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Posts Tagged ‘Marie Ponsot’

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

From a previous post, a short bio of Ponsot:

Marie Ponsot was born in Queens, New York in 1921.  She graduated from a women’s college in Brooklyn and went on to earn her master’s degree in seventeenth century literature at Columbia University.  After World War II she went to Paris and married the French painter Claude Ponsot.  She had seven children with him, one daughter born in Paris and six sons when they moved back to the States.  She divorced and worked many years as a translator of French children’s books to support her large family.  In 1957 she published her first book of poetry through a connection with Beat poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  The book’s reception was overshadowed by another book published by Ferlinghetti, Allan Ginsberg’s Howl, and Ponsot seemingly disappeared from the world of poetry.

 

Although Ponsot would not publish for another twenty-four years, she continued to write, late at night after the children were in bed.  When she was in late middle age, she published her second book and began to garner attention and awards.  Unfortunately she still doesn’t seem to have the fame she deserves:  her biographical entry in Poetry Foundation’s website is woefully short, a mere paragraph.

 

Her life story reminds me of another Catholic poet, the marvelous Anne Porter.  Porter was also married to a painter, raised a large family and found recognition late in life.

 

As much attachment as I have to “Among Women,” I’ve discovered that Ponsot has been a part of my life even before I even read the poem.  I was delighted to read that she translated the Golden Book of Fairy Tales. It’s an indelible part of my childhood.  Many a night I spent with that book, reading in the bathroom because lights were supposed to be out.  Children, too, wander as best they can.

 

The book is still in print.  My children loved it.  Once in a while I’ll pull it out and wonder over the beautiful illustrations and strange stories.

 

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Marie Ponsot in her apartment, 2004 by dctrombleyCongratulations to poet Marie Ponsot, who was just announced as the 2013 winner of the prestigious Ruth Lilly Prize.  The prize, established by the heir to the Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, honors a living American poet for lifetime achievement.  At $100,000, the prize is about the heftiest a writer can receive. I’m delighted.  91-year old Ponsot is a national treasure, both as a poet and as a human being.

 

I’m also feeling a wee smug.  Just last week I posted a Marie Ponsot poem, and there I complained that the Poetry Foundation had given her short shrift in her biography, a mere paragraph.  Other, lesser poets to my mind, have much, much more space allotted on their Poetry Foundation page.  So today, along with the announcement of the prize, which it awards, the Poetry Foundation presented a more suitable biography for Ponsot.

 

You can read my post on Ponsot here.  I also left one of her poems on the beach last November.  You can see the picture of her poem “Oceans” here.

 

A Jesuit pope and now this.  It’s been a good week.

 

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poem is on the concrete ledge in foreground

poem is on the concrete ledge in foreground

 

Among Women

 

by Marie Ponsot

 

What women wander?

Not many. All. A few.

Most would, now & then,

& no wonder.

Some, and I’m one,

Wander sitting still.

My small grandmother

Bought from every peddler

Less for the ribbons and lace

Than for their scent

Of sleep where you will,

Walk out when you want, choose

Your bread and your company.

 

She warned me, “Have nothing to lose.”

 

She looked fragile but had

High blood, runner’s ankles,

Could endure, endure.

She loved her rooted garden, her

Grand children, her once

Wild once young man.

Women wander

As best they can.

 

 

 

IMG_0308

 

 

In the opening lines of “Among Women,” poet Marie Ponsot poses the question, What women wander?  and replies by letting her thoughts wander and changing her opinion. She settles on this answer, a dry assessment of women’s lives:

 

Most would, now & then

& no wonder.

 

There’s a lot of experience behind that simple no wonder. Makes me laugh.

 

What is wandering anyway?  Wandering is not settling in one place, not having a destination or perhaps not even a plan.  Wandering is a willful disregard of boundaries.  And wandering is difficult if you’re “rooted,” like the grandmother is to her garden and her family.

 

I’ve fallen in love with this poem. Apologies to Roberta Flack and to everyone who hates the song, but it’s killing me softly.  It speaks to a neglected piece of my soul, a wild little part tucked away under layers of obligations, routines and attachments.  I recognize myself, as a mother and a writer, in these lines:

 

Some, and I’m one,

Wander sitting still.

 

Devoted mothers aren’t supposed to fantasize about bolting, but how irresistible is Ponsot’s description of the gypsy life:

 

. . . their scent

Of sleep where you will,

Walk out when you want, choose

Your bread and your company.

 

The aphoristic last lines in the poem

 

Women wander

As best they can

 

pull together the experience of women across geographical lines and throughout history, from reclusive Emily Dickinson to globetrotting Gertrude Bell to Poem Elf as a young mother surrounded by piles of books and small children tugging on her sleeve asking for a snack which she promised to get as soon as she finished one more chapter.

 

That was long ago.  But that drive is still there, even as I age and settle more and more into habit.

 

I get tired of evolutionary biologists and their ideas of what women want or wanted.  It’s all nesting and bonding and attracting and keeping the male for the benefit of his resources and protection. Likewise, I’m depressed by the brand of feminism that insists monogamy has been forced on women by patriarchal systems and that those who prioritize traditional female values—relationships, motherhood, the domestic arts—are unwitting products of centuries of gender bias.

