Molly Reid: Lately, I’ve been interested in the way I—and perhaps other non-poets—read poetry. How might a fiction writer look at a poem differently than a poet? What do I seek in a good story, and how might that translate to a poem? (Do I need some kind of narrative arc? Lovely language? Image? Surprise?)
Reading submissions for The Cincinnati Review this semester, I’ve had to confront some of these questions, as we’re required to read both poetry and fiction (as well as nonfiction). Having never taken a poetry class, I was at first really uncomfortable with this. I felt unequipped to judge without the kind of rigorous critical apparatus I have for fiction. But after a few weeks, I settled in a bit. Though I may not always be able to name the form or rhyme scheme the poet is using or even completely understand what the poem is trying to do, I feel confident in saying whether or not a given piece works for me—the same way I can judge a nice brie from a rubbery cheddar. (I let the editorial staff parse the finer details; thank god they’re reading behind me.)
Along these lines, I thought it might be fun to take a look at a poem that spoke to me in the latest issue, Donika Ross Kelly’s “Acheron,” to try and examine the process of fiction-writer-reading-poem. Or ignorant-pleasure-seeking-individual-reading-poem. Not a deep critical analysis but a kind of casual aesthetic anatomy.
“Acheron” begins with the lines “This the season men were turned to trees—/ the formula simpler than we initially imagined.” This is exactly the kind of opening I like in fiction: an imaginative leap, a strangeness, not to mention the compression of language. There’s the obvious hook—men turning into trees—though it’s the “season” here that really wins me over. It indicates a time limit, a particular container, retrospection. Even a nostalgia. Then that second line (“the formula simpler than we initially imagined”). What formula? How could it be simple? Who is “we”? And what (and why) did this we imagine what they imagined?
Such a beginning prompts a string of questions that—were this a story—would most likely get answered in some fashion. In the poem, however, none of these questions is answered (with the exception, maybe, of “the formula”: “The stiffened limb and rooting feet, the slow/ crawl of bark over skin; the god mourning/ a man now hidden.” Well, not answered so much as jerked around a little, like contents under pressure.)
I love this space—it makes me want to use words like liminal and hybridity. Why are we always trying to solve problems in fiction, find answers? It makes me consider how there should be more of poetry’s trouble-making and question-asking in my own fiction. And also, most definitely, more men turning into trees.
Eric Van Hoose: Ghost stories tend to hinge on the question of the ghost’s existence. Either the figment is real or it isn’t, and story’s purpose is to find the answer. But from the first moments of Leslie Entsminger’s “The Brief Second Life of Winston Whithers’s Wife,” when the spirit of Winston’s dead wife—initially haunting his bed—calls him an asshole, it’s clear that this is a different kind of ghost story. Ghosts are definitely present, inhabiting coffee grinders, violins, dildos, vacuums, and their hauntings are circumscribed by expensive, legally binding contracts drawn up and sold by the Church of Inanimate Possession (which, we learn, has branches “everywhere”).
Though most ghost stories test the limits of plausibility and reader credulity—Are there no rules? Are we meant to take this seriously?—in Entsminger’s hands, the paranormal world is no excuse for license. The story sets strict rules and takes them seriously.
Entsminger’s ghosts are profoundly constricted, confined, and through observing the details of this limited kind of embodiment, we see the impoverishment and, simultaneously, the beauty of the bodies we all haunt.
When you’ve begun where most ghost stories finish, when the hauntees are aware of the circumstances and can, as Winston does, verify the relevant contractual details (haunting length, senses involved, instructions for inhabiting different objects), where do you have left to go?
A lot of places, it turns out, and it’s that sense of plunging into the unknown, entering unexplored territory and becoming subject to all kinds of genuine surprise, that is part of the pleasure.
Ghost stories can frighten, agitate, linger. They can make us wonder if something is there after we’ve turned off the light. In short, like all good works of art, they can add something to our realities. But until I read “The Brief Second Life of Winston Whithers’s Wife,” I didn’t know ghost stories could make me think about love, about kindness, about how our lives are saturated with beauty, about what it means to unplug my toaster. This story is so powerfully affecting because its ghosts are never the point. Instead we get lonesomeness, objects seen anew, insight about human relationships, aging, grieving, and what it means to care for things and for each other. Chloris’s second life might be brief, but for those who read Entsminger’s account of it, her story it is sure to live on for a long, long time.
Antechamber – Joshua Coben*
The father is a dark door
the son may lean against
to listen for the locked room
of himself, his next life.
Later he will listen there
for the echo of his own
death. Meanwhile he becomes
a dark door for someone
else. It takes him years
to grow so broad and smooth,
so wooden and closed. He does
not feel the ear of his son
pressed close and listening.
José Angel Araguz: The best poems have an ability to refresh our everyday world, and even have us looking closer at how we define that world. In “Antechamber,” Joshua Coben uses the metaphor of a door to inhabit ideas of being locked out and bring them into the emotional realm of familial roles. The speaker’s straightforward tone charges the short lyric with the certitude of allegory; meanwhile, what develops within that allegory is made up of the uncertain. This back-and-forth movement creates a tension that evokes the restlessness born out of what is unspoken. When so much of human experience is made up of listening at the “door” of one another, poems like this one help us to make sense of what we catch.
Speaking of doors, this poem had me thinking also of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions. He is typically portrayed as having two faces, one looking to the future while the other looks to the past. Coben’s poem taps into this simultaneity; the speaker’s meditation, in a way, is a statement on how self is made up only in part of social roles, and never strictly defined by them.
A similar sentiment is expressed by Tyler Durden in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club:
You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis. You’re the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.
Taken on their own, these words work on the other side of the spectrum Coben’s poem inhabits. The impetus is the same – a brief exploration/explanation of what the self is – but Palahniuk’s character engages ideas of self through being heard rather than through listening.
The poem and novel’s messages meet on the page, itself a “dark door” where the reader listens in.
*reprinted with permission from the author. Originally published in issue 12.2.
Rochelle Hurt: In music, riffing usually refers to a method of composition in which a single element (like a series of notes in a specific order) is repeated, sometimes changing slightly with each new iteration, in order to form a pattern—though riffing is often improvisational. It’s a technique common to poetry as well. For example, anaphora (the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of each line) can be understood as a linguistic riff, as can internal rhyme, repetition, alliteration, assonance, and consonance.
In her prose poem from issue 12.2, Cindy Beebe riffs on the turn of phrase “make no bones about it,” which serves as the poem’s title. She jumps right in with an extension of the title, “Not one single bone,” and then elaborates using “bone/s” as her riffing point and reintegrating the word “make”: “Make soup, if you like, though bones in the soup are not allowed. Even nice, fat ham bones, with ham bits on them.” In this brand of crafted spontaneity, repeated words and sounds become bridges to new phrases or ideas. Later in the poem, “make” and “bones” return to set off the following chain of sonic events: “Make no bones that float. Or sink, either. Make hay, rather. Make barley, alfalfa, the cows will love you. The cows will bow to you in one smooth, synchronous plié. A little cow ballet.” The progression here is not narrative, nor even logical in a traditional sense—rather, Beebe’s movement seems to be guided by an associative logic. This is a form of play, of course, but it is serious in its linguistic endeavors.
The author describes her process as a means of finding new life in worn out language: “Idioms have always fascinated me. I marvel at how they are able to retain their place in our language, sometimes for centuries, long after their origins are forgotten. If we were to look at them with our eyes open, as though we were children again, what new things might we see in them? What old things might we see differently? Writing “Make No Bones about It” was sort of like milking an old, familiar cow to find out what she might still be worth.”
While Beebe’s riffs do not form a predictable pattern, they are tied together. In this way, the poem forms an expansive network of meaning and connotation with a single idiom at its center. Each individual phrase or idea acts as a lateral extension of meaning from that center, and this allows them to cross back and forth over one another: “Such as whoopee. Such as in the morning, when you are floating still in your little boat of sleep, and the other skin, the skin that isn’t yours, comes drifting over into your own sleepy flesh. And there is this mesh like a dream you dream together. Dreams of whoopee, lots of whoopee.”
This lateral structure is precisely what makes the prose form perfect for Beebe’s poem. The prose block here is a wide plane on which this network of meanings can unfold, expanding outward rather than moving forward down the page in a linear fashion. Additionally, the condensed form supports Beebe’s associative leaps. The breathing space that would be provided by line breaks is not required here, where the reader is whisked quickly from one riff to the next—so quickly, in fact, that when one arrives finally back at the poem’s title phrase, “make no bones about it,” the arrival feels both astonishing and inevitable.
(The opening guitar riff from Sleater-Kinney’s “Dig Me Out” is one of my favorite earworms.)
Anonymous crawled down a muddy slot in the earth
to put red handprints
on the cave wall, Anonymous who painted the Crab Nebula
onto a rock ledge and translated the winter wind
into black ink
on vellum, Anonymous the unknown
worker, toiler in darkness, craftsman with a name
drowned in shadow. All our works are but footnotes to the creations
José Angel Araguz: So begins Jay Leeming’s “Stolen from the Cries of Ravens and the Red Smell of the Wind,” a poem whose main themes are the evolution of art both as process and as instinct, and the way in which all of mankind’s material accomplishments mean nothing in the teeth of wind and time.
Y’know, light stuff.
