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Posts Tagged ‘home’

poem is on iron post of the train shelter

 

Invisible in the Torn Out Interiors

 

by Dara Wier

 

 

A man looked at us across his little dish

Of watercress and peas and said he’d wasted

Five years. We couldn’t ask him doing what?

He said he knew he’d let some thing alive die

And didn’t know how to get it back again now

That it was gone. He looked as if he were

About to cry, as if a fresh death wanted him

To mourn. He talked as if the place he’d been

Had so unwelcomed him it had ruined his soul,

As if it were a place into which drained an

Absolute dead air. He said he’d left no friends

Behind, no one who’d notice he was gone.

And here he was without a job, no place his to

Live, no one his to love. We said welcome home.

 

 

As I write this post, a man and woman next to me at Starbucks engage in an electric exchange.  The man, bald with a salt and pepper beard, looks ten years older than his companion, although her long dark hair curtains my view of her face.  He leans forward; her body is angled awkwardly towards the exit.  He has a briefcase at his side; a stack of papers covers the table.  Amidst the clatter and phizzes coming from behind the counter and the loud laughter of a group of old Armenian men, I can only hear dollops of their conversation.  You have never supported me, she says.  Just hear me out, he replies.  Later he says, Let me tell you a story about my 69-year old father.

 

She never seems as relaxed as he is.  At any moment she may spring up on her high heels and leave.  Without hearing much of their conversation, I don’t know if their debate is personal or professional, and I can’t gauge the degree of their intimacy.  I’ll leave without ever knowing what their issue is and if they resolved it. But I do know that that there is some kind of hurt between them that matters deeply to both of them; and I’ll think about them all day and perhaps tomorrow too.

 

And so with Dara Wier’s poem “Invisible in the Torn Out Interiors.”  Reading this poem is as frustrating as my eavesdropping on the couple in the noisy coffee shop.  I don’t fully understand the relationship between the three characters and I never will.  I could dismiss it, the way I dismiss other things not easily understood, like computer codes, economic policy, complicated driving directions.  But I don’t dismiss it.  Something pulls me towards it.

 

Wier gives out just enough information to give the reader a toehold on what’s going on.  Two people listen to a man’s anguish.  He is eating a watercress salad on a little plate.  I get a whole picture of the scene just from that little detail.  It’s the only visual detail in the entire poem, but the watercress on the little plate is so evocative of gender and class that it carries the rest of the poem on its delicate little legs.

 

The salad and the “torn out interiors” of the title suggest a renovated space, a restaurant, as I see it, a ladies’ lunch kind of place with windows and lots of light.  There’s a sense of unreality and inappropriateness to a man unburdening himself of his suffering in such a public, feminine space.

 

The man speaks of spending five years in a toxic, soul-destroying atmosphere. He describes a passive role in letting something die.  His anguish extends to this new place where he has no friends, no job, no place to live.  The women listening to him say, perhaps sarcastically, perhaps with genuine warmth, Welcome home.

 

The reader can’t help but feel sympathy for the man’s situation but also strangely  distant from it.  The woman’s uninflected summary of his words and that odd detail of the watercress salad lend a sense of the absurd to the episode.  I’m reminded of  Russian writers who color expressions of oversized emotions with a certain comic detachment.  Think of the opening lines from Chekov’s The Seagull:

 

Medvedenko: Why do you wear black all the time?

Masha: I’m in mourning for my life.

 

My toehold in this poem never leads to stable footing.  “Invisible in the Torn Out Interiors” is as cryptic and mysterious as its title.  I’m left with these questions:

 

1.  What is the nature of the relationship between the two listeners and the man?  Is he a stranger?  They refer to him as “a” man so they don’t seem to know him. He’s a very strange stranger, voluble, perhaps mentally ill, an ancient mariner spilling out his shame.  At the end of the poem the women (or maybe they aren’t women) welcome him home, so perhaps he isn’t a stranger after all.  And these lines puzzle me:

 

he’d wasted

Five years. We couldn’t ask him doing what?

 

Why can’t they ask him how he wasted five years?  Do they know the awful answer and are too polite to mention it over the watercress salad?  Either a lack of intimacy or a lack of stability on his part prevents an open conversation.

 

2.  What was the “something alive” that he “let die”?  A relationship?  A cat?  A house plant?  Some quality in himself he failed to nourish?

 

3.  What does the ending mean?  Is it a deadpan joke or a genuine welcoming?  If he has truly come home and they are holding out their pineapples and leis, are they hurt when he says he has no one to love here?

 

Feel free to weigh in with your own impressions.  I may have talked myself into a version of this poem that’s mine and mine alone.

 

I taped the poem to a shelter that offered a little protection from rain and bitter winds at a train station.  I left it for anyone returning home and for those welcoming someone back.  I was thinking in particular about college students coming home for spring break.  Adults love to tell kids that college is the best four years of their lives, but sometimes it isn’t.  College can be dreary and lonely.  Roommate issues, homesickness, regrets over hook-ups and drunken dramas, grade stress and money worries can all be dispiriting and sometimes even soul-crushing.  Home, I hope, but of course it isn’t always, is a place to take rest from all those wearying tribulations.  Home is where you are welcomed.  And judging from my own college kids’ homecoming,

home is where you can do your laundry for free.

 

Dara Wier was born in 1949 in New Orleans.  Despite her parents’ sensible wish for her to become a pharmacist, she got her MFA at Bowling Green and became a poet.  She has published 11 books of poetry; her work has appeared in several anthologies and she has won numerous awards and fellowships, among them a Pushcart Prize and an NEA grant.  She directs the MFA program at University of Massachusetts Amherst where her husband, poet James Tate, also teaches.

 

 

 

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Being proved wrong can be delightful, particularly if you’re watching someone break out of the box you’ve put them in.  Susan Boyle, with her washer woman looks and elegant tones, affords this pleasure, as do pretty boy actors who go to Ivy League schools and write serious fiction, and 91-year old Olga Kotelko, a record-breaking star of track and field.

I had just such delight last week with a trinity of service calls.  I was all set to endure the irritations of waiting for each to arrive, writing checks larger than anticipated, and making cheerless conversation about the weather; but instead I enjoyed the company of three marvelous men.

First came the carpet cleaner.  A mysterious odor in the family room couch had recently become nauseating.  Understand that carpet cleaners are low on my list of desired company—there’s always a song and dance about this treatment and that protectant, and hundreds of dollars later you’ve filled your house with poisonous chemicals and false promises.  But this one, a stocky fellow from northern England who managed to look dignified even with shower caps on his shoes, was lovely.  Formerly an engineer, he approached his work with the utmost seriousness.  “Knowledge is power,” he said when I commented on his encyclopedic knowledge of wools, nylons, polyesters, dyes and urine crystals.  Nose to the fabric, he sniffed methodically up and down the cushion like he was mowing a lawn.   “That’s got to be a bad part of your job,” I said as I watched, embarrassed.

“Actually it’s very rewarding, ” he said, coming up for air.  “And it’s definitely pet urine.”

The reward, he explained, is not in getting a nostril-full of Trixie’s tinkles but in helping people.  I had never considered carpet cleaning a noble undertaking, but perhaps it was.  Stains are discouraging to live with, odors downright unnerving. Maybe my carpet cleaner feels like a priest in a confessional, removing dirt, mess and stain.

And business was good, he cheerfully went on. “Where there’s muck there’s brass.”  Which means (I had to ask for a translation), where there’s dirt there’s money to be made.

