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poem is on green column below red sign

poem is on green column below red sign

 

The Robot Moves!

by Nick Flynn

 

I pretend I’m afraid, carrying you

on my hip beneath the Cathedral of St. John

the Divine, past all the dead saints, the floor

dug up to lay pipe. I stop suddenly,

grasping at a darkened corner & whisper,

what was that? & your tiny hand

touches my face to soothe me

& you say, it’s alright,

there’s nothing there. As a kid

I made up a game

where I would turn into a robot,

cruel & lifeless, & it wouldn’t matter

if you were my best friend, I’d turn on you

as fast as switching off a light, I’d

come after you, no matter how much you’d plead,

I don’t want to play this game, because

something inside had turned, something

essential, that couldn’t be repaired

with words, like those days I’d come home at dusk

my mother alone at the kitchen table,

she’d look at me over her wine

& say only So?

like I was the stranger.

 

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The third or fourth time I read this poem, a phrase from a much older poem popped into my head: Wordsworth’s famous line, “the Child is father of the Man.” It’s a phrase I’ve filed away in my head with other riddles and koans, sayings I remember more for their pithiness than their pith. I’m just too lazy a thinker to pick apart how someone can be his own grandpa or to dwell on the sound of one hand clapping.

 

Nick Flynn’s “The Robot Moves!” illustrates Wordsworth so forcefully I don’t have to pick the riddle apart. It’s visceral truth, raw and hard, and in Flynn’s hands, more complicated than just the idea that childhood experience shapes the adult. In the poem, childhood and adulthood are fluid states. Events and memories can fling us from one to the other and back again.

 

The poem opens with a “game”: a father trying to frighten his child. I played such games with my children many times—most parents do—but now I wonder why. Is the point of scaring children to get them to cling to us, or just a cruel exercise of power? Whatever the speaker’s intentions, the game backfires. The father becomes the child and the child becomes the parent as she offers comfort and protection. I love that darling little hand on her father’s cheek, and the child’s innocent attempt to calm: “there’s nothing there,” she says. Of course there’s everything there, bad childhood memories just beneath the surface of adulthood. It’s not just the floor of the cathedral that’s being dug up.

 

In the darkened cathedral, two memories emerge from the game, both associated with the coming of darkness. In the first memory, the boy turns into a robot “as fast as switching off a light.” In the second he comes home at dusk to find his mother drunk. These memories spill out in long sentences, the way children tell stories when they’re excited. The further back in time the speaker goes, the more childish the sentence structure, long clauses connected by ampersands which look like little links in a chain.

 

I don’t want to play this game, says the boy’s friend, which almost could have been the title of the poem. I remember my brother playing a similar game of turning into a robot and crashing into furniture and people. My husband did the robot gig too in our teenage dating years. Come to think of it, he still does now and then. (Again I ask, why? Why do men in particular enjoy pretending to turn into automated monsters bent on destruction?) Remembering that game, the speaker sees in himself an emptiness, a coldness, a desire to wound that links him back to the root memory of the poem, his mother at the kitchen table. The child’s earlier consolation that “there’s nothing there” becomes an ironic commentary on the mother’s cruel and lifeless response to her son’s arrival home.

 

I left the poem at a movie theater in Florida where I went to see “Captain America” on a rainy day. Every superhero has a weakness or painful memory that nearly causes his or her destruction, and so a superhero movie felt like a good backdrop for a poem about a boy’s imaginative play and very real pain.

Nick Flynn was born in Massachusetts in 1960. He was raised by a single mother who committed suicide when he was a young adult. His father was an alcoholic who fancied himself a writer and went to prison for writing forged checks. While in prison, his father wrote him letters full of advice, but Flynn never wrote back out of respect for his mother. After high school, Flynn became an electrician.

 

Two years after his mother died, he started working at a homeless shelter in Boston. Flynn met his father at that same homeless shelter when his troubled father came to spend the night. Their reunion was the subject of a memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which was turned into a movie, Being Flynn. The move starred Paul Dano as a young Flynn and Robert DeNiro as his father.

 

In addition to his poetry, Flynn is a widely published essayist and memoirist. He’s married to actress Lili Taylor with whom he has a daughter. Flynn lives in Brooklyn and teaches creative writing at University of Houston.

 

(Sorry, I’m unable to download a picture of Flynn. You’ll have to take my word for it that he’s got a handsome Irish face. Link to his website here to see for yourself.)

