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Archive for June, 2010

Love Song

by William Carlos Williams

Sweep the house clean,

hang fresh curtains

in the windows

put on a new dress

and come with me!

The elm is scattering

its little loaves

of sweet smells

from a white sky!

Who shall hear of us

in the time to come?

Let him say there was

a burst of fragrance

from black branches.

Funny kind of a love song that begins with a list of chores to be done.  Surely the woman William Carlos Williams addresses would be too tired from all the household tasks he demands and too irritated by his presumption in dictating her schedule to share nary a kiss. And what kind of lunkhead thinks it’s a good idea to put on a new dress before rolling around in the hay?

Keep your trousers on, Ricky Ricardo, and sweep the dang floor yourself.

Yet I’m quite sure William Carlos Williams had his romp under the elm after all.  Whatever fragrance was bursting forth from under the canopy of branches, it wasn’t toilet bowl cleaner.  The energy and imagery of this poem all work in his favor.  The energy comes from his use of the imperative, the accompanying exclamation points, and the short lines.  Come with me! is hard to resist.

But it’s the imagery I found most seductive. I picture linen curtains billowing in a breeze, a woman in a white dress racing through a spring meadow and resting under a big tree. And then the erotic pow of the poem:  the burst of fragrance from black branches.

Perhaps I respond to this poem so keenly because I’m tired to death of the hot hot sexy sex we’re all supposed to be having. In “Love Song,” everything is fresh, robust and healthy:  the dress and curtains are new, the floor is swept clean, the very air outside is charged with new smells. But in the media that infiltrates every part of our lives, the language of sex has been overrun by the language of consumerism.  Having sex is not an act of love between two people but an act of consumption between two desirable objects.  Sex is about getting it.  Get it, take it, push it, want it, gimme it, give it up.  (And don’t get me started on freak dancing in which men can’t even bear to look in the face of a woman because they’ve turned her into rubbing post.)

That bothersome to-do list at the beginning does two things.  First it sets the tone of freshness and newness, and second it draws a line between the routinized world of the house and the lusty world outside.

William Carlos Williams straddled two worlds himself.  By day he was a doctor in suburban New Jersey with a wife named Flossie of all things and two sons.  By night he was a poet.  He spent his weekends in Greenwich Village hanging out with other artists–Man Ray, Marcel DuChamp, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens.  I imagine he must have always felt the pull between convention and bohemia.

This poem reflects that. The tension between spontaneity and routine is built right into the poem. He asks his love to put aside daily tasks, and in the great tradition of lovers, to seize the day.

I once knew a mother at my kids’ school who was also an actress.  I’ve never forgotten her description of her daily life.  First, she said, she clears her mind of mental clutter—which to her meant getting chores done—and then and only then she is able to be creative.

It’s a balance we all need to find.  And so on the first beautiful day of summer I taped this poem to a tree in the woods near a playground.  The playground was full of young mothers and children.  The woods were quiet but every bit as alive.  Oh I hope one of those mothers took a walk!

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(For another look at sex in the modern age, read Camille Paglia’s piece in Sunday’s New York Times.)

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Ode to the Maggot

by Yusef Komunyakaa

Brother of the blowfly

& godhead, you work magic

Over battlefields,

In slabs of bad pork

& flophouses. Yes, you

Go to the root of all things.

You are sound & mathematical.

Jesus, Christ, you’re merciless

With the truth. Ontological & lustrous,

You cast spells on beggars & kings

Behind the stone door of Caesar’s tomb

Or split trench in a field of ragweed.

No decree or creed can outlaw you

As you take every living thing apart. Little

Master of earth, no one gets to heaven

Without going through you first.

Creepy, he said.  Disrespectful.

Well.  Ahem.  I do tend to be impulsive.

Perhaps a different poem—“To an Athlete Dying Young,” for example—would not have so offended a certain person living in my household.

Or maybe what offends is the act of using a dead animal for my own creative purposes and others’ consumption.  But isn’t that what we all do everyday, albeit in a less grotesque fashion?  Use dead creatures and organisms to consume and create?  Writers, chefs and vaccine makers are not alone in this morbid activity.  We are all comrades of the maggot, who consumes dead flesh so it can transform into a glorious . . . blowfly.

For what it’s worth, I tried to show respect for the dear dead deer by placing a flower on its carcass.  That’s more respect than what’s shown by passing motorists who gag and drive on.

Also, for the record, I washed my hands before making dinner.  Soap and water, I swear.

I didn’t actually see maggots on the deer as I taped the poem to its body. (Tape, I discovered, is not designed to attach to animal skins.)  Presumably the maggots had already developed into the blowflies that swarmed around the bloated belly and head.

But I have seen and smelled maggots before and can think of no creature more disgusting or more unsuited to be ode-ed.  An ode is a dignified poetic form and its subjects are usually beautiful and inspiring.  Think of Keats’ nightingale and Grecian urn.  Writing an ode to a maggot is just a little cheeky.  But Komunyakaa gives beauty to the maggot, calling it lustrous; intelligence, as he describes it as sound and mathematical; and even transcendence.  “Little master of the earth” he calls it, and brother to the godhead.

It’s not surprising that Komunyakaa would laud the lowly maggot.  The maggot is a great equalizer, a powerful being that doesn’t discriminate between beggars and kings.  For a black man who grew up in the South during the civil rights era, there must be some amusement and comfort in considering the common end we all share.

**

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum department:  While researching maggots for this post, I chanced upon something called “maggot art.”  Elementary school children dip maggots in paint and place them on canvas to slime and slither about. The results are quite lovely, and you can see them here http://www.maggotart.com/

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poem is taped to the downspout

The World is Too Much With Us

by William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

There are lots of places I could have posted this poem besides the downspout of a bank:  an office cubicle, grocery cart, dressing room of a clothing store, a subway car during commuting hours, the concierge desk at the mall, or the mouse of my computer.  I’m amazed at how current this 204-year old poem is.  Wouldn’t the phrase “a sordid boon!” be an excellent replacement for the longer and less poetic “BP oil rig disaster”?

(Like the BP oil spill, the poem is STILL THERE!  I’ve walked past the bank three times in the last week and the scotch tape is holding steady.)

Wordsworth was considered revolutionary in his time for tossing aside the elevated language of traditional poetry in favor of everyday diction.  Must have been some pretty fancy chatter in the village square back then because this is the type of poem that causes non-poetry readers to throw up their hands and say, “I don’t understand it.”  So perhaps a short (and shallow, maybe even silly) summary is in order: *

We’re too consumed with material things/We aren’t fully human when we spend all our time earning money and spending it/We’ve don’t see ourselves as part of the natural world/ We’re building a man-made world at the expense of the natural world and the benefits are not worth it/ The ocean at night under the moon and the wind during a storm are like a bouquet given to us, but we fail to see the sublime beauty and power of it/I wish I could believe in the pagan gods of nature/so that when I stand in this beautiful meadow/I’d experience the divine in nature and it would make me feel less lonely/to see the awesome gods of the sea rising up.

Now that’s a 122-word argument for the power of poetry over prose.

Wordsworth wrote during the Industrial Revolution, and with his poems fought against changes that he felt alienated us from nature.  (Imagine!—fighting with poems . . . shelling a city with limericks. . .equipping drones with sonnets. . .) We’ve long gotten used to the industrialized world; our struggle is with the virtual one.  Of course, the phrase “getting and spending, we lay waste our powers” still applies, especially in our uber-consumer culture, but if Wordsworth were writing the sonnet today, he would probably find a better way to say “profiling and surfing, we lay waste our powers.”

If we stop for one minute to consider the proportion of our time given over to getting and spending (or web-surfing or updating our facebook profile), an existential terror creeps in. What would we do with all our time if we weren’t getting and spending?  An unlikely source provides an answer:  Frank Gilbreth, an efficiency expert, a real life champion of industrialization, and hero of Cheaper by the Dozen.

Cheaper by the Dozen was a favorite book of mine as a young girl.  (It has nothing to do with the movie!  Repeat:  nothing to do with the terrible movie!) I related to the huge family and the gruff but sweet father, and for some reason I’ve remembered the last line of the book. Someone asks Frank Gilbreth, who’s always trying to find the shortest, most productive way to perform tasks, what he’s saving time for.  Here’s his answer:

“’For work, if you love that best,” said Dad. “For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure.” He looked over the top of his pince-nez. “For mumblety-peg, if that’s where your heart lies.’”

