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Fifty Poem Challenge
 Thimble Winter
24 February 2011

The sadism,
That this or that should attain,
As punishment for some crime.

Little Carthages we must sow with salt,
Should all our late Catos be heard.

Death to the greedy, the stupid, the caught -
No, cage him or her with a jury
Of the victim's peers.

May justice be done swiftly and
The stone of justice grind slow and fine.

Can we start again?
Can you reeducate me?

I betray myself as hate
Betrays us who speak it,
Whipped into our owned inaction.

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 My poems are a rather drear lot this year. I'll try to write about something happy once spring kicks in with some earnest. The dawn choruses always inspire me.

The departed, he ate so little
At the end,
But could be convinced
With some favourite food -
Peanut butter (only a little,
So hard to digest)
And cucumber, or a bit
Of chocolate -
The nurses liked that,
Made him thirsty -
Wouldn't drink water

They were all so vivid,
Our parents, back when
We friends first met.
But twenty some years on
(So hard to compute)
They're up in years.
And we deal now, unnursed,
With those old person issues.

Another father passed
Last week and I still
Feel too young, too fond
Of these favourite things,
Too convinced of a
Thinning, dry, youth.

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I wanted (usefully?) to ask
Did you get from it what you needed?

Of my friend who attended
A funeral yesterday.

Not a futile question,
But the day after you don't know.

The one just passed
Is still so alive, might telephone.

Scattering those few ashes
Doesn't change this state,

Says one too young (and safe)
To have attended too many.

In a month or a year, it will be
Of those who lived that day,

Not the (living one) mourned,
My mourning friend will recall.

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 I wrote most of this sometime late last year and gave it a more recent polish.

The origin had something to do with hearing accents on the World Service and more on BBC Radio 2 and 4, that most certainly were not the "BBC English" that English language teachers the world over have been taught to teach for decades.  On the one hand, as a purist this saddens me. On the other hand, the accents that thrill me on the radio far outnumber those that grate.

And then there's the matter that my own accent is a source of amusement to many of my English friends...

I'd taken on this prejudice
Against the Estuary
Accents and the Yorkshire.

'Geordie's okay,' one says,
'Because only a Geordie
Can penetrate it.'

I loved the English of old
Auntie Beeb
Because she sang langage
As I wanted it sung.

Other voices of my
Bicoastal youth, antennaless
All static to me.

I denigrate those dropped syllables
As posh London friends carp
On my Los Angeles vowels,
Wide as a river mouth
As they pour out.

But no,
The language sings itself to me
If I let it, wherever I hear.
Adjust my dials,
Transistor tilted just right.
All of it can sing,
From South to the grim Northeast.
And beyond.

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 Another meditation on childhood, I suppose. I fear that all the references are very personal, but maybe it speaks to a larger audience...

Far later than the knowledge
is of any use
Some realisations still offer peace -

One or another did far less
damage -
Sat far less at fault than believed.

I don't want to see him -
I abhor the acrid clench
of my stomach
when I'm with him.

But so many years too late -
Will your ashes accept
my apology?

Worse than that absorbed hate
sits the too late connection -
He didn't leave us -
You took us away.

All that hate for him
and the ones who came after -
What for?

All the extraneous
infatuation taken as some right
or reparation for an unwanted
Or for the uprooting you didn't want
Once you'd done it?

Someone always raises the other hand,
You don't realise you've hooked your own father
Until long past too late.
Your siblings did it too.

The decision to live for yourself
arrives when it will.
And refutes denial (I know).

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In 2010, I stalled out on poetry back in May. I'm going to try to balance the fiction and poetry this year. (Note, I also got married twice and will wed for a third time in April. Visit www.racheljoewedding.com for details.)

When It's Oiled and Cleaned

My poem pen rusted last year.
Fictions called (and other.diversions).

The nib clogged with unflowed ink,
But I had no shortage of words to utter,
No shortage of vows to fulfill,
Stories improvised,
Assertions, joys and atonements.

I start again silent,
Listening to the snowmelt, the pine needles.
The still bells dictate.

