Goin down the ocean, hon

There’s a sad nip in the air this morning, a reminder to get the rest of my summer beach posts up before they’re as out-of-date as puka shells and jellies.

I count myself among the most fortunate of souls that I got to return to Maryland this summer to spend a week at the beach with my family. There’s much to love–blue crabs, Fractured Prune doughnuts, steak-and-cheese subs, the stifling, warms-the-soul humidity inescapable on the Delmarva peninsula. And of course the accent. A week gives me just enough time to re-claim it. Unfortunately by the time I hit the Ohio Turnpike on my way back to Michigan I’ve already lost it. So I’ve titled this post to honor the beautiful way Marylanders speak the English language. (If you’ve never had the pleasure of hearing it, link here to enjoy how we say “o’s” and here for an exaggerated version of common Maryland expressions.)

On with post. I had snippets of poems–by that I mean I snipped a few lines out of longer poems–that referenced the ocean, and I put them all over Bethany Beach one afternoon while on a boardwalk outing with a few nieces and a nephew.

I left the opening lines of  “Here With Your Memory” by Alejandro Murguía on a fence post next to some mismatched beach shoes.

poem is on fence next to shoes

The brooding, windy weather was just right for this one:


(The poem is not on line and is too long for me to type out, at least at this moment. If I feel less lazy when I finish this post, I’ll type it out at the bottom.)

I gave my nieces, Sophia and Georgie, a single line from Keats’ “Endymion” to hold because the wind was blowing everything this way and that, and because they are beauties, even though Sophia is uncharacteristically scowling.


These two have since returned to Ecuador with a piece of my heart. (A good time to welcome to my sister Josie’s Ecuadorian students. Hello to all and thanks for reading Poem Elf! Good luck this year.)


The joy beauty gives may be forever, but beauty itself is ephemeral, so I asked Sophia to let the piece of paper blow away. See it in the bottom right of the photo.


Still, I have faith in Keats’ words that follow this line–“it will never pass/into nothingness.” You can see the paper, just above the dune grass in the dead center of the picture, on its way to places unknown.


You can read the complete poem here.

On a storage shed for umbrella rentals I left a famous bit from Yeats’ “The Second Coming”:


It’s a poem that always seems horribly relevant, but perhaps never as much as in these times.


Link to the complete poem here.

And finally, at our favorite store, the ubiquitous Candy Kitchen, I left “A Modest Love” by Elizabethan poet Sir Edward Dyer. My sister Susie, long-time president of the Candy Club, sits surrounded by this bunch of beggars. The poem is behind her on the door, just above little Emily’s pink hair flower.


I love these lines so much I’m using them as the epigraph for the novel I’m working on.


Link to the complete poem here.

Speaking of love and sweet beach treats, my niece Emily told me she does not like caramel corn. She seems downright hostile to it. But not little Georgie:


Okay, I’ve decided I owe it to Murguía to type out his poem. The longing and nostalgia here is something I’m feeling now as I sit at my desk in Michigan, remembering summers of long ago at the beach, and one summer in particular with a red-haired boy who lives with me now.

(I’ve posted one of Murguía’s poems in the past–link here.)

Here With Your Memory

by Alejandro Murguía

Today I sat down pensive

staring at the sea

pinned like a prisoner

to another day

curled up

made a conch

by all fecund things you are

on this earth and in the sea

the cry of seagulls

the clouds like a reflection of the water

the sky like your caress that June day

of which the only thing left is this moment

these seconds when you surge again

out of the sea

your bathing suit pure foam

splendid, young mermaid

with bronzed arms

hair the color of burnt sand

woman made of spells, aquatic flowers

of earth, mountains, herbs

made into poems

because we were together that afternoon

and were transformed into calendars

where the days always return

with their same destinies

the same lovers and enemies as always

only you and I

because we were

a gush of water, music,

the ruby of a kiss

falling into the depths

where across all the years

we see each other

as we were that day

poor and in love with the whole world.

Debbie does Bethany Beach

poem is on ramp railing

poem is on ramp railing


by Jack Gilbert


After a summer with happy people,

I rush back, scared, gulping

down pain wherever I can get it.




I don’t like all my nicknames, but I can’t say I don’t deserve them. Debbie Downer is the one I earned for introducing grit to conversations of spun sugar. And one I continue to earn. At Bethany Beach in Delaware, the “Quiet Resort,” as they call it, a family beach town where I’ve spent many happy week, I left Jack Gilbert’s “Alba” for all the happy people to read coming or going to the beach.



