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Archive for the ‘Marie Ponsot’ Category

Marie Ponsot, poet, translator, teacher, stroke survivor, nonagenarian writer of acclaim who wrote for twenty-five years in obscurity, single mother of seven (six of them boys!), lifelong Catholic, writer of my all-time favorite poem “Among Women” and co-author of one of my all-time favorite childhood books, The Golden Book of Fairy Tales, died a few weeks ago, July 5, at age 98.

 

I’ve had four poems of hers on the docket for my file-clearing project (Franz Wright’s been done, Seamus Heaney, Charles Simic, Grace Paley still to come). I posted them just after she died. These wouldn’t be the poems I’d choose if this were a planned tribute to Ponsot—not that they’re anything less than wonderful—they just aren’t my favorites of hers, which is the reason they have been in my leftover pile for so long.

 

I was helping to move one of my daughters from Baltimore to northern Michigan and Ponsot’s mothering eye seemed just right for the moment. You can read a good obituary of Ponsot here. Meantime, let’s start with “After the Pastoral.” I taped it to a window in my daughter’s Baltimore apartment where she’s lived for the last two years.

 

I’m sure that come September This year my child goes where I can’t follow will be a painful line for many mothers. I myself went through those farewells years ago, but that maternal feeling of being ferocious with fear just never goes away.

(I’m not understanding the last line—I picture a mother nursing a baby, innocent of the anxiety mothering older children brings—but let me know how you read that line.)

 

I set “Climbing in Big Bend National Park” on a brick wall as I walked to buy more packing tape. Not the best spot for this poem, but people, I was in Baltimore.

 

The side of the mountain like a pelvic floor? I’ll never forget that. Or this:  We city people laugh to shrug off awe

 

On packing day my daughter discovered that her elderly next-door neighbor had once been an art teacher at her high school back in Michigan. I taped “What the Worn Rhymes Find” to a planter on the former art teacher’s front porch.

 

Cyanide and gold, the stain of the woman’s long lies, of the tough unsayable. Poisonous and precious. What a description of family secrets! What rhymes, not worn at all, so effortless!

 

Lastly I put “The Problem of Revolution” at a Panera condiments bar at a rest stop along the Pennsylvania turnpike.

 

The charming details of the clothes and the dessert, the guests (the scented aunt who thinks her new/and the cousin, ten, who sees her old) come to a hard stop at the poem’s end. Who remembers that feeling of disconnection, of crawling out of your skin to get away from what used to comfort?

 

To close this post, here’s Lizzie just before she put a framed Anais Nin quote in the uHaul.

“You live out the confusions until they become clear.”

That seems as good a summary as any for a young woman beginning a new chapter of her life and a great poet doing the same.

 

From a previous post, a short bio of Ponsot:

Marie Ponsot was born in Queens, New York in 1921.  She graduated from a women’s college in Brooklyn and went on to earn her master’s degree in seventeenth century literature at Columbia University.  After World War II she went to Paris and married the French painter Claude Ponsot.  She had seven children with him, one daughter born in Paris and six sons when they moved back to the States.  She divorced and worked many years as a translator of French children’s books to support her large family.  In 1957 she published her first book of poetry through a connection with Beat poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  The book’s reception was overshadowed by another book published by Ferlinghetti, Allan Ginsberg’s Howl, and Ponsot seemingly disappeared from the world of poetry.

 

Although Ponsot would not publish for another twenty-four years, she continued to write, late at night after the children were in bed.  When she was in late middle age, she published her second book and began to garner attention and awards.  Unfortunately she still doesn’t seem to have the fame she deserves:  her biographical entry in Poetry Foundation’s website is woefully short, a mere paragraph.

 

Her life story reminds me of another Catholic poet, the marvelous Anne Porter.  Porter was also married to a painter, raised a large family and found recognition late in life.

 

As much attachment as I have to “Among Women,” I’ve discovered that Ponsot has been a part of my life even before I even read the poem.  I was delighted to read that she translated the Golden Book of Fairy Tales. It’s an indelible part of my childhood.  Many a night I spent with that book, reading in the bathroom because lights were supposed to be out.  Children, too, wander as best they can.

 

The book is still in print.  My children loved it.  Once in a while I’ll pull it out and wonder over the beautiful illustrations and strange stories.

 

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It’s a good thing I passed by a playground before I found the cemetery I was on the hunt for. Because “Happy Mother’s Day, I see dead people” is twisted, even for a twisty elf like me.

 

But I do see dead people this Mother’s Day—my mother who died the week before Mother’s Day three years ago, my mother-in-law who died just this past November. The poems featured in this post see dead people too, or at least people from the past, as they once were.

 

So if you’re not grieving a lost mother this Mother’s Day . . . well, lucky, lucky you. Give your mum an extra smooch.

 

I left Meghan O’Rourke’s “My Mother” on a checkerboard table near the playground equipment:

 

 

I can’t read this without . . . you know . . . more-than sniffling . . . especially since the last car ride I took with my mother was to see the cherry blossoms.

 

Come down from your weeping cherry,

Mother, and look at how we have scattered

your ashes only in our minds, unable

to let you leave the house—

I couldn’t find the full text on line, but link here to a beautiful essay O’Rourke wrote about her mother’s clothes after her mother died.

 

O’Rourke also wrote an ode to her aunts, which I left on a park bench at the same playground:

 

I myself had only one aunt who I never knew, but I had older sisters who were as intoxicating to me as O’Rourke aunts were to her. I called them “Cool Girls” because they were. And still are.

Here’s a link with the poem. O’Rourke is a master of endings. See how she brings the car full of smoking-hot aunts to a halt:

Stop now, before the green

comes to cover your long brown bodies.

 

 

 

I set Rita Dove’s “Motherhood” against some books in a Little Free Library:

 

It’s a disturbing dream of a baby in mortal danger—

Then she drops it and it explodes

like a watermelon, eyes spitting.

 

But the poem turns just a hair and suddenly the mother’s fierce protectiveness of her baby threatens the life of another creature, some other mother’s offspring—

 

On a newfangled jungle gym I taped Eavan Boland’s “Is It Still the Same.”

 

This one gives me chills, in the best kind of way, the surprise of the young mother writing turning out to be an older mother writing—

I wrote like that once.

But this is different:

This time, when she looks up, I will be there.

 

Finally, I taped Marie Ponsot’s “Between” to the pole of a swingset:

Ponsot dedicates the poem to her daughter whom she observes, pregnant (at least it seems to me) and walking in the door:

The woman, once girl once child, now is deft in her ease,

is door to the forum, is cutter of keys.

 

Happy Mother’s Day to all!

 

Especially the motherless (sad trombone sound).

 

Now here’s something a little more cheerful. This Friday Chicago writer Bridget Gamble will email her weekly newsletter, this one a collection of mother-wisdom, just in time for the holiday. Link here to subscribe.

 

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poem is against pillar next to honey pot

 

The Problem of Gratified Desire

by Marie Ponsot

 

If she puts honey in her tea

and praises prudence in the stirring up

she drinks, finally,

a drop of perfect sweetness

hot at the bottom of the cup.

 

There will be

pleasures more complex than it

(pleasure exchanged were infinite)

but none so cheap

more neat or definite.

 

 

I just came across a different version of Marie Ponsot’s “The Problem With Gratified Desire.” An earlier collection shows this poem with the line (She is 15 years old) under the title. The version I used, from 2016’s Collected Poems, deleted that. I wonder why the line was taken out. I like it. It adds a dimension I had missed before.

 

Now that I know the age of “she,” the future tense in the second stanza has a wistful air. A mother perhaps, observing her daughter drinking tea and seeing, all at once, loss and plenty, innocence and experience.

 

This poem reminds me of Thomas Lux’s “A Little Tooth,” both in its rhyme scheme that harkens back the childhood pleasures of listening to nursery rhymes, and the subject matter, which calls up the very adult pleasures and complications of sex.

 

“The Problem of Gratified Desire” is part of a set of poems dealing with proposed “problems.” Also in the series are the “Problem of Freedom and Commitment,” “The Problem of Loving-Kindness,” “The Problem of Fiction” (and five or six others), each “problem” connected to a particular age of the girl in the poem.

 

My question to you: Why is there subject-verb disagreement in this line—

 

(pleasure exchanged were infinite)

 

I don’t think it’s a typo. It appears that way in all versions.

 

I left the poem at the condiment station in a coffee shop in Chicago.

 

Here’s a biography of Marie Ponsot from an earlier posting. Important to note that shortly after I wrote it, Ponsot won the prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. At the ripe old age of 91!

 

Marie Ponsot was born in Queens, New York in 1921.  She graduated from a women’s college in Brooklyn and went on to earn her master’s degree in seventeenth century literature at Columbia University.  After World War II she went to Paris and married the French painter Claude Ponsot.  She had seven children with him, one daughter born in Paris and six sons when they moved back to the States.  She divorced and worked many years as a translator of French children’s books to support her large family.  In 1957 she published her first book of poetry through a connection with Beat poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  The book’s reception was overshadowed by another book published by Ferlinghetti, Allan Ginsberg’s Howl, and Ponsot seemingly disappeared from the world of poetry.

 

Although Ponsot would not publish for another twenty-four years, she continued to write, late at night after the children were in bed.  When she was in late middle age, she published her second book and began to garner attention and awards.  Unfortunately she still doesn’t seem to have the fame she deserves:  her biographical entry in Poetry Foundation’s website is woefully short, a mere paragraph.

 

Her life story reminds me of another Catholic poet, the marvelous Anne Porter.  Porter was also married to a painter, raised a large family and found recognition late in life.

 

As much attachment as I have to “Among Women,” I’ve discovered that Ponsot has been a part of my life even before I even read the poem.  I was delighted to read that she translated the Golden Book of Fairy Tales. It’s an indelible part of my childhood.  Many a night I spent with that book, reading in the bathroom because lights were supposed to be out.  Children, too, wander as best they can.

 

The book is still in print.  My children loved it.  Once in a while I’ll pull it out and wonder over the beautiful illustrations and strange stories.

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I’m trying to get this post up quickly—too many things to get done and my daughter gets home from Cameroon today—so I’ll skip the fanfare and get right to it.

 

I put an assortment of poems for Father’s Day around town.  Three of the poems are fathers addressing daughters. Another poem is a father’s lament for a failed relationship, and another is a daughter’s. One has no mention of a father at all, but it speaks to what I love about fathers.

 

That poem, the one with no particular mention of fathers, is Marge Piercy’s “To be of use.”  I put the poem in the mouse trap section of a popular dad hangout, the hardware store.

poem is hanging above yellow boxes in the middle of the picture

poem is hanging above yellow boxes in the middle of the picture

 

Up close:

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Of course any number of people in the world are useful people, people who do what has to be done, again and again, but I send this poem out to the fathers I’ve known and admired.  Especially the ones who empty the mouse traps.

 

Poem is hanging on a branch

Poem is hanging on a branch

Marie Ponsot’s poem “Hard-Shell Clams” I left in a cemetery.  All those buried wounds seemed to belong there.  The poem is so beautiful it gives me the shivers.

 

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I can’t stop reading it.  That image of the sand just kills me: a glitter like chain mail guarding who I am/from his used blue gaze that stared to understand.

 

One poem is on the window, the other on the post

One poem is on the window, the other on the post

I posted two poems of fatherly advice together on a local high school.  School is out but maybe someone will come to the gym and find the wise words of Ralph Waldo Emerson in “From a Letter to His Daughter.”

 

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Emerson’s advice is classic dad: get over it and move on.  If Mad Men’s Don Draper were a good man, a good father, this is what he might tell his children: Finish every day and be done with it.

 

Miller Williams offers different advice in “For a Girl I Know About to Be a Woman.”

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Some of the advice seems a little dated, but if you substitute other offensive words for “dago” and “wop,” his counsel is sound.  He lists tell-tale signs of a loser and abuser: if a boy tries to change you, doesn’t respect you, himself or even a snake, beware.

