My House of Mysterious Compartments

Tara Burke’s poetry collection Animal Like Any Other (Finishing Line Press) has compartments:

poems about growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, about living with her girlfriend surrounded by dogs, about the painful dissolution of that relationship, about desire and sex, about new love, and several long poems that braid all these aspects of the poet’s life into a kind of manifesto. The forms switch between a maximalist prose that sweeps across the page without punctuation and resists known syntax, and tight lineated forms of unctuous imagery. The poem “Declaration” includes the line taken for the title of the collection and describes the making of steak. With the lines “massage a bloody loin / with bare hands [. . .] press salt into its flesh / and press the ruminant / into my hot iron pan . . .” my mouth waters – the poet goes on to declare:

“Domesticitycan be radical.Can be lesbian.These are good waysto stick it to the man:cook food, lovewomen, enjoystaying home.”

By recounting childhood, memories of growing up amidst parents’ sometimes simmering or submerged anxieties and anger, the needs of brothers, each well-defined moment becomes almost incantatory. The background is cast in plain language (blue and grey and tan), the details everyday, but images swim up from the long lines. In the house on Blue Ridge Mountain Road, “we didn’t believe in weeds.” The speaker’s mother would plant things and move things there at the edge of the woods, including stones she’d found “here and there intending toward beauty.” In another of these childhood poems, a vignette about the child-poet ignoring her mother’s entreaty to stop, she says she was “unclear of no and its partner shame.” In “How We Purpled the Road” we see two unaccompanied children, their unsupervised play, the wonder and danger of it. Purpling is the crushed fruit of blackberries and the bruises earned; the poet says, “immediate regret is a bruise I know well.”

By recounting childhood, memories of growing up amidst parents’ sometimes simmering or submerged anxieties and anger, the needs of brothers, each well-defined moment becomes almost incantatory.

Interspersed between these memory-moments are love poems, which seem to be about both finding one’s person as well as finding the self. The structure of moving between the early childhood poems and the adult poems make sense, as they suggest another kind of knowing and coming of age. The clarity of the language rings true: “I want this body / finally mine, naked, covered / in glitter and chicken feathers.” It is straightforward and defiant and joyful, tinged with the awful fantastic. Soon though, the beloved becomes a source of worry – long before the poem-story begins to hint at how the dissolution will happen, the speaker hints at meaningful differences between them; her girlfriend is a police officer, and the speaker wonders about her job, things she may have to do. “How will you see this world / with your gun? Is there anything / we can protect?” This too ties back to the childhood poems, when the poet tries to understand her father. In the poem “Inside Me” the reader sees the father, over and over again – in his chair, smoking, hauling rocks, always working. This poem is one of those that ranges across the page, with little breaks for breath, few guideposts of phrasing or punctuation. It ends with the resonant line: “there he is inside me singing what a surprise when I realize it’s not a song but a sob” – there’s no period. The poem ends, but it doesn’t end. The sob catches in the throat, nowhere to go.

It is straightforward and defiant and joyful, tinged with the awful fantastic.

“New Year’s Day” is a central poem. In a small moment, the speaker sitting in a sun-drenched kitchen, her girlfriend preferring the more shadowed living room, a whole continent of differences between them become visible. “Oh I think I was lucky I trusted because time was your gift to me then” – the reader can feel that time is running out. “She doesn’t love light like I do” and we know that light means so much more than light. When the poet mentions taking her mother’s advice, we know that all of those childhood moments, those poems that cannot be contained are contained in her now, purpling her, and it doesn’t matter which room they sit in this morning – dread hangs over the prose stanzas, as if even poetry is out of reach. A few poems later, the couple has moved and the poems begin to speak of predators – things that threaten them, their dogs, the goat they’ve taken to keeping. The speaker admits “so I pretended like I always do / that I wasn’t afraid.” After leaving the home they had together, she confides “I was half myself and maybe / it was never the hungry coyotes / but the whole of my bloodstream howling.”

“She doesn’t love light like I do” and we know that light means so much more than light.

The poems so far have a natural trajectory: childhood stories that explore early memory and the parental relationship as a potential model, the self in love and loss, the aftermath of relationship and rediscovering the self. What these poems are building to are some incredibly moving long poems that weave all of that together and speak in a full-throated cry, somewhere between manifesto and affirmation. The poems “Exercise in Which a Poet in Heartbreak Finds Herself in a Writing Class with Fiction Writers and Doesn’t Leave, Rebels a Little, Learns to Put Characters Under Pressure,” “Queer Girl,” and “Blue Body Hungry for Origin or Certainty” are all breakneck poems – read-aloud poems – poems built upon the foundation of what comes before them in this collection, and owing a debt to the careful building of voice that Burke takes her time with in earlier smaller moments.

What binds all the poems together in Animal Like Any Other is the insistence of both the ordinary and revolutionary-ness of desire. To want another so badly that nothing matters – not the dog-hair on every surface, not that she may someday kill someone and you’d have to live with it. It is the very ordinariness of this want, this love, that ultimately (or so the poet imagines) causes the end of their relationship. In “Exercise in Which a Poet in Heartbreak Finds Herself in a Writing Class with Fiction Writers and Doesn’t Leave, Rebels a Little, Learns to Put Characters Under Pressure,” she tries to inhabit her girlfriend, to understand how and why she asked her to leave. To understand how too much love can be oppressive, too easy, not enough and too much. In “Queer Girl” – again, refusing to use anything like a sentence structure – she rails against the restrictions of women’s and girls’ sexuality, their wants, their smells, and the way their expressions of self are policed, writing “her body a light I turned to and no I do not care that her body as light may be cliché to you fuck your rules fuck your right or wrong words for poems for sex.” In “Blue Body Hungry for Origin or Certainty,” alternating prose stanzas and right-justified fragments are nearly-affirmations. The poem revisits the landscapes of the poet’s life: blue mountains, red dirt and dust, green trees. It calls the reader back to the body, embracing curves and movement, singing a song of love and lust. The body is love – art is love – this life we make, riddled with loss and hardship, but also striving toward each other – is love.

