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poem is on bulletin board under rainbow

poem is on bulletin board under rainbow

 

Sudden

by Nick Flynn

 

If it had been a heart attack, the newspaper

might have used the word massive,

as if a mountain range had opened

inside her, but instead

 

it used the word suddenly, a light coming on

 

in an empty room. The telephone

 

fell from my shoulder, a black parrot repeating

                         something happened, something awful

 

a sunday, dusky. If it had been

 

terminal, we could have cradled her

as she grew smaller, wiped her mouth,

 

said good-bye. But it was sudden,

 

how overnight we could be orphaned

& the world become a bell we’d crawl inside

& the ringing all we’d eat.

 

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(I posted this on Twitter a while back and thought I’d re-post on the blog for the non-Twitter folks.)

 

This poem-elfing goes back to the spring of 2016 when I was visiting my mom in the hospital. After she died I kept these pictures to myself because the thought that I had put the poem on a bulletin board near her room seemed awful, misguided, unfeeling. She never would have seen it, but who did? Did it cause pain to someone who just lost a loved one, suddenly or otherwise?

 

Now, a year and a few months later, her death still hurts, and the poem brings up new questions. Is death easier if it’s drawn out and harder if it’s sudden? I don’t know. This past week there’s been two deaths in my circle, one unexpected, one after a long illness. Both feel sudden. I suspect the grief in Flynn’s poem rings true (pardon the pun) for the grievers in both situations–

 

how overnight we could be orphaned

& the world become a bell we’d crawl inside

& the ringing all we’d eat 

 

Here’s a short bio of poet Nick Flynn from a previous post:

 

Nick Flynn was born in Massachusetts in 1960. He was raised by a single mother who committed suicide when he was a young adult. His father was an alcoholic who fancied himself a writer and went to prison for writing forged checks. While in prison, his father wrote him letters full of advice, but Flynn never wrote back out of respect for his mother. After high school, Flynn became an electrician.

 

Two years after his mother died, he started working at a homeless shelter in Boston. Flynn met his father at that same homeless shelter when his troubled father came to spend the night. Their reunion was the subject of a memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which was turned into a movie, Being Flynn. The move starred Paul Dano as a young Flynn and Robert DeNiro as his father.

 

In addition to his poetry, Flynn is a widely published essayist and memoirist. He’s married to actress Lili Taylor with whom he has a daughter. Flynn lives in Brooklyn and teaches creative writing at University of Houston.

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poem is on first tier of plant shelf

Forgive the unpolished copies of these poems and quotes, the yellow notepaper, the terrible handwriting, though I did try my best. This is what happens when Poem Elf has an idea but no printer, no scotch tape and no finesse with a pen.

 

My idea was to honor two people who are gone and much missed. This post is a memorial of sorts for a friend’s brother who died six years ago today and for another friend’s sister who died just three days ago.

 

My friend’s brother was an exceedingly kind man. He liked to leave quarters here and there for people to find and also liked to tuck them in birthday cards to his many nieces and nephews. My friend’s sister, an illustrious and national figure, was known for mentoring countless people. She was never too busy to meet with those trying to get a foothold in her field, including, once, my own niece, who described her as “very kind and interesting.” Which is an excellent way to be remembered. Much better than being remembered as “kind of interesting.”

 

So I left quarters and poems around my local grocery store to remember them. The random placement of quarters was the one’s habit and the other’s avocation (allow me to stretch the metaphor a little), best expressed by Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!: “Money, pardon the expression, is like manure,” she says. “It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow.” (Just substitute “kindness” for “money” and you have a tribute to a great mentor.)

 

poem is on stone ledge by bush

This next one I may have mentioned before, but it’s a favorite of mine, often coming to the forefront of my thoughts. It’s from Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

poem is on curb in foreground

 

If you have a quarter, leave it somewhere. Leave behind a “little, nameless, unremembered act.”

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Waiting At The Window

by A. A. Milne

 

These are my two drops of rain

Waiting on the window-pane.

