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There comes a time in a woman’s life where she has to let go of long-held goals and finally to admit she’s never going get into grooming or have a wardrobe that’s pulled together.

 

The same goes for an elf.

 

For a long time I’ve wanted to make this blog more polished. Someday when I have extra money, I’ve been telling myself, I’ll pay someone to re-design the website. I’ll categorize poems by occasion. Someday I’ll print out poems on vellum, tie them with ribbon, maybe laminate them. Alas, nearly six years after I launched Poem Elf, it looks no different than when I started. My blog roll is shaggy, my presentation is not user-friendly or fun. The poems I put up around town are often crumpled or crooked, reflective of my scissor skills. I still print poems on plain white paper, and tape is always visible,.

 

No surprise that this blog is lacking in visual appeal. I wasn’t the girl with the eye-catching poster at the science fair–I was the girl who got “Unsatisfactory” in Penmanship.

 

This failing was brought home recently when I became aware of two other Poem Elves. One has style, the other better graphics.

 

Annie, one of my Washington, D.C. nieces, sent me pictures of a Poem Elf she discovered on her way to work. How wonderful! I love the cherry blossom colors and graphics and the fact that these haikus will be read by hundreds of people. None of them will blow away.

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This was Annie’s favorite, and mine too

Here’s a few more she passed by:

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Turns out this is not one Poem Elf but many. These are entries to the Golden Triangle Golden Haiku Contest. Link here to see the winners and other entries. (The winner is actually one of the haikus Annie sent me.)

 

The other Poem Elf is a continent away. For Christmas this year my niece Sophia made me a calendar with pictures of her and her sister Georgie poem-elfing around Quito and her home town of Guayllabamba, Ecuador. Their mother, my sister Josie, tried to translate the Spanish poems, which is a little helpful, as I could not find any translations of these poems on line.

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Notice the fancy hat Sophia wears in every picture. It’s like a scrunched-up chef’s hat. I like her style, her sly appearance in every picture.

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See Sophia peeking out behind the wall

 

April is National Poetry Month, and I suspect we will see other Poem Elves coming out of the woodwork. Should you come across one, send me their droppings.

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poem is on bus shelter window

poem is on bus shelter window between my daughter’s hand and raised foot

 

 

For My Daughter

by Grace Paley

I wanted to bring her a chalice
or maybe a cup of love
or cool water      I wanted to sit
beside her as she rested
after the long day     I wanted to adjure
commend   admonish      saying don’t
do that   of course     wonderful   try
I wanted to help her grow old      I wanted
to say last words the words     famous
for final enlightenment      I wanted
to say them now     in case I am in
calm sleep when the last sleep strikes
or aged into disorder      I wanted to
bring her a cup of cool water

I wanted to explain     tiredness is
expected     it is even appropriate
at the end of the day

 

 

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What changes a year brings. Last year when I dropped my youngest off for her freshman year of college, I unpacked the car all the while packing in as much advice as I could. Eat healthy. Join clubs. Keep your room clean. Blah Blah blah. This year on drop-off day I almost forgot to tell her anything at all until I heard her roommate’s father tell his daughter to study hard. Oh yeah, that.

 

When I finally got around to it, my advice was much less inspiring:

Don’t sped all your money on coffees.

Get a job.

Don’t be the drunkest girl at the party.

 

What can I say, she’s got good sense, this one. Or maybe I’ve learned something.

 

Maybe I’ve learned that even if I could open up my children’s heads and pour in my life experience and wisdom like cake batter, they’d still have to figure things out themselves. They have to learn–or not learn–from their own mistakes.

 

I say maybe I’ve learned because the urge to throw advice at my kids and hope it sticks never goes away, and sometimes (often times, if I’m truthful) so overwhelming I give in.

 

This is why I love Grace Paley’s “For My Daughter.” The speaker wants to tell her daughter so many things. She wants to tell these things right now, before she dies or loses her mind. She wants to correct, praise, encourage. Control.

 

But she keeps her mouth shut.

 

The un-acted upon urge animates the poem. “But I didn’t” is the unspoken coda. The poem reminds me that however much we want to shelter our kids from hardship and steer them towards happiness, in the end we can’t.

 

Paley is master of white space and here she uses it as punctuation and almost as stage directions. (You have to look at the photograph to get an idea of the spacing. It’s hard to recreate blank spaces on WordPress.) The break before the final two lines suggest that the speaker has to slow down, sit down, catch her breath after spilling out all her urgent worries. Her mothering has exhausted her. She too is tired.

 

Paley is better known for her short stories than her poems, but I’ve always loved her poems best. They’re short stories in themselves, little snippets of real life, spoken by a person who jumps off the page with her humanity. How Paley manages to use so many Latinate words–admonish, commend, appropriate, adjure –and still make the poem sound like words caught on tape and transcribed directly amazes me. Those Latinate words play off her plain-speaking voice and echo the push-pull of the urge to say and the wisdom of not saying.

 

IMG_3436I left the poem in a bus shelter close to my daughter’s dorm. Under a nearby tree (another sheltering structure) I left an illustration by the late great Maurice Sendak of a mother transforming herself to protect her little one from the rain.

 

 

 

 

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If my last-minute words of wisdom went in one of my daughter’s ears and out the other, I hope these two postings will linger. What they both say, what I want to say to her, is this:

–I’ve got your back, always–

Or to use a few of Paley’s words,

–A cup of love/or cool water, here for you when you most need it–

 

Image 2Grace Paley was born in the Bronx in 1922 to Ukrainian Jewish parents who had been exiled by the Czar for their socialist politics. The family spoke Russian, Yiddish and English at home. She was the youngest of three, but so much younger that she was practically an only child.

 

She went to Hunter College for a year college and studied briefly with W.H. Auden at New School. At 19 she married filmmaker Jess Paley. They had two children, Nora and Danny, and later divorced.

 

She started her career as a poet, writing in the style of Auden, but in her thirties she began writing short stories about working class New Yorkers, particularly about women and mothers. She published several collections of stories, poems and essays.

 

Image 1She was a lifelong political activist, protesting the Vietnam War, nuclear proliferation, apartheid, the war in Iraq, and advocating for women’s issues. She taught at Sarah Lawrence, Columbia University and City College. She was the founder of the Greenwich Village Peace Center.

 

Her second husband, Robert Nichols, was a landscape architect and writer. The couple eventually moved to Vermont where she died in 2007 at age 84 of breast cancer.

 

You can read an interview she gave at the very end of her life here.

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Thanksgiving, the kids come home and I rejoice because at last I can delegate again.

Delegation, one of the perks of parenthood.

Delegation, how the napkins get ironed, wood hauled, dishwasher emptied, onions sliced, chairs moved, table set, chaos ordered.

Delegation, essential to any host whose hands are covered in butter and turkey bacteria.

And a boon to a Poem Elf who doesn’t have time to for elfing.

So here’s the work of my elf-ette, Anne Marie, who was sent forth with a grocery list, camera and poem fragment.

poem is on left-hand side of top-tier table

poem is on left-hand side of top-tier table

 

The fragment is the last few lines from Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.”

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Here’s the whole poem if you’re interested:

 

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

And while thanks are being considered and passed along, I want to thank you for reading this blog.

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Psst!  Poetry contest, pass it on

Psst! Poetry contest, pass it on

 

A controversial study just released by a group of historical linguists proposes that twenty-three words still in use today have survived mostly unchanged from the end of the last ice age.  Using statistics, the researchers have tried to prove that these 15,000-year old “ultraconserved” words come from one mother tongue.  That language, which they call proto-Eurasiatic, formed seven language branches which in turn led to the 700 modern languages which all share some variant of the twenty-three words.

