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I’m a lacksadaisical tweeter. A now-and-then and if-the-mood-strikes-me user of social media.

Which is why I only have 65 followers. That’s ten less people than I follow myself.

This post isn’t a plug for my twitter feed (I tried that here before and it didn’t help). It’s an announcement that I’m going to start posting some of my tweets on this blog. (Re-read that last sentence and realize that less than ten years ago it would have been complete gibberish.)

My tweets are different than my blog posts in that usually I use just a few lines from a longer poem instead of a complete poem. Also, I only feature pictures and I skip the commentary.

My latest one is  “Beauty School Dropout.” I left “Skin Deep” by Gail A. Chastain (the whole poem, because it was so short) at the Aveda Institute, a beauty school and salon.

poem is under sign and light fixture

poem is under sign and light fixture

 

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Of course, if you’d like to get all my tweets, follow me @poemelf.

 

 

poem is on the fence, next to my sister

poem is on the fence, next to my sister

 

Come. And Be My Baby

by Maya Angelou

 

The highway is full of big cars

going nowhere fast

And folks is smoking anything that’ll burn

Some people wrap their lies around a cocktail glass

And you sit wondering

where you’re going to turn

I got it.

Come. And be my baby.

 

Some prophets say the world is gonna end tomorrow

But others say we’ve got a week or two

The paper is full of every kind of blooming horror

And you sit wondering

What you’re gonna do.

I got it.

Come. And be my baby.

 

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To understand why I left Maya Angelou’s “Come. And Be My Baby” over a highway in suburban Maryland last week, you have to understand the atmosphere of persistent unease in the area and, more relevant, the nearly physical presence of the Cold War in my childhood home.

 

I was born three weeks after the Cuban Missile crisis in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. I don’t want to overstate the level of anxiety I grew up with, but my father’s periodic warnings that the Russians would be taking over soon were probably not conducive to childhood serenity. His paranoia was well-earned. He worked in the defense contracting industry, and as an ex-Naval officer, he had once been used as a guinea pig for nuclear bomb testing in Nevada. Everyone who lives in the D.C. area knows that the city has always been and always will be a target for enemies of our nation, but my dad actually planned for the day the target would be hit. When the bomb came, canned goods in the basement would keep us for a few days, and then we would move, all 13 of us, from wherever we found ourselves, to safer territory. He drew a circle around Washington with a radius of 200 miles to calculate how far we needed to go to avoid radiation poisoning. He decided that in the ensuing chaos of a nuclear bomb, our family meeting place was Morgantown, West Virginia. From my youngest days Morgantown, West Virginia was such an otherworldly place that when I first heard the Joni Mitchell song of the same name, I couldn’t believe Morgantown really existed. My sister remembers worrying, as a little girl, just how she was supposed to get to Morgantown by herself.

 

Let’s just say we didn’t take the stability of the world for granted.

 

End-of-the-world fears have been growing steadily everywhere in the last few months, but in Washington those fears seem a little more real. In this city of governance, policy and ideologues of every stripe, folks discuss ISIS, Gaza, Putin, and Assad like other people talk about the neighbor’s lawn upkeep. The memory of the Beltway Sniper is still fresh, and kids who grew up locked in for recess so they wouldn’t get picked off in the schoolyard now worry about taking the subway to work because of recent terrorist threats. At the time I left the poem, an ebola patient had just been transferred to NIH in Bethesda (now released, praise be), dangerous people were hopping the White House fence, and the headlines were full of the usual reports of international disintegration.

 

So I consider this poem-elfing a public service. I taped “Come. And Be My Baby” to the fencing on a pedestrian bridge along the Trolley Trail, a peaceful path that runs over and alongside some of the major arteries for big cars/going nowhere fast. (Notice that the bridge is fenced to prevent people from jumping off. There’ also this encouraging graffiti,

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which reads, “We all have a heart/we all breathe/the rest is up to you.”)

