Sunday, January 26, 2014

Poetry? I Just Don't Get It (Episode One: A Poem by Michaela Kahn)

                 It is difficult
 to get the news from poems, 
                   yet men die miserably every day 
                                  for lack 
of what is found there.
It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. - See more at:
It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. - See more at:

                            William Carlos Williams


For most, it comes from a galaxy far, far away; written by people long, long ago. And yet there are thousands of poetry books, chapbooks, and broadsides that keep sliding down the chute. And thousands more literary journals and online magazines, all publishing poems, all hosting competitions.

Poems! Poems! Poems! Thousands write poems…but who actually reads or listens to it?

Not many. Pretty much the only audience out there for poetry is other poets. It is a very insular world, one that seems to purposefully exclude the non-poet. I think this is mostly because most contemporary poetry is incomprehensible to the non-poet. But with a just a bit of explanation from the poet, many poems become more accessible. It doesn't mean they aren't still a little strange and 'hard'. Here's what the great American bard William Carlos Williams once said about this:

I wanted to write a poem
that you would understand.
For what good is it to me
if you can't understand it?
But you got to try hard –

                            from” January Morning”

Indeed. But you don’t need to attend an MFA program in poetry for two years in order to gain admission into the dark, rapturous, goofy, and strange theme park of Poetry Land. And so I’ve introduced a segment called “Poetry? I Just Don't Get It.” This segment will hopefully appear about once a month, containing one poem, along with an explanation by the poet.

The first poem in the segment is one of my favorites, by the poet (and novelist) Michaela Kahn. One of the reasons I like it so much is because it covers a lot of ground in a very short time. It includes history, mystery...and the mystery of history. 

This poem originally appeared in a great prose poem magazine called Sentence. It was then chosen for inclusion in Scribner's Best American Poetry 2010.

If I ring my body like a bell of coins,
will the shock waves of that sound cause oil rigs & volcanoes to erupt?

If the praying mantis who lived in our kitchen for 17 days really did rise from the grave where we buried her (all that was left next day, an empty hole between basil and oregano) and fly to some other home, other rice field, perhaps the weapons of war will fold like chrysanthemums under their own weight, the notion of war collapse like matter inside the sun.

Two more days of bombing in Afghanistan; egrets fly low over the rice fields. A woman loses four children beneath the rubble of a house; the central valley smells of smoke. Most symptoms only hint at the larger truth. The rest lies hidden beneath a stone, buried in a garden somewhere…

Belgium. What was buried: a bottle of Cognac (hidden from the now retreating Nazis) given to a GI for promising to locate the Belgian’s son. What seals this promise is an exchange of crucifixes between the men.

What is buried are ashes – a shoebox full of photographs taken when the GI and his small group came upon an abandoned concentration camp. He buries them beneath the backyard fig tree, but is not able to burn the afterimages of skeletons and ash from his mind. (And when his daughter marries a Jew, can’t forgive his son-in-law).

This same story played out 5,000 thousand years ago in the crab river-mud where a woman sang songs as she washed her clothes and her husband, miles away, was slain by sword in a battle for possession of that river.

(What is left, the hollow of her palm print in clay – hanging in a museum.)

My mother told me if you bury something in the backyard, a toy truck or a small metal soldier, you will not find it there two weeks later. She said the sand is always moving, cycling – that the stone you find near the fig tree is from China or Istanbul. That the toy soldier will reappear 50 years later, slightly wet, salty.

When he is many years’ dead, the GI’s granddaughter (half-Catholic/half-Jew) holds the Belgian crucifix with shaky fingers, turns the pin at the bottom, opens it, finds the smell of rain wafting up from the relic toenail inside.


Michaela Kahn & Spiny Plant

 Poet’s Commentary:

On October 7th, 2001, the US began bombing Afghanistan. By the end of December, less than three months later, at least 17,500 bombs had fallen. 

At the time, we were living in Sacramento, California and every day I would drive the twenty-odd miles to Davis, where I worked, on Highway 80, listening to the news. A large stretch of 80 between Sac and Davis consists of a causeway between rice fields. One morning that fall the rice fields were on fire. A reddish-brown smoke rose up on either side of the freeway, the smell of burning filled the car. 

