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Archive for the ‘Anne Porter’ Category

To kick off the countdown series, a poem at a coronavirus testing site—

poem is above neon “OPEN” sign

 

Susanna

by Anne Porter

 

Nobody in the hospital

Could tell the age

Of the old woman who

Was called Susanna

 

I knew she spoke some English

And that she was an immigrant

Out of a little country

Trampled by armies

 

Because she had no visitors

I would stop by to see her

But she was always sleeping

 

All I could do

Was to get out her comb

And carefully untangle

The tangles in her hair

 

One day I was beside her

When she woke up

Opening small dark eyes

Of a surprising clearness

 

She looked at me and said

You want to know the truth?

I answered Yes

 

She said it’s something that

My mother told me

 

There’s not a single inch

Of our whole body

That the Lord does not love

 

She then went back to sleep.

 

 

Are old people worth less than the rest of us? No one wants to be heard answering in the affirmative, but an affirmative answer lurks behind the way horrifying coronavirus statistics get sloughed off. Yes, hundreds of thousands of people died of coronavirus, but. . . But what?. . .  But most of them were old people. . . So?. . . So they were going to die soon anyway. . ..

 

All but the most brazen don’t finish the equation (at least out loud), to wit:

 

healthy economy > lives of the elderly

 

It’s not that simple, I hear you, I know. But one way or the other the dignity and value of our old people have been sullied this year. Not only by proponents of the above equation but by the facts of their suffering. Old people isolated in nursing homes and hospital rooms, shut off from human contact. Old people dying alone, struggling to breathe alone, attended to by strangers. Old age so often brings loneliness and isolation, but the pandemic has pushed that loneliness and isolation to an epic scale.

 

Let’s bring poet Anne Porter into the discussion. Porter gives us Susanna, a woman so old no one even can guess her age, an immigrant no less, from a country deemed expendable, a little country/ trampled by armies. (I’m guessing Poland.) Susanna sleeps all day and seems to require extensive care, or to use the more modern word, resources.

 

But the speaker in the poem sees that lump in the bed as a human being, worthy of attention and love. And the pay-off (a word I use only in the spirit of crass thinking) is huge.

 

Even if you don’t believe in Susanna’s theology—

 

There’s not a single inch

Of our whole body

That the Lord does not love

 

—you can see love in action, going back between the two characters like a tennis ball. The speaker gently brushes Susanna’s hair; Susanna in turn offers a bit of wisdom the speaker is receptive to. More than that, Susanna in her suffering has allowed the speaker to express the tenderest, kindest part of her character. Whether or not you believe that such kindness is the most central part of the human personality (as I do), you have to acknowledge that it exists in varying degrees in nearly everyone. And that is something to hold onto in dark times.

 

I offer”Susanna” as a tribute to our elders, to those who take care of them, and to all the suffering families who would give anything just to be able to carefully untangle/ the tangles of their loved one’s hair.

 

*

Anne Porter is in the top five of my favorite poets; her husband Fairfield shares that ranking in the list of my favorite artists. Here’s a bio from a previous post.

 

Anne Porter’s literary career was launched when she was 83 with the publication of her first book of poetry. Can I say that again? Her literary career was launched when she was 83. Surely that’s the most hopeful, life-affirming sentence I’ve ever written. 

 

Born in Boston to a wealthy family, she attended Bryn Mawr and married the American painter and art critic Fairfield Porter. Their marriage was not an easy one. He indulged his artistic temperament and sexual drives while she tended to their five children* and hosted his friends for months on end at their homes in Southampton and Maine. Lovely that some of these guests were his lovers, male and female, but to be fair, she had a liason of her own.

 

Their life together fascinates me. I’ve lost a good hour following their story link to link, drawn down down the rabbit hole of mid-century bohemia. Their social and familial circles pull in such a number of artists and intellectuals, it’s a veritable Bloomsbury group.

 

“Anne in Doorway” by Fairfield Porter

 

Like so many other wives of writers and artists, Anne Porter remained hidden and overlooked until the death of her husband. I have a vision of her tottering on her walker, step by step, on through the heap of egos, drama, passion and duty that blocks her path, until at last she emerges cheerfully on the other side, an artist in her own right. She died in 2011, a month shy of her 100th birthday.

 

*Her oldest son was mentally disabled in some way, either autistic or schizophrenic. When he died in 1980 she wrote the heartbreaking “For My Son Johnny.”

 

 For more information on the remarkable Porter, read this profile in the Wall Street Journal.

 

 

 

 

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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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On a fall day in New York City I left a poem in Central Park . . .

poem is on bench under orange sign 

Women and Horses

by Maxine Kumin

 

“After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric.”

-Theodor Adorno

 

After Auschwitz:  after ten of my father’s kin—

the ones who stayed—starved, then were gassed in the camps.

After Vietnam, after Korea, Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan.

After the Towers. This late in the life of our haplessly orbiting world

let us celebrate whatever scraps the muse, that naked child,

can pluck from the still-smoldering dumps.

 

If there’s a lyre around, strike it! A body, stand back, give it air!

Let us have sparrows laying their eggs in bluebird boxes.

