Category Archives: American Poetry

Principles of Belonging is now available!

Principles of Belonging by Joshua Gray
Principles of Belonging

I am very excited to announce that my book-length poem has finally arrived from Red Dashboard, LLC!

It was up for about a day, but then it was taken down after I realized I spelled my own father-in-law’s name incorrectly in the dedication! A typo the editors over at Red Dashboard never would have caught.

Thank goodness for print-on-demand services!

But it is back up again, and it’s nail-biting time… (will anyone like the book?) I remember when my sister’s book came out she asked herself the same question and was anxious about it. I told her she was crazy to even consider it. Now I know how she felt.

But enough of that! To order the book, either stop by its page on my Web site first, where there is a link to order a copy (or two or three); alternatively just go directly to the shopping cart to order.

Editor Alex Cigale on my Beowulf

“What makes Joshua Gray’s “verse adaptation with young readers in mind” immediate and powerful is its tender tone: it is addressed to his son, in the same understated, hushed voice of expectation as a will and testament, that it contains a coded message to be passed down from the son, who is father to the man, to his own son and so on. Moreover, being written “with young readers in mind,” and not “for young readers only,” makes it truly special, for in making Beowulf more accessible he has done the time-honored service of digest and abridgement for busy adults as well, and in doing so has helped this reader for one focus on the story’s essential message; that it’s very telling — not just its symbolic content but the form itself — represents the eternal bond between fathers and sons and so between all men.”

— ALEX CIGALE: poet, editor, translator, cyclist, spirit/road warrior

Georgetown University professor on my children’s Beowulf book

Tod Linafelt, Georgetown University says of my Beowulf for kids:

Joshua Gray’s rendering of Beowulf for children is ‘grand and gruesome,’ just like the monster Grendel that stalks its lines. Gray captures both the fearsomeness of the poem’s monsters and the artful alliteration of its Anglo-Saxon origins, while leaving out the long speeches that would turn away many young readers. Hook the kids with this version, and hope that they will return to the longer poem in later years.

And in case you missed the sneak peak of the fabulous art by Sean Yates, go here.

Death by the Letter R

To understand poems, it is usually necessary to understand the poet’s history. But when it comes to historical poems, it can be equally important, if not more important, to understand the poem’s history. Sometimes, you don’t even know you are reading a historical poem, or what the poem is really about, which can make it tougher to bust. However a good  historical poem that hides the history, and is thus a little obscure, relies on evoking feeling for the reader — not necessarily emotion, but feeling so that the reader says, “I don’t know why I liked that poem, but I liked it a lot.”

For me, a good example of such a poem is “Parsley” by Rita Dove. I have read very little of Dove, but every time I have I haven’t been disappointed. One thing that seems to be clear with her is that it is hard to pigeonhole her into a particular school, subject matter, or form.  One common theme she seems to have is the history of Africans/African Americans. “Parsley” epitomizes her patternless poetry.

If you are unaware of the Parsley Massacre as it is called, let me give you some brief history and spare you a bit of obscurity.

In 1937 the Dominican Republic’s dictator Rafael Trujillo decided the Hiatians living within the borderlands of Haiti and the Dominican Republic should be killed. Hiatians couldn’t pronounce the letter R, and to determine who was a Haitian and who wasn’t, soldiers held up some Parsley and asked the Haitians what it was. If they couldn’t pronounce the word correctly, they were shot.

The first thing I want to talk about is the title. There has been a bit of conversation on Twitter lately about titles, how poets come up with titles.

In The Art and Craft of Poetry, Michael J. Bugeja says there are three types of poems: descriptive,  suspense, and label. Bugeja says:

A descriptive title depicts content, a suspense one sparks interest, and the label variety is just that — a word or two as on a can of vegetables: “Beans” or “Creamed Corn.”

I could’t agree more. Upon first read “Parsley” then is a label title. And it is, but titles can cross dress. Is the poem about the herb? No, it’s not. We pretty much guess that after reading the first two stanzas, so it’s label and something else.

