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.

Friday, August 10, 2018

"A Man Falls" by Lowell Jaeger, Contest Judge

"Height" Watercolor on Paper
By J. Artemus Gordon
A Man Falls
Lowell Jaeger 

A man falls from a tall building,
arms flailing to catch ahold
of thin air, his baggy pants cuffs
flagging, ribbons of hair raised
in the breakneck speed of his descent,

now halted in the split-second
shutter’s click, the image suspended
for the mass of us to gaze upon
and wonder. Fire?  Financial ruin?
Any one of many possible nightmares

plaguing us all. So much is just a guess,
day to day, as each of us climbs
from his slumbers. As each of us faces
gravity’s ascendancy prevailing.
In this instance, someone with a camera

happens by. Reminds us how uncertain
— each sunrise — our separate destinations.
And yet, when we fall,
we all fall down.

Poet's Notes:  In my travels as Montana Poet Laureate, I’m often asked this basic and honorable question: “What is poetry?”  Here’s the answer I’ve learned to give: Poetry is an art, and so is dance, music, photography, film, painting, sculpting. All arts are anti-anesthetics. Before surgery, we are administered anesthetics to numb our senses and dull our brains.  Poetry and other arts want to do the opposite; the arts want to awaken our senses and quicken our brains. At times when our circumstances are difficult, we consciously or unconsciously deaden ourselves to shield ourselves from pain. What does it mean to be truly alive? Poetry wants us to be truly alive; even when life gets complicated and painful, poetry wants us to experience life head-on.  “Poetry should not prettify life;” said Robert Frost, “poetry should take life by the throat.”

The Pulitzer Prize photo which inspired my poem awakened my senses and quickened my brain.  A picture can indeed say a thousand words.  I tried to find the words to express how the photo made me feel, made me think.  It’s a painful photo to view and oddly surreal.  I felt the man’s horror to be flailing in thin air.  His contorted face is much akin to Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream.”  The ambiguity of the man’s circumstances is the ambiguity with which we all live, falling day by day to our inevitable deaths.  This sounds dark and unbearable.  But isn’t death a fact we can’t deny?  And if we face the fact of death, how does this change the way we live our lives?  Can it change us for the better?

The Lakota warrior Crazy Horse is credited with saying, “It is a good day to die.”  A Lakota friend explained to me that the emphasis in that statement isn’t on the dying part, but rather the “good day” part.  A good day is when I am truly alive, when I walk in beauty, when I’m engaged in the world around me, when I’m appreciative of life’s difficult mysteries . . . and if I die, I go knowing I’ve experienced a full measure of what I’ve been put here for in the first place.  My poem is a thank you to the photographer who enlivened me with this visual anti-anesthetic.

Editor's Note:  "A Man Falls" first appeared in Clover--A Literary Magazine.  It is unfortunate that despite racking Lowell his memory and several long searches of the internet, neither one of us could find the photograph that inspired this poem, leaving our Art Editor free to do what he saw fit.  I find the arm-and-hand-shaped shadow particularly moving.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

"Animal Behavior" by Lowell Jaeger, Contest Judge

Animal Behavior
Lowell Jaeger 
"Guest" Ink on Paper
By J. Artemus Gordon

She’d sputtered her droppings on the living room rug
and crushed them into the weave with her hooves.  Chewed
couch cushions to confetti.  Rammed the pantry door
and tore open sacks of flour.  Ravished
ten pounds of potatoes and a bag of pungent onions.
Vomited and curled up for a nap beside the stove . . .

where we discovered her upon our return from town.
Had we not latched the front door securely?  Who knows
how long she’d waited to escape beyond the gated
pasture?  Or how she’d lucked into the lavish comforts
of heated rooms? Giddy and amazed, the old ewe
must have partied half the afternoon like a drunken sailor

on shore leave. Then to be awakened by our curses,
kicked in the ribs, and dragged by the ears.  To be exiled
behind barbed wire, alone in the cold wind.  To offer
wide-eyed dumbfounded witness as her people howled
like savages and raged beside a trash fire in the drive.

