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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:

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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.

Erin Go Bragh-humbug

Although I’m an Irish lass by genes and inclination, my idea of a St. Patrick’s Day celebration is soda bread, black tea and Yeats.  (If there’s an Irish version of “Bah humbug,” insert here.) Needless to say, I celebrate alone.  But I left some poems by Yeats at the local Irish pub for those whose celebrating takes a jollier turn.

poems are on lower left windows

poems are on lower left windows

 

Yeats’ “A Drinking Song” was a no-brainer for the occasion:

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And a more sobering poem of his:

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That one holds some of my favorite lines ever from any poem:

And under every dancer

A dead man in his grave

 

And because this particular pub is THE meeting place for old pals on St. Patrick’s Day, I left this:

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Finally, you can’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day without a good toast and an Irish blessing, so I left both behind:

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This one is dear to me:

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Friends along the way

poem is in condiment caddy

poem is in condiment caddy

Wedding Cake

by Naomi Shihab Nye

 

Once on a plane

a woman asked me to hold her baby

and disappeared.

I figured it was safe,

our being on a plane and all.

How far could she go?

 

She returned one hour later,

having changed her clothes

and washed her hair.

I didn’t recognize her.

 

By this time the baby

and I had examined

each other’s necks.

We had cried a little.

I had a silver bracelet

and a watch.

Gold studs glittered

in the baby’s ears.

She wore a tiny white dress

leafed with layers

like a wedding cake.

 

I did not want

to give her back.

 

The baby’s curls coiled tightly

against her scalp,

another alphabet.

I read new new new.

My mother gets tired.

I’ll chew your hand.

 

The baby left my skirt crumpled,

my lap aching.

Now I’m her secret guardian,

the little nub of dream

that rises slightly

but won’t come clear.

 

As she grows,

as she feels ill at ease,

I’ll bob my knee.

 

What will she forget?

Whom will she marry?

He’d better check with me.

I’ll say once she flew

dressed like a cake

between two doilies of cloud.

She could slip the card into a pocket,

pull it out.

Already she knew the small finger

was funnier than the whole arm.

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I was flying to Fort Lauderdale to meet my mother and some of my sisters. My plan was to leave “Wedding Cake” in the seat pocket, sandwiched between the in-flight magazine and the sky mall catalogue.  But we passengers were sandwiched too, packed so tight that every sniffle and stomach gurgle seemed to originate from a communal body of seatmates, and I didn’t feel like making a spectacle of myself leaning away from the seat pocket to get a decent picture.

I

’m glad I held on to the poem because I found a better spot for it later in the trip.

 

One day we heard that the owner of the hotel/condo we were staying in was having a huge birthday bash at the tiki bar downstairs, with a DJ and “Drink Girls.”  The “Drink Girls,” our tiki bar waitress explained, were hookers. None of us middle-aged suburbanites see prostitutes on a regular basis, and we wanted to watch them in action.

 

The tiki bar, being the last of its kind in Ft. Lauderdale, grandfathered in after beachfront tiki bars were outlawed, was crowded with a young and hormonally fired-up crowd. We had trouble distinguishing between the hookers and the bar patrons.  Young women in fishnet stockings and unzipped Daisy Dukes sauntered around selling shots, delivered with flair and in unusual serving positions. But other young women, dressed almost as provocatively, touched themselves as if they were showering and shook their body parts with an earnest determination to attract the attention of men far less attractive than they. To us it was all Sodom and Gomorrah, but to everyone else, we were the spectacle.  We must have looked like the summer stock cast of The Crucible.

 

After a while we got tired of the scene. We got up to go just as my mother was served a full beer she couldn’t drink.  No wanting to waste the beer, we brought it to a rowdy table of women at a bachelorette party.

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I offered the beer to the bride on behalf of my mother.  “She’s 88,” I told her, “and she was married for over sixty years and had 11 children.  So this is good luck to you from her.”  The table cheered and the bride greeted my mother warmly, albeit drunkenly. As people do at those kinds of milestone parties, the group absorbed the moment into the story of their evening, and my mother became to them what my sisters and I call “Friends Along the Way.” Friends Along the Way are strangers you meet on group outings who bond with you on some deep or joyful level. Friends Along the Way love connecting with your group and in turn are loved and petted.

