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Archive for July, 2020

For the second installment of the bedtime series, Wayne Dodd’s “Of Rain and Air.” I left it on an evergreen tree bordering an RV park.

 

 

Of Rain and Air

by Wayne Dodd

 

All day I have been closed up

inside rooms, speaking of trivial

matters. Now at last I have come out

into the night, myself a center

 

of darkness.

Beneath the clouds the low sky glows

with scattered lights. I can hardly think

this is happening. Here in this bright absence

 

of day, I feel myself opening out

with contentment.

All around me the soft rain is whispering

of thousands of feet of air

 

invisible above us.

 

 

It’s a common phenomenon that when you’re pregnant or wanting to get pregnant, suddenly you see pregnant women everywhere. That same selective attention carries over to covid-19 and poetry. Suddenly every poem seems to be a pandemic poem, a reflection on quarantine, anxiety, isolation, longing, loss. Like so—

 

All day I have been closed up

inside rooms

 

The closing emotion of the poem, too, might belong to the pandemic, to those moments when the slowing and reduction of regular life brings peace instead of panic—

 

I can hardly think

this is happening. Here in this bright absence

 

of day, I feel myself opening out

with contentment.

 

I’ve had many such moments the past few months, and I hope you have too, but then again I haven’t experienced the virus itself, the loss of loved ones from the virus, severe isolation, job loss, home loss, being quarantined with an unstable or abusive person, exhaustion and stress from full-time childcare.

 

Well, take what you can from the poem. In classic woe-is-me conditions—darkness, rain, aloneness—the speaker feels happy. Standing in the elements enlarges his soul. His connection to the natural world is just so beautifully expressed, it bears re-reading, and more re-reading, and then reflecting upon as you lay your head on your pillow tonight:

 

All around me the soft rain is whispering

of thousands of feet of air

 

invisible above us.

 

*

 

Poet, essayist and novelist Wayne Dodd was born in Oklahoma in 1930. He taught at University of Colorado and Ohio University where he served for many years as editor of the Ohio Review. He’s published eleven books of poetry.

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Bed in Summer

by Robert Louis Stevenson

 

In winter I get up at night

And dress by yellow candle-light.

In summer, quite the other way,

I have to go to bed by day.

 

I have to go to bed and see

The birds still hopping on the tree,

Or hear the grown-up people’s feet

Still going past me in the street.

 

And does it not seem hard to you,

When all the sky is clear and blue,

And I should like so much to play,

To have to go to bed by day?

 

 

And now for something completely different:  a short series of bedtime poems. Robert Louis Stevenson kicks us off with this sweet little complaint about going to bed when you don’t want to.

 

As a young mother, I was a strict about bedtime. By 7:30 everyone was tucked in with lights out and doors closed so I could get the break I needed. In July when we vacationed in northern Michigan I had to relax my schedule because up here in high summer it stays light at least until nine and it’s not fully dark till ten-thirty or eleven.

 

Still, I made the kiddos go to bed long before the stars came out. That was always a battle. To settle down the restless brood of bed-averse children (my four and their three cousins), my husband told stories he made up on the spot. The stories always had the same cast of characters—Jelly Bean and Winston, their friend Gloria, their enemies the Sea Witch, the Cave Witch and meanest of all, the Doodledoo. Night after night he told these stories. Year after year. When he ran out of ideas, he’d ask, “What do you think happened next?” And the kids would move the plot forward, as kids do.

 

One of my daughters has made northern Michigan her home, and so I left the poem on her bed as a reminder of those sweet moments. For any parents reading this, “Bed in Summer” is a wonderful poem to read to your kids at night. They’ll appreciate the sympathy for their plight and perhaps with a little encouragement might memorize it as a summer project!

 

*

 

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was born in Edinburgh, an only child in a family of lighthouse engineers. From childhood on he suffered from lung problems  and was often bedridden, a biographical detail that adds a poignant note to “Bed in Summer.” Helicopter parents, take heart:  this most prolific novelist and poet, the twenty-fifth most translated writer of all time, didn’t start reading until age seven.

 

He enrolled at University of Edinburgh to study engineering and continue in the family business, but spent his time in brothels and smoking hashish. He switched to law and earned his degree but never practiced, deciding to devote his energies to writing instead. He was a lifelong traveller, roaming by donkey, canoe, and ship all over the world despite frequently becoming ill to the point of death.

