Poems of a Half-finished Heaven, with Tomas Tranströmer

I remember reading Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things mystified by the poet he returns to over and over again: I turn to him when I wish to come as close as possible to what cannot be said. 

“Two truths approach each other. One comes from within, one comes from without–and where they meet you have the chance to catch a look at yourself.”
— 
Preludes, Tomas Tranströmer

In the compilation Tomas Tranströmer: Selected Poems, 1954-1986 edited by Robert Haas, I dove right into his poetry as if getting to know a new lover.

It was a slow process as I read unfamiliar details of unfamiliar landscapes, unlike how I read poems by Rilke or Vuong. Reading their poems in the first few pages alone had me falling right into their depths. Their poems magnified their character.

Reading Tranströmer on the other hand was a lot like roaming vast and empty fields, until you chance upon a small house in the clearing — obscure but undeniably reassuring.

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I read each line and each poem dutifully, slowly getting used to his rhythm. But it wasn’t until I got to The Half-Finished Heaven was I finally able to understand why Teju turned to him.

It is in the small details of life, the tiniest gestures that we can draw the most essential. I loved how he was able to weave natural elements in ways that begets a deeper consciousness of our humanity, as he did in Stones (photo above) and in Late May (photo below). In poem after poem, Tomas made this evident.

late-may

In his poem How the Late Autumn Night Novel Begins, he writes about wandering in a forest late at night, marveling at its peculiar beauty: “Next morning I see a sizzling golden-brown branch. A crawling stack of roots. Stones with faces. The forest is full of abandoned monsters which I love.”

Reading his poems was also at times a spiritual experience. Lulled by imagery and a deep appreciation for life around him, I was reminded of the little things that make for a fruitful life.

He was also melancholic in some, eliciting the kind of tenderness evident with Vuong’s poetry. In Answers to Letters, I could almost imagine the poet poring over what he had in his hands and both reminisce and resign himself to the ether.

answer

Tomas Tranströmer: Selected Poems, 1954-1986 is a great introduction to Tomas’s work and I have so much gratitude for the translators and the editors who made the compilation possible.

It’s enough to compel me to delve deeper into his body of work.

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book

Tomas Tranströmer: Selected Poems, 1954-1986
Edited by Robert Haas
April 9, 2000
Ecco (208 pages)

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The Inevitability of Ocean Vuong’s Poetry

His face between my hands, wet as a cut.
If we make it to shore, he says, I will name our son after this water.
I will learn to love a monster. He smiles.
— “Immigrant Haibun”

51t5rbcccgl-_sx365_bo1204203200_To be named after vast waters is an immense weight, but Ocean Vuong’s poetry in Night Sky with Exit Wounds ripples, sends waves across the body, across time.

Living at a time when queer contemporary poets are publishing their work has been life-giving. Over the past years, the work of Saeed Jones, r. erika doyle and Danez Smith have suffused harsh nights with tenderness, long days with joy.

Ocean’s poetry reminds me of Warsan Shire’s in Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth where the self is in constant rhythm with flight — of leaving and arriving, of reliving and remembering. Both poets grappled the afflictions of war throughout their writing — from Vietnam, Somalia.

In Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Ocean carries the stories of his parents seeking refuge away from Hanoi. His father is a constant subject, navigating political and emotional terrains. I remember reading “Telemachus” with a profound longing to reach through time and understand the visceral loss of a son, entwined with his father.

Like any good son, I pull my father out
of the water, drag him by his hair

through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail
the waves rush in to erase. Because the city

beyond the shore is no longer
where we left it. Because the bombed

cathedral is now a cathedral
of trees. I kneel beside him to see how far

I might sink. Do you know who I am,
Ba?
But the answer never comes. The answer

is the bullet hole in his back, brimming
with seawater. He is so still I think

he could be anyone’s father, found
the way a green bottle might appear

at a boy’s feet containing a year
he has never touched. I touch

his ears. No use. I turn him
over. To face it. The cathedral

in his sea-black eyes. The face
not mine — but one I will wear

to kiss all my lovers good-night:
the way I seal my father’s lips

with my own & begin
the faithful work of drowning.

A few months ago, I read and wrote a book review of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. What little I knew of the Vietnam War expanded as I dove deep in the sometimes hysterical, sometimes maniacal narrative of Viet’s main character, a half-French half-Vietnamese sleeper spy. While genres, voice and format differ, the Vietnam War left a significant imprint on everyone and everything it touched.

