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Archive for May, 2020

Post Memorial Day weekend, post family barbeques, post trips to the boardwalk and camping ground, post online shopping for holiday sales—post fun, in other words— let’s ruminate on loss. It’s what we were supposed to be doing anyway.

 

Yep, there goes my inner Debbie Downer. She rears her gray head often these pandemic times.

 

Fortunately for you, today’s guest poem elf, Patti Russo of Indiana, is the opposite of Debbie Downer (whoever that may be—Bettie Buoyant? Cherrie Cheerful?) even as she takes up a difficult subject. Patti has paired two poems to consider loss and life after loss, and writes with an empathy and perspective that really does bring light to the darkness. Thanks, Patti!

 

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Thanks so much for allowing me the privilege of being an honorary Assistant to the Regional Poem Elf “on location” here in beautiful Bloomington, IN! I chose these two poems, which I clipped from our Sunday paper months ago. I’ve had them taped to our kitchen cupboards ever since! I love them both for so many reasons.

 

 

 

The Thing Is

by Ellen Bass

 

to love life, to love it even

when you have no stomach for it

and everything you’ve held dear

crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,

your throat filled with the silt of it.

When grief sits with you, its tropical heat

thickening the air, heavy as water

more fit for gills than lungs;

when grief weights you down like your own flesh

only more of it, an obesity of grief,

you think, How can a body withstand this?

Then you hold life like a face

between your palms, a plain face,

no charming smile, no violet eyes,

and you say, yes, I will take you

I will love you, again.

 

 

This poem talks about learning to love life again after a tremendous loss. . . and in this case, death. By now, most of us have likely experienced a significant death/loss in our lives. . . I know I have. After losing my Dad, then a few years later, my older sister, it was, for a time, difficult to remember that I could still allow myself to love life even in the midst of my sorrow.

 

Sadly, I’ve also witnessed several dear friends who have experienced the MOST unimaginable loss: the loss of their child. I have watched as each moved through the grieving process into his/her eventual healing. . . it is long, painful & arduous journey. It is a beautiful thing to witness someone who has lost SO deeply, and yet has the courage and grace to learn to love the world again. . . only differently now, as a person who will never again feel completely whole. I am both in awe of and humbled by their willingness to take a chance on love and life again. . . to “hold life like a face between your palms. . . and say, yes, I will take you. I will love you, again.”

 

I placed this poem on a soon-to-bloom peony bush just inside the entrance to Rose Hill cemetery. . . just a few blocks from our home.

 

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Origami

by Joyce Sutphen

 

It starts

with a blank sheet,

an undanced floor,

 

air where no sound

erases the silence.

As soon as

 

you play the first note,

write down a word,

step onto the empty stage,

 

you’ve moved closer

to the creature inside.

Remember—

 

a square

can end up as frog, cardinal,

mantis, or fish.

 

You can make

what you want,

do what you wish.

 

This poem speaks so beautifully to the possibilities before each of us despite the challenges life thrusts before us. . . yes, even a pandemic. I love the notion that each of us is “a blank sheet, an undanced floor, air where no sound erases the silence” and it is up to us to “make what you want, do what you wish” in order to come closer “to the creature inside.” We are a blank slate, a flat, shapeless piece of paper that we need to fold into being. It is empowering to know that each of us has the capacity to “will” ourselves into becoming the person we were meant to be.

 

I placed this poem, along with an origami paper crane, in a beautiful planter of pansies just inside Sample Gates, the official entrance to Indiana University. Coincidentally, clusters of Indiana University graduates, in full cap & gown, bursting with promise & possibility, were taking photos with family & friends when I arrived.

 

Just one addendum to “Origami”: I meant to note that those graduates did not march across the stage to receive their diplomas. . . there was no fanfare, pomp or circumstance. Like everything else in the age of COVID19, milestones big and small are diminished to a rather anti-climactic virtual tribute. Still, there they were. . . laughing, celebrating, pondering the possibilities for their lives. . . possibilities which remain limitless even in the face a global pandemic.

 

 

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All the way from Prague, my youngest daughter Anne Marie spreads the Poem Elf spirit. As you can see, she loves her adopted city; as you can’t see and wouldn’t know, she also loves the word “romantic.” (See her commentary.) We have a running family joke about an awkward card she gave me as years ago in which she wrote about our “fun romantic times together.” (She thought romantic referred to affection and snuggling.) Her understanding of the word has since righted itself, but her chosen street and poem remind me of her open heart, how much I miss her, away now for so long.

Anne Marie notes that František Halas is a Czech poet from a working class family (1901-1949). Short life. I hope he got the love he dreamed of.

 

Confession
by František Halas

Touched by all that love is
I draw closer toward you
Saddened by all that love is
I run from you

Surprised by all that love is
I remain alert in stillness
Hurt by all that love is
I yearn for tenderness

Defeated by all that love is
at the truthful mouth of the night
Forsaken by all that love is
I will grow toward you.

 

 

This is one of my favorite streets in Prague—it’s romantic and exciting and I can’t wait to show it to everyone I love at some point in my life. I always see couples sitting here, so I picked a love poem by a Czech poet. I can’t choose which line grabs me the most because it all rings true in a simple, retrospective way. “Surprised by all that love is I remain alert in stillness” is where I stand now, wondering who it is I’ll bring here.

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It’s graduation day here at Poem Elf! Our guest poster, Chicago writer and editor Bridget Gamble, chose Dean Young’s “Commencement” to celebrate.

 

Unlike Bridget, I am not a lover of graduation speeches, having sat through more than my fair share of follow-your-dreams and follow-this-bit-of-whimsical-advice exhortations.

 

But I do share her heartbreak for the millions of graduates denied ceremonies this year. Thanks, Bridget, for a timely reminder.

 

[NOTE:  If you enjoy Bridget’s writing as much as I do, you can subscribe to her weekly newsletter whelmed at www.bridgetgamble.com.]

 

And now to the podium, Ms. Gamble  . . .

 

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Commencement

by Dean Young

 

I love you for shattering.

Someone has to. Just as someone

has to announce inadvertently

the end of grief or spring’s

splurge even as the bureaucracy’s

spittoon overflows. Someone has to come out

the other end of the labyrinth

saying, What’s the big deal?

Someone has to spend all day staring

at the data from outer space

or separating the receipts

or changing sheets in sour room after room.

I like it when the end of the toilet paper

is folded into a point.

I like napkins folded into swans

because I like wiping my mouth on swans.

Matriculates, come back from the dance floor

to sip at the lacrimal glands of chaos,

a god could be forgiven

for eating you, you’ve been such angels

just not very good ones.

You’ve put your tongue

into the peanut canister

of your best friend’s girlfriend’s mom.

You’ve taken a brown bag lunch

on which was writ another’s name.

All night it snows a blue snow

like the crystallized confessions

you’ve wrung from phantoms

even though it is you wearing the filched necklace,

your rages splitting the concrete like dandelions.

All that destruction from a ball of fluff!

There’s nothing left but hope.

 

 

I’ve been thinking about all the graduation ceremonies that won’t be happening this spring, and all the speeches that will never be. I may be in the minority, but I really love commencement speeches. I get goose bumps just reading them online. When my poetry professor in college, Danny Khalastchi, read this Dean Young poem to my class at the end of the spring semester during my junior year, it felt just as special to me as an actual commencement address. The opening line doesn’t seem to belong in a poem; it’s too risky, too cliché. But Dean gets away with it when he makes you laugh with lines about toilet paper and peanut canisters and not very good angels. Then suddenly, that last line—another one that only Dean Young can make feel fresh—knocks the wind out of you completely, just like you’d hope a commencement speech would.

 

Because I live near DePaul’s campus, I thought that was a good home for this poem. On a socially distant walk with my friend Casey, one of my best friends from college, we passed a stoplight that has an “I Closed Wolski’s” sticker on it. Wolski’s is a Milwaukee bar that we fell in love with (and managed to close once or twice) as college kids. So Dean’s poem belonged there, I knew. My wish is that someone experiencing grief in this pandemic—about a canceled graduation, or about anything—stumbles on it when they’re waiting for the walk signal, and feels some hope. Someone has to, right?

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A young man. . . springtime. . . Rilke. . . . . doesn’t that sound hopeful, Romantic, free? Can you remember that time in your own life? That feeling of life-is-just-beginning and anything-can-happen? Can you remember, in the days before young people were cooped up and stalled out in their apartments, the joy of seeing someone busting with that energy?

 

Today’s guest poster, Pat Duggan of Pittsburgh, brings that moment to the forefront. Duggan posted an excerpt from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Go to the Limits of Your Longing.” I’ll post the poem in its entirety below the pictures.

