Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘random’

poem is by champagne display for a belated celebration

 

Thompson and Seaman Vows, African Union Church

(ca. 1847)

by Marilyn Nelson

 

Miss Charlotte Thompson, daughter of Ada

Thompson of Seneca and the late John,

and Timothy James Seaman, son

of the late Nancy Seaman, on Sunday.

Reverend Rush performed the ceremony.

The bride (twenty-four) was educated

by a literate friend, and by seeing

the African Theatre Company’s

productions of Macbeth and Richard III.

She teaches in Colored School #3.

Her father was a slave. Her mother, freed

by a clause in her late mistress’s will,

sews and sells exquisite lace lingerie.

The bridegroom (twenty-six) cannot read or write,

but ciphers and is a skilled carpenter.

His mother was slaved to an early death.

She told him he was descended from kings.

 

 

I make it a rule not to read other people’s interpretations of a poem before I post my own thoughts, but it’s happened by accident and I can’t pretend I don’t know what I know.

 

I was checking to see if “Thompson and Seaman Vows” was “found poetry, “ that is, an actual historical record of a wedding announcement that poet Marilyn Nelson came across and elevated with line breaks so that the words could come alive in a new way.

 

Spoiler alert:  it isn’t.

 

On the Poetry Foundation website is a young reader’s fan letter about the poem and Nelson’s generous answer. She explains the history of the poem, the historical milieu, her intentions. I can’t add much to it, so I’ll re-print her comments here.

 

Let me just say that Nelson’s poem makes all those Sunday New York Times wedding announcements look like puffed-up poseurs. In “Thompson and Seaman Vows,” the typical announcement elements—occupations, parentage, age, wedding details— are moving rather than envy-inspiring.

 

*

 

Dear Paloma,

 

[Do you know the song by Caetano Veloso called “Paloma”? It’s very beautiful. You can hear Caetano singing it on Youtube. Harry Belafonte recorded it in the Fifties; it’s always been one of my favorite melodies, though I don’t know or understand the lyrics.]

 

But, to the point: I’m very glad you like my poem so much that you wrote to me about it. I’m glad that you see that the poem is telling a story. I’m sorry I didn’t give a little introduction to the poem before I read it on the video. The poem is taken from my book of poems called My Seneca Village. Seneca Village was a small community of free black people in Manhattan, which was started in 1825 and thrived until it was destroyed as part of the creation of Central Park, in 1857. My book tells the stories of people I imagined living there.

 

“Thompson and Seaman Vows, African Union Church” is an imaginary wedding announcement in an imaginary newspaper. In writing it, I imitated real wedding announcements that appear nowadays every Sunday in The New York Times. The real, contemporary wedding announcements always begin with the names of the couple, the date of the wedding and the name of the person who officiated the ceremony. Then there is a paragraph about the bride: where she was educated, and where she works. Then a paragraph about her mother and father and their professional histories. Then the groom, his education and his work, and then information about this mother and father. If you read a lot of them, you see they follow a formula.

 

In the case of the couple in my poem, they are free, living in Seneca Village, New York, but the wedding takes place in 1847, a time when most of the black people in America where enslaved. In 1847 there were not many opportunities for black Americans to go to school. People who learned to read taught other people to read. That’s why the bride in the poem has been “educated by her literate friend.” In a couple of other poems in the book we learn that she loves Shakespeare, the great writer she knows (books were expensive; she wouldn’t have been able to own a collection of Shakespeare’s works, and libraries were usually available only to white people) only from seeing two of his plays performed by the African Theatre Company, in all-black productions (blacks would probably not be able to go to a white theater). But the fact that she can read and that she knows a little bit about the greatest poet of the English language makes her educated enough to teach in the Seneca Village school.

 

As for the groom, he is not exactly educated, but he can do math computations (i.e., measure a board and know where to cut it to fit a space in the building of a house) and he is a good carpenter (in other words, he has skills that translate into earning a good living). Although his mother was “slaved to an early death,” she did not forget that she and her people were stolen from a land that had its own greatness, and she passed on that knowledge and pride to her son, by telling him that he was descended from—as you put so well—“a noble family in Africa.”

 

Thanks for noticing the line breaks!

 

The topic came because I was trying to write poems that presented a panorama of village life, so I wanted to include a wedding. I found the names in the U.S. Census records of Seneca Village, but I invented the characters, the love story, and the wedding. There was a church with that name in Seneca Village. I’m so glad you loved my poem!

 

Best Wishes,

 

Marilyn Nelson

 

*

 

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

 

Marilyn Nelson was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1946. Her father was in the Air Force, one of the last of the Tuskegee airmen, and her mother was a teacher. The family moved often from military base to military base.

 

She started writing poetry at a young age. She graduated from University of California-Davis, got her Masters from University of Pennsylvania, and her PhD from University of Minnesota.

 

“Moonlily” is from a memoir-in-sonnets called How I Discovered Poetry, named in 2014 as one of NPR’s best books of the year. She’s published seven volumes of poetry for adults, eleven for young adults and four for children. She is also known for her translations of Danish poetry.  She’s won many awards, among them the Ruth Lilly prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the Frost Medal.

 

She was professor emerita of English at the University of Connecticut. In 2003 following her retirement from teaching, she founded Soul Mountain Retreat near her home in rural Connecticut. She has two children.

 

 

Read Full Post »

 

For no particular reason, a poem for Black History Month in the produce section of a grocery store. Wonder who found it.

 

poem is under the onions

 

American History

by Michael S. Harper

 

Those four black girls blown up

in that Alabama church

remind me of five hundred

middle passage blacks,

in a net, under water

in Charleston harbor

so redcoats wouldn’t find them.

Can’t find what you can’t see

can you?

 

 

Sometimes this blog seems like an embarrassing record of all the things I don’t know (I never knew about—I’d never heard of—). My knowledge gaps become most obvious during Black History Month.

 

For example, I didn’t know much about the bombing of the 16thStreet Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Four girls killed, terrible, terrible was the beginning and end of my familiarity with that seminal event in civil rights history. Michael S. Harper’s “American History” sent me back on line to fill in the story, and it’s an awful one. Four girls ages 11-14 were getting ready for Sunday school in the bathroom of the church basement, one just re-tying the sash on her friend’s dress, when fifteen sticks of dynamite set right underneath them went off. The physical damage to the young girls is horrible to read, but the delayed justice for the murderers is infuriating. Not until 1977 was the ringleader jailed, and not until 2000 and 2002 were the co-conspirators prosecuted. J. Edgar Hoover himself shut down the investigation in 1968. After he died, records were un-sealed and the case re-opened.

 

The other incident mentioned in this poem, the hiding (and presumably murder) of enslaved men underwater in a Charleston harbor was completely unknown to me. And still is. I’m unable to link this to an actual event, so if you know something about it, please fill me in.

 

There are, unfortunately, many similar accounts of Black people thrown overboard to drown, so Harper’s conjuring of the event may just be an imaginative reference to Middle Passage murders like the ones aboard the Zong, a British-owned slave ship (low on water, the captain ordered 132 Blacks thrown overboard in order to collect insurance money); and the ones aboard the Leusden, a Dutch ship (in a life-threatening storm, the white crew took to the lifeboats and locked 664 Blacks below deck to die); and those aboard the Portuguese ship Tecora, where a third of the 500 Blacks in the slave hold were thrown overboard, chained together and tethered with iron balls. Supplies were running low, you see.

 

I knew nothing of these. Never learned about them in school, and I never found my way to educate myself. I don’t even know what I don’t know. Only recently did I learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, an event so hidden from historical attention that the number of Black Tulsans slaughtered is unknown but guessed to be about 300. And just today, in late February of 2021, I learned of the Draft Riots of 1863. At least a hundred Black citizens of New York City were hunted down by white mobs and lynched. A baby thrown out the window. A son slaughtered in front of his mother. The number of murders is probably closer to 175 and could be double or triple that, unknown and unquantifiable because, as in the poem, Black bodies are concealed. Below the surface. In basements. Under water. In mass graves. Unaccounted for in more ways than one.

