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poem is on tree trunk

 

 

When Giving Is All We Have

by Alberto Ríos       

 

 

One river gives

                                             Its journey to the next.

 

We give because someone gave to us.

We give because nobody gave to us.

 

We give because giving has changed us.

We give because giving could have changed us.

 

We have been better for it,

We have been wounded by it—

 

Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet,

Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.

 

Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,

But we read this book, anyway, over and again:

 

Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand,

Mine to yours, yours to mine.

 

You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.

Together we are simple green. You gave me

 

What you did not have, and I gave you

What I had to give—together, we made

 

Something greater for the difference.

 

IMG_8400

 

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This post is dedicated to Mary Jane Samberg, a Michigan high school English teacher of the highest order. She died a few days ago of Covid-19. That sentence can’t begin to register the shock and grief so many of us felt on hearing the news.

 

 

She taught two of my daughters. Lucky, lucky girls. I asked them to describe her teaching. One said she was “whip smart, had a great sense of humor and a kind of snort laugh. Hard grader. Merry eyes. Great news judgment [Ms. Samberg moderated the school newspaper] and called out your best.” The other said, “She was a hard ass and didn’t give away A’s easily in AP Composition and Writing. I remember getting an A and feeling on top of the world.” They both said she was “cool,” an unusual compliment for a tough teacher.

 

 

I knew her well enough to have interesting conversations with her when we bumped into each other over the years. We talked about English, education, books, our kids—my daughters she taught, her daughter of whom she was so proud. (Side note: I never use “whom,” but in honor of Ms. Samberg, I relent.) I saw her regularly at church, but I couldn’t exactly call her a friend, however much I liked her. However much I admired her. She was a woman of strong faith and strong principles. She spoke with conviction and confidence and because of that she seemed older than me although she was not. As an example to my girls of how a woman moves about in the world, I could not have asked for better.

 

 

I remember looking over my daughters’ marked-up papers and noting how very marked-up they were, how thorough and thoughtful her comments. I disagreed often enough. (Of course I did, I’m an English major and an Enneagram type 1.) I thought she was sometimes too rigid about what constituted good writing—but damn if those girls didn’t learn to write well. She taught them how to think clearly and communicate carefully, the importance of just the right word, and the value of the re-write, the re-write, the re-write.

 

 

The fortunate among us have had teachers we think of with deep gratitude, those who directed us towards excellence or self-knowledge, the ones who loved us and let us know. But for the great teachers in our children’s lives there’s a different level of gratitude. I can’t articulate it. It can move me to tears. Because it’s pure luck. To have the right person introduced in their lives at exactly the right time. We know, as parents, our influence on our children is limited. At a certain point others step in to nurture their talents, shape their ambitions or widen their perspectives. I am a lucky, lucky mother in that regard. With each child I have seen the effect of great teachers. No, not the effect. Let me call it grace. The grace of influence.

 

 

The grace of her influence. Thank you, Ms. Samberg. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

 

 

To honor her I taped “When Giving is All We Have” to an albezia tree I pass daily on my shelter-in-place walks. She would not have loved this poem, I suspect. She favored harder-nosed sensibilities like her beloved Flannery O’Connor. Still, it speaks to her life’s work. The giving of her passion and expertise, her care and concern for her students, for their education, well-being and most of all for their character. It was her vocation to give. And that giving, in turn, if you count up the hundreds and hundreds of students she had over her many years of teaching, has exponential possibilities for goodness in the world.

 

 

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Now on to the poem. Ríos defines giving with a series of oppositions:  for better or for worse: loud and quiet; big though small; diamond but rough-set. It seems like algebra for some reason, all those variables—or maybe it’s more like philosophy. I know just a smidge more than squat about philosophy, but in thinking about the contradictions in this poem I did come across a description of Hegel’s dialectics (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) that seems apt:

 

Because Hegel believed that reason necessarily generates contradictions, as we will see, he thought new premises will indeed produce further contradictions.

 

 

Looking further into dialectical thinking, I came across an idea that deepens my experience of the poem (courtesy of the Institute of Educational Sciences):

 

Dialectical thinking refers to the ability to view issues from multiple perspectives and to arrive at the most economical and reasonable reconciliation of seemingly contradictory information and postures.

 

 

And what is the reconciliation of the contradictions Ríos puts forth? The answer is right in the poem:

 

Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,

But we read this book, anyway, over and again:

 

 

In other words, giving—however it manifests itself, for whatever reason it manifests itself, whatever the effect of its manifestation—giving is as old as humanity. Giving is a fundamental part of who we are. It’s what we do. In these terrible pandemic days it’s what we see, daily, and part of the frustration of our necessary isolation is the frustration of our impulse to give.

 

 

That’s as hopeful a note as any to leave my ruminations on a beautiful life ended too soon.

 

 

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Alberto Ríos was born in 1952 in a border town of Arizona. His father was Mexican, his mother British. He’s published ten books of poetry, a memoir and collections of short stories, and has won many awards and grants including an NEA fellowship and a Guggenheim. He’s a professor at Arizona State University and for two years served as poet laureate of Arizona.

 

 

After I taped the poem to the tree, I was happily surprised to discover Ríos own thoughts on this poem:

 

 

 

“This is a poem of thanks to those who live lives of service, which, I think, includes all of us—from the large measure to the smallest gesture, from care-giving to volunteerism to being an audience member or a reader.  I’ve been able to offer these words to many groups, not only as a poem but also as a recognition. We give for so many reasons, and are bettered by it.”

 

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For the tree lovers, a few more pictures—

 

 

 

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poem is on gate door

 

From “A Married State”

by Katherine Philips

 

A married state affords but little ease

The best of husbands are so hard to please.

This in wives’ careful faces you may spell

Though they dissemble their misfortunes well.

 

Someone wrote on Twitter the other day that being in lockdown reminded her of being married. This little excerpt from Katherine Philips’ poem is for all those quarantined with a less-than-perfect housemate.

 

My own housemate is a dear. He is dear even as he follows me around with supportive words on hand washing, although sometimes I have to remind myself of how dear he is when he doesn’t follow me around with supportive words on hand washing.

 

Reader, I wash my hands often and well.

 

You can link to the complete poem here.

 

Katherine Philips (1631/32 – 1664) was an English poet and translator. She was an intelligent child who read the Bible by the time she was four. Her father was a cloth merchant and had her educated at boarding school. She spoke several languages.

 

She was 16 when she married a Welsh landowner and member of Parliament. It was a strange match—he was 38 years older and the son of her mother’s second husband from another marriage. She and her husband (—cough—step-brother) had opposite political positions (her pro-royalist connections saved him from the executioner after King Charles II took the throne), but they seem to have been happy. Important to note that she wrote her sardonic anti-marriage poem in her early teens before she was married.

 

Still, her view of marriage seems jaundiced. When a friend remarried after widowhood, Philips wrote to her, “one may generally conclude the Marriage of a Friend to be the Funeral of a Friendship.”

 

Her husband encouraged her literary endeavors. She wrote over a hundred poems, many on the theme of female friendship which she wrote about in the tropes of courtly love. She translated and staged a play in London and Dublin, the first woman ever to have done so. She was the founder of the Society of Friendship, a literary group that wrote letters and poems to each other. Members of the group addressed each other with nicknames—hers was “The Matchless Orinda.”

 

She had two children. Her son died in infancy. She wrote his tombstone epitaph (in verse) and another poem, “On the Death of My First and Dearest Child, Hector Philips.” In spite of the elegant phraseology, a mother’s raw grief rips through—

 

Tears are my muse, and sorrow all my art,

    So piercing groans must be thy elegy.

 

Those piercing groans. Wow. Lines like that remind me how we are the same in our suffering, century to century, country to country.

 

She died in her early thirties of smallpox.

 

For anyone on Instagram who needs a break from the gloom-and-doom of Covid-19 news, link here and sign up for Wake Up and Dance. Two of my daughters, one in Prague, one in northern Michigan, are collaborating on the videos. They’ll make you smile and maybe even dance yourself. (Instagram name if you’re having trouble with the link: @w.akeupanddance)

 

 

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poem is on palm tree

 

Poem in Thanks

by Thomas Lux

 

Lord Whoever, thank you for this air

I’m about to in- and exhale, this hutch

in the woods, the wood for fire,

the light—both lamp and the natural stuff

of leaf-black fern, and wing.

For the piano, the shovel

for ashes, the moth-gnawed

blankets, the stone-cold water

stone-cold:  thank you.

Thank you, Lord, coming for

to carry me here–––where I’ll gnash

it out, Lord, where I’ll calm

and work, Lord, thank you

for the goddamn birds singing!

