C.N.P Poetry 

  • Cathexis Northwest Press

Wordshaper

By: Clif Mason


swirls sounds round on her tongue

& trout jump in a cold stream.

Infatuated with day, she says still


& everything becomes so hushed

it feels holy. Happiness rings

like a silent bell in her blood,


& she holds her arms up

to take in mountains.

Another time, she whistles

& the trees bristles

with the feathers of chirping birds.

She says fire bolt


& lightning strikes the earth.

She says horns

& a herd of antelope springs

across the open grass, claws

& badgers plow the ground, teeth

& a mountain lion tears meat


from an elk’s flanks.

& when Wordshaper clears

her throat, plates shift deep

below the planet’s surface

& willows whip their branches

like striking serpents.

She says sleep

& darkness takes the air

like a gift from the hands of day.



~



Icicles strung across a sky thick black as the mane of a Gypsy Vanner mare. They hang, motionless wind chimes, intoning only a mute chord, a stinging tongue of frost on solitary lips. She chants words distinct as the songs of daybreak birds, poems that take to wing, become owls haunting the cold stubble fields.

She watches wolves run through a snowfield lit with starlight, footpads breaking the dazzling crust, but lifting again before they can sink. Wind ruffs their fur but is rebuffed by the fire in their muscles, the hunger in their thoughts. In a distant town, families sleep, warm under blankets, sleep and dream of the woman racing like a ghost over the snow.



~

She dreams of thousands of flamingoes,

flying above a vast continent

of snow & ice,

feathers reflecting the rising sun

& dyeing the very air pink.

Flamingoes ride harsh wind currents

& land like silk

in freezing water.

Icebergs calve around them,

& they’ll swim as if born

for such climes.

Nights of close clouds

& unremitting cold.

Lacy flakes fall on rainwater,

each making a splash before it’s gone.

Is she the owl

watching from high

in the red maple,

following a single flake

as it spins past

& falls into flowing motion—

absence leaving a ripple behind?

Or is she the snowflake,

lifting a cold lip of water

before they disappear?

Dawn’s blue light

hangs from the big pin oak boughs?

Frost riming leafless branches,

rhyming with the snow

banked below.

Mourning doves ring the zazen bell.

In the House of Story,

dancers emerge.

Freedom links arms with precision.

Elaborate flowered floats,

majorettes & marching bands,

motorcycles & mammoth balloons,

guided by hands

keeping tight grip on guy ropes.

She lets a long parade

of chants & incantations,

of songs & stories,

spill from their fingers

onto crisp paper.

Months’ later,

clouds’ horses lope over the sun,

their bodies glowing

like heated metal.

They are the lake’s ghosts.

As they gallop off,

sun emerges,

burning

like the mind in pursuit

of a new story.

She casts off the boat

& dozes

in muzzy daylight’s trance.

She does not row

but drifts soft & free,

until evening comes down

to drink

& still water

flows into starry night.



~



The lake moon, late, setting,

magnesium clouded with basalt,

fissured with cobalt.


When the dead are taken up

fully into flies & flowers,

when birds become fish


& fish become birds,

when dirt rises to become

more than dirt again,


she hears, with stark clarity

& utter solemnity,

mourning doves


chanting daylight’s sad adagio.

Does she trace the telemetry

of yearning? Her eye discern


the horizon beyond all horizons,

the depth beneath all depth?

Questions question questions


& answers hide in plain sight.



~

Music burns through the air

like triumph

as she belts & lilts—

song after song,

scatting, chanting,

not for the bills & coins

dropped into her open case,

but to sink—hands & body,

mouth & heart,

into what she sees

as whole & hale,

& yes, holy.


She leaps headlong

into what she knows

can exist only

for a moment,

yet can still grant access

to the unchanging

& unseen.

She dives with her entire body

into something so true

it falls far

to the other side

of knowing—

& her every word

becomes prayer.



Clif Mason lives in Bellevue, Nebraska, with his wife, a visual artist. He is the author of four collections, Knocking the Stars Senseless (Stephen F. Austin State University Press), The Book of Night & Waking (which won the Cathexis Northwest Press Chapbook Prize), Self-portraits in Which I Do Not Appear (Finishing Line Press), and From the Dead Before (Lone Willow Press). His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and he has been the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to Rwanda, Africa.


Interview with the Poet:


Cathexis Northwest Press: How long have you been writing poetry?


Clif Mason: I started writing poetry seriously when I was 19 years old. In the couple of years before that, I wrote a few miserable pieces that I later happily destroyed. CNP: Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?


