Friday, November 30, 2007

“Winter Verse for His Sister,” by William Meredith

p. 129

Moonlight washes the west side of the house
As clean as bone, it carpets like a lawn
The stubbled field tilting eastward
Where there is no sign yet of dawn.
The moon is an angel with a bright light sent
To surprise me once before I die
With the real aspect of things.
It holds the light steady and makes no comment.

Practicing for death I have lately gone
To that other house
Where our parents did most of their dying,
Embracing and not embracing their conditions.
Our father built bookcases and little by little stopped reading,
Our mother cooked proud meals for common mouths.
Kindly, they raised two children. We raked their leaves
And cut their grass, we ate and drank with them.
Reconciliation was our long work, not all of it joyful.

Now outside my own house at a cold hour
I watch the noncommittal angel lower
The steady lantern that’s worn these clapboards thin
In a wash of moonlight, while men slept within,
Accepting and not accepting their conditions,
And the fingers of trees plied a deep carpet of decay
On the gravel web underneath the field,
And the field tilting always toward day.

I find the images in this poem very beautiful in a ghostly, haunting sort of way. I like the recurrence of the moon, the angel with a light, the field tilted toward the east, accepting and not accepting—it gives the poem a feeling of coming full circle. I like the surprising phrases: “the moon is an angel,” “proud meals for common mouths.” I like the details he uses to describe growing up in that house and the last line of the middle stanza. And I like it that they raised two children “Kindly” and that the field is “tilting always toward day” with all its connotations of resurrection and joy.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

from "Three Poems for a Twenty-Fifth Anniversary," by Richard Shelton

p. 122

1. Housecleaning

after returning
all the tools I borrowed
from neighbors and friends
and the books to the library

I am amazed to find
so many things around the house
like you
that really belong here

I had thought
you were on loan and overdue
the fines were mounting into millions
I could never pay them

so for twenty-five years
I looked everyone straight in the eyes
pretending you were mine
and I kept you

Oh, I love this one. The comparison is so unusual—his wife to an overdue library book. I think he’s saying he’s always known he doesn’t deserve her, but wonder of wonders—she’s given herself! A gift and not a debt he’ll never be able to repay. I just laugh at the last three lines—he’s so sweetly self-satisfied with his brazenness in claiming her.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

“Sent to Her Elder Daughter from the Capital,” by Lady Otome of Sakanoe


version #1

More than the gems
Locked away and treasured
In his comb-box
By the God of the Sea,
I prize you, my daughter.
But we are of this world
And such is its way!
Summoned by your man,
Obedient, you journeyed
To the far-off land of Koshi.
Since we parted,
Like a spreading vine,
Your eyebrows, pencil-arched,
Like waves about to break,
Have flitted before my eyes,
bobbling like tiny boats.
Such is my yearning for you
That this body, time-riddled,
May well-not bear the strain.

Had I only known
My longing would be so great,
Like a clear mirror
I’d have looked on you—
Not missing a day,
Not even an hour.

translated by Geoffrey Bownas & Anthony Thwaite

version #2

I cherished you, my darling,
As the Sea God the pearls
He treasures in his comb-box.
But you, led by your lord husband—
Such is the way of the world—
And torn from me like a vine,
Left for distant Koshi;
Since then, your lovely eyebrows
Curving like the far-off waves,
Ever linger in my eyes,
My heart unsteady as a rocking boat;
Under such a longing
I, now weak with age,
Come near to breaking.

If I had foreknown such longing,
I would have lived with you,
Gazing on you every hour of the day
As in a shining mirror.

translated by Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai

Here’s another poem that I had already collected for my own. In fact, my daughters and I memorized it one summer. But I had a different translation — which I prefer (which is why I reproduce it first). I like how the first version focuses on the gems, the treasure rather than on the mother “I.” I think “like waves about to break” is a more see-able image than “curving like the far-off waves.” And I like the simple, emphatic language of the last stanza in my version. The rhythm is more song-like throughout the first version, I think. But I do wonder if “my heart unsteady as a rocking boat” in the second version isn’t a better translation.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

“September, the First Day of School, #1,” by Howard Nemerov


My child and I hold hands on the way to school,
And when I leave him at the first-grade door
He cries a little but is brave; he does
Let go. My selfish tears remind me how
I cried before that door a life ago.
I may have had a hard time letting go.

Each fall the children must endure together
What every child also endures alone:
Learning the alphabet, the integers,
Three dozen bits and pieces of a stuff
So arbitrary, so peremptory,
That worlds invisible and visible

Bow down before it, as in Joseph’s dream
The sheaves bowed down and then the stars bowed down
Before the dreaming of a little boy.
That dream got him such hatred of his brothers
As cost the greater part of life to mend
And yet great kindness came of it in the end.

Look how the line breaking at “he does Let go” shows the reluctance of that parting. So nicely done. This poem makes me think and I haven’t finished thinking about it yet. I wonder about that dream that “got him such hatred of his brothers . . . and yet great kindness came of it in the end.” I know it’s talking about Joseph, as a governor in Egypt, feeding his brothers through the famine. It feels right to connect Joseph’s story with going to school where the child will be subjected to the discipline of “learning the alphabet, the integers,” but I haven’t thought quite why yet. I read Nemerov as a Jewish surname and I wonder if his fear for his son, his grief at their parting is a fear of letting the child go into a world of brothers who have so often indulged in anti-Semitism. I wonder if the father comforts himself (and his son) with Joseph’s story as a hope, as a testimony that the dream carried by the thinkers (religious, academic, scientific) will despite everything carry out “great kindness . . . in the end” even among the hating brethren. But there is something to this story more universal than just this one father and his son, something universal about linking School and the world of knowledge (“so arbitrary, so peremptory”) to “the dreaming of a little boy” before which sheaves and stars bow down. Something about gaining mastery of the elements of the world in order to bless the world around you. The inevitable mistakes that “cost the greater part of life to mend” but the lasting hope that “great kindness came of it in the end.” I don’t know. I’ll have to keep thinking.

Monday, November 26, 2007

“For a Five-Year-Old,” by Fleur Adcock

p. 93

A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see, and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there:
It might crawl to the floor; we must take care
that no one squashes it. You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful had,
to eat a daffodil.

I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
four closest relatives, and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to may another.
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
and we are kind to snails.

I like the gentle order — partly set by the unobtrusive rhyme — that lies behind this poem. That despite us and our failures, we can still point towards kindness. I laugh, too, because despite our best efforts and successes the snail still goes out and eats a daffodil — how kind is that?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

“Night Terrors,” by Alan Shapiro

p. 90

Whose voice is it in mine when the child cries,
terrified in sleep, and half asleep myself I’m there
beside him saying, shh, now easy, shh,

whose voice — too intimate with all the ways
of solace to be merely mine; so prodigal
in desiring to give, yet so exact in giving

that even before I reach the little bed,
before I touch him, as I do anyway,
already he is breathing quietly again.

Is it my mother’s voice in mine, the memory
no memory at all but just the vocal trace,
sheer bodily sensation on the lips and tongue,

of what I may have heard once in the pre-
remembering of infancy — heard once and then
forgot entirely till it was wakened by the cry

brought back, as if from exile, by the child’s cry,—
here to the father’s voice, where the son again
can ask the mother, and the mother, too, the son—

Why has it taken you so long to come?

This poem has some of the same ideas as yesterday's — where does the Wise Parent in us come from? (And why isn’t he / she always there?) Also, how it seems we reconnect and re-heal the break we made as teenagers with our own parents when we become parents. Though the language is simple and straightforward, there is such a driving rhythm to this poem, forcing us onwards, waking us up. And this looping up of lines in alliteration or other sound-echoes - though staying stubbornly this side of real rhymes - creates a strong sense of chant. The pervasive alliteration and other subtle inter-echoes weaves one line into the next: ("Is is my mother's in mine, the memory/ no memory . . .," for example, or "Whose voice is it in mine when the child cries/ terrified in sleep, and half asleep myself." The fact that the entire poem is a single sentence gives it a breathless - half-woken - immediacy.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

“Instinct,” by C.K. Williams

(p. 88)

Although he’s apparently the youngest (his little Rasta-beard is barely
down and feathers),
most casually connected (he hardly glances at the girl he’s with, though
she might be his wife),
half-sloshed (or more than half) on picnic-whiskey teen-aged father,
when his little son,
two or so, tumbles from the slide, hard enough to scare himself, hard
enough to make him cry,
really cry, not partly cry, not pretend the fright for what must be some
scarce attention,
but really let it out, let loudly be revealed the fear of having been so
close to real fear,
he, the father, knows just how quickly he should pick the child up, then
how firmly hold it,
fit its head into the muscled socket of his shoulder, rub its back, croon
and whisper to it,
and finally pull away a little, about a head’s length, looking, still concerned,
into its eyes,
then smiling, broadly, brightly, as though something has been shared,
something of importance,
not dreadful, or not very, not at least now that it’s past, but rather
something . . . funny,
funny, yes, it was funny, wasn’t it, to fall and cry like that, though one
certainly can understand,
we’ve all had glimpses of a premonition of the anguish out there, you’re
better now, though,
aren’t you, why don’t you go back and try again, I’ll watch you, maybe
have another drink,
yes, my son, my love, I’ll go back and be myself now: you go be the
person you are, too.

I have never really liked C.K. Williams before—usually the poems included in anthologies by him have been boring to me, but I loved this one. The details are exactly right—I have seen this teenage father in the park, I'm sure. Typing the poem out I discovered that, unlike Whitman who writes long lines that go on and can be broken wherever it’s necessary to fit on the page, Williams breaks his lines purposely—long and then short. The line-breaks themselves show the rhythm of the breath—I always pause (and I think most readers do naturally) on the last word of a line. And that pause gives an emphasis to the last word of the line and then an emphasis to the words in the short line. I feel laughter and joy when I read this poem—that some portion of parenting wisdom comes instinctively and is available to us all, that we and our children can be the people that we are and still tend to each other. I love the way this poem is told, thoughts and emotions unfolding, correcting themselves, just as if we were there watching this father and son at the park ourselves.

Friday, November 23, 2007

"To my Daughter" by Stephen Spender

(p. 87) “To My Daughter,” Stephen Spender

Bright clasp of her whole hand around my finger,
My daughter, as we walk together now.
All my life I’ll feel a ring invisibly
Circle this bone with shining: when she is grown
Far from today as her eyes are far already.

Why do I like this one? Maybe it’s just the image that I can almost feel physically—the memory of my own children holding a finger like a bright ring eternally binding me to them and all the while they are looking and moving far into the future and away. The strangeness of the word-order in that last line capture some of the disorientation of knowing the child who is so close now is rightfully bending all her will, his will on moving away.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

"A Cradle Song" by W.B. Yeats

A Cradle Song,
W.B. Yeats

(1st version)
The angels are stooping
Above your bed;
They weary of trooping
With the whimpering dead.

God’s laughing in Heaven
To see you so good;
The Sailing Seven
Are gay with His mood.

I sigh that kiss you,
For I must own
That I shall miss you
When you are grown.
(2nd version)

The angels are bending
Above your white bed,
They weary of tending
The souls of the dead.

God smiles in high heaven
To see you so good,
The old planets seven
Grow gay with his mood.

I kiss you and kiss you,
With arms round my own,
Ah, how I shall miss you,
When, dear, you have grown

This is a poem I have collected in my own gathering of favorite poems, but I had an earlier version (shown first). It’s interesting to compare the changes. The second version (the one in this anthology) is softer and sweeter but rather boring. I like the happier bounce of “God’s laughing in Heaven” instead of "God smiles in high heaven" and I much prefer “I sigh that kiss you for I must own that I shall miss you when you are grown” to "I kiss you and kiss you with arms round my own. Ah, how I shall miss you, when, dear, you have grown." Blegh! That's too saccharine sweet. I also like the snappier rhythm of the first. Just goes to show that rewrites are not always right. (I'm assuming the 2nd version is a later version.)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

"The Tempest - to my daughter Miranda" by Stephen Corey

(p. 73) “The Tempest—To my daughter Miranda,” Stephen Corey

If you name your daughter vision,
or wondrous to behold, your should not be surprised
if she comes to you in anger or in shame,
wishing to be known as Mary or Ann.
That will be the moment to carry her out
to the things of the world she is not,
speaking other sounds that were almost hers:
aspen, lily-white, cumulo-nimbus glow.

Soon enough she’ll realize the world,
too often, gets named in hope of profit,
or deceit, or the scientist’s exactitude.
But on the greening island of the family
testing its voice in the months of waiting,
the sought-after words are music and the past:
Grandparent. Aunt. Child deceased.

