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Archive for November, 2020

Thanksgiving is a good and necessary holiday but perhaps more so in times of want than of plenty. What is wanting this Thanksgiving 2020? We want to be together. We want our families, our friends. Most Thanksgiving celebrations are pared down this year with families separated by virus or politics, some permanently so, thanks to death on the one end and crazed partisanship on the other. So many want jobs, income, financial stability. So many want justice. So many want love. So many want what they had just nine months ago, however bad that was. The “wanting” list is endless; the plenty-side may seem shorter, anemic.

 

Thanksgiving is here to say, no, it isn’t. Good-and-plenty surrounds us. Bulking up the plenty list is a matter of observation, one that poets and priests (I included one) can help us with.

 

Let’s begin this annual Thanksgiving poem-blitz with the very Queen of Observation, Mary Oliver. I left “The Real Prayers Are Not the Words, but the Attention that Comes First” on the back of a park bench by a small pond.

 

 

Oliver watches the hawk like a hawk. To make such observations, she must sit still and quiet. And in sitting still and quiet, connection becomes possible. Wonder is possible. In moments of keen attention, the separate elements that make up the poem—the hunter, the prey, the wind, the grass, her mind that “sang out oh all that loose, blue rink of sky, where does it go to, and why?”—are all as one.

For an easier-to-read version of the poem, link here. (Unlike the Poetry Foundation version in the link, Oliver does not use line breaks in her published version, the one I used.)

 

 

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I left Czeslaw Milosz’s “My-Ness” on a river walk in Detroit. You can see Canada across the water, so close and yet unreachable in these COVID times.

 

poem is on the rail in foreground

 

There’s an interesting play between the “my” and the “our” in the poem. Milosz’s sense of himself as an individual and himself as part of a human family coexist, inseparable:

And feel such sweetness, being here on earth,

One more moment, together here on earth,

To celebrate our little my-ness.

 

 

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Joy Harjo’s “Perhaps the Worlds Ends Here” is an ode to the lowly kitchen table. I left the poem on an outdoor dining table in a popular, but now empty, restaurant in Detroit.

poem is on top of small table

 

I share Harjo’s appreciation for the kitchen table. Fantastic how she elevates that humble piece of furniture, so often the realm of women,  into a history-making force, and therefore worthy of our attention.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Link here for an online version.

 

 

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Next up are two linked poems, one for children, one about children. I left both in an upscale grocery store.

 

The first is Thanksgiving Magic” by Rowena Bastin Bennett. I set it in front of some multi-colored cookies that I imagine only children would like. I hope a shopper pockets it for the little ones at home.

 

Let’s remember the magic-makers, our Thanksgiving cooks!

She takes leftover bread and muffin

And changes them to turkey stuffin’.

 

 

 

On the flip side of all that delicious gingerbread, stews, stuffings and pies is the empty table. Poet Anne Porter (a longtime favorite of mine) challenges herself to see the suffering of “A Famine Child.” I tucked the poem between two packages of fancy snack bars.

 

 

I wonder if the poem was written in the late 60’s during the Biafran famine. The images of starving children in Biafra shown on television were a first, and shocked viewers world over. Link here for famous photo of a Biafran boy.

Once in blue moon I’ll still hear people (older people) use the phrase, “like she’s from Biafra” to describe a very skinny person. It’s said comically, and it’s always jarring. Porter’s words, so simply put, pull us close to suffering such phraseology distances us from.

 

 

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I taped Lucille Clifton’s “The Lesson of the Falling Leaves” to a small tree in a park in Detroit.

poem is on skinny tree in foreground

 

I love that last line, how it lands so sensibly after all the theology that precedes it. I love the theology too, and am still parsing out the meaning. I think I could spend a lifetime thinking about

such letting go is love

 

 

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Finally, I left a prayer by Father John Morris on a stop sign at an intersection of a residential area in Detroit. This is an old favorite of mine. I keep it on view in my house, tucked into a kitchen cabinet. Maybe someone will take it into their home as well.

