Monday, September 22, 2008

Poem of the Month, by Didi Menendez


The poem of the month for Thirteen Blackbirds is entitled, His Left Eye, a visually evocative poem by Didi Menendez, poet, publisher, and painter.

His Left Eye

He keeps his wife
tucked inside his left eye.
I see her wearing red.

Birds fall on his lap
and he places them inside a box.
He shuts and locks them one by one.
Their fluttering wings are never silent.
They are chirps of locusts in a hot
August evening silenced only by a poem.

He keeps his wife
safe tucked inside his left eye
and not the right.

His wife cares enough about her hair
to part it with a comb.
Her eyes are brown.
She wears green most of the time.
Sometimes she wears plaid.

He says his mother wore peonies scarves.
So did mine. They may have met once at
Sears and Roebuck looking through the
same yards of material on sale
searching for another scarf, another
flower pattern for a blouse.
Stopped at the hosiery department
and fingered the lingerie before
taking my sister and me by the hand
back to her sewing machine
and the little house we rented
on Wilshire Boulevard.

My mother wore her hair long,
light brown wavy long.
When she’d bend down to give me a kiss,
I’d see my father reflected in her right eye.
I’d draw his profile with my school pencils.

I never saw myself reflected in any man’s eye.
I confirm that I saw his wife in his left eye wearing red.

His silence neither denies
nor accepts her there.
His eyes are blue.
I painted them green
and the reflection
is a white box full of feathers.

His Left Eye, a poem by Didi Menendez, is a visually inward look into experience that extrapolates in many directions, but finds its most expressive definition in a moving frame of contemplation, as if the poet were describing extemporaneously her painting into life. In her own words:

“This poem was inspired by a painting I did of Bob Hicok. When you are painting a portrait you get really close to everything on the landscape of the face. In the reflection of his left eye I saw something reflected in red. I imagined it was someone he loved and possibly where he kept love.”

-from American Poet Portraits, by Didi Menendez

A fascinating quality of this poem lies in its fluidity, a shifting perspective which begins with a detailed description of an unnamed man who “keeps his wife tucked inside his left eye,” and moves into aspects of the individual’s wife and then mother. The poem seamlessly transitions into the speaker’s own impressions with a striking image, “He says his mother wore peonies scarves. So did mine,” along with the unlikely notion that their mothers may have met at Sears Roebuck. This all to drive home the abstraction of what lies in the left eye (as opposed to the right?), and the speaker’s ensuing commentary on her own experience, involving both her own mother and father. The poem culminates with the declaration, “I never saw myself reflected in any man’s eye,” pulling the reader back into the framework of the speaker’s identification. What she paints is what she sees in the left eye, how it reflects, what it means.

This is a poem that reads well. You can read it out loud and just enjoy the flow and the tempo changes. The tone is upbeat. Though touching on significant personal reflections connoting regret, or at least a sense of loss, the poem doesn’t give a hint of sentimentality or self-absorption. The effectiveness of the poem is in its detached view. What does the artist see in the eye? She sees his wife, wearing red. She sees a box where he places birds that have fallen in his lap. This conveys sensitivity and affection, but also gives room to wonder. Why are the birds trapped in his eye? “He shuts and locks them one by one.” It’s as if the speaker is reading into her own perception; and, in fact, the unfolding of the poem bears this out, as we are directed away from the individual being painted and into the private thoughts of the painter.

The anaphora in the poem, “He keeps his wife safely tucked inside his left eye,” not only reinforces the notion of security, but also provides a convenient transition as the speaker draws a focus inside the eye. We see his wife who “cares enough about her hair to cut it with a comb.” And more, her eyes are brown, she wears green. This is a painter speaking through her poem, finding a commonality and impact in shared memory (their mothers wore peony scarves), walking through Sears and Roebuck together, stopping at the hosiery department, taking her and her sister back to their house on Wilshire Blvd.

These wonderful, surrealistic and meandering images are falling out of Bob Hicok’s eyes. The reader is pulled into the matrix, without questioning association or needing to have the dots connected. It all works so well within the central metaphor of the poem, which allows us to see anything that the painter paints or wishes to convey in her painting (how like writing poetry).

