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poem is on bulletin board under rainbow

poem is on bulletin board under rainbow

 

Sudden

by Nick Flynn

 

If it had been a heart attack, the newspaper

might have used the word massive,

as if a mountain range had opened

inside her, but instead

 

it used the word suddenly, a light coming on

 

in an empty room. The telephone

 

fell from my shoulder, a black parrot repeating

                         something happened, something awful

 

a sunday, dusky. If it had been

 

terminal, we could have cradled her

as she grew smaller, wiped her mouth,

 

said good-bye. But it was sudden,

 

how overnight we could be orphaned

& the world become a bell we’d crawl inside

& the ringing all we’d eat.

 

Image 1

 

(I posted this on Twitter a while back and thought I’d re-post on the blog for the non-Twitter folks.)

 

This poem-elfing goes back to the spring of 2016 when I was visiting my mom in the hospital. After she died I kept these pictures to myself because the thought that I had put the poem on a bulletin board near her room seemed awful, misguided, unfeeling. She never would have seen it, but who did? Did it cause pain to someone who just lost a loved one, suddenly or otherwise?

 

Now, a year and a few months later, her death still hurts, and the poem brings up new questions. Is death easier if it’s drawn out and harder if it’s sudden? I don’t know. This past week there’s been two deaths in my circle, one unexpected, one after a long illness. Both feel sudden. I suspect the grief in Flynn’s poem rings true (pardon the pun) for the grievers in both situations–

 

how overnight we could be orphaned

& the world become a bell we’d crawl inside

& the ringing all we’d eat 

 

Here’s a short bio of poet 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 leaning against bread case on top of counter

 

To Luck

by W.S. Merwin

In the cards and at the bend in the road
we never saw you
in the womb and in the crossfire
in the numbers
whatever you had your hand in
which was everything
we were told never to put
our faith in you
to bow to you humbly after all
because in the end there was nothing
else we could do
but not to believe in you

still we might coax you with pebbles
kept warm in the hand
or coins or the relics
of vanished animals
observances rituals
not binding upon you
who make no promises
we might do such things only
not to neglect you
and risk your disfavor
oh you who are never the same
who are secret as the day when it comes
you whom we explain
as often as we can
without understanding

 

 

Maryland is one of the best places to get a really good steak-and-cheese (that’s a sub sandwich, for those who haven’t had the pleasure), so when I was back in my old digs last week I decided to chow down at a local deli. Turns out the deli didn’t offer the best version of that delicacy, which should be greasy and mayonnaise-y and held together in a crusty roll, but I couldn’t be disappointed because it was good enough, and just eating it brought back a nice memory of passing a foot-long steak-and-cheese around the table with my sisters, each having a bite till hardly anything was left for my husband who bought the sub in the first place.

 

Just so, reading this ode to luck—-more of a hymn actually—brings to mind the luck that has shaped my life, the good luck which is so often just the absence of bad luck.

 

The poem feels ancient and dark, the second half in particular. It frightens me a little. Bad luck lurks around the poem’s edges, and I wonder if the person who found “To Luck” pocketed it as a talisman or tossed it over her shoulder like salt.

in his younger days–very handsome!

W.S. Merwin was born in New York City in 1927. His father was a Presbyterian minister. He graduated from Princeton, and after a year of graduate study in Romance languages, traveled through Europe working as a translator and tutor to children from wealthy families. In 1976 he moved to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism, eventually settling on an old pineapple plantation in Maui, where he still lives today with his third wife.

 

Merwin’s circle has included many luminaries of the poetry world—he was classmates with Galwell Kinell, pupil to John Berryman, and friend of James Wright, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.

 

 

He was an anti-war activist during the Vietnam War and donated the prize money from the Pulitzer he won to a draft resistance movement. He continues to work as an activist, these days focusing on saving the rainforests of Hawaii.

 

He’s won too many awards and honors to list. I’ll just mention he’s a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the 2010 Poet Laureate of the United States, and leave it at that.

