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Free Verse 2015: A New York Miscellany

For poets, spring is a time of — complexity. Even when it’s perfectly wonderful for everyone else, for the poet it can be a time to discover, like Henry Howard, that sorrow is often worse if you’re surrounded by amorously disposed turtledoves and busy honeybees. Sometimes the sweet rain and breeze make everything so fine in Poetryland that little birds become too happy to sleep. But even Chaucer’s spring is uncomplicated only in prologue, and you soon get monstrous jealousy, hypocrisy, and flatulence. In Dickinson’s Amherst, spring light “waits upon the Lawn” in an eerily noncommittal attitude, and “almost” — almost! — “speaks to you.” Claude McKay immortalizes the spring day spent “Wasting the golden hours indoors,/Washing windows and scrubbing floors.” Shakespeare’s song of daisies and violets cheerfully relates spring to the increased threat of adultery. Whitman’s lilacs smell of murder. And it’s hard not to feel uneasy about Denise Levertov’s rabbits, who “bare their teeth at/the spring moon.”

 

A parallel complexity of feeling has developed, over the past century, about poetry itself, which some people argue is dead and others argue is not dead. Whatever your opinion (more nuanced, I hope, than these), you might sense this anxiety in the public sphere, blooming modestly with the daffadowndillies, each April. This is because, in addition to being Occupational Therapy Month, Confederate History Month, Financial Literacy Month, and eight other types of month, April is National Poetry Month. Some poets are suspicious, whether they think poetry is unquestionably dead or unquestionably alive. Good things have come from National Months. Still, when your group gets one, it can be sort of like spring itself, hopeful and inspiring, but suggestive of a brief official hiatus from cold and drought.

Among the good things to come from National Poetry Month is this, the second poetry issue of the Village Voice, which, being the second, is also the second annual poetry issue. The Voice has a circulation many times that of the typical literary journal. This is good for readers and poets. I was thrilled when the Voice‘s editor, Tom Finkel (the son of poets Donald Finkel and Constance Urdang), asked me to assemble poems for the issue. The poets whose work you’ll read here, all of whom live in New York City, are some of the most remarkable and compelling poets now writing anywhere. You can also hear them read their poems by calling the Voice‘s handy Dial-A-Poem line, at 646-918-1616. When you can dial 1 to hear John Foy, or 2 to hear V. Penelope Pelizzon, how bad can April really be? It’s spring. It’s National Poetry Month, for Christ’s sake. Read a poem. Dial a poem. Lhude sing, cuccu!

—Joshua Mehigan Guest Editor

This poetry issue is in memory of Philip Levine (1928–2015), Pulitzer Prize–winning poet, former U.S. Poet Laureate, and a contributor to the first Village Voice poetry issue.

Free Verse 2015 contributors will read their poems on Monday, May 11, at KGB Bar (85 East 4th Street; 212-505-3360). Festivities commence at 7 p.m. Admission is free. Please buy libations, though — and tip liberally.

* * *

Single Gay Uncle By Jason Koo

Single Gay Uncle, he thinks, looking at the drink
in his hand. That’s what I’ll call this.
— Alexander Chee

In an Old Soul glass, add one part what you think
You should like and one part what you do like,
One part the person you hope you are, one part

The person you are. Muddle. Add a dash of bitters.
And another. And another. Add that night you sat
Next to the one other Asian at another all white

Williamsburg bar and she could barely look at you,
Trying to shake you off like some butthead brother
As she split sweet potato fries and talked parallel

Parking with the cute white lesbian next to her.
Add the tattoo of a target on the slope of her chest
That said HAPPY in the bull’s-eye. Add the Korean

Characters on her inner wrist that you could say
But not understand, until she deigned to explain
They meant day by day, she lived her life day by day,

You see, as if the philosophy were better in Korean, add
Gimchi and galbi and gochujang and you could make
A cooking poem out of this and dedicate it to your mother.

Add the afternoon in the backseat of mom’s minivan
On the way home from tennis when she asked you,
Point blank, if you were gay, because you’d never had

A girlfriend and seemed sad and lonely all the time.
Maybe the lack of a girlfriend was a reason, maybe
The all-boys school where you got taunted as bowlegged

Didn’t help, maybe the fact you spent your weekends
Studying for the SAT made things worse, but sure,
Diagnose the problem as gayness, she might as well

Prepare you for an America where everyone assumed
You were gay or effectively so, brushing your cock aside,
Especially if you were neat, slim, well-dressed and

Wrote poetry. Add the night you kissed a blond
Former Miss Austin (supposedly) in the bathroom
At your friend’s 40th birthday party shortly after

She invited you into said bathroom to (it turns out)
Watch her pee, you thought she wanted to make out
But then you watched her pee, acting casual, then

You did make out and this had to be a coup in the history
Of the subjugation of Asian American men’s sexuality.
But after you emerged triumphant from the bathroom

And chatted with your friends in the kitchen and one
Took a picture of you and Miss Austin, she grabbed
The phone and flushed it where her pee had gone

Because she thought it had naked pictures of her on it,
Apparently this was an ongoing problem for Austin
In the state of Texas, and so you couldn’t celebrate

The coup because you had to make peace, conferencing
With her in the master bedroom where, rather than
Some loony makeup sex starting, she said she thought

You were gay, she only trusted you in the bathroom
Because you were gay, i.e. Asian, oh you knew she was not
What you should like but what you did, all the men

At the party did even as they made fun of her for being
Insane and you by association, now the story was
How you’d gotten your friend’s phone flushed down

The toilet for whatever you did to make this girl go
Batshit cray in the bathroom. Add the party years later
In Houston where your friends laughed over the story,

Their laughter laced with resentment, as if they’d
Never forgiven you for having gotten so lucky, at least
You got to taste what you did like a single gay time.

