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poem is taped to bus shelter

 

Last Night As I Was Sleeping

by Antonio Machado

translated by Robert Bly

 

Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that a spring was breaking

out in my heart.

I said: Along which secret aqueduct,

Oh water, are you coming to me,

water of a new life

that I have never drunk?

 

Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that I had a beehive

here inside my heart.

And the golden bees

were making white combs

and sweet honey

from my old failures.

 

Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that a fiery sun was giving

light inside my heart.

It was fiery because I felt

warmth as from a hearth,

and sun because it gave light

and brought tears to my eyes.

 

Last night as I slept,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that it was God I had

here inside my heart.

 

 

For this posting I took a Ringo Starr route—that is, I got by with a little help from my friends. Sending thanks at the outset to my niece Christine and my friends Ruth and Chris for elf assistance.

 

Christine helped me find a good spot for “Last Night As I Was Sleeping” in Washington, D.C., a city that has one of the most beautiful spring seasons in the world. Christine taped the poem to a bus shelter, taking her cue from the spiritual themes in the poem and the church in the background. Notice how fresh the air looks, a sign of earth’s springtime renewal, and hopefully our own as well now that we’ve entered the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

 

Ruth and Chris, both fluent in Spanish, helped me with a translation problem. More on that later.

 

*

 

Four mystical visions structure the poem. The visions come in dream form, perhaps one long beautiful dream, perhaps separate dreams connected and inspired by joy. The first dream is of water, water of a new life; the second of bees, making white combs/and sweet honey/from my old failures (oh the power of that image!); the third of the sun, it gave light/and brought tears to my eyes.

 

Those three images point, respectively, to renewal, transformation, and comfort. For religious people, the speaker of the poem included, renewal, transformation and comfort are gifts from God, who reveals himself/herself as the source in the final dream.

 

We’re accustomed to thinking of nightmares as dreams that allow us to feel emotions we wall off in our waking hours, the surfacing of subconscious fears to the conscious mind. But we don’t have a corresponding word for dreams that bring joy. “A good dream” feels lightweight; “vision” might do, but it has a spiritual connotation that makes it a less-than-universal term. I’m not offering an alternative—I’m just musing on how experiences without names often get discounted.

 

Which brings me to the troublesome phrase “marvelous error!” The first few times I read the poem, “marvelous error!” didn’t bother me. The poem holds so much emotion that such an outburst seems necessary, just as valves and vents are needed to let out steam.

 

But the words began to get in the way of my experience of the poem. Marvelous, at least in modern American English, has a silliness to it. I can’t help but hear Billy Crystal in Fernando Lamas mode or someone doing a bad imitation of how rich people talk.

 

More troublesome is “error.” Error covers everything from typos to moral failings. Whichever way it’s used, error signals mistake, something that is wrong, not as it should be. Naming the dream an error goes beyond just saying that dreams are not real. Is the joy, the transformation, the presence of God also a mistaken apprehension?

 

This is where Ruth and Chris came to the rescue. I sent them the phrase in the original Spanish— ¡bendita ilusión! They translated it as “blessed vision!” or “blessed illusion!” Well now, that changes everything. Vision and illusion both house some level of mystery. Illusion more forcefully says that events in the poem are not actually happening, but it doesn’t imply that they are false or wrong, especially since these illusions are blessed. Dreams, like poems, are not true in the literal sense, but so often truer to our emotional experiences than any scientific study or documentary could hope to be.

 

Poet Robert Bly translated the version of the poem I posted, and for the life of me I don’t understand why he used this particular phrase. Ruth and Chris’ translation sent me on a search for another version of “Last Night As I Was Sleeping.” Here’s one from professor emeritus and translator Armand F. Baker. I wish I had seen his version first—I like it better.

 

 

Last Night As I Was Sleeping

by Antonio Machado

translated by Armand F. Baker

 

Last night when I was sleeping,

I dreamed—blessed illusion!—

there was a fountain flowing

deep within my heart.

Water, tell me by what hidden

channel you come to me,

with a source of new life

I never drank from before.

 

Last night when I was sleeping,

I dreamed—blessed illusion!—

I had a beehive

deep within my heart;

and the golden bees

were using old

bitterness to produce

white wax and sweet honey.

 

Last night when I was sleeping,

I dreamed—blessed illusion!—

a blazing sun was shining

deep within my heart.

It burned because it gave off

heat like a red hearth;

it was a sun that illumined

and also made me cry.

 

Last night when I was sleeping

I dreamed—blessed illusion!—

it was God that I felt

deep within my heart.

 

*

 

Antonio Machado (1875-1939) was born in Seville, Spain, second of five sons. He moved as a young boy to Madrid where his father was a professor of folklore. When his father died suddenly, Machado was forced to put his university studies on hold. He worked as an actor across Europe and spent a lot of time in Paris. Eventually he got his PhD in Madrid and went to the Sorbonne in Paris.

 

In his early twenties he moved to Paris with his older brother Manuel (also an accomplished writer) to work as a translator. There he met many of the literary lights of the day, including Oscar Wilde.

