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Archive for March, 2012

poem is on left-hand side of glasses case, just below middle metal bracket

 

Meeting the Light Completely

 

by Jane Hirshfield

 

Even the long-beloved

was once

an unrecognized stranger.

 

Just so,

the chipped lip

of a blue-glazed cup,

blown field

of a yellow curtain,

might also,

flooding and falling,

ruin your heart.

 

A table painted with roses.

An empty clothesline.

 

Each time,

the found world surprises—

that is its nature.

 

And then

what is said by all lovers:

“What fools we were, not to have seen.”

 

 

This poem bears the weightless distinction of being one of the first poems I copied and kept.  After years and years of being passed from drawer to drawer and folder to folder and finally to an envelope in my purse, the paper is crinkled and worn, its print the merest shade darker than faded.  I found it so long ago I can’t remember why I wanted to save it.   Maybe I liked the image of the shabby chic kitchen and wanted to sit at that painted table next to the opened window.  Maybe I liked the sounds:

the chipped lip

of the blue-glazed cup.

Maybe it was the first time I came across a poem, post-college, whose language was vernacular, whose ideas were transparent or seemed to be.   Maybe it spoke to me about the surprises of life, how unimportant things can become important, how every moment is pregnant with possibility and meaning.

 

How the poem ended up in the Costco optical department is another story.  Because my eyes have gotten increasingly sensitive to sunlight as I’ve aged and I can’t wear contacts all the time, I decided to get prescription sunglasses.  I wanted to “meet the light completely,” so to speak.  Mirrored lenses, I figured, would keep the sun out best.  Big mistake.  Trying on my new insistently reflective sunglasses, I deceived myself that I looked less like a blind lady than Neo in Matrix, and I wore them, nervously checking the rearview mirror at every stoplight, until I picked up my daughter from school.  She cringed at the sight of me.  “Coraline’s parents,” she said, referring to the animated character’s frightening black-button-eyed torturers.

 

Within the hour I was back at Costco with the offending glasses in my purse and-–egads—a good poem to tape to the glasses display.

 

I hadn’t realized until I left the poem amongst the glasses how much the poem is about seeing.  All the images are visual, the observations of someone who is looking carefully.  But the poem is also about what can’t be seen.  Meeting the light completely would lead to blindness, at least that’s the strong impression my dad made when he would take us outside to look at a solar eclipse through sunglasses.  We can be blind to the meaning of things as we experience them.  Only with distance or through a glass darkly can we perceive reality.

 

In the beginning and end of the poem, the act of not seeing amps up romance:

Even the long-beloved

 was once

 an unrecognized stranger.

 

Essayist Geoff Dyer tells a charming story that illustrates those lines.  He was in a lingerie shop with his girlfriend and while she was in the dressing room, he was briefly enamored of another shopper.  “It wasn’t just that she was beautiful,” he writes, “she transfixed me totally.  My heart went out to her.”   Six months later, he broke up with his girlfriend and later got married.  Months after the wedding, he woke up one morning and “realized, immediately and with absolute certainty, that the woman lying next to me, Rebecca, my wife, was the woman I had seen that day.” He and his wife, with the benefit of extraordinarily detailed diaries, figured out that indeed both of them had been at the lingerie shop at the same time. He had forgotten seeing her but not completely:  “The memory developed as I slept, its colors becoming deeper, more distinct: the ghost of a dream, but permanent, lovely.”

Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail (1998)  by Hollywood Fashion Vault

 

Meg Ryan built a whole career on that same trope, What fools we were not to have seen.   Consider You’ve Got Mail, When Harry Met Sally, Addicted to Love, even Sleepless in Seattle in its own way.

 

All well and good but for the troubling middle section of the poem, the furnished section.  Here the act of seeing doesn’t lead to love.  Instead it can ruin your heart.  Setting aside the nod to William Carlos Williams’ “so much depends/ upon / a red wheel / barrow,” could a yellow curtain ruin your heart?

 

That would be a good creative writing exercise (write a story where a yellow curtain ruins your heart) because writers work with details and these details, let’s call them objects, carry memories and associations.  Reminding the observer of something else, something painful or beautiful, objects can ruin your heart.

 

Or is ruin your heart a misanthropic phrase for falling in love?  I don’t think the luminous Hirshfield, a practicing Buddhist, is capable of misanthropy.  So why the brokenness and ruin in the middle of such a romantic poem? The cup is chipped, the curtain flooding and falling.  The arc of the billowing curtain suggests that both in love and then out of love we can fail to see.  When we love we can be blind to faults; when we’re out of love we can be blind to virtues.

 

(Love is blind, but the neighbors ain’t, my dad used growl before anyone in the house went on a date.  Years later I found the lines the precede his little ditty:

While kissing

at the garden gate,

remember, love is blind

but the neighbors ain’t.)

 

The opposition of flooding and falling plays out in the images that follow:

A table painted with roses.

  An empty clothesline.

 

Roses are a traditional symbol of love; the emptiness of the clothesline suggests absence and loss.  Flooding and falling again, and yet, the poem isn’t dark or broken-hearted.

 

The poem is more complicated than I had realized, and I don’t have a handle on exactly what it means, as if meaning itself slipped out between the white space and the opened window.  All those years I thought I owned it, but I didn’t.  Which is just what the poem predicted:

Each time—

the found world surprises

Jane Hirshfield  by behuman2012

 

Jane Hirshfield was born in 1953 in New York City.  After graduating from the first Princeton class to include women, she moved to San Francisco to study Zen Buddhism for eight years.  She has published seven books of poetry and, as a translator of Japanese poetry, has helped popularize tanka in the United States, a form which now has a solid place in fifth grade English curriculums.

 

She’s also an extraordinarily beautiful woman.  Her picture is a visual translation of “Tupelo Honey,” my favorite Van Morrison song.  In my mind it’s Jane Hirshfield on the cover of that album—her curly hair flooded with sunlight and hanging over the white horse who gently leads her through the woods.

 

Sans mirrored sunglasses of course.

 

 

(I can’t mention the Costco optical department without giving a shout-out to the lovely women who work there.  Gentle spirits all, and patient, they handle customers like good fairies dispensing graces.)

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05-2010 (56) by exposeyourselfToday I read an article in the latest Rolling Stone about roaming packs of wild dogs in Detroit.  With little money for animal control and deserted buildings, empty lots, and a declining human population, Detroit is being overrun with stray dogs.  (You can link to the article here.)  The writer visits one abandoned home filled with dogs and compares it to Grey Gardens.  Sheesh.  It was one of the bleakest portraits of Detroit I’ve ever read.

 

Talk about kicking a man when he’s down.

 

So I‘m happy to celebrate something good that grows in Detroit.  Wayne State University Press recently released four books of poetry in their Made In Michigan Writers Series.  I reviewed one of the books from that series, Detroiter Terry Blackhawk’s The Light Between.  The review is posted on Night Light Revue, a book blog with a focus on Michigan writers hosted by  Megan Shaffer.   You can read my review hereThe Light Between is an antidote to Bad News Detroit, first because it shows that quality has a home here as well as in any other literary center, and second because the poems form a recovery narrative and goodness knows recovery is what we all want even if it’s someone else’s.

 

I’ve read but didn’t review another book from the series, Francine J. Harris’ debut collection Allegiance.  Hers is nitty-gritty Detroit, with pimps, gunshots, addicts and the same pit bulls who run loose in the Rolling Stone article. Unlike the article, the book energized rather than depressed me.  The voice is fresh, the language pops off the page.  Harris details a Detroit that’s hurting but fully human.

 

We’re fast approaching my second annual National It’s High Time to Buy a Book of Poetry Couple of Days, so may I suggest these books for your consideration.  If you’re tired of people tearing down Detroit, here’s a small way to build it up.