Add enough bitters? The rocks should be there
Already. Stir until chilled, until the glass says uncle,
Until you don’t know how you feel about you anymore.

Jason Koo is the author of two collections of poetry, America’s Favorite Poem (C&R Press, 2014) and Man on Extremely Small Island (C&R Press, 2009), and winner of the De Novo Poetry Prize and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Members’ Choice Award for the best Asian American book of 2009. He won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and New York State Writers Institute. An assistant professor of English at Quinnipiac University, Koo is founder and executive director of Brooklyn Poets, a nonprofit organization that celebrates and cultivates the poets, poetry, and literary heritage of Brooklyn, where he lives.

* * *

September By Geoffrey O’Brien

“I’m losing it”

you reach for what must have been
at hand a moment ago

a song or TV show
the thing you were going to smoke

“I’m losing it”

the string or button
that held it together

the photographs saved from disappearance
by the one who is disappearing

Among Geoffrey O’Brien‘s seventeen books are seven collections of poetry, including the recently published In a Mist (Shearsman). He lives in Brooklyn Heights.

* * *

Match-seller, 1927 By Adam Kirsch after a photograph by August Sander

Because a man with nothing left to sell
Is an abstraction that cannot exist
As long as there’s a purchaser who will
Pay him to be a slave or orifice,
The destitute must play at the charade
Of taking part in the economy
With two-cent matches that he has displayed
In an attempt to claim the dignity
Of the small businessman who would recoil?
To pass him on the street and realize
How easily the petty-bourgeois fall
Into the class they’re brought up to despise —
The honest poor whose honesty consists
Of reassuring the uneasy rich
They won’t get angry or vote Communist
As long as someone comes to buy a match.

Adam Kirsch‘s third book of poems, Emblems of the Passing World: Poems after Photographs of August Sander, will be published this fall by Other Press.

* * *

The Soote Season By V. Penelope Pelizzon

Again these mornings where child adductions
appear most visibly in parks, light newly
minting the new leaves. Small white babies
crooked freshly diapered in the arms
Jamaican ladies offer, babies small and white
milked back to sleep on the bosoms of Russia,
bosoms that farther back in the darkness
Q-lined in from Brighton Beach, having pressed
their own babies into the arms a sister
or mother yawned wide on the couch. A green
mantilla of shadow feminizes the park.
Laconic, the dog and I walk, aristocrats
among those who know the names of pets
but meet with shyness another human’s look.

Mostly our glances stay low. We socialize
instead with strokes along a proffered jaw,
with compliments for grooming and behavior.
Wordlessly, our awkward treat is taken.
Here, with the utmost pleasure, I’ve cupped
the tapered chamfer of a greyhound’s skull
like a chalice in my palms, and bent to smell
her fur’s bouquet, the same flinted floral breath
mown grass exhales in summer. Though I am
a gaze hound that hunteth by the eye, her master
raises his look limply only as far as my chin
before he drops it like a gnawed ball
to roll across the greensward of his screen.
Incarnate time runs past us toward school.

Yoga-goers hoist over their shoulders mats
rolled cigar-wise in eco-cotton wrappers.
Downward dog. The Ommm of a long exhale
held over the park. Across the green, summer
comes bounding, promising its kale-flavored
e-cigarettes, deluscious apricot slashes
of sunset over Red Hook, bottled water
sourced at far-off fonts with lovely names,
and to cool the unctuous burn of poison
ivy waded through upstate, a Q-tip
dipped in refrigerated calamine
then dabbed between the toes, though I do this
now for myself, this remembered suburban
gentleness once my mother’s province.

What hunger led the first hominid to feed
scarce meat to a pup and thereby nurture
trust attuned to our every gesture
more fully than we can trust our species?
Before he’d rent to me, my landlord insisted
we Skype to ascertain, I gathered after
pleasantries about the block’s amenities,
sycamores, and extreme safety, although
nothing was said, that I was a person
not only sinecured and stable, but unsable.
The apartment is sunny and affordable.
I signed the lease. The dog does his business,
which I scoop in a baggie made for the job.
Around us, nannies gloze their querulous

charges with sugar, such sweetness, a fine glucose
pollen sifting over the beautiful trees.
Nana, three twins! a niblet in pigtails crows
pointing at a carriage with all-terrain wheels
adapted from a NASA rover, awed
as I am by how fecund imagination
grows when given a market, imagination
fluent, almost, as money. One walking
her antique poodle freshly pollarded
can’t not notice the nursemaids’ apartheid
— Jamaicans on the swings, Eastern Bloc
having commandeered the sandbox —
each stand-in mother’s tongue staking out
its turf on the recycled tire surface.

V. Penelope Pelizzon‘s second poetry collection, Whose Flesh Is Flame, Whose Bone Is Time, was published in 2014 (Waywiser). Her first book, Nostos, won the Hollis Summers Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award. She is co-author of Tabloid, Inc.: Crimes, Newspapers, Narratives, a study of the relations among American sensationalist journalism, photography, and film from 1927 to 1958. Her awards include a 2012 Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship and a Discovery/The Nation Award.

