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Learning the definition of a word sometimes makes a big difference. Take friluftsliv. I heard about the-now trendy Norwegian word early on this year and I’m not exaggerating when I say it greatly improved my attitude towards pared-down pandemic life. Friluftsliv translates to “open-air living” and means embracing the outdoors, no matter the weather. Just knowing the word motivated me to make friends with my former enemies, the wind and the cold.

 

I mention this because I’ve been spending a few days with other words, some also unfamiliar, and find that my connection to nature has deepened because of it. Holly Wren Spaulding’s latest collection of poems, Familiars, takes as it starting point words that The Oxford Junior Dictionary removed in recent years in the name of keeping pace with changing times. Fifty nature words were discarded in favor of more—unfortunately—familiar words to children. Chatroom for chestnut, cut and paste for catkin, bullet-point for bluebell—it’s a disheartening list. Spaulding writes in an author’s note that the removal shows “language seeming to symbolize and further the growing separation of humanity from the rest of nature.”

 

 

Spaulding scoops up the discarded words, dusts them off, and breathes life into them. The words and the poems they inspire become connective tissue between humans (“travelers” in the lingo of the book) and nature (“inhabitants”). The thirty-six poems in the book are titled with words not found in the children’s dictionary—bullock, adder, gorse, conker, to name a few—and though the poems are brief, some as short as a mere two lines, they’re as dense as walnuts, with much to discover inside.

 

Take “Heather,” here in its entirety:

 

Not a low fog above all.

 

The birth of mauve.

 

 

A paragraph of prose wouldn’t cover the story told here. And I’ll never experience a field of heather in the same way again.

 

The title itself, Familiars, works on two levels—both that each poem makes the unfamiliar familiar, and that each word represents an organism already familiar, that is, part of our earthly family.

 

As with any family, humor is always a reliable connector, like here in “Ox”—

 

Don’t think

 

I never wonder

 

what else I

 

might have been.

 

Poems are told from different points of view, human, vegetable and animal, divided into sections in the book. The third and final section, “Foretellings,” brings together all the voices in response to a future ecological disaster. But Spaulding is no dystopian poet. The collection closes out on a hopeful note of repair and healing with “Pansy”—

 

Ten thousand emissaries

 

blue, white, yellow, maroon—

 

an end to hostilities.

 

  

It’s no small thing to say the cover, like the book, is lush and gorgeous. The painting is called “Undergrowth” by Eliot Hodgkin. It’s so lovely you’ll want to leave the book laying about. That way you may find yourself picking it up often, finding the beauty within, re-connecting with family, creating the home you’ve always longed for.

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I asked my daughter to poem-elf two poems from the collection in northern Michigan where she lives and where Spaulding is originally from. I’ll feature those in my next post.

 

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Here’s a bio of Spaulding from a previous post

 

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 founded Poetry Forge, another sort of collective space, this one for poets. You can read more about her vision for the project and her personal history 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 lives in Kittery Point, Maine with her family.

 

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.

 

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The Darkling Thrush

by Thomas Hardy

 

I leant upon a coppice gate

When Frost was spectre-grey,

And Winter’s dregs made desolate

The weakening eye of day.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

Like strings of broken lyres,

And all mankind that haunted nigh

Had sought their household fires.

 

The land’s sharp features seemed to be

The Century’s corpse outleant,

His crypt the cloudy canopy,

The wind his death-lament.

The ancient pulse of germ and birth

Was shrunken hard and dry,

And every spirit upon earth

Seemed fervourless as I.

 

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited;

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

Upon the growing gloom.

 

So little cause for carolings

Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.

 

 

A post-funeral party for my mother at the family home. Our next door neighbor’s oldest son, Charlie as I knew him from childhood, now Chuck, came to fetch his mother and ended up staying for drinks and conversation. We’d never spoken more than a few words before—when I was a little girl he was already a teenager—but that evening we discovered a mutual love of poetry. Just not the same kind of poems. He gravitated to poems that were dense, lyrical, metaphysical, while my taste was . . . not that.

 

I asked him to give me his favorite poem for a Poem Elf “assignment.” He emailed me a George Herbert number that I was too lazy to deal with. He sent two more options, an Emily Dickinson poem (the very difficult Miss Dickinson, no thank you) and this Hardy poem. I glanced at it, printed it out and planned to get to it soon-ish, applying the same effort I give to annual plans to touch my toes.

 

Almost five years later “The Darkling Thrush” turned up and I thought, just get’er done. The timing proved—I hesitate to say “serendipitous” because recent events are too dark for that word. Let’s say the timing fills me with wonder, considering that I truly I had not read this poem ever, at all, and had no idea what it was about.

 

After the year we’ve had—and I’m talking about 2021—any poem that offers light in darkness is a welcome guest in my head.  But this one is just beyond. So beautiful, so un-treacly, so begging to be read out loud and memorized, so seasonally and emotionally timely.

 

Charlie, forgive me, I won’t be offering an in-depth look at “The Darkling Thrush” however much the poem deserves such scrutiny. My completed assignment is just the sound of oohs and ahhs and a big “Come outside and look at the moon!” scrawled across my blue book. (If you want a meatier but still accessible discussion of the poem, link here.)

 

Hardy’s language is dazzling; the world it creates is not. Everything is gray, broken, lifeless. It brings to mind black-and-white Bedford Falls sans George Bailey. And just like “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Hardy’s world is mesmerizing even in its ugliness. Here’s his description of the barrenness of winter—

 

The ancient pulse of germ and birth

      Was shrunken hard and dry

 

Here’s what he sees when he looks up—

 

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

      Like strings of broken lyres

 

(FYI bine is basically a hard vine.)

 

It’s deathly quiet there by the coppice gate. Nature’s lyre is silenced so to speak, and there’s no human chatter because they’ve all gone home to warm up. Image after image, the poem is relentlessly visual until a joyful noise breaks through the bleakness.

 

Wonderful that the thrush is an old one. The quality of hope would be different if a Shirley Temple bird sang rather than one who’s been around the block and still sees reason to warble —

 

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

      In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

      Upon the growing gloom.

 

And then we come to that last stanza. Doesn’t it feel that it’s been written for us, for right now, for this winter, for this uneasy moment?

 

So little cause for carolings

      Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

      Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

      His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

      And I was unaware.

 

 

Darkling thrush, wherever you are, show yourself! We are in need of your song.

 

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I wondered what a thrush looks like and discovered there are many varieties of thrush, each with its own look and sound. I’ve narrowed down the list of Hardy’s bird to two kinds, the song thrush and the mistle thrush. Both live in the southwest of England where he lived, both sing in the late evening and both sing in winter. Of the two, I’m pretty certain The Darkling Thrush is the mistle thrush because they enjoy singing in the worst of weather. Enjoy the video below, “Know Your Thrushes.” Getting to know your thrushes is a very pleasant distraction indeed.

 

 

 

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Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was born the oldest of four in a small village forty-some miles southwest of Stonehenge. His father was a stonemason and fiddler. He was a sickly child and as an adult was a very small man, barely over five feet, a fact I mention because some compare the tiny thrush to Hardy himself.

 

He was an architectural apprentice in London but missed the rural landscape he grew up in. He worked as an ecclesiastic architect for ten years in London and Dorset, writing in his spare time and publishing an unsuccessful novel. He married and moved back to Dorset where designed and built his house, Max Gate, now part of the National Trust. Eventually he was able to make a living solely from writing.

 

He became estranged from his first wife, supposedly in part because she objected to the dark view of marriage he presented in his novels. When she died he married his secretary, 39 years his junior, but mourned his first wife the rest of his life.

 

Hardy considered himself primarily a poet, but I suspect most people know him as I do, as the writer of those wonderful, big depressing Victorian novels like Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. He wrote fourteen novels altogether (and they are all long) and loads of poetry which influenced the likes of Auden, Frost and Larkin.

 

He was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died at age 87. A  controversy over where he was to be buried was resolved when his heart was interred next to his wife’s grave in his native village and his ashes in Westminster Abby Poet’s corner.

 

 

 

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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.

Speak.

 

 

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.

Speak.

 

—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.

 

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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.

 

 

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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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Poet Charles Bukowski has the dubious honor of being featured twice in the Poem Elf 2020 Countdown. I guess his dark sensibility and wild spirit resonate with me in a chaotic year.

With only three more days till we start afresh—or hope to God we do—let’s look at one of the many unpleasant gifts 2020 has bequeathed us:  foundational loss.  I taped Bukowski’s “pull a string, a puppet moves. . .”  to a lamppost in a tony shopping district in suburban Detroit.

pull a string, a puppet moves …

by Charles Bukowski

each man must realize

that it can all disappear very

quickly:

the cat, the woman, the job,

the front tire,

the bed, the walls, the

room; all our necessities

including love,

rest on foundations of sand —

and any given cause,

no matter how unrelated:

the death of a boy in Hong Kong

or a blizzard in Omaha …

can serve as your undoing.

all your chinaware crashing to the

kitchen floor, your girl will enter

and you’ll be standing, drunk,

in the center of it and she’ll ask:

my god, what’s the matter?

and you’ll answer: I don’t know,

I don’t know …

For a poem that was written in the early 70’s, “pull a string” has really found its moment this year. Amazing how predictive it is. Surely Bukowski had no idea what would be manifest in March 2020—

each man must realize

that it can all disappear very

quickly

So many things we took for granted are gone. Poof! as my Polish friend likes to say. No need for a list of what’s been lost. Undoubtedly you’ve made your own. Bukowski has his–

the cat, the woman, the job,

the front tire,

the bed, the walls, the

room

The second half of the poem paints a picture of the downside of our interconnected world. The details are different in Bukowski’s poem—

the death of a boy in Hong Kong

or a blizzard in Omaha …

can serve as your undoing

—but the truth holds. Virus in one small part of the world, millions of deaths every else; environmental disaster in one city, supply lines shut-down for local businesses thousands of miles away, revenue lost, livelihoods at risk. The fabled butterfly effect is real, never more so than in a pandemic.

The title suggests that a malicious puppet master is at work. An unknowable force sets chaos in motion, leaving us helpless and confused. In the wake of our destruction and self destruction we stumble, we rage. I don’t think that chinaware crashed itself to the ground.

Dark stuff. But don’t worry, I’m closing out the series with two poems to lighten the darkness.

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Below is a bio of Bukowski from a previous post. But first, an inspirational video about his life with a great message for anyone struggling to find their way.

Charles Bukowski, cult favorite poet of the low life, was born in Germany in 1920 to an American soldier and German mother. When he was two, his family moved to Baltimore, eventually settling in California. He had a tough start in life, and his subsequent alcoholism is not surprising:  beaten by his father, bullied by peers, and rejected by girls for his bad complexion and the German clothes he was forced to wear. At age thirteen a friend introduced him to alcohol and it was off to the races.

He went to Los Angeles City College for a few years and then moved to New York to become a writer. Lack of success in publishing led to a ten-year cross-country binge of heavy drinking, an enlarged liver, bleeding ulcer, and a close-call with death. He scaled back and took up writing again, publishing his first poem at age 35. He supported his writing with a variety of jobs including truck-driving, elevator operating and dishwashing. His steadiest employment was with the post office.

He was married twice and had a daughter with a live-in girlfriend he called “old snaggle-tooth.” Ouch.

He was a prolific writer. He wrote a column for an underground newspaper, published six novels, multiple volumes of poetry, short stories, essays, and letters, and several screenplays including Barfly.

He died of leukemia in 1994. He’s another poet who deserves more of a biography than I have time to give him. To get a better flavor of his big, big life and personality, link to his obituary here or here.

Note:  he did not say “Find what you love and let it kill you,” a phrase often attributed to him. That was singer-songwriter Kinky Friedman.

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Anyone still here? The countdown series is winding down—only four more days. The poems will be dark for the next seventy-two hours but I promise to close out 2020 on a positive note.

 

Today we look at the forgotten sister of the Family Annus Horribilis, climate change. Just as ugly as her siblings but unnoticed amidst their headline-stealing escapades.

 

I left Ko Un’s poem “In the old days a poet once said” at a gas station.

 

poem is on pillar

 

In the old days a poet once said

by Ko Un

 

In the old days a poet once said

our nation is destroyed

yet the mountains and rivers survive

 

Today’s poet says

the mountains and rivers are destroyed

yet our nation survives

 

Tomorrow’s poet will say

the mountains and rivers are destroyed

our nation is destroyed and Alas!

you and I are completely destroyed

 

 

(The repetition of the first line in the photographed poem is my error.)

 

We’ve been so consumed with the virus and politics in 2020, it’s easy to forget it’s also been a year of record-breaking natural disasters. Just here in the United States we’ve experienced a record number of hurricanes, we’ve had wildfires in California, Oregon and Colorado that destroyed more acreage than any fire ever, record heat, terrible flooding (remember the dam collapse in Midland, Michigan? me either and I live in Michigan). Worldwide the story gets worse—oil spills, volcano eruptions, typhoons, bushfires.

 

When I was looking for a poem to mark the year’s environmental disasters, Ko Un’s “In the old days a poet once said” was the shortest, simplest, and to my mind, most powerful. This is a grim little poem made slightly less grim (Grimm?) by the fairy tale overtones. In the old days, the poem begins, and the parallel structure of the tidy triad keeps the horrors in check. Even the Alas! (which holds the single end mark punctuation in the whole poem) is a light and fanciful touch given the outcome predicted. It all makes for a poem that’s hard to forget.

 

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I’ve never come across a poet with a more eventful life than Ko Un. Whatever could befall one human being—war, deafness, spiritual conversion, suicide, alcoholism, imprisonment, torture, literary stardom, and sadly, late-life accusations of sexual harassment and subsequent cultural “cancellation,” Ko Un has been through it. He’s a superstar (or was) in Korea but is only gradually becoming known outside his native country. For much of his life a repressive government prevented his work from being translated.

 

Ko Un was born in 1933 in Korea to a peasant family. During the Korean War he was forced to be a gravedigger. He was so traumatized by violence and death he poured acid in his ear to stop the noise, leaving him deaf. He entered a Buddhist monastery in 1952, but left after ten years. He fell into despair, drinking and writing nihilist poetry. In the 70’s, inspired by a newspaper article on the self-immolation of a political protestor, he committed himself to fight for human rights and democracy against the military dictatorship. He was arrested, imprisoned three times, beaten and tortured.

 

In 1983 he was freed from prison, got married, had a daughter, moved to the countryside. He has  published over 135 books, and has been considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

 

In 2018 allegations of sexual harassment led to his poems being removed from South Korean textbooks. Ko Un denied the charges.

 

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Today, on the eighth day till the end of 2020, let’s spend a moment, if you have it, with poet Miguel Algarín. Like Naomi Long Madgett and Natan Zach, he died this past November.

 

Today is also Christmas Eve, a day of anticipation, and so Algarín ‘s poem “Not Tonight but Tomorrow” seems just the thing. I left the poem in three places, the first one, featured below, on a telephone pole in a neighborhood in Detroit.

