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Archive for the ‘Poets’ Category

Thanksgiving is a good and necessary holiday but perhaps more so in times of want than of plenty. What is wanting this Thanksgiving 2020? We want to be together. We want our families, our friends. Most Thanksgiving celebrations are pared down this year with families separated by virus or politics, some permanently so, thanks to death on the one end and crazed partisanship on the other. So many want jobs, income, financial stability. So many want justice. So many want love. So many want what they had just nine months ago, however bad that was. The “wanting” list is endless; the plenty-side may seem shorter, anemic.

 

Thanksgiving is here to say, no, it isn’t. Good-and-plenty surrounds us. Bulking up the plenty list is a matter of observation, one that poets and priests (I included one) can help us with.

 

Let’s begin this annual Thanksgiving poem-blitz with the very Queen of Observation, Mary Oliver. I left “The Real Prayers Are Not the Words, but the Attention that Comes First” on the back of a park bench by a small pond.

 

 

Oliver watches the hawk like a hawk. To make such observations, she must sit still and quiet. And in sitting still and quiet, connection becomes possible. Wonder is possible. In moments of keen attention, the separate elements that make up the poem—the hunter, the prey, the wind, the grass, her mind that “sang out oh all that loose, blue rink of sky, where does it go to, and why?”—are all as one.

For an easier-to-read version of the poem, link here. (Unlike the Poetry Foundation version in the link, Oliver does not use line breaks in her published version, the one I used.)

 

 

*

 

I left Czeslaw Milosz’s “My-Ness” on a river walk in Detroit. You can see Canada across the water, so close and yet unreachable in these COVID times.

 

poem is on the rail in foreground

 

There’s an interesting play between the “my” and the “our” in the poem. Milosz’s sense of himself as an individual and himself as part of a human family coexist, inseparable:

And feel such sweetness, being here on earth,

One more moment, together here on earth,

To celebrate our little my-ness.

 

 

*

 

Joy Harjo’s “Perhaps the Worlds Ends Here” is an ode to the lowly kitchen table. I left the poem on an outdoor dining table in a popular, but now empty, restaurant in Detroit.

poem is on top of small table

 

I share Harjo’s appreciation for the kitchen table. Fantastic how she elevates that humble piece of furniture, so often the realm of women,  into a history-making force, and therefore worthy of our attention.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Link here for an online version.

 

 

*

 

Next up are two linked poems, one for children, one about children. I left both in an upscale grocery store.

 

The first is Thanksgiving Magic” by Rowena Bastin Bennett. I set it in front of some multi-colored cookies that I imagine only children would like. I hope a shopper pockets it for the little ones at home.

 

Let’s remember the magic-makers, our Thanksgiving cooks!

She takes leftover bread and muffin

And changes them to turkey stuffin’.

 

 

 

On the flip side of all that delicious gingerbread, stews, stuffings and pies is the empty table. Poet Anne Porter (a longtime favorite of mine) challenges herself to see the suffering of “A Famine Child.” I tucked the poem between two packages of fancy snack bars.

 

 

I wonder if the poem was written in the late 60’s during the Biafran famine. The images of starving children in Biafra shown on television were a first, and shocked viewers world over. Link here for famous photo of a Biafran boy.

Once in blue moon I’ll still hear people (older people) use the phrase, “like she’s from Biafra” to describe a very skinny person. It’s said comically, and it’s always jarring. Porter’s words, so simply put, pull us close to suffering such phraseology distances us from.

 

 

*

 

I taped Lucille Clifton’s “The Lesson of the Falling Leaves” to a small tree in a park in Detroit.

poem is on skinny tree in foreground

 

I love that last line, how it lands so sensibly after all the theology that precedes it. I love the theology too, and am still parsing out the meaning. I think I could spend a lifetime thinking about

such letting go is love

 

 

*

 

Finally, I left a prayer by Father John Morris on a stop sign at an intersection of a residential area in Detroit. This is an old favorite of mine. I keep it on view in my house, tucked into a kitchen cabinet. Maybe someone will take it into their home as well.

 

 

Even though this is a prayer, I think it opens its arms to everyone. Even non-believers can be grateful for

Every face I have seen,

Every voice I have heard

 

—and feel wonder and gratitude that—

In some mysterious way these

Have all fashioned my life

 

 

*

 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I am grateful for your readership, for your love of poetry, for your kind comments and big insights.

 

 

 

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No sensible person is ever going to clamor to be cursed, but curses aren’t always to be avoided. For one thing, when done well, they’re fun. Like their snarling cousin the insult, curses are great vehicles for verbal gymnastics and flights of fancy. I could even make a case for curses to be a great. . . wait for it. . . precursor to Thanksgiving. Curses remind us how much we don’t want to lose what we hold dear. If you didn’t especially enjoy being human, you wouldn’t care if a witch cursed you to be an ogre at night. That’s a silly example, of course, but read on and you’ll see what I mean.

 

I left two curse poems at a “sewer overflow drainage project” which also had pretty nature trails. Nasty and nice together, a fitting home for curses and the blessings they imply.

 

poem is on the rock

 

Curses

 

May the wind put out everything for you

except the candle on your grave.

 

May you not run away from the ax,

or the cannon.

 

May you not have fish in Fishville,

a bull in Bullsville,

not a single sheep in Sheepsville.

 

May you be afraid to meet your brother

without a knife.

 

May you move from your house to the cemetery.

 

May you find neither a root nor a leaf.

 

May you stir with a right hand

the soup made with the left hand.

 

2

 

May you buy a hat

and have nothing to put it on.

 

May your wife knead dust,

rain’s bread dough.

 

May your hair give you the slip,

your flesh too.

 

May you raise in vain your chin

above the flood.

 

May you breathe only as much

as your suffering requires.

 

3

 

May a man in armor await you

wherever you go.

 

May he ride into your wheat,

into your bed,

into your church.

 

May your kin rise against you.

 

All hounds on your trail!

All evils on what you hold dear!

 

May evil not touch you

until you raise your knife.

 

4

If in a stranger’s eye

you didn’t put the sun out.

 

If in the hour of the wolf

you didn’t call out like a wolf.

 

May sun shine for you out of the wind,

out of your brother,

and a fish in the brook,

the oak tree, the unexpected guest.

 

With wheat up to your wait

and clear sky spreading,

 

 

If you actually read this poem to the last comma, you’re wondering if the poem ends like this, suddenly and without resolution, or if I’ve been careless. Unfortunately, it’s the latter. I do not know what happens at the end of this poem. I don’t even know who wrote it (although I suspect Charles Simic). Somehow I neglected to photocopy the third page, and now after I’ve had the poem on file for two years at least, I can’t even remember what anthology it’s from. The library, from where the anthology came, is closed because of COVID.

 

Sorry to leave you hanging. But there’s enough here to enjoy, and you can see where it’s going. Curses are piled upon curses, all with a medieval flavor—armored men, kin rising up, the ax, cannon, the wolf, all hounds, all evils—and many with an element of humor, which is why I think it may be a Simic poem. My favorite curse—

 

May you buy a hat

and have nothing to put it on.

 

Then in part four, or what we have of part four, the speaker undoes the wished-for misfortune. Presumably if all the conditions are met—if the person addressed behaves decently to strangers and tames his animal aggression—he’ll be blessed with good weather, enough food to eat, and good times in general.

 

But for all I know, the actual ending could turn again. Please, people, help me track down this poem!

 

*

 

Poet Nick Flynn’s curse is more a story of a curse rather than a curse proclaimed by the speaker.

 

poem is on stone wall next to the door

 

Curse

by Nick Flynn

 

Let the willows drop their branches, heavy with ice,

let the sound be a whipcrack across the fields.

 

Let each tree be felled, let them dynamite the stumps.

 

From now on you will have to keep moving, from now on

you will carry everything you own.

 

You will sleep beneath a payphone, dream of a room, a field.

 

Let the field burn clean, let your children beat the flames

with brooms.

 

You will feign sleep as the conductor passes.

 

The names of your children will break up in your mind.

 

Let the stones jam the plough, let the barn fall.

 

Let the paint leech into the well.

 

 

There’s no humor here, just a deep well of bitterness and anger. Someone’s life is being utterly and systematically destroyed. First his home, then his family, then his mind. Forced to wander, he bears the mark of Cain—

 

From now on you will have to keep moving, from now on

            you will carry everything you own.

 

You wonder what this man or woman has done to deserve such a fate. Maybe nothing. Maybe “Curse” is a description of dementia, which is indeed one of the worst of curses. This line—

 

The names of your children will break up in your mind

 

—sounds like a common woe of families with a demented parent.

 

The poem’s field blasted of its tree stumps could be the destruction of memories. No one’s able to stop the destruction (the children uselessly beat flames with brooms), and the cursed person is left to live solely from moment to moment. The past is gone forever, and the future looks pretty bad.

 

If the dementia-conceit holds, here’s the kicker, a description of the horror of a disintegrating brain:

 

Let the stones jam the plough, let the barn fall.

 

Let the paint leech into the well.

 

And suddenly I am thanking God for a working brain.

 

*

 

Here’s a bio of 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 on park bench

 

Fall

by Laure-Anne Bosselaar

 

So it’s today, and in the chokecherry this year:

the first leaves turn ochre, there, by the open gate.

 

I grab the sweater you left on a chair, wrap it

around my shoulders, and—as I did for days last year

 

until I couldn’t keep up with the season—I pick

every single rusting leaf, each fading flower

 

and hide them in my apron pocket:  their crush

clandestine against my belly. It’s a simple gift

 

for you—for us—such an easy thing to do

for a few more days of summer.

 

 

So it’s today, Laure-Anne Bosselaar begins. “Fall” is a time-sensitive poem that finds me behind schedule.

 

For the past three seasons I’ve had plans to post “Fall” in mid-September but every year November rolls by and the poem remains unattended. So even though the first leaves have long been raked and bagged, I’m giving this poem its long-awaited moment in the sun, there amongst the season’s very last leaves.

 

The voice in “Fall” is effortless, off-hand. It’s as if we’ve caught Bosselaar mid-thought. The poem is addressed to “you,” presumably her lover, but the voice is so friendly it almost seems addressed to us, the readers. She’s talking out loud, spontaneously, before she’s had much time to reflect and refine her inner monologue.

 

On the surface, the image of a woman picking leaves in her yard is simple and charming. To preserve the last bit of summer the speaker removes the first fall leaves from a chokecherry tree. Here is a chokecherry tree

 

 

In one sense, this effort to please her lover is romantic. Fighting the end of summer may be a fool’s errand, but how in love she is, hiding those leaves in her apron pocket, just few at first and then more and more till she can’t keep up. She’s like a woman picking gray hairs from her scalp. More gray is inevitable, but just for the moment, she keeps the illusion of youth.