 

He published his first poem a year after he moved to Paris, followed by a book of poetry which he continued to revise over several years. He became a professor of French literature at a school in Spain. When he was 34 he married the 16 year-old daughter of his landlord, and the couple moved to Paris. Not three years later she died of tuberculosis, leaving him broken-hearted.

 

He returned to Spain, taught French literature and collaborated with his brother on plays which proved popular.

 

In 1936 the Spanish Civil War separated him from his brother forever. His brother was trapped in the Nationalist zone. Machado left for Barcelona. Eventually he evacuated with his mother to head for Paris. He got pneumonia and died before arrival.

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poem is with tampons on shelf below the Midol products

 

to my last period

by Lucille Clifton

 

well, girl, goodbye,

after thirty-eight years.

thirty-eight years and you

never arrived

splendid in your red dress

without trouble for me

somewhere, somehow.

 

now it is done,

and i feel just like

the grandmothers who,

after the hussy has gone,

sit holding her photograph

and sighing, wasn’t she

beautiful? wasn’t she beautiful?

 

 

Not that Lucille Clifton needs any assistance from me, but I find myself defending this poem against an invisible audience of men who think menstruation is a subject best hidden in a bathroom drawer. A traditionalist like Harold Bloom, say, or a pack of 13 year-old boys squealing, “Gross!” Or whoever came up with the ridiculous euphemism “Feminine Hygiene Products” to spare the delicate-minded from upsetting concepts like period and menstrual blood.

 

To them I say, You were all born of woman. A woman who bled and bled and bled. So get over yourselves. We women have stories to tell. Stories that have more relevance, heart and humor than the infamous liver scene in Portney’s Complaint and the pedophiliac obsession in Lolita—and are far less disturbing.

 

Clifton says of her period

. . . you

never arrived

splendid in your red dress

without trouble for me

somewhere, somehow

 

True that. Is there a woman on the planet who doesn’t have a good period story? A story of humilation, inconvenience, joy, devastation, physical pain, secrecy? What’s more universally human than those?

 

So against commonly-held standards of what stories are appropriate to share, I’m offering one of mine:

 

When I was seventeen and just starting to date my husband, we went to a street festival. After we finished dancing, I sat down in my typical un-ladylike fashion, knees bent, legs separated, and noticed an enormous red patch between my legs. I stood up and John confirmed the stain covered my whole backside. What I remember about that afternoon was not humiliation, even though I had been strutting around  in broad daylight with a bloody bottom and he was just barely my boyfriend—what I remember is that was a funny adventure for us. We had to exit the crowd with some kind of dignity (he must have given me his shirt to tie around my waist), buy tampons, find a bathroom (no easy task in D.C.), and rinse out my shorts. My husband, bless his heart, remembers the incident as his entrée to a world mysterious and interesting. Which is a good thing because years later he was called on for more important menstrual assistance. . . .

 

(See? Once the period stories start it’s hard to stop them.) . . . On a night when I was an hour away at a poetry reading, our oldest came to him in tears. She had gotten her first period. He stayed calm because she was frightened. He found a box of pads and gave her a demonstration. He actually peeled the tape off the sanitary pad to show her how to attach it to her underwear. I smile every time I think of the two of them standing together in the hallway by the linen closet. How could I ever be mad at this man!

 

Which brings us to the second half of the poem, the softening of uncomfortable experience into nostalgia. Clifton gets this exactly right. I wasn’t a lover of my period till it was taken away. (Link here for that story and another of Clifton’s menstruation poems.) Stains, pains and migraines are eclipsed by meditations on the wonders of our reproductive life, the earthiness of our relationship to our bodies, the hormones that keep us young and desirable.

 

I love this poem. It’s tightly constructed, funny, and a little heart-wrenching for those of us on the other side of fertility.

 

. . . wasn’t she

beautiful? wasn’t she beautiful?

 

Yes, she was. She was indeed.

 

*

 

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

 

Lucille CliftoLucille Clifton by shawnnaconan was born in New York in 1936.  Her father was a steelworker who sexually abused her, and her mother was a laundress and gifted poet with little formal education. At age sixteen Clifton attended Howard University as a drama major. She finished her studies in New York.

 

She had six children with her husband Fred, a professor at the University of Buffalo. She was the poet laureate of my home state of Maryland where she eventually settled. She won the National Book Award and was the first African-American woman to win the prestigious Ruth Lilly Prize. She had a separate career as a writer of children’s books and the most unusual career for a famous poet I’ve ever heard of:  Jeopardy show champion. She died in 2010 at age 73.

 

Clifton suffered many setbacks in her life:  sexual abuse, the early loss of her mother, cancer, the death of her husband and two of her children. Yet from all accounts she remained joyful and full of life. 

 

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poem is on post on the left

 

 

My Life Before I Knew It

by Lawrence Raab

 

I liked rainy days

when you didn’t have to go outside and play.

At night I’d tell my sister

there were snakes under her bed.

When I mowed the lawn I imagined being famous.

Cautious and stubborn, unwilling to fail,

I knew for certain what I didn’t want to know.

I hated to dance. I hated baseball,

and collected airplane cards instead.

I learned to laugh at jokes I didn’t get.

The death of Christ moved me,

but only at the end of Ben-Hur.

I thought Henry Mancini was a great composer.