 

I am waiting here to see

Which the winning one will be.

 

Both of them have different names.

One is John and one is James.

 

All the best and all the worst

Comes from which of them is first.

 

James has just begun to ooze.

He’s the one I want to lose.

 

John is waiting to begin.

He’s the one I want to win.

 

James is going slowly on.

Something sort of sticks to John.

 

John is moving off at last.

James is going pretty fast.

 

John is rushing down the pane.

James is going slow again.

 

James has met a sort of smear.

John is getting very near.

 

Is he going fast enough?

(James has found a piece of fluff.)

 

John has quickly hurried by.

(James was talking to a fly.)

 

John is there, and John has won!

Look! I told you! Here’s the sun!

 

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It’s a compulsion for the grieving to speak of the dead. It’s a kindness to listen.

 

So thanks in advance for kindnesses given.

 

IMG_4229My mother died May 7, the day before Mother’s Day. She was ninety. As a reader of obituaries, I know that ninety is a long life. I know that a death at ninety is no tragedy. So many people get but a fraction of her years. So many live in misery for the years they have, struggling in poverty, physical debilitation, mental suffering, violence, refugee camps, open seas. I have no reason for bitterness over the length of her life or the circumstances of her death.

 

But still. It hurts. It feels sudden. She seemed so much younger than she was. Anyone who spent five minutes with her would come away from the visit hoping she’d get at least twenty more years to continue enjoying life on Planet Earth.

 

Until a few weeks before her death, she still drove herself, oxygen tank and all, to Sunday Mass and weekly hair appointments. She played bridge. She played jokes. She took interest. It’s hard for old people to do that, I know. Suffering in the hospital in her last week, she garnered the energy to weigh in on bridal shower invitations, ask questions about the college decision of one of her 38 grandchildren, delight in the announcement of a new great-grandchild scheduled to arrive in a month she must have known she wouldn’t be around for.

 

She had fluffy white hair that sproinged back when you touched it, a ready laugh, bright blue eyes that shined in the Irish way. She was mother to eleven, mother-in-law to ten, beloved by all. A Denver gal, a Navy wife. Redskin fan. A list-maker, a listener. A giggler. Penuche maker. Fan of British detective shows. Knitter for the Christ Child Society, her last project unfinished, a mint-green baby sweater.

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She was always game for silly posing

She was always game for silly posing

 

I could go on, and I would–I do, in my head all day–but I’ve made my point, I guess. I miss her. Often I ache for her. What I want to do is honor her. She was a faithful reader of this blog and sometimes featured in it, so here is where my tribute to her will go.

 

My two-month delay in posting about her has been over poem selection. A few tributary poems came to mind, but nothing seemed adequate. I thought about these lines from Seamus Heaney’s “Clearances” (from stanza 3, usually excerpted as a stand-alone):

 

I remembered her head bent towards my head,

Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–

Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

 

This particular stanza is about a young Heaney skipping Sunday Mass with his mother to peel potatoes in the kitchen. I peeled many potatoes for my mother when I was young, lots of potatoes, potatoes for thirteen people, always flipping the peels on to waxed paper as she directed, but that image doesn’t carry her spirit for me. Still, the comforting sense of shared activity that Heaney describes is one I hold in my heart. One of my favorite memories of visiting my mother in Maryland over the last few years is sitting side-by-side with her on the couch, nearly touching shoulders, each of us reading our own books silently together.

 

Julia Kasdorf’s “What I Learned From My Mother” was also under consideration. A poem I’ve read dozens of times. But what Kasdorf learned from her mother–

 

have plenty of vases on hand

in case you have to rush to the hospital

with peonies cut from the lawn

 

is more in line with what I learned from my oldest sister Ceci. I learned lots of other things from my mother, not the least of which is that life is plenty hard but also plenty fun if you use your imagination.

