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downtown Detroit

 

Beginning of November

by Franz Wright

 

The light is winter light.

You’ve already felt it

before you can open your eyes,

and now it’s too late

to prepare yourself

for this gray originless

sorrow that’s filling the room. It’s not winter. The light is

winter light,

and you’re alone.

At last you get up:

and suddenly notice you’re holding

your body without the heart

to curse its lonely life, it’s suffering

from cold and from the winter

light that fills the room

like fear. And all at once you hug it tight,

the way you might hug

somebody you hate,

if he came to you in tears.

 

 

Why have I collected so many of these bleak Franz Wright poems?

 

Probably for the same reason I like the music of Leonard Cohen. And the face of German actress Nina Hoss. And subtitled movies with barren landscapes, colorless cityscapes and violin music in the background. And the very November light of this poem,

 

this gray originless

sorrow that’s filling the room.

 

Because sometimes the world has too much raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens and you just need to take out your own personal collection of sorrowful things and examine them, one by one. Wright is the master of that domain.

 

I’m imagining a Franz Wright-Julie Andrews sing-off. She’s in her high-necked white nightgown. Her face beams as she hugs a pillow to her chest. He’s in old boxers. She warbles on about cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels while under her silver tones his voice rumbles out an opposing truth—

 

you’re holding

your body without the heart

to curse its lonely life

 

Enjoy November, everyone.

 

Here’s a biography of Wright I’ve posted several times previously.

Franz Wright’s face is his biography. This is what a hard life looks like. But it’s a heroic face too, considering the suffering he lived with: beatings by his father, worse beatings by his stepfather, parental abandonment, manic-depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Like writer Mary Karr, his onetime colleague and friend, he overcame addiction and converted to Catholicism, finding some measure of stability in the last sixteen years of his life.

 

Franz Wright (1953-2015) was born in Austria where his father, the famous poet James Wright, was studying on a Fulbright scholarship. The older Wright left the family when Franz was eight, and only stayed in sporadic contact with the family. When Franz was fifteen he sent his father a poem, and his father wrote back, “Well I’ll be damned. You’re a poet. Welcome to hell.”

 

The younger Wright graduated from Oberlin College in 1977. In 1984 he was winning awards and teaching at Emerson College when he was fired for “drinking related activities.” He sunk into a years-long depression, wasn’t able to write, and attempted suicide.

 

In 1999 he married a former student, Elizabeth Oehklers. He converted to Catholicism, got sober and was able to write again.

 

He died earlier this year of lung cancer at age 62.

 

 

 

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poem is against pillar next to honey pot

 

The Problem of Gratified Desire

by Marie Ponsot

 

If she puts honey in her tea

and praises prudence in the stirring up

she drinks, finally,

a drop of perfect sweetness

hot at the bottom of the cup.

 

There will be

pleasures more complex than it

(pleasure exchanged were infinite)

but none so cheap

more neat or definite.

 

 

I just came across a different version of Marie Ponsot’s “The Problem With Gratified Desire.” An earlier collection shows this poem with the line (She is 15 years old) under the title. The version I used, from 2016’s Collected Poems, deleted that. I wonder why the line was taken out. I like it. It adds a dimension I had missed before.

 

Now that I know the age of “she,” the future tense in the second stanza has a wistful air. A mother perhaps, observing her daughter drinking tea and seeing, all at once, loss and plenty, innocence and experience.

 

This poem reminds me of Thomas Lux’s “A Little Tooth,” both in its rhyme scheme that harkens back the childhood pleasures of listening to nursery rhymes, and the subject matter, which calls up the very adult pleasures and complications of sex.

 

“The Problem of Gratified Desire” is part of a set of poems dealing with proposed “problems.” Also in the series are the “Problem of Freedom and Commitment,” “The Problem of Loving-Kindness,” “The Problem of Fiction” (and five or six others), each “problem” connected to a particular age of the girl in the poem.

 

My question to you: Why is there subject-verb disagreement in this line—

 

(pleasure exchanged were infinite)

 

I don’t think it’s a typo. It appears that way in all versions.

 

I left the poem at the condiment station in a coffee shop in Chicago.

