November 13, 2018


One thing about Tess Liem's debut collection Obits. is recurrence. Names, acts, journeys keep coming around, in newly familiar contexts.

Connected with this is a lot of moving around underground: transport in the form of escalators, trains, inner pressure.

Liem captures the commute as daily process and as language, frequently changing one thing for another: "I am allowed distance        I am a loud distance" ("Obit. [A distance    & I am allowed]").

The poems I enjoy most in this book play with variations on the aptly named "Obit." or "Obit." In these, Liem's intensely personal and yet -- or therefore -- weirdly recognizable narrator is riding an escalator or stepping onto a train or jostling or waiting beside the many others of the moving world.

Here's one:


An exit,
though I notice

many of the fire escapes
in Montreal duplexes

are stairs within storage spaces
leading to lower storage spaces

& I fantasize about riding the metro
all day, as if

its motion might
move me. 

Tess Liem's collection Obits. was published by Coach House Press in 2018.

September 22, 2018


The force of poetry known as Molly Peacock has brushed my life in several ways over the years, most recently in her thoughtful and moving essay "The Plexiglass Wall and the Vital Verb," from Judith Scherer Herz's 2017 anthology John Donne and Contemporary Poetry (Palgrave). (This anthology brings together essays and poems by scholars and poets in surprising and wonderfully resonant ways -- highly recommended.) Molly graciously and generously agreed to explore with me some of the various paths that brought her to poetry, that essay, and beyond.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you first come to poetry, or it to you? 

MOLLY PEACOCK: About the year 1200, a speaker of Old French wanted to separate the distinctive from the ordinary, something beyond the general category of species (kind or form).  The word especial was born.

About 1955, an eight-year-old girl, the first-born in her working-class family in Buffalo, New York, was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up.  Teacher?  Nurse? Answer: Something special.  Especial.

That was the beginning of poetry for her—well, for me, though it’s she I see though the telescope of seven decades. I was a girl for whom the forces of class, nature, socialization, and politics (that is, sexism and classism) were a great obscuring gale.  All I knew was:  I wanted to be.  To see.  (And be seen.)

People complain that poetry is sidelined in schools, but to that girl, poetry was special because it was sidelined.  It came at the end of the school year, always after the winter gales; it wasn’t graded; you could let your imagination spark words you’d never say aloud; and utter truths you couldn’t say aloud except in metaphor.  Poetry was small.  You didn’t even have to turn the page!  Giving up picture books with just a few words on them for more grownup books with nothing but a stream of words in paragraphs set up in her a longing for the visual with a few rhythmic words full of images.

My maternal grandmother, a country gardener, wrote me letters, enclosing poems she had cut from the local newspaper, The Perry Herald.  In the summer she walked me around her garden and repeated the common names of plants:  Bleeding Heart, Sweet William.  I loved this slow learning by walking and repeating.  All this, outside of school, began the task of the poet: naming.

August 4, 2018


There's a moment in Louise Glück's poem "In the Plaza" (A Village Life) when time slows almost to a stop. The poem-speaker is contemplating a man who is looking at a woman. The woman is unaware of being watched and admired. She is perfectly herself, absorbed in

July 5, 2018


It's been a season of so much to catch up on.

For instance, this fabulous interview with Ben Ladouceur, this year's Dayne Ogilvie prize winner, at Open Book.

I always find reliably wonderful

May 24, 2018


Sarah DesRosiers-Legault

After another one
dies, they'll tell me: don't
avoid being alive.

But - my body is worn

by the in-between.
My skin knows that cold place,

April 26, 2018


Bob Churchill

I’ve let the backyard go to jungle
again.  Not like “The Bush” in Vietnam—
after fifty years still the place
of nightmares, with lime-green pit vipers
nestled in lianas, blood-sheened

April 24, 2018


For Poetry Month, ceramic artist and steward of the land Susie Osler offers this poem by New Zealand poet Fleur Adcock.
Fleur Adcock by Caroline Forbes/British Council
Fleur Adcock

Literally thin-skinned, I suppose, my face
catches the wind off the snow-line and flushes
with a flush that will never wholly settle. Well:
that was a metropolitan vanity,
wanting to look young for ever, to pass.