* * *

The First Person Who Will Live to Be One Hundred and Fifty Years Old Has Already Been Born By Nicole Sealey
for Petra

Scientists say the average human
life gets three months longer every year.
By this math, death will be optional. Like a tie
or dessert or suffering. My mother asks
whether I’d want to live forever.
“I’d get bored,” I tell her. “But,” she says,
“there’s so much to do,” meaning
she believes there’s much she hasn’t done.
Thirty years ago she was the age I am now
but, unlike me, too industrious to think about
birds disappeared by rain. If only we had more
time or enough money to be kept on ice
until such a time science could bring us back.
Of late my mother has begun to think life
short-lived. I’m too young to convince her
otherwise. The one and only occasion
I was in the same room as the Mona Lisa,
it was encased in glass behind what I imagine
were velvet ropes. There’s far less between
ourselves and oblivion — skin that often defeats
its very purpose. Or maybe its purpose
isn’t protection at all, but rather to provide
a place, similar to a doctor’s waiting room,
in which to sit until our names are called.
Hold your questions until the end.
Mother, measure my wide-open arms —
we still have this much time to kill.

Born in St. Thomas and raised in Apopka, Florida, Nicole Sealey is a Cave Canem graduate fellow as well as the recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant. She is the author of The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize (forthcoming from Northwestern University Press). Her other honors include a Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize from the American Poetry Review, a Daniel Varoujan Award, and the Poetry International Prize. She is the programs director at Cave Canem Foundation.

* * *

May Light By Rachel Hadas

The pale green leaves are a correction
of stubborn double vision.

Hope and fear, twins intertwined,
pause in their tussling, sniff the wind,

which, grey and cool and damp and warm,
strokes the face and softens stone.

Spring’s less a season than a quiver
of luminous ripples from the river,

purging winter’s musty night,
opening windows to let in light.

Rachel Hadas is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, essays, and translations. Forthcoming are a prose collection, Talking to the Dead (Spuyten Duyvil, 2015), and poems, Questions in the Vestibule (Northwestern University Press, 2016). She is Board of Governors Professor of English at Rutgers.

* * *

Grinder By John Foy

Not good, your playing hockey with my heart.
How fast you worked it on around in front
and fed it forward to the point, this part
of me you slapped away, without a thought
that what went skittering across the ice
was not a puck, although it looked like one,
so black and vulcanized. But no. A piece
of me it was you dumped into the zone.
You laid it back along the wall out wide,
controlling it the way you wanted to,
then skated in and checked me from behind
and took a ricochet and tipped it through,
a garbage goal, that’s all you ever scored,
and me, a grinder bleeding by the boards.

John Foy is the author of Techne’s Clearinghouse (Zoo Press/University of Nebraska Press). He lives in New York and helps to curate an uptown reading series in Manhattan. You can visit him at johnffoy.net.

* * *

Crossroads By Quincy R. Lehr

Have you heard this? — Robert Johnson met
Hermes Trismegistus in disguise
(that devil costume he’d put on sometimes
to scare the hicks), who picked up his guitar
and tuned it Dorian — all flatted thirds
and sevenths. It was almost rock ‘n’ roll,
Soviet power without the Marshall stack,
a half-completed road that hasn’t reached
the highway yet, but dead-ends in a sump
of sludgy waste and chthonic bayou air.

It’ll end badly, this carnie cultic shit
never pays as well as you think it should,
and Mom and Dad won’t get it. “Do what thou wilt”
isn’t for libertines — it’s for the nerds,
throwing away their lives, allowances,
and weekend afternoons for gatefold sleeves
and comic-book fantasies — ridiculous
unless you understand; the knowledge comes
in screams, but through your headphones or paperback
fantasies you hide from girls like porn.

That’s how it rolls — you can squeeze your spunk
into a New Yorker, even still
conjuring no magick. All the wine
you drink at the reception won’t get you drunk
or drunk enough. Your time is better spent
on hair and staying up late. An open secret
remains a secret, a deal you have to make
and seal with a sacrifice as maenads dance,
as kids fire up a blunt, as Cadmus stares —
that blushing pervert thinks he can get away.

Quincy R. Lehr‘s books include the book-length poem Heimat (2014) and the forthcoming The Dark Lord of the Tiki Bar (2015). He is associate editor of the Raintown Review, and he lives in Brooklyn, where he teaches history.

* * *

 

An April Interlude in Central Park By George Green

I checked a birder site and made a list,
but there’s a million songsters overhead
here in the Ramble: swallows (tree and barn),
with wrens and warblers (yellow-rumped and pine),
plus vireos and robins. Who just chirped?

Don’t ask. Nor can I guess the name of all
these flowers at my feet (maybe they’re violets).
Shouldn’t a poet know this stuff? He should.
Dead actresses and battles long ago I know,
and old, unhappy, far-off things.

But, hey, the artificial waterfall is gone.
They shut it off! I used to love
to linger here and listen to its light
cascade, the thinnest veil, a trickle, really.
On my way out I have to bow before

the statue of Tom Moore (a portrait bust).
He was a minor poet, to be sure,
but you can sing his poems, and he could sing himself.
His fulgent voice would rapt away
the yearning hearts enveloped in its splendor.

He kissed a lovely girl, a teenage fan, on board
a ferry boat. He kissed, she told, and when
they docked the ladies all declined to disembark.
Declined and then refused,
until Tom Moore had kissed them, each and all.