 

Of course, Maya Angelou’s poem is written in response to the struggles of African-Americans, but it transcends the particular as it lands, forty years later, as solace for anyone overwhelmed by all the blooming horror we live in.

 

Her call to love in the face of doom is a time-honored ploy of seduction. Think of “To the Virgins, to Make Much Use of Time” and these lines from “Dover Beach”:

 

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 

What’s different here, for me anyway, is that a woman is the seducer. Her tone is more mild than urgent, but no less effective. The punctuation lends her siren call its gentleness. She motions her lover over to her with the simple Come. Then she issues her invitation, as if she’s giving her lover time to consider it.

 

One line of the poem puzzles me: I got it. Is it I got it, as in, I got what you need, or is it I got it, as in, I understand all your worries? It depends on how the phrase is inflected. By chance I just found out I’ll have the answer soon. On November 4, an album of poems accompanied by hip-hop beats and gospel music that Angelou was working on when she died will be released. One of the tracks is “Come. And Be My Baby.”

 

I’ve listened to another one of the tracks (“Still I Rise,” link here–it’s great), and hearing Angelou’s deep and resonant voice makes me appreciate her poetry more than I used to. As Poetry Foundation writes:

 

Angelou’s poetry often benefits from her performance of it: Angelou usually recites her poems before spellbound crowds. Indeed, Angelou’s poetry can also be traced to African-American oral traditions like slave and work songs, especially in her use of personal narrative and emphasis on individual responses to hardship, oppression and loss.

 

And reading about her life makes me appreciate Angelou in a whole new way. I say this as someone who’s had a resistance to her. I loved I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as much as anyone, but the reverence afforded her poems and her person (and worse, her collaboration with Hallmark Cards on the Mosaic line), left me cold. The slightest scent of hagiography will send me running off in the opposite direction.

 

But what she lived through and what she accomplished! My goodness, I’ve come late to the party. Any one of the events of her life is enough for a movie, but her life is so jammed-pack with significant moments that The Maya Angelou Story would not be a believable script.

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 2.56.13 PMShe was born in 1928 in St. Louis, but after her parents’ divorce when she was 3 or 4, was sent to live in Arkansas with her grandmother. Over the years she was shuffled back and forth between her mother and grandmother, eventually landing in San Francisco. During one of the visits with her mother, when she was 8, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She confided in her brother, who told the family. The rapist was sent to jail, released after a day, and then murdered, reportedly by Angelou’s uncles. After his murder, Angelou stopped speaking. She blamed her speaking out for his death.

 

With the help of a teacher, the appropriately named Mrs. Bertha Flowers, Angelou started speaking four or five years later. And then her life took off. She became San Francisco’s first African American female streetcar driver while still in high school. She gave birth at 17 to a boy, and worked as a waitress and cook to support herself and her child. She married a white man, a Greek sailor and musician, despite the difficulties of interracial marriage at the time. She studied dance under Martha Graham, and formed a dance partnership with Alvin Ailey before he became famous.

 

She sang and danced at a nightclub. She recorded a Calypso album in 1957 and wrote and performed in an off-Broadway review called Calypso Heat Wave and later a film based on that show. She toured Europe in Porgy and Bess. As she traveled, she taught herself the language of every country she visited. She was fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and a West African language called Fanti.

 

In 1959 she moved to New York and joined the Harlem Writers Guild, befriending James Baldwin who became her mentor. Upon hearing Dr. Martin Luther King speak, she became an organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 2.51.49 PMIn 1961 she performed in a Jean Genet play, The Blacks, along with legendary actors Cicely Tyson, Lou Gossett, James Earl Jones. She moved to Cairo with her son, where she worked as an editor at an English language newspaper, and on to Ghana where she served as an administrator at a university.

 

Angelou was devastated by the assassinations of her close friends Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Shortly after she produced a 10-part documentary on the blues.

