Before your first round of submissions, I’ve prepared a short reading list. This is not to seed you with ideas, rather to show you that the city-poem can take any shape and embody any format.
Take the Levine poem, for example. The story could be any woman, in any city. What is it about Levine’s choice to put Detroit in the title that ties the poem together? By telling the story of this woman’s loss, and placing the poem in the title, how has Levine said something without really saying it?
The Johnson poem, while maybe not exactly a city-poem, notice how he couples nature and city. He allows the concrete and steel of the city to permeate his poem, giving the piece a sense of tension between the sea/coast and the man-made landscape.
The other poems take a more straightforward approach, as you’ll find.
Poem Questioning the Existence of the Sea
it is exactly the same
way that the animals were launched
onto the sand, frightened
after so many eons by the sudden
darkness of the sea,
a very large number
of children plunge daily in their last great
evolutionary spasm from the wombs
of pale, inarticulate women. it is wide
and kind of empty where one stands,
now, years after, and floats
drastically his hips
against he pin-ball machine. outside,
the detective wail of his own
impossible child is overturning the streets,
as he maneuvers this unloveable machine, deftly
and like a great ship,
through the stages of his life. just
as confused as ever, i observe
the buildings increasing under the sky,
knowing that soon i must
become him, and elude
my children and bludgeon the waves
in skillful drunkenness. i tremble,
like an old indian, for just a little
rain over this desert
— Denis Johnson
Dancing In Odessa
In a city ruled jointly by doves and crows, doves covered the main
district, and crows the market. A deaf boy counted how many birds there
were in his neighbor’s backyard, producing a four-digit number. He dialed
the number and confessed his love to the voice on the line.
My secret: at the age of four I became deaf. When I lost my hearing,
I began to see voices. On a crowded trolley, a one-armed man said that my
life would be mysteriously linked to the history of my country. Yet my
country cannot be found, its citizens meet in a dream to conduct elections.
He did not describe their faces, only a few names: Roland, Aladdin, Sinbad.
— Ilya Kaminsky
The old women in black at early Mass in winter
are a problem for him. He could tell by their eyes
they have seen Christ. They make the kernel
of his being and the clarity around it
seem meager, as though he needs girders
to hold up his unusable soul. But he chooses
against the Lord. He will not abandon his life.
Not his childhood, not the ninety-two bridges
across the two rivers of his youth. Nor the mills
along the banks where he became a young man
as he worked. The mills are eaten away, and eaten
again by the sun and its rusting. He needs them
even though they are gone, to measure against.
The silver is worn down to the brass underneath
and is the better for it. He will gauge
by the smell of concrete sidewalks after night rain.
He is like an old ferry dragged on to the shore,
a home in its smashed grandeur, with the giant beams
and joists. Like a wooden ocean out of control.
A beached heart. A cauldron of cooling melt.
— Jack Gilbert
In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,
I walk from one epoch to another without a memory
to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing
the history of the holy . . . ascending to heaven
and returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love
and peace are holy and are coming to town.
I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself: How
do the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone?
Is it from a dimly lit stone that wars flare up?
I walk in my sleep. I stare in my sleep. I see
no one behind me. I see no one ahead of me.
All this light is for me. I walk. I become lighter. I fly
then I become another. Transfigured. Words
sprout like grass from Isaiah’s messenger
mouth: “If you don’t believe you won’t believe.”
I walk as if I were another. And my wound a white
biblical rose. And my hands like two doves
on the cross hovering and carrying the earth.
I don’t walk, I fly, I become another,
transfigured. No place and no time. So who am I?
I am no I in ascension’s presence. But I
think to myself: Alone, the prophet Mohammad
spoke classical Arabic. “And then what?”
Then what? A woman soldier shouted:
Is that you again? Didn’t I kill you?
I said: You killed me . . . and I forgot, like you, to die.
— Mahmoud Darwish
Newspaper says the boy killed by someone,
don’t say who. I know the mother, waking,
gets up as usual, washes her face
in cold water, and starts the coffee pot.
She stands by the window up there on floor
sixteen wondering why the street’s so calm
with no cars going or coming, and then
she looks at the wall clock and sees the time.
Now she’s too awake to go back to bed,
she’s too awake not to remember him,
her one son, or to forget exactly
how long yesterday was, each moment dragged
into the next by the force of her will
until she thought this simply cannot be.
She sits at the scarred, white kitchen table,
the two black windows staring back at her,
wondering how she’ll go back to work today.
The windows don’t see anything: they’re black,
eyeless, they give back only what’s given;
sometimes, like now, even less than what’s given,
yet she stares into their two black faces
moving her head from side to side, like this,
just like I’m doing now. Try it awhile,
go ahead, it’s not going to kill you.
Now say something, it doesn’t matter what
you say because all the words are useless:
“I’m sorry for your loss.” “This too will pass.”
“He was who he was.” She won’t hear you out
because she can only hear the torn words
she uses to pray to die. This afternoon
you and I will see her just before four
alight nimbly from the bus, her lunch box
of one sandwich, a thermos of coffee,
a navel orange secured under her arm,
and we’ll look away. Under your breath make
her one promise and keep it forever:
in the little store-front church down the block,
the one with the front windows newspapered,
you won’t come on Saturday or Sunday
to kneel down and pray for life eternal.
— Phillip Levine