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Archive for November, 2015

Atar Hadari on Daniel A. Nicholls


This essay (as well as the poem it is responding to) first ran in the Spring 2015 edition of Grub Street Grackle. They appear here online for the first time.

The title of “hearth gods” leads you to expect knick-knacks, pottery, painted things—the sort of idols people have stationed around a fireplace, but what the first line gives you with its demotic, un-capitalized evocation of grandparents as “gram and pop” is a child’s voice, definitely a child’s ungrammatical and evocative recollection, a voice calling on the past and making it sacred. It is also clearly a vernacular and pastoral voice—this is a land of porches and yards, clearly, where your grandparents do not chat, they jaw. By the end of the first stanza we know we’re in the countryside, that the children whose point of view the poem is told from (“us” in line 6) are abandoned somehow, gone feral. And yet in its formality of structure, its quatrains and its couplets, this is a deeply conservative, even nostalgic poem—so what we have is that classic conceit, the noble savage, the artless child who is wise beyond their years, what we have here is Huck Finn telling us all about how things went wrong out there in the wild even before his useless Pap ran away.

When the grandparents are humanized in the second stanza they’re still inhuman—crackling into fiery conversation like logs of wood. Even as stanza four brings us into the twentieth century with its afghans, the evocation is still of pre-twentieth century fixtures and social patterns—the center of these people’s lives is not their conversations with each other but the fireplace; in fact, their relationships are all wood, to be chopped with bare hands, shaped into shelter, burned in the occasional jaw and occasional internal cookery, as there is something inside Dad which makes him seethe alone in his study, quite apart from the heat that draws them all together, the heat of the fire which is nourishing, the warmth of the afghans which is nostalgically evoked, a kind of magic Gram had that Mom does not.

Stanza six makes that conflict explicit—everyone but Dad is willing to enjoy the popcorn-like sound and comfort of the blazing logs, everyone but Dad enjoys taking in heat and making it a community, unlike Dad who generates his own heat in his study. And as Dad’s bourbon glass rattles in his room—is that the demoted study, or does he shuffle from a study to a bedroom?—the conflict thrashed out in the poem is set squarely before you—you can be committed to liquids—that seethe, or rattle into a bourbon glass—or you can be committed to fire. Fire breaks out of wood in conversation and makes a home. Liquids, unlike fire, swim away from home. What the thin white smoke knits is “something to be finished above”—that is what makes the grandparents hearth “gods,” not simply objects like everything else the poem is about. The grandparents have the ability to create something that goes on, something that rises into the air when they court and spark, and it is their ability to tend that flame, to tend a home, that the poem finally celebrates. It is a poem of thanks. A poem of tribute to where a family came from and what it finally survived, what allowed it to rise and knit, get beyond the dark.

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This poem first ran in the Fall 2013 edition of Grub Street Grackle

This poem first ran in the Fall 2013 edition of Grub Street Grackle

Life spelled itself in letters, black, tight-lipped:
I’ve bled my passions out in spates of ink.
The margins bloomed like flowers on a crypt.

Once, when my hands were empty, and I dipped
them in Night’s waters, there, I seemed to think,
life spelled itself in letters, black, tight-lipped.

So much was written there, the pages dripped
with more than time could bear or death could drink:
the margins bloomed like flowers on a crypt.

I came too late to mark the manuscript:
a seal bound it, on which in ancient ink
life spelled itself in letters, black, tight-lipped.

In desperate, errant strokes that shook and slipped,
I filled the text’s outside up to the brink.
The margins bloomed like flowers on a crypt.

I waited for the pages to be flipped,
till waiting out of time I seemed to sink.
Life spelled itself in letters, black, tight-lipped:
the margins bloomed like flowers on a crypt.

Original bio from the Fall 2013 edition:

Amos J. Hunt delegated his bio to a lazy and unrelialbe peerson who sometimes.dsdf….eh


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Impressions of a Bird Song

This poem first ran in the Fall 2013 edition of Grub Street Grackle

This poem first ran in the Fall 2013 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

Its wings spread wide,
feathers like spikes
to frighten or chide.

The eye shocks,
suddenly fierce.
With violent squacks

its cries pierce
twilight: it hurls
and chokes its curse

on impudent squirrels,
on sparrows, dumb
churls whose demurrals

free bread crumbs.
A man leans back,
laughing. He becomes

the sound it crackles,
the death-song of grackles.