He reveals the semiotics of memory, the traces of war on the body. (To transcribe the poem in the blog would not suffice, here’s “In Newport I Watch My Father Lay His Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back” straight from the book:) Continue reading

Sunday Spotlight: 5 Queer Poets of Color You Need to Know

There’s nothing like queer poets of color who can speak truth to power, paint the most intimate landscapes, reach the most vulnerable parts of us and simultaneously make us swoon / ache. The recent deaths of 49 queer Latinx and Black familia in Orlando cannot impair resilience — it will continue to light up the deepest tunnels where hatred and violence live, the way poetry illuminates and gives life to things we are often afraid to say.

In the face of racism, homophobia and xenophobia, here are five queer poets of color you need to know:

Denice Frohman is an award-winning poet and educator, whose work explores the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and the “in-betweeness” that exists in us all. She is the 2013 Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion, 2014 CantoMundo Fellow, 2013 Hispanic Choice Award, and 2012 Leeway Transformation Award recipient. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post and the forthcoming book, Jotas: An Anthology of Queer Latina Voices.

Saeed Jones received his MFA from Rutgers University – Newark and is a 2011 Pushcart Prize nominee. His work has appeared in publications like Hayden’s Ferry Review, StorySouth, Jubilat & The Collagist. He is a regular contributor to Ebony.com & Lambda Literary. His chapbook When the Only Light is Fire is available from Sibling Rivalry Press. He’s received fellowships from Queer / Arts / Mentorship as well as Cave Canem.

Nikky Finney was born by the sea in South Carolina and raised during the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Arts Movements. She began reading and writing poetry as a teenager growing up in the spectacle and human theatre of the deep South. At Talladega College she began to autodidactically explore the great intersections between art, history, politics, and culture. These same arenas of exploration are ongoing today in her writing, teaching and spirited belief in one-on-one activism. She is the author of four books of poetry, On Wings Made of Gauze, RICE, The World Is Round, and Head Off & Split, which won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2011.

Ocean Vuong is the author of Night Sky With Exit Wounds (2016), winner of the 2016 Whiting Award. A Ruth Lilly fellow from the Poetry Foundation, Ocean has received honors and awards from Poets House, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, the Academy of American Poets, and a Pushcart Prize. His poetry and fiction have been featured in Kenyon Review, The Nation, New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Poetry, and the American Poetry Review, which awarded him the Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets.

Danez Smith is the recipient of a 2014 Ruth Lilly & Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from Poetry Magazine & The Poetry Foundation. He is also the recipient of fellowships from the McKnight Foundation, Cave Canem, VONA, & elsewhere. Danez is the author of [insert] Boy (YesYes Books, 2014) & the chapbook hands on ya knees (Penmanship books, 2013). Danez is the winner of the 2014 Reading Series Contest sponsored by The Paris-American & was featured in The Academy of American Poets’ Emerging Poets Series by Patricia Smith.

This Pride season — in memory of the 49 queer Latinx and Black lives lost, in memory of the lost lives of Black transwomen, in memory of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson — we vow to fight against cultures of violence and systems of oppression. May their souls keep on dancing, may they rest in power.

Happy Pride!

Sunday Spotlight: Poetry for the Workers

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Mural in Santa Mesa, Philippines

May 1st is International Workers’ Day, a symbolic day to commemorate, celebrate and continue the struggles of workers around the world. Currently, it is celebrated in 80 countries including Nigeria, Egypt, India and Chile, and it is also celebrated widely in the Philippines where a labor group has named themselves Kilusang Mayo Uno (May 1st Labor Movement).

It is not, however, an official holiday in the United States. In fact, Labor Day was moved to September prompting many to call the move a whitewashing. Unbeknownst to many is how the commemoration of the Haymarket Square Riot in Chicago back in 1886 is also central to May 1st:

On May 4, 1886, a labor protest rally near Chicago’s Haymarket Square turned into a riot after someone threw a bomb at police. At least eight people died as a result of the violence that day. Despite a lack of evidence against them, eight radical labor activists were convicted in connection with the bombing. The Haymarket Riot was viewed a setback for the organized labor movement in America, which was fighting for such rights as the eight-hour workday. At the same time, the men convicted in connection with the riot were viewed by many in the labor movement as martyrs. (Source: History.com)

To celebrate and commemorate the rich history of workers who have paved the way for humane working conditions, and for those who are still continuing the struggle, I’ve compiled some poems which offer depth, racial history and perspective of workers then and now.

* * *

The first poem is from a Marxist collection of poetry, an anthology published for The Workers Party of America. I’ve never heard of this party before, although a quick search on Google shows that it was the “legal organization for the Communist Party of the USA.” Communist or not, the collection of poems stirs the reader, evokes strength as they “center upon the life, struggles and revolutionary movement of the working class.”

