Archive for February, 2012

To write my last post I had to look up the cast of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.  I came across an amusing bit from the script.  Terry Thomas, playing his usual upper-crust Englishman equal parts outraged and dastardly, serves up this rant on an American obsession:


“As far as I can see, American men have been totally emasculated — they’re like slaves! They die like flies from coronary thrombosis while their women sit under hairdryers eating chocolates and arranging for every second Tuesday to be some sort of Mother’s Day! And this infantile preoccupation with bosoms. In all my time in this godforsaken country, the one thing that has appalled me most of all is this preposterous preoccupation with bosoms. Don’t you realize they have become the dominant theme in American culture: in literature, advertising and all fields of entertainment. I’ll wager you anything you like that if American women stopped wearing brassieres, your whole national economy would collapse overnight.”


CN00028698 by annaparrucchiera

no bon bons

It’s dated but familiar.  The idea of American men slaving to keep their castrating wives happy under hair dryers nibbling away on chocolates wasn’t true even in 1963, but the misogyny of Thomas’ character is still a ”dominant theme in American culture,” as anyone who watched Superbowl commercials will attest.  Thomas’ scenario has echoes in the Teleflora ad in which someone named Adriana Lima lasciviously explains Valentine’s Day to men: “Give and you shall receive.”  And the Dannon lady who head-butts her partner to get the most yogurt is a younger and prettier version of Thomas’s nemesis, Ethel Merman.  Screeching her way towards the buried treasure, Merman repeatedly thrashes the men in the movie with her hefty pocketbook.


Few would dispute Thomas’ characterization of our national bosom obsession, but some might—politely—point out that the English have a reputation for a juvenile preoccupation with buttocks.


Jeez, look at me, sucking out all the humor.  I don’t mean to.  Dated or not, his speech makes me laugh. Say prepostorous preoccupation with bosoms with an English accent.  All that spit and all those bilabial plosives!  Funny!  Bosom is a great big fun word.


In defense of my adolescent sense of humor:  growing up we prayed the Stations of the Cross in our living room every night during Lent.  This was a solemn activity, often a dreaded one, at least until we got to the 13th station, Jesus is Taken Down From the Cross.  We took turns reading and if the 13th station landed on you, rather like hot potato, you would be required to say a very embarrassing phrase out loud.   Usually the reader would start giggling and be unable to complete the reading and then everyone else would start sniggering.  After three or four attempts to say it without laughing, we gave up and my mother took over.  “And pressed Him to her BOSOM,” she would say firmly, trying to sound unamused, which was about the funniest part of all.


Forevermore, “bosom” is my word of choice for describing mammaries, even though my kids cringe when I say it.  “Boob” is just too coarse and  “breast” has too many associations with cancer for a bosom-less gal like me.


One last bosom story:  I fondly remember my husband’s uncle reminiscing about his wife in a party dress when she was a college student:  She had a lovely bosom, he sighed.


Aren’t they all.





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poem is on shelf with coffee


A New Lifestyle

by James Tate



People in this town drink too much

coffee. They’re jumpy all the time. You

see them drinking out of their big plastic

mugs while they’re driving. They cut in

front of you, they steal your parking places.

Teenagers in the cemeteries knocking over

tombstones are slurping café au lait.

Recycling men hanging onto their trucks are

sipping espresso. Dogcatchers running down

the street with their nets are savoring

their cups of mocha java. The holdup man

entering a convenience store first pours

himself a nice warm cup of coffee. Down

the funeral parlor driveway a boy on a

skateboard is spilling his. They’re so

serious about their coffee, it’s all they

can think about, nothing else matters.

Everyone’s wide awake but looks incredibly




It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World 4 by Priority PR, Los AngelesThis catalog of frenzied coffee-drinkers, comical in their obsession, brings to mind an old movie favorite, It’s a Mad Mad Mad World.  If you haven’t seen this 1963 classic, find a way, post-Blockbuster, to watch it.  Jonathan Winters riding a little girl’s bicycle is not to be missed.  Winters and an all-star cast including Spencer Tracy, Ethel Merman, Terry Thomas, Peter Falk and Sid Caesar race down the California coast to find $350,000 buried under a mysterious “Big W.”  The characters become increasingly nuts as the chase ensues.  Their money monomania leads them to the top of an out-of-control fire truck ladder and eventually to the hospital.


Recapping the movie, I’m struck by how modest the buried treasure is by today’s standards.  $350,000, really?  At first “A New Lifestyle” seemed similarly dated.  Is obsessive coffee-drinking new?  I assumed that the poem was written pre-Starbucks.  When I discovered it was actually published in a 2002 collection, I read the poem a little differently.  It’s not a straight-up tub-thumping.  It’s also gleeful exercise in the pleasures of tub-thumping.  Tate invents a character, a Rip Van Winkle sort of man, who observes modern habits with a crabby and comic eye.


Clearly Tate has a lot of fun creating characters and listing silly coffee-drinking situations.  His list begins credibly, with pushy drivers stealing parking spaces. But as the speaker gets wound up, the list gets increasingly crazy.  Vandalizing teenagers in a cemetery drink coffee, not beer.  Burly trashmen sip from dainty expresso cups.  By the time we arrive at the dogcatcher racing down the street with his coffee, we know Tate is as intent on amusing as he is on complaining.  When was the last time you saw a dogcatcher anyway?


The speaker’s tirade operates on a logical fallacy, Post Hoc, as I remember from a rhetoric class, or maybe it’s Hasty Generalization:  drivers are drinking coffee; these drivers are rude: therefore coffee-drinking causes rude behavior.  Whatever the name, this kind of false reasoning is common to anyone ranting and raving on the ills of society.


“A New Lifestyle” would be a fun poem for an imitation exercise.  Substitute “coffee” with television, plastic water bottles, Facebook, ADHD medication, the internet, smart phones, or whatever a bile-eyed observer might deem harmful.  Invent characters.  Create absurd incidents.  Make a hasty generalization.  End with a killer statement that shakes up the whole poem and makes the reader shudder with recognition:


Everyone’s wide awake but looks incredibly



I couldn’t resist re-writing those lines for a poem about cell phone usage, a vice of mine (cell phones, that is, not re-writing):


Everyone’s connected but feels incredibly



Today being the first day of Lent, a season of giving up certain habits to make room for more important behaviors, it’s a good time to consider obsessions.  “A New Lifestyle” makes me think how sad and empty obsessions can be.  How we move from one obsession to the next.  How we define ourselves by our obsessions.  How what we seek so desperately can end up thwarting what we desire most.  But mostly how darn hard it is for me to give up sweets and Facebook and what I would give for a chocolate chip cookie right now.


gregory peck as captain ahab moby dick by Positively PuzzledOf course I left the poem at Starbucks, that mecca for all obsessive coffee drinkers.   Interesting that the name “Starbucks” comes from Moby Dick.   After rejecting “Pequod,” Starbucks’ founders chose the name of the Pequod’s chief mate, Starbuck.  They wanted to suggest international commerce and coffee trading.  The speaker in “A New Lifestyle” would say they chose well.  Nothing says “obsession” like an allusion to world of Captain Ahab.


James Tate - Youngest Winner of "Yale Younger Poets Award" visits CC by Columbia College Alumni AssociationPoet James Tate was born in Missouri in 1943.  His father, a pilot in WWII, died in a plane crash when Tate was five months old, and never met his son.  Tate has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and teaches at the University of Massachusettes, Amherst.  In a wonderful interview with Tate in the Paris Review (which you can read here) poet Charles Simic calls Tate “one of our great comic masters.”

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Yesterday I listened to an anti-Valentine’s Day show on the radio.  Then I read an anti-anti-Valentine’s Day advice column.  What’s with all the hating on my second favorite holiday of the year?


