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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.

 

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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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poem is in nook of tree in Kenwood, Maryland

poem is in nook of tree in Kenwood, Maryland

 

Barter

by Sara Teasdale

 

Life has loveliness to sell,

All beautiful and splendid things,

Blue waves whitened on a cliff,

Soaring fire that sways and sings,

And children’s faces looking up

Holding wonder like a cup.

 

Life has loveliness to sell,

Music like a curve of gold,

Scent of pine trees in the rain,

Eyes that love you, arms that hold,

And for your spirit’s still delight,

Holy thoughts that star the night.

 

Spend all you have for loveliness,

Buy it and never count the cost;

For one white singing hour of peace

Count many a year of strife well lost,

And for a breath of ecstasy

Give all you have been, or could be.

 

Image 1

 

I may have mentioned once or twice that I love the cherry blossoms. Not cherry blossoms, mind you, but the cherry blossoms, the ones that ring the Tidal Basin and the ones that form a pink tunnel on the streets of Kenwood, a neighborhood in suburban Maryland. It’s a once-a-year treat, and if you don’t live in Washington, D.C., catching them at peak is a matter of luck. Walking under cherry blossoms is one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had and the probably most ephemeral. The Japanese even have a name for it, hanami.

 

This is what the Kenwood cherry blossoms look like at peak:

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 3.17.44 PM

This is what they look like when you come too late:

Image 2

Which is what seems to happen to me year after year. Even the carpet of petals underfoot was gone. Sixty mile an hour winds two days before my visit scattered their beauty.

 

So I just had memories to go on, calling up the “breath of ecstasy” from past visits. Breath of ecstasy is what poet Sarah Teasdale names our experience of the sublime: the sight of crashing waves (what a great line—blue waves whitened on a cliff), and fire, and a child’s innocent face (another great line—holding wonder like a cup), the sound of music, the smell of pine trees in the rain.

 

These experiences, which we’ve always considered ours for the taking, as in, the best things in life are free, aren’t free at all in Teasdale’s vision. Life has loveliness to sell, she writes, and the cost is high, a year of strife, perhaps, or even all you have been, or could be.

 

I’m having trouble understanding how that barter works out in real life, how it might cost me, in real terms, to seek beauty. I’m not going to sell my house so I can live in Iceland for a year to see the northern lights. But I can see how easy it is to stay in bed instead of getting up to see a sunrise, or how much less it costs me to stay warm in front of the television instead of putting on a coat to look at a winter moon. Easier still to Google a photograph of the northern lights and tick it off my list of beautiful sights to experience. Teasdale’s poem reminds me that effort, not just attention, is required to experience such beauty, and in this post-Romantic, technology-mad world, effort is the price of loveliness.

 

It’s an old-fashioned poem, not perfect, a little clunky in parts, a little inflated in others, but there’s much to enjoy. The passion, the high-minded feeling, the Romantic yearning for the sublime—they don’t make such poems anymore. Outside of a spiritual context or yoga class, no poet today would write like this, unless the poet was being ironic. But how else to capture that most essential human feeling of being overwhelmed by beauty? We need these old poems, we need these old poets to express our awe, our wonder and straightforward joy.

 

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 4.57.17 PMSara Teasdale (1884-1933) was born in St. Louis, the youngest of four children. A sickly child, she was home-schooled till age nine. She started publishing her poems in her early twenties. Her work was well-received, and in 1917 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

 

In 1914 she married Ernst Filsinger, an admirer of her poetry, after rejecting several other proposals. They moved to New York City in 1916 and lived on the Upper East Side.

 

He travelled often, and during one of his trips, she moved away without telling him so she’d be eligible for divorce, much to his shock. They divorced in 1929. She re-kindled a friendship with an old boyfriend, poet Vladmir Lindsay. Lindsay was married by this time. He committed suicide and two years later she did at age 48.

 

A few years ago I left a poem of hers in the cosmetic aisle of Target. You can read that here.

Also worth noting:  her lyric poems seem to be popular with choral groups. Link here for one very lovely example.

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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.

 

IMG_0875

 

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 twiggy branch

poem is on twiggy branch

 

This Morning

by Javier Galvez

 

This morning

The sun broke

my window

and came in laughing

 

IMG_0542

 

 

Along the same path:

IMG_0559

Poem is in center-right of photo. Poem Elf is in black.

 

Gift

by Czeslaw Milosz

 

A day so happy.

Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.

Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.

There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.

I knew no one worth my envying him.

Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.

To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.

In my body I felt no pain.

When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.

 

IMG_0557

 

 

I just returned from beautiful New Jersey (yes, beautiful: it’s much more a garden state than an armpit) visiting my sister Wizzie.  All weekend I was charmed watching her children play outside.  A slight chill kept me indoors, observing them through the glass, but spring sunshine made the front yard irresistible to them.  My four-year old niece Emily has a presence somewhere between a fairy and an imp, both creatures most comfortable in open air. I could have watched her play for days on end.  She’d ride her scooter back and forth on the driveway, singing, laughing, sometimes frowning.  Then she’d hop off to examine the dirt or to sit talking to herself.  At one point she knelt on the front stoop, hands folded, eyes closed, praying to the “Mother of God,” as she later admitted, for favors unknown.

 

Watching her made me think about how little time I spend outdoors and how disengaged I can be when I am.  Sometimes when I’m outside it’s as if I’m checking off a list: soak up Vitamin D, check; feel gratitude for cumulus clouds, check; raise heart rate hiking up hill, check; detox lungs with cold winter air, check; and so on.  It’s a far more detached experience of nature than I had as a little girl, playing with bugs and shouting in the wind.

 

That’s why I’m so drawn to  “This Morning” and “Gift.”  Both poems describe a communion with the natural world I miss.

 

ImageThe first poem, even though the setting is indoors, captures that childlike delight in the aliveness of everything out of doors.  One of my favorite chapters in the wonderful P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins series covers a similar theme.  Seven-month old twins John and Barbara Banks, the younger siblings of Jane and Michael, lie in their cribs talking to a starling, the wind, the sun, and of course, to Mary Poppins.  The conversation is not a back-and-forth of baby babble and bird warbling, but a fully grammatical and meaningful communication.

 

“How soft, how sweet you are! I love you,” said Barbara, holding out her hands to its shining warmth.

 

“Good girl,” said the sunlight approvingly, and moved up over her cheeks and into her hair with a light caressing movement.  “Do you like the feel of me?” it said, as though it loved being praised.

 

“Dee-licious!” said Barbara, with a happy sigh.

 

Later, the twins are devastated to hear that in just a few months, when they turn one, these conversations will end.  Barbara asks Mary Poppins if she won’t be able to hear the wind anymore once her teeth come in. Mary Poppins answers with what could be a battle cry for poets everywhere:

 

“You’ll hear all right,” said Mary Poppins, “but you won’t understand.’

 

The idea that some joyful knowledge was forgotten in growing up was an entrancing idea for a girl like me who didn’t want to give up fairy tales, who looked at adolescence as loss and adulthood as the end of fun.

 

The poet’s relationship with nature in the second poem, “Gift,” is less one of giddy happiness than equanimity.  The poet works in his garden by the sea with great contentment.  Maybe it’s my age, but I’m beginning to value contentment over happiness.   It’s is the more reliable sister, the one who stays after the party to help with the dishes when happiness has flown out the door for the next gig.

 

Milosz’s contentment has a Buddhist flavor.  He’s content because he’s detached from those things that cause suffering: in order, greed, envy, bitterness, and regret. With the lifting of the fog, his vision is clear.  He’s focused on the present, not on the past or the future. It’s a cliché these days to say every day’s a gift but it probably wasn’t in 1971 when Milosz wrote the poem, and somehow even today he makes that idea as fresh as the New Jersey spring I wish would come to Michigan.

 

I left the poems on a nature trail a block from my sister’s house.  After sticking the poems on tree branches, I sat down to tea and scones with three of my sisters and my mother while my brother-in-law prepared bacon and eggs in the kitchen. I knew how lucky I was.  Like Milosz, I had no desire to be anywhere else or be anybody else.  Our time together was brief and all the more valuable for that.  A day so happy.

 

I found “This Morning” in an old college anthology of my sister’s, but I can’t find out much about poet Javier Galvez. I can only tell you he was born in 1947 and is probably a Mexican poet and wrote a book called Encanto Chicano.  Anyone know anything more?

 

Czeslaw Milosz by Faber BooksI wrote about Czeslaw Milosz in an earlier post.  If you don’t mind, I’ll just copy the biographical sketch I wrote previously:

 

Although Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) was born in Lithuania, he considered himself a Polish writer, Polish being the language his family spoke for centuries.  He grew up under Csarist rule, and later lived under Nazi occupation, during which time he worked for the resistance, and finally survived Stalinist rule before becoming an American citizen.  Fellow Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney described Milosz as “among those members of humankind who have had the ambiguous privilege of knowing and standing more reality than the rest of us.”

Milosz is considered one of the great minds and poets of the 20th century.  Fluent in five languages, he translated the Old Testament, Shakespeare and Whitman into Polish, taught Slavic languages at Berkley, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. His face has been put on a Polish postage stamp.  He’s honored in a Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and has a poem inscribed on a memorial to shipyard workers killed by Communists in Gdansk.

 

Because the poem has Buddhist overtones to me, I was interested (as I always am) in the poet’s spiritual side.  He was Catholic, but did not want to be considered a Catholic poet.  For those interested in his Catholicism, you can read his discussion of belief here.  The essay is from 1982, long before the abuse scandals, so when he writes of the “remarkable successes of American Catholicism,” he’s not being sarcastic.

 

 

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Continuing with my previous post, here’s three more poems I left behind on a recent trip to the Porcupine Mountains in Michigan’s beautiful Upper Peninsula.

Louise Gluck’s riveting “Gretel in Darkness” is a favorite poem of mine and I couldn’t resist putting it in these enchanted woods.  Gluck imagines Gretel years after she has pushed the old witch into the oven and burned her to death.  When you think about it, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder seems a much more likely outcome for fairy tale characters than Happily Ever After.

Gretel in Darkness

BY LOUISE GLÜCK

This is the world we wanted.

All who would have seen us dead

are dead. I hear the witch’s cry

break in the moonlight through a sheet

of sugar: God rewards.

Her tongue shrivels into gas. . . .

 

Now, far from women’s arms

and memory of women, in our father’s hut

we sleep, are never hungry.

Why do I not forget?

My father bars the door, bars harm

from this house, and it is years.

 

No one remembers. Even you, my brother,

summer afternoons you look at me as though

you meant to leave,

as though it never happened.

But I killed for you. I see armed firs,

the spires of that gleaming kiln—

 

Nights I turn to you to hold me

but you are not there.

Am I alone? Spies

hiss in the stillness, Hansel,

we are there still and it is real, real,

that black forest and the fire in earnest.

 

Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” I left on a trail that runs along 3 spectacular waterfalls.  (An earlier post on that poem here.) Winters in the U.P. are brutal.  My neighbor who grew up near the Porkies now wears flip flops year round because Detroit winters are just not that cold to him after a childhood of playing outside in twenty below.

And finally, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall.”  (A much longer  post on that poem here.)

Will the poem outlast the leaves?

Goodbye, U.P.!  Till next year!

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