Project Verse: Final Assignment ~ Kathi Morrison-Taylor

Kathi Morrison-Taylor’s final assigment for Project Verse. Please click here to review the instructions for the final assignment.

 

POEM #1:
You Can’t Compare the Pope to the Wizard of Oz                  

 You can’t compare the Pope to the Wizard of Oz,
says the history chair.  We are at a rare co-meeting of departments
to establish common standards for paper style,
and we’re hung up on conclusions.  It may be okay
for you namby-pamby, touchy-feely sorts
to get a paper like that, but we in history
don’t care about fiction and require a succinct
analysis of what matters, she says. 
                                                 My English colleagues and I
hung up on analogy and archetype barely hear her,
we are so amused by her example, by the adolescent’s nerve
to lay it out as he saw it, through childhood’s Emerald City glasses:
the Wizard, a humbug, feared and glorified, thundering out
with smoke and mirrors, and following through with liquid courage
and hot air balloons. He meant well, and remained Dorothy’s savior,
even when he floated back to Nebraska without her.
                                                If we could confer, we’d say
It is a promising comparison. But stymied by history’s outrage,
we pass little notes: “Pay no attention  to the teacher behind the curtain”
and “Surrender Creativity,” passive aggressive and surly. 
It grows stormy inside.  It’s not like he threw a bucket
of water on Stalin, someone mutters.  But the history chair
has risen to the rooftop – she stands for academic discipline, 
tossing her APA fireballs, slinging her summary statements,
                                                while we sit silent as Pious XII
through the Holocaust.  She’s the sort to have an hour glass
glued to the table. There’s no place like home, when home’s
a boarding school. Irreverently, I click my heels, red
and glittering.  The sky is vintage celluloid, the hell
to come, a midterm of flying monkeys, scooping us up
to drop us in the orange-smoke haze before Parents’ Weekend.
I hit my head—this popcorn communion, this papal blessing.     

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth Gylys: 
This is one of those poems that felt a bit stiff at the outset, but then really seems to pick up steam by the end.  The end is, in fact, quite wonderful: “this popcorn communion, this papal blessing.”  I do think the first strophe could probably be cut to two sentences and the poem wouldn’t miss the cuts.  something like ” ‘You can’t compare….’ says the history chair…My English colleagues and I” There’s a tad bit of the prosaic in this poem, not at all Kathi’s modus operandi, so I may have noticed it more as a result.

Dustin Brookshire:  Fantastic title. Fantastic poem.  Kathi, I love this poem. We have the Wizard of Oz, the Pope, and the Holocaust all in one poem– that’s working it!  I love:
we are so amused by her example, by the adolescent’s nerve
to lay out as he saw it, through childhood’s Emerald City glasses:
the Wizard, a humbug, feared and glorified, thundering out
with smoke and mirrors, and following through with liquid courage

& I love: “…Pay no attention to the teacher behind the curtain”

This is such a lovely poem.  And, I have to say: Out of the two of you, you had the harder line to work with; however, you rocked it out.  Bravo for working in “the sky is vintage celluloid, the hell.”

My only sugesstion would be to go back through this poem and trim it a bit.

Matthew Hittinger:  First off, I love the title; it caught my attention right away and made me want to keep reading.  You could probably get away with not repeating it on the first line and just have the title be the first line, but that’s a personal preference.  The first stanza loses a little steam after that great first line–I wanted more music from the rather prosaic description that locates the narrative and situation.  In fact, whenever I got thrown out of the poem it was usually these more prosaic moments or phrases like “we are at a rare co-meeting of departments” or “hung up on analogy and archetype” or “passive aggressive and surly” or “irreverently” etc.  I want the images and context of the narrative to convey all of that information without the speaker having to tell us.  The way you frame and describe this little episode, and the humor of it all down to the passed notes is irreverent and that’s what I love about the poem.  As for the assignment, you do a fabulous job of working Emily’s line into your poem.  It’s seamless and the context very much makes it your own.

Guest Judge Shaindel Beers:  You Can’t Compare the Pope to the Wizard of Oz” is a poem based on a great premise. I would have liked to see it move to more interesting places. What if there were more play between the Wizard of Oz and the setting of academia. Still, there are some beautiful standout lines, one being, “The sky is vintage celluloid, the hell/to come, a midterm of flying monkeys, scooping us up/to drop us in the orange-smoke haze before Parents’ Weekend.” This is very promising work. I’d just like to see the writer pare more—make sure each word is the right word.

Guest Judge Denise Duhamel:  “You Can’t Compare the Pope to the Wizard of Oz” is an amazing title, a promising premise.  The poem is executed with panache, with very funny jokes throughout.  I found myself wanting more depth from the poem because it was so well-written.  I mean, it was hilarious, but I was looking perhaps for some kind of poignancy that may not quite be there yet, though I thought the lines “while we sit silent as Pious XII/through the Holocaust” came very close to that depth.

 

POEM #2:
Rewriting Frankenstein

No word, no expression could body forth the kind of relation in
which she stood to me–my more than sister, since till death she
was to be mine only!”
Victor, on Elizabeth – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

He approached her with a calm and smiling face,
blurred in darkness—cobbled together, by Victor’s ambition.

She sat at a writing desk—a hurricane lamp, a blank page—
as if she were Mary Shelley rewriting to show how they met:

Elizabeth and the creature.  Honesty in his dull yellow eye, and mercy,
he had vowed revenge, but now at the bridal threshold he forgave.

While she held her nib in ink for a long time,
the tide of absence rose from the twilit lake

where Victor searched for all the trouble he’d been promised.
Let them escape both relentless parents: Mary Shelley

and Victor Frankenstein, both would have them dead,
for the sake of fear.  When muse meets creation, it is difficult

to hold back the scream, but looking into his black-lipped grin,
the grin of saboteur and stepson, the grin of fellow virgin,

Elizabeth recognized her love’s stitches,
his neglect, his heretical curiosity—and fell to listening. 

And the creature spoke to her with his Italian plum tongue;
he pled in French. They ran away together, not as Beauty

and Beast, but as nun and school boy. She even took his hand,
she even kissed his forehead, ignoring a torn veil,

the gothic cutouts of trees and mountains, and the dazzling glacier.
They settled somewhere near, but out of reach of parents,

somewhere the creature galloped once, young monster,
still under Shelley’s pen, Promethean, himself the stolen spark,

supernatural and sallow, petulant with wit, almost
presenting an image of goodwill.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth Gylys: 
Oi.  I don’t know if it’s the hour of the night or that I haven’t read “Frankenstein” since the birth of Jesus, but I found this poem confusing.  The pronouns befuddle me.  Again, this is not typical of Kathi’s work, and it may just be my obtuse and tired brain getting in my way, but I couldn’t quite get into this one, despite some wonderful moments: “Honesty in his dull yellow eye,” “When muse meets creation, it is difficult/to hold back the scream”  and despite the delightfully strong end line: “almost presenting an image of goodwill” that weaves so perfectly into the poem’s conclusion.  I like this for its ambition, but I think the poem could be teased out and clarified a bit more.

Dustin Brookshire:  This is a good poem; however, I’m not won over like I was with “You Can’t Compare the Pope to the Wizard of Oz.”  There are great lines in this poem: “When muse meets creation, it is difficult // to hold back the scream.”  Now, that’s lovely and beautiful. 

Matthew Hittinger:  This poem made me think of Laurie Sheck’s new book A Monster’s Notes which operates in the same vein of revision and reimagining  Frankenstein; I think you would enjoy it given what you do here on the page (perhaps you already have read it!).  I love your choice for the split sentence; as soon as I saw which one you chose and that you were taking on Frankenstein I gave a little “yes!” in my head–I see and feel the resonance of that connection.  I like that you highlight the dual creator role of both Mary and her character Victor as you liken them to parental roles and that you work in the few details we know about the Monster: his black lips, his yellow eyes, his sallow skin.  There is great music in this poem: “grim / virgin / listening,” “plum / tongue / nun” and all those esses hissing and hard t’s ticking in those great final lines: “…young Monster, / still under Shelley’s pen, Promethean, himself the stolen spark, // supernatural and sallow, petulant with wit, almost / presenting an image of goodwill.”  That “almost” is key and a hinge word for the poem.

