Posts Tagged ‘literature’

poem is taped to sign post


Late Hours

by Lisel Mueller


On summer nights the world

moves within earshot

on the interstate with its swish

and growl, an occasional siren

that sends chills through us.

Sometimes, on clear, still nights,

voices float into our bedroom,

lunar and fragmented,

as if the sky had let them go

long before our birth.


In winter we close the windows

and read Chekhov,

nearly weeping for his world.


What luxury, to be so happy

that we can grieve

over imaginary lives.



My husband and I have an ongoing debate about TV in the bedroom—three guesses where I stand—and I’ve just found the perfect argument for keeping the bedroom a TV-free sanctuary. Thank you, Lisel Mueller. “Late Hours” paints such a picture of marital harmony and contentment I don’t know who could resist it.


The world outside the couples’ bedroom is alternately vaguely menacing (the highway, with its swish and growl sounds like a predator) and otherworldly magical (the floating voices lunar and fragmented). Magic and menace move close, within earshot, but never penetrate their safe haven. Even Chekhov’s sad stories are only encountered at the safe remove of fiction.


I will think of the last lines every time I finish a book I love:


What luxury, to be so happy

that we can grieve

over imaginary lives.




I taped the poem to a sign at the historic Red Fox Inn in Horton Bay, Michigan. The inn was one of Hemingway’s haunts when he lived in Horton Bay while writing the Nick Adams stories. The Inn, previously a boardinghouse for lumberjacks, was during Hemingway’s time a restaurant known for chicken dinners. Now it’s a charming spot to pick up Hemingway books and memorabilia.


As long as we’ve got Papa Hemingway here, let’s see what he has to say about Dr. Chekhov, a writer also famous for his short stories. In Hemingway’s sour opinion, “Chekhov wrote about 6 good stories. But he was an amateur writer.” This despite counting Chekhov as one of his influences. Humph. Jealousy’s not a good look on such a handsome fellow.




Lisel Mueller (1924-2020) was born in Germany. Her parents were both teachers. After her father spoke out against the rise of Nazism, he was interrogated by the Gestapo, and eventually fled the country. Mueller, her mother and her sister followed a few years later when she was 15. The family settled in the Midwest.


Mueller graduated from University of Evansville, married, had two daughters, worked as a social worker and as a book reviewer for the Chicago Daily News. She took up writing poetry in her late twenties after her mother died and was not published until she was 41.


She taught at University of Chicago, Elmhurst and Goddard colleges, won several prizes including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. She is the only German-born writer to ever win the Pulitzer.


Lisel Mueller died this past February at age 96.


Read Full Post »


poem is on mantle next to picture of Grace Hemingway

poem is on mantle next to picture of Grace Hemingway

In a Room With Five People, Six Griefs

by Jane Hirshfield


In a room with five people, six griefs.

Some you will hear of, some not.

Let the room hold them, their fears, their anger.

Let there be walls and windows, a ceiling.

A door through which time

changer of everything

can enter.




A poem elf couldn’t ask for a better invitation: a tour of Ernest Hemingway’s mother’s cottage on Walloon Lake in northern Michigan, and free reign to leave behind and photograph whatever poem I wanted.


As usual, I chose a poem from a small selection I always keep on hand, and also as usual, the choice bordered on random but landed in serendipitous.


More on that later, but first a short history of Grace Cottage. In 1905, the Hemingway family bought Longfield Farm, a 40-acre property across the lake from the more famous Hemingway Walloon property, Windemere (now a Registered National Historic Landmark). Grace Hall Hemingway, Hemingway’s mother, had built Windemere in 1899 with money from an inheritance.


As a teenager, Ernest Hemingway helped on Longfield Farm during summer vacations, working the orchards, fields, and ice house. He often camped in the surrounding woods, probably enjoying a break from his large family and his parents’ strict rules.


Grace, too, liked to get away from the family. In 1919, against the objections of her husband, Dr. Clarence Hemingway, she built Grace Cottage on the farm. I’m guessing Clarence’s objections had more to do with money (he would later commit suicide following financial and health problems) than with the fact that she would be spending her summers a boat-ride away from her six children. He knew she would not be neglecting her parental duties.


