New poems from Richard Jones, Paulann Peterson, Dennis Schmitz, Alice Derry, Kay Lin, Kathleen McGookey and many others fill Cloudbank 13. Book reviews for Stranger on Earth by Richard Jones, Cloud Memoir by Christopher Buckley, and Blue Mistaken for Sky by Andrea Hollander are included.
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Issue introduction by Michael Malan
Today is a cloudy winter day and I’m feeling a little down. Not really, but it seems like a good way to start an introduction. This poem by Anselm Hollo cheers me up:
when you suddenly
feel like talking
about the times
in your life when you were
a total idiot asshole you resist
& just sit there
at the head of the table
Nice image at the end—brings the poem into focus. The speaker sitting there thinking that either a) he wasn’t so bad after all, or b) it was actually sometimes fun being a reprobate, or c) he’s been healed of the need to share about his sordid past, or d) he no longer feels shame and guilt because he’s been born again. Ha ha.
So, why do I think this poem is humorous? I’ve decided to resist the impulse to analyze it, and just sit here at my computer, not beaming, but feeling a little better. Humor is good for the soul.
In an age of Group Selfie Cams and imagined (or real) injustices, it’s refreshing to read poetry by people who don’t seem to take their spectacular awesomeness too seriously.
I want back all the hours I spent
this afternoon seeking a pair of old-school Adidas Superstars.
The most mindful moment of my day passed as I waited
for a discount haircut. And later,
I breathed deeply & slowly
as I watched brown bread brown in the toaster.
[Kathleen Graber, “Self-Portrait in Suspension”]
Sometimes (rarely) poems have a punchline. Most everyone loves a good joke, I think, although I know some people might think that humor is reactionary: How can we laugh when [you name it] is so awful? But are things really so awful—or do we need more doses of humor?
In “A Poetry Reading at West Point,” William Mathews writes:
“Sir,” a cadet yelled from the balcony,
and gave his name and rank, and then,
closing his parentheses, yelled
“Sir” again. “Why do your poems give
me a headache when I try
to understand them?”
Mathews responds by saying he tries to write “what it feels like to be human,” and then he says:
“I don’t want my poems to be hard,
unless the truth is, if there is
a truth.” Silence hung in the hall
like a heavy fabric. Now my
head ached. “Sir,” he yelled. “Thank you. Sir.”
This is amusing, I think, because poetry can be difficult to understand, especially for those who haven’t had the necessary training and exposure. For many, poetry is an acquired taste.
Sestinas, for example, are very difficult to compose and, if we know this, it’s easier to appreciate the poet’s craft. The standard form consists of six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a three-line envoi. The words that end each line of the first stanza are used as line endings in each of the following stanzas, rotated in a set pattern. The envoi features two of the end words in each line.
Back in 1982, before we became universally more sensitive to race and gender issues, Harry Mathews used these end words in a sestina: militarism, Marxism-Leninism, pre-fascism, Maoism, racism, and sexism. Here are the first four lines:
Tina and Seth met in the midst of overcrowded militarism.
“Like a drink?” he asked her. “They make great Alexanders over at the Marxism-Leninism.”
She agreed. They shared cocktails. They behaved cautiously, as in
a period of pre-fascism.
Afterwards he suggested dinner at a restaurant renowned for its Maoism.
And so on. Some of it is funny. Many of the jokes are hit-and-miss. The poem works well with the title: histoire can mean 1) story, 2) history, 3) fantasy, 4) misadventure. It’s fun also to think about what end words Mathews might have used had he been writing a different poem. (Audacity, Club Viva, Victorianism, chop suey.) He certainly would have avoided “racism” and “sexism,” which almost everyone agrees now are not suitable subjects for laughter.
I should add, though, that Mathews is able to pull off one more-or-less socially acceptable reference to sexism: after Tina and Seth leave the restaurant, he writes, “Then she followed Seth across town past twilit alleys of sexism.” This suggests the passing of outdated and insensitive attitudes and, maybe, hopefully, the dawning of a more enlightened understanding of human relationships.
If Mathews had been writing his poem today, he could have replaced racism and sexism with “traditionalism” and “progressivism.” If so, then he would have concluded his sestina with this line: “Until, gasping with appreciative traditionalism, both together sink into the revealed glory of progressivism.”
Bluebird by Jane Craven
On the path behind my house the bamboo
grove is bamboozled by snow bent
to the ground in a St. Louis arc iced thick
as grandma’s layer cake the weather takes
meaning we must pay incrementally to exist
O we can still have a good time when we forget
the wearing away the constant winging upward
of cells sea oats
blown clean in the wind the revealed
structure of trees strange as a Buddha’s hand
stranger still the one winter I ended
sentient eyes last fixed
on a parchment lamp shade its ochre glow
edging me out of the room
or the other winter where I am gone before I am gone
fingers clenching sheets
like the scaled talons of a dead passerine
unable to recall the body in life’s lightest flight
a body once fooled into thinking it could drop
everything rise again in the spring
Poets and writers in Cloudbank 13
Milton J. Bates
P. V. Beck
Mary Lou Buschi
Derek N. Otsuji
Robert Lee Thornton
O. Alan Weltzien