 

 

Even though this is a prayer, I think it opens its arms to everyone. Even non-believers can be grateful for

Every face I have seen,

Every voice I have heard

 

—and feel wonder and gratitude that—

In some mysterious way these

Have all fashioned my life

 

 

*

 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I am grateful for your readership, for your love of poetry, for your kind comments and big insights.

 

 

 

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No sensible person is ever going to clamor to be cursed, but curses aren’t always to be avoided. For one thing, when done well, they’re fun. Like their snarling cousin the insult, curses are great vehicles for verbal gymnastics and flights of fancy. I could even make a case for curses to be a great. . . wait for it. . . precursor to Thanksgiving. Curses remind us how much we don’t want to lose what we hold dear. If you didn’t especially enjoy being human, you wouldn’t care if a witch cursed you to be an ogre at night. That’s a silly example, of course, but read on and you’ll see what I mean.

 

I left two curse poems at a “sewer overflow drainage project” which also had pretty nature trails. Nasty and nice together, a fitting home for curses and the blessings they imply.

 

poem is on the rock

 

Curses

 

May the wind put out everything for you

except the candle on your grave.

 

May you not run away from the ax,

or the cannon.

 

May you not have fish in Fishville,

a bull in Bullsville,

not a single sheep in Sheepsville.

 

May you be afraid to meet your brother

without a knife.

 

May you move from your house to the cemetery.

 

May you find neither a root nor a leaf.

 

May you stir with a right hand

the soup made with the left hand.

 

2

 

May you buy a hat

and have nothing to put it on.

 

May your wife knead dust,

rain’s bread dough.

 

May your hair give you the slip,

your flesh too.

 

May you raise in vain your chin

above the flood.

 

May you breathe only as much

as your suffering requires.

 

3

 

May a man in armor await you

wherever you go.

 

May he ride into your wheat,

into your bed,

into your church.

 

May your kin rise against you.

 

All hounds on your trail!

All evils on what you hold dear!

 

May evil not touch you

until you raise your knife.

 

4

If in a stranger’s eye

you didn’t put the sun out.

 

If in the hour of the wolf

you didn’t call out like a wolf.

 

May sun shine for you out of the wind,

out of your brother,

and a fish in the brook,

the oak tree, the unexpected guest.

 

With wheat up to your wait

and clear sky spreading,

 

 

If you actually read this poem to the last comma, you’re wondering if the poem ends like this, suddenly and without resolution, or if I’ve been careless. Unfortunately, it’s the latter. I do not know what happens at the end of this poem. I don’t even know who wrote it (although I suspect Charles Simic). Somehow I neglected to photocopy the third page, and now after I’ve had the poem on file for two years at least, I can’t even remember what anthology it’s from. The library, from where the anthology came, is closed because of COVID.

 

Sorry to leave you hanging. But there’s enough here to enjoy, and you can see where it’s going. Curses are piled upon curses, all with a medieval flavor—armored men, kin rising up, the ax, cannon, the wolf, all hounds, all evils—and many with an element of humor, which is why I think it may be a Simic poem. My favorite curse—

 

May you buy a hat

and have nothing to put it on.

 

Then in part four, or what we have of part four, the speaker undoes the wished-for misfortune. Presumably if all the conditions are met—if the person addressed behaves decently to strangers and tames his animal aggression—he’ll be blessed with good weather, enough food to eat, and good times in general.

 

But for all I know, the actual ending could turn again. Please, people, help me track down this poem!

 

*

 

Poet Nick Flynn’s curse is more a story of a curse rather than a curse proclaimed by the speaker.

 

poem is on stone wall next to the door

 

Curse

by Nick Flynn

 

Let the willows drop their branches, heavy with ice,

let the sound be a whipcrack across the fields.

 

Let each tree be felled, let them dynamite the stumps.

 

From now on you will have to keep moving, from now on

you will carry everything you own.

 

You will sleep beneath a payphone, dream of a room, a field.

