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Archive for the ‘Poetry found’ Category

I’m a stickler about thank-you notes, a real pain to my children after birthdays and Christmas, and self-righteous and judgey when my own presents aren’t acknowledged. And yet, as with other deep and firmly-held beliefs, I can be a hypocrite about applying the rules to myself. Which is all to confess that I haven’t sent a proper thank-you note for a very thoughtful gift I got from two friends, a gift apropos of nothing, a few months back.

 

Down in the French Quarter of New Orleans, my friends came upon a Poet for Hire. Give her a subject, a few minutes and twenty bucks and she’ll hand you a poem on parchment paper in green ink. Here’s the poet, a recent New Orleans transplant named Shannon, at work:

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This is Shannon when she’s finished:

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And here’s Shannon’s creation, the present I mentioned, an ode to Poem Elf:

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(Apologies to the poet for messing with her poem by covering up my name at the end.)

 

I’m not going to analyze such a sweet gift, but I do want to mention two things:

1.  The opening line

You seek your secret pleasure

could belong to anyone, but I’m glad that in this case it refers to leaving poems for strangers and not to sniffing men’s socks or to ursusagalmatophilia.

 

2.  Speaking of strange desires, Shannon has revealed my Poem Elf fantasy without ever having met me. She instructs the person who finds her poem

Keep it in your pocket until you return

home–you unfold it slowly

as to not break it.

Place it in the frame

 

I hate to quibble with a gal who’s paying the rent by writing poetry, but I do have a correction. The only person framing this poem will be me. I won’t part with it.

 

Thank you, Kelly and Michelle! I adore this present!

 

 

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Today is National Poetry Day, and I feel like I’ve been caught without my school project completed. I’m stalling in the hallway, scribbling out enough verbiage to meet the word count, hoping I don’t get asked to read it out loud.

 

I got nothing prepared, folks.

 

But as it happens, I visited Artprize in Grand Rapids yesterday and had an experience that I can connect to National Poetry Day, so here goes.

 

Artprize is an international competition, now in its sixth year, that brings art out into the community in a spirit I also try to embrace in this blog. The competition is open to anyone, and anyone can help with the judging. (The grand prize is $200,000, and visitors can vote as often as they like, but only once for each entry.) Entries are exhibited in coffee shops, abandoned buildings, banks, boutiques, public museums, and even in the river.

Alex Podesta's "Self Portrait as Bunnies (The Bathers)"

Alex Podesta’s “Self Portrait as Bunnies (The Bathers)”

 

One of the entries was WeavePeace.

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WeavePeace, an installation on the grounds of the Grand Rapids Public Museum, is a cooperative project between visitors and the artist, Michele Miller-Hansen. WeavePeace began as a bare structure, but in a week’s time has sprouted hundreds of strips of colorful messages. IMG_2160Artprize visitors write intentions and wishes for peace, and tie them to the dome.

 

 

 

Michele Miller-Hansen, on the left

Michele Miller-Hansen, on the left

I spoke with the artist, who hangs around inside the dome for a few hours every day. She said she’s pleased that WeavePeace seems to make those who visit feel happy. “Our world is so busy,” she said, “and people come in here and they get to slow down.” People read strips other visitors have written, spend time thinking of what they’d like to write themselves, and enjoy the beauty of the strips fluttering in the wind.

 

That sure sounds like the work of poetry to me. Poetry forces readers to slow down, reflect, connect, and appreciate beauty, if only the beauty of language and concision.

 

As I stood inside the dome with my friends waiting on the corner, ready to move on, I had trouble coming up with a poem related to peace. Finally I came up with the last lines of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.” (Yes, these lines are overly-familiar, popping up everywhere these days, but I guess that’s why I remembered them.)

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Here’s the full (and more legible) text:

WILD GEESE

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

(Italics mine.)

Good luck to artist Michele Miller-Hansen!

 

I took a few photos of other entries.

 

This one you have to experience. I can’t tell you how beautiful it is when you find yourself covered in lacy shadows.

"Intersections" by Anila Quayyum Agha at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. So beautiful!

“Intersections” by Anila Quayyum Agha at the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

 

My favorite, “Maternal Fortitude” by Lindsay Moynihan, is at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.

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I took a picture of the artist’s statement for my daughter, who wants to be a midwife:

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Finally, a mural in front of the Gerald Ford Museum, which artist Tom Panei is completing as visitors watch:

"I Hear the Train a Comin'"

“I Hear the Train a Comin'”

 

Artprize runs through October 12. Visit if you can.

