Susan Scarlata on D.A. Powell and language

In his poem [splat in the oatmeal: granddaddy facedown] D.A. Powell provides an inkling of ars poetica and/or growth and knowledge of his understanding of language. He writes:

…biblical words latched
onto the vernacular. challenges and curses

sometimes a prayer escapes:

These lines put together a personifying or thing-making of language. Words physically “latch” on to other types of words they are wholly unlike, but still up against nonetheless.

I like the list in these lines too: “challenges, curses and prayers.” Prayers and curses are often thought of as the antithesis of one another—a curse is pejorative, and a prayer all about goodness. But here, as the two types of language play into and off of one another, so too a prayer occasionally slips out of the challenge and curse.

Powell also calls out both meanings of the word “curse” as the spell cast upon someone for evil and the more vernacular meaning of swear words. Having attended an Episcopal church-camp for many summers as a kid, I fully recall the high-falluting language of the bible up against and around the crass words and swearing we practiced on one another there.

With language as a thing, and its possibilities circumscribed by its everyday uses, I love the idea of prayers slipping out despite peoples’ best efforts at issuing only challenges and curses.

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Susan Scarlata on Danielle Pafunda & Animals Set Loose

Danielle Pafunda’s “Beshrew Upon The Fence” is as much a spell as a poem. In it, the speaker reveals the following:

This is how I get you to come in the yard. I set
the bees loose. I set the dogs loose. I sting the horses

and set them loose their eyes showing white.

Various insects and animals are set loose, and I include all three of these lines to show the enforced repetition of “set loose.” This term can be a freeing verbal phrase, innocuous even. Pafunda’s emphasis on “set loose” through repetition though, her concerted use of the term, is an absolute part of this spell and beshrewing.

We can picture all three things (bees, dogs, horses) being set loose and spinning out in crazed groups. With few details we can picture the potential depravity, the curse of the swarm sent to reek havoc, to force someone to “come in the yard.” Then the last phrase in the last line has the perfect amount of detail to fully demonstrate the curse here. The “showing white” of the horses’ eyes is subtly and specifically maniacal. The reality that the speaker has stung them adds an extra bit of menace and I can see the white in their profile as they whinnie and wretch.

Pafunda’s spells and poems within and around them are fully cast, and always inviting enough to keep reading.

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On Linnea Ogden, Mice and that Ring by Susan Scarlata

Linnea Ogden’s poems and the lines within them are entirely matter-of-fact. In her poem “Powderhorn Park,” (forthcoming in Hick Poetics,) this line demonstrates exactly what I mean:

I am holding a dead mouse when the phone rings.

In ten words a scene is set encompassing a fully physical reality and the potential communication ringing off stage. This line encapsulates this experience of limbo when you are engrossed in one in the present thing and something entirely separate calls out (literally here) for your attention. Such instances happen more and more often in life lately with the different rings, pings and alerts of communication filling up hours.

I have never held a dead mouse, and though I live rurally at this point in time, I am squeamish enough about rodents that I hope to continue that trend in my life. Having been near the other people in my life that have held the dead mice though, I know there are few other things that hold such concentrated attention to fully disallow the “I’ll just get that.”

This line implies an entire sequence of happenings before and after it. It sets a scene with no ambiguity. Ogden does not entertain extra words or anything superfluous. Clarity is all in this poem and her work, and I love that about it.

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Susan Scarlata On the World & the Earth in Aaron McCollough’s “Rank”

McCollough Photo

Toward the end of his poem “Rank” Aaron McCollough calls up a differentiation between the words “world” and “earth” and the various things they each represent. He writes:

the world is coming,

but it’s not the world, what’s coming is
the earth, the clay expelling water

These lines encapsulate something I love about poetry, and it is maybe only poetry that gets specific enough about language to do it. These lines make me think about entirely basic words, often used interchangeably to mean the same thing, and then within that thinking they have me considering their differences.

