~This poem was previously published in New Letters (1985)
In this uncertain exile,
I heat canned ravioli in a saucepan,
stir, stare deeply
into bubbling tomato sauce
and see you.
We met again over Chinese food,
like the old days,
and discussed the subtle changes.
I expected you to order
shrimp with lobster sauce
like you used to, but you ordered
sweet and sour chicken,
and you never liked it before.
Tasting my drink I thought,
Jesus, God, Lord,
once this almost ruined my life.
I raise the spoon to my mouth,
scald my tongue, and know it’s done.
~This poem was previously published in first Poetry Miscellany (2009).
Swaying slowly under red honeysuckle,
I’ve chimed in long enough. I’m dangling
from the far edge of the gazebo not to gloat
but to warn; so cut the short string and lower
me down, stash me away in the cluttered tool shed.
Stuck in summer’s forgetful stupor, what sorry
fool wants tinkley clatter, surreal cacophony
butter-knifing through the debilitating humidity,
short steel pipes and ceramics vibrating like industry
reciting at the failed cusp of nature, its desire.
It’s no more precious than the phony Koi pond
and waterfall, three sad frogs floating amid
plastic lily pads, and no more natural than day-care centers,
pale babies who grow to be cutters, juiced-up beef
cattle and arterial stents, but where do we draw the line?
Japanese maples in North Carolina glow brightly
scarlet as evening wanders carelessly into the garden,
envelops the bird house, unpainted and tinged silver
by weather, pale green by the lichens. And what to say
about us? You adore those nature shows on television;
you admire the sharks—so what have you learned?
Let’s be unlike the disturbances of wind and sorrow,
the railing captivity songs of frogs. Close your eyes
and this water’s falling sounds too regular to be real; now,
open them and tell me again that something’s wrong.
~This poem was previously published in Hearing Voices [UK], (2012).
Tomorrow the full moon will rise over
Great Village, Nova Scotia. The tall church
steeple will poke at it like a blind man
trying to thread the needle and repair
holes in his woolen socks. If it’s a clear sky
with few clouds, brightness will highlight
hayfields that lay beyond us. For a while,
they will appear nearly more than we could
ever dream. Day after tomorrow, the new moon
will already have begun to shift, though our dreaming
tends to stay constant as its phases, it would seem.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEMS
I’m not a prolific poet. Part of this has to do with laziness, I’m sure, but it has always been hard for me to achieve that particular receptive state I seem to require to write poetry. I need it to be quiet; I need there to be no disturbances. I continue to be the sort of poet who revises and revises until a sequence of drafts finally release the poem inside them. As a result, I have published few poems that have not, in the end, made their way into one of my books. But there are a few, and I thank Redux for the opportunity to revisit these poems and make them available.
“Poem” is a piece of juvenilia, the second of my poems to have been published. It appeared in New Letters in 1985, so I had just entered the MFA Program at Virginia Commonwealth University. As a poem, it certainly has its flaws: the sloppy and purposeless repetition of the word “sauce,” the unnecessary first and eighth lines, the lack of a proper title. There is evidence, however, of certain poetic moves to which I remain true. There are examples of internal rhymes, near rhymes, assonance and consonance: ravioli/deeply/see in the first stanza, say, or order/lobster/sour in the second and spoon/done in the third. The poem contains some details that are true and some that are wholly imaginary, and this melding of fact and fiction has also become a characteristic of my poetry.
But the reason I offer the poem up for view, nearly thirty years later, has to do with its importance to me as a poet; or rather, it has to do with the young poet wannabe I was back then, anxious and unsure. Of more significance to me than the poem is the journal’s back cover, which is what I first looked at after ripping open the envelope, standing there at the roadside next to our rusting mailbox in suburban New York. Among the names listed are Raymond Carver, Galway Kinnell, Joyce Carol Oates, David Ignatow, Molly Peacock, Robert Bly, and William Stafford. Several of these were among my poetry heroes. That my own name wasn’t affixed to the back cover (I was among the “& others”) was of little consequence, and that my own name was misspelled atop page 112 (the “H” missing) didn’t bother me much either. What mattered was that my poem was in such company. Its appearance there served to legitimize—in my mind anyway—what I was trying to do, my aspirations as a poet. It was the shot in the arm I very much needed as I was about to enter the scary world of the MFA.