 

Which brings me to the poem I did choose, “Waiting at the Window” by A.A. Milne, better known for his Winnie-the-Pooh stories. Here a little boy, stuck inside because of rain, makes a game out of watching raindrops roll down the glass. Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 2.29.44 PMThis is exactly the sort of thing my mother often did–create characters, make a race, not complain about situations you can’t change. (My two younger sisters remember fondly the many times she entertained them on boring errand runs. She’d have them duck down in the back seat of the brown Nova, hidden from view, while she called on her pretend CB radio, “Calling all cars, calling all cars. We have two missing girls, ages six and seven, both brunette, short hair. If found—” and so on, over and over because they found it side-splittingly funny.)

 

The poem is from one of two volumes she read to us: When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. All eleven of us can still recite from memory one poem or another from these collections, but the memory of her voice is what is most precious about these poems. Her reading voice was low and tuned to rhythm, and her wry delivery made every funny line even funnier and brought out humor not obvious to lesser readers. The musicality of Milne’s poems, the whimsy, and the sometimes subversive messages made these books perfectly suited to her.

 

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Over time, the poems and the characters in them have become old family friends—Binker, Mary Jane, King John who was not a good man, Nanny who let the beetle out. Now We Are Six and When We Were Young are ingrained in our imaginations and shaped us in ways we probably don’t realize, ways big or small, who knows. I don’t want to make too much of a point about this, but it strikes me as funny that these poems and the accompanying illustrations (simple, beautiful line drawings by E. H. Shephard), which we associate with our mother more than any other material she read out loud, paint a world opposite the one we grew up in. My mother, who could not unjustly be accused of reverse snobbism, didn’t know any patrician families with nannies and cooks and big houses in London and distracted mothers dressed to the nines, absent fathers, only children. And she probably wouldn’t have liked them much if she did. Milne’s world is not quite Downton Abbey, but as far as can be from our suburban split-level house held together with duct tape and credit.

 

That home is where I left the poem, in the front bay window where I spent many hours looking out into the street. I had come back to Maryland to help clear out the house for a sale. (Which we did sell one morning that week, after Sunday Mass, my sisters and me, out of the blue, without a realtor, to a lovely young couple who will surely re-fill the empty house with life and fun. I hope the house cleaners leave the poem for them. I left a few others too, but will include those in another post.)

 

IMG_1057The only other connection I want to make about “Waiting at the Window” and my mother is the last line:

 

Look! I told you! There’s the sun!

 

She was not a rose-colored glasses lady, never a Pollyanna or even a cheerleader. But she had grit, she had perspective, a sense of humor and a strong faith, and that’s how she carried on. It was her example more than her words that taught us that the sun always does come out, eventually.

 

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 2.33.09 PMAlan Alexander Milne (1882-1956) was born in London to a Scottish father and English mother. The family lived at the small private school his father ran, which Milne and his two older brothers attended, and where science-fiction writer H.G. Wells taught. Milne went to Trinity and Cambridge on scholarship. He studied math. At Cambridge he worked on the student magazine Granta and later worked for Punch, the famous British humor magazine.

 

He married in 1913, and served in World War I, although he was a pacifist. In 1920, after the war, he and his wife had a son, Christopher Robin, the inspiration for the boy in Winnie-the-Pooh and several of his poems. In 1934 he published an anti-war book, Peace With Honor, but later he served in World War II.

 

Milne played on a cricket team with J.M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame, and Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock. It’s hard to imagine three such different writers playing a sport together. (A challenge to readers: come up with your own unlikely writerly sports team.)

 

He wrote thirty-four plays, seven novels, including detective fiction, five books of nonfiction and the books of verse already mentioned. His most famous creation, Winnie the Pooh, has been translated into over fifty languages (in Russia he’s Vinne the Poohk) including Latin.

 

There’s an upcoming biopic of Milne, starring Domhall Gleeson (Bill Weasley in Harry Potter films, among other roles) and Margot Robbie as his wife. The film will examine the affect of international fame on the Milne family. Can’t say it sounds particularly gripping or interesting.

