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Loplop in a Red City by Kenneth Pobo

Circling Rivers, circlingrivers.com

Ekphrasis. It’s one of those arcane poetry terms that sounds foreboding, like onomatopoeia, caesura, and the catalectic line–terms that could double as medical disorders or the pharmaceuticals meant to treat them. Ekphrasis is a simple concept, once you get past the cryptic name. It comes from two Greek words: “ek” for “out” and “φράσις” for “speak”. It literally means to speak out vividly on a subject (person, place, thing, or experience), and for the Greeks it was a sort of rhetorical exercise in description. The ekphrastic poem in our day has acquired a more focused meaning: a poetic description of a work of art, not so much literal description as a poem inspired by the artwork. The best ekphrastic poems engage in an interactive and stimulating dance with the object. They emphasize, not merely the look but the object’s essence, or, they can focus on what the object inspires inside the writer. One thinks of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” for instance. The poem’s aim is not really trying to describe faithfully the look of the headless, armless, legless statue (although it does describe it in an evocative way). Rilke is more interested in personifying it, investing it with visionary power and illuminating its impact on the observer: “there is no part that does not see you / you must change your life.” Often a good ekphrastic poem does a double service for the reader. It sheds light on the artwork in a new way (the poet acting as creative visionary) and it touches, knocks, and opens up new semantic possibilities that were only tangential to the art, if they were ever there at all. It’s a bit like jazz improvisation. You take an old standard, unpack its chord chart and riff on it, creating something new and unforeseen in the original.

Ken Pobo’s latest poetry collection is a splashy, 90 page deep dive into the world of ekphrasis. His subjects are primarily late 19th through 20th century paintings: Symbolist, Post-impressionist, Expressionist, and Modernist works, and I think Pobo has felt the influence of the modernists in the style his writing takes on here. He’s long been a master of the short line free verse personal poem; in this collection, he’s let the paintings charge his work with experimental verve and at times, a surreal edginess. The poems are exuberant, filled with daring imaginative leaps. It’s a modernistic side of his work that has always been there, perhaps, but here he’s allowed it to come out and play with abandon. Sometimes he will leap directly from the painter’s work to confessional mode, as in the first lines from “Odilon Redon’s World”:

I stank at geometry–why
learn what makes
a triangle a triangle? My teacher said,

“It will make you logical.”

Not logical, I flunked.
In fact, I’m a failure
except I know a good
zinnia when I see one.
That’s not a small thing!

It’s not until halfway through the poem that Redon makes an appearance, his work offering an associative analogue and validation of the poem’s sentiment.

A lot of the time Pobo picks an oblique jumping off point, coming in from an unexpected angle, following a path of intuition until he collides with the artist’s work, and there the sparks fly. Sometimes, the engagement with the work is more immediate, as in “Mystery and Melancholy of a Street” on a painting by de Chirico:

For decades I’ve been the little girl
rolling her hoop down a strange street,

a shadow creeping up. I have a name

for it, Death. Maybe it will overlook me

Many of the poems are about Pobo finding a pathway into the painting in order to identify with the painter’s vision. He sees himself in its figures then hauls the painting’s subject matter into his personal world. Some are more anchored in the subject, as in “The Third of May” after the painting by Goya, which empathically enters into the subject position of the condemned man standing before the firing squad. Others are cast in the mold of surrealist romps that blend identification with dream image and intuition. The poems are capable of revelry and revelation, and moving from poem to poem, you never know what you’re going to get next. It’s a playful, upredictable course, and like modernism, the going is not always easy or obvious. But it is in the jump cuts and curious juxtapositions where the work gets most interesting. My favorites here, it’s probably no surprise, are the poems where I am familiar with the artwork he’s writing about, and it’s fascinating to witness how this poet sees and is impacted by those works.

It is a mark of artistic success when an ekphrastic poem makes you want to see the artwork for yourself. These poems will lead you to the search engines looking for his original sources. This is how Ken Pobo sees art, and you can’t help but wonder, will I see the same things he sees? Yes and no. His is an intense, personal vision. But what he does make you realize is that when you look at art, you CAN and SHOULD see for yourself. Loplop in a Red City is a testament to the power of art’s
ability to inspire.

– J. Esch

Robinson Jeffers

 

Our sardine fishermen work at night in the dark

of the moon; daylight or moonlight

They could not tell where to spread the net, 

unable to see the phosphorescence of the 

shoals of fish.

They work northward from Monterey, coasting 

Santa Cruz; off New Year’s Point or off 

Pigeon Point

The look-out man will see some lakes of milk-color 

light on the sea’s night-purple; he points, 

and the helmsman

Turns the dark prow, the motorboat circles the 

gleaming shoal and drifts out her seine-net. 

They close the circle

And purse the bottom of the net, then with great 

labor haul it in.

I cannot tell you

How beautiful the scene is, and a little terrible, 

then, when the crowded fish

Know they are caught, and wildly beat from one wall 

to the other of their closing destiny the 

phosphorescent

Water to a pool of flame, each beautiful slender body 

sheeted with flame, like a live rocket

A comet’s tail wake of clear yellow flame; while
outside 

the narrowing

Floats and cordage of the net great sea-lions come up 

to watch, sighing in the dark; the vast walls 

of night

Stand erect to the stars.

