Laura Read, Instructions for My Mother’s Funeral

INSTRUCTIONS FOR MY MOTHER’S FUNERAL, Laura Read. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh Pa 15260, 2012, 104 pages, $17 paper, https://upittpress.org.

The intimacy of this book of poems is searing. A father dies, a mother remarries. A child is uprooted. (And so much more.) Then life goes on. A life in three parts. Swoon-worthy writing here, and poems I wish I’d written.

Instructions for My Mother’s Funeral won the coveted AWP Donald Hall Prize in Poetry, and there is so much I could say about it. And should. But I am battling a headache today, so I’m sending you to Read’s page at U Pitt Press to read the back cover praise for yourself.

Here is one of many splendid examples, the title poem:

Instructions for My Mother’s Funeral

She doesn’t want me to go back
to Long Island—I won’t find
Carle Place High School
or the house with the four rooms
where her cousin Billy used to bang
on the door until her mother
let him in, slid a fat chop on a dinner plate
and kept him
safe from the house down the block,
his father in the garage.
Carle Place’s mascot was a frog
and my mother was the captain
of the Green Team the year they won
Sports Night and her father, the school
custodian who lived in the pipes
and the closet of brooms,
came running over the polished planks
of the gymnasium floor and picked her up.
Outside, the real frogs sang their deep
songs as if they knew about my mother
and how she was leaving.
If I go back, I won’t find her—
they took the town down
like the Heath Library
across the street from St. Aloysius
where I read the World Book Encyclopedia
for my ornithology report—
I had to tell the story of 30 birds,
where they lived, what they ate,
how you can spot them up in the branches
and tell them one from the other.
I had to color each feather on their breasts.
Their hearts were beating
underneath the paper.
My mother said that’s where
they keep their songs but don’t press
your ear there to listen.
Don’t watch to see if they’ll lift
off the page—they want to open
their thin wings you made for them
with their pencils
and see how they do in the wind.

—Laura Read

Visit Pictures of Poets, too. At Read’s personal website I learned that she is the Poet Laureate of Spokane, and that she has a new(er) book, and much more.

Ann Spiers, Back Cut

BACK CUT, Ann Spiers. Black Heron Press, PO Box 614, Anacortes, WA 98221, 2021, 88 pages, $16 paper, www.blackheronpress.com.

I had dropped by Edmonds Bookshop to quickly pick up Sharon Hashimoto’s book of poems, when this slim volume (too) caught my eye. The cover is black, but has darker blocks set into the background. The title, in white letters, is partly cut away.

On the back cover, testimonials from poets we’ve already heard from this month: Kevin Miller (“a love story weathered and brined in the wilds of the Washington coast”); Sharon Hashimoto (“mastery of such unspoken, yet tender emotions”). Inside, more testimonials. And the poet’s introduction:

In felling a tree, the initial deep undercut is wedge shaped. This cut determines the direction of the fall. Opposite and higher than the initial cut is the back cut, the first of the felling cuts. The labor varies with tree, axe or saw, and with the crew’s strength and smarts.

Having grown up not far from the wild Washington coast, I found familiar voices in this cycle of love poems. The husband and wife (whose voices alternate) scrape a living from the shore and the trees. They escape fires. The wife plays piano. The husband—a veteran of WWII—drinks. They make a life.

It’s difficult to excerpt this book (you sort of have to read the whole thing). But here’s a sample:

Husband—
Putting Up For Winter

The glut
we net smelt out
of the wave’s long running
eagles snag silver scattering
crazy

salmon
so plentiful
their splishes racket up
stream    bear smell hot at every
trail turn

so thick
huckleberry
milked from the stem plunk plunk
in our buckets     fresh scat purple
with fruit

so much
we cannot stop
bigger loads just one more
woodstove glowing into the night
horse clams

—Ann Spiers

Some of poems are in numbered parts. All are spare, no punctuation, no ands or buts — all those little “stage directions” such as yet, then, next, “I thought,” and so on that I find in my poems — anything unnecessary stripped away, life itself, stark, shining. The subject matter reminded me of my family, and these voices, hard-bitten, “briny,” took me back. I came away from it wanting to write, which is one of the reasons I value doing all this reading of poetry books every April.

Ann Spiers is poet laureate of Vashon Island, has several art-chapbooks, and teaches poetry writing. You can learn more about her (and you should!) at http://annspiers.com.

Sharon Hashimoto, More American

MORE AMERICAN, Sharon Hashimoto. Off the Grid Press, Grid Books, Boston, MA, 2021, 80 pages, $16 paper, grid-books.org.

I knew Sharon Hashimoto in graduate school, and have long been an admirer. Her first book of poetry, The Crane Wife, was a co-winner of the 2003 Nicholas Roerich Prize, originally published by Story Line Press and now reprinted by Red Hen Press. It was a privilege, this morning, to read her 2021 book, More American.