April 21, 2018


sakura sakura saku sakura chiru sakura

cherry tree
cherry blossoms
cherry blossoms scatter
cherry tree

April 19, 2018


Sandra de Helen

There's an arroyo seco right next to my
littoral zone. Crazy right? Dry bed adjacent
to an area so rich in love and light, plants
and animals, it could make a person

April 17, 2018


Ellen Bass by Irene Young/
Ellen Bass

What did I love about killing the chickens?  Let me start
with the drive to the farm as darkness
was sinking back into the earth.
The road damp and shining like the snail’s silver
ribbon and the orchard

April 11, 2018


Mary Jo Salter photo by Marina Levitskaya

Passionate intensity, quiet unfolding, excited language -- whatever the formal elements, it's a poem's particular energy that stays with me. Fragments of my earliest reading materialize in memory's ear, kinetically intact, sometimes even intensified. This kind of memorable energy courses through Mary Jo Salter's chain of sonnets "The Surveyors."

As fall gave way to winter, and winter to more winter, Mary Jo and I exchanged emails about her writing and her life, the multiplicity of endings in poems, time-jumbling, the sonnet as ramble, and poetry's particular remembering.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you first come to poetry?

MARY JO SALTER: Through my parents.  They were both literary, in oblique ways.  My father was a master's degree dropout in the English department at Berkeley, before turning to the advertising business--another way of working with words--by the time I was born.  I used to love trying to come up with slogans, really fast ways of saying something snazzy, the way he did.  Thanks to him, I never looked down on puns--I still love them.  My mother was actually the more literary parent, though she wasn't a writer until, in her last bedridden years, she started writing Emily Dickinson-like poems that went straight to the heart of life.  She had always foisted books on me, eye-opening books like "The Catcher in the Rye" was I was 12.  My mother was a painter and sculptor, but she was the one who walked around with poems in her head, and who wasn't afraid to quote them--Robert Louis Stevenson and Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll.  She wouldn't say, "It's time to do your homework;" she'd say, "The time has come, the walrus said, to speak of many things..."  She was also, I see now, a model for me of the legitimacy of being a female who created things.

Never once did my parents make me feel that I was wasting my time when I wrote a poem (the first one at age 7) or played the piano or drew a picture.  Never once did they ask me how I was going to make a living doing such useless stuff. They took me to museums, to the theater and to the opera before I could understand what I was seeing or hearing. Only now do I realize how rare that was.

SG: “The Surveyors” begins with an excerpt from a letter that describes a poem the letter-writer dreamed you had written. “Does this poem exist?” your friend asks.

In the poem’s opening lines, you look back over the landscape of your life – a rich one, lived and literary – from a point in time as though from a point in space, and confess that the poem your friend has dreamed is not one you have written.

Or is it? As the poem develops, “the chain / gone taut, then running out, over and over,” your poetic attention sweeps panoramically across the landscape of memory and imagination, settling finally on the present, at which point you aver that although you’re sorry to say it, “ The Surveyors’ does not exist.”

With this paradox, the question that occasions the poem has become the question that haunts the poem: what does it mean, to exist? Does taking stock, surveying, provide an answer to that question, or is the paradox itself the answer?

April 9, 2018

Once There Was and Never Was

For Poetry Month, Naz Arabaghian offers this poem from Forgotten Bread, an anthology of first-generation Armenian American writing (edited by David Kherdian, Heyday Press, 2007).

Diana Der-Hovanessian (photo by Karen Antashyan)

The Armenian American poet Diana Der-Hovanessian (1934-2018), who was twice a Fulbright professor of American poetry and an award-winning author of more than 20 books of poems and translations, has been a fixture on my “reread again and often” list. Along with other poets of the Armenian diaspora (the 2016 Pulitzer recipient Peter Balakian, David Kherdian, Helene Pilibosian, Harold Bond [Bondjoukian], and Gregory Djanikian immediately come to mind), Der-Hovanessian’s work permeates with longing and loss, remembrance and renewal; her poems are palimpsests on which the twentieth-century genocide of the Armenian people has left its traumatic imprint. I’m always struck by how a misleadingly whimsical poem like “Once in a Village” coalesces snippets of history (Tadem, the tale of its fate “too terrible to tell”) with fragments of folklore (the incantatory “Once there was, and never was,” the woods, a mysterious king), details from borrowed proverbial wisdom (the speaker’s grandmother’s stories) with reports of rumored atrocities (burning villages, orphaned children, a lonely boy noticing how “goats, the school, the children,/their teacher, the church,/priest and parish disappeared/in a terrible way”), narrative convention with lyrical concision.

