Friday, October 28, 2011

Poem of the Week: Jane Seitel

Jane Seitel

Suspension of Disbelief

I wake into yet another day of doubt

creeping in as ants through a warped doorjamb.

The morning news brings new atrocities

as I pour milk neither sweet nor sour into the memorial

glass. At breakfast, I read the morning paper.

The Jordan becomes a cesspool, which may run dry given

another year. Half a century of buried landmines

seed her weedy banks, rank pottage strewn

by us, by them, exploding at the lightest step.

Yesterday's fragments shattered the leg of some poor

boy. The radio drones a politician's promises

of peace. While I make my roux, waves bite stagnant air,

on Av's first Friday. It will take chemistry, not miracles,

to proof this challah. I don't believe in miracles, though

in my pre-dawn dream, Elisha visits, bald prophet

who filled empty sinkholes with water and quenched our thirst,

Elisha who sweetened Ein Es-Sultan's poisoned spring.

Now Naaman the Syrian general comes bent, moaning,

greaves cast off, javelin fallen, his skin leprous scabs.

Elisha disobeyed a mighty king: Let him come to me,

and he will learn there is a prophet in Israel. Elisha ordered

Naaman immerse seven times in the Jordan, his savaged

lesions healed, the warrior's body salvaged.

Then in my dream, I see his face; the shattered boy

of yesterday's news. The prophet holds a stick in his left hand,

a prosthetic olive branch. He touches the leg, birthing new bones.

The calf becoming muscular, the thigh again a pillar.

Then in an ordained gesture, Elisha throws the branch deep

into bucking whirlpools, as from the Jordan's silted throne

a mason's ax emerges, bucking on the eddies. On the shore

Solomon's temple rises, beside it a domed mosque rises

from a severed branch-from these ceded waters.

-Jane Seitel

Used by permission.

Jane Seitel is an Expressive Arts Therapist, (Lesley University), who has recently completed her MFA in Poetry at Drew University. Her poetry has appeared in Bridges, Poetica, Prairie Schooner, Midstream, and is forthcoming in The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. She is the 2010 recipient of The Charlotte Newberger Prize for Poetry. She has worked with children, adults and animals in the spirit of tikkum olam, and has just finished her first poetry manuscript.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Review of The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands

The following review was written by Louise Helferty, Split This Rock intern, Summer 2011.

Nick Flynn is the author of two memoirs, The Ticking Is the Bomb and Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. He is also the author of two previous works of poetry, Blind Huber and Some Ether.

The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands is his first new poetry collection in nearly a decade.

From the offset of his latest collection, it is abundantly clear that Flynn’s time spent in Turkey interviewing former Abu Ghraib detainees, has unsurprisingly had a deep and lasting effect. As was the case in his most recent memoir, The Ticking Is the Bomb (2010), in which he chronicled his post Abu Ghraib work, collecting the testimonies of Iraqi men who were unjustly detained and tortured, The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, is predominantly informed by the subject of torture. In around two dozen poems organized into three parts, Flynn considers the plight of soldiers trained never to question authority and the acute betrayal of trust encoded in orders to commit profound and disturbing acts of torment.

The style employed by Flynn in the captain asks for a show of hands, is often rather abstract. Indeed his content is frequently mimicked by his structure as he parallels the confusion inherent in our relationship to war and torment, with that of distortion of syntax and form. This is vividly portrayed in this opening section from his poem “earth”:

last night I wandered, capt’n, the earth
bright and poison, I

staggered, a forced march, yes, then
digging, a grave, made to dig my own

gave someone muttered ‘kiss
my ass’, a body walked into the

earth, I saw my own body, covering itself
with earth, my body becoming


Indeed, “earth” was one of my favorite poems in the collection. With its potent mix of frustration, urgency and naivety, Flynn’s heavy satire and social critique is somewhat underscored by the genuine earnestness of his speaker:

if I understand the memo right, capt’n, we can use
water, but we cannot use earth–that is,
we can simulate drowning, but not
burial–is that right, sir,
capt’n? I’ve read
the memos &; I want to do
what’s right

This almost blur that Flynn creates between torturer and tortured is further exemplified in his "seven testimonies (redacted)," which was for me, without a doubt, the highlight of this collection. The poem is composed of Flynn’s fragmented redact of testimonies given by Abu Ghraib detainees whereby he uses erasure to manipulate the pre existing words and phrases:

broomstick was I was
you are we want-

one better one blanket
for under & one

& fifteen days of food. One man had
a heart, a pill under

As with the above excerpt, Flynn’s technique paints a most disorienting and ominous picture throughout the entire poem. Figures and objects loom, suggestive of violence and suffering, forcing us to use our imagination to puzzle the pieces together. Flynn also, however, includes the original testimonies in the book’s notes section, where we learn, for example, that the above quoted broom is as reprehensible as suspected: “The broomstick was metal. I was hit in the face, back, legs...” For me this is most important as the knowledge garnered from the original transcripts provides a horrifying and potent depth to the poem, making it, and the voices of the detainees impossible to forget.

Flynn has created in The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, a powerful and important book of poetry. By engaging with the contemporary world, and its atrocities, Flynn faces up to some of the most difficult and uncomfortable questions and confusions of our time, and his devotion to the consideration and confrontation of dark truths, compels the reader to do the same.

Nick Flynn
The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands
Graywolf Press

Graywolf Press provided a free review copy of this book to Split This Rock Poetry Festival.

Monday, October 24, 2011

All over the world, poets stand up for progressive change

DC's Walk of Shame Brings Silenced Voices to International Action

“What if we stand outside the embassies of some of those countries and read the silenced poets’ poems so they can be part of 100 Thousand Poets for Change too?”

The Poetry Walk of Shame was born. We chose three countries with egregious human rights records, from three parts of the world, whose embassies were within walking distance of one another. Sadly, this was not a difficult task. The embassies of Yemen and Burma are tucked into a leafy corner of DC called Kalorama, just northwest of Dupont Circle. And just downhill, on a stretch of Massachusetts Avenue known as Embassy Row, stands an unprepossessing row house, the embassy of Turkmenistan.

Video of exiled Burmese poet Kyi May Kaung (in photo) reading her poems at the Burmese embassy is here, courtesy of This Light: Sounds for Social Change.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Poem of the Week: Claire Zoghb


He’s put the war out of his mind. Shelling and murdered relatives behind him. But it lives on in his legs: one limb at a time shakes constantly, even in sleep, as if someone had told him once long ago that he could outrun memory and he half-believed it.

-Claire Zoghb

First appeared in Mizna: Prose, Poetry and Art Exploring Arab America [The Lebanon Issue], 2006

Used by permission.

Claire Zoghb's Small House Breathing won the 2008 Quercus Review annual competition. A chapbook, Dispatches from Everest, is forthcoming from Pudding House Press. Her work has appeared in Connecticut Review, CALYX, Mizna, Natural Bridge and in Through A Child's Eyes: Poems and Stories About War. Twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, Claire won the 2008 Dogwood annual poetry competition. She lives in New Haven's Morris Cove neighborhood and works as Graphics Director at Long Wharf Theatre.

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Friday, October 14, 2011

Poem of the Week: Nahshon Cook

Nahshon Cook

From a Conversation-Hour Discussion About Intolerance with Adult English Students

Pak Kret, Nonthanburi, Thailand

Then he explained

how the Buddha

instructed us

to reflect on the body

our skin

our hands and feet

our body hair

our nails and teeth

our noses

our eyes

our minds

our hearts

so that we can see

ourselves clearly

in every person

no matter where

-Nahshon Cook

Used by permission.


A note from Nahshon:

This poem is an offering of

gratitude for the healing power of love

and I hope (with my whole heart)

that you enjoy it

Peace and a smile, beautiful people,

Nahshon Cook


Cook's second collection The Killing Fields and Other Poems will be published in 2015 by Shabda Press.

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Review of Collective Brightness

Review by Katherine Anderson Howell
If prophesy is speaking an idea whose time has come, then Collective Brightness must be prophetic. In a time when the right for all persons to participate in religious freedoms, such as marriage or ordination, is shifting and changing, and when religious groups of all kinds demonstrate their turmoil over sexual identity, the 100 plus poets represented in the anthology write boldly of faith, lack thereof, religion, exclusion therefrom, and spirituality that cannot be taken from them.

The book opens with Franklin Abbott’s “Koan.” Koans are Zen Buddhist stories or sayings that must be understood intuitively – they do not make sense to our rational minds. Abbott’s “Koan” explores history, both global and familial: “my face/ before my birth/ was half/ my father’s face/ looking/ back into/ eternity.” This koan sets the tone for the book – intimate and urgent, these poems speak to a world that see persons who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, or Queer as less than whole people. These poems insist on speaking the experience of poets whose souls are demeaned and damned by people who claim to determine who religion is and isn’t for.

The book doesn’t have a religion agenda; it isn’t an evangelical anthology. Ellen Bass’s poem “Ode to The God of Atheists” insists on a world in which “[t]he plums that bloom extravagantly,/ the dolphins that stitch sky to sea,/ each pebble and fear, pond and fish/ are yours whether or not you believe.” Beauty, spiritual and physical, fills this world, as Robin Becker writes about “peach and azure birds” flying from the mouth of a monk brushing his teeth. God godsself is drawn by this beauty. In the poem “Beetle Orgy,” from which the anthology’s title is drawn, Benjamin Grossberg writes of God looking down on a group of HIV positive men having sex and being “[m]oved to add/ His touch.” God gains from this experience, “comes to some knowledge/ as if for the first time, is distracted and pleased/ by the collective brightness of human skin…”

The anthology does not ignore the other, painful side of faith, religion, and spirituality. Kazim Ali’s “Home” claims that “God’s true language is only silence and breath,” and Jericho Brown, in “Romans 12:1” (the verse in which Paul orders Christians to offer their bodies as “living sacrifices”) observes that people, “[o]n the whole/ Hurt by me, they will not call me/ Brother. …they hate a woman/They smell in me.” Doubt, loneliness, hatred, and rejection are aspects of the spiritual experience of LGBTIQ people that are also explored in the anthology.

