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The Truth

by Philip Schultz

You can hide it like a signature

or birthmark but it’s always there

in the greasy light of your dreams,

the knots your body makes at night,

the sad innuendos of your eyes,

whispering insidious asides in every

room you cannot remain inside. It’s

there in the unquiet ideas that drag and

plead one lonely argument at a time,

and those who own a little are contrite

and fearful of those who own too much,

but owning none takes up your life.

It cannot be replaced with a house or a car,

a husband or wife, but can be ignored,

denied, and betrayed, until the last day,

when you pass yourself on the street

and recognize the agreeable life you

were afraid to lead, and turn away.

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If you’re following the Richard Glossip case as anxiously as I am, you’ll understand when I write that I wish this poem could be tattooed on Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin’s forearm. I want her to have to look at it every day and face the the truth that she sentenced an innocent man to death.

I’m going to post without much comment. I’m distraught over the Glossip case.

Let me just say that this is a poem to chase you down the street, throwing its questions and accusations like small stones till one hits its mark and you stop to ask, What is my truth? Am I hiding from it? Am I a person who owns too little or too much?

There’s a curious word choice I’d like your take on.

The speaker, catching a glimpse of himself in a shop window perhaps, considers what his life might have been if he had faced “The Truth.”

when you pass yourself on the street

and recognize the agreeable life you

were afraid to lead, and turn away.

An “agreeable” life. Not fabulous, just agreeable. “Living your truth,” as we are often urged to do, is supposed to lead to an amazing life like Oprah’s or Elizabeth Gilbert’s.

“Agreeable” is more realistic. I like it.

I left “The Truth” on Bare Bluff, a beautiful peak 600 ft. above Lake Superior in Copper Harbor, Michigan. Copper Harbor, eleven hours from Detroit, is the farthest point in you can go in Michigan and still be on land. There aren’t many people up there and no cell service at all unless you find the right spot on a certain scenic lookout, Brockway Mountain Drive. Otherwise you have to drive 30 or 40 minutes to make a call. A local waitress says that if someone doesn’t show up for work you have to drive to their house to wake them up.

I love the U.P. and try to return every year. Copper Harbor was by far the most beautiful region I’ve been in. It’s a place of no distractions. There’s Nature—-untouched, pristine, ancient—and you. A place where truths must be faced.

The truth I always feel in the U.P. is that life is large and creation beautiful and I need to be grateful every second of my life. You can’t go to the U.P. and feel like the center of the universe. With your face to the clear sunlight, walking among 400-year old pine trees, climbing over rock shaped by tides and storms, wading into cold Lake Superior so vast and mysterious, you feel small. And that’s a relief. It would be a great vacation spot for Donald Trump when he ends his run.

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Philip Schultz was born in 1945 in Rochester, New York, an only child. His father, a Russian- Jewish immigrant died when he was eighteen and left the family bankrupt.

Schultz graduated from San Francisco State University and got his MFA at Iowa Writer’s workshop. He taught at New York University, among other colleges, and founded the The Writers Studio in 1987 in New York City, which he still directs.

He’s published many books of poetry, one novel in verse and a memoir. He was 63 when he won the Pultizer Prize for “Failure.”

His wife is the sculptor Monica Banks. Together they have two sons.

Schultz wrote a moving essay you can read here about his dyslexia. He didn’t know he was dyslexic until he was 58 when his son was diagnosed with it.

Addendum: Gov. Mary Fallin has just issued Richard Glossip a 37-day stay of execution so the drugs to be used in his execution can be reviewed. I hope that’s window dressing for “let’s make sure we’re not executing an innocent man.” If his sentence is commuted, I will post something special just for Gov. Fallin. A poem of praise for an open mind and heart.

If not, Nov. 6, (my birthday and his new execution day) is going to be a day of mourning the world over.

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poem is on trashcan

poem is on trashcan

 

Equinox

 

by Elizabeth Alexander

 

Now is the time of year when bees are wild

and eccentric. They fly fast and in cramped

loop-de-loops, dive-bomb clusters of conversants

in the bright, late-September out-of-doors.

I have found their dried husks in my clothes.

 

They are dervishes because they are dying,

one last sting, a warm place to squeeze

a drop of venom or of honey.

After the stroke we thought would be her last

my grandmother came back, reared back and slapped

 

a nurse across the face. Then she stood up,

walked outside, and lay down in the snow.

