Looks like what drives me crazy
Don’t have no effect on you-
But I’m gonna keep on at it
Till it drives you crazy, too.
This Langston Hughes poem is in How Lovely the Ruins: Inspirational Poems and Words for Difficult Times (Spiegel and Grau, 2017). It could also be a motto for the Rumpus community.
In January we posted “What to Read When You Want Fire and Fury.” My own review of Resistance, Rebellion, Life: Fifty Poems Now (Knopf, 2017)) looked at the history of progressive political poetry. A piece about late-term abortion published in late January connects to a poem by Marge Piercy in the best of the three volumes I will discuss. The Rumpus and its readers value literature that tells truths, puts the traditionally marginalized at the center, reinforces resistance, and helps make sense of these anxious times. This review covers three anthologies that do the same.
Nasty Women Poets: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse was just published by Lost Horse Press. Edited by Grace Bauer and Julie Kane, it’s spacious and muscular, and its introduction acknowledges No More Masks, the groundbreaking 1973 feminist classic to which Piercy contributed, and Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America, published in 1986. Alicia Suskin Ostriker wrote the introduction, and also contributed to Nasty Women Poets. Her piece is called “The Shapes of the Goddess”:
when her hands cup her breasts
she enjoys her sweet strength
sap ascends the oak
dancing she causes
the young to dance
and to kiss
she may carry a weapon
a knife a gun a razor
she may wear a belt of skulls
contend for truth to the death she says
and I will fight for you
when she discharges her anger in laughter white lightning illuminates the horizon
from pole to pole
often she lays her hand over her eyes
like a secretary leaving
an office building at evening
cradling that infant boy
sitting him on her lap
smoothing the folds of her dress :this means means pity
arms crossed: this signifies judgment.
My judgement is that this is flawless because it’s music, imagery, ethics, and empathy reinforce each other with inevitable symmetry.
Marge Piercy reminds us what pregnant women faced before Roe v. Wade, and what they are facing again as legislation limiting abortion access advances across the country. Her poem, “The President Elect Speaks,” is rightfully frightening:
many women will die alone
in their bloody beds. It will
be just the way you like it
for women who dare to choose.
This excerpt is a classic example of speaking truth to power, and if my father were alive he’d applaud. One of his friends, an OB/GYN, performed safe illegal abortions regardless of patients’ ability to pay. He faced jail. Now he might get shot.
Nasty Women Poets generously gives room to longer works, like the stunner below by Rochelle Spencer, whose storytelling background is expertly evident. The poem is called “You’ve Known Girls Like This All Your Life: A Collective Memoir”:
Stacia. Danielle. Sonya. Monique, Shannon, Kim. Those black middle class girls I grew up with here, right here in the South—they did everything perfectly, didn’t they? Beautiful and talented, Members of the Honor Society, Presidents of this or that club.
You’d sees these girls in church on Sundays and Wednesdays, their hair whipped into sulky flatness from having bobby-pinned it to their heads the night before. If you were lucky enough to know the right people, you’d see them at house parties on Saturdays, looking cool and impressive in their ironed jeans tiny gold hoops- a nod to the chunkier jewelry Salt New Peppa and later TLC wore in their music videos.
Boys respected them and somehow knew they were expected to marry them; to this day, I remember sitting in Mrs. Rogers’ fifth grade Language Arts class in the trailer’s mossy humidity, overhearing Kamau, a confident black boy – every schoolgirl’s crush – whisper to Adria’s back as she bent over her vocabulary worksheet “my mother said you’re the girl I should marry.”
Adria’s quick and self assured nod didn’t surprise me then; nor did the fact that fifteen years later Kamau actually did marry her; nor does the fact that today they are still together -and quite happy.
You could argue the twin pressures of racism and sexism squeezed these girls into diamonds That parts of them shimmered, black and glittering.
But I think, more likely, looking back, that what these girls were doing was rebellion, rebellion Blacksouthernwoman style in the only way possible that didn’t involve drugs, or sex, or suicide.
