Week 9: Duel Task is a two part assignment for the remaining Project Verse contestants. Below you will find the poems from the pop culture portion of the assignment.
Weekly Guest Judge Beth Gylys wants to send out this message:
These poems are all really wonderfully inventive and powerful and fun. I have to say that I want to be clear, my top choice and bottom choice are not separated by miles, but rather by degrees of degrees, and all of the poems are well worthy of high praise. You four poets have been consistently strong, stalwart, hard-working, innovative and delightful. It has been a pleasure to read your work. Kudos to you all!
EMILY VAN DUYNE
‘If Fred Astaire was up and around again and dancing with a humming Frank O’Hara across the dear and broken landscapes of our lives, the sound of their steps, through the late spring afternoon, might have some of the sweetness of these poems. But these poems are sweeter than even that…’ – from Marie Howe’s blurb for All-American Poem
My grandfather is back up and banging
heavy nails with a heavy hammer. None of this if shit,
none of this might. I’m telling you, it’s cold
in my poem. It’s not the late spring. It’s winter
again. The sky’s that deep, headstrong,
island slate, but it won’t fucking snow. We can’t get a break.
We are poised on the verge
of nothing but another long season, building summer
homes for the American rich. I’m stuck
in this town. Try and look out to the ocean—you can’t! It’s blocked
by this skeleton house my grandfather builds, for a family I’ll never meet.
The dad’s a lawyer in Philly. The mom’s got a wet
nurse. I’m not making this up. No one’s dancing
in my poem, ok? I spent last week trying to write
about desire and ended up
in the cold. I thought about the Beatles, blared
Abbey Road, ran my hands down
my taut summer skin, I want you, I want
you so bad… I got tarted up: a bird in fishnets
with a seam down the back. ‘Girl’ played on repeat
on my turntable, I smoked, topless… It didn’t matter, no one
wants to hear that story. Least of all, my grandfather, whose sweat
is frozen to his hoary brow. Usually in my poems, he’s half
Viking, half Tennyson. He remains
all dead, but this morning he’s visiting
as himself: checkered red flannel and a black wool cap. He wants
a cup of coffee. It’s ten o’clock break. I get the thermos
from the truck. He can’t believe I’m still going
at this poetry shit. Pop-pop, me either. You wouldn’t
believe the asses you have to kiss. And the boys!
They’re the worst. All delicate bones and paisley scarves. Give me
a man, I need a fullback. Someone whose glasses won’t break
in bed. Pop-pop laughs so loud, he snorts. He says they sound
like Gene Kelly. He hates Gene Kelly. Namby-pamby
son of a bitch… Fred Astaire, now there was a dancer, he could really move…
Totally, I nod, sip my bitter, black coffee. I still can’t see
the ocean, but the sun’s out. He picks up his hammer and drops
me a kiss on my red, freckled cheek: back
to work. His heavy steps echo in someone else’s kitchen. No
sweet patter. All boots. He disappears
behind a half-built wall, stuffed pink with insulation. The paint
splattered boom box blares,
Oh, darling! If you leave me,
I’ll never make it alone…
THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth: This is the Emily I’ve come to love over the course of the last few months. I love the wacky energy and the bravado of the imagery “The sky’s that deep, headstrong/island slate” And also the wonderful command of tone: “The dad’s a lawyer in Philly. The mom’s got a wet/nurse. I’m not making this up. No one’s dancing/in my poem, ok?” And there’s a wonderful sense of humor at work too “he’s half/Viking, half Tennyson”. At her best, Emily’s work is both fun and wildly imaginative at the same time that it is poignant, and this poem for me shows all of her strengths. The relationship between speaker and grandfather is touching and funny and wistful and the dramatic scenario of the poem effectively defines who Emily is as an artist. Well done.
Dustin: Your title does work; I think it would beckon people from a table of content, and it would do so with an air of mystery. I would flip to the poem wanting to know what “Ars Poetica” is about. I’ve heard Laure-Anne Bosselaar talk about the on-ramp—what we need to get our poem started. You needed the epigraph while your poem doesn’t. There are so many parts of your poem that I love: “None of this if shit, / none of this might” and “The mom’s got a wet / nurse. I’m not making this up.” and ” I smoked, topless” and “he’s half / Viking, half Tennyson. He remains/all dead” and “He can’t believe I’m still going / at this poetry shit”— there’s more to love, but I’m not going to keep going on and on. You do a fantastic job with this poem. This poem does need a little dusting; however, after that dusting it will be ready to be placed on your mantel with pride and joy.
Dana: Nice epigraph. The combination of pop culture references and the poem being about the narrator’s Pop is lovely. I was scared by the title — not a poem about poems! — but this poem does the ars poetica so well by remaining steeped in detail. I for one absolutely want to hear the story about the narrator smoking topless. (I am just saying.) Also, this is a different voice. I love your other voices, but I love this one, too. Totally. I think this is your gift — the assumption of voice and your ability to be immersed in it. I know that’s stating the obvious. I would love to see a collection from you in which you really push into all sorts of voices, where multi-vocality and modulation of voice from poem to poem are what drive the collection as a whole. I would look at the lineation on revision. It seems a little funky in places right now.