Two years later there is no other way

to say, we are waiting. She is silent, light

as an empty hive, and she is breathing.

 

 

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Years ago I visited a dear friend a few days before she died from cancer. She was sleeping when I came into her bedroom. She was so shrunken and still and dessicated that I thought for a moment she might already have passed. Her heavy eyes opened at the sound of my voice. It seemed to take her a moment to process who I was, and a moment longer to realize that I was there to visit the sick, and that this was a sickroom and she was the sick person. All the sudden she sprang up like a jack-in-the-box and got out of bed. “Let’s open the blinds, it’s so dark in here,” she said. She took a step or two with her old energy, but I got her back in bed before her bones collapsed under the little weight she had.

 

It was a shock to see her so suddenly up on her feet—as if she had risen from the dead before she was dead—but it was also, if it’s okay to say, a little comical. Like she didn’t get the memo that she was on her deathbed. Like she thought, Damn, this room is depressing.

 

So forgive me if I also find humor in Elizabeth Alexander’s beautiful poem “Equinox.” Grandma slapping the nurse, marching out into the snow while the family stands around the hospital bed in shock–I love that kind of crazy, that refusal to stop living, that last burst of energy, which as Alexander says, could be a drop of venom or of honey. Either way shows a defiance I admire. She’s Dylan Thomas’ dictum come to life:

 

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at the close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

 

What’s marvelous about this poem is that the comedy of the grandmother’s behavior sits side by side with the painful vigil of the family, and neither side is denigrated. There is no other way to say, the speaker says, slightly ashamed to admit that the family is ready for her to permanently rest in peace. Waiting two years for someone to die must be tedious and unnerving. The poem’s title, “Equinox,” becomes an unanswered wish. The equinox is a temporary suspension of reality, a single day of near perfect balance between day and night. The grandmother’s state—neither dead nor fully alive—begs for a resolution that does not come. The last line of the poem is chilling, like the last line of a ghost story: and she is still breathing.

 

The unsettledness of this perpetual equinox is steadied by the poem’s tight structure. Like a sturdy tripod, the three stanzas balance the loop-de-loops and the loopiness. The bees and the grandmother, mirroring each other as they do, each get their own stanza. They meet in the middle stanza, and the transition is so nimble I keep going back to it.

 

I left the poem a week before the autumn equinox (September 23 this year) on a trashcan near a picnic area. Any other year that might have been counterproductive. Swarms of bees would prevent people from lingering to read the poem. But this year I haven’t seen bees in weeks. Maybe that’s because of CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) or maybe because here in Michigan our season of mists and mellow fruitfulness came and left in a matter of hours. Sandals and nearly nude runners are long gone too, and woe is me and everyone else in the state as we look forward to a winter worse than last year’s.

 

Screenshot 2014-10-08 11.02.36Poet, essayist and playwright Elizabeth Alexander was born in 1962 in Harlem but was raised in Washington , D.C. There her father, Clifford Alexander, Jr., served as Chairman of the Equal Opportunity Commission under President Johnson and Secretary of the Army for the Carter administration. Her mother was a writer and professor of African-American women’s history at George Washington University.

 

Alexander graduated from Yale and then earned her Master’s at Boston University and her PhD at University of Pennsylvania.

She worked as a reporter for the Washington Post for a year, but left to teach at the University of Chicago. There she met Barack Obama who was a senior lecture at the law school. When he was elected president, he asked her to compose and deliver the inaugural poem. You can read “Praise Song for the Day” here.

 

She also taught at Smith College and currently at Yale University, where she chairs the African American Studies department. She’s a founding member of Cave Canem, a recipient of an NEA grant, a Guggenheim fellowship, and two Pushcart Prizes, among many other awards.

 

A widow, she lives with her two sons in New Haven, Connecticut.

 

Fun fact: the PBS miniseries “Faces of America” revealed that Alexander is distantly related to comedian Stephen Colbert. Coincidentally she had appeared on the Colbert Report a year before that connection came out. It’s a really funny interview in which she answers the question, “What is the difference between a metaphor and . . . A LIE?”  Watch here.

