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poem is taped to bench

poem is taped to bench

 

Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks

by Jane Kenyon

 

I am the blossom pressed in a book,

found again after two hundred years. . . .

 

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

 

When the young girl who starves

sits down to a table

she will sit beside me. . . .

 

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

 

I am water rushing to the wellhead,

filling the pitcher until it spills. . . .

 

I am the patient gardener

of the dry and weedy garden. . . .

 

I am the stone step,

the latch, and the working hinge. . . .

 

I am the heart contracted by joy. . . .

the longest hair, white

before the rest. . . .

 

I am there in the basket of fruit

presented to the widow. . . .

 

I am the musk rose opening

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

 

I am the one whose love

overcomes you, already with you

when you think to call my name. . . .

 

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

 

All part of the never-ending cycle of life.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I am the one whose love

overcomes you, already with you

when you think to call my name

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

How much better it is

to carry wood to the fire

than to moan about your life.

How much better

to throw the garbage

onto the compost, or to pin the clean

sheet on the line

with a gray-brown wooden clothespin!

 

 

 

 

poem is on mantle next to picture of Grace Hemingway

poem is on mantle next to picture of Grace Hemingway

In a Room With Five People, Six Griefs

by Jane Hirshfield

 

In a room with five people, six griefs.

Some you will hear of, some not.

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

Let there be walls and windows, a ceiling.

A door through which time

changer of everything

can enter.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Because she didn’t have parental duties.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Now on to the poem itself.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

poem is underneath the picture of the woman eating an apple

poem is underneath the picture of the woman eating an apple

The Same Inside

by Anna Swir

 

Walking to your place for a love feast

I saw at a street corner

an old beggar woman.

 

I took her hand,

kissed her delicate cheek,

we talked, she was

the same inside as I am,

from the same kind,

I sensed this instantly

as a dog knows by scent

another dog.

 

I gave her money,

I could not part from her.

After all, one needs

someone who is close.

 

And then I no longer knew

why I was walking to your place.

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

 

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

 

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

 

she was

the same inside as I am,

from the same kind

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

After all, one needs

someone who is close.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

my progenitor and my progeny

my progenitor and my progeny

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

 

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

 

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

 

poem is leaning against green vase

poem is leaning against green vase

 

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

Like a doctor, I learned to create

from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once

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

To every house you enter, you must offer

healing, a chocolate cake you baked yourself,

the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.

Image 1

 

 

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

poem is on tree in foreground

poem is on tree in foreground

 

Truer words were never written:

The best thing I did

for my mother

was to outlive her

IMG_1377

 

 

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

IMG_1373

 

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

IMG_1371

 

 

Kamienska’s poem is simple and beautiful:

true understanding

is always silence.

 

IMG_1369

 

 

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

poem is in 50% off bin

poem is in 50% off bin

 

Laurel Mountain must not have had a Hallmark store.

IMG_1384

 

 

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

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

 

 

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Happy Mother’s Day!  Go forth and mother.

 

 

 

Dangerous games

poem is on green column below red sign

poem is on green column below red sign

 

The Robot Moves!

by Nick Flynn

 

I pretend I’m afraid, carrying you

on my hip beneath the Cathedral of St. John

the Divine, past all the dead saints, the floor

dug up to lay pipe. I stop suddenly,

grasping at a darkened corner & whisper,

what was that? & your tiny hand

touches my face to soothe me

& you say, it’s alright,

there’s nothing there. As a kid

I made up a game

where I would turn into a robot,

cruel & lifeless, & it wouldn’t matter

if you were my best friend, I’d turn on you

as fast as switching off a light, I’d

come after you, no matter how much you’d plead,

I don’t want to play this game, because

something inside had turned, something

essential, that couldn’t be repaired

with words, like those days I’d come home at dusk

my mother alone at the kitchen table,

she’d look at me over her wine

& say only So?

like I was the stranger.

 

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The third or fourth time I read this poem, a phrase from a much older poem popped into my head: Wordsworth’s famous line, “the Child is father of the Man.” It’s a phrase I’ve filed away in my head with other riddles and koans, sayings I remember more for their pithiness than their pith. I’m just too lazy a thinker to pick apart how someone can be his own grandpa or to dwell on the sound of one hand clapping.

