“Elegy for a Scarecrow” by Cynthia Atkins from issue 296.4

In the spirit of Halloween, we have decided to post a poem by contributor Cynthia Atkins. We hope that you enjoy her work as much as we do. “Elegy for a Scarecrow” originally appeared in issue 296.4.  Happy Halloween from the staff of the North American Review

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Elegy for a Scarecrow

October’s henchman has bled again.
Evenly the straw is strewn over beds
without retribution or shame.

An amplitude of human contact
stitched into the farmer’s flannel shirt,
which still smells of apple core, smoke and hay.

This hired hand without pay, here to usher
in bounty and in harvest, yearning echoing
like an owl in the barn. At first frost,

he was face down. He knew his place
and his art, presiding over compost and rue—
the last of the vegetable soup stirred

in a barren widow’s kitchen. Last spring,
the freckled ghosts of her children sprinkled
blown seeds in all the wrong places—

A fortuitous garden grew just the same. A brush
of pollen, and the landscape shivers, alone as a child
on a train. He had never said a word, but she waited

for his company, patient with his serious business
of weather. Straw man befriending faceless
pumpkins in the midnight sun.

The crows are inconsolable—
their wings leave stains across the moon.

Cynthia Atkins’ poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, American Letters & Commentary, BigCityLit, BOMB, Caketrain,,Clementine, Del Sol Review, Denver Quarterly, Harpur Palate, Inertia, The Journal, North American Review, Sou’wester, Tampa Review, Valparaiso Review, and Verse Daily among others.  Her second collection, “In The Event of Full Disclosure” was recently featured  on the Huffington Post and the Bill and Dave Cocktail Hour, and reviewed in [PANK] and the North American Review.  She earned her MFA  from Columbia University’s School of the Arts and holds residencies from the VCCA and Breadloaf Writer’s Conference and currently is an assistant professor of English at Virginia Western Community College, and lives in Rockbridge County, VA on the Maury River with her family.

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James Hearst’s Constructed Regionalism by Brian Pals

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My love for the work of James Hearst might simply look like an instance of rooting for the home team. I grew up in Hearst country, Black Hawk County, Iowa. I’ve worked cornfields across the road, now blacktopped, from Maplehurst farm, the locus of many of his best-known poems. I’ve studied with his bibliographers, Robert Ward and Scott Cawelti, and I take advantage of the lovely facilities offered by the James and Meryl Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls. Jeremy Schraffenberger at the University of Northern Iowa afforded me the opportunity to take a seminar on the work of Hearst and Robert Frost. The local guy, in my opinion, fared none the worse by comparison.

What I most respond to in Hearst’s poetry, however, has little to do with the delights of recognition obtained in the reading of a local writer. I’m inclined to resist perception of Hearst as merely a prairie regionalist, the farmer-poet, the Frost-of-the-Midwest. What I read in Hearst’s poetry is a toughness born in pain, an intellectual audacity, and a humanity, deep and broad, which transcends region.

The region of a poem like “Snake in the Strawberries,” to cite an example, is that of the collective unconscious. This poem, first published in 1943, toward the end of Hearst’s career as a working farmer, seems to have been a particular favorite of the author: it appears, unchanged, in two of his original books of poetry, and he used it to title his most comprehensive volume of selected verse. Just as the persona of farmer-poet was one that Hearst more-or-less consciously adopted (he lived in town for the bulk of his writing life), any notion of farm in “Snake in the Strawberries” is a construct, a strawberry patch of the mind.

Snake in the Strawberries

This lovely girl dressed in lambswool thoughts
dances a tune in the sunshine, a tune like a bright path
leading to that soft cloud curled up like a girl
in her sleep, but she stops at the strawberry bed
carrying nothing but joy in her basket and it falls
to the ground. Oh-h-h-h-h, her red lips round out
berries of sound but the berries under her feet are
not startled though they sway ever so slightly
as life long-striped and winding congeals into
form, driving its red tongue into her breast
forever marking its presence and turning into a shiver
barely a thread of motion in the clusters of green leaves.
She stands now as cold as marble now with the thought
coiled around her, the image of her thought holding her
tightly in its folds for it is part of her now and dimly
like faint sobbing she knows that part of her crawls
forever among green leaves and light grasses, it is the same
shiver that shakes her now and now her hair tumbles slightly
and now she feels disheveled but the spell breaks finally.
For the warm sun has not changed and maybe the tune
of her coming still floats in the air but the path
no longer ends in the cloud. She fills her basket taking
the richest ripe berries for this is what she came to do,
she touches her breast a minute and then the ground
feeling beneath her fingers the coiled muscles
of a cold fear that seems so dark and secret
beside the warm colors of the sunlight
splashing like blood upon the heaped fruit in her basket.

The tone here is not pastoral but mythic, the setting a long-ago, far-away anywhere in which Hearst draws back the curtain on a retelling of the legend of the Fall, one that can be read as doing parodic work upon the original. In its “Oh-h-h-h, her red lips round out / berries of sound” the poem takes on a quality of archness, a cheeky modernism that recalls, to me, the stance of that other sly Iowa regionalist, Grant Wood. This strawberry girl and the prim farm-wife of American Gothic are shown to be performing a naiveté. They know you’re watching.

