Now that I’ve finished, I feel a void. What saved me was poetry, because I always wrote poetry. I think that poetry saves whoever writes it and saves whoever reads it.
I think it’s really hard to be joyful. I work hard at it. I always feel like it’s a choice.
You find a pair of canaries—your mother’s—long buried,
fallen wild. Gone, every muscle, wing, and feather tying the body
together. In your hands, their skeletons like light
slumped over a windowsill, broken-necked.
According to scripture, all you need is faith the size of a claw
to command whatever has left you to return.
By Tatiana Oroño, translated from the Spanish by Jesse Lee Kercheval
The Castaway found
half-burnt stick or pen
to scribble help I am here
and he was hoisted on the deck with his inheritance
of bones lowered in the berth
and his eyes closed like a patient in a sick bed and he was carried along
like a boy.
They told him likethis better likethis on the soles the skin
the hands that stretched the sheets
said to him yesyes
you must return!
The swimming of the ocean
twin to the hull to the ribcage of the boat
taught him at the heart how to swim how
to survive told him the hands go from here to there
as the sea applauded on the other side.
he was enveloped in the whisper of the linen dining tables.
The tribe swallowed him up.
But that was
that they heard
of all those who found neither pen nor charcoal
because there was only sand all around.
[Originally published at Guernica.]
I am essentially a political woman, but above all I am a poet. I am a poetess. The word exists in Portugal, and I use it all the time. An interventionist poet, a poet who fights for freedom. Because you can only be a poet in freedom.
- Guernica: What keeps drawing you back to the ode?
- Barbara Hamby: It’s a part of that choosing to be positive and choosing joy. I love Keats’s odes, and I love Neruda’s odes. I always think of my odes as being a combo of the two. Meditations on ordinary objects, but with the music of Keats. Or attempting those things because I could never say that I even come close to those two masters. After I started writing them, I got interested in the form. I tried to find a book about the ode form. I’m trying to write one myself. It’s going slowly, but right now I’m really concentrating on Pindar, the ancient Greek poet and his odes that are dedicated to the Olympic champions. They’re really beautiful and very different. Of course there are Horace’s odes in Rome, then the Romantics and Walt Whitman. “Song of Myself” is an ode.
- One of my questions really is, why has the form lasted for all of these thousands of years? For 2,500 years, people have been writing odes. Why? I think that there’s something innately human in wanting to praise the world even though it’s disappointing in so many ways. There’s always that tension. We were talking about the role of woman, wanting to be free and wanting to be cherished, and in the world, there’s a tension. It’s so beautiful and it’s so terrible at the same time. It’s like Milan. It was bombed to smithereens and it’s still beautiful. There’s always that tension between the sublime and the terrible. The ode really speaks to that, wanting to praise the world, and yet part of that is the horror and the pain, too.
- And it’s not really a form, is it? It was in ancient Greece and Rome, but now, people are writing free-verse odes. One of my favorites is Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Ode to the Maggot.” Its gorgeous last line, something like, “No one gets to heaven except through you.” I don’t have it exactly, but every time I read it, I get chills.
Grant me the number of wishes you wished on yourself
Hold me like an in-law raving after Secret Santa for
everything that gets away
Kiss me when you’re done kissing yourself with your
dark gray lips, your coral teeth
I can’t get my skull around these midnight whimpers
I can’t help but play your games like an American fall
folds its own flag
"What was transformative was being at the inauguration, reading my poem, and realizing that the quest for home and identity had always been part of my work, but that I’d been home all along. I understood that my story, my mother’s story, the story of those hundreds of thousands of people up there, is America. I had the dawning of a new connection with America, a new love affair. Not a blind patriotism, but just an understanding that it is part of who I am."
I OBSERVED the acidic moisture and the living ulcers
and the bones of her face like fruits of shadow.
I saw light in her hands, light
in the cartilage and the veins. Later,
the vertebrae went down and already
I saw no more than eternity and coldness
blind and blue in the fixed gaze.
By Antonio Gamoneda, translated from the Spanish by Donald Wellman.
Originally published at Guernica.
Some nights / when he held her he held everything. Some nights the windows
seemed so far away. Some nights like Jacob he wrestled with God—
I could murder a man, he thought some nights, but he could never make out
that man’s face. He was not blessed. He was not broken, either.