A little salt in the sugar.


It’s such a lovely little poem, I hate to associate it with something nasty, but an incident at the beach comes to mind as I write. On the Bethany boardwalk, I passed a young man in a “Mein Kampf” t-shirt. A teenage girl walking past, a girl accompanied by her mother, called out, “Hey, I like your t-shirt.” Silly kids, infuriatingly ignorant kids. But considering them in the light of this poem, I wonder if they throw ugliness out into the world for the same reason the speaker in the poem gulps down pain. The happy faces surrounding them feel less real than the turmoil they feel inside.


Or maybe Mein Kampf is a popular rock band, what do I know.


If “Alba” seems familiar, you may be remembering Ezra Pound’s poem of the same name:


As cool as the pale wet leaves
           of lily-of-the-valley
She lay beside me in the dawn.


An “alba” is a short poem, often three lines, that describes the longing of lovers who have to part in the morning so their spouses won’t discover their tryst. I had never heard of the alba lyric till I wondered why Gilbert titled his poem as he did. Now I look at the poem in another light: the speaker “cheats” on his melancholy with happy people. But unlike traditional lovers in an alba poem, he seems eager to return to his spouse.


Jack Gilbert is one of my favorites. I’ve written about him before, so I’ll just copy his bio from an earlier post:


Poet Jack Gilbert lived outside the mainstream as well. He was born in Pittsburgh in 1925. He failed out of high school, and worked as an exterminator until he was mistakenly accepted to the University of Pittsburgh because of a clerical error. He spent the 1960s in San Francisco but didn’t drink or do drugs. All his life he was a traveler. He spent many years in Europe, living simply and touring as a lecturer on literature for the State Department.

Gilbert didn’t publish much and didn’t give many public readings. He published his first book in 1962 and his second twenty years later in 1982. He died last November at age 87.

Gilbert seems to have had a big appetite for life, but little for fame. In a Paris Review interview when he was 80, Gilbert speaks about what was important to him:

“Being alive is so extraordinary I don’t know why people limit it to riches, pride, security—all of those things life is built on. People miss so much because they want money and comfort and pride, a house and a job to pay for the house. And they have to get a car. You can’t see anything from a car. It’s moving too fast. People take vacations. That’s their reward—the vacation. Why not the life? Vacations are second-rate. People deprive themselves of so much of their lives—until it’s too late. Though I understand that often you don’t have a choice.”


Words to ponder as I return from the beach.








I’m a stickler about thank-you notes, a real pain to my children after birthdays and Christmas, and self-righteous and judgey when my own presents aren’t acknowledged. And yet, as with other deep and firmly-held beliefs, I can be a hypocrite about applying the rules to myself. Which is all to confess that I haven’t sent a proper thank-you note for a very thoughtful gift I got from two friends, a gift apropos of nothing, a few months back.


Down in the French Quarter of New Orleans, my friends came upon a Poet for Hire. Give her a subject, a few minutes and twenty bucks and she’ll hand you a poem on parchment paper in green ink. Here’s the poet, a recent New Orleans transplant named Shannon, at work:

Image 4


This is Shannon when she’s finished:



And here’s Shannon’s creation, the present I mentioned, an ode to Poem Elf:


(Apologies to the poet for messing with her poem by covering up my name at the end.)


I’m not going to analyze such a sweet gift, but I do want to mention two things:

1.  The opening line

You seek your secret pleasure

could belong to anyone, but I’m glad that in this case it refers to leaving poems for strangers and not to sniffing men’s socks or to ursusagalmatophilia.


2.  Speaking of strange desires, Shannon has revealed my Poem Elf fantasy without ever having met me. She instructs the person who finds her poem

Keep it in your pocket until you return

home–you unfold it slowly

as to not break it.

Place it in the frame


I hate to quibble with a gal who’s paying the rent by writing poetry, but I do have a correction. The only person framing this poem will be me. I won’t part with it.


Thank you, Kelly and Michelle! I adore this present!



poem is on cinderblock wall beneath Psychic sign

poem is on cinderblock wall beneath Psychic sign


Your baby grows a tooth, then two,
and four, and five, then she wants some meat
directly from the bone. It’s all


over: she’ll learn some words, she’ll fall
in love with cretins, dolts, a sweet
talker on his way to jail. And you,


your wife, get old, flyblown, and rue
nothing. You did, you loved, your feet
are sore. It’s dusk. Your daughter’s tall.




