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Archive for November, 2019

On a fall day in New York City I left a poem in Central Park . . .

poem is on bench under orange sign 

Women and Horses

by Maxine Kumin

 

“After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric.”

-Theodor Adorno

 

After Auschwitz:  after ten of my father’s kin—

the ones who stayed—starved, then were gassed in the camps.

After Vietnam, after Korea, Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan.

After the Towers. This late in the life of our haplessly orbiting world

let us celebrate whatever scraps the muse, that naked child,

can pluck from the still-smoldering dumps.

 

If there’s a lyre around, strike it! A body, stand back, give it air!

Let us have sparrows laying their eggs in bluebird boxes.

Let us have bluebirds insouciantly nesting elsewhere.

Lend us navel-bared teens, eyebrowed-and-nose-ringed prodigies

crumbling breakfast bagels over dogeared and jelly-smeared texts.

Allow the ablebodied among us to have steamy sex.

 

Let there be fat old ladies in flowery tent dresses at bridge tables.

Howling babies in dirty diapers and babies serenely at rest.

War and détente will go on, détente and renewed tearings asunder,

we can never break free from the dark and degrading past.

Let us see life again nevertheless, in the words of Isaac Babel

as a meadow over which women and horses wander.

 

—and a sister-poem in Chelsea on the back of a bike—

 

Wartime Sunday

by Anne Porter

 

In honor of Eugene Atget, photographer of Paris

 

From the time of a long-ago war that destroyed only far-away cities

I remember a Sunday walk with the littlest of our sons.

The vomit of Saturday night was wet in the doorways,

No one was up, First Avenue empty and gray,

So we turned a corner to stare at the three bridges,

Great webs of stillness over the East River.

 

On our way home, passing the locked-up shops

We saw one window heaped with tarnished lamps

Guitars and radios and dusty furs

And there among them a pawned christening-dress

White as a waterfall.

 

When I was visiting my son in New York City a month ago, I had no plan to pair “Women and Horses” and “Wartime Sunday.” They were just two poems I happened to have in my purse. But looking at them now nuzzled up together in the same post, I feel vindicated in my matchmaking skills which have sometimes been undervalued by my near and dear.

 

To be sure poets Anne Porter and Maxine Kumin are an odd couple. One was a devout Catholic, the other a secular Jew. One travelled in bohemian circles (that would be the Catholic), the other lived quietly in the countryside. But both witnessed massive destruction in their lifetimes:  the Great Depression, the Holocaust, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War 9/11, and all the wars up until 2011 when Porter died at age 100. As mothers and poets during roughly the same time period, they have common ground and much to discuss.

 

Where they meet-up in these poems (if we can continue the dating metaphor) is in the question, “How do we go on?” In the face of a dark and degrading past, as Kumin puts it, how can there be a nevertheless? For Kumin the muse is the answer and for it’s Porter grace, but grace and the muse are close relatives if not twins. (As a child Kumin went for a short while to a Catholic school next door to her house so I suspect the idea of grace wasn’t foreign to her.)

 

Finding vomit on a doorstep (wet, fresh vomit) and the still-smoldering dumps everywhere in our haplessly orbiting world would surely drag us down to despair if that’s all we could see. But in the ruins are wondrous things, great webs of stillness:  old ladies playing bridge, teenagers reading at breakfast, a christening gown white as a waterfall  in a pawn shop window. For those with a discerning eye, grace—call it art if you want—abounds and renews the world again and again.

 

The particular form of grace, that is, what makes things new again, is not the same for these two poets nor for each one of us. That in itself is a marvel to revive the glummest soul.

 

As I was pondering this I came across an excerpt from a Nabokov essay:

 

“In a sense we are all crashing to death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles—no matter the imminent peril—these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so distant from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.”

—Vladimir Nabokov

 

And here we have uncovered the attraction between these two poems:  To wonder at trifles no matter the imminent perils is, for Nabokov and for Kumin and Porter, the highest form[s] of consciousness.

 

I’ll re-print bios of both poets from past posts.

Poet Maxine Kumin was born in Philadelphia in 1925. She went to Radcliffe, now part of Harvard, and swam competitively there.  She took a seminar with novelist Wallace Stegner, and his criticism of her work discouraged her from writing poetry.  For a long time she wrote poems privately.