Lately I was looking from a night mountain-top

On a wide city, the colored splendor, galaxies of
light: 

how could I help but recall the seine-net

Gathering the luminous fish? I cannot tell you how 

beautiful the city appeared, and a little terrible.

I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all
together 

into inter-dependence; we have built the great cities; now

There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations
incapable 

of free survival, insulated

From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless, on
all 

dependent. The circle is closed, and the net

Is being hauled in. They hardly feel the cords drawing,
yet 

they shine already. The inevitable mass-disasters

Will not come in our time nor in our children’s, but
we 

and our children

Must watch the net draw narrower, government take all 

powers–or revolution, and the new government

Take more than all, add to kept bodies kept souls–or
anarchy, 

the mass-disasters.

These things are Progress;

Do you marvel our verse is troubled or frowning, while it
keeps 

its reason? Or it lets go, lets the mood flow

In the manner of the recent young men into mere
hysteria, 

splintered gleams, crackled laughter. But they are 

quite wrong.

There is no reason for amazement: surely one always
knew 

that cultures decay, and life’s end is death. 


Staff intern Katelyn Tarasiewicz got a chance to interview poet Patricia Clark this summer, on the occasion of her new chapbook, Wreath for the Red Admiral, published by Spruce Alley Press.

You are a professor. Where do you teach and what is your favorite course to teach?

I
teach at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. We have a Writing
Department separate from the English Department. I teach creative
writing. I love teaching our Poetry Workshop –
we have both an intermediate class and an advanced one. The
intermediate one is an especially good one to teach – students have
been introduced to poetry, but just barely. I get to show them some of
the wonderful contemporary poets writing today & unleash
them to write some poems.

Often I give “prompts” for poems – it is a
little less terrifying to have an assignment rather than just being told
to “Write a poem.” Students can write list poems, do a “found” poem;
they write about a work of art, doing an “ekphrastic”
poem. There are many fun assignments, as well as just trying a poem
“imitating Tony Hoagland, or Mary Oliver.” We do workshops of student
poems, and they are learning a lot about how to read poems carefully and
give comments (constructive ones) to other students.
By the end of the course, students put together a portfolio of their
work. They can make astounding progress in the course, and it is often
thrilling to see their growth as writers.

What
poets have influenced you to become the strong poet you are today,   and are there any specific poets/poems that inspired you to write this
new chapbook?

I
have certainly been influenced by my own teachers – Nelson Bentley,
Richard Hugo, Madeline DeFrees, Stanley Plumly, and Cynthia Macdonald,
as well as
Edward Hirsch. All of these teachers value lyrical poems that have
surprising turns of language and encourage poems that try to plumb
emotional depths. I continue in that tradition, I’d say.

I’m not sure
there are particular models I have in mind for the chapbook
– maybe the work of Jane Hirshfield. She’s a California poet whose
work I greatly admire, and I studied with her, briefly, at a poetry
workshop in Napa Valley.


You
have written other poetry books; what got you started in writing
chapbooks?  And what is different about this chapbook compared to those
you have done in the past?

A
chapbook is a briefer collection of poems – and chapbooks have become
very popular today. I see it as an opportunity to put a small collection
together, combining poems in a different
way from a long, full collection.  The poems in Wreath for the Red
Admiral
have not appeared together before – and I think of a collection
of poems as a kind of narrative, perhaps, with an emotional arc of some
kind. A reader is invited in at the beginning
of the collection, and then introduced to some issues or “problems,” if
you will, and then carried along on a journey of reading poems,
hopefully reaching a kind of resolution at some point, a satisfying
moment, perhaps, of insight or resolution. That’s what
I hope for with this small book.

I’ve
only done one previous chapbook. That was a somewhat different grouping
because the editors specifically wanted Michigan or Midwest poems. I
put them together with that intention, more
than having an emotional arc. 

Your books seem to focus on nature.  Is there a reason for that?

Yes,
there is nature in these poems – and that’s because the imagery of
nature intrigues me, inspires me, causes me to think and mull and muse
about things – and then I hope there are
deeper connections found. So I would resist, for example, someone
saying, “Oh, that’s a poem about bird nests in winter.” Yes, and no. It
does start with images of bird nests but I hope there is reflection,
pondering, and wondering that takes the reader on
a journey to some other realization – a way of seeing something new,
or in a new way.


Wreath for the Red Admiral is available through lulu.com, Amazon, Barnes and  Noble, and can be ordered from fine booksellers everywhere.

Chris Hancock

All mothers dream
Their sons will grow up strong.

All mothers worry
Something will go wrong.

Sons grow up playing war
Coming to dinner with mothers at home.

Sons will go off to far away wars

Leaving mothers to live alone.

Enough mothers lost their sons

In far away battles of retort

For the mothers who lost sons

To get together for support.

The Gold Star Mothers
Sought to ease the pain.
The Gold Star Mothers
Brought grieving mothers back again.

