Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Best of Week One

The first playlist of the first week of my poetry class. The list is diverse, but I've been tasked with saying something about three that I like, the ones I like the best. I suppose I should just jump right in.

This poem is mesmerizing. The images it conjures are beautiful and vivid. I can see the half-empty glasses on the tables in the room  and hear Lana Turner and Billie Holiday's voice. I think that it is especially difficult to create images for people that are this vivid when you aren't talking about something contemporary.  I love the allusions in this poem as well as the various elements Komunyakaa manages to weave into the poem.  The allusions themselves add layers of connotation and meaning to  the work. There is a tension of love and violence, of the best of humanity and the violence we can inflict upon one another. 

The poem has so much in it, the themes seem endless. You could make an argument for love, taboo, race, art, sex, etc., the list goes on. It is all there, woven in and smoothly sung out; the lyric quality of the narrative and images parallel the content of the poem. It's just beautiful. Something else I haven't fully teased out but is interesting to me is the choice of having the performers be black and the audience (who are also performers) be white, with the request of "Strange Fruit" to be played. That song in particular, named in the poem has tremendous weight, especially within the context of race relations and I'm not sure of the full implications of it. Here again we see the theme of song in the poem, coupled with performers performing for performers, there is a sense of meta and echo. Echos of time, history, content,  structure and sound. A great line that demonstrates this is "to make brass & flesh say yes."  I like a poem that unfolds incrementally, so that when I read it over, I get something new from it. This is one of those poems, and it was my favorite of the playlist.

Still in the vein of nightclubs and smoky rooms is Billy Collins' Nightclub.  Similarly I am attracted to the imagery here. The "smoke curls" and saxophone that "hangs like a fish" on the neck of a jazz musician. But the thing I liked about this poem was the tongue-in-cheek treatment of the themes of love, desire, seduction, betrayal and loss. It's a funny poem and it turns these themes into something interesting instead of it being sentimental or trite, which is difficult to do in a universe filled to the brim with examinations on love. I also enjoyed the end, which was surprising for me and satisfying.  Just at the end, Collins breaks orbit and elevates his poem to give us more than a treatment of smokey room, jazz music love - he gives us an examination of our nature, our redemption, of ourselves.

Lois Ann-Yamanaka reading, “Boss of the Food”

I choose this poem just because I it was so funny for me.  Similarly to Collins' poem, it uses humor to inform its presentation of it's subject mater: family, relationships, death and power.  It's funny, but it took me reducing the themes in the poem to single words for me to really realize what this poem has to offer fully.  I come from a good size family, there are five of us and I happen to be the first born.  That made me "the boss" of a lot of things, and nothing really either, because we all know that usually adults have the authority.  What is interesting here, besides a very funny and poignant look at sibling relationships is the language and the realistic moments Yamanaka is able to create.  She crafts images that everyone is familiar and her rhetoric is brilliant, taking on the perspective of a kid. Here you just don't witness a squabble, but a glimmer of maturity, one of those moments where the desire-driven instinct is reprimanded by a realization of responsibility for how one acts in the world.  That's a difficult moment to translate, especially in something so condensed as poetry is.  The language also adds other possible elements; poverty and youth.  This isn't the academic voice or adult voice, it's one of a young girl, with a broken, dialectical style of English.  It is very effective for the poem and gives that one moment of awareness even greater weight.