Archive for November, 2011

Poem is on shrub.



by Angus Martin


The air is blowing round and round the world.

It must be. I’ve breathed this air before

and will breathe it again if I’ve that long

to live, and can offer


my mouth to it.

Tonight it is blowing hard;

gates and loosened bits of buildings

clatter and bang, and I’ve heard


enough to start me thinking

of my father’s life on the sea,

and how on nights like this

I would fear for his safety,


listening in bed with a small loneliness

lying beside me, breathing as I

breathed, in perfect unison, the air

that was serenity inside, and outside, ferocity.


Didn't have my new tape dispenser yet


This is my last post about Chesterown, I promise, unless by some good fortune or crafty planning I find myself back on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, hunting down  crabcakes and old books.


I left “Air,” with its evocation of violent storms at sea, on the peaceful banks of the Chester River.  The Chester is hardly the Irish Sea, but there is a long history of crabbing and fishing here.  Whether on the rocky coast of Scotland or on the flat fingers of the Chesapeake Bay, fishing is a hard, hard life.


Poet Angus Martin, an old friend whom I’ve poem-elfed previously, was briefly a fifth-generation Scottish herring-fisherman before he left for other endeavors.  Some thirty years back, my brother John visited Angus in the Kintyre peninsula.  Short of money, he got a job through Angus as a fisherman.  As John tells it, he lasted only one night:


What I recall is leaving around midnight, and that following a traditional send-off from the wives and friends at the pub. I was advised, wisely, to be careful peeing off the side of the boat at night, because it would happen from time to time that a fisherman with too much grog in him fell in, no one knew, and was lost.


I slept in a bunk below, not too far from the engine.  The air was stagnant and smelled of petrol.  Waking up in the middle of the night in a storm, I thought the boat was going to flip over from the rocking.  I went on deck and there were two fishermen pulling in the nets full of fish, as if the weather was not an issue.


I got seasick on the second day and they dropped me off at the next port.


The fear my brother felt on that stormy night is the same fear the young boy feels in the central image of the poem.  But the boy fears for his father’s safety, not his own.  We parents always worry about our children.  It’s startling to realize they worry about us as well.


Martin captures such fears in this powerful image:


Listening in bed with a small loneliness

lying beside me, breathing as I

breathed, in perfect unison


That “small loneliness” could break a mother’s heart.  It takes me back to many a childhood night, lying awake with worries that were, mercifully, never realized.


It’s the air, the air of a raging wind, that transports the poet back to childhood.  The connection to his earliest years is accomplished not just through a sensory re-creation of past experiences, but through an actual physical encounter with air.  The air he breathes today could be the very air he breathed as a boy.  It could be the same air inhaled by people thousands of years ago, and by extension, the same his descendants will exhale for generations to come.


In this way, air becomes a shared experience among people all over the world and people throughout time.  Air is an element that unites, an element he offers his mouth to, as with communion.


“Air” is neatly contained in four stanzas with four lines each.  Slant rhyme connects the second and fourth lines:  before/offer, hard/heard, sea/safety, I/ferocity.  The last line contains the internal rhyme of serenity/ferocity.  This subtle structure which holds the poem together becomes almost a little house sheltering the boy from fierce wind.  Wind, whether inside the body or out, needs to be contained; and all people, whether poets, Dorothy in Kansas, women in childbirth, or yogis in strenuous poses, need structures to contain it.  (There’s the beginning of a bathroom joke there, but I’ll refrain.)


Angus Martin is a man of letters on many levels.  During the years he’s worked as a rural postman, he has published many books of poetry and local history.  He’s also an excellent guide for those lucky enough to hike with him.


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reading by Pacu007Books in the bathroom are as essential as toilet paper.  But not to be used for the same purpose, except in cases of emergency.  And then only if the book is already full of what it will be full of if used for such purposes.


For one (back to reading books, not wiping with them), keeping books handy in the bathroom is a tricky way to get the residents of your household reading.  It’s also a proven method of reading something yourself that you wouldn’t find the time to read in any other room of your abode.


The perfect bathroom book can either be read in one sitting or has self-contained chapters or segments that can be digested in 5 to 10 minutes.  The Perfect Bathroom Book has illustrations, although an exception is made for books of poetry and Helen Vendler’s book about Emily Dickinson’s poetry.


Here are a few of the books in my bathrooms:


Stupor by Steve Hughes is a favorite, but not appropriate for all readers


In my bathroom:

The puzzle book has never been used but I can't get rid of it


The girls’ bathroom:

The book of brain teasers was mine from girlhood, obviously a keeper


One more:

No one said P.B.B.'s have to be highbrow


If you’re tired of the angel books you’ve had in your bathroom for the past ten years and you’re ready for something a little more fun or provocative, I found a new source for P.B.B.’s when I was in Chestertown, Maryland a few weekends ago.


DSC_0035 by Jody C.Idiots’ Books is small press in Chestertown that produces small books.  Husband and wife team Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr write, illustrate and publish their little gems from an old barn downtown where they live with two young children.  The books are offbeat, clever, charming, disarming and sometimes warming.


I bought The Baby is Disappointing, Facial Features of French Explorers, Homer Was an Epic Poet, and my favorite, The Nearly Perfect Sisters of the Holy Bliss, at a local Chestertown bookstore.  You can buy them individually online or through a subscription service:  6 books a year for $60.


Note: the books are illustrated but they are not children’s books.  You can see more on the Idiots’ Books website.  Even if you don’t want to buy, check out the couple’s blog.  Theirs is a charmed life, at least from the vantage point of my bathroom.

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poem is in drawer, mouse is by my mother's ear


To Say Before Going To Sleep


by Rainer Maria Rilke


I would like to sing someone to sleep,

have someone to sit by and be with.

I would like to cradle you and softly sing,

be your companion while you sleep or wake.

I would like to be the only person

in the house who knew: the night outside was cold.

And would like to listen to you

and outside to the world and to the woods.


The clocks are striking, calling to each other,

and one can see right to the edge of time.

Outside the house a strange man is afoot

and a strange dog barks, wakened from his sleep.

Beyond that there is silence.


My eyes rest upon your face wide-open;

and they hold you gently, letting you go

when something in the dark begins to move.



I left this poem in a drawer by my mother’s bed during a sisters’ weekend in Chestertown, Maryland.  First, because my mother is a good sport with these staged photos.



But mostly because she was a great singer of lullabies.  Her low tuneful voice, soothing even now in memory, eased her eleven babies to sleep.  “Nighty-Night” and our family favorite, “Lulla-lulla Bye Bye,” were her signature songs.   Through the wonders of youtube, I found that the songs I thought were hers alone had a wider audience.  You can listen to them here and here.  (Warning to my siblings:  Paul Robeson’s version sounds very different from Mom’s.)


My mother’s kinship with “To Say Before Going to Sleep” begins with lullabies but ends with the title.  She would not say this poem before going to sleep.  She would say her prayers.  Poet Rilke grew up in a Catholic household, so surely he was taught to kneel at bedside every night with a German version of “Now I lay me down to sleep.”  But Rilke, who rejected religion and replaced it with art, here replaces the normative bedtime prayers with his poem, a poem about a desire to comfort and protect. Comfort and protection, of course, are often prayerful requests made to deities.


He offers his beloved (not necessarily a baby in this poem) the comfort of his lullaby and the protection of not knowing the menace that threatens such comfort.  There’s a clear contrast between the danger outside of the house and the peace inside the bedroom.  Only the poet, positioning himself between the sleeper and the world, is aware of both at once. Inside there’s light enough to see a beloved’s face.  Outside, darkness and the unknown.  Inside, soothing lullabies, predictable as breathing.  Outside, random noises that startle—a clock striking, a dog barking, a stranger’s footfall.


The most famous lullaby—“Rockabye Baby”—plays with a similar dichotomy.  As a mother cradles her baby safely in her arms, she sings of danger, of the baby falling from a tree limb.  Strange that such a song would be soothing, and yet it is.  A heightened sense of danger can bring out a heightened tenderness.  The two play off each other like light and dark in chiaroscuro.


The poem affects me in ways that are mysterious.  How does Rilke, with such simple, straightforward language, move me to emotions I can’t fully articulate?  The poem taps into unsettling feelings the way fairy tales do.  The situation, the noises, the characters of the stranger and of the sleeping beloved are archetypal.  Rilke builds the dream-like feel of the poem by a stealthy transition from a vague longing in the beginning:


I would like to sing someone to sleep


to a specific moment in the end:


My eyes rest upon your face wide-open.


But there’s something else here.  Something that makes this poem belong to me, as if it’s part of my body, pulsing inside.  After I read it for the ninth time, I realized what it was.  I love this poem because I’ve lived it.


Last year as my father-in-law lay dying in a hospital bed, unhooked from the respirator and feeding tube, I sang to him as he drew his very last breaths.  Earlier in the day the doctor had said he wasn’t “in there” anymore, that he felt no pain or awareness as his heart and lungs gently finished out their work.  But the late-night nurse said, You never know. She smoothed his blankets and dimmed the lights, a quiet form of respect I will always admire her for. Talk to him, sing to him, she said kindly, but matter-of-factly, like she was reminding me to wipe down the counters after I rinsed the dishes.


So I sang him all the songs he used to sing to us and to his grandchildren.  Mostly I sang “Mairzy Dotes,” over and over and over because it’s a happy little tune and I knew all the words.   My voice cracked sometimes when I thought about what was happening.  But I kept on singing, because singing brought back the past so sweetly and held the future at bay.  I sang until his breath rattled in his throat for the third time and the nurse confirmed that he was truly gone.


