Here are the poems from Project Verse ~ Week 4: Shore Tags.
Three old fishers look
our way; you stand in the opening
of the corner bar, still
as a hermit crab, not from fear
but overcome with the stool
where Ernest perched as a salty
man, scratching notes
on napkins, or so you like to say.
Once, long before we strolled
cobblestones beside liquid streets
you read to me, slowing the words
white   wine   crusty   bread   po
ta   toes. We dashed to the store,
cooked up his feast and dreamt
of the bar where he drank.
THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth: Two sonnets this week. This one is less formal than the untitled poem, and less engaging emotionally. “Stool” is an unfortunate word to break on, and I’d say the poem, though tight, is not as engaging as many of the others.
Dustin: I think this poem bland. I think there could have been more details and images. I’m not a fan of your line breaks in this poem– mainly in the first stanza. I think you rush with the assignments and are capable of better poems.
Dana: I guess I’m a sucker for poems about poets. The opening stanza is magnificent, and I think the image of the person being addressed standing in the doorway of the bar, so that the bar itself is likened to the shell of the crab while the addressee is likened to a hermit crab, is fantastic. I love metaphors that are so strong I stop and think about them over and over, really trying to see both the real thing and what it’s being compared with, and this metaphor certainly had that effect on me.
The only thing I will say is that I want more. I don’t know if I want more in this particular poem or a series around this narrator/addressee. Just more. This is the kind of poem that, in a collection, would make me turn the page.
I loved your piece from week two as well. There’s so much in your work that’s compelling.
Guest Judge Collin Kelley: An interesting choice to use Hemingway as the vehicle for the poem, but it’s almost too slight. I wanted more depth to the imagery, more exploration of why the friend/lover was so overcome by seeing Ernest’s barstool. Still, I liked the rhythm and use of slant rhyme, but this was almost one of my bottom picks. Come on, Micah, pick up the pace.
“They carried all they could bear and then some, including
a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”
Los Angles is a migratory metropole
with dense gravity dragging mastodons
and starlets into La Brea tar, jacaranda
paste and metal casings wrapping us
in armor, our city’s skinsong of horns
and crash pressing on body meat.
We are hermit crabs with shells easily
cracked, and carry our homelessness
along with parakeets from pet stores
whistling on power lines, and pine
pitch canker tattooing native stands,
army jackets wrapping us at night.
From sealed office windows, I watch
a woman wander downtown with a trash
bag bulging atop her head, no hands
to steady her burden. A wordless grace
from some distant land we all share
makes me think about the human
home we build with each fragile deed,
and the things we’ve left behind.
THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth: Martin loves his music here, and has some great linguistic riffs: “jacaranda / paste and metal casings wrapping us / in armor, our city’s skinsong of horns /and crash pressing on body meat.” He misspells “Angeles” and the beginning seems a bit surreal in a way that doesn’t quite fit the more conventional end of the poem, but there’s much to like.
Dustin: I’m disappointed with the misspelled word. I’ll confess: I am the king of type-o’s, so I know it happens; however, you are writing about a well-known city, not Quinebaug, Connecticut. I am fond of what you’ve created in your fourth stanza. I want more of the homeless woman. After seeing your work for four weeks, I have no doubt you could used her to show us “We are hermit crabs with shells easily / cracked.” I found stanza fourth and the closing stanza more interesting than the stanzas that came before.
Dana: The epigraph is really nice in this piece, and the language is rich and dense throughout. Dense in a good way, in a vegetable soup with twice the vegetables kind of way. You want to consume it. It makes you all warm inside. The imagery in this piece doesn’t let up, from beginning to end. The reader feels that congested feeling of Los Angeles in the way you’ve composed this piece — you have in fact written the city’s skinsong (which by the way is a great phrase).
I loved moments like “parakeets from pet stores / whistling on power lines” — the image as well as what those lines imply about the haves and have-nots — the former being irresponsible pet owners and, conversely, the latter having lost their homes and no longer being able to care for their pets. The shifts you make in the last two stanzas are great, moving first to what the narrator is witnessing and then opening the poem up and out onto this vista from which to look back over the entire poem.
You made a comment on Dustin’s site last week about writing about a subject you don’t passionately believe in. I’m glad you found a way into this piece. My feeling when founding Shore Tags was that the project would function on many levels, including metaphorical ones.