 

True or not, the study engages the imagination.  What words were most important to the earliest civilizations and why do those words have staying power? I’m not a linguist and I’m not a poet, but the list makes me wish I were both.  There’s a poem in these words, and likely additional linguistic discoveries.

 

Eight of the words are pronouns, colorless words necessary for basic face-to-face communication: I, we, thou, ye, who, this, that, what.  Two refer to people:  mother and male/man.  One is a useful negative: not.  There are only two adjectives: old and black.  The list is rounded out by five nouns, worm, bark, hand, ashes, fire, and five verbs, to give, to pull, to spit, to flow, and to hear.

 

So here’s my own proposal:  let’s have a little poetry contest using the ultraconserved words. I’ll print the best ones on this blog, and I’ll poem-elf them as well with pictures of the poems in their new settings.

 

Here’s the rules:

  1. Poem must use at least 15 of the 23 words.
  2. Poems can be no longer than twelve lines.
  3. Poems can also be prose-poems of the same length.

 

That’s it.  Them’s all the restrictions.

 

Email your poems to poemelf@yahoo.com.  Deadline is June 1.  I’ll post a reminder/plea for entries each week till then.

 

Sorry to say there will be no prizes.  The reward is the pleasure of creating a poem within a set of boundaries, and the small recognition that comes from being published on a blog with a sympathetic audience.

 

Speaking of audience, thanks to all who visited my blog after I was “freshly pressed” a few weeks ago.  I’m delighted to have so many new readers! And amazed at how many creative blogs there are out there.

 

I’m considerably less delighted to be getting spam followers all the sudden.  Is anyone else having this problem?  I wish I could delete them.  So many spam followers are coming in that I’ve stopped visiting the blogs of new followers because I don’t want to give any satisfaction to the fake ones.

 

But again, thank you, WordPress, and thank you readers!

 

Looking forward to reading your ultraconserved poems.

 

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A dear friend gave me this elf for my birthday.  Nothing better than a gift you didn’t know you wanted, a gift that makes you feel that someone has studied you, understood you and desired to please you. I’m delighted with this felted fellow!  I see hours of amusement ahead with his pose-able body and naughty face.

The poem is taken from a book given to me by my dear friend’s sister.  I like the juxtaposition of the mischievous imp and the sweetness of the poem.  The poem speaks to me of my friend, who is recently a grandmother, and her sister, who has just today done a kindness for my niece.  I hope they won’t be offended when I say that  “craziness of a certain kind” is a quality I seek out in people, have found in them, and consider an ongoing gift they present to the world.

Gracias, sisters!

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I Have News for You
by Tony Hoagland


There are people who do not see a broken playground swing
as a symbol of ruined childhood

and there are people who don’t interpret the behavior
of a fly in a motel room as a mocking representation of their thought process.

There are people who don’t walk past an empty swimming pool
and think about past pleasures unrecoverable

and then stand there blocking the sidewalk for other pedestrians.
I have read about a town somewhere in California where human beings

do not send their sinuous feeder roots
deep into the potting soil of others’ emotional lives

as if they were greedy six-year-olds
sucking the last half-inch of milkshake up through a noisy straw;

and other persons in the Midwest who can kiss without
debating the imperialist baggage of heterosexuality.

Do you see that creamy, lemon-yellow moon?
There are some people, unlike me and you,

who do not yearn after fame or love or quantities of money as
unattainable as that moon;
thus, they do not later
have to waste more time
defaming the object of their former ardor.

Or consequently run and crucify themselves
in some solitary midnight Starbucks Golgotha.

I have news for you—
there are people who get up in the morning and cross a room

and open a window to let the sweet breeze in
and let it touch them all over their faces and bodies

I was sitting in Costco’s concrete food court with my husband as he ate lunch.

“Look around,” I said, sighing dramatically.  “Here’s the crowning glory of our consumer culture:  obesity, obesity, and more obesity.”

