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Archive for April, 2011

poem is hidden in closet

To a Daughter Leaving Home

by Linda Pastan


When I taught you

at eight to ride

a bicycle, loping along

beside you

as you wobbled away

on two round wheels,

my own mouth rounding

in surprise when you pulled

ahead down the curved

path of the park,

I kept waiting

for the thud

of your crash as I

sprinted to catch up,

while you grew

smaller, more breakable

with distance,

pumping, pumping

for your life, screaming

with laughter,

the hair flapping

behind you like a

handkerchief waving

goodbye.

“I finally found it!” my daughter texted me from her new apartment in Chicago.  I had hidden “To a Daughter Leaving Home” in her closet a few weeks ago as I helped her move.  Her text reminded me of the bittersweet moment when I stood alone in her cell-sized bedroom, trapped by boxes, suitcases and laundry baskets, wondering where to hide the poem and trying not to cry, even though hiding poems is usually a whimsical activity for me.  And that memory reminded me of the first really big goodbye, five years earlier in her freshman year dorm. Six hours from home, not even eighteen years old, she stood in the middle of her new room, just as cramped as the post-graduate one, surrounded by some of the same moving gear, and wept.  I rushed away to make parting easier and cried half the drive home.

This leave-taking, it just never stops.  One goodbye prepares us for the next, but doesn’t make it easier.

Which is exactly what goes on in this poem.  The small moment of letting go of a bicycle is a precursor to a bigger letting go later on, when the daughter leaves home for college, for a job, for marriage, for necessary independence.  This pattern repeats itself until the ultimate leave-taking, death.  It’s what Joni Mitchell sings about in  “Circle Game,” a song I dislike and resent for the power it has over me.  I can’t hear the chorus without getting misty-eyed:

And the seasons they go ’round and ’round

And the painted ponies go up and down

We’re captive on the carousel of time

We can’t return we can only look behind

From where we came

And go round and round and round

In the circle game

Circles figure in this poem as well.  The curved path, the round wheels, the mother’s rounded mouth, all point to a cycle (pun intended), the universal cycle which has existed from the beginning of time, the cycle of children separating from parents. We separate again and again, beginning with birth, and then the goodbyes never stop—Goodbye, goodbye! I’ll miss you! Be careful! –on the first day of kindergarten; as the car pulls out of the driveway with a newly licensed driver; as the prom limo rolls down the street; as children have children and leave with their new families after Thanksgiving dinner for the long ride home.

Out of all these moments of separation, Pastan focuses on a small one, the instant a parent lets go of a child on a bicycle.  Riding a bike, if you remember, is a big step towards independence.  Suddenly you’re free to go farther from home, to hang out with other kids on bikes, to ride without hands, to ride until you’re lost, or to the drugstore to buy candy, all away from the watchful eye of parents.

The mother in the poem revels in the vitality of the girl, while at the same moment she worries over her daughter’s vulnerability.  In few words and ordinarylanguage, Pastan deftly covers both sides of the experience:  the joy of watching kids learn new skills and the pain of realizing that those new skills reduce their need for us.  The poem reminds me of those optical illusions where the young woman becomes an old crone when turned upside down.  There’s a flip side to each action in the poem:  the mother’s mouth rounds in surprise, a happy emotion, but anyone looking could also think of Munch’s “The Scream.”  The daughter screams with laughter, but screams can also signal pain.  The girl’s hair flaps in the wind, suggesting speed and fun, but also suggesting to the mother a handkerchief, an object which suggests to the reader tears and nose-blowing.  The daughter pumps her legs “for her life,” meaning with great enthusiasm, “as if her life depended on it.”  But the phrase works on a literal level too:  the daughter can only create a life if she separates from her hovering mother.  She has to move away.

This poem is all about movement.  Notice how few nouns there are and how strong the verbs are:  loping, wobbled, rounding, pulled, waiting, sprinted, pumping, screaming, flapping, waving.  The form too creates a feeling of movement.  The constant line breaks keep the eye moving forward and creates suspense—when is this sentence going to rest?is the daughter going to fall?—until we arrive safely at the final and only period.

Linda Pastan was born in the Bronx in 1932. She graduated from Radcliffe, and while there beat out Sylvia Plath for Mademoiselle’s poetry contest.  (Imagine a women’s magazine having such a contest today!)  She earned her masters at Brandeis, got married, had three children and gave up writing for 10 years.  Her husband, bless him, grew tired of her saying what a great poet she could have been if she hadn’t married, and so pushed her to return to writing.  She’s won multiple awards (among them the Ruth Lilley Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement), and was the poet laureate of my beautiful home state of Maryland from 1991-1995.

I’m falling in love with this woman.  I admire her struggle to balance family life with the artistic life, a struggle reserved almost exclusively for women; and I love love love her poems, many of which I’ve read and cherished without knowing they were her poems.  One of them, “The Happiest Day,” never fails to nudge me towards gratitude.

There’s a charge leveled at women writers, often unexpressed, that their territory is small, their skills of invention limited, their imaginations not broad enough.  Even writers as elegant and insightful as Austen and E.M. Delafield have been dismissed as mere domestic explorers.  Throughout her career Linda Pastan has also explored family life and women’s lives.  I revere her for it.  Her sharp eye, her shrewd understanding, her experiences so deeply felt and beautifully expressed make her not a lesser writer than someone writing about war or politics, but a great big writer, a universal writer.

No wonder she has recently been translated into Chinese, in a book with a picture of a girl on a bicycle on the cover.

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Being proved wrong can be delightful, particularly if you’re watching someone break out of the box you’ve put them in.  Susan Boyle, with her washer woman looks and elegant tones, affords this pleasure, as do pretty boy actors who go to Ivy League schools and write serious fiction, and 91-year old Olga Kotelko, a record-breaking star of track and field.

I had just such delight last week with a trinity of service calls.  I was all set to endure the irritations of waiting for each to arrive, writing checks larger than anticipated, and making cheerless conversation about the weather; but instead I enjoyed the company of three marvelous men.

First came the carpet cleaner.  A mysterious odor in the family room couch had recently become nauseating.  Understand that carpet cleaners are low on my list of desired company—there’s always a song and dance about this treatment and that protectant, and hundreds of dollars later you’ve filled your house with poisonous chemicals and false promises.  But this one, a stocky fellow from northern England who managed to look dignified even with shower caps on his shoes, was lovely.  Formerly an engineer, he approached his work with the utmost seriousness.  “Knowledge is power,” he said when I commented on his encyclopedic knowledge of wools, nylons, polyesters, dyes and urine crystals.  Nose to the fabric, he sniffed methodically up and down the cushion like he was mowing a lawn.   “That’s got to be a bad part of your job,” I said as I watched, embarrassed.

“Actually it’s very rewarding, ” he said, coming up for air.  “And it’s definitely pet urine.”

The reward, he explained, is not in getting a nostril-full of Trixie’s tinkles but in helping people.  I had never considered carpet cleaning a noble undertaking, but perhaps it was.  Stains are discouraging to live with, odors downright unnerving. Maybe my carpet cleaner feels like a priest in a confessional, removing dirt, mess and stain.

And business was good, he cheerfully went on. “Where there’s muck there’s brass.”  Which means (I had to ask for a translation), where there’s dirt there’s money to be made.

(I love this saying, Where there’s muck there’s brass—it’s true in writing as well.  Writers have to go to the dirty places, the dark places, the places no one wants to go to in order to create something worth reading. )

Hours later I was revising my list of undesirable companions, noting that mattress salesmen were still at the very bottom, when the jolliest, sincerest mattress salesman imaginable came to call.  I won’t belabor the details except to say that his pride in his product was strong and well-founded.  He makes his mattresses by hand, with natural materials.  Mass-produced mattresses are built to last 3-5 years, he told me, and end up in landfills, but his come with lifetime guarantees. I know, I know, there’s a sucker born every minute; but I couldn’t find a reason to doubt him.  Besides, his stories were marvelous—a boxspring-punishing couple with 600 pounds of weight combined, a priest with back problems—and the hero of each tale was his mattress.  He hugged me goodbye, and though I had just met him and I had formerly pledged to despise mattress salesmen, I was glad he did.

And then came the plumber.  He was a bit of a talker, which should have been tedious, as the subject was rubber seals and the mechanics of toilet flushing.  But I was wrong again.  I found his conversation nearly as engaging as the banter on NPR’s Car Talk.  No matter what the subject, I like listening to people puzzle through a problem, using logic and their great breadth of experience and knowledge.

Maybe I’m just an easy mark for a good sales pitch. But I closed the door on each man with newfound respect.  All three enjoyed helping people solve problems, a quality and a mission which elevated their daily work—in the muck or in the wool—to the exceptional.

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Mistakes and misses

poem is above the drinking fountain

 

I made a big mistake with this poem-elfing.  As a rule, I don’t read other interpretations of poems I post, or if I do, I wait until I’ve done my own ruminating.  But the internet is a big booby trap (as anyone who’s innocently searched on “lubricants” knows); and as I surfed for background information on poet Tom Wayman, I chanced upon an interview he gave.  An interview exclusively about this poem—its form, tone, impact, the poet’s intent—-in short, everything I usually try to figure out on my own.

 

It’s like I’ve been toiling over a rubiks cube, turning it this way and that, enjoying the clicks and random patterns, when suddenly Erno Rubik himself grabs the puzzle and with a hairy Hungarian hand locks it into place. My investigative spirit is dampened, drowning actually.  Why delve deeper when Wayman has proclaimed in the interview,  “There are no hidden meanings in my poems”?

 

It’s a good interview–you can read it here–especially interesting because poets don’t often pick apart a published poem.