Once in a Village

Once there was, and never was,
my grandmother’s stories began
the way all Armenian fairytales
begin: Once there was
and never was, a village,
at the end of the woods,
a small village roofed
with cranes and smoke.

Once there was, and never was,
at the foot of a mountain
a village called Tadem,
where everyday, a shepherd boy
passed the house of a woodsman
at the edge of the town.
The woodsman lived there with
his wife and little girl.
And when the boy took his goats
to graze, the girl would watch
secretly from a window, making
up names for the goats, and the boy.
She was not the daughter of the woodsman
and his wife, but had been sent
to live with them by her real father
a mysterious king, with a mysterious name.

Once there was, and never was,
a village with a shepherd boy,
and a witch’s curse. In this village
lived a woodsman, his wife
and an orphan girl who thought
she was the daughter of a nameless king.

Years passed and the king never came
to take home his little girl
and so she was sent far away
to America to marry.

And after she was gone the boy felt lonely
and unwatched. But not for long
because a strange thing happened.
His goats, the school, the children,
their teacher, the church,
priest and parish disappeared
in a terrible way. Too terrible to tell.

One morning there was an Armenian village
that turned into a Turkish fire.

Once there was or never was
a little girl who thought
she was the lost daughter
of a lost king who would go back
for her and thank everyone
in that village for taking care
of her. He would thank woodsman,
priest, teacher, baker, shoemaker,
children, tillers in the fields
for singing their songs for her.
And she would go with him
to thank them for being her friends.
But they disappeared.
Once in a village, a rooster crowed
and no one stirred.
Once there was a village
with wild hedges, a goat boy who never grew up
and a princess who never woke.

April 5, 2018


A trilingual Poetry Month offering from poet Emiko Miyashita

Here are three from a set of 72 haiku by Paul-Louis Couchoud (1879-1959) in his first Hai-kai collection Au fil de l'eau (1905), which I am just reading in a book titled Le japonisme de Haiku: P.-L.  Couchoud et les échanges culturels franco-japonais in Japanese written by Dr. Yoriko Shibata and published by Kadokawa Gakugei Shuppan in Tokyo.

L'orage se prépare.                                
Toutes les feuilles du tremble
Battent de l'aile.


A poplar tree stands straight connecting the earth and the sky; dark clouds are moving in with the cool wind. A thunder storm is about to begin. The poplar tree is flapping all its leaves, a feeling of tension builds up in the rustling sounds.

A daffodil in our small garden had six buds; every morning we stood by the plant. Now, all six are blooming, we just admire them from our balcony. I think hints and signs excite the mind with dreams of things to come.

Couchoud was traveling in a river boat pulled from the shore; it must have been scary to be on the water in the thunder storm.


D'une main elle bat le linge
Et de l'autre rajuste 
Ses cheveux sur son front.


Someone is washing clothes in the river. While washing with one hand, she tidies her loose hair with the other hand. Nothing special is happening here, however, this small deed enables us to see the young woman more in person. The breeze, the sunshine, the flow of cool river water, the white of the clothes, the blue of the sky. Our imagination continues to seek the missing puzzle pieces.


Une simple fleur de papier
Dans un vase.
Eglise rustique (St-Bouize)


A small church in a village. There is not much to mention, except for a single paper flower in a vase. How quiet and how modest; the paper flower makes me think of timelessness but paper itself turns yellow and crumbles into pieces in the course of time. Perhaps the god is taking a short trip and is away from the church, so that there is no offering of fresh flowers today? 

Couchoud says what haijin (Hai-kai poet) has to do is just to point at things, which he does in these three Hai-kai poems. The things he has selected are still in motion and will be so forever. Lovely!

Emiko Miyashita is a poet and translator based in Tokyo.

March 21, 2018

Sweet Mouthful: World Poetry Day

To celebrate World Poetry Day, I asked friend and colleague Anna Lepine about her favorite poem. Here's what she chose and why.

I love “Goblin Market” because it can be understood on so many levels and because it is such a sweet mouthful to read out loud. It is a story about the dangers of excessive pleasures and consumption (“come buy, come buy,” say the goblin men), but it is also a forgiving look at desire. Laura, the “fallen” one, is redeemed, but not before her sister Lizzie has to get smeared all over with goblin juices. I also love how one of the things that was eerie about the poem initially was that the fruit was “all ripe together / in summer weather.” Our reliance on modern grocery stores removes the spookiness of the goblins’ tempting descriptions of fruit, but the Victorians would have been suspicious about strawberries being ripe at the same time as pears, not to mention their easy access to exotic pomegranates. The poem is absolutely “sweet to tongue and sound to eye,” and I can’t get tired of reading it.

