Thanksgiving break

If I had any sense I’d be in the kitchen right now, chopping and endlessly washing mixing bowls and spatulas. Instead I’m sitting at the computer. I’ll pay for it tomorrow with panic and exhaustion, but meantime, here’s a few poems for Thanksgiving.


At the grocery store I left Czeslaw Milosz’s”Encounter” in an empty aisle  where I would encounter no one, next to one of Paul Newman’s products.


O my love, where are they, where are they going–  sounds like a lovelier version of what my husband and I say to each other after the too-quickly-grown-up kids leave home after the weekend.


(The words that got cut off in the picture are “at dawn.” Sorry for that.)


Outside another grocery store (because one grocery store is never enough for Thanksgiving preparations), I left e.e. cummings’ poem in an abandoned grocery cart. Maybe it was mine. (Poem is to the right of the “Ayar” ad, on the seat of the grocery cart.)


i thank You God for most this amazing/day could be the start of dinner time grace. Little kids might like the twisty-ness of the lines.



Still at the grocery store, I put Emily Dickinson’s “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” by a credit card machine at the check-out.


I’ve long had a few lines of this poem committed to memory

I’ll tell you how the sun rose,–

A Ribbon at a time–


and this, one of my favorite images from any poem, ever

The Hills untied their Bonnets–


The beauty of that, when I see it and when I read it here, fills me with gratitude for the world as it is and the world as only a poet can see it.



Finally, I left Wislawa Szymborska’s “Vietnam” at Starbucks. Where I was sitting for over an hour, once again not cooking.


What does the agony in “Vietnam” have to do with Thanksgiving? It’s a reminder. As we gather with family and friends to enjoy a bounty of food and the comfort of safe shelter, let’s remember those who have none of those things. Let’s give our thanks for what we have and leave space in our hearts for victims of war, for refugees losing hope–



And in the last few minutes before I give myself over to cooking, let me thank all you dear readers and commentators. I am so grateful for your readership and support.


Happy Thanksgiving to all!





The goodness commission

Image 7I came to Starbucks to write a post about a few sweet gifts I’ve gotten from a few sweet people. As I stood in line I was debating how to write about my good fortune, given the horror in Paris, without sounding oblivious and tone-deaf. Maybe I shouldn’t write about it at all, I thought.


Waiting for my turn, I noticed the skin on the young woman in front of me. Flawless, luminous, and so was her smile when she turned around, for no reason, to look at me. After she got her coffee she smiled at me again and I decided she was confusing me with someone else.


Then the barista told me that my tea was covered “by your new friend over there.”


I was confused at first. I thought maybe she felt sorry for me, that maybe, given how smartly dressed she was and how slovenly I was, she thought I needed help. “Why are you doing this?” I asked her, laughing.


She just smiled and left.


Then I thought, Paris. She’s doing this for Paris, her small kindness a stand of solidarity with those across the ocean who are suffering so much.


I sat down with my tea and let the tears fall. This is the face of goodness, I thought. I am sitting in the presence of goodness.

You may think I was making a mountain out of a $2.39 cup of tea, but I saw, in that simple gesture, a mountain of goodness. I was overcome with emotion because she made manifest something I believe to my very core–that whatever evil there is in the world, there will always be more goodness.


So thank you, anonymous, beautiful young woman at Starbucks. Your little gesture breaks my heart and fills it up at the same time.


On with other points of gratitude.


From my daughter Lizzie, a spoon rest, something I’ve always wanted. What makes this such a great gift is that I never realized how much I wanted a Poem Elf spoon rest.

Image 1


Two new elves for my elf collection (I’m sure there are other people in the world who collect elves), from a dear friend:

Image 2

The one on the right is my Linda Blair elf.

Here’s the full collection, all of them gifts:

Image 3


Finally, another dear and very observant friend gave me a new Poem Elf file folder and journal–

Image 6


–because she’s seen the ratty old folders I use to organize my poem collection.

Image    Image 5


Thanks to all these sweet folks!