 

But maybe it’s darker than that.

 

The woman remains on the house side of an opened gate, through which, presumably, her lover has gone. Permanently? Or is he just out for the day? She wears his sweater as if to keep him close.

 

You may think I am being cynical and over-reading the poem, but it is after all, called “Fall,” and the tree in question is a chokecherry tree. Chokecherry—the very word calls up tears held back, strangled emotion, situations that bind. And people, she is picking leaves off a tree. It may be a lovely image, but it’s also straight-up crazy.

 

The jittery dashes and her self-correction of exactly who she is hiding the leaves for—

 

It’s a simple gift

 

for you—for us—such an easy thing to do

 

could suggest a nervousness. Under the breezy tone is there a pleading? Damn you leaves, can’t you let things stay the same? Is her resistance to fall romantic or desperate?

 

And then there’s the apron, that mark of domesticity and homemaking. Perhaps it’s a gardening apron, perhaps for cooking, but either way, an apron protects the one who wears it from soil and splatters. What is she protecting? She is protecting her lover and herself from reality. From death if you come right down to it.

 

Is this her role? To stand between reality and illusion? To mitigate the effects of uncomfortable situations, to soften the edges of bad news? Perhaps this is my own preoccupation that I toss on Bosselaar’s poem, but such a role is a domestic one, and one that women, with our antennae so finely tuned to others’ needs and emotional states, often take on.

 

*

 

Laure-Anne Bosselaar was born in Belgium in 1943. She studied theater at Brussels Conservatory.  As a single mother of three children, she worked in radio and television and taught poetry at an international school in Brussels.

 

In 1987 she moved to the United States. At age 48 she got her MFA from Warren Wilson College. She’s been widely published in literary magazines, earned several prizes and fellowships, and has published four books of poetry. Fluent in four languages, she is also known for her poetry translations. She is the Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara.

 

She married poet Kurt Brown who died in 2013. Their collaboration on creative projects and their seemingly happy marriage point to high probability that I’ve mis-read this poem!

 

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poem is on dumpster

 

Blessed

by Lucinda Williams

 

We were blessed by the minister

Who practiced what he preached

We were blessed by the poor man

Who said heaven is within reach

We were blessed by the girl selling roses

Who showed us how to live

We were blessed by the neglected child

Who knew how to forgive

 

We were blessed by the battered woman

Who didn’t seek revenge

We were blessed by the warrior

Who didn’t need to win

We were blessed by the blind man

Who could see for miles and miles

We were blessed by the fighter

Who didn’t fight for the prize

 

We were blessed the mother

Who gave up the child

We were blessed by the soldier

Who gave up his life

We were blessed by the teacher

Who didn’t have a degree

We were blessed by the prisoner

Who knew how to be free

 

We were blessed

Yeah, we were blessed

 

We were blessed by the mystic

Who turned water into wine

We were blessed by the watchmaker

Who gave up his time

We were blessed by the wounded man

Who felt no pain

By the wayfaring stranger

Who knew our names

 

We were blessed by the homeless man

Who showed us the way home

We were blessed by the hungry man

Who filled us with love

By the little innocent baby

Who taught us the truth

We were blessed by the forlorn

Forsaken and abused

 

We were blessed

Yeah, we were blessed

Mmm, we were blessed

Yeah, we were blessed

We were blessed

 

 

This is a song, not a poem, so before we go any further, listen. Listen to Lucinda, especially if you’re stressed, angry, anxious, worn out, torn up, forlorn, unshorn, or just ate too much candy corn.

 

 

Is there a better voice for 2020? Shredded but strong. World weary but still soulful. Been there, done that, and not giving up.

 

If you’ve had your fill of humble braggers on Facebook who use “#Blessed” as an excuse to post pictures of their attractive children or latest vacation, the title could be off-putting. Fortunately, Williams operates in a social medium far from the glittering crowd. Imagine the underside of Facebook, a place to post pictures of your cockroach infestation, your divorce papers or insufficient paycheck. That’s where you’ll find Lucinda.

 

The lyrics separated from the music read a little facile, a little predictable. I don’t love all the lines—the watchmaker who gave up his time feels forced, for example. The neglected child and the battered wife who forgive their abusers seems reductive—at least until I think about the difference between seeking revenge and seeking justice. But there are many more lines I love. The teacher who didn’t have a degree, the warrior who didn’t need to win, the innocent baby who taught us the truth, all these allow me to look over my life and experiences in a new way.

 

That’s one of the reasons I keep listening to this song over and over. Each image is a rich vein for contemplation. Williams may have been raised with two Methodist grandfathers, but I see Ignatian spirituality all over the place. The Examen is an Ignatian prayer of reflection on the day, a way to look for God’s presence in everyday moments. Call it goodness instead of God if you want, but God in all things is a sturdy set of glasses to re-focus your gaze. “Blessed” does the same thing.

 

If you haven’t already noticed, “Blessed” is a riff on the Beatitudes. Jesus calls blessed all the humble, forgotten people:  the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the oppressed, the ones who forgive, the ones who seek goodness, the peacemakers, the persecuted. Williams calls up the same sorts of people—the “suckers” and “losers,” if you will—not to call them blessed but to claim them as blessors.

 

I taped the poem to a trash and recycling center across the street from a church in northern Michigan. Blessed be the throwaways.