The poem is also a sectional poem. A sectional poem is a poem divided up into sections; each section could stand on its own, but put together make for a better overall statement. Section 1 of this poem is called ‘The Cane Fields.’

There is a parrot imitating spring
in the palace, its feathers parsley green.
Out of the swamp the cane appears

to haunt us, and we cut it down. El General
searches for a word; he is all the world
there is. Like a parrot imitating spring,

we lie down screaming as the rain punches through
and we come up green. We cannot speak an R —
out of the swamp, the cane appears

Not a mention of the herb yet; the only mention is the color of the parrot. But this section is a villanelle. By the time I get to the end of the third stanza, I have identified this poetic form by the repetition of lines, and the tercets (three-line stanzas) ending in a quartrains (four-line stanzas). I won’t go into the villanelle form, what it is, but you can read more about it here. What is interesting is that the second section is not a villanelle, as it is written in seven and eight line stanzas. Whether it is a closed form like the first section is yet to be seen.

The Villanelle and first section ends:

and then the mountains we call in whispers Katalina.
The children gnaw their teeth to arrowheads.
There is a parrot imitating spring.

El General has found his word: perijil.
Who says it, lives. He laughs, teeth shining
out of the swamp. The cane appears

in our dreams, lashed by wind and streaming.
And we lie down. For every drop of blood
there is a parrot imitating spring.
Out of the swamp the cane appears.

The villanelle’s repetitions evokes the repetitions that the Haitians feel in their lives in the cane fields. The teeth gnawed into arrowheads is lost on me; I am not sure what that refers to. Does anyone know? Perijil is their word for parsley. The parrot imitates spring simply by being a parrot — what season do you think of when you think of birds? The parrot is a real parrot, but it also seems to be a symbol, a figurative parrot imitating a figurative spring. I am a little lost on the symbolism, but what great imagery.

The second section is called ‘The Palace.’ So the first stanza was written from the cane field worker’s point of view, which we know by the title of the section, as well as the section itself — the use of “we” in the poem; now, seeing the title of the second stanza ‘The Palace,’ the obvious assumption is that this will be from the dictator’s point of view.

2. The Palace

The word the general’s chosen is parsley.
It is fall, when thoughts turn
to love and death; the general thinks
of his mother, how she died in the fall
and he planted her walking cane at the grave
and it flowered, each spring stolidly forming
four-star blossoms. The general

pulls on his boots, he stomps to
her room in the palace, the one without
curtains, the one with a parrot
in a brass ring. As he paces he wonders
Who can I kill today. And for a moment
the little knot of screams
is still. The parrot, who has traveled

all the way from Australia in an ivory
cage, is, coy as a widow, practising
spring. Ever since the morning
his mother collapsed in the kitchen
while baking skull-shaped candies
for the Day of the Dead, the general
has hated sweets. He orders pastries
brought up for the bird; they arrive

So now we know the second section is in free verse. What images there are in the first few stanzas — the parrot coy as a widow — the dictator asking who he can kill today as if he were asking what was on TV (of course there was no TV at that time, but you get my meaning) — the Day of the Dead, a festival in their culture.

And the mother. The sense of mother-son relationship to an eerie and unsettling degree. The movie Psycho comes to mind. I feel uncomfortable reading the poem. It continues, as pastries arrive…

dusted with sugar on a bed of lace.
The knot in his throat starts to twitch;
he sees his boots the first day in battle
splashed with mud and urine
as a soldier falls at his feet amazed—
how stupid he looked!— at the sound
of artillery. I never thought it would sing
the soldier said, and died. Now

the general sees the fields of sugar
cane, lashed by rain and streaming.
He sees his mother’s smile, the teeth
gnawed to arrowheads. He hears
the Haitians sing without R’s
as they swing the great machetes:
Katalina, they sing, Katalina,

mi madle, mi amol en muelte. God knows
his mother was no stupid woman; she
could roll an R like a queen. Even
a parrot can roll an R! In the bare room
the bright feathers arch in a parody
of greenery, as the last pale crumbs
disappear under the blackened tongue. Someone

calls out his name in a voice
so like his mother’s, a startled tear
splashes the tip of his right boot.
My mother, my love in death.
The general remembers the tiny green sprigs
men of his village wore in their capes
to honor the birth of a son. He will
order many, this time, to be killed

for a single, beautiful word.