What these poems are building to are some incredibly moving long poems that weave all of that together and speak in a full-throated cry, somewhere between manifesto and affirmation.

There are no compartments in the poem “Blueberry Pancakes.” The poet, Tara, writes of her work, engaging with students, worrying about them and their lives. She writes about “when language feels like self-indulgence” and not caring whether “they learn to cite in the correct tedious format.” She writes about her adopted pit bull, who growls in her sleep, “unsure if it is today or yesterday unsure if she’s ever really safe.” But mostly she writes about her mother who made blueberry pancakes at Christmas, the berries “came from a box saved from leftover canned berries in the Jiffy muffin pre-made mix” frozen in Ziploc bags throughout the year.

“on days like this when I know we’re all dying we’re going to drown or starve or be shot on this

hot earth together but not quite together enough I wish instead we were some semblance of that

family you tried to keep simple together drowning it all in syrup—

I wish my lips were sticky and blue—

on days like this all I want is to eat, have home back, say thank you”

Burke reminds us at the end of her collection the way we crave sweetness, some memory of home, some warm body to hold us. The final poem returns to the goat she cared for at her home with her girlfriend, the goat they kept safe from coyotes, and milked each day. She’s gathering the milk, “warm / like warm and sweet like sweet, / clean like clean.” It’s an anti-maximalist moment at the end, a closure that brings us into the space of another animal, close enough to feel the heat of its body, our breath and its breath.

Purchase Animal Like Any Other

About the Author

Tara Shea Burke is a queer poet and teacher from the Blue Ridge Mountains and Hampton Roads, Virginia. She’s a writing instructor, editor, creative coach, and yoga teacher who has taught and lived in Virginia, New Mexico, and Colorado. She believes in community building, encouragement, and practice-based living, writing, teaching, and art. She is the author of the poetry book Animal Like Any Other, from Finishing Line Press (2019). Find more about her work and www.tarasheaburke.com

Top photo: Animal Like Any Other front cover

Poetry Month Spotlight: Tracy Mishkin

Indiana Writers Center, Poem a Day Challenge, April 2020

Rachel Sahaidachny, Executive Director of the Indiana Writers Center, has shared a writing prompt each day this month. The participants post their poems in a closed Facebook group, and the responses focus on encouragement, not criticism, constructive or otherwise. I’ve appreciated the challenge to write regularly and the opportunity to think (and sometimes vent) about current events. Here are some of the prompts that worked for me and the poems that I wrote. The prompts—and my commentary—are in italics.

#4 Is there an object in your house that used to belong to someone else? Write a two-part poem. Part 1 about the object’s “before you” time. Part 2 about the object’s “now.” Try to incorporate one rhyme in each part.

When I met your mother, she was perched on your off-white couch while you sat on the matching love seat. Close to 90, she had just returned from Florida and the second husband she’d outlived to care for you during chemotherapy. When you felt like crap, you napped on that couch under heavy blankets, clutching the one on top knitted by your mom. When you felt well enough, you leaned against the big cushions, choosing poems from a lifetime of writing. I sat on the loveseat and helped you make a book. Only once I said your granddaughter will remember you with these words.

This doesn’t end with a funeral. We finished the book, you started a clinical trial for immunotherapy, and now you smile when you see the commercials for the drug that cured you on TV. I smile too, because I’m grateful, really, but sad that mild dementia is taking you away piece by piece only a few years later. You gave me the couch and love seat when you could no longer live alone. Now you’re locked down in assisted living— not like when Grandma was on a locked ward so she wouldn’t go outside and wait for the bus to New York City— but because of this damn pandemic. The staff bring trays to your door at mealtimes, and that’s it, no other human contact. Crossword puzzles have lost all appeal. I sit on the off-white couch and talk to you until the battery in your hearing aid begins to die.

#5 It’s Sunday, which means we will explore a particular form. Prompt for today is to write a Nocturne—a poem that is set in the night (usually midnight).

#6 Write a poem using anaphora. Anaphora is a technique that uses a repeated phrase to begin lines throughout the poem. It doesn’t have to begin every line.

I was annoyed with myself for not writing for three days, or so I thought…

Nocturne: Procrastination

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” -Arundhati Roy

Monday I meant to sit outside last night and write this poem. Can’t write a poem about the night in daytime, am I right? I thought the dark and cool air would birth the words. Sometimes trapped, sometimes rushing out. But I tripped over myself, never made it to the stoop. Even now, I should be doing something else.

Tuesday I meant to sit outside last night and write this poem. Excuses. Too easy to fall into my latest thrill. My great escape. Work is hard. People are dying. A man I knew died alone. Excuses.

Wednesday Same. How do I let this happen? Shame. Everything I put off. Fine. I’ll write the night poem right now. Nocturne: liminal. Imagine myself on the threshold of my house. Between dark and light. Inside and out. Neighbor and stranger. Wave to them all.

After writing the Wednesday stanza, I realized that it was only Tuesday, so I didn’t feel so bad about getting behind.

#7 Write a poem using language from a text message or email which you recently received or sent.

How are you doing? Feels like I’m surfing a wave of uncertainty

The key to surfing: convincing yourself you are not going to fall into a wave, get lost.

Don’t think about tumbling, choking on water, the board smacking your head.

Focus on the blue curve below you. It could go on forever.

#8 Pick a favorite song, or one you like, listen to it, and write.

I chose the cover of “The Sound of Silence” by Disturbed, specifically the haunting music video.

Times so hard, gotta start with happy endings, when ship has almost reached shore. Surely they’ll save the stranded people—lonely, isolated—at least ten thousand. How are they so alone when they’re together? How do they write music—parchment, fountain pen—yet never play or sing? When sailors first saw them—kneeling, hunched—they stared. Why hands and knees, captive, surrendered?

