Books

The Poetry Issue: Free Verse — A New York Miscellany

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously drew a line: “prose — words in their best order; poetry — the best words in their best order.” Granted, Coleridge was a poet, not to mention a stoner of the first order, and therefore probably had a tendency to be defensive about things.

He was right, though. Had he not found life in death (to borrow a phrase) 180 years ago, dude would have been a force to be reckoned with on Twitter.

(Note to selves: Follow poets on Twitter.)

This being April — National Poetry Month, for those who keep score — the Voice thought it’d be cruel to ask Billy Collins to suggest a handful of New York poets we might reach out to for a collection of poems to share with readers. Collins, a New Yorker himself, and a former U.S. Poet Laureate, graciously obliged.

As did the poets, who, in response to our request for previously unpublished poems “about New York City, spring, or, frankly, anything you like,” supplied, to our great delight, all manner of beast.

And so we present to you the following pages. In a generation hectored for its declining readership, in an age in which pieces of writing that take longer than five minutes to read have their own hashtag, we’re pausing, ever so briefly, to honor the #shortform.

(140 characters: 100,000 chin-strokers may share a #longform story on social media. What % of that readership invests the time to digest even a single poem?)

Thanks to Billy Collins and all the poets who shared their work for this issue.

* * *

For the Children of the Student Mobilization Program

August 6, 1945, before 8:15

And, later, fire and water, wind and void,
much likelier than a city. The uncertain
figures in streetcars, busy with their thoughts
far from the bells and clatter, sway together,
west from the station to their destined stop.
The sun is shining and the sky is blue.
No smiles, few frowns. Nobody here is wild,
nobody peaceful. Often lack and tiredness
look just like mind-of-no-mind. Off they go
to work and wait for one of two or three
impossible and beautiful tomorrows.
The beer hall, office buildings, and a bank
roll by them, an absurd rear-screen projection,
a setting for a sunny modern picture,
but spoiled by children in their coats and field caps
hauling old wood away, monstrously brave.
And wouldn’t it be good to be a child,
with energy, without equivocation?
Good to be. Good to do. And as these gangs
of schoolboys do, in lots along the tracks,
to move like stern, determined monkeys through
the thicket of a neighbor’s pulled-down home.
School children everywhere go back to work.
Cinnamon-colored dust encircles them.
The false alarm is done. The three planes pass
far overhead, diminutive, ignored.
Are men inside them? Can they see our work?
What we could show the children of those men —
mothers who tear them with their fingernails,
girls who cry out for mercy to ensnare them,
boys who remove their eyes for souvenirs.
One comes back laughing. Now, as he begins,
his mouth curved down, his dark brow concentrated
into the shape of an advancing gull,
straining against a roof beam, he becomes
a mountain out of reach across the water.
A patient horse the color of the dust
snorts as it tugs a wagon toward the sun.
Laughing is done. Time, now, to ward off devils.
And so we bow our heads in earnest worship,
the Hundred Million Like a Shattered Jewel,
the last remaining masterpiece of order:
boys in their gaiters, heads like kiwi fruits,
and, elsewhere, girls in bangs and pantaloons,
tall shadows in the morning moving lumber
and dry brush from anticipated paths
of cogitable fires.

–Joshua Mehigan

Joshua Mehigan’s first book, The Optimist, was a finalist for the 2005 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His poems have appeared in many periodicals, including the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and Poetry, which awarded him its 2013 Levinson Prize. His second book, Accepting the Disaster, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in July 2014.

[View as a single page]

Dogcat Soul

To be hollowed out night by night,
to feel this continuum between envy
and desire, to have the kind of fur that sheds
sparks in the bedroom’s shifting dark,
to sense, when I’m asleep, your whiskers
measuring the void around my face
that expands inexorably year by year,
to know that in your eyes God is just a bird
trapped in the burning bush, and to have
to disappoint you with my dogcat soul,
more dog than cat, really, more nakedly
beseeching, less able than you to be
out there on your own, given all that,
what makes you crave my touch tonight?
When your eyes entrap me, I splinter
into your looking, into what your looking
sees, the seeing itself stripping me down
to flesh and bone, and found wanting–
my face gone vagrant, paralyzed in your pupils
yet heightened and varnished beyond fact:
I fall, am falling, I’ve plummeted beyond
the frame, no internal balance-wheel to land me
on all fours, no mechanism of grace,
no safe harbor under the radiant
engine block, the streets rippling with black ice.
But don’t turn away from me: turn my skinhead
to furhead, teach me slash, slink, creep.
Show me how to survive under a heating vent.

–Tom Sleigh

Tom Sleigh is the author of eight books of poetry, including Army Cats, winner of the John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and Space Walk, which won the Kingsley Tufts Award. His new book, Station Zed, will be published by Graywolf in 2015. Widely anthologized, his poems and prose appear in the New Yorker, Virginia Quarterly Review, Poetry, Tin House, and elsewhere.

[

Like a Bullet Shot

Backwards through Time

He prayed his team would win the World Cup.
She prayed he’d just care more. “If that ever
Happens,” they both loved to say to themselves,
“It’d be like I’d died and gone to heaven.”

