Friday, August 17, 2018

"dust to dust" by Lowell Jaeger, Contest Judge

"Migration" Ink on Paper
By J. Artemus Gordon
dust to dust
Lowell Jaeger

dust to dust
i've heard them say
part of us 
just blown away

i sit by the river
watch it fall
can't believe  
dust is all

what about the water part
sweat and piss  
my bloody heart

drop by drop
with ocean tides 
my body’s currents ride

snow-melt trickles
in each vein
this earthen vessel
carries rain

Poet’s Notes:  So . . . one fine summer day, I escorted an Elderhostel writing workshop to nearby Glacier National Park.  We stopped at a wayside along McDonald Creek where we spread out so that each of us could sit and write and reflect in solitude.  I’ve made a good habit of writing along with my students. This takes some courage; often my first drafts are embarrassing, failed attempts to succeed at my own assignments.

That day had some magic in it.  The sunshine and azure sky above us, the snow-capped summits surrounding us, the turquoise glacial run-off rushing past beside us  . . . so many wondrous things to view, so much sensory stimuli. From where I sat on a large boulder in full sun, I could look downstream and see the others perched on ledges and fallen logs, heads bent low, scribbling in notebooks.  

I was still a relatively young man compared to the elders and as I watched them I felt a deep admiration for them.  They were old, yes, and that seemed pitiable, but they were still adventuring and learning.  I said a little prayer in my head for them and one for me, too.  I asked that if there were a life after this one, let it be like today, full of gratitude and wonder and desire.

Suddenly a warm wind hushed its way through the canyon, and in its breath . . . millions of floating angels, the white snowflake-like seeds of cottonwood trees.  This was like a scene imbued with “magical realism,” the stuff of South American novels in which the spirit world makes itself known and nudges us mysteriously.

My pen found the page, and my feelings found words.  Everything was flowing – water, wind, cottonwood seeds. The day itself was twisting toward lower elevations, and so were each of us marvelous creatures, declining year by year, all of us traveling toward some big ocean called the afterlife.

This is one of the few poems I have written that seemed to write itself. It appeared on the page that morning – magically – as if it had always been there.

Editor's Note:  "dust to dust" was previously published in Atlanta Review, Driving the Back Road Home, and Iowa Review.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

"Chores: Milking" by Lowell Jaeger, Contest Judge

Chores: Milking
Lowell Jaeger

"Head in the Clouds" Ink & Watercolor on Paper
By J. Artemus Gordon
Each of the heavy barn doors had to be lifted
on its hinges to drag it closed, for which the boy
bunched his shoulders, huffed, and struggled.
And inside the dim, Dolly waited in her stanchion,
breathing slow, her puffs of steam rising past the hayloft
through shafts of moonlight, dust-laden air
roiling in the beams.

The boy froze — with bucket and stool in hand, listened
to the night’s howl, the creaking rafters.  Listened
to his heart’s muffled drumbeat, its persistent thrum.

In a flash, the boy’s daydreaming soul
lifted through the roof’s loosened shingles
to a mind’s-eye view of the farm, its little farmhouse,
windows lit and flickering.  Mother, Father, brothers, sister . . .
each of them sailing lonely in the sweeping black emptiness
of the same small rooms.  

                                    Till the boy felt like a far-off star staring
down, aching and afraid for something he couldn’t name.

And suddenly he was glad to have chores.  Awakened
where he’d landed again inside his shoes, inside
the familiar barn, smells of manure and straw, bucket and stool

still in hand, and Dolly fidgeting with anticipation.

Poet's Notes:  We discourage children from using their imaginations.  “Stop daydreaming!” we say.  “Get your head out of the clouds.”  We praise people who “have their feet on the ground.”  We frown upon people who get “lost” in fantasy.  “Earth to Lowell,” my mother used to say, meaning I’d drifted off somewhere far away in my imagination.

We don’t know for sure what the imagination is or where it’s located or why each of us has one in the first place.  The imagination lets us see things that aren’t there, hear people who are nowhere nearby or even in the grave.  Children, especially at play, obviously are more skillful in accessing the imagination than are adults.  I’ve read somewhere that at puberty most people move from the dreamy side of the brain over to the more analytical and logical side.  No wonder kids often find adults “boring.”

Picasso said he spent his life trying to remember how to draw like a child (see Editor's Note).  He knew that as an adult, he’d lost something important.  He wanted it back.  It feels so good to let one’s imagination soar.  In some ways I still feel like a child inside--maybe most artists feel this way.  When writing a poem, I can sit and stare into nothingness for hours. I’ll come back to earth eventually, and though it feels like I’ve only just recently sat down with pen in hand, half a day has gone by in flash!  Imagining requires a focused, concentrated effort.  Most people seem to think that imagining means just letting the mind float aimlessly, like a lost balloon blown this way and that on the horizon.  Not so.