Rilke’s poem is so connected to that experience that I read it with wonder.


Ranier Maria Rilke (1875-1926) born in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  His given name was Rene, so he was a boy with two feminine names.  His mother, grieving from the loss of an older daughter, not only named Rilke as if he were a girl, she dressed him as one until he went to school.  Not surprising that his childhood was unhappy.


He left the military academy his parents had enrolled him in, and studied at university.  He spent time in his “spiritual fatherland,” Russia before the revolution, and there he met Tolstoy.  In Paris he worked as a secretary for the sculptor Rodin, and knew Cezanne.  He travelled all over the world and, according to some sources, earned a reputation as a freeloader.  He was called back to Austria during World War I and died at age 51 of leukemia.


Lady Gaga's Rilke Tattoo by On BeingRelevant celebrity trivia of the day:  Lady Gaga has a Rilke quote tattooed on her arm.  You can’t read it from the picture (besides, it’s in German), so here’s what it says:

“Confess to yourself in the deepest hour of the night whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. Dig deep into your heart, where the answer spreads its roots in your being, and ask yourself solemnly, Must I write?”

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At my age, birthday fuss sometimes makes me cringe.  Really great presents do not, which is why I want to share a few that I’ve received.


First, a friend found me these salt and pepper shakers



who have been welcomed into my growing elf family in spite of the fact that they are creepy and have no bodies.




Another friend who watched me struggle with an broken tape dispenser (broken doesn’t quite cover the condition), gave me this:




Poem-elfing will be a breeze with my new hand-band.  Reminds me of Wonder Woman cuffs.  In fact, with a cape and mask, Poem Elf could be a super-hero.  Saving the world, one poem at a time.


Finally, I just received a set of hand-made postcards in the mail today from my daughter.  I’ll only show a few.  She’s used poems from past Poem Elf posts and superimposed them on photographs of the poet.



I love how Frank Stanford is covered by all the blue yodels.




Neruda looks like Hitchcock and Rexroth like Barney Miller.  I love them!


She also made a postcard of an old picture of her parents



and put this on the back:



Thank you, thoughtful friends!

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One of many ways to enjoy the charms of Chestertown


I love the Midwest, but sometimes living here I need a strong dose of quirky.  I spent last weekend in Chestertown, Maryland with my sisters, my mother and a handful of nieces, and I’m happy to report that quirk has been dispensed.


Chestertown is a small historic Eastern Shore town, population 5,000, situated on the Chester River a few miles from the beautiful Chesapeake Bay.  It features a two-street downtown with brick sidewalks and just enough shops to fill an afternoon.  My daughter thought she was on the set of Gilmore Girls.  There was a funky coffee shop, a clean well-lit bakery with a very cute baker named Dougie, a multitude of consignment shops (no pretense here, that’s consignment, not antique), and five bookstores.  Two are used, one new, one’s Christian and the other is the campus bookstore for nearby Washington College, established 1792.


At one of the bookstores, I fell in love with a series of hand-made books by a local husband-wife team.  Funny, quirky little books.  The couple lives in a barn and I was encouraged to walk over and meet them.  To my lasting regret, I ran out of time and didn’t. (Later this week I’ll post on their enterprise, Idiot Books.)


In another bookstore I heard a customer ask the bookseller, “Do you have anything for ‘Mommy lied and Daddy’s really in jail?’”


I celebrated my birthday with my sisters for the first time in twenty years.  They surprised me with a wonderful cake:



I got a plastic duck with a tape measure hidden in its backside and this, a gift that brought tears to my eyes:


My sister told me the bookseller knew all about Kenneth Rexroth.  This town impresses. Marian the Librarian would surely be idle if she was charged with improving the cultural level of Chestertown.


But the best present was spending time with my female relatives.  We did what we always do:  we plan runs and eventually go running, we persuade each other to take our cast-offs in a grand clothing exchange, we laugh at my mother’s jokes and tricks, we put candy corn in our mouths like teeth and talk like hillbillies, we drink, we dance, but mostly we talk talk talk on matters trivial (how often we dye our hair if at all) and profound (what are our dreams for the rest of our lives?)


Indeed I have an embarrassment of riches in the sister department, so it was most appropriate that my sister-in-law, who always designs the commemorative t-shirt, chose a treasure chest as her theme.


The quote is from the end of a poem by Victorian poet Christina Rossetti called “Goblin Market.”  It’s crazy stuff.  One of two sisters eats the forbidden fruit of goblin men.   After the first fruit-eating frenzy, she can’t get any more and begins to waste away.  The other sister begs the goblin men for more fruit.  They refuse and beat her and squash fruit in her face.  So she runs home and tells her sister to lick the pulp from her cheek and lips.  (Face-licking was unnecessary on our weekend because there was plenty of cake and apples for all.)  Years later the recovered sister tells her children:

For there is no friend like a sister

In calm or stormy weather;

To cheer one on the tedious way,

To fetch one if one goes astray,

To lift one if one totters down,

To strengthen whilst one stands.


