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poem is on vault door

 

The Door

by Franz Wright

 

Going to enter the aged horizontal cellar door

 

(the threshing leaves, the greenish light

of the approaching storm)

 

you suddenly notice you’re opening the cover of an

enormous book.

 

One that’s twice as big as you are—

 

but you know all about that:

 

the groping descent alone in total darkness,

 

toward—what?

 

You know what you’re looking for, and you forget, and

maybe you have no idea

 

yet. But you know something is down there, and a

light you need to find

 

before you can even begin to search . . .

 

I had lunch with my daughter in Detroit the other day, and she took me on a tour of the building where she’s interning, the historic Chrysler House. The highlight of the tour was the basement offices of dPop, a commercial interior design firm whose work is—

 

I have a few photos to share of their passionate, thoughtful, provocative workspace (truly, it is), but first a thought on why I put Franz Wright’s poem on the door to an underground vault. Inside the vault is dPop’s conference room, presumably where lots of creative work takes place. And Wright’s poem captures the creative process so well:

 

You know what you’re looking for, and you forget, and

maybe you have no idea

 

yet. But you know something is down there

 

Here’s the interior of the vault. Only a few of the safe deposit boxes have been opened.

 

Notice the hat and glasses of the Invisible Man in the corner.

 

Another conference room, this one bright as a movie space station.

 

A workhorse, I guess–

 

Those are soldiers, ghostly on the wall.

 

For another poem of Wright’s and a short biography, link here.

 

 

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poem is on narrow window to the right of the door

poem is on narrow window to the right of the door

 

The Morning Baking

by Carolyn Forche

 

Grandma, come back, I forgot

How much lard for these rolls

 

Think you can put yourself in the ground

Like plain potatoes and grow in Ohio?

I am damn sick of getting fat like you

 

Think you can lie through your Slovak?

Tell filthy stories about the blood sausage?

Pish-pish nights at the virgin in Detroit?

 

I blame your raising me up for my Slav tongue

You beat me up out back, taught me to dance

 

I’ll tell you I don’t remember any kind of bread

Your wavy loaves of flesh

Stink through my sleep

The stars on your silk robes

 

But I’m glad I’ll look when I’m old

Like a gypsy dusha hauling milk

 

IMG_0700

 

 

Bread, sausage, potatoes, milk.  There’s a meal in Carolyn Forche’s “Morning Baking” and no wonder.  Food connects us to family history in a way old photographs can’t.  The touchstones of ethnic heritage–language, accent, music, dress, beliefs—may fade by second generation, but food remains, primal and pleasurable, inviting us to meet up with the ancestors.

 

Not that the poet’s interactions with her grandmother are all tea and crumpets, sweetness and light.  Family feeling is never simple. Forché wavers between disgust and longing, anger and love, feelings of abandonment and feelings of connection.  Even though she spends much of the poem accusing and attacking her grandmother, her admiration for the old woman balances out the anger.  Grandma may have beat her up in the back of the house, but Grandma also taught her to dance.

 

With the same mix of revulsion and pleasure, the poet watches her body change into her grandmother’s.  Grandma was what poet Grace Paley called “a woman in the old style.”  In Paley’s poem “Here,” the postmenopausal body pleases her to a degree uncommon in Western culture:

 

at last a woman

in the old style sitting

stout thighs apart under

a big skirt grandchild sliding

on off my lap a pleasant

summer perspiration

 

Forche’s initial reaction to such stoutness is more typical.  She’s “damn sick” of growing into a body she characterizes as potato-like, doughy, full of lard and yeasty smells.  But like everything else about Grandma, her body is a mixed bag. Far from losing her sexuality as she grew old and fat, Grandma was sensual in her beautiful silk robe, lusty with her raunchy jokes.

 

But it’s the strength of Grandma’s body, not the grossness of it or the sex of it, that comforts the poet and ends the poem:

 

But I’m glad I’ll look when I’m old

Like a gypsy dusha hauling milk

 

This ending sends me back to the beginning.  Notice that Grandma wasn’t “put in the ground”; she put herself in the ground, fierce and self-determining to the end.  The poet will walk the same path. The little girl voice who called out,  “Grandma, come back,” will become the grandmother she grieves for.

 

The poem raises (and there’s lots of raising and rising here) questions I can’t answer. Why does she blame Grandma for her Slav tongue, that is, why is it bad to have a Slav tongue? Why does she tell Grandma she can’t remember any bread when she clearly does? What are nights at the virgin in Detroit?  Pish-pish? But the longer I write about poetry, the more comfortable I am with not knowing all the answers. I understand enough. And that’s enough.

 

Carolyn Forché was born to a family of seven children in 1950 in Detroit, not far from the bakery where I put her poem. Knudsen’s Bakery in North Rosedale Park has been around since 1923, so perhaps the Forché family came here for a special treat, or at very least, drove past.  (Knudsen’s, by the way, has the best donuts I’ve ever had since I moved to Michigan from Maryland.  Light and full of air, they don’t sit like rocks in your stomach.  Great coffee cake too.)

 

Her father was a tool and die maker and her mother a journalist.  The grandmother in the poem, her father’s mother, lived with the family, but would disappear for weeks at a time without explanation.  When Forché was six, the family moved to a more rural area (now the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills) so that her father could have land for gardening.

 

Forché graduated from Michigan State and got her MFA from Bowling Green. After publishing her first book of poems at age 24, Forché went to El Salvador where she worked with Archbishop Oscar Romero, documenting human rights abuses.  The experience changed her poetry and her life.  Since then she has published widely, including three additional books of poetry, several translations, and an anthology, Against Forgetting, of poets who have witnessed the political horrors of war, prison, and torture.

 

She has received multiple awards for her poetry and for her work as a human rights activist.  She teaches at Georgetown University and lives in Bethesda, Maryland, my hometown, and once home to Montgomery Donuts, which sadly no longer bakes their glorious donuts.

 

 

 

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Image 3

 

 

Harlem

by Langston Hughes

 

What happens to a dream deferred?

 

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

 

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

 

Or does it explode?

 

Image 4

 

The poem I taped to the fence at Mt. Elliott Cemetery in Detroit and the poem I’ve copied directly into this blog are not the same. The first version of “Harlem” is the familiar one, but the second, taken from the Poetry Foundation, is probably the definitive text.  In print, the difference between an un-italicized last line and an italicized one seems a matter of style, but as I consider each version, that little difference takes on more substance. “Or does it explode?” sounds like a rhetorical question, in line with the other questions in the poem.   But “Or does it explode?”  sounds like a warning.

 

Although I had known Langston Hughes was an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a writer who suffered racial injustice and celebrated black culture, I had never read this particular poem in the context of race. I thought of the “dream deferred” as a universal experience, something that happens to all but the most self-actualized among us, the weight carried by the lawyer who wanted to be a singer-songwriter, the teacher who wanted to open a pastry shop.  The drying up, the festering, the rotting, the sagging, the exploding are the result of not following the advice in another Hughes’ poem (ever-popular during graduation season) called “Dreams”:

 

Hold fast to dreams,

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird,

That cannot fly.

 

But when I see, thanks to the italics, the barely contained frustration of that last line, the poem becomes political all at once, a protest against the limits imposed on the lives of black Americans. Somehow I had missed the implication of “deferred” in “dream deferred.”   Dreams fester and rot not because the dreamers have lost faith in their dreams or are too timid to make the leap, but because an outside force has deferred the dream.  There’s a chilly bureaucratic feel to deferred, as if someone stamped a stack of handwritten dreams with the dreaded word and passed the pile on to another desk.  Not now, not now.  Come back on Tuesday.

 

The other meaning of deferred—to submit to another’s wishes—is at work here too. How would it feel to have your dream deferred by someone you’re supposed to pay deference to?

