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I left a few poems in shitholes. Real, actual shitholes.

 

At Macy’s. Lip-imprinted toilet paper my own

 

Bladder Song

by Nathan Leonard

 

On a piece of toilet paper

Afloat in the unflushed piss,

The fully printed lips of a woman.

 

Nathan, cheer up! The sewer

Sends you a big red kiss.

Ah, nothing’s wasted, if it’s human.

 

And in a Starbuck’s bathroom—

Smell

by Molly Peacock

 

The smoky smell of menses—Ma always

left the bathroom door open—smote the hall

the way the elephant-house smell dazed

the crowd in the vestibule at the zoo, all

holding their noses yet pushing toward it.

The warm smell of kept blood and the tinny

smell of fresh blood would make any child quit

playing and wander in toward the skinny

feet, bulldog calves, and doe moose flanks planted

on either side of the porcelain bowl

below the blurry mons. The oxblood napkin landed

in the wastecan. The wise eyes of elephants roll

above their flanks, bellies and rag-tear ears

in a permeable enormity of smell’s

majesty and pungency; and benignity. Years

of months roll away what each month tells:

God, what animals we are, huge of haunch

bloody and wise in the stench of bosk.

 

I’ve always appreciated bathroom humor and bathroom stories. Yes, it’s juvenile, but maybe there’s more to it. Maybe what’s at the bottom of my fascination is this, from the penultimate line of Molly Peacock’s “Smell”—

 

God, what animals we are

 

I could go on, I could discuss how shitting is a unifying act, how everyone throughout human history from the beginning of time to now, from the powerful to the lowly, regardless of class, race, religion, sexual orientation, and occupation has to shit on a regular basis, has to see it and smell it and understand that it came from inside the body, how it belongs to each of us.

 

But I’ll end there. Enjoy the poems.

 

Nathan Leonard (1924-2007) was born in California, served in the army and went to UC Berkley on the GI Bill. He earned a PhD in 1961 and taught rhetoric until he retired in his 70’s.

 

I had never heard of Leonard, but he seems to have been a big deal in the literary world. He won many awards including the Guggenheim and was widely published in magazines like the New Yorker, Harpers and The Atlantic. I was interested to learn that he collaborated with Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz and that he translated Polish poets Anna Swir and Aleksander Wat—“Bladder Song” has an Eastern European sensibility to my mind, that touch of dark humor and that effect of speaking from the heart without being maudlin.

 

Relevant to the poem I’ve posted, Poetry Foundation quotes Leonard as follows:

 

“Every poet has one or two compulsive themes. One of mine is how to make things fit together that don’t but should; the other is getting down far enough below a surface to see if something is still worth praising. Over the years and without self-consciously trying, I have moved closer and closer to the human voice in my verse. But I have also tried to keep a quality in it—for lack of a better word I call it eloquence—that makes it more than conversation. My hope is to be clear, true, and good listening.”

 

Leonard and his wife Carol had three children. He died of complications of Alzheimer’s.

 

Poet, biographer, essayist, fiction writer, memoirist, and performer, Molly Peacock is one of those artists whose creativity can’t be contained in any one pursuit.

 

She was born in Buffalo, New York in 1947 to a working class family. Her father was an alcoholic and her home life was turbulent. Early influences include her mother, an avid reader; her grandmother, a farmer, who sent her poems in the mail cut out from the newspaper; and an encouraging seventh grade teacher. The first in her family to go to college, Peacock graduated from SUNY at Binghamton and earned her Masters degree at Johns Hopkins. She taught for eleven years in a Quaker middle school before becoming a full-time poet.

 

She has served as poet-in-residence at many universities, published eight books of poetry, won numerous awards, wrote and performed a one-woman off-Broadway show, and was president of the Poetry Society of America. Her longtime interest in making poetry accessible to a wider audience led her to start the Best Canadian Poetry series, write a book on how to read poetry and start a poetry circle (that’s actually the title of the book), and co-create the Poetry in Motion project, which places poems in subways and buses.

 

Peacock lives in Toronto with her husband, a James Joyce scholar and her one-time high school boyfriend. She returns to New York to teach a seminar at the 92nd Y. She also works with aspiring poets and memoirist apprentice-style, one-on-one, and is known as a generous teacher.

 

 

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Invictus

by William Earnest Henley

 

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

 

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

 

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

 

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

 

 

“Invictus” is one of those poems that’s familiar even if you’ve never read it. Maybe you’ve heard of the title (which inspired, among other things, a movie about Nelson Mandela, a men’s fragrance, a CrossFit workout, and Prince Harry’s sporting competition for wounded veterans). Certain phrases from the poem have wide circulation—master of my fate, captain of my soul, bloody but unbowed, clutch of circumstance—and whole lines have shown up everywhere from a Winston Churchill speech to a scene from Casablanca to a Lana Del Ray song. You probably even know the poet without knowing the poet (more on that later). So it’s good to see the whole of “Invictus” and understand why it’s had such broad appeal over centuries and continents.

 

As for me, the appeal is limited. I don’t love this poem, but I can’t help but feel roused after reading it. It’s a veritable shot of adrenaline to those on their last legs. Which is actually where the poem came from. From someone on his last leg.

 

At age twelve poet William Earnest Henley (1849-1903) had a leg amputated because of tuberculosis of the bone. In his early twenties doctors wanted to amputate his other leg. But Henley sought out the famous surgeon Joseph Lister (pioneer in preventative medicine, eponym of Listerine) who used antiseptic techniques to save Henley’s remaining limb. While recovering in the hospital for three years, Henley wrote “Invictus,” Latin for “unconquered.”

 

Henley was a magazine editor, critic, playwright and poet. He’s often called the Samuel Johnson of the Victorian era, so striking his influence. The circle of writers he published and befriended included Robert Louise Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells and W.B. Yeats.

 

A tall, muscular man with a red bushy beard and big personality, Henley was surprisingly agile on his wooden leg and cane. And here’s how you might know him: he was the inspiration for the most famous pirate of all time, Long John Silver from Treasure Island. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to Henley, “I will now make a confession: It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver … the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.” …

 

His only child, Margaret Emma, lives on in literature as well. She used to call J.M. Barrie her “fwendy-wendy,” and so the character of Wendy in Peter Pan was born. Margaret Emma died of meningitis at age five.

 

Henley died of complications of tuberculosis at age fifty-three.

 

I left “Invictus” in a co-working site in Detroit. No one took it down for a few days and as far as I know it’s still there. Maybe the poem will inspire confidence in a beleaguered entrepreneur wandering the halls.

 

And for you readers, I hope as much.

 

Be it personal, political, or meteorological, whatever place of wrath and tears you’ve lived through this past year, whatever bludgeoning of chance you’ve faced, here you are, in 2018, unconquered, invictus.

 

Happy New Year.

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poem is on bottom post

 

Breakfast

by Ljubomir Simovic

 

Didn’t I say last night it will snow?

 

What else would there be but snow?

I no longer wait for the rustle of wings,

or some dove to make my heart leap

and shine its light on me.

 

Snow has hatched in every den and lair

putting out every fire.

The snow: our key and lock.

I woke in my bed as if in another world,

as if in a drift of snow.

The three hills were all white.

 

I put on my cold boots, made a fire,

cut three rashers of bacon into the skillet

by the window where’s starting to snow again.

The bacon sizzles. I break an egg.

In the room the shadows of jackdaws fly to and fro

 

I rejoice because of the egg.

 

 

Last night I took a walk in the snow. The empty streets of my subdivision were quiet and lit with Christmas lights. All is calm all is bright, I sang in my head. Like Simovic I felt “as if in another world.” At least six inches had already collected, and snow was still coming down in blusters when I reached my friend’s house to leave this poem on her side porch. I hoped she’d wake up today to find it, although I don’t have a lot of confidence in the stickiness of scotch tape under snowy conditions.

 

This poem captures so well the surprise of waking up to snow. How is it that Eastern Europeans can speak so openly from the heart without sounding mawkish and overly-sentimental? I love that quality in poetry.

 

I’m sure it’s an even better poem in the original Serbian.

 

Ljubomir Simovic was born in Serbia in 1935. He seems to be a writer-of-all-trades, a poet, a playwright, a television writer and short story writer. That’s as much as I can find out about him because all the info I found wasn’t written in English.

