Rena Priest, “Sublime, Subliminal”

SUBLIME, SUBLIMINAL, Rena Priest, Floating Bridge Press, 909 NE 43rd Street, #205, Seattle, Washington, 98105, 2018, 48 pages, $10, paper,

This August I am once again not doing the #SealeyChallenge. I gave some thought to it—reading a poetry book a day for the month of August, then simply posting a picture to Instagram—but…I get so much out of my April poetry-book marathon that I can’t imagine not sharing a longer reflection. The April project always ends up trashing any other plans for the month, and it always ends up being worth it.

I think what I’m trying to say here is that if you feel led to read a poetry book a day, and reflect on what you find, I HIGHLY encourage you to do so.

Today, because it was left over from my April book stack, I decided to read Rena Priest’s Sublime, Subliminal, which was a finalist for the 2018 Floating Bridge Chapbook competition.

I always love Rena’s poems. She was our Washington Poet Laureate for two years, 2021-2023, and, among so much else as part of her heart-filled service to the poetry community, edited the brilliant I Sing the Salmon Home.

The fifteen poems in Sublime, Subliminal are not straight-forward, easily understood poems. They challenged me. When I let myself drop fully into the project, they also delighted me. Opening lines such as, “Your kiss is backlit pixilation” (“Canadian Tuxedo”); “The bookshelf is a psychic vortex” (“The Final Word”); or this sentence, “In the darkness of the cupboard, / the inner life of the water glass / is not empty” (“Inner Life of the Water Glass”) pushed me to see and think differently.

When I reached the acknowledgments page I was tickled—and not altogether surprised—to discover that the poems were inspired by Jim Simmerman’s “20 Little Poetry Projects.” Years ago, when my children were young and I was a new not-yet-tenured college teacher, I came across this exercise in The Practice of Poetry (edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell), and it worked so well for me that I stopped using it after a few poems. It felt like cheating! Rena Priest, so much smarter, put together a whole book.

The poems are longish, but you have to see at least one. I chose this poem because it’s sexy and unexpected, and has an opening conceit that blows my mind. The poems, the book over all, has an opaqueness that makes me think of my professor who used to say, “It’s a poem! Stop making sense!”

Indistinct Features

Your face is a movie screen.
There are two matinees
and three features every day.
Your smile incites the Theremin
to which I react with acumen.
You were one thing. Now another;
tasted like sugar, now like butter.
Mr. Tom Savini, Sultan of Splatter,
Godfather of Gore,
the orchestra can see you
around that corner, behind that door,
cooking up some violence.
The violins are going crazy
and I will react with the antonym
of acumen when you come to slay me;
But the angels will sing a chromatic hymn
when your demons come for you,
to do you like Mercutio,
find you a grave man tomorrow.
“YOLO,” the kids will say,
“There’s something about an open grave
that makes me amorous—libidinous—
downright horndog AF.”
Gotta replace a life with a life.
Gotta get in the pudding club.
I’ll give you the sweet pearl
of my sympathy, swathed
in the nacre of my spiritual oyster,
mounted in a shining ring.
Poke a hole in the curtain between
the living and the dead. Now
it’s a peep show for your soul.
If you peek, you’ll see the day
where we all go back to analog.
Colloids and emulsions on reels
instead of coitus and emotions in files.
Tomaten auf den Augen Haben.
Images flicker
24 times per second across your face.
I can’t keep hold of your features.
There’s a feather
where your mouth is supposed to be.
It flutters when you say,
“Oh come on baby—
don’t look at me that way?”

—Rena Priest

If you are interested in trying out Simmerman’s Twenty Little Poetry Projects, you can find it on-line. Or you could buy a copy of The Practice of Poetry, which is packed with detailed poetry prompts. Many many used copies available.

Reading in Bellingham

Just a head’s up for my Bellingham friends.

Sally Albiso Poetry Book Award

My poetry manuscript — The Pear Tree: Elegy for a Farm — has won the 2023 Sally Albiso Poetry Award from MoonPath Press.

I’m feeling stunned and honored and — even after a week has gone by — a bit disbelieving.

I’ve shared here some of my process in cobbling this book together, but just to recap, it’s the book that wouldn’t lie down and be “done.” Three years ago in a Hugo House course taught by Deborah Woodard, I rather shamefacedly introduced myself by saying I was working on a book of poems about losing my parents, adding, “I really should be finished with these poems.”

Deborah said, “Maybe the poems aren’t finished with you.”