Guest Judge Denise Duhamel: “Ars Poetica” is a strong and feisty poem. The voice is clear, determined, a scrappy gal who I am rooting for the whole poem. My only difficulty with this poem was the Howe quote which seemed strange—a blurb to introduce another poem was hard to wrap my head around. I wonder if the poem might just start with the speaker reading the back of a book, seeing the blurb, and launching into her “None of this if shit” riff. Her take on overdevelopment, masculinity, and loneliness are brilliant and real. In fact, “None of this if shit” might be a great title for this poem.
Twenty-six Words for Snow
O Eskimo Pie, O confection frozen
stiff to the wall of the freezer, O vanilla,
O chocolate coat, O foil sleeve you fit inside —
home is where the heart hits the asphalt
my dear, my cold misnomer. In summer
you leave your color on my hands,
you paint the needy grass with tar.
Here is a letter I’ve written to you
and washed of ink, and slipped into
the Gulf of Mexico. Here is a photo of us
caught between noon and the second hand.
I am stuck ankle deep in sand the color of ash —
you are learning the name of the heat,
you are writing it down.
We lie on our backs in a haystack,
you with your pinched face, eyes tight,
your mouth frozen in a perfect O – and I
welcome you to the cave of the Oracle. Where
we turn the gas way up. You are my golden ball,
the thing I forget in sleep but remember
with fondness in the morning, saying “O she certainly does shine.”
Es-ki-mo pie, I fold your foil jacket into words, I hold
each syllable in the palm of my hand
like a train ticket or a promise from a friend.
I’ve given up the smoking, mon petit chou,
chased it off the front porch. All for you.
My Eskimo Pie — in a dream we got married
down South. We walked hand to stick
from cabana to dark swamp
where dry sticks caught a pile of sparklers,
where sparklers wrestled with smoky coals,
where coals sent fire trailing back towards
the wood panel of your dad’s old wagon.
When I woke up, you were pinched between
two chipped fingernails, a girl in a cowgirl suit
with chocolate on her lips. She thought
she’d sneak into the races, find a boy on a horse maybe
could drive her back to Loose-e-ana to see
the hurricane kick and the bayou kick back.
O Eskimo Pie — sometimes when I say your name
I feel my heartbeat in my thigh. Other times
it’s just an incoming call or
the words in red in the family Bible
buzzing through the dead leather. Inside the freezer
where you rest in a hunch
someone nailed shelves at precise heights
for the hand of a child to switch on the lights,
neon, fluorescent and a third light incandescent
taped to the wall for precision. Tonight
let’s walk upwind. I’ll try to remember what Whitman says
about the Learn’d Astronomer with his charts and graphs —
I think it goes like this.
THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth: This is another one of those poems that makes my mouth go agape. I love the traditional invocation in the poem to the ‘eskimo pie’. THe poem’s inventive, wildly imaginative, “O foil sleeve you fit inside–/home is where the heart hits the asphalt.” The poem’s over the top, but wonderfully so. “sometimes when I say your name/I feel my heartbeat in my thigh.” Wowza! I did struggle with the end cause I keep reading it as a colon. I think it goes like this: and want something more. This is probably my problem, not W.F.’s. Fine work.
Dustin: W.F., I want to love this poem. I really do, but I can’t. With your revised week 8 poem, you showed you finally trusted yourself to write what you wanted to write, but the key is that you controlled it. I think you lost control in “Twenty-six Words for Snow.” I think there is a lot of room for cutting to make much tighter lines. Don’t get me wrong– this is not a bad poem. You have lovely parts: “the words in red in the family Bible / buzzing through the dead leather” and “In summer / you leave your color on my hands.” I only wish there were more of those kinds of moments.
Dana: I love how this poem resonates with your revision — asphalt, color being bled from one thing to another, the beach — to name just a few of the parallels. This whole section is rad: “home is where the heart hits the asphalt / my dear, my cold misnomer. In summer / you leave your color on my hands, / you paint the needy grass with tar.” (I used to paint the needy grass with Silly Putty when I was a kid, and I also picked tar bubbles in the road — obsessively, as if I was picking away at some truth.) I was so enthralled by this poem that I completely forgot it was a poem driven by pop culture references. Some might argue that I forgot because pop culture does not drive the poem; I would argue that they are wrong and that this poem has pop culture so seamlessly grafted to it that it’s like a cybernetic moth which looks as if it is navigating the air on its own terms, when there is actually a tiny mechanism inside making it go this way and that. And I love the reference to those old Luzianne iced tea commercials. Get out! (That’s not your narrator’s heart beating by his thigh, btw.) What do you think about ending it on “Tonight / let’s walk upwind”?
