Category Archives: Potcake Poet’s Choice

Marcus Bales: ‘Villains, Too’

Villains, too, believe they’re righting wrongs,
Their traumas just as blunt as yours or mine.
They write their manifestoes, sing their songs,
And hope their cancer screens turn out benign;
It’s where they differ that the trouble lies.
Their personal concerns are all they see.
For them there are no others’ laughs or cries —
We’re furniture to them, not you, not me.
They see us not as people, but as means
For them to harm a world that helped their foes,
Or if we give them pleasure, as machines
To give whatever pleasure that they chose.
They see themselves as victims who must seize
Their rights to do whatever they may please.

*****

Marcus Bales writes: “Villains, Too is one more in a series of attempts to write this poem. If I knew exactly what I was trying to say I hope I’d have actually said it by now. The forlorn fragments of phrases strung through my notes for poems show that this business recurs and wants something from me. I hope to get this done, eventually. In the meantime, without spending too much time trolling through my own failings, here’s the last time I tried:

Grinning Henchmen

They do not wake up sharing bwahahas
With grinning henchmen as they shave, and think
“Today I shall be evil!” No, the laws
Are on their side. They never even blink
At all the tears and suffering they cause.
They’ve got their lives to live, and they don’t shrink
From living them, like you and me, with flaws
And virtues, growing families, food and drink,
And love and death. They look at life and view it
Just like us. And in our common murk
They did each evil deed and never knew it
To be evil. No one, king to clerk,
Has thought they’re doing evil as they do it;
They always think they’re doing some god’s work.”

Not much is known about Marcus Bales except that he lives and works in Cleveland, Ohio, and that his work has not been published in Poetry or The New Yorker. However his ’51 Poems’ is available from Amazon.

Photo: “Villain with fire” by Tambako the Jaguar is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

A.M. Juster: ‘Cancer Prayer’

Dear Lord,
Please flood her nerves with sedatives
and keep her strong enough to crack a smile
so disbelieving friends and relatives
can temporarily sustain denial.

Please smite that intern in oncology
who craves approval from department heads.

Please ease her urge to vomit; let there be
kind but flirtatious men in nearby beds.

Given her hair, consider amnesty
for sins of vanity; make mirrors vanish.

Surround her with forgiving family
and nurses not too numb to cry. Please banish
trite consolations; take her in one swift
and gentle motion as your final gift.

*****

A.M. Juster writes: “One of my favorites.”

A.M. Juster is the Plough Quarterly poetry editor. His work has appeared in Poetry, Paris Review, Hudson Review and other journals. His tenth book is Wonder and Wrath (Paul Dry Books 2020) and his translation of Petrarch’s Canzoniere is due from W.W. Norton in early 2024.
www.amjuster.net

Photo: “A Silent Calling” by Alyssa L. Miller is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Amit Majmudar: ‘The Last Meditation of Marcus Aurelius’

Among the Quadi, on the river Gran
I hate no one, love no one, am no one,
My armor hollow, crumpled, a tumbling can
Among the Quadi, on the river Gran.
River awash with bodies, rinse my hand.
I neither love nor hate what it has done.
Among the Quadi, on the river Gran
I neither love nor hate what I’ve become.

I neither love nor hate what I’ve become
Among the Quadi, on the river Gran
Slaughtering boys with long hair spun of sun.
I neither love nor hate what I have done
Galloping after stragglers on the run.
Rinse, rinse my hand, as only a river can.
I love no one, hate no one, am no one
Among the Quadi, on the river Gran.

