This is another episode of "Poetry? I just don't get it..."
A series where I post a poem or group of poems by one author, followed by anything the author wants to say about the work. (Other poets in the series can be found on the tab above.)
|Two Faint Lines in the Violet |
(Negative Capability Press, 2014)
This time around, the poetry of
I was reading her excellent first book,
(a 2014 Foreword Reviews' INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award finalist,
as well as a finalist for the Julie Suk Award for Best Poetry Book by an Independent Press),
a book that includes a series about the death of her father from cancer
and its relation to the toxic waste leaking from a now-decommissioned nuclear facility upriver from where he lived, and admired how each poem in the book informs the others, how the personal expands to include a much larger world.
I immediately wanted to post a poem from the book on the blog, but I also wanted to present the interconnections in the book, show how the poems work together. My first thought was to ask her for three poems...
|Glass Needles & Goose Quills|
It just so happened that she had just published a new book,
that intermingled prose and poetry. She sent me an excerpt and it was exactly what I was looking for…
So, instead of posting the poems first and ending with an explanation or essay, this round is an excerpt from her new book, where the poems are intermixed with explanations of how the poems came about.
Lissa Kiernan is the founder, executive director, and a teaching artist for the Poetry Barn, a literary center based in New York's Hudson Valley, sponsoring workshops, readings, craft talks, and book arts for all ages.
|Poetry Barn, West Hurley, NY|
Thanks to Lissa for letting me post these excerpts.
Without further ado:
Without further ado:
Glass Needles & Goose Quills:
in Atomic Properties,
Nuclear Families & Radical Poetics
Reconciling the strange bedfellows of poetry and polemics can result in artistic catastrophe and the protest poem is where they are just dying to hook up. Even Denise Levertov, the ultimate protest poet, in her 1981 essay, “On the Edge of Darkness: What is Political Poetry?” wondered whether “polemical content” can make for good poetry. She observed that prior to the advent of the printing press, poetry was an oral, communal experience. People welcomed a poem that concerned itself with politics as a decent way of getting the day’s news.
By 1620, though, Francis Bacon could write that typographical printing had “changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world.” Consequently, lyric poetry—perhaps the most personal mode—came to be more highly regarded than epic, dramatic, or satiric poetry, according to Levertov, encouraged by the novel's quickly growing affinity for the topics with which these non-lyric modes were traditionally concerned.
By 1955, poetry’s purview in matters of mass communication had all but been absolved, as William Carlos Williams observed:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
—excerpt from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” Journey to Love (1955)
ATOMS FOR PEACE
Three decades after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident halted all new reactor orders, President Barack Obama announced $8 billion in federal loan guarantees to build two new nuclear reactors in Georgia.
Five hours into jury pool, I am burned out
on poetry. What I am thirsty for is news.
O, MSNBC, guide me through
this inverted world, turned back
180 degrees on its stalk.
Enough of this crazy heat!
I feel impelled to speak today
in a language that, in a sense, is new.
I, too, would like a plan for clean,
safe energy. One which generates
jobs, ideally, since I am now six
paychecks behind. One that fills
in the pit of partisanship
with some sensible, recyclable waste.
Voir dire. To see them say. False
etymology. I see the president
say it. His lips, that is, are moving.
But how do I know that he believes,
with every atom, his axiom?
Whether he’s seen the burning
bush, the worried wind, the patient
sun? Just one. Who stands light-
rinsed for the cameras with the clarity of a star.
Levertov concludes her essay with the conviction that “whether these poems are good or not depends on the gifts of the poet, not on the subject matter.” Whatever poetic gifts I may have then possessed were being put severely to the test. Possibly seeking emotional distance, I initially chose write my protests as epistles, aka letters, in an archaic, semi-Elizabethan-era diction—the mask of a spiritual witness from a bygone era. When I shared one with my mentor, she told me that, to her ear, the speaker’s voice sounded comical. Not quite the effect I had been going for.
WHEREAS MY FATHER,
who was rarely ill in all his life, lay failing
in a bed shrouded white and verily said unto me:
knowst thou that my neighbor, too, has a brain sickness?
Wherefore he made his home a stone’s throw
down shady unpaved roads. Past the Eagle's
Nest, Salmon Ladder, and Hairpin
Turn, until at last a silver filament glinted
beside, more stream than river, more rill,
at summer’s peak, than stream. And it was good,
this radiant child of the Deerfield River.
