Posts Tagged ‘old age’

We’ve nearly reached the end, folks. The last day of our terrible no-good very bad year. To close out this series, I’ve selected a gentle poem, May Sarton’s “House of Gathering.” It’s like a deep cleansing breath. I taped it to a bench in a complex where my friend Sister Pat, 80 and going strong, lives with her fellow Mercy sisters.


poem is on bench in background between statue and tree


House of Gathering

by May Sarton


If old age is a house of gathering,

Then the hands are full.

There are old trees to prune

And young plants to plant,

There are seeds to be sown.

Not less of anything

But more of everything

To care for,

To maintain,

To keep sorted out,

A profusion of people

To answer, to respond to.


But we have been ripening

To a greater ease,

Learning to accept

That all hungers cannot be fed,

That saving the world

May be a matter

Of sewing a seed

Not overturning a tyrant,

That we can do what we can.


The moment of vision,

The seizure still makes

Its relentless demands:


Work, love, be silent.




We’ve lost too many old people this year. It makes me cry every time I think of it. By God, we need them. We need their perspective. We need their wisdom. Their love.


May Sarton’s “House of Gathering” is a beautiful reminder of what we’re missing when we lose our elders. I’ve been sitting with this poem like I’d sit with a beloved grandmother, listening to her life experience, gleaning what I can for my own. Here’s three things this grandmother/poem offers us:


—A cure for our addiction to outrage


Work, love, be silent.



—A sage perspective on frustration


Learning to accept

That all hungers cannot be fed


—A call to action available to everyone


. . . saving the world

May be a matter

Of sewing a seed



Happy New Year, dear readers. I’ll be taking a short break after this marathon of postings.



Here’s a picture of Sister Pat on her 80thbirthday. Before her quarantine began in March (she was confined to her room for months), Sister worked with local immigrants. I’m sure that as soon as she gets the all-clear she’ll be back in action, spreading her love and wisdom in the community.





May Sarton (1912-1995) was born in Belgium, the only child of an artist mother and an academic father who studied the history of science. When the Germans invaded Belgium in 1914, the family fled to England, and then moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. There her father taught at Harvard.


Although she had a scholarship to Vassar, Sarton decided to become an actress. She joined a theater company, all the while writing poetry. At 19 she gave up acting and left the country to spend a year in Paris while her parents were in Lebanon. This became a lifelong annual trip to Europe. She met many of the famous writers of the day, including Poem Elf favorite Elizabeth Bowen. She published her first novel seven years later.


She had a fourteen-year relationship with Judy Matlack, an English professor. Sarton had breast cancer and later a debilitating stroke, and spent the last twenty years of her life in Maine.


In addition to a prolific output of poetry, Sarton wrote novels, memoirs, and children’s books. She toured the country giving readings to standing-room–only crowds. At various points in her life her work met with acclaim; at other times, derision. Criticism intensified the depression she suffered. Eventually her work became popular in Women’s Studies classes in universities, which did not please Sarton. She didn’t want to be known as a lesbian writer, which she considered a limiting label.


She died at age 83.


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Sorry for the blurry photo—it was taken in a moving car at 5 in the morning—but if you squint it looks like an abstract painting, rather pretty.)


Alaska With Jess

by Jacqueline Zeisloft


Whipping past black spruces and white ones, too

we weave; fast enough for falling thistles

not to land in our hair.

I am not cold


But you are.

Little complainer, I love you.

A scarf in August, shielding your soft face,

blinding you to the mountains

where I imagine we are going.


Everyone else is inside

Reading fantasy or eating soup.

The back carriage is open

To three blunt sides, as I grip

the railing and your small hand.


They say it’s twice the size of Texas.

I say we sleep in the dining car

and grow up on the rails.



Hello 2019, and in with the new, as they say. In this case, a new poet, a young woman I met at a book launch whose friend “outed” her to me as a poet. I told her I’d post one of her poems if she sent me a few, so here’s a big hearty welcome to “Alaska With Jess,” the first Poem Elf post of the year.


“Alaska With Jess” eluded me the first few times I read it. Some poems are like shy people, they need patience and time. You can’t just keep lobbing questions—What does this mean? Why this?—you have to allow the poem to unfold on its own terms.


Which it did, serendipitously. Christmas Eve on the way to the airport, poem in hand, trying to place it before the year was out, in the early cold morning in the back seat of an Uber, just my son and me beginning an adventure, our near and dear left behind and asleep, I was suddenly struck that I was living out a smaller version of the poem.