My pen rinsed, oiled, and dried;
Its reservoir refilled and ready
To transcribe what spills, scratching
What had spoiled
In the dammed stream of fog's revision.

Current Location: Otterburn
Current Music: Throbbing Gristle - Now

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I've been thumbing through Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons and found the following: "An elegant settlement a very elegant settlement is more than of consequence" (from the section labeled 'A Seltzer Bottle'). 

    To settle eloquently
though two may settle down
rendering the two open
to all consequences
settle eloquently to all
outward appearances
eloquently place each word
that its consequence

    Once the elegance has settled
And you wade through 
the very dust
eloquently settling

    Settling up subsequently
up with the past
pulling roots
once put down
in the very settlement's soil
soiled again

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You drove me down to a northern
Seaside - we climbed over tide pools
Eating rock and the low November
Sky complimented my retold youth -
The anemones of Laguna Beach
And the muddying water at our feet
Distracted from the incoming tide.

Composed, you told me my boots
Would have to come off.
My cityboy ignorance revealed itself,
"How long until the tide goes out again?"
As the sun drooped into the horizon.
You, pragmatic country girl guide,
"Too long to wait here."

And as the rocks submerge
Off came our boots.
Your laughter knew the confidence
Of a problem solved,
Mine edged in the mania
Of encroaching nature
Left safely behind.

So in our manic confidence,
We revealed ourselves,
Muddying the still waters
Each had presented to the other.
We spend such time alone
Polishing our mirrors
That none could see what we'd hidden beneath.

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 I did a one-day poetry workshop with a chap named Peter Diamond a few weeks ago. We started by choosing a place and what came to mind follows:

On the dead's gray side of the wall
Hangs a gray marble plaque to Max Brod
Opposite Franz Kafka's grave.
Turn around and look down
At the pebbles that accumulate, the candles,
The short pilgrims' notes atop the gray slab.

Who clears these away,
Leaves the slate clean for the next generation,
The latest artisans of hunger?

Turn back around.
The first one called
To clear the papers from Kafka's table
Refused the job.
Unseen close-typed pages fit,
Kafka told his friend,
Only for the furnace.

The rows of neat black stones at your back
Ask of us visitors, "Remember us".

And the hunger subsides each year
When we might say kaddish,
Stack the pebbles of memory into neat cairns,
Rearrange the ashes into clear instructions
We might follow finding our way.

As any mother or sister,
Kafka refused anonymity, desired namelessness.

As with any pain, he desired only forgetting.

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Inspired by David Peace's novel GB84, Billy Bragg and Shane MacGowan.

Where were you back in '84?
Numberless boots in stride
Or on cropped and blinkered horses
with truncheons 'gainst the strike.

My men and I we were sent up
To towns far from our homes
To escort scabs gone in the pits
From bottles bricks and stones

Did Scargill send you out before
The men in riot gear
Teargas and their rubber bullets
Ale to keep down the fear

My brethren and I we stood strong
Let no one down the mine
Arm in arm til the force they tore
Victory of ash and bone

No, you sat before your TV
Watched collier and police blood flow.
Did you take those edits for truth,
Actions just for your show?

Was Maggie so thoroughly malign
And Arthur so ruthless
To tear they eyes out of our unions
Leaving us gutless and blind?

We persist, some even say thrive
On little more than we should
With less air than we were used to
or oxygen to the blood.

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 Does anyone here have in their archives Michèlle T. Clinton and Wanda Coleman's Black Angels (New Alliance Records, NAR CD 031, 1988) - this was a spoken word album one side of which was dedicated to each of the poets. I had it on tape way back when and occasionally wish for it again. Yes, it's over 20 years old and long out of print, but, y'know. Some of you might be pack rats for this kind of thing.

American Sonnet (10)
by Wanda Coleman

after Lowell

our mothers wrung hell and hardtack from row
     and boll. fenced others'
gardens with bones of lovers. embarking
     from Africa in chains
reluctant pilgrims stolen by Jehovah's light
     planted here the bitter
seed of blight and here eternal torches mark
     the shame of Moloch's mansions
built in slavery's name. our hungered eyes
     do see/refuse the dark
illuminate the blood-soaked steps of each
     historic gain. a yearning
yearning to avenge the raping of the womb
     from which we spring



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We added this poison to every meal
With the salt and pepper so that it infused
All we spoke of and each task we performed.
"Does your father really think he can conceal"
Was one such spice used to sicken and confuse.

We didn't know what he thought but right answers
Kept the doses low so that they could expect
All we spoke of and each task we performed
Be done with the precision of a dancer
Under nourished, under spotlights and select.

Once we had parted, I could administer
The poison as well, thinking myself immune,
All I spoke of and each task I performed
Told me I was less me and less sinister
Than the poisoners with whom I'd communed.

Leaving and leaving taught me how to dispense
With the poison and to loathe the poisoner -
All I spoke of and each task I performed
Was suffused with my desire for recompense.
Of the dose and dance I remained prisoner.

The jar long empty, its label since faded
The first and previous poisoners long dead.
All they spoke of and each task they performed
Said and done well, my and their hungers sated,
I no more need remember all that they'd said.

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A Lesson.

Your eye and your hand know
     where the pen needs to go
     how to lay centers bare
     when to dig when to share

Far better than you do
     as children in the pew
     better than ministers
     parables register

Learn to step to the side
     whenever you shoot wide
     let your eye and your hand
     tell the arrow where to land

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Half-Done 13 Feb 2010

Always asleep with one eye open, I
Keep the middle of the night company.
I, holding no dread of those darkened hours
Wait, fill my nose with night-blooming flowers
And half dream of little part-earned delights.
As honeysuckles shut with the daylight,
I relax my nocturnal vigilance,
That demigod of my guarded moments.

Fogbound suns demand stereoscopic
Sight denied me in these northern tropics.
Tasting, feeling, I confound snow blindness,
Await sunsets denied by timeliness,
To carve its red beams with a cloud-honed knife
And return the embrace of night's half life.

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A Separation

'The irony seemed lost on him' she said,
'My past disqualified me even as
We screwed' and into dishonour he led
Himself, falling into his own morass.
'I'd only settle with someone as pure
As' the sister he'd brought here to marry
To one of the faithful, who'd not injure
What he'd been so gracelessly unwary
Of. 'I asked,' she said, 'his sister if she
Dated or drank.' Haughty inches she gained
With chin thrust - 'Some of us have self control.'
'I was sure at the time she was judging me.
He,' another's umbrella in the rain,
'Played, in her drama, the principal role.'

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Michelangelo: To Giovanni da Pistoia
"When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel" —1509

I've already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water's poison).
My stomach's squashed under my chin, my beard's
pointing at heaven, my brain's crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy's. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine's
all knotted from folding over itself.
I'm bent taut as a Syrian bow.

Because I'm stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.

My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.

(translated by Gail Mazur)


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In the episode of Neil Gaiman's Sandman entitled Calliope, Dream visits on a writer a never-ending stream of ideas as a punishment for having imprisoned the muse of the title. One of those ideas is "A sestina about silence using the key words dark, ragged, never, screaming, fire, kiss."  (The whole list can be found here.)


An older girl calling in the dark
Finds the forms of her favourite dolls, ragged
From underuse, shelved above her, never
Held. The sky bathes them in dust til, screaming,
She takes them down and walks to the fire,
Placing each on golden coals with a kiss.

Amid the dolls' silent burning, sparks kiss
The girl, leaping the guard into the dark
Before it. Ignoring what the fire
Spews, agitated over the ragged
Kindling, she quiets their becalmed screaming.
Until overtakes a noiseless never.

Her younger self clung to dolls that never
Preserved for themselves of her ageless kiss,
Nor turned their weighted eyes from her screaming.
Their lips wished only to move in the dark,
Puckered in speechlessness at her ragged
Reserve to pull her hands from the fire.

Speechless plastic judges at her fire,
No longer juried into the never
Of time's executioner's frayed and ragged
Robes. Her youngest self's ashes float and kiss
But dust motes whirling about in the dark,
Muted collisions to send her screaming.