He would sit atop a sturdy rock and watch the water
rise. Mark whence it heaved and whither
it sighed, and soon, it became habit to bathe there—
blind to what simmered upstream in sapphire
pools, heating grassy banks where children
dodged balls, turned cartwheels, played tag.
Where corn is tilled and squash blossoms. Milk-
Animals graze on brilliant greens, udders aglow
in the moon. And lo — one day my father’s brain-
films cast shadows and men in white coats
proclaimed: Rightfully, we do not know
from whence it came. It is possible it is genetic.
Furthermore, it may have been trauma.
We suspect, though, something in the environment.
Nevertheless, I wondered if humor—intentional humor, that is—might be a way to trick people into reading political poetry, specifically those poems concerning a nuclear power plant. I was beginning to realize I could use all the help I could get. An aging nuclear power plant is not nearly as “sexy” as a bomb. Ninety-nine percent of the poems I had unearthed in the nuclear canon concerned themselves with the prospect of nuclear war, not nuclear energy. Any factory, nuclear or otherwise is, at least to the untutored, the very definition of routine, tedium, boredom.
ITEMS OPENED, CLOSED, AND DISCUSSED
—NRC Inspection Report No. 50-029/2003-002
After declaring this item "An Official Agency Record," it
will/will not be released to the public.
My found poem “Items Opened, Closed, and Discussed,” from an NRC Inspection Report issued in December 2004, is on the one hand comical because someone saw fit to give nothingness a formal, agenda-like structure. However, it can also be read on another level: As a poem that bears witness to nothing when nothing could be less appropriate. The poem thus serves as a whisper-quiet protest.
The quietness of it is frightening—grotesque, even. I recently participated in a workshop that used Philip Thomson’s The Grotesque (1972) in its syllabus. The Grotesque outlines several functions of that style’s aesthetic: playfulness, experimentation, and a comic perspective to name a few. Thomson says:
"It is likely that the play-urge, the desire to invent and 'experiment' for its own sake, is a factor in all artistic creation, but we can expect this factor to be more than usually strong in grotesque art and literature, where the breaking down and restructuring of familiar reality plays such a large part."
DAD GETS ATOMIC WINGS
My idea of heaven? A place to hang and eat
good food that is, for the most part, bad for you.
Serves alcohol and a decent happy hour, too.
I don’t have to wait long in line. It's a calm
place, ideal for striking up conversation.
The wings are bomb, coming in six
stages of explosion. When I'm feeling sanguine,
I get them mild, medium, or hot.
When masochistic, I order the nuclear,
suicidal, or abusive. Food arrives within minutes:
crispy and conducive to detonating
on my tongue like a drunken Baryshnikov
on vacation. Now I can go atomic
without having to leave my home. Hark—
I hear the bell! My deliverance is at hand.
Since I had already been toying with the idea of using more humor in my poems, the grotesque immediately piqued my curiosity. My poem “Dad Gets His Atomic Wings” derives from experimentation with the grotesque as well as with found poetry, using many phrases that I lifted and tweaked from the official web site of the Atomic Wings franchise. While I still feel faintly embarrassed by the poem’s cartoonish take on the subject of my father’s death, I have to admit the take is unique and succeeds in being unsentimental. According to Poets.org, the Academy of American Poets website:
"The writer Annie Dillard has said that turning a text into a poem doubles that poem's context. 'The original meaning remains intact,' she writes, 'but now it swings between two poles.'"
Growing up, I wanted to become a veterinarian. I owned cats, turtles, hamsters, and a hermit crab. I took riding lessons and saw myself at the helm of a large-animal farm in Vermont one day, like my hero, James Herriot, pen name of veterinary surgeon James Alfred Wight, author of All Creatures Great and Small. When it came time to talk to my guidance counselor about future plans, he listened quietly, nodding at my story of finding an injured baby bird when I was six and, with my father’s assistance, pitching a tent in my backyard to set up a “practice.” He listened silently to all of it and, when I finished, leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms and legs, and said: “Well, sure. All little girls love horses.”
Casually, he went on to dismiss my dream job, citing its difficulty, the years of medical school, and the strong stomach it would take. But it was the phrase “All little girls” that gave me pause. I might have been young, but I instinctively recognized that I was being trivialized.
“Little Boy,” the name given the bomb that the United States dropped on Hiroshima, was also intended to minimize its scale—the scale of its horror. Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who focuses mostly on motivations for war in his and Richard Falk’s Indefensible Weapons: The Political and Psychological Case against Nuclearism (1991) believes that our instinct is to mitigate our anxiety about nuclearism’s dangers by minifying the language we use to speak about them:
"In calling them 'nukes,' for instance, we render them small and 'cute,'something on the order of a household pet… Quite simply, these words provide a way of talking about nuclear weapons without really talking about them."