 

Can’t find what you can’t see

can you?

 

Can’t find evidence of injustice if someone’s gotten rid of it, buried it, burned it, or de-humanized the victims.

 

It’s important to note that in 1970, when Harper wrote this poem, the four Birmingham bombers were still walking around free, their punishment a $100 fine. No wonder the title is bitterly ironic. How much of “American History” is hidden history?

 

*

 

Michael S. Harper (1938-2016) was born in Brooklyn, the oldest of three children. His father worked as a supervisor for the post office, and his mother was a medical secretary. The family had a lot of jazz and blues records, which later influenced Harper’s style.

 

When he was 13, the family moved to L.A. He was a pre-med student at L.A. City College but transferred to what is now California State University and got his B.A. and M.A. in English while working at the post office. He earned an MFA at Iowa Writers Workshop in 1963.

 

Poet Gwendolyn Brooks, impressed by his entry to a contest she was judging, helped launch his career in poetry. He taught at several universities in California and Oregon before settling in at Brown University where he chaired the MFA program.

 

Harper published over a dozen books of poetry. He was the poet laureate of Rhode Island, and won many awards, among them a Guggenheim fellowship and an NEA grant.

 

He married and had five children, two of whom died at birth. He later divorced. He died at age 78.

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

photo courtesy of Lisa MacArthur

 

Longtime readers of this blog know that I celebrate February 14th with a Valentines Day Poem Blitz. I try to post poems featuring every kind of love—romantic, platonic, familial, and whatever you call love of the earth. I’ll usually throw in a poem for the broken-hearted as well.

 

This year it’s going to be a little different. This year love seems at once so present (all the beautiful stories of people helping, nurturing, nursing, encouraging, connecting) and at the same time so absent. Pandemic isolation and political division have given love a good thrashing.

 

So I’m going back to basics. This year I’m only working with two “poems” instead of six or seven. They aren’t actually poems at all (although I’ve inserted line breaks for the sake of easy reading}, and they sure aren’t romantic. If you’re looking for romantic verse for your sweetie, this post will be a cold shower of harsh truth. (You’ll find more traditional Valentines Day fare if you search in the side bar on every month of February since 2011, like here for instance.)

 

If I didn’t lose you at “harsh truth,” read on. I had Poem Elf helpers all over the country—east coast, west coast, Midwest—post two quotes from Catholic mystic Thomas Merton. Yes, a celibate, monastic Catholic priest here to tell us all about love. Dr. Ruth he is not, but his words have implications for every kind of love. They inspire me to love better, more deeply, more authentically. I hope they’ll do the same for others.

 

Thanks so much to all the helpers! You are my special Valentines this year.

 

Let’s start with the first quote, posted in a flower shop in northern Michigan by my friend Lisa:

 

 

The beginning of love is the will

to let those we love be perfectly themselves,

the resolution not to twist them to fit

our own image. If in loving them

we do not love what they are,

but only their potential likeness

to ourselves, then we do not love them:

we only love the reflection

of ourselves we find in them.

—Thomas Merton

 

[Note: I deleted a word in the first line because taken out of context, as this quote is, the word “this” is confusing. What Merton actually wrote:  The beginning of this love is the will. . . ]

 

 

*

 

My nephew Beau lives in San Diego and taped the quote to a rail on San Elijo Beach in Cardiff, California.

 

 

 

*

 

Jumping across the country to Vermont, my grand-niece Emma Jane left Merton’s words in the parking lot of Sugarbush ski resort.

 

poem is on the #10 sign

 

 

*

 

Heading south to Washington, D.C., my niece Charlotte taped the poem to a park bench in Logan Square:

 

 

 

*

 

And finally, back to the midwest, where my pal Becca left the poem on a lamppost in snowy Chicago:

 

 

One more from Becca—a very pretty presentation!

