Poetry: Al Maginnes



Conversion Narratives

This life extracts some balance
though what we mostly do is run
in one direction till we fall,
then rise, dust ourselves clean
and tear hard as we can back
the way we came. This is how
the stories told in pulpits
and 12-step meetings start,
their finished gloss ignoring
all the scratched-out lines,
the pencil points broken
in revision. It’s the story
Augustine, on the eve of sainthood,
told, its sequel uttered by
every soul redeemed in his wake.
But another story waits
beyond our consent. Imagine
a man telling his tale
of resurrection one night, how
he stepped from the path,
then plunged from grace until
awakening, then redemption
through diet, Jesus or sobriety.
After he’s done, some shake his hand.
There are tears and long hugs.
Then he’s driving home, a glow
rising in him to answer
the fat moon as he erases
the parts of the story
he will never tell. And when
he turns into his driveway,
the house is a box of fire,
the life he spoke of building
vanished in the soundless fury
of flames. When he sees
his family silhouetted against
the fire he runs to them
and, cursed and blessed, they embrace.
Holding them, sweat-grimed
and hot beneath his fingers,
he knows the day will come when
this will fit the story he tells,
and he hates the mouth that will
say those words, the mouth now
whispering to his daughter,
promising that what is lost
will be gotten again.


No Word But Burning

The stars are fire-splinters, burning chips of ice,
and, yes, I understand the contradiction. But when
you press a piece of ice against the skin long enough
that its freeze settles through the layers, what word
but burning do we give that sense? In a day or two,
this weather will go its way and leave us blinking through
the uncertain dregs of a winter too mild to trust.
Tonight. I worry that I have no traveled enough.
I could stay awake till these stars vanish making inventory
of the streets where my shadow has never fallen. Deaf storefronts
I have not serenaded. If I sing tonight, the stars will remain
exactly where they are. If I pray, nothing will stir.
All I pray for tonight—and most nights—is balance enough
to keep looking through the clear skies above me
while the dog pees on the dirt, sniffs at the leaves scriptured
with frost. A little steam from my breath which has its own distance
to travel. No litany of roads, no maps incoherent with
their own eloquence offer to replace song tonight. Each street lies
frozen and sleeping in the great distance the stars are held by.
However long the light has fallen, through however many generations
of dust, my eyes read only the present tense. Now,
my lips move on their own, and if it is not song
coming out of my throat, then it must be prayer that rises
on a breath that wants to be nothing other than burning.


What We Work Against

Today the copper surge of anger. Tomorrow,
                 the same bitter electricity. I spoke rashly

and was answered in kind. We try
                  carrying our best selves into the world,

but a winter branch scrapes the cold window
                  like the hands of a prisoner who tries

to gouge a hole, the start of a tunnel,
                  through the packed dirt and gravel

belting a shadowed corner of the yard.
                  Each day he works, burrowing into the fury

of being locked away a child’s entire life.
                  The noise of steel is lullaby and soft music

for him. The first night he is free, the silence
                  will be too large, too wide to let him sleep.

The pattern has broken and is resolving
                  into something new. This is what I should have said

when I tried to explain that rhythm works best
                  when it is slightly disrupted, when it finds

an object to work against. Lucretius said
                  all motion exists because the swerving

of atoms sets off collisions which spiral
                  into random patterns, unforeseen alliances

and descents. Today a friend spoke
                  so simply and wisely of someone addicted

and recently dead that my eyes ghosted
                  with tears. What we don’t expect

is what shakes us. I didn’t expect to feel
                  such cheap anger today. Or to wake to news

of another famous and useless death.
                  When I knew I’d lost the class, I should have

stopped talking for a moment, long enough
                  to bring them into this new silence, to make them lean,

suddenly listening for what stopped the gears of the day,
                  and what permission would turn them again.


Insomnia in Spring

Pay attention to the workings of the soul,
                 Marcus Aurielius counsels, one reason
I wish the moon would labor through
                  the cloud-web lacing the sky,
bluffing rain. But tonight you can leave
                  your jacket inside. All over the city
drivers roll their windows down, turn
                  radios a little louder, a combination
that makes a noise restless enough
                  to throw the night off balance. Today,
a friend told me that he is the crazy one
                  in a poem I’ve read fifty times.
I can see the words on the page even
                  while I write this. We both know the poet,
a clam believer in God and language.
                  Once I would have said there is nothing
worth believing in. Tonight there is music,
                  the fine shuttle of breath. The sky,
endless variations of plant life, some peeping
                  upward now, the curious odors rising
from soft mud. The little prayer I whisper
                  each morning. There is the body,
sleepless, trembling with a joy that is close
                  to fear. The more attention we offer
the world, the larger the soul becomes.
                  Today, my daughter was distracted by
the tree’s soft leafing and each new blossom
                  and I forgot that her detours marks
opportunities for patience. You have to be
                  a little crazy to believe language can
give the world the attention it deserves. But
                  you would be crazier not to,
not when the ground is waking
                  into sour green odors and plants
rise through the mud they are made in, not when
                  our souls are still lush and growing.


The Consolation of Endless Universes
                 From Inventing Constellations

In one theory, there are universes
lined on either side of this one,
each such a slight variation
of its neighbor you have to squint
to see the difference, like a street
where my brother lived, its line
of white houses so alike I found
his house only by seeing his car.

But if you wander too many
universes beyond what you know,
you arrive somewhere you don’t recognize
such as the universe where
your mother and father do not meet,
worlds of black skies and gods
more terribly present or absent than any
who claim dominion here.

Another theory says each decision
gives birth to a reality in which
a different decision was made,
a rainbow of universes erupting
from each gesture. Some of these
are too easy to imagine
like the one in which my best friend
from junior high is reading

about my arrests and the time
I will have to serve. I woke
a few mornings ago, his name
a smoke-wisp hanging in
the empty corridor of some dream.
A few minutes of clicking
through the internet showed me
the picture taken the last time

he went to prison. A list
of arrests and sentences told me
enough to fill in the years since
he and I shoplifted cigarettes.
The consolation of endless universes
is that somewhere he is living
a life that makes him as happy
as my life makes me, even while

I wonder again how I escaped,
how I am the one allowed to walk free
inside this, the one universe
where I can change anything.


Fatherhood In Middle Age
                  From Inventing Constellations

This fork of veins, fresh branch for blood,
                 means a new calendar is needed.

The music I listen to is no longer
                 entirely mine. The brown warbler, whose song

I could imitate last summer, flutters
                 from dogwood to cold mud. It knows

the world is a hazard. From a tree
                 thousands of miles south, it came, guided

by a compass of quivering bone, an arrow
                 deep in the blood. This morning,

I raked winter’s deadfall, leaves brown
                 as parchment, blank as the tongues

of the unborn, and I told my daughter
                 the names of all I recognize. Filled

with such language, it’s hard to remember
                 all that does not belong to me: weather.

The patterns birds cast. Stubborn leaf blades
                 cutting through spring’s muddy crust.

Soon, fish will rediscover the motion
                 of water, and those dangerous cousins

death and beauty will wrestle
                 as they have always done.

There is no good way to explain
                 the baby sparrow we’ll find dead

in a few weeks, a ruby of blood
                 clotting her throat. Nothing to say

about the dead mouse, little bag of fur
                 curled in the driveway. These things

offer their own lessons. When
                 the hard music of birds lights the air,

I will not be the fierce one
                 urging the young from the nest.

Not this year. And not before I explain
                 a hundred times that families,

like nests, are built: imperfect,
                 assymetric, but built nonetheless

shapes locked in blood’s memory
                 long after they fall to dust and twigs.


Al Maginnes’ newest collection here: http://www.cherry-grove.com/maginnes-constellation.html


Talking About Childhood and Science and Why Walt Whitman Would Make a Great Babysitter: Al Maginnes

(Interviewer: Brittany Clark, Poetry Editor, SPACES)

Brittany: First of all, I’ve loved reading your poems! Thank you so much for sharing them with us. That being said, I’m really interested in your creative process. How do these powerful poems come to you?

Al: Well, thanks as well to you and to Mary Carroll-Hackett for inviting me to be part of this project. My process is not a tried and true thing or else I would be writing poems and getting great results all the time. I read a lot of poetry, and that helps keep me focused on language even at times, like now, when I’m overwhelmed with student papers and projects (it is the end of the semester after all) and I try to write a little each day, even if it’s only for a  few minutes. Then I don’t have that frustrated, drowning feeling when you want to get to the writing and you can’t. I have friends who tell me they go months between writing poems. That would terrify me.

Really, though, all I can do is put myself in the chair or, more usually, in my worn spot on the end of the couch and write until something emerges. Sometimes I sit down with a very clear idea for a poem, sometimes I just open my notebook with the idea that it’s time to write something and I need to get to it. If nothing new arrives, I always have a stack of poems in need of revision, and much of what makes the poems worth reading – if they are worth reading – comes about in revision.