 

Nick Flynn’s “The Robot Moves!” illustrates Wordsworth so forcefully I don’t have to pick the riddle apart. It’s visceral truth, raw and hard, and in Flynn’s hands, more complicated than just the idea that childhood experience shapes the adult. In the poem, childhood and adulthood are fluid states. Events and memories can fling us from one to the other and back again.

 

The poem opens with a “game”: a father trying to frighten his child. I played such games with my children many times—most parents do—but now I wonder why. Is the point of scaring children to get them to cling to us, or just a cruel exercise of power? Whatever the speaker’s intentions, the game backfires. The father becomes the child and the child becomes the parent as she offers comfort and protection. I love that darling little hand on her father’s cheek, and the child’s innocent attempt to calm: “there’s nothing there,” she says. Of course there’s everything there, bad childhood memories just beneath the surface of adulthood. It’s not just the floor of the cathedral that’s being dug up.

 

In the darkened cathedral, two memories emerge from the game, both associated with the coming of darkness. In the first memory, the boy turns into a robot “as fast as switching off a light.” In the second he comes home at dusk to find his mother drunk. These memories spill out in long sentences, the way children tell stories when they’re excited. The further back in time the speaker goes, the more childish the sentence structure, long clauses connected by ampersands which look like little links in a chain.

 

I don’t want to play this game, says the boy’s friend, which almost could have been the title of the poem. I remember my brother playing a similar game of turning into a robot and crashing into furniture and people. My husband did the robot gig too in our teenage dating years. Come to think of it, he still does now and then. (Again I ask, why? Why do men in particular enjoy pretending to turn into automated monsters bent on destruction?) Remembering that game, the speaker sees in himself an emptiness, a coldness, a desire to wound that links him back to the root memory of the poem, his mother at the kitchen table. The child’s earlier consolation that “there’s nothing there” becomes an ironic commentary on the mother’s cruel and lifeless response to her son’s arrival home.

 

I left the poem at a movie theater in Florida where I went to see “Captain America” on a rainy day. Every superhero has a weakness or painful memory that nearly causes his or her destruction, and so a superhero movie felt like a good backdrop for a poem about a boy’s imaginative play and very real pain.

Nick Flynn was born in Massachusetts in 1960. He was raised by a single mother who committed suicide when he was a young adult. His father was an alcoholic who fancied himself a writer and went to prison for writing forged checks. While in prison, his father wrote him letters full of advice, but Flynn never wrote back out of respect for his mother. After high school, Flynn became an electrician.

 

Two years after his mother died, he started working at a homeless shelter in Boston. Flynn met his father at that same homeless shelter when his troubled father came to spend the night. Their reunion was the subject of a memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which was turned into a movie, Being Flynn. The move starred Paul Dano as a young Flynn and Robert DeNiro as his father.

 

In addition to his poetry, Flynn is a widely published essayist and memoirist. He’s married to actress Lili Taylor with whom he has a daughter. Flynn lives in Brooklyn and teaches creative writing at University of Houston.

 

(Sorry, I’m unable to download a picture of Flynn. You’ll have to take my word for it that he’s got a handsome Irish face. Link to his website here to see for yourself.)

 

 

 

 

Two suggestions

If you’ve got a fever and the only prescription is more Poem Elf  (and you’ve already had all the cow bell you can take)–

 

–Or– if you like poetry in very small doses and you don’t like reading long blog posts–

 

 

–I have a suggestion for you. Follow me on Twitter. @Poemelf is just pictures and not so often that it takes over your timeline.

 

I was slow coming to Twitter and even slower to realize that my original idea was lame. (I typed in excerpts from poems and tried to relate them to current events, the weather, celebrities, my personal life.) Now I’m just posting pictures of short poems (or short excerpts from poems) that I leave around town. Like I do on the blog, I take one up-close picture of a poem and one that shows where I put it.

 

No scandal, no trending hashtags, no selfies. Just a poem now and then where you least expect it.   Check out the sidebar on the right for an example and consider following me @poemelf.

 

Also, if you live near enough Ann Arbor, you can catch a wonderful art show, running now through April 9. The Prisoners Creative Arts Project is sponsoring the 19th annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners at the Duderstadt Gallery on North Campus of University of Michigan. Link here for details.