In all seriousness, though, there is a deftness to the lyric voice in this poem that keeps the reader engaged and the narrative fluid despite the big concepts driving it. As Leeming’s poem traces ideas of ancestry from the get-go, I cannot help but read into the poem a kind of poetic ancestry, other poems that this poem seems to point back to and be kin with.
The first that came to mind was “Hands” by Robinson Jeffers, which starts:
Inside a cave in a narrow canyon near Tassajara
The vault of rock is painted with hands,
A multitude of hands in the twilight, a cloud of men’s palms, no more,
No other picture…
These opening lines echo Leeming’s. Both poems make use of the image of handprints, but where Jeffers reads into it a connection to earlier humanity and life, Leeming takes the symbol of the hand to begin a meditation on the artistic process. His “Anonymous” is fast at work in the first stanza, throughout time and mediums. When the speaker of Leeming’s poem says “All our works are but footnotes” to the work of Anonymous, he is acknowledging the precedent and connection to Anonymous via art, as if each new artwork was a way for an artist to turn and face those that came before and raise a hand in greeting.
I find another poetic “ancestral” link via the layout of the poem. Noting how it is structured in eight-line stanzas on the page, I immediately thought of Lord Byron’s “Don Juan,” a carnival of a poem that doles itself out in the eight line stanza known as ottava rima. Beyond sheer number count, where Byron and Leeming meet is in ambition. Byron’s poem is a favorite of mine not for sheer virtuosity (though hundreds upon hundreds of rhymed stanzas is no small feat) but for the elasticity Byron is able to work into his lyrical line, a line able to hold politics, myth, literary criticism, and humor.
Leeming accomplishes a similar feat as he moves from meditating on the “early works” of Anonymous to casting an eye to our contemporary world:
…So short a journey
from runes carved on a ship’s bow to egg tempera
on a walnut board, from manuscripts illuminated with the colors
of crushed acorns to a thirty-foot-high poodle
constructed of pink birthday balloons
and neon-green hubcaps.
As Leeming’s poem comes to its conclusion, the speaker tells us of a tribe “whose every member/ was born blind” and:
who out of the cries of ravens
and the red smell of the wind carved a spiraling labyrinth of skewed huts
and towers crafted only in jubilant answer to the visions
of the inner eye…
This image of a blind people creating in the dark returns us to the opening note of the poem, back to Anonymous and how little we know of the humans inhabiting that era aside from what they left on a cave wall. Reading these lines, the reader is once again before Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “traveler from an antique land,” who tells us about Ozymandias and his ruins. But where Ozymandias, that “king of kings,” asks us to “Look on my works, ye Might, and despair!,” Anonymous’s call, according to the last line of Leeming’s poem, is to create art despite the knowledge that it will be “…scattered to all the thousand/corners of the air where no hand or eye will ever find it again.”
Caitlin Doyle: Russian playwright Anton Chekhov famously advised writers that a gun introduced in the first act should always go off in the second. Poet Brandon Amico aims his gun in the opposite direction: “In my book of distances a bullet fired / on page thirty-seven pricks the reader’s / thumb on six.” Amico deftly blurs the line that separates the universe inside of his “book of distances” from the world of his poem, in which the mysterious book has been figuratively placed. We can never be sure whether something will stay within the book’s covers or break though (like the thumb-pricking bullet) to penetrate the many boundaries that Amico tests—between poem and book, past and present, reader and words, self and other.
On a first encounter, “Book of Distances,” with its wild leaps and surprising juxtapositions, might discomfit a person accustomed to experiencing language as a linear and narrative medium. Yet the poem never alienates such a reader. What I admire about Amico’s work here is that the piece rewards both seasoned poetry-lovers familiar with navigating associative modes and readers who come to poetry in pursuit of more basic pleasures. By placing an imagined book inside of a poem, one form of written artifice inside of another, he asks us to reconsider the relationship between art and creator. He also spurs us to reflect on our own relationship to artistic works and those who make them. “Book of Distances” embraces difficulty and eludes easy understanding, even while inviting us into a world alive with images that we can see, touch, hear, smell, and above all, feel.
Amico observes “how far Aeolus’s breath carries the resilient germ / of history, / genicular, Franklin and Eleanor / Roosevelt being fifth cousins.” He then informs us that “genicular has no closeness to genes / except in the brain’s language center,” information that is “covered in detail in chapter eight” of the book of distances. It’s no accident that Aeolus (known as the ruler of the winds) is a name shared by multiple characters in Greek mythology, all of them thought to be genealogically related, much like Franklin and Eleanor.
When Amico notes how the “brain’s language center” joins “genicular” to “genes,” even though there’s no shared etymological connection, he extends his exploration of genetic ties to an examination of how we view units of language in relation to each other. As readers, we can’t help but develop an association between the two words, despite the poet’s insistence that none exists. This paradox comprises one of the many slyly artful strategies that Amico uses to interrogate how humans both inherit and create different forms of connectivity.
