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poem is to right of trail, in weeds

poem is to right of trail, in weeds

 

Sometimes, the Field

by Holly Wren Spaulding

 

Sometimes I bring my hunger to the field.

I sidestep the soft mounds,

the ants at their labor,

their back and forth with grains of sand.

 

I wait in the milkweed and withering thistle,

all of it turning and rustling in the wind.

I mean to come clean of everything—

no reason to want what isn’t.

 

Birds announce the coming storm—

they fly among the branches

not crashing into anything.

Dark with the next thought,

the ground is a wet reek

of old leaves and battered grasses.

It fills my mouth.

I am a wet outline now.

 

Now I am on my knees remembering

the summer we drove west

through humid hill country,

Chicago blues on the radio like it was 1940.

Fields flooded and the river

swelled near the trestles

and freight trains passed us all night

and then it was morning.

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apologies to Ms. Spaulding for the misspelling of her name in the photo

 

My poem-elf fantasy—and one of the reasons I write this blog—is that a poem I leave behind falls into the right hands at just the right time, and a life is enriched, a perspective altered, an experience understood. When I place a poem in a tree or on a sidewalk or store shelf, I always imagine the person who finds it. Let’s call that fantasy, named after today’s poem, “Sometimes, a poem.” As in, sometimes a poem can change everything. But also, sometimes a poem changes just a little thing. Even a little thing is a lot work for a few words to do.

 

Unfortunately, the only time I’ve been aware of Sometimes, a poem happening, it’s been happening to me. And once again, Poem Elf has elf-ed herself. “Sometimes, the Field” caught me unawares even after I had chosen it, printed it, and thought about where to put it. Over several readings, the poem illuminated an experience I had had. There was no lightening bolt of understanding—just a burrowing into my conscious life and a permanent residency there.

 

I came across this poem because poet Holly Wren Spaulding made a comment on Poem Elf. Her beautiful name intrigued me. Turns out she’s a poet who spends summers in northern Michigan, as I do. I decided to put one of her poems up north, in its native habitat, so to speak. When I looked through her work, my choice was instinctive: “Sometimes, the Field.”

 

I have my own field, you see, but I’ll get to that later. First, Spaulding’s field.

 

The field in the poem is dark and moody, full of movement and the drama of a coming storm. The poem’s speaker has come here with a restlessness of her own, a soulful hunger. She wants something. What she wants is not to have the hunger she came with.

 

I mean to come clean of everything—

No reason to want what isn’t.

 

As she steps into the field, she observes her environs with a quiet respect that draws me in. Somehow the way she knows her place in the field makes me feel tender to her. She sidesteps the ants’ work. She waits quietly in the weeds and wet earth. She admires the skill of the birds not crashing into the wildly flying branches.

 

As she waits in the milkweed and withering thistle, she becomes absorbed into the landscape, and the external and internal storms come together:

 

It fills my mouth.

I am a wet outline now.

 

The heavy humid air has connected her to the memory of a long ago road trip, a lost romance. Overwhelmed with grief, she falls to her knees.

 

We don’t know if the storm will wash away her pain. She may well leave the field with the same hunger she came in with, the wanting what isn’t. But at least she’s been able to mourn it openly, dramatically. Cathartically, I hope.

 

My tenderness for this speaker grows as I picture her on her knees in the open field, weeping, giving over her body to grief. The field allows her to express emotion un-self-consciously, a great gift. You can’t cry this way in a cubicle or mall unless you enjoy being stared at or whispered about. If you fall on your knees anywhere but church, someone will call an ambulance.

 

This is where my field comes in.

 

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the trail to my field

My field is on the grounds of Michigania, a family camp for alumni of University of Michigan. I am something of a trespasser. To get to there, I walk through woods along a sandy horse trail, up hills and down hills, the track narrowing then widening. Around the final bend, the path opens to a meadow. When I see the sky uncovered, the hills in full sun, the tall grasses leaning in light wind, the crickets jumping at my every footfall, something breaks open in me. Usually it’s a joyful expansiveness, a Julie-Andrews-twirl-in-the-mountains feeling. But lately something darker breaks out. A sob. Then weeping. Weeping like I haven’t wept since I was fourteen and watched West Side Story for the first time.

 

 

Regular readers of this blog know that I lost my mother a few months ago. I’ve been grieving in a typically Western way—-trying to keep busy and not giving in to moping and tears. So the first time I started crying in the Michigania field, I was surprised. It started with just a stray thought of my mom. Then an intense longing for her, which I had pushed down, down, down, took over me completely.

 

Jane in the field

Jane in the field

The crying happened on my hikes a few more times, but I wasn’t surprised anymore. I figured tears came because I was alone and there was no one near I had to explain myself to.

 

leaving

leaving

But I’m also alone in my room, in my car, on walks through my subdivision, and I don’t cry in those places. Spaulding’s poem clarified the situation. In the field, I’m able to feel. Some connection with nature or my own wild self opens things up. I leave it to someone else to analyze why nature provides this outlet and man-made spaces don’t. I just know I’m grateful to the field and to “Sometimes, the Field.”

 

There’s a passage from the beautiful novel A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr that I’ve quoted on this blog before, but Spaulding’s field poem and my experience in the field call for me to post it again:

 

We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever—the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on belfry floor, a remembered voice, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

 

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Holly Wren Spaulding’s connection to nature seems destined from the start. Her parents named her after a character called “Wren of the Woods” in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer. She grew up in the woods in northern Michigan, off the grid in a “pretty 19th century style of life,” as she details in this podcast about her own creative development. The family homesteaded in an experimental collective living community where she and her siblings chopped wood and carried water.

 

She now lives in Williamsburg, Massachusetts where she runs Poetry Forge, another sort of collective space, this one for poets. You can read more about it here. In the summer she teaches creative writing at Interlochen in northern Michigan, including a class she teaches with her mother, artist Carol Spaulding.

 

She’s been widely published in literary journals and nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. She regularly collaborates with other artists, including this lovely project, a poetry-in-public-space installation called Urban Renga.

 

One last picture . . . a stray ant on her poem

a stray ant on her poem

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If I had any sense I’d be in the kitchen right now, chopping and endlessly washing mixing bowls and spatulas. Instead I’m sitting at the computer. I’ll pay for it tomorrow with panic and exhaustion, but meantime, here’s a few poems for Thanksgiving.

 

At the grocery store I left Czeslaw Milosz’s”Encounter” in an empty aisle  where I would encounter no one, next to one of Paul Newman’s products.

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O my love, where are they, where are they going–  sounds like a lovelier version of what my husband and I say to each other after the too-quickly-grown-up kids leave home after the weekend.

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(The words that got cut off in the picture are “at dawn.” Sorry for that.)

 

Outside another grocery store (because one grocery store is never enough for Thanksgiving preparations), I left e.e. cummings’ poem in an abandoned grocery cart. Maybe it was mine. (Poem is to the right of the “Ayar” ad, on the seat of the grocery cart.)

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i thank You God for most this amazing/day could be the start of dinner time grace. Little kids might like the twisty-ness of the lines.

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Still at the grocery store, I put Emily Dickinson’s “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” by a credit card machine at the check-out.

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I’ve long had a few lines of this poem committed to memory

I’ll tell you how the sun rose,–

A Ribbon at a time–

 

and this, one of my favorite images from any poem, ever

The Hills untied their Bonnets–

 

The beauty of that, when I see it and when I read it here, fills me with gratitude for the world as it is and the world as only a poet can see it.

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Finally, I left Wislawa Szymborska’s “Vietnam” at Starbucks. Where I was sitting for over an hour, once again not cooking.

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What does the agony in “Vietnam” have to do with Thanksgiving? It’s a reminder. As we gather with family and friends to enjoy a bounty of food and the comfort of safe shelter, let’s remember those who have none of those things. Let’s give our thanks for what we have and leave space in our hearts for victims of war, for refugees losing hope–

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And in the last few minutes before I give myself over to cooking, let me thank all you dear readers and commentators. I am so grateful for your readership and support.

 

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

 

 

 

 

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poem is on bus shelter window

poem is on bus shelter window between my daughter’s hand and raised foot

 

 

For My Daughter

by Grace Paley

I wanted to bring her a chalice
or maybe a cup of love
or cool water      I wanted to sit
beside her as she rested
after the long day     I wanted to adjure
commend   admonish      saying don’t
do that   of course     wonderful   try
I wanted to help her grow old      I wanted
to say last words the words     famous
for final enlightenment      I wanted
to say them now     in case I am in
calm sleep when the last sleep strikes
or aged into disorder      I wanted to
bring her a cup of cool water

I wanted to explain     tiredness is
expected     it is even appropriate
at the end of the day

 

 

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What changes a year brings. Last year when I dropped my youngest off for her freshman year of college, I unpacked the car all the while packing in as much advice as I could. Eat healthy. Join clubs. Keep your room clean. Blah Blah blah. This year on drop-off day I almost forgot to tell her anything at all until I heard her roommate’s father tell his daughter to study hard. Oh yeah, that.

 

When I finally got around to it, my advice was much less inspiring:

Don’t sped all your money on coffees.

Get a job.

Don’t be the drunkest girl at the party.

 

What can I say, she’s got good sense, this one. Or maybe I’ve learned something.

 

Maybe I’ve learned that even if I could open up my children’s heads and pour in my life experience and wisdom like cake batter, they’d still have to figure things out themselves. They have to learn–or not learn–from their own mistakes.

 

I say maybe I’ve learned because the urge to throw advice at my kids and hope it sticks never goes away, and sometimes (often times, if I’m truthful) so overwhelming I give in.

 

This is why I love Grace Paley’s “For My Daughter.” The speaker wants to tell her daughter so many things. She wants to tell these things right now, before she dies or loses her mind. She wants to correct, praise, encourage. Control.

 

But she keeps her mouth shut.

 

The un-acted upon urge animates the poem. “But I didn’t” is the unspoken coda. The poem reminds me that however much we want to shelter our kids from hardship and steer them towards happiness, in the end we can’t.

 

Paley is master of white space and here she uses it as punctuation and almost as stage directions. (You have to look at the photograph to get an idea of the spacing. It’s hard to recreate blank spaces on WordPress.) The break before the final two lines suggest that the speaker has to slow down, sit down, catch her breath after spilling out all her urgent worries. Her mothering has exhausted her. She too is tired.

 

Paley is better known for her short stories than her poems, but I’ve always loved her poems best. They’re short stories in themselves, little snippets of real life, spoken by a person who jumps off the page with her humanity. How Paley manages to use so many Latinate words–admonish, commend, appropriate, adjure –and still make the poem sound like words caught on tape and transcribed directly amazes me. Those Latinate words play off her plain-speaking voice and echo the push-pull of the urge to say and the wisdom of not saying.

 

IMG_3436I left the poem in a bus shelter close to my daughter’s dorm. Under a nearby tree (another sheltering structure) I left an illustration by the late great Maurice Sendak of a mother transforming herself to protect her little one from the rain.

 

 

 

 

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If my last-minute words of wisdom went in one of my daughter’s ears and out the other, I hope these two postings will linger. What they both say, what I want to say to her, is this:

–I’ve got your back, always–

Or to use a few of Paley’s words,

–A cup of love/or cool water, here for you when you most need it–

 

Image 2Grace Paley was born in the Bronx in 1922 to Ukrainian Jewish parents who had been exiled by the Czar for their socialist politics. The family spoke Russian, Yiddish and English at home. She was the youngest of three, but so much younger that she was practically an only child.

 

She went to Hunter College for a year college and studied briefly with W.H. Auden at New School. At 19 she married filmmaker Jess Paley. They had two children, Nora and Danny, and later divorced.

 

She started her career as a poet, writing in the style of Auden, but in her thirties she began writing short stories about working class New Yorkers, particularly about women and mothers. She published several collections of stories, poems and essays.

 

Image 1She was a lifelong political activist, protesting the Vietnam War, nuclear proliferation, apartheid, the war in Iraq, and advocating for women’s issues. She taught at Sarah Lawrence, Columbia University and City College. She was the founder of the Greenwich Village Peace Center.

 

Her second husband, Robert Nichols, was a landscape architect and writer. The couple eventually moved to Vermont where she died in 2007 at age 84 of breast cancer.

 

You can read an interview she gave at the very end of her life here.

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There’s a sad nip in the air this morning, a reminder to get the rest of my summer beach posts up before they’re as out-of-date as puka shells and jellies.

I count myself among the most fortunate of souls that I got to return to Maryland this summer to spend a week at the beach with my family. There’s much to love–blue crabs, Fractured Prune doughnuts, steak-and-cheese subs, the stifling, warms-the-soul humidity inescapable on the Delmarva peninsula. And of course the accent. A week gives me just enough time to re-claim it. Unfortunately by the time I hit the Ohio Turnpike on my way back to Michigan I’ve already lost it. So I’ve titled this post to honor the beautiful way Marylanders speak the English language. (If you’ve never had the pleasure of hearing it, link here to enjoy how we say “o’s” and here for an exaggerated version of common Maryland expressions.)

On with post. I had snippets of poems–by that I mean I snipped a few lines out of longer poems–that referenced the ocean, and I put them all over Bethany Beach one afternoon while on a boardwalk outing with a few nieces and a nephew.

I left the opening lines of  “Here With Your Memory” by Alejandro Murguía on a fence post next to some mismatched beach shoes.

poem is on fence next to shoes

The brooding, windy weather was just right for this one:

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(The poem is not on line and is too long for me to type out, at least at this moment. If I feel less lazy when I finish this post, I’ll type it out at the bottom.)

I gave my nieces, Sophia and Georgie, a single line from Keats’ “Endymion” to hold because the wind was blowing everything this way and that, and because they are beauties, even though Sophia is uncharacteristically scowling.

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These two have since returned to Ecuador with a piece of my heart. (A good time to welcome to my sister Josie’s Ecuadorian students. Hello to all and thanks for reading Poem Elf! Good luck this year.)

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The joy beauty gives may be forever, but beauty itself is ephemeral, so I asked Sophia to let the piece of paper blow away. See it in the bottom right of the photo.

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Still, I have faith in Keats’ words that follow this line–“it will never pass/into nothingness.” You can see the paper, just above the dune grass in the dead center of the picture, on its way to places unknown.

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You can read the complete poem here.

On a storage shed for umbrella rentals I left a famous bit from Yeats’ “The Second Coming”:

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It’s a poem that always seems horribly relevant, but perhaps never as much as in these times.

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Link to the complete poem here.

And finally, at our favorite store, the ubiquitous Candy Kitchen, I left “A Modest Love” by Elizabethan poet Sir Edward Dyer. My sister Susie, long-time president of the Candy Club, sits surrounded by this bunch of beggars. The poem is behind her on the door, just above little Emily’s pink hair flower.

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I love these lines so much I’m using them as the epigraph for the novel I’m working on.

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Link to the complete poem here.

Speaking of love and sweet beach treats, my niece Emily told me she does not like caramel corn. She seems downright hostile to it. But not little Georgie:

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Okay, I’ve decided I owe it to Murguía to type out his poem. The longing and nostalgia here is something I’m feeling now as I sit at my desk in Michigan, remembering summers of long ago at the beach, and one summer in particular with a red-haired boy who lives with me now.

(I’ve posted one of Murguía’s poems in the past–link here.)

Here With Your Memory

by Alejandro Murguía

Today I sat down pensive

staring at the sea

pinned like a prisoner

to another day

curled up

made a conch

by all fecund things you are

on this earth and in the sea

the cry of seagulls

the clouds like a reflection of the water

the sky like your caress that June day

of which the only thing left is this moment

these seconds when you surge again

out of the sea

your bathing suit pure foam

splendid, young mermaid

with bronzed arms

hair the color of burnt sand

woman made of spells, aquatic flowers

of earth, mountains, herbs

made into poems

because we were together that afternoon

and were transformed into calendars

where the days always return

with their same destinies

the same lovers and enemies as always

only you and I

because we were

a gush of water, music,

the ruby of a kiss

falling into the depths

where across all the years

we see each other

as we were that day

poor and in love with the whole world.

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poem is taped to bench

poem is taped to bench

 

Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks

by Jane Kenyon

 

I am the blossom pressed in a book,

found again after two hundred years. . . .

 

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper….

 

When the young girl who starves

sits down to a table

she will sit beside me. . . .

 

I am food on the prisoner’s plate. . . .

 

I am water rushing to the wellhead,

filling the pitcher until it spills. . . .

 

I am the patient gardener

of the dry and weedy garden. . . .

 

I am the stone step,

the latch, and the working hinge. . . .

 

I am the heart contracted by joy. . . .

the longest hair, white

before the rest. . . .

 

I am there in the basket of fruit

presented to the widow. . . .

 

I am the musk rose opening

unattended, the fern on the boggy summit. . . .

 

I am the one whose love

overcomes you, already with you

when you think to call my name. . . .

