A Literary Series
What Are Your Skills?
Every year at Sea School
we were taught that glaciers purr
and ice floes, huge
below the surface, were sunning cats.
Call ours a failed education.
If it makes you feel better,
call our hymns under night skies
But for thirteen years
we sailed on bluer water.
And all of us know well
how to arch our backs.
My favorite American artist is Romare Bearden. I especially love his collages. One called Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket, for example, led August Wilson (love him too) to write his play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. If I remember right, Wilson said the haunted-looking figure seated in the center became his character Harold Loomis. For me, though, it’s another figure coming down the stairs who makes the biggest impact. Out the window we see the dragon-fire and industry-teeth of smokestacks, and it’s clear that this man is on his way to work there, and he’s a normal-sized man, and the lunchbox on the boarding house table is normal-sized, but the man’s hand is huge: his hunger/need/soul so much bigger than the opportunities life as a black man in a mill town will provide. That’s a powerful commentary. It’s Social-Realism, only to get there Bearden ditches the realism.
I try to do that too, preferring myth, for instance, to confessional modes and sticking to the facts. And in the case of these two poems, I’m almost working in collage. Here’s what I mean: I was reading poems in Icelandic (Magnús Sigurdsson’s Cold Moons), a language I don’t know, and that’s partly why I liked it—I could just guess. I was free to approximate his letter/sound combinations, then shape and overlap from there.
For example, “What Are Your Skills?” is my guess about what Sigurdsson’s title “Vatnaskil” might be in English. And Icelandic words like “skolad,” “mér,” “purrt,” “hugarfljótid,” and “Undir nyjum / himni” became the fragments I combined into a Sea School, ice floes, purring cats, and hymns sung under night skies. Even better, my poem became a talking back to the ruling half of our country, and I swear that’s because I set out to write while brain-blind. Instead of having an editorial subject, I had mystery and questions.
That’s even truer of “Are You Hungry?” because I figured out what to call it last. At first I only had the title (“Vetrarhugar”) and Sigurdsson’s opening lines, “Pad hefur gránad / í fjöll,” which looked to me like “Paul’s grandfather fell.” The bonus was that I don’t know anyone named Paul, so I could skip the first-person personal and be an oracle instead, and why not when there’s a word like “haustvindarnir” looking so close to “house in the air”?
Are You Hungry?
Paul’s grandfather fell
from his house in the air
when his dreaming turned to birds.
Sometimes it means you’ll find a hawk’s egg,
and others it just means listen to the river
saying, “Start in my stream
below the mountain’s scar,
and ignore the bears around you.
Float still, a leaf, then find
momentum. You’ll gain the whole sea.”
are a common kind of travel,
whether just a journey
or a finding.
But you can’t peg orders, can’t call the shots,
or dreams stall, lose power,
maybe drop you
from your tree house. You’ll land
in an empty kitchen,
These poems, of course, aren’t actual collages. I know that. In an email, Magnús suggested an alternative term: “magnified or distorted collage, so to speak.” That phrasing is fine with me, at least for now and unofficially, since a magnified tree would be a redwood, and distorted and magnified details are what I like about Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket.
Anyway, I hope these poems work similarly… zeroing in by distorting. And maybe they magnified a moment of your day.
Read poetry by Rob Carney appearing in Terrain.org: 6th Annual Contest Finalist, 4th Annual Contest Winner, and Issue 30. And listen to a new radio interview with Rob Carney, and here’s an older radio interview.
Header photo of Iceland by 12019, courtesy Pixabay.