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Today’s Assistant to the Regional Poem Elf is Pam Sheen of Minnesota. Lucille Clifton’s “blessing the boats” is a wonderful poem choice for these turbulent times. . . the calm of Pam’s picture (she even managed to get a boat in the background) and the gentleness of Clifton’s words are like a cleansing breath.

 

Take it away, Pam!

 

 

blessing the boats

 

(at St. Mary’s)

 

by Lucille Clifton

 

may the tide

that is entering even now

the lip of our understanding

carry you out

beyond the face of fear

may you kiss

the wind then turn from it

certain that it  will

love your back       may you

open your eyes to water

water waving forever

and may you in your innocence

sail through this to that

 

 

Hi, had loads of fun w/ this, am at one of MN’s beautiful lakes, St Paul’s Como Lake. Was trying so hard to anchor poem from wind that I failed to zoom on Lucille Clifton’s poem. I chose it as one example of her trademark strength through adversity. Keep up your joy machine! — Pam Sheen

 

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Thank you, Pam! I’d love to hear from more of you. Email your pictures to thepoemelf@gmail.com.

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Ten years ago I taped my first poem (Mark Strand’s “The Coming of Light”) to a yellow post in a parking lot. My heart was racing as if I had done something transgressive. But I was also happy, pleased as punch, giddy. Who would find the poem? What would they think? Would the poem help them, heal them, lighten their load, brighten their day, irritate, unnerve or challenge them? Three hundred some poems later, those questions and that giddiness are still there every time I leave a poem for someone to find.

 

This month I’m delighted to share that experience with you, dear readers. Responses are coming in to my Ten Year Collaboration Project (yes, the official name keeps changing, gotta figure that one out).  I’ll post readers’ contributions every other day till I run out.

 

NOTE: send your pictures (one close-up, one context) and commentary (if you want) to thepoemelf@gmail.com. I’d love to get more than I can post in one month!

 

Here we go.

 

We begin with Sharon from Greeley, Colorado. I love her selections—Mary Oliver, Anne Porter, both spiritual wise women and great, great poets. Years ago I copied the Anne Porter poem/prayer on cardstock and sent to my kids. “A Short Testament” is absolutely the perfect poem for this time of quarantine.

 

I’m wasn’t familiar with Louis Simpson and I’m very glad to be introduced. (FYI, Simpson was b.1923, d. 2012.)

 

Sharon writes at the end of her post, “For me, poetry is kindness.” I love that. Thank you, Sharon, for your wonderful choices and commentary. (What follows is direct from Sharon)

 

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I took the photos in various areas around Glenmere Lake in Greeley, Colorado. (Staying within COVID19 mandatory parameters!!)

 

I chose the Mary Oliver poem to encourage whoever found it, to write. Across the street on the west side of the lake is someone’s personal garden which made for a natural venue.

 

 

“A Short Testament” I posted on a bench overlooking the lake. I thought it represented how many of us feel under mandatory quarantine—we have time to reflect on our lives and the poem offers language to heal.

 

A Short Testament

by Anne Porter

 

Whatever harm I may have done

In all my life in all your wide creation

If I cannot repair it

I beg you to repair it,

 

And then there are all the wounded

The poor the deaf the lonely and the old

Whom I have roughly dismissed

As if I were not one of them.

Where I have wronged them by it

And cannot make amends

I ask you

To comfort them to overflowing,

 

And where there are lives I may have withered around me,

Or lives of strangers far or near

That I’ve destroyed in blind complicity,

And if I cannot find them

Or have no way to serve them,

 

Remember them. I beg you to remember them

 

When winter is over

And all your unimaginable promises

Burst into song on death’s bare branches.

 

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“As Birds are Fitted to the Bough” I posted on the trunk of just-beginning-to-blossom crabapple tree boughs. It was a windy spring day when I secured it behind loose bark. The poem spoke to me during quarantine as I worked, rewriting on some personal poems.

 

As Birds Are Fitted to the Boughs

by Louis Simpson

 

As birds are fitted to the boughs

That blossom on the tree

And whisper when the south wind blows—

So was my love to me.

 

And still she blossoms in my mind

And whispers softly, though

The clouds are fitted to the wind,

The wind is to the snow.

 

 

A friend who found out I was doing this for your site said “I wish I was lucky enough to be walking around the lake and find these.” People have shown such kindness around the lake during the quarantine—they’ve put out tables of dog biscuits for furry friends, water for walkers, masks for the letter carriers, they’ve made sidewalk chalk inspirations of visual and word art. Now poetry has been added to the mix! I figure since the quarantine is mandatory for us, it’s what we do with it that really matters. For me, poetry is kindness. I want the world to know and feel the healing effects of words/language.

