Archive for July, 2010

Siren Song


This is the one song everyone

would like to learn: the song

that is irresistible:


the song that forces men

to leap overboard in squadrons

even though they see the beached skulls


the song nobody knows

because anyone who has heard it

is dead, and the others can’t remember.


Shall I tell you the secret

and if I do, will you get me

out of this bird suit?


I don’t enjoy it here

squatting on this island

looking picturesque and mythical


with these two feathery maniacs,

I don’t enjoy singing

this trio, fatal and valuable.


I will tell the secret to you,

to you, only to you.

Come closer. This song


is a cry for help: Help me!

Only you, only you can,

you are unique


at last. Alas

it is a boring song

but it works every time.


The sirens of Greek mythology, dangerous creatures with the heads of women and the bodies of birds, were three in number (just like the stanzas of this poem) and sat perched atop a cliff luring sailors to their deaths with song.  Their victims either crashed against the rocks and drowned, or starved to death on the beach, unable to do anything but listen to the song high above them.

The exact nature of the song has never been known, but it’s commonly thought of as an irresistible call to the loins (a siren song being what it is).  Canadian novelist, poet and environmentalist Margaret Atwood re-writes the song so it traffics in sexual roles but is not primarily sexual.  Her siren uses what we’d think of as an outmoded version of femininity—me so helpless!  you big strong man!–to draw the chumps in. 

Before reading this poem, I pictured Angelina Jolie in a toga singing and snarling at Brad Pitt as he falls back braindead from a collision with the cliffs, but Atwood reminds us that the siren is only half human.  The poem emphasizes the siren’s avian half—she wears a bird suit, squats, has feathers, and even sounds like a bird warbling:  to you,/ to you, only to you. Bird imagery can be used to demean women:  calling women “birds” as though they’re prey or of limited intelligence; describing women’s talk as squawking, clucking, or henpecking; referring to a roomful of women as a henhouse—and Atwood uses those belittling associations to remind us of how gender stereotypes can limit women’s roles. 

The poem’s siren feels trapped in her role and wants to get out but lacks the will to change.  She’s very clever here and almost seduced me. She complains about having to sing the same old boring song and asks for help in escaping.  This complaint and appeal for help IS the siren song. You think she’s about to tell you (you, her reader, become a character in the poem, the sailor she addresses) the secret of the siren song, but she’s already pulled you towards the deadly rocks.

Coincidentally as I was posting this blog, I finished reading an analysis of the costumes and characters in the HBO series Mad Men.  (I’ve never seen the show before, but after reading this blog I’m familiar with the major characters and basic plot lines.) It’s a fascinating read. Mad Men takes place in the early 60’s, ten years before Atwood wrote “Siren Song,” but gender expectations don’t seem to be that different in the two worlds.

In the TV show, the women are reigned in and defined by what they wear which is almost always a dress. I kept thinking how silly and overdressed I’d feel if I had to wear clothes like that all the time.  From what I can tell from reading this blog, the women’s costumes dictate their actions, hem them in, and proscribe their roles. The roles frustrate the female characters more often than not.  Atwood’s siren has me thinking of Mad Men’s Betty Draper.  No one on the show dresses more beautifully, but no one watching the show would want to be her.  Her beautiful ensembles make her an accessory, a plaything, a helpmeet, and she wants more.  She just doesn’t know what it is she wants, so she keeps playing her part, depressed, drinking and deadened.  The siren, too, wants something different—get me out of this bird suit, she begs.  She doesn’t like her costume, her lines, or her role, and yet she keeps playing out the same game.  It’s all she knows. She’s restless and unhappy, but unable to stop pretending to be helpless and destroying those who come to her aid.

I suppose we all, male and female, can get trapped in bird suits. A bird suit doesn’t have to be a gender stereotype—it can be any expectation that makes us act smaller than we are.  I thought I outgrew being the quiet awkward one in high school, but in some situations—when I’m with a Joan Holloway type of woman (another Mad Men character), for example—I can go right back to dork-dom.  With certain men I feel ashamed of my lack of “feminine charms” and try my best, even as I’m disgusted with myself, to please.  That kind of self-loathing is at the heart of this poem.

I taped “Siren Song” to a pile of rocks on the bank of a little river, not to make it dangerous to reach, but so that anyone who wanted to read the poem would have to step off the footbridge and squat on the edge of a boulder.  My little joke, a nod to Atwood and the wry humor of this poem. 

*For a completely different take on sirens (but also written in 3-line stanzas), read Sylvia Plath’s “The Lorelei,” written twenty years before “Siren Song.”  Plath sees the singing women as “goddesses of peace,” showing her fascination with and longing for death and the peace it brings. 

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Magna Est Veritas

by Coventry Patmore

Here, in this little Bay,

Full of tumultuous life and great repose,

Where, twice a day,

The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,

Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,

I sit me down.

For want of me the world’s course will not fail:

When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;

The truth is great, and shall prevail,

When none cares whether it prevail or not.


I once began an ambitious embroidery project of stitching this poem on a very large piece of muslin which I planned to stretch over a wooden frame like a canvas and hang on a wall.  I chain-stitched my way through the title and the first line and a half but lost heart with the uous of tumultuous.  The loops and curves of cursive vowels were beyond my skills with the needle, just as they have always been with a pencil.

Every few years when I clean out shelves in the basement, that barely-begun project sees the light of day.  It’s a reminder not so much of my vision outsizing my resolve (goodness knows I don’t need to be reminded) but of how much I love this poem.  It’s almost like a prayer to me, not surprising since Coventry Patmore (can’t you smell the English countryside in a name like that, the vines growing over the cottage gates) was a convert to Catholicism, very much preoccupied with matters of the spirit. 

I’ve twice committed this little powerhouse of a poem to memory, and twice forgotten it.  Though the words come and go, the idea of a man finding balance, as we say in these modern times, as he sits under cliffs at the ocean’s edge, stays with me.  Just thinking of the line “I sit me down” calms me or calls me to be calmed.  I even briefly titled a book I had written (unpublished, hiding in a drawer) I Sit Me Down.  (My husband spent a few days teasing me, I stand me up, I sleep me here, until the joke degenerated into pirate talk– I eat me cereal–and I changed the title.)

I don’t want to spoil Magna Est Veritas with further comment, some banality about how important it is to step outside our multi-tasking, media-crazed world to connect with something larger than our needs.  The Victorian poem has aged well and says all that and more just fine on its own.

Changed my mind.  I’ll make one more comment because it’s something I just discovered.  This 10-line poem is perfectly balanced.  The first four lines and last four lines follow the same rhyme scheme, abab and dede.  The first half of the poem describes the poet’s physical environment and the second half he expands his vision to the spiritual realm.  In the exact middle of the poem, the poet makes the shift from one world to the next.  For these two lines, the rhyming pattern emphasizes the shift by changing to cc: far from the huge town/I sit me down.  The form mirrors the message in so pleasing a way, I can’t believe I didn’t notice it before.

If you haven’t memorized a poem since grade school and find that Suduko isn’t slowing the degeneration of your brain cells, I recommend this poem to you.  

still there two days later at sunset

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poem is taped to column to the left of trashcan


The Overhead Rack 

By John Updike

Worst of all, and most hated by me

as I sit docilely crammed into my seat,

crammed and strapped like a psychotic in restraints,

are these bland-faced complacent graduates

of business school, trained to give each other

and the rest of the poor world the business,

who attempt to stuff their not one but two folding bags

big enough to hold an army of business suits

into the overhead rack, already crammed

with traveling crap like a constipated ox’s

intestine. The blond doors cannot lower,

the hats and bags of earlier arrivals

are crushed. Why don’t the smug smooth bastards check

their preening polyester wardrobes and

proliferating printouts, sheaf on sheaf,

at the ticket counter, or, better yet,

stay home and attend to their neglected wives

and morose, TV-mesmerized offspring

instead of crowding their slick and swollen bags

and egos onto my airplane, my tube in space, my

clean shot home? Like slats of a chicken coop

overrunning with dung are the overhead racks.

If we crash, thus overloaded, the world

will yield up a grateful sigh at the headlines:

one less batch of entrepreneurs to dread.

Oh, kill, kill, kill, I think, watching the filth

strap itself in, exhaling export beer

and nasal exchanges of professional dirt,

these fat corpuscles in the nation’s bloodstream:

oh, would I were a flying macrophage

to eat them all, their bags and all, and excrete

the vaporizing lava into space!

Taping John Updike’s “Overhead Rack” to the outside of an airport’s departure entrance* seemed like a good idea at the time. I had clipped the poem out of Harper’s magazine 15 years ago and found it funny.  I admit I skimmed it then and merely skimmed it again before I left to pick up my nephew at the airport. A fortuitous match of poem to location, I thought.

If I had read the poem more carefully, it might have occurred to me that taping anything with the phrase “kill, kill, kill” at an airport is a bad idea. Let’s hope I’m not on a terrorist watchlist now.   John Updike, at least,  is above suspicion, being dead.

If this poem doesn’t have a place in a post 9/11 world, neither does its vitriol resonate with people floundering in the wake of 2008’s credit collapse.  So many workers, white collar, blue collar, and artistic, struggle to hold on to their jobs; so while most people would share Updike’s roiling anger towards Wall Street types, there’s a sympathy towards the average Joe who’s traveling for business, perhaps coming home after a long week to that neglected, TV-mesmerized family in a house that won’t sell, which is why he’s commuting to a job that he dislikes in another state.

Just about everything about travel irritates these days, so it’s hard to pin all our discomforts on arrogant businessmen.  Now that everyone is stuffing carry-on bags into the overhead bins thanks to baggage fees, the person who annoys us on flights is just as likely to be an innocent baby with an ear infection, a heavyset person squeezing into an ever-smaller seat, or even a self-absorbed writer who considers the plane his, and reclines his seat till his white head nearly reaches our bosom.

We catch Updike (or a character that Updike creates in jest, it’s hard to tell)  in the middle of a rant.  Rants can be fun to observe from the distance of performance or written word (no one wants to be the direct object of one), but they’re best enjoyed in timely fashion, not thirty years later.  It’s not just that businessmen don’t wear hats with their suits anymore or that businesswomen don’t exist in the milieu of this poem; the overheated, overwritten language feels dated too, the humor a little tired. Maybe this is a poem best heard, not read.  Then we might be amused by  “preening polyester” and “proliferating printouts,” particularly if the speaker had an excess of spittle or an English accent.

John Updike was a brilliant novelist, so I’m told, an American original. (I read Rabbit Run years ago and disliked it.  Probably I couldn’t get my head around the poor woman whose baby drowned in the bathtub because she was drunk.)  But if “Overhead Rack” is evidence of poetic prowess, Updike made his name in the appropriate genre.**

These musings lead to the question, what makes poetry poetry? Not being a scholarly type, I leave that for better minds than mine, and can only offer a few of their definitions pulled from old textbooks and memory: the best word in the best place, emotion recollected in tranquility, and Archibald MacLeish’s dictum that “A poem should not mean/but be.”

What I do know is that poetry values an economy of words, the suggestive word or image, the stealth appeal to the subconscious. I’m not finding that here. Is “Overhead Rack” a prose piece in disguise?

Poetry sticks with me in ways other types of writing don’t, so I give Updike credit for at least one phrase that I’ll carry around and think of whenever I fly or commute in any fashion: fat corpuscles in the nation’s bloodstream.  Aren’t we all.

