I wanted to give a different perspective of war from the American G.I.’s point of view. However, despite the vastly different experiences of the characters in the book, the results of their involvement are the same. That is, the effects of war do not end with armistice or peace treaties.

Nothing Saved Us

We perched high on a hill
like kings, sure, but more
like cattle on the killing floor,
watching North Koreans dig
their trenches in the slaughterhouse
of night until they tried
a grenade to gore us
at o-three-hundred hours.
We had settled round
an invisible circumference,
where a campfire might
have been under different
circumstances; but only
emptiness was sitting
there between us
when the shell dropped in.
After splitting, spitting
shards to nail us on
our guard, the word went down
the line: Frank –
you there? Becenti –
how bout you?
Thirteen of us,
and thirteen voices
laughing softly at our luck;
not one of us was hit,
by that branding centerpiece.
For fifty years, I’ve thought of it.

Excerpts, Part II, Nothing Saved Us

1. LEAVING
At the barley field, sits my hut; my baby’s first breath flutters
under a roof of grass between dirt and blood. Behind the house, narrow trails
for cows to follow bring enemy soldiers into my home, like theirs.

I seal them in, block the candlelight with blankets under flaring night
under a helicopter’s constant thrumming.The men ask to hold my son, but bugs
squirm in and out of their ragged shirts. Instead, I keep First Son at my breast.

I watch the men sleep on the floor. The smaller one has the same mouth
my husband had, lips full with a man’s energy, and thin enough
to reign his emotions in. I keep myself from touching him.

When I put on white, I carry his bones: flotsam from bullet holes and ash heaps.
White for his eyes that no longer see, white for teeth in a mouth that no longer speaks.
White is the moon’s durumagi wrapped about the shoulders in a naked night.

Element:
Persona Poetry

“A persona, from the Latin for mask, is a character taken on by a poet to speak in a first-person poem” is the definition of persona given in poetryarchive.org. I was surprised to find the word “mask” as the root, but I shouldn’t have been. When writing in the voice of another, one needs to put on the mask of that person, assume their identity and become them as close as humanly possible.

Assuming the mask allows you to begin to think like that person and use their diction, that is, their accent, inflection, intonation, and vocabulary. In the case of the persona poems in Nothing Saved Us, this was much easier to accomplish in the first half of the book where the poems are written from the persona of my father than in the second half where the poems are written in the persona of a Korean woman civilian. It wasn’t too difficult to capture my father’s diction, having lived with him for 18 years before I left for college and having talked to him on a regular basis for the last 34 years. The tricky part was going back to a time before I was born.

Assuming a mask of a character in a different time, and in the case of the Korean woman, a different place, demands research. The more the better, and if possible, a total immersion would be ideal. We are not able to go back in time, however, and I was not able to go to Korea, so I researched for countless hours about Korea and its history, culture, geography and read many memoirs of women who had lived through the war or who have mothers or grandmothers who had.

I also searched for other ways to connect to the persona of the Korean civilian. What element of this character could I immerse myself in? In reading the memoirs, I came to the conclusion that what mattered the most as this poem sequence developed was that the character was a woman. That was something I could understand and connect to. I am not saying that a man can’t write as a woman or a woman as a man – this has been done effectively countless times in literature, and I do it myself in the first half of the book – but being a woman was a role I could certainly assume in writing the second half of the book. I took the liberty of assuming that what was important to me here and now is important to women worldwide and over time: my loved ones including spouses,children, parents, traditions, the ability to smell, see, hear, touch, and taste, my living conditions, and survival. I’m not saying these aren’t important to men, but these were the ideas I returned to in order to think like a woman in the throes of war.

Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux explore persona poetry in their book, The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry. In it they explain, “…a persona poem can let you explore events and states of being more freely; masks allow us to shed our ordinary identities.” (122). ..Persona poems are shapeshifting, a chance to move beyond the boundaries of our personality, our particular circumstances. If we enter our imagination fully and deeply enough, we can experience our questions, our concerns and obsessions, with more empathy and insight. And whatever voices speak from that deep place will require attention.” (127).

In Tim Seibles lecture, “Reverse Ventriloquism,” which he gave in July, 2012 at Stonecoast Writing Program at the University of Maine, he shared, “We are the characters. We’re somewhere on the continuum and can slip in and out of characters, as evil as possible even…We need to not think of ourselves as ourselves, but we need to think of ourselves as others in ourselves.” He explained, “Persona poems are all about the fluidity of people.”

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources): 

More poetry from my friends at Wind Ridge Books of Vermont: