The Contemporary Poem as an Expression of Liminality

“A deer came out in the evening

I’ve retired from their life of touching you”

–Keetje Kuipers, “Across a Great Wilderness Without You,” Beautiful in the Mouth


“The past is a humidity

Road, sea cliffs.”

–Gretchen Steele Pratt, “Rodman’s Hollow,” One Island


“They’re not quite buried / in this cemetery

the palsied cotton just about to fall.”

–Anna Journey, “My Great-Grandparents Return to the World as Closed Magnolia Buds,” If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting


“wearing smoke like a new dress. With a pocket knife”

–Rhett Iseman Trull, “The Real Warnings are Always Too Late,” The Real Warnings


Deciphering Liminality

While reading Gretchen Steele Pratt’s One Island, I noticed something about the poems. They are mostly free-verse and a few are in received and nonce forms, but the majority of the poems I liked most use a trope that I see used by other young contemporary poets. So in the ever-continuing search to find measures for what makes a poem “enjoyable” and to identify and articulate useful schemes and tropes that shape my own poetics, I would like to discuss the use of liminality as a poetic trope. Liminal is defined as “of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition,” or simply as the “in-between, transitional” (Merriam-Webster). Usually, liminal spaces might consist of places like windows or doors. In the realm of poetry, and for this discussion, the liminal space I see in the work of contemporary poets is between material and immaterial images or metaphors.

The lines from poems I’ve quoted above are the first and last lines of the respective poems. They begin with a clear image in the world of physical possibility and end with an abstraction or metaphor out of the physical plane, or vice versa. The transition of how this takes place, the space between, is the poem. I believe this is a reflection of an author’s choice based on personal poetics. It might express that the poem is liminal, maybe all poems are by nature. It is a genre trapped somewhere between greeting cards and short stories.

The transition between the material and immaterial in poetry seems to be a device shared by many young poets. It could be willingness, as Stephen Burt predicted in the 2004 addendum to his essay “The Elliptical Poets,” to “split the difference between a poetry of descriptive realism on the one hand, and, on the other, a neo-avant-garde” (Burt 355). These poets want it both ways. They have learned from narrative and elliptical poets, and they enjoy aspects of both. Liminal Poets want to use the poem as a space between and they want their work to exist there as well.

Kuipers and Liminality

The liminality also exists within the space between. In the Keetje Kuipers poem quoted, she dances from the narrative side of the field to the elliptical effortlessly:

The deer came out in the evening.
God bless them for not judging me,
I’m drunk. I stand on porch in my bathrobe
and make strange noises at them—
if language can be a kind of crying (Kuipers 36).

What makes this example even more fascinating is that it remains digestible; readers can understand the non-sacrificed meaning. The narrative thrust of the stanza is simple. The speaker is on her porch in a bathrobe crying (presumably from heartbreak) and deer come out. She also uses the disjunction of ellipticism and swerves around a “never-quite-unfolded backstory” (Burt 346). She moves from the “porch in my bathrobe” to “noises” that are “language.” Here Kuipers muddles the word “language,” making it into an abstract term. Even in this small space she has moved from the material to the immaterial. The end of the poem lives up to the promise of the title. It is a woman who has become strong and used her hands without the help of her lover. The first part of the final image, “my hands lost in my pockets, two disabused tools” is easy enough to be visualized. The image of touching “you” makes it unclear exactly what she means. Is the speaker directing her words to an actual lover or a community embodied as a lover? Either way, since the lover is never described, it is an image that cannot necessarily be visualized. The liminality trope works well here because the poem is about the transition from being dependent to independent.

Pratt and Liminality

In the second poem quoted above, “Rodman’s Hollow” by Gretchen Steele Pratt, she locates this spry, evasive poem in a specific place (Roadman’s Hollow near Coneymus Road on Block Island). The first stanza of the poem is about descending into the bottom of the hollow, whereas the second, quoted below, is about ascending out of it:

Green movement still cupping salt air still dusty with hot morning,

Undulating, purring
Night bowl of frogs, wet green
Deep bowl of trees,
Fat frog’s croak, then a deep green cataract
All sunlight, sunlight, Conneymus Road
Still a sinking in my brain still rounding
Basin of trees sunk between
Road, sea cliffs (Pratt 1).

Pratt lists a series of strange images (what does a “bowl of frogs” at night look like?), all in one broken up sentence that begins with “green movement” to give momentum to the stanza. It is a form of syntactical climax; she moves from those abstract images through the “green cataract” and “sunlight,” to a specific place at “Conneymus Road” until there is the final concrete image of the “road” and “sea cliffs.” The initial transition from descending the hollow to ascending and coming out of it is a good choice of a place to use the trope because it sets the expectations of the collection.

