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Grass

by Carl Sandburg

 

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.

Shovel them under and let me work—

I am the grass; I cover all.

 

And pile them high at Gettysburg

And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.

Shovel them under and let me work.

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:

What place is this?

Where are we now?

 

I am the grass.

Let me work.

 

 

This is the third post in my Cemetery Series, poems I left at a peaceful cemetery in northern Michigan a few weeks ago. I’m getting around to them one by one even though I placed all of them on graves on the same day.

 

I don’t even know if I like this poem. A battle for a noble cause (Gettysburg) is side-by-side ones that seem pointless now (Ypres, Verdun, et al), and I left it on the grave of a very young man who died for the great cause of the last century, the fight against tyranny and hate.  But I guess that’s the point. The grass don’t care who’s right and who’s wrong.

 

Sandburg was surely thinking of the bodies of men. I read this and I’m thinking of the body of a beautiful young woman, Heather Heyer, who was fighting evil with peaceful protest instead of a sword, a gun, a grenade.

 

The poem sounds like a protest folk song from the sixties. You can just hear Joan Baez or Judy Collins singing

 

What place is this?

Where are we now?

 

In fact poet Carl Sandburg was also a folk musician. He used to accompany his poem readings with a guitar, and he also sang. You can listen here to one here.

 

Sandburg (1878-1967) goes in an out of fashion, but he’s a quintessentially American poet with a quintessentially American life. Born in Illinois, his parents were Swedish immigrants who worked hard to provide for their seven children. His father was a blacksmith’s helper for a railroad, his mother cleaned rooms at a hotel.

 

Sandburg left school after eighth grade and started working at age 13. His resume reads like a Walt Whitman poem:  shoe shiner, dishwasher, hobo, milk truck driver, porter, house painter, soldier, brick layer, farm laborer, hotel servant, coal heaver. He attended college but never graduated. His long public career included work as a journalist, film reviewer, poet, editor, writer of children’s stories, and most famously, biographer of Abraham Lincoln.

 

He was a favorite of Marily Monroe (a fascinating story), spoke before both houses of Congress, and appeared on What’s My Line?  Take a few minutes to watch him on that show—he’s so charming, disguising his deep voice as a child’s to fool the panelists. (Also charming:  how literate and educated the celebrity panelists are, how elegant and respectful. Sigh.) At the end of the clip there’s a touching tribute to Sandburg’s efforts to build a foundation in honor of journalists who died during World War II.

 

 

In light of the new proposed immigration standards, it’s worth quoting Sandburg’s reflections on one of the themes of his life:

“My father couldn’t sign his name,” wrote Sandburg; “[he] made his ‘mark’ on the CB&Q payroll sheet. My mother was able to read the Scriptures in her native language, but she could not write, and I wrote of Abraham Lincoln whose own mother could not read or write! I guess that somewhere along in this you’ll find a story of America.” 

 

 

 

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Disposal

by W.d. Snodgrass

 

The unworn long gown, meant for dances

She would have scarcely dared attend,

Is fobbed off on a friend—

Who can’t help wondering if it’s spoiled

But thinks, well, she can take her chances.

 

We roll her spoons up like old plans

Or failed securities, seal their case,

Then lay them back. One lace

Nightthing lies in the chest, unsoiled

By wear, untouched by human hands.

 

We don’t dare burn those cancelled patterns

And markdowns that she actually wore,

Yet who do we know so poor

They’d take them? Spared all need, all passion,

Saved from loss, she lies boxed in satins

 

Like a pair of party shoes

That seemed to never find a taker;

We send back to its maker

A life somehow gone out of fashion

But still too good to use.

 

 

 

Little Pearl D. Deiwiler, on whose grave I left W.D. Snodgrass’ poem, died at age seven, much too young to have acquired the worldly goods listed in the poem—the dance gowns, spoons, dress patterns, lace underwear, clothes bought on sale. My bad, I didn’t do the math.  I was too taken with the name “Pearl,” such an old-fashioned name and a good match for these lines:

a life somehow gone out of fashion

but still too good to wear.

