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A sunny day in northern Michigan. A long walk past farmland and on to a wooded trail. Three Seamus Heaney poems to deliver, three poems full of the most beautiful nouns and verbs but also full of death. Three watchful deer who scared the bejeebers out of me and two wrong turns that added miles to my trek. But it was a happy couple of hours nonetheless.

 

 

Each of these poems deserves a much fuller examination than the cursory notes I put here. I encourage everyone to read and re-read them. There’s more to see at every pass.

 

 

Let’s start with the least disturbing death, “Blackberry picking.” Here is the death of innocence, of beauty, of lust, take your pick. I set the poem against an electric fence bordering an organic farm that to my knowledge does not produce blackberries.

 

 

There’s gluttony and Bluebeard-level “blood” in these blackberry fields. Over-indulging leaves its mark (stains and prickles) but it’s only death (fruit fungus in this case) that ends the feeding frenzy. Pleasures of the flesh can’t last forever:

 

I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair

That all the lovely canfuls smell of rot

Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

 

 

I stuck “Man and Boy” on a hilltop tree overlooking a lake. You can just see the poem in the lower-left portion of the photo.

 

Who is man and who is boy keeps switching in this poem. The two main characters, the boy and his father, experience age in a non-linear way. Time operates in a circle, moving forward and back at once, forming unheard concentric soundwaves like the salmon’s, a perfect ring like the mower’s.

 

 

The final image almost makes me dizzy. As the speaker imagines his father running home to hear of his own father’s death, he becomes a boy on his father’s back being carried as if he were an old man. Got it? Forget it, read it for yourself.  I’ve re-printed it below because the picture is too hard to read.

 

Man and Boy

by Seamus Heaney

 

I

“Catch the old one first,”

(My father’s joke was also old, and heavy

And predictable). “Then the young ones

Will all follow, and Bob’s your uncle.”

On slow bright river evenings, the sweet time

Made him afraid we’d take too much for granted

And so our spirits must be lightly checked.

Blessed be down-to-earth! Blessed be highs!

Blessed be the detachment of dumb love

In the broad-backed, low-set man

Who feared debt all his life, but now and then

Could make a splash like the salmon he said was

“As big as a wee pork pig by the sound of it.”

 

II

In earshot of the pool where the salmon jumped

Back through its own unheard concentric soundwaves

A mower leans forever on his scythe.

He has mown himself to the centre of the field

And stands in a final perfect ring

Of sunlit stubble.

“Go and tell your father,” the mower says

(He said it to my father who told me)

“I have it mowed as clean as a new sixpence.”

My father is a barefoot boy with news,

Running at eye-level with weeds and stooks

On the afternoon of his own father’s death.

The open, black half of the half-door waits.

I feel much heat and hurry in the air.

I feel his legs and quick heels far away

And strange as my own — when he will piggyback me

At a great height, light-headed and thin-boned,

Like a witless elder rescued from the fire.

 

 

Finally, I tucked “Strange Fruit” in the bark of a fallen tree. It was here that the deer startled me.

 

“Strange Fruit” is one of the bog poems Heaney wrote about the bodies of Iron Age men and women discovered in northern Europe. Their deaths were gruesome. It would be interesting to put this “Strange Fruit” up against Billie Holliday’s. The violent tribes may have lived thousands of years apart, but ritualized murder connects them indelibly.

 

Heaney notes that Greek historian Diodorus Siculus found his ease with the likes of this, but Heaney himself seems haunted by image of the young girl defying her executioners:

Beheaded girl, outstaring axe

And beatification, outstaring

What had begun to feel like reverence.

 

 

 

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was a rock star of a poet, sometimes called “the greatest Irish poet since Yeats,” and one I had the pleasure of hearing live at a poetry reading long ago. I can’t say I understood much of what he said with his thick Irish accent, but I remember well his gentle charisma and his reading of the poem “Digging.”

 

Heaney was born in Northern Ireland, the oldest of nine children. He was raised on the family farm which figures in much of his poetry. He was also raised Catholic in a predominantly Protestant world.

 

He studied at Queen’s College in Belfast and then taught at St. Joseph’s in the same city. Later he was a revered professor at Harvard, Oxford and University of California Berkley. In 1995 he won the Nobel Prize for literature.

 

He and his wife were married for forty-eight years and had three children together. He died unexpectedly at age 74.

 

This biography is much too short to capture his contributions. I’m feeling lazy, so link here to read more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Marie Ponsot, poet, translator, teacher, stroke survivor, nonagenarian writer of acclaim who wrote for twenty-five years in obscurity, single mother of seven (six of them boys!), lifelong Catholic, writer of my all-time favorite poem “Among Women” and co-author of one of my all-time favorite childhood books, The Golden Book of Fairy Tales, died a few weeks ago, July 5, at age 98.

 

I’ve had four poems of hers on the docket for my file-clearing project (Franz Wright’s been done, Seamus Heaney, Charles Simic, Grace Paley still to come). I posted them just after she died. These wouldn’t be the poems I’d choose if this were a planned tribute to Ponsot—not that they’re anything less than wonderful—they just aren’t my favorites of hers, which is the reason they have been in my leftover pile for so long.

 

I was helping to move one of my daughters from Baltimore to northern Michigan and Ponsot’s mothering eye seemed just right for the moment. You can read a good obituary of Ponsot here. Meantime, let’s start with “After the Pastoral.” I taped it to a window in my daughter’s Baltimore apartment where she’s lived for the last two years.

 

I’m sure that come September This year my child goes where I can’t follow will be a painful line for many mothers. I myself went through those farewells years ago, but that maternal feeling of being ferocious with fear just never goes away.

(I’m not understanding the last line—I picture a mother nursing a baby, innocent of the anxiety mothering older children brings—but let me know how you read that line.)

 

I set “Climbing in Big Bend National Park” on a brick wall as I walked to buy more packing tape. Not the best spot for this poem, but people, I was in Baltimore.

 

The side of the mountain like a pelvic floor? I’ll never forget that. Or this:  We city people laugh to shrug off awe

 

On packing day my daughter discovered that her elderly next-door neighbor had once been an art teacher at her high school back in Michigan. I taped “What the Worn Rhymes Find” to a planter on the former art teacher’s front porch.

 

Cyanide and gold, the stain of the woman’s long lies, of the tough unsayable. Poisonous and precious. What a description of family secrets! What rhymes, not worn at all, so effortless!

 

Lastly I put “The Problem of Revolution” at a Panera condiments bar at a rest stop along the Pennsylvania turnpike.

 

The charming details of the clothes and the dessert, the guests (the scented aunt who thinks her new/and the cousin, ten, who sees her old) come to a hard stop at the poem’s end. Who remembers that feeling of disconnection, of crawling out of your skin to get away from what used to comfort?

 

To close this post, here’s Lizzie just before she put a framed Anais Nin quote in the uHaul.

“You live out the confusions until they become clear.”

That seems as good a summary as any for a young woman beginning a new chapter of her life and a great poet doing the same.

 

From a previous post, a short bio of Ponsot:

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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‘Tis the season to frolic and I’m idle and sluggish. Nothing like a summer cold to sour the sunshine. And nothing like soured sunshine to call forth the de facto fairy godfather of misery, poet Franz Wright.

 

So happened I had six Wright poems to dispose of. Leaving them around the small town in northern Michigan where I’m recuperating was as good as an Advil for getting me off the couch. If laughter is the best medicine, At least I’m not as unhappy as all that runs a close second.

 

 

 

 

Let’s jump right into the pit. At an abandoned old ski motel I left “Reunion.” (The poem is on the blue wall next to the corner doorway.)

 

Wright is forever grappling with the ghost of his father, poet James Wright. This particular grappling slays me. And this self-portrait—yikes—

What am I? A skull

biting its fingernails, a no one

with nowhere to be

 

On another abandoned building I left “Thoughts of a Solitary Farmhouse,” which I know is a favorite of many Wright fans. (The poem is taped to the concrete post in front of the big bush.)

 

What a beautiful memento mori, bleak and horrifying though it is

 

“The Comedian” brings us into a real house of horrors. I taped it to a sign by the side of an empty road.

 

The illegible note hung like a crucifix . . . the cops turning on the son who called in for help . . . the smell of alcohol, the drool . . . impossible to touch him or get near. . . that final laugh . . . unimaginable pain.

