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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

 

Miguel

by César Vallejo

 

I’m sitting here on the old patio

beside your absence. It is a black well.

We’d be playing, now. . . I can hear Mama yell

“Boys! Calm down!” We’d laugh, and off I’d go

to hide where you’d never look. . . under the stairs,

in the hall, the attic. . . Then you’d do the same.

Miguel, we were too good at that game.

Everything would always end in tears.

 

No one was laughing on that August night

you went to hide away again, so late

it was almost dawn. But now your brother’s through

with this hunting and hunting and never finding you.

The shadows crowd him. Miguel, will you hurry

and show yourself? Mama will only worry.

 

 

I regret posting this poem on a seesaw at an empty lakeside park.

 

I mean this poem, the words you see above, not César Vallejo’s actual poem, which unless you read Spanish, is inaccessible to you.

 

What I regret is that I used the translation above. I got it from the Poetry Foundation website, so it’s legitimate, but it seems to have sacrificed meaning for rhyme. The translation from Poets.org from the Academy of American Poets is completely different. I think it’s better. I say “better” cautiously. I think it’s better because it’s more complicated and layered:

 

To My Brother Miguel in Memoriam

by César Vallejo

 

 

Brother, today I sit on the brick bench outside the house,

where you make a bottomless emptiness.

I remember we used to play at this hour of the day, and mama

would calm us: “There now, boys…”

Now I go hide

as before, from all these evening

prayers, and I hope that you will not find me.

In the parlor, the entrance hall, the corridors.

Later, you hide, and I do not find you.

I remember we made each other cry,

brother, in that game.

 

Miguel, you hid yourself

one night in August, nearly at daybreak,

but instead of laughing when you hid, you were sad.

And your other heart of those dead afternoons

is tired of looking and not finding you.  And now

shadows fall on the soul.

 

Listen, brother, don’t be too late

coming out. All right? Mama might worry.

 

 

Given how distinct the two translations are, I can’t begin to examine this poem on a line-by-line basis. I can only feel it. It’s tender, it’s loving, it’s haunting. It breaks my heart. Like Vallejo, I have ten siblings. That’s as far as I’ll go with the comparison, it’s too painful to contemplate.

 

Death in “Miguel” is not abstract and it’s not in the past. Death is an absence that’s never filled, a game of hide-and-go-seek that’s never finished. The tears of frustration that ended the childhood game become exhaustion in the present. Miguel’s brother can look and look, but Miguel hides forever.

 

Here’s a musical version of the poem by the amazing Mercedes Sosas. No matter that I can’t understand the words, the intense emotion comes through.

 

*

 

How is it I’ve never heard of César Vallejo, poet, novelist, playwright, journalist, a man Thomas Merton called “the greatest universal poet since Dante”?

 

Vallejo (1892-1938) was born in a remote area of the Andes in Peru, the youngest of eleven children. His grandfathers were Spanish Catholic priests, his grandmothers Chimu Indians. Make of that what you will. (I read somewhere that his grandmothers were brought into the rectory as housekeepers. There’s a story in there and I’m not sure it’s romantic.) Regardless, Vallejo was deeply attached to both his indigenous and his Spanish identities.

 

The family was very religious. His father encouraged him to become a priest, but Vallejo didn’t want to be celibate. He went to university but had to drop out several times because he couldn’t afford tuition. In between enrollments he worked as a tutor and in an office at a sugar plantation, where he was appalled by the exploitation of the workers.

 

After graduating and getting his master’s degree, he became a principal at a prestigious school. At night went to opium dens. Then his life took a Job-like turn. He got fired after he refused to marry a woman with whom he was having an affair, he tried to commit suicide, he returned home, and his mother died. While he was home, or on his way home (the story confused me), a general store was looted and burned, a man was shot, and Vallejo was accused of instigating the crime and sent to jail for months. Released on parole, he moved back to Lima, and from there, on to Europe. He knew when he left he would never be able to return home because of his criminal status.

 

In Paris he lived in dire poverty and nearly starved to death. There he befriend an also-impoverished Pablo Picasso and met Jean Cocteau, among other artists. He studied Marxism, and decided to give up poetry altogether to write a book about Marxist theory. He became a Communist, took three trips to the Soviet Union, and was expelled from France for his politics in 1930.

 

In Spain he worked as a journalist during the Spanish Civil War. He was horrified at the conditions on the front. Somehow he was able to go back to Paris (I’m telling you, his life story has so many twists and turns I had a hard time following it), where he contracted an illness and could not recover. His death was dramatic. Not to make light of it, but I collect deathbed scenes and they usually have some element of humor. This one is no exception:

 

From poets.org:

 

No one knew how to heal him; at one point, his wife even enlisted the help of astrologers and wizards. On the morning of April 15, the Fascists finally reached the Mediterranean, cutting the Loyalist territory in two. At more or less the same moment, Vallejo cried out in delirium, “I am going to Spain! I want to go to Spain!” and he died. It was Good Friday.

 

He was only 46 when he died.

 

 

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Stick Elegy

by Terrance Hayes

 

The dead were still singing Turn the lights down low

Beneath Yellow Bridge where years before, clowning

And ass out, Stick jumped with nothing but the State

Championship trophy in his righteous clutch. The water

Was supposed to be deepest there, and for three seasons

Straight MVPs: Charlie “Fly” Kennison, Long Timmy Long,

And Rocket Jefferson, those are the names I knew, jumped

 

Free. But Stick’s ankle broke. I fished him out, crumpled

And bawling like the day he was born, like an object of

Baptism, and a life of bad luck followed in the shape of

Floods and fractured lightning, and then, numb, tooth-

Less, and changed, the dead refused burial, striking out, 2

By 2, 4 by 4, from the morgue house to raise trouble at

The bridge. I started hearing birds everywhere after that.

 

 

The lyrics in the first line of the Terrance Hayes’ poem—Turn the lights down low—seem familiar, but the song title escapes me. Which is exactly how I feel about the poem as a whole. Even after reading “Stick Elegy” over and over and over again, it escapes me even as I feel like I should know it well.

 

Let’s start with that lyric. It sounds like a slow-dance song, the type you’d hear at a high school prom of yore. But it’s not romantic and it’s not nostalgic. Dead people sing it—an image to make you shudder and avoid walking under bridges.

 

The boys mentioned in the poem seem familiar too. Kings of the basketball court, with their superhero nicknames, Fly, Rocket, Long, and the unfortunate Stick, whose very name, brittle and thin, suggest his destiny. Most of us knew such boys. Most of us knew or heard of that one boy, so full of promise and jokes and life, the boy we think of every time we jump in a pool, the boy who dove in the shallow end and broke his neck.

 

Then there’s the biblical references:  Noah’s flood and the two-by-two procession into the ark; Job’s lifetime of bad luck; baptisms in the river Jordan. I recognize the allusions but the applications are unsettling.

 

The poem’s conversational tone adds to my sense of familiarity. Listing the past jumpers, the speaker says, “those are the names I knew,” at once establishing a whole history of bridge jumpers before his time and his reliability as a storyteller. Like all good storytellers, the speaker knows when to pause for effect. The break between stanzas leaves the word “free” exposed, a tragic commentary on Stick’s fate. Behind the casual tone is a familiar form, the sonnet, with rhymes seemingly offhand but crafted most carefully: low/clowning, jumped/crumpled, tooth/2trouble at/after that.

 

Here’s where I start to lose the thread. A story is being told, but what is happening? Events happen over time. A story implies a timeline. In “Stick Elegy” certain words make timelines meaningless. The dead were “still singing” (emphasis mine) and a few words later we’re into “years before” territory. The poem ends with a past event that leans towards the present and future:  I started hearing birds everywhere after that. Does after that happen after Stick’s fall or Stick’s death or the dead singing under the bridge?

 

And who is this all happening to? Was the trouble at the bridge the speaker’s, Stick’s or does it belong to the dead people coming out of the morgue? Was it Stick who is changed or the dead? Look at the syntax around those lines. It’s purposefully confusing. We think we’re reading about Stick but all the sudden we’re not—

 

and then, numb, tooth-

Less, and changed, the dead refused burial

 

Look, as long as we’re in the land of the fanciful with these dead folks processing out of the morgue two-by-two and four-by-four, let me mention that Billy Collins is standing over my shoulder, accusing me of trying to

 

tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

 

So I’ll step back and think about what I do understand. It’s enough.

 

I see that the speaker is haunted by Stick’s life and death. The dead refused burial is a succinct and startling way to talk about grief.

 

I see that there’s a horrible reverse baptism at work here. Instead of baptism as a ritual marking the beginning of a new life in a community, Stick’s participation in the bridge-jumping tradition makes him an outcast and marks the end of the life he expected to have.

 

I see that the poem closes with birds, just as the story of Noah’s flood ends with a dove carrying an olive branch. But the birds at the end of “Stick Elegy” bring no peace and no promise. They sing to haunt.

 

There’s a big black boulder at a boy’s high school near my house. It sits outside the gym where boys exit to head to their playing fields. Every year new names are spray-painted on the rock, names of boys from the school who died, by suicide, by drowning. Whenever I walk past the rock, I touch it, sometimes tracing the wobbly-painted names with my finger. It’s my blessing to the boys lost and the boys left behind. Who knows how many boys do the same? At the very least, they see it daily, this rock that gives voice to their grief, this rock that says, We haven’t forgotten you, we will never forget you.

