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Joanna Thomas

RABBIT: AN ERASURE POEM, Joanna Thomas. Dogtown Press, Ellensburg, WA, 2018, 22 pages, $5, paper.

I met Joanna Thomas two years ago at Litfuse. She does this really arty, fun stuff with erasure poems and visuals and — because I generally don’t do those sorts of poem — I almost skipped her workshop.

I am SO GLAD I went. More than the keynotes or anyone else I encountered that year, Thomas’s work burned a hole through my imagination all the way down to my bootsoles. She is a wonder. If you can’t get your hands on any of her limited edition books (exquisite little gems you’ll want to keep and give to friends), then you should invite her to give a workshop for you. (Adults and our delights aside, I think these would inspire some pretty wicked home school lessons.) To read more, visit Thomas’s very visual blog:  https://www.joannathomas.xyz/.

Because the poems don’t run down the left hand margin, my blog space will just make a botch of it; hence, the photograph. In short, Thomas has erased  Webster’s Elementary Dictionary: A Dictionary for Boys & Girls (New York: American Book Company, 1941), and she shares the image from the dictionary, then duplicates the poem (and its peculiar layout) on the facing page.

 

Dorianne Laux’s The Book of Men

How can I possibly write about Dorianne Laux without gushing?

This book qualifies for my series this month (poetry books I’ve been meaning to read cover-to-cover) because, in 2013, when she was the keynote speaker at Litfuse in Tieton, I came home with a whole stack of books, and I suspect this one got lost in the shuffle. I would like to swear that I did read The Book of Men (Norton, 2011) immediately and all the way through. But sitting here this evening, the poems seem awfully new to me. Whichever way it goes, I’m so glad I got to read them today, all in “one fell swoop,” as they say. I will be reading them again.

I love this poem — which appeared in the anthology A Cadence of Hooves (as did two of my poems) — a long time ago. And, yes, it, too, feels brand new, even though I know I’ve read it many times. I think what I’m confronting here is the freshness and vivacity of the images and words. As Ezra Pound famously said, “Poetry is news that stays news.”

The Rising

The pregnant mare at rest in the field
the moment we drove by decided
to stand up, rolled her massive body
sideways over the pasture grass,
gathered her latticed spine, curved ribs
between the hanging pots of flesh,
haunches straining, kneebones bent
on the bent grass cleaved
astride the earth she pushed against
to lift the brindled breast, the architecture
of the neck, the anvil head, her burred mane
tossing flames as her forelegs unlatched in air
while her back legs, buried beneath her belly,
set each horny hoof in opposition
to the earth, a counterweight concentrated there,
and by a willful rump and switch of tail hauled up,
flank and fetlock, her beastly burden, seized
and rolled and wrenched and winched the wave
of her body, the grand totality of herself,
to stand upright in the depth of that field.
The heaviness of gravity upon her.
The strength of the mother.

In addition to the rough music of this poem, I hope you will notice that it is all one sentence until we reach the third to last line. Then the heaviness, gravity, and strength come under the poem in two short sentences that hold the weight of all of it together. A beautiful poem. An amazing poet.

 

Digging Deeper

On Friday I drove with a couple of friends to Tieton, near Yakima, Washington, to attend Litfuse: a Poets’ Workshop. While there, I took classes from Samuel Green, Elizabeth Austen, and Ellen Bass — and others — and every class had time built in for opening a notebook and writing. I came home Sunday afternoon, with my head spinning.

Sunday was the blood moon, of course, and having spent the weekend with poets, there was no way I was going to miss it, no matter how exhausted I was. My youngest daughter refused to go with me. My other daughter still living at home was at work. My husband said, If you find it, sure, give me a call.

I was not going to miss it. I took the dog with me and drove, searching for a place without trees obscuring the eastern horizon. Not easy where we live. I drove down to the Sound, but that didn’t work at all (even though quite a number of people had gathered there). Finally, over the airfield, there it was! Very faint, low to the horizon, not all that big, but definitely in eclipse, pinkish-red. Lovely. I pulled the car over and Pabu and I got out to watch. One other car pulled up: everyone leapt out of the car, a woman took a picture with her cell phone, and they all leapt back into the car and drove away. I called my husband and told him to bring the binoculars. We stood in the parking lot of QFC, near a Jack in the Box, leaning on our car, and watched for an hour. We talked about where we are likely to be in 2033 when this particular combination of Blood Moon and Eclipse take place again. Older daughter got off work and joined us. Husband went home. I watched until the moon was back to its usual, brilliant self. High in the sky and easily visible from our house. No searching required. My 16-year-old’s sort of boyfriend showed up (Do you want to go look at the moon?) and they disappeared into the night.

“Be the sort of person on whom nothing is lost,” Henry James advised a young writer. Sherman Alexie, speaking at Seattle Arts and Lectures this past year, said something on the order of, You can make a poem out of anything — it’s what happens, and what you think about what happened (and then he read a poem about doing laundry).

I remember once being told that you can’t write poems about the moon — it’s been done too often. But at Litfuse, when Ellen Bass brought up how love poems are a little overdone, she then added, But of course we’re going to write love poems! We just have to write really good ones. Elizabeth Austen called it digging deeper.

In my reading this morning, I came across this quote, from novelist Jonathan Franzen: “With every book, you have to dig as deep as possible and reach as far as possible. And if you succeed in producing a reasonably good book, you’re going to have to dig even farther, or else, again it won’t be worth writing. And what that means, in practice, is that you have to become a different person to write the next book. The person you are already wrote the best book you could. There’s no way to move forward without changing yourself.”

For every poem. There is a poem in this material for me about the frustrations of having a 16-year-old daughter, about my husband indulging me even when he thinks I’m cracked, about being a poet, about seeing what we’re given to see. Here I am, shovel in hand…