 

 

Thomas Lux’s “Poem in Thanks” is a good prayer for the self-described “spiritual but not religious,” all those people who call the woods their church and the birds their choir. Given modern distaste for high-holy formality and the corresponding love of irreverence, Lux has a big audience.

 

The speaker in the poem is on a retreat of sorts, trying to get work done or work things out. He’s holed up in the woods in an old cabin with an old blanket, a fire pit, and water from the creek. In other words, his basic needs are met. He has air to breathe, water, shelter, light, warmth and presumably food. For these he offers thanks, beginning and ending his prayer in less-than-ecclesiastical language:

 

Lord Whoever. . .

thank you

for the goddamn birds singing!

 

The poem has a wonderful slapdash spontaneous quality, as if the cranky poet were drawn into prayers of gratitude against his will.

 

Funny thing though. Look past the cheeky irreverence and improvisations, and there’s actually theology and structure (call it formality).

 

I was surprised to count the lines—fourteen—and realize Lux wrote his prayer as a sonnet.

 

And then surprised again to realize “Poem of Thanks” is less spoken prayer than a hymn. It’s no accident that

 

Thank you, Lord, coming for

to carry me here

 

echoes the old spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”:

 

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home

 

The last four lines, with the thrice-repeated, direct-address “Lord,” sound hymnal as well.

 

As for the theology, look no further than the first line, “thank you.” Gratitude is foundational to all religions, and Lux has trained his eye to see the graces in every part of life, the good and the bad—in the things we have that we need (Give us this day our daily bread); in those things we have that we need but aren’t perfect (the moth-gnawed blankets); in the things that are bonuses, a few levels-up on a Maslow scale (the ability to make music and art whether it be on the piano or on the page); and in those things that irritate and distract us from our work (the goddamn birds).

 

That Lux is a true believer in giving thanks for all things at all times is illustrated by this anecdote from poet, memoirist and novelist Mary Karr:

Poet Thomas Lux was somebody I saw a lot those days around Cambridge, since our babies were a year apart in age. One day after I’d been doing these perfunctory prayers for a while, I asked Lux—himself off the sauce for some years—if he’d ever prayed. He was barbecuing by a swimming pool for a gaggle of poets (Allen Grossman in a three-piece suit and watch fob was there that day, God love him). The scene comes back to me with Lux poking at meat splayed on the grill while I swirled my naked son around the swimming pool. Did he actually pray? I couldn’t imagine it—Lux, that dismal sucker.

 

Ever taciturn, Lux told me: I say thanks.

 

For what? I wanted to know.

 

. . . Back in Lux’s pool, I honestly couldn’t think of anything to be grateful for. I told him something like I was glad I still had all my limbs. That’s what I mean about how my mind didn’t take in reality before I began to pray. I couldn’t register the privilege of holding my blond and ringleted boy, who chortled and bubbled and splashed on my lap.

 

It was a clear day, and Lux was standing in his Speedo suit at the barbecue turning sausages and chicken with one of those diabolical-looking forks. Say thanks for the sky, Lux said, say it to the floorboards. This isn’t hard, Mare.

 

At some point, I also said to him, What kind of god would permit the Holocaust?

 

To which Lux said, You’re not in the Holocaust.

 

In other words, what is the Holocaust my business?

 

No one ever had an odder guru than the uber-ironic Thomas Lux, but I started following his advice by mouthing rote thank-you’s to the air, and, right off, I discovered something.

 

(You can read her complete essay here.)

 

I taped “Poem in Thanks” to a palm tree next to Hanalei’s Waioli Mission Church, established 1834.

 

I’ll re-post Lux’s biography from a past post.

Thomas Lux was born in 1946 in Massachusetts. He was the only child of parents who both held jobs that no longer exist—his mother was a telephone operator and his father was a milkman. His father worked seventeen years with hardly a day off until his son was old enough to take over the route for a week to give him time off. Neither parent graduated from high school, but Lux, a star athlete in high school, went on to graduate from Emerson College and earn his MFA from University of Iowa.

 

Lux was the Poet in Residence at Emerson College and taught at many universities, including Sarah Lawrence, Iowa, and Michigan. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship and three National Endowment for the Arts grants, among other awards.

 

He directed the poetry program at Georgia Tech. He was married three times, had one daughter, and died in 2017 of lung cancer.

