Guest Post, Caroline Knox: Samples

Blueberry and Feta Salad
“Arugula salad with blueberries, mangoes, parsley, and feta cheese” by Alexandra Guerson is licensed under CC by 2.0

I’ve always thought that the most powerful poems were those that included in style and content the very highest and most important matter, right along with the most ordinary and insignificant. Such a combination can bring about surprise and evenhandedness, as if everything might be susceptible of comedy and respect. I think this because of reading Dickinson, Stevens, Moore, Auden, Plath, and Ashbery, among many others.

“Objects,” a long poem, tries to situate high and low style and content together. It collects anecdotes, reading notes, and overheard conversation; five stanzas appear below, and then a few thoughts about making each of these five. (Other stanzas include a translation, a speculation about music composition, and a comment on landscape design.)

From “Objects”

“I only owe the University three hundred

dollars, and if I can’t get it I

can’t graduate with the class.”

Karen said this to Sarah, and

went out to read bulletin boards.



FIRST PRIZE. Karen registered

and got up on the stage and read

“Sunday Morning,” won, and graduated.

“You never forget a beautiful

thing you have made,” said Chef

Bugnard of the Cordon Bleu

to Julia Child, “even after you

eat it – it stays with you always.”


These are the words

of Robert Darvin,

a Haitian refugee

evicted from a

tent camp, of his

new and flimsy

home: “It is made

of cheap concrete.

If you think too

much about it,

you lose your mind.”

Samuel Sewall wrote:

“Sabbath: This day

so cold that the

Sacramental Bread

is frozen pretty hard

and rattles sadly

as broken into plates.”


“The research highlighted

that one critical component

to building the capacity

of strategic execution is

the establishment of a

value attitude.” This

sentence has so much

wrong with it that you

hardly know where to

start. At least it doesn’t

have topic drift, or does it.


A salad: chopped

cucumbers, chopped

romaine, blueberries,

mint, feta cheese, FRESH

MINT, scallions;

for dressing: oil

and vinegar, and a

little honey. In a

bowl, stainless steel

rimmed with beading,

making clunks of noise

with serving tools, on

a cloth, a blue cotton,

on a table, maybe,

maple, maybe,

refinished by Alan

Marbury, an




Flora Thompson wrote, “The

hamlet looked down at

the village as ‘stuck up’;

while the village looked

down on ‘that gipsy lot’

at the hamlet.” And Angela

Thirkell wrote of

a child’s thoughts:

“No one quite under-

stood what [the boy]

meant and by the time

he had spoken, what he

said appeared to

him to be meaningless.

We have all had that

experience.” And

finally – clear-eyed

and incisive – Laurie

Capps wrote, “We are

all/ issued white

coats; we are

forever/ taking

samples of the world.”

“I only owe the University” – Karen the serendipitous has managed not only to read the right bulletin board, earn the prize, pay her bill, and graduate, but also to accomplish all this by high-quality performance art. Her story stands in an interesting complementary relation to Chef Bugnard’s words about the transcendent quality of great cuisine and the permanence of its memory.

“These are the words” – Darvin expresses the privation and bleakness of the Haitian hurricane in extreme brevity and ellipsis, rather than lengthy mourning. But his brevity also shows his courage to survive. His view is mirrored in Sewall’s, as the austerity of the season in 17thc New England is made real in the harsh sounds of altar bread crumbled, it’s that cold. These speakers belong in the same stanza, they don’t need to explain further.

“The research highlighted” – It’s always a joy to find truly fresh language that works with precision, and it’s also a joy to find language that’s appallingly bad, like this.

“A Salad” – A recipe invented by my gifted neighbor, Kay Lisle, full of surprise ingredients, great taste and texture. But the stanza is also full of unsought and useless information: why do we need to know a) that Alan Marbury refinished the table? And b) that he is a fine craftsman? Because the poem’s voice insists on it, insists that minor and local information be brought into some relation with the very original salad from Kay.

“Flora Thompson …” – The speakers in the first quote here use very vernacular language — “stuck up” and “that gipsy lot” — to dish out their two-way social (and economic) snobbery! Casual style, ugly content of principles, in small-town England. Then, in Thirkell’s quote, the child who speaks is immediately consumed with self-doubt, and Thirkell sympathetically writes, “We have all had that experience.” (It’s both ridiculous and poignant.) Finally, the prophetic view that seals both the project and the poem comes from the eloquent Laurie Capps; her vision comprehends everyone: “We are all … taking samples of the world.”

Note: Julia Child, Life in France, Anchor, 2007, 65; Robert Darvin, Quotation of the Day, New York Times, April 24, 2011, A3; Samuel Sewall, Diary, I, 94; Flora Thompson, Lark Rise to Candleford, Godine, 2010, 37; Angela Thirkell, Love at All Ages, Knopf, 1959, 203; Laurie Capps, Denver Quarterly 45/3, 2010, 10.

