My Place in the Universe
I think I am here
to stare carefully at maps,
then get lost at least fifty times a year.
I think I am here
to be suddenly
made aware of the loudness
of a ticking clock,
also to witness, in unexpected places,
to hear a lady in heels
walking assertively down a hall.
The universe and I,
we are both expanding our knowledge
of what's just beyond us.
really not separate after all,
me surely not a subset.
Me, the chairs, all
the couches, every soda can,
every book and eyelash,
all together making a music
unfortunately no one can hear
on account of the humming exhaust fans,
on account of the humming lights.
What I Will Tell the Aliens
I will tell them about our clapping,
our odometers, and our skillets.
I will take them to a place of fierce
lightning, to a place of tombstones
and of gridlock, and I will tell them
of geckos, of ecstatic moments,
all about our tchotchkes, our temples,
our granite-countered kitchens.
Give me an alien and I will give it
a story of unfathomable odds,
of erections and looting. Show me
an alien and I will show it the sorrows
of the centuries, all wrapped up
in a kerchief, all wrapped up
in a grandmother's black wool coat.
Bring me an alien right now,
and I will show it the misery
of stilettos, of pounding out
tortillas and gyros. Please-
send me an alien, and I will give it
a bloody nose, and then I will show it a great
humanitarian gesture, 10,000 tents
when 600,000 are needed. Let me
talk to these aliens about shoe-shiners
and rapture, of holidays and faxes;
let me pray with the aliens for the ice
to stop melting, for the growths to stop
growing, for a gleam to remain on our lips
long after the last greasy French fry is gone.
he isn't giving me laughing gas, he's giving me local;
he's got a needle but it's not the needle, not the local
that's calming me down; it's the loco, the totally loco,
as in the last time my mother came to town, she took
one look at my brown furniture, shipped it all to Goodwill.
Swabbing my gums with cherry mint goop while his mom's
letting loose, in his house, a piñata. It's like Mardi Gras threw up
in my den, Santiago's saying, my diseased mouth propped open
while he scrapes; but that's nothing. My dad? He worked, you know,
in commercial wiring. So, this one time he goes touch that and I'm like
is it hot? And he's all of course not, no, no, go ahead. So I touch it
and it knocks me out. Know what he says? Don't trust nobody.
But you know my brother had to get me back for all that shocking-
him-with-the-car-battery- every-morning stuff. He's an arsonist
investigator. Anyway, I'm like is that a tazer? Got me back all right.
Scars to prove it. I've never had a dentist scrape so hard, never knew
I had so much crud on my bones, so much periodontal hardship,
never knew I had, of all things, pockets, but one day my mom-
she works, you know, for Fish & Wildlife-comes home one day
to my dad in the backyard, dressing out a moose. In March. The only one
in the family with steady, upstanding employment, and her husband
in plain view with a poached animal. He's yelling but he was stalking me!
and she's after him with a lead pipe. And now Santiago's waving
his cleaning tool like a little weapon, and now he's shining me up,
shining the teeth I came into this world with, the ones I'll be buried
or burned with, the ones that know all my dirty little grinding
and clenching secrets. But then Santiago's back to his brother,
how he's a Casanova; after his first divorce he revamped his apartment-
juke box, pool table, full bar in the living room, buncha black lights.
If he meets a woman who'd put up with that, maybe he'll re-marry.
So he gets our aunts over there; next thing you know they're in the bedroom.
Man, he's saying, Aunt Suzie can really pole dance! And now it's the final rinse,
and spit's flying everywhere, saliva ejector ejected, and in this pastel office-
with these sober mini-blinds, this poor, puffy up-and-down chair-
I'm choking on account of the little brother who believed for years
he was an orphan, left on the back porch, dressed like a little Eskimo.
Even took an interest in native cultures, cuz his big brother Santiago
Look! You're not one of us! How could you be? We're fifteen months apart!
On account of Santiago's you oughta be glad we got these needles,
cuz instead of laughing? You'd be leaving teeth marks on a bullet.
BIO: Martha Silano is the author of three full-length poetry collections, What the Truth Tastes Like (Nightshade Press 1999), Blue Positive (Steel Toe Books 2006) and The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception. Her work has appeared in over a dozen anthologies, including Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days (U. of Iowa Press 2010) and The Best American Poetry 2009 (Scribners), and in many magazines, including Paris Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, TriQuarterly, AGNI, and American Poetry Review. Silano has received grants from the Seattle Arts Commission, Washington State Artist Trust, and 4Culture, and she has been a fellow at the Millay Colony and the University of Arizona Poetry Center, among others. Silano teaches at Bellevue College, near her home in Seattle, WA. She blogs at http://bluepositive.blogspot.com.
An Interview with Martha Silano by Steve Davenport & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Steve Davenport & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Your couplet-driven "My Place in the Universe" reads like a bite-sized homage to Whitman and, by extension, to Ginsberg. And not just the title, but the poem itself, which is short-lined but organized for the most part by repetition and list. Yes? No?
Martha Silano: It's heartening to know you hear echoes of Whitman/Ginsberg in this poem. Those two guys have probably had more influence on my work than anyone else I can think of. My 10th grade English teacher turned us on to "Leaves of Grass," right around the time I had the opportunity to hear Ginsberg read twice (a brief conversation about Ginsberg and his influence on me can be found at I snuck in a tape recorder to his Whitney Museum of Art reading, which I then listened to so incessantly that I memorized most of what he read. Ginsberg is part of my cellular structure! In college my American lit professor commanded us to head to our dorm rooms and read all 52 stanzas of "Leaves of Grass" to the walls. I recited with such gusto my throat was hoarse. In the end I think I'm even more smitten with Whitman than Ginsberg; it's a side stream vs. headwaters kind of affection, but I do very much worship at the altar of Ginsberg, poems like "America," "A Supermarket in California," "My Alba," and of course "Howl."
In terms of the organization of "My Place in the Universe," it's a rather restrained poem. I was a new mother at the time, on medication for a few postpartum-induced blips on the happy-dance front. Struggling with holding it together, to put it mildly-teaching full time while medicated on drugs whose labels warned against operating heavy machinery. It's amazing to me I was able to teach anything at all, and here I was with 75 students to keep tabs on, up all night nursing an infant, tending to my 4-year old son, plus writing the poems that would end up in The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception." Organized for the most part by repetition": I would say so. Here the repetition of phrases are a kind of throat-clearing for each attempt the speaker makes to steady herself-declare a reason for being alive both emphatically and definitively-only to realize her purpose is to get lost, to listen to things sane people don't hear, witness, or consider. I mean, trying to decide her relation to not only the universe but all the chairs and eyelashes. Does this allow a window into the state of mind of the speaker? Not exactly on sure footing, though determined to secure a modicum of steadiness, sanity.
SD & AMK: The shortest (and funniest) line is "glitter," two syllables. Why that one word and why there? Instinctive on your part or a logical response to the preceding line ("also to witness, in unexpected places,")?
MS: Yes, exactly-"glitter" all alone on that line like the specks of glitter I keep spotting on my sweater, my hands, the tiles on the floor. It was a conscious move. I write very few prose poems, and there's a reason for that. Why structure your poems as blocks of text when you do out of all sorts other cool stuff with line breaks? I am a stickler about line break rationale with my students, though I've backed off somewhat with my students recently, coming to accept that my hard and fast rules-never ending a line with "the" or "of," for instance-aren't universal. But bottom line: there's a great deal of potential when you have control over where to break your lines. Do you know Danielle Pafunda's poem, "Nude Model Airplane"? It appears in her first book, Pretty Young Thing: Poems. Her line breaks create such unexpected cranial turns. It's like she's leading us around on the ice in a serious game of whip.
SD & AMK: I might have expected to see the one-word line at the end (as in BAM! Take that), but you save the two longest lines for the last couplet. Why? And why the long repetition ("on account of the humming . . .") there?
MS: Great questions. You mean ending on the word lights? I don't think I ever considered that during the drafting process. Like many of my poems, I tend to start with shorter lines, sort of reserved, and then as momentum builds, as the poem's engine starts to warm up, the syntax tends to get increasingly complex, and the line length increases. I mean for these changes to mimic what's going on content-wise in my poems-as things get more revved up (what my husband to refers to as "going off," that is, moving from the grounded/restrained to the ultra/cosmic) In "My Place in the Universe," it's like the speaker is straining to keep from falling over, getting swept up into the dark matter of the cosmos, barely holding on by grabbing onto the music of those final lines, or at least that's the way my brain and body feel it.