Guest Judge Shaindel Beers:  Rewriting Frankenstein” is a very intelligent poem. Readers can tell the poet knows and has spent time with this novel, which makes it a real treat. There are some beautiful lines such as: “himself the stolen spark,/supernatural and sallow, petulant with wit, almost/presenting an image of goodwill.” Again, in some places, the poet is trying to stay true to the period of the novel in her language, and it comes out a bit clunky.

Guest Judge Denise Duhamel:  “Rewriting Frankenstein” is strong and culturally relevant in that it explores violence and revenge and the way those two impulses are often glorified.  This poem speaks to wisdom, forgiveness, and second chances.  The back and forth–the then and now, the fairy reverences, the actual text of Frankenstein, the Prometheus reference–nods at postmodernism.  This is a poem of grand scale.

POEM #3:
The Cross

                                  How desperately I touch his vertical and horizontal axes!
                                 
But I can’t.  Need is not quite belief.
                                                                                                    
–Anne Sexton

My mother asked for the cross back:
the gold and ivory cross
her father gave her on her first communion,
and she gave me on my first communion.
She said I didn’t care enough about God.
As I watched her tuck the little velvet box
into her purse between a wad of tissue
and her rain bonnet, I didn’t argue.

Neither of us believed in the Virgin Birth
or a literal timeline from Genesis.
And it always made me a little sick
in church, imagining grape juice
blood-of-Christ and the wafer,
unleaven skin, rough against my tongue.
Mostly I just envied Christian athletes
who thrived on a faith as good as novocaine.

What calm it would bring to know
truly Jesus was watching me, protecting
and guiding me as my lungs burned,
as my legs turned to noodles,
as my father drank and drove, as I
jogged after dark alone. Still I would ruin it. 
I would hunt the coordinates of Christ.
I would sink his battleship,

and he would look at me, and drown under
my hawkish questioning, bobbing
with his frail symbols.  I could take the grotesque—
content to love my distance runner friends,
shirtless and spent returning from ten miles.
But I’d never be like them, baptized in sweat,
heart’s bursts visible against heaving ribs.
nose bleeding its best pageantry.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth Gylys: 
Wow!   I have to say first that think Kathi gets the prize overall for her consistently effective ends to her poems.  As someone who struggles and struggles to find her endings, I am both envious and admiring:  “nose bleeding its best pageantry” is just dynamite.  As is this simile: “thrived on a faith as good as novacaine.”  This poem overall is quite powerful and well written.  I think the complex way Kathi steps into her subject: having a mother ask for her daughter’s cross back, works exceptionally well as a frame to explore some heady and complicated subject matter.

Dustin Brookshire:  I like that you selected “With Mercy for the Greedy.”  Emily selected this poem in the original week six assignment.  This poem is fantastic.  I want to get my one little complaint out of the way.  I almost feel like the poem could end with the “I would sink his battleship.”  I’m not sure about the last stanza.  It is great stanza by itself, but I feel it might be a little too much.  OK.  I’m in love with the other three stanzas.  You have a hell of a beginning:
My mother asked for the cross back:
the gold and ivory cross
her father gave her on her first communion,
and she gave me on my first communion.
She said I didn’t care enough about God.
As I watched her tuck the little velvet box
into her purse between a wad of tissue
and her rain bonnet, I didn’t argue.

