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A sunny day in northern Michigan. A long walk past farmland and on to a wooded trail. Three Seamus Heaney poems to deliver, three poems full of the most beautiful nouns and verbs but also full of death. Three watchful deer who scared the bejeebers out of me and two wrong turns that added miles to my trek. But it was a happy couple of hours nonetheless.

 

 

Each of these poems deserves a much fuller examination than the cursory notes I put here. I encourage everyone to read and re-read them. There’s more to see at every pass.

 

 

Let’s start with the least disturbing death, “Blackberry picking.” Here is the death of innocence, of beauty, of lust, take your pick. I set the poem against an electric fence bordering an organic farm that to my knowledge does not produce blackberries.

 

 

There’s gluttony and Bluebeard-level “blood” in these blackberry fields. Over-indulging leaves its mark (stains and prickles) but it’s only death (fruit fungus in this case) that ends the feeding frenzy. Pleasures of the flesh can’t last forever:

 

I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair

That all the lovely canfuls smell of rot

Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

 

 

I stuck “Man and Boy” on a hilltop tree overlooking a lake. You can just see the poem in the lower-left portion of the photo.

 

Who is man and who is boy keeps switching in this poem. The two main characters, the boy and his father, experience age in a non-linear way. Time operates in a circle, moving forward and back at once, forming unheard concentric soundwaves like the salmon’s, a perfect ring like the mower’s.

 

 

The final image almost makes me dizzy. As the speaker imagines his father running home to hear of his own father’s death, he becomes a boy on his father’s back being carried as if he were an old man. Got it? Forget it, read it for yourself.  I’ve re-printed it below because the picture is too hard to read.

 

Man and Boy

by Seamus Heaney

 

I

“Catch the old one first,”

(My father’s joke was also old, and heavy

And predictable). “Then the young ones

Will all follow, and Bob’s your uncle.”

On slow bright river evenings, the sweet time

Made him afraid we’d take too much for granted

And so our spirits must be lightly checked.

Blessed be down-to-earth! Blessed be highs!

Blessed be the detachment of dumb love

In the broad-backed, low-set man

Who feared debt all his life, but now and then

Could make a splash like the salmon he said was

“As big as a wee pork pig by the sound of it.”

 

II

In earshot of the pool where the salmon jumped

Back through its own unheard concentric soundwaves

A mower leans forever on his scythe.

He has mown himself to the centre of the field

And stands in a final perfect ring

Of sunlit stubble.

“Go and tell your father,” the mower says

(He said it to my father who told me)

“I have it mowed as clean as a new sixpence.”

My father is a barefoot boy with news,

Running at eye-level with weeds and stooks

On the afternoon of his own father’s death.

The open, black half of the half-door waits.

I feel much heat and hurry in the air.

I feel his legs and quick heels far away

And strange as my own — when he will piggyback me

At a great height, light-headed and thin-boned,

Like a witless elder rescued from the fire.

 

 

Finally, I tucked “Strange Fruit” in the bark of a fallen tree. It was here that the deer startled me.

 

“Strange Fruit” is one of the bog poems Heaney wrote about the bodies of Iron Age men and women discovered in northern Europe. Their deaths were gruesome. It would be interesting to put this “Strange Fruit” up against Billie Holliday’s. The violent tribes may have lived thousands of years apart, but ritualized murder connects them indelibly.

 

Heaney notes that Greek historian Diodorus Siculus found his ease with the likes of this, but Heaney himself seems haunted by image of the young girl defying her executioners:

Beheaded girl, outstaring axe

And beatification, outstaring

What had begun to feel like reverence.

 

 

 

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was a rock star of a poet, sometimes called “the greatest Irish poet since Yeats,” and one I had the pleasure of hearing live at a poetry reading long ago. I can’t say I understood much of what he said with his thick Irish accent, but I remember well his gentle charisma and his reading of the poem “Digging.”

 

Heaney was born in Northern Ireland, the oldest of nine children. He was raised on the family farm which figures in much of his poetry. He was also raised Catholic in a predominantly Protestant world.

 

He studied at Queen’s College in Belfast and then taught at St. Joseph’s in the same city. Later he was a revered professor at Harvard, Oxford and University of California Berkley. In 1995 he won the Nobel Prize for literature.

 

He and his wife were married for forty-eight years and had three children together. He died unexpectedly at age 74.

 

This biography is much too short to capture his contributions. I’m feeling lazy, so link here to read more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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poem is on the railing

 

The Birds Have Vanished Into the Sky

by Li Po

 

The birds have vanished into the sky,

and now the last cloud drains away.

 

We sit together, the mountain and me,

until only the mountain remains.

 

 

 

A cable car ride up Austria’s Zwolferhorn led to this view of the Alps, a pretty sweet spot to leave a poem about mountains and time and mortality.

 

Li Po (his name is also translated as Li Bai and Li Bo) was born in present-day Kryrzstan sometime around 701 and raised in present-day Chengdu. He led a full life, to say the least. In his teens he killed a few men (for reasons of chivalry, according to Wikipedia). In his twenties he wandered and gave away most of his money. He served at court, was expelled from court, led a revolt, was charged with treason, was pardoned, wandered again, and was very often drunk. He married four times. He died in 762, most likely of cirrhosis, although legend has it that he died trying to embrace the moon’s reflection in the water. Because he was sitting drunk in a canoe.

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It’s just-spring here in Michigan and each little green shoot is a jigger of encouragement. So is this poem, “Thank You” by Ross Gay, which I left in a pile of dead leaves at the end of a church parking lot.

 

Thank You
by Ross Gay
If you find yourself half naked
and barefoot in the frosty grass, hearing,
again, the earth’s great, sonorous moan that says
you are the air of the now and gone, that says
all you love will turn to dust,
and will meet you there, do not
raise your fist. Do not raise
your small voice against it. And do not
take cover. Instead, curl your toes
into the grass, watch the cloud
ascending from your lips. Walk
through the garden’s dormant splendor.
Say only, thank you.
Thank you.

 

Seasonally this poem is off—it’s set in late fall—but existential crises come year-round.

 

Ross Gay was born in 1974 in Youngstown, Ohio but grew up in Pennsylvania. He teaches at Indiana University and Drew University’s low-residency MFA program. He’s won many awards, among them a Cave Canem Workshop fellowship.

 

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File under Best Laid Plans. Nearly two years ago I resolved (publicly, unfortunately) to use up my stash of poems by posting several a week. Of course they’re still here. They’ve even grown in number. All the crinkled slips of paper stuffed in my Poem Elf bag like old underwear—I can’t bear to throw them out when they still hold shape, ratty though they are.

 

But a Thoughtful Reader (see comment at end of linked post) reminded me it’s National Poetry Month, and National Poetry Month is as good as a spring cleaning for a poem-hoarder. I’m re-upping my pledge to post poems with minimal commentary on as many days of the month as I can, here on the blog and on Twitter, in hopes of getting rid of most of them.

 

Let’s get on with it.

 

I poked a stick through Li Po’s “The Cold Clear Spring at Nanyang” along the banks of a not-entirely clear cold spring.

 

 

The Cold Clear Spring at Nanyang

by Li Po

 

A pity it is evening, yet

I do love the water of this spring

seeing how clear it is, how clean;

rays of sunset gleam on it,

lighting up its ripples, making it

one with those who travel

the roads; I turn and face

the moon; sing it a song, then

listen to the sound of the wind

amongst the pines.

 

Singing a song to the moon, I love that.

 

Li Po (701-762) was the most famous Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty, also known as the Golden Age of Chinese Poetry.

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To the mountain of tributes to the great Mary Oliver, I add this little pebble.

 

In a world with so many hysterical people running loose, shouting and fighting and festering outrage, I miss her. Or I miss the idea of her, the poet walking along the shore in her barn jacket, quiet and alone, observing. This wise chronicler of grief and joy, confusion and discovery, this plain-dressing, plain-spoken witness to the extravagant beauty of the natural world, this translator of the unvoiced spiritual impulse, this New England gal, our very own American Rumi—is gone, alas. Fortunately her poems are here to stay. She’ll be read for ages.

 

 

The poem below is not one of her greatest hits, but I’ve been thinking about it since I came across it. Like so many of her poems, it’s planted a seed in my soul that has taken root.

 

This Morning

by Mary Oliver

 

This morning the redbirds’ eggs

have hatched and already the chicks

are chirping for food. They don’t

know where it’s coming from, they

just keep shouting, “More! More!”

As to anything else, they haven’t

had a single thought. Their eyes

haven’t yet opened, they know nothing

about the sky that’s waiting. Or

the thousands, the millions of trees.

They don’t even know they have wings.

 

And just like that, like a simple

neighborhood event, a miracle is

taking place.

*. *. *

Spend today—spend tomorrow, spend every day of the rest of your life for Pete’s sake—thinking about those little birds and what they don’t know. The trees that await. The wings waiting to be used. So much is beyond our perception. Again and again in her long career Oliver lifted the veil and gave us a glimpse of the trees, the sky, our wings.

 

R.I.P. Mary Oliver. With thanks from a grateful reader.

 

They don’t even know they have wings. 

 

 

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The Sun

by Judah Al-Harizi

 

Look: the sun has spread its wings

over the earth to dispel the darkness.

 

Like a great tree, with its roots in heaven,

and its branches reaching down to the earth.

 

 

Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up to headline like this:

 

SUN DISPELS DARKESS

 

But it’s not news and it will never be news because it happens every day. A poem like this makes it a wonder all over again. The sun and its rays an upside-down tree? I’ll carry that image around with me all this gloomy October day.

 

I left the picture at the sublime Lake of the Clouds in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

 

Rabbi Judah Ben Solomon Al-Harizi (1160-1230) was a doctor, poet and translator. He was born in Spain in the Middle Ages. His works are well-known, but his personal life is not. All I can report is that he translated Aristotle into Hebrew, traveled throughout the Middle East, and was supported by wealthy patrons.

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poem is to right of trail, in weeds

poem is to right of trail, in weeds

 

Sometimes, the Field

by Holly Wren Spaulding

 

Sometimes I bring my hunger to the field.

I sidestep the soft mounds,

the ants at their labor,

their back and forth with grains of sand.

 

I wait in the milkweed and withering thistle,

all of it turning and rustling in the wind.

I mean to come clean of everything—

no reason to want what isn’t.

 

Birds announce the coming storm—

they fly among the branches

not crashing into anything.

Dark with the next thought,

the ground is a wet reek

of old leaves and battered grasses.

It fills my mouth.

I am a wet outline now.

 

Now I am on my knees remembering

the summer we drove west

through humid hill country,

Chicago blues on the radio like it was 1940.

Fields flooded and the river

swelled near the trestles

and freight trains passed us all night

and then it was morning.

Image 1

apologies to Ms. Spaulding for the misspelling of her name in the photo

 

My poem-elf fantasy—and one of the reasons I write this blog—is that a poem I leave behind falls into the right hands at just the right time, and a life is enriched, a perspective altered, an experience understood. When I place a poem in a tree or on a sidewalk or store shelf, I always imagine the person who finds it. Let’s call that fantasy, named after today’s poem, “Sometimes, a poem.” As in, sometimes a poem can change everything. But also, sometimes a poem changes just a little thing. Even a little thing is a lot work for a few words to do.

 

Unfortunately, the only time I’ve been aware of Sometimes, a poem happening, it’s been happening to me. And once again, Poem Elf has elf-ed herself. “Sometimes, the Field” caught me unawares even after I had chosen it, printed it, and thought about where to put it. Over several readings, the poem illuminated an experience I had had. There was no lightening bolt of understanding—just a burrowing into my conscious life and a permanent residency there.

 

I came across this poem because poet Holly Wren Spaulding made a comment on Poem Elf. Her beautiful name intrigued me. Turns out she’s a poet who spends summers in northern Michigan, as I do. I decided to put one of her poems up north, in its native habitat, so to speak. When I looked through her work, my choice was instinctive: “Sometimes, the Field.”

 

I have my own field, you see, but I’ll get to that later. First, Spaulding’s field.

 

The field in the poem is dark and moody, full of movement and the drama of a coming storm. The poem’s speaker has come here with a restlessness of her own, a soulful hunger. She wants something. What she wants is not to have the hunger she came with.

 

I mean to come clean of everything—

No reason to want what isn’t.

 

As she steps into the field, she observes her environs with a quiet respect that draws me in. Somehow the way she knows her place in the field makes me feel tender to her. She sidesteps the ants’ work. She waits quietly in the weeds and wet earth. She admires the skill of the birds not crashing into the wildly flying branches.

 

As she waits in the milkweed and withering thistle, she becomes absorbed into the landscape, and the external and internal storms come together:

 

It fills my mouth.

I am a wet outline now.

 

The heavy humid air has connected her to the memory of a long ago road trip, a lost romance. Overwhelmed with grief, she falls to her knees.

 

We don’t know if the storm will wash away her pain. She may well leave the field with the same hunger she came in with, the wanting what isn’t. But at least she’s been able to mourn it openly, dramatically. Cathartically, I hope.

 

My tenderness for this speaker grows as I picture her on her knees in the open field, weeping, giving over her body to grief. The field allows her to express emotion un-self-consciously, a great gift. You can’t cry this way in a cubicle or mall unless you enjoy being stared at or whispered about. If you fall on your knees anywhere but church, someone will call an ambulance.

 

This is where my field comes in.

 

Image 6

the trail to my field

My field is on the grounds of Michigania, a family camp for alumni of University of Michigan. I am something of a trespasser. To get to there, I walk through woods along a sandy horse trail, up hills and down hills, the track narrowing then widening. Around the final bend, the path opens to a meadow. When I see the sky uncovered, the hills in full sun, the tall grasses leaning in light wind, the crickets jumping at my every footfall, something breaks open in me. Usually it’s a joyful expansiveness, a Julie-Andrews-twirl-in-the-mountains feeling. But lately something darker breaks out. A sob. Then weeping. Weeping like I haven’t wept since I was fourteen and watched West Side Story for the first time.

 

 

Regular readers of this blog know that I lost my mother a few months ago. I’ve been grieving in a typically Western way—-trying to keep busy and not giving in to moping and tears. So the first time I started crying in the Michigania field, I was surprised. It started with just a stray thought of my mom. Then an intense longing for her, which I had pushed down, down, down, took over me completely.

 

Jane in the field

Jane in the field

The crying happened on my hikes a few more times, but I wasn’t surprised anymore. I figured tears came because I was alone and there was no one near I had to explain myself to.

 

leaving

leaving

But I’m also alone in my room, in my car, on walks through my subdivision, and I don’t cry in those places. Spaulding’s poem clarified the situation. In the field, I’m able to feel. Some connection with nature or my own wild self opens things up. I leave it to someone else to analyze why nature provides this outlet and man-made spaces don’t. I just know I’m grateful to the field and to “Sometimes, the Field.”

 

There’s a passage from the beautiful novel A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr that I’ve quoted on this blog before, but Spaulding’s field poem and my experience in the field call for me to post it again:

 

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

 

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 3.25.53 PM

 

Holly Wren Spaulding’s connection to nature seems destined from the start. Her parents named her after a character called “Wren of the Woods” in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer. She grew up in the woods in northern Michigan, off the grid in a “pretty 19th century style of life,” as she details in this podcast about her own creative development. The family homesteaded in an experimental collective living community where she and her siblings chopped wood and carried water.

 

She now lives in Williamsburg, Massachusetts where she runs Poetry Forge, another sort of collective space, this one for poets. You can read more about it here. In the summer she teaches creative writing at Interlochen in northern Michigan, including a class she teaches with her mother, artist Carol Spaulding.

 

She’s been widely published in literary journals and nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. She regularly collaborates with other artists, including this lovely project, a poetry-in-public-space installation called Urban Renga.

 

One last picture . . . a stray ant on her poem

a stray ant on her poem

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