Poets have always found seasonal change useful to show the cycle of life and the fleeting nature of time. Falling leaves and acorns, Margaret are you grieving, The Last Leaf and all that. But poet Thomas Lux shows that teeth can serve as markers of time as well. After all, teeth sprout and shed. New ones replace the old. Baby teeth are even called deciduous teeth, a lovely term once common in scientific circles.


Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 2.18.46 PMThe life cycle of teeth, however, is slightly-to-much more disturbing than that of an oak tree. The arrival of the first tooth may be a sweet moment for parents, but once baby uses that dear little tooth while breastfeeding, it’s all downhill. Big teeth come in, too big for the face, the beginning of the end of cuteness. Then come bills for cavities and braces, wisdom-teeth removal, root canals, bridges, capping if there’s an accident, whitening if there’s money. Teeth yellow, rot, and lengthen as we grow old, and when we die, teeth—the hardest substance in the body—outlast every other part of us, including our bones.


Lux’s poem follows a similar path from sweetness to darker territory, beginning with the title. Was there ever a a title more adorable than “A Little Tooth”? The rhyme scheme, too, is as charming as a rhyme scheme can be. I don’t know if there’s a name for it, but the pattern reverses and rights itself (A, B, C, and then C, B, A, and back to A, B, C), skipping along, moving the poem through time at a clip. The poem’s structure, clever and compact, tempers its sinister side with lightness. The diction does the same.


Originally I was going to leave “A Little Tooth” in some graduation-related site, but one day I drove by a psychic storefront and realized the poem’s narrator sounds very like someone who would work there. Besides, my original plan wasn’t very nice—these predictions are too dark for parents celebrating a milestone. Here is not the psychic who announces, “You will be a star among stars” or even, “You will meet a tall dark stranger.” This one says, “It’s all/over.”


Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 2.42.46 PMThe narrator’s dire predictions remind me of the evil fairy in Grimm’s “Sleeping Beauty.” Furious at not being invited to Sleeping Beauty’s christening, she predicts that the baby will prick her finger on her fifteenth birthday and die. Like Grimm’s tale, the predictions in Lux’s poem hinge around the child’s burgeoning sexuality. The baby tooth marks the beginning of her carnal desires (meat/directly from the bone) and her eventual attraction to unsavory types (in her parents’ eyes): cretins and dolts.


Fortunately, parents’ lives are separate from their children’s, or can be. The father will find himself in the Land of No Regrets. His won’t be an easy life—there’ll be hard work and experiences that leave him and his wife worn down, flyblown, as Lux puts it—but it seems a happy one, all things considered. The return to present tense from the future tense of the middle stanza lends a settled air to all the anxious ruminations over a baby tooth.


Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 2.17.04 PMThomas Lux was born in 1946 in Massachusetts. He was the only child of parents who both held jobs that no longer exist–his mother was a telephone operator and his father was a milkman. His father worked seventeen years with hardly a day off until his son was old enough to take over the route for a week to give him time off. Neither parent graduated from high school, but Lux, a star athlete in high school, went on to graduate from Emerson College and earn his MFA from University of Iowa.


Lux was the Poet in Residence at Emerson College and taught at many universities, including Sarah Lawrence, Iowa, and Michigan. He’s won a Guggenheim Fellowship and three National Endowment for the Arts grants, among other awards.


He lives in Atlanta where he directs the poetry program at Georgia Tech. I know he has a daughter, but I can’t find out much more about his personal life, beyond this wonderful anecdote from the amazing Mary Karr (taken from her 2005 essay in Poetry about getting sober and converting to Catholicism):


Poet Thomas Lux was somebody I saw a lot those days around Cambridge, since our babies were a year apart in age. One day after I’d been doing these perfunctory prayers for a while, I asked Lux—himself off the sauce for some years—if he’d ever prayed. He was barbecuing by a swimming pool for a gaggle of poets (Allen Grossman in a three-piece suit and watch fob was there that day, God love him). The scene comes back to me with Lux poking at meat splayed on the grill while I swirled my naked son around the swimming pool. Did he actually pray? I couldn’t imagine it—Lux, that dismal sucker.


Ever taciturn, Lux told me: I say thanks.


For what? I wanted to know.


