Discussion Guide

Holy Comparisons 

Four poems in the May 2018 issue.

Matthew Dickman’s “Lilac” is a botanical garden of a poem: alongside the titular flower, memories blossom too. After one encounter with a lilac, “my childhood is— // dogs scratching at the sliding / glass door, bits // of bottles coming up // like grass in the grass, a dirty towel / down by the feet // of the tree, Lysol cans, small / packets of Land O’Frost // turkey meat — / there in front of me in spring.” “Like grass” popping out of soil, the speaker’s recollections burst through the sentence, complicating its syntax. The dash after “is” introduces a telling confusion: until we reach the sentence’s end, Dickman appears to have said that his childhood is, that it exists again—which is, indeed, how memories make us feel.

A vision of the speaker’s future emerges as well. He imagines holding his baby (who is himself in flower, “alive outside // his mother’s body,” a parallel to the lilac “outside on the street”) while noticing more memory-triggering lilacs. This projection thus features the seeds of more reminiscences.

“We are literally living in a time when you can say you’re something on the Internet and become that thing,” says Julieanna Goddard—known to the digital world as YesJulz—in the New York Times article “YesJulz, Snapchat Royalty.” Kristen Renee Miller’s erasure poem “A Billion Things in One,” which uses the Times report as its source text, does the Snapchat queen one better: it turns her into God.

In whiting out the majority of the article’s words—and the last four letters of “Goddard”—Miller creates a tone distinct from the newspaper’s. “This is what you see if you / follow / God,” the poem reads; blankness both intersperses and follows those words, hinting at both the invisibility of the divine and the vapidity of the digital. The holy comparison highlights the absurdity of Goddard’s self-concept (“I’m a billion things in one,” she says in both article and poem, a statement that makes more sense coming from God than from Goddard). At the same time, Miller’s erasure suggests that the YesJulz’s prominence may be temporary—even, like a social media account, subject to deletion.

Noah Baldino’s “Passing” explores many possible meanings of the term in relation to movement, gender, identity, and time. Passing through Harvard University’s exhibition of glass plant models, the speaker is mistaken multiple times for a gallery attendant. Meanwhile, observers examine the objects that so convincingly pass as flowers. The poet suggests a link between those flowers and the speaker: the former sit in cases, just as the latter wears a binder that "encases // my breasts."

Passing also plays a role in the exhibition’s, well, past. Baldino writes that the flowers’ creators—Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, a father-and-son glassmaking team from central Europe—adopted the technique of packing the flowers carefully in hearses for safe transport; the black cars passed for a funeral procession, and people parted “to allow their small procession past.” The hearses reflect the flowers’ relationship with death: “It does seem to me / true punishment: never to change.”

Raymond Antrobus’s “I Move through London Like a Hotep” meditates on deafness and its attendant ambiguities. Did a dining companion, “all mumble” at a Waffle House, say “Do you want a pancake?” or “You look melancholic”? As for that claim about the Hotep—a word with roots in ancient Egypt and various meanings in contemporary Black circles—it was a mishearing of a friend’s utterly unrelated observation: “I’m used to London life with no sales tax.” The poem is rife with non-spoken confusions, too; the speaker struggles to read a friend’s face, and overturns a mysterious tarot card. No wonder he describes himself as a “haze.”

Meanwhile, the reader interprets Antrobus’s poem, a block of text that lacks line breaks and toggles without warning from one situation to the next. That absence of differentiation conjures a disorientation that mirrors the speaker’s—even as our “haze” offers its own clarity, in the form of connection with his experience.

Originally Published: May 1st, 2018
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In