Poet's Notes:  How strange is our relationship to other species.  How strange that we perceive our species as something “other” than animal.  Yet, so often I see humans behaving according to our deeply seated animal instincts and I see animals behaving strangely civilized. Many of my poems are musings upon these sorts of observations.  To see beyond the mundane and simplistic, to glimpse the conundrum of paradox--that’s the poet’s job.  Yes, it’s the poet’s job to complicate things, to reveal the complexities of what we take for granted, what seems ordinary.  “Poetry shouldn’t prettify life;” said Robert Frost, “poetry should take life by the throat.”

I once watched a herd of elk grazing near a salt lick in the meadow behind my home.  The cow elk were bunched together grazing peacefully, conversing with each other, gossiping.  Several bull elk circled the periphery, posturing and bellowing.  Now and again, two bulls would challenge each other, lower their heads and knock antlers together.  This, in turn, caused the cows to cease grazing and to look upon the bulls with alarm.  The bulls basked in the attention.  The cows seemed partly worried, partly annoyed.

Shortly thereafter, I found myself in the wildlands of a biker-bar in Great Falls, Montana.  The biker ladies were bunched together in the center of the dance floor, grazing on snacks and beers, conversing, gossiping.  Rough looking biker dudes circled the periphery, posturing, working themselves up to their best tough-guy huffs and hoots and hollers.  Now and again one man would butt shoulders with another, or one man took another man by the collar and held him menacingly.  This, in turn, caused the ladies to look upon the dudes with alarm. The dudes basked in the attention.  The ladies seemed partly worried, partly annoyed.  “Take it outside,” someone commanded.

Editor's Note:  "Animal Behavior" was previously published in Or Maybe I Drift Off Alone, Spillway, and Wisconsin Review.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

"After Second Shift" by Lowell Jaeger, Contest Judge

After Second Shift
Lowell Jaeger

"Cold Meeting" Ink on Paper
By J. Artemus Gordon
She’s stopped to shop for groceries.
Her snow boots sloshing
up and down the aisles, the store
deserted: couple stock boys
droning through cases of canned goods,
one sleepy checker at the till.

In the parking lot, an elderly man
stands mumbling outside his sedan,
all four doors wide to gusting sleet
and ice.  She asks him, Are you okay?
He’s wearing pajama pants, torn slippers,
rumpled sport coat, knit wool hat.

Says he’s waiting for his wife.
I just talked to her on the pay phone 
over there.  He’s pointing at
the Coke machine. What pay phone?
she says.  That one, he says.
It’s cold, she says and escorts him inside.  

Don’t come with lights
and sirens, she tells the 911 
dispatcher.  You’ll scare him.

They stand together. The checker
brings him a cup of coffee.  
They talk about the snow.
So much snow.

They watch for the cop.
This night, black as any night,
or a bit less so.

Poet's Notes:  I’m pleased to tell you that this poem was featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac (see Editor's Note).  Of all my poems, a certain few move from reader to reader and seem to catch on via a mysterious power of their own.  Why do some poems strike a chord with a broad readership while others do not?  I suspect it has something to do with the poem succeeding in reminding us of what is essentially human, what is universal.  Isn’t this also the power behind ancient myths and tales which have lasted over the centuries?

Indeed, I mostly stole this story from a student. The assignment: define “kindness” by writing a narrative essay describing in detail an incident in your life when you experienced giving or receiving an act of kindness.  The student told the story I re-told in my poem.

I said I “stole” the story but I don’t think that’s exactly what happened.  The story touched me, reminded me of what is essentially human.  I fell in love with the story.  I wanted to add the story to my story.  I wanted to pass it along.  “Amateurs borrow,” said T.S. Eliot, “professionals steal.”  That may not be exactly what he said (see Editor's Note), but it’s what I heard from someone else who heard it from someone else, etc.  So I pass the story on because it is an echo of something worth pondering.