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poem is resting atop an upright rug

A Jacquard Shawl
by Ted Kooser
A pattern of curly acanthus leaves,
and woven into one corner
in blue block letters half an inch tall:
MADE FROM WOOL FROM SHEEP
KILLED BY DOGS. 1778.
As it is with jacquards,
the design reverses to gray on blue
when you turn it over,
and the words run backward
into the past. The rest of the story
lies somewhere between one side
and the other, woven into
the plane where the colors reverse:
the circling dogs, the terrified sheep,
the meadow stippled with blood,
and the weaver by lamplight
feeding what wool she was able to save
into the faintly bleating, barking loom.
These rugs aren’t shawls and they sure aren’t jacquard, but they are blue and they are woven (though surely not by hand), so here landed Ted Kooser’s poem.
When I read this poem I find myself rubbing my fingers together as if a shawl were between them, as if by feeling the shawl I connect myself with a history, as if by connecting myself with a history I connect myself to other living beings, the sheep, the dogs, the weaver. I love this poem, I’ve loved it for a long time, and I hope the rug shopper who finds it loves it too.
Ted Kooser is a favorite here at Poem Elf. Here’s a short bio from a previous post:

Kooser is something of an ambassador for getting poetry in the hands of “regular” readers.  He writes a free column for newspapers (American Life in Poetry), and started a publishing company, Wildflower Press (no longer operating) to circulate contemporary poets.  He strikes me as a lovely man whose ambition is not to enrich his life with literary success but for literature to enrich other people:  “I write for other people,” Kooser says, “with the hope that I can help them to see the wonderful things within their everyday experiences. In short, I want to show people how interesting the ordinary world can be if you pay attention.”

 

 

Ted Kooser comes from and lives in the ordinary, un-rarified world of the Great Plains.  He was born in 1939 in Iowa and has lived most of his life in Nebraska.  He began his career as a high school teacher but worked most of his career as a vice president at a life insurance company.  Here’s a wonderful fact about Kooser:  he flunked out of a graduate writing program (I’m not sure how you do that) which didn’t prevent him from becoming the Poet Laureate from 2004-06.  His work is deemed “accessible,” and therefore has received less critical attention than it deserves.

 

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poem is on barstool in foreground

 

Things

by Fleur Adcock

There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.

 

 

Just a reminder of a few Things before the start of the holiday weekend so you won’t have Worse Things to deal with come Monday (or Wednesday if you’ve got a long break).

Poet Fleur Adcock was born in 1934 in Auckland, New Zealand, but spent World War II in England. She moved back to New Zealand to attend university, and then made her career as a librarian in London before turning to writing and translating full-time.

 

Although this poem falls under “light verse,” her other work does not, and she has won many awards, among them the very grand-sounding “Queen’s Medal for Poetry.”

 

For a droll profile of this very English poet, link here.

 

Happy Fourth of July, everyone!

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At a rest stop somewhere along the Ohio Turnpike:

poem rests on travel brochures, center of the picture

 

Vacation

by Wendell Berry

Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was having it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.
Poet Wendell Berry (b. 1934) is an interesting fellow and prolific writer. Link here for more details. The short version:  he’s a poet, novelist, essayist, environmental activist but not wholly a traditional one, and full-time farmer. He was friends with fellow Kentuckian Thomas Merton, the famous monk who wrote Seven Story Mountain. 

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the poem’s first home

 

“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

 

 

A few weeks back I left this excerpt from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass on the Maha’ulepu Trail on the island of Kauai. Maha’ulepu is revered not only as the last undeveloped coastline in southern Kauai, but also as a Hawaiian heritage site, with ancient burial grounds, ruins of a heiau (Hawaiian temple), and the bones of extinct species still being discovered.

 

The trail, 8 miles round trip, runs along limestone cliffs high above the crashing surf, dropping to empty beaches and rising up again. On one side of the trail are ancient fossils, petroglyphs, and caves, and on the other a lush golf course and mountain view. Each turn of the sandy path brings an ever more beautiful view. It was tough to decide where to leave the poem I carried in my pocket.