 

Thanks, Pat! (And I really like the poemelf.com you put at the bottom of the paper. . . )

 

 

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going. No feeling is final.

 

 

Go to the Limits of Your Longing

by Rainer Maria Rilke

 

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,

then walks with us silently out of the night.

 

These are the words we dimly hear:

 

You, sent out beyond your recall,

go to the limits of your longing.

Embody me.

 

Flare up like a flame

and make big shadows I can move in.

 

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going. No feeling is final.

Don’t let yourself lose me.

 

Nearby is the country they call life.

You will know it by its seriousness.

 

Give me your hand.

 

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I’ve been posting submissions in the order in which I received them, which led to the mistiming of today’s entry of Billy Collins’ tribute to his mother, “The Lanyard.” Should have been last week, before Mother’s Day. That said, (said the mother), Hallmark doesn’t have a monopoly on appropriate days to thank one’s mother.

 

Today’s poem and picture are from Lizzie, my daughter, a nurse in northern Michigan. She noted that the first stanza sounds like a re-cap of daily life under shelter-at-home orders. Indeed it does!

 

Thanks, Lizzie, the floor is yours—

 

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I put the poem in the aisle where the toilet paper should be, across from the mother/baby aisle. Hoped it would get more traffic there. I felt very protective of it and lingered for a little too long, not wanting the poem to get taken down before it made some meaning for someone!

 

I like the poem because it captures the absurdity and difficulty of thanking a mother for mothering, and makes me think how beautiful and pure is a mother’s love, a love that does not ask to be repaid.

 

 

The Lanyard

by Billy Collins

 

The other day I was ricocheting slowly

off the blue walls of this room,

moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,

from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,

when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary

where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

 

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist

could send one into the past more suddenly—

a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp

by a deep Adirondack lake

learning how to braid long thin plastic strips

into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

 

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard

or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,

but that did not keep me from crossing

strand over strand again and again

until I had made a boxy

red and white lanyard for my mother.

 

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,

and I gave her a lanyard.

She nursed me in many a sick room,

lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,

laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,

and then led me out into the airy light

 

and taught me to walk and swim,

and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.

Here are thousands of meals, she said,

and here is clothing and a good education.

And here is your lanyard, I replied,

which I made with a little help from a counselor.

 

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,

strong legs, bones and teeth,

and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,

and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.

And here, I wish to say to her now,

is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

 

that you can never repay your mother,

but the rueful admission that when she took

the two-tone lanyard from my hand,

I was as sure as a boy could be

that this useless, worthless thing I wove

out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

 

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Today, a treat. Tom McGrath, longtime Chicago editor, writer, and spiritual director, donned the Poem Elf hat and set to work on a Rumi poem, “Has Anyone Seen the Boy?” The poem, his reflections on the poem, the poem placement, his reasons for the placement—it’s all great and worth the few minutes it will take you to read it because it will stay with you all week. What’s especially wonderful for readers of Poem Elf is the male perspective. That’s something I just can’t offer. Many thanks to Tom for sharing his musings and wisdom.

 

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HAS ANYONE SEEN THE BOY?

 

Has anyone seen the boy who used to come here?

Round-faced troublemaker, quick to find a joke,

slow to be serious, red shirt

perfect coordination, sly, strong muscled,

with things always in his pockets, reed flute,

worn pick, polished and ready for his talent,

you know that one.

Have you heard stories about him?

Pharoah and the whole Egyptian world

collapsed for such a Joseph.

I would gladly spend years getting word

of him, even third or fourth hand.

 —RUMI 

                                                (version by Coleman Barks and John Moyne)

 

 

Missing? by Tom McGrath, Assistant to the Poem Elf

 

Rumi is a trickster who packs a playful punch in every poem, always to a serious end. I usually discover something of value in his work, yet I am also aware there are vast horizons of meaning I only see as if “through a glass darkly.” I can’t say “Has Anyone Seen The Boy?” is my favorite Rumi poem, but it’s the one that comes to mind most often, especially when I see bitter, beaten-down men with only the light of anger in their eyes. I believe Rumi was urging men, especially, to seek the youthful lad they were, in all his pure potential, because his value to them is far beyond gold.