 

If you need a little more Lucinda to get through the next week, here’s another of my favorites. (It was my COVID lockdown song this spring.)

 

 

*

 

Lucinda Williams was born in Louisiana in 1953. Her father was the beloved poet Miller Williams, her mother an aspiring pianist with mental health issues. After her parents divorced, Williams lived with her father, moving frequently around the south with each new university job he took, eventually settling in Arkansas. She was kicked out of high school after several infractions (including not standing for the Pledge of Allegiance), and finished her education under her father’s tutelage, who gave her a hundred books to read. While in Arkansas she took up with poet Frank Stanford (you can read that crazy tragic story here), and after his suicide wrote the beautiful “Pineola.”

 

She began performing at age 17 in Mexico. She’s put out 14 albums (including one this year) and won multiple Grammys.

 

 

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Vanishing

by Lawrence Raab

 

First you worry that you’ll never get

what you want, later that you’ll lose

what you have. In between

for a time you just trusted

the course of your life, assumed

things would fall into place.

Most of them did. But now,

not quite all of a sudden, every new pain

is a sign, then a promise.

Even if you didn’t take death seriously

when you were young, you understood

that was the story. Your kids

leave home, your dog sleeps most of the day.

Letters arrive wanting to know

if you’ve planned for the future.

You walk out on the porch:

there’s a field, then a mountain,

so familiar you have to look hard.

The letters say, It’s never too late.

All things vanish. You know that.

All the things you love

vanish. Can you love this idea?

Is that the task? you think. To try?

 

 

This is the last of the death series. The End.

 

Just as enthusiasm for exercise and dieting flag around January 11, so has my interest in this depressing project. There’s too many other depressing things in the world for a prolonged memento mori. Also, I just heard a song that I want to post, a hopeful song that made me cry. So let’s get through this last bit of morbidity and move on.

 

That said, there’s much humor in Lawrence Raab’s “Vanishing.” It’s one of the reasons I love him. The subject is heavy and complicated, but his language is plain, his tone light. Reading this poem is like watching someone flick a toe at a huge boulder that, strangely, astoundingly, rolls away on impact.

 

Take the opening lines. Was there ever such a compact version of 21stcentury, consumer-driven life? It’s so pithy and pitiless it’s almost funny—

 

First you worry that you’ll never get

what you want, later that you’ll lose

what you have.

 

And then the closing lines, written as if they were mere passing thoughts and not a profound encapsulation of earthly existence—

 

All things vanish. You know that.

All the things you love

vanish. Can you love this idea?

Is that the task? you think. To try?

 

Casually posed, the speaker’s questions are ontological; there’s a whole theology in the answers. If you “love” the idea that everything you care about vanishes, then every thing and every moment becomes precious beyond value. Nothing can be taken for granted. Not even the field out back, not the mountain in the distance—

 

You walk out on the porch:

there’s a field, then a mountain,

so familiar you have to look hard.

 

This making the familiar unfamiliar, seeing anew, making the ordinary precious, that has always been the province of the poet. But it is also, Raab suggests, life work for all of us.

 

I posted the poem on a tree along a walking path of well-trafficked suburban park.

 

*

 

Here’s a biography of Raab from a previous post:

 

Lawrence Raab was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1946. He went to Middlebury College and earned his masters from Syracuse. He’s taught at University of Michigan, American University, and these days at Williams College. He’s one numerous awards and grants and has published seven collections of poetry.

 

Raab has also written screenplays and adapted Aristophanes’ The Birds for theater.

 

 

 

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Miguel

by César Vallejo

 

I’m sitting here on the old patio

beside your absence. It is a black well.

We’d be playing, now. . . I can hear Mama yell

“Boys! Calm down!” We’d laugh, and off I’d go

to hide where you’d never look. . . under the stairs,

in the hall, the attic. . . Then you’d do the same.

Miguel, we were too good at that game.

Everything would always end in tears.

 

No one was laughing on that August night

you went to hide away again, so late

it was almost dawn. But now your brother’s through

with this hunting and hunting and never finding you.

The shadows crowd him. Miguel, will you hurry

and show yourself? Mama will only worry.

 

 

I regret posting this poem on a seesaw at an empty lakeside park.

 

I mean this poem, the words you see above, not César Vallejo’s actual poem, which unless you read Spanish, is inaccessible to you.

 

What I regret is that I used the translation above. I got it from the Poetry Foundation website, so it’s legitimate, but it seems to have sacrificed meaning for rhyme. The translation from Poets.org from the Academy of American Poets is completely different. I think it’s better. I say “better” cautiously. I think it’s better because it’s more complicated and layered:

 

To My Brother Miguel in Memoriam

by César Vallejo

 

 

Brother, today I sit on the brick bench outside the house,

where you make a bottomless emptiness.

I remember we used to play at this hour of the day, and mama

would calm us: “There now, boys…”

Now I go hide

as before, from all these evening

prayers, and I hope that you will not find me.

In the parlor, the entrance hall, the corridors.

Later, you hide, and I do not find you.

I remember we made each other cry,

brother, in that game.

 

Miguel, you hid yourself

one night in August, nearly at daybreak,

but instead of laughing when you hid, you were sad.

And your other heart of those dead afternoons

is tired of looking and not finding you.  And now

shadows fall on the soul.

 

Listen, brother, don’t be too late

coming out. All right? Mama might worry.