You remember how it was during the fall of 2001 – everything was suspect: Every noise, siren, wisp of smoke, every jet-trail in the sky. But that morning the smoke in the rice fields was more than simply a farmer clearing his fields for the next planting, more than a terror attack—that morning I knew the smoke was from Afghanistan; that I was breathing in the smoke of burning buildings 6,500 miles away. Since the 7th of October I had felt as if my whole body was constantly vibrating, rattling … and I had imagined it was the sensation of the air roaring past missiles as they fell, that I could feel the vibration in the earth when they hit. And here now, finally, was a concrete manifestation of that connection: Smoke there…smoke here. 

Everything is connected.

I began writing Bell of Coins after that morning driving through the rice fields. It took several years to finish. The images, the little stories in it, came all at once—but the tiny adjustments, the rearranging of lines, was slow going. 

There are a number of “burial” images that come up in the poem: from a praying mantis, to a bottle of cognac, to toy soldiers. There are two types of burial. One is a ritual designed to return a body to the earth. The other kind of burial - the shallow grave kind - tries to hide, to cover over, to forget. It never works.

In the fall of 2001, I thought that we had had proof of that when the Twin Towers fell. The past we try to bury (US actions in the Middle East such as the ousting of legitimately elected presidents, the propping up of dictators, the arming of Afghan fighters in 1979) comes back eventually (the CIA dubbed it “blowback”)--a rotting corpse that won’t be ignored. (It’s all connected … the man put in charge of training brutal Iraqi police squads in 2004 is the same man who trained the infamous Death Squads in El Salvador in the 1970’s).

But it isn’t just nations that bury things. Families do. We all do. I remembered the story my mom told me about how she and her brothers buried treasures in the back yard of their house … how they would disappear. That one of them (not sure which) came up with the theory that the earth is always cycling, shifting, just below our feet. So those lost toys would come back again, maybe decades later, after having traveled around the globe. 

Everything is connected.

The bombs falling on Afghanistan in my poem are falling now (the latest just over a week ago). In fact, they never stopped, since President Obama’s inauguration in January of 2009, the US has dropped over 20,000 bombs around the world. Equivalent to about one bomb every 1 ¾ hour.  Between 2001 and 2013 thousands of Afghan civilians have died (6,000 to 16,000 are conservative estimates)—not including all the deaths from hunger, disease, displacement, and suicide (nearly 2,500 Afghan women last year alone ).

Everything is connected. What we bury returns – through time, through earth, through our children. What returns fits in the palm of a hand; it ignites, it smells of salt. It tells us the story of who we are.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Among The Angels' Hierarchies: The Movie (Part III)

A Question for the Damned

“So…what’s your novel about?”

It’s a legitimate question. But it can cause even the most confident of writers to run screaming down the hall, lock themselves in the bathroom, and spend the night sobbing, curled next to the toilet. Imagine spending years putting together a somewhat layered and complex story only to find that the world needs - nay...MUST HAVE - a condensed, easily digestible summary, in order to open the book.

 “Yes, yes, all that’s a given – so what’s the novel about?”

There are times when I’m somewhat autistic when it comes to small talk, and during those times, I immediately interpret the question in terms of theme: “It’s about illusion.”  “It’s about Fate.” Invariably, I’ll get the glazed look, the confused nod, then a quick exit from the conversation: “Oh, fate…yes…you want another beer …”

“Okay, what I’m really asking is this: What happens in the book? What’s the plot?”

Oh right, I understand now. Another legitimate question, surely. When you pull a book off the shelf at a bookstore (remember those?), or while scanning for books online, you want to know what the book is about, yes? I do.

Cool Cover: Family Cannon/Halina Duraj

First, like everyone else, I judge a book by its cover (“Ooh, cool image!”), then I turn it over and read the blurb on the back to see what it’s about. Now, you and I both know that the blurb is not telling us what the book is really about – it’s an advertisement, meant to get you hooked enough to dig into your miserly pockets and pull out fifteen bucks, just for the privilege of reading on:

"Running away from a dark past, Ishmael ships out on a whaling vessel to the South Seas. Just when he thinks his troubles are at an end…that's when his true nightmare begins. Is the captain taking the ship on a one-way collision course into HELL? What hideous white beast has been lurking beneath the waves, waiting for this very ship, this very captain, this very crew?  A cliff-hanging, edge of your seat, white-knuckle inducing, cosmic battle between good and evil awaits...." 