My secret desire was to own a collie

who would walk with me in the woods

when the leaves were falling

and I was thinking about writing the stories

that would make me famous.

Sullen, overweight, melancholy,

writers didn’t have to be good at sports.

They stayed inside for long periods of time.

They often wore glasses. But strangers

were moved by what they accomplished

and wrote them letters. One day

one of those strangers would introduce

herself to me, and then

the life I’d never been able to forsee

would begin, and everything

before I became myself would appear

necessary to the rest of the story.

 

 

You have go where you’ve gone to be where you are, I used to tell my kids. It’s a syntactical mess, of course, and maybe that’s why it’s less memorable to them than my other bon mots (Don’t be the drunkest girl at the party and Stay away from porn culture). Thank goodness for poet Lawrence Raab. In “My Life Before I Knew It” he says everything I wanted to tell them about heading off regret and seeing grace at work in your life.

 

I love Lawrence Raab. He’s droll and such a wonderful story-teller that the weightiness of his poems always catches me off guard. The ending of “My Life So Far,” for instance. With the lightest touch and the quickest maneuver, using One day and and then the way a dancer uses pause and pivot, he turns this amusing portrait of an awkward boy towards heart-swooning romance—

 

and then

the life I’d never been able to forsee

would begin, and everything

before I became myself would appear

necessary to the rest of the story.

 

 

This line—The life I’d never been able to forsee—almost makes me burst. Is there a more wondrous experience than to look back on the grubby, embarrassing moments of your life and see that with some invisible magic those moments led you, blind and headstrong as you were, towards the very thing your heart had secretly desired?

 

*

 

Here’s a biography of Raab from a previous post:

 

Lawrence Raab was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1946. He went to Middlebury College and earned his masters from Syracuse. He’s taught at University of Michigan, American University, and these days at Williams College. He’s one numerous awards and grants and has published seven collections of poetry.

 

Raab has also written screenplays and adapted Aristophanes’ The Birds for theater.

 

 

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poem is on right-hand pole of soccer net

 

For the Moment

by Pierre Revardy

translated by Kenneth Rexroth

 

Life is simple and gay

The bright sun rings with a quiet sound

The sound of the bells has quieted down

This morning the light hits it all

The footlights of my head are lit again

And the room I live in is finally bright

 

Just one beam is enough

Just one burst of laughter

My joy that shakes the house

Restrains those wanting to die

By the notes of its song

 

I sing off-key

Ah it’s funny

My mouth open to every breeze

Spews mad notes everywhere

That emerge I don’t know how

To fly toward other ears

 

Listen I’m not crazy

I laugh at the bottom of the stairs

Before the wide-open door

In the sunlight scattered

On the wall among green vines

And my arms are held out toward you

 

It’s today I love you

 

 

There’s a line in Pierre Revardy’s “For the Moment” that stopped me in my tracks—

 

The footlights of my head are lit again

 

At first this brought to mind a man in a tin foil hat with a giant reflector beam. I connected it to another line in the poem—

 

Listen I’m not crazy

 

(says the crazy person, always). But then I began to see a stage in a theater. The poem brings me to that magical time just before the curtain rises. The orchestra has wound down its warm-up—

 

The bright sun rings with a quiet sound

The sound of the bells has quieted down

 

Then—the curtains open! Lights! Music! Laughter!

 

My joy that shakes the house

Restrains those wanting to die

By the notes of its song

 

The house, in my reading, works double-time here as both the house with stairs and a door the speaker lives in, and the seating area (the house) for an audience at a theater. The poet provides the lights so we can see beauty, and then the music so we can hear joy. (Of course, this poem is translated from the French, so the idea of the house as a theater house might be a stretch.)

 

The poet makes no claim to perfection. His song is off-key, his notes mad. It’s not the perfection of his art that keeps people from despair or spreads joy. It’s the very act of doing it, of daring to be off-key and perceived as crazy, the act of opening the door to life in all its beauty and absurdity, of embracing what’s on the other side of threshold.

 

Revardy’s description of the artist’s role will stay with me forever. Once more, with feeling!—

 

The footlights of my head are lit again

 

—and this time let’s look at that word “again.” Again suggests that the speaker has been depressed, unable to function; but it also suggests that he lives in a cycle of lights going on and lights going off. The very title tells us his upbeat mood is a temporary one—“For the Moment.” For the moment, Life is simple and gay.

 

A momentary happiness. A fleeting state, not a permanent home. In this long, difficult year of isolation and loss, we’ve had to learn to savor momentary happiness. When it arrives, Revardy tells us, open wide the door, laugh with joy, and hold out your arms to bring it close.

 

*

 

I taped the poem late last fall to a soccer net on an empty field and never got around to using it. Now I’m glad I didn’t. “For the Moment” is much better suited to March than November. The promise of spring . . . new life . . . hope. . . the earth re-born. . . Revardy’s poem sings out with a similar joy.

 

*

 

Now let’s look at the strange life of Pierre Revardy. Revardy (1889-1960) was born in southern France. His parents may have been married to other people at the time of his birth and married each other when he was still young. He was homeschooled by his father, a winegrower.