 

 

Not Tonight but Tomorrow (1978)

by Miguel Algarín

 

Not tonight but tomorrow

when the light turns the peach

tree green and the Earth sprouts

its young leaves looking to repeat

the magical mystery tour of

photosynthetic conversion of light

and moisture into life—

Not tonight but tomorrow

when my body will have shed

its fear of turning old and soft

will I turn my speeding mind

into the tunnels of your psyche

to melt the calcium that constipates

your synapses into a lubricating powder—

Not tonight but tomorrow

when the Universe moves on

beyond the field of action

that is the Earth to me and you

will I discover the interplanetary clues

that signal the roots of my moment to you—

Not tonight but tomorrow

will I throw my feelings into

New York streets to stew

in the violence and despair

of our planet—

Not tonight but tomorrow

will the Earth turn green again.

 

 

I’m short on time this Christmas Eve, so this post will be photo-heavy and text-brief.

 

There’s a lot going on in this poem and I’m not sure I get all the particulars. . .  science and metaphysics were never my bag . . . but without understanding every phrase, I feel the energy of the speaker, spilling over line by line. I feel his hope. Are there more hopeful words than “Not tonight but tomorrow”? It’s what I leave you with on this Christmas Eve. And a few pictures.

 

I taped another copy of the poem near the entrance to the emergency room at our local hospital. (It was impossible to get nearer without paying for parking.)

 

poem is on orange traffic cone

 

Like everyone else, I am grateful to and concerned for our health care workers and for their patients struggling to survive. A prayer (or a wish if you like) for them in the dark of a winter pandemic surge—

 

Not tonight but tomorrow

will the Earth turn green again.

 

 

 

I gave a third copy to a man named Terrence who I met delivering a different poem (“Midway”) in downtown Detroit. You see him here, he has no gloves, and it was cold.

 

 

“Can I keep it?” he asked. Maybe he was humoring me, but he seemed glad to have it. When I told him it was a poem about hope, he said, “I can use some of that.”

 

Can’t we all? Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all. I’ll be back next week.

 

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Short bio because there’s lots of cooking to do. Link here for a good obituary. He had a big, impactful life.

 

Miguel Algarín was born in Puerto Rico in 1941. His family moved to New York City in 1950. He got his bachelors from University of Wisconsin, his masters at Pennsylvania State University and his PhD in comparative literature at Rutgers, where he later taught Shakespeare.

 

He started a salon of sorts in his East Village apartment, and needing more space, opened the Nuyorican Poets Café on the lower east side. It became a famous and beloved performance space.

 

He died at age 79.

 

Note:  The majority of pictures of Algarín show him laughing. Must have been a lovely fellow.

 

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With only nine days left in 2020, I’m here to celebrate the end of toxic politics in 2021!

 

Just give me ten minutes to land my spacecraft on planet Earth and the festivities will begin.

 

Alas, hate-filled political divides aren’t going anywhere. But before we enter into any poisonous conversations over the holidays, Tomas Tranströmer’s little 5-line poem might give us pause. Pause as in, “hit pause, close mouth.” I taped “Conflict” to an empty chair outside a café in Detroit’s Corktown.

 

poem is on leg of stacked chair

 

Conflict

by Tomas Tranströmer

 

After a political argument or wrangle, I become lonesome,

An empty chair opens out into the night sky.

There is no way back. My friend leaves the house.

A heavy moving van rumbles by on the road.

My eyes rest there like wide-awake stones.

 

 

After a political argument or wrangle, I become lonesome, the speaker of “Conflict” says, plainly.

 

I’m not used to hearing anyone, least of all men, speak so honestly in regard to political discussions.

 

The poem is so true it’s like an examination of conscience. It brings up memories of this past year when I couldn’t keep my big mouth shut, stop my eyes from rolling dramatically, my volume from rising beyond what is necessary for indoor conversations. (For those familiar with Enneagram, no surprise that I am a One. The need to be right is strong in me.)

 

In just a few lines Tranströmer captures the heaviness of such disagreements. The conflict has brought a deadening weight to the speaker’s heart, to the room, to the street. And what good has come from arguing? None. Absence, loneliness—and, the speaker says, permanent damage to the relationship—

 

There is no way back.