Oh Kathi, lovely.  Lovely. Lovely. I could go on about the first three stanzas; however, I won’t.  If Sexton were alive, I think she’d enjoy this poem.Matthew Hittinger:  Again, I think you do a great job meeting the requirements of the assignment, using the Sexton epigraph to jump into a very personal narrative that explores and builds off the Sexton sentiment about need and belief.  There are so many crosses in this poem: the literal and physical object of the cross given to you and taken back by your mother; the action “to cross in the sense of transgression, having crossed your mother who doesn’t think you care enough about God, and also your religion in not believing in it all.  And then perhaps how you cross yourself in your desire, your need to want to believe like those “Christian athletes” and how you fail in fulfilling that desire, how it’s more complicated for you and how you wish it could be as easy as it is for them.  There are powerful lines here, such as the recalling how Holy Communion, the symbolic (or literal I guess if you’re Catholic) eating of the blood and flesh of Christ made you a little sick, and the admission that even if you could believe “Still I would ruin it. / I would hunt the coordinates of Christ. / I would sink his battleship,” with your questioning.  Those last lines are like a slap (a good slap!) as the image echoes Christ on a cross but with a twist: “I’d never be like them, baptized in sweat, / heart’s bursts visible against heaving ribs, / nose bleeding its best pageantry.”  Yes.

Guest Judge Shaindel Beers:  The Cross” is one of Kathi’s strongest poems. There are no extra words here, and there are excellent details:
My mother asked for the cross back:
… she gave me on my first communion.
She said I didn’t care enough about God.
As I watched her tuck the little velvet box
into her purse between a wad of tissue
and her rain bonnet, I didn’t argue.
As soon as readers “see” the wad of tissue and the rain bonnet, they can imagine the entire character of the mother. This is the type of work details should do for the writer (and reader).

 

Guest Judge Denise Duhamel:  “The Cross” is both exciting and puzzling to me.  I am drawn in by the coordinates and the philosophical/religious pondering and truly like the voice.  But I am also confused by what this has to do with athleticism.  I can guess to an extent though I wish more was made of that.  “The Cross” is very close to being finished–I think it may be missing a leap.

POEM #4:
Lonely

The train to Portland whistled: 2 AM. It woke my father
with its vacant blast. I was the twinkle in his eye, fastening
on my sleeping mother before she was my mother
in the little pink house above the tracks, windows aimed
over Commencement Bay. Nearby the ASARCO smelter
smokestack puffed out lead and arsenic, and Kirby’s lab
rolled in nettles, snuffled through foxgloves under our mailbox.

My childhood sent us over the bridge, to the island. Barefoot
tracks across the mudflat always circled back to the rope swing.
I collected sand dollars and the moon snails’ damp aprons of eggs.
My parents slept off early-dinner wine—Emerald Dry— in the living
room beside the view they designed, then woke by sunset to fight
in front of the Olympic mountain range, on fire.  I was so lonely I wished
I could spill all their secrets—squelch their anger with my soggy heart.

I tiptoed through curfews and planned to move to the east coast
where girls could play field hockey and catch lightning bugs.
My father’s art studio had a new sky light; then algae
grew over the glass; it rained that much.  My mother finished
her master’s in counseling and took a job in town.  I’m Okay:
You’re Okay, on our coffee table, and  If You Meet the Buddha
on the Road, Kill Him.  Some sicko crucified the neighbor’s collie,
nailed him to the bulkhead. Apple Dumpling!  I hear my mother
calling me; Honeybun, come home!

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth Gylys: 
I think I like this one even better than the third poem, if that’s possible.  Kathi does a superb job revealing the texture and complications of her childhood through the details she chooses.  “smelter/smokestack puffed out lead and arsenic, and Kirby’s lab/rolled in nettles”  and also through the emotionally complicating language “squelch their anger with my soggy heart.”  Again the ending is enviable.  That “Honeybun, come home!”  speaks to the complex nature of the relationship.  This is a speaker who is adored, but it’s also a speaker who’s simultaneously much ignored.  The final words speak to that quite powerfully indeed.

Dustin Brookshire:  I loved your first and third poem.  I liked your second poem.  For some reason, I didn’t enjoy this poem as much as the others.  As always, you have a way with detail, but I’m not won over by this poem. 