 

Poor little Pearl, so young. Poor Pearl’s parents.  Like the communal speaker in this poem, they were left with only the worldly goods of the deceased and the painful question of how to dispose of those things that hold memories but not purpose. The unsentimental would toss, but me, I still have doilies from my mother’s linen chest that probably came from her mother or mother-in-law, never used by her, maybe never used by them. I will pass them to my daughters who presumably will have just as much trouble getting rid of items that have outlived their usefulness.

 

The poem makes me wonder what story my possessions will tell about me when I’m dead. Hopefully not as sad a story as “Disposal.”

 

William DeWitt Snodgrass (1926-2009) was born in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. His father was an accountant, his mother a homemaker with a domineering personality who Snodgrass later blamed, rightly or wrongly, for the death of his sister from an asthma attack.

 

He began his studies at Geneva College but left to enlist in the Navy at the end of World War II. When he got out he went to University of Iowa where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and master of fine arts degrees.

 

He earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for his first collection of poetry, Heart’s Needle. The collection was about losing contact with his daughter because of his divorce, and includes these lines, moving in their simplicity:

 

Winter again and it is snowing;

Although you are still three,

You are already growing

Strange to me.

 

Snodgrass taught at several universities, including Wayne State, Syracuse and University of Delaware, seemed to struggle to make a living, and saw his reputation as a poet rise and fall. Married four times, he had two children with two different wives. He died of lung cancer when he was 83.

 

For a longer and more insightful biographical sketch, link here for his obituary in the Independent. Brits always write the best obits.

 

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I went to my favorite cemetery (doesn’t everyone have one?), a hilly retreat in northern Michigan, and there I  left a handful of death-related poems. I’ll feature them one by one, beginning with Theodore Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane.  I leaned the poem against a stone arm, nestled in some stone greenery.

 

Elegy for Jane

(My student, thrown by a horse)

by Theodore Roethke

 

I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;

And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;

And how, once started into talk, the light syllables leaped for her.

And she balanced in the delight of her thought,

A wren, happy, tail into the wind,

Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.

The shade sang with her;

The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing,

And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.

 

Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,

Even a father could not find her:

Scraping her cheek against straw,

Stirring the clearest water.

 

My sparrow, you are not here,

Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.

The sides of wet stones cannot console me,

Nor the moss, wound with the last light.

 

If only I could nudge you from this sleep,

My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.

Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:

I, with no rights in this matter,

Neither father nor lover.

 

 

 

What lush images of this long-ago Jane, Roethke’s maimed darling, his skittery pigeon. In life and in death she is inseparable from the beauty of nature, and the beauty of this poem lies in those associations.

 

Theodore Roethke (1908- 1963) was born in Saginaw, Michigan, the son of German immigrants. His father ran a floral business, and Roethke spent hours and hours in the greenhouses, which he would later call “my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth.” When he was fourteen, his father died of cancer and his uncle committed suicide.

 

He went to University of Michigan where, according to the Poetry Foundation’s biography of him, “he adopted a tough, bear-like image (weighing over 225 pounds) and even developed a fascination with gangsters.” This is one of my favorite details of any poet’s life, ever.

 

Roethke earned his bachelor’s and master’s degree at Michigan, and later briefly studied law and did other graduate work at Harvard. During the Depression he was forced to quit and take a job teaching at Lafayette College.

 

He had manic-depression and had to be hospitalized at times to treat it. Despite his mental illness and heavy drinking, he is known as one of the greatest poetry teachers ever (once climbing out on a window ledge to inspire his students) and one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century.

 

He married a former student, Beatrice O’Connell, who stayed with him despite not knowing of his mental illness when she married him. He taught at Michigan State, Bennington, and most famously at University of Washington for the last fifteen years of his life. He died of a heart attack in a friend’s swimming pool in 1963, and is buried in Saginaw, where his childhood home has been turned into a museum.

