On the Poetry of “Forming One Another”

by Kristin George Bagdanov April 20, 2017

To celebrate National Poetry Month and my 10th issue as editor, I’m giving away a free poetry critique ($55) to one lucky winner. Leave a comment for our contributors and editors about how these poems affected you—share a favorite line, association, or a question that they raise. Comment on this post by midnight April 27th to be entered in the drawing. 

Congratulations to Yajaira! 

Lately there has been much talk of bubbles, walls, and divisions—forms we conjure to perpetuate the myth of isolation and individualism: that we can live our lives unaffected by others, gatekeepers of our own private kingdoms. But bodies and borders are porous; to pretend otherwise is to refuse the radical presence of others that constantly bears upon us. When to be hospitable to such influences and when to reject them is a constant struggle.

The poems in this issue consider the many ways we influence one another. They consider how myth and tradition shape our understanding of the present, how animals and plants are not separate but integral to what it means to be human, how poisons leech and cancers spread as the residue of war and destruction is passed on through generations. Together, these poems imagine the challenges and blessings of interdependence.

I'm proud to share these poems from Issue No. 42 with you. Here are just a few of the ways they have spoken to me.

“Translations” by Melissa Resser Poulin conjures Adrienne Rich’s poem of the same name. Poulin positions herself doubly within this feminist genealogy, as Rich’s “Translations” says:

You show me the poems of some woman
my age, or younger
translated from your language

Certain words occur: enemy, oven, sorrow

Poulin draws Rich into conversation, establishing a kinship of sound and sense:

tell me my sorrow
with sounds
like sparrow
or wheelbarrow

“Christmas Morning, After Illness” by Jason Tandon ponders the relationship between self and other via father and son. The child in this poem vies for the father’s attention as he taps on the windowpane saying, “Look at me, Daddy.  / Daddy, look at me.” The content of this bid is not as important as the form—the wanting to be seen, to be recognized. The poem ends without revealing whether the father will respond to the child. To do so would mean turning away from his own hard-won moment of contemplation—staring into a mirror of water, attempting to see himself. The poem suspends the moment of desire that configures all relationships—the tension between wanting to turn inward to the self and the need to turn toward the other.

John Gosslee’s “The Sacred Spaces Are Full of Pills and Smoke” and Elizabeth Acevedo’s “Medusa Teaches La Negra to Pray” both explore the role prophecy and myth, the poet as oracle who mediates history:

Gosslee writes:

The oracle doesn’t know it’s the oracle,
it just knows it’s empty until the voice passes through it.

 

Here, the oracle’s lack of self is what allows him to become a vessel for the imminent future.

Acevedo writes:

Medusa puts her ear to La Negra’s lips.
There. The border. The black. The blind.
The bound. Smell it! The blood.

Here Medusa and La Negra become linked through the trope of the ‘monstrous woman,’ as ancient myth gives form to present violence. Medusa teaches La Negra that she cannot change herself to garner praise or acceptance: “Negra, you must grow your teeth back. / They’re the only thing / that will save you.”

Charnell Peters reveals how myth shapes history in “The Good Lord Willed the Creek to Rise.”  (Read Peters' poem here.) This poem fuses the biblical flood story with Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, and all of the environmental disasters that continually expose the racist underpinnings of ecological violence—who is (not) allowed on the boat, who is (not) promised peace and restoration: 

but the white men say / the Good Lord said / no creek shall rise again / no one can be drowning / just look at the rainbow / in the oil by your feet

William Kelley Woolfitt, Michael Mlekoday, and Natalie Homer all tend to the intricate entanglements of humans, animals, plants, and dirt. Woolfitt’s poem portrays a child entrusted to the earth for safekeeping: “The earth presses the girl, she’s a seed in a warm hand.” In “Ode to Compost, Beginning with Three Lines by Ellen Bass,” Mlekoday ponders the evolutionary kinship of humans, plants, and insects, showing how we might think with nonhuman beings. (Read Mlekoday's poem here.) He imagines how the hum of an insect burrowing into an eye socket might be a hymn to some god. In doing so, he considers the risk of being truly entangled as the speaker is “pretending // this communion isn’t terrifying.” Homer’s poems consider the complex relationship between a human and her horse by juxtaposing the emotional depth of this connection with the violence still inflicted upon these animals. “Glue Market,” for example, exposes how a capitalistic system renders the bodies of unproductive horses into yet another commodity form.

