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Shameless plugging


Today is the thirteenth anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis (all good here) and a day I’m going to do something I’ve always thought I shouldn’t. Give up my anonymity and promote something I’ve written. Makes me feel like I’m wearing a push-up bra and shimmying my way into a bar, but it’s not really that big a deal and I hope you don’t mind.

 

So here’s a link to a piece I wrote for Easy Street Magazine. While you’re at the site, take a gander at the other pieces there. . . some wonderful writing.

 

Excuse me as I find my way to the disco dance cage. Shimmy shimmy.

 

 

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Disposal

by W.d. Snodgrass

 

The unworn long gown, meant for dances

She would have scarcely dared attend,

Is fobbed off on a friend—

Who can’t help wondering if it’s spoiled

But thinks, well, she can take her chances.

 

We roll her spoons up like old plans

Or failed securities, seal their case,

Then lay them back. One lace

Nightthing lies in the chest, unsoiled

By wear, untouched by human hands.

 

We don’t dare burn those cancelled patterns

And markdowns that she actually wore,

Yet who do we know so poor

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

Saved from loss, she lies boxed in satins

 

Like a pair of party shoes

That seemed to never find a taker;

We send back to its maker

A life somehow gone out of fashion

But still too good to use.

 

 

 

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

a life somehow gone out of fashion

but still too good to wear.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Winter again and it is snowing;

Although you are still three,

You are already growing

Strange to me.

 

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

 

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

 

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poem is on bulletin board under rainbow

poem is on bulletin board under rainbow

 

Sudden

by Nick Flynn

 

If it had been a heart attack, the newspaper

might have used the word massive,

as if a mountain range had opened

inside her, but instead

 

it used the word suddenly, a light coming on

 

in an empty room. The telephone

 

fell from my shoulder, a black parrot repeating

                         something happened, something awful

 

a sunday, dusky. If it had been

 

terminal, we could have cradled her

as she grew smaller, wiped her mouth,

 

said good-bye. But it was sudden,

 

how overnight we could be orphaned

& the world become a bell we’d crawl inside

& the ringing all we’d eat.

 

Image 1

 

(I posted this on Twitter a while back and thought I’d re-post on the blog for the non-Twitter folks.)

 

This poem-elfing goes back to the spring of 2016 when I was visiting my mom in the hospital. After she died I kept these pictures to myself because the thought that I had put the poem on a bulletin board near her room seemed awful, misguided, unfeeling. She never would have seen it, but who did? Did it cause pain to someone who just lost a loved one, suddenly or otherwise?

 

Now, a year and a few months later, her death still hurts, and the poem brings up new questions. Is death easier if it’s drawn out and harder if it’s sudden? I don’t know. This past week there’s been two deaths in my circle, one unexpected, one after a long illness. Both feel sudden. I suspect the grief in Flynn’s poem rings true (pardon the pun) for the grievers in both situations–

 

how overnight we could be orphaned

& the world become a bell we’d crawl inside

& the ringing all we’d eat 

 

Here’s a short bio of poet Nick Flynn from a previous post:

 

Nick Flynn was born in Massachusetts in 1960. He was raised by a single mother who committed suicide when he was a young adult. His father was an alcoholic who fancied himself a writer and went to prison for writing forged checks. While in prison, his father wrote him letters full of advice, but Flynn never wrote back out of respect for his mother. After high school, Flynn became an electrician.

 

Two years after his mother died, he started working at a homeless shelter in Boston. Flynn met his father at that same homeless shelter when his troubled father came to spend the night. Their reunion was the subject of a memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which was turned into a movie, Being Flynn. The move starred Paul Dano as a young Flynn and Robert DeNiro as his father.

 

In addition to his poetry, Flynn is a widely published essayist and memoirist. He’s married to actress Lili Taylor with whom he has a daughter. Flynn lives in Brooklyn and teaches creative writing at University of Houston.

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This is a picture of the jam jars in my pantry. I count thirteen and that doesn’t include the outpost colony of orange marmalade and apricot preserves that live in the back of my refrigerator.

