On Poetry: February 2023
- Angela María Spring
- February 16, 2023
New collections to make life more lyrical.
What is February to the poet? It is most definitely a time of awkward between — the flickering on and off of cold, like a light switch in the manic hands of a toddler; the slush of not-quite snow, not-quite rain; grey skies; an endless cacophony of crows. The groundhog is dead this year anyhow, so spring may or may not come. February is the shortest, coldest, weirdest month. It tells you a lot that our government decided this would be the time to celebrate the innumerable accomplishments of Black people in our country.
Due to Valentine’s Day, February is also a time to celebrate love, however over-commodified and stereotypical our capitalistic culture has attempted to make the holiday. But what is love? Possibly the thorniest subject for poets — other than motherhood — looked down on in contemporary poetry yet revered in classical or older modern poetry. How many copies of Pablo Neruda’s Love Poems have I sold in my 20 years of bookselling?
It seems the safest place to write about love is in its beginnings (desire) or its end (loss). All the collections featured this month converge on these themes, though romantic love is hardly the only prism. What I was struck by in these offerings is the tenderness of love and the yearning for it in its absence. Desire is not simply about the body but also the soul. The rot of humanity has ruptured in so many ways recently, but most especially in the anti-Blackness and transphobia that bloody our children and streets. What is the most instinctual desire? To be loved, to be allowed to exist.
In his debut collection, A Shiver in the Leaves (BOA Editions), Luther Hughes balances the interminable fear and violence of being a queer Black man with his desire for love. His verse is sensuous, yearning, and tender but also earthy (often, it’s also an homage to his hometown, Seattle). In “It Is February,” the speaker, newly in love, arrives at a bus stop and is assaulted by what he sees and hears: a woman screaming racist profanity, cops harassing Black women, urban refuse, and an article about a Black man being executed for murdering two white girls. Despite it all, the speaker still sees the possibility of love and a future:
“He kissed me this morning/beneath the gray quilt of late winter/like he loves me, and there’s a difference/in the work of nature today.”
Hughes also writes about a complicated relationship between a queer son and the fundamentalist mother trying to accept him. “My Mother, My Mother” seems to be about the speaker’s relationship with his father until his mother appears. Soon, it skillfully morphs into a recollection of the mother losing her own mother in a San Antonio hospital:
“What rises inside me, I imagine inside her, although
I’ve never had a mother leave this earth.
I’ve never been without love.”
Hughes is part of the podcast “The Poet Salon” with fellow Seattle poet Gabrielle Bates, whose debut collection, Judas Goat (Tin House), often revolves around the relationship between a father and daughter, and an absent mother. Defining one’s self and existence against the absence of a parent is a theme I find myself drawn to, as my work also deals with my father’s abandonment. It is a loss without healing; it’s living with a phantom limb.
If a consequence of love is betrayal, then Bates deftly levels the blade of accusation throughout her collection in a constellation of corrupted fairytales, Biblical allusions, and nursery rhymes. In “Little Lamb,” she constructs a clever quintain form with a child anthropomorphized as a lamb, stumbling around on new legs by itself and the mirage of a mother:
“Dumb, awful, offal-/soft daughter wobbling/around the longgone/space of Mother: Look,/she is here now —”
In “Mothers,” the speaker imagines herself the daughter of poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly and conjures a bittersweet, mythical relationship between them through the years. What resonates, again, is that desire to experience a fundamental love, even if it’s illusory:
“In a language neither of us knows,
she is telling me she loves me,
and I am repeating the sounds back to her,
It sounds like the heart trying to leave the chest.”
What is it, then, to bear the loss of both parents, literally or emotionally? Lucien Darjeun Meadows’ haunting In the Hands of the River (Hub City Press) chronicles the journey of diminishment of family, body, and land. Set in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, his poems feature a coalminer father who continually disappears, a mother who loses herself to addiction, and a child who develops an eating disorder and shrinks more each day.
Throughout, Meadows interweaves his own father’s First Nations heritage with bits of Cherokee language, especially the word for father, agidoda. The son yearns to touch what little is left of his inherited culture.
In “As Telemachos,” Meadows invokes The Odyssey, the speaker the son of Penelope and Odysseus, the father’s absence carving everything around him. He writes, “You, Agidoda, Father, through innumerable absences — /My footprints to your toolshed filling with rain/Like boats slowly sinking, the right side of her bed/Drawn tight as a dead man’s smile.”
But what I found particularly poignant and important is Meadows’ exploration of the sibling relationship, especially since it seems the sister in the poems might meet a tragic end. In the brilliant and heartbreaking “Visiting My Sister in the Adolescent Ward,” Meadows’ form intends for you to read it both top to bottom and bottom to top (a type of palindrome):
“There is no mountain, no
Mother, no father. Brother
Sounding ever more like
Sunder. I am waiting for you”
Robyn Creswell has translated the latest selected work of Egyptian poet Iman Mersal in The Threshold (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Though Mersal has written and published for nearly three decades, this is the first I’ve encountered her. As Creswell says in her translator’s note, Mersal has a wonderfully wry tone and breaks from other Egyptian poets of her generation by not writing overtly about politics (though readers know I believe no poet is ever separate from their politics, and those who can choose to be are the privileged few).
Mersal is quite political in an oblique way but it becomes more overt when she touches on immigration (she married and moved to Canada in 1998). What resonates in her fascinating work — in poems like “They tear down my family home” and “The curse of small creatures” — is the echo of her mother’s death when Mersal was young.
Still, I was most affected by her series of interlocking poems under the head title “The clot.” It’s dedicated to her father and focuses on the death of him, her only remaining parent. (It’s here that we come to a point this month’s other poets have yet to reach: that ultimate place Hughes describes as “being without love.”)
In these poems, we witness the rawness of imperfect love that need not be anything other than what it is. The sentiment is perfectly displayed in “Similarity,” where Mersal writes:
“So that I could afford an anthology of foreign poetry,
this man, now deep asleep, convinced me
his wedding ring was too tight for his finger
and didn’t stop smiling as we left the jewelers’ district
even when I said there was absolutely no similarity
between his nose and mine.”
Angela María Spring is the owner of Duende District, a mobile boutique bookstore for and by people of color, where all are welcome. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and you can find her most recent poems in Muzzle Magazine, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Pilgrimage, PANK, Rust + Moth, Radar Poetry, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Her essays and reviews are at Catapult, Lit Hub, and Tor.com. Follow her on Twitter at @BurquenaBoricua.