In December, I posted a two-part essay by Abenaki poet Carol Bachofner here and here. In this piece, she redefines her artistic identity. Today I am sharing my review of her 4th poetry collection, Native Moons, Native Days.
These lovely poems explore and illuminate the life stories of the Abenaki, both past and present. They begin as lyric poems, but the singular first-person perspective doesn’t insist on itself as a lone entity. Rather, the view merges with a larger “we.” In this way, the poetry collection gives voice to a people.
The first poem, “Origin,” tells a story of how “[e]verything started over water” when a woman looked down through a hole in the clouds, “dreaming and falling.” By “Epilogue,” “We look to the sky to see who is falling, who is rising.” I read this as a creation story that informs a system of symbols that give meaning for the woman telling these poetic stories as well as for the Abenaki. As the moons come and go, so do the generations.
Bachofner’s poems bring the reader closer to the rich earth and its fruit (“Plunging hands into warm earth / where worms have shed casts”)–the dirt, the squash, the ocean, its fish. They have a way of slowing down the contemporary world and connecting the reader through place and naming. The names are important: they punctuate the poems. Medawihla, Mezatanos, Pashipakokee: loon, moon, river. My first time through the book I read the poems aloud, relying on instinct for pronunciations, and they felt good in my mouth.
Just under the musicality of Bachofner’s lines, I hear a heart beat that seems to come from the center of the earth. No one could expect poetry to do more.
Here’s a sample from the book:
We Speak the White Man’s Language
except when dreaming, except when our fingers
braid hair, weave blankets, knot bait bags,
when we are praying in Indian. Work brings words
from the belly, the soles of the feet.
Words walk the woods where our relatives
burned the way forward from camp to camp,
trading stories with people along the way.
We speak in our own tongues, syllables full
of consonants, echoing from the back
of the throat to the nose, to the wind.
Our words are a clearing, a place for fire.
Where did the language go when the black robes
threw holy water on it? Did it disappear
when the switch was on our backs? Into the trees,
into the streams, into our combs to wait.
Carol has also published three other poetry collections. Go forth and check them out!
Last week I introduced you to indigenous poet Carol Bachofner. She has published four excellent books of poetry. Check out her poetry! Part I can be found here.
In Part II, learn Carol’s original process for writing “something else” sonnets. Don’t know what those are? Read ahead . . . .
by guest blogger, poet Carol Bachofner
A poem Carol wrote that illustrates the breaking out she discusses
Why Hang Out in Bookstores; a something else sonnet
There are other ways to take on the sonnet form and make it serve a different purpose. I recently had another breakthrough, courtesy of an unwitting Sherman Alexie. Visiting our daughter and her family in Seattle, I had one non-family wish of the trip: to spend some quantity and quality time at Elliott Bay Books, alone. I always make a beeline to the poetry section of any bookstore to see what’s new that I might not have seen at home. I found two books that really got my attention, my sustained attention. The first book is The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry (ed. Gary L. McDowell and F. Daniel Rzicznek, 2010) and the other is Alexie’s latest poetry collection, What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned (Hanging Loose Press, 2014). These book finds changed my view of prose poetry. Utterly changed. DRAT!!! Just when I was getting comfortable again! But it is why we hang out in bookstores, to be changed.
I confess that previously I have eschewed prose poetry, claiming loudly to all who would listen that this alleged form is nonexistent. Why do I do that? My literary protestations almost always lead to changing my mind about what I am avoiding or rejecting. On this particular lovely fall day in Seattle I was to be challenged yet again. I would have to face the fact that this form is real, to accept the fact that if Sherman Alexie was writing in this so-called “form,” I would have to see why. I was, from that moment, on the fast track to writing one or more prose poems myself. How could this happen? Prose was always prose and poetry always poetry. I was SURE of that. Until now. As a narrative writer, I knew I was always straddling the two worlds, but I knew somehow where the borders were. and I did not think those borders were crossable.
Where the breakthrough came for me was somewhere in the middle of Alexie’s book, the place where he starting labeling poems as “sonnet” when they clearly looked like prose to me. Have you ever become aware of a slight manic buzzing in your head when you are about to discover something new for yourself, ready to disembark from the safe ship of your life and wobble on the dock? I could feel myself getting hot all over, hearing the buzz, and feeling a twitch in my left eye. Uh-oh.
I tried to find where in his “sonnets” there was something sonnet. What I found was a “something else sonnet,” a combination of prose and poetry that spoke to me. Loudly. Profoundly. He was laying it out in a way that seemed properly improper. No worries over rhyme scheme (have you ever balked at the use of “scheme” as if it is some kind of a trick?) and no worries about where to break a line or where to put the turn or whether to put a turn at all. Instead of 14 clearly defined lines, he dared to make 14 segments of thought, of wondering, of action. Yes, 14 segments that said something without restriction. Oh my. Oh dear. Oh my. I had to try this.