As a child, sometimes my imagination scared me.  I’d rocket toward the stars, like the boy in the poem “Chores: Milking,” and I’d be seized suddenly with a panic I couldn’t name.  Maybe I worried I’d wandered off too far and I’d never find my way back. I’ve talked with many kids who tell me they have experienced this.  Small children can orbit the Milky Way while waiting in the lunch line. Children can ponder the meaning of existence while walking home from school.  This can be overwhelming at any age.

I was in seventh grade when I first heard Robert Kennedy’s words, "Some men see things as they are, and ask why.  I dream of things that never were, and ask why not."” Those words say a lot about the power of the imagination.  Do people with intact imaginations have a more stable hold on reality because they see past the illusions which limit most minds? It’s strangely pleasurable to think “out of the box.”

Editor's Note:  The precise quote attributed to Pablo Picasso is, "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child."

"Chores:  Milking" was previously published in Earth-blood & Star-shine, and Verse Virtual.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

"Bull-Headed" by Lowell Jaeger, Contest Judge

Lowell Jaeger

Jerk ’em, Dad said, when a bullhead
tugged a bobber under and swam
for deeper bottoms farther from shore.
"Bullhead" Ink & Watercolor on Paper
By J. Artemus Gordon
Look at ’em fight, Dad said,
as we heaved from muddy depths
a slick black fish thrashing thin air.

Had to admire the frenzy: fish
flip-flopping in the grass, Dad’s
hopping hot-foot pursuit, till
he’d boot-stomped the fish stupid
long enough to rip the barb from its jaw.
Or the hook snapped like a brittle stick
in the fish’s clamped steely smirk.

Don’t touch the bastard, Dad said.
My brothers and I stood close, wincing when the bullhead’s
quick spines cut Dad’sthumb to bleed.
Had to admire the monster’s huff, gills gasping 
in the catch-bucket, beady eyes glazed
light-blinded and still staring back.

Admired him even worse, when Dad
nailed him to a chunk of two-by-six
 ‒ a twelve-penny spike through his brain ‒
and still he twitched and refused
to quit.  Dad slit him, grabbed the hide
with pliers and stripped it. Axed

the bull’s head clean from the rest 
of its connections. And still the gills
opened a little and closed.  Opened 
and closed.  In a heap of entrails, 
a heart the size of a wart, determined
it would not stop beating.

Poet's Notes:  Montana poet Richard Hugo wrote with reverence about alders and catfish (see Editor's Note).  Literary scholars and critics contend that, for Hugo, alders and catfish are symbols of stubborn persistence and resilience in face of adversity. That could be true and probably is . . . but I know as a poet I’m not consciously in the business of loading my poems with figurative devices. 

We do a disservice to students and other readers in perpetuating the notion that writers hide meaning inside complex tropes and that scholarly analysis is the only way to appreciate and understand a poem.  Billy Collin’s poem “Introduction to Poetry” (see Editor's Note) humorously complains that too often we want to tie a poem to the chair and beat the meaning out of it with a rubber hose. That poem, too, is loaded with symbols, pretty strong ones, but first and foremost Billy Collins just wants us to laugh.

I’ll venture a guess that Hugo wrote about alders and catfish because they fascinated him, caught his imagination. He recognized their marvelousness, their unrecognized magnificence, and he wanted us to do the same.  

A critic could make lots of deep psychological propositions about my poem “Bull-Headed.”  Is it a poem about the father’s power and the son’s awe of his father? Or does the poem abstractly want the reader to philosophize upon the hidden inner workings of the wild? Or is it a poem simply and directly about a fish and a boy’s fascination to look upon a heap of guts and see a real heart still throbbing?  It’s a praise poem, I think.  

Editor's Note:  Those interested in learning more about Richard Hugo may look here

"Introduction to Poetry" by Billy Collins may be read here

"Bull-Headed" was first published in The Alembic, How Quickly What's Passing Goes Pastand Verse Wisconsin.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

"Bread and Meat and Cheese" by Lowell Jaeger, Contest Judge

Bread and Meat and Cheese
Lowell Jaeger

"Currency" Ink on Paper
By J. Artemus Gordon
As a tourist, I yearn to ramble
cobbles worn to a visible groove
through centuries, pathways
carved by mules and carts.

I want to stand in a 500-year-old plaza
and read names on the plaques of statuary
 – architects, warriors, princes, and poets –
then lift my gaze to nearby high-rise
citadels of glass and chrome glinting
under the persistent sun, as if to promise
an end to the age of suffering and injustice.

I don’t want these beggar children,
smudge-faced runny-nosed reminders
of lasting desperation.  Hands
adjuring from shadowed doorways.
Or packs of disconsolate voices, whining
and buzzing at my ears like stinging gnats.

