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poem is tucked in left portion of fence, near branch

poem is tucked in left portion of fence, near branch

 

Privacy

by C.D. Wright

 

The animals are leaving

the safety of the trees

 

Light sensors respond

to the footfall of every guest

 

To retard the growth of algae

 

The fishes must be moved

from the window

 

Stiller than water she lies

As in a glass dress

 

As if all life might come to its end

within the radius of her bed

 

Beyond the reef of trees a beach cannot be seen

the bay itself barely breathing

 

In the other wing of the house

a small boat awaits elucidation

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Poet C.D. Wright died last week. That’s when I found out just how revered she is. The L.A. Times calls her “one of the great ones,” and every other major paper in the country devoted inches and inches of column space to her obituary, which is, in and of itself, a notable accomplishment for a poet. NPR went so far as to say that her unexpected death sent up a “keening wail” among poets.

 

So I’m understandably cautious in approaching this poem. I don’t want to get it wrong, mark it up, make a mess of it like someone trying to eat a plate of pork ribs on an heirloom tablecloth. Or to say it another way, writing about her poetry feels like telling someone about a dream and only being able to communicate the incidents of the dream and not the ineffable elements where the true import of the dream lies.

 

Let me add to that disclaimer another one. I don’t really understand this poem. But it’s under my skin. So I’m moving forward.

 

“Privacy” slows the pulse. There is sunlight everywhere, water and warmth. The rush of movement at the beginning—the animals leaving the trees, the visitors tiptoeing through the house—gives way to stillness. A woman is dying. It seems to be morning.

 

There are reflective surfaces—the (unmentioned) glass bowl holding the fish, the imagined glass dress the woman wears, the still skin of the bay—-and images that reflect each other. It’s so subtle, so carefully and intuitively crafted. We picture the fish in a round bowl which mirrors the roundness of the radius of death that surrounds the woman. She is still, the bay is still, and like her, barely breathing. By unseen hands the fish and the woman are being protected, the fish from algae, the woman from the wrong visitors or visitors getting too close. The little beach by the bay is a private one, screened off by a protective reef of trees.

 

Into this peace, into this stillness comes a quiet note of menace. The glass dress calls to mind Sleeping Beauty. A woman immobile in glass. Was I the only child who found that existentially horrifying?

 

And then there’s that small boat in the house awaiting elucidation. At my first reading I pictured a stored boat in a west wing of a house belonging to a woman of a certain class, and the morning light gradually coming to that wing. (One meaning of elucidation: “to throw light on, make clear.”) But any boat mentioned in conjunction with a death brings to mind the mythological figure Charon ferrying the dead across the Rivers Styx and Acheron. Awaiting elucidation could mean the boat waits for her death to take her to places unknown.

 

But it’s a mistake with any poem, and especially with a poem of Wright’s, to say this means that. Wright is a master of the evocative, of mood, creating with just a few startling images a world, an impression that can’t be reduced to paraphrase, to logic or any linear structure. She relies on the imagination of readers to fill in the blanks of her fragmentary style. It’s less important that I understand this poem than I experience it.

 

I left “Privacy” on a fence guarding a country club mostly because I passed by on my walk and happened to have the poem in my pocket. But I like to justify my actions, so I thought, people find all kinds of ways to achieve privacy. Fences and members-only clubs are two such ways. Death is another, perhaps the ultimate privacy.

 

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 12.12.46 PMC.D. Wright was born in 1949 in the southern Ozarks of Arkansas. She and her brother were the children of a judge and a court reporter. So it’s no wonder that after studying French at Memphis State University, she considered becoming a lawyer. Fortunately for the world of poetry, she left law school after a brief stint and went on to get her MFA from University of Arkansas.

 

Poet Frank Stanford’s press, Lost Roads, published her first book of poetry. She took over the press after he killed himself. Strange that Frank Stanford, whom she knew well, was supposed to be the next big thing, but it ended up that she, the less flamboyant one, the steadier person, is now heralded as a true American original, in a “a school of exactly one” (from poet Joel Brouwer, as quoted in the New York Times).

 

Of her original sytle, Wright said this in an interview with Jacket Magazine in 2001:

 

As to my own aesthetic associations / affiliations / sympathies: I have never belonged to a notable element of writers who identified with one another partly because I come from Arkansas, specifically that part of Arkansas known for its resistance-to-joining, a non-urban environment where readily identifiable groups and sub-groups are less likely to form. The last known poetry clan in my part of the country was the Agrarians. I was not of that generation, gender or class.

 

She married poet Forest Gander. Together they had a son Brecht and ran Lost Roads. She taught at Brown University and published over a dozen books, one of them a collaboration with a photographer to document the lives of women in prison.

 

She was awarded a MacArthur Fellow and Guggenheim fellowship.

 

She died January 12 at age 67 in her sleep of a blod clot.

 

Link here for an excellent obituary from the L.A. Times.

 

Many of the other obits re-printed a death poem of hers, “only the crossing counts.” Let me post that here to give you a better idea of her work.

 

only the crossing counts

by C.D. Wright

 

It’s not how we leave one’s life. How go off

the air. You never know do you. You think you’re ready

for anything; then it happens, and you’re not. You’re really

not. The genesis of an ending, nothing

but a feeling, a slow movement, the dusting

of furniture with a remnant of the revenant’s shirt.

Seeing the candles sink in their sockets; we turn

away, yet the music never quits. The fire kisses our face.

O phthsis, o lotharian dead eye, no longer

will you gaze on the baize of the billiard table. No more

shooting butter dishes out of the sky. Scattering light.

Between snatches of poetry and penitence you left

the brumal wood of men and women. Snow drove

the butterflies home. You must know

how it goes, known all along what to expect,

sooner or later … the faded cadence of anonymity.

Frankly, my dear, frankly, my dear, frankly

 

And I can’t resist including these lines from “Everything Good Between Men and Women”

 

Bless it. We have so little time

to learn, so much… The river

courses dirty and deep. Cover the lettuce.

Call it a night. O soul. Flow on. Instead.

 

R.I.P. Carolyn Delores Wright. Flow on.

 

 

 

My old friend Trish (frequent commentator, a great reader of poems, an even better writer and artist) sent her annual Christmas fantasy card. I pass it along with her permission:

 

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And in case you’ve got loads of spare time for reading, I’ll also share a link for a piece from the New York Times Sunday Book Review, “What’s Your Favorite Poem?”  Writers, actors, and producers were asked to share a favorite. The responses have given me some homework to do–I haven’t read many of these poems, haven’t even heard of half of them.

 

If you have a favorite poem (note to Mo Williams, whoever that is–Dr. Seuss does not count), please post a comment here.

 

I’ll be back in the New Year!

 

Screen Shot 2015-12-19 at 10.13.07 AMAfter my last post, a depressing take on the holiday season, I feel like Bad Santa or Bad Party Guest, someone who hurries out the door after leaving the toilet clogged. Before December 25 rolls around, I want to clear the air, so to speak, with something more festive.

(Also because I got a concerned email from an old friend, bless her, hoping that my life is turning out okay.)

 

So here’s a picture of a card I got from another friend, the card being every bit as nice as the gift it accompanied. My friend was inspired by the online celebrations of Jane Austen’s birthday to copy down a few choice Austen quotes.

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Merry Christmas and/or Happy New Year to all! Enjoy friends and dancing and Jane Austen if you have time.

 

I’ll leave you with these lines from a Czeslaw Misosz poem (complete poem printed below):

It is true. We have a beautiful time

As long as time is time at all.

My mom, enjoying time

My mom, enjoying time

 

The Mistake

by Czeslaw Milosz

I thought: all this is only preparation
For learning, at last, how to die.
Mornings and dusks, in the grass under a maple
Laura sleeping without pants, on a headrest of raspberries,
While Filon, happy, washes himself in the stream.
Mornings and years. Every glass of wine,
Laura, and the sea, land, and archipelago
Bring us nearer, I believed, to one aim
And should be used with a thought to that aim.

But a paraplegic in my street
Whom they move together with his chair
From shade into sunlight, sunlight into shade,
Looks at a cat, a leaf, the chrome steel on an auto,
And mumbles to himself, “Beau temps, beau temps.”

It is true. We have a beautiful time
As long as time is time at all.

I saw Mommy drinking bourbon

Poems are in front of Jack Daniels bottle and further down in front of some cinnamon drink

Poems are in front of Jack Daniels bottle and further down the same shelf in front of some cinnamon drink

 

Alcohol

by Franz Wright

 

You do look a little ill.