 

The jars have sat unused for at least a year, some much longer. If it were up to my husband they’d be tossed, but anytime he comes near what he calls my “hoarding”–- a term that includes the jellies but also my soup cans, bags of dried beans, sewing notions, cleaning fluids, beauty products, boxes of stationery and assorted office supplies—I body-block him and shout about wastefulness. We sure have a lot of fun cleaning together.

 

Therefore in the interests of marital harmony and shelf space not to mention expiration dates, my summer and fall goal—let’s extend it winter too (wild ambition is not one of my faults)—is to use up all the jam. Jam on chicken, jam on pork, jam on toast for gluten-loving visitors. Then I’m going to cook up the beans, send out lots of letters, slather myself in all manner of lotions and ointments, and use use use all my unused things until I’ve achieved a Marie Kondo life-changing tidiness.

 

Yeah. Well. We shall see. I might just settle for tidyish.

 

But there’s one collection I know I can get through and that is my stash of “unused” poems. Over the seven years I’ve been writing this blog I’ve collected a lot, and I know I won’t use most of them. Some poems are by poets I’ve featured too many times, some I don’t much remember why I liked in the first place, and some demand more time than I’m willing to take away from my other writing projects.

 

I hereby resolve to post poems several times a week until my Poem Elf folder is empty. It’s going to be simple. Photos and a caption. I’m not going to write commentary, and I may or may not include a short biography of the poet. Whatever prevents me from putting poems out in the world and posting them on this blog will be eliminated.

 

Project Tidy-Up starts this week. Also posted on Twitter.

 

 

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poem fragment on wall in foreground

poem fragment on wall in foreground

 

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

from T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

 

image-1

 

Sometimes you rifle down into your purse and find treasure. Quarters for the meter, a lipstick you forgot about, a funeral card for someone dear. The same with pictures on your phone, which at least for me, are taken and re-taken to get the light right or goofy expressions eliminated, and then sit buried with thousands of others photos in cyberspace till your storage is full.

 

So with these pictures. I happened upon them because I was missing my daughter who’s studying abroad. I pulled up pictures from my visit to her in early November and found this excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” (Link to the full poem here.)

 

Not bragging (or am I) but I do like how the yellow light looks so seedy, the way I’ve always imagined Prufrock’s streets–

Streets that follow like a tedious argument

of insidious intent

 

Some of you may already have seen this from my Twitter account. I’m pulling it out for my blog because posting it on Twitter led me to a beautiful video I want to share.

 

Another tweeter (DareToEatAPeach@twitter.com) shared a link to a video interpretation of the poem. Actually, I shouldn’t call it an interpretation. The actor in the video, Daniel Henshaw, calls the film a “response” to the poem, and the poem a “love song to existence.”

screen-shot-2016-12-12-at-10-57-31-am

 

The film is directed by Laura Scrivano, produced by The Passion Films, and filmed in New York.

 

It’s only eight minutes long and worth watching. I loved it. It’s quiet and mesmerizing with lots of cigarrette-smoking, something I don’t often see anymore. You’ll hear the old familiar poem anew. Link here. 

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poem is under Callaghan sign

poem is under Callaghan sign

 

What the Doctor Said

by Ray Carver

 

He said it doesn’t look good

he said it looks bad in fact real bad

he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before

I quit counting them

I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know

about any more being there than that

he said are you a religious man do you kneel down

in forest groves and let yourself ask for help

when you come to a waterfall

mist blowing against your face and arms

do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments

I said not yet but I intend to start today

he said I’m real sorry he said

I wish I had some other kind of news to give you

I said Amen and he said something else

I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do

and not wanting him to have to repeat it

and me to have to fully digest it

I just looked at him

for a minute and he looked back it was then

I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me

something no one else on earth had ever given me

I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

image-1

Tuesday afternoon I left Ray Carver’s “What the Doctor Said” outside my local polling station and posted the pictures on Twitter. My thought was to provide some perspective on an election which was hyped as a life-or-death-of-the-republic event. Things could always be worse, I tweeted.