 

 

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For the last pairing of January men poems, I’m featuring poems so opposite in tone it’s giving me an idea for a buddy comedy.

 

First up is John Berryman’s “Dream Song 14.” “Dream Song 14” is one of 385 dream songs told through Berryman’s alter-ego character of Henry. Henry sometimes speaks in the first person (as in this poem) and sometimes is referred to in the third (see second stanza).

 

I left it nestled in a display of graveyard blankets. (I had never heard of such a morbid thing till I moved to Michigan. Wonder if other Midwest states market greenery in this way.)

 

Dream Song 14

by John Berryman

 

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.

After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,

we ourselves flash and yearn,

and moreover my mother told me as a boy

(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored

means you have no

 

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no

inner resources, because I am heavy bored.

Peoples bore me,

literature bores me, especially great literature,

Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes

as bad as achilles,

 

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.

And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag

and somehow a dog

has taken itself & its tail considerably away

into mountains or sea or sky, leaving

behind: me, wag.

 

 

Confession:  I don’t like this poem. Never have. Snark irritates me. I love the real, and snark is its opposite; or more precisely, snark hides the real and must be wiped off like clown make-up to see the truer facial expression.

 

At the risk of sounding like the awkward girl whispering what she doesn’t like about the popular girl (not denying I have been in this position before), let me run down a list of what bothers me about this famous poem, beginning with that killer first line:

  • Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.

This strikes me as dishonest. An avoidance of pain. Which may be the point. Boredom hides depression and despair.

  • Tranquil hills & gin

Sounds try-hard to my ears, but maybe when the poem was published in 1969, this juxtaposition had a fresher, more original sound.

  • Peoples bore me.

Peoples? I get that Berryman needs to differentiate groups of people, however you classify them—ethnicity, nationality, religion—from love of people (in the third stanza, referring to Henry’s more open-hearted nature), but peoples will never not make my skin crawl.

 

So I ask you:  is this heavily-anthologized poem over-rated? Or is my reaction just a matter of personal taste?

 

Berryman’s biography is exhausting. Suffice it to say he was born in 1914, had a complicated childhood (suicide of his father), extra-marital affairs, three marriages, a late-life religious conversion, a history of alcohol abuse and depression. He jumped off a bridge in Minnesota in 1972.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now let us move on to a more emotive man, at least on the page. The speaker in Edward Field’s “A Journey” is feeling all the feels on his train ride. I taped the poem to a pole at an Amtrak station.

 

A Journey

by Edward Field

 

When he got up that morning everything was different:

He enjoyed the bright spring day

But he did not realize it exactly, he just enjoyed it.

 

And walking down the street to the railroad station

Past magnolia trees with dying flowers like old socks

It was a long time since he had breathed so simply.

 

Tears filled his eyes and it felt good

But he held them back

Because men didn’t walk around crying in that town.

 

Waiting on the platform at the station

The fear came over him of something terrible about to happen:

The train was late and he recited the alphabet to keep hold.

 

And in its time it came screeching in

And as it went on making its usual stops,

People coming and going, telephone poles passing,

 

He hid his head behind a newspaper

No longer able to hold back the sobs, and willed his eyes

To follow the rational weavings of the seat fabric.

 

He didn’t do anything violent as he had imagined.

He cried for a long time, but when he finally quieted down

A place in him that had been closed like a fist was open,

 

And at the end of the ride he stood up and got off that train:

And through the streets and in all the places he lived in later on

He walked, himself at last, a man among men,

With such radiance that everyone looked up and wondered.

 

 

“You just need a good cry,” I used to tell my kids, “then you’ll fell better.” Talk about a good cry—the poem’s speaker has a cry so good that

A place in him that had been closed like a fist was open

 

His transformation to a man among men is especially affecting because it was brought about by behavior not considered, even today, manly.

 

This is not a perfect poem. The claim that men didn’t walk around crying in that town seems a little silly (in what town do women walk around crying), but considering the rigid gender rules of the 50’s, the time in which the journey takes place (see link at end of post for more details), the phrase sets the context for the man’s newfound freedom.

 

Not perfect, but more importantly, real, and honest, and universal.

 

Since I’ve given short-shrift to Berryman’s biography, in fairness I can’t give too much space to Field.

Born 1924, he played cello in the family trio with his sisters on the radio, served in the Air Force as a navigator in WWII, worked as an actor and a typist, had a short affair with poet Frank O’Hara, taught poetry and published fiction with his long-time partner Neil Derrick.