 

But we can do something about that, now.

 

Can’t we.

 

The fact is you’re a shocking wreck.

 

Do you hear me.

 

You aren’t all alone.

 

And you could use some help today, packing in the

dark, boarding buses north, putting the seat back and

grinning with terror flowing over your legs through

your fingers and hair . . .

 

I was always waiting, always here.

 

Know anyone else who can say that.

 

My advice to you is think of her for what she is:

one more name cut in the scar of your tongue.

 

What was it you said, “To rather be harmed than

harm, is not abject.”

 

Please.

 

Can we be leaving now.

 

We like bus trips, remember. Together

 

we could watch these winter fields slip past, and

never care again,

 

think of it.

 

I don’t have to be anywhere.

 

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The Drunk

by Franz Wright

 

I don’t understand any more

than you do. I only know

he stays here

like some huge wounded animal—

open the door and he will gaze at you and

linger

Close the door

And he will break it down

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Debbie Downer resurfaces, just in time for the holidays.

 

But really, for anyone living with an alcoholic, Christmas and New Year’s can be a horrible time of year. Time off from work means more time at home, more time for drinking and causing havoc and pain. Not to mention the self-loathing an alcoholic feels when he knows, at some level and to varying degrees, that he’s an asshole.

 

In these two poems, poet Franz Wright addresses both sides of alcohol abuse. He knows them intimately, having grown up with an alcoholic parent and then becoming one himself.

 

Mostly our sympathies lie with the child of an alcoholic, so quickly and keenly sketched in “The Drunk.” The options for living with The Drunk are bad and worse, because however a family member of an alcoholic reacts—ignoring or engaging, or in the language of the poem, opening or closing the door -–they’ll pay for it.

 

The central image

 

he stays here

like some huge wounded animal–

 

reminds me of a Swedish public service advertisement, one of the best ads I’ve ever seen. In the ad (link here), adults who get drunk are literally monsters, frightening, incomprehensible, and embarrassing to their children. The expression on the little boy’s face as he gets buckled in his seatbelt breaks my heart.

 

The flip side of this sad picture is the soul-crushing pain of the alcoholic, pain that is both the cause and the effect of drinking. It’s always hard to sympathize with a person who acts like a jerk and an idiot, but in “Alcohol,” Wright lays out the torture of living with addiction. The narrating voice describes to the drinker the pain ahead–

 

putting the seat back and  

grinning with terror flowing over your legs through  

your fingers and hair . . .

 

and offers to make it better. Because drinking is also fun. Wright’s drinker is offered a road trip with his best buddy, his most reliable friend. Traveling drunk is easier than facing up to the pain of a broken relationship. Any reservations the drinker feels about his actions–

 

What was it you said, “To rather be harmed than  

harm, is not abject.”

 

are shut down with ridicule–

 

Please.

 

By turns the drinker is insulted and consoled by this seductive interior voice. There’s no doubt who’s winning this one.

 

I left both poems in the liquor aisle of my local drugstore. Spreading merriment and cheer, that’s me.

 

Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 1.48.03 PMFranz Wright’s face is his biography. This is what a hard life looks like. But it’s a heroic face too, considering the suffering he lived with: beatings by his father, worse beatings by his stepfather, parental abandonment, manic-depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Like writer Mary Karr, his onetime colleague and friend, he overcame addiction and converted to Catholicism, finding some measure of stability in the last sixteen years of his life.

 

Franz Wright (1953-2015) was born in Austria where his father, the famous poet James Wright, was studying on a Fulbright scholarship. The older Wright left the family when Franz was eight, and only stayed in sporadic contact with the family. When Franz was fifteen he sent his father a poem, and his father wrote back, “Well I’ll be damned. You’re a poet. Welcome to hell.”

 

The younger Wright graduated from Oberlin College in 1977. In 1984 he was winning awards and teaching at Emerson College when he was fired for “drinking related activities.” He sunk into a years-long depression, wasn’t able to write, and attempted suicide.

 

In 1999 he married a former student, Elizabeth Oehklers. He converted to Catholicism, got sober and was able to write again.

 

He died earlier this year of lung cancer at age 62.

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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(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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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–

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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.

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

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The one on the right is my Linda Blair elf.

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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

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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.”

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

 

 

 

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