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Only ten more days till the end of 2020. Let’s spend a moment with beloved Detroit poet Naomi Long Madgett who died this past November. I put her poem “Midway” on the “Transcending” sculpture on the riverfront in Hart Plaza.

 

poem is taped to lightpost

 

MIDWAY

by Naomi Long Madgett

 

I’ve come this far to freedom and I won’t turn back

I’m climbing to the highway from my old dirt track

I’m coming and I’m going

And I’m stretching and I’m growing

And I’ll reap what I’ve been sowing or my skin’s not black

 

I’ve prayed and slaved and waited and I’ve sung my song

You’ve bled me and you’ve starved me but I’ve still grown strong

You’ve lashed me and you’ve treed me

And you’ve everything but freed me

But in time you’ll know you need me and it won’t be long.

 

I’ve seen the daylight breaking high above the bough

I’ve found my destination and I’ve made my vow;

so whether you abhor me

Or deride me or ignore me

Mighty mountains loom before me and I won’t stop now.

 

 

 

I can’t add much to a discussion of this powerful poem. The age-old experience of the downtrodden overcoming persecution is translated into a rousing, soul-stirring anthem. It’s relentlessly musical and begs to be recited. Obviously it’s topical in a year that brought racial injustice to the forefront of our national conversation.

 

Instead of picking apart the poem, I’ll turn this post over to Madgett’s own words.

 

She wrote “Midway” as a response to Brown v. Board of Education—

 

Midway was first published in Freedomways in 1959, but I think I wrote it in 1958. The poem grew out of a discussion with a friend that acknowledged that the Supreme Court desegregation ruling, which legalized racial justice for the first time, led to the determination of Black people to move forward and never again accept the status quo.

 

(Her turn of phrase “legalized racial justice” is something to ponder.)

 

Long said that “Midway,” her most famous poem, was her least favorite. Still, she recognized its universality and reach—

 

I never thought of it as anything but a Civil Rights poem yet when I went to St. Louis for my 50th year high school reunion, one of my classmates took me to his church to meet his pastor because the pastor loves my poetry, especially “Midway.” The pastor didn’t see it as a Civil Rights poem but as the story of his life and experiences.

 

I did a reading of “Midway” in Oak Park High School years ago and the students interpreted it according to their own experience. A Jewish student felt the history of the Jewish people was brought out in the poem. Another student suggested I “could have been talking about truth itself.” Yet another offered “you were talking about the early persecution of Christians.” An African-American student said “You are talking about the history of black people” and of course, that’s what I was talking about. But because I was not specific in the poem, it could be interpreted in many ways.

 

[Call-out to Computer Guys who are actually Librarian Guys (you know who you are):  I’ve read that this poem has been set to music but I’m unable to find a version on line. It might be called “I’ve Come This Far to Freedom.” If you can track down a video, post to the comment section or email me at thepoemelf@gmail.com.  I’ll post it in the new year. ]

 

*

 

Naomi Long Madgett was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1923, the youngest of three children and the only girl.  Her father was a preacher. He took a job as pastor of a New Jersey congregation when Madgett was a baby. East Orange was a segregated town, and there she attended a school where prejudice prevented her from receiving the academic honors she had earned. When the family moved to St. Louis, she went to an all-black high school and was finally able to soar academically and artistically.

 

She studied at Virginia State University. During her years there corresponded with Langston Hughes who encouraged her writing. After graduating she married, moved to Detroit, had a daughter, got divorced and took a job with Michigan Bell to support herself and her daughter. She earned her masters degree from Wayne State University and began teaching high school English in Detroit public schools. As an educator  she fought for inclusion of Black writers in textbooks, offered the first course on African American literature, and taught the first accredited course in creative writing in the city. She continued her work of inclusion of Black writers in the curriculum and in textbooks when she became a professor at Eastern Michigan University. She founded and ran Lotus Press from her basement, seeing a need to get more Black writers published.

 

 

For a celebrated writer, she seems to be unusually other-centered, quietly writing her own poetry while promoting the work of others. I love this quote of hers—

 

It was only when I gave myself away that I found myself. Service, I have learned, is where true happiness lies. It has provided me with a compassion that I didn’t have in my youth. It has permitted me to walk in the shoes of many and feel the warmth of their feet as well as the pebbles that injured them. I have discovered that cheerfulness, kindness, and helpfulness bring as much joy to the one who extends them as to the ones who receive them — perhaps a good deal more.

 

She won multiple awards, was named Detroit Poet Laureate, and was the subject of a documentary, “Star by Star: Naomi Long Madgett, Poet & Publisher.” She died at age 97.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On day 11 of the end of 2020, let’s turn to Israeli poet Natan Zach who died this November. I left his poem “Against Parting” at Michigan Central Station. The 1913 Station, once called Detroit’s “Ellis Island” and later the favorite of “ruin porn” photographers, is being renovated by Ford Motor Company. (You can link to a history of the building here.)

 

poem is on fence between the two center posters

 

Against Parting

by Natan Zach

 

My tailor is against parting.

That’s why, he

said, he’s not going away;

he doesn’t want to part

from his one daughter. He’s definitely

against parting.

 

Once, he parted from his wife, and

she he

saw no more of (Auschwitz).

Parted

from his three sisters and

these he never

saw (Buchenwald).

He once parted from his mother (his father

died of a fine and ripe age). Now

he’s against parting.

 

In Berlin he

was my father’s kith and kin. They passed

a good time in

that Berlin. The time’s passed. Now

he’ll never leave. He’s

most definitely

(my father’s died)

against parting.

 

 

“I would prefer not to,” Bartleby the Scrivener famously says when asked to do the work he was hired to do. By force of sheer intransigence Bartleby upends office life, to the point where his boss is forced to relocate to another building.

 

The speaker’s tailor in “Against Parting” is just such a one, albeit less robotic than poor Bartleby. He’s done with separation; he refuses to do it anymore. His wife, his three sisters, his mother, the good times he had in Berlin with the speaker’s now-deceased father, all gone. His daughter is all he has left, and he’s holding firm to her.

 

It’s a facile thing to say—I am against parting—who isn’t? And it’s oddly phrased (of course, the poem is translated, so maybe not so odd in Hebrew) and unembellished with poetic flourishes. But it has power, and repeated it becomes almost a battle cry. I am against parting! In the face of terrible suffering, the tailor asserts his commitment to attachment and his attachment to commitment. It’s stark, strong, and beautiful—I am against parting! Someone who’s lost love so brutally understands the value of it in a way others do not.

 

This year we’ve been overrun with parting. Not just the parting death brings (1.7 million partings and counting), but the kind of parting that circumstance forces us into. Social distancing, quarantining, work-from-home and online schooling are not friends to human connection. Well, sorry, Mr. Tailor, but it can’t be helped, you’re going to have to go along.

 

But there is one kind of parting we can take a stand against:  the parting political disagreement causes. Let’s aim for disagreeing without hating. Let’s be against parting (that kind anyway) and those who foment separation for the sake of power.

 

*

 

Nathan Zach was born in 1930 in Berlin. His father was German-Jewish, his mother Italian-Catholic. In 1936 the family re-located to what was then British controlled Palenstine.

 

He served in the army during Israel’s War of Independence and after studied political science and philosophy at Hebrew University. He taught at Tel Aviv University. In his late 30’s he moved to England for ten years to get his PhD. He returned home to teach at university.

 

He’s credited with loosening up Hebrew poetry, moving it away from rigid rhyme and meter schemes, and is considered a seminal figure in modern Israeli poetry, winning multiple national literary awards. He was known for translating Allen Ginsberg into Hebrew. Link here for a fuller discussion of his life and work.

 

Zach collaborated with musicians and many of his poems have been made into popular songs. Here’s a musical version of his poem, “It is Not Good for Man to Be Alone.” Just get a load of that groovy host.

 

 

He was diagnosed with Alzheimers at age 84 and died when he was 89.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Only 14 more days till the end of 2020, and with breaking news of the months-long government cyber attack, there are ever more reasons to be anxious. Because so many of us have channeled our anxiety into epic closet-purging and shelf re-organizing, I left Arthur Guiterman’s “Everything In Its Place” in the container aisle of TJ Maxx.