 

I assume he’s still alive and if so he’s 94.

 

I love this anecdote he tells in an interview in Westbeth:

 

I gave a reading in Youngstown, Ohio—I guess at Youngstown State—and after I read, a woman who was a psychology teacher jumped up on the stage and said, “Yes, we must be free!” And then they carted her off. I guess I was a little too far out for Youngstown.

To learn more about the occasion for “A Journey” from the poet himself, link here.

 

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Here at the beginning of the 20thyear of the 21stcentury; in the spirit of “out with the old, in with the new”; bearing in mind the cartoon personification of the passing year as a weary white-haired fellow; in special consideration of those readers of age to shudder at Father Time; with a sympathetic nod to the male of the species who may in the present age feel unmoored and undervalued; in regards to certain 2019 Poem Elf pictures never posted; and finally, in celebration of using a year’s allotment of semi-colons in a single sentence—I offer you a few poems on men and aging.

 

(It’s true, I’m not the most desirable guest at a New Year’s Eve party.)

 

Anyway . . . as anyone who’s ever had to take keys away from an elderly male driver will tell you, this men and aging thing is fraught with loss. Loss of masculinity, status and potency. It ain’t pretty.

 

Full-steam ahead then.

 

I have six poems total and I’ll feature two paired poems per post. Today we have Thomas Lynch’s “How to Stay Alive” and Rick Cannon’s “Point of Arrival.”  Lynch is a mortician and writer here in southeast Michigan. The Undertaking, his 2009 collection of essays, is one of my favorites, and he has a new one out this year, The Depositions. Rick Cannon is a poet and teacher at Gonzaga High School in Washington, D.C. (featured in an early Poem Elf post, link here) and not coincidentally my nephew’s favorite teacher.

 

I left Lynch’s poem on a bench in the New York City subway.

 

How to Stay Alive

by Thomas Lynch

 

He found he had nothing of consequence

to say about the weather so he went

noiselessly about his sorry business—

a version of himself in which he kept

pace with his neighbors but at arm’s length

because his arms were too short and he ached

in ways he thought they’d hardly understand.

So he kept his distance, and assumed the stance

of someone he’d seen one time in a movie.

The sad sack in the poem is familiar as Prufrock and Walter Mitty, those characters who ache for emotional richness and settle for nothing of value. Lynch’s version—keeping pace with his neighbors but at a distance— seems to be in a race that he doesn’t want to win. It’s enough to be in the pack, to exist, to survive. He mistakenly believes—how many of us do too?— that in order to stay alive his true self has to die.

 

Cannon’s “Point of Arrival” is marginally less bleak. I stuck it on a twig by a random mailbox. Apologies to the owner if he took it personally.

 

POINT OF ARRIVAL

by Rick Cannon

He stands barefoot on the gray concrete,
the iron season cooling the blood
dull red through his flat slow soles.
He’s forgotten why he came to the garage
and stands in his shaggy robe before hammer,
awl and ratchet, dumb, blank,
as if stunned by a piece of news.

Out the window he sees the tight copse,
stripped spar and mast shrouded in pale
yards of light.

Still he stands, lost,
but beginning perhaps to sense, as dawn
will seep beneath a blind, that from far away
and through much trial he’s come
exactly here. And as he stands issuing

breath, that slow rhythm leaf by leaf,
he feels the earth shift slightly
under tonnage of wind
toward white winter.

For several minutes he stays his feet flat
on the stinging stone, a robed man
in a cold garage accepting his extremity,
seeing it had always been so:
even from the beginning he’d been,
by far, out too far to survive
more than just this little while.

 

A man in his bathrobe standing stock-still in his garage in the early morning is always going to worry me. Something is dying here, and it’s not just the late-autumn leaves. Will it end in suicide? Are we looking at the onset of dementia? The tools of the man’s former industriousness, the hammer, awl and ratchet, sit before him like a language he doesn’t understand anymore. He’s come smack up against his mortality. Perhaps his failures too.

 

I say Cannon’s poem is marginally less bleak than Lynch’s because at least this man feels connected to the beauty of nature. And he seems to be a work in progress. His acceptance of his loss, whatever it may be, happens as we watch, whereas Lynch’s man is stagnant from the moment we meet him.

