Archive for December, 2011

poem is on pillar at the bottom of the staircase


Town Water


by Michael Heffernan



There always ought to be a willingness

to receive the roadside’s offering of flowers


to be brought home and put in fruit-juice glasses

on the windowsill above the kitchen sink


so we can stand there and admire alien beauty

the like of which we imagine in a small way


while looking for a speck in a child’s eye

and noticing suddenly that ring of celestial blue.


I hope I used the correct graduation year


I knew just where to put a poem by Detroit native Michael Heffernan:  the entrance to University of Detroit Jesuit High School.  Heffernan attended U of D, just south of the infamous 8 Mile, an all-boy, racially-diverse Catholic institution and the oldest functioning school in Detroit.  There he wrote his first poem.  The poem grew out of homework assigned as punishment after one member of the class left a jock strap on the teacher’s chair.  Heffernan remembers only the beginning of the poem he wrote about the Maine coast—


The rock, untouched by human hands,

Away from all the other stands


but credits the wise punishment with opening his eyes to a career he had never before considered.


I had another reason for bringing Heffernan’s work back to his alma mater.  The school website doesn’t list him among its notable graduates.  That list is headlined by detective novelist Elmore Leonard and rounded out by the head of Google AdWorks and two NFL players.  I respectfully suggest that the winner the Porter Prize for Literary Excellence, two Pushcart prizes, three fellowships from the NEA, and the Iowa Poetry Prize, not to mention the writer of nine books of poetry, should be given his props.


Location fore-ordained, the question was, which poem from those nine books to use?  When a hometown boy makes good, you don’t want him showing up for the parade in a bathrobe.  I wanted to bring the best of Heffernan, but I also wanted him to be read by the students and teachers who passed by on their way home.  I needed a short poem, straightforward, with lots of white space—none of which characteristics are typical of a Heffernan poem.


Fortunately “Town Water” fits the bill, and even better, carries echoes which might be familiar to U of D students. The first line


There always ought to be a willingness

to receive the roadside’s offering of flowers


recalls the opening to William Carlos Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow” (a poem which also has four two-line stanzas):


So much depends



a red wheel



Both declarations juxtapose grand pronouncements with the commonplace.


Everyone reads “The Red Wheelbarrow” in high school and most everyone thought it silly at the time—who cares about the dang wheelbarrow, says the teenager, most likely in saltier terms.  But more than a few people still remember, years later, that startling image of the white chickens standing next to a rain-glazed wheelbarrow.  So with “Town Water.”  Heffernan’s picture of flowers in a fruit juice glass on the windowsill above the kitchen sink shares the precision and delicacy of William’s imagery.


At the end of the poem comes another echo these U of D students might recognize, from the gospel of Matthew:


How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?


Heffernan’s poem turns that image on its head. The adult looking for a speck in the child’s eye is not, as in Matthew, overwhelmed by his own faults.  He’s overwhelmed by unexpected beauty.  The celestial blue of the child’s iris is a small beauty but startling, just like the alien beauty of the roadside flowers.  Both beauties are small replicas of a larger, unnamed beauty that we can’t fully imagine.  If ever we have hope of seeing such beauty, openness and willingness to see are required.  It’s what Wordsworth is talking about when he writes,


Come forth, and bring with you a heart     

That watches and receives.


Seasonally this poem may be inappropriate for a wintry Detroit landscape, but thematically it’s just right for a building that houses teenage boys.  The halls of U of D funnel boys through an awkward growth as they muscle their way to manhood.  Here they make mistakes, act inappropriately, stupidly sometimes and rude, but suffer silently too, and in dark moments wish they were home.  No less often they act kindly, show brilliance, make adults laugh.  It’s all there.  You just have to see the weeds as “roadside flowers” and be willing to put them in a vase as if they were roses.


My teenage son used to block me when I was rushing around the kitchen and give me a bear hug.  I’d try to cut it short but he’d hold on tight and say, half-teasingly, “Settle down there, Mother.  Someday this is all going to be gone and you’ll wish you had it back.”  How right he was, that far-sighted boy, now gone off to college.  What was I rushing for?  To put the rice in the pot?  To turn off the tea kettle?  Answer the phone?  Check my email?


And there was my gangly flower in the juice jar, saying, notice my alien beauty.