 

*

 

Two of my helpers tackled the second quote, which is even less Valentine-y than the first. Buckle up and love on.

 

Michigan Lisa found the perfect spot for this quote—at Walmart, positioned between “Love” and “The Hate U Give”—

 

 

As long as we are on earth,

the love that unites us will bring us suffering

by our very contact with one another,

because this love is the resetting

of a Body of broken bones. Even saints

cannot live with saints on this earth

without some anguish, without

some pain at the differences

that come between them.

 

There are two things

which men can do about the pain

of disunion with other men.

They can love or they can hate.

—Thomas Merton

 

 

*

 

Charlotte also left this one amongst books. Look for it on the lower shelf tucked next to Dan Siva’s book. The books are in the wonderfully named “Miss Pixie’s Antique Store.”

 

 

*

 

Thanks again to Lisa, Beau, Emma Jane, Charlotte and Becca! I am so grateful for your time and creativity and willingness to be an elf.

 

To all my readers, Happy Valentines Day. Let’s love like dogs! . . . like dogs love, that ispurely, unconditionally, affectionately, sloppily.

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

February is Black History Month, and I have six poems queued up to celebrate it. Each poem shines a light on parts of U.S. history not emphasized in my own history education, which unfortunately was of the Social Studies ilk. (Social Studies, boring and artificial, caused  huge gaps in my knowledge of world history and geography.) The racial blind spots in my childhood textbooks leave me with some catching up to do. So here we are, learning new things every day.

 

Today’s poem is “Moonlily” by Marilyn Nelson. She recounts her schooling experience on a California Air Force base in the 50’s as the only black girl in a classroom of white children.

 

poem is on top of slide on this school playground

 

Moonlily

(Mather AFB, California, 1956)

by Marilyn Nelson

 

When we play horses at recess, my name

is Moonlily and I’m a yearling mare.

We gallop circles around the playground,

whinnying, neighing, and shaking our manes.

We scrape the ground with scuffed saddle oxfords,

thunder around the little kids on swings

and seesaws, and around the boys’ ball games.

We’re sorrel, chestnut, buckskin, pinto, gray,

a herd in pastel dresses and white socks.

We’re self-named, untamed, untouched, unridden.

Our plains know no fences. We can smell spring.

The bell produces metamorphosis.

Still hot and flushed, we file back to our desks,

one bay in a room of palominos.

 

 

 

I had to do a little research to understand this poem. Horse research. You may well be shocked at how little I know of horses, but in case you’re as ignorant of equine terminology as I am, here’s a guide:

 

A yearling is a one- or two-year old horse. Think of yearlings as tweens, not yet in puberty but close. Yearling mare just means the young horse is female.

 

Sorrel, chestnut, buckskin, pinto, gray are different horse colors. Most are brown-ish (sorrel, chesnut, gray), one is spotted brown and white (pinto), and only one (buckskin) is a light color.

 

A bay is a brown horse. A palomino is pale golden horse with a white tail and mane, the horse of royalty, parades, and the Mr. Ed show. Palomino only refers to color, not to a particular breed.

 

Now let’s talk about horse girls. The speaker in this poem (it is autobiographical, so let’s call her Nelson) is clearly a horse girl. You don’t have to ride horses to be a horse girl—as long as you’re a socially clueless pre-teen obsessed with horses, you qualify. (Warning: the horse girl world is a rabbit hole of memes and videos I spent way too much time in. Two of the best and weirdest:  link here to watch a girl jump like a horse, and here to watch a grown-up horse girl galloping along.)

 

“Horse girl energy” means being blissfully unaware about what other people think of you or what you wear or what you’re interested in. That’s a wonderful place for any child to be, girls in particular, Black girls especially. In the yearling stage of girlhood, girls are at the peak of feeling unselfconscious of their bodies, running wild and free in their play, and in the language of the poem, self-named, untamed, untouched, unridden.

 

There’s so much joy in this sonnet, so much motion and color. At play most of the girls are brown horses; they run together in a herd, dressed the same in their pastel dresses and saddle shoes. Outside the only divisions that matter are between big kids and little kids, between boys and girls. And then comes the recess-is-over bell. For Nelson, filing back into the classroom means more than the end of fun. It’s the end of belonging. The sudden, acute isolation this little girl feels stabs my heart—

 

Still hot and flushed, we file back to our desks,

one bay in a room of palominos.

 

*

 

If anyone is looking for a worthy organization to donate to this month, Detroit Horse Power is an equestrian center that works with urban youth. Here’s their mission statement:

Detroit Horse Power uniquely addresses two persistent problems facing the Motor City: the shortage of opportunities for metro Detroit’s vulnerable populations (especially children) and the abundance of vacant land. Through riding and caring for horses in a safe and enriching space, program participants learn valuable skills that set them up for future success.

 

Link here for more information.

 

*

 

Marilyn Nelson was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1946. Her father was in the Air Force, one of the last of the Tuskegee airmen, and her mother was a teacher. The family moved often from military base to military base.

 

She started writing poetry at a young age. She graduated from University of California-Davis, got her Masters from University of Pennsylvania, and her PhD from University of Minnesota.

 

“Moonlily” is from a memoir-in-sonnets called How I Discovered Poetry, named in 2014 as one of NPR’s best books of the year. She’s published seven volumes of poetry for adults, eleven for young adults and four for children. She is also known for her translations of Danish poetry.  She’s won many awards, among them the Ruth Lilly prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the Frost Medal.

 

She was professor emerita of English at the University of Connecticut. In 2003 following her retirement from teaching, she founded Soul Mountain Retreat near her home in rural Connecticut. She has two children.

 

Read Full Post »

 

On the final day of the ESL series, I’m happy to share a picture of the Chicago students meeting on Zoom (a few were absent).  What a wonderful group! I thank each one of them for sharing their stories, hopes and struggles openly and honestly. You’ve given me (and surely my readers) cause for reflection and inspiration. Thanks also to my big sister Ceci for collaborating on this project and for being a great teacher to her students and, as ever, to me.

 

Merci, gracias, 감사합니다, Спасибо, ありがとうございました, 谢谢. (Apologies if my translation is off!)

 

 

*

  

Lin

 by Lin from China

 

My Chinese isn’t enough.

I remember how I was happy

staying with my friends,

enjoying each time we got together,

the same values, same hobbies, same goals.

 

好朋友志在四方**

 

But that was in China.

Now I am in America.

And I’m learning English.

Back at my hometown

my friends attend a variety of events,

hang with one another.

But I stayed at my new home and felt dumb, alone.

I registered for many classes to learn more.

My husband always encourages me.

He said, you’re excellent!

Follow your heart!

I’m more confident now,

Inspired by Chicken Soup words,

Inspired by the understanding of my friends,

my parents, my tutors.

So, I am getting used to living in America

I push myself to walk out to face the challenge,

to be positive.

For if I stop trying, I will be depressed

when my friends need my ideas.

 

** Chinese for “Good friends are pursuing their ideain different places.”

 

 

*

 

 

Jenny

by Jenny from Korea

 

My Korean isn’t good enough,

I remember how I’d grin

Listening to my little one,

Her jokes, her whines, her tricks.

Teasing each other

 

*엄마가어른이니까어린이인나랑놀아줘야지. 안그래?

 

But that was in Korea.

Now my daughter goes to an American high school.

She chats in English. At night she Face-Times with friends, laughing.

I listen by her door and feel excluded, alone.

I turn on the radio when I drive, I turn on the radio when I cook,

My husband laughs at my accent.

I’m embarrassed at not understanding what others say,

Sometimes I read the Bible line-by-line, recording my voice and listening and listening again.

Repeating again and again.

For if I stop trying, I will be deaf

When my grandchildren need my help.

 

Korean for, “Mom, since you are an adult, you are supposed to play with me, aren’t you?”

 

*

 

Natalia

by Natalia from The Ukraine

 

My Ukrainian isn’t enough.

I remember how I laughed and chatted with my friends.

I understood their jokes, their songs, their thoughts.

 

            І щоразу це були неймовірні зустрічі!  *

 

But that was in Ukraine.

Now I live in America with my husband and children.

My new friends are here.

They are so different. We speak different languages,

We have different cultures, values and faith . . .

We have different childhood memories.

Often, I do not have enough words to tell about something.

It is difficult to describe my feelings.

I cannot be open with my new friends.

 

I work on my English every day,

I want to remember more new words,

I want to understand more. . .

For if I stop trying, I will be deaf when my friends need my help.

 

*Ukrainian for “Every time it was an incredible meeting.”

 

*

 

Teacher’s Note

These Imitation Poems express the deepest and most profound feelings of my students as they strive to make new roots in a new country with a new language. The poem Elena, by Pat Mora was the inspiration. Writing poetry is an unfamiliar and challenging task for most of us, but writing poems in a second language is even more difficult. I applaud their efforts and congratulate them on challenging their minds and thank them for sharing their personal struggles of learning English while trying to make a new life here as they search for their “second soul.” The poetic images of floating alphabet letters, blurry worlds, birthday songs that are no long uproariously sung, and so many more touch my heart. I am so proud of their  determination and persistence to never stop trying, like Elena.

 

Ceci Greco

 

Read Full Post »

 

Reading these wonderful ESL poems about learning a new language, I’m reminded of one of my favorite movies, Brooklyn, starring the luminous Saoirse Ronan as an Irish immigrant to New York in the 1950s. She’s not learning a new language so much as a new culture. Excited as she is to be starting life in a big city, homesickness colors every experience. I cried my way through the movie. I cried much more than the people I watched the movie with. I could not stop crying even when it was over.

 

I was re-experiencing my own homesickness, you see, after years and years of forgetting I ever had it in the first place. When I was in my late twenties I moved from Maryland to Michigan. The cultural differences between the east coast and the Midwest are not as big as those between Ireland and Brooklyn or between Ecuador and Chicago or between any of the countries these ESL students have emigrated from. But they did exist. Midwesterners were too friendly and enjoyed small talk more than I did, speaking with nasal accents I disliked but eventually adopted. I missed hills and lush greenery and beaches and cities, and most of all, my big Catholic family, which has a culture of its very own. It was the reverse move of the third poem posted today, “Midwesterner” by Mary Gramins, an ESL classroom assistant who participated in the assignment.

 

That’s a long introduction to the fourth installment of this series of imitation poems from Chicago ESL students taught by my sister Ceci. It’s all to say the experience of leaving behind an old life and trying to make a new one is a universal one. It’s much more challenging when language is involved, but homesickness is a country we all visit at some point in our lives.

 

It was Ceci, by the way, who told me the truth about moving. Ceci had re-located years before I did from Maryland to the Midwest. “It’ll take ten years,” she said, “and then it will feel like home.”

 

*

 

Caroline

by Caroline from Columbia

 

My Spanish isn’t enough.

I remember how I used to make jokes to my family and friends,

Making everybody laugh or smile.

 

            Parece Buena idea pero me dices cuando lo vas a hacer para esperar en la esquina *

 

But that was in Colombia

Now I’m here trying hard to understand what people are talking about,

My mind is busy, I don’t have time to make jokes.

Sometimes I’m not even sure if I am listening correctly or I am misunderstanding something.

 

But I keep trying.

I am still studying, listening to people speaking in English

And talking with all the English I know.

Hopefully one day something funny comes up in a conversation,

And people here will smile like my people back home.

 

*Spanish for, “It seems like a good idea but tell me before you start doing it. I’m going to wait on the corner, nothing personal.”

 

*

 

WooYoung

by WooYoung from Korea

 

My Korean is not enough.

I remember how I’d smile playing with my kids

Having fun with badminton, biking, and snow skiing

 

아빠, 조금놀아요!!!!”***

 

But that was in Korea.

Now, my children are graduates of American universities

With their own jobs and social life.

My wife speaks English much better than I.

Still, she often asks my children for better English sentences

 

Once in a restaurant for breakfast the whole family was ordering food.

But I was silent reading the menu because it was unfamiliar.

At last, the waiter asked

“How would you like your eggs cooked today?”  It made me in a daze.

All I knew was fried eggs.

So many choices – sunny-side up, over easy, scrambled, omelets, poached eggs, hard-boiled eggs

That day I chose over-easy eggs.

Next time, I will order sunny-side up in English.

 

*Korean for Daddy, let’s play more!”

 

*

 

Midwesterner

by Mary Gramins from the United States

 

Milwaukee I knew like the back of my hand,

the lakefront, beaches, the downtown with its buildings—all yellow or gray,

orange buses, walking paths, the bridges my grandpa built,

Marquette and my home on the corner Locust and 70th,

and my friends since birth.

We “lived” at each other’s houses on our street lined with elms;

we giggled, laughed and shouted, shared secrets, told stories

and we talked to moms, dads, and grandpas and aunts, the grocer, the druggist, the barber,

the policeman, the stranger and they talked to us.

 

When I married and moved to Washington, DC,

Our glistening capitol filled with buildings so white.

So majestic by day and so breathtaking by night.

A sacred city where leaders and legislators held other people’s lives in their hands

Not just of our citizens but folks from every other land.

 

The government workers at the Bader, our apartment on 25th and K

Looked neither right, nor left, nor at you, and NEVER would talk.

The elevator ride was like life in a tomb. For weeks and weeks. . .

One morning my Midwestern roots emerged

and I said “Good Morning” in my loveliest voice.

Silence, dead silence for eight floors going down. . . .

As we all walked through the lobby and approached the door,

a young man held it and said, “Have a good day.” And I wished him the same.

“I’ve only begun” was the song in my heart as I walked toward the bus that would take me to school.

 

*

 

Teacher’s Note

These Imitation Poems express the deepest and most profound feelings of my students as they strive to make new roots in a new country with a new language. The poem, Elena, by Pat Mora was the inspiration. Writing poetry is an unfamiliar and challenging task for most of us, but writing poems in a second language is even more difficult. I applaud their efforts and congratulate them on challenging their minds and thank them for sharing their personal struggles of learning English while trying to make a new life here as they search for their “second soul.” The poetic images of floating alphabet letters, blurry worlds, birthday songs that are no long uproariously sung, and so many more touch my heart. I am so proud of their  determination and persistence to never stop trying, like Elena.

 

Ceci Greco

 

Read Full Post »

another Chicago snow scene for Chicago poets

 

One of the many reasons I’m enjoying the work of the Chicago ESL students featured this week is how their poems shine a light on the potential for community, regardless of background. Here we have people from different countries whose fluency is in different languages connecting on a common struggle and a common goal. Here we have poets from Taiwan, Ecuador, Ukraine, Columbia, Japan, South Korea, and China, a group that in other circumstances might form a veritable Tower of Babel. And yet here they are together here on the page, understanding each other at the deepest level.

 

Today our poets are from Taiwan, France and Ecuador.

 

*

 

Ellen

by Ellen from Taiwan

 

My Chinese isn’t enough

I remember how I would laugh,

Arguing with my close friends,

And understanding the meaning of what they said

Art, classical music, love poetry and the meaning of life.

But that was in Taiwan.

Now I am in the United States,

Everyone speaks English

At the office, I didn’t know any answers to trivia questions they asked.

With neighbors, I don’t get the political problems they argue about.

At movie theaters, I was quiet while everyone laughed out loud.

My husband keeps correcting my pronunciation.

Sometimes at stores the clerks lose patience with me

I became chicken-hearted,

I became wordless,

I became dumb.

I finally took ESL classes.

I have to keep it up.

If I stop learning,

My world would be dark and silent.

 

 *

 

Alexandra

by Alexandra from France

 

My French isn’t good enough