Experiencing a poem on a visceral level is a wondrous thing. Reading over the poem in the dark by light of my cell phone as we sped down the highway, I felt the excitement of the poem’s speaker as she imagines the huge mountains ahead. I looked over at my sleepy son and flushed with the tenderness she feels towards the young child in her charge who she has taken to the back of the train to showcase the view.


The speaker has made the choice of adventure over coziness. Those inside the train are settled with their soup and books. Those outside see what’s moving past, and in their mind’s eye they see the scenery ahead. Isn’t this just the thing for a new year, this gift of the young? Over and over they bring us to the world. Over and over we beg them to make life new again. There they are, perched on the back of the train, seeing what we don’t and bubbling over with excitement. How we need that.


Born in LaGrange, Illinois in 1995, poet Jacqueline Zeisloft dreamed of becoming a country music star until she decided to get her degree in English Lit at Belmont University in Nashville. Her most important influence is 20th century Scottish poet WS Graham (I’m going to look him up). She’s also inspired by Adrienne Rich, Walt Whitman, Naomi Shihab Nye, Frank O’Hara, Seamus Heaney, Sappho, e.e. cummings and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. She’s especially taken with the Beat poets.


So young, so full of creative energy and talent. Keep travelling, Jacqueline. Keep seeing the world with such excitement, and keep reporting back.


Happy New Year, everyone!




[From the Department of Shameless Plugging and also the Department of Anti-Out-With-the Old:  The book launch I mentioned above was for a book my daughter Rosemary co-edited with the dare-I-say venerable Tom McGrath, frequent commentator on this blog. Sharing the Wisdom of Time is an inspiring collection of interviews with elderly people across the world, from all walks of life, from Martin Scorsese to a blind basket weaver in Kenya. The accompanying photographs are gorgeous—each face tells its own story. The interviews cover subjects like love, work, struggle, faith, and death, and they’re all short, so you can dip in now and then and read a few whenever the need for wisdom, perspective and kindness hits. It’s a book for everyone, a beautiful reminder that what we humans have in common far outweighs what divides us. You can purchase from Loyola Press here or, for Amazon shoppers, here.]

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poem is on underside of lower log



by Ruth Stone


Like the radiator that sits

in the kitchen passing gas;

like the mop with its head

on the floor, weeping;

or the poinsettia that pretends

its leaves are flowers;

the cheap paint peels

off the steamed walls.

When you have nothing to say,

the sadness of things

speaks for you.



In a tribute to Ruth Stone on her 95th birthday, poet Sharon Olds called her the “mother of mourning, mother of humor.”  “Interim” offers a glimpse of Stone’s credentials for those honorifics.  Humor keeps company with sadness in the poet’s ramshackle room.  Stone, in her nineties with failing eyesight and hearing when this poem was published, observes the objects surrounding her with an eye original, amused and mournful all at once.  And marvelously subtle.  The flatulent radiator, weeping mop, decaying paint, and delusional poinsettia mirror her sadness but also suggest the realities of old age.


The anthropomorphism in the poem reminds me of the heroines in Disney movies.  Cheerful birds and mice assist Cinderella with her chores, Ariel’s fishy pals disrupt the prince’s ill-advised wedding; chipmunks and deer befriend lonely Sleeping Beauty.  Stone’s morose furnishings are equally helpful:  they enable her to express sadness.  But these objects embody more than just her sadness.  They embody a sweetness and generosity that are part of Ruth Stone’s legacy as a teacher and poet.  Her anthropomorphized objects kindly agree to act as her spokesperson:

When you have nothing to say,

the sadness of things

speaks for you.

In my imagined Disney movie of Stone’s life, her mop takes calls while she lies abed:  Ruth can’t come to the phone right now, she says she’s feeling blue.


With its poinsettia and working radiator, “Interim” is a winter poem, but I had reason to post it now in early—shockingly early—spring.  I’ll allow T.S. Elliot lines about April a well-deserved rest, but spring is indeed a difficult time to be sorrowful.  Nature’s tenacious drive to grow and blossom, all that juice and all that joy as Hopkins says, presents a bitter contrast to anyone weary and deadened.


I taped the poem to what’s left of a tree near a sidewalk much favored by walkers and runners.  Every time I pass by those disembodied logs, my spirit sags in sympathy.  Once upon a time a tree, with all the initiative and ingenuity of youth, grew around a power line.  And was chopped down for the effort.  The axmen left these two pieces behind as warnings to other trees, like guillotined heads impaled on spikes to dampen the rebellion.  (Writing this reminds me of something I love about  Stone: she never overwrites, overdramatizes or turns maudlin.)


Recognition came late to Stone.   She wrote in relative obscurity and poverty most of her life.  In her late eighties, she won the National Book Award and in her nineties was named the Poet Laureate of Vermont.  When she died last November at age 96, every major paper around the globe printed a worshipful obituary.

Vermont Poet Laureate Ruth Stone by The Common Wanderer


Ruth Stone (1915-2011) was born in Roanoke, Virginia but grew up in Indianapolis.  Her father was a typesetter for the Indianapolis Star and a part-time drummer whose gambling addiction kept the family in near poverty.  Still, hers was a happy childhood, full of music, literature and fun-loving relatives.  Her mother read her Tennyson while she was a toddler, and her grandmothers and aunts engaged her in their love of reading and writing.


She married young, to a chemist, had a daughter and ended the marriage when she fell in love with professor and poet Walter Stone.  They had two children together and their poetry careers were just taking off when he hung himself on a coat hook in their London apartment.  She never got over his suicide.  In an interview with NPR when she was 89, Stone said, “I think every year – let’s see, he’s been dead maybe 40–some years — I think every year or every day or something, that it won’t come back — the pain. And it always does.”


She struggled as a single mother of three girls, travelling across the country from teaching post to teaching post to support the family.  She eventually settled at SUNY Binghamton and then moved to rural Vermont.    I like this story poet Chard DiNiord tells about when he visited her towards the end of her life:

I didn’t know Ruth before I interviewed her and really didn’t know what to expect when I showed up at her rundown, three-room apartment on Waybridge Street in Middlebury, Vermont. She didn’t open the door at first, fearing, I think, that I was a scam artist. My wife sat on her porch while I went for a brief walk in the hope that she would eventually open her door. While I was gone, she looked out her kitchen window and saw my wife sitting in one of her metal chairs. Although nearly blind from a botched eye procedure, she could still make out figures and colors. She emerged from her apartment in a flannel shirt and corduroy pants and sat next to my wife, taking her hand and immediately engaging her in conversation.


And this, from the subsequent published interview:

Ruth Stone (laughing): I’m just this weird old lady.

CD: You are, and that’s a great thing.

CD:  Your humor complements your grief in a way that helps you write about loss without becoming morose.

Ruth Stone:  Yes! Ultimately, you know you can’t help it. Life turns terrible, and it’s so ridiculous, it’s just funny.


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poem got sucked into the doorway


Ode to Age


by Pablo Neruda


I don’t believe in age.


All old people


in their eyes,

a child,

and children,

at times

observe us with the

eyes of wise ancients.


Shall we measure


in meters or kilometers

or months?

How far since you were born?

How long

must you wander


like all men

instead of walking on its surface

we rest below the earth?


To the man, to the woman

who utilized their

energies, goodness, strength,

anger, love, tenderness,

to those who truly



and in their sensuality matured,

let us not apply

the measure

of a time

that may be

something else, a mineral

mantle, a solar

bird, a flower,

something, maybe,

but not a measure.


Time, metal

or bird, long

petiolate flower,



man’s life,

shower him

with blossoms

and with



or with hidden sun.

I proclaim you


not shroud,

a pristine


with treads

of air,

a suit lovingly


through springtimes

around the world.



time, I roll you up

I deposit you in my

bait box

and I am off to fish

with your long line

the fishes of the dawn!

before I re-located it

Mid-October, and summer projects lay flattened at my feet, deflated and tiresome.   The tomatoes not planted, the crab feast not hosted, the badmitton net still in its carrying case, the pedicure unscheduled, the sides of my knees never carefully and cleanly shaven.  Time to officially abandon them all.


But one such project I’m determined to finish today.  Ever since March when Professor Dean Rader in the New York Times named Pablo Neruda as the greatest poet of all time, I knew I had to poem elf him, even though I’ve always found Neruda inscrutable.  Last June I placed “Ode to Age” on a 150-year old barn in Shakopee, Minnesota.  And all summer and half into fall I’ve put off a careful reading.


So here goes.  “Ode to Age.”  Er.  Uh.  Yeah.  Okay I don’t get it.  Neruda obviously doesn’t value clarity as much as my man Billy Collins.  Or else this poem highlights an underdeveloped part of my brain in the same way moving furniture does.


Let me break it down then.  I get the first line.  I don’t believe in age.  Could be on a birthday card underneath a picture of old people tap dancing or canoodling on a merry-go-round or jumping on a trampoline (diapered, of course).


The second stanza, I get that too.  Here’s a picture of my beautiful mother (the poem is one of Mary Oliver’s) that’s a good visual representation of the child-like joie de vivre that Neruda says can exist at any age.


I start to get lost in the third stanza.  Neruda switches out the expected measurement for age (months, years) for that of distance (meters, kilometers).  How far have you lived and how long have you wandered?  Is this just a novel way of saying, it’s not how long you’ve lived, but how well?


By the fourth stanza I’ve lost my foothold, and I haven’t even gotten to the ladder with treads made of air that appears in the fifth stanza.


let us not apply

the measure

of a time

that may be

something else, a mineral

mantle, a solar

bird, a flower,

something, maybe,

but not a measure.

What does that mean?  I’m really asking.  I keep banging my head against these lines but the door is jammed.  Please help before I give myself a poetry concussion.

I try to understand by looking up words I don’t know.  Petiolate flower is a flower with leaves that have stems attached to the stalk. Not sure how that makes any difference.


Then I turn to the images.  We have a flower, the earth’s mantle, and a bird.  The first dies and comes back to life each spring, the second has existed for billions of years, and the third lives and dies as we do.  So what he’s trying to say is . . . again, help wanted!


On to the troublesome fifth stanza.  Either Neruda is off and running on a surrealistic jaunt or he’s purposely mixing metaphors to confuse his readers so much that they are propelled out of conventional ways of looking at time and age.  What I get from it are questions, which is sometimes what poems do.


What is a pristine ladder with treads of air?  Why is it pristine?  What is the syntax of these lines:

Time, metal

or bird, long

petiolate flower,



man’s life,


that is, are “metal or bird” the appositive of “time,” and are “time” and “flower” the subjects of the verb “stretch”?  Why wouldn’t “flower” also be part of the description of time? Will I ever just give it a rest and go fishing instead?


I get the general drift.  Let’s not measure our life by time but by what we’ve seen and experienced along the road.  Neruda will only compose an ode, a song of praise, to age if he re-defines how age is measured.  And in the end it’s better to go fishing than to worry about being old.


At the risk of disrespecting the greatest poet of all time, I must admit that the more I read this poem, the less I like it.  “Ode to Age” seems needlessly confusing.  And I can’t really get over using the word “utilize” un-ironically in a poem (could be a translation issue of course).  The only line I love is


I proclaim you road

not shroud.


a gust or a ghost sucked the poem in the doorway

I thought I was being artistic or at least clever when I carefully placed the poem half in and half out of the doorway of this historic building.  When I released the poem from my fingers, it was sucked inside the crack with an unexpected whoosh.  I couldn’t get it back.  Should I make something of this strange event?  The inaccessibility of the poem?   The old age of the building/tomb?  Nah.  Enough is enough.  In the words of Billy Collins, “beating it with a hose/to find out what it really means” is not what reading poetry is all about.


PPABLO NERUDA by riccardo.ilariablo Neruda (1904-1973) was born in Chile and published poems at a young age, despite his family’s disapproval.  He was active in politics, serving in diplomatic posts abroad, and was elected as a senator.  Imagine, a poet who’s electable!  He was a lifelong communist who had to live underground for two years when a right-wing government outlawed communism.  He later escaped Chile through the mountains.  At the end of his life, he helped elect his friend Salvador Allende as president of Chile.  Neruda died days after dictator Pinochet came to power and murdered Allende.  Pinochet tried unsuccessfully to outlaw public mourning for the beloved poet.


Gee, poets in other countries sure have exciting lives.


Neruda’s poetry has been translated into every major language, and he won the Nobel Prize in 1971.  His influence on 20th century poetry worldwide and his experimentation with poetic forms have given him the name of the Picasso of Poetry.


Clearly I have to give him another shot.  I’ll try again later with another poem, a different ode or one of his love poems, one that I have an emotional connection or response to, even if I don’t fully understand it.


One more thing:  I’m done with long poems.  Just doesn’t work in a blog format.

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