The elk are teenaged boys, hanging out on the side of the road again. Bennie and the Jets.
All, look at me: hey honey, take a long look. They’re so cool: combs in pockets, sneaking
drags on reds. I see you, Elk Boys, I see your racks and how you leap. Now run off and
let me have this road. They jump the fence, with too much grace for males at that age of
any species. Further down the road, mule deer punks have not yet shed their winter coats.
They stand shaggy near the Sweet Grass, cutting class, playing hooky, getting into things
between seasons: fresh moss, sprouting sage, a sweeter version of their mountain syrup
THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth: This is such a surprising and delightful little poem. I love the tone of “I see you, Elk Boys,” and the surprise of the shift into the speaker’s actual world “let me have this road”. The end is so deft too. I’m not wild about the very last phrase “a sweeter version of their mountain syrup” as it’s a little hard to know how to read it, but this is a small, small quibble about a poem that is utterly charming.
Dustin: I like the "Bennie and the Jets" reference. I like the detail of "combs in pockets, sneaking drags on reds." "They jump the fence, with too much grace for males at that age of any species" doesn't work for me; this is the one line in the poem that jams the flow. Small item: I'm annoyed by the lack of a comma at the end of your last line.
Dana: This is such an inventive poem, and while I like the use of the extended metaphor, I am not sure I buy it as a reader. By the end of the poem, I am not convinced that the elk are indeed teenaged boys. I am not quite able to accept the poem’s central assertion.
Guest Judge Matthew Hittinger: My first question was “is this the best form fit for the content?” and given the strong control over the sentence rhythms and variations I was left with a “yes”--the speaker's voice is sharp, but I found my ear wanting more. The elk metaphor as teenage boys (or teenage boys as elk) was strong and I almost wondered what would be lost/gained by just saying the elk are hanging out beside the road again, Bennie and the Jets, etc., describing them like teenage boys without saying “teenage boys”--again a question of what you lose, what you gain by such an omission. Where I think you can push this further is when you turn from the elk to the mule deer, especially by the last line which left me hanging and feeling the poem was incomplete. Not as much time is devoted to the mule deer punks as the elk boys and it left me pondering one, the relation of the mule deer to the elk boys (turf war?) and two, if there are other animals that might match-up with teenage groups (enter those mean girl clicks and look out boys!) which makes for a longer poem, but one that I'd love to read to see what affinities you can wield.
THINGS I’VE ONLY SEEN ON TV
My wife and I were stepchildren, Marcia
and Greg destined to wed. I practiced
division serving cocktails to my parents
in front of the screen, siphoning ounces
from quarts. She memorized the nightly
schedules, a wry arithmetic. There were
clashing swords, bullets that knocked guns
from hands, long brawls without gushing
blood. We had relationships with suburban
witches and dead men, fell in love with bald
Greek lollipops and battled frightening odds.
We marveled at fallopian star voyages
and teenagers stuffed in telephone booths
on a dare, men slow on the uptake racing
to the airport to stop true love’s departure.
It was dizzying. God appeared and the Devil
tap danced. The days passed dream length
and dire in its hold upon us. We laughed
at cartoon bears and cherished theme songs
that we whistled during long, lonely hours.
Sometimes the light switched off, and we
were left with memories, familiar and false,
echoes that formed our own fragile borders.
THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth: Beginning with “My wife and I” seems to suggest that the focus of the poem is going to be about the relationship (even despite the title), and though the end comes back to the husband/wife theme a bit…“formed our own fragile borders”, the poem really veers from that subject for the bulk of its 23 lines. The import of the images and scenarios from TV on the speaker for me isn’t conveyed quite clearly enough. I should mention I was of this same generation, so I got (and appreciated) many of the references and I also watched way too much TV, but I want the poem to be bigger than it manages to be.
Dustin: I like the allusion to the Brady Brunch; however, I don't like your first line break. The poem needs more specific allusions than just the Brady Bunch one. I like the last three lines; however, those lines make me feel like something is missing from the poem---- like I went from episode 2 to episode 4.