 

Read in this light, I guess “Harlem” doesn’t really belong where I placed it.  The Mount Elliott Cemetery is a beautiful sanctuary in southeast Detroit originally built for Irish Catholics. I had passed by the cemetery after visiting the Solanus Casey Center across the street.  With the poem in my purse, taping it to the fence seemed like a pretty good idea at the time or at least convenient.  By the way, lots of famous Detroiters are buried here, including Beaubian, Campau, Chevrolet, and Hamtramck.  (If you’re interested in Detroit history, you’ll enjoy great blog called Night Train. Link here for Night Train’s post on the Mount Elliott Cemetery.

 

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was born in Missouri to a family whose ancestors included slaves and slave owners.  His parents divorced when he was young, and his father moved to Cuba and Mexico to escape racism and to get away from other black Americans, who he had come to dislike.  Hughes, on the other hand, embraced black culture, especially the lives of people he described as “workers, roustabouts, and singers, and job hunters on Lenox Avenue in New York, or Seventh Street in Washington or South State in Chicago—people up today and down tomorrow, working this week and fired the next, beaten and baffled, but determined not to be wholly beaten, buying furniture on the installment plan, filling the house with roomers to help pay the rent, hoping to get a new suit for Easter—and pawning that suit before the Fourth of July.” Later in his career he was criticized for “parading” working-class black characters who spoke in dialect, but his portrayals of those characters in poems, novels, and plays earned him the unofficial title of “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race.”

 

Before he found success as the first African-American to earn a living from his writing, Hughes worked as a sailor, a doorman, a waiter, a cook and a truck farmer.  He attended Columbia University and graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where his classmate was Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.

 

He published two autobiographies, several children’s books and wrote a popular column for the Chicago Defender for twenty years.  He died at age 65 of prostate cancer.

 

(Sorry I don’t have a picture of the poet.  I need to give myself an education on how to use images from the web on my blog.  Flickr has changed and I can’t seem to pull a picture of Hughes to use.  Also, WordPress won’t allow me to format the poem properly.  All lines following the first should be indented.)

 

 

 

 

 

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poem is behind the Christies magazine on the rack

poem is behind the Christies magazine on the rack

Yes, this is long.  But you won’t regret taking a minute to read it.

 

katherine with the lazy eye.

short.  and not a good poet.

 

by Francine J. Harris

 

this morning, i heard you were found in your mcdonald’s uniform.

 

i heard it while i was visiting a lake town, where empty

woodsy highways turn into waterside drives.

 

i’d forgotten my toothbrush and was brushing with my finger.

a friend who didn’t know you said he heard it like this: you know katherine. short.

 

with a lazy eye. poet. not a very good one. yeah, well she died. the blue on that lake

isn’t so frank.  it fogs off into the horizon like styrofoam. the

 

picnic tables full of white people. i ask them where the coffee is. they say at Meijer.

 

i wonder if you thought about getting out of detroit. when you read at the open mic

you’d point across the street at mcdonald’s and tell us to come see you.

 

katherine with the lazy eye. short and not a good poet, i guess i almost cried.

i don’t know why, because i didn’t like you. this is the first I remembered your name.

 

i didn’t like how you followed around a married man. that your poems sucked

and that i figured they were all about the married man.

 

that sometimes you reminded me of myself, boy crazy. that sometimes

i think people just don’t tell me that i’m kind of, well…slow.

 

katherine with the lazy eye, short. and not a good poet.

i didn’t like that your lazy eye was always

 

looking at me. that you called me by my name. i didn’t

like you, since the first time i saw you at mcdonald’s.

 

you had a mop. and you were letting some homeless dude

flirt with you. i wondered then, if you thought that was the best

 

you could do. i wondered then

if it was.

 

katherine with the lazy eye, short. and not a good poet.

you were too silly to wind up dead in an abandoned building.

 

i didn’t like you because, what was I supposed to tell you. what.

don’t let them look at you like that, katherine. don’t let them get you alone.

 

katherine with the lazy eye, short. and not a good poet.  what

was I supposed to say to you, you don’t get to laugh like that,

 

like nothing’s gonna get you. not everyone

will forgive the slow girl. katherine with

 

the fucked up eye, short. poetry sucked, musta knew better. i avoided you

in the hallway. i avoided you in lunch line. i avoided you in the lake.

 

i avoided you. my lazy eye. katherine with one hideous eye, shit.

poetry for boys again, you should have been immune. you were supposed

 

to be a cartoon. your body was supposed to be as twisted as

it was gonna get. short. and not a good poet. katherine with

 

no eye no more. i avoided you. hated it when you said my name. i

really want to leave detroit. katherine the lazy short.

 

not a good poet. and shit. somewhere someone has already asked

what was she like, and a woman has brought out her wallet and said

 

this is her. this is my beautiful baby.

 

IMG_0370

 

 

The last time I poem-elfed a poem this long I promised I wouldn’t do it again.  Whenever I choose a poem to throw out to the non-poetry-reading general public, short and quickly consumable is what I’m looking for.

 

But I love this poem.  “katherine with the lazy eye” fills me with the same evangelical zeal that roasted brussel sprouts and Cream-Nut peanut butter do; I want other people to love it too.   The poem reads like a short story.  It’s funny in parts and then all the sudden it breaks your heart.  I’ve read it a dozen times and I still tear up when I get to the last lines.  Needed a Kleenex once or twice.  Okay, I was lazy.  A shirt sleeve.  But really, how often does a poem have that effect?

 

Like the other long poem I posted, “Blue Yodel” by Frank Stafford, “katherine” balances improvisation and structure. Under the poem’s loose conversational style is a hard-working girdle holding it all together.

 

The title of the poem becomes a refrain that devolves as the poet identifies with her subject more and more.  It’s like the game of Telephone.  The initial message, katherine. short. with a lazy eye. poet. not a very good one, gets passed from stanza to stanza till it comes out barely resembling the original.  Towards the end of the poem the refrain becomes my lazy eye, that is, the poet’s habit of seeing Katherine as a set of labels, a cartoon.  The final variation on the title is abridged:  katherine the lazy short, a syntactically confused and near-meaningless phrase. Language has failed to capture the humanity of The Other.  It’s love, when it enters at the end, which sees Katherine in the most humanizing way.

 

The poem begins at a distance, emotionally and geographically, from Katherine.  On vacation, away from Detroit, perhaps up north as we say in Michigan, the poet hears of Katherine’s death third hand.  Her thoughts turn to the past, to her repulsion for Katherine, to Detroit, to the McDonald’s where Katherine worked, to the grisly circumstances of her death, to Katherine’s lazy eye which focused on the poet like an accusation.  The lazy eye seemed to say not just please like me but also you are like me.

 

As is often the case when we dislike someone intensely, Katherine reminds the poet of her own insecurities.  Both women are poets.  Yes, one is a bad poet, but even really good poets worry sometimes that they’re bad.  The poet even wonders if other people think she’s as slow as Katherine is.  She admits she’s boy crazy, like Katherine; and then, out of a distressed emotion—perhaps guilt, perhaps sadness, maybe even a panic—she invents a connection between the two.  She projects onto Katherine the desire to leave Detroit which she has herself.

 

As her monologue continues, she grows closer to the one person she most wants to get away from.  The poet addresses Katherine directly and defensively:  what was I supposed to tell you. what.  Her answer—you don’t get to laugh like that—wouldn’t have solved any of Katherine’s problems.  Once again, words fail.

 

The end of the poem takes place in the present and in Detroit.  Katherine’s mother shows off her murdered daughter’s picture.  I woke up this morning with that image in my head and suddenly realized that I had been assuming the photograph was a baby picture. Like every baby, most lucky babies anyway, Katherine was beautiful to her mother.  Not short, not slow, not a bad poet.  Just a beauty.  But the picture might also have been of Katherine as an adult, imperfect, the butt of other people’s jokes.  All the more moving that her mother calls her beautiful.  Those last lines are luminous, transcendent to me.

 

Why does the poem affect me like this?  Perhaps because many times I’ve been wrong about someone I judged harshly.  Maybe I’ll come to see a vulnerable side, or finally understand why someone acts like such an ass, or begin to enjoy what bugged me in the first place, or realize I judge too much.  With that realization comes shame and a feeling of humility, but at the same time a lightness, a glow, a heart-opening.  What separates person from person falls to nothing and what connects elevates.  The poem arrives at a similar moment so quickly and effortlessly it reminds me of an Evelyn Waugh phrase from another context:  the ending comes by a mere “twitch” of an “unseen hook and an invisible thread.”

 

I left the poem at the dermatologist office where I was waiting to get moles burned off my back with liquid nitrogen.  I figured that the dermatologist office is a little like the picnic benches in the poem.  More whites than people of color occupy the space, in part because lower levels of melanin mean higher rates of skin cancer.

 

Another reason I left the poem there:  the magazine selection at this office never changes. It stinks.  The poem is something new for regulars to read.

 

francinejharris_author by CCMArtsfrancine j. harris (not a typo—she spells her name in lower case—apologies to the poet for the mistake in the photo) was born in Detroit and lives in Ann Arbor as a Zell fellow at the University of Michigan.  She’s also a Cave Canem and Callaloo fellow.  In 2012 harris’ first collection of poetry, allegiance, from which this poem is taken, was published by Wayne State University Press in their Made In Michigan Writers Series. As I was working on this post, Metro Times published an interview with her.  You can read that here.

 

 

 

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poem is to the right of the woman behind the transit sign

poem is to the right of the woman behind the transit sign

 

Rosa

By Rita Dove

 

How she sat there,

the time right inside a place

so wrong it was ready.

 

That trim name with

its dream of a bench

to rest on. Her sensible coat.

 

Doing nothing was the doing:

the clean flame of her gaze

carved by a camera flash.

 

How she stood up

when they bent down to retrieve

her purse. That courtesy.

 

IMG_0296

 

 

02-22-13 at 22-14-06 by SpeakerBoehnerIn a bit of poem-elf serendipity, the same day I was working on this blog post, a statue of Rosa Parks was unveiled at the U.S. Capitol Building.  If you’ve never been to the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, picture a semi-circle room, overdressed with Victorian red curtains and gray marble pillars.  Crowded around the room are bronze and marble statues of mostly men, mostly standing, mostly in the neoclassical mode.  The Rosa Parks statue is seated, serious, her head turned to look out an invisible window, her pocketbook and coat belying the grandness of her action.  The sculptor, Eugene Daub, was wise to position her in contrast to the imposing figures surrounding her.  Her quiet power seems all the more intense.

 

There’s a myth of Rosa Parks, recently debunked by a new biography, that she was a sweet old lady too tired from her day’s work as a seamstress at a department store to give up her seat on the bus.  In fact, she was only 42 at the time, and what tired her out was being humiliated on the bus.  The disconnect between her outward appearance of ordinariness and modesty and the fire and heroics of her inner resolve is part of what makes her a compelling and inspiring figure.

 

Rita Dove’s poem “Rosa,” captures the same quiet intensity as the Capitol’s newest statue.  At the outset, the poem is as neat and trim as the woman it describes.  The four three-line stanzas have a fairly uniform length, and the first and last stanza mirror each other in structure.  Most of the poem is written in sentence fragments, except for the third stanza, which breaks out into a complete sentence as it describes Rosa making a stand by choosing not to stand.

 

But there’s tension under the tidiness, which Dove builds with a series of paired oppositions.  The clean flame of her gaze is set up against her sensible coat.  Each stanza has its own dichotomy:  right/wrong; dream/sensible; doing nothing/doing; stood up/bent down.

 

The pairing of sat there from the first stanza with stood up from the last tells a whole story in itself.  Sat there and stood up are two simple movements that we all do everyday, but in the poem, sat there has none of the indolence we usually associate with the phrase, and stood up carries the second meaning of standing up for human rights.

 

These pairings of opposites, along with the short line length, build tension and highlight the tenuous balance of white power/black humiliation that Parks upends.

 

I learned a few things when I posted this poem.

 

I didn’t know that Detroit has a bus depot named after the most famous bus rider in our nation’s history.  Rosa Parks, it turns out, had a history in Detroit.  A few years after getting fired from her department store job because of her activism, Parks moved to Detroit.  She worked for Representative John Conyers and lived in the city till she died at age 92.  She’s buried in Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

 

The Bus Stops Here by Mike DargaThe architecture of the Rosa Parks Transit Center does great honor to Parks.  The building and plaza suggest the beginning of a journey:  the front of the building is shaped like the prow of a ship and a beautiful canopy floats above the busses like sails.  (Unfortunately she is little honored in the operations at the depot.  Detroit has one of the worst public transportation systems in the country.)

 

I had a few more surprises when I was brushing up on the familiar seat-on-the-bus story.  I had always thought hers was a modest, quiet act that led to a big dramatic one, the bus boycott directed by Martin Luther King.  But the full story of her modest, quiet action is as dramatic and suspenseful as the Little Rock Nine’s walk through the front doors of Little Rock High School.  You can read the full story here, but I’ll highlight a few things:

 

  • Ten years before the Montgomery bus driver ordered her to give up her seat for a white passenger, Parks had a run-in with the very same bus driver, James Blake.  A Montgomery bus ordinance at the time required blacks to enter at the front of the bus to pay and then exit and re-board through the back to sit down.  This way black passengers wouldn’t walk past whites.  One day, during a rainstorm, Parks chose not to exit and re-board.  Blake very nearly shoved her off the bus and then drove away before she could get back on.

 

  • Parks’ “doing nothing,” as Dove puts it, was a moment fraught with danger.  She knew that Blake, the bus driver, carried a gun.  She was alone on the bus.  When she challenged the driver, no other riders on the crowded bus gave her  support.  She knew she could be arrested, and she knew she could face abuse at the police station.  Her calm demeanor is all the more remarkable.

 

  • The incident in the last stanza of the poem refers to the behavior of the police officers who came to arrest her. One picked up her shopping bag, the other her purse.  But whose courtesy is “That courtesy”?  The idea that courtesy could be extended in such a discourteous place, a place where a woman was asked to give up her seat for a man, a place where black passengers were routinely insulted by whites, is another of the ironic oppositions the poem holds together.

RRita Dove by gpcmlkita Dove was born in Akron, Ohio in 1952.  Her father was the first black chemist to work in the tire industry.  She graduated summa cum laude from Miami University of Ohio, earned a Fulbright scholarship, and got her MFA at Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  She won the Pulitzer Prize and served as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993-95, the youngest person to ever be appointed to that office and first African American.  She teaches at University of Virginia.

 

I wouldn’t describe too many poets as adorable, but then again there aren’t too many poets who ballroom dance.  Watch here as Dove and her husband dance the samba, and see what adjective springs to mind.

 

 

 

One of my mother’s favorite jokes is, “Mary Rose sat on a tack.  Mary Rose.”  Inspired by the second stanza of Dove’s poem, I offer a twist on the old joke:  “Rosa Parks gets on the bus.  Rosa Parks.”

 

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If you think, as I sometimes do when a particularly arcane poem shows up in my inbox courtesy of the Academy of American Poets’ poem-a-day feature, that poetry is written by and for the same kind of people who prefer wasabi truffles to straightforward chocolate caramels; or if you think that classic poetry has as much relevance to your life as the owners’ manual to a steam-powered lawnmower, it’s time to meet Jeffrey, poetry declaimer extraordinaire.

 

IDSC_0005 by bethaleh first heard about Jeffrey from a newsletter put out by Detroit’s Capuchin Soup Kitchen.  In CSK’s lunch and dinner line, Jeffrey recites poetry from memory for the other guests.  I watched a video of his performance and I was enchanted.  So I tracked him down to speak with him over the phone.

 

Jeffrey’s poetry passion was born out of tragedy and boredom.  In 1988 he was hit by a moving car.  He was in a coma for ten days with a traumatic brain injury.  He recovered but in the years that followed he was homeless.  With little to do on the streets all day, Jeffrey went to the library.  He happened upon a book with Langston Hughes’ poem “Gods.”

 

Jeffrey never liked poetry when he was young.  He didn’t even like English class.  He left school after tenth grade.  But Hughes’ poem he liked.  He liked it so much, he wrote it down.  Then he read it over and over till he memorized it.  He recited the poem as he walked down the street or rode the bus.   “It was something to do,” he explained.

 

Here’s the poem that first inspired him:

Langston Hughes 6 by Ohio Center for the BookGods

by Langston Hughes

The ivory gods,

And the ebony gods,

And the gods of diamond and jade,

Sit silently on their temple shelves

While the people

Are afraid.

Yet the ivory gods,

And the ebony gods,

And the gods of diamond-jade,

Are only silly puppet gods

That the people themselves

Have made.

 

That was in 2000.  Since then Jeffrey is no longer homeless and has added to his poetry repertoire.  I asked him how he selects the poems he memorizes.  It turns out his criteria is the same criteria I use in selecting which poems to poem-elf, that is:

  1. How much sense does the poem make?
  2. Does it tell the truth?

The difference in our selection process is that length doesn’t matter to Jeffrey and I always choose the shortest poems I can find.

 

By way of demonstrating the kind of poem he’s drawn to, Jeffrey recited “Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall (1914-2000).  Here’s the first two verses:

 

“Mother dear, may I go downtown

Instead of out to play,

And march the streets of Birmingham

In a Freedom March today?”

 

“No, baby, no, you may not go,

For the dogs are fierce and wild,

And clubs and hoses, guns and jails

Aren’t good for a little child.”

 

His delivery, even over the phone, was powerful.  When he finished, the hairs on my arm stood on end.  You can read the poem in its entirety (and surprise ending) here.

 

Watch Jeffrey’s performance yourself on youtube.  Please do.  This man deserves an audience.  Wouldn’t it be great if the number of views on these videos jumped out of the teens into the hundreds?

 

Here’s Jeffrey reciting Edgar Allan Poe’s “El Dorado” and Maya Angelou’s “Preacher, Don’t Send Me.”  Link here to hear “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  And here for another Longfellow poem, “I Shot an Arrow into the Air.”

 

I confess that before I heard Jeffrey recite these poems, I didn’t like any of them.  The dramatic poems of Longfellow and Poe were too much trouble to plow through, and the non-prose writings of Maya Angelou sometimes bored me.  But Jeffrey has won me over. He brings the poems alive in a way I never would have experienced just by reading.  With his inflections and gestures he inhabits each poem and makes even the oldest verses sound contemporary and relevant.

 

Jeffrey has a gift to share.  Click and you’ll not only enjoy his gifts, you’ll give a gift back to him.

 

Kudos, Jeffrey!

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poem is on right-hand base of statue

 

Variation on a Theme by Rilke

 

by Denise Levertov

A certain day became a presence to me;

there it was, confronting me–a sky, air, light:

a being. And before it started to descend

from the height of noon, it leaned over

and struck my shoulder as if with

the flat of a sword, granting me

honor and a task. The day’s blow

rang out, metallic–or it was I, a bell awakened,

and what I heard was my whole self

saying and singing what it knew: I can.

 

 

Did anyone else finish “Variation on a Theme” with an urge to sing Ding dong ding dong ding? In my head the lovely Jean Simmons, her short locks loosened on her forehead and her Salvation Army uniform dangerously unbuttoned, has flung her arms around this poem, as unlikely an attachment as hers to Marlon Brando.

