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Posts Tagged ‘marriage’

poem is leaning against veil on bench

 

Song of the Heart

by Cavafy

 

With you, I think, all that is pleasant smiles on me,

in the mirror of your eyes there is reflected joy.

Stay, my light, and still I have not told you even half

of all that presses down upon my heart so amorous,

that rushes to my lips with just a single look from you.

If you wish it, do not speak to me, or say enchanting

words of love and adoration. ‘Tis enough that you’re nearby,

that I tell you that I want you, that I’m near you, that the morning

dew that you breathe in, I breathe in, too; and if you find

that these too are excessive, ‘tis enough I merely see you!

 

 

A few hours before the bride donned this stunning dress, I snuck into her room with “Song of the Heart.” Then I worried. First that somehow the ink from my green Poem Elf stamp would stain the veil, and second that the bride might view the gesture as creepy, her prurient aunt trying to stoke the marital fires with a poem equal parts smoldering and romantic. I was like those old ladies at bridal showers of yore, holding up peignoir sets and lacy teddies, exclaiming to all with a laugh and a knowing wink, “Oh, won’t he enjoy these!” Forgive us old aunties. We love young love.

 

Anyway I needn’t have worried. The bride loved the poem and thought it “a perfect match” for her own perfect match. Indeed it was, even though she and her husband are private people not given to public displays, a couple whose emotions are less likely to be announced than unmasked by flushing cheeks and small grins.

 

But they couldn’t hold back on their wedding day, the glow, the big smiles, the “reflected joy” in the mirror of their eyes, the affectionate touching whenever the other was near. This overflowing of love from a couple who have known each other since their teenage years was a living, breathing exhibition of Cavafy’s words.

 

What I love about this love poem is that side-by-side with the passion—all that breathing and feelings pressing down and words rushing to the lips—is a courtliness. The lover is sweetly considerate of the beloved. The speaker says he’ll speak if you wish it, and if you find these too are excessive, he’ll back off. So polite for a passionate outpouring. This is no gather ye rosebuds while ye may seduction. This lover says, it’s enough to just breathe the same air as you.

 

I can only imagine how beautiful this poem is in the original Greek.

 

There’s a postscript to “Cavafy at the wedding.” After the reception, those die-hard celebrators among us carried on at a bar, and there I met a young man on his way to Ireland to get his masters in literature. We talked about his very particular literary taste—Shelly but not Eliot, a little Yeats but not all—and I showed him the picture on my phone of the Cavafy poem. He knew Cavafy and had read the poem before. I was impressed. No doubt the pretty young woman next to him was impressed as well. He expanded the screen to highlight a particular line. “Right there,” he said, pointing. “That’s it.” I wish I could remember which line it was that was it.

 

But which line doesn’t matter. What matters is the reach, over a hundred years later and thousands and thousands of miles away, of one poet’s words on strangers in a bar late one night, on lovers on their honeymoon, on who knows who else who reads this poem right here and now and remembers a beloved, and feels the beam of passion, the glow of love, who matches Cavafy’s song of the heart with his own.

 

Us old aunties. We’re hopeless romantics.

 

I’ve written about Cavafy before and will re-print his biography here. (Link here for the full post with another great Cavafy poem.)

 

Constantine Petrou Cavafy is Greece’s most highly esteemed modern poet even though he lived only briefly in Greece. He was born in 1863 in Egypt to Greek parents, the youngest of nine children.  After the death of his father, the family fell into poverty and moved to England. There he spent most of his childhood. More financial distress pulled the family to Greece, then back to Egypt, where Cavafy worked as a journalist and as a stockbroker. But the bulk of his professional life was spent at a government agency.

 

Cavafy was never famous in his lifetime and didn’t seem interested in pursuing recognition. He printed his poems in pamphlets which he distributed to his friends. His lack of interest in publication may have been because some of his poems dealt frankly with his homosexuality and erotic themes. He died at age seventy in 1933.

 

 

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poem is on red book

 

Alzheimer’s: The Wife

by C.K. Williams

 

She answers the bothersome telephone, takes the message, forgets the message, forgets who called.

One of their daughters, her husband guesses: the one with the dogs, the babies, the boy Jed?

Yes, perhaps, but how tell which, how tell anything when all the name tags have been lost or switched,

when all the lonely flowers of sense and memory bloom and die now in adjacent bites of time?

Sometimes her own face will suddenly appear with terrifying inappropriateness before her in a mirror.

