Good Friday 2016; The Mail, 2004; “The Last Syllable of Recorded Time”
Good Friday 2016
—They jailed MLK for marching on Good Friday, 1963. Waited a while to kill him.
Nothing Good about it unless
eternity. But for now, on any
day, including Fridays, we cage
and burn Lt. Muath Al-Kasasbeh,
expendible at 26; we care too late
for Mr. Charles R. Ingram III, 51,
Navy, perishing ashore in gasoline
flames at the Northfield VA (closed
O, Kurtz, Good Fridays go dark
in our hearts, stay that way more
than we can bear to see. So we
gloze and gloss over the quotidian,
baldly confront some faraway ideals,
distant terror over seas and deserts,
mountain hollows and rampant
backyards, magisterial elections,
even the houses next door. Yet
to salve ourselves—complicity
and cause—we feed on eternity. For
forgiveness and revenge, we cross our
vacant breasts with stone-white lilies.
The Mail, 2004
–Tribler Cottage, Monhegan Island
Last time she was here,
she climbed steps to the sun deck,
turned left and found his letter in the mailbox,
moaned she couldn’t go on vacation without
his claim, to work for him, to edit his “book”
she would publish for him because
she loved him and she was, by God,
Her therapist said
it “certainly is a vanity book” (she
could tell from not having read it at all),
but how vain it was
to claim she knew them well enough,
hale or dying, to render his vanity
like kitchen-blistered sugar-sauce.
As she sits wool-blanketed and tucked,
reading Jane Eyre by the fire in the den,
saying nothing yet about no letter
this time from her father, I bring a little
wood from the cord across the wet lawn,
below the May-cold yellow and white
jonquils among granite rocks, and remember
a cold few days at his cabin, the two
of us there alone, cozy, and burning almost
every stick of wood he had gathered, never
thinking we would just use it all up
before we saw him again.
“The Last Syllable of Recorded Time”
If it all sprang into being
with a word, maybe Light
or Let or Oops! it’s likely
to end the same way, don’t
you think? similarly, with
an apocalyptic word, one
syllable like “Let the wild
rumpus START!” Ah, such
fun is blurry-eyed hope! “and
yes I said yes I will Yes”
in spite of misty Kentucky sites
between Louisa and Ashland,
where green hillscapes give
way to mountainous oil drums,
and pillars sizzle in many
languages, flicker chaotically
toward godhood. “Yes, she thought,
laying down her brush in extreme
fatigue, I have had my vision.” Right
now, rain muffles the soughing highway
noise except three weary syllables:
Stop. Just stop.
Robert W. Hill, educator since 1963, making poems, loving wife and family, tending dogs. Despite so much, believing in The People. Born in Alabama, now in South Carolina. Ever grateful to Dickey, Lieberman, Fraser, Davidson, Moore, Stringer, and Smith for their poetic largesse.
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press:
How long have you been writing poetry?
Some juvenilia, of course. I remember writing rhymed poems in elementary school based on bird pictures in an Audubon Guidebook. I was mostly attracted to certain kinds of birds of prey (I assume boys have that inclination if they care about birds at all at that age)—you know, the one with off-beat names such as osprey, shrike, swallow-tail kite. Imagine my surprise when I found that Larry Lieberman, who would help guide my dissertation on Dickey and Roethke, had a book called The Osprey Suicides—a match made in the wide blue heaven mirrored in a fishing lake, I guess.
I got more serious about it in college, when I entered one of those “send us your poem and ten dollars per volume and we’ll see if we can fit you in” contests. Really awful love poem although it seemed terribly full of deep feelings at the time.
I was actually rather afraid of reading, much less writing, “modern poetry” when I dared myself to write a honors thesis on Herman Melville’s poetry and found Robert Penn Warren’s great essay “Melville the Poet,” in which he declared HM a poetical “king of shreds and patches.” That struck home for me as I began to think of poetry as something of a mixture of languages, almost polyglot, a place of living-word experience in which one could write, “What like a bullet can undeceive!” (“Shiloh: A Requiem”).
And then came Dylan Thomas and the Caedmon recordings of that wildly beautiful Welsh voice, the sheer musicality, of course. But along with that (see “Fern Hill”) Thomas’s willingness to use words in surprising variations of grammar and syntax. Mrs. Foil, my 7th-grade teacher, would’ve been shocked at the comfort I felt both in knowing our language conventions and in subverting them to mysterious poetic purposes.
I mean, really, “Once below a time”; “So it must have been after the birth of the simple light / In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm / Out of the whinnying green stable / On to the fields of praise”—It was sheer magic to me, but in reading Thomas, Melville, Dickey, Roethke, Dickinson, Eliot, Bishop, Frost I came to realize the simple humanity of these people, men and women who practiced—yes, practiced—the language arts the way athletes practice their seemingly superhuman skills.
My first “published” poem came out in Arlington Quarterly when I was 27, following the death of Edwin Shirley Godsey, a fine poet at Converse College. And so on . . .
Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
I always liked the jingly quality of nursery rhymes and their illogical plot lines, the discovery of the fact that goofy sounds were irrationally appealing, as with music. And then came Robert Louis Stevenson and such poems as “I Must Go Down to the Sea Again,” which seemed vaguely adult as well as childlike.
As an adult who had come to want to write poetry, I was lit up by these poems, among others: “Fern Hill,” Dickey’s “The Firebombing” and “The Performance,” “ Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 73: That Time of Year Thou Mayst in Me Behold,” Dickinson’s “I Heard a Fly Buzz” and “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” Hughes’s “Dream Deferred,” Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” Emerson’s “Hamatreya,” Giovanni’s “Nikki-Rosa,” Marlowe’s Jubilate Agno “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry,“ Eliot’s “Prufrock,” etc.
Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
As for contemporary poets, I try to stay in touch with the not-so-famous-but-really-good-ones such as Gregory Fraser (“The Coward,” “Ars Poetica,” “Strange Pieta”), Eric Smith (“Black Hole Factory,” “The Mercy Dancers,” “Tyrannosaurus Sex”), Mary Moore (“The Angel of the Knowledge of Death,” “Chimera,” and her Amanda poems), David Bottoms (“Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump,” “Sign for My Father, Who Stressed the Bunt,” “Calling Across Water at Lion Country Safari”), Chad Davidson (“Consolation Miracle,” “Cockroaches: Ars Poetica,” “This Is the Cow”), Art Stringer (“Asbestos Brocade,” “At the Precipice Bar and Grill,” “Honeysuckle Engagement”), Austin Hummell (“Helen’s Cordial,” “Sunday Morning Percodan,” “The Desertion of Nouns”).
Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?
Placing butt in chair. Revising. Remembering. Especially lingering over phrases, words, or even sentences that struck me as interesting that day. Trusting that writer’s block is an illusion. Reading earlier drafts. Revising. Drafting prose explanations to myself about what I think I meant in this or that passage. Revising. Playing recklessly with forms, lineation, stanza divisions. Nothing I’ve written is holy until it seems so. Revise.
All three of these poems have fantastic opening lines that put the reader right into the poem. “Good Friday” has a sentiment and syntax that I just adore, and “The Last Syllable…” never fails to get a chuckle out of me when I get to the “Oops!”. Opening lines are traditionally very difficult. Any advice for poets on how to craft that stellar opening?
Sometimes the first line is a gift. More often, it’s like a mudpie with elements that don’t seem at first to work, but then do. When I try to be too wise, clever, or poetical, the mud crumbles. Sometimes the first line was actually buried further down in the draft before I shuffled things around. Usually, such a line as “Nothing Good about it” leads to “unless eternity,” because I often catch myself being skeptical of easy phrases: to call the day of the horror of Christ’s crucifixion “Good Friday” seems the oddest sort of euphemism, deflection, but it took most of my now-long life to hit on the phrase “unless eternity.” And all of that clicked when I considered the burning of Lt. Al-Kasasbeh, which led to all the other clustered images. That’s how it works for me. Things pop into word-relationships when I just let them. Trust the process, I guess. Tinker with the language until it matters. As for the “creation” words—light, let, and oops—I tried to be both serious and not, thus the eventual allusion to Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. But all those words clicked when I got caught by the almost crazy fusion of word and truth in Shakespeare’s “last syllable of recorded time.” So, monosyllabic last things fused for me with first things. (I’m glad it seems to have worked for somebody besides me.) It would be easy—and incorrect—to say that the title of that poem came first when the truth is that all those other tumblings were in motion for years before . . . well . . . the Oops! of this poem.
How do you decide the form for your poems? Do you start writing with a form in mind, or do you let the poem tell you what it will look like as you go?
Rarely do I set out to write a fixed form. I do from time to time try to stretch my muscles with a sonnet, a sestina, a ghazal, terza rima, but more often my forms emerge by pushing stuff around. I have found that I sometimes go through phases of stanza lengths. Having a vocal music background, I think I have always been governed by the breath of line-lengths. Reading aloud is crucial to my final decisions about form. (Sidebar: I remain puzzled by poets who seem in public readings to prefer muttering their words, as if they are hoping to be overheard. Galway Kinnell used to say that a poet should feel the words like a taste in the mouth. If you don’t physically love your words, why would anybody else?)
Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
I think you have to learn to listen to yourself, to hear how you actually talk but also to hear how you think words to yourself. Most people, I believe, aren’t very conscious of how they sound to others and even less conscious of the deep, mysterious language they use inside their own minds. Poets have to do both.
Similarly to form and voice, all these poems have speakers that address the reader in distinctly different ways. How do you go about crafting that relationship while maintaining your voice as a poet?
My poems do talk to me, as well as I to them. Once I enter that conversation—which is a conversation with self as well as some temporary persona—I try to make all the lines seem consonant with what I call the strongest lines, to make the vernacular of the whole poem feel fresh yet consistent within its own terms. The trick for me is to sound natural, even casual, but not to fear heightening the tone, raising the stakes, so to speak. My poems generally draw on my southern speech patterns, which (as Faulkner and others have taught us) range from the banal to the high-falutin’ instrumentation of King James (Bible, not LeBron). Too much “everyday” talk is boring as is too much erudition. Delicate balance.
What is your editing process like?
As I’ve said, pushing stuff around. Listening for the right sounds. As Dickey said, the rightest words in the rightest order. I’ve come to appreciate very much the virtues of computer word-processing for revision. I never throw anything completely away. And, to be honest, sometimes editing involves seeking the opinions of trusted, knowledgeable readers—my wife and poet-friends, with whom I share drafts that I think are almost done.
When do you know that a poem is finished?
Usually—but not always—when it’s published. Over the years, however, I have come to appreciate Valéry’s (much corrupted) remark, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”