 

At age 21 he moved to Paris to be a poet. His father financially supported him. When his father died a year later, Revardy had to support himself as a writer, which, amazingly, he did. He published a book of his poetry, got to be well known, and hung out in a circle of the Who’s Who of bohemian Montmartre—Picasso, George Braque, Juan Gris, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, André Breton. He founded the literary magazine Nord-Sud.

 

The Cubists considered him a Cubist writer and the Surrealist as one of their own, but Revardy considered himself neither, not liking to be confined. He influenced a generation of American poets, including Kenneth Rexroth, Frank O’Hara, John Ashberry, and Ron Padgett.

 

He was a spiritual man drawn to mysticism. In 1926, in a ritual to mark his renunciation of the world, he set fire to his manuscripts on a street corner in Paris in front of a crowd of admirers. Following the example of his friend, artist and poet Max Jacob, Revardy converted to Catholicism and moved near a Benedictine monastery. There he lived a semi-monastic life with his wife Henrietta for thirty years. In this purposeful retreat from society he eventually turned his back on organized religion as well.

 

During World War II, he worked for the French Resistance and refused to publish any work during the Occupation. After the war he published Le Chant des Morts (Song of the Dead) illustrated by Picasso.

 

His wife was a seamstress but his lifelong love was a seamstress of a different order, Coco Chanel. They had an intense affair for five years when he was in his early 30’s, and maintained a friendship throughout their lives after the affair was over. Some think he collaborated with Chanel on her famous aphorisms. On his deathbed he wrote a poem to her—

 

Dear Coco, here it is

The best of my hand

And the best of me

I offer it thus to you

With my heart

With my hand

Before heading toward

The dark road’s end

If condemned

If pardoned

Know you are loved

 

Revardy was known as a somber, serious man, but this description of his by his friend Mercure de France paints a more nuanced picture—

 

The man shone with health and love of life. His sharp and animated gestures, his voice, his Mediterranean verve, his nervous temperament, his child’s laugh, all were those of a man perfectly at ease with himself, who smiled on life and on whom life smiled. He loved to eat and drink, he adored women, the bustle of the street, café terraces, window-dressings, newspapers, books… and he displayed a passionate interest in art and its intimate relationship with poetry. And how he loved to get het up and hot under the collar, whether by an idea that had come to him, or by alcohol, and to lecture or even debate for hours and hours, a man quite at leisure, striding on tirelessly. Nothing in his appearance, in his curiosity always alert to all things, would have led me to believe that this man, so alive, so resplendent and handsome, concealed a wound in his side that he knew to be incurable, as his poetry would later reveal.

 

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poem is on right-side of lighthouse

 

The Slave Auction

by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

 

The sale began—young girls were there,

Defenseless in their wretchedness,

Whose stifled sobs of deep despair

Revealed their anguish and distress.

 

And mothers stood, with streaming eyes,

And saw their dearest children sold;

Unheeded rose their bitter cries,

While tyrants bartered them for gold.

 

And woman, with her love and truth—

For these in sable forms may dwell—

Gazed on the husband of her youth,

With anguish none may paint or tell.

 

And men, whose sole crime was their hue,

The impress of their Maker’s hand,

And frail and shrinking children too,

Were gathered in that mournful band.

 

Ye who have laid your loved to rest,

And wept above their lifeless clay,

Know not the anguish of that breast,

Whose loved are rudely torn away.

 

Ye may not know how desolate

Are bosoms rudely forced to part,

And how a dull and heavy weight

Will press the life-drops from the heart.

 

 

The third time I read this poem I started to think about all the things mothers do to keep their children safe—and wonder how far they’d go to keep them from danger. The latter brought to mind Toni Morrison’s Beloved; the former, at the extreme opposite end, present-day baby equipment. Such things as video monitors, special mattresses that keep baby’s air cool, edge protectors, bath spout covers, and knee pads for crawlers are marketed to new mothers in the name of safety. Offer “peace of mind” and you can sell a lot more product.

 

Over the years “peace of mind” dies a slow death, perhaps with the first toddler accident and surely by the teen years. Control over another life is a pipe dream, an illusion—and one that the mothers in “Slave Auction” never have a single second to enjoy.

 

Harper invites us to imagine the complete and utter powerlessness of people on the slave block, particularly of mothers. Defenseless, unheeded, bitter, frail, shrinking, mournful, desolate. The adjectives heap misery on misery. The mothers’ wretchedness is of the worst magnitude, Harper says, worse even than the physical death of a child—

 

Ye who have laid your loved to rest,

   And wept above their lifeless clay,

Know not the anguish of that breast,

   Whose loved are rudely torn away.

 

It’s almost disorienting to read about the moral chaos of a slave auction in such formal language, those neat four-line stanzas with their reliable rhyme scheme providing order to a profoundly disordered world. A wordless scream of rage and agony seems more fitting, and Harper seems to acknowledge that, as she describes the women looking over at their soon-to-be-sold husbands—

 

With anguish none may paint or tell.

 

Even more jarring to me is that Harper felt it necessary to explicitly say that enslaved Black people were capable of the same feelings as white people—

 

And woman, with her love and truth—

   For these in sable forms may dwell—

 

*

 

Frances Harper (1825-1911) was a poet, novelist, journalist, activist, and speaker. Her life is nothing short of amazing.

