What Sparks Poetry

Books We’ve Loved

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems.

In Books We’ve Loved, we asked our editorial board members and select guest editors to reflect on a book that has been particularly meaningful to them in the last year, with the intention of creating a list of book recommendations for our valued readers.

“Explore What Sparks Poetry” is made possible with funding from The Virginia Commission for the Arts.

Here, Jordan complicates the most basic building blocks of syntax. Words that we take for granted (i.e. “from,” “with,” “to”) come under the poet’s scrutiny and cannot be passed over. He reveals how a preposition as simple as “with” contains multiple opposites–to mean both toward and against; because of and despite–which, when illuminated, disrupts meaning and demands that I look more closely. Throughout the book, Jordan shows how chance encounters, moments, and words can upend a life. Nothing is static; words, people, and history are dynamic and exist in relationship to each other and a larger context.

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But this poem is not just about loss. It is a recognition as well of what can happen when we press ourselves to the earth, feel the pulses of energy, and realize our stories remain tethered. As Indigenous peoples, our ancestors are now a part of that land — it is where our languages, oral traditions, songs and ways of being have been formed, and we must find ways to carry on this necessary kinship. It is vital to us all.

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In order to understand that all living beings are alike, no matter how dissimilar we may seem, we must transform our relationship with nature and assume a new stance; we must situate ourselves neither above nor below the other creatures on Earth, but beside them.

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I think “Lake Sturgeon” may be an example of a poem that goes beyond “sheer immersion” and engages that tension mentioned. Whether or not it’s admitted to, the stance of “sheer immersion” in nature is political and supports a certain narrative. My regard, my observations, of the nonhuman world are shaped by our history—framed by those narratives—and are subsequently political. That’s how we grasp and regard—through the frame of narrative. That’s how we know.

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Back in its Greek roots, ek means out, and phrazein means tell. If we’re reading etymologically, Danielle Dutton argues, then ekphrasis “seems to encourage the possibility for ecstatic utterance, for speaking outside the self.” How far away is “speaking outside the self” from the self speaking outside? Not very. What if an eco-ekphrastic poetry could both evoke and puncture the artifice our most beloved landscapes, to express what if feels like to confront their precarity and loss?

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When I write abecedarians I am reminded of how much of my lived experience is structured by language; it is not dissimilar to how our earthly existence is structured by the natural world. The death of a human individual is necessarily bound up with the death of animal species—I wanted those things to parallel each other.

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My intention is to show on the molecular level of language how invasive thoughts and beliefs can take hold and change any of us in a time of extreme alienation as the “freedom” slogans become ever louder, more authoritarian and restrictive. Anything to shield us from the knowledge that we are part of the biological world and that life is fragile and can be taken away at any time by forces we never bothered to understand, which are now beyond our control.

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By imaginative or creative practice, I mean this kind of work. I mean a communication that begins outside us, with our senses, and continues in acts of interiority that, paradoxically, connect us with others and might begin to heal the rift between us.

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But even the most synthetic of existences can be broken down to their basic carbon parts. Indigenous knowledge keepers on Turtle Island teach us of the interconnectedness of lands, waters, and all living things, of the ways they sustain us and provide us with everything we need and of our responsibilities to look after them. We risk everything in ignoring these teachings.

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To write vermin is to ask then who makes them faceless and liquid, seething, scheming, malicious, too much, over and over; who feeds them and then turns away, repulsed. (Was it me? Of course.) It’s to ask who is at home, inside; who is outside. Why vermin are women’s fault and their shadow, their shame and their labor, how making vermin is so much work to do and undo and who that work is for.

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From my seat alongside Rattlesnake Creek, I looked upstream toward the high-elevation wilderness snowfields that framed and fed the floodplain. The water at my feet had once resided there, and before that it existed as moisture trapped inside a cloud, and perhaps before that as fog, the slough’s breath, the valley’s exhalation, ad infinitum. This was doubtless rudimentary elemental positing, but the mere proximity to moving water had at least succeeded in getting me “out of my head.”

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This thing I’m calling “terroir” is touched by climate, which continues to change. And change touches us all, but unevenly, some sooner and some later, some more and some less.

You don’t have to do anything extra though. Language comes in and it leaves. I/we pass it around like particles, small poetry aerosols, floating across the air, written through a bodily process. There is no other public, there is only what happens between us.

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“Landscape with Jeffers and the Connecticut River” returns to a meadow I’ve known as long as I can remember. My father grew up across the street, and my maternal grandparents lived just a mile or two up Jail Hill. Luckily, a bit of the meadow has been set aside as parkland, so the field where as a child I flew my kite and pretended to fish is still open meadow. Often, in dreams, I find myself wading through its high grass and goldenrod or walking out into the wide green river. I, all my various I’s, am here.

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Poetry can dive beneath narratives and their erasures. In this poem “For love,” I wanted to look at the complexities and contradictions of the humans who devote their lives to weapons of mass destruction. What drives them? One aspect, the poem suggests, is fear, a fear-tinged love, an anticipatory or active grief about what could be lost, which comes out of their strong love. Maybe a poem can bring these motivations into the light so that they can be examined. What if fear could be felt and known as the vulnerable emotion that it is, what kinds of knowledge and action might that produce? Maybe the existence of fear would not have to lead to weapons.  

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Or the fact that wind in the outback is never a “broken hinge,” not a “crying out,” and how violence can be an act of kindness. The raw power of image….  Words came later, by accident in a silent room at a desk. But back there, one afternoon in that desolate expanse my husband and I and a stranger, the three of us came together over that creature stricken by a fellow human we desperately wanted to disown, a driver hot to desecrate the planet.

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