*****

This poem originally appeared in The Classical Outlook, Vol. 97, No. 3

Amit Majmudar writes: “I am a fan of Marcus Aurelius, and I wrote this little poem around the same time I wrote an essay about harmonics between the Meditations and the Bhagavad-Gita, which I published my translation of in 2018.
Yet the original idea—a triolet that plays with that oddly pentametric subtitle of one of the chapters of the Meditations—occurred to me years ago. I am pretty sure I wrote, or tried to write, a triolet with this refrain maybe fifteen years ago. I lost it, never sent it out, one of the literally hundreds of poems I write but never send out. (Creatively I am like a fish, laying a superabundance of eggs, expecting only a small percentage to survive.)
When I reread the Meditations recently, getting my thoughts together for the essay, I saw that subtitle and had the same idea a second time, or remembered having had the idea (and hence inadvertently had it again). These two triolets are my attempts at reconstructing a poem I wrote and forgot years ago. I could not recall if I had made “Among the Quadi, on the river Gran” the first or second line of that ur-triolet. So I blundered around and found my way into this “double triolet.”
The image of Marcus Aurelius as a reluctant Stoic warlord is irresistible to me. I think the best commentary on this poem is the essay I wrote at the same time, published over at Marginalia at the Los Angeles Review of Books. This is the link to that essay:
https://themarginaliareview.com/the-gita-according-to-marcus-aurelius/

Amit Majmudar is a poet, novelist, essayist, translator, and the former first Poet Laureate of Ohio. He works as a diagnostic and nuclear radiologist and lives in Westerville, Ohio, with his wife and three children. 
      Majmudar’s poetry collections include 0’, 0’ (Northwestern, 2009), shortlisted for the Norma Faber First Book Award, and Heaven and Earth (2011, Storyline Press), which won the Donald Justice Prize, selected by A. E. Stallings. These volumes were followed by Dothead (Knopf, 2016) and What He Did in Solitary (Knopf, 2020). His poems have won the Pushcart Prize and have appeared in the Norton Introduction to Literature, The New Yorker, and numerous Best American Poetry anthologies as well as journals and magazines across the United States, UK, India, and Australia. Majmudar also edited, at Knopf’s invitation, a political poetry anthology entitled Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now. 
      Majmudar’s essays have appeared in The Best American Essays 2018, the New York Times, and the Times of India, among several other publications. His forthcoming collection of essays, focusing on Indian religious philosophy, history, and mythology, is Black Avatar and Other Essays (Acre Books, 2023). Twin A: A Life (Slant Books, 2023) is the title of a forthcoming memoir, in prose and verse, about his son’s struggle with congenital heart disease. 
      Majmudar’s work as a novelist includes two works of historical fiction centered around the 1947 Partition of India, Partitions (Holt/Metropolitan, 2011) and The Map and the Scissors (HarperCollins India, 2022). His first children’s book also focuses on Indian history and is entitled Heroes the Colour of Dust (Puffin India, 2022). Majmudar has also penned a tragicomic, magical realist fable of Indian soldiers during World War I, Soar (Penguin India, 2020). The Abundance (Holt/Metropolitan, 2013), by contrast, is a work of contemporary realism exploring Indian-American life. Majmudar’s long-form fiction has garnered rave reviews from NPR’s All Things Considered, the Wall Street Journal, Good Housekeeping, and The Economist, as well as starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist; his short fiction won a 2017 O. Henry Prize.   
      Majmudar’s work in Hindu mythology includes a polyphonic Ramayana retelling, Sitayana (Penguin India, 2019), and The Mahabharata Trilogy (Penguin India, 2023). His work as a translator includes Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary (Knopf, 2018).

Photo: “File:0 Marcus Aurelius Exedra – Palazzo dei Conservatori – Musei Capitolini (1).jpg” by Unknown artist is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Maryann Corbett: ‘The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death’

Crime scene dioramas created as teaching tools by Frances Glessner Lee
Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Well-behaved voyeurs
bend above these exquisite
dollhouse miniatures

where the small-scale poor
die in ’40s dailiness.
Blood speckles a floor

tiled in one-to-twelve
scale. Ditto bath fixtures, beds,
plates shocked from a shelf—

Here’s a girl’s sliced neck.
Here’s another, legs jutting
from a tub, freaklike.

Is this Dresden head
brush-tipped with the purpling
livor of the dead?

To appreciate
such intently crafted pain,
one must contemplate

finger-cramping care:
quarter-inch-high postcards, penned
with a single hair.

A close eye for sin’s
rigor vitae: tiny socks
hand-knitted with pins.

Strict detail is key.
Look there for the rage of God.
Search for that and see,

sisters. As will I,
taken with the pains by which
quiet women die.