 

Born in Baltimore to free Black parents, Harper was orphaned at three and raised by an aunt and uncle. Her uncle was a minister who had established a school. There she was educated until she was 13. She took work as a seamstress and nursemaid to a Quaker family who owned a bookstore where she was able to take advantage of her access to books. She began writing and published first book of poetry at age twenty-one.

 

She left Maryland to become the first woman to teach at Union Seminary in Ohio (later Wilberforce University), where she taught sewing. A year or two later she took a job in Pennsylvania. She lived with the family of William Still, considered the founder of the Underground Railroad.

 

Moved by the fate of a free Black man captured and sold into slavery who subsequently died (courtesy of the Maryland Fugitive Slave Act), she decided to devote her life to the abolition cause. She worked on the Underground Railroad alongside Harriet Tubman and got gigs as a travelling anti-slavery speaker, drawing large crowds.

.

Meanwhile Harper was constantly publishing. One of her short stories was the first short story published by any American woman of any race. Her first three novels were serialized, her poetry was extremely popular, and she worked as a journalist.

 

She published over eleven books.

 

In her mid-thirties she married a widow with three children. Together they had a daughter, and Harper stopped travelling as a speaker to raise her. When her husband died four years after they married, she supported the family with her lectures. What this woman couldn’t do!

 

Harper was active in the temperance movement, and fought for universal education and suffrage. She cofounded the National Association of Colored Women with Harriet Tubman. She died at age 86.

 

There’s so much more to say about this woman. Her tombstone should be etched Always Ahead of Her Time—

 

  • Almost a hundred years before Rosa Parks made headlines, Harper refused to sit in the “colored” section of the trolley car and got in trouble with the conductor.

 

  • She was intersectional in her outreach before the term was coined. She fought against slavery and for women’s suffrage and temperance and Black suffrage and anti-lynching legislation. All her activism was connected.

 

  • She had a line on the Karens before Karens were Karens: in fighting to include the right of Black men to vote in the cause of women’s suffrage, she told an assembly at the 1866 National Women’s Rights Convention, “ I tell you that if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America.”

 

  • She called out white privilege before woke culture did: “I envy neither the heart nor the head of any legislator who has been born to an inheritance of privileges, “ she said, “who has behind him ages of education, dominion, civilization, and Christianity, if he stands opposed to the passage of a national education bill, whose purpose is to secure education to the children of those who were born under the shadow of institutions which made it a crime to read.”

 

I could quote her endlessly. Here’s just a few more:

 

  • “I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent. The good would vote according to their convictions and principles; the bad, as dictated by prejudice or malice; and the indifferent will vote on the strongest side of the question, with the winning party.”

 

  • “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.”

 

  • “You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs.”

 

  • Last stanza of her most famous poem “Bury Me in a Free Land”:

 

I ask no monument, proud and high,

To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;

All that my yearning spirit craves,

Is bury me not in a land of slaves.

 

To my knowledge Harper does not have a permanent monument. Despite her wishes, she needs one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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poem is by champagne display for a belated celebration

 

Thompson and Seaman Vows, African Union Church

(ca. 1847)

by Marilyn Nelson

 

Miss Charlotte Thompson, daughter of Ada

Thompson of Seneca and the late John,

and Timothy James Seaman, son

of the late Nancy Seaman, on Sunday.

Reverend Rush performed the ceremony.

The bride (twenty-four) was educated

by a literate friend, and by seeing

the African Theatre Company’s

productions of Macbeth and Richard III.

She teaches in Colored School #3.

Her father was a slave. Her mother, freed

by a clause in her late mistress’s will,

sews and sells exquisite lace lingerie.

The bridegroom (twenty-six) cannot read or write,

but ciphers and is a skilled carpenter.

His mother was slaved to an early death.

She told him he was descended from kings.

 

 

I make it a rule not to read other people’s interpretations of a poem before I post my own thoughts, but it’s happened by accident and I can’t pretend I don’t know what I know.

 

I was checking to see if “Thompson and Seaman Vows” was “found poetry, “ that is, an actual historical record of a wedding announcement that poet Marilyn Nelson came across and elevated with line breaks so that the words could come alive in a new way.

 

Spoiler alert:  it isn’t.

 

On the Poetry Foundation website is a young reader’s fan letter about the poem and Nelson’s generous answer. She explains the history of the poem, the historical milieu, her intentions. I can’t add much to it, so I’ll re-print her comments here.

 

Let me just say that Nelson’s poem makes all those Sunday New York Times wedding announcements look like puffed-up poseurs. In “Thompson and Seaman Vows,” the typical announcement elements—occupations, parentage, age, wedding details— are moving rather than envy-inspiring.

 

*

 

Dear Paloma,

 

[Do you know the song by Caetano Veloso called “Paloma”? It’s very beautiful. You can hear Caetano singing it on Youtube. Harry Belafonte recorded it in the Fifties; it’s always been one of my favorite melodies, though I don’t know or understand the lyrics.]

