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Poem Elf sub and daughter Lizzie has a cat, so I asked her to post “On a Night of Snow” by Elizabeth Coatsworth, a poem about a cat who wants to go outdoors in wild weather. Santa would not cooperate for a photo op, so Lizzie placed the poem sans Santa at the entry to Cathead Bay Trail in Leelanau. The trail leads to Lake Michigan. Last summer we spent a glorious day on the trail escaping the confines of quarantine, feeling free and happy and unbound, a fact not unrelevant to this posting.

 

poem is on framed sign

 

On a Night of Snow

by Elizabeth Coatsworth

 

Cat, if you go outdoors, you must walk in the snow.

You will come back with little white shoes on your feet,

little white shoes of snow that have heels of sleet.

Stay by the fire, my Cat. Lie still, do not go.

See how the flames are leaping and hissing low,

I will bring you a saucer of milk like a marguerite,

so white and so smooth, so spherical and so sweet –

stay with me, Cat. Outdoors the wild winds blow.

 

Outdoors the wild winds blow, Mistress, and dark is the night,

strange voices cry in the trees, intoning strange lore,

and more than cats move, lit by our eyes green light,

on silent feet where the meadow grasses hang hoar –

Mistress, there are portents abroad of magic and might,

and things that are yet to be done.  Open the door!

 

 

This poem is at least seventy years old and probably older than that. It has absolutely nothing to do with coronavirus and yet I can’t read it any other way.

 

Here we have a conversation between mistress and cat. (Mistress, by the way, is an old-fashioned term that should be revived to describe the human-cat relationship. Cats would never agree to have “owners.”) Mistress tries to entice the cat to stay indoors with promises of cozy fires and saucers of milk. Picture Dr. Fauci at the doorway with granny glasses and a lacy cap, calling after the cat, Be safe! Stay inside!

 

In the second stanza the cat speaks for all the stir-crazy among us—Open the door! Cat is not scared, Cat is excited. Outdoors there’s magic, adventure and possibly danger—

 

more than cats move, lit by our eyes green light,

on silent feet where the meadow grasses hang hoar

 

Even in non-lockdown days, the neat contrast laid out between indoor and outdoor life points to a very human set of preferences, between those who want safety and comfort and those who want risk and adventure. Most of us probably want a little of both—a cup of that milk so white and so smooth, so spherical and so sweet and some portion of portents abroad of magic and might.

 

Coatsworth herself seems to have spent a lifetime balancing the two instincts. She was a world traveler, a woman who rode donkeys across Egyptian deserts, but also a woman spent years and years at idyllic Chimney Farm in Maine raising her two daughters. Her life takes me back to my favorite poem, “Among Women” by Marie Ponsot, which begins with the question What women wander? and ends with these lines—

 

Women wander

As best they can.

 

*

 

Elizabeth Coatsworth (1893-1986) is known primarily as a writer of children’s books, but she also published poetry in the New Yorker, and wrote a few memoirs and novels for adults.

 

She was born to a wealthy family in Buffalo, New York.  As a child she traveled in Europe and the Middle East. She graduated from Vassar, and earned a Master of Arts in 1916 from Columbia University. After graduating she went traveling through Asia. She rode horses in the Philippines and spent time in a Buddhist monastery.

 

When she was 36 she married writer and naturalist Henry Beston. They lived in New England and had two daughters. Her daughter Kate Barnes later became poet laureate of Maine.

 

Coatsworth’s children’s book The Cat Who Went to Heaven (1930) won the Newbery Medal. (The book tells the story of a saintly cat in a Buddhist monastery who wants to be included in a commissioned painting, truly a strange tale. Link here for a summary.) In spite of poems and stories about cats, she wasn’t a cat lady and said she liked cats just as well as any other animal. She published over 100 books,

 

In her eighties she wrote something which might offer comfort to all frustrated travelers—

 

I have a thousand memories. I could, I suppose, travel still, but so cautiously and in such a diminished world! I am content to remember larger times. The world in which I live is enough for me. After so many travels, I am home, and my happiness here is no less than it was in foreign lands and my sense of wonder has not dulled with all these years. I am as happy as an old dog stretched out in the sunlight. I remember other times, other places, but (in the sunlight) I am content with the here and now.

 

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Here’s stubborn Santa and his cat prints:

 

 

 

 

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The previous posting of a Holly Wren Spaulding poem found its way to the woods of northern Michigan. Today we head to a beach on Lake Michigan for a look at “Crocus” from Spaulding’s latest collection “Familiars.” (You can read my review here.)

 

With no crocus in sight on a January afternoon, my daughter and poem elf sub Lizzie attached the poem to a stick that had popped up out of the sand like a stem, as if it had grown there, as if the poem were the stem’s blossom.

 

“Crocus” is from the book’s second section, “Testimonials” Spaulding introduces the section with this—

 

In which the inhabitants

speak; the traveler listens.

 

 

 

Crocus

by Holly Wren Spaulding

 

I traveled cold

dominions

to arrive.

 

When a woman

leans close

we recognize

each other.

 

 

Like the woman in the poem, I recognize myself in the crocus.

 

I spent a lot of time picking flowers as a little girl—dandelions, buttercups, Queen Anne’s lace, thistle—and didn’t have any idea of the difference between planted bulbs and wildflowers, much less public and private property. Mrs. Clarke’s front yard had a small hill and all the sudden one afternoon it was dotted with crocuses, twenty or thirty of them. The first flowers of spring! Happiness! Beauty! A gift for my mother! I picked most of them. I presented the bouquet to my mother. Where did you get those? she asked, and sent me right down to Mrs. Clarke’s to apologize. Crocuses drooping in my little fist, I sobbed through my confession. Mrs. Clarke was angry. Understandably. Mr. Clarke had spent a lot of time planting the crocuses, she told me sternly, and now he’ll never see them. They’ll never come back.

 

Poor Mr. Clarke died a few years later of a heart attack mowing his lawn. Nowadays when I spot a crocus I feel a small shame for depriving Mr. Clarke of the fruits of his labor, but more so a sense of pleasure about my innocence, my childhood delight in spring’s arrival.

 

The woman’s connection to the crocus is deeper, more mysterious, and so the crocus’ connection to the woman. That moment of greeting—it’s so tender and beautiful, so packed with emotion and potential story lines in a mere seven lines—it fills me with wonder and for some reason peace. Why peace? I don’t know. Maybe a need is satisfied—a primordial longing for hope, for beauty, for connection to nature. Maybe the poem gives expression to the emotion of being female, of living in a body that bleeds and births. Whatever. I don’t want to pin it down—the poem has magic, it has cast a spell, it’s become part of me.

 

There’s lots of gems like this in Familiars, which you can order here from Literati, a wonderful bookstore in Ann Arbor.

 

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

 

Holly Wren Spaulding’s connection to nature seems destined from the start. Her parents named her after a character called “Wren of the Woods” in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer. She grew up in the woods in northern Michigan, off the grid in a “pretty 19th century style of life,” as she details in this podcast about her own creative development. The family homesteaded in an experimental collective living community where she and her siblings chopped wood and carried water.

 

She founded Poetry Forge, another sort of collective space, this one for poets. You can read more about her vision for the project and her personal history here. In the summer she teaches creative writing at Interlochen in northern Michigan, including a class she teaches with her mother, artist Carol Spaulding. She lives in Kittery Point, Maine with her family.

 

She’s been widely published in literary journals and nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. She regularly collaborates with other artists, including this lovely project, a poetry-in-public-space installation called Urban Renga.

 

 

 

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Two poems from Holly Wren Spaulding’s new collection Familiars found their way to northern Michigan, courtesy of an elf sub, my daughter Lizzie. Spaulding hails from northern Michigan and returns there each summer to teach, so it seemed a good spot, even if the pictures don’t exactly replicate the settings in each poem. (You can read my review of this beautiful collection here.)

 

Today let’s look at “Vine.” Lizzie left “Vine” at the entrance to a trail of pines.

 

poem is on thin pine in foreground

 

Vine

by Holly Wren Spaulding

 

 

To touch

 

the upper

branches

 

of the tree’s

 

Yes.

 

 

The poem is from the book’s opening section, “Admissions,” which is introduced thusly—

In which a traveler arrives

at the edge of a wildland,

seeking guidance

from its inhabitants

and neighbors.

 

I had to read “Vine” a couple times, like it was a riddle whose meaning was just beyond my grasp. Once I understood what was going on, the riddle became a meditation, and I’m left with an urge to lift my gaze, open wide my collarbone and breathe out a Yes. As if I, too, am growing. What single word could better express growth than Yes? Growing means saying Yes to change, Yes to the forward march of time, Yes to life itself.

 

I’m still puzzled over who the speaker is. Is the vine (the inhabitant) answering some question from the traveler (What do you want?)? Or maybe the traveler is imagining what it’s like to be a vine (add an “Oh” to the beginning and you’ll see what I mean). The epigraph of the book suggests to me that the answer doesn’t matter, that the speaker is either or both—

 

Listen to me. I am telling you

a true thing. This is the only kingdom.

The kingdom of touching;

the touches of the disappearing, things.

            —Aracelis Girmay, “Elegy”

 

“The kingdom of touching” is the kingdom of connecting, one thing to another, one being to another being, like the vine twisting itself around the tree trunk, like the poet, looking up at the treetop, joining in the Yes by the touch of her gaze.

 

 

Each poem in the book offers connection to other living beings on the planet. A worthy pursuit for the new year. You can order Familiars direct from the publisher, Alice Greene & Co. It’s also available at that other website, you know, the big one. Better yet, request a copy from your favorite independent bookseller.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Link here for a bio of Spaulding from a previous post.

 

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Learning the definition of a word sometimes makes a big difference. Take friluftsliv. I heard about the-now trendy Norwegian word early on this year and I’m not exaggerating when I say it greatly improved my attitude towards pared-down pandemic life. Friluftsliv translates to “open-air living” and means embracing the outdoors, no matter the weather. Just knowing the word motivated me to make friends with my former enemies, the wind and the cold.

 

I mention this because I’ve been spending a few days with other words, some also unfamiliar, and find that my connection to nature has deepened because of it. Holly Wren Spaulding’s latest collection of poems, Familiars, takes as it starting point words that The Oxford Junior Dictionary removed in recent years in the name of keeping pace with changing times. Fifty nature words were discarded in favor of more—unfortunately—familiar words to children. Chatroom for chestnut, cut and paste for catkin, bullet-point for bluebell—it’s a disheartening list. Spaulding writes in an author’s note that the removal shows “language seeming to symbolize and further the growing separation of humanity from the rest of nature.”

 

 

Spaulding scoops up the discarded words, dusts them off, and breathes life into them. The words and the poems they inspire become connective tissue between humans (“travelers” in the lingo of the book) and nature (“inhabitants”). The thirty-six poems in the book are titled with words not found in the children’s dictionary—bullock, adder, gorse, conker, to name a few—and though the poems are brief, some as short as a mere two lines, they’re as dense as walnuts, with much to discover inside.

 

Take “Heather,” here in its entirety:

 

Not a low fog above all.

 

The birth of mauve.

 

 

A paragraph of prose wouldn’t cover the story told here. And I’ll never experience a field of heather in the same way again.

 

The title itself, Familiars, works on two levels—both that each poem makes the unfamiliar familiar, and that each word represents an organism already familiar, that is, part of our earthly family.

 

As with any family, humor is always a reliable connector, like here in “Ox”—

 

Don’t think

 

I never wonder

 

what else I

 

might have been.

 

Poems are told from different points of view, human, vegetable and animal, divided into sections in the book. The third and final section, “Foretellings,” brings together all the voices in response to a future ecological disaster. But Spaulding is no dystopian poet. The collection closes out on a hopeful note of repair and healing with “Pansy”—

 

Ten thousand emissaries

 

blue, white, yellow, maroon—

 

an end to hostilities.

 

  

It’s no small thing to say the cover, like the book, is lush and gorgeous. The painting is called “Undergrowth” by Eliot Hodgkin. It’s so lovely you’ll want to leave the book laying about. That way you may find yourself picking it up often, finding the beauty within, re-connecting with family, creating the home you’ve always longed for.

.

*

 

I asked my daughter to poem-elf two poems from the collection in northern Michigan where she lives and where Spaulding is originally from. I’ll feature those in my next post.

 

*

 

Here’s a bio of Spaulding from a previous post

 

Holly Wren Spaulding’s connection to nature seems destined from the start. Her parents named her after a character called “Wren of the Woods” in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer. She grew up in the woods in northern Michigan, off the grid in a “pretty 19th century style of life,” as she details in this podcast about her own creative development. The family homesteaded in an experimental collective living community where she and her siblings chopped wood and carried water.

 

She founded Poetry Forge, another sort of collective space, this one for poets. You can read more about her vision for the project and her personal history here. In the summer she teaches creative writing at Interlochen in northern Michigan, including a class she teaches with her mother, artist Carol Spaulding. She lives in Kittery Point, Maine with her family.

 

She’s been widely published in literary journals and nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. She regularly collaborates with other artists, including this lovely project, a poetry-in-public-space installation called Urban Renga.

 

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The Darkling Thrush

by Thomas Hardy

 

I leant upon a coppice gate

When Frost was spectre-grey,

And Winter’s dregs made desolate

The weakening eye of day.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

Like strings of broken lyres,

And all mankind that haunted nigh

Had sought their household fires.

 

The land’s sharp features seemed to be

The Century’s corpse outleant,

His crypt the cloudy canopy,

The wind his death-lament.

The ancient pulse of germ and birth

Was shrunken hard and dry,

And every spirit upon earth

Seemed fervourless as I.

 

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited;

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

Upon the growing gloom.

 

So little cause for carolings

Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.

 

 

A post-funeral party for my mother at the family home. Our next door neighbor’s oldest son, Charlie as I knew him from childhood, now Chuck, came to fetch his mother and ended up staying for drinks and conversation. We’d never spoken more than a few words before—when I was a little girl he was already a teenager—but that evening we discovered a mutual love of poetry. Just not the same kind of poems. He gravitated to poems that were dense, lyrical, metaphysical, while my taste was . . . not that.

 

I asked him to give me his favorite poem for a Poem Elf “assignment.” He emailed me a George Herbert number that I was too lazy to deal with. He sent two more options, an Emily Dickinson poem (the very difficult Miss Dickinson, no thank you) and this Hardy poem. I glanced at it, printed it out and planned to get to it soon-ish, applying the same effort I give to annual plans to touch my toes.

 

Almost five years later “The Darkling Thrush” turned up and I thought, just get’er done. The timing proved—I hesitate to say “serendipitous” because recent events are too dark for that word. Let’s say the timing fills me with wonder, considering that I truly I had not read this poem ever, at all, and had no idea what it was about.

 

After the year we’ve had—and I’m talking about 2021—any poem that offers light in darkness is a welcome guest in my head.  But this one is just beyond. So beautiful, so un-treacly, so begging to be read out loud and memorized, so seasonally and emotionally timely.

 

Charlie, forgive me, I won’t be offering an in-depth look at “The Darkling Thrush” however much the poem deserves such scrutiny. My completed assignment is just the sound of oohs and ahhs and a big “Come outside and look at the moon!” scrawled across my blue book. (If you want a meatier but still accessible discussion of the poem, link here.)

 

Hardy’s language is dazzling; the world it creates is not. Everything is gray, broken, lifeless. It brings to mind black-and-white Bedford Falls sans George Bailey. And just like “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Hardy’s world is mesmerizing even in its ugliness. Here’s his description of the barrenness of winter—

 

The ancient pulse of germ and birth

      Was shrunken hard and dry

 

Here’s what he sees when he looks up—

 

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

      Like strings of broken lyres

 

(FYI bine is basically a hard vine.)

 

It’s deathly quiet there by the coppice gate. Nature’s lyre is silenced so to speak, and there’s no human chatter because they’ve all gone home to warm up. Image after image, the poem is relentlessly visual until a joyful noise breaks through the bleakness.

 

Wonderful that the thrush is an old one. The quality of hope would be different if a Shirley Temple bird sang rather than one who’s been around the block and still sees reason to warble —

 

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

      In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

      Upon the growing gloom.

 

And then we come to that last stanza. Doesn’t it feel that it’s been written for us, for right now, for this winter, for this uneasy moment?

 

So little cause for carolings

      Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

      Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

      His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

      And I was unaware.

 

 

Darkling thrush, wherever you are, show yourself! We are in need of your song.

 

*

 

I wondered what a thrush looks like and discovered there are many varieties of thrush, each with its own look and sound. I’ve narrowed down the list of Hardy’s bird to two kinds, the song thrush and the mistle thrush. Both live in the southwest of England where he lived, both sing in the late evening and both sing in winter. Of the two, I’m pretty certain The Darkling Thrush is the mistle thrush because they enjoy singing in the worst of weather. Enjoy the video below, “Know Your Thrushes.” Getting to know your thrushes is a very pleasant distraction indeed.

 

 

 

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Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was born the oldest of four in a small village forty-some miles southwest of Stonehenge. His father was a stonemason and fiddler. He was a sickly child and as an adult was a very small man, barely over five feet, a fact I mention because some compare the tiny thrush to Hardy himself.

 

He was an architectural apprentice in London but missed the rural landscape he grew up in. He worked as an ecclesiastic architect for ten years in London and Dorset, writing in his spare time and publishing an unsuccessful novel. He married and moved back to Dorset where designed and built his house, Max Gate, now part of the National Trust. Eventually he was able to make a living solely from writing.

 

He became estranged from his first wife, supposedly in part because she objected to the dark view of marriage he presented in his novels. When she died he married his secretary, 39 years his junior, but mourned his first wife the rest of his life.

 

Hardy considered himself primarily a poet, but I suspect most people know him as I do, as the writer of those wonderful, big depressing Victorian novels like Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. He wrote fourteen novels altogether (and they are all long) and loads of poetry which influenced the likes of Auden, Frost and Larkin.

 

He was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died at age 87. A  controversy over where he was to be buried was resolved when his heart was interred next to his wife’s grave in his native village and his ashes in Westminster Abby Poet’s corner.

 

 

 

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On Day 21 of the 2020 countdown, a poem about masks in a drugstore where a different kind of mask is sold.

 

poem is on third shelf from top

 

We Wear the Mask

by Paul Laurence Dunbar

 

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

 

Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

We wear the mask.

 

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

But let the world dream otherwise,

We wear the mask!

 

 

This poem has absolutely nothing to do with N95’s, surgical masks or gators, but it might useful to consider the manufactured “burden” of wearing a pandemic mask in relation to the very real burden of being obliged, for safety reasons, to wear a mask that grins and lies.

 

Paul Laurence Dunbar published “We Wear the Mask” in 1896. I don’t know if he wrote it before or after the 1896 Supreme Court ruling Plessy vs. Ferguson, which upheld Jim Crow laws in Louisiana and established the “separate but equal” doctrine. It doesn’t matter. That ruling marked in concrete the rage-inducing injustice Dunbar would have lived with every day—

 

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile

 

We’d like to think that the mask that grins and lies is not as necessary as it once, but consider how Black parents must train their boys to behave at traffic stops. If any good came out of the horrific murder of George Floyd, it’s that the pretense of “justice for all” was exposed as yet another mask, one worn to cover the eyes. It was hard to believe in justice for all when beatings of Black citizens and their allies popped up on our Twitter feeds, one after the other, hundreds of them; when a Black woman was gunned down in her own home without consequence, when a Black man out for a jog was hunted down with delayed consequence; when the racial disparity of death row inmates grows even as executions grow more scarce, when 75% of death penalty cases involve white victims, because seemingly their lives are worth more than the black victims whose perpetrators are rarely put on death row.

 

*

 

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

 

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was born in Dayton, Ohio, the child of former slaves. His mother taught him to read when he was four and always encouraged his education. His parents separated when he was a toddler, and his father, who had escaped enslavement before the end of the Civil War and fled to Massachusetts to fight for the Union, died when Dunbar was twelve.

 

Dunbar was the only black student in an all-white high school. It’s amazing to me that in late 19thcentury America such a student could be class president, editor of the class paper and class poet, but he was. He wanted to go to college but had to work to support the family. Prevented from finding a job in the legal or newspaper world because of bigotry, he took a job as an elevator operator. During this time he self-published his first collection of poems and sold copies for a dollar to people riding on his elevator.

 

Orville Wright was a high school classmate and friend. He and his brother owned a publishing plant and published a black newspaper featuring Dunbar’s poems. Dunbar was also friends with Frederick Douglas and Booker T. Washington.

 

When he was 26 he married schoolteacher and poet Alice Moore. The marriage was unhappy and they would separate after four years. As newlyweds they moved to Washington, D.C. where Dunbar worked for the Library of Congress. When he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, they moved to Colorado for his health. To soothe his coughing fits doctors encouraged him to drink whiskey, which contributed to his alcoholism which in turn hastened his death at the early age of 33.

 

In addition to eleven volumes of poetry, Dunbar wrote novels, essays, short stories, plays and lyrics, notably for the musical comedy “Dahomey,” the first all-black Broadway production. He collaborated with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Anglo-African composer of “Deep River” fame. You can hear one of their pieces here.

 

Dunbar has a genius for constructing memorable phrases. His poem “We Wear the Mask” gives me shivers. Listen here to a punk version

 

Another phrase of his co-opted in popular culture is the “Who Dat” cheer for the New Orleans Saints, originally from his lyrics to the song “Who Dat Chicken in Dis Crowd?” If you want to hear something from the NFL that’s not divisive, Aaron Neville’s mix of the Who Dat cheer with “Saints Go Marching In” accompanied by Saints players is positively infectious.

 

Finally, link here for a lovely Christmas Carol using his poem “Ring Out Ye Bells.”

 

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That’s all till Monday. I’ll be back with a new poem for day 18.