Hearst’s conversance with the approaches of modernism extends to the poem’s idiom. The language of the startling, slippery sentence that forms the center of “Snake in the Strawberries” doubles back on itself in cubist hiccups, with six iterations of the word now within what the poet would have us conceive as “the image of her thought”:

She stands now as cold as marble now with the thought
coiled around her, the image of her thought holding her
tightly in its folds for it is part of her now and dimly
like faint sobbing she knows that part of her crawls
forever among green leaves and light grasses, it is the same
shiver that shakes her now and now her hair tumbles slightly
and now she feels disheveled but the spell breaks finally.

The breathless, in-the-now quality of the passage mounts in tension, mimicking its own action: read aloud, the concluding dactyl of finally represents a relief, a chance to inhale, a literal break.

The poem’s strangenesses include its mantle of persona. The overt preciousness of the opening image, “This lovely girl dressed in lambswool thoughts” is the set-up for a turn, a deepening of understanding as this cut-out paper doll, this observed girl in a lambswool fairy-story, increasingly stands in for the writer himself. The effect is defamiliarizing, a queering of legend in which femininity and innocence, lambs and berries and light grass, become emblematic of a state of dread, the condition of one to whom something bad is about to happen.

I heard James Hearst read one time, when I was in high school, at some kind of young writer’s event at Northern Iowa. I wish I had a clearer memory of what he read or said that day, but I suspect the thoughts of my sixteen-year-old self were elsewhere. I remember the man, though, rolling himself into the room, looking old and knowing, a leathery old farmer in a wheelchair. He was the age of my grandfather, who had recently suffered a stroke.

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It’s tempting, I think, to read disability into Hearst’s work if we know that a defining event of his life occurred at age 19, when he broke his spine while diving into the Cedar River. It seems likely that, were it not for his subsequent paralysis, we wouldn’t know Hearst the poet today. The fact is, though, that Hearst rarely wrote about disability in his poems, and then only obliquely (The prose is a different story: his autobiography, My Shadow Below Me, opens with the accident).

Whether or not we read a “feminized” condition of helplessness and disability into “Snake in the Strawberries,” however, the poem seems certainly to emanate from the perspective of somebody who has confronted disaster, who knows its arbitrary suddenness. The poem happens in a a place of “faint sobbing,” where fear has “forever mark(ed) its presence.”

In historical context, it is just as tempting to read “Snake in the Strawberries” as a wartime poem, of which there are many in Hearst’s body of work. In any case, the proximity to disaster that we read in this and other of Hearst’s poems lends it a portentous note, an alertness to what’s coming.

To read “Snake in the Strawberries” is to experience something like the opposite of pastoral comfort, and the recognition I find there is not one of place, but of the universality of disaster, even amid the warm sunshine and ripe berries of its aftermath. Regardless of the region or setting of his work, Hearst is a poet who won’t let us look away from “a cold fear that seems so dark and secret / beside the warm colors of the sunlight.” It is that probing, open-eyed awareness that keeps me returning to his poetry.

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Brian Pals is a Master’s candidate at the University of Northern Iowa, where he works in production at North American Review. His chapbook, Jesup, is forthcoming from Quick and Dirty Press.

Visitations, Difficulties, and Discovering the Light Within by John Bensko

My poem “Difficulties,” published in the March 2002 issue of the North American Review, is about pine knots and recently appeared in my book Visitations, winner of the Scharf Award from The University of Tampa Press. The poem captures a bygone process as part of the theme of visitations, in which people, landscapes, art, animals, and such processes resonate with each other across time and space to reflect how small physical aspects of our lives may take on a larger emotional and spiritual importance. The pine knots, with their dense resin, were once burned for reading at night because of the bright, intense flame they produced. I started writing the poem by focusing on that historical reality, and the poem evolved into more as the knots asserted themselves as a difficult physical presence, a body like my own, coming into consciousness.

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When I’m writing poems, Continue reading

On My Process by Grant Riedel

Grant R 1In creating a broadside, I approach it much like any other creative endeavor: a stack of blank copy paper and .05 roller ball pens. I begin with a preliminary read of the author’s work and produce sketches enveloped by the initial gut feeling. The second step invites rational and reason to join the process, both of which I believe are not the friends of any artists (they spend too much time with academics as well as penny-pinchers). With my two guests in tow, I reread the work and they question the initial sketches. Much scribbling, cursing, and wadding of paper follows this second step. In all honesty, depending upon the piece, step two becomes replicated into step three, four, five, and so on until the print begins to surface among multiple layers on a Photoshop/Illustrator screen. Continue reading

Lisbon Mon Amour by Howard Altmann

Originally blogged by The Best American Poetry, April 3, 2014.

It happens I am a fool. It happens I’m rather good at being a fool. It happens I am at my foolish best in Lisbon.

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I wish it weren’t so.  I wish I could report here to the committee that after ten trips in I could speak, say, ten words of Portuguese. I could name ten landmarks. I could name five restaurants and five bars. I could do more than identify a couple of churches and squares, a few signature dishes and luminary haunts. Continue reading

Throwback Saturday featuring Matthew Burns with “Rhubarb” from issue 295.2

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Matthew Burns won the 2010 James Hearst Poetry Prize with his poem “Rhubarb,” which was featured in issue 295.2 of the North American Review.

Rhubarb

The poison lives only in the leaves,
thick with instant bitterness to warn you,
and my Polish grandmother said
this was to kill off the lazy ones, the stupid ones,
the ones who wanted things handed to them,
who couldn’t find it in themselves to dig. Continue reading

“Letting Go and Lucidity” by Jessica Morey-Collins

“A passage through a cave to somewhere well-stocked and safe and open, a passage through my body—a huge chamber with glass walls. Fish swim goggle eyed. Twilight. Everything washed in somber color since I got here.” [dream journal 9.2.14]

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I elect to remember my dreams—often to the detriment of my restedness—because my sleeping mind pulls no punches.

My dreamscapes draw their momentum from my emotional life, which is generally pretty eventful. I feel a lot of feelings. So for me the primary challenge of an active dream practice is one of steel, of guts. To lay my memory at the mercy of my subconscious is to give up my control and pretense. And while I cherish my control and pretense, to allow them to reign my experience unchecked feels wimpy. So I meet myself each night in sleep—touch into whatever of me is spliced into a phenotypic network deeper than my own decision-making. Continue reading

Peep Rejects (and other inspirations) by Laurie Frankel

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I’m always on the lookout for writing inspiration. When something, anything, strikes me as funny-odd-interesting-sick-creepy-fantastic-ridiculous, I take note. I have many quarter sheets of paper with cryptic phrases that at the time felt like the start to The Great Gatsby, but upon rereading seem more like the beginnings of a psychotic break. I have visions of accidentally stabbing myself in the jugular while logging brilliant thoughts behind the wheel, think Joe Pesci in Casino—and sorry AT&T, it can’t wait because my thoughts have the half-life of a neutrino. Continue reading

Notes on the Changing Writing Life by Perry Glasser

Back in November of 1995, when dinosaurs ruled the earth, the North American Review published my essay “Love, Sex, and Power on the Cyber Frontier.” The common metaphors for the dawning digital world have since become clichés: the information superhighway has become more clogged than a Los Angeles freeway at rush hour, and the vast, unexplored terrain that was cyberspace has become dotted by seething cities, as dangerous and forbidding as any ill-lit Gotham patrolled by a brooding Batman.

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The writing life has changed. New literature has become a commodity because of the proliferation of online outlets, and, like any commodity, its value drops to zero in the face of abundance. There is an awful lot of stuff out there, far too much of it worth very little. Online publishers proliferate like mushrooms after three days of rain and, like mushrooms, grow best on a pile of compost. A few mouse clicks create a blog—like this one. Voila, a new magazine! All that remains is to Continue reading

How to Start Your Stories by Ian Randall Wilson

Are you looking for a way to start writing a story? How and where to start is always difficult. Have you picked the right place? Have you chosen the right words? Have you established the right tone? In my years of teaching at the UCLA Extension Writing Program, I’ve seen students who freeze, unable to move a word forward as they consider and reject, consider and reject each possible start for their story.

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Because we have to start somewhere, let’s take the pressure off. Let’s worry later about the right place or word or tone. Let’s take this easy exercise to find some beginnings for your story. The exercise is in four parts. For each part, write continuously for five minutes. Do not stop. Let fly the first thing that comes into your mind. Move immediately through each of the parts with no breaks in between. This is a form of free-writing where we simply want to get something down on the page. Later, we’ll go back and expand and revise. You can write by hand on a pad or a notebook or type on your computer if it’s handy. Continue reading

Divine Decay: The Scent of Old Pages by John Smolens

My copy of The Divine Comedy smells as good as it did when I acquired it decades ago. Previous owners’ comments embroider the lines, punctuated with exclamation points and question marks, stars and circles, lines and arrows. The pages, dry as fall leaves (of course), are a darker brown around the perimeter, a reverse halo, circumnavigating the terza rima stanzas that to this day reek of Dorothy L. Sayers.

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This stack of Penguin Classics sits on my desk, fragrant, ripe, a bouquet of paper, ink, and glue: Dante, The Divine Comedy; Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths (Volume I); Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars; and Montaigne’s Essays. I give each the sniff test, which results in a sneezing fit: good snuff, but I have to admit that the copies of the Graves and Suetonius might need more time to ferment, while the Comedy and the Essays each has a distinctly evolved nose, coupled with a bold yet complex finish, their paper brittle, their glue hard and cracked, requiring that their spines be cossetted in Scotch tape, which itself is now withered to a Miss Havisham pallor (“So!” she said, without being startled or surprised; “the days have worn away, have they?”). Yet the composition in these books seems augmented by such physical decomposition. Continue reading