CM: Outside of the occasional song lyric that rose to the level of poetry, it was undoubtedly a number of the dialogues and speeches in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which my college prep English class read during our senior year at Riggs High School, in Pierre, South Dakota. The class was very ably taught by Mary Jewel Ledbetter, who gave us great freedom and offered great insight into the works we studied. Hamlet’s feverish exchanges with the ghost of his father, his “mad speech” banter with Polonius and with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his exchanges with the clever gravedigger, and his several soliloquies, most particularly the “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy—these possessed an emotional complexity, a cognitive depth, and an original expressive force unlike anything I had ever read before (and, with rare exception, since). I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say those speeches (each a poem unto itself) grew new neural pathways in my brain. While I loved Shakespeare’s language, I can’t honestly say that he inspired me to emulate his example at that time. He was far too Promethean for the teenage me to feel anything but awe.

CNP: Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?


CM:

For me this is the most challenging of all questions. I love so many different poets and poems, and for so many different reasons. I’ll mention a small handful of examples, with the idea that these few will have to stand in for hundreds of others. As might be gathered from my answer to the first question, Shakespeare has been an enormous force in my literary development, and I would certainly want to address, in my answer to this question, why that is. Shakespeare’s sonnets are individually lyric but collectively narrative, in that together they tell an ultimately sad story of a poet narrator, his beloved friend and patron (some would say his lover), a dark-haired woman (lover first of the narrator and then of the friend), and a rival poet. Of the 154 sonnets, my two most favorite 29 and 55. Sonnet 29 is written out of a humility that we can scarcely credit: the speaker describes himself as “desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope.” But to transform the self-loathing of the octet into a statement of renewal through love in the sestet is a turn that steals my breath away every time I read it. This poem demonstrates the aesthetic power of the turn in the sonnet. Regarding Sonnet 55, the brash assertion of art’s power in the opening lines—“Not marble nor the gilded monuments / Of princes shall outlive this pow’rful rhyme”—remains a succinct statement of my own aesthetics and belief in the power of language and poetry.

How often while walking through a shopping mall or down a crowded street or through a big box store have I thought of these lines from Blake’s “London”: “. . . And mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe.” It’s always a deeply sad epiphany. Blake compresses more tragic truth into four quatrains than almost any brief lyric can bear. The lines present astringent criticisms, not only of the London of Blake’s day, but of almost any city in almost any time. The streets and rivers are “charter’d,” that is, both free and set aside for capitalistic commerce. The Chimney-sweeper’s cry “appalls” ‘every blackning Church,” the soldier’s blood “runs . . . down Palace walls,” and syphilis blinds the “new-born Infant” and brings “plagues” into “the Marriage hearse” (bed). That Blake’s poem captures and contains all of this corruption and grief without becoming either hectoring or histrionic speaks to “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing,” to lift a line from Hopkins.


Where Blake’s poem is caustic, Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”—which to me is the pretty much the apogee of lyric poetry—is more melancholic. Certainly the poem’s third stanza paints about as bleak a picture of reality as one can imagine: the world is a place of “weariness,” “fever,” and “fret, “where men sit and hear each other groan”; “Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies”; and “Where but to think is to be full of sorrow / And leaden-eyed despairs.” Yet against this vision, Keats presents his speaker’s escape “on the viewless wings of Poesy,” as they fly with the nightingale “into the forest dim”—which is also the world of imagination, peopled by the “Queen-Moon” and “all her starry fays.” The speaker feels it would be “rich to die” while listening to the nightingale “pouring forth [its] soul abroad / In such an ecstasy.” They realize the nightingale is an “immortal Bird,” whose song has been heard in every age and even “in faery lands forlorn,” whereas the speaker’s vision cannot be sustained beyond these few moments: Powerful as “fancy” is, it “cannot cheat so well / As she is fam’d to do.” The reader, like the speaker, has been transported by the music and the imagery and the thoughts and is likewise uncertain if they “wake or sleep.” How often do I inhabit that sweet twilight realm, possessed of and by “a vision, or a waking dream”—the world as John Keats has recreated it in his imagination.


Emily Dickinson, though often cheerful and witty and ebullient, also knew deep melancholy and expressed it as powerfully as few ever have. Her “Poem 341” describes a state in which “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” in which “The Feet, mechanical, go round” “A Wooden way regardless grown.” Dickinson terms this state of numb, insensate depression “the Hour of Lead, and she says it is “Remembered, if outlived, / As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow— / First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—” To me, there are few lines in poetry as haunting or fearful as these.