It takes a fine ear and control to make such specifics sing.
“Fat Girls Get Groped Too” is by J.C. Reilly. It’s a detailed description of a subway violation and her action fueled by rage is so satisfying because of the way she explains the initial confinement of that rage:
—but there is no space
to step away in the crowded car,
and I cannot make myself smaller—
We know the silent questions the speaker asks herself and also hear “[t]he voices of a thousand women” advising her to stay visible and safe. Her unspoken panic is “metallic, mine,” making it ours when the train jolts and he crushes against her. After four stops, “his hand clamps on my breast again.” She then uses the motion of the train to ram her “elbow into his chest” and “stomps his foot for good measure.” The poem doesn’t end there or begin with the first quotes I chose. Consume it whole with the rest of the bold banquet in this book.
Every anthology raises questions about what’s left out and what goes in. My questions about Nasty Women Poets are too minor to list. Not so with Carrying the Branch: Poets in Search of Peace, a new release from Glass Lyre Press, edited by Diane Frank, Ami Kaye, Rustin Larson, Lois P. Jones, Gloria Mindock, and Melissa Studdard.
Much of what’s here is first rate, but I wonder why former US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky gets five pages, and Fred Marchant and Yusef Komunyakaa get none. Marchant was among the first Marines to receive an honorable discharge as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and has work in Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, which was edited by Maxine Hong Kingston. Graywolf Press has published him for years. Komunyakaa won a Pulitzer Prize for Neon Vernacular after serving in Vietnam. He wrote the foreword to Inheriting the War: Poetry and Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Refugees, a new title from Norton, and has a typically riveting piece in Bullets into Bells, an anthology in response to gun violence from Beacon Press.
That said, what’s in Carrying the Branch is current and powerful.
Here’s Connie Post’s contribution, “To a Woman Lost on the Road in Afghanistan”:
I wish I could tell you
where your son is
I wish I could tell you
why the mosque
or why the ruined moon
has dropped it’s shrapnel
in your lap
or why there
are not enough
who is missing a limb
I can only stand here
and offer these beads
or may not
find the crater
of your open hands
Appreciate neatness and tight lines about the mosque and lack of medical devices for the wounded, which could refer to too many countries in the Middle East. Appreciate the interfaith connection at the end, a connection more necessary than ever.
Kazim Ali is an award-winning poet with a wide, unflinching reach. “BIl’ in” begins with an unattributed quote, “From our roof you can see Tel Aviv, and then the sea”:
The evening in the distance speaks the tongue of fire
Empty canisters glitter in the field
The light shines always in the next country but in our country
Darkness has no ration limit
We translate the Hill of Spring in our language of snow
Night lies down here on our roof in August
Listen to the sound of the fountain in the other side of the wall
A long time before we had any argument about historiography each woman here grew wild thyme in the bullet-laden garden
Each man measured in his mind the distance between his jail cell and the eastern shore of the sea.
Ali faces the worst of circumstances, made almost manageable, even when, or especially when, some of that distance is enclosed in a “bullet-laden garden.”
Jenn Givhan, is a Mexican American winner of the 2015 Pleiades Prize. Her “Protection Spell (Riot’s Eye)” was first published in Southern Humanities Review and is doubly chilling. It is art, and a reminder of how many innocent boys with dreadlocks have been killed:
They’re chasing my boy, his
behind him like bed sheets
from the second story
window of a house fire.
_______He & the asphalt
I watch & I watch
like a black hole swallowing
a baby universe (This is the last
of the gunmetal dreams. )
I wring the blood
from my ribcage
my world in your chest, child.
______When I was a child
I believed God held us
like a paper bag
to the mouth of a panic attack.
_______How I’m holding
a city like my boy,
my boy to my own
How the wind-as-breath
______moved us, bent our
to snapping, like our songs.
