Featured Poem: “Winter Woods”

WINTER WOODS by Michael S. Lewis-Beck

Breath cold, full moon behind a gray veil,
the tree tops map the moon.

Three pairs of socks, through my boots
my toes are still cold.

Three hours of hard wood in the Vermont casting
lifts the cabin from 13 to 38.

Vegetable soup and a bottle of Gigondas,
read Frost by bed candle.

Sleep to wind in high trees.

6

Editing: Example #2

I received the following poem from Michael Lewis-Beck:

WINTER WOODS

Breath cold, full moon behind a gray veil,
the tree tops map the moon.

Three pairs of socks through my boots
my toes are cold still.

Three hours of hard wood in the Vermont casting
lifts the cabin from 13 to 38.

Vegetable soup and a bottle of Gigondas,
read Frost by bed candle.

Sleep to wind in the high trees.

I liked this poem a lot but had a few suggested changes.  First, I was confused by the first line of the second stanza, so I suggested adding a comma between “socks” and “through.”  This breaks the flow of the sentence and allows the prepositional phrase “through my boots” to apply to “toes” in the second line rather than to “socks” in the first.

Second, I suggested reversing “cold” and “still” so that the rhythm of the line was enhanced:  “my toes are still cold”, which allows the stress to fall on each syllable/word, whereas the original seems to de-emphasize the stress on “still” in the last position.  Also, I like the “s” sound of “toes” and “still” when they are brought closer together, yet the change doesn’t cancel the effect of the assonance (the “o” sound in “toes” and “cold”)–in fact, I think the assonance is enhanced by adding a beat (with the word “still”) between the two sounds/words.

Finally, I suggested cutting the “the” in the last line–again for reasons of rhythm.  Without the “the,” we have “Sleep to wind in high trees”–every syllable stressed, with a powerful impactful ending.  Putting “the” in adds a downbeat and ruins this effect:  “Sleep to wind in the high trees.”

These changes make the poem stronger, in my opinion, and the author agreed to the changes.  This poem will appear in Albatross #20.  I will also post the edited version of the poem as a “featured poem” entry of this blog.

Editing: Example #1

If I see a poem that I like for the most part, but there’s a part of it that I have a question about or think could be changed for the better, I will engage the writer in dialogue.  The goal is to settle on a version of the poem that I am happy to publish but that doesn’t compromise the writer’s original purpose and intention.  This will be the first post that offers examples of this give and take so that you might see how an editor (this editor, at any rate) thinks and reasons.

My first example comes from Eric Paul Shaffer’s “Of Owls and Sugarcane”–part of the submission that included “Whales at Sunset.”  First, here is the poem as originally submitted:

Of Owls and Sugar Cane

Outraged, the local newspaper reports a tragic death of pueo,
owl native to the islands, slammed from the sky
with fender, windshield, or grille.  Yet a quick study of the photo

reveals a Barn Owl, limp with wing unfurled on a roadside
where tall green stalks of cane rise behind the tidy pile

of feathers among the scattered trash.  Of course, the bird
was a Barn Owl.  They dive from the dark into headlights
to strike mice the sudden day illuminates,

and drivers, eyes vacant with fatigue and too much familiarity
with the way and humming red roads, strike pale wings

and hollow bones from the stars to the culvert.  They don’t care
what they hit and never stop to see.  We are like them.

We won’t know what’s lost until we can name what we see.
And we’ll never know what will grow if we don’t know

when or how to plant what the moon demands.  Till the wheels
stop, we and our children will see no more in the earth but sugar
and graves and the nameless grasses that cover them.

*

I wrote the following:

I am interested in publishing “Of Owls and Sugar Cane” but have a question about one of the lines/stanzas.  The fourth stanza is a bit confusing as is:

“and drivers, eyes vacant with fatigue and too much familiarity

with the way and humming red roads, strike pale wings…”

If you can explain this, or perhaps there is an error you can point out, that would be helpful.