Against the damage done to everyone but especially to women and others who have been dispossessed and, often, brutalized by a patriarchal society—a damage that might well lead to such “Hours of Lead”—Adrienne Rich offers us a way forward. Her poem “Diving Into the Wreck” takes us on a poetic quest not unlike Keats’, in that it is a journey of the creative imagination—down into the ocean waters, where she “has come to “explore the wreck”—a powerfully multi-valent symbol, but certainly one that implies the wreck of patriarchal civilization. Her “words are purposes . . . are maps.” She has come “to see the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevail.” Before her dive is done she will have discovered both. She demands truth; she wants “the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth.” She is both “mermaid” and “merman” and she discovers that “we are the half-destroyed instruments . . . the water-eaten log / the fouled compass.” Each of us is the wreck, but the “treasure” is the truth we can uncover in our quest, using the tools we have brought with us “a knife, a camera / a book of myths / in which /our names do not appear.” The self-recognition gained from such a deep dive into the self can prepare us to live and act in the world of the surface, a world that can no longer claim or own us because its myths do not describe us. We are free to create our own counter reality, to create our own treasure in the company of each other, and to act in the world as free people, no longer held prisoner by what Blake called “mind-forged manacles.” Reading Rich in the 1970s was a profoundly liberating experience—and it is still such an experience today, for anyone who picks up this, or indeed, almost any of her poems.


For considerations of space and what can be said briefly, I have not commented on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”; Pope’s “Rape of the Lock”; Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey; Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”; Whitman’s “Song of Myself” or “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”; Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”; Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat” or Illuminations; Rilke’s Duino Elegies; Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”; Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or Four Quartets; Lorca’s “Sleepwalking Ballad,” “Ode to the King of Harlem,” “Ode to Walt Whitman,” or “Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejias”; Neruda’s “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” or, indeed, all of Canto General; Hughes’ Montage of a Dream Deferred; Hayden’s “Middle Passage,” Roethke’s North American Sequence; Dickey’s “May Day Sermon,” Berryman’s Dream Songs, Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover, Snyder’s Rivers and Mountains Without End; Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You; Dove’s Thomas and Beulah; Walcott’s Omeros; McGrath’s “The Bob Hope Poem”; Logue’s War Music; Fasano’s Vincent; Giannina Braschi’s Empire of Dreams; and Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic--all works that I adore. Yes, I have a fatal weakness for long poems. I embrace and celebrate this weakness


I have mentioned already only a few of the dozens—scores—of living contemporary poets whose work I admire, though I think the poems of (in no particular order) Marilyn Chin, Ada Limón, Jericho Brown, Lee Ann Roripaugh, Carl Phillips, Joy Harjo, Marilyn Hacker, Natasha Trethewey, Ocean Vuong, Mary Ruefle, Tracy K. Smith, Li-Young Lee, Rachel McKibbens, Kaveh Akbar, Morgan Parker, N. Scott Momaday, Victoria Chang, Leslie Marmon Silko, Charles Wright, Diane Seuss, Carmen Giménez Smith, Mark Doty, Layli Long Soldier, Mary Jo Bang, Anne Carson, Dorianne Laux, Ted Kooser, Amy Nezhukumatathil, Alicia Ostriker, Terrance Hayes, Feng Sun Chen, Maggie Smith, Tiana Clark, Brian Turner, Brenda Shaughnessy, Olena Kalytiak Davis, Danez Smith, Jennifer Chang, Carolyn Forché, Natalie Diaz, Chen Chen, Alicia Stallings, Louise Glück, Franny Choi, Alex Dimitrov, Heid E. Erdrich, Kim Addonizio, Sun Yung Shin, and Joan Houlihan, to name only a few, will stand with the specific works I’ve already mentioned. But I’ll save those thoughts for another day, another conversation. (Of the many worthy Nebraska poets, I’ve mentioned only Kooser, as there are so many others who belong on this list, and I’d hate to fail to name someone who should have been included—and this list is long enough already.)

CNP: Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?

CM:

Writing for me is often inspired by opening myself fully to almost any art form—music, dance, painting, sculpture, film, or yes, poetry. This almost always triggers creative work. The poems I write often have nothing at all to do with the works that opened those portals to the unconscious mind, but I am conscious of trying to honor their achievement with an independent achievement of my own. Often long walks with my dog will also free the mind to compose. Perhaps there is something about the rhythmic nature of the action or the meditative, trance-like focus it can induce that makes walking so productive of poetry. I often use a pen and notebook for first drafts (or beginnings) of poems. All subsequent work is done on the computer. Sometimes, if something is coming in a rush, I sit right down at the computer, open a blank Word document, and begin to compose. CNP: 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?

