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A sunny day in northern Michigan. A long walk past farmland and on to a wooded trail. Three Seamus Heaney poems to deliver, three poems full of the most beautiful nouns and verbs but also full of death. Three watchful deer who scared the bejeebers out of me and two wrong turns that added miles to my trek. But it was a happy couple of hours nonetheless.

 

 

Each of these poems deserves a much fuller examination than the cursory notes I put here. I encourage everyone to read and re-read them. There’s more to see at every pass.

 

 

Let’s start with the least disturbing death, “Blackberry picking.” Here is the death of innocence, of beauty, of lust, take your pick. I set the poem against an electric fence bordering an organic farm that to my knowledge does not produce blackberries.

 

 

There’s gluttony and Bluebeard-level “blood” in these blackberry fields. Over-indulging leaves its mark (stains and prickles) but it’s only death (fruit fungus in this case) that ends the feeding frenzy. Pleasures of the flesh can’t last forever:

 

I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair

That all the lovely canfuls smell of rot

Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

 

 

I stuck “Man and Boy” on a hilltop tree overlooking a lake. You can just see the poem in the lower-left portion of the photo.

 

Who is man and who is boy keeps switching in this poem. The two main characters, the boy and his father, experience age in a non-linear way. Time operates in a circle, moving forward and back at once, forming unheard concentric soundwaves like the salmon’s, a perfect ring like the mower’s.

 

 

The final image almost makes me dizzy. As the speaker imagines his father running home to hear of his own father’s death, he becomes a boy on his father’s back being carried as if he were an old man. Got it? Forget it, read it for yourself.  I’ve re-printed it below because the picture is too hard to read.

 

Man and Boy

by Seamus Heaney

 

I

“Catch the old one first,”

(My father’s joke was also old, and heavy

And predictable). “Then the young ones

Will all follow, and Bob’s your uncle.”

On slow bright river evenings, the sweet time

Made him afraid we’d take too much for granted

And so our spirits must be lightly checked.

Blessed be down-to-earth! Blessed be highs!

Blessed be the detachment of dumb love

In the broad-backed, low-set man

Who feared debt all his life, but now and then

Could make a splash like the salmon he said was

“As big as a wee pork pig by the sound of it.”

 

II

In earshot of the pool where the salmon jumped

Back through its own unheard concentric soundwaves

A mower leans forever on his scythe.

He has mown himself to the centre of the field

And stands in a final perfect ring

Of sunlit stubble.

“Go and tell your father,” the mower says

(He said it to my father who told me)

“I have it mowed as clean as a new sixpence.”

My father is a barefoot boy with news,

Running at eye-level with weeds and stooks

On the afternoon of his own father’s death.

The open, black half of the half-door waits.

I feel much heat and hurry in the air.

I feel his legs and quick heels far away

And strange as my own — when he will piggyback me

At a great height, light-headed and thin-boned,

Like a witless elder rescued from the fire.

 

 

Finally, I tucked “Strange Fruit” in the bark of a fallen tree. It was here that the deer startled me.

 

“Strange Fruit” is one of the bog poems Heaney wrote about the bodies of Iron Age men and women discovered in northern Europe. Their deaths were gruesome. It would be interesting to put this “Strange Fruit” up against Billie Holliday’s. The violent tribes may have lived thousands of years apart, but ritualized murder connects them indelibly.

 

Heaney notes that Greek historian Diodorus Siculus found his ease with the likes of this, but Heaney himself seems haunted by image of the young girl defying her executioners:

Beheaded girl, outstaring axe

And beatification, outstaring

What had begun to feel like reverence.

 

 

 

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was a rock star of a poet, sometimes called “the greatest Irish poet since Yeats,” and one I had the pleasure of hearing live at a poetry reading long ago. I can’t say I understood much of what he said with his thick Irish accent, but I remember well his gentle charisma and his reading of the poem “Digging.”

 

Heaney was born in Northern Ireland, the oldest of nine children. He was raised on the family farm which figures in much of his poetry. He was also raised Catholic in a predominantly Protestant world.

 

He studied at Queen’s College in Belfast and then taught at St. Joseph’s in the same city. Later he was a revered professor at Harvard, Oxford and University of California Berkley. In 1995 he won the Nobel Prize for literature.

 

He and his wife were married for forty-eight years and had three children together. He died unexpectedly at age 74.

 

This biography is much too short to capture his contributions. I’m feeling lazy, so link here to read more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Marie Ponsot, poet, translator, teacher, stroke survivor, nonagenarian writer of acclaim who wrote for twenty-five years in obscurity, single mother of seven (six of them boys!), lifelong Catholic, writer of my all-time favorite poem “Among Women” and co-author of one of my all-time favorite childhood books, The Golden Book of Fairy Tales, died a few weeks ago, July 5, at age 98.

 

I’ve had four poems of hers on the docket for my file-clearing project (Franz Wright’s been done, Seamus Heaney, Charles Simic, Grace Paley still to come). I posted them just after she died. These wouldn’t be the poems I’d choose if this were a planned tribute to Ponsot—not that they’re anything less than wonderful—they just aren’t my favorites of hers, which is the reason they have been in my leftover pile for so long.

 

I was helping to move one of my daughters from Baltimore to northern Michigan and Ponsot’s mothering eye seemed just right for the moment. You can read a good obituary of Ponsot here. Meantime, let’s start with “After the Pastoral.” I taped it to a window in my daughter’s Baltimore apartment where she’s lived for the last two years.

 

I’m sure that come September This year my child goes where I can’t follow will be a painful line for many mothers. I myself went through those farewells years ago, but that maternal feeling of being ferocious with fear just never goes away.

(I’m not understanding the last line—I picture a mother nursing a baby, innocent of the anxiety mothering older children brings—but let me know how you read that line.)

 

I set “Climbing in Big Bend National Park” on a brick wall as I walked to buy more packing tape. Not the best spot for this poem, but people, I was in Baltimore.

 

The side of the mountain like a pelvic floor? I’ll never forget that. Or this:  We city people laugh to shrug off awe

 

On packing day my daughter discovered that her elderly next-door neighbor had once been an art teacher at her high school back in Michigan. I taped “What the Worn Rhymes Find” to a planter on the former art teacher’s front porch.

 

Cyanide and gold, the stain of the woman’s long lies, of the tough unsayable. Poisonous and precious. What a description of family secrets! What rhymes, not worn at all, so effortless!

 

Lastly I put “The Problem of Revolution” at a Panera condiments bar at a rest stop along the Pennsylvania turnpike.

 

The charming details of the clothes and the dessert, the guests (the scented aunt who thinks her new/and the cousin, ten, who sees her old) come to a hard stop at the poem’s end. Who remembers that feeling of disconnection, of crawling out of your skin to get away from what used to comfort?

 

To close this post, here’s Lizzie just before she put a framed Anais Nin quote in the uHaul.

“You live out the confusions until they become clear.”

That seems as good a summary as any for a young woman beginning a new chapter of her life and a great poet doing the same.

 

From a previous post, a short bio of Ponsot:

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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‘Tis the season to frolic and I’m idle and sluggish. Nothing like a summer cold to sour the sunshine. And nothing like soured sunshine to call forth the de facto fairy godfather of misery, poet Franz Wright.

 

So happened I had six Wright poems to dispose of. Leaving them around the small town in northern Michigan where I’m recuperating was as good as an Advil for getting me off the couch. If laughter is the best medicine, At least I’m not as unhappy as all that runs a close second.

 

 

 

 

Let’s jump right into the pit. At an abandoned old ski motel I left “Reunion.” (The poem is on the blue wall next to the corner doorway.)

 

Wright is forever grappling with the ghost of his father, poet James Wright. This particular grappling slays me. And this self-portrait—yikes—

What am I? A skull

biting its fingernails, a no one

with nowhere to be

 

On another abandoned building I left “Thoughts of a Solitary Farmhouse,” which I know is a favorite of many Wright fans. (The poem is taped to the concrete post in front of the big bush.)

 

What a beautiful memento mori, bleak and horrifying though it is

 

“The Comedian” brings us into a real house of horrors. I taped it to a sign by the side of an empty road.

