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Posts Tagged ‘poets’

It’s a good thing I passed by a playground before I found the cemetery I was on the hunt for. Because “Happy Mother’s Day, I see dead people” is twisted, even for a twisty elf like me.

 

But I do see dead people this Mother’s Day—my mother who died the week before Mother’s Day three years ago, my mother-in-law who died just this past November. The poems featured in this post see dead people too, or at least people from the past, as they once were.

 

So if you’re not grieving a lost mother this Mother’s Day . . . well, lucky, lucky you. Give your mum an extra smooch.

 

I left Meghan O’Rourke’s “My Mother” on a checkerboard table near the playground equipment:

 

 

I can’t read this without . . . you know . . . more-than sniffling . . . especially since the last car ride I took with my mother was to see the cherry blossoms.

 

Come down from your weeping cherry,

Mother, and look at how we have scattered

your ashes only in our minds, unable

to let you leave the house—

I couldn’t find the full text on line, but link here to a beautiful essay O’Rourke wrote about her mother’s clothes after her mother died.

 

O’Rourke also wrote an ode to her aunts, which I left on a park bench at the same playground:

 

I myself had only one aunt who I never knew, but I had older sisters who were as intoxicating to me as O’Rourke aunts were to her. I called them “Cool Girls” because they were. And still are.

Here’s a link with the poem. O’Rourke is a master of endings. See how she brings the car full of smoking-hot aunts to a halt:

Stop now, before the green

comes to cover your long brown bodies.

 

 

 

I set Rita Dove’s “Motherhood” against some books in a Little Free Library:

 

It’s a disturbing dream of a baby in mortal danger—

Then she drops it and it explodes

like a watermelon, eyes spitting.

 

But the poem turns just a hair and suddenly the mother’s fierce protectiveness of her baby threatens the life of another creature, some other mother’s offspring—

 

On a newfangled jungle gym I taped Eavan Boland’s “Is It Still the Same.”

 

This one gives me chills, in the best kind of way, the surprise of the young mother writing turning out to be an older mother writing—

I wrote like that once.

But this is different:

This time, when she looks up, I will be there.

 

Finally, I taped Marie Ponsot’s “Between” to the pole of a swingset:

Ponsot dedicates the poem to her daughter whom she observes, pregnant (at least it seems to me) and walking in the door:

The woman, once girl once child, now is deft in her ease,

is door to the forum, is cutter of keys.

 

Happy Mother’s Day to all!

 

Especially the motherless (sad trombone sound).

 

Now here’s something a little more cheerful. This Friday Chicago writer Bridget Gamble will email her weekly newsletter, this one a collection of mother-wisdom, just in time for the holiday. Link here to subscribe.

 

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poem is on wall next to window

 

The Bagel

by David Ignatow

 

I stopped to pick up the bagel

rolling away in the wind,

annoyed with myself

for having dropped it

as it were a portent.

Faster and faster it rolled,

with me running after it

bent low, gritting my teeth,

and I found myself doubled over

and rolling down the street

head over heels, one complete somersault

after another like a bagel

and strangely happy with myself.

 

 

The delightful image of a man chasing a bagel and turning into one reminds me of an old story my mother used to tell. Whenever we wouldn’t eat our vegetables she’d talk about her twin sister, a woman who was never mentioned except at dinnertime. This twin sister always refused to eat peas until one day she blew up into a huge green ball and rolled down the street, never to be seen again, a victim of the (self-inflicted) disease pea-itis.

 

I can’t serve peas without thinking about pea-itis. And I can’t pass a bagel shop without thinking about David Ignatow’s “The Bagel,” a poem I’ve loved and kept for a long time now. The way the speaker lets go of teeth-gritting pursuits to enjoy child-like physicality always makes me smile.

 

Which in turn reminds me of my son when he was a little boy (I’m beginning to turn into a bagel myself, one memory tumbling into another as I roll along this post). He went through a somersault phase in which he would only walk if he absolutely could not somersault. He somersaulted dozens of times a day, down the hallway, across the kitchen floor, outside on the grass. I started to worry he was going to be perpetually dizzy but after a couple of months he resumed normal ambulation.

 

Here’s a bio of Ignatow from an earlier blog post:

 

David Ignatow (1914-1997) was the child of Russian immigrants. (Of course! That Russian fatalism is all over this poem.) He was born in Brooklyn, and after graduating from high school, worked as a bookbinder and newspaper reporter. Work being the subject of this poem and of many of his poems, it’s interesting to note how many different places Ignatow worked in his life to support his family: at a vegetable market, hospital, telegram office, paper company (hello, Michael Scott), and several universities.

 

 

 

 

 

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To His Piano

by Howard Nemerov

 

Old friend, patient of error as of accuracy,

Ready to think the fingerings of thought,

You but a scant year older than I am

With my expectant mother expecting maybe

An infant prodigy among her stars

But getting only little me instead–

 

To see you standing there for six decades

Containing chopsticks, Fur Elise, and

The Art of Fugue in your burnished rosewood box,

As well as all those years of silence and

The stumbling beginnings the children made,

Who would believe the twenty tons of stress

Your gilded frame’s kept stretched out all this while?

 

 

Two pianos—the old upright rosewood box in Howard Nemerov’s poem and the shiny black grand in Vienna’s Schonbrunn Palace where I left the poem—are as different as can be. The music coming from each is different as well—Beethoven and Bach from one, Mozart and Strauss from the other.

 

But there is one (stretch of a) connection between the two. In the gilded Schonbrunn Great Gallery, lit by (electric) candlebras and crowned with a dramatic rococo ceiling mural, it’s easy to imagine young Mozart delighting the Austrian court with his glorious music. That is until the actual concert started. The music we heard in this tourist-y concert didn’t always match the fantasy (although I think the problem was coming from the string section, not the piano). Nemerov details a similar disappointment in the poem. His mother hoped for a prodigy and got instead Chopsticks played badly.

 

Still, rather than becoming a source of shame, Nemerov’s piano is an “old friend,” patient, unconditionally loyal, bearer of neglect and all the uncomfortable tensions in the household. Exactly what a son might wish his mother to be.

 

Poet, novelist and essayist Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) was born in New York City to a wealthy family (think nannies and white gloves). His parents owned a Fifth Avenue department store, but art more than commerce was the family focus. His dad was a well-regarded art historian, his sister photographer Diane Arbus, his other sister a sculptor.

 

Given the artistic milieu Nemerov grew up in, his mother’s hopes for a musically talented son have a special sting. She was, by Nemerov’s account, a cold and distant mother.

 

A high school football player and star student, Nemerov graduated from Harvard and served in World War II as a pilot. He was a famed professor at Hamilton, Bennington, Brandeis and Washington University in St. Louis. He was twice appointed as U.S. Poet Laureate, won the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. He was married to Margaret Russell and had three sons with her. He died of esophageal cancer.

 

couldn’t get to the piano, so left poem on the floor

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poem is on horse hoof

 

Sleeping on Horseback

by Po Chu-I

 

We had ridden long and were still far from the inn;

My eyes grew dim; for a moment I fell asleep.

Under my right arm the whip still dangled;

In my left hand the reins for an instant slackened.

Suddenly I woke and turned to question my groom.

“We have gone a hundred paces since you fell asleep.”

Body and spirit for a while had changed place;

Swift and slow had turned to their contraries.

For these few steps that my horse had carried me

Had taken in my dream countless aeons of time!

True indeed is that saying of Wise Men

“A hundred years are but a moment of sleep.”

 

 

Prague is a city of statues. Statues are everywhere, on buildings, street corners, squares, balconies, hilltops, on the hideous TV tower—and wildly divergent in style and tone, from classical to art noveau, from inspiring to plain frightening. The statues of Prague celebrate literary figures on par with political ones.

 

This statue of Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek depicts Hasek as a rider atop a horse, although he never rode one. The horse is shaped like a pub table, the horse’s legs like pub fixtures, all very fitting for a writer known for his drinking habits. Hasek wrote The Good Soldier (said to have inspired Joseph Heller’s Catch-22) a novel described as funny and biting. He also wrote The Drunkard’s Guide to Old Prague.

 

I do enjoy the Czech subversive sense of humor.

 

A different horse statue, one of Czech national hero Jan Zizka, is visible from the Hasek square. Probably not a coincidence.

 

 

 

Po Chu I (772-846) was born in the Honan province of China. A poet and government official, he served as tax collector, librarian, governor and other positions under eight or nine emperors. Through his government work he became interested in the oppression of ordinary people by the powerful, in particular by the eunuchs at court. He was exiled twice. He is also known as Bai Juyi.

 

In addition to the lovely “Sleeping on Horseback,” Po Chu-I wrote a poem called “Drunk Again.” Seems appropriate to include it here:

 

Drunk Again

by Po Chu-I

 

 

Last year, when I lay sick,

 

I vowed

 

I’d never touch a drop again

 

As long as I should live.

 

 

 

But who could know

 

Last year

 

What this year’s spring would bring ?

 

 

 

And here I am,

 

Coming home from old Liu’s house

 

As drunk as I can be!

 

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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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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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