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On a fall day in New York City I left a poem in Central Park . . .

poem is on bench under orange sign 

Women and Horses

by Maxine Kumin

 

“After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric.”

-Theodor Adorno

 

After Auschwitz:  after ten of my father’s kin—

the ones who stayed—starved, then were gassed in the camps.

After Vietnam, after Korea, Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan.

After the Towers. This late in the life of our haplessly orbiting world

let us celebrate whatever scraps the muse, that naked child,

can pluck from the still-smoldering dumps.

 

If there’s a lyre around, strike it! A body, stand back, give it air!

Let us have sparrows laying their eggs in bluebird boxes.

Let us have bluebirds insouciantly nesting elsewhere.

Lend us navel-bared teens, eyebrowed-and-nose-ringed prodigies

crumbling breakfast bagels over dogeared and jelly-smeared texts.

Allow the ablebodied among us to have steamy sex.

 

Let there be fat old ladies in flowery tent dresses at bridge tables.

Howling babies in dirty diapers and babies serenely at rest.

War and détente will go on, détente and renewed tearings asunder,

we can never break free from the dark and degrading past.

Let us see life again nevertheless, in the words of Isaac Babel

as a meadow over which women and horses wander.

 

—and a sister-poem in Chelsea on the back of a bike—

 

Wartime Sunday

by Anne Porter

 

In honor of Eugene Atget, photographer of Paris

 

From the time of a long-ago war that destroyed only far-away cities

I remember a Sunday walk with the littlest of our sons.

The vomit of Saturday night was wet in the doorways,

No one was up, First Avenue empty and gray,

So we turned a corner to stare at the three bridges,

Great webs of stillness over the East River.

 

On our way home, passing the locked-up shops

We saw one window heaped with tarnished lamps

Guitars and radios and dusty furs

And there among them a pawned christening-dress

White as a waterfall.

 

When I was visiting my son in New York City a month ago, I had no plan to pair “Women and Horses” and “Wartime Sunday.” They were just two poems I happened to have in my purse. But looking at them now nuzzled up together in the same post, I feel vindicated in my matchmaking skills which have sometimes been undervalued by my near and dear.

 

To be sure poets Anne Porter and Maxine Kumin are an odd couple. One was a devout Catholic, the other a secular Jew. One travelled in bohemian circles (that would be the Catholic), the other lived quietly in the countryside. But both witnessed massive destruction in their lifetimes:  the Great Depression, the Holocaust, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War 9/11, and all the wars up until 2011 when Porter died at age 100. As mothers and poets during roughly the same time period, they have common ground and much to discuss.

 

Where they meet-up in these poems (if we can continue the dating metaphor) is in the question, “How do we go on?” In the face of a dark and degrading past, as Kumin puts it, how can there be a nevertheless? For Kumin the muse is the answer and for it’s Porter grace, but grace and the muse are close relatives if not twins. (As a child Kumin went for a short while to a Catholic school next door to her house so I suspect the idea of grace wasn’t foreign to her.)

 

Finding vomit on a doorstep (wet, fresh vomit) and the still-smoldering dumps everywhere in our haplessly orbiting world would surely drag us down to despair if that’s all we could see. But in the ruins are wondrous things, great webs of stillness:  old ladies playing bridge, teenagers reading at breakfast, a christening gown white as a waterfall  in a pawn shop window. For those with a discerning eye, grace—call it art if you want—abounds and renews the world again and again.

 

The particular form of grace, that is, what makes things new again, is not the same for these two poets nor for each one of us. That in itself is a marvel to revive the glummest soul.

 

As I was pondering this I came across an excerpt from a Nabokov essay:

 

“In a sense we are all crashing to death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles—no matter the imminent peril—these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so distant from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.”

—Vladimir Nabokov

 

And here we have uncovered the attraction between these two poems:  To wonder at trifles no matter the imminent perils is, for Nabokov and for Kumin and Porter, the highest form[s] of consciousness.

 

I’ll re-print bios of both poets from past posts.

Poet Maxine Kumin was born in Philadelphia in 1925. She went to Radcliffe, now part of Harvard, and swam competitively there.  She took a seminar with novelist Wallace Stegner, and his criticism of her work discouraged her from writing poetry.  For a long time she wrote poems privately.

