Tuesday Poem: ‘Conspiracy (to breathe together)’ by Camille Dungy

Conspiracy (to breathe together)

Last week, a woman smiled at my daughter and I wondered
if she might have been the sort of girl my mother says spat on my aunt
when they were children in Virginia all those acts and laws ago.

Half the time I can’t tell my experiences apart from the ghosts’.

A shirt my mother gave me settles into my chest.

I should say onto my chest, but I am self conscious—
the way the men watch me while I move toward them
makes my heart trip and slide and threaten to bruise
so that, inside my chest, I feel the pressure of her body,
her mother’s breasts, her mother’s mother’s big, loving bounty.

I wear my daughter the way women other places are taught
to wear their young. Sometimes, when people smile,
I wonder if they think I am being quaintly primitive.

The cloth I wrap her in is brightly patterned, African,
and the baby’s hair manes her alert head in such a way
she has often been compared to an animal.

There is a stroller in the garage, but I don’t want to be taken
as my own child’s nanny. (Half the time I know my fears are mine alone.)

At my shower, a Cameroonian woman helped me practice
putting a toy baby on my back. I stood in the middle of a circle
of women, stooped over and fumbling with the cloth. Curious George
was the only doll on hand, so the white women looked away
afraid I would hurt my baby while the black women looked away
and thought about not thinking about monkeys.

There is so much time in the world. How many ways can it be divided?

I walk every day with my daughter and wonder
what is happening in other people’s minds. Half the time
I am filled with terror. Half the time I am full of myself.

The baby is sleeping on my back again. When I stand still,
I can feel her breathing. But when I start to move, I lose her
in the rhythms of my tread.

Photo Credit: Ray BlackI read ‘Conspiracy (to breathe together)’ in The Best American Poetry 2014, although it was originally published in The American Poetry Review. Dungy is the author of Smith Blue (2011), Suck on the Marrow (2010), and the sonnet collection What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (2006). She has a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She has also received an impressive number of awards which are listed on her website.

Although I didn’t realise it until researching Dungy, she often writes about the human/nature relationship, which was the central theme of my PhD. On the scarcity of African American poets in anthologies of nature poetry, Dungy states, “I miss seeing writers of color in the conversation. Until we have greater variety in the conversation, it is not a conversation—it is a monologue” (Poetry Foundation). She has been active in addressing the issue, having edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (2009).

Every time I read this poem something new rises to the surface: the young mother’s fear of failing; the traits we share with other animals; how the wonderful line ‘Half the time I know my fears are mine alone’ captures the way we carry echoes of our parents’ insecurities and the stories we learned about ourselves; Dungy’s subtle comments about race. What I found most profound was the title’s play on the word conspire which comes from the Latin conspirare ‘agree, plot,’ or con- ‘together with’ combined with spirare ‘breathe’: to breathe together. For me it suggests that the women in the poem — ‘Cameroonian,’ ‘black’ and ‘white’– are part of a greater and shared womanhood, while also being divided in different ways.

For more Tuesday poems check out the hub.

Tuesday Poem: ‘malady’ by Hinemoana Baker

malady

As our ancestors did before us we claw
at ourselves and each other, we swell, seize up,
snipe and bitch, hating each other for cytosines

and thickenings, for the errors of general practitioners,
for long nights awake without medicine. You scratch
so hard you bruise yourself. I give away hours of night

to the next yellow day. My mother remembers the rash
that raged across her back and the fleshy heels of her palms.
It vanished the day she said those words, under her breath,

while stacking kindling in the shipping container
we used for a woodshed. We left two weeks later.
My father is all for aloe vera and manuka honey

and us coming up for a break. I pulverise an old
carrot in the screaming juicer. You get a ten-dollar
haircut. The sun comes out like a fucking miracle.

HinemoanaHinemoana Baker is a writer, musician, and producer, and in 2014 she was the writer in residence at the International Institute of Modern Letters. She is descended from Ngāi Tahu in the South Island, and Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa, and Ngāti Ati Awa in the North.

