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Miraculous Trash

poems are on tree branches

poems are on tree branches

 

Poem #1: Miracles

by Walt Whitman

Why, who makes much of a miracle?

As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,

Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,

Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,

Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of

the water,

Or stand under trees in the woods,

Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night

with any one I love,

Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,

Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,

Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer

forenoon,

Or animals feeding in the fields,

Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,

Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so

quiet and bright,

Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;

These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,

The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.

 

To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,

Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,

Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with

the same,

Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.

 

To me the sea is a continual miracle,

The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—

the ships with men in them,

What stranger miracles are there?

 

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Poem #2: The Cigarette, the Beers, the Trash

by Alejandro Murguía

 

Everything is good for something

Even the trash, the ugly and the dirty,

What we throw away we can put in a poem,

Make art of our rejections, our defeats

All of it just grist for the mill of our songs.

 

It’s too bad that sometimes we want only the pretty,

That which makes us believe we’re saints, or holy,

Or some kind of artiste, for hell’s sake.

 

Send me storms when I’m walking home

Locusts in the harvest season

I’d rather go hungry than

Stuff my gills at some catered banquet

Where everyone is neutered by Martha Stewart.

 

Look outside your frigging window,

What you see is what it is—that’s all there is.

I see abandoned cars, newspapers, a beer bottle

Propped up against a half-dead tree

And I’m going to put them in this poem

Because that’s all I’ve got tonight.

 

Then I’ll smoke a cigarette, stare at the night clouds,

Let the wind whip my face

And that’s it, at least I’ll know I didn’t cheat,

Didn’t fake what’s in my life.

 

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We sat in the car waiting for a miracle. On that clear and cold March evening we had a chance, said the meteorologist, a small chance of seeing the Northern Lights at sundown. My friend and I had been waiting years to see the Northern Lights—she’s an ardent fan of extreme weather and starry phenomena, and I’m an ardent fan of the movie Local Hero, my introduction to the Northern Lights back in the early 80’s.

 

Sitting in a school parking lot, the widest open space we could come up with on short notice, we felt like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin. As hope for the miraculous display dwindled, I dashed out in the wind to put these two poems in a tree by some athletic fields.

 

Even then, before I had read the two poems closely, “Miracles” and “The Cigarettes, the Beers, the Trash” seemed to be talking to each other on their respective tree branches.

 

–See the just-barely buds on these bare trees—said the Whitman poem—a miracle!

-Yeah but look down at how the snow melt’s uncovered trash, said the Murguía poem.

-The wind is tossing us about! Another miracle!

-That wind’s going turn you into trash.

 

Which it did, a moment after I took the picture.

 

Originally I paired the poems together together because they seemed opposites. Whitman’s poem is so cheerful it’s all but wearing a curly red wig and nuzzling a dog named Sandy. The tone of Murguía’s poem is decidedly less sunny:

 

Look outside your frigging window,

What you see is what it is—that’s all there is.

 

But the poems have more in common than I thought at first.

 

Both poems start in the city. Whitman is in Manhattan, Murguía presumably in San Francisco. And even though Whitman travels from the city to beach, to woods, back to city and Murguía stays put, they’re both completely engaged with their surroundings. They see what others don’t.

 

Or maybe it’s not so much that they see what others overlook, as it is that they re-name what they see so that others can see things in a new way. Whitman re-names everything he sees a miracle, especially the everyday things: Strangers opposite me riding in the car; the wonderfulness of insects in the air.

 

Murguía, who sees the ugly and the dirty, calls his trash poetry. Or inspiration for poetry. His poem is like a recycling bin, full of discards that he finds new uses for. Like a poetic version of the Heidelberg Project in Detroit.

 

Both poems are not just about seeing and re-naming, but also about the creation of self. In listing what he sees, Whitman creates a persona who is childlike, full of wonder. He’s the master of the artless art, of spontaneous expression of feeling, Murguía not only sees the underbelly of what Whitman sees, he wants to see the underbelly:

 

Send me storms when I’m walking home

Locusts in the harvest season

 

Seeing “what’s really there” separates the artistes from the artists, and Murguía is definitely in the artist camp. He’s proud of being authentic, of not having been neutered by Martha Stewart.

 

(Neutered by Martha Stewart. That’s a phrase to tuck away for future use. It would be a great bumper sticker and an even better support group. Overeaters Anonymous in room 12, Neutered by Martha Stewart across the hall.)

 

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 2.54.05 PM I hadn’t heard of Alejandro Murguía until a friend gave me a book of his poems for my birthday last year. He was born in 1949 in California. After his mother died when he was two, he was moved to Mexico City, where he lived until he was six. He writes in both English and Spanish and has been called “the activist voice of refugees and exiles.” He’s written two novels, a history of the Nicaraguan Solidarity movement in San Francisco’s Mission District, two books of poetry. He’s professor of Latin American literature at San Francisco State University. In 2012 he was named the Poet Laureate for San Francisco, the first Latino poet to be given the honor.

 

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 2.54.33 PMWalt Whitman (1819-1892) was born in Long Island to a family of nine. At various times throughout his life, he worked as a journalist, a newspaper editor, a teacher, a volunteer nurse in the Civil War, a government clerk. Although he struggled to earn a living, he shared any money he earned with his ailing mother, his sick brother, and wounded soldiers.

 

I’ve written about Whitman before, so I’ll copy commentary from previous posts:

 

Walt Whitman sure has a lot of laudatory titles :  “poet of democracy,”  he’s called, “father of free verse,” “America’s poet,” to name a few.  Critic Harold Bloom proclaimed Whitman’s importance in his introduction to the 150th anniversary edition of Leaves of Grass:

“If you are American, then Walt Whitman is your imaginative father and mother, even if, like myself, you have never composed a line of verse. You can nominate a fair number of literary works as candidates for the secular Scripture of the United States. They might include Melville’s Moby-Dick, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Emerson’s two series of Essays and The Conduct of Life. None of those, not even Emerson’s, are as central as the first edition of Leaves of Grass.”

 

And no, we never did see the Northern Lights. If you are a lucky person who has, post a comment and tell me when and where.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I wanted to redeem myself after my last post (see comments section), so I headed back to the ATM. Different bank, different poem, different outcome.

poem is above the "no envelope" sign

poem is on lower right of machine

 

I taped an excerpt from a poem by a Poem Elf favorite, Carl Dennis. You can read the complete version of “Pioneers” here.

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(That’s a typo in the fourth line of the poem.)

After I taped the poem, drove around the ATM to photograph it from different angles, and parked my car to head into Starbucks, I noticed three bank employees congregating around the poem. They must have seen me circling and taking pictures. With visions of security cameras in my head and no idea how these bankers would react to what could be called vandalism by poetry, I duckedYes, I ducked down in my front seat. When I came back up, they were gone and so was the poem.

But I did get a picture first:

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Seduction at the ATM

Hard to believe I’ve never left a poem at an ATM before. I rectified that situation today when I taped an excerpt from C.H. Sisson’s “Money” to a drive-through ATM.

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You can read the complete poem here.

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She had me at Rosemary

poem is by the door

poem is by the door

Addiction to an Old Mattress

by Rosemary Tonks

 

No, this is not my life, thank God …
… worn out like this, and crippled by brain-fag;
Obsessed first by one person, and then
(Almost at once) most horribly besotted by another;
These Februaries, full of draughts and cracks,
They belong to the people in the streets, the others
Out there – haberdashers, writers of menus.

Salt breezes! Bolsters from Istanbul!
Barometers, full of contempt, controlling moody isobars.
Sumptuous tittle-tattle from a summer crowd
That’s fed on lemonades and matinées. And seas
That float themselves about from place to place, and then
Spend hours – just moving some clear sleets across glass stones.
Yalta: deck-chairs in Asia’s gold cake; thrones.

Meanwhile … I live on … powerful, disobedient,
Inside their draughty haberdasher’s climate,
With these people … who are going to obsess me,
Potatoes, dentists, people I hardly know, it’s unforgivable
For this is not my life
But theirs, that I am living.
And I wolf, bolt, gulp it down, day after day.

 

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Usually I’ll fall in love with a poem first, the poet second.

 

But this time I first fell in love with a name. Rosemary Tonks. Can’t you just see Rosemary Tonks in her wellies and Liberty scarf, finding the dead body face down in her English village garden?

 

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 1.46Then I saw her picture. She looks like Doris Day, if Doris Day had a hangover and a dissertation to finish. Dress a beauty like that in tweeds and an oversized sweater and I’ve found my style icon.

 

Her biography drew me in further. Tragedy, glamour, a single black glove, a mysterious disappearance. Throw in malaria and a manuscript burning in the garden incinerator and you’ve got a poet whose life story is as oversized as any of the male writers we revere for their exploits.

 

Then came the poems. There’s not many on line, and all the English references can make them tough going—but three poems in and I had ordered a copy of her collection, Bedouin of the London Evening. These are poems crammed with cities and love affairs and cocktails, poems that make you want to live a big, big life and at the same time escape from the cynicism and darkness you find there. Reading them is like listening to a depressed Auntie Mame hold court in a seedy Turkish café or Sally Bowles in a college philosophy class.

 

Not that I fully understand a single one of them. When I have trouble with a poem, as I did with “Addiction to an Old Mattress,” I turn to the nouns, working my way step by step on the concrete parts till I’ve paved some sort of path through a poem.

 

The nouns in the title are a depressing pair, linked by an unlikely preposition. Maybe it’s her other poems speaking to me, but I picture her smoking in a run-down hotel room after yet another disappointing love affair.

 

Dreary nouns populate the first and third stanzas. Here in a cold English February are potatoes, brain-fag, draughts, dentists, haberdashers. I thought haberdasher meant a person who sells men’s clothing, but when I looked it up I discovered that for Brits, a haberdasher is a dealer in sewing notions, small things. What could be duller, less ambitious, less imaginative than being a dealer in sewing notions? Maybe being a writer of menus.

 

The nouns in the middle stanza, which is set in resorts and luxury liners on the Black Sea, are lovelier and softer sounding than those in the others: lemonade and matinees, Istanbul, salt breezes and this beautiful image of leisure:

 

And seas

That float themselves about from place to place, and then

Spend hours – just moving some clear sleets across glass stones.

 

I’m not sure what she means by Bolsters from Istanbul! except that it instantly puts me on a ship. Bolsters can be oblong pillows on deck chairs or a technical nautical term for a particular beam on a ship.

 

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 10.47.59 AMWithout knowing what Asia’s gold cake is (speak up if you do), its placement next to thrones speaks of affluence. As Jimmy Stewart said in Philadelphia Story, “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.”

 

The line that follows that belongs to Katherine Hepburn: “You’re a snob, Connor.”

 

Tonks is a snob too, but I don’t dislike her for it. There’s so much desperation and yearning in lines like these:

 

For this is not my life

But theirs, that I am living.

 

At some point we all want to get the hell out of our small lives and escape to some place or time grander, more beautiful, more exciting. Or just warmer. Which is why I left the poem outside a travel agency. The temperature that day barely reached six degrees outside, and inside my house, sixty-two.

 

Rosemary Tonks was born in 1928 in southeast England, an only child. Her father died of malaria before she was born, after which her mother fell apart and was unable to raise her for a time. She was sent off to children’s homes and boarding schools.

 

At 18 she moved to London and wrote and illustrated a children’s book. She married an engineer named Lightband (she didn’t use his name until after they divorced) whose job took the couple to India and Pakistan. There she contracted typhoid and polio and had to return to England. The polio withered her right hand, so she covered it with a black glove. It takes a lot of confidence to walk about with a single black glove.

 

She moved to Paris briefly on her own and then settled back in London. She became a fashionable literary hostess. Through the sixties and early seventies she published six satirical novels and two collections of poems. After her mother died in an accident and her marriage ended, Tonks dropped out of literary and social circles. She disappeared—people thought she might be dead, or in Cuba or a convent. But she had changed her name to Rosemary Lightband and spent eight years searching for a spiritual practice. She tried Sufiism, Chinese healing arts, yoga, Taoist meditation. Eventually she found fundamentalist Christianity to the exclusion of everything else—writing, literature, relatives, friends. She was baptized in the River Jordan in Jerusalem the day before her 53rd birthday.

 

Throughout her life Tonks had eye problems, and during her later years had an operation that made her blind in one eye. She lived by the sea and read only the Bible. She burned the novel she had been working on as well as all the pieces in her Asian art collection, which she believed were “graven images.” For a fascinating recounting of her life as a recluse, link here.

 

She died just last year at age 85.

Every Valentine’s Day I brainstorm for places that romantically-inclined or romantically-averse folks might congregate as they prepare for the holiday or prepare to avoid it. In the past I’ve left love poems in a chocolate store, post office, senior citizen’s home, a food court, a lonely-looking motel, the floral department of a grocery store. Now in my fourth year of Valentine’s Day poem-elfing, I think I need a location scout.

Here’s where this year’s crop of love poems landed:

 

At Victoria’s Secret, nestled in between the pink thongs and the pink brassieres, I left Pablo Neruda’s “Sonnet XVII,” a poem which speaks of loving someone “in secret, between the shadow and the soul.”

 

poem is on white shelf with the pale pink underwear

poem is on white shelf with the pale pink underwear

 

Funny that we used to call ladies’ underwear “intimates.” Victoria’s Secret intimates, however sexy, are no match for Neruda’s brand. The intimacy he’s after can’t be manufactured or marketed or purchased. He writes of a passionate love

so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand

so intimate that when I fall asleep it is your eyes that close.

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I left Carl Sandberg’s “At a Window” on a stranger’s window at a transportation center.

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poem is on white car’s windshield

 

 

Presumably the stranger will return to the car after work, and I hope this universal wish for companionship and love is a balm and not an irritant:

…leave me a little love,

A voice to speak to me in the day end,

A hand to touch me in the dark room

Breaking the long loneliness.

 

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A Greyhound bus station seemed like a fine place for the decidedly unsentimental “First Love” by one of my favorites, Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska.

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poem is on white wall in foreground

 

 

First love, says Szymborska,

does what all the others still can’t manage:

unremembered,

not even seen in dreams,

it introduces me to death.

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Valentine’s Day is a great day to celebrate the love of friends. I taped Robert Frost’s “A Time to Talk” to the sign outside a neighborhood bar, always a good place for friends to gather.

 

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poem is on oval sign just under the small red oval on the right-hand side

 

 

In this age of distraction and shortened attention spans, what better way to show affection than setting aside your hoe, whatever your hoe may be (no naughty jokes, please) and taking time “for a friendly visit“?

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For anyone sadder but wiser who might need retail therapy on Valentine’s Day, I left “I Have Come to the Conclusion” by Nelle Fertig in the Macy’s purse department:

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poem is on the mirror

 

 

 

(Excuse the typos in the poem I left–too late for corrections.)

Fertig’s version of love is more cynical than my own. But I guess I’ve been fortunate not to have “broken a few/ very fine mirrors.”

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Finally, I left an excerpt from Roy Croft’s “Love” near my husband’s office outside a restaurant he likes. But he was out of town, so he’ll only see the poem here.

 

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poem is on lamp post

 

 

The restaurant is frequented by middle-aged couples and singles looking to be coupled, people old enough to appreciate what’s under the surface, who can understand the beauty of what Fertig expresses here.

 

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If none of these poems suit your mood or situation, take a look past Valentine poem-elfing in 2014, 2013, and 2012.

 

And spread love! Everyone has it, everyone needs it.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

 

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