George Green‘s book of poems, Lord Byron’s Foot, won the New Criterion Prize and the Poets’ Prize. His poems have been featured in seven anthologies, including The Best American Poetry. He has lived for 34 years in the East Village and teaches at Lehman College. In 2014 he received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

* * *

The World Doesn’t End But Far From Here By Tina Chang

When tokens for the trains were no longer made,
I kept them still, traced the letter Y in the face
of the coin like a language dying. I kept the coins
in desk drawers and pockets through my youth
and used them as long as the ancient machines
would take them. The last coin I purchased
was in the year 2003 when a lost empire dissolved,
dropped by my own swift hand. It is spring now.
Cherry blossoms wait to bloom, the smell
of grass, cement, and fumes. April clings to me
as the beginning of memory. In my faulty past
there were sweatshops, noodle factories, vendors
calling, a dollar, a dollar, for a cheap trinket,
lacking in quality but it gleamed at least
one night in my hands before it broke. Found
its end. Buildings swell at the perimeter
reciting their inheritance and new narrative:
All the mouths of flowers are open,
the train doors bloom at every stop,
a shower of life above and below.
We navigate home. Rise from underground.

Tina Chang, Brooklyn poet laureate, is the author of the poetry collections Half-Lit Houses (2004) and Of Gods & Strangers (2011). She is co-editor of the Norton anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry From the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond.

* * *

The Tattooed Man Can Can-Can By Rigoberto González

A hydra spreads its many necks
across his back, cerberus barks
at the small diamond of his navel,

a python winds down his arm
until its head melds with his fist —
his fingers fan its set of fangs.

That’s my father at the circus
sideshow tent: dazzling the crowds
with his flesh menagerie of beasts —

a shark hunts on his left thigh,
a leopard pounces on his right
knee. He swears the scars

are from the scratches of its claws.
He says silly things like that
that only wide-eyed boys believe

as they gawk and giggle at this ox
of a man, mournful as a minotaur,
but just for show. At home, he uncages

ravens from his throat that rise
fiery as cardinals from his mouth.
The Medusa takes her wig off,

each tiny snake coils up like rope.
The wolf removes its scruffy frock
and sits cross-legged on a chaise

while its kill, the lamb, comes back
to life to drop two lumps into their tea.
The fringes on the lampshade shake

each time my father kicks his
heavy boots off — a veritable can-can.
Truth is: the tattooed man’s a pussycat.

Just ask his boyfriend, who can make
my father purr into the milk dish of a kiss.
When his boyfriend spends the night,

the bats over my father’s shoulder blades
unfurl their massive wings. The kids
at school wonder how I sleep with such creepy

things so near me. But what’s to fear?
Nothing weird watching shark and
leopard dance so gaily every evening.

Unpeopled Eden, Rigoberto González‘s most recent poetry collection, won the Lambda Literary Award and the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets. He is the recipient of the Shelley Memorial Award (Poetry Society of America) and the Poetry Center Book Award; Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Arts, and U.S.A. Rolón fellowships; and a New York Foundation for the Arts grant. A contributing editor for Poets & Writers magazine, he is a professor of English at Rutgers.

* * *

Quentin Crisp in Transport By John Marcus Powell

In London in the Fifties I’d loiter
and in the course of loitering, would wonder

“Is there anything marketable in me?”
And thus loitering, would come across a group

tormenting an individual.
The individual was Quentin Crisp.

In Chelsea (where Quentin lived), tourists and passers-by would question
“———That crowd? What’s happening?”—

“——a bloke wearing makeup. 75 per cent a woman!
Likes a bit of ‘how’s your father’ up his garden path.”

Thus was Quentin persecuted.
Famous for being persecuted, his wit came later. His wit came last.

In America at the beginning of the 21st century I’d saunter.
As I sauntered I would wonder

“If there’s nothing marketable in me
is there something I can give?”

And thus sauntering, wandered onto a slow bus down 5th Avenue.
Who should get on at the bus stop near the library?

Quentin! Now known in America as a writer —
self-sufficient as a character in Vermeer, flaunting
the apparatus that renders him a fugitive entertainer, a literary gem

90 years old, favored by gravity.
The bus jolts and equilibrium chooses him a seat.

As a terrestrial with extra
rouge, eye shadow, mascara, blue tint for the hair,

He shares himself without apology.
An exhibitionist never says “sorry” unless embroiled in criminology
——What in the name of face powder is there to “forgive”?

All the bus hates him.
Hate on public transport starts with a snarl in the genitals.
This snarl travels the spine to pizz-flizzle out the projectile eyes
in a vaporous fog wherein prejudice thrives.

As I exit I stop next to Quentin.
“Are you Quentin Crisp?”
“Yes.”
“Congratulations.”
“Thank you!”
“You are an inspiration” (then loudly) “to a lot of people!”

The snarl coagulates within the vertebrae as confusion reigns.
But there’s no danger of septicemia.
Soon up their spine hate snakes again,
the same old same old same old hate.

John Marcus Powell is a poet who is also an actor. He is Welsh and for the past 25 years has lived in New York. Before that he lived in London, Paris, Rome, and Oran. Harold Pinter, his favorite writer and a great influence, directed him in The Man in the Glass Booth, encouraged his writing, and helped him get his short stories published in Joe McCrindle’s Transatlantic Review. He flirts with any anarchic poet he meets and at the moment is romantically involved with Whitman, Rimbaud, and Borges.

* * *

Ode to a Serrated Knife By Jessica Greenbaum

Tipped on your back
you have
no powers
but your blade
looks like
the ocean
on a shiny day.
Whenever
I see you
the words
spare me
come to mind
even though
we know
you are the only
one
with the
right touch
for the new
bread
still warm. But
when you
separate
a piece
from its calm
loaf
it cools quickly
and if we
don’t tend to it
with our
mouths
it will just
turn to ash
good for
the birds.
Your handle
is as stocky
and sure
as a Bavarian
woman’s legs
in high black
socks. I
wonder
your intent
in the narrow
stable of the
knife block
where you alone
wear a
flounce

Jessica Greenbaum‘s second book, The Two Yvonnes, was a Library Journal’s Best Book in Poetry. As a social worker, she facilitates poetry-reading and -writing groups for older adults and will initiate one for 9-11 first responders through the WTC Health Program. She is poetry editor of upstreet and received a National Endowment for the Arts literature grant for 2015.

