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

 

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

 

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

 

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

whose blessed glow transcends the laws

  Of time and change and mortal life and death.

 

 

 

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

 

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

Having neither to weigh thoughts,

Nor measure words—but pouring them

All right out—just as they are—

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

Dunbar is ready for love anytime, anywhere:

Come when the summer gleams and glows

Come with the winter’s drifting snows,

  And you are welcome, welcome.

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

sleeper only the mortal sounds can sing awake,

this blessing love gives again into our arms.

 

 

 

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

poem is on white dishwasher with black top 

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

when they

are not too busy.

 

 

 

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

poem is on. drone sign

 

He’s one depressed tourist—

flowers like eyeballs dabbed in blood and the big ruins

said do it my way pal

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

For algae spores

and fungus spores

bonded by vital

mutual genetic cooperation

 

 

May we all be bonded in mutual genetic cooperation!

 

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!

 

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To the mountain of tributes to the great Mary Oliver, I add this little pebble.

 

In a world with so many hysterical people running loose, shouting and fighting and festering outrage, I miss her. Or I miss the idea of her, the poet walking along the shore in her barn jacket, quiet and alone, observing. This wise chronicler of grief and joy, confusion and discovery, this plain-dressing, plain-spoken witness to the extravagant beauty of the natural world, this translator of the unvoiced spiritual impulse, this New England gal, our very own American Rumi—is gone, alas. Fortunately her poems are here to stay. She’ll be read for ages.

 

 

The poem below is not one of her greatest hits, but I’ve been thinking about it since I came across it. Like so many of her poems, it’s planted a seed in my soul that has taken root.

 

This Morning

by Mary Oliver

 

This morning the redbirds’ eggs

have hatched and already the chicks

are chirping for food. They don’t

know where it’s coming from, they

just keep shouting, “More! More!”

As to anything else, they haven’t

had a single thought. Their eyes

haven’t yet opened, they know nothing

about the sky that’s waiting. Or

the thousands, the millions of trees.

They don’t even know they have wings.

 

And just like that, like a simple

neighborhood event, a miracle is

taking place.

*. *. *

Spend today—spend tomorrow, spend every day of the rest of your life for Pete’s sake—thinking about those little birds and what they don’t know. The trees that await. The wings waiting to be used. So much is beyond our perception. Again and again in her long career Oliver lifted the veil and gave us a glimpse of the trees, the sky, our wings.

 

R.I.P. Mary Oliver. With thanks from a grateful reader.

 

They don’t even know they have wings. 

 

 

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poem is in backpack

 

Ask Much, the Voice Suggested

by Jane Hirshfield

 

Ask much, the voice suggested, and I startled.

Feeling my body like the trembling body of a horse

tied to its tree while the strange noise

passes over its ears.

I who in extremity had always wanted less,

even of eating, of sleeping.

Agile, the voice did not speak again, but waited.

“Want more” –

a cure for longing I had not thought of.

But that is how it is with wells.

Whatever is taken refills to the steady level.

The voice agreed, though softly, to quiet the feet of the horse:

A cup taken out, a cup reappears; a bucketful taken, a bucket.

 

 

One evening long ago when my youngest daughter was getting ready for her first concert, I leaned in the bathroom doorway to watch with bemusement as she straightened her hair, lengthened her lashes, and went on and on about how excited she was. “This is going to be the greatest night of my life!” she said.

 

“Well,” I felt compelled to say, having seen the disappointment many such nights brought her older siblings, ”it probably won’t be the best night of your life.”

 

Poet Jane Hirshfield might take issue.

 

All these years later, take issue. I take issue with that mother so intent on instilling the stoicism of her own youth, so keen to teach her kids to expect less so that more is always a happy surprise that she sucked the joy right out of the bathroom, or as my husband likes to pantomime, stomped on the flower just as it was coming up from the ground.

 

By way of a belated apology, I gave “Ask Much, The Voice Suggested” to that same daughter. I slipped it in her backpack at the airport as she left for a year abroad to teach English. Obviously she didn’t learn from her mother to fear disappointment more than missed opportunity.

 

In my late middle-age I begin to get it. I think many people my age do. Ask much. Want more. Not more stuff. More life. Want more of people, of relationships, of time. Life holds so much possibility, so much that’s splendid and variable, why settle for less? Why settle for screen time and soulless shopping and obsessions and anxieties about our bodies? There’s so much more than that. Ask much.

 

Obviously the poem can’t be boiled down to aphorisms. Like the well described at the end (a wishing well, I see now), it’s a poem that re-fills even as you think you’re draining it. Where does the voice come from? Who is that horse, what is that tree, that tether?

 

The final lines trip me up, even after many years of reading them. Maybe it’s my utter confusion around physical science and fluid mechanics, but I don’t understand. In real-life, practical terms, how does getting something re-fill the well? Or is the well re-filling with wanting, with asking, not with the actual thing asked for, and if so, how does that solve the problem of wanting more? You see that I am dense. Anyone who can help me work through this, come forward.

 

But even in my confusion I understand that for the poet, as for me, the voice is benevolent. The voice is on her side. It wants for her what she’s afraid to want for herself. It’s agile when it first comes, suggesting eagerness, readiness to help, and then it’s soft in consideration of the trembling horse still tied to the tree.

 

I’ve been lucky enough in life that such benevolence is not hard to understand.

 

Jane Hirshfield was born in 1953 in New York City.  After graduating from the first Princeton class to include women, she moved to San Francisco to study Zen Buddhism for eight years. She’s published eight books of poetry and, as a translator of Japanese poetry, helped popularize tanka in the United States. She’s won numerous awards and taught at many universities including Stanford, Duke and Univerisity of Virginia.

 

I read an interview with her from PalettePoetry.com and came across this question-and-answer which I suspect is relevant to “Ask Much, the Voice Suggested.”

 

Q:  HOW DO YOU CLIMB OUT OF A DRY SPELL OF WRITING?

 

JH: By longing. I grow lonely for poems, the way you would grow lonely for an absent lover. And then they return. Longing is the ladder we meet on.

 

 

 

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poem is next to fountain soda

 

What the Gypsies told My Grandmother While She Was Still a Young Girl

by Charles Simic

 

War, illness and famine will make you their favourite grandchild.

You’ll be like a blind person watching a silent movie.

You’ll chop onions and pieces of your heart

into the same hot skillet.

Your children will sleep in a suitcase tied with a rope.

Your husband will kiss your breasts every night

as if they were two gravestones.

 

 

Already the crows are grooming themselves

for you and your people.

Your oldest son will lie with flies on his lips

without smiling or lifting his hand.

You’ll envy every ant you meet in your life

and every roadside weed.

Your body and soul will sit on separate stoops

chewing the same piece of gum.

 

 

Little cutie, are you for sale? the devil will say.

The undertaker will buy a toy for your grandson.

Your mind will be a hornet’s nest even on your

deathbed.

You will pray to God but God will hang a sign

that He’s not to be disturbed.

Question no further, that’s all I know.

 

 

A gypsy curse seems old world, from another time. But go down the rabbit hole of Twitter or online commentary to newspaper editorials and you’ll quickly realize the curse is alive and well. Poet Charles Simic is just loads funnier and more clever than any modern-day digital gypsy.

 

But maybe you don’t think this poem is funny. Maybe that first line is too real for half the world’s population. Maybe you’re so overwhelmed with the divisiveness of one side spewing hatred on the other side that you don’t see the humor in lines like these—

 

your husband will kiss your breasts every night

as if they were gravestones.

 

Sue me, I do (and I say that as someone who actually has two gravestones on my chest, having had a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction years ago). There’s something to be said for exaggerating ugliness and fears till they become ridiculous. It’s what fairy tales do, the real ones, the old un-rewritten ones, the scary, violent, disturbing ones that allow children to work out the dark edges of their subconscious. (I’m not going to get into the whole psychology of it, but link here for an old review of Bruno Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment, summarized so well by John Updike.)

 

Curses of course are standard fare in fairy tales and ghost stories and as old as Adam and Eve. Maybe inventing curses or giving credence to them is how we try to exercise control over horrific realities. Maybe curses are necessary foils to bring out the beauty of blessings. Or maybe curses are just expressions of creativity, fun exercises of the imagination, the way my mother used to put us to bed. She would stand half in, half out of the door and say in a low growly voice, “May your bed be as hard as nails” and “May snakes crawl out from under your bed” and other things about insects crawling over our faces. We loved it and begged her to keep going and never lost a moment’s sleep over those snakes.

 

That was another time, I guess, a time when kids didn’t have to worry about getting shot up at school.

 

I didn’t want to leave “What the Gypsies etc.” in a spot where someone might take it to heart, so I left the poem at the airport for a bored passenger to read instead of a screen.

 

doesn’t Simic look like a Bond villain?

Here’s Simic’s biography from a previous post. It strikes me now that the facts of his life go a long way towards explaining his twisted sensibility.

 

 

Charles Simic was born in Yugoslavia in 1938.  During WWII, his family was evacuated from place to place to escape bombing.  “My travel agents were Hitler and Stalin,” he jokes.  His father left to find work in Italy and was imprisoned instead.  After the war Simic and his mother and brother were briefly imprisoned by Communist authorities.  Eventually they were able to leave Yugoslavia for Paris, then New York, where the family was reunited with Simic’s father after ten years. Simic took night classes in Chicago and then moved to New York where he worked a number of odd jobs.  He served in the army in the early sixties, and arriving back in New York, earned a degree from New York University.

 

Simic has taught at the University of New Hampshire for nearly forty years.  He was named the Poet Laureate of the United States in 2007, won the Pulitzer Prize, and received a MacArthur Genius Grant, and remains one of our most popular American poets with readers and critics alike.  Quite a feat for a poet who didn’t speak English till he was fifteen.

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poem is leaning against veil on bench

 

Song of the Heart

by Cavafy

 

With you, I think, all that is pleasant smiles on me,

in the mirror of your eyes there is reflected joy.

Stay, my light, and still I have not told you even half

of all that presses down upon my heart so amorous,

that rushes to my lips with just a single look from you.

If you wish it, do not speak to me, or say enchanting

words of love and adoration. ‘Tis enough that you’re nearby,

that I tell you that I want you, that I’m near you, that the morning

dew that you breathe in, I breathe in, too; and if you find

that these too are excessive, ‘tis enough I merely see you!

 

 

A few hours before the bride donned this stunning dress, I snuck into her room with “Song of the Heart.” Then I worried. First that somehow the ink from my green Poem Elf stamp would stain the veil, and second that the bride might view the gesture as creepy, her prurient aunt trying to stoke the marital fires with a poem equal parts smoldering and romantic. I was like those old ladies at bridal showers of yore, holding up peignoir sets and lacy teddies, exclaiming to all with a laugh and a knowing wink, “Oh, won’t he enjoy these!” Forgive us old aunties. We love young love.

 

Anyway I needn’t have worried. The bride loved the poem and thought it “a perfect match” for her own perfect match. Indeed it was, even though she and her husband are private people not given to public displays, a couple whose emotions are less likely to be announced than unmasked by flushing cheeks and small grins.

 

But they couldn’t hold back on their wedding day, the glow, the big smiles, the “reflected joy” in the mirror of their eyes, the affectionate touching whenever the other was near. This overflowing of love from a couple who have known each other since their teenage years was a living, breathing exhibition of Cavafy’s words.

 

What I love about this love poem is that side-by-side with the passion—all that breathing and feelings pressing down and words rushing to the lips—is a courtliness. The lover is sweetly considerate of the beloved. The speaker says he’ll speak if you wish it, and if you find these too are excessive, he’ll back off. So polite for a passionate outpouring. This is no gather ye rosebuds while ye may seduction. This lover says, it’s enough to just breathe the same air as you.

 

I can only imagine how beautiful this poem is in the original Greek.

 

There’s a postscript to “Cavafy at the wedding.” After the reception, those die-hard celebrators among us carried on at a bar, and there I met a young man on his way to Ireland to get his masters in literature. We talked about his very particular literary taste—Shelly but not Eliot, a little Yeats but not all—and I showed him the picture on my phone of the Cavafy poem. He knew Cavafy and had read the poem before. I was impressed. No doubt the pretty young woman next to him was impressed as well. He expanded the screen to highlight a particular line. “Right there,” he said, pointing. “That’s it.” I wish I could remember which line it was that was it.

 

But which line doesn’t matter. What matters is the reach, over a hundred years later and thousands and thousands of miles away, of one poet’s words on strangers in a bar late one night, on lovers on their honeymoon, on who knows who else who reads this poem right here and now and remembers a beloved, and feels the beam of passion, the glow of love, who matches Cavafy’s song of the heart with his own.

 

Us old aunties. We’re hopeless romantics.

 

I’ve written about Cavafy before and will re-print his biography here. (Link here for the full post with another great Cavafy poem.)

 

Constantine Petrou Cavafy is Greece’s most highly esteemed modern poet even though he lived only briefly in Greece. He was born in 1863 in Egypt to Greek parents, the youngest of nine children.  After the death of his father, the family fell into poverty and moved to England. There he spent most of his childhood. More financial distress pulled the family to Greece, then back to Egypt, where Cavafy worked as a journalist and as a stockbroker. But the bulk of his professional life was spent at a government agency.

 

Cavafy was never famous in his lifetime and didn’t seem interested in pursuing recognition. He printed his poems in pamphlets which he distributed to his friends. His lack of interest in publication may have been because some of his poems dealt frankly with his homosexuality and erotic themes. He died at age seventy in 1933.

 

 

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