 

She wrote the first of her seven autobiographies in 1969 (the last one published when she was 83), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She wrote a screenplay, she wrote soundtracks, she acted in the television mini-series Roots and several other shows, she wrote music for singer Roberta Flack (listen here) and B.B. King (and here). She gave the inaugural poem for President Clinton, the first poet to do so since Robert Frost spoke at Kennedy’s inauguration. In 1996 she directed a feature film with Wesley Snipes. Along the way she published cookbooks, earned over 50 honorary degrees and awards–a Tony, an Emmy and the National Medal of Freedom among them–and in her last few months worked on the posthumous album I mentioned earlier.

 

She is exhausting. A lifetime of nonstop creativity.

 

In the poem I left on the bridge, Angelou lists three antidotes to struggle and stress: drinking, drugs and love. But her amazing life suggests a fourth one.

 

Creative work, in case you skimmed over that long biography.

poem is on trashcan

poem is on trashcan

 

Equinox

 

by Elizabeth Alexander

 

Now is the time of year when bees are wild

and eccentric. They fly fast and in cramped

loop-de-loops, dive-bomb clusters of conversants

in the bright, late-September out-of-doors.

I have found their dried husks in my clothes.

 

They are dervishes because they are dying,

one last sting, a warm place to squeeze

a drop of venom or of honey.

After the stroke we thought would be her last

my grandmother came back, reared back and slapped

 

a nurse across the face. Then she stood up,

walked outside, and lay down in the snow.

Two years later there is no other way

to say, we are waiting. She is silent, light

as an empty hive, and she is breathing.

 

 

IMG_2015

 

Years ago I visited a dear friend a few days before she died from cancer. She was sleeping when I came into her bedroom. She was so shrunken and still and dessicated that I thought for a moment she might already have passed. Her heavy eyes opened at the sound of my voice. It seemed to take her a moment to process who I was, and a moment longer to realize that I was there to visit the sick, and that this was a sickroom and she was the sick person. All the sudden she sprang up like a jack-in-the-box and got out of bed. “Let’s open the blinds, it’s so dark in here,” she said. She took a step or two with her old energy, but I got her back in bed before her bones collapsed under the little weight she had.

 

It was a shock to see her so suddenly up on her feet—as if she had risen from the dead before she was dead—but it was also, if it’s okay to say, a little comical. Like she didn’t get the memo that she was on her deathbed. Like she thought, Damn, this room is depressing.

 

So forgive me if I also find humor in Elizabeth Alexander’s beautiful poem “Equinox.” Grandma slapping the nurse, marching out into the snow while the family stands around the hospital bed in shock–I love that kind of crazy, that refusal to stop living, that last burst of energy, which as Alexander says, could be a drop of venom or of honey. Either way shows a defiance I admire. She’s Dylan Thomas’ dictum come to life:

 

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at the close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

 

What’s marvelous about this poem is that the comedy of the grandmother’s behavior sits side by side with the painful vigil of the family, and neither side is denigrated. There is no other way to say, the speaker says, slightly ashamed to admit that the family is ready for her to permanently rest in peace. Waiting two years for someone to die must be tedious and unnerving. The poem’s title, “Equinox,” becomes an unanswered wish. The equinox is a temporary suspension of reality, a single day of near perfect balance between day and night. The grandmother’s state—neither dead nor fully alive—begs for a resolution that does not come. The last line of the poem is chilling, like the last line of a ghost story: and she is still breathing.

 

The unsettledness of this perpetual equinox is steadied by the poem’s tight structure. Like a sturdy tripod, the three stanzas balance the loop-de-loops and the loopiness. The bees and the grandmother, mirroring each other as they do, each get their own stanza. They meet in the middle stanza, and the transition is so nimble I keep going back to it.

 

I left the poem a week before the autumn equinox (September 23 this year) on a trashcan near a picnic area. Any other year that might have been counterproductive. Swarms of bees would prevent people from lingering to read the poem. But this year I haven’t seen bees in weeks. Maybe that’s because of CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) or maybe because here in Michigan our season of mists and mellow fruitfulness came and left in a matter of hours. Sandals and nearly nude runners are long gone too, and woe is me and everyone else in the state as we look forward to a winter worse than last year’s.

