Poetry We Admire: Lions & Lambs
By Kim Harvey
March, it is said, comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. The start of this month has certainly been ferocious with deadly tornadoes in Tennessee, the turbulent winds of economic and political uncertainty, and the threat of a new global pandemic spreading. Let’s get past the Ides and hope things turn lamblike fast.
In the meantime, enjoy this curation of standout new poems from around the net featuring—you guessed it— Lions & Lambs.
For March’s Poetry We Admire, we hunted down poems with lion and lamb imagery— poems that are, in turn, fierce and tender. Check out some killer new work from Hind Shoufani in Cordite Poetry Review, Talin Tahajian in Poetry Magazine, A.D. Lauren-Abunassar in Radar Poetry, Sneha Subramanian Kanta in Waxwing, Komal Mathew in Poetry Magazine, and Michael Wasson in Poem-a-Day.
Tattoos— on joints, a cryptic symbol
or ten. On calf, a dragon exhaling.
Clavicle: the spread wings of heart.
Stomach: a spider web. Bicep: lions roaring. Thigh: leaves rustling.
She sat across from me, staring at her phone.
I counted the decisions in her skin.
from “How did the gods make skin waterproof, asks my lover”
by Hind Shoufani in Cordite Poetry Review
This exceptional poem from Hind Shoufani demands to be read over and over again in its entirety. Full of pathos and passion and longing, this pulsating city scene takes the reader deep into the mind and heart of the narrator, as we follow her eyes and witness all the gritty, beautiful humanity, the uniquely intimate experience of being so close to strangers’ bodies on a commuter train. The narrator says, “I had nothing to read on the train, and a beautiful woman lent me her body.” And the reader is asked, “What would you tattoo on your wrist if your life depended on it?/ How would you speak of terror, using ink on your bones?” Interspersed with these living, breathing depictions of intimate strangers, the narrator also makes some profound declarations that resonate long after the poem’s journey ends, like “We keep the cells of all those we loved in us.” More than anything, it is a love poem to the cities of the narrator’s past and present (“Everything I have been taught about the trueness of love, I learnt only / in big cities. New York first, then the memory of parks in Damascus, / then the summer jostle of London flesh. // The commuting, ambling bodies of multitudes, elbowing through the stale air.”)
If I were the lamb, I’d choose the block.
If I were the horse that rode with you, I’d ride with you.
I don’t know how to write for the God
in whose voice I can only hear
my own sullied desperation.
from “Bad classics”
by Talin Tahajian in Poetry Magazine
I love what this poem does with language and pacing, the way it expertly and often surprisingly pivots from one set of anaphora to the next, building tension. Tahajian could teach a master class in how to use repetition and variation effectively. Then there is the white swan that floats into all three stanzas, connecting the various animal imagery of doves, horses, foxes, lambs. I admire the way the poem plays with conjugation/verb tense (“It can’t be what it was. It can’t be / what it should”…. “It could have been like this. It could have been / like this. It couldn’t. It could.) The language play extends to homophones or near-homophones (rode/ride/write), and rhyme/slant rhyme (dusk/husk/dust) with stunning lines like, “O how, howl, howling, my love that isn’t.” Perhaps my favorite lines in the poem are those that simultaneously reveal the power and the limitations of language, the way words stutter and flow:
O how it shakes. The mud of which we’re made—O how it. The summer,
it tore me—O, this spring, how I.
her stalky walk. Her keeping. No lions
in Kansas; no mothers either. Just stalks bent earthward.
Wheat tipped like mother’s next question
how late there, how long there, and why there?
Might as well be a jungle: those weather-scraped
by A.D. Lauren-Abunassar in Radar Poetry,
Just wow. The way this poem grabbed me and would not let go. Even the epigraph is epic: For Kigali: “a first time mother [who] gave birth to two cubs Friday before eating them Monday” (CNN). And the poem delivers, with its unflinching repetition of the central words and images (e.g. animal, stalk, mother, children, bodies, Kansas, jungle). The imagery is powerful, bringing to mind the grimmest of fairytales: “my skin more like hers / my mouth more like hers, my hammock of muscles, / her fevers. Fevered, I once saw my mother blow a house / down. Roar life in the body of a cluster of seeds. When caged / she eats daylight. She eats daylight often.” What fascinates me is how the poem itself seems to be stalking its subject, stealthily pacing around the edge of darkness and then going in for the kill—“Some mothers eat their young, I tell her.”
[Prayer: I see a lamb being slaughtered, hung
over a shop of electric blue lights. Blood on
its limbs, head thrown in the street.
All I know of grace is a different hue.
A cobblestone with stains of blood. The wind
carries a ghost.
from “How to Refuse Capitulation”
by Sneha Subramanian Kanta in Waxwing
Sneha Subramanian Kanta, one of our talented readers at Palette, has three incredible poems in the latest issue of Waxwing Poetry. Each of these poems is worthy of attention, but here we focus on the one with the startling prayer at the heart of it, a prayer which begins with the brutally haunting image of a lamb being slaughtered, decapitated, and hung over a shop of electric blue lights. The poem’s form consists of a series of staggered couplets that visually resemble a staircase down to the alleyway where the lamb is hung, and a single step (line) leading the reader to the prayer and then slowly away from it again. I’m still sitting with that prayer and all its striking imagery, hard consonance, and alliteration, the knowing voice of the narrator describing “A restless matchstick over the eye of / a falconer. A flock of moths by the lamplight / of an empty porch where no one lurks. / Phonemes of similar symmetries in the silence.”
A good shepherd is a wonder in contrapposto, an artist
mapping the Serengeti with kingdom lines.
A good shepherd angles a lion’s eye, traps gazelles
in dry fields, copies a cheetah’s spots one leg at a time.
from “For the Shepherd Who Is Also the Path the Sun Makes in Daytime”
by Komal Mathew in Poetry Magazine
This poem is exquisite and restrained with its five refined couplets. The familiar refrain of “A good shepherd” begins each couplet except the penultimate stanza where the pattern is broken and starts instead with what is missing (“without a burning bush”). The imagery immediately brings to mind the classic Biblical metaphor of the Lord as shepherd and God the Creator, but the poem is also deeply entrenched in the spirituality of the natural world including the providence of predator and prey in the animal kingdom. In ten brief lines, this poem contains a broad spectrum of religious symbolism including the Buddhist teaching of “the Path” and perhaps even paganism reflected in the title. I love what Mathew says (and doesn’t say) about faith, survival, karma, fate, free will, and God, the good shepherd who “leaves the wheat on an altar of choices.”
1. to bloom. I stare into your beloved face & enter: yes,
yes, this nation, under god, its black sky we lay our nightmares to
- where I am your animal: my Lamb—now eat
from “Countdown as Slow Kisses”
by Michael Wasson in Poem-a-Day
Wasson’s poem could have just as easily been featured in last month’s Eros curation with its rich sensual imagery, its climactic rise and fall. The images of god and sacrifice work well within the structure of the poem itself as a countdown towards some final end. The poem explores the almost religious experience of eroticism, bringing attention to love’s devastating and consuming qualities. I admire how the poem stays focused on the physical body, while also making clear that our bodies contain histories, multitudes, light. The poem reminds us that in this moment the speaker and the beloved are alive, but that with each slow kiss we come one breath closer to what Wasson describes as “our gorgeous, unbearable ruin.”