 

As a mother of young children, Kumin took a poetry class at an adult education center.  There she met poet Anne Sexton.  The two mothers, both at home, became close friends and stayed close up until the day of Sexton’s suicide.  Together they wrote four children’s books.  (The books were illustrated by Evaline Ness, wife of FBI agent Eliot Ness, the inspiration for the “Untouchables” television show.)  Kumin was first published at age 36, and subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize, the Ruth Lilly prize, and most of the big honorifics a poet can receive.

 

She and her husband Victor, a chemical engineer who worked with Oppeheimer on the atomic bomb*, had three children and  lived on a farm in New Hampshire where they raised organic vegetables and bred horses. At age 74 Kumin almost died in a horse driving accident. She broke her neck, ribs, and punctured a lung but recovered and continued to write poetry into her eighties.

 

She’s often compared to another northeastern pastoral poet—she’s been called the feminist Robert Frost.  But after reading some of her poems and marveling at her non-writing daring-do, I’m starting to think of her as a feminist Ernest Hemingway:  physical, fearless, unembellished. 

She died in 2014 at age 88.

*Victor Kumin refused to continue work on the atomic bomb after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  He was threatened with court martial but in the end was honorably discharged.  For a full account of his fascinating story, link here.

 *  *  *

 

Anne 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.”)

Born in Boston to a wealthy family, she attended Bryn Mawr and married the American painter and art critic Fairfield Porter. (A favorite of mine. Link to his work to see for yourself.) 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 a 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 Porter

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. She died in 2011.

 

 

*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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To His Piano

by Howard Nemerov

 

Old friend, patient of error as of accuracy,

Ready to think the fingerings of thought,

You but a scant year older than I am

With my expectant mother expecting maybe

An infant prodigy among her stars

But getting only little me instead–

 

To see you standing there for six decades

Containing chopsticks, Fur Elise, and

The Art of Fugue in your burnished rosewood box,

As well as all those years of silence and

The stumbling beginnings the children made,

Who would believe the twenty tons of stress

Your gilded frame’s kept stretched out all this while?

 

 

Two pianos—the old upright rosewood box in Howard Nemerov’s poem and the shiny black grand in Vienna’s Schonbrunn Palace where I left the poem—are as different as can be. The music coming from each is different as well—Beethoven and Bach from one, Mozart and Strauss from the other.

 

But there is one (stretch of a) connection between the two. In the gilded Schonbrunn Great Gallery, lit by (electric) candlebras and crowned with a dramatic rococo ceiling mural, it’s easy to imagine young Mozart delighting the Austrian court with his glorious music. That is until the actual concert started. The music we heard in this tourist-y concert didn’t always match the fantasy (although I think the problem was coming from the string section, not the piano). Nemerov details a similar disappointment in the poem. His mother hoped for a prodigy and got instead Chopsticks played badly.

 

Still, rather than becoming a source of shame, Nemerov’s piano is an “old friend,” patient, unconditionally loyal, bearer of neglect and all the uncomfortable tensions in the household. Exactly what a son might wish his mother to be.

 

Poet, novelist and essayist Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) was born in New York City to a wealthy family (think nannies and white gloves). His parents owned a Fifth Avenue department store, but art more than commerce was the family focus. His dad was a well-regarded art historian, his sister photographer Diane Arbus, his other sister a sculptor.

 

Given the artistic milieu Nemerov grew up in, his mother’s hopes for a musically talented son have a special sting. She was, by Nemerov’s account, a cold and distant mother.

 

A high school football player and star student, Nemerov graduated from Harvard and served in World War II as a pilot. He was a famed professor at Hamilton, Bennington, Brandeis and Washington University in St. Louis. He was twice appointed as U.S. Poet Laureate, won the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. He was married to Margaret Russell and had three sons with her. He died of esophageal cancer.

 

couldn’t get to the piano, so left poem on the floor

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poem is on bottom post

 

Breakfast

by Ljubomir Simovic

 

Didn’t I say last night it will snow?

 

What else would there be but snow?

I no longer wait for the rustle of wings,

or some dove to make my heart leap

and shine its light on me.

 

Snow has hatched in every den and lair

putting out every fire.

The snow: our key and lock.

I woke in my bed as if in another world,

as if in a drift of snow.

The three hills were all white.

 

I put on my cold boots, made a fire,

cut three rashers of bacon into the skillet

by the window where’s starting to snow again.

The bacon sizzles. I break an egg.

In the room the shadows of jackdaws fly to and fro

 

I rejoice because of the egg.

