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.

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