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poem is on right-side of lighthouse

 

The Slave Auction

by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

 

The sale began—young girls were there,

Defenseless in their wretchedness,

Whose stifled sobs of deep despair

Revealed their anguish and distress.

 

And mothers stood, with streaming eyes,

And saw their dearest children sold;

Unheeded rose their bitter cries,

While tyrants bartered them for gold.

 

And woman, with her love and truth—

For these in sable forms may dwell—

Gazed on the husband of her youth,

With anguish none may paint or tell.

 

And men, whose sole crime was their hue,

The impress of their Maker’s hand,

And frail and shrinking children too,

Were gathered in that mournful band.

 

Ye who have laid your loved to rest,

And wept above their lifeless clay,

Know not the anguish of that breast,

Whose loved are rudely torn away.

 

Ye may not know how desolate

Are bosoms rudely forced to part,

And how a dull and heavy weight

Will press the life-drops from the heart.

 

 

The third time I read this poem I started to think about all the things mothers do to keep their children safe—and wonder how far they’d go to keep them from danger. The latter brought to mind Toni Morrison’s Beloved; the former, at the extreme opposite end, present-day baby equipment. Such things as video monitors, special mattresses that keep baby’s air cool, edge protectors, bath spout covers, and knee pads for crawlers are marketed to new mothers in the name of safety. Offer “peace of mind” and you can sell a lot more product.

 

Over the years “peace of mind” dies a slow death, perhaps with the first toddler accident and surely by the teen years. Control over another life is a pipe dream, an illusion—and one that the mothers in “Slave Auction” never have a single second to enjoy.

 

Harper invites us to imagine the complete and utter powerlessness of people on the slave block, particularly of mothers. Defenseless, unheeded, bitter, frail, shrinking, mournful, desolate. The adjectives heap misery on misery. The mothers’ wretchedness is of the worst magnitude, Harper says, worse even than the physical death of a child—

 

Ye who have laid your loved to rest,

   And wept above their lifeless clay,

Know not the anguish of that breast,

   Whose loved are rudely torn away.

 

It’s almost disorienting to read about the moral chaos of a slave auction in such formal language, those neat four-line stanzas with their reliable rhyme scheme providing order to a profoundly disordered world. A wordless scream of rage and agony seems more fitting, and Harper seems to acknowledge that, as she describes the women looking over at their soon-to-be-sold husbands—

 

With anguish none may paint or tell.

 

Even more jarring to me is that Harper felt it necessary to explicitly say that enslaved Black people were capable of the same feelings as white people—

 

And woman, with her love and truth—

   For these in sable forms may dwell—

 

*

 

Frances Harper (1825-1911) was a poet, novelist, journalist, activist, and speaker. Her life is nothing short of amazing.

 

Born in Baltimore to free Black parents, Harper was orphaned at three and raised by an aunt and uncle. Her uncle was a minister who had established a school. There she was educated until she was 13. She took work as a seamstress and nursemaid to a Quaker family who owned a bookstore where she was able to take advantage of her access to books. She began writing and published first book of poetry at age twenty-one.

 

She left Maryland to become the first woman to teach at Union Seminary in Ohio (later Wilberforce University), where she taught sewing. A year or two later she took a job in Pennsylvania. She lived with the family of William Still, considered the founder of the Underground Railroad.

 

Moved by the fate of a free Black man captured and sold into slavery who subsequently died (courtesy of the Maryland Fugitive Slave Act), she decided to devote her life to the abolition cause. She worked on the Underground Railroad alongside Harriet Tubman and got gigs as a travelling anti-slavery speaker, drawing large crowds.

.

Meanwhile Harper was constantly publishing. One of her short stories was the first short story published by any American woman of any race. Her first three novels were serialized, her poetry was extremely popular, and she worked as a journalist.

 

She published over eleven books.

 

In her mid-thirties she married a widow with three children. Together they had a daughter, and Harper stopped travelling as a speaker to raise her. When her husband died four years after they married, she supported the family with her lectures. What this woman couldn’t do!

 

Harper was active in the temperance movement, and fought for universal education and suffrage. She cofounded the National Association of Colored Women with Harriet Tubman. She died at age 86.

 

There’s so much more to say about this woman. Her tombstone should be etched Always Ahead of Her Time—

 

  • Almost a hundred years before Rosa Parks made headlines, Harper refused to sit in the “colored” section of the trolley car and got in trouble with the conductor.

 

  • She was intersectional in her outreach before the term was coined. She fought against slavery and for women’s suffrage and temperance and Black suffrage and anti-lynching legislation. All her activism was connected.

 

  • She had a line on the Karens before Karens were Karens: in fighting to include the right of Black men to vote in the cause of women’s suffrage, she told an assembly at the 1866 National Women’s Rights Convention, “ I tell you that if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America.”

 

  • She called out white privilege before woke culture did: “I envy neither the heart nor the head of any legislator who has been born to an inheritance of privileges, “ she said, “who has behind him ages of education, dominion, civilization, and Christianity, if he stands opposed to the passage of a national education bill, whose purpose is to secure education to the children of those who were born under the shadow of institutions which made it a crime to read.”

 

I could quote her endlessly. Here’s just a few more:

 

  • “I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent. The good would vote according to their convictions and principles; the bad, as dictated by prejudice or malice; and the indifferent will vote on the strongest side of the question, with the winning party.”

 

  • “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.”

 

  • “You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs.”

 

  • Last stanza of her most famous poem “Bury Me in a Free Land”:

 

I ask no monument, proud and high,

To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;

All that my yearning spirit craves,

Is bury me not in a land of slaves.

 

To my knowledge Harper does not have a permanent monument. Despite her wishes, she needs one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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poem is by champagne display for a belated celebration

 

Thompson and Seaman Vows, African Union Church

(ca. 1847)

by Marilyn Nelson

 

Miss Charlotte Thompson, daughter of Ada

Thompson of Seneca and the late John,

and Timothy James Seaman, son

of the late Nancy Seaman, on Sunday.

Reverend Rush performed the ceremony.

The bride (twenty-four) was educated

by a literate friend, and by seeing

the African Theatre Company’s

productions of Macbeth and Richard III.

She teaches in Colored School #3.

Her father was a slave. Her mother, freed

by a clause in her late mistress’s will,

sews and sells exquisite lace lingerie.

The bridegroom (twenty-six) cannot read or write,

but ciphers and is a skilled carpenter.

His mother was slaved to an early death.

She told him he was descended from kings.

 

 

I make it a rule not to read other people’s interpretations of a poem before I post my own thoughts, but it’s happened by accident and I can’t pretend I don’t know what I know.

 

I was checking to see if “Thompson and Seaman Vows” was “found poetry, “ that is, an actual historical record of a wedding announcement that poet Marilyn Nelson came across and elevated with line breaks so that the words could come alive in a new way.

 

Spoiler alert:  it isn’t.

 

On the Poetry Foundation website is a young reader’s fan letter about the poem and Nelson’s generous answer. She explains the history of the poem, the historical milieu, her intentions. I can’t add much to it, so I’ll re-print her comments here.

 

Let me just say that Nelson’s poem makes all those Sunday New York Times wedding announcements look like puffed-up poseurs. In “Thompson and Seaman Vows,” the typical announcement elements—occupations, parentage, age, wedding details— are moving rather than envy-inspiring.

 

*

 

Dear Paloma,

 

[Do you know the song by Caetano Veloso called “Paloma”? It’s very beautiful. You can hear Caetano singing it on Youtube. Harry Belafonte recorded it in the Fifties; it’s always been one of my favorite melodies, though I don’t know or understand the lyrics.]

 

But, to the point: I’m very glad you like my poem so much that you wrote to me about it. I’m glad that you see that the poem is telling a story. I’m sorry I didn’t give a little introduction to the poem before I read it on the video. The poem is taken from my book of poems called My Seneca Village. Seneca Village was a small community of free black people in Manhattan, which was started in 1825 and thrived until it was destroyed as part of the creation of Central Park, in 1857. My book tells the stories of people I imagined living there.

 

“Thompson and Seaman Vows, African Union Church” is an imaginary wedding announcement in an imaginary newspaper. In writing it, I imitated real wedding announcements that appear nowadays every Sunday in The New York Times. The real, contemporary wedding announcements always begin with the names of the couple, the date of the wedding and the name of the person who officiated the ceremony. Then there is a paragraph about the bride: where she was educated, and where she works. Then a paragraph about her mother and father and their professional histories. Then the groom, his education and his work, and then information about this mother and father. If you read a lot of them, you see they follow a formula.

 

In the case of the couple in my poem, they are free, living in Seneca Village, New York, but the wedding takes place in 1847, a time when most of the black people in America where enslaved. In 1847 there were not many opportunities for black Americans to go to school. People who learned to read taught other people to read. That’s why the bride in the poem has been “educated by her literate friend.” In a couple of other poems in the book we learn that she loves Shakespeare, the great writer she knows (books were expensive; she wouldn’t have been able to own a collection of Shakespeare’s works, and libraries were usually available only to white people) only from seeing two of his plays performed by the African Theatre Company, in all-black productions (blacks would probably not be able to go to a white theater). But the fact that she can read and that she knows a little bit about the greatest poet of the English language makes her educated enough to teach in the Seneca Village school.

 

As for the groom, he is not exactly educated, but he can do math computations (i.e., measure a board and know where to cut it to fit a space in the building of a house) and he is a good carpenter (in other words, he has skills that translate into earning a good living). Although his mother was “slaved to an early death,” she did not forget that she and her people were stolen from a land that had its own greatness, and she passed on that knowledge and pride to her son, by telling him that he was descended from—as you put so well—“a noble family in Africa.”

 

Thanks for noticing the line breaks!

 

The topic came because I was trying to write poems that presented a panorama of village life, so I wanted to include a wedding. I found the names in the U.S. Census records of Seneca Village, but I invented the characters, the love story, and the wedding. There was a church with that name in Seneca Village. I’m so glad you loved my poem!

