Good Writing Break: Poems by Jeffrey Skinner and Thomas Sayers Ellis

I just got through reading Dave Cullen’s Columbine.  An excellent book, packed with information about the event I didn’t know, how investigators painstakingly pieced together what happened inside the school, how the media completely misinterpreted the motives behind the tragedy (with the help of a few dumbass officials with access to the press), and how certain details about the police response were (surprise, surprise!) covered up.  Despite how good it is, or maybe because of it, the experience of reading Cullen’s book left sore spots on my psyche.  Surprised as I am that this happened, I had nightmares.  I don’t remember the last time a book has affected me in my sleep.

Keeping in mind my emotions have been raw as hamburger meat lately, I wanted to highlight a couple of beautiful, soul-mending poems I stumbled across in the past week.  The text of the first one I quote in full from this essay on “expansive poetry”; the piece itself is from Jeffrey Skinner’s sequence “Sonnets to My Daughters, 20 Years into the Future” (published in A Guide to Forgetting, 1988).  Tragically, the problems the speaker struggles with are as relevant now as they were 26 years ago:

In the news today, a woman in fatigues
let loose an automatic rifle in a shopping mall.
Three dead, seven wounded. By now you’ll
know, have seen a thousand images of disease,
cruelty, death in rags and formal dress,
failed negotiations, husband, child, wife beatings–
the endless catalog of humans who’ve so lost
the way, they tease evil in, thinking it unboring.
It is boring. Weil, Merton, a few others
were right–good is the only real surprise.
Do you love movies? I do, especially comedies.
One favorite moment: a bum in a Marx Brothers
film asks for a dime to buy a cup of coffee.
Harpo opens his coat, pulls out a cup, steaming.

There’s so much chaos in this sonnet, it’s hard to see the structure.  But structure is there (14 lines, slant end-rhymes, the volta), and it makes the pieces of the shattered form all the more meaningful.  (“Weil, Merton, a few others / were right–good is the only real surprise.”  Turns out, in the end, it is.  Hallelujah.)*

The second poem, “Vernacular Owl,” by Thomas Sayers Ellis, is an epic elegy, if there is such a thing.  (Whatever the case, I’m sure the poet doesn’t care.)

(Full disclosure: I took a workshop with Ellis in 2006.  His poetic genius is like nothing I’ve ever seen.)

“Vernacular Owl” is featured in Poetry magazine’s July/August 2014 issue, which is part of the ultra-prestigious poetryfoundation.org web site.  When I pulled up Ellis’s piece, a Poetry Foundation widget appeared beside the text, encouraging me to browse the archives for (and this is 100% true) “Poems about Pets.”  A portrait of Shakespeare (oh, dear God…) is emblazoned over the category heading.

Ellis’s poem is a tribute to Amiri Bakara.

I recommend pondering the complete and utter inappropriateness of the Poetry Foundation’s browsing “suggestion” later, because Ellis’s work is way too good to miss.  His lines are musical, playful, iconoclastic, and inspired.  They masterfully convey Bakara and say more than that as well.  The framing story is of life aboard Noah’s ark, and the long poem’s refrain, “Somebody had to clean that shit up,” is priceless.  I’m thinking about sewing it into a decorative sampler and giving it to my mother for her next birthday.  Seriously.  (Those of you who know my mom know how serious I am.)

I could go on for several more pages and not do this poem justice.  So just go read it and see what I’m talking about.  You won’t be disappointed.

*Thanks to Karen Craigo, formerly the poetry editor of Mid-American Review, for introducing me to Jeffrey Skinner’s work!

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