Sailors, too, came from silent lands, journeyed to the ship, alone, on foot, through flat lands, forests. Each carried an instrument, salvaged from earth or fire. Harp, guitar, piano, drum. The keys twisted, burning. They pulled them from the flames. Let the dirt run from the guitar. The sound was still true.

#9 Chose a vowel (a, e, i, o, or u) and write a 10+ line poem with words that have only that vowel in them. For your poetic terminology, a poem which excludes one or more letters is called a “lipogram.” A poem which excludes all vowels but one is called “univocalic” (from the Latin for one-voweled).

I challenged myself to write a poem using words with only the vowel U. And this happened.

Mr. Trump

Ugh, just shut up. Guru? Untruth. Humbug, numbskull. Truth. Fuck up. Sputum glut. Bunkum hub. Lustful skunk.

#11 Use the last line of one of your poems as the first line of a new poem.

I chose the last line of poem #8.

Rescue Guitar

The sound was still true despite the batter and dent. She didn’t fret. Her fingers coaxed notes around the sprung string. Like a poet writing without some common letter, improvising around absence made her better.

#14 Select 10-12 words from a poem (or from a couple poems) you admire and use them to create a new poem. Try to have a variety of word types (verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc.) in your selection.

I didn’t get inspired for #14 until I saw the prompt for #15. I chose “Notes to Myself During National Poetry Month, 2020” by Dante Di Stefano, which was published in Rattle as part of the Poets Respond feature on April 14, 2020.

I wrote down ten words from this poem and numbered them. Whenever I needed a push, I asked my husband to choose a number between 1 and 10.

#15 This is a prompt from Poets & Writers Magazine:

“Truth can be lazy because it becomes satisfied with itself, and it is often so tethered to time and space that to demand one truth can often invisibilize another’s truth,” says Natalie Diaz in “Energy,” an interview by Jacqueline Woodson in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.

“When and where does truth begin, and whose truth is it?” Think of an issue in your life that you feel conflicted over, an idea or state of being that you have long held to be true, whose solidity you have begun to question. Write a poem that attempts to demand more from this perceived truth, exploring how it entered your belief system. To whom is it tethered?”

The familiar riot in my mind. Sometimes I wish I saw the world without these painful shades of gray. Eleven years of red leaves falling, cherry blossoms tarting up the street, and still I’m juggling working for the man with working on the inside of his damn jungle. Sweating so long under this corporate canopy, I forget the sky is not beneath me. Sky, Tracy, it means above and blue, remember? Symptom of a mental pandemic: if the strings of my guitar snapped daily, I would check the obvious. A rough fret, a burred edge, even a pick too heavy for the strings. I might get hooked on playing four instead of five, but I’d know that anytime I could replace the damn thing and let my instrument sing as it was meant to. But no, me and my front row seat for the crisis of corporate America. Big surprise: slashing staffing means more rushing, more mistakes, more work, less time to think my God what have we done. Some sleep. More coffee. Letting legal addictions sprout like green weeds. Nothing to be done but tell myself Friday’s payday. Perhaps I’ll think of something money can buy to spend that precious paycheck on.

#16 Write a poem about the story of your name. Things to consider: What do you know about the source of your name? What name/nickname have you taken on and why?

Again, two prompts combined in my head and I got a poem.

#17 The cocoon is a place of transformation. What happens there is a mystery. If this time is your cocoon moment, what transformations are occurring? What might emerge? Alternatively, work with the Phoenix mythos: the burning down; out of the ash a new creature is born… rises. Maybe your poem has space for both.

Dead Name

Phoenix, must you leave your nest in ashes to be reborn? I prefer the torn cocoon, you with monarch wings. This isn’t about what I prefer, is it? Your past must be burned. You fill your nest with baby pictures, toss in every reminder you can find, even that old photo of you in a lady’s hat, which I would think would make your new self smile. This isn’t about what I think. But when the ashes cool, I will search them for a keepsake.

#18 What do you know about water?

I liked that this prompt wasn’t just “write a poem about water.” It made me think about water—and knowledge—in a different way.

What do you know about water? It runs, but it is not afraid. Rushes without hurry.

What do you fear about fire? The heat will be wasted, flames leaping.

What do you expect from earth? Rock will smash scissors, scissors will slice paper, paper will wrap rock.

What do you assume about air? It will always be there.

#20 a prompt from Jessica Reed

Reverse-engineer a poem: take a published poem that you love and remove all the nouns and verbs—all the content. You should be left with a skeleton of a poem, just a syntactic structure (you might have to remove a few adjectives or adverbs as well—whatever it takes to get to the skeleton). Now, start filling in the blanks with fresh content. The supplied syntax will guide your poem in unexpected directions. If that isn’t happening—if you’re making too much “sense,” try listing words on a separate sheet of paper and plugging them in “Mad Libs” style. You can also mine for fresh vocabulary in a book that you wouldn’t normally read, perhaps from another discipline.

The poem I chose is “Separation,” by W.S. Merwin.

Our honesty betrays us like a stream underground: cracked pavement, flooded grass.

#21 Choose a spice, herb, or flavor. Do a bit of research—does it have medicinal qualities? A history? Where does it come from? If you have some on hand, spend a bit of time smelling or tasting it, and allowing images, memories, thoughts to come up and write them down. If not, imagine the smell or taste—what does it make you think of? Can you cobble a poem out of these notes? Does one of the notes trigger a poem?

Cream of What Now?