 

Note: “The Gold Star Mothers” is excerpted from Mothers Forever, a book of poetry examining the lives of three characters
beginning in 1887 and ending in 1980. Each character loses a son in either
World War II, the Korean War, or the Vietnam War. To help them cope with
their grief, each joined an organization called the American Gold Star Mothers,
whose purpose is to help mothers manage the pain of losing a child through
military service and to support hospitalized veterans. This poem takes place in
1946 as Martha Jackson is becoming a Gold Star mother after her son was killed
as a soldier serving as part of the Red Ball Express during World War II.


Chris Hancock lives in Kennett Square, PA and teaches Health and
Physical Education. His writing and photography can be seen at
chrishancock789.com.

Kenneth Pobo

It’s hard to
have a heart to heart
with a cow,
explaining that
while cows
are like beautiful
brown ships
sailing through red
dusk, they
can be a nuisance,

yes,
nuisance.  They roam our streets
as they see
fit.  One brilliant cow
unlocked
gates–until
she got shot
and died
in the
Presbyterian Church yard.
Women in
long dresses peeve
when cows
splat on wood sidewalks.

Bovine
gangsters run the town.
We don’t
scare them.  We think
we’re
modern.  After all,
it’s the
late 1800s.  Progress
kisses
merchants’ bald heads.
Loggers make
homes possible

far from
where Lake Superior,
The Great
Unsalted Sea, freezes
so that we
can walk to Madeline Island,
no fear of
sinking.  Spring
brings
cinnamon ferns,
more cows
like gods that stare
through our
open windows.


Kenneth Pobo had three new books in 2015: When The Light Turns Green
(Spruce Alley Press), Bend of Quiet (Blue Light Press), and Booking
Rooms in the Kuiper Belt (Urban Farmhouse Press).  He teaches creative
writing and English at Widener University.  He gardens, is somewhat of
an authority on Tommy James and the Shondells, and read Hardy’s
Return of the Native this June.

In Memoriam Liliosa
Hilao

Gonzalinho da Costa

I was
the first murder victim under Marcos’ martial law regime.
I will
not be the last casualty of political repression.
What
was my crime?
I
exercised my freedom of speech and expression.
They
were guaranteed under our constitution.
I
exercised my freedom of the press.
Associate
editor of Hasik, our university
student publication,
I wrote
articles like “The Vietnamization of the Philippines,” “Democracy Is Dead in
the Philippines Under Martial Law.”
The
year I died I was 23 years old, about to graduate with honors from Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila.
Soldiers
forced their way into my home, looking for my brother.
He was a
Communist, they claimed.
Not
there, they ate our family’s lunch, like wolves, no fairy tale.
Arriving
home with my sister, a high school student, I asked for a search warrant.
They
slapped me, forced me into a room, attempted gang rape.
They
beat my sister, damaging her hearing and eyesight.
Nighttime,
they hauled us both off to a military camp.
They
pummeled me like a live chicken before it’s stewed.
Bruised
all over, I resembled a ripe blackberry bush.
Injected
with “truth serum,” I turned into a tender, swollen orange punctured multiple
times.
Indentations,
gun barrel points, inscribed my flesh like seals of the Antichrist.
Ringed
by a bracelet of cigarette burns, my mouth hung open, a door about to shut.
Old hempen
bag, I collapsed in the cell I shared with my sister, middle of the night.
Powerless
to prevent further abuse, handcuffed by circumstances, my brother-in-law, an
army officer, visited me.
They
are my last witnesses.
Next
day, I was gang-raped in the men’s bathroom.
To destroy
my testimony, they poured muriatic acid down my throat
And
then alleged I had committed suicide.
Some compassionate
man, they said, attempted to save my life by stabbing my throat so that I could
breathe.
Hole in
my throat says otherwise.
I was
butchered like a pig, by pigs.
They
excavated my internal organs to destroy any evidence of rape.
They
divided my body, top of skull down to pubis, same purpose.
Again,
I ask, what was my crime?
I had spoken
on behalf of freedom, using my intellectual gifts from God.
My
brain was returned to my family in a pail.
I had
drawn courage from my heart, my deepest entrails, so to speak.
My
entrails were also returned in a pail.
I had opened
my mouth in protest.
My
tongue was cut in half.
I was the
poster girl for the fate of all those who dared to oppose the regime.
I am
the first. I will not be the last.
Never
forget.
Never
again.
Nie vergessen.
Nie wieder.


Author’s note: The poem is about the torture and murder of Liliosa Hilao during the
martial law regime of Marcos. Some artistic license has been used to
recreate her ordeal. The poem responds to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s
expressed intention to bury Marcos at the Cemetery of Heroes (Libingan
ng mga Bayani) on September 11, 2016. The poem protests Duterte’s action by inciting remembrance of the
heinous crimes committed under Marcos’ command responsibility. Allusion
to the Holocaust is intentional.


Gonzalinho da Costa—a pen name—teaches at the Ateneo Graduate School of
Business, Makati City, Philippines. He is a management research and
communication consultant. A lover of world literature, he has completed
three humanities degrees and writes poetry as a hobby.