She knows that if she’s patient, its gaze will break, demurely, decorously, like a well-taught child’s,

it will turn from her as though it were embarrassed by the secrets of this awful hide-and-seek.

If she forgets, though, and glances back again, it will still be in there, furtively watching, crying.

 

 

Donald Rumsfeld of all people came to mind when I read this poem. Specifically his philosophical parsing of perception back in the days of WMD:

 

“. . . as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

 

In Rumsfeld’s calculus, the “unknown unknowns” are the most difficult realities. This makes sense, on a geo-political level. But not so in C.K. Williams’ “Alzheimer’s: The Wife.” Not knowing what isn’t known would be an absolute relief to the woman in the poem. It’s the known unknowns that make her suffer so. Her awareness of her situation, waxing and waning, is unbearable to me. Her consciousness is split between the mind that mixes up the name tags and the “it” who gazes at her in the mirror and sometimes cries like a frightened child.

 

Williams wrote an accompanying poem, “Alzheimer’s: The Husband,” which explores the caregiver’s emotional state.

 

I left the poem at Costco on a book promising to reverse memory loss. May we all live so long.

 

Charles Kenneth Williams (1936-2015) was born in Newark, New Jersey. His father was a salesman. Williams started his college education at Bucknell to play basketball, but transferred and graduated from University of Pennsylvania with a degree in philosophy and English.

 

Before writing and teaching full-time he worked as a group therapist for teens.

 

He published 13 books of poetry, several translations, and a memoir, and won most of the major poetry awards including the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Because of his characteristic long lines, at least one of his books had to be published in a special “wide page format.” He was well known for his political poems (Vietnam War, climate change) as well as very personal ones.

 

From 1996 until his death, he taught creative writing at Princeton.

 

He was married twice and had two children, one from each marriage. His son Jed is a celebrated artist whose work I really like even though abstract art is not usually something I’m drawn to. Link here.

 

Williams died of multiple myeloma at age 78.

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Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 11.27.28 AMI’m thinking about Miss Emily Litella today. For those too young to remember the Saturday Night Live character created by Gilda Radner, Emily Litella was a commentator on Weekend Update back when Jane Curtain anchored. Miss Litella was a daffy little lady with a high voice and a hearing impairment. She was invited on the show to respond to issues of the day, but she always misheard what the issue was. To her ears, “presidential elections” was “presidential erections,” and “endangered species” was, well I’m sure you can guess. It’s certainly not endangered.

 

Miss Litella would get more and more upset in her commentary until eventually Jane Curtain would cut her off with a correction—it’s “make Puerto Rico a state,” not “make Puerto Rico a steak, “Miss Litella. And then Gilda Radner would look at the camera and say sweetly, Never mind.

 

And so, regarding my last post, in which I got into a lather about Lawrence Raab’s poem “Marriage, “ I say this:

 

Never mind.

 

I got it all wrong. And I have it on good authority, from Lawrence Raab himself.

 

I had posited that the man in the poem was deflated by his wife’s revelation about their early courtship. I compared his reaction to Gabriel Conroy’s come-down at the end of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” I went on about how real marriage begins when you let go of the image you’ve created of a person who doesn’t exist and accept the one who does.

 

Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

 

Mr. Raab responded when I sent him the link to my post. (I always send poets a link if he or she is still alive. At least half the time I get a response.)

 

He wrote, I’m glad you like the poem, although I have never thought that he would be deflated by her story; it’s too good a story, and her reason for not initially answering relates directly to him. 

 

In a subsequent email he told me that he’s heard the poem is often used at weddings.

 

I’m sure there’s a reason I interpreted the poem as I did, but I don’t want to know it. I tend to be cynical and let’s leave it at that.

 

So here’s my question: if you hadn’t read my post, how would you have read the poem?

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poem is under left-hand concrete urn

poem is under left-hand concrete urn

 

Marriage

By Lawrence Raab

 

Years later they find themselves talking

about chances, moments when their lives

might have swerved off

for the smallest reason.

What if

I hadn’t phoned, he says, that morning?

What if you’d been out,

as you were when I tried three times

the night before?

Then she tells him a secret.

She’d been there all evening, and she knew

he was the one calling, which was why

she hadn’t answered.

Because she felt—

because she was certain—her life would change

if she picked up the phone, said hello,

said, I was just thinking

of you.

I was afraid,

she tells him. And in the morning

I also knew it was you, but I just

answered the phone

the way anyone

answers a phone when it starts to ring,

not thinking you have a choice.

