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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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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.

*

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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On day 17 of the 2020 countdown, we honor one of the many poets we lost this year. I taped Derek Mahon’s “After the Titanic” to a gate in a small alley next to a music store.

 

 

After the Titanic

by Derek Mahon

 

They said I got away in a boat

And humbled me at the inquiry. I tell you

I sank as far that night as any

Hero. As I sat shivering on the dark water

I turned to ice to hear my costly

Life go thundering down in a pandemonium of

Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches,

Boilers bursting and shredded ragtime. Now I hide

In a lonely house behind the sea

Where the tide leaves broken toys and hatboxes

Silently at my door. The showers of

April, flowers of May mean nothing to me, nor the

Late light of June, when my gardener

Describes to strangers how the old man stays in bed

On seaward mornings after nights of

Wind, takes his cocaine and will see no one. Then it is

I drown again with all those dim

Lost faces I never understood, my poor soul

Screams out in the starlight, heart

Breaks loose and rolls down like a stone.

Include me in your lamentations.

 

 

We can only hope that “After the Titanic” is an apt title for 2021, that is, that the worst will be over. But poet Derek Mahon is here to tell us that disasters are never over. They just age into nightmares. Cheers, people. A round of post-traumatic stress for all!

 

The speaker lives as if he’s dead, his activities straddling the grey zone between life and death. He sinks, he hides, he stays in bed, he sees no one, he drowns (again), he breaks. I died in the crash too, he seems to tell anyone who will listen.

 

The anguish the old man feels is real but tempered in beautiful language. Perhaps it’s been polished after many tellings. In this way “After the Titanic” becomes a “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” a tale of disaster at sea told and re-told to expiate the central sin. Except in this case, the sin is not in killing but in surviving, perhaps at the expense of someone else—

 

They said I got away in a boat

And humbled me at the inquiry.

 

The precise observations pull us into the trauma while allowing the distance of art. The description of the ship going down is horrifying but also so amazing I want to stand up and cheer—

 

As I sat shivering on the dark water

     I turned to ice to hear my costly

Life go thundering down in a pandemonium of

     Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches,

Boilers bursting and shredded ragtime.

 

These deaths are not quiet ones. Jack may have slipped silently away from Rose on the raft, but Mahon’s speaker witnessed a cacophony of suffering. His own death-in-life is equally noisy—

 

Lost faces I never understood, my poor soul

     Screams out in the starlight, heart

Breaks loose and rolls down like a stone.

 

*

 

Let’s end on a happier note. Here’s Andrew Scott (the hot priest of Fleabag) giving a reading of Mahon’s poem “Everything is Going to Be Alright.” This video made the rounds at the beginning of the COVID pandemic—a niece sent it to me, and I remember feeling moved and lifted. Watching it again, I’m tearing up, thinking of all the lives lost in the meantime, and the stubborn urge to hope we are born to.

 

 

If it’s difficult to understand Scott’s emotional recitation, here’s the poet himself reading it.

 

 

*

 

Derek Mahon, who died in October of this year, was born in 1941 in Belfast, the only child of a working-class Protestant family.

 

He studied at Trinity College in Dublin (where he dated poet Eavan Boland!) and later at the Sorbonne. He lived in Canada, the United States, France and London for a time, working as a reviewer, scriptwriter, freelance journalist, features editor for Vogue, and as a teacher at various universities. He eventually settled in county Cork.

 

He was married once, had three children by two different women, suffered from alcoholism, and formed a lasting partnership with artist Sarah Iremonger.

 

He is revered in Ireland not only for his poetry but for his translations and his essays, memoirs, and cultural criticism.

 

He was 78 when he died. Here’s an obituary with more details of his life and work.

 

 

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Eighteen more days till the end of 2020 and our stay-at-home life goes on and on and on and on. Here’s a Charles Bukowski poem for the stir-crazy. I taped to a no-parking sign in a quiet suburban neighborhood.

 

 

wearing the collar

by Charles Bukowski

 

I live with a lady and four cats

and some days we all get

along.

