The Featured American Poet, Autumn 2021:Sharon Kunde

Kunde Headshot 2

*****

For many years  Sharon Kunde has been an English teacher in schools and universities in Albania, Mongolia, New York, and California. She recently completed her PhD in English at the University of California, Irvine, and is currently a teacher at the International School of Los Angeles. Her dissertation, for which she was awarded a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship, proposes a posthumanist and ecocritical reframing of the traditional canon of American Transcendentalist texts. Her poetry shares with herscholarly work an abiding concern with embodiment, relationality, nonhuman animals, and matter.

She has published writing  in The Harvard Review, The Colorado Review, Salt Front, Spoon River Poetry Review, Twentieth-Century Literature, Split Rock Review, The LA Review of Books, The LA Times, Midwestern Gothic, and other journals. Her chapbook Year of the Sasquatch is forthcoming with Dancing Girl Press, and her chapbook From Dark to Waking, was selected as a semi-finalist for Persea Books’ 2012 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize.

*****

Writing terrifies me. Surely the lines, the words, the gaps between them can only expose my limitations. The commonsense understanding of poetry as what John Stuart Mill described as ‘feeling confessing itself to itself, in moments of solitude’ feeds into this anxiety, because it posits a coherent, private self with a spontaneous, indexical aesthetics. From Virginia Jackson, I have learned that freedom can emerge when one understands the coherent self implied by Mill’s theory to be a fiction of the form. From Amy Gerstler, I have learned to be sensitive to words’ utility and generosity. Terry Wolverton has taught me the tender, ardent, and communal work of revision. Oriented by these teachers, I lean into the collectivities that nurture my writing practice.

One collectivity is nonhuman. I have no control over my ideas; I don’t know their origins. I only know that part of the practice of writing involves keeping open the portal to that place by accepting whatever emerges from it. By listening to what has emerged, I can follow it more closely into where it wants to go.

The other is a collective of writers whose sentences produce uncanny recognition, an intuition that I can do that too, that maybe I have done that before. Such language invites response, elicits an urge to try on those wings that have suddenly appeared. I am currently finding useful machinery in the poetry of Lucille Clifton (Mercy) and Joyelle McSweeney (Toxicon and Arachne). I am indebted to the writers whose work enables mine, and I write in the hopes that my sentences can perform that office for others. [SK]

*****

THE CALL

xxxxxx‘Come my Way, my Truth, my Light;/Such a Way as gives us breath.’
‘The Call’,  George Herbert

xxxxx’The one who is said to have given the call is really an effect of a response that had anticipated him.’
The Undercommons, Fred Moten

Come December, night leaks deeply into day.
In its creep I feel my end, days gone as if I had not lived.
Facing dawn, I am called to kneel and summon someone –
but not that faint-hearted god who daily fails the meek
and poor in heart; whose wrecked supplicants ripen
in Tula Toli’s hasty graves, lie unburied in Davao’s streets,
overwritten in death by uniformed killers who scrawl lies. Why
be in cahoots with such a god, why place my petitions
alongside the repudiated pleas of the world’s bereft.

Blood thrums, tinnitus whines, gut groans
and gurgles. Day breaks in bodies, chickens pose
throaty questions to first light. The dog yawns,
breath issues through nose’s folds in snorts and oinks.
From ongoing talk my call takes form: belief that belief
can shape mind and give license, can bind wandering impulse
into intention, into certainty without which. Ribcage churn
transforms the incense cedar into childhood winters’
bare ash: Illinois, iron-tinged, river-watered plains
gone stiff with frost, where clay minds flanked
and would snuff a child who was all light and breath
that flamed meteor-thick across inner skies, seeding
dreams of ocean’s salty balm, citrus’s forgiveness.

Chickens flatten their wings, sprint in bursts of feeling
I believe resemble joy. One gone thoughtful
bawks plainsong. The flock choirs response, the dog
raises her face and sings. The yard erupts;
such music in us! Breath presses through flesh,
through vocal cords’ taut gauntlet. Send sound
arcing through skull and torso’s hard resonant gourds
(soon a heap of seeping rinds) and with ongoing sound
encircle the earth in something we might concede
to call prayer:

We take the chance given us before we too fall,
no god but bodies hungry for resonance’s pleasures.

*****

THE VELELLA

xxxxxxVelella: a genus of floating oceanic siphonophores widely distributed in warm seas…xxxxxxhaving an oblique crest which acts as a sail and often causes the animal to be drifted xxxxxxto coasts remote from its native habitat.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx–  Meriam-Webster Dictionary

xxxxxx’It’s a very curious animal. It’s considered a colony…’ Raskoff said. ‘If you were to xxxxxxremove one, it wouldn’t survive. It really kind of twists the mind around what is the xxxxxxindividual exactly, as opposed to what is a member of a colony.’

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx–  ‘Blue Jellyfish Washing up on Beaches by the Billions,’ xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxSouthern California Public Radio, 8/20/2014

Summer leaks lazy
rainbows in pools on the sand.
We follow the trail of velella
beached by deviant
deep-ocean winds,

blue-tinged tentacled
orifices suckered on surf’s
edge; their inch-high ridged fins
salute day’s capitulation.
The Ferris wheel’s

purple swirl lures us
to the pier’s weird carnival; tarred
boards stilted over grumbling, creaturely
waves. The joyless crowd is a rough
surf, shattered colony of humans

left high and dry
by some primeval surge,
wheeling from bumper cars to ring toss
below the styrofoam stares
of phalanxed hot pink

bears. I buy you
suckers big as your faces,
mesmeric candy wheels, magic mirrors
whose swirls you peruse
with blue tongues.

*

You are running
on the boardwalk after sunset.
Streetlights and foot traffic fall away, the sea
travailing somewhere in the dark,
wetting the wee jellies,

sweeping them under again?
Glowing out there, pure and flame-blue?
Ahead the lights of a rescue vehicle, the tang
of some trash-can conflagration.
To you all is still joy, you

jump from curb
to curb, lit by night and beach
and sucker. The little sails of my prayers
catch the wind. Overleaping
a gap, you

are suddenly beached,
skidding on grit, knees torn,
sucker shattered. I am fin-thin, ridged,
translucent, saluting this tragedy,
straining to detect

those that might
come, those that are coming, the earth blown
off course and swept clean, creatures
stranded on the banks
of far stars.

*

We gather what we can,
carry the pieces home. I thumb
their roughed surfaces under tap’s gush. They drool pools
of color, pining to heal, to swim on the deep
alongside their million starblue siblings.

*****

NIGHT MARAUDER, OR, RETURN OF THE RACCOON

Raucous bawks yank us from a sweaty sleep.
We charge the yard, snap on lights, throw wide
the coop, prepared to face the night
marauder munching chicken dinner, keen for salt
crunch of bones and beak and dainty feet.
Last spring we found a headless hen in nesting box,
priapic pink neck sprouting gray tubes.
We placed her corpse on compost altar,
stirred her into its microbial fires.

Like county fair past dark, backyard lights glare.
Hens gabble and flap, feathers and pulverized shit
sift down around us. Jumbled barks: glimpsed
critter slips past the dogs next door. No ritual
sacrifice tonight. Free the feather-footed chick
wedged in a corner, where any claw-fisted thug
could slash and feast on her trapped heart.
We seal the box, subside in bed, dark’s raft heavy
with sleeping children, me fifteen again and sick
with hormones’ undertow, Tilt-a-Whirl’s lurch, candy-
colored neon, Illinois’s loamy whiff. Windows wide,
we float below avocado’s miraculous canopy.
A nightingale speaks to scant starlight.
Daybreak: swing wide the door and out race
all eight. Necks pumping, they sprint to yard’s
choicest haunts – raised beds’ crumbled soil; tree’s
bug-dense humus. From where I write,
desk corner-wedged, I watch their matins:
twirl duff with feet, taste tomato plants,
wipe beaks on grass, stretch wide their wings.

Except when death grasps tight its neck,
does a chicken know it might not be?
I write in shadow, move material
here and there, hunt for crumbs, glad night’s
marauder passed me by again,
sky’s lid opened on another day.
Do I know that execution’s daily stay but keens my greed
to sprint neck pumping into sunrise after sunrise
after sunrise, lurk this side of compost’s sweet
heat, tender body-tonguing, steadfast oath to share
me with ants and slick pink worms?

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxO past self, gutsick
with teenage grease and wanting. O future self, sifting
to ashes and dust: taste now death’s
honey breath in stretchings,
wipings, scratchings, swallows, licks,
and wetnesses. Huddle with the edgy
hens; join their morning chorus; forgive yourself
for not having been able to know, forgive me
for not having been able to tell.

*****

ERRATA

The editor regrets that an article misidentifies the atmospheric disturbance as an unseasonal rain, when it was in fact the sky falling.

It was beavers who lost seventy thousand acres of natural habitat as a result of the drought and not beetles as previously reported.

It was the smell of detergent and not of sunshine as previously reported.

An article erroneously refers to the cello YoYo Ma left in the taxi. It was in fact an iPhone8.

An earlier article misidentifies the object found near the spring. It was a barrel cactus, not a meteorite.

It was grief and not forsythia as previously reported.

It was Wednesday and not the second coming as previously reported.

It was class warfare and not consumer preference as previously thought.

It was Zuckerburg and not Putin as previously reported.

An article erroneously attributes the desert’s unearthly glow to the aurora borealis. It was in fact fires from the recently overturned tarsands train.

We are fire and not rock as previously reported.

An article refers incorrectly to the buzzard as a predator. It is in fact a scavenger.

It is now and not in fifty years as previously predicted.

It will be an enduring and not the end as previously reported.

*****

QUESTIONS FOR A BOOK THIEF

What did you expect to find in my fifth-floor office,
rented cell in a hive of grubby academic acolytes,
its only perk the terrace view of the dusty tops
of other academic buildings, clumped like hungry

mushrooms. Did your pulse spike
when you uncovered the clipped envelopes in the drawer,
and what did you feel when you found Shakespeare’s
sonnet 116, let me not to the marriage of true

minds admit impediments, cut into ribbons
(a trick I picked up for teaching sonnet structure)
which you left scattered on the stained carpet like spent
confetti? Why did you make the choices you made, taking

one Norton Anthology of Poetry but not the other?
Why Hobomok and not The Coquette, both controversial
early American novels whose heroines end badly?
Were you eager to read my admittedly brilliant margin notes?

Did you haul them to the textbook buyer, his cash
register stationed beneath the pop-up canopy outside
the bookstore at the end of every academic quarter?
Perhaps you used the proceeds to celebrate with a coffee

from the adjacent Starbucks, one with a crown of foamed milk,
and used the rest to buy a dose of some wonderful drug.
I prefer to think of you by the rocky creekbottom, pondering
the Gilded Age’s social grammar of décolleté and tuckers,

digesting the metaphysics of reader-response, floored
by the rhetorical force of Tony Kushner’s queer stagecraft
as you burn page after page some damp January night
for the comfort of a little light and heat.

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