 

 

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poem is on tall tree stump, just above snow-capped ledge

poem is on tall tree stump, just above snow-capped ledge

March 1912

                              –Postcard, en route westward

by Natasha Trethewey

 

At last we are near

breaking the season, shedding

our coats, the gray husk

 

of winter.  Each tree

trembles with new leaves, tiny

blossoms, the flashy

 

dress of spring. I am

aware now of its coming

as I’ve never been—

 

the wet grass throbbing

with crickets, insistent, keen

as desire.  Now,

 

I feel what trees must—

budding, green sheaths splitting—skin

that no longer fits.

 

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For those of us in Michigan, the first day of spring is always a matter of faith.  This year especially, after a record-breaking winter and too many visits from the Polar Vortex, we have to believe in what we don’t see. The vernal equinox is here!  If you measure by hours of sunlight and not the greening of the earth, you can celebrate with these lines from Natasha Trethewey’s poem “March, 1912”:

At last we are near

breaking the season

Those are joyful words to me, words to carry around like a tiny solar cell under my coat.

 

It was seven degrees when I left the poem on a tree at a nature center a few days before the official start of spring. Buckets hung on the sugar maple trees like fanny packs, ready to collect the sap that was purportedly rising.  A maple syrup demonstration was scheduled for two days after I left the poem, and I hope the wind didn’t take it before then.  It’s a beautiful reminder for all spring-starved Michiganders that under the snow, a big sexy earth is ready to explode.

 

Trembling, throbbing, shedding its clothes, keen with desire–Trethewey’s spring pulses with the erotic.  What makes the poem so beautiful (and even more sensual) is the formal structure that contains, just barely, all that desire. Each stanza has lines of 5-7-5 syllables. That’s haiku, in case you’ve forgotten. The poem is a perfect balance of opposing forces.  Like a tight corset barely holding in a heaving bosom.

 

Unfortunately, the only throbbing going on after I left the poem was my frozen fingers thawing when I got to the car. But there were birds, in the sky, as song goes, and I never would have seen them winging (or heard them singing) if I hadn’t spent time with Trethewey’s poem.

 

“March 1912” is taken from Bellocq’s Ophelia, a collection of poems inspired by E.J. Bellocq’s photographs of prostitutes in the early 1900’s. (You can see the photographs here.) Tretheway imagines one of Bellocq’s subjects as a mixed race woman named Ophelia.  Ophelia, originally from Mississippi, turns up at a New Orleans brothel after she can’t find other means of supporting herself. The poems read like chapters in a novel, and Trethewey creates a fascinating character in this underground world.

 

Natasha Trethewey was born in Mississippi in 1966.  Her father was a white Canadian, a poet, and her mother a black social worker from the deep South. Her parents were married a year before mixed marriages were made legal.  They divorced when she was six.  From an early age she was aware of how she was treated when she was with her father and she could “pass” as white, and how she was treated when she was with her mother.

 

She was a freshman in college when her mother was murdered by her second husband.  Trethewey started writing poetry after her mother’s death as a way to deal with her grief.

 

Among the many awards she’s received, Trethewey has won the Pulitzer Prize and fellowships from Guggenheim Foundation and NEA. She was appointed the U.S. Poet Laureate in 2012, a post she still holds.  As Poet Laureate, she has partnered with PBS to produce the show “Where Poetry Lives.”  Link here for an inspiring episode about poetry in Detroit schools, featuring Detroit writer Peter Markus.

 

She is the director of creative writing at Emory University, and lives in Georgia with her husband, a historian and fellow professor at Emory.  I just found out she’s coming to Detroit next month.  She’ll be reading at Marygrove College on April 4.  Link here for details.  I’m crushed that I’m going to be out of town that date, but if you go (lucky you), send regards from Poem Elf.

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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…

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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.)

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poem is in bowl on second from the bottom shelf

poem is in bowl on second from the bottom shelf

 

Kitchen Song

 

by Laura Kasischke 

 

The white bowls in the orderly

cupboards filled with nothing.

 

The sound

of applause in running water.

All those who’ve drowned in oceans, all

who’ve drowned in pools, in ponds, the small

family together in the car hit head on. The pantry

 

full of lilies, the lobsters scratching to get out of the pot, and God

 

being pulled across the heavens

in a burning car.

 

The recipes

like confessions.

The confessions like songs.

The sun. The bomb. The white

 

bowls in the orderly

cupboards filled with blood. I wanted

 

something simple, and domestic. A kitchen song.

