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poem is leaning against veil on bench

 

Song of the Heart

by Cavafy

 

With you, I think, all that is pleasant smiles on me,

in the mirror of your eyes there is reflected joy.

Stay, my light, and still I have not told you even half

of all that presses down upon my heart so amorous,

that rushes to my lips with just a single look from you.

If you wish it, do not speak to me, or say enchanting

words of love and adoration. ‘Tis enough that you’re nearby,

that I tell you that I want you, that I’m near you, that the morning

dew that you breathe in, I breathe in, too; and if you find

that these too are excessive, ‘tis enough I merely see you!

 

 

A few hours before the bride donned this stunning dress, I snuck into her room with “Song of the Heart.” Then I worried. First that somehow the ink from my green Poem Elf stamp would stain the veil, and second that the bride might view the gesture as creepy, her prurient aunt trying to stoke the marital fires with a poem equal parts smoldering and romantic. I was like those old ladies at bridal showers of yore, holding up peignoir sets and lacy teddies, exclaiming to all with a laugh and a knowing wink, “Oh, won’t he enjoy these!” Forgive us old aunties. We love young love.

 

Anyway I needn’t have worried. The bride loved the poem and thought it “a perfect match” for her own perfect match. Indeed it was, even though she and her husband are private people not given to public displays, a couple whose emotions are less likely to be announced than unmasked by flushing cheeks and small grins.

 

But they couldn’t hold back on their wedding day, the glow, the big smiles, the “reflected joy” in the mirror of their eyes, the affectionate touching whenever the other was near. This overflowing of love from a couple who have known each other since their teenage years was a living, breathing exhibition of Cavafy’s words.

 

What I love about this love poem is that side-by-side with the passion—all that breathing and feelings pressing down and words rushing to the lips—is a courtliness. The lover is sweetly considerate of the beloved. The speaker says he’ll speak if you wish it, and if you find these too are excessive, he’ll back off. So polite for a passionate outpouring. This is no gather ye rosebuds while ye may seduction. This lover says, it’s enough to just breathe the same air as you.

 

I can only imagine how beautiful this poem is in the original Greek.

 

There’s a postscript to “Cavafy at the wedding.” After the reception, those die-hard celebrators among us carried on at a bar, and there I met a young man on his way to Ireland to get his masters in literature. We talked about his very particular literary taste—Shelly but not Eliot, a little Yeats but not all—and I showed him the picture on my phone of the Cavafy poem. He knew Cavafy and had read the poem before. I was impressed. No doubt the pretty young woman next to him was impressed as well. He expanded the screen to highlight a particular line. “Right there,” he said, pointing. “That’s it.” I wish I could remember which line it was that was it.

 

But which line doesn’t matter. What matters is the reach, over a hundred years later and thousands and thousands of miles away, of one poet’s words on strangers in a bar late one night, on lovers on their honeymoon, on who knows who else who reads this poem right here and now and remembers a beloved, and feels the beam of passion, the glow of love, who matches Cavafy’s song of the heart with his own.

 

Us old aunties. We’re hopeless romantics.

 

I’ve written about Cavafy before and will re-print his biography here. (Link here for the full post with another great Cavafy poem.)

 

Constantine Petrou Cavafy is Greece’s most highly esteemed modern poet even though he lived only briefly in Greece. He was born in 1863 in Egypt to Greek parents, the youngest of nine children.  After the death of his father, the family fell into poverty and moved to England. There he spent most of his childhood. More financial distress pulled the family to Greece, then back to Egypt, where Cavafy worked as a journalist and as a stockbroker. But the bulk of his professional life was spent at a government agency.

 

Cavafy was never famous in his lifetime and didn’t seem interested in pursuing recognition. He printed his poems in pamphlets which he distributed to his friends. His lack of interest in publication may have been because some of his poems dealt frankly with his homosexuality and erotic themes. He died at age seventy in 1933.

 

 

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. . . oh antic God return to me . . .