 

But, to the point: I’m very glad you like my poem so much that you wrote to me about it. I’m glad that you see that the poem is telling a story. I’m sorry I didn’t give a little introduction to the poem before I read it on the video. The poem is taken from my book of poems called My Seneca Village. Seneca Village was a small community of free black people in Manhattan, which was started in 1825 and thrived until it was destroyed as part of the creation of Central Park, in 1857. My book tells the stories of people I imagined living there.

 

“Thompson and Seaman Vows, African Union Church” is an imaginary wedding announcement in an imaginary newspaper. In writing it, I imitated real wedding announcements that appear nowadays every Sunday in The New York Times. The real, contemporary wedding announcements always begin with the names of the couple, the date of the wedding and the name of the person who officiated the ceremony. Then there is a paragraph about the bride: where she was educated, and where she works. Then a paragraph about her mother and father and their professional histories. Then the groom, his education and his work, and then information about this mother and father. If you read a lot of them, you see they follow a formula.

 

In the case of the couple in my poem, they are free, living in Seneca Village, New York, but the wedding takes place in 1847, a time when most of the black people in America where enslaved. In 1847 there were not many opportunities for black Americans to go to school. People who learned to read taught other people to read. That’s why the bride in the poem has been “educated by her literate friend.” In a couple of other poems in the book we learn that she loves Shakespeare, the great writer she knows (books were expensive; she wouldn’t have been able to own a collection of Shakespeare’s works, and libraries were usually available only to white people) only from seeing two of his plays performed by the African Theatre Company, in all-black productions (blacks would probably not be able to go to a white theater). But the fact that she can read and that she knows a little bit about the greatest poet of the English language makes her educated enough to teach in the Seneca Village school.

 

As for the groom, he is not exactly educated, but he can do math computations (i.e., measure a board and know where to cut it to fit a space in the building of a house) and he is a good carpenter (in other words, he has skills that translate into earning a good living). Although his mother was “slaved to an early death,” she did not forget that she and her people were stolen from a land that had its own greatness, and she passed on that knowledge and pride to her son, by telling him that he was descended from—as you put so well—“a noble family in Africa.”

 

Thanks for noticing the line breaks!

 

The topic came because I was trying to write poems that presented a panorama of village life, so I wanted to include a wedding. I found the names in the U.S. Census records of Seneca Village, but I invented the characters, the love story, and the wedding. There was a church with that name in Seneca Village. I’m so glad you loved my poem!

 

Best Wishes,

 

Marilyn Nelson

 

*

 

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

 

Marilyn Nelson was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1946. Her father was in the Air Force, one of the last of the Tuskegee airmen, and her mother was a teacher. The family moved often from military base to military base.

 

She started writing poetry at a young age. She graduated from University of California-Davis, got her Masters from University of Pennsylvania, and her PhD from University of Minnesota.

 

“Moonlily” is from a memoir-in-sonnets called How I Discovered Poetry, named in 2014 as one of NPR’s best books of the year. She’s published seven volumes of poetry for adults, eleven for young adults and four for children. She is also known for her translations of Danish poetry.  She’s won many awards, among them the Ruth Lilly prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the Frost Medal.

 

She was professor emerita of English at the University of Connecticut. In 2003 following her retirement from teaching, she founded Soul Mountain Retreat near her home in rural Connecticut. She has two children.

 

 

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For no particular reason, a poem for Black History Month in the produce section of a grocery store. Wonder who found it.

 

poem is under the onions

 

American History

by Michael S. Harper

 

Those four black girls blown up

in that Alabama church

remind me of five hundred

middle passage blacks,

in a net, under water

in Charleston harbor

so redcoats wouldn’t find them.

Can’t find what you can’t see

can you?

 

 

Sometimes this blog seems like an embarrassing record of all the things I don’t know (I never knew about—I’d never heard of—). My knowledge gaps become most obvious during Black History Month.

 

For example, I didn’t know much about the bombing of the 16thStreet Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Four girls killed, terrible, terrible was the beginning and end of my familiarity with that seminal event in civil rights history. Michael S. Harper’s “American History” sent me back on line to fill in the story, and it’s an awful one. Four girls ages 11-14 were getting ready for Sunday school in the bathroom of the church basement, one just re-tying the sash on her friend’s dress, when fifteen sticks of dynamite set right underneath them went off. The physical damage to the young girls is horrible to read, but the delayed justice for the murderers is infuriating. Not until 1977 was the ringleader jailed, and not until 2000 and 2002 were the co-conspirators prosecuted. J. Edgar Hoover himself shut down the investigation in 1968. After he died, records were un-sealed and the case re-opened.

 

The other incident mentioned in this poem, the hiding (and presumably murder) of enslaved men underwater in a Charleston harbor was completely unknown to me. And still is. I’m unable to link this to an actual event, so if you know something about it, please fill me in.

 

There are, unfortunately, many similar accounts of Black people thrown overboard to drown, so Harper’s conjuring of the event may just be an imaginative reference to Middle Passage murders like the ones aboard the Zong, a British-owned slave ship (low on water, the captain ordered 132 Blacks thrown overboard in order to collect insurance money); and the ones aboard the Leusden, a Dutch ship (in a life-threatening storm, the white crew took to the lifeboats and locked 664 Blacks below deck to die); and those aboard the Portuguese ship Tecora, where a third of the 500 Blacks in the slave hold were thrown overboard, chained together and tethered with iron balls. Supplies were running low, you see.