 

While in France at an artists’ colony, he fell in love with a married woman eleven years his senior. Later he secretly travelled to the United States to reunite with her. The voyage nearly killed him. They married after she divorced, and travelled together with her children and his widowed mother through the Pacific, eventually settling in Samoa, where he died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at age forty-four.

 

His most famous works are the adventure novels Kidnapped, Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Master of Ballantrae, and the children’s anthology of poetry, The Child’s Garden of Verses.

 

Wildly popular in his time, Stevenson has fallen in and out of favor through the years. These days he’s found his way back into anthologies. I love this anecdote from film critic Roger Ebert (courtesy of Wikipedia):

 

I was talking to a friend the other day who said he’d never met a child who liked reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

 

Neither have I, I said. And he’d never met a child who liked reading Stevenson’s Kidnapped. Me neither, I said. My early exposure to both books was via the Classics Illustrated comic books. But I did read the books later, when I was no longer a kid, and I enjoyed them enormously. Same goes for Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

 

The fact is, Stevenson is a splendid writer of stories for adults, and he should be put on the same shelf with Joseph Conrad and Jack London instead of in between Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan.

 

 

 

 

 

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Touch Me

by Stanley Kunitz

 

Summer is late, my heart.

Words plucked out of the air

some forty years ago

when I was wild with love

 

and torn almost in two

scatter like leaves this night

of whistling wind and rain.

It is my heart that’s late,

it is my song that’s flown.

Outdoors all afternoon

under a gunmetal sky

staking my garden down,

I kneeled to the crickets trilling

underfoot as if about

to burst from their crusty shells;

and like a child again

marveled to hear so clear

and brave a music pour

from such a small machine.

What makes the engine go?

Desire, desire, desire.

The longing for the dance

stirs in the buried life.

One season only,

and it’s done.

 

So let the battered old willow

thrash against the windowpanes

and the house timbers creak.

Darling, do you remember

the man you married? Touch me,

remind me who I am.

 

 

I’m going to try to write a post about a poem called “Touch Me” without mentioning our long months of physical distancing and bumping elbows to say hello and pantomiming hugs to say goodbye; without mentioning how we are all old people now, isolated and longing to be touched; without mentioning the parallels between the forty years since the poet spoke his words of love (“Summer is late, my heart”) and the biblical forty years of wandering in the desert which is how long it feels some days being separated from people we love because of the coronavirus.

 

Instead I’m going back thirty-three years, to my wedding day. The summer I got married cicadas came out of a seventeen-year hibernation to sing, mate, lay eggs and die, all in a few short weeks. They covered lawns and sidewalks with their toe-sized shells and filled the air with their shrieks and unexpected dive-bombings. Outdoors you had to shout to be heard and watch your step lest you crunch one underfoot. I didn’t know if the cicada swarm was a good omen—they live to love!—or bad—life is brutally short, you’ll just have babies and die!— or as Kunitz puts it

 

The longing for the dance

stirs in the buried life.

One season only,

and it’s done.

 

But it didn’t matter. Something was happening. Something elemental and big. As it happens, the day of our wedding was brutally hot and marked by an epic thunderstorm, so between the downpour of rain and locusts, my sense of—what was it?—wildness? freedom? possibility?—let’s call it my animal sense—was stronger than the stifling strictures of wedding traditions.

 

This poem brings back that feeling with force. Being in nature, particularly before a storm, the animal parts wake up. Notice the speaker in the poem is feeling the old zing-a-ding-ding after being in the garden. Not after sitting at his computer watching old-people porn or noticing a beautiful young girl in her thong at the beach or swiping through Instagram pictures of hybrid beings with duck lips and hair extensions. He’s on his knees, digging earth. Crickets are whirring, the dark clouds forecast the heavy rain that will come later as he lies in bed with his wife.

 

If you didn’t notice just how sexy this poem is, listen to the poet read it. Yes, he is a very old man. Doesn’t matter. As he reads, the thrashing willow branches turn into thrashing bodies and the creaking house timbers signal a creaking mattress or maybe even creaking joints, given his age.

 

 

 

*

 

Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) had a tough start in his very long life. Weeks before he was born, his father, a bankrupt dressmaker, committed suicide by drinking carbolic acid in a public park. Kunitz had two older sisters and a mother who worked, unusual for the time, as a dress designer and manufacturer. His mother remarried, and Kunitz’s stepdad too, came to an unfortunate end. After declaring bankruptcy and learning he was being investigated for concealing assets in his dry goods store, he had a heart attack while hanging curtains. Kunitz was fourteen.

