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My eighth grade year was the Bicentennial year, and to celebrate our class put on a play. Our ever-enthusiastic music teacher Mrs. Enright put together a musical revue of U.S. history. The only part of the play I remember was singing the give-me-your-tired-your-poor portion of Emma Lazarus’ “New Colossus.” I can still sing it today, every note and every word. I thought it was beautiful then and I still do, the way the song builds to that grand last line: “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” (You can hear it here.)

 

We’ve come a long way from the golden door. These days I’d be singing, “I lift my lamp beside the silver cage.” Or as a host on Fox News put it, “walls made of chain link fences.”

 

I spent the afternoon driving around looking for chain link fences to post a bunch of poems, quotes and song lyrics I hadn’t used from the last go-round with a hot-button immigration issue. Surprising how many facilities use chain link fence and in how many different ways. None of the fences I found, obviously, are as horrifying as the ones in the news.

 

I’ll post my pictures without much comment.

 

On the fence enclosing a high school football stadium I left the poem mentioned above, Emma Lazarus’ “New Colossus,” which is the poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty.

poem is to the left of “Field is Closed” sign

 

The line “Send these, the homeless, tempest-toss to me” is lovely to sing when you know the melody.

 

On the fence of a dog park I left excerpts from “home” by Warsaw Shire

 

Warsan Shire is a British-Somali poet. You can hear her read the poem in its entirety here.

 

On the fence of an abandoned loading area for a big retail store I left Seamus Heaney’s “Mint.”

IMG_0325

poem is above blue trash

 

“Like the discarded ones we turned against

Because we’d failed them by our disregard.”

IMG_0324

 

On the fence surrounding the tennis courts of a local park I left words from Pope Francis.

poem is in center of picture and fence

 

The Pope delivered these words back in 2013 on the isle of Lampedusa which 166 African immigrants had drowned trying to reach.

 

On the fence surrounding a cemetery I left a portion of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

 

Johnson wrote the song in 1900 in celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. (Listen here.)

 

On the fence of a school for disabled children I left William Stafford’s “Experiments.”

 

“I whine . . ./ when the wind carries what is out there/ too near the room where my comfort is.”

 

Finally, I left a selection from the gospel of Matthew on the fence surrounding a country club golf course.

poem is between trees on a pole

 

Jesus of Nazareth, the most famous of all asylum seekers.

 

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Sympathy

by Paul Laurence Dunbar

 

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!

When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;

When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,

And the river flows like a stream of glass;

When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,

And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—

I know what the caged bird feels!

 

I know why the caged bird beats his wing

Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;

For he must fly back to his perch and cling

When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;

And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars

And they pulse again with a keener sting—

I know why he beats his wing!

 

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,

When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—

When he beats his bars and he would be free;

It is not a carol of joy or glee,

But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,

But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—

I know why the caged bird sings!

 

Okay it’s a little literal, putting a poem with the famous line “I know why the caged bird sings” on a cage of birds. I could have left it somewhere that highlights the metaphorical nature of “Sympathy,” say in a book about slavery or taped to a Confederate statue (hard to come by in Michigan), but I yam what I yam, as Popeye would say. Not particularly subtle.

 

This is a poem I thought I was familiar with, probably because the first line of the third stanza is the title of the more famous Maya Angelou autobiography. But reading it, I realized that if in fact I had the poem before I hadn’t felt it. It’s brutal, that bird beating its wings against the bars of its cage till it bleeds. The lovely pastoral vision of the first stanza makes it all the more painful.

 

I’ve always assumed “Sympathy” was about slavery. But I came across this explanation from the Library of Congress website from Dunbar’s wife Alice. (Dunbar worked at the Library of Congress for a time, a job that contributed to his poor health.):

 

 

The iron grating of the book stacks in the Library of Congress suggested to him the bars of the bird’s cage. June and July days are hot. All out of doors called and the trees of the shaded streets of Washington were tantalizingly suggestive of his beloved streams and fields. The torrid sun poured its rays down into the courtyard of the library and heated the iron grilling of the book stacks until they were like prison bars in more senses than one. The dry dust of the dry books (ironic incongruity!–a poet shut up with medical works), rasped sharply in his hot throat, and he understood how the bird felt when it beats its wings against its cage.

 

Of course it would be reductive to say the poem is about working in a dusty basement. Cages are everywhere. Some cages people put themselves in (alcoholism, for example, which Dunbar suffered from), and some cages people are forced into (enslavement, sorry Kanye). Dunbar was familiar with both and the powerful poem speaks to all.