Spirits of fashion and monsters of commerce
lurk, bedfellows eager to keep us
from our own best inventions and songs.
Some days it seems we grow from wailing silence
into speech, only that we might curse
the coming return to silence.
But if you’ve named your daughter wondrous to behold,
she’ll someday learn she heard those words
before all others, and then again, and again.
When you are gone beyond all roaring
she’ll know, should you ever brave return,
which words are the first you’ll speak.

The middle stanza of this poem is boring to me, but I like the father’s insistence that his child is “wondrous to behold,” and the idea that the best thing for a child feeling so trapped within her given name is not a long argument about why she’s so wondrous, but just to be carried outside (outside herself?) to see all those other things “wondrous to behold” like aspens and lilies and glowing clouds. And I like the ending insistence that the first thing the father will say if he sees her after his death is still that she is “wondrous to behold.”

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

"Morning Song" by Sylvia Plath

(p.72) “Morning Song,” Sylvia Plath

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth open clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

What I like about this much less exuberant poem is the metaphors she uses to describe this strange, bewildering, and exhausting experience of caring for a new baby. The images (metaphors) don’t work together—they just came flying at you one after another: gold watch, statue in a museum, a cloud above a dewy field, breath like a moth fluttering, the sea, a cow, a cat’s mouth, balloons. That’s kind of how the first days of being a mother felt—strange and disconnected, but experienced with intensity: apparently meaningless details etched in the mind, and everything happening in the present tense.

Monday, November 19, 2007

"Five a.m., the Ninth Month" by Jacqueline Osherow

(p. 69) “Five a.m., the Ninth Month,” Jacqueline Osherow

Your kick awakens me to wild geese
Honking overhead, the stirring trees
Just visible beneath the new, pale blue.
Everything is coming: day, spring, you;
The geese above all seem to shout, “Make way!”
But I would almost keep you where you are,
Your pulse at breakneck speed turning the air
I breathe into a future, wind on clay,
Your heart galloping beneath my heart
And every living thing I hear, its echo,
Geese and wind in trees and my own heart,
The whole unwakened world resounds with you,
Shaking until life itself will part
And you—imagine—you’ll come screaming through.

I like this one, too. For one, I like wild geese in poems—I don’t know why, but they always catch my attention, just like they do when they fly over the sky. The poem is so eager and happy and all the images are full of flying and galloping forward—the geese, the trees in the wind, the baby’s pulse and the coming birth. Why did she write this one much more rhymed (aabb cddc efefef) and more definitely in sonnet-form than the poem above (which shows some vestigial partial rhymes and also has 14 lines)? I wonder if it expresses how much more fully formed the child in the womb is?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

"After Midnight, the Fifth Month" by Jacqueline Osherow

(p. 68) “After Midnight, the Fifth Month,” Jacqueline Osherow

I am becoming a cathedral! My
Belly rises from the bed like a tiny
Model of the Florence Cupolone.
Probably a belly just like this
Inspired Brunelleschi’s great design:
The original, the perfect, home.
There is a tapping from the inside,
Gentle, almost imperceptible,
Like piano hammers touching piano strings.
And I am fluent in these first attempts
At language; I am turned to someone else.
There is life beyond our own. Gabriel
Whispers, softly fluttering his wings,
With every touch a hushed annunciation.

She’s so exuberant! And I can see the domed womb like a cathedral dome—the cathedral dome like a domed womb and I agree—they are the same in some deep way—a holy enclosure. I like the idea of those first soft flutterings as piano hammers—touches that soft and light. The line “I am turned to someone else” says at least two things at once: 1) I’ve changed into a different person, and 2) my deepest focus has turned from myself to this new life in me. I love poetry when it carries all the meanings of its words at the same time—so each sentence reverberates and changes slightly, reinforcing or modifying itself with each reverberation. In everyday speaking we usually employ words so half-heartedly, like sieves with most of the meaning dripping out, hoping people will get the general drift of what we’re saying. I think the lost language of paradise has more to do with the care and spirit in which we speak whatever we do speak than with the actual vocabulary and grammar heard in Eden.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

"Infertility" by Edward Hirsch

p. 64, “Infertility,” Edward Hirsch

We don’t know how to name
the long string of zeros
Stretching across winter,
the barren places,
The missing birthdates of the unborn.

We’d like to believe in their souls
drifting through space
Between the Crab and the Northern Cross,
Smoky and incandescent,
longing for incarnation.

