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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.

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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.

 

 

poem is on second shelf from the bottom, on top of "Sales Order" pad

poem is on second shelf from the bottom, on top of “Sales Order” pad

 

The Business Life

by David Ignatow

When someone hangs up, having said

to you, “Don’t come around again,”

and you have never heard the phone

bang down with such violence

nor the voice vibrate with such venom,

pick up your receiver gently and dial

again, get the same reply; and dial

again, until he threatens. You will

then get used to it, and be sick only

instead of shocked. You will live

then instead of die, have a pattern

to go by, familiar to your ear,

your senses and your dignity.

Image 1

 

This one is from my Twitter feed, so I’m not going to comment too much, except to explain the very sorry state of the paper this poem is printed on, the tears and crumples. I’ve carried “The Business Life” around in my purse for the better part of a year. Bad things happen to papers in my purse. And I can’t bear to throw out a poem, no matter how worn.

 

I left the poem in a lonely aisle of Office Depot, but it really belongs in a sales training program. Or a life training program, if I’m going to be gloomy about it.

 

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 3.18.00 PMA brief bio: David Ignatow (1914-1997) was the child of Russian immigrants. (Of course! That Russian fatalism is all over this poem.) He was born in Brooklyn, and after graduating from high school, worked as a bookbinder and newspaper reporter. Work being the subject of this poem and of many of his poems, it’s interesting to note how many different places Ignatow worked in his life to support his family: at a vegetable market, hospital, telegram office, paper company (hello, Michael Scott), and several universities.

 

I’ve liked this guy for a long time, and reading about his life, I like him even more. Think I’ll have to track down more poems of his to poem-elf.

 

poem is in nook of tree in Kenwood, Maryland

poem is in nook of tree in Kenwood, Maryland

 

Barter

by Sara Teasdale

 

Life has loveliness to sell,

All beautiful and splendid things,

Blue waves whitened on a cliff,

Soaring fire that sways and sings,

And children’s faces looking up

Holding wonder like a cup.

 

Life has loveliness to sell,

Music like a curve of gold,

Scent of pine trees in the rain,

Eyes that love you, arms that hold,

And for your spirit’s still delight,

Holy thoughts that star the night.

 

Spend all you have for loveliness,

Buy it and never count the cost;

For one white singing hour of peace

Count many a year of strife well lost,

And for a breath of ecstasy

Give all you have been, or could be.

 

Image 1

 

I may have mentioned once or twice that I love the cherry blossoms. Not cherry blossoms, mind you, but the cherry blossoms, the ones that ring the Tidal Basin and the ones that form a pink tunnel on the streets of Kenwood, a neighborhood in suburban Maryland. It’s a once-a-year treat, and if you don’t live in Washington, D.C., catching them at peak is a matter of luck. Walking under cherry blossoms is one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had and the probably most ephemeral. The Japanese even have a name for it, hanami.

 

This is what the Kenwood cherry blossoms look like at peak:

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This is what they look like when you come too late:

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Which is what seems to happen to me year after year. Even the carpet of petals underfoot was gone. Sixty mile an hour winds two days before my visit scattered their beauty.

 

So I just had memories to go on, calling up the “breath of ecstasy” from past visits. Breath of ecstasy is what poet Sarah Teasdale names our experience of the sublime: the sight of crashing waves (what a great line—blue waves whitened on a cliff), and fire, and a child’s innocent face (another great line—holding wonder like a cup), the sound of music, the smell of pine trees in the rain.

 

These experiences, which we’ve always considered ours for the taking, as in, the best things in life are free, aren’t free at all in Teasdale’s vision. Life has loveliness to sell, she writes, and the cost is high, a year of strife, perhaps, or even all you have been, or could be.

 

I’m having trouble understanding how that barter works out in real life, how it might cost me, in real terms, to seek beauty. I’m not going to sell my house so I can live in Iceland for a year to see the northern lights. But I can see how easy it is to stay in bed instead of getting up to see a sunrise, or how much less it costs me to stay warm in front of the television instead of putting on a coat to look at a winter moon. Easier still to Google a photograph of the northern lights and tick it off my list of beautiful sights to experience. Teasdale’s poem reminds me that effort, not just attention, is required to experience such beauty, and in this post-Romantic, technology-mad world, effort is the price of loveliness.

 

It’s an old-fashioned poem, not perfect, a little clunky in parts, a little inflated in others, but there’s much to enjoy. The passion, the high-minded feeling, the Romantic yearning for the sublime—they don’t make such poems anymore. Outside of a spiritual context or yoga class, no poet today would write like this, unless the poet was being ironic. But how else to capture that most essential human feeling of being overwhelmed by beauty? We need these old poems, we need these old poets to express our awe, our wonder and straightforward joy.

 

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 4.57.17 PMSara Teasdale (1884-1933) was born in St. Louis, the youngest of four children. A sickly child, she was home-schooled till age nine. She started publishing her poems in her early twenties. Her work was well-received, and in 1917 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

 

In 1914 she married Ernst Filsinger, an admirer of her poetry, after rejecting several other proposals. They moved to New York City in 1916 and lived on the Upper East Side.

 

He travelled often, and during one of his trips, she moved away without telling him so she’d be eligible for divorce, much to his shock. They divorced in 1929. She re-kindled a friendship with an old boyfriend, poet Vladmir Lindsay. Lindsay was married by this time. He committed suicide and two years later she did at age 48.

 

A few years ago I left a poem of hers in the cosmetic aisle of Target. You can read that here.

Also worth noting:  her lyric poems seem to be popular with choral groups. Link here for one very lovely example.

Elves Among Us

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There comes a time in a woman’s life where she has to let go of long-held goals and finally to admit she’s never going get into grooming or have a wardrobe that’s pulled together.

 

The same goes for an elf.

 

For a long time I’ve wanted to make this blog more polished. Someday when I have extra money, I’ve been telling myself, I’ll pay someone to re-design the website. I’ll categorize poems by occasion. Someday I’ll print out poems on vellum, tie them with ribbon, maybe laminate them. Alas, nearly six years after I launched Poem Elf, it looks no different than when I started. My blog roll is shaggy, my presentation is not user-friendly or fun. The poems I put up around town are often crumpled or crooked, reflective of my scissor skills. I still print poems on plain white paper, and tape is always visible,.

 

No surprise that this blog is lacking in visual appeal. I wasn’t the girl with the eye-catching poster at the science fair–I was the girl who got “Unsatisfactory” in Penmanship.

 

This failing was brought home recently when I became aware of two other Poem Elves. One has style, the other better graphics.

 

Annie, one of my Washington, D.C. nieces, sent me pictures of a Poem Elf she discovered on her way to work. How wonderful! I love the cherry blossom colors and graphics and the fact that these haikus will be read by hundreds of people. None of them will blow away.

Image 5

This was Annie’s favorite, and mine too

Here’s a few more she passed by:

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Turns out this is not one Poem Elf but many. These are entries to the Golden Triangle Golden Haiku Contest. Link here to see the winners and other entries. (The winner is actually one of the haikus Annie sent me.)

 

The other Poem Elf is a continent away. For Christmas this year my niece Sophia made me a calendar with pictures of her and her sister Georgie poem-elfing around Quito and her home town of Guayllabamba, Ecuador. Their mother, my sister Josie, tried to translate the Spanish poems, which is a little helpful, as I could not find any translations of these poems on line.

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Notice the fancy hat Sophia wears in every picture. It’s like a scrunched-up chef’s hat. I like her style, her sly appearance in every picture.

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See Sophia peeking out behind the wall

 

April is National Poetry Month, and I suspect we will see other Poem Elves coming out of the woodwork. Should you come across one, send me their droppings.

Fifth annual love-fest

Time for the fifth annual Poem Elf Valentine’s Day Binge. Valentine’s Day has always been one of my favorite holidays, providing good reason to eat chocolate, tell people close to me that I love them, and hide lovely poems around town. On with the celebration!

 

In a dark romantic bar with plenty of private corners for canoodling, I set Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee” against a cocktail menu on a table for two.

Image 5

The first line is overly familiar, but it’s worth taking a minute to read the rest. Browning marries high-minded love–

I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;

I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise

with a physical passion–

I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life!

Image 8

The table was empty when I left the poem, but a short while later, a couple took over the booth. I slunk past to see what had happened to the poem, and found that the woman had put it under a wine glass, like a coaster. The poem seemed to have had a romantic effect on the two–

 

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Unfortunately the pull of texting won out over the pull of passion put to use/In my old Griefs

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I went to the last remaining bookstore chain in my area and left “A Birthday” by Christina Rossetti in a section featuring books on love and relationships. Specifically, I put it on top of a book (top shelf) called What I Love About You:

poem is on top shelf in front of book with heart on the cover

I thumbed through the book and found that the sweet nothings there were truly nothing compared to Rossetti’s soaring lines. Wildly in love, the speaker proclaims the commencement of a new love to be a new birth-day for her:

the birthday of my life

     is come, my love is come to me

 

Image 1

 

Rossetti is usually my go-to girl for the anti-Valentine portion of this annual love-poem post, but this time I turned to an ancient Japanese poet named Otomo No Yakamochi to fill that role. I left a short poem of his in a high school. Swim practice was underway, and plenty of teens, lovelorn and otherwise, loitered in the hallway after school.

poem is on wall next to pool windows

poem is on wall next to pool windows

 

I was thinking of teenagers in love, teenagers experiencing their first love, and eventually, for most, facing the end of first love and all the beautiful illusions it brought.

Image 2

 

Alas, the rest of my poems were placed in that most prosaic and least-romantic of places, the mall. But it was cold outside, and the idea of traipsing around looking for more interesting spots was an idea better suited to a younger and warmer elf.

I returned to Victoria’s Secret (where last year I took one of my favorite pictures ever) to leave “Couples” by Romanian poet Nina Cassain. I set the poem in a red lace panty set and wondered who would buy such a cliche, man or woman.

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I haven’t figured this poem out completely, but it reminds me of some interesting advice my girlfriend’s mother gave her. Always love a man less than he loves you, she said. Presumably it was safer. But Cassain sees a benefit to loving more:

The one who loves more

is the happier.

Indeed, the happiest!

I wish I could know if the man or woman who buys this Valentine underwear is the one who loves more or the one who loves less. And if they consider themselves to have the better bargain.

Image 18

 

Pablo Neruda was the poet I placed last year in the Victoria’s Secret underwear. This year I put him in a less promising spot, the luggage department at Macys. But “Love Sonnet XLV” is so romantic it infuses the whole floor with charm:

Poem is in pocket of blue suitcase

Poem is in front pocket of blue suitcase

 

After I took the pictures, I zipped up the poem inside the suitcase. I dream of the person packing for a trip who finds these lines

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In the Apple Store, the most crowded store in the mall on the day before Valentine’s Day, I put a few lines of Alexander Pushkin on top of an iPad display:

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poem is on top of iPad next to frowning man

I’m enamored of the way this lover speaks to his lost love. He wishes her well, he wishes her a new love. This isn’t the kind of ex-lover we see in movies. Pushkin is a sweet counterpoint to all those stalkers and revenge seekers. (That’s Pushkin’s face I pulled up on the iPad.)

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Finally, in Macy’s kitchen section I left Donald Hall’s “Summer Kitchen.” This one is for my own Valentine, a lover of food and cooking.

poem leans against stockpot

poem leans against stockpot

Donald Hall was married to poet Jane Kenyon for twenty-three years before she died of leukemia. This poem strikes me as very Kenyon-like, celebrating their daily love, settled and quiet:

We ate, and talked, and went to bed,

And slept. It was a miracle.

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Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! With so much hate in the world, this year I cherish Valentine’s Day all the more. Love trumps hate, I believe that with all my heart. (And the pun is intended.)

 

For more Valentine poems, see posts from 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012.

 

 

 

Privacy protected

poem is tucked in left portion of fence, near branch

poem is tucked in left portion of fence, near branch

 

Privacy

by C.D. Wright

 

The animals are leaving

the safety of the trees

 

Light sensors respond

to the footfall of every guest

 

To retard the growth of algae

 

The fishes must be moved

from the window

 

Stiller than water she lies

As in a glass dress

 

As if all life might come to its end

within the radius of her bed

 

Beyond the reef of trees a beach cannot be seen

the bay itself barely breathing

 

In the other wing of the house

a small boat awaits elucidation

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Poet C.D. Wright died last week. That’s when I found out just how revered she is. The L.A. Times calls her “one of the great ones,” and every other major paper in the country devoted inches and inches of column space to her obituary, which is, in and of itself, a notable accomplishment for a poet. NPR went so far as to say that her unexpected death sent up a “keening wail” among poets.

 

So I’m understandably cautious in approaching this poem. I don’t want to get it wrong, mark it up, make a mess of it like someone trying to eat a plate of pork ribs on an heirloom tablecloth. Or to say it another way, writing about her poetry feels like telling someone about a dream and only being able to communicate the incidents of the dream and not the ineffable elements where the true import of the dream lies.

 

Let me add to that disclaimer another one. I don’t really understand this poem. But it’s under my skin. So I’m moving forward.

 

“Privacy” slows the pulse. There is sunlight everywhere, water and warmth. The rush of movement at the beginning—the animals leaving the trees, the visitors tiptoeing through the house—gives way to stillness. A woman is dying. It seems to be morning.

 

There are reflective surfaces—the (unmentioned) glass bowl holding the fish, the imagined glass dress the woman wears, the still skin of the bay—-and images that reflect each other. It’s so subtle, so carefully and intuitively crafted. We picture the fish in a round bowl which mirrors the roundness of the radius of death that surrounds the woman. She is still, the bay is still, and like her, barely breathing. By unseen hands the fish and the woman are being protected, the fish from algae, the woman from the wrong visitors or visitors getting too close. The little beach by the bay is a private one, screened off by a protective reef of trees.

 

Into this peace, into this stillness comes a quiet note of menace. The glass dress calls to mind Sleeping Beauty. A woman immobile in glass. Was I the only child who found that existentially horrifying?

 

And then there’s that small boat in the house awaiting elucidation. At my first reading I pictured a stored boat in a west wing of a house belonging to a woman of a certain class, and the morning light gradually coming to that wing. (One meaning of elucidation: “to throw light on, make clear.”) But any boat mentioned in conjunction with a death brings to mind the mythological figure Charon ferrying the dead across the Rivers Styx and Acheron. Awaiting elucidation could mean the boat waits for her death to take her to places unknown.

 

But it’s a mistake with any poem, and especially with a poem of Wright’s, to say this means that. Wright is a master of the evocative, of mood, creating with just a few startling images a world, an impression that can’t be reduced to paraphrase, to logic or any linear structure. She relies on the imagination of readers to fill in the blanks of her fragmentary style. It’s less important that I understand this poem than I experience it.

 

I left “Privacy” on a fence guarding a country club mostly because I passed by on my walk and happened to have the poem in my pocket. But I like to justify my actions, so I thought, people find all kinds of ways to achieve privacy. Fences and members-only clubs are two such ways. Death is another, perhaps the ultimate privacy.

 

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 12.12.46 PMC.D. Wright was born in 1949 in the southern Ozarks of Arkansas. She and her brother were the children of a judge and a court reporter. So it’s no wonder that after studying French at Memphis State University, she considered becoming a lawyer. Fortunately for the world of poetry, she left law school after a brief stint and went on to get her MFA from University of Arkansas.

 

Poet Frank Stanford’s press, Lost Roads, published her first book of poetry. She took over the press after he killed himself. Strange that Frank Stanford, whom she knew well, was supposed to be the next big thing, but it ended up that she, the less flamboyant one, the steadier person, is now heralded as a true American original, in a “a school of exactly one” (from poet Joel Brouwer, as quoted in the New York Times).

 

Of her original sytle, Wright said this in an interview with Jacket Magazine in 2001:

 

As to my own aesthetic associations / affiliations / sympathies: I have never belonged to a notable element of writers who identified with one another partly because I come from Arkansas, specifically that part of Arkansas known for its resistance-to-joining, a non-urban environment where readily identifiable groups and sub-groups are less likely to form. The last known poetry clan in my part of the country was the Agrarians. I was not of that generation, gender or class.

 

She married poet Forest Gander. Together they had a son Brecht and ran Lost Roads. She taught at Brown University and published over a dozen books, one of them a collaboration with a photographer to document the lives of women in prison.

 

She was awarded a MacArthur Fellow and Guggenheim fellowship.

 

She died January 12 at age 67 in her sleep of a blod clot.

 

Link here for an excellent obituary from the L.A. Times.

 

Many of the other obits re-printed a death poem of hers, “only the crossing counts.” Let me post that here to give you a better idea of her work.

 

only the crossing counts

by C.D. Wright

 

It’s not how we leave one’s life. How go off

the air. You never know do you. You think you’re ready

for anything; then it happens, and you’re not. You’re really

not. The genesis of an ending, nothing

but a feeling, a slow movement, the dusting

of furniture with a remnant of the revenant’s shirt.

Seeing the candles sink in their sockets; we turn

away, yet the music never quits. The fire kisses our face.

O phthsis, o lotharian dead eye, no longer

will you gaze on the baize of the billiard table. No more

shooting butter dishes out of the sky. Scattering light.

Between snatches of poetry and penitence you left

the brumal wood of men and women. Snow drove

the butterflies home. You must know

how it goes, known all along what to expect,

sooner or later … the faded cadence of anonymity.

Frankly, my dear, frankly, my dear, frankly

 

And I can’t resist including these lines from “Everything Good Between Men and Women”

 

Bless it. We have so little time

to learn, so much… The river

courses dirty and deep. Cover the lettuce.

Call it a night. O soul. Flow on. Instead.

 

R.I.P. Carolyn Delores Wright. Flow on.

 

 

 

My old friend Trish (frequent commentator, a great reader of poems, an even better writer and artist) sent her annual Christmas fantasy card. I pass it along with her permission:

 

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And in case you’ve got loads of spare time for reading, I’ll also share a link for a piece from the New York Times Sunday Book Review, “What’s Your Favorite Poem?”  Writers, actors, and producers were asked to share a favorite. The responses have given me some homework to do–I haven’t read many of these poems, haven’t even heard of half of them.

 

If you have a favorite poem (note to Mo Williams, whoever that is–Dr. Seuss does not count), please post a comment here.

 

I’ll be back in the New Year!