Mini-Review: “The African Burial Ground”

I was looking through the poems that the Poetry Foundation posted for Black History Month and read through several of them, and Yusef Komunyakaa’s “The African Burial Ground” stood out to me in particular. For those unfamiliar with the site that the title refers to, the poem is centered on what is now the African Burial Ground National Monument – a space that, before being lost due to landfill and construction, acted as the largest colonial-era cemetery for enslaved and freed Africans. It was rediscovered in 1991 during the construction of an office building, sparking discussion about the invisibility of African-American history, and controversy when it seemed that the construction might go on as planned. The site is now a National Monument, and this poem was published in 2014.

They came as Congo, Guinea, & Angola,
   feet tuned to rhythms of a thumb piano.
      They came to work fields of barley & flax,
livestock, stone & slab, brick & mortar,
   to make wooden barrels, some going
      from slave to servant & half-freeman.
They built tongue & groove— wedged
   into their place in New Amsterdam.
      Decades of seasons changed the city
from Dutch to York, & dream-footed
   hard work rattled their bones.
      They danced Ashanti. They lived
& died. Shrouded in cloth, in cedar
   & pine coffins, Trinity Church
      owned them in six & a half acres
of sloping soil. Before speculators
   arrived grass & weeds overtook
      what was most easily forgotten,
& tannery shops drained there.
   Did descendants & newcomers
      shoulder rock & heave loose gravel
into the landfill before building crews
   came, their guitars & harmonicas
      chasing away ghosts at lunch break?
Soon, footsteps of lower Manhattan
   strutted overhead, back & forth
      between old denials & new arrivals,
going from major to minor pieties,
   always on the go. The click of heels
      the tap of a drum awaking the dead.
I really enjoy how easily believable the content of this poem is, especially with how little documentation is actually attached to the real site – none of what the narrator says about the lives and deaths of his subjects is something that a reader would spring to challenge. That the slaves “came as Congo, Guinea, & Angola,” that some attained their freedom, that they were buried “Shrouded in cloth, in cedar / & pine coffins” on the grounds of Trinity Church – all of this is undeniable. The narrator speculates only briefly, and when he does, he phrases the speculation as a realistic question, something that can be refuted if need be. A lot of literature that deals with slavery, like Hayden’s “Middle Passage” reflects the horrible and revolting aspects of humans exploiting other humans, but what struck me about “The African Burial Ground” was how much it focused on the more simple theme of perseverance and a focus on the day-to-day reality of the enslaved. This is not to say that the poem’s narrator does not carry any sort of bitterness, though: while he does not focus on the abuse inflicted onto the slaves, he reminds us that the dead have been entirely neglected. Descriptions of the dead as “most easily forgotten” and “ghosts” to be chased away remind the reader not to forget, and these sorts of poems, ones that speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves or might never have been able to, have always been really appealing to me.

I Recommend…

On Rain

It was blacker than olives the night I left. As I
ran past the palaces, oddly joyful, it began to
rain. What a notion it is, after all—these small
shapes! I would get lost counting them. Who
first thought of it? How did he describe it to
the others? Out on the sea it is raining too.
It beats on no one.

Anne Carson

From Anne Carson’s 1995 book Plainwater, “On Rain” is part of a series called “Short Talks.” While there were also short talks that drew me in such as “On Charlotte,” discussing the Bronte sisters, and the standout one line “On Gertrude Stein at 9:30,” this poem’s first line was a lasso. It’s unorthodox to compare night to an olive. I love olives. My friends hate olives. It’s one of those things that doesn’t have a grey area; you either do or you don’t. Such a bold statement captures and enthralls, and this one does the trick.
As silly as it sounds, I can wholly relate to the speaker throughout the poem. I distinctly remember trudging up the hill to my four pm Wednesday physics lab this past fall semester in the pouring rain under a flimsy, red umbrella. I wondered if each drop were a different shape, or if they changed shapes as they fell. How many drops actually battered against the fabric? How many did it take to make that stream running down the sides of the road toward the nearest drain?
It’s a cycle; everything goes back to water. It falls, and it rises, and then it falls again. “On the sea” the rain falls on the tides and “beats on no one.” It makes me question the speaker’s tone throughout the poem. At first, he/she appears to be “joyful” in the rain, observant and inquisitive. But this final line, “it beats on no one,” implies that he/she views it as violently beating on him/her. The more rain that falls, the heavier clothes become in getting soaked, the more weighted down you can become both physically and emotionally.
Also, it can be assumed that the speaker is experiencing a sense of freedom at the beginning of the poem. It is “the night [he/she] left” and is running “past the palaces” in the rain. Maybe he/she is running from an abusive household or relationship in which he/she was beaten. Maybe the rain doesn’t hurt. Maybe the rain heals, instead.