 

I myself was not especially anxious about the election result.

 

But hours after the sun had set I began to tremble and shake. That’s what I do when I’m nervous. I put myself to bed and left my phone downstairs so I wouldn’t reach for it in the middle of the night to find out who won. The next morning I woke at six and approached my phone with the same dread I had twelve years ago when I answered a call from my radiologist.

 

When I read the news, I thought, strange that I chose to cover the election with a poem about the shock of getting a cancer diagnosis. All day Wednesday I walked around in a similar state of shock.

 

If you think I’m being dramatic, well, yes, I am, but then you probably are also someone who’s happy right now.

 

This begins my story of being given “something no one else on earth else had ever given me,” which is one way to look at the election results.

 

Foolishly I started my day with a Facebook post, not the best idea when one is in a highly reactive state. I wrote that I was getting off Facebook because reading other people’s Facebook comments made it too hard to behave with “charity towards all and malice towards none.” I planned to wait to the end of the day to de-activate my account so I could see what response I got. Which wasn’t much, it never is, just a few likes, and then unfortunately two comments that sent me into a froth of rage. Both people wrote that they were sure I’d be pleasantly surprised. They meant well, but such tone-deaf, insular views and thinly-disguised gloating made me want to scream till my teeth fell out.

 

A friend had seen the post and the comments and called to say she was in front of my house, did I want to go for a walk. Yes, please. She was calm. She listened to me vent. What is that they say, she said, You get to tell your story three times and then you let it go. She suggested I try the serenity prayer.

 

That helped a little. I worked all day, wavering back and forth between trying to be calm and feeding my anger. Later I headed to the grocery store, wary of being around other humans. The people in Krogers might as well have come from central casting for a movie about groups insulted during the campaign. A woman in a hijab, disabled grocery baggers, more black shoppers than I usually see at that particular grocery store, and of course women, women, women of every shape, size and age, few dressed to charm men.

 

Then I saw a white woman cruising the aisles in a Trump t-shirt. Blond bimbo asshole, I said to myself (I was never good at putting together curse words). I gave her the stink-eye. She failed to notice. I hoped to cross her path again so I could make an even more dramatic face. Wouldn’t that show her.

 

At the seafood counter, a woman, older and African-American, started talking to me about the rising price of fish. She was a talker, and talkers always send me running in the opposite direction, plus I only had an hour to clean house and cook for my mother-in-law and aunt who were coming for dinner. The conversation kept going, even after I got my salmon and was ready to hurry off. She moved on to various ways to cook fish, and when she heard I was having elderly people for dinner, she talked about how fish is a good meal to serve old folks, how the fish flesh is soft in their old mouths and easy to chew even with sore gums and missing teeth. That was a short step to telling me about her mother, now deceased, and how she took care of her in her last illness and how sometimes they just sat together and had so much fun doing that.

 

That’s when I stopped wanting to get away from her.

 

Me too, I said. I used to like to sit next to my mother on the couch, reading. I told her my mother died last May.

 

Just like that my eyes watered. I was about to cry. She saw it. She opened her arms to embrace me. We hugged.

 

As she let go of me, she said, when you miss her, just think about all the good times you had. Hold on to that, she said.

 

The interaction was slightly absurd, two strangers hugging in front of the seafood counter, the seafood clerk watching and waiting for the older woman’s order, the older woman consoling me over something that happened months ago, even though I was initially upset about what happened only a few hours ago.

 

The interaction between the two characters in Carver’s poem is absurd as well, and darkly funny. The bumbling doctor and shocked patient don’t know how to act with each other. The conversation is dislocated from the awful reality, especially on the patient’s end. He says he’s been given something he’s never gotten before, and out of habit he thanks the doctor. As if he’s been given a gift.

 

Cancer is sometimes described as a gift. It isn’t, but the perspective it supplies can be. Bad news says, This is the reality, straight up. Focus. Bad experiences bring up hard questions. You can face those questions and act on your answers, or you can look away. What’s important? What do I believe? The doctor in the poem asks,

 

do you stop and ask for understanding

 

and

 

do you kneel down

in forest groves and let yourself ask for help

 

For me, leaving the grocery store, I asked if I would react to a hate-filled campaign with hate. Would I sneer at those I disagree with? Would I despair of my country?

 

And also, would I get dinner made on time?

 

Later that night, the dishes done, back in bed, back in my head, I pictured all of us Kroger shoppers from above, as if I were looking at fish in an aquarium. I believe in the grocery store, I thought. What a beautiful place. The day after the most divisive, ugly election in recent history, and there we were, shoppers, clerks and baggers all going about our business. Here people of different backgrounds, races, faiths, and political beliefs push carts in peace. They ignore each other, they smile at each other, they let someone with fewer groceries go ahead in line. Sometimes they even connect over shared experience.

 

These everyday relations, how marvelous.

 

And out beyond the grocery store, a non-violent transition of power. A graceful concession by the loser. Peaceful protests.

 

Our democracy, I sing of it. People who think differently, whose lives are different, who want different things, all live together. That is our country. That is our experiment and we continue to work through it.

 

The lab result is in, but the prognosis is never final. Treatment lies ahead.

 

For me the treatment begins with how I treat other people.

 

I’m not going to be hateful. I am not going to make assumptions about why people voted the way they did. People have reasons. People have their own priorities.

 

Humility is called for. Empathy. And as one of my daughters puts it, love:

 

screen-shot-2016-11-12-at-10-26-24-amPlanet Earth, there is so much healing to be done. We know that love is the only way to do it. May we each explore what that looks like in our lives, in the tiniest and vastest of ways, and may we all move forward together. The thought that keeps coming back to me, is that love means looking at the most challenging, ugliest things we can imagine, and keeping an open heart. Do no harm, take no shit, and pour out your heart. We are capable of infinite amounts of love. I’m grieving today. I’m on fire tomorrow.

 

 

 

screen-shot-2016-11-12-at-10-17-25-amRay Carver (1938-1988) is not known primarily as a poet, although he published several books of poetry in his short life. Considered the reviver of the short story form, he’s a fiction writer admired for his spare style and peerless dialogue. Critic Thomas Edwards writes that Carver’s working class characters live in a world where

 

people worry about whether their old cars will start, where unemployment or personal bankruptcy are present dangers, where a good time consists of smoking pot with the neighbors, with a little cream soda and M & M’s on the side. . . . Carver’s characters are waitresses, mechanics, postmen, high school teachers, factory workers, door-to-door salesmen. [Their surroundings are] not for them a still unspoiled scenic wonderland, but a place where making a living is as hard, and the texture of life as drab, for those without money, as anywhere else

 

Sound familiar?

 

Surely Carver would have been a worthy bard of this election.

 

He was born in Oregon and raised in Washington. His dad worked in a sawmill, his mother worked various other blue-collar jobs.

 

At 19 he married his 16-year old pregnant girlfriend, a young woman at a prep school whose mother never forgave him for interrupting the upward course of her life. The couple had two children and worked odd jobs to keep afloat, he as a janitor, flower-picker, gas station attendant, library assistant, she as a waitress and office assistant.

 

They moved to California where he enrolled in school and found a mentor in novelist John Gardner of Grendel fame, and began publishing his short stories. He was given a fellowship to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, but didn’t complete his MFA in part because he felt out of place among the upper-middle-class students.

 

Eventually he landed a white-collar job as a textbook editor, and wrote in his spare time. He started teaching, and developed a drinking problem (no connection). He wasn’t able to quit drinking till 1977. Two years later he moved in with poet and writer Tess Gallagher. He and his first wife divorced in 1982. He married Tess in 1988 and died six weeks later of lung cancer.

 

 

*DJ Lizzard Blizzard can be found on Wake Up and Dance. Subscribe and she’ll send a dance song to your email every morning.

 

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poem in grass, off path

poem in grass, off path

 

Face to Face

by Tomas Tranströmer

translated by Patty Crane

 

In February existence stood still.

The birds didn’t fly willingly and the soul

chafed against the landscape as a boat

chafes against the dock it lies moored to.

 

The trees stood with their backs to us.

Snow-depth was measured by dead straw.

Footprints grew old out on the crust.

Under a tarp, language withered.

 

One day something appeared at the window.

Work came to a halt, I looked up.

The colors burned. Everything turned around.

The land and I sprang toward each other.

Image 2

 

May is a little late to be posting a poem celebrating spring, but this is Michigan. Spring is ever tardy. And gloomy, especially this past week. Then yesterday the sun came out, the air warmed up, and all the sudden it seemed like every tree and bush was in bloom. Even dandelions were a welcome sight.

 

So you can see why I was drawn to this poem. “Face to Face” poet Tomas Tranströmer lived in Sweden but his description of winter could easily have been of a Michigan one. Winters here are long and dreary, and round about March they feel just like this:

 

the soul

chafed against the landscape as a boat

chafes against the dock it lies moored to.

 

The poem tells a little story, familiar to all living things, a story of death and renewal as old as the hills, but there’s something fresh here. The speaker’s relationship with nature is almost romantic. The title of the poem announces an intimacy to be explored. The intimacy unfolds in human terms: the poem begins with a chill between two beings, a fight, silent treatment—and then—what I see as make-up sex:

 

The land and I sprang toward each other.

 

I just love that line.

 

This version of the poem is a translation, so I’m reluctant to pick at the words and phrasing much. What we read is an approximation of the original. Here’s a different version, so you can see what I mean.

 

This one by Robin Robertson:

 

In February life stood still.

The birds refused to fly and the soul

grated against the landscape as a boat

chafes against the jetty where it’s moored.

 

The trees were turned away. The snow’s depth

measured by the stubble poking through.

The footprints grew old out on the ice-crust.

Under a tarpaulin, language was being broken down.

 

Suddenly, something approaches the window.

I stop working and look up.

The colours blaze. Everything turns around.

The earth and I spring at each other.

 

I like the use of present tense in the last stanza better than the past tense in the Crane version, but overall, I like Crane’s better.

 

Here’s another one, this by Robin Fulton (do you have to have a bird’s name to translate Transtromer?):

 

In February living stood still.

The birds flew unwillingly and the soul

chafed against the landscape as a boat

chafes against the pier it lies moored to.

 

The trees stood with their backs turned to me.

The deep snow was measured with dead straws.

The footprints grew old out on the crust.

Under a tarpaulin language pined.

 

One day something came to the window.

Work was dropped, I looked up.

The colors flared. Everything turned around.

The earth and I sprang toward each other.

 

For me, the best part of this version is the use of “flared” over “burned” in the penultimate line. But let me know your thoughts and preferences.

 

I had never heard of Tomas Tranströmer until I came upon a newly released collection of his at the library, but he’s hugely popular in Sweden. He’s been called Sweden’s Robert Frost.

 

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 2.35.12 PMTranströmer (1931-2015) was born in Stockholm, the only child of a journalist and teacher. His parents divorced when he was young. At Stockholm University he studied poetry, psychology, religion, and history, eventually earning his PhD in psychology. Throughout his life he worked with juvenile offenders, the disabled, and drug addicts.

 

He published poetry all the while and became close friends with poet Robert Bly who translated his poems to English and help popularize him in the States. When Tranströmer was 59, he suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on one side of his body. Six years after his stroke he was able to publish another collection of poems. He also re-learned how to play the piano, a lifelong hobby, using only his left hand. Link here for a beautiful video of him playing the piano weeks before his death.

 

Tranströmer’s poems are read the world over, from China to the Middle East. His work has been translated into sixty languages. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011.

 

He won many other awards in his lifetime, but the tributes that interest me most are personal ones, tributes that show just how revered he was/is in his native country. A scientist who discovered a new species of beetle named it after Tranströmer, who was an amateur entomologist and whose childhood collection of bugs was once shown at a museum. And after his stroke, several composers wrote pieces for just the left hand so he could play them.

 

One of his two daughters is a concert singer, and many of his poems have been set to music. Link here for one example.

 

 

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