Because she didn’t have parental duties.


Okay, she read to the children and took care of their cultural education (no small contribution, considering the result), but Clarence made the children breakfast (and brought Grace breakfast in bed), grocery-shopped, managed the household staff, and taught the kids to hunt, fish and identify plants.


Carol Hemingway Gardner, the youngest of the Hemingway kids, explained her parents’ unusual arrangement this way:


The doctor was devoted to humane science and to the solving of practical problems. Both considered themselves professionals and each respected the other. They were way ahead of their time in this respect. My mother’s involvement in music and art was not a hobby. It was her full-time preoccupation and my father admired her work.


IMG_3028Grace was a trained opera singer who once sang at Madison Square Garden. (Strange fact: while studying voice in New York, she became friends with an aspiring illustrator, Maud Humphrey, who gave birth to a son—Humphrey Bogart—the same year that Grace gave birth to Ernest. The women remained friends, and years later Humphrey Bogart starred in To Have and Have Not, a film based on Hemingway’s book of the same name.) After Grace abandoned her stage career to marry Clarence, she continued to make a living through her music: she gave lessons, performed at local recitals, directed a church choir, and composed and published music. In her fifties she took up painting. She was good enough to have exhibited at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and to hold thirty solo shows. (You can see some of her paintings here.).


In another arrangement unusual for the time, Grace shared the cottage with a much younger woman, Ruth Arnold, her former music pupil and her children’s nanny. Together they built furniture for the new house and braided rugs. The cottage served as a studio where Grace could paint and compose without interruption. Like her son, who immortalized Walloon Lake in the Nick Adams stories, Grace found inspiration from her surroundings. You can hear her song, “Lovely Walloona,” here and here. (These videos of college kids singing such an old-timey song are the sweetest thing you’ll watch all day.)


IMG_3026I had always thought Grace Cottage was the place Hemingway spent his honeymoon with Hadley Richardson, the first of his four wives, but I was wrong. The only honeymoon time he and Hadley spent at Grace Cottage was when they pushed off from the cottage shoreline to row across the lake for two weeks at Windemere. But Grace Cottage does have a place in his honeymoon history. The year before he got married, Grace and Ernest had a blow-out fight known as “The Incident.” Grace saw her son as a disrespectful, drunken, womanizing loafer (she wanted him to go to college) and when she tracked him down at 3 a.m. one morning, she kicked him out of the house. So her offer of Windemere for Ernest’s honeymoon shows a softening towards him–especially since Clarence had to move in with her at Grace Cottage for those two weeks, the one and only time he would stay there.


Outside that rapprochement, Grace and Ernest had a harrowing relationship the rest of their lives. And outside of the Walloon summers, the Hemingway family had harrowing experiences over generations. Their penchant for tragedy rivals the Kennedys’. If poet Jane Hirshfield had written “In a Room With Five People, Six Griefs” specifically for the Hemingways, she might well have titled it, “In a Family of Five Generations, Six Suicides.” Here’s the sad list of their losses: Hemingway’s paternal grandfather, his father, two of his siblings, himself, and his granddaughter. His maternal grandfather attempted suicide but was foiled.


IMG_3023I was glad to leave Hirshfield’s poem on the mantle of Grace Cottage. It was a mark, it seemed to me, of the peace that’s settled over the cottage, and I hope over the present generation of Hemingways, some of who still live over at Windemere. The wood floors creaked, the upstairs rooms were airless and stifling, spiders had the run of the place, but still the cottage struck me as a delightful place, like a Goldilocks house, just the right size for the artistic endeavors and dreams it once housed. If time, changer of everything, had entered through the cottage door, grief had walked out long ago. Not to get too poetic about it.


Now on to the poem itself.


The set-up of Hirshfield’s poem—In a room with five people, six griefs—puts me in mind of stage directions. Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” maybe, or an experimental play with characters who are numbered instead of named and who carry big boxes labeled “Grief.”