* * *

A Chickadee in Riverside Park By Paul Muldoon

We were just drawing level with the Port Authority
as per our usual routine
when the storm broke.
A money manager manages a heist
by standing on the shoulders of a client
the way snow relies on an evergreen
to make itself look good.
The “cowling” is a kind of engine-hood.
My sense is that the fuselage of the old de Havilland
was stitched together from birch bark.
The term “de-iced”
may date only from the early 1930s
when passengers were still on a Grand Tour
and flight attendants wore haute couture
and smoked a Turkish blend
but a chickadee in Riverside Park
has been hanging in there since the time of Christ.

You saw how a high rise casting a shadow
at 3:15
over the newly mopped floor
of the mid-town map
encouraged us to be more energy compliant.
A chickadee doesn’t so much preen
as congratulate itself on having withstood
the charms of an armoire finished in the plywood
popularly known as “blonde”
abandoned on the sidewalk by a three-legged chair.
A stopgap
forsythia exclaims Cuidado!
as if we were about to happen on mastodon spoor
and a steaming pile of mastodon manure
at 107th and West End.

You have to admit it’s with a certain flair
the chickadee tips its skullcap

at the idea of Golgotha bleeding into Gotham.
As is clear from the fossil record of the Pliocene,
North America has twice
been settled by the tit
so the chickadee is super defiant,
venting its spleen
to the assembled mob. I knew you’d
remember only the true cross is known as the Rood.
Not only a little chickadee may vent
at the threat from these darkening skies
of another hit.
Blossom-snow from a sky-gash. Perhaps snow-blossom?
The one thing I know for sure
is how rarely our motives are pure.
Even Jesus wondered if he was a godsend.
You saw how the tower crane used to build the high rise
is now enshrined in it.

Paul Muldoon is the author of twelve collections of poetry, most recently One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (2015). He is Howard G.B. Clark University Professor at Princeton and poetry editor of the New Yorker.

* * *

Poems continue on the next page.

Crossing the Divide By Yusef Komunyakaa

At 3 a.m. the city is a caul
morning tries to hide behind
& from, the coyote nosing forth —
instinct or reflex — pacing-off days

ahead, & then eighteen-wheelers
zoom around a curve of night trees,
along the rim. The blast of a horn
hangs in the verdured air of spring.

She knows her kind will follow
scent left in the grass & buzz
of chainsaws, if they can unweave
streets around the next subdivision.

She stops at the broken-off edge
of things, & then quick as that
marshals Orion & slips the maze,
darting straight between a sedan & SUV.

Don’t try to hide from her kind of blues
or the dead nomads who walked trails
paved now by gravel & tar, somewhere
between worlds, almost tamed & wild.

She edges along the bike path, going
around the lights, then across steps
of the museum, to where rats scuttle
from a huddle of garbage cans. Yes,

destiny comes to a pigeon in a bush,
ducks on the pond, & to the leaf tips,
because she has not yet forgotten
how to kill her way back home.

If it were Monday instead of Sunday
the outcome might be different,
but she’s now in Central Park
searching for a Seneca village.

Yusef Komunyakaa is the author of seventeen books of poetry, among them Pleasure Dome, Dien Cai Dau, and Warhorses, and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for his collection Neon Vernacular. Another collection, The Emperor of Water Clocks, will be published in the fall. His plays, performance art, and libretti have been performed internationally and include Saturnalia, Testimony, and Gilgamesh. He teaches at New York University.

* * *

Công Binh By Jenna Le

Boss knew I had a name, but never used it. Couldn’t pronounce it.
Didn’t care how many aunts I have, or on what beach our town sits.
He handed me a printed card to hold and took my mugshot.
The card read: Z A O 1 6. The ship’s hold smelled like dogshit,

and it was dark. The man beside me had sharp bony shoulders
and sniffed all night. The voyage lasted weeks. Marseille was colder
than I expected, and I shivered in the clothing given.
Boss gestured at some tents, said: “This is where you boys’ll be living.”

Barbed wire ran round the tents. Cars took us to and from the factory
each dawn and dusk. We toiled till we were sick. One man got bacteremia
and died in the infirmary. Another was blown to atoms
when powder he’d been told to mix caught fire: white smoke enwrapped him.

One day, the French boss disappeared; a German boss took over.
“You Indochinese dogs will answer to me now,” he blustered.
Things went on like this till the June of 1944.
We asked no questions, toiled on. It was war, but not our war.

Jenna Le is the author of Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011). Her poetry, fiction, criticism, and translations have appeared in many literary journals, including AGNI Online, Bellevue Literary Review, Massachusetts Review, and 32 Poems.

* * *

Portrait of a Child By D. Nurkse

First the newborn invented light,
then creepy twilight, dusty aspidistra,
relentless goldfish, wary eager dog,
exhausted parents. Then she rested.

She had not yet made I. She trembled
in the crook of my arm. If she woke
I commanded sleep. If she slept
I whispered wake. So she knew me.

Soon she starts on the faint stars.
When she has poked holes for Kochab
and Deneb, we’ll paste DayGlo Mars
on the acoustic tile above her crib.

She will have assembled the city,
emptiness inside an idling bicycle,
braid of roads, a deep-fissured elm.

For now she hiccups. Perhaps
she’s dreaming herself: tonight
the image is passing through her,
brushing her eyelid from inside.