Valentine’s Day is about love.  That’s all there is to it.  Yeah, love!  It doesn’t have to be romantic love or hot sexy love or I-don’t-have-anyone-to love.  If you love your parents or your siblings or your friends or your co-workers or your teachers or your dogs or even just the earth (and if not that, best find out what ails you), Valentine’s Day is worth celebrating.  And celebrating doesn’t mean waiting for the roses to be delivered.  Like any other concept connected to love, Valentine’s Day is about giving, not getting.


To celebrate, I went on a Valentine’s Day binge, Poem-Elf style.  I left poems all over town.  A little something for everyone.


At the food court in the mall, I left “What There Is” by Kenneth Patchen.

poem is on side of booth


I sent this one to my kids.  A message of love for everyone!



In the men’s underwear department of Macy’s I left Robert Creeley’s “Old Song.”

poem is in the middle of the top shelf


An Old Song with a new twist:  men enjoy being desired as much as women do.



Target seemed like a good spot for poem-elfing today.  I left “After Love” by Sara Teasdale in the make-up aisle.

poem is in front of the lipsticks


I figured that if you’ve reached the end of a relationship, you just may want some new make-up to cheer yourself up.


For very romantic souls, I left “Although I Conquer All the Earth” on a path through the woods.

poem is on tree on left-hand side of path


I hope the wind doesn’t blow it away before lovers canoodling in the woods find it.


For lovers who enjoy PDA, I left “So Let’s Live–Really Live ” in the city park.

poem is on park bench


The name of the statue behind the bench is Marshall Frederick’s “The Freedom of the Human Spirit.”  Yes, indeed!


I passed an independent living building for seniors and left Grace Paley’s “Hand-Me-Downs.”

poem is taped to the right of the door


Who else can write about old lovers with such tenderness and whimsy?


I left Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Recipe for Happiness” in the flower department of the grocery store.

poem is in the center bouquet of roses

I hope the poem elevates an average-looking valentine bearing an average gift into something magical.


Finally, I left Lorca’s “Variation”  for my own valentine on the window of his office.


We’ve been together since we were 17 and this poem reminds me of young love.  And old love too, goldarnit.


Enjoy Valentine’s Day, everyone!  Spread it around.



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Poem is on right side of entry way




by: Christina Rossetti


THE hope I dreamed of was a dream,

Was but a dream; and now I wake

Exceeding comfortless, and worn, and old,

For a dream’s sake.


I hang my harp upon a tree,

A weeping willow in a lake;

I hang my silenced harp there, wrung and snapt

For a dream’s sake.


Lie still, lie still, my breaking heart;

My silent heart, lie still and break:

Life, and the world, and mine own self, are changed

For a dream’s sake.




Inception-movie-image by gwendolyn maiaThe best place for Christina Rossetti’s poem “Mirage” would be in the opening credits of Inception II.  That is, if you’re in the camp that believes Leonardo DiCaprio’s character was still dreaming at the end of the original movie.


Inception is about the only place where this poem wouldn’t serve as a gloating over another person’s suffering.  Hidden in a gift shop’s Valentine’s Day display, The hope I dreamed of was a dream,/Was but a dream would be a bad omen or painful reminder.  Tucked in with graduation cards, it would mock the relentless urging to follow dreams.   The college prep section of Barnes and Noble, the cast list for a high school play or a dressing room mirror during bikini season would all be mean-spirited spots to leave this poem.


It seemed less unkind to leave it at Washington, D.C.’s Union Station.  I do hope no Anna Karenina’s staggered nearby who might be driven to the train tracks by the poem’s despair.  I left the poem as a diversion for train travelers, not a mirror, as a reminder that the train they just entered or exited can be a place of dramatic emotions, a scene of separation, the end of a romance. The D.C. station seems particularly appropriate for the poem because D.C., like L.A. and New York City, attracts some of the most ambitious dreamers in the country.   Unlike those other cities, ambition in D.C. is often tied to idealism, a sure combination for the kind of bitter disappointment in the poem.


The hope dreamed of in this poem is romantic, not professional and certainly not political.  It speaks of a heartache I’ve never experienced.  I myself am not one to bet the bank on a romantic dream.  I like to think I have good judgment where men are concerned.  But it’s true that I haven’t had many occasions to exercise said judgment.  Perhaps I try not to want anything so badly that not getting it will crush me.  Enlightened detachment or damage?  An open question.


At any rate, my instinct to detach makes me a terrible consoler for the broken-hearted, especially for one of my daughters who these days seems ever in the throes of romantic dreams.  Many times I’ve mistakenly thought that if I could help her see she’s misreading signals or that a prospect isn’t worth her attention, I could prevent her from feeling exceeding comfortless.  It hasn’t worked.  In fact, my attempts at consolation have earned me the unfortunate nickname of “Dream Crusher.”  Dream Crusher! my husband sings, Put on your boots and crush those dreams!


Dream Crusher reads this poem and says, Get it together, girl!  You don’t want to end up like Ophelia (drowned) or Miss Havisham (cobwebbed).  And next time, sister, don’t pin all your hopes to a man.


But the Poem Elf in me loves this poem.  It’s gorgeous.  It asks to be heard out loud, to be memorized, to be stashed away for gloomy days.


My delight in the despair comes from the intricate way Rossetti uses tricks of sound to suggest more than is actually said.  The rhyme scheme hinges on a single sound, “ake,” which if you didn’t notice can also be spelled “ache.”  The harp, hung up on a tree and broken, carries a sound-suggestion of “heart” even before she mentions the word.  “Lie still” she commands her heart, but the command echoes an accusation she may have thrown at the lover who betrayed her.  The repetition in each verse becomes a keening:  was a dream,/was but a dream, she wails, and we see her rocking back in forth in anguish.


For all its sweet tones, the poem is violent.  Hints of suicide lurk in the stanzas.  The harp is wrung and snapt  like a neck.  It hangs from a tree.  And the lake holds promise of a final silencing, a means to lie still forever.


Christina Rossetti by Ma-BellyChristina Rossetti (1830- 1894) was born in London to an Italian family of high Romantic pedigree.  Her father was a poet, her mother the sister of Byron’s friend and doctor, her brother Dante an artist and poet, and her two other siblings writers.  She was a central player in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, serving as the model for several paintings and was certainly the strongest poet in the group.  She lived with her mother her whole life and never married although she had plenty of suitors.   As a very pious Anglican, Rossetti ended one engagement because her fiancé re-converted to Catholicism.  She turned down two others for religious reasons.  She died of breast cancer a few weeks after her 64th birthday.


I have a t-shirt with one of her poems on it (from a sister’s weekend, see here) and you may have run across “When I Am Dead, My Dearest” searching for a funeral material.  This animated video of her reciting that poem is really creepy, more suited to Halloween than the week before Valentine’s Day.  Sorry, Dream Crusher insisted on posting the link.


But Poem Elf wanted you to see another picture from Union Station:






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poem is on edge of chair, lower right corner


Gray Room

by Wallace Stevens


Although you sit in a room that is gray,

Except for the silver

Of the straw-paper,

And pick

At your pale white gown;

Or lift one of the green beads

Of your necklace,

To let it fall;

Or gaze at your green fan

Printed with the red branches of a red willow;

Or, with one finger,

Move the leaf in the bowl–

The leaf that has fallen from the branches of the forsythia

Beside you…

What is all this?

I know how furiously your heart is beating.



My sister Wizzie once invented useful terms to describe social situations related to boredom.  “Bororalflatulence” (boring oral flatulence and yes, we like bathroom humor) is boring chatter that goes on endlessly. One can be subjected to another’s bororalflatulence, one can participate in it and still see no way of getting out, or one can be the sole source.  This last situation can lead to the second term:   “constaboreka” is the sudden realization of one’s own boringness.  This epiphany usually occurs mid-sentence.  The building block words are “eureka” and both “constant” and “constipated.”