We’d like to believe in their spirits descending,
But month after month, year after year,
We have laid ourselves down
and raised ourselves up
And not one has ever entered our bodies.

We’d like to believe that we have planted
And tended seeds
in their honor,
But the spirits never appear
in darkness or light.

We don’t know whether to believe in their non-existence
Or their secrecy and evasiveness,
their invisible spite.
Maybe it’s past us, maybe it’s the shape of nothing
Being born,
the cold slopes of the absolute.

This poem is haunting and mysterious. The lines stretch brokenly across the page almost like the image of those souls drifting “between the Crab and the Northern Cross” (such nice detail—so you see these long soul-clouds, slightly glowing, floating not just in an idea of “space” but between the constellations, actually in space). I find myself thinking about all kinds of “unanswered” prayers when I read this poem.

Friday, November 16, 2007

"My Husband before Leaving" translated by J. Moussaieff Masson and W.S. Merwin

(p. 50) “My Husband before Leaving,” 12th century India (trans. J. Moussaieff Masson & W.S. Merwin)

My husband
before leaving on a journey
is still in the house speaking
to the gods and already
separation is climbing like
bad monkeys to the windows.

I think “clmbing like bad monkeys to the windows” is a very good picture of what it feels like when someone is about to leave you—that panicky, ratcheting up of worry and oncoming loneliness.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

"Lesson" by Forrest Hamer

(p.33) “Lesson,” Forrest Hamer

It was 1963 or 4, summer,
and my father was driving our family
from Ft. Hood to North Carolina in our 56 Buick.
We’d been hearing about Klan attacks, and we knew

Mississippi to be more dangerous than usual.
Dark lay hanging from trees the way moss did,
and when it moaned light against the windows
that night, my father pulled off the road to sleep.
that usually woke me from rest afraid of monsters
kept my father awake that night, too,
and I lay in the quiet noticing him listen, learning
that he might not be able always to protect us

from everything and the creatures besides;
perhaps not even from the fury suddenly loud
through my body about this trip from Texas
to settle us home before he would go away

to a place no place in the world
he named Viet Nam. A boy needs a father
with him, I kept thinking, fixed against noise
from the dark.

This poem has a strong, confident, brave rhythm—even though it’s talking about a time when he was very afraid. What makes that strong, definite rhythm? Maybe the straightforward sentence structure—subject-verb-object. Maybe that there are no extra, fanciful, or overly emotional words. I think there’s more to it than that, something just in the pace the words come out, one after the other, so calmly and so sure, but in any case, the combination of confident rhythm and the fear of KKK attack and the images of dark moss hanging from the trees and seeing his father’s wary face, echoes what is being said about how fathers stand on guard, giving a sense of safety even when they feel unsafe. I admire the insight the boy in the poem is learning about what it means to be a father, and the necessity of being there to be a father. And I admire the righteous anger of that boy at the injustice that both makes the world unsafe and takes fathers away.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"Letter of Recommendation" by Yehuda Amichai

(p. 32) from “Letter of Recommendation,” Yehuda Amichai

... This is not a scar you feel under my shirt.
It’s a letter of recommendation, folded,
from my father:
“He is still a good boy and full of love.”

I remember my father waking me up
for early prayers. He did it caressing
my forehead, not tearing the blanket away.

Since then I love him even more.
And because of this
let him be woken up
gently and with love
on the Day of Resurrection.

Wouldn’t you like to be a parent whose children asked that you be resurrected so gently, because you had been so gentle to them?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

"Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden

(p. 31) “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

This poem does such a good job—all the B and D and K sounds keep it sounding stiff and cold and labored—the sounds don’t flow, they jerk and stop and start, just like trying to get a fire started on a cold, unhappy morning. And the insight—this is what love is: driving out the cold, polishing the shoes of unappreciative teenage sons. I can see the grown son now sadly shaking his head as he tells us this poem,“What did I know, what did I know . . .” and then the very formal, beutiful language of that last line: "of love's austere and lonely offices" in contrast with the everyday words earlier. This is a poem I’ve long loved.

Monday, November 12, 2007

"I Ask my Mother to Sing" by Li-Young Lee

(p. 29) “I Ask My Mother to Sing” by Li-Young Lee

She begins, and my grandmother joins her.
Mother and daughter sing like young girls.
If my father were alive, he would play
his accordion and sway like a boat.