 

Let the field burn clean, let your children beat the flames

with brooms.

 

You will feign sleep as the conductor passes.

 

The names of your children will break up in your mind.

 

Let the stones jam the plough, let the barn fall.

 

Let the paint leech into the well.

 

 

There’s no humor here, just a deep well of bitterness and anger. Someone’s life is being utterly and systematically destroyed. First his home, then his family, then his mind. Forced to wander, he bears the mark of Cain—

 

From now on you will have to keep moving, from now on

            you will carry everything you own.

 

You wonder what this man or woman has done to deserve such a fate. Maybe nothing. Maybe “Curse” is a description of dementia, which is indeed one of the worst of curses. This line—

 

The names of your children will break up in your mind

 

—sounds like a common woe of families with a demented parent.

 

The poem’s field blasted of its tree stumps could be the destruction of memories. No one’s able to stop the destruction (the children uselessly beat flames with brooms), and the cursed person is left to live solely from moment to moment. The past is gone forever, and the future looks pretty bad.

 

If the dementia-conceit holds, here’s the kicker, a description of the horror of a disintegrating brain:

 

Let the stones jam the plough, let the barn fall.

 

Let the paint leech into the well.

 

And suddenly I am thanking God for a working brain.

 

*

 

Here’s a bio of Nick Flynn from a previous post:

 

Nick Flynn was born in Massachusetts in 1960. He was raised by a single mother who committed suicide when he was a young adult. His father was an alcoholic who fancied himself a writer and went to prison for writing forged checks. While in prison, his father wrote him letters full of advice, but Flynn never wrote back out of respect for his mother. After high school, Flynn became an electrician.

 

Two years after his mother died, he started working at a homeless shelter in Boston. Flynn met his father at that same homeless shelter when his troubled father came to spend the night. Their reunion was the subject of a memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which was turned into a movie, Being Flynn. The move starred Paul Dano as a young Flynn and Robert DeNiro as his father.

 

In addition to his poetry, Flynn is a widely published essayist and memoirist. He’s married to actress Lili Taylor with whom he has a daughter. Flynn lives in Brooklyn and teaches creative writing at University of Houston.

 

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poem is on park bench

 

Fall

by Laure-Anne Bosselaar

 

So it’s today, and in the chokecherry this year:

the first leaves turn ochre, there, by the open gate.

 

I grab the sweater you left on a chair, wrap it

around my shoulders, and—as I did for days last year

 

until I couldn’t keep up with the season—I pick

every single rusting leaf, each fading flower

 

and hide them in my apron pocket:  their crush

clandestine against my belly. It’s a simple gift

 

for you—for us—such an easy thing to do

for a few more days of summer.

 

 

So it’s today, Laure-Anne Bosselaar begins. “Fall” is a time-sensitive poem that finds me behind schedule.

 

For the past three seasons I’ve had plans to post “Fall” in mid-September but every year November rolls by and the poem remains unattended. So even though the first leaves have long been raked and bagged, I’m giving this poem its long-awaited moment in the sun, there amongst the season’s very last leaves.

 

The voice in “Fall” is effortless, off-hand. It’s as if we’ve caught Bosselaar mid-thought. The poem is addressed to “you,” presumably her lover, but the voice is so friendly it almost seems addressed to us, the readers. She’s talking out loud, spontaneously, before she’s had much time to reflect and refine her inner monologue.

 

On the surface, the image of a woman picking leaves in her yard is simple and charming. To preserve the last bit of summer the speaker removes the first fall leaves from a chokecherry tree. Here is a chokecherry tree

 

 

In one sense, this effort to please her lover is romantic. Fighting the end of summer may be a fool’s errand, but how in love she is, hiding those leaves in her apron pocket, just few at first and then more and more till she can’t keep up. She’s like a woman picking gray hairs from her scalp. More gray is inevitable, but just for the moment, she keeps the illusion of youth.

 

But maybe it’s darker than that.