Original bio from the Fall 2013 edition:

Ben LaVergne is surrounded by books he never reads. Now that he has a Kindle, he can ignore his unread library without ceasing.


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Cardboard Carton

This poem first ran in the Spring 2015 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

This poem first ran in the Spring 2015 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

Cold seeping into bones through evening chill,
sitting too long after the sun had set
on concrete benches made for afternoon,
one thing rose up in arid clarity:

What he had inexpressibly esteemed,
he’d never made the least attempt to hold—
to make it fast by giving it its name
or sounding out its underwater depth.

It’s just the way a dropped carton of eggs
holds all its lost potential on display,
the whites like water, unfulfilled, beyond
repair, the supple yolks a loud reproach
of ruination by his negligence.

A moment’s unavailing stare before
the mess is scraped away will be the only
eulogy to all that lived both safe
and veiled within the broken, teeth­-bright shells.

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Michigan Summer

This poem first ran in the Spring 2015 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

This poem first ran in the Spring 2015 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

The dirty cow still doesn’t move.
Yellow, dusty sunbeams lean
heavily on a window screen
where flies make loud, impatient love.

Now a rust-brown monochrome,
the old barn’s wooden planks hang down
in splinters from its rotten crown
like teeth cracked on an old comb.

Read more Grackle classics!

Original bio from the Spring 2015 edition:

Cara Valle first encountered poetry in the bathroom, where as a child she hid to flee her studies, and where her family kept a few little decorative books. Poetry continues to offer a brief daily recess, not from learning math, but rather—humorous twist—from managing the toileting and diapering of young children.


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Honey and Paper

This poem first ran in the Spring 2015 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

This poem first ran in the Spring 2015 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

Cassandra combs a section of her hair
and watches from her upstairs window bars

the gold of evening clotting in the West
and thinks about the bees. Winding out long

the honey of her head, she smooths again
the caked and crumpled page to read the signs

in her imaginary almanac.
That bees are vanishing means nothing good.

An ignorance of causes holds the land
deeper and deeper in its druggy sleep,

while fall enfeebles the tripartite queen
and groggy worker on the window screen.

She whispers, hum, Then let the land have sleep.
Herself, she dreams of meadows clocks forgot.

And hears in sleep the icy sliding screech
that avalanches scream when mountains rot.

Original bio from Spring 2015:

In another age, Monika Cooper delighted in disrupting a special pair of spectacles. Now she squishes small children, rolls them in sugar, and eats them like pancakes.

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The Lamp


This poem first ran in the Fall 2013 edition of Grub Street Grackle.

Shower-curtain curtains. The early light soaks through,
sea-foam green, the color of the wings of the luna moth,
wings found broken underneath the streetlight
when the night had passed.

Oh New Hampshire,
let not your dawn find me so broken
after this night of hard beating
against the brightness of what I seek.

Original bio from the Fall 2013 edition:

Sarah Breisch has journeyed about half of our life’s way. She cannot quite fathom how she has gotten so far, while remaining unsure of the way forward. She tries not to waste too much time wondering which weight is greater—that of the past which presses from behind, or that of the future, which hangs down heavily like a tarp bulging with rain, ready to fall.

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Adam Cooper on Sarah Breisch

Sarah Breisch’s poem is born of decision. (By decision I mean the opposite of indecision: the mood of taking one’s attitude from the reality that one goes to meet. An indecisive mood directs itself toward this or that self-proposed goal, and fails again and again to sense the necessity and reality of what it encounters. Reveries born of indecision, where one’s attitude can find no sufficient directional, always seem to glide into the mere ghost of syntax, failing to engage the palpable analogy that is the life of poetry.) The first line represents this decision; unmediated by an “as,” “when,” or “once,” it lets its action introduce itself: “walking out this morning.” The attitude of the morning-walker, in whose voice we hear the poem, makes the sharp perceptions and reflections that follow come alive. “This morning” takes on the particularities of life with “falling leaves and limb-cutter fumes.” These details of the morning air, which provide a sharp sensory setting, receive their bright possibility only within the decisive opening—the “walking out,” through and around which its setting can emerge. The speaker has set forth, and a world rises around her.

That world is attended by the presence of “another morning” that “was remembered to me”: do you see what I mean about letting the action introduce itself? This is a far more decisive statement, than, say, “another morning &ellip I called to mind,” because it acknowledges an unfolding action in which the speaker’s mind takes a part, rather than entertaining a self-directed or fanciful mental exercise.