SD & AMK: "What I Will Tell the Aliens" is similar in structure to "My Place in the Universe." Couplets and slightly longer lines predominate. The situation is humorous. You get Genesis on the Aliens by offering to introduce them to your world via lists. What came first, the idea (acculturating aliens) or some of the language (the repetition of "I will" or maybe some of the items in the lists)?
MS: When I was writing these poems (around eight years ago), I was often working off a listing riff. So I didn't consciously think to myself "Time to start listing!" It's simply how I wrote. The idea about acculturating aliens-well, that thought had been with me since circa1981. Not to circle back, but the part about repeating a phrase like "I will" goes back to my days as a disciple of Whitman and Ginsberg.
SD & AMK: My favorite items in the lists are the general or abstract ones: "ecstatic moments," "unfathomable odds," and my favorite, "the sorrows of the centuries." How about you? Looking back at the poem, do any items or mini-lists stand out as favorites? Or the reverse, would you like to swap out an item or two for something new, something potentially better?
MS: Thanks for sharing some of your favorite statements. I like the sorrows of the centuries, too, but I am also fond of the black wool coat, maybe because it reminds me of my dead grandmother's coat, the one I'd taken to wearing the autumn I wrote this poem. I don't feel the urge to swap any of the images out, but I am not sure about the part where the speaker gives an alien a bloody nose. Where the hell did that line come from? And yet I kept it in through many drafts, and yet I'm not sure I needed to be that cross with the aliens; what I was angry about was how alien sightings take up so much space on YouTube, while the "mysteries" of world hunger, poverty, homelessness, etc. remain mostly unexplored and unresolved.
SD & AMK: Maybe I count too much, but of the first seven lines, six of them are nine syllables long, a pattern you abandon and never return to in the poem. Coincidence? Meaningful?
MS: I tend to work in a loose iambic line, so (not that I noticed) it makes sense to me I was running at about that speed. But as I mentioned earlier, my poems tend to begin rather modulated and sedate, then start to take off, gaining momentum, lengthening lines, etc.
SD & AMK: "Santiago Says" is a comic family-driven catalog of, as you say or the poem does, "the totally loco," yet it's constrained by couplets and a storytelling pattern of mother-father-brother twice through (pole-dancing Aunt Suzie the punch line). That said, as in "What I Will Tell the Aliens," "Santiago Says" begins with a short-lived pattern, this one the use of repetition at the ends of the first three lines ("local," "local," "loco"). What's the intended effect of that kind of tight control at the beginning of the funny, wild ride the poem takes us on?
MS: Like I said, tight reins usually loosen, and the bucking bronco rules the day.
SD & AMK: I like the juxtaposition of his "brown furniture" and his mother "letting loose, in his house, a piñata" that's like "Mardi Gras throwing up in [his] den." Is it the job of the poet, or you as poet in particular, to strike a balance between these two aesthetics? What is the balance you're after?
MS: I'm glad you like the contrast between drab brown furniture and garish piñata. I hadn't thought about this line representing a larger issue in my work-a balance between the somber/staid/grave and the ostentatious. I don't set out to strike a balance, at least not intentionally or consciously. In the case of drafting "Santiago Says," I listened to my hygienist tell stories for an hour, then went home and write them down. I wasn't thinking about striking a balance. I was trying to accurately transcribe the funny stuff he shared about his family. I didn't want to be someone on whom a good story is wasted. A taser? A dead moose? How could I not write about this stuff? It would be a crying shame. I don't know if any of my poems strike the same balance - but come to think of it, my poems often contain some amount of humor alongside the gravitas.
SD & AMK: "Santiago Says" suggests that poems, not unlike Santiago's family rant, can serve as balm for pain (figured here as the accumulation of plaque or its temporary and frightening removal). Or is it that there's no escape?
MS: I agree that poems serve as balms for pain - there's still no escape from inevitable decay or death, but at least in the meantime we can not only laugh a little, but hopefully also be comforted, awestruck, saddened, wow-ed, elated, blown away. I expect poems to do all that for me, and more. That's why I read at least a dozen poems a day (mostly at the Poetry Foundation website); that's also why I live to write them.
