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Posts Tagged ‘Anne Porter’

poem is on the concrete ledge in foreground

poem is on the concrete ledge in foreground

 

Among Women

 

by Marie Ponsot

 

What women wander?

Not many. All. A few.

Most would, now & then,

& no wonder.

Some, and I’m one,

Wander sitting still.

My small grandmother

Bought from every peddler

Less for the ribbons and lace

Than for their scent

Of sleep where you will,

Walk out when you want, choose

Your bread and your company.

 

She warned me, “Have nothing to lose.”

 

She looked fragile but had

High blood, runner’s ankles,

Could endure, endure.

She loved her rooted garden, her

Grand children, her once

Wild once young man.

Women wander

As best they can.

 

 

 

IMG_0308

 

 

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

 

Most would, now & then

& no wonder.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Some, and I’m one,

Wander sitting still.

 

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

 

. . . their scent

Of sleep where you will,

Walk out when you want, choose

Your bread and your company.

 

The aphoristic last lines in the poem

 

Women wander

As best they can

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Illustration by Adrienne Segur by vidalia_11

illustration from Golden Book of Fairy Tales

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

 

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

 

 

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The Ticket

by Anne Porter


On the night table

Beside my bed

I keep a small

Blue ticket

One day I found it

In my pocket-book

I don’t know how

It got there

I don’t know

What it’s for

On one side

There’s a number

98833

And

INDIANA TICKET COMPANY

And on the other side

The only thing it says

Is KEEP THIS TICKET

I keep it carefully

Because I’m old

Which means

I’ll soon be leaving

For another country

Where possibly

Some blinding-bright

Enormous angel

Will stop me

At the border

And ask

To see my ticket.

Frustrations with WordPress ran high with this post. For reasons sadistic or indifferent, WordPress doesn’t acknowledge line breaks.  I press Carriage Return once—twice—ten times—-I pound it—-I say bad words—I type what I think are HTML codes. Nothing changes.  It’s like trying to talk reason to an ideologue.

Please, WordPress, give the people WHITE SPACE!

It’s an issue today because white space fuels this poem.  I apologize to Anne Porter and all readers who have to squint away the pesky dashes I inserted to simulate the breaks between stanzas.

Porter uses line breaks and white space masterfully in “The Ticket” to create a poem that seems effortless and improvised.  A dotty old woman putters around the page, slightly confused, wondering why she kept a ticket stub and how it landed in her purse.  But dotty old ladies can be remarkably sharp, as any Jane Marple fan can attest.  This one knows exactly what she’s doing and where’s she’s going.  She’s going to die.

Such a morbid subject is balanced by Porter’s humor and trademark simplicity.  I don’t want to rattle the poem around too much to shake out meaning.  Seems an indelicate thing to do to an old lady, and besides, the poem is pretty straightforward.  But I do want to talk a little about the poet herself.

Porter’s literary career was launched when she was 83 with the publication of her first book of poetry.  Can I say that again? Her literary career was launched when she was 83.  Surely that’s the most hopeful, life-affirming sentence I’ve ever written.   And she is the sweetest most adorable poet I’ve ever encountered.  Watch this video to get an idea.  (Best line: she opens a letter and says, “Oh, from the Pope.”)

I’m not sure if she’s still alive.  I couldn’t find an obituary online, so I assume she still has her blue ticket in hand.  Which means she’s 99 years old by now.

She was born in Boston to a wealthy family, attended Bryn Mawr, and married the most famous American painter and art critic I’ve never heard of, Fairfield Porter.  (A link to his work proved his paintings familiar, if not his name.) Their marriage was not an easy one.  He indulged his artistic temperament and sexual drives while she tended to their five children* and hosted his friends for months on end at their homes in Southampton and Maine.  Lovely that some of these guests were his lovers, male and female, but to be fair, she had an liason of her own.

Their life together fascinates me. I’ve lost a good hour following their story link to link, drawn down down the rabbit hole of mid-century bohemia. Their social and familial circles pull in such a number of artists and intellectuals, it’s a veritable Bloomsbury group.

portrait of Anne by Fairfield

Like so many other wives of writers and artists, Anne Porter remained hidden and overlooked until the death of her husband.  I have a vision of her tottering on her walker, step by step, on through the heap of egos, drama, passion and duty that blocks her path, until at last she emerges cheerfully on the other side, an artist in her own right.

 

 

*Her oldest son was mentally disabled in some way, either autistic or schizophrenic. When he died in 1980 she wrote the heartbreaking “For My Son Johnny.”

 

For more information on the remarkable Porter, read this profile in the Wall Street Journal.

For a review of her most recent collection of poems, link here.

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