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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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05-2010 (56) by exposeyourselfToday I read an article in the latest Rolling Stone about roaming packs of wild dogs in Detroit.  With little money for animal control and deserted buildings, empty lots, and a declining human population, Detroit is being overrun with stray dogs.  (You can link to the article here.)  The writer visits one abandoned home filled with dogs and compares it to Grey Gardens.  Sheesh.  It was one of the bleakest portraits of Detroit I’ve ever read.

 

Talk about kicking a man when he’s down.

 

So I‘m happy to celebrate something good that grows in Detroit.  Wayne State University Press recently released four books of poetry in their Made In Michigan Writers Series.  I reviewed one of the books from that series, Detroiter Terry Blackhawk’s The Light Between.  The review is posted on Night Light Revue, a book blog with a focus on Michigan writers hosted by  Megan Shaffer.   You can read my review hereThe Light Between is an antidote to Bad News Detroit, first because it shows that quality has a home here as well as in any other literary center, and second because the poems form a recovery narrative and goodness knows recovery is what we all want even if it’s someone else’s.

 

I’ve read but didn’t review another book from the series, Francine J. Harris’ debut collection Allegiance.  Hers is nitty-gritty Detroit, with pimps, gunshots, addicts and the same pit bulls who run loose in the Rolling Stone article. Unlike the article, the book energized rather than depressed me.  The voice is fresh, the language pops off the page.  Harris details a Detroit that’s hurting but fully human.

 

We’re fast approaching my second annual National It’s High Time to Buy a Book of Poetry Couple of Days, so may I suggest these books for your consideration.  If you’re tired of people tearing down Detroit, here’s a small way to build it up.

 

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poem is on marble pillar, left

 

The Weakness

By Toi Derricotte

That time my grandmother dragged me

through the perfume aisles at Saks, she held me up

by my arm, hissing, “Stand up,”

through clenched teeth, her eyes

bright as a dog’s

cornered in the light.

She said it over and over,

as if she were Jesus,

and I were dead. She had been

solid as a tree,

a fur around her neck, a

light-skinned matron whose car was parked, who walked on swirling

marble and passed through

brass openings—in 1945.

There was not even a black

elevator operator at Saks.

The saleswoman had brought velvet

leggings to lace me in, and cooed,

as if in the service of all grandmothers.

My grandmother had smiled, but not

hungrily, not like my mother

who hated them, but wanted to please,

and they had smiled back, as if

they were wearing wooden collars.

When my legs gave out, my grandmother

dragged me up and held me like God

holds saints by the

roots of the hair. I begged her

to believe I couldn’t help it. Stumbling,

her face white

with sweat, she pushed me through the crowd, rushing

away from those eyes

that saw through

her clothes, under

her skin, all the way down

to the transparent

genes confessing.

 

 

Scenes of impersonation are staples of both romantic comedies and action, thriller and suspense movies.  From Harry Potter to Mrs. Doubtfire, characters disguise themselves to get what they want, be it information, safety or love.  The danger of being unmasked keeps the scene racing forward and keeps me under a blanket.  I can hardly stand to watch as I wait for the inevitable slip in diction or hairpiece, the bosom to drop askew, the polyjuice potion to wear off.

 

Surely I’m not the only one who found Ron Paul’s glue malfunction more painful than amusing.  Maybe such scenes recall the angst of teenage years, years most of us spent at least some time pretending to be someone else, someone cooler, someone who knew where to find the top 40 radio stations because she really didn’t spend all her time listening to show tunes.  Years later, the shame and humiliation of being exposed aren’t buried very deep.

 

For instance, I walk through an expensive store like Saks (which I did when I left “The Weakness” the week before Christmas), and suddenly I’m a frousy mouse trying to act like a woman who buys $300 blouses.  You don’t belong here, I wait for the salesclerk to sneer. Poser.

Saks Fifth Avenue Detroit MI by Patricksmercy

The old Saks in Detroit, now gone

 

But that squishy discomfort was the worst that would happen to me, a decently dressed white woman in a predominantly white mall.   In this autobiographical poem, masquerading is far more dangerous and damaging.  Derricotte grew up in a middle-class black neighborhood in a segregated and racially tense Detroit.  Just two years before the incident in the poem, a race riot on Belle Isle left 34 dead, 25 of them black.  President Roosevelt had to call in 6,000 federal troops to end the violence.  So it was no small act of courage for Derricotte’s grandmother to walk into Saks like she owned it.

 

As a light-skinned black, Derricotte could “pass”  (a term we put in quotes because of its toxic suggestion that looking white is succeeding), and her grandmother demands she play along with the impersonation.  But the girl is terrified. Her grandmother’s act has turned everything topsy-turvy.  An old black woman becomes royalty in her fur collar and is deferred to by white salesclerks.  The white salesclerks, with their tortuous wooden collars, become slave-like, kneeling before young Derricotte as they lace up her velvet leggings.  One slip from the little girl and the jig is up.

 

The weakness in little Derricotte’s legs sets the scene in motion. But hers is not the only weakness in “The Weakness.”  The grandmother, who seemed strong as a tree trunk, is degraded and weakened by the poem’s end.  The last few lines are riveting:

Stumbling,  

her face white

with sweat, she pushed me through the crowd, rushing

away from those eyes  

that saw through  

her clothes, under

her skin, all the way down  

to the transparent  

genes confessing.

 

She had begun her walk through Saks like a deity.  All the religious imagery in the poem, familiar to the Catholic-schooled Derricotte, is associated with the grandmother.  She walks not on water but on swirling marble, something of a miracle in that time and place.   She speaks with the authority of Jesus and the anger of a punishing Almighty Father.  But in the end she’s a different figure altogether:  Christ at Golgotha, stumbling, de-frocked, exposed, humiliated by the crowd.

 

Just as Derricotte’s light skin gave her a passport to enter an unfamiliar white world, so the poem becomes a passport for a white person like me to enter an unfamiliar black one.  I worried over writing about this poem, writing about race, writing about black experience.  Once again, I felt like an imposter, stepping cautiously into alien territory.  But really, I don’t need to say anything profound.  The poem is so powerful I just need to open the door to it and stay out of the way

Professor Toi Derricotte Campus Spotlight by HerCampus Pitt

 

Toi Derricotte was born in Detroit in 1941.   As a young girl she spent a lot of time at the home of her paternal grandparents who ran a funeral parlor in their basement.  Interesting that another Detroit poet, Thomas Lynch, also has an imagination shaped by the funeral industry.

 

She’s a writer who gives hope to late-bloomers.  She began writing early at age ten, in secret, and finally at fifteen had the nerve to show her poems to an older cousin. He shut her down, told her that her poems were sick.  She didn’t show her work to anyone again till she was 27 and didn’t publish till she was 43.

 

Now she’s a widely-admired poet and teacher who has won, among other awards, two Pushcart prizes, a Guggenheim fellowship and two fellowships from the NEA.  She teaches English at the University of Pittsburgh and is the co-founder of Cave Canem, a writing retreat for black poets.

 

Her latest book, “The Undertaker’s Daughter” was published in 2011.

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poem is on pillar at the bottom of the staircase

 

Town Water

 

by Michael Heffernan

 

 

There always ought to be a willingness

to receive the roadside’s offering of flowers

 

to be brought home and put in fruit-juice glasses

on the windowsill above the kitchen sink

 

so we can stand there and admire alien beauty

the like of which we imagine in a small way

 

while looking for a speck in a child’s eye

and noticing suddenly that ring of celestial blue.

 

I hope I used the correct graduation year

 

I knew just where to put a poem by Detroit native Michael Heffernan:  the entrance to University of Detroit Jesuit High School.  Heffernan attended U of D, just south of the infamous 8 Mile, an all-boy, racially-diverse Catholic institution and the oldest functioning school in Detroit.  There he wrote his first poem.  The poem grew out of homework assigned as punishment after one member of the class left a jock strap on the teacher’s chair.  Heffernan remembers only the beginning of the poem he wrote about the Maine coast—

 

The rock, untouched by human hands,

Away from all the other stands

 

but credits the wise punishment with opening his eyes to a career he had never before considered.

 

I had another reason for bringing Heffernan’s work back to his alma mater.  The school website doesn’t list him among its notable graduates.  That list is headlined by detective novelist Elmore Leonard and rounded out by the head of Google AdWorks and two NFL players.  I respectfully suggest that the winner the Porter Prize for Literary Excellence, two Pushcart prizes, three fellowships from the NEA, and the Iowa Poetry Prize, not to mention the writer of nine books of poetry, should be given his props.

 

Location fore-ordained, the question was, which poem from those nine books to use?  When a hometown boy makes good, you don’t want him showing up for the parade in a bathrobe.  I wanted to bring the best of Heffernan, but I also wanted him to be read by the students and teachers who passed by on their way home.  I needed a short poem, straightforward, with lots of white space—none of which characteristics are typical of a Heffernan poem.

 

Fortunately “Town Water” fits the bill, and even better, carries echoes which might be familiar to U of D students. The first line

 

There always ought to be a willingness

to receive the roadside’s offering of flowers

 

recalls the opening to William Carlos Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow” (a poem which also has four two-line stanzas):

 

So much depends

upon

 

a red wheel

barrow

 

Both declarations juxtapose grand pronouncements with the commonplace.

 

Everyone reads “The Red Wheelbarrow” in high school and most everyone thought it silly at the time—who cares about the dang wheelbarrow, says the teenager, most likely in saltier terms.  But more than a few people still remember, years later, that startling image of the white chickens standing next to a rain-glazed wheelbarrow.  So with “Town Water.”  Heffernan’s picture of flowers in a fruit juice glass on the windowsill above the kitchen sink shares the precision and delicacy of William’s imagery.

 

At the end of the poem comes another echo these U of D students might recognize, from the gospel of Matthew:

 

How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?

 

Heffernan’s poem turns that image on its head. The adult looking for a speck in the child’s eye is not, as in Matthew, overwhelmed by his own faults.  He’s overwhelmed by unexpected beauty.  The celestial blue of the child’s iris is a small beauty but startling, just like the alien beauty of the roadside flowers.  Both beauties are small replicas of a larger, unnamed beauty that we can’t fully imagine.  If ever we have hope of seeing such beauty, openness and willingness to see are required.  It’s what Wordsworth is talking about when he writes,

 

Come forth, and bring with you a heart     

That watches and receives.

 

Seasonally this poem may be inappropriate for a wintry Detroit landscape, but thematically it’s just right for a building that houses teenage boys.  The halls of U of D funnel boys through an awkward growth as they muscle their way to manhood.  Here they make mistakes, act inappropriately, stupidly sometimes and rude, but suffer silently too, and in dark moments wish they were home.  No less often they act kindly, show brilliance, make adults laugh.  It’s all there.  You just have to see the weeds as “roadside flowers” and be willing to put them in a vase as if they were roses.

 

My teenage son used to block me when I was rushing around the kitchen and give me a bear hug.  I’d try to cut it short but he’d hold on tight and say, half-teasingly, “Settle down there, Mother.  Someday this is all going to be gone and you’ll wish you had it back.”  How right he was, that far-sighted boy, now gone off to college.  What was I rushing for?  To put the rice in the pot?  To turn off the tea kettle?  Answer the phone?  Check my email?

 

And there was my gangly flower in the juice jar, saying, notice my alien beauty.

 

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