CM: I’ve composed both ways, simply because I sometimes became so enamored of a particular form—say, a villanelle, a ghazal, a sestina, a canzone, a glose, a palindrome, a fugue, or any of the numerous kinds of sonnets—that I couldn’t wait to attempt it. Usually, however, I let the form of a poem grow organically during the process of writing or revising. Ultimately, the organic approach has worked best for me. One day I was on a walk and a line of iambic pentameter came from nowhere into my head. The image, the metaphor, the meter—everything sounded just right on my tongue. The line was, “The trees have taken off their summer clothes.” I knew immediately that the poem was going to be one of personal sorrow (the poem describes the felt impact of my father’s death; he died in October), and further, that the expression of that sorrow would best be served by regularly repeating lines splicing the stanzas together. When I got home, I wrote the poem, “Grief and the Changing of Seasons,” as a pantoum, a form well suited, in its obsessive repetitions, to the expression of grief. CNP: Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?

CM: Immerse yourself as much as possible in poetry, this form you love. I’m talking about the way-over-your-head-not-certain-if-you’re-ever-going-to-come-back-to-the-surface kind of immersion. Carry books (actual books or their virtual spirits coded into a form easily transported on various devices)—and seize every opportunity to read. Read omnivorously and both broadly and deeply. One good approach is to start by devouring anthologies of various kinds and then follow up by reading the books of the poets who reached inside you and stirred something. And write, of course, even if it’s just a few minutes before falling asleep at night, when you may have time or wakefulness to write only a handful of lines. Those lines may well provide the word seeds from which full and vibrant poems may grow in the days or months to come. Or they may end up being perfect as they are.

Write when you might otherwise be occupied with working out, playing basketball or soccer, bicycling, binge-watching TV shows, gaming, partying, cooking, eating (not that I want you to starve), arguing about politics, sharing on social media, putting puzzles or models together, scrapbooking, collecting recipes, doing crafts, or flying kites. Basically, any of the things that many, if not most, of us love to do. I’m not asking you to become an anchorite and give up any or all of these things. I’m only asking that you choose poetry first. Make poetry your foremost occupation (again, as much as possible, given other responsibilities and commitments you may have in your life). Write as an act of joy or exorcism, write as an act of defiance or resistance, write as an act of love or prayer. Whatever drives you to write, write as if your life depended on it. If you are a poet, it does.

And seek criticism of your poems from anyone you can cajole or pay (or simply ask—you never know, they may be willing) to read them. Be grateful for their critiques, even if they bruise or contuse your ego (grow a tougher ego). Try to see your poem through the eyes of the reader who gifted your work with their critique. Implement as many of the suggestions as seem right to you aesthetically; and do think hard before rejecting a suggestion. Learn to apply the critical attitudes and approaches of others to editing your own poem. Be merciless in your revisions. Make every stanza, line, and word justify its place in a poem. Don’t make excuses for them. Don’t keep them merely for sentimental reasons. Don’t be afraid to experiment wildly and audaciously. If you are soft-spoken and reserved in your life outside of poetry, don’t be afraid to be leonine and rash and brash in your poems. Don’t be afraid to be funny; humor is to poetry what leaven is to bread. Don’t be afraid to be strange or weird or bizarre or outlandish or crazy. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable (this most of all) or self-deprecating. Take risks. Take enormous risks. And be willing to accept the consequences of the risks you’ve taken. If you do these things, you will eventually discover your own voice. Show grit. Persevere—across weeks and months, years and decades. To bend Whitman to our purpose, your genius “stop[s] somewhere waiting for you.”

CNP: What is your editing process like?

CM:

Extensive and never-ending. I demand of myself the same freedom in revising that I embraced in the original composition. I frequently experiment with different lineations, with metamorphoses of verse into prose and back again into (different) verse. I might translate a formal poem, by protean changes, into free verse into prose and then into a new syllabic verse or free verse version. Every change opens up new possibilities, new opportunities to discover the form the poem wants to have and that you have to discover.

CNP: When do you know that a poem is finished?

CM:

All of my poems will reach at once their final, their irrevocable, forms at the moment I pass from this world.

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