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On the final day of the ESL series, I’m happy to share a picture of the Chicago students meeting on Zoom (a few were absent).  What a wonderful group! I thank each one of them for sharing their stories, hopes and struggles openly and honestly. You’ve given me (and surely my readers) cause for reflection and inspiration. Thanks also to my big sister Ceci for collaborating on this project and for being a great teacher to her students and, as ever, to me.

 

Merci, gracias, 감사합니다, Спасибо, ありがとうございました, 谢谢. (Apologies if my translation is off!)

 

 

*

  

Lin

 by Lin from China

 

My Chinese isn’t enough.

I remember how I was happy

staying with my friends,

enjoying each time we got together,

the same values, same hobbies, same goals.

 

好朋友志在四方**

 

But that was in China.

Now I am in America.

And I’m learning English.

Back at my hometown

my friends attend a variety of events,

hang with one another.

But I stayed at my new home and felt dumb, alone.

I registered for many classes to learn more.

My husband always encourages me.

He said, you’re excellent!

Follow your heart!

I’m more confident now,

Inspired by Chicken Soup words,

Inspired by the understanding of my friends,

my parents, my tutors.

So, I am getting used to living in America

I push myself to walk out to face the challenge,

to be positive.

For if I stop trying, I will be depressed

when my friends need my ideas.

 

** Chinese for “Good friends are pursuing their ideain different places.”

 

 

*

 

 

Jenny

by Jenny from Korea

 

My Korean isn’t good enough,

I remember how I’d grin

Listening to my little one,

Her jokes, her whines, her tricks.

Teasing each other

 

*엄마가어른이니까어린이인나랑놀아줘야지. 안그래?

 

But that was in Korea.

Now my daughter goes to an American high school.

She chats in English. At night she Face-Times with friends, laughing.

I listen by her door and feel excluded, alone.

I turn on the radio when I drive, I turn on the radio when I cook,

My husband laughs at my accent.

I’m embarrassed at not understanding what others say,

Sometimes I read the Bible line-by-line, recording my voice and listening and listening again.

Repeating again and again.

For if I stop trying, I will be deaf

When my grandchildren need my help.

 

Korean for, “Mom, since you are an adult, you are supposed to play with me, aren’t you?”

 

*

 

Natalia

by Natalia from The Ukraine

 

My Ukrainian isn’t enough.

I remember how I laughed and chatted with my friends.

I understood their jokes, their songs, their thoughts.

 

            І щоразу це були неймовірні зустрічі!  *

 

But that was in Ukraine.

Now I live in America with my husband and children.

My new friends are here.

They are so different. We speak different languages,

We have different cultures, values and faith . . .

We have different childhood memories.

Often, I do not have enough words to tell about something.

It is difficult to describe my feelings.

I cannot be open with my new friends.

 

I work on my English every day,

I want to remember more new words,

I want to understand more. . .

For if I stop trying, I will be deaf when my friends need my help.

 

*Ukrainian for “Every time it was an incredible meeting.”

 

*

 

Teacher’s Note

These Imitation Poems express the deepest and most profound feelings of my students as they strive to make new roots in a new country with a new language. The poem Elena, by Pat Mora was the inspiration. Writing poetry is an unfamiliar and challenging task for most of us, but writing poems in a second language is even more difficult. I applaud their efforts and congratulate them on challenging their minds and thank them for sharing their personal struggles of learning English while trying to make a new life here as they search for their “second soul.” The poetic images of floating alphabet letters, blurry worlds, birthday songs that are no long uproariously sung, and so many more touch my heart. I am so proud of their  determination and persistence to never stop trying, like Elena.

 

Ceci Greco

 

 

Reading these wonderful ESL poems about learning a new language, I’m reminded of one of my favorite movies, Brooklyn, starring the luminous Saoirse Ronan as an Irish immigrant to New York in the 1950s. She’s not learning a new language so much as a new culture. Excited as she is to be starting life in a big city, homesickness colors every experience. I cried my way through the movie. I cried much more than the people I watched the movie with. I could not stop crying even when it was over.

 

I was re-experiencing my own homesickness, you see, after years and years of forgetting I ever had it in the first place. When I was in my late twenties I moved from Maryland to Michigan. The cultural differences between the east coast and the Midwest are not as big as those between Ireland and Brooklyn or between Ecuador and Chicago or between any of the countries these ESL students have emigrated from. But they did exist. Midwesterners were too friendly and enjoyed small talk more than I did, speaking with nasal accents I disliked but eventually adopted. I missed hills and lush greenery and beaches and cities, and most of all, my big Catholic family, which has a culture of its very own. It was the reverse move of the third poem posted today, “Midwesterner” by Mary Gramins, an ESL classroom assistant who participated in the assignment.

 

That’s a long introduction to the fourth installment of this series of imitation poems from Chicago ESL students taught by my sister Ceci. It’s all to say the experience of leaving behind an old life and trying to make a new one is a universal one. It’s much more challenging when language is involved, but homesickness is a country we all visit at some point in our lives.

 

It was Ceci, by the way, who told me the truth about moving. Ceci had re-located years before I did from Maryland to the Midwest. “It’ll take ten years,” she said, “and then it will feel like home.”

 

*

 

Caroline

by Caroline from Columbia

 

My Spanish isn’t enough.

I remember how I used to make jokes to my family and friends,

Making everybody laugh or smile.

 

            Parece Buena idea pero me dices cuando lo vas a hacer para esperar en la esquina *

 

But that was in Colombia

Now I’m here trying hard to understand what people are talking about,

My mind is busy, I don’t have time to make jokes.

Sometimes I’m not even sure if I am listening correctly or I am misunderstanding something.

 

But I keep trying.

I am still studying, listening to people speaking in English

And talking with all the English I know.

Hopefully one day something funny comes up in a conversation,

And people here will smile like my people back home.

 

*Spanish for, “It seems like a good idea but tell me before you start doing it. I’m going to wait on the corner, nothing personal.”

 

*

 

WooYoung

by WooYoung from Korea

 

My Korean is not enough.

I remember how I’d smile playing with my kids

Having fun with badminton, biking, and snow skiing

 

아빠, 조금놀아요!!!!”***

 

But that was in Korea.

Now, my children are graduates of American universities

With their own jobs and social life.

My wife speaks English much better than I.

Still, she often asks my children for better English sentences

 

Once in a restaurant for breakfast the whole family was ordering food.

But I was silent reading the menu because it was unfamiliar.

At last, the waiter asked

“How would you like your eggs cooked today?”  It made me in a daze.

All I knew was fried eggs.

So many choices – sunny-side up, over easy, scrambled, omelets, poached eggs, hard-boiled eggs

That day I chose over-easy eggs.

Next time, I will order sunny-side up in English.

 

*Korean for Daddy, let’s play more!”

 

*

 

Midwesterner

by Mary Gramins from the United States

 

Milwaukee I knew like the back of my hand,

the lakefront, beaches, the downtown with its buildings—all yellow or gray,

orange buses, walking paths, the bridges my grandpa built,

Marquette and my home on the corner Locust and 70th,

and my friends since birth.

We “lived” at each other’s houses on our street lined with elms;

we giggled, laughed and shouted, shared secrets, told stories

and we talked to moms, dads, and grandpas and aunts, the grocer, the druggist, the barber,

the policeman, the stranger and they talked to us.

 

When I married and moved to Washington, DC,

Our glistening capitol filled with buildings so white.

So majestic by day and so breathtaking by night.

A sacred city where leaders and legislators held other people’s lives in their hands

Not just of our citizens but folks from every other land.

 

The government workers at the Bader, our apartment on 25th and K

Looked neither right, nor left, nor at you, and NEVER would talk.

The elevator ride was like life in a tomb. For weeks and weeks. . .

One morning my Midwestern roots emerged

and I said “Good Morning” in my loveliest voice.

Silence, dead silence for eight floors going down. . . .

As we all walked through the lobby and approached the door,

a young man held it and said, “Have a good day.” And I wished him the same.

“I’ve only begun” was the song in my heart as I walked toward the bus that would take me to school.

 

*

 

Teacher’s Note

These Imitation Poems express the deepest and most profound feelings of my students as they strive to make new roots in a new country with a new language. The poem, Elena, by Pat Mora was the inspiration. Writing poetry is an unfamiliar and challenging task for most of us, but writing poems in a second language is even more difficult. I applaud their efforts and congratulate them on challenging their minds and thank them for sharing their personal struggles of learning English while trying to make a new life here as they search for their “second soul.” The poetic images of floating alphabet letters, blurry worlds, birthday songs that are no long uproariously sung, and so many more touch my heart. I am so proud of their  determination and persistence to never stop trying, like Elena.

 

Ceci Greco

 

another Chicago snow scene for Chicago poets

 

One of the many reasons I’m enjoying the work of the Chicago ESL students featured this week is how their poems shine a light on the potential for community, regardless of background. Here we have people from different countries whose fluency is in different languages connecting on a common struggle and a common goal. Here we have poets from Taiwan, Ecuador, Ukraine, Columbia, Japan, South Korea, and China, a group that in other circumstances might form a veritable Tower of Babel. And yet here they are together here on the page, understanding each other at the deepest level.

 

Today our poets are from Taiwan, France and Ecuador.

 

*

 

Ellen

by Ellen from Taiwan

 

My Chinese isn’t enough

I remember how I would laugh,

Arguing with my close friends,

And understanding the meaning of what they said

Art, classical music, love poetry and the meaning of life.

But that was in Taiwan.

Now I am in the United States,

Everyone speaks English

At the office, I didn’t know any answers to trivia questions they asked.

With neighbors, I don’t get the political problems they argue about.