 

 

Given how distinct the two translations are, I can’t begin to examine this poem on a line-by-line basis. I can only feel it. It’s tender, it’s loving, it’s haunting. It breaks my heart. Like Vallejo, I have ten siblings. That’s as far as I’ll go with the comparison, it’s too painful to contemplate.

 

Death in “Miguel” is not abstract and it’s not in the past. Death is an absence that’s never filled, a game of hide-and-go-seek that’s never finished. The tears of frustration that ended the childhood game become exhaustion in the present. Miguel’s brother can look and look, but Miguel hides forever.

 

Here’s a musical version of the poem by the amazing Mercedes Sosas. No matter that I can’t understand the words, the intense emotion comes through.

 

*

 

How is it I’ve never heard of César Vallejo, poet, novelist, playwright, journalist, a man Thomas Merton called “the greatest universal poet since Dante”?

 

Vallejo (1892-1938) was born in a remote area of the Andes in Peru, the youngest of eleven children. His grandfathers were Spanish Catholic priests, his grandmothers Chimu Indians. Make of that what you will. (I read somewhere that his grandmothers were brought into the rectory as housekeepers. There’s a story in there and I’m not sure it’s romantic.) Regardless, Vallejo was deeply attached to both his indigenous and his Spanish identities.

 

The family was very religious. His father encouraged him to become a priest, but Vallejo didn’t want to be celibate. He went to university but had to drop out several times because he couldn’t afford tuition. In between enrollments he worked as a tutor and in an office at a sugar plantation, where he was appalled by the exploitation of the workers.

 

After graduating and getting his master’s degree, he became a principal at a prestigious school. At night went to opium dens. Then his life took a Job-like turn. He got fired after he refused to marry a woman with whom he was having an affair, he tried to commit suicide, he returned home, and his mother died. While he was home, or on his way home (the story confused me), a general store was looted and burned, a man was shot, and Vallejo was accused of instigating the crime and sent to jail for months. Released on parole, he moved back to Lima, and from there, on to Europe. He knew when he left he would never be able to return home because of his criminal status.

 

In Paris he lived in dire poverty and nearly starved to death. There he befriend an also-impoverished Pablo Picasso and met Jean Cocteau, among other artists. He studied Marxism, and decided to give up poetry altogether to write a book about Marxist theory. He became a Communist, took three trips to the Soviet Union, and was expelled from France for his politics in 1930.

 

In Spain he worked as a journalist during the Spanish Civil War. He was horrified at the conditions on the front. Somehow he was able to go back to Paris (I’m telling you, his life story has so many twists and turns I had a hard time following it), where he contracted an illness and could not recover. His death was dramatic. Not to make light of it, but I collect deathbed scenes and they usually have some element of humor. This one is no exception:

 

From poets.org:

 

No one knew how to heal him; at one point, his wife even enlisted the help of astrologers and wizards. On the morning of April 15, the Fascists finally reached the Mediterranean, cutting the Loyalist territory in two. At more or less the same moment, Vallejo cried out in delirium, “I am going to Spain! I want to go to Spain!” and he died. It was Good Friday.

 

He was only 46 when he died.

 

 

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Stick Elegy

by Terrance Hayes

 

The dead were still singing Turn the lights down low

Beneath Yellow Bridge where years before, clowning

And ass out, Stick jumped with nothing but the State

Championship trophy in his righteous clutch. The water

Was supposed to be deepest there, and for three seasons

Straight MVPs: Charlie “Fly” Kennison, Long Timmy Long,

And Rocket Jefferson, those are the names I knew, jumped

 

Free. But Stick’s ankle broke. I fished him out, crumpled

And bawling like the day he was born, like an object of

Baptism, and a life of bad luck followed in the shape of

Floods and fractured lightning, and then, numb, tooth-

Less, and changed, the dead refused burial, striking out, 2

By 2, 4 by 4, from the morgue house to raise trouble at

The bridge. I started hearing birds everywhere after that.

 

 

The lyrics in the first line of the Terrance Hayes’ poem—Turn the lights down low—seem familiar, but the song title escapes me. Which is exactly how I feel about the poem as a whole. Even after reading “Stick Elegy” over and over and over again, it escapes me even as I feel like I should know it well.

 

Let’s start with that lyric. It sounds like a slow-dance song, the type you’d hear at a high school prom of yore. But it’s not romantic and it’s not nostalgic. Dead people sing it—an image to make you shudder and avoid walking under bridges.

 

The boys mentioned in the poem seem familiar too. Kings of the basketball court, with their superhero nicknames, Fly, Rocket, Long, and the unfortunate Stick, whose very name, brittle and thin, suggest his destiny. Most of us knew such boys. Most of us knew or heard of that one boy, so full of promise and jokes and life, the boy we think of every time we jump in a pool, the boy who dove in the shallow end and broke his neck.

 

Then there’s the biblical references:  Noah’s flood and the two-by-two procession into the ark; Job’s lifetime of bad luck; baptisms in the river Jordan. I recognize the allusions but the applications are unsettling.

 

The poem’s conversational tone adds to my sense of familiarity. Listing the past jumpers, the speaker says, “those are the names I knew,” at once establishing a whole history of bridge jumpers before his time and his reliability as a storyteller. Like all good storytellers, the speaker knows when to pause for effect. The break between stanzas leaves the word “free” exposed, a tragic commentary on Stick’s fate. Behind the casual tone is a familiar form, the sonnet, with rhymes seemingly offhand but crafted most carefully: low/clowning, jumped/crumpled, tooth/2trouble at/after that.

