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American Rumi

 

To the mountain of tributes to the great Mary Oliver, I add this little pebble.

 

In a world with so many hysterical people running loose, shouting and fighting and festering outrage, I miss her. Or I miss the idea of her, the poet walking along the shore in her barn jacket, quiet and alone, observing. This wise chronicler of grief and joy, confusion and discovery, this plain-dressing, plain-spoken witness to the extravagant beauty of the natural world, this translator of the unvoiced spiritual impulse, this New England gal, our very own American Rumi—is gone, alas. Fortunately her poems are here to stay. She’ll be read for ages.

 

 

The poem below is not one of her greatest hits, but I’ve been thinking about it since I came across it. Like so many of her poems, it’s planted a seed in my soul that has taken root.

 

This Morning

by Mary Oliver

 

This morning the redbirds’ eggs

have hatched and already the chicks

are chirping for food. They don’t

know where it’s coming from, they

just keep shouting, “More! More!”

As to anything else, they haven’t

had a single thought. Their eyes

haven’t yet opened, they know nothing

about the sky that’s waiting. Or

the thousands, the millions of trees.

They don’t even know they have wings.

 

And just like that, like a simple

neighborhood event, a miracle is

taking place.

*. *. *

Spend today—spend tomorrow, spend every day of the rest of your life for Pete’s sake—thinking about those little birds and what they don’t know. The trees that await. The wings waiting to be used. So much is beyond our perception. Again and again in her long career Oliver lifted the veil and gave us a glimpse of the trees, the sky, our wings.

 

R.I.P. Mary Oliver. With thanks from a grateful reader.

 

They don’t even know they have wings. 

 

 

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Sorry for the blurry photo—it was taken in a moving car at 5 in the morning—but if you squint it looks like an abstract painting, rather pretty.)

 

Alaska With Jess

by Jacqueline Zeisloft

 

Whipping past black spruces and whites ones, too

we weave; fast enough for falling thistles

not to land in our hair.

I am not cold

 

But you are.

Little complainer, I love you.

A scarf in August, shielding your soft face,

blinding you to the mountains

where I imagine we are going.

 

Everyone else is inside

Reading fantasy or eating soup.

The back carriage is open

To three blunt sides, as I grip

the railing and your small hand.

 

They say it’s twice the size of Texas.

I say we sleep in the dining car

and grow up on the rails.

Together.

 

Hello 2019, and in with the new, as they say. In this case, a new poet, a young woman I met at a book launch whose friend “outed” her to me as a poet. I told her I’d post one of her poems if she sent me a few, so here’s a big hearty welcome to “Alaska With Jess,” the first Poem Elf post of the year.

 

“Alaska With Jess” eluded me the first few times I read it. Some poems are like shy people, they need patience and time. You can’t just keep lobbing questions—What does this mean? Why this?—you have to allow the poem to unfold on its own terms.

 

Which it did, serendipitously. Christmas Eve on the way to the airport, poem in hand, trying to place it before the year was out, in the early cold morning in the back seat of an Uber, just my son and me beginning an adventure, our near and dear left behind and asleep, I was suddenly struck that I was living out a smaller version of the poem.

 

Experiencing a poem on a visceral level is a wondrous thing. Reading over the poem in the dark by light of my cell phone as we sped down the highway, I felt the excitement of the poem’s speaker as she imagines the huge mountains ahead. I looked over at my sleepy son and flushed with the tenderness she feels towards the young child in her charge who she has taken to the back of the train to showcase the view.

 

The speaker has made the choice of adventure over coziness. Those inside the train are settled with their soup and books. Those outside see what’s moving past, and in their mind’s eye they see the scenery ahead. Isn’t this just the thing for a new year, this gift of the young? Over and over they bring us to the world. Over and over we beg them to make life new again. There they are, perched on the back of the train, seeing what we don’t and bubbling over with excitement. How we need that.

 

Born in LaGrange, Illinois in 1995, poet Jacqueline Zeisloft dreamed of becoming a country music star until she decided to get her degree in English Lit at Belmont University in Nashville. Her most important influence is 20th century Scottish poet WS Graham (I’m going to look him up). She’s also inspired by Adrienne Rich, Walt Whitman, Naomi Shihab Nye, Frank O’Hara, Seamus Heaney, Sappho, e.e. cummings and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. She’s especially taken with the Beat poets.

 

So young, so full of creative energy and talent. Keep travelling, Jacqueline. Keep seeing the world with such excitement, and keep reporting back.

 

Happy New Year, everyone!

 

********

 

[From the Department of Shameless Plugging and also the Department of Anti-Out-With-the Old:  The book launch I mentioned above was for a book my daughter Rosemary co-edited with the dare-I-say venerable Tom McGrath, frequent commentator on this blog. Sharing the Wisdom of Time is an inspiring collection of interviews with elderly people across the world, from all walks of life, from Martin Scorsese to a blind basket weaver in Kenya. The accompanying photographs are gorgeous—each face tells its own story. The interviews cover subjects like love, work, struggle, faith, and death, and they’re all short, so you can dip in now and then and read a few whenever the need for wisdom, perspective and kindness hits. It’s a book for everyone, a beautiful reminder that what we humans have in common far outweighs what divides us. You can purchase from Loyola Press here or, for Amazon shoppers, here.]

poem is in backpack

 

Ask Much, the Voice Suggested

by Jane Hirshfield

 

Ask much, the voice suggested, and I startled.

Feeling my body like the trembling body of a horse

tied to its tree while the strange noise

passes over its ears.

I who in extremity had always wanted less,

even of eating, of sleeping.

Agile, the voice did not speak again, but waited.

“Want more” –

a cure for longing I had not thought of.

But that is how it is with wells.

Whatever is taken refills to the steady level.

The voice agreed, though softly, to quiet the feet of the horse:

A cup taken out, a cup reappears; a bucketful taken, a bucket.

 

 

One evening long ago when my youngest daughter was getting ready for her first concert, I leaned in the bathroom doorway to watch with bemusement as she straightened her hair, lengthened her lashes, and went on and on about how excited she was. “This is going to be the greatest night of my life!” she said.

 

“Well,” I felt compelled to say, having seen the disappointment many such nights brought her older siblings, ”it probably won’t be the best night of your life.”

 

Poet Jane Hirshfield might take issue.

 

All these years later, take issue. I take issue with that mother so intent on instilling the stoicism of her own youth, so keen to teach her kids to expect less so that more is always a happy surprise that she sucked the joy right out of the bathroom, or as my husband likes to pantomime, stomped on the flower just as it was coming up from the ground.

 

By way of a belated apology, I gave “Ask Much, The Voice Suggested” to that same daughter. I slipped it in her backpack at the airport as she left for a year abroad to teach English. Obviously she didn’t learn from her mother to fear disappointment more than missed opportunity.

 

In my late middle-age I begin to get it. I think many people my age do. Ask much. Want more. Not more stuff. More life. Want more of people, of relationships, of time. Life holds so much possibility, so much that’s splendid and variable, why settle for less? Why settle for screen time and soulless shopping and obsessions and anxieties about our bodies? There’s so much more than that. Ask much.

 

Obviously the poem can’t be boiled down to aphorisms. Like the well described at the end (a wishing well, I see now), it’s a poem that re-fills even as you think you’re draining it. Where does the voice come from? Who is that horse, what is that tree, that tether?

 

The final lines trip me up, even after many years of reading them. Maybe it’s my utter confusion around physical science and fluid mechanics, but I don’t understand. In real-life, practical terms, how does getting something re-fill the well? Or is the well re-filling with wanting, with asking, not with the actual thing asked for, and if so, how does that solve the problem of wanting more? You see that I am dense. Anyone who can help me work through this, come forward.

 

But even in my confusion I understand that for the poet, as for me, the voice is benevolent. The voice is on her side. It wants for her what she’s afraid to want for herself. It’s agile when it first comes, suggesting eagerness, readiness to help, and then it’s soft in consideration of the trembling horse still tied to the tree.

 

I’ve been lucky enough in life that such benevolence is not hard to understand.