 

My mom is pretty cute and no doubt her beer offering was adorable just because she’s 88 and they were young and wild. But the moment was more than that.  Maybe seeing the bride in that atmosphere of hookers and hooking up made us feel protective towards her. Like the speaker in the poem to the stranger’s baby, we each became the bride’s “secret guardian.”   Knowing my sisters and mother as I do, I‘m pretty certain that many silent prayers were said for her, asking she be blessed with a long and happy marriage.  She’ll never know that, which is part of the beauty of the encounter to me.

 

As luck would have it, on the next day we were seated for lunch at the very same table. Which is where I left the poem.

 

That’s a long story to show how Naomi Shahib Nye’s “Wedding Cake” is suited to its site. The protective feeling the speaker has towards the baby and the unexpected connection between two strangers are exactly what we experienced with our bride on her “Final Fling.”

 

On to the poem itself.

 

Being left with a stranger’s baby on a plane for an hour is a Billy Collins kind of moment.  Like Collins, Nye has a light touch, a droll perspective. But Billy Collins couldn’t have written this poem.  Such situations rarely happen to men, and if they do, it’s all Three Men and a Baby and Do I Really Have to Change This Diaper?!  Mothers, on the other hand, often ask other women to hold their babies—probably not for an hour, but still, mothers need a free hand now and then and sometimes have to rely on the kindness of strangers. But the absurd situation is not at the heart of the poem. “I did not want/to give her back,” the speaker says. A connection has been forged, a connection that goes beyond the physical pleasures of holding a beautiful baby.

 

Dressed so fancy in her white dress with little gold earrings, the baby seems to me Hispanic.  I mention this because cultural exchange is central to Nye’s work.  In an interview with the online journal Cerise, she offers her recipe for increasing tolerance:

Spend more time with people not your own age. With people from backgrounds which do not mirror your own. With anyone you might consider an “other” — even urban people need to spend more time with small-town or rural people, etc.

 

The speaker and the baby are traveling in a plane, above borders, free to connect across cultures, age difference, time, language or the lack of it.  Spending time with the baby, the speaker begins to identify with her.  They both cry.  They both wear jewelry.  The baby even wears what looks like a wedding dress, a signature dress in a grown woman’s life. Even without a common language—the baby presumably doesn’t speak—the speaker bonds so deeply with the baby that she can “read” the baby’s curls. They will become part of each others’ future lives.

 

The poem leaves me with some questions, as poems usually do. Does anyone have idea about these lines:

She could slip the card into a pocket,

and pull it out.

What’s the card?  Did the speaker write this poem on a card and imagine the baby keeping it as she grows up?

 

I’m also mulling over the end.  I’m interested in how other people understand this:

Already she knew the small finger

was funnier than the whole arm.

I can picture the speaker tickling and teasing the baby with her little finger, or the baby examining her own pinkie.  This is presented as a lesson the speaker has imparted to the baby.  How else do the lines work in the poem? Why do they end the poem?

 

Naomi Shahib 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.

 

ImageTime for the Third Annual Valentine’s Day Poem Elfing.  (If you’re looking for more love poems, you can check out previous Valentine’s Day posts in 2013 and 2012.)  

 

Coincidentally, just as I was sitting down to work on this post, I got a Valentine in the mail.  I can’t think of the last time I got a Valentine in the mail.  Such a little thing to make me so happy! Maybe these poems will spread a little happiness too.

 

In a candy store full of Valentine’s Day treats, I left James Laughlin’s “You Came as a Thought” by a biscotti jar at the front register:

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I send this out to my 87 year-old aunt, long widowed from the love of her life and now happily dating a man she’s known since childhood. Here in a nutshell is why love can be so beautiful:  you came as a song when I had/ finished singing 

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Clearly I’m partial to the love between old people, because I left another poem for elderly lovers at the post office.  “Words from the Front” by Ron Padgett is on the window to the right of the door.

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Judy Garland may sing about the ickiness of overhearing other people’s love babble in “Baby Talk” from the movie Easter Parade, but somehow Padgett makes us glad to listen to it.

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There’s a path along a creek where I love to leave poems because a woman I’ve never seen leaves lovely art projects there from time to time. She uses old flowers, pine cones, twigs and rocks.  Her works were nowhere to be seen, buried in snow, out of season I guess, as is Robert Burns’ “A Red, Red Rose.”  The poem is attached to a little branch on a vine-covered tree:

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The first line of the poem is so overly-familiar that I never noticed how beautiful the rest of it is.  I’d love to hear these words every day:   And I will love thee still, my dear/Till a’ the seas gang dry. And who wouldn’t rather hear “Fare thee well!” than “Later!”?