As is violence. Late in the book, Joseph Ross’s poem “The Upstairs Lounge, New Orleans, June 24, 1973” brings the murder of the patrons of the Upstairs Lounge, a bar and church where gay men could worship, vividly to life. Ross writes of the patrons singing “like they deserved to.// They prayed like they meant it.” The bar is set on fire, and many of the patrons die, including George, who escapes, then returns for Louis. The two “were found, a spiral/ of bones holding each other…” Ross does not stop with the fire; he continues to the aftermath – the jokes on the radio, the laughter of priests, and the refusal of churches to bury the dead: “Save one: a priest from// St. George’s Episcopal Church, who received hate mail…”

This is the hate and indifference to violence that leads to despair, which is achingly described in Regie Cabico’s “Soul Bargaining”: “By soul,// I mean God make me a wind instrument so I can toss myself/ into the East River. The street lamps are howling for the first// slivers of light. By light, I mean falling off a bridge// wrapped in the arms of a God who knows your name.”

Collective Brightness includes a poem by Azwan Ismail, a Malaysian writer who received death threats for participating in the It Gets Better Project and producing a Malay language LGBT anthology, Orang Macam Kita. Seung-Ja Choe is also included, the first time a Korean poet has been featured in an LGBTIQ anthology in any language. And Japanese poet Atsusuke Tanaka appears translated by Jeffry Angles for the first time.

The anthology is a global effort, and one that again and again gives evidence of what editor Kevin Simmonds claims in the introduction: “Abiding with this faith [which religion scholar Karen Armstrong refers to as the “opposite of certainty”], however, is one very personal certainty: No matter what, as a gay man, I belong.”

This Sunday, October 16, Kevin Simmonds and other poets from the anthology, Collective Brightness, will read at Sunday Kind of Love at Busboys and Poets, 14th and V Sts, Washington DC. The reading will begin at 5:00 p.m.

Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion, & Spirituality
Edited by Kevin Simmonds
A free review copy of the book was provided to Split This Rock by the publisher.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Poem of the Week: Deema K. Shehabi

Deema Shehabi

Migrant Earth

So tell me what you think of when the sky is ashen?

.................................-Mahmoud Darwish

I could tell you that listening is made for the ashen sky,

and instead of the muezzin's voice, which lingers weeping at dawn,

I hear my own desire, as I lay my lips against my mother's cheek.

I kneel down beside her, recalling her pleas

the day she flung open the gates of her house

.....for children fleeing from tanks.

My mother is from Gaza, but what do I know of the migrant earth,

as I enter a Gazan rooftop and perform ablutions in the ashen

.....forehead of sky? As my soul journeys and wrinkles with homeland?

I could tell you that I parted with my mother at the country

.....of skin. In the dream,

my lips were bruised, her body was whole again, and we danced

.....naked in the street.

And no child understands absence past the softness

.....of palms.

As though it is praise in my father's palms

as he washes my mother's body in the final ritual.

As though it is God's pulse that comes across

her face and disappears.

-Deema K. Shehabi

Used by permission.

Deema K. Shehabi is a poet, writer, and editor. She grew up in the Arab world and attended college in the US, where she received an MS in journalism. Her poems have appeared widely in journals and anthologies such as The Kenyon Review, Literary Imagination, New Letters, Callaloo, Massachusetts Review, Perihelion, Drunken Boat, Bat City Review, Inclined to Speak: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Poetry, and The Poetry of Arab Women. Her poems have been nominated for a Pushcart prize three times, and she served as Vice-President for the Radius of Arab-American Writers (RAWI) between 2007 and 2010. She currently resides in Northern California with her husband and two sons.

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Split This Rock Director, Sarah Browning, in On The Issues

Split This Rock Director, Sarah Browning, is featured in On The Issues Magazine this month with a personal essay: Food For the Soul: Poetry that Pierces Injustice.

"Like many white, middle-class poets coming of age in the early-to-mid-1980s, I was told by my poetry teacher not to write political poems: "The poet must love language above all else." He liked my poems about families, about fathers' ambivalent feelings about fatherhood. When later that semester I heard him read a whole series about his own father's ambivalent feelings about fatherood, I should have been tipped off to the unfortunated truth that poets too often try to refashion their students in own images. Instead, I was chastened.

But I couldn't seem to stop writing political poems. I had been raised in a political household - one that also deeply loved language - at a very political time, the late 60s/early 70s, in a very political place, the South Side of Chicago. My father was an English professor and a political activist. My mother and grandmother were both poets. Two of my earliest memories are marching down State Street with my father, protesting the Vietnam War, and playing hide-and-seek with my friend, Jill, at a teach-in, tumbling over the legs of stoned and outraged hippies, sprawled on the floor. At age nine, I sold bumper stickers for McGovern outside the A&P - my first presidential campaign."

To read the full article, click here.