                             Call me Ishmael. Call me a cab.

“Unh-hunh. The question still remains – what’s the book about?”

The World of Among the Angels’ Hierarchies

Angels' takes place in a dystopian near-future. The majority of the population in the western United States has been forcibly evacuated east of the Missouri River due to prolonged drought. The wealthy live on protected compounds, while the poor scrabble for a living as best they can. 

The preoccupation in both compound and non-compound life is with virtual games. (Yes, yes, I know this is a clich├ęd trope – but in this case there is high level of satire involved. To play a game you put your face into a blue halo - called a Nimbus - projected off any available screen. The Nimbus enshrouds and triggers parts of the brain, giving the player the sensation that they are actually a character in the game – thinking what they think, feeling what they feel. But there is no winning or losing, you are just along for the ride. All choices have already been made....a bit like participating in our economy, many parts of our political system, and the entertainment/spectacle culture. The only choice is usually which 'character' to be.)

The corporations (in reality, just one, under different 'imprints') control all media technology and are almost exclusively engaged in broadcasting spectacles of fake natural disasters: giant sand plumes in the Sahara; mutant cranes as harbingers of a Christian apocalypse (known as crane-gels); plague pyres in China. Games are released to accompany each spectacle (For example, images of plague pyres are synched with a game called Voyages, in which the player participates in a ghost dance until they leave their body and travel the globe, visiting shamans and healers in search of a plague cure). 

Meanwhile Deth, a drug that simulates a near-death experience, ravages the country. Deth-heads hear angelic voices compelling them to carve words into their skin. The drug is fatally addictive.

Oh, for the Love of God, Christien, What the F@#$ is Angels' About?

Okay, fine. Here's a short synopsis-type-thingie:

Angels' is the story of Caleb Mission, recently returned to Christmas City, his hometown in northwest Iowa, after an abortive search for his cousin and childhood mentor, Christine, an artist and apprentice shaman/healer, who mysteriously disappeared in Colorado ten years before. 

The novel tracks his first month back in town, including dangerous run-ins with the local Deth-house leader (called an Azrael); encounters with mutant cranes, said to be apocalyptic angels; misadventures procuring euthanasia drugs for a possible immortal in an old folk’s home; and building a tentative relationship with his Aunt Therese, the local healer, who he blames for Christine’s disappearance. 

Interwoven with the present-day action are chapters tracing Caleb’s past in the megalopolis of Des Moines (food riots, anarchist collective shenanigans, marriage and divorce) and Christine’s journey from Iowa up to her disappearance in Colorado.

Throughout , the three main characters – Caleb, Christine and Therese – struggle with and against their understanding of fate and free will and what these things even mean when seen in the context of vast, cyclical patterns of the natural world.  

All threads are eventually tied together when a local territory dispute between Deth-houses erupts into all-out war. 

                          Greek Fate.


                                                                                                       Taoist Wu-Wei


You know,the usual stuff.

Among the Angels' Hierarchies: The First Chapter

New Moon

New moon is blindness.  The bat jerks, insect to insect – mouse-bodied, monster-faced – a black thread through the holes of night. 

My eyes are stones.  They slip from their sockets, sink through the surface of the earth; through the faces of those not yet born, clinging to the underbelly of a white grub; through the brittle lime-crust of the still-aching dead; through harsh tunnels of anthracite that beckon like the claws of the lonely; through the underground veins of water, warm as blood, that dissolve thirst, dissolve hunger, dissolve cloth, dissolve the soft electrical thoughts that shoot between the phantom calcium carbonate skeletons of horn coral fossils...   

A black dog stops at the edge of a field, turns, listens.  Dawn is coming.  Do not be afraid.  


