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Also by Jeff Knorr:
Steelhead Fishing Under Diving Stars | Arriving at the Shore | At the Sullivan Ranch, Returning Home | In Our Surprise, We Are

In Our Surprise, We Are

A few years back while preparing to send out one of my own submissions to a poetry contest, I scoured my poems trying to figure out what to send. What kind of poem might win? What kind of poem ought to win? Was there an angle to play? Having been an editor, I knew that while editors and judges do have varied tastes and approaches, they also simply choose what’s good, no matter. So, thinking on, I decided that maybe, just maybe, my winning poem would not only be a lyric but it would offer some sense of social or cultural commentary. I haven’t, as years have passed, been able to necessarily shake that attitude. And though I’m a believer in the democratic process, that my taste is simply toward good poetry, somehow, in judging this years Willamette Award in Poetry, the final three selections were poems that spoke to me in a political/cultural/social way.

Years ago, in a panel of Library of Congress poets, Stanley Kunitz commented that poets writing today (especially the young poets) were not political poets. At which point William Stafford grimaced and took exception, offering to Mr. Kunitz that it didn’t take writing about politics to be a political poet. That simply writing about our daily living and how we go about it and reconcile that living in a world run by politics is about expressing the politics of our daily lives. Hence one becomes something of a political poet—a poet writing of politics.

In these final three poems, Anne Babson’s “Nixon Resigning”, Ryan VanCleave’s “Music Theory as…” and Judith Barrington’s winning poem “Ineradicable” we are exposed to the very thing that William Stafford refuted that day with Stanley Kunitz. And we are exposed to the very thing that good poetry does: it exposes us to the moments that give us pause, and in our reflection teaches us something about the world around us, our relationship to it and ultimately something about ourselves. This is what keeps us fresh, keeps us alive, keeps us coming back.

Ryan Van Cleave’s poem drives with alive rhythms, a fresh voice, and poignantly ironic humor. He shows us that while it may be humorous at times to be a teacher surrounded by college freshman knowing nothing and all too much, our pop-culture icons are so deeply embedded in us all that we must point the indicting finger and wry indicting laugh toward ourselves. Consider his closing lines “…that God himself was a lighter-than-air device, and I/ realized that in the glitz-bomb grip of hands such as hers, Whitman/ & Donne didn’t stand a chance, and neither, quite frankly, did I.” Mr. Van Cleave exhibits his consistently deft control of language in this poem which makes him a poet to watch for the future, a poet to take note of. And in Ms. Babson’s poem “Nixon Resigning” we are placed firmly into a historical event that divisively split our nation and yet healed political wounds for some. But in a family where children desire something seemingly simple to provide, in this poem the love, the resolution was left on the back porch. The child sees that the parents are trapped in the self-reflexive con of their own emotions and even though “the power had come back to the people, you said. It was fair./ I thought, watching you in the only holiday mood I ever saw you in,/ That I was a person, and/ Now you could stop fighting” the void for fairness and love will remain in that house.

Judith Barrington’s winning poem “Ineradicable” spoke to me day after day. While judging this contest, I left these poems around the house so I'd see them while I was making breakfast or getting some water or bringing in the mail. They went on a trip, they went to the swimming pool, they went with me into the quiet of my office. And time after time, "Ineradicable" spoke to me in a deeply evocative way. It said don’t forget our families, don’t forget our pasts, and remember what we’ve done to each other. It's a fine poem and delivers so much in such a gracefully compressed space. Through its treatment of subject matter, finely honed lines, and credibly surprising ending Ms. Barrington’s poem reminds me of two of the great American poems of the last fifty years—“One Art” and “Woodchucks.” I say this not in the sense that “Ineradicable” retraces old ground or rehashes something already said. Rather, she retains a freshness by subtly connecting us to the psychological reality of our elderly character. And while being tethered to our character, Ms. Barrington creates an element of surprise that does not lead us astray or trick us but concludes the poem by sending us into the heart of the matter. And it’s not that the poem is surprising in an unexpected fashion, rather it delivers the goods without being predictable.

This poem sets us up to believe we’re in for an experience regarding the mind and its demise. Consider the lines “names escape through paneless windows,/ streets sprout unexpected turns/ and faces float away from their old histories.” And yet we conclude the poem in these final lines, “but this he’ll remember and remember:/ the camp; the guards; the yellow star; the dead mother” providing the realization that in the mind’s demise what is never lost is the horrific effect of the demise of humanity. We are offered something compelling. We are delivered something that teaches us to look closely at our world as we create the histories of each other. In this finely tuned poem, Ms. Barrington delivers so much, as she does in all her writing—the wonder which makes us take note of the world, the moments which cause us to live more carefully, vibrantly, and with resilience.

Printed in the Fall/Winter 2003 issue of CLR

Jeff Knorr Jeff Knorr

Jeff Knorr is the author of two collections of poetry, Standing Up to the Day (Pecan Grove Press, 1999) and Western Reach (Red Hen Press, 2002). He is also the co-author of Mooring Against the Tide: Writing Poetry and Fiction (Prentice Hall) and the co-editor of A Writer's Country (Prentice Hall). He was the founding co-editor and poetry editor of the Clackamas Literary Review.

Jeff Knorr currently lives in California's central valley and teaches literature and writing at Sacramento City College.

You can find Jeff Knorr on the web at:
—  Powell's Books
—  Barnes & Noble
—  Sacramento City College

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