 

“Among Women” allows for both arguments.  Our wild wandering spirit is as much a part of us as our bonds to those we love and care for.

 

The grandmother in the poem lives out the push and pull of gypsy spirit and family life.  What a full portrait of her Ponsot has drawn in so few strokes.  With her runner’s ankles, the grandmother is a tiny goat of a woman, someone who might dart away at any moment. She’s lived through pain and difficulty—she endures, endures, Ponsot writes.  Not wanting her progeny to experience what she has, she warns her granddaughter, “Have nothing to lose.”

 

Spoken like an enlightened Budhhist, someone who believes that the origin of suffering is attachment.  The grandmother’s warning, bleak and hard though it may be, speaks also of a soul made for adventure.  The impression her warning made on the young poet is emphasized by its stark placement between the two stanzas.

 

I left the poem outside Trader Joe’s.  Trader Joe’s is a grocery store dressed up like a trading post.  There’s a world map as you walk in, and scattered through the store are hints of huts and a castaway island.  It suggests travel and adventure, the adventure being the purchase of unfamiliar foods.  Shopping at this modern-day peddler can be a small gesture of wandering, and for some, the most wandering they will do.

 

Marie Ponsot by joshuagmizrahiMarie Ponsot was born in Queens, New York in 1921.  She graduated from a women’s college in Brooklyn and went on to earn her master’s degree in seventeenth century literature at Columbia University.  After World War II she went to Paris and married the French painter Claude Ponsot.  She had seven children with him, one daughter born in Paris and six sons when they moved back to the States.  She divorced and worked many years as a translator of French children’s books to support her large family.  In 1957 she published her first book of poetry through a connection with Beat poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  The book’s reception was overshadowed by another book published by Ferlinghetti, Allan Ginsberg’s Howl, and Ponsot seemingly disappeared from the world of poetry.

 

Although Ponsot would not publish for another twenty-four years, she continued to write, late at night after the children were in bed.  When she was in late middle age, she published her second book and began to garner attention and awards.  Unfortunately she still doesn’t seem to have the fame she deserves:  her biographical entry in Poetry Foundation’s website is woefully short, a mere paragraph.

 

Her life story reminds me of another Catholic poet, the marvelous Anne Porter.  Porter was also married to a painter, raised a large family and found recognition late in life.

 

Illustration by Adrienne Segur by vidalia_11

illustration from Golden Book of Fairy Tales

As much attachment as I have to “Among Women,” I’ve discovered that Ponsot has been a part of my life even before I even read the poem.  I was delighted to read that she translated the Golden Book of Fairy Tales. It’s an indelible part of my childhood.  Many a night I spent with that book, reading in the bathroom because lights were supposed to be out.  Children, too, wander as best they can.

 

The book is still in print.  My children loved it.  Once in a while I’ll pull it out and wonder over the beautiful illustrations and strange stories.

 

 

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“Girls’ weekend” and “death” really shouldn’t keep company, but a few weekends ago they did, and all things considered, it was nice.  This November, for the first time in 23 years, my high school girlfriends gathered without our friend Christine, who died at the tail end of last year.  The remaining eight of us weren’t exactly moping around all weekend, but our ninth friend, our sweet bubbly friend, she of the clear blue eyes and husky laugh, was never far from our thoughts.

 

Another death followed me around over the girls’ weekend.  Again, it was kind of nice.  My friends and I stayed at my at my in-law’s home in Florida, a home my dear father-in-law, who died two years ago, loved to share with his family.  Certainly he’s still around the place.  I kept expecting to hear his booming welcome every time I opened the door.  I wore his hat all weekend and that was nice too.

I had anticipated feeling the absence of these two beloved folks, so along with my sandals I packed a few poems about death.  But I felt presence more than absence.  The poems, dark and anguished, express emotions heavier than what I felt.

 

I left the poems on a beach ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.  The storm carved out chunks of sand dunes, ripped out stairs, downed poles, and deposited loads of trash on a much-diminished beach.  With so much litter on the beach, a little literary litter seemed an act of beautification.

 

I left two poems by Jane Kenyon, one of my favorite poets.  She’s a reluctant expert on loss, having suffered debilitating depression and then living with and dying from leukemia in her forties.  Both poems concern losing a parent.

 

The first,”What Came to Me,” I threaded through some sea grass looped around one of the remaining beach stairs.

 

The drop of gravy is a heartbreaker.

 

The second Kenyon poem, “How Like the Sound,” I attached to a downed pole.

 

Here she is once-removed from grief.  With a poet’s eye and a wife’s warm heart, she observes her husband mourning his mother:  “Not since childhood/had you wept this way, head back, throat/ open like a hound”:

 

“Oceans” by Marie Ponsot I poked through a root exposed by the cratered sand dune.

 

“Taste like talk fades from a stiffening tongue” is horrifying.

 

Finally, in memory of Christine and Big Joe, I stuck H.D.’s “Never More the Wind” on a sea grape branch.

you can hardly see it, but the poem is blowing in the wind in the center-left of the picture.

 

Sometimes the simplest words speak of the most difficult truths:  “Like a light out of our heart/you are gone.”

 

 

 

 

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