A Mini-Review of Martha Silano's Featured Poems by Contributing Editor Zach Macholz
This week's featured poems come from Martha Silano's third published collection of poems, The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception, winner of the 2010 Saturnalia Books prize judged by Campbell McGrath. The three poems featured are laugh-out-loud funny, rich with music, and demonstrate the wide range of possibilities of the couplet.
"My Place in the Universe" is composed of couplets of very short (the shortest line is two syllables long) to medium-length lines (the longest line is twelve syllables in length). Within each couplet, one line (generally speaking) is noticeably longer than the other, though there is no strict pattern of alternation. The shorter lines create a forward momentum that, like enjambment (and, oftentimes, in concert with enjambment), pulls the eye of the reader down the page even as this effect is somewhat mitigated by punctuation and the following, longer lines that slow the poem's pace. This effect is particularly apparent in these early lines:
I think I am here
to be suddenly
made aware of the loudness
of a ticking clock,
also to witness, in unexpected places,
to hear a lady in heels
walking assertively down a hall.
Sentence length also plays a crucial role in determining the poem's sense of movement; the five sentences that comprise the poem are, in order, three lines, eight lines, three lines, three lines, and seven lines in length. This creates a pleasant ebb and flow in an otherwise very "open" free verse form when taken along with Silano's consistent us of rhymes and near-rhyme ("here," "stare," "carefully," "year," "here," "aware," "glitter," and "hear") and the echo of assonance ("maps," "can," and "fans") in the poem's opening and closing.
The repetition of the first five words in each of the lines of the final couplet, and the sonic departure from the poem's earlier soundscape-most noticeably the last word, "lights," which has no real precursor in the poem-usher us out of the poem in that desirable sideways manner, departing both imagistically and sonically from the first eleven couplets. Much like an end-rhyming couplet at the end of a pome with no rhyme scheme, the use of anaphora in the final couplet "signals" the poem's conclusion both formally and musically.
Similarly, "What I Will Tell the Aliens" makes use of couplets of medium-length lines, generally in the eight-to-nine syllable range though toward the latter third of the poem, many of the lines are up to twelve syllables in length. This poem also opens with a short sentence (two lines), moves to a longer sentence (six lines), and then stays in the three-to-five-line sentence range before ending with a seven-line sentence, a rough alternation of shorter and longer sentences, again ending in the longest sentence of the poem. As in "My Place in the Universe," this use of momentum keeps the poem moving all the way through to the end.
Another similarity to "My Place in the Universe" is the richness of rhyme and alliteration though the soundscape of "What I Will Tell the Aliens" is far more subtle. The assonance of "skillets," and "kitchens," and "aliens" or rhymes like "sorrows," "gyros," and "nose" are two especially enjoyable examples. This poem also features what must be one of the greatest last lines of a poem I've read in a long time: "long after the last greasy French fry is gone." It's always a pleasure to find a poet who isn't afraid to be funny; it's even nicer to come across a poet who works so well with music and free verse while having the guts to show her quirks.
Though "Santiago Says" also utilizes couplets and is extremely humorous, Silano uses diction and the line in some very different ways here. The near-rhymes and alliteration are present but are even more subtle than in "What I Will Tell the Aliens." This seems appropriate given this poem's more straightforward, conversational tone. It relates a conversation between the speaker and her dental hygienist while she is getting her teeth cleaned. Needless to say, this "conversation" is rather one-sided but is wonderfully intermingled with the patient's narration of the experience.
"Santiago Says" also features much longer lines, frequently upwards of fifteen syllables, which feels like a natural fit given the line's function here as a container for a colloquial narrative, its imitation of everyday speech. This everyday speech is particularly apparent with Silano's wonderful use of real, natural turns of storytelling, such as "So, this one time..." and "And he's all..." and "Anyway, I'm like." This diction convincingly captures the character's voice and allows the reader to move fluidly and without confusion between the narrator's voice and Santiago's dialog without an need for punctuation or typographical markers.
Martha Silano's featured poems are a wonderful example of the richly diverse possibilities of the couplet. With rich soundscapes, pleasing turns of phrase, and a keen sense of humor, Silano invites us into her wonderfully weird world in a form we can recognize and easily accept. Unlike many humorous narrative poets, Silano doesn't rely on getting a laugh from her reader to keep us engaged; instead, she pulls us in with her use of form and keeps us actually reading via her use of the line, sentence length, and delicate but expert music.