“The Unwritten Books”: Best of National Poetry Month
As National Poetry Month draws to a close, here are some of the Artsweek staff’s favorite poems!
“Looks Like a Boy” by Jamaal May
Why do guns look so phallic and why are almost all mass shooters male? Jamaal May’s poem ‘Looks Like a Boy’ reveals guns as sexual entities that give the shooter a sense of power and invincibility instead of mere pieces of metal fused together with bullets pocketed inside . The relationship between a firearm and its owner often has sexual implications, and firearms – being violent in nature – give their user a dangerous perception of sex and the consequences that flow from it. The users are most often men, revealing the inextricable link between masculinity and sexual violence. May describes this connection using a variety of figurative language throughout her poem, including a trope of teenagers and implied diction in relation to sexual violence.
“Requiem for the Spanish Dead” by Kenneth Rexroth
“I see the books unwritten, the experiences unrecorded / The pictures unpainted, the lives cut short / Lowered into the graves with the red flags on them,” poet Kenneth Rexroth wrote in his poem “Requiem for the Spanish Dead”. It’s a stunning meditation on the human loss and brutality of the Spanish Civil War. In my mind, Rexroth is one of the unsung heroes of 20th century literature. Surprisingly, he briefly taught two courses at UC Santa Barbara in the late 1960s and lived in Santa Barbara until his death in 1982. What is striking about Rexroth is the simplicity of his language and his image control. Rexroth was an avid outdoorsman and would make repeated trips to the Sierra Nevada mountains throughout his life. This personal aspect of Rexroth’s life is found in the first stanza of the poem, “The Great Geometric Winter Constellations / Rise above the Sierra Nevada”. There’s a striking vividness to ‘Geometric Winter Constellations’ that is both mysterious and mystifying – yet familiar. The first stanza places Rexroth as the subject in the poem gazing at the stars of the Sierra Nevada before moving on to the commotion in Spain. This first moment of zen is interrupted by the chaos of war. At the end, Rexroth returns to the comfort of the stars, “Voice after voice adds to the song / Orion moves west through the meridian / Rigel, Bellatrix, Betelgeuse, marching in order / The great nebula twinkling in his kidneys.”
“Behold the Beehive” by Sarah Crossan
Sarah Crossan’s first adult prose novel, “Here Is the Beehive,” is a masterclass in changing in no time. Due to the novel’s short and jerky writing style, ordinary everyday activities are juxtaposed among the most emotionally devastating ideas. The novel is about Ana, an insurance agent, and the affair she has with her client Connor. When Connor suddenly dies, Ana and Connor’s wife Rebecca grows closer, the depth of their relationship was never known to Rebecca. The book jumps back and forth between past and present, with the scenes of Ana and Connor together so gory that Ana’s grief for him is justified (“You pressed your nose into my neck and inhaled.’ I could breathe you forever, Ana. / I could live off this on my own.'”) When Connor dies, Ana becomes increasingly distraught as she walks away from her husband and children, sinking deeper into the hole Connor left behind. Befriending Rebecca and babysitting her children, she walks up to Connor’s office and smells his keyboard, desperate for any sign of him. Their relationship skyrocketed to intensity, and his death did nothing to stop Ana’s memory of their time together. “Every time we made love, your hands in my hair,” Ana says, “your mouth on my collarbones, your breath in my ears, / I wanted to break the world to keep you. / I would have given up everything. Each individual sentence in this novel about grief and longing is a punch in the gut; one minute you’re in love, the next you’re falling flat on your stomach, understanding and coming to terms with Ana’s behavior over time.
“Gardens of Babur, Kabul” by Aria Aber
One of my favorite qualities in Aria Aber’s poetry is how she captures mundane, everyday experiences in extraordinary circumstances. In her poem “Gardens of Babur, Kabul,” she writes, “People still go to lunch / During a war, can you believe it? There’s something obvious about the “people are still going to lunch” line. Of course, people go to lunch every day, but this image is immediately disturbed by the following sentence: “In a war, can you believe it?” The daily action of people going to lunch becomes a horrifying realization that they are doing so in a war zone. Violence and tragedy are not said in these lines, but they are there. Not so long ago, I was discussing this poem with a friend, and I found that this delicate interplay, this balance between everyday beauty and tragedy, were, in my eyes, the qualities of a great poet. . I think Aber does it so well in this poem and in his poetry as a whole. The whole poem is filled with these transcendent lines of delicacy, such as “In the walled garden, surrounded by cold marble / and rows of sanctioned lime trees, I grow” and “My eye is a slow thief, it stops”. Aber packs so much into his lines.
“Flowers of the Volcano” by Claribel Alegría
In my mind, Claribel Alegría is not just one of the great Salvadoran-Nicaraguan poets. Not just one of the great Central American poets, nor one of the great Latin American poets. She is one of the great poets of the world. While most of his poetry centered around the sights and sounds of the Central American isthmus, his work transcends localities and time. In her poem “Flowers of the Volcano”, Alegría reflects on the fractured state of her beloved Central America. For much of the 20th century, Central America was a region in a perpetual state of war. As is apparent from most Salvadoran poems, memory is a common trope. She opens the poem with “Fourteen volcanoes rise / in my country that I remember / in my mythical country”. Remembering is often difficult after war. It is easier to forget the horrors of war than to face them. But remember the horror she makes in this poem, when she writes: “Who said that my country was green? / It’s redder, grayer, more violent. This line does not refer directly to the ongoing civil wars in Central America, which it does later in the poem. “The dead guerrilla / and the thousand betrayed faces, / the children watching / so they can talk about it,” she wrote. Here we have images of a country at war. The dead guerrillas leave behind thousands of children. The last line of this quote anticipates the cultural and historical oblivion that has become a central theme in contemporary Salvadoran poetry. These children never talk about dead soldiers or the war.
A version of this article appeared on p. 8 of May 5, 2022, print edition of Daily nexus.