 

I first discovered this poem around the time my father was between bouts with cancer. A long-lost friend of his from high school called him one day from out of the blue. “I’ve been thinking of you, Pat,” said Don. And that began a weekly long conversation in which the two would reminisce about what they called their “glory days,” when Dad was a basketball hero and Don was the team manager and a budding entrepreneur who went on to a number of big jobs with professional basketball teams. I’d hear Dad laughing and was so grateful for how these conversations brought him back to life again—full of energy, radiance, and joy. I was reminded of the words of my friend Sr. Kathy Bertrand, SSND, who would advise fellow nuns who felt they’d lost their vocation to “remember the dreams of your younger years.” Kathy knew that drinking deeply from the wellspring of memory could re-ignite their passion for life—their own precious and wonderful life—and lead them not backward, but onward to a better future to which their heart was calling them.

 

For his birthday that year, I took my father on a day trip to visit his friend Don up in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. They let me sit in on their lively lunch conversation that went on for hours. On the way home, Dad told me, “That was the best day of my life!” I knew there were many best days in my father’s life, some far better even than that visit. But I knew what he meant. He’d not just paid a visit to Don, but also to the boy who had such dreams and who now could realize so many had come true. That night I mailed Dad and Don a copy of this poem. Neither man mentioned a thing to me about it and I’m sure they wondered “Who is this Rumi fella and why did Tom give me this?” But it was the best to express the joyful mystery I had witnessed that day.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

I chose to tape this to the brick wall of our parish gym where, decades ago, a group of young boys played “fast pitch” just about every day each summer. The game was ideal for urban kids. It could accommodate from three to a dozen or more players. Equipment needs were simple: a 9” rubber ball, a bat, and enough baseball mitts for half the players. Sometimes one of the dads would come join the fun and quell the endless arguments over fair or foul, ball or strike, but otherwise the boys were on their own.

When I was working in my back yard I could hear the sound of the ball smashing against the wall and knew a game had started. In time I could even tell when a batter had connected with the pitch and if it was a ground ball only good for a single, a screaming line-drive double, or a homerun wallop that travelled clear across the church parking lot to hit the side of the school building.

 

Then one summer they were gone. The outline of the strike zone remains all these years later, and, sentimental romantic that I am, I keep hope some summer I will hear the sound of the ball slapping against the brick wall again, only to find one of the original players has brought his kids to visit the field of memory their dad has told them so much about. Don’t lose sight of the boy!

 

 

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Today’s elf assistants are dear to my heart—my grand niece Lucy, aged 12, and my grand nephew Gus, aged 10. You’ll have to take my word for it that these are two funny, charming, sweet-hearted kids, but you can see for yourselves, from their selections and the very fact that they took up this challenge, that they are grand in every sense.

 

Thanks to Lucy for choosing an Emily Dickinson poem. I often avoid Dickinson because I think she’s difficult to understand. Lucy made me remember how I used to love Dickinson, before I got intimidated by her, for her thrilling descriptions of nature. . . the lightning skipped like mice. . . Great job, Lucy!

 

 

Respite

by Emily Dickinson

 

The clouds their backs together laid,

The north begun to push,

The forests galloped till they fell,

The lightning skipped like mice ;

The thunder crumbled like a stuff—

How good to be safe in tombs,

Where nature’s temper cannont reach,

Nor vengeance ever come !

 

Hi! My name is Lucy and here I have attached my poem picture! I choose a poem by Emily Dickinson and it is about her describing a storm. Since it was sunny outside I tried to find a place to put it that it was in the shade, so that it looked like a storm was coming. I choose this poem because I have read it before and then when I saw that I could take a picture for this little challenge I had a great photo idea. I think that this was such a cool idea, so thank you!

—Lucy

 

[If you are wondering why my young relative felt it necessary to introduce herself to me. . . cute story from my niece, her mother:

So I had to laugh. Lucy had me read her very formal email before she sent it and I said “Lucy, you know who Poem Elf is, right? It’s Aunt Maggie.” and she thought I was kidding😉 took a lot to convince to her! ]

 

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Gus may have chosen the perfect coronavirus poem. Don’t sneeze indeed! And a very clever placement. Way to go, Gus!

 

 

The Acrobats

by Shel Silverstein

 

I’ll swing

By my ankles,

She’ll cling

To your knees

As you hang

By your nose

From a high-up

Trapeze.

Just one thing, please,

As we float through the breeze—

Don’t sneeze.

 

I put the poem on the monkey bars. I chose it because it was funny, and I chose to put it on the monkey bars because it is about acrobats.   —Gus

 

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NOTE:  Still accepting submissions for my 10-year collaboration project. Send your pictures to thepoemelf@gmail.com.

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