Journey and Liminality

Anna Journey’s work as a whole in If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting might be considered more elliptical than liminal, but she uses the technique as well. She attempts to merge the narrative and the fantastic in several points throughout the collection. She uses wildly juxtaposed imagery and it is grounded in the Southern Gothic. Journey begins her poem in a cemetery, which conjures up very generic imagery, but then describes her great-grandparents as “not quite buried” there. It is very difficult to imagine how someone ends up not completely buried, but it is accepted because of her tone before this poem. She continues in the poem, with other strange images “petals pulled / shut, like Klan hoods” and “loam in the throat” (Journey 9). She is able, near the end to transfer to a concrete image of “four generations // of women linking arms. In the photograph—with me / unborn, the bark hardening on a sycamore, dry wind / over the bayou, // the palsied cotton just about to fall” (Journey 10). The technique works well here because the transition is about taking a negative event that has place and changing it to a positive one by controlling the negative charge. Journey owns the negative charge that is her birth, she has made it into an event that drops a curtain.

Liminality and Trull

There are definitely varying degrees of liminality among the work of the poets. If Anna Journey is furthest to the elliptical left, then Gretchen Pratt is left-leaning and Keetje Kuipers is center. Leaning to the right, is Rhett Iseman Trull. Trull’s poems don’t so much consider the poem as a liminal space. There are very few poems in the collection that meet the thus far outlined criteria where a poem begins in one mode and ends in another. Trull utilizes liminal moments in poetry. She doesn’t always commit to the image. Instead of using hyperbole to create impossible imagery or playing with the reader’s expectations or perception, Trull uses metaphor or simile to slide in her moments of liminality. Like the initial quoted line from her poem, she may “set the basement aflame and run out laughing,” but the smoke she wears will be “like a new dress.” The image of a woman smoke-covered and running is simple enough, but what complicates her image and brings it into the realm of liminality is her choice of line integrity, she continues with line after the caesura, “[w]ith a pocket knife.” This prepositional phrase makes the image more elusive and it shows just how conscious Trull is of the line.

More Liminality

Keetje Juiper’s “Blackfoot River” is perhaps one of the best examples of how a liminal poem can work in a collection. For the first third of the book, Kuipers expresses disparity, dissatisfaction, and a sort of loneliness. The poems also occupy a space between light and dark, throughout the collection “god-black,” “glitters,” “fire,” “black ocean,” “dark,” “shadow,” “blackness,” “flash,” “incandescent,” “bright,” “dim,” “glow,” and countless uses of “night” and “light” are used to create the space between light and dark. In poems like “Bondage Play as a Substitute for Prayer,” she uses the absence of light to express darkness. It seems from lines like “Because I have a good life/ because the scales are tipped too far/ toward my own contentment” that the speaker is setting up a tone of guilt (Kuipers 21). She seems afraid of selfishness and this comes up again in the lines “we pray and are comforted/ by the sound of our own voices,” from “On Earth as it Is in Heaven” (Kuipers 28). Kuipers seems to be commenting on society at large when she writes “To the Bear Who Ate a Ten-Pound Bag of Sunflower Seeds in My Front Yard This Morning,” especially in lines like “we are always hungry, and it seems ineffable to us,/ what it was we wanted, and then, of course/ whether or not we could have it” (Kuipers 31). There is an absence that she writes about and a desire to fill that absence that’s almost hopeless. Then something happens. In “Blackfoot River,” Kuipers utilizes the light/dark tension that she has created and she shifts not just the poem, but the entire collection from despair to desire. “The unspeakable spoken and spoken until it becomes/ lost in the bright keening of the stars,” is a conscious comment on her poetry, the state of contemporary poetry, and culture as a whole (Kuipers 33). It speaks to our insatiable, google-crazy, age of immediacy hunger and the moment at the end of the poem is epiphany— the speaker realizes this, and does nothing about it.

The poem begins “Wading the river in near-darkness, the valley / still close from the smoky fires burning / twenty miles east, my brother turns to me / and says I’m telling you this for your own good.” This situates the reader in a location with a specific person. It is late evening in a river near a valley with the speaker’s brother. Rivers themselves are a liminal space. They have reflective surfaces, and they are, in biblical realms, a place of baptism and renewal. The speaker and her brother cross this river as a threshold to a time when they are both alone and the speaker’s brother has “disappeared” into adulthood. Then she reaches the moment of the “bright keening stars and the poem acts as a coming-of-age poem, and not just about the speaker and her brother or the speaker and the world, but the speaker and her poetry. She writes about “[a]ll the things I’m afraid to say, about the dog / no one’s cleared from the side of road, how I see / the young boys crossing under the wire fence each dusk” (Kuipers 34). The poems ends, like any good liminal poem, opposite of where it began. This time with the abstract image of an “owl / crossing the dim orb of the stained moon” and with the speaker deeming herself criminal as all she can do is “stand around and watch.”