Some have more boxes than others. (The poem’s second line—Some you will know of, some not—would be a good antidote when we feel disgust towards other people’s foibles and faults.) The uneven distribution of griefs creates a tension in the room where the poet, the creator, has placed her five characters. But even as the poet boxes her characters in and loads them with trouble, she configures a door, an opening for change, for an easing of fears, anger, and grief. The tension in the poem and in the room is drained by the simple sentences, the clarity of language, and the patient, careful whittling down of lines to the final phrase, can enter.


The poem has an appealing spirit, a calming wisdom. There’s an acceptance of pain, an understanding that all things pass, and a pleasure in the act of creating. Not for nothing does Hirshfield use the language of Genesis: Let there be a door. And there was a door.


I came across something Grace Hemingway wrote that I connect to that idea of the act of creating as a balm to sorrow. She wrote, “The haunting specter of fear must be gagged, tied and thrown out of our lives in order that we may climb the steps of creative work and accomplish what our souls yearn for.  The only thing in life that gives real happiness is creative work because that is partnership with the Great Creator.”


God knows she had her griefs, or caused them. But she had her joys as well, and that is what I found on my visit to her cottage.


You can read about poet Jane Hirshfield here, from a previous post.


Read Full Post »

poem is on interior glass wall of bus stop

poem is on interior glass wall of bus stop

Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind

by William Shakespeare


Blow, blow, thou winter wind,

Thou art not so unkind

As man’s ingratitude;

Thy tooth is not so keen,

Because thou art not seen,

Although thy breath be rude.

Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:

Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:

Then, heigh-ho, the holly!

This life is most jolly.


Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,

That dost not bite so nigh

As benefits forgot:

Though thou the waters warp,

Thy sting is not so sharp

As friend remembered not.

Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly…



I was going to start this post with “Polar vortex, meet Mr. Shakespeare.”  But after looking over my pictures, I’m going with, “Polar vortex, meet Bridget.”


Bridget is the woman who was waiting for the bus when I put Shakespeare’s poem “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind” in the bus shelter.


I entered the bus shelter a little embarrassed. (My typical reaction to poem-elfing.)  “Excuse me,” I told the woman standing inside, as if I had barged into a private residence. “I leave poems around town, and I just want to take a picture of this one.”


I asked her how she was bearing up in the cold, and she said, “It’s fine!  I’m just waiting and singing,” she said.


Now, don’t be deceived by the sunshine in the picture. This was a bitterly cold day. The sub-zero temperatures had closed schools, kept plumbers busy and most people indoors.   The inside of the bus shelter was protected from the wind, but it was still no summer picnic. And there was Bridget singing. Singing!


She told me she was singing church songs. “Hallelujah, My God,” I think she said.


I felt a little ridiculous, my poem-elfing a fool’s errand.  Anyone singing praise to God on the coldest day of the year didn’t need Shakespeare to tell her winter’s not so bad.


Shakespeare’s poem is actually meant to be sung too, but it’s not exactly a tune for Maria von Trapp to brave her way through a thunderstorm.  It’s dark and cynical, better suited to Liz Lemon than Maria. The song is from Shakespeare’s comedy “As You Like It.” A character named Lord Amiens sings “Blow, Blow” to a duke who’s been living in the woods because he’s been usurped by his younger brother.  Also listening to the song is a starving young man named Orlando who’s been betrayed and driven out of his kingdom by his older brother.   Both the duke and Orlando have found friendship and love to be “feigning“ and “folly.” And yet before and after this bitter little poem is sung, the two men conduct themselves with great kindness. Orlando will not eat until his elderly companion Adam eats.  The duke feeds the starving men and ends the scene with this gentleness:  “Give me your hand/And let me all your fortunes understand.”


So it’s all of a piece.  The sting of bad weather hurts less than the sting of a bad friend; the sting of a bad friend is offset by the kindness of good ones.


And this is Michigan, so if you don’t like the weather, as the old joke goes, wait a few minutes.


Or take a cue from Bridget and sing your way through it.  (If you need a little help in that department, here’s a version of “Blow, Blow,” the least stuffy one I could find.)

Read Full Post »

I’m still a schoolgirl when it comes to summer’s end.  I dread the fall.  Pumpkins and football games make me anxious. Give me hot, humid weather, a little body odor, and a good book every time.