 

The woman remains on the house side of an opened gate, through which, presumably, her lover has gone. Permanently? Or is he just out for the day? She wears his sweater as if to keep him close.

 

You may think I am being cynical and over-reading the poem, but it is after all, called “Fall,” and the tree in question is a chokecherry tree. Chokecherry—the very word calls up tears held back, strangled emotion, situations that bind. And people, she is picking leaves off a tree. It may be a lovely image, but it’s also straight-up crazy.

 

The jittery dashes and her self-correction of exactly who she is hiding the leaves for—

 

It’s a simple gift

 

for you—for us—such an easy thing to do

 

could suggest a nervousness. Under the breezy tone is there a pleading? Damn you leaves, can’t you let things stay the same? Is her resistance to fall romantic or desperate?

 

And then there’s the apron, that mark of domesticity and homemaking. Perhaps it’s a gardening apron, perhaps for cooking, but either way, an apron protects the one who wears it from soil and splatters. What is she protecting? She is protecting her lover and herself from reality. From death if you come right down to it.

 

Is this her role? To stand between reality and illusion? To mitigate the effects of uncomfortable situations, to soften the edges of bad news? Perhaps this is my own preoccupation that I toss on Bosselaar’s poem, but such a role is a domestic one, and one that women, with our antennae so finely tuned to others’ needs and emotional states, often take on.

 

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Laure-Anne Bosselaar was born in Belgium in 1943. She studied theater at Brussels Conservatory.  As a single mother of three children, she worked in radio and television and taught poetry at an international school in Brussels.

 

In 1987 she moved to the United States. At age 48 she got her MFA from Warren Wilson College. She’s been widely published in literary magazines, earned several prizes and fellowships, and has published four books of poetry. Fluent in four languages, she is also known for her poetry translations. She is the Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara.

 

She married poet Kurt Brown who died in 2013. Their collaboration on creative projects and their seemingly happy marriage point to high probability that I’ve mis-read this poem!

 

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Sick and tired. Is there anyone who isn’t sick and tired? Granted we may be sick and tired of different things, but aren’t we all glad to put campaign mailers in the recycling bin and see the neighbor’s lawn cleared of irritating signs?

 

Let’s change the channel. We need something else to think about, something that doesn’t make anyone anxious or angry.

 

Poetry, duh.

 

I’ve been listening, rapturously, to two different poetry podcasts, both great for a walk or a listen while you make dinner. The fact that neither of the podcasters are American and bristling with our particular preoccupations of the last four years is part of the charm, especially for me, a committed Anglophile.

 

Let me know if you give these a listen and how you like them.

 

(And let me know if you have favorite podcasts of your own. I’m always looking for something new to listen to.)

 

Frank Skinner’s Poetry Podcast. I first heard Frank Skinner on another podcast, “This Movie Changed Me” (highly recommend that too), discussing The Exorcist. His passion for that movie was such that he almost convinced me to watch it. (Didn’t though, and won’t.) He’s British and whip smart and says things like, “I once went to a cricket match drunk,” by way of explaining the word amanuensis. But you’ll hear no posh accent or academic piffle. He’s a just regular guy who loves poetry. The way he talks about each featured poem is a mix of a gourmand eating something delicious and a football fan after a game-changing play. “Oh C’MON!” he says in wonder. He takes up poems and poets I have avoided or never heard of and me makes me love them as he does. Most of the episodes are a half-hour and they fly by.

 

 

 

 

Pádraig Ó Tuama’s “Poetry Unbound,” brought to you by OnBeing. The word “lovely” is so overused these days that I hesitate to employ it, but it is simply the best word to describe this gem of a podcast. Ó Tuama’s Irish voice will soothe the most frazzled nerve. Play before bed as a meditation or listen at the bathroom sink to start your day in calm. Each episode is under ten minutes.

 

Go forth in peace!