 

Here’s where I start to lose the thread. A story is being told, but what is happening? Events happen over time. A story implies a timeline. In “Stick Elegy” certain words make timelines meaningless. The dead were “still singing” (emphasis mine) and a few words later we’re into “years before” territory. The poem ends with a past event that leans towards the present and future:  I started hearing birds everywhere after that. Does after that happen after Stick’s fall or Stick’s death or the dead singing under the bridge?

 

And who is this all happening to? Was the trouble at the bridge the speaker’s, Stick’s or does it belong to the dead people coming out of the morgue? Was it Stick who is changed or the dead? Look at the syntax around those lines. It’s purposefully confusing. We think we’re reading about Stick but all the sudden we’re not—

 

and then, numb, tooth-

Less, and changed, the dead refused burial

 

Look, as long as we’re in the land of the fanciful with these dead folks processing out of the morgue two-by-two and four-by-four, let me mention that Billy Collins is standing over my shoulder, accusing me of trying to

 

tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

 

So I’ll step back and think about what I do understand. It’s enough.

 

I see that the speaker is haunted by Stick’s life and death. The dead refused burial is a succinct and startling way to talk about grief.

 

I see that there’s a horrible reverse baptism at work here. Instead of baptism as a ritual marking the beginning of a new life in a community, Stick’s participation in the bridge-jumping tradition makes him an outcast and marks the end of the life he expected to have.

 

I see that the poem closes with birds, just as the story of Noah’s flood ends with a dove carrying an olive branch. But the birds at the end of “Stick Elegy” bring no peace and no promise. They sing to haunt.

 

There’s a big black boulder at a boy’s high school near my house. It sits outside the gym where boys exit to head to their playing fields. Every year new names are spray-painted on the rock, names of boys from the school who died, by suicide, by drowning. Whenever I walk past the rock, I touch it, sometimes tracing the wobbly-painted names with my finger. It’s my blessing to the boys lost and the boys left behind. Who knows how many boys do the same? At the very least, they see it daily, this rock that gives voice to their grief, this rock that says, We haven’t forgotten you, we will never forget you.

 

That, unfortunately, is what is most familiar of all about this poem.

 

I posted the poem on a bridge of course.

 

*

 

Terrance Hayes was born in 1971 in Columbia, South Carolina. His mother was a corrections officer, his father a barber for the military. He studied music and English at Coker College on a basketball scholarship. He got his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh and taught at Carnegie Mellon, University of Alabama, University of Pittsburgh. He now teaches at New York University. Among the many awards he’s won are the National Book Award, several Pushcart prizes and fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He’s published six books of poetry and one short story collection.

 

He has two children by his ex-wife, poet Yona Harvey.

 

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Today begins a death series. If you are of the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness tribe, the timing might feel off to you. It’s true, poems about death would be better suited to November, somber November with its All Souls Day, bare trees and sunless skies. But I’ve always been a Margaret are you grieving over goldengrove unleaving kind of gal. Fall, even on the most beautiful of days, is death. “Winter is coming,” as they say

 

 

Or as Hopkins puts it,

 

It ís the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

 

*

poem is on right-side picnic table post

 

Death Again

by Jim Harrison

 

Let’s not get romantic or dismal about death.

Indeed it’s our most unique act along with birth.

We must think of it as cooking breakfast,

it’s that ordinary. Break two eggs into a bowl

or break a bowl into two eggs. Slip into a coffin

after the fluids have been drained, or better yet,

slide into the fire. Of course it’s a little hard

to accept your last kiss, your last drink,

your last meal about which the condemned

can be quite particular as if there could be

a cheeseburger sent by God. A few lovers

sweep by the inner eye, but it’s mostly a placid

lake at dawn, mist rising, a solitary loon

call, and staring into the still, opaque water.

We’ll know as children again all that we are

destined to know, that the water is cold

and deep, and the sun penetrates only so far.

 

 

We begin the series with “Death Again” by the morbidly funny Jim Harrison. Has there ever been a funnier poem title? Think about it. Say it out loud with different accents and intonations. It’s really funny. But also not funny at all.

 

Harrison sets the tone right from the start— Let’s not get romantic or dismal about death, he says, and he jokes to downplay the import of the dreaded subject. At the end of the poem he drops the clown act to reveal a vision stark and bleak—

 

We’ll know as children again all that we are

destined to know, that the water is cold

and deep, and the sun penetrates only so far.

 

Does anyone read those lines differently, that is, can anyone find any hope there?

 

I left “Death Again” at a picnic site on a placid lake. In the background you can see a swimmer braving the cold water for a last dip on her silly float.

 

*

 

I left another Harrison death poem at a cemetery in the northern Michigan town of Bliss. Harrison probably would have appreciated being situated in The Bliss Cemetery.

 

I don’t like “Sister” as well as “Death Again,” so I’ll post the pictures without comment.

poem is on skinny tree trunk

 

 

*

 

Two relevant Harrison quotes I came across:

 

“Everything living ends up as a turd of sorts.” (from his collection of food essays, A Really Big Lunch.)

 

And second, less funny, more raw, his reflections on the untimely deaths of his sister and father, from his memoir:

 

“Death leaves you speechless, or at least verbless. You simply become a howling primate, audibly or not, with your bloody heart in your hand wondering how it continues to pump. The word love becomes mortally imprecise when the objects of love are torn from us. . . . During the many raw moments that followed I even wondered if it would have been more bearable if we hadn’t been such a vitally close family. We never missed kissing each other goodnight and now two of us were forever missing.”

