From the Editor’s Desk
Putting the finishing touches on this issue brought us into the Halloween season, what the old druids called Samhain (summer’s end) which runs concurrently with Dia de los Meurtos, public days of remembrance. Of course that means the fall in the U.S., and here in the Mid-Atlantic, the change, which is felt at first if only subconsciously by the altering of the light. Yes, the days are shorter, but the light, if you pay attention, is different, has a different quality. And the season, along with everything else, hangs upon the light. It is autumnal, august, the poet’s season, when Frost’s poem about fleeting springtime dewy freshness returns to echo that primary rebirth with dramatic conclusion: Nature’s final green is also gold. Blazing, in fact.
At its origins, Halloween was reverently that time when the membrane that surrounded the world of the living grew its thinnest. At this time of the year, we are said to be most capable of reaching through to the world of the dead and the other side is more likely to wander into ours. There is a sort of realm confusion, if you will. And this gradual slippage into otherness is celebrated to mark the larger transition, a time of change or becoming that is barely understood but by the way it moves past us. It is more feeling than thing, and because it lacks an essential thingness, we establish an event for it, an Allhallows (All Saints’ Day) Eve. Kids wear masks and costumes and kick through the leaves to find sweets behind every door. Sweetness for those whom can no longer know such sensation.
So, I’m thinking of poetic form, as always, and how transitions in a poem can lead us, sometimes by startling surprise and other times by nearly imperceptible beckoning to move our reader’s eye through the poem. But it is not to merely the end of the poem, but toward resonance, or what some call the heart of the poem, that brings us to recognize this space and to peel us away from it, to leave it with us for a moment. It is the moment, the center of gravity on a flying craft and also the uncapturable theoretical component of time.
Transitions in a poem are the transportation, the way the river bends, but not the flume contained therein, and how much we are given to the current is dependent on how the poet wields them. In a sense, they are the form, the body which veils and enables the true character and spirit of the poem to emerge. To this end, they have an entirely different utility than when used in prose, for paragraphing is really a way to deliver content where ideas are unraveled and grouped under an umbrella of logic, according to the unit of thought in which clarity of message is perhaps the most important objective. Poetry is not so much about sense making as it is a medium that makes space for the reader’s imagination to punch through, seed, and blossom.
I’m a believer in first reads, just as perhaps, to some extent, I am a believer in love at first sight. I try as I make my way through the pile of submissions to remain open, though I fail. I am always closed off or occluded by other things happening within my environment or distractions within my own mind. And yet solitude I think is required, and here I am talking essential quietude, by which a poem deserves to be born into the mind. But a good poem, which is to say, a memorable poem, memorable in that it has transported me and thereby transformed me, is easily recognizable and can slap me around a bit if it needs to. Yet it is always generally about the way a poem moves through me as I move through it. And truly it is a different reality in which, once immersed, cannot help but to change me, even as I emerge and return to my regular life, made less regular I suppose or enhanced by the experience of the transformation. Transition, transportation, transformation. Does one ever get it the same way again?
This is the inherent pleasure of reading, but for me, poetry in particular forges a contract with surrealism, similar to what Halloween does. Recently I came across the story of Robert Desnos through an essay by Robert Hass. The story goes that Desnos was in a German prison camp “shower room” with others and asked to undress for the inevitable. Desnos seized this final opportunity not to weep or decry the massive injustice of his predicament but took another prisoner’s hand in his own, told him he was a chiromancer and began to read the man’s palm, tracing the lines with his finger, telling him that he had a long life ahead or that his daughter would soon marry. At first, startled by such a reading, of which Desnos practiced with only imaginary expertise, the prisoners began reading each other’s hands and laughing and telling their fortunes, fortunes of their long lives ahead. The Germans, seeing this, disturbed perhaps by the lunacy, perhaps somewhat convinced, decided to “spare” the prisoners, assigning them to hard labor instead. But as Hass reminds us, “surrealism began with the idea that freedom of the imagination could transform life, and in this instance, if the story is true, it did.”
It is no wonder that poets concern themselves with the occult, such as the way Yeats did with séances and automatic writing or the way Plath and Hughes once played with the Ouija board just as James Merrill did in The Changing Light at Sandover, when he poured gin in a Willowware cup and asked the spirit to speak. For me, the medium is the poem itself, because it offers a window into the otherworld. These poets knew that there was little space between this life and the life contained in a written, winding, woven, invocation of the imagination.
I have been fortunate to read so many poems lately, especially with the season approaching, ringing its little bells. I write this on an airplane (transportation, transition, halfway between departure and arrival) on my way back home from a week in the desert of inadequate surrealism, Las Vegas, a place that I’ve always felt was a little like going to summer camp. They call it an adult playground, but it is really just a place where adults might act irresponsibly for a short while.
Exiting at the TSA earlier, I think of all the hungover souls, the wasted, the people who lost, and not the brighter side of the penny. Standing there, waiting in line, which is what most of life is after all, I see how groups of people, friends or family, are still aware, no matter what, that life is going on. I mostly just try to get through things and back to my wife and medium-sized hound at home. But I am rarely awake to the moment, because I think the moments are forgettable for the most and need to be so. Even in Vegas. You might go with some expectation of fun or new experience, but you wait in lines, which the airport is really good at. You wait for a cab. You wait to check in at a hotel. You wait to be seated in a restaurant that hustles you through. You wait to get a spot at a busy craps table. You win some, you lose some, you wait and wait, knowing full well that a real life is waiting for you just outside, yet still it is a life that offers little pleasure save in how we perceive it.
However, the medium that consistently awakens me to the moment is poetry. There, I want for it to happen. And it does. I admire craft, use of language, image, voice, all those things. But I adore that magic a poem contains, the tossing and tumbling through slalom gates of transitions, moving one line to the next, transported not just through but into the poem, deepening with each delivered stroke, into another world, the world of the poem, a world made whole, or as Yeats’ has it in All Souls’ Night: “Wound in the mind’s wandering / As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound.”
This issue offers four poets who create a new space in my imagination and really get me there:
Kathleen Graber, “Impasto for the Parietal”
I have a friend who says she has sometimes felt time collapse— / the diachronic & the synchronic— / but this has never happened for me.
Gerard Sarnat, “TGIF”
Moi not much into commodities –
a couple of pairs of jeans maybe each decade
Mazda perhaps every 15-20 years
— plenty irony I am stuck having to decide
among these mountains…
Ross Thompson, “The Switch”
and you slipped
between the bars when your faint pulse
Yes, the rest of us left behind laugh
Logan Wei, “Ariel, Returned Again”
A fingernail falls like an acorn out
Of an October oak. Crumbs of doughnut.
Last month, a flat dry moth. Last year, a letter:
The pleading love, one inmate to another.
So, read first with openness. Be awake to the poems, as much as you can be, for they might awaken something new in you. And as you read the poems again, pay particular attention to what I think these poets do so well and handle so differently: the transitions. They do collapse time (even when they say they don’t), turn ironically and sometimes suddenly, and transport us through and into the heart of the poem.
—Darren Morris, Poetry Editor