Read Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" here

Anna Lepine reads and writes from Hudson, Quebec.

March 7, 2018


Susie Osler, Traces series

Morning at the Cardinal Café, where a strong flat white and even a decaf can cause visions of bright chattering birds to enter a conversation

Conversation with potter, image-maker, and steward of the land Susie Osler (see also Fieldwork) this snowy spring morning about words, the wild, voice, material, now, then

Then this mirror-poem, "Melt" by Patricia Young, from 2008's Here Come the Moonbathers (first published on the Parliamentary Poet Laureate Poem of the Day website) -- here's a little bit:

Patricia Young

One morning they appear in nameless droves.
Fabulous creatures flicking their silver fins and ancient jewels.

A long lost mythology? Weird migration?
They lurched onto the tundra like bawling infants,

announced themselves with the subtlety of a brass band.
Wave upon wave, antlers vibrating, tails ablaze.

Who? we asked. Who are you?
One day they weren’t there and the next

they were traveling toward us
with the speed of a birchwood forest.

We gathered to mourn those passing
swiftly into memory, the polar bear and arctic seal.

Time cracked.
The century was thinner than ice.

We had 1200 words for reindeer but not one
for hornet, robin, elk, salmon, barn owl.

Try to understand: we had never seen a barn.

Read the whole of Patricia Young's "Melt"  here.

Image of Mars courtesy NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

February 5, 2018


Mary Jo Salter

Also, I had a dream, about a year and a half ago, that I read a poem called "The Surveyors," and it was by you. Does this poem exist? I cannot remember any of the words, only that there were all four seasons in it, and that there were nice descriptions of a chain being made taut, the running out of the chain, over and over...

              for Matthew Yeager, who wrote me this letter

Dear Matt,
I'm sorry to say "The Surveyors" does not exist,
despite my being haunted by your question
for a long while now, imagining time and again
that the past can change; that the poem is on the list
of things I did once, because you dreamed it of me.
It's true, I regret, I've never put all four
seasons into one poem, though the Shakespeare 
sonnet I love most keenly, 73
("That time of year thou may'st in me behold"),
implies them, and I wish I'd made a gesture
at least of homage. But when I read your letter
in the autumn of my life, I felt no cold;
I heard Vivaldi's "Spring" scrape violins 
over and over, like the running out of chains.

"Over and over, like the running out of chains"--
I've already quoted wrong the thing you said,
not being you. I can't be in your head.
You can't follow me back there, hearing strains
of Vivaldi in cafes. America
had just learned cappuccino, and to say
croissant, not Danish; we went for those parfait
glasses of yogurt, with strata of granola.
I was so new. The year was '73
or maybe '72. It doesn't matter.
I had discovered sex and poetry.
Thinking of either one would make me shudder.
I was happy. I was nervous about exams.
I was going to read all the works of Henry James.

I was going to read all the works of Henry James,
but haven't. So much unfinished business
unless you're Henry James, who had time to witness
every minute of life, then record the whole, it seems.
Yes, it was thrilling art, but also bad
to make us wait so long to locate Chad
and Madame de Thing in their adulterous boat.
The Europeans or The Ambassadors --
the grandeur James could pour into a title!
That plural but hawk-like wisdom, above it all --
implied too by your title "The Surveyors."
Tripod and hard hat, compass, orange vest:
sometimes, I think, more grounded work is best,
or better than the poem you thought I wrote.

Or better than the poem you thought I wrote
is another one I never wrote: it's set
in shabby, hipster Zagreb, where my love
and I, now sixty, walked past shuttered shops
on a Sunday morning, and found ourselves in front of
the -- really? -- Museum of Broken Relationships,
which was open. Of course it was open. So we spent
time in the gift shop, where they charged the equivalent
of thirteen dollars for a little pink
eraser that would help you not to think.
RUB IT ALL OUT, it said. A pillowcase
read SLEEP IT OFF. By this age, I'd erased
much of my past quite nicely; so had he.
We walked out holding hands, a bit brokenly.

We walked out holding hands, a bit brokenly,
like Adam and Eve, in my favorite poem of all.
Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour
but you're not, since these two made sure you were mortal.
No human, though, can dream beyond the power
of your blind omniscience; modernity
in poetry must die if you don't last.
what's more Einsteinian than Book Eleven,
Michael escorting Adam up that hill
to make their space-time survey of the past
ahead, witnessed not just in the brain
but in present action? Cain killing Abel
as the seed of countless long-dead wars, and even
while Eve has not yet given birth in pain...