 

Jane Hirshfield was born in 1953 in New York City.  After graduating from the first Princeton class to include women, she moved to San Francisco to study Zen Buddhism for eight years. She’s published eight books of poetry and, as a translator of Japanese poetry, helped popularize tanka in the United States. She’s won numerous awards and taught at many universities including Stanford, Duke and Univerisity of Virginia.

 

I read an interview with her from PalettePoetry.com and came across this question-and-answer which I suspect is relevant to “Ask Much, the Voice Suggested.”

 

Q:  HOW DO YOU CLIMB OUT OF A DRY SPELL OF WRITING?

 

JH: By longing. I grow lonely for poems, the way you would grow lonely for an absent lover. And then they return. Longing is the ladder we meet on.

 

 

 

Not really funny but . . .

poem is next to fountain soda

 

What the Gypsies told My Grandmother While She Was Still a Young Girl

by Charles Simic

 

War, illness and famine will make you their favourite grandchild.

You’ll be like a blind person watching a silent movie.

You’ll chop onions and pieces of your heart

into the same hot skillet.

Your children will sleep in a suitcase tied with a rope.

Your husband will kiss your breasts every night

as if they were two gravestones.

 

 

Already the crows are grooming themselves

for you and your people.

Your oldest son will lie with flies on his lips

without smiling or lifting his hand.

You’ll envy every ant you meet in your life

and every roadside weed.

Your body and soul will sit on separate stoops

chewing the same piece of gum.

 

 

Little cutie, are you for sale? the devil will say.

The undertaker will buy a toy for your grandson.

Your mind will be a hornet’s nest even on your

deathbed.

You will pray to God but God will hang a sign

that He’s not to be disturbed.

Question no further, that’s all I know.

 

 

A gypsy curse seems old world, from another time. But go down the rabbit hole of Twitter or online commentary to newspaper editorials and you’ll quickly realize the curse is alive and well. Poet Charles Simic is just loads funnier and more clever than any modern-day digital gypsy.

 

But maybe you don’t think this poem is funny. Maybe that first line is too real for half the world’s population. Maybe you’re so overwhelmed with the divisiveness of one side spewing hatred on the other side that you don’t see the humor in lines like these—

 

your husband will kiss your breasts every night

as if they were gravestones.

 

Sue me, I do (and I say that as someone who actually has two gravestones on my chest, having had a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction years ago). There’s something to be said for exaggerating ugliness and fears till they become ridiculous. It’s what fairy tales do, the real ones, the old un-rewritten ones, the scary, violent, disturbing ones that allow children to work out the dark edges of their subconscious. (I’m not going to get into the whole psychology of it, but link here for an old review of Bruno Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment, summarized so well by John Updike.)

 

Curses of course are standard fare in fairy tales and ghost stories and as old as Adam and Eve. Maybe inventing curses or giving credence to them is how we try to exercise control over horrific realities. Maybe curses are necessary foils to bring out the beauty of blessings. Or maybe curses are just expressions of creativity, fun exercises of the imagination, the way my mother used to put us to bed. She would stand half in, half out of the door and say in a low growly voice, “May your bed be as hard as nails” and “May snakes crawl out from under your bed” and other things about insects crawling over our faces. We loved it and begged her to keep going and never lost a moment’s sleep over those snakes.

 

That was another time, I guess, a time when kids didn’t have to worry about getting shot up at school.

 

I didn’t want to leave “What the Gypsies etc.” in a spot where someone might take it to heart, so I left the poem at the airport for a bored passenger to read instead of a screen.

 

doesn’t Simic look like a Bond villain?

Here’s Simic’s biography from a previous post. It strikes me now that the facts of his life go a long way towards explaining his twisted sensibility.

 

 

Charles Simic was born in Yugoslavia in 1938.  During WWII, his family was evacuated from place to place to escape bombing.  “My travel agents were Hitler and Stalin,” he jokes.  His father left to find work in Italy and was imprisoned instead.  After the war Simic and his mother and brother were briefly imprisoned by Communist authorities.  Eventually they were able to leave Yugoslavia for Paris, then New York, where the family was reunited with Simic’s father after ten years. Simic took night classes in Chicago and then moved to New York where he worked a number of odd jobs.  He served in the army in the early sixties, and arriving back in New York, earned a degree from New York University.

