October 20, 2020


I'm thrilled to find Sarah Venart's fine new book, I AM THE BIG HEART, in the mailbox. I walk back to the house so absorbed in it I forget to check the pines that line the lane for the owl that sometimes waits there, watching.

Thrilled because it was fourteen years in the making, Sarah says, at times with much uncertainty over whether it would get made at all. Thrilled because I got to watch some of the poems taking shape (see Sarah's revision worksheets for four poems, from draft to publication, here).

The cover is unsettling and beautiful, and the book is thicker than I'd imagined - partly that luxurious paper all Brick's books are printed on, partly the hospitable distillation of a whole lot of thoughtful and passionate and sometimes resistant living.

Hospitality, especially when it feels like invitation, is one of the best things to find in a poem. When the poem goes "here's what this is like for me; how is it for you?" I feel a little more alive. Sarah's poems do this over and over.

       In earth years, my heart is ridiculously young.
       It blinks closed, it glistens open to herd the blood.
               ("Darling Citizen")

They risk and play and dare me to go in close.

       When she loved me, she got on with it
       in silence: she punched down the bread and salvaged
       the cold oatmeal on the stove.
       It wasn't what I asked for.

They're not afraid - or, when they are, they face it.

       At night I close my eyes and let my thoughts
       become my feelings, let my feelings point their corners
       into dark corners

They're faceted: tender, comedic, unflinching, bare. Some hold injury and manipulation up to the light for scrutiny (The Widening; How It Worked; Stun Guns). Some hold their own trembling, their own joy (Dénouement; Lambing Season), grief and love. 

       To go rogue, stop holding onto
       what hurts, indulge in this minute, make
       room for what's good.
               ("The Midwife Advises Me")
Poems and fragments found in her poet-mother's journals are folded in; family life and the individual life in all their bewildering complexity are folded in. 
And the poems are masterful constructions of pattern and variation, sometimes gathered in formation, sometimes roaming the page
       from domestic into feral

       just like that.
               ("The Chauffeur")

I look up: it's late afternoon. The owl is calling. 

October 1, 2020


"If you don't like what you wrote, don't think about the words, just remember it better."

I'm paraphrasing Robert Hass's advice on revision in a dimly-recalled Vimeo of a talk given in Rotterdam, a paraphrase itself of something Jack Kerouac once said.

The context was a discussion of the sources of poetry according to Rilke (memory, dream, art) and its subjects (joy, longing, grief). Hass had set up a quick exercise in noting a location for each of those emotions.

Just before this, someone in the audience asked about revision, to which Hass responded with an anecdote (about Robert Duncan and his poem "My Mother Would Be a Falconress") that suggested a poem only acquires the name 'poem' when all the writing is done, essentially another way of saying writing is rewriting is writing.

I recall, as a young person just beginning to find my own poems, asking a friend about her process and how she knew when a poem was finished. The question felt a little like the one my younger self asked my mother: how do you know when it's love? 

My poet friend answered that she played the poem in her mind's eye like a little movie, following it to its conclusion.

My mother answered that it's when you can't not be there, or, there's no conclusion.

          mid-day at my desk
          tea going cold
          milk going warm
          I've been listening to poetry