 

my niece adds to the natural beauty around her

 

I first attached it to a twig and stuck it in the sand, but the day was windy and would quickly turn Whitman’s words into trash. I was not going to be the haole who left trash in a place of such archeological, historical and spiritual significance.

 

So I walked on. Then I remembered that further up on the trail was a hideaway spot where visitors are encouraged to leave something behind on a makeshift altar to friendship and aloha.

 

So there the prose poem found a home.

wonder if it’s still there

 

I’m calling this a “prose poem” but it’s actually taken from an essay that prefaces Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Leaves, our quintessential American epic, is a collection of 343 poems (originally published as twelve and re-issued and expanded throughout Whitman’s life) that are optimistic in tone, democratic in spirit, innovative in form, and bold in subject matter. Whitman was after a new and looser form of poetry, a new openness towards the body and sexuality, a new approach to race relations, and a new American religion. Still, there’s something ancient about his words. They sound as if they were etched on stone tablets. I’m no Whitman scholar, but I noticed right away how similar the first sentence of Whitman’s paragraph is to Exodus 12:11. This is the passage where God gives Moses instructions for the first Passover:

 

This is how you shall eat it: with your waist girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand

 

More to the point, the same sentence of Whitman’s has kinship with Exodus 19, the passage where God gives Moses the Ten Commandments:

 

This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: Exodus 19

 

The echo must be deliberate. The Old Testament structure is the perfect foil for the new American commandments Whitman offers. In place of ten commandments, he gives twelve. In place of Thou shalt not’s (eight of the ten, anyway), he offers You shall. His commands are all stated affirmatively. And then there’s the content, which is anti-command-following, at least anti the rules people of his time were accustomed to. Re-examine, dismiss, he says, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown. And this, my hands-down favorite: STAND UP FOR THE STUPID AND CRAZY. I put it in all caps because in this age of extreme division, it needs to be shouted. People of all political persuasions would do well to think, STAND UP FOR THE STUPID AND CRAZY, every time they encounter views opposite their own.

 

The covenant, too, differs sharply from the one in Exodus. The Israelites’ “reward” for following the commandments was to be called God’s chosen people. The reward for following Whitman’s is to be called a poem, a living, breathing poem. From between the lashes of your eyes to every joint in your body the flesh becomes word and not the other way around.

 

Because I left Whitman’s piece in Hawaii, an unlikely spot if there ever was one for the words of a native New Yorker, I can’t help but think of another set of commandments. Or to put it differently, another guide for righteous living. I’m talking about the Aloha Spirit, and it’s got nothing to do with leis and hula dancers. Hawaiians take the Aloha Spirit so seriously they even put it in their state constitution.

 

Even though it’s long and will stretch the length of this post past anyone’s patience, I want to print the law in whole. I leave it to others to write the dissertation on how Whitman’s philosophy relates to the A.S. law–I only suggest that although one celebrates the individual and the other a culture of collectivism, both place a high value on connection, authenticity and the spiritual aspects of life.

 

Full Text of THE ALOHA SPIRIT LAW

 

[§5-7.5] The Aloha Spirit.

 

(a) The Aloha Spirit is the coordination of mind and heart within each person. It brings each person to the Self. Each person must think and emote good feelings to others. In the contemplation and presence of the life force, Aloha, the following unuhi laulâ loa (free translation) may be used:

 

* Akahai, meaning kindness to be expressed with tenderness;

* Lôkahi, meaning unity, to be expressed with harmony;

* Olu`olu, meaning agreeable, to be expressed with pleasantness;

* Ha`aha`a, meaning humility, to be expressed with modesty;

* Ahonui, meaning patience, to be expressed with perseverance.

 

These are traits of character that express the charm, warmth and sincerity of Hawaii’s people. It was the working philosophy of native Hawaiians and was presented as a gift to the people of Hawaii.