Matthew Hittinger:  There are great details that make this poem very vivid, in that first stanza alone: “Commencment Bay,” “ASARCO smelter / smokestack puffed out lead and arsenic,” “Kirby’s lab” and so on through the rest of the poem with things like the type of wine “Emerald Dry” and the titles of the mother’s books on the table.  Not only makes for a more memorable experience in reading the poem, but makes the emotions present hit home harder.  And it captures that act of “distillation” necessary in Laux’s prompt.  There is also some lovely music here that spurs the rhythm on: “Barefoot / tracks across the mudflat always circled back to the rope swing” with those -at/-ack sounds.  I think given the constraints of the prompt you did what was asked and most of my suggestions are more my issues with where the prompt took you: I stumbled over the lines “I was so lonely I wished / I could spill all their secrets–squelch their anger with my soggy heart” and wished there were a stronger way to show this, but again I know the prompt is making that abstract word “lonely” present.  I think the second abstract “anger” is compacting that feeling for me.  I do like “spill” as an action.  And while “heart” is often put off-limits, I’m okay with it if there’s some sort of twist or fresh take, but “soggy heart” didn’t feel that fresh.  I know the title came out of the prompt’s “find an abstraction” and “make the title of the poem your abstract word,” but I feel it does the poem disservice.  This is more a suggestion for the future of the poem: a stronger title that isn’t so abstract or indicative of a theme or what the poem is exploring could help set the stakes higher and frame this poem a bit better (I know this is a similar critique I had of the “Generosity” poem earlier on in the competition).  Only other comment was about time: I like how time picks up, speeds up in the last stanza but I fell down when you moved to the neighbor’s collie: the progression of growing up and plans to move east into the father’s studio (love the algae image!) then the mother completing her master’s all worked, but then the crucified neighbor’s collie threw me out of the poem.  I think the mother’s calls after you were maybe to echo an owner calling after a pet and the lost collie is a stand-in for the lost daughter?  Then again perhaps it’s just the prompt: I sense the 23-line restriction maybe rushed some parts of the ending that need a little more space to breathe.  There’s a lot of great stuff here, and this comment is solely for the future life of this poem outside this competition: step away from the prompt, or at least the parts of the prompt that are holding this poem back, and allow the poem to now take the reigns and show you where it wants to go.

Guest Judge Shaindel Beers:  “Lonely” is another strong poem of Kathi Taylor Morrison’s. Here, again, she has beautiful images and no extra words. One of my favorite passages is:

My childhood sent us over the bridge, to the island. Barefoot
tracks across the mudflat always circled back to the rope swing.
I collected sand dollars and the moon snails’ damp aprons of eggs.
My parents slept off early-dinner wine—Emerald Dry— in the living
room beside the view they designed, then woke by sunset to fight
in front of the Olympic mountain range, on fire. 

The internal rhyme of “tracks” and “back” feels comfortable and child-like to the reader in a poem that talks about the poet’s childhood. This is a poem which exquisitely captures time and place.

Guest Judge Denise Duhamel:  “Lonely” is, in my opinion, the strongest poem in the competition.  The authenticity of voice, the spot on imagery, and the grief are all palpable. I especially was drawn to “the moon snails’ damp aprons of eggs” and “squelch their anger with my soggy heart.”  The poem is one small voice but epoch in its cry.

POEM #5:
On Purpose

I started writing poetry when I found out
Kurt and Howie broke a hornet’s nest, at recess,
with a baseball bat.  In the tailspin from summer
to second grade, they did it on purpose, and grown-ups
unable to stop them, herded us inside the school,
leaving a paper turban bashed under the big madrona tree
by the jungle gym, a head emptying its buzzing. 

I started writing poetry when I imagined hornets
coming to find me, me with my typewriter leg
and a fear of consequences, me scribbling
what their angry hum would be, me whispering an apology,
over my peanut-butter and grape jelly,
prayer like stanzas unwinding into a safe place
hornets would like better than their original home.