 

That, unfortunately, is what is most familiar of all about this poem.

 

I posted the poem on a bridge of course.

 

*

 

Terrance Hayes was born in 1971 in Columbia, South Carolina. His mother was a corrections officer, his father a barber for the military. He studied music and English at Coker College on a basketball scholarship. He got his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh and taught at Carnegie Mellon, University of Alabama, University of Pittsburgh. He now teaches at New York University. Among the many awards he’s won are the National Book Award, several Pushcart prizes and fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He’s published six books of poetry and one short story collection.

 

He has two children by his ex-wife, poet Yona Harvey.

 

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Today begins a death series. If you are of the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness tribe, the timing might feel off to you. It’s true, poems about death would be better suited to November, somber November with its All Souls Day, bare trees and sunless skies. But I’ve always been a Margaret are you grieving over goldengrove unleaving kind of gal. Fall, even on the most beautiful of days, is death. “Winter is coming,” as they say

 

 

Or as Hopkins puts it,

 

It ís the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

 

*

poem is on right-side picnic table post

 

Death Again

by Jim Harrison

 

Let’s not get romantic or dismal about death.

Indeed it’s our most unique act along with birth.

We must think of it as cooking breakfast,

it’s that ordinary. Break two eggs into a bowl

or break a bowl into two eggs. Slip into a coffin

after the fluids have been drained, or better yet,

slide into the fire. Of course it’s a little hard

to accept your last kiss, your last drink,

your last meal about which the condemned

can be quite particular as if there could be

a cheeseburger sent by God. A few lovers

sweep by the inner eye, but it’s mostly a placid

lake at dawn, mist rising, a solitary loon

call, and staring into the still, opaque water.

We’ll know as children again all that we are

destined to know, that the water is cold

and deep, and the sun penetrates only so far.

 

 

We begin the series with “Death Again” by the morbidly funny Jim Harrison. Has there ever been a funnier poem title? Think about it. Say it out loud with different accents and intonations. It’s really funny. But also not funny at all.

 

Harrison sets the tone right from the start— Let’s not get romantic or dismal about death, he says, and he jokes to downplay the import of the dreaded subject. At the end of the poem he drops the clown act to reveal a vision stark and bleak—

 

We’ll know as children again all that we are

destined to know, that the water is cold

and deep, and the sun penetrates only so far.

 

Does anyone read those lines differently, that is, can anyone find any hope there?

 

I left “Death Again” at a picnic site on a placid lake. In the background you can see a swimmer braving the cold water for a last dip on her silly float.

 

*

 

I left another Harrison death poem at a cemetery in the northern Michigan town of Bliss. Harrison probably would have appreciated being situated in The Bliss Cemetery.

 

I don’t like “Sister” as well as “Death Again,” so I’ll post the pictures without comment.

poem is on skinny tree trunk

 

 

*

 

Two relevant Harrison quotes I came across:

 

“Everything living ends up as a turd of sorts.” (from his collection of food essays, A Really Big Lunch.)

 

And second, less funny, more raw, his reflections on the untimely deaths of his sister and father, from his memoir:

 

“Death leaves you speechless, or at least verbless. You simply become a howling primate, audibly or not, with your bloody heart in your hand wondering how it continues to pump. The word love becomes mortally imprecise when the objects of love are torn from us. . . . During the many raw moments that followed I even wondered if it would have been more bearable if we hadn’t been such a vitally close family. We never missed kissing each other goodnight and now two of us were forever missing.”

 

Re-posting his biography from a previous post:

 

 

Jim Harrison (1937-2016) was born in Grayling, Michigan, about an hour south of where I taped his poem to a country road. He was second of five children in a close-knit, book-loving family. As a young boy he lost an eye when a little girl smashed a broken bottle in his face.

 

 

Two years after he graduated from Michigan State, his father and sister were killed by a drunk driver, an event that committed him to a writing life. He said in an interview, “If people you love are going to be taken from you, why compromise?” He got his masters in comparative literature and taught briefly at Stoneybrook University before rejecting academic life and turning to writing full-time, supporting his wife and two daughters with manual labor. The family lived in poverty for many years until he published Legends of the Fall, a novella which was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt.

 

He worked as a screenwriter on several movies, making fast friends with the rich and the famous in Hollywood, including Jack Nicholson and George Harrison.

 

His appetite for food, alcohol, drugs during his Hollywood days, and sex were over-the-top, leading to health problems in his older years. Which of course didn’t stop such an animal-nature from continuing to indulge. Here’s a characteristic bit from his obituary in the New York Times:

“If you’ve known a lot of actresses and models,” he once confided with characteristic plain-spokenness to a rapt audience at a literary gathering, “you return to waitresses because at least they smell like food.”