I experience constaboreka when I think I’m talking to a dull person.  I assume my conversational partner doesn’t know or care about the difference between “fascinating” and “today I folded laundry,” and so I use the opportunity to blabber on and on until I notice stifled yawns.  It’s always a mistake to label someone boring.   A dull person may actually be an electric soul hampered by introverted or socially awkward manners.


A sense that feverish life pulses beneath even the dullest of persons and places was the reason I left Wallace Stevens’ “Gray Room” at the orthodontist office.  Dullness is positively viral at an orthodontist office.  (Perhaps Wizzie should invent a term for the contagion of boredom.)  One of the most boring spots on earth, and I include in that comparison the hardware store and theaters playing Last Year at Marienbad,  orthodontist offices are usually gray or beige, with stacks of dog-eared magazines that promise new new new and latest this latest that but prove stale and tedious.  People thumbing through those magazines rarely converse and avoid eye contact.


But reading this poem reminds me that if we only knew what everyone in the waiting room were thinking or had been through or were waiting for or dreaded or dreamed about, if all those thoughts zoomed our of our heads and zinged around the room, the beige office would rock like a nightclub.  Look, here comes sad-eyed Dr. B, our orthodontic Walter Mitty, bursting into the waiting room, twitching and thrusting in his gray trousers, growling out his suppressed desires.


The day I left Steven’s poem at Dr. B’s office also happened to be the day my daughter got her braces off.  This was one of the most anticipated events of her life so far.  Surely her heart was beating as furiously as the woman’s in the poem and surely there were other excited souls nearby.  But we all sat there like hungover frat boys in a lecture hall, slumping, silent, and hoping for a text message.   Had we only a poet to show us what was hidden, the time might have passed faster.


In Stevens’ “Gray Room” the poet’s careful examination of the room and the woman occupying it becomes an animating force that uncovers energy and color.  The gray room, dull at first, is actually decorated with tones of silver, white, green, red and yellow.  The woman too is not what she seems.  She moves the leaf with a single finger, lifts and drops her necklace.  Her languid movements signal more than boredom.  She is filling the room with her intense sensuality.  The organic materials Wallace mentions—straw, willow, leaf, forsythia—-highlight the throbbing life underneath her tedium.  Like those of us trapped in the orthodontist office, this woman is waiting for something.


My favorite line is the abrupt What is all this?  Stevens calls her out, in today’s lingo, on her pretense of ennui.   Wouldn’t it be astounding and marvelous for someone to walk into the waiting room and say that?  What is all this?  We look up from last month’s People magazine with our hearts beating furiously.  What does each of us answer?


Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) must have known something about boredom, working as he did in the insurance industry.  His early ambition was to be a writer, but after a stint as a journalist, he went to law school.  He joined a law firm, left to work in insurance and eventually became vice president of Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company.  So there’s his gray room.  In his 3-piece suit he looks like a gray man, a softer Herbert Hoover, but looks, as we know, are deceiving.


I’ve never been fond of Stevens because his poems are too difficult for a lazy reader like me.  But this poem and two facts endear me to him:


1.  He seems to have dealt with a writing block that is usually the province of women writers. Parenthood made it hard to write, he said, and he stopped writing for nine years after the birth of his daughter Holly.  Some of his most important work was written after age 50. I do love a late-bloomer.


2.  When he first published poems he wrote under the name “Peter Parasol.”  Such a silly pseudonym for a man Harold Bloom has called “the best and most representative American poet of our time.”


Since I’m making lists, here’s another:

woc668 USA enamelled coin cufflinks by wowcoin


1.  Fun fact:  Stevens’ wife Elsie was the model for the face of the Winged Cap Dime, in use from 1916-1945.  (Roosevelt’s profile followed.)


2.  A less fun fact:  I’ve spent over forty hours of my life at this orthodontist office.  Four kids with braces times 1 hour each visit times an average of 6 visits a year times 2 years (minimum).   I could go on but yikes I’ve been struck by constaboreka.



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