“Chimes” is an outtake from Domestic Garden. It first appeared in Rick Jackson’s Poetry Miscellany in 2009. I wrote the poem during a Residency Fellowships at the Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities in Southern Pines, NC. It was my habit to, at around 5 p.m. (Happy Hour!), grab a couple of beers and my notebook, and then head out to my favorite spot on the wooded estate, an artificial pond, where I would sit and think and write until the dark or mosquitoes chased me back indoors.
The poem itself reflects my growing interest in thinking through period style poetics, specifically that of associative poetry. The battle lines of the debate between this sort of poem and the style against which these Avant-garde poets seemed to be reacting are well-articulated in essays I had recently read, taught, and reread by Tony Hoagland (“Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment”) and Stephen Burt (“Close Calls with Nonsense”). I need not address the points of contention here; both essays are available online. What’s relevant to “Chimes” is the fact that, with Anticipate the Coming Reservoir just published, I was trying to add something new. I didn’t want to do anything radically different, but I hoped to stretch out what it is that I do as a poet, to move a bit outside of my comfort zone, to keep it fresh. As Hoagland writes, our historical moment, as it pertains to poetry writing, “could be characterized as one of great invention and playfulness. Simultaneously, it is also a moment of great aesthetic self-consciousness and emotional removal.” What I was after was the invention and playfulness without allowing the poem the rest.
In a 2007 interview in Gulf Coast, Matthew Siegel asks Bob Hicok about some of his poems that “seem to jump around in terms of subject matter while keeping a consistent narrative thread running through them.” In his reply, Hicok says, “The extremely associative poems you're talking about will sometimes seem jangly. I'll feel an almost physical irritation while writing them, as I go back and re-read what I've put down. Like there's no core, no motive evolving among the elements of the poem, no generative momentum.” He later says, “The poem has to be pushed . . . ,” that “writing the poem is largely the search for that groove.” This is precisely the experience I had in trying to revise “Chimes.” I had let sound, the location’s available imagery, and a trust in organic synaptic movement guide the initial composition process, and when I read what I had written, it felt jangly and disconnected. I couldn’t seem to find the poem, and what the draft before me required was to be pushed. Or, to put it another way, I felt I had to allow my authorial presence to exert just a bit more influence. I didn’t want my presence too brightly in the foreground; however, I had yet to take any responsibility for these utterances. Was the poem hoping to conjure a consideration of artificiality in our time? Did it wish to be about some still unfocused relationship? Was it trying to be merely an expression of contemporary angst? In the end, it’s clear that I could not fully give myself to the experimental moves with which I was toying. In Burt’s essay, the first sentence in the section titled “How to Read Very New Poetry” reads, “The most important precepts are the simplest: look for a persona and a world, not for an argument or a plot.” I’m a writer who is too attracted to storytelling to allow my poems to go without at least a glimmer of plot along with the persona and the world. The poem ends up, I suppose, about all of the things I mention above. The final decision was to better focus the relationship embedded within the troubled world of the poem, to place that story at the center. When I read the poem today, after many months, I like it and I don’t see why I did not include it in Domestic Garden. It would not be out of place there. I suspect that what led me to distrust the poem enough to exclude it might have something to do with how conscious I was about its theoretical underpinnings, how it might have seemed, at the time, less than authentic and more the result of some parlor game.
The last of these poems, “Moonscape,” was one of a handful written while enjoying a week-long residency at the Elizabeth Bishop House in July of 2011. It first appeared in Hearing Voices, a little literary journal out of the UK, and it is the only poem I wrote in Great Village that does not appear in Domestic Garden. The poem is addressed to my wife, Christy. We had married only ten months earlier, and she and my young stepson, Danny, were with me. After the residency, we would tour Cape Breton before returning to North Carolina. The poem was originally intended to have ten syllable lines, but I abandoned the syllabic structure somewhere during the revision process. The stricture had already served its purpose, to supply the lines with a sort of regularity, and my desire to break certain lines in specific places, or to trim away what seemed unnecessary superseded any need for strict adherence to form. I think it’s a nice little lyric, but I just couldn’t find a place for it in the manuscript as other, better poems in the volume seemed to already express what “Moonscape” offers, the romantic gestures toward some understanding of how a late marriage might manifest.
ABOUT JOHN HOPPENTHALER
John Hoppenthaler's books of poetry are Anticipate the Coming Reservoir (2008), Lives of Water (2003), and Domestic Garden (2015), all with Carnegie Mellon University Press. With Kazim Ali, he has co-edited a volume of essays on the poetry of Jean Valentine, This-World Company (U of Michigan P, 2012). An Associate Professor at East Carolina University, he edits A Poetry Congeries for the cultural journal Connotation Press: An Online Artifact.