 

Poem is on the front bumper

Poem is on the front bumper

I put James Tates’ “Father’s Day” on a golf cart.  No, I’m not accusing all fathers who golf of avoiding their families, but some do.  I remember driving by a golf course one Thanksgiving Day with my mother-in-law.  It was snowing but sure enough two men were golfing.  “Who are they hiding from?” she said wryly.

 

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The father’s invention of a fairy tale to explain his daughter’s refusal of contact is funny and heartbreaking and a much much better version of “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

 

poem is on front of truck, under red sign

poem is on front of truck, under red sign

I had to do some talking to get the next poem on an ice cream truck.  Poem and camera in hand, I surveyed the situation and realized it would be impossible to tape the poem on the truck without being noticed, so I asked the ice cream man for permission.  I explained my blog, I showed him the poem, I pointed out where I wanted to tape it.  “I don’t get it,” he said. So I read the poem to him and tried to make a connection between a father leaving a treat for his daughter by her bedside and a father who might buy an ice cream treat  (that might also stain a mouth blue) for his child.  “I still don’t get it,” he said.  I changed the subject—we talked about his home country of Tanzania and my daughter’s experiences in Cameroon—and soon he put aside his suspicions of my intent and agreed, as long as he wasn’t in the photograph, to take on the poem.  Thank you, ice cream man.

 

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This poem is pure and sweet.  The father thinks of his daughter as he hikes, plans his little present, gazes at her as she sleeps and imagines her delight as she wakes. She’s on his mind, past, present and future, the lucky child.  “For Sarah, Asleep” is by my Scottish friend Angus Martin.  I hope he gets a kick out of the trek this poem has taken and will take, should the Tanzanian ice cream man decide to leave the poem on his truck.

 

Happy Father’s Day!

 

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Marie Ponsot in her apartment, 2004 by dctrombleyCongratulations to poet Marie Ponsot, who was just announced as the 2013 winner of the prestigious Ruth Lilly Prize.  The prize, established by the heir to the Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, honors a living American poet for lifetime achievement.  At $100,000, the prize is about the heftiest a writer can receive. I’m delighted.  91-year old Ponsot is a national treasure, both as a poet and as a human being.

 

I’m also feeling a wee smug.  Just last week I posted a Marie Ponsot poem, and there I complained that the Poetry Foundation had given her short shrift in her biography, a mere paragraph.  Other, lesser poets to my mind, have much, much more space allotted on their Poetry Foundation page.  So today, along with the announcement of the prize, which it awards, the Poetry Foundation presented a more suitable biography for Ponsot.

 

You can read my post on Ponsot here.  I also left one of her poems on the beach last November.  You can see the picture of her poem “Oceans” here.

 

A Jesuit pope and now this.  It’s been a good week.

 

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poem is on the concrete ledge in foreground

poem is on the concrete ledge in foreground

 

Among Women

 

by Marie Ponsot

 

What women wander?

Not many. All. A few.

Most would, now & then,

& no wonder.

Some, and I’m one,

Wander sitting still.

My small grandmother

Bought from every peddler

Less for the ribbons and lace

Than for their scent

Of sleep where you will,

Walk out when you want, choose

Your bread and your company.

 

She warned me, “Have nothing to lose.”

 

She looked fragile but had

High blood, runner’s ankles,

Could endure, endure.

She loved her rooted garden, her

Grand children, her once

Wild once young man.

Women wander

As best they can.

 

 

 

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In the opening lines of “Among Women,” poet Marie Ponsot poses the question, What women wander?  and replies by letting her thoughts wander and changing her opinion. She settles on this answer, a dry assessment of women’s lives:

 

Most would, now & then

& no wonder.

 

There’s a lot of experience behind that simple no wonder. Makes me laugh.

 

What is wandering anyway?  Wandering is not settling in one place, not having a destination or perhaps not even a plan.  Wandering is a willful disregard of boundaries.  And wandering is difficult if you’re “rooted,” like the grandmother is to her garden and her family.