 

The illegible note hung like a crucifix . . . the cops turning on the son who called in for help . . . the smell of alcohol, the drool . . . impossible to touch him or get near. . . that final laugh . . . unimaginable pain.

 

Moving back towards his painful childhood, “The Day” is an eerie recreation of what amounts to A Good Day for young Franz. (It’s on the spigot of the water fountain.)

 

Anyone who had a dysfunctional parent can relate to those times of relief when the dysfunction was dormant for one reason or another.

 

At the entrance to an uphill hike I left “Depiction of Childhood.” (Poem is taped to pole.)

 

I’ve looked over Picasso’s drawings of the little girl leading the minotaur and in each she’s holding either flowers or a dove, so it’s interesting that Wright has her lifting a lamp instead. Going back and forth between the poem and the different versions Picasso drew is giving me loads to think about. Like the minotaur, I’m entranced and thrown off.

 

In the absence of a sea-sea I taped “Infant Sea Turtles” to a sea wall on an inland lake.

 

This is such a strange poem, taking us from present day to prehistory to biblical times, from land to sea to the moon, to a place where man-made terms are arbitrary (“what we call the moon,” “Eve, or caesarean child,” “the great scar called the sea,” “lover or child”) which is the very space that poetry grows out of.

 

Here’s a bio of Wright from a previous post:

Franz Wright’s face is his biography. This is what a hard life looks like. But it’s a heroic face too, considering the suffering he lived with: beatings by his father, worse beatings by his stepfather, parental abandonment, manic-depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Like writer Mary Karr, his onetime colleague and friend, he overcame addiction and converted to Catholicism, finding some measure of stability in the last sixteen years of his life.

 

Franz Wright (1953-2015) was born in Austria where his father, the famous poet James Wright, was studying on a Fulbright scholarship. The older Wright left the family when Franz was eight, and only stayed in sporadic contact with the family. When Franz was fifteen he sent his father a poem, and his father wrote back, “Well I’ll be damned. You’re a poet. Welcome to hell.”

 

The younger Wright graduated from Oberlin College in 1977. In 1984 he was winning awards and teaching at Emerson College when he was fired for “drinking related activities.” He sunk into a years-long depression, wasn’t able to write, and attempted suicide.

 

In 1999 he married a former student, Elizabeth Oehklers. He converted to Catholicism, got sober and was able to write again.

 

He died of lung cancer at age 62.

 

[Note:  This post is part of my summer project. I have multiple poems from a few poets—poems from the recently departed Marie Ponsot among them—and I’ll be lumping them together in a single post for each poet.]

 

 

 

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poem in peony bush

 

Feasting

by Elizabeth W. Garber

 

I am so amazed to find myself kissing you

with such abandon,

filling myself with our kisses

astounding hunger for edges of lips and tongue.

Returning to feast again and again,

our bellies never overfilling from this banquet.

Returning in surprise,

in remembering,

in rediscovering,

such play of flavors of gliding lips

and forests of pressures and spaces.

The spaces between the branches

as delicious as finding the grove of lilies of the valley

blossoming just outside my door under the ancient oak.

“I’ve never held anyone this long,” you said,

the second time you entered my kitchen.

I am the feast this kitchen was blessed to prepare

waiting for you to enter open mouthed in awe

in the mystery we’ve been given,

our holy feast.

 

 

My kids listened to a lot of audio books on our many drives from Michigan to Maryland and while none were so graphic as this poem, there were one or two that we cringed through together along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. One such book, the title and plot lost to us now, had a protagonist preparing for a first kiss by consulting or making up a set of rules. “Rule Number 3,” the narrator announced in a nasally, staccato voice that we have loved to imitate ever since, “mouth—may be —open —or closed.”

 

(If anyone has read this book and knows anything about it, please let me know.)

 

Second-most cringeworthy was the breathy narrator of Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret asking God when she would get her period.

 

The point is, as curious as we may be of other people’s intimate lives, we don’t really want to see them up close. My initial reaction to this poem was somewhere between Okay, okay I get it and Turn the camera away, now! All those gliding lips, those edges of lips and tongue, the delicious flavors, the open mouths, the bellies waiting to be filled—it put me in mind of the grandson in The Princess Bride protesting his bedtime story:

 

“Oh no! No! Please!”