I’ve never been in Peking, or the Summer Palace,
nor stood on the great Stone Boat to watch
the rain begin on Kuen Ming Lake, the picnickers
running away in the grass.

But I love to hear it sung;
how the waterlilies fill with rain until
they overturn, spilling water into water,
then rock back, and fill with more.

Both women have begun to cry.
But neither stops her song.

I like the picture of the waterlilies filling with rain and tipping and then filling again and this magical place in his mother and grandmother’s song where elegant picnickers run over the grass to shelter from a rain—I imagine them laughing and dressed in silk. It reminds me of how our parents’ memories—their real life—is to us dreams and stories.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

"Clearances" by Seamus Heaney

p. 27, “Clearances,” Seamus Heaney

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives—
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

Again, I love that subtle rhyme—almost every line rhymes with the one after. But the rhyme is very quiet, very slight, and never satisfyingly complete (“at Mass” with “potatoes,” “by one” with “iron,” “to share” with “water,” “at her bedside” with “towards my head.”) Rhyme often functions to give a musicality to the lines. But I think in this poem that partial rhyme also carries some of the feeling of the poem, how this mother and son come close but never quite chime together, or like the last line says: “Never closer in all our lives.” For the boy, that time peeling potatoes on Sundays was a time approaching rhyme, approaching closeness, approaching music—not quite there, but close—the closest they got and the dearest thing to be remembered now. And I like the insight: that what connects us with our loved ones are these quiet, unspectacular times working together. That those matter more than dramatic carryings-on and fine phrases. "Would that there were more of them and that death did not end them," I think this poem says.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

"Portrait of my Mother on Her Wedding Day" by Celia Gilbert

“Portrait of My Mother on Her Wedding Day”
by Celia Gilbert

A young woman,
lilies gathered to her breast—
the moment of the wave
before it crests—
even in this sepia image
dazzling me, like a wedding guest.

Fifty years later, I uncover
in the movement of her swept-back veil
the life that was to come,
seeing revealed the cunning of those hands
that clasp the flowers;
the will to shape a world
of her devising.

And once again I feel
how evil seems to fall away
before the power of her candid gaze
while everything in us that answers to good
crowds round her lap
hearing itself spoken for

This poem speaks so clearly and exactly, with no sloppy, extra words. I like how subtle the rhyme is. You can read it without realizing it is there, but all hte while the rhyme gives this pleasant, almost subconscious echoing ring to the ends of the lines. I find this poems opens up my own memories of my mother—I remember digging around in an old trunk of hers and finding a black & white picture of her just before she married, so young and so smooth-faced and brave-looking and unbelievably beautiful and familiar at the same time. It gave me a little shiver, like this poem does, that I knew the future of this young woman more than she did—the home she would make with her hands (“the cunning of those hands”) and the way her choices would make a world for me to live in (“the will to shape a world of her devising”). The last stanza is exactly what I love best about my mother—that she claimed me for Goodness, recognized goodness within me and defended it sometimes against my own lack of faith in (or even evidence to the contrary of) that goodness. And I like the picture the words make in that last stanza: as if there are all these cherubic little children inside us (“everything that is in us that answers to good’) that come crowding up around her lap eagerly at her call, ready to be kissed and approved.

Friday, November 9, 2007

"The Journey," by David Ignatow

(p. 20)

I am looking for a past
I can rely on
in order to look to death
with equanimity.
What was given me:
my mother’s largeness
to protect me,
my father’s regularity
in coming home from work
at night, his opening the door silently and smiling,
pleased to be back
and the lights on
in all the rooms
through which I could run
freely or sit at ease
at table and do my homework
undisturbed: love arranged
as order directed at the next day.
Going to bed was a journey.

The simplicity of the words, the short lines, and the straightforward thought help to recreate the well-lighted world of this childhood. I liked the gratitude for such little everyday things: the father’s regularity, the mother’s largeness, the rooms orderly and lit and safe for a child to run or study. My favorite line: “love arranged as order directed at the next day.” It’s interesting that he says he can look at death with calmness because his parents’ loving way of making order in his young life gives him a feeling that there IS order—maybe throughout the whole universe. That maybe Love (in a larger and deeper, maybe divine sense) is also arranged as order pointed toward the next Day.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