(I love this saying, Where there’s muck there’s brass—it’s true in writing as well.  Writers have to go to the dirty places, the dark places, the places no one wants to go to in order to create something worth reading. )

Hours later I was revising my list of undesirable companions, noting that mattress salesmen were still at the very bottom, when the jolliest, sincerest mattress salesman imaginable came to call.  I won’t belabor the details except to say that his pride in his product was strong and well-founded.  He makes his mattresses by hand, with natural materials.  Mass-produced mattresses are built to last 3-5 years, he told me, and end up in landfills, but his come with lifetime guarantees. I know, I know, there’s a sucker born every minute; but I couldn’t find a reason to doubt him.  Besides, his stories were marvelous—a boxspring-punishing couple with 600 pounds of weight combined, a priest with back problems—and the hero of each tale was his mattress.  He hugged me goodbye, and though I had just met him and I had formerly pledged to despise mattress salesmen, I was glad he did.

And then came the plumber.  He was a bit of a talker, which should have been tedious, as the subject was rubber seals and the mechanics of toilet flushing.  But I was wrong again.  I found his conversation nearly as engaging as the banter on NPR’s Car Talk.  No matter what the subject, I like listening to people puzzle through a problem, using logic and their great breadth of experience and knowledge.

Maybe I’m just an easy mark for a good sales pitch. But I closed the door on each man with newfound respect.  All three enjoyed helping people solve problems, a quality and a mission which elevated their daily work—in the muck or in the wool—to the exceptional.

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More home poems from ESL students

Kyoto, Japan

 

Yesterday I posted Vladimir of Lviv’s imitation poem of Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago.”  (Vladimir is a student in my sister Ceci’s ESL conversation class. All the students were asked to write a poem about home using Sandburg’s poem as a model.)

 

Today I’ll highlight excerpts from a few more student works. I wish I could include everyone’s, because all the writers, those featured here and those who aren’t, amaze me.  After fourth or fifth grade, writing poetry is an unfamiliar, challenging and potentially embarrassing activity for most people, but writing poetry in another language is more difficult still.  Kudos to all!

 

Sumiyo C. writes of Kyoto:

 

Come and show me another city with historical treasures, so precious and

protected the enemy could not drop a bomb on them,

Here is a place where people live in harmony with the beautiful nature of the four seasons.

Grand as the Heian-jingu, tranquil as the Ryoanji rock garden,

traditional as the Gion-festival

 

She closes the poem with this lovely testament to her city’s endurance:

 

Once a prosperous capital, center of culture, now carrying on their

practice to the next generation, creating meticulous craftwork,

pursuing achievement.

Restoring,

Restoring instead of destroying, caring, valuing, respecting, proud to be

keeping tradition, delicate beauty, craftsmanship.

 

“Restoring/Restoring instead of destroying” is an artful little phrase that I’m enjoying/enjoying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Myongjin A. of Kyongjoo, South Korea begins her piece with the opposition of crumbling antiquities and present vitality:

 

Ancient city, still alive

Buddha’s energy coming from the giant tombs

Relics and legends

Beauty of thousands time

City of the Shilla Dynasty

Calm, quiet, shy, powerful, smart

Still alive.


Amanda L. of Brazil wrote of her new home, Chicago:

 

Buildings scratching the sky, catching the wind

Cold, intimidating, yet magical

City of enchantment.

 

From now on, every time I’m in Chicago I’ll think of the buildings “scratching the sky, catching the wind.”  Even someone whose native language is English would be proud to have written those lines.

 

Natalia V. of Belarus also wrote of her new hometown:

 

My heart beats quickly

Seeing young people in love.


Such a tender image!  Does anyone hear South Pacific’s “Hello, Young Lovers” in the background?  I get a sense of Natalia remembering something beautiful from her own past as she watches new love in her new country.

 

M.K. of Seuol, South Korea employed alliteration to describe her home city:

 

Splendid, sparkling, small space

City of Super-duper energy

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, Esther C. of Korea writes this pithy and powerful portrait of her home country:

 

Divided land,

Barbed wires, land mines

Guns, tanks

Brothers against brothers

Families ripped apart

Hating, distrusting

Yet hoping for peace

My country, dreaming of unification

 

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With all the blahblahblah about Chinese mothers and the ensuing defense of western ones, perhaps it’s time for a dose of multiculturalism that goes down easier.  I’m posting poems, previously unpublished, written not only by novice poets, but by novice poets writing in a non-native language.  How amazing is that!  It’s akin to me writing a duet for the tuba and cowbell or attempting to sew draperies.

My sister Ceci has been teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) for 15 years, and this fall for the first time introduced a poetry unit to her conversation class.  Her class is diverse in every way:  hailing from Japan, South Korea, Russia, Brazil and other points around the globe, they range in age from 19 to 78.  They worship in synagogues, Buddhist temples, churches, mosques, and nowhere at all; they work as mothers, small business owners, babysitters and wait staff; some have high school degrees and others PhD’s.  She asked each of them to write an imitation of Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago.” Here’s Ceci’s description of the project:

No matter where we currently live, we all yearn for a place that nourishes our inner spirits, excites our senses, feels comfortable, and challenges our minds.  The ESL students at the Patty Turner Center have found such a place in their Conversation Class.   The classroom becomes home to many who are so far from the land of their birth. Friendships have been made and borders do not exist. And yet the heart tugs for the memories, the attachments, and the pride in one’s native country. This newsletter contains Imitation Poems that my students wrote about that special place in their hearts after reading and studying Carl Sandburg’s famous American poem,“Chicago.”  For many students, this was the first poem ever read in English and for all it was the first attempt to write a poem in their non-native language. They felt Sandburg’s pride in Chicago through the power of his words. And I hope you feel their pride in the places they call home through their words in English.

I applaud their efforts and congratulate them on challenging their minds and thank them for sharing that place that nourishes their spirit, excites their senses and feels comfortable.

Here’s the poem Ceci’s students imitated.  (Link here for a video of old photographs of Chicago accompanying Carl Sandburg reading the poem.)

Chicago

by Carl Sandburg

HOG Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under

the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;

Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Bareheaded,
Shoveling,
Wrecking,
Planning,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse.
and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing!
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog
Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

And now here’s one of the imitations, the only one I’ll post in its entirety.  This one’s by Vladimir K. of Lviv, Ukraine.

Lviv

Unforgettable views

Architectural monuments, museum-town

Coming true dreams and every street a legend

Magic power, aura of the Middle Ages and Renaissance

City of Sleeping Lions

They tell me you are ancient and crowded and I believe them, for I have seen cars that could not pass through narrow paved streets.

And they tell me you are crooked and I answer, yes, it is true I have seen a policeman take a bribe and let a killer go free.

And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:

Come and show me another city with lifted head breathing magic power of the Carpathian air and its legendary gray stones of Middle Aged walls so proud

To be alive and standing strong after many battles, invasions, fires, and floods.

Every time, fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action,

Shoveling, rebuilding with new attractiveness

Wrecking, planning, building, breaking, and rebuilding again

Since the founding of the legendary streets of old times, it’s a piece of Earth that your soul seeks.

Smiling and welcoming to new visitors

Proud to have unforgettable views, architectural monuments, museum-town, coming true dreams and every street a legend, magic power, aura of the Middle Ages and Renaissance

Vladimir’s poem is an interesting contrast to Sandburg’s.  Sandburg’s Chicago is brand-new and building itself from the ground up, a young man bursting with muscle and plans.  Vladimir’s Lviv is ancient and battle-worn but still working it, not giving up, more like a man with too much energy to retire.

I’m not sure what “Carpathian air” is, but I want to breathe it.  Vladimir, thanks for sharing your love of your hometown with everyone.

Tomorrow I’ll post excerpts from a select few of the other poems.  But to everyone in Ceci’s class, a hearty congratulations!  Felicitanciones! Omedetou! Herzlichen Glückünsch! Chucka hehyo! Salem!  Your poems were a delight to read.

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