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

 

poem is on framed sign

 

On a Night of Snow

by Elizabeth Coatsworth

 

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

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

little white shoes of snow that have heels of sleet.

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

See how the flames are leaping and hissing low,

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

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

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

 

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

strange voices cry in the trees, intoning strange lore,

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

on silent feet where the meadow grasses hang hoar –

Mistress, there are portents abroad of magic and might,

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

on silent feet where the meadow grasses hang hoar

 

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

 

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

 

Women wander

As best they can.

 

*

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

*

 

Here’s stubborn Santa and his cat prints:

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

In which the inhabitants

speak; the traveler listens.

 

 

 

Crocus

by Holly Wren Spaulding

 

I traveled cold

dominions

to arrive.

 

When a woman

leans close

we recognize

each other.

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

*

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

poem is on thin pine in foreground

 

Vine

by Holly Wren Spaulding

 

 

To touch

 

the upper

branches

 

of the tree’s

 

Yes.

 

 

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

In which a traveler arrives

at the edge of a wildland,

seeking guidance

from its inhabitants

and neighbors.

 

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

 

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

 

Listen to me. I am telling you

a true thing. This is the only kingdom.

The kingdom of touching;

the touches of the disappearing, things.

            —Aracelis Girmay, “Elegy”

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

Take “Heather,” here in its entirety:

 

Not a low fog above all.

 

The birth of mauve.

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Don’t think

 

I never wonder

 

what else I

 

might have been.

 

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

 

Ten thousand emissaries

 

blue, white, yellow, maroon—

 

an end to hostilities.

 

  

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

.

*

 

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

 

*

 

Here’s a bio of Spaulding from a previous post

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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The Darkling Thrush

by Thomas Hardy

 

I leant upon a coppice gate

When Frost was spectre-grey,

And Winter’s dregs made desolate

The weakening eye of day.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

Like strings of broken lyres,

And all mankind that haunted nigh

Had sought their household fires.

 

The land’s sharp features seemed to be

The Century’s corpse outleant,

His crypt the cloudy canopy,

The wind his death-lament.

The ancient pulse of germ and birth

Was shrunken hard and dry,

And every spirit upon earth

Seemed fervourless as I.

 

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited;

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

Upon the growing gloom.

 

So little cause for carolings

Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The ancient pulse of germ and birth

      Was shrunken hard and dry

 

Here’s what he sees when he looks up—

 

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

      Like strings of broken lyres

 

(FYI bine is basically a hard vine.)

 

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

 

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

 

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

      In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

      Upon the growing gloom.

 

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

 

So little cause for carolings

      Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

      Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

      His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

      And I was unaware.

 

 

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

 

*

 

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

 

 

 

*

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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We’ve nearly reached the end, folks. The last day of our terrible no-good very bad year. To close out this series, I’ve selected a gentle poem, May Sarton’s “House of Gathering.” It’s like a deep cleansing breath. I taped it to a bench in a complex where my friend Sister Pat, 80 and going strong, lives with her fellow Mercy sisters.

 

poem is on bench in background between statue and tree

 

House of Gathering

by May Sarton

 

If old age is a house of gathering,

Then the hands are full.

There are old trees to prune

And young plants to plant,

There are seeds to be sown.

Not less of anything

But more of everything

To care for,

To maintain,

To keep sorted out,

A profusion of people

To answer, to respond to.

 

But we have been ripening

To a greater ease,

Learning to accept

That all hungers cannot be fed,

That saving the world

May be a matter

Of sewing a seed

Not overturning a tyrant,

That we can do what we can.

 

The moment of vision,

The seizure still makes

Its relentless demands:

 

Work, love, be silent.

Speak.

 

 

We’ve lost too many old people this year. It makes me cry every time I think of it. By God, we need them. We need their perspective. We need their wisdom. Their love.

 

May Sarton’s “House of Gathering” is a beautiful reminder of what we’re missing when we lose our elders. I’ve been sitting with this poem like I’d sit with a beloved grandmother, listening to her life experience, gleaning what I can for my own. Here’s three things this grandmother/poem offers us:

 

—A cure for our addiction to outrage

 

Work, love, be silent.

Speak.

 

—A sage perspective on frustration

 

Learning to accept

That all hungers cannot be fed

 

—A call to action available to everyone

 

. . . saving the world

May be a matter

Of sewing a seed

 

 

Happy New Year, dear readers. I’ll be taking a short break after this marathon of postings.

 

*

Here’s a picture of Sister Pat on her 80thbirthday. Before her quarantine began in March (she was confined to her room for months), Sister worked with local immigrants. I’m sure that as soon as she gets the all-clear she’ll be back in action, spreading her love and wisdom in the community.