"Nikki-Rosa," by Nikki Giovanni

(p. 13)

childhood remembrances are always a drag
if you’re Black
you always remember things like living in Woodlawn
with no inside toilet
and if you become famous or something
they never talk about how happy you were to have
your mother
all to yourself and
how good the water felt when you got your bath
from one of those big tubs that folk in Chicago barbecue in
and somehow when you talk about home
it never gets across how much you
understood their feelings
as the whole family attended meetings about Hollydale
and even though you remember
your biographers never understand
your father’s pain as he sells his stock
and another dream goes
And though you’re poor it isn’t poverty that
concerns you
and though they fought a lot
it isn’t your father’s drinking that makes any difference
but only that everybody is together and you
and your sister have happy birthdays and very good
and I really hope no white person ever has cause
to write about me
because they never understand
Black love is Black wealth and they’ll
probably talk about my hard childhood
and never understand that

all the while I was quite happy

The insight delights me—how we get wealth and ease mixed up with love and happiness. We do it to ourselves and we do it to others. I like how this poem insists on the dignity of experience. And the possibility of being “quite happy” in an unideal world. The run-on breahtless quality of the lines gives this poem its immediacy and sincerity.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Poem a Day for 30 Days: #1“There Was a Child Went Forth,” by Walt Whitman

Here's the aim: a month of straight reading and rapid response, keeping it simple - no scrabbling after symbols or plotting out rhyme schemes - just let the poems do their work and work their spell.

All poems for this next month from Grant Hardy's Enduring Ties: Poems of Family Relationships.


(p. 11) from "There Was a Child Went Forth," by Walt Whitman

His own parents, he that had father’d him and she that had conceiv’d him in her womb and birth’d him,
They gave this child more of themselves than that,
They gave him afterward every day, they became part of him.

The mother at home quietly placing the dishes on the supper-table,
The mother with mild words, clean her cap and gown, a wholesome odor falling off her person and clothes as she walks by,
The father, strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, anger’d, unjust,
The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure,
The family usages, the language, the company, the furniture, the yearning and swelling heart,
Affection that will not be gainsay’d, the sense of what is real, the thought if after all it should prove unreal,
The doubts of day-time and the doubts of night-time, the curious whether and how,

Whether that which appears so is so, or is it all flashes and specks?

Whitman loves the long line, the list and lists of lists. The effect is a rather ageless, Biblical rhythm. I like (sometimes) Whitman’s long lines—they sound like someone thinking to himself very carefully and thoughtfully, but almost sleepily. Like how your thoughts come very clear sometimes right before you fall asleep. But it's the details I love about this poem--that he makes me see his parents uniquely as themselves rather than settling for dull and empty generalizations. The line: “a wholesome odor falling off her person and clothes as she walks by” puts me right next to the mother in her tidy gray dress, as she sets the table. I like too that even though the father is shown more negatively there is still “affection that will not be gainsay’d.” And the insight that rings true with me—that parents’ beliefs, words, physical characteristics, etc., become the environment a child grows up in. That parents form the ground, the foundation to “the sense of what is real,” and also the point from which we differentiate ourselves and begin our contradiction.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Where I'm Coming From: Biases and Blindspots

I grew up in a household that crooned old Scottish folksongs and cowboy ballads, sang hymns and recited scriptures and nursery rhymes and comic verse like "Little Orphant Annie" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee." I memorized bits of Longfellow and Tennyson to please my country schoolteacher grandfather and spent happy afternoons in the big chair in my parents' room, poring over the big black book of Best Loved Poems of the American People. In my household, no one would have called themselves a poet, though many of us were guilty of occasional verse.

I first conceived an enthusiasm for Robert Burns in junior high for his

wee sleekit beastie


But gie me a cannie hour at e’en,
My arms about my dearie, O;
An’ war’ly cares, an’ war’ly men,
May a’ gae tapsalteerie, O!

Then I stumbled upon Emily Dickinson:

I dwell in Possibility—
A fairer House than Prose—
More numerous of Windows—
Superior—for Doors—

Then e.e. cummings:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

And this trio shaped my emerging literary taste in favor of the personal lyric, purposely simple, persistently strange, but strongly rhymed and metered. I relished the unfamiliar word, the apt image, the quirky epiphany, and above all-- a poem was a poem if it sounded like a poem.