 

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In the hair care aisle of CVS I left a delicate little Japanese poem by a poet named Hitomaro.  The poem is leaning against the pink shampoo bottle on the top shelf.

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I’ve had this poem a long time (it was from a little cloth-bound book of haikus belonging to my father) and I’ve always thought it deeply romantic.  

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Without intending to, I poem-elfed two poems by poet and novelist Vikram Seth.  I chose them for those people who have a hard time on Valentine’s Day.  The first one, “Protocols,” I left on the gym doors of a local high school.  The poem is on the glass to the right of the white doors.

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High school seemed a fitting place for a poem about the aftermath of a fight.  But high schoolers don’t have a monopoly on drama between friends and lovers, so I send this out to all who desire reconciliation or resolution in their relationships.

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The second poem by Vikram Seth, “All You Who Sleep Tonight,” I left at a roadside motel.  The poem is on the orange post in front of room 42.

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The motel struck me as a lonely-hearts place:

IMG_0849  And here’s the poem:

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Finally, a Valentine poem for my own sweetheart.  I put Grace Paley’s “Love”  in his backpack as I drove him to the airport.  He’s in China, leaving us both alone on Valentine’s Day, so I sent him with a poem to connect us.

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I love that moment Paley describes of seeing the long-loved person anew.  That’s a moment I’ll experience myself when my husband of 26 years returns home after two weeks away.

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Happy Valentine’s Day!  To one and all! Love is for every single human being, not just for couples.  Give it, take it, spread it, relish it.

 

poem is on interior glass wall of bus stop

poem is on interior glass wall of bus stop

Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind

by William Shakespeare

 

Blow, blow, thou winter wind,

Thou art not so unkind

As man’s ingratitude;

Thy tooth is not so keen,

Because thou art not seen,

Although thy breath be rude.

Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:

Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:

Then, heigh-ho, the holly!

This life is most jolly.

 

Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,

That dost not bite so nigh

As benefits forgot:

Though thou the waters warp,

Thy sting is not so sharp

As friend remembered not.

Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly…

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I was going to start this post with “Polar vortex, meet Mr. Shakespeare.”  But after looking over my pictures, I’m going with, “Polar vortex, meet Bridget.”

 

Bridget is the woman who was waiting for the bus when I put Shakespeare’s poem “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind” in the bus shelter.

 

I entered the bus shelter a little embarrassed. (My typical reaction to poem-elfing.)  “Excuse me,” I told the woman standing inside, as if I had barged into a private residence. “I leave poems around town, and I just want to take a picture of this one.”

 

I asked her how she was bearing up in the cold, and she said, “It’s fine!  I’m just waiting and singing,” she said.

 

Now, don’t be deceived by the sunshine in the picture. This was a bitterly cold day. The sub-zero temperatures had closed schools, kept plumbers busy and most people indoors.   The inside of the bus shelter was protected from the wind, but it was still no summer picnic. And there was Bridget singing. Singing!

 

She told me she was singing church songs. “Hallelujah, My God,” I think she said.

 

I felt a little ridiculous, my poem-elfing a fool’s errand.  Anyone singing praise to God on the coldest day of the year didn’t need Shakespeare to tell her winter’s not so bad.

 

Shakespeare’s poem is actually meant to be sung too, but it’s not exactly a tune for Maria von Trapp to brave her way through a thunderstorm.  It’s dark and cynical, better suited to Liz Lemon than Maria. The song is from Shakespeare’s comedy “As You Like It.” A character named Lord Amiens sings “Blow, Blow” to a duke who’s been living in the woods because he’s been usurped by his younger brother.  Also listening to the song is a starving young man named Orlando who’s been betrayed and driven out of his kingdom by his older brother.   Both the duke and Orlando have found friendship and love to be “feigning“ and “folly.” And yet before and after this bitter little poem is sung, the two men conduct themselves with great kindness. Orlando will not eat until his elderly companion Adam eats.  The duke feeds the starving men and ends the scene with this gentleness:  “Give me your hand/And let me all your fortunes understand.”

 

So it’s all of a piece.  The sting of bad weather hurts less than the sting of a bad friend; the sting of a bad friend is offset by the kindness of good ones.

 

And this is Michigan, so if you don’t like the weather, as the old joke goes, wait a few minutes.

 

Or take a cue from Bridget and sing your way through it.  (If you need a little help in that department, here’s a version of “Blow, Blow,” the least stuffy one I could find.)