D. Nurkse is the author of ten collections of poetry, most recently A Night in Brooklyn. He’s the recipient of a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Guggenheim fellowship.

* * *

winter’s end By Priscilla Becker

the figure in snow
had lips that
disintegrated, fingers
that branched apart

it had a downturned
mouth, rancid carrot
nose, hardened
eyes lacerated
with cold

the children longed
to keep him warm:
they sewed a blood
sweater
the figure
pricked their fingers
and throats (they built him
together)

they lodged a voice box
in his neck and iced
it shut
made a heart
of rope, eyelids of dried
mucus, cheeks
of underground
fruit

built brick
shoes and socks
of autumn’s fungussed
leaves
fabricated
hacks and hiccups
into trousers of illness,
protective sickness

they shot
a penny through
his destitute mouth
drop by drop released
death tincture
into his scalp

Priscilla Becker‘s first book of poems, Internal West, was the winner of the Paris Review book prize. Her second collection, Stories That Listen, was released from Four Way Books. She has completed her third book, Unaccompanied Voice, and a chapbook, Death Certificate, which will be released by Ugly Duckling Presse.

* * *

Spring Allegory By Monica Youn

dimple in the tawny
pour of snowmelt —

a long-submerged twig
or pebble,

tiny grapple
flung up to snag the new

skin of a frictionless
abundance: how

one thing is never allowed
to glide

smoothly
over the bones of another —

under fresh layers of mud
and water,

the streambed
goes on polishing its dry teeth.

Monica Youn‘s third book of poems, Blackacre, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2016. Ignatz, her second book, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2010. A former lawyer, she now teaches poetry at Princeton University and in the graduate writing program at Warren Wilson College.

 

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The Poetry Issue: Free Verse — A New York Miscellany

Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously drew a line: “prose — words in their best order; poetry — the best words in their best order.” Granted, Coleridge was a poet, not to mention a stoner of the first order, and therefore probably had a tendency to be defensive about things.

He was right, though. Had he not found life in death (to borrow a phrase) 180 years ago, dude would have been a force to be reckoned with on Twitter.

(Note to selves: Follow poets on Twitter.)

This being April — National Poetry Month, for those who keep score — the Voice thought it’d be cruel to ask Billy Collins to suggest a handful of New York poets we might reach out to for a collection of poems to share with readers. Collins, a New Yorker himself, and a former U.S. Poet Laureate, graciously obliged.

As did the poets, who, in response to our request for previously unpublished poems “about New York City, spring, or, frankly, anything you like,” supplied, to our great delight, all manner of beast.

And so we present to you the following pages. In a generation hectored for its declining readership, in an age in which pieces of writing that take longer than five minutes to read have their own hashtag, we’re pausing, ever so briefly, to honor the #shortform.

(140 characters: 100,000 chin-strokers may share a #longform story on social media. What % of that readership invests the time to digest even a single poem?)

Thanks to Billy Collins and all the poets who shared their work for this issue.

* * *

For the Children of the Student Mobilization Program

August 6, 1945, before 8:15

And, later, fire and water, wind and void,
much likelier than a city. The uncertain
figures in streetcars, busy with their thoughts
far from the bells and clatter, sway together,
west from the station to their destined stop.
The sun is shining and the sky is blue.
No smiles, few frowns. Nobody here is wild,
nobody peaceful. Often lack and tiredness
look just like mind-of-no-mind. Off they go
to work and wait for one of two or three
impossible and beautiful tomorrows.
The beer hall, office buildings, and a bank
roll by them, an absurd rear-screen projection,
a setting for a sunny modern picture,
but spoiled by children in their coats and field caps
hauling old wood away, monstrously brave.
And wouldn’t it be good to be a child,
with energy, without equivocation?
Good to be. Good to do. And as these gangs
of schoolboys do, in lots along the tracks,
to move like stern, determined monkeys through
the thicket of a neighbor’s pulled-down home.
School children everywhere go back to work.
Cinnamon-colored dust encircles them.
The false alarm is done. The three planes pass
far overhead, diminutive, ignored.
Are men inside them? Can they see our work?
What we could show the children of those men
mothers who tear them with their fingernails,
girls who cry out for mercy to ensnare them,
boys who remove their eyes for souvenirs.
One comes back laughing. Now, as he begins,
his mouth curved down, his dark brow concentrated
into the shape of an advancing gull,
straining against a roof beam, he becomes
a mountain out of reach across the water.
A patient horse the color of the dust
snorts as it tugs a wagon toward the sun.
Laughing is done. Time, now, to ward off devils.
And so we bow our heads in earnest worship,
the Hundred Million Like a Shattered Jewel,
the last remaining masterpiece of order:
boys in their gaiters, heads like kiwi fruits,
and, elsewhere, girls in bangs and pantaloons,
tall shadows in the morning moving lumber
and dry brush from anticipated paths
of cogitable fires.

— Joshua Mehigan

Joshua Mehigan’s first book, The Optimist, was a finalist for the 2005 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His poems have appeared in many periodicals, including the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and Poetry, which awarded him its 2013 Levinson Prize. His second book, Accepting the Disaster, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in July 2014.