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poem is on red book

 

Alzheimer’s: The Wife

by C.K. Williams

 

She answers the bothersome telephone, takes the message, forgets the message, forgets who called.

One of their daughters, her husband guesses: the one with the dogs, the babies, the boy Jed?

Yes, perhaps, but how tell which, how tell anything when all the name tags have been lost or switched,

when all the lonely flowers of sense and memory bloom and die now in adjacent bites of time?

Sometimes her own face will suddenly appear with terrifying inappropriateness before her in a mirror.

She knows that if she’s patient, its gaze will break, demurely, decorously, like a well-taught child’s,

it will turn from her as though it were embarrassed by the secrets of this awful hide-and-seek.

If she forgets, though, and glances back again, it will still be in there, furtively watching, crying.

 

 

Donald Rumsfeld of all people came to mind when I read this poem. Specifically his philosophical parsing of perception back in the days of WMD:

 

“. . . as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

 

In Rumsfeld’s calculus, the “unknown unknowns” are the most difficult realities. This makes sense, on a geo-political level. But not so in C.K. Williams’ “Alzheimer’s: The Wife.” Not knowing what isn’t known would be an absolute relief to the woman in the poem. It’s the known unknowns that make her suffer so. Her awareness of her situation, waxing and waning, is unbearable to me. Her consciousness is split between the mind that mixes up the name tags and the “it” who gazes at her in the mirror and sometimes cries like a frightened child.

 

Williams wrote an accompanying poem, “Alzheimer’s: The Husband,” which explores the caregiver’s emotional state.

 

I left the poem at Costco on a book promising to reverse memory loss. May we all live so long.

 

Charles Kenneth Williams (1936-2015) was born in Newark, New Jersey. His father was a salesman. Williams started his college education at Bucknell to play basketball, but transferred and graduated from University of Pennsylvania with a degree in philosophy and English.

 

Before writing and teaching full-time he worked as a group therapist for teens.

 

He published 13 books of poetry, several translations, and a memoir, and won most of the major poetry awards including the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Because of his characteristic long lines, at least one of his books had to be published in a special “wide page format.” He was well known for his political poems (Vietnam War, climate change) as well as very personal ones.

 

From 1996 until his death, he taught creative writing at Princeton.

 

He was married twice and had two children, one from each marriage. His son Jed is a celebrated artist whose work I really like even though abstract art is not usually something I’m drawn to. Link here.

 

Williams died of multiple myeloma at age 78.

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downtown Detroit

 

Beginning of November

by Franz Wright

 

The light is winter light.

You’ve already felt it

before you can open your eyes,

and now it’s too late

to prepare yourself

for this gray originless

sorrow that’s filling the room. It’s not winter. The light is

winter light,

and you’re alone.

At last you get up:

and suddenly notice you’re holding

your body without the heart

to curse its lonely life, it’s suffering

from cold and from the winter

light that fills the room

like fear. And all at once you hug it tight,

the way you might hug

somebody you hate,

if he came to you in tears.

 

 

Why have I collected so many of these bleak Franz Wright poems?

 

Probably for the same reason I like the music of Leonard Cohen. And the face of German actress Nina Hoss. And subtitled movies with barren landscapes, colorless cityscapes and violin music in the background. And the very November light of this poem,

 

this gray originless

sorrow that’s filling the room.

 

Because sometimes the world has too much raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens and you just need to take out your own personal collection of sorrowful things and examine them, one by one. Wright is the master of that domain.

 

I’m imagining a Franz Wright-Julie Andrews sing-off. She’s in her high-necked white nightgown. Her face beams as she hugs a pillow to her chest. He’s in old boxers. She warbles on about cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels while under her silver tones his voice rumbles out an opposing truth—

 

you’re holding

your body without the heart

to curse its lonely life

 

Enjoy November, everyone.

 

Here’s a biography of Wright I’ve posted several times previously.

Franz Wright’s face is his biography. This is what a hard life looks like. But it’s a heroic face too, considering the suffering he lived with: beatings by his father, worse beatings by his stepfather, parental abandonment, manic-depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Like writer Mary Karr, his onetime colleague and friend, he overcame addiction and converted to Catholicism, finding some measure of stability in the last sixteen years of his life.

