obscure poets: rosalía de castro

by Kristen McHenry

“Men think a talented woman a veritable calamity, and would rather marry the ass of Balaam than a bright girl.” *

Such is the complaint of Rosalía de Castro, early feminist, poet and novelist from the Galician region of Spain. Though her literary talents were disregarded for most of her life, several decades after her death, de Castro’s poetry became a major influence on Fredrico García Lorca and other Spanish Romantic poets. Today, she is revered in Galicia and is considered a champion of the poor and downtrodden.

De Castro was born 1837 into an well-to-do family. At that time in Spain it was traditional for girls of her social standing to be given over as children to rural peasant families, then reclaimed when they came of age. Through this arrangement, de Castro grew up in the impoverished Galicia countryside and developed a deep love of Galician lore and poetry, as well a life-long empathy for the poor and powerless.

When she was 14, she was reclaimed by her mother and enrolled in a girl’s school in Santiago where she studied music, art and writing. But the Galician countryside was in her blood and she was often homesick.  Scholars believe much of the pain and melancholy that permeates her poetry is a result of both the early separation from her mother and her longing to return to Galicia.

In 1856 de Castro moved to Madrid, where she wrote her first collection of poems, La Flor. The book captured the attention of Manuel Murguía, a journalist and editor, who gave the book a glowing review. The two soon married and she bore seven children, two of whom died within the first year of their lives. Married life was marred by financial troubles and grief over the death of their children, but de Castro managed to be fairly prolific, producing five novels and seven volumes of poetry before she died.

De Castro’s work has not been as widely translated as many other Spanish poets, and she is still sometimes unfairly described as a regional poet. Galicia was considered provincial and much of the disregard for her poetry was due to the fact that that she wrote mostly in Galician, a form of Portuguese. Translator Eduardo Freire Canosa explains: “Expected to speak and write in Spanish only, she took the bold, unconventional step of writing in the Galician language. Her defiance earned her the contempt and spite of that segment of the population for whom Galician was a dialect fit only for the illiterate and the churlish; but Rosalia’s gallant gesture won her the love and admiration of the rest.”

Later in life, de Castro became a champion of the Galician people and an outspoken advocate for Galician women, who were often abandoned and left defenseless when their husbands sought work abroad.

“A Disgracia” (“Misfortune”) exemplifies the quality of saudade — a Galician word meaning sadness and longing — a concept that runs throughout much of de Castro’s work.

Fae that is never
Satisfied, who redoubles her fury
At the bloodied sight of the deep wound,
Where does she come from? What does she want?
Why do you indulge her,
Mighty God who gaze on our woes?
Do you not see, Lord, that her force strangles
Faith and love in the spirit who trusts you?
How she hardens the heart that was
Once all softness! How she snuffs out
The light of hope which decanted a tranquil luster
Of existence on the heavenly bodies
Lending new vigor to the weary step
And greater courage to the fearful soul!
Everything wilts where she treads, her sole
Accursed ruins everything for evermore;
Her sticky mire muddles everything.
And what a deep hole she digs around
Whom she badgers!

“Follas Novas” (“New Medleys”) reflects de Castro’s strong sense of social justice:

Listen! The tax collectors
Are making the run of the hamlet;
But how to pay them, how, if one
Can’t even afford the rent?
“They will impound everything;
Their sort has no conscience or soul.
They will evict us,
Children of my innards!
“May a black hand strike you down
Before you get here…!
How sadly beat the hearts of the poor
When you are near!”
“Mary, if it weren’t
Because there is a God who punishes and rewards,
I would kill those men
Like the fox slays a hen.”
“Silence! Don’t blaspheme,
This is a vale of tears…!
But why must some suffer so much
And others pass their lives in gladness?

In “Has de Cantar” (“You Must Sing”), the sound of a young girl singing in the town square brings much-needed solace to the grief-stricken speaker.

Sing yes you must,
I’ll give you boiled chestnuts;
Sing yes you must,
I‘ll give you loads of them.

You must sing,
Little piperette,
You must sing
For I’m dying of heartache

Sing, little girl,
By the side of the fountain;
Sing, I will give you
Buns of polenta.

Sing, little girl,
With delicate cadence,
I’ll give you anisette crust cake
From the stone of the oven.

Pastry cream with milk
Too I will give you,
Soups seasoned with wine,
French toasts covered with honey.

….With the sound of the bagpipes,
With the sound of the drum
I beg do please sing,
Little girl—for the sake of God!

Rosalía de Castro did not begin to receive wide acclaim for her work until the publication of her last book in 1884, En las orillas del Sar (Beside the River Sar), which was written while she was suffering from terminal cancer. She died at the age of 47. At her request, her remaining manuscripts were destroyed by her daughter. Today, she is considered a major voice in Galician poetry and a key catalyst for the Galician renaissance.

If you find yourself in the Galicia region of Spain, you can visit Rosalía de Castro’s home, which has been turned into a museum.

* Rosalía De Castro in her 1856 book, Literary Women.

Translations are by Eduardo Freire Canosa and are used with kind permission. (He is happy to share these poems and others freely, so great is his admiration for de Castro’s work.)

kristen mchenryKristen McHenry works on poetry by night and health outreach by day. She created and facilitates the Poet’s Cafe, a weekly poetry workshop for homeless teens. She shares poetry and her thoughts on writing at The Good Typist.

obscure poets: jean-joseph rabéarivelo

by Kristen McHenry

Jean-Joseph Rabéarivelo lived his short and tumultuous life on the island of Madagascar during the time of French colonial rule. He was born in the capital Antananarivo (Tananarive) in 1901 to a mother who had once been a Malagasy aristocrat but who lost her property and fell into poverty after French colonization.

Rabéarivelo attended mainly French Catholic schools, until being expelled at the age of 13. After a brief stint in public school, he dropped out entirely and worked at various odd jobs, all the while reading voraciously and teaching himself everything he could about poetry. He eventually found low-paying work as a proofreader at the printing house Imprimerie de l’Imerina, a position he retained until his death in 1937.

During Rabéarivelo’s lifetime, the French placed heavy restrictions on writing in Malagasy (the native language of Madagascar), and all texts written in French by the Malagasy people were automatically classified as French literature. Rabéarivelo acted as a sort of dual ambassador for French literature as well as traditional Malagasy literature. He was heavily influenced by both the French Surrealists and the pagan/folkloric traditions of the native Malagasy.

He wrote in French and Malagasy, and was as deeply invested in preserving Malagasy literature and language as he was in expanding on the work of the French Surrealists. Rabéarivelo translated several works of Malagasy into French. He encouraged French-language texts by Malagasy writers to be recognized as Malagasy literature.

In part because of his commitment to both languages and traditions, Rabéarivelo was held in suspicion and banned from traveling by the French government, yet he was never fully embraced by his native Malagasy. He resisted definition and continued to pursue his poetic vision while confined to a life of relative poverty on the island.

He started a literary journal called Capricorne, contributed articles and critical essays to numerous publications, mastered the Spanish language, and translated many poems. Over the course of his lifetime, seven volumes of his poetry were published. His accomplishments were accompanied by agonizing personal difficulties, including drug addiction, depression and physical illness. He married in his early 20s. He and his wife had five children, including a daughter who died at age 3.

In spite of his personal anguish, Rabéarivelo’s poems reflect an ethereal, mythic universe and a deep connection to the natural world. In the poem “You There,” Rabéarivelo speaks of a mysterious symbiotic connection to the earth, birth and growth:

You there
standing naked!
You are mud and remember it –
actually you’re the child of this parturient dark
who feeds on the milkstuff of the moon,
then slowly grows into a trunk
above this low wall the dreams of flowers crawl over
and the smell of summer at a lull.

To feel, believe, that roots push from your feet
and slide and turn like thirsty snakes
down to an underground spring
or clutch the sand,
and marry you to it so soon — you, alive
tree, unknown, unidentified tree
swelling with fruit you’ll have to pick yourself.

His poem “The Three Birds” also reflects an affinity for the spiritual reflected in the natural world:

The Three Birds

The bird of iron, the bird of steel
who slashed the morning clouds
and tried to gouge the stars
out beyond the day
is hiding as if ashamed
in an unreal cave.