We Have Fed You All For a Thousand Years
Poem—By an Unknown Proletarian

We have fed you all, for a thousand years
And you hail us still unfed,
Though there’s never a dollar of all your wealth
But marks the worker’s dead.
We have yielded our best to give you rest
And you lie on crimson wool.
Then if blood be the price of all your wealth,
Good God! We have paid it in full.

The next poem is by the Black poet Langston Hughes, a Harlem Renaissance figure whose work I’ve come to love. Although his work was deemed by many as controversial, the grit of his poems on workers has contributed to a body of literature that is often missing. He states that his poetry is for “workers, roustabouts, and singers, and job hunters on Lenox Avenue in New York, or Seventh Street in Washington or South State in Chicago—people up today and down tomorrow, working this week and fired the next, beaten and baffled, but determined not to be wholly beaten, buying furniture on the installment plan, filling the house with roomers to help pay the rent, hoping to get a new suit for Easter—and pawning that suit before the Fourth of July.

Open Letter to the South
Langston Hughes

White workers of the South
Miners,
Farmers,
Mechanics,
Mill Hands,
Shop girls,
Railway men,
Servants,
Tobacco workers,
Sharecroppers,
GREETINGS!

I am the black worker,
Listen:
That the land might be ours,
And the mines and the factories and the office towers
At Harlan, Richmond, Gastonia, Atlanta, New Orleans;
That the plants and the roads and the tools of power.

The next poem I chose is written by Joseph O. Legaspi, a poet born in the Philippines who migrated to Los Angeles when he was 12. As a Filipino myself, I found this poem of his — its details vivid, its theme familiar — an ode not just for his own mother, but for many immigrant mothers.

The Red Sweater
Joseph O. Legaspi

slides down into my body, soft
lambs wool, what everybody
in school is wearing, and for me
to have it my mother worked twenty
hours at the fast-food joint.
The sweater fits like a lover,
sleeves snug, thin on the waist.
As I run my fingers through the knit,
I see my mother over the hot oil in the fryers
dipping a strainer full of stringed potatoes.
In a twenty hour period my mother waits
on hundreds of customers: she pushes
each order under ninety seconds, slaps
the refried beans she mashed during prep time,
the lull before rush hours, onto steamed tortillas,
the room’s pressing heat melting her make-up.
Every clean strand of weave becomes a question.
How many burritos can one make in a continuous day?
How many pounds of onions, lettuce and tomatoes
pass through the slicer? How do her wrists
sustain the scraping, lifting and flipping
of meat patties?           And twenty

hours are merely links
in the chain of days startlingly similar,
that begin in the blue morning with my mother
putting on her polyester uniform, which,
even when it’s newly-washed, smells
of mashed beans and cooked ground beef.

The final poem featured tells the unfortunate and haunting story of Xu Lizhi, a Chinese factory worker who committed suicide. Lizhi moved from a Chinese province to the city where he worked at Foxconn, the company that manufactures iPhones. The Washington Post states that his poems are “a wrenching echo of the alienation and hardship felt by countless people in modern China and, for that matter, in other parts of the developing world. They lament the grinding ennui of the assembly line, the squalor of a migrant worker’s narrow, frustrated existence.”

(Untitled)
Xu Lizhi

I swallowed a moon made of iron
They refer to it as a nail
I swallowed this industrial sewage, these unemployment documents
Youth stooped at machines die before their time
I swallowed the hustle and the destitution
Swallowed pedestrian bridges, life covered in rust
I can’t swallow any more
All that I’ve swallowed is now gushing out of my throat
Unfurling on the land of my ancestors
Into a disgraceful poem.

* * *

Together, these poems weave a historical and contemporary narrative of workers that has continued to transcend borders. Buried by the current political rhetoric and ignored by the loudest media mouthpieces of our time, it is ever more important to pay tribute to their struggles. To honor the workers who have tried to shift the shape of an unjust world for many, for those of us who were raised and taught by their calloused hands, we breathe in their history, and remember their beauty through poetry.

Muse if You Must: The Power of Women’s Poetry

For women, then, poetry is not luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.

Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

I first read Audre Lorde’s essay Poetry is Not a Luxury a few years ago and knew at that moment: the “quality of light” she referred to was exactly what propelled me as young child to turn to poetry.

I don’t think I owned a book of poetry until I was much older. I also don’t remember the first poem I ever read. My mom said that my birthday cards to her consisted of drawings with poems, but I’m not sure if they actually were or I was just being liberal with spacing.

As soon as you’re eight years old in my old elementary school, you had the option of joining a club for extracurricular activities. I joined the school paper, The Blue Quill. It must’ve been through TBQ that my interest for poetry was nurtured, exchanging naps during siesta time with a pen and paper. Continue reading