 

 

 

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Day 22 of the 2020 countdown finds us on a small pond in a nature center, contemplating contemplation. One of the biggest gifts this year brought us is time and space for contemplation.

 

poem is taped to dock

 

Priceless Gifts

by Anna Swir

translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan

 

An empty day without events.

And that is why

it grew immense

as space. And suddenly

happiness of being

entered me.

 

I heard

in my heartbeat

the birth of time

and each instant of life

one after the other

came rushing in

like priceless gifts.

 

 

If someone designed a Rorschach test using poetry instead of inkblots, here would be the first question:

 

Does the phrase an empty day without events fill you with

  1. existential horror
  2. relief
  3. I don’t even understand what that means

 

The pandemic has emptied our schedules. We leave the house on a need-to-go basis. We said goodbye to our usual distractions—shopping, movies, coffee shops, concerts—and embraced a new one, at least in the massive increase in attention we give it. Screen time.

 

But to experience the priceless gifts Anna Swir describes, empty time has to stay empty. I’m lucky to have experienced such soul-opening more than once, most recently this fall on a long walk on a hilly country road. Cool air, sunshine on yellow trees, wide open fields, and suddenly my heart opened, just as Swir describes. It’s almost a physical event. Unfortunately, in the middle of this rapture, the phone in my fleece pocket rang. It was my daughter, crying. She had tested positive for COVID, she didn’t feel well, and she was scared.

 

That pretty much sums up 2020.

 

I love this poem, I love the careful, precise way Swir illuminates a delicate emotional state. If you’ve ever experienced transcendent joy and tried to describe it to someone, you’ll appreciate the craft in this deceptively simple poem. Swir is the master of marrying complex internal events with clean and clear language. (Her poem “The Same Inside” is another example. It moved me near to tears, so deeply did I relate to it.)

 

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Here’s a biography of Swir from a previous post:

 

Anna Swir (Świrszczyńska) was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1909. Her family was poor but artistic. Her father was a painter, her mother a former singer. Swir worked from the time she was young, and paid her way through university where she studied medieval Polish literature.

 

She worked as a waitress during WWII and began writing for underground journals. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, she joined the resistance. I read that she was arrested at one point during the war and told she would be executed in an hour, but I can’t find any details of her reprieve. During the bloody Warsaw Uprising (in which Poles attempted to liberate the city), she worked as a military nurse.

 

Although she began publishing poetry in the thirties, her poems weren’t available in English until the late seventies. In addition to writing poetry, she wrote children’s plays and directed a children’s theater. She lived in Krakow until her death from cancer in 1984.

 

 

 

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According to latest statistics, over half of Americans under thirty now live with their parents. For the 23rd day before the end of 2020, a poem for people who’ve had to move back home. I left “Home is so Sad” on a “Please Slow Down” sign in a pretty suburban neighborhood. Young adults whose lives are stalled out probably don’t need to be reminded of either sentiment.

 

 

Home is so Sad

by Philip Larkin

 

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,

Shaped to the comfort of the last to go

As if to win them back. Instead, bereft

Of anyone to please, it withers so,

Having no heart to put aside the theft

 

And turn again to what it started as,

A joyous shot at how things ought to be,

Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:

Look at the pictures and the cutlery.

The music in the piano stool. That vase.

 

I always felt it. It would last an hour, maybe a day. Stepping into my parents’ home, I’d get a wave of melancholy. The silence of that house, once so full of noise and life (a split-level house with thirteen people is rarely quiet); the useless objects that crowded it— a small cabinet whose sole purpose was to house telephone books, tchotchkes on the windowsill, an electric can opener on the counter; the deterioration of carpets and upholstery alongside the same downward slide of my beloved parents’ health. Yes, home is so sad.

 

No doubt my own kids will feel that way too, and maybe already do. This is perhaps the most melancholy feeling of all, to know that my life will some day depress visiting children.

 

No one’s whining of course—at least there is a home to come back to—and poet Philip Larkin isn’t whining (or whinging as he would say, being British) either. He looks at the old house in human terms, with sympathy, as if it were an aging athlete—

And turn again to what it started as,

A joyous shot at how things ought to be,

Long fallen wide.

 

Like the house it describes, the formality of the poem’s structure is out of fashion, from another time. But the neat stanzas and end-rhyme scheme are deeply pleasurable, metered and beautiful as the music in the piano stool. And such a title! One of my favorites.

