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Archive for the ‘Jane Kenyon’ Category

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

no pissing match on Thanksgiving

no pissing match on Thanksgiving!

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

poem is inside 2nd or 3rd glass

poem is inside 2nd or 3rd glass

 

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

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

poem is on onion baton left-hand side

poem is on onion bag on left-hand side

 

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

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

poem is on middle pecan pie

poem is on middle pecan pie ingredient list

 

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

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

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poem is on middle turkey

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Here’s the thing about my small folder of poems about death. Having more than one poem about death is like  getting a bag of zucchini from your neighbor—you don’t know what to do with an overload. (I’m just realizing this very second that owning, not to mention labeling,  a small folder of poems about death is not entirely sane.)

 

Lucky for me, today is the Mexican holiday Dia de Muertos, a day to honor the deadand the Catholic holiday of All Souls Day, a day to pray for the dead, and my Poem Elf day to de-clutter my files and clutter up my favorite cemetery.

 

I left Thom Gunn’s (1929-2004) “The Reassurance” by the grave of someone named Emily Greer.

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There is probably no one left who remembers Miss Emily. I hope this is an accurate assessment of her character:

How like you to be kind

Seeking to reassure

It would be a fine epitaph for anyone.

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At a grander grave I left another poem that speaks of the workings of grief, “Mourners” by Ted Kooser (1939–)

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Death brings a heightened tenderness to survivors that Kooser captures beautifully:

peering into each other’s faces,

slow to let go of each other’s hands

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Most of the graves in this cemetery are too old to be visited by any living person, but I did find one with two recently dead mums decorating it. Near it I left Natasha Trethewey’s “After Your Death.”

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How beautifully she captures the sad work of clearing out a parent’s home after death

another space emptied by loss 

Tomorrow the bowl I have yet to fill.

 

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No Day of the Dead poem-elf post would be complete with my old favorite, Jane Kenyon (1947-1995), who died young and wrote often about death. I left her “Notes from the Other Side” on the tomb of a member of the Sly family, long gone.

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Kenyon’s vision of heaven is wry —

no bad books, no plastic,

no insurance premiums 

–but surely intended to comfort those she would leave behind–

Our calm hearts strike only the hour,

and God, as promised, proves

to be mercy clothed in light.

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I needed to talk to my sister,” by Grace Paley (1922-2007), another one of my favorites, graced this stone angel:

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Paley has a wondrous way of burying pain under humor, thank goodness, because this scenario is too painful for me to contemplate.

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One more picture because I like the look of yearning on the angel holding the poem:

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A tombstone engraved “Love” needed a poem, so there I left “On the Death of Friends in Childhood” by Donald Justice (1925-2004).

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I can’t read this without thinking of the survivors of Sandy Hook, years and years from their loss:

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Now that I’ve emptied my folder, I’ve flooded my day with thoughts of those I’ve lost and of those who have lost so many more than I.

 

 

 

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poem is taped to bench

poem is taped to bench

 

Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks

by Jane Kenyon

 

I am the blossom pressed in a book,

found again after two hundred years. . . .

 

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper….

 

When the young girl who starves

sits down to a table

she will sit beside me. . . .

 

I am food on the prisoner’s plate. . . .

 

I am water rushing to the wellhead,

filling the pitcher until it spills. . . .

 

I am the patient gardener

of the dry and weedy garden. . . .

 

I am the stone step,

the latch, and the working hinge. . . .

 

I am the heart contracted by joy. . . .

the longest hair, white

before the rest. . . .

 

I am there in the basket of fruit

presented to the widow. . . .

 

I am the musk rose opening

unattended, the fern on the boggy summit. . . .

 

I am the one whose love

overcomes you, already with you

when you think to call my name. . . .

