Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘family’

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

 

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.

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

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!

 

Read Full Post »

poem is in backpack

 

Ask Much, the Voice Suggested

by Jane Hirshfield

 

Ask much, the voice suggested, and I startled.

Feeling my body like the trembling body of a horse

tied to its tree while the strange noise

passes over its ears.

I who in extremity had always wanted less,

even of eating, of sleeping.

Agile, the voice did not speak again, but waited.

“Want more” –

a cure for longing I had not thought of.

But that is how it is with wells.

Whatever is taken refills to the steady level.

The voice agreed, though softly, to quiet the feet of the horse:

A cup taken out, a cup reappears; a bucketful taken, a bucket.

 

 

One evening long ago when my youngest daughter was getting ready for her first concert, I leaned in the bathroom doorway to watch with bemusement as she straightened her hair, lengthened her lashes, and went on and on about how excited she was. “This is going to be the greatest night of my life!” she said.

 

“Well,” I felt compelled to say, having seen the disappointment many such nights brought her older siblings, ”it probably won’t be the best night of your life.”

 

Poet Jane Hirshfield might take issue.

 

All these years later, take issue. I take issue with that mother so intent on instilling the stoicism of her own youth, so keen to teach her kids to expect less so that more is always a happy surprise that she sucked the joy right out of the bathroom, or as my husband likes to pantomime, stomped on the flower just as it was coming up from the ground.

 

By way of a belated apology, I gave “Ask Much, The Voice Suggested” to that same daughter. I slipped it in her backpack at the airport as she left for a year abroad to teach English. Obviously she didn’t learn from her mother to fear disappointment more than missed opportunity.

 

In my late middle-age I begin to get it. I think many people my age do. Ask much. Want more. Not more stuff. More life. Want more of people, of relationships, of time. Life holds so much possibility, so much that’s splendid and variable, why settle for less? Why settle for screen time and soulless shopping and obsessions and anxieties about our bodies? There’s so much more than that. Ask much.

 

Obviously the poem can’t be boiled down to aphorisms. Like the well described at the end (a wishing well, I see now), it’s a poem that re-fills even as you think you’re draining it. Where does the voice come from? Who is that horse, what is that tree, that tether?

 

The final lines trip me up, even after many years of reading them. Maybe it’s my utter confusion around physical science and fluid mechanics, but I don’t understand. In real-life, practical terms, how does getting something re-fill the well? Or is the well re-filling with wanting, with asking, not with the actual thing asked for, and if so, how does that solve the problem of wanting more? You see that I am dense. Anyone who can help me work through this, come forward.

 

But even in my confusion I understand that for the poet, as for me, the voice is benevolent. The voice is on her side. It wants for her what she’s afraid to want for herself. It’s agile when it first comes, suggesting eagerness, readiness to help, and then it’s soft in consideration of the trembling horse still tied to the tree.

 

I’ve been lucky enough in life that such benevolence is not hard to understand.

 

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.

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

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.

 

 

Read Full Post »

. . . 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.

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

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.

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »