Posts Tagged ‘college’


poem is on bus shelter window

poem is on bus shelter window between my daughter’s hand and raised foot



For My Daughter

by Grace Paley

I wanted to bring her a chalice
or maybe a cup of love
or cool water      I wanted to sit
beside her as she rested
after the long day     I wanted to adjure
commend   admonish      saying don’t
do that   of course     wonderful   try
I wanted to help her grow old      I wanted
to say last words the words     famous
for final enlightenment      I wanted
to say them now     in case I am in
calm sleep when the last sleep strikes
or aged into disorder      I wanted to
bring her a cup of cool water

I wanted to explain     tiredness is
expected     it is even appropriate
at the end of the day





What changes a year brings. Last year when I dropped my youngest off for her freshman year of college, I unpacked the car all the while packing in as much advice as I could. Eat healthy. Join clubs. Keep your room clean. Blah Blah blah. This year on drop-off day I almost forgot to tell her anything at all until I heard her roommate’s father tell his daughter to study hard. Oh yeah, that.


When I finally got around to it, my advice was much less inspiring:

Don’t sped all your money on coffees.

Get a job.

Don’t be the drunkest girl at the party.


What can I say, she’s got good sense, this one. Or maybe I’ve learned something.


Maybe I’ve learned that even if I could open up my children’s heads and pour in my life experience and wisdom like cake batter, they’d still have to figure things out themselves. They have to learn–or not learn–from their own mistakes.


I say maybe I’ve learned because the urge to throw advice at my kids and hope it sticks never goes away, and sometimes (often times, if I’m truthful) so overwhelming I give in.


This is why I love Grace Paley’s “For My Daughter.” The speaker wants to tell her daughter so many things. She wants to tell these things right now, before she dies or loses her mind. She wants to correct, praise, encourage. Control.


But she keeps her mouth shut.


The un-acted upon urge animates the poem. “But I didn’t” is the unspoken coda. The poem reminds me that however much we want to shelter our kids from hardship and steer them towards happiness, in the end we can’t.


Paley is master of white space and here she uses it as punctuation and almost as stage directions. (You have to look at the photograph to get an idea of the spacing. It’s hard to recreate blank spaces on WordPress.) The break before the final two lines suggest that the speaker has to slow down, sit down, catch her breath after spilling out all her urgent worries. Her mothering has exhausted her. She too is tired.


Paley is better known for her short stories than her poems, but I’ve always loved her poems best. They’re short stories in themselves, little snippets of real life, spoken by a person who jumps off the page with her humanity. How Paley manages to use so many Latinate words–admonish, commend, appropriate, adjure –and still make the poem sound like words caught on tape and transcribed directly amazes me. Those Latinate words play off her plain-speaking voice and echo the push-pull of the urge to say and the wisdom of not saying.


IMG_3436I left the poem in a bus shelter close to my daughter’s dorm. Under a nearby tree (another sheltering structure) I left an illustration by the late great Maurice Sendak of a mother transforming herself to protect her little one from the rain.







If my last-minute words of wisdom went in one of my daughter’s ears and out the other, I hope these two postings will linger. What they both say, what I want to say to her, is this:

–I’ve got your back, always–

Or to use a few of Paley’s words,

–A cup of love/or cool water, here for you when you most need it–


Image 2Grace Paley was born in the Bronx in 1922 to Ukrainian Jewish parents who had been exiled by the Czar for their socialist politics. The family spoke Russian, Yiddish and English at home. She was the youngest of three, but so much younger that she was practically an only child.


She went to Hunter College for a year college and studied briefly with W.H. Auden at New School. At 19 she married filmmaker Jess Paley. They had two children, Nora and Danny, and later divorced.


She started her career as a poet, writing in the style of Auden, but in her thirties she began writing short stories about working class New Yorkers, particularly about women and mothers. She published several collections of stories, poems and essays.


Image 1She was a lifelong political activist, protesting the Vietnam War, nuclear proliferation, apartheid, the war in Iraq, and advocating for women’s issues. She taught at Sarah Lawrence, Columbia University and City College. She was the founder of the Greenwich Village Peace Center.


Her second husband, Robert Nichols, was a landscape architect and writer. The couple eventually moved to Vermont where she died in 2007 at age 84 of breast cancer.