 

As a mother of young children, Kumin took a poetry class at an adult education center.  There she met poet Anne Sexton.  The two mothers, both at home, became close friends and stayed close up until the day of Sexton’s suicide.  Together they wrote four children’s books.  (The books were illustrated by Evaline Ness, wife of FBI agent Eliot Ness, the inspiration for the “Untouchables” television show.)  Kumin was first published at age 36, and subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize, the Ruth Lilly prize, and most of the big honorifics a poet can receive.

 

She and her husband Victor, a chemical engineer who worked with Oppeheimer on the atomic bomb*, had three children and  lived on a farm in New Hampshire where they raised organic vegetables and bred horses. At age 74 Kumin almost died in a horse driving accident. She broke her neck, ribs, and punctured a lung but recovered and continued to write poetry into her eighties.

 

She’s often compared to another northeastern pastoral poet—she’s been called the feminist Robert Frost.  But after reading some of her poems and marveling at her non-writing daring-do, I’m starting to think of her as a feminist Ernest Hemingway:  physical, fearless, unembellished. 

She died in 2014 at age 88.

*Victor Kumin refused to continue work on the atomic bomb after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  He was threatened with court martial but in the end was honorably discharged.  For a full account of his fascinating story, link here.

 *  *  *

 

Anne Porter’s literary career was launched when she was 83 with the publication of her first book of poetry. Can I say that again? Her literary career was launched when she was 83. Surely that’s the most hopeful, life-affirming sentence I’ve ever written. And she is the sweetest most adorable poet I’ve ever encountered. Watch this video to get an idea. (Best line: she opens a letter and says, “Oh, from the Pope.”)

Born in Boston to a wealthy family, she attended Bryn Mawr and married the American painter and art critic Fairfield Porter. (A favorite of mine. Link to his work to see for yourself.) Their marriage was not an easy one. He indulged his artistic temperament and sexual drives while she tended to their five children* and hosted his friends for months on end at their homes in Southampton and Maine. Lovely that some of these guests were his lovers, male and female, but to be fair, she had a liason of her own.

Their life together fascinates me. I’ve lost a good hour following their story link to link, drawn down down the rabbit hole of mid-century bohemia. Their social and familial circles pull in such a number of artists and intellectuals, it’s a veritable Bloomsbury group.

Portrait of Anne by Fairfield Porter

Like so many other wives of writers and artists, Anne Porter remained hidden and overlooked until the death of her husband. I have a vision of her tottering on her walker, step by step, on through the heap of egos, drama, passion and duty that blocks her path, until at last she emerges cheerfully on the other side, an artist in her own right. She died in 2011.

 

 

*Her oldest son was mentally disabled in some way, either autistic or schizophrenic. When he died in 1980 she wrote the heartbreaking “For My Son Johnny.”

 

For more information on the remarkable Porter, read this profile in the Wall Street Journal.

 For a review of her most recent collection of poems, link here.

 

 

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poem is on futon 

 

Respite

by Jane Hirshfield

 

Day after quiet day passes.

I speak to no one besides the dog.

To her,

I murmur much I would not otherwise say.

 

We make plans

then break them on a moment’s whim.

She agrees;

though sometimes bringing

to my attention a small blue ball.

 

Passing the fig tree

I see it is

suddenly huge with green fruit,

which may ripen or not.

 

Near the gate,

I stop to watch

the sugar ants climb the top bar

and cross at the latch,

as they have now in summer for years.

 

In this way I study my life.

It is,

I think today,

like a dusty glass vase.

 

A little water,

a few flowers would be good,

I think;

but do nothing. Love is far away.

Incomprehensible sunlight falls on my hand.

 

 

If a friend told you her life was a dusty glass vase you might ask what’s going on, give her a consoling hug and pass on the number of a good therapist. Somehow Jane Hirshfield says the very same thing and she sounds . . . self-satisfied? Pleased? Zen at the very least. That’s the Hirshfield magic. Her meditative air fills her poems, dark though they may be, with light.

 

Take another look at that dusty glass vase. Yes, it’s empty, un-filled, unused for some time. But not depressing. An empty vase is rich with possibility and ready for beauty. Ready for a little water and a few flowers.

 

I think;/but do nothing the speaker says. Around her is a world of activity. The dog pushes the ball to her feet, the fig tree bursts with new fruit, the busy ants march onward. She watches but doesn’t feel the desire to be busy herself.

 

What wondrous stillness in this poem. Each experience—dog, tree, sugar ant, sunshine—is presented as if Hirshfield were holding them out in her palm one by one for us to see. My, my, look at this, she seems to say quietly. And so she draws us in to her meditative state. The short lines only heighten the quality of attention. There’s a precision and delicacy at work that bring to mind Helen Mirren’s unmatched articulation. I’d really love to hear her read this poem aloud.

 

It ends so softly that the drama and tension of the last two lines nearly escaped me. We seem to be headed down the path of lugubriosity—

 

Love is far away

 

but it’s only a set-up for the line that follows. Suddenly we find ourselves bathed in wonder and beauty:

 

Incomprehensible sunlight falls on my hand.

 

I left “Respite” on a Baltimore sidewalk in mid-summer. Since then I’ve been chiding myself for letting it languish away in my photo stream. But now I’m glad I waited so long to post it. Turns out it’s very of-the-moment and on-the-nose this early November afternoon.

 

Hirshfield describes an in-between space, one between observation and action. For some time these past few weeks I’ve been sitting in the same—but without the equanimity she has. My in-between is more malaise than meditation. More a wet noodle than a coiled spring.

 

Readers, bear with me a moment. Guests are arriving to the pity party HIrshfield so wisely avoids, and I want to look at each face before I sneak out the back to a more festive event.

 

The first guest is the re-boot of my years-ago empty nest syndrome, as all four of my children made moves—nearly simultaneously—that brought home the fact that none will live ever live within three hours of us, and that my husband and I are more and more extraneous to their lives, as it should be, of course. That guest came in early fall and got the other guests riled up, guests who had been in the room the whole year, ignored by me but suddenly wanting attention. A dead dog. A mother-in-law, who had lived with us, deceased nearly a year now. Serious health issues plaguing my extended family.

 

And then there are the lesser guests who behave as if they were the guests of honor: a finished novel sitting in the proverbial drawer, a novel half-heartedly and unsuccessfully marketed and subsequently rejected; a new novel stale and plodding; new writing projects begun and abandoned; my blog set aside and now so judgy of my laziness.

 

Tiny problems. First-world problems. Nothing to look at here except I’m usually a duck’s back to problems. And getting side-tracked by such commonplace experiences was making me feel like  . . . well, like a dusty glass vase.

 

Enter this poem, which I had positioned mostly as a pun (the futon inviting “Respite,” you see). The poem has tapped me on the shoulder, very gently, and said, There’s better light over here, let’s examine these things together. The in-between place, it turns out, isn’t a dead zone, it isn’t a place where nothing happens and nothing ever will because I was never good enough anyway and people get sick and the lucky ones grow old and die withered. No. It’s a mid-day nap. It’s a sit-down. It’s a church pew. It’s a fertile place, a place to gather the energy of wonder and stillness.

 

I’ve mentioned before a favorite poem of childhood, one I can still recite from memory, and I do hate to repeat myself, but A.A. Milne’s “Halfway Down” belongs to this moment and it’s running through my head, so here goes. The poem begins:

 

Halfway down the stairs

is a stair

where I sit

 

In the second stanza Milne switches to “halfway up the stairs” (emphasis mine), then muses that this chosen step is not up and not down but has its own geography—

 

It isn’t really

Anywhere!

It’s somewhere else

Instead!

 

Even as a little girl I liked that halfway down stair. A good place to observe what was happening above or below, and there was always a lot going on in our household of thirteen. Anyway, that’s where I am, halfway down the stairs, patient now, observing, biding my time to move, up or down, I don’t know.

 

I’m re-posting Hirshfield’s biography from a past post:

 

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’s published eight books of poetry and, as a translator of Japanese poetry, helped popularize tanka in the United States. She’s won numerous awards and taught at many universities including Stanford, Duke and Univerisity of Virginia.

 

I read an interview with her from PalettePoetry.com and came across this question-and-answer which I suspect is relevant to “Ask Much, the Voice Suggested.”

 

Q:  HOW DO YOU CLIMB OUT OF A DRY SPELL OF WRITING?

JH: By longing. I grow lonely for poems, the way you would grow lonely for an absent lover. And then they return. Longing is the ladder we meet on.

 

 

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