It’s not the oldest item on my spice rack— that would be the allspice from 1997. But Cream of Tartar is the weirdest. It is no fishy sauce but an acidic powder that makes mile-high meringues and boosts the chewy tang of snickerdoodles. Mixed with vinegar, it cleans stainless steel like nobody’s business. Homemade Play-Doh would be lost without it. Video: the many benefits of cream of tartar. Watch as it stabilizes whipped cream and polishes copper. (Add lemon juice in a 1:1 mixture. Rub on, rinse off.) Herbs and spices come from plants, but cream of tartar comes from the crystalline crud that builds up inside casks as wine ferments. It’s not creamy like dairy, but think of creaming as whipping egg whites to a high foam. Are you dismayed when boiled veggies lose their color? Just a pinch of this miracle shit will help your beets stay bright. Science! Science for the win!

#22 Since it’s Earth Day, I thought we could explore ecopoetics. Ecopoetry is poetry with a strong ecological emphasis or message. Some suggested questions to ponder: How do you try to reduce your impact on the environment? Do you ever feel guilty about what, or how much, you throw away? What could you live without? Ecopoetry often uses environmental elements in the poem, pastoral or nature details. It is poetry produced as a result of an environment and humans in the environment.

#23 Docupoetry is poetry created out of primary source materials such as news articles, interviews, medical records, diaries, court transcripts, and other public records. Either utilize direct lines from a source (or more) and rearrange them, interpret meaning through your own words, or use a mix of both approaches.

There’s poetry online. I mean poetic language in unexpected places. For my spice poem, I googled “list of spices” so that I could have a bunch to choose from. I read a few articles about cream of tartar, and all of them had some terrific turns of phrase. I ended up copying several things right into the poem. And today we’re writing docupoetry! I wasn’t feeling the eco-poem yesterday, but today’s prompt reminded me of Holly Haworth’s March 2020 essay “Undefined Waters,” which has some moving thoughts on language and our environment—as a result of Trump’s recent gutting of the Clean Water Act of 1972.

It’s easy—too easy—to be seduced by language, to stop thinking critically and just love the sound of words.

Rill and runnel. I used to think of creeks and brooks when I saw those words. But a rill is something more specific: an ephemeral stream, a trickle of water that springs up after heavy rain.

Once rills were all over the poetry map, sonorous, easy to rhyme. Mismanaged agriculture causes most rills today. Sliding hillsides, preventable erosion. A gully is an overgrown rill.

Holly Haworth wrote about the ephemeral streams and semi-permanent puddles that grace her land in Georgia during winter rains. Rills and runnels as they were meant to be, yet may not be for long.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 protects waters, but Trump & Friends have tightened that definition, excluding headwater streams and wetlands. Our waters will burn again, said an attorney, referring to the 1969 fire on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River.

#24 choose a cliché and write a poem which makes it fresh

I couldn’t resist starting with Shakespeare’s sonnet 18, which challenges the love clichés of his time.

Poem in which My Husband Looks a Bit Lame in Comparison to Today’s Weather

Shall I compare you to a warm spring day during a pandemic? You’re cute, but wind and sun and sky are vital to my mental health. Redbuds are my favorite flowering trees— The contrast of pinkish-purple flowers against dark bark, especially after rainfall, rocks my world. I smile when you waggle your eyebrows at me, but a warm and windy day inspires me to write after something of a drought. To be fair, I’ve written many poems because of you, but mostly to express frustration. Nature’s working hard. Even the phlox is exerting itself, though it appears to be lazing around like ground cover. You worked six hours today, but I don’t think you’ll clean the litterbox. You could surprise me, though, like an unpromising forecast that turns into a lovely day, or a curve flattened by a Republican governor who’s quick close the state—so much better for being unexpected.

About Tracy Mishkin

Tracy Mishkin is a call center veteran with a PhD and a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Butler University.  She is the author of three chapbooks, I Almost Didn’t Make It to McDonald’s (Finishing Line Press, 2014), The Night I Quit Flossing (Five Oaks Press, 2016), and This Is Still Life (Brain Mill Press, 2018). She been nominated twice for a Pushcart — both times by Parody — and published in Raleigh Review and Rat’s Ass Review.

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

For this year’s National Poetry Month at BMP Voices, we seek to celebrate the ways in which we’re interconnected — highlighting community, gratitude, and the ways in which creativity redounds upon itself, fed by collective energy and goodwill. Our fee-free contest is open to all styles and forms of poetry, with an eye toward our mission of discovering voices that are immediate, immersive, and urgent. Poems inspired by the work of others are welcome. We also welcome poems written to other poems or poets.

Poetry Month Spotlight: David Southward

Message in a Bottle

As a kid in the 1970s, I was addicted to reruns of ’60s sitcoms. Shows like Bewitched, The Flying Nun, and most especially I Dream of Jeannie featured magical women whose mischievous powers seemed rooted in their femininity. The men they loved were always trying to control or suppress these powers. A queer boy like me could identify with the predicament of having to hide one’s sexual magic.

Jeannie’s hiding place was her bottle. An ornate Arabian decanter housing her miniaturized bedchamber, its interior was opulent yet intimate—a rich Orientalist fantasy of velvet cushions and curvaceous walls. Whenever Jeannie turned into smoke to enter the bottle’s narrow opening, I desperately wanted to follow. Her magenta lounge looked so chic and fun, so different from my drab suburban world, so safe from judgmental eyes.

I drew countless pictures of Jeannie’s bottle in a stenographer’s notebook, always adding slight variations to its design. (I could never get a close enough look at its details on our black-and-white Zenith). The bottle became my talisman: a jewel-toned objet d’art with mysterious intricacies, whose erotic significance I must have intuited, so obsessively did my imagination return to its suggestive shape.

In a way, those drawings were my first poems. They were early attempts to share the instinct for beauty, love of form, and earnest playfulness that continue to motivate my writing. I want every poem to become a little world of layered meanings for its reader—a decorous, sparkling haven from which to contemplate even painful realities. There, taking refuge from the moral police, my imaginary reader and I briefly come together through the magic of words—in the one theater where every wish can be granted.