 

The poem I didn’t yet find a venue for is called “Hoses” by George Bilgere. Again, reflective of life in simpler times. Will we ever again hear the peels of childish laughter ring out as kids run through sprinklers? When will that laughter return? And in the meantime, what’s going on in the lives of children and adults under stay at home orders?

 

 

Hoses

by George Bilgere

 

I love the hoses of summer

hanging in their green coils

from the sides of houses,

or slithering through lawns

on their way to the cool

meditations of sprinklers.

 

I think of my father, scotch

in one hand, the dripping hose

in the other, probing the dusk

with water, the world

around him falling apart,

marriage crumbling, booze

running the show.

Still, he liked to walk out

after dinner and water the lawn,

fiddling with the nozzle,

misting this, showering that.

 

Sometimes, in the hot twilight,

my sisters and I would run

in our swimsuits through the yard

while he followed us

with a cold beam of water.

 

And once, when my mother

came out to watch, he turned

the hose on her, the two of them

laughing in a way we’d never heard,

a laughter that must have brought them

back to the beginning.

 

Thanks for your “assignment.” It offered me an opportunity to be creative and to smile as I went about my task.

 

Sharon

 

 

 

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Old World

by Charles Simic

 

 

I believe in the soul; so far

It hasn’t made much difference.

I remember an afternoon in Sicily.

The ruins of some temple.

Columns fallen in the grass like naked lovers.

 

The olives and goat cheese tasted delicious

And so did the wine

With which I toasted the coming night,

The darting swallows,

The Saracen wind and moon.

 

It got darker. There was something

Long before there were words:

The evening meal of shepherds . . .

A fleeting whiteness among the trees . . .

Eternity eavesdropping on time.

 

The goddess going to bathe in the sea.

She must not be followed.

These rocks, these cypress trees,

May be her old lovers.

Oh to be one of them, the wine whispered to me.

 

 

Such a droll opening line, classic Simic.

 

I believe in the soul; so far

It hasn’t made much difference.

 

Lest anyone think he’s being earnest, he covers up lickety-split with a world-weary shrug. What me, ache for transcendence? I was just kidding! Scratch a cynic, as they say.

 

The “Old World” of the poem’s title does double duty here. There’s the old world of Sicily, where the speaker sits among the ruins, eating and drinking. And there’s the really old world, the world before temples were built, the world before words. The world of the eternal, if you have faith it exists and go back far enough.

 

The speaker imagines the life of the shepherds and then of the trees and rocks, perhaps once men themselves. He’s chasing time farther and farther into prehistory (where the soul was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be), even as he is stuck in time. The afternoon turns to evening, the decay of the temple mirrors his own, and he will age to the point where the poem begins, where his beautiful picnic is a long-ago memory.

 

The funny thing is, as much as he longs for eternity, or at least a glimpse of eternity, eternity seems to be equally interested in him, as if a massive Peeping Tom were checking in on the little people—

 

A fleeting whiteness among the trees . . .

Eternity eavesdropping on time.

 

It’s the dance of the mortals and the immortals, as old as gods seducing men and then turning men into trees for daring to look upon their beauty.

 

That’s as far as I got with it. It’s a complicated poem. Your take on it is appreciated.

 

*****This is the last of the Simic series. I’ve finally depleted my supply. On Monday I’d like to start posting your entries in the Poem Elf Ten Year Anniversary Project. I’ve gotten a handful of wonderful submissions. I’d love to have enough to fill out the month of May. Link here for guidelines and here for suggestions. Send your photos to thepoemelf@gmail.com.

 

Go forth and poem-elf!

 

 

 

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poem is on sign

 

County Fair

by Charles Simic

 

 

If you didn’t see the six-legged dog,

It doesn’t matter.

We did, and he mostly lay in the corner.

As for the extra legs,

 

One got used to them quickly

And thought of other things.

Like, what a cold, dark night

To be out at the fair.

 

Then the keeper threw a stick

And the dog went after it

On four legs, the other two flapping behind,

Which made one girl shriek with laughter.

 

She was drunk and so was the man

Who kept kissing her neck.

The dog got the stick and looked back at us.

And that was the whole show.

 

 

Anyone else hearing strains of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” For the uninitiated (please initiate yourselves!—this is one of the greatest songs ever) here’s the first verse:

 

I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire

I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up

in his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement

I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames

And when it was all over I said to myself, is that all there is to a fire

 

Is that all there is, is that all there is

If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing

Let’s break out the booze and have a ball

If that’s all there is

 

 

(You really have to hear the song in Lee’s jaded, on-my-fourth-martini voice to get it. No surprise that the song has old world roots—link here for the Thomas Mann connection.)

 

“County Fair” is similarly blasé. The six-legged dog, the drunk girl, the amorous man, all fail to impress the speaker. But where Lee goes to, eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!, Simic’s speaker stays listless, bored and depressed to the end. You get the feeling he’s seen many horrors and knows how to survive them.

 

One got used to them quickly

And thought of other things.

 

 

It’s one way to get through the pandemic, I guess.

 

 

Here’s Simic’s bio from a previous post:

 

Charles Simic was born in Yugoslavia in 1938.  During WWII, his family was evacuated from place to place to escape bombing.  “My travel agents were Hitler and Stalin,” he jokes.  His father left to find work in Italy and was imprisoned instead.  After the war Simic and his mother and brother were briefly imprisoned by Communist authorities.  Eventually they were able to leave Yugoslavia for Paris, then New York, where the family was reunited with Simic’s father after ten years. Simic took night classes in Chicago and then moved to New York where he worked a number of odd jobs.  He served in the army in the early sixties, and arriving back in New York, earned a degree from New York University.

 

Simic has taught at the University of New Hampshire for nearly forty years.  He was named the Poet Laureate of the United States in 2007, won the Pulitzer Prize, and received a MacArthur Genius Grant, and remains one of our most popular American poets with readers and critics alike.  Quite a feat for a poet who didn’t speak English till he was fifteen.

 

NOTE:  Don’t forget the Poem Elf collaborative project! Taking entries now through mid-May at thepoemelf@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

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My tenth anniversary of blogging at Poem Elf arrives this May, and I need some help to mark the occasion. Not good wishes, thank you very much. I’m looking for elf assistants and elfettes—or if those terms are gag-inducing, how about—Poem Posters.

 

 

Here’s what I’m asking: put a copy of a poem in a public space (or as public a space as you have access to, given coronavirus restrictions), take a picture, and send to me. I’ll post as many as I get through the month of May.

 

 

 

Guidelines:

 

  1. Post a previously published poem. Not your own poem or your grandmother’s poem, or the poem of some up-and-comer in your poetry circle. Sorry for the limitation, but that’s how this blog has always worked.

 

 

  1. Choose a shorter poem if possible. Be sure to include the poet’s name.

 

 

  1. Take one close-up picture so the text is readable, and one context picture farther away so the surroundings are clear.

 

 

  1. Let me know where you placed the poem. Bonus if you tell me why, and/or what the poem means to you and why you chose it. If you want you can write a full-length post.

 

 

  1. Here’s the important part: do not send your picture and commentary to the comment section of this blog. Email to me at thepoemelf@gmail.com.

 

 

 

That’s it! Looking forward to seeing what everyone comes up with.

 

 

I’ll send periodic reminders of this project. Hope they don’t get irritating.

 

 

 

 

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poem is on yellow post

 

Romantic Sonnet

by Charles Simic

 

Evenings of sovereign clarity—

Wine and bread on the table,

Mother praying,

Father naked in bed.

 

Was I that skinny boy stretched out

In the field behind the house,

His heart cut out with a toy knife?

Was I the crow hovering over him?

 

Happiness, you are the bright red lining

Of the dark winter coat

Grief wears inside out.

 

This is about myself when I’m remembering,

And your long insomniac’s nails,

O Time, I keep chewing and chewing.

 

 

The Simic series continues. It started for no reason other than I happened to have three Simic poems on hand as I shelter-at-home. Now it seems I’ve pulled him center stage on cue. His old world memories, menacing imagery and dark sensibility feel just right during this time of collective longing for a pre-pandemic world we may never return to.

 

 

“Romantic Sonnet” opens with a tableau of a simple, sensual life—wine, bread, table, the murmur of prayers, the heat of a man lounging naked. But the sovereign clarity of that memory gives way to the speaker questioning his memory of a simultaneous scene.  Is the boy in the field resting or dead? The knife is a toy knife, but the crows hovering over carrion may be real. Or maybe the crows are him. The dreamy first act has ended in a nightmare of insomnia, of coat lining the color of blood, of fingernails long in spite of constant chewing.

 

 

I can’t get a grip on this poem. It keeps shifting on me. But I see it. I feel it. Something has died. Something is gone and the speaker desperately wants it back. Spoiler alert:  he’s not going to.

 

 

Hey, have a great week!

 

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

Charles Simic was born in Yugoslavia in 1938.  During WWII, his family was evacuated from place to place to escape bombing.  “My travel agents were Hitler and Stalin,” he jokes.  His father left to find work in Italy and was imprisoned instead.  After the war Simic and his mother and brother were briefly imprisoned by Communist authorities.  Eventually they were able to leave Yugoslavia for Paris, then New York, where the family was reunited with Simic’s father after ten years.  Simic took night classes in Chicago and then moved to New York where he worked a number of odd jobs.  He served in the army in the early sixties, and arriving back in New York, earned a degree from New York University.

 

Simic has taught at the University of New Hampshire for nearly forty years.  He was named the Poet Laureate of the United States in 2007, won the Pulitzer Prize, and received a MacArthur Genius Grant, and remains one of our most popular American poets with readers and critics alike.  Quite a feat for a poet who didn’t speak English till he was fifteen.

 

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Margot Zemach’s It Could Always Be Worse is one of my favorite children’s books. Funny, wise, and illustrated with Zemach’s signature zest. It’s been nearly twenty years since I last read it out loud to my youngest, but the title’s been running through my head ever since. Most especially lately.

 

It Could Always Be Worse is a re-telling of a Yiddish folk tale. A poor man is at the end of his rope. He lives with too many people in too small a hut.

 

So he goes to the rabbi for advice. The rabbi has him move his farm animals into the hut, one by one. Which he does.

 

The cow trampling everything in sight is the final straw. On the verge of madness the man heads back to the rabbi, who tells him to take all the animals out of the hut. Which he does. The book ends on a joyful note:

“Holy Rabbi,” he cried, “you have made life sweet for me. With just my family in the hut, it’s so quiet, so roomy, so peaceful… What a pleasure!”

 

This old story came to mind when my friend Marc Rosen sent me a poem he wrote in response to the coronavirus. Marc is a practicing psychoanalyst and unbeknownst to me a great and insightful writer. Here’s his poetry debut. I love this. Putting it on my list of good things coming out of the pandemic.

 

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It Wasn’t Supposed to Be This

by Marc Rosen

 

Maybe this.

Or the other thing.

Or some damn thing, like a hangnail or a stubbed toe.

Maybe a cold or a stolen car or even getting held up at gunpoint and losing all my credit cards.

Could’ve been the house afire or the dog got sick on the rug. Then rolled in it after he shat himself.

 

But it wasn’t supposed to be this.

The thick fog of worry.

The horizon blurry and moving away from me.

Where hysteria makes sense and the mad king reigns over chaos.

 

It was supposed to have been my grandmother’s soup tureen slipping from my wet hands after a disastrous dinner party where best friends became sworn enemies.

A tear on the lapel of my one and only bespoke suit, a tear right next to the hole the cigar had made.

All things equal, it was supposed to be a shadow on the x-ray, an anxious wait for results, a dark relief brought on by benign results.

Not this.

 

Not one long night where the dark hides every menace we know.

Not the wary looks from those who never noticed us.

Not the suspicious eye I cast on some stranger I might have otherwise ignored.

It shouldn’t be the tickle of worry about everything and everyone.

Nor should it be so damned quiet—motors silenced, no buzz saws or grumpy workmen, no neighbors shaking hands, leaning in, happy to see each other.

The post-mortem and every encounter a pre-mortem inventory of who’s next.

The maps, the counts, the graphs, the lies, the firehose I’m drinking from with the four-way streams.

It shouldn’t be like this, seeing our loved ones, our liked ones, our livelihoods on screens, staring into an ether one foot away and ten states away.

One should not ache like this to want to touch the doorman’s shoulder to say “thanks guy” or to be ignored by a surly, sneering waitress.

 

No, what it should’ve been is losing my favorite money clip, thick with bills and never finding it.

I really wish it had been two flat tires and 5% battery left and my AAA card stolen by the guy in the fourth line.

That’s what it really should’ve been, it should’ve been just like that.

Just like hot coffee on my keyboard and my front door splintering in half for no god damn reason.

 

This soup is lukewarm, unpalatable, the broth thin and watery.

It tastes like worry and helplessness and impotence and rage.

Bitter, bland and banal.

Not like the thick, rich stew we served in my grandmother’s antique tureen, with the chunks and morsels so memorable that we’ll never forget how good it tasted to lose the tureen and our friends all in one night.

 

 

 

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