 

 

(I’m having trouble formatting this poem in WordPress, and formatting is so important here. Apologies. Please see the proper formatting in the photograph below.)

IMG_2219

 

Here’s a poem possible only once upon a time when everyone had a landline and the one way to know for sure who was calling was to answer the phone.

 

If the couple in this poem had courted more recently, he would have called her cellphone, then texted, emailed and left a voicemail. There would be no we-almost-lost-each-other-forever. Either he would have tracked her down or he would have known she was ignoring his calls.

 

But even with the outdated technology of the poem, his version is overly-romanticized. We don’t know the whole story, of course, but surely he would have kept trying to reach her after she didn’t answer. Surely there would have been another opportunity to connect before their lives/might have swerved off/for the smallest reason.

 

Years later, happy years it would seem, she demolishes his version of their love story. It turns out that the single moment when their lives might swerve off course is not the missed phone calls so many years ago, but the telling of her secret this late in their relationship. It wasn’t kismet, she tells him, it was a choice, at first a conscious one formed in fear, and then an unconscious one formed out of habit.

 

You can just see the poor fellow’s face fall. It’s not devastating news—nowhere close to I’m in love with your brother and I’ll let the IRS agent in on my way out–but it’s deflating. He doesn’t know her as well as he thought. His treasured romantic-comedy relationship is going to have to be re-cast.

 

It reminds me of the last beautiful scene in James’ Joyce’s The Dead. Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta are in their hotel room after his aunts’ annual holiday party. Just before they had left the party he had watched her listening at the top of the stairs to a song played in a distant room. He couldn’t decipher her strange expression but it excited him, made him look forward to a night of intimacy. As he takes her in his arms in the hotel, he asks what she’s thinking about. The song, she says, “The Lass of Aughrim.” Then she throws herself on the bed, sobbing. Blue balls to follow.

 

She tells him what he’d not known before. When she was a young girl, a sickly boy named Michael Furey had fallen in love with her and used to sing “The Lass of Aughrim” to her. The night before she was leaving for school, he came outside her window in the rain and told her he did not want to live if she left. He died a week later.

 

After this revelation she falls asleep, and Gabriel is left alone, humiliated, angry, then by turns tender and wistful. Just before the story ends with the immortal lines about the snow falling faintly and faintly falling upon all the living and the dead, there’s this:

 

He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love

 

That’s marriage, right there, that bittersweet understanding. Maybe I’m putting a more hopeful spin on Joyce’s story than it merits, but understanding that your spouse is not you, and that your spouse is not the person you thought they were early in your romance, can be the beginning of real love and a real union.

 

Years ago when my husband and I were moving to Michigan and arguing about every house we looked at, our 80-year old realtor, now long dead but at the time long-married, told us that married people are like two trees. She used her forearms to show us the trees side by side. Separate trees, Millie said, but always growing beside each other. She was so right, that Millie. Any happily married person will tell you it takes years of marriage for the old idea of who you married to make room for the actual person who shares your bed and sometimes farts in it.

 

The title of Raab’s poem covers not just this little vignette of a married couple’s life, but what happens after the poem ends. Yes, marriage can be the bliss of shared memories, but it’s also the negotiation of differing memories. Romance is a construct; marriage is what happens after deconstruction. Or doesn’t. We don’t know where this marriage is headed.

 

I love how the structure works with the content of “Marriage.” The poem begins with the stanzas going back and forth between the speakers, like dialogue in a story. But after the first exchange, the poem is all hers, the conversation taken over by her secret. As his dream deflates, so do the stanzas, shrinking from four lines to three to a mere two at the end.

 

I left the poem outside a hoity-toity bridal salon, the kind of store that you don’t step inside unless you’re convinced it’s a good idea to spend half a year’s rent on a dress you wear for a few hours. I didn’t leave it there just to be snarky. The poem sheds light on the reality of marriage, and that’s a better place than fantasy weddings for any bride to begin preparations.

 

Screenshot 2014-12-04 12.08.34Lawrence Raab was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1946. He went to Middlebury College and earned his masters from Syracuse. He’s taught at University of Michigan, American University, and these days at Williams College. He’s one numerous awards and grants and has published seven collections of poetry. This poem, “Marriage,” comes from his 1993 collection What We Don’t Know About Each Other.

 

Raab has also written screenplays and adapted Aristophanes’ The Birds for theater.

 

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Image 1

Love Poem With Toast

by Miller Williams

Some of what we do, we do

to make things happen,

the alarm to wake us up, the coffee to perc,

the car to start.

The rest of what we do, we do

trying to keep something from doing something,

the skin from aging, the hoe from rusting,

the truth from getting out.

With yes and no like the poles of a battery

powering our passage through the days,

we move, as we call it, forward,

wanting to be wanted,

wanting not to lose the rain forest,

wanting the water to boil,

wanting not to have cancer,

wanting to be home by dark,

wanting not to run out of gas,

as each of us wants the other

watching at the end,

as both want not to leave the other alone,

as wanting to love beyond this meat and bone,

we gaze across breakfast and pretend.

 

Image

 

And one more by Williams:

poem is on revolving door, right-hand side

poem is on revolving door, right-hand side

 

Something That Meant to Be a Sonnet for an Anniversary Evening

by Miller Williams

 

I walk around them in silence, those who say

that making ourselves ready for judgment day

is the one reason we’re here, and those who insist

that we’re no ore than water with a twist.

Sometimes they take my arm. I tell them, “Okay,

that makes sense to me,” and move away.

Clearly there’s something somewhere that I’ve missed.

Somehow we probably do and don’t exist,

but all these finer subtleties fell to the floor

the night you opened the window and closed the door

and smiled in a frozen curve that burned to be kissed.

 

Image 2

 

 

Image 1If in a parallel and cuckoo universe there were a Poem Elf Academy and I were a trainee, I would have failed my latest mission.  The target was my husband, the objective to wish him a happy 26th anniversary.  I left “Love Poem With Toast” on the revolving door of his office building but found out later he always exits through the back.  Then, because we swim together Thursday nights, which was the night of our anniversary, I hid “Something That Was Meant to Be a Sonnet” in his bathing cap but I couldn’t get my hands on his daggone cap until after we swam.  He didn’t see either poem until this moment, as he reads this post.  Hello, my dear, I’ll try to not say anything more personal than the fact that you swim on Thursday nights.

 

ImageMy father, who married the most wonderful and fertile woman in all of Denver, liked to give his eleven children advice on choosing a mate.  “Choose a woman with child-bearing hips,” he told my brothers.  Dubious advice, given that the width of a woman’s hips are no guarantee of fertility or ease of delivery, and my mother has always been slender.  Much better advice was his admonition to marry someone with a good heart.  Thirty-three years ago, if you had asked me why I was dating my husband, “red hair” would have ranked much higher than “kind heart,” and yet here I am today, grateful that in this instance at least I listened to my dad.

 

Poet Miller Williams seems like a kind-hearted man, too.  His voice is so easygoing and genial, you hardly think you’re reading a poem. You could be listening to someone telling a good story or mulling over life questions. Rhyme slips in, a pleasant surprise, not calling attention to itself. I always appreciate poems that are (the dreaded word) “accessible,” and Miller doesn’t run away from that. In a recent interview in Oxford American, Williams mentioned a reviewer’s assessment of his work that pleased him: “Miller Williams is the Hank Williams of American poetry because, though his poems are discussed in classrooms at Princeton and Harvard, they’re read, understood, and appreciated by squirrel hunters and taxi drivers.”

 

The first poem, “Love Poem With Toast,” meanders around, musing over ideas about wanting and not wanting. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with love or toast, until the end (pardon the pun) when we see the couple’s dilemma:  who should die first, and who is best left alone when the other goes. My husband and I often have this conversation in jest—a lot of couples do–but what’s underneath is the soulful and profound desire Miller states so simply:  wanting to love beyond this meat and bone.

 

The second poem, “Something That Meant to Be a Sonnet,” gives me more reason to like Williams. I like how he reacts to people with strong opinions.  “Okay, that makes sense to me,” he says kindly, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, knowing that people with agendas will not be convinced to change their minds.  I wish I could do that instead of boiling inside with the urge to pontificate, or worse, actually pontificating.  What holds him back besides his good nature is love.  Once the image of his beloved wife comes to mind, nothing else matters, least of all writing three more lines to complete his sonnet.

 

Miller Williams was born in Hoxie, Arkansas in 1930.  His father was a Methodist minister, and the family often moved around small towns in Arkansas.  Although he loved poetry and enrolled in college to study it, he was told he had shown no verbal aptitude in his entrance exam and was urged to study science.  He got his bachelor’s degree in biology and his masters in zoology.  Later he taught biology at a small college in Georgia, where he met and befriended Flannery O’Connor who lived nearby.  There’s a great story about how O’Connor wrote to the English department at Louisiana State University and told them that the poet they wanted to hire at present was teaching biology at Wesleyan College. Williams sent them some of his work and got the job. He taught at various universities in his long career, eventually coming back to teach at the University of Arkansas.

 

Williams is father to the great singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, and was mentor to her ex-boyfriend and poet Frank Stanford.  Williams gave the inaugural poem at fellow-Arkansian Bill Clinton’s 1997 inauguration, which you can watch here.

 

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I was just at the post office mailing my Valentine’s Day cards, and there I met the friendliest woman on the planet.  In five minutes’ conversation we covered the Pope’s resignation, all the Charlie Brown characters we could remember, her favorite candies, recent films we’ve seen, and who she’s sending Valentine cards to.  After a while I asked her,  “Are you always so friendly?”  “Yes,” she said, “I have to be.  Every day is a gift, that’s how I look at it.”  She told me her husband died two years ago.  “And look at me,” she said, “I’m pretty young for that.”

 

She’s on my mind, that bubbly stranger.  I don’t know her name but I dedicate this Valentine’s Day post to her.  She lost the love of her life but she hasn’t lost love.

 

So here’s my annual Valentine’s Day poem-spending spree:

 

Costco had a jewelry booth for Valentine’s Day and that seemed like a good place to leave Ogden Nash’s “A Word to Husbands.”

poem is on display table above the apostrophe

poem is on display table above the apostrophe

 

Whenever you’re right, shut up” is excellent advice for any lover, not just husbands.

IMG_0192

 

Pottery Barn was selling a few Valentine’s Day gifts by the register.  When the salesperson’s back was turned, I folded up “24th September 1945” by Nazim Hikmet and stuffed it in the silver heart box.

IMG_0197

 

Hikmet was a Turkish poet and wrote the poem in prison.  In spite of the date in the title, the poem is timeless, and a good one for lovers who hope that the happiest days are still ahead.  

before I folded it up

before I folded it up

 

On a little path that runs by a creek, a woman I’ve never seen leaves quirky arrangements of twigs, flowers, rocks, pinecones, leaves and whatever else is nearby.  She does her work in secret and so do I.  As a way of introducing myself to her, I left Nikki Giovanni’s “A Poem of Friendship” by one of her “installations” that wasn’t covered by snow.

poem is to the left of the pole

poem is to the left of the pole

 

It rained heavily the night after I left this poem, so I hope it’s still there for nature lovers to find on a romantic or platonic stroll.

IMG_0220

 

 

Teenagers have so many ways to be miserable and so many ways of hiding that misery. I left Jack Gilbert’s “The Abandoned Valley” at the entrance of a local high school as a reminder that Valentine’s Day is a great holiday to reach out to people who are lonely.

poem is the little white square to the right of the furthest righthand door

poem is the little white square to the right of the furthest righthand door

 

The image of a well might not be familiar to today’s high schoolers, but “being alone so long” is to most.

IMG_0199

 

 

Allan Ginsburg found Walt Whitman in the grocery store, so I figured he might belong in the drug store too.  I put Whitman’s poem “As Adam Early in the Morning” on a shelf  at Rite Aid loaded with diet products.

poem is on middle shelf in front of Alli

poem is on middle shelf in front of alli

 

“Be not afraid of my body” says Whitman, and I hope dieters won’t be afraid of their own.  No one should have to buy a product that makes them shit in their pants just to get someone to love them or so they can love themselves.  No body type is unlovable!

IMG_0236

 

 

For years poet Ted Kooser sent out postcards with a new poem every Valentine’s Day.  One of them, “For You, Friend,” I left at a candy store.

poem is in lower right corner of the side right windows

poem is in lower right corner of the side right windows

lovely Judy will help you

lovely Judy will help you

 

If anyone’s looking for the best chocolate on the planet and you live near Inkster, Michigan, this is the place for you.

IMG_0227

 

Finally, I left a Valentine poem for my own valentine in pretty much the same place I left one last year, outside his office:

poem is to left of Comerica sign

poem is on window to left of Comerica sign

 

For you, dearest heart, Robert Bly’s “A Man and a Woman Sit Near Each Other.”

IMG_0231

 

 

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!  Spread some love!

 

 

 

 

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poem is in the window, to the right of the striped pole

 

I won’t attempt to transcribe this shape poem.  WordPress would make a mess of the spacing, and instead of beards, the poem would look like a string of pennant flags.