The bird of flesh, the bird of feathers
who tunnels through the wind
to reach a moon he saw in a dream
hanging in the branches
falls in tandem with the night
into a maze of brambles.

But the bird that has no body
enchants the warden of the mind
with his stammering aria,
then opens his echoing wings
and rushes away to pacify all space
and only returns immortal.

Rabéarivelo’s unusual use of language is present in this translation of a traditional Malagasy poem, “Lamba.” An excerpt of that poem reads:

Few trees bloom without leaves,
Few flowers bloom without perfume
and few fruits mature
without pulp you have the foliage,
you have the perfume,
you have the pulp of the old tree
that is my race in lamba.

Your name rhymes well with legs
in this long that I chose
to protect my name of the forgetting,
in this language which speaks to the soul
while ours murmurs to the heart.

Your name rhymes well with legs
with the legs which cover
your transparent sharpness:
But you, you rhyme well with several other things in my thought.

Your appearance rhymes with rocks, in Imerina.
When there is feast and that the crowd goes on terraces:
With the strips of peaceful egrets
which come to arise on the forests of rushes
as soon as the sun capsizes.

Petri Liukkon, at Books and Writers, says of Rabéarivelo: “By replacing the reality of a colonized civilization with his own images, he created a new isolated world, full of melancholy and bitter-sweet beauty.”

In spite of his quiet rebellion against French control, Rabéarivelo’s lifelong dream was to live and write in France. An opportunity arose for him to represent the colony through a special French program, but it was denied when a group of basket-weavers were selected instead. Grief-stricken by the death of his daughter and feeling that he lost his last only chance to realize his ambitions, Rabéarivelo committed suicide by poisoning at the age of 37. Some reports claim that he recorded his dying moments in his journal.

Unfortunately it was very challenging to find a wide selection of Rabéarivelo’s work online. But don’t despair! Rabearivelo’s book Translated From The Night is available through the publisher Lascaux Editions, with English translations by Robert Zillar.

Note: Translations of “You There” and “Three Birds” by Kelli Boyles.

kristen mchenryKristen McHenry works on poetry by night and health outreach by day. She created and facilitates the Poet’s Cafe, a weekly poetry workshop for homeless teens. She shares poetry and her thoughts on writing at The Good Typist.

obscure poets: ‘the only way out is through’ — the life and poems of akka mahadevi

by Kristen McHenry

Akka Mahadevi was a 12th-century Indian poet, mystic and saint who lived an unconventional life in every sense of the word. She was born in approximately 1150 A.D. in the southern India state of Karnataka to parents who were deeply devoted the Veera Shaivism movement.

Veera Shaivism was a radical spiritual and political movement that opposed the religious power and interference of the orthodox Brahmin priests and instead sought to worship through direct communion with the divine. They formed their own community, dissolved the caste system and lived, worked and prayed together in satsang. Females in the Veera Shaivism community were granted some of the same rights as men, such being taught to read, write and study scriptures, as well as having access to the gurus.

It appears from her writings that in her early teens, Mahadevi received a spiritual initiation and experienced a moment of oneness with the Divine. From that point on, her entire life became a fervent search to return to oneness with God. In her short lifetime, she wrote over 400 poems (in the form of vacanas*), chronicling her chaotic spiritual and emotional journey.

Far from being the remote and impersonal songs of worship that characterized of many of the vacanas of that time, Mahadevi’s poems reflect a deeply personal expression of her struggles and feelings. She wrote of her own rage, despair, feelings of abandonment, longing and even sexual frustration. The pain of separation from the divine, Chennamallikarjuna (translated as “Lord White as Jasmine”), was so painful for her she thought of nothing else but union with him:

Not one, not two, not three or four
but through eighty-four hundred thousand vaginas
have I come.
I have come through unlikely worlds,
guzzled on pleasure and on pain.
Whatever be, all previous lives,
Show me mercy, this one day,
O Lord white as jasmine.

Some of her poems are directly addressed to her husband, Kaushika, a non-Shaivist royal whose proposal she initially rebuffed but was forced into marrying when he threatened violence to her family. Mahadevi considered herself spiritually wed to Chennamallikarjuna, and it’s unclear if her marriage to Kaushika was ever consummated. In her poem “You Came with No Hesitation,” Mahadevi chastises Kaushika and tells him that she is in love only with God:

You came with no hesitation, O brother,
As the form was pleasing to your eyes.
You came deluded by a pleasure you heard of,
You came lusting after the female form.
Not seeing that it is only a tube from which piss drips.
You came, O brother, blinded by desire.
Driving away supreme bliss by perverted intelligence,
Not knowing why this is so,
Mind not realizing this as the source of pain.

You came, O brother.
Men other than Chennamallikarjuna, jasmine-tender,
Are only brothers to me;
Off, get off, you fool.

Her poem “I Have Maya for Mother-in-Law” reveals her how constricted she felt living with Kaushika and his family:

I have Maya for mother-in-law,
the world for father-in-law;
three brothers-in-law, like tigers;
and the husband’s thoughts
are full of laughing women;
no god, this man,
And I cannot cross the sister-in-law.
But I will give this wench the slip
and go cuckold my husband with
Chennamallikarjuna, my Lord.

After only a short time with Kaushika, Mahadevi renounced all of her possessions and ran away — in a quite dramatic fashion! She stripped naked as a symbol of her asceticism and began journeying with no provisions throughout Southern Indian, singing her poems and praying to Chennamallikarjuna, accepting food and shelter at the mercy of strangers. Although it was common for male ascetics to reject clothing, this behavior was shocking for a woman, and to travel alone was extremely dangerous:

Don’t despise me as
She who has no one.
I’m not one to be afraid,
whatever you do.
I exist chewing dry leaves,
My life resting on a knife edge.
If you must torment me,
Chennamallikarjuna,
My life, my body
I’ll offer to you, and be cleansed.

She eventually made her way to an ashram that was run by a renowned Shaivite guru named Basava, where she began a life of discipleship and continued writing poems. But her struggles were far from over as she settled into a new life of self-reflection and discipline.

During her time in the ashram, her poems tell the story of her journey to self-awareness; coming to understand the internal factors that contributed to her own unhappiness, and going through the painful process of accepting, loving and releasing them. As I read the poems Mahadevi wrote during this time, I was struck by how contemporary and relevant her struggles felt to me. For example, she speaks in her poem “Show Me” of the suffering that her worldly attachments cause her:

Lord, see my mind touches you
Yet doesn’t reach you;
My mind is troubled.
Like a toll-keeper at the city gates,
My mind is unhappy.
It cannot become empty
Forgetting duality.
Show me how you can become me,
O Chennamallikarjuna, jasmine-tender.

In “’Til You Know,” Mahadevi speaks of the necessity to fully enter the emotional experience in order transcend it:

Till you’ve earned
knowledge of good and evil
it is
lust’s body,
site of rage,
ambush of greed,
house of passion,
fence of pride,
mask of envy.

Till you know and lose this knowing
you’ve no way
of knowing
my lord white as jasmine.

Ma Devi, in “Riding the Blue Sapphire Mountain,” says, “Akkamahadevi is an archetype. She represents the search for happiness, fulfillment and purpose familiar to us all. She struggled with her body, her personhood, her feelings and thoughts, her love of God, and her desire to be free of social and family obligations.” Akka’s commitment to her path never wavered, and she used all the tools at her disposal (charm, intelligence, anger, and I suspect a fair bit of duplicity) to circumvent societal norms and follow her passion.

What eventually happened to Mahadevi is unclear. Historical records indicate that she died in her mid-20s, although there is no verifiable proof of this. The prevailing story is that she spent the last months of her life away from the ashram in various caves, completing her process of enlightenment. She is believed to have disappeared in the banana groves at Shreeshail in Andhra Pradesh while in divine union with God. It is said that she burned up in a flash of light, leaving only her poems behind as a chronicle of her spiritual journey.

Like a silkworm weaving
her house with love
from her marrow,
and dying
in her body’s threads
winding tight, round
and round,
I burn
desiring what the heart desires.

I was unable to find a single definitive source for all of Mahadevi ’s poems, but you can read a selection of this courageous poet’s work at: Poet Seers.

There are also several anthologies of Indian poetry that contain Jane Hirshfield’s translations of Mahadevi’s work.

* Vacanas are a form of writing that evolved in the 12th-century India as a part of the Veera Shaiva “movement.” Vacanas literally means “that which is said.” Vacanas are brief poems, and they end with one or the other local names under which God is invoked.

kristen mchenryKristen McHenry works on poetry by night and health outreach by day. She created and facilitates the Poet’s Cafe, a weekly poetry workshop for homeless teens. She shares poetry and her thoughts on writing at The Good Typist.

obscure poets: barrie phillip nichol

by Kristen McHenry

Canadian Barrie Phillip Nichol (or bpNichol, as he was commonly known) was a prolific experimental poet whose major body of work was written during the 1960s and 1970s. He was widely known for his hand-drawn and concrete poetry, although he described his art as “borderblur” and worked in a number of mediums, including cartooning, sound poetry and computer texts. He was an avid collaborator and worked with his contemporaries on an wide range of projects, sometimes even inviting readers to send him their own reinterpretation of his texts. In 1970, Nichol received Canada’s highest literary honor, the Governor General’s Award. He was beloved among his friends and colleagues, and his sudden death at age 44 left many distraught. His friend and fellow poet Lionel Kearns recalls:

We all loved him. When he died, suddenly, in his 44th year, on the surgeon’s table, by accident, it was terrible. Barrie had hundreds, perhaps thousands, of close friends in the literary community and in the world. He was a very special human being. Everyone who knew him will tell you that. It was always a privilege and pleasure to be with him … Barrie worked hard. He was a model poet, always committed to his craft, always inventing, experimenting, turning the language into forms and figures that were as unique as they were elegant, and full of evocative power and insight. Not that his work is difficult or obscure — he appreciated simplicity and directness. He was playful but sincere, honest but delicate. I can think of no one else who was like him at all.*

In his series “Translating Translating Apollinaire,” Nichols repeatedly reworks a single poem with multiple interpretations. Each poem stands alone as a strong piece, but to read them together in a sequence provides a fascinating glimpse into Nichol’s sense of the plasticity of language, and his expansive creativity. The original version of the poem is rewritten using variations such as replacing words with antonyms from Roget’s Thesaurus, placing each word in the poem in alphabetical order, and replacing words with their meanings taken directly from the dictionary.

Here’s an example: **

TTA 4 (original version)

Icharrus          winging up
Simon the Magician     from Judea     high in a tree,
everyone     reaching for the sun

great towers of stone
built by the Aztecs, tearing their hearts out
to offer them, wet and beating

mountains,
cold wind, Macchu Piccu hiding in the sun
unfound for centuries

cars whizzing by, sun
thru trees passing, a dozen
new wave films, flickering
on drivers’ glasses

flat on their backs in the grass
a dozen bodies slowly turning brown

sun glares off the pages, “soleil
cou coupé,” rolls in my window
flat on my back on the floor
becoming aware of it
for an instant

TTA 5 (rearranging words in poem in alphabetical order)

a   a a,
an and aware   Aztecs back   backs beating becoming bodies,
brown   built   by   by   cars

centuries cold cou coupé
dozen dozen drivers’ everyone, films flat flat flickering
floor for for, for from glares

glasses,
grass great, hearts hiding high Icharrus in in
in in instant

it Judea Macchu, Magician
mountains my my, new of
of off offer, on
on on on

TTA 19 (replacing words with their meanings using
Webster’s Dictionary for Everyday Use)

Icharrus furnished with wings, enabling him to fly or hasten (wounded
in the wing, arm or shoulder) to or toward a higher place or degree;
Simon the one skilled in magic (a conjurer), out of Judea, elevated far
up indicating a present relation to time, space, condition, the
indefinite article, meaning one perennial plant having trunk, bole, or
woody stem with branches; all possible people stretching out their
hands, straining after a conception, or to denote a particular person
or luminous body round which earth and the other planets revolve.

There are about 50 different interpretations of this poem in Nichol’s collection, a number of which include references to a separate body of work called Probable Systems. The weaving of his poems into another over decades creates a kind of epic poetic “novel” that reflects his sense of interconnection and his reluctance to overemphasize one single poem or body of work.