With their revision of meaning from line to line and stanza to stanza (“the world is coming, /but it’s not the world”) I imagine a globe and the endless number of things that make up “the world” for me. Then the thought is revised and it is the “the earth” that is coming, and the way McCollough inverts the phrase “what’s coming is” allows for an instance of questioning as that line breaks.

When it is “the earth” that is coming I, again, imagine the globe or macro images of this ball floating through space that we call “earth,” but then McCollough brings us to the other meaning of earth. With the words “clay” and “water” we are down in the earth, and can feel how elemental (as in of the elements) this version of earth coming truly is.

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Susan Scarlata on Ada Limón, yonder

Okay, so this is two lines with a lot of goodness sandwiched between them, but I want to write about both the first and last lines of one stanza in Ada Limón’s poem “During the Impossible Age of Everyone.” Limón writes:

If you walk long enough, your crowded head clears,

This is so true, but it’s also something I need to read and reread to be reminded of—I live somewhere where this should not be such a surprise or challenge, but still I need to see it laid out clearly here as Limón has it. To finish that same stanza she writes “I’m like a fence, or a cow, or that word, yonder.”

With the over-abundance of lists I encounter throughout the online universe it is a true pleasure to have a list that surprises. I like the playful start of this mind (on the head-clearing typo of walk) considering the things she sees that might be similes for herself. She is “like a fence, or a cow,” and we are not told why about either, but that she is openly comparing and contrasting, walking us through the consideration of how and where she “fits,” and then, wonderfully, the list startles with or maybe she is like “that word, yonder.”

Of course, it is the poet in me that’s thrilled with surprise about the word as a part of this physical list, and then I am doubly pleased since the word “yonder” seems integral to the broad considerations of Hick Poetics. As the figure in the poem tries on potential similarities with her physical surroundings, she tries out the country-esque word in her considering also how she might be like that word and might use it in this landscape she is crossing.

["During the Impossible Age of Everyone" first appeared in Catch Up, Issue 3]

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Susan Scarlata on Collier Nogues, grime and waiting

Collier Nogues’ “A Small Hot Town” starts with a parallel reference to its title through a pronoun immediately standing in for the noun “town.” With the tiny possessiveness within “its” we are shown how tightly connected the river and this “hot town” are. This connectivity is the larger setting the “I” of the poem speaks to us from within in the lines:

I spend a lot of time
waiting in the car,

nail file dust sifting

onto the gearshift.

I am stopped here, I am sure to some degree because I have experienced this same “lot of time/waiting in the car,” and likely not even waiting for anything in particular, but still waiting. These simple, expository lines perfectly capture an experience I have had, but that I would never have thought to write down. I love that Nogues has written it down, and that the sentence and lines finish with this reference to nail file dust, which conjures the smallest ways that our bodies break down in the spaces we inhabit. Cars have always been that to me, spaces I inhabit, the gearshift something that I clean from the dust and food-bits and general grime that collects as me and my people exist within them.

These lines thrill me in their simplicity and in how much “A Small Hot Town” exists within them on their own.

["A Small Hot Town" first appeared in the Academy of American Poets' Poem-A-Day.]

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Linnea Ogden on Crystal Wilkinson, conservation and desire

if you just could have seen the hair rise up
on their arms like that, like offerings to god,
when their elbows touched, if you could have seen
her longing dissipate just a little as he came through the door,

[from “witness (for ron davis)” in Appalachian Heritage]


Longing spreads from the speaker-as-witness to the spoken-to—if you could have seen them. Desire in these lines by Crystal Wilkinson also doesn’t need fulfillment, in the same way the sentence (in these few lines, anyway) isn’t completed by its maybe-necessary “then” clause. The poem itself strings along the desire or the longing itself, teasing you with the physical, chemical, electrical details of a witnessed love before comparing that love to the one you have with the speaker (“then you’d know how much i love you” in the last of the poem’s sixteen lines). Though longing dissipates as he comes through the door, the corresponding action or energy seems to go in a different direction, into the static electricity caught between two bodies. I like that this poem both suspends desire before its completion, and I also like that it sends desire off, channels it into another physical response, another infinite pathway, in keeping with some undescribed law of conservation.