“What is it? What’s the matter?”

“They’re kissing again! Do we HAVE to hear the kissing parts?”

 

But that final kiss, when it filled the screen, was so beautiful that the squeamish little boy was won over. As his grandfather says,

 

“Since the invention of the kiss, there have only been five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure. This one left them all behind.”

 

And so with this poem. By the third read, the kiss enchanted me. The narrator stands in the kitchen, a man enters, she’s surprised, they kiss. The kiss is dissected into its parts in beautiful imagery that will color my idea of kissing for years to come. And the comparison of a kiss to a holy feast will give this Catholic gal some very interesting thoughts next time she goes to Mass.

 

I left the poem in a bush at the University of Michigan’s peony garden. The peonies were just past peak, spent, slightly deflated, lovers on wrinkled sheets. (Yes, I am trying to make you cringe.)

 

[Side note: In the garden I saw a man with his arms around a tree, his lips nearly touching the bark, seemingly kissing it. I thought, that’s Ann Arbor for you, land of the nuts and the squirrels. I took a picture on the sly, intending to put it in this post. But later I saw the man walking with great difficulty back to the parking lot, dragging his leg and lurching with each step. He needed healing from the tree, not ridicule from me. It was his own holy feast, and I hope he got his what he was after.]

 

Poet Elizabeth Garber grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio in a glass house designed by her father, a well-regarded architect who was mentally ill. She wrote a memoir, Implosion, about that time in her life. She’s also published three books of poetry. For thirty years she’s been a practicing acupuncturist in a small coastal town in Maine where she lives with her family.

 

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poem is on wall next to window

 

The Bagel

by David Ignatow

 

I stopped to pick up the bagel

rolling away in the wind,

annoyed with myself

for having dropped it

as it were a portent.

Faster and faster it rolled,

with me running after it

bent low, gritting my teeth,

and I found myself doubled over

and rolling down the street

head over heels, one complete somersault

after another like a bagel

and strangely happy with myself.

 

 

The delightful image of a man chasing a bagel and turning into one reminds me of an old story my mother used to tell. Whenever we wouldn’t eat our vegetables she’d talk about her twin sister, a woman who was never mentioned except at dinnertime. This twin sister always refused to eat peas until one day she blew up into a huge green ball and rolled down the street, never to be seen again, a victim of the (self-inflicted) disease pea-itis.

 

I can’t serve peas without thinking about pea-itis. And I can’t pass a bagel shop without thinking about David Ignatow’s “The Bagel,” a poem I’ve loved and kept for a long time now. The way the speaker lets go of teeth-gritting pursuits to enjoy child-like physicality always makes me smile.

 

Which in turn reminds me of my son when he was a little boy (I’m beginning to turn into a bagel myself, one memory tumbling into another as I roll along this post). He went through a somersault phase in which he would only walk if he absolutely could not somersault. He somersaulted dozens of times a day, down the hallway, across the kitchen floor, outside on the grass. I started to worry he was going to be perpetually dizzy but after a couple of months he resumed normal ambulation.

 

Here’s a bio of Ignatow from an earlier blog post:

 

David Ignatow (1914-1997) was the child of Russian immigrants. (Of course! That Russian fatalism is all over this poem.) He was born in Brooklyn, and after graduating from high school, worked as a bookbinder and newspaper reporter. Work being the subject of this poem and of many of his poems, it’s interesting to note how many different places Ignatow worked in his life to support his family: at a vegetable market, hospital, telegram office, paper company (hello, Michael Scott), and several universities.

 

 

 

 

 

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To His Piano

by Howard Nemerov

 

Old friend, patient of error as of accuracy,

Ready to think the fingerings of thought,

You but a scant year older than I am

With my expectant mother expecting maybe

An infant prodigy among her stars

But getting only little me instead–

 

To see you standing there for six decades

Containing chopsticks, Fur Elise, and

The Art of Fugue in your burnished rosewood box,

As well as all those years of silence and

The stumbling beginnings the children made,

Who would believe the twenty tons of stress

Your gilded frame’s kept stretched out all this while?

 

 

Two pianos—the old upright rosewood box in Howard Nemerov’s poem and the shiny black grand in Vienna’s Schonbrunn Palace where I left the poem—are as different as can be. The music coming from each is different as well—Beethoven and Bach from one, Mozart and Strauss from the other.

 

But there is one (stretch of a) connection between the two. In the gilded Schonbrunn Great Gallery, lit by (electric) candlebras and crowned with a dramatic rococo ceiling mural, it’s easy to imagine young Mozart delighting the Austrian court with his glorious music. That is until the actual concert started. The music we heard in this tourist-y concert didn’t always match the fantasy (although I think the problem was coming from the string section, not the piano). Nemerov details a similar disappointment in the poem. His mother hoped for a prodigy and got instead Chopsticks played badly.

 

Still, rather than becoming a source of shame, Nemerov’s piano is an “old friend,” patient, unconditionally loyal, bearer of neglect and all the uncomfortable tensions in the household. Exactly what a son might wish his mother to be.

 

Poet, novelist and essayist Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) was born in New York City to a wealthy family (think nannies and white gloves). His parents owned a Fifth Avenue department store, but art more than commerce was the family focus. His dad was a well-regarded art historian, his sister photographer Diane Arbus, his other sister a sculptor.

 

Given the artistic milieu Nemerov grew up in, his mother’s hopes for a musically talented son have a special sting. She was, by Nemerov’s account, a cold and distant mother.

 

A high school football player and star student, Nemerov graduated from Harvard and served in World War II as a pilot. He was a famed professor at Hamilton, Bennington, Brandeis and Washington University in St. Louis. He was twice appointed as U.S. Poet Laureate, won the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. He was married to Margaret Russell and had three sons with her. He died of esophageal cancer.

 

couldn’t get to the piano, so left poem on the floor

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poem is on horse hoof

 

Sleeping on Horseback

by Po Chu-I

 

We had ridden long and were still far from the inn;

My eyes grew dim; for a moment I fell asleep.

Under my right arm the whip still dangled;

In my left hand the reins for an instant slackened.

Suddenly I woke and turned to question my groom.

“We have gone a hundred paces since you fell asleep.”

Body and spirit for a while had changed place;

Swift and slow had turned to their contraries.

For these few steps that my horse had carried me

Had taken in my dream countless aeons of time!

True indeed is that saying of Wise Men

“A hundred years are but a moment of sleep.”

 

 

Prague is a city of statues. Statues are everywhere, on buildings, street corners, squares, balconies, hilltops, on the hideous TV tower—and wildly divergent in style and tone, from classical to art noveau, from inspiring to plain frightening. The statues of Prague celebrate literary figures on par with political ones.

 

This statue of Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek depicts Hasek as a rider atop a horse, although he never rode one. The horse is shaped like a pub table, the horse’s legs like pub fixtures, all very fitting for a writer known for his drinking habits. Hasek wrote The Good Soldier (said to have inspired Joseph Heller’s Catch-22) a novel described as funny and biting. He also wrote The Drunkard’s Guide to Old Prague.

 

I do enjoy the Czech subversive sense of humor.

 

A different horse statue, one of Czech national hero Jan Zizka, is visible from the Hasek square. Probably not a coincidence.

 

 

 

Po Chu I (772-846) was born in the Honan province of China. A poet and government official, he served as tax collector, librarian, governor and other positions under eight or nine emperors. Through his government work he became interested in the oppression of ordinary people by the powerful, in particular by the eunuchs at court. He was exiled twice. He is also known as Bai Juyi.

 

In addition to the lovely “Sleeping on Horseback,” Po Chu-I wrote a poem called “Drunk Again.” Seems appropriate to include it here:

 

Drunk Again

by Po Chu-I

 

 

Last year, when I lay sick,

 

I vowed

 

I’d never touch a drop again

 

As long as I should live.

 

 

 

But who could know

 

Last year

 

What this year’s spring would bring ?

 

 

 

And here I am,

 

Coming home from old Liu’s house

 

As drunk as I can be!

 

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