Dogcat Soul

To be hollowed out night by night,
to feel this continuum between envy
and desire, to have the kind of fur that sheds
sparks in the bedroom’s shifting dark,
to sense, when I’m asleep, your whiskers
measuring the void around my face
that expands inexorably year by year,
to know that in your eyes God is just a bird
trapped in the burning bush, and to have
to disappoint you with my dogcat soul,
more dog than cat, really, more nakedly
beseeching, less able than you to be
out there on your own, given all that,
what makes you crave my touch tonight?
When your eyes entrap me, I splinter
into your looking, into what your looking
sees, the seeing itself stripping me down
to flesh and bone, and found wanting
my face gone vagrant, paralyzed in your pupils
yet heightened and varnished beyond fact:
I fall, am falling, I’ve plummeted beyond
the frame, no internal balance-wheel to land me
on all fours, no mechanism of grace,
no safe harbor under the radiant
engine block, the streets rippling with black ice.
But don’t turn away from me: turn my skinhead
to furhead, teach me slash, slink, creep.
Show me how to survive under a heating vent.

— Tom Sleigh

Tom Sleigh is the author of eight books of poetry, including Army Cats, winner of the John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and Space Walk, which won the Kingsley Tufts Award. His new book, Station Zed, will be published by Graywolf in 2015. Widely anthologized, his poems and prose appear in the New Yorker, Virginia Quarterly Review, Poetry, Tin House, and elsewhere.

Like a Bullet Shot
Backwards through Time

He prayed his team would win the World Cup.
She prayed he’d just care more. “If that ever
Happens,” they both loved to say to themselves,
“It’d be like I’d died and gone to heaven.”

Years later they would meet in heaven,
Heading in opposite directions. And
Like the last two beads in refused champagne,
They floated past each other and vanished.

— Rowan Ricardo Phillips

Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of The Ground: Poems (FSG, 2012), and the recipient of a 2013 Whiting Writers’ Award, the 2013 PEN/Osterweil Award, and the 2013 GLCA New Writers Award for Poetry. His next book, Heaven, will be published by FSG in 2015.

Dearest April,

Of course you’re loved by a downtown girl,
with her new belly shirt showing fresh skulls
& gardenia tattoos but, even more,
you’re cherished by the woman on 127th

still buttoned in her wool coat who stops
at the crosswalk, lifting her face
to a sun she feels all down to that gnarled
wrist, the kink and ache in her fingers

& she tilts her chin higher — more heat
down her leg until — gone that February
sidewalk fall, gone that almost
but-thank-God-not-broke hip,

& now, too, the delivery guy
who hurried into every ice storm,
bags of dumplings & soup, sushi boxed
& strapped to handlebars which today

he weaves slowly, pedaling like a kid
into a happy afternoon, where Midtown
no longer revolves out of offices
shoulder hunching into darkness

but men and women stroll through late light
making an easy gorgeous of our every face.
We’re head-over-heel fools, longing & desperate.
Don’t spring tease then bluster, April, dearest, stay.

— Victoria Redel

Victoria Redel is the author of seven books, most recently Woman Without Umbrella, a poetry collection, and Make Me Do Things, a collection of short fiction.

Poem in the Manner
of Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker
who wrote witty stories,
did not foresee
that spectacles would be-
come fashion accessories.
“Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.”

And today,
in Washington Square Park
I thought of her, Miss Parker,
and what she might say
assessing the spectacles of our day:
“Even the nicest lasses
Have tattoos on their asses.”

— David Lehman

David Lehman’s books include New and Selected Poems (Scribner, 2013) and A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Schocken, 2009), which won ASCAP’s Deems Taylor Award in 2010. He is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry and the series editor of The Best American Poetry.

Flowers of Evil
(photographs by Alexandra Penney)

When flowers start becoming something else
the possibilities are infinite.
I see acetate and savage hair,
I see concupiscence and decay,
the risible invidious things we do
and call it love. And yes I see love too:
the posturing and preening and upbraiding,
the mirrored greed, the wisecrack wit,
the syncopated sambas of our sinning
(yours rather, reader; these are not my failings,
these guilty pleasures of the happy few):
approach, attack, surveillance, twinning,
devouring and excreting, patent leather and velour
there’ll be coats and shoes that smell like you
before you know it, gorgeous avatars
of sex and sadness. And we’ll hear you murmur
that there is nothing natural in this world!

— Jonathan Galassi

Jonathan Galassi’s most recent book of poems is Left-Handed 
(Vintage).

Office Hours

Midnight on Grand River, and the car barns
are quiet, the last truck left hours ago.
The watchman dreams through his rounds.

If you entered the office now you’d find
all the old upright Smith Coronas sheathed
in their gowns, the pencils tucked in drawers,

the fountain pens dreaming of the epics
they’ll never write, the paper clips
holding together reports on nothing at all.

You’re at the heart of a nation that divides,
adds, subtracts, and never multiplies.
Before it rings, pick up the phone,

say in a voice you’ve never used before,
your Uncle Sam voice, “Yes, this is he,
tell me what you’d like to hear…”

and wait until the line goes dead.
Years ago you inherited all these desks
and the women who man them

along with all the meaningless facts
that detail the profit and loss of each day.
What’s it worth? You’ll get your answer

from the mice as they make their way
in search of anything useable left behind?
If not from the mice, then from something else
with greater purpose and a smaller mind.

— Philip Levine

Philip Levine divides his time between Brooklyn and Fresno. In 2013, he received the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American poets to go with his Pulitzer and two National Book awards. He was the 18th Poet Laureate of the U.S., but is back to writing essays and poetry. He is best known for his lyrical love poems and Detroit psalms.

You can hear these poems any time by calling 347-618-6376.

Late March

Winter drags its long dress along the sidewalk
like a woman who has forgotten what century she lives in.
The plugs are all different. Why don’t the plugs stay the same?

That woman? She wouldn’t know what I’m talking about.
But you do, don’t you? How they make you pay for the new plug
when you get the new version of the old machine?