Suddenly I was writing prose that felt more like poetry to me than anything I’d written in a while. Suddenly I was writing poetry that seemed more real, more honest. I was wobbling on the dock and dying to jump off and swim.
Then the inevitable questions for myself began flooding in. What was going to be MY take on this? How would I make something as real as Alexie, without being a poser, a fake, a phoney? It wouldn’t be easy to adapt my previous thinking to this new thing I’d so long rejected. But I knew I was comfortable with sonnets. I was comfortable with every aspect of sonnets. I was also very comfortable with narrative. So there. I had to jump.
At first I thought this meant I could just freewheel it, abandon all traditional aspects of the sonnet. But I had no desire to just throw myself into a sort of “freefall abyss.” I took a few deep breaths and began thinking of what parts of sonnets I might use to my purposes and how far into prose I wanted to venture. The more I pondered, the more one thought came to me: with the skills I possess as a poet, as a somewhat-formalist, I can combine prose and the sonnet, one of poetry’s most lasting forms and make something new for myself.
As I waded out into the deeper waters of form deconstruction, I felt a bit like an inventor. The process I devised is a basic guideline, a first way in. I chose to meld prose and the sonnet form in a way that was different but felt at least a little familiar. I needed my own process to serve as an entrance. Here is my initial process, one I have now abandoned as I continue to grow comfortable with this new “something else sonnet” form.
A Process Toward Writing a “Something Else Sonnet”
1. I decided to go by way of strong words, nouns and verbs. I elected to choose 14 nouns that are somewhat thematically connected. The words I chose are all words of restriction and stoppage and alienation. My theme (loose) is that of being held back or cordoned off from love. You will see my words in bold in the example below.
2. I set off in a direction, toward a theme or idea. I figured I could always reset my direction if the initial attempt was a wild goose chase. I did reset a couple times, but did not fully abandon the original impetus or word list.
3. I chose to follow Alexie in numbering each section (and in using sections or fragments rather than anything approaching lineation. After all, this was PROSE poetry. Beginning with the number 1, using what I determined to be the “best” word from my list of words, I created the first section/fragment.
4. At the place in that first bit of thought where my mind felt a bit like jumping, I put a period and wrote the number 2. After that I let myself leap (free association is the thing here) and used another word from the list. I found it helpful to cross off each word used to make sure I used all fourteen.
5. Repeating this process, paying no attention at all to where numbers landed, I wrote the whole poem as a paragraph with parts. Remember that any numbered portion may contain more than one sentence or fragment. It may be a bit self-contained with one major leap or it may slide into a transition as the piece nears its end, making the next leap smoother.
6. I also began to consider that I might keep going after number 14 and run the poem onward a bit, ending with a rhymed couplet; I did do this in the example below. I wondered as I wrote whether the poem wanted a somewhat traditional volta and where. In the example below, I came to see that the poem wanted to pivot a bit at line./section 9, a pretty traditional thing for a nontraditional sonnet.
NOTE: In the following example, I have bolded the nouns from my word list; these do not remain bolded outside of this example.
Love is Monstrous(ly) Wonderful(ly) Bordered, a prose sonnet
1. Natural barriers could be the colors of love, red lips shine, bruise-blue or some psychedelic bursts of argument hues at the edge of love’s known world. 2. Sterile areas pop up like rabbits. You want to go there to be safe, to be gravid with love. 3. Ditches burrow themselves into sidewalks where lovers pace, submerge to begin their travel along wrist-like veins recently scissored open in desperation. 4. You can achieve closure that way. Real closure. The slamming of the garden gate on too-rusted hinges made furious by rain. The door-bang of a car, locking itself with the keys still in the ignition. You learn how to leave and how to stay. 5. Love opens and closes on everyone eventually, even if no one hears it happening. Love maintains its elastic geography this way. 6. You cannot escape into a security zone to avoid it. 7. Even though you don’t recognize it, your heart is a sovereign state. 8. It has a seam-line of tissue paper tears. Rain will open up in it, open you eventually. 9. You’ll soon be seen at the checkpoint, tourist visa in your breast pocket, flashlight between your teeth. 10. You will head back to the colors of love and sketches you made of it at the blockade. It’s a secret. It is invincible ink. 11. Cruelty is the killing ground. 12. Vault over its borders. Ping between love and its doppelgänger. 13. Roadblock ahead! Drive. Run. 14. Decide to burn down the separation fence. 15. This is what you need to know about love and disaster, about a heart full of tacks. 16. Once you fill your suitcase, you get the monster off your back.
So, let’s review what has happened here that makes this a sonnet:
1. 14 somethings + couplet
2. volta at or near section 9. — of note: key words/phrases of the turn include checkpoint, head back
3. rhymed couplet at the end (though not metrical, it is musical)
We can see what makes this a sonnet and what makes this prose as well. The narrative is sacrosanct in the form, the combining of two forms. It is a hybrid that works well for me as a storyteller and poet. I owe it all to my obsession with hanging out in bookstores. Here is another example of story preserved as a brief prose poem, a sonnet that defies the usual end-rhymed final couplet. Find the turn, if any. Ask what makes this prose piece a sonnet.