 

Gee, welcome to Debbie Downer’s New Year’s celebration. More to come.

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On a fall day in New York City I left a poem in Central Park . . .

poem is on bench under orange sign 

Women and Horses

by Maxine Kumin

 

“After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric.”

-Theodor Adorno

 

After Auschwitz:  after ten of my father’s kin—

the ones who stayed—starved, then were gassed in the camps.

After Vietnam, after Korea, Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan.

After the Towers. This late in the life of our haplessly orbiting world

let us celebrate whatever scraps the muse, that naked child,

can pluck from the still-smoldering dumps.

 

If there’s a lyre around, strike it! A body, stand back, give it air!

Let us have sparrows laying their eggs in bluebird boxes.

Let us have bluebirds insouciantly nesting elsewhere.

Lend us navel-bared teens, eyebrowed-and-nose-ringed prodigies

crumbling breakfast bagels over dogeared and jelly-smeared texts.

Allow the ablebodied among us to have steamy sex.

 

Let there be fat old ladies in flowery tent dresses at bridge tables.

Howling babies in dirty diapers and babies serenely at rest.

War and détente will go on, détente and renewed tearings asunder,

we can never break free from the dark and degrading past.

Let us see life again nevertheless, in the words of Isaac Babel

as a meadow over which women and horses wander.

 

—and a sister-poem in Chelsea on the back of a bike—

 

Wartime Sunday

by Anne Porter

 

In honor of Eugene Atget, photographer of Paris

 

From the time of a long-ago war that destroyed only far-away cities

I remember a Sunday walk with the littlest of our sons.

The vomit of Saturday night was wet in the doorways,

No one was up, First Avenue empty and gray,

So we turned a corner to stare at the three bridges,

Great webs of stillness over the East River.

 

On our way home, passing the locked-up shops

We saw one window heaped with tarnished lamps

Guitars and radios and dusty furs

And there among them a pawned christening-dress

White as a waterfall.

 

When I was visiting my son in New York City a month ago, I had no plan to pair “Women and Horses” and “Wartime Sunday.” They were just two poems I happened to have in my purse. But looking at them now nuzzled up together in the same post, I feel vindicated in my matchmaking skills which have sometimes been undervalued by my near and dear.

 

To be sure poets Anne Porter and Maxine Kumin are an odd couple. One was a devout Catholic, the other a secular Jew. One travelled in bohemian circles (that would be the Catholic), the other lived quietly in the countryside. But both witnessed massive destruction in their lifetimes:  the Great Depression, the Holocaust, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War 9/11, and all the wars up until 2011 when Porter died at age 100. As mothers and poets during roughly the same time period, they have common ground and much to discuss.

 

Where they meet-up in these poems (if we can continue the dating metaphor) is in the question, “How do we go on?” In the face of a dark and degrading past, as Kumin puts it, how can there be a nevertheless? For Kumin the muse is the answer and for it’s Porter grace, but grace and the muse are close relatives if not twins. (As a child Kumin went for a short while to a Catholic school next door to her house so I suspect the idea of grace wasn’t foreign to her.)

 

Finding vomit on a doorstep (wet, fresh vomit) and the still-smoldering dumps everywhere in our haplessly orbiting world would surely drag us down to despair if that’s all we could see. But in the ruins are wondrous things, great webs of stillness:  old ladies playing bridge, teenagers reading at breakfast, a christening gown white as a waterfall  in a pawn shop window. For those with a discerning eye, grace—call it art if you want—abounds and renews the world again and again.

 

The particular form of grace, that is, what makes things new again, is not the same for these two poets nor for each one of us. That in itself is a marvel to revive the glummest soul.

 

As I was pondering this I came across an excerpt from a Nabokov essay:

 

“In a sense we are all crashing to death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles—no matter the imminent peril—these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so distant from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.”

—Vladimir Nabokov

 

And here we have uncovered the attraction between these two poems:  To wonder at trifles no matter the imminent perils is, for Nabokov and for Kumin and Porter, the highest form[s] of consciousness.

 

I’ll re-print bios of both poets from past posts.

Poet Maxine Kumin was born in Philadelphia in 1925. She went to Radcliffe, now part of Harvard, and swam competitively there.  She took a seminar with novelist Wallace Stegner, and his criticism of her work discouraged her from writing poetry.  For a long time she wrote poems privately.