 

Screenshot 2014-10-08 11.02.36Poet, essayist and playwright Elizabeth Alexander was born in 1962 in Harlem but was raised in Washington , D.C. There her father, Clifford Alexander, Jr., served as Chairman of the Equal Opportunity Commission under President Johnson and Secretary of the Army for the Carter administration. Her mother was a writer and professor of African-American women’s history at George Washington University.

 

Alexander graduated from Yale and then earned her Master’s at Boston University and her PhD at University of Pennsylvania.

She worked as a reporter for the Washington Post for a year, but left to teach at the University of Chicago. There she met Barack Obama who was a senior lecture at the law school. When he was elected president, he asked her to compose and deliver the inaugural poem. You can read “Praise Song for the Day” here.

 

She also taught at Smith College and currently at Yale University, where she chairs the African American Studies department. She’s a founding member of Cave Canem, a recipient of an NEA grant, a Guggenheim fellowship, and two Pushcart Prizes, among many other awards.

 

A widow, she lives with her two sons in New Haven, Connecticut.

 

Fun fact: the PBS miniseries “Faces of America” revealed that Alexander is distantly related to comedian Stephen Colbert. Coincidentally she had appeared on the Colbert Report a year before that connection came out. It’s a really funny interview in which she answers the question, “What is the difference between a metaphor and . . . A LIE?”  Watch here.

 

 

Today is National Poetry Day, and I feel like I’ve been caught without my school project completed. I’m stalling in the hallway, scribbling out enough verbiage to meet the word count, hoping I don’t get asked to read it out loud.

 

I got nothing prepared, folks.

 

But as it happens, I visited Artprize in Grand Rapids yesterday and had an experience that I can connect to National Poetry Day, so here goes.

 

Artprize is an international competition, now in its sixth year, that brings art out into the community in a spirit I also try to embrace in this blog. The competition is open to anyone, and anyone can help with the judging. (The grand prize is $200,000, and visitors can vote as often as they like, but only once for each entry.) Entries are exhibited in coffee shops, abandoned buildings, banks, boutiques, public museums, and even in the river.

Alex Podesta's "Self Portrait as Bunnies (The Bathers)"

Alex Podesta’s “Self Portrait as Bunnies (The Bathers)”

 

One of the entries was WeavePeace.

IMG_2163

WeavePeace, an installation on the grounds of the Grand Rapids Public Museum, is a cooperative project between visitors and the artist, Michele Miller-Hansen. WeavePeace began as a bare structure, but in a week’s time has sprouted hundreds of strips of colorful messages. IMG_2160Artprize visitors write intentions and wishes for peace, and tie them to the dome.

 

 

 

Michele Miller-Hansen, on the left

Michele Miller-Hansen, on the left

I spoke with the artist, who hangs around inside the dome for a few hours every day. She said she’s pleased that WeavePeace seems to make those who visit feel happy. “Our world is so busy,” she said, “and people come in here and they get to slow down.” People read strips other visitors have written, spend time thinking of what they’d like to write themselves, and enjoy the beauty of the strips fluttering in the wind.

 

That sure sounds like the work of poetry to me. Poetry forces readers to slow down, reflect, connect, and appreciate beauty, if only the beauty of language and concision.

 

As I stood inside the dome with my friends waiting on the corner, ready to move on, I had trouble coming up with a poem related to peace. Finally I came up with the last lines of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.” (Yes, these lines are overly-familiar, popping up everywhere these days, but I guess that’s why I remembered them.)

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Here’s the full (and more legible) text:

WILD GEESE

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

(Italics mine.)

Good luck to artist Michele Miller-Hansen!

 

I took a few photos of other entries.

 

This one you have to experience. I can’t tell you how beautiful it is when you find yourself covered in lacy shadows.

"Intersections" by Anila Quayyum Agha at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. So beautiful!

“Intersections” by Anila Quayyum Agha at the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

 

My favorite, “Maternal Fortitude” by Lindsay Moynihan, is at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.