 

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was born in Dayton, Ohio, the child of former slaves. His mother taught him to read when he was four and always encouraged his education. His parents separated when he was a toddler, and his father, who had escaped enslavement before the end of the Civil War and fled to Massachusetts to fight for the Union, died when Dunbar was twelve.

 

Dunbar was the only black student in an all-white high school. It’s amazing to me that in late 19thcentury America such a student could be class president, editor of the class paper and class poet, but he was. He wanted to go to college but had to work to support the family. Prevented from finding a job in the legal or newspaper world because of bigotry, he took a job as an elevator operator (another cage). During this time he self-published his first collection of poems and sold copies for a dollar to people riding on his elevator.

 

Orville Wright was a high school classmate and friend. He and his brother owned a publishing plant and published a black newspaper featuring Dunbar’s poems. Dunbar was also friends with Frederick Douglas and Booker T. Washington.

 

When he was 26 he married schoolteacher and poet Alice Moore. The marriage was unhappy and they would separate after four years. As newlyweds they moved to Washington, D.C. where Dunbar worked for the Library of Congress. When he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, they moved to Colorado for his health. To soothe his coughing fits doctors encouraged him to drink whiskey, which contributed to his alcoholism which in turn hastened his death at the early age of 33.

 

In addition to eleven volumes of poetry, Dunbar wrote novels, essays, short stories, plays and lyrics, notably for the musical comedy “Dahomey,” the first all-black Broadway production. He collaborated with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Anglo-African composer of “Deep River” fame. You can hear one of their pieces here.

 

Dunbar has a genius for constructing memorable phrases. His poem “We Wear the Mask” gives me shivers. Listen here to a punk version. (And if you think I was being literal, check these two jokers out.)

 

Another phrase of his co-opted in popular culture is the “Who Dat” cheer for the New Orleans Saints, originally from his lyrics to the song “Who Dat Chicken in Dis Crowd?” If you want to hear something from the NFL that’s not divisive, Aaron Neville’s mix of the Who Dat cheer with “Saints Go Marching In” accompanied by Saints players is positively infectious.

 

Finally, link here for a lovely Christmas Carol using his poem “Ring Out Ye Bells.”

 

 

. . . oh antic God return to me . . .

 

It’s not much of a poem blitz when you only feature two poems (three if you count my giveaways) but this year I’m feeling a little disengaged from Mother’s Day, my mother being gone two years now. Even so, two poems are enough when they’re as good as these.

 

I left Lucille Clifton’s “oh antic God” at the drugstore in the adult diaper aisle. No one wants to linger in the adult diaper aisle, a sad and embarrassing place, but maybe whoever comes across Clifton’s poem won’t mind pausing to take in her short tribute, her raw longing.

 

poem is in the foreground of middle shelf

 

oh antic God

by Lucille Clifton

 

oh antic God

return to me

my mother in her thirties

leaned across the front porch

the huge pillow of her breasts

pressing against the rail

summoning me in for bed.

 

I am almost the dead woman’s age times two.

 

I can barely recall her song

the scent of her hands

though her wild hair scratches my dreams

at night.   return to me, oh Lord of then

and now, my mother’s calling,

her young voice humming my name.

The poem is a glimpse of a woman long gone. Only aging children can fully appreciate that every mother—dead or just old, incontinent, thin-haired, stooped, sour-smelling—was once young and ripe with life. That mother from childhood is unreachable, so that what was once annoying or inconvenient, like being called into dinner in the middle of outdoor play, becomes what is most longed for.

 

return to me, oh Lord of then  

and now, my mother’s calling,

her young voice humming my name.

 

(The book I photocopied the poem from didn’t title this poem, so I assumed it was a continuation of the poem from the previous page, which it wasn’t. A long way of saying I mis-titled the copy I left. Pay no attention.)

 

I set Wendell Berry’s “To My Mother” on top of candy boxes at a fancy grocery store. This poem is so beautiful I felt I was leaving treasure. I hope some woman’s son long grown out of his rebellious stage finds the poem and cherishes his mother all the more.

poem on white candy box

 

To My Mother

by Wendell Berry

 

I was your rebellious son,

do you remember? Sometimes

I wonder if you do remember,

so complete has your forgiveness been.

 

So complete has your forgiveness been

I wonder sometimes if it did not

precede my wrong, and I erred,

safe found, within your love,

 

prepared ahead of me, the way home,

or my bed at night, so that almost

I should forgive you, who perhaps

foresaw the worst that I might do,

 

and forgave before I could act,

causing me to smile now, looking back,

to see how paltry was my worst,

compared to your forgiveness of it

 

already given. And this, then,

is the vision of that Heaven of which

we have heard, where those who love

each other have forgiven each other,

 

where, for that, the leaves are green,

the light a music in the air,

and all is unentangled,

and all is undismayed.

