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Archive for the ‘Poets’ Category

 

poem is on first tier of plant shelf

Forgive the unpolished copies of these poems and quotes, the yellow notepaper, the terrible handwriting, though I did try my best. This is what happens when Poem Elf has an idea but no printer, no scotch tape and no finesse with a pen.

 

My idea was to honor two people who are gone and much missed. This post is a memorial of sorts for a friend’s brother who died six years ago today and for another friend’s sister who died just three days ago.

 

My friend’s brother was an exceedingly kind man. He liked to leave quarters here and there for people to find and also liked to tuck them in birthday cards to his many nieces and nephews. My friend’s sister, an illustrious and national figure, was known for mentoring countless people. She was never too busy to meet with those trying to get a foothold in her field, including, once, my own niece, who described her as “very kind and interesting.” Which is an excellent way to be remembered. Much better than being remembered as “kind of interesting.”

 

So I left quarters and poems around my local grocery store to remember them. The random placement of quarters was the one’s habit and the other’s avocation (allow me to stretch the metaphor a little), best expressed by Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!: “Money, pardon the expression, is like manure,” she says. “It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow.” (Just substitute “kindness” for “money” and you have a tribute to a great mentor.)

 

poem is on stone ledge by bush

This next one I may have mentioned before, but it’s a favorite of mine, often coming to the forefront of my thoughts. It’s from Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

poem is on curb in foreground

 

If you have a quarter, leave it somewhere. Leave behind a “little, nameless, unremembered act.”

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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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The sixth annual Poem Elf Valentine’s Day Poem Blitz ran into some glitches this year, which is why it’s arriving so late. I knew it was going to be a few hours late because I’m on Hawaii time, but I didn’t expect (who does) to wake up on Valentine’s Day and discover my purse was stolen. I had to spend a few hours with the police and the credit card companies instead of on this post. I can’t complain because, well, Hawaii. Also because my son found my purse in the bushes up the street and the dumb kids who broke in only took my money and not my credit cards, license, favorite lipstick, or prescription sunglasses.

if you have to get your purse stolen, better here than in Michigan

if you have to get your purse stolen, better here than in Michigan

 

Anyway, the show must go on.

 

I’m without my own valentine this Valentine’s Day—he’s travelling in Asia–but his absence doesn’t dim my enthusiasm for my favorite holiday. Forget about chocolates and roses and candlelight—it’s a great day stripped of all that, a day to celebrate love in all its forms and manifestations. After all, what other holiday is dedicated to one single emotion?

 

Let’s start with a poem I’ve posted before (at my niece’s wedding). Fulvia Lupulo’s poem was just the thing to leave at a fancy hotel where couples go to canoodle and watch the sun set over the spectacular Hanalei Bay. This couple from Seattle was celebrating their third anniversary. Look how happy they are!

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You don’t need to have a romantic partner to understand that being loved is transformational.

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Honeymooners and babymooners (something I only recently heard of) are everywhere here in Hanalei, but I also see a lot of long-married couples. For them I taped “A Decade” by Amy Lowell (1874-1925) on a tree much older than that.

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poem is on tree root

The ease of these older couples as they walk the beach or wade into the surf together is a delight to watch. Less red wine and honey and more morning bread.

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Here’s one for brand-new Valentines, “Rondeau” by Leigh Hunt (1784-1859). I taped it to a park bench under a tree on the beach, just right for a first kiss.

poem is on bench back

poem is on bench back

Hunt’s poem is a sweet reminder of the thrill of that first contact.

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Galentines is a thing these days, not a typo, a day (the day before Valentine’s Day, actually) to celebrate friendship. I’m changing it to Palentines so men are included, and so for all pals I left an excerpt from Shakespeare’s “To Me, Fair Friend” under a wooden statue of an old surfer in Hanalei Town. The surfer is making the shaka sign, a friendly greeting made popular by surfers and Hawaiians.

 

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The gray-haired, wrinkle-chested surfers you meet around here truly are, in dress and demeanor, ageless. Boys by any measure of the spirit.

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For those who find Valentines Day painful, I taped William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) “Down by the Salley Gardens” on a flowery phone booth right outside a lively bar where couples are busy coupling.

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Yeats is the poster boy for unrequited love. He courted Maud Gonne for thirty years and it all came to this: But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.

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For break-ups that are more bittersweet than heartbreaking, I present this Frank O’Hara poem (1926-1966), “Animals.” I wedged it in a display of Valentine animals of unknown species in the grocery store.