 

 

Last night I took a walk in the snow. The empty streets of my subdivision were quiet and lit with Christmas lights. All is calm all is bright, I sang in my head. Like Simovic I felt “as if in another world.” At least six inches had already collected, and snow was still coming down in blusters when I reached my friend’s house to leave this poem on her side porch. I hoped she’d wake up today to find it, although I don’t have a lot of confidence in the stickiness of scotch tape under snowy conditions.

 

This poem captures so well the surprise of waking up to snow. How is it that Eastern Europeans can speak so openly from the heart without sounding mawkish and overly-sentimental? I love that quality in poetry.

 

I’m sure it’s an even better poem in the original Serbian.

 

Ljubomir Simovic was born in Serbia in 1935. He seems to be a writer-of-all-trades, a poet, a playwright, a television writer and short story writer. That’s as much as I can find out about him because all the info I found wasn’t written in English.

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If you’ve got a fever and the only prescription is more Poem Elf  (and you’ve already had all the cow bell you can take)–

 

–Or– if you like poetry in very small doses and you don’t like reading long blog posts–

 

 

–I have a suggestion for you. Follow me on Twitter. @Poemelf is just pictures and not so often that it takes over your timeline.

 

I was slow coming to Twitter and even slower to realize that my original idea was lame. (I typed in excerpts from poems and tried to relate them to current events, the weather, celebrities, my personal life.) Now I’m just posting pictures of short poems (or short excerpts from poems) that I leave around town. Like I do on the blog, I take one up-close picture of a poem and one that shows where I put it.

 

No scandal, no trending hashtags, no selfies. Just a poem now and then where you least expect it.   Check out the sidebar on the right for an example and consider following me @poemelf.

 

Also, if you live near enough Ann Arbor, you can catch a wonderful art show, running now through April 9. The Prisoners Creative Arts Project is sponsoring the 19th annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners at the Duderstadt Gallery on North Campus of University of Michigan. Link here for details.

 

With limited materials and in difficult working conditions, these artists have produced powerful works in many different mediums. It’s such a humane and emotional show. Longing, joy, rage, hope, anxiety–each piece seems like a part of someone’s soul. Here’s one of my favorites. It’s called “Gracias” and the artist is Martin Vargas:

IMG_2687

 

Vargas features the Botero-like figures in many of his paintings. He calls them PUDGIES.

PUDGIES have a gentle spirit. They have no body shame and no obsession with clothes or hair.

I want me some PUDGIES in my life.

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If I measured my value in the number of Christmas cards I’ve received this year, I’d be having a Charlie Brown “I got rocks” kind of feeling right now.

But the depressing emptiness of my Christmas card holder lost its sting when I opened my email yesterday.  My friend Trish Rawlings, artist, writer, and frequent commentator on this blog, sent me a digital copy of her annual handmade Christmas card.  Her work is usually dreamy and strange and always delightful.

With her permission, I’m reprinting her card here, and a few of her past cards as well.

 

Image

 

My favorite:

Image 2

 

A two-parter:

Image 6

 

Image 1

 

 

Being lost inspires her most unsettling pieces:

 

Image 5

 

Image 4

 

 

Finally, one featuring her cat:

Image 3

 

Pantaloon, my feelings exactly.

 

Anyone interested in Trish’s work can reach her through the comment section. From there, she’ll give you her contact information directly.

Thank you, Trish!

 

 

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Image 3

 

 

Harlem

by Langston Hughes

 

What happens to a dream deferred?

 

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

 

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

 

Or does it explode?

 

Image 4

 

The poem I taped to the fence at Mt. Elliott Cemetery in Detroit and the poem I’ve copied directly into this blog are not the same. The first version of “Harlem” is the familiar one, but the second, taken from the Poetry Foundation, is probably the definitive text.  In print, the difference between an un-italicized last line and an italicized one seems a matter of style, but as I consider each version, that little difference takes on more substance. “Or does it explode?” sounds like a rhetorical question, in line with the other questions in the poem.   But “Or does it explode?”  sounds like a warning.

 

Although I had known Langston Hughes was an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a writer who suffered racial injustice and celebrated black culture, I had never read this particular poem in the context of race. I thought of the “dream deferred” as a universal experience, something that happens to all but the most self-actualized among us, the weight carried by the lawyer who wanted to be a singer-songwriter, the teacher who wanted to open a pastry shop.  The drying up, the festering, the rotting, the sagging, the exploding are the result of not following the advice in another Hughes’ poem (ever-popular during graduation season) called “Dreams”:

 

Hold fast to dreams,

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird,

That cannot fly.