. . . Back in Lux’s pool, I honestly couldn’t think of anything to be grateful for. I told him something like I was glad I still had all my limbs. That’s what I mean about how my mind didn’t take in reality before I began to pray. I couldn’t register the privilege of holding my blond and ringleted boy, who chortled and bubbled and splashed on my lap.


It was a clear day, and Lux was standing in his Speedo suit at the barbecue turning sausages and chicken with one of those diabolical-looking forks. Say thanks for the sky, Lux said, say it to the floorboards. This isn’t hard, Mare.


At some point, I also said to him, What kind of god would permit the Holocaust?


To which Lux said, You’re not in the Holocaust.


In other words, what is the Holocaust my business?


No one ever had an odder guru than the uber-ironic Thomas Lux, but I started following his advice by mouthing rote thank-you’s to the air, and, right off, I discovered something.


You can read her complete essay here.


Screenshot 2015-05-18 12.33.32

Last night I went to bed with Don Draper on my mind (Mad Men fans will understand) and woke up with Rosemary Tonks. Tonks is the eccentric British poet I discovered recently who seems as self-destructive and tortured as Don.

In Sunday’s Mad Men finale, Don has a breakdown at a hippie retreat center and calls his young protégée Peggy for what seems a final goodbye. The coast to coast telephone conversation becomes a confessional. As Don lists his sins, all that’s missing is a “Bless me, Father”:  I broke all my vows, he tells her. I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name. And made nothing of it.

I confess: I like Don and I’ve always rooted for him, even when he was the most jackassy of jackasses. But hearing this litany of failures, I was struck all over again about how much damage he’s done to people who’ve loved him. And that thought brought a Tonks’ poem to mind.

Whether or not Don changes, whether or not anyone in the show really gets a happy ending, ferocious indelible harm has been done. And Tonks is my new favorite spokesperson for damaged people.

Done For!

by Rosemary Tonks

Take care whom you mix with in life, irresponsible one,

For if you mix with the wrong people

– And you yourself may be one of the wrong people –

If you make love to the wrong person,


In some old building with its fabric of dirt,

As clouds of witchcraft, nitro-glycerine, and cake,

Brush by (one autumn night) still green

From our green sunsets…and then let hundreds pass, unlit,


They will do you ferocious indelible harm!

Far beyond anything you can imagine, jazzy sneering one,

And afterwards you’ll live in no man’s land,

You’ll lose your identity, and never get yourself back, diablotin,


It may have happened already, and as you read this…

Ah, it has happened already. I remember, in an old building;

Clouds which had cut themselves on a sharp winter sunset

(With its smoking stove of frosts to keep it cold) went by, bleeding.

Sorry about the dashes I had to insert between stanzas. I’m having trouble with formatting.

poem is next to red roses

poem is next to red roses

[Sonnets are full of love, and this my tome]

by Christina Rossetti

Sonnets are full of love, and this my tome
Has many sonnets: so here now shall be
One sonnet more, a love sonnet, from me
To her whose heart is my heart’s quiet home,
To my first Love, my Mother, on whose knee
I learnt love-lore that is not troublesome;
Whose service is my special dignity,
And she my loadstar while I go and come
And so because you love me, and because
I love you, Mother, I have woven a wreath
Of rhymes wherewith to crown your honored name:
In you not fourscore years can dim the flame
Of love, whose blessed glow transcends the laws
Of time and change and mortal life and death.


Image 2


I’m lucky this Mother’s Day weekend to be visiting my mother in Maryland, lucky to celebrate this day with her in person for the first time in twenty years at least.


And when one is lucky, one can’t help but think of those who aren’t so lucky. Daughters who will never again celebrate Mother’s Day with their mothers. And mothers who will never again celebrate Mother’s Day with their children.


I was thinking of those mothers in particular when, on a walk near my mother’s house, I came across this tribute to a young man named Noah Marks who died January 1 this year. I gathered from the assembled objects and notes that he was a lovely young man, talented, a lover of baseball and bow ties, theater and running. I also gathered that his death was a suicide.


I thought of his mother, how difficult every day is for her, and how hard this first Mother’s Day without Noah will be. I went back home, printed this poem, and returned to the pedestrian bridge to leave it with the other mementos.


To the mother of Noah Marks and to the wonderful mothers I know who have also lost beautiful young sons to suicide, Happy Mother’s Day. This line of Rossetti’s will surely call up sweet memories of your babies:

To my first love, my Mother

That’s a soul-expanding thought for any mother. And also this:

In you not fourscore years can dim the flame
Of love, whose blessed glow transcends the laws
Of time and change and mortal life and death.