 

You probably read Roetke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” back in high school. It’s still a favorite of mine and a good one to memorize.

 

Link here for Roetke reading “Elegy for Jane.” (The way he says the last two words of the poem confuse and fascinate me.)

 

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poem is on bulletin board under rainbow

poem is on bulletin board under rainbow

 

Sudden

by Nick Flynn

 

If it had been a heart attack, the newspaper

might have used the word massive,

as if a mountain range had opened

inside her, but instead

 

it used the word suddenly, a light coming on

 

in an empty room. The telephone

 

fell from my shoulder, a black parrot repeating

                         something happened, something awful

 

a sunday, dusky. If it had been

 

terminal, we could have cradled her

as she grew smaller, wiped her mouth,

 

said good-bye. But it was sudden,

 

how overnight we could be orphaned

& the world become a bell we’d crawl inside

& the ringing all we’d eat.

 

Image 1

 

(I posted this on Twitter a while back and thought I’d re-post on the blog for the non-Twitter folks.)

 

This poem-elfing goes back to the spring of 2016 when I was visiting my mom in the hospital. After she died I kept these pictures to myself because the thought that I had put the poem on a bulletin board near her room seemed awful, misguided, unfeeling. She never would have seen it, but who did? Did it cause pain to someone who just lost a loved one, suddenly or otherwise?

 

Now, a year and a few months later, her death still hurts, and the poem brings up new questions. Is death easier if it’s drawn out and harder if it’s sudden? I don’t know. This past week there’s been two deaths in my circle, one unexpected, one after a long illness. Both feel sudden. I suspect the grief in Flynn’s poem rings true (pardon the pun) for the grievers in both situations–

 

how overnight we could be orphaned

& the world become a bell we’d crawl inside

& the ringing all we’d eat 

 

Here’s a short bio of poet Nick Flynn from a previous post:

 

Nick Flynn was born in Massachusetts in 1960. He was raised by a single mother who committed suicide when he was a young adult. His father was an alcoholic who fancied himself a writer and went to prison for writing forged checks. While in prison, his father wrote him letters full of advice, but Flynn never wrote back out of respect for his mother. After high school, Flynn became an electrician.

 

Two years after his mother died, he started working at a homeless shelter in Boston. Flynn met his father at that same homeless shelter when his troubled father came to spend the night. Their reunion was the subject of a memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which was turned into a movie, Being Flynn. The move starred Paul Dano as a young Flynn and Robert DeNiro as his father.

 

In addition to his poetry, Flynn is a widely published essayist and memoirist. He’s married to actress Lili Taylor with whom he has a daughter. Flynn lives in Brooklyn and teaches creative writing at University of Houston.

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poem is leaning against bread case on top of counter

 

To Luck

by W.S. Merwin

In the cards and at the bend in the road
we never saw you
in the womb and in the crossfire
in the numbers
whatever you had your hand in
which was everything
we were told never to put
our faith in you
to bow to you humbly after all
because in the end there was nothing
else we could do
but not to believe in you

still we might coax you with pebbles
kept warm in the hand
or coins or the relics
of vanished animals
observances rituals
not binding upon you
who make no promises
we might do such things only
not to neglect you
and risk your disfavor
oh you who are never the same
who are secret as the day when it comes
you whom we explain
as often as we can
without understanding

 

 

Maryland is one of the best places to get a really good steak-and-cheese (that’s a sub sandwich, for those who haven’t had the pleasure), so when I was back in my old digs last week I decided to chow down at a local deli. Turns out the deli didn’t offer the best version of that delicacy, which should be greasy and mayonnaise-y and held together in a crusty roll, but I couldn’t be disappointed because it was good enough, and just eating it brought back a nice memory of passing a foot-long steak-and-cheese around the table with my sisters, each having a bite till hardly anything was left for my husband who bought the sub in the first place.

 

Just so, reading this ode to luck—-more of a hymn actually—brings to mind the luck that has shaped my life, the good luck which is so often just the absence of bad luck.