 

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I don’t often have the chance to monitor my poem-elfings once they’re up.  I do wonder what happens to the poems I’ve left behind, but I don’t pursue my curiosity.  It’s the fate of former boyfriends in the pre-Facebook age.  They may have grown bald, fat and alcoholic, but we used to be able imagine them gleaming and fresh, standing at the door with a prom corsage.

 

But my last post I’m tracking like a stalker because I often walk past where I left it.  I had taped Ruth Stone’s “Interim” to a chopped-off log, and knowing that tape doesn’t adhere to natural objects as well as to man-made surfaces, I expected the poem to fall off.  I didn’t expect to find it a week later, resting in a pile of dead leaves.

 

I poked a twig from a bush through the poem and walked on.

 

A few days later I found the poem had jumped ship again.  Shy, perhaps.  Doesn’t like the spotlight.

 

Again I re-attached it.  And I noticed how quickly spring has come.  I hope that the buds on this bush will keep the poem in place, possibly grow around it, and the poem will last all spring and summer.  Or better, someone will like it and take it home.

 

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poem is on underside of lower log

 

Interim

by Ruth Stone

 

Like the radiator that sits

in the kitchen passing gas;

like the mop with its head

on the floor, weeping;

or the poinsettia that pretends

its leaves are flowers;

the cheap paint peels

off the steamed walls.

When you have nothing to say,

the sadness of things

speaks for you.

 

 

In a tribute to Ruth Stone on her 95th birthday, poet Sharon Olds called her the “mother of mourning, mother of humor.”  “Interim” offers a glimpse of Stone’s credentials for those honorifics.  Humor keeps company with sadness in the poet’s ramshackle room.  Stone, in her nineties with failing eyesight and hearing when this poem was published, observes the objects surrounding her with an eye original, amused and mournful all at once.  And marvelously subtle.  The flatulent radiator, weeping mop, decaying paint, and delusional poinsettia mirror her sadness but also suggest the realities of old age.

 

The anthropomorphism in the poem reminds me of the heroines in Disney movies.  Cheerful birds and mice assist Cinderella with her chores, Ariel’s fishy pals disrupt the prince’s ill-advised wedding; chipmunks and deer befriend lonely Sleeping Beauty.  Stone’s morose furnishings are equally helpful:  they enable her to express sadness.  But these objects embody more than just her sadness.  They embody a sweetness and generosity that are part of Ruth Stone’s legacy as a teacher and poet.  Her anthropomorphized objects kindly agree to act as her spokesperson:

When you have nothing to say,

the sadness of things

speaks for you.

In my imagined Disney movie of Stone’s life, her mop takes calls while she lies abed:  Ruth can’t come to the phone right now, she says she’s feeling blue.

 

With its poinsettia and working radiator, “Interim” is a winter poem, but I had reason to post it now in early—shockingly early—spring.  I’ll allow T.S. Elliot lines about April a well-deserved rest, but spring is indeed a difficult time to be sorrowful.  Nature’s tenacious drive to grow and blossom, all that juice and all that joy as Hopkins says, presents a bitter contrast to anyone weary and deadened.

 

I taped the poem to what’s left of a tree near a sidewalk much favored by walkers and runners.  Every time I pass by those disembodied logs, my spirit sags in sympathy.  Once upon a time a tree, with all the initiative and ingenuity of youth, grew around a power line.  And was chopped down for the effort.  The axmen left these two pieces behind as warnings to other trees, like guillotined heads impaled on spikes to dampen the rebellion.  (Writing this reminds me of something I love about  Stone: she never overwrites, overdramatizes or turns maudlin.)

 

Recognition came late to Stone.   She wrote in relative obscurity and poverty most of her life.  In her late eighties, she won the National Book Award and in her nineties was named the Poet Laureate of Vermont.  When she died last November at age 96, every major paper around the globe printed a worshipful obituary.

Vermont Poet Laureate Ruth Stone by The Common Wanderer

 

Ruth Stone (1915-2011) was born in Roanoke, Virginia but grew up in Indianapolis.  Her father was a typesetter for the Indianapolis Star and a part-time drummer whose gambling addiction kept the family in near poverty.  Still, hers was a happy childhood, full of music, literature and fun-loving relatives.  Her mother read her Tennyson while she was a toddler, and her grandmothers and aunts engaged her in their love of reading and writing.

 

She married young, to a chemist, had a daughter and ended the marriage when she fell in love with professor and poet Walter Stone.  They had two children together and their poetry careers were just taking off when he hung himself on a coat hook in their London apartment.  She never got over his suicide.  In an interview with NPR when she was 89, Stone said, “I think every year – let’s see, he’s been dead maybe 40–some years — I think every year or every day or something, that it won’t come back — the pain. And it always does.”

 

She struggled as a single mother of three girls, travelling across the country from teaching post to teaching post to support the family.  She eventually settled at SUNY Binghamton and then moved to rural Vermont.    I like this story poet Chard DiNiord tells about when he visited her towards the end of her life:

I didn’t know Ruth before I interviewed her and really didn’t know what to expect when I showed up at her rundown, three-room apartment on Waybridge Street in Middlebury, Vermont. She didn’t open the door at first, fearing, I think, that I was a scam artist. My wife sat on her porch while I went for a brief walk in the hope that she would eventually open her door. While I was gone, she looked out her kitchen window and saw my wife sitting in one of her metal chairs. Although nearly blind from a botched eye procedure, she could still make out figures and colors. She emerged from her apartment in a flannel shirt and corduroy pants and sat next to my wife, taking her hand and immediately engaging her in conversation.

 

And this, from the subsequent published interview:

Ruth Stone (laughing): I’m just this weird old lady.

CD: You are, and that’s a great thing.

CD:  Your humor complements your grief in a way that helps you write about loss without becoming morose.

Ruth Stone:  Yes! Ultimately, you know you can’t help it. Life turns terrible, and it’s so ridiculous, it’s just funny.

 

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poem is on the green planter

 

Poem

by Thomas McGrath

 

How could I have come so far?

(And always on such dark trails?)

I must have traveled by the light

Shining from the faces of all those I have loved.

 

 

If I were skilled in the art of micrographia, I would copy this poem on vellum in the tiniest of scripts, with flourishes visible only by magnifying glass, and put it in a silver locket I would wear around my neck.  There’s an elegance and a goodness in “Poem” that I want to keep close and display as if they belonged to me.  The elegance comes from the poem’s brevity—a lifetime in four lines—and its symmetry.  The first two lines, seven syllables each, pose a question. The second question modifies the first, just as the answering phrase in the third line is modified by the phrase that follows.

 

The way McGrath chooses to measure his life speaks to his goodness. The poem begins mid-thought, as if McGrath is standing atop a hill he’s climbed, catching his breath and surveying his steps.  Musing over the dark trails he’s passed through, he could have asked any number of questions:  Why did I have to go through all that crap? or Why didn’t I get farther, do better? or How much farther do I have to go? Instead he marvels at his progress:

 

How could I have come so far?

 

His answer is rooted in humility.  As with the question, the nature of his answer is best seen by what it is not.  He could credit his own grit and determination.  Or he could credit the people who have cared for him, who have loved him.  Nothing wrong with either approach.  The latter can be a wonderful exercise in gratitude. But it can also turn into self-congratulation.  In dark moments of runaway hypochondria, from which I suffer occasionally, I imagine my funeral.  I think how sad everyone who loves me will be.  Mewling and licking my endearing qualities, I construct eulogies, tributes and photo boards to prove how loveworthy I am.

 

What grabs me is that McGrath looks towards those he has loved.  Counting the people he has loved rather than the people who have loved him increases exponentially the length of the human luminaria he describes:

 

I must have traveled by the light

Shining from the faces of all those I have loved.

 

Not only does a good and kindly heart love many more than a sour or self-centered one; a good and kindly heart can love just about anyone.  The decision to love transforms the beloved, or to use the image in “Poem,” lights a wick that sets them aglow.

 

The deep, abiding love for friends and family provides the brightest light. But our luminaria can also include the glancing love we feel for strangers or for those who may not notice us at all:  the grandmother I saw the other day in the rain cooing “wishy wishy woo” to her granddaughter in the grocery cart; novelist Penelope Fitzgerald and essayist Anne Fadimann; the slow-stepping woman in my neighborhood who walks her old greyhounds twice a day; the possibly autistic deli owner who tries very hard to converse with customers; giggly Miss Clement, my high school English teacher who crossed her arms on top of a bosom that fell below her waist; the tall and unbathed brother and sister who danced so joyfully at Saturday night ceilis in Baltimore long ago.  And so on.

 

Tea Time by missmandyjaneI left this poem outside my friend’s kitchen, a kitchen where I’ve spent many enlightened (pardon the pun) hours enjoying her company.  For the past twenty years we’ve had tea together on Fridays, sometimes weekly, sometimes less than that, and for the five years she moved to Colorado, alas, hardly at all.   Friday tea is our time to catch-up, confess, get advice, examine issues, spout off opinions and laugh of course.  When I arrive she has set the table with placemats, teaspoons, Lipton tea bags, mugs, a china tea pot and sugar bowl.  She’s good at those old-fashioned niceties, taking time with preparation and serving that have nothing to do with formality and everything to do with grace.  I hope the poem reminds her how much I love her and cherish her light on my path.

 

Thomas McGrath (1916-1990) knew something of dark trails.  At times homeless, jobless, and earning less fame than our current poet laureate, Philip Levine, has said he deserves, McGrath nonetheless seemed to be a kindly man his whole life.  He was born in North Dakota to an Irish Catholic family of farmers.  The Dustbowl and the Depression led to foreclosure of their farm.  His experiences growing up poor and riding the rails in the 30’s radicalized his politics.  He worked as a labor organizer and was a member of the American Communist Party.  He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford he couldn’t accept until after he served in the army in World War II.  Refusing to testify in the McCarthy hearings, he was fired from the state college where he taught and blackballed from writing for the film industry.  Thereafter he made a living as a secondary school teacher, freelance writer, welder and woodcutter, and eventually found his way back to university teaching.  His masterpiece, Letter to an Imaginary Friend, is an epic-length political and autobiographical poem.  He wrote the script for To Fly, an exhilarating movie I remember seeing at the Air and Space Museum.

 

 

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poem is on iron post of the train shelter

 

Invisible in the Torn Out Interiors

 

by Dara Wier

 

 

A man looked at us across his little dish

Of watercress and peas and said he’d wasted

Five years. We couldn’t ask him doing what?

He said he knew he’d let some thing alive die

And didn’t know how to get it back again now

That it was gone. He looked as if he were

About to cry, as if a fresh death wanted him

To mourn. He talked as if the place he’d been

Had so unwelcomed him it had ruined his soul,

As if it were a place into which drained an

Absolute dead air. He said he’d left no friends

Behind, no one who’d notice he was gone.

And here he was without a job, no place his to

Live, no one his to love. We said welcome home.

 

 

As I write this post, a man and woman next to me at Starbucks engage in an electric exchange.  The man, bald with a salt and pepper beard, looks ten years older than his companion, although her long dark hair curtains my view of her face.  He leans forward; her body is angled awkwardly towards the exit.  He has a briefcase at his side; a stack of papers covers the table.  Amidst the clatter and phizzes coming from behind the counter and the loud laughter of a group of old Armenian men, I can only hear dollops of their conversation.  You have never supported me, she says.  Just hear me out, he replies.  Later he says, Let me tell you a story about my 69-year old father.

 

She never seems as relaxed as he is.  At any moment she may spring up on her high heels and leave.  Without hearing much of their conversation, I don’t know if their debate is personal or professional, and I can’t gauge the degree of their intimacy.  I’ll leave without ever knowing what their issue is and if they resolved it. But I do know that that there is some kind of hurt between them that matters deeply to both of them; and I’ll think about them all day and perhaps tomorrow too.

