“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.  

“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.

“Summer Silence” by E. E. Cummings

Eruptive lightnings flutter to and fro
Above the heights of immemorial hills;
Thirst-stricken air, dumb-throated, in its woe
Limply down-sagging, its limp body spills
Upon the earth. A panting silence fills
The empty vault of Night with shimmering bars
Of sullen silver, where the lake distils
Its misered bounty.—Hark! No whisper mars
The utter silence of the untranslated stars.

Poem selected and commented on by Josette Corazza

Cummings has a way with words that I have admired in no other poet. He reminds me of Shakespeare, twisting terms and phrases to produce a melodic rush of syllables that make readers think deeply about the dictionary. Yet “Summer Silence” is a departure from Cummings’ treatment of language later in his writing career. In later times, Cummings creates words to produce new meanings and bends the laws of grammar to meet his needs. In “Summer Silence” Cummings sticks closely to the rule book yet still manages to spin a vivid and compelling description of a summer storm.

Who can claim that they don’t enjoy the exciting instance of a summertime thunderstorm rolling in? Cummings explicates the experience through Spenserian Stanza, composed of nine lines, eight of which are in iambic pentameter and the last of which is in iambic hexameter. Cummings uses strong metaphors such as the “dumb-throated” parched air to describe its course “down-sagging” to the ground, ready to “spill” upon the dry Earth. Before thunder begins, the silence of a humid day reverberates in empty ears, and emphasis on senses are switched from sound to sight as “shimmering bars of sullen silver” flash across the sky.

In the poem as a whole, Cummings plants the clear sensory images relating to a well-known summer storm in the minds of readers with such evocative language that prompts the reassessment of memories.

E. E. Cummings (1894-1962) started writing poetry as early as 1904, when he was not even ten years old. Besides his poetry, Cummings was also well known for his careers as a prominent playwright, essayist and artist. “Summer Silence” can be found in “E. E. Cummings: Complete Poems 1904-1962.”

“Lament” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Listen, children:
Your father is dead.
From his old coats
I’ll make you little jackets;
I’ll make you little trousers
From his old pants.
There’ll be in his pockets
Things he used to put there,
Keys and pennies
Covered with tobacco;
Dan shall have the pennies
To save in his bank;
Anne shall have the keys
To make a pretty noise with.
Life must go on,
And the dead must be forgotten;
Life must go on,
Though good men die;
Anne, eat your breakfast;
Dan, take your medicine;
Life must go on;
I forget just why.

Poem selected and commented on by Caroline Drennen

Opening with a surprising statement, “Listen, children: Your father is dead,” Millay immediately informs readers of the context of her poem: a widow (the presumed speaker but perhaps not the author) trying to help her children mourn a great loss at a difficult time. She dives into the widow’s mindset. Using enjambment in lines three through fourteen, Millay increases the pace and portrays the widow as feeling overwhelmed.

In the final lines, the speaker repeatedly advises her children that, “Life must go on.” The repetition, however, undermines the motherly advice because it indicates that the speaker may still be trying to convince herself of such. This is further highlighted by the final line: “I forget just why.” After three attempts to persuade herself, the speaker admits that she forgets why life moves on.

Throughout the poem, Millay focuses on the quotidian: turning old coats and pants into little jackets and trousers, finding “keys and pennies covered with tobacco,” saving coins, and jingling keys. This is a refreshing departure from the various tropes of mourning. She maintains the focus on the mundane throughout the whole poem, which on the surface seems to contradict her advice that life goes. This, however, is not a contradiction but rather a second piece of advice. In repurposing her husband’s old clothes, the mother is acting out a metaphor of life continuing on while simultaneously reminding her children to always keep their late father close.

An American playwright and poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay was the third woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923. She was born in Maine but after graduating from Vassar College in 1913, she moved to New York City. Millay is best known for her sonnets and feminist activism. “Lament” can be found in her Collected Poems, which was edited by her sister Norma Millay in 1956 and published by Harper Perennial in 2011.