 

Kunitz moved out of the house the next year, worked for a butcher, then for a newspaper, saving money to go to Harvard. He graduated with highest honors in English and philosophy, and went on to get a masters degree. He was foiled in his attempt to get a PhD by an administrator who old him that no one at Harvard wanted to be taught by a Jew. His “revenge” was becoming, later in life, a beloved teacher and mentor who influenced a generation of poets, including James Wright and Louise Gluck.

 

After completing his education, he worked as a reporter and editor. During World War II he registered as a conscientious objector (he was denied) and sent to serve as a noncombatant at a base in Washington in charge of information and education.

 

Kunitz taught at many colleges, including Bennington, Vassar, New School, Yale, Princeton, SUNY, eventually teaching writing for eighteen years at Columbia.

 

He married three times and had a daughter with wife number two. His third wife, to whom “Touch Me” was written, was artist Elise Asher. Theirs was a long marriage. They split their time between New York and Provincetown, where he was famous for his garden.

 

Kunitz published more than twenty books of poetry, received the Pulitzer Prize and became U.S poet laureate for the second time at age 95.

 

 

 

 

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Today’s the last of the guest postings on Poem Elf.  I’m not going to throw shade on all the other posters by suggesting I’ve saved the best for last—each entry has been a wonder to me—but I am mighty pleased to end this collaboration with a poem perfectly suited to these pandemic days and posted in the same spirit of delight that I still feel, ten years on, every time I poem-elf.

 

Brooklyn editor and screenwriter Molly Virostek posted not one but four (clearly she loves this poem and you will too) copies of Mary Ruefle’s “Some Nondescript Autumn Weekend.” I don’t often cry reading a poem but this poem brought up a lot of buried emotion and yikes here I go again.

 

Before I hand the space over to Molly, let me thank all the assistant elves. You introduced me to poems I’d never read and locations I’ve never visited. Whether you offered an extensive commentary or just a line or two, your matching of poems with places was insightful, fun, and (to me) deeply moving. I’ve loved sharing this enterprise with you. If I know you, I love you, and if I don’t know you, I’m sure I would.

 

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Some Nondescript Autumn Weekend

by Mary Ruefle

 

Remove everything beautiful from your home, remove everything you like, love, cherish, or are fond of. Remember to include pets and people. Remove everything which reminds you of these things in any way. Remove everything which brings you happiness or a feeling of peace. Remove everything which reminds you of your life.

 

Leave everything which you feel is ugly, disgusting, broken or painful. Leave everything that makes you uncomfortable when you look at it or use it. If necessary, add to these things by bringing more of them from the outside in. Make sure your home is as full as it once was and be certain everything is crummy and repulsive. Live in this space, among these things you cannot bear, for sixty days.

 

Empty the space completely. Leave nothing in it. Clean it thoroughly and wash the windows. Sleep on the floor, or on a clean thin mattress the exact dimensions of your own body. Live in this space for sixty days, during which your primary activity, when you are home, is to stare at the ceiling.

 

Bring the beautiful things back in, bring your beloved belongings, your most cherished possessions, back into the space and place them in their original positions. Make sure everything is as it was before. Live as you once did; if this is not possible, live twice.

 

 

The poem I chose is “Some Nondescript Autumn Weekend” by Mary Ruefle. I came across this poem about a year ago. Pre-quarantine, I just liked the poem and vaguely understood what it was saying about resilience and renewal and rebirth. Over the next year, I ended up sending it to dozens of friends going through different life transitions—breakups, job changes, moving cities, losing family members, just generally feeling lost. It always said what I didn’t have the words for—and that was before the pandemic. It’s all the more resonant now. I’m not sure what phase I’m in currently, but it’s nice to know where we are all headed:  living again, or even better, living twice.

 

I posted a few copies of the poem around Williamsburg, Brooklyn—on my neighborhood subway stop (for the incredible healthcare workers who are bravely heading to work each day and keeping NYC going) and in the park (for all the rest of us who are working through all the phases the poem describes, even though sometimes it feels they are playing out of order). It was fun to watch people watch me post it, wait for me to get far enough away, and then swarm to read. I hope it gave them a smile on this sunny Saturday.

 

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