Dana: I love all the detail in this poem, but the ending was less interesting for me than the rest of the poem. I also got hung up on the beginning, with the comparison of the narrator and the wife to Marcia and Greg. I know the two weren’t actually related, but still –- the idea of them getting married weirds me out.
Guest Judge Matthew Hittinger: This is a lovely poem, cataloguing TV's plot lines and character types, how they mirror and metaphor our own dramas in real life and yet are always heightened as both an escape and a revelation that at least our lives are not as bad as that. I felt a strong draw to the very specific allusion to the Brady Brunch with Marcia and Greg and craved more of those specifics throughout the poem which after that reference seems to operate with more general descriptions of familiar plots and such. Those last lines are very strong and resonate with anyone raised on a healthy dose of TV as our own personal histories slip into those we watched, at times indistinguishable from what is real and what is imagined (and aren't the imagined stories we witness real in some way, become real to us in some way?). My biggest question here involved the presence of the wife. I kept wondering why she was there other than she shared the same experience as the speaker and allows for the great Brady Brunch reference. But while the poem starts with establishing the presence of two, and then goes into her isolated experience and then the speaker's, they quickly conflate to a “we” and an “us” and I wasn't sure if I should take it as indication that once the “we” appears they are no longer single entities but now partnered and bound to this TV life together, and if that is the case, what is the significance of this TV life in the partnered state?
“...there’s a perfect-sized YOU just waiting to be discovered...”
Learn to love the lessons of your mouth: vessel
and enemy at once. Do not feed it
butter or peaches. Eat only peel--pocked
bitterchew. Leave its lavish moon of sluice.
Fruit's a costly strumpet. You
get solely what you've labored for.
You will witness the sacred
bloom in your empty bowl. Spit your meat.
Chew its dewy worm of fat, and swallow
the tallow scrap. You must make do
with gristle. Endurance is a fevered saint.
Let hunger roll and burn in it.
Substitute always nail beds
for heart, no matter the thrall
of your cravings. Want is a sluggard tongue,
seeking its greasy kingdom. It will tempt you full
to bursting. Lay down your fork. Purge
between each bite.
You will kneel to bless the dead
hive of your pelvis. The body
is an intermission: wait for the toss
and hurl of rebirth. Emerge, sanctified and blank.
Hover above the scale; note
the number. This is your perfect weight.
THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth: I really love the sounds and language of the poem. Oddly, though the poem is about food and taste and tasting, the real subject is as much the ear as the mouth. Some of the phrasing is just spectacular: “peel--pocked bitterchew,” “lavish moon of sluice,” “dewy worm of fat, and swallow the tallow scrap” etc. The critique of the weight industry is nicely submerged, and I admire that too.
Dustin: Love it! There is so much to love about this poem: "Fruit's a costly strumpet. You / get solely what you've labored for" and "Endurance is a fevered saint" and "Want is a sluggard tongue, / seeking its greasy kingdom." I could list more. Great epigraph selection. Your epigraph pulls the reader into the poem, and you never disappoint the reader. I tried to find something about this poem that I didn't like, but it was a lost cause.
Dana: Another one of my favorites this week. All the different metaphors work so well in the piece and don’t stand out as being part of an assignment. This is also an important poem, but the topic doesn’t overshadow the language and overall craft.
Guest Judge Matthew Hittinger: The music and word play struck me as the most exciting elements in this poem (just take a second to read it out loud and note the long EE and OO sounds in that first stanza, or the short I sounds in the second, and so forth and you'll see what I mean), as well as the authoritative speaker who gains her power from the imperative mode of addressing a “you.” I found a central metaphor in each stanza that really stood out (to the point where I have them all underlined): In stanza one: “Eat only peel-pocked / bitterchew. Leave its lavish moon of sluice.” In stanza two: “Spit your meat. / Chew its dewy worm of fat.” In stanza three: “Want is a sluggard tongue, / seeking its greasy kingdom.” And in stanza four: “The body is an intermission.” There were few weak moments for me: some awkward wording moments like “substitute always nail beds” threw me out of the poem, but those can be easily revised. I'm torn about the last line “this is your perfect weight” given that phrase is also the title and reference in the epigraph. The poem definitely builds towards such a tongue-in-cheek statement but I wonder if it is perhaps a place holder for a line that could do more work? Something to think about. Oh, and points for using one of my all-time favorite words “strumpet.”