Both Jason W. Selby and Benjamin Hertwig contend with familial histories of war and disease, the inability to close oneself off from harm. “Now there’s no screen to keep / pests on one side or the other” writes Selby; nor is there a screen to prevent a tumor from spreading through one’s body. Hertwig locates the narrative of his poem “after your or my war,” revealing how violence structures the relationship between grandfather and grandson. Somehow, the unspeakable pain produced by this violence becomes the very thing that unites them.

Finally, Brittney Scott and Tara Mae Mulroy explore the bodily entanglements of romantic and filial love. In “When I Am Finally Gone and You Are Waking Up,” Scott shows how intimacy always includes a certain distance, and perhaps depends upon it. In “Twins,” Mulroy also explores these twinned halves of intimacy, and how it is configured by absence and presence, closeness and distance: “we always make love with the lights on but our children reach for each other in the darkness is it fear or love will we ever know.”

I invite you to experience these poems for yourself, to let them shape you and you, them. 




Kristin George Bagdanov
Kristin George Bagdanov

Author

Kristin George Bagdanov earned her MFA in poetry from Colorado State University and is currently a PhD student in English Literature at U.C. Davis, where she studies 20th century and contemporary ecopoetics. Her poems have recently appeared in or are forthcoming from Ninth Letter, Denver Quarterly, Cincinnati Review, The Laurel Review, Mid-American Review, and other journals. She is the recipient of the 2016 Henry David Thoreau fellowship at Vermont Studio Center and is the poetry editor of Ruminate Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @KristinGeorgeB.



3 Responses

Yajaira Calderon
Yajaira Calderon

April 25, 2017

I have been thinking about the lines you mention from Acevedo’s “Medusa Teaches La Negra to Pray” nearly all day. (Actually, I have been thinking about the entire post; bubbles, borders, and walls are things I have been sadly far too familiar with, and sometimes comfortable in, for a long time). It is interesting that Medusa isn’t teaching La Negra “how to pray,” but teaches her “to pray,” which made me think that La Negra has been neglecting to do so, or perhaps suppressing or repressing it. You say, ‘Medusa teaches La Negra that she cannot change herself to garner praise or acceptance: “Negra, you must grow your teeth back. / They’re the only thing / that will save you.’” I am not quite sure that I can adequately express how much this resonates with every fiber of my being. The growing back of the teeth, “the only thing / that will save you,” reminds me of several saying in my native tongue that metaphorically speak on the power of voice, thought, and especially passion. I’m also reminded of the saying “chew on it/this,” meaning to reflect or meditate. I am reminded on the importance of our teeth for clarity in verbal communication, and for nourishment—for our survival. I have many more thoughts and feelings about this, but sadly not enough time now to devote for deciphering them. Thank you for this! (Such thoughts and feelings are absolutely my jam.)

Matthew Miller
Matthew Miller

April 25, 2017

This article reminds me why I love poetry. Looking at the “Christmas Morning, After Illness” portion, I am reminded of my own struggle. Faith adds a certain third angle to that struggle as well – turn to self, turn to the other, turn to God. What is the proper proportion? Being artfully reminded about questions that matter help to drive me forward. Thanks!

Theresa K
Theresa K

April 21, 2017

You wrote: “Lately there has been much talk of bubbles, walls, and divisions—forms we conjure to perpetuate the myth of isolation and individualism: that we can live our lives unaffected by others, gatekeepers of our own private kingdoms. But bodies and borders are porous; to pretend otherwise is to refuse the radical presence of others that constantly bears upon us. When to be hospitable to such influences and when to reject them is a constant struggle.”

You sold me a magazine subscription with that profound insight. Thank you!

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