While Eve has not yet given birth in pain,
I have. I try to sneak a look, like Thetis,
over the shoulder of whatever may
now forge my daughters' prospects. Surely Auden
had Milton's scene in mind when he shaped his;
what Homer saw on his word-hammered shield
had taken on the sheen of the word-field
surveyed by Adam; implied an unnamed Mary,
who knew It is written, and that she must yield.
I live for nothing more than for my children,
yet I'll confess, Matt, I know well the If
Clause of self-sabotage: If I must lose
my life, why not make this my hour to choose?
Jesus, tempted, might have jumped off the cliff.

Jesus, tempted, might have jumped. Off the cliff
is where this poem-that-isn't now must go.
Today in the paper ("the paper" has a whiff
of yesterday to it, sorry), Elon Musk
averred we might be living in a vast
computer simulation of a past
world re-created by our own descendants.
To them our metaphors can make no sense --
the summer of my life, my day at dusk...
Death, thou shalt die, said Donne. Could that be so?
The only instinct greater than survival
is, apparently, its keenest rival,
the drive to guarantee no thing's not dead.
Melt all the ice caps. Cut off every head.

Melt all the ice caps. Cut off every head
to serve the crude medieval god up there
and post the act on social media, where
all life went anyway -- into the Cloud.
Numberless universes at this minute
(though what's a minute?) may be simulcast,
we're also told, in which case nothing's lost,
yet something's deathly in the infinite:
it leaves us mortals out. What's with this glee
we humans feel, enabling the posthuman?
Doubtless we'll come to singularity
with our machines, but why must we be glad?
A life from here to there, in one direction --
oh, I was content with what I had.

Oh, I was content with what I had:
a perch on the back stoop. I'm maybe three.
This is it, Matt, my first memory.
I'm in a wool coat, tailored, double-breasted,
absurd for a toddler; but that's how things were.
The president was Dwight D. Eisenhower.
So long ago! I look down from my great
height, the fourth step of new-poured concrete,
to survey the new sod of our new backyard.
My mother is on her knees. She's working hard, 
making a garden, planting flowers between
different-sized rocks. She calls it a "rock garden."
Here in Grand Rapids, people are not so grand. 
My mother is making art from her plot of dirt,
Japanese art, and the neighbours won't understand.
She'll spend a lot of time feeling proud and hurt.

She'll spend a lot of time feeling proud and hurt
like her daughter. I came by it honestly,
being stung by life, soothing myself with art,
making stuff up, getting things different-sized.
You doubt my first memory? I'm not surprised.
I must have fused two scenes, since nobody,
I see now, wears a winter coat in weather
warm enough to plant flowers in. It's wrong
and the sonnet I just wrote contained sixteen
lines, which even I know is too long. 
I've lived already longer than my mother
and haven't lived enough. Live all you can,
said Lambert Strether; it's a mistake not to.
Living by this is the best I think I'll do.

Living by this is the best I think I'll do,
while praying not to burden those I love.
What hope I won't? When my time comes to vault
off the bridge, I'll be a midget, bent and frail
(I'm too short, even now, to clear the rail)
and besides (will they concede it's not my fault
my brain is shot?), I won't be good for new
information, or even old stuff I believe
nobody told me. Half-deaf, paranoid
nihilist nonsense, technophobic rants,
the imagined feats of grandchildren, the round
of half-true stories run into the ground --
and gone will be Vivaldi, sex, romance,
sweet things I must remember I've enjoyed.

Sweet things. I must remember. I've enjoyed
forgetting, then remembering again,
the running out (remember, Matt, the chain
gone taut, then running out, over and over?)
of what my life is, before it meets the void.
A buried marriage. Late, my truest lover. 
My children jumping too high on the bed,
landing on college campuses. Goodbye,
goodbye, walk through that gate, don't watch me cry.
Lost friends, a dozen places I called home.
I can't see all I'm seeing -- give me time!
If I wrote the poem you dreamed, would that imply
we'd finalized my list?...For now that's why,
I'm sorry to say, "The Surveyors" does not exist.

From The Surveyors (Knopf, 2017). Reproduced with permission.

Image: Herman Saftleven, Imaginary River Landscape. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.