 

Best Wishes,

 

Marilyn Nelson

 

*

 

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

 

Marilyn Nelson was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1946. Her father was in the Air Force, one of the last of the Tuskegee airmen, and her mother was a teacher. The family moved often from military base to military base.

 

She started writing poetry at a young age. She graduated from University of California-Davis, got her Masters from University of Pennsylvania, and her PhD from University of Minnesota.

 

“Moonlily” is from a memoir-in-sonnets called How I Discovered Poetry, named in 2014 as one of NPR’s best books of the year. She’s published seven volumes of poetry for adults, eleven for young adults and four for children. She is also known for her translations of Danish poetry.  She’s won many awards, among them the Ruth Lilly prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the Frost Medal.

 

She was professor emerita of English at the University of Connecticut. In 2003 following her retirement from teaching, she founded Soul Mountain Retreat near her home in rural Connecticut. She has two children.

 

 

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For no particular reason, a poem for Black History Month in the produce section of a grocery store. Wonder who found it.

 

poem is under the onions

 

American History

by Michael S. Harper

 

Those four black girls blown up

in that Alabama church

remind me of five hundred

middle passage blacks,

in a net, under water

in Charleston harbor

so redcoats wouldn’t find them.

Can’t find what you can’t see

can you?

 

 

Sometimes this blog seems like an embarrassing record of all the things I don’t know (I never knew about—I’d never heard of—). My knowledge gaps become most obvious during Black History Month.

 

For example, I didn’t know much about the bombing of the 16thStreet Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Four girls killed, terrible, terrible was the beginning and end of my familiarity with that seminal event in civil rights history. Michael S. Harper’s “American History” sent me back on line to fill in the story, and it’s an awful one. Four girls ages 11-14 were getting ready for Sunday school in the bathroom of the church basement, one just re-tying the sash on her friend’s dress, when fifteen sticks of dynamite set right underneath them went off. The physical damage to the young girls is horrible to read, but the delayed justice for the murderers is infuriating. Not until 1977 was the ringleader jailed, and not until 2000 and 2002 were the co-conspirators prosecuted. J. Edgar Hoover himself shut down the investigation in 1968. After he died, records were un-sealed and the case re-opened.

 

The other incident mentioned in this poem, the hiding (and presumably murder) of enslaved men underwater in a Charleston harbor was completely unknown to me. And still is. I’m unable to link this to an actual event, so if you know something about it, please fill me in.

 

There are, unfortunately, many similar accounts of Black people thrown overboard to drown, so Harper’s conjuring of the event may just be an imaginative reference to Middle Passage murders like the ones aboard the Zong, a British-owned slave ship (low on water, the captain ordered 132 Blacks thrown overboard in order to collect insurance money); and the ones aboard the Leusden, a Dutch ship (in a life-threatening storm, the white crew took to the lifeboats and locked 664 Blacks below deck to die); and those aboard the Portuguese ship Tecora, where a third of the 500 Blacks in the slave hold were thrown overboard, chained together and tethered with iron balls. Supplies were running low, you see.

 

I knew nothing of these. Never learned about them in school, and I never found my way to educate myself. I don’t even know what I don’t know. Only recently did I learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, an event so hidden from historical attention that the number of Black Tulsans slaughtered is unknown but guessed to be about 300. And just today, in late February of 2021, I learned of the Draft Riots of 1863. At least a hundred Black citizens of New York City were hunted down by white mobs and lynched. A baby thrown out the window. A son slaughtered in front of his mother. The number of murders is probably closer to 175 and could be double or triple that, unknown and unquantifiable because, as in the poem, Black bodies are concealed. Below the surface. In basements. Under water. In mass graves. Unaccounted for in more ways than one.

 

Can’t find what you can’t see

can you?

 

Can’t find evidence of injustice if someone’s gotten rid of it, buried it, burned it, or de-humanized the victims.

 

It’s important to note that in 1970, when Harper wrote this poem, the four Birmingham bombers were still walking around free, their punishment a $100 fine. No wonder the title is bitterly ironic. How much of “American History” is hidden history?

 

*

 

Michael S. Harper (1938-2016) was born in Brooklyn, the oldest of three children. His father worked as a supervisor for the post office, and his mother was a medical secretary. The family had a lot of jazz and blues records, which later influenced Harper’s style.

 

When he was 13, the family moved to L.A. He was a pre-med student at L.A. City College but transferred to what is now California State University and got his B.A. and M.A. in English while working at the post office. He earned an MFA at Iowa Writers Workshop in 1963.

 

Poet Gwendolyn Brooks, impressed by his entry to a contest she was judging, helped launch his career in poetry. He taught at several universities in California and Oregon before settling in at Brown University where he chaired the MFA program.

 

Harper published over a dozen books of poetry. He was the poet laureate of Rhode Island, and won many awards, among them a Guggenheim fellowship and an NEA grant.

 

He married and had five children, two of whom died at birth. He later divorced. He died at age 78.

