The Sky of Wu
It's 4 a.m. the bar is closed and Starbucks isn't open yet so they keep
talking, Li Bai at least. Du Fu is shuffling a deck of cards that is missing
the ace of spades.
Play anyway, Li Bai says
Du Fu hesitates
Li Bai wants to meet Robert Hass, but I don't know his room number.
And he's got a poem due tomorrow. How about hot chocolate? No dice.
Li Bai wants the party to start
Du Fu keeps shuffling
Let's write on a joker and make that an ace, I say
They scowl (novice)
Du Fu is smoking an e-cigarette. Li Bai is laughing at him. They want to
meet Charles Wright but I don't have his number.
The night is already over. There's nothing that's going to start except
the nature walk and then workshop.
We don't write the poems together, I explain, we just talk about them
Li Bai rolls his eyes
America, he says, it's worse than I thought
—don't confuse self-satisfaction with freedom
—arrange the flowers to reflect an inner world
—we become what we cultivate
I lie on the floor near the heater
where is the rain that is not falling here?
where is Jacob, who can trace the water lines
of the Bay in thousand-year increments?
my mother wants me to call her with the results
what shall I say?
the work of my life has been to arrange flowers
cut at the stem
State Board of Poets
Section A: Self-Identification
Hoarder, known in the field as a nester (check all that apply)
____ collections of index cards, beach glass, astrological charts
____ guides to wildflowers, native plants, old-growth trees, all volumes of Clear Your Clutter with Feng-Shui
____ three or more boxes of debris marked: notes for poems
____ sleeping in a car, tent, or beneath a freeway underpass (required)*
____ things are worse now / were better then (applicants who have sought treatment for nostalgia either through Zen training or moving apartments are considered to be in recovery)
____ disdain for all kinds of feedback (makeovers, renovations, critiques, the process of discarding)
____ party to infidelity (for open relationships, see Deal Maker or Drifter)
____ trained in law school to memorize and carry (not just to repeat back, but to carry) (trained into the body to carry) (this will be hard to undo)
____ (all kinds eligible)
Section B: The Elevated Heart*
Li Bai is furious that this is even on the exam. He says, Impossible.
He says even the most profit-seeking, competitive, snide, selfish
heart can crack, can soften.
Du Fu suggests that applicants write an ode to loneliness every day
and then we average the results. (This proposal is on the agenda for
the next meeting.)
To elevate the heart means to cultivate attention. In a flash of lightning,
as Bashō explained, be ready.
[I would go on but I kind of hate poems about poems] [since this isn't
a poem, it's an exam, and I hope you pass, I hope I pass, I hope we can
all be healed, and my father, for a moment, from the haze, would nod,
would glow, because we are trying to write a poem which will mend
the wreckage he lived through]
Grace Paley wants us to give a license to anyone who applies.
So do I, and so does my father. It's not a quorum, but we are not counting.
Donald Hall says, As long as they come to class and try.
Du Fu says, Put grade inflation on the next agenda.
Donald Hall says, Put no assigned grades on the next agenda.
Grace Paley waves. She keeps waving.
*Optional Secondary Certification in Confessional Poetry.
(Applicants identifying as male may choose to write the universal
themes exam instead.)
Section C: Craft
Check all that apply:
(Always and never are worth two points each.)
No sonnets, no trochees, no counting meter or foot. This is a living
craft, which requires passage along a cliff edge, the threat of falling
into blue screens and housing tracts, sitcom amphetamines, the risk
of burying oneself alive.
This aligns with state standards.
Applicants who score 80 or above receive certification. Remember, we are writing with the living and the dead (see rubric). With my father and Grace Paley and all the workers who believed things would get better but didn't see it in their lifetimes. What is hidden floats, what is buried rises.
Judy Halebsky's third book of poems, Spring and a Thousand Years (Unabridged), from The University of Arkansas Press, will be published in March 2020. These poems are from that collection. Her first book, Sky = Empty, won the New Issues Poetry Prize. Her second book is Tree Line. Originally from Halifax, Nova Scotia, she moved to the Bay Area to study poetry at Mills College. On a fellowship from the Japanese Ministry of Culture, she studied Japanese literature at Hosei University in Tokyo. She directs the low-residency MFA at Dominican University of California. She lives in Oakland.