And now, thanks to Young Woman with Beautiful Skin, I realize all these gifts are a commission. Time to get to work.



Fall clean-up

Here’s the thing about my small folder of poems about death. Having more than one poem about death is like  getting a bag of zucchini from your neighbor—you don’t know what to do with an overload. (I’m just realizing this very second that owning, not to mention labeling,  a small folder of poems about death is not entirely sane.)


Lucky for me, today is the Mexican holiday Dia de Muertos, a day to honor the deadand the Catholic holiday of All Souls Day, a day to pray for the dead, and my Poem Elf day to de-clutter my files and clutter up my favorite cemetery.


I left Thom Gunn’s (1929-2004) “The Reassurance” by the grave of someone named Emily Greer.


There is probably no one left who remembers Miss Emily. I hope this is an accurate assessment of her character:

How like you to be kind

Seeking to reassure

It would be a fine epitaph for anyone.



At a grander grave I left another poem that speaks of the workings of grief, “Mourners” by Ted Kooser (1939–)


Death brings a heightened tenderness to survivors that Kooser captures beautifully:

peering into each other’s faces,

slow to let go of each other’s hands



Most of the graves in this cemetery are too old to be visited by any living person, but I did find one with two recently dead mums decorating it. Near it I left Natasha Trethewey’s “After Your Death.”


How beautifully she captures the sad work of clearing out a parent’s home after death

another space emptied by loss 

Tomorrow the bowl I have yet to fill.




No Day of the Dead poem-elf post would be complete with my old favorite, Jane Kenyon (1947-1995), who died young and wrote often about death. I left her “Notes from the Other Side” on the tomb of a member of the Sly family, long gone.


Kenyon’s vision of heaven is wry —

no bad books, no plastic,

no insurance premiums 

–but surely intended to comfort those she would leave behind–

Our calm hearts strike only the hour,

and God, as promised, proves

to be mercy clothed in light.



I needed to talk to my sister,” by Grace Paley (1922-2007), another one of my favorites, graced this stone angel:



Paley has a wondrous way of burying pain under humor, thank goodness, because this scenario is too painful for me to contemplate.


One more picture because I like the look of yearning on the angel holding the poem:



A tombstone engraved “Love” needed a poem, so there I left “On the Death of Friends in Childhood” by Donald Justice (1925-2004).


I can’t read this without thinking of the survivors of Sandy Hook, years and years from their loss:



Now that I’ve emptied my folder, I’ve flooded my day with thoughts of those I’ve lost and of those who have lost so many more than I.





The Travelling Onion

by Naomi Shihab Nye


“It is believed that the onion originally came from India. In Egypt it was an

object of worship —why I haven’t been able to find out. From Egypt the onion

entered Greece and on to Italy, thence into all of Europe.” — Better Living Cookbook


When I think how far the onion has traveled

just to enter my stew today, I could kneel and praise

all small forgotten miracles,

crackly paper peeling on the drainboard,

pearly layers in smooth agreement,

the way the knife enters onion

and onion falls apart on the chopping block,

a history revealed.


And I would never scold the onion

for causing tears.

It is right that tears fall

for something small and forgotten.

How at meal, we sit to eat,

commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma

but never on the translucence of onion,

now limp, now divided,

or its traditionally honorable career:

For the sake of others,




It is right that tears fall, Naomi Shihab Nye writes in her ode to the onion. I love the onion as much as anyone, but I can’t take such a philosophical view of it. I dread the chop. The dice is worse. Mincing is torture. What with my dry sockets from thyroid eye disease, dismantling onions can feel like the knife is working at my eye rather than the onion. I’ve tried it all—biting on a wooden spoon, wearing goggles, refrigerating the onion, cuisinarting the heck out of it, rinsing after peeling. Nothing helps. (To my fellow sufferers: I’ve just learned, thanks to a youtube video of the inimitable Julia Child, that painless onion chopping is possible if the knife is sharp enough. A sharp knife reduces onion juice splatter and allows the chopper to chop faster than tears can form.)