 

Berry’s poem awoke a memory that I keep at bay because it always makes me feel ashamed. And in a small wonder, the poem not only woke the memory but changed it for me.

 

Years ago my mother’s beloved brother, my Uncle Jack, who had visited me in Michigan from Texas in his old age and who I also loved, passed away. And I didn’t call her to say, how sad about Uncle Jack, how are you doing, how was the funeral. Maybe at first I was busy with little children. That’s an explanation, not an excuse because there was no good excuse for not calling her right away. Weeks went by and I still didn’t call her. It got to be a thing. I was so ashamed of not calling that I kept not calling. My mother never liked talking on the phone but still. I didn’t call. A month or two later my mother called me. I still remember weeding a bed of goatsbeard when the phone rang. “Maggie!” she said, as if she were surprised I were alive. I fell over myself apologizing, crying as I told her how sorry I was. Even now it makes me feel terrible to think of it, to consider how I’d feel if my one of my own daughters neglected to call me after a big loss like that.

 

But Berry’s poem switches the focus of that moment. Because my mother, like Berry’s mother, instantly forgave me. It wasn’t even a question. She just wondered, she said, that was all. She didn’t seem mad or hurt, just glad to be finally talking to me.

 

Ah. How lucky I am to have had a mother like that

 

Looking past my own experience to a country beset by hardening resentments and bitter reproach, I am all the more struck by the vision of heaven Berry paints, a place

 

where those who love

each other have forgiven each other

 

This forgiveness, freely given before the offense has even happened, is what allows heaven to be so heavenly. In such a place, Berry writes,

 

. . .  the leaves are green,

the light a music in the air,

and all is unentangled,

and all is undismayed.

 

 

Julia Kasdorf’s “What I Learned From My Mother” is a poem I’ve featured before. I had a dozen copies of it, so I left all of them at the train station when I picked up my daughter for the Mother’s Day weekend.

poem on bench

What I Learned From My Mother
by Julia Kasdorf
I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
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.

 

Happy Mother’s Day to all, especially to those who no longer have their mothers. And also to those who never knew their mothers and to those who had a mother not up to the job. We were all born of woman, and there is goodness in that.

 

 

 

This is a picture of my sister Josie and her late husband Edison. The poem-elfing that follows is a private one, written and posted as a thank-you to my other sister, Mary K.  With Josie’s and Mary K.’s permission, I’m sharing it with you.

 

A little background before you read the poem. Until late 2016 Josie and Edison lived in Ecuador with their two young girls. Then Edison was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor, glioblastoma (the same cancer Senator John McCain is fighting). In early 2017 the family came back to the States for treatment.

 

My mother had recently passed away and her house sold, so there was no “home base” for Josie and her girls to stay while Edison was in the hospital. They lived with different family members—his, hers—and generous friends. They changed houses often, depending on the logistics of the next day, sometimes nightly. (The street names mentioned in the poem are some of those homes.)

 

Every day of the seven- month ordeal, Josie drove and drove, dropping the girls off at school, heading up to Baltimore where Edison was in the hospital or rehab. She drove an old Mountaineer my sister Mary K loaned her. The car was almost thirty years old, had bad shocks (you’ll see the pun) and needed bricks behind the tires to stay in park. Still, it got Josie where she needed to go, and became, as you’ll see, her in-between home.

 

During the course of his brave fight, Edison lost the ability to speak, write, and walk. He passed away peacefully on July 8, 2018.

It was tragic. That’s what we all said. It’s so sad. It’s such a terrible situation. Pat phrases, necessary because the suffering of this man and his family was overwhelming to consider. Remembering that, I’m reminded of a story my sister Wizzie likes to tell of a co-worker who always said, in response to almost everything, “It’s so hard.” If someone was discussing their weekend and mentioned in passing that the tennis courts were crowded, this co-worker would say, “I know, it’s so hard.” The deli was out of root beer? The forecast rain? In-box full? “I know, it’s so hard.”

 

Her colleagues soon realized her pat phrase said more about what she was going through than what was being said. And that’s the thing about pat phrases. They allow us to gloss over suffering. They can keep us from hearing. They can prevent us from seeing.

 

Poetry is a counterpoint to that. Poetry breaks through pat responses. Poetry allows us to see a particular person, a particular situation, a particular emotion. That’s one reason I love Josie’s poem. It’s a look behind the curtain. As much as I thought I was aware of what she was going through, I wasn’t. This poem gives fresh insight. Reading the poem, I can see that she was, in spite of all the support that surrounded her, fundamentally alone in her suffering.