 

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Last Christmas, when one of my daughters made me a mobile with eggs and birds falling out of an overturned nest, I looked ahead to my own approaching empty nest with poetic appreciation. Out from the nest came the eggs, and from the eggs came colorful origami birds, each on its own flight path. New life out of the old. The next year would bring new life for my youngest, who would be leaving for college, and new life for my husband and me. Suddenly unencumbered, presumably we would chase each other around the empty house like teenagers.

 

All part of the never-ending cycle of life.

 

Now that day is here, and it seems less a poetic cycle than a prosaic ending. The end of my mothering.

 

I know, I know. I should be delighted that my daughter is where she’s supposed to be. With her new bedding and roommate and independence, she’s as happy as I could have hoped. And, yes, I’ll sleep better on weekends, cook less on weekdays, keep a cleaner house, keep all my socks to myself, and have more time to pursue what efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth (and Cheaper by the Dozen dad) described as the reasons we need to save time: “For work, if you love that best. For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure. For mumblety-peg, if that’s where your heart lies.” After 25 years of organizing my days around kids, I’m free to organize my days around mumblety-peg.

 

Bah. Right now I’d take four little kids pulling me in four different directions over freedom and mumblety-peg. A drawer full of matched socks can be depressing. Uninterrupted sleep can be dull. An orderly house can be a sad house. An orderly house means a house without Anne Marie’s worn Birkenstocks and enormous backpack, a house without her dancing and deep sleeping, her jars of Nutella, her unmade bed, her unexpected wisdom, her little kindnesses, the nearness and dearness of her–

 

that hook in the foreground looks like it's ready to whisk her away

that hook in the foreground looks like it’s ready to whisk her away

 

Before I start tearing up again, I’m going to turn quickly to the poem and keep this post brief.

 

I left Jane Kenyon’s “Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks” on a bench across the street from my daughter’s new dorm on move-in day.

 

I left it as a kind of protection, a talisman, a reminder of the love that will always be hers. I realize the “I” in the poem is a divine being capable of an unconditional love parents can only aspire towards, but still, this—

 

I am the one whose love

overcomes you, already with you

when you think to call my name

 

–seems on the mark for parents whose children suddenly forget to use their cell phones.

 

There’s another reason I chose this poem. Telling other people what to do is one of the aspects of mothering that’s hard for me to give up, and so after I reminded my daughter to take her thyroid medication and go to every class and eat vegetables and wear her glasses and go to Mass, I left the poem behind as my final instruction. To her and to all incoming freshman and returning upperclassmen, I say: Look out for each other, dear children. Be the patient gardener, the working hinge, the basket of fruit. Because college can be a lonely place sometimes. And for some kids, it’s lonely every day, every hour, every second. Suffering so often hides in plain sight.

 

Poet Jane Kenyon was no stranger to suffering herself. Maybe the real reason I selected this poem is that her clear-eyed exploration of pain and plain-spoken pleasure in the world as it is put my little sadness in perspective.

 

ImageKenyon was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1947. Her mother was once a singer and later a seamstress; her father was a piano player. She attended the University of Michigan, where she fell in love with her poetry professor, Donald Hall, nineteen years her senior and later U.S. Poet Laureate. Upon earning her masters at Michigan, she married Hall and moved with him to his family farm in New Hampshire. She suffered from depression all her adult life. When she was 46 she was diagnosed with leukemia, and she died a year later at 47. Four months before she died, she was named poet laureate of New Hampshire.

 

She only published four books of poetry in her lifetime, and the best of those poems were gathered in a posthumous collection called Otherwise. It’s one of my favorite books I own from any genre.

 

Jane Kenyon is the poet I’ve loved longest and best. The first book of poetry I bought was Otherwise. The first book of translated poetry I bought was her rendering of the poems of the great Russian writer Anna Akhmatova. And the second poem I featured on this blog was a Kenyon poem.

 

I’m going to close with that poem I posted four years ago, “The Clothes Pin.” It’s becoming clear to me that the only person I can tell what to do anymore is myself, so listen up, Poem Elf, you sniffling sap, you mawkish mush-head:

 

How much better it is

to carry wood to the fire

than to moan about your life.