Each stinging insect I saw knew what happened,
wanted to strike back, break through the glass to sting
our class, to destroy Mrs. Winchell’s fall leaf collection
with our crayon-tissue-paper rubbings.  When one
battered out a last complaint in the girls’ bathroom
between screen  and storm window where the wood
was termite-worn, it was no relief—

a fierce exile finding her solitary death,
between sunlight and the cool sea of green tiling.
It made me afraid of scattered misfortune.
It made me gather mine in little nests
and write it down.

THE JUDGES SPEAK:
Beth Gylys: 
Another knockout of a poem.  “A head emptying its buzzing” Shit–that’s good!  So is “prayer like stanzas unwinding into a safe place…”  As is the description later “to destroy Mrs. Winchell’s fall leaf colleciton/with our crayon-tissue-paper rubbings.”  The speaker’s intense imagination bursts forth with and through those bees and their threat of destruction, their potential to cause pain.  Stunning.

Dustin Brookshire:  Here is another poem that I love.  Beautiful, Kathi.  There is so much to love about this poem that I won’t start listing because I’ll end up listing a majority of the poem.  I don’t think you should change anything about this poem, and I hope you don’t. 

Let me send this message again: I don’t think you should change anything about this poem, and I hope you don’t.

Matthew Hittinger:  The first thing I noted was that you set up the expectation of anaphora by beginning the first and second stanzas with “I started writing poetry when…” and that I wanted it sustained, appearing one or two more times.  I think having the phrase appear more often would also get you more mileage out of that title as the stops and starts to try to answer the “when” go up against the notion of doing something “on purpose” like those boys attacking the hornet’s nest.  I do puzzle over that line though, “they did it on purpose” and wondered if it should only appear in the title.  It just struck me as an odd statement to include, though I guess saying it wasn’t an accident would convey the same thing, though the grown-ups unable to stop them also sort of conveys the purposeful nature of the action.  It tripped me up.  I guess I was wondering if there were a way to convey the “on purpose” without having to outright say it.  (I also kind of wonder if they got stung…)  But I LOVE how your first poem and why you started was a way to set right a wrong, to make a “safe place” for the hornets and subsequently the speaker’s fear of them and their sting.  In the end I think it’s a nice ars poetica.

Guest Judge Shaindel Beers:  “On Purpose” is one of Kathi Taylor Morrison’s stronger poems. I especially love that final image of the one hornet:

Batter[ing] out a last complaint in the girls’ bathroom
between screen
and storm window where the wood
was termite-worn.

Again, as in many of Kathi’s poems, there is room for tightening and paring, but this is still a lovely poem.

Guest Judge Denise Duhamel:  “On Purpose” is amazing–the “rewriting” of a childhood poem or childhood journal is a brilliant move here.  I am drawn the imagery of the hornets, the children, the crayons, the lunchroom.  The depiction of the hornet between the screen and window is particularly fitting–the writer between childhood and adulthood, danger and safety, imagination and reality.  This poem is direct, with a huge payoff.

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5 responses to “Project Verse: Final Assignment ~ Kathi Morrison-Taylor

  1. Kathi,

    These are some beautifully crafted poems. I was especially impressed with the first poem. I thought it was fantastic and you worked that line in so smoothly. I also loved the third poem “The Cross.” It has such a great honestly about it. Your forth poem, “Lonely,” also very much stood out to me. It was heartbreaking in all the ways a good poem should be.

    Overall I thought you did a great job on a hard task! Good luck.

    Stephen

  2. You have such an eclectic and wonderful assortment of knowledges in here: religion, literature, pop culture, et cetera, but they all fit together perfectly like a jigsaw puzzle. (Not to mention your obvious gift for language.) Exceptional work! I’m going to give them another read. 🙂

  3. Go, Kathi! I love your work and have been a fan since the beginning. Some of the the earlier pieces you wrote in the contest still echo in my mind. Oh, why, oh why can we not have a tie?? I like both you and Emily’s work so much! Whatever happens, you should both extremely proud of yourselves and what you’ve accomplished here.

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