 

 

 

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It was a season of near disasters.   Two weeks before Christmas I lost my aunt’s pearls, a graduated strand of Mikimoto beauties which her husband had brought back from Japan after WWII.  Just as I was getting ready to confess, that same aunt had a fall and landed in the hospital.  She recovered, the pearls were found, and thus did the overcooked tenderloin on Christmas Eve and the overnighted presents which didn’t arrive by Christmas take their proper place in the ranks of what is not important.  (My advice to Hamlet:  readiness is not all.  Perspective is.)

Aunt Joann, not wearing her recovered pearls

Aunt Joann, not wearing her recovered pearls

 

It was also a season of unexpected gifts.  Here’s one, from my daughter Lizzie:

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Out of the overturned nest fall four eggs, and out of the eggs fly nine origami birds.  I didn’t get the symbolism at first, but with a little help I understood. An empty nest.  Re-birth.  Possibility.  Next fall, when the last of my four leaves for college, I’ll have my mobile to remind me to look at the situation with hopefulness.

 

The second unexpected gift was from my youngest little bird. On Christmas Eve after everyone had gone to bed, she stayed up for hours cleaning out my laundry room/office.  It was a big job.  Piles of laundry, stacks of books, framed prints, unframed prints, office supplies, loose papers, notebooks, textbooks, photo albums, boxes of pictures, and probably plain old trash had covered the floor, desk and bookcases.  When she presented the tidied room on Christmas day, I nearly fell over with joy on the empty floor.

my cleaning gal

my cleaning gal

 

The third gift I’ll mention is related to that room, before it was cleaned.  Truly I had despaired of ever organizing the mess there.  My husband, who usually delights in throwing out things I hoard, had refused to help me because I had un-done his past work.  So a week before Christmas I was ironing (unusual in itself) and looked at a pile of books stacked on a chair (not unusual at all) and decided that while I was waiting for the iron to heat up, I could at least put away a few books (highly unusual).  I picked up a book of Edna St. Vincent Millay poems belonging to my father that my mother had recently sent.

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While I was thumbing through the book, I found a letter.  It was from my sister-in-law’s father, now deceased, to my father, also deceased.  Des was writing to thank Don for loaning a book, and ended with this:

“I think one could meditate forever on Francis Thompson’s lines in his final stanza:

‘Is my gloom, after all, shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?’

 

I re-read the letter a few times.  I forgot about the iron, forgot about shelving the book.  I was overwhelmed by the humanity of it, there in my hand, this intimate record of two old men trying to understand themselves, their lives, their emotions. Des’ handwriting as elegant as his expressions.

 

Here’s the gift part of the story:  I emailed my sister-in-law to ask if she wanted the letter.  She wrote back immediately.  Turns out she had just been thinking of it.  Long ago, shortly after her father died, my father had read her the letter.  She didn’t ask for the letter, although she wanted it, and had wondered over the years what had happened to it.  By chance, it re-appeared in her life, just a day after the anniversary of her father’s death.

 

Make of that what you will.

 

I also found this in the book:

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look closely for the golden crumb

A crumb of food.  It’s a little disgusting, but also touches me somehow, this image of my father reading a poem-play and, maybe bored or maybe just sloppy, eating a cookie and dropping his crumbs in the pages.  Hardened now and preserved in a closed book, evidence of his constant reading, his yearning for things beautiful, his love of sweets.

 

Happy New Year!  Thanks to all you wonderful readers!

 

 

 

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If I measured my value in the number of Christmas cards I’ve received this year, I’d be having a Charlie Brown “I got rocks” kind of feeling right now.

But the depressing emptiness of my Christmas card holder lost its sting when I opened my email yesterday.  My friend Trish Rawlings, artist, writer, and frequent commentator on this blog, sent me a digital copy of her annual handmade Christmas card.  Her work is usually dreamy and strange and always delightful.

With her permission, I’m reprinting her card here, and a few of her past cards as well.

 

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My favorite:

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A two-parter:

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Being lost inspires her most unsettling pieces:

 

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Finally, one featuring her cat:

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Pantaloon, my feelings exactly.

 

Anyone interested in Trish’s work can reach her through the comment section. From there, she’ll give you her contact information directly.

Thank you, Trish!