—Lifton & Falk, as quoted in Nuclear Annihilation and Contemporary American Poetry, John Gery (1996)
During a lecture at Poets House in New York City, Michael Heller, a leading scholar of Objectivist poetics, spoke about Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust (2007), a collection based on verbatim transcripts of the Nuremberg Trials. Heller stated that Objectivists do not seek to impose a viewpoint on the reader but merely aim to make a record of something.
Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead (2003)—a series of poems portraying the story of the Hawk Nest Tunnel Disaster, a hydroelectric project in West Virginia—also contains several poems set in a courtroom. “Statement: Philippa Allen” transcribes a first-hand witness account of a social worker, and “The Disease” is a deposition of a doctor about employee incidents of silicosis, the disease caused by silicate dust in the mines.
Because the poems in The Book of the Dead involve injury and death resulting from an energy company’s irresponsibility and negligence, I saw them as natural precedent to the poems I was writing—or trying to write—about Yankee Rowe. Trying my hand at the Objectivist poetry method, I began lightly editing and lineating source texts culled from the Yankee Rowe archive, plundering inspection and industry reports, newspaper clippings, and minutes from town meetings, piecing them together as evidence.
FACILITY NAME: YANKEE ELECTRIC. FACILITY DESCRIPTION: POWER PLANT
The facility is a small nuclear power generation station,
the third built in the country and the first in New England.
Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn.
The facility stopped generation in 1992—
is being decommissioned.
The sheep's in the meadow, the cow's in the corn.
The facility is served by a single potable supply well (02G).
The original well was abandoned during the decommissioning.
Where is the boy that looks after the sheep?
Numerous local, state, and federal programs regulate activities
at the facility. Well 02G is approximately 280 feet deep,
Under the haycock, fast asleep.
set into sound bedrock beneath 246 feet of glacial till.
Parts of the facility include radiological storage.
Will you wake him? No, not I—
The Department determined the well located at the facility
to have a high vulnerability to contamination.
For if I do, he'll be sure to cry.
FACILITY (noun) definition of:
1. ease in performance
2. readiness of compliance
3. something (as a HOSPITAL) that is built, installed, or established to serve a particular purpose
Keith Harmon Snow:
“Facility” or “plant” is too neat, tidy, sterile. Nuclear “power” suggests strength and security. Nuclear “energy” sings of sunshine and children playing, not of what it really is: the harnessing of a nuclear bomb.
— “Nuclear Poisons,” Valley Advocate Newspapers (July 1995)
PLANT (noun) definition of:
1. a young tree, vine, shrub, or herb planted or suitable for planting
2. a factory or workshop for the manufacture of a particular product, also: POWER PLANT
PLANT (verb) definition of:
1. to put or set in the ground for growth
2. to covertly place for discovery, publication, or dissemination
3. to conceal
Citizens Awareness Network:
“NRC plans to close all Public Document Rooms in the country by year’s end, stifling democratic participation by communities concerned with contamination from their nuclear corporate neighbors.”
In “Facility Name: Yankee Electric. Facility Description: Power Plant,” I borrow text from a Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection report titled “Source Water Assessment and Protection Report for Yankee Atomic Electric Company.” After reading it, one mentor skillfully observed: “In a collection, it lets the industry and its watchdogs do the reporting, and the poet is like a good district attorney, reading the letters of the accused to the courtroom and then asking: ‘Do you recognize this letter?’”
Another mentor suggested that I weave in lines from a fairy tale or folk song to add lyricism to the industrial-speak. I settled on “Little Boy Blue” for its pastoral setting, not consciously realizing its suggestion of the Hiroshima bomb’s code name until she pointed it out to me.
The title, “Atoms for Peace,” and the sentence, “I feel the need to speak today in a language that in a sense is new,” are borrowed from a speech delivered by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to the UN General Assembly in New York City on December 8, 1953.
“Facility” incorporates text from Source Water Assessment and Protection (SWAP) Report for Yankee Atomic Electric Company, as well as a popular English-language nursery rhyme having a Round Folk Song Index number of 11318.
You can also purchase Lissa's books through the Citizens Awareness Network's (CAN) Amazon Smile Link, for sales on Amazon. CAN was key to the closing of Yankee Rowe Nuclear Power Plant.