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The older I get, the more I love this poem and these lines in particular:

when we were still first rate

and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth

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For my own Valentine, who wakes up today on the opposite side of the Pacific, I taped “Tides” by Hugo Williams (b. 1942) to some twigs and stuck it in the sand at high tide.

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For that is happiness: to wander alone

Surrounded by the same moon, whose tides remind us of ourselves

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That’s it! Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! Or Happy Day-After Valentine’s Day if that’s what it is by the time you read this!

 

And yes, Happy Valentine’s day even to the punks who stole my money—may you find the love that heals whatever ails you.

 

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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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This past week I’ve heard stories of people not going home for Thanksgiving because they’re upset their relatives voted differently than they did.

no pissing match on Thanksgiving

no pissing match on Thanksgiving!

 

Add one more to the list of disheartening effects the 2016 election has had on our country. Thanksgiving is the holiday that’s supposed to bring us together. Thanksgiving is a holiday all Americans share regardless of faith, political beliefs, or economic status, a holiday only Mr. MacGoo might object to. It also happens to be my favorite one.

 

I hate to think of people alone and angry this day, nursing grudges or avoiding toxic situations.

 

So this Thanksgiving poem-elfing is for the divided dinner table. For the arguments narrowly avoided and the arguments that’ll erupt over the fifth bottle of wine. For old hurts and fresh injuries passed around with the potatoes, for the comments swallowed and the ones blurted out, for tongues bit and tongues wagged. But most of all for the love and gratitude that bring a group of people together to sit shoulder-to-shoulder and share food. This poem-elfing is for bridges over our divides and reinforcements for our connections.

 

And if you’re a family that sees eye-to-eye on all issues, all I can say is, Welcome to Planet Earth! Golly gee, alien life forms among us!

 

On to the elfing. I went to Costco and found it surprisingly easy, even among the hoards of shoppers, to leave poems in food displays with no one noticing.

 

I started with a wine glass where I left a quote, not a poem, by Rosseau.

poem is inside 2nd or 3rd glass

poem is inside 2nd or 3rd glass

 

It’s a favorite of mine I may have quoted once or twice here in the past. I never tire of mulling this one over. Write it on your hand and read before opening your mouth.

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My least favorite part of Thanksgiving is chopping onions. My eyes, like my nerves, are overly sensitive. So into the onion bin I put Mary Oliver’s brief “Uses of Sorrow.”

poem is on onion baton left-hand side

poem is on onion bag on left-hand side

 

It may takes me years to understand “this, too, was a gift.”

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A display of pecan pies was a good spot for “While We Were Arguing” by Jane Kenyon.

poem is on middle pecan pie

poem is on middle pecan pie ingredient list

 

“’You see, we have done harm,’” she writes. Words to remember before you sit down for dinner.

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Jane Kenyon also wrote what I consider the most perfect Thanksgiving poem. It’s called “Otherwise” and I balanced it on a turkey.

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poem is on middle turkey

 

Gratitude takes perspective, and there’s no perspective as good as this: It might have been/ otherwise.

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A wine called “Seven Deadly Zins” was tailor-made for an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”

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Here’s the perfect response to any argument. Memorize it—it’s the very reason people can’t be reduced to who they voted for.

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In my Costco shopping loop, I reached the flowers last, which is where I put Anne Porter’s “Looking at the Sky.” Another beautiful Thanksgiving poem.

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I shall never have enough time, she writes. Praise and gratitude for the whatever you have.

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Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I am grateful for all of you, for your insightful comments and continued support for this project.

 

Bonus: if you need some music to dance to while you’re cooking, here’s a song I heard this morning, courtesy of DJ Blizzard Lizzard: Rock a Side Pony.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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poem is to right of trail, in weeds

poem is to right of trail, in weeds

 

Sometimes, the Field

by Holly Wren Spaulding

 

Sometimes I bring my hunger to the field.

I sidestep the soft mounds,

the ants at their labor,

their back and forth with grains of sand.

 

I wait in the milkweed and withering thistle,

all of it turning and rustling in the wind.

I mean to come clean of everything—

no reason to want what isn’t.

 

Birds announce the coming storm—

they fly among the branches

not crashing into anything.

Dark with the next thought,

the ground is a wet reek

of old leaves and battered grasses.

It fills my mouth.

I am a wet outline now.

 

Now I am on my knees remembering

the summer we drove west

through humid hill country,

Chicago blues on the radio like it was 1940.