 

 

 

 

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February is Black History Month, and I have six poems queued up to celebrate it. Each poem shines a light on parts of U.S. history not emphasized in my own history education, which unfortunately was of the Social Studies ilk. (Social Studies, boring and artificial, caused  huge gaps in my knowledge of world history and geography.) The racial blind spots in my childhood textbooks leave me with some catching up to do. So here we are, learning new things every day.

 

Today’s poem is “Moonlily” by Marilyn Nelson. She recounts her schooling experience on a California Air Force base in the 50’s as the only black girl in a classroom of white children.

 

poem is on top of slide on this school playground

 

Moonlily

(Mather AFB, California, 1956)

by Marilyn Nelson

 

When we play horses at recess, my name

is Moonlily and I’m a yearling mare.

We gallop circles around the playground,

whinnying, neighing, and shaking our manes.

We scrape the ground with scuffed saddle oxfords,

thunder around the little kids on swings

and seesaws, and around the boys’ ball games.

We’re sorrel, chestnut, buckskin, pinto, gray,

a herd in pastel dresses and white socks.

We’re self-named, untamed, untouched, unridden.

Our plains know no fences. We can smell spring.

The bell produces metamorphosis.

Still hot and flushed, we file back to our desks,

one bay in a room of palominos.

 

 

 

I had to do a little research to understand this poem. Horse research. You may well be shocked at how little I know of horses, but in case you’re as ignorant of equine terminology as I am, here’s a guide:

 

A yearling is a one- or two-year old horse. Think of yearlings as tweens, not yet in puberty but close. Yearling mare just means the young horse is female.

 

Sorrel, chestnut, buckskin, pinto, gray are different horse colors. Most are brown-ish (sorrel, chesnut, gray), one is spotted brown and white (pinto), and only one (buckskin) is a light color.

 

A bay is a brown horse. A palomino is pale golden horse with a white tail and mane, the horse of royalty, parades, and the Mr. Ed show. Palomino only refers to color, not to a particular breed.

 

Now let’s talk about horse girls. The speaker in this poem (it is autobiographical, so let’s call her Nelson) is clearly a horse girl. You don’t have to ride horses to be a horse girl—as long as you’re a socially clueless pre-teen obsessed with horses, you qualify. (Warning: the horse girl world is a rabbit hole of memes and videos I spent way too much time in. Two of the best and weirdest:  link here to watch a girl jump like a horse, and here to watch a grown-up horse girl galloping along.)

 

“Horse girl energy” means being blissfully unaware about what other people think of you or what you wear or what you’re interested in. That’s a wonderful place for any child to be, girls in particular, Black girls especially. In the yearling stage of girlhood, girls are at the peak of feeling unselfconscious of their bodies, running wild and free in their play, and in the language of the poem, self-named, untamed, untouched, unridden.

 

There’s so much joy in this sonnet, so much motion and color. At play most of the girls are brown horses; they run together in a herd, dressed the same in their pastel dresses and saddle shoes. Outside the only divisions that matter are between big kids and little kids, between boys and girls. And then comes the recess-is-over bell. For Nelson, filing back into the classroom means more than the end of fun. It’s the end of belonging. The sudden, acute isolation this little girl feels stabs my heart—

 

Still hot and flushed, we file back to our desks,

one bay in a room of palominos.

 

*

 

If anyone is looking for a worthy organization to donate to this month, Detroit Horse Power is an equestrian center that works with urban youth. Here’s their mission statement:

Detroit Horse Power uniquely addresses two persistent problems facing the Motor City: the shortage of opportunities for metro Detroit’s vulnerable populations (especially children) and the abundance of vacant land. Through riding and caring for horses in a safe and enriching space, program participants learn valuable skills that set them up for future success.

 

Link here for more information.

 

*

 

Marilyn Nelson was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1946. Her father was in the Air Force, one of the last of the Tuskegee airmen, and her mother was a teacher. The family moved often from military base to military base.

 

She started writing poetry at a young age. She graduated from University of California-Davis, got her Masters from University of Pennsylvania, and her PhD from University of Minnesota.

 

“Moonlily” is from a memoir-in-sonnets called How I Discovered Poetry, named in 2014 as one of NPR’s best books of the year. She’s published seven volumes of poetry for adults, eleven for young adults and four for children. She is also known for her translations of Danish poetry.  She’s won many awards, among them the Ruth Lilly prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the Frost Medal.

 

She was professor emerita of English at the University of Connecticut. In 2003 following her retirement from teaching, she founded Soul Mountain Retreat near her home in rural Connecticut. She has two children.

 

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Poem Elf sub and daughter Lizzie has a cat, so I asked her to post “On a Night of Snow” by Elizabeth Coatsworth, a poem about a cat who wants to go outdoors in wild weather. Santa would not cooperate for a photo op, so Lizzie placed the poem sans Santa at the entry to Cathead Bay Trail in Leelanau. The trail leads to Lake Michigan. Last summer we spent a glorious day on the trail escaping the confines of quarantine, feeling free and happy and unbound, a fact not unrelevant to this posting.

 

poem is on framed sign

 

On a Night of Snow

by Elizabeth Coatsworth

 

Cat, if you go outdoors, you must walk in the snow.