 

some days I have trouble with

one of the

cats.

 

other days I have trouble with

two of the

cats.

 

other days,

three.

 

some days I have trouble with

all four of the

cats

 

and the

lady:

ten eyes looking at me

as if I was a dog.

 

 

The slow, mathematical way Bukowski delineates his uncomfortable living situation in “wearing the collar” makes me laugh. Imagine Bukowski, with all his crazy energy, confined to a house with too many cats and a woman who doesn’t adore everything he does. Funny. His casual disregard for capitalization (except for the all-important “I”) paired with touches of formality (that last colon, the references to “the lady”) add to the drollery.

 

It’s kind of funny too that we’re all “wearing the collar” now. Before March we were footloose and fancy-free and didn’t even realize it.

 

Of course for some people it’s not funny at all. No doubt the pandemic has intensified behind-closed-doors domestic turmoil. How many are trapped in homes where they live like Bukowski feels—like dogs unwelcome in their own homes, on edge, waiting for “trouble.” I can’t read this poem without shuddering for those people.

 

*

 

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.” Sweet guy. Nice guy.

 

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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Day 22 of the 2020 countdown finds us on a small pond in a nature center, contemplating contemplation. One of the biggest gifts this year brought us is time and space for contemplation.

 

poem is taped to dock

 

Priceless Gifts

by Anna Swir

translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan

 

An empty day without events.

And that is why

it grew immense

as space. And suddenly

happiness of being

entered me.

 

I heard

in my heartbeat

the birth of time

and each instant of life

one after the other

came rushing in

like priceless gifts.

 

 

If someone designed a Rorschach test using poetry instead of inkblots, here would be the first question:

 

Does the phrase an empty day without events fill you with

  1. existential horror
  2. relief
  3. I don’t even understand what that means

 

The pandemic has emptied our schedules. We leave the house on a need-to-go basis. We said goodbye to our usual distractions—shopping, movies, coffee shops, concerts—and embraced a new one, at least in the massive increase in attention we give it. Screen time.

 

But to experience the priceless gifts Anna Swir describes, empty time has to stay empty. I’m lucky to have experienced such soul-opening more than once, most recently this fall on a long walk on a hilly country road. Cool air, sunshine on yellow trees, wide open fields, and suddenly my heart opened, just as Swir describes. It’s almost a physical event. Unfortunately, in the middle of this rapture, the phone in my fleece pocket rang. It was my daughter, crying. She had tested positive for COVID, she didn’t feel well, and she was scared.

 

That pretty much sums up 2020.

 

I love this poem, I love the careful, precise way Swir illuminates a delicate emotional state. If you’ve ever experienced transcendent joy and tried to describe it to someone, you’ll appreciate the craft in this deceptively simple poem. Swir is the master of marrying complex internal events with clean and clear language. (Her poem “The Same Inside” is another example. It moved me near to tears, so deeply did I relate to it.)

 

*

 

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

 

Anna Swir (Świrszczyńska) was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1909. Her family was poor but artistic. Her father was a painter, her mother a former singer. Swir worked from the time she was young, and paid her way through university where she studied medieval Polish literature.

 

She worked as a waitress during WWII and began writing for underground journals. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, she joined the resistance. I read that she was arrested at one point during the war and told she would be executed in an hour, but I can’t find any details of her reprieve. During the bloody Warsaw Uprising (in which Poles attempted to liberate the city), she worked as a military nurse.

 

Although she began publishing poetry in the thirties, her poems weren’t available in English until the late seventies. In addition to writing poetry, she wrote children’s plays and directed a children’s theater. She lived in Krakow until her death from cancer in 1984.

 

 

 

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According to latest statistics, over half of Americans under thirty now live with their parents. For the 23rd day before the end of 2020, a poem for people who’ve had to move back home. I left “Home is so Sad” on a “Please Slow Down” sign in a pretty suburban neighborhood. Young adults whose lives are stalled out probably don’t need to be reminded of either sentiment.