Brittany: I’m so glad you brought up not only the idea of composing a poem, but revising one as well. I think all writers walk this fine line between the metaphysical and scientific in that there is that muse or force that guides in the creation and then there is a more exact, almost scientific, approach to crafting a poem during revision. Your process not only seems to address these facets, but the subjects of your poems do as well (especially “The Consolation of Endless Universes”). Can you talk to us about this metaphysical/scientific feel in your pieces? 

Al: I’ve always been deeply suspicious of the notion of the muse, but I do think there are times when the cosmos aligns and poems come to us more easily. I just had a run like that from the start of February through the middle of March. I drafted a poem, sometimes two, a day. Since then I’ve been trying to make those drafts into good poems.

I like to read about science although I’m never sure that I understand a lot of it, and I’m thrilled when it works its way into my poems. As I recall the whole idea of parallel universes came a bit later in “The Consolation of Endless Universes.” It started as a reminiscence of a guy I more or less grew up with and got into a few small scrapes with when I was in my early teens. From the start I was aware that I wanted the poem to be more than an anecdote about kids in a small town doing what kids in small towns do, so I was looking for a way to expand it. I had been making my way through Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages, so the notion of the two of us existing in different universes was a way to expand the poem beyond a single local memory.

Brittany: It seems then that the idea of childhood is important in your work. There is also a reference to a daughter in several of the poems.

Al: Childhood is something we all have in common and for most of us, many of our deepest pleasures and fears are rooted in those early years. I have no patience for those who idealize childhood as some magical, mythical time. My primary memories of childhood are fear and worry. Not because I was raised in any sort of precarious situation. Other than moving a lot, I had a very stable home and family life. But I was aware very early that the world did not and would not play by my rules. I learned that from other kids and from adults as well.

About my daughter – well, now you’ve stumbled onto my favorite subject. In 2007, the same year I turned 50, my wife and I adopted our daughter who was a year old at the time. Because my schedule is more flexible than my wife’s, I’ve usually been the one taking her to school, picking her up, arranging play dates, all those sorts of things, and that’s given me a lot of time with her that a lot of dads don’t get to have. She’s almost seven now and is aware that I sometimes put her in my poems. Luckily, she’s not embarrassed by that yet.

Watching her go through childhood has reminded me of a lot of things about my childhood. Mainly I’m aware of how different many of our experiences are. She is horrified, for instance, when I tell her that we only had three channels on the TV when I was growing up. But kids don’t change that much, no matter how the world around them does. I hear kids on the playground at her school saying the same things and using the same little insults we used when I was a kid. I love that.

Brittany: While it seems that “kids these days” are vastly different that kids from different generations, they really aren’t. I’m glad you pointed that out. I think it’s the same with the evolution of a writer as well. What about your writing has changed since you first started and what has stayed the same?

Al: Many years ago I heard a writer who had been at it a while and had a shelf full of books to show for it say that he made the same mistakes then that he did when he was a freshman in college. I’ve been at it a while now too, and lots of things have not changed. I still write longhand in spiral notebooks the same way I did when I was fifteen years old. I have noticed in recent years that I’m in much less of a hurry than I used to be. When my poems first started getting taken with some regularity twenty or twenty-five years ago, I was really driven. It was not unusual for me to write a poem Tuesday, revise it Wednesday and have it out in the mail on Saturday. It takes me much longer to finish a poem these days. And I think I’m better at figuring out early on that something isn’t going to work out. I also think I’m writing more now than I ever have.

I guess I should talk a little about the technology, which has made some things easier. Online submissions are a wonderful convenience, and there are many very good online journals – Blackbird, Cortland Review, Terrain.org, The Pedestal, Shenandoah, which has gone from being one of our best print journals to a wonderful and varied web site. And of course I have a computer now instead of the Smith Corona I used all through the 80s. But in many ways the struggle is still the same one – to find the best words you can and use them well. The same thing that poets wanted when they were writing on parchment with quill pens.

Brittany: Can you talk a little about the forms of your poems? The way they look on the page? I’m interested in your decisions on line length/breaks and stanzas. (I love your couplet pieces, by the way!)

Al: I don’t have any set aesthetic or idea of how a poem should look when I start writing. That usually announces itself in the first draft or two. For instance, I was working on a poem recently in short lines and it wasn’t moving at all, so I decided to try it in long lines, and it seemed to flow much better. When I started reading poems in the late 70s, early 80s, the prevailing form of the day was the poem in odd-lined stanzas. You might have a seven line first stanza, a twelve line second stanza, an eight line third stanza and so on, and this was the way I went at it for many years. At some point, I started wanting the stanzas to be in more or less uniform blocks, so I write poems in four or five line stanzas or ten line stanzas for that matter, as long it was a set number of lines. I also started playing with the broken line technique that Charles Wright uses so well. Lately I’ve started writing prose poems. One thing I’ve found is that sometimes ideas or material that isn’t accessible in one form might become more accessible in another.