 

As a mother of young children, Kumin took a poetry class at an adult education center.  There she met poet Anne Sexton.  The two mothers, both at home, became close friends and stayed close up until the day of Sexton’s suicide.  Together they wrote four children’s books.  (The books were illustrated by Evaline Ness, wife of FBI agent Eliot Ness, the inspiration for the “Untouchables” television show.)  Kumin was first published at age 36, and subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize, the Ruth Lilly prize, and most of the big honorifics a poet can receive.

 

She and her husband Victor, a chemical engineer who worked with Oppeheimer on the atomic bomb*, had three children and  lived on a farm in New Hampshire where they raised organic vegetables and bred horses. At age 74 Kumin almost died in a horse driving accident. She broke her neck, ribs, and punctured a lung but recovered and continued to write poetry into her eighties.

 

She’s often compared to another northeastern pastoral poet—she’s been called the feminist Robert Frost.  But after reading some of her poems and marveling at her non-writing daring-do, I’m starting to think of her as a feminist Ernest Hemingway:  physical, fearless, unembellished. 

She died in 2014 at age 88.

*Victor Kumin refused to continue work on the atomic bomb after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  He was threatened with court martial but in the end was honorably discharged.  For a full account of his fascinating story, link here.

 *  *  *

 

Anne Porter’s literary career was launched when she was 83 with the publication of her first book of poetry. Can I say that again? Her literary career was launched when she was 83. Surely that’s the most hopeful, life-affirming sentence I’ve ever written. And she is the sweetest most adorable poet I’ve ever encountered. Watch this video to get an idea. (Best line: she opens a letter and says, “Oh, from the Pope.”)

Born in Boston to a wealthy family, she attended Bryn Mawr and married the American painter and art critic Fairfield Porter. (A favorite of mine. Link to his work to see for yourself.) Their marriage was not an easy one. He indulged his artistic temperament and sexual drives while she tended to their five children* and hosted his friends for months on end at their homes in Southampton and Maine. Lovely that some of these guests were his lovers, male and female, but to be fair, she had a liason of her own.

Their life together fascinates me. I’ve lost a good hour following their story link to link, drawn down down the rabbit hole of mid-century bohemia. Their social and familial circles pull in such a number of artists and intellectuals, it’s a veritable Bloomsbury group.

Portrait of Anne by Fairfield Porter

Like so many other wives of writers and artists, Anne Porter remained hidden and overlooked until the death of her husband. I have a vision of her tottering on her walker, step by step, on through the heap of egos, drama, passion and duty that blocks her path, until at last she emerges cheerfully on the other side, an artist in her own right. She died in 2011.

 

 

*Her oldest son was mentally disabled in some way, either autistic or schizophrenic. When he died in 1980 she wrote the heartbreaking “For My Son Johnny.”

 

For more information on the remarkable Porter, read this profile in the Wall Street Journal.

 For a review of her most recent collection of poems, link here.

 

 

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poem is on futon 

 

Respite

by Jane Hirshfield

 

Day after quiet day passes.

I speak to no one besides the dog.

To her,

I murmur much I would not otherwise say.

 

We make plans

then break them on a moment’s whim.

She agrees;

though sometimes bringing

to my attention a small blue ball.

 

Passing the fig tree

I see it is

suddenly huge with green fruit,

which may ripen or not.

 

Near the gate,

I stop to watch

the sugar ants climb the top bar

and cross at the latch,

as they have now in summer for years.

 

In this way I study my life.

It is,

I think today,

like a dusty glass vase.

 

A little water,

a few flowers would be good,

I think;

but do nothing. Love is far away.

Incomprehensible sunlight falls on my hand.

 

 

If a friend told you her life was a dusty glass vase you might ask what’s going on, give her a consoling hug and pass on the number of a good therapist. Somehow Jane Hirshfield says the very same thing and she sounds . . . self-satisfied? Pleased? Zen at the very least. That’s the Hirshfield magic. Her meditative air fills her poems, dark though they may be, with light.

 

Take another look at that dusty glass vase. Yes, it’s empty, un-filled, unused for some time. But not depressing. An empty vase is rich with possibility and ready for beauty. Ready for a little water and a few flowers.

 

I think;/but do nothing the speaker says. Around her is a world of activity. The dog pushes the ball to her feet, the fig tree bursts with new fruit, the busy ants march onward. She watches but doesn’t feel the desire to be busy herself.