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when it was more important to dream than clean my room


When I was a teenager, and like other teens suffering from an awkwardness in inverse proportion to my romantic longings, I liked to sit by the fire during the holiday season and listen to sad music till tears rolled down my cheeks.  It was great.  Certain inchoate desires—to live a happening life, to be loved by a boy, to be Mary Tyler Moore, to just, just experience something I didn’t know what, something beautiful and swooning—such feelings found release there in the darkened rec room with the fire crackling and popping and the scratchy Richie Havens album on the phonograph.  For a really good cry, Haven’s decidedly uncheerful “I Can’t Take it Anymore” was gentle medicine.


I still need a sad song around the holidays.  Listening to music that draws out tears is as beneficial as lancing a cut.  For a short four-tear cry I listen to Lizz Wright’s “Dreaming Wide Awake,” a beautiful and lush song well-served by its title.


For a lighter kind of melancholy, I turn to Wilco’s “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend).”  Actually, it’s not just a holiday song for me; I’ve been listening obsessively since Wilco released their latest album in September.


The song is about a man struggling with memories of a difficult father.  The man’s dead father was a condemning sort who condemned the son for not believing in a condemning God.  Songwriter Jeff Tweedy explains the spiritual issue at the center of the song:  “Now he’s [the father] going to know he was wrong and that there is an only loving God.”  It sounds heavy in summary, but bouyant and rollicking to listen to.


Wilco Jeff Tweedy Nels Cline by groovescapesTweedy is a real poet if you ask me.  Certain lines in this song, like so many Wilco songs, have earned a life of their own.  They walk around quietly in my head like old people, wise and world-weary.  Here’s one:


What I learned without knowing

How much more I owe than I can give


And another:


I fell in love with the burden

holding me down


You have to listen to the lyrics in context, so I encourage you to link here.  Be sure you have 12 minutes to spare.  And another 12 minutes after that because you may want to listen again and allow a mood of pleasant melancholy to wash over you.  It’s just the loveliest loveliest song.


My husband and I are going to a Wilco concert this weekend and we’ll hear it live.  Surely we’ll have yet another conversation about the meaning of the lyrics.


Here they are:


This is how I’ll tell it

Oh, but it’s long.

One Sunday Morning

Oh, one son is gone.


Against the weather dawning

Over the sea

My father said what I had become

No one should be.


Outside I look lived in

Like the bones in a shrine

How am I forgiven?

Oh, I’ll give it time.


This I learned without warning

Holding my brow

In time we thought I would kill him

Oh, but I didn’t know how.


I said it’s your God I don’t believe in

No, your Bible can’t be true

Knocked down by the long lie

He cried I fear what waits for you.


I can hear those bells

Spoken and gone.

I feel relief I feel well

Now he knows he was wrong.


Ring ’em cold for my father

Frozen underground

Jesus I wouldn’t bother

He belongs to me now.


Something sad keeps moving

So I wandered around.

I fell in love with the burden

Holding me down.


Bless my mind, I miss

Being told how to live.

What I learned without knowing

How much more I owe than I can give.


This is how I tell it

Oh, but it’s long.

One Sunday morning

One son is gone.

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poem is on fence post

Delight in Disorder

by Robert Herrick


A sweet disorder in the dress

Kindles in clothes a wantonness;

A lawn about the shoulders thrown

Into a fine distraction;

An erring lace, which here and there

Enthrals the crimson stomacher;

A cuff neglectful, and thereby

Ribands to flow confusedly;

A winning wave, deserving note,

In the tempestuous petticoat;

A careless shoe-string, in whose tie

I see a wild civility:

Do more bewitch me, than when art

Is too precise in every part.



Poet Robert Herrick’s disheveled object of desire is my sartorial soulmate.  I’ve always thought a woman as loosely dressed as she is, with shoelaces flapping, ribbons untied, and underwear bunching out of a skirt—was more attractive than the starched and pressed variety.  Unfortunately, my own disorder in the dress is somewhat less bewitching than Herrick’s gal, and runs more along the lines of panty lines and perspiration stains. Herrick would have a time of it if he had to write a sonnet about my grooming habits.  Woman, get a hold of thyself!  he might begin.



To picture the dishabille of Herrick’s lady, a short tutorial on women’s fashions of the day might be helpful. In the early 17th century, women’s clothing relaxed.  Stiff lace collars and heavy fabrics softened.  Wrists were visible through sleeves, and skirts were lifted, tied up with ribbons to show petticoats.  The stomacher was a panel in the center of a dress, from neckline to waist, holding the two sides of the dress together.  It was either sewn in or tied with criss-crossing ribbons.  The lawn was a fine linen put over the shoulders and tucked into a bodice to cover up décolletage to the degree a lady wished.


Although he’s too much a gentleman to come out and say it, here’s what Herrick is hoping for:  with the lace of her stomacher out of place and the lawn so carelessly thrown, he’ll get a good gander at her lady lumps.  Of course he says that much more elegantly.  In any age, even ours, wantonness sounds better than horny.


What’s interesting is that wantonness is kindled not in the poet or in the wearer of the clothing, but in the clothes themselves:

A sweet disorder in the dress

Kindles in clothes a wantonness

It’s as if the clothes act independently to seduce Herrick.  The lace enthralls, the cuff distracts, the ribbons are confused, the petticoat tempestuous.  Such a conceit avoids impugning the virtue of the lady and forms a defense as old as mankind:  Her clothes made me do it!



Most times when I poem-elf I have particular reason for matching poem to place.  Other times there’s no discernable connection:  the choice is instinctual, whimsical, hurried.  This posting fits into the second category.  I left “Delight in Disorder” on the fence post of an urban garden in Detroit’s midtown, a few blocks from the Detroit Institute of Arts.  It’s 2011 and Detroit is facing bankruptcy.  Why leave there a poem  about 17th century ladies’ fashion written at the time Woodward Avenue was still an Indian trail and French explorers were giving Detroit its name?


The truth: I was rushing out the door and grabbed the poem from a pile (yes, I have piles of poems) for no reason other than it pleased me.  It’s a joyful expression of lust and beauty and art.  It’s lively and lovely.  It sparkles.   It’s a poem about imperfection that’s perfect in every way.


Lovely and sparkle and perfect aren’t words most folks associate with Detroit.  More likely, decay and blight.  Detroit is, after all, number one on CNBC’s List of 20 Cities You Don’t Want to Live In.  It’s a place to film post-apocalyptic movies.  Some see it as a modern-day ruin.  Photographers have flocked here to capture the city’s decline in surrealistic images.


But Detroit was once called “The Paris of the Midwest,” silly as that seems now.  And loveliness is still here, in parts, if you look for it.  For every ruin in Detroit, there’s an anti-ruin.  Midtown, for instance.  The DIA.  The Opera House, Fisher Theater and dozens of other architectural jewels.  Tree-lined neighborhoods. Restaurants new and trendy and restaurants ancient.  Ordinary people and glitzy ones, artists, dreamers, and good, kind people who won’t give up on the city they love.


Maybe if we borrowed a few terms from Herrick we could see Detroit in a different light.  Instead of urban decay, think wild civility.  Replace post-industrial ruins with a sweet disorder in the dress.  The suburbs, in comparison, seem too precise in every part, predictable and decidedly non-bewitching.


Not to get too precious about it.  People have to live here and no one wants to live in ruins.  Disorder is none too sweet when trash pick-up is unreliable and the building next door is abandoned and crumbling.  And the future surely does look bleak.  Without massive budget cuts and layoffs, Detroit will be out of money by April. Some of those laid off will be firefighters and police, and some of the cuts will be to the DIA and other cultural institutions.  State intervention seems likely.


Still, it never hurts to point out the lovely when you see it.  This hopeful little garden, unruly but productive, is a corner of the city worth appreciating.  Leaving the poem here was like reminding a blotchy-faced teen of the loveliness within, a loveliness that someday soon will show on the outside .


Robert Herrick (1591-1674) was born in London, the seventh child of a goldsmith.  When Herrick was still a baby, his father jumped out a window and died. (Early death of a parent is beginning to seem a pre-requisite for the poetic life.)  Herrick was apprenticed to a goldsmith but quit after six years.  He finished his education at Cambridge and took holy orders.  At late age of 39 he was assigned to a rural parish, and worked the rest of his life as a country parson.   I can’t find a good picture of him, but picture Gabe Kaplan of Welcome Back Kotter in breeches.


Herrick addressed 148 poems to various mistresses, but the consensus is that these women were fictional.  He never married and died unknown as a poet.  His poetry was resurrected in 19th century, over one hundred years after his death, and today he’s widely read and anthologized.


Let’s hope Detroit’s resurrection happens a lot quicker.


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