Archive for May, 2012

poem is on right-hand base of statue


Variation on a Theme by Rilke


by Denise Levertov

A certain day became a presence to me;

there it was, confronting me–a sky, air, light:

a being. And before it started to descend

from the height of noon, it leaned over

and struck my shoulder as if with

the flat of a sword, granting me

honor and a task. The day’s blow

rang out, metallic–or it was I, a bell awakened,

and what I heard was my whole self

saying and singing what it knew: I can.



Did anyone else finish “Variation on a Theme” with an urge to sing Ding dong ding dong ding? In my head the lovely Jean Simmons, her short locks loosened on her forehead and her Salvation Army uniform dangerously unbuttoned, has flung her arms around this poem, as unlikely an attachment as hers to Marlon Brando.


But wait, another artist has boarded this train of associations–illustrator N.C. Wyeth.  The particular Wyeth painting the poem reminds me of is The Giant.  Wyeth’s towering figure, seemingly grown out of the clouds, could be a visual version of the shape-shifting in Levertov’s poem.

Enchanted by Kiel Bryant

Along with an atmospheric freshness of sky, air light, the poem and the painting share a Romantic delight in dramatic events, the sublime and mythology.


“Variation,” like ancient mythologies, hinges on personification.  But Levertov brings to life a certain day, rather than a bigger and more general Day deity, and she allows her reader to witness the creation of this being as it grows into form.   Later she disassembles her creation when she wonders if the awakening blow came not from a certain day, but from herself:

or it was I, a bell awakened,

and what I heard was my whole self 


The personified day that Levertov creates is clearly a superior being, one that resides in the sky and knights her with a sword,

granting me

honor and a task.


The Little Engine That Could by RoadsidepicturesThis ordaining gives her power.  The poem ends with her unshakeable confidence that the task that has been set before her can be accomplished.  Compare her mantra of I can with that of The Little Engine That Could.  He barely gets himself up the hill with I think I can.  Her bold and strong I can countenances no doubt.  Does her assuredness come from beyond herself, or has it been there all along, needing only to be awakened?


Regardless, there’s a clear sense that the task for which she is commissioned is something difficult, something she previously didn’t think she could do.  What separates this speaker from an athlete in a Nike commercial or anyone visualizing success in order to increase sales, run faster, plank longer, lose weight, parkour, stop smoking or swallow slugs is that the speakers’ unnamed task carries moral weight.  She’s granted more than fearlessness and strength.  She’s been given or has found courage.


This train of thought left me counting the number of times I’ve been called on to show courage.  And whether I’ve responded I can or I can’t or Not now or Please don’t make me do that.


Which is a lot of boxcars to get me to the junction of this poem and the Underground Railroad.


Recently I took a walking tour of Detroit.  Our group stopped at Hart Plaza on the Detroit River to look at “Gateway to Freedom,” a statue commemorating Detroit’s role in the Underground Railroad.  The figures in the sculpture look across the river to Canada, where a sister statue, “Tower of Freedom,” has been erected.

Before the Civil War, six or seven different routes of the railroad funneled through Detroit, transporting somewhere between 40,000 to 100,000 slaves to Canada.  Arriving in Detroit, fugitives (refugees might be a better word) hid in church cellars and barns.  At night they took canoes to cross the river to Windsor.


Looking up at the statue, I thought about the moment a man or woman who had known only a life of slavery decided to walk thousands of miles on foot, traveling in the dark, knocking at strangers’ doors, crossing rivers, hiding from slave catchers, and risking hunger, drowning, capture and death.  I’m in awe of the courage such a journey demanded of the travelers and those who assisted.  Of all the poems in my backpack, “Variation on a Theme” called out the loudest for a place in the city that was the last stop to freedom.


Denise_Levertov by TahdooDenise Levertov was born in a suburb of London in 1923 to politically active parents.  Her mother was Welsh and her father was from a Russian Hassidic Jewish family.  Levertov was homeschooled and she began writing early.  From age five she had a strong sense of her destiny to be an artist, and when she was 12 she sent T.S. Eliot some of her poems.  He responded with two pages of encouragement and advice.


During the London Blitz, she served as a civilian nurse.  She married an American writer and eventually became an American citizen.  She was poetry editor of The Nation and Mother Jones and taught at Stanford, among other universities.


Later in life she converted to Catholicism and became a political poet, speaking out against Vietnam War, nuclear arms, the U.S. involvement in El Salvador, and the Gulf War.


Levertov died in 1997 at age 75.


One last thing:  can anyone help me with the title of this poem?  What theme of Rilke’s is this a variation of?


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Forgive me a little bragging about my mother’s day presents.

They may not look like much, but as with people, what’s inside holds the most importance.


Let’s open the book first.  I read once that Jackie Kennedy had her children hand-copy and illustrate a poem every year for her birthday.  These she kept in a scrapbook.  I’ve never been a big Jackie fan—her affected whisper suggests manipulative tendencies—-but she did shine in tragedy and motherhood.  Fortunately it’s only her character in the latter state that I’ve had cause to imitate, so nine years ago I asked my children to start a poetry book for me.


Some years the book sits dormant.  Then one of them will remember the project and I’ll get the lovely surprise I did last Sunday.  Here’s a page from this year:

When I asked Lizzie why she chose this poem, she said she loves “crazy Ruth Stone.” But I suspect she also loves the word “orifices.”


Sometimes the kids write an original poem.  (My son has found cause to rhyme “great mother” and “Dad’s lover.”)  Here’s the first part of an original poem written in the book this Mother’s Day:

Yes, you read that right.  “She waddled and pushed.”  Might be good on my tombstone.


The rest of the poem is too personal to include here.  But I will mention (bragging again) that the structure is not only intricate, it’s color-coded too.


The Twinings tea box rattled when shaken.  I couldn’t imagine what was inside.  Really I couldn’t, could never, because here’s the contents:


Aren’t they wonderful?  Now I have to come up with a creative plan to use them.  If you have any ideas, or if you want one, let me know.


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waiting in line by shinigamitonioRarely does my neighborhood offer peculiar sights.   There’s a walker who charges down the street with ski poles in the middle of summer and a very tall cross-dresser I haven’t seen in years.  During swim team season toilet paper hangs gracefully from trees, and in the spring girls in prom dresses duck into limousines.  That’s about all that’s worth rubber-necking except for a family of deer and the occasional dog in the middle of the road who’s jumped the electric fence.

FDR Memorial by brooksba


But this morning I drove past a scene that caused me to double-take.  Children waiting for the schoolbus stood in a single file line.  No parent was near.  Silent, unsmiling, hunchbacked with heavy backpacks, the kids stared straight ahead or down at the ground.  The tableau was so strange and depressing that I was instantly reminded of the statue at the FDR memorial in Washington, D.C. of grim-faced men waiting in a bread line.


No doubt the children’s well-intentioned mothers instituted the single-file line to prevent them from knocking each other into the street and getting hit by a car.  But this sleepy suburban corner is hardly a high-speed highway.

waiting in line by Walls Wear Art


I resisted the impulse to jump out of the car and stir up movement as I would a flock of pigeons on a sidewalk.  I wanted to yell, Hey kids, use your last few minutes of freedom and get your ya-ya’s out!  Here they were, about to go off to school where they would stand in line to go to the bathroom, to the lunchroom, to music class, to recess, and from where they will graduate to go to more school and wait in more lines until they are out in the world with the rest of us, waiting in lines at the bank, the post office, at Starbucks and amusement parks, waiting their turn to vote, to renew a driver’s license, to order fast food, to turn left, to buy the newest Apple product.


I’m not against lines or orderly conduct.  But as we tell our children, there’s a time and a place for everything.


The rest of the story is that when I came home I found out that Maurice Sendak died.


I may be stretching the connection here, but if there ever was one not to stand in line, it was Sendak.  If ever books encouraged nonconformity, they were his.  Reading the many tributes to Sendak, I learned that his art was inspired and haunted by relatives killed in the Holocaust.  Relatives who no doubt stood in lines to be exterminated like cattle.

Maurice Sendak by Panorama Mercantil


I’m fond of Sendak—you can link here to Stephen Colbert’s funny interview with Sendak to get an idea of what a cranky genius he was—and his death makes me wistful for many a bedtime when I read his books to my children and many a trip to the library when I was a girl myself and attracted to his illustrations of sturdy, confident and often indignant children.


I felt not an ounce of nostalgia when the other popular figure of children’s literature, Jan Berenstain, died this past February.  I hated her books refused to read them to my children.  The illustrations were overly cartoonish, the message-driven plot unbearable.  Show me a child who cleaned her room, told the truth, ate less junk food, or watched less TV because she read a Berenstain Bear book, and I’ll show you a specter of your own wishful thinking.


By contrast, Sendak’s books were unpredictable and wildly imaginative.  The plot and illustrations could go off in any direction, often in dark directions.  You don’t have to have read Bruno Bettelheim to know that children naturally experience dark thoughts and emotions, and fairy tales and literature like Sendak’s offer safe avenues for dealing with such.  As a firm believer in the uses of enchantment, I’ve always avoided picture books that read like Hallmark cards.  Love You Forever and that incredibly boring book with elongated rabbits about how much the mother rabbit loves her baby rabbit always seemed too trite and desperately earnest to force upon children.  Put the bunny book up against Margaret Wise Brown’s brilliant Runaway Bunny and you see how insipid and unimaginative the imitation is.  Better to just tell Junior in your own words that you love him and always will.  And then read him good books like Sendak’s and Brown’s.

RIP Maurice Sendak by themookscomic


And for pete’s sake don’t force him to stand in line when he doesn’t have to.  Let him and his schoolmates examine the grass, sit on the curb, chase each other, chatter, grunt, shout, cackle, draw their names in the cement with rocks, blow dandelion seeds into the air, kick acorns.  No one will get killed doing that. Or even remotely ruined.  Let the wild rumpus begin, folks.  It ends all too soon.


But how sad if the rumpus never begins all.

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Poem is taped to sign in foreground


Could Have

by Wislawa Szymborska


It could have happened.

It had to happen.

It happened earlier. Later.

Nearer. Farther off.

It happened, but not to you.

You were saved because you were the first.

You were saved because you were the last.

Alone. With others.

On the right. The left.

Because it was raining. Because of the shade.

Because the day was sunny.


You were in luck — there was a forest.

You were in luck — there were no trees.

You were in luck — a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,

A jamb, a turn, a quarter-inch, an instant . . .


So you’re here? Still dizzy from

another dodge, close shave, reprieve?

One hole in the net and you slipped through?

I couldn’t be more shocked or



how your heart pounds inside me.



The linking verb “could have” is the rear view mirror of the predicate world.  Ordinarily it signals regret and works as antacid, a crutch, a wound-licker for all who didn’t finish first, who had bad luck, bad timing or bad judgment, for the Mama Roses and Anthony Weiners, the Wally Pipps and the Zola Budds, the understudy to the star who never twisted her ankle, the quarterback who did, the dreamer with a one-way ticket to Palookaville muttering down on the waterfront about being a contender.


But in Wislawa Szymborska’s “Could Have,” could have expresses the opposite of regret.  Ostensibly the poem expresses relief that the bad thing that could have happened didn’t.


The poem begins with a breathless response to some disaster, as if the speaker is processing as we listen.  The speaker uses every trick of punctuation and rhetoric to make sense of senseless tragedy:  dashes, ellipsis, sentence fragments, questions, parallel structure.  She creates a list of the situations and artifacts that separate survivor from victim.  But as the list develops, contradicting itself and throwing out smaller and smaller reasons for survival until it ends with a quarter-inch and an instant, relief becomes terror.  There are no foolproof rules to follow that will detour disaster.  Shade/sunny, left/right, forest/no trees—no place and no circumstance are fully protected, and no person is either.


Recently my sister was talking to a man about her worries that her son going to college would be safe.  Years before this same man had lost his college-age son in a house fire.  His counsel to my sister was not reassuring.  “Listen,” he said to her, “it’s all luck.”  Fate is fickle and those who pray and those who don’t, those who wear helmets to roller skate and those who throw footballs on ski hills, those who run marathons and those who sit on couches, all are vulnerable to disaster.


Finally the speaker gives up on the list and addresses the survivor with a series of playful questions.  You think it couldn’t happen to you?  she seems to say.  Because it could have.


After such a conclusion, why doesn’t the poem end in despair?  The turn in the last lines is deft and almost miraculous.  Instead of saying, listen, it’s all luck, the speaker says:


how your heart pounds inside me.


In the end there’s no safety, only connection.  I love the image that embodies that connection.  It’s one of the most beautiful last lines I’ve read.  One more time, maestro:


how your heart pounds inside me.

accident @ Vogel's Collision by ed's point of view


I have my own list of could have’s in regard to “Could Have.”  Where else could I have left the poem?  Driving around, looking for an appropriate spot, I started with the idea of a body shop.  I didn’t think that would be too unkind, given that a person with a car that can still be repaired was probably not killed in the damage.  But then I drove by an insurance agency and decided that the door to the agency would be less in-your-face.  A poem about risk assessment for a company that does the same.  Perfect.  But I didn’t slow down in time and soon I was headed for a country club.  Country clubs are protected spaces that offer security from trespassers and other agents of harm including denim and poverty.  I got as far as the sign that pointed guests in one direction and deliveries in the other before I turned around, unable to decide which one I was and sure that I was being watched.


I settled on this fortress of a house under construction.  The difference in the lighting between the two pictures happened because I posted the poem at night (I should re-name myself Poem Chicken), but didn’t get a clear picture of the whole deal, so I had to go back during daylight hours.  The poem was still there, but only for that morning.


Everytime I’ve driven past this house I think, Who builds something like that?  What is the motivation besides displaying wealth?  My answer is the same as my assessment of country clubs:  people who build castles want to keep things out.   Great wealth allows people to separate themselves from tedious chores and hassles, and allows the illusion that harm and pain can be distanced as well.


No one needs this poem to puncture holes in that idea—the deaths of Princess Diana and Brooke Astor are common knowledge—but I left the poem here as more than a finger-wagging at the rich.  “Could Have” connects the construction workers in their hardhats to the builders in their offices to the future owners to the drivers who gawk at the excess.  It could happen to any of us and so It happens to all of us.

1 Febbraio 2012 by Rissey


Wislawa Szymborska was born in 1923 in Poland and just died this past February at age 88.   Early in her career she was a communist intellectual but later grew disillusioned and became active in the Solidarity movement.  She had a modest career as a reviewer at a literary magazine and a poet popular in Poland but unknown elsewhere until she was the surprise winner of the Nobel Prize in 1996.


Like fellow Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who was her friend and mentor, Szymborska lived through Poland’s dark days of Nazi occupation and Communism. I’m always amazed that anyone experiencing such hardship doesn’t write exclusively of darkness and despair.  But a playful spirit was her trademark.  In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, she had this to say about humor and sadness in her poems:


The two things are easily reconciled. You cannot have just one feeling toward the world. Going through this adventure, which I call life, sometimes you think about it with despair, and sometimes with a sense of enchantment. Sometimes the motivation for poetry is being awed by things. As a child I was never surprised by anything; now I am surprised about everything. Every little thing I look at, a leaf or a flower, I say, “Why this? What is this?”


There is also another motivation: Curiosity. I am curious about people, their feelings, what they live through, their fate, what this life means. So this wonderment, curiosity and sadness, all of that comes together for me.


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The last thing we need is one more national themed day or month that no one cares about or notices.  But after reading the New York Times magazine this past Sunday, I’m going to suggest a new one.  As I noted last week, April 26 is “Put a Poem in Your Pocket Day.”  The following day should be designated “Smuggle a Poem in Your Pocket Day” in honor of poets who risk their lives to write.


Sunday’s Times features “’Record My Voice, So That When I Get Killed, at Least You’ll Have Something of Me,’” a profile of an Afghani women’s literary collective.  That the article was published during National Poetry Month suggests an irony too bitter to savor:  while the Academy of American Poets tries to charm, challenge and otherwise cajole Americans into reading poetry, women in Afghanistan face grave danger for writing it.

The Silhouette of The Hijab by firoze shakir photographerno1


Women in rural, Taliban-controlled areas must compose poetry in their heads– putting poems to paper could lead to beatings—and “publish” by calling in their work to a hotline.  Poems are then transcribed and shared with other women poets.  One young poet was beaten by her brothers when she was overheard reciting her poems on the telephone.  She later set herself on fire and died.


Sad and angry as the article left me, some of the poems made me smile.  I’ll share two I especially enjoyed.


The first is a biting four-line poem addressed to the Taliban.  The poet is all of fifteen years old:


You won’t allow me to go to school.

I won’t become a doctor.

Remember this:

One day you will be sick.


The second is from a 22 year-old woman whose father married her to an old man when she was a young teen:


Making love to an old man is like

Making love to a limp cornstalk blackened by fungus.


Take that, you old goat.



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