Guest Judge Collin Kelley: The opening stanza is a miasma of unnecessary words and alliteration. The poem is trying too hard to be a poem. For me, the poem doesn’t come alive until the fourth quatrain, but it’s too little, too late. Another misstep is that the final stanza does not live up to the epigraph from O’Brien it seeks to mirror. Sadly, I had to put this poem in my bottom two.
Hermit Crab’s Lament
You who named us,
who call us
house proud and vapid—you
Do you think we merely
fumble our way by instinct
into any hollow object?
You can’t comprehend
the arithmetic of our choices; the ecstasy
of toil in a hard, rank womb.
I will admit to a touch of pride.
I’ve always been keen on headroom,
though we can ill afford
to be choosy in these times.
I remember the days of abalone ceilings, the yolk
of my belly nestled in porcelain ribs, nights
when we met the Pylochelidae in secret,
to whirl across the sodden dune,
showing off our spiral cloches.
We danced to forget that our shelters
would again abandon us.
It’s of no consequence
these days, I suppose. They’re all a poor fit now.
The wind oozes through, no matter the rental.
The shore is a wasteland of broken cups.
It’s about the seeking, they tell me.
Well cold comfort. My whole
damn species are fools, always skittering
toward some fresh perfection, always
outgrowing what loves us.
Only God has the courage
to go without a crust, to linger
as tender as a polyp in these barrens.
When he taps our walls for the final eviction,
We will be unable to hang on, unable
to refuse. He will stagger with us
towards our first, most perfect home.
THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth: This is a rather eloquent hermit crab! The voice is a bit stuffy for how I imagine a hermit crab might, you know, ‘speak’, but I admire here the imagination and the wisdom of the voice, particularly at the end. That whole final stanza is lovely.
Dustin: A couple of my favorite moments in your poem: “Do you think we merely / fumble our way by instinct / into any hollow object?” and “Only God has the courage / to go without a crust.” I also link your use of “rank womb,” and I can say that I’ve never seen rank combined with womb. I’m torn about your poem. I really LOVE your last stanza, but when I read “always /outgrowing what loves us,”I wanted that to end the poem. BUT, then comes the amazingly beautiful lines “Only God has the courage / to go without a crust.” I can’t deny this is a good poem, and I do like it. However, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that there could be some beneficial tweaking toward the end.
Dana: I like the tone of this poem and the way the narrator is speaking on behalf of all hermit crabs, in the exalted first person plural. Lines such as “You can’t comprehend / the arithmetic of our choices: the ecstasy / of toil in a hard, rank womb” are a pleasure to read, to see them unfold line by line. Moments like this in the poem also show the research you did about hermit crabs, and that always wins points with me. I love a poet who will tackle any subject, especially biology, ecology, chemistry, environmental science and the like, in order to write the best poem possible. And you accomplish that combination of accuracy and detail without the poem suffering as a poem in the process. Take the word “Pylochelidae” in the second stanza: You transplant a clinical word used in taxonomy into this poem, and here it sings with intrigue and mystery.
This poem, for me, is right up there with your work last week — and all your work thus far has been really strong.
Guest Judge Collin Kelley: My favorite poem of the week. The opening lines of the first stanza were not promising, but then it took off with “the arithmetic of our choices; the ecstasy/of toil in hard, rank womb.” Each stanza opens a little too loosely for me, but then wound up taking me to an unexpected place. While some of this week’s other entries were more polished, the imagery in Kristen’s poem stuck with me. I kept coming back to it again and again.
EMILY VAN DUYNE
On the Eve of July 4th, At the Start of Another Long & Brutal Century, Sylvia Plath Addresses the Hermit Crab’s Plight
Bandits! Take this
note— even the newts are down
and out these days, reedy
bindles smack their backs. And the fish!
My God, my God, their seas
ascend, mercuric— murderous suns, a dreadful
well. 300 dead in Persia’s bloody basket;
still, the earth is mum:
yellow bitch, wolfing
at our painted doors. She has nothing
to weep for, she is up
to here with it! Out, she cries, and out!
She would start
anew. And you? Lazy-bellied
thieves of lazy snails’
scrapped barracks, the moon’s
your icy chief. She scams in tandem fiddle
with the robber baron earth.