 

He was a prolific writer, publishing seven novellas, eleven novels, thirteen poetry collections, and three books of nonfiction. A nature lover, he kept a cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and a farm in Leelanau. In later years he and his wife spent summers in Montana and winters in Arizona.

 

Harrison is my second favorite food writer (M.F.K. Fishers holds the top post). The Raw and the Cooked is earthy and hilarious, a perfect read for fall.

 

Married for 55 years he died at 78, six months after his wife passed. He was in the middle of writing a poem when his heart gave out.

 

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My alter ego, unmasked

Every dog has his day and so with every elf.

 

Welcome. You have landed in the department of self-promotion. You may leave at any time.

 

I’m thrilled to have a piece published in Lithub chronicling my ten years as Poem Elf. Thanks to any of you who read it. More importantly, thanks to all for your readership of this blog! Your support is one of the things that keeps me going.

 

(Dubious side benefit to reading the essay:  if you scroll down far enough, you’ll find out what I look like. Actually I can save you the trouble. What I look like is ten years older than when I started this project.)

 

How I Found Small Joys in My Life as a Poem Elf

 

Next week I get back to business with a death series. Never have been a fan of autumn.

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poem is on mirror, above pillow

 

Mirror

by Sylvia Plath

 

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.

Whatever I see I swallow immediately

Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.

I am not cruel, only truthful ‚

The eye of a little god, four-cornered.

Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.

It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long

I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.

Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

 

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,

Searching my reaches for what she really is.

Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.

I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.

She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.

I am important to her. She comes and goes.

Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.

In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman

Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

 

 

Hate to say it, but the first stanza of Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror” reminds me of a grade school creative writing assignment. You know the kind—“Write a poem from the point of view of an inanimate object like a sock or a globe.” I hate to say it because who am I to criticize a poem by the great and venerable Plath, even one of her lesser ones. This reluctance to show disrespect also stems from a personal history of undervaluing Plath’s work for reasons unflattering to myself. More on that later.

 

Still, even if I won’t sing the glories of this poem, I’ve found its punch and power. Some of it’s going to sit with me for a long while.

 

There’s a clever structure at work here. “Mirror” is a poem about a mirror in which two stanzas mirror each other. Both are nine lines each, and both present a psychological portrait of a character. The first stanza brings us to the inner life of the mirror, the second to the woman obsessed with the mirror. The mirror knows exactly what she or he is, seems self-contained and proud. The woman comes off as hysterical, crying, throwing up her hands.

 

One meditates. One agitates. One is truthful, the other enamored of liars—the candles and moonlight that present her in a softer light. The mirror focuses on what it sees, the woman on how she is seen. The woman has the formula for self-worth backwards, as mirror images always do.

 

The last lines burn. I won’t ever search out new wrinkles in the mirror without thinking of these images—

 

In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman

Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

 

Plath herself was only 28, fresh-faced and beautiful, when she wrote the poem. She couldn’t have seen anything remotely close to a terrible fish in the mirror. But being young and beautiful, she well understood the role that youth and beauty have in a woman’s sense of her own value.

 

I left the poem in a boutique dressing room where I felt disgust at how a certain pair of pants fit my behind. Silly to let that terrible fish share the mirror with me.

 

*

 

One night in my mid-twenties, my book group was discussing Plath’s only novel, the semi-autobiographical The Bell Jar.  My friend had read it in a woman’s studies class in college and was enamored of Plath as a feminist hero. I spent the evening arguing, in my bombastic and irritating way, that Plath was not a victim of patriarchy but of mental illness. This is not the story, I said, of someone who felt hemmed in by rigid gender roles, this is the story of someone who suffered from serious depression. I resented at almost a personal level the hagiography of a person I saw as a victim of biology and not of societal expectations. Of the latter I was dismissive.

 

That night I slept at my mother-in-law’s house, my husband and my father-in-law being out of town. As I lay in bed, the windowpanes rattled and rattled and I became convinced that Sylvia Plath was trying to get in the room to take revenge for my comments. l was frightened. I went to my mother-in-law’s room, woke her, and said, “I know this sounds silly, but Sylvia Plath’s ghost is haunting me. Can I sleep with you?” To her great and abiding credit, the dear woman acted not the least surprised. “Sure,” she said, pulling down the covers on the other side of the bed. I slept soundly and in the morning she didn’t mention it.

 

My fright, it seems to me now, was just leftover guilt at steamrolling over the other book club members’ opinions and not giving Plath her full due. Yes, she suffered from clinical depression, but in a different environment, less constraining for an ambitious young woman like herself, she might have survived without resorting to suicide. Whatever combination of chemistry and environment that brought on her depression, the fact is that she suffered. She suffered terribly. For me, researching the details of her biography was as penance for false judgment.

