Featured Poem: “Standoff”

STANDOFF by Andy Roberts

I’ve been walking this trail thirty years
but today I have to change course
because a pair of Canadian geese
have built a nest on the left.
The male hisses and rushes at me.
I stand my ground but he won’t give up.
This is life and death to them,
and the pair are screaming their outrage,
defending the nest.
It becomes clear
I will not win this argument
against pink hissing tongues.
I will not win this argument,
not in a million years.

Featured Poem: “in the light of snow”

I introduce this poem in a previous entry titled “On Revising Poetry.”


— pressures of fallen soft fierce snow scatter the surface hiss of fields
over the leaf-thin light fall — strewing a violet life over a nightfall earth

— as permafrost preserves an arctic iridescence under tundra winds

a deeper temperate radiance squalls near at hand over more fertile darkness

— dawn upon damson sun blown sudden golden shaken from bowed limbs bent
to breaking under the weight of individual infinitesimal vermilion clarities

— amber midmorning shards of light settle on tufts of drifts
in shadows of the temperatures setting-in — into the evening of the afternoon

— the dead of winter snowbound blankets the unborn within — newborn reside

swaddled in torpor under the lilac womb warm in the nests of their dens at rest

— humility a perfect deerprint cuts into the pomace of the selfless fields
embedded in a pure serene hyacinth seamless crystalline identity

— evening on snow — pregnant with silence — nuzzling the scent of slanted buds

listens to sibilance grazing the keenness of the last azure roseate crimsoning

What I find distracting about this version of the poem are the strings of prepositional phrases at certain points.  After using Lanham’s book Revising Prose as a textbook, I couldn’t fail to notice this.  His “paramedic method” suggests first of all circling all of the prepositions.  When you do this to the poem above, you notice that in the fifth stanza there is a string of prepositional phrases:  “amber midmorning shards of light settle on tufts of drifts / in shadows of the temperatures setting-in — into the evening of the afternoon” (six in a row here), followed by a stanza with another string:  “newborn reside / swaddled in torpor under the lilac womb warm in the nests of their dens at rest” (five in a row here).

Roger commented on his use of prepositional phrases, providing some perspective on the effect he was trying to achieve:

you refer to excessive prepositional phrasing.  you can’t get away with this in prose.  in this poem prepositions are a kind of marker for time.  the poem of course has to do with time and a sustained perception — from one evening to the next.

i say this so you know there’s lot of glue on those phrases.

lines 7 [the shortest line] and 8, following subject/verb, consist of six phrases, taking the eye and other senses through shifts of light that tend to resolve on the red end of the spectrum, where the poem begins and ends.

it’s a lush poem, a style i don’t often enter.  nothing like a dead end, but there’s no room to write this kind of poem every day.  i dread imitating myself.

i went searching for this poem this last week for other purposes.  two lines in it needed to be reviewed again [lines 3 and 4].  i wound up reviewing the poem and tightening it up.  the prepositional phrasing aspect is essentially unchanged.

(It’s interesting that he says you can’t get away with excessive prepositional phrasing in prose, because when you read the examples of academic jargonese that Lanham provides in his book, you suddenly realize that you’ve been inundated with it… And Lanham provides a concrete solution for avoiding such bureaucratization of language.)

I did compare this to the one he published in Albatross #18, and it *is* different from this other one–the use of dashes, the rhythms, the phrasing.  The attempt to capture time and sustained perception not only through the poem’s content but also through its form I found particularly interesting–though I’m not sure the use of prepositions as a marker for time is the way to go about this.  Having form reflect content is a powerful strategy, and I do think that the strings of prepositional phrases tend to elongate the moment being described.  However, I can’t ignore the fatigue that this induces in me as a reader, whether or not this is brought about by knowledge of Lanham’s paramedic method.

In the following passage, Roger speaks of rejection as an opportunity for revision.  I think we can learn from his positive attitude:

funny, but when i get my work rejected, i’ve come to look at it as an invitation to get it right.  i’ve learned more about my work by reviewing/revising it after rejection than i ever expected.  funny, but rejection works for me.  and i ought to have some insight, being the most rejected human being i know!

In future entries, I will post and discuss some of Roger’s proposed revisions.

Tom Sexton: Poetry Reading in Lowell, MA

I attended Tom Sexton’s reading in Lowell MA the other day.  He was visiting town for his high school reunion.  I made sure to attend because we published Tom way back in 1987, in our third issue.  Tom agreed to let me republish the poem from that issue here:


No path led from the cabin
to a clearing
or to an abandoned garden.

Inside a sour smell,
slivers of bone, a shrew’s skull,
bits of fur.

On the sill of the single window
placed to catch the light
a mason jar of water from the glacial river,

above the silt
a bud of light as epitaph:
I made this water pure and then departed.

Sexton has done well for himself since then.  His third book of poetry was published by Salmon Poetry, and the book I bought at the reading, titled A Clock With No Hands (Adastra Press, 2007), features his hometown Lowell.  Many in attendance at the reading recognized characters and places from the Lowell of his childhood.  I was happy that he inscribed the book as follows:  “For Richard:  Who was there for me at the beginning.”  I’m hoping that he sends two unpublished poems that he read at the reading for ALBATROSS #20: they were beautiful!

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.


Further Comments on Harsh Poetry

Eric Paul Shaffer sent a follow-up email in which he explains his sense of “harsh poetry”:

I can see there are some points you address that I would like to amplify in order to clarify the context in which I made them, especially the one about “poetry that is too harsh.” I meant that many editors are afraid of poems that they consider make judgments concerning humanity that might be offensive to humans so they usually shy away from those poems.

I didn’t mean that the poems in Albatross are “too harsh”; in fact, it is a relief to read work that encounters the planet as it actually is rather than the world as humans believe it is, beliefs they maintain in order to benefit and excuse themselves in the continuing attack on everything that is non-human on the planet.

As you can see from reading “Whales at Sunset,” I am not reluctant to indict humanity, not even myself, for its crimes, and that the editors thought my poem was too harsh, but I still think my indictment was accurate.

I am actually happy to characterize the poetry in Albatross as “harsh” from this point of view and also honored to be among those who aren’t afraid to publish poems that make harsh judgments. Many become defensive when faced with such “offensive” poetry (and strike back with their own level of harshness, calling names like “tree-huggers” and “enviro-wackos”), but my hope is that we can move beyond our fragile, personal egos and begin to consider the larger whole (the “interdependent web of all existence” as the Unitarian Universalists put it in their 7th Principle) of which we are a part.

Let me say that I get many many poems that are merely judgmental or didactic, without any art. The primary consideration, in my mind, is that the poem is beautiful in some way: it moves me, its language is accurate and honest and striking, it captures a fresh and refreshing perspective on a topic.

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.