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poem is on dumpster

 

Blessed

by Lucinda Williams

 

We were blessed by the minister

Who practiced what he preached

We were blessed by the poor man

Who said heaven is within reach

We were blessed by the girl selling roses

Who showed us how to live

We were blessed by the neglected child

Who knew how to forgive

 

We were blessed by the battered woman

Who didn’t seek revenge

We were blessed by the warrior

Who didn’t need to win

We were blessed by the blind man

Who could see for miles and miles

We were blessed by the fighter

Who didn’t fight for the prize

 

We were blessed the mother

Who gave up the child

We were blessed by the soldier

Who gave up his life

We were blessed by the teacher

Who didn’t have a degree

We were blessed by the prisoner

Who knew how to be free

 

We were blessed

Yeah, we were blessed

 

We were blessed by the mystic

Who turned water into wine

We were blessed by the watchmaker

Who gave up his time

We were blessed by the wounded man

Who felt no pain

By the wayfaring stranger

Who knew our names

 

We were blessed by the homeless man

Who showed us the way home

We were blessed by the hungry man

Who filled us with love

By the little innocent baby

Who taught us the truth

We were blessed by the forlorn

Forsaken and abused

 

We were blessed

Yeah, we were blessed

Mmm, we were blessed

Yeah, we were blessed

We were blessed

 

 

This is a song, not a poem, so before we go any further, listen. Listen to Lucinda, especially if you’re stressed, angry, anxious, worn out, torn up, forlorn, unshorn, or just ate too much candy corn.

 

 

Is there a better voice for 2020? Shredded but strong. World weary but still soulful. Been there, done that, and not giving up.

 

If you’ve had your fill of humble braggers on Facebook who use “#Blessed” as an excuse to post pictures of their attractive children or latest vacation, the title could be off-putting. Fortunately, Williams operates in a social medium far from the glittering crowd. Imagine the underside of Facebook, a place to post pictures of your cockroach infestation, your divorce papers or insufficient paycheck. That’s where you’ll find Lucinda.

 

The lyrics separated from the music read a little facile, a little predictable. I don’t love all the lines—the watchmaker who gave up his time feels forced, for example. The neglected child and the battered wife who forgive their abusers seems reductive—at least until I think about the difference between seeking revenge and seeking justice. But there are many more lines I love. The teacher who didn’t have a degree, the warrior who didn’t need to win, the innocent baby who taught us the truth, all these allow me to look over my life and experiences in a new way.

 

That’s one of the reasons I keep listening to this song over and over. Each image is a rich vein for contemplation. Williams may have been raised with two Methodist grandfathers, but I see Ignatian spirituality all over the place. The Examen is an Ignatian prayer of reflection on the day, a way to look for God’s presence in everyday moments. Call it goodness instead of God if you want, but God in all things is a sturdy set of glasses to re-focus your gaze. “Blessed” does the same thing.

 

If you haven’t already noticed, “Blessed” is a riff on the Beatitudes. Jesus calls blessed all the humble, forgotten people:  the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the oppressed, the ones who forgive, the ones who seek goodness, the peacemakers, the persecuted. Williams calls up the same sorts of people—the “suckers” and “losers,” if you will—not to call them blessed but to claim them as blessors.

 

I taped the poem to a trash and recycling center across the street from a church in northern Michigan. Blessed be the throwaways.

 

If you need a little more Lucinda to get through the next week, here’s another of my favorites. (It was my COVID lockdown song this spring.)

 

 

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Lucinda Williams was born in Louisiana in 1953. Her father was the beloved poet Miller Williams, her mother an aspiring pianist with mental health issues. After her parents divorced, Williams lived with her father, moving frequently around the south with each new university job he took, eventually settling in Arkansas. She was kicked out of high school after several infractions (including not standing for the Pledge of Allegiance), and finished her education under her father’s tutelage, who gave her a hundred books to read. While in Arkansas she took up with poet Frank Stanford (you can read that crazy tragic story here), and after his suicide wrote the beautiful “Pineola.”

 

She began performing at age 17 in Mexico. She’s put out 14 albums (including one this year) and won multiple Grammys.

 

 

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