 

poem is set against white wicker basket on top shelf

 

Everything in its Place

by Arthur Guiterman

 

The skeleton is hiding in the closet as it should,

The needle’s in the haystack and the trees are in the wood,

The fly is in the ointment and the froth is on the beer,

The bee is in the bonnet and the flea is in the ear.

 

The meat is in the coconut, the cat is in the bag,

The dog is in the manger and the goat is on the crag,

The worm is in the apple and the clam is on the shore,

The birds are in the bushes and the wolf is at the door.

 

 

 

I love this poem. I love it the way I loved puns and limericks as a girl, I love it the way I love murder mysteries and crossword puzzles today. Each phrase harks back to an aphorism, some familiar, some not, together formulating a veritable history of human warnings. All that’s missing is the shoe about to drop. The looming sense of doom is offset by the sing-song rhyme, the pithiness, the silliness of some of the expressions, the brevity of the poem. It’s all so tidy and satisfying, as promised by the title, and that last line

 

the birds are in the bushes and the wolf is at the door

 

is so perfect I’ve had it running through my head ever since I first came across this poem years ago. As every jokester knows, fear and anxiety lose a little their power when put in the service of humor.

 

*

 

Arthur Guiterman (1871-1943) was born in Vienna to ex-pat parents. The family moved back to the states when Guiterman was three. He graduated from City College of New York and worked as the editor for Women’s Home Companion and Literary Digest.

 

He was astoundingly prolific. He wrote over 4,000 poems and published over a dozen volumes of light verse. He reviewed novels for Life magazine in the novel form of humorous poems. He wrote the libretto for an opera performed at the Met and co-founded the Poetry Society of America.

 

He had a heart attack on his way to a lecture and died at age 72. Seems like he could have written a funny poem about that.

 

Guiterman doesn’t have a his own page on the Poetry Foundation website, a shame given how much pleasure he has given thousands and thousands of readers over the years.

 

 

 

*

 

Have a great weekend, everyone. I’ll be back with the countdown on Monday.

Fifteen days till the end of 2020 and four days till the official start of winter. Winter, the dreaded season, the season Dr. Fauci has been warning us about since the pandemic began. If Fauci weren’t such a gentlemen, Ezra Pound’s expletive-filled “Ancient Music” could be his cri de coeur. I left the poem in a tangle of undergrowth and trees on a cold and dreary day.

 

poem is white speck in middle of picture

 

Ancient Music

by Ezra Pound

 

Winter is icummen in,

Lhude sing Goddamm.

Raineth drop and staineth slop,

And how the wind doth ramm!

Sing: Goddamm.

 

Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,

An ague hath my ham.

Freezeth river, turneth liver,

Damn you, sing: Goddamm.

 

Goddamm, Goddamm, ’tis why I am, Goddamm,

So ‘gainst the winter’s balm.

 

Sing goddamm, damm, sing Goddamm.

Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.

 

 

Lighting candles is all well and good but sometimes darkness just needs to be cursed. Lean into your inner Howard Beale and yell out the window, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Or if you can manage the pronunciation, have at it with Pound’s “Ancient Music.”

 

This is a parody poem, of course. Maybe you were forced to study “Sumer is icumen in” in high school or college. To jog your memory, it begins—

 

Sumer is icumen in,

Lhude sing cuccu!

Groweþ sed and bloweþ med

 

And springþ þe wde nu,

Sing cuccu!

 

As much as I dislike winter, I dislike medieval poetry more. This poem in particular. Maybe because “Sumer is Icumen In” was always showing up in anthologies and syllabi, unwanted as dandruff. But I’ve changed my mind, as is my human prerogative. I came across a musical version and found out it was written as a song (sometimes called “The Cuckoo Song”) to be sung in a round, my favorite kind of song. Listen how pretty it is

 

 

When sumer is icumen in 2021, hopefully the good parts of our old collective life will be icumen in too. Meanwhile, feel free to curse the darkness. Old Ezra’s here to help.