She waxes fat
on gristle, thin on stone. Look! She’s a bulbous grinning
nun, she’s dumb as paper! Now a bony
whore in skin and gold. Do you hate her?
She drags you through
her Purgatoried tide with no regard.
Her mercy’s a spent shell.
So, crusted fools, half-spiders— churchless
worthless sextons, squealing fire bells,
get going. Take up this despot
mud, and drift. Tough your armor, whet your knives.
This world is quarterless.
THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth: I have consistently admired this poet’s work, and this week’s poem is not exception. She truly does sound like Sylvia here in places “Look! She’s a bulbous grinning / nun, she’s dumb as paper! Now a bony / whore in skin and gold.” This poem is certainly at the top for me this week.
Dustin: I think poets have to be careful when they title poems in general; however, I think they must be extra careful if they are set on using a long title. Long titles typically attract more attention than short titles. Longer titles often incite a poet’s deepest harshest critic. Well, you have nothing to worry about. This is my favorite title to date in the competition, and the poem does not disappoint on any level. A few of my favorite parts are: “300 dead in Persia’s bloody basket; / still, the earth is mum: /yellow bitch, wolfing / at our painted doors” and “She’s a bulbous grinning / nun, she’s dumb as paper!” and “Her mercy’s a spent shell.” Honestly, I could list more lines because there is so much to love about this poem. Your poem is rich. I even like your line breaks. I could keep on with compliments but won’t. Now, don’t let the comments give you a big head. I’m not sure we could handle that on top of your sassiness.
Dana: Emily, Emily, Emily. You had me at “Sylvia Plath.” Actually, you didn’t have me then. But you had me wondering, “That’s a hell of a title. I wonder if she can pull this poem off.”
And you did. With flying colors. The single-word interjection kicking things off. The complicated but subtle rhymes and wordplay threading through the poem. (I am especially fond of the phrase “bindles smack their backs” in line 4, how the first and last letters in “bindles” are picked up and paired with the “ack” from “smack” to form “backs.” That kind of thing makes me swoon in a poem.) The cynical stance of the narrator. The economy of language. (For example, “300 dead in Persia’s bloody basket” conveys so much and wastes no time conveying it.) The metaphors. (One of my favorites is “the moon’s / your icy chief.”) The way the poem sits in the mouth when being read. (All the words beginning in “b,” “t,” “p” and “g” — the plosives and near plosives going off like bombs throughout the piece.)
The only thing I would say, other than saying this poem floored me, is that you have two “she”s in the poem, on referring to the earth and one referring to the moon a couple of stanzas later. That confused me just a bit. I had to stop and trace the referents for each “she.” Overall, this piece is thrilling to read, I think even stronger than your work week one. Your strongest piece yet, and one of the strongest so far in the entire competition.
Guest Judge Collin Kelley: This was a close second to Kristen’s poem, and definitely wins for best title. Approximating Plath’s language and style is clever — especially with an assignment as difficult as writing about hermit crabs — but it came off a bit gimmicky to me. Some of the imagery was too opaque for my taste (She’s a bulbous grinning/nun, she’s dumb as paper!), but I tip my hat to Emily for the control of her lines, with each set of tercets breaking beautifully down the page. It really was tough choice between this poem and Kristen’s for top pick. Great work, Emily!
A Hammock is Not a Home
For a hermit crab anyway.
Think of a penis with claws
caught in the green mesh.
Better to pilot the doll head instead,
enter through the neck.
Lug its matted hair, blank stare.
Better yet, keep one claw
in the old shell, just in case.
Perhaps it’s easier than I imagine
to bury myself. Steering the earth
with an oversized claw. I’ll start
tomorrow. Sweet, sweet carapace.
There will be molting and pinkish flesh
under the armor waiting for air.
A hammock is not a home for anyone
really. Even when everything
is all honeysuckle. Of course, I want
to be held, rocked. But suspension
is ephemeral, and I, am not.
THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth: I think that penis is an unfortunate image, really, for a poem that has great tonal control and a distinctive voice (such lovely movements—ones I’ve admired in other poems of this writer: “Steering the earth/with an oversized claw. I’ll start/tomorrow. Sweet, sweet carapace.” The entire beginning of the poem for me is a little hard to follow from a penis with claws to a doll head?… I do love the way the poem concludes and generally, I admire the tonal authority of the speaker.