Mulling over that same line–It is right that tears fall–I heard something familiar, something ecclesiastical. In the Catholic mass and in many other Christian church services, the priest (or minister) says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” The congregation responds, “It is right to give him thanks and praise.” (Or in the newly translated Catholic mass, the less melodious, “It is right and just.”) I don’t think this is coincidental. Shihab Nye was, after all, a religious studies major in college, and in this particular poem, religious phrasing and imagery are around every corner, like an old chapel stuffed with icons and statues.


Beginning with the epigraph on the ancient worship of the onion, the poem elevates the lowly vegetable, injecting it with a spirituality most cooks do not. The speaker considers the miracle of the onion and wants to fall to her knees in a prayer of praise. As the onion is peeled apart and unlayered, it’s layered with more meaning, becomes a holy object. The crackly, pearly paper of its skin is like a sacred text, its inside a fleshy sacrifice split open by a knife. Then comes a shared meal, a communion of sorts, graced by a limp onion, a death of sorts, and the understanding of the onion’s core purpose, the sacrifice of one for the good of all:


its traditionally honorable career:

For the sake of others,



As much as the poem identifies the onion’s honorable career, it describes another honorable career, that of the poet. What is the work of a poet but to find “all small forgotten miracles”? It’s one of the reasons I love Naomi Shihab Nye. She shines light on ordinary events and people and things to show readers the wonders of the world as it is.


I left “Travelling Onion” at the motherhouse of a religious order my niece is in. This is a teaching order and semi-cloistered. The sisters interact with the outside world as students, teachers and principals—but back at the convent they practice silence, sleep in cells, and keep to a strict schedule of prayer, communal meals, communal exercise, and housekeeping. These sisters wear the full habit, shoe-length gowns with oversized rosaries hanging from their belts, hair shorn under long veils, blue aprons for kitchen work, blue overcoats for the cold. Their contact with family is limited and most everything they do is regulated.


Like the onion, these sisters work quietly behind the scenes, unheralded, unknown to most. Their work of teaching and praying is all for the sake of others.


My niece and her grandmother

My niece and her grandmother

You’d think this kind of order would be dying out in this age of selfies and self-promotion, but the convent is busting at the seams with postulants. Whenever I’ve visited, I meet cheerful and well-spoken sisters who love to laugh. You won’t find young women of such poise and confidence outside the debate team at Wellesley College or re-runs of Xena: Warrior Princess.


(I just saw my niece at her sister’s wedding in Tallahassee where she walked down the aisle as a most striking bridesmaid. She was excited when I told her I had left a poem at the convent back in the spring, so here, Sister Marianna, this is for you!)


I’ve posted on Naomi Shihab Nye before, so I’ll just copy and paste the bio I wrote in a previous post.

Screen Shot 2015-10-21 at 1.52.15 PMNaomi Shihab Nye was born in 1952 in St. Louis and identifies as an Arab-American. Her father was a Palestinian refugee and her mother American. During high school she lived for some time with her grandmother in Jerusalem and in San Antonio.

She’s written several books of poetry, children’s books, songs and novels. She has traveled for the U.S. Information Agency on goodwill tours. Her anthology for teens, The Space Between Our Footsteps, is a beautiful collection of paintings and poems from the Middle East. After 9/11, she spoke out against terrorism and against prejudice, and in 2002 she published a book of new and old poems she had written about the Middle East.

In 2009, PeacebyPeace named her a Peace Hero. I didn’t know such a thing existed, but it’s a wonderful appellation and something we can all aspire to be.

She’s won multiple literary awards, including four Pushcart Prizes. She lives in San Antonio with her photographer husband and son.

You can hear her read here, a “found” poem. Her voice surprised me. I had expected a voice soft and gentle like her face, but she sounds more like your best pal in high school talking too loud the morning after you got drunk together. Gravelly and fun.