At movie theaters, I was quiet while everyone laughed out loud.

My husband keeps correcting my pronunciation.

Sometimes at stores the clerks lose patience with me

I became chicken-hearted,

I became wordless,

I became dumb.

I finally took ESL classes.

I have to keep it up.

If I stop learning,

My world would be dark and silent.

 

 *

 

Alexandra

by Alexandra from France

 

My French isn’t good enough.

I remember how I’d discuss

Society, politics, culture.

It was easy then.

 

Qui vivra verra*

 

But that was in France.

Now I have to find my words.

I don’t have enough English

But no matter what,

I improve it through English classes.

 

*French for “Time will tell.”

 

*

 

Nostalgia

by Mabel from Ecuador

 

My Spanish isn’t enough.

I remember how I used to get the whole family together to share time.

 

Está servido y se enfría! Ya vengan a sentarse y siguen conversando mientras comen!” **

 

But that was in Ecuador.

Now it’s just my husband, my children, and I against the world.

We are a very close family standing together at all times,

But Birthdays, Holidays, and special dates are not the same anymore.

Now, they are more intimate, just us

The Happy Birthday song no longer sounds as uproariously as it used to.

 

However, we are very happy.  The four of us came together to begin a better new life here.

 

**Spanish for, “It’s served and the food is getting cold! Come have a seat and you guys can keep chatting as you eat!”

 

*

 

Teacher’s Note

These Imitation Poems express the deepest and most profound feelings of my students as they strive to make new roots in a new country with a new language. The poem, Elena, by Pat Mora was the inspiration. Writing poetry is an unfamiliar and challenging task for most of us, but writing poems in a second language is even more difficult. I applaud their efforts and congratulate them on challenging their minds and thank them for sharing their personal struggles of learning English while trying to make a new life here as they search for their “second soul.” The poetic images of floating alphabet letters, blurry worlds, birthday songs that are no long uproariously sung, and so many more touch my heart. I am so proud of their  determination and persistence to never stop trying, like Elena.

 

Ceci Greco

 

 

Ceci, Chicago ESL teacher par excellence, taking a break from work

 

On day two of the ESL poetry series, let’s turn to native speakers of Japanese and Spanish.

 

(This week Poem Elf features poems written by Chicago ESL students in imitation of “Elena” by Pat Mora. Link here to read that poem. At the end of this post is an explanatory note from the ESL teacher, my sister Ceci.)

 

Anyone else delighted by the translated phrases in each poem, the way they connect readers to the poet’s previous life? They’re so unexpected they make me smile.

 

 

Tomomi

by Tomomi from Japan

 

My Japanese isn’t enough.

I remember how I’d shoot the breeze with friends.

 

「最近どう? ちょっと聞いてよ〜。」*

 

But that was in Japan.

Now I don’t have parents and friends nearby

No one to easily talk with about silly things.

 

Japan and the U.S. with different common senses.

At the grocery store, I try to read the numbers on the cans to see how much they contain.

But the unit looks like just a sign. I can’t understand.

All the alphabet and numbers float fluffy in the grocery store.

 

Reading and understanding worksheets that my daughter brings home,

Also, the alphabets begin to float in the room.

 

It takes so much time to collect and understand; I felt stressed.

I gave up contacting people except for my daughter’s school and public matters.

My heart got nervous and lonely, like when l’m driving on a snowy frozen road.

I want to go back to Japan. Tweet in my heart.

 

I escaped from learning English.

 

One day I noticed

My daughter is laughing. My husband is laughing. The dog is waving its tail.

Everyone is living here and moving forward.

Spring is coming little by little.

 

I want to be able to speak English little by little.

I change my mind.

 

*Japanese for, “Hey what’s up? Let’s have a chat!”

 

 *

 

Luisa

by Luisa from Columbia

 

My native Spanish language isn’t enough

I remember my family, my mother, my house and the weather with the wonderful landscapes in my city:

 

Baila conmigo mama y sonríe, estamos todos juntos, disfrutemos de este lindo dia, de la naturaleza, siempre en familia  **

 

But that was in Colombia, my country.

Now, I am speaking with Americans

in another culture, in another world, with another language.

I listen to Podcasts all the time  about diferent topics—meditation, brain, foods.

These things help me to improve my new language

And I have my English teachers (Ceci, Marie, Robbie) who help me and support me all the time with new knowledge.

I’m happy because I live with energy and I can learn.

 

**Spanish for, “Dance with me, Mom, and smile, we are all together as a family and enjoying this beautiful day, with nature, always with the family united.”

 

 

 

Ana

by Ana Maria from Columbia

 

My Spanish isn’t enough

I remember how I would go out with my mother or friends for long walks and long talks,

 

            Que clima tan rico, vamos a caminar hasta el zoológico y a tomar un poco de sol.  Salgamos ya para almorzar en el camino! ***

 

But that was in Colombia

Now, for me it is not easy to have these special spaces here

I miss my mother, friends. . . the nice weather of my country.