 

 

Home is so Sad

by Philip Larkin

 

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,

Shaped to the comfort of the last to go

As if to win them back. Instead, bereft

Of anyone to please, it withers so,

Having no heart to put aside the theft

 

And turn again to what it started as,

A joyous shot at how things ought to be,

Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:

Look at the pictures and the cutlery.

The music in the piano stool. That vase.

 

I always felt it. It would last an hour, maybe a day. Stepping into my parents’ home, I’d get a wave of melancholy. The silence of that house, once so full of noise and life (a split-level house with thirteen people is rarely quiet); the useless objects that crowded it— a small cabinet whose sole purpose was to house telephone books, tchotchkes on the windowsill, an electric can opener on the counter; the deterioration of carpets and upholstery alongside the same downward slide of my beloved parents’ health. Yes, home is so sad.

 

No doubt my own kids will feel that way too, and maybe already do. This is perhaps the most melancholy feeling of all, to know that my life will some day depress visiting children.

 

No one’s whining of course—at least there is a home to come back to—and poet Philip Larkin isn’t whining (or whinging as he would say, being British) either. He looks at the old house in human terms, with sympathy, as if it were an aging athlete—

And turn again to what it started as,

A joyous shot at how things ought to be,

Long fallen wide.

 

Like the house it describes, the formality of the poem’s structure is out of fashion, from another time. But the neat stanzas and end-rhyme scheme are deeply pleasurable, metered and beautiful as the music in the piano stool. And such a title! One of my favorites.

 

*

 

By necessity poets’ biographies for this series are going to be brief. I can spend hours reading up on poets’ lives, but with a post-a-day schedule for this countdown, I won’t be able to put in the time. Apologies.

Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was born in Coventry, England. He went to Oxford where he met and became lifelong friends with a fellow curmudgeon, writer Kinsley Amis. He worked as a librarian at various universities, published two novels and enough poetry to make him the second most famous living British poet in his time. (The first being poet laureate Sir John Betjeman, who Crown watchers may have heard mention in several episodes.)

He died of cancer at age 63.

 

His life and work deserve a much fuller discussion. Link to an obituary here and an essay (along with a wonderful animation of his poem “Trees”) here.

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To kick off the countdown series, a poem at a coronavirus testing site—

poem is above neon “OPEN” sign

 

Susanna

by Anne Porter

 

Nobody in the hospital

Could tell the age

Of the old woman who

Was called Susanna

 

I knew she spoke some English

And that she was an immigrant

Out of a little country

Trampled by armies

 

Because she had no visitors

I would stop by to see her

But she was always sleeping

 

All I could do

Was to get out her comb

And carefully untangle

The tangles in her hair

 

One day I was beside her

When she woke up

Opening small dark eyes

Of a surprising clearness

 

She looked at me and said

You want to know the truth?

I answered Yes

 

She said it’s something that

My mother told me

 

There’s not a single inch

Of our whole body

That the Lord does not love

 

She then went back to sleep.

 

 

Are old people worth less than the rest of us? No one wants to be heard answering in the affirmative, but an affirmative answer lurks behind the way horrifying coronavirus statistics get sloughed off. Yes, hundreds of thousands of people died of coronavirus, but. . . But what?. . .  But most of them were old people. . . So?. . . So they were going to die soon anyway. . ..

 

All but the most brazen don’t finish the equation (at least out loud), to wit:

 

healthy economy > lives of the elderly

 

It’s not that simple, I hear you, I know. But one way or the other the dignity and value of our old people have been sullied this year. Not only by proponents of the above equation but by the facts of their suffering. Old people isolated in nursing homes and hospital rooms, shut off from human contact. Old people dying alone, struggling to breathe alone, attended to by strangers. Old age so often brings loneliness and isolation, but the pandemic has pushed that loneliness and isolation to an epic scale.

 

Let’s bring poet Anne Porter into the discussion. Porter gives us Susanna, a woman so old no one even can guess her age, an immigrant no less, from a country deemed expendable, a little country/ trampled by armies. (I’m guessing Poland.) Susanna sleeps all day and seems to require extensive care, or to use the more modern word, resources.