Image 25

The Truth

by Philip Schultz

You can hide it like a signature

or birthmark but it’s always there

in the greasy light of your dreams,

the knots your body makes at night,

the sad innuendos of your eyes,

whispering insidious asides in every

room you cannot remain inside. It’s

there in the unquiet ideas that drag and

plead one lonely argument at a time,

and those who own a little are contrite

and fearful of those who own too much,

but owning none takes up your life.

It cannot be replaced with a house or a car,

a husband or wife, but can be ignored,

denied, and betrayed, until the last day,

when you pass yourself on the street

and recognize the agreeable life you

were afraid to lead, and turn away.

Image 24

If you’re following the Richard Glossip case as anxiously as I am, you’ll understand when I write that I wish this poem could be tattooed on Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin’s forearm. I want her to have to look at it every day and face the the truth that she sentenced an innocent man to death.

I’m going to post without much comment. I’m distraught over the Glossip case.

Let me just say that this is a poem to chase you down the street, throwing its questions and accusations like small stones till one hits its mark and you stop to ask, What is my truth? Am I hiding from it? Am I a person who owns too little or too much?

There’s a curious word choice I’d like your take on.

The speaker, catching a glimpse of himself in a shop window perhaps, considers what his life might have been if he had faced “The Truth.”

when you pass yourself on the street

and recognize the agreeable life you

were afraid to lead, and turn away.

An “agreeable” life. Not fabulous, just agreeable. “Living your truth,” as we are often urged to do, is supposed to lead to an amazing life like Oprah’s or Elizabeth Gilbert’s.

“Agreeable” is more realistic. I like it.

I left “The Truth” on Bare Bluff, a beautiful peak 600 ft. above Lake Superior in Copper Harbor, Michigan. Copper Harbor, eleven hours from Detroit, is the farthest point in you can go in Michigan and still be on land. There aren’t many people up there and no cell service at all unless you find the right spot on a certain scenic lookout, Brockway Mountain Drive. Otherwise you have to drive 30 or 40 minutes to make a call. A local waitress says that if someone doesn’t show up for work you have to drive to their house to wake them up.

I love the U.P. and try to return every year. Copper Harbor was by far the most beautiful region I’ve been in. It’s a place of no distractions. There’s Nature—-untouched, pristine, ancient—and you. A place where truths must be faced.

The truth I always feel in the U.P. is that life is large and creation beautiful and I need to be grateful every second of my life. You can’t go to the U.P. and feel like the center of the universe. With your face to the clear sunlight, walking among 400-year old pine trees, climbing over rock shaped by tides and storms, wading into cold Lake Superior so vast and mysterious, you feel small. And that’s a relief. It would be a great vacation spot for Donald Trump when he ends his run.

Screenshot 2015-09-17 20.15.34

Philip Schultz was born in 1945 in Rochester, New York, an only child. His father, a Russian- Jewish immigrant died when he was eighteen and left the family bankrupt.

Schultz graduated from San Francisco State University and got his MFA at Iowa Writer’s workshop. He taught at New York University, among other colleges, and founded the The Writers Studio in 1987 in New York City, which he still directs.

He’s published many books of poetry, one novel in verse and a memoir. He was 63 when he won the Pultizer Prize for “Failure.”

His wife is the sculptor Monica Banks. Together they have two sons.

Schultz wrote a moving essay you can read here about his dyslexia. He didn’t know he was dyslexic until he was 58 when his son was diagnosed with it.

Addendum: Gov. Mary Fallin has just issued Richard Glossip a 37-day stay of execution so the drugs to be used in his execution can be reviewed. I hope that’s window dressing for “let’s make sure we’re not executing an innocent man.” If his sentence is commuted, I will post something special just for Gov. Fallin. A poem of praise for an open mind and heart.

If not, Nov. 6, (my birthday and his new execution day) is going to be a day of mourning the world over.