*(for an alternative and much more intelligent reading of this poem, link to http://poemshape.wordpress.com/2010/05/30/the-world-is-too-much-with-us-❧-william-wordsworth/

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A BLESSING

by James Wright

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,

Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.

And the eyes of those two Indian ponies

Darken with kindness.

They have come gladly out of the willows

To welcome my friend and me.

We step over the barbed wire into the pasture

Where they have been grazing all day, alone.

They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness

That we have come.

They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.

There is no loneliness like theirs.

At home once more,

They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.

I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,

For she has walked over to me

And nuzzled my left hand.

She is black and white,

Her mane falls wild on her forehead,

And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear

That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.

Suddenly I realize

That if I stepped out of my body I would break

Into blossom.

My mother lived with this poem under her sink for two months before she found it. “I didn’t really understand it.” she said when she called. “Did you give me this poem for a reason?”

Did I?  I couldn’t remember.  Mostly because I couldn’t remember the poem.  “Hmm. . . Is it kind of about beauty?”

“I guess,” she said in her funny way that meant she didn’t think so at all.  “I think he says the horse’s ear is soft like a girl’s arm.”  My mother has a finely developed sense of the ridiculous.

Like a lot of people, she tells me she’s no good at poetry.  As if she failed at reading the poem.  As if reading poetry could be completed like Suduko or scored like a golf game.* But look here, she read the poem and she found an image that stayed with her. So the next time she sees a young girl’s wrist (which she will, having many, many granddaughters), she will think of the velvet of a horse’s ear.  She will wonder at the softness of it; maybe she will linger over her granddaughters sweet little wrist, feeling it with a secret appreciation. And should she come upon a horse (I’m straining to imagine under what circumstance, but one never knows, do one?), she’ll think of the delicate skin she was fortunate enough to have in her hands.

And that’s what I love about poetry.  Not that I usually understand every poem I read.  But at the very least I can take away an image—a beautiful or arresting or enlightening image–that I carry around with me like a picture in my wallet to pull out from time to time.

Back to her question.  Why did I give her this particular poem?  Er, uh, yeah, um. . . there was no reason.  So I’ll invent one now. As I’ve mentioned in past posts, my mother is a recent widow.  What I take from “The Blessing” is the idea that someone could cross over the barbed wire of dark times to connect with something so beautiful as to make him feel transcendent.  That would be my wish for my mother, the blessing I would give her.

I’m not an animal person.  Sentient beings whose consciousness is not framed by human language make me jittery.  Men who want to put their arms around slender horses make me jittery too.  There’s just a little too much nuzzling, caressing, and munching of tufts going on in this poem.  Equus, anyone?

Actually I don’t really think there are any zoophiliac issues here.  Rather I think the poem speaks of a longing for connection.  The poet finds that transcendent communion with the natural world, but I suppose one could find it anywhere.

The last line is beautiful enough to commit to memory:  “if I stepped out of my body I would break/Into blossom.”

*Billy Collins’ wonderful poem “Introduction to Poetry” (http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/001.html ) is a great antidote to this kind of thinking.

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Mother of the Groom

by Seamus Heaney

What she remembers

Is his glistening back

In the bath, his small boots

in the ring of boots at her feet.

Hands in her voided lap,

she hears a daughter welcomed.

It’s as if he kicked when lifted

and slipped her soapy hold.

Once soap would ease off

the wedding ring

that’s bedded forever now

in her clapping hand.

so rushed to avoid being seen, I took a rotten picture

The weekend of my oldest daughter’s college graduation, I was at a beautiful old hotel in Milwaukee (with a ceiling in the lobby like a Victorian Sistine Chapel) on the same night a friend from home was there for a wedding.   Seamus Heaney’s “Mother of the Groom” seemed the right fit for both occasions.  For most parents, forward-looking events like graduations and weddings carry the same whiff of loss and sorrow that the mother in the poem experiences.  So I taped the poem to a planter in the ladies lounge.  Within the hour it was gone. Among other wonders of the hotel, it had a very efficient cleaning crew.

How efficient this poem is too, how much it says in so few words.  With a deft use of homonyms (flashback to 5th grade: words with multiple meanings), Heaney brings past, present and future together.  The ring of boots at the mother’s feet connects to the wedding ring on her finger (which she used to take off from time to time for reasons Freudian or practical) and the unmentioned ring her son will give to the woman who supplants the mother.  The ring is now “bedded” in her hand, which calls to mind the wedding bed.  In fact there’s a series of words with sexual overtones—glistening, slipped, lap, bedded, ease off–which suggests that the mother knows that intimacy is behind her.  She looks with some jealousy at her son’s wife, who will now enjoy all the pleasures of young married life that she once did—sex, babies, being at the center of the ring.

