Pocket Prose


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What poem are you going to carry in your pocket on April 30 [Poem in Your Pocket Day]?
— Cassy, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I am going to carry at least three, and they’ll be color-coded, so that I’ll be sure to read the appropriate poem to the appropriate audience.

My green poem, for all audiences, will be Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “My Father and the Fig Tree”:

“I’m talking about a fig straight from the earth — gift
of Allah! — on a branch so heavy it touches the ground.
I’m talking about picking the largest, fattest,
sweetest fig
in the world and putting it in my mouth.”
(Here he’d stop and close his eyes.)

The poem is accessible and innocent, and its dialogue will enable an animate reading. Its themes are powerful: the loss of leaving a homeland and the isolation of an immigrant’s life.

My yellow poem, for mature audiences, will be one of Kim Addonizio’s poems (meaning, Cassy, if you don’t make a mature audience, this poem’s not for you):


but you know how to raise it in me
like a dead girl winched up from a river. How to
wash off the sludge, stench of our past.
How to start clean. This love even sits up
and blinks; amazed, she takes a few shaky steps.
Any day now she’ll try to eat solid food. She’ll want
to get into a fast car, one low to the ground, and drive
to some cinderblock shithole in the desert
[…] So to hell
with your warm hands sliding inside my shirt
and your tongue down my throat
like an oxygen tube. Cover me
in black plastic. Let the mourners through.

Sex!…and death? Wonderful.

The red poem is for those who have the Look. I can always recognize the Look on the faces of my New England neighbors in the winter and throughout the cruel spring, saying, “Read me a poem. Make sense of this ache. Tell me someone understands my pain.” My red poem will be a poem by Paul Celan (translated by Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh), who endured innumerable persecutions as a Romanian Jew and survived the Nazi concentration camps.

Pain, the Syllable

It gave itself into your hand
a You, deathless,
where all self encountered itself. There was
a vortex of voices without words, empty forms
and all went into them, mixed
unmixed and
mixed again.

The poem goes on, but that’s enough to rock my world.

I’m from The Weekly Rader, an arts and culture blog that’s been dedicating its April posts to poetry. Why do you think a poet is a good person to write an advice column?
— Dean Rader, San Francisco, California

In his essay “The Poet and the Audience,” poet Michael Ryan asserts that the poet was traditionally the central figure of a tribe, the “shaman-healer.” Because she was much closer to the gods, her “divine madness” kept the tribe together through her songs and chants. I don’t assume all readers are in the same metaphorical “tribe,” that all look to the same poet for guidance, which is why I use multiple poetic voices to give advice. The other poets have already done all the work, and being a devoted poet myself, I have studied them and continue to study them every day. I know where to look.

But before this gets too dry, let me take Ryan’s essay one step further:  The poet, being much closer to the gods, is most likely always right, meaning, of course, that one should always listen to her — and “the poet” is a flexible term, a transcendent state that could also be called the speaker of a poem. Frank O’Hara was a poet, but he also drank too much, so one likely should not have listened to everything he said. But one should listen to what his speaker says in “Ave Maria”:

Mothers of America
let your kids go to the movies!

Please enjoy the rest of Poetry Month responsibly. • 27 April 2009