 

Simic has taught at the University of New Hampshire for nearly forty years.  He was named the Poet Laureate of the United States in 2007, won the Pulitzer Prize, and received a MacArthur Genius Grant, and remains one of our most popular American poets with readers and critics alike.  Quite a feat for a poet who didn’t speak English till he was fifteen.

Cavafy at the wedding

poem is leaning against veil on bench

 

Song of the Heart

by Cavafy

 

With you, I think, all that is pleasant smiles on me,

in the mirror of your eyes there is reflected joy.

Stay, my light, and still I have not told you even half

of all that presses down upon my heart so amorous,

that rushes to my lips with just a single look from you.

If you wish it, do not speak to me, or say enchanting

words of love and adoration. ‘Tis enough that you’re nearby,

that I tell you that I want you, that I’m near you, that the morning

dew that you breathe in, I breathe in, too; and if you find

that these too are excessive, ‘tis enough I merely see you!

 

 

A few hours before the bride donned this stunning dress, I snuck into her room with “Song of the Heart.” Then I worried. First that somehow the ink from my green Poem Elf stamp would stain the veil, and second that the bride might view the gesture as creepy, her prurient aunt trying to stoke the marital fires with a poem equal parts smoldering and romantic. I was like those old ladies at bridal showers of yore, holding up peignoir sets and lacy teddies, exclaiming to all with a laugh and a knowing wink, “Oh, won’t he enjoy these!” Forgive us old aunties. We love young love.

 

Anyway I needn’t have worried. The bride loved the poem and thought it “a perfect match” for her own perfect match. Indeed it was, even though she and her husband are private people not given to public displays, a couple whose emotions are less likely to be announced than unmasked by flushing cheeks and small grins.

 

But they couldn’t hold back on their wedding day, the glow, the big smiles, the “reflected joy” in the mirror of their eyes, the affectionate touching whenever the other was near. This overflowing of love from a couple who have known each other since their teenage years was a living, breathing exhibition of Cavafy’s words.

 

What I love about this love poem is that side-by-side with the passion—all that breathing and feelings pressing down and words rushing to the lips—is a courtliness. The lover is sweetly considerate of the beloved. The speaker says he’ll speak if you wish it, and if you find these too are excessive, he’ll back off. So polite for a passionate outpouring. This is no gather ye rosebuds while ye may seduction. This lover says, it’s enough to just breathe the same air as you.

 

I can only imagine how beautiful this poem is in the original Greek.

 

There’s a postscript to “Cavafy at the wedding.” After the reception, those die-hard celebrators among us carried on at a bar, and there I met a young man on his way to Ireland to get his masters in literature. We talked about his very particular literary taste—Shelly but not Eliot, a little Yeats but not all—and I showed him the picture on my phone of the Cavafy poem. He knew Cavafy and had read the poem before. I was impressed. No doubt the pretty young woman next to him was impressed as well. He expanded the screen to highlight a particular line. “Right there,” he said, pointing. “That’s it.” I wish I could remember which line it was that was it.

 

But which line doesn’t matter. What matters is the reach, over a hundred years later and thousands and thousands of miles away, of one poet’s words on strangers in a bar late one night, on lovers on their honeymoon, on who knows who else who reads this poem right here and now and remembers a beloved, and feels the beam of passion, the glow of love, who matches Cavafy’s song of the heart with his own.

 

Us old aunties. We’re hopeless romantics.

 

I’ve written about Cavafy before and will re-print his biography here. (Link here for the full post with another great Cavafy poem.)

 

Constantine Petrou Cavafy is Greece’s most highly esteemed modern poet even though he lived only briefly in Greece. He was born in 1863 in Egypt to Greek parents, the youngest of nine children.  After the death of his father, the family fell into poverty and moved to England. There he spent most of his childhood. More financial distress pulled the family to Greece, then back to Egypt, where Cavafy worked as a journalist and as a stockbroker. But the bulk of his professional life was spent at a government agency.

