“What a Rush” by Ron Smith

    to see you there in the sun, shining
with your best smile, not in fact
          gone forever, waving
off my question, delighted
     with my delight, sitting
bony on my lap, which you would never
        have done in life, my
proper friend, my neglected familiar.
So this is how it’s going to be, this
    angry gratitude, this
         torment of the taken-
for-granted? Speak me a sonnet
    about Darwin and daguerreotypes
and this time I’ll try not to wake
    to the raw dazzle of morning.

                  for Claudia

Poem selected and commented on by Jenny Bagger

Inspired by a dream former Poet Laureate of Virginia Ron Smith had, “What a Rush” exudes the complicated emotions of grief: longing, anger and regret. “What a Rush” is an elegy to late poet and professor, Claudia Emerson, who served as Poet Laureate of Virginia from 2008 to 2010, taught at Washington and Lee University, and assisted as a contributing editor for Shenandoah. While elegies traditionally start with a lament for the deceased, transition to an appreciation for the lost loved one’s life, and finally approach solace and relief, Smith’s elegy both fits these guidelines and challenges them, straying from the elegiac form as the speaker refuses to process his grief and embrace life without his friend.

The speaker initially encounters the deceased with excitement and shock, creating a joyous and dreamy reunion of friends by evoking images of “the sun, shining” and “your best smile.” However, by ultimately ending not in serene consolation but in tense frustration as he realizes he can only see his lost friend in his dreams, the speaker leaves us with his pain. Smith ends with the lines, “and this time I’ll try not to wake / to the raw dazzle of morning,” conceding that he did not appreciate his friend enough in life, and discovering that he cannot ameliorate this misfortune as he will never again experience his friend anywhere other than in his dreams. By describing morning with a “raw dazzle,” Smith highlights the curious exhilaration of the speaker’s dream and the solitude of mourning, which he will fend off as best he can and try to dream as long as possible.

The first stanza contains near end rhymes, such as “shining,” “waving” and “sitting,” which contribute to the lyrical and dream-like effect. In contrast, the second stanza disrupts this soothing feeling with lines that end with words like, “daguerreotypes” and “morning,” which stand out in comparison, starkly emphasizing the growing frustration with the dream’s end and the realization that the speaker will soon wake up once more to a world without his lost friend. Additionally, the internal slant rhymes throughout the second stanza, such as “torment” and “taken,” followed by “Speak” and “sonnet,” and finally “Darwin” and “daguerreotype,” enhance this tension, leaving the final two lines, which lack near rhymes, as striking indications of the speaker’s desire to remember and honor the life of his lost friend.

Ron Smith served as Poet Laureate of Virginia from 2014 to 2016. Born in Savannah, he is Writer-In-Residence at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond and edits poetry for Aethlon: The Journal of Sports Literature. The University Presses of Florida published his Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery (1988), and the Louisiana State University Press published his Moon Road: Poems 1986-2005 (2007), Its Ghostly Workshop (2013), and The Humility of the Brutes (2017). “What a Rush” was originally posted in Volume 65, Number 2 of Shenandoah and can be found in his most recent book The Humility of the Brutes.  

“Poem” by E. E. Cummings

what time is it? it is by every star
a different time, and each most falsely true;
or so subhuman superminds declare

— not all their times encompass me and you:

when we are never, but forever now
(hosts of eternity; not guests of seem)
believe me, dear, clocks have enough to do

without confusing timelessness and time.

Time cannot children, poets, lovers tell —
Measure imagine, mystery, a kiss
— not though mankind would rather know than feel:

mistrusting utterly that timelessness

whose absence would make your whole life and my
(and infinite our) merely to undie

Poem selected and commented on by Dannick Kenon

Time is probably the most essential invention or discovery of man. We are constantly thinking about it, asking for it and living by it. There is no question that time is relevant in our lives; rather, what is its importance? E. E Cummings’ poem” provides an insightful take on the significance of time. Poem” is a love sonnet that focuses on multiple aspects of the complex relationship between time and humanity, criticizing time as an inadequate, objective measurement of life and love.

The first stanza of “poem” asks: “what time is it?” Not only is this a fitting way to start the poem, but it also introduces the irrelevance of the question’s answer. “What time is it” hooks the reader with its familiarity and colloquialism. Everyone has heard the question, but the answer can never be objectively true. As Cummings points out, “it is by every star a different time.” Time is not synchronized across the planets or galaxies. Telling the time is subjective because it is only relevant to one’s location; time cannot be objectively true if it can be different depending on location. As Cummings writes, telling the time is “most falsely true” because time is different everywhere and nowhere tells the universal time, but it is mostly true because the subjective definition includes this variance. The first stanza of “poem” brilliantly shows time’s limitations in objectivity while the rest of the poem describes time’s inability to sufficiently measure human life.