You can read an interview she gave at the very end of her life here.

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poem is taped to bench

poem is taped to bench


Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks

by Jane Kenyon


I am the blossom pressed in a book,

found again after two hundred years. . . .


I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper….


When the young girl who starves

sits down to a table

she will sit beside me. . . .


I am food on the prisoner’s plate. . . .


I am water rushing to the wellhead,

filling the pitcher until it spills. . . .


I am the patient gardener

of the dry and weedy garden. . . .


I am the stone step,

the latch, and the working hinge. . . .


I am the heart contracted by joy. . . .

the longest hair, white

before the rest. . . .


I am there in the basket of fruit

presented to the widow. . . .


I am the musk rose opening

unattended, the fern on the boggy summit. . . .


I am the one whose love

overcomes you, already with you

when you think to call my name. . . .




Last Christmas, when one of my daughters made me a mobile with eggs and birds falling out of an overturned nest, I looked ahead to my own approaching empty nest with poetic appreciation. Out from the nest came the eggs, and from the eggs came colorful origami birds, each on its own flight path. New life out of the old. The next year would bring new life for my youngest, who would be leaving for college, and new life for my husband and me. Suddenly unencumbered, presumably we would chase each other around the empty house like teenagers.


All part of the never-ending cycle of life.


Now that day is here, and it seems less a poetic cycle than a prosaic ending. The end of my mothering.


I know, I know. I should be delighted that my daughter is where she’s supposed to be. With her new bedding and roommate and independence, she’s as happy as I could have hoped. And, yes, I’ll sleep better on weekends, cook less on weekdays, keep a cleaner house, keep all my socks to myself, and have more time to pursue what efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth (and Cheaper by the Dozen dad) described as the reasons we need to save time: “For work, if you love that best. For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure. For mumblety-peg, if that’s where your heart lies.” After 25 years of organizing my days around kids, I’m free to organize my days around mumblety-peg.


Bah. Right now I’d take four little kids pulling me in four different directions over freedom and mumblety-peg. A drawer full of matched socks can be depressing. Uninterrupted sleep can be dull. An orderly house can be a sad house. An orderly house means a house without Anne Marie’s worn Birkenstocks and enormous backpack, a house without her dancing and deep sleeping, her jars of Nutella, her unmade bed, her unexpected wisdom, her little kindnesses, the nearness and dearness of her–


that hook in the foreground looks like it's ready to whisk her away

that hook in the foreground looks like it’s ready to whisk her away


Before I start tearing up again, I’m going to turn quickly to the poem and keep this post brief.


I left Jane Kenyon’s “Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks” on a bench across the street from my daughter’s new dorm on move-in day.


I left it as a kind of protection, a talisman, a reminder of the love that will always be hers. I realize the “I” in the poem is a divine being capable of an unconditional love parents can only aspire towards, but still, this—


I am the one whose love

overcomes you, already with you

when you think to call my name


–seems on the mark for parents whose children suddenly forget to use their cell phones.


There’s another reason I chose this poem. Telling other people what to do is one of the aspects of mothering that’s hard for me to give up, and so after I reminded my daughter to take her thyroid medication and go to every class and eat vegetables and wear her glasses and go to Mass, I left the poem behind as my final instruction. To her and to all incoming freshman and returning upperclassmen, I say: Look out for each other, dear children. Be the patient gardener, the working hinge, the basket of fruit. Because college can be a lonely place sometimes. And for some kids, it’s lonely every day, every hour, every second. Suffering so often hides in plain sight.


Poet Jane Kenyon was no stranger to suffering herself. Maybe the real reason I selected this poem is that her clear-eyed exploration of pain and plain-spoken pleasure in the world as it is put my little sadness in perspective.


ImageKenyon was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1947. Her mother was once a singer and later a seamstress; her father was a piano player. She attended the University of Michigan, where she fell in love with her poetry professor, Donald Hall, nineteen years her senior and later U.S. Poet Laureate. Upon earning her masters at Michigan, she married Hall and moved with him to his family farm in New Hampshire. She suffered from depression all her adult life. When she was 46 she was diagnosed with leukemia, and she died a year later at 47. Four months before she died, she was named poet laureate of New Hampshire.


She only published four books of poetry in her lifetime, and the best of those poems were gathered in a posthumous collection called Otherwise. It’s one of my favorite books I own from any genre.


Jane Kenyon is the poet I’ve loved longest and best. The first book of poetry I bought was Otherwise. The first book of translated poetry I bought was her rendering of the poems of the great Russian writer Anna Akhmatova. And the second poem I featured on this blog was a Kenyon poem.


I’m going to close with that poem I posted four years ago, “The Clothes Pin.” It’s becoming clear to me that the only person I can tell what to do anymore is myself, so listen up, Poem Elf, you sniffling sap, you mawkish mush-head:


How much better it is

to carry wood to the fire

than to moan about your life.

How much better

to throw the garbage

onto the compost, or to pin the clean

sheet on the line

with a gray-brown wooden clothespin!




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poem is taped to bike rack

poem is taped to bike rack



by Jack Gilbert


Imagine if suffering were real.

Imagine if those old people were afraid of death.

What if the midget or the girl with one arm

really felt pain? Imagine how impossible it would be

to live if some people were

alone and afraid all their lives.





I heard someone say on the radio the other day that today’s college students have significantly less empathy than they used to.  The speaker was referring to a 2010 University of Michigan study that tracked college students’ empathy from the 80s and 90s to now.  Lots of factors have whittled away empathy:  rampant consumerism that turns our gaze to products instead of people; Facebook and other internet follies that reduce human beings to images; violent movies and games that de-sensitize us to others’ suffering; less face-to-face interaction and outdoor play; and poor parenting that focuses too heavily on achievement and not enough on contribution.


Poet Jack Gilbert’s “Games” is a pithy invitation to empathy.  Which is why, after hearing that disturbing statistic on our national empathy levels, I left the poem outside the student center at Michigan State University.  Also because the poem is short and therefore more likely to be read by busy students, and because I hoped its title might pull in young readers the way shiny objects attract magpies.


Certainly the title drew me in.  I was confused how “Games” related to the rest of the poem.  A game is a distraction, a playful activity we indulge in from time to time.  A reader in 2013 can’t help but associate “games” with “video games,” particularly when the subject is suffering.  Video games turn pain, blood, fear and death into pleasure.  But I don’t think Gilbert’s poem refers to video games.  It was written some time before 1982 in an age when kids played innocent games like Donkey Kong and Pac Man.  Violent video games like Mortal Combat didn’t come around until 1993.


Still, a couple images in the poem are strangely relevant today.  There’s actually a real “game” called Midget Tossing.  Even in the virtual world (there’s a live version too, unfortunately) such a competition can only be accomplished with a nuclear-level meltdown of empathy.


More striking, this season of “The Bachelor, ” a game show for prostitutes as far as I’m concerned, features a contestant with one arm.  I haven’t watched the show, but any suffering the one-armed woman has experienced as a result of her disability will no doubt be used to make it difficult for the bachelor to eliminate her.   Underneath the veneer of empathy she may elicit from the television audience is the less attractive appetite for melodrama and entertainment.


Perhaps “games” refers to the game of imagining other people’s suffering.  Perhaps “Games” suggests taking a break from our own lives to pay attention to other people’s.


The repetition of “imagine” in the poem calls up John Lennon’s version of that activity.  Lennon invites the listener to imagine that all things that separate people and cause animosity have disappeared:  religion, nationality, possessions, greed, and hunger.


Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do

No need to kill or die for and no religions too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace.


Merely by imagining a worldwide brotherhood, Lennon says, peace will come. The whole process is a cinch:  It’s easy if you try.


Gilbert makes no such claim. His poem makes Lennon’s song look glib.  He asks us to imagine other people’s pain and then tell us


Imagine how impossible it would be

to live if some people were

alone and afraid all their lives


If we look full-on at the face of suffering, it’s hard to go back to our nice little lives.  But even as he tells us that paying such close attention makes life impossible, Gilbert quietly asks that we try.