Speaking of good books, there’s still a few weeks to enjoy summer reading.  On a friend’s recommendation, I’ve been reading everything by Barbara Trapido that I can find. (Temples of Delight is my favorite so far.)  I can’t resist British humor and eccentric characters.  Also been reading Elizabeth Bowen, another British writer.  She’s as somber as Trapido is delightful, but oh, those sentences!  I don’t cry reading too many books, but  The House in Paris left me stunned and weepy.


On a lighter note, my summer song this year is “Pata Pata,” by Miriam Makeba.  Link here for the best audio version, but be sure to watch this video of Makeba singing the song.  Great set, great costumes, and Makeba’s stage presence is enchanting. I’m a Johnny-come-lately to “Pata Pata”–it was released in 1957–but it sounds current to me and I can’t stop dancing to it.  Makeba, an anti-apartheid activist, breast cancer survivor (at age 18), wife of Stokey Carmichael, and international star, is long due for a bio-pic.


So what have you been reading this summer?  And what’s your summer song?


Read Full Post »

Poem is taped to sign in foreground


Could Have

by Wislawa Szymborska


It could have happened.

It had to happen.

It happened earlier. Later.

Nearer. Farther off.

It happened, but not to you.

You were saved because you were the first.

You were saved because you were the last.

Alone. With others.

On the right. The left.

Because it was raining. Because of the shade.

Because the day was sunny.


You were in luck — there was a forest.

You were in luck — there were no trees.

You were in luck — a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,

A jamb, a turn, a quarter-inch, an instant . . .


So you’re here? Still dizzy from

another dodge, close shave, reprieve?

One hole in the net and you slipped through?

I couldn’t be more shocked or



how your heart pounds inside me.



The linking verb “could have” is the rear view mirror of the predicate world.  Ordinarily it signals regret and works as antacid, a crutch, a wound-licker for all who didn’t finish first, who had bad luck, bad timing or bad judgment, for the Mama Roses and Anthony Weiners, the Wally Pipps and the Zola Budds, the understudy to the star who never twisted her ankle, the quarterback who did, the dreamer with a one-way ticket to Palookaville muttering down on the waterfront about being a contender.


But in Wislawa Szymborska’s “Could Have,” could have expresses the opposite of regret.  Ostensibly the poem expresses relief that the bad thing that could have happened didn’t.


The poem begins with a breathless response to some disaster, as if the speaker is processing as we listen.  The speaker uses every trick of punctuation and rhetoric to make sense of senseless tragedy:  dashes, ellipsis, sentence fragments, questions, parallel structure.  She creates a list of the situations and artifacts that separate survivor from victim.  But as the list develops, contradicting itself and throwing out smaller and smaller reasons for survival until it ends with a quarter-inch and an instant, relief becomes terror.  There are no foolproof rules to follow that will detour disaster.  Shade/sunny, left/right, forest/no trees—no place and no circumstance are fully protected, and no person is either.


Recently my sister was talking to a man about her worries that her son going to college would be safe.  Years before this same man had lost his college-age son in a house fire.  His counsel to my sister was not reassuring.  “Listen,” he said to her, “it’s all luck.”  Fate is fickle and those who pray and those who don’t, those who wear helmets to roller skate and those who throw footballs on ski hills, those who run marathons and those who sit on couches, all are vulnerable to disaster.


Finally the speaker gives up on the list and addresses the survivor with a series of playful questions.  You think it couldn’t happen to you?  she seems to say.  Because it could have.


After such a conclusion, why doesn’t the poem end in despair?  The turn in the last lines is deft and almost miraculous.  Instead of saying, listen, it’s all luck, the speaker says:


how your heart pounds inside me.


In the end there’s no safety, only connection.  I love the image that embodies that connection.  It’s one of the most beautiful last lines I’ve read.  One more time, maestro:


how your heart pounds inside me.

accident @ Vogel's Collision by ed's point of view


I have my own list of could have’s in regard to “Could Have.”  Where else could I have left the poem?  Driving around, looking for an appropriate spot, I started with the idea of a body shop.  I didn’t think that would be too unkind, given that a person with a car that can still be repaired was probably not killed in the damage.  But then I drove by an insurance agency and decided that the door to the agency would be less in-your-face.  A poem about risk assessment for a company that does the same.  Perfect.  But I didn’t slow down in time and soon I was headed for a country club.  Country clubs are protected spaces that offer security from trespassers and other agents of harm including denim and poverty.  I got as far as the sign that pointed guests in one direction and deliveries in the other before I turned around, unable to decide which one I was and sure that I was being watched.