 

Re-posting his biography from a previous post:

 

 

Jim Harrison (1937-2016) was born in Grayling, Michigan, about an hour south of where I taped his poem to a country road. He was second of five children in a close-knit, book-loving family. As a young boy he lost an eye when a little girl smashed a broken bottle in his face.

 

 

Two years after he graduated from Michigan State, his father and sister were killed by a drunk driver, an event that committed him to a writing life. He said in an interview, “If people you love are going to be taken from you, why compromise?” He got his masters in comparative literature and taught briefly at Stoneybrook University before rejecting academic life and turning to writing full-time, supporting his wife and two daughters with manual labor. The family lived in poverty for many years until he published Legends of the Fall, a novella which was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt.

 

He worked as a screenwriter on several movies, making fast friends with the rich and the famous in Hollywood, including Jack Nicholson and George Harrison.

 

His appetite for food, alcohol, drugs during his Hollywood days, and sex were over-the-top, leading to health problems in his older years. Which of course didn’t stop such an animal-nature from continuing to indulge. Here’s a characteristic bit from his obituary in the New York Times:

“If you’ve known a lot of actresses and models,” he once confided with characteristic plain-spokenness to a rapt audience at a literary gathering, “you return to waitresses because at least they smell like food.”

 

He was a prolific writer, publishing seven novellas, eleven novels, thirteen poetry collections, and three books of nonfiction. A nature lover, he kept a cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and a farm in Leelanau. In later years he and his wife spent summers in Montana and winters in Arizona.

 

Harrison is my second favorite food writer (M.F.K. Fishers holds the top post). The Raw and the Cooked is earthy and hilarious, a perfect read for fall.

 

Married for 55 years he died at 78, six months after his wife passed. He was in the middle of writing a poem when his heart gave out.

 

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poem is on mirror, above pillow

 

Mirror

by Sylvia Plath

 

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.

Whatever I see I swallow immediately

Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.

I am not cruel, only truthful ‚

The eye of a little god, four-cornered.

Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.

It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long

I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.

Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

 

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,

Searching my reaches for what she really is.

Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.

I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.

She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.

I am important to her. She comes and goes.

Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.

In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman

Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

 

 

Hate to say it, but the first stanza of Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror” reminds me of a grade school creative writing assignment. You know the kind—“Write a poem from the point of view of an inanimate object like a sock or a globe.” I hate to say it because who am I to criticize a poem by the great and venerable Plath, even one of her lesser ones. This reluctance to show disrespect also stems from a personal history of undervaluing Plath’s work for reasons unflattering to myself. More on that later.

 

Still, even if I won’t sing the glories of this poem, I’ve found its punch and power. Some of it’s going to sit with me for a long while.

 

There’s a clever structure at work here. “Mirror” is a poem about a mirror in which two stanzas mirror each other. Both are nine lines each, and both present a psychological portrait of a character. The first stanza brings us to the inner life of the mirror, the second to the woman obsessed with the mirror. The mirror knows exactly what she or he is, seems self-contained and proud. The woman comes off as hysterical, crying, throwing up her hands.

 

One meditates. One agitates. One is truthful, the other enamored of liars—the candles and moonlight that present her in a softer light. The mirror focuses on what it sees, the woman on how she is seen. The woman has the formula for self-worth backwards, as mirror images always do.

 

The last lines burn. I won’t ever search out new wrinkles in the mirror without thinking of these images—

 

In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman

Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

 

Plath herself was only 28, fresh-faced and beautiful, when she wrote the poem. She couldn’t have seen anything remotely close to a terrible fish in the mirror. But being young and beautiful, she well understood the role that youth and beauty have in a woman’s sense of her own value.

 

I left the poem in a boutique dressing room where I felt disgust at how a certain pair of pants fit my behind. Silly to let that terrible fish share the mirror with me.

 

*

 

One night in my mid-twenties, my book group was discussing Plath’s only novel, the semi-autobiographical The Bell Jar.  My friend had read it in a woman’s studies class in college and was enamored of Plath as a feminist hero. I spent the evening arguing, in my bombastic and irritating way, that Plath was not a victim of patriarchy but of mental illness. This is not the story, I said, of someone who felt hemmed in by rigid gender roles, this is the story of someone who suffered from serious depression. I resented at almost a personal level the hagiography of a person I saw as a victim of biology and not of societal expectations. Of the latter I was dismissive.

 

That night I slept at my mother-in-law’s house, my husband and my father-in-law being out of town. As I lay in bed, the windowpanes rattled and rattled and I became convinced that Sylvia Plath was trying to get in the room to take revenge for my comments. l was frightened. I went to my mother-in-law’s room, woke her, and said, “I know this sounds silly, but Sylvia Plath’s ghost is haunting me. Can I sleep with you?” To her great and abiding credit, the dear woman acted not the least surprised. “Sure,” she said, pulling down the covers on the other side of the bed. I slept soundly and in the morning she didn’t mention it.

 

My fright, it seems to me now, was just leftover guilt at steamrolling over the other book club members’ opinions and not giving Plath her full due. Yes, she suffered from clinical depression, but in a different environment, less constraining for an ambitious young woman like herself, she might have survived without resorting to suicide. Whatever combination of chemistry and environment that brought on her depression, the fact is that she suffered. She suffered terribly. For me, researching the details of her biography was as penance for false judgment.