My Left Eye is a poem about a painter, processing her right brain in a non-linear fashion. Here are impressions, weaving thoughts, interconnected links from childhood. Is it a poem about a woman’s need for masculine love? One could make that argument if too much credence were given to the following couplet, placed delicately before the closing section:

I never saw myself reflected in any man’s eye.
I confirm that I saw his wife in his left eye wearing red.

There’s been an exploding revelation made here, but then the speaker reverts almost simultaneously back to the painting. “I confirm that I saw his wife in his left eye wearing red.” Are we being given the shake? Why does the speaker reinforce and reaffirm that she saw his wife in his left eye (wearing red) at the end of the poem, and further inform us that she painted the eyes green, even though they were blue? And the reflection was a white box full of feathers? Perhaps simply because that's the way she saw it. For the painter, as perhaps for the poet, seeing is one thing; understanding, quite another prospect, and putting the two together, the whole of art.


When asked to provide a short bio, Didi provided:

Bio: Didi Menendez is a Cuban-blooded American artist and poet. The best place to find her is on

So I googled Didi and here's a sneak preview:

Didi Menendez (b1960) is a Cuban-blooded American artist and author. She is the founding editor and publisher of MiPOesias, Oranges & Sardines, OCHO and several full-length books by Grace Cavalieri, Diego Quiros, Ron Androla, Emma Trelles, John Korn and others. You may find her at Facebook, Myspace, Goodreads, and other places on the Wide Wild World of the Internet. Her latest book of poems "When I Said Goodbye" was published in March 2008 by Geoffrey Gatza of BLAZEVOX.

EDN, 09/22/08

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Three Poems in Denver Syntax

I've got three poems in Denver Syntax, a pretty hot literary journal.

Click here and then click on poems: Syntax

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Heat in Poetry, An Essay


What is a poem? What makes a poem a good poem? Mark Flanagan, a contemporary poet and savvy free-lance writer, provides an excellent and concise definition: “Poetry is an imaginative awareness of experience expressed through meaning, sound, and rhythmic language choices so as to evoke an emotional response. Poetry has been known to employ meter and rhyme, but this is by no means necessary. Poetry is an ancient form that has gone through numerous and drastic reinvention over time. The very nature of poetry as an authentic and individual mode of expression makes it nearly impossible to define.” I like this because it makes two points that I have long held to be true of poetry. First, it defies formal description. A poem may have rhyme, and it may not. A poem cannot be simply defined by a set of parameters relating to its form. Thus, it becomes difficult to qualitatively assign value to different kinds of poems. The second point is even more important. Flanagan is careful to stress that poetry has a primary intent that reaches into the emotional perceptions of our consciousness. Robert Frost said, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” This takes into consideration both the fundamental building blocks of poems (words) as well as the “fuel” (emotions) that one might say ignites and allows those words to burn. In writing a poem, we seek to find in the language a kind of expression that is filled with energy. We don’t look to language as a tool, necessarily, but rather work to uncover the beauty, awe, wit, paradox, understanding, beauty… (the list goes on), that already resides in the form and structure of our language.

I like to think of poetry as a collection of words, each with their own potential energy. We seek to group the words in such a way that will increase that energy, like rolling a huge ball up a hill. The higher it goes, the farther it will roll down. Poetry finds a language that is hidden in the vernacular of our imagination. It will have a certain sound (especially when read by the author, with the author’s full intent) that will sound like poetry. As prosaic as this appears, it becomes clearer if one listens to enough poetry recited out loud (podcasts of poets can be widely found on the web, not only by contemporary poets, but also past recordings of great 20th century poets like Auden, Frost, Plath, Bishop, and Dylan Thomas, to name just a few). It is in the hearing of poems read aloud that I have come to appreciate in a special way this dynamic force of building energy in great poetry.

In this connection, Robert Bly, one of our leading contemporary poets (as well as an acclaimed translator, essayist and editor), has much to say concerning what he calls the “heat” often found in great poetry. In his introduction to David Lehman’s, The Best American Poetry, 1999, Bly explains how easy it is to realize when you’re reading a truly wonderful poem full of heat. “We can tell when a poem has arrived by a certain feeling in the gut, as if a dismaying thought had slipped past our defenses. We feel that something has been taken seriously enough that it has hurt the poet.” A poem which he cites as one example, and one that I agree is packed with potential energy that gets unleashed at the end, is a little masterpiece by Ruth Stone entitled, “A Moment,”

Across the highway a heron stands
in the flooded field. It stands
as if lost in thought, on one leg, careless,
as if the field belongs to herons.
The air is clear and quiet.
Snowmelt on this second fair day.
Mother and daughter,
we sit in the parking lot
with doughnuts and coffee.
We are silent.
For a moment the wall between us
opens to the universe,
then closes.
And you go on saying
you do not want to repeat my life.