 

Here’s a biography of Marie Ponsot from an earlier posting. Important to note that shortly after I wrote it, Ponsot won the prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. At the ripe old age of 91!

 

Marie Ponsot was born in Queens, New York in 1921.  She graduated from a women’s college in Brooklyn and went on to earn her master’s degree in seventeenth century literature at Columbia University.  After World War II she went to Paris and married the French painter Claude Ponsot.  She had seven children with him, one daughter born in Paris and six sons when they moved back to the States.  She divorced and worked many years as a translator of French children’s books to support her large family.  In 1957 she published her first book of poetry through a connection with Beat poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  The book’s reception was overshadowed by another book published by Ferlinghetti, Allan Ginsberg’s Howl, and Ponsot seemingly disappeared from the world of poetry.

 

Although Ponsot would not publish for another twenty-four years, she continued to write, late at night after the children were in bed.  When she was in late middle age, she published her second book and began to garner attention and awards.  Unfortunately she still doesn’t seem to have the fame she deserves:  her biographical entry in Poetry Foundation’s website is woefully short, a mere paragraph.

 

Her life story reminds me of another Catholic poet, the marvelous Anne Porter.  Porter was also married to a painter, raised a large family and found recognition late in life.

 

As much attachment as I have to “Among Women,” I’ve discovered that Ponsot has been a part of my life even before I even read the poem.  I was delighted to read that she translated the Golden Book of Fairy Tales. It’s an indelible part of my childhood.  Many a night I spent with that book, reading in the bathroom because lights were supposed to be out.  Children, too, wander as best they can.

 

The book is still in print.  My children loved it.  Once in a while I’ll pull it out and wonder over the beautiful illustrations and strange stories.

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The Sun

by Judah Al-Harizi

 

Look: the sun has spread its wings

over the earth to dispel the darkness.

 

Like a great tree, with its roots in heaven,

and its branches reaching down to the earth.

 

 

Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up to headline like this:

 

SUN DISPELS DARKESS

 

But it’s not news and it will never be news because it happens every day. A poem like this makes it a wonder all over again. The sun and its rays an upside-down tree? I’ll carry that image around with me all this gloomy October day.

 

I left the picture at the sublime Lake of the Clouds in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

 

Rabbi Judah Ben Solomon Al-Harizi (1160-1230) was a doctor, poet and translator. He was born in Spain in the Middle Ages. His works are well-known, but his personal life is not. All I can report is that he translated Aristotle into Hebrew, traveled throughout the Middle East, and was supported by wealthy patrons.

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Shapes

by Ruth Stone

 

In the longer view it doesn’t matter.

However, it’s that having lived, it matters.

So that every death breaks you apart.

You find yourself weeping at the door

of your own kitchen, overwhelmed

by loss. And you find yourself weeping

as you pass the homeless person

head in hands resigned on a cement

step, the wire basket on wheels right there.

Like stopped film, or a line of Vallejo,

or a sketch of the mechanics of a wing

by Leonardo. All pauses in space,

a violent compression of meaning

in an instant within the meaningless.

Even staring into the dim shapes

at the farthest edge; accepting that blur.

 

 

Poet Ruth Stone puts forth a pretty bleak view of existence in “Shapes.” Her description of the type of moment that breaks you apart is a nihilistic riddle:

 

A violent compression of meaning in an instant within the meaningless.

 

That’s a view my sister, who is pictured sitting next to the poem on a ferry in Savannah, would not share. For the record, Josie’s presence in the photograph is coincidental and signifies only her willingness to get up and move her seat and not her endorsement of the ideas and images contained herein.

 

[Ahem. Greetings to my dear sister.]

 

Disclaimers aside, this little poem followed me from the Savannah River to a parking lot in Southfield, Michigan, where I found myself this morning momentarily confused staring up at four gigantic flags marking a car dealership. The flags were sunk on their poles at half-mast, and in the bright sun they waved like Sequoia-sized living monuments, calling out to the wee folk below, Remember, Remember, Remember. Remember what? And then I did remember—the Las Vegas massacre, of course—and my heart sank. I stood still, remembering the beautiful faces I had seen in the paper, and then remembering this line from “Shapes”—

 

So that every death breaks you apart.

 

And this one—

 

However, it’s that having lived, it matters.

