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Archive for April, 2020

 

poem is on sign

 

County Fair

by Charles Simic

 

 

If you didn’t see the six-legged dog,

It doesn’t matter.

We did, and he mostly lay in the corner.

As for the extra legs,

 

One got used to them quickly

And thought of other things.

Like, what a cold, dark night

To be out at the fair.

 

Then the keeper threw a stick

And the dog went after it

On four legs, the other two flapping behind,

Which made one girl shriek with laughter.

 

She was drunk and so was the man

Who kept kissing her neck.

The dog got the stick and looked back at us.

And that was the whole show.

 

 

Anyone else hearing strains of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” For the uninitiated (please initiate yourselves!—this is one of the greatest songs ever) here’s the first verse:

 

I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire

I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up

in his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement

I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames

And when it was all over I said to myself, is that all there is to a fire

 

Is that all there is, is that all there is

If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing

Let’s break out the booze and have a ball

If that’s all there is

 

 

(You really have to hear the song in Lee’s jaded, on-my-fourth-martini voice to get it. No surprise that the song has old world roots—link here for the Thomas Mann connection.)

 

“County Fair” is similarly blasé. The six-legged dog, the drunk girl, the amorous man, all fail to impress the speaker. But where Lee goes to, eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!, Simic’s speaker stays listless, bored and depressed to the end. You get the feeling he’s seen many horrors and knows how to survive them.

 

One got used to them quickly

And thought of other things.

 

 

It’s one way to get through the pandemic, I guess.

 

 

Here’s Simic’s bio from a previous post:

 

Charles Simic was born in Yugoslavia in 1938.  During WWII, his family was evacuated from place to place to escape bombing.  “My travel agents were Hitler and Stalin,” he jokes.  His father left to find work in Italy and was imprisoned instead.  After the war Simic and his mother and brother were briefly imprisoned by Communist authorities.  Eventually they were able to leave Yugoslavia for Paris, then New York, where the family was reunited with Simic’s father after ten years. Simic took night classes in Chicago and then moved to New York where he worked a number of odd jobs.  He served in the army in the early sixties, and arriving back in New York, earned a degree from New York University.

 

Simic has taught at the University of New Hampshire for nearly forty years.  He was named the Poet Laureate of the United States in 2007, won the Pulitzer Prize, and received a MacArthur Genius Grant, and remains one of our most popular American poets with readers and critics alike.  Quite a feat for a poet who didn’t speak English till he was fifteen.

 

NOTE:  Don’t forget the Poem Elf collaborative project! Taking entries now through mid-May at thepoemelf@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

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a mountain and a mountain, see, it’s simple

 

For those interested in helping me celebrate 10 years of blogging at Poem Elf (read about the collaborative project here), a few thoughts on process.

 

A reader asked for suggestions on choosing a venue for a poem. That’s something I haven’t thought much about because often there’s not a lot of thought involved—the connection between poem and place becomes apparent only after much musing and puttering. But just as often there is a plan, if we use the loosest definition of “plan.” Here’s the method in my madness (or maybe more accurately, here’s the madness in my method):

 

 

  1.  Start with the setting of the poem. This is not subtle but it is really fun.

Examples: “Sometimes the Field” by Holly Wren Spaulding left in a field

“In the Library” by Charles Simic (a poem about angels and librarians) tucked into a library book about angels

 

 

  1. Take an image from the poem (it doesn’t even have to be a central image) and put the poem where that image can be found.

Example: “Come and Be My Baby” by Maya Angelou begins, The highway is full of big cars/going nowhere fast so I put it above a highway. Again, subtlety is not the goal.

 

 

  1. Consider who the poem is written for or who you imagine reading it and put it in a place that caters to those people.

Example:  “Poem for Emily” by Miller Williams is written for a grandchild so I put it in a barbershop frequented by old men.

“Ask Much, the Voice Suggested” by Jane Hirschfield seemed like a good poem for a young woman beginning her adult life, so I attached it to my daughter’s backpack at the airport when she left home to live abroad.

 

 

  1. Connect the mood or subject of a poem to the mood of an event or place you are visiting.

Examples: love poems left at weddings or any event leading up to a wedding, or in these COVID days, on the doorstep of someone whose wedding is cancelled; poems about mothers left in a playground; poems about grief left in a cemetery.

 

 

  1. Take a walk with a poem and put it somewhere, anywhere. Spend the rest of the walk making a connection between the two.

