Friday, March 23, 2012

Beyond the Beginning

"What I'm interested in writing about things of people who've gotten beyond the beginning. They've tried to be married - and failed. And now they're trying to decide whether to try again. Or they've tried twice and failed, and they find themselves in love."

God bless Jack Gilbert. Beautiful interview with a man who writes beautiful poems.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Poem for Trayvon Martin


In America, you see, there is nothing
that we lack. We work, we rise;
we are all free. Kick your heels up!

Paint the town! unless you happen to be black—
in which case, better quiet down
and be prepared to show your hands.

You can buy Skittles and iced tea,
walk freely through the neighborhoods—
unless you happen to be black,

in which case, some local quack
can put a bullet in your chest
and leave you—seventeen, facedown,

dying in manicured green grass
he did not like you walking on
because you happened to be black,

young, and male within a gated town
that wasn’t. When you get up
to Heaven’s gate, and get to thinking,

gazing down, about the country
you just left, whether it was bad or good,
I tell you, Trayvon: Ask around.

See if those who claim it’s good
and died peaceful in their beds at night
mostly happened to be white,

and those who turn away, distraught,
who strain their eyes through the cloud
for safety that they never found,

just so happened to be black.
And if you see that other fresh-faced kid
who had a sweet tooth like your own,

and sauntered jaunty into town?
Ask Emmett what his Money bought.
It was not a graduation gown.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


On my drive home in the downpour
there was a Syrian boy on the radio
telling of his torture—
electrocuted, beaten with hanks of rope,
one toenail removed with pliers.

There is a point, they say
when the body adjusts to a level of pain
and interrogators must step up the severity
to obtain further reactions.
It is the same with commuters,
grown so accustomed now
to hearing of water-boardings, beatings,
renditions, strippings
they barely register.

What to make of those of us unbruised,
sleeping easily, with such patience
for the torsions of human agency,
accepting them as we do
a spate of bad weather? Who abide?

What to make of myself,
pausing at the light
with the rain running silvered chains
over the windshield, then quietly
making my turn, the way
I have been taught?


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Bookstores, Happy Accidents, and a Motel Likely to Stay on my Bucket List

The second time I went to Chichen Itza, in 2002, was also the second—and likely the last—time I climbed the central pyramid. On my nervous way back down the enormous steps, a guide mentioned that it was the last year that tourists would be permitted to go up: Too much foot traffic was wearing away the stones, and the pyramid would be roped off from now on. I felt lucky to have been among the last to climb.

I get a similar feeling these days when I go into bookstores, as though I’m wandering through some amazing monument where, soon, no one will get to go anymore. Except, of course, with bookstores, it’s lack of use rather than overuse that has caused the problem. But what a great thing it is to still be able to go into a good bookstore, run your hands over the covers, to encounter the book you weren’t specifically looking for but really needed to read.

Today, on the way back from lunch, I thought we might stop at Politics and Prose, but an unsettled stomach made me think we should just go home. Then, as that passed and we came down Military Road, I thought, well, perhaps just five minutes.

For a writer, being remaindered is likely never a happy thing, but for a reader, Politics and Prose’s downstairs remainder section is a thing of wonder. After five minutes, I was already toting around Meghan O’Rourke’s Halflife, Lionel Shriver’s A Perfectly Good Family (based on the strength of We Need to Talk About Kevin, I’m willing to read anything she writes), and a copy of Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke (a gift for a friend that I’m hoping to borrow when she’s done; we both recently finished Mudbound and this sounds like a radical and fascinating departure).

Then I hit the stairs, noting on my way up that it sounded like there must be a reading going on, noting as I hit the top of the stairs that the speaker was saying something about the next poem he would read, noting as I turned to scan the displays of coming events that the reader was none other than Campbell McGrath. Campbell MceffingGrath!

OK, this is maybe not quite like spotting Elvis, but for me, it was at least as good as spotting Elvis Costello. McGrath is one of my favorite working poets, a writer who brings humor and pathos and all the trappings of his culture into his poems in a way that I simultaneously admire and feel uneasy about. I had actually been thinking about his work only yesterday as I was working on a new poem (the draft of which appears below) about the Clown Motel in Tonopah, Nevada, because it seemed like the kind of "weird Americana" place that might turn up in a McGrath poem.

Had I known he was reading, I would have scheduled my weekend around attending. I experienced a series of emotions that ran quickly from shock (WHAT?!?), to cultural shame (I watched the beyond-stupid 300 last night, but didn’t know Campbell MceffingGrath was going to be in the neighborhood?), to horror at the thought that some mild indigestion had almost sent us home, to delight that here he was, and he had barely started reading yet, and I could sit down and enjoy as he shared some terrific poems from In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys, along with a few that haven't even been published yet.

And then I got to babble fan-girl-isms at him as he signed my copy (thanks to sweet husband Tim for sneaking a photo as this happened).

These are the kind of experiences we will not have when bookstores become extinct. I don’t look forward to that day. I cannot share today’s reading, but here’s a link to one McGrath gave at Emory University in 2009 that has the great advantage of beginning with a truly wonderful McGrath poem called “The Human Heart” (linked here for those who prefer to read).

Stay away from clowns. Go to bookstores instead.


This draft was kidnapped by clowns.