 

 

*

 

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was born in Boston, Massachusetts to a German entomologist and his graduate student Aurelia Schober. Plath was the oldest of two. Her father died when she was eight.

 

Plath was an excellent student with a genius level IQ. While at Smith College she was chosen to be a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine in New York City. The experience was disillusioning. Clinical depression set in, and at age twenty-one she made her first suicide attempt. She crawled under her mother’s house with a bottle of sleeping pills, and was found two days later. She was sent to a private hospital, treated with electric and insulin shock therapy, recovered, and returned to school.

 

Plath graduated from Smith with highest honors and was granted a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge. There she met and married poet Ted Hughes. She returned to Smith to teach, and finding that teaching made writing difficult, took a job as a receptionist while taking a writing seminar with poet Robert Lowell at night. Lowell and Anne Sexton (who took the seminar with her) encouraged her to write in the more confessional vein for which she is famous.

 

She moved back to London, had two children, a miscarriage in between. She wrote to her mother that Hughes beat her two days before the miscarriage. Hughes seems to have been a hunky, charismatic fellow but obviously no prince. After discovering he was having an affair with their tenant, Plath moved into a flat with the two children, ages two and under one. This was a period of great creativity for her but also deep depression. London had one of the coldest winters on record, the pipes in the apartment froze, the telephone didn’t work, and the kids were often sick.

 

That February she committed suicide at age 30, famously sticking her head in an oven while her children slept in the room next door. I remember at book club judging her harshly for putting her children at risk this way. Turns out she carefully taped the doors to seal the kids off from the gas, and killed herself at 4:30 a.m., a few hours before the nanny would arrive.

 

Her daughter Frieda is an artist, and her son Nicholas, a fisheries biologist. He  committed suicide by hanging in middle-age. Theirs was a difficult life. After their mother’s death, the woman their father had an affair with moved in to care for them, and six years later committed suicide in the same fashion, killing her own daughter as well.

 

My heart aches for such suffering.

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poem is on center line

Dan’s Bugs

by Jim Harrison

I felt a little bad about the nasty earwig

that drowned in my nighttime glass of water,

lying prone at the bottom like a shipwrecked mariner.

There was guilt about the moth who died

when she showered with me, possibly a female.

They communicate through wing vibrations.

I was careful when sticking a letter

in our rural mailbox, waiting for a fly to escape,

not wanting her to be trapped there in the darkness.

Out here in the country many insects invade our lives

and many die in my nightcap, floating and deranged.

On the way to town to buy wine and a chicken

I stopped from 70 mph to pick up

a wounded dragonfly fluttering on the yellow line.

I’ve read that some insects live only for minutes,

as we do in our implacable geologic time.

As a longtime Jim Harrison fan, I can’t read this poem without an image of the poet, grizzled and drunk, winking at me for the tenderness on display, but I was surprised to find another northern Michigan man springing up, a man I encountered long ago in a plain little church one Sunday. He lumbered up to the lectern to sing and I thought, geez they must be really hard up for a cantor. He had a face like a pork butt and the hands of a butcher, but my goodness his voice was honey. He filled the church with some of the most beautiful church singing I’ve ever heard.

That same incongruity is at work in “Dan’s Bugs.” Weather-beaten, chain-smoking Harrison, prolific killer of animals and fish, stops on the highway to tenderly pick up the smallest of roadkill, a wounded dragonfly fluttering on the yellow line.

This poem is everything I love about my fellow humans, how surprising people can be with their beauty hidden under donkey skins, their talents wrapped in coarse coverings, their kindness under gruff exteriors. The poem is also everything I love about Harrison, his humor, his morbidity, his wry take on the human condition, his sweet heart.

Did I mention I love this guy?

*

Jim Harrison (1937-2016) was born in Grayling, Michigan, about an hour south of where I taped his poem to a country road. He was second of five children in a close-knit, book-loving family. As a young boy he lost an eye when a little girl smashed a broken bottle in his face.

Two years after he graduated from Michigan State, his father and sister were killed by a drunk driver, an event that committed him to a writing life. He said in an interview, “If people you love are going to be taken from you, why compromise?” He got his masters in comparative literature and taught briefly at Stoneybrook University before rejecting academic life and turning to writing full-time, supporting his wife and two daughters with manual labor. The family lived in poverty for many years until he published Legends of the Fall, a novella which was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt.

He worked as a screenwriter on several movies, making fast friends with the rich and the famous in Hollywood, including Jack Nicholson and George Harrison.