Oh My God, the angels
wear white gloves on their left hands!
Eternity’s a big fat fucking show
tonight, vacuous black churned white
& glittering. I can see it
from my little clammy foxhole. The sky
is vintage celluloid, the hell with digital.
I hope you didn’t think
you’d make a nice clean break!
For’s Christ’s sake, don’t fail
us now— the stars went scuttling when
they heard you coming! You wouldn’t
leave us with no light
to top the bill? You couldn’t leave
us in the dark. We need another
comeback, need to know this isn’t how it ends—
(if you can end, then so can we)
& trust this Jersey girl who stalks
the sky— we never cared for your humanity.
The world’s no
stage these days, it’s just a screen,
some dumb flat firmament; convince me
why your death would break the mold.
Look up— even the moon’s turned out
for you; old hag of rag & bone,
she’s donned her crescent gold, she’s
donned her best. She’s know
tonight she hosts an honored guest.
THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth: I generally like a crabby tone, and there are some wonderful lines in this poem: “The sky / is vintage celluloid, the hell with digital.” and “the moon’s turned out for you; old hag of rag & bone.” Aside from the two typos: “For’s Christ’s” in stanza three and “She’s know” in the last stanza, my big concern about the poem is that the perspective of the speaker is a little fuzzy.
Dustin: Emily, I knew the type-o's were coming because of your email. I bet you are not happy that I wouldn't accept the correct version; however, since the beginning of the competition I've adhered to the rules. Once a poem is submitted, even if it is early, that is the poem that is judged. Also, I have kept with the same practice each week. I download each Microsoft Word File. Then I copy and paste the poems from the MW file to blogspot. This is why I did not copy and paste your poem from the body of the email. I didn't think it'd be fair.
I've enjoyed your poems from week one and two; however, I didn't really enjoy this poem. It didn't stand out for like your first two. Yes, you have great moments in this poem: "The sky / is vintage celluloid, the hell with digital" (Very Creative!) and calling the moon an "old hag of rag & bone." I'm not sure it is 100% clear that this poem is about Michael Jackson; it is clear at the moment because of his death and the nonstop media coverage. Will people make the connection in a few years or longer? I'm not confident this poem will stand the test of time.
Dana: This is one of my bottom picks this week. The piece doesn’t feel as strong to me as the poet’s other work. The person the elegy is addressed to is not named in the poem, and I think that weakens the piece considerably. Some of broad assertions the poem makes, such as “we never cared for your humanity,” feel weak and abstract.
Guest Judge Matthew Hittinger: A timely poem given MJ's death this past week. I overlooked some of the spelling/grammar mistakes “For's Christ's” and “She's know” to really focus on the sentiment here and found some lovely music, like fat/vacuous/black in the first stanza, and the embedded rhymes of sake/break in the third and best/guest in the last stanza. I'd cut the parenthetical “(if you can end, then so can we)” as I think the point of the poem is to do the work to show us that feeling by locating a pop star in the heavens, and one as big as MJ as he rivals the moon (love that line “old hag of rag & bone”) and the other stars who make way. The end is a little too tidy for me. The poem raises some good questions and has a wry tone “The world's no / stage these days, it's just a screen, / some dumb flat firmament” that doesn't match with those last lines about the “honored guest” (not sure if they were meant to be sarcastic—I mean, really the moon doesn't give a damn about MJ in the end, one of the pitfalls of personification, but that indifference could give you room to play more with the rivalry you're setting up.)
The Worry Dolls
They work through night, with backhoe or ice pick,
extracting worry: that rotten tooth. Sisters of the smallest order,
kerchiefed, the single-stitch of their red lips,
without hands, without horse or cart to carry my want.