The couplet is a quick way to move the poem down the page and keeps me from getting too prosy or spending too much time on what isn’t really essential because you have to make things move. I’ve known poets who have written whole books in couplets or sonnets or some form or other but I doubt I’ll ever do that. For me, it’s much more fun to find the possibilities in every poem. And since my job doesn’t depend on publishing and my phone isn’t ringing with other job offers, writing poems has to be fun or else why bother?

Brittany: You mention Charles Wright’s broken lines as an influence. Are there any other poetic or other artistic influences that show their presence in your work?

Al: Wright and Philip Levine are my favorite living poets. It’s hard to say who is or isn’t an influence but some poets I return to constantly are James Dickey and Richard Hugo, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop. The great modernists, Eliot, Stevens, Williams, Crane, are endless as a mountain range. The generation right before mine probably hasn’t gotten its due except for a few figures, but I’m always interested in what David Wojahn, Susan Wood, R.T. Smith, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, David Bottoms, Richard Jackson, and Christopher Buckley (the good poet, not the bad novelist) are doing. Just to name a few. Some poets from that group who are no longer with us – Lynda Hull, Thomas James, Larry Levis – are people I read and reread. Many of my contemporaries – like Claudia Emerson, George Looney, Philip Terman, Joseph Bathanti, Arthur Smith, Suzanne Cleary just to name a few – are doing great work. We live in a rich time for poetry and I feel lucky to be alive and working now. I should point out that I’ve been around long enough that there is a slew of poets a decade or more younger than me who are writing good stuff. Jeff Hardin, Jeff Newberry, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Gerry LaFemina, Bobby Rogers, Sandy Longhorn and a bunch of others are doing wonderful work. Whether these folks influence me or whether I’m more influenced by listening to Art Pepper and Blind Willie Johnson and The Hold Steady is all a matter of how I feel that day and what finally gets me to sit down and open my notebook.

Brittany: Speaking of music, do you ever play with any other genres of art, or do you just work in poetry?

Al: I don’t really do anything in other genres. I play guitar a bit but I’m pretty horrible. I sometimes draw with Isabel but again, I’m pretty limited. My first ambition as a writer was to write novels and I’ve written two that were pretty flawed, one about twenty years ago, another more recently. I might still take a shot at that some time. I envy my writer friends who have found other outlets. My buddies Craig Wright and Jim Clark are both accomplished musicians and have recorded CDs with their bands (Craig heads up Cast of Clowns, a west coast jam band that really needs to tour the east coast, and Jim is a member of The Near Myths, a collective whose members range from eastern North Carolina to British Columbia). I have other friends who have taken up painting or photography after years of writing, and they really seem to be enjoying themselves.

Brittany: I know you hold a special place in your heart for your daughter. If you had to hire a poet to babysit your daughter for the night, who would it be?

Al: Wow. Well, I’ve had quite a few poets offer (although they all live a safe distance away) and none of them are triathletes with black belts in martial arts. But I’ll shout out to Sandy Longhorn and Suzanne Cleary who, in addition to being terrific poets, are great long distance aunts. I mentioned this question to some friends yesterday and one suggested William Carlos Williams because he was a doctor. But if it comes down to it, I think I’d hire Walt Whitman. He has always seemed to have the sense of wonder you need to hang with a six year old.

Brittany: As a young poet myself, I’d love to hear some more of your wisdom geared specifically towards beginning writers. Any advice?

Al: I used to blather about reading the great works, establishing a writing routine, but the fact is that if you’re going to write, you’ll find ways to do those things. I’d say live a life that interests you. Grab as much experience as you can, especially early on. Be nice to other people. Try very hard not to become cynical or bitter. Remember that it’s a pretty great life that gives you time to worry over poems.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAl Maginnes is the author of five full length collections, most recently Inventing Constellations (Cherry Grove Edition, 2012) and Ghost Alphabet (White Pine Press, 2008), winner of the White Pine Poetry Prize. He has new or forthcoming poems in Georgia Review, American Literary Review, Cave Wall, Sierra Nevada Review, Terrain.org Southern Humanities Review and others. He lives with his family in Raleigh NC and teaches composition, literature and creative writing at Wake Technical Community College.

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