Each poem in this issue of RHINO seems to be in the throes of observing disaster or its aftermath and attempting to make sense out of senseless tragedy and sorrow. The result is powerful poetry from beginning to end, some poems so intense that time must pass to allow the turmoil to settle before reading on. Yeats’s haunting phrase “A terrible beauty is born” is apt to apply to these poems. They are beautiful in their lyric distillation of fear, sorrow, and grief, and are fitting in the current social and political climate.
Prize winning poems for the Editors’ and Founders’ prizes for 2018 are included in this issue. Abby E. Murray’s “Asking for a Friend” is a lyrical monologue in which the speaker is searching for a way to express feelings about the war in which a spouse is deployed. It begins:
Is there a way to tell
the commander’s wife
you’re a pacifist
and it’s possible
to trust your spouse
but mourn his work
The short lines of thought march down the page, stressing the internal struggle when one is expected to act in certain ways in response to the military and patriotism when one is in the midst of living it. Expectations run high and losses are great for the military spouse.
Another prize winner, Erika Brumett’s “Worms,” is a close sensory look at what Charles Darwin called “lowly, organized beings” and deemed them important players in earth’s history. The stanza shape and line placement indicate a writhing wormlike movement on the page. Imagery is close and physical, describing worms as “Dirt- / serpents, vermicelli, bait.” explaining how they are “each a squiggle / of innard—a stretch of entrail / or colon.” The poem, with lyrical precision, worms its way through Darwin’s observations and experiments culminating in a final irony. The “Little tillers” seem more important to evolution and survival than a single human life. Time spent ending in loss is a palpable take-away. These two winning poems are linked by themes of futility and purpose each pulling at the other.
Every poem in this issue is strong in voice and solid in form. In Maya Marshall’s sonnet, “Girl Secrets in Her Own Cocoon,” a room with a door becomes a sanctuary where “She’d take her cue from Martha Reeves, / jerk and gyrate. She wouldn’t need nowhere to run.” There is an ominous tone beneath the lines describing someone fully herself and seeing herself as she wants to be seen, the way she might wish things were.
In another combination of form and tone, John Sibley Williams’s “Valentine” holds a strong sense of foreboding in a neat rectangular space. The narrative as through an apocalyptic lens offers a feeling of futility in the face of danger:
The news on grandpa’s old
transistor warns that those of us still
here should stay indoors for the for-
What that future holds is difficult to see, but the poem leaves a mark and an emptiness.
In “Everything is Everything” by Gabrielle Bates, a rhythmic nuance glides through the lines as if someone were speaking them from a living room sofa, explaining: “Things seem to come naturally to people / that don’t come naturally to me.” The piece addresses the immediacy of the current political climate within observations of daily habits such as watching The Simpsons or attending a track meet while Rome is burning. In this and all the poems in this issue, there is so much to consider, reflect on, and internalize.
The work in this issue of RHINO delves into history, myth, war, longing, technology, love, and death using language to its nth degree, making the final products of the poet seem as if they were the easiest things in the world to create, when, in fact, it is poetry wrought from life, distilled over time into art that reflects the world as it is in 2018 and also as it has been in the past. John Ashbery’s “Paradoxes and Oxymorons” instructs, “This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level. / Look at it talking to you.” He ends the poem with “The poem is you.” We are all of these poems. They are talking to us.