I whisper tonight, I give you not the kiss on the cheek,
but the wanting it. Perhaps they weave the fabric of sleep
or steep the earth with desire; the grass wet when I wake.
There were six dolls once. I gave one to a girl
who needed a compass and wings. How to tell her that staying
is harder, that love dulls? The five cried in their little balsa bed.
So much worry for one. I should have given her the whole set.
THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth: A provocative, deft little poem with some lovely moments: “extracting worry: that rotten tooth,” “the single-stitch of their red lips,” and I love that the poem has an almost fable-like quality “a girl who needed a compass and wings."
Dustin: I like first two lines. You've created a great beginning. "Sisters of the smallest order, / kerchiefed, the single-stitch of their red lips," sticks out in an enjoyable way. My favorite part of the poem is "I whisper tonight, I give you not the kiss on the cheek, / but the wanting it." I feel like there could be a little more at the end. Overall, I really enjoyed this poem.
Dana: “Without horse or cart to carry my want” and “steep the earth with desire” are wonderful moments in this poem. I also love the metaphor “fabric of sleep.” This is a beautiful example of a poem that meets the assignment’s requirements while remaining focused, concise and engaging.
Guest Judge Matthew Hittinger: Lush music throughout this poem. To isolate just two patterns: the esses and short i's (sisters/kerchiefed/lips/stitch/whisper/kiss) which create a nice hissing spitting rhythm especially on the more monosyllabic words; and the long EE sounds (cheek/weak/sleep/steep) which being a high frequency vowel sound and all monosyllabic makes for a great sonic energy and rhythm. The poem seems to be reaching toward the sonnet form; it's 11 instead of 14 lines, but there's a turn that happens at light 8: “There were six dolls once” moves us from the description of the dolls and the location of the dolls in the present and first seven lines to the dolls' history and past in the last four. From that turn through to those awesome last lines, especially with the hard truth of “staying / is harder” and “love dulls,” I think this is one of the stronger ones here this week. My only suggestions would be to take a whirl at pushing it toward the sonnet form and see what a draft of that might look like (you can always return to this version), and to perhaps cut one of the three instances of “worry” (it's necessary in the title and the last line, and for the purposes of this exercise early on as the 1st metaphor, but I found myself wanting to find a way to lose the “worry” in line two).
At first light, a prayer is dark against
the white face of the nurse looking in.
My medicine cup whispers
on the night stand. Down the hall
the steps of an early visitor, a doctor
who drags his fingers across my waxy arm
saying Wait, I’m coming, I’m here.
I'm a patient, a toad in a dry pond, a worm
pushing up through recent rain. Out my window,
a blinking red light from the landfill colors
the wings of buzzards. They tiptoe their way
from pile to pile. The light is the eye of a boy king
peeking into his model kingdom.
My roommate tells me remember
that evil thoughts are free and free thoughts are evil.
His drug is methamphetamine, he says
it turns the clock back so he can pretend
today is already yesterday. He knows time’s game,
knows her stutter, knows
how her neck smells up close.
The ceiling is a door, an alley,
a garden. If I stretch hard
I can touch it with my toes.
THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth: This final stanza is really terrific, and I am quite willing to forgive the roughness of a few earlier moments to get to its wisdom. I will say the first image is a bit vague (I’m not sure how a prayer can be dark about the nurse’s face) and the mention of being “a patient” seems a little bit unnecessary, but as I said, I think this last stanza is quite worth the wait.
Dustin: You create lovely detail in parts of this poem. I like "He knows time’s game, / knows her stutter, knows / how her neck smells up close." The first stanza seems to be your on-ramp. I'd scrap the first stanza, or give it a complete overhaul.
Dana:The final stanza of this poem is fantastic. The metaphors work well throughout the piece, but I did stumble on the two metaphors describing the patient in the second stanza. The two together felt like a little too much.
Guest Judge Matthew Hittinger: There's a lot of good stuff going on in this poem. I found myself wanting to start with those lines “My medicine cup whispers / on the night stand” if only because I had a hard time seeing “a prayer is dark against / the white face of the nurse” which just could be a wording issue (or my personal aversion to the word “prayer”). I was less compelled by the first stanza, but see the necessity of the nurse and doctor to locate us in the drug rehab scenario (but perhaps we don't need them?). Once I got to that second stanza the poem really picked up steam with the first grouping of three metaphors “I'm a patient, a toad in a dry pond, a worm / pushing up through recent rain” which mirrors “The ceiling is a door, an alley / a garden.” in the third stanza. I'd almost replace “patient” with another metaphor as it seems too literal given the structure you set-up (perhaps it is meant to be read as both literal and metaphoric, or perhaps you intended it for what it is, a literal patient, but that seems too easy—make it do more work). I think my favorite image is “the light is the eye of a boy king / peeking into his model kingdom.” Third stanza is also great with the entrance of the roommate and the sonic repetition of the long O rhymes (knows/close/toes) which lends a more somber tone that perfectly matches the content. I'm not sure the last line is doing all the work it needs to yet; I found myself wanting you to push it just a bit further, especially after lines like the boy king.
- for G and Drosophila
I was trying to kill you, Little Red
Eyes, you and your six-
hundred siblings, when I saw your sublime
flotsam around the gentle rot
of my kitchen can. You floated ghostly
around the rubbish. Swam into my wine. I know
you can’t help it: the cidering, noiseless exhale
of the mango perishing
deep in the bin. You would gather on honey
everything, a lattice alive with desire,
shivering in the doomtime fervor
that all canker brings about in you,
sexual bright. I wanted
to blast you, but your aerosol death,
what would it have meant?
The soundless sound
of little bodies dropping, then nobody
to signal the sweetness nearby.
THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth: This is one of those poems that takes a really mundane subject (fruit flies) and makes it gorgeous. I’m completely won over by this poem “You would gather on honey/everything” (great line break!) “a lattice alive with desire”….And such a perfect end. Bravo!
Dustin: This poem took me back to my high school AP Biology course. One of our lab expirements was to use Drosophila melanogaster to do genetic crosses. I enjoyed that lab, but I enjoyed your poem more! You've written a lovely poem on a not so lovely insect. Good detail in the poem, and I love the statement at the end.
Dana:This piece contains a lot of great language, including “gentle rot” and “doomtime fervor.” There were moment where the language felt forced, including “sublime / flotsam.” I also wasn’t wild about the “soundless sound.” The last stanza is very strong.
Guest Judge Matthew Hittinger: I kept returning to this one and found something new to admire each time. Strengths: a strong title and strong music throughout: Red/death/meant, flotsam/rot, floated/ghostly; but most importantly the higher frequency vowel sounds of the long I (Eyes/sublime/wine/alive/desire/doomtime) and EE (ghostly/honey/bodies/sweetness) combined with the enjambments create an excitement in the rhythm and a nice tension that propels the poem and compels the reader toward its paradox-pondering end: that “soundless sound” which I admit tripped me up the first few times as being impossible, and while I still have reservations, I like the gesture, especially as it relates to the epiphany about the necessity of the annoying Drosophila to signal the sweetness of the rotting mango.
I didn’t have half brothers or sisters, now I do
Siblings in angst, about who grew up faster, smarter.
Macadamized heartbeats, belching, lying in the sun
Bristling in the smog of hyperventilating rush hours
Toenails curled inwards. That’s how we are.
Brother Chicago, from my labyrinth of freeways
I’ve seen your billboards flashing its psychedelic lure
Your finger slow-motioning from the cloud tops
Entwining me to your belly button deep and bright.
Your other brother or sister – that gushy half-sibling
New York is Woody Allen. Worried, glib! It arcs
A sharp tongue across Manhattan’s cacophony
Rips off the rootedness of our shared metro mangrove.
Laying with its jaunty back of a brooding T-rex
Chicago squints at the waterside, not ready to budge
Polishes its towering whiskers – unperturbed even in the snow.
