Discussion Guide

Mark My Words

Four poems in the April 2018 issue.

“What is a man?” asks Ilya Kaminsky in “Question.” “A quiet between two bombardments.” And there the poem ends, inviting readers to pose a question of our own: what does Kaminsky mean by “bombardments”? He might be referring to the literal catastrophes of war—or to the dual tumults of birth and death, between which our lives unfurl in relative “quiet,” if we’re lucky.

The poem itself takes the form of two “bombardments”: paired lines, a question and an answer, divided by white space. Perhaps it’s in the white space—the quiet moment of considering what we are—that we are most ourselves.

In the first stanza of Kiandra Jimenez’s “Halcyon Kitchen,” a grandmother unravels her granddaughter’s cornrows. It’s a fitting initial scene for a pantoum, a braid-like poetic form in which the second and final lines of each four-line stanza become the first and third lines of the next. That structure also complements the weave of memory—memories of the grandmother, who has recently passed away, lace this poem.

Images of heat communicate the older woman’s warmth: she baked cornbread, cooked greens, smoked cigarettes, and applied a hot comb to the speaker’s hair. In contrast, Jimenez floods the present-day funeral scene with chilling water: “Halcyon rain picks up, soaks me blue.” That color suggests both her mournful mood and the cold of the rain.

“Chile, // ma recipes are not measured nor written,” the grandmother would say. Yet here, in the measured form of poetry, Jimenez records the ingredients that constituted the family baker, cook, smoker, and hairdresser. In so doing, she’s following one of the grandmother’s prescriptions: “mark my words.” In these lines, Jimenez doesn’t just mark them; she marks them down, over and over again.

Terisa Siagatonu’s “Atlas” examines an understudied act of violence: nearly every map, she writes, “slices the Pacific Ocean in half,” as though “water can handle the butchering / and be pushed to the edges / of the world.” Her title is no accident: the poem, whose column of text bisects a sea of white space, physically resembles such a map. “California”—“nestled on the western coast of the most powerful / country on this planet”—appears on the poem’s “western coast,” or left margin. And the term “sliced in half,” surrounded by blank space, cuts in two a line about the politically divided islands of Samoa.

If the poem takes its cues from an atlas, its speaker takes hers from Atlas, the Greek god cursed with propping up the heavens on his shoulders. She, too, must bear a burden: she’s “a Samoan-American that carries the weight of both / colonizer and colonized, / both blade and blood.” A marriage of opposites, “a hyphen of a woman,” she is split in half, like the Pacific Ocean—and like Samoa itself.

Samoa faces another monumental challenge: it’s sinking. “Atlas” suggests that, as climate change threatens the islands’ very existence, text may serve as the solidest ground the speaker can find.

In “Scientific Method,” Paul Tran develops fresh hypotheses about an influential psychology experiment. In the 1950s, the researcher Harry Harlow separated baby monkeys from their mothers, then gave them a choice of new “mothers” to bond with: surrogates made either of mesh wire or of terry cloth-covered wood. What happened next? “Of course I chose the terry cloth surrogate,” reports the chatty macaque that narrates the poem. “I wasn’t stupid.”

The speaker uses suggestive language to build a metaphor between Harlow’s study and the most damaging experiments humans have conducted on each other. He calls the scientist “Master,” and describes the laboratory as a “colony” of orphans “segregated” from their mothers. The monkey indicates the questionable track record of “white men” in “what they once called / The Orient”—a reference to the home of both “Old World monkeys” and Tran’s own family, which hails from Vietnam.

Here, the monkey gets to call things as he will, and he theorizes freely about the man who so famously theorized about him, out-psychologizing the psychologist. “Master made me his terry cloth / surrogate, his red-clawed god, nursing his id // on my tits, and for that, I pitied him,” the macaque concludes. “All this time / he was the animal. All this time he belonged to me.”

Originally Published: April 2nd, 2018
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In