 

Milne had a stroke in 1952 and never recovered well. Brain surgery left him partially paralyzed, and being an invalid took a toll on his personality and his family relations. His lingered three more years and died in early 1956.

 

I dreaded writing this post and cried many times writing it. But I feel better having finished. If you’ve stuck with me through all these long paragraphs, many thanks again.

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poem is tucked in left portion of fence, near branch

poem is tucked in left portion of fence, near branch

 

Privacy

by C.D. Wright

 

The animals are leaving

the safety of the trees

 

Light sensors respond

to the footfall of every guest

 

To retard the growth of algae

 

The fishes must be moved

from the window

 

Stiller than water she lies

As in a glass dress

 

As if all life might come to its end

within the radius of her bed

 

Beyond the reef of trees a beach cannot be seen

the bay itself barely breathing

 

In the other wing of the house

a small boat awaits elucidation

Image

 

Poet C.D. Wright died last week. That’s when I found out just how revered she is. The L.A. Times calls her “one of the great ones,” and every other major paper in the country devoted inches and inches of column space to her obituary, which is, in and of itself, a notable accomplishment for a poet. NPR went so far as to say that her unexpected death sent up a “keening wail” among poets.

 

So I’m understandably cautious in approaching this poem. I don’t want to get it wrong, mark it up, make a mess of it like someone trying to eat a plate of pork ribs on an heirloom tablecloth. Or to say it another way, writing about her poetry feels like telling someone about a dream and only being able to communicate the incidents of the dream and not the ineffable elements where the true import of the dream lies.

 

Let me add to that disclaimer another one. I don’t really understand this poem. But it’s under my skin. So I’m moving forward.

 

“Privacy” slows the pulse. There is sunlight everywhere, water and warmth. The rush of movement at the beginning—the animals leaving the trees, the visitors tiptoeing through the house—gives way to stillness. A woman is dying. It seems to be morning.

 

There are reflective surfaces—the (unmentioned) glass bowl holding the fish, the imagined glass dress the woman wears, the still skin of the bay—-and images that reflect each other. It’s so subtle, so carefully and intuitively crafted. We picture the fish in a round bowl which mirrors the roundness of the radius of death that surrounds the woman. She is still, the bay is still, and like her, barely breathing. By unseen hands the fish and the woman are being protected, the fish from algae, the woman from the wrong visitors or visitors getting too close. The little beach by the bay is a private one, screened off by a protective reef of trees.

 

Into this peace, into this stillness comes a quiet note of menace. The glass dress calls to mind Sleeping Beauty. A woman immobile in glass. Was I the only child who found that existentially horrifying?

 

And then there’s that small boat in the house awaiting elucidation. At my first reading I pictured a stored boat in a west wing of a house belonging to a woman of a certain class, and the morning light gradually coming to that wing. (One meaning of elucidation: “to throw light on, make clear.”) But any boat mentioned in conjunction with a death brings to mind the mythological figure Charon ferrying the dead across the Rivers Styx and Acheron. Awaiting elucidation could mean the boat waits for her death to take her to places unknown.

 

But it’s a mistake with any poem, and especially with a poem of Wright’s, to say this means that. Wright is a master of the evocative, of mood, creating with just a few startling images a world, an impression that can’t be reduced to paraphrase, to logic or any linear structure. She relies on the imagination of readers to fill in the blanks of her fragmentary style. It’s less important that I understand this poem than I experience it.

 

I left “Privacy” on a fence guarding a country club mostly because I passed by on my walk and happened to have the poem in my pocket. But I like to justify my actions, so I thought, people find all kinds of ways to achieve privacy. Fences and members-only clubs are two such ways. Death is another, perhaps the ultimate privacy.

 

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 12.12.46 PMC.D. Wright was born in 1949 in the southern Ozarks of Arkansas. She and her brother were the children of a judge and a court reporter. So it’s no wonder that after studying French at Memphis State University, she considered becoming a lawyer. Fortunately for the world of poetry, she left law school after a brief stint and went on to get her MFA from University of Arkansas.