Notice the tremendous and almost simultaneous convergence at the end of the poem of both cognitive recognition and emotional energy. At once you understand that the gulf of separation between the mother and the daughter is paramount, and your emotional pump, if you will, has been well primed in the intense sensations of beauty and simplicity that are found in the scene described before the last leveling couplet. Before you even understand all there is to understand here, you get a jolt, one that gets locked into your brain and your emotions. A jolt you likely won’t forget for some time. That’s a great poem. Further, and importantly, one is not struck here with the details of form, line breaks, rhyme schemes (even though there are none). One doesn’t have time to consider if the poem resembled prose or had a classical “poetry skin.” And this is not say that rhyming or metered poetry cannot have just as much heat. Let’s be clear on this point! What makes this poem wonderful is what it has to say and how it was said. You feel it.

But don’t always go looking for a bolt of lightening or a knock over the head that dumps you off your chair. Heat can affect different people in different ways. It can be subtle. It can be funny. Take Billy Collins, one of America’s most acclaimed living poet’s (and poet laureate) who is known for his profound levity and an uncanny perception of the foibles of everyday life. One example of heat in Collins’ poetry from a lighter side, is seen his poem, “Consolation,” in which he goes to great pains to describe how relieved he is to NOT be taking a holiday in Italy, but left to meander around his own neighborhood. The poem begins,

How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer,
wandering her cities and ascending her torrid hilltowns.
How much better to cruise these local, familiar streets,
fully grasping the meaning of every roadsign and billboard
and all the sudden hand gestures of my compatriots.

The heat is building up here, but not nearly boiling yet. Collins is laying the groundwork for a powerful, if not lighthearted ending, that sticks in the brain and evokes a response. He uses four more brilliant stanzas to fully hammer home the personal benefits found domestically, as contrasted with the headaches of an overseas junket where he might be found, for example, “slouching in a cafĂ© ignorant of the word for ice.” Finally, the poem ends in a magnificent explosion of heat:

And after breakfast, I will not have to find someone
willing to photograph me with my arm around the owner.
I will not puzzle over the bill or record in a journal
what I had to eat and how the sun came in the window.
It is enough to climb back into the car

as if it were the great car of English itself
and sounding my loud vernacular horn, speed off
down a road that will never lead to Rome, not even Bologna.

I don’t know about you, but I’m nodding my head, grinning and thinking of all the times I’ve felt exactly this way, thanking my lucky stars that my car is taking me home for a hot shower and not to the mall (or anywhere else on the planet).

Elizabeth Bishop’s monumental poem, “In the Waiting-room, takes place in the waiting room of a dentist’s office. What appears to be an orphaned child is leafing through a copy of National Geographic and finding all those graphic pictures of natives in the bush, etc. (who can’t identify with that?) as her “foolish aunt” is being worked on in the next room. The poem is a complex commentary on the discovery of self and early delineations of language and discovery. Remarkably, the act of waiting is nimbly converted into a rite-of-passage experience as well as a startling discovery of her identity. The poem packs this kind of heat like a six shooter:

Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
--Aunt Consuelo's voice--
not very loud or long.

What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I – we - were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I cannot end this short essay on what makes a poem a good poem, without giving you one of my own favorite poems that illustrates this idea of generating heat. It's Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall,” which, in my estimation, starts off hot and continues to build steam all the way through.

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man,
You, with your fresh thoughts
Care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name
Sorrow's springs are the same:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

That is potential energy mounting in each word, collecting heat with each new line- the heat of a grieving Margaret who mourns for the leaves falling off the trees in her beloved town of Goldengrove- heat building as she is warned that as she grows older, much more “sights colder” will befall… that she “will yet weep and know why.” All this amidst a beautifully strung series of white-hot words that draw you in to the final climax- reaching its atomic detonation in last fateful line, “It is Margaret you mourn for.” This is the kind of heat that I aim for in writing poetry, and only rarely achieve. I believe it is a hallmark of great poetry and a quality that we would all do well in trying to achieve, if only to catch a little of that kind of warmth in our words.