 

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Last Christmas, when one of my daughters made me a mobile with eggs and birds falling out of an overturned nest, I looked ahead to my own approaching empty nest with poetic appreciation. Out from the nest came the eggs, and from the eggs came colorful origami birds, each on its own flight path. New life out of the old. The next year would bring new life for my youngest, who would be leaving for college, and new life for my husband and me. Suddenly unencumbered, presumably we would chase each other around the empty house like teenagers.

 

All part of the never-ending cycle of life.

 

Now that day is here, and it seems less a poetic cycle than a prosaic ending. The end of my mothering.

 

I know, I know. I should be delighted that my daughter is where she’s supposed to be. With her new bedding and roommate and independence, she’s as happy as I could have hoped. And, yes, I’ll sleep better on weekends, cook less on weekdays, keep a cleaner house, keep all my socks to myself, and have more time to pursue what efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth (and Cheaper by the Dozen dad) described as the reasons we need to save time: “For work, if you love that best. For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure. For mumblety-peg, if that’s where your heart lies.” After 25 years of organizing my days around kids, I’m free to organize my days around mumblety-peg.

 

Bah. Right now I’d take four little kids pulling me in four different directions over freedom and mumblety-peg. A drawer full of matched socks can be depressing. Uninterrupted sleep can be dull. An orderly house can be a sad house. An orderly house means a house without Anne Marie’s worn Birkenstocks and enormous backpack, a house without her dancing and deep sleeping, her jars of Nutella, her unmade bed, her unexpected wisdom, her little kindnesses, the nearness and dearness of her–

 

that hook in the foreground looks like it's ready to whisk her away

that hook in the foreground looks like it’s ready to whisk her away

 

Before I start tearing up again, I’m going to turn quickly to the poem and keep this post brief.

 

I left Jane Kenyon’s “Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks” on a bench across the street from my daughter’s new dorm on move-in day.

 

I left it as a kind of protection, a talisman, a reminder of the love that will always be hers. I realize the “I” in the poem is a divine being capable of an unconditional love parents can only aspire towards, but still, this—

 

I am the one whose love

overcomes you, already with you

when you think to call my name

 

–seems on the mark for parents whose children suddenly forget to use their cell phones.

 

There’s another reason I chose this poem. Telling other people what to do is one of the aspects of mothering that’s hard for me to give up, and so after I reminded my daughter to take her thyroid medication and go to every class and eat vegetables and wear her glasses and go to Mass, I left the poem behind as my final instruction. To her and to all incoming freshman and returning upperclassmen, I say: Look out for each other, dear children. Be the patient gardener, the working hinge, the basket of fruit. Because college can be a lonely place sometimes. And for some kids, it’s lonely every day, every hour, every second. Suffering so often hides in plain sight.

 

Poet Jane Kenyon was no stranger to suffering herself. Maybe the real reason I selected this poem is that her clear-eyed exploration of pain and plain-spoken pleasure in the world as it is put my little sadness in perspective.

 

ImageKenyon was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1947. Her mother was once a singer and later a seamstress; her father was a piano player. She attended the University of Michigan, where she fell in love with her poetry professor, Donald Hall, nineteen years her senior and later U.S. Poet Laureate. Upon earning her masters at Michigan, she married Hall and moved with him to his family farm in New Hampshire. She suffered from depression all her adult life. When she was 46 she was diagnosed with leukemia, and she died a year later at 47. Four months before she died, she was named poet laureate of New Hampshire.

 

She only published four books of poetry in her lifetime, and the best of those poems were gathered in a posthumous collection called Otherwise. It’s one of my favorite books I own from any genre.

 

Jane Kenyon is the poet I’ve loved longest and best. The first book of poetry I bought was Otherwise. The first book of translated poetry I bought was her rendering of the poems of the great Russian writer Anna Akhmatova. And the second poem I featured on this blog was a Kenyon poem.

 

I’m going to close with that poem I posted four years ago, “The Clothes Pin.” It’s becoming clear to me that the only person I can tell what to do anymore is myself, so listen up, Poem Elf, you sniffling sap, you mawkish mush-head:

 

How much better it is

to carry wood to the fire

than to moan about your life.

How much better

to throw the garbage

onto the compost, or to pin the clean

sheet on the line

with a gray-brown wooden clothespin!

 

 

 

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