In the early ’80s, Nichols took concrete poetry a step further and began experimenting with computer-generated text. His first collection of animated digital poetry came together as “First Screening,” made up of poems that he composed using the earliest Apple Basic programming language. Ironically, “First Screening” can no longer be seen in its original format since the technology used to create it quickly became obsolete, but a few of Nichol’s dedicated colleagues preserved the work by translating it into several different forms that can be downloaded or viewed online.

7 by bpNichol is a set of later digital poems that can be viewed online. The poem “Historical Implications of Turnips” playfully explores a single word. The first line of the poem is, “turnips are,” after which the word “turnip” is flashed on the screen in numerous variations: urnspit, stunrip, ritpuns, spurtin, tinspur, rustpin and so on. The seven short poems in this collection highlight Nichol’s strong sense of visual composition and sound, but they are more than just simple word play. Friend and contemporary Dan Waber describes Nichol’s digital work as an extension of his traditional poetics, as it uses “a set of techniques that weave through so many of his other explorations: repetition, permutation, self-reflexivity, self-referentiality, the visual page as a compositional space, and the word and the letter as manipulatable aspects of the language.”

In spite of his early demise, most of Nichol’s extensive body of work has been preserved online by his colleagues and family. Several links are included below. I hope you’ll take some time to explore his fascinating work!

View or download First Screening. Read Translating Translating Apollinaire. Read more about Nichol’s life and work.

* From On bpNichol by Lionel Kearns.

** The original version is shown in its complete form; the translations are abridged. For the complete versions in sequence, see the links above.

kristen mchenryKristen McHenry works on poetry by night and health outreach by day. She created and facilitates the Poet’s Cafe, a weekly poetry workshop for homeless teens. She shares poetry and her thoughts on writing at The Good Typist.

obscure poets: suzette haden elgin

by Kristen McHenry

I discovered Suzette Haden Elgin about a year ago. I was doing research for a science fiction poem, and I came across an organization called The Science Fiction Poetry Association. I was surprised (and excited!) to find that there was an organized group of writers working in this genre, and that the founder of the organization was a woman — Dr. Suzette Haden Elgin.

The multi-talented Elgin, grandmother of 10, holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of California, San Diego and has written numerous poems, short stories, songs and serial novels. She is author of the poetry guide The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook and inventor the language Láadan, which was used in her book Native Tongue. She’s also an accomplished visual artist and musician.

Elgin has worked hard over her career to bring literary credibility to the genre of science fiction poetry, to create meaningful definitions for the term and to encourage science fiction poets to apply high standards to their work. In her essay “About Science Fiction Poetry,” she states:

It seemed to me that the field of science fiction poetry badly needed rigor, so that there would be a way to stand up and argue for its literary value. People look at Picasso’s abstract paintings and object that their 6-year-old child could do that — but Picasso could put a pencil on a sheet of paper and draw a magnificently realistic horse as a single line, without ever lifting the pencil from the paper. That’s rigor. Because he could do that if he chose, he could also break all the rules if he chose; that’s fair. I wanted science fiction poetry first to prove that it could do the thing rigorously; after that, if it wanted to fly off into the never-nevers, it would at least be possible to point to the body of rigorous work and say, “When science fiction poets choose to, they can write like this; they’ve proved that, and now they have the right to break the rules.”

Elgin is also a strong believer in science fiction writing as a powerful tool for women and stated in a 1999 interview with Kim Wells, “Women need to realize that SF is the only genre of literature in which it’s possible for a writer to explore the question of what this world would be like if you could get rid of [X], where [X] is filled in with any of the multitude of real world facts that constrain and oppress women. Women need to treasure and support science fiction.”

Many of her works, including the aforementioned Native Tongue, use science fiction to explore themes of women’s personal transformation. In her poem, “Bardo Crossing,” Elgin describes the frightening journey of a young woman as she leaves behind her life acting out familiar roles and steps into the expression of her true self:

far away, on the silent deserts,
you can hear the singing of the lizards.

One creeps beneath a rock and shivers with joy.
So long as they sing in the purple desert light,
so long as they stay small,
they are bearable creatures.
Were one to see them large,
howling against a sky snagged by a raw moon,
the holy men of the sands would see the people
going out in the dead of night with their flasks of poisons
into the dens of the lizards,
destroying them utterly.