 

I knew nothing of these. Never learned about them in school, and I never found my way to educate myself. I don’t even know what I don’t know. Only recently did I learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, an event so hidden from historical attention that the number of Black Tulsans slaughtered is unknown but guessed to be about 300. And just today, in late February of 2021, I learned of the Draft Riots of 1863. At least a hundred Black citizens of New York City were hunted down by white mobs and lynched. A baby thrown out the window. A son slaughtered in front of his mother. The number of murders is probably closer to 175 and could be double or triple that, unknown and unquantifiable because, as in the poem, Black bodies are concealed. Below the surface. In basements. Under water. In mass graves. Unaccounted for in more ways than one.

 

Can’t find what you can’t see

can you?

 

Can’t find evidence of injustice if someone’s gotten rid of it, buried it, burned it, or de-humanized the victims.

 

It’s important to note that in 1970, when Harper wrote this poem, the four Birmingham bombers were still walking around free, their punishment a $100 fine. No wonder the title is bitterly ironic. How much of “American History” is hidden history?

 

*

 

Michael S. Harper (1938-2016) was born in Brooklyn, the oldest of three children. His father worked as a supervisor for the post office, and his mother was a medical secretary. The family had a lot of jazz and blues records, which later influenced Harper’s style.

 

When he was 13, the family moved to L.A. He was a pre-med student at L.A. City College but transferred to what is now California State University and got his B.A. and M.A. in English while working at the post office. He earned an MFA at Iowa Writers Workshop in 1963.

 

Poet Gwendolyn Brooks, impressed by his entry to a contest she was judging, helped launch his career in poetry. He taught at several universities in California and Oregon before settling in at Brown University where he chaired the MFA program.

 

Harper published over a dozen books of poetry. He was the poet laureate of Rhode Island, and won many awards, among them a Guggenheim fellowship and an NEA grant.

 

He married and had five children, two of whom died at birth. He later divorced. He died at age 78.

 

 

 

 

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photo courtesy of Lisa MacArthur

 

Longtime readers of this blog know that I celebrate February 14th with a Valentines Day Poem Blitz. I try to post poems featuring every kind of love—romantic, platonic, familial, and whatever you call love of the earth. I’ll usually throw in a poem for the broken-hearted as well.

 

This year it’s going to be a little different. This year love seems at once so present (all the beautiful stories of people helping, nurturing, nursing, encouraging, connecting) and at the same time so absent. Pandemic isolation and political division have given love a good thrashing.

 

So I’m going back to basics. This year I’m only working with two “poems” instead of six or seven. They aren’t actually poems at all (although I’ve inserted line breaks for the sake of easy reading}, and they sure aren’t romantic. If you’re looking for romantic verse for your sweetie, this post will be a cold shower of harsh truth. (You’ll find more traditional Valentines Day fare if you search in the side bar on every month of February since 2011, like here for instance.)

 

If I didn’t lose you at “harsh truth,” read on. I had Poem Elf helpers all over the country—east coast, west coast, Midwest—post two quotes from Catholic mystic Thomas Merton. Yes, a celibate, monastic Catholic priest here to tell us all about love. Dr. Ruth he is not, but his words have implications for every kind of love. They inspire me to love better, more deeply, more authentically. I hope they’ll do the same for others.

 

Thanks so much to all the helpers! You are my special Valentines this year.

 

Let’s start with the first quote, posted in a flower shop in northern Michigan by my friend Lisa:

 

 

The beginning of love is the will

to let those we love be perfectly themselves,

the resolution not to twist them to fit

our own image. If in loving them

we do not love what they are,

but only their potential likeness

to ourselves, then we do not love them:

we only love the reflection

of ourselves we find in them.

—Thomas Merton

 

[Note: I deleted a word in the first line because taken out of context, as this quote is, the word “this” is confusing. What Merton actually wrote:  The beginning of this love is the will. . . ]

 

 

*

 

My nephew Beau lives in San Diego and taped the quote to a rail on San Elijo Beach in Cardiff, California.

 

 

 

*

 

Jumping across the country to Vermont, my grand-niece Emma Jane left Merton’s words in the parking lot of Sugarbush ski resort.

 

poem is on the #10 sign

 

 

*

 

Heading south to Washington, D.C., my niece Charlotte taped the poem to a park bench in Logan Square:

 

 

 

*

 

And finally, back to the midwest, where my pal Becca left the poem on a lamppost in snowy Chicago:

 

 

One more from Becca—a very pretty presentation!

 

*

 

Two of my helpers tackled the second quote, which is even less Valentine-y than the first. Buckle up and love on.

 

Michigan Lisa found the perfect spot for this quote—at Walmart, positioned between “Love” and “The Hate U Give”—

 

 

As long as we are on earth,

the love that unites us will bring us suffering

by our very contact with one another,

because this love is the resetting

of a Body of broken bones. Even saints

cannot live with saints on this earth

without some anguish, without

some pain at the differences

that come between them.