As the poem progresses, we move backward from chapter eight to the “fourth chapter” in the book of distances, which is “a compendium / of keys. / Office key, key to the city, / car, the shed . . .” Initially, the keys appear to promise another kind of linkage, a bridge between our yearning to enter closed-off spaces and our ability to tangibly do so. They also seem to glimmer as a possible symbol for the larger question of how we might unlock the poem’s complicated meanings. But when Amico observes that the locked shed can be entered without a key—“the frame/ can be shifted, the latch slid out”—he suggests that keys of any kind, whether literal or metaphorical, may prevent us from seeing that we can often access what we desire without relying on means beyond ourselves.
Of course, no writer should introduce Chekhov in the first paragraph (is there any gun more loaded than that?) without returning to him. So it seems fitting for me to finish my appreciation of Amico’s poem by evoking, once more, the Russian maestro. As the piece approaches its end, Amico asserts that, whether or not we read the book of distances, “we still stretch / toward our lovers’ knees and our first homes.” Like a weapon introduced in a play’s first act and fired off later in the show, the knee image here brings us back to the word “genicular,” with its surprising meaning (of or relating to the knee), in the poem’s opening lines. Amico compels us to remember his use of “genicular” in association with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. When we picture one of them reaching for the other’s knee, Amico’s exploration of the human hunger for connection finds its final, strangest, and most memorable embodiment.
Samantha Edmonds: Voice is something one tends to hear a lot about when discussing fiction writing—“Oh, this has a great voice!” or “The voice of this piece really compelled me.” Those of us who teach may encourage our undergraduates to make better use of it—“Let your character’s voice drive the story.” But what exactly does it mean for a story have a great voice?
It doesn’t (usually) mean writing in dialect or slang or barely recognizable jargon. Rarely does it include, though it certainly can, the sprinkling of a foreign language. The best voices are subtler than that, more innate, something to be felt in the character, not just a rendering of speech.
Great voice is a line like “the way she forgot to wear unders like a lady should.” This appears in the first paragraph of Chelsea Bieker’s gorgeous story “Raisin Man” in CR’s current issue (12.1) and immediately gives the reader a clear sense of who Herd Collis is, where he comes from, the way he was raised.
In writing that something is “sweet like cane” or “the crops ain’t fit for nothing,” Bieker is offering more than characterization; she is offering backstory, setting, insight into why and how the narrator behaves as he does.
The voice in “Raisin Man” is also worth praising for its restraint. The language never becomes overbearing. It does not try to sound the way many think a narrator in a rural setting should, burdened with dropped g’s and verbs ending in apostrophes and phonetically spelled dialect; it merely shows us a particular human, both in scenes of great interiority and in spoken dialogue. The sentences are short but elegant in their brevity, simple and gorgeous, and the overall sense is that Herd is standing just before you, saying all of this out loud. Even when he isn’t speaking, you can hear him in every word.
It’s Celebrate Our Readers day. Not the readers of our journal (though we are ever so grateful for you), but the diligent and conscientious behind-the-scenes readers of the six thousand plus (and rising!) submissions we receive each year. These intelligent and dedicated humans, who are just as busy as you are and receive no payment for their pains, spend hours every week rendering thoughtful assessments of the random poems and stories, by writers both new and seasoned, that continuously fill their inboxes. Below are a few examples of our readers’ reactions to the work you send our way.
Don Bogen on the winning poem: Jaime Brunton’s “Chase” is the first prose poem to win the Schiff Award and a great example of the genre at its best. Here are some things I especially admire about it. First, it’s definitely a poem. Neither narrative-driven nor expository, “Chase” can’t be mistaken for flash fiction or a paragraph in an essay. It uses sentences the way a good poem in free verse uses the line: with grace, variety, and special attention to sound. “Chase” revitalizes phrasing, so that the most impersonal, empty constructions—“There is,” “There are”—come to support subtle emotional exploration. What the poem has to say about time, loss, and our hopes for a clear arc in the lives of those we love is marked by discovery and insight. “Chase” is sharp, sensitive, and brilliantly rendered, a standout among prose poems and poems in general.
Michael Griffith on the winning story: Robert Long Foreman’s “Awe” features a documentarian who, adrift after a project gone tragically wrong, has quit his profession and is seeking . . . well, is seeking renewed access to the sublime, to awe. His bizarre stratagem is to arrange through Craigslist to watch a woman give birth. In Foreman’s nimble hands, Bill’s alternately comic and poignant (mis)adventures with the couple who agree to allow this make for a delightfully askew, surprisingly emotional story.
Check the blog tomorrow for our distinguished list of HONORABLE MENTIONS. (Sorry, meant to announce them today, but there have been logistical . . . complications, and we don’t want to leave anyone out!)