poets,online poetry journal,Diagram, Hai-Dang Phan, Nora Hickey, Eszter Takacs, literary criticism

3 Poets from Diagram

3 Poets from Diagram

DIAGRAM is a popular online journal offering poetry, prose and graphics that have some connection with representation, naming or the taxonomy of things. The journal describes itself as ‘odd but good’, and looks for art and writing that ‘demonstrates / interaction; the processes / of things, both inner and outer; how certain functions are accomplished; how things become. How they expire. How they move or churn, or stand.’

I have chosen three poems featured in recent issues that seem to me entertaining, intriguing and accomplished. The first, entitled Ecclesiastical, is by Hai-Dang Phan, a Vietnamese brought up in Wisconsin, now teaching at Grinnell College. The complete poem can be found at http://thediagram.com/12_6/phan.html, and its spare, almost throwaway lines evoke the bewilderment of the tourist loosed in a strange city, here unnamed but possibly the former Saigon, now renamed Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a staccato impression of a  ‘beautiful, failed city’, starting with its air of decay:

Toss your sandwich into the pond:
it will still be there next week, promise.

And the haphazard way things happen:

When the clouds reach max capacity,
they unload their sad cargo all over,
and if the tree crashes through your
window, well, then, the tree crashes.

And of its rootless and importunate inhabitants:

Give $5 to the vagabond, who says,
“Hey, Man! How you doing, Man?”

But the tourist may well be a returning resident.  After the tree crashes we are asked

What do you know about the soul?
Or the brief history of the neutrino?

Which provides an atmosphere of helplessness, of not being in charge of events, which is followed up by:

Truly, the traffic lights are sweet
when they’re all going your way,

Which the leads through:

But say average lifespan increases,
and you’re a free radical charging
through a beautiful, failed city,

To the poem’s conclusion, where the ‘true name’ may be the visitor, the city or the association of the two:

Tomorrow will call you out
by your true name.

The first thing to notice is the enviable balance of the lines. They hold together, and do so through their free verse properties.  Traditional verse would probably not have ended a line with ‘charging’ but have felt compelled to run the lines together, recasting them into something more self-contained to avoid the flaccid ‘and you’re’:

But say average lifespan increases, and you’re
a free radical charging through a beautiful, failed city,

But the openness of a contemporary voice speaking is lost if the lines are regimented into strict meter:

But say the average lifespan increases, you’ve
become a free radical now charging through
a beautiful, failed city,

The concluding lines show free verse’s ability not to go further than contemporary outlooks are comfortable with. That break after ‘out’  likewise sends our thoughts out, and is followed by the accusatory last line.  To recast the two lines as:

Tomorrow will call you out by your true name.

Not only restricts their impact, but cries out for explanation, for saying more than the poem intends.

Continuity of theme is provided by the threat of violence that pushes the poem on, from the jocular ‘promise’ and ‘sad cargo’ to

When the alarm sounds, and the news
is bad, real bad, rise up and go out
into the everyday and its aftermath.

To the final lines heavy with a biblical sense of impending doom:

remember, woeful days are aplenty.
Tomorrow will call you out
by your true name.

Finally, and most impressively, there is the tone. The poem is not a transcript of living speech, and we don’t commonly see ourselves as atomic particles lost in an inherent randomness , but the lines do demonstrate a carefully crafted collage of believable thoughts and observations that remind us how fragile, mysterious and irresponsible our lives can be.

The second poem is The World is a Mirror and Other Tales of Drinking, by Nora Hickey, who hails from Milwaukee and acts as Editor-in-Chief of Blue Mesa Review.  The complete poem can be read at http://thediagram.com/13_2/hickey.html, and first seems a be none-too coherent observations on a hangover, or a self-repugnant series of libidinous hangovers. ‘These are the days of hangovers: the hammer smell of bathroom cleaner, the skin in retreat.’ is how the poem starts.

Then come the lines that make the poem eminently worth reading. The dissociation of consciousness:

When I’m drunk, I translate the weather into language: rain is full of expletives.

When I’m drunk, the seed pods on the stalks by the river are sparrows.

When I’m drunk, herpes sounds like a beautiful French lace. Syphilis—the name of his great aunt.

Beneath this uncomfortably fresh way of seeing the world is the hunger for someone:

The subtext is I want to take off your clothes.

One night your body will handle the air like your mouth—a dream of intuition.

When I’m drunk, you are so stunning. You smell like vanilla and vomit.

And then? Only the painful coming to:

And the vague hopelessness turned pretty acute.

We don’t know who the speaker is, or who is being remembered. There are no grand narratives here, or lessons to be drawn from the experience. The experiences are presented to us as immediately as possible, as an interior monologue shot through with remorse:

I smoke 10,000 cigars. All the O’s I blow look old.

I’ve never killed a thing, except my liver har har har. Yes, I’ll have another

Is it poetry? Of its own type most certainly, its seeming arbitrariness achieving what formal verse could not.

If that vision seems surreal, far more so is the third poem by Eszter Takacs: Profligate Century Living, which can be read here: http://thediagram.com/13_2/takacs.html. The author is an MFA candidate at the University of Arkansas, and the poem is for Ariana Reines.

Like the poem generally, the title is mischievous, charming and arbitrary. It doesn’t throw much light on what follows, which starts with:

A cliché is water
when your father
is the front lawn,
and your sister
hasn’t eaten anything
in two weeks.

And concludes with:

Beautiful ancient things
roam the countryside.

Between these we have inconsequential snippets of thoughts from a person who sees herself as real estate in France, or, to be more exact, offers herself so to a putative lover:

You can view
me on Sunday,
or any day

But there are difficulties:

and you are
from a different
country like Norway

Or possibly not:

or maybe just
from a little
south of here.

But the lover must know that:

There is immense
mystery behind walls
like mine.

And if :

Territorial
as I might seem,
sometimes I let
in a person
or two.

Then the affair may not turn out well:

France is discouraging
these days

When the lover may have to join other noble beasts expelled from the magic kingdom:

Beautiful ancient things
roam the countryside.

So 47 lines of deftly-crafted short lines that portray the doubting heart in a  delicate and extended conceit. No poignant lines, no bombast or breast-beating: just the wry truth painted in unsentimental watercolour.

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