 

There are two things

which men can do about the pain

of disunion with other men.

They can love or they can hate.

—Thomas Merton

 

 

*

 

Charlotte also left this one amongst books. Look for it on the lower shelf tucked next to Dan Siva’s book. The books are in the wonderfully named “Miss Pixie’s Antique Store.”

 

 

*

 

Thanks again to Lisa, Beau, Emma Jane, Charlotte and Becca! I am so grateful for your time and creativity and willingness to be an elf.

 

To all my readers, Happy Valentines Day. Let’s love like dogs! . . . like dogs love, that ispurely, unconditionally, affectionately, sloppily.

 

 

 

 

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February is Black History Month, and I have six poems queued up to celebrate it. Each poem shines a light on parts of U.S. history not emphasized in my own history education, which unfortunately was of the Social Studies ilk. (Social Studies, boring and artificial, caused  huge gaps in my knowledge of world history and geography.) The racial blind spots in my childhood textbooks leave me with some catching up to do. So here we are, learning new things every day.

 

Today’s poem is “Moonlily” by Marilyn Nelson. She recounts her schooling experience on a California Air Force base in the 50’s as the only black girl in a classroom of white children.

 

poem is on top of slide on this school playground

 

Moonlily

(Mather AFB, California, 1956)

by Marilyn Nelson

 

When we play horses at recess, my name

is Moonlily and I’m a yearling mare.

We gallop circles around the playground,

whinnying, neighing, and shaking our manes.

We scrape the ground with scuffed saddle oxfords,

thunder around the little kids on swings

and seesaws, and around the boys’ ball games.

We’re sorrel, chestnut, buckskin, pinto, gray,

a herd in pastel dresses and white socks.

We’re self-named, untamed, untouched, unridden.

Our plains know no fences. We can smell spring.

The bell produces metamorphosis.

Still hot and flushed, we file back to our desks,

one bay in a room of palominos.

 

 

 

I had to do a little research to understand this poem. Horse research. You may well be shocked at how little I know of horses, but in case you’re as ignorant of equine terminology as I am, here’s a guide:

 

A yearling is a one- or two-year old horse. Think of yearlings as tweens, not yet in puberty but close. Yearling mare just means the young horse is female.

 

Sorrel, chestnut, buckskin, pinto, gray are different horse colors. Most are brown-ish (sorrel, chesnut, gray), one is spotted brown and white (pinto), and only one (buckskin) is a light color.

 

A bay is a brown horse. A palomino is pale golden horse with a white tail and mane, the horse of royalty, parades, and the Mr. Ed show. Palomino only refers to color, not to a particular breed.

 

Now let’s talk about horse girls. The speaker in this poem (it is autobiographical, so let’s call her Nelson) is clearly a horse girl. You don’t have to ride horses to be a horse girl—as long as you’re a socially clueless pre-teen obsessed with horses, you qualify. (Warning: the horse girl world is a rabbit hole of memes and videos I spent way too much time in. Two of the best and weirdest:  link here to watch a girl jump like a horse, and here to watch a grown-up horse girl galloping along.)

 

“Horse girl energy” means being blissfully unaware about what other people think of you or what you wear or what you’re interested in. That’s a wonderful place for any child to be, girls in particular, Black girls especially. In the yearling stage of girlhood, girls are at the peak of feeling unselfconscious of their bodies, running wild and free in their play, and in the language of the poem, self-named, untamed, untouched, unridden.

 

There’s so much joy in this sonnet, so much motion and color. At play most of the girls are brown horses; they run together in a herd, dressed the same in their pastel dresses and saddle shoes. Outside the only divisions that matter are between big kids and little kids, between boys and girls. And then comes the recess-is-over bell. For Nelson, filing back into the classroom means more than the end of fun. It’s the end of belonging. The sudden, acute isolation this little girl feels stabs my heart—

 

Still hot and flushed, we file back to our desks,

one bay in a room of palominos.

 

*

 

If anyone is looking for a worthy organization to donate to this month, Detroit Horse Power is an equestrian center that works with urban youth. Here’s their mission statement:

Detroit Horse Power uniquely addresses two persistent problems facing the Motor City: the shortage of opportunities for metro Detroit’s vulnerable populations (especially children) and the abundance of vacant land. Through riding and caring for horses in a safe and enriching space, program participants learn valuable skills that set them up for future success.

 

Link here for more information.

 

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Marilyn Nelson was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1946. Her father was in the Air Force, one of the last of the Tuskegee airmen, and her mother was a teacher. The family moved often from military base to military base.

 

She started writing poetry at a young age. She graduated from University of California-Davis, got her Masters from University of Pennsylvania, and her PhD from University of Minnesota.

 

“Moonlily” is from a memoir-in-sonnets called How I Discovered Poetry, named in 2014 as one of NPR’s best books of the year. She’s published seven volumes of poetry for adults, eleven for young adults and four for children. She is also known for her translations of Danish poetry.  She’s won many awards, among them the Ruth Lilly prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the Frost Medal.

 

She was professor emerita of English at the University of Connecticut. In 2003 following her retirement from teaching, she founded Soul Mountain Retreat near her home in rural Connecticut. She has two children.

 

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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

 

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