*****

Maryann Corbett writes: “In the autumn of 2018, I visited Washington, D.C. to speak at Catholic University, and while I was there, my sister-in-law took me to visit the Renwick Gallery. Its permanent displays are all lovely, but what stayed with me was a visiting exhibition: the Nutshell Studies. The quaintness of the doll-sized views and the perfection of craft in the recreated period interiors contrasted eerily with the bloody crimes laid out in them. They all stayed with me for a long time, and I did more digging about their creator and her work. The resulting poem—in haiku stanzas, because a small form seemed appropriate—was first published in Pangyrus. It’s included in the book In Code, which centers on my years in the Revisor’s Office but talks about all sorts of social evils.”

Maryann Corbett earned a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota in 1981 and expected to be teaching Beowulf and Chaucer and the history of the English language. Instead, she spent almost thirty-five years working for the Office of the Revisor of Statutes of the Minnesota Legislature, helping attorneys to write in plain English and coordinating the creating of finding aids for the law. She returned to writing poetry after thirty years away from the craft in 2005 and is now the author of two chapbooks, five full-length collections already published, and a forthcoming book. Her fifth book, In Code, contains the poems about her years with the Revisor’s Office. Her work has won the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, has appeared in many journals on both sides of the Atlantic, and is included in anthologies like Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters and The Best American Poetry 2018.

Her web page: maryanncorbett.com

Photo: “Murder is Her Hobby Exhibition” by massmatt is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Pino Coluccio: ‘Where Has All The Mayo Gone?’

Hungry late, I clank around
the kitchen for a snack.
A pickle first and then, why not,
I peel apart a pack

of luncheon meat, some Swiss, a leaf
of something limp and wan,
and now — oh no, the lid’s on tight
but look — the mayo’s gone.

It feels like only yesterday
I parked my father’s car,
peeked at other shoppers’ carts
and tootled to a jar

for slathering on hotdogs
and for dolloping on frites —
there’s loads of foods whose fatty goodness
mayonnaise completes.

My pumpernickel won’t go down —
it’s like a warning bell,
the chilly clink of stainless steel
on glass. I know it well.

And wonder under nibbles if
at bottom human lives
aren’t always scraping empty jars
with tips of pointless knives.

*****

This is another of Pino Coluccio’s favourite poems from his first collection ‘First Comes Love‘. He doesn’t choose to comment on it, but I too like it; I like the way it clanks around the kitchen for a couple of verses, and then hits you with existential despair in the last lines. Which might be a matter of personal taste: I like eating limes and lemons, and I find Coluccio’s reflections equally tasty.

Pino Coluccio won Canada’s 2018 Trillium Award for English Poetry with his second collection, ‘Class Clown’. His poem ‘City Sunsets’ is featured in the most recent Potcake Chapbook, ‘City! Oh City!He lives in Toronto.

Photo: “It’s an empty jar #signage” by Stv. is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Pino Coluccio, ‘First Comes Love’

There comes a time when sitting home alone
looking at your life — I’m such a knob —
gets to be a drag. You hate your job,
your car’s a piece of crap, and what you eat
is fatty, fried and salty. But then you meet
a girl. The life you made a mess of pulses.
And not content to mess up just your own,
you settle down and mess up someone else’s.

*****

Pino Coluccio writes that this poem is one his personal faves. It’s from his first book, also titled ‘First Comes Love‘, published by Mansfield Press. His poem ‘City Sunsets’ is featured in the most recent Potcake Chapbook, ‘City! Oh City!

Pino Coluccio lives in Toronto.

Michael R. Burch: ‘For All That I Remembered’

For all that I remembered, I forgot
her name, her face, the reason that we loved …
and yet I hold her close within my thought:
I feel the burnished weight of auburn hair
that fell across her face, the apricot
clean scent of her shampoo, the way she glowed
so palely in the moonlight, angel-wan.

The memory of her gathers like a flood
and bears me to that night, that only night,
when she and I were one, and if I could …
I’d reach to her this time and, smiling, brush
the hair out of her eyes, and hold intact
each feature, each impression. Love is such
a threadbare sort of magic, it is gone
before we recognize it. I would crush

my lips to hers to hold their memory,
if not more tightly, less elusively.