Time may be extremely useful but can never really represent or measure a life. We record someone’s life spent alive in age. Age is nothing more than the accumulation of time expressed in years. However, years cannot “encompass me and you” because they do not account for the entire value of anyone’s life. Cummings indicates that years and age are not enough to fully account for a life’s worth. When he writes, “Time cannot children, poets, lovers tell —  measure imagine, mystery, a kiss,” he suggests that time is only a quantitative dimension. Numbers do not represent the significance of a kiss, imagination or a mystery; rather, children, poets and lovers do. Because time is a poor representative of life, why do we waste our life prioritizing time over what really matters: love?

Cummings discusses time in a love sonnet to establish the often-forgotten importance of love. He reminds the audience of love’s intrinsic value. Referring to love, he writes, “whose absence would make your whole life and my (and infinite our) merely to undie.” Unlike time, one can “feel” love rather than just “know” it. Without love, living would just be not dying or to “undie.”  “Undie” is not to be confused with just another word for living, as “undie” suggests so much more than just staying alive. “Un” is a prefix defined as the opposite of something, while die means to pass away. Therefore, “undie” means the opposite of death. Opposing death is to truly live and experience life to the fullest. Cummings stresses that love defines what it means to truly live, separating it from staying alive without love.

“Poem” criticizes time as an inaccurate, objective measurement and as an inadequate measurement of life. Cummings encourages his audience to remember that time is just a number. The value of time comes from us; time is not an objective truth and does not encompass life’s most important aspects. Love is not valued in time yet love, like all feelings, gives life meaning. “Poem” conveys the idea that time is not as important as love, so we should not rely on it as much as we currently do.

E.E Cummings was born Edward Estlin Cummings on October 14, 1894 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He would go on to study at Harvard, serve in a World war I ambulance service and write renowned novels and books of poetry, including The Enormous Room and Tulips and Chimneys. He died of a stroke on September 3, 1962.

Readers can find “poem” in Strongly Spent, an anthology of poems from Shenandoah published in spring/summer 2003. It was originally published in Shenandoah in 1962.

“A Dream Within a Dream” by Edgar Allan Poe

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow —
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

Poem selected and commented on by Caroline Drennen

In just two stanzas, Edgar Allan Poe interrogates perceptions of reality and existence, tackling the age-old existential riddle: is life merely an illusion?

Focusing on parting lovers, the first stanza takes a much more carefree and lighthearted tone than the second. After kissing his lover on the forehead, the speaker accepts his “days have been a dream” (5), but confidently asserts that everything “is but a dream within a dream” (11). The overall tone of the first stanza and use of a period at the end of the last line conveys to the reader the speaker feels liberated by the notion that reality is an illusion.

The second stanza shifts our attention to the tangible, describing “grains of the golden sand” (15). Trying to “grasp them with a tighter clasp” (19-20), the speaker becomes increasingly exasperated by his inability to “save one from the pitiless wave” (21-22). Overall, the language is much more aggressive than in the first stanza, establishing a sense of anxiety and despair. Poe’s use of italics for the words “one” and “all” in lines 22 and 23 highlights a change in mindset, while the speaker in the first stanza is liberated, the speaker in the second stanza is suffocated by the notion that all of life is just an abstraction of our minds. Prone to intense emotion and exaggeration, this rapid shift from positivity to crippling anxiety reflects Poe’s tumultuous internal life; what is traumatic for one would be unbearable to Poe.

The rhyme scheme is also worth noting. While it is fairly regular – usually aa bb cc etc. – he does deviate from that structure at a few points, rhyming the first three lines of the first stanza and then also rhyming lines 5 – 7 in the second stanza. It is also worth noting that Poe repeats the seem/deem and dream rhyme three times. This dedication to a conventional and fairly simple structure contrasts his more overdone rhyme schemes, like in “The Raven.”

Architect of the modern short story, Edgar Allan Poe made numerous contributions to the American literary canon, creating an impact through his work as an editor, a poet, and a critic. One of the first American writers to become a major literary figure, Poe is an originator of horror and detective fiction as well as one of the first critics to analyze the effects of style and structure on literary works. He edited many literary journals including Southern Literary Messenger. “A Dream Within a Dream” can be found in Poe’s The Complete Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe.