The poem ‘malady’ comes from her third collection waha | mouth, which was published by VUP in 2014. It is such a generous collection; Baker’s poetry is lyrical and intellectual, tough and everyday, surprising and deft. As a poet I had many ‘ah!’ moments when I appreciated the care and craft that went into these poems. Both Paula Green and Booksellers NZ have written, in my opinion, spot on reviews of waha | mouth.

I think ‘malady’ appealed to me because I read the collection just before Christmas, that traditional time of family togetherness. If you’ve read my poetry you’ll know I sometimes write about the difficult relationship I have with my father, which in essence is writing about my relationship with myself as so many of my traits I’ve inherited from him. Baker’s cracking last line made me laugh — some days just walking out onto this green earth feels like fucking miracle.

For other Tuesday Poems check out the hub.

Tuesday Poem: ‘A Story About the Body’ by Robert Hass

A Story About the Body

The young composer, working that summer at an artist’s colony, had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she mused and considered answers to his questions. One night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, “I think you would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you that I have had a double mastectomy,” and when he didn’t understand, “I’ve lost both my breasts.” The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity–like music–withered quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, “I’m sorry I don’t think I could.” He walked back to his own cabin through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the bowl–she must have swept the corners of her studio–was full of dead bees.

‘A Story About the Body’ must be one of Hass’s most famous poems. I read it as part of a creative writing reader long before I bought his collections. It comes from Human Wishes (1989), Hass’ third collection, and a collection which has the most apt title for poetry. I think critic Dob Bogen most accurately describes the collection when he says it ‘captures both the brightness of the world and its vanishing.’ So many of these poems are concerned with loss, transience, and with the process of seeing something disappear; even in this poem the young man’s ‘radiance’ withers from his chest. In Human Wishes Hass really gets into longer lines, and an entire section is dedicated to prose poems. I can’t get enough of them–they so completely inhabit and create a world.

For other Tuesday Poems check out the hub.

Tuesday Poem: ‘Olive’ by Emily Dobson

Olive

I should have been
a beautiful woman.

*

I was tired of dealing
with the everyday waste
of an ordinary life.

*

The twins stand back to back
in the shower — they
won’t let me wash them.

One says,
‘I don’t want to die.’

The other says,
‘Have I kissed you?
I want to kiss you.’

*

Holes have throats.

*

Norma’s on the deck calling:

Here it is Jude, it’s in the beetroot.
It’s here, it’s in the beetroot!

*

I thought I smelt the sea
but it was only the freshly cut grass
and gathering of seagulls.

*

A house
with four bathrooms.
Four dignified baths
to slowly wash herself in.

*

Olive with her back turned
in a boat.

Only a few collections of poetry make me want to get to know the poet. Emily Dobson’s collection, The Lonely Nude, makes me want to take her out for a drink. I imagine, at the start, that she’d be shy like her poems. I also imagine that once we got talking — and I think that talk would be about poetry as a craft, and the importance of a single word, and how when used as well as you can, you can transfer some of life’s strange melancholy to the page — we’d be fine.

Dobson has an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University, for which she was awarded the Adam Prize. She was also awarded the 2005 Schaeffer Fellowship to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the United States. From her MA came her first collection, A Box of Bees (VUP, 2005), which details growing up in the Hawke’s Bay in a family of apiarists. I did my own MA in 2006, and like all collections published the year before you do your MA, they are a thing of wonder; something to aim for. I’m very glad to see her second collection has made it into the world.

You can find my full review of The Lonely Nude on Landfall Review Online.

For more Tuesday Poems check out the hub.

Tuesday Poem: ‘The Beginning of September’ by Robert Hass

The Beginning of September

I
The child is looking in the mirror.
His head falls to one side, his shoulders slump.
He is practicing sadness.

II
He didn’t think she ought to
and she thought she should.

III
In the summer
peaches the color of sunrise

In the fall
plums the color of dusk

IV
Each thing moves its own way
in the wind. Bamboo flickers,
the plum tree waves, and the loquat
is shaken.