Rising from the dead

poem is on narrow window to the right of the door

poem is on narrow window to the right of the door

 

The Morning Baking

by Carolyn Forche

 

Grandma, come back, I forgot

How much lard for these rolls

 

Think you can put yourself in the ground

Like plain potatoes and grow in Ohio?

I am damn sick of getting fat like you

 

Think you can lie through your Slovak?

Tell filthy stories about the blood sausage?

Pish-pish nights at the virgin in Detroit?

 

I blame your raising me up for my Slav tongue

You beat me up out back, taught me to dance

 

I’ll tell you I don’t remember any kind of bread

Your wavy loaves of flesh

Stink through my sleep

The stars on your silk robes

 

But I’m glad I’ll look when I’m old

Like a gypsy dusha hauling milk

 

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Bread, sausage, potatoes, milk.  There’s a meal in Carolyn Forche’s “Morning Baking” and no wonder.  Food connects us to family history in a way old photographs can’t.  The touchstones of ethnic heritage–language, accent, music, dress, beliefs—may fade by second generation, but food remains, primal and pleasurable, inviting us to meet up with the ancestors.

 

Not that the poet’s interactions with her grandmother are all tea and crumpets, sweetness and light.  Family feeling is never simple. Forché wavers between disgust and longing, anger and love, feelings of abandonment and feelings of connection.  Even though she spends much of the poem accusing and attacking her grandmother, her admiration for the old woman balances out the anger.  Grandma may have beat her up in the back of the house, but Grandma also taught her to dance.

 

With the same mix of revulsion and pleasure, the poet watches her body change into her grandmother’s.  Grandma was what poet Grace Paley called “a woman in the old style.”  In Paley’s poem “Here,” the postmenopausal body pleases her to a degree uncommon in Western culture:

 

at last a woman

in the old style sitting

stout thighs apart under

a big skirt grandchild sliding

on off my lap a pleasant

summer perspiration

 

Forche’s initial reaction to such stoutness is more typical.  She’s “damn sick” of growing into a body she characterizes as potato-like, doughy, full of lard and yeasty smells.  But like everything else about Grandma, her body is a mixed bag. Far from losing her sexuality as she grew old and fat, Grandma was sensual in her beautiful silk robe, lusty with her raunchy jokes.

 

But it’s the strength of Grandma’s body, not the grossness of it or the sex of it, that comforts the poet and ends the poem:

 

But I’m glad I’ll look when I’m old

Like a gypsy dusha hauling milk

 

This ending sends me back to the beginning.  Notice that Grandma wasn’t “put in the ground”; she put herself in the ground, fierce and self-determining to the end.  The poet will walk the same path. The little girl voice who called out,  “Grandma, come back,” will become the grandmother she grieves for.

 

The poem raises (and there’s lots of raising and rising here) questions I can’t answer. Why does she blame Grandma for her Slav tongue, that is, why is it bad to have a Slav tongue? Why does she tell Grandma she can’t remember any bread when she clearly does? What are nights at the virgin in Detroit?  Pish-pish? But the longer I write about poetry, the more comfortable I am with not knowing all the answers. I understand enough. And that’s enough.

 

Carolyn Forché was born to a family of seven children in 1950 in Detroit, not far from the bakery where I put her poem. Knudsen’s Bakery in North Rosedale Park has been around since 1923, so perhaps the Forché family came here for a special treat, or at very least, drove past.  (Knudsen’s, by the way, has the best donuts I’ve ever had since I moved to Michigan from Maryland.  Light and full of air, they don’t sit like rocks in your stomach.  Great coffee cake too.)

 

Her father was a tool and die maker and her mother a journalist.  The grandmother in the poem, her father’s mother, lived with the family, but would disappear for weeks at a time without explanation.  When Forché was six, the family moved to a more rural area (now the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills) so that her father could have land for gardening.

 

Forché graduated from Michigan State and got her MFA from Bowling Green. After publishing her first book of poems at age 24, Forché went to El Salvador where she worked with Archbishop Oscar Romero, documenting human rights abuses.  The experience changed her poetry and her life.  Since then she has published widely, including three additional books of poetry, several translations, and an anthology, Against Forgetting, of poets who have witnessed the political horrors of war, prison, and torture.

 

She has received multiple awards for her poetry and for her work as a human rights activist.  She teaches at Georgetown University and lives in Bethesda, Maryland, my hometown, and once home to Montgomery Donuts, which sadly no longer bakes their glorious donuts.

 

 

 

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