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poem is on the railing

 

The Birds Have Vanished Into the Sky

by Li Po

 

The birds have vanished into the sky,

and now the last cloud drains away.

 

We sit together, the mountain and me,

until only the mountain remains.

 

 

 

A cable car ride up Austria’s Zwolferhorn led to this view of the Alps, a pretty sweet spot to leave a poem about mountains and time and mortality.

 

Li Po (his name is also translated as Li Bai and Li Bo) was born in present-day Kryrzstan sometime around 701 and raised in present-day Chengdu. He led a full life, to say the least. In his teens he killed a few men (for reasons of chivalry, according to Wikipedia). In his twenties he wandered and gave away most of his money. He served at court, was expelled from court, led a revolt, was charged with treason, was pardoned, wandered again, and was very often drunk. He married four times. He died in 762, most likely of cirrhosis, although legend has it that he died trying to embrace the moon’s reflection in the water. Because he was sitting drunk in a canoe.

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poem is on metal tree grating

 

Song

by Frank O’Hara

 

Is it dirty

does it look dirty

that’s what you think of in the city

 

does it just seem dirty

that’s what you think of in the city

you don’t refuse to breathe do you

 

someone comes along with a very bad character

he seems attractive. is he really. yes. very

he’s attractive as his character is bad. is it. yes

 

that’s what you think of in the city

run your finger along your no-moss mind

that’s not a thought that’s soot

 

and you take a lot of dirt off someone

is the character less bad. no. it improves constantly

you don’t refuse to breathe do you

 

 

(The next couple posts will feature poems I left in Prague and Austria while I was visiting my youngest daughter.)

 

When a poem’s titled “Song” you settle in for a visit to the countryside (or at least I do) but here we are in the city, the dirty city with dirty sidewalks, dirty air, dirty (especially in Prague) walls spray-painted with graffiti, dirty thoughts. Instead of nature-nature, O’Hara gives us human nature, raw and unidealized. Anyway, what’s more natural than desire—

you don’t refuse to breathe do you

 

O’Hara poems always have an energy that makes me feel like I’m hanging out with a fast-talking, fast-moving, can’t-sit-still guy on the verge of a tap dance. It’s the same energy I get when I exit suburbia for a city visit, a feeling of so much going on at once and unlimited possibility. Did I mention how much I love cities?

 

Anyone have thoughts on what a “no-moss mind” is?

 

Here’s an O’Hara’s bio from an earlier post

Born in Baltimore and raised in Massachusetts, O’Hara found his home in the artistic hive of Greenwich Village.  The list of his friends and associates amazes me and calls up an exciting world of cross-pollination. He roomed with Edward Gorey, worked for photographer Cecil Beaton, hung out with poets John Ashberry, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka), and artists deKooning and Pollock.  O’Hara himself worked across disciplines:  he was an accomplished pianist and jazz lover as well as a poet, playwright, and art critic, earning a living as a curator at the Modern Museum of Art. (In its second season, the TV show Mad Men wisely chose O’Hara as a symbol of nonconforming bohemia, of creativity used in the service of art not commerce —in other words, a symbol of everything Don Draper is not.  Link here for Don Draper reading O’Hara’s “Mayakovsky.”)

 

 

 

 

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poem is between Picasso face and “Land of Morning Calm” flyer

 

The Rest

by Lawrence Raab

 

You’ve tried the rest.

You’ve waited long enough.

Everything catches up with you.

 

And you’re too old,

or too young.

Or you don’t have the money

 

or you don’t have the time.

Maybe you’re shy, and maybe

you’re just afraid.

 

How often have you heard it,

have you promised

yourself you’d try

 

something really different

if you had the chance?

Though you can’t help but wonder

 

if all those people

know what they’re doing, now

you’re saying it with them:

 

Eventually everything

catches up with us,

and it starts to show.

 

We’ve waited all our lives, or as long

as we can remember, whichever

is long enough.

 

 

I pinned Lawrence Raab’s “The Rest” on a bulletin board at my local post office. This poem depresses me, it feels heavy in spite of Raab’s expert light touch. But I’ve gotten Raab really wrong before, so I leave it to you. Hopeful or hopeless? Or am I asking the wrong question?

 

From a previous post:

Lawrence Raab was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1946. He went to Middlebury College and earned his masters from Syracuse. He’s taught at University of Michigan, American University, and these days at Williams College. He’s one numerous awards and grants and has published seven collections of poetry. This poem, “Marriage,” comes from his 1993 collection What We Don’t Know About Each Other.

 

Raab has also written screenplays and adapted Aristophanes’ The Birds for theater.

 

 

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It’s just-spring here in Michigan and each little green shoot is a jigger of encouragement. So is this poem, “Thank You” by Ross Gay, which I left in a pile of dead leaves at the end of a church parking lot.

 

Thank You
by Ross Gay
If you find yourself half naked
and barefoot in the frosty grass, hearing,
again, the earth’s great, sonorous moan that says
you are the air of the now and gone, that says
all you love will turn to dust,
and will meet you there, do not
raise your fist. Do not raise
your small voice against it. And do not
take cover. Instead, curl your toes
into the grass, watch the cloud
ascending from your lips. Walk
through the garden’s dormant splendor.
Say only, thank you.
Thank you.

 

Seasonally this poem is off—it’s set in late fall—but existential crises come year-round.

 

Ross Gay was born in 1974 in Youngstown, Ohio but grew up in Pennsylvania. He teaches at Indiana University and Drew University’s low-residency MFA program. He’s won many awards, among them a Cave Canem Workshop fellowship.

 

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File under Best Laid Plans. Nearly two years ago I resolved (publicly, unfortunately) to use up my stash of poems by posting several a week. Of course they’re still here. They’ve even grown in number. All the crinkled slips of paper stuffed in my Poem Elf bag like old underwear—I can’t bear to throw them out when they still hold shape, ratty though they are.

 

But a Thoughtful Reader (see comment at end of linked post) reminded me it’s National Poetry Month, and National Poetry Month is as good as a spring cleaning for a poem-hoarder. I’m re-upping my pledge to post poems with minimal commentary on as many days of the month as I can, here on the blog and on Twitter, in hopes of getting rid of most of them.

 

Let’s get on with it.

 

I poked a stick through Li Po’s “The Cold Clear Spring at Nanyang” along the banks of a not-entirely clear cold spring.

 

 

The Cold Clear Spring at Nanyang

by Li Po

 

A pity it is evening, yet

I do love the water of this spring

seeing how clear it is, how clean;

rays of sunset gleam on it,

lighting up its ripples, making it

one with those who travel

the roads; I turn and face

the moon; sing it a song, then

listen to the sound of the wind

amongst the pines.

 

Singing a song to the moon, I love that.

 

Li Po (701-762) was the most famous Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty, also known as the Golden Age of Chinese Poetry.

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A Country Epitaph

by William Stafford

 

I am the man who plunged

through a river to save his dog;

who failed my parents, though;

who forgot my grief, and sang.

 

Outside your light I stand.

I appeal through careless words,

I appeal by this casual stone:

Was there more I could have done?

 

I appeal to human beings:

 

One day at a time I lived;

I saw more than I told;

I never knew if I claimed

too little or too much. I breathed.

 

There was more I could have done.

 

 

“A Country Epitaph” reminds me of another epitaph, the one in Arizona’s Boothill Graveyard we all learned in childhood:

Here lies Lester Moore.

Four slugs from a .44

No Les. No more.

 

 

In a similar vein, the speaker in Stafford’s poem says, This is my life, no less, no more. He’s trying to give an honest accounting of his earthly days, the good, the bad, the indifferent. No false modesty, no excessive remorse, no polishing of a turd.

 

The facts of his life lead to this question:  Was there more I could have done? Yes, of course. The answer is always yes, I dare say, for every human being who has walked the face of the earth.

 

Although the speaker poses his question to the reader, he answers it himself. There was more I could have done. He feels regret but wears it lightly. That’s a feat, in life as it is on the page.

 

The usual epitaph, etched in stone, is a formal composition, each word carefully considered. This one feels informal, extemporaneous. The speaker says as much to those standing over his grave—

 

I appeal through careless words

 

—but the words in the poem are more loaded than careless. Stafford’s sly construction allows more than one meaning to his pronouncements, meanings which are as contradictory as the measure of his life.

 

  • I appeal through careless words…..Appeal does double work here, first in the sense of making an appeal to the reader, the way a plaintiff does to a judge, but also, I want to appeal to you, please like me!

 

  • forgot my grief, and sang…..Was he resilient in being able to move on after a loss? Or heartless, forgetting it too soon?

 

  • I saw more than I told….This line is so opaque, I can’t see through it. In terms of gossip, seeing more than you tell is good. If we’re talking about a man’s emotional availability, not so good. Multiple meanings exist in other fields, in writing, for example. It’s slippery.

 

  • One day at a time, I lived has echoes of the old Alcoholics Anonymous adage, which in turn calls up images of dark times. Even if the A.A. reference is unintentional, the question of living a day at a time can be positive or negative. Living fully in the present is one of the primary virtues in our age of anxiety, but it can also be shortsighted—remember Aesop’s tale of the ant and grasshopper.

 

 

Stafford works both sides of the fence with the form of the poem as well as with the words. In spite of his protest that it’s a casual stone, “A Country Epitaph” is expertly assembled. It reads like everyday speech, haphazard and casual—a difficult thing to do. Formal elements give a stealthy pleasure:  the almost eye rhymes (dog/though, plunged/sang); an actual eye rhyme (stone/done); the accumulating consonance of the last quatrain (lived/told/claimed/breathed), the final D suggesting death and leading to the last word, done.

 

 

I left the poem outside a Hawaiian cemetery on a surrounding wall. Hawaiian cemeteries are colorful places. Most graves, even the very old ones, have some decoration—leis, a vase of bird of paradise, orchids, anthurium, grocery store flowers. Stroll through the randomly arranged tombstones and you’ll find photographs, stuffed animals, handwritten notes, even favorite foods of the deceased, each offering a testament to the reverence and closeness Hawaiians feel towards the dead. Some people pull up lawn chairs and have a picnic. This particular cemetery has a giant Buddha companionably sharing space with an open-armed Jesus across the field. There’s a Mary statue as well.

 

 

William Stafford (1914-1993) was born in Kansas, the oldest of three. He earned his BA from University of Kansas. As a conscientious objector during WWII, he performed alternative service on the home front, working in sugar beet fields and oil refineries, and building roads and fighting fires. At one of these work camps he met his future wife, Dorothy Franz, whom he married in 1944 and with whom he had four children.

 

Stafford got his PhD from University of Iowa in 1954 and taught for most of his career at Lewis and Clark in Oregon.

 

His publishing history inspires a late bloomer like me. He was 46 when his first book of poetry saw print and went on to publish over fifty-seven volumes of poetry, and to earn, among many awards, Guggenheim and NEA fellowships.

 

Stafford’s oldest son Bret committed suicide in 1988 age 40. Stafford wrote about his son’s death but could never talk about with his family. Still, the Staffords seemed to have been close. To get a sense of his home life, link to an interview here with his wife Dorothy and two of his children. I love the anecdote his wife tells about their later years:

 

He would often say, “Do you hurt anywhere, Dorothy?” I’d say, “No.” And he’d say, “Well then let’s celebrate.”

 

He had a lifelong habit of rising early every morning to write, reclining on a couch. On the day of his death, at age 79, he wrote a poem “Are You Mr. William Stafford?” which includes these lines:

 

 “You don’t have to
prove anything,” my mother said. “Just be ready
for what God sends.” I listened and put my hand
out in the sun again. It was all easy.

 

 

 

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Valentine’s Day spending is up 6% this year over last even though fewer people are celebrating. Sad!

 

Poems, of course, are the perfect antidote to the menace of all-consuming consumerism slouching towards Bethlehem. Poems cost nothing to give and last forever. Here’s a few to share with your lover, your mother, your friend or even a stranger, why not?

 

I’ll begin with a poem for mothers, Christina Rossetti’s “Sonnets are full of love, and this my tome” which I left near a mailbox.

 

Would that I had use for that mailbox. Would that I still had a mother to send a Valentine’s card to. No stamp, no hugs, no kisses, just an ache to remember her, my first Love, as Rossetti calls her mother, my loadstar while I come and go. Still, this description of a mother’s love is a comfort—

whose blessed glow transcends the laws

  Of time and change and mortal life and death.

 

 

 

Fortunately most of my friends are still living and for them I left 19th-century novelist and poet Dinah Maria Craik’s “Friendship.” I taped it to a fencepost enclosing two horses companionably eating grass.

 

Craik uses the image of sifting grain to capture the ease of conversing with a true friend—

Having neither to weigh thoughts,

Nor measure words—but pouring them

All right out—just as they are—

 

 

 

On to the lover’s portion of this post. I put Catherine Doty’s “Yes” on a bench overlooking the ever-romantic Hanalei Bay, just after a heavy downpour.

 

Another kind of downpour is happening in the poem. Blood and nerves and joints and various body parts are overrun with desire. Come/here indeed.

 

 

 

For those without a beloved this Valentine’s Day, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar has you covered with his hopeful “Invitation to Love.” I taped it to a fence on favorite overlook of mine. Waves crash against the cliffs in high spray and red-footed boobies cover the hills like flowers. The lighthouse in the distance works with the poem to create a beacon of hope to those at sea in the world. Yeah, I really like this spot.

 

Dunbar is ready for love anytime, anywhere:

Come when the summer gleams and glows

Come with the winter’s drifting snows,

  And you are welcome, welcome.

 

 

 

“After Making Love We Hear Footsteps” might strike you as unromantic, but in poet Galway Kinnell’s hands it becomes most tender and even sensual. I left it on a stop sign, which is probably about as effective in keeping out trespassers as Kinnell’s closed door is at stopping his son from barging in his bedroom.

 

Most parents face this scenario—a kid plopping down between his startled and possibly interrupted parents—but it takes a poet to elevate the interruption into a homecoming of sorts—

this one whom habit of memory propels to the ground of his making,

sleeper only the mortal sounds can sing awake,

this blessing love gives again into our arms.

 

 

 

I’ve got two poems for lost love. The first, David Ignatow’s “That’s the Sum of It,” I left in a junkyard.

poem is on white dishwasher with black top 

The loss of his wife and car have put the speaker in a catch-22 situation. The speaker’s tone is light but the ache is always present, like here, when he wishes to visit his children

when they

are not too busy.

 

 

 

The second poem of lost love takes its sweet time getting to the heart of it, touring through Rome and taking in the sights. I left Charlie Smith’s “Crostatas” at a scenic overlook of mountains and taro fields.

poem is on. drone sign

 

He’s one depressed tourist—

flowers like eyeballs dabbed in blood and the big ruins

said do it my way pal

—and the reason becomes clear only in the last lines.

 

 

 

Finally, a Valentine anyone can enjoy, a love poem to the universe. “Dusting,” by Marilyn Nelson, begins with a thank you (in my reading, to the Creator, but take it as you will) and spills over with wonder and joy for life itself, for dust. I left it on a beach a few feet from the ocean where it all begins.

 

Somehow the scientific language makes the poetic sensibility all the more ecstatic—

For algae spores

and fungus spores

bonded by vital

mutual genetic cooperation

 

 

May we all be bonded in mutual genetic cooperation!

 

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!

 

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