 

*

 

By necessity poets’ biographies for this series are going to be brief. I can spend hours reading up on poets’ lives, but with a post-a-day schedule for this countdown, I won’t be able to put in the time. Apologies.

Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was born in Coventry, England. He went to Oxford where he met and became lifelong friends with a fellow curmudgeon, writer Kinsley Amis. He worked as a librarian at various universities, published two novels and enough poetry to make him the second most famous living British poet in his time. (The first being poet laureate Sir John Betjeman, who Crown watchers may have heard mention in several episodes.)

He died of cancer at age 63.

 

His life and work deserve a much fuller discussion. Link to an obituary here and an essay (along with a wonderful animation of his poem “Trees”) here.

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To kick off the countdown series, a poem at a coronavirus testing site—

poem is above neon “OPEN” sign

 

Susanna

by Anne Porter

 

Nobody in the hospital

Could tell the age

Of the old woman who

Was called Susanna

 

I knew she spoke some English

And that she was an immigrant

Out of a little country

Trampled by armies

 

Because she had no visitors

I would stop by to see her

But she was always sleeping

 

All I could do

Was to get out her comb

And carefully untangle

The tangles in her hair

 

One day I was beside her

When she woke up

Opening small dark eyes

Of a surprising clearness

 

She looked at me and said

You want to know the truth?

I answered Yes

 

She said it’s something that

My mother told me

 

There’s not a single inch

Of our whole body

That the Lord does not love

 

She then went back to sleep.

 

 

Are old people worth less than the rest of us? No one wants to be heard answering in the affirmative, but an affirmative answer lurks behind the way horrifying coronavirus statistics get sloughed off. Yes, hundreds of thousands of people died of coronavirus, but. . . But what?. . .  But most of them were old people. . . So?. . . So they were going to die soon anyway. . ..

 

All but the most brazen don’t finish the equation (at least out loud), to wit:

 

healthy economy > lives of the elderly

 

It’s not that simple, I hear you, I know. But one way or the other the dignity and value of our old people have been sullied this year. Not only by proponents of the above equation but by the facts of their suffering. Old people isolated in nursing homes and hospital rooms, shut off from human contact. Old people dying alone, struggling to breathe alone, attended to by strangers. Old age so often brings loneliness and isolation, but the pandemic has pushed that loneliness and isolation to an epic scale.

 

Let’s bring poet Anne Porter into the discussion. Porter gives us Susanna, a woman so old no one even can guess her age, an immigrant no less, from a country deemed expendable, a little country/ trampled by armies. (I’m guessing Poland.) Susanna sleeps all day and seems to require extensive care, or to use the more modern word, resources.

 

But the speaker in the poem sees that lump in the bed as a human being, worthy of attention and love. And the pay-off (a word I use only in the spirit of crass thinking) is huge.

 

Even if you don’t believe in Susanna’s theology—

 

There’s not a single inch

Of our whole body

That the Lord does not love

 

—you can see love in action, going back between the two characters like a tennis ball. The speaker gently brushes Susanna’s hair; Susanna in turn offers a bit of wisdom the speaker is receptive to. More than that, Susanna in her suffering has allowed the speaker to express the tenderest, kindest part of her character. Whether or not you believe that such kindness is the most central part of the human personality (as I do), you have to acknowledge that it exists in varying degrees in nearly everyone. And that is something to hold onto in dark times.

 

I offer”Susanna” as a tribute to our elders, to those who take care of them, and to all the suffering families who would give anything just to be able to carefully untangle/ the tangles of their loved one’s hair.

 

*

Anne Porter is in the top five of my favorite poets; her husband Fairfield shares that ranking in the list of my favorite artists. Here’s a bio from a previous post.

 

Anne Porter’s literary career was launched when she was 83 with the publication of her first book of poetry. Can I say that again? Her literary career was launched when she was 83. Surely that’s the most hopeful, life-affirming sentence I’ve ever written. 

 

Born in Boston to a wealthy family, she attended Bryn Mawr and married the American painter and art critic Fairfield Porter. Their marriage was not an easy one. He indulged his artistic temperament and sexual drives while she tended to their five children* and hosted his friends for months on end at their homes in Southampton and Maine. Lovely that some of these guests were his lovers, male and female, but to be fair, she had a liason of her own.

 

Their life together fascinates me. I’ve lost a good hour following their story link to link, drawn down down the rabbit hole of mid-century bohemia. Their social and familial circles pull in such a number of artists and intellectuals, it’s a veritable Bloomsbury group.

