A Hot January: Poems 1996-1999

A Hot January: Poems 1996-1999

by Robin Morgan, Morgan

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In her intensely personal and powerful sixth book of poems, Robin Morgan blends lyrical style, accomplished form, and political passion to locate her vision in the stark isolation of a self confronting love's aftermath.  See more details below


In her intensely personal and powerful sixth book of poems, Robin Morgan blends lyrical style, accomplished form, and political passion to locate her vision in the stark isolation of a self confronting love's aftermath.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"This is about what got left behind./ A family. A landscape--black sand, white water, green stone./ ....Then, more gradually, the loss of other things./ Pride. Sleep. Health. Weight. Hair. Bone. Time. Heart. Voice." Prolific poet and prose writer Morgan's sixth collection remains fixated on that knottiest of second-wave feminist conundrums--how one's personal tragedies and the much larger-scale conflicts of the world can share space in a single consciousness. That question produces some torturous shifts, as in the title poem: "How tedious this mourning over a lover is, how trite! Better/ to dwell on my country's shift to the Right, better to fight/ for houseless heads, better to heal the body, attempt full-peal/ to write." Elsewhere the poet reads from an encyclopedia, only to teases herself narcissistically with ideas of suicide. Again and again, a reader will look for some redeeming irony--only to find pathetic fallacy ("candytuft nodding in coy denial of problems you/ would not discuss") or jokes that don't quite come off: "Bucolic landscapes had all but put me six feet/ deep down under..." In poems very short and moderately long, couplets and sizable stanzas, lines end-rhymed and internally rhymed, one finds evidence of serious craft ("Glorious leader, bemedaled and embalmed,/ you lie at last a relic, marble-biered in state"), near obsessional soundplay and the attempt to fit empathic straight-talk into some pretty ornate structures. For some readers, dexterous discussion of oppression, illness, survival and heartbreak will be enough. But too often, Morgan's reflections cross the line from artifice and honesty to glibness and self-satisfaction. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

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Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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A Hot January

Poems 1996â"1999

By Robin Morgan


Copyright © 1999 Robin Morgan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-0689-7



    Isn't this what she feared: herselffulfilling
    prophecy: a poet
    might try to make sense of it?

       One definition of projection: fear's shadow
       casting its conceit across a poem's sunstruck lines.

    And all the while me dreading her threat:
    that I, who drafted love across her body, must
    someday settle for revising it as subject matter.

       One definition of desire: the flesh made word.

    The personal, political, poetic. If only they were rhetoric.
    If only I could have fixed a border between them as she did,
    she'd have been safe. I'd have been someone else.

       One definition of poetry:
       imaginary gardens with real toads in them.

    Still, poets who are women comprehend being useful more
    than using. If, being poets, we cherish language as we do our lives,
    being women, we cherish lovers better than ourselves.

       Poetry means refusing the choice to kill or die

    The Jaguar people of the Amazon
    slaughter their enemies
    and use the skulls as musical instruments;

    I confess to the temptation. Yet, refusing
    slaughter, I play my own skull only.
    But that is mine to play.

       The blood jet is poetry

    A poet cannot ever understand that someone else
    will never understand the act of poetry committed
    not in vengeance, but simply to survive.

       Poetry ... is the skeleton architecture of our lives.

    What was to me a daily passion renewing itself
    warm as fresh bread, she shrugged away so often
    that now she will not recognize authentic

    understatement, such as: "I write these poems
    reluctantly, my dear, to spare you
    something worse: my death at your hands."

       Suicide is, after all, the opposite of the poem.

    "Therefore, lover-no-more, you are hereby unfleshed, absolved
    of your reality, lust, cowardice, lies, of giving or receiving love,
    of censoring yourself and words of mine that loved you. This is not

    about you." This is about what got left behind.
    A family. A landscape—black sand, white water, green stone.
    Certain animals answering to names I'd given them.

    A particular pair of boots. A claret ash tree ?
    Then, more gradually, the loss of other things.
    Pride. Sleep. Health. Weight. Hair. Bone. Time. Heart. Voice.

       I must make use of myself as a found object.

    The poem understands that a lover was merely the first sign,
    second string, last straw. Besides, the poem knows she needs
    such reassurances to believe her privacy safe from insight.

       Poetry is the moment of proof.

           The poem understands

[Italicized lines, respectively, by Marianne Moore, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Diane Glancy, and Muriel Rukeyser.]


    No less and no more of merely
    a card game than solitaire is: a means
    of passing time in circles, as if
    this radiance of unaccompanied suites
    were evitable or sturdy as any other
    house of cards, numbers ascending or
    descending in assent or dissent, irony
    at play in alternate red and black,
    the colors of anarchy. "Of course,"
    you say, and grin.

    But such a sorting out of sorts exposes
    categories we categorically reject:
    kings, as always, bond;
    aces, as usual, are hidden.
    Still, the jacks seem tame. And here,
    for once, queen seeks out queen.
    Odd, in this unlikely setting,
    where two grown women play at patience
    sitting in a rain-enclosed verandah
    on the tropical island where they came for sun.

    A morning respite from wet weather
    finds us exploring the interior
    to meet ourselves in other skins gathered
    at a stream—many of you and me,
    some wearing babies or bruises, all of us slapping
    laundry at the rocks, telling familiar
    stories in a different language.
    Our children are too thin.
    Here, then, as in most places, diamonds
    have more value than do hearts.

    That evening, I wander through the open-air
    tourist lounge and overhear a meeting;
    the European men who own the island voice
    mutual alarm: restless native men, it seems,
    are wielding clubs and spades. Interests
    must be protected, development must proceed,
    a private army be imported wearing
    submachine guns, walkie-talkies, smiles—Tourist
    Police, they'll name it. Cigar-smoke laughter. Then
    they notice me. I shuffle. And begin the game again.

    Since I am white and female, they believe me
    harmless. They nod and let me pass.
    Later, as women do in darkness, you and I
    whisper and weep about it: the coral reef
    blasted to sand for trinkets, the foundation
    of the first high-rise hotel, men defending
    men's traditions against men imposing men's progress
    while women labor for both in an interior
    outside of either, telling stories
    to feed their children who are too thin.

    You are feverish, I am chilled.
    A typhoon is expected: we cannot leave.
    No one can force the cards, hurry the clock.
    Each must simply play with all the skill she
    can remember, learn, dare, and invent.
    There's love in that, though,
    and in two foolish women spending more
    than they have on trinkets to feed children,
    helpless to return the coral to its sea-bed anyway,
    outwaiting kings and jacks gone wild,

    passing the stories along to other women.
    You warm my hands as I bathe your hot skull.
    We try to sleep. How long, how long past midnight, then,
    before wind rising slaps trees against the roof,
    before the first sharp rounds of thunder are exchanged,
    before I reach across a sudden flare that scours these walls
    to touch the lightning shadow of your nakedness—as if
    whose woman's face, rain-polished, glimmered
    awake to stare in through our window, finger to lips in warning,
    before the house of cards blows down?


    Bright, brief, and dangerous as memory:

    She'd warned it could explode in my face
    and blind me, shrieked it could go off
    while I was holding it and leave me marked for life.
    She had a repertoire of menace: how playing in the surf
    could suck me under just like that, how Doberman pinschers
    could rip my throat right out, how such-and-such disaster
    had killed, maimed, or disfigured so-and-so. A virtuoso
    of catastrophe, she'd planned my childhood as a work to last.

    But now we see through a glass lightly, decades later,
    grown lovers who refuse to learn they cannot
    cauterize in one another that source-wound beyond reach,
    fill the lack of what had never been permitted, Your gift
    was my surprise: a giant-size assortment of fireworks
    that legally could be bought one day only in the year.

    Yes, I was afraid.
    Afraid that I'd get burned, that you'd get burned, that
    sparks would drench the roof so that the house
    and the whole farm would burn,
    barn, sheds, gates, fences, pastures, calm-eyed
    goats and cattle, all consumed in one orange roar.
    I even worried the package could somehow smoulder
    into spontaneous combustion
    so, surreptitiously (dreading your laughter)
    tried to sneak it out to the garage. Fortunate error:
    I happened to glance at its list of contents in passing.

    The names! Such a shimmer of names!
    Devised by what great unselfconscious
    bard in a Hong Kong fireworks factory?
    Might such names coax me, even me, out from my fear?

       Starburst, Crackling Candle, Ruby Fire,
       Butterfly Glimmer, Fountain of
       Plumflowers, Flashing Rain ?

    What kind of wordstruck animal
    wears my skin, loves sounds or marks
    on a page encoding an image
    as much or more than its reality?
    Surely not one so innocent as to believe
    poetry safer than what it describes.

       Wild Geese, Silver Chrysanthemums,
       Peacock-Feather Fan, Flying Lamps,
       Blizzard of Emeralds, Scarlet Birdwing ?

    You waited eagerly, I anxiously,
    for a night unclouded, moonless,
    then for dusk, then for the wind to die down.
    You arranged me on the front verandah steps,
    then vanished through night's curtain, emerging
    match-flare cupped in one glowing, disembodied hand
    below a mask that brooded eyesocket shadow, cheekbone
    glaze floating where your face had been.
    Then high against that jeweler's display-velour
    of sky you launched your first long hissing thread of light
       to streak, burst, arc, plume
          crimson, violet, amber dazzle
           sighing down to darkness.