 

Franz Wright (1953-2015) was born in Austria where his father, the famous poet James Wright, was studying on a Fulbright scholarship. The older Wright left the family when Franz was eight, and only stayed in sporadic contact with the family. When Franz was fifteen he sent his father a poem, and his father wrote back, “Well I’ll be damned. You’re a poet. Welcome to hell.”

 

The younger Wright graduated from Oberlin College in 1977. In 1984 he was winning awards and teaching at Emerson College when he was fired for “drinking related activities.” He sunk into a years-long depression, wasn’t able to write, and attempted suicide.

 

In 1999 he married a former student, Elizabeth Oehklers. He converted to Catholicism, got sober and was able to write again.

 

He died earlier this year of lung cancer at age 62.

 

 

 

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poem is against pillar next to honey pot

 

The Problem of Gratified Desire

by Marie Ponsot

 

If she puts honey in her tea

and praises prudence in the stirring up

she drinks, finally,

a drop of perfect sweetness

hot at the bottom of the cup.

 

There will be

pleasures more complex than it

(pleasure exchanged were infinite)

but none so cheap

more neat or definite.

 

 

I just came across a different version of Marie Ponsot’s “The Problem With Gratified Desire.” An earlier collection shows this poem with the line (She is 15 years old) under the title. The version I used, from 2016’s Collected Poems, deleted that. I wonder why the line was taken out. I like it. It adds a dimension I had missed before.

 

Now that I know the age of “she,” the future tense in the second stanza has a wistful air. A mother perhaps, observing her daughter drinking tea and seeing, all at once, loss and plenty, innocence and experience.

 

This poem reminds me of Thomas Lux’s “A Little Tooth,” both in its rhyme scheme that harkens back the childhood pleasures of listening to nursery rhymes, and the subject matter, which calls up the very adult pleasures and complications of sex.

 

“The Problem of Gratified Desire” is part of a set of poems dealing with proposed “problems.” Also in the series are the “Problem of Freedom and Commitment,” “The Problem of Loving-Kindness,” “The Problem of Fiction” (and five or six others), each “problem” connected to a particular age of the girl in the poem.

 

My question to you: Why is there subject-verb disagreement in this line—

 

(pleasure exchanged were infinite)

 

I don’t think it’s a typo. It appears that way in all versions.

 

I left the poem at the condiment station in a coffee shop in Chicago.

 

Here’s a biography of Marie Ponsot from an earlier posting. Important to note that shortly after I wrote it, Ponsot won the prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. At the ripe old age of 91!

 

Marie Ponsot was born in Queens, New York in 1921.  She graduated from a women’s college in Brooklyn and went on to earn her master’s degree in seventeenth century literature at Columbia University.  After World War II she went to Paris and married the French painter Claude Ponsot.  She had seven children with him, one daughter born in Paris and six sons when they moved back to the States.  She divorced and worked many years as a translator of French children’s books to support her large family.  In 1957 she published her first book of poetry through a connection with Beat poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  The book’s reception was overshadowed by another book published by Ferlinghetti, Allan Ginsberg’s Howl, and Ponsot seemingly disappeared from the world of poetry.

 

Although Ponsot would not publish for another twenty-four years, she continued to write, late at night after the children were in bed.  When she was in late middle age, she published her second book and began to garner attention and awards.  Unfortunately she still doesn’t seem to have the fame she deserves:  her biographical entry in Poetry Foundation’s website is woefully short, a mere paragraph.

 

Her life story reminds me of another Catholic poet, the marvelous Anne Porter.  Porter was also married to a painter, raised a large family and found recognition late in life.

 

As much attachment as I have to “Among Women,” I’ve discovered that Ponsot has been a part of my life even before I even read the poem.  I was delighted to read that she translated the Golden Book of Fairy Tales. It’s an indelible part of my childhood.  Many a night I spent with that book, reading in the bathroom because lights were supposed to be out.  Children, too, wander as best they can.

 

The book is still in print.  My children loved it.  Once in a while I’ll pull it out and wonder over the beautiful illustrations and strange stories.

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The Sun

by Judah Al-Harizi

 

Look: the sun has spread its wings

over the earth to dispel the darkness.

 

Like a great tree, with its roots in heaven,

and its branches reaching down to the earth.

 

 

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

 

SUN DISPELS DARKESS

 

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

 

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

 

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

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