*****

Michael R. Burch writes: “For All That I Remembered” is one of my personal favorites and one of a number of poems I have written about the transience of memory, along with “The Effects of Memory,” “Violets,” “Moments,” “Distances,” “Redolence,” “Vacuum,” “Afterglow” “Memento Mori” and “Remembrance.” “For All That I Remembered” has been published by The Raintown Review, Boston Poetry Magazine, la luce che non muore (Italy), The Eclectic Muse (Canada), Kritya (India), Jewish Letter (Russia), Gostinaya (in a Russian translation by Yelena Dubrovin), Freshet, Orchards Poetry, Poetry Life & Times, Sonnetto Poesia (Canada), Trinacria, The New Formalist and Pennsylvania Review.”

Michael R. Burch is an American poet who lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife Beth and two outrageously spoiled puppies. Burch’s poems, translations, essays, articles, reviews, short stories, epigrams, quotes, puns, jokes and letters have appeared more than 7,000 times in publications which include TIME, USA Today, The Hindu, BBC Radio 3, CNN.com, Daily Kos, The Washington Post and hundreds of literary journals, websites and blogs. Burch is also the founder and editor-in-chief of The HyperTexts, a former columnist for the Nashville City Paper, and, according to Google’s rankings, a relevant online publisher of poems about the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Trail of Tears, Darfur, Gaza and the Palestinian Nakba. Burch’s poetry has been taught in high schools and universities, translated into fifteen languages, incorporated into three plays and two operas, set to music by twenty composers, recited or otherwise employed in more than forty YouTube videos, and used to provide book titles to two other authors. To read the best poems of Mike Burch in his own opinion, with his comments, please click here: Michael R. Burch Best Poems.

Memory” by Kris Krug is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Michael R. Burch, ‘The People Loved What They Had Loved Before’

We did not worship at the shrine of tears;
we knew not to believe, not to confess.
And so, ahemming victors, to false cheers,
we wrote off love, we gave a stern address
to bards whose methods irked us, greats of yore.
And the people loved what they had loved before.

We did not build stone monuments to stand
six hundred years and grow more strong and arch
like bridges from the people to the Land
beyond their reach. Instead, we played a march,
pale Neros, sparking flames from door to door.
And the people loved what they had loved before.

We could not pipe of cheer, or even woe.
We played a minor air of Ire (in E).
The sheep chose to ignore us, even though,
long destitute, we plied our songs for free.
We wrote, rewrote and warbled one same score.
And the people loved what they had loved before.

At last outlandish wailing, we confess,
ensued, because no listeners were left.
We built a shrine to tears: our goddess less
divine than man, and, like us, long bereft.
We stooped to love too late, too Learned to whore.
And the people loved what they had loved before.

*****

Michael R. Burch writes: “If I remember correctly, the poem was written after I read some disparaging comments by Formalists about Keats and Shelley being ‘too emotional.’ In the poem I make fun of the naysayers by pointing out how they now wail about a lack of attention from readers. I was also told by poets on Eratosphere – I call it ErraticSphere – not to use the word ‘love’ in a love poem and to avoid abstractions and personification. Such wisdom! When I pointed out that Erato was the abstract personification of love poetry, I was banned for life! So I worked that into the poem: ‘We wrote off love.’ One might think the wailing poets are free versers, but the inspiration for the poem was actually Formalists who object to abstract language, personifications and even the word ‘love’ in modern poetry.”

Michael R. Burch is an American poet who lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife Beth and two outrageously spoiled puppies. Burch’s poems, translations, essays, articles, reviews, short stories, epigrams, quotes, puns, jokes and letters have appeared more than 7,000 times in publications which include TIME, USA Today, The Hindu, BBC Radio 3, CNN.com, Daily Kos, The Washington Post and hundreds of literary journals, websites and blogs. Burch is also the founder and editor-in-chief of The HyperTexts, a former columnist for the Nashville City Paper, and, according to Google’s rankings, a relevant online publisher of poems about the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Trail of Tears, Darfur, Gaza and the Palestinian Nakba. Burch’s poetry has been taught in high schools and universities, translated into fifteen languages, incorporated into three plays and two operas, set to music by twenty composers, recited or otherwise employed in more than forty YouTube videos, and used to provide book titles to two other authors. To read the best poems of Mike Burch in his own opinion, with his comments, please click here: Michael R. Burch Best Poems.

Photo: “Folk Band” by garryknight is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: David Whippman, ‘Who Were You?’