 

 

Beards have been in the news lately, and not just in “News of the Weird” columns where beard stories presumably land—these beard tales are front page.  Major Nidal Hassan, on trial for killing 13 servicemen at Fort Hood, has been ordered to shave his beard.  The defendant had petitioned to keep his beard for religious reasons, but prosecutors argued that the beard growth is an attempt to confuse eyewitnesses.  Other beards were sheared in the trial of a breakaway Amish sect in Ohio charged with a hate crime.  It seems they clipped the long beards of rival Amish men to shame them.  They held down their victims and brandished shears used to cut horses’ manes.  The breakaway sect disapproved of the religious practices of the now short-bearded men.  I’d say that’s a big pile of facial fungus, considering that the group’s leader, the inaccurately named Samuel Mullet, offers members sexual “counseling” and punishes the sinful with long confinements in chicken coop cages.

 

It’s a shame Monty Python isn’t around anymore.

 

So now for something completely different:

 

The meaning of beards in Maxine Kumin’s poem, “The Victorian Obsession with the Preservation of Hair,” has nothing to do with religion.  The poem begins with a literary pogonology (a word new to me, meaning “the study of beards”), evaluating writers by the size and shape of their beards.  (I found a book online, Poets Ranked by Beard Weight, which does the same.  This tongue-in-cheek compendium of beard lore plays on the idea that we ascribe deep thoughts to those with large beards.  It also has a section on beard flirtation and beard dangers.  Link here for excerpts.  For those like me getting distracted by the very strangeness of beards, link here for beard charts and enjoy the wit of beard nomenclature.)

The poem’s title and the activity that led to Mrs. Longfellow’s death refer to a handicraft popular in Victorian times.  Women threaded needles with human hair to fashion pictures, rings and bracelets.  Hair crafts were used to mourn dead relatives.  Such preservation of what was once living, Kumin says, is a memento mori, a reminder of death.  (Once at a museum I saw a Victorian wreath woven from human hair.  I found it frightening and also disgusting which is mildly hypocritical, since I long ago gave a boyfriend my extracted tooth, wrapped up in a ring box.)

 

Kumin’s neat and self-referential structure of stanzas shaped like beards mirrors the neat if gruesome series of events in the Longfellow home.  In preserving the hair of a daughter she lost, Mrs. Longfellow lost her own life.  In trying to preserve the life of his wife, Longfellow nearly lost his own. His subsequent hair growth (necessitated by too-painful shaving) preserved the memory of his beloved wife.  His beard became his own Victorian hair craft.  It’s a Chinese box of a story and Kumin tells it straightforward, without flourish: the details of the story and the meaning she pulls out of it are embellishment enough.Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by The British Monarchy

 

Poems of course are less flammable forms of preservation.  Longfellow wrote a lovely poem to his dead wife (“The Cross of Snow”) which ends with another metaphor for preservation of the dead:

 

There is a mountain in the distant West

That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines

Displays a cross of snow upon its side.

Such is the cross I wear upon my breast

These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes

And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

 

Kumin preserves Longfellow’s devotion in a beard of her own creation. It almost makes me dizzy to think of the interplay of form and words and events, all together so clever and moving.

 

I left this poem outside a barbershop and congratulated myself for an impish placement.  But now that I think about it, the poem might have been better placed elsewhere.  Few men wear beards anymore, and if they do, the rest of their hair is usually gathered in an un-barbered ponytail.  Not counting men with a tentative commitment to facial hair—men on vacation and men with little goatees—the last man with a beard I knew was my college philosophy professor.  Back then beards and a corduroy blazer with elbow patches were practically a uniform in the philosophy department.  Dr. Stapleton wore it well and I loved going to his 8:00 a.m. class.

 

Maxine Kumin by joanmazzaPoet Maxine Kumin was born in Philadelphia in 1925.  She went to Radcliffe, now part of Harvard, and swam competitively there.  She took a seminar with novelist Wallace Stegner, and his criticism of her work discouraged her from writing poetry.  For a long time she wrote poems privately.

 

As a mother of young children, Kumin took a poetry class at an adult education center.  There she met poet Anne Sexton.  The two mothers, both at home, became close friends and stayed close up until the day of Sexton’s suicide.  Together they wrote four children’s books.  (The books were illustrated by Evaline Ness, wife of FBI agent Eliot Ness, the inspiration for the “Untouchables” television show.)  Kumin was first published at age 36, and subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize, the Ruth Lilly prize, and most of the big honorifics a poet can receive.

 

She and her husband Victor, a chemical engineer who worked with Oppeheimer on the atomic bomb*, had three children and now live on a farm in New Hampshire where they raise organic vegetables and breed horses.  At age 74 Kumin almost died in a horse driving accident. She broke her neck, ribs, and punctured a lung but recovered and is still writing poetry in her eighties.

 

She’s often compared to another northeastern pastoral poet—she’s been called the feminist Robert Frost.  But after reading some of her poems and marveling at her non-writing daring-do, I’m starting to think of her as a feminist Ernest Hemingway:  physical, fearless, unembellished.  Sans the beard of course.

 

 

*Victor Kumin refused to continue work on the atomic bomb after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  He was threatened with court martial but in the end was honorably discharged.  For a full account of his fascinating story, link here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My nephew got married a few weeks ago in a joyful rumpus of a wedding followed by a mellower brunch the next day. I waited till the last minute to poem-elf the couple, and then I was disappointed I couldn’t get in their locked car to hide poems.  But it worked out.  In the absence of rice, confetti and clattering beer cans, I attached two poems to their car bumper for a quieter but more romantic send-off.

 

 

The first poem, Coleridge’s “Answer to a Child’s Question”  captures the giddy joy of the couple, who have known each other since grade school and still seem delighted to be in each other’s presence:

 

At the risk of love overkill, I love the line,  “I love my Love, and my Love loves me!”  Such a simple sentence, but it trips off the tongue like a jumprope rhyme.

 

In tribute to the bride and groom’s parents, both long-married, I left Grace Paley’s “Here. ”  I left the poem also as a happy forecast for the newlyweds’  future:

 

I don’t know if the newlyweds much liked this second poem—they removed it and hid it in my sister’s car before they left.  Ceci’s far being a woman “in the old style”—Paley’s heavy breasts, stout thighs and nicely mapped face—but she does have grandchildren on her lap and a husband she still loves.  Let me say to the newlyweds, in case this second poem didn’t please you:  I can’t wish you any better happiness than this beautiful expression of long-married love.

 

I  like how the two poems work together:  the first is joyful but controlled and structured, like a wedding, like visions newlyweds have of their married life.   Paley’s poem is as loose as her figure.  It speaks of a love just as vibrant as Coleridge’s but one that’s relaxed and settled in.

 

I didn’t get a picture of the bride and groom in all their glory, but I did get a picture that will give you a good idea of how fun this celebration was:

 

Yes, it was a pop the pins out of your updo kind of party.  Whosever bobby pins these are sure didn’t miss them on the dance floor.

 

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My niece and goddaughter got married last weekend in Maryland.  It was a great occasion to celebrate with my family (70 and counting), and a great occasion for poem elfing.

 

 

There’s no poem hidden in this picture but I do think I captured one in her expression. Look how she grips her father as she walks down the aisle towards her beloved with such transparent joy.  She can hardly hold it all in.  If I could have placed a poem on her person it would be this, from an unknown Chinese poet:

If I were a tree or a plant

I would feel the soft influence of spring.

Since I am a man . . .

Do not be astonished at my joy.

 

But I did manage to hide a few poems over the weekend.  I tied a Rumi poem to the bouquet Tricia used for rehearsal:

 

 

You can’t go wrong with Rumi for a wedding.

 

 

Tricia was a very happy bride, dancing and laughing all night, but at no point did she reach the “disgraceful” or “crazy” stage.  Neither did Poem Elf, I’ll have you know.   Still the poem’s a useful reminder to switch gears from planning to  celebrating.

 

Tricia didn’t notice the dangling poem until I pointed it out.

 

I planted another poem in the office of the father of the bride, my brother Donnie.

 

poem is taped to phone in foreground

 

I found “The Giving” in a collection of poems by someone named Max Ellison in a used bookstore in northern Michigan last summer.

 

 

I’ll reprint the words because I’m sure someone searching on “wedding poem” will want to copy them:

 

The Giving

by Max Ellison

 

Who give this woman to be wed?

Her mother and I.

We gave her dawn.

We gave her grace.

We stamped our image

On her face.

We gave her books,

And through the years

We calmed her early

Childhood fears.

We gave her faith.

We gave her prayer.

She walked our road.

She climbed our stairs.

And now in solemn troth

We swear,

We can not give.

We only share.

 

I love this poem.  At first I had reservations about the whole idea of “giving” a woman to a man or “sharing” her, but in the face of such loving fatherly sentiments, those reservations be darned.  This poem is just flat-out sweet and true.  We are each of us a gift to the world.