New York slams me for calling out its name
For even thinking I could write these words –
Its skyline a lost ship that hopes someone will come
Anchor in its teenaged grudge. Well, let it gnaw!
Listen two cities. Don’t tell Kafka, I’ve turned into a city
Unyielding, aching and stymied. Forever looking inside.
A silently gregarious square tucked into my seams.
THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth: I admire the ambition of this poem, but it feels at times a bit strained. I’m having a hard time thinking of a speaker as a city. It may be my lack of imagination.
Dustin: I like the Kafka reference in the poem, and I am fond of "Bristling in the smog of hyperventilating rush hours." I wish the poem had more of those moments; maybe I would I have liked it more if it had of those moments. I feel the poem is forced at times.
Dana:This was one of my bottom picks this week. I just couldn’t get into the comparison between the cities and siblings, at least not the way it was done in this piece.
Guest Judge Matthew Hittinger: I enjoyed the metaphors of the half-sibling cities and the ultimate transformation of the speaker into a city (I love “Don't tell Kafka”). The poem started for me with “Brother Chicago, from my labyrinth...” and would suggest cutting those first five lines; the language wasn't as compelling to me as in the rest of the poem. I'd suggest a stronger title and dropping the caps at the head of each line as well. Strongest lines for me were the final three, but I felt overall the poem is really just a beginning and this version is the start of an exploration and comparison that you will fine-tune in subsequent revisions. The poem really sings when you get specifics like Woody Allen and Kafka in and I found I wanted less generic city-description like billboards (maybe give us what's on the billboards?) and freeways (reference specific ones like West Side Highway) and skylines, but more unique structures and architecture and urban layout that not only differentiate NYC and Chicago from each other but also really lets you know the identity of each.
I worry it’s too lazy to believe
everything happens for a reason.
That kind of faith is still-pond with damselflies
unfolding clear wings, each blue body a long,
thin dash of intrigue beyond the realm of human
suffering. They say, Admire me. Rest, you weary.
But some days the spirit in swaying reeds,
clasps me with kinder hands. Something whispers,
See, when the lost child stumbles from a thicket,
naked and dirty, offering the search party
his fist of raspberries.
THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth: Love this poem! My only quibble might be the prosaic flatness of the first two lines but the rest of the poem makes up for that ten-fold.
Dustin: I love the first two lines of this poem; they make a great beginning because they picque the reader's curiosity. I'm quite fond of "But some days the spirit in swaying reeds / clasps me with kinder hands. " I like this poem, but ut left me feeling like I missed something. Possibly another stanza in the middle?
Dana:This is one of my top poems this week. The metaphors work beautifully, especially the damselflies being compared to dashes of intrigue. And I am in love with the ending, that image of the child emerging after being lost.
Guest Judge Matthew Hittinger: Another one that seems to be reaching toward the sonnet form, and again 11 lines instead of 14 with the turn at line 7 and the stanza break here (perhaps this is the new sonnet? 11 instead of 14?). Strengths here include the repeated long EE sounds that in this poem support the anxiety of the speaker as she questions her sentiment about “everything happening for a reason;” and great metaphors: the image of the damselflies really struck me as a perfect way to make concrete the anxiety; and the image in the final lines of the lost child answers her questioning by such miraculous acts as not only the recovery of the lost child, but the child's act of offering raspberries on top of it, this image of not finding what was lost but having what was lost find us, and on top of it offering something perhaps we didn't know we were missing. I think the poem would benefit from a stronger, less abstract “theme” title and why not try to make this into a sonnet, which is often a perfect vehicle for a meditation or mini-essay in poetry. While the opening lines present a dilemma and then the poem goes on to explore two views of it, I kept returning to the language of those first lines and wanted more from “too lazy to believe” especially paired with such a weak, familiar language line as “everything happens for a reason.” The poem really picks up with the entrance of the damselflies, and it made me want more edge to those opening lines. I felt the same way about the opening lines of the second stanza: “spirit” and “clasps me with kinder hands” didn't do as much for me, but those reeds are gold: get more out of them if you can.