 

A mantra for the next time I’m tempted to be right at all costs.

 

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Tranströmer has been called Sweden’s Robert Frost. Here’s a bio from a previous post:

 

Tranströmer (1931-2015) was born in Stockholm, the only child of a journalist and teacher. His parents divorced when he was young. At Stockholm University he studied poetry, psychology, religion, and history, eventually earning his PhD in psychology. Throughout his life he worked with juvenile offenders, the disabled, and drug addicts.

 

He published poetry all the while and became close friends with poet Robert Bly who translated his poems to English and help popularize him in the States. When Tranströmer was 59, he suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on one side of his body. Six years after his stroke he was able to publish another collection of poems. He also re-learned how to play the piano, a lifelong hobby, using only his left hand. Link here for a beautiful video of him playing the piano weeks before his death.

 

Tranströmer’s poems are read the world over, from China to the Middle East. His work has been translated into sixty languages. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011.

 

He won many other awards in his lifetime, but the tributes that interest me most are personal ones, tributes that show just how revered he was/is in his native country. A scientist who discovered a new species of beetle named it after Tranströmer, who was an amateur entomologist and whose childhood collection of bugs was once shown at a museum. And after his stroke, several composers wrote pieces for just the left hand so he could play them.

 

One of his two daughters is a concert singer, and many of his poems have been set to music. Link here for one example.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Only ten more days till the end of 2020. Let’s spend a moment with beloved Detroit poet Naomi Long Madgett who died this past November. I put her poem “Midway” on the “Transcending” sculpture on the riverfront in Hart Plaza.

 

poem is taped to lightpost

 

MIDWAY

by Naomi Long Madgett

 

I’ve come this far to freedom and I won’t turn back

I’m climbing to the highway from my old dirt track

I’m coming and I’m going

And I’m stretching and I’m growing

And I’ll reap what I’ve been sowing or my skin’s not black

 

I’ve prayed and slaved and waited and I’ve sung my song

You’ve bled me and you’ve starved me but I’ve still grown strong

You’ve lashed me and you’ve treed me

And you’ve everything but freed me

But in time you’ll know you need me and it won’t be long.

 

I’ve seen the daylight breaking high above the bough

I’ve found my destination and I’ve made my vow;

so whether you abhor me

Or deride me or ignore me

Mighty mountains loom before me and I won’t stop now.

 

 

 

I can’t add much to a discussion of this powerful poem. The age-old experience of the downtrodden overcoming persecution is translated into a rousing, soul-stirring anthem. It’s relentlessly musical and begs to be recited. Obviously it’s topical in a year that brought racial injustice to the forefront of our national conversation.

 

Instead of picking apart the poem, I’ll turn this post over to Madgett’s own words.

 

She wrote “Midway” as a response to Brown v. Board of Education—

 

Midway was first published in Freedomways in 1959, but I think I wrote it in 1958. The poem grew out of a discussion with a friend that acknowledged that the Supreme Court desegregation ruling, which legalized racial justice for the first time, led to the determination of Black people to move forward and never again accept the status quo.

 

(Her turn of phrase “legalized racial justice” is something to ponder.)

 

Long said that “Midway,” her most famous poem, was her least favorite. Still, she recognized its universality and reach—

 

I never thought of it as anything but a Civil Rights poem yet when I went to St. Louis for my 50th year high school reunion, one of my classmates took me to his church to meet his pastor because the pastor loves my poetry, especially “Midway.” The pastor didn’t see it as a Civil Rights poem but as the story of his life and experiences.

 

I did a reading of “Midway” in Oak Park High School years ago and the students interpreted it according to their own experience. A Jewish student felt the history of the Jewish people was brought out in the poem. Another student suggested I “could have been talking about truth itself.” Yet another offered “you were talking about the early persecution of Christians.” An African-American student said “You are talking about the history of black people” and of course, that’s what I was talking about. But because I was not specific in the poem, it could be interpreted in many ways.