You will come back with little white shoes on your feet,

little white shoes of snow that have heels of sleet.

Stay by the fire, my Cat. Lie still, do not go.

See how the flames are leaping and hissing low,

I will bring you a saucer of milk like a marguerite,

so white and so smooth, so spherical and so sweet –

stay with me, Cat. Outdoors the wild winds blow.

 

Outdoors the wild winds blow, Mistress, and dark is the night,

strange voices cry in the trees, intoning strange lore,

and more than cats move, lit by our eyes green light,

on silent feet where the meadow grasses hang hoar –

Mistress, there are portents abroad of magic and might,

and things that are yet to be done.  Open the door!

 

 

This poem is at least seventy years old and probably older than that. It has absolutely nothing to do with coronavirus and yet I can’t read it any other way.

 

Here we have a conversation between mistress and cat. (Mistress, by the way, is an old-fashioned term that should be revived to describe the human-cat relationship. Cats would never agree to have “owners.”) Mistress tries to entice the cat to stay indoors with promises of cozy fires and saucers of milk. Picture Dr. Fauci at the doorway with granny glasses and a lacy cap, calling after the cat, Be safe! Stay inside!

 

In the second stanza the cat speaks for all the stir-crazy among us—Open the door! Cat is not scared, Cat is excited. Outdoors there’s magic, adventure and possibly danger—

 

more than cats move, lit by our eyes green light,

on silent feet where the meadow grasses hang hoar

 

Even in non-lockdown days, the neat contrast laid out between indoor and outdoor life points to a very human set of preferences, between those who want safety and comfort and those who want risk and adventure. Most of us probably want a little of both—a cup of that milk so white and so smooth, so spherical and so sweet and some portion of portents abroad of magic and might.

 

Coatsworth herself seems to have spent a lifetime balancing the two instincts. She was a world traveler, a woman who rode donkeys across Egyptian deserts, but also a woman spent years and years at idyllic Chimney Farm in Maine raising her two daughters. Her life takes me back to my favorite poem, “Among Women” by Marie Ponsot, which begins with the question What women wander? and ends with these lines—

 

Women wander

As best they can.

 

*

 

Elizabeth Coatsworth (1893-1986) is known primarily as a writer of children’s books, but she also published poetry in the New Yorker, and wrote a few memoirs and novels for adults.

 

She was born to a wealthy family in Buffalo, New York.  As a child she traveled in Europe and the Middle East. She graduated from Vassar, and earned a Master of Arts in 1916 from Columbia University. After graduating she went traveling through Asia. She rode horses in the Philippines and spent time in a Buddhist monastery.

 

When she was 36 she married writer and naturalist Henry Beston. They lived in New England and had two daughters. Her daughter Kate Barnes later became poet laureate of Maine.

 

Coatsworth’s children’s book The Cat Who Went to Heaven (1930) won the Newbery Medal. (The book tells the story of a saintly cat in a Buddhist monastery who wants to be included in a commissioned painting, truly a strange tale. Link here for a summary.) In spite of poems and stories about cats, she wasn’t a cat lady and said she liked cats just as well as any other animal. She published over 100 books,

 

In her eighties she wrote something which might offer comfort to all frustrated travelers—

 

I have a thousand memories. I could, I suppose, travel still, but so cautiously and in such a diminished world! I am content to remember larger times. The world in which I live is enough for me. After so many travels, I am home, and my happiness here is no less than it was in foreign lands and my sense of wonder has not dulled with all these years. I am as happy as an old dog stretched out in the sunlight. I remember other times, other places, but (in the sunlight) I am content with the here and now.

 

*

 

Here’s stubborn Santa and his cat prints:

 

 

 

 

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The previous posting of a Holly Wren Spaulding poem found its way to the woods of northern Michigan. Today we head to a beach on Lake Michigan for a look at “Crocus” from Spaulding’s latest collection “Familiars.” (You can read my review here.)

 

With no crocus in sight on a January afternoon, my daughter and poem elf sub Lizzie attached the poem to a stick that had popped up out of the sand like a stem, as if it had grown there, as if the poem were the stem’s blossom.

 

“Crocus” is from the book’s second section, “Testimonials” Spaulding introduces the section with this—

 

In which the inhabitants

speak; the traveler listens.

 

 

 

Crocus

by Holly Wren Spaulding

 

I traveled cold

dominions

to arrive.

 

When a woman

leans close

we recognize

each other.

 

 

Like the woman in the poem, I recognize myself in the crocus.

 

I spent a lot of time picking flowers as a little girl—dandelions, buttercups, Queen Anne’s lace, thistle—and didn’t have any idea of the difference between planted bulbs and wildflowers, much less public and private property. Mrs. Clarke’s front yard had a small hill and all the sudden one afternoon it was dotted with crocuses, twenty or thirty of them. The first flowers of spring! Happiness! Beauty! A gift for my mother! I picked most of them. I presented the bouquet to my mother. Where did you get those? she asked, and sent me right down to Mrs. Clarke’s to apologize. Crocuses drooping in my little fist, I sobbed through my confession. Mrs. Clarke was angry. Understandably. Mr. Clarke had spent a lot of time planting the crocuses, she told me sternly, and now he’ll never see them. They’ll never come back.