 

They were just driving along. Dad

turned the radio off, and Mom

turned it back on.

 

 

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I’ve recently become enamored of Feldenkrais, a slow-paced non-exercise class in which students explore unfamiliar movements in order to break through rigidity and harmful neuromuscular habits.  That may sound like a load of Felden-krap, but it’s one of those practices more fruitful to try than to try to explain.

 

I bring this up because reading Laura Kasischke’s “Kitchen Song” is a little like practicing Feldenkrais.  It’s unfamiliar.  My habitual way of reading and presenting a poem on this blog—drilling in for meaning until I’ve nearly destroyed it with holes—wasn’t opening up “Kitchen Song” for me.

 

Not that this poem is especially experimental or opaque.  It’s just not the type of poem I feature on PoemElf.  If I don’t understand a poem after a quick couple of read-throughs, usually I’ll put it aside. But something drew me to this poem, and I kept it in my purse for a few weeks.

 

“Don’t worry about it,” my Feldenkrais teacher often says.  “Just explore.”  Could the Feldenkrais approach—moving with ease, not forcing a result—help me with Kasischke’s poem?

 

I tried to just be with the poem.  I sat amongst the disturbing images, felt around the disjointed line breaks, listened to the biblical and gothic overtones.  Soon I felt like I was in a creepy game of word association, where every word refers back to death:  the empty white bowls that fill with blood; the lobsters boiling to death; the funereal lilies in the pantry.

 

A fatal car accident keeps popping up in the kitchen like a knife-wielding poltergeist.  The speaker turns on the faucet, opens the cupboards, looks through a cookbook and out jumps the grisly end of her parents. She tries to escape in “something simple, and domestic.”  But her kitchen song is nothing like Cinderella’s—that is, unless Cinderella happens to be cleaning Bluebeard’s castle.

 

But after all that gore and surreal imagery, the end of the poem arrives quietly, so moving to me in its familiarity and ordinariness:

 

They were just driving along. Dad

turned the radio off, and Mom

turned it back on.

 

My husband and I play this game all the time.  Most couples probably do.  It’s a wordless disagreement that is indeed simple, and domestic. The speaker got what she was asking for but not what she wanted.  The final surprise of this horror show:  her kitchen song becomes that last song her parents heard on the radio.  And she can never turn it off.

 

I still don’t understand everything here.  I don’t get the applause in the water faucet, the drowned people, the sun and the bomb.  (Please let me know how you interpret those images!)  But the poem unsettles me and won’t leave me be, so I think I “get” it after all.

 

I couldn’t resist leaving the poem in a white bowl at a home goods store, a store that sells domestic fantasies to people who crave order, simplicity, cleanliness. If only we could banish clutter and complication from our lives for the price of a bowl.

 

Laura Kasischke was born in 1961 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  She went to University of Michigan and teaches in the MFA program there now.

 

She’s won multiple prizes, including Pushcart Prizes, and received fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation. She’s written eight novels to date, two of which (The Life Before Her Eyes and Suspicious River) have been made into movies.  According to Wikipedia, Kasischke is particularly popular in France, which puts her in the strange company of Benjamin Franklin and Jerry Lewis.

 

 

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In spite of the name on the window, this cafe makes me sad.

 

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Laptop and thesaurus in hand, I had stopped by Jolly’s in northern Michigan the other day and found the door locked, the tables gone, and a sign on the door saying thanks for three great years.

 

Jolly’s Cafe is in Petoskey, Hemingway’s old stomping grounds. He used to write in a bar one street over, and who knows, he may well have spent time in whatever business used to be here too.  The building is certainly old enough.  It’s charming, with high ceilings, creaky wood floors, and great light.  I wrote here most days last summer, and planned to do the same this year.

 

Locked out of my favorite writing spot, I wandered around until I found another cafe that serves hot tea and has wi-fi:

 

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So long, Clean Well-Lighted Place.  Hello, Dirty , Dark and Hot. (Which sounds much more erotic than my experience, as I sat sweating and wondering why anyone would order hot tea in such a furnace, actually was.)

 

I’ll keep looking for the right writing spot, but in the meantime, thought I’d mention that my Poem Elf postings will be sporadic in July and August as I am working on some other things.  I do have some poems and pictures in the hopper though, and should have something up next week.

 

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