Author: Joshua Cooper

I write a blog of curious wordsmithery called Strange Language (strangelanguage.com) that includes series on poetry, Bruce Springsteen, faux news, and lists, among other things. My alphabetical list of interests includes amelioration, ballyhoo, catharsis, doodads, enlightenment, flotsam, gusto, hobgoblins, inquisitiveness, jetsam, koalas, lyceums, mojo, neologisms, oxymoronica, (parentheticals), quirks, refutation, smithereens, troglodytes, umbrellas, vivacity, wanderlust, xylophones, yoinks, & zings.

Poems You Might Have Missed: The Ants by Matthew Rohrer

The first stanza of this poem, composed of a single sentence that is eight lines long, steals your breath. It is as if you’re the one slowly dying from exposure to toxic mushroom spores. The terse imperatives (“forage”, “chew”, etc.) in the second line of the second stanza create a nice contrast to the poem’s grueling first sentence. By the concluding stanza, the poem engrosses me as much as the children’s science magazine engrosses the speaker of the poem. Lastly, I love how the solemnity found throughout most of the poem–exoskeletons breached, sinister spores, and unfinished life pursuits–contrasts with that surprising jolt back into the reality of the final lines.

ant
Image Credit: David P. Hughes via Gemma Reguera

The Ants 

Nothing is more important to the ant
whose exoskeleton has been breached
by mushroom spores that are now
controlling his nervous system
and compelling him to climb to a high leaf
only to die and release the spores
over the whole forest
than this poem about his sad plight.

Otherwise his life is meaningless.
Forage. Chew. Recognize by scent.
Abdication of the will. A huge wind
that comes and sweeps his fellows
off the grass. When he dies up there
in the treetops the mushroom grows
right out of his head and breaks open
lightly dusting the afternoon.

Everything he thought he was here
on Earth to do has been left undone.
Through the trees
the spores move on their sinister ways.
I put down the science magazine written
for elementary school kids
in which I have briefly disappeared.

– From Surrounded by Friends by Matthew Rohrer published by Wave Books, 2015.

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Poems You Might Have Missed: Mannequins by David Shumate

David Shumate’s Mannequins reminds me of the notion that the only “normal” people are those you don’t know very well. We all have our little quirks, don’t we? It’s just that most of us keep our idiosyncrasies behind sealed doors.

mannequinConsider the speaker’s self-righteous neighbors thinking he’s a pervert while undoubtedly hiding their own depravity that they, like all good hypocritical neighbors, find less appalling. Even the speaker’s own mother endorses psychiatric evaluation she typically dismisses because her son orchestrates the banalities of life using mannequins. Yet let’s not forget the famous stanza by the poet Philip Larkin: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. /They may not mean to, but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.”

Many might assume our speaker is demented and lonely, but by poem’s end it turns out he’s merely an unabashed eccentric in a relationship with a lover who shares his kinks. If he has nothing else, he at least has mannequin posing to share and that is something we shouldn’t diminish in a world of increasing alienation.

Mannequins

At auction I buy two dozen mannequins and set them around the
house. I give each a name and dress them in tuxedos. Gowns.
Work clothes. Pajamas. I set a few in front of the television. Two
at the kitchen table. A man on the toilet. A woman in the shower.
Four on the lawn with croquet mallets. At night vandals arrange
them in obscene positions. But I don’t mind. I’m glad they’re
interested. Two mannequins lie naked in the spare bedroom
staring up at the ceiling. One dangles by his neck from a rope in
the workshop. Pull him once—the garage door opens. Pull him
again—it closes. The rest are stacked in the purgatory of my
closet. My neighbors think I’m a pervert. My mother doesn’t
believe in psychiatrists but makes an exception in this case. Last
week the police searched the place and left laughing. When my
lover arrives she calls them by their proper names. She brings a
new hat for one. A paisley scarf for another. Then she turns the
lights out and stands quite still among them. I know which one
she is. But I play along with her little game.

– from The Floating Bridge by David Shumate, published by University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008.

Poems You Might Have Missed: The Memories of Fish by James Tate

Image Credit: Paul Hermans, commons.wikimedia.org
Image Credit: Paul Hermans, commons.wikimedia.org

The absurdly imaginative and surrealist poet James Tate finished living yesterday at the age of 71. Tate, one of my favorite poets, stocked his poems with fantastic concrete imagery and amusing phrasing. He built strange worlds in his poems, but the genesis of his strangeness was generally rooted in everyday reality, except for instance, when characters like aliens ambled delightfully into his work (see his poem “The Cowboy“).