 

Poor Mr. Clarke died a few years later of a heart attack mowing his lawn. Nowadays when I spot a crocus I feel a small shame for depriving Mr. Clarke of the fruits of his labor, but more so a sense of pleasure about my innocence, my childhood delight in spring’s arrival.

 

The woman’s connection to the crocus is deeper, more mysterious, and so the crocus’ connection to the woman. That moment of greeting—it’s so tender and beautiful, so packed with emotion and potential story lines in a mere seven lines—it fills me with wonder and for some reason peace. Why peace? I don’t know. Maybe a need is satisfied—a primordial longing for hope, for beauty, for connection to nature. Maybe the poem gives expression to the emotion of being female, of living in a body that bleeds and births. Whatever. I don’t want to pin it down—the poem has magic, it has cast a spell, it’s become part of me.

 

There’s lots of gems like this in Familiars, which you can order here from Literati, a wonderful bookstore in Ann Arbor.

 

*

 

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

 

Holly Wren Spaulding’s connection to nature seems destined from the start. Her parents named her after a character called “Wren of the Woods” in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer. She grew up in the woods in northern Michigan, off the grid in a “pretty 19th century style of life,” as she details in this podcast about her own creative development. The family homesteaded in an experimental collective living community where she and her siblings chopped wood and carried water.

 

She founded Poetry Forge, another sort of collective space, this one for poets. You can read more about her vision for the project and her personal history here. In the summer she teaches creative writing at Interlochen in northern Michigan, including a class she teaches with her mother, artist Carol Spaulding. She lives in Kittery Point, Maine with her family.

 

She’s been widely published in literary journals and nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. She regularly collaborates with other artists, including this lovely project, a poetry-in-public-space installation called Urban Renga.

 

 

 

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Two poems from Holly Wren Spaulding’s new collection Familiars found their way to northern Michigan, courtesy of an elf sub, my daughter Lizzie. Spaulding hails from northern Michigan and returns there each summer to teach, so it seemed a good spot, even if the pictures don’t exactly replicate the settings in each poem. (You can read my review of this beautiful collection here.)

 

Today let’s look at “Vine.” Lizzie left “Vine” at the entrance to a trail of pines.

 

poem is on thin pine in foreground

 

Vine

by Holly Wren Spaulding

 

 

To touch

 

the upper

branches

 

of the tree’s

 

Yes.

 

 

The poem is from the book’s opening section, “Admissions,” which is introduced thusly—

In which a traveler arrives

at the edge of a wildland,

seeking guidance

from its inhabitants

and neighbors.

 

I had to read “Vine” a couple times, like it was a riddle whose meaning was just beyond my grasp. Once I understood what was going on, the riddle became a meditation, and I’m left with an urge to lift my gaze, open wide my collarbone and breathe out a Yes. As if I, too, am growing. What single word could better express growth than Yes? Growing means saying Yes to change, Yes to the forward march of time, Yes to life itself.

 

I’m still puzzled over who the speaker is. Is the vine (the inhabitant) answering some question from the traveler (What do you want?)? Or maybe the traveler is imagining what it’s like to be a vine (add an “Oh” to the beginning and you’ll see what I mean). The epigraph of the book suggests to me that the answer doesn’t matter, that the speaker is either or both—

 

Listen to me. I am telling you

a true thing. This is the only kingdom.

The kingdom of touching;

the touches of the disappearing, things.

            —Aracelis Girmay, “Elegy”

 

“The kingdom of touching” is the kingdom of connecting, one thing to another, one being to another being, like the vine twisting itself around the tree trunk, like the poet, looking up at the treetop, joining in the Yes by the touch of her gaze.

 

 

Each poem in the book offers connection to other living beings on the planet. A worthy pursuit for the new year. You can order Familiars direct from the publisher, Alice Greene & Co. It’s also available at that other website, you know, the big one. Better yet, request a copy from your favorite independent bookseller.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Link here for a bio of Spaulding from a previous post.

 

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The Darkling Thrush

by Thomas Hardy

 

I leant upon a coppice gate

When Frost was spectre-grey,

And Winter’s dregs made desolate

The weakening eye of day.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

Like strings of broken lyres,

And all mankind that haunted nigh

Had sought their household fires.

 

The land’s sharp features seemed to be

The Century’s corpse outleant,

His crypt the cloudy canopy,

The wind his death-lament.

The ancient pulse of germ and birth

Was shrunken hard and dry,

And every spirit upon earth

Seemed fervourless as I.

 

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited;

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

Upon the growing gloom.

 

So little cause for carolings

Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.

 

 

A post-funeral party for my mother at the family home. Our next door neighbor’s oldest son, Charlie as I knew him from childhood, now Chuck, came to fetch his mother and ended up staying for drinks and conversation. We’d never spoken more than a few words before—when I was a little girl he was already a teenager—but that evening we discovered a mutual love of poetry. Just not the same kind of poems. He gravitated to poems that were dense, lyrical, metaphysical, while my taste was . . . not that.