I look into the horizon of the screen more than
into the face of the sky. I don’t see dawn come,
and rarely notice when evening arrives.

Once I lived on a farm. Chickens in the barn,
sheep in the hay. They knew when night came all right
minutes before the coyotes began to howl.

Why should I wait to watch the sky darken?
The screen is always bright — the hours come and go.
Those chickens? Dead. The sheep? Sweaters and holes.

— Marie Howe

Marie Howe is the author of three books of poetry and is the state poet of New York.

My 100th Year

The front yard festooned with bittersweet vines
that choked out so many young maples that
I just wanted to spit. But their orange
berries hang here to celebrate stubborn
life, leaky heart, the bad taste that birds know
to beak aside as so much counterfeit
nourishment. Because birds do think. And last
night’s woodchuck did take out the last of the
butternut squash thanks to the wire fence
I hung, that he dug under, shaking his
head why I never learn things belong to
each of us according to beak or tooth
or claw, maybe handed down, like acreage,

an office building, oil stocks and bearer
bonds, a priceless Rembrandt. What’s the secret
of long life? I think of the cigarette
Uncle Joe smoked forbidden on the porch,
Robert Mitchum’s wheezing emphysema,
the crackling lullaby of promises
like a mother’s kiss we wake to, the gap-
toothed old men in the Caucasus. Look at
my granddaughters playing now with their own
daughters the age their mothers were when I
began this poem, the orange berries sway-
ing over their heads, the breath I try to
conserve in the wind coming off the sea.

— John Allman

John Allman has published eight books of poetry and one of short stories. His most recent book, Algorithms (2012) from Quale Press, was nominated for the Poets’ Prize. Other recent books include Loew’s Triboro (2004) and Lowcountry (2007), both published by New Directions. He is the recipient of two writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Pushcart Prize in Poetry.

Sausage Candle

[A] longtime Manhattan resident… Ms. [Fran] Lee advised radio and television audiences on household and consumer issues from the late 1940s until well into the ’90s. Her purview ranged from cyclamates to asbestos to how to make a candle from a sausage.

New York Times obituary, February 19, 2010

S
t
i
c
k
a wick in a sausage
and light it, and you’ve got
a candle, its flame fed by fat,
not that you’d burn it
on your birthday cake,
not that you’d light two
and process to an altar,
not that you’d want one,
even a small one, flickering
over your romantic dinner.
But the sausage candle gives light.
The sausage candle gives light.
Think of the books you could read
by the light of that candle,
think of the dark passages it might,
given the chance, illuminate.
It is better to light one sausage
than to curse the darkness.
Imagine, for a moment, you dare
set a sausage candle
atop your cake, and
you close your eyes and you wish.
Think of the wishes you could make
if you weren’t afraid of the ridiculous.

— Suzanne Cleary

Suzanne Cleary won the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry for her third book, Beauty Mark, published in 2013 by BkMk Press, of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Her poems appear in journals including Poetry London and Poetry International and in anthologies including Best American Poetry. Her website is suzanneclearypoet.com. She always reads the obituaries.

The Lights Go Down
at the Angelika

and you press into the dark, imagine
the stranger two rows back, that fragile
chance you’ll forget in the second

trailer. Now it’s quiet, still
this burden of being watcher and screen
and what floats across it — light pouring out

its time and necklines and train wrecks.
What a relief to yield to the EXIT
sign red “I” blinking like a candle. What a relief

to watch something other than yourself.
Soon the enormous figures moving
across rooms, the emphatic narrative

arcs — (There’s the thrum of the subway,
its engine of extras.) Here now the beginning of trivia
tests. Warning puppets with brown bag faces and fringy hair.

You’re almost here.
But what you want
is the after. How yourself you are now
walking into the night, full moon over Houston Street,

at the bright fruit stand touching the yellow
mums. Here you are: Woman With Cilantro
listening to the rattle of the wrap,

the paper sound paper makes after you
have heard movie paper. Apples are more
Apples. Paper more Paper. Cilantro

more its sweaty green self.

— Donna Masini

Donna Masini is the author of two collections of poems — Turning to Fiction (W.W. Norton & Company) and That Kind of Danger (Beacon Press), which won the Barnard Women Poets Prize — and a novel, About Yvonne (Norton). She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, as well as a Pushcart Prize, and has recently finished a novel, The Good Enough Mother.

Influence

It’s been snowing all night,
and the gooseneck lamp on the table
is the only light on in the house,
which is the only other house for miles.

I’m going to place a silvery kettle
on the halo of little flames,
and while I wait for the water to boil,
I will pull the curtains over all the windows.

And if I still feel like it
after I carry my steaming cup to the desk
I’m going to copy out one of your poems
in my notebook with a soft pencil

then erase it and write my own poem over it
and no one, especially you, will ever know.

— Billy Collins

Billy Collins has published a dozen books of poetry and edited the anthologies Poetry 180 and Bright Wings. His latest collection is Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems (Random House). He served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003. He is a distinguished professor at Lehman College (CUNY). Born in the French Hospital on West 30th Street, he is a native New Yorker.

Spring Comes to
New York City

The trees are tall and willowy
And the fashion models are blooming in the park
Where we are walking on the newly seeded grass

Surrounded by skateboarders and joggers
And skyscrapers looming over the city
Where even the vendors seem distracted

By an ordinary weekday afternoon
Suddenly swinging its sandals over its head
And lifting the sun high over the river

— Edward Hirsch

Edward Hirsch’s most recent book of poems is The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems (Knopf, 2010). His new prose book is A Poet’s Glossary (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).

You can hear these poems any time by calling 347-618-6376.