 

*

 

I don’t have the requisite energy today for Ezra Pound’s life. Let’s just say it was complicated. Here’s the Reader’s Digest version:

 

Born in 1885 in Idaho, died 1972 in Venice. Singular figure in modern literature. Poet and critic. Literary mentor of Eliot, Hemingway, Joyce. Founder of the Imagist school of poetry. Ex-pat. Fascist collaborator. Anti-semite, at least for a time. Psychiatric patient. Author of one of my favorite poems, “In the Station of the Metro.”

 

Link here for a fuller discussion of his politics and here for one on his life and work.

 

 

 

 

 

On day 16 of the 2020 countdown let’s honor poet Diane di Prima who died in October. I left her poem “Song for Baby-O, Unborn” at an empty playground. Empty because it was cold, not closed, but still a sad sight.

 

poem is on red post of yellow sign

 

Song for Baby-O, Unborn

by Diane di Prima

 

Sweetheart

when you break thru

you’ll find

a poet here

not quite what one would choose.

 

I won’t promise

you’ll never go hungry

or that you won’t be sad

on this gutted

breaking

globe

 

but I can show you

baby

enough to love

to break your heart

forever

 

 

This poem feels like it was written in June of this year, not 1957 when poet di Prima wrote it while pregnant with her firstborn. What better description of our 2020 world than this—

 

this gutted

breaking

globe

 

It’s always an act of faith to bring a child into the world, particularly in a time of an unchecked pandemic, economic hardship, ecological distress and civil unrest. Seems that most of those cooped-up couples who were supposed to be reproducing like jack rabbits assessed their bank balance, the childcare situation and the frightening virus warnings for pregnant mothers and decided to pass on the baby registries. “Song for Baby-O, Unborn” is for the parents who went ahead anyway. All the best to them.

 

The singer in the poem is a woman after my own heart, a Debbie Downer. Typically, lullabies promise good things to come—Momma’s gonna buy you a mockingbird and a diamond ring and a billygoat—or highlight charming events in the here and now—twinkling stars and itsy bitsy spiders. But this mother’s lullaby is raw and a lot more real. No baby is going to be reassured, soothed or calmed to hear, You might not choose me as your mother and sorry, babe, I’m not going to be a stable provider.

 

In the end, “Song for Baby-O” is more a tribute to poets than sweet-talk for baby. I’ll be a great mother, the speaker says, because I’ll be the best guide for the world in all its wonders. Poets have a leg up on other parents in that regard, but all parents teach their children, consciously or not, how to see the world. What is soothing and charming and calming is the chance, so often provided by being in the company of children, to see the miracles.

 

Question, readers:  what does that last stanza mean? Why is love going to break the baby’s heart forever, and why would that be a consolation for all the things the poet-mother cannot provide?

 

*

 

Poet Diane di Prima, one of the few women in the male-dominated Beat scene, was born in 1934 in Brooklyn. She started writing poems when she was six, and before she was twenty she was corresponding with poet Kenneth Patchen and visiting Ezra Pound daily at the mental institution where he was housed.

 

She studied at Swarthmore for a few semesters but left to join the Greenwich Village scene. There she founded Poets Press, and along with her lover, poet Amiri Baraka, edited a literary newspaper called The Floating Bear. The couple also founded a theater group, New York Poets Theatre, and had a child together. In Greenwich she hung around with all the famous Beats—Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. She wrote a novel about this time in her life, My Life as a Beatnik, which she later said was mostly true except for the excessive sex scenes her editor asked her to include.

 

After spending time in Timothy Leary’s psychedelic commune in the Catskills, she moved, in the late 60’s, to San Francisco. There she worked with a street-performing group known as The Diggers who also handed out free food and political leaflets.

 

A classic free spirit, di Prima lived a big, zesty life. She published more than 40 books of poetry, had five kids, two husbands, multiple lovers, taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and several colleges, worked as a photographer, collagist and nude model. In an interview with Jacket magazine (as quoted in the Poetry Foundation web page), she said, “I wanted to have every experience I could have, I wanted everything that was possible to a person in a female body, and that meant that I wanted to be mother.… So my feeling was, ‘Well’—as I had many times had the feeling—‘Well, nobody’s done it quite this way before but fuck it, that’s what I’m doing, I’m going to risk it.’”

 

Like her Italian grandfather whom she admired, di Prima was anarchist in her political beliefs. Anti-capitalist, she managed to support her five children and at one time, a whole caravan of families living in San Francisco. She was arrested by the FBI for obscenity charges which were later dropped. She appeared on stage with The Band at the “Last Waltz” concert, where she recited a one-line poem: “get your cut throat off my knife.”

 

She was a practicing Buddhist and co-founded the San Francisco Institute of Magical and Healing Arts. In 2009 she was named San Francisco’s Poet Laureate. She was 86 when she died.

 

 

 

 

On day 17 of the 2020 countdown, we honor one of the many poets we lost this year. I taped Derek Mahon’s “After the Titanic” to a gate in a small alley next to a music store.

 

 

After the Titanic

by Derek Mahon

 

They said I got away in a boat

And humbled me at the inquiry. I tell you

I sank as far that night as any

Hero. As I sat shivering on the dark water

I turned to ice to hear my costly

Life go thundering down in a pandemonium of

Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches,

Boilers bursting and shredded ragtime. Now I hide

In a lonely house behind the sea

Where the tide leaves broken toys and hatboxes

Silently at my door. The showers of

April, flowers of May mean nothing to me, nor the

Late light of June, when my gardener

Describes to strangers how the old man stays in bed

On seaward mornings after nights of

Wind, takes his cocaine and will see no one. Then it is

I drown again with all those dim

Lost faces I never understood, my poor soul

Screams out in the starlight, heart

Breaks loose and rolls down like a stone.

Include me in your lamentations.

 

 

We can only hope that “After the Titanic” is an apt title for 2021, that is, that the worst will be over. But poet Derek Mahon is here to tell us that disasters are never over. They just age into nightmares. Cheers, people. A round of post-traumatic stress for all!

 

The speaker lives as if he’s dead, his activities straddling the grey zone between life and death. He sinks, he hides, he stays in bed, he sees no one, he drowns (again), he breaks. I died in the crash too, he seems to tell anyone who will listen.

 

The anguish the old man feels is real but tempered in beautiful language. Perhaps it’s been polished after many tellings. In this way “After the Titanic” becomes a “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” a tale of disaster at sea told and re-told to expiate the central sin. Except in this case, the sin is not in killing but in surviving, perhaps at the expense of someone else—

 

They said I got away in a boat

And humbled me at the inquiry.

 

The precise observations pull us into the trauma while allowing the distance of art. The description of the ship going down is horrifying but also so amazing I want to stand up and cheer—

 

As I sat shivering on the dark water

     I turned to ice to hear my costly

Life go thundering down in a pandemonium of

     Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches,

Boilers bursting and shredded ragtime.

 

These deaths are not quiet ones. Jack may have slipped silently away from Rose on the raft, but Mahon’s speaker witnessed a cacophony of suffering. His own death-in-life is equally noisy—

 

Lost faces I never understood, my poor soul

     Screams out in the starlight, heart

Breaks loose and rolls down like a stone.

 

*

 

Let’s end on a happier note. Here’s Andrew Scott (the hot priest of Fleabag) giving a reading of Mahon’s poem “Everything is Going to Be Alright.” This video made the rounds at the beginning of the COVID pandemic—a niece sent it to me, and I remember feeling moved and lifted. Watching it again, I’m tearing up, thinking of all the lives lost in the meantime, and the stubborn urge to hope we are born to.

 

 

If it’s difficult to understand Scott’s emotional recitation, here’s the poet himself reading it.

 

 

*

 

Derek Mahon, who died in October of this year, was born in 1941 in Belfast, the only child of a working-class Protestant family.

