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poem is taped to rock

 

Solitaire

by Amy Lowell

 

When night drifts along the streets of the city,

And sifts down between the uneven roofs,

My mind begins to peek and peer.

It plays at ball in odd, blue Chinese gardens,

And shakes wrought dice-cups in Pagan temples

Amid the broken flutings of white pillars.

It dances with purple and yellow crocuses in its hair,

And its feet shine as they flutter over drenched grasses.

How light and laughing my mind is,

When all the good folk have put out their bedroom candles,

And the city is still.

 

 

No wonder nighttime wakefulness is so delightful to poet Amy Lowell. She slept by day and wrote at night. Would that I could be so industrious. For those of us cursed with two a.m. racing thoughts, Lowell’s trilling about how light and laughing my mind is when everyone else is fast asleep sounds like someone raving on about how fun it is to toss the kettle ball.

 

But let’s look at “Solitaire” from a less bitter angle. The poem was written in 1917, two years after T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which begins

 

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

 

Lowell surely had read that poem before she wrote “Solitaire.” (She was close friends with Ezra Pound who famously promoted Eliot’s publication.) I can’t help but hear Lowell echoing the “Prufrock” opening with her own—

 

When night drifts along the streets of the city,

And sifts down between the uneven roofs

 

and then choosing to wander in a completely different direction. To hell with your whiny neuroses, she could be saying. I’m going to enjoy the hell out of this.

 

And it’s off to the races. Or rather, to the Pagan temples and the Chinese gardens.

 

I left the poem at a scenic overlook of Lake Charlevoix in northern Michigan. It was 9:00 p.m. and the sun was just going down:

 

*

 

Amy Lowell (1974- 1925) was born the youngest of five children to a wealthy Boston-Brahim family. What a family—her great-grandfather a founder of the Boston Athenaeum, one brother a famous astronomer, another the president of Harvard, two cousins poets (James Russell Lowell and Robert Lowell) and the Lowell clan itself featured in a famous ditty—

 

And this is good old Boston,

The home of the bean and the cod,

Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots,

And the Cabots talk only to God.

 

Lowell was something of a terror in the private schools she attended, talking back to teachers and clowning around to make the class laugh. She was not allowed to go to college (being female) but she had a post-secondary education of sorts in the family’s 7,000 volume library and in the many trips she made abroad.

 

While in Europe she befriended and promoted Ezra Pound with whom she shared a passion for Imagist poetry. They had a falling-out over the direction of Imagist poetry, he unkindly calling her version “Amygism” and his protégé Eliot snidely calling her “the daemon saleswoman of modern poetry.” She published a journal of Imagist poetry in the United States, toured the country to promote poetry and provided financial assistance to other poets including Carl Sandburg. She didn’t begin publishing her own poetry till she was 36. As well as explicit love poetry to her partner of many years, Ada Dwyer Russell, Lowell wrote a 1,300 page biography of John Keats.

 

Lowell had a big personality and a glandular problem that led to obesity and health issues. She was also known for smoking cigars.

 

She died at age 51 of a stroke and won the Pulitzer Prize posthumously.

 

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For the second installment of the bedtime series, Wayne Dodd’s “Of Rain and Air.” I left it on an evergreen tree bordering an RV park.

 

 

Of Rain and Air

by Wayne Dodd

 

All day I have been closed up

inside rooms, speaking of trivial

matters. Now at last I have come out

into the night, myself a center

 

of darkness.

Beneath the clouds the low sky glows

with scattered lights. I can hardly think

this is happening. Here in this bright absence

 

of day, I feel myself opening out

with contentment.

All around me the soft rain is whispering

of thousands of feet of air

 

invisible above us.

 

 

It’s a common phenomenon that when you’re pregnant or wanting to get pregnant, suddenly you see pregnant women everywhere. That same selective attention carries over to covid-19 and poetry. Suddenly every poem seems to be a pandemic poem, a reflection on quarantine, anxiety, isolation, longing, loss. Like so—

 

All day I have been closed up

inside rooms

 

The closing emotion of the poem, too, might belong to the pandemic, to those moments when the slowing and reduction of regular life brings peace instead of panic—

 

I can hardly think

this is happening. Here in this bright absence

 

of day, I feel myself opening out

with contentment.

 

I’ve had many such moments the past few months, and I hope you have too, but then again I haven’t experienced the virus itself, the loss of loved ones from the virus, severe isolation, job loss, home loss, being quarantined with an unstable or abusive person, exhaustion and stress from full-time childcare.

 

Well, take what you can from the poem. In classic woe-is-me conditions—darkness, rain, aloneness—the speaker feels happy. Standing in the elements enlarges his soul. His connection to the natural world is just so beautifully expressed, it bears re-reading, and more re-reading, and then reflecting upon as you lay your head on your pillow tonight:

 

All around me the soft rain is whispering

of thousands of feet of air

 

invisible above us.

 

*

 

Poet, essayist and novelist Wayne Dodd was born in Oklahoma in 1930. He taught at University of Colorado and Ohio University where he served for many years as editor of the Ohio Review. He’s published eleven books of poetry.

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Bed in Summer

by Robert Louis Stevenson

 

In winter I get up at night

And dress by yellow candle-light.

In summer, quite the other way,

I have to go to bed by day.

 

I have to go to bed and see

The birds still hopping on the tree,

Or hear the grown-up people’s feet

Still going past me in the street.

 

And does it not seem hard to you,

When all the sky is clear and blue,

And I should like so much to play,

To have to go to bed by day?

 

 

And now for something completely different:  a short series of bedtime poems. Robert Louis Stevenson kicks us off with this sweet little complaint about going to bed when you don’t want to.

 

As a young mother, I was a strict about bedtime. By 7:30 everyone was tucked in with lights out and doors closed so I could get the break I needed. In July when we vacationed in northern Michigan I had to relax my schedule because up here in high summer it stays light at least until nine and it’s not fully dark till ten-thirty or eleven.

 

Still, I made the kiddos go to bed long before the stars came out. That was always a battle. To settle down the restless brood of bed-averse children (my four and their three cousins), my husband told stories he made up on the spot. The stories always had the same cast of characters—Jelly Bean and Winston, their friend Gloria, their enemies the Sea Witch, the Cave Witch and meanest of all, the Doodledoo. Night after night he told these stories. Year after year. When he ran out of ideas, he’d ask, “What do you think happened next?” And the kids would move the plot forward, as kids do.

 

One of my daughters has made northern Michigan her home, and so I left the poem on her bed as a reminder of those sweet moments. For any parents reading this, “Bed in Summer” is a wonderful poem to read to your kids at night. They’ll appreciate the sympathy for their plight and perhaps with a little encouragement might memorize it as a summer project!

 

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Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was born in Edinburgh, an only child in a family of lighthouse engineers. From childhood on he suffered from lung problems  and was often bedridden, a biographical detail that adds a poignant note to “Bed in Summer.” Helicopter parents, take heart:  this most prolific novelist and poet, the twenty-fifth most translated writer of all time, didn’t start reading until age seven.

 

He enrolled at University of Edinburgh to study engineering and continue in the family business, but spent his time in brothels and smoking hashish. He switched to law and earned his degree but never practiced, deciding to devote his energies to writing instead. He was a lifelong traveller, roaming by donkey, canoe, and ship all over the world despite frequently becoming ill to the point of death.

 

While in France at an artists’ colony, he fell in love with a married woman eleven years his senior. Later he secretly travelled to the United States to reunite with her. The voyage nearly killed him. They married after she divorced, and travelled together with her children and his widowed mother through the Pacific, eventually settling in Samoa, where he died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at age forty-four.

 

His most famous works are the adventure novels Kidnapped, Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Master of Ballantrae, and the children’s anthology of poetry, The Child’s Garden of Verses.

 

Wildly popular in his time, Stevenson has fallen in and out of favor through the years. These days he’s found his way back into anthologies. I love this anecdote from film critic Roger Ebert (courtesy of Wikipedia):

 

I was talking to a friend the other day who said he’d never met a child who liked reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

 

Neither have I, I said. And he’d never met a child who liked reading Stevenson’s Kidnapped. Me neither, I said. My early exposure to both books was via the Classics Illustrated comic books. But I did read the books later, when I was no longer a kid, and I enjoyed them enormously. Same goes for Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

 

The fact is, Stevenson is a splendid writer of stories for adults, and he should be put on the same shelf with Joseph Conrad and Jack London instead of in between Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan.

 

 

 

 

 

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Touch Me

by Stanley Kunitz

 

Summer is late, my heart.

Words plucked out of the air

some forty years ago

when I was wild with love

 

and torn almost in two

scatter like leaves this night

of whistling wind and rain.

It is my heart that’s late,

it is my song that’s flown.

Outdoors all afternoon

under a gunmetal sky

staking my garden down,

I kneeled to the crickets trilling

underfoot as if about

to burst from their crusty shells;

and like a child again

marveled to hear so clear

and brave a music pour

from such a small machine.

What makes the engine go?

Desire, desire, desire.

The longing for the dance

stirs in the buried life.

One season only,

and it’s done.

 

So let the battered old willow

thrash against the windowpanes

and the house timbers creak.

Darling, do you remember

the man you married? Touch me,

remind me who I am.

 

 

I’m going to try to write a post about a poem called “Touch Me” without mentioning our long months of physical distancing and bumping elbows to say hello and pantomiming hugs to say goodbye; without mentioning how we are all old people now, isolated and longing to be touched; without mentioning the parallels between the forty years since the poet spoke his words of love (“Summer is late, my heart”) and the biblical forty years of wandering in the desert which is how long it feels some days being separated from people we love because of the coronavirus.

 

Instead I’m going back thirty-three years, to my wedding day. The summer I got married cicadas came out of a seventeen-year hibernation to sing, mate, lay eggs and die, all in a few short weeks. They covered lawns and sidewalks with their toe-sized shells and filled the air with their shrieks and unexpected dive-bombings. Outdoors you had to shout to be heard and watch your step lest you crunch one underfoot. I didn’t know if the cicada swarm was a good omen—they live to love!—or bad—life is brutally short, you’ll just have babies and die!— or as Kunitz puts it

 

The longing for the dance

stirs in the buried life.

One season only,

and it’s done.

 

But it didn’t matter. Something was happening. Something elemental and big. As it happens, the day of our wedding was brutally hot and marked by an epic thunderstorm, so between the downpour of rain and locusts, my sense of—what was it?—wildness? freedom? possibility?—let’s call it my animal sense—was stronger than the stifling strictures of wedding traditions.

 

This poem brings back that feeling with force. Being in nature, particularly before a storm, the animal parts wake up. Notice the speaker in the poem is feeling the old zing-a-ding-ding after being in the garden. Not after sitting at his computer watching old-people porn or noticing a beautiful young girl in her thong at the beach or swiping through Instagram pictures of hybrid beings with duck lips and hair extensions. He’s on his knees, digging earth. Crickets are whirring, the dark clouds forecast the heavy rain that will come later as he lies in bed with his wife.

 

If you didn’t notice just how sexy this poem is, listen to the poet read it. Yes, he is a very old man. Doesn’t matter. As he reads, the thrashing willow branches turn into thrashing bodies and the creaking house timbers signal a creaking mattress or maybe even creaking joints, given his age.

 

 

 

*

 

Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) had a tough start in his very long life. Weeks before he was born, his father, a bankrupt dressmaker, committed suicide by drinking carbolic acid in a public park. Kunitz had two older sisters and a mother who worked, unusual for the time, as a dress designer and manufacturer. His mother remarried, and Kunitz’s stepdad too, came to an unfortunate end. After declaring bankruptcy and learning he was being investigated for concealing assets in his dry goods store, he had a heart attack while hanging curtains. Kunitz was fourteen.

 

Kunitz moved out of the house the next year, worked for a butcher, then for a newspaper, saving money to go to Harvard. He graduated with highest honors in English and philosophy, and went on to get a masters degree. He was foiled in his attempt to get a PhD by an administrator who old him that no one at Harvard wanted to be taught by a Jew. His “revenge” was becoming, later in life, a beloved teacher and mentor who influenced a generation of poets, including James Wright and Louise Gluck.

 

After completing his education, he worked as a reporter and editor. During World War II he registered as a conscientious objector (he was denied) and sent to serve as a noncombatant at a base in Washington in charge of information and education.

 

Kunitz taught at many colleges, including Bennington, Vassar, New School, Yale, Princeton, SUNY, eventually teaching writing for eighteen years at Columbia.

 

He married three times and had a daughter with wife number two. His third wife, to whom “Touch Me” was written, was artist Elise Asher. Theirs was a long marriage. They split their time between New York and Provincetown, where he was famous for his garden.

 

Kunitz published more than twenty books of poetry, received the Pulitzer Prize and became U.S poet laureate for the second time at age 95.

 

 

 

 

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Today’s the last of the guest postings on Poem Elf.  I’m not going to throw shade on all the other posters by suggesting I’ve saved the best for last—each entry has been a wonder to me—but I am mighty pleased to end this collaboration with a poem perfectly suited to these pandemic days and posted in the same spirit of delight that I still feel, ten years on, every time I poem-elf.

 

Brooklyn editor and screenwriter Molly Virostek posted not one but four (clearly she loves this poem and you will too) copies of Mary Ruefle’s “Some Nondescript Autumn Weekend.” I don’t often cry reading a poem but this poem brought up a lot of buried emotion and yikes here I go again.

 

Before I hand the space over to Molly, let me thank all the assistant elves. You introduced me to poems I’d never read and locations I’ve never visited. Whether you offered an extensive commentary or just a line or two, your matching of poems with places was insightful, fun, and (to me) deeply moving. I’ve loved sharing this enterprise with you. If I know you, I love you, and if I don’t know you, I’m sure I would.

 

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Some Nondescript Autumn Weekend

by Mary Ruefle

 

Remove everything beautiful from your home, remove everything you like, love, cherish, or are fond of. Remember to include pets and people. Remove everything which reminds you of these things in any way. Remove everything which brings you happiness or a feeling of peace. Remove everything which reminds you of your life.

 

Leave everything which you feel is ugly, disgusting, broken or painful. Leave everything that makes you uncomfortable when you look at it or use it. If necessary, add to these things by bringing more of them from the outside in. Make sure your home is as full as it once was and be certain everything is crummy and repulsive. Live in this space, among these things you cannot bear, for sixty days.

 

Empty the space completely. Leave nothing in it. Clean it thoroughly and wash the windows. Sleep on the floor, or on a clean thin mattress the exact dimensions of your own body. Live in this space for sixty days, during which your primary activity, when you are home, is to stare at the ceiling.

 

Bring the beautiful things back in, bring your beloved belongings, your most cherished possessions, back into the space and place them in their original positions. Make sure everything is as it was before. Live as you once did; if this is not possible, live twice.

 

 

The poem I chose is “Some Nondescript Autumn Weekend” by Mary Ruefle. I came across this poem about a year ago. Pre-quarantine, I just liked the poem and vaguely understood what it was saying about resilience and renewal and rebirth. Over the next year, I ended up sending it to dozens of friends going through different life transitions—breakups, job changes, moving cities, losing family members, just generally feeling lost. It always said what I didn’t have the words for—and that was before the pandemic. It’s all the more resonant now. I’m not sure what phase I’m in currently, but it’s nice to know where we are all headed:  living again, or even better, living twice.

 

I posted a few copies of the poem around Williamsburg, Brooklyn—on my neighborhood subway stop (for the incredible healthcare workers who are bravely heading to work each day and keeping NYC going) and in the park (for all the rest of us who are working through all the phases the poem describes, even though sometimes it feels they are playing out of order). It was fun to watch people watch me post it, wait for me to get far enough away, and then swarm to read. I hope it gave them a smile on this sunny Saturday.

 

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Today’s guest poster is the unlikeliest of elves, a man who does not move quietly in the world, a man not especially given to silliness although I have on occasion coerced him into performing a dance called the Shorty George with silly pointed fingers. This is not a person I ever imagined creeping around a burned-out bar in Rockville, Maryland to tape up a poem he loves, so shiver me timbers and color me surprised.

 

My brother Donny has always loved words, so it’s not a surprise that he loves A.E. Housman’s “Terence, This is Stupid Stuff.” The poem is from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad and it’s as fun to recite as any other poem in the collection. George Orwell wrote, “these were the poems which I and my contemporaries used to recite to ourselves, over and over, in a kind of ecstasy.” (Below I’ve included a video of some of the many men who’ve recorded themselves reciting this poem—might be easier to listen to than read.)