 

[Call-out to Computer Guys who are actually Librarian Guys (you know who you are):  I’ve read that this poem has been set to music but I’m unable to find a version on line. It might be called “I’ve Come This Far to Freedom.” If you can track down a video, post to the comment section or email me at thepoemelf@gmail.com.  I’ll post it in the new year. ]

 

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Naomi Long Madgett was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1923, the youngest of three children and the only girl.  Her father was a preacher. He took a job as pastor of a New Jersey congregation when Madgett was a baby. East Orange was a segregated town, and there she attended a school where prejudice prevented her from receiving the academic honors she had earned. When the family moved to St. Louis, she went to an all-black high school and was finally able to soar academically and artistically.

 

She studied at Virginia State University. During her years there corresponded with Langston Hughes who encouraged her writing. After graduating she married, moved to Detroit, had a daughter, got divorced and took a job with Michigan Bell to support herself and her daughter. She earned her masters degree from Wayne State University and began teaching high school English in Detroit public schools. As an educator  she fought for inclusion of Black writers in textbooks, offered the first course on African American literature, and taught the first accredited course in creative writing in the city. She continued her work of inclusion of Black writers in the curriculum and in textbooks when she became a professor at Eastern Michigan University. She founded and ran Lotus Press from her basement, seeing a need to get more Black writers published.

 

 

For a celebrated writer, she seems to be unusually other-centered, quietly writing her own poetry while promoting the work of others. I love this quote of hers—

 

It was only when I gave myself away that I found myself. Service, I have learned, is where true happiness lies. It has provided me with a compassion that I didn’t have in my youth. It has permitted me to walk in the shoes of many and feel the warmth of their feet as well as the pebbles that injured them. I have discovered that cheerfulness, kindness, and helpfulness bring as much joy to the one who extends them as to the ones who receive them — perhaps a good deal more.

 

She won multiple awards, was named Detroit Poet Laureate, and was the subject of a documentary, “Star by Star: Naomi Long Madgett, Poet & Publisher.” She died at age 97.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On day 11 of the end of 2020, let’s turn to Israeli poet Natan Zach who died this November. I left his poem “Against Parting” at Michigan Central Station. The 1913 Station, once called Detroit’s “Ellis Island” and later the favorite of “ruin porn” photographers, is being renovated by Ford Motor Company. (You can link to a history of the building here.)

 

poem is on fence between the two center posters

 

Against Parting

by Natan Zach

 

My tailor is against parting.

That’s why, he

said, he’s not going away;

he doesn’t want to part

from his one daughter. He’s definitely

against parting.

 

Once, he parted from his wife, and

she he

saw no more of (Auschwitz).

Parted

from his three sisters and

these he never

saw (Buchenwald).

He once parted from his mother (his father

died of a fine and ripe age). Now

he’s against parting.

 

In Berlin he

was my father’s kith and kin. They passed

a good time in

that Berlin. The time’s passed. Now

he’ll never leave. He’s

most definitely

(my father’s died)

against parting.

 

 

“I would prefer not to,” Bartleby the Scrivener famously says when asked to do the work he was hired to do. By force of sheer intransigence Bartleby upends office life, to the point where his boss is forced to relocate to another building.

 

The speaker’s tailor in “Against Parting” is just such a one, albeit less robotic than poor Bartleby. He’s done with separation; he refuses to do it anymore. His wife, his three sisters, his mother, the good times he had in Berlin with the speaker’s now-deceased father, all gone. His daughter is all he has left, and he’s holding firm to her.

 

It’s a facile thing to say—I am against parting—who isn’t? And it’s oddly phrased (of course, the poem is translated, so maybe not so odd in Hebrew) and unembellished with poetic flourishes. But it has power, and repeated it becomes almost a battle cry. I am against parting! In the face of terrible suffering, the tailor asserts his commitment to attachment and his attachment to commitment. It’s stark, strong, and beautiful—I am against parting! Someone who’s lost love so brutally understands the value of it in a way others do not.