 

But when I see, thanks to the italics, the barely contained frustration of that last line, the poem becomes political all at once, a protest against the limits imposed on the lives of black Americans. Somehow I had missed the implication of “deferred” in “dream deferred.”   Dreams fester and rot not because the dreamers have lost faith in their dreams or are too timid to make the leap, but because an outside force has deferred the dream.  There’s a chilly bureaucratic feel to deferred, as if someone stamped a stack of handwritten dreams with the dreaded word and passed the pile on to another desk.  Not now, not now.  Come back on Tuesday.

 

The other meaning of deferred—to submit to another’s wishes—is at work here too. How would it feel to have your dream deferred by someone you’re supposed to pay deference to?

 

Read in this light, I guess “Harlem” doesn’t really belong where I placed it.  The Mount Elliott Cemetery is a beautiful sanctuary in southeast Detroit originally built for Irish Catholics. I had passed by the cemetery after visiting the Solanus Casey Center across the street.  With the poem in my purse, taping it to the fence seemed like a pretty good idea at the time or at least convenient.  By the way, lots of famous Detroiters are buried here, including Beaubian, Campau, Chevrolet, and Hamtramck.  (If you’re interested in Detroit history, you’ll enjoy great blog called Night Train. Link here for Night Train’s post on the Mount Elliott Cemetery.

 

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was born in Missouri to a family whose ancestors included slaves and slave owners.  His parents divorced when he was young, and his father moved to Cuba and Mexico to escape racism and to get away from other black Americans, who he had come to dislike.  Hughes, on the other hand, embraced black culture, especially the lives of people he described as “workers, roustabouts, and singers, and job hunters on Lenox Avenue in New York, or Seventh Street in Washington or South State in Chicago—people up today and down tomorrow, working this week and fired the next, beaten and baffled, but determined not to be wholly beaten, buying furniture on the installment plan, filling the house with roomers to help pay the rent, hoping to get a new suit for Easter—and pawning that suit before the Fourth of July.” Later in his career he was criticized for “parading” working-class black characters who spoke in dialect, but his portrayals of those characters in poems, novels, and plays earned him the unofficial title of “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race.”

 

Before he found success as the first African-American to earn a living from his writing, Hughes worked as a sailor, a doorman, a waiter, a cook and a truck farmer.  He attended Columbia University and graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where his classmate was Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.

 

He published two autobiographies, several children’s books and wrote a popular column for the Chicago Defender for twenty years.  He died at age 65 of prostate cancer.

 

(Sorry I don’t have a picture of the poet.  I need to give myself an education on how to use images from the web on my blog.  Flickr has changed and I can’t seem to pull a picture of Hughes to use.  Also, WordPress won’t allow me to format the poem properly.  All lines following the first should be indented.)

 

 

 

 

 

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poem is to the right of the woman behind the transit sign

poem is to the right of the woman behind the transit sign

 

Rosa

By Rita Dove

 

How she sat there,

the time right inside a place

so wrong it was ready.

 

That trim name with

its dream of a bench

to rest on. Her sensible coat.

 

Doing nothing was the doing:

the clean flame of her gaze

carved by a camera flash.

 

How she stood up

when they bent down to retrieve

her purse. That courtesy.

 

IMG_0296

 

 

02-22-13 at 22-14-06 by SpeakerBoehnerIn a bit of poem-elf serendipity, the same day I was working on this blog post, a statue of Rosa Parks was unveiled at the U.S. Capitol Building.  If you’ve never been to the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, picture a semi-circle room, overdressed with Victorian red curtains and gray marble pillars.  Crowded around the room are bronze and marble statues of mostly men, mostly standing, mostly in the neoclassical mode.  The Rosa Parks statue is seated, serious, her head turned to look out an invisible window, her pocketbook and coat belying the grandness of her action.  The sculptor, Eugene Daub, was wise to position her in contrast to the imposing figures surrounding her.  Her quiet power seems all the more intense.

 

There’s a myth of Rosa Parks, recently debunked by a new biography, that she was a sweet old lady too tired from her day’s work as a seamstress at a department store to give up her seat on the bus.  In fact, she was only 42 at the time, and what tired her out was being humiliated on the bus.  The disconnect between her outward appearance of ordinariness and modesty and the fire and heroics of her inner resolve is part of what makes her a compelling and inspiring figure.

