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Flags and Axes

April 4, 2013

For this year’s National Poetry Month Blog Tour post, I knew I wanted to write about a poem by Natalie Shapero.

A few weeks ago I went to a poetry reading with No Object, which is the title of Natalie Shapero’s first volume of poetry. She was reading at the college where I work, and the large room was packed with faculty and students. My copy of the volume was already full of underlined phrases and turned-down corners on the poems I most wanted to remember.

I was gratified at how many of the turned-down corner poems she read. She began with the first poem in the volume, entitled “Invocation: The Third and Fourth Generation of Them That Hate Me,” which starts out with “All you need for a piano is a tree/and an elephant” and when she’d read those lines with a slightly mocking air of finality, I knew this was going to be that rarest of reading experiences, listening to a poet who delivers her own lines well. She read “Sometimes Harmful Never Helpful” and I got to hear the line “I came within an inch/of every inch,” although she didn’t deliver it quite as fast and forceful as I’d heard it in my head. She read “Arranged Hours” and the way she tossed off “the ghost always/omitted in the wrong answer three to the question HOW MANY GHOSTS APPEAR IN A CHRISTMAS CAROL?” was just the way I’d imagined it.

She didn’t read “One Hundred Degrees Is Not Twice As Cold as Fifty Degrees” with the part that keeps reeling itself in:
“You can’t touch a bird, it makes the other birds
reject it. You shouldn’t say you are thinking
of touching a bird. You shouldn’t say you have ever
heard of birds.”
I don’t think she read “Lean Time,” about hiding “my old love’s letters in a bag./Reading one is eating from the trash.” I can’t remember if she read “Hostile Platitudes” because it was already on continuous replay in my head. I know she didn’t read “Our War,” which would have been a perfect poem for that little college town.

A few days after the reading, Natalie agreed to give me half an hour of her time (and offered me some books from a stack of poetry volumes that had been passed on to her). I told her a little bit about how poets have reacted to seeing their poems on my blog (like the one who got angry or the one who pointed out I’d failed to notice that WordPress hadn’t preserved the italics in his poem when I copied it from Word); I wanted to ask this poet about it before I featured her poems, since we’re working at the same college.

The poem she ended up telling me a little more about was “Flags and Axes,” which, as it happens, grew out of a conversation with one of her friends who works in an office at a college where a lot of students who he knows fairly well are in and out all the time. One day a student who was waiting for him in the hall got sick, suddenly started spitting up blood, and no one knew what to do fast enough. Afterwards, Natalie told me, she and the friend talked about how the people in the offices along that hall could have handled it, what they should have done, and whether, as one person had suggested, they needed a rubber mask for CPR. The friend said “I can’t believe they’d refuse to give someone CPR” and somewhere later in the conversation Natalie told me that she asked herself “am I a person who stands apart from other people?” Eventually, Natalie told me, this conversation led her to thinking about the ways we compromise in our ability to be part of a community because of our fears.

Flags and Axes

Maybe because I taste the dirt and am disquieted
by all I eat, knowing it came up through the earth
feeding on trash and watered by murderous
torrents, knowing its hardness by how it survived
to blossom on unstable plates that grind and slough,
like dead skin from a snake, whole houses
from their beams. Maybe because sex is a closed set
of eerie scenes, the senselessness of being eyed
and sidled through as a wall is by a ghost.
Maybe this is why I’ve never known
any nature but the ruthlessness with which I stay
upright. How I have killed to live and live
like this, unwell, unwelcome and unmoored and still
I have killed for it and would again. Once in a hall
built on a burned park where nothing grew,
I watched a staging of Macbeth. A child
was derided as an egg, and then they took his life,
and from my seat in the sloped corner, I saw the actual
boy was hurt in the stunt. I shrank away.
I never touch the blood of others. Only after the room
flashed on and the stage was cleared of flags and axes
did I approach. I stopped at the small ditch
where the orchestra sits when music is required.
Several stragglers were there. A rope hung on posts
across the top, and we all stood clutching it
like schoolchildren together holding a python.
Later, at a trestle shut for repair, I thought of the heft
of the rope in my hands and how I could
slip under. I wanted none of it, and nothing other.