Let us have bluebirds insouciantly nesting elsewhere.

Lend us navel-bared teens, eyebrowed-and-nose-ringed prodigies

crumbling breakfast bagels over dogeared and jelly-smeared texts.

Allow the ablebodied among us to have steamy sex.

 

Let there be fat old ladies in flowery tent dresses at bridge tables.

Howling babies in dirty diapers and babies serenely at rest.

War and détente will go on, détente and renewed tearings asunder,

we can never break free from the dark and degrading past.

Let us see life again nevertheless, in the words of Isaac Babel

as a meadow over which women and horses wander.

 

—and a sister-poem in Chelsea on the back of a bike—

 

Wartime Sunday

by Anne Porter

 

In honor of Eugene Atget, photographer of Paris

 

From the time of a long-ago war that destroyed only far-away cities

I remember a Sunday walk with the littlest of our sons.

The vomit of Saturday night was wet in the doorways,

No one was up, First Avenue empty and gray,

So we turned a corner to stare at the three bridges,

Great webs of stillness over the East River.

 

On our way home, passing the locked-up shops

We saw one window heaped with tarnished lamps

Guitars and radios and dusty furs

And there among them a pawned christening-dress

White as a waterfall.

 

When I was visiting my son in New York City a month ago, I had no plan to pair “Women and Horses” and “Wartime Sunday.” They were just two poems I happened to have in my purse. But looking at them now nuzzled up together in the same post, I feel vindicated in my matchmaking skills which have sometimes been undervalued by my near and dear.

 

To be sure poets Anne Porter and Maxine Kumin are an odd couple. One was a devout Catholic, the other a secular Jew. One travelled in bohemian circles (that would be the Catholic), the other lived quietly in the countryside. But both witnessed massive destruction in their lifetimes:  the Great Depression, the Holocaust, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War 9/11, and all the wars up until 2011 when Porter died at age 100. As mothers and poets during roughly the same time period, they have common ground and much to discuss.

 

Where they meet-up in these poems (if we can continue the dating metaphor) is in the question, “How do we go on?” In the face of a dark and degrading past, as Kumin puts it, how can there be a nevertheless? For Kumin the muse is the answer and for it’s Porter grace, but grace and the muse are close relatives if not twins. (As a child Kumin went for a short while to a Catholic school next door to her house so I suspect the idea of grace wasn’t foreign to her.)

 

Finding vomit on a doorstep (wet, fresh vomit) and the still-smoldering dumps everywhere in our haplessly orbiting world would surely drag us down to despair if that’s all we could see. But in the ruins are wondrous things, great webs of stillness:  old ladies playing bridge, teenagers reading at breakfast, a christening gown white as a waterfall  in a pawn shop window. For those with a discerning eye, grace—call it art if you want—abounds and renews the world again and again.

 

The particular form of grace, that is, what makes things new again, is not the same for these two poets nor for each one of us. That in itself is a marvel to revive the glummest soul.

 

As I was pondering this I came across an excerpt from a Nabokov essay:

 

“In a sense we are all crashing to death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles—no matter the imminent peril—these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so distant from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.”

—Vladimir Nabokov

 

And here we have uncovered the attraction between these two poems:  To wonder at trifles no matter the imminent perils is, for Nabokov and for Kumin and Porter, the highest form[s] of consciousness.

 

I’ll re-print bios of both poets from past posts.

Poet Maxine Kumin was born in Philadelphia in 1925. She went to Radcliffe, now part of Harvard, and swam competitively there.  She took a seminar with novelist Wallace Stegner, and his criticism of her work discouraged her from writing poetry.  For a long time she wrote poems privately.

 

As a mother of young children, Kumin took a poetry class at an adult education center.  There she met poet Anne Sexton.  The two mothers, both at home, became close friends and stayed close up until the day of Sexton’s suicide.  Together they wrote four children’s books.  (The books were illustrated by Evaline Ness, wife of FBI agent Eliot Ness, the inspiration for the “Untouchables” television show.)  Kumin was first published at age 36, and subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize, the Ruth Lilly prize, and most of the big honorifics a poet can receive.

 

She and her husband Victor, a chemical engineer who worked with Oppeheimer on the atomic bomb*, had three children and  lived on a farm in New Hampshire where they raised organic vegetables and bred horses. At age 74 Kumin almost died in a horse driving accident. She broke her neck, ribs, and punctured a lung but recovered and continued to write poetry into her eighties.

 

She’s often compared to another northeastern pastoral poet—she’s been called the feminist Robert Frost.  But after reading some of her poems and marveling at her non-writing daring-do, I’m starting to think of her as a feminist Ernest Hemingway:  physical, fearless, unembellished. 

She died in 2014 at age 88.

*Victor Kumin refused to continue work on the atomic bomb after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  He was threatened with court martial but in the end was honorably discharged.  For a full account of his fascinating story, link here.

 *  *  *

 

Anne Porter’s literary career was launched when she was 83 with the publication of her first book of poetry. Can I say that again? Her literary career was launched when she was 83. Surely that’s the most hopeful, life-affirming sentence I’ve ever written. And she is the sweetest most adorable poet I’ve ever encountered. Watch this video to get an idea. (Best line: she opens a letter and says, “Oh, from the Pope.”)

