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Posts Tagged ‘life’

‘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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poem is on the railing

 

The Birds Have Vanished Into the Sky

by Li Po

 

The birds have vanished into the sky,

and now the last cloud drains away.

 

We sit together, the mountain and me,

until only the mountain remains.

 

 

 

A cable car ride up Austria’s Zwolferhorn led to this view of the Alps, a pretty sweet spot to leave a poem about mountains and time and mortality.

 

Li Po (his name is also translated as Li Bai and Li Bo) was born in present-day Kryrzstan sometime around 701 and raised in present-day Chengdu. He led a full life, to say the least. In his teens he killed a few men (for reasons of chivalry, according to Wikipedia). In his twenties he wandered and gave away most of his money. He served at court, was expelled from court, led a revolt, was charged with treason, was pardoned, wandered again, and was very often drunk. He married four times. He died in 762, most likely of cirrhosis, although legend has it that he died trying to embrace the moon’s reflection in the water. Because he was sitting drunk in a canoe.

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poem is on metal tree grating

 

Song

by Frank O’Hara

 

Is it dirty

does it look dirty

that’s what you think of in the city

 

does it just seem dirty

that’s what you think of in the city

you don’t refuse to breathe do you

 

someone comes along with a very bad character

he seems attractive. is he really. yes. very

he’s attractive as his character is bad. is it. yes

 

that’s what you think of in the city

run your finger along your no-moss mind

that’s not a thought that’s soot

 

and you take a lot of dirt off someone

is the character less bad. no. it improves constantly

you don’t refuse to breathe do you

 

 

(The next couple posts will feature poems I left in Prague and Austria while I was visiting my youngest daughter.)

 

When a poem’s titled “Song” you settle in for a visit to the countryside (or at least I do) but here we are in the city, the dirty city with dirty sidewalks, dirty air, dirty (especially in Prague) walls spray-painted with graffiti, dirty thoughts. Instead of nature-nature, O’Hara gives us human nature, raw and unidealized. Anyway, what’s more natural than desire—

you don’t refuse to breathe do you

 

O’Hara poems always have an energy that makes me feel like I’m hanging out with a fast-talking, fast-moving, can’t-sit-still guy on the verge of a tap dance. It’s the same energy I get when I exit suburbia for a city visit, a feeling of so much going on at once and unlimited possibility. Did I mention how much I love cities?

 

Anyone have thoughts on what a “no-moss mind” is?

 

Here’s an O’Hara’s bio from an earlier post

Born in Baltimore and raised in Massachusetts, O’Hara found his home in the artistic hive of Greenwich Village.  The list of his friends and associates amazes me and calls up an exciting world of cross-pollination. He roomed with Edward Gorey, worked for photographer Cecil Beaton, hung out with poets John Ashberry, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka), and artists deKooning and Pollock.  O’Hara himself worked across disciplines:  he was an accomplished pianist and jazz lover as well as a poet, playwright, and art critic, earning a living as a curator at the Modern Museum of Art. (In its second season, the TV show Mad Men wisely chose O’Hara as a symbol of nonconforming bohemia, of creativity used in the service of art not commerce —in other words, a symbol of everything Don Draper is not.  Link here for Don Draper reading O’Hara’s “Mayakovsky.”)

 

 

 

 

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