Because I once saw a production of As You Like It done out of the back of an 18-wheeler by a company called “Shakespeare on Wheels” in which the actor playing Orlando fell off the back of the truck and hurt himself so badly that the show could not go on, I asked Natalie if the part about the boy in Macbeth getting hurt was real or imagined, and she said it was imagined. I said that makes the poem even better, because it’s more about the imagined scenario. Where do we stake our claims, and threaten to use our weapons? How far will we go to keep the territory we think should be ours?

If “all the world’s a stage,” what happens when someone falls off of it? What if we should cross the rope and mingle with the audience, only to find that we can never regain the spotlight? Would we become like ghosts in what we thought would be our lives, believing that it shows courage to stay and watch, applauding, scavenging from the cast-off books and poetry readings provided to those we believe to be more ruthless?

Yes. I’ve compromised in my ability to be part of a community; I rarely name the college where I work because I’m not always sure I want this blog to be searchable by that name. It’s Kenyon College, and occasionally I have the courage to stake my claim as one of its many readers and lovers of poetry.

Where do you stake your claim, or when have you had the courage to name what you require?

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. April 4, 2013 11:55 am

    Love the poem and what you say about and poetry in general. Also, you ask a hard question – where do you stake your claim? – a good question too. I’m not sure how to answer it which is rather troubling. Thanks for giving me both a new (to me) poet and something to mull over!

    • April 5, 2013 8:21 am

      A good poem should give people stuff to mull over, and a good critic should point you to at least one of those things.

  2. April 4, 2013 12:36 pm

    I stake my claim at Savvy Verse & Wit, which in and of itself is like a ghost should the Internet disappear one day. Thanks for being on the tour.

    • April 5, 2013 8:22 am

      The more people read without commenting, the more blogging feels like being sidled through by ghosts.

  3. April 5, 2013 7:16 am

    Thinking the same as the above comment, my blog. I’d also say history but no more specifically than that. I know it shouldn’t feel uncomfortable to do so, and yet it does a bit. Some of the lines in the poems you’ve highlighted are absolutely brilliant.

    • April 5, 2013 8:23 am

      They are, aren’t they? I like the poems enough to overcome my usual shyness about reaching out to people on campus.

  4. April 5, 2013 8:30 am

    I didn’t love the poem when I first read it, maybe something about the sound of it. But it got under my skin, so that I found myself wanting to come back and read it again this morning. Much seems to depend on our relationship to the rope.

    • April 5, 2013 8:40 am

      I agree; I didn’t like the first part of the poem but liked it better as it seemed to get less picky, with the plates grinding under the surface, and then by the time I got to sex as sidling through, I was interested, despite the fact that I felt like I didn’t like the speaker very much. And now, having met the poet, I don’t think this speaker is supposed to be much like her, which is another reason I like the made-upness of the Macbeth story.

  5. April 7, 2013 11:31 am

    I really like Natalie Shapero’s poems, what a great choice. It made me think: of people, of plays, of stages and of life.

    • April 7, 2013 3:38 pm

      I’m always glad to share a poem that makes a person think!

  6. April 10, 2013 8:13 pm

    I didn’t know of this poet before reading your post, but she sounds like she has a lot to say! I like that image of “a tree / and an elephant” when thinking of pianos – really shifts the perceptions. How great that you had the chance to talk to her as well, and discuss her poetry with her. Thanks for sharing all of this.

    • April 11, 2013 9:23 am

      I think it’s characteristic of her poems for a line–or even part of one–to shift the reader’s perception for just a moment, make you see something from behind.

  7. April 14, 2013 3:44 pm

    I’ll be honest, I’m way out of the “poetry loop.” I might have been on the outskirts of it in college, but now I’m way out…literally in the country, the hills of northcentral Pennsylvania, to be specific where I stake my claim. I only recently (within the last year) “came out” with my real name on my blog. I sort of feel like Jean Valjean, declaring who I am for the first time. Anyway, sorry to ramble, and probably off topic, but I did enjoy your post and I’ll definitely loo for more of Natalie Shapero’s poetry.

    • April 14, 2013 6:43 pm

      I think it’s brave and usually it’s good to declare your real name on your blog. Also it helps me with the confusion over your blog name–still unfinished–and another one I follow which is still unfocused!

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  1. National Poetry Month Blog Tour Calendar for April 2013

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