I’ve chosen three poems from my new collection, Bachelor’s Buttons (Kelsay Books 2020), to represent both my formal and free-verse moods. “Macramé” looks back to a weaving fad that every kid of the ’70s remembers; my math-teacher father quickly became something of a master at it. “Nipples of Men” celebrates the diversity and absurdity of those overlooked organs. And “Working (It) Out with Teena Marie,” a gym reverie in terza rima, pays homage to a pop/R&B legend who left us too soon—and whose signature hit made an indelible mark on my teenage psyche.

Macramé

Mom enrolledin an evening class,botched a butterfly on wood blockand muscled throughhoursof gnarled yarndangling from a driftwood stake,before giving up.But you,Dad, discoveredyou had a knack for macramé.Looping her leftoverjuteround a hookin the ceiling, you braided coarsehelixes that split—taperinginto bored cornersof mahogany (shelves for our unlitincense and pottedDieffenbachia);then tied it all togetherwith a graduate’s tassel. Your multilevelEiffels filled our housewith mathdone strictly for pleasure.From the carpet I salvaged scrapsto make a nooseor lasso.

Nipples of Men

Not quite titsor teats, just pectoral pointsof interest: a torso’s eyescaught staringat the beach; pinpricksdisturbing a taut Oxford’scotton; coppery beaconsappearing through sheer Ts.Aureoles varyinglike fingerprints—in diameterfrom clamshell to dime, in tintfrom plum to pink—each with its own punch codeof goosebumps. Sensitiveto the barest hintsof coolness in bloodor air flow, they shrivellike witches in water, hibernatein whorls of hair. Whether hubsof ecstasy or indifference, bashful paps or rubbery dugs—pierced, thickas toothpaste—they areunmistakably a man’smost naked part. Impractical glands, sore remindersof what he can’t give,they are the clenched petalsof him—harmless and endearingas embarrassmentshe pretendsaren’t happening.

Working (It) Out with Teena Marie

She whoops into my ears; the whole gym whirls.I turn the volume up to shush the clinkof my elliptical machine. Like joyous squirrels

her scatted oohs and shoop-pops leap in syncwith youthful biorhythms now gone slack.And she’s been dead how long? Five years, I think,

letting the iPod’s witchcraft take me backto summers in Ft. Myers: bored, sixteen,racing my bike down streets whose hot shellac

exuded waves of harsh, phenolic steam.Clipped to my shorts, a tape player filled my headwith pop sensations. Warnings to come clean

pursued me through desire’s infrared.I saw the manly shadows moving nearer;I pounded harder, like a thoroughbred.

These boys who curl their biceps in the mirror:what are they after? Strength won’t make them freerpullers of Beauty’s drawstring. Do they fear her

because they sense how good it feels to be her?Fanned by an AC vent, I bounce and hurtlepast them through time—a stationary skier

for whom the trails of memory unfurlthis chorus, like a plaintive reprimand:I just want to be your lovergirl.

About David Southward

David Southward teaches in the Honors College at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His chapbook, Apocrypha (Wipf & Stock 2018), reimagines the life of Jesus in a series of sonnets. Bachelor’s Buttons (Kelsay Books 2020) is his first collection. David lives in Milwaukee with his husband, Geoff. Read more at davidsouthward.com.

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Bachelor’s Buttons available at:

Boswell Book Co. in Milwaukee | Kelsay Books | Amazon

Apocrypha available at:

Wipf & Stock | Amazon

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

For this year’s National Poetry Month at BMP Voices, we seek to celebrate the ways in which we’re interconnected — highlighting community, gratitude, and the ways in which creativity redounds upon itself, fed by collective energy and goodwill. Our fee-free contest is open to all styles and forms of poetry, with an eye toward our mission of discovering voices that are immediate, immersive, and urgent. Poems inspired by the work of others are welcome. We also welcome poems written to other poems or poets.

Poetry Month Spotlight: Rita Feinstein

The Poetics of Joy

I’m half-asleep in the Bishop’s Garden on the south side of the Washington National Cathedral. The 3 p.m. light bathes the limestone in gold, and the flowerbeds pulse with color. My husband and I sit on a bench in direct sunlight, our hound mix sprawled at our feet. I close my eyes and marvel at how good I feel—not thirsty, not hungry, not anxious to cross something off my to-do list.

I open my eyes again and see an elderly couple sitting on a nearby bench. I’m reminded of the healing garden I could see from my fourth-floor hospital room last June. I was never allowed to visit; the nurse said I didn’t have enough time, but it was another couple hours before the doctor discharged me.

These dark memories are mildly sickening. The garden has its own powerful influence, though. It pours another wave of sunshine and flower-fragrance over my head, and now I wonder why I bother dwelling on negative thoughts at all.

Because I’m a poet, that’s why. On some level, I’ve always believed that poetry is the alchemical practice of transmuting trauma into art. Once, when I was hallucinating from pain, I felt a small thrill at this new writing material. When I was sunken into my hospital bed, I typed rhyming phrases into my Notes app with the hand that wasn’t encumbered by an IV. Poetry has gotten me through an eating disorder and a toxic relationship, and at some point I started worrying that once the trauma dried up, the poetry would too.

I wonder why I bother dwelling on negative thoughts at all.Because I’m a poet, that’s why. On some level, I’ve always believed that poetry is the alchemical practice of transmuting trauma into art.

I finished processing my eating disorder when I was nineteen, but I kept writing about it for years afterward. There was no urgency, no catharsis, in these newer poems. I had convinced myself this is what my audience wanted, and yes, some of these poems were published, but at some point it felt disingenuous to continue writing them.

One night in grad school, in the name of pure escapism, I wrote something I had no intention of submitting to workshop. It was the stuff of YA fantasy novels—a selkie-hunting pirate king, a misanthropic bad boy, a star-crossed romance. The first draft was messy and overstuffed. “Is this more than one poem?” I asked my roommate. “Is this two poems? Is this forty poems?” Forty-eight, to be exact. It was the first poem in what would end up becoming my thesis manuscript.