 

What wondrous stillness in this poem. Each experience—dog, tree, sugar ant, sunshine—is presented as if Hirshfield were holding them out in her palm one by one for us to see. My, my, look at this, she seems to say quietly. And so she draws us in to her meditative state. The short lines only heighten the quality of attention. There’s a precision and delicacy at work that bring to mind Helen Mirren’s unmatched articulation. I’d really love to hear her read this poem aloud.

 

It ends so softly that the drama and tension of the last two lines nearly escaped me. We seem to be headed down the path of lugubriosity—

 

Love is far away

 

but it’s only a set-up for the line that follows. Suddenly we find ourselves bathed in wonder and beauty:

 

Incomprehensible sunlight falls on my hand.

 

I left “Respite” on a Baltimore sidewalk in mid-summer. Since then I’ve been chiding myself for letting it languish away in my photo stream. But now I’m glad I waited so long to post it. Turns out it’s very of-the-moment and on-the-nose this early November afternoon.

 

Hirshfield describes an in-between space, one between observation and action. For some time these past few weeks I’ve been sitting in the same—but without the equanimity she has. My in-between is more malaise than meditation. More a wet noodle than a coiled spring.

 

Readers, bear with me a moment. Guests are arriving to the pity party HIrshfield so wisely avoids, and I want to look at each face before I sneak out the back to a more festive event.

 

The first guest is the re-boot of my years-ago empty nest syndrome, as all four of my children made moves—nearly simultaneously—that brought home the fact that none will live ever live within three hours of us, and that my husband and I are more and more extraneous to their lives, as it should be, of course. That guest came in early fall and got the other guests riled up, guests who had been in the room the whole year, ignored by me but suddenly wanting attention. A dead dog. A mother-in-law, who had lived with us, deceased nearly a year now. Serious health issues plaguing my extended family.

 

And then there are the lesser guests who behave as if they were the guests of honor: a finished novel sitting in the proverbial drawer, a novel half-heartedly and unsuccessfully marketed and subsequently rejected; a new novel stale and plodding; new writing projects begun and abandoned; my blog set aside and now so judgy of my laziness.

 

Tiny problems. First-world problems. Nothing to look at here except I’m usually a duck’s back to problems. And getting side-tracked by such commonplace experiences was making me feel like  . . . well, like a dusty glass vase.

 

Enter this poem, which I had positioned mostly as a pun (the futon inviting “Respite,” you see). The poem has tapped me on the shoulder, very gently, and said, There’s better light over here, let’s examine these things together. The in-between place, it turns out, isn’t a dead zone, it isn’t a place where nothing happens and nothing ever will because I was never good enough anyway and people get sick and the lucky ones grow old and die withered. No. It’s a mid-day nap. It’s a sit-down. It’s a church pew. It’s a fertile place, a place to gather the energy of wonder and stillness.

 

I’ve mentioned before a favorite poem of childhood, one I can still recite from memory, and I do hate to repeat myself, but A.A. Milne’s “Halfway Down” belongs to this moment and it’s running through my head, so here goes. The poem begins:

 

Halfway down the stairs

is a stair

where I sit

 

In the second stanza Milne switches to “halfway up the stairs” (emphasis mine), then muses that this chosen step is not up and not down but has its own geography—

 

It isn’t really

Anywhere!

It’s somewhere else

Instead!

 

Even as a little girl I liked that halfway down stair. A good place to observe what was happening above or below, and there was always a lot going on in our household of thirteen. Anyway, that’s where I am, halfway down the stairs, patient now, observing, biding my time to move, up or down, I don’t know.

 

I’m re-posting Hirshfield’s biography from a past post:

 

Jane Hirshfield was born in 1953 in New York City.  After graduating from the first Princeton class to include women, she moved to San Francisco to study Zen Buddhism for eight years. She’s published eight books of poetry and, as a translator of Japanese poetry, helped popularize tanka in the United States. She’s won numerous awards and taught at many universities including Stanford, Duke and Univerisity of Virginia.

 

I read an interview with her from PalettePoetry.com and came across this question-and-answer which I suspect is relevant to “Ask Much, the Voice Suggested.”

 

Q:  HOW DO YOU CLIMB OUT OF A DRY SPELL OF WRITING?

JH: By longing. I grow lonely for poems, the way you would grow lonely for an absent lover. And then they return. Longing is the ladder we meet on.

 

 

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