Exceptional Poetry From Around the Web: October 2023
And happy early Halloween. When this is published, I’ll probably be traveling already –– I have two back-to-back academic conferences from the end of this month to the beginning of November, and am particularly excited to have the opportunity to speak to attendees about reading, writing, and curating Mad poetry and poetics. I hope that wherever you are, you have space to think and discuss the poems and practices that matter most to you. Consider roping a few friends or colleagues into a conversation or two. Who knows, they may even like it!
In addition to the always-chugging machine of academia, this October has also played host to a number of painful events, most pressingly, Israel’s brutal attacks on civilians ghettoed in Gaza, its wanton destruction of homes and hospitals, and its deadly deprivation of electricity, internet, water, and other urgent necessities to the Palestinian people. Disabled, elderly, and very young people comprise the majority of these deaths. In the face of these genocidal actions, silence is not an option.
I have chosen a poem by Palestinian poet George Abraham to open this Exceptional Poetry feature. As poets, we have the power to intervene in the “commonsensical” realities that facilitate global, longstanding systems of oppression. I urge all of you not only to read, watch, and share the vital work of Palestinian creatives, but to be vocal in solidarity with Palestinian liberation, and, if you can, lend your monetary support as well. For fellow Jews who are looking for more information, organizing opportunities, and camaraderie, I urge you to follow Jews Against White Supremacy and Jewish Voice for Peace. For everyone: get out, get organized, and find solace in each other.
by George Abraham in POETRY.
In this poem, Abraham illustrates the conditions of violence –– both material and epistemic –– to which colonized people are subjected. Abraham writes as a Palestinian of a generations-long occupation that has disrupted lives, languages, and families, including their own. Under a series of conditions, a fractal poem thus takes shape:
in the possibility
of syntax in a tense
of laughter against the folds
of a wing against the heaven
of arms against the drone
of my imagination or any
pastoral of despite
Here, Abraham takes wry aim at the narratives of individualized overcoming that so frequently rest upon the shoulders of marginalized people –– the belief, that is, that a distinctly american “pastoral of despite” (despite the odds, despite the barriers) will be enough to overcome the specter of the drone, a traumatic, sonic object wedged at the back of the poet’s mind.
Indeed, the power of these images of “overcoming” –– and the importance of resistance to them, take shape as the poem goes on, turning to the speaker’s father, a nameless, capitalized “He” whose cries of anguish constitute the genesis of the speaker themself. The strength and suffering of the father, whose resonance is greatest on his deathbed, forces the speaker to confront their own needs, their own determination to resist the violent, untenable conditions that invented their father’s pain. No longer the “infant […] in that drowning” that displaced their family, the speaker is their dying father’s keeper, holding he and his dreams close amid his final breaths.
He rises & I rise
with Him He’s resting now He’s resting
in that rising
Roles now reversed, the speaker takes up the mantle of care, not only for his father but for the memories he carries, the future whose possibility stands beyond the shadow of unspeakable grief. This is a Gramscian variety of hope: a pessimism of the intellect and an optimism of the will, a willingness to use the imagination as a crowbar to pry open the jaw of a liberated future. The speaker concludes the poem calling out to their father:
I am waiting ya Baba
I am waiting
for the fall
Abraham’s other writing on Palestinian poetics in the face of Israeli settler-colonialism is vital to understanding this work, and broader contemporary efforts at decolonization. One of my favorites is their craft essay, Teaching Poetry in the Palestinian Apocalypse.
by Mickie Kennedy in The Offing
Kennedy’s poem is surprising and sinister, and from its first lines, flagrantly defies readers’ expectations. “My mother smokes camels,” asserts the speaker, “/ The animal, not the cigarettes.” These two definitive sentences, each ending with a period, depict the mother not as a caring figure, but as a point of wildness amid an otherwise domesticated landscape; she not only slaughters but “sweeps the entrails and organs into buckets /she empties in the neighbor’s yard.”
In the second stanza, we see a mother’s willingness to reach inside death itself and emerge with nourishment, a willingness to create destruction in order to sustain life. Yet this new image is not presented in contrast to her brutality, but as an extension of it: like a bear before her young, this mother destroys enemy-hauntings, urging her child to “Eat before / the camel’s ghost comes back.” Dancing perpetually between generosity and selfishness, “thrashing” kindness and abject cruelty, Kennedy depicts motherhood with uncompromisingly vicious urgency, as a practice of violent love and of loving violence.
by Robin Gow in The Plentitudes
A simplistic view of this poem may understand it as this month’s “Halloween” entry, but a peak beneath the surface text opens up a far wider expanse of grief, longing, and recursive hauntology than is visible at first glance. “graveyard,” though written in lowercase throughout the text, is not merely a place but a character, a formless phenomenon that in/affects all that it contacts. graveyard, the speaker notes, constitutes apartments, fridges, crevices, floors; intervening into the actions of ghostly occupants with surreal results.
Here, the living human is not only decentered, but deliberately devalued. Insects and rot gain agency, as do the dead: we learn that the myriad graveyards this poem cites –– “neon graveyard. lover graveyard. gas station graveyard” among others –– facilitate both memory and a grim, Instagram-mediated social landscape.
As a poem, “graveyard” compels the reader to think about the event of death not as a conclusion but an often-torturous process of abjection and subsequent return. After all, as the ambulance carries a dead neighbor away, flashing “graveyard lights,” our speaker finds no peace. Rather, they are entombed by the poem itself, concluding: “i scrolled in my graveyard. then, slept in my graveyard.”
by Kaitlyn Airy in Poetry Online
In “Against Positivism,” we wind our ways through the epistemological forests that emerge when we leave “objective truths” behind. We enter the poem disoriented, following Airy’s call –– or challenge –– to abandon the existing lenses through which we view the world:
It’s hard to leave your historical epoch
You might instead surrender to the liminal fields
a short while
Rather, the poem is a site / the sight of Madness, specifically, the “misguided whimsy” whose “symptoms” interlocutors attempt, in vain, to track.
Soon, what becomes clear is what many poets know intuitively: that poems themselves are portals of resistance to positivistic logic, calling into question narratives of progress that allow commodities to reign supreme over “resources,” and sensical “solutions” to lord over the social conditions that incited their challenges:
Take this table: all tables
are covetous of the forest
from which they came
The poem, then, neither ends nor concludes. The poem does not seek correctness, and words disrupt the garden of settled knowledge, the linear path of “progress.” Rather, it finds hope in the illegible, fugitive spaces that leave the destructive logics of capitalism behind.
Thank you all for reading, and I hope you’re taking care as best you can during this chaotic time. Find solace in poetry and collective action. Don’t give up.
[sarah] Cavar is a PhD candidate and transMad writer-about-town. Their debut novel, Failure to Comply, is forthcoming with featherproof books (2024). In addition to being an associate editor at Frontier Poetry, Cavar is editor-in-chief of manywor(l)ds.place, and they have had work published in CRAFT Literary, Split Lip Magazine, Electric Lit, and elsewhere. More at www.cavar.club, @cavar on BlueSky, and @cavarsarah on twitter.