 

 

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I’m still a schoolgirl when it comes to summer’s end.  I dread the fall.  Pumpkins and football games make me anxious. Give me hot, humid weather, a little body odor, and a good book every time.

 

Speaking of good books, there’s still a few weeks to enjoy summer reading.  On a friend’s recommendation, I’ve been reading everything by Barbara Trapido that I can find. (Temples of Delight is my favorite so far.)  I can’t resist British humor and eccentric characters.  Also been reading Elizabeth Bowen, another British writer.  She’s as somber as Trapido is delightful, but oh, those sentences!  I don’t cry reading too many books, but  The House in Paris left me stunned and weepy.

 

On a lighter note, my summer song this year is “Pata Pata,” by Miriam Makeba.  Link here for the best audio version, but be sure to watch this video of Makeba singing the song.  Great set, great costumes, and Makeba’s stage presence is enchanting. I’m a Johnny-come-lately to “Pata Pata”–it was released in 1957–but it sounds current to me and I can’t stop dancing to it.  Makeba, an anti-apartheid activist, breast cancer survivor (at age 18), wife of Stokey Carmichael, and international star, is long due for a bio-pic.

 

So what have you been reading this summer?  And what’s your summer song?

 

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Hilary Mantel by NatashaLamontA break from poetry today to showcase a few lines from a brilliant novel.

 

Decades before English writer Hilary Mantel won the Booker Prize twice in four years (becoming the only woman to win the prize twice and the only writer to win it for a sequel), she wrote another historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety.  The book follows French revolutionaries Robespierre, Desmoulins and Danton from cradle to guillotine (beheading seems to be Mantel’s particular interest).  I’m reading it now, less than a quarter way through, and already I’m wearing out my pen with underlining, stars and exclamation points.

 

So far I’ve sent two excerpts to my kids, and those I’ll share here.  I hope my daughters, in particular, take Mantel’s wisdom to heart.

 

The first is the advice given to a young Robespierre by a priest:

 

“Most people are lazy, and will take you at your own valuation.  Make sure the valuation you put on yourself is high.”

 

The second is Mantel’s judgment of King Louis XVI:

 

“He hoped that by refusing to make decisions he could avoid making mistakes.”

 

I haven’t read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, but I doubt her words could speak to me half so powerfully as Mantel’s.

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If you think, as I sometimes do when a particularly arcane poem shows up in my inbox courtesy of the Academy of American Poets’ poem-a-day feature, that poetry is written by and for the same kind of people who prefer wasabi truffles to straightforward chocolate caramels; or if you think that classic poetry has as much relevance to your life as the owners’ manual to a steam-powered lawnmower, it’s time to meet Jeffrey, poetry declaimer extraordinaire.

 

IDSC_0005 by bethaleh first heard about Jeffrey from a newsletter put out by Detroit’s Capuchin Soup Kitchen.  In CSK’s lunch and dinner line, Jeffrey recites poetry from memory for the other guests.  I watched a video of his performance and I was enchanted.  So I tracked him down to speak with him over the phone.

 

Jeffrey’s poetry passion was born out of tragedy and boredom.  In 1988 he was hit by a moving car.  He was in a coma for ten days with a traumatic brain injury.  He recovered but in the years that followed he was homeless.  With little to do on the streets all day, Jeffrey went to the library.  He happened upon a book with Langston Hughes’ poem “Gods.”

 

Jeffrey never liked poetry when he was young.  He didn’t even like English class.  He left school after tenth grade.  But Hughes’ poem he liked.  He liked it so much, he wrote it down.  Then he read it over and over till he memorized it.  He recited the poem as he walked down the street or rode the bus.   “It was something to do,” he explained.

 

Here’s the poem that first inspired him:

Langston Hughes 6 by Ohio Center for the BookGods

by Langston Hughes

The ivory gods,

And the ebony gods,

And the gods of diamond and jade,

Sit silently on their temple shelves

While the people

Are afraid.

Yet the ivory gods,

And the ebony gods,

And the gods of diamond-jade,

Are only silly puppet gods

That the people themselves

Have made.

 

That was in 2000.  Since then Jeffrey is no longer homeless and has added to his poetry repertoire.  I asked him how he selects the poems he memorizes.  It turns out his criteria is the same criteria I use in selecting which poems to poem-elf, that is:

  1. How much sense does the poem make?
  2. Does it tell the truth?

The difference in our selection process is that length doesn’t matter to Jeffrey and I always choose the shortest poems I can find.