His appetite for food, alcohol, drugs during his Hollywood days, and sex were over-the-top, leading to health problems in his older years. Which of course didn’t stop such an animal-nature from continuing to indulge. Here’s a characteristic bit from his obituary in the New York Times:

“If you’ve known a lot of actresses and models,” he once confided with characteristic plain-spokenness to a rapt audience at a literary gathering, “you return to waitresses because at least they smell like food.”

 

He was a prolific writer, publishing seven novellas, eleven novels, thirteen poetry collections, and three books of nonfiction. A nature lover, he kept a cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and a farm in Leelanau. In later years he and his wife spent summers in Montana and winters in Arizona.

Harrison is my second favorite food writer (M.F.K. Fishers holds the top post). The Raw and the Cooked is earthy and hilarious, a perfect read for fall.

Married for 55 years he died at 78, six months after his wife passed. He was in the middle of writing a poem when his heart gave out.

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poem is on left-hand white post

 

from “Corinna’s Gone A-Maying”

by Robert Herrick

 

Get up! get up for shame! The blooming morn

Upon her wings presents the god unshorn.

See how Aurora throws her fair

Fresh-quilted colours through the air:

Get up, sweet slug-a-bed, and see

The dew bespangling herb and tree!

 

 

For the final installment of the Bedtime Series, the other side of the mattress. Time to get up and face the day, because poet Robert Herrick has a lot of beauty to lay before us—

 

See how Aurora throws her fair  

Fresh-quilted colours through the air

 

But first, a word in support of us night-owls. Shame has been heaped upon us since childhood. Unfair that early risers aren’t yelled at by their mothers,

 

Stay up! stay up, for shame!

Shame on you, going to bed before ten!

 

No, the early bird, worm in beak, gets accolades for industry. And just because we night-owls miss out on sunrises, everyone assumes we’re lazy.

 

That has nothing to do with “Corinna’s Gone A-Maying,” which is a one of those carpe diem poems where men nag women to have sex with them. Later in the poem (full text below), after much gorgeous language and clever argument, Herrick pulls out the stops—

 

Come, let us goe, while we are in our prime;

And take the harmlesse follie of the time.

                     We shall grow old apace, and die

                     Before we know our liberty.

                     Our life is short; and our dayes run

                     As fast away as do’s the Sunne

 

Tricky little bastard, isn’t he. Get out of bed, he says to poor sleepy Corinna, so we can go back to bed.

 

I left the poem fragment early one morning (early for me that is, round about nine-thirty) at the entrance to a kids’ summer camp. I was thinking of the slug-a-beds who feel as poet Charles Simic does (from the poem “Summer Morning”)—

 

I love to stay in bed

All morning

 

sentiments which if expressed would drive a camp counselor to whip off the covers and shake a body; and if said counselor happened to have encountered the Corinna poem fragment, to shout the opening lines.

 

But this is a case of my imagination overtaking good judgment. This poem-elfing was a flop. It’s always a terrible idea to post a poem fragment instead of a poem in its entirety—lines taken out of context can be misconstrued and misused as we see here—but that’s the least of it. Putting a poem about sex at a kids’ camp is plain creepy. What can I say. At least the camp is closed for COVID-19 and only a stray walker will encounter Herrick’s racy little poem.

 

*

 

 

Robert Herrick (1591-1674) was born in London, the seventh child of a goldsmith. When he was a baby his father fell out of a window, probably intentionally, and died. At age 16 he apprenticed with an uncle to follow in his father’s profession. Later he  went to Cambridge, became a clergyman at country vicarage, and served for many years until he was removed from his post because of his Royalist sympathies. With the ascension of Charles II to the throne fifteen years later, Herrick was re-instated.

 

In 1648 he published his one and only collection of verse, Hesperides. It was a massive volume with over 1,000 poems.

 

Herrick was a lifelong bachelor. The women to whom he addressed his love poems, Corrina among them, are thought to be fictional. He died at age 83.

 

*

Corinna’s Gone A-Maying
by Robert Herrick
Get up, get up for shame, the Blooming Morne
Upon her wings presents the god unshorne.
                     See how Aurora throwes her faire
                     Fresh-quilted colours through the aire:
                     Get up, sweet-Slug-a-bed, and see
                     The Dew-bespangling Herbe and Tree.
Each Flower has wept, and bow’d toward the East,
Above an houre since; yet you not drest,
                     Nay! not so much as out of bed?
                     When all the Birds have Mattens seyd,
                     And sung their thankful Hymnes: ’tis sin,
                     Nay, profanation to keep in,
When as a thousand Virgins on this day,
Spring, sooner than the Lark, to fetch in May.
Rise; and put on your Foliage, and be seene
To come forth, like the Spring-time, fresh and greene;
                     And sweet as Flora. Take no care
                     For Jewels for your Gowne, or Haire:
                     Feare not; the leaves will strew
                     Gemms in abundance upon you:
Besides, the childhood of the Day has kept,
Against you come, some Orient Pearls unwept:
                     Come, and receive them while the light
                     Hangs on the Dew-locks of the night:
                     And Titan on the Eastern hill
                     Retires himselfe, or else stands still
Till you come forth. Wash, dresse, be briefe in praying:
Few Beads are best, when once we goe a Maying.
Come, my Corinna, come; and comming, marke
How each field turns a street; each street a Parke
                     Made green, and trimm’d with trees: see how
                     Devotion gives each House a Bough,
                     Or Branch: Each Porch, each doore, ere this,
                     An Arke a Tabernacle is
Made up of white-thorn neatly enterwove;
As if here were those cooler shades of love.
                     Can such delights be in the street,
                     And open fields, and we not see’t?
                     Come, we’ll abroad; and let’s obay
                     The Proclamation made for May:
And sin no more, as we have done, by staying;
But my Corinna, come, let’s goe a Maying.
There’s not a budding Boy, or Girle, this day,
But is got up, and gone to bring in May.
                     A deale of Youth, ere this, is come
                     Back, and with White-thorn laden home.
                     Some have dispatcht their Cakes and Creame,
                     Before that we have left to dreame:
And some have wept, and woo’d, and plighted Troth,
And chose their Priest, ere we can cast off sloth:
                     Many a green-gown has been given;
                     Many a kisse, both odde and even:
                     Many a glance too has been sent
                     From out the eye, Loves Firmament:
Many a jest told of the Keyes betraying
This night, and Locks pickt, yet w’are not a Maying.
Come, let us goe, while we are in our prime;
And take the harmlesse follie of the time.
                     We shall grow old apace, and die
                     Before we know our liberty.
                     Our life is short; and our dayes run
                     As fast away as do’s the Sunne:
And as a vapour, or a drop of raine
Once lost, can ne’r be found againe:
                     So when or you or I are made
                     A fable, song, or fleeting shade;
                     All love, all liking, all delight
                     Lies drown’d with us in endlesse night.
Then while time serves, and we are but decaying;
Come, my Corinna, come, let’s goe a Maying.

 

 

 

 

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poem is taped to sign post

 

Late Hours

by Lisel Mueller

 

On summer nights the world

moves within earshot

on the interstate with its swish

and growl, an occasional siren

that sends chills through us.

Sometimes, on clear, still nights,

voices float into our bedroom,

lunar and fragmented,

as if the sky had let them go

long before our birth.

 

In winter we close the windows

and read Chekhov,

nearly weeping for his world.

 

What luxury, to be so happy

that we can grieve

over imaginary lives.

 

 

My husband and I have an ongoing debate about TV in the bedroom—three guesses where I stand—and I’ve just found the perfect argument for keeping the bedroom a TV-free sanctuary. Thank you, Lisel Mueller. “Late Hours” paints such a picture of marital harmony and contentment I don’t know who could resist it.

 

The world outside the couples’ bedroom is alternately vaguely menacing (the highway, with its swish and growl sounds like a predator) and otherworldly magical (the floating voices lunar and fragmented). Magic and menace move close, within earshot, but never penetrate their safe haven. Even Chekhov’s sad stories are only encountered at the safe remove of fiction.

 

I will think of the last lines every time I finish a book I love:

 

What luxury, to be so happy

that we can grieve

over imaginary lives.

 

*

 

I taped the poem to a sign at the historic Red Fox Inn in Horton Bay, Michigan. The inn was one of Hemingway’s haunts when he lived in Horton Bay while writing the Nick Adams stories. The Inn, previously a boardinghouse for lumberjacks, was during Hemingway’s time a restaurant known for chicken dinners. Now it’s a charming spot to pick up Hemingway books and memorabilia.

 

As long as we’ve got Papa Hemingway here, let’s see what he has to say about Dr. Chekhov, a writer also famous for his short stories. In Hemingway’s sour opinion, “Chekhov wrote about 6 good stories. But he was an amateur writer.” This despite counting Chekhov as one of his influences. Humph. Jealousy’s not a good look on such a handsome fellow.

 

*

 

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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poem is taped to rock

 

Solitaire

by Amy Lowell

 

When night drifts along the streets of the city,

And sifts down between the uneven roofs,

My mind begins to peek and peer.

It plays at ball in odd, blue Chinese gardens,

And shakes wrought dice-cups in Pagan temples

Amid the broken flutings of white pillars.

It dances with purple and yellow crocuses in its hair,

And its feet shine as they flutter over drenched grasses.