Liminality and Contemporary Praise

Each of these poets has won a prize for their debut collections, from which these chosen poems derive. All were winners in 2008–2009, and two were chosen by Thomas Lux. The poets’ ambivalence and originality were a part of all of their blurbs. Lux wrote of Kuipers’ “boldness,” Tony Hoagland calls Pratt’s collection “earthy” and “vibrant,” Fred Chappell writes that Trull is a “brilliant, caring, and telling new voice,” and Lux calls Journey’s experiments “new experiments.” These comments are all hinting toward what I have written about. The energy that these writers are pulling from is from the space between. They are, as Lux says of Kuipers’ collection, “tearing up the old language, but making the old language new.”

In the smallest and largest schemes, their poetry is a series of movements from the material to immaterial, and it is all a process. Thomas Lux writes in the foreword to Beautiful in the Mouth that Kuipers, “like all good poets” has many influences and has “absorbed their lessons, assimilated them into a voice entirely her own.” (Kuipers 9). Pratt, Trull, and Journey have done this as well. Their influences have been wide. Perhaps, poets have rebelled enough against the previous generation. When your influences have been on two different ends of the spectrum, how do you rebel? You choose the middle. What could possibly exist is a generation of compromise. Perhaps having a generation of poets that has been largely educated inside of the academy has broken a few divisions. Maybe this recent generation of poets will be an amalgamation of what has come before, and not suffer from an anxiety of influence, but will embrace all of their many progenitors.

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Works Cited

Burt, Stephen. Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Grayworlf Press, 2009.

Journey, Anna. If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting. Athens, GA: U of Georgia Press, 2009.

Kuipers, Keetje. Beautiful in the Mouth. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2010.

Pratt, Gretchen Steele. One Island. Tallahassee, FL: Anhinga Press, 2011.

Trull, Rhett Iseman. The Real Warnings. Tallahassee, FL: Anhinga Press, 2009.

One Art | Elizabeth Bishop

One Art | Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

I think it’s fitting that I post this on Mother’s Day. Loss is the most universal, prevalent, primal feeling human’s experience. Some might say it is love, but I would argue that we’re keenly aware when we lose something and may not be aware when we love something (or someone). Combine that with a masterful, seamless poetic display in one of the most difficult verse forms to master in English (that isn’t redundant game-playing– I’m looking at you sestina) and you will have what I might consider the best poem I’ve ever read, Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” It’s so unassuming, so simple, yet so complex. Hearing this poem read aloud for the first time in a Forms of Poetry classroom read wonderfully by Poet/Professor Michael White changed my life. Not in one of those hyperbolic, 21st century teenager ways either. Before that class I was more interested in poetry as expression, poetry as philosophy, and, mostly, poetry as performance. I wanted to cry after he finished reading it. It was a release. Later, re-reading it, I did cry. I became obsessed with Bishop afterwards; I fell in love with the dead lesbian who shook me into wanting to become the poet that I want to be. I devoured everything: her poems, prose, biography, art, and letters. I saved bits of each, so that I might one day discover something “new.” So I may be a bit bias. To the point, “One Art” is a villanelle. If you think about Bishop’s biography, then this poem is usually connected to her time abroad in Brazil, her mother’s insanity and later death, her return to America from Brazil, an ex-lover’s (Lota de Macedo Soares’) suicide, and an estrangement from a young lover, Alice Methfessel. I believe the poem is about all of these things and none of them. It’s a writing through, universal sort of poem that requires no context, but becomes even richer once you have it. “One Art” is from Bishop’s final collection, Geography III.

Red Like Our Room Used to Feel

So first off, the website went down during April. I was in the process of moving hosts and screwed up. I wasn’t able to take the time to get it back up until now. Meaning, the NPM posts I had planned never happened. I think I’ll just randomly post some of the choices. In the meantime, here’s a spoken word album that’s inspired me to do something similar (hopefully) in the next few weeks and post it online:

Enjoy. Learn more about Ryan Van Winkle.