 

But wait, another artist has boarded this train of associations–illustrator N.C. Wyeth.  The particular Wyeth painting the poem reminds me of is The Giant.  Wyeth’s towering figure, seemingly grown out of the clouds, could be a visual version of the shape-shifting in Levertov’s poem.

Enchanted by Kiel Bryant

Along with an atmospheric freshness of sky, air light, the poem and the painting share a Romantic delight in dramatic events, the sublime and mythology.

 

“Variation,” like ancient mythologies, hinges on personification.  But Levertov brings to life a certain day, rather than a bigger and more general Day deity, and she allows her reader to witness the creation of this being as it grows into form.   Later she disassembles her creation when she wonders if the awakening blow came not from a certain day, but from herself:

or it was I, a bell awakened,

and what I heard was my whole self 

 

The personified day that Levertov creates is clearly a superior being, one that resides in the sky and knights her with a sword,

granting me

honor and a task.

 

The Little Engine That Could by RoadsidepicturesThis ordaining gives her power.  The poem ends with her unshakeable confidence that the task that has been set before her can be accomplished.  Compare her mantra of I can with that of The Little Engine That Could.  He barely gets himself up the hill with I think I can.  Her bold and strong I can countenances no doubt.  Does her assuredness come from beyond herself, or has it been there all along, needing only to be awakened?

 

Regardless, there’s a clear sense that the task for which she is commissioned is something difficult, something she previously didn’t think she could do.  What separates this speaker from an athlete in a Nike commercial or anyone visualizing success in order to increase sales, run faster, plank longer, lose weight, parkour, stop smoking or swallow slugs is that the speakers’ unnamed task carries moral weight.  She’s granted more than fearlessness and strength.  She’s been given or has found courage.

 

This train of thought left me counting the number of times I’ve been called on to show courage.  And whether I’ve responded I can or I can’t or Not now or Please don’t make me do that.

 

Which is a lot of boxcars to get me to the junction of this poem and the Underground Railroad.

 

Recently I took a walking tour of Detroit.  Our group stopped at Hart Plaza on the Detroit River to look at “Gateway to Freedom,” a statue commemorating Detroit’s role in the Underground Railroad.  The figures in the sculpture look across the river to Canada, where a sister statue, “Tower of Freedom,” has been erected.

Before the Civil War, six or seven different routes of the railroad funneled through Detroit, transporting somewhere between 40,000 to 100,000 slaves to Canada.  Arriving in Detroit, fugitives (refugees might be a better word) hid in church cellars and barns.  At night they took canoes to cross the river to Windsor.

 

Looking up at the statue, I thought about the moment a man or woman who had known only a life of slavery decided to walk thousands of miles on foot, traveling in the dark, knocking at strangers’ doors, crossing rivers, hiding from slave catchers, and risking hunger, drowning, capture and death.  I’m in awe of the courage such a journey demanded of the travelers and those who assisted.  Of all the poems in my backpack, “Variation on a Theme” called out the loudest for a place in the city that was the last stop to freedom.

 

Denise_Levertov by TahdooDenise Levertov was born in a suburb of London in 1923 to politically active parents.  Her mother was Welsh and her father was from a Russian Hassidic Jewish family.  Levertov was homeschooled and she began writing early.  From age five she had a strong sense of her destiny to be an artist, and when she was 12 she sent T.S. Eliot some of her poems.  He responded with two pages of encouragement and advice.

 

During the London Blitz, she served as a civilian nurse.  She married an American writer and eventually became an American citizen.  She was poetry editor of The Nation and Mother Jones and taught at Stanford, among other universities.

 

Later in life she converted to Catholicism and became a political poet, speaking out against Vietnam War, nuclear arms, the U.S. involvement in El Salvador, and the Gulf War.

 

Levertov died in 1997 at age 75.

 

One last thing:  can anyone help me with the title of this poem?  What theme of Rilke’s is this a variation of?

 

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