Mothers are mothers forever, whether or not children are around to send flowers or take them to brunch. A mother’s love for her children–past, present, and future love, love that will never end–marks her indelibly. Nothing can ever take away the beauty and blessing of that love. It’s a love to be honored and celebrated.


Happy Mother’s Day.



A chain that holds

Image 6

Last Saturday morning I participated in a breast cancer walk. The night before, I leafed through my poem stash to pick out a few to take with me, and it was then that I realized that a blog post on breast cancer should include my own health history.


I felt uneasy about that for a few reasons.


First because I’ve never mentioned on this blog that I’ve had breast cancer (ten years ago last fall). Okay, way back in a post about a William Henry Davies’ poem, I did mention that I have no breasts, but I tend to wear my “survivor” status like I wear my underwear–hidden from view unless you are my husband or doctor, but always there, close to the skin, a foundation, necessary to me if undesirable.


The other reason I was hesitant to do a breast cancer post was because the day was about my friend, the woman I walked to support, not about my own bad memories. I wanted to choose poems to celebrate her strength, acknowledge her ordeal, boost her confidence in her own good health. But the  poems I picked were personal to me and I can’t hide that.


The funny thing was, out of our group of ten walkers, I discovered that four of us have had cancer and (mostly) didn’t know the others did. So as much as the day was about Lisa, it ended up being about all of us, the survivors and the friends who helped, the women who didn’t survive and broke our hearts, the women and men whose hearts were broken, the strangers we met along the way. (Hello, Deb from Delaware with your chic post-chemo hair!) We walked in solidarity and friendship. I hope the poems reflect our shared experience more than just my own.


That said, the first poem I left was the most personal of all. When I arrived at the walk, I had a moment alone. My heart was full of friends I’ve lost to cancer. I left a poem to honor them: “Jewels in My Hand” by Sasha Moorsom which I taped to a lamppost by the entrance to the zoo, where the walk was held.


To Beth and Christine (breast cancer), to Barb, (lung cancer), and to Kim, (jaw cancer), you are my jewels, as precious to me now as you were when I was lucky enough to know you on this earth.

All the ravages of time they can withstand

Like talismans their grace keeps me from harm



At the walk starting point I left “New Every Morning” by Susan Coolidge.


poem is on lamppost

This wonderful little poem is almost a prayer, and one I turned to many times during treatment and post-treatment anxiety. Maybe someone who needed a little hope took the poem home. For everyone else, it’s a great one to memorize, because how often do we need to hear this:

Take heart with the new day and begin again.



On the railing of the penguin house I left Rita Dove’s “Pastoral.”


I left it in celebration of breasts, how beautiful, how wonderful they are, giving food and pleasure to others.


I love this description of a nursing baby:

Like an otter, but warm,

she latched onto the shadowy tip

and I watched, diminished

by those amazing gulps.




For women who have had breasts “diminished” in ways much worse than breastfeeding, I brought an excerpt from an Afanasy Fet poem. I left it near a peacock. My picture doesn’t capture the beauty of this bird, but I hope the poem reminds women of the beauty they have, no matter what surgery has done to their bodies.


Losing breast tissue doesn’t make you less whole or less beautiful, or as Fet puts it,

All, all that once was mine is mine forever.


(Sorry I can’t provide a link to the complete poem. I found it in a little book of Russian poetry my sister gave to me. It doesn’t seem to be anywhere online.)



Near a flock of flamingoes, some of them skittering along in a kind of flying run, I left a famous couplet of Andrew Marvell’s:


poem is on fence post


This one is for everyone, to make use of the precious little time we have.



Finally, I left “For Friendship” by Robert Creeley on a trashcan and asked Lisa’s group, “The Pink Honeybees,” to link arms as they passed by the poem.

poem is on trashcan

poem is on trashcan

This, the gift of suffering, any suffering:

to be bound to 

others, two by two



When I was rushing to take this picture, I whacked my shin on a park bench, and came home with a bruise the size of my old breasts. (They weren’t very big for breasts, but the bruise was big for a bruise.) So here I am, bruised but glad to be bruised, like so many of the people at the walk that day.


Cheers to Lisa!

Cheers to Joi, Patty, Deb from Delaware.

Cheers to all the survivors who walked that day.

And a special cheers to those who walked beside, to those who form the chain that holds.



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