Reading the Powows

The Powow River Poets: Anthology II
edited by Paulette Demers Turco
(Able Muse, 2020, 149 pp., $22.95)

For those not in the know, the Powow River Poets (or Powows as they often refer to themselves) are a collective or a workshop or an interest group of people who write poems with dedication and serious attention to craft. Founded and for many years led by the remarkable and seemingly ageless Rhina Espaillat, they meet in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on Saturday mornings to share and critique work in progress. They also organize periodic public readings featuring invited guests and fellow members, followed by an open mic during which visitors (who often do not expect much from such sessions) may be startled to hear one or more strikingly good poems.

The Forest

Yes, woods once covered all the land you see.
Hard to believe, amid suburban sprawl.
Here boys made fortresses among the trees
and lovers fixed a time to rendezvous.
Each of us knew the place as no outsider
ever could – we thought it was our due.

The forest stood until one year it burned,
leaving a few charred poles amid the waste.
All we had left were some old photographs
preserved in bits on a computer drive
by whose dark magic trunks and leaves returned,
ghostlike, to those who squinted at the screen.

Paul Valéry: Pomegranates

Tough pomegranate rinds,
Yield your surfeit of seed.
In you I see great minds
From whom discoveries bleed!

If suns you suffered filled
You, half-agape and stout,
With pride until you spilled
Your chambered rubies out,

The forceful stratagems,
That rupture to reveal
These juicy, crimson gems
Bursting from dry gold peel

Recall my soul’s conjecture
Of its secret architecture.


Les Grenades

Dures grenades entr’ouvertes
Cédant à l’excès de vos grains,
Je crois voir des fronts souverains
Éclatés de leurs découvertes !

Si les soleils par vous subis,
Ô grenades entre-bâillées
Vous ont fait d’orgueil travaillées
Craquer les cloisons de rubis,

Paul Valéry: Footsteps

Children of my silence,
Your saintly steps, unrushed,
Approach my pallet’s vigil,
Frozen, timeless, hushed.

Pure one, divinest shadow,
Steps verging on retreat,
Gods—what gifts I envision
Borne on those naked feet!

If with lips pressed toward me
You deign to nourish this
Dweller in my obsessions
With an appeasing kiss,

Don’t hasten to your mercy.
Being and not being is sweet.
My life is a vivid waiting,
My heart your padding feet.


Les Pas

Tes pas, enfants de mon silence,
Saintement, lentement placés,
Vers le lit de ma vigilance
Procèdent muets et glacés.

Closet Meditation

I’m afraid half my shirts are frayed.
Yet I can’t throw them out.
Even the torn one stays. You never know
when you might need to do a messy job:
unstop a drain or grout the bathroom floor.
Other shirts are almost new.
They’re for the days
I’ll have to give a lecture or
sit for a TV interview.
(There’ve been none recently that I recall.)
Mostly I’m here alone. I write.
I wouldn’t have to wear a shirt at all.
And yet it sets a tone –
but what’s the tone I want today? I might
decide a shirt of bold design
wouldn’t be bad
so that perhaps (if you dropped in)
you’d like the plaid and never see
the loosening threads, the early signs
of imminent decay that would remind
you just how surreptitiously
all our wraps can fall away.

The Shaft

In autumn, through the trees and brush, a stag
pursues a doe, following close behind
as, seemingly indifferent, she attends
to her mysterious destinies. No twig
breaks as they glide past shallow ponds and down
along the well-worn trail that countless deer
have grooved into the mossy forest floor.
He breathes her scent that beckons and leads on.

Released from a concealed hunter’s bow,
an arrow passes cleanly through the prize,
which does not falter, flinch or hesitate
but shadows still the meek alluring doe.

The hunter, searching, finds the body whose
desire the shaft had rushed to consummate.

Tensile Strength: Susan Spear’s Beyond All Bearing

Beyond All Bearing
by Susan Delaney Spear
Wipf and Stock, 2017, $16

As mousetraps capture mice and spiders capture flies, so poets capture poems – often amassing a considerable miscellany before they judge there are enough good ones to make a book. And unlike the unfortunate flies and mice, the ensnared poems are expected to live long (so the poet fondly hopes) in the benign confines of a few score pages. Poems in any collection, and especially a first, often represent a great range of occasions and moods; it’s difficult to organize them around pervasive themes, and their quality may fluctuate widely. But if, like Susan Spear, the poet has talent and a command of her craft, curious readers will be rewarded.

Short of Breath: Poems in a Narrow Compass

What is verse, after all, but rhythmic speech? The sentences we construct to express our ideas can usually be made rhythmic by means of a few adjustments. In general, but by no means always, the process involves arranging syllables so that those receiving more stress alternate with those receiving less. And lines are generally contrived to end at either grammatical junctures or rhetorical break-points. It happens that the typical phrase-lengths of much English literary prose match up quite well with tetrameter and pentameter lines of verse, so that little violence need be done to versify it. Here, for example, is the opening of John Banville’s sequel to James’s Portrait of a Lady, called Mrs. Osmond:

A Life in Little

In the thin-sifted snow are tracks
of living things now dying of winter.
Far from the light the rank burrows
pulse with the rapid heartbeats of
small creatures struggling to stave off
……………………..the certainties of cold.

It has come down to this: this room
with bed and chair, a dirty window,
someone who will look in on him,
owing affection from the past,
small talk while waiting out the time,
……………………..blanket against the cold.

Here nuances of days mean little.
No relatives will gather round.
A futile life – will you do better? –
shames the reluctant visitor
who, debt discharged, now scurries to
……………………..the refuge of the cold.