Saturday, February 23, 2008

"daughters" by Lucille Clifton

woman who shines at the head
of my grandmother's bed,
brilliant woman, i like to think
you whispered into her ear
instructions. i like to think
you are the oddness in us,
you are the arrow
that pierced our plain skin
and made us fancy women;
my wild witch gran, my magic mama,
and even these gaudy girls.
i like to think you gave us
extraordinary power and to
protect us, you became the name
we were cautioned to forget.
it is enough,
you must have murmured,
to remember that i was
and that you are. woman, i am
lucille, which stands for light,
daughter of thelma, daughter
of georgia, daughter of
dazzling you.

I like this last poem because of its short, energetic lines - she doesn't waste time. And I like how she reclaims a forgotten unnamed foremother - renames her and reclaims her by imagining her. Like the poem at the first of the week, this poem bears witness to the lastingness of family connection.

Friday, February 22, 2008

"Wedding Cake" by Naomi Shihab Nye

Once on a plane
a woman asked me to hold her baby
and disappeared.
I figured it was safe,
our being on a plane and all.
How far could she go?

She returned one hour later,
having changed her clothes
and washed her hair.
I didn't recognize her.

By this time the baby
and I had examined
each other's necks.
We had cried a little.
I had a silver bracelet
and a watch.
Gold studs glittered
in the baby's ears.
She wore a tiny white dress
leafed with layers
like a wedding cake.

I did not want
to give her back.

The baby's curls coiled tightly
against her scalp,
another alphabet.
I read new new new.
My mother gets tired.
I'll chew your hand.
The baby left my skirt crumpled,
my lap aching.
Now I'm her secret guardian,
the little nub of dream
that rises slightly
but won't come clear.
As she grows,
as she feels ill at ease,
I'll bob my knee.

What will she forget?
Whom will she marry?
He'd better check with me.
I'll say once she flew
dressed like a cake
between two doilies of cloud.
She could slip the card into a pocket,
pull it out.
Already she knew the small finger
was funnier than the whole arm.

Can't you just see that baby? And the tired mother? I always laugh at "we had cried a little" - they both had. For me the poem actually ends at "I'll chew your hand," the lines after that just aren't as interesting to me. Maybe she should have stopped it right there. What do you think?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

"Childhood" by Maura Stanton

I used to lie on my back, imagining
A reverse house on the ceiling of my house
Where I could walk around in empty rooms
all by myself. There was no furniture
Up there, only a glass globe in the floor,
And knee-high barriers at every door.
The low silled windows opened on blue air.
Nothing hung in the closet; even the kitchen
Seemed immaculate, a place for thought.
I like to walk across the swirling plaster
Into the parts of the house I couldn't see.
The hum from the other house, now my ceiling,
Reached me only faintly. I'd look up
to find my brothers watching old cartoons,
Or my mother vacuuming the ugly carpet.
I'd stare amazed at unmade beds, the clutter,
Shoes, half-dressed dolls, the telephone,
Then return dizzily to my perfect floorplan
Where I never spoke or listened to anyone.

I must have turned down the wrong hall,
Or opened a door that locked shut behind me,
for I live on the ceiling now, not the floor.
This is my house, room after empty room.
How do I ever get back to the real house
Where my sisters spill milk, my father calls,
And I am at the table, eating cereal?
I fill my white rooms with furniture,
Hang curtains over the piercing blue outside.
I lie on my back. I strive to look down.
This ceiling is higher than it used to be,
The floor so far away I can't determine
Which room I'm in, which year, which life.

Here's a poem I first came upon in college. The remembered image of the celing was so exactly what I remembered from my childhood, and the emotional significance of that spare ceiling world also rang true. Of course, I've found my way back down to the floor now. Now when I read this poem I remember the ache I felt, when alone ,for the messiness of living in a family again - and I yearn now again for some of the spareness and clarity of that ceiling life.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"First Lesson" by Philip Booth

Lie back, daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man's-float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

This poem speaks maybe more directly than any others I know to that panicky fear that shakes me sometimes. I love the image (reminiscent of baptism) of the father cupping the daughter's head, teaching her to float on the water. The very definite rhyme - though completely unobtrusive and occasionaly slant - buoys up the lines invisibly, just like the water will hold up the daughter (head, Spread, dead-; dive, believe, survive; held you, told you, hold you, alternating with fear and light-year.) Right at the center of the poem is an interesting internal rhyme: Daughter with water - as if in some way the water and the daughter are really one substance - and thus no reason not to trust herself to it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"Hope" by Philip Booth

Old spirit, in and beyond me,
keep and extend me. Amid strangers,
friends, great trees and big seas breaking,
let love move me. Let me hear the whole music,
see clear, reach deep. Open me to find due words,
that I may shape them to ploughshares of my own making.
After such luck, however late, give me to give to
the oldest dance. . . . Then to good sleep,
and - if it happens - glad waking.

This poem is a prayer. I love the vigor of the lines (all those quick, strong words, many of them ending or beginning with energetic-sounding plosives t, d, p, k) and there's kind of a rocking rhythm like a boat or a lullaby that comforts me.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Half a Dozen More, beginning with "Easter Sunday, 1955" by Elizabeth Spires

Over the next week, six more poems, these from Word of Mouth: poems featured on NPR's All Things Considered edited by Catherine Bowman.

Easter Sunday 1955

Why should anything go wrong in our bodies?
Why should we not be all beautiful?
Why should there be decay? - why death?
- and, oh, why, damnation?
- Anthony Trollope, in a letter

What were we? What have we become?
Light fills the picture, the rising sun,
the three of us advancing, dreamlike,
up the steps of my grandparents' house on Oak Street.
Still young, my mother and father swing me
lightly up the steps, as if I weighed nothing.
From the shadows, my brother and sister watch,
wanting their turn, years away from being born.
Now my aunts and uncles and cousins
gather on the shaded porch of generation,
big enough for everyone. No one has died yet.
No vows have been broken. No words spoken
that can never be taken back, never forgotten.
I have a basket of eggs my mother and I dyed yesterday.
I ask my grandmother to choose one, just one,
and she takes me up--O hold me close!--
her cancer not yet diagnosed. I bury my face
in soft flesh, the soft folds of her Easter dress,
breathing her in, wanting to stay forever where I am.
Her death will be long and slow, she will beg
to be let go, and I will find myself, too quickly,
in the here-and-now moment of my fortieth year.
It's spring again. Easter. Now my daughter steps
into the light, her basket of eggs bright, so bright.
One, choose one, I hear her say, her face upturned
to mine, innocent of outcome. Beautiful child,
how thoughtlessly we enter the world!
How free we are, how bound, put here in love's name
- death's, too - to be happy if we can.

I choke up at "O hold me close," where the adult voice suddenly breaks into the thoughts of the child - like there's no real difference between then and now. And I love the thin-veil feeling of those first lines - her brother and sister are there, eager for their turn - to be swung you think at first, then to be born you realize. Throughout the poem there is a sense of eternal time, partly through repetitions and examples like those above, and partly because the rhythms and sound-patterns are very smooth and dreamlike. And it comforts me, the picture this poem gives of the continuity of love - I think our family, too, is that "shaded porch of generation, big enough for everyone." And that repetition of choosing - the egg we choose - the child coming after us. Free to choose and bound by our choices - it feels very true to me.
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