Writing my thesis was an exercise in pure joy. Instead of scrounging for trauma crumbs, I wrote a sprawling ode to everything I love—dragons and wolves, fairytales and mythology, Labyrinth and Outlander. After wasting so much time and emotional energy laboring over poems that didn’t want to be written, I had finally (re)discovered my voice.

Writing my thesis was an exercise in pure joy. Instead of scrounging for trauma crumbs, I wrote a sprawling ode to everything I love—dragons and wolves, fairytales and mythology, Labyrinth and Outlander.

Three years later, I got sick. First I lost my appetite, then I came down with a fever that wouldn’t break, and it was only when I passed out at the bus stop that I acknowledged something was wrong. Three hospital-bound days later, the something had a name. Crohn’s Disease. A very un-glamorous inflammation of the terminal ileum, a body part I didn’t even know I had.

It was a couple months before I was well enough to write again. Then, one day, the words started pouring out of me. I channeled all my frustration into a 2,000-word story, and I was done. The whole process was as straightforward as turning a faucet on and off.

Skeptical that I had done enough processing, I decided to write a poetry chapbook about my illness. The poems didn’t come easily. Recently, I gave one of them to my writing group. On a craft level, we had a very productive discussion. On an emotional level, I felt like I was back in the colonoscopy room.

It’s only now, in the Bishop’s Garden, that I remember what I somehow forgot—poems can be joyful. No one is forcing me to re-live painful memories every time I open my notebook. I don’t have to compromise my vision to please an imaginary audience.

No more hospital poems. From now on, it’s all dragons and goblin kings.

About Rita Feinstein

Rita Feinstein is a DC-based writer and teacher. Her work has appeared in Grist, Willow Springs, and Sugar House, among other publications, and has been nominated for Best of the Net and Best New Poets. She received her MFA from Oregon State University.

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BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

For this year’s National Poetry Month at BMP Voices, we seek to celebrate the ways in which we’re interconnected — highlighting community, gratitude, and the ways in which creativity redounds upon itself, fed by collective energy and goodwill. Our fee-free contest is open to all styles and forms of poetry, with an eye toward our mission of discovering voices that are immediate, immersive, and urgent. Poems inspired by the work of others are welcome. We also welcome poems written to other poems or poets.

So Much of a Mother Is Liquid

In the second poem of Callista Buchen’s new collection from Black Lawrence press, the phrase “clouds made of mouths” reminds me why I love poetry—why I can’t help but read it aloud, repeating moments like that over and over.

It first happened with the phrase “a caught moth” from Margaret Atwood’s “The Woman Who Could Not Live with Her Faulty Heart.” I’m a sucker for assonance, the soft echo of vowels that expand on the tongue, weighting the palate. A few pages later in Buchen’s book, I’m reminded why I love prose poetry. In the densely stacked paragraphs, images and lines swim up out of some ether for the reader to find. Without the neutral space of the page as guide, readers themselves are searchers, seekers. I find “this grounding in proximity”—in Part I of a book that traces a story of mothers: daughters-who-become-mothers, mothers-who-grieve, mothers-who-become-mothers-again-but-carry-their-grief-with-them-as-they-mother.

The structure and language of Buchen’s collection establishes both a chronology of a specific story and a tangling of this chronology. Recurring metaphors include liquid (water, milk), construction (road, cement), and various threats. The second poem in each section has the same title, “Flashes,” and its own particular form—discrete lines separated by plenty of white space. The first few iterations of this poem note dangers and potential safe spaces—like a description of a basement during a weather drill, or a mother’s worries and her constant vigil. Pronouns lace throughout the collection, an ever-present “you” that can mean any mother. Woman is italicized: Woman. Mother is too. There is an imperative voice addressing readers.

Perhaps if you are a mother, you do not need to know the story, any exact parameters, to know what kind of grief Buchen delineates in certain of these poems. Perhaps the dedication “For caregivers and those who nurture them…” is enough. Perhaps by the first line in the first poem, “Here are the wings we imagine, women, printed in blood, muscle…” you are already halfway into some ur-story, or some memory-place. 

The poem “Storytelling” makes this conflation of mothers explicit through the children’s book Blueberries for Sal. Who else remembers this book? Is it just me?—I read it to the children I cared for year after year, can picture it now. “Always the same story, the single color illustrations, me reading, my mother reading, her mother reading. What it means to be innocent.” Innocence can mean so many things, but here, at this moment in the collection, the poem appears amid poems about the loss of a baby, a birth. In the poem “Loss,” one of the mothers (I think of all the speakers as mothers by now) says, “I am grief. I am double and half [ . . .] I can be a coffin.” Immediately following that poem is “Kinds of Trucks,” which trucks in construction metaphors (hard hats and steel-toed boots and cement—all about building and safety and protection), and the mother writes, “Somewhere, a woman plans an arboretum, thinks, this morning I am domestic, this afternoon I am wild.”

One of the central poems in Look Look Look is “Metaphysics”—a short poem that encapsulates much of the poems’ multilayered depictions of motherhood. Aside from the second poem of each section, it’s also one of the few lineated poems. Because it so deftly captures the conflict at the center of the collection, it’s worth quoting in full:

Our most ambitious work: mother as birthplace, where woman becomes location.

Someone singing: rejoice! A body in service, a graft here, a graft there.

Call and response: how she (nearly) disappears inside ritual and imprint.

Let’s situate: Where were you born?

In a (nearly) different life, the child stands between her parents: a record, a stain, a

            photograph of the future.

Contextualize: There, says the child, pointing toward her mother, home.

Later, how (nearly) altered: child becomes mother, the X on a map.

Call and response: why didn’t you warn me?

A prayer: but who would believe it? says the mother, and turns on the music.

To cast out from this poem, mother(ing) as work/location/disappearance figures heavily. Mother as seen by child, as connected to child, as once-child. The call and response sings throughout Buchen’s poems: the daughter becomes a mother and has a daughter. How much should she tell and when? And would she have listened anyway?

