Michael S. Begnal’s Future Blues

One of the pleasures of the writing life is getting to know the other people who gravitate toward that sphere. Writers are fun. They spend prolonged periods holed up with their creations, and then (with the exception of your Dickinsons and Salingers) they emerge from their caves into the bigger world, usually feeling somewhere between mildly disoriented and bat-shit stir-crazy. Excellent company, by my standards.

Among the other great pleasures are getting to watch a friend’s work evolve, to hear the voice in its varied contexts, and to notice the patina building over time. It’s such a long process that (for me, at least) it’s hard to envision the finished form. So I had no idea how delighted I would be when I opened my mail and found my friend Mike Begnal’s poetry collection, Future Blues, right there in my hands—so many of the loose pages we had pored over a few years ago in workshop all bound up in a beautiful, proper book:

   Reading these poems feels a little like watching footage of fish in the deep ocean: their forms have evolved for purposes logical—particular to their terrain—but a little mystic somehow too. The images float by strangely, yet there is a sensibility in the negative space between them as well as between the lines and stanzas:

nothing will  be okay

nothing remains pristine for long

stretched out in a dark bed,

the spectacular lights of death

all this terror,

the flying humanoids in the air for real,

the sinister people who want

to come back from the past,

a leafless time

that wind shook.

(“Blues for Tomorrow,” 13-22)

The form and content are raveled together artfully here. The poem’s stanzas hover much like the flying humanoids, in some places vaguely threatening my ability to navigate the current of the page, yet never drowning me in it entirely. Although Begnal steers toward an abstract place, when I arrive, I get the sense that I have been there before, lying sleepless in that room, antagonized by those ghosts. The metaphor triggers an unsettled feeling a little like déjà vu, but the resulting tension is appropriate and complementary to the concept.

These poems not only reckon with the dead, but also commune with them. An informal ode called “Samhain,” for instance, pays tribute to those dead who “are there, in a word or line/you thought was your own,/ and walk among us to/ night” (30-34). In this poem, Begnal is particularly conscientious of the line, as evidenced by the break between “to” and “night,” suggesting both toward our own demise and tonight, as in on Samhain (the Gaelic festival which begat Halloween.)

The central concept is broader in scope, though, and extends to the idea that we invoke the dead by simply speaking, so many of our words weighed down as they are with history. Fittingly, the poem is dedicated to Mongán, a seventh-century Irish chieftain whose namesake is a semi-divine figure from Gaelic literature. Such ghosts rustle through the lines, and in the introductory stanza especially, the rift between words reflects the rift between worlds:

for all the dead who have spoke before

me        spoke for all the dead who have before

spoke       for all the dead who have before

dead       for all who have spoke before the


I trust in language always.


This is a poetry that makes room for its ghosts. The intentionally muddled syntax of the worried line leaves an impression of language as an inheritance, something that (as those of us who teach freshman composition know all too well) sometimes comes in jumbled variations and barely decipherable waves. Just when the syntax pushes my patience toward its limits though, I am soothed and surprised by that single, simple line, “I trust in language always.”


Many Thanks to Patricia Colleen Murphy and everybody else at The Superstition Review for another fabulous issue! I’m thrilled to have a couple of poems alongside those by Dorianne Laux, Sherman Alexie, and several other talented souls! Superstition Review

Swamp Dog and Other Superstitions

On my way home from a Halloween party a couple of weekends ago, I hit a deer. Five minutes earlier, I had been thinking about how it seemed like exactly the kind of night when one would hit a deer and how I should be extra careful, and no sooner had the thought situated itself toward the back of my mind than I saw a large doe running toward the driver’s side of my car, too close to miss. I didn’t have my brights on (there was a car several hundred yards in front of me), so it seemed like the poor thing just materialized. At the same time that I knew there was no avoiding it, I insisted, no, it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe by some miracle, I’ll avoid it! I didn’t though. I don’t see how I could have, sans miracle. I must have closed my eyes for a split second at the point of impact. When I opened them, I was skidding like crazy, fish-tailing to the point that I barely managed to stay on the road. It was scary.

A couple of things now strike me as being odd. First of all, as it happened, my mind meta-consciously divided. One part of me was screaming while the other part was steering. The former part initiated the process, but when the latter part took over, I could still hear myself screaming. It seemed strange to be simultaneously carrying out two such contrary actions. Screamy-me and stunt-car-driver-me duked it out after the initial impact, and thankfully, stunt car driver won.

Second of all, I didn’t go back. I called the state highway patrol and asked them to look for a dead or injured deer in the vicinity, but I was too chicken to go back. I thought, well, I don’t have a gun, so even if the poor thing is suffering, there’s nothing I can do, and I am a woman alone on a country road at night. This is the opening scene of at least a dozen horror films. So I pulled over in a driveway next to a double-wide, popped the wheel well out so that it wouldn’t flatten the tire, and drove home. But it seemed like the wrong reaction.

A manifestation of this event includes the development of two irrational superstitions. Irrational reaction A: I will no longer drive to or from Halloween parties. This is the second time I have gotten into day-of-the-Halloween-party car accidents. The first time was in Raleigh back in ’08 on my way to a party Gerard and I were hosting. It turned out to be a great party (met Tina & Tim, a couple of my best friends now), but I was too scared to drive for like six months afterward the first time around. Instead, I bought a down jacket, an umbrella, and rain boots so that I could walk to school in any weather.

Irrational reaction #2: I might adopt a dog. There is a little beagle that comes out of the swamp behind our house sometimes—a stray that our schizophrenic neighbor had been feeding before he moved out. The day after the party, I saw the dog in the empty yard for the first time since our neighbor split (it’s been a few weeks). I have some bones in the cupboard that I throw out to a different neighbor’s dogs late at night when they won’t stop barking. So I threw Swamp Dog a couple of bones. It seems well-behaved (besides being basically feral and refusing to come anywhere near me, so by well-behaved, I mean that it doesn’t bark). And anyway, an act of kindness motivated by a desire for atonement (and a general love of animals) should nullify (or at least lessen) the bad karma resulting from hitting a deer with my old, newfangled car and leaving it to die on the side of the road, right? I know it’s ridiculous, and I’m pretty sure that’s not at all the way karma works, but it might make me feel a little bit better. So I went out and bought some mid-grade dog food (okay, it was Pet Smart gourmet generic, and I bought the hard and soft kinds to mix together), and Gerard and I have been feeding it for just over a week. I still can’t get close enough to start using a gender-specific pronoun though, let alone get it to a vet. I think I will ask my vet if he can procure me some K-9 roofies so I can slip it one and bring it on home.

Also, I have a couple of poems coming out in the upcoming edition of Superstition Review. Many thanks to Trish Murphy for the publication & for facilitating this site!

RIP Mr. Deer (and perhaps my beloved 2003 Hyundai Tiburon. We’ve yet to see whether it’s repairable.)