Living On, a prose sonnet
1. From a waterfall 12 feet straight down, into 2 feet of water 2. Swept off like leaves ready to die. 3. Never thought about death then. Never thought about life then. All the same to me. 4. Carried to safety by a Paiute, slung sack on his back. Now a piece of him, he’s me too just that way; how I think of it. Carry me, I carry you. 5. The tee shirt he stripped from his back I wear as he wore me. American Indian Dance Theater. 6. I dance. I sway and stomp like the wind trees or the river that caught me. 7. Live on or die. 8. Be Indian. Be not Indian. You don’t get to decide. 9. If you break a bone, pray for all other bones. You will heal 4 people that way. 10. One of them will heal you. 11. The river didn’t want to feel so empty that day. 12. Wanted to fill itself with something that needed healing. 13. Indian Canyon ceremony, sweat running like the river. 14. Grandmothers and Grandfathers yielding to the fire. Me — natal, naked, and ready to live on.
From the Body, sonnets also shall emerge
Recently someone posted a meme on Facebook that was a pun in picture form, a line drawing of a human hip, with the caption: Hip Poetry. A child of the 60s, it tickled me to see this punning of the phrase Hip Poetry. Thinking of the beat poets, I wanted to do something creative in response to the meme, so I decided a contemporary prose sonnet to honor the beauty of the structure of the body, while keeping the humor of the drawing and its caption. I went with a beginning section that began the combination of bone and tone. I allowed myself to flex my verbal musculature and pun, rhyme a little (final couplet), and use marks of punctuation [brackets] wherever that felt organic, seemed to fit. I even included a line from a satire album from the 60s (see section 6). The pure pleasure I derived from creating this sonnet, this prose thing, is immeasurable. I hope you enjoy it too.
Poetry From the Hip, a prose sonnet
1. It’s a body thing, a guts and sinew and bone thing. No one comes to poetry without a body on fire. Flames of language consume the muscle, jerk the nerves, hum in the skull. 2. It’s the hip, that ball and socket controller, that swing along the sidewalk of metrics action, that bend at the, flex at the, sit right down and write it creation that lets it all roll along to conclusion or to an opening at the end. 3. Imagine no hip. No swishing skirts or petticoats, no rhumba or cha-cha-cha to inspire the words of love that pour onto the page, that plunge the poet into despair over loss of. Love pivots on such bones. Love poems pivot on them too. 4. Shoot from the [hip]. Be [hip]. [Hip] [Hip] hooray on the page or off into the air above the page. [Hip]ster, gangster, lover, mime, or magician. 5. [Hip] is your tour de force. 6. This is your hippy-dippy weather man, with the weather, Man 7. Whether or not. 8. Lines of poems hang from hip to hip, like bedsheets with secrets from old lovers. 9. Say lip [service or stick]. 10. Trip [up] or [the light fantastic]. 11. Ship [shape] or [out] and flip the switch to poems without secrets. 12. Secrets die like flies in winter when you turn on the lights. 13. It’s a body thing, a guts and sinew and bone thing. 14. Write it all, let it all, from the hip … swing.
Break Out… out there from here
Just as my last book, Native Moon, Native Days, was a departure from the regional, nature-oriented poems of the previous two collections, my newly-submitted manuscript is a departure. It is structure-oriented rather than topical, regional, or overtly ethnic. It contains an array of what seems to me to be like stardust, a sprinkle of light. Of course, the trick here is whether or not a publisher wants to spread my stardust. Regardless, I am happy to have assembled these particular poems in this way. Hands, These Clumsy Ears of Hands. Out there. Definitely out there.
About the guest blogger:
Carol W. Bachofner, MFA Poetry Vermont College of Fine Arts, is currently Poet Laureate of Rockland, Maine (2012-2016). She founded (2010) and directs the annual Poetry Month Rockand, a city-wide celebration of poetry. An indigenous woman (Abenaki), she writes with a strong sense of place through narrative poetry. Her poems have appeared in such notable journals as Prairie Schooner, CT Review, Main Street Rag, Bangor Metro, The Comstock Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Cream City Review, Naugatuck River Review, and others. Bachofner teaches poetry in her community and “on the road” via workshops and conferences. She has four published books of poetry: Daughter of the Ardennes Forest, 2007; Breakfast at the Brass Compass, 2010; I Write in the Greenhouse, 2011, and Native Moons, Native Days, 2012. In 2011, Bachofner was a runner-up in the Maine Literary Awards, one of three finalists in the short works/poetry category. Visit her web site www.carolbachofner.com for links to her blog, and her facebook page or to contact her for workshops. or contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.