Silence the length of Highway 6.  No wind, no crickets.  Caleb Mission wiped sweat from his eyes.  Ten yards ahead, a half-burnt deer carcass stretched across the road’s shoulder; five empty beer bottles propped against the torn belly, one stuffed into the deer’s black mouth. 
            The stench was unbearable, eye-watering. 
            He lifted the back of his hand to his nose, looked across the fields south of the highway:  burdock, ragweed, Canadian thistle, horseweed.  A grove of trees a quarter mile off marked where a farm house used to stand.  Beyond the grove, a silo rose from a patch of scrub sumac, listing slightly, wrapped in grape-vine and clutchweed.  When he was a child all these fields had been Renascorn; a pharm-strain grown by Renascorp.  Their motto: a renaissance in corn.  
            He scanned the dark blue thunderheads flashing on the western horizon.  Somewhere out there, across ten miles of abandoned weed fields, the storm was drenching the long-abandoned town of Jasper in cool sheets of rain.  But here – no wind, no scent of rain, nothing.
            What was he doing out here?  Back in Christmas City for only one day and he was already walking away?
            There was a shiver of grass, leaves.  Caleb squinted east down the highway.  Twenty yards beyond the deer, a black mongrel appeared through a curtain of wild carrot.  The dog crossed the road, angled toward the carcass.  Ignoring Caleb, it sniffed a leg bone, then took a black hoof into its mouth and pulled, tearing the rotten haunch away from the body.  One of the bottles propped against the deer’s stomach fell, rolled a few inches, stopped. 
            Flies scattered, settled.   
            Caleb spotted a fist-sized slab of broken macadam on the road’s shoulder, slowly bent down, and picked it up.  The dog dropped the deer leg and took a step towards him, growling low, baring yellow teeth. 
            Rock in hand, Caleb waited for the dog to make the next move.  Waves of heat rose off the black road.  Sweat trickled down his temples, hung off his chin. 
            The rattle of an engine, coming from the west, drove the dog into a patch of burdock next to the deer.  Caleb turned.  A black Dodge pickup was heading towards him, riding the center line.
            As the pickup passed, Mike Shiner, shirtless, handprints the color of dried blood across his naked chest, leaned out the passenger window and tossed a beer bottle over Caleb’s head.  An arc of yellow liquid trailed behind the bottle, raining down onto Caleb’s head and shoulders, into the ditch grass.  The truck squealed to a stop next to the deer. 
            Caleb sniffed his t-shirt.  Piss.
            Three women, naked to the waist, sat in the bed of the pickup.  Their emaciated shoulders, breasts and torsos were streaked with dried blood from the gibberish words they’d cut into each other’s skin.  They giggled, still high on their run, seeing angels everywhere, in everything. 
            Danny Shiner leaned out the driver’s window, nodded at the deer.  “You see the present we left you?”
            Caleb waited. 
            “There’s more there than meets the eye,” Danny continued, “but you gotta look real close.  It’s our way of saying ‘welcome back.’”
            One of the girls stood up, raised her face and arms to the sun and erupted into a long Deth-shriek.  The two sitting on either side of her opened their mouths in unison and let fly shrieks of their own.    
            It was all Caleb could do to keep from covering his ears to block out the terrible sound.  The scream echoed around him, inside him.  He took a deep breath and slowly lifted his hand, gave Danny the finger. 
            “C’mon, Mission, I expect more from you,” Danny said.  Mike laughed. 
            The girl dropped her arms, looked at Caleb; smiling, ecstatic.  Her face had the caved-in look of a long time user, as if the skull behind the skin had shrunk, leaving the face prematurely wrinkled. 
            She was already dead.  
            “I think Kalia here likes you,” Danny said. “And I would have offered her to you...but now…”  He pointed at Caleb’s upraised finger.  More laughter from inside the truck. 
            Danny slid back into the cab, punched the brake and accelerator at the same time.  The rear tires screamed against the blacktop and all three girls shrieked back, echoing the tires.  The truck fishtailed, shot east, pitching the Deth-girls forward onto their hands and knees.  
            More shrieks, laughter. 
            Caleb held his finger aloft until the truck was out of sight and he was, once again, enveloped in silence.  He scanned the burdock for signs of the dog.  Runnels of sweat trickled down the back of his neck, along his spine, down his arms, dripped off his fingers.        
            Water.  He needed water.  Maybe the storm would reach him on his way back to Christmas City. 
            The clouds were so dark.  A promise of cold rain. 

Next week, a new series: Poetry? I Just Don't Get It.

One poem with commentary by the author

First up in the series:
"If I Ring My Body Like A Bell of Coins..." 
by Michaela Kahn