 

The poem feels ancient and dark, the second half in particular. It frightens me a little. Bad luck lurks around the poem’s edges, and I wonder if the person who found “To Luck” pocketed it as a talisman or tossed it over her shoulder like salt.

in his younger days–very handsome!

W.S. Merwin was born in New York City in 1927. His father was a Presbyterian minister. He graduated from Princeton, and after a year of graduate study in Romance languages, traveled through Europe working as a translator and tutor to children from wealthy families. In 1976 he moved to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism, eventually settling on an old pineapple plantation in Maui, where he still lives today with his third wife.

 

Merwin’s circle has included many luminaries of the poetry world—he was classmates with Galwell Kinell, pupil to John Berryman, and friend of James Wright, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.

 

 

He was an anti-war activist during the Vietnam War and donated the prize money from the Pulitzer he won to a draft resistance movement. He continues to work as an activist, these days focusing on saving the rainforests of Hawaii.

 

He’s won too many awards and honors to list. I’ll just mention he’s a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the 2010 Poet Laureate of the United States, and leave it at that.

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poem is resting atop an upright rug

A Jacquard Shawl
by Ted Kooser
A pattern of curly acanthus leaves,
and woven into one corner
in blue block letters half an inch tall:
MADE FROM WOOL FROM SHEEP
KILLED BY DOGS. 1778.
As it is with jacquards,
the design reverses to gray on blue
when you turn it over,
and the words run backward
into the past. The rest of the story
lies somewhere between one side
and the other, woven into
the plane where the colors reverse:
the circling dogs, the terrified sheep,
the meadow stippled with blood,
and the weaver by lamplight
feeding what wool she was able to save
into the faintly bleating, barking loom.
These rugs aren’t shawls and they sure aren’t jacquard, but they are blue and they are woven (though surely not by hand), so here landed Ted Kooser’s poem.
When I read this poem I find myself rubbing my fingers together as if a shawl were between them, as if by feeling the shawl I connect myself with a history, as if by connecting myself with a history I connect myself to other living beings, the sheep, the dogs, the weaver. I love this poem, I’ve loved it for a long time, and I hope the rug shopper who finds it loves it too.
Ted Kooser is a favorite here at Poem Elf. Here’s a short bio from a previous post:

Kooser is something of an ambassador for getting poetry in the hands of “regular” readers.  He writes a free column for newspapers (American Life in Poetry), and started a publishing company, Wildflower Press (no longer operating) to circulate contemporary poets.  He strikes me as a lovely man whose ambition is not to enrich his life with literary success but for literature to enrich other people:  “I write for other people,” Kooser says, “with the hope that I can help them to see the wonderful things within their everyday experiences. In short, I want to show people how interesting the ordinary world can be if you pay attention.”

 

 

Ted Kooser comes from and lives in the ordinary, un-rarified world of the Great Plains.  He was born in 1939 in Iowa and has lived most of his life in Nebraska.  He began his career as a high school teacher but worked most of his career as a vice president at a life insurance company.  Here’s a wonderful fact about Kooser:  he flunked out of a graduate writing program (I’m not sure how you do that) which didn’t prevent him from becoming the Poet Laureate from 2004-06.  His work is deemed “accessible,” and therefore has received less critical attention than it deserves.

 

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poem is on barstool in foreground

 

Things

by Fleur Adcock

There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.

 

 

Just a reminder of a few Things before the start of the holiday weekend so you won’t have Worse Things to deal with come Monday (or Wednesday if you’ve got a long break).

Poet Fleur Adcock was born in 1934 in Auckland, New Zealand, but spent World War II in England. She moved back to New Zealand to attend university, and then made her career as a librarian in London before turning to writing and translating full-time.

 

Although this poem falls under “light verse,” her other work does not, and she has won many awards, among them the very grand-sounding “Queen’s Medal for Poetry.”

 

For a droll profile of this very English poet, link here.

 

Happy Fourth of July, everyone!

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