Meanwhile's rebuttal against the screaming
Of before silences the green fire
Illuminating the clocks of the dark.
Until undertakes the sounds of never,
Bestows on each of its moments a kiss,
Motionless and calm, forelorn and ragged.

Older than her dolls, used to their
Dumb surrender and their crooked screaming
Uselessness, she finds in quiet a kiss
For herself, a path back from the fire,
From the freeholds of before and never
And from the embracelessness of the dark.

The wind in a stairless dark, its ragged
Whisps trailing never's toilless screaming
Voices the fire enabling its kiss.

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A Word Spoken by the Sunlight

Unable to see clearly - as though caught
In a short focal length.
Fantasists imagine ten thousand 
Universes - some bearing us
On high shoulders to bear witness
To the dragons that populate many - 
Or all but one.

Others fog their lenses, dull their pencils,
Move us along.
"Nothing to see here" - No,
You see it right there too -
Just out of focus, just out of sight.

Caliban never knew, or forgot too fast
How we mocked him.
But some from those ten thousand
Occasionally glimpse our planet Caliban
And I can only hope, having moved
Beyond mockery, they might pity
Our dearth of dragons.

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Courtesy of Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac:
It's the birthday of poet W.S. Merwin, born in New York City (1927)...He studied creative writing at Princeton University and often showed his poems to the poet John Berryman, then a graduate student. Merwin asked Berryman how to know if his poems were any good. Berryman replied, "You can't. You can never be sure. You die without knowing."; Merwin later included the lines in a poem.
I've been feeling this way a lot lately. Most of my poems this year have been some variation on 'formal' poetry, which, oddly, has enabled me to be a little bit lazy - reaching for the rhyme rather than enabling the emotion to shine through the words. I started a curtal sonnet a couple days ago, as suggested in poets_challenge, but it resisted me. I started a bit of free-form writing last night and am much happier with the start it's given. 
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One of the 24 2009 recipients of MacArthur Foundation Genius Grants, Heather McHugh (whose work I'd not previously read) produced this lovely ghazal:

Ghazal of the Better-Unbegun
by Heather McHugh

A book is a suicide postponed.

Too volatile, am I? too voluble? too much a word-person?
I blame the soup: I'm a primordially
stirred person.

Two pronouns and a vehicle was Icarus with wings.
The apparatus of his selves made an ab-
surd person.

The sound I make is sympathy's: sad dogs are tied afar.
But howling I become an ever more un-
heard person.

I need a hundred more of you to make a likelihood.
The mirror's not convincing-- that at-best in-
ferred person.

As time's revealing gets revolting, I start looking out.
Look in and what you see is one unholy
blurred person.

The only cure for birth one doesn't love to contemplate.
Better to be an unsung song, an unoc-
curred person.

McHugh, you'll be the death of me -- each self and second studied!
Addressing you like this, I'm halfway to the
third person.

(borrowed from poets.org)


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Oulipo seems an interesting school of writing, and one with which I had no familiarity before reading a bit about Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec. I'm looking forward to acquiring a copy of said novel, not to mention to playing around with various Oulipo constraints. Should be exciting.

And you, my poetic friends, will you share something of Oulipian inspiration? (A little more on Oulipo here.)

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I was directed to this fine page of Widgets to Cure Writer's Block,
On which I found a link to this list of 16 Writing Experiments,
In which is found the hint to write nothing but sestinas and pantoums for a month.

I know what sestinas are. I've written a couple. And villanelles too.

So I think a pantoum will be next. Not sure the subject matter. We'll see.

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I'm going to have to practice this form some more. The sevenling is explained here.

This one is very basic and not as evocative as some of the ones I've found. It's probable that the form might be better put to use in a cycle, rather than in a single 7-line form.

She preferred philosophical novels
In which characters die
With neither mourning, remorse nor reason.

Lovers who live for either
Love, lovelessness, or revenge.
Populate his poetry.

She wished him to compose her epitaph.

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