Editor's Note:  Listen to Garrison Keillor recite "After Second Shift" here  Cue the recording 2:54 or just listen to the whole presentation.  Personally, I could listen to Garrison Keillor read the phonebook.

In addition to being featured on Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac, "After Second Shift" was previously published in Blotter Magazine, The Kindness of Strangers AnthologyOr Maybe I Drift Off Alone, Soundings Review, and The Writer's Almanac.

The actual, word-for-word quotation attributed to T.S. Eliot and paraphrased by Lowell (and many others) is, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal,"

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

"Dinosaurs" by Lowell Jaeger, Contest Judge

"Discovery" Watercolor & Ink on Paper
By J. Artemus Gordon
Lowell Jaeger 

My son and I edge our way up
steep sides of a badlands ravine.
We stare at scrabble, scanning for shards
of fossilized bone, searching for telltale 
shades of dusty rust-orange hidden
in ancient grey ocean bottom rubble and scree.

We stare.  And stare longer.  He stoops
to gather another chunk of rib or chip of jaw,
and he can name the particular something-a-saurus
who — eons before us — foraged here
on tropical beaches now gone bone dry.

He’s hefting a canvas pack of treasure, his eyes
like raptors’ eyes, honed to razor focus.
I claim only a handful of what I suspect
could be worth holding onto, knowing I’m half-blind
in my ignorance and lack of practice.

My son, too, says he can cross the same ground
succeeding days and marvel at all he’d passed over —
histories buried, millions of years lost, now risen
transformed, invisible as we are to window seat passengers
jetting across the cloudless high blue.  We don’t exist

as far as they can see: a man and his son inching
up a difficult slope, obscured in a jumbled landscape.
While a parched wind murmurs through prairie grass.
While a meadowlark, hidden from view, trills and whistles.
Even the gods may never find us.

On the horizon, mountains continue lifting skyward.

Poet’s Notes:  At sixty-seven, I’m proud to call myself a life-long learner. Come to think of it, I’ve also been teaching for over forty years, so I’m a life-long teacher, too.  I never really cared for school–too many rules, too many schedules, too many bells and tests and grades.  What I love about teaching is that I continue to learn.  Each new semester I’m exposed to fresh faces with new ideas and novel ways of navigating the world.  Learning happens everywhere, not just in the classroom. That’s one of the best lessons I have to teach.

My son is a self-taught paleontologist.  He was born with a passion for the far distant past.  As a small child, he loved to point out to us what he called (with an excited glint in his eye) “dinosaur-land.”  We’d be on a family trip through the high plains of eastern Montana or the badlands of North and South Dakota, and he intuitively understood he was looking at ancient ocean bottom and long-gone forests where giant reptiles once thrived.  

Remember “Barney the Dinosaur?”  Someone gave my son a Barney for Christmas, and he couldn’t restrain his indignation.  “That’s not a dinosaur!” he exclaimed with serious concern that the rest of us might be confused.  No self-respecting dino would ever stoop to living as a stuffed and somewhat silly toy.

My son has let me accompany him on several digs.  What I learned most of all is that fossil hunting is hard work and takes practice.  I’m amazed to watch how my son reads the landscape to know where to start looking for treasure. I’m startled by how much he “sees” that I do not.  Isn’t that what learning is--to see and understand where we were previously unaware?  Then comes wisdom--to glimpse the great expanses of all one doesn’t know.  And then comes the thrill of wanting to know more.

Editor's Note:  "Dinosaurs" was previously published in Broad River Review, Cardinal Sins, and Earth-blood & Star-shine.

