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Posts Tagged ‘poets’

the poem’s first home

 

“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

 

 

A few weeks back I left this excerpt from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass on the Maha’ulepu Trail on the island of Kauai. Maha’ulepu is revered not only as the last undeveloped coastline in southern Kauai, but also as a Hawaiian heritage site, with ancient burial grounds, ruins of a heiau (Hawaiian temple), and the bones of extinct species still being discovered.

 

The trail, 8 miles round trip, runs along limestone cliffs high above the crashing surf, dropping to empty beaches and rising up again. On one side of the trail are ancient fossils, petroglyphs, and caves, and on the other a lush golf course and mountain view. Each turn of the sandy path brings an ever more beautiful view. It was tough to decide where to leave the poem I carried in my pocket.

 

my niece adds to the natural beauty around her

 

I first attached it to a twig and stuck it in the sand, but the day was windy and would quickly turn Whitman’s words into trash. I was not going to be the haole who left trash in a place of such archeological, historical and spiritual significance.

 

So I walked on. Then I remembered that further up on the trail was a hideaway spot where visitors are encouraged to leave something behind on a makeshift altar to friendship and aloha.

 

So there the prose poem found a home.

wonder if it’s still there

 

I’m calling this a “prose poem” but it’s actually taken from an essay that prefaces Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Leaves, our quintessential American epic, is a collection of 343 poems (originally published as twelve and re-issued and expanded throughout Whitman’s life) that are optimistic in tone, democratic in spirit, innovative in form, and bold in subject matter. Whitman was after a new and looser form of poetry, a new openness towards the body and sexuality, a new approach to race relations, and a new American religion. Still, there’s something ancient about his words. They sound as if they were etched on stone tablets. I’m no Whitman scholar, but I noticed right away how similar the first sentence of Whitman’s paragraph is to Exodus 12:11. This is the passage where God gives Moses instructions for the first Passover:

 

This is how you shall eat it: with your waist girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand

 

More to the point, the same sentence of Whitman’s has kinship with Exodus 19, the passage where God gives Moses the Ten Commandments:

 

This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: Exodus 19

 

The echo must be deliberate. The Old Testament structure is the perfect foil for the new American commandments Whitman offers. In place of ten commandments, he gives twelve. In place of Thou shalt not’s (eight of the ten, anyway), he offers You shall. His commands are all stated affirmatively. And then there’s the content, which is anti-command-following, at least anti the rules people of his time were accustomed to. Re-examine, dismiss, he says, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown. And this, my hands-down favorite: STAND UP FOR THE STUPID AND CRAZY. I put it in all caps because in this age of extreme division, it needs to be shouted. People of all political persuasions would do well to think, STAND UP FOR THE STUPID AND CRAZY, every time they encounter views opposite their own.

 

The covenant, too, differs sharply from the one in Exodus. The Israelites’ “reward” for following the commandments was to be called God’s chosen people. The reward for following Whitman’s is to be called a poem, a living, breathing poem. From between the lashes of your eyes to every joint in your body the flesh becomes word and not the other way around.

 

Because I left Whitman’s piece in Hawaii, an unlikely spot if there ever was one for the words of a native New Yorker, I can’t help but think of another set of commandments. Or to put it differently, another guide for righteous living. I’m talking about the Aloha Spirit, and it’s got nothing to do with leis and hula dancers. Hawaiians take the Aloha Spirit so seriously they even put it in their state constitution.

 

Even though it’s long and will stretch the length of this post past anyone’s patience, I want to print the law in whole. I leave it to others to write the dissertation on how Whitman’s philosophy relates to the A.S. law–I only suggest that although one celebrates the individual and the other a culture of collectivism, both place a high value on connection, authenticity and the spiritual aspects of life.

 

Full Text of THE ALOHA SPIRIT LAW

 

[§5-7.5] The Aloha Spirit.

 

(a) The Aloha Spirit is the coordination of mind and heart within each person. It brings each person to the Self. Each person must think and emote good feelings to others. In the contemplation and presence of the life force, Aloha, the following unuhi laulâ loa (free translation) may be used:

 

* Akahai, meaning kindness to be expressed with tenderness;

* Lôkahi, meaning unity, to be expressed with harmony;

* Olu`olu, meaning agreeable, to be expressed with pleasantness;

* Ha`aha`a, meaning humility, to be expressed with modesty;

* Ahonui, meaning patience, to be expressed with perseverance.

 

These are traits of character that express the charm, warmth and sincerity of Hawaii’s people. It was the working philosophy of native Hawaiians and was presented as a gift to the people of Hawaii.

 

* Aloha is more than a word of greeting or farewell or a salutation.

* Aloha means mutual regard and affection and extends warmth in caring with no obligation in return.

* Aloha is the essence of relationships in which each person is important to every other person for collective existence.

* Aloha means to hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen and to know the unknowable.

 

(b) In exercising their power on behalf of the people and in fulfillment of their responsibilities, obligations and service to the people, the legislature, governor, lieutenant governor, executive officers of each department, the chief justice, associate justices, and judges of the appellate, circuit, and district courts may contemplate and reside with the life force and give consideration to The Aloha Spirit. [L 1986, c 202, §1]

 

 

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was born in Long Island, the second of nine children. His mother and his father, a carpenter, were sympathetic to Quaker thought but never actually became Quakers. The same is true of Whitman throughout his life.

 

The family was poor and forced to move often. When he was eleven Whitman quit school and started to work, first as an office boy in a lawyer’s office and then as an apprentice to a printer, where he stayed till he was seventeen. He taught in a one-room schoolhouse for five years, and in his early twenties became a full-time journalist and started a weekly newspaper. He worked as an editor for newspapers in Brooklyn, Long Island and New Orleans. Meanwhile he was writing the poems that would form the original Leaves of Grass, which he produced and published himself in 1855. The sexual content in the book was controversial—even banned in Boston–and over the years Whitman failed to get work and lost work because of it.

 

During the Civil War he served as a nurse and later as a government clerk. The last eighteen years of his life he faced serious health issues but continued to work on new editions of his masterwork. He published the “deathbed” version only four months before he died at age 72 of tuberculosis.

 

Leaves of Grass has inspired more than mere controversy—it’s inspired writers as diverse as Virginia Woolf, Allen Ginsburg and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s been translated into every major language and continues to inspire both pop culture (Gilmore Girls, Dead Poet’s Society, Breaking Bad, Levi’s commercials,) and more highbrow pursuits (Iggy Pop’s recitation is worth listening to; here’s one by Lana del Rey, and here a nude dance interpretation), not to mention romantic ones. (Bill Clinton’s gift to Monica Lewinsky, remember?)

 

 

** If you want to read more about Leaves of Grass, link to this this piece by poet Robert Haas. Interestingly, in the excerpt from his book (scroll down when you link), Haas mentions that poet Galway Kinnell once said that Leaves of Grass is so rich in vowel sounds it might as well have been written in Hawaiian.

 

 

 

 

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elevator was moving really fast, so picture is blurry

 

Saturday night I put this tiny excerpt from Matthew Arnold’s famous “Dover Beach” in a Toronto elevator. I was going to post it to my Twitter feed on Sunday.

 

But then Sunday happened, and I just couldn’t post anything that had the word “sweet” in it. Although I imagine the air in Orlando was sweet too, before Manteen came to Pulse.

 

In the past few days, other lines from the poem have been playing in my head, these from the last stanza:

 

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 

[I’ll reprint the entire text at the bottom of this post, but just to fill in for anyone who didn’t study this poem in high school: the speaker stands at the window, calls his love to join him (Matthew Arnold was on his honeymoon when he wrote this), and stares at the sea far below, the Straits of Dover. He gives an absolutely beautiful picture of a calm sea at night, the waves, the pebbles on the shore, the moonlight. Then his thoughts turn dark. He thinks of all the human tragedy through history, and so we arrive at this final stanza, bleak and mournful.]

 

In the wake of the Orlando horror, I keep coming back to

 

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another

 

and pushing back against

 

for the world . . .

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain

 

I couldn’t go on if I thought that were true.

 

Maybe Matthew Arnold didn’t fully buy into that line of thinking either. Because there he was, at the window, with the beauty of the world before him and the love of his life beside.

 

If two can love, and be true, why not more?

 

Is the world that offers this beauty–

 

the cliffs of England stand,

Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay

 

the same world as the one that has no joy, no light and no peace?

 

In spite of the Manteens of this world, in spite of the haters, the baiters, the lowest-common-demoninators, won’t there always be a window to look out, and someone—if we just call for them—to stand beside us and gaze into the night?

 

That’s not enough, I know, that’s not enough to cover the loss of all those beautiful young people, the loss of their dreams, their loves, their lives. It’s just a response. It’s just me rooting for love over hate, for hope over despair, for us-and-us over us-and-them.

 

R.I.P. to the Orlando victims. Comfort to their families.

 

Dover Beach

by Matthew Arnold

 

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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poem in grass, off path

poem in grass, off path

 

Face to Face

by Tomas Tranströmer

translated by Patty Crane

 

In February existence stood still.

The birds didn’t fly willingly and the soul

chafed against the landscape as a boat

chafes against the dock it lies moored to.

 

The trees stood with their backs to us.

Snow-depth was measured by dead straw.

Footprints grew old out on the crust.

Under a tarp, language withered.

 

One day something appeared at the window.

Work came to a halt, I looked up.

The colors burned. Everything turned around.

The land and I sprang toward each other.

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May is a little late to be posting a poem celebrating spring, but this is Michigan. Spring is ever tardy. And gloomy, especially this past week. Then yesterday the sun came out, the air warmed up, and all the sudden it seemed like every tree and bush was in bloom. Even dandelions were a welcome sight.

 

So you can see why I was drawn to this poem. “Face to Face” poet Tomas Tranströmer lived in Sweden but his description of winter could easily have been of a Michigan one. Winters here are long and dreary, and round about March they feel just like this:

 

the soul

chafed against the landscape as a boat

chafes against the dock it lies moored to.

 

The poem tells a little story, familiar to all living things, a story of death and renewal as old as the hills, but there’s something fresh here. The speaker’s relationship with nature is almost romantic. The title of the poem announces an intimacy to be explored. The intimacy unfolds in human terms: the poem begins with a chill between two beings, a fight, silent treatment—and then—what I see as make-up sex:

 

The land and I sprang toward each other.

 

I just love that line.

 

This version of the poem is a translation, so I’m reluctant to pick at the words and phrasing much. What we read is an approximation of the original. Here’s a different version, so you can see what I mean.

 

This one by Robin Robertson:

 

In February life stood still.

The birds refused to fly and the soul

grated against the landscape as a boat

chafes against the jetty where it’s moored.

 

The trees were turned away. The snow’s depth

measured by the stubble poking through.

The footprints grew old out on the ice-crust.

Under a tarpaulin, language was being broken down.

 

Suddenly, something approaches the window.

I stop working and look up.

The colours blaze. Everything turns around.

The earth and I spring at each other.

 

I like the use of present tense in the last stanza better than the past tense in the Crane version, but overall, I like Crane’s better.

 

Here’s another one, this by Robin Fulton (do you have to have a bird’s name to translate Transtromer?):

 

In February living stood still.

The birds flew unwillingly and the soul

chafed against the landscape as a boat

chafes against the pier it lies moored to.

 

The trees stood with their backs turned to me.

The deep snow was measured with dead straws.

The footprints grew old out on the crust.

Under a tarpaulin language pined.

 

One day something came to the window.

Work was dropped, I looked up.

The colors flared. Everything turned around.

The earth and I sprang toward each other.

 

For me, the best part of this version is the use of “flared” over “burned” in the penultimate line. But let me know your thoughts and preferences.

 

I had never heard of Tomas Tranströmer until I came upon a newly released collection of his at the library, but he’s hugely popular in Sweden. He’s been called Sweden’s Robert Frost.

 

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 2.35.12 PMTranströmer (1931-2015) was born in Stockholm, the only child of a journalist and teacher. His parents divorced when he was young. At Stockholm University he studied poetry, psychology, religion, and history, eventually earning his PhD in psychology. Throughout his life he worked with juvenile offenders, the disabled, and drug addicts.

 

He published poetry all the while and became close friends with poet Robert Bly who translated his poems to English and help popularize him in the States. When Tranströmer was 59, he suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on one side of his body. Six years after his stroke he was able to publish another collection of poems. He also re-learned how to play the piano, a lifelong hobby, using only his left hand. Link here for a beautiful video of him playing the piano weeks before his death.

 

Tranströmer’s poems are read the world over, from China to the Middle East. His work has been translated into sixty languages. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011.

 

He won many other awards in his lifetime, but the tributes that interest me most are personal ones, tributes that show just how revered he was/is in his native country. A scientist who discovered a new species of beetle named it after Tranströmer, who was an amateur entomologist and whose childhood collection of bugs was once shown at a museum. And after his stroke, several composers wrote pieces for just the left hand so he could play them.

 

One of his two daughters is a concert singer, and many of his poems have been set to music. Link here for one example.

 

 

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poem is in nook of tree in Kenwood, Maryland

poem is in nook of tree in Kenwood, Maryland

 

Barter

by Sara Teasdale

 

Life has loveliness to sell,

All beautiful and splendid things,

Blue waves whitened on a cliff,

Soaring fire that sways and sings,

And children’s faces looking up

Holding wonder like a cup.

 

Life has loveliness to sell,

Music like a curve of gold,

Scent of pine trees in the rain,

Eyes that love you, arms that hold,

And for your spirit’s still delight,

Holy thoughts that star the night.

 

Spend all you have for loveliness,

Buy it and never count the cost;

For one white singing hour of peace

Count many a year of strife well lost,

And for a breath of ecstasy

Give all you have been, or could be.

 

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I may have mentioned once or twice that I love the cherry blossoms. Not cherry blossoms, mind you, but the cherry blossoms, the ones that ring the Tidal Basin and the ones that form a pink tunnel on the streets of Kenwood, a neighborhood in suburban Maryland. It’s a once-a-year treat, and if you don’t live in Washington, D.C., catching them at peak is a matter of luck. Walking under cherry blossoms is one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had and the probably most ephemeral. The Japanese even have a name for it, hanami.

 

This is what the Kenwood cherry blossoms look like at peak:

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This is what they look like when you come too late:

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Which is what seems to happen to me year after year. Even the carpet of petals underfoot was gone. Sixty mile an hour winds two days before my visit scattered their beauty.

 

So I just had memories to go on, calling up the “breath of ecstasy” from past visits. Breath of ecstasy is what poet Sarah Teasdale names our experience of the sublime: the sight of crashing waves (what a great line—blue waves whitened on a cliff), and fire, and a child’s innocent face (another great line—holding wonder like a cup), the sound of music, the smell of pine trees in the rain.

 

These experiences, which we’ve always considered ours for the taking, as in, the best things in life are free, aren’t free at all in Teasdale’s vision. Life has loveliness to sell, she writes, and the cost is high, a year of strife, perhaps, or even all you have been, or could be.

 

I’m having trouble understanding how that barter works out in real life, how it might cost me, in real terms, to seek beauty. I’m not going to sell my house so I can live in Iceland for a year to see the northern lights. But I can see how easy it is to stay in bed instead of getting up to see a sunrise, or how much less it costs me to stay warm in front of the television instead of putting on a coat to look at a winter moon. Easier still to Google a photograph of the northern lights and tick it off my list of beautiful sights to experience. Teasdale’s poem reminds me that effort, not just attention, is required to experience such beauty, and in this post-Romantic, technology-mad world, effort is the price of loveliness.

 

It’s an old-fashioned poem, not perfect, a little clunky in parts, a little inflated in others, but there’s much to enjoy. The passion, the high-minded feeling, the Romantic yearning for the sublime—they don’t make such poems anymore. Outside of a spiritual context or yoga class, no poet today would write like this, unless the poet was being ironic. But how else to capture that most essential human feeling of being overwhelmed by beauty? We need these old poems, we need these old poets to express our awe, our wonder and straightforward joy.

 

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 4.57.17 PMSara Teasdale (1884-1933) was born in St. Louis, the youngest of four children. A sickly child, she was home-schooled till age nine. She started publishing her poems in her early twenties. Her work was well-received, and in 1917 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

 

In 1914 she married Ernst Filsinger, an admirer of her poetry, after rejecting several other proposals. They moved to New York City in 1916 and lived on the Upper East Side.

 

He travelled often, and during one of his trips, she moved away without telling him so she’d be eligible for divorce, much to his shock. They divorced in 1929. She re-kindled a friendship with an old boyfriend, poet Vladmir Lindsay. Lindsay was married by this time. He committed suicide and two years later she did at age 48.

 

A few years ago I left a poem of hers in the cosmetic aisle of Target. You can read that here.

Also worth noting:  her lyric poems seem to be popular with choral groups. Link here for one very lovely example.

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There comes a time in a woman’s life where she has to let go of long-held goals and finally to admit she’s never going get into grooming or have a wardrobe that’s pulled together.

 

The same goes for an elf.

 

For a long time I’ve wanted to make this blog more polished. Someday when I have extra money, I’ve been telling myself, I’ll pay someone to re-design the website. I’ll categorize poems by occasion. Someday I’ll print out poems on vellum, tie them with ribbon, maybe laminate them. Alas, nearly six years after I launched Poem Elf, it looks no different than when I started. My blog roll is shaggy, my presentation is not user-friendly or fun. The poems I put up around town are often crumpled or crooked, reflective of my scissor skills. I still print poems on plain white paper, and tape is always visible,.

 

No surprise that this blog is lacking in visual appeal. I wasn’t the girl with the eye-catching poster at the science fair–I was the girl who got “Unsatisfactory” in Penmanship.

 

This failing was brought home recently when I became aware of two other Poem Elves. One has style, the other better graphics.

 

Annie, one of my Washington, D.C. nieces, sent me pictures of a Poem Elf she discovered on her way to work. How wonderful! I love the cherry blossom colors and graphics and the fact that these haikus will be read by hundreds of people. None of them will blow away.

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This was Annie’s favorite, and mine too

Here’s a few more she passed by:

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Turns out this is not one Poem Elf but many. These are entries to the Golden Triangle Golden Haiku Contest. Link here to see the winners and other entries. (The winner is actually one of the haikus Annie sent me.)

 

The other Poem Elf is a continent away. For Christmas this year my niece Sophia made me a calendar with pictures of her and her sister Georgie poem-elfing around Quito and her home town of Guayllabamba, Ecuador. Their mother, my sister Josie, tried to translate the Spanish poems, which is a little helpful, as I could not find any translations of these poems on line.

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Notice the fancy hat Sophia wears in every picture. It’s like a scrunched-up chef’s hat. I like her style, her sly appearance in every picture.

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See Sophia peeking out behind the wall

 

April is National Poetry Month, and I suspect we will see other Poem Elves coming out of the woodwork. Should you come across one, send me their droppings.

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Screen Shot 2015-12-19 at 10.13.07 AMAfter my last post, a depressing take on the holiday season, I feel like Bad Santa or Bad Party Guest, someone who hurries out the door after leaving the toilet clogged. Before December 25 rolls around, I want to clear the air, so to speak, with something more festive.

(Also because I got a concerned email from an old friend, bless her, hoping that my life is turning out okay.)

 

So here’s a picture of a card I got from another friend, the card being every bit as nice as the gift it accompanied. My friend was inspired by the online celebrations of Jane Austen’s birthday to copy down a few choice Austen quotes.

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Merry Christmas and/or Happy New Year to all! Enjoy friends and dancing and Jane Austen if you have time.

 

I’ll leave you with these lines from a Czeslaw Misosz poem (complete poem printed below):

It is true. We have a beautiful time

As long as time is time at all.

My mom, enjoying time

My mom, enjoying time

 

The Mistake

by Czeslaw Milosz

I thought: all this is only preparation
For learning, at last, how to die.
Mornings and dusks, in the grass under a maple
Laura sleeping without pants, on a headrest of raspberries,
While Filon, happy, washes himself in the stream.
Mornings and years. Every glass of wine,
Laura, and the sea, land, and archipelago
Bring us nearer, I believed, to one aim
And should be used with a thought to that aim.

But a paraplegic in my street
Whom they move together with his chair
From shade into sunlight, sunlight into shade,
Looks at a cat, a leaf, the chrome steel on an auto,
And mumbles to himself, “Beau temps, beau temps.”

It is true. We have a beautiful time
As long as time is time at all.

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Poems are in front of Jack Daniels bottle and further down in front of some cinnamon drink

Poems are in front of Jack Daniels bottle and further down the same shelf in front of some cinnamon drink

 

Alcohol

by Franz Wright

 

You do look a little ill.

 

But we can do something about that, now.

 

Can’t we.

 

The fact is you’re a shocking wreck.

 

Do you hear me.

 

You aren’t all alone.

 

And you could use some help today, packing in the

dark, boarding buses north, putting the seat back and

grinning with terror flowing over your legs through

your fingers and hair . . .

 

I was always waiting, always here.

 

Know anyone else who can say that.

 

My advice to you is think of her for what she is:

one more name cut in the scar of your tongue.

 

What was it you said, “To rather be harmed than

harm, is not abject.”

 

Please.

 

Can we be leaving now.

 

We like bus trips, remember. Together

 

we could watch these winter fields slip past, and

never care again,

 

think of it.

 

I don’t have to be anywhere.

 

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The Drunk

by Franz Wright

 

I don’t understand any more

than you do. I only know

he stays here

like some huge wounded animal—

open the door and he will gaze at you and

linger

Close the door

And he will break it down

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Debbie Downer resurfaces, just in time for the holidays.

 

But really, for anyone living with an alcoholic, Christmas and New Year’s can be a horrible time of year. Time off from work means more time at home, more time for drinking and causing havoc and pain. Not to mention the self-loathing an alcoholic feels when he knows, at some level and to varying degrees, that he’s an asshole.

 

In these two poems, poet Franz Wright addresses both sides of alcohol abuse. He knows them intimately, having grown up with an alcoholic parent and then becoming one himself.

 

Mostly our sympathies lie with the child of an alcoholic, so quickly and keenly sketched in “The Drunk.” The options for living with The Drunk are bad and worse, because however a family member of an alcoholic reacts—ignoring or engaging, or in the language of the poem, opening or closing the door -–they’ll pay for it.

 

The central image

 

he stays here

like some huge wounded animal–

 

reminds me of a Swedish public service advertisement, one of the best ads I’ve ever seen. In the ad (link here), adults who get drunk are literally monsters, frightening, incomprehensible, and embarrassing to their children. The expression on the little boy’s face as he gets buckled in his seatbelt breaks my heart.

 

The flip side of this sad picture is the soul-crushing pain of the alcoholic, pain that is both the cause and the effect of drinking. It’s always hard to sympathize with a person who acts like a jerk and an idiot, but in “Alcohol,” Wright lays out the torture of living with addiction. The narrating voice describes to the drinker the pain ahead–

 

putting the seat back and  

grinning with terror flowing over your legs through  

your fingers and hair . . .

 

and offers to make it better. Because drinking is also fun. Wright’s drinker is offered a road trip with his best buddy, his most reliable friend. Traveling drunk is easier than facing up to the pain of a broken relationship. Any reservations the drinker feels about his actions–

 

What was it you said, “To rather be harmed than  

harm, is not abject.”

 

are shut down with ridicule–

 

Please.

 

By turns the drinker is insulted and consoled by this seductive interior voice. There’s no doubt who’s winning this one.

 

I left both poems in the liquor aisle of my local drugstore. Spreading merriment and cheer, that’s me.

 

Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 1.48.03 PMFranz 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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