How much better

to throw the garbage

onto the compost, or to pin the clean

sheet on the line

with a gray-brown wooden clothespin!

 

 

 

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“Girls’ weekend” and “death” really shouldn’t keep company, but a few weekends ago they did, and all things considered, it was nice.  This November, for the first time in 23 years, my high school girlfriends gathered without our friend Christine, who died at the tail end of last year.  The remaining eight of us weren’t exactly moping around all weekend, but our ninth friend, our sweet bubbly friend, she of the clear blue eyes and husky laugh, was never far from our thoughts.

 

Another death followed me around over the girls’ weekend.  Again, it was kind of nice.  My friends and I stayed at my at my in-law’s home in Florida, a home my dear father-in-law, who died two years ago, loved to share with his family.  Certainly he’s still around the place.  I kept expecting to hear his booming welcome every time I opened the door.  I wore his hat all weekend and that was nice too.

I had anticipated feeling the absence of these two beloved folks, so along with my sandals I packed a few poems about death.  But I felt presence more than absence.  The poems, dark and anguished, express emotions heavier than what I felt.

 

I left the poems on a beach ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.  The storm carved out chunks of sand dunes, ripped out stairs, downed poles, and deposited loads of trash on a much-diminished beach.  With so much litter on the beach, a little literary litter seemed an act of beautification.

 

I left two poems by Jane Kenyon, one of my favorite poets.  She’s a reluctant expert on loss, having suffered debilitating depression and then living with and dying from leukemia in her forties.  Both poems concern losing a parent.

 

The first,”What Came to Me,” I threaded through some sea grass looped around one of the remaining beach stairs.

 

The drop of gravy is a heartbreaker.

 

The second Kenyon poem, “How Like the Sound,” I attached to a downed pole.

 

Here she is once-removed from grief.  With a poet’s eye and a wife’s warm heart, she observes her husband mourning his mother:  “Not since childhood/had you wept this way, head back, throat/ open like a hound”:

 

“Oceans” by Marie Ponsot I poked through a root exposed by the cratered sand dune.

 

“Taste like talk fades from a stiffening tongue” is horrifying.

 

Finally, in memory of Christine and Big Joe, I stuck H.D.’s “Never More the Wind” on a sea grape branch.

you can hardly see it, but the poem is blowing in the wind in the center-left of the picture.

 

Sometimes the simplest words speak of the most difficult truths:  “Like a light out of our heart/you are gone.”

 

 

 

 

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The Clothes Pin

by Jane Kenyon

How much better it is

to carry wood to the fire

than to moan about your life.

How much better

to throw the garbage

onto the compost, or to pin the clean

sheet on the line

with a gray-brown wooden clothes pin!

Did I really think a lonely and despondent teenager would come across this poem, drop his backpack and shout joyfully, “Dude!  Get me to a woodpile!”?  Ah well, we all have our little fantasies. Unfortunately I posted the poem on a Saturday, and it rained heavily all the next day.  “The Clothes Pin” could have used a clothes pin of its own to dry out.

Still, the connections and disconnections between this poem and the high school it landed in gave me some pleasure.  Jane Kenyon grew up 45 minutes from this school and attended a nearby university where the most gifted students here will probably also attend.  She suffered depression, so her version of “better to light a candle than curse the darkness” carries weight and strikes me as useful advice for teens experiencing the normal downturns of mood and energy. And finally, she died when she was my age—47—of leukemia, which is where the connections stop and the disconnections begin.

Positioning this poem, with its rural images of firewood, compost piles and the air-dried sheet, in an institutional setting was intentional.  The world of this hardy little poem is as foreign to the world of smart boards, processed cafeteria food and security guards as the silence that surrounds it is to an ipod generation.  I find the same comforts in reading Kenyon as I do in the essays of New York Times columnist Verlyn Klinkenborg.  Their writings about life in the country become a resting place for me.

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