 

But the speaker in the poem sees that lump in the bed as a human being, worthy of attention and love. And the pay-off (a word I use only in the spirit of crass thinking) is huge.

 

Even if you don’t believe in Susanna’s theology—

 

There’s not a single inch

Of our whole body

That the Lord does not love

 

—you can see love in action, going back between the two characters like a tennis ball. The speaker gently brushes Susanna’s hair; Susanna in turn offers a bit of wisdom the speaker is receptive to. More than that, Susanna in her suffering has allowed the speaker to express the tenderest, kindest part of her character. Whether or not you believe that such kindness is the most central part of the human personality (as I do), you have to acknowledge that it exists in varying degrees in nearly everyone. And that is something to hold onto in dark times.

 

I offer”Susanna” as a tribute to our elders, to those who take care of them, and to all the suffering families who would give anything just to be able to carefully untangle/ the tangles of their loved one’s hair.

 

*

Anne Porter is in the top five of my favorite poets; her husband Fairfield shares that ranking in the list of my favorite artists. Here’s a bio from a previous post.

 

Anne Porter’s literary career was launched when she was 83 with the publication of her first book of poetry. Can I say that again? Her literary career was launched when she was 83. Surely that’s the most hopeful, life-affirming sentence I’ve ever written. 

 

Born in Boston to a wealthy family, she attended Bryn Mawr and married the American painter and art critic Fairfield Porter. Their marriage was not an easy one. He indulged his artistic temperament and sexual drives while she tended to their five children* and hosted his friends for months on end at their homes in Southampton and Maine. Lovely that some of these guests were his lovers, male and female, but to be fair, she had a liason of her own.

 

Their life together fascinates me. I’ve lost a good hour following their story link to link, drawn down down the rabbit hole of mid-century bohemia. Their social and familial circles pull in such a number of artists and intellectuals, it’s a veritable Bloomsbury group.

 

“Anne in Doorway” by Fairfield Porter

 

Like so many other wives of writers and artists, Anne Porter remained hidden and overlooked until the death of her husband. I have a vision of her tottering on her walker, step by step, on through the heap of egos, drama, passion and duty that blocks her path, until at last she emerges cheerfully on the other side, an artist in her own right. She died in 2011, a month shy of her 100th birthday.

 

*Her oldest son was mentally disabled in some way, either autistic or schizophrenic. When he died in 1980 she wrote the heartbreaking “For My Son Johnny.”

 

 For more information on the remarkable Porter, read this profile in the Wall Street Journal.

 

 

 

 

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Annus horribilis. Dumpster fire. Shit show. Fuster cluck. If nothing else 2020’s been a good year for swear words and rage.

 

Since at least June we’ve been hearing, I can’t wait for this year to be over. As if with the flip of the calendar page life will suddenly improve. We know that’s just a dream. Death is not going anywhere. Hate has settled in at the table. A nasty gang of heavy drinkers—fire, floods, heat waves, tornadoes et al— have ordered another round. Lingering in the front hall are murder hornets and locust swarms, and there’s probably a school shooter lurking in the basement. Not to mention the beast of overwriting who has taken over the study.

 

But even if 2021 isn’t going to be the end of disasters, it may well be the beginning of the end for some of them. We have hope. We always do. That’s why we count down the days for the new year, that’s why we can’t help but feel excited when the ball drops.

 

In the spirit of such hope, tomorrow I’m launching my own countdown:  a series of poems to mark the end of 2020. I have at least sixteen poems to post by the end of December. There’ll be poems for the pandemic and quarantine (more accurately, poems of isolation, anxiety, death and survival); poems that take on racial injustice and political division; poems of expectation and joy (because we’ve had that too); and poems by some of the great poets who died this year.

 

A big dumpster fire at least gives off some light, so see you tomorrow, Day 24 of the Poem Elf 2020 Countdown.

 

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