 

He studied at Trinity College in Dublin (where he dated poet Eavan Boland!) and later at the Sorbonne. He lived in Canada, the United States, France and London for a time, working as a reviewer, scriptwriter, freelance journalist, features editor for Vogue, and as a teacher at various universities. He eventually settled in county Cork.

 

He was married once, had three children by two different women, suffered from alcoholism, and formed a lasting partnership with artist Sarah Iremonger.

 

He is revered in Ireland not only for his poetry but for his translations and his essays, memoirs, and cultural criticism.

 

He was 78 when he died. Here’s an obituary with more details of his life and work.

 

 


Eighteen more days till the end of 2020 and our stay-at-home life goes on and on and on and on. Here’s a Charles Bukowski poem for the stir-crazy. I taped to a no-parking sign in a quiet suburban neighborhood.

 

 

wearing the collar

by Charles Bukowski

 

I live with a lady and four cats

and some days we all get

along.

 

some days I have trouble with

one of the

cats.

 

other days I have trouble with

two of the

cats.

 

other days,

three.

 

some days I have trouble with

all four of the

cats

 

and the

lady:

ten eyes looking at me

as if I was a dog.

 

 

The slow, mathematical way Bukowski delineates his uncomfortable living situation in “wearing the collar” makes me laugh. Imagine Bukowski, with all his crazy energy, confined to a house with too many cats and a woman who doesn’t adore everything he does. Funny. His casual disregard for capitalization (except for the all-important “I”) paired with touches of formality (that last colon, the references to “the lady”) add to the drollery.

 

It’s kind of funny too that we’re all “wearing the collar” now. Before March we were footloose and fancy-free and didn’t even realize it.

 

Of course for some people it’s not funny at all. No doubt the pandemic has intensified behind-closed-doors domestic turmoil. How many are trapped in homes where they live like Bukowski feels—like dogs unwelcome in their own homes, on edge, waiting for “trouble.” I can’t read this poem without shuddering for those people.

 

*

 

Charles Bukowski, cult favorite poet of the low life, was born in Germany in 1920 to an American soldier and German mother. When he was two, his family moved to Baltimore, eventually settling in California. He had a tough start in life, and his subsequent alcoholism is not surprising:  beaten by his father, bullied by peers, and rejected by girls for his bad complexion and the German clothes he was forced to wear. At age thirteen a friend introduced him to alcohol and it was off to the races.

 

He went to Los Angeles City College for a few years and then moved to New York to become a writer. Lack of success in publishing led to a ten-year cross-country binge of heavy drinking, an enlarged liver, bleeding ulcer, and a close-call with death. He scaled back and took up writing again, publishing his first poem at age 35. He supported his writing with a variety of jobs including truck-driving, elevator operating and dishwashing. His steadiest employment was with the post office.

 

He was married twice and had a daughter with a live-in girlfriend he called “old snaggle-tooth.” Sweet guy. Nice guy.

 

He was a prolific writer. He wrote a column for an underground newspaper, published six novels, multiple volumes of poetry, short stories, essays, and letters, and several screenplays including Barfly.

 

He died of leukemia in 1994. He’s another poet who deserves more of a biography than I have time to give him. To get a better flavor of his big, big life and personality, link to his obituary here or here.

 

Note:  he did not say “Find what you love and let it kill you,” a phrase often attributed to him. That was singer-songwriter Kinky Friedman.

 

 

On Day 21 of the 2020 countdown, a poem about masks in a drugstore where a different kind of mask is sold.

 

poem is on third shelf from top

 

We Wear the Mask

by Paul Laurence Dunbar

 

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

 

Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

We wear the mask.

 

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

But let the world dream otherwise,

We wear the mask!

 

 

This poem has absolutely nothing to do with N95’s, surgical masks or gators, but it might useful to consider the manufactured “burden” of wearing a pandemic mask in relation to the very real burden of being obliged, for safety reasons, to wear a mask that grins and lies.

