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Archive for January, 2018

poems are on car windshields all the way down the block

 

Thanks

by W.S. Merwin

 

Listen

with the night falling we are saying thank you

we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings

we are running out of the glass rooms

with our mouths full of food to look at the sky

and say thank you

we are standing by the water thanking it

standing by the windows looking out

in our directions

 

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging

after funerals we are saying thank you

after the news of the dead

whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

 

over telephones we are saying thank you

in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators

remembering wars and the police at the door

and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you

in the banks we are saying thank you

in the faces of the officials and the rich

and of all who will never change

we go on saying thank you thank you

 

with the animals dying around us

taking our feelings we are saying thank you

with the forests falling faster than the minutes

of our lives we are saying thank you

with the words going out like cells of a brain

with the cities growing over us

we are saying thank you faster and faster

with nobody listening we are saying thank you

thank you we are saying and waving

dark though it is

 

 

I had a few more left so I left “Thanks” on another street—

 

Who doesn’t believe in gratitude? Every religion and most women’s magazines instruct us to grateful. It’s the key to happiness, we’re told over and over. I myself love to be grateful and raised my kiddos to believe it’s the thank-you note, not cleanliness, that’s next to godliness.

 

But there are limits, as we see in W.S. Merwin’s “Thanks.” Does it make sense, he seems to ask, dark though it is and even with nobody listening to run around saying thanks, thank you, thanks so much. We begin to look like idiots. Because the rote “thank you” can be as empty as “thoughts and prayers” if there’s no accompanying action. Against Merwin’s litany of terrible events— illness, violence, death, injustice, ecological disaster, aging and memory loss—saying “thanks” seems anemic if not downright silly.

 

Someone else might read the poem differently, perhaps as an injunction to stay grateful no matter what. But given Merwin’s activism, I can’t read it any other way.

 

I left the poem in downtown Detroit, the same day the city learned it had not been a finalist for the Amazon headquarters. Thanks a lot!

 

Here’s a bio of Merwin from an earlier post:

W.S. Merwin was born in New York City in 1927. His father was a Presbyterian minister. He graduated from Princeton, and after a year of graduate study in Romance languages, traveled through Europe working as a translator and tutor to children from wealthy families. In 1976 he moved to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism, eventually settling on an old pineapple plantation in Maui, where he still lives today with his third wife.

 

Merwin’s circle has included many luminaries of the poetry world—he was classmates with Galwell Kinell, pupil to John Berryman, and friend of James Wright, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.

 

 

He was an anti-war activist during the Vietnam War and donated the prize money from the Pulitzer he won to a draft resistance movement. He continues to work as an activist, these days focusing on saving the rainforests of Hawaii.

 

He’s won too many awards and honors to list. I’ll just mention he’s a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the 2010 Poet Laureate of the United States, and leave it at that.

 

 

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I left a few poems in shitholes. Real, actual shitholes.

 

At Macy’s. Lip-imprinted toilet paper my own

 

Bladder Song

by Nathan Leonard

 

On a piece of toilet paper

Afloat in the unflushed piss,

The fully printed lips of a woman.

 

Nathan, cheer up! The sewer

Sends you a big red kiss.

Ah, nothing’s wasted, if it’s human.

 

And in a Starbuck’s bathroom—

Smell

by Molly Peacock

 

The smoky smell of menses—Ma always

left the bathroom door open—smote the hall

the way the elephant-house smell dazed

the crowd in the vestibule at the zoo, all

holding their noses yet pushing toward it.

The warm smell of kept blood and the tinny

smell of fresh blood would make any child quit

playing and wander in toward the skinny

feet, bulldog calves, and doe moose flanks planted

on either side of the porcelain bowl

below the blurry mons. The oxblood napkin landed

in the wastecan. The wise eyes of elephants roll

above their flanks, bellies and rag-tear ears

in a permeable enormity of smell’s

majesty and pungency; and benignity. Years

of months roll away what each month tells:

God, what animals we are, huge of haunch

bloody and wise in the stench of bosk.

 

I’ve always appreciated bathroom humor and bathroom stories. Yes, it’s juvenile, but maybe there’s more to it. Maybe what’s at the bottom of my fascination is this, from the penultimate line of Molly Peacock’s “Smell”—

 

God, what animals we are

 

I could go on, I could discuss how shitting is a unifying act, how everyone throughout human history from the beginning of time to now, from the powerful to the lowly, regardless of class, race, religion, sexual orientation, and occupation has to shit on a regular basis, has to see it and smell it and understand that it came from inside the body, how it belongs to each of us.

 

But I’ll end there. Enjoy the poems.

 

Nathan Leonard (1924-2007) was born in California, served in the army and went to UC Berkley on the GI Bill. He earned a PhD in 1961 and taught rhetoric until he retired in his 70’s.

 

I had never heard of Leonard, but he seems to have been a big deal in the literary world. He won many awards including the Guggenheim and was widely published in magazines like the New Yorker, Harpers and The Atlantic. I was interested to learn that he collaborated with Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz and that he translated Polish poets Anna Swir and Aleksander Wat—“Bladder Song” has an Eastern European sensibility to my mind, that touch of dark humor and that effect of speaking from the heart without being maudlin.

 

Relevant to the poem I’ve posted, Poetry Foundation quotes Leonard as follows:

 

“Every poet has one or two compulsive themes. One of mine is how to make things fit together that don’t but should; the other is getting down far enough below a surface to see if something is still worth praising. Over the years and without self-consciously trying, I have moved closer and closer to the human voice in my verse. But I have also tried to keep a quality in it—for lack of a better word I call it eloquence—that makes it more than conversation. My hope is to be clear, true, and good listening.”

 

Leonard and his wife Carol had three children. He died of complications of Alzheimer’s.

 

Poet, biographer, essayist, fiction writer, memoirist, and performer, Molly Peacock is one of those artists whose creativity can’t be contained in any one pursuit.

 

She was born in Buffalo, New York in 1947 to a working class family. Her father was an alcoholic and her home life was turbulent. Early influences include her mother, an avid reader; her grandmother, a farmer, who sent her poems in the mail cut out from the newspaper; and an encouraging seventh grade teacher. The first in her family to go to college, Peacock graduated from SUNY at Binghamton and earned her Masters degree at Johns Hopkins. She taught for eleven years in a Quaker middle school before becoming a full-time poet.

 

She has served as poet-in-residence at many universities, published eight books of poetry, won numerous awards, wrote and performed a one-woman off-Broadway show, and was president of the Poetry Society of America. Her longtime interest in making poetry accessible to a wider audience led her to start the Best Canadian Poetry series, write a book on how to read poetry and start a poetry circle (that’s actually the title of the book), and co-create the Poetry in Motion project, which places poems in subways and buses.

 

Peacock lives in Toronto with her husband, a James Joyce scholar and her one-time high school boyfriend. She returns to New York to teach a seminar at the 92nd Y. She also works with aspiring poets and memoirist apprentice-style, one-on-one, and is known as a generous teacher.

 

 

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Invictus

by William Earnest Henley

 

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

 

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

 

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

 

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

 

 

“Invictus” is one of those poems that’s familiar even if you’ve never read it. Maybe you’ve heard of the title (which inspired, among other things, a movie about Nelson Mandela, a men’s fragrance, a CrossFit workout, and Prince Harry’s sporting competition for wounded veterans). Certain phrases from the poem have wide circulation—master of my fate, captain of my soul, bloody but unbowed, clutch of circumstance—and whole lines have shown up everywhere from a Winston Churchill speech to a scene from Casablanca to a Lana Del Ray song. You probably even know the poet without knowing the poet (more on that later). So it’s good to see the whole of “Invictus” and understand why it’s had such broad appeal over centuries and continents.

 

As for me, the appeal is limited. I don’t love this poem, but I can’t help but feel roused after reading it. It’s a veritable shot of adrenaline to those on their last legs. Which is actually where the poem came from. From someone on his last leg.

 

At age twelve poet William Earnest Henley (1849-1903) had a leg amputated because of tuberculosis of the bone. In his early twenties doctors wanted to amputate his other leg. But Henley sought out the famous surgeon Joseph Lister (pioneer in preventative medicine, eponym of Listerine) who used antiseptic techniques to save Henley’s remaining limb. While recovering in the hospital for three years, Henley wrote “Invictus,” Latin for “unconquered.”

 

Henley was a magazine editor, critic, playwright and poet. He’s often called the Samuel Johnson of the Victorian era, so striking his influence. The circle of writers he published and befriended included Robert Louise Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells and W.B. Yeats.

 

A tall, muscular man with a red bushy beard and big personality, Henley was surprisingly agile on his wooden leg and cane. And here’s how you might know him: he was the inspiration for the most famous pirate of all time, Long John Silver from Treasure Island. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to Henley, “I will now make a confession: It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver … the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.” …

 

His only child, Margaret Emma, lives on in literature as well. She used to call J.M. Barrie her “fwendy-wendy,” and so the character of Wendy in Peter Pan was born. Margaret Emma died of meningitis at age five.

 

Henley died of complications of tuberculosis at age fifty-three.

 

I left “Invictus” in a co-working site in Detroit. No one took it down for a few days and as far as I know it’s still there. Maybe the poem will inspire confidence in a beleaguered entrepreneur wandering the halls.

 

And for you readers, I hope as much.

 

Be it personal, political, or meteorological, whatever place of wrath and tears you’ve lived through this past year, whatever bludgeoning of chance you’ve faced, here you are, in 2018, unconquered, invictus.

 

Happy New Year.

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