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.

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.


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