In order to reach the other side,
in order to pass the Window by,
she must see them large,
rampant, their claws covered with dung,
pierced by the spiny plants they skitter among;
she must know them for what they are.

Elgin’s poetry avoids the clichéd realm of space wars and time travel and instead uses science fiction as a springboard for exploring the vast potential of culture and society. In her poem, “Brochure from the Intensive Care Ward: 2081,” she imagines a futuristic hospital where those who have been exposed to poetry and are therefore “hopelessly infested/with images” are aggressively treated with prose:

… Poetry was a slow and agonizing suicide.

No more those gouts of wet and living rose.
Now we apply the tourniquet of prose
and staunch the torturing truth before it flows.

One of my favorite poems of all genres is Elgin’s “Psalm to Higher Power,” in which she explores the inner life of the numerous bacteria that we casually kill off in our everyday lives:

There is a bacterium the color of melted butter,
under the microscope,
stunned and limp in the maw of a great blue molecule
that can only be sicced upon it by prescription.
I look at the gory photograph by chance,
as it caught my attention
– I was just passing by — I feel compassion.
(I am reminded, eyeless though it is, of the baby seals.)
What plaints it raises, and to what power, I will never know;
but I cannot keep from thinking: “Poor little thing!”

We stand under the sky and we shake our fists.
We demand to know why You have forsaken us.
We flatter ourselves.
Holy One:

Do You ever think (perhaps of Somalia or the Sahel
or of the South Bronx):
“Poor little thing!”???

Although I’ve always been interested in science fiction as a concept, I’m fussy about the execution. My willingness to read any particular science fiction work is dependent on how well the author grounds the works in the realities of human experience. What intrigues me about Elgin’s poetry is that even as it reaches into the realm of the speculative and fantastic, it never feels overly abstracted or so far from common experience that I find myself bewildered or bored. She uses science fiction as a tool to expand and deepen her exploration humanity and society, an approach that inspires me to continue with my own forays into science fiction poetry. That’s been the missing link for me in so much of science fiction, so I’m really happy to have found this amazing, if perhaps not so well-known, poet!

Complete versions of “Brochure From the Intensive Care Ward: 2081” and “Psalm to a Higher Power” can be found at sfwa.org.

Elgin’s interview with Kim Wells can be found on womenwriters.net.

kristen mchenryKristen McHenry works on poetry by night and health outreach by day. She created and facilitates the Poet’s Cafe, a weekly poetry workshop for homeless teens. She shares poetry and her thoughts on writing at The Good Typist.

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  • read write poem napowrimo anthology
    June 20, 2010 | 1:36 pm

    The Read Write Poem NaPoWriMo Anthology is still in production. Selection, placement, layout and copyediting are taking longer than anticipated. Thank you for your patience. I hope to have the piece completed in July. For those who have emailed asking if they can be included, the May 7 deadline for submission of work stands. Those who met that deadline will be included. Please check the post on this site listing who I received submissions from by that date. If you submitted your work by the May 7 deadline in accordance with our guidelines and your name is not listed, send an email to info (at) readwritepoem (dot) org.

  • read write poem napowrimo anthology
    May 5, 2010 | 3:09 pm

    Remember that Friday* is the deadline for submitting work to the Read Write Poem NaPoWriMo Anthology. Check out the guidelines for submission in the main column (to the left). On May 8, we’ll post a news item listing everyone we’ve received work from. If you submitted work and your name is not on that list, please let us know. Thanks!

    *I initially said “tomorrow,” but I meant to say “Friday.”

  • napowrimo congratulations, and a reminder
    April 24, 2010 | 12:05 pm

    It’s the final week of the Read Write Poem NaPoWriMo Challenge! Just 7 days left. With that, a reminder that Read Write Poem will culminate with the anthology featuring work from those who complete the challenge. A post with details for submitting to the anthology will be published May 1. Be sure you remove any information from the site that you want preserved — such as group content and personal messages. Those elements of the site will be removed May 1 as well. The main site will remain up as an archive.

  • ‘underlife’ tour at january gill o’neil’s blog
    April 20, 2010 | 8:11 pm

    January Gill O’Neil’s virtual book tour has moved to her site and is underway now. Check out the lineup at Poet Mom.

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