Years later they would meet in heaven,
Heading in opposite directions. And
Like the last two beads in refused champagne,
They floated past each other and vanished.

–Rowan Ricardo Phillips

Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of The Ground: Poems (FSG, 2012), and the recipient of a 2013 Whiting Writers’ Award, the 2013 PEN/Osterweil Award, and the 2013 GLCA New Writers Award for Poetry. His next book, Heaven, will be published by FSG in 2015.

[

Dearest April,

Of course you’re loved by a downtown girl,
with her new belly shirt showing fresh skulls
& gardenia tattoos but, even more,
you’re cherished by the woman on 127th

still buttoned in her wool coat who stops
at the crosswalk, lifting her face
to a sun she feels all down to that gnarled
wrist, the kink and ache in her fingers

& she tilts her chin higher — more heat
down her leg until — gone that February
sidewalk fall, gone that almost —
but-thank-God-not-broke hip,

& now, too, the delivery guy
who hurried into every ice storm,
bags of dumplings & soup, sushi boxed
& strapped to handlebars which today

he weaves slowly, pedaling like a kid
into a happy afternoon, where Midtown
no longer revolves out of offices
shoulder hunching into darkness

but men and women stroll through late light
making an easy gorgeous of our every face.
We’re head-over-heel fools, longing & desperate.
Don’t spring tease then bluster, April, dearest, stay.

–Victoria Redel

Victoria Redel is the author of seven books, most recently Woman Without Umbrella, a poetry collection, and Make Me Do Things, a collection of short fiction.

[

Poem in the Manner 

of Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker
who wrote witty stories,
did not foresee
that spectacles would be-
come fashion accessories.
“Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.”

And today,
in Washington Square Park
I thought of her, Miss Parker,
and what she might say
assessing the spectacles of our day:
“Even the nicest lasses
Have tattoos on their asses.”

–David Lehman

David Lehman’s books include New and Selected Poems (Scribner, 2013) and A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Schocken, 2009), which won ASCAP’s Deems Taylor Award in 2010. He is the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry and the series editor of The Best American Poetry.

[

Flowers of Evil
(photographs by Alexandra Penney)

When flowers start becoming something else
the possibilities are infinite.
I see acetate and savage hair,
I see concupiscence and decay,
the risible invidious things we do
and call it love. And yes I see love too:
the posturing and preening and upbraiding,
the mirrored greed, the wisecrack wit,
the syncopated sambas of our sinning
(yours rather, reader; these are not my failings,
these guilty pleasures of the happy few):
approach, attack, surveillance, twinning,
devouring and excreting, patent leather and velour —
there’ll be coats and shoes that smell like you
before you know it, gorgeous avatars
of sex and sadness. And we’ll hear you murmur
that there is nothing natural in this world!

–Jonathan Galassi

Jonathan Galassi’s most recent book of poems is Left-Handed 
(Vintage).

[

Office Hours

Midnight on Grand River, and the car barns
are quiet, the last truck left hours ago.
The watchman dreams through his rounds.

If you entered the office now you’d find
all the old upright Smith Coronas sheathed
in their gowns, the pencils tucked in drawers,

the fountain pens dreaming of the epics
they’ll never write, the paper clips
holding together reports on nothing at all.

You’re at the heart of a nation that divides,
adds, subtracts, and never multiplies.
Before it rings, pick up the phone,

say in a voice you’ve never used before,
your Uncle Sam voice, “Yes, this is he,
tell me what you’d like to hear…”

and wait until the line goes dead.
Years ago you inherited all these desks
and the women who man them

along with all the meaningless facts
that detail the profit and loss of each day.
What’s it worth? You’ll get your answer

from the mice as they make their way
in search of anything useable left behind?
If not from the mice, then from something else
with greater purpose and a smaller mind.

— Philip Levine

Philip Levine divides his time between Brooklyn and Fresno. In 2013, he received the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American poets to go with his Pulitzer and two National Book awards. He was the 18th Poet Laureate of the U.S., but is back to writing essays and poetry. He is best known for his lyrical love poems and Detroit psalms.

You can hear these poems any time by calling 347-618-6376.
[

Late March

Winter drags its long dress along the sidewalk
like a woman who has forgotten what century she lives in.
The plugs are all different. Why don’t the plugs stay the same?

That woman? She wouldn’t know what I’m talking about.
But you do, don’t you? How they make you pay for the new plug
when you get the new version of the old machine?

I look into the horizon of the screen more than
into the face of the sky. I don’t see dawn come,
and rarely notice when evening arrives.

Once I lived on a farm. Chickens in the barn,
sheep in the hay. They knew when night came all right —
minutes before the coyotes began to howl.

Why should I wait to watch the sky darken?
The screen is always bright — the hours come and go.
Those chickens? Dead. The sheep? Sweaters and holes.

–Marie Howe

Marie Howe is the author of three books of poetry and is the state poet of New York.