V
The dangers are everywhere. Auxiliary verbs, fishbones, a fine carelessness. No one really likes the odor of geraniums, not the woman who dreams of sunlight and is always late for work nor the man who would be happy in altered circumstances. Words are abstract, but words are abstract is a dance, car crash, heart’s delight. It’s the design dumb hunger has upon the world. Nothing is severed on hot mornings when the deer nibble flower heads in a simmer of bay leaves. Somewhere in the summer dusk is the sound of children setting the table. That is mastery: spoon, knife, folded napkin, fork; glasses all around. The place for the plate is wholly imagined. Mother sits here and Father sits there and this is your place and this is mine. A good story compels you like sexual hunger but the pace is more leisurely. And there are always melons.

VI
little mother
little dragonfly quickness of summer mornings
this is a prayer
this is the body dressed in its own warmth
at the change of seasons

VII
There are not always melons
There are always stories

VIII
Chester found a dozen copies of his first novel in a used bookstore and took them to the counter. The owner said, “You can’t have them all,” so Chester kept five. The owner said, “That’ll be a hundred and twelve dollars.” Chester said, “What?” and the guy said, “They’re first editions, Mac, twenty bucks apiece.” And so Chester said, “Why are you charging me a hundred and twelve dollars?” The guy said, “Three of them are autographed.” Chester said, “Look, I wrote this book.” The guy said, “All right, a hundred. I won’t charge you for the autographs.”

IX
The insides of peaches
are the color of sunrise

The outsides of plums
are the color of dusk

X
Here are some things to pray to in San Francisco: the bay, the mountain, the goddess of the city; remembering, forgetting, sudden pleasure, loss; sunrise and sunset; salt; the tutelary gods of Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Basque, French, Italian, and Mexican cooking; the solitude of coffeehouses and museums; the virgin, mother, and widow moons; hilliness, vistas; John McLaren; Saint Francis; the Mother of Sorrows; the rhythm of any life still whole through three generations; wine, especially zinfandel because from that Hungarian vine-slip came first a native wine not resinous and sugar-heavy; the sourdough mother, yeast and beginning; all fish and fisherman at the turning of the tide; the turning of the tide; eelgrass, oldest inhabitant; fog; seagulls; Joseph Worcester; plum blossoms; warm days in January . . .

XI
She thought it was a good idea.
He had his doubts.

XII
ripe blackberries

XIII
She said: reside, reside
and he said, gored heart
She said: sunlight, cypress
he said, idiot children
nibbling arsenic in flaking paint
she said: a small pool of semen
translucent on my belly
he said maybe he said
maybe

XIV
the sayings of my grandmother:
they’re the kind of people
who let blackberries rot on the vine

XV
The child approaches the mirror very fast
then stops
and watches himself
gravely.

XVI
So summer gives over –
white to the color of straw
dove gray to slate blue
burnishings
a little rain
a little light on the water

I’ve spent the last four years studying American poet, Robert Hass. Over the next month I’m going to post some of my favourite Hass poems. This poem is from his collection, Praise (Ecco, 1979). There is a great recording of Hass reading this poem to an audience in Rotterdam.

For more tuesday poems check out the hub.

Thursday Poem: ‘the dictator’ by Kerrin P. Sharpe

the dictator

the brother of birds
smokes feathers

sucks a collar
of small black tunes

coaxes thick slices
of red berries
into his bunker

preorders gasoline
shoots his dog

crushes tiny skulls
of poison for his wife

persuades his gun to talk

I really wanted to post this poem on Tuesday but didn’t make it, so this is a Thursday poem instead. I’ve just reviewed Kerrin P. Sharpe’s new collection, There’s a Medical Name for This, for Booksellers NZ. Sharpe was born in Wellington and now lives in Christchurch where she is a poet and teacher of creative writing. Sharpe’s poems are a lot of things: condensed, arresting, often surreal, and funny. What struck me about this collection was the way the poems slowly reveal themselves to the reader (her writing is deliberately elusive), and then, figuratively, knock you out.

Poem posted with permission from VUP. For more Tuesday Poems check out the hub.