 

By way of demonstrating the kind of poem he’s drawn to, Jeffrey recited “Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall (1914-2000).  Here’s the first two verses:

 

“Mother dear, may I go downtown

Instead of out to play,

And march the streets of Birmingham

In a Freedom March today?”

 

“No, baby, no, you may not go,

For the dogs are fierce and wild,

And clubs and hoses, guns and jails

Aren’t good for a little child.”

 

His delivery, even over the phone, was powerful.  When he finished, the hairs on my arm stood on end.  You can read the poem in its entirety (and surprise ending) here.

 

Watch Jeffrey’s performance yourself on youtube.  Please do.  This man deserves an audience.  Wouldn’t it be great if the number of views on these videos jumped out of the teens into the hundreds?

 

Here’s Jeffrey reciting Edgar Allan Poe’s “El Dorado” and Maya Angelou’s “Preacher, Don’t Send Me.”  Link here to hear “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  And here for another Longfellow poem, “I Shot an Arrow into the Air.”

 

I confess that before I heard Jeffrey recite these poems, I didn’t like any of them.  The dramatic poems of Longfellow and Poe were too much trouble to plow through, and the non-prose writings of Maya Angelou sometimes bored me.  But Jeffrey has won me over. He brings the poems alive in a way I never would have experienced just by reading.  With his inflections and gestures he inhabits each poem and makes even the oldest verses sound contemporary and relevant.

 

Jeffrey has a gift to share.  Click and you’ll not only enjoy his gifts, you’ll give a gift back to him.

 

Kudos, Jeffrey!

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waiting in line by shinigamitonioRarely does my neighborhood offer peculiar sights.   There’s a walker who charges down the street with ski poles in the middle of summer and a very tall cross-dresser I haven’t seen in years.  During swim team season toilet paper hangs gracefully from trees, and in the spring girls in prom dresses duck into limousines.  That’s about all that’s worth rubber-necking except for a family of deer and the occasional dog in the middle of the road who’s jumped the electric fence.

FDR Memorial by brooksba

 

But this morning I drove past a scene that caused me to double-take.  Children waiting for the schoolbus stood in a single file line.  No parent was near.  Silent, unsmiling, hunchbacked with heavy backpacks, the kids stared straight ahead or down at the ground.  The tableau was so strange and depressing that I was instantly reminded of the statue at the FDR memorial in Washington, D.C. of grim-faced men waiting in a bread line.

 

No doubt the children’s well-intentioned mothers instituted the single-file line to prevent them from knocking each other into the street and getting hit by a car.  But this sleepy suburban corner is hardly a high-speed highway.

waiting in line by Walls Wear Art

 

I resisted the impulse to jump out of the car and stir up movement as I would a flock of pigeons on a sidewalk.  I wanted to yell, Hey kids, use your last few minutes of freedom and get your ya-ya’s out!  Here they were, about to go off to school where they would stand in line to go to the bathroom, to the lunchroom, to music class, to recess, and from where they will graduate to go to more school and wait in more lines until they are out in the world with the rest of us, waiting in lines at the bank, the post office, at Starbucks and amusement parks, waiting their turn to vote, to renew a driver’s license, to order fast food, to turn left, to buy the newest Apple product.

 

I’m not against lines or orderly conduct.  But as we tell our children, there’s a time and a place for everything.

 

The rest of the story is that when I came home I found out that Maurice Sendak died.

 

I may be stretching the connection here, but if there ever was one not to stand in line, it was Sendak.  If ever books encouraged nonconformity, they were his.  Reading the many tributes to Sendak, I learned that his art was inspired and haunted by relatives killed in the Holocaust.  Relatives who no doubt stood in lines to be exterminated like cattle.

Maurice Sendak by Panorama Mercantil

 

I’m fond of Sendak—you can link here to Stephen Colbert’s funny interview with Sendak to get an idea of what a cranky genius he was—and his death makes me wistful for many a bedtime when I read his books to my children and many a trip to the library when I was a girl myself and attracted to his illustrations of sturdy, confident and often indignant children.

 

I felt not an ounce of nostalgia when the other popular figure of children’s literature, Jan Berenstain, died this past February.  I hated her books refused to read them to my children.  The illustrations were overly cartoonish, the message-driven plot unbearable.  Show me a child who cleaned her room, told the truth, ate less junk food, or watched less TV because she read a Berenstain Bear book, and I’ll show you a specter of your own wishful thinking.

