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Archive for March, 2013

Hilary Mantel by NatashaLamontA break from poetry today to showcase a few lines from a brilliant novel.

 

Decades before English writer Hilary Mantel won the Booker Prize twice in four years (becoming the only woman to win the prize twice and the only writer to win it for a sequel), she wrote another historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety.  The book follows French revolutionaries Robespierre, Desmoulins and Danton from cradle to guillotine (beheading seems to be Mantel’s particular interest).  I’m reading it now, less than a quarter way through, and already I’m wearing out my pen with underlining, stars and exclamation points.

 

So far I’ve sent two excerpts to my kids, and those I’ll share here.  I hope my daughters, in particular, take Mantel’s wisdom to heart.

 

The first is the advice given to a young Robespierre by a priest:

 

“Most people are lazy, and will take you at your own valuation.  Make sure the valuation you put on yourself is high.”

 

The second is Mantel’s judgment of King Louis XVI:

 

“He hoped that by refusing to make decisions he could avoid making mistakes.”

 

I haven’t read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, but I doubt her words could speak to me half so powerfully as Mantel’s.

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poem is behind the Christies magazine on the rack

poem is behind the Christies magazine on the rack

Yes, this is long.  But you won’t regret taking a minute to read it.

 

katherine with the lazy eye.

short.  and not a good poet.

 

by Francine J. Harris

 

this morning, i heard you were found in your mcdonald’s uniform.

 

i heard it while i was visiting a lake town, where empty

woodsy highways turn into waterside drives.

 

i’d forgotten my toothbrush and was brushing with my finger.

a friend who didn’t know you said he heard it like this: you know katherine. short.

 

with a lazy eye. poet. not a very good one. yeah, well she died. the blue on that lake

isn’t so frank.  it fogs off into the horizon like styrofoam. the

 

picnic tables full of white people. i ask them where the coffee is. they say at Meijer.

 

i wonder if you thought about getting out of detroit. when you read at the open mic

you’d point across the street at mcdonald’s and tell us to come see you.

 

katherine with the lazy eye. short and not a good poet, i guess i almost cried.

i don’t know why, because i didn’t like you. this is the first I remembered your name.

 

i didn’t like how you followed around a married man. that your poems sucked

and that i figured they were all about the married man.

 

that sometimes you reminded me of myself, boy crazy. that sometimes

i think people just don’t tell me that i’m kind of, well…slow.

 

katherine with the lazy eye, short. and not a good poet.

i didn’t like that your lazy eye was always

 

looking at me. that you called me by my name. i didn’t

like you, since the first time i saw you at mcdonald’s.

 

you had a mop. and you were letting some homeless dude

flirt with you. i wondered then, if you thought that was the best

 

you could do. i wondered then

if it was.

 

katherine with the lazy eye, short. and not a good poet.

you were too silly to wind up dead in an abandoned building.

 

i didn’t like you because, what was I supposed to tell you. what.

don’t let them look at you like that, katherine. don’t let them get you alone.

 

katherine with the lazy eye, short. and not a good poet.  what

was I supposed to say to you, you don’t get to laugh like that,

 

like nothing’s gonna get you. not everyone

will forgive the slow girl. katherine with

 

the fucked up eye, short. poetry sucked, musta knew better. i avoided you

in the hallway. i avoided you in lunch line. i avoided you in the lake.

 

i avoided you. my lazy eye. katherine with one hideous eye, shit.

poetry for boys again, you should have been immune. you were supposed

 

to be a cartoon. your body was supposed to be as twisted as

it was gonna get. short. and not a good poet. katherine with

 

no eye no more. i avoided you. hated it when you said my name. i

really want to leave detroit. katherine the lazy short.

 

not a good poet. and shit. somewhere someone has already asked

what was she like, and a woman has brought out her wallet and said

 

this is her. this is my beautiful baby.

 

IMG_0370

 

 

The last time I poem-elfed a poem this long I promised I wouldn’t do it again.  Whenever I choose a poem to throw out to the non-poetry-reading general public, short and quickly consumable is what I’m looking for.

 

But I love this poem.  “katherine with the lazy eye” fills me with the same evangelical zeal that roasted brussel sprouts and Cream-Nut peanut butter do; I want other people to love it too.   The poem reads like a short story.  It’s funny in parts and then all the sudden it breaks your heart.  I’ve read it a dozen times and I still tear up when I get to the last lines.  Needed a Kleenex once or twice.  Okay, I was lazy.  A shirt sleeve.  But really, how often does a poem have that effect?

 

Like the other long poem I posted, “Blue Yodel” by Frank Stafford, “katherine” balances improvisation and structure. Under the poem’s loose conversational style is a hard-working girdle holding it all together.

 

The title of the poem becomes a refrain that devolves as the poet identifies with her subject more and more.  It’s like the game of Telephone.  The initial message, katherine. short. with a lazy eye. poet. not a very good one, gets passed from stanza to stanza till it comes out barely resembling the original.  Towards the end of the poem the refrain becomes my lazy eye, that is, the poet’s habit of seeing Katherine as a set of labels, a cartoon.  The final variation on the title is abridged:  katherine the lazy short, a syntactically confused and near-meaningless phrase. Language has failed to capture the humanity of The Other.  It’s love, when it enters at the end, which sees Katherine in the most humanizing way.

 

The poem begins at a distance, emotionally and geographically, from Katherine.  On vacation, away from Detroit, perhaps up north as we say in Michigan, the poet hears of Katherine’s death third hand.  Her thoughts turn to the past, to her repulsion for Katherine, to Detroit, to the McDonald’s where Katherine worked, to the grisly circumstances of her death, to Katherine’s lazy eye which focused on the poet like an accusation.  The lazy eye seemed to say not just please like me but also you are like me.

 

As is often the case when we dislike someone intensely, Katherine reminds the poet of her own insecurities.  Both women are poets.  Yes, one is a bad poet, but even really good poets worry sometimes that they’re bad.  The poet even wonders if other people think she’s as slow as Katherine is.  She admits she’s boy crazy, like Katherine; and then, out of a distressed emotion—perhaps guilt, perhaps sadness, maybe even a panic—she invents a connection between the two.  She projects onto Katherine the desire to leave Detroit which she has herself.

 

As her monologue continues, she grows closer to the one person she most wants to get away from.  The poet addresses Katherine directly and defensively:  what was I supposed to tell you. what.  Her answer—you don’t get to laugh like that—wouldn’t have solved any of Katherine’s problems.  Once again, words fail.

 

The end of the poem takes place in the present and in Detroit.  Katherine’s mother shows off her murdered daughter’s picture.  I woke up this morning with that image in my head and suddenly realized that I had been assuming the photograph was a baby picture. Like every baby, most lucky babies anyway, Katherine was beautiful to her mother.  Not short, not slow, not a bad poet.  Just a beauty.  But the picture might also have been of Katherine as an adult, imperfect, the butt of other people’s jokes.  All the more moving that her mother calls her beautiful.  Those last lines are luminous, transcendent to me.

 

Why does the poem affect me like this?  Perhaps because many times I’ve been wrong about someone I judged harshly.  Maybe I’ll come to see a vulnerable side, or finally understand why someone acts like such an ass, or begin to enjoy what bugged me in the first place, or realize I judge too much.  With that realization comes shame and a feeling of humility, but at the same time a lightness, a glow, a heart-opening.  What separates person from person falls to nothing and what connects elevates.  The poem arrives at a similar moment so quickly and effortlessly it reminds me of an Evelyn Waugh phrase from another context:  the ending comes by a mere “twitch” of an “unseen hook and an invisible thread.”

 

I left the poem at the dermatologist office where I was waiting to get moles burned off my back with liquid nitrogen.  I figured that the dermatologist office is a little like the picnic benches in the poem.  More whites than people of color occupy the space, in part because lower levels of melanin mean higher rates of skin cancer.

 

Another reason I left the poem there:  the magazine selection at this office never changes. It stinks.  The poem is something new for regulars to read.

