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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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I have haikus to post today and tomorrow, and that will be the end of this project . . . unless. . .  my international readers step up! Sending out a challenge to Poem Elf readers in countries outside of the United States to send in a quarantine haiku. I know you’re there, I see you.

 

*

 

Tom McGrath, a new grandfather from Chicago, sends in a vision of dreamy peace:

 

Haiku for Emilio Tomas

 

A newborn slumbers

limp against this grandpa’s chest,

a lion at rest.

 

Tom adds that the original final line was “big sister pokes him.” Two completely different poems! I like both.

 

*

 

From her quarantine in downtown Baltimore, Trish Rawlings muses on what she found on the ground outside the grocery store:

 

White latex gloves dropped

Rudely on the lot up close

Are not: pale blossoms.

 

(What she thought were a shopper’s protective gear was actually blossoms from a shedding tree. Would that all nasty sights turn out to be blossoms!)

 

*

 

My brother-in-law Richard has temporarily re-located from Massachusetts to California to help care for his little grandsons as his daughter-in-law recovers from health issues. (Yes, he is that great a human!) Being so far from his wife, he thought about other separations, including mine from my daughters (we are literally thousands of miles apart and will be for the foreseeable future), and he came up with this, which ends with classic New England stoicism and a signature Bostonian phrase:

 

Haiku from San Diego

Daughters coming home
Squeeze is what we want to do
Fa’ get about it

 

*

 

Benedikt Rochow, an engineer from Alabama, took a break from working at home to come up with this—

 

A man a plan a
canal Panama really
is a palindrome.
*
Last one. I’ve been reading a lot of essays about how this virus is helping us get back to our core selves, our shared humanity, the things that truly matter. Marge from Chicago says the same in her haiku:
Corona’d we are
Self-starters we have become
Reliant on God
*
Thanks, everyone! More tomorrow.
**APOLOGIES FOR THE BAD SPACING FOR THE LAST TWO HAIKUS. I HAVE TRIED TO FIX IT AND AM UNABLE TO!

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Welcome to the third installment of readers’ quarantine haiku. Thank you for sending in these gems. I love them.

 

(Reminder:  if yours hasn’t been posted yet, wait a day or so, I’ll get to it. And keep them coming!)

 

Let’s start with flowers because . . . flowers! After winter, flowers. What a marvelous event.

 

Sharon Carey sends in this

 

 

 

Springtime violas

uplift stone cold riprap spirits

Johnny jump ups cheer somber days

 

 

In case you, like me, don’t know what a Johnny jump up is—

Screen Shot 2020-03-27 at 11.09.32 AM

 

 

 

 

 

 

Judith Berger, herbalist, sends greetings from Manhattan:

 

 

Outside my window,

waxwing in the Juniper.

She too wears a mask.

 

 

 

 

Who knew this little project would be such an education? Here’s a waxwing in a juniper bush:

 

 

Screen Shot 2020-03-27 at 11.17.08 AM

 

 

 

 

 

My sister Mary K. wrote one we can all relate to:

 

 

Stationery bike

Attempting to stay in shape

Food and wine negate

 

 

 

 

My grand-nephew Charlie Greco, age 9, made a PSA haiku. Simple, sober and to the point. Thanks, Charlie!

 

 

coronavirus

it is horrible for you

wash your hands please, thanks!

 

 

 

 

 

Last ones for the day are from my friend Michelle of Chicago.

 

 

 

[Explanation needed:  weeks and weeks ago which feels more like a lifetime ago, we met in Maui (I cringe at the Marie-Antoinette tone of that phrase, but it is what it is, and it’s relevant). In the airport restroom we spoke with a woman who had just come back from the little island of Molokai, once home to lepers. She enchanted us. Tall, willowy, gray-haired, dressed in safari-type clothes, a big smiler—also a widow who had buried her native-born Kauai husband on his home island years before. We wanted to know more about her—really I wanted to be her best friend—so we stalked her. Tracked her down in the airport restaurant to see who she was with.]

 

 

 

Molokai Lady

You were so interesting

Tell us your secret 

 

 

 

Michelle also wrote this one:

 

 

 

Were the fish laughing

When they saw my snorkel mask

Or was it my fins?

 

 

 

 

Okay, more tomorrow!

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Thank you to everyone who sent in a haiku! Can’t tell you how much I enjoy reading them. It’s a balm for my nervous system. The creative spirit is fundamental to us humans and strengthens our connections!

 

Up first from Jeanette, who gets extra credit for taking a picture:

(Jeanette has a very droll sense of humor and I am laughing at “safe connection.”)

 

Extra credit too for Truus Visser whose native language is Dutch. A lot said here, very artfully:

deep-orange sky
birds fill in the  silence
handsoap foams fragrant

 

Here from Nancy Murphy, mother of four, a positive spin on quarantine:

Games, puzzles unearthed
Joyful sounds, parents exhale
Family renewed

Nancy adds, “Please note that my poem is in no way intended to make light of the seriousness of the virus and its consequences. Hope we all get through this ok.”

 

And from Michigan resident Gail Haffey, gardener extraordinaire:

Season for pansies

The snowflakes touch them gently

Sun melts them away

 

Thanks, everyone! I’ll post more tomorrow.

 

Keep them coming!

 

 

 

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poem is on gate door

 

From “A Married State”

by Katherine Philips

 

A married state affords but little ease

The best of husbands are so hard to please.

This in wives’ careful faces you may spell

Though they dissemble their misfortunes well.

 

Someone wrote on Twitter the other day that being in lockdown reminded her of being married. This little excerpt from Katherine Philips’ poem is for all those quarantined with a less-than-perfect housemate.

 

My own housemate is a dear. He is dear even as he follows me around with supportive words on hand washing, although sometimes I have to remind myself of how dear he is when he doesn’t follow me around with supportive words on hand washing.

 

Reader, I wash my hands often and well.

 

You can link to the complete poem here.

 

Katherine Philips (1631/32 – 1664) was an English poet and translator. She was an intelligent child who read the Bible by the time she was four. Her father was a cloth merchant and had her educated at boarding school. She spoke several languages.

 

She was 16 when she married a Welsh landowner and member of Parliament. It was a strange match—he was 38 years older and the son of her mother’s second husband from another marriage. She and her husband (—cough—step-brother) had opposite political positions (her pro-royalist connections saved him from the executioner after King Charles II took the throne), but they seem to have been happy. Important to note that she wrote her sardonic anti-marriage poem in her early teens before she was married.

 

Still, her view of marriage seems jaundiced. When a friend remarried after widowhood, Philips wrote to her, “one may generally conclude the Marriage of a Friend to be the Funeral of a Friendship.”

 

Her husband encouraged her literary endeavors. She wrote over a hundred poems, many on the theme of female friendship which she wrote about in the tropes of courtly love. She translated and staged a play in London and Dublin, the first woman ever to have done so. She was the founder of the Society of Friendship, a literary group that wrote letters and poems to each other. Members of the group addressed each other with nicknames—hers was “The Matchless Orinda.”

 

She had two children. Her son died in infancy. She wrote his tombstone epitaph (in verse) and another poem, “On the Death of My First and Dearest Child, Hector Philips.” In spite of the elegant phraseology, a mother’s raw grief rips through—

 

Tears are my muse, and sorrow all my art,

    So piercing groans must be thy elegy.

 

Those piercing groans. Wow. Lines like that remind me how we are the same in our suffering, century to century, country to country.

 

She died in her early thirties of smallpox.

 

For anyone on Instagram who needs a break from the gloom-and-doom of Covid-19 news, link here and sign up for Wake Up and Dance. Two of my daughters, one in Prague, one in northern Michigan, are collaborating on the videos. They’ll make you smile and maybe even dance yourself. (Instagram name if you’re having trouble with the link: @w.akeupanddance)

 

 

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In Hawaii for another Valentine’s Day—always a good spot for celebrating love, inspiring love and meditating on love. When I’m here my heart nearly bursts open with love for all creation.

 

Yeah, yeah, pretty easy when I’m this far away from routine, news, and winter weather. Regardless, sending love to you, dear readers, and to all my Valentines across the Pacific (and to one across the Atlantic).

 

On with the poem blitzing then:

 

I taped “Some Kiss We Want” by 13th century Persian poet Rumi to a piece of grass at a favorite overlook of mine. Every time I drive by I say, “It never gets old,” and so with a kiss, and so with our human yearning for love.

 

No one marries the spiritual with the physical like Rumi. Just look how he connects the mouth to that union in the last stanza. The mouth brings in breath and spirit, speaks words of love and is rather handy in the act of love itself:

Breath into me. Close

the language-door and open the love-window.

 

 

For a more prosaic but no less love-happy treatment of love, I left British poet Wendy Cope’s “The Orange” in a stack of grocery store (wait for it) oranges.

 

What a wonderful description she gives of being newly in love, how it makes you newly in love with every old thing you never paid attention to before:

And that orange, it made me so happy,

As ordinary things often do

Just lately.

 

I asked my friends, a long-married couple, to be in a picture with an excerpt from Edgar Allen Poe’s “To One in Paradise” while we waited at the airport to move from one Hawaiian isle to another. They wisely questioned the appropriateness of an Edgar Allen Poe poem for a non-Halloween holiday, but were good sports in posing with it.

poem is on window between the smoochers

 

The poem is (unsurprisingly) about a dead lover. But let’s just pretend that the loved one in the poem’s heavenly paradise is a loved one here on the earthly paradise of Hawaii. Then we can enjoy the romance of the beautiful lines and not feel like we’re dragging a decomposing corpse from the crypt to the bedroom.

 

The poem is hard to read in my picture, so I’ll type out the words:

And all my days are trances,

      And all my nightly dreams

Are where thy grey eye glances

     And where thy footstep gleams—

In what ethereal dances,

     By what eternal streams.

 

Speaking of morbid attachments, I do love a good cemetery and was happy to find an unmarked one off a dirt road where I could leave “Love Song” by poet Nancy Wood (1936-2013).

poem is on fence-post in foreground

 

For anyone who’s lost their life’s love, this is for you:

. . . Our holy place is holy still;

     our love is not diminished by absence or by pain.

 

There’s a  high surf warning today on the north shore of Kauai, so it’s a good time to leave “Sonnet LXXV” by Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) on the beach, to fulfill its promise of being washed away.

 

Not to be a sourpuss in the candy jar, but it’s funny that for all the flowery promises to make his lover’s name immortal and her virtues rare eternal, Spenser never does mention her name or describe what those virtues are. Seems to me what he really wanted written in the heavens was his poem. Success!

 

For those who haven’t yet found the lover to write their names in the sand much less follow through on a Bumble date, Maya Angelou offers encouragement in this excerpt from “In My Missouri.” I taped it to a telephone pole outside one of the only late-night spots in Hanalei, the famous Tahiti Nuit. (Famous for The Descendants fans, I mean.)

 

The poem begins with the bad men she’s encountered, the mean, cold and hard men. Then she writes, and I love this, I love this for all those who are still looking and need hope—

So I thought I’d never meet a sweet man

A kind man

A true man

One who in darkness you can feel secure man

A sure man

A man.

 

For my own man, my own sure man, I crumpled up Ted Kooser’s “Pocket Poem” and stuck it in his shorts.

 

My husband is notorious for crumpling his scorecard in our euchre group (much to the annoyance of the scorekeeper) so Kooser’s poem is just right. And also these lines, which I feel even now, thirty-two years on (forty if you include the teenage dating years)—

. . . I want to be so close

that when you find it, it is warm from me.

 

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! Across the isles and across the aisles, let’s love!

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poem is on futon 

 

Respite

by Jane Hirshfield

 

Day after quiet day passes.

I speak to no one besides the dog.

To her,

I murmur much I would not otherwise say.

 

We make plans

then break them on a moment’s whim.

She agrees;

though sometimes bringing

to my attention a small blue ball.

 

Passing the fig tree

I see it is

suddenly huge with green fruit,

which may ripen or not.

 

Near the gate,

I stop to watch

the sugar ants climb the top bar

and cross at the latch,

as they have now in summer for years.

 

In this way I study my life.

It is,

I think today,

like a dusty glass vase.

 

A little water,

a few flowers would be good,

I think;

but do nothing. Love is far away.

Incomprehensible sunlight falls on my hand.

 

 

If a friend told you her life was a dusty glass vase you might ask what’s going on, give her a consoling hug and pass on the number of a good therapist. Somehow Jane Hirshfield says the very same thing and she sounds . . . self-satisfied? Pleased? Zen at the very least. That’s the Hirshfield magic. Her meditative air fills her poems, dark though they may be, with light.

 

Take another look at that dusty glass vase. Yes, it’s empty, un-filled, unused for some time. But not depressing. An empty vase is rich with possibility and ready for beauty. Ready for a little water and a few flowers.

 

I think;/but do nothing the speaker says. Around her is a world of activity. The dog pushes the ball to her feet, the fig tree bursts with new fruit, the busy ants march onward. She watches but doesn’t feel the desire to be busy herself.

 

What wondrous stillness in this poem. Each experience—dog, tree, sugar ant, sunshine—is presented as if Hirshfield were holding them out in her palm one by one for us to see. My, my, look at this, she seems to say quietly. And so she draws us in to her meditative state. The short lines only heighten the quality of attention. There’s a precision and delicacy at work that bring to mind Helen Mirren’s unmatched articulation. I’d really love to hear her read this poem aloud.

 

It ends so softly that the drama and tension of the last two lines nearly escaped me. We seem to be headed down the path of lugubriosity—

 

Love is far away

 

but it’s only a set-up for the line that follows. Suddenly we find ourselves bathed in wonder and beauty:

 

Incomprehensible sunlight falls on my hand.

 

I left “Respite” on a Baltimore sidewalk in mid-summer. Since then I’ve been chiding myself for letting it languish away in my photo stream. But now I’m glad I waited so long to post it. Turns out it’s very of-the-moment and on-the-nose this early November afternoon.

 

Hirshfield describes an in-between space, one between observation and action. For some time these past few weeks I’ve been sitting in the same—but without the equanimity she has. My in-between is more malaise than meditation. More a wet noodle than a coiled spring.

 

Readers, bear with me a moment. Guests are arriving to the pity party HIrshfield so wisely avoids, and I want to look at each face before I sneak out the back to a more festive event.

 

The first guest is the re-boot of my years-ago empty nest syndrome, as all four of my children made moves—nearly simultaneously—that brought home the fact that none will live ever live within three hours of us, and that my husband and I are more and more extraneous to their lives, as it should be, of course. That guest came in early fall and got the other guests riled up, guests who had been in the room the whole year, ignored by me but suddenly wanting attention. A dead dog. A mother-in-law, who had lived with us, deceased nearly a year now. Serious health issues plaguing my extended family.

 

And then there are the lesser guests who behave as if they were the guests of honor: a finished novel sitting in the proverbial drawer, a novel half-heartedly and unsuccessfully marketed and subsequently rejected; a new novel stale and plodding; new writing projects begun and abandoned; my blog set aside and now so judgy of my laziness.

 

Tiny problems. First-world problems. Nothing to look at here except I’m usually a duck’s back to problems. And getting side-tracked by such commonplace experiences was making me feel like  . . . well, like a dusty glass vase.

 

Enter this poem, which I had positioned mostly as a pun (the futon inviting “Respite,” you see). The poem has tapped me on the shoulder, very gently, and said, There’s better light over here, let’s examine these things together. The in-between place, it turns out, isn’t a dead zone, it isn’t a place where nothing happens and nothing ever will because I was never good enough anyway and people get sick and the lucky ones grow old and die withered. No. It’s a mid-day nap. It’s a sit-down. It’s a church pew. It’s a fertile place, a place to gather the energy of wonder and stillness.

 

I’ve mentioned before a favorite poem of childhood, one I can still recite from memory, and I do hate to repeat myself, but A.A. Milne’s “Halfway Down” belongs to this moment and it’s running through my head, so here goes. The poem begins:

 

Halfway down the stairs

is a stair

where I sit

 

In the second stanza Milne switches to “halfway up the stairs” (emphasis mine), then muses that this chosen step is not up and not down but has its own geography—

 

It isn’t really

Anywhere!

It’s somewhere else

Instead!

 

Even as a little girl I liked that halfway down stair. A good place to observe what was happening above or below, and there was always a lot going on in our household of thirteen. Anyway, that’s where I am, halfway down the stairs, patient now, observing, biding my time to move, up or down, I don’t know.

 

I’m re-posting Hirshfield’s biography from a past post:

 

Jane Hirshfield was born in 1953 in New York City.  After graduating from the first Princeton class to include women, she moved to San Francisco to study Zen Buddhism for eight years. She’s published eight books of poetry and, as a translator of Japanese poetry, helped popularize tanka in the United States. She’s won numerous awards and taught at many universities including Stanford, Duke and Univerisity of Virginia.

 

I read an interview with her from PalettePoetry.com and came across this question-and-answer which I suspect is relevant to “Ask Much, the Voice Suggested.”

 

Q:  HOW DO YOU CLIMB OUT OF A DRY SPELL OF WRITING?

JH: By longing. I grow lonely for poems, the way you would grow lonely for an absent lover. And then they return. Longing is the ladder we meet on.

 

 

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Young love is sweet to behold, sweeter and sweeter as I grow older. It’s also something of a wonder for a long-married person like me to think back to the beginning—to try to remember—that time—in Septemberwhen love was an emberabout to billow—

 

 

[Earworm alert. . . The Fantasticks is always waiting to be sung.]

 

Back to the Poem-Elfing, which took place at a family wedding last weekend in Washington, D.C. I gave poems to the bride and groom as they got ready. All three poems have been posted here before but they suited this occasion so well I make no apology for the recycling.

 

The first is from poet Fulvia Lupulo, which I stuck in the bridal mirror:

 

The bride looks like she’s painting her nails but she’s actually painting rubber cement on the back of pictures of the groom’s older sister who passed away at age fourteen. I can’t remember what exactly the bride was going to do with the photos, but any bride who spends her pre-wedding primping time on thoughtful gestures like this is beautiful indeed.

 

 

She took a break from doing her sister’s make-up to pose with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?”

 

These lines may be familiar but they never lose power. So gorgeous.

 

 

I happened upon the groom in the parking lot, pre-tux. I handed him a favorite little love poem and gave him a rushed explanation of why I wanted to take his picture with it. I don’t think he understood what was going on but I like how he holds the poem like like an “I donated blood today” sticker.

 

Do not be astonished at my joy. . . 

 

Congratulations to Jeanne and Anthony! Here’s to young love! May it be old love someday!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Valentine’s Day spending is up 6% this year over last even though fewer people are celebrating. Sad!

 

Poems, of course, are the perfect antidote to the menace of all-consuming consumerism slouching towards Bethlehem. Poems cost nothing to give and last forever. Here’s a few to share with your lover, your mother, your friend or even a stranger, why not?

 

I’ll begin with a poem for mothers, Christina Rossetti’s “Sonnets are full of love, and this my tome” which I left near a mailbox.

 

Would that I had use for that mailbox. Would that I still had a mother to send a Valentine’s card to. No stamp, no hugs, no kisses, just an ache to remember her, my first Love, as Rossetti calls her mother, my loadstar while I come and go. Still, this description of a mother’s love is a comfort—

whose blessed glow transcends the laws

  Of time and change and mortal life and death.

 

 

 

Fortunately most of my friends are still living and for them I left 19th-century novelist and poet Dinah Maria Craik’s “Friendship.” I taped it to a fencepost enclosing two horses companionably eating grass.

 

Craik uses the image of sifting grain to capture the ease of conversing with a true friend—

Having neither to weigh thoughts,

Nor measure words—but pouring them

All right out—just as they are—

 

 

 

On to the lover’s portion of this post. I put Catherine Doty’s “Yes” on a bench overlooking the ever-romantic Hanalei Bay, just after a heavy downpour.

 

Another kind of downpour is happening in the poem. Blood and nerves and joints and various body parts are overrun with desire. Come/here indeed.

 

 

 

For those without a beloved this Valentine’s Day, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar has you covered with his hopeful “Invitation to Love.” I taped it to a fence on favorite overlook of mine. Waves crash against the cliffs in high spray and red-footed boobies cover the hills like flowers. The lighthouse in the distance works with the poem to create a beacon of hope to those at sea in the world. Yeah, I really like this spot.

 

Dunbar is ready for love anytime, anywhere:

Come when the summer gleams and glows

Come with the winter’s drifting snows,

  And you are welcome, welcome.

 

 

 

“After Making Love We Hear Footsteps” might strike you as unromantic, but in poet Galway Kinnell’s hands it becomes most tender and even sensual. I left it on a stop sign, which is probably about as effective in keeping out trespassers as Kinnell’s closed door is at stopping his son from barging in his bedroom.

 

Most parents face this scenario—a kid plopping down between his startled and possibly interrupted parents—but it takes a poet to elevate the interruption into a homecoming of sorts—

this one whom habit of memory propels to the ground of his making,

sleeper only the mortal sounds can sing awake,

this blessing love gives again into our arms.

 

 

 

I’ve got two poems for lost love. The first, David Ignatow’s “That’s the Sum of It,” I left in a junkyard.

poem is on white dishwasher with black top 

The loss of his wife and car have put the speaker in a catch-22 situation. The speaker’s tone is light but the ache is always present, like here, when he wishes to visit his children

when they

are not too busy.

 

 

 

The second poem of lost love takes its sweet time getting to the heart of it, touring through Rome and taking in the sights. I left Charlie Smith’s “Crostatas” at a scenic overlook of mountains and taro fields.

poem is on. drone sign

 

He’s one depressed tourist—

flowers like eyeballs dabbed in blood and the big ruins

said do it my way pal

—and the reason becomes clear only in the last lines.

 

 

 

Finally, a Valentine anyone can enjoy, a love poem to the universe. “Dusting,” by Marilyn Nelson, begins with a thank you (in my reading, to the Creator, but take it as you will) and spills over with wonder and joy for life itself, for dust. I left it on a beach a few feet from the ocean where it all begins.

 

Somehow the scientific language makes the poetic sensibility all the more ecstatic—

For algae spores

and fungus spores

bonded by vital

mutual genetic cooperation

 

 

May we all be bonded in mutual genetic cooperation!

 

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!

 

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