Sci-Fi #4

From Sci-Fi
By Tracy K. Smith

In those last scenes of Kubrick’s 2001
When Dave is whisked into the center of space,
Which unfurls in an aurora of orgasmic light
Before opening wide, like a jungle orchid
For a love-struck bee, then goes liquid,
Paint-in-water, and then gauze wafting out and off,
Before, finally, the night tide, luminescent
And vague, swirls in, and on and on . . . .

In those last scenes, as he floats
Above Jupiter’s vast canyons and seas,
Over the lava strewn plains and mountains
Packed in ice, that whole time, he doesn’t blink.
In his little ship, blind to what he rides, whisked
Across the wide-screen of unparcelled time,
Who knows what blazes through his mind?
Is it still his life he moves through, or does
That end at the end of what he can name?

On set, it’s shot after shot till Kubrick is happy,
Then the costumes go back on their racks
And the great gleaming set goes black.

I discovered this poem in a collection of poems entitled Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith; it is part of a much longer poem entitled “Sci-Fi”, which includes 5 very distinct (and quite long) poems. This poem could read like prose if we got rid of the line breaks. It also reads like the speaker could be talking aloud about her favorite movie and we just happen to be listening in. I’m a big fan of science fiction and have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, so the references made in this poem were accessible; however, I feel that even without that background knowledge, the images created are still so tangible. For anyone who has seen this movie, the scene she is talking about is one that has been discussed and argued among movie critics and fans over and over again (Watch it here and see for yourself). It’s super abstract and to be honest, I don’t think anyone quite knows what to make of it entirely. But she takes that scene and recreates it for the reader using vivid images. She still acknowledges the mystery, but she doesn’t leave us entirely in the dark with even more abstractions. This poem makes me think about other famous scenes from movies, and how those can be incorporated into new art through poetry. It’s almost like a call and response; someone creates something, and then someone else is so inspired they create their own interpretation. It will definitely be something I’ll try out in the near future, whether it be a movie, image or song. I think it would be a good exercise in seeing how much of the original you take and understand, and how much of your own interpretation can be melded in.

Contradicting Myself

Something that workshop does is help me to isolate what exactly turns me on or off in a poem. **HOWEVER, I often find a very annoying and peculiar phenomena occurring during class. It is difficult for me to isolate exactly how I feel about certain aspects of a poem. It doesn’t mean that I’m wavering around not knowing how I feel, it means I convince myself I feel one way and then I am able to convince myself I feel the exact opposite. This can get rather frustrating. One second I am so sure that I don’t like the placement of the punctuation in the poem and then the next second I find that there may be merit to that exact aspect. I’m constantly changing my mind about how I feel about almost everything in a poem that we receive for workshop. I think this may have a lot to do with the setting. For instance, if I stumble on a poem in the Poetry Foundation app, I think I might be less likely to be as critical of it. I am told that this poem is supposed to be at least “good” or “worthwhile”, so I am already perceiving it in that mindset. It’s difficult for me to be less judgmental and picky with a poem if I know it was written by one of my peers. I think this is a good thing in the context of workshop, because that’s what workshop is for…however, I don’t think it’s good for me to be more or less critical of something because of knowing who wrote it. I think it’s ideal to try to read a poem as is, blind to knowledge of the writer.

This also doesn’t mean that there aren’t some things that are 100% clear to me. There are always aspects that I can really be sure I love and things I just hate. These are often the strongest and weakest parts of the poem. I find that these gut, deep-seated feelings, are the ones that are most valuable and important for the writer. They also help me out the most. Deciding how I feel about other people’s poems helps me to identify what I am trying to achieve with my own poetry.

From Prose to Poetry

A phrase from workshop continues to ring in my ears:
“Prose is not the opposite of Poetry.”
And how thankful I am for that. Moving abruptly from a year and a half of writing prose into poetry has been difficult, but remembering that I am not starting from scratch has been helpful. So…

What have I learned in writing prose that I can translate into poetry? From my short experience, I saw that prose was based in streams of images, based more deliberately in certain environments (settings, cultures, timeframes) than poetry. However, inevitably, it seemed that prose was exploring these realities, which seems to be how poetry is functioning as well. Prose remains realistic (literary fiction) and, simply put, it presents a story that leaves room for interpretation.

Now, there’s poetry, and how similar it is. Poetry thrives on streams of images that interpret and recreate realities in order to probe social aspects of our lives. David Foster Wallace says, as optimal advice to his fiction workshop students, “the reader cannot read your mind,” and he repeats it again and again in an interview with Bryan A. Garner, transcribed in a highly recommended book, Quack This Way.

Moving from prose to poetry, or residing in poetry, we must not forget that we are writing sentences, changed primarily by line breaks.

Life, Art, Image

I’ve been thinking (and talking) a lot about the image recently, so I thought I might as well write a post to get us started on talking about it outside of workshop.

I’ll start with this big ol’ block quote from Aleksandr Voronsky:

“First of all, art is the cognition of life. Art is not the free play of fantasy, feelings, and moods: art is not the expression of merely the subjective sensations and experiences of the poet; art is not assigned the goal of primarily awakening in the reader―good feelings. Like science, art cognizes life. Both art and science have the same subject: life, reality. But sciences analyzes, art synthesizes; science is abstract, art is concrete; science turns to the mind of man, art to his sensual [i.e., sensory] nature. Science cognizes life with the help of concepts, art with the aid of images in the form of living, sensual contemplation.”

Voronsky was a Marxist critic who participated in the Russian Revolution (and was later executed in 1937 under Stalin). What he’s saying, essentially, is that art cognizes reality (life), and therefore it serves an objective social purpose. I think, in this quote, is a statement about the ethics of art too: that art ought to think about life through images corresponding to reality, in order to communicate with society (consequently, bad art fails to do all these things).

Agree or disagree with this (I really want to see what everyone thinks about this quote!), I think it’s an important argument to consider, especially since we’re meeting weekly to evaluate and and improve our own art. So that quote is my way of prefacing this two part question for us:

1) What is art’s function? Why do we write poems in the first place?

2) How can art most effectively communicate?

To put it another way, why do we create art, what should we create, how do we create it?

These are large questions that artists have been debating for quite a long time, but they’re important, and I think we should all be working with these, since we’re in a class about creating art.

I don’t want to preach necessarily, but I do think it’s very important for all of us poets to learn to write through images that correspond to the real, lived, observed world. If a poem consists of images that come from the lived world, and if the artist is thinking through these images to examine or constitute abstract concepts that relate to the real world–to humanity–I think a poem is on its way toward being good, evocative, thoughtful piece of art.

What do you think? Is art a means of cognizing life? Is image the way? Is all good art social?

Blog Post #2: Taking apart post

Something that was said in class was that a stanza is always in movement, that it is like the coast of a sea, coming back to the same point with one constant message. I think we discussed on the 27th of January about this phenomenon, specifically how Chaucer kept coming back to a single message in his writing.

I think this is particularly true of my writing, because I often pose a question in the beginning of my writing (as I will with my first workshop piece, “Memorials in March”) and work to answer, denounce or prove that question.

I think the seeds or genesis of a poem is in a question we pose to ourselves or even to the world, because as writers or in a broader spectrum as people, we are curious beings that seek to find out more and more each day. Scientists do this through the scientific method, mathematicians do this through equations and artists do this by creating art and writers do this specifically by posing a question. A question in a poem need not come through the use of a question mark, but a situation that is not ordinary that creates questions in the reader’s mind.

When writing this post, I thought of John Donne’s The Sun Rising, where the speaker poses a question to the Sun why it disturbs and interrupts two lovers.

Whatever the message is in a poem, I think it is particularly true that as a writer, we seek to come back to a certain message that we pose, most often as a question.

Taking Apart: Margaret Atwood’s “Siren Song”

I was very much into Greek mythology as a kid, and rereading Tennyson’s “Ulysses” last week brought back a lot of memories of time spent with several versions of the Odyssey – when I read Tennyson’s poem for the first time in high school, I was very struck by the poem’s take on it’s title character; instead of a man desperately trying to return home, Tennyson portrayed Ulysses as a bored king always looking for his next adventure, which might be offensive if it weren’t so compelling. When I eventually came across Margaret Atwood’s “Siren Song”, it instantly placed itself alongside “Ulysses” as a non-traditional understanding of a mythological character that was equally as compelling, if not moreso, than the original character. It also stood out to me for how effectively the poem’s form works – “Siren Song” is written in free verse,  which is essential to the success of the poem.

This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:


the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see the beached skulls


the song nobody knows
because anyone who has heard it
is dead, and the others can’t remember.


Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?


I don’t enjoy it here
squatting on this island
looking picturesque and mythical


with these two feathery maniacs,
I don’t enjoy singing
this trio, fatal and valuable.


I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song


is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique


at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.