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Linnea Ogden on Dara Wier’s distance

In the city and in the country were not in the same centuries.

[from “A Civilian’s Journal from the War Years”]


The preposition in this line creates a pattern that it also breaks—“in the city” offers a geographical boundary matched satisfactorily with “in the country,” its counterpart. As this line by Dara Wier begins, it seems to offer a parallel between the two categories: the idea that in both, something similar happens. In the city and in the country, there is a connection that you have not considered yet but I will now reveal. Instead, the significance of both categories is dismissed by the declaration that they did not exist or occur in the same time. I suppose if you want to think about the Industrial Revolution and globalization (and how can you avoid doing so these days), that’s true. But the line also seems to suggest that not only are both categories distant from each other, they’re distant from the now—not in the same centuries, both of which are in the past. I also like the bland simplicity of the repetition of “in,” and the way the word “in” functions differently in its first and second usage in the line from the third. The first two position us within a physical location, while the second positions us within (or rather doesn’t) a few large unspecified blocks of time in the past. A line that contains an incredible defamiliarizing distance—and a distance that is further away than it first appears.

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Linnea Ogden on G.C. Waldrep and the collapse of the self

Deer graze
along the brow of my old age.
You are not a dream,
the sparrows’ silver needles
sew you into a calendar’s
trim signature. Spring arrives
as prescription eyeglasses
discarded at the crime scene.

[from “Forage Psalm”]


I like the spondee of “DEER GRAZE,” I like the assonance in “graze” and “age,” and for some reason that I can’t articulate, I love the “ow” sound in “brow” in the middle of it all. In these two lines by G.C. Waldrep, my brow becomes a field, maybe my land and maybe not, with deer along the edges—not in full concealment, but not in full sight either, as they would be. Looking at the rest of this poem, there is a trail of images and details that don’t seem to suggest old age at all, but rather perhaps a mystery of conception or birth: a speculum, lactation, a body-garment, and in the very final line, “science brushes your cold tree.” The agency of an individual is collapsed, mutated, and blended into a metaphor with the natural world. And something like the arrival of spring, an unstoppable cycle, gets conflated with not just eyeglasses, but someone’s specific prescription eyeglasses, left at an unspecified crime scene. There’s a difficulty here in seeing the distinction between objects and their use value, and a difficulty in seeing concepts or emotional experience as operating independently from the physical world. Or maybe I am just describing my own experience through the lens of a few lines of this lovely poem.

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Linnea Ogden on Connie Voisine, doubling back, and the pleasure of a boneless fish

My God was delicious,
like a fish with no bones.

[from “Once”]


The first thing that strikes me about these lines by Connie Voisine is a subtly disconcerting quality. Yes, at the point that I experience a fish with no bones—which I, as a diner, also find to be delicious—it is dead, and it is on my plate, and I am eating it. The point of its bonelessness is to remove any obstruction or discomfort in the eating process. But somehow I also can’t help but imagine a live fish with no bones, and the absurdity of it is what I get stuck on, and also what I enjoy. This is a poem exploring (among other things) the completeness of incompleteness, and the image of a fish with no bones adds on to that idea. “Once” begins with one foot, one ear, and one eye, all parts of the body that are accustomed to being balanced out by a counterpart. Since my God as a fish with no bones is followed immediately by the statement “But somewhere, I // was tired,” I do wonder how much satisfaction I get or should get out of the boneless fish—it doesn’t seem to be giving me everything I need. I enjoy the push and pull of the poem and of this pair of lines, a lingering quality of being given things and constantly having them taken away again as a natural part of the process.

 

 

 

 

 

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