Monday, August 6, 2018

"Digging Deep" by Lowell Jaeger, Contest Judge

Digging Deep
Lowell Jaeger

"System" Watercolor & Ink on Paper
By J. Artemus Gordon
If you patrolled alleys when you were a kid
and dumped enough trashcans, sooner or later
you’d find something to carry home, something worth
tearing apart. Clocks were best —double-bell
alarms.  Maybe the glass was smashed
and the hands on the face twisted or missing,
but the works inside still swiveled and clicked

and kept time. You could watch for hours, the tines
of one gear exactly meshed with the teeth of another,
the next gear snapping a featherweight rocker arm
precisely, the rocker’s hair-thin wire tension spring
bending and relaxing, tick-tocking all afternoon.

But . . . you couldn’t resist, couldn’t stop yourself
from digging deeper, unscrewing the little screws
to separate the housing, then pinching and lifting
the miniature motion-makers free, arranging them
on the table like a surgeon dissecting someone’s brain.

Till you’ve gone beyond reassembling what’s undone.  A panic
you’ve repeated over the years, peering quizzically in the mirror
this very morning after quarreling last night with a loved one,
regretting the curious and persistent habit
of wrecking things because you won’t leave well-enough alone.

Poet’s Notes:  I’m often coaching students to let their poems go where the poems want to go; don’t force a poem to comply with the poet’s original intention. “As long as you insist on being in control of your poem, the poem will be no smarter than you are,” I say.  But letting go of control is not an easy trick to learn. We are schooled to plan a project in advance and to draw a clear map to our goal.  We want to know where we are going before we set out.

The best writers find surprising things to say, but I’d hazard a guess that they didn’t know what they were going to say before they discovered themselves saying it. Writing teachers talk about “writing as an act of discovery.”  The journey of writing should take you to places you never knew you’d go. 

It’s terrifically pleasing to me to start out on a poem with a vague notion of a topic and an uncertain sense of direction, to set down a first line and let come what may. Montana essayist William Kittredge calls this “the generative and associative powers of language.” Words want to associate with other words, sometimes words we might not have consciously chosen.  In this way, real surprises happen if we let them.  As words go about mingling with other words like a crowd on the dancefloor, they are also capable of generating direction and content we would have never guessed had we not given the words freedom to move about in the first place.

“Digging Deep” was a big surprise to me.  I didn’t have a clue where I was going, just an amorphous memory of roaming the alleyways of my childhood town, looking for small treasures. What sort of treasures?  Well . . . then came to mind (and pen) the alarm clock.  As a kid, I loved to take things apart to see what made them tick.  And then came the realization that this long habit of dissection at times goes too far, especially in relationships where one gear doesn’t always predictably move the next.  

“Wisdom,” said William James, “is learning what not to say.” Lord help me learn that wisdom!  This is how the poem surprised me.  This is what I learned from the poem.

Editor's Note:  "Diggin Deep" was first published in Earth-blood & Star-shine.

Friday, August 3, 2018

"Ernesto de Fiori’s 'Soldier'” by Lowell Jaeger, Contest Judge

Ernesto de Fiori’s “Soldier”
Lowell Jaeger

                                    “So it’s not just staying alive; 
                                                it’s staying human that’s important.”
                                                            -- George Orwell

"We Won" Ink & Watercolor on Paper
By J. Artemus Gordon
This bronze man stands hairless as a worm
on his little pad of stone with no place
left to go. Earlier he woke with his face
in his hands and his hands in the faceless warm
remains of the not-so-lucky all around.  Their sap
he wiped on his sleeves and scraped it beneath his nail.
Then he picked his way up this knoll, leaving a trail
of first his khaki shirt, his dog tags, his steel cap,
then his right boot, left boot, underpants and all
until in the grey break of day he stands
the last man left when war is done.  His hands
don’t want to touch a thing.  His bare feet forever stall.

Some days his swollen sockets ask, What have we done?
Some days his lips half sneer, We won.