“Siren Song” is narrated (not surprisingly) by one of the Sirens themselves, and knowledge of the characters and the context in which they previously appear is crucial to understanding how free verse works in the poem. The Sirens, were a trio of monsters of Greek mythology described as taking the appearance of a combination of a woman and a bird, and were known for driving sailors to shipwreck through luring them in with the beautiful music they produced. The Sirens act as obstacles in a number of myths, most famously the Odyssey, from the episode where Odysseus orders his men to tie him to the mast so he can listen to the sirens’ song without attempting to flee overboard while they stuff their own ears with beeswax so they can sail onwards. The Odyssey is well-known for being written entirely in dactylic hexameter, an extremely formal meter associated with epic poetry that consists of six feet, each one composed of a stressed syllable followed by two stressed ones. In immediately obvious counterpoint to this,  “Siren Song” is written in free verse. It’s clear, not only from the casual, modern language used by the Siren who addresses the poem’s reader, but also from the poem’s free verse, un-songlike form as well, that the Siren intends to break the reader’s associations between herself and what the reader thinks that they already know about her. “Siren Song” ends with the reveal by the Siren, after she has told the reader to “Come closer”, that her song “works every time”, strongly implying that she has lured the reader to their doom, but beyond the textual clues that this is happening, the poem’s form itself suggests that there is still method to what the Siren is saying: many of the lines and stanzas are enjambed, as is common in free verse, creating an urgency for the reader to follow along to the next line and move physically closer towards her. Furthermore, each of the poem’s nine stanzas is a tercet, which suggests there is in fact an underlying structure to what the Siren is telling the reader regardless of her speech having no rhyme or meter.

Reaction to “Ozymandias” by Percy Shelley

Ozymandias by Percy Shelley
“I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

This is probably one of the best known poems by Shelley. I feel as though this is a poem that can be enjoyed by anyone; I actually taught it to a bunch of tenth graders while I was student teaching and was not met with the usual groans and moans. I’ve read it before, but each time I read it I am again amazed by the images and emotions it creates.

I think the main theme here is the realization we all come to at one point in our lives, that someday, maybe sooner, maybe later, we will die, and everyone who has ever known us will also die, and then we will truly be nothing. This is a terrible thought! I think most of us realize this at some point during childhood, and (if you were like me) spent a good number of days obsessing over death and being filled with a sinking feeling of dread. The short, declarative line, “Nothing beside remains.” really gets me here. What’s left of the statue is hardly that of the former glory that is inscribed at the pedestal, and is surrounded by a vast emptiness that reflects that same feeling of dread over death being inevitable. I love that line, and feel that it is possibly the strongest one in the poem. We don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the state of the great Ozymandias and his fall from grace, but that very reaction could be used to describe our own fears and anxieties over what comes after death. The poem is so effective in that it forces us to examine our own understanding of death and dying, and although maybe that’s uncomfortable, it serves its purpose in possibly making you look more closely at how you live presently.

Robert Service: Popularity and Power

The first poem that I knew intimately was “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” The poem was written by Robert Service, a banker who moved to the Yukon Territory in the early 1900’s, around the time of the gold rush in Canada and Alaska. Everyone in my first grade class memorized the opening of the pages-long poem, which reads,


There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold;

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

I cremated Sam McGee.


The poems of Service, who has been called “The Bard of the Yukon,” detail the charm of the harsh Northern wilderness and the bravery of the rugged men who sought riches and adventure there. Service is rarely celebrated for of exemplifying literary originality or even authenticity. He has been criticized for misrepresenting himself, a banker and a townsperson, as a participant in the gold rush, thus romanticizing a life of hardship that he knew little about. His work has been critiqued as prioritizing appeal to a broad audience over literary integrity. From a literary criticism point of view “The Cremation of Sam McGee” is not great poetry, but it is powerful in that it defines a collective history.

In interior Alaska, where I lived, everyone knows the poem. My Great Uncle Laval whose parents moved to Alaska from the west coast soon after Service wrote the poem recites the whole poem, children like me learn it in school, and books of Service’s poems sit on the shelves of nearly every household that I enter. Why is poetry, and bad, common poetry at that, the medium that carries this memory? Of course there are songs, stories, and visual art from the era that Service writes about, but it is his poems that are at the forefront of the common memory of the gold rush pioneers who many Alaskans identify as part of their heritage.

It appears to me that despite critical scorn for Service’s poetry, his poems fill a need for common representation. The form of “The Cremation of Sam McGee” features easy rhythm and rhyme, which lends the poem to retelling. The relatable language, simple emotion, and sweeping romanticism give voice to a specific, isolated experience. “The Cremation of Sam McGee” conjures sensations that are specifically important to those who live in Alaska. The poem builds a clear picture, weakly constructed as it may be, of the hardy, daring history that Alaskans want to believe themselves a part of. We can critique Service’s style, or accuse him of selling out to the masses, but it is important to avoid equating popularity with weakness. In this case, the power in Service’s poetry is rooted in its easy accessibility, the closeness that many feel with the heart of it.