       Storm in Heaven. Lotus Crown.
       Fire-Opal Moon. Skywheel. Pearl Meteors.
       Golden Hive. Flametree.
       And one called simply Friendship,
       and one called simply Happiness.
       And one called Passionblaze.

    Hours, hurling radiance at heaven
    to dart, spin, crack its shining tail, bloom
    peonies, fork lightning, spill waterfalls
    in cascades of glitter. Sometimes the gesture
    would go unrewarded: a bead of flame sputter
    for an instant, plunge, ember, and wink out.
    More often, though, what was flung upward
    as an act of faith gleamed in response—
    a fountain brimming azure-splashed vermillion showers,
    lemon-red mandalas unfurling roses to spiral
    dew down flakes of fire the color breath might be,
    held in lungs of sunbleached linen.

    And each release of energy flashed the garden visible,
    revealing an earthbound wonder: gold-eyed animals,
    a horned, hoofed, ancient audience
    serenely gathered at the fence-line
    waiting, like us, for the next eruption
    to rinse their sight with archipelagos of luminosity.

    Finally, when all the winddrift splendor
    had been spent, you handed me two sticks and lit them
    into sparklers so I could twirl small twin suns
    in nova at arms' length, one in each hand,
    too busy being God to be afraid.

    The audience wandered off, then.
    After such thunderclaps of incandescence
    the night seemed quieter than usual. Chilled,
    we went indoors. Much later, after you were asleep,
    I rose and, trailing shawls, sat again on the verandah steps,
    watching stars brilliant with their dying, watching
       light travel the way memory and metaphor does—
       source forgotten past naming or wonder or tears,
    knowing it's not what we see but what we miss
    seeing that blinds us; not what we fear but what we risk
    holding of friendship, happiness, passionblaze,
    that leaves us marked for life,
    knowing that every moment each of us already is burning
    unconsumed, and knowing, too, how rare
    even the briefest visitation of pure glory is,
    before it abandons us to our familiar darkness,
    where we recognize the smell of sulphur in the air.


    In Memoriam Katherine Mansfield

    Coming this late to everything
    you left behind—
    clematis, kouri, clarity's shadow
    laid cool on a flush of apricot light,
    flutter of hands in welcome, flutter of tui song,
    lambs and young kids silver-lipped crying out
    to suck green-swollen hills—sister
    and stranger, only such passionflower words
    on a page can unite us, only the silence we break
    from and rave at, only the exile we're born to
    which I meet again now, coming this late
    to everything you left behind.

    Unable to breathe colonial airs inside sharp-starched
    pinafores, see from beneath wide-brimmed sailor
    straws, wanting your hair wild as the toe-toe lewd
    in the wind—was the only path out deeper down,
    lit toward the nightglare of alien cities?
    Was it too raw a bliss: that arch of mamaku uncurling
    black tree-ferns, these steaming lakes and waterfalls, this sea
    lit shimmering from below, that desert in redhaired-heather
    lust, this film of rain a fragrance on the skin,
    these terraced ochre stones scarped
    in fantastic steps leading to no landing?

    Or was it silence? Lies, fear, sidelong glances?
    Well, you fled that cramped world—but gazing
    backward as you ran, words at the bay until
    they choked you, until in a distant country your blood
    would feather penstrokes spelling scarlet pohutakawa
    stamens, staining your pillow with a death.
    But if you could have risked, risked anything
    aloud, pealed the purest health as synonym
    wrung pollen from gold kowhai bells—who
    would have listened back at home?

    Another might have heard, who wrote "As a woman,
    I have no country. As a woman, my country
    is the world
." But she was plain. And older.
    She heard voices. She stayed where she was—
    and died of that as neatly as you died of running.
    Or if you could have listened to the Maori Queen
    as she sang stories in another tongue. If there had been
    a place to stand, a language unbetrayed, a gesture
    recognized—perhaps the words you raged unwritable,

    "words without sediment," would have clung,
    fine sand, volcanic, to your page. You died of it.
    Their facile diagnoses to the contrary, my dear,
    you suffocated from such silence.
    Sister and stranger, that lack and longing
    tracks me yet: we write of country matters
    yet have no place to stand, nowhere
    to come this late to, having left ourselves behind,
    unable to breathe in exile or at home, still
    babbling bright fevers for which no remedy exists,
    still gasping "The little lamp—I seen it," still
    as we die of it burning approximate words, not
    knowing whether the gift is cure or disease
    as it consumes us, knowing only the truth we cannot
    find names for and, at the end, only this yearning,

    as that final sigh whistles through us
    and the linen is slowly drawn up
    over our unblinking stare—
    a drift of white, cool as a low-lying cloud:
    "I seen it."
    You died of it, my dear.