 

This year we’ve been overrun with parting. Not just the parting death brings (1.7 million partings and counting), but the kind of parting that circumstance forces us into. Social distancing, quarantining, work-from-home and online schooling are not friends to human connection. Well, sorry, Mr. Tailor, but it can’t be helped, you’re going to have to go along.

 

But there is one kind of parting we can take a stand against:  the parting political disagreement causes. Let’s aim for disagreeing without hating. Let’s be against parting (that kind anyway) and those who foment separation for the sake of power.

 

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Nathan Zach was born in 1930 in Berlin. His father was German-Jewish, his mother Italian-Catholic. In 1936 the family re-located to what was then British controlled Palenstine.

 

He served in the army during Israel’s War of Independence and after studied political science and philosophy at Hebrew University. He taught at Tel Aviv University. In his late 30’s he moved to England for ten years to get his PhD. He returned home to teach at university.

 

He’s credited with loosening up Hebrew poetry, moving it away from rigid rhyme and meter schemes, and is considered a seminal figure in modern Israeli poetry, winning multiple national literary awards. He was known for translating Allen Ginsberg into Hebrew. Link here for a fuller discussion of his life and work.

 

Zach collaborated with musicians and many of his poems have been made into popular songs. Here’s a musical version of his poem, “It is Not Good for Man to Be Alone.” Just get a load of that groovy host.

 

 

He was diagnosed with Alzheimers at age 84 and died when he was 89.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Only 14 more days till the end of 2020, and with breaking news of the months-long government cyber attack, there are ever more reasons to be anxious. Because so many of us have channeled our anxiety into epic closet-purging and shelf re-organizing, I left Arthur Guiterman’s “Everything In Its Place” in the container aisle of TJ Maxx.

 

poem is set against white wicker basket on top shelf

 

Everything in its Place

by Arthur Guiterman

 

The skeleton is hiding in the closet as it should,

The needle’s in the haystack and the trees are in the wood,

The fly is in the ointment and the froth is on the beer,

The bee is in the bonnet and the flea is in the ear.

 

The meat is in the coconut, the cat is in the bag,

The dog is in the manger and the goat is on the crag,

The worm is in the apple and the clam is on the shore,

The birds are in the bushes and the wolf is at the door.

 

 

 

I love this poem. I love it the way I loved puns and limericks as a girl, I love it the way I love murder mysteries and crossword puzzles today. Each phrase harks back to an aphorism, some familiar, some not, together formulating a veritable history of human warnings. All that’s missing is the shoe about to drop. The looming sense of doom is offset by the sing-song rhyme, the pithiness, the silliness of some of the expressions, the brevity of the poem. It’s all so tidy and satisfying, as promised by the title, and that last line

 

the birds are in the bushes and the wolf is at the door

 

is so perfect I’ve had it running through my head ever since I first came across this poem years ago. As every jokester knows, fear and anxiety lose a little their power when put in the service of humor.

 

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Arthur Guiterman (1871-1943) was born in Vienna to ex-pat parents. The family moved back to the states when Guiterman was three. He graduated from City College of New York and worked as the editor for Women’s Home Companion and Literary Digest.

 

He was astoundingly prolific. He wrote over 4,000 poems and published over a dozen volumes of light verse. He reviewed novels for Life magazine in the novel form of humorous poems. He wrote the libretto for an opera performed at the Met and co-founded the Poetry Society of America.

 

He had a heart attack on his way to a lecture and died at age 72. Seems like he could have written a funny poem about that.

 

Guiterman doesn’t have a his own page on the Poetry Foundation website, a shame given how much pleasure he has given thousands and thousands of readers over the years.

 

 

 

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Have a great weekend, everyone. I’ll be back with the countdown on Monday.

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