Tuesday, April 10, 2012

NPM: Stephen Cramer

Okay. So the Melville and Lovecraft poems we looked at were interesting, but fall short of stellar by varying distances. Now we move on to some prime cuts.

Forgive me if I've told this story before, but for most of my teenage to twenty-one years, poetry and I shared an antipathetic relationship. I didn't get poetry -- especially not the modern free verse stuff. It wasn't until I took a college course in formal poetry and started writing sonnets and terza rima myself that I began to understand and appreciate the stuff. (One of the sestina selections from last year observes a sinister pupose behind this often-observed pattern.)

So I submitted a piece I wrote for the class to the school's lit magazine, and the editors decided it made the grade. The faculty member overseeing the publication called in a couple of judges to select two of the issue's pieces (a short story and a poem) to earn special recognition as the cream of that semester's crop. The poetry judge chose my piece, giving me some English department cred and a fifty-dollar prize, which I promptly spent on more weed.

That poet was Stephen Cramer (born 1975?), and today we'll be looking at a few pieces from his Shiva's Drum collection. Most of these are among the ones I recall him reading out loud during his visit.

Remember what's been said about the necessity for a poem to sing? We've already looked at a couple of poets who understood how to write in the forms of poetry, but experienced some trouble coaxing out the music. Cramer shall serve as an excellent example of a poet who knows how to make spoken words sing out, and is really good at it. I would suggest reading them out loud -- but please, just read them. I ask for so little!

For Brendan

I knew her first as the rhythm
         of her cane on the floor above——faint
lexicon of creaks and taps that let me
         invent her cramped apartment——the certain
television, the recliner, and withered

         ottoman she sidesteps to the kitchen.
But it’s my neighbor’s laugh that turns
         The ceiling’s thick plaster to rice paper.
the same laugh that, outside, calls to her heels
         her scooter- and trike-propelled tribe

of neighborhood children, this extended family
         she’s adopted because polio’s kept her from kids
of her own. Outside the grocery she asks
         about my sister’s second child. Two years
of agencies, I answer, and still paperwork’ll

         keep him from her arms for weeks.
A transitional family, and another imagined
         room——portable crib, plush mobile
dangling from the respirator, and a rainbowed
         circus whirls to his charted pulse.

The sweet anxieties of early parenthood.
         Two decades of marriage, it’s 1975,
and my mother starts the new year
         with her own troubled pregnancy,
the early delivery that may not be early
         enough. First hours on the other side of labor,
and a clergy absolves the failing child——
         prayers, fogging the surface of a plastic
womb, blur his gestures to vague curves.
         Then, once the child’s prepared

for heaven, the doctors do their best
         to delay his trip, and he’s wheeled away
to the last of four transfusions, the one
         that finally sustains him. Those anonymous
donors, their blood bagged and chilled

         to come alive again in me——I’ve never wondered
until today what their names might be,
         what community of fluids cruises my veins.
Little one, all this to tell you something simple:
         we're of one blood. The grocery’s lights

fizzle and fade. My neighbor’s dark skin deepens
         to twilight. I’m walking her home, a bag
in each hand, and she’s describing
         the milk, eggs, flour, and the buttered
cornbread they’ll become. When I pull out

         the photo of a child, curled, almost,
into a fist-sized ball, she props her cane
         against the door. Ain’t that something, she says,
and laughs one of her two-syllable laughs
         that truly means ain’t that something.

Then she pauses, looks at the ground,
         and honey, she says, talking, now, almost
to herself, if you knelt each time
         a miracle passed your eyes,
you’d never get off your knees.


Penn Station’s cavernous staircase,
and two children whisper to the waists
of commuters—please ma’am, god bless
you sir
—each time one drops coins
to the cardboard they hold.
But beneath the wilting trays,
their hands sift through pants——
deftly, even gracefully——easy enough
when people’s sensations are lost
somewhere between missed cabs
and this backward syntax that sticks
in their mouths like sugar burnt
over peanuts on these corners.
Later, tallying cash and bruises,
the boys’ll toss down a grate
the incidental keys to no place
they know. But now, when a nearby
woman approaches, cradling a baby,
they give each other looks. Please,
you say, not her. Not her.
But then, the timing just right,
the woman——I can’t say this slowly
enough——she casts her baby
to the air——
            and there are seconds
when the baby’s suspended
with nowhere to land but pavement
before a stranger——what else to do?——
drops his bag to catch it. He’s looking
for burns, expecting blood, when at once
the woman and two kids grab
what they can, which is
everything——bag, wallet, keys.

How long does it take him
to know this was a design, a ruse
repeated time and again to perfection?
This time two incidental cops disrupt
their practiced sequence so, trading
their sister, their daughter, for a slim
handful of spoils, the three turn into crowd,
and the man’s left holding a child
at arm’s length, offering it back
to everyone or no one.
When no one takes, he finds
himself holding her to the sky
as though to bear witness that, yes,
here is a child, a breathing
prop, paused in a man’s arms
before the landslide of years——before
her hands can grow streamlined
to pocket lining, before she can sell
herself beneath these tattered lights,
trading the cardboard
for an orange mesh tanktop
with tears in all the right places,
her skin barely cupping
the curve of flesh where it swells
to deeper brown. But wait——none of this,
as yet, is so; something out there
wants to lift her from her own life. Look——
already someone opens a blanket
embroidered with a map to the air,
spreading India, Egypt, Peru, over her
shoulders arched against the siren.
And when they take her away,
that’s the last anyone sees——
not a single finger or knee-cap
of the girl, but only a blanket
that swaddles a lucky child
in the folds of a created world.