 

When Josie returned Mary K.’s car last week, she taped her poem to the front windshield.

 

 

So here’s the poem, in three overlapping pictures:

My home in-between. There’s a lot going on there.

 

I’m going to lighten the mood here a little and say that I myself am partial to in-between places, to any place I can pause before moving forward—a parked car, a hallway, the crook of a tree—and as long as we’re going back to childhood, Halfway Down the Stairs, as A.A. Milne says in his poem of the same name:

 

Halfway down the stairs

Is a stair

Where I sit.

There isn’t any

Other stair

Quite like

It.

I’m not at the bottom,

I’m not at the top;

So this is the stair

Where

I always

Stop.

  

Halfway up the stairs

Isn’t up,

And isn’t down.

It isn’t in the nursery,

It isn’t in the town.

And all sorts of funny thoughts

Run round my head:

“It isn’t really

Anywhere!

It’s somewhere else

Instead!”

 

Okay, pause ended, hit play. Back to It’s so hard.

“Oh Mountaineer,” Josie writes at the end, and I hear Walt Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” Whitman’s poem has a different spirit, not elegiac as here, but hopeful, forward-looking, a celebration of the pioneers’ bravery and fortitude.

 

I’m going to post it here for Josie, for her girls, for anyone who suddenly finds herself a pioneer, for those who are forced—unlike Whitman’s pioneers—to explore new territory when all they really want is to stay put in their old homes, the homes they love best.

 

PIONEERS! O PIONEERS!

 

COME my tan-faced children,

Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,

Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

For we cannot tarry here,

We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,

We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

O you youths, Western youths,

So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,

Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the fore-

most,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

Have the elder races halted?

Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond

the seas?

We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

All the past we leave behind,

We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,

Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

We detachments steady throwing,

Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep,

Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

We primeval forests felling,

We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines

within,

We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

 

 

A few more notes about love

Before the ever-abrupt end of our shortest month, here’s a follow-up to my annual Valentine’s Day Poem Blitz.

 

First, a face, a living Valentine.

 

 

 

Meet Pam Woolway, Short Order Poet. Her poetry is made-to-order and on-the-spot, each poem inspired by a single word supplied by the customer. She types them on a diner-style guest check, the green kind with the carbon copy so she can keep one for herself. She sets up her old-fashioned typewriter (is there any other kind?) at various locations on the island of Kauai. You can link to her blog here to learn more about her project.

 

I met her in a cool shop in Kapa’a called Kiko where she works and where she gave me a gift of one of her laminated poems. I kept it in my pocket for a couple of days (which is how it got bent), hoping to find a good spot for it. Eventually I came across a dog crate, and there I left “The Dog.”

 

poem is on top of crate, set against the yellow towel

 

The poem is a sweet reminder of the goodness of dogs and what they bring to our lives. It also gives me a question to meditate on. Who or what is “up” for me?

 

The crate was on the side of the road at a scenic overlook for Wailua Falls. No dog was inside—maybe he went to take a gander at his surroundings.

 

 

The second addendum to my Valentine’s Day poem blitz isn’t a poem at all. It’s a quote from Ali Smith’s beautiful novel Autumn.

 

I placed it at the base of the Kuilau Ridge Trail in Kapaa.

poem is in right forefront of photo

 

How do you feel about the last sentence? (In the end, not much else matters.) I myself don’t agree with it, but the desire to be seen truly is one that grows in me each year more than the last.

 

 

 

I don’t know what this flower is, but it’s got a hearts-and-ashes coloration befitting today’s unusual dual-celebration (Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, in case you didn’t know).

 

One note before I get to my annual Valentine’s Day Poem Blitz: I usually include a range of poems for all different kinds of Valentines, but not this year. These are all romantic if not downright erotic. No poems for Galentines and Palentines, no poems for lovers of nature and animals, no Christina Rossetti I’m-going-to-jump-in-the-river-and-drown poems. In a few weeks I’ll put up a separate Love Hurts post, and if I dig up enough poems about platonic love, I’ll do a Friendship Poem Blitz as well.

 

On with the show.

 

At a construction site in downtown Hanalei, Kauai, I left “Song” by W.H. Auden on a handicapped parking sign.

 

I don’t think I’d have a place in this lighthearted litany of what a person will do to “keep his date with Love” . . . I’m more of a wait-till-I-finish-drying-the-dishes gal . . . but I salute the fevered ones who can leave a task undone to get to the fun business.