Dustin: Overall, I like this poem, but I don’t like your second line of “Think of a penis with claws.” I think “Better to pilot the doll head instead” is interesting and unique, but I don’t like the rhyme you created with this line— that’s minor. I love “Better yet, keep one claw / in the old shell, just in case” and “A hammock is not a home for anyone.” I really enjoyed the last three lines of your poem, but I have to agree with Collin’s last comment.
Dana: For me, the best part of this poem is seeing the hermit crab in the doll’s head. That’s an image I can’t shake, and don’t want to shake, because it’s so amazingly creepy and sad and funny. The word “lug” is great in that image, too. As if it weren’t enough to create such a great visual, you throw in a killer verb like “lug” so I can feel the weight of the doll’s head, too, and experience what a burden it would be to carry it around. I’m not wild about the penis with claws image because I’ve seen a hermit crab’s abdomen up close, and it’s no penis, clawed or otherwise. That image doesn’t work for me the way the doll’s head works. I almost want to get right to the doll’s head, bypassing the clawed penis, since the former is so strong.
I also don’t feel the rest of the poem is as strong as lines 4 through 6. “Steering the earth / with an oversized claw,” for example, is nice but it’s not nearly as compelling, or as easy to see (and feel), as “Lug its matted hair, blank stare.” Overall, even though this poem has a fantastic moment, it’s not your strongest work this competition.
Guest Judge Collin Kelley: Probably my third favorite of this week’s poems. It fulfills the assignment beautifully, but I wish the language had been a little less clunky in the final lines, such as “A hammock is not a home for anyone / really.” Just a little work needed here and this would make for a nice little gem.
No hermit crabs, no hard shelled tourists
dragging dune to dune. No citizens
for sand homes, no one to rescue when
the tide comes in. No shells where I kissed
the shiny knuckles of the ocean.
No vacant roofs that crack under foot.
No water pulled by moon to uproot
boats of driftwood, their hermit bo’suns
jousting for dream homes, gently squeezed
by size from room to room. No more claws
to gnaw the bright ankle. No sand fleas
riding hermit crabs to work, rickshaws
for scurrying dark coated stagehands.
No pinch for a toe, no bloody sand.
THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth: Impressive to manage a sonnet in such a short time, and I like the anaphoric movement of the poem “No hermit crabs, no hard….no….” I’m sorry that the poem is untitled (not even called untitled or sonnet), but I admire the control of the poem and the interwoven sadness here.
Dustin: W.F., I’m disappointed by your decision not to title your poem. Once upon a time, I was in a creative writing class at Georgia State University. The professor had this to say about titles: “A poem’s title can be a place to say or accomplish something that you didn’t have the chance to say in the body of the poem.” I think we have a missed chance on our hands. By the way, that professor was none other than the lovely Beth Gylys. I love that you give us lots of images, but I feel something is missing besides that title is missing from your poem. Your poem isn’t bad, but it doesn’t move me like any of your previous poems.
Dana: A list poem! I love that the list is what’s absent, an accumulation of absences as opposed to an accumulation of details/object that are present. The poem shifts throughout, with the narrator sometimes detailing things absent that we might want to be absent — such as the “hard shelled tourists” — but then listing something that feels much more personal, much more like a loss – such as “No shells where I kissed / the shiny knuckles of the ocean.” And this image is amusing and quite lovely: “No sand fleas / riding hermit crabs to work.” This poem puts us in a lot of places, one right after another, both in terms of emotion and location. We are not just on the beach. We are in the dunes, we are on a busy street, we are on the boats, we are in the sky.
I wonder about the use of “gnaw” to describe the action of claws. It’s a minor issue, but that word choice did stick out. I also wondered, in such a short, tight piece, whether it could hold both the image of the bloody ankle and the pinched toe/bloody sand. I really like the sound of the last line, especially with the end rhyme with the line before, but I also wonder if there might be a stronger ending for this piece, something that opens the ending up a bit more. The stagehand image is very strong, and the last line in some ways feels like a slight letdown, not sonically or rhythmically but in terms of the image, especially when everything else in the poem up to that point is so strong.
Guest Judge Collin Kelley: Kudos to Roby for trying a sonnet for this assignment, but the language was a little too old fashioned for me. Some interesting images, but perhaps the constraint of the form kept it from achieving its full potential. Still a good effort with such a difficult assignment.