Tate’s poems are tiny stories, full of characters, conflict, and heavy doses of dialogue that draw you in so quickly you forget you’re reading a poem. His poems often end abruptly, leaving the dust of a whirlwind in your head and a strangeness settling all about you. Reading his poems is like feeling uncomfortable and unnerved in your own home. You want to simultaneously escape and remain. This is the sort of opposition that has and will continue to distinguish Tate’s work–humor and tragedy, light and darkness, imagination and reality–all blended together in what one publisher called “surprising pleasures”.

While it’s difficult to select only one Tate poem, I enjoy “The Memories of Fish” because it demonstrates a wonderful blend of tragedy and comedy so often evident in his poems. I also enjoy the poem’s enjambment and hidden technical aspects, such as its use of sonic elements (alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, etc.). They’re subtle; they don’t jolt you out of the poem, yet they’re still doing a great deal of work to pace the poem and its reader.

The Memories of Fish

Stanley took a day off from the office
and spent the whole day talking to fish in
his aquarium. To the little catfish scuttling
along the bottom he said, “Vacuum that scum,
boy. Suck it up. That’s your job.” The skinny
pencil fish swam by and he said, “Scribble,
scribble, scribble. Write me a novel, needle-
nose.” The angel executed a particularly
masterful left turn and Stanley said, “You’re
no angel, but you sure can drive.” Then he broke
for lunch and made himself a tuna fish sandwich,
the irony of which did not escape him. Oh no,
he wallowed in it, savoring every bite. Then
he returned to his chair in front of the aquarium.
A swarm of tiny neons amused him. “What do you
think this is, Times Square!” he shouted. And
so it went long into the night. The next morning
Stanley was horribly embarrassed by his behavior
and he apologized to the fish several times,
but they never really forgave him. He had mocked
their very fishiness, and for this there can be
no forgiveness.

– from Return to the City of White Donkeys by James Tate, published by Ecco Press, 2005.

Poems You Might Have Missed: The Big Heart by Anne Sexton

Image Credit: Grand Canyon National Park There I was, a capricious sixteen-year-old boy, holed away at my desk, reading line after line of Anne Sexton’s poetry. Strange as it sounds, the autobiographical work of this depression-laden adult female writer spoke to me. Shouldn’t I have been reading Dylan Thomas or Ernest Hemingway instead? I was, but I was also reading Sexton, mesmerized by the window into her mind that her poetry afforded.

Even now as I return to her work as an adult, I’m startled and enchanted by how openly she probed her own tempestuous interior life. Critics often cornered Anne Sexton’s poetry as merely confessional, but others later defended the artistry with which she expressed her autobiographical turmoil. At the very least we can say that her work contained more honesty than artifice, which is not to say she lacked technical skills of an accomplished poet. Both the number of awards she garnered and the popularity of her work attest to her abilities.

“The Big Heart” captures both sides of this critical discussion. From the start we see an incredibly transparent persona offering us a litany of those she is thankful for, actual names of actual people she esteemed for their willingness to give whatever it is she needed. But we also see wonderful imagery (the sea’s fingers on the shore), several similes (doubt as hollow as the Grand Canyon), and biblical allusions (the metaphorical staff, the slain ram). These allusions and the references to God should not surprise us–the poem was written not long before her suicide, and many of the poems she wrote during this time demonstrate a violence (death), but also a spiritual seeking (the afterlife). Notice in the final lines that love arrives, but it does so with fury in a monstrous heart.

The Big Heart
Too many things are occurring for even a big heart to hold
. – from an essay by William Butler Yeats

Big heart,
wide as a watermelon,
but wise as birth,
there is so much abundance
in the people I have:
Max, Lois, Joe, Louise,
Joan, Marie, Dawn,
Arlene, Father Dunne,
and all in their short lives
give to me repeatedly,
in the way the sea
places its many fingers on the shore,
again and again
and they know me,
they help me unravel,
they listen with ears made of conch shells,
they speak back with the wine of the best region.
They are my staff.
They comfort me.

