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:

 

 

 

 

Running In The Woods

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If I showed you this poem:

The Runner

On a flat road runs the well-train’d runner,
He is lean and sinewy with muscular legs,
He is thinly clothed, he leans forward as he runs,
With lightly closed fists and arms partially rais’d.

would you guess that it was written in 1867 by Walt Whitman?  Whitman describes the runner exactly as we still see him or her today, the body, the clothes, the stance. Whitman is one of my favorite poets as is Tim Seibles, whom I met and worked with at the USM Stonecoast MFA program. I had the honor of hearing Seibles read his poem, “Renegades,” from his book Buffalo Head Solos on Bowdoin campus a few years ago.  This poem about running is, of course, not about running. As with all good poems, much more lies beneath the surface.

 

POEM:
Running in the Woods

Pulled into trees, lifting
knees, feet rebound
off rotting logs, my feet,
thump, slip in and out
of animal holes, homes.
Don’t see spider webs
grab at me, mask my
face with sticky lace;
I am not afraid,
cannot be afraid
running through the woods.
Faster now, the earth
starts spinning under-
neath me; I am leaping,
dodging, skimming mush-
rooms that glow white
in the underbrush, shine
red in the black earth,
even purple between
the ferns. Suddenly
I spook a grouse, my heart
thumps to its thrumming
wings and my feet speed
up, echo the beat;
the bird is gone. Can’t
be afraid. Listen.
It’s just the wind creaking
trees, clicking sapling
trunks together. I jump,
run, jump the forest’s
lumpy blanket, buried
stumps, decaying timber.
Sticks snatch clothes,
scratch legs, draw blood that I
won’t see until I’m home.
I trip as I look up.
Vines tangle, snake
around. I slip on leaves
catch myself with calloused
hands, scramble up
ridges, now slower, so
think: What if I
meet a moose, six feet
high at the shoulder?
I see its scat all over,
leap every pellet-
filled pile of it.
Run. What if I
meet a bear, fat,
scratching, waiting, ready
for winter weather? I see its
claw marks climb the beech
trees. Run. I cannot
be afraid when the sun
dips, stoops too low,
too low to help me through
darkened woods. I’ve
mistook that ridge before,
it’s not the last this side
of home. I have another
hill to climb, another
mile, another valley
to go before I’m home.
I’m not afraid. I run.

ELEMENT:
Repetition

Poetry is all about repetition: repetition of sound, word, line, meter, content.

The repetition of beginning sounds in words (alliteration), vowel sounds (assonance), and end sounds (rhyme) makes a poem sing.  Sound repetition lets you know what words to invite into the poem. After all, shouldn’t you always invite your relatives into the house? (Okay, maybe I shouldn’t use that analogy). But what I mean is an “o” sound as in “home” invites in another “o” word such as “alone” into the poem.  “Home alone” sounds a heck of a lot better than “home by myself.”

I love repetition in poems and songs, but other than the sound repetition, I find it difficult to incorporate successfully. Repetition of words only works if done enough and not overdone. Repetition is good at medium-rare. Too much and the meaning’s burnt, not enough and it’s undetectable, inedible, indigestible.

Meter is the repetition of a particular pattern of stressed and non-stressed syllables. While I can hear iambs and trochees, anapests, and dactyls in many of poems I read, it’s still a challenge to get the meter “right” in my own poetry.  I have to work at it, and hopefully I have the intended trochaic trimeter pattern in “Running In The Woods.” (After having finished this poem and rereading the chapter on trochees in The Exaltation of Forms, I was reminded that trochee comes from the Greek word “to run.” Of course this poem has to be in trochaic form!). I have to acknowledge Charles Martin here, who must have asked a hundred times in the workshop I had with him, “What is the prosodic convention of this poem?” I cannot start a poem now without hearing him say this, which was his intent, no doubt.

A great example, in my opinion, of perfect sound, word, line, and meter repetition is in Robert Burns’ poem “Song Composed in August.” I first heard this poem as a song many years ago on an album by Scottish singer and song-writer Dick Gaughan. I searched for the lyrics on line and learned it was a Robbie Burns poem written in 1783. During my recent trip to Scotland, I decided I’d memorize the 40-line poem while touring the country, and wrote each stanza until I had it memorized then moved on to the next. I hadn’t intended to learn so much about repetition in such an intimate way. By memorizing the poem, however, I saw the patterns of words, rhyme, and meter that I would have otherwise missed.

Which brings me to another point of repetition: repetition of content. It was Andre Gide who said, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”  I love this. It gives me free rein (free reign?) to say whatever I want to say, since we’re all just saying the same thing everyone else has already said. I read this quote most recently in the book, Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon. He discusses in a quick-light-cartoonish-way how to steal others material and make it your own. Repetition with originality.

 

 

Erica Vega, up and coming poet extraordinaire, gave an excellent presentation during our last residency at Stonecoast, which was titled “Cycling: The Influence of Another’s Fire.” During her presentation, Vega discussed that the “essence of inspiration is influence” and what we create is based upon who we choose to read, watch, and listen to. We repeat the work of others’ with our own twist. (Case in point: can you pick up elements of Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” at the end of my poem above? It surprised me even, but there you have the dark woods, the additional mile to go at the end. I happen to love Frost’s work ). One of the ways in which we can learn and be inspired, Vega asserted, is through writing down the work of someone else, exactly, as Hunter S. Thompson did with the Great Gatsby. As Vega did with Salinger’s short story “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.” As I did with Burn’s poem. In writing down someone else’s work, I am not writing to copy it, but writing to learn, learn techniques, tone, vocabulary, sentence construction, mastery.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
Teaching the Art of Poetry by Baron Wormser and David Cappella. Great chapter on repetition  in this book!
Quick Meter Reference Guide – iamb, trochee, anapest, dactyl, and spondee,
An Exaltation of Forms, Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art, edited by Annie Finch and Katherine Varnes
Sinnerman, traditional spiritual sung by Nina Simone. Great example of the power of repetition.