The Whetstone

Almost metallic, almost guttural——
     at times the sound’s so plaintive,
it could just about pass for human——
     this deep, grated hum at corridor’s end,
42nd Street. I’m drawn less by the music

     itself than by memory’s blind pull,
the twanged vibrato half-triggering——what?——
     already the moment’s gone, and I’m left
with the shift and commingling of the crowd.
     Then, there he is——a man’s dragging a bow
across the smooth edge of a three-foot
     hand saw——unlikely vehicle——his free hand
gliding then grappling, bending the metal
     to impossible notes the workshop
never dreamed of. Curve on top of

     curve——his creening neck mirrors the hard
arc of steel as it curls to follow
     a cascaded run of notes showered
from the tape deck behind him.
     His shuddering forearm seismic,

his wrist all nuance, he lets vibration
     polish rust to a silver burn, the metal
warped out of utility just to prove
     that anything–the busted tools
marooned in basement shadows——

     can be contorted into song. Memory’s
blind pull, then I close my eyes and
     I’m there in the dank cellar of the house
my grandfather built——strung roots
     dangling, drill bits hung in diminishing rows——

all he left behind. Back from the chapel’s
     service, I palmed his cross-hatched
whetstone, rubbing it to feel
     the years, hearing, almost,
the insistent whistle of his bait-knives

     and shears, the sinuous vocabulary
of scraping noises——rasp, grind,
     sputter——elevated, like this saw’s
fizzled solo, to music. I’ll retain
     from his life no lofty moment——

not the words of one intimate
     exchange——but a humble sense
of accuracy. If he were here
     now, he might not be able to articulate
all the facets of loss, but he’d tell me

     how many tiles trimmed this wall
to resonance, while all I try to say
     grinds to dust, coiled shavings.
After all our efforts, what lasts
     Besides the endless shaping

toward precision? Any memorial’s
     inadequate, double-sided
as this man’s blade still shimmying
     before me–—one edge can slice you
while the other keeps singing.

Abide with Me

If she can’t trace the cloudy
     synapses that lead to her daughter’s
          name, still my mother’s mother
can accompany Monk’s ensemble,

her throat trembling the high notes
     over the last state line before home——
          fast falls the eventide. She no longer
owns the strength to produce

all the sounds the spirit contains, songs
     from her other life when the Church
          lifted her even from the sudden fall
down the garden path that left her leg

useless. Home, the stale odor
     of a weeklong absence mixes
          with a smell we can’t name until we find
the sink spattered with white

and the glass birds fractured,
     sticky with real, matted feathers.
          Then it’s just a matter of finding
the catbird in the corner

who must’ve hurled himself
     again and again toward nothing,
          wounding these trinkets
until he owned their stone wings.

This morning, she wipes the pane
     smudgeless than rocks her chair further
          and further from this palmful of life
that couldn’t get out the way you hope

you will. Fast falls. What will stay with you
     as these lyrics have remained with her,
          what words to nudge you through
until you’re riding the last even tide,

rocking toward a sheen of clouds
     where the last thing you see is your own
          face before you pass through to light
or shatter with the trying?

What We Do

Metallic detonation arcs
     over Broadway's gulf, and the aluminum
          contorts to contain the continuous
syncopation wrecked into its side——

     with two feet of pipe
          a man's beating a keg till it turns useless
for anything else but to carry
     his liquid rhythms. He's drumming

          a rim full of dents, angled
facets that pull to themselves
     all the sun they can bear before tossing
          a tremelo of light off the bricks behind.

Look around: whatever this sound is
     that ricochets the streets is contagious——
          less drums than a seasonal quickening
that everything's so busy keeping up with,

     new desire mixing up the thick torpor
          of the past months. At my feet,
two pigeons struggle over any spare
     piece of garbage to entice a female.

          They fumble in this patch of spilled popcorn,
gurgling and churring in figure eights,
     inflating the sheen of their necks
          over their turf. Even when she dodges

away, they just keep flashing iridescence
     for no one. Noontime, the drummer's checking
          the metal where he's reflected
in more than one place, tucking a stray

     curl behind his ear. But just so you don't
          forget whose block this is,
when a woman goes by
     he's sent demonic, like he knows

          this commotion's for keeps,
and he's thrown into a shimmy
     of the hips which he rises out of
          just in time to fit the mechanical stumble

of a far-off jackhammer into his running
     cadence. These sounds the music wants
          to encompass, make its own,
so in the end, you can't tell if he's playing

     the drums or if they're playing him.
          Because when you're itching
to finish with your wrists
     the rumble that begins in your gut,

          this is what you do——you're ready
to bang on anything for love.
     You'll break your hands
          to get that rhythm out.

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