 

I’m not sure exactly what Stone means by that, but the line sticks with me.

 

Anyone with thoughts on the last two lines?

 

(FYI, Cesar Vallejo was a Peruvian poet considered the greatest Latin American poet of the twentieth century, and by some as the greatest innovator of poetry of the same time period in any language. Link here to learn more about him and read some of his poems.)

 

 

I’ll post Stone’s bio from a previous post:

 

Recognition came late to Stone.   She wrote in relative obscurity and poverty most of her life. In her late eighties, she won the National Book Award and in her nineties was named the Poet Laureate of Vermont. When she died last November [2011] at age 96, every major paper around the globe printed a worshipful obituary.

 

Ruth Stone (1915-2011) was born in Roanoke, Virginia but grew up in Indianapolis. Her father was a typesetter for the Indianapolis Star and a part-time drummer whose gambling addiction kept the family in near poverty. Still, hers was a happy childhood, full of music, literature and fun-loving relatives. Her mother read her Tennyson while she was a toddler, and her grandmothers and aunts engaged her in their love of reading and writing.

 

 

She married young, to a chemist, had a daughter and ended the marriage when she fell in love with professor and poet Walter Stone. They had two children together and their poetry careers were just taking off when he hung himself on a coat hook in their London apartment. She never got over his suicide. In an interview with NPR when she was 89, Stone said, “I think every year – let’s see, he’s been dead maybe 40–some years — I think every year or every day or something, that it won’t come back — the pain. And it always does.”

 

 

She struggled as a single mother of three girls, travelling across the country from teaching post to teaching post to support the family. She eventually settled at SUNY Binghamton and then moved to rural Vermont.   I like this story poet Chard DiNiord tells about when he visited her towards the end of her life:

 

“I didn’t know Ruth before I interviewed her and really didn’t know what to expect when I showed up at her rundown, three-room apartment on Waybridge Street in Middlebury, Vermont. She didn’t open the door at first, fearing, I think, that I was a scam artist. My wife sat on her porch while I went for a brief walk in the hope that she would eventually open her door. While I was gone, she looked out her kitchen window and saw my wife sitting in one of her metal chairs. Although nearly blind from a botched eye procedure, she could still make out figures and colors. She emerged from her apartment in a flannel shirt and corduroy pants and sat next to my wife, taking her hand and immediately engaging her in conversation.”

 

 

And this, from the subsequent published interview:

 

Ruth Stone (laughing): I’m just this weird old lady.

 

CD: You are, and that’s a great thing.

 

CD: Your humor complements your grief in a way that helps you write about loss without becoming morose.

 

Ruth Stone: Yes! Ultimately, you know you can’t help it. Life turns terrible, and it’s so ridiculous, it’s just funny.

 

 

 

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poem is on lower center of bulletin board

 

Untitled

by Franz Wright

 

If I think I have problems

I look in the mirror;

I go to the window, or

ponder the future reduced

to more or less

three pounds of haunted meat.

And it’s never

like I always said:

if you don’t want something

wish for it . . .

Lost in the beautiful world

I can no longer perceive

but only, now and then,

imagine

or recall–

First the long sinister youth

and then the dying man

who talks to old friends

teachers, doctors

but they don’t understand

the way we feel.

 

 

I left this poem in the entry to a diner in northern Michigan, where a sign on the door asks patrons not to vape while others eat, and where I watched an old man among other old men steal the waitress’s tip to pay his share of a breakfast bill. She shook her head, resigned. She’d seen it before.

 

So when I think I’ve got problems, to steal Franz Wright’s opening lines . . .

 

That’s a hilarious opener, by the way—

If I think I have problems

I look in the mirror

 

The duality in those lines, the person and his image, is echoed in the speaker’s “we” at the end

and then the dying man

who talks to old friends

teachers, doctors

but they don’t understand

the way we feel.

 

As long as I’m pulling quotes, re-read this great description of what it feels like to be depressed.

 

Lost in the beautiful world

I can no longer perceive

but only, now and then,

imagine

or recall–

 

Now, someone please tell me what “three pounds of haunted meat” means.