Perhaps if you are a mother, you do not need to know the story, any exact parameters, to know what kind of grief Buchen delineates in certain of these poems. Perhaps the dedication “For caregivers and those who nurture them . . .” is enough. Perhaps by the first line in the first poem, “Here are the wings we imagine, women, printed in blood, muscle . . .” you are already halfway into some ur-story, or some memory-place. You understand the story begun from this early scene: when “women sit in a circle, nursing. They could be knitting, could be planning a war.” As a not-mother, though, there were many things here I did not know—and for me, poetry has always been one of the ways I come to know things: through its sounds, and uncommon language, and juxtaposition of raw and lush. In “Remnants,” the mother tells how when filling out forms “even at the optometrist’s,” the number of pregnancies and the number of live births don’t match. “The third child that is the second child, any day now. She smiles like people do when they say that.”

If the collection has a kind of dénouement, it is the mapping of the mother’s body after the birth of the third-child-who-is-the-second-child, the way the title poem, “Look Look Look,” invokes this body:

Later, I read that the cells of children move through the placenta, latch on to the mother’s

lungs, liver, brain, her skin. The daughter’s cells, the cells of the new baby, the cells

of the baby that was lost. All the people of this body. A fissure leads to fog.

In “Quick Change,” the mother writes about stored bodies she keeps around the house—in the coat closet, under the bed, in the garage. She calls them “the spares” and declares it “better this way.” In poems in the last section, the mother writes about the dark line down her belly, how it doesn’t fade, separated muscles, “the distance between wrecked and whole.” The poem goes meta, referencing itself, what will and won’t work as a metaphor. It ends with “The body as a poem, what won’t grow back.”

Buy the Book

About the Author

Callista Buchen is the author of Look Look Look (Black Lawrence Press, 2019) and the chapbooks Double-Mouthed (dancing girl press, 2016) and The Bloody Planet (Black Lawrence Press, 2015). Her work appears in Harpur Palate, Puerto del Sol, Fourteen Hills, and many other journals, and she is the winner of DIAGRAM’s essay contest. She teaches at Franklin College in Indiana, where she directs the visiting writers reading series and advises the student literary journal.

Top photo by Becky Phan on Unsplash

#SaferAtHome or #AloneTogether Reading: Poetry When We’re Craving Proximity

I was introduced to Richard Siken through Rebecca Hazelton’s article “Learning the Poetic Line: How Line Breaks Shape Meaning.” In it, she includes some long lines from Siken’s poem “Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out” as an example of end-stopped lines satisfying and furthering desire. Reading just those few lines made me want to read the entire poem; reading the entire poem made me want to read it aloud; reading it aloud made me want to read it aloud for an audience—and so on.

When, early in March, we began to spend most of our time apart—in our respective homes, in front of computer screens instead of people, texting and calling to connect virtually rather than face-to-face—I ordered novels and short story collections and poetry to feed the part of myself that missed friends, family, colleagues, and students. I tried to keep a schedule for the first few weeks, and it included live poetry readings in the quiet of my home, my dog attentive beside me. The books I lingered over, reading and re-reading, were poems that spoke of touch, vulnerability, bodies that comfort and confuse, pain that rises in words on the page and that, in a deft poet’s tongue, forces us to see the world in its trauma and longing. Those were Richard Siken’s first collection, Crush, and the excellent anthology edited by Cam Awkward-Rich and sam sax, The Dead Animal Handbook.

Crush begins with the poem “Scheherazade”—the title invokes that story that encompasses all stories, the story that keeps us alive. Its final lines are: “Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us. / These our bodies, possessed by light. / Tell me we’ll never get used to it.” In its beginning, this book of poems points to the dangers of desire, and the way desire can save. What draws me to Siken’s work is the long lines, and how they refuse the limits of the page. They range and ramble, as if any constraint—other than the speaker’s voice—is to be shed whenever useful. Within stanzas (although not traditional stanzas) the logical connections between content and imagery prove fundamentally useless as well. This too makes sense—those constrictions would shackle the poems. In these poems about desire (and sometimes the destruction inherent in desire) what does it matter if there’s a pattern to where the mind goes—if the apple has much to do with the windowpane? Or if the bodies being pulled out of the lake make much sense in the poem that ends with “bodies, possessed by light”? Each poem is both utterly inscrutable (being painfully personal) and ultimately universal (speaking to the unknowable we’ve each known if we’ve known the) experience of incendiary desire.

There are so many poems that must be read aloud here: “Dirty Valentine” makes its rounds regularly on social media—inhabit its I’s, and you’s, and we’s. In “Little Beast,” the speaker claims a space for himself, invoking the everyday domestic:

The long prose poem “You Are Jeff” is a masterpiece. It imagines, alternately, different Jeffs. There are twins named Jeff—riding motorbikes “shiny red” and both with “perfect teeth, dark hair, soft hands.” They are options, these Jeffs. “The one in front will want to take you apart, and slowly [ . . .] The other brother only wants to stitch you back together [ . . .] Do not choose sides yet.” In later sections, you are one of the Jeffs, on the motorbike, and you’re either coming up a hairpin turn or just beyond it. In another, “You are playing cards with three Jeffs. One is your father, one is your brother, and the other is your current boyfriend. All of them have seen you naked and heard you talking in your sleep.” In another, you are without any Jeffs, but there is an empty space next to you, and in the poem—after all those Jeffs—the reader feels that emptiness, palpable.

In the penultimate section of the poem, we’re back on the side of the road. There have been Jeffs everywhere—some a comfort, some a riddle, some a menace, some a part of the speaker, some a faint outline barely knowable. On the side of the road are motorbikes, and Jeffs, God and the Devil, and spaces between them. “Two of these Jeffs are windows, and two of these Jeffs are doors, and all of these Jeffs are trying to tell you something.” The poem ends, “You’re in a car with a beautiful boy . . .” and the speaker and the boy love each other, but neither will say it. “ . . . he reaches over and he touches you, like a prayer for which no words exist, and you feel your heart taking root in your body, like you’ve discovered something you don’t even have a name for.”