 

It’s not much of a poem blitz when you only feature two poems (three if you count my giveaways) but this year I’m feeling a little disengaged from Mother’s Day, my mother being gone two years now. Even so, two poems are enough when they’re as good as these.

 

I left Lucille Clifton’s “oh antic God” at the drugstore in the adult diaper aisle. No one wants to linger in the adult diaper aisle, a sad and embarrassing place, but maybe whoever comes across Clifton’s poem won’t mind pausing to take in her short tribute, her raw longing.

 

poem is in the foreground of middle shelf

 

oh antic God

by Lucille Clifton

 

oh antic God

return to me

my mother in her thirties

leaned across the front porch

the huge pillow of her breasts

pressing against the rail

summoning me in for bed.

 

I am almost the dead woman’s age times two.

 

I can barely recall her song

the scent of her hands

though her wild hair scratches my dreams

at night.   return to me, oh Lord of then

and now, my mother’s calling,

her young voice humming my name.

The poem is a glimpse of a woman long gone. Only aging children can fully appreciate that every mother—dead or just old, incontinent, thin-haired, stooped, sour-smelling—was once young and ripe with life. That mother from childhood is unreachable, so that what was once annoying or inconvenient, like being called into dinner in the middle of outdoor play, becomes what is most longed for.

 

return to me, oh Lord of then  

and now, my mother’s calling,

her young voice humming my name.

 

(The book I photocopied the poem from didn’t title this poem, so I assumed it was a continuation of the poem from the previous page, which it wasn’t. A long way of saying I mis-titled the copy I left. Pay no attention.)

 

I set Wendell Berry’s “To My Mother” on top of candy boxes at a fancy grocery store. This poem is so beautiful I felt I was leaving treasure. I hope some woman’s son long grown out of his rebellious stage finds the poem and cherishes his mother all the more.

poem on white candy box

 

To My Mother

by Wendell Berry

 

I was your rebellious son,

do you remember? Sometimes

I wonder if you do remember,

so complete has your forgiveness been.

 

So complete has your forgiveness been

I wonder sometimes if it did not

precede my wrong, and I erred,

safe found, within your love,

 

prepared ahead of me, the way home,

or my bed at night, so that almost

I should forgive you, who perhaps

foresaw the worst that I might do,

 

and forgave before I could act,

causing me to smile now, looking back,

to see how paltry was my worst,

compared to your forgiveness of it

 

already given. And this, then,

is the vision of that Heaven of which

we have heard, where those who love

each other have forgiven each other,

 

where, for that, the leaves are green,

the light a music in the air,

and all is unentangled,

and all is undismayed.

 

Berry’s poem awoke a memory that I keep at bay because it always makes me feel ashamed. And in a small wonder, the poem not only woke the memory but changed it for me.

 

Years ago my mother’s beloved brother, my Uncle Jack, who had visited me in Michigan from Texas in his old age and who I also loved, passed away. And I didn’t call her to say, how sad about Uncle Jack, how are you doing, how was the funeral. Maybe at first I was busy with little children. That’s an explanation, not an excuse because there was no good excuse for not calling her right away. Weeks went by and I still didn’t call her. It got to be a thing. I was so ashamed of not calling that I kept not calling. My mother never liked talking on the phone but still. I didn’t call. A month or two later my mother called me. I still remember weeding a bed of goatsbeard when the phone rang. “Maggie!” she said, as if she were surprised I were alive. I fell over myself apologizing, crying as I told her how sorry I was. Even now it makes me feel terrible to think of it, to consider how I’d feel if my one of my own daughters neglected to call me after a big loss like that.

 

But Berry’s poem switches the focus of that moment. Because my mother, like Berry’s mother, instantly forgave me. It wasn’t even a question. She just wondered, she said, that was all. She didn’t seem mad or hurt, just glad to be finally talking to me.