 

* Aloha is more than a word of greeting or farewell or a salutation.

* Aloha means mutual regard and affection and extends warmth in caring with no obligation in return.

* Aloha is the essence of relationships in which each person is important to every other person for collective existence.

* Aloha means to hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen and to know the unknowable.

 

(b) In exercising their power on behalf of the people and in fulfillment of their responsibilities, obligations and service to the people, the legislature, governor, lieutenant governor, executive officers of each department, the chief justice, associate justices, and judges of the appellate, circuit, and district courts may contemplate and reside with the life force and give consideration to The Aloha Spirit. [L 1986, c 202, §1]

 

 

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was born in Long Island, the second of nine children. His mother and his father, a carpenter, were sympathetic to Quaker thought but never actually became Quakers. The same is true of Whitman throughout his life.

 

The family was poor and forced to move often. When he was eleven Whitman quit school and started to work, first as an office boy in a lawyer’s office and then as an apprentice to a printer, where he stayed till he was seventeen. He taught in a one-room schoolhouse for five years, and in his early twenties became a full-time journalist and started a weekly newspaper. He worked as an editor for newspapers in Brooklyn, Long Island and New Orleans. Meanwhile he was writing the poems that would form the original Leaves of Grass, which he produced and published himself in 1855. The sexual content in the book was controversial—even banned in Boston–and over the years Whitman failed to get work and lost work because of it.

 

During the Civil War he served as a nurse and later as a government clerk. The last eighteen years of his life he faced serious health issues but continued to work on new editions of his masterwork. He published the “deathbed” version only four months before he died at age 72 of tuberculosis.

 

Leaves of Grass has inspired more than mere controversy—it’s inspired writers as diverse as Virginia Woolf, Allen Ginsburg and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s been translated into every major language and continues to inspire both pop culture (Gilmore Girls, Dead Poet’s Society, Breaking Bad, Levi’s commercials,) and more highbrow pursuits (Iggy Pop’s recitation is worth listening to; here’s one by Lana del Rey, and here a nude dance interpretation), not to mention romantic ones. (Bill Clinton’s gift to Monica Lewinsky, remember?)

 

 

** If you want to read more about Leaves of Grass, link to this this piece by poet Robert Haas. Interestingly, in the excerpt from his book (scroll down when you link), Haas mentions that poet Galway Kinnell once said that Leaves of Grass is so rich in vowel sounds it might as well have been written in Hawaiian.

 

 

 

 

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poem fragment on wall in foreground

poem fragment on wall in foreground

 

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

from T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

 

image-1

 

Sometimes you rifle down into your purse and find treasure. Quarters for the meter, a lipstick you forgot about, a funeral card for someone dear. The same with pictures on your phone, which at least for me, are taken and re-taken to get the light right or goofy expressions eliminated, and then sit buried with thousands of others photos in cyberspace till your storage is full.

 

So with these pictures. I happened upon them because I was missing my daughter who’s studying abroad. I pulled up pictures from my visit to her in early November and found this excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” (Link to the full poem here.)

 

Not bragging (or am I) but I do like how the yellow light looks so seedy, the way I’ve always imagined Prufrock’s streets–

Streets that follow like a tedious argument

of insidious intent

 

Some of you may already have seen this from my Twitter account. I’m pulling it out for my blog because posting it on Twitter led me to a beautiful video I want to share.

 

Another tweeter (DareToEatAPeach@twitter.com) shared a link to a video interpretation of the poem. Actually, I shouldn’t call it an interpretation. The actor in the video, Daniel Henshaw, calls the film a “response” to the poem, and the poem a “love song to existence.”

screen-shot-2016-12-12-at-10-57-31-am

 

The film is directed by Laura Scrivano, produced by The Passion Films, and filmed in New York.

 

It’s only eight minutes long and worth watching. I loved it. It’s quiet and mesmerizing with lots of cigarrette-smoking, something I don’t often see anymore. You’ll hear the old familiar poem anew. Link here. 

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