[

My 100th Year

The front yard festooned with bittersweet vines
that choked out so many young maples that
I just wanted to spit. But their orange
berries hang here to celebrate stubborn
life, leaky heart, the bad taste that birds know
to beak aside as so much counterfeit
nourishment. Because birds do think. And last
night’s woodchuck did take out the last of the
butternut squash thanks to the wire fence
I hung, that he dug under, shaking his
head why I never learn things belong to
each of us according to beak or tooth
or claw, maybe handed down, like acreage,

an office building, oil stocks and bearer
bonds, a priceless Rembrandt. What’s the secret
of long life? I think of the cigarette
Uncle Joe smoked forbidden on the porch,
Robert Mitchum’s wheezing emphysema,
the crackling lullaby of promises
like a mother’s kiss we wake to, the gap-
toothed old men in the Caucasus. Look at
my granddaughters playing now with their own
daughters the age their mothers were when I
began this poem, the orange berries sway-
ing over their heads, the breath I try to
conserve in the wind coming off the sea.

–John Allman

John Allman has published eight books of poetry and one of short stories. His most recent book, Algorithms (2012) from Quale Press, was nominated for the Poets’ Prize. Other recent books include Loew’s Triboro (2004) and Lowcountry (2007), both published by New Directions. He is the recipient of two writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Pushcart Prize in Poetry.

[

Sausage Candle

[A] longtime Manhattan resident . . . Ms. [Fran] Lee advised radio and television audiences on household and consumer issues from the late 1940s until well into the ’90s. Her purview ranged from cyclamates to asbestos to how to make a candle from a sausage.
New York Times obituary, February 19, 2010

S
t
i
c
k
a wick in a sausage
and light it, and you’ve got
a candle, its flame fed by fat,
not that you’d burn it
on your birthday cake,
not that you’d light two
and process to an altar,
not that you’d want one,
even a small one, flickering
over your romantic dinner.
But the sausage candle gives light.
The sausage candle gives light.
Think of the books you could read
by the light of that candle,
think of the dark passages it might,
given the chance, illuminate.
It is better to light one sausage
than to curse the darkness.
Imagine, for a moment, you dare
set a sausage candle
atop your cake, and
you close your eyes and you wish.
Think of the wishes you could make
if you weren’t afraid of the ridiculous.

–Suzanne Cleary

Suzanne Cleary won the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry for her third book, Beauty Mark, published in 2013 by BkMk Press, of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Her poems appear in journals including Poetry London and Poetry International and in anthologies including Best American Poetry. Her website is suzanneclearypoet.com. She always reads the obituaries.

[

The Lights Go Down 

at the Angelika

and you press into the dark, imagine
the stranger two rows back, that fragile
chance you’ll forget in the second

trailer. Now it’s quiet, still
this burden of being watcher and screen
and what floats across it — light pouring out

its time and necklines and train wrecks.
What a relief to yield to the EXIT
sign red “I” blinking like a candle. What a relief

to watch something other than yourself.
Soon the enormous figures moving
across rooms, the emphatic narrative

arcs — (There’s the thrum of the subway,
its engine of extras.) Here now the beginning of trivia
tests. Warning puppets with brown bag faces and fringy hair.

You’re almost here.
But what you want
is the after. How yourself you are now
walking into the night, full moon over Houston Street,

at the bright fruit stand touching the yellow
mums. Here you are: Woman With Cilantro
listening to the rattle of the wrap,

the paper sound paper makes after you
have heard movie paper. Apples are more
Apples. Paper more Paper. Cilantro

more its sweaty green self.

–Donna Masini

Donna Masini is the author of two collections of poems — Turning to Fiction (W.W. Norton & Company) and That Kind of Danger (Beacon Press), which won the Barnard Women Poets Prize — and a novel, About Yvonne (Norton). She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, as well as a Pushcart Prize, and has recently finished a novel, The Good Enough Mother.

[

Influence

It’s been snowing all night,
and the gooseneck lamp on the table
is the only light on in the house,
which is the only other house for miles.

I’m going to place a silvery kettle
on the halo of little flames,
and while I wait for the water to boil,
I will pull the curtains over all the windows.

And if I still feel like it
after I carry my steaming cup to the desk
I’m going to copy out one of your poems
in my notebook with a soft pencil

then erase it and write my own poem over it
and no one, especially you, will ever know.

–Billy Collins

Billy Collins has published a dozen books of poetry and edited the anthologies Poetry 180 and Bright Wings. His latest collection is Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems (Random House). He served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003. He is a distinguished professor at Lehman College (CUNY). Born in the French Hospital on West 30th Street, he is a native New Yorker.

[

Spring Comes to 

New York City

The trees are tall and willowy
And the fashion models are blooming in the park
Where we are walking on the newly seeded grass

Surrounded by skateboarders and joggers
And skyscrapers looming over the city
Where even the vendors seem distracted

By an ordinary weekday afternoon
Suddenly swinging its sandals over its head
And lifting the sun high over the river

–Edward Hirsch

Edward Hirsch’s most recent book of poems is The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems (Knopf, 2010). His new prose book is A Poet’s Glossary (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).

You can hear these poems any time by calling 347-618-6376.

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