 

I asked him to give me his favorite poem for a Poem Elf “assignment.” He emailed me a George Herbert number that I was too lazy to deal with. He sent two more options, an Emily Dickinson poem (the very difficult Miss Dickinson, no thank you) and this Hardy poem. I glanced at it, printed it out and planned to get to it soon-ish, applying the same effort I give to annual plans to touch my toes.

 

Almost five years later “The Darkling Thrush” turned up and I thought, just get’er done. The timing proved—I hesitate to say “serendipitous” because recent events are too dark for that word. Let’s say the timing fills me with wonder, considering that I truly I had not read this poem ever, at all, and had no idea what it was about.

 

After the year we’ve had—and I’m talking about 2021—any poem that offers light in darkness is a welcome guest in my head.  But this one is just beyond. So beautiful, so un-treacly, so begging to be read out loud and memorized, so seasonally and emotionally timely.

 

Charlie, forgive me, I won’t be offering an in-depth look at “The Darkling Thrush” however much the poem deserves such scrutiny. My completed assignment is just the sound of oohs and ahhs and a big “Come outside and look at the moon!” scrawled across my blue book. (If you want a meatier but still accessible discussion of the poem, link here.)

 

Hardy’s language is dazzling; the world it creates is not. Everything is gray, broken, lifeless. It brings to mind black-and-white Bedford Falls sans George Bailey. And just like “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Hardy’s world is mesmerizing even in its ugliness. Here’s his description of the barrenness of winter—

 

The ancient pulse of germ and birth

      Was shrunken hard and dry

 

Here’s what he sees when he looks up—

 

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

      Like strings of broken lyres

 

(FYI bine is basically a hard vine.)

 

It’s deathly quiet there by the coppice gate. Nature’s lyre is silenced so to speak, and there’s no human chatter because they’ve all gone home to warm up. Image after image, the poem is relentlessly visual until a joyful noise breaks through the bleakness.

 

Wonderful that the thrush is an old one. The quality of hope would be different if a Shirley Temple bird sang rather than one who’s been around the block and still sees reason to warble —

 

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

      In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

      Upon the growing gloom.

 

And then we come to that last stanza. Doesn’t it feel that it’s been written for us, for right now, for this winter, for this uneasy moment?

 

So little cause for carolings

      Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

      Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

      His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

      And I was unaware.

 

 

Darkling thrush, wherever you are, show yourself! We are in need of your song.

 

*

 

I wondered what a thrush looks like and discovered there are many varieties of thrush, each with its own look and sound. I’ve narrowed down the list of Hardy’s bird to two kinds, the song thrush and the mistle thrush. Both live in the southwest of England where he lived, both sing in the late evening and both sing in winter. Of the two, I’m pretty certain The Darkling Thrush is the mistle thrush because they enjoy singing in the worst of weather. Enjoy the video below, “Know Your Thrushes.” Getting to know your thrushes is a very pleasant distraction indeed.

 

 

 

*

 

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was born the oldest of four in a small village forty-some miles southwest of Stonehenge. His father was a stonemason and fiddler. He was a sickly child and as an adult was a very small man, barely over five feet, a fact I mention because some compare the tiny thrush to Hardy himself.

 

He was an architectural apprentice in London but missed the rural landscape he grew up in. He worked as an ecclesiastic architect for ten years in London and Dorset, writing in his spare time and publishing an unsuccessful novel. He married and moved back to Dorset where designed and built his house, Max Gate, now part of the National Trust. Eventually he was able to make a living solely from writing.

 

He became estranged from his first wife, supposedly in part because she objected to the dark view of marriage he presented in his novels. When she died he married his secretary, 39 years his junior, but mourned his first wife the rest of his life.

 

Hardy considered himself primarily a poet, but I suspect most people know him as I do, as the writer of those wonderful, big depressing Victorian novels like Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. He wrote fourteen novels altogether (and they are all long) and loads of poetry which influenced the likes of Auden, Frost and Larkin.

 

He was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died at age 87. A  controversy over where he was to be buried was resolved when his heart was interred next to his wife’s grave in his native village and his ashes in Westminster Abby Poet’s corner.

 

 

 

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We’ve nearly reached the end, folks. The last day of our terrible no-good very bad year. To close out this series, I’ve selected a gentle poem, May Sarton’s “House of Gathering.” It’s like a deep cleansing breath. I taped it to a bench in a complex where my friend Sister Pat, 80 and going strong, lives with her fellow Mercy sisters.

 

poem is on bench in background between statue and tree

 

House of Gathering

by May Sarton

 

If old age is a house of gathering,

Then the hands are full.

There are old trees to prune

And young plants to plant,

There are seeds to be sown.

Not less of anything

But more of everything

To care for,

To maintain,

To keep sorted out,

A profusion of people

To answer, to respond to.

 

But we have been ripening

To a greater ease,

Learning to accept

That all hungers cannot be fed,

That saving the world

May be a matter

Of sewing a seed

Not overturning a tyrant,

That we can do what we can.