I still have difficulties trying to understand what people say.

But I keep trying

Despite the frustration of not understanding what people are saying

Or the fear that people will not understand me.

 

*** Spanish for “What a nice weather! Let’s walk all the way to the zoo and we can take some sun on the way.  Let’s go now, and we will have lunch on the way.”

 

*

Teacher’s Note

These Imitation Poems express the deepest and most profound feelings of my students as they strive to make new roots in a new country with a new language. The poem, Elena, by Pat Mora was the inspiration. Writing poetry is an unfamiliar and challenging task for most of us, but writing poems in a second language is even more difficult.  I applaud their efforts and congratulate them on challenging their minds and thank them for sharing their personal struggles of learning English while trying to make a new life here as they search for their “second soul.” The poetic images of floating alphabet letters, blurry worlds, birthday songs that are no long uproariously sung, and so many more touch my heart. I am so proud of their  determination and persistence to never stop trying, like Elena.

Ceci Greco

Chicago snow for these Chicago poets

 

Writing a poem in a foreign language is a feat for any poet, but writing a poem in a language you are still learning seems difficult on the order of cooking two dishes at the same time, whisk in one hand, beater in the other, different timers and directions for each.

 

This week I’m featuring poems from people writing in their second language. My sister Ceci, a longtime ESL teacher in Chicago, tasked her students with writing an imitation of “Elena” by Pat Mora, a poem about learning a new language in a new country. I’ll re-print the original poem at the end of this post, and in future posts will link to it, but to give you an idea of what Ceci’s students were working with, here’s the opening lines of “Elena” —

 

My Spanish isn’t good enough.

I remember how I’d smile

listening to my little ones,

understanding every word they’d say,

their jokes, their songs, their plots,

Vamos a pedirle dulces a mamá. Vamos.

But that was in Mexico.

Now my children go to American high schools.

They speak English. At night they sit around

the kitchen table, laugh with one another.

I stand by the stove, feel dumb, alone.

 

*

 

I thank all these poets for sharing their work, their vulnerabilities, their dreams. Each imitation poem touched me deeply, and some moved me to tears.

 

Let’s begin the series with an explanatory note from Ceci, followed by poems from native Korean and Ukrainian speakers.

 

Teacher’s Note

These Imitation Poems express the deepest and most profound feelings of my students as they strive to make new roots in a new country with a new language.   The poem, Elena, by Pat Mora was the inspiration. Writing poetry is an unfamiliar and challenging task for most of us, but writing poems in a second language is even more difficult.  I applaud their efforts and congratulate them on challenging their minds and thank them for sharing their personal struggles of learning English while trying to make a new life here as they search for their “second soul.” The poetic images of floating alphabet letters, blurry worlds, birthday songs that are no long uproariously sung, and so many more touch my heart.   I am so proud of their  determination and persistence to never stop trying, like Elena.

Ceci Greco

 

*

 

Sarah

by Sarah from South Korea

 

My Korean isn’t enough.

I remember how I’d enjoy

Reading books to my children.

I’d mimic the sounds, using some different voices for each character.

I remember how they liked it

읽어주세요! 읽어주세요 *

But that was in Korea.

Now my children are grown and educated in America.

One day we had a family movie night,

My husband and children were talking and laughing about the movie,

I was silent, and smiled.

One day my daughter called me from college.

She was talking and talking, crying and crying

I couldn’t stop her, couldn’t say “can you say it again?”

I comforted her and we were sad together.

I was sad because my daughter was sad,

I was sad because I could not understand more than half of what she was saying

I was living in a blurry world

I got the chance to join the ESL class.

I will learn more English and keep on going to practice

To see clearly, to hear clearly, to understand clearly.

Someday, I will read children’s books to my grandchildren

They will say, “Read it again!  Read it more please.”

I dream it and smile now.

 

* Korean for “Read it again!  Read it more please.”

 

*

 

 Iryna

by Iryna from The Ukraine

 

Ukrainian, Russian,

Both my languages are not enough now.

I remember how I’d study them hard,

Memorizing rules and exceptions,

Getting writer’s calluses after too much writing.

Studying hard and passing exams.

            Пані ШанськаВи не здали, приходьте ще *

Were the scariest words for me then.

But that was in Ukraine.

Now my son is in his last year of elementary.

Four years flew by so fast,

Nowhe speaks English fluently.

Before I helped him a lot with his English,

But now I need his help more and more.

I’m almost forty and still embarrassed at my poor English skills,

Disappointed with my useless studying forso long.

Frustrated with the thought that those who taught me before

Knew English from Russian school books and no more.

It’s harder to study right now,

With all my home duties and kids on the arms.

But I gave a promise to myself:

“I’ll never stop studying and I’ll do my best.”

And one day, I really believe it,

I’ll speak English fluently without any limit.

 

Ukrainian for “Ms Shanska, you failed the exam, please come back again.”

 

*

 

Here’s the “starter poem”—

 

Elena

by Pat Mora

 

My Spanish isn’t good enough

I remember how I’d smile

Listening my little ones

Understanding every word they’d say,

Their jokes, their songs, their plots

Vamos a pedirle dulces a mama. Vamos.

But that was in Mexico.

Now my children go to American High Schools.

They speak English. At night they sit around the

Kitchen table, laugh with one another.

I stand at the stove and feel dumb, alone.

I bought a book to learn English.

My husband frowned, drank more beer.

My oldest said, “Mama, he doesn’t want you to

Be smarter than he is.” I’m forty,

Embarrased at mispronouncing words,

Embarrased at the laughter of my children,

The grocery, the mailman. Sometimes I take

my English book and lock myself in the bathroom,

say the thick words softly, for if I stop trying, I will be deaf

when my children need my help.

 

Cat vs. Fauci

 

 

Poem Elf sub and daughter Lizzie has a cat, so I asked her to post “On a Night of Snow” by Elizabeth Coatsworth, a poem about a cat who wants to go outdoors in wild weather. Santa would not cooperate for a photo op, so Lizzie placed the poem sans Santa at the entry to Cathead Bay Trail in Leelanau. The trail leads to Lake Michigan. Last summer we spent a glorious day on the trail escaping the confines of quarantine, feeling free and happy and unbound, a fact not unrelevant to this posting.

 

poem is on framed sign

 

On a Night of Snow

by Elizabeth Coatsworth

 

Cat, if you go outdoors, you must walk in the snow.

You will come back with little white shoes on your feet,

little white shoes of snow that have heels of sleet.

Stay by the fire, my Cat. Lie still, do not go.

See how the flames are leaping and hissing low,

I will bring you a saucer of milk like a marguerite,

so white and so smooth, so spherical and so sweet –

stay with me, Cat. Outdoors the wild winds blow.

 

Outdoors the wild winds blow, Mistress, and dark is the night,

strange voices cry in the trees, intoning strange lore,

and more than cats move, lit by our eyes green light,

on silent feet where the meadow grasses hang hoar –

Mistress, there are portents abroad of magic and might,

and things that are yet to be done.  Open the door!

 

 

This poem is at least seventy years old and probably older than that. It has absolutely nothing to do with coronavirus and yet I can’t read it any other way.

 

Here we have a conversation between mistress and cat. (Mistress, by the way, is an old-fashioned term that should be revived to describe the human-cat relationship. Cats would never agree to have “owners.”) Mistress tries to entice the cat to stay indoors with promises of cozy fires and saucers of milk. Picture Dr. Fauci at the doorway with granny glasses and a lacy cap, calling after the cat, Be safe! Stay inside!

 

In the second stanza the cat speaks for all the stir-crazy among us—Open the door! Cat is not scared, Cat is excited. Outdoors there’s magic, adventure and possibly danger—

 

more than cats move, lit by our eyes green light,

on silent feet where the meadow grasses hang hoar

 

Even in non-lockdown days, the neat contrast laid out between indoor and outdoor life points to a very human set of preferences, between those who want safety and comfort and those who want risk and adventure. Most of us probably want a little of both—a cup of that milk so white and so smooth, so spherical and so sweet and some portion of portents abroad of magic and might.

 

Coatsworth herself seems to have spent a lifetime balancing the two instincts. She was a world traveler, a woman who rode donkeys across Egyptian deserts, but also a woman spent years and years at idyllic Chimney Farm in Maine raising her two daughters. Her life takes me back to my favorite poem, “Among Women” by Marie Ponsot, which begins with the question What women wander? and ends with these lines—

 

Women wander

As best they can.

 

*

 

Elizabeth Coatsworth (1893-1986) is known primarily as a writer of children’s books, but she also published poetry in the New Yorker, and wrote a few memoirs and novels for adults.

 

She was born to a wealthy family in Buffalo, New York.  As a child she traveled in Europe and the Middle East. She graduated from Vassar, and earned a Master of Arts in 1916 from Columbia University. After graduating she went traveling through Asia. She rode horses in the Philippines and spent time in a Buddhist monastery.

 

When she was 36 she married writer and naturalist Henry Beston. They lived in New England and had two daughters. Her daughter Kate Barnes later became poet laureate of Maine.

 

Coatsworth’s children’s book The Cat Who Went to Heaven (1930) won the Newbery Medal. (The book tells the story of a saintly cat in a Buddhist monastery who wants to be included in a commissioned painting, truly a strange tale. Link here for a summary.) In spite of poems and stories about cats, she wasn’t a cat lady and said she liked cats just as well as any other animal. She published over 100 books,

 

In her eighties she wrote something which might offer comfort to all frustrated travelers—

 

I have a thousand memories. I could, I suppose, travel still, but so cautiously and in such a diminished world! I am content to remember larger times. The world in which I live is enough for me. After so many travels, I am home, and my happiness here is no less than it was in foreign lands and my sense of wonder has not dulled with all these years. I am as happy as an old dog stretched out in the sunlight. I remember other times, other places, but (in the sunlight) I am content with the here and now.

 

*

 

Here’s stubborn Santa and his cat prints:

 

 

 

 

 

The previous posting of a Holly Wren Spaulding poem found its way to the woods of northern Michigan. Today we head to a beach on Lake Michigan for a look at “Crocus” from Spaulding’s latest collection “Familiars.” (You can read my review here.)

 

With no crocus in sight on a January afternoon, my daughter and poem elf sub Lizzie attached the poem to a stick that had popped up out of the sand like a stem, as if it had grown there, as if the poem were the stem’s blossom.

 

“Crocus” is from the book’s second section, “Testimonials” Spaulding introduces the section with this—

 

In which the inhabitants

speak; the traveler listens.

 

 

 

Crocus

by Holly Wren Spaulding

 

I traveled cold

dominions

to arrive.

 

When a woman

leans close

we recognize

each other.

 

 

Like the woman in the poem, I recognize myself in the crocus.

 

I spent a lot of time picking flowers as a little girl—dandelions, buttercups, Queen Anne’s lace, thistle—and didn’t have any idea of the difference between planted bulbs and wildflowers, much less public and private property. Mrs. Clarke’s front yard had a small hill and all the sudden one afternoon it was dotted with crocuses, twenty or thirty of them. The first flowers of spring! Happiness! Beauty! A gift for my mother! I picked most of them. I presented the bouquet to my mother. Where did you get those? she asked, and sent me right down to Mrs. Clarke’s to apologize. Crocuses drooping in my little fist, I sobbed through my confession. Mrs. Clarke was angry. Understandably. Mr. Clarke had spent a lot of time planting the crocuses, she told me sternly, and now he’ll never see them. They’ll never come back.

 

Poor Mr. Clarke died a few years later of a heart attack mowing his lawn. Nowadays when I spot a crocus I feel a small shame for depriving Mr. Clarke of the fruits of his labor, but more so a sense of pleasure about my innocence, my childhood delight in spring’s arrival.

 

The woman’s connection to the crocus is deeper, more mysterious, and so the crocus’ connection to the woman. That moment of greeting—it’s so tender and beautiful, so packed with emotion and potential story lines in a mere seven lines—it fills me with wonder and for some reason peace. Why peace? I don’t know. Maybe a need is satisfied—a primordial longing for hope, for beauty, for connection to nature. Maybe the poem gives expression to the emotion of being female, of living in a body that bleeds and births. Whatever. I don’t want to pin it down—the poem has magic, it has cast a spell, it’s become part of me.

 

There’s lots of gems like this in Familiars, which you can order here from Literati, a wonderful bookstore in Ann Arbor.

 

*

 

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

 

Holly Wren Spaulding’s connection to nature seems destined from the start. Her parents named her after a character called “Wren of the Woods” in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer. She grew up in the woods in northern Michigan, off the grid in a “pretty 19th century style of life,” as she details in this podcast about her own creative development. The family homesteaded in an experimental collective living community where she and her siblings chopped wood and carried water.

 

She founded Poetry Forge, another sort of collective space, this one for poets. You can read more about her vision for the project and her personal history here. In the summer she teaches creative writing at Interlochen in northern Michigan, including a class she teaches with her mother, artist Carol Spaulding. She lives in Kittery Point, Maine with her family.

 

She’s been widely published in literary journals and nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. She regularly collaborates with other artists, including this lovely project, a poetry-in-public-space installation called Urban Renga.

 

 

 

Let’s be vines

 

 

Two poems from Holly Wren Spaulding’s new collection Familiars found their way to northern Michigan, courtesy of an elf sub, my daughter Lizzie. Spaulding hails from northern Michigan and returns there each summer to teach, so it seemed a good spot, even if the pictures don’t exactly replicate the settings in each poem. (You can read my review of this beautiful collection here.)

 

Today let’s look at “Vine.” Lizzie left “Vine” at the entrance to a trail of pines.

 

poem is on thin pine in foreground

 

Vine

by Holly Wren Spaulding

 

 

To touch

 

the upper

branches

 

of the tree’s

 

Yes.

 

 

The poem is from the book’s opening section, “Admissions,” which is introduced thusly—

In which a traveler arrives

at the edge of a wildland,

seeking guidance

from its inhabitants

and neighbors.

 

I had to read “Vine” a couple times, like it was a riddle whose meaning was just beyond my grasp. Once I understood what was going on, the riddle became a meditation, and I’m left with an urge to lift my gaze, open wide my collarbone and breathe out a Yes. As if I, too, am growing. What single word could better express growth than Yes? Growing means saying Yes to change, Yes to the forward march of time, Yes to life itself.