Example: I left Ross Gay’s “Thank You” in a pile of brown leaves for no reason other than I stepped over it. By the end of the walk I realized that the poem brightens dead spots in the soul and landscape.

 

 

  1. Go where you’re pulled. If there’s a place that you love, that intrigues you, that calms you, that fills you with wonder or fills you with dread or just a place you know will make a great picture—that’s a good place for a poem you love or intrigues you, etc. There doesn’t have to be a direct connection at all.

 

 

Good luck! Can’t wait to see what you come up with.

 

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My tenth anniversary of blogging at Poem Elf arrives this May, and I need some help to mark the occasion. Not good wishes, thank you very much. I’m looking for elf assistants and elfettes—or if those terms are gag-inducing, how about—Poem Posters.

 

 

Here’s what I’m asking: put a copy of a poem in a public space (or as public a space as you have access to, given coronavirus restrictions), take a picture, and send to me. I’ll post as many as I get through the month of May.

 

 

 

Guidelines:

 

  1. Post a previously published poem. Not your own poem or your grandmother’s poem, or the poem of some up-and-comer in your poetry circle. Sorry for the limitation, but that’s how this blog has always worked.

 

 

  1. Choose a shorter poem if possible. Be sure to include the poet’s name.

 

 

  1. Take one close-up picture so the text is readable, and one context picture farther away so the surroundings are clear.

 

 

  1. Let me know where you placed the poem. Bonus if you tell me why, and/or what the poem means to you and why you chose it. If you want you can write a full-length post.

 

 

  1. Here’s the important part: do not send your picture and commentary to the comment section of this blog. Email to me at thepoemelf@gmail.com.

 

 

 

That’s it! Looking forward to seeing what everyone comes up with.

 

 

I’ll send periodic reminders of this project. Hope they don’t get irritating.

 

 

 

 

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poem is on yellow post

 

Romantic Sonnet

by Charles Simic

 

Evenings of sovereign clarity—

Wine and bread on the table,

Mother praying,

Father naked in bed.

 

Was I that skinny boy stretched out

In the field behind the house,

His heart cut out with a toy knife?

Was I the crow hovering over him?

 

Happiness, you are the bright red lining

Of the dark winter coat

Grief wears inside out.

 

This is about myself when I’m remembering,

And your long insomniac’s nails,

O Time, I keep chewing and chewing.

 

 

The Simic series continues. It started for no reason other than I happened to have three Simic poems on hand as I shelter-at-home. Now it seems I’ve pulled him center stage on cue. His old world memories, menacing imagery and dark sensibility feel just right during this time of collective longing for a pre-pandemic world we may never return to.

 

 

“Romantic Sonnet” opens with a tableau of a simple, sensual life—wine, bread, table, the murmur of prayers, the heat of a man lounging naked. But the sovereign clarity of that memory gives way to the speaker questioning his memory of a simultaneous scene.  Is the boy in the field resting or dead? The knife is a toy knife, but the crows hovering over carrion may be real. Or maybe the crows are him. The dreamy first act has ended in a nightmare of insomnia, of coat lining the color of blood, of fingernails long in spite of constant chewing.

 

 

I can’t get a grip on this poem. It keeps shifting on me. But I see it. I feel it. Something has died. Something is gone and the speaker desperately wants it back. Spoiler alert:  he’s not going to.

 

 

Hey, have a great week!

 

Here’s a bio of Simic from a previous post:

Charles Simic was born in Yugoslavia in 1938.  During WWII, his family was evacuated from place to place to escape bombing.  “My travel agents were Hitler and Stalin,” he jokes.  His father left to find work in Italy and was imprisoned instead.  After the war Simic and his mother and brother were briefly imprisoned by Communist authorities.  Eventually they were able to leave Yugoslavia for Paris, then New York, where the family was reunited with Simic’s father after ten years.  Simic took night classes in Chicago and then moved to New York where he worked a number of odd jobs.  He served in the army in the early sixties, and arriving back in New York, earned a degree from New York University.

 

Simic has taught at the University of New Hampshire for nearly forty years.  He was named the Poet Laureate of the United States in 2007, won the Pulitzer Prize, and received a MacArthur Genius Grant, and remains one of our most popular American poets with readers and critics alike.  Quite a feat for a poet who didn’t speak English till he was fifteen.

 

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Margot Zemach’s It Could Always Be Worse is one of my favorite children’s books. Funny, wise, and illustrated with Zemach’s signature zest. It’s been nearly twenty years since I last read it out loud to my youngest, but the title’s been running through my head ever since. Most especially lately.

 

It Could Always Be Worse is a re-telling of a Yiddish folk tale. A poor man is at the end of his rope. He lives with too many people in too small a hut.

 

So he goes to the rabbi for advice. The rabbi has him move his farm animals into the hut, one by one. Which he does.

 

The cow trampling everything in sight is the final straw. On the verge of madness the man heads back to the rabbi, who tells him to take all the animals out of the hut. Which he does. The book ends on a joyful note:

“Holy Rabbi,” he cried, “you have made life sweet for me. With just my family in the hut, it’s so quiet, so roomy, so peaceful… What a pleasure!”

 

This old story came to mind when my friend Marc Rosen sent me a poem he wrote in response to the coronavirus. Marc is a practicing psychoanalyst and unbeknownst to me a great and insightful writer. Here’s his poetry debut. I love this. Putting it on my list of good things coming out of the pandemic.

 

*

 

It Wasn’t Supposed to Be This

by Marc Rosen

 

Maybe this.

Or the other thing.

Or some damn thing, like a hangnail or a stubbed toe.

Maybe a cold or a stolen car or even getting held up at gunpoint and losing all my credit cards.

Could’ve been the house afire or the dog got sick on the rug. Then rolled in it after he shat himself.

 

But it wasn’t supposed to be this.

The thick fog of worry.

The horizon blurry and moving away from me.

Where hysteria makes sense and the mad king reigns over chaos.

 

It was supposed to have been my grandmother’s soup tureen slipping from my wet hands after a disastrous dinner party where best friends became sworn enemies.

A tear on the lapel of my one and only bespoke suit, a tear right next to the hole the cigar had made.

All things equal, it was supposed to be a shadow on the x-ray, an anxious wait for results, a dark relief brought on by benign results.

Not this.

 

Not one long night where the dark hides every menace we know.

Not the wary looks from those who never noticed us.

Not the suspicious eye I cast on some stranger I might have otherwise ignored.

It shouldn’t be the tickle of worry about everything and everyone.

Nor should it be so damned quiet—motors silenced, no buzz saws or grumpy workmen, no neighbors shaking hands, leaning in, happy to see each other.

The post-mortem and every encounter a pre-mortem inventory of who’s next.

The maps, the counts, the graphs, the lies, the firehose I’m drinking from with the four-way streams.

It shouldn’t be like this, seeing our loved ones, our liked ones, our livelihoods on screens, staring into an ether one foot away and ten states away.

One should not ache like this to want to touch the doorman’s shoulder to say “thanks guy” or to be ignored by a surly, sneering waitress.

 

No, what it should’ve been is losing my favorite money clip, thick with bills and never finding it.

I really wish it had been two flat tires and 5% battery left and my AAA card stolen by the guy in the fourth line.

That’s what it really should’ve been, it should’ve been just like that.

Just like hot coffee on my keyboard and my front door splintering in half for no god damn reason.

 

This soup is lukewarm, unpalatable, the broth thin and watery.

It tastes like worry and helplessness and impotence and rage.

Bitter, bland and banal.

Not like the thick, rich stew we served in my grandmother’s antique tureen, with the chunks and morsels so memorable that we’ll never forget how good it tasted to lose the tureen and our friends all in one night.

 

 

 

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poem is on yellow post

 

Cameo Appearance

by Charles Simic

 

I had a small, nonspeaking part

In a bloody epic. I was one of the

Bombed and fleeing humanity.

In the distance our great leader

Crowed like a rooster from a balcony,

Or was it a great actor

Impersonating our great leader?

 

That’s me there, I said to the kiddies.

I’m squeezed between the man

With two bandaged hands raised

And the old woman with her mouth open

As if she were showing us a tooth

 

That hurts badly. The hundred times

I rewound the tape, not once

Could they catch sight of me

In that huge gray crowd,

That was like any other gray crowd.

 

Trot off to bed, I said finally.

I know I was there. One take

Is all they had time for.

We ran, and the planes grazed our hair,

And then they were no more

As we stood dazed in the burning city,

But, of course, they didn’t film that.

 

 

Who better for tough times than someone who’s lived through worse?