 

With limited materials and in difficult working conditions, these artists have produced powerful works in many different mediums. It’s such a humane and emotional show. Longing, joy, rage, hope, anxiety–each piece seems like a part of someone’s soul. Here’s one of my favorites. It’s called “Gracias” and the artist is Martin Vargas:

IMG_2687

 

Vargas features the Botero-like figures in many of his paintings. He calls them PUDGIES.

PUDGIES have a gentle spirit. They have no body shame and no obsession with clothes or hair.

I want me some PUDGIES in my life.

Soon and very soon

poem is on tall tree stump, just above snow-capped ledge

poem is on tall tree stump, just above snow-capped ledge

March 1912

                              –Postcard, en route westward

by Natasha Trethewey

 

At last we are near

breaking the season, shedding

our coats, the gray husk

 

of winter.  Each tree

trembles with new leaves, tiny

blossoms, the flashy

 

dress of spring. I am

aware now of its coming

as I’ve never been—

 

the wet grass throbbing

with crickets, insistent, keen

as desire.  Now,

 

I feel what trees must—

budding, green sheaths splitting—skin

that no longer fits.

 

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For those of us in Michigan, the first day of spring is always a matter of faith.  This year especially, after a record-breaking winter and too many visits from the Polar Vortex, we have to believe in what we don’t see. The vernal equinox is here!  If you measure by hours of sunlight and not the greening of the earth, you can celebrate with these lines from Natasha Trethewey’s poem “March, 1912”:

At last we are near

breaking the season

Those are joyful words to me, words to carry around like a tiny solar cell under my coat.

 

It was seven degrees when I left the poem on a tree at a nature center a few days before the official start of spring. Buckets hung on the sugar maple trees like fanny packs, ready to collect the sap that was purportedly rising.  A maple syrup demonstration was scheduled for two days after I left the poem, and I hope the wind didn’t take it before then.  It’s a beautiful reminder for all spring-starved Michiganders that under the snow, a big sexy earth is ready to explode.

 

Trembling, throbbing, shedding its clothes, keen with desire–Trethewey’s spring pulses with the erotic.  What makes the poem so beautiful (and even more sensual) is the formal structure that contains, just barely, all that desire. Each stanza has lines of 5-7-5 syllables. That’s haiku, in case you’ve forgotten. The poem is a perfect balance of opposing forces.  Like a tight corset barely holding in a heaving bosom.

 

Unfortunately, the only throbbing going on after I left the poem was my frozen fingers thawing when I got to the car. But there were birds, in the sky, as song goes, and I never would have seen them winging (or heard them singing) if I hadn’t spent time with Trethewey’s poem.

 

“March 1912” is taken from Bellocq’s Ophelia, a collection of poems inspired by E.J. Bellocq’s photographs of prostitutes in the early 1900’s. (You can see the photographs here.) Tretheway imagines one of Bellocq’s subjects as a mixed race woman named Ophelia.  Ophelia, originally from Mississippi, turns up at a New Orleans brothel after she can’t find other means of supporting herself. The poems read like chapters in a novel, and Trethewey creates a fascinating character in this underground world.

 

Natasha Trethewey was born in Mississippi in 1966.  Her father was a white Canadian, a poet, and her mother a black social worker from the deep South. Her parents were married a year before mixed marriages were made legal.  They divorced when she was six.  From an early age she was aware of how she was treated when she was with her father and she could “pass” as white, and how she was treated when she was with her mother.

 

She was a freshman in college when her mother was murdered by her second husband.  Trethewey started writing poetry after her mother’s death as a way to deal with her grief.

 

Among the many awards she’s received, Trethewey has won the Pulitzer Prize and fellowships from Guggenheim Foundation and NEA. She was appointed the U.S. Poet Laureate in 2012, a post she still holds.  As Poet Laureate, she has partnered with PBS to produce the show “Where Poetry Lives.”  Link here for an inspiring episode about poetry in Detroit schools, featuring Detroit writer Peter Markus.

 

She is the director of creative writing at Emory University, and lives in Georgia with her husband, a historian and fellow professor at Emory.  I just found out she’s coming to Detroit next month.  She’ll be reading at Marygrove College on April 4.  Link here for details.  I’m crushed that I’m going to be out of town that date, but if you go (lucky you), send regards from Poem Elf.

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