Fields flooded and the river

swelled near the trestles

and freight trains passed us all night

and then it was morning.

Image 1

apologies to Ms. Spaulding for the misspelling of her name in the photo

 

My poem-elf fantasy—and one of the reasons I write this blog—is that a poem I leave behind falls into the right hands at just the right time, and a life is enriched, a perspective altered, an experience understood. When I place a poem in a tree or on a sidewalk or store shelf, I always imagine the person who finds it. Let’s call that fantasy, named after today’s poem, “Sometimes, a poem.” As in, sometimes a poem can change everything. But also, sometimes a poem changes just a little thing. Even a little thing is a lot work for a few words to do.

 

Unfortunately, the only time I’ve been aware of Sometimes, a poem happening, it’s been happening to me. And once again, Poem Elf has elf-ed herself. “Sometimes, the Field” caught me unawares even after I had chosen it, printed it, and thought about where to put it. Over several readings, the poem illuminated an experience I had had. There was no lightening bolt of understanding—just a burrowing into my conscious life and a permanent residency there.

 

I came across this poem because poet Holly Wren Spaulding made a comment on Poem Elf. Her beautiful name intrigued me. Turns out she’s a poet who spends summers in northern Michigan, as I do. I decided to put one of her poems up north, in its native habitat, so to speak. When I looked through her work, my choice was instinctive: “Sometimes, the Field.”

 

I have my own field, you see, but I’ll get to that later. First, Spaulding’s field.

 

The field in the poem is dark and moody, full of movement and the drama of a coming storm. The poem’s speaker has come here with a restlessness of her own, a soulful hunger. She wants something. What she wants is not to have the hunger she came with.

 

I mean to come clean of everything—

No reason to want what isn’t.

 

As she steps into the field, she observes her environs with a quiet respect that draws me in. Somehow the way she knows her place in the field makes me feel tender to her. She sidesteps the ants’ work. She waits quietly in the weeds and wet earth. She admires the skill of the birds not crashing into the wildly flying branches.

 

As she waits in the milkweed and withering thistle, she becomes absorbed into the landscape, and the external and internal storms come together:

 

It fills my mouth.

I am a wet outline now.

 

The heavy humid air has connected her to the memory of a long ago road trip, a lost romance. Overwhelmed with grief, she falls to her knees.

 

We don’t know if the storm will wash away her pain. She may well leave the field with the same hunger she came in with, the wanting what isn’t. But at least she’s been able to mourn it openly, dramatically. Cathartically, I hope.

 

My tenderness for this speaker grows as I picture her on her knees in the open field, weeping, giving over her body to grief. The field allows her to express emotion un-self-consciously, a great gift. You can’t cry this way in a cubicle or mall unless you enjoy being stared at or whispered about. If you fall on your knees anywhere but church, someone will call an ambulance.

 

This is where my field comes in.

 

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the trail to my field

My field is on the grounds of Michigania, a family camp for alumni of University of Michigan. I am something of a trespasser. To get to there, I walk through woods along a sandy horse trail, up hills and down hills, the track narrowing then widening. Around the final bend, the path opens to a meadow. When I see the sky uncovered, the hills in full sun, the tall grasses leaning in light wind, the crickets jumping at my every footfall, something breaks open in me. Usually it’s a joyful expansiveness, a Julie-Andrews-twirl-in-the-mountains feeling. But lately something darker breaks out. A sob. Then weeping. Weeping like I haven’t wept since I was fourteen and watched West Side Story for the first time.

 

 

Regular readers of this blog know that I lost my mother a few months ago. I’ve been grieving in a typically Western way—-trying to keep busy and not giving in to moping and tears. So the first time I started crying in the Michigania field, I was surprised. It started with just a stray thought of my mom. Then an intense longing for her, which I had pushed down, down, down, took over me completely.

 

Jane in the field

Jane in the field

The crying happened on my hikes a few more times, but I wasn’t surprised anymore. I figured tears came because I was alone and there was no one near I had to explain myself to.

 

leaving

leaving

But I’m also alone in my room, in my car, on walks through my subdivision, and I don’t cry in those places. Spaulding’s poem clarified the situation. In the field, I’m able to feel. Some connection with nature or my own wild self opens things up. I leave it to someone else to analyze why nature provides this outlet and man-made spaces don’t. I just know I’m grateful to the field and to “Sometimes, the Field.”