 

Cavafy was never famous in his lifetime and didn’t seem interested in pursuing recognition. He printed his poems in pamphlets which he distributed to his friends. His lack of interest in publication may have been because some of his poems dealt frankly with his homosexuality and erotic themes. He died at age seventy in 1933.

 

 

A few days ago I placed two poems of encouragement in a pretty park in northern Michigan. I was thinking about the cave rescue of the Thai boys’ soccer team (just underway as I posted), but I was also thinking about all the dis’s in the world—the disheartened, the dispirited, the discouraged, the distracted—anyone in need of a boost, a push, a shot in the arm, a pep talk.

 

I myself am a lover of pep talks. Especially the poetry-style pep talks below.

 

poem is on sign, below the “O” of Information

 

Always Begin Where You Are

by Thomas Hornsby Ferril

 

Always begin right where you are

And work out from here:

If adrift, feel the feel of the oar in the oarlock first,

If saddling a horse let your right knee slug

The belly of the horse like an uppercut,

Then cinch his suck,

Then mount and ride away

To any dream deserving the sensible world.

 

The change from the title to the first line (“begin where you are” to “begin right where you are”) is encouragement itself. No need to position yourself, prepare or wait for the best time. Begin right where you are. In modern parlance, Just Do It.

 

But there’s a caveat. In poet Thomas Hornsby Ferril’s world you can’t just do any old dream that comes into your head. The images of rowing a boat and saddling a horse point towards pursuit of a realistic dream, a dream “deserving of the sensible world.” The Debbie Downer in me just loves that line. (I suspect I am not the only  Debbie Downer who loves a good pep talk.)

 

Ferril’s horse terminology was unfamiliar to me, so I looked it up. Cinch his suck, I discovered, has to do with tightening the saddle on a horse. Horses suck in air when the saddle is first put on, and once they run around and exhale, the saddle is too loose and has to be tightened.

 

Thomas Hornsby Ferril (1986-1988) was born in Denver and lived out his very long life there, eventually becoming poet laureate of his home state. His poems can be found in the Colorado capitol building, poem fragments engraved under each of eight murals in the rotunda.

 

Ferril published six volumes of poetry and a collection of essays. He worked as publicity director for the Great Western Sugar Company for forty years, and he and his wife published the Rocky Mountain Herald for over thirty years. His daughter Anne was an artist and illustrator.

 

Carl Sandburg was a friend of Ferril’s and frequent visitor to his house (now an historic landmark). Sandburg said Ferril’s poems were “terrifically and beautifully American.” Even so, Ferril was not well known outside of the Rocky Mountain region in his lifetime, and sadly that still seems the case today.

 

 

poem is on middle post of pavilion

 

Famous

by Naomi Shihab Nye

 

The river is famous to the fish.

 

The loud voice is famous to silence,

which knew it would inherit the earth

before anybody said so.

 

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds

watching him from the birdhouse.

 

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

 

The idea you carry close to your bosom

is famous to your bosom.

 

The boot is famous to the earth,

more famous than the dress shoe,

which is famous only to floors.

 

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it

and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

 

I want to be famous to shuffling men

who smile while crossing streets,

sticky children in grocery lines,

famous as the one who smiled back.

 

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,

or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,

but because it never forgot what it could do.

 

Shihab Nye’s poem “Famous” is the antidote to fame, at least our current cultural obsession with it. At the risk of sounding like an old lady crabbing about Those Young People, it seems to me that too many young people seek fame as the only way to validate their lives. All you have to do is post a viral video on Instagram and ta-dah, you’re famous! But of course it isn’t so easy for most, and that creates a situation ripe for discouragement, what with all that anxiety about one’s place in the world and confusion about one’s purpose in life.

 

Maybe these lines could be handed out with every diploma:

 

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,  

or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,  

but because it never forgot what it could do.

 

Reminds me of what the nuns used to tell us in grade school, that we each had a special talent and we were to use that talent to give honor and glory to God. Even if our only talent was sweeping a floor, we were to sweep the floor the very best we could. In doing even a lowly task well, we would achieve something good and holy.

 

Naomi Shihab Nye, a favorite of mine, has been featured more than once at Poem Elf. I’ll re-post her bio from previous posts.

Naomi Shihab 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.

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.