Thinking about attention and suffering reminded me of French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil.  And then I realized Weil not only shares with Lennon a too-early death, she shares his glasses and a passing resemblance.  See for yourself:

John Lennon by pmtape          sw009 by Faversham Stoa


Weil wrote, “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, ‘What are you going through?’  It is a recognition that the sufferer exists not only as a unit . . . or a specimen from the social category ‘unfortunate,’ but as a man exactly like us. ”


Simone Weil (1909-1943) died from an overload of empathy, along with a healthy dose of tuberculosis.  She was 34 years old when she refused to eat more than people living in occupied France ate.  She starved herself to death. Talk about it being impossible to live when we imagine other people’s suffering.


“The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle,” she wrote. In her own cuckoo-cuckoo crazy way, she worked hard at giving others that kind of miraculous attention.


She was born to a wealthy secular Jewish family in Paris.  Well-educated and brilliant, she took a job operating heavy machinery at a Renault factory.  She wanted to align herself with the workers, with the poor.  She fought (not well—her weak eyesight made her an unreliable sniper) in the Spanish Civil War and worked for the French resistance.  She worked and wrote on behalf of the poor and oppressed.  She was a socialist who spoke out against the suffering caused by the powerful Soviet bureaucracy on the weak and incurred a written attack by Trotsky.


Weil had mystical Christian experiences and was drawn to the Catholic faith, but she never converted.  She was suspicious of organized religion and the suffering it caused through the ages.  She believed her vocation was to remain outside the church.


Poet Jack Gilbert lived outside the mainstream as well.  He was born in Pittsburgh in 1925.  He failed out of high school, and worked as an exterminator until he was mistakenly accepted to the University of Pittsburgh because of a clerical error. He spent the 1960s in San Francisco but didn’t drink or do drugs.  All his life he was a traveler.  He spent many years in Europe, living simply and touring as a lecturer on literature for the State Department.


Gilbert didn’t publish much and didn’t give many public readings.  He published his first book in 1962 and his second twenty years later in 1982.  He died last November at age 87.


Gilbert seems to have had a big appetite for life, but little for fame.  In a Paris Review interview when he was 80, Gilbert speaks about what was important to him:


Being alive is so extraordinary I don’t know why people limit it to riches, pride, security—all of those things life is built on. People miss so much because they want money and comfort and pride, a house and a job to pay for the house. And they have to get a car. You can’t see anything from a car. It’s moving too fast. People take vacations. That’s their reward—the vacation. Why not the life? Vacations are second-rate. People deprive themselves of so much of their lives—until it’s too late. Though I understand that often you don’t have a choice.



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After the Children Leave Home


by Maria Mazziotti Gillan




Slowly, we settle into the quiet house.


We almost grow accustomed to the noise


of absence, that terrible stillness


that slides along carpeted surfaces.


“The house is so quiet without them,”


you say, your voice husky with loss.




For years, we have adjusted ourselves


to their schedules, the nights of fever


and coughing, the days of car pools


and tinker toys, PTA meetings


and homework, our time together


torn by their needs.




Now facing each other across this empty


landscape, we are vulnerable


as creatures suddenly bereft of skin.


somewhere along the way, caught in our busyness,


we lost the habit of speech,


the pathways leading to the secrets


of the heart.  So we begin


slowly our grave dance, moving


through the Braille of touch


into that textured country


where words are unnecessary.


Our bodies give warmth and comfort


as we struggle to reinvent the language


through which we name ourselves.

This time of year scores of parents across the nation sit on neatly-made beds in empty bedrooms, wishing, for the first time, that the covers and sheets were heaped in the usual jumble.  Only a few sit planning new uses for the rooms; most gaze at left-behind posters and framed photographs, thumb through yearbooks, and examine ticket stubs tacked on bulletin boards, just to feel for a moment the presence of the child who grew up too fast.


I have many friends sending children off to college this fall.  For some it’s the first time, and I feel tender towards those weepy mothers, having gone through that a few years back.  I wish I could say something other than, “It’s not as bad as you think,” a comment at least one woman I know would label a bald-faced lie.  Other friends have just sent their last child off to college.  I don’t have any comfort to offer them, and not even much curiosity; I don’t really want to know, just yet, what an empty nest is like.


It’s hard to read this poem for the same reason. “That terrible stillness/ that slides along carpeted surfaces” is an image that disturbs me more than unmade beds would the Felix Ungers of the world. Noise, chaos and bodies are what make a house a home for someone like me, a person with four kids and ten brothers and sisters.  Almost worse than the slithering silence in the poem is hearing Mazziotti Gillan’s husband, he of the gender we count on for emotional suppression, uttering only the tip of a deep sadness, in a “voice husky with loss.”