 

 

A grocery store Valentine display was a good spot to put “The Revelation” by Coventry Patmore. The poem is balanced on top of a bottle of wine called Cupcake.

 

Here, the essence of all romantic fantasies:

Love wakes men, once a lifetime each;

           They lift their heavy lids, and look 

 

 

As a counterpoint to Patmore’s idea of “once a lifetime each,”  I placed Susanna Styve’s  “Mother in Love at Sixty” outside the same grocery store in a cart.

 

Methinks she doth protest too much . . .

 

 

Here’s Hanalei’s bookstore. I set “The Love Cook” by Ron Padgett on top of a Chinese cookbook. An hour later when I came back it was gone.

 

The most romantic words in the world?

Let me cook you some dinner.

 

 

I stuck “To Helen About Her Hair” by Robinson Jeffers in the bristles of a brush in the personal care aisle of the Hanalei grocery store. The gentleman to the right is inexplicably studying women’s hygiene products, but at least he didn’t bat an eye at my elf-ing.

 

If hair care bores you, think about this the next time you drag a brush through your locks:

I bid you comb it carefully,

For my soul is caught there,

Wound in the web of it.

 

 

“Are You Tired of Me, My Darling?” is poised on top of a trashcan.

 

This poem could fit in the Love Hurts post just as well as it does here, depending on the beloved’s answer to the question posed.

 

 

“Toast” by Leonard Nathan is nestled in a big piece of driftwood on Hanalei Bay.

 

I love this toast to a stranger never seen:

Love, whoever you are,

your courage was my companion

 

 

And finally, I put Kenneth Rexroth’s “A Dialogue of Watching” at the base of this traditional statue outside a surf shop.

 

Today of all days, let every lover say to the beloved

I have never known any

One more beautiful than you.

 

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! Celebrate love and spread it around.

 

Thanks but no thanks

poems are on car windshields all the way down the block

 

Thanks

by W.S. Merwin

 

Listen

with the night falling we are saying thank you

we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings

we are running out of the glass rooms

with our mouths full of food to look at the sky

and say thank you

we are standing by the water thanking it

standing by the windows looking out

in our directions

 

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging

after funerals we are saying thank you

after the news of the dead

whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

 

over telephones we are saying thank you

in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators

remembering wars and the police at the door

and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you

in the banks we are saying thank you

in the faces of the officials and the rich

and of all who will never change

we go on saying thank you thank you

 

with the animals dying around us

taking our feelings we are saying thank you

with the forests falling faster than the minutes

of our lives we are saying thank you

with the words going out like cells of a brain

with the cities growing over us

we are saying thank you faster and faster

with nobody listening we are saying thank you

thank you we are saying and waving

dark though it is

 

 

I had a few more left so I left “Thanks” on another street—

 

Who doesn’t believe in gratitude? Every religion and most women’s magazines instruct us to grateful. It’s the key to happiness, we’re told over and over. I myself love to be grateful and raised my kiddos to believe it’s the thank-you note, not cleanliness, that’s next to godliness.

 

But there are limits, as we see in W.S. Merwin’s “Thanks.” Does it make sense, he seems to ask, dark though it is and even with nobody listening to run around saying thanks, thank you, thanks so much. We begin to look like idiots. Because the rote “thank you” can be as empty as “thoughts and prayers” if there’s no accompanying action. Against Merwin’s litany of terrible events— illness, violence, death, injustice, ecological disaster, aging and memory loss—saying “thanks” seems anemic if not downright silly.

 

Someone else might read the poem differently, perhaps as an injunction to stay grateful no matter what. But given Merwin’s activism, I can’t read it any other way.

 

I left the poem in downtown Detroit, the same day the city learned it had not been a finalist for the Amazon headquarters. Thanks a lot!

 

Here’s a bio of Merwin from an earlier post:

W.S. Merwin was born in New York City in 1927. His father was a Presbyterian minister. He graduated from Princeton, and after a year of graduate study in Romance languages, traveled through Europe working as a translator and tutor to children from wealthy families. In 1976 he moved to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism, eventually settling on an old pineapple plantation in Maui, where he still lives today with his third wife.

 

Merwin’s circle has included many luminaries of the poetry world—he was classmates with Galwell Kinell, pupil to John Berryman, and friend of James Wright, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.

 

 

He was an anti-war activist during the Vietnam War and donated the prize money from the Pulitzer he won to a draft resistance movement. He continues to work as an activist, these days focusing on saving the rainforests of Hawaii.

 

He’s won too many awards and honors to list. I’ll just mention he’s a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the 2010 Poet Laureate of the United States, and leave it at that.