 

In spite of all the drinking in the poem, the message is sobering, and I suspect that the advice in the poem attracts Donny as much as the tuneful lines:

 

Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,

I’d face it as a wise man would,

And train for ill and not for good.

 

This round’s on Donny! Thank you!

Terence, this is stupid stuff

by A.E. Housman

 

“Terence, this is stupid stuff!

You eat your victuals fast enough;

There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,

To see the rate you drink your beer.

But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,

It gives a chap the belly-ache!

The cow, the old cow, she is dead;

It sleeps well, the horned head…

We poor lads, ’tis our turn now

To hear such tunes as killed the cow!

Pretty friendship ’tis to rhyme

Your friends to death before their time

Moping melancholy mad!

Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad!”

 

Why, if ’tis dancing you would be,

There’s brisker pipes than poetry.

Say, for what were hop-yards meant,

Or why was Burton built on Trent?

Oh many a peer of England brews

Livelier liquor than the Muse,

And malt does more than Milton can

To justify God’s ways to man.

Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink

For fellows whom it hurts to think:

Look into the pewter pot

To see the world as the world’s not.

And faith, ’tis pleasant till ’tis past:

The mischief is that ’twill not last.

Oh I have been to Ludlow fair

And left my necktie God knows where,

And carried half way home, or near,

Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:

Then the world seemed none so bad,

And I myself a sterling lad;

And down in lovely muck I’ve lain,

Happy till I woke again.

Then I saw the morning sky:

Heigho, the tale was all a lie;

The world, it was the old world yet,

I was I, my things were wet,

And nothing now remained to do

But begin the game anew.

 

Therefore, since the world has still

Much good, but much less good than ill,

And while the sun and moon endure

Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,

I’d face it as a wise man would,

And train for ill and not for good.

‘Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale

Is not so brisk a brew as ale:

Out of a stem that scored the hand

I wrung it in a weary land.

But take it: if the smack is sour,

The better for the embittered hour;

It should do good to heart and head

When your soul is in my soul’s stead;

And I will friend you, if I may,

In the dark and cloudy day.

 

There was a king reigned in the East:

There, when kings will sit to feast,

They get their fill before they think

With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.

He gathered all the springs to birth

From the many-venomed earth;

First a little, thence to more,

He sampled all her killing store;

And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,

Sate the king when healths went round.

They put arsenic in his meat

And stared aghast to watch him eat;

They poured strychnine in his cup

And shook to see him drink it up:

They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:

Them it was their poison hurt.

–I tell the tale that I heard told.

Mithridates, he died old.

 

 

 

Here is my entry. I posted it on the boarded-up door to Hank Dietles, the oldest bar in Montgomery County. There was a fire there about two years ago and it hasn’t reopened because they haven’t been able to make all the repairs.

 

I first read this poem in high school English at [Georgetown] Prep, just two blocks from Dietles. I always liked it because it presents a good life lesson in a very clever way. If the proprietors of Dietles had read this poem before the fire, they would surely be open by now. Also, the beer references in the poem fit with the Dietles experience.

 

Enjoy!

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[Please note: the man in the video is not my brother Donny.]

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Whenever I come across a Little Free Library, my sense of goodness in the world ticks up a few notches. If I should ever come across a Little Free Library with a poem tucked inside—a Mary Oliver poem that I’d never read before—jeez-o-flip, my goodness meter would shoot to eleven. (Spinal Tap fans will get the reference.)

 

Thanks to today’s guest Poem Elf, Megan McDonell of Carlsbad, California, for providing time/to linger/for just a little while in a moment of eleven. God knows we all need one!

 

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An Invitation

 

by Mary Oliver

 

Oh do you have time

to linger

for just a little while

out of your busy

 

and very important day

for the goldfinches

that have gathered

in a field of thistles

 

for a musical battle,

to see who can sing

the highest note,

or the lowest,

 

or the most expressive of mirth,

or the most tender?

Their strong, blunt beaks

drink the air

 

as they strive

melodiously

not for your sake

and not for mine

 

and not for the sake of winning

but for sheer delight and gratitude –

believe us, they say,

it is a serious thing

 

just to be alive

on this fresh morning

in the broken world.

I beg of you,

 

do not walk by

without pausing

to attend to this

rather ridiculous performance.

 

It could mean something.

It could mean everything.

It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:

You must change your life.

 

 

Hi there! I’m friends with Christine—she told me about your poem project, so I left mine in a little library box where I live in Carlsbad, CA. Here are the photos. I hope whoever finds it can read my terrible handwriting 🙂 What a fun idea!

—Megan

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Two seasons and at least one ocean separate today’s guest poster, Yen-Fang Heng of Australia, from my summery poem-elf perch in northern Michigan, and yet we might as well be sitting side-by-side for how much the poem she selected belongs to every moment of my day. I do love that little birdie she drew.

 

Yen also posted “Home” by Somali-poet Warsan Shire on a community bulletin board.  It’s a much-needed addition to the global conversation about “sheltering in place.” I’ve included an animated version of the poem.

 

Thank you, Yen, for your poem selections and thoughtful commentary.

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Spring (Again)

by Michael Ryan

 

The birds were louder this morning,

raucous, oblivious, tweeting their teensy bird-brains out.

It scared me, until I remembered it’s spring.

How do they know it? A stupid question.

Thank you, birdies.  I had forgotten how promise feels.

 

Here is the poem I chose because it is short and sweet and because I could illustrate it with one of my drawings!  I am afraid I do not know anything about Michael Ryan, I just came across his poem in one of the many poetry blogs, emails I subscribe to.  I googled his name and found out that he is 74 years old and taught creative writing and literature in the University of California, Irvine.  I love the words, how they are replete with the promise and the potential of spring and new beginnings.  And I love how I could accompany it with one of my sketches.  It is not spring where I am, but to me the words herald the spring ahead of us, when Covid-19 is contained, and the promises that that brings.

 

Like everyone else in the world, we are in isolation, although there has been slight easing of the lockdown in Australia.  I left this poem on the hedges in the park near where I live.  Hopefully it will survive the weather for long enough so that various people will come across it and read it and enjoy the promises of spring.

 

*

 

 

In these days of Covid-19, we are all being asked to stay home.  Juxtaposed against this backdrop are the draconian policies against refugees and asylum seekers being perpetrated by the Australian government (the country of which I am a citizen) and by numerous governments in countries that are relatively well-off.  For all those refugees, where is home?  This poem, Home, by Warsan Shire is gut-wrenching but is a timely reminder of why refugees flee:

 

‘no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear

saying-

leave,

run away from me now

I don’t know what I’ve become

but I know that anywhere

is safer than here’

 

Those of us who have homes to stay in, do we ever stop to think about what is it like not to have a home to go to?  Not to have a home to shelter in?

 

I wanted to post this on a community noticeboard near where I live.  I don’t really have an ‘inspired’ place to leave the poem, but I figured that at least on the noticeboard, it is sheltered (there’s that word again) and away from rain, and hopefully may last for a little while, so that as many people as possible will get to read these incredibly moving, incredibly realistic words.  Warsan is a Kenyan-born Somali poet, writer and educator based in London.  However, when I copied the poem onto a piece of paper, it was too long!  I realised then how much goes into the choice of a poem.

 

Home

by Warsan Shire

 

no one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark

you only run for the border

when you see the whole city running as well

 

your neighbors running faster than you

breath bloody in their throats

the boy you went to school with

who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory

is holding a gun bigger than his body

you only leave home

when home won’t let you stay.

 

no one leaves home unless home chases you

fire under feet

hot blood in your belly

it’s not something you ever thought of doing

until the blade burnt threats into

your neck

and even then you carried the anthem under

your breath

only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets

sobbing as each mouthful of paper

made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

 

you have to understand,

that no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land

no one burns their palms

under trains

beneath carriages

no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck

feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled

means something more than journey.

no one crawls under fences

no one wants to be beaten

pitied

 

no one chooses refugee camps

or strip searches where your

body is left aching

or prison,

because prison is safer

than a city of fire

and one prison guard

in the night

is better than a truckload

of men who look like your father

no one could take it

no one could stomach it

no one skin would be tough enough

 

the

go home blacks

refugees

dirty immigrants

asylum seekers

sucking our country dry

niggers with their hands out

they smell strange

savage messed up their country and now they want

to mess ours up

how do the words

the dirty looks

roll off your backs

maybe because the blow is softer

than a limb torn off

 

or the words are more tender

than fourteen men between

your legs

or the insults are easier

to swallow

than rubble

than bone

than your child’s body in pieces.