The second half of the poem offers a bittersweet hope, a renewal of erotic life.  The poet moves from a depletion of auditory stimulation to another type of stimulation. The empty, quiet house offers lots of opportunities for textural experience, shall we say, and there’s no talking but lots of Braille-like touching of each other’s bodies (this is beginning to sound like every husband’s fantasy of an empty nest) and dancing.  But the dance is still a “grave dance,” the beginning of the slide to the end.


Mazziotti Gillan’s grave dance is still three years away for me, but the past few weeks I’ve been reluctantly learning preliminary steps.  The only boy in the family is gone, and dang we miss the noise, even the arguments, the bluster and bravado, the slammed doors, the blare of the car radio, the thumping bass from upstairs, the burst of boys in the house, ready to eat and slump on couches and tease each other.  My youngest daughter, experiencing only-child-ness for the first time, has taken to shouting, stomping and off-key singing because she hates the quiet as much as we do.


A day after I dropped off Joe and a carload of bedding and clothes 271 miles from home, I heard Roseanne Cash on the radio singing “500 Miles.”  Her version of the somewhat maudlin Peter, Paul and Mary hit is desolate and raw with an unnerving organ accompaniment.  It was just the song to draw out the tears I had been holding back. (Driving, crying and singing along to the radio may be a road hazard but the combination is great therapy.)


Hearing Cash reminded me of another song of longing and loss, a song I used to sing to Joe at bedtime when he was a little boy.  His favorite of my nighttime repertoire was always “Shenandoah.”  The verse goes like this:


Oh, Shenandoah, I long to hear you,


Away, you rolling river


Oh, Shenandoah, just to be near you,


Away, I’m bound away, cross the wide Missouri.


 You can hear a lovely rendition here.


“Shenandoah” has always been a special song to me because I heard it sung for the first time—sorry for sounding pretentious—at a ceilidh in an upstairs room at a small hotel in Scotland, and years later my husband and I got engaged in the Shenandoah mountains.


After my earnest warbling, Joe would often tell me that he really liked the high parts (“away, you rolling river!”).   I’m a committed alto, nearly a bass, so this compliment spoke more to his own sweetness than the sweetness of my tones.


In his teen years, once in a great while he’d ask me to sing “that song” again. I would sing from just outside his bedroom door because while I loved the fact that he wasn’t too old to want to hear his mother sing at bedtime, his request embarrassed us both a bit.  Now it’s our little joke.  And right now it’s a flesh wound.  How I miss that funny little boy.


Since then I’ve been singing a lot.  Singing helps, I’ve found. Singing reminds me of who I am with or without kids around, and keeps noise in the house.


I left “After the Children Leave Home” on the shelves of the local Bed Bath and Beyond during the weeks of off-to-college shopping. I do wonder who found it, and if it made anyone feel worse or feel better.


Maria Mazziotti Gillian was born in 1940 in Paterson, New Jersey, birthplace to poets William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, and ever a city of immigrants and poverty.  Her parents were working class Italian immigrants.  She grew up speaking Italian at home and feeling shy in school because of ethnic slurs and her shaky English. She published her first book of poetry at forty and since then has received, among other awards, the American Book Award and the Barnes and Noble Writers for Writers Award. She directs the creative writing program at Binghamton University and founded a poetry center at the community college in her hometown.


I heard her speak once at a writer’s conference and what I remember about her, besides her croaky voice and an exuberance that made her confessions of childhood shyness hard to believe, was her directive to begin writing at the darkest corner of the psyche, in the most painful place, where feelings are uncharted.  That’s where the energy is, she told us.  Later when she read her own poems, it was clear she had no fear of exposing her own vulnerabilities and secrets. Hers is confessional poetry that feels universal and never self-serving or self-absorbed.


In a recent interview Mazziotti Gillan says, “I think there were so many things we weren’t supposed to talk about when I was growing up that I feel compelled to say the unsayable in my poems.  I think I see poetry as a vehicle for bridging the gap between people.”

Poem Elf trying to let go



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