 

I’m still puzzled over who the speaker is. Is the vine (the inhabitant) answering some question from the traveler (What do you want?)? Or maybe the traveler is imagining what it’s like to be a vine (add an “Oh” to the beginning and you’ll see what I mean). The epigraph of the book suggests to me that the answer doesn’t matter, that the speaker is either or both—

 

Listen to me. I am telling you

a true thing. This is the only kingdom.

The kingdom of touching;

the touches of the disappearing, things.

            —Aracelis Girmay, “Elegy”

 

“The kingdom of touching” is the kingdom of connecting, one thing to another, one being to another being, like the vine twisting itself around the tree trunk, like the poet, looking up at the treetop, joining in the Yes by the touch of her gaze.

 

 

Each poem in the book offers connection to other living beings on the planet. A worthy pursuit for the new year. You can order Familiars direct from the publisher, Alice Greene & Co. It’s also available at that other website, you know, the big one. Better yet, request a copy from your favorite independent bookseller.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Link here for a bio of Spaulding from a previous post.

 

Spending time with family

Learning the definition of a word sometimes makes a big difference. Take friluftsliv. I heard about the-now trendy Norwegian word early on this year and I’m not exaggerating when I say it greatly improved my attitude towards pared-down pandemic life. Friluftsliv translates to “open-air living” and means embracing the outdoors, no matter the weather. Just knowing the word motivated me to make friends with my former enemies, the wind and the cold.

 

I mention this because I’ve been spending a few days with other words, some also unfamiliar, and find that my connection to nature has deepened because of it. Holly Wren Spaulding’s latest collection of poems, Familiars, takes as it starting point words that The Oxford Junior Dictionary removed in recent years in the name of keeping pace with changing times. Fifty nature words were discarded in favor of more—unfortunately—familiar words to children. Chatroom for chestnut, cut and paste for catkin, bullet-point for bluebell—it’s a disheartening list. Spaulding writes in an author’s note that the removal shows “language seeming to symbolize and further the growing separation of humanity from the rest of nature.”

 

 

Spaulding scoops up the discarded words, dusts them off, and breathes life into them. The words and the poems they inspire become connective tissue between humans (“travelers” in the lingo of the book) and nature (“inhabitants”). The thirty-six poems in the book are titled with words not found in the children’s dictionary—bullock, adder, gorse, conker, to name a few—and though the poems are brief, some as short as a mere two lines, they’re as dense as walnuts, with much to discover inside.

 

Take “Heather,” here in its entirety:

 

Not a low fog above all.

 

The birth of mauve.

 

 

A paragraph of prose wouldn’t cover the story told here. And I’ll never experience a field of heather in the same way again.

 

The title itself, Familiars, works on two levels—both that each poem makes the unfamiliar familiar, and that each word represents an organism already familiar, that is, part of our earthly family.

 

As with any family, humor is always a reliable connector, like here in “Ox”—

 

Don’t think

 

I never wonder

 

what else I

 

might have been.

 

Poems are told from different points of view, human, vegetable and animal, divided into sections in the book. The third and final section, “Foretellings,” brings together all the voices in response to a future ecological disaster. But Spaulding is no dystopian poet. The collection closes out on a hopeful note of repair and healing with “Pansy”—

 

Ten thousand emissaries

 

blue, white, yellow, maroon—

 

an end to hostilities.

 

  

It’s no small thing to say the cover, like the book, is lush and gorgeous. The painting is called “Undergrowth” by Eliot Hodgkin. It’s so lovely you’ll want to leave the book laying about. That way you may find yourself picking it up often, finding the beauty within, re-connecting with family, creating the home you’ve always longed for.

.

*

 

I asked my daughter to poem-elf two poems from the collection in northern Michigan where she lives and where Spaulding is originally from. I’ll feature those in my next post.

 

*

 

Here’s a bio of Spaulding from a previous post

 

Holly Wren Spaulding’s connection to nature seems destined from the start. Her parents named her after a character called “Wren of the Woods” in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer. She grew up in the woods in northern Michigan, off the grid in a “pretty 19th century style of life,” as she details in this podcast about her own creative development. The family homesteaded in an experimental collective living community where she and her siblings chopped wood and carried water.

 

She founded Poetry Forge, another sort of collective space, this one for poets. You can read more about her vision for the project and her personal history here. In the summer she teaches creative writing at Interlochen in northern Michigan, including a class she teaches with her mother, artist Carol Spaulding. She lives in Kittery Point, Maine with her family.

 

She’s been widely published in literary journals and nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. She regularly collaborates with other artists, including this lovely project, a poetry-in-public-space installation called Urban Renga.

 

 

The Darkling Thrush

by Thomas Hardy

 

I leant upon a coppice gate

When Frost was spectre-grey,

And Winter’s dregs made desolate

The weakening eye of day.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

Like strings of broken lyres,

And all mankind that haunted nigh

Had sought their household fires.

 

The land’s sharp features seemed to be

The Century’s corpse outleant,

His crypt the cloudy canopy,

The wind his death-lament.

The ancient pulse of germ and birth

Was shrunken hard and dry,

And every spirit upon earth

Seemed fervourless as I.

 

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited;

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

Upon the growing gloom.

 

So little cause for carolings

Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.

 

 

A post-funeral party for my mother at the family home. Our next door neighbor’s oldest son, Charlie as I knew him from childhood, now Chuck, came to fetch his mother and ended up staying for drinks and conversation. We’d never spoken more than a few words before—when I was a little girl he was already a teenager—but that evening we discovered a mutual love of poetry. Just not the same kind of poems. He gravitated to poems that were dense, lyrical, metaphysical, while my taste was . . . not that.

 

I asked him to give me his favorite poem for a Poem Elf “assignment.” He emailed me a George Herbert number that I was too lazy to deal with. He sent two more options, an Emily Dickinson poem (the very difficult Miss Dickinson, no thank you) and this Hardy poem. I glanced at it, printed it out and planned to get to it soon-ish, applying the same effort I give to annual plans to touch my toes.

 

Almost five years later “The Darkling Thrush” turned up and I thought, just get’er done. The timing proved—I hesitate to say “serendipitous” because recent events are too dark for that word. Let’s say the timing fills me with wonder, considering that I truly I had not read this poem ever, at all, and had no idea what it was about.

 

After the year we’ve had—and I’m talking about 2021—any poem that offers light in darkness is a welcome guest in my head.  But this one is just beyond. So beautiful, so un-treacly, so begging to be read out loud and memorized, so seasonally and emotionally timely.

 

Charlie, forgive me, I won’t be offering an in-depth look at “The Darkling Thrush” however much the poem deserves such scrutiny. My completed assignment is just the sound of oohs and ahhs and a big “Come outside and look at the moon!” scrawled across my blue book. (If you want a meatier but still accessible discussion of the poem, link here.)

 

Hardy’s language is dazzling; the world it creates is not. Everything is gray, broken, lifeless. It brings to mind black-and-white Bedford Falls sans George Bailey. And just like “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Hardy’s world is mesmerizing even in its ugliness. Here’s his description of the barrenness of winter—

 

The ancient pulse of germ and birth

      Was shrunken hard and dry

 

Here’s what he sees when he looks up—

 

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

      Like strings of broken lyres

 

(FYI bine is basically a hard vine.)

 

It’s deathly quiet there by the coppice gate. Nature’s lyre is silenced so to speak, and there’s no human chatter because they’ve all gone home to warm up. Image after image, the poem is relentlessly visual until a joyful noise breaks through the bleakness.

 

Wonderful that the thrush is an old one. The quality of hope would be different if a Shirley Temple bird sang rather than one who’s been around the block and still sees reason to warble —

 

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

      In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

      Upon the growing gloom.

 

And then we come to that last stanza. Doesn’t it feel that it’s been written for us, for right now, for this winter, for this uneasy moment?

 

So little cause for carolings

      Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

      Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

      His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

      And I was unaware.

 

 

Darkling thrush, wherever you are, show yourself! We are in need of your song.

 

*

 

I wondered what a thrush looks like and discovered there are many varieties of thrush, each with its own look and sound. I’ve narrowed down the list of Hardy’s bird to two kinds, the song thrush and the mistle thrush. Both live in the southwest of England where he lived, both sing in the late evening and both sing in winter. Of the two, I’m pretty certain The Darkling Thrush is the mistle thrush because they enjoy singing in the worst of weather. Enjoy the video below, “Know Your Thrushes.” Getting to know your thrushes is a very pleasant distraction indeed.

 

 

 

*

 

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was born the oldest of four in a small village forty-some miles southwest of Stonehenge. His father was a stonemason and fiddler. He was a sickly child and as an adult was a very small man, barely over five feet, a fact I mention because some compare the tiny thrush to Hardy himself.

 

He was an architectural apprentice in London but missed the rural landscape he grew up in. He worked as an ecclesiastic architect for ten years in London and Dorset, writing in his spare time and publishing an unsuccessful novel. He married and moved back to Dorset where designed and built his house, Max Gate, now part of the National Trust. Eventually he was able to make a living solely from writing.

 

He became estranged from his first wife, supposedly in part because she objected to the dark view of marriage he presented in his novels. When she died he married his secretary, 39 years his junior, but mourned his first wife the rest of his life.

 

Hardy considered himself primarily a poet, but I suspect most people know him as I do, as the writer of those wonderful, big depressing Victorian novels like Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. He wrote fourteen novels altogether (and they are all long) and loads of poetry which influenced the likes of Auden, Frost and Larkin.

 

He was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died at age 87. A  controversy over where he was to be buried was resolved when his heart was interred next to his wife’s grave in his native village and his ashes in Westminster Abby Poet’s corner.