By the time public school got around to teaching me serious poetry, I was stubbornly opinionated, as only the self-taught can be. When my teacher sneered that every one of Emily Dickinson's poems could be sung to the tune "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and tried to demonstrate the obvious superiority of William Carlos Williams'

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

to Vachel Lindsay's

Booth led boldly with his big bass drum—
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)
The Saints smiled gravely & they said: “He’s come.”
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

I was unconvinced. I wanted to know why such scorn for the sounds of poetry? Is the eye better than the ear? Do we really have to titter if the line is singable?

Through high school I read Robert Frost:

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

and Edna St. Vincent Millay:

Wild swans, come over the town, come over
The town again, trailing your legs and crying!

Then abandoned his straightforwardness and her hard bright clarity for T.S. Eliot, who was reassuringly erudite and deep and whose poems could be chanted aloud as if they were mantic words of power:

There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Of course I studied English at college, where I found - one breathless evening reading Julius Caesar all the way through in one sitting - that Shakespeare was indeed a poetic genius and his reputation not just a conspiracy between Leonard Bernstein and the NEA. I fell in love with the sounds of medieval English lyric, "I sing of a maiden that is makeless," and "Adam lay ibounden, Bounden in a bond." I admired the complex wit of Wallace Stevens and John Donne, and against my biases to their buxom lines came to acknowledge the talent of William Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats. I read Robert Frost for pleasure and William Carlos Williams for the quiet focus of his poems. I guiltily glutted myself on A.E. Houseman and Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Cavalier lyric poets. Eagerly gathered poems by Maxine Kumin, Mary Oliver, Anne Sexton, and May Swenson like post cards from earthy, older, cackling sisters. Gloried in the richly textured visions of William Butler Yeats and William Blake, the evocative spareness of Li Po, and the goofy, all-embracing, exultingly detailed irresistible optimism of Walt Whitman.

In grad school I studied Anglo-Saxon poetry: Beowulf, Caedmon's Hymn, The Wanderer, and the writings of medieval women mystics (Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen). I found respite in the limpid and stately vulnerability of the poems by Robert Hass and shook off academia's pretensions in the cheekiness of Anna Swir and the rougish stubbornness of Wislawa Szymborska. I read Louise Gluck's Wild Iris over and over - for reasons I still can't put satisfactorily into words.

Several years I taught monthly poetry workshops in the schools. Seeking poems that would speak to the young, I found myself returning to the most musical, like the powerful images and gorgeous beat of Blake's Tyger, Tyger.

And for my own soul, I still read poetry. Most recently, sick at heart and needing comfort, I found myself reading again Inger Christensen's alphabet, a series of poems written originally in Danish, based on the Fibonacci sequence, a chant that re-creates, re-establishes the world in its familiar beauty, despite and within the terror we find here, too. (English translation by Susanna Nied):


abrikostræerne findes, abrikostræerne findes

apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist


bregnerne findes; og brombaer, brombaer
og brom findes; og brinten, brinten

bracken exists; and blackberries, blackberries;
bromine exists; and hydrogen, hydrogen


cikaderne findes; cikorie, chromog
citrontraeer findes; cikaderne findes;
cikaderne, ceder, cypress, cerebellum

cicadas exists; chicory, chromium,
citrus trees; cicadas exists;
cicadas, cedars, cypresses, the cerebellum


duerne findes; drømmerne, dukkerne
dræberne findes; duerne, duerne;
dis, dioxin og dagne; dagne
findes; dagene døden; og digtene
findes; digtene, dagene, døden.

doves exists; dreamers and dolls;
killers, and doves and doves;
haze, dioxin, and days; days
exist; days and death; and poems
exist; poems, days, death

Christensen's poem goes on through most of the letters of the alphabet, each section longer and more complex, more weighed down by our presence in the world. But it ends with hope - not just the children who have found shelter in the cave but the echoes of that swelling chant of witness: "apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist, bracken exists, and blackberries, blackberries . . . " - a chant that steadies the mind and focuses the eye, fills the heart with courage and readies us for better action.

I read for courage as much as for enlightenment. So my definition of poetry is a powerful playing, a laughing at the destroyer, a dance we do in honor of our hearts' truth, a marriage of the body (the fecund matrix of sounds and rhythms of the world and human speech; the detailed matter that makes a forest or a street or a human body; the things that matter to us walking here beneath the sky) with the spirit (the acrobatics of metaphorical thought, patterns of rhyme and alliteration, the connections of logic and dream, the idea of order).

Matter and pattern. Patterns that matter.

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