Tuesday, April 30, 2013

National Poetry Month: Guest Blogger JoAnn Balingit

Thank you to JoAnn Balingit for sharing her thoughts on this last day of National Poetry Month. She turns towards poetry, and brings us with her, after the recent events in Boston.

JoAnn Balingit is the author of a collection of poems, Words for House Story (WordTech Editions, July 2013) and two poetry chapbooks. Her previous work, Forage, was awarded the 2011 Whitebird Chapbook Prize. She has been the recipient of an individual artist fellowship from the Delaware Division of the Arts, Creative Fellowships from The Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, and the Global Filipino Literary Award in poetry. Her poems have appeared in journals and anthologies such as Best New Poets, DIAGRAM, MiPoesias, PoetsArtists, Salt Hill, Smartish Pace, and Verse Daily. She serves as Delaware’s poet laureate, teaches poetry for schools and non-profit organizations, and coordinates the Delaware Writing Region of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, a national recognition program for students in grades 7 through 12. Read her most recent newspaper articles celebrating National Poetry Month.

On a Tough Day, Rita Dove Delivers the Last Word 

I left Rita Dove’s reading at the University of Delaware’s Gore Recital Hall last Friday evening, April 19th, feeling blissful and satisfied. Also off-kilter and dangerously open in and about the heart. I was weaving a bit, having forgotten my cane, my prop since recent hip surgery. I was having some sort of whole-body kinetic memory. A full-frontal Madeleine. I felt a fullness I remembered after certain rock concerts, when a great band had played all the songs I’d longed to hear, as well as the songs I hadn’t known I longed to hear.

I had been planning to write a triple-book review for this blogspot: Orlando White’s Bone Light; Kate Northrop’s Clean; and Judy Halebsky’s Sky=Empty. Do you see a theme? What these poets have in common are x-ray eyes for language:  they see into and through words. Their books are cozy and yet clutter-free. Language swoons to be delivered unto their doorsteps. But these poets’ spare and cleansing poems could not stand up to the world I found myself a part of after the Boston Marathon Bombings.  I had to put those lovely books aside.

On Tuesday, the day after the bombings, I started reading Far from the Tree. I wanted to finish Oryx and Crake. I got Battleborn. Explosions and killings made me want to stuff my gullet with prose. Family nonfiction. Dystopian sci-fi. DeathValleyHelterSkelter semi-autobiographical tales. Whatever.

But I can’t stay away from poetry, not for an entire week, not even a day. And northern Delaware has been fortunate this month to host great readings by Natasha Trethewey and other poets, locals and guests, observing National Poetry Month. I was busy writing a weekly column, “On Poetry,” for my local newspaper, remember newspapers? So I was perusing lots of favorite poems, old and new.

Maybe the Puerto Rican American on The Daily Show who said that if the US wants to keep that nice, even number of 50 states when PR gets in, then they should kick out Delaware (“We don’t need, uh, Delaware, do we? I don’t even know what goes on there”), maybe she would feel differently if she knew Delaware finally got some poetry action going here during April.
That is, I had been looking forward since January to Rita Dove’s lecture and reading on Thursday and Friday, April 18 and 19th.

I feel guilty not to have read and studied Dove’s work years ago. Though captivated by the controversy over The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century Poetry, I felt handicapped by my ignorance of Dove’s own work while I rooted for her response to Helen Vendler’s suggestions of editorial incompetence. (“Are These the Poems to Remember?” New York Review of Books, November 24, 2011)

I had admired Dove’s scary and often anthologized “Parsely.” I’d read individual poems in journals. What was taking me so long to read her celebrated Thomas and Beulah? – a book I knew I would love?

But about five years ago, I did read Mother Love in the Newark Free Library, procrastinating on research I had come to do—I thought. I sat in a corner carrel at the end of the poetry shelves and read the book cover to cover. Over again. Mother Love found its way into my lap, as books of poetry will, when my time of need arrived. My relationships with my daughters were confounding me. My long-dead mother lorded over me and yet I could hardly remember her. I had hit dead ends in a sonnet sequence I was writing.

I took a break to reread the myth of Persephone and Demeter, which figures in the book’s sequence of sonnets, mostly sonnets. Otherwise, I was in a bell-jar with Mother Love for four hours. I copied into my notebook “The Bistro Styx” and “Rusks.” “The library is now closing” came over the speakers.

Why should I be select?

I got tired of tearing myself down.
Let someone else have
the throne of blues for a while,
let someone else suffer mosquitoes.
As my mama always said:
half a happiness is better
than none at all.

                                    from “Rusks” by Rita Dove

Half a happiness. Earlier in the week, on Tuesday, April 16th, the day after the Marathon Bombing, friends and family messaged me: was Adrian OK? Yes: my older son had texted me. His friends were OK, as far as he knew; his ex-girlfriend OK. He had been in Boston that morning but left to get back to his apartment in New Bedford. He had started his program at University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth last fall, I reminded my family. He no longer lived in Boston. Half a happiness. I called him up. He seemed distracted, fed-up, dismayed. He was fine, Mom. “I’ll send you a care package,” I told him. I was driving, I said, I had to go. That Tuesday morning I was driving to give a reading.

I told my lovely audience, “I woke up in a sweat this morning.” With the bombings, the hurt, the fear, how could I read the same poems I had planned to read? And what reaction am I having to all this? What are we having?

I told my audience that an hour before, I had printed out Billy Collins’s poem “The Names,” an elegy he wrote one year after 9/11. I read it to them. We had a moment of silence. Also an hour before the reading, I had printed out the draft of a poem I started last December, called “Connecticut I-84.”