I never really found out who you are.
I only saw what I preferred to see.
I realise now it wasn’t meant to be.
I thought you were my one true shining star.
My cordon bleu, champagne and caviar
But really you’re a lukewarm cup of tea.
I thought you cared: you soon enlightened me.
I should have just admired you from afar.

It really was a silly thing to do,
Dropping my guard to let you in my head.
You left such an emotional mess behind.
And now you’re gone, I look around and find
An empty wallet and an empty bed.
And still there is the question: who are you?

*****

David Whippman writes: “As someone who is by aptitude a prose writer (much as I love poetry, both reading and writing it) I gravitate to a structured form of verse because I don’t have that  instinct necessary for writing good free verse. The sonnet form gives a ready-made structure and discipline, but allows some fluidity as well.

David Whippman is British, in his 70s, long retired after a career in healthcare. He writes stories and articles as well as poems. Outside of writing, his hobbies are music, chess and visual art. (And reading, of course.)

Image: “question mark” by WingedWolf is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Marcus Bales, ‘Cleveland Krater’

This column krater once held watered wine,
Its figures, red on black, an illustration
Of how it served the daily and divine.
On one side Hera offers a libation
With Artemis, Apollo, and their mother,
While three nude athletes and a bearded man
Are drunk with more than liquor on the other.
I stare through all four panes of glass that ban
All but my eyes from learning every curve,
And I can only dream that luck and nerve
And my own art may earn a chance to feel,
As one of few who cares to understand
That ancient try to make one ideal real,
To feel it push through time with my own hand.

*****

Marcus Bales writes: “A poem is language in meter that evokes emotion in the reader. Those who write to express themselves are doing something other than writing poetry. No reader accomplished enough to be engaged in reading poems is in it for the writer’s blurt. It may be that the writer is trying to evoke the same emotion in the reader that the writer felt in the poem’s circumstances, but the goal remains to evoke that emotion in the reader, not merely recount the writer’s emotion.

Poems that fail to evoke emotion in the reader are failed poems and, alas, every poet has several. They wait patiently like the mythic swordsman in fairytales to keep the protagonist from going through the door behind them. Our hero or heroine arrives in the room, the swordsman puts down Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ – in the original German – and smiles, drawing a sword. The writer, however already wounded or tired from the effort of getting there, engages and soon enough, after an elaborate exploration of the waiting swordsman’s skills, is disarmed. The swordsman bows, kicks the writer’s sword back to him, sheathes his own, picks up his book, and sits down again, angles it to the light from the only window, nods goodbye, and resumes his perusal. The writer picks up the disgraced weapon, and trudges back out the way they came in. That poem still does not do what the writer intended to do: evoke emotion in the reader; all it remains as is an account of his or her own emotion.

It is the strength of that felt emotion that keeps the writer coming back to the failed poem, ever hopeful that it is an exception to the unyielding rule that the poem is for the reader, not the poet. Some poets make careers out of performing such things, their agents guaranteeing that the poet will cry during the performance, sure that the promoters are only interested in the performance, not in its effects on the audience. And there are audiences for whom watching the performer fail in their presentation is the point. No one involved in that scenario is there for poetry.

Unfortunately, this poem, ‘Cleveland Krater’ is one of those failed poems. Absent the actual krater, I have finally come to realize, the reader is not going to experience the emotion I did. I have come back and back to this piece, always after having visited the krater again, examining it closely through its Plexiglas box, looking for the clues that moved me and still move me, to try to shove them into words that will bring that impact I felt to the reader. Maybe if I just admit my failure I will get free of the draw of its blade when I arrive at it, again, hoping that this time I’ll do better than the dismissive kick of my sword clattering across the stone floor.”

Not much is known about Marcus Bales except that he lives and works in Cleveland, Ohio, and that his work has not been published in Poetry or The New Yorker. However his ’51 Poems’ is available from Amazon. He has been published in several of the Potcake Chapbooks (‘form in formless times’).

An extensive review of the Cleveland Krater and its creator can be found at https://www.academia.edu/12708103/The_Cleveland_Painter. You don’t need to log in or register, you can simply scroll down to read the entire pdf.

Photo: provided by the Cleveland Museum of Art https://www.clevelandart.org/art/1930.104#