 

Rita Dove’s poem “Rosa,” captures the same quiet intensity as the Capitol’s newest statue.  At the outset, the poem is as neat and trim as the woman it describes.  The four three-line stanzas have a fairly uniform length, and the first and last stanza mirror each other in structure.  Most of the poem is written in sentence fragments, except for the third stanza, which breaks out into a complete sentence as it describes Rosa making a stand by choosing not to stand.

 

But there’s tension under the tidiness, which Dove builds with a series of paired oppositions.  The clean flame of her gaze is set up against her sensible coat.  Each stanza has its own dichotomy:  right/wrong; dream/sensible; doing nothing/doing; stood up/bent down.

 

The pairing of sat there from the first stanza with stood up from the last tells a whole story in itself.  Sat there and stood up are two simple movements that we all do everyday, but in the poem, sat there has none of the indolence we usually associate with the phrase, and stood up carries the second meaning of standing up for human rights.

 

These pairings of opposites, along with the short line length, build tension and highlight the tenuous balance of white power/black humiliation that Parks upends.

 

I learned a few things when I posted this poem.

 

I didn’t know that Detroit has a bus depot named after the most famous bus rider in our nation’s history.  Rosa Parks, it turns out, had a history in Detroit.  A few years after getting fired from her department store job because of her activism, Parks moved to Detroit.  She worked for Representative John Conyers and lived in the city till she died at age 92.  She’s buried in Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

 

The Bus Stops Here by Mike DargaThe architecture of the Rosa Parks Transit Center does great honor to Parks.  The building and plaza suggest the beginning of a journey:  the front of the building is shaped like the prow of a ship and a beautiful canopy floats above the busses like sails.  (Unfortunately she is little honored in the operations at the depot.  Detroit has one of the worst public transportation systems in the country.)

 

I had a few more surprises when I was brushing up on the familiar seat-on-the-bus story.  I had always thought hers was a modest, quiet act that led to a big dramatic one, the bus boycott directed by Martin Luther King.  But the full story of her modest, quiet action is as dramatic and suspenseful as the Little Rock Nine’s walk through the front doors of Little Rock High School.  You can read the full story here, but I’ll highlight a few things:

 

  • Ten years before the Montgomery bus driver ordered her to give up her seat for a white passenger, Parks had a run-in with the very same bus driver, James Blake.  A Montgomery bus ordinance at the time required blacks to enter at the front of the bus to pay and then exit and re-board through the back to sit down.  This way black passengers wouldn’t walk past whites.  One day, during a rainstorm, Parks chose not to exit and re-board.  Blake very nearly shoved her off the bus and then drove away before she could get back on.

 

  • Parks’ “doing nothing,” as Dove puts it, was a moment fraught with danger.  She knew that Blake, the bus driver, carried a gun.  She was alone on the bus.  When she challenged the driver, no other riders on the crowded bus gave her  support.  She knew she could be arrested, and she knew she could face abuse at the police station.  Her calm demeanor is all the more remarkable.

 

  • The incident in the last stanza of the poem refers to the behavior of the police officers who came to arrest her. One picked up her shopping bag, the other her purse.  But whose courtesy is “That courtesy”?  The idea that courtesy could be extended in such a discourteous place, a place where a woman was asked to give up her seat for a man, a place where black passengers were routinely insulted by whites, is another of the ironic oppositions the poem holds together.

RRita Dove by gpcmlkita Dove was born in Akron, Ohio in 1952.  Her father was the first black chemist to work in the tire industry.  She graduated summa cum laude from Miami University of Ohio, earned a Fulbright scholarship, and got her MFA at Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  She won the Pulitzer Prize and served as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993-95, the youngest person to ever be appointed to that office and first African American.  She teaches at University of Virginia.

 

I wouldn’t describe too many poets as adorable, but then again there aren’t too many poets who ballroom dance.  Watch here as Dove and her husband dance the samba, and see what adjective springs to mind.

 

 

 

One of my mother’s favorite jokes is, “Mary Rose sat on a tack.  Mary Rose.”  Inspired by the second stanza of Dove’s poem, I offer a twist on the old joke:  “Rosa Parks gets on the bus.  Rosa Parks.”

 

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