A couple notes: a) Katalina has an L instead of an R, b) as does mi madle, mi amol en muelte, which is translated in the next stanza as My mother, my love in death.

So you can see how this poem epitomizes Rita Dove’s poetry: African history, no set style of form.

Now let’s end by going back to where we started: the title. “Parsley” is a label title, but it is a misleading label, so it crosses into a suspense title. The title looks to be about one thing, and ends up being something else. I just wrote a poem where the topic was X, but the theme was an unrelated Y. I gave the poem a label title of Y.

However, the titles of the sections were label titles in their truer forms. I say truer and not true because the titles were symbols of the subjects, not the subject themselves. ‘The Palace’ instead of ‘The Dictator.’ 20,000 died, executed, all because of a letter of the alphabet. And what a beautiful poem because of it. Perhaps the pearl among the, well, you know what.

Concupiscent Ice Cream

I recently read The Emperor of Ice Cream by Wallace Stevens for the first time. I love the first stanza, but I do not get the second.

As are other poets, Stevens was also a philosopher; however, I read once that the difference between Stevens and those like him is that Stevens was first a philopher, then a poet, whereas it was vice-versa with the others.

The best of evidence may be his Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. His poetry is philosophy-heavy, oftentimes so much so it almost seems incomprehensible.

But I read “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” and loved it so much I re-read it numerous times right away.

And still, the second stanza eludes me. But one thing I know, this is where his philosophy comes in. It must, right?

The first stanza is quite simple: call Dad into the kitchen to make some ice cream for the boys and girls around him. The whole idea at face value is so Norman Rockwell. Every line in the first stanza can be a separate Norman Rockwell painting, from the cigar-smoking father figure, maybe sitting by the fire, to the serving of the sweet stuff. But if that were all it was, it wouldn’t be much. He adds to it a theme that is so much more than that, and yet so simple:

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.

At first I thought it a little odd that the girls were considered wenches, and why are the boys bringing flowers? Concupiscent was a word I had never heard of before. I read it and pronounced it more or less correctly, because I surveyed the words that came before (and a little after) it: bid, kitchen, cups, one, whip, muscular, curds, him. The only thing I got wrong was the second syllable is pronounced cyoo not coo. But it was in the definition that the entire stanza came together thematically. It means lustful, sensual, (sexually) desirous. What lover of ice cream will deny its orgasmic quality? Of course the boys are carrying flowers. Of course the girls are wenches (sexually active girls, historically).

Then comes the proclamation: “Let be be the finale of seem.”, and then the bottom line: “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” I first read the proclamation like be-be, but it is actually more like “Let ‘be’ be”, with a pause between the two words. As a proclamation, it is so much more than what’s on face-value: the pursuit of ice cream. I am not sure I completely understand the intention behind this line in the ice cream context, but I have an idea, and I can’t argue with the generalization behind the statement. It may be one of my favorite lines of poetry ever.

“Let be be the finale of seem.”

Then there is the second stanza. It appears to be a complete turn from the first stanza. No longer about a father serving ice cream, but something else entirely, a bit more philosophical. We have a dresser, with odd knobs, that holds a sheet, which was personally embroidered, and for some reason placed over a body, including the face, but with the bare feet sticking out from under it. The person is cold and dumb (stupid? lacking in speech?), and for some reason the lamp fixes the problem (warm heat?). It has nothing to do with ice cream on face value, but we have a cold body (ice cream?). We have the person who is doing the action (the emperor). It all kind of makes sense, in an abstract sort of way. Just like philosophy. But I am still not satisfied.

Can anyone bring any magic to the second stanza?

“After the Prom” by Norman Rockwell courtesy of his estate and:

Desert Where Frost Is

During my short stint with Poembusters, we tackled “Desert Places” by Robert Frost. It’s one of his better poems, yet I did not even know about it until this Poembusters session.
Indeed, this poem was a big inspiration when I wrote The Many Goodbyes.
Last night the sky dumped a good amount of snow on the ground, and so staying home from work because school is out can have its advantages. I decided to re-read “Desert Places”, perhaps subconsciously, because snow is a character in the poem (I had forgotten this).
For anyone who knows Frost, some basic characteristics of his poetry in general is they are nature poems written in Iambic Pentameter, often blank verse. This small poem Iambic (short LONG) Pentameter, though it is hard to tell at first. The poem throws a lot of surprise punches. Let’s start with the first verse.

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The is little mystery in this stanza. The beauty in this stanza is the language. There is alliteration(falling fast field), and repetition (falling falling) (fast fast) that combine for a double punch. Frost is gently pounding away his imagery just like snow falls in a big storm. Of course, the rhyming meter helps to control the poem, the feeling he will experience in the following stanzas. The stanza uses a lot of metrical substitutions, but what you need to decide when scanning a poem for meter is what the majority of feet are within the poem as a whole; this helps to identify the substitutions.
“but a FEW WEEDS in STUBble GROWing FAST” does not show the true meter in the line. Neither does “SNOW FALling and NIGHT FALling FAST oh FAST”. But both lines end in an Iambic foot.

The woods around it have it—it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

What do the woods around the field have? This is the first punch we don’t see coming. Whatever “it” is, appears to affect the animals too — why else would they be smothered in their lairs? Snow can smother, but snow doesn’t fall in lairs. But Frost as narrator admits his absent-mindedness at what he is looking at and doesn’t see that he isn’t an observer. He isn’t in the movie theater — he is in the movie. And with this understanding, we now can understand what the “it” is — loneliness. The field feels it, the wood feels it, the animals feel it, Frost feels it.
We wait until the last line of the second verse before we get a complete line using Iambic Pentameter: “the LONEliNESS inCLUDES me UNaWARES”. This line needs a special punch, and we get it with a perfect Iambic Pentameter line.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less—
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

This stanza reveals the agent of the loneliness is the snow itself. The more snow that falls, the more lonely the place will be. And just like a blank expression does not allow anything to pass like a brick wall, the snow is one big blank expression. It reminds me of a famous argument between Van Gogh and Gaughin. They were painting a landscape together, and Van Gogh saw the sky with all its lines and curves and interesting pockets of color shades. Gaughin saw the sky as flat and uninteresting, like a plank or a sheet. And so the snow is more like what Gaughin saw, an expressionless suffocating agent.
But suddenly the poem shifts, and the wide surroundings of field and woods and sky is only a microlevel of the vast world that loneliness envelopes, especially when he acknowledges that loneliness is a frightening thing, and since it exists everywhere, nowhere is safe from it. And yet, Frost would rather be scared where he lives and knows, then be out there in the unfamiliar ground of the universe along with the other lonely objects and scared still.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Reconciliation for Whitman

Here we are as a country, about to swear in the first black President of the United States. The first non-white President too, but of course the fact that he is black brings a huge significance in the history of the country. Just watch Jesse Jackson on election night, or listen to the black man who while being interviewed said “The dream has come, the dream is real.”
That Obama is also non-white is significant in the present time as well. (My wife, who is half White and half Asian Indian, affectionately calls Obama a half-breed, and talks about him as one of “us”! But I digress…) We are in an intangible and yet very real war with Islamic extremists, and that is why his being non-white is so important right now; Whitman lived in a war as well, and although slavery was not officially a reason to fight against our own countrymen, no one can deny the importance of the issue during that time.
Obama was elected as a uniter of our own country, and within this context, a forgiver as well.
Thus, I can think of no better tribute to the country, the new President, and the poets, than to analyze Whitman’s “Reconciliation”.

Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its acts of carnage must in time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world;
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin — I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

In the beginning was The Word, and The Word was God. God also begins this poem, and lives in the beautiful, vast sky. God is beautiful, and is also a reflection of what lies beneath, even if it is war. But lines two and three is telling us that war and everything evil that comes with it must be forgotten (“utterly lost”) and forgiven (“softly washed again, and ever again”), including the cold slow lonely nights. The world is not just physically soiled of dead bodies, it is emotionally soiled. People are mad, angry, tired, beaten, exhausted.
But then the poem turns, and narrows the war to two men, the killer and the killed. The killer looks at the dead man’s face and remembers that this is war, only war; remove war and you have two normal loving countrymen. This enemy is only an ideological enemy, not a personal one (and if he were, would it matter?). He forgives the man he fought — and loves him too.
This poem is a poem of love and hope, not hate and despair; it is written by the father of American poetry, who loved humanity in all its faults. I have a feeling this love for humanity is not lost on the 44th President of the United States.

Shell for Adair

Virginia Hamilton Adair wrote poetry all her life, and published in a few journals early in her career, but did not publish again until her first book of poetry at the age of eighty-three, called Ants on the Melon.

“The Shell” epitomizes Adair’s writing style like few of her poems do. Adair enjoyed rhyme schemes, but refused to stick to them for the sole purpose of the rhyme’s formality; however, she also refused to drift too far off from the scheme in question.

The end words in “The Shell” are as follows:
stanza one: land, sea, sand, moss
stanza two: toss, swell, gloss, shell
stanza three: fault, dispair, salt, sea
stanza four: air, hand, sand, rare

As you can see, and if you take each stanza separately, the rhyme schemes are:
stanza one: abax
stanza two: abab
stanza three: abax
stanza four: abba

One can see where Adair employed a general rhyme, but there is no pattern. The first and third stanzas are alike, but the second and fourth are not. One expects the same rhyme pattern in each quatrain of a poem, or alternating patterns at best. Neither is true here, but she refuses to give up on the rhyme; it helps control the poem.

If you look at the rhyme scheme in the poem as a whole however, it becomes far more textured and interesting, unpatterned and yet very connected:

One reads the poem with such familiarity of sounds the broken scheme is completely lost; indeed, the pattern as a whole is so rich and powerful the poem both demands its attention and never calls attention to it.

However, Adair isn’t done. She uses internal rhymes, word repitition, and other techniques within the lines themselves, it makes the reader think Adair was drunk with sounds. I count twenty words in the poem that drip with an “l” sound, not all alliteration.
But the alliteration in the first stanza alone must be brought to attention — living, land, land, lying, littered, [c]lotted.

Stanza One:

On the desolate border between the living land
and the land entombed under the sea
the littered and soaking sand
strewn with wrecked wood and clotted moss

She alliterates throughout her poem (eg. “strangely spiraled” in stanza two) but there are other nuggets, such as her word repetition of toss/toss that begins stanza two:

which the waves continually toss,
toss, and then regather into the foam and swell

Notice we have gone a full stanza and a half without knowing fully what she is referring to. One sentence spans two stanzas, and the subject and verb of the sentence does not come until line three of the third stanza, the direct object comes at the end of the stanza:

I saw, shapely and thin, with delicate gloss
and strangely spiraled, a wan shell.

It reminds me of some languages where the sentence structure is something other than subject–>verb–>direct object, such as Hindi, and yet, the poem is not awkward to the English-speaking ear, it is suspenseful.
And so now that we know what the poet is speaking about, it is time to zero in on the subject with vivid description in stanza three:

A shell delicate and turned without fault [notice the shell//a shell word repetition!]
pale, icy, thin as dispair
washed in the dead bitterness of salt

and here comes an internal rhyme, just like the second “toss” adds another internal rhyme to “gloss” in the previous stanza, and ties the stanza with stanza four:

It was born in the sea//torn from the sea into the air

The wan shell is not a dull subject, either. It is not only “strangely spiraled”, not only “delicate and turned without fault/pale, icy, thin as dispair”, but the final three lines of the poem ends with the epiphany that it is a superior object:

Some other may lift it from the sand;
I do not dare. Never have these hot hands
held a substance so desolate and so rare.

So, with all this going on, you may want to watch — or listen — to me recite this poem. The audio is off by a second or so, so you may prefer to close your eyes and listen. I don’t do anything dramatic with my facial expressions anyway. There is a reason why I don’t read my poetry at poetry readings!