Shaffer replied:

I am . . . very pleased to hear that you are interested in publishing “Of Owls and Sugar Cane.”  As for your question about the fourth of the lines/stanzas being confusing, I understand what you mean.  On my most recent editing sweep, I revisited those lines, and they have been revised.  Compare below.

ORIGINAL
“and drivers, eyes vacant with fatigue and too much familiarity
with the way and humming red roads, strike pale wings…”

REVISED
“and drivers, eyes vacant with fatigue and too much familiarity
with humming red roads, tear pale wings from stars

and cast hollow bones into the ditch.”

In explanation, I am saying that the drivers of the back roads on Maui are tired to the point of sleepiness when they head home.  Additionally, familiarity with daily driving the same two-lane road for decades has dulled their attention so much that they don’t have time to react to the Barn Owls that dive into the light of the car headlights to pounce on mice fleeing the sudden illumination; thus, the “wings” are torn from the sky and the bodies (“hollow bones” as in bird bones) are bounced into the roadside ditch. . .

I know “Of Owls and Sugar Cane” provides a straight-forward and stark view of the realities of other animals sharing the planet with us, and I am very happy that that approach appeals to you at Albatross because I find that this view is not always popular with the editors of other reviews professing interest in the actualities of the planet.  I hope you will welcome other submissions from me–no matter what the outcome of this submission is.

Take care.  Thank you again for your close attention to my poems.  It is a pleasure to discuss all of this with you.

As a result of this change, I accepted the poem, which will appear in Issue #20 (to be published probably late 2008/early 2009).

Featured Poem: “Whales at Sunset”

WHALES AT SUNSET by Eric Paul Shaffer

At sunset, we sit on sand and watch whales leap from the sea.
The dying sun sets their breath aflame. The plumes gleam
for a moment before becoming a wind that blows ashore,
casting sand in our eyes. Kaho’olawe marks the horizon.

Behind us, Haleakala rises like a wave surging to shore.
On sand surely the only testament of time, we linger over legends
as light wanes. Centuries ago, the sea seethed
with the play of whales. Now, the ocean blackens with night.

Never has a day felt more final, and darkness comes
faster than light fades. As the sun sinks, shadow swells.
Every wave scales the shore
with the same determined hiss of triumph, loses strength,

and wanders back as the sea recalls the tide. Venus burns,
then dives after day. There is nothing
to distinguish this dusk from any other. Yet there is
an end in this evening for which I am not prepared.

The tourboats are returning, black against dark waves,
points of light pale, but piercing twilight, gathering shadows
as foil for their narrow glow.
Free of us, the whales seek peace in the night below night.

As they winter in these waters, we hunt them, gawking,
pointing and screaming with delight, from groaning boats
belching exhaust and dumping excrement
into the sea whales fill with song. I do nothing but watch.

I’m only human. I no longer wonder at myself and my kind
who kill and call killing a living. As surf sighs
under stars scattered on the island’s edge, I am resigned.
We are everywhere now. May night come swiftly.

May the whales never hate us as much as we love ourselves.
And by the shore of this restless black sea,
these blue stars, and the waning crescent yet to rise,
may we kill ourselves before we kill the last of them.

Yet who am I to abandon humanity, one truth about all of us
none of us can change? I am no more than any one of us,
no more right, no more wise, no more blind,
and my petty resignation is my own, a fate awful and just.

For athwart the stem at the whaleboat’s bow,
I would have held the harpoon myself,
and in the killing thrill of my kind, thrust the barbed iron
point deep into black and barnacled hide,

then crouched beneath peaked oars and gunwales,
full of fear and glee, while the struck whale ran
and flying line sang through the bounding craft
and plunged smoking into the sea.

I, too, would have cast the blood of kin on cold waves,
and seeking the heart, driven the long lance into lungs,
dyeing the sea with the hot, red rush,
darkening even the turquoise waters of paradise,

and after, I would have carved scenes of sailing ships
at sunset on their teeth and seasoned bones,
and written poetry in the warm golden light of oil
rendered from their sacred, slaughtered flesh.

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