I grew too big, so I went looking
out at stranger homes, strewn
with private bedding, holding a human scent:
recycle housing, raggedy, corners
filled with skin-eared mice.
I chose the upgrade.
Strange at first, but then spent months
arranging the personal philately on the shelves,
aping owner in the mirror, greeting visitors at the door –
Well Hello. Eventually the spoons
quit rattling, the pictures
layered their comfortable dust, and it was
almost home, yes,
almost all the time. Welcome to my home.
But at night my renter’s claw
still creeps out, involuntary and dark,
feels the mattress and walls for fit, scaling
for the night it knows I have to go again.
THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth: The poem has errors and seems rushed (i.e. “recycle” instead of “recycled” in line four and “owner” instead of “owners” further down). I am certain it is/was rushed. There are some interesting details, though: “skin-eared mice” (which is weird but really beautiful too), “my renter’s claw/still creeps out, involuntary and dark…”
Dustin: I do and do not like that you wrote the poem from the voice of a hermit crab. I like it because it is fitting for the assignment. I don’t like it because I don’t think people could easily figure out the speaker. I think this poem has to be my least favorite from all the poems you’ve written for the competition.
Dana: This poem contains a degree of mystery if you read it without thinking of the context of the hermit crabs. If I came upon this piece without that bit of information, I would wonder about why the narrator was growing too large and why the narrator has a renter’s claw. I like that mystery in the piece. But I want more of it. The metaphor appears at the beginning and ending, but is lost in the middle of the poem.
There are word choices in the poem that I loved, such as “philately” — which I had to look up — and “skin-eared mice.” Although I did wonder about describing mice as skin-eared when they are all skin-eared. Also, it made me think of the experimental mice with human ears grafted to their backs, and it took a while to shake that image off.
This is a strong piece, but not as strong several of the other poems we saw this week.
Guest Judge Collin Kelley: From the opening line, this poem comes off as rushed. No music, repetitive and, unfortunately, slapdash. My least favorite of this week’s entries.
I did not make my house. I found it –
smooth snail shell washed free of death.
A spiral of pearly twilight welcomed
my body’s retreat: my tender abdomen,
my purple claw that came to rest
at the opening, a sentinel.
Circling my humid heart, a mollusk’s
ghost made peace with me. I am unafraid.
I practice balance and my tide pool
housekeeping. I pile in the shallows
with my friends. Too primitive to look ahead
or grieve, I’ve found my foothold
in my cave’s cool curves. Let writers mourn
how we outgrow what takes us in,
abandon what we learn to love
in a tangle of kelp and flotsam.
THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth: This is gorgeous and poignant and tonally arresting. I love the way the beginning works to give authority to the voice and some of the language stuns: “my tender abdomen,/my purple claw that came to rest/at the opening, a sentinel,” “circling my humid heart.”
Dustin: Your firt line does a great job to hook a reader, and the second line is a great follow-up. I also like how the speaker of the poem is a hermit crab, and I think your poem offers us enough to make it clear that the speaker is a hermit crab. I don’t how your poem ends with “Let writers mourn / how we outgrow what takes us in, / abandon what we learn to love /in a tangle of kelp and flotsam.” Don’t get me wrong, I love the statement made by the end; however, I don’t think this statement works as your poem stands. In a workshop with Steven Dunn, he spoke about the turn in a poem. I feel you were trying to execute the turn, but I think you failed because you did it too abruptly.
Dana: I find the two shifts in this poem interesting, in lines 8 and 13, especially how they come in the middle of the lines. But I don’t think the last shift works in the context of the rest of the poem, that it’s earned. It actually feels to me like a different poem, one the rest of the piece doesn’t hint at. I would like to see more unity between what comes before and those last four lines.
Some of the imagery and language in this piece feels weak and imprecise. One example of word choice is the metaphor of the claw as a “sentinel.” The claw doesn’t actually see or act as a lookout; it only acts as protection. Another metaphor would be tighter and more accurate.
You were the winner week one, and I felt your work was very strong last week as well. Your work has been remarkable, but this piece isn’t as strong as the others.
Guest Judge Collin Kelley: This poem hooked me in from the first line, but I was so disappointed in the last image about letting writers mourn. It took me out of the sharp, lyrical images of the crab finding its new shell. I would end the poem with the the “cave’s cool curves.” Nice job, Kathi.