 

According to Wayman, this is the most reproduced poem of his career, and bootleg versions abound (psst, bootleg poems, special low price), which explains why I found a few versions online with the following introduction:

Question frequently asked by

students after missing a class

 

“Did I miss anything?” is a question Wayman considers “aggressive” and belittling to teachers, given all the preparation they do for each class.  In the poem the question seems to have pushed this particular teacher over the edge.  The teacher’s answer is a riff, an improvisation that gets wilder and wilder, delivered in two voices, both of them mocking and sarcastic. Wayman calls the teacher’s tone one of “anger and hate,” which sounds a little strong to me, but I suppose the flight of fancy that ends with grand cosmological revelations could stem from the bitterness of being undervalued.

 

I left the poem in a college dorm where a Monopoly board had been painted on the walls. My intention was to leave the dorm residents something funny, something to lighten the pressure in this final month of school.  Unfortunately it seems to me now to have the opposite effect, to come off more like a nagging message a hovering parent (who would never be me) might leave on a dry erase board:  GO TO CLASS!

 

Here’s what I’m thinking about this failed posting.  Wayman and all the teachers who have put “Did I Miss Anything?”  in their syllabi and have taped it to their office doors as a kind of BEWARE OF PISSED-OFF TEACHER sign may find the question aggressive and irritating, but I find it simply a human one.  Did I miss anything is universal worry. From our earliest years we don’t want to miss out, we hate to think others are having interesting experiences while we are absent. Isn’t this why children hate to go to bed?  Whether we miss a party because of illness, or a meeting because of another meeting, or a parade because we hate parades—we think, even if we are too timid to ask, did I miss anything? And we battle with the two voices Wayman lays out.  The self-absorbed side of us can’t imagine other people having fun or accomplishing tasks without us present; the neurotic side worries that we are missing something really important.

 

Some of my earliest memories are of missing out on things—for some reason I was desperately unhappy to be left behind a family outing to see Tora!Tora !Tora! —so maybe that’s why I’m overly sensitive to the heaps of insecurity behind this question. These days when people ask me about an event they had to miss, I try to remember to say first, We really missed you being there.  Because that is the answer to the question they are really asking.

 

So are we missing nothing or everything? Our technology makes it easy to miss nothing—TiVo, Hulu, Ichat, Skype, and Foursquare all extend our presence beyond a single time and place—but technology can also make us feel we are missing everything.  We can get obsessed with following other people’s lives on Twitter and Facebook, reminded with each update of events we have missed.

 

Everything or nothing?  Both answers can be good for the soul. Missing out on something wonderful or important reminds us of our place in the universe.  Replaceable.  Not essential.  Life does go on without us.  On the other hand, it’s liberating to realize that we can survive missing a not-to-be-missed event.  Lots of happenings just aren’t as important as they’re made out to be.

 

I’ve just written two closing paragraphs about a book I read as a young girl where the character misses a trip to India but gets to make fudge with her cool babysitter, but I’ve deleted them.  You aren’t missing much.

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This just in

scheduled poetry readings will be unattended

National Poetry Month, scheduled to begin today, April 1, has been cancelled due to lack of interest.  “I’m disappointed,” said poetry fan Mary Hathway. “I was ready for some kick-ass parties.”

Local libraries have cancelled poetry readings and contests.  “Poem-a-day” apps for the iphone are still available but can only be downloaded once a week.

National Endowment for the Arts chairman Rocco Landesman announced that April will be re-named National Short-Short Story Month.   “Poetry takes too long to read,” Chairman Landesman read from a prepared statement.  “Our society is crying out for brief, to-the-point material that can read in the bathroom.  Across the country citizens are asking for stories to read during long pauses in dinner conversations.  We believe that short-short stories will be the solution.”

Traditionally short-short stories, also known as flash fiction, are defined as works of fiction under 300 words.  During the month of April only stories under 15  words will be allowed.  All other stories will be banned and subject to fines.

National Short-Short Story Month will be commemorated with a new postage stamp embossed with a complete story by famed 3-word short-short story writer John Savercool.

“The short-short story lobby obviously has more insider connections than we do,” complained U.S. Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin.  “They’ve got corporate funding, most notably Twitter, and private donors with buckets of cash.”  Merwin declined to mention who these donors were, but sources on Capitol Hill suggest one of them is anti-poetry activist David Schwimmer.

Hours after the NEA announcement, poet Maya Angelou began what she terms a “song strike” in protest.  Dressed uncharacteristically in a vintage Dior suit and spectator pumps, Angelou is sitting on the steps of the Capitol building singing “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.”  Taking a short break from her singing, she announced, “I’m not going to stop until this decision is reversed.” The Poet Laureate did not join the protest.  He released a statement saying that he was busy updating his resume and hoped to find employment writing copy for Groupon.

In related news, the New York offices of Vestal Review, a journal of flash fiction, were vandalized.  Piles of leaves and grass clogged the sinks and toilets of the Review’s restrooms.  Arrested at the scene was Beau Lamontagne, co- president of the Walt Whitman Society for the Betterment of American Youth Between the Ages of 11 and 14.

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