 

I’ll re-post a biography of Wright from an earlier post:

 

Franz Wright’s face is his biography. This is what a hard life looks like. But it’s a heroic face too, considering the suffering he lived with: beatings by his father, worse beatings by his stepfather, parental abandonment, manic-depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Like writer Mary Karr, his onetime colleague and friend, he overcame addiction and converted to Catholicism, finding some measure of stability in the last sixteen years of his life.

 

Franz Wright (1953-2015) was born in Austria where his father, the famous poet James Wright, was studying on a Fulbright scholarship. The older Wright left the family when Franz was eight, and only stayed in sporadic contact with the family. When Franz was fifteen he sent his father a poem, and his father wrote back, “Well I’ll be damned. You’re a poet. Welcome to hell.”

 

The younger Wright graduated from Oberlin College in 1977. In 1984 he was winning awards and teaching at Emerson College when he was fired for “drinking related activities.” He sunk into a years-long depression, wasn’t able to write, and attempted suicide.

 

In 1999 he married a former student, Elizabeth Oehklers. He converted to Catholicism, got sober and was able to write again.

 

He died earlier this year of lung cancer at age 62.

 

 

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Lament

by Louise Gluck

 

Suddenly, after you die, those friends

who never agreed about anything

agree about your character.

They’re like a houseful of singers rehearsing

the same score:

you were just, you were kind, you lived a fortunate life.

No harmony. No counterpoint. Except

they’re not performers;

real tears are shed.

 

Luckily, you’re dead; otherwise

you’d be overcome with revulsion.

But when that’s passed,

when the guests begin filing out, wiping their eyes

because, after a day like this,

shut in with orthodoxy,

the sun’s amazingly bright,

though it’s late afternoon, September—

when the exodus begins,

that’s when you’d feel

pangs of envy.

 

Your friends the living embrace one another,

gossip a little on the sidewalk

as the sun sinks, and the evening breeze

ruffles the women’s shawls—

this, this, is the meaning of

“a fortunate life”: it means

to exist in the present.

 

Group of graves for a family named “Quaintance.”

 

Ah, the last of the poems in the Cemetery Series, and just in time. What with the hurricanes, floods, fires, earthquakes, and today the sixteenth anniversary of 9/11, I don’t like piling on the pervasive sense of death and destruction.

Interesting that Louise Gluck’s poem is called “Lament.” Lamentations are usually expressions of grief by those left behind. We read their thoughts (“Lamentations” in the Book of Jeremiah) or look at pictures of them grieving (Giotto’s Lamentation of Christ) or watch them dance it out (Martha Graham’s iconic Lamentations), so that we can enter into the desolation they feel, to understand or just to witness. Forget about the feelings of the dead person. Depending on your belief system, the dead person is either resting in unconscious peace or has found better digs. We save our sympathies for those who have to sort through the clothing, face an empty breakfast table, sell the baby stroller.

 

Not here. In Gluck’s “Lament,” we’re asked to dismiss the grief of those left behind. After all, they enjoy sunshine, affection and diverting conversation. Instead Gluck asks us to imagine the emotional life of the dead person. By using the conditional tense, the poet assures us the dead don’t have emotions even as she brings those emotions to life–

you’d be overcome with revulsion

 

and later, watching the guests file out into the sunlit afternoon–

that’s when you’d feel

pangs of envy.

 

The “fortunate life” mentioned in the eulogy belongs, in the end, to the living–

 “a fortunate life”: it means

to exist in the present.

 

This is no comfort. I find this poem existentially horrifying. The dead seem stuck in perpetual regret and longing.

Louise Gluck was born in 1943 in New York City, the second of three daughters. Her older sister died before she was born. Her father, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant, was instrumental (pun intended) in inventing the X-Acto knife.  At sixteen she suffered from anorexia and almost died and entered psychoanalysis for the next seven years. She attended both Sarah Lawrence and Columbia but graduated from neither.

 

Gluck has published fifteen books of poetry and two books of essays, the second one just out this year. She’s taught at University of Iowa and now Yale University. She’s received the Pulitzer and National Book Award for Poetry among many other awards and was named Poet Laureate of the United States in 2003.

 

A 2012 New Yorker profile names her “among the most moving poets of our era, even while remaining the most disabusing.”

 

Details on her personal life are difficult to find beyond that she’s been married and divorced twice and has a son.

 

R.I.P. to all victims of 9/11, the dead and the living alike.

 

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only the crossing counts

by C.D. Wright

 

It’s not how we leave one’s life. How go off

the air. You never know do you. You think you’re ready

for anything; then it happens, and you’re not. You’re really

not. The genesis of an ending, nothing

but a feeling, a slow movement, the dusting

of furniture with a remnant of the revenant’s shirt.

Seeing the candles sink in their sockets; we turn

away, yet the music never quits. The fire kisses our face.

O phthsis, o lotharian dead eye, no longer

will you gaze on the baize of the billiard table. No more

shooting butter dishes out of the sky. Scattering light.

Between snatches of poetry and penitence you left

the brumal wood of men and women. Snow drove

the butterflies home. You must know

how it goes, known all along what to expect,

sooner or later … the faded cadence of anonymity.

Frankly, my dear, frankly, my dear, frankly

 

 

Posts in this series (The Cemetery Series, subset of Clear Out the Jam Jars Series) are not supposed to be long, but I really did not understand this poem the first six times I read it, and so I worked my way through it like a detective to find out what the heck it meant, which I ‘m also not supposed to be doing because A poem should not mean/ But be.

 

So sue me, I discovered some things.

 

I started with the words I didn’t know: phthis, lotharian, brumal. Phthsis is an eye no longer working. Lotharian I take to mean belonging to a Lothario, a man with a roving eye. Unfortunately now with a dead-eye.

 

A portrait of the person who died starts to take shape, a ladies man, a person so alive he scattered light, a person who found life had grown dark, the brumal (having to do with winter) wood of men and women banishing the butterflies. A person who wrote poetry, a person who shot pool and skeet, and died suddenly, unexpectedly—by suicide? By gunshot?

 

Ah, got it. The final line (which the first six times sounded like Rhett Butler popped in the poem on his way out of Atlanta)

 

Frankly, my dear, frankly, my dear, frankly

 

now made sense. “only the crossing counts” is about poet Frank Stanford, C.D. Wright’s old lover. That was probably immediately obvious to anyone faintly familiar with C.D. Wright’s life. Just took me longer.

 

Frank Stanford shot himself in a bedroom while Wright was in the front of the house with Stanford’s wife. The death was sudden, it was horrific (and a crazy story, link here for more details). The first line

 

It’s not how we leave one’s life

 

sounds like someone grieving a suicide who’s trying to forget the circumstances of  the suicide. Later she wonders if at some level she always knew it would happen–

 

the dusting

of furniture with a remnant of the revenant’s shirt.

 

That line just blows me away. This poem blows me away. It’s just so thick. Read it again. Read it six times, seven times. You’ll keep finding more.

 

C.D. Wright passed last year. I’ll reprint her bio from an earlier post.

C.D. Wright was born in 1949 in the southern Ozarks of Arkansas. She and her brother were the children of a judge and a court reporter. So it’s no wonder that after studying French at Memphis State University, she considered becoming a lawyer. Fortunately for the world of poetry, she left law school after a brief stint and went on to get her MFA from University of Arkansas.

 

Poet Frank Stanford’s press, Lost Roads, published her first book of poetry. She took over the press after he killed himself. Strange that Frank Stanford, whom she knew well, was supposed to be the next big thing, but it ended up that she, the less flamboyant one, the steadier person, is now heralded as a true American original, in a “a school of exactly one” (from poet Joel Brouwer, as quoted in the New York Times).

 

Of her original sytle, Wright said this in an interview with Jacket Magazine in 2001:

 

As to my own aesthetic associations / affiliations / sympathies: I have never belonged to a notable element of writers who identified with one another partly because I come from Arkansas, specifically that part of Arkansas known for its resistance-to-joining, a non-urban environment where readily identifiable groups and sub-groups are less likely to form. The last known poetry clan in my part of the country was the Agrarians. I was not of that generation, gender or class.

 

She married poet Forest Gander. Together they had a son Brecht and ran Lost Roads. She taught at Brown University and published over a dozen books, one of them a collaboration with a photographer to document the lives of women in prison.

 

She was awarded a MacArthur Fellow and Guggenheim fellowship.

 

She died January 12 at age 67 in her sleep of a blod clot.

 

 

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