Poetry

Series comma

Musician Ronnie dies away and

cousin Leslie cannot say

how or why God calls

us there beyond the billow:

Sad friend Sarah’s dying dog

gets fed prednisone so life extends

a month perhaps as sibling Robert

hiss-pierces sister’s heart and venom

seeps down hanging veins while

curly-haired Amy sings and weeps

for a brother who died well before

he was newly felled yet somehow

in the face of grace I can make

the smallest case for the naught

we become after we hear our knell

when I find myself impelled

to tell some sighing students

“a series comma is more common.”

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“I could hear the sea.”

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Plenitude
by Ann Iverson

Even near the very end
the frail cat of many years
came to sit with me
among the glitter of bulb and glow
tried to the very last to drink water
and love her small world
would not give up on her curious self.
And though she staggered — shriveled and weak
still she poked her nose through ribbon and wrap
and her peace and her sweetness were of such
that when I held my ear to her heart
I could hear the sea.

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“learning to leave well enough alone”

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Sunday Morning Early
by David Romtvedt

My daughter and I paddle red kayaks
across the lake. Pulling hard,
we slip easily through the water.
Far from either shore, it hits me
that my daughter is a young woman
and suddenly everything is a metaphor
for how short a time we are granted:

the red boats on the blue-black water,
the russet and gold of late summer’s grasses,
the empty sky. We stop and listen to the stillness.
I say, “It’s Sunday, and here we are
in the church of the out of doors,”
then wish I’d kept quiet. That’s the trick in life—
learning to leave well enough alone.

Our boats drift to where the chirring
of grasshoppers reaches us from the rocky hills.
A clap of thunder. I want to say something truer
than I love you. I want my daughter to know that,
through her, I live a life that was closed to me.
I paddle up, lean out, and touch her hand.
I start to speak then stop.

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“Anyone Who Has Left Love” (by Sharon Olds)

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Anyone who has left love,
who has stepped out of the boat, onto
the water, learns what they had not known
or wanted to. Anyone
who turns their back on love, as if
it might not take too long for them to go
all the way around and come up behind it—
anyone who lets love go,
opens their hand while walking through
a crowd, as if getting, piece by piece,
rid of evidence, will lose,
along with evidence of the thing,
the thing itself. Anyone
who sets love down, and takes their eyes
away, anyone who travels far
when love is home, anyone
who homes alone when love is far,
will lose what cannot be found. Maybe they
thought love was the earth under
the road, or the road under the sole
of the shoe or the foot under the body but by now it is
back there. It was a bush like a fire,
and now—no more fragrance or light
will be inhaled, or seen, as when
you die you will not see the world again.
Even if you thought you had not
believed you were loved, something in you
knew that you were—and you stepped right off love’s roof.

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“Warbler”

BRBonnieLofthouseYellowWarbler2
by Jim Harrison

This year we have two gorgeous
yellow warblers nesting in the honeysuckle bush.
The other day I stuck my head in the bush.
The nestlings weigh one-twentieth of an ounce,
about the size of a honeybee. We stared at
each other, startled by our existence.
In a month or so, when they reach the size
of bumblebees, they’ll fly to Costa Rica without a map.

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360⁰ poetry

Virtual Storytelling

Even if they’re hawking something worthy, ads generally annoy me, but all last week I couldn’t get enough of the promo for the most recent episode of “The Big Listen,” a “broadcast about podcasts” that can be heard on WAMU, the DC metro area’s public radio station.

In it, we hear host Lauren Ober ask Starlee Kine of the popular podcast “Mystery Show about her favorite TV programs, and she mentions several — though only one, Law and Order, fetches an irrepressible “I love it” from Ober’s guest.

Unfortunately, the “I love it” part was cut from Kine’s segment (35:39), which is sad because just reading those three words here will not give you any understanding about why it was such a wonderful, and wonderfully nuanced, moment for listeners. Or at least for this listener.

Somehow, you see, that three-word sound bite managed to convey Kine’s passion for great storytelling, and it captivated me because I share that passion to my very bones. I also share her love of Law and Order, but you are the first to know this.

I wasn’t sure how I would write about my almost childlike reaction to this sound morsel until I heard “Virtual Reality: The Wearable Movie?” on The New Yorker Radio Hour. In this most recent episode, staff writer Andrew Marantz focuses on how artists and technologists are working together to create an interactive, “immersive” narrative.

One innovative narrative project Marantz features is Blackout, which uses a “computer-rendered environment” and also uses real actors to tell a story about a New York subway that breaks down and leaves its passengers in darkness. Especially compelling is the fact that DepthKit, a new software and film-making technique used in this project, enables participants to walk around inside the story, to see actors from different angles, and to hear the thoughts of people on the train simply by turning their heads and looking at them.

In an interview with Marantz, Justin Cone, creator of Motionographer, says, “People are searching for some kind of Holy Grail that unites the best of passive storytelling with the best of interactivity,” and it appears the team involved in developing Blackout may well be on the right path.

Still, I find myself wondering whether passive storytelling would always pair well with immersive, interactive technology. It is clear that sound, for example, can add a layer of richness to a story, as was the case with my being able to hear Kine say “I love it” in her very particular way. In fact, I might not have remembered anything about her interview, a portion of which is now indelibly etched into my memory, had I only read a transcript of it.

Yet, while it is true that great storytelling engages all of the senses, it is also true that great storytelling must maintain a certain air of mystery if it is to be successful. I remember, for instance, how downhearted I felt when, after having become completely mesmerized by the performance of a lead actor in a production of South Pacific, I saw him change his costume in the wings. I saw, too, that he was out of breath. And therefore human.

Granted, I was only ten. But the memory of that shock has stayed with me all these years, and I can’t help but think that dropping someone inside, say, a narrative poem could be equally shocking and could destroy the fragile world a poet seeks to create. While the very best of this kind of poetry invites us to participate in the storytelling by, for example, parsing an image, contemplating the meaning of a line, or studying the form itself, it loses something ineffably essential when we are told (or shown) how, exactly, we are meant to understand it. Even here, when I post a poem I have written, I pause over whether or not to include a visual image with it for fear I will be giving you too much direction about how to interpret its meaning.

Perhaps I am old-fashioned about wanting to maintain the ethereal in my own work and about fearing that immersive technologies could threaten the delicate mystery poets work to weave. Or perhaps the fear is simply a failure of my limited imagination. Or perhaps it is both.

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“Kindness”

Kindness

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

from Words under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye