Cathexis Northwest Press
The Magician’s Arrival; Macabre Magician; Uprooted Dreams
By: Patrick Sylvain
The Magician’s Arrival
The magician arrives like a hurricane,
thrashing dwellings with a ghastly piquancy.
The doors of confederate citadels are
blown open, discharging a dark whirlpool
of rancor. Bitter, pale lips have mouthed
vituperations. They’re now spitting
more venom than their forefathers.
The magician, with outstretched hands
welcomes the acrimonious dead
with statuesque fanfare.
Half of a nation sits stupefied
in the disappearing sunlight.
The magician speaks in hieroglyphs,
his hands moving as if playing an accordion,
contempt besmears his pinched lips,
tormenting the living with skeletons of the past.
As a child, he threw stones to inflict pain
at laughing boys and then hid in darkness.
Now, he moves with obscurants, smashing
facts like flies. Out of habit, he is cavalier
about throwing his weight on the podium,
furrowing his glabella to ignite the show.
With his head turned askance and compressed
lower lip, he summons a modern-day “Stonewall” Jackson.
Hooting like an owl to welcome the dead,
he no longer pretends to love the living
as he dwells among confederate ruins, obsessing
in prayer over General Robert E. Lee’s revival.
I am aware of this infinite connectedness
bridging ancestral heartbeats to counter pulse rhythms—
some perfect, some imperfect. Touch is a residue,
an aura of understanding lingering like an echo.
My umbilical cord buried underneath
a cotton silk tree. I wonder if my raging
headaches were due to the violent blows
of axes that brought down my twinning tree.
Am I losing my roots for being uprooted?
Is being uprooted like shedding skin, or
is it like missing a limb, or one of your kin?
I am prodding the ground to find
the filaments of constraint.
My tears are for the passage of time as I try
to remove a rock impeding my heartbeat. I no longer
have a pole to hoist my flag—no fluttering,
just faint posturing from a remembrance of being.
Must I welcome this breeze that dries out my tears?
My eyes, still red from watching hungry mouths
unable to sing the national anthem. Must we surrender?
Our country’s future no longer visible on the deeds.
My blood came from this land of yams, okra, and sharp
machetes that knows how to bring down robust
trees. But, it is raining where I am standing—
mud to my ankle, I am worried of calcification,
to be encased in amber waiting for an archaeologist
to unearth me. Rain drops are like tears
of children seized and waiting at the Southern border
bawling for their mother’s breasts.
What kind of brigand’s brigade places children
in boxes where they must foreclose their dreams
in a country of neon dreams? Nationalism
is not a moral virtue. Yeshua fed the many with little.
Am I dreaming this up? Dreams can be hacked.
Buried in the mud, I must muster strength
to take off my shoes. I walk barefoot towards a bridge,
the shorelights of the past are lit with Tiki torches.
Am I dreaming this up?
So far, I am roped to a nightmare, I refuse
to be zombified. Correct, I live here and my love
is here; friendship cannot be established
with a barrel of anger. Touch me to know me.
Sylvain is a poet, writer, social and literary critic. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Published in several creative anthologies, journals, periodicals, and reviews including: African American Review, Agni, American Poetry Review, Callaloo, The Caribbean Writer, Chicago Quarterly Review, Magma Poetry, Ploughshares, and Prairie Schooner. Sylvain has degrees from the University of Massachusetts (B.A.), Harvard University (Ed.M.), Boston University (MFA), and Brandeis University (PhD). Sylvain is on faculty at Harvard University’s History and Literature Division, and he is also Assistant Professor at Simmons University. Sylvain’s poetry chapbook, Underworlds, is published by Central Square Press (2018), and he is the leading author of Education Across Borders: Immigration, Race, and Identity in the Classroom (Beacon Press, Feb 2022).
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press:
How long have you been writing poetry?
At thirteen, I started writing what I thought were poems, which, in reality were more like love songs. (Love songs in the lyrical style of French singers of the late 1960s and 70s like Jacques Brel and Gilbert Bécaud.) Growing up in Haiti, I was surrounded by the French Chansonette, and Jacques Brel’s narrative style and political commitment made an impression on me.
Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
Since I am multilingual, I’ve had multiple first encounters with poetry. There isn’t a single poem that impacted me, but there were certainly a multitude of poets. I went to two French-Canadian schools in Haiti, and most of my friends and family members were educated in similar institutions. We had to read Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Charles Beaudelaire. I became enamored with Beaudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du Mal.” When I left Haiti at the age of 15 for the United States, I moved closer to my Haitian culture and wanted to re-educate myself. I revolted against Frenchness by embracing Haitian writers whom I had heard about, but never read. I turned to Jacques Roumain, René Depestre, and Félix Morisseau-Leroy. All three writers were socio-politically committed, but Morisseau-Leroy was the only one who wrote in Haitian-Creole. When I started writing in Haitian at the age of 16, it was Morisseau-Leroy who inspired and later encouraged me to continue writing. When I met and introduced him at a cultural event that the Haitian Club hosted in my high school, Cambridge Rindge and Latin (CRLS), he seemed genuinely impressed by my work and declared that he would soon hand me the torch. I was moved, and from that point forward became an ardent advocate and writer who produced in the language of the people with a modern aesthetic. Through my exposure to American culture, and by living in a well-known university town, I was exposed to various poets who were writing in English or were simply famous American poets. I had the chance of reading and meeting the African American poet, Gwendolyn Brooks when I was in college. In 1990, when I joined the Dark Room Writers’ Collective, I became enamored with Yusef Komunyakaa’s poetry. I attended his workshops, and he became a friend. Robert Pinsky (whom I studied under at Boston University), Seamus Heaney, Martín Espada, John Ashbery, Elizabeth Bishop, Ntozake Shange, Derek Walcott, Michael Longley, and others, have influenced my writing in major ways. However, the voices of Pinsky and Komunyakaa are constant in my head. They inspire me to become a better writer and to lovingly respect the art of poetry.
Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
Besides the names that I already mentioned, this list would be extremely long. Additions would include Bei Dao, Tracy K. Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Philip Levine, Adrienne Rich, Wistawa Szymborska, and Pablo Neruda. During my MFA program, one the assignments we received from Robert Pinsky was to compile an anthology with 100 of our favorite poems (and each poet couldn’t have more than three poems included). It was a difficult assignment, yet it forced me to think carefully about things like emotional range, tone, poetic aesthetic, and social commitments. Yusef Komunyakaa’s poetry collection about his Vietnam experience, Dien Cao Dai (1988), and Seamus Heaney’s Field Work (1979), are two of my favorite books of poetry.
Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in
My poems always appear to me through an image, or a mood. Through fragments, I explore that image to see what kind of image system could cohere the story that my mind is exploring. Sonically, I begin to utter the phrases in order to find the “music”. At that point, I begin to think of form. I try to bring into the language sets of fully formed images and then copiously explore them to locate a knowable existence, or experience, that the language of poetry can fully absorb. Sometimes, a poem begins like a start of an unplanned journey, a desire to go somewhere, a quiet drive. Some of my poems are excursions into the enigma of living in this contradictory and hierarchical world—the world that I particularly inhabit as a human in a world that I share with others, intimately and communally. I try to write every day, even if it is one fragmentary line. I consciously think within the field of imagery, yet I allow myself enough space to be surprised by what the unconscious mind brings forth from that field. There is a kind of truth or knowledge that an image offers through the revelation of a new metaphor. Image making is essential to the world of expression. As poets, we must be very careful of how we use language, and yet we have to allow ourselves to be besieged by language. I feel absolutely immersed in poetry when I’m in the realm of language and forging my craft with an attentive ear and tongue.
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?
Sometimes, I find myself working on a project in which I’ve consciously decided to stay within the parameters of a particular form, like for my forthcoming bilingual collection, Unfinished Dreams /Rèv San Bout. This book uses Japanese Tanka and Haiku to excavate experiences of hurt, exploitation, and hope through showcasing irony and comprehensible symbolism. It also uses the couplet form to explore love and intimacy. Other sections use controlled free-verse to pursue similar themes. Sometimes, I play around by mixing the quatrain with the tercet, the tercet with the couplet, or the quatrain with the sestet without it being a hexastich (a poem measured in six lines). Most of the time, I allow the content as well as the music of the poem to dictate the form. Behind almost every chosen form stands the essence of a particular account or narrative. Sometimes, after workshopping a poem, my colleagues suggest another form based on the emotional load or the pacing required of the poem. With form, we must think of history, landscape, and meter. However, we must also think of pacing, and breath. After all, poetry is music, and music is measured.
Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
Voice is a bit tricky because we enter into the world of poetry through imitation, recitation, the speech of others. As social beings who are learning, or have learned the song of poetry, we become a part of the chorus. Some voices are clearer, more resonant than others, but we all have a voice and that voice is important. Voice is essential to a writer’s core identity. Voice is as singular as a fingerprint, yet one settles into the particularity(ies) of one’s voice as though they are acquiring it. Just as seeing the contours, the turns, the dots, the circles, the breaks, and the fragmentary lines of one’s fingerprint requires attentive reading or studying to notice an individual’s particularity, the same applies for one’s writing voice. A person’s voice will be dictated by their environment, their sensibility to it, the attention paid to that environment and to the self in response to it. In that environment, when particularities of the self and truthful emotions are tethered to poetry, our sense of existence and connectivity broaden. Poetry requires a language of outward and inward knowledge. That multidirectional language of poetry lengthens one’s attention, seizes what is at hand, and makes it a thing more knowable. One must be truthful to one’s knowing. One must learn to properly plumb their experiences in order to authentically sing it with the might of their being.
What is your editing process like?
I edit as I write in order to work within the intended form. I also edit as I write for clarity. However, I am clear-eyed enough not to be mired in vanity to believe that my poetry or prose doesn’t need editing. As a bilingual writer, I always seek my wife’s opinion. She is my best and worst critic, and I’m a better writer because of her American sensibility in terms of writing pragmatically and with a simple elegance. Regardless of who is your first reader, you cannot fully edit what you have written until it is fully written and formed. It is also essential that I remain my first critic and editor. I always question myself in terms of how I am engaging with language, and what I’m trying to convey. Whatever is burning inside of you, its source must be understood and fully grasped in order to share that fire with the world; and a good editing process allows that fire to be contained and thus fully appreciated for its potential power. In the book, The Arts of the Possible, Adrienne Rich asserts that: “In making poetry, or any kind of art, we’re translating into a medium—in this case language—the contents of our consciousness, wherever they may come from, let alone the huge underground beneath consciousness” (p.134). Through various modes of translation that a writer may be involved in, the textual realization of the poem on the page must effectively communicate the verbal essence of the poem through its content and image system. A good editing process allows a poem or prose to properly cohere the assemblage of senses within the poem. A poem is not a dead flower, it must act upon the consciousness.
When do you know that a poem is finished?
As my mentors reminded me, a poem is never fully finished, a poem is on temporary pause based on its emotional arrival point. One travels through a poem. A poem could be in transit, or a poem could be left abandoned at a terminal because you have a different flight, a different project. A “finished” poem is a poem that is coherent, rendered truthful through its image system and language innovations, and the coherence of its content. Normally, I think and feel a poem is done when I get a sense of relief, a sense of arrival at a place where the emotional trip, the image system, and the poetic narrative come to a synchronic point. It is the moment when I can go back and read the entire poem cognitively. It is the moment when I feel I can really put down the emotional and narrative load of the subject’s voice, or my own questioning/exploration on a particular subject. However, a “finished” poem, once I return to it after some time, can reveal a new truth, a new emotion, thus requiring a new writing.