Guest Judge Denise Duhamel: YES! OUI! SI! This is a fantastic fantastical poem about love. The personification of the Eskimo pie is hilarious and metaphorically apt. Where I get a little confused is the date—just hard to actually see. How big is this Eskimo pie, for example? Know what I’m saying? I was willing to go there, but I just needed a few more details to ground me. I absolutely adored “When I woke up, you were pinched between/ two chipped fingernails, a girl in a cowgirl suit/with chocolate on her lips.”
In the Dream of my Father at the Bar on Tatooine
It was my father’s favorite Star Wars scene, so I’m not surprised to find him
here, drinking and tapping his glass to the cantina band of Bith aliens,
dubbed over with clarinet, saxophone, and even a Fender Rhodes piano.
(My son says the Bith species has evolved past the need for sleep, and here
I am, asleep and listening.) I think, Mos Eisley’s not unlike the dives
my father played, underage, out in the desert by Pasco, Washington:
the red-eyed wolf-men, G-I’s on their Harleys, a bounty hunter now and then,
a one-eyed sheriff, and bartenders steady as priests. Not quite that
“wretched hive of scum and villainy” Old Ben Kenobi pronounces
Mos Eisley, but still an alcoholic’s paradise.
Looking down on us, Luke has just said,
I’m ready for anything.
I see him come in.
I see him tug
on the bartender’s sleeve.
But I am across the table from my father, in this dream of the movie
renamed “A New Hope,” a man who died before the prequels, speeding
in his red car, drunk and unbuckled. No doubt, he is my father,
and he is already dead. (Let me help him lift off his mask;
let me hear him breathing.) I have to ask him where he was going
that night his car swerved and flipped, but he’s not listening,
and no one else seems to see his darkness, as he nods at a Cleopatra-girl
and orders me a Shirley Temple. Nearby, Luke falls into an argument.
I know this part. It’s right before Obi-Wan pulls out his light saber
and slices off that alien’s arm (Ponda Baba, says my son).
You just watch yourself, someone said.
“I’ll be careful,” Luke answers.
You’ll be dead.
As my father points out Chewbacca to me – He looks a lot like my student Steve.
Tall and hairy – someone sets down my drink. With a blue Jedi flash, there’s blood
on the floor and windshield glass raining on our table. My father’s forehead expands,
his ribs crack at the music’s pause. I don’t expect this, the force that brought us
to this place, after his life, years later, after I’m ready for bed, the galaxy’s violence.
I can just make out Han Solo’s face: my father’s Imperial entanglements, the 7-Up
and maraschino cherry of my drink, foreign to everyone there,
that red Ford Probe upside-down on the bar.
And I’m yelling, I don’t like you. No, I really don’t like you!
like someone who’s lost more than an arm.
THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth: Another relative in a dream poem! I love the Star Wars scene, the well-developed narrative, the problematic father figure, the cast of characters. The long lines, the compelling intermix of family drama with pop culture drama (sci fi drama), is wonderfully handled and rich and terrific. Bravo.
Dustin: Kathi, I’m shocked. My shock is NOT from your writing a good poem—I’ve come to expect that of you. I’m shocked a poem this good (written in such a short amount of time) is this good with such a heavy reliance on Star Wars references. Great job! In this poem you show us once again you are good with detail: “(My son says the Bith species has evolved past the need for sleep, and here / I am, asleep and listening.)” and “the red-eyed wolf-men, G-I’s on their Harleys, a bounty hunter now and then, / a one-eyed sheriff, and bartenders steady as priests,” and there is more! At this moment, I’m happy with what you’ve given us as it reads. Yes. At this moment, I wouldn’t change a thing with this poem; however, I bet you’ll end up making changes that will make this poem even sharper, and we’ll be wowed that the poem could be any better.
Dana: Are you all manipulating time to write such amazing pieces? I don’t really understand where all this fantastic work is coming from given the time constraints. It’s been a joy to read. This poem could have gotten away from you and turned into a parody, but you deftly control it and kept the emotional center in place throughout. Lines like “… but still an alcoholic’s paradise” are part of what keep the poem grounded in reality. That line is just this side of too much, just this side of trite, and you make it work. Then you follow it up with the plainspoken facts: “speeding / in his red car, drunk and unbuckled.” We are all visited by the dead in our dreams. Your poem touches on the universal, while your narrator pulls us into the specificity of this death, of this relationship. My father died when I was very young, and I have tried to write poems about my dreams of him. I’ve never come close to anything this skillfully or elegantly executed.
Guest Judge Denise Duhamel: I picked “In the Dream of my Father at the Bar on Tatooine” even though I am not much of a Star Wars fan and didn’t know all the movie references. This poem exemplifies the power of pop culture in that it took something as banal as a blockbuster movie and re-worked the mythic implications of masks and fatherhood to a personal/universal story about a “real” father and child. In addition to the Star Wars references, we get the Americana of the corner bar, Harleys, a bounty hunter, and Shirley Temple (the drink, but also the actress/innocence is implied). A very moving poem.