 

francinejharris_author by CCMArtsfrancine j. harris (not a typo—she spells her name in lower case—apologies to the poet for the mistake in the photo) was born in Detroit and lives in Ann Arbor as a Zell fellow at the University of Michigan.  She’s also a Cave Canem and Callaloo fellow.  In 2012 harris’ first collection of poetry, allegiance, from which this poem is taken, was published by Wayne State University Press in their Made In Michigan Writers Series. As I was working on this post, Metro Times published an interview with her.  You can read that here.

 

 

 

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Marie Ponsot in her apartment, 2004 by dctrombleyCongratulations to poet Marie Ponsot, who was just announced as the 2013 winner of the prestigious Ruth Lilly Prize.  The prize, established by the heir to the Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, honors a living American poet for lifetime achievement.  At $100,000, the prize is about the heftiest a writer can receive. I’m delighted.  91-year old Ponsot is a national treasure, both as a poet and as a human being.

 

I’m also feeling a wee smug.  Just last week I posted a Marie Ponsot poem, and there I complained that the Poetry Foundation had given her short shrift in her biography, a mere paragraph.  Other, lesser poets to my mind, have much, much more space allotted on their Poetry Foundation page.  So today, along with the announcement of the prize, which it awards, the Poetry Foundation presented a more suitable biography for Ponsot.

 

You can read my post on Ponsot here.  I also left one of her poems on the beach last November.  You can see the picture of her poem “Oceans” here.

 

A Jesuit pope and now this.  It’s been a good week.

 

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poem is on the concrete ledge in foreground

poem is on the concrete ledge in foreground

 

Among Women

 

by Marie Ponsot

 

What women wander?

Not many. All. A few.

Most would, now & then,

& no wonder.

Some, and I’m one,

Wander sitting still.

My small grandmother

Bought from every peddler

Less for the ribbons and lace

Than for their scent

Of sleep where you will,

Walk out when you want, choose

Your bread and your company.

 

She warned me, “Have nothing to lose.”

 

She looked fragile but had

High blood, runner’s ankles,

Could endure, endure.

She loved her rooted garden, her

Grand children, her once

Wild once young man.

Women wander

As best they can.

 

 

 

IMG_0308

 

 

In the opening lines of “Among Women,” poet Marie Ponsot poses the question, What women wander?  and replies by letting her thoughts wander and changing her opinion. She settles on this answer, a dry assessment of women’s lives:

 

Most would, now & then

& no wonder.

 

There’s a lot of experience behind that simple no wonder. Makes me laugh.

 

What is wandering anyway?  Wandering is not settling in one place, not having a destination or perhaps not even a plan.  Wandering is a willful disregard of boundaries.  And wandering is difficult if you’re “rooted,” like the grandmother is to her garden and her family.

 

I’ve fallen in love with this poem. Apologies to Roberta Flack and to everyone who hates the song, but it’s killing me softly.  It speaks to a neglected piece of my soul, a wild little part tucked away under layers of obligations, routines and attachments.  I recognize myself, as a mother and a writer, in these lines:

 

Some, and I’m one,

Wander sitting still.

 

Devoted mothers aren’t supposed to fantasize about bolting, but how irresistible is Ponsot’s description of the gypsy life:

 

. . . their scent

Of sleep where you will,

Walk out when you want, choose

Your bread and your company.

 

The aphoristic last lines in the poem

 

Women wander

As best they can

 

pull together the experience of women across geographical lines and throughout history, from reclusive Emily Dickinson to globetrotting Gertrude Bell to Poem Elf as a young mother surrounded by piles of books and small children tugging on her sleeve asking for a snack which she promised to get as soon as she finished one more chapter.

 

That was long ago.  But that drive is still there, even as I age and settle more and more into habit.

 

I get tired of evolutionary biologists and their ideas of what women want or wanted.  It’s all nesting and bonding and attracting and keeping the male for the benefit of his resources and protection. Likewise, I’m depressed by the brand of feminism that insists monogamy has been forced on women by patriarchal systems and that those who prioritize traditional female values—relationships, motherhood, the domestic arts—are unwitting products of centuries of gender bias.

 

“Among Women” allows for both arguments.  Our wild wandering spirit is as much a part of us as our bonds to those we love and care for.

 

The grandmother in the poem lives out the push and pull of gypsy spirit and family life.  What a full portrait of her Ponsot has drawn in so few strokes.  With her runner’s ankles, the grandmother is a tiny goat of a woman, someone who might dart away at any moment. She’s lived through pain and difficulty—she endures, endures, Ponsot writes.  Not wanting her progeny to experience what she has, she warns her granddaughter, “Have nothing to lose.”

 

Spoken like an enlightened Budhhist, someone who believes that the origin of suffering is attachment.  The grandmother’s warning, bleak and hard though it may be, speaks also of a soul made for adventure.  The impression her warning made on the young poet is emphasized by its stark placement between the two stanzas.

 

I left the poem outside Trader Joe’s.  Trader Joe’s is a grocery store dressed up like a trading post.  There’s a world map as you walk in, and scattered through the store are hints of huts and a castaway island.  It suggests travel and adventure, the adventure being the purchase of unfamiliar foods.  Shopping at this modern-day peddler can be a small gesture of wandering, and for some, the most wandering they will do.

 

Marie Ponsot by joshuagmizrahiMarie Ponsot was born in Queens, New York in 1921.  She graduated from a women’s college in Brooklyn and went on to earn her master’s degree in seventeenth century literature at Columbia University.  After World War II she went to Paris and married the French painter Claude Ponsot.  She had seven children with him, one daughter born in Paris and six sons when they moved back to the States.  She divorced and worked many years as a translator of French children’s books to support her large family.  In 1957 she published her first book of poetry through a connection with Beat poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  The book’s reception was overshadowed by another book published by Ferlinghetti, Allan Ginsberg’s Howl, and Ponsot seemingly disappeared from the world of poetry.

 

Although Ponsot would not publish for another twenty-four years, she continued to write, late at night after the children were in bed.  When she was in late middle age, she published her second book and began to garner attention and awards.  Unfortunately she still doesn’t seem to have the fame she deserves:  her biographical entry in Poetry Foundation’s website is woefully short, a mere paragraph.

 

Her life story reminds me of another Catholic poet, the marvelous Anne Porter.  Porter was also married to a painter, raised a large family and found recognition late in life.

 

Illustration by Adrienne Segur by vidalia_11

illustration from Golden Book of Fairy Tales

As much attachment as I have to “Among Women,” I’ve discovered that Ponsot has been a part of my life even before I even read the poem.  I was delighted to read that she translated the Golden Book of Fairy Tales. It’s an indelible part of my childhood.  Many a night I spent with that book, reading in the bathroom because lights were supposed to be out.  Children, too, wander as best they can.

 

The book is still in print.  My children loved it.  Once in a while I’ll pull it out and wonder over the beautiful illustrations and strange stories.

 

 

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poem is to the right of the woman behind the transit sign

poem is to the right of the woman behind the transit sign

 

Rosa

By Rita Dove

 

How she sat there,

the time right inside a place

so wrong it was ready.

 

That trim name with

its dream of a bench

to rest on. Her sensible coat.

 

Doing nothing was the doing:

the clean flame of her gaze

carved by a camera flash.

 

How she stood up

when they bent down to retrieve

her purse. That courtesy.

 

IMG_0296

 

 

02-22-13 at 22-14-06 by SpeakerBoehnerIn a bit of poem-elf serendipity, the same day I was working on this blog post, a statue of Rosa Parks was unveiled at the U.S. Capitol Building.  If you’ve never been to the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, picture a semi-circle room, overdressed with Victorian red curtains and gray marble pillars.  Crowded around the room are bronze and marble statues of mostly men, mostly standing, mostly in the neoclassical mode.  The Rosa Parks statue is seated, serious, her head turned to look out an invisible window, her pocketbook and coat belying the grandness of her action.  The sculptor, Eugene Daub, was wise to position her in contrast to the imposing figures surrounding her.  Her quiet power seems all the more intense.

 

There’s a myth of Rosa Parks, recently debunked by a new biography, that she was a sweet old lady too tired from her day’s work as a seamstress at a department store to give up her seat on the bus.  In fact, she was only 42 at the time, and what tired her out was being humiliated on the bus.  The disconnect between her outward appearance of ordinariness and modesty and the fire and heroics of her inner resolve is part of what makes her a compelling and inspiring figure.

 

Rita Dove’s poem “Rosa,” captures the same quiet intensity as the Capitol’s newest statue.  At the outset, the poem is as neat and trim as the woman it describes.  The four three-line stanzas have a fairly uniform length, and the first and last stanza mirror each other in structure.  Most of the poem is written in sentence fragments, except for the third stanza, which breaks out into a complete sentence as it describes Rosa making a stand by choosing not to stand.

 

But there’s tension under the tidiness, which Dove builds with a series of paired oppositions.  The clean flame of her gaze is set up against her sensible coat.  Each stanza has its own dichotomy:  right/wrong; dream/sensible; doing nothing/doing; stood up/bent down.

 

The pairing of sat there from the first stanza with stood up from the last tells a whole story in itself.  Sat there and stood up are two simple movements that we all do everyday, but in the poem, sat there has none of the indolence we usually associate with the phrase, and stood up carries the second meaning of standing up for human rights.

 

These pairings of opposites, along with the short line length, build tension and highlight the tenuous balance of white power/black humiliation that Parks upends.

 

I learned a few things when I posted this poem.

 

I didn’t know that Detroit has a bus depot named after the most famous bus rider in our nation’s history.  Rosa Parks, it turns out, had a history in Detroit.  A few years after getting fired from her department store job because of her activism, Parks moved to Detroit.  She worked for Representative John Conyers and lived in the city till she died at age 92.  She’s buried in Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

 

The Bus Stops Here by Mike DargaThe architecture of the Rosa Parks Transit Center does great honor to Parks.  The building and plaza suggest the beginning of a journey:  the front of the building is shaped like the prow of a ship and a beautiful canopy floats above the busses like sails.  (Unfortunately she is little honored in the operations at the depot.  Detroit has one of the worst public transportation systems in the country.)

 

I had a few more surprises when I was brushing up on the familiar seat-on-the-bus story.  I had always thought hers was a modest, quiet act that led to a big dramatic one, the bus boycott directed by Martin Luther King.  But the full story of her modest, quiet action is as dramatic and suspenseful as the Little Rock Nine’s walk through the front doors of Little Rock High School.  You can read the full story here, but I’ll highlight a few things:

 

  • Ten years before the Montgomery bus driver ordered her to give up her seat for a white passenger, Parks had a run-in with the very same bus driver, James Blake.  A Montgomery bus ordinance at the time required blacks to enter at the front of the bus to pay and then exit and re-board through the back to sit down.  This way black passengers wouldn’t walk past whites.  One day, during a rainstorm, Parks chose not to exit and re-board.  Blake very nearly shoved her off the bus and then drove away before she could get back on.

 

  • Parks’ “doing nothing,” as Dove puts it, was a moment fraught with danger.  She knew that Blake, the bus driver, carried a gun.  She was alone on the bus.  When she challenged the driver, no other riders on the crowded bus gave her  support.  She knew she could be arrested, and she knew she could face abuse at the police station.  Her calm demeanor is all the more remarkable.

 

  • The incident in the last stanza of the poem refers to the behavior of the police officers who came to arrest her. One picked up her shopping bag, the other her purse.  But whose courtesy is “That courtesy”?  The idea that courtesy could be extended in such a discourteous place, a place where a woman was asked to give up her seat for a man, a place where black passengers were routinely insulted by whites, is another of the ironic oppositions the poem holds together.

RRita Dove by gpcmlkita Dove was born in Akron, Ohio in 1952.  Her father was the first black chemist to work in the tire industry.  She graduated summa cum laude from Miami University of Ohio, earned a Fulbright scholarship, and got her MFA at Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  She won the Pulitzer Prize and served as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993-95, the youngest person to ever be appointed to that office and first African American.  She teaches at University of Virginia.

 

I wouldn’t describe too many poets as adorable, but then again there aren’t too many poets who ballroom dance.  Watch here as Dove and her husband dance the samba, and see what adjective springs to mind.

 

 

 

One of my mother’s favorite jokes is, “Mary Rose sat on a tack.  Mary Rose.”  Inspired by the second stanza of Dove’s poem, I offer a twist on the old joke:  “Rosa Parks gets on the bus.  Rosa Parks.”

 

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