I settled on this fortress of a house under construction.  The difference in the lighting between the two pictures happened because I posted the poem at night (I should re-name myself Poem Chicken), but didn’t get a clear picture of the whole deal, so I had to go back during daylight hours.  The poem was still there, but only for that morning.


Everytime I’ve driven past this house I think, Who builds something like that?  What is the motivation besides displaying wealth?  My answer is the same as my assessment of country clubs:  people who build castles want to keep things out.   Great wealth allows people to separate themselves from tedious chores and hassles, and allows the illusion that harm and pain can be distanced as well.


No one needs this poem to puncture holes in that idea—the deaths of Princess Diana and Brooke Astor are common knowledge—but I left the poem here as more than a finger-wagging at the rich.  “Could Have” connects the construction workers in their hardhats to the builders in their offices to the future owners to the drivers who gawk at the excess.  It could happen to any of us and so It happens to all of us.

1 Febbraio 2012 by Rissey


Wislawa Szymborska was born in 1923 in Poland and just died this past February at age 88.   Early in her career she was a communist intellectual but later grew disillusioned and became active in the Solidarity movement.  She had a modest career as a reviewer at a literary magazine and a poet popular in Poland but unknown elsewhere until she was the surprise winner of the Nobel Prize in 1996.


Like fellow Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who was her friend and mentor, Szymborska lived through Poland’s dark days of Nazi occupation and Communism. I’m always amazed that anyone experiencing such hardship doesn’t write exclusively of darkness and despair.  But a playful spirit was her trademark.  In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, she had this to say about humor and sadness in her poems:


The two things are easily reconciled. You cannot have just one feeling toward the world. Going through this adventure, which I call life, sometimes you think about it with despair, and sometimes with a sense of enchantment. Sometimes the motivation for poetry is being awed by things. As a child I was never surprised by anything; now I am surprised about everything. Every little thing I look at, a leaf or a flower, I say, “Why this? What is this?”


There is also another motivation: Curiosity. I am curious about people, their feelings, what they live through, their fate, what this life means. So this wonderment, curiosity and sadness, all of that comes together for me.


Read Full Post »

The other night I made a discovery at the library.  It was the most excited I’d been at the library since I got a $25 fine waived by a sympathetic clerk who had no knowledge of my shameful history of overdue books.

My heart was pumping happily along as the discovery unfolded before me, until I realized that my discovery had absolutely no significance.  It explained nothing, it made no connections worth pondering, it advanced human knowledge nary a hair’s breadth.  It was in fact mere coincidence.

What I “discovered” was along the lines of the intriguing similarities between Lincoln and Kennedy that used to get passed around among middle-schoolers.  (This list was surely propagated by someone who wanted to lend Kennedy the air of Lincoln’s presidential greatness by making comparisons such as this one: Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater; Kennedy was shot in a Lincoln, made by Ford.)

I was leafing through Harold Bloom’s new anthology of last poems (Till I End My Song).  I skipped over most of the poems because they were a little depressing and harder to read than I had energy for, spending time instead with Bloom’s brief biography of each poet. When I got to English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, I had a eureka! moment (which as I’ve said, ended up being a ur-a-quack-er moment).  Coleridge had much in common with a writer who was born almost exactly 100 years later, Stephen Crane, who I had just poem-elfed.

Both men were both plagued by lifelong money and health problems, but that was not unusual for writers in their time.  What rises to the level of coincidence is this:

  • Both men were the 14th sons of clergymen.
  • Both were eight when their fathers died.
  • Both were precocious and incessant readers as children, and became brilliant young men who left college before graduating.

Drum roll for my favorite coincidence:

  • They share the same initials!

File under Useless Information and enjoy your weekend.

Read Full Post »