 

Ah. How lucky I am to have had a mother like that

 

Looking past my own experience to a country beset by hardening resentments and bitter reproach, I am all the more struck by the vision of heaven Berry paints, a place

 

where those who love

each other have forgiven each other

 

This forgiveness, freely given before the offense has even happened, is what allows heaven to be so heavenly. In such a place, Berry writes,

 

. . .  the leaves are green,

the light a music in the air,

and all is unentangled,

and all is undismayed.

 

 

Julia Kasdorf’s “What I Learned From My Mother” is a poem I’ve featured before. I had a dozen copies of it, so I left all of them at the train station when I picked up my daughter for the Mother’s Day weekend.

poem on bench

What I Learned From My Mother
by Julia Kasdorf
I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.

 

Happy Mother’s Day to all, especially to those who no longer have their mothers. And also to those who never knew their mothers and to those who had a mother not up to the job. We were all born of woman, and there is goodness in that.

 

 

 

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poem is on Christmas tree

 

A Drink of Water

by Seamus Heaney

 

She came every morning to draw water

Like an old bat staggering up the field:

The pump’s whooping cough, the bucket’s clatter

And slow diminuendo as it filled,

Announced her. I recall

Her grey apron, the pocked white enamel

Of the brimming bucket, and the treble

Creak of her voice like the pump’s handle.

Nights when a full moon lifted past her gable

It fell back through her window and would lie

Into the water set out on the table.

Where I have dipped to drink again, to be

Faithful to the admonishment on her cup,

Remember the Giver fading off the lip.

 

 

I’m in a hurry this Christmas Eve—egg casseroles to make, flowers to arrange, napkins to be ironed—so forgive this hasty post.

 

Remember the Giver. I’m taking this line from Heaney’s beautiful poem out of context, but bear with me. I’m sending out that line to all those receiving gifts over the holidays.

 

This time of year we focus on giving, and unless we’re little kids, teenagers, or needy adults, we enjoy giving more than receiving. Especially because gifts can be a let-down, not matching our expectations. We don’t hear a lot on how to receive a gift. I myself have been an ungracious receiver at times. But I’ve come to view receiving as an art form, and when done properly, as a spiritual duty, a moment of grace that allows the giver to experience his or her own goodness.

 

“A Drink of Water” must have been an important poem to Heaney, because it was one of two poems he chose to represent his lifetime achievement at an awards dinner. This from a Guardian article about his selection:

Heaney said it was “about receiving a gift and being enjoined to ‘remember the giver'”, something he said he would always do when remembering that evening.

“The old lady in the poem was a neighbour, a crone, as she might have been described, who lived on her own, down the fields from us,” he said. “To us kids she had a certain witch-like aura, but in the poem she becomes more like a muse offering the cup of poetry to the child incertus.”

 

Merry Christmas to those celebrating! Happy Hanukkah a little late, and Happy Holidays to all!

 

Remember the Giver.

 

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poem is on red book

 

Alzheimer’s: The Wife

by C.K. Williams

 

She answers the bothersome telephone, takes the message, forgets the message, forgets who called.

One of their daughters, her husband guesses: the one with the dogs, the babies, the boy Jed?

Yes, perhaps, but how tell which, how tell anything when all the name tags have been lost or switched,

when all the lonely flowers of sense and memory bloom and die now in adjacent bites of time?

Sometimes her own face will suddenly appear with terrifying inappropriateness before her in a mirror.

She knows that if she’s patient, its gaze will break, demurely, decorously, like a well-taught child’s,

it will turn from her as though it were embarrassed by the secrets of this awful hide-and-seek.

If she forgets, though, and glances back again, it will still be in there, furtively watching, crying.

 

 

Donald Rumsfeld of all people came to mind when I read this poem. Specifically his philosophical parsing of perception back in the days of WMD:

 

“. . . as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

 

In Rumsfeld’s calculus, the “unknown unknowns” are the most difficult realities. This makes sense, on a geo-political level. But not so in C.K. Williams’ “Alzheimer’s: The Wife.” Not knowing what isn’t known would be an absolute relief to the woman in the poem. It’s the known unknowns that make her suffer so. Her awareness of her situation, waxing and waning, is unbearable to me. Her consciousness is split between the mind that mixes up the name tags and the “it” who gazes at her in the mirror and sometimes cries like a frightened child.

 

Williams wrote an accompanying poem, “Alzheimer’s: The Husband,” which explores the caregiver’s emotional state.

 

I left the poem at Costco on a book promising to reverse memory loss. May we all live so long.

 

Charles Kenneth Williams (1936-2015) was born in Newark, New Jersey. His father was a salesman. Williams started his college education at Bucknell to play basketball, but transferred and graduated from University of Pennsylvania with a degree in philosophy and English.

 

Before writing and teaching full-time he worked as a group therapist for teens.

 

He published 13 books of poetry, several translations, and a memoir, and won most of the major poetry awards including the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Because of his characteristic long lines, at least one of his books had to be published in a special “wide page format.” He was well known for his political poems (Vietnam War, climate change) as well as very personal ones.

 

From 1996 until his death, he taught creative writing at Princeton.

 

He was married twice and had two children, one from each marriage. His son Jed is a celebrated artist whose work I really like even though abstract art is not usually something I’m drawn to. Link here.

 

Williams died of multiple myeloma at age 78.

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poem is against pillar next to honey pot

 

The Problem of Gratified Desire

by Marie Ponsot

 

If she puts honey in her tea

and praises prudence in the stirring up

she drinks, finally,

a drop of perfect sweetness

hot at the bottom of the cup.

 

There will be

pleasures more complex than it

(pleasure exchanged were infinite)

but none so cheap

more neat or definite.

 

 

I just came across a different version of Marie Ponsot’s “The Problem With Gratified Desire.” An earlier collection shows this poem with the line (She is 15 years old) under the title. The version I used, from 2016’s Collected Poems, deleted that. I wonder why the line was taken out. I like it. It adds a dimension I had missed before.

 

Now that I know the age of “she,” the future tense in the second stanza has a wistful air. A mother perhaps, observing her daughter drinking tea and seeing, all at once, loss and plenty, innocence and experience.

 

This poem reminds me of Thomas Lux’s “A Little Tooth,” both in its rhyme scheme that harkens back the childhood pleasures of listening to nursery rhymes, and the subject matter, which calls up the very adult pleasures and complications of sex.

 

“The Problem of Gratified Desire” is part of a set of poems dealing with proposed “problems.” Also in the series are the “Problem of Freedom and Commitment,” “The Problem of Loving-Kindness,” “The Problem of Fiction” (and five or six others), each “problem” connected to a particular age of the girl in the poem.

 

My question to you: Why is there subject-verb disagreement in this line—

 

(pleasure exchanged were infinite)

 

I don’t think it’s a typo. It appears that way in all versions.

 

I left the poem at the condiment station in a coffee shop in Chicago.

 

Here’s a biography of Marie Ponsot from an earlier posting. Important to note that shortly after I wrote it, Ponsot won the prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. At the ripe old age of 91!

 

Marie Ponsot was born in Queens, New York in 1921.  She graduated from a women’s college in Brooklyn and went on to earn her master’s degree in seventeenth century literature at Columbia University.  After World War II she went to Paris and married the French painter Claude Ponsot.  She had seven children with him, one daughter born in Paris and six sons when they moved back to the States.  She divorced and worked many years as a translator of French children’s books to support her large family.  In 1957 she published her first book of poetry through a connection with Beat poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  The book’s reception was overshadowed by another book published by Ferlinghetti, Allan Ginsberg’s Howl, and Ponsot seemingly disappeared from the world of poetry.

 

Although Ponsot would not publish for another twenty-four years, she continued to write, late at night after the children were in bed.  When she was in late middle age, she published her second book and began to garner attention and awards.  Unfortunately she still doesn’t seem to have the fame she deserves:  her biographical entry in Poetry Foundation’s website is woefully short, a mere paragraph.