Letting go, holding back


poem is on bus shelter window

poem is on bus shelter window between my daughter’s hand and raised foot



For My Daughter

by Grace Paley

I wanted to bring her a chalice
or maybe a cup of love
or cool water      I wanted to sit
beside her as she rested
after the long day     I wanted to adjure
commend   admonish      saying don’t
do that   of course     wonderful   try
I wanted to help her grow old      I wanted
to say last words the words     famous
for final enlightenment      I wanted
to say them now     in case I am in
calm sleep when the last sleep strikes
or aged into disorder      I wanted to
bring her a cup of cool water

I wanted to explain     tiredness is
expected     it is even appropriate
at the end of the day





What changes a year brings. Last year when I dropped my youngest off for her freshman year of college, I unpacked the car all the while packing in as much advice as I could. Eat healthy. Join clubs. Keep your room clean. Blah Blah blah. This year on drop-off day I almost forgot to tell her anything at all until I heard her roommate’s father tell his daughter to study hard. Oh yeah, that.


When I finally got around to it, my advice was much less inspiring:

Don’t sped all your money on coffees.

Get a job.

Don’t be the drunkest girl at the party.


What can I say, she’s got good sense, this one. Or maybe I’ve learned something.


Maybe I’ve learned that even if I could open up my children’s heads and pour in my life experience and wisdom like cake batter, they’d still have to figure things out themselves. They have to learn–or not learn–from their own mistakes.


I say maybe I’ve learned because the urge to throw advice at my kids and hope it sticks never goes away, and sometimes (often times, if I’m truthful) so overwhelming I give in.


This is why I love Grace Paley’s “For My Daughter.” The speaker wants to tell her daughter so many things. She wants to tell these things right now, before she dies or loses her mind. She wants to correct, praise, encourage. Control.


But she keeps her mouth shut.


The un-acted upon urge animates the poem. “But I didn’t” is the unspoken coda. The poem reminds me that however much we want to shelter our kids from hardship and steer them towards happiness, in the end we can’t.


Paley is master of white space and here she uses it as punctuation and almost as stage directions. (You have to look at the photograph to get an idea of the spacing. It’s hard to recreate blank spaces on WordPress.) The break before the final two lines suggest that the speaker has to slow down, sit down, catch her breath after spilling out all her urgent worries. Her mothering has exhausted her. She too is tired.


Paley is better known for her short stories than her poems, but I’ve always loved her poems best. They’re short stories in themselves, little snippets of real life, spoken by a person who jumps off the page with her humanity. How Paley manages to use so many Latinate words–admonish, commend, appropriate, adjure –and still make the poem sound like words caught on tape and transcribed directly amazes me. Those Latinate words play off her plain-speaking voice and echo the push-pull of the urge to say and the wisdom of not saying.


IMG_3436I left the poem in a bus shelter close to my daughter’s dorm. Under a nearby tree (another sheltering structure) I left an illustration by the late great Maurice Sendak of a mother transforming herself to protect her little one from the rain.







If my last-minute words of wisdom went in one of my daughter’s ears and out the other, I hope these two postings will linger. What they both say, what I want to say to her, is this:

–I’ve got your back, always–

Or to use a few of Paley’s words,

–A cup of love/or cool water, here for you when you most need it–


Image 2Grace Paley was born in the Bronx in 1922 to Ukrainian Jewish parents who had been exiled by the Czar for their socialist politics. The family spoke Russian, Yiddish and English at home. She was the youngest of three, but so much younger that she was practically an only child.


She went to Hunter College for a year college and studied briefly with W.H. Auden at New School. At 19 she married filmmaker Jess Paley. They had two children, Nora and Danny, and later divorced.


She started her career as a poet, writing in the style of Auden, but in her thirties she began writing short stories about working class New Yorkers, particularly about women and mothers. She published several collections of stories, poems and essays.


Image 1She was a lifelong political activist, protesting the Vietnam War, nuclear proliferation, apartheid, the war in Iraq, and advocating for women’s issues. She taught at Sarah Lawrence, Columbia University and City College. She was the founder of the Greenwich Village Peace Center.


Her second husband, Robert Nichols, was a landscape architect and writer. The couple eventually moved to Vermont where she died in 2007 at age 84 of breast cancer.


You can read an interview she gave at the very end of her life here.

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.


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