Earlier this year, Josh Roark and I took a close look at two poems he had recently published in Frontier, the publication where he serves as editor in chief. Our chat about ‘Burning Haibun’ by Torrin Greathouse was featured on the blog in September and below, you’ll find the second half of this conversation, focused on ‘Flamingo,’ by Cheryl Pearson. Incidentally, Frontier recently nominated ‘Flamingo’ for a Pushcart—best of luck, Cheryl!
For readers who missed the first installment, here are a couple of words from Josh on Frontier’s mission: ‘Frontier seeks to be a space that accurately represents the people who enjoy poetry, the people who are reading poetry, the people who are writing poetry. Every identity and self-position is welcome.’
Rachel: What if we start by looking at ‘Flamingo’s’ arrangement on the page? Any thoughts on why the author chose to use couplets of different lengths or why this form works?
Josh: Compared to ‘Burning Haibun,’ the pace here is a lot slower. What Cheryl has done is really slow down and let things settle in the mouth of the reader. This poem is just a pleasure to read out loud.
And now the pale flames are licking at the glass
with long tongues of rosy light. Or else the yolk
of sunrise broke, and washed each bird in its blush,
You feel there’s a patience and an authority with the language that really comes out. I was reading this out loud before we started talking—there’s a real organic meter that she does, with the way these lines shorten or lengthen.
Then you drop down to the middle:
the knobs of their knees are braced –
studs of colour, a bud on a branch,
the knot on the rope of a boat in the harbour.
Rachel: I love that part. The ‘o’-sound and the rhythm, how the piece builds to this moment so naturally. Because the poem isn’t tied to any regulated form, it’s so satisfying when that line comes, beginning with ‘the knot.’
Josh: Right. You have the sort of sprawling line of unstressed syllables, and then you get into, immediately,
light as merengues.
as delicate. You describe them solely
in breakable language – eggshell, teacup
Those are hard syllables. So she goes back and forth in such an invisible and subtle way.
I come back to Frost again here. This is a poem, that were I to teach it, I would teach it as beginning in delight and ending in wisdom. We begin with the natural beauty of these birds and end with these questions,
Do you think you are capable
of grace like this? To step into cracked water,
and mend it?
Rachel: That address reminds me of Rilke, ‘you must change your life.’ We’re looking at the archaic torso and then ourselves—here, we’re looking closely at the flamingos and then there’s this turn. Who do you think the ‘you’ is? Is it the reader, is it poetry, is the speaker talking to themselves?
Josh: All of those, right? Particularly, though, I see it as the poet talking to herself. There’s this quiet moment that we’re all familiar with. When you take the time to admire things, you are humbled.
Do you think you are capable
of grace like this?
You are humbled by something as simple as flamingos standing there in the water, in the cracked water. This is a moment of humility that feels familiar. It is an admiration and it leads to a deeper contemplation that only feels natural.
Rachel: I was interested in those cracks, because they happen dramatically right around the time the ‘you’ is introduced. We get the breakable language, the line break on capable, cracked water. There are all these openings.
Josh: I mean, the moment is fragile, right? Just like the birds are fragile, the water is fragile. The moment of being capable of asking yourself that question, it’s a fragile moment. The delicacy comes when you make that turn away from the objects, you go more inward. You have to approach it very softly.
Rachel: I’m realizing now that the poem does prepare us for this. There’s a broke in the yoke, there’s the softness of the peach growing down. There’s delicacy setting us up for these bigger moves. And then it’s so bold to say something like all are exquisite or all that beauty. The speaker holds forth with these really ‘poetic’ pronouncements that are hard to get away with, and yet this works so well.
Josh: I think poets who haven’t spent as much time on their poems, they’re writing these same lines: all are exquisite, or love is borne. But it doesn’t work because they don’t have that delight. And that delight takes work and practice. It’s delight in image. It’s delight in sound. It’s delight in what’s happening to your body as you read the poem.
All that takes a lot of hard work, which Cheryl does here so subtly. We have these phrases with periods, capitalization, and everything is very plain. The poem doesn’t announce itself, doesn’t say ‘I’m doing a lot here for you.’ It’s simple but just the way she organizes her syllables, the stressed and unstressed, the way she uses alliteration and slant rhymes within the lines and across the poems—it’s experienced without congratulating itself.
Rachel: The other bold-seeming thing to me is that, although the images are sensual, and like you said, you feel them in your body, they’re wildly varied. You listed some in the intro: yoke, wine, flaming knots. We’re spanning the galaxy in seconds.
Color, bud, merengue. I could imagine in workshop, people being like ‘whoa whoa whoa, pick a couple images and stick with them.’ But this poem is able to hold all these things, beautifully.
Josh: I’m reading Kaveh Akbar’s new book, he does this too. You span the universe with the images but it doesn’t feel like a stretch. It feels like, how is all this inside the person? How do they contain this? In my own writing, I’d be happy with just one of these images, to anchor one of my poems. How does Kaveh or Cheryl hold all this together and just keep writing more and more poems like this?
Rachel: It’s magic. It’s magic and also talent in craft, right? I’m wondering now whether the couplets are significant, because there are these anchoring pairs that are happening in the poem between these large concepts and vibrant images.
Josh: It’s true, and the image of the poem even looks like a box of birds, laid out parallel in the water standing. They’re thin, and not all one shape.
Rachel: Is there a stand-out line for you?
Josh: Yeah, definitely. If I had to pick one:
The vase of the throat opens.
The mouth brims with roses. How can the earth bear it?
Rachel: What is it about that for you?
Josh: At Frontier, we really like language that incorporates the body, that manifests the body on the page. Because when you read about the throat or the mouth, the wrist, you feel it there. Your body becomes a reader as well. If I’m just reading a poem that has no body language or body imagery, a poem that is fundamentally abstract, from almost beginning to end, I get itchy to go somewhere else.
The poet has to do the work of getting the body’s attention. It’s as simple as using body parts in your poetry. The vase of the throat opens, my throat opens. As I read it, as I say it out loud, I can feel it in my mouth, the mouth brims with roses. I can feel a bouquet, coming off of my lips in a line.
You can find out more about Frontier here, and submit poetry to them through this link.