What strikes me most is what an outsider the mother is at the wedding.  Of the four principle figures at a wedding—the bride, the groom, the mother of the bride and the mother of the groom—the last is the least important, the most invisible. She claps as a spectator and retreats into her thoughts. Her role is entirely passive.  She doesn’t welcome her new daughter herself; she hears the daughter welcomed. She has not voided her lap; her lap is voided.  The passive voice reinforces her feeling that something has been done to her which she did not desire.  Her past is gone.  Her life as a mother has slipped away.

“The wedding ring/that’s bedded forever now” is a phrase that haunts me.  “Forever now” sounds so sad, so resigned.  With just two words, Heaney ushers death into the wedding, so quietly that we don’t notice right away that the celebration has changed utterly.

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Toys

Just wanted to show off my new stamp.  From now on, I’ll be stamping the backs of poems.  If someone should chance upon one, they’ll know where the poem comes from.  But I still have a backlog of two or three few poems before I launch the stamp.

My little elves, too, will be appearing from time to time.  They are a Mother’s Day gift from my daughter. The man she bought them from seemed to think they were human (“The little fellas will be coming soon,” he emailed her), and it’s rubbing off on me.  I want to name them.  Suggestions are welcome.

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Jane at the door with my other Mother's Day gift

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poem is in the shadows under the portico

God Says Yes To Me

Kaylin Haught


I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic

and she said yes

I asked her if it was okay to be short

and she said it sure is

I asked her if I could wear nail polish

or not wear nail polish

and she said honey

she calls me that sometimes

she said you can do just exactly

what you want to

Thanks God I said

And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph

my letters

Sweetcakes God said

who knows where she picked that up

what I’m telling you is

Yes Yes Yes

I’m sure boarding schools today are not the same as they have been in popular imagination.  The privations, sickness, and humiliations suffered by Jane Eyre at the hands of Mr. Brocklehurst at Lowood School; the beatings for bedwetting at Crossgates which George Orwell describes in his ironically titled essay “Such Such Were the Joys,” must be things of the past. Probably students at boarding schools thrive to the same degree other adolescents do. After all, Harry Potter is never so happy as he is at Hogwarts.  Still.  It’s not my idea of a loving environment.  Which is why on Mother’s Day I taped this poem to the dormitory of an exclusive private school.  I wanted to send out a little motherly love to kids separated from their parents nine months of the year.

This playful poem is not a religious dissertation, but let’s get the obvious theological controversy out of the way.  Most theologians agree that God is spirit, and having no body, also has no gender.  So it’s no more incorrect to call God “she” than it is “he.”  If I didn’t find the word so silly, I’d suggest “ze”  (a word my daughter brought home from her freshman women’s studies class).

On to the poem.  “God Says Yes to Me” dismisses any convention that binds, whether it’s the dictates of fashion, behavioral expectations or grammatical rules like comma and quotation mark use.  The poem carries that heady taste of a new-found freedom, so delightful to teenagers. Haught is the daughter of an Oklahoma preacher, so this poem may be her version of dancing with Kevin Bacon at the Footloose senior prom.

Given that most teens these days grow up in a world of loose structures and extreme carpe diem, the poem could feel as dated as that movie. Yet this poem feels current to me.  God knows (doesn’t Ze) that teenagers don’t need encouragement to break rules.  And they’ve been schooled in the I-am-wonderful movement since diaper days. But scratch that varnish of self-esteem and you find that their sense of self-worth is conditional and fragile.  Kids hit 17 and realize they’re not smart enough to get into the best schools, they didn’t score high enough on the ACT or in the basketball games to make their parents proud, their nose is ridged, their bottoms are too small or too big, they have man-breasts or back acne, sweaty hands or lack of focus, no leadership skills, no personality, no resume, no hope for success. Kids have become products to be marketed to colleges on applications and to other parents in casual conversation.  And products should not have defects.

I put this poem where I did to send a message to every teen that they are loved.  Every hair on their bodies, every blemish, every scab, every cell is precious.

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