 

Paul Laurence Dunbar published “We Wear the Mask” in 1896. I don’t know if he wrote it before or after the 1896 Supreme Court ruling Plessy vs. Ferguson, which upheld Jim Crow laws in Louisiana and established the “separate but equal” doctrine. It doesn’t matter. That ruling marked in concrete the rage-inducing injustice Dunbar would have lived with every day—

 

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile

 

We’d like to think that the mask that grins and lies is not as necessary as it once, but consider how Black parents must train their boys to behave at traffic stops. If any good came out of the horrific murder of George Floyd, it’s that the pretense of “justice for all” was exposed as yet another mask, one worn to cover the eyes. It was hard to believe in justice for all when beatings of Black citizens and their allies popped up on our Twitter feeds, one after the other, hundreds of them; when a Black woman was gunned down in her own home without consequence, when a Black man out for a jog was hunted down with delayed consequence; when the racial disparity of death row inmates grows even as executions grow more scarce, when 75% of death penalty cases involve white victims, because seemingly their lives are worth more than the black victims whose perpetrators are rarely put on death row.

 

*

 

Here’s a bio of Dunbar from a previous post:

 

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was born in Dayton, Ohio, the child of former slaves. His mother taught him to read when he was four and always encouraged his education. His parents separated when he was a toddler, and his father, who had escaped enslavement before the end of the Civil War and fled to Massachusetts to fight for the Union, died when Dunbar was twelve.

 

Dunbar was the only black student in an all-white high school. It’s amazing to me that in late 19thcentury America such a student could be class president, editor of the class paper and class poet, but he was. He wanted to go to college but had to work to support the family. Prevented from finding a job in the legal or newspaper world because of bigotry, he took a job as an elevator operator. During this time he self-published his first collection of poems and sold copies for a dollar to people riding on his elevator.

 

Orville Wright was a high school classmate and friend. He and his brother owned a publishing plant and published a black newspaper featuring Dunbar’s poems. Dunbar was also friends with Frederick Douglas and Booker T. Washington.

 

When he was 26 he married schoolteacher and poet Alice Moore. The marriage was unhappy and they would separate after four years. As newlyweds they moved to Washington, D.C. where Dunbar worked for the Library of Congress. When he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, they moved to Colorado for his health. To soothe his coughing fits doctors encouraged him to drink whiskey, which contributed to his alcoholism which in turn hastened his death at the early age of 33.

 

In addition to eleven volumes of poetry, Dunbar wrote novels, essays, short stories, plays and lyrics, notably for the musical comedy “Dahomey,” the first all-black Broadway production. He collaborated with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Anglo-African composer of “Deep River” fame. You can hear one of their pieces here.

 

Dunbar has a genius for constructing memorable phrases. His poem “We Wear the Mask” gives me shivers. Listen here to a punk version

 

Another phrase of his co-opted in popular culture is the “Who Dat” cheer for the New Orleans Saints, originally from his lyrics to the song “Who Dat Chicken in Dis Crowd?” If you want to hear something from the NFL that’s not divisive, Aaron Neville’s mix of the Who Dat cheer with “Saints Go Marching In” accompanied by Saints players is positively infectious.

 

Finally, link here for a lovely Christmas Carol using his poem “Ring Out Ye Bells.”

 

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That’s all till Monday. I’ll be back with a new poem for day 18.

 

 

 

Day 22 of the 2020 countdown finds us on a small pond in a nature center, contemplating contemplation. One of the biggest gifts this year brought us is time and space for contemplation.

 

poem is taped to dock

 

Priceless Gifts

by Anna Swir

translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan

 

An empty day without events.

And that is why

it grew immense

as space. And suddenly

happiness of being

entered me.

 

I heard

in my heartbeat

the birth of time

and each instant of life

one after the other

came rushing in

like priceless gifts.

 

 

If someone designed a Rorschach test using poetry instead of inkblots, here would be the first question:

 

Does the phrase an empty day without events fill you with

  1. existential horror
  2. relief
  3. I don’t even understand what that means

 

The pandemic has emptied our schedules. We leave the house on a need-to-go basis. We said goodbye to our usual distractions—shopping, movies, coffee shops, concerts—and embraced a new one, at least in the massive increase in attention we give it. Screen time.