Amen, sister, amen.

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poem is on tree in foreground

I may live on until

I long for this time

In which I am so unhappy,

And remember it fondly.

            —Fujiwara No Kiyosuke

                Translated by Kenneth Rexroth

I found this poem in a lovely little book of my father’s called 100 Poems from the Japanese.  I have no idea why he bought it and neither does my mother.  He was not, unless very very secretly, an aficionado of Japanese culture.  Most likely he made an impulsive purchase—the man loved owning books—but if the book is his Rosebud, I like to think the delicacy of traditional Japanese poetry was a refuge for a man living in a noisy household with eleven children and a dog.


The elegance of Japanese poetic forms like haiku and tanka comes from the balance of simplicity and depth of feeling.  Translator Kenneth Rexroth has done a fine job of maintaining such elegance in the English version.  This poem is tanka, which is a five-line poem with syllable lengths of 5-7-5-7-7.   Achieving those syllabic lengths in translation without altering meaning must be impossible, so Rexroth creates his own delicate structure with a simple four-line poem of mostly one-syllable words.  The effect is like listening to the rings of a crystal bell, with each word a single clear tone.


In his introduction to the collection, the translator says that Japanese poetry usually works around a single “pivot” word, a word with double meaning.  In this poem, the pivot word is “long.”  Long signifies the intensity of desire for the past, but also suggests the length of time one must wait to feel such desire.


The poem seems at first like a truism:  bad times aren’t so bad in retrospect. But there’s a lot more going on than mere platitude-spewing.  The poet writes I may live on not May I live on.   Why the conditional?   Because the line is not a wish or a blessing.  It’s an unsentimental reality check.  I may live till I look back fondly on unhappiness or I may not live that long.  Rather bleak.


And it gets only bleaker.  Why would I long for the problems I have now?  The chilling truth: worse problems lie ahead.  Aging is not for the faint-hearted.  On a cheerier note, and back to spewing platitudes, consider the alternative.  Being alive is good.  Even when it’s bad, life is good.  It’s just that in the middle of unhappiness we can’t see it.  Like a wise friend or good therapist, the poem provides perspective for the down-hearted.


I left the poem at a high school cross country meet.  I was thinking about the various people who might benefit from reading it.  It got a little silly.  To wit:  if someday these runners have no legs, they’d remember their tired muscles with longing.   If someday they’re hooked up to respirators, they’d sure miss feeling winded from running so fast.

My daughter, lucky to have legs


Even if they retain legs and lungs, the truth is that teenagers often lack perspective that troubles will pass.  At this regional meet there would be many long-faced runners who just missed qualifying for states or who ended their season with injuries and disappointments, never being able to run as fast as all the cowbell-ringing parents and screaming coaches on the sidelines pressured them to.  I was also thinking that the cowbell-ringing parents and screaming coaches needed perspective more than anyone.


But in the end, as so often happens, the one who needed perspective was myself.


The meet was cold and windy and I wasn’t dressed properly.  When I got back in the car, I looked in the rear view mirror and was dismayed to see a splotchy purple face.  Aurgh.  Thin skin that looks bruised in cold weather is one of the effects of aging that no one ever mentioned to me before.  Gone are the days of looking fresh in the winter with pink cheeks that polish to a cold marble finish.  Watering eyes, purple nose, dry lips—I looked like a crone.  But then I thought, in twenty years I’ll look back on pictures of myself right now and wish I could look so young again.  So there.


The poet, Fujiwara no Kiyosuke (1104-1177), was from a noble Japanese family, kind of the Kennedys of their day.  Besides being involved in politics, many of them were poets.

 by Beat Werke


I found out so little about the poet that I turned to the translator, Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982).  What a life this guy had.  Rexroth dropped out of high school, travelled all over the country as a teen (he was an orphan at 14), spent time in jail for being part owner of a brothel, spoke on soapboxes in Chicago (he was a philosophical anarchist), lived in a monastery as a postulant, but also married four times.  During WWII, to which he was a conscientious objector, he helped Japanese-Americans escape internment camps.  His literary friends are a who’s-who of mid-century and Beat literary life.  Time magazine called him the “Father of the Beats,” a moniker to which he responded, “An entomologist is not a bug.”  He’s buried in Santa Monica on a cliff overlooking the ocean.  On his tombstone is a lovely poem he wrote in the Japanese style:


As the full moon rises

The swan sings in sleep

On the lake of the mind.


Look for Rexroth to be poem elfed soon.  This fellow intrigues me.


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