Samuel Green, the inaugural Washington State Poet Laureate, writes of this book:

I often wonder whether the urge to share joy isn’t one of the most primal human urgencies. Perhaps that’s behind the impulse to read so many of the poems of Sharon Hashimoto’s More American aloud to someone else. “Old memories are ghosts we walk through,” she says in one poems. Hashimoto knows how to let those ghosts bear witness without nostalgia in poems of reconciliation, tolerance, forgiveness, and the sort of love that understands it might never be seen for what it is… (back cover)

And that comes as close as I can to explaining why I’m sharing this book with you. Hashimoto has crafted poems here that collect and treasure family voices, stories of internment and military service, education, and a grandmother, peeling onions, or rising from her bath. Every subject is given such poise and dignity, even when buttocks and breasts are “plump bags,” “socks stretched.” It is a book of family, and a book of witness to that family’s particular (and particularly) American history.

It’s also exquisitely crafted, both the book and the individual poems. In the first section, “Japanese-American Dictionary,” I found myself reading aloud, just for the pleasure of Hashimoto’s words, carefully chosen like ingredients her grandmother uses in her recipes: “shoyu-soaked ropes, / chicken sizzled in garlic and fat. Home // was smell: seaweed, ginger, and rice wine / vinegar” (“Oriental Flavors”).

Language abounds here. “What I knew of Japan / was in my parents’ faces: / okasan, ojisan—the baby sounds / I sometimes used for mother, father,” as we hear in another poem (“A Matter of Loyalty: Question #28, A Nisei’s Response”). These ghostly voices, though, are what I believe will stay with me.

Those Left to Tell: For A. C.

The Igbo of Nigeria believe
you’re only gone when the last relative

who remembers you has died. Dear cousin,
we’re old enough to recall Grandma’s kitchen—

the Nehi bottles of orange fizz lined up
for special meals on New Year’s with the shrimp,

those stiff translucent shells we snapped in half.
Her sink was wide and deep—big enough

to wash my sister in. Fifty years:
the largest anniversary picture

barely held us all while our numbers
quickly spread like ripples fanning far

from shore. Only Aunty Meri
lives on; my mom, your dad—a fading story

that holds huge holes we’ll never fully know.
Memory makes of us brief cameos.

—Sharon Hashimoto

If you’d like to learn more about Hashimoto and her writing, visit Poetry Foundation, Off the Grid Press, or follow this link to the Edmonds Bookshop poetry reading from April 21, 2022.

Paul E. Nelson, American Sentences

AMERICAN SENTENCES: ONE POEM, EVERY DAY, TWENTY YEARS, Paul E. Nelson. Apprentice House, Loyola University Maryland, 4501 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21210, 120 pages, $11.99 paper, www.ApprenticeHouse.com.

Honest-to-goodness, there’s nothing I can add that will make this better. (That is my 17 syllables today.) To learn more about the American Sentence, visit Paul’s homepage and navigate to: https://paulenelson.com/american-sentences-2/. All will be explained.

Paul E. Nelson is the founder of multiple poetry movements in the Pacific Northwest—or Cascadia, as he prefers. I very much recommend the August Poetry Postcard Fest. (Find lots of information here.)

Paul’s 17-syllable sentences in this book span twenty years (an earlier edition covers 14 years). They are sometimes silly, sometimes grounded in nature, sometimes sexy (sometimes raunchy), often elegiac, always curious. They offer a history of Paul’s personal life (loss of a father, loved mentors such as northwest legend Sam Hamill, birth of a child, travels). And they offer a history of our world in the decades they cover. Some of the sentences offer writing advice; some (many) would be good poem-starters.

Here’s a smattering:

1.06.09 – Michael says he gets writer’s block about 6 or 7 times a day.

N.20.10 – Want to call her and tell her I forgot my cell phone but I forgot my cell phone.

1.25.07 – David fantasizing: I wonder what she looks like without her cellphone.

10.2.13 – In the self-help section of Last Word Books, there are only typewriters.

10.29.14 – The biosphere’s being destroyed & you’re writing poems about pie.

12.18.14 – A two year old’s Jingle Bells: “No no no, no no no, no no no no…”

4.3.2015 – Sam tells me: “Reading Zukovsky is like doing a crossword puzzle.”

5.27.2015 – The buttercups in the neighbor’s lawn do not consider themselves weeds.

6.5.16 – If someone offers you a pancake shaped like the Buddha, eat it.

8.3.17 – Hacking at the moment’s shadow 17 syllables at a time.

1.14.19 – I know, drugs, surgery & radiation and edit your poems.

7.12.2019 – Amy Miller calls the postcard fest a “low-pressure laboratory.”

8.5.19 – If you have no inner life by age 60, your life caves in on you.

12.15.20 – Your yoga pants collection is not indicative of an inner life.

Paul has a new book, or an old book in a new edition: And when I attended his #nationalpoetrymonth book launch a couple weeks ago, I bought American Sentences and told him I would read it. So, this morning, I did.

Open the PDF at his American Sentences page, scroll to the bottom, and at the end you’ll find this:

Exercise: Go out and take 10 minutes to slow down, look around and get two American Sentences. It is not as easy as writing seventeen syllables, but having a notebook on you at all times, making a commitment to writing one a day, or two a week, or whatever, will keep your hand in it at times when you are not writing much else. You can also go back and have a short, imagistic journal that may serve as source material for other poems. Remember: Imagistic, Juxtaposition, Found Poems, Mindfulness, rhythm, busted syntax, condensed, demotic speech. Refrain from commentary. It’s a bad habit. American Sentences, on the other hand… Look! He says he has American Sentences on the other hand!

Slow down, look around, carry a notebook. How can this be anything but good?