[The tui is a bird native to New Zealand/Aotearoa; kouri, toe-toe, mamaku, pohulakawa, and kowhai are native flora. The first quote is from Virginia Woolf, other images and quotes are from Mansfield.]


    (In respectful dissent with Robert Graves)

    Children are loud to wail how real the nightmare
    how mute with menace shadows glide the floor,
    brazen to call on spirits, faeries, angels
    unsummoned by adults who scorn such spells.

    Adults have silence to delude our bedtime hell,
    and silence to muzzle our menial noon.
    We censor shrieks uncivil in shrill pain.
    We strangle melody we dare not sing.

    There's a cool web of silence winds us in,
    retreat from too much fear or too much joy.
    We moderate our meanings to appease:
    articulating silence through our lies.

    But if we broke the truth, the troth, the chains
    and gags, the hush, then we would break a dawn
    dispelling ghosts that walked where we, undead,
    might name ourselves mere mortal angels, yet still
    cry praise. For only the revenant unspeakable, unsaid,
    will stalk, haunt, rise in the throat, and kill.


    I'm not who you think I am
    leaning against the kitchen doorframe
    twisting this stained apron in scarred hands.
    I was bleeding from something.
    Maybe the blackberry thorns
    where I went picking for jam. Maybe rescuing
    that newborn kid caught in the brambles,
    fleeceflakes puffed on the barbs where she'd spun
    and spun to free herself, only getting trapped deeper.

    I'm not who the neighbors think I am
    when they come with carrotcake and I serve them tea
    and they talk about the weather and sports
    and the market price of wool and I smile and nod.
    To them I smell of onions and bleach, and even
    after a bath, of the pigsty I shoveled out and hosed
    all morning, my one satisfaction: bringing order
    to chaos, gleam to dullness, freshness to whatever reeks.

    When I smell myself, I smell something burning.
    I'm not who the farmer thinks I am, either. I used to fear
    insects. Now I see them as makers of honey and silk. I'd like
    to make honey or silk. I used to love someone, maybe this farmer
    I watch now, out checking the stock, peering to see
    if the pasture's greened up again after the rains, turning
    homeward. I should set out the bottle, the matches, the smokes,
    turn off the music. I don't want a fight. When I'm all by myself,
    I play Bach on the stereo—the Passions, Saint Matthew, Saint John.
    I hate God, though.

    Only those people who never went farming think farming's
    about growing things. Mostly farmers kill things. Mine,
    who says little, says you just have to, and sets possum traps,
    lays rabbit poison, strews rat bait, scatters slug pellets, sprinkles
    insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, chloroforms, collects
    loppers and mowers, weed-eaters, spray guns. My farmer is skilled
    in the use of such tools and techniques. I'm not.
    But I'm learning you just have to be. Maybe
    I'm not who I think I am, too.


    "The lie is the child of silence."

         —Ursula K. Le Guin
    "When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry."

         —Niels Bohr

    Hello, I'm not here.

       A silencer makes the weapon more effective.

        What means consent, is golden, equals death?
        No comment.

         Observe a moment of, hold your, speak
         only when, don't ask don't, neither
         confirm nor, you have the right to remain.

    I can't take your call right now.

       Tell me about the silent partners, the strong
       silent types, those who suffer in silence,
       those who are seen and not heard.

         Talk about unspoken rules,
         inadmissable evidence,
         unmentionable truths,
         unnameable fears.

          Let's hear it
          for the cruel,
          silence of god.

    Leave your name, the time and date, and where you can be reached.

       I am the cloud across the sun, the faint chill wind
       that makes you reach for a sweater while at lunch.

       ;It's always midnight when mimes and trappists
       sound each other out.

         In New Guinea, every one of the Dani people speaks
         eight languages, tells stories in which wordplay
         on a single pun lasts for two hours. Indonesia is imposing
         a uniform mainland tongue. This erasure is named
         "language death."

    I'll get back to you when I can.

       I will have left by then,
       bearing a word in my mouth
       like a coin, for the passage.

        Odysseus, Kafka knew, might have escaped
        from the sirens' singing,
        but from their silence, never.

         Poetry is the art of the impossible.

    Wait for the signal before you speak.


Excerpted from A Hot January by Robin Morgan. Copyright © 1999 Robin Morgan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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