Born in Boston to a wealthy family, she attended Bryn Mawr and married the American painter and art critic Fairfield Porter. (A favorite of mine. Link to his work to see for yourself.) Their marriage was not an easy one. He indulged his artistic temperament and sexual drives while she tended to their five children* and hosted his friends for months on end at their homes in Southampton and Maine. Lovely that some of these guests were his lovers, male and female, but to be fair, she had a liason of her own.

Their life together fascinates me. I’ve lost a good hour following their story link to link, drawn down down the rabbit hole of mid-century bohemia. Their social and familial circles pull in such a number of artists and intellectuals, it’s a veritable Bloomsbury group.

Portrait of Anne by Fairfield Porter

Like so many other wives of writers and artists, Anne Porter remained hidden and overlooked until the death of her husband. I have a vision of her tottering on her walker, step by step, on through the heap of egos, drama, passion and duty that blocks her path, until at last she emerges cheerfully on the other side, an artist in her own right. She died in 2011.

 

 

*Her oldest son was mentally disabled in some way, either autistic or schizophrenic. When he died in 1980 she wrote the heartbreaking “For My Son Johnny.”

 

For more information on the remarkable Porter, read this profile in the Wall Street Journal.

 For a review of her most recent collection of poems, 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.

img_4070

 

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.”

img_4073

 

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.

img_4076

 

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

img_4080

poem is on middle turkey

 

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

img_4079

 

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

img_4083

 

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.

img_4082

 

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.

image

 

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

image-2

 

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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The Ticket

by Anne Porter


On the night table

Beside my bed

I keep a small

Blue ticket

One day I found it

In my pocket-book

I don’t know how

It got there

I don’t know

What it’s for

On one side

There’s a number

98833

And

INDIANA TICKET COMPANY

And on the other side

The only thing it says

Is KEEP THIS TICKET

I keep it carefully

Because I’m old

Which means

I’ll soon be leaving

For another country

Where possibly

Some blinding-bright

Enormous angel

Will stop me

At the border

And ask

To see my ticket.

Frustrations with WordPress ran high with this post. For reasons sadistic or indifferent, WordPress doesn’t acknowledge line breaks.  I press Carriage Return once—twice—ten times—-I pound it—-I say bad words—I type what I think are HTML codes. Nothing changes.  It’s like trying to talk reason to an ideologue.

Please, WordPress, give the people WHITE SPACE!

It’s an issue today because white space fuels this poem.  I apologize to Anne Porter and all readers who have to squint away the pesky dashes I inserted to simulate the breaks between stanzas.

Porter uses line breaks and white space masterfully in “The Ticket” to create a poem that seems effortless and improvised.  A dotty old woman putters around the page, slightly confused, wondering why she kept a ticket stub and how it landed in her purse.  But dotty old ladies can be remarkably sharp, as any Jane Marple fan can attest.  This one knows exactly what she’s doing and where’s she’s going.  She’s going to die.

Such a morbid subject is balanced by Porter’s humor and trademark simplicity.  I don’t want to rattle the poem around too much to shake out meaning.  Seems an indelicate thing to do to an old lady, and besides, the poem is pretty straightforward.  But I do want to talk a little about the poet herself.

Porter’s literary career was launched when she was 83 with the publication of her first book of poetry.  Can I say that again? Her literary career was launched when she was 83.  Surely that’s the most hopeful, life-affirming sentence I’ve ever written.   And she is the sweetest most adorable poet I’ve ever encountered.  Watch this video to get an idea.  (Best line: she opens a letter and says, “Oh, from the Pope.”)

I’m not sure if she’s still alive.  I couldn’t find an obituary online, so I assume she still has her blue ticket in hand.  Which means she’s 99 years old by now.

She was born in Boston to a wealthy family, attended Bryn Mawr, and married the most famous American painter and art critic I’ve never heard of, Fairfield Porter.  (A link to his work proved his paintings familiar, if not his name.) Their marriage was not an easy one.  He indulged his artistic temperament and sexual drives while she tended to their five children* and hosted his friends for months on end at their homes in Southampton and Maine.  Lovely that some of these guests were his lovers, male and female, but to be fair, she had an liason of her own.

Their life together fascinates me. I’ve lost a good hour following their story link to link, drawn down down the rabbit hole of mid-century bohemia. Their social and familial circles pull in such a number of artists and intellectuals, it’s a veritable Bloomsbury group.

portrait of Anne by Fairfield

Like so many other wives of writers and artists, Anne Porter remained hidden and overlooked until the death of her husband.  I have a vision of her tottering on her walker, step by step, on through the heap of egos, drama, passion and duty that blocks her path, until at last she emerges cheerfully on the other side, an artist in her own right.

 

 

*Her oldest son was mentally disabled in some way, either autistic or schizophrenic. When he died in 1980 she wrote the heartbreaking “For My Son Johnny.”

 

For more information on the remarkable Porter, read this profile in the Wall Street Journal.

For a review of her most recent collection of poems, link here.

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