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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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Disposal

by W.d. Snodgrass

 

The unworn long gown, meant for dances

She would have scarcely dared attend,

Is fobbed off on a friend—

Who can’t help wondering if it’s spoiled

But thinks, well, she can take her chances.

 

We roll her spoons up like old plans

Or failed securities, seal their case,

Then lay them back. One lace

Nightthing lies in the chest, unsoiled

By wear, untouched by human hands.

 

We don’t dare burn those cancelled patterns

And markdowns that she actually wore,

Yet who do we know so poor

They’d take them? Spared all need, all passion,

Saved from loss, she lies boxed in satins

 

Like a pair of party shoes

That seemed to never find a taker;

We send back to its maker

A life somehow gone out of fashion

But still too good to use.

 

 

 

Little Pearl D. Deiwiler, on whose grave I left W.D. Snodgrass’ poem, died at age seven, much too young to have acquired the worldly goods listed in the poem—the dance gowns, spoons, dress patterns, lace underwear, clothes bought on sale. My bad, I didn’t do the math.  I was too taken with the name “Pearl,” such an old-fashioned name and a good match for these lines:

a life somehow gone out of fashion

but still too good to wear.

 

Poor little Pearl, so young. Poor Pearl’s parents.  Like the communal speaker in this poem, they were left with only the worldly goods of the deceased and the painful question of how to dispose of those things that hold memories but not purpose. The unsentimental would toss, but me, I still have doilies from my mother’s linen chest that probably came from her mother or mother-in-law, never used by her, maybe never used by them. I will pass them to my daughters who presumably will have just as much trouble getting rid of items that have outlived their usefulness.

 

The poem makes me wonder what story my possessions will tell about me when I’m dead. Hopefully not as sad a story as “Disposal.”

 

William DeWitt Snodgrass (1926-2009) was born in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. His father was an accountant, his mother a homemaker with a domineering personality who Snodgrass later blamed, rightly or wrongly, for the death of his sister from an asthma attack.

 

He began his studies at Geneva College but left to enlist in the Navy at the end of World War II. When he got out he went to University of Iowa where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and master of fine arts degrees.

 

He earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for his first collection of poetry, Heart’s Needle. The collection was about losing contact with his daughter because of his divorce, and includes these lines, moving in their simplicity:

 

Winter again and it is snowing;

Although you are still three,

You are already growing

Strange to me.

 

Snodgrass taught at several universities, including Wayne State, Syracuse and University of Delaware, seemed to struggle to make a living, and saw his reputation as a poet rise and fall. Married four times, he had two children with two different wives. He died of lung cancer when he was 83.

 

For a longer and more insightful biographical sketch, link here for his obituary in the Independent. Brits always write the best obits.

 

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I went to my favorite cemetery (doesn’t everyone have one?), a hilly retreat in northern Michigan, and there I  left a handful of death-related poems. I’ll feature them one by one, beginning with Theodore Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane.  I leaned the poem against a stone arm, nestled in some stone greenery.

 

Elegy for Jane

(My student, thrown by a horse)

by Theodore Roethke

 

I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;

And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;

And how, once started into talk, the light syllables leaped for her.

And she balanced in the delight of her thought,

A wren, happy, tail into the wind,

Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.

The shade sang with her;

The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing,

And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.

 

Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,

Even a father could not find her:

Scraping her cheek against straw,

Stirring the clearest water.

 

My sparrow, you are not here,

Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.

The sides of wet stones cannot console me,

Nor the moss, wound with the last light.

 

If only I could nudge you from this sleep,

My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.

Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:

I, with no rights in this matter,

Neither father nor lover.

 

 

 

What lush images of this long-ago Jane, Roethke’s maimed darling, his skittery pigeon. In life and in death she is inseparable from the beauty of nature, and the beauty of this poem lies in those associations.

 

Theodore Roethke (1908- 1963) was born in Saginaw, Michigan, the son of German immigrants. His father ran a floral business, and Roethke spent hours and hours in the greenhouses, which he would later call “my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth.” When he was fourteen, his father died of cancer and his uncle committed suicide.

 

He went to University of Michigan where, according to the Poetry Foundation’s biography of him, “he adopted a tough, bear-like image (weighing over 225 pounds) and even developed a fascination with gangsters.” This is one of my favorite details of any poet’s life, ever.

 

Roethke earned his bachelor’s and master’s degree at Michigan, and later briefly studied law and did other graduate work at Harvard. During the Depression he was forced to quit and take a job teaching at Lafayette College.

 

He had manic-depression and had to be hospitalized at times to treat it. Despite his mental illness and heavy drinking, he is known as one of the greatest poetry teachers ever (once climbing out on a window ledge to inspire his students) and one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century.

 

He married a former student, Beatrice O’Connell, who stayed with him despite not knowing of his mental illness when she married him. He taught at Michigan State, Bennington, and most famously at University of Washington for the last fifteen years of his life. He died of a heart attack in a friend’s swimming pool in 1963, and is buried in Saginaw, where his childhood home has been turned into a museum.

 

You probably read Roetke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” back in high school. It’s still a favorite of mine and a good one to memorize.

 

Link here for Roetke reading “Elegy for Jane.” (The way he says the last two words of the poem confuse and fascinate me.)

 

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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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