 

 

*

 

May Sarton (1912-1995) was born in Belgium, the only child of an artist mother and an academic father who studied the history of science. When the Germans invaded Belgium in 1914, the family fled to England, and then moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. There her father taught at Harvard.

 

Although she had a scholarship to Vassar, Sarton decided to become an actress. She joined a theater company, all the while writing poetry. At 19 she gave up acting and left the country to spend a year in Paris while her parents were in Lebanon. This became a lifelong annual trip to Europe. She met many of the famous writers of the day, including Poem Elf favorite Elizabeth Bowen. She published her first novel seven years later.

 

She had a fourteen-year relationship with Judy Matlack, an English professor. Sarton had breast cancer and later a debilitating stroke, and spent the last twenty years of her life in Maine.

 

In addition to a prolific output of poetry, Sarton wrote novels, memoirs, and children’s books. She toured the country giving readings to standing-room–only crowds. At various points in her life her work met with acclaim; at other times, derision. Criticism intensified the depression she suffered. Eventually her work became popular in Women’s Studies classes in universities, which did not please Sarton. She didn’t want to be known as a lesbian writer, which she considered a limiting label.

 

She died at age 83.

 

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On the second to last day of this sad and strange year, we turn to yet another poet who died in 2020. I left Lisel Mueller ‘s “Bedtime Story” on the banks of the Rouge River in suburban Michigan.

 

poem is on bird box

 

Bedtime Story

by Lisel Mueller

 

The moon lies on the river

like a drop of oil.

The children come to the banks to be healed

of their wounds and bruises.

The fathers who gave them their wounds and bruises

come to be healed of their rage.

The mothers grow lovely; their faces soften,

the birds in their throats awake.

They all stand hand in hand

and the trees around them,

forever on the verge

of becoming one of them,

stop shuddering and speak their first word.

 

But that is not the beginning.

It is the end of the story,

and before we come to the end,

the mothers and fathers and children

must find their way to the river,

separately, with no one to guide them.

That is the long, pitiless part,

and it will scare you.

 

 

This poem cast a spell on me. I can’t shake its dark effect and can’t stop thinking about its magical power. It draws me into its world so hypnotically—

 

The moon lies on the river

like a drop of oil

 

—and by the end has pulled back to reveal a timeless pattern of growth and healing. As bedtime stories go, it’s disturbing fare, a tale of abuse, of fathers who beat children and mothers who see and say nothing.

 

Why this poem for the second to last day of the year? It’s those birds in the mothers’ throats, awakening as the mothers find their voices at last. It’s the broken family standing hand-in-hand. It’s the mysterious trees coming into full bloom. It’s the river that washes away the rage. It’s the dead-eyed realism of that last stanza—

 

the mothers and fathers and children

must find their way to the river,

separately, with no one to guide them

 

—and that final statement which does indeed give me shivers—

 

That is the long, pitiless part,

and it will scare you.

 

Here’s the thing, though. It’s also the most hopeful poem I could find. At the end of 2020 we are still in the long, pitiless part. But the river is there, Mueller tells us. The river is there and it will heal us, as if in a baptism. Eyes wide open, humble to our failings, we will arrive eventually.

 

*

 

Here’s a bio of Mueller from a previous post.

 

Lisel Mueller (1924-2020) was born in Germany. Her parents were both teachers. After her father spoke out against the rise of Nazism, he was interrogated by the Gestapo, and eventually fled the country. Mueller, her mother and her sister followed a few years later when she was 15. The family settled in the Midwest.

 

Mueller graduated from University of Evansville, married, had two daughters, worked as a social worker and as a book reviewer for the Chicago Daily News. She took up writing poetry in her late twenties after her mother died and was not published until she was 41.

 

She taught at University of Chicago, Elmhurst and Goddard colleges, won several prizes including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. She is the only German-born writer to ever win the Pulitzer.

 

Lisel Mueller died this past February at age 96.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Poet Charles Bukowski has the dubious honor of being featured twice in the Poem Elf 2020 Countdown. I guess his dark sensibility and wild spirit resonate with me in a chaotic year.

With only three more days till we start afresh—or hope to God we do—let’s look at one of the many unpleasant gifts 2020 has bequeathed us:  foundational loss.  I taped Bukowski’s “pull a string, a puppet moves. . .”  to a lamppost in a tony shopping district in suburban Detroit.

pull a string, a puppet moves …

by Charles Bukowski

each man must realize

that it can all disappear very

quickly:

the cat, the woman, the job,

the front tire,

the bed, the walls, the

room; all our necessities

including love,

rest on foundations of sand —

and any given cause,

no matter how unrelated:

the death of a boy in Hong Kong

or a blizzard in Omaha …

can serve as your undoing.

all your chinaware crashing to the

kitchen floor, your girl will enter

and you’ll be standing, drunk,

in the center of it and she’ll ask:

my god, what’s the matter?

and you’ll answer: I don’t know,

I don’t know …

For a poem that was written in the early 70’s, “pull a string” has really found its moment this year. Amazing how predictive it is. Surely Bukowski had no idea what would be manifest in March 2020—

each man must realize

that it can all disappear very

quickly

So many things we took for granted are gone. Poof! as my Polish friend likes to say. No need for a list of what’s been lost. Undoubtedly you’ve made your own. Bukowski has his–

the cat, the woman, the job,

the front tire,

the bed, the walls, the

room

The second half of the poem paints a picture of the downside of our interconnected world. The details are different in Bukowski’s poem—

the death of a boy in Hong Kong

or a blizzard in Omaha …

can serve as your undoing

—but the truth holds. Virus in one small part of the world, millions of deaths every else; environmental disaster in one city, supply lines shut-down for local businesses thousands of miles away, revenue lost, livelihoods at risk. The fabled butterfly effect is real, never more so than in a pandemic.

The title suggests that a malicious puppet master is at work. An unknowable force sets chaos in motion, leaving us helpless and confused. In the wake of our destruction and self destruction we stumble, we rage. I don’t think that chinaware crashed itself to the ground.

Dark stuff. But don’t worry, I’m closing out the series with two poems to lighten the darkness.

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Below is a bio of Bukowski from a previous post. But first, an inspirational video about his life with a great message for anyone struggling to find their way.

Charles Bukowski, cult favorite poet of the low life, was born in Germany in 1920 to an American soldier and German mother. When he was two, his family moved to Baltimore, eventually settling in California. He had a tough start in life, and his subsequent alcoholism is not surprising:  beaten by his father, bullied by peers, and rejected by girls for his bad complexion and the German clothes he was forced to wear. At age thirteen a friend introduced him to alcohol and it was off to the races.

He went to Los Angeles City College for a few years and then moved to New York to become a writer. Lack of success in publishing led to a ten-year cross-country binge of heavy drinking, an enlarged liver, bleeding ulcer, and a close-call with death. He scaled back and took up writing again, publishing his first poem at age 35. He supported his writing with a variety of jobs including truck-driving, elevator operating and dishwashing. His steadiest employment was with the post office.

He was married twice and had a daughter with a live-in girlfriend he called “old snaggle-tooth.” Ouch.

He was a prolific writer. He wrote a column for an underground newspaper, published six novels, multiple volumes of poetry, short stories, essays, and letters, and several screenplays including Barfly.

He died of leukemia in 1994. He’s another poet who deserves more of a biography than I have time to give him. To get a better flavor of his big, big life and personality, link to his obituary here or here.

Note:  he did not say “Find what you love and let it kill you,” a phrase often attributed to him. That was singer-songwriter Kinky Friedman.

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Anyone still here? The countdown series is winding down—only four more days. The poems will be dark for the next seventy-two hours but I promise to close out 2020 on a positive note.

 

Today we look at the forgotten sister of the Family Annus Horribilis, climate change. Just as ugly as her siblings but unnoticed amidst their headline-stealing escapades.

 

I left Ko Un’s poem “In the old days a poet once said” at a gas station.

 

poem is on pillar

 

In the old days a poet once said

by Ko Un

 

In the old days a poet once said

our nation is destroyed

yet the mountains and rivers survive

 

Today’s poet says

the mountains and rivers are destroyed

yet our nation survives

 

Tomorrow’s poet will say

the mountains and rivers are destroyed

our nation is destroyed and Alas!

you and I are completely destroyed

 

 

(The repetition of the first line in the photographed poem is my error.)

 

We’ve been so consumed with the virus and politics in 2020, it’s easy to forget it’s also been a year of record-breaking natural disasters. Just here in the United States we’ve experienced a record number of hurricanes, we’ve had wildfires in California, Oregon and Colorado that destroyed more acreage than any fire ever, record heat, terrible flooding (remember the dam collapse in Midland, Michigan? me either and I live in Michigan). Worldwide the story gets worse—oil spills, volcano eruptions, typhoons, bushfires.

 

When I was looking for a poem to mark the year’s environmental disasters, Ko Un’s “In the old days a poet once said” was the shortest, simplest, and to my mind, most powerful. This is a grim little poem made slightly less grim (Grimm?) by the fairy tale overtones. In the old days, the poem begins, and the parallel structure of the tidy triad keeps the horrors in check. Even the Alas! (which holds the single end mark punctuation in the whole poem) is a light and fanciful touch given the outcome predicted. It all makes for a poem that’s hard to forget.

 

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I’ve never come across a poet with a more eventful life than Ko Un. Whatever could befall one human being—war, deafness, spiritual conversion, suicide, alcoholism, imprisonment, torture, literary stardom, and sadly, late-life accusations of sexual harassment and subsequent cultural “cancellation,” Ko Un has been through it. He’s a superstar (or was) in Korea but is only gradually becoming known outside his native country. For much of his life a repressive government prevented his work from being translated.

 

Ko Un was born in 1933 in Korea to a peasant family. During the Korean War he was forced to be a gravedigger. He was so traumatized by violence and death he poured acid in his ear to stop the noise, leaving him deaf. He entered a Buddhist monastery in 1952, but left after ten years. He fell into despair, drinking and writing nihilist poetry. In the 70’s, inspired by a newspaper article on the self-immolation of a political protestor, he committed himself to fight for human rights and democracy against the military dictatorship. He was arrested, imprisoned three times, beaten and tortured.

 

In 1983 he was freed from prison, got married, had a daughter, moved to the countryside. He has  published over 135 books, and has been considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

 

In 2018 allegations of sexual harassment led to his poems being removed from South Korean textbooks. Ko Un denied the charges.

 

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Today, on the eighth day till the end of 2020, let’s spend a moment, if you have it, with poet Miguel Algarín. Like Naomi Long Madgett and Natan Zach, he died this past November.

 

Today is also Christmas Eve, a day of anticipation, and so Algarín ‘s poem “Not Tonight but Tomorrow” seems just the thing. I left the poem in three places, the first one, featured below, on a telephone pole in a neighborhood in Detroit.

 

 

Not Tonight but Tomorrow (1978)

by Miguel Algarín

 

Not tonight but tomorrow

when the light turns the peach

tree green and the Earth sprouts

its young leaves looking to repeat

the magical mystery tour of

photosynthetic conversion of light

and moisture into life—

Not tonight but tomorrow

when my body will have shed

its fear of turning old and soft

will I turn my speeding mind

into the tunnels of your psyche

to melt the calcium that constipates

your synapses into a lubricating powder—

Not tonight but tomorrow

when the Universe moves on

beyond the field of action

that is the Earth to me and you

will I discover the interplanetary clues

that signal the roots of my moment to you—

Not tonight but tomorrow

will I throw my feelings into

New York streets to stew

in the violence and despair

of our planet—

Not tonight but tomorrow

will the Earth turn green again.

 

 

I’m short on time this Christmas Eve, so this post will be photo-heavy and text-brief.

 

There’s a lot going on in this poem and I’m not sure I get all the particulars. . .  science and metaphysics were never my bag . . . but without understanding every phrase, I feel the energy of the speaker, spilling over line by line. I feel his hope. Are there more hopeful words than “Not tonight but tomorrow”? It’s what I leave you with on this Christmas Eve. And a few pictures.

 

I taped another copy of the poem near the entrance to the emergency room at our local hospital. (It was impossible to get nearer without paying for parking.)

 

poem is on orange traffic cone

 

Like everyone else, I am grateful to and concerned for our health care workers and for their patients struggling to survive. A prayer (or a wish if you like) for them in the dark of a winter pandemic surge—

 

Not tonight but tomorrow

will the Earth turn green again.

 

 

 

I gave a third copy to a man named Terrence who I met delivering a different poem (“Midway”) in downtown Detroit. You see him here, he has no gloves, and it was cold.

 

 

“Can I keep it?” he asked. Maybe he was humoring me, but he seemed glad to have it. When I told him it was a poem about hope, he said, “I can use some of that.”

 

Can’t we all? Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all. I’ll be back next week.

 

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Short bio because there’s lots of cooking to do. Link here for a good obituary. He had a big, impactful life.

 

Miguel Algarín was born in Puerto Rico in 1941. His family moved to New York City in 1950. He got his bachelors from University of Wisconsin, his masters at Pennsylvania State University and his PhD in comparative literature at Rutgers, where he later taught Shakespeare.

 

He started a salon of sorts in his East Village apartment, and needing more space, opened the Nuyorican Poets Café on the lower east side. It became a famous and beloved performance space.

 

He died at age 79.

 

Note:  The majority of pictures of Algarín show him laughing. Must have been a lovely fellow.

 

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