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Posts Tagged ‘death’

 

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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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 tree trunk

 

 

When Giving Is All We Have

by Alberto Ríos       

 

 

One river gives

                                             Its journey to the next.

 

We give because someone gave to us.

We give because nobody gave to us.

 

We give because giving has changed us.

We give because giving could have changed us.

 

We have been better for it,

We have been wounded by it—

 

Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet,

Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.

 

Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,

But we read this book, anyway, over and again:

 

Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand,

Mine to yours, yours to mine.

 

You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.

Together we are simple green. You gave me

 

What you did not have, and I gave you

What I had to give—together, we made

 

Something greater for the difference.

 

IMG_8400

 

*

 

This post is dedicated to Mary Jane Samberg, a Michigan high school English teacher of the highest order. She died a few days ago of Covid-19. That sentence can’t begin to register the shock and grief so many of us felt on hearing the news.

 

 

She taught two of my daughters. Lucky, lucky girls. I asked them to describe her teaching. One said she was “whip smart, had a great sense of humor and a kind of snort laugh. Hard grader. Merry eyes. Great news judgment [Ms. Samberg moderated the school newspaper] and called out your best.” The other said, “She was a hard ass and didn’t give away A’s easily in AP Composition and Writing. I remember getting an A and feeling on top of the world.” They both said she was “cool,” an unusual compliment for a tough teacher.

 

 

I knew her well enough to have interesting conversations with her when we bumped into each other over the years. We talked about English, education, books, our kids—my daughters she taught, her daughter of whom she was so proud. (Side note: I never use “whom,” but in honor of Ms. Samberg, I relent.) I saw her regularly at church, but I couldn’t exactly call her a friend, however much I liked her. However much I admired her. She was a woman of strong faith and strong principles. She spoke with conviction and confidence and because of that she seemed older than me although she was not. As an example to my girls of how a woman moves about in the world, I could not have asked for better.

 

 

I remember looking over my daughters’ marked-up papers and noting how very marked-up they were, how thorough and thoughtful her comments. I disagreed often enough. (Of course I did, I’m an English major and an Enneagram type 1.) I thought she was sometimes too rigid about what constituted good writing—but damn if those girls didn’t learn to write well. She taught them how to think clearly and communicate carefully, the importance of just the right word, and the value of the re-write, the re-write, the re-write.

 

 

The fortunate among us have had teachers we think of with deep gratitude, those who directed us towards excellence or self-knowledge, the ones who loved us and let us know. But for the great teachers in our children’s lives there’s a different level of gratitude. I can’t articulate it. It can move me to tears. Because it’s pure luck. To have the right person introduced in their lives at exactly the right time. We know, as parents, our influence on our children is limited. At a certain point others step in to nurture their talents, shape their ambitions or widen their perspectives. I am a lucky, lucky mother in that regard. With each child I have seen the effect of great teachers. No, not the effect. Let me call it grace. The grace of influence.

 

 

The grace of her influence. Thank you, Ms. Samberg. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

 

 

To honor her I taped “When Giving is All We Have” to an albezia tree I pass daily on my shelter-in-place walks. She would not have loved this poem, I suspect. She favored harder-nosed sensibilities like her beloved Flannery O’Connor. Still, it speaks to her life’s work. The giving of her passion and expertise, her care and concern for her students, for their education, well-being and most of all for their character. It was her vocation to give. And that giving, in turn, if you count up the hundreds and hundreds of students she had over her many years of teaching, has exponential possibilities for goodness in the world.

 

 

*

 

Now on to the poem. Ríos defines giving with a series of oppositions:  for better or for worse: loud and quiet; big though small; diamond but rough-set. It seems like algebra for some reason, all those variables—or maybe it’s more like philosophy. I know just a smidge more than squat about philosophy, but in thinking about the contradictions in this poem I did come across a description of Hegel’s dialectics (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) that seems apt:

 

Because Hegel believed that reason necessarily generates contradictions, as we will see, he thought new premises will indeed produce further contradictions.

 

 

Looking further into dialectical thinking, I came across an idea that deepens my experience of the poem (courtesy of the Institute of Educational Sciences):

 

Dialectical thinking refers to the ability to view issues from multiple perspectives and to arrive at the most economical and reasonable reconciliation of seemingly contradictory information and postures.

 

 

And what is the reconciliation of the contradictions Ríos puts forth? The answer is right in the poem:

 

Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,

But we read this book, anyway, over and again:

 

 

In other words, giving—however it manifests itself, for whatever reason it manifests itself, whatever the effect of its manifestation—giving is as old as humanity. Giving is a fundamental part of who we are. It’s what we do. In these terrible pandemic days it’s what we see, daily, and part of the frustration of our necessary isolation is the frustration of our impulse to give.

 

 

That’s as hopeful a note as any to leave my ruminations on a beautiful life ended too soon.

 

 

*

 

 

Alberto Ríos was born in 1952 in a border town of Arizona. His father was Mexican, his mother British. He’s published ten books of poetry, a memoir and collections of short stories, and has won many awards and grants including an NEA fellowship and a Guggenheim. He’s a professor at Arizona State University and for two years served as poet laureate of Arizona.

 

 

After I taped the poem to the tree, I was happily surprised to discover Ríos own thoughts on this poem:

 

 

 

“This is a poem of thanks to those who live lives of service, which, I think, includes all of us—from the large measure to the smallest gesture, from care-giving to volunteerism to being an audience member or a reader.  I’ve been able to offer these words to many groups, not only as a poem but also as a recognition. We give for so many reasons, and are bettered by it.”

 

*

 

For the tree lovers, a few more pictures—

 

 

 

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A sunny day in northern Michigan. A long walk past farmland and on to a wooded trail. Three Seamus Heaney poems to deliver, three poems full of the most beautiful nouns and verbs but also full of death. Three watchful deer who scared the bejeebers out of me and two wrong turns that added miles to my trek. But it was a happy couple of hours nonetheless.

 

 

Each of these poems deserves a much fuller examination than the cursory notes I put here. I encourage everyone to read and re-read them. There’s more to see at every pass.

 

 

Let’s start with the least disturbing death, “Blackberry picking.” Here is the death of innocence, of beauty, of lust, take your pick. I set the poem against an electric fence bordering an organic farm that to my knowledge does not produce blackberries.

 

 

There’s gluttony and Bluebeard-level “blood” in these blackberry fields. Over-indulging leaves its mark (stains and prickles) but it’s only death (fruit fungus in this case) that ends the feeding frenzy. Pleasures of the flesh can’t last forever:

 

I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair

That all the lovely canfuls smell of rot

Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

 

 

I stuck “Man and Boy” on a hilltop tree overlooking a lake. You can just see the poem in the lower-left portion of the photo.

 

Who is man and who is boy keeps switching in this poem. The two main characters, the boy and his father, experience age in a non-linear way. Time operates in a circle, moving forward and back at once, forming unheard concentric soundwaves like the salmon’s, a perfect ring like the mower’s.

 

 

The final image almost makes me dizzy. As the speaker imagines his father running home to hear of his own father’s death, he becomes a boy on his father’s back being carried as if he were an old man. Got it? Forget it, read it for yourself.  I’ve re-printed it below because the picture is too hard to read.

 

Man and Boy

by Seamus Heaney

 

I

“Catch the old one first,”

(My father’s joke was also old, and heavy

And predictable). “Then the young ones

Will all follow, and Bob’s your uncle.”

On slow bright river evenings, the sweet time

Made him afraid we’d take too much for granted

And so our spirits must be lightly checked.

Blessed be down-to-earth! Blessed be highs!

Blessed be the detachment of dumb love

In the broad-backed, low-set man

Who feared debt all his life, but now and then

Could make a splash like the salmon he said was

“As big as a wee pork pig by the sound of it.”

 

II

In earshot of the pool where the salmon jumped

Back through its own unheard concentric soundwaves

A mower leans forever on his scythe.

He has mown himself to the centre of the field

And stands in a final perfect ring

Of sunlit stubble.

“Go and tell your father,” the mower says

(He said it to my father who told me)

“I have it mowed as clean as a new sixpence.”

My father is a barefoot boy with news,

Running at eye-level with weeds and stooks

On the afternoon of his own father’s death.

The open, black half of the half-door waits.

I feel much heat and hurry in the air.

I feel his legs and quick heels far away

And strange as my own — when he will piggyback me

At a great height, light-headed and thin-boned,

Like a witless elder rescued from the fire.

 

 

Finally, I tucked “Strange Fruit” in the bark of a fallen tree. It was here that the deer startled me.

 

“Strange Fruit” is one of the bog poems Heaney wrote about the bodies of Iron Age men and women discovered in northern Europe. Their deaths were gruesome. It would be interesting to put this “Strange Fruit” up against Billie Holliday’s. The violent tribes may have lived thousands of years apart, but ritualized murder connects them indelibly.

 

Heaney notes that Greek historian Diodorus Siculus found his ease with the likes of this, but Heaney himself seems haunted by image of the young girl defying her executioners:

Beheaded girl, outstaring axe

And beatification, outstaring

What had begun to feel like reverence.

 

 

 

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was a rock star of a poet, sometimes called “the greatest Irish poet since Yeats,” and one I had the pleasure of hearing live at a poetry reading long ago. I can’t say I understood much of what he said with his thick Irish accent, but I remember well his gentle charisma and his reading of the poem “Digging.”

 

Heaney was born in Northern Ireland, the oldest of nine children. He was raised on the family farm which figures in much of his poetry. He was also raised Catholic in a predominantly Protestant world.

 

He studied at Queen’s College in Belfast and then taught at St. Joseph’s in the same city. Later he was a revered professor at Harvard, Oxford and University of California Berkley. In 1995 he won the Nobel Prize for literature.

 

He and his wife were married for forty-eight years and had three children together. He died unexpectedly at age 74.

 

This biography is much too short to capture his contributions. I’m feeling lazy, so link here to read more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘Tis the season to frolic and I’m idle and sluggish. Nothing like a summer cold to sour the sunshine. And nothing like soured sunshine to call forth the de facto fairy godfather of misery, poet Franz Wright.

 

So happened I had six Wright poems to dispose of. Leaving them around the small town in northern Michigan where I’m recuperating was as good as an Advil for getting me off the couch. If laughter is the best medicine, At least I’m not as unhappy as all that runs a close second.

 

 

 

 

Let’s jump right into the pit. At an abandoned old ski motel I left “Reunion.” (The poem is on the blue wall next to the corner doorway.)

 

Wright is forever grappling with the ghost of his father, poet James Wright. This particular grappling slays me. And this self-portrait—yikes—

What am I? A skull

biting its fingernails, a no one

with nowhere to be

 

On another abandoned building I left “Thoughts of a Solitary Farmhouse,” which I know is a favorite of many Wright fans. (The poem is taped to the concrete post in front of the big bush.)

 

What a beautiful memento mori, bleak and horrifying though it is

 

“The Comedian” brings us into a real house of horrors. I taped it to a sign by the side of an empty road.

 

The illegible note hung like a crucifix . . . the cops turning on the son who called in for help . . . the smell of alcohol, the drool . . . impossible to touch him or get near. . . that final laugh . . . unimaginable pain.

 

Moving back towards his painful childhood, “The Day” is an eerie recreation of what amounts to A Good Day for young Franz. (It’s on the spigot of the water fountain.)

 

Anyone who had a dysfunctional parent can relate to those times of relief when the dysfunction was dormant for one reason or another.

 

At the entrance to an uphill hike I left “Depiction of Childhood.” (Poem is taped to pole.)

 

I’ve looked over Picasso’s drawings of the little girl leading the minotaur and in each she’s holding either flowers or a dove, so it’s interesting that Wright has her lifting a lamp instead. Going back and forth between the poem and the different versions Picasso drew is giving me loads to think about. Like the minotaur, I’m entranced and thrown off.

 

In the absence of a sea-sea I taped “Infant Sea Turtles” to a sea wall on an inland lake.

 

This is such a strange poem, taking us from present day to prehistory to biblical times, from land to sea to the moon, to a place where man-made terms are arbitrary (“what we call the moon,” “Eve, or caesarean child,” “the great scar called the sea,” “lover or child”) which is the very space that poetry grows out of.

 

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

Franz Wright’s face is his biography. This is what a hard life looks like. But it’s a heroic face too, considering the suffering he lived with: beatings by his father, worse beatings by his stepfather, parental abandonment, manic-depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Like writer Mary Karr, his onetime colleague and friend, he overcame addiction and converted to Catholicism, finding some measure of stability in the last sixteen years of his life.

 

Franz Wright (1953-2015) was born in Austria where his father, the famous poet James Wright, was studying on a Fulbright scholarship. The older Wright left the family when Franz was eight, and only stayed in sporadic contact with the family. When Franz was fifteen he sent his father a poem, and his father wrote back, “Well I’ll be damned. You’re a poet. Welcome to hell.”

 

The younger Wright graduated from Oberlin College in 1977. In 1984 he was winning awards and teaching at Emerson College when he was fired for “drinking related activities.” He sunk into a years-long depression, wasn’t able to write, and attempted suicide.

 

In 1999 he married a former student, Elizabeth Oehklers. He converted to Catholicism, got sober and was able to write again.

 

He died of lung cancer at age 62.

 

[Note:  This post is part of my summer project. I have multiple poems from a few poets—poems from the recently departed Marie Ponsot among them—and I’ll be lumping them together in a single post for each poet.]

 

 

 

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poem is on the railing

 

The Birds Have Vanished Into the Sky

by Li Po

 

The birds have vanished into the sky,

and now the last cloud drains away.

 

We sit together, the mountain and me,

until only the mountain remains.

 

 

 

A cable car ride up Austria’s Zwolferhorn led to this view of the Alps, a pretty sweet spot to leave a poem about mountains and time and mortality.

 

Li Po (his name is also translated as Li Bai and Li Bo) was born in present-day Kryrzstan sometime around 701 and raised in present-day Chengdu. He led a full life, to say the least. In his teens he killed a few men (for reasons of chivalry, according to Wikipedia). In his twenties he wandered and gave away most of his money. He served at court, was expelled from court, led a revolt, was charged with treason, was pardoned, wandered again, and was very often drunk. He married four times. He died in 762, most likely of cirrhosis, although legend has it that he died trying to embrace the moon’s reflection in the water. Because he was sitting drunk in a canoe.

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A Country Epitaph

by William Stafford

 

I am the man who plunged

through a river to save his dog;

who failed my parents, though;

who forgot my grief, and sang.

 

Outside your light I stand.

I appeal through careless words,

I appeal by this casual stone:

Was there more I could have done?

 

I appeal to human beings:

 

One day at a time I lived;

I saw more than I told;

I never knew if I claimed

too little or too much. I breathed.

 

There was more I could have done.

 

 

“A Country Epitaph” reminds me of another epitaph, the one in Arizona’s Boothill Graveyard we all learned in childhood:

Here lies Lester Moore.

Four slugs from a .44

No Les. No more.

 

 

In a similar vein, the speaker in Stafford’s poem says, This is my life, no less, no more. He’s trying to give an honest accounting of his earthly days, the good, the bad, the indifferent. No false modesty, no excessive remorse, no polishing of a turd.

 

The facts of his life lead to this question:  Was there more I could have done? Yes, of course. The answer is always yes, I dare say, for every human being who has walked the face of the earth.

 

Although the speaker poses his question to the reader, he answers it himself. There was more I could have done. He feels regret but wears it lightly. That’s a feat, in life as it is on the page.

 

The usual epitaph, etched in stone, is a formal composition, each word carefully considered. This one feels informal, extemporaneous. The speaker says as much to those standing over his grave—

 

I appeal through careless words

 

—but the words in the poem are more loaded than careless. Stafford’s sly construction allows more than one meaning to his pronouncements, meanings which are as contradictory as the measure of his life.

 

  • I appeal through careless words…..Appeal does double work here, first in the sense of making an appeal to the reader, the way a plaintiff does to a judge, but also, I want to appeal to you, please like me!

 

  • forgot my grief, and sang…..Was he resilient in being able to move on after a loss? Or heartless, forgetting it too soon?

 

  • I saw more than I told….This line is so opaque, I can’t see through it. In terms of gossip, seeing more than you tell is good. If we’re talking about a man’s emotional availability, not so good. Multiple meanings exist in other fields, in writing, for example. It’s slippery.

 

  • One day at a time, I lived has echoes of the old Alcoholics Anonymous adage, which in turn calls up images of dark times. Even if the A.A. reference is unintentional, the question of living a day at a time can be positive or negative. Living fully in the present is one of the primary virtues in our age of anxiety, but it can also be shortsighted—remember Aesop’s tale of the ant and grasshopper.

 

 

Stafford works both sides of the fence with the form of the poem as well as with the words. In spite of his protest that it’s a casual stone, “A Country Epitaph” is expertly assembled. It reads like everyday speech, haphazard and casual—a difficult thing to do. Formal elements give a stealthy pleasure:  the almost eye rhymes (dog/though, plunged/sang); an actual eye rhyme (stone/done); the accumulating consonance of the last quatrain (lived/told/claimed/breathed), the final D suggesting death and leading to the last word, done.

 

 

I left the poem outside a Hawaiian cemetery on a surrounding wall. Hawaiian cemeteries are colorful places. Most graves, even the very old ones, have some decoration—leis, a vase of bird of paradise, orchids, anthurium, grocery store flowers. Stroll through the randomly arranged tombstones and you’ll find photographs, stuffed animals, handwritten notes, even favorite foods of the deceased, each offering a testament to the reverence and closeness Hawaiians feel towards the dead. Some people pull up lawn chairs and have a picnic. This particular cemetery has a giant Buddha companionably sharing space with an open-armed Jesus across the field. There’s a Mary statue as well.

 

 

William Stafford (1914-1993) was born in Kansas, the oldest of three. He earned his BA from University of Kansas. As a conscientious objector during WWII, he performed alternative service on the home front, working in sugar beet fields and oil refineries, and building roads and fighting fires. At one of these work camps he met his future wife, Dorothy Franz, whom he married in 1944 and with whom he had four children.

 

Stafford got his PhD from University of Iowa in 1954 and taught for most of his career at Lewis and Clark in Oregon.

 

His publishing history inspires a late bloomer like me. He was 46 when his first book of poetry saw print and went on to publish over fifty-seven volumes of poetry, and to earn, among many awards, Guggenheim and NEA fellowships.

 

Stafford’s oldest son Bret committed suicide in 1988 age 40. Stafford wrote about his son’s death but could never talk about with his family. Still, the Staffords seemed to have been close. To get a sense of his home life, link to an interview here with his wife Dorothy and two of his children. I love the anecdote his wife tells about their later years:

 

He would often say, “Do you hurt anywhere, Dorothy?” I’d say, “No.” And he’d say, “Well then let’s celebrate.”

 

He had a lifelong habit of rising early every morning to write, reclining on a couch. On the day of his death, at age 79, he wrote a poem “Are You Mr. William Stafford?” which includes these lines:

 

 “You don’t have to
prove anything,” my mother said. “Just be ready
for what God sends.” I listened and put my hand
out in the sun again. It was all easy.

 

 

 

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