 

There’s a passage from the beautiful novel A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr that I’ve quoted on this blog before, but Spaulding’s field poem and my experience in the field call for me to post it again:

 

We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever—the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on belfry floor, a remembered voice, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

 

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 3.25.53 PM

 

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

 

She now lives in Williamsburg, Massachusetts where she runs Poetry Forge, another sort of collective space, this one for poets. You can read more about it here. In the summer she teaches creative writing at Interlochen in northern Michigan, including a class she teaches with her mother, artist Carol Spaulding.

 

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

 

One last picture . . . a stray ant on her poem

a stray ant on her poem

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Waiting At The Window

by A. A. Milne

 

These are my two drops of rain

Waiting on the window-pane.

 

I am waiting here to see

Which the winning one will be.

 

Both of them have different names.

One is John and one is James.

 

All the best and all the worst

Comes from which of them is first.

 

James has just begun to ooze.

He’s the one I want to lose.

 

John is waiting to begin.

He’s the one I want to win.

 

James is going slowly on.

Something sort of sticks to John.

 

John is moving off at last.

James is going pretty fast.

 

John is rushing down the pane.

James is going slow again.

 

James has met a sort of smear.

John is getting very near.

 

Is he going fast enough?

(James has found a piece of fluff.)

 

John has quickly hurried by.

(James was talking to a fly.)

 

John is there, and John has won!

Look! I told you! Here’s the sun!

 

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It’s a compulsion for the grieving to speak of the dead. It’s a kindness to listen.

 

So thanks in advance for kindnesses given.

 

IMG_4229My mother died May 7, the day before Mother’s Day. She was ninety. As a reader of obituaries, I know that ninety is a long life. I know that a death at ninety is no tragedy. So many people get but a fraction of her years. So many live in misery for the years they have, struggling in poverty, physical debilitation, mental suffering, violence, refugee camps, open seas. I have no reason for bitterness over the length of her life or the circumstances of her death.

 

But still. It hurts. It feels sudden. She seemed so much younger than she was. Anyone who spent five minutes with her would come away from the visit hoping she’d get at least twenty more years to continue enjoying life on Planet Earth.

 

Until a few weeks before her death, she still drove herself, oxygen tank and all, to Sunday Mass and weekly hair appointments. She played bridge. She played jokes. She took interest. It’s hard for old people to do that, I know. Suffering in the hospital in her last week, she garnered the energy to weigh in on bridal shower invitations, ask questions about the college decision of one of her 38 grandchildren, delight in the announcement of a new great-grandchild scheduled to arrive in a month she must have known she wouldn’t be around for.

 

She had fluffy white hair that sproinged back when you touched it, a ready laugh, bright blue eyes that shined in the Irish way. She was mother to eleven, mother-in-law to ten, beloved by all. A Denver gal, a Navy wife. Redskin fan. A list-maker, a listener. A giggler. Penuche maker. Fan of British detective shows. Knitter for the Christ Child Society, her last project unfinished, a mint-green baby sweater.

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She was always game for silly posing

She was always game for silly posing

 

I could go on, and I would–I do, in my head all day–but I’ve made my point, I guess. I miss her. Often I ache for her. What I want to do is honor her. She was a faithful reader of this blog and sometimes featured in it, so here is where my tribute to her will go.

 

My two-month delay in posting about her has been over poem selection. A few tributary poems came to mind, but nothing seemed adequate. I thought about these lines from Seamus Heaney’s “Clearances” (from stanza 3, usually excerpted as a stand-alone):

 

I remembered her head bent towards my head,

Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–

Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

 

This particular stanza is about a young Heaney skipping Sunday Mass with his mother to peel potatoes in the kitchen. I peeled many potatoes for my mother when I was young, lots of potatoes, potatoes for thirteen people, always flipping the peels on to waxed paper as she directed, but that image doesn’t carry her spirit for me. Still, the comforting sense of shared activity that Heaney describes is one I hold in my heart. One of my favorite memories of visiting my mother in Maryland over the last few years is sitting side-by-side with her on the couch, nearly touching shoulders, each of us reading our own books silently together.

 

Julia Kasdorf’s “What I Learned From My Mother” was also under consideration. A poem I’ve read dozens of times. But what Kasdorf learned from her mother–

 

have plenty of vases on hand

in case you have to rush to the hospital

with peonies cut from the lawn

 

is more in line with what I learned from my oldest sister Ceci. I learned lots of other things from my mother, not the least of which is that life is plenty hard but also plenty fun if you use your imagination.

 

Which brings me to the poem I did choose, “Waiting at the Window” by A.A. Milne, better known for his Winnie-the-Pooh stories. Here a little boy, stuck inside because of rain, makes a game out of watching raindrops roll down the glass. Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 2.29.44 PMThis is exactly the sort of thing my mother often did–create characters, make a race, not complain about situations you can’t change. (My two younger sisters remember fondly the many times she entertained them on boring errand runs. She’d have them duck down in the back seat of the brown Nova, hidden from view, while she called on her pretend CB radio, “Calling all cars, calling all cars. We have two missing girls, ages six and seven, both brunette, short hair. If found—” and so on, over and over because they found it side-splittingly funny.)

 

The poem is from one of two volumes she read to us: When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. All eleven of us can still recite from memory one poem or another from these collections, but the memory of her voice is what is most precious about these poems. Her reading voice was low and tuned to rhythm, and her wry delivery made every funny line even funnier and brought out humor not obvious to lesser readers. The musicality of Milne’s poems, the whimsy, and the sometimes subversive messages made these books perfectly suited to her.

 

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 11.26.21 AM Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 11.30.09 AM Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 11.26.31 AM

 

Over time, the poems and the characters in them have become old family friends—Binker, Mary Jane, King John who was not a good man, Nanny who let the beetle out. Now We Are Six and When We Were Young are ingrained in our imaginations and shaped us in ways we probably don’t realize, ways big or small, who knows. I don’t want to make too much of a point about this, but it strikes me as funny that these poems and the accompanying illustrations (simple, beautiful line drawings by E. H. Shephard), which we associate with our mother more than any other material she read out loud, paint a world opposite the one we grew up in. My mother, who could not unjustly be accused of reverse snobbism, didn’t know any patrician families with nannies and cooks and big houses in London and distracted mothers dressed to the nines, absent fathers, only children. And she probably wouldn’t have liked them much if she did. Milne’s world is not quite Downton Abbey, but as far as can be from our suburban split-level house held together with duct tape and credit.

 

That home is where I left the poem, in the front bay window where I spent many hours looking out into the street. I had come back to Maryland to help clear out the house for a sale. (Which we did sell one morning that week, after Sunday Mass, my sisters and me, out of the blue, without a realtor, to a lovely young couple who will surely re-fill the empty house with life and fun. I hope the house cleaners leave the poem for them. I left a few others too, but will include those in another post.)

 

IMG_1057The only other connection I want to make about “Waiting at the Window” and my mother is the last line:

 

Look! I told you! There’s the sun!

 

She was not a rose-colored glasses lady, never a Pollyanna or even a cheerleader. But she had grit, she had perspective, a sense of humor and a strong faith, and that’s how she carried on. It was her example more than her words that taught us that the sun always does come out, eventually.

 

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 2.33.09 PMAlan Alexander Milne (1882-1956) was born in London to a Scottish father and English mother. The family lived at the small private school his father ran, which Milne and his two older brothers attended, and where science-fiction writer H.G. Wells taught. Milne went to Trinity and Cambridge on scholarship. He studied math. At Cambridge he worked on the student magazine Granta and later worked for Punch, the famous British humor magazine.

 

He married in 1913, and served in World War I, although he was a pacifist. In 1920, after the war, he and his wife had a son, Christopher Robin, the inspiration for the boy in Winnie-the-Pooh and several of his poems. In 1934 he published an anti-war book, Peace With Honor, but later he served in World War II.

 

Milne played on a cricket team with J.M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame, and Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock. It’s hard to imagine three such different writers playing a sport together. (A challenge to readers: come up with your own unlikely writerly sports team.)

 

He wrote thirty-four plays, seven novels, including detective fiction, five books of nonfiction and the books of verse already mentioned. His most famous creation, Winnie the Pooh, has been translated into over fifty languages (in Russia he’s Vinne the Poohk) including Latin.

 

There’s an upcoming biopic of Milne, starring Domhall Gleeson (Bill Weasley in Harry Potter films, among other roles) and Margot Robbie as his wife. The film will examine the affect of international fame on the Milne family. Can’t say it sounds particularly gripping or interesting.

 

Milne had a stroke in 1952 and never recovered well. Brain surgery left him partially paralyzed, and being an invalid took a toll on his personality and his family relations. His lingered three more years and died in early 1956.

 

I dreaded writing this post and cried many times writing it. But I feel better having finished. If you’ve stuck with me through all these long paragraphs, many thanks again.

Image 2

 

 

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