The contrast between these mornings gives the subject matter of the poem. This contrast, first of all established by difference of location and time, is transformed when the remembrance of this first difference calls to mind a deeper, more displacing difference—the speaker’s discovery that she is not at home, out of place, neither here nor there. The third line then introduces the displacement in which the poem’s “walking out” takes place.

Rome it was then. Home it is now, and I am not at home.

The words “and I am not at home” upset the simple contrast of time and location—here/ there, now/ then—causing this deeper displacement to take hold. What the speaker knew as Rome she can only now, being absent from it, call home. Her place in Rome’s city becomes real only now that she is fully displaced from it; thus the reflection on her sojourn there takes on a new aspect, a quality of bitterness, tenderness, and quiet rebuke—the aspect that a neglected reality will show when we are made aware of that neglect.

How I wandered down that limpid green river and past turning cobbly streets,
On the surface aimlessly but in the back of my mind looking,
For something more than “looking for a good place to read.”
Short black-coated idiot.
Always skirting those warm enveloping colonnade arms,
But always part of me turning my shoulder back toward them.

In these lines, the aimless reverie of the past is undergoing a transformation, in which the past becomes present in a new way. In the recognition of their hidden aim—“in the back of my mind looking”—these wanderings, then vague and unrealized, are now a matter of poetry. Wandering within Rome becomes the analogue of an utterly human condition: the condition of one who cannot find his proper place, not because it is somewhere far from him, but because he does not admit the thing that he senses all along: that he is not yet arrived; and, failing to admit this, cannot sense the draw of his home, a resting place concealed in the midst of life: “always skirting those warm enveloping colonnade arms.” This admission is itself the “walking out.” It is also somehow an arrival there.
This kind of arrival-by-“walking out” that the poem presents has a more common name: pilgrimage—a journey whose goal is commonly conceived as concealed somewhere within the city—here: Rome. Thus the poem finds itself in a rich and deep tradition, whose call to the heart of things has been experienced in the analogy of “walking out.” Chaucer:

Here is non home, here nys but wyldernesse.
Forth, pylgryme, forth! forth, beste, out of thi stal!
Know thi contré! loke up! thonk God of al!

St. Paul’s invitation to a new life as the summons to a hidden city:

Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.

Aeneas to his wander-weary companions, anticipating his final arrival in the city of Rome:

Recall your spirits; your dejected worries
Set aside. Perhaps one day even these present troubles
Will give comfort to remember. . .
We strive for the Latin land, where our destinies
are just now showing us some quiet dwellings.

The streets of Rome are layered, lives on lives, each decade leaving traces of what seem (on the surface) little more than aimless wanderings, overlapping surfaces that slide un-mappably one into another as the living in turn wander by. But the “turning cobbly streets” of Rome, like a labyrinth, conceal something that is skirted at every turn; something Aeneas encountered when he allowed “these present troubles” to be transformed by the arrival of his still-distant end, allowed his wandering to take on the displaced aspect it shows from the perspective of a quiet dwelling, or grave. Somewhere in Rome one may rest in the returning presence of the peaceful dead, bringing with their past one’s own, whose perspective pervades and transforms the hopeless chaos of the city’s intersecting streets, of the overlapping pathways of one’s inner life:

on the surface aimlessly, but somewhere in the back of my mind looking,
for something more than ‘looking for a good place to read.’

Enough said on my part. I’ll let the last lines, with their palpable analogy, speak for themselves:

How like a dog snuffing for his bed,
Turning and turning in some disheveled corner,
Turning back over his shoulder
To gaze at that warm spot beneath his master’s feet.

Original bio from the Fall 2008 edition:

Adam Cooper has no problem standing in a long line only to leave when he gets to the front. He is an expert at that.

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Dear Scholar

This poem first ran in the Fall 2013 edition of Grub Street Grackle

This poem first ran in the Fall 2013 edition of Grub Street Grackle

Besieged behind your brass-bound books, dust
embanking the bastion that binds
valor and love in paper confines—
there, my dear, you’ve stationed your trust:
pining for swords in words that won’t rust,
consuming the art, the grammar of rhymes
that flourish in hearts and batter in minds,
seeking the knowledge of ages unrushed.
Yet, since you won’t venture outside your head
or unsheathe the wisdom of all you’ve learned,
but bury your eyes and your heart in a tome,
and since I compete with men who are dead,
my last recourse is (as a woman spurned)
to render, per force, myself to a poem.

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The Grackle is a production of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Imagine Dallas Literary Arts, Inc.