 

By contrast, Sendak’s books were unpredictable and wildly imaginative.  The plot and illustrations could go off in any direction, often in dark directions.  You don’t have to have read Bruno Bettelheim to know that children naturally experience dark thoughts and emotions, and fairy tales and literature like Sendak’s offer safe avenues for dealing with such.  As a firm believer in the uses of enchantment, I’ve always avoided picture books that read like Hallmark cards.  Love You Forever and that incredibly boring book with elongated rabbits about how much the mother rabbit loves her baby rabbit always seemed too trite and desperately earnest to force upon children.  Put the bunny book up against Margaret Wise Brown’s brilliant Runaway Bunny and you see how insipid and unimaginative the imitation is.  Better to just tell Junior in your own words that you love him and always will.  And then read him good books like Sendak’s and Brown’s.

RIP Maurice Sendak by themookscomic

 

And for pete’s sake don’t force him to stand in line when he doesn’t have to.  Let him and his schoolmates examine the grass, sit on the curb, chase each other, chatter, grunt, shout, cackle, draw their names in the cement with rocks, blow dandelion seeds into the air, kick acorns.  No one will get killed doing that. Or even remotely ruined.  Let the wild rumpus begin, folks.  It ends all too soon.

 

But how sad if the rumpus never begins all.

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The last thing we need is one more national themed day or month that no one cares about or notices.  But after reading the New York Times magazine this past Sunday, I’m going to suggest a new one.  As I noted last week, April 26 is “Put a Poem in Your Pocket Day.”  The following day should be designated “Smuggle a Poem in Your Pocket Day” in honor of poets who risk their lives to write.

 

Sunday’s Times features “’Record My Voice, So That When I Get Killed, at Least You’ll Have Something of Me,’” a profile of an Afghani women’s literary collective.  That the article was published during National Poetry Month suggests an irony too bitter to savor:  while the Academy of American Poets tries to charm, challenge and otherwise cajole Americans into reading poetry, women in Afghanistan face grave danger for writing it.

The Silhouette of The Hijab by firoze shakir photographerno1

 

Women in rural, Taliban-controlled areas must compose poetry in their heads– putting poems to paper could lead to beatings—and “publish” by calling in their work to a hotline.  Poems are then transcribed and shared with other women poets.  One young poet was beaten by her brothers when she was overheard reciting her poems on the telephone.  She later set herself on fire and died.

 

Sad and angry as the article left me, some of the poems made me smile.  I’ll share two I especially enjoyed.

 

The first is a biting four-line poem addressed to the Taliban.  The poet is all of fifteen years old:

 

You won’t allow me to go to school.

I won’t become a doctor.

Remember this:

One day you will be sick.

 

The second is from a 22 year-old woman whose father married her to an old man when she was a young teen:

 

Making love to an old man is like

Making love to a limp cornstalk blackened by fungus.

 

Take that, you old goat.

 

 

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Tommy aka 'Byron Bay Dancing Man' and star of 'I'm Free To Be Me' by TropfestA quickie post while I figure out what poem I’ll post next and where I’ll put it.

 

My daughter sent me a video I want to share.  The title, “Free to Be You and Me,” sounds like a coloring book for a self-esteem presentation.  Self esteem presentations make me gag.  But I didn’t gag watching this.  Mostly I laughed, and when I finished I wanted to dance and did.

 

Tommy Franklin, the subject of the short film, loves to dance in public spaces.  Cynics will call him an attention hound.  I call him a really really great dancer who’s spreading joy and kookiness in a world that needs both.

 

I love his advice to viewers:  “If you’re out of your cage, by all means, flap your wings.”  If I had a tattoo, that would be it.  If you’re out of your cage, by all means, flap your wings!

 

I relate to this guy in a particular way because when I was in 7th and 8th grade and as odd as odd can be, I used to tap dance on my patrol post in the morning.  (Which was, by the way, an entry ramp to the Capital Beltway along a very busy road—no kid would be given this responsibility today.)  A classmate’s father later told me that he’d see me on his way to work and it made his day to see me shuffling away on the sidewalk. Yes, I was showing off (albeit in a socially suicidal fashion), but doggone it, I was born to flap my wings.

 

Here’s the link.  Enjoy!

 

And R.I.P., Mr. Mullholland.  That was a beautiful compliment to share, one I’ve held onto all my life.  And, er, uh, I take back what I said about self-esteem presentations.  The one he gave had me smiling for hours.  Years, even.

 

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