 

And so with Dara Wier’s poem “Invisible in the Torn Out Interiors.”  Reading this poem is as frustrating as my eavesdropping on the couple in the noisy coffee shop.  I don’t fully understand the relationship between the three characters and I never will.  I could dismiss it, the way I dismiss other things not easily understood, like computer codes, economic policy, complicated driving directions.  But I don’t dismiss it.  Something pulls me towards it.

 

Wier gives out just enough information to give the reader a toehold on what’s going on.  Two people listen to a man’s anguish.  He is eating a watercress salad on a little plate.  I get a whole picture of the scene just from that little detail.  It’s the only visual detail in the entire poem, but the watercress on the little plate is so evocative of gender and class that it carries the rest of the poem on its delicate little legs.

 

The salad and the “torn out interiors” of the title suggest a renovated space, a restaurant, as I see it, a ladies’ lunch kind of place with windows and lots of light.  There’s a sense of unreality and inappropriateness to a man unburdening himself of his suffering in such a public, feminine space.

 

The man speaks of spending five years in a toxic, soul-destroying atmosphere. He describes a passive role in letting something die.  His anguish extends to this new place where he has no friends, no job, no place to live.  The women listening to him say, perhaps sarcastically, perhaps with genuine warmth, Welcome home.

 

The reader can’t help but feel sympathy for the man’s situation but also strangely  distant from it.  The woman’s uninflected summary of his words and that odd detail of the watercress salad lend a sense of the absurd to the episode.  I’m reminded of  Russian writers who color expressions of oversized emotions with a certain comic detachment.  Think of the opening lines from Chekov’s The Seagull:

 

Medvedenko: Why do you wear black all the time?

Masha: I’m in mourning for my life.

 

My toehold in this poem never leads to stable footing.  “Invisible in the Torn Out Interiors” is as cryptic and mysterious as its title.  I’m left with these questions:

 

1.  What is the nature of the relationship between the two listeners and the man?  Is he a stranger?  They refer to him as “a” man so they don’t seem to know him. He’s a very strange stranger, voluble, perhaps mentally ill, an ancient mariner spilling out his shame.  At the end of the poem the women (or maybe they aren’t women) welcome him home, so perhaps he isn’t a stranger after all.  And these lines puzzle me:

 

he’d wasted

Five years. We couldn’t ask him doing what?

 

Why can’t they ask him how he wasted five years?  Do they know the awful answer and are too polite to mention it over the watercress salad?  Either a lack of intimacy or a lack of stability on his part prevents an open conversation.

 

2.  What was the “something alive” that he “let die”?  A relationship?  A cat?  A house plant?  Some quality in himself he failed to nourish?

 

3.  What does the ending mean?  Is it a deadpan joke or a genuine welcoming?  If he has truly come home and they are holding out their pineapples and leis, are they hurt when he says he has no one to love here?

 

Feel free to weigh in with your own impressions.  I may have talked myself into a version of this poem that’s mine and mine alone.

 

I taped the poem to a shelter that offered a little protection from rain and bitter winds at a train station.  I left it for anyone returning home and for those welcoming someone back.  I was thinking in particular about college students coming home for spring break.  Adults love to tell kids that college is the best four years of their lives, but sometimes it isn’t.  College can be dreary and lonely.  Roommate issues, homesickness, regrets over hook-ups and drunken dramas, grade stress and money worries can all be dispiriting and sometimes even soul-crushing.  Home, I hope, but of course it isn’t always, is a place to take rest from all those wearying tribulations.  Home is where you are welcomed.  And judging from my own college kids’ homecoming,

home is where you can do your laundry for free.

 

Dara Wier was born in 1949 in New Orleans.  Despite her parents’ sensible wish for her to become a pharmacist, she got her MFA at Bowling Green and became a poet.  She has published 11 books of poetry; her work has appeared in several anthologies and she has won numerous awards and fellowships, among them a Pushcart Prize and an NEA grant.  She directs the MFA program at University of Massachusetts Amherst where her husband, poet James Tate, also teaches.

 

 

 

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