 

I want to go home,

but home is the mouth of a shark

home is the barrel of the gun

and no one would leave home

unless home chased you to the shore

unless home told you

to quicken your legs

leave your clothes behind

crawl through the desert

wade through the oceans

drown

save

be hungry

beg

forget pride

your survival is more important

 

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear

saying

leave,

run away from me now

I don’t know what I’ve become

but I know that anywhere

is safer than here

 

 

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Here’s a great suggestion for summer travel from today’s guest poster Cathey Capers of Austin Texas: memorize a poem as you drive. I don’t know Cathey but I have a whole movie in my head of her driving along the coast and reciting Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things,” sometimes getting the words right and sometimes having to start over until the poem is all hers, forever connected to that that time in her life, to that highway, to the views outside her window.

 

Thanks, Cathey!

 

 

The Peace of Wild Things

by Wendell Berry

 

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

 

From Cathey:

During National Poetry Month (April) I erected a poetry fence in my front yard where I and anyone can post poems. I decided to keep it up during the pandemic as its clear that people enjoy and perhaps need this relief.  Your invitation has brought me farther afield . . .

 

“The Peace of Wild Things” was the first poem I voluntarily learned by heart as an adult. I was traveling to the coast and brought it along in the car to relieve the depression I often feel driving past mile after mile of big box stores!  It has been such medicine through the years that I can take myself or offer others.

 

During these pandemic weeks, I’ve noted many community members, families, taking advantage of a hike and bike trail along Ladybird Lake (Named for Ladybird Johnson). This lake runs right through the heart of our town (Austin, Texas) from East to West and has portions of boardwalk above the water. There are also green lawns on both sides of the lake this time of year. It attracts such a diverse population that I thought it would be the perfect place to post the poem.  I hope to catch a heron feeding but alas, only missed one flying by.

 

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Short bio of Berry from a previous post:

 

Poet Wendell Berry (b. 1934) is an interesting fellow and prolific writer. Link here for more details. The short version:  he’s a poet, novelist, essayist, environmental activist but not wholly a traditional one, and full-time farmer. He was friends with fellow Kentuckian Thomas Merton, the famous monk who wrote Seven Story Mountain. 

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As Poem Elf jumps back to featuring the work of guest assistants, Lucille Clifton’s “blessing the boats” provides just the right transition. In uncertain times, in the midst of a movement that takes us we know not where, Clifton’s words inspire excitement and calm at once—

 

may the tide

that is entering even now

the lip of our understanding

carry you out

beyond the face of fear

 

My beautiful niece Christine of Washington, D.C. posted this one. The helm’s all yours, Christine!

 

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blessing the boats

 

(at St. Mary’s)

 

by Lucille Clifton

 

may the tide

that is entering even now

the lip of our understanding

carry you out

beyond the face of fear

may you kiss

the wind then turn from it

certain that it  will

love your back       may you

open your eyes to water

water waving forever

and may you in your innocence

sail through this to that

 

 

I chose “blessing the boats” by Lucille Clifton. I liked the reference to “that” . . . whatever life brings next. I taped it to a bench at the DC wharf. The pier said it was only open to wharf residents but I slipped by without notice.

 

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A biography of Clifton from a previous post:

Lucille Clifton was born in New York in 1936.  Her father was a steelworker who sexually abused her, and her mother was a laundress and gifted poet with little formal education. At age sixteen Clifton attended Howard University as a drama major.  She finished her studies in New York.

 

 

She had six children with her husband Fred, a professor at the University of Buffalo.  She was the poet laureate of my home state of Maryland where she eventually settled. She won the National Book Award and was the first African-American woman to win the prestigious Ruth Lilly Prize. She had a separate career as a writer of children’s books and the most unusual career for a famous poet I’ve ever heard of:  Jeopardy show champion.  She died in 2010 at age 73.

 

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