 

 

*

 

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was born in Boston, Massachusetts to a German entomologist and his graduate student Aurelia Schober. Plath was the oldest of two. Her father died when she was eight.

 

Plath was an excellent student with a genius level IQ. While at Smith College she was chosen to be a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine in New York City. The experience was disillusioning. Clinical depression set in, and at age twenty-one she made her first suicide attempt. She crawled under her mother’s house with a bottle of sleeping pills, and was found two days later. She was sent to a private hospital, treated with electric and insulin shock therapy, recovered, and returned to school.

 

Plath graduated from Smith with highest honors and was granted a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge. There she met and married poet Ted Hughes. She returned to Smith to teach, and finding that teaching made writing difficult, took a job as a receptionist while taking a writing seminar with poet Robert Lowell at night. Lowell and Anne Sexton (who took the seminar with her) encouraged her to write in the more confessional vein for which she is famous.

 

She moved back to London, had two children, a miscarriage in between. She wrote to her mother that Hughes beat her two days before the miscarriage. Hughes seems to have been a hunky, charismatic fellow but obviously no prince. After discovering he was having an affair with their tenant, Plath moved into a flat with the two children, ages two and under one. This was a period of great creativity for her but also deep depression. London had one of the coldest winters on record, the pipes in the apartment froze, the telephone didn’t work, and the kids were often sick.

 

That February she committed suicide at age 30, famously sticking her head in an oven while her children slept in the room next door. I remember at book club judging her harshly for putting her children at risk this way. Turns out she carefully taped the doors to seal the kids off from the gas, and killed herself at 4:30 a.m., a few hours before the nanny would arrive.

 

Her daughter Frieda is an artist, and her son Nicholas, a fisheries biologist. He  committed suicide by hanging in middle-age. Theirs was a difficult life. After their mother’s death, the woman their father had an affair with moved in to care for them, and six years later committed suicide in the same fashion, killing her own daughter as well.

 

My heart aches for such suffering.

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poem is on center line

Dan’s Bugs

by Jim Harrison

I felt a little bad about the nasty earwig

that drowned in my nighttime glass of water,

lying prone at the bottom like a shipwrecked mariner.

There was guilt about the moth who died

when she showered with me, possibly a female.

They communicate through wing vibrations.

I was careful when sticking a letter

in our rural mailbox, waiting for a fly to escape,

not wanting her to be trapped there in the darkness.

Out here in the country many insects invade our lives

and many die in my nightcap, floating and deranged.

On the way to town to buy wine and a chicken

I stopped from 70 mph to pick up

a wounded dragonfly fluttering on the yellow line.

I’ve read that some insects live only for minutes,

as we do in our implacable geologic time.

As a longtime Jim Harrison fan, I can’t read this poem without an image of the poet, grizzled and drunk, winking at me for the tenderness on display, but I was surprised to find another northern Michigan man springing up, a man I encountered long ago in a plain little church one Sunday. He lumbered up to the lectern to sing and I thought, geez they must be really hard up for a cantor. He had a face like a pork butt and the hands of a butcher, but my goodness his voice was honey. He filled the church with some of the most beautiful church singing I’ve ever heard.

That same incongruity is at work in “Dan’s Bugs.” Weather-beaten, chain-smoking Harrison, prolific killer of animals and fish, stops on the highway to tenderly pick up the smallest of roadkill, a wounded dragonfly fluttering on the yellow line.

This poem is everything I love about my fellow humans, how surprising people can be with their beauty hidden under donkey skins, their talents wrapped in coarse coverings, their kindness under gruff exteriors. The poem is also everything I love about Harrison, his humor, his morbidity, his wry take on the human condition, his sweet heart.

Did I mention I love this guy?

*

Jim Harrison (1937-2016) was born in Grayling, Michigan, about an hour south of where I taped his poem to a country road. He was second of five children in a close-knit, book-loving family. As a young boy he lost an eye when a little girl smashed a broken bottle in his face.

Two years after he graduated from Michigan State, his father and sister were killed by a drunk driver, an event that committed him to a writing life. He said in an interview, “If people you love are going to be taken from you, why compromise?” He got his masters in comparative literature and taught briefly at Stoneybrook University before rejecting academic life and turning to writing full-time, supporting his wife and two daughters with manual labor. The family lived in poverty for many years until he published Legends of the Fall, a novella which was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt.

He worked as a screenwriter on several movies, making fast friends with the rich and the famous in Hollywood, including Jack Nicholson and George Harrison.

His appetite for food, alcohol, drugs during his Hollywood days, and sex were over-the-top, leading to health problems in his older years. Which of course didn’t stop such an animal-nature from continuing to indulge. Here’s a characteristic bit from his obituary in the New York Times:

“If you’ve known a lot of actresses and models,” he once confided with characteristic plain-spokenness to a rapt audience at a literary gathering, “you return to waitresses because at least they smell like food.”

 

He was a prolific writer, publishing seven novellas, eleven novels, thirteen poetry collections, and three books of nonfiction. A nature lover, he kept a cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and a farm in Leelanau. In later years he and his wife spent summers in Montana and winters in Arizona.

Harrison is my second favorite food writer (M.F.K. Fishers holds the top post). The Raw and the Cooked is earthy and hilarious, a perfect read for fall.

Married for 55 years he died at 78, six months after his wife passed. He was in the middle of writing a poem when his heart gave out.

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