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Archive for September, 2015

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The Truth

by Philip Schultz

You can hide it like a signature

or birthmark but it’s always there

in the greasy light of your dreams,

the knots your body makes at night,

the sad innuendos of your eyes,

whispering insidious asides in every

room you cannot remain inside. It’s

there in the unquiet ideas that drag and

plead one lonely argument at a time,

and those who own a little are contrite

and fearful of those who own too much,

but owning none takes up your life.

It cannot be replaced with a house or a car,

a husband or wife, but can be ignored,

denied, and betrayed, until the last day,

when you pass yourself on the street

and recognize the agreeable life you

were afraid to lead, and turn away.

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If you’re following the Richard Glossip case as anxiously as I am, you’ll understand when I write that I wish this poem could be tattooed on Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin’s forearm. I want her to have to look at it every day and face the the truth that she sentenced an innocent man to death.

I’m going to post without much comment. I’m distraught over the Glossip case.

Let me just say that this is a poem to chase you down the street, throwing its questions and accusations like small stones till one hits its mark and you stop to ask, What is my truth? Am I hiding from it? Am I a person who owns too little or too much?

There’s a curious word choice I’d like your take on.

The speaker, catching a glimpse of himself in a shop window perhaps, considers what his life might have been if he had faced “The Truth.”

when you pass yourself on the street

and recognize the agreeable life you

were afraid to lead, and turn away.

An “agreeable” life. Not fabulous, just agreeable. “Living your truth,” as we are often urged to do, is supposed to lead to an amazing life like Oprah’s or Elizabeth Gilbert’s.

“Agreeable” is more realistic. I like it.

I left “The Truth” on Bare Bluff, a beautiful peak 600 ft. above Lake Superior in Copper Harbor, Michigan. Copper Harbor, eleven hours from Detroit, is the farthest point in you can go in Michigan and still be on land. There aren’t many people up there and no cell service at all unless you find the right spot on a certain scenic lookout, Brockway Mountain Drive. Otherwise you have to drive 30 or 40 minutes to make a call. A local waitress says that if someone doesn’t show up for work you have to drive to their house to wake them up.

I love the U.P. and try to return every year. Copper Harbor was by far the most beautiful region I’ve been in. It’s a place of no distractions. There’s Nature—-untouched, pristine, ancient—and you. A place where truths must be faced.

The truth I always feel in the U.P. is that life is large and creation beautiful and I need to be grateful every second of my life. You can’t go to the U.P. and feel like the center of the universe. With your face to the clear sunlight, walking among 400-year old pine trees, climbing over rock shaped by tides and storms, wading into cold Lake Superior so vast and mysterious, you feel small. And that’s a relief. It would be a great vacation spot for Donald Trump when he ends his run.

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Philip Schultz was born in 1945 in Rochester, New York, an only child. His father, a Russian- Jewish immigrant died when he was eighteen and left the family bankrupt.

Schultz graduated from San Francisco State University and got his MFA at Iowa Writer’s workshop. He taught at New York University, among other colleges, and founded the The Writers Studio in 1987 in New York City, which he still directs.

He’s published many books of poetry, one novel in verse and a memoir. He was 63 when he won the Pultizer Prize for “Failure.”

His wife is the sculptor Monica Banks. Together they have two sons.

Schultz wrote a moving essay you can read here about his dyslexia. He didn’t know he was dyslexic until he was 58 when his son was diagnosed with it.

Addendum: Gov. Mary Fallin has just issued Richard Glossip a 37-day stay of execution so the drugs to be used in his execution can be reviewed. I hope that’s window dressing for “let’s make sure we’re not executing an innocent man.” If his sentence is commuted, I will post something special just for Gov. Fallin. A poem of praise for an open mind and heart.

If not, Nov. 6, (my birthday and his new execution day) is going to be a day of mourning the world over.

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poem is on bus shelter window

poem is on bus shelter window between my daughter’s hand and raised foot

 

 

For My Daughter

by Grace Paley

I wanted to bring her a chalice
or maybe a cup of love
or cool water      I wanted to sit
beside her as she rested
after the long day     I wanted to adjure
commend   admonish      saying don’t
do that   of course     wonderful   try
I wanted to help her grow old      I wanted
to say last words the words     famous
for final enlightenment      I wanted
to say them now     in case I am in
calm sleep when the last sleep strikes
or aged into disorder      I wanted to
bring her a cup of cool water

I wanted to explain     tiredness is
expected     it is even appropriate
at the end of the day

 

 

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What changes a year brings. Last year when I dropped my youngest off for her freshman year of college, I unpacked the car all the while packing in as much advice as I could. Eat healthy. Join clubs. Keep your room clean. Blah Blah blah. This year on drop-off day I almost forgot to tell her anything at all until I heard her roommate’s father tell his daughter to study hard. Oh yeah, that.

 

When I finally got around to it, my advice was much less inspiring:

Don’t sped all your money on coffees.

Get a job.

Don’t be the drunkest girl at the party.

 

What can I say, she’s got good sense, this one. Or maybe I’ve learned something.

 

Maybe I’ve learned that even if I could open up my children’s heads and pour in my life experience and wisdom like cake batter, they’d still have to figure things out themselves. They have to learn–or not learn–from their own mistakes.

 

I say maybe I’ve learned because the urge to throw advice at my kids and hope it sticks never goes away, and sometimes (often times, if I’m truthful) so overwhelming I give in.

 

This is why I love Grace Paley’s “For My Daughter.” The speaker wants to tell her daughter so many things. She wants to tell these things right now, before she dies or loses her mind. She wants to correct, praise, encourage. Control.

 

But she keeps her mouth shut.

 

The un-acted upon urge animates the poem. “But I didn’t” is the unspoken coda. The poem reminds me that however much we want to shelter our kids from hardship and steer them towards happiness, in the end we can’t.

 

Paley is master of white space and here she uses it as punctuation and almost as stage directions. (You have to look at the photograph to get an idea of the spacing. It’s hard to recreate blank spaces on WordPress.) The break before the final two lines suggest that the speaker has to slow down, sit down, catch her breath after spilling out all her urgent worries. Her mothering has exhausted her. She too is tired.

 

Paley is better known for her short stories than her poems, but I’ve always loved her poems best. They’re short stories in themselves, little snippets of real life, spoken by a person who jumps off the page with her humanity. How Paley manages to use so many Latinate words–admonish, commend, appropriate, adjure –and still make the poem sound like words caught on tape and transcribed directly amazes me. Those Latinate words play off her plain-speaking voice and echo the push-pull of the urge to say and the wisdom of not saying.

 

IMG_3436I left the poem in a bus shelter close to my daughter’s dorm. Under a nearby tree (another sheltering structure) I left an illustration by the late great Maurice Sendak of a mother transforming herself to protect her little one from the rain.

 

 

 

 

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If my last-minute words of wisdom went in one of my daughter’s ears and out the other, I hope these two postings will linger. What they both say, what I want to say to her, is this:

–I’ve got your back, always–

Or to use a few of Paley’s words,

–A cup of love/or cool water, here for you when you most need it–

 

Image 2Grace Paley was born in the Bronx in 1922 to Ukrainian Jewish parents who had been exiled by the Czar for their socialist politics. The family spoke Russian, Yiddish and English at home. She was the youngest of three, but so much younger that she was practically an only child.

 

She went to Hunter College for a year college and studied briefly with W.H. Auden at New School. At 19 she married filmmaker Jess Paley. They had two children, Nora and Danny, and later divorced.

 

She started her career as a poet, writing in the style of Auden, but in her thirties she began writing short stories about working class New Yorkers, particularly about women and mothers. She published several collections of stories, poems and essays.

 

Image 1She was a lifelong political activist, protesting the Vietnam War, nuclear proliferation, apartheid, the war in Iraq, and advocating for women’s issues. She taught at Sarah Lawrence, Columbia University and City College. She was the founder of the Greenwich Village Peace Center.

 

Her second husband, Robert Nichols, was a landscape architect and writer. The couple eventually moved to Vermont where she died in 2007 at age 84 of breast cancer.

 

You can read an interview she gave at the very end of her life here.

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