I think what keeps me returning to Siken’s poems is the mix of the passion, sometimes mad-rush of the lines, with the juxtaposition of crystalline transcendent imagery right next to the very human, almost mundane. It’s there in that first poem I read. “Love always wakes the dragon and suddenly / flames everywhere. / I can tell already you think I’m the dragon.” (Okay, I understand this voice—allusion and undercutting.) And then—“And yes, I swallow / glass, but that comes later. / And the part where I push you flush against the wall . . .” (Confessional, but pointed.) But a little later, “The entire history of human desire takes about seventy minutes to tell. / Unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of time. / Forget the dragon, / leave the gun on the table, this has nothing to do with happiness.” Siken’s honesty, in the poem’s language, in lines dictated by breath, speak to me in these times of distance and isolation. I want poems that reach out like that, palpable.

The anthology The Dead Animal Handbook, from University of Hell Press, takes a cue from this kind of poetry too, utilizing the imagery of animals—dead and gone—to foreground our humanity, or lack of it. In the introduction, editors Cam Awkward-Rich and sam sax write, “Rather than simply rejecting animality in order to claim humanity, many of these poems embrace the animal as a way of understanding the racialized, gendered, or sexual self, or in order to model forms of resistance.” Organized, in part, around the kinds of animal imagery in the poems (from birds, to fish, cats or dogs, or cattle), the included names are a wide selection of American poets—including important black and brown poets, and queer poets—as the editors put it, the “not straightwhitemen” of contemporary literature. Additionally, there’s a good mix of award-winning and well-known poets, alongside less-well-known poets—and since the collection came out in 2017, several contributors have become much more prominent.

A number of the poems juxtapose animal bodies with human bodies, the treatment and handling of different kinds of bodies to sharpen those distinctions. Two that stood out for me were Danez Smith’s “Juxtaposing the Road Kill & My Body” and Deborah A. Miranda’s “Deer.” In both, it’s the aftermath—the final lines of the poems—that deliver their lingering power, their afterimage that demonstrates a poem’s power to nurture as it bears evidence of (attempted) destruction. In Smith’s poem, short and slight stanzas have each captured “the difference”—the difference between the speaker and the deer—the difference between being hit by a car and a rape. Each of these is brutal, some more so because of their forthrightness, and the final stanza contains “A man, emptied of his voice / & drawers ruined & sweet with grenadine, / is called a myth or a bitch or not a man at all.” The irony of this powerful voice invoking the idea of voicelessness. Miranda’s poem contrasts an out-of-season kill, furtively butchered, that “all winter long we’ll eat [ . . ] / in secret.” The speaker for “years afterward” visited “the stained floor” in the barn. In the final (almost separate) stanza, she writes: “I’ve been taken like that: / without thanks, without a prayer, by hands / that didn’t touch me the way a gift should be touched, / knives that slid beneath my skin out of season / and found only flesh, only blood.”

Not all the poems in the anthology catalogue trauma—there are also mini-manifestos here. Oliver Bendorf’s “Precipice” declares, “I don’t farm for milk. I farm for the front row / seat to things living and dying.” In “The Dogs and I Walked Our Woods,” by Gretchen Primack, there’s a grisly “monument to domination” in the woods—two coyotes killed and displayed—and the speaker swears that if she had a child who might suffer to see such a thing, or be gladdened to see such a thing, or just keep walking, “I could not bear / it, so I will not bear one.” There is also some dark humor, a wry moment of recognition, clear-eyed, the way these poets see the world, like Meg Freitag’s “Promenade A Deux”:

The collection is also an example of fine editing; the juxtaposition and sequencing of poems deepen their resonances with each other, leading to a between-the-pages conversation. One of the most startling is between Dominique Christina’s “Hunger” (on page 75) and Erich Haygun’s “Love Is Like Walking the Dog” (on 76). In the latter, dog-walking is an extended metaphor for maintaining a relationship, where “picking up shit” is evidence of care and maintenance. The final line speaks of a relationship that’s outlived its usefulness, or maybe one where there’s no love or regard; but the speaker goes on cleaning up, “even if the dog is dead.” The poem on the preceding page tells of the beating and destruction of a dog, one that wouldn’t stop howling. A few well-placed words detail killing the dog, “killing and killing the siren call of want. / simple.” The dog wouldn’t stop, and the speaker couldn’t take it anymore, “I’m the one who is hungry bitch. ME.”

Um. I don’t know what to do with the above except to tell you I went back and re-read those two poems together several times. (I had already stopped reading aloud to the dog next to me on the couch—it seemed unkind.) I’m in awe of words that stop me, make me stare ahead unfocused, make me roll my tongue in my mouth to try to discern the power of language and how it comes. Maybe the dog is dead. Maybe love is doing things anyway. Maybe sometimes you have to kill the dog. Maybe when I see the bodies pulled out of the lake I think of your body, and tenderness, and the ultimate vulnerability of lying with you and loving you. Maybe I’m the dragon. Okay, I’m not the dragon, but maybe I want to be. Okay, maybe I just want to be able to write like these poets, or to find these poems and be able to fit them into a book and know how they’ll reach someone sitting on a couch in Central Wisconsin, spooning their mastiff-mix, wanting and wishing that sometime soon we’ll be able to touch each other again and maybe feel something other than fear and emptiness inside, paralyzed because we don’t know what to do. I guess maybe I’d just like you to read some of these poems. In the final poem of Crush, “Snow and Dirty Rain,” there are these lines:

Because we’re all looking for the story that’ll save us, the poem to keep us alive.

Top photo by Andrew Neel from Pexels