*unintentional oxymoron

**this statement may be completely off-base as this is the only poem by John Updike I’ve  ever read.

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poem is taped to trashcan


By W.S. Merwin


My friend says I was not a good son

you understand

I say yes I understand


he says I did not go

to see my parents very often you know

and I say yes I know


even when I was living in the same city he says

maybe I would go there once

a month or maybe even less

I say oh yes


he says the last time I went to see my father

I say the last time I saw my father


he says the last time I saw my father

he was asking me about my life

how I was making out and he

went into the next room

to get something to give me


oh I say

feeling again the cold

of my father’s hand the last time


he says and my father turned

in the doorway and saw me

look at my wristwatch and he

said you know I would like you to stay

and talk with me


oh yes I say


but if you are busy he said

I don’t want you to feel that you

have to

just because I’m here


I say nothing


he says my father

said maybe

you have important work you are doing


or maybe you should be seeing

somebody I don’t want to keep you


I look out the window

my friend is older than I am

he says and I told my father it was so

and I got up and left him then

you know


though there was nowhere I had to go

and nothing I had to do



In honor of W.S. Merwin, the new poet laureate of the United States, I taped this poem to a trashbin in a small garden area of an outlet shopping mall. I wasn’t mocking Merwin or the office. It was just that on a blindingly bright day (oh why was I wasting it at the outlets?) the side of the trashcan was the only place with enough shade to get a decent close-up. 

I was attracted to this poem because at the outset it was so simple to understand, a trait I like in poetry more than people.  The language is straightforward.  No fancy words and not a single metaphor.  And it’s written in dialogue, the most reader-friendly form of writing around.

But the more time I spend with “Yesterday,” the more complicated it becomes.  The two principal speakers, the  I of the poem’s narrator and the I of the older friend as he narrates his own story, can get convoluted. Take the first line:  “My friend says I was not a good son.”  The sentence can be read two ways.  It could be a direct quote, as in, My friends says, “I was not a good son” or it could be a paraphrased accusation:  My friend says (that) I was not a good son. The meaning is cleared up in the next few lines, but the reader is disoriented from the get-go. 

Merwin could have made this poem a whole lot easier if he used some darn quotation marks, but how different a poem it would be with them. The confusion of the I’s shows how the narrator shares his friend’s guilt over neglecting a father. Identifying who the  I is is further complicated by the addition of a conversation within the conversation.  There are actually four speakers:  the poem’s narrator, the friend in the present moment, the friend’s father, and the friend in the past when his father was still alive. To track the identity of the speakers, the reader has to follow the carefully constructed line breaks, the white space, the verb tenses, and the verbal tics of each speaker.

Is the poem’s narrator giving his friend the kind of half-attention that the friend gave his father?  His responses to his friend’s story seem rote and distracted (oh yes and I understand). Except for the part where he remembers his father’s cold hand, he seems as distanced from the friend’s conversation as the friend was from his father. The friend is older than the speaker, suggesting the father-son dynamic is repeated in the friendship.  At one point, the speaker even looks out the window, just as the friend looked at his watch while his father was speaking. Both gestures signal the desire to be elsewhere.

There’s a whole culture of emotional disengagement here that struck me as distinctly male.  The fathers and sons feel deeply but are unwilling to open up.  Come on, fellas, I thought, only connect!  Unfortunately E.M. Forster stepped aside for Harry Chapin, and I started humming “Cat’s in the Cradle.” In both Merwin’s poem and Chapin’s dreary song there’s a cycle of fathers and sons failing each other.  The desire for closeness never happens to both at the same time, and men’s lives are full of regret for missed intimacy.

But as I thought about it, I realized this emotional laziness or fear or whatever and wherever it comes from is not limited to the male sex.  I could write my own poem that begins, “I was not a good daughter.” When I visited my father in his last year, all he wanted was for me to sit in the living room with him and listen to him tell me whatever was on his mind—his musings on politics, science, and religion, his three main interests. “When you’ve got a minute,” he’d call to me as I busied myself in the kitchen.  A minute.  That’s all he asked for. 

Finally I would settle on the couch, legs crossed, arms crossed, thinking of the other things I needed to do.  He’d talk in his weakened voice, and as he did, he’d look at his hands, flipping them from palm side to nail side.  He had macular degeneration and could hardly see his hands, but perhaps this was a habit of old to give him the air of thoughtful speculation. I had never noticed it before.  Now I could hardly stand it. When I would sit with him, everything in me was burbling up wanting to run away.  A fault of mine.  A sin.  What I can’t undo.

I find this poem remarkable.  It reads like a slacker poem, idle, aimless and affectless.  But it lurks in the back of my head, sharp and knowing.

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Lot’s Wife

by Anna Akhmatova

And the just man trailed God’s shining agent,

over a black mountain, in his giant track,

while a restless voice kept harrying his woman:

“It’s not too late, you can still look back

at the red towers of your native Sodom,

the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,

at the empty windows set in the tall house

where sons and daughters blessed your marriage-bed.”

A single glance: a sudden dart of pain

stitching her eyes before she made a sound . . .

Her body flaked into transparent salt,

and her swift legs rooted to the ground.

Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem

too insignificant for our concern?

Yet in my heart I never will deny her,

who suffered death because she chose to turn.

Lot’s wife, a woman without a name of her own, is a hard person to forget, and not because Jesus admonished, “Remember Lot’s wife.” (Which is a testament to her power—he mentions no other Old Testament woman by name, as far as I can tell.)

As a child, I was fascinated and frightened by her story.  An angel leads the Lot family out of burning Sodom, warning them not to look back.  Lot’s wife looks back and is instantly and matter-of-factly turned to a pillar of salt.  The message I absorbed was, See what happens if you disobey? See what happens if you are too curious? I remember feeling unsettled and vaguely sick at the disproportion of crime to punishment and the likelihood that should the situation ever arise,  I would also turn and look back.

Fairy tales, novels, and TV shows are rife with snoopers, curious folk, and disobedient women and children:  Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard’s wife, Pandora of course, and a fairy tale called “Green Snake” I well remember but can’t find anywhere–a princess marries a prince who warns her never to turn on the light at night.  Her sisters convince her to have a look and finally one night she agrees, only to find a writhing green snake in her bed.  (Freud would have an easy time with that one.)

But unlike these characters, the Lot’s wife of Akhmatova’s imagination is punished not for curiosity but for sentimentality.  Her old life burns behind her; she wants to see it once more. I read one interpretation of the biblical story on line (one that condemns Lot’s wife regardless) that reasoned she had other daughters, married ones, still in Sodom as it burned.  In that case, who wouldn’t leave in anguish?  Who wouldn’t want to turn to see if they had escaped?

This poem grips me and rips me. “A sudden dart of pain/stitching her eyes before she made a sound. . . “  How’s that for special effects, poetry-style?

And I love the line, “But in my heart I will never deny her.”  Akhmatova lived in Stalinist Russia.  Friends and ex-husbands were always being hauled off to the Gulag or shot for their opinions; Akhmatova herself was condemned and sidelined by the state for being too bourgeois.  But she would not stop writing and would not leave her countrymen; and so her refusal to deny a woman who acts with her heart carries a special weight.

Thinking about that line brought me round to the problem of translation.  The line I quoted is not really Akhmatova’s line.  It’s the line that the poet Stanley Kunitz and a Russian translator thought best reproduced the original.  If you read other translations of this poem, and there are several here and here, you see how slippery the byline is.  Is it theirs or hers?  Reading the other versions, I felt like a movie character whose lover has been playing a double role, and finding out, she shouts, “You’re not who I thought you were!”

The rhyme, for example, is handled with such subtlety in this version, but what backbends did the translators have to perform to make the poem rhyme?  Translations can capture ideas, images, and meaning, but not with the same beauty and economy of the original.  Poetry especially relies on every word, each one indispensable for its sound, length, connotations and associations.  How can that be imparted from language to language? Still, it’s a beautiful poem.  I do wish I could read it in the original.

Just before a storm rolled in, I taped “Lot’s Wife” to a fence post along a sidewalk used by walkers and casual bikers, none of whom were fleeing a burning city.  The drama of the weather and my anxiety over whether I would get home before I got soaked or struck by lightening made me feel a sudden allegiance to this poem.  I carried it in my backpack like the flag of my home country.

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