 

But to experience the priceless gifts Anna Swir describes, empty time has to stay empty. I’m lucky to have experienced such soul-opening more than once, most recently this fall on a long walk on a hilly country road. Cool air, sunshine on yellow trees, wide open fields, and suddenly my heart opened, just as Swir describes. It’s almost a physical event. Unfortunately, in the middle of this rapture, the phone in my fleece pocket rang. It was my daughter, crying. She had tested positive for COVID, she didn’t feel well, and she was scared.

 

That pretty much sums up 2020.

 

I love this poem, I love the careful, precise way Swir illuminates a delicate emotional state. If you’ve ever experienced transcendent joy and tried to describe it to someone, you’ll appreciate the craft in this deceptively simple poem. Swir is the master of marrying complex internal events with clean and clear language. (Her poem “The Same Inside” is another example. It moved me near to tears, so deeply did I relate to it.)

 

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

 

Anna Swir (Świrszczyńska) was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1909. Her family was poor but artistic. Her father was a painter, her mother a former singer. Swir worked from the time she was young, and paid her way through university where she studied medieval Polish literature.

 

She worked as a waitress during WWII and began writing for underground journals. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, she joined the resistance. I read that she was arrested at one point during the war and told she would be executed in an hour, but I can’t find any details of her reprieve. During the bloody Warsaw Uprising (in which Poles attempted to liberate the city), she worked as a military nurse.

 

Although she began publishing poetry in the thirties, her poems weren’t available in English until the late seventies. In addition to writing poetry, she wrote children’s plays and directed a children’s theater. She lived in Krakow until her death from cancer in 1984.

 

 

 

According to latest statistics, over half of Americans under thirty now live with their parents. For the 23rd day before the end of 2020, a poem for people who’ve had to move back home. I left “Home is so Sad” on a “Please Slow Down” sign in a pretty suburban neighborhood. Young adults whose lives are stalled out probably don’t need to be reminded of either sentiment.

 

 

Home is so Sad

by Philip Larkin

 

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,

Shaped to the comfort of the last to go

As if to win them back. Instead, bereft

Of anyone to please, it withers so,

Having no heart to put aside the theft

 

And turn again to what it started as,

A joyous shot at how things ought to be,

Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:

Look at the pictures and the cutlery.

The music in the piano stool. That vase.

 

I always felt it. It would last an hour, maybe a day. Stepping into my parents’ home, I’d get a wave of melancholy. The silence of that house, once so full of noise and life (a split-level house with thirteen people is rarely quiet); the useless objects that crowded it— a small cabinet whose sole purpose was to house telephone books, tchotchkes on the windowsill, an electric can opener on the counter; the deterioration of carpets and upholstery alongside the same downward slide of my beloved parents’ health. Yes, home is so sad.

 

No doubt my own kids will feel that way too, and maybe already do. This is perhaps the most melancholy feeling of all, to know that my life will some day depress visiting children.

 

No one’s whining of course—at least there is a home to come back to—and poet Philip Larkin isn’t whining (or whinging as he would say, being British) either. He looks at the old house in human terms, with sympathy, as if it were an aging athlete—

And turn again to what it started as,

A joyous shot at how things ought to be,

Long fallen wide.

 

Like the house it describes, the formality of the poem’s structure is out of fashion, from another time. But the neat stanzas and end-rhyme scheme are deeply pleasurable, metered and beautiful as the music in the piano stool. And such a title! One of my favorites.

 

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By necessity poets’ biographies for this series are going to be brief. I can spend hours reading up on poets’ lives, but with a post-a-day schedule for this countdown, I won’t be able to put in the time. Apologies.

Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was born in Coventry, England. He went to Oxford where he met and became lifelong friends with a fellow curmudgeon, writer Kinsley Amis. He worked as a librarian at various universities, published two novels and enough poetry to make him the second most famous living British poet in his time. (The first being poet laureate Sir John Betjeman, who Crown watchers may have heard mention in several episodes.)

He died of cancer at age 63.

 

His life and work deserve a much fuller discussion. Link to an obituary here and an essay (along with a wonderful animation of his poem “Trees”) here.