Poet’s Notes:  I don’t grade student poems.  Learning to write means learning the courage to risk failure and embarrassment.  Seems unfair that I encourage students to take risks in their poems and then give them a low grade because their brave attempt at something new and different didn’t pan out.  I ask, “What did you learn from this risk?”  That’s more important than a grade.  Taking a risk is important because we’ll never discover new possibilities if we write only from the safe havens of what we already know.

The poem “Ernesto di Fiori’s ‘Soldier’” takes some big risks.  First, it’s an anti-war poem, a politically charged poem, and political poems run the risk of merely preaching “right answers” rather than nudging the reader to new insights of his or her own.  

Second, it’s a poem about a relatively obscure sculpture.  I’d seen the sculpture and I could picture the sculpture in my mind as I wrote the poem but I couldn’t be sure that readers who hadn’t seen the sculpture would be moved by the same image moving me.  (This was before the wonders of the internet, so a reader unfamiliar with this piece of art would need to make the considerable effort to hoof it down to the local library and do some research.)  

Also, it’s a formal poem, and I am not a formalist; my aesthetic choices veer strongly toward narrative free verse.  Then too, when I wrote the poem, I had no real education about Ernesto di Fiori or his work, and I was unschooled in working with metrics and rhyme.  These were the biggest risks of all; di Fiori’s sculpture moved me deeply, and I had to trust that — despite my ignorance and lack of practice — I had something worthwhile to say and language worthy to say it.

“Out of quarrels with each other, we make politics,” wrote Robert Frost, “and out of quarrels with ourselves, we make poems.”  During the Vietnam War era, I was having a huge quarrel with myself. My dad was a World War II vet, a foot soldier in Patton’s army, a survivor of the Battle of the Bulge. His parents were German immigrants, and he grew up speaking German.  I was born just a handful of years after my dad returned home from war to marry my mom, and even as a young child I sensed my dad’s lingering psychological war wounds.  He’d tell few tales of war, none of which glorified combat.  He did talk about working as a translator with German prisoners of war. “Did you see Nazis? I asked.  He shrugged: “I just saw Germans.”  Once, he teared-up and had to leave the room while telling me about how his platoon liberated a Concentration Camp in Lenz, Austria.

My dad didn’t see war as a win or lose proposition; he saw war as a human tragedy for all involved.  So when it became my turn to carry a gun, I refused.  Some days I felt like a coward, some days I felt like a hero.  Mostly I just felt torn.  Out of this quarrel with myself came this sonnet which won an award.  Rilke advised young poets, “In the darkness of night, ask yourself, ‘must I write?’”  He meant that if you weren’t soul-wise compelled to scribble poems, then go be a banker or a baker.  This implies that real writers are motivated internally more than externally; greatness comes from inspiration, not awards.  This is good advice.  On the other hand, winning the Grolier Peace Prize did a hell of a lot for me as a poet and as a citizen.  I’d taken some risks, and this validation gave me new courage.

Editor’s Note:  Lowell Jaeger was granted Conscientious Objector status but refused it in principle and became a fugitive rather than serve in the Vietnam War.  January 21, 1977, one day after his inauguration, President Jimmy Carter, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, fulfilled a campaign promise by offering a blanket pardon to anyone who had illegally avoided being drafted into military service during the Vietnam Era.

Denise Levertov awarded the Grolier Poetry Peace Prize to Lowell Jaeger for “Ernesto de Fiori’s ‘Soldier’” in 1987.  The poem was previously published in Broken Atoms in Our Hands Anthology, Poets and Writers Magazine, and War On War.  An image of The Soldier by Ernesto de Fiori may be viewed here

Artist's Note: It was tempting to make an illustration of the sculpture which inspired Lowell's poem. I decided against this because I believe it is a more authentic experience to read this poem without that visual.  I found the final line of this poem to be extremely powerful, so I decided to focus on that instead.  I used my own image for reference, which helped make the facial expression exactly the way I wanted it.