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I took a picture of the artist’s statement for my daughter, who wants to be a midwife:

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Finally, a mural in front of the Gerald Ford Museum, which artist Tom Panei is completing as visitors watch:

"I Hear the Train a Comin'"

“I Hear the Train a Comin’”

 

Artprize runs through October 12. Visit if you can.

 

 

 

poem is on red post in foreground

poem is on red post in foreground

A Note to the Alien on Earth

by Miller Williams

 

Here, in the interest of time, some words to work with,

assuming you’re pretending to be a man

or woman and understand English. If this should find you,

know that I’m glad to help any way I can.

 

A letter beginning “Dear Friend” is not from a friend.

A “free gift” is redundant and not free.

A teenager is sex with skin around it.

The one word used as much as “I” is “me.”

 

People who are politically correct,

which means never offending by what they say,

will lie about other things, too. Be careful with them.

And people insulting groups of people may

 

look in the mirror too much or not enough.

What you say is not what anyone hears.

Be wary of one who is always or never sad.

And try to be patient with us. It looks bad,

but we’ve only had a few hundred thousand years.

 

 

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If the overload of cruelty and carnage in the world makes you want to hide in a shed with a year’s worth of canned goods and rom-coms, Miller Williams is here to coax you out. With his gentle humor and folksy wisdom, Williams tells us that yeah, we’ve got trouble, but nothing that a little patience and understanding can’t make right.

 

For sure this isn’t poetry to set the world on fire, and for sure his ribbing doesn’t address the very worst of modern American problems. He limits his catalogue of our ills to the culture of marketing and politics of division–but just relax for a moment and enjoy. As mothers of teenagers love to tell mothers of toddlers, little problems can be a relief sometimes from much worse ones.

 

Here, in the interests of time, begins his Spark notes on the human race. Because the poem begins and ends with a mention of time, I posted the poem near a clock tower in a northern Michigan resort town.

 

I love this explanation of one of our most salient traits:

 

people insulting groups of people may

look in the mirror too much or not enough.

 

And all of us who enjoy standing on the soapbox now and then should heed this line:

 

What you say is not what anyone hears.

 

Miller Williams is turning into a regular feature here on Poem Elf. (Link here and here for past posts.) I love his lack of pretension, his sweetness, his habit of looking things square in the eye and speaking plainly. He’s a modern day Will Rogers. Others have described him as “the Hank Williams of American poetry. While his poetry is taught at Princeton and Harvard, it’s read and understood by squirrel hunters and taxi drivers.” (Quote from the Poetry Foundation’s biography of Williams.)

 

(The other thing I love about Miller Williams is that he’s the father of singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams. Her sublime “Are You Alright” has been playing in my head since I dropped my youngest off at college a few weeks ago. If you’ve got five minutes to spare, listen here.)

 

I’ve already written a bio of Williams in an earlier post, so I’ll just copy and paste:

 

Miller Williams performing with his daughter Lucinda Williams

Miller Williams performing with his daughter Lucinda Williams

Miller Williams was born in Hoxie, Arkansas in 1930.  His father was a Methodist minister, and the family often moved around small towns in Arkansas.  Although he loved poetry and enrolled in college to study it, he was told he had shown no verbal aptitude in his entrance exam and was urged to study science.  He got his bachelor’s degree in biology and his masters in zoology.  Later he taught biology at a small college in Georgia, where he met and befriended Flannery O’Connor who lived nearby.  There’s a great story about how O’Connor wrote to the English department at Louisiana State University and told them that the poet they wanted to hire at present was teaching biology at Wesleyan College. Williams sent them some of his work and got the job. He taught at various universities in his long career, eventually coming back to teach at the University of Arkansas.

Williams is father to the great singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, and was mentor to her ex-boyfriend and poet Frank Stanford.  Williams gave the inaugural poem at fellow-Arkansian Bill Clinton’s 1997 inauguration, which you can watch here.

 

 

 

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.

 

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