 

“Anne in Doorway” by Fairfield Porter

 

Like so many other wives of writers and artists, Anne Porter remained hidden and overlooked until the death of her husband. I have a vision of her tottering on her walker, step by step, on through the heap of egos, drama, passion and duty that blocks her path, until at last she emerges cheerfully on the other side, an artist in her own right. She died in 2011, a month shy of her 100th birthday.

 

*Her oldest son was mentally disabled in some way, either autistic or schizophrenic. When he died in 1980 she wrote the heartbreaking “For My Son Johnny.”

 

 For more information on the remarkable Porter, read this profile in the Wall Street Journal.

 

 

 

 

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Modern television murder mysteries nearly always feature a stock character, the nimble-fingered Computer Guy (because this character is almost always male). After mere seconds of clacking away at his keyboard, Computer Guy can track down addresses, hospital records, relevant CCTV footage, bank statements, and wartime photographs that link the killer to the victim.

 

I’m pleased to announce that Poem Elf has its own Computer Guy. I recently posted an unfinished poem by an unknown poet and asked for help in tracking both down.  Reader Thomas Lee Tavis dove into the research and delivered.

 

 

isn’t Simovic a cutie?

Thomas discovered that “Curses” is by Serbian poet Ljubomir Simovic. Turns out I had previously posted one of Simovic’s poems. Link here for “Breakfast.”

 

What was left out in the version I published is the reversal of the curse in part 4.

Here is the poem in its entirety.

 

Curses

by Lubomir Simonic

 

1

 

May the wind extinguish everything for you

except the candle on your grave.

 

May you not run away from the ax,

or the cannon.

 

May you not have fish in Fishville,

a bull in Bullsville,

nor a single sheep in Sheepsville.

 

May you be afraid to meet your brother

without a knife.

 

May you move from your house to the cemetery.

 

May you find neither a root nor a leaf.

 

May you stir with a right hand

the soup made with the left hand.

 

2

 

May you buy a hat

and have nothing to put it on.

 

May your wife knead dust,

rain’s bread dough.

 

May your hair give you the slip,

your flesh too.

 

May you raise in vain your chin

above the flood.

 

May you breathe only as much

as your suffering requires.

 

3

 

May a man in armor await you

wherever you go.

 

May he ride into your wheat,

into your bed,

into your church.

 

May your kin rise against you.

 

All hounds on your trail!

All evils on what you hold dear!

 

May evil not touch you

until you raise your knife.

 

4

 

If in a stranger’s eye

you didn’t put the sun out.

 

If in the hour of the wolf

you didn’t call out like a wolf.

 

May sun shine for you out of the wind,

out of your brother,

and a fish in the brook,

the oak tree, the unexpected guest.

 

With wheat up to your waist

and clear sky spreading,

with your arm around your wife

may you watch the back

of the flood

 

 

Let’s hope 2021 brings a reversal of the multiple curses that afflict us, and finds us

With wheat up to your waist

and clear sky spreading

 

*

 

I asked Thomas Lee Tavis to explain why he took up the “Curses” challenge and how he found the answer.

 

Here’s what he said:

 

First thing. I enjoy your project—the poems you post and the places you put them. Several stretches of this poem appealed to me, and I was of course intrigued by the authorship mystery.

 

At first, I played around with searching quotes from ” Curses” on the web. Then I resorted to databases available via my local library, San Francisco Public. Alas, they no longer subscribe to Granger’s online and I can’t access the print indexes while they are closed. Searches in other databases were inconclusive.

 

Still curious, yet perplexed, I went back to the world wide web and started searching the poem’s more unique keywords in clusters of 3. Voila! At least as of this morning if you search “curses bullsville sheepsville” you [Poem Elf] are the author of the first 2 results, Tan Vien’s (Tin Van’s) site is third.

 

Now I’m curious as to who Tan Vien (Tin Van?) is. They certainly post some great poems.

 

                      ‘ Hope you are enjoying a fine, fine holiday.

 

Peace, Thomas Lee Tavis

 

The website he’s referring to, Tin Van, is here, and features poems translated into Vietnamese. English versions are alongside. It’s worth poking around in—so many wonderful poems—lots of Borges, Bolanos, Szymborska, even an interview with Marianne Pearl, wife of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl (also translated into Vietnamese).

 

It’s an older website and there are no recent posts. Tin Van is clearly a labor of love, and like Thomas, I wish I could know more about the people/person behind it.

 

Thank you, Thomas! I appreciate your cleverness and doggedness so much!

 

 

 

 

 

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