Guest Blog Post, Meghan McClure: Fact at a Slant

“But knowledge does not vanquish mystery, or obscure its distant lights.” –Annie Dillard

EncyclopediasIt starts with reading.  May I suggest textbooks.  Or field guides.  Your mother’s old shopping lists.  Ancient political analysis. Or found notes1.   The Internet is fine, but I find that the succinct voice found in a book lends itself to more found lyricism and it keeps you from falling down the hyperlink rabbit hole.  Though sometimes the rabbit hole is just what you need.  Proceed at your own risk – unlike glass cats you can’t always just toss out facts, they get stuck 2.  Of course, feel free to find facts elsewhere: nature, science labs, the surface of the moon, your daughter’s hands, the ache of a cold settling in your chest.

I see facts as trinkets, things to collect, show off, and easily broken.  On learning the way ionic compounds worked in high school I was giddy as an 85-year-old woman who found the perfect glass cat for her immaculately dusted collection.  I tucked it in with the facts I’ve been gathering since I started reading my dad’s collection of books on war.  And the encyclopedias I would smuggle into my room as a 7-year-old to learn more about Progeria and genomes.  But I must admit, I do not keep my collection neat and tidy.  I toss the trinkets in with the rest and hope when I catch a glimpse of a broken piece when I open the Curio Cabinet in my mind it will trigger a landslide of memory, emotion, words.  This is why I never re-present the facts as fact, but something that is mine.  A fact comes out at dinner as a story about how my grandfather showed me how to identify an animal skull 3 or in a poem that makes a mathematical proof contain the remnants of a long-gone relationship.  The facts are there: broken, jumbled, askew.

Now, hold tight to your fact.  Put it somewhere.  Pocket, neuron, palm of your hand 4.  Who cares where, just store it.  It’s yours to play with now.  Unlike with a glass cat, your brain knows what to do with it.  It starts connecting one fact to others and if you sit long enough with the fact and let it move about it will end up looking like the red stringed room in “A Beautiful Mind” and you can follow the yarn to the next fact.

For a few years I have had a quote written on a blue index card leaning on the shelf above my desk.  It reads: “Tell the fact but tell it slant.”  It is attributed to Emily Dickinson.  But that isn’t what she wrote 5.  I don’t know if I made this my own as I wrote it or if I subconsciously substituted fact for Dickinson’s Truth in an effort to avoid that ever-enduring conversation I dodge 6.  And will dodge even now.  What matters about this quote is that it’s led me to many poems and essays.  What matters is that I see this played out in every good book I’ve ever read.  Facts become our own and as writers, we collect them so we can use them to create works of art.

So, you’ve got a fact.  Here’s where it gets tricky.   Once you’ve collected your fact, you need to be knocked off-balance, or knock the fact off-balance.  Tilt your head when you read, get your brain off-kilter, cross your eyes, drink something strong.  Squint if need be. Or peer through one of those glass cats at it.  In other words, look indirectly at the sun so you don’t blind yourself 7.  If you look directly at fact and report it as is, you’ve merely photocopied someone else’s work – it’s just a faded version of the original.

I like to think of this stage like blurring your eyes at wood grain until you see a face or a word.  The wood grain is there for everyone to see, but then you see it, shift your perspective, and it becomes something wholly your own.  You have created something, what now?

Get it down. Work it onto the page.  Make it a fact that someone else can find, break up, make her own.  In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard wrote: “I love the little facts, the ten percents, the fact of the real and legged borers, the cuticle-covered, secretive grubs, the blister beetles, blood flukes and mites.  But there are plenty of ways to pile the facts…”8  Maybe insects aren’t your thing, that’s okay.  Find your facts and then find your way to pile the facts, word after word.  Pile them so high that it starts to tilt, tip, then avalanche into the ever thickening, brilliantly connected pile.



(1)     Preferably from a frozen man’s bag in Antarctica that you found while on a journey.

(2)     Avoid cute videos of rabbits.  Or don’t.

(3)     A coyote skull is long and narrow with long canine teeth. Remember this, it will come in handy some day when you remember it incorrectly and try to write it as a footnote.

(4)     Ink works well for storing things on your palm.  Ignore the Surgeon General’s warning against such things.

(5)     Emily Dickinson wrote: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—”

(6)     You know the one. Truth v. truth, Fiction v. Nonfiction.  The one that makes me play mute.

(7)     More great advice from the aforementioned Dickinson poem (interpreted, by me, at a slant).

(8)     Even this ellipsis implies I’ve taken something, squinted at it, made it my own.  I’ve left something out and made this fact something that is the product of my mind.