 

Her life story reminds me of another Catholic poet, the marvelous Anne Porter.  Porter was also married to a painter, raised a large family and found recognition late in life.

 

As much attachment as I have to “Among Women,” I’ve discovered that Ponsot has been a part of my life even before I even read the poem.  I was delighted to read that she translated the Golden Book of Fairy Tales. It’s an indelible part of my childhood.  Many a night I spent with that book, reading in the bathroom because lights were supposed to be out.  Children, too, wander as best they can.

 

The book is still in print.  My children loved it.  Once in a while I’ll pull it out and wonder over the beautiful illustrations and strange stories.

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Shapes

by Ruth Stone

 

In the longer view it doesn’t matter.

However, it’s that having lived, it matters.

So that every death breaks you apart.

You find yourself weeping at the door

of your own kitchen, overwhelmed

by loss. And you find yourself weeping

as you pass the homeless person

head in hands resigned on a cement

step, the wire basket on wheels right there.

Like stopped film, or a line of Vallejo,

or a sketch of the mechanics of a wing

by Leonardo. All pauses in space,

a violent compression of meaning

in an instant within the meaningless.

Even staring into the dim shapes

at the farthest edge; accepting that blur.

 

 

Poet Ruth Stone puts forth a pretty bleak view of existence in “Shapes.” Her description of the type of moment that breaks you apart is a nihilistic riddle:

 

A violent compression of meaning in an instant within the meaningless.

 

That’s a view my sister, who is pictured sitting next to the poem on a ferry in Savannah, would not share. For the record, Josie’s presence in the photograph is coincidental and signifies only her willingness to get up and move her seat and not her endorsement of the ideas and images contained herein.

 

[Ahem. Greetings to my dear sister.]

 

Disclaimers aside, this little poem followed me from the Savannah River to a parking lot in Southfield, Michigan, where I found myself this morning momentarily confused staring up at four gigantic flags marking a car dealership. The flags were sunk on their poles at half-mast, and in the bright sun they waved like Sequoia-sized living monuments, calling out to the wee folk below, Remember, Remember, Remember. Remember what? And then I did remember—the Las Vegas massacre, of course—and my heart sank. I stood still, remembering the beautiful faces I had seen in the paper, and then remembering this line from “Shapes”—

 

So that every death breaks you apart.

 

And this one—

 

However, it’s that having lived, it matters.

 

I’m not sure exactly what Stone means by that, but the line sticks with me.

 

Anyone with thoughts on the last two lines?

 

(FYI, Cesar Vallejo was a Peruvian poet considered the greatest Latin American poet of the twentieth century, and by some as the greatest innovator of poetry of the same time period in any language. Link here to learn more about him and read some of his poems.)

 

 

I’ll post Stone’s bio from a previous post:

 

Recognition came late to Stone.   She wrote in relative obscurity and poverty most of her life. In her late eighties, she won the National Book Award and in her nineties was named the Poet Laureate of Vermont. When she died last November [2011] at age 96, every major paper around the globe printed a worshipful obituary.

 

Ruth Stone (1915-2011) was born in Roanoke, Virginia but grew up in Indianapolis. Her father was a typesetter for the Indianapolis Star and a part-time drummer whose gambling addiction kept the family in near poverty. Still, hers was a happy childhood, full of music, literature and fun-loving relatives. Her mother read her Tennyson while she was a toddler, and her grandmothers and aunts engaged her in their love of reading and writing.

 

 

She married young, to a chemist, had a daughter and ended the marriage when she fell in love with professor and poet Walter Stone. They had two children together and their poetry careers were just taking off when he hung himself on a coat hook in their London apartment. She never got over his suicide. In an interview with NPR when she was 89, Stone said, “I think every year – let’s see, he’s been dead maybe 40–some years — I think every year or every day or something, that it won’t come back — the pain. And it always does.”

 

 

She struggled as a single mother of three girls, travelling across the country from teaching post to teaching post to support the family. She eventually settled at SUNY Binghamton and then moved to rural Vermont.   I like this story poet Chard DiNiord tells about when he visited her towards the end of her life:

 

“I didn’t know Ruth before I interviewed her and really didn’t know what to expect when I showed up at her rundown, three-room apartment on Waybridge Street in Middlebury, Vermont. She didn’t open the door at first, fearing, I think, that I was a scam artist. My wife sat on her porch while I went for a brief walk in the hope that she would eventually open her door. While I was gone, she looked out her kitchen window and saw my wife sitting in one of her metal chairs. Although nearly blind from a botched eye procedure, she could still make out figures and colors. She emerged from her apartment in a flannel shirt and corduroy pants and sat next to my wife, taking her hand and immediately engaging her in conversation.”

 

 

And this, from the subsequent published interview:

 

Ruth Stone (laughing): I’m just this weird old lady.

 

CD: You are, and that’s a great thing.

 

CD: Your humor complements your grief in a way that helps you write about loss without becoming morose.

 

Ruth Stone: Yes! Ultimately, you know you can’t help it. Life turns terrible, and it’s so ridiculous, it’s just funny.

 

 

 

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Disposal

by W.d. Snodgrass

 

The unworn long gown, meant for dances

She would have scarcely dared attend,

Is fobbed off on a friend—

Who can’t help wondering if it’s spoiled

But thinks, well, she can take her chances.

 

We roll her spoons up like old plans

Or failed securities, seal their case,

Then lay them back. One lace

Nightthing lies in the chest, unsoiled

By wear, untouched by human hands.

 

We don’t dare burn those cancelled patterns

And markdowns that she actually wore,

Yet who do we know so poor

They’d take them? Spared all need, all passion,

Saved from loss, she lies boxed in satins

 

Like a pair of party shoes

That seemed to never find a taker;

We send back to its maker

A life somehow gone out of fashion

But still too good to use.

 

 

 

Little Pearl D. Deiwiler, on whose grave I left W.D. Snodgrass’ poem, died at age seven, much too young to have acquired the worldly goods listed in the poem—the dance gowns, spoons, dress patterns, lace underwear, clothes bought on sale. My bad, I didn’t do the math.  I was too taken with the name “Pearl,” such an old-fashioned name and a good match for these lines:

a life somehow gone out of fashion

but still too good to wear.

 

Poor little Pearl, so young. Poor Pearl’s parents.  Like the communal speaker in this poem, they were left with only the worldly goods of the deceased and the painful question of how to dispose of those things that hold memories but not purpose. The unsentimental would toss, but me, I still have doilies from my mother’s linen chest that probably came from her mother or mother-in-law, never used by her, maybe never used by them. I will pass them to my daughters who presumably will have just as much trouble getting rid of items that have outlived their usefulness.

 

The poem makes me wonder what story my possessions will tell about me when I’m dead. Hopefully not as sad a story as “Disposal.”

 

William DeWitt Snodgrass (1926-2009) was born in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. His father was an accountant, his mother a homemaker with a domineering personality who Snodgrass later blamed, rightly or wrongly, for the death of his sister from an asthma attack.

 

He began his studies at Geneva College but left to enlist in the Navy at the end of World War II. When he got out he went to University of Iowa where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and master of fine arts degrees.

 

He earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for his first collection of poetry, Heart’s Needle. The collection was about losing contact with his daughter because of his divorce, and includes these lines, moving in their simplicity:

 

Winter again and it is snowing;

Although you are still three,

You are already growing

Strange to me.

 

Snodgrass taught at several universities, including Wayne State, Syracuse and University of Delaware, seemed to struggle to make a living, and saw his reputation as a poet rise and fall. Married four times, he had two children with two different wives. He died of lung cancer when he was 83.

 

For a longer and more insightful biographical sketch, link here for his obituary in the Independent. Brits always write the best obits.

 

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