 

Moving back towards his painful childhood, “The Day” is an eerie recreation of what amounts to A Good Day for young Franz. (It’s on the spigot of the water fountain.)

 

Anyone who had a dysfunctional parent can relate to those times of relief when the dysfunction was dormant for one reason or another.

 

At the entrance to an uphill hike I left “Depiction of Childhood.” (Poem is taped to pole.)

 

I’ve looked over Picasso’s drawings of the little girl leading the minotaur and in each she’s holding either flowers or a dove, so it’s interesting that Wright has her lifting a lamp instead. Going back and forth between the poem and the different versions Picasso drew is giving me loads to think about. Like the minotaur, I’m entranced and thrown off.

 

In the absence of a sea-sea I taped “Infant Sea Turtles” to a sea wall on an inland lake.

 

This is such a strange poem, taking us from present day to prehistory to biblical times, from land to sea to the moon, to a place where man-made terms are arbitrary (“what we call the moon,” “Eve, or caesarean child,” “the great scar called the sea,” “lover or child”) which is the very space that poetry grows out of.

 

Here’s a bio of Wright from a previous post:

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 of lung cancer at age 62.

 

[Note:  This post is part of my summer project. I have multiple poems from a few poets—poems from the recently departed Marie Ponsot among them—and I’ll be lumping them together in a single post for each poet.]

 

 

 

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poem in peony bush

 

Feasting

by Elizabeth W. Garber

 

I am so amazed to find myself kissing you

with such abandon,

filling myself with our kisses

astounding hunger for edges of lips and tongue.

Returning to feast again and again,

our bellies never overfilling from this banquet.

Returning in surprise,

in remembering,

in rediscovering,

such play of flavors of gliding lips

and forests of pressures and spaces.

The spaces between the branches

as delicious as finding the grove of lilies of the valley

blossoming just outside my door under the ancient oak.

“I’ve never held anyone this long,” you said,

the second time you entered my kitchen.

I am the feast this kitchen was blessed to prepare

waiting for you to enter open mouthed in awe

in the mystery we’ve been given,

our holy feast.

 

 

My kids listened to a lot of audio books on our many drives from Michigan to Maryland and while none were so graphic as this poem, there were one or two that we cringed through together along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. One such book, the title and plot lost to us now, had a protagonist preparing for a first kiss by consulting or making up a set of rules. “Rule Number 3,” the narrator announced in a nasally, staccato voice that we have loved to imitate ever since, “mouth—may be —open —or closed.”

 

(If anyone has read this book and knows anything about it, please let me know.)

 

Second-most cringeworthy was the breathy narrator of Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret asking God when she would get her period.

 

The point is, as curious as we may be of other people’s intimate lives, we don’t really want to see them up close. My initial reaction to this poem was somewhere between Okay, okay I get it and Turn the camera away, now! All those gliding lips, those edges of lips and tongue, the delicious flavors, the open mouths, the bellies waiting to be filled—it put me in mind of the grandson in The Princess Bride protesting his bedtime story:

 

“Oh no! No! Please!”

“What is it? What’s the matter?”

“They’re kissing again! Do we HAVE to hear the kissing parts?”

 

But that final kiss, when it filled the screen, was so beautiful that the squeamish little boy was won over. As his grandfather says,

 

“Since the invention of the kiss, there have only been five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure. This one left them all behind.”

 

And so with this poem. By the third read, the kiss enchanted me. The narrator stands in the kitchen, a man enters, she’s surprised, they kiss. The kiss is dissected into its parts in beautiful imagery that will color my idea of kissing for years to come. And the comparison of a kiss to a holy feast will give this Catholic gal some very interesting thoughts next time she goes to Mass.

 

I left the poem in a bush at the University of Michigan’s peony garden. The peonies were just past peak, spent, slightly deflated, lovers on wrinkled sheets. (Yes, I am trying to make you cringe.)

 

[Side note: In the garden I saw a man with his arms around a tree, his lips nearly touching the bark, seemingly kissing it. I thought, that’s Ann Arbor for you, land of the nuts and the squirrels. I took a picture on the sly, intending to put it in this post. But later I saw the man walking with great difficulty back to the parking lot, dragging his leg and lurching with each step. He needed healing from the tree, not ridicule from me. It was his own holy feast, and I hope he got his what he was after.]

 

Poet Elizabeth Garber grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio in a glass house designed by her father, a well-regarded architect who was mentally ill. She wrote a memoir, Implosion, about that time in her life. She’s also published three books of poetry. For thirty years she’s been a practicing acupuncturist in a small coastal town in Maine where she lives with her family.

 

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A two-poem salute to fathers on this Father’s Day 2019. With poems as wonderful as these, that’s as good as twenty-one guns.

 

This excerpt from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” belongs in the wild, in air cleaned fresh by summer rain. But with no countryside excursion possible, I taped the poem to the edge of a fountain called “Orpheus” on the campus of a private school, Cranbrook.

 

The father in the poem is nearly as mythic a figure as Orpheus, the god of music. Tall, tan, handsome, wise, father of sons and grandfather of sons (and only incidentally, in Whitman’s view, father of daughters), vigorous, kind, a non-drinker—here is an iconic American man, his virility expressed as much in his calm presence as in his progeny.

 

As more of a fault-finder than halo-maker, I have never met such a man, but I sure would like to—

You would wish long and long to be with him, you would wish to sit by him in the boat that you and he might touch each other.

 

[A word about the statues in the fountain:  the figures depict ordinary people (except for one representing Beethoven) listening to music. All were originally from Sweden and part of a set that included a 38-foot Orpheus playing music in the center. The founder of Cranbrook School, newspaperman George Booth, didn’t include the center god figure because he wanted the fountain to be “democratic, equal, and American.” Very Whitman-esque!]

You can read the complete poem here. See section 3.

 

 

 

The second poem features a grandfather too, but this granddad is the proud forefather of a female. I set Miller Williams’ “A Poem for Emily” outside a barbershop. (Link here for a version easier to read than my photograph.)

poem is under barbershop pole, in front of magazine

 

The creepiness of the picture below was not intentional. I was aware it might seem creepy to photograph strangers getting their hair cut, so I left the poem where I would not be noticed which happened to be under the gaze of this creepy fellow:

 

Because there is nothing creepy and everything beautiful about a grandfather seeing his baby granddaughter for the first time. He thinks forward to the years ahead, imagines her growing up and growing apart from him. He leaves her two gifts, this poem and his love which, in the great tradition of poems and in the sacred nature of love, live on forever.

I wrote this down, a thing that might be kept

awhile, to tell you what I would have said

. . . which is I stood and loved you while you slept.

 

Oh my heart! Is there anything more comforting than that? To be looked upon and loved while you sleep? I think of my husband standing in the children’s doorways . . . I think of my father checking on us in our beds nearly every night . . . I think of how many fathers have done, do now, and will do. . . bless them all!

 

Bless especially those fathers who have lost children. They are on my mind today.

 

Happy Fathers Day all!

 

 

 

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Young love is sweet to behold, sweeter and sweeter as I grow older. It’s also something of a wonder for a long-married person like me to think back to the beginning—to try to remember—that time—in Septemberwhen love was an emberabout to billow—

 

 

[Earworm alert. . . The Fantasticks is always waiting to be sung.]

 

Back to the Poem-Elfing, which took place at a family wedding last weekend in Washington, D.C. I gave poems to the bride and groom as they got ready. All three poems have been posted here before but they suited this occasion so well I make no apology for the recycling.

 

The first is from poet Fulvia Lupulo, which I stuck in the bridal mirror:

 

The bride looks like she’s painting her nails but she’s actually painting rubber cement on the back of pictures of the groom’s older sister who passed away at age fourteen. I can’t remember what exactly the bride was going to do with the photos, but any bride who spends her pre-wedding primping time on thoughtful gestures like this is beautiful indeed.

 

 

She took a break from doing her sister’s make-up to pose with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?”

 

These lines may be familiar but they never lose power. So gorgeous.

 

 

I happened upon the groom in the parking lot, pre-tux. I handed him a favorite little love poem and gave him a rushed explanation of why I wanted to take his picture with it. I don’t think he understood what was going on but I like how he holds the poem like like an “I donated blood today” sticker.

 

Do not be astonished at my joy. . . 

 

Congratulations to Jeanne and Anthony! Here’s to young love! May it be old love someday!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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