 

The moment of vision,

The seizure still makes

Its relentless demands:

 

Work, love, be silent.

Speak.

 

 

We’ve lost too many old people this year. It makes me cry every time I think of it. By God, we need them. We need their perspective. We need their wisdom. Their love.

 

May Sarton’s “House of Gathering” is a beautiful reminder of what we’re missing when we lose our elders. I’ve been sitting with this poem like I’d sit with a beloved grandmother, listening to her life experience, gleaning what I can for my own. Here’s three things this grandmother/poem offers us:

 

—A cure for our addiction to outrage

 

Work, love, be silent.

Speak.

 

—A sage perspective on frustration

 

Learning to accept

That all hungers cannot be fed

 

—A call to action available to everyone

 

. . . saving the world

May be a matter

Of sewing a seed

 

 

Happy New Year, dear readers. I’ll be taking a short break after this marathon of postings.

 

*

Here’s a picture of Sister Pat on her 80thbirthday. Before her quarantine began in March (she was confined to her room for months), Sister worked with local immigrants. I’m sure that as soon as she gets the all-clear she’ll be back in action, spreading her love and wisdom in the community.

 

 

*

 

May Sarton (1912-1995) was born in Belgium, the only child of an artist mother and an academic father who studied the history of science. When the Germans invaded Belgium in 1914, the family fled to England, and then moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. There her father taught at Harvard.

 

Although she had a scholarship to Vassar, Sarton decided to become an actress. She joined a theater company, all the while writing poetry. At 19 she gave up acting and left the country to spend a year in Paris while her parents were in Lebanon. This became a lifelong annual trip to Europe. She met many of the famous writers of the day, including Poem Elf favorite Elizabeth Bowen. She published her first novel seven years later.

 

She had a fourteen-year relationship with Judy Matlack, an English professor. Sarton had breast cancer and later a debilitating stroke, and spent the last twenty years of her life in Maine.

 

In addition to a prolific output of poetry, Sarton wrote novels, memoirs, and children’s books. She toured the country giving readings to standing-room–only crowds. At various points in her life her work met with acclaim; at other times, derision. Criticism intensified the depression she suffered. Eventually her work became popular in Women’s Studies classes in universities, which did not please Sarton. She didn’t want to be known as a lesbian writer, which she considered a limiting label.

 

She died at age 83.

 

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On the second to last day of this sad and strange year, we turn to yet another poet who died in 2020. I left Lisel Mueller ‘s “Bedtime Story” on the banks of the Rouge River in suburban Michigan.

 

poem is on bird box

 

Bedtime Story

by Lisel Mueller

 

The moon lies on the river

like a drop of oil.

The children come to the banks to be healed

of their wounds and bruises.

The fathers who gave them their wounds and bruises

come to be healed of their rage.

The mothers grow lovely; their faces soften,

the birds in their throats awake.

They all stand hand in hand

and the trees around them,

forever on the verge

of becoming one of them,

stop shuddering and speak their first word.

 

But that is not the beginning.

It is the end of the story,

and before we come to the end,

the mothers and fathers and children

must find their way to the river,

separately, with no one to guide them.

That is the long, pitiless part,

and it will scare you.

 

 

This poem cast a spell on me. I can’t shake its dark effect and can’t stop thinking about its magical power. It draws me into its world so hypnotically—

 

The moon lies on the river

like a drop of oil

 

—and by the end has pulled back to reveal a timeless pattern of growth and healing. As bedtime stories go, it’s disturbing fare, a tale of abuse, of fathers who beat children and mothers who see and say nothing.

 

Why this poem for the second to last day of the year? It’s those birds in the mothers’ throats, awakening as the mothers find their voices at last. It’s the broken family standing hand-in-hand. It’s the mysterious trees coming into full bloom. It’s the river that washes away the rage. It’s the dead-eyed realism of that last stanza—

 

the mothers and fathers and children

must find their way to the river,

separately, with no one to guide them

 

—and that final statement which does indeed give me shivers—

 

That is the long, pitiless part,

and it will scare you.

 

Here’s the thing, though. It’s also the most hopeful poem I could find. At the end of 2020 we are still in the long, pitiless part. But the river is there, Mueller tells us. The river is there and it will heal us, as if in a baptism. Eyes wide open, humble to our failings, we will arrive eventually.

 

*

 

Here’s a bio of Mueller from a previous post.

 

Lisel Mueller (1924-2020) was born in Germany. Her parents were both teachers. After her father spoke out against the rise of Nazism, he was interrogated by the Gestapo, and eventually fled the country. Mueller, her mother and her sister followed a few years later when she was 15. The family settled in the Midwest.

 

Mueller graduated from University of Evansville, married, had two daughters, worked as a social worker and as a book reviewer for the Chicago Daily News. She took up writing poetry in her late twenties after her mother died and was not published until she was 41.

 

She taught at University of Chicago, Elmhurst and Goddard colleges, won several prizes including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. She is the only German-born writer to ever win the Pulitzer.

 

Lisel Mueller died this past February at age 96.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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