Feeds:
Posts
Comments
poem is on trashcan

poem is on trashcan

 

Equinox

 

by Elizabeth Alexander

 

Now is the time of year when bees are wild

and eccentric. They fly fast and in cramped

loop-de-loops, dive-bomb clusters of conversants

in the bright, late-September out-of-doors.

I have found their dried husks in my clothes.

 

They are dervishes because they are dying,

one last sting, a warm place to squeeze

a drop of venom or of honey.

After the stroke we thought would be her last

my grandmother came back, reared back and slapped

 

a nurse across the face. Then she stood up,

walked outside, and lay down in the snow.

Two years later there is no other way

to say, we are waiting. She is silent, light

as an empty hive, and she is breathing.

 

 

IMG_2015

 

Years ago I visited a dear friend a few days before she died from cancer. She was sleeping when I came into her bedroom. She was so shrunken and still and dessicated that I thought for a moment she might already have passed. Her heavy eyes opened at the sound of my voice. It seemed to take her a moment to process who I was, and a moment longer to realize that I was there to visit the sick, and that this was a sickroom and she was the sick person. All the sudden she sprang up like a jack-in-the-box and got out of bed. “Let’s open the blinds, it’s so dark in here,” she said. She took a step or two with her old energy, but I got her back in bed before her bones collapsed under the little weight she had.

 

It was a shock to see her so suddenly up on her feet—as if she had risen from the dead before she was dead—but it was also, if it’s okay to say, a little comical. Like she didn’t get the memo that she was on her deathbed. Like she thought, Damn, this room is depressing.

 

So forgive me if I also find humor in Elizabeth Alexander’s beautiful poem “Equinox.” Grandma slapping the nurse, marching out into the snow while the family stands around the hospital bed in shock–I love that kind of crazy, that refusal to stop living, that last burst of energy, which as Alexander says, could be a drop of venom or of honey. Either way shows a defiance I admire. She’s Dylan Thomas’ dictum come to life:

 

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at the close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

 

What’s marvelous about this poem is that the comedy of the grandmother’s behavior sits side by side with the painful vigil of the family, and neither side is denigrated. There is no other way to say, the speaker says, slightly ashamed to admit that the family is ready for her to permanently rest in peace. Waiting two years for someone to die must be tedious and unnerving. The poem’s title, “Equinox,” becomes an unanswered wish. The equinox is a temporary suspension of reality, a single day of near perfect balance between day and night. The grandmother’s state—neither dead nor fully alive—begs for a resolution that does not come. The last line of the poem is chilling, like the last line of a ghost story: and she is still breathing.

 

The unsettledness of this perpetual equinox is steadied by the poem’s tight structure. Like a sturdy tripod, the three stanzas balance the loop-de-loops and the loopiness. The bees and the grandmother, mirroring each other as they do, each get their own stanza. They meet in the middle stanza, and the transition is so nimble I keep going back to it.

 

I left the poem a week before the autumn equinox (September 23 this year) on a trashcan near a picnic area. Any other year that might have been counterproductive. Swarms of bees would prevent people from lingering to read the poem. But this year I haven’t seen bees in weeks. Maybe that’s because of CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) or maybe because here in Michigan our season of mists and mellow fruitfulness came and left in a matter of hours. Sandals and nearly nude runners are long gone too, and woe is me and everyone else in the state as we look forward to a winter worse than last year’s.

 

Screenshot 2014-10-08 11.02.36Poet, essayist and playwright Elizabeth Alexander was born in 1962 in Harlem but was raised in Washington , D.C. There her father, Clifford Alexander, Jr., served as Chairman of the Equal Opportunity Commission under President Johnson and Secretary of the Army for the Carter administration. Her mother was a writer and professor of African-American women’s history at George Washington University.

 

Alexander graduated from Yale and then earned her Master’s at Boston University and her PhD at University of Pennsylvania.

She worked as a reporter for the Washington Post for a year, but left to teach at the University of Chicago. There she met Barack Obama who was a senior lecture at the law school. When he was elected president, he asked her to compose and deliver the inaugural poem. You can read “Praise Song for the Day” here.

 

She also taught at Smith College and currently at Yale University, where she chairs the African American Studies department. She’s a founding member of Cave Canem, a recipient of an NEA grant, a Guggenheim fellowship, and two Pushcart Prizes, among many other awards.

 

A widow, she lives with her two sons in New Haven, Connecticut.

 

Fun fact: the PBS miniseries “Faces of America” revealed that Alexander is distantly related to comedian Stephen Colbert. Coincidentally she had appeared on the Colbert Report a year before that connection came out. It’s a really funny interview in which she answers the question, “What is the difference between a metaphor and . . . A LIE?”  Watch here.

 

 

Today is National Poetry Day, and I feel like I’ve been caught without my school project completed. I’m stalling in the hallway, scribbling out enough verbiage to meet the word count, hoping I don’t get asked to read it out loud.

 

I got nothing prepared, folks.

 

But as it happens, I visited Artprize in Grand Rapids yesterday and had an experience that I can connect to National Poetry Day, so here goes.

 

Artprize is an international competition, now in its sixth year, that brings art out into the community in a spirit I also try to embrace in this blog. The competition is open to anyone, and anyone can help with the judging. (The grand prize is $200,000, and visitors can vote as often as they like, but only once for each entry.) Entries are exhibited in coffee shops, abandoned buildings, banks, boutiques, public museums, and even in the river.

Alex Podesta's "Self Portrait as Bunnies (The Bathers)"

Alex Podesta’s “Self Portrait as Bunnies (The Bathers)”

 

One of the entries was WeavePeace.

IMG_2163

WeavePeace, an installation on the grounds of the Grand Rapids Public Museum, is a cooperative project between visitors and the artist, Michele Miller-Hansen. WeavePeace began as a bare structure, but in a week’s time has sprouted hundreds of strips of colorful messages. IMG_2160Artprize visitors write intentions and wishes for peace, and tie them to the dome.

 

 

 

Michele Miller-Hansen, on the left

Michele Miller-Hansen, on the left

I spoke with the artist, who hangs around inside the dome for a few hours every day. She said she’s pleased that WeavePeace seems to make those who visit feel happy. “Our world is so busy,” she said, “and people come in here and they get to slow down.” People read strips other visitors have written, spend time thinking of what they’d like to write themselves, and enjoy the beauty of the strips fluttering in the wind.

 

That sure sounds like the work of poetry to me. Poetry forces readers to slow down, reflect, connect, and appreciate beauty, if only the beauty of language and concision.

 

As I stood inside the dome with my friends waiting on the corner, ready to move on, I had trouble coming up with a poem related to peace. Finally I came up with the last lines of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.” (Yes, these lines are overly-familiar, popping up everywhere these days, but I guess that’s why I remembered them.)

IMG_2161

 

Here’s the full (and more legible) text:

WILD GEESE

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

(Italics mine.)

Good luck to artist Michele Miller-Hansen!

 

I took a few photos of other entries.

 

This one you have to experience. I can’t tell you how beautiful it is when you find yourself covered in lacy shadows.

"Intersections" by Anila Quayyum Agha at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. So beautiful!

“Intersections” by Anila Quayyum Agha at the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

 

My favorite, “Maternal Fortitude” by Lindsay Moynihan, is at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.

IMG_3804

 

I took a picture of the artist’s statement for my daughter, who wants to be a midwife:

IMG_3805

 

 

Finally, a mural in front of the Gerald Ford Museum, which artist Tom Panei is completing as visitors watch:

"I Hear the Train a Comin'"

“I Hear the Train a Comin'”

 

Artprize runs through October 12. Visit if you can.

 

 

 

poem is on red post in foreground

poem is on red post in foreground

A Note to the Alien on Earth

by Miller Williams

 

Here, in the interest of time, some words to work with,

assuming you’re pretending to be a man

or woman and understand English. If this should find you,

know that I’m glad to help any way I can.

 

A letter beginning “Dear Friend” is not from a friend.

A “free gift” is redundant and not free.

A teenager is sex with skin around it.

The one word used as much as “I” is “me.”

 

People who are politically correct,

which means never offending by what they say,

will lie about other things, too. Be careful with them.

And people insulting groups of people may

 

look in the mirror too much or not enough.

What you say is not what anyone hears.

Be wary of one who is always or never sad.

And try to be patient with us. It looks bad,

but we’ve only had a few hundred thousand years.

 

 

IMG_1765

 

If the overload of cruelty and carnage in the world makes you want to hide in a shed with a year’s worth of canned goods and rom-coms, Miller Williams is here to coax you out. With his gentle humor and folksy wisdom, Williams tells us that yeah, we’ve got trouble, but nothing that a little patience and understanding can’t make right.

 

For sure this isn’t poetry to set the world on fire, and for sure his ribbing doesn’t address the very worst of modern American problems. He limits his catalogue of our ills to the culture of marketing and politics of division–but just relax for a moment and enjoy. As mothers of teenagers love to tell mothers of toddlers, little problems can be a relief sometimes from much worse ones.

 

Here, in the interests of time, begins his Spark notes on the human race. Because the poem begins and ends with a mention of time, I posted the poem near a clock tower in a northern Michigan resort town.

 

I love this explanation of one of our most salient traits:

 

people insulting groups of people may

look in the mirror too much or not enough.

 

And all of us who enjoy standing on the soapbox now and then should heed this line:

 

What you say is not what anyone hears.

 

Miller Williams is turning into a regular feature here on Poem Elf. (Link here and here for past posts.) I love his lack of pretension, his sweetness, his habit of looking things square in the eye and speaking plainly. He’s a modern day Will Rogers. Others have described him as “the Hank Williams of American poetry. While his poetry is taught at Princeton and Harvard, it’s read and understood by squirrel hunters and taxi drivers.” (Quote from the Poetry Foundation’s biography of Williams.)

 

(The other thing I love about Miller Williams is that he’s the father of singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams. Her sublime “Are You Alright” has been playing in my head since I dropped my youngest off at college a few weeks ago. If you’ve got five minutes to spare, listen here.)

 

I’ve already written a bio of Williams in an earlier post, so I’ll just copy and paste:

 

Miller Williams performing with his daughter Lucinda Williams

Miller Williams performing with his daughter Lucinda Williams

Miller Williams was born in Hoxie, Arkansas in 1930.  His father was a Methodist minister, and the family often moved around small towns in Arkansas.  Although he loved poetry and enrolled in college to study it, he was told he had shown no verbal aptitude in his entrance exam and was urged to study science.  He got his bachelor’s degree in biology and his masters in zoology.  Later he taught biology at a small college in Georgia, where he met and befriended Flannery O’Connor who lived nearby.  There’s a great story about how O’Connor wrote to the English department at Louisiana State University and told them that the poet they wanted to hire at present was teaching biology at Wesleyan College. Williams sent them some of his work and got the job. He taught at various universities in his long career, eventually coming back to teach at the University of Arkansas.

Williams is father to the great singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, and was mentor to her ex-boyfriend and poet Frank Stanford.  Williams gave the inaugural poem at fellow-Arkansian Bill Clinton’s 1997 inauguration, which you can watch here.

 

 

 

poem is taped to bench

poem is taped to bench

 

Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks

by Jane Kenyon

 

I am the blossom pressed in a book,

found again after two hundred years. . . .

 

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper….

 

When the young girl who starves

sits down to a table

she will sit beside me. . . .

 

I am food on the prisoner’s plate. . . .

 

I am water rushing to the wellhead,

filling the pitcher until it spills. . . .

 

I am the patient gardener

of the dry and weedy garden. . . .

 

I am the stone step,

the latch, and the working hinge. . . .

 

I am the heart contracted by joy. . . .

the longest hair, white

before the rest. . . .

 

I am there in the basket of fruit

presented to the widow. . . .

 

I am the musk rose opening

unattended, the fern on the boggy summit. . . .

 

I am the one whose love

overcomes you, already with you

when you think to call my name. . . .

 

IMG_1980

 

Last Christmas, when one of my daughters made me a mobile with eggs and birds falling out of an overturned nest, I looked ahead to my own approaching empty nest with poetic appreciation. Out from the nest came the eggs, and from the eggs came colorful origami birds, each on its own flight path. New life out of the old. The next year would bring new life for my youngest, who would be leaving for college, and new life for my husband and me. Suddenly unencumbered, presumably we would chase each other around the empty house like teenagers.

 

All part of the never-ending cycle of life.

 

Now that day is here, and it seems less a poetic cycle than a prosaic ending. The end of my mothering.

 

I know, I know. I should be delighted that my daughter is where she’s supposed to be. With her new bedding and roommate and independence, she’s as happy as I could have hoped. And, yes, I’ll sleep better on weekends, cook less on weekdays, keep a cleaner house, keep all my socks to myself, and have more time to pursue what efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth (and Cheaper by the Dozen dad) described as the reasons we need to save time: “For work, if you love that best. For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure. For mumblety-peg, if that’s where your heart lies.” After 25 years of organizing my days around kids, I’m free to organize my days around mumblety-peg.

 

Bah. Right now I’d take four little kids pulling me in four different directions over freedom and mumblety-peg. A drawer full of matched socks can be depressing. Uninterrupted sleep can be dull. An orderly house can be a sad house. An orderly house means a house without Anne Marie’s worn Birkenstocks and enormous backpack, a house without her dancing and deep sleeping, her jars of Nutella, her unmade bed, her unexpected wisdom, her little kindnesses, the nearness and dearness of her–

 

that hook in the foreground looks like it's ready to whisk her away

that hook in the foreground looks like it’s ready to whisk her away

 

Before I start tearing up again, I’m going to turn quickly to the poem and keep this post brief.

 

I left Jane Kenyon’s “Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks” on a bench across the street from my daughter’s new dorm on move-in day.

 

I left it as a kind of protection, a talisman, a reminder of the love that will always be hers. I realize the “I” in the poem is a divine being capable of an unconditional love parents can only aspire towards, but still, this—

 

I am the one whose love

overcomes you, already with you

when you think to call my name

 

–seems on the mark for parents whose children suddenly forget to use their cell phones.

 

There’s another reason I chose this poem. Telling other people what to do is one of the aspects of mothering that’s hard for me to give up, and so after I reminded my daughter to take her thyroid medication and go to every class and eat vegetables and wear her glasses and go to Mass, I left the poem behind as my final instruction. To her and to all incoming freshman and returning upperclassmen, I say: Look out for each other, dear children. Be the patient gardener, the working hinge, the basket of fruit. Because college can be a lonely place sometimes. And for some kids, it’s lonely every day, every hour, every second. Suffering so often hides in plain sight.

 

Poet Jane Kenyon was no stranger to suffering herself. Maybe the real reason I selected this poem is that her clear-eyed exploration of pain and plain-spoken pleasure in the world as it is put my little sadness in perspective.

 

ImageKenyon was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1947. Her mother was once a singer and later a seamstress; her father was a piano player. She attended the University of Michigan, where she fell in love with her poetry professor, Donald Hall, nineteen years her senior and later U.S. Poet Laureate. Upon earning her masters at Michigan, she married Hall and moved with him to his family farm in New Hampshire. She suffered from depression all her adult life. When she was 46 she was diagnosed with leukemia, and she died a year later at 47. Four months before she died, she was named poet laureate of New Hampshire.

 

She only published four books of poetry in her lifetime, and the best of those poems were gathered in a posthumous collection called Otherwise. It’s one of my favorite books I own from any genre.

 

Jane Kenyon is the poet I’ve loved longest and best. The first book of poetry I bought was Otherwise. The first book of translated poetry I bought was her rendering of the poems of the great Russian writer Anna Akhmatova. And the second poem I featured on this blog was a Kenyon poem.

 

I’m going to close with that poem I posted four years ago, “The Clothes Pin.” It’s becoming clear to me that the only person I can tell what to do anymore is myself, so listen up, Poem Elf, you sniffling sap, you mawkish mush-head:

 

How much better it is

to carry wood to the fire

than to moan about your life.

How much better

to throw the garbage

onto the compost, or to pin the clean

sheet on the line

with a gray-brown wooden clothespin!

 

 

 

 

poem is on mantle next to picture of Grace Hemingway

poem is on mantle next to picture of Grace Hemingway

In a Room With Five People, Six Griefs

by Jane Hirshfield

 

In a room with five people, six griefs.

Some you will hear of, some not.

Let the room hold them, their fears, their anger.

Let there be walls and windows, a ceiling.

A door through which time

changer of everything

can enter.

 

IMG_3007

 

A poem elf couldn’t ask for a better invitation: a tour of Ernest Hemingway’s mother’s cottage on Walloon Lake in northern Michigan, and free reign to leave behind and photograph whatever poem I wanted.

 

As usual, I chose a poem from a small selection I always keep on hand, and also as usual, the choice bordered on random but landed in serendipitous.

 

More on that later, but first a short history of Grace Cottage. In 1905, the Hemingway family bought Longfield Farm, a 40-acre property across the lake from the more famous Hemingway Walloon property, Windemere (now a Registered National Historic Landmark). Grace Hall Hemingway, Hemingway’s mother, had built Windemere in 1899 with money from an inheritance.

 

As a teenager, Ernest Hemingway helped on Longfield Farm during summer vacations, working the orchards, fields, and ice house. He often camped in the surrounding woods, probably enjoying a break from his large family and his parents’ strict rules.

 

Grace, too, liked to get away from the family. In 1919, against the objections of her husband, Dr. Clarence Hemingway, she built Grace Cottage on the farm. I’m guessing Clarence’s objections had more to do with money (he would later commit suicide following financial and health problems) than with the fact that she would be spending her summers a boat-ride away from her six children. He knew she would not be neglecting her parental duties.

 

Because she didn’t have parental duties.

 

Okay, she read to the children and took care of their cultural education (no small contribution, considering the result), but Clarence made the children breakfast (and brought Grace breakfast in bed), grocery-shopped, managed the household staff, and taught the kids to hunt, fish and identify plants.

 

Carol Hemingway Gardner, the youngest of the Hemingway kids, explained her parents’ unusual arrangement this way:

 

The doctor was devoted to humane science and to the solving of practical problems. Both considered themselves professionals and each respected the other. They were way ahead of their time in this respect. My mother’s involvement in music and art was not a hobby. It was her full-time preoccupation and my father admired her work.

 

IMG_3028Grace was a trained opera singer who once sang at Madison Square Garden. (Strange fact: while studying voice in New York, she became friends with an aspiring illustrator, Maud Humphrey, who gave birth to a son—Humphrey Bogart—the same year that Grace gave birth to Ernest. The women remained friends, and years later Humphrey Bogart starred in To Have and Have Not, a film based on Hemingway’s book of the same name.) After Grace abandoned her stage career to marry Clarence, she continued to make a living through her music: she gave lessons, performed at local recitals, directed a church choir, and composed and published music. In her fifties she took up painting. She was good enough to have exhibited at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and to hold thirty solo shows. (You can see some of her paintings here.).

 

In another arrangement unusual for the time, Grace shared the cottage with a much younger woman, Ruth Arnold, her former music pupil and her children’s nanny. Together they built furniture for the new house and braided rugs. The cottage served as a studio where Grace could paint and compose without interruption. Like her son, who immortalized Walloon Lake in the Nick Adams stories, Grace found inspiration from her surroundings. You can hear her song, “Lovely Walloona,” here and here. (These videos of college kids singing such an old-timey song are the sweetest thing you’ll watch all day.)

 

IMG_3026I had always thought Grace Cottage was the place Hemingway spent his honeymoon with Hadley Richardson, the first of his four wives, but I was wrong. The only honeymoon time he and Hadley spent at Grace Cottage was when they pushed off from the cottage shoreline to row across the lake for two weeks at Windemere. But Grace Cottage does have a place in his honeymoon history. The year before he got married, Grace and Ernest had a blow-out fight known as “The Incident.” Grace saw her son as a disrespectful, drunken, womanizing loafer (she wanted him to go to college) and when she tracked him down at 3 a.m. one morning, she kicked him out of the house. So her offer of Windemere for Ernest’s honeymoon shows a softening towards him–especially since Clarence had to move in with her at Grace Cottage for those two weeks, the one and only time he would stay there.

 

Outside that rapprochement, Grace and Ernest had a harrowing relationship the rest of their lives. And outside of the Walloon summers, the Hemingway family had harrowing experiences over generations. Their penchant for tragedy rivals the Kennedys’. If poet Jane Hirshfield had written “In a Room With Five People, Six Griefs” specifically for the Hemingways, she might well have titled it, “In a Family of Five Generations, Six Suicides.” Here’s the sad list of their losses: Hemingway’s paternal grandfather, his father, two of his siblings, himself, and his granddaughter. His maternal grandfather attempted suicide but was foiled.

 

IMG_3023I was glad to leave Hirshfield’s poem on the mantle of Grace Cottage. It was a mark, it seemed to me, of the peace that’s settled over the cottage, and I hope over the present generation of Hemingways, some of who still live over at Windemere. The wood floors creaked, the upstairs rooms were airless and stifling, spiders had the run of the place, but still the cottage struck me as a delightful place, like a Goldilocks house, just the right size for the artistic endeavors and dreams it once housed. If time, changer of everything, had entered through the cottage door, grief had walked out long ago. Not to get too poetic about it.

 

Now on to the poem itself.

 

The set-up of Hirshfield’s poem—In a room with five people, six griefs—puts me in mind of stage directions. Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” maybe, or an experimental play with characters who are numbered instead of named and who carry big boxes labeled “Grief.”

 

Some have more boxes than others. (The poem’s second line—Some you will know of, some not—would be a good antidote when we feel disgust towards other people’s foibles and faults.) The uneven distribution of griefs creates a tension in the room where the poet, the creator, has placed her five characters. But even as the poet boxes her characters in and loads them with trouble, she configures a door, an opening for change, for an easing of fears, anger, and grief. The tension in the poem and in the room is drained by the simple sentences, the clarity of language, and the patient, careful whittling down of lines to the final phrase, can enter.

 

The poem has an appealing spirit, a calming wisdom. There’s an acceptance of pain, an understanding that all things pass, and a pleasure in the act of creating. Not for nothing does Hirshfield use the language of Genesis: Let there be a door. And there was a door.

 

I came across something Grace Hemingway wrote that I connect to that idea of the act of creating as a balm to sorrow. She wrote, “The haunting specter of fear must be gagged, tied and thrown out of our lives in order that we may climb the steps of creative work and accomplish what our souls yearn for.  The only thing in life that gives real happiness is creative work because that is partnership with the Great Creator.”

 

God knows she had her griefs, or caused them. But she had her joys as well, and that is what I found on my visit to her cottage.

 

You can read about poet Jane Hirshfield here, from a previous post.

 

poem is underneath the picture of the woman eating an apple

poem is underneath the picture of the woman eating an apple

The Same Inside

by Anna Swir

 

Walking to your place for a love feast

I saw at a street corner

an old beggar woman.

 

I took her hand,

kissed her delicate cheek,

we talked, she was

the same inside as I am,

from the same kind,

I sensed this instantly

as a dog knows by scent

another dog.

 

I gave her money,

I could not part from her.

After all, one needs

someone who is close.

 

And then I no longer knew

why I was walking to your place.

IMG_1402

 

 

Once at a party I met a woman and very quickly something strange happened. We formed a connection so immediate and palpable that I look back on it a year later with wonder.

 

We didn’t have anything in common as far as I could tell. She was a gentle person, ladylike even, very different than me. I’m told I sometimes have an edge. She was well-dressed and perfectly groomed, two phrases that will only apply to me when I’m laid out in my coffin.

 

I’m sure we fielded questions, trying to figure out why we felt this remarkable connection. Sometimes you meet people and your brains connect, or your experiences connect, or your senses of humor, your interests, the way you look at things. This was none of those. We just understood each other. Or as poet Anna Swir puts it

 

she was

the same inside as I am,

from the same kind

 

We stayed together much of the evening. We didn’t talk about anything important or intimate, and yet our bond felt important and intimate. The most tender parts of us recognized each other and responded with sympathy. It sounds romantic but it wasn’t. It wasn’t exactly like friendship either. I liked her very much and felt easy and graceful with her but I didn’t expect to see her much afterwards. I can’t describe it to you. It sounds made up or silly. But I tell you, it was as real as the chair I’m sitting in.

 

I thought about that evening for a long time after, and then I didn’t run into her again and the seasons changed and I forgot about it. This poem made me remember.

 

“The Same Inside” is simple and surreal at the same time. A woman sets out to meet her lover. She meets instead a panhandler. Then she has no need of the lover. She’s had something better:

 

After all, one needs

someone who is close.

 

I don’t want to pick apart this poem in my usual fashion. It’s so exquisite, I feel as though my clumsy fingers would mess it up.

 

Let me just say that I love how Anne Swir (and her excellent translator Czeslaw Milosz) sounds so natural on the page. This poem is at least fifty years old and probably much older, but it feels fresh. I read it over and over, marveling at how she does it. Her words are simple, her style unaffected, her voice full of heart. I’m beginning to think this enchanting combination of effortlessness and soulfulness is a Polish trait–I hear Anna Kamienska and Wislawa Symborska here—this wonderful ability to speak from the heart without sounding overly sentimental. Swir connects with readers in the same way she connects with the beggar woman—with a marked absence of irony and guardedness.

 

I left the poem in a spot where a man in a wheelchair panhandles a few times a week. Delbert McCoy, a burn victim, collects money in an old Pringles can outside Rite Aid, hands out candy, and once in a while sells copies of his book, Still on Fire. Delbert was trapped in a nightclub fire in his youth and has endured dozens of surgeries to survive and repair the damage to his body. He looks nothing like the able-bodied suburbanites who pass by him on the way to the drugstore: his skin is mottled, his face disfigured, and his arms end in stumps instead of hands. Even so, his humanity shines through his wise and kind eyes. His gentle presence is a reminder that, appearances to the contrary, we are all the same inside.

 

ImageAnna Swir (Świrszczyńska)was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1909. Her family was poor but artistic. Her father was a painter, her mother a former singer. Swir worked from the time she was young, and paid her way through university where she studied medieval Polish literature.

 

She worked as a waitress during WWII and began writing for underground journals. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, she joined the resistance. I read that she was arrested at one point during the war and told she would be executed in an hour, but I can’t find any details of her reprieve. During the bloody Warsaw Uprising (in which Poles attempted to liberate the city), she worked as a military nurse.

 

Although she began publishing poetry in the thirties, her poems weren’t available in English until the late seventies. In addition to writing poetry, she wrote children’s plays and directed a children’s theater. She lived in Krakow until her death from cancer in 1984.

 

If anyone has more information about her (there’s not much on the web) or has had a similar bonding experience to mine, please share!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

my progenitor and my progeny

my progenitor and my progeny

I always have a lot to celebrate on Mother’s Day. My mother, 88 and still funny and sharp, is a woman I’d consider myself lucky to even know, much less to claim as mother. I’ve got four older sisters who mothered me each in their own way, a wonderful mother-in-law, and an aunt-in-law I love as my own.

 

That’s a lot of mothers. I’ve collected even more poems about mothers. I posted a few around town to celebrate and to give tribute to everyone who’s opened their heart to mother another human.

 

I started at a florist, where I left Julia Kasdorf’s poem, “What I Learned From My Mother.”

 

poem is leaning against green vase

poem is leaning against green vase

 

Because the beautiful last lines are a little blurred in the photograph, I’ll highlight them here.

Like a doctor, I learned to create

from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once

you know how to do this, you can never refuse.

To every house you enter, you must offer

healing, a chocolate cake you baked yourself,

the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.

Image 1

 

 

A cemetery (a favorite poem-elfing spot) seemed like a good spot for Ron Padgett’s “The Best Thing I Did.”

poem is on tree in foreground

poem is on tree in foreground

 

Truer words were never written:

The best thing I did

for my mother

was to outlive her

IMG_1377

 

 

In the tiny dressing room of Nordstrom Rack, I left two poems with a similar theme, Walter de la Mare’s “Full Circle,” and Anna Kamienska’s “Mother and Me.”

IMG_1373

 

I find de la Mare’s poem terrifying and sweet at once.

IMG_1371

 

 

Kamienska’s poem is simple and beautiful:

true understanding

is always silence.

 

IMG_1369

 

 

For mothering that never gets acknowledged, I left Maggie Anderson’s “Sonnet for Her Labor” in a discounted Mother’s Day card bin:

poem is in 50% off bin

poem is in 50% off bin

 

Laurel Mountain must not have had a Hallmark store.

IMG_1384

 

 

Another mother who’s lived a hard life is given a voice in Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son.” I left the poem in the football stands of a local high school, to offer a little encouragement to any youngster overwhelmed by difficulties.

IMG_1389

 

 

I’ve loved this poem for so long. I hope it finds its way to someone who needs it.

 

 

IMG_1387

 

 

Happy Mother’s Day!  Go forth and mother.

 

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,455 other followers