He glared at me.  “Can I please finish my hot dog in peace?”

Clearly I can relate to the over-thinkers poet Tony Hoagland playfully roasts in “ I Have News For You.”  It’s not always a group I want to belong to, especially after reading this poem. We over-thinkers can be such silly creatures—blocking sidewalks as we ponder our existence, scouring life for symbols and irony the way other people look for bargains and good parking spaces. If only we could stop thinking so much and simply feel the breeze at the window, swat the fly in the motel room, and gaze at the lemon-yellow moon.

I really like this poem.  I love how the title rolls right into the first line. The title, which is repeated towards the end, sounds faintly aggressive (just add “buddy” or “pal” to the end and you’ll hear it), but also humorous, a quality lacking in the over-thinkers of the poem. So despite of the fact that the poem’s speaker includes himself in this group of kill-joys (“there are people unlike me and you”), his drollery makes him a member of the other camp as well.*

The person addressed in the poem, and by extension the speaker of the poem, is the type of person who invents symbols, interprets behavior, cannibalizes friends and family for material, yearns for fame, and is tortured by failure. Sure sounds like a writer to me.

In other words, here again Hoagland (or the poem’s speaker) straddles the opposing camps of thinkers and feelers. Hoagland pokes fun at the very condition which allows him to poke fun. To write a poem about people who spend too much time making metaphors and analyzing behavior, he has to create metaphors and examine his own and his friend’s life.  He uses elevated, academic language to sharpen the humor of his judgments, and the humor provides a lightness that keeps him from becoming that which he ridicules.   (And he does have a delightful sense of humor which you can enjoy here.)

In the last section, the humor fades and the poem’s mood turns wistful.  In creating an image that is purely physical, the speaker seems to yearn for release from the burdens of abstract thought:

I have news for you—

there are people who get up in the morning and cross a room

and open a window to let the sweet breeze in

and let it touch them all over their faces and bodies


Notice the lack of end punctuation.  (Hoagland wants you to notice it.)  The phrase drifts off, very like the breeze it describes, unweighted by periods or semi-colons or intense rumination.  Or perhaps the phrase is a visual representation of the speaker’s voice trailing off, as he wanders back in his own head. (Oh dear. Have I fallen into a trap here?  Am I “sucking the last half-inch of milkshake up through the noisy straw”?)

Not for any particular reason, on a warm September weekend I taped “I Have News For You” to the deck of a beach house where I was staying for a girls’ weekend. I’d rather have posted a poem celebrating friendship, but I didn’t bring one with me. Nothing else I packed spoke to me. (Unfortunately I felt same way about my wardrobe choices.)  The very urban Grace Paley didn’t belong in the salty air; old Walt Whitman’s free spirit belonged, but no one with me would have enjoyed reading him; and the haiku I brought about gray hairs on a pillow was a downer. Hoagland earned his space by default.

But I have succeeded in fashioning a good reason for this poem-elfing because, like those tortured souls in the poem, I can wrangle connective tissue out of sand.  Some background first: the women at the beach house have been friends since high school, some even longer than that, and for twenty-one years have reunited annually.

Not one of us is quite the same as we were as teenagers—life has tossed some around more than others—and as the years go by, the differences between us are more marked. Some have eight children and others two; some have high-powered careers, others are at home; some are passionately religious and others more secular; some are Democrats, some Republican. These differences and those in marital status, income, and temperament might divide other friends, but they don’t matter to us.  We all treasure our friendship and our time together. We hang.  We sun ourselves.  We talk and advise and gossip and remember wild times.  There’s a lot of beach time, a lot of beer, some good greasy food, music and late-night dancing.  And lots of laughing.  For this weekend we leave behind worry over health issues and home life.  We’re together, we’re in the sun, baby, and it feels warm and wonderful. No over-thinking allowed.

That weekend the girls played a lot of cornhole. For the uninitiated, cornhole is a mindless beanbag tossing game.  Two teams compete to throw the bags into holes on plywood ramps. Hoagland might have observed that there were the people who played cornhole and others (okay, maybe just one person) who found it a communal evocation of scatological activity.

Someone asked me to play.  “No thanks,” I said.  “I don’t like games of accuracy.”

But I had second thoughts and tossed a few beanbags just to get over myself.  And sat back down on a lawnchair with the sun on my back and a cold, cold beer

 

*The dichotomy Hoagland sets up between people who live in their heads and those who live in their bodies reminds me of the old story about former Redskin John Riggins sitting next to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor at a black tie dinner. “Come on, Sandy baby, loosen up!” he said, shortly before passing out on the floor.

Lucky folks in the Washington area:  Tony Hoagland is giving a reading November 12 at the Library of Congress.  Look here for details.

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poem is under the white railing

 

Come, Let Us Find

by William Henry Davies

Come, let us find a cottage, love,

That’s green for half a mile around;

To laugh at every grumbling bee,

Whose sweetest blossom’s not yet found.

Where many a bird shall sing for you,

And in your garden build its nest:

They’ll sing for you as though their eggs

Were lying in your breast,

My love–

Were lying warm in your soft breast.

‘Tis strange how men find time to hate,

When life is all too short for love;

But we, away from our own kind,

A different life can live and prove.

And early on a summer’s morn,

As I go walking out with you,

We’ll help the sun with our warm breath

To clear away the dew,

My love,

To clear away the morning dew.

I began this post all a-snigger over the ironies of putting the simple and sweet “Come, Let Us Find” on the cottage of an old man gone crackers with lovers and real estate.  I do enjoy irony, perhaps more than I should; and like other overindulged pleasures, the ironies have begun to sting a bit.  The joke, as you shall see, is on me.  But first a detailing of the initial ironies:

There once was a cottage, brand new, fresh and airy with spectacular lake front views.   A local King of Retail, millionaire philanthropist and incorrigible goat of an octogenarian bought the cottage, and to the dismay of his neighbors, began a renovation to the specifications of his much-younger girlfriend. He gutted the marble bathrooms, the stone fireplace, the tongue and groove walls, the landscaping, the driveway, even the shoreline. Mind you, this cottage is in Hemingway country; but anything rustic or reminiscent of Papa’s outdoorsy early life was plastered over and covered in flagstone and Star-Trek-sized boulders.  The cottage became a pleasure dome, complete with a bunker house, an outdoor kitchen, an English-style garden, a wine cellar, workout room, and chef’s quarters.

In the course of this renovation, the King broke up with Girlfriend #1 (who should probably be named “Mistress #1,” as the King’s marriage is older than his business); found another much younger companion, Girlfriend #2, who had different ideas for the cottage (Renovation #2); was threatened with a lawsuit by GF #1; decided to sell; and most recently reunited with GF #1 who still has ideas about what the cottage should be (Renovation #3).  There’s no fool like an old fool, the neighbors muttered.

And so in spite of (well, probably because of) the “No Trespassing” signs planted everywhere, I hid “Come, Let Us Find” on the exterior of the empty, half-renovated cottage.  Sentimental, innocent, pastoral—William Henry Davies’ dream of cottage life stands in stark contrast to the betrayal, affluenza and pure waste that characterize the King’s cottage. The bad ju-ju of breakups and lawsuits, of the perfectly lovely toilet sitting forlornly on the front porch, of neglected hydrangeas and exposed tree roots spoil what should have been the most charming of love nests.  All the blueprints scattered on the granite countertops (yes, I’ve snuck in the house) have failed to create the happiness that Davies paints in this poem.  The first lines of the poem’s second stanza would be a far better guide:

‘Tis strange how men find time to hate,

When life is all too short for love


(Here again are lines worthy of memorization.  Simplistic they may be, corny even: but these lines just slay me.  The musicality, that catchy iambic tetrameter, has burned its way into my brain.  I think about those lines a lot, and not in a global “Make Love, Not War” kind of way.  I hear them in my head anytime I’m caught up in gossip or an urge to wound.)

