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poem is on second shelf from the top

poem is on second shelf from the top

 

In Mind

 

There’s in my mind a woman

of innocence, unadorned but

 

fair-featured and smelling of

apples or grass. She wears

 

a utopian smock or shift, her hair

is light brown and smooth, and she

 

is kind and very clean without

ostentation–

 

but she has

no imagination

 

And there’s a

turbulent moon-ridden girl

 

or old woman, or both,

dressed in opals and rags, feathers

 

and torn taffeta,

who knows strange songs

 

but she is not kind.

 

IMG_2490

 

Years ago when I raising little children, I spent very little time writing but a lot of time reading books about writing. One by novelist Rita Mae Brown made a particular impression. As I remember, Brown asserted that you can have children or you can have a writing career but not both. A writer needs to be selfish, focused and dedicated only to her work. Motherhood wasn’t compatible with an artistic career.

 

What I got out of that book, besides the inevitable overdue fine at the library, was that either you could be a very good writer or a very good person. This idea was discouraging, to say the least, but also a useful excuse for not writing. I’d rather be a good person, a good mother than a good writer.

 

My exposure to writers up to that point reinforced this dichotomy. For Pete’s sake I had been through an MFA program. MFA programs, for those who didn’t watch the most recent episode of Girls, tend to bring out the worst in everyone. At workshop tables I sat elbow to elbow with people who were competitive, needy, emotionally unstable, snarky, smarmy and sometimes downright nasty. With a few notable exceptions, they were people I may have admired but didn’t want to hang around.

 

In her poem “In Mind,” Denise Levertov sets up similar opposing forces: imagination and kindness seem to be mutually exclusive. The two sides are represented by three women. The “woman /of innocence” is a single being, a fully integrated person whose attention to hygiene alone would preclude her from being a writer. Levertov describes her with details that highlight her less-than-riveting personality. Her hair—light brown—is neither dark nor light; she’s dressed simply in a “utopian smock” like some vacant-headed worker from a collective or commune or organic apple farm; she wears no jewelry or presumably makeup. Dependable. Sweet. Angelic but dull.

 

The second persona, on the other hand, is bewitching and witch-like. She’s not even one person but two, and made up of contradictions: both old and young, bejeweled and in rags, interesting but not nice. I imagine her to be the opposite of the woman of innocence in every way: her hair dark, curly and unwashed, her air experienced.

 

So I’m back to this idea that good person equals bad writer. And also good writer equals bad person. But I wonder if an idea so reductionist is what Levertov had in mind. I don’t think so. And what she has in mind is important in a literal way, since the poem is titled such and begins the same. In her mind are these three women. Multiple personas in one mind. That’s a good start on a description of a writer, of any artist. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said (and I quote from a tweet by @JonWinokur), “There was never a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn’t be. He is too many people if he’s any good.”

 

I chose to read the poem in reference to writers, but “In Mind” can refer to any artistic person, anyone whose imagination is her stock-in-trade, anyone who feels pulled this way by art and that way by the people in her life, anyone who feels her dark creative leanings at odds with civilized society and her kinder nature.

 

 

I left the poem in the writing section of the library. Just as the coast was clear and I was about to tape the poem to some writing guides and take the picture, a young woman plopped herself on a library stool beside me. I didn’t want to wait for her to leave, so I explained what I was doing and asked if she’d be in the picture. She agreed as if my request was perfectly normal. Library Girl, if you ever read this, thank you for your openness to the abnormal.

 

 

Here’s a short bio of Levertov from a past post.

 

Screenshot 2015-01-08 18.04.30Denise Levertov was born in a suburb of London in 1923 to politically active parents.  Her mother was Welsh and her father was from a Russian Hassidic Jewish family. Levertov was homeschooled and she began writing early.  From age five she had a strong sense of her destiny to be an artist, and when she was 12 she sent T.S. Eliot some of her poems.  He responded with two pages of encouragement and advice.

 

During the London Blitz, she served as a civilian nurse.  She married an American writer and eventually became an American citizen.  She was poetry editor of The Nation and Mother Jones and taught at Stanford, among other universities.

 

Later in life she converted to Catholicism and became a political poet, speaking out against Vietnam War, nuclear arms, the U.S. involvement in El Salvador, and the Gulf War.

 

Levertov died in 1997 at age 75.

 

In light of the poem and my earlier musings, it seems important to add that Levertov had a son, Nikolai. From whom she was sometimes estranged. And then reconciled with on her deathbed. And that she is often described as “complicated” (read “difficult”). For those truly interested, link here for a good summary of two recent biographies on Levertov.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So about my last post . . .

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 11.27.28 AMI’m thinking about Miss Emily Litella today. For those too young to remember the Saturday Night Live character created by Gilda Radner, Emily Litella was a commentator on Weekend Update back when Jane Curtain anchored. Miss Litella was a daffy little lady with a high voice and a hearing impairment. She was invited on the show to respond to issues of the day, but she always misheard what the issue was. To her ears, “presidential elections” was “presidential erections,” and “endangered species” was, well I’m sure you can guess. It’s certainly not endangered.

 

Miss Litella would get more and more upset in her commentary until eventually Jane Curtain would cut her off with a correction—it’s “make Puerto Rico a state,” not “make Puerto Rico a steak, “Miss Litella. And then Gilda Radner would look at the camera and say sweetly, Never mind.

 

And so, regarding my last post, in which I got into a lather about Lawrence Raab’s poem “Marriage, “ I say this:

 

Never mind.

 

I got it all wrong. And I have it on good authority, from Lawrence Raab himself.

 

I had posited that the man in the poem was deflated by his wife’s revelation about their early courtship. I compared his reaction to Gabriel Conroy’s come-down at the end of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” I went on about how real marriage begins when you let go of the image you’ve created of a person who doesn’t exist and accept the one who does.

 

Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

 

Mr. Raab responded when I sent him the link to my post. (I always send poets a link if he or she is still alive. At least half the time I get a response.)

 

He wrote, I’m glad you like the poem, although I have never thought that he would be deflated by her story; it’s too good a story, and her reason for not initially answering relates directly to him. 

 

In a subsequent email he told me that he’s heard the poem is often used at weddings.

 

I’m sure there’s a reason I interpreted the poem as I did, but I don’t want to know it. I tend to be cynical and let’s leave it at that.

 

So here’s my question: if you hadn’t read my post, how would you have read the poem?

 

poem is under left-hand concrete urn

poem is under left-hand concrete urn

 

Marriage

By Lawrence Raab

 

Years later they find themselves talking

about chances, moments when their lives

might have swerved off

for the smallest reason.

What if

I hadn’t phoned, he says, that morning?

What if you’d been out,

as you were when I tried three times

the night before?

Then she tells him a secret.

She’d been there all evening, and she knew

he was the one calling, which was why

she hadn’t answered.

Because she felt—

because she was certain—her life would change

if she picked up the phone, said hello,

said, I was just thinking

of you.

I was afraid,

she tells him. And in the morning

I also knew it was you, but I just

answered the phone

the way anyone

answers a phone when it starts to ring,

not thinking you have a choice.

 

 

(I’m having trouble formatting this poem in WordPress, and formatting is so important here. Apologies. Please see the proper formatting in the photograph below.)

IMG_2219

 

Here’s a poem possible only once upon a time when everyone had a landline and the one way to know for sure who was calling was to answer the phone.

 

If the couple in this poem had courted more recently, he would have called her cellphone, then texted, emailed and left a voicemail. There would be no we-almost-lost-each-other-forever. Either he would have tracked her down or he would have known she was ignoring his calls.

 

But even with the outdated technology of the poem, his version is overly-romanticized. We don’t know the whole story, of course, but surely he would have kept trying to reach her after she didn’t answer. Surely there would have been another opportunity to connect before their lives/might have swerved off/for the smallest reason.

 

Years later, happy years it would seem, she demolishes his version of their love story. It turns out that the single moment when their lives might swerve off course is not the missed phone calls so many years ago, but the telling of her secret this late in their relationship. It wasn’t kismet, she tells him, it was a choice, at first a conscious one formed in fear, and then an unconscious one formed out of habit.

 

You can just see the poor fellow’s face fall. It’s not devastating news—nowhere close to I’m in love with your brother and I’ll let the IRS agent in on my way out–but it’s deflating. He doesn’t know her as well as he thought. His treasured romantic-comedy relationship is going to have to be re-cast.

 

It reminds me of the last beautiful scene in James’ Joyce’s The Dead. Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta are in their hotel room after his aunts’ annual holiday party. Just before they had left the party he had watched her listening at the top of the stairs to a song played in a distant room. He couldn’t decipher her strange expression but it excited him, made him look forward to a night of intimacy. As he takes her in his arms in the hotel, he asks what she’s thinking about. The song, she says, “The Lass of Aughrim.” Then she throws herself on the bed, sobbing. Blue balls to follow.

 

She tells him what he’d not known before. When she was a young girl, a sickly boy named Michael Furey had fallen in love with her and used to sing “The Lass of Aughrim” to her. The night before she was leaving for school, he came outside her window in the rain and told her he did not want to live if she left. He died a week later.

 

After this revelation she falls asleep, and Gabriel is left alone, humiliated, angry, then by turns tender and wistful. Just before the story ends with the immortal lines about the snow falling faintly and faintly falling upon all the living and the dead, there’s this:

 

He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love

 

That’s marriage, right there, that bittersweet understanding. Maybe I’m putting a more hopeful spin on Joyce’s story than it merits, but understanding that your spouse is not you, and that your spouse is not the person you thought they were early in your romance, can be the beginning of real love and a real union.

 

Years ago when my husband and I were moving to Michigan and arguing about every house we looked at, our 80-year old realtor, now long dead but at the time long-married, told us that married people are like two trees. She used her forearms to show us the trees side by side. Separate trees, Millie said, but always growing beside each other. She was so right, that Millie. Any happily married person will tell you it takes years of marriage for the old idea of who you married to make room for the actual person who shares your bed and sometimes farts in it.

 

The title of Raab’s poem covers not just this little vignette of a married couple’s life, but what happens after the poem ends. Yes, marriage can be the bliss of shared memories, but it’s also the negotiation of differing memories. Romance is a construct; marriage is what happens after deconstruction. Or doesn’t. We don’t know where this marriage is headed.

 

I love how the structure works with the content of “Marriage.” The poem begins with the stanzas going back and forth between the speakers, like dialogue in a story. But after the first exchange, the poem is all hers, the conversation taken over by her secret. As his dream deflates, so do the stanzas, shrinking from four lines to three to a mere two at the end.

 

I left the poem outside a hoity-toity bridal salon, the kind of store that you don’t step inside unless you’re convinced it’s a good idea to spend half a year’s rent on a dress you wear for a few hours. I didn’t leave it there just to be snarky. The poem sheds light on the reality of marriage, and that’s a better place than fantasy weddings for any bride to begin preparations.

 

Screenshot 2014-12-04 12.08.34Lawrence Raab was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1946. He went to Middlebury College and earned his masters from Syracuse. He’s taught at University of Michigan, American University, and these days at Williams College. He’s one numerous awards and grants and has published seven collections of poetry. This poem, “Marriage,” comes from his 1993 collection What We Don’t Know About Each Other.

 

Raab has also written screenplays and adapted Aristophanes’ The Birds for theater.

 

Thanksgiving, the kids come home and I rejoice because at last I can delegate again.

Delegation, one of the perks of parenthood.

Delegation, how the napkins get ironed, wood hauled, dishwasher emptied, onions sliced, chairs moved, table set, chaos ordered.

Delegation, essential to any host whose hands are covered in butter and turkey bacteria.

And a boon to a Poem Elf who doesn’t have time to for elfing.

So here’s the work of my elf-ette, Anne Marie, who was sent forth with a grocery list, camera and poem fragment.

poem is on left-hand side of top-tier table

poem is on left-hand side of top-tier table

 

The fragment is the last few lines from Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.”

IMG_2225

 

Here’s the whole poem if you’re interested:

 

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

And while thanks are being considered and passed along, I want to thank you for reading this blog.

I’m a lacksadaisical tweeter. A now-and-then and if-the-mood-strikes-me user of social media.

Which is why I only have 65 followers. That’s ten less people than I follow myself.

This post isn’t a plug for my twitter feed (I tried that here before and it didn’t help). It’s an announcement that I’m going to start posting some of my tweets on this blog. (Re-read that last sentence and realize that less than ten years ago it would have been complete gibberish.)

My tweets are different than my blog posts in that usually I use just a few lines from a longer poem instead of a complete poem. Also, I only feature pictures and I skip the commentary.

My latest one is  “Beauty School Dropout.” I left “Skin Deep” by Gail A. Chastain (the whole poem, because it was so short) at the Aveda Institute, a beauty school and salon.

poem is under sign and light fixture

poem is under sign and light fixture

 

Image

 

Of course, if you’d like to get all my tweets, follow me @poemelf.

 

 

poem is on the fence, next to my sister

poem is on the fence, next to my sister

 

Come. And Be My Baby

by Maya Angelou

 

The highway is full of big cars

going nowhere fast

And folks is smoking anything that’ll burn

Some people wrap their lies around a cocktail glass

And you sit wondering

where you’re going to turn

I got it.

Come. And be my baby.

 

Some prophets say the world is gonna end tomorrow

But others say we’ve got a week or two

The paper is full of every kind of blooming horror

And you sit wondering

What you’re gonna do.

I got it.

Come. And be my baby.

 

IMG_3864

 

To understand why I left Maya Angelou’s “Come. And Be My Baby” over a highway in suburban Maryland last week, you have to understand the atmosphere of persistent unease in the area and, more relevant, the nearly physical presence of the Cold War in my childhood home.

 

I was born three weeks after the Cuban Missile crisis in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. I don’t want to overstate the level of anxiety I grew up with, but my father’s periodic warnings that the Russians would be taking over soon were probably not conducive to childhood serenity. His paranoia was well-earned. He worked in the defense contracting industry, and as an ex-Naval officer, he had once been used as a guinea pig for nuclear bomb testing in Nevada. Everyone who lives in the D.C. area knows that the city has always been and always will be a target for enemies of our nation, but my dad actually planned for the day the target would be hit. When the bomb came, canned goods in the basement would keep us for a few days, and then we would move, all 13 of us, from wherever we found ourselves, to safer territory. He drew a circle around Washington with a radius of 200 miles to calculate how far we needed to go to avoid radiation poisoning. He decided that in the ensuing chaos of a nuclear bomb, our family meeting place was Morgantown, West Virginia. From my youngest days Morgantown, West Virginia was such an otherworldly place that when I first heard the Joni Mitchell song of the same name, I couldn’t believe Morgantown really existed. My sister remembers worrying, as a little girl, just how she was supposed to get to Morgantown by herself.

 

Let’s just say we didn’t take the stability of the world for granted.

 

End-of-the-world fears have been growing steadily everywhere in the last few months, but in Washington those fears seem a little more real. In this city of governance, policy and ideologues of every stripe, folks discuss ISIS, Gaza, Putin, and Assad like other people talk about the neighbor’s lawn upkeep. The memory of the Beltway Sniper is still fresh, and kids who grew up locked in for recess so they wouldn’t get picked off in the schoolyard now worry about taking the subway to work because of recent terrorist threats. At the time I left the poem, an ebola patient had just been transferred to NIH in Bethesda (now released, praise be), dangerous people were hopping the White House fence, and the headlines were full of the usual reports of international disintegration.

 

So I consider this poem-elfing a public service. I taped “Come. And Be My Baby” to the fencing on a pedestrian bridge along the Trolley Trail, a peaceful path that runs over and alongside some of the major arteries for big cars/going nowhere fast. (Notice that the bridge is fenced to prevent people from jumping off. There’ also this encouraging graffiti,

IMG_3878

which reads, “We all have a heart/we all breathe/the rest is up to you.”)

 

Of course, Maya Angelou’s poem is written in response to the struggles of African-Americans, but it transcends the particular as it lands, forty years later, as solace for anyone overwhelmed by all the blooming horror we live in.

 

Her call to love in the face of doom is a time-honored ploy of seduction. Think of “To the Virgins, to Make Much Use of Time” and these lines from “Dover Beach”:

 

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 

What’s different here, for me anyway, is that a woman is the seducer. Her tone is more mild than urgent, but no less effective. The punctuation lends her siren call its gentleness. She motions her lover over to her with the simple Come. Then she issues her invitation, as if she’s giving her lover time to consider it.

 

One line of the poem puzzles me: I got it. Is it I got it, as in, I got what you need, or is it I got it, as in, I understand all your worries? It depends on how the phrase is inflected. By chance I just found out I’ll have the answer soon. On November 4, an album of poems accompanied by hip-hop beats and gospel music that Angelou was working on when she died will be released. One of the tracks is “Come. And Be My Baby.”

 

I’ve listened to another one of the tracks (“Still I Rise,” link here–it’s great), and hearing Angelou’s deep and resonant voice makes me appreciate her poetry more than I used to. As Poetry Foundation writes:

 

Angelou’s poetry often benefits from her performance of it: Angelou usually recites her poems before spellbound crowds. Indeed, Angelou’s poetry can also be traced to African-American oral traditions like slave and work songs, especially in her use of personal narrative and emphasis on individual responses to hardship, oppression and loss.

 

And reading about her life makes me appreciate Angelou in a whole new way. I say this as someone who’s had a resistance to her. I loved I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as much as anyone, but the reverence afforded her poems and her person (and worse, her collaboration with Hallmark Cards on the Mosaic line), left me cold. The slightest scent of hagiography will send me running off in the opposite direction.

 

But what she lived through and what she accomplished! My goodness, I’ve come late to the party. Any one of the events of her life is enough for a movie, but her life is so jammed-pack with significant moments that The Maya Angelou Story would not be a believable script.

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 2.56.13 PMShe was born in 1928 in St. Louis, but after her parents’ divorce when she was 3 or 4, was sent to live in Arkansas with her grandmother. Over the years she was shuffled back and forth between her mother and grandmother, eventually landing in San Francisco. During one of the visits with her mother, when she was 8, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She confided in her brother, who told the family. The rapist was sent to jail, released after a day, and then murdered, reportedly by Angelou’s uncles. After his murder, Angelou stopped speaking. She blamed her speaking out for his death.

 

With the help of a teacher, the appropriately named Mrs. Bertha Flowers, Angelou started speaking four or five years later. And then her life took off. She became San Francisco’s first African American female streetcar driver while still in high school. She gave birth at 17 to a boy, and worked as a waitress and cook to support herself and her child. She married a white man, a Greek sailor and musician, despite the difficulties of interracial marriage at the time. She studied dance under Martha Graham, and formed a dance partnership with Alvin Ailey before he became famous.

 

She sang and danced at a nightclub. She recorded a Calypso album in 1957 and wrote and performed in an off-Broadway review called Calypso Heat Wave and later a film based on that show. She toured Europe in Porgy and Bess. As she traveled, she taught herself the language of every country she visited. She was fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and a West African language called Fanti.

 

In 1959 she moved to New York and joined the Harlem Writers Guild, befriending James Baldwin who became her mentor. Upon hearing Dr. Martin Luther King speak, she became an organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 2.51.49 PMIn 1961 she performed in a Jean Genet play, The Blacks, along with legendary actors Cicely Tyson, Lou Gossett, James Earl Jones. She moved to Cairo with her son, where she worked as an editor at an English language newspaper, and on to Ghana where she served as an administrator at a university.

 

Angelou was devastated by the assassinations of her close friends Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Shortly after she produced a 10-part documentary on the blues.

 

She wrote the first of her seven autobiographies in 1969 (the last one published when she was 83), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She wrote a screenplay, she wrote soundtracks, she acted in the television mini-series Roots and several other shows, she wrote music for singer Roberta Flack (listen here) and B.B. King (and here). She gave the inaugural poem for President Clinton, the first poet to do so since Robert Frost spoke at Kennedy’s inauguration. In 1996 she directed a feature film with Wesley Snipes. Along the way she published cookbooks, earned over 50 honorary degrees and awards–a Tony, an Emmy and the National Medal of Freedom among them–and in her last few months worked on the posthumous album I mentioned earlier.

 

She is exhausting. A lifetime of nonstop creativity.

 

In the poem I left on the bridge, Angelou lists three antidotes to struggle and stress: drinking, drugs and love. But her amazing life suggests a fourth one.

 

Creative work, in case you skimmed over that long biography.

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