 

I’m always drawn to Eastern European writers when I need perspective—the Poles, the Russians, the Slavs, and in Simic’s case, the Yugoslavians. Their grim, seen-it-all, deadpan humor sees your pandemic and raises it to mass starvation and genocide with a side of slapstick.

 

 

Perspective is at the heart of Simic’s “Cameo Appearance.” How do we see events while we live through them? How do children experience horror? When we look back years later at documentation of terrible times, what do we feel? Some little bit of perverse pride?

 

The poem is broadcast (so to speak) simultaneously in two time periods. One, on the day planes bombed the crowd. The other, years later and thousands of miles away, on an evening watching the event on television as if it were entertainment. The speaker’s children, (the kiddies, he calls them, a silly word which heightens the strangeness of watching slaughter) can’t see what he wants them to see. There I am! That’s how it was! Even the old woman, her mouth open in great distress or rage, looks silly, like she’s showing a bad tooth to the dentist.

 

 

It’s only after the speaker gives up and sends the kids to bed that the present and past come together. The language of the poem shifts from conversational to narrative, straightforward and hard—

 

We ran, and the planes grazed our hair,

And then they were no more

As we stood dazed in the burning city

 

 

The poet’s job, we see, is indispensible to history. From the distance of time, even photographic evidence can mask reality and leave the past open to multiple interpretations. It is story that brings the past alive, story that illustrates the horror and annotates the humor.

 

 

Some day, a better day I hope, this pandemic will slip into story. The loss, pain and sacrifice will sit beyond the kiddies’ grasp until the poet of our age comes forward.

 

[I’ve by no means exhausted this poem. I look forward to your own response to it.]

 

 

Here’s Simic on perspective from a 2005 Paris Review interview:

 

There’s a story they used to tell in my family. The war ended the day before May 9, 1945, which happened to be my birthday. I was playing in the street. Anyway, I went up to the apartment to get a drink of water where my mother and our neighbors were listening to the radio. They said, “War is over,” and apparently I looked at them puzzled and said, “Now there won’t be any more fun!” In wartime, there’s no parental supervision; the grown-ups are so busy with their lives, the kids can run free. A few years ago I reviewed two huge books of photographs of the war in Bosnia. Every face looked unhappy, except for some kids in Sarajevo who were smiling as if saying: Isn’t this great, isn’t this terrific! When I saw those faces, I thought, That’s me and my friends

 

 

And from the same interview:

 

One of the distinct advantages of growing up in [Yugoslavia,] where one is apt to find men hung from lampposts as one walks to school, is that it cuts down on grumbling about life as one grows older.

 

 

Note:  I’ll be featuring Simic till I run out of poems I’ve got on file. Think of him as your nightly bitter tonic to settle the stomach.

 

 

Here’s a bio from a previous post:

 

Charles Simic was born in Yugoslavia in 1938.  During WWII, his family was evacuated from place to place to escape bombing.  “My travel agents were Hitler and Stalin,” he jokes.  His father left to find work in Italy and was imprisoned instead.  After the war Simic and his mother and brother were briefly imprisoned by Communist authorities.  Eventually they were able to leave Yugoslavia for Paris, then New York, where the family was reunited with Simic’s father after ten years. Simic took night classes in Chicago and then moved to New York where he worked a number of odd jobs.  He served in the army in the early sixties, and arriving back in New York, earned a degree from New York University.

 

Simic has taught at the University of New Hampshire for nearly forty years.  He was named the Poet Laureate of the United States in 2007, won the Pulitzer Prize, and received a MacArthur Genius Grant, and remains one of our most popular American poets with readers and critics alike.  Quite a feat for a poet who didn’t speak English till he was fifteen.

 

 

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Leftovers

Like the shopworn self-satisfied serial killer of detective shows, I return to the scene of the crime any time I post a poem. Usually the poems have disappeared from where I left them. Once in a while they hang around for a few weeks, and sometimes they find new hiding spots, as if they are protecting themselves from a culling.

 

A few days ago I taped “When the Giving is All We Have” to an albizia tree. I figured it would blow away into the dried-up fish farm nearby. Instead it made its way to a hidey-hole of tree roots.

Close-up:

Hope someone finds it before the ink fades.

 

A second poem has also survived. Three weeks ago (three weeks!) I taped an excerpt from “A Married State” to a fence. It fell to the ground, lost body parts, but is still recognizable. Hang in there, poem! Don’t give up.

 

Happy Easter, Happy Passover to all!

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