In “Still Warm,” Dorothy Subow Nelson provides encouragement and an apt segue to the last collection I will explore:
The afternoon is still warm
the crowd has thinned
it’s been a day to relive
the pain of centuries
evil has a course to run
until we see (each one)
that categories kill
It takes this long to stop
mocking the turtle
some things were not heard
imagination is revelation
at last you know how long
it lives and how it dies.
Join the voices in the underside
let the sun find you
on your way around
now and then appear
as a large mound
in the sea.
Nelson’s exhortation can be a metaphor for books, places to land, where treasures are unearthed and taken to where they are most needed.
“In the last year, we’ve noticed poetry filling our social media feeds as never before… The voices of Rumi, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, and Danez Smith are bringing a new wind of hope, vigor, and clarity to a complex and tumultuous world.” This is from the opening paragraph of the introduction to How Lovely the Ruins: Inspirational Poems and Words for Difficult Times. The introduction is by its editors, Annie Chagnot and Emi Ikkanda.
Elizabeth Alexander wrote the foreword, declaring that, “The poem is a force field against despair.”
Ellen Bass, an editor of No More Masks, provides well-earned wisdom on the page that faces Dickinson’s “If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking.” Bass’s poem is called “The Thing Is,” and it illustrates Alexander’s point:
to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands, your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, it’s tropical heat thickening the air , heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this? Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you again.
“Obesity of grief” is the sound of shaped emotion and helps make the whole poem comforting, without being twee.
Rebecca Foust’s “Abeyance” is affectingly germane. She’s the poetry editor of Women’s Voices for Change, and skillfully articulates hope for the safety of her transgender daughter. It takes courage to say, “I know I lack the words” after initiating a conversation: “I know the night lives inside you. I know grave, / sad errors were made, dividing you, and hiding / you from you inside.I know a girl like you / was knifed last week, another set aflame.“ She ‘s in her garden, where cabbages unfurl “to catch each ray of sun,” the catching giving her daughter and us the words we need, though perhaps not the way we expected.
How Lovely the Ruins, with so much excellent work, is tarnished by a trite, longwinded poem by e.e. cummings. cummings was an unabashed anit-Semite, writing in 1939, “How well I understand the hater of Jews!” One must ask what Elizabeth Alexander and the editors were thinking, now that we have an occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue who accepts support from swastika-waving racists. It would be easy and wrong to ignore the inclusion of cummings poem.
Buy this book for its soothing, well-wrought gems. Ask the editors to remove cummings in the next printing.
And thank them for including the poem Alexander wrote for Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration. Let us recall that the Obamas hosted the first seder in the history of the White House. That ritual, as most people know, is a Jewish celebration of freedom and justice, often tweaked to welcome other traditions.
The compilers of these anthologies used a reliable strategy to move the merch. Jane Hirshfield, Mark Doty, Rita Dove, Ocean Vuong, and others with large fan bases help bump up the profiles of talented scribes who don’t fill performance spaces. Revered dead poets, including Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, Denise Levertov, and Claude McKay are also included.
A.E. Stallings is an acknowledged master of formal verse and a respected translator of Greek. Her 1995 Cortland Review interview sheds light on her feminism, and she wrote “For Atalanta” for her daughter. It’s in Nasty Women Poets, but could easily replace the cummings poem in How Lovely the Ruins. I end with it because its sagacity is so essential, its sound so sweet:
Your name is long and difficult, I know.
So many people whom we didn’t ask
Have told us so
And taken us to task.
You too perhaps will wonder as you grow
And blame us with the venom of thirteen
For ruining your life,
Using our own love against us, keen
As a double -bladed knife.
Already I can picture the whole scene.
How will we answer you?
Yes, you were in a hurry to arrive
As if it were a race to be alive.
We weighed the syllables,and they rang true
And we were hoping too
You’d come to like the stories
Of princesses who weren’t set on shelves
Like China figurines. Not allegories,
But girls whose glories
Included rescuing themselves,
Slaying their own monsters, running free
But not running away. It might be rough
Singled out for singularity.
Beauty will be of some help. You’ll see.