The contrast of the two men, the retailer and the poet, makes good pickings for irony lovers as well.  The poet, born 60 years earlier than the King, was famous for being a tramp (in the lingo of the times), for living nowhere at all, for being “The People’s Poet,” a poorly educated wanderer from Wales with a talent for wordsmithing.

Davies crossed the Atlantic seven times in cattle ships, and for years road the rails across America. He lost a leg jumping on a train, which led him to take up writing. On the road decades before Kerouac, he wrote a book about his adventures called The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp that, with the help of playwright George Bernard Shaw*, became a bestseller. (And yes indeed, the rock band of “Logical Song” fame took their name from Davies’ book.) His life is fascinating, but I’ll mention only two highlights here:  late in life he married a former prostitute 30 years his junior (not unlike the King, whose GF#1 is a former exotic dancer), and lived and circulated in Bloomsbury, probably driving Virginia Woolf nuts.

Davies did not write sophisticated poetry (check out “Leisure,” his most famous), but the sentiments are real and often beautifully expressed. The first line of this poem (Come, let us find a cottage, love) echoes the first line of another famous poem, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” about the joys of rustic life:  Come live with me and be my love. He follows an age-old tradition of courting the beloved by describing the space the lovers will share when they are together.  Think of “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”; “There’s a Small Hotel” (my parents’ favorite song); “Love Shack,” and even “Thunder Road.”

Even though the poem begins with a hunt for real estate, the space the lovers will share is an entirely natural one.  The lovers are so connected to nature and integrated with their surroundings that they actually become part of it, helping the sun with its work.  How lovely is that last image of the two lovers walking about the garden, their warm breath drying up the morning dew.

Lovelier still, but much more strange, is the erotic image Davies conjures of the eggs in his lover’s breast:

They’ll sing for you as though their eggs

Were lying in your breast,

My love–

Were lying warm in your soft breast.


The sensuality of it is beyond. . . just beyond.  Wow. The nest in her garden, the warm eggs, the birdsong to bring it forth—well, he had me at nest.

I’ve been obsessed with that bizarre image for days now. I’ve finally figured out why, and this is where the irony gets personal. I thought I was clever to place this poem where it so needed to be found—but really, this poem found me.  That image of the eggs sheltered in a breast attracts and repels me because I am a woman without breasts, or real breasts anyway.  What I have on my chest are two mounds of skin and scar stretched to the limit and filled with plastic.  To imagine breasts cradling an embryo rather than hiding a mutation; holding something about to burst open with life, not death; something to be sung to, not carved out; something that rests, not something that attacks and must be killed—is all to imagine and remember the wondrous beauty of what I once had.

*Davies reminds me of Shaw’s Pygmalion character Alfred Doolittle, also a Welshman, whose speech Professor Henry Higgins describes in the play as, “Sentimental rhetoric!  That’s the Welsh strain in him.” Makes me wonder if Shaw used Davies as a basis for Doolittle.

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poem is on thin tree in center

 

Ancestors

by Angus Martin

All these people at my back,

watching me—out there—

people clothed in animal skins

and others only in body hair,

half animals themselves, poking me with sticks

in the soft parts of my unconscious,

startling me with sudden mad cries

and eliciting responses

that escape my knowledge

let alone my understanding.

I have been waking lately

in the middle of dreams, demanding

explanation, but they are secretive

and sly, and slide their sticks

under my bed and slink

along the walls, their shadowy backs

eluding me.  But sometimes I will

lie awake and catch them unawares,

crouched in the middle of my room,

shielding small fires.