How light and laughing my mind is,

When all the good folk have put out their bedroom candles,

And the city is still.

 

 

No wonder nighttime wakefulness is so delightful to poet Amy Lowell. She slept by day and wrote at night. Would that I could be so industrious. For those of us cursed with two a.m. racing thoughts, Lowell’s trilling about how light and laughing my mind is when everyone else is fast asleep sounds like someone raving on about how fun it is to toss the kettle ball.

 

But let’s look at “Solitaire” from a less bitter angle. The poem was written in 1917, two years after T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which begins

 

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

 

Lowell surely had read that poem before she wrote “Solitaire.” (She was close friends with Ezra Pound who famously promoted Eliot’s publication.) I can’t help but hear Lowell echoing the “Prufrock” opening with her own—

 

When night drifts along the streets of the city,

And sifts down between the uneven roofs

 

and then choosing to wander in a completely different direction. To hell with your whiny neuroses, she could be saying. I’m going to enjoy the hell out of this.

 

And it’s off to the races. Or rather, to the Pagan temples and the Chinese gardens.

 

I left the poem at a scenic overlook of Lake Charlevoix in northern Michigan. It was 9:00 p.m. and the sun was just going down:

 

*

 

Amy Lowell (1974- 1925) was born the youngest of five children to a wealthy Boston-Brahim family. What a family—her great-grandfather a founder of the Boston Athenaeum, one brother a famous astronomer, another the president of Harvard, two cousins poets (James Russell Lowell and Robert Lowell) and the Lowell clan itself featured in a famous ditty—

 

And this is good old Boston,

The home of the bean and the cod,

Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots,

And the Cabots talk only to God.

 

Lowell was something of a terror in the private schools she attended, talking back to teachers and clowning around to make the class laugh. She was not allowed to go to college (being female) but she had a post-secondary education of sorts in the family’s 7,000 volume library and in the many trips she made abroad.

 

While in Europe she befriended and promoted Ezra Pound with whom she shared a passion for Imagist poetry. They had a falling-out over the direction of Imagist poetry, he unkindly calling her version “Amygism” and his protégé Eliot snidely calling her “the daemon saleswoman of modern poetry.” She published a journal of Imagist poetry in the United States, toured the country to promote poetry and provided financial assistance to other poets including Carl Sandburg. She didn’t begin publishing her own poetry till she was 36. As well as explicit love poetry to her partner of many years, Ada Dwyer Russell, Lowell wrote a 1,300 page biography of John Keats.

 

Lowell had a big personality and a glandular problem that led to obesity and health issues. She was also known for smoking cigars.

 

She died at age 51 of a stroke and won the Pulitzer Prize posthumously.

 

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For the second installment of the bedtime series, Wayne Dodd’s “Of Rain and Air.” I left it on an evergreen tree bordering an RV park.

 

 

Of Rain and Air

by Wayne Dodd

 

All day I have been closed up

inside rooms, speaking of trivial

matters. Now at last I have come out

into the night, myself a center

 

of darkness.

Beneath the clouds the low sky glows

with scattered lights. I can hardly think

this is happening. Here in this bright absence

 

of day, I feel myself opening out

with contentment.

All around me the soft rain is whispering

of thousands of feet of air

 

invisible above us.

 

 

It’s a common phenomenon that when you’re pregnant or wanting to get pregnant, suddenly you see pregnant women everywhere. That same selective attention carries over to covid-19 and poetry. Suddenly every poem seems to be a pandemic poem, a reflection on quarantine, anxiety, isolation, longing, loss. Like so—

 

All day I have been closed up

inside rooms

 

The closing emotion of the poem, too, might belong to the pandemic, to those moments when the slowing and reduction of regular life brings peace instead of panic—

 

I can hardly think

this is happening. Here in this bright absence

 

of day, I feel myself opening out

with contentment.

 

I’ve had many such moments the past few months, and I hope you have too, but then again I haven’t experienced the virus itself, the loss of loved ones from the virus, severe isolation, job loss, home loss, being quarantined with an unstable or abusive person, exhaustion and stress from full-time childcare.

 

Well, take what you can from the poem. In classic woe-is-me conditions—darkness, rain, aloneness—the speaker feels happy. Standing in the elements enlarges his soul. His connection to the natural world is just so beautifully expressed, it bears re-reading, and more re-reading, and then reflecting upon as you lay your head on your pillow tonight:

 

All around me the soft rain is whispering

of thousands of feet of air

 

invisible above us.

 

*

 

Poet, essayist and novelist Wayne Dodd was born in Oklahoma in 1930. He taught at University of Colorado and Ohio University where he served for many years as editor of the Ohio Review. He’s published eleven books of poetry.

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