-EDN 08/08


Thursday, September 4, 2008

Winner, Poem of the Month for August: Rae Pater


I'm proud to present Thirteen Blackbird's Poem of the Month for August, a compact and highly charged poem by Rae Pater. Rae’s poetry is superb. She has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes , one of the highest awards for poems published in small press poetry journals. Following the poem I give a short explication; and don’t forget to read Rae's bio at the end which includes a link to her poetry.

Song of War

The final wedge is driven
up beneath my breastbone
by my father, from whom I never
thought to look for it.

I seek the red tiger now,
as he bounds through snow -
my arrow, my sword.

Like an ember he burns
my path forward from here
in the wake of the rising sun,
through the cycles of the moon.

I choose not the way of the warrior,
it chooses me.
I make my most perfect bow
and sing to my ancestors
for a good day to die.

Rae Pater’s poem, Song of War, in four tight and varied strophes, expresses in a confident, if not complex voice, the internal struggle to account for the speaker’s deep wounds from a father who has ‘driven up beneath my breastbone,’ a most evocative opening metaphor that arrests the reader up front. The poem is about the speaker’s reaction to this fundamental wound, about a response to an event or a series of events that, ‘like an ember,’ burns her path forward.

The opening strophe is wonderfully geared for sound. You can breathe it out in one short breath, and the three ‘b’s’ in ‘beneath’, ‘breastbone’ and ‘by’ help ease the sudden presentation of the central and most striking metaphor in the poem. The speaker alludes to a wedge which is driven, a forceful act, with intention. Further, it is driven up (the adverbial expression giving even more force) into her breastbone. Here is where we understand, early in the poem, that the injury incurred was great (the breastbone connoting a covering or protection over the heart). It was a good choice not to expand here; we are not given specifics, and thus not tempted to take sides or over-empathize. The tone appears to be softer than what one would imagine with a sexual violation, especially with the qualifier, “from whom I never thought to look for it.” Perhaps this is a divorce, or an unexplained leaving, or a serious falling out. In any event, the tone is set for the central portion of the poem which directs the reader to the speaker’s response.

In the second and third strophe, we’re introduced to the red tiger, a reference to the speaker’s way out of her struggles. Here we see a tone change, and the poem conforms to the central theme (and title) presenting an individual who is not willing to let her wounds accumulate, but rather must take the offensive. She seeks the red tiger, to use its cunning and strength as a means of overcoming ('my arrow, my sword'). And not to mutilate her father, but to cut away the darkness and the personal obstacles in the path of recovery (‘Like an ember he burns/my path forward from here/in the wake of the rising sun,/through the cycles of the moon). The speaker is drawing on some strength that lies outside of herself and marshalling its prowess to attack the demons in her own psyche. The struggle, thus, is focused inward, and keeps the integrity of the poem intact (versus refocusing on the father).

The final strophe adds a twist, and the poem turns, perhaps, on the building realization that the speaker's power to cope does not fully originate from within, but tied to other forces, namely, the innate teaching of ancestral origin. Here we might imagine a mother of native origin, and the speaker finally acknowledging her struggle to cope is inextricably aligned and connected through blood lines.

What’s striking about this poem is that there is so much opportunity for identification, with so little detail given. That’s where the poem shines. It’s not about the injuries, per se, but the struggle to find a battle ground, to find a 'warrior' that will take up the battle; or at least, to acknowledge and understand where that strength comes from.

From Rae:

Rae Pater has been published online and in print. She has three grown children and a cat named Gus. She spends far too much time in front of a computer, and her bio needs some serious work.

Rae edited Verse Libre Quarterly for a year or so, placed first in the NPAC online poetry competition in January 2004, got honourable mention in the IBPC August 2006, and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize by Verse Libra Quarterly in 2003, by Erosha in 2004, and by Sun Rising Press in 2005. Rae has just completed the final year of a B.A in English literature and is currently training as an adult literacy tutor.

My blog link: