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This is a picture of my sister Josie and her late husband Edison. The poem-elfing that follows is a private one, written and posted as a thank-you to my other sister, Mary K.  With Josie’s and Mary K.’s permission, I’m sharing it with you.

 

A little background before you read the poem. Until late 2016 Josie and Edison lived in Ecuador with their two young girls. Then Edison was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor, glioblastoma (the same cancer Senator John McCain is fighting). In early 2017 the family came back to the States for treatment.

 

My mother had recently passed away and her house sold, so there was no “home base” for Josie and her girls to stay while Edison was in the hospital. They lived with different family members—his, hers—and generous friends. They changed houses often, depending on the logistics of the next day, sometimes nightly. (The street names mentioned in the poem are some of those homes.)

 

Every day of the seven- month ordeal, Josie drove and drove, dropping the girls off at school, heading up to Baltimore where Edison was in the hospital or rehab. She drove an old Mountaineer my sister Mary K loaned her. The car was almost thirty years old, had bad shocks (you’ll see the pun) and needed bricks behind the tires to stay in park. Still, it got Josie where she needed to go, and became, as you’ll see, her in-between home.

 

During the course of his brave fight, Edison lost the ability to speak, write, and walk. He passed away peacefully on July 8, 2018.

It was tragic. That’s what we all said. It’s so sad. It’s such a terrible situation. Pat phrases, necessary because the suffering of this man and his family was overwhelming to consider. Remembering that, I’m reminded of a story my sister Wizzie likes to tell of a co-worker who always said, in response to almost everything, “It’s so hard.” If someone was discussing their weekend and mentioned in passing that the tennis courts were crowded, this co-worker would say, “I know, it’s so hard.” The deli was out of root beer? The forecast rain? In-box full? “I know, it’s so hard.”

 

Her colleagues soon realized her pat phrase said more about what she was going through than what was being said. And that’s the thing about pat phrases. They allow us to gloss over suffering. They can keep us from hearing. They can prevent us from seeing.

 

Poetry is a counterpoint to that. Poetry breaks through pat responses. Poetry allows us to see a particular person, a particular situation, a particular emotion. That’s one reason I love Josie’s poem. It’s a look behind the curtain. As much as I thought I was aware of what she was going through, I wasn’t. This poem gives fresh insight. Reading the poem, I can see that she was, in spite of all the support that surrounded her, fundamentally alone in her suffering.

 

When Josie returned Mary K.’s car last week, she taped her poem to the front windshield.

 

 

So here’s the poem, in three overlapping pictures:

My home in-between. There’s a lot going on there.

 

I’m going to lighten the mood here a little and say that I myself am partial to in-between places, to any place I can pause before moving forward—a parked car, a hallway, the crook of a tree—and as long as we’re going back to childhood, Halfway Down the Stairs, as A.A. Milne says in his poem of the same name:

 

Halfway down the stairs

Is a stair

Where I sit.

There isn’t any

Other stair

Quite like

It.

I’m not at the bottom,

I’m not at the top;

So this is the stair

Where

I always

Stop.

  

Halfway up the stairs

Isn’t up,

And isn’t down.

It isn’t in the nursery,

It isn’t in the town.

And all sorts of funny thoughts

Run round my head:

“It isn’t really

Anywhere!

It’s somewhere else

Instead!”

 

Okay, pause ended, hit play. Back to It’s so hard.

“Oh Mountaineer,” Josie writes at the end, and I hear Walt Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” Whitman’s poem has a different spirit, not elegiac as here, but hopeful, forward-looking, a celebration of the pioneers’ bravery and fortitude.

 

I’m going to post it here for Josie, for her girls, for anyone who suddenly finds herself a pioneer, for those who are forced—unlike Whitman’s pioneers—to explore new territory when all they really want is to stay put in their old homes, the homes they love best.

 

PIONEERS! O PIONEERS!

 

COME my tan-faced children,

Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,

Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

For we cannot tarry here,

We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,

We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

O you youths, Western youths,

So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,

Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the fore-

most,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

Have the elder races halted?

Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond

the seas?

We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

All the past we leave behind,

We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,

Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

We detachments steady throwing,

Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep,

Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

We primeval forests felling,

We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines

within,

We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

 

 

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Before the ever-abrupt end of our shortest month, here’s a follow-up to my annual Valentine’s Day Poem Blitz.

 

First, a face, a living Valentine.

 

 

 

Meet Pam Woolway, Short Order Poet. Her poetry is made-to-order and on-the-spot, each poem inspired by a single word supplied by the customer. She types them on a diner-style guest check, the green kind with the carbon copy so she can keep one for herself. She sets up her old-fashioned typewriter (is there any other kind?) at various locations on the island of Kauai. You can link to her blog here to learn more about her project.

 

I met her in a cool shop in Kapa’a called Kiko where she works and where she gave me a gift of one of her laminated poems. I kept it in my pocket for a couple of days (which is how it got bent), hoping to find a good spot for it. Eventually I came across a dog crate, and there I left “The Dog.”

 

poem is on top of crate, set against the yellow towel

 

The poem is a sweet reminder of the goodness of dogs and what they bring to our lives. It also gives me a question to meditate on. Who or what is “up” for me?

 

The crate was on the side of the road at a scenic overlook for Wailua Falls. No dog was inside—maybe he went to take a gander at his surroundings.

 

 

The second addendum to my Valentine’s Day poem blitz isn’t a poem at all. It’s a quote from Ali Smith’s beautiful novel Autumn.

 

I placed it at the base of the Kuilau Ridge Trail in Kapaa.

poem is in right forefront of photo

 

How do you feel about the last sentence? (In the end, not much else matters.) I myself don’t agree with it, but the desire to be seen truly is one that grows in me each year more than the last.

 

 

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I don’t know what this flower is, but it’s got a hearts-and-ashes coloration befitting today’s unusual dual-celebration (Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, in case you didn’t know).

 

One note before I get to my annual Valentine’s Day Poem Blitz: I usually include a range of poems for all different kinds of Valentines, but not this year. These are all romantic if not downright erotic. No poems for Galentines and Palentines, no poems for lovers of nature and animals, no Christina Rossetti I’m-going-to-jump-in-the-river-and-drown poems. In a few weeks I’ll put up a separate Love Hurts post, and if I dig up enough poems about platonic love, I’ll do a Friendship Poem Blitz as well.

 

On with the show.

 

At a construction site in downtown Hanalei, Kauai, I left “Song” by W.H. Auden on a handicapped parking sign.

 

I don’t think I’d have a place in this lighthearted litany of what a person will do to “keep his date with Love” . . . I’m more of a wait-till-I-finish-drying-the-dishes gal . . . but I salute the fevered ones who can leave a task undone to get to the fun business.

 

 

A grocery store Valentine display was a good spot to put “The Revelation” by Coventry Patmore. The poem is balanced on top of a bottle of wine called Cupcake.

 

Here, the essence of all romantic fantasies:

Love wakes men, once a lifetime each;

           They lift their heavy lids, and look 

 

 

As a counterpoint to Patmore’s idea of “once a lifetime each,”  I placed Susanna Styve’s  “Mother in Love at Sixty” outside the same grocery store in a cart.

 

Methinks she doth protest too much . . .

 

 

Here’s Hanalei’s bookstore. I set “The Love Cook” by Ron Padgett on top of a Chinese cookbook. An hour later when I came back it was gone.

 

The most romantic words in the world?

Let me cook you some dinner.

 

 

I stuck “To Helen About Her Hair” by Robinson Jeffers in the bristles of a brush in the personal care aisle of the Hanalei grocery store. The gentleman to the right is inexplicably studying women’s hygiene products, but at least he didn’t bat an eye at my elf-ing.

 

If hair care bores you, think about this the next time you drag a brush through your locks:

I bid you comb it carefully,

For my soul is caught there,

Wound in the web of it.

 

 

“Are You Tired of Me, My Darling?” is poised on top of a trashcan.

 

This poem could fit in the Love Hurts post just as well as it does here, depending on the beloved’s answer to the question posed.

 

 

“Toast” by Leonard Nathan is nestled in a big piece of driftwood on Hanalei Bay.

 

I love this toast to a stranger never seen:

Love, whoever you are,

your courage was my companion

 

 

And finally, I put Kenneth Rexroth’s “A Dialogue of Watching” at the base of this traditional statue outside a surf shop.

 

Today of all days, let every lover say to the beloved

I have never known any

One more beautiful than you.

 

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! Celebrate love and spread it around.

 

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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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