The front-desk attendant advises: As long
as you provide them with coins,
their meth-addicted parents
will send them out collecting.  He looks away
and adds: Imagine what happens
if they return home empty-handed.

You look hungry, I say to a beggar-child.
I am, she replies.  When I offer her bread
and meat and cheese, she refuses.
Her eyes are the eyes of a mad dog.
She stares at the food.  Impossible

to name her sadness.
It’s so much bigger than that.

Poet's Notes:  To paraphrase Yeats, “Out of quarrels with each other, we make politics, and out of quarrels with ourselves, we make poems” (see Editor's Note). I do find that I am often compelled to write my thoughts and imaginings down when I am in turmoil.  Lots of people have written about the benefits of thinking on paper.  It’s like Freud’s “talking cure,” except there’s no therapist in the room, just a notebook, a pen, and a troubled mind.

Some of my poems are more accurately biographical than others.  I don’t think, as poets, we are bound by facts.  We are not journalists, not scientists, not judges, not lawyers. Poets can bend the facts in order to tell the truth.  The deep truth of a situation—the emotional, instinctual, spiritual truth—can be obscured by particular facts which from a far view are more or less irrelevant to larger meanings.

Having said this, it’s now time to confess that for the most part the poem “Bread and Meat and Cheese” recounts—with fidelity to the facts—an experience my wife and I had in Mexico City in which we encountered a pronounced quarrel within ourselves. We wanted a vacation from seriousness. We wanted to relax and stroll through the streets at leisure. But we couldn’t ignore the beggar children though we tried, and this became a mental battle.  Then, once we were willing to admit into our consciousness the world’s agonies, we learned the futility of trying to fix other people’s lives.  This only compounded the war within us.

I’m not sure that the above quote of Frost’s is entirely true.  I made this poem to bring some stability and balance to my own thoughts but I see it now as a distinctly political act.  Poverty and drugs bring pain.  Innocent children suffer.  That’s a political message.  Opening our eyes to the problem is surely the necessary first step toward change.

Editor's Note:  The precise quote attributed to William Butler Yeats is, "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry."

"Bread and Meat and Cheese" first appeared in Earth-blood & Star-shine.

Monday, August 13, 2018

"Don’t Be Obscene" by Lowell Jaeger, Contest Judge

Don’t Be Obscene
Lowell Jaeger
"Redacted" Ink on Paper
By J. Artemus Gordon
Like shoving your arm
up a cow’s vagina, says
the freckle-faced ranch kid.

Don’t be obscene! says
his teacher.

I’m today’s classroom guest.
We’d been discussing
our country’s quagmire wars
in foreign lands.
Our brothers, fathers, sons
in uniform.

You go in hoping you’ll 
save the calf, says the kid.
You’re only guessing, groping
for what’s wrong and how
to set it right.

Don’t be obscene!
his teacher insists, sternly.
She’s worried I’ll be offended
by the kid’s unexpected metaphor.

Deeper than your elbow, says
the kid, before you know it.
Kinda stuck for what comes next.
Now there ain’t no quick exit.
Now there’s gonna be pain.

Poet’s Notes:  I’ve visited lots of schools as Montana Poet Laureate--grade schools, high schools, and colleges.  I’ve learned as a speaker/reader/presenter how to coax the audience to join in on the discussion.  When someone raises his hand and asks, “What are your thoughts on how poetry should be taught?” I take a deep reflective breath and reply, “What are your thoughts?”  This visibly surprises people.  

In our culture, when we gather together, too often we are expected to sit passively and listen. The “expert” at the front of the room is supposed to know more than we do.  I like to say, “Tell me more.”  Or, “Please expand on that.”  I also like to use, “Who can add to what’s just been said?” Or, “Does anyone have an alternative point of view?”

Montana is rich with folks who live on ranches and farms, hearts and minds in direct contact with the natural world.  They are poets and they don’t know it.  They are more at home with concrete realities than they are with abstractions.  When asked to explain an idea, they will ground their thoughts by using real-world specifics. At times, as in the poem “Don’t Be Obscene,” they will employ metaphor with remarkable ease.  “No ideas but in things,” said the poet William Carlos Williams. He would have admired my Montana students.

And isn’t war itself obscene?  Strange and ironic how a word like “vagina” is taboo and to talk about reaching into a cow’s womb to turn an unborn calf causes embarrassment and discomfort.  I know an effective metaphor when I hear it because it causes me to “see” via comparisons I’d never imagined. Poetry wants us to speak about things that are difficult to discuss.  Poetry wants, as Robert Frost said, “to take life by the throat.”  Poetry wants to illuminate, not prettify and euphonize.

Editor's Note:  "Don't Be Obscene" first appeared in Earth-blood & Star-shine.