 

I’ve fallen in love with this poem. Apologies to Roberta Flack and to everyone who hates the song, but it’s killing me softly.  It speaks to a neglected piece of my soul, a wild little part tucked away under layers of obligations, routines and attachments.  I recognize myself, as a mother and a writer, in these lines:

 

Some, and I’m one,

Wander sitting still.

 

Devoted mothers aren’t supposed to fantasize about bolting, but how irresistible is Ponsot’s description of the gypsy life:

 

. . . their scent

Of sleep where you will,

Walk out when you want, choose

Your bread and your company.

 

The aphoristic last lines in the poem

 

Women wander

As best they can

 

pull together the experience of women across geographical lines and throughout history, from reclusive Emily Dickinson to globetrotting Gertrude Bell to Poem Elf as a young mother surrounded by piles of books and small children tugging on her sleeve asking for a snack which she promised to get as soon as she finished one more chapter.

 

That was long ago.  But that drive is still there, even as I age and settle more and more into habit.

 

I get tired of evolutionary biologists and their ideas of what women want or wanted.  It’s all nesting and bonding and attracting and keeping the male for the benefit of his resources and protection. Likewise, I’m depressed by the brand of feminism that insists monogamy has been forced on women by patriarchal systems and that those who prioritize traditional female values—relationships, motherhood, the domestic arts—are unwitting products of centuries of gender bias.

 

“Among Women” allows for both arguments.  Our wild wandering spirit is as much a part of us as our bonds to those we love and care for.

 

The grandmother in the poem lives out the push and pull of gypsy spirit and family life.  What a full portrait of her Ponsot has drawn in so few strokes.  With her runner’s ankles, the grandmother is a tiny goat of a woman, someone who might dart away at any moment. She’s lived through pain and difficulty—she endures, endures, Ponsot writes.  Not wanting her progeny to experience what she has, she warns her granddaughter, “Have nothing to lose.”

 

Spoken like an enlightened Budhhist, someone who believes that the origin of suffering is attachment.  The grandmother’s warning, bleak and hard though it may be, speaks also of a soul made for adventure.  The impression her warning made on the young poet is emphasized by its stark placement between the two stanzas.

 

I left the poem outside Trader Joe’s.  Trader Joe’s is a grocery store dressed up like a trading post.  There’s a world map as you walk in, and scattered through the store are hints of huts and a castaway island.  It suggests travel and adventure, the adventure being the purchase of unfamiliar foods.  Shopping at this modern-day peddler can be a small gesture of wandering, and for some, the most wandering they will do.

 

Marie Ponsot by joshuagmizrahiMarie Ponsot was born in Queens, New York in 1921.  She graduated from a women’s college in Brooklyn and went on to earn her master’s degree in seventeenth century literature at Columbia University.  After World War II she went to Paris and married the French painter Claude Ponsot.  She had seven children with him, one daughter born in Paris and six sons when they moved back to the States.  She divorced and worked many years as a translator of French children’s books to support her large family.  In 1957 she published her first book of poetry through a connection with Beat poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  The book’s reception was overshadowed by another book published by Ferlinghetti, Allan Ginsberg’s Howl, and Ponsot seemingly disappeared from the world of poetry.

 

Although Ponsot would not publish for another twenty-four years, she continued to write, late at night after the children were in bed.  When she was in late middle age, she published her second book and began to garner attention and awards.  Unfortunately she still doesn’t seem to have the fame she deserves:  her biographical entry in Poetry Foundation’s website is woefully short, a mere paragraph.

 

Her life story reminds me of another Catholic poet, the marvelous Anne Porter.  Porter was also married to a painter, raised a large family and found recognition late in life.

 

Illustration by Adrienne Segur by vidalia_11

illustration from Golden Book of Fairy Tales

As much attachment as I have to “Among Women,” I’ve discovered that Ponsot has been a part of my life even before I even read the poem.  I was delighted to read that she translated the Golden Book of Fairy Tales. It’s an indelible part of my childhood.  Many a night I spent with that book, reading in the bathroom because lights were supposed to be out.  Children, too, wander as best they can.

 

The book is still in print.  My children loved it.  Once in a while I’ll pull it out and wonder over the beautiful illustrations and strange stories.

 

 

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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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