That is exactly what it felt like. It’s about more than my mother and father; it’s about growing up on a farm, and it’s about giving up that farm after my dad’s death in 2010. It’s about letting go of trees, fields, cows, fences, wells, ponds, bee boxes, books, orchard trees, creeks, barns… It’s about my mother’s memory loss, and how keenly that paralleled our folding away the family place, the farm my grandfather had owned before my father owned it. It’s about…so much.

Last year I began sending the manuscript out as “Genesis” (meaning to evoke an idea of where I began, where I set out from), and despite having paid some hefty entrance fees, I withdrew it. It didn’t feel ready. Early this year I began sending it out again, rearranged, with poems added (and quite a few removed), with a stronger theme, or thread, poems about my maternal grandmother, running all the way through it, holding — I hoped — the long chronology together.

In May I reworked it yet again, and it was only then that I felt brave enough to retitle it as The Pear Tree.

I could not have been more shocked when it won. Lana Hechtman Ayers wrote in an email, “These are poems to feed the soul.”

They have certainly fed mine.

The book will be out this winter, and, never fear, I will be here, telling you all about it.


The Lexicon

Lexicon: “the vocabulary of a person, language, or branch of knowledge”

A lexicon can be vast, but it can also be narrow and exact. Horse people have a lexicon. Dock-workers have a lexicon. Waitresses have a lexicon.

My first assignment in the poetry class I’m teaching is to list 25 words relating to a subject. I have heard this assignment called “a word bucket.” It is meant to be both non-threatening (an easy threshold to trip over, into the class), but also inspiring. I shared examples of lexicons I’ve written:

  • for parts of a horse bridle
  • for the names of every part of a piano
  • for the skilled-nursing home where my mother spent her last years
  • for northwest flora and fauna
  • for my farm childhood

We all have lists of this sort in our heads, but deliberately listing the words, I’ve found, results in more exactness, and — very often — surprising directions one might follow.

Recently I wrote a poem about the word “bless.” I had high hopes for the poem, and started by looking up the definition and etymology of bless:

bless (v)

Middle English blessen, from Old English bletsian, bledsian, Northumbrian bloedsian “to consecrate by a religious rite, make holy, give thanks,” from Proto-Germanic *blodison “hallow with blood, mark with blood,” from *blotham “blood” (see blood (n.)). Originally a blood sprinkling on pagan altars.

This word was chosen in Old English bibles to translate Latin benedicere and Greek eulogein, both of which have a ground sense of “to speak well of, to praise,” but were used in Scripture to translate Hebrew brk “to bend (the knee), worship, praise, invoke blessings.” L.R. Palmer (“The Latin Language”) writes, “There is nothing surprising in the semantic development of a word denoting originally a special ritual act into the more generalized meanings to ‘sacrifice,’ ‘worship,’ ‘bless,’ ” and he compares Latin immolare (see immolate).

The meaning shifted in late Old English toward “pronounce or make happy, prosperous, or fortunate” by resemblance to unrelated bliss. The meaning “invoke or pronounce God’s blessing upon” is from early 14c. No cognates in other languages. Related: Blessed; blessing.

( lifted straight from )

I also looked up how many times “bless” appears in the King James Bible (lots, in various forms of the word, but I’ll let you check for yourself.)

Google makes it almost too easy to do this assignment. I picked out only certain words from etymonline, but as I wrote them into my notebook, I kept coming up with more. I scribbled it all down: religion, blessing, ritual, sacrifice, blood, holy, bend, knee, praise, thanks, bliss, hallow, bledsian, bloedsian (which made me think of druids, so), druids, pagan, church, bees (not sure where that came from, but I began to know at that point where the poem would be located, or the two places it would be located), pear tree, limbs, pears, blossoms, path, foyer (of my childhood church), yellow, “blood of the lamb,” washed in…, grandmother, stones, honey, bodies.

My list was longer, but many of these found their way into a rough draft of a poem about a pear tree. (I hadn’t expected the bees, or the pear tree.)

You can see that the assignment could be narrowly focused, but doesn’t have to be — you can free associate. What 25 words (or 100 words) do you associate with your mother, with the house you now live in, with your kitchen, with your cubicle at work?

It can be interesting, by the way, to do this assignment with someone else’s poem, particularly one that wows you. Start by listing every noun, maybe add the verbs. Are the words related? (Probably, but — again — perhaps in ways you didn’t imagine until you looked at them scrambled together on the page.)

Easy peasy.