They hear how
the artery of my soul has been severed
and soul is spurting out upon them,
bleeding on them,
messing up their clothes, dirtying their shoes.
And God is filling me,
though there are times of doubt
as hollow as the Grand Canyon,
still God is filling me.
He is giving me the thoughts of dogs,
the spider in its intricate web,
the sun
in all its amazement,
and a slain ram
that is the glory,
the mystery of great cost,
and my heart,
which is very big,
I promise it is very large,
a monster of sorts,
takes it all in–
all in comes the fury of love.

– from The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton by Anne Sexton, published by Mariner Books, 1999.

Litany: 10 Excerpts from The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

Image Credit: Christine Zenino, Wikimedia Commons Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is aptly titled. “Disquiet” refers to a feeling of anxiety, and this story has plenty of unease for both its narrator and readers.

The narrator, perhaps a stand-in for Pessoa himself, is clearly a distant literary relative of Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Eliot’s Prufrock. He is a man of inaction, excessively and perhaps obsessively analytical. He is beset on all sides by the ills of modernism–fragmentation, cynicism, paranoia, spiritual emptiness. Due to the personal, first-person perspective, it is difficult for the reader to avoid the resonance of these same ills, particularly the fragmentation.

Pessoa writes, “Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So that the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways.” Sounds beautiful, yes, but after only a few pages one realizes this “profusion of selves” is also problematic. It is the paradox of choice in terms of self. Who should I be, and when, and why, and how? The narrator is frustrated, and consequently, frustrating, but that does not make him any less sympathetic.

The writing itself is the book’s best quality. Pessoa is a stylist. Like Nabokov his prose sparkles like a multi-faceted diamond bathed in light. But he is not a storyteller; he is a thought-teller, and therefore this book is not for the adventurer, but rather the contemplator. He is, in a sense, Hemingway’s exact opposite. If as a reader you can accept that then you can appreciate not only what Pessoa has written, but also how he is written it–marvelously. Below are some excerpts over which you may marvel, but I recommend you read the entire book for yourself.

1. …and from the majestic heights of my dreams, I return to being an assistant bookkeeper in the city of Lisbon.

But the contrast doesn’t overwhelm me, it frees me. And its irony is my blood. What should theoretically humiliate is what I unfurl as my flag; and the laughter I should be using to laugh at myself is a bugle I blow to herald–and to create–a dawn into which I’m transformed.

2. And at this table in my absurd room, I, a pathetic and anonymous office clerk, write words as if they were the souls’s salvation, and I gild myself with the impossible sunset of high and vast hills in the distance, with the statue I received in exchange for life’s pleasures, and with the ring of renunciation on my evangelical finger, the stagnant jewel of my ecstatic disdain.

3. And I wonder if my apparently negligible voice might not embody the essence of thousands of voices, the longing for self-expression of thousands of lives, the patience of millions of souls resigned like my own to their daily lot, their useless dreams, and their hopeless hopes.

4. I feel a religious force within me, a species of prayer, a kind of public outcry. But my mind quickly puts me in my place.

5. To heed the present moment isn’t a great or lasting concern of mine. I crave time in all its duration, and I want to be myself unconditionally…Inch by inch I conquered the inner terrain I was born with. Bit by bit I reclaimed the swamp in which I’d languished. I gave birth to my infinite being, but I had to wrench myself out of me with forceps.

6. Whether or not they exist, we’re slaves to the gods.

7. Absurdity is divine…Let’s buy books so as not to read them; let’s go to concerts without caring to hear the music or to see who’s there; let’s take long walks because we’re sick of walking; and let’s spend whole days in the country, just because it bores us.

8. Sadly, or perhaps not, I recognize that I have an arid heart. An adjective matters to me more than the real weeping of a human soul.

9. Whenever I see a dead body, death seems to me a departure. The corpse looks to me like a suit that was left behind. Someone departed and didn’t need to take the one and only outfit he’d worn.

10. I want to raise my arms and shout wild and strange things, to speak to the lofty mysteries, to affirm a new and vast personality to the boundless expanses of empty matter.

Bonus – My march of triumph didn’t get as far as a teapot or an old cat. I’ll die as I’ve lived, amid all the junk on the outskirts, sold by weight among the postscripts of the broken.

– from The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, translated by Richard Zenith, published by Penguin Books, 2001.

Poems You Might Have Missed: The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac by Mary Oliver

The poet Mary Oliver probably doesn’t get as much attention as she deserves, and that is unfortunate because she is one of our best. Her style is accessible, yet profound. At times her style borders on conversational, engaging her readers in vital dialogue about human life and the sacredness of nature that surrounds it. That is the content she works over as a poet–the space where nature and humanity intermingle. What can a flock of geese or a field of golden rods tell us about our humanness? Oliver explores this question with the patience and keen observational eye necessary to anyone seeking spiritual fulfillment from her surroundings.

So why isn’t she more popular? I surmise that readers find her work too bucolic for modern times. Personally, I find it refreshing; others may find it passé. Perhaps another criticism is that her range is limited, that she covers the same ground again and again. However true that may be, we should recognize the quality with which she covers that ground. Her focus is narrow, but exquisitely so.

Oliver wrote “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac” after surviving a bout with lung cancer. I especially love the third stanza in which she reminds us to make the best of our time, which with cancer and disease lurking around every corner, is as fleeting as ever.

The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac

1.
Why should I have been surprised?
Hunters walk the forest
without a sound.
The hunter, strapped to his rifle,
the fox on his feet of silk,
the serpent on his empire of muscles–
all move in a stillness,
hungry, careful, intent.
Just as the cancer
entered the forest of my body,
without a sound.

2.
The question is,
what will it be like
after the last day?
Will I float
into the sky
or will I fray
within the earth or a river–
remembering nothing?
How desperate I would be
if I couldn’t remember
the sun rising, if I couldn’t
remember trees, rivers; if I couldn’t
even remember, beloved,
your beloved name.

Image Credit: Jay Sturner, flickr

3.
I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

So why not get started immediately.

I mean, belong to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.

4.
Late yesterday afternoon, in the heat,
all the fragile blue flowers in bloom
in the shrubs in the yard next door had
tumbled from the shrubs and lay
wrinkled and fading in the grass. But
this morning the shrubs were full of
the blue flowers again. There wasn’t
a single one on the grass. How, I
wondered, did they roll back up to
the branches, that fiercely wanting,
as we all do, just a little more
life.

– from Blue Horses by Mary Oliver, published by Penguin Press, 2014.

Boss Songs Part IV: Springsteen Vignettes

Image Credit: David Michael Kennedy
Image Credit: David Michael Kennedy

Song – “Johnny 99” on Nebraska

This is yet another Boss song in which the central character’s hand is forced by his grim economic reality. The tempo of the song is rather fastpaced, especially in contrast with the majority of the Nebraska album, which can be unnervingly slow. In this case, a working-class man dubbed Johnny 99 loses his factory job, resorts to the bottle, gets his gun, and ironically shoots one of his blue-collar brethren, a store clerk. The loss of a low-to-middle wage job is a common circumstance in numerous Springsteen songs, yet it continues to resonate because it’s still such a reality in America, where one economic injustice can lead inevitably to a string of others. There’s the legal injustice that is invoked by telling us that Johnny gets a “public defender,” a moniker that instantly connotes inadequacy, if not downright incompetence, and the drawing of “Mean John Brown,” who attempts to intimidate Johnny with his stare and gives him a life sentence. Johnny’s analytical response is that “it was more than all this that put that gun in my hand.” In his final act of defiance and hopelessness, Johnny requests a death sentence rather than the life sentence the judge gives. The “thoughts in his head,” he says, are deserving of such a sentence. It’s a classic Springsteen conundrum where the blame game is complicated. For a lighter take, note that the Boss alludes to Tanqueray gin long before Snoop Dogg ever mentions it in his 1995 hit “Gin and Juice”.

Song – “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” on Born to Run

While no one, including the Boss himself, quite knows what a “tenth avenue freeze-out” is, the song is a favorite of many fans and often finds itself on Springsteen’s setlists. It’s one of my favorites for two reasons. First, I love the upbeat tempo created by the piano and horn interplay. I also like the “here I come” attitude of the song’s narrator. Bad Scooter (Bruce’s alias) had swagger before “swag” was a thing. “Well everybody better move over,” he croons, an artist on the verge of a breakout, much like Springsteen himself, whose superstardom began with the Born to Run album. “And kid you better get the picture / And I’m on my own, I’m on my own / And I can’t go home,” he sings. Success is a must because there’s nothing else left. Blessed with nothing but the naïve dreams of glory, he’s got his “back to the wall,” which we all know is the perfect motivation to “make it.” Throw in a little help from friends like “the big man” (Clarence Clemons), and he’s confident that he’s about to “bust this city in half.” The freeze-out, whatever it is, is in full effect.