 

Poet Max Ellison was less obscure than I originally thought.   Well-known in his hometown of Bellaire, Michigan, he sold his books on street corners, spoke at Governor Milliken’s inauguration, and may have been—although I can’t confirm—the poet laureate of Michigan. He lived simply in a house he built called “Frog Holler,”  which had no running water or electricity.  His poetry is also simple, in the best sense:  clean and straightforward and honest.  No frippery.

 

In the goody bags for the out-of-town guests staying at the hotel, I left Dante’s “La Vita Nuova.”

 

 

I’ve already written about this poem, so I’ll include the link, post the picture and not say one more word about it:

 

Poem Elf got fancy with vellum and ribbon

 

Finally I included this poem (or excerpt from a poem) with the newlyweds’ wedding gift, a lamp.  I forgot to take a picture of the actual lamp with the poem, so I put another copy in my front window:

 

 

The poem provides an answer to the question Rodgers and Hammerstein posed in Cinderella:

Do I love you because

you’re beautiful

or are you beautiful

because I love you?

 

I can’t find a thing on the poet, Fulvia Lupulo, except that’s she’s Mexican.  Tricia’s husband is also of Mexican descent, so I hope this poem finds a special place in his heart.

 

And here’s the bridegroom himself, with my mother at the rehearsal dinner:

 

 

I can’t resist including two more pictures of my mother at the wedding.  First, dancing with one of her grandsons:

 

 

And then surprised by her grandsons’ Zou Bisou Bisou:

 

 

Ain’t love grand?

 

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Worse than delivering a joke that falls flat is delivering a present that offends.  Offensive presents induce not just embarrassment but guilt as well, a guilt that can flame up and redden cheeks even years after.  Once I spearheaded a group gift of an adult tricycle for my mother, who was less ready to give up a two-wheeler than I had supposed.  She never said so, but she must have found the tricycle as infantilizing as adult diapers.  Which for the record I have never given anyone.  (Also for the record, Eat This, Not That makes a very bad gift unless specifically requested.)

from Olausen's book, Mother

 

Longer ago I gave a friend turning 30 a coffee table book called Mother.  I thought the book was brilliant and hilarious.  Somehow it didn’t occur to me that a photograph of an elderly woman walking through the grocery store carrying a crucifix would not amuse someone with a conservative faith who values reverence.  Nice book, was all she said.

 

Unfortunately, old faults die hard.  A month before my nephew’s wedding, I sent him the following poem via email:

 

I Married You

by Linda Pastan

 

I married you

for all the wrong reasons,

charmed by your

dangerous family history,

by the innocent muscles, bulging

like hidden weapons

under your shirt,

by your naive ties, the colors

of painted scraps of sunset.

 

I was charmed too

by your assumptions

about me: my serenity—

that mirror waiting to be cracked,

my flashy acrobatics with knives

in the kitchen.

How wrong we both were

about each other,

and how happy we have been.

 

I was surprised to get back a response along the lines of, “Thanks for thinking of me, but this really doesn’t apply to us.”  I was baffled.  I thought the poem was so hopeful and sweet, such a good omen for his upcoming nuptials.  Why wouldn’t he?

 

My sister suggested that maybe he found the poem offensive.  A conversation with my nephew at his wedding confirmed my sister’s view, although Beau insisted that he wasn’t offended, he just didn’t get it.  But when pressed, he admitted that, to him, my sending I Married You was tantamount to saying he and his fiancé were getting married for superficial reasons.

 

Yeah, he’s right.  I was reading the poem as a long-married person.  My take-away from this poem is how happy we have been.  For him it’s I married you/for all the wrong reasons.  My nephew is one-half a couple that have been together for a long time, so they know each other well enough to have moved beyond the type of initial impressions outlined in the poem.

 

By way of apology, I’ll try to explain myself:  for me the poem says that marriage is a long process of partners discovering each other.   Accepting and loving those things  we discover in the ensuing years–traits and interests that didn’t register with us at the beginning or that developed over time–is the beauty of commitment.  Also, the outward characteristics that initially attracted partners to each other—bulging muscles, a cooking hobby, a calm demeanor—can change, but the truth of a person remains the same.  When selecting a lifetime mate we unconsciously recognize these deeper truths, and if we’re lucky, those truths are ones we need and admire.

 

This is not a poem to send to a newly engaged or married couple.  It’s like giving new parents a book on teenagers and gonorrhea and expecting them to thank you for it.  Well, not exactly, but you get my contrition.

 

I’ll save this poem for anniversaries.  But now that I think about it, maybe really happy ones only.

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