The poem is about driving past the “Newtown-Sandy Hook” exit sign on I-84 minutes after hearing the terrible news on the radio. I was on my way to New Hampshire to pick up my 14-year-old son for winter break. He was living, suddenly this year, six states away at a boarding school deep in the woods. I choked. I gunned the gas. I stole glances at people in the cars beside me. I imagined men with guns stalking the rambling white house tucked into the acres of New Hampshire forest where my son now lives. Is he safe? I gripped the wheel. And if he is safe, how in the world can that be?

None of these thoughts are in the poem I read at my reading. They will get in there somehow. But the audience liked it. I changed up the list of other poems I read. The reading went really well.

By Friday, April 19th, I was ready to be read to. Tell me a story. I sat in the gorgeous recital hall. The appearance of my cane secured me a nice chair. I was grateful that Dove’s lecture on the origins of Sonata Mullatica the evening before had not had a thing to do with the Boston Marathon Bombings.

I figured the poems she would read today would be bombing-free. The banter too. And yet in the beautiful hall, which our esteemed guest marveled at and praised, we were all aware that the world outside was not well. It takes a bombing in our own back yard for Americans to open our eyes to the suffering world-wide. I wanted to think that sort of thought.

I had turned off the news at 7pm on Thursday, the night before. But at noon on Friday, as I got ready to go to Dove’s reading, I turned on the radio: “University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth campus on lockdown.” I called my 23-year-old son. The younger Tsarnaev brother had been attending classes on his campus. Killed a police officer. Older brother dead. My son was sheltering in place.

“And this is how my school gets into the national news.”  He was frustrated, sad, defiant. “Yes, I have food,” he replied.

Still, I left Rita Dove’s reading at the University of Delaware’s Gore Recital Hall last Friday early evening, April 19th, feeling blissful and satisfied. I think. She had begun the reading by promising she’d take us on a tour of her oeuvre from the earliest to the latest poems. A journey she rarely gets to go on, the kind of reading she doesn’t often get to do. It was one of the best poetry readings I have ever attended. I didn’t know there’d be a live manhunt on TV when I got home.

I thought for this blog I would just share the list of the poems Rita Dove chose to read during her 90 minutes, and talk about her most revealing comments on what’s behind the poems. I wanted to do that. But I am trying to describe. . .the reason this “post” turned into a long and ruminative storyline about last week’s events, into my coup d’essai at making sense of the swirl (I typed swill) in my brain: I am driven to resurrect and dissect one moment during Dove’s reading.

It was a moment when every emotion and argument of me—of woman, wife, daughter; leader, other, teacher; mother, orphan girl, American; poet, victim, immigrant’s child—was taken and assuredly, adeptly shaped together into a comprehension of acceptance, and a simultaneous shove into the ring. Into the battlefield. That moment came during Rita Dove’s reading of “Meditation at Fifty Yards: Moving Target” from American Smooth, a five-part poem which begins, unexpectedly, with the pleasure of shooting a weapon; considers the anxieties and wisdom such knowledge brings, and finally, inhabits the bullet.

Fear, of course. Then the sudden
pleasure of heft—as if the hand
has always yearned for this solemn
fit, this gravitas, and now had found
its true repose . . .


 (Question: If you were being pursued,
how would you prefer to go down—
ripped through a blanket of fire
or plucked by one incandescent

The Bullet.

dark dark no wind no heaven
i am not anything not borne on air i bear
myself I can slice the air no wind
can hold me let me let me
go i can see yes
o aperture o light let me off
go off  straight is my verb  straight
my glory road yes now i can feel
it the light i am flame velocity o
beautiful body i am coming i am yours
before you know it
i am home

Right before she read that searing, gorgeous pastoral trickster of a poem, that violent warning prayer, she simply paused and said, “Hmmm. I don’t know now. . .whether to take you up, or bring you down.” Silence. “Because I have taken you up. And I could take you still higher.” She flipped through pages.

Dove says of this poem in an interview: “I believe that my poems work best when violence simmers just under the surface.” American smooth.

I am still trying to understand what happened to me during “Meditation at Fifty Yards: Moving Target.” Did the poet bring us up, or take us down? I know I was weeping furtively. [I was fine Mom.] I had more than half a happiness, and then some. I had my cake. I was pissed off. I was really really high. I was thinking about how they died. I was scared.

The poems Rita Dove read:

“The Event”
“After Reading The Night Kitchen for the Third Time”
“The Island Women of Paris”
“Persephone, Falling”
“Demeter, Waiting” [?]
“Bistro Styx”
“The Enactment”
“Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967”
“American Smooth”
“Samba Summer”
“Meditation at 50 Yards: Moving Target” (for full-text see interview of Dove by Camille Dungy)
“The Spring Cricket Considers the Question of Negritude”
“The Spring Cricket Repudiates His Parable of Negritude”
“Reunion, 2005”


Barbara Ann Yoder said...

I love the presence of this post, how poetry and history and daily life come together, how simplicity arises through complexity, how mother is gone and ever present, how fluid the piece is. Now I am going to find and read some of the poems Rita Dove read to you. Thanks for this beautiful reflection!

JoAnn Balingit said...

Barbara Ann,
Thanks for reading! I am glad you enjoyed this post, and happy I sent you to Rita Dove's poems. "Mediation at Fifty Yards" and many wonderful poems are in American Smooth, in which the chapter epigraphs are all remarks made by Tuvok the Vulcan, from "Star Trek Voyager"-- cosmopolitan!

Barbara Ann Yoder said...

Thanks, JoAnn. I'll check it out!