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Clothes encounter

Poem is in pocket of purple dress

Poem is in pocket of purple dress

Cuba

by Paul Muldoon

 

My eldest sister arrived home that morning

In her white muslin evening dress.

‘Who the hell do you think you are

Running out to dances in next to nothing?

As though we hadn’t enough bother

With the world at war, if not at an end.’

My father was pounding the breakfast-table.

 

‘Those Yankees were touch and go as it was—

If you’d heard Patton in Armagh—

But this Kennedy’s nearly an Irishman

So he’s not much better than ourselves.

And him with only to say the word.

If you’ve got anything on your mind

Maybe you should make your peace with God.’

 

I could hear May from beyond the curtain.

‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.

I told a lie once, I was disobedient once.

And, Father, a boy touched me once.’

‘Tell me, child. Was this touch immodest?

Did he touch your breasts, for example?’

‘He brushed against me, Father. Very gently.’

 

IMG_1132

 

Even though the events in Paul Muldoon’s “Cuba” take place in Ireland and during a time when I was still weeks away from being born, the poem for me is like an old family slideshow.  Muldoon’s sketch of secrets and guilt in an Irish Catholic family— a father shouting end-of-the-world scenarios, an awkward moment in the confessional booth, an older sister radiant in her party clothes—pulls me into this poem so forcefully that I’m all flush with fever and starting to hum “Killing Me Softly.”

 

Like the speaker in the poem, I have many memories of my older sisters that center around the clothes they wore. Annie, going out to places unimaginably glamorous in her magenta wide-legged jumpsuit that plunged at the neck, tied under the breasts and exposed strip of stomach. Ceci going to the Hungarian Ball in a full-length corduroy zebra coat my mother sewed for her. (Attending such an event was so out of character for my family that Ceci might as well have been Eliza Doolittle.)  Susie emerging from the girls’ room in a swinging blue skirt and belted top, very Bonnie-and-Clyde with a long strand of pearls and a beret. Entire seasons can be pulled out of time by a single outfit.  Summer is Susie sunbathing in the backyard in a floral bikini.  Winter is the lemon-yellow cardigan Ceci knitted, heavy as a protective x-ray vest. Fall is her purple and orange patchwork coat with big lapels. Spring is Annie in a white eyelet graduation gown with a yellow grosgrain ribbon tied around the empire waist, her blond hair lifting in the wind, as beautiful to us younger girls as I suspect May was to her brother when she came home at dawn.

 

The father in the poem pounding the table to make a point brought me right back to my father getting angry over the length of skirts and my brother’s hair. Or how the Russians or Chinese would be taking over our country without a single bullet being fired.  Of course it’s easy to feel amusement or resentment towards these kinds of  authoritarian fathers, but I have sympathy and respect for them as well.  Struggling to support large families with hardly any money, they were serious men who had fought in war and saw the stakes as high.  Survival, safety, salvation.  So while it’s funny, it’s also understandable that with the Cuban missile crisis looming, the father in the poem jumps from May’s lightweight dress to rape to nuclear war to the final judgment in a few pounds of his fist.

 

The poem is built on contrasts:  two leaders, “Old Blood and Guts” General Patton and the untested Kennedy, “not much better than ourselves”; May’s confession of a lie and a truth; two overheard conversations, one loud and accusing, the other quiet and inquiring; and two fathers, both worried over May’s budding sexuality. But it’s the contrast of two gestures that’s at the heart of the poem: the father pounding the table, the boy brushing against May’s breasts.

 

The darkness of the confessional booth brings the innocence of the boy’s gesture to light. In contrast to the violent anger of the father and the violence of a possible nuclear war, the boy’s touch is almost holy.  May, pure and lovely in her white dress, stands apart from the prurient thoughts of the adults around her.

 

(Listen to Muldoon read “Cuba” here.  His inflection of “very gently” nails the poem for me.  His reading also changed the way I understand the priest.  I had thought the priest was creepy, but hearing Muldoon speak his lines, I can see how the priest’s calm demeanor and gentle authority allow May to speak truthfully.)

 

I left “Cuba” in the pocket of a dress at a charity thrift store in Rehobeth Beach, Delaware.  I was there dropping off the clothes that no one wanted from a clothing exchange we had at a family reunion this past summer.  (Our clothing exchange is an hours long event.  Sisters, sisters-in-law, nieces and even my 87-year old mother all try to convince each other to take their cast-offs.  A lot of the sell is in the memories the clothes evoke—how could we pass on a dress that looked so pretty on Wizzie at a family wedding?  Or any item my mother has worn? In most cases, however, good sense prevailed over sentimentality, and I lugged four big bags of clothes to the thrift shop.)

Paul Muldoon was born in 1951 in Northern Ireland, to a Catholic family in a mostly  Protestant area.  His mother was a schoolteacher and his father was at various times a shopkeeper and a farmer.  Muldoon went to Queen’s College in Belfast and stayed there to work as a producer for the BBC.  Since 1971 he’s published dozens of volumes of poetry and won many prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.  He teaches at Princeton University and serves as the poetry editor for the New Yorker.

 

In addition to poetry, Muldoon has written children’s books, plays, the libretti for operas (including one based on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright), and rock lyrics for the late great Warren Zevon.

 

Interesting story:  Muldoon once wrote a fan letter to Zevon but heard nothing back.  A year later, Zevon contacted him and asked him to write a song for him.  The result was “My Ride’s Here” and “Macgillycuddy’s Reeks” both on Zevon’s final album.

 

With his bushy hair, glasses and air of a man indifferent to fashion and personal grooming, Muldoon looks like the consummate professor.  He uses that persona to great effect in this very funny video he made with Princeton’s Tiger Magazine. It made me laugh out loud.

 

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The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney has died, only 74 years old.  Obituaries characterize him as a rock star among poets, and that was my experience of him, long before I had even read his poems.

 

Years ago I went to hear him read at the University of Michigan with a dear friend.  This was so long ago that I can’t remember if she was at the time a dear friend or if I just had a suspicion that she would be my dear friend and this outing cemented the relationship.  That Heaney was Irish was what drew us to the theater that night and what drew us together, at least initially.  Beth, Irish herself, was married to a native Irishman, and I was from a family Irish enough to go to ceilidhs and look down on anyone who didn’t.

 

That night I was struck how Heaney commanded the kind of respect from the audience that priests and bishops used to receive.  He had a grand presence and a wily humor.  I didn’t understand a single poem he read—they were too dense, too thick in language for me to take in without reading them slowly—but I fell in love with him that night.  If only from the audience’s wild enthusiasm, I knew I had listened to a great poet. My friend and I marveled over him all the ride home. Yes, thinking back now, I believe the reading was at the beginning of our friendship.  Irish dancing lessons would soon follow; years later, her illness and death.

 

Heaney will always be part of my memory of her.  His death brings its own sadness, but hers along with it.

 

Heaney has too many poems I loved to include here.  To me he always wrote movingly about the emotions of childhood, the deep pain and the deep love a child can feel.  I’ll just post two in that vein.  The first, a sonnet about an early memory of his mother that comes to him on her deathbed:

 

Clearances III

 

When all the others were away at Mass

I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.

They broke the silence, let fall one by one

Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:

Cold comforts set between us, things to share

Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.

And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes

From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside

Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying

And some were responding and some crying

I remembered her head bent towards my head,

Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–

Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

 

The second is about the death of his little brother, how Heaney came home from boarding school for the funeral.  I tear up every time I read it, and I’ve read it dozens of times over the years.

 

Mid-Term Break

 

I sat all morning in the college sick bay

Counting bells knelling classes to a close.

At two o’clock our neighbors drove me home.

 

In the porch I met my father crying–

He had always taken funerals in his stride–

And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

 

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram

When I came in, and I was embarrassed

By old men standing up to shake my hand

 

And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble,’

Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,

Away at school, as my mother held my hand

 

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.

At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived

With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

 

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops

And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him

For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

 

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,

He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.

No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

 

A four foot box, a foot for every year.

 

 

R.I.P. Seamus Heaney, and Beth too.

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poem is on the back of the menu

Refusing at Fifty-Two to Write Sonnets

 

 

 

by Thomas Lynch

 

 

 

It came to him that he could nearly count

 

How many Octobers he had left to him

 

In increments of ten or, say, eleven

 

Thus: sixty-three, seventy-four, eighty-five.

 

He couldn’t see himself at ninety-six—

 

Humanity’s advances notwithstanding

 

In health-care, self-help, or new-age regimens—

 

What with his habits and family history,

 

The end he thought is nearer than you think.

 

 

 

The future, thus confined to its contingencies,

 

The present moment opens like a gift:

 

The balding month, the grey week, the blue morning,

 

The hour’s routine, the minute’s passing glance—

 

All seem like godsends now. And what to make of this?

 

At the end the word that comes to him is Thanks.

 

 

0805 [Doris Day] DANCING_(c)_Leo_Fuchs_Photography_(www.leofuchs.com)(www.theheliosgallery.com) by The Helios Gallery

 

This poem has me thinking about Doris Day, and not just because I think poet Thomas Lynch is adorable.  (Imagine Jack Black balding, gray and bespectacled.)  In so many of her movies, Doris Day begins with a firm resolve–I will not fall for a womanizing phone-hog I despise, I will not fall for a newspaper editor who doesn’t respect education, I will not fall for the pajama factory foreman who won’t give the workers the raise they deserve—and then she’s duped into falling in love with the very men she and her perky principles had refused to consider.

 

And so with this poem.  The poet who refuses to write sonnets has written a sonnet.

 

Granted,  “Refusing at Fifty-Two to Write Sonnets” is not technically a sonnet.  From what I gather, a sonnet has four defining characteristics:

  1. has 14 lines
  2. has a specific rhyming pattern, depending on whether it’s Petrarchan, Spenserian, or Shakespearian.
  3. usually written in iambic pentameter
  4. operates on what is called “the turn.”  The first part sets forth a question, emotion or issue, and the second half responds in some way, resolving or contradicting.

 

Lynch’s poem misses two of the four criteria.  “Refusing” has 15 lines and has no rhyme at all, beyond the clever consonant rhyme of “think” and “thanks,” the two words which end each section of the poem.

 

But Lynch has something up his sleeve here.  The poem is written mostly in iambic pentameter, and 15 lines is so close to 14 that methinks he doth protest too much.  If a poet were really intent on not writing a sonnet, he would likely come up with something more like Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, pages and pages of long, loose lines.

 

Besides, it’s “the turn” that’s at the heart of a sonnet, and the turn here is so clear it could be marked with flashing lights and a “Street Closed” sign.  The poem physically separates at the tenth line; the verb tense changes from past to present; and most important, the mood changes from resignation and dread to gratitude.

 

In the first stanza, a man who seems to be a poet wonders how many years, at age 52, he has left to live. He tries to count them but numbers so overwhelm him that he loses count of his sonnet and writes nine lines instead of eight.  His overthinking about the future (remember that this stanza ends with “think”) keeps him in the grips of a morbid mood.

 

The turn in the second stanza moves into the present.  He gives a wonderful description of October:

the balding month, the grey week, the blue morning,

lines which describe himself and his mood as well.

 

From the month, he moves to the week, then the time of day, and finally to the very moment (the minute’s passing glance) within which he exists.  Only then is he able to move beyond his fear of death and feel gratitude for living.

 

If you’ve ever escaped from a health crisis or scare, a sudden brush with death, or as in the case of this poem a self-induced death watch, you understand the gratitude expressed at the end of this poem.  All the sudden you realize that right now at this moment you’re alive.  You get up from your knees, from your trembling and nauseau, and you can’t believe how wonderful the world is.  Life is so great!  Wake up, wake up!  you want to say to everyone who complains about  little things like dreary weather, inconveniences, annoying people.  Life’s a marvel, even the falling leaves, the rain clouds, the dark mornings. So great!

QUE BELLO ES VIVIR by mueredecine

 

But because the poet is not George Bailey pulled back from the bridge all wild-eyed with happiness, but Thomas Lynch, wry and bemused, the turn in this poem is quiet.  Thanks.  Emotion is contained.  The containment is partly because Lynch is Irish, and the Irish are champs at containing emotion, but also because sonnets are champs at containing emotions.  Writing a sonnet places limits on the writer—limits of line length, meter and structure—and those limits allow an expression of deep emotion that is very civilized.  Would that all problems could be so contained.

 

“Scorn not the sonnet,” Wordsworth wrote.  I’m sure Lynch would agree, so what to make of his refusal to write one?  For one, he seems impish and doesn’t like to do what’s expected.  He counts by elevens rather than the standard ten.  He writes 15 lines instead of 14, perhaps because he wants more.  The first stanza is about the limits of the years he has left on earth.  He wants to go over the limit.  Life is too big, even at 52, to follow prescriptions.

 

(Interesting that another meditation on the same themes of autumn and death, Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall to a Young Child,” is also, at 15 lines, an almost-sonnet.)

 

Anyone writing about Lynch has to figure out how to put a fresh spin on the fact that he’s an undertaker and a poet.  There, I said it.  Lynch himself draws the best parallels between his two professions.  In an interview he once said, “It is the same enterprise: to organize some response to what is unspeakable. We need a way to say unspeakable things, and funerals do. So do poems.”

 

I have a special feeling towards Thomas Lynch.  I’m inclined to like anyone who shares my background, that is, Irish and Catholic, but he’s also a funny and wise writer, and a native of Detroit.  He went to the same high school my son just graduated from, and his book of essays, The Undertaking, is a favorite of mine.

 

Born in 1948, Lynch splits his time between his hometown of Milford, where the funeral home Lynch and Sons still operates, and County Clare, Ireland.  He’s won a number of awards for his poetry and his essays.  If you ever get a chance to hear him read, go.  He’s entertaining as only the Irish can be.

 

Okay, enough with the Irish.

 

I left the poem in a local watering hole.  It was a dark place, with all the trappings of a man’s gathering space, big screen televisions, wood paneling and brass rails.  At the bar three or four men slumped in front of their beers.  It all felt sad to me, and I found only irony in the lines which appear under the poem in my photograph:  “Great places, good times.” But then again I’m Irish and inclined to darkness.

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