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is wild, barely-inhabited country. Whenever I visit, I feel uneasy, as though a moose might charge at any moment, or the overbearing evergreens will scoop me up into their dark branches and hurl my body miles into the freezing depths of Lake Superior. In every town I’m struck by the gentle failure of attempts to civilize the place.  Most of the 50’s-era buildings are musty and run-down and clump together at crossroads, not bothering to venture into the wilderness.  Of the few human inhabitants I spot (Yoopers, they call themselves) most are big like bears, solid for cold winters. Call me cuckoo, but I love the place and make a point to go back every summer for an extended hike.

This July I brought three or four poems with me, not sure which one I would post on Grand Island, a beautiful spot across from Pictured Rocks, reached by a raggedy pontoon boat that pulls right up on the beaches. A few miles into our 10-mile hike, we happened upon a group of archeology students from Illinois State University on break from a dig, eating lunch and sunning themselves.  Which poem I would use suddenly became clear.

They gave us a tour of the dig, a shallow 10-foot area, and shared their discoveries thus far:  a handful of  “projectile points” (what we’d call arrowheads), and some French trading beads dating from the time of “Contact” of Europeans and the island’s original inhabitants. The students were a genial group, but far more interested in the past under their feet than the poem I taped to a tree above them.

I, conversely, was positively giddy.  I couldn’t believe my luck in having brought this particular poem with me. The subject matter, obviously, matched nicely with the site; but the poet, Angus Martin, was the person who first introduced me to hiking. My sister and I had stayed with him over 25 years ago on the Kintyre peninsula south of Glasgow. He was an expert hiker and could name all the plants along the way and knew which were edible; as the local historian (you can find one of his books here) and village postman, he entertained us as we walked with stories of the land and its people; and as a poet, (you can hear him here) he inspired us with his love of the Scottish countryside.

It’s tempting to apply what I know (admittedly information that’s 25 years old) of the poet to my understanding of this poem. But I’m stepping back to read “Ancestors” as if I never met him.

The speaker in the poem seems paranoid (“All these people at my back/ watching me”) and with good reason.  Cavemen in his bedroom cast shadows, cry out, poke him with sticks, and light fires. But unlike Dickens’ Scrooge, he’s strangely unspooked by these night-time visitations.  He’s amused by their nude and hairy bodies, perhaps a little unnerved, but mostly riveted by their presence in his life. The ancestors, on the other hand, seem threatened.  They avoid being seen and lope along the walls like melancholy Peter Pans of the Paleolithic age.

My understanding of the strange scenario of the poem is that the poet is having a physical experience of mental activity. He imagines his unconscious as an organ, something that can be poked at with a stick. We all experience moments when our unconscious mind takes over and we feel the power of our primeval natures.  For me, that wild spirit overwhelms me sometimes when I’m dancing (there was a reason I was seldom asked to dance in high school), or in childbirth or in another activity you can well imagine which leads to that.  These experiences are as mysterious and elusive to the conscious mind as cavemen appearing and disappearing in a 21st century bedroom. To try to capture and restrain that kind of unthinking, emotional experience into the formal setting of a poem—a poem that rhymes, even—is ambitious.  Perhaps this is the ambition of every poet.

Granted, the ancestors the archeology students unearthed were not the prehistoric ones of the poem. But the Upper Peninsula feels that way to me–pre-verbal and untouched.  It frightens and attracts me, just as the bedroom creatures affect the poet. Each visit I want to leave quickly and get back to civilization; and as soon as I cross the Mackinaw Bridge, I’m longing to go back.  Something fierce and free about the place claims me as its citizen.

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Despite good intentions (isn’t this always the way), I didn’t get much done on PoemElf during the month of August.  Vacation and sloth kept me away from the computer, and then the fall, spinal cord injury, massive infection and passing of my dear father-in-law.  I loved him so much.

On returning from his funeral, I was happy to see Wordsworth’s poem STILL on the drainpipe of the bank. Three months of summer heat and summer storms have only managed to curl the edges of the paper.  I’m rooting for it to last through winter.  I’ll keep you updated.

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