 

 

 

 

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To write my last post I had to look up the cast of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.  I came across an amusing bit from the script.  Terry Thomas, playing his usual upper-crust Englishman equal parts outraged and dastardly, serves up this rant on an American obsession:

 

“As far as I can see, American men have been totally emasculated — they’re like slaves! They die like flies from coronary thrombosis while their women sit under hairdryers eating chocolates and arranging for every second Tuesday to be some sort of Mother’s Day! And this infantile preoccupation with bosoms. In all my time in this godforsaken country, the one thing that has appalled me most of all is this preposterous preoccupation with bosoms. Don’t you realize they have become the dominant theme in American culture: in literature, advertising and all fields of entertainment. I’ll wager you anything you like that if American women stopped wearing brassieres, your whole national economy would collapse overnight.”

 

CN00028698 by annaparrucchiera

no bon bons

It’s dated but familiar.  The idea of American men slaving to keep their castrating wives happy under hair dryers nibbling away on chocolates wasn’t true even in 1963, but the misogyny of Thomas’ character is still a ”dominant theme in American culture,” as anyone who watched Superbowl commercials will attest.  Thomas’ scenario has echoes in the Teleflora ad in which someone named Adriana Lima lasciviously explains Valentine’s Day to men: “Give and you shall receive.”  And the Dannon lady who head-butts her partner to get the most yogurt is a younger and prettier version of Thomas’s nemesis, Ethel Merman.  Screeching her way towards the buried treasure, Merman repeatedly thrashes the men in the movie with her hefty pocketbook.

 

Few would dispute Thomas’ characterization of our national bosom obsession, but some might—politely—point out that the English have a reputation for a juvenile preoccupation with buttocks.

 

Jeez, look at me, sucking out all the humor.  I don’t mean to.  Dated or not, his speech makes me laugh. Say prepostorous preoccupation with bosoms with an English accent.  All that spit and all those bilabial plosives!  Funny!  Bosom is a great big fun word.

 

In defense of my adolescent sense of humor:  growing up we prayed the Stations of the Cross in our living room every night during Lent.  This was a solemn activity, often a dreaded one, at least until we got to the 13th station, Jesus is Taken Down From the Cross.  We took turns reading and if the 13th station landed on you, rather like hot potato, you would be required to say a very embarrassing phrase out loud.   Usually the reader would start giggling and be unable to complete the reading and then everyone else would start sniggering.  After three or four attempts to say it without laughing, we gave up and my mother took over.  “And pressed Him to her BOSOM,” she would say firmly, trying to sound unamused, which was about the funniest part of all.

 

Forevermore, “bosom” is my word of choice for describing mammaries, even though my kids cringe when I say it.  “Boob” is just too coarse and  “breast” has too many associations with cancer for a bosom-less gal like me.

 

One last bosom story:  I fondly remember my husband’s uncle reminiscing about his wife in a party dress when she was a college student:  She had a lovely bosom, he sighed.

 

Aren’t they all.

 

 

 

 

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This weekend I saw the Korean film Poetry, written and directed by Lee Chang-dong.  The movie follows Mija, an elderly woman just diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s.  She lives with her louse of a grandson (as my friend labeled him) Wook, a lazy, affectless teenage boy who never thanks her for anything. Mija learns that Wook and his friends repeatedly gang-raped a younger classmate, a girl named Agnes whose body we have seen floating down a river in the movie’s opening sequence.  The rapes drove Agnes to suicide, and she has recorded her shame and anguish in a journal.  The fathers of the other boys join forces to erase their sons’ culpability.  They demand Mija pay her share of hush money to the grieving mother.  Mija does not have the money, and how she gets her share cements her increasing emotional attachment to the dead girl.

Anyway, as this disturbing plot unfolds, a lighter one develops alongside.  Mija signs up to take a poetry class at a local community center.  The class’ assignment is to write one poem by the end of the course. The instructor tells the class that in order to write a poem, they must see clearly, they must see things as they have never seen them before.  Mija takes on the assignment with an earnestness and urgency unmatched by her classmates.  She takes notes, studies trees, flowers, fruits and her kitchen sink.  Through most of the film she is unable to write the poem. We root for her success as we’d root in another movie for a losing team to win a game.

At the end of the movie Mija takes a heartbreaking moral stance on Agnes’ behalf.  Finally she is able to write her poem.  We watch from behind as she scribbles at her desk, and that is the last we see of her.

At this point I grew anxious that we weren’t going to actually hear the poem.  Maybe I was the only one who worried about it, but I felt real suspense as the movie drifted to a close.

At last we hear (or read—the movie is subtitled) Mija’s poem.  Mija reads the poem as a voiceover but soon her voice is replaced by the dead girl’s.  The poem is intended to be written by a beginning writer—it’s actually written by the director–and I read that he had qualms about it being reproduced outside the context of the film.  He’s quite right.  The words of the poem paired with a series of soothing and startling images create an overwhelming cinematic moment that you won’t get by merely reading the text.  I was shaking by the film’s end.

Still, I’m posting it here.  Mija touched me . . . I want to keep her around somehow.  And her struggle to write something beautiful and truthful about her own life and Agnes’ life reminded me of Stephen Fry’s belief that “poetry is a primal impulse within us all.”

Agnes’ Song

How is it over there?

How lonely is it?

Is it still glowing red at sunset?

Are the birds still singing on the way to the forest?

Can you receive the letter I dared not send?

Can I convey

the confession I dared not make?

Will time pass and roses fade?

Now it’s time to say goodbye

Like the wind that lingers and then goes,

just like shadows

To promises that never came,

to the love sealed till the end.

To the grass kissing my weary ankles

And to the tiny footsteps following me

It’s time to say goodbye

Now as darkness falls

Will a candle be lit again?

Here I pray

nobody shall cry…

and for you to know…

how deeply I loved you.

 

The long wait in the middle of a hot summer day

An old path resembling my father’s face

Even the lonesome wild flower shyly turning away

How deeply I loved

How my heart fluttered at hearing faint song

I bless you

Before crossing the black river

With my soul’s last breath

I am beginning to dream…

a bright sunny morning…

again I awake blinded by the light…

and meet you…

standing by me.

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poem is on bulletin board

I Want to Breathe

by James Laughlin


I want to breathe

you in I’m not talking about

perfume or even the sweet odour

of your skin but of the

air itself I want to share

your air inhaling what you

exhale I’d like to be that

close two of us breathing

each other as one as that

When I tacked this poem to a bulletin board in a mother’s center in Detroit, I thought I should explain what I was doing to the woman manning the front desk.  Whatever, her face said.  She was more concerned with arranging buckets to catch drips from the center’s leaking roof.  I am so embarrassed, my face said back. The contrast in our pursuits was a Marie Antoinette moment for me.  I headed back out in the rain as quickly as I could.

I had gone to the mother’s center, Mom’s Place, to pick up my daughter from alternative spring break.  She had spent a week in the city, cleaning out abandoned buildings, preparing food at a shelter, playing with babies.  One day she called me, buoyant and excited.  An afternoon with mentally disabled adults had ended with a riotous dance party. Dancing always makes her happy, but connecting with people of other races, classes and mental abilities was a joy for her.  Although “I Want to Breathe” is intended as a romantic poem, the longing for intimacy it expresses applies to her dance party experience as well.

Another non-romantic version of Laughlin’s longing for intimacy is “The Poop Thing” subplot in Miranda July’s strangely sweet film You and Me and Everyone We Know.  I won’t describe The Poop Thing because it would sound much creepier in words than it actually is in the film.  You can watch it here but better make sure no one is near when you watch, especially children and anyone easily offended.

(Speaking of movies, this poem also reminds me of a snatch of dialogue from Woody Allen’s Play It Again Sam.  Humphrey Bogart is giving Allen romantic advice:

Move closer to her.

– How close?

The length of your lips.

-That’s very close.  )


After hanging up “I Want to Breath” at the mother’s center, I realized that the shared breath in the poem could also be a mother-baby connection.  How well I remember leaning in face to face with my babies, listening to their tiny breaths, steady inhales and exhales sometimes interrupted by a small shudder as they settled into sleep.  After nursing I loved to smell their sweet milky breath, in and out, in and out, calming and quiet.  Few moments in life rival that for closeness and intimacy.

Laughlin’s poem with its simple language and seamless sentences is dear to me because it speaks of our most soulful need.  Don’t we all long for the purity of the intimacy he describes, breath connected to breath, an intimacy free of the masks of class, race, and religion, an intimacy stripped of what we wear, what we own, how we keep up our bodies, an intimacy that connects us to each other at a deep and fundamental level?  Well, that’s my vision of heaven anyway.

James Laughlin is the most important literary figure I’ve never heard of.  Born an heir to a steel manufacturing empire in Pittsburgh, he used a $100,000 gift from his father to start New Directions, a publishing house that nurtured new and experimental writers.  He befriended and published Tennessee Williams, Nabokov, Henry Miller, Borges, Wallace Stevens, Denise Levertov, Marianne Moore, Thomas Merton and Bretcht, among so many other luminaries, bringing them an audience in the United States they might never have found otherwise.  It took 23 years for the publisher to turn a profit—Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and a bestseller by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (imagine!) paid for all the unprofitable books.  Writer Eliot Weinberger says of him, “Laughlin was more than the greatest American publisher of the 20th century; his press was the 20th century.”

Not the least interested in the steel business, Laughlin was nonetheless grateful for the opportunities his fortune allowed.  He took a break from Harvard in his sophomore year, disappointed that modern writers were banned from the classroom, and headed off to Europe.  He worked briefly for Gertrude Stein, and then followed Ezra Pound around for six months.  Pound told him he would never be a good poet and that he should do “something useful” instead.  When Laughlin returned home, Something Useful became New Directions.

Despite Pound’s assessment of his talent, Laughlin continued to write poetry, sometimes under a pseudonym.  Of his seemingly un-complex style he said, “I like to be understood by ordinary people.”  With his fortune, accomplishments, and circle of friends, he might seem far removed from ordinary people.  But he suffered depression and his son committed suicide, and that kind of pain grounds people.  Perhaps this great poet and publisher would have enjoyed his own “publication” at Mom’s Place.

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The other day I posted but didn’t analyze a poem by Carl Sandburg.  (The poem begins Hog butcher for the world, which might be a fun way to answer the phone when telemarketers call.)

Did Carl Sandburg’s name ring a bell with you?  If you experienced not a clang but only a faint tinkle from far back in your school days, try this to jog your memory:  fog in the harbor . . . little cat feet…are you with me yet?  If you could open your middle school or high school textbook to the section introducing metaphor, there you’d find Sandburg’s little poem “Fog”:

 

The fog comes

on little cat feet.

It sits looking

over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on.


If his name is still unfamiliar, perhaps you’ll recognize his face, or at least an interpretation of his face.

 

Which brings me to a question.  What do you get when you cross-breed Carl Sandburg, Albert Einstein and a pug?

 

The answer is . . .

 

Yes, according to internet sources (and not just Wikipedia), Steven Spielburg used those distinctive mugs to create E.T.  I don’t see it myself—maybe there’s a little something in the mouth—or maybe there’s something kindly and innocent in the poet’s face that is picked up in the alien’s.

 

Sandburg had another claim to fame (although in his own time he was famous in his own right). Sandburg revered Abraham Lincoln and wrote a 4-volume biography of him.  Marilyn Monroe was also a fan of Abe’s. (“I think of Lincoln as my father,” she said once, “he was wise and kind and good”—how heartbreaking is that?)  She kept a framed picture of Lincoln in her apartment and read Sandburg’s biography, often carrying it around. Nine months before she died, Monroe visited Sandburg.  He wrote about their meeting in the most gentlemanly terms:

She was a good talker. There were realms of science, politics and economics in which she was wasn’t at home, but she spoke well on the national scene, the Hollywood scene, and on people who are good to know and people who ain’t. We agreed on a number of things. She sometimes threw her arms around me like people do who like each other very much.

 

The photos of their evening together are lovely.  You can see more here.

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Today I spoke with someone in deep distress. The voice on the other end of the phone droned on in a monotone occasionally punctuated with a choking sound.  Hearing pain on the other end of the phone and being unable to offer physical comfort, I was left with a constipated kind of feeling. “Time heals, ” I said, knowing those words wouldn’t be particularly helpful.

The day is weighed down with the morning’s conversation and the November rain makes it all worse.  I thought maybe I’d send a poem, so I pulled out “All Things Pass” by the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (and translated by Timothy Leary, of all people).

All Things Pass – Lao-Tzu

All things pass

A sunrise does not last all morning

All things pass

A cloudburst does not last all day

All things pass

Nor a sunset all night

All things pass

What always changes?


Earth…sky…thunder…

mountain…water…

wind…fire…lake…


These change

And if these do not last


Do man’s visions last?

Do man’s illusions?


Take things as they come


All things pass


All true, and comforting to me, as someone who is removed from the situation.  But to someone in the midst of grief or despair or even seasonal affective disorder, “All Things Pass” seems inadequate.  As true as the words are, the poem feels dismissive of deep pain, a little unfeeling.

So I turned to a short passage from a favorite novel of mine,  A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr.*  The book is narrated by a World War I veteran who spends a summer uncovering a medieval mural in a village church in the north of England, and recovering from the pain of the war and his failed marriage.  But at summer’s end, the lovely countryside, the perfect weather, the engaging work, the good friend he’s made, and the vicar’s wife he fancies must all be left behind.  He has to go back to real life.  He writes:

We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours forever—the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, a loved face.  They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

Ah, much more human.  Ask and ask.  And wait.

*Just found out that this novel was made into a movie starring Colin Firth, Natasha Richardson and Kenneth Branaugh.  On the top of my list.

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