Second Glance at a Jaguar – Ted Hughes

Second Glance at Jaguar | Ted Hughes

Skinful of bowls, he bowls them,
The hip going in and out of joint, dropping the spine
With the urgency of his hurry
Like a cat going along under thrown stones, under cover,
Glancing sideways, running
Under his spine. A terrible, stump-legged waddle
Like a thick Aztec disemboweller,
Club-swinging, trying to grind some square
Socket between his hind legs round,
Carrying his head like a brazier of spilling embers,
And the black bit of his mouth, he takes it
Between his back teeth, he has to wear his skin out,
He swipes a lap at the water-trough as he turns,
Swiveling the ball of his heel on the polished spot,
Showing his belly like a butterfly
At every stride he has to turn a corner
In himself and correct it. His head
Is like the worn down stump of another whole jaguar,
His body is just the engine shoving it forward,
Lifting the air up and shoving on under,
The weight of his fangs hanging the mouth open,
Bottom jaw combing the ground. A gorged look,
Gangster, club-tail lumped along behind gracelessly,
He’s wearing himself to heavy ovals,
Muttering some mantra, some drum-song of murder
To keep his rage brightening, making his skin
Intolerable, spurred by the rosettes, the cain-brands,
Wearing the spots from the inside,
Rounding some revenge. Going like a prayer-wheel,
The head dragging forward, the body keeping up,
The hind legs lagging. He coils, he flourishes
The blackjack tail as if looking for a target,
Hurrying through the underworld, soundless.

This is probably my favorite Ted Hughes poem. It captures the raw, animal rhythms of his poetry. It has great imagery. “Second Glance at a Jaguar” revisits a poem, “Jaguar,” from his first collection The Hawk in the Rain. The first jaguar poem is about how animals in a zoo are so depressed, caged in slots and separated, but content with it except the Jaguar who “… hurrying enraged / Through prison darkness after the drills of his eyes // On a short fierce fuse.” Hughes is almost certainly making a connection to humanity in that poem. This second jaguar poem is all about those moments, those movements. He’s pacing as if he’s plotting, as if his refusal to grow weary is an act of rebellion. Hughes said that poems are like animals; he addresses this in another poem. He wrote a lot about animals and usually as a way to talk about humanity.

Also, as a bonus, here’s Hughes reading the poem:

Spring – Gerard Manley Hopkins

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring ——
   When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
   Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
   The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
   The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
   A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,

   Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
   Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

#Modern Monday #National Poetry Month

So Gerard Manley Hopkins might technically be considered a late Victorian poet, but formally he was so innovative that Ramazani, editor of (the amazing) Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry included him as a Modernist. I’d definitely agree, especially since his sprung rhythm, alliteration, and rhyming is more similar to rap lyrics than poetry. It’s like Rakim said on his track “Follow the Leader:”

RAP is Rhythm And Poetry, cuts create sound effects /
You might catch up if you follow the records he wrecks /
Until then keep eating and swallowing /
You better take a deep breath and keep following– the leader. /

Rakim was just following Hopkins’ tradition, and so are all the rappers (nearly every contemporary rapper) who followed him.

Gear up for National Poetry Month

I’m going to attempt to blog each day of April with a poem from poets that I like following these  themes:








I’m hoping to have each blog contain an audio or visual element as well. Let’s see if I can be dedicated. Follow me on Twitter to keep updated.

See Me on a Panel at the University of Southern California

I will be on a panel with two lovely and brilliant writers (Christopher Pendergraft and Dillon Scalzo) at the University of Southern California’s Cruelty conference in Los Angeles, CA on April 12-13, 2013. We’re hosting a creative panel featuring readings, a discussion, and Q&A. Here’s a copy of the proposal. Hope to see you there!


More video poetry. This time by the poet Duriel E. Harris and filmmaker Scott Rankin. A blog recapping AWP and an essay on “What I Learned from the TV Show ‘Girls’” coming soon-ish.

In Lieu of the Apocalypse

I’d like to invite you to check out and consider “What makes a poetry film a poetry film?” It’s a question that Erica Gross over at Connotations Press: An Online Artifact considers in the December video poetry section. She discusses the Zebra Poetry Film Festival that apparently happened in October in Berlin. She posted ten videos, but I’m only going to link to one. You’ll have to go over there to see all ten.

I’m an eBook Convert

As a Kindle Fire owner and as someone who just left the vast majority of his books on the other side of the country, I’ve realized the truth. Printed books are a luxury. The rich (or moderately well-off) can have their books shipped or placed in storage; the old do not move their books; the young do not buy books, but they borrow.

With quality eBooks, I get the content I enjoy, and it’s cheaper, accessible faster, and all in one place. It’s not even just books. I send articles to my Kindle as documents via the web add-on, Readibility. It’s wonderful. As someone who doesn’t have a lot of money and who plans to move around a lot for (at least) the next five to seven years, eBooks just make sense. Amazon, your fully-integrated content system has done it. I’m a convert. Heck, I’m even going to start publishing chapbooks and books as eBooks via my micro press. Now, if only I could solve two problems:

  1. How can I force publishers to embrace publishing more poetry as eBooks?
  2. How can I get authors to sign my Kindle?