 

Poet Frank Stanford’s press, Lost Roads, published her first book of poetry. She took over the press after he killed himself. Strange that Frank Stanford, whom she knew well, was supposed to be the next big thing, but it ended up that she, the less flamboyant one, the steadier person, is now heralded as a true American original, in a “a school of exactly one” (from poet Joel Brouwer, as quoted in the New York Times).

 

Of her original sytle, Wright said this in an interview with Jacket Magazine in 2001:

 

As to my own aesthetic associations / affiliations / sympathies: I have never belonged to a notable element of writers who identified with one another partly because I come from Arkansas, specifically that part of Arkansas known for its resistance-to-joining, a non-urban environment where readily identifiable groups and sub-groups are less likely to form. The last known poetry clan in my part of the country was the Agrarians. I was not of that generation, gender or class.

 

She married poet Forest Gander. Together they had a son Brecht and ran Lost Roads. She taught at Brown University and published over a dozen books, one of them a collaboration with a photographer to document the lives of women in prison.

 

She was awarded a MacArthur Fellow and Guggenheim fellowship.

 

She died January 12 at age 67 in her sleep of a blod clot.

 

Link here for an excellent obituary from the L.A. Times.

 

Many of the other obits re-printed a death poem of hers, “only the crossing counts.” Let me post that here to give you a better idea of her work.

 

only the crossing counts

by C.D. Wright

 

It’s not how we leave one’s life. How go off

the air. You never know do you. You think you’re ready

for anything; then it happens, and you’re not. You’re really

not. The genesis of an ending, nothing

but a feeling, a slow movement, the dusting

of furniture with a remnant of the revenant’s shirt.

Seeing the candles sink in their sockets; we turn

away, yet the music never quits. The fire kisses our face.

O phthsis, o lotharian dead eye, no longer

will you gaze on the baize of the billiard table. No more

shooting butter dishes out of the sky. Scattering light.

Between snatches of poetry and penitence you left

the brumal wood of men and women. Snow drove

the butterflies home. You must know

how it goes, known all along what to expect,

sooner or later … the faded cadence of anonymity.

Frankly, my dear, frankly, my dear, frankly

 

And I can’t resist including these lines from “Everything Good Between Men and Women”

 

Bless it. We have so little time

to learn, so much… The river

courses dirty and deep. Cover the lettuce.

Call it a night. O soul. Flow on. Instead.

 

R.I.P. Carolyn Delores Wright. Flow on.

 

 

 

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Here’s the thing about my small folder of poems about death. Having more than one poem about death is like  getting a bag of zucchini from your neighbor—you don’t know what to do with an overload. (I’m just realizing this very second that owning, not to mention labeling,  a small folder of poems about death is not entirely sane.)

 

Lucky for me, today is the Mexican holiday Dia de Muertos, a day to honor the deadand the Catholic holiday of All Souls Day, a day to pray for the dead, and my Poem Elf day to de-clutter my files and clutter up my favorite cemetery.

 

I left Thom Gunn’s (1929-2004) “The Reassurance” by the grave of someone named Emily Greer.

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There is probably no one left who remembers Miss Emily. I hope this is an accurate assessment of her character:

How like you to be kind

Seeking to reassure

It would be a fine epitaph for anyone.

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At a grander grave I left another poem that speaks of the workings of grief, “Mourners” by Ted Kooser (1939–)

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Death brings a heightened tenderness to survivors that Kooser captures beautifully:

peering into each other’s faces,

slow to let go of each other’s hands

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Most of the graves in this cemetery are too old to be visited by any living person, but I did find one with two recently dead mums decorating it. Near it I left Natasha Trethewey’s “After Your Death.”

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How beautifully she captures the sad work of clearing out a parent’s home after death

another space emptied by loss 

Tomorrow the bowl I have yet to fill.

 

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No Day of the Dead poem-elf post would be complete with my old favorite, Jane Kenyon (1947-1995), who died young and wrote often about death. I left her “Notes from the Other Side” on the tomb of a member of the Sly family, long gone.

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Kenyon’s vision of heaven is wry —

no bad books, no plastic,

no insurance premiums 

–but surely intended to comfort those she would leave behind–

Our calm hearts strike only the hour,

and God, as promised, proves

to be mercy clothed in light.

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I needed to talk to my sister,” by Grace Paley (1922-2007), another one of my favorites, graced this stone angel:

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Paley has a wondrous way of burying pain under humor, thank goodness, because this scenario is too painful for me to contemplate.

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One more picture because I like the look of yearning on the angel holding the poem:

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A tombstone engraved “Love” needed a poem, so there I left “On the Death of Friends in Childhood” by Donald Justice (1925-2004).

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I can’t read this without thinking of the survivors of Sandy Hook, years and years from their loss:

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Now that I’ve emptied my folder, I’ve flooded my day with thoughts of those I’ve lost and of those who have lost so many more than I.

 

 

 

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poem is next to red roses

poem is next to red roses

[Sonnets are full of love, and this my tome]

by Christina Rossetti

Sonnets are full of love, and this my tome
Has many sonnets: so here now shall be
One sonnet more, a love sonnet, from me
To her whose heart is my heart’s quiet home,
To my first Love, my Mother, on whose knee
I learnt love-lore that is not troublesome;
Whose service is my special dignity,
And she my loadstar while I go and come
And so because you love me, and because
I love you, Mother, I have woven a wreath
Of rhymes wherewith to crown your honored name:
In you not fourscore years can dim the flame
Of love, whose blessed glow transcends the laws
Of time and change and mortal life and death.

 

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I’m lucky this Mother’s Day weekend to be visiting my mother in Maryland, lucky to celebrate this day with her in person for the first time in twenty years at least.

 

And when one is lucky, one can’t help but think of those who aren’t so lucky. Daughters who will never again celebrate Mother’s Day with their mothers. And mothers who will never again celebrate Mother’s Day with their children.

 

I was thinking of those mothers in particular when, on a walk near my mother’s house, I came across this tribute to a young man named Noah Marks who died January 1 this year. I gathered from the assembled objects and notes that he was a lovely young man, talented, a lover of baseball and bow ties, theater and running. I also gathered that his death was a suicide.

 

I thought of his mother, how difficult every day is for her, and how hard this first Mother’s Day without Noah will be. I went back home, printed this poem, and returned to the pedestrian bridge to leave it with the other mementos.

 

To the mother of Noah Marks and to the wonderful mothers I know who have also lost beautiful young sons to suicide, Happy Mother’s Day. This line of Rossetti’s will surely call up sweet memories of your babies:

To my first love, my Mother

That’s a soul-expanding thought for any mother. And also this:

In you not fourscore years can dim the flame
Of love, whose blessed glow transcends the laws
Of time and change and mortal life and death.

 

Mothers are mothers forever, whether or not children are around to send flowers or take them to brunch. A mother’s love for her children–past, present, and future love, love that will never end–marks her indelibly. Nothing can ever take away the beauty and blessing of that love. It’s a love to be honored and celebrated.

 

Happy Mother’s Day.

 

 

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poem is on trashcan

poem is on trashcan

 

Equinox

 

by Elizabeth Alexander

 

Now is the time of year when bees are wild

and eccentric. They fly fast and in cramped

loop-de-loops, dive-bomb clusters of conversants

in the bright, late-September out-of-doors.

I have found their dried husks in my clothes.

 

They are dervishes because they are dying,

one last sting, a warm place to squeeze

a drop of venom or of honey.

After the stroke we thought would be her last

my grandmother came back, reared back and slapped

 

a nurse across the face. Then she stood up,

walked outside, and lay down in the snow.

Two years later there is no other way

to say, we are waiting. She is silent, light

as an empty hive, and she is breathing.

 

 

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Years ago I visited a dear friend a few days before she died from cancer. She was sleeping when I came into her bedroom. She was so shrunken and still and dessicated that I thought for a moment she might already have passed. Her heavy eyes opened at the sound of my voice. It seemed to take her a moment to process who I was, and a moment longer to realize that I was there to visit the sick, and that this was a sickroom and she was the sick person. All the sudden she sprang up like a jack-in-the-box and got out of bed. “Let’s open the blinds, it’s so dark in here,” she said. She took a step or two with her old energy, but I got her back in bed before her bones collapsed under the little weight she had.

 

It was a shock to see her so suddenly up on her feet—as if she had risen from the dead before she was dead—but it was also, if it’s okay to say, a little comical. Like she didn’t get the memo that she was on her deathbed. Like she thought, Damn, this room is depressing.

 

So forgive me if I also find humor in Elizabeth Alexander’s beautiful poem “Equinox.” Grandma slapping the nurse, marching out into the snow while the family stands around the hospital bed in shock–I love that kind of crazy, that refusal to stop living, that last burst of energy, which as Alexander says, could be a drop of venom or of honey. Either way shows a defiance I admire. She’s Dylan Thomas’ dictum come to life:

 

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at the close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

 

What’s marvelous about this poem is that the comedy of the grandmother’s behavior sits side by side with the painful vigil of the family, and neither side is denigrated. There is no other way to say, the speaker says, slightly ashamed to admit that the family is ready for her to permanently rest in peace. Waiting two years for someone to die must be tedious and unnerving. The poem’s title, “Equinox,” becomes an unanswered wish. The equinox is a temporary suspension of reality, a single day of near perfect balance between day and night. The grandmother’s state—neither dead nor fully alive—begs for a resolution that does not come. The last line of the poem is chilling, like the last line of a ghost story: and she is still breathing.

 

The unsettledness of this perpetual equinox is steadied by the poem’s tight structure. Like a sturdy tripod, the three stanzas balance the loop-de-loops and the loopiness. The bees and the grandmother, mirroring each other as they do, each get their own stanza. They meet in the middle stanza, and the transition is so nimble I keep going back to it.

 

I left the poem a week before the autumn equinox (September 23 this year) on a trashcan near a picnic area. Any other year that might have been counterproductive. Swarms of bees would prevent people from lingering to read the poem. But this year I haven’t seen bees in weeks. Maybe that’s because of CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) or maybe because here in Michigan our season of mists and mellow fruitfulness came and left in a matter of hours. Sandals and nearly nude runners are long gone too, and woe is me and everyone else in the state as we look forward to a winter worse than last year’s.

 

Screenshot 2014-10-08 11.02.36Poet, essayist and playwright Elizabeth Alexander was born in 1962 in Harlem but was raised in Washington , D.C. There her father, Clifford Alexander, Jr., served as Chairman of the Equal Opportunity Commission under President Johnson and Secretary of the Army for the Carter administration. Her mother was a writer and professor of African-American women’s history at George Washington University.

 

Alexander graduated from Yale and then earned her Master’s at Boston University and her PhD at University of Pennsylvania.

She worked as a reporter for the Washington Post for a year, but left to teach at the University of Chicago. There she met Barack Obama who was a senior lecture at the law school. When he was elected president, he asked her to compose and deliver the inaugural poem. You can read “Praise Song for the Day” here.

 

She also taught at Smith College and currently at Yale University, where she chairs the African American Studies department. She’s a founding member of Cave Canem, a recipient of an NEA grant, a Guggenheim fellowship, and two Pushcart Prizes, among many other awards.

 

A widow, she lives with her two sons in New Haven, Connecticut.

 

Fun fact: the PBS miniseries “Faces of America” revealed that Alexander is distantly related to comedian Stephen Colbert. Coincidentally she had appeared on the Colbert Report a year before that connection came out. It’s a really funny interview in which she answers the question, “What is the difference between a metaphor and . . . A LIE?”  Watch here.

 

 

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