“Headfirst” by Ocean Vuong

Khong co gi bang com voi ca.
 Khong co gi bang ma voi con.
      Vietnamese Proverb
Don't you know? A mother's love
                   neglects pride
              the way fire
neglects the cries
       of what it burns. My son,
                             even tomorrow
you will have today. Don't you know?
                      There are men who touch breasts
                            as they would
        the tops of skulls. Men
who carry dreams
       over mountains, the dead
                             on their backs.
But only a mother can walk
                     with the weight
of a second beating heart.
                            Stupid boy.
        You can get lost in every book
but you'll never forget yourself
                        the way god forgets
his hands.
                When they ask you
                      where you're from,
tell them your name
        was fleshed from the toothless mouth
                              of a war-woman.
That you were not born
              but crawled, headfirst––
into the hunger of dogs. My son, tell them
                      the body is a blade that sharpens
         by cutting.

Poem selected and commented on by Trang Nguyen

I first looked Ocean Vuong up because he was an author born in Saigon, Vietnam who now resides in New York. “Headfirst” is exactly what I expected from such heritage – a powerful piece about maternal love that is closely related to the Vietnam War.

The opening lines from a Vietnamese proverb which means “Nothing can compare to rice and fish/ Nothing can compare to a mother and her child” catch my attention, as it not only signifies a poem rich in maternal affection but also points to a traditional approach in portraying such a highly elevated relationship in Vietnamese culture. Yet the fragmented form evokes exotic and uneasy feelings. On the first read I thought Vuong wanted to imply the fracturing effect of the war, but perusing it the second time gave me the impression that the mother – the narrator – was probably making emphasized statements too.

The poem can be separated into two parts that have the same structure, starting with “Don’t you know?” and ending with “My son,” in which the later is dominantly longer and more eloquent. Tension builds up as the piece goes, with the explicit clues such as “fire,” “skulls,” and “the dead” cumulate at “a war-woman.” Here the mother makes it clear that she is talking about a pregnant mother who participated in the war along with her male comrades, a story often neglected when it comes to glorifying their bravery, determination, and heroism. She is grounding a bold statement of self-awareness but also feminism.

Yes, the war appears brutal – it is “the hunger of dogs,” but the mother’s fortitude and profound love for her child surpasses it all. The poem couldn’t end in a better way – the last two lines are too packed with daunting intensity to be neglected. The mother affirms her son’s sense of self, saying that ever since his birth he has been indomitable, that he has headed straight into the war, and that his steadfastness is not to be questioned. The image of “a blade that sharpens by cutting” ties to the theme of war, while at the same time underlines the toughness.

The lesson that the mother is giving in “Headfirst” is no new story in a context of Vietnamese upbringing culture. It is not the transparent motherhood, however, but rather the son’s admiration and love for his mother that lingers in my mind. Such a beautifully heroic portrait of a mother must have come from a deep and unquestionable fondness.

Ocean Vuong currently serves as an Assistant Professor in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at Umass Amherst. His debut poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds was a winner of the T.S Eliot Prize, the Whiting Award, the Thom Gunn Award, and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.

“Abandoned Farmhouse” by Ted Kooser

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

Poem selected and commented on by Lindsey Hewitt

Poetry is written to invoke emotion—regardless of whether those feelings are negative or positive. Sometimes, the emotion readers draw from a poem are not those intended by the author.” Abandoned Farm House” by Ted Kooser plays with the ambiguity of emotion through the background of abandonment. Kooser utilizes repetitive personification, as well as the diction of desertion, creating an eerie and mysterious mood throughout his poem.

Rather than using people to narrate his poem, Kooser allows the derelict objects left in the farmhouse to tell their story and the story of their long-gone owners. The shoes, the bed, the “Bible with a broken back” tell their stories as pieces of information left behind in seemingly hasty eviction; the personification of these objects paints this picture. Despite their poverty, the family left “jars of plum preserves/ and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.” Finally, someone says it, “Something went wrong, says the empty house/ in the weed-choked yard.”

Kooser also uses eerie diction to cast readers into this obscure scene. Using words like “broken dishes” and “broken back” of a Bible abandoned by a “God-fearing man” begin to hint at something awry. Kooser continues to use darker diction such as “cold,” “lonely,” and “weed-choked.”

Kooser, however, did not intend for such mystery to permeate his poem. He “thought [it] would be obvious…that the man, the head of the household, had failed at farming and with his family abandoned the farm” (Kooser 12).

The combination of this uncanny diction, along with the darkening accounts of the abandoned objects creates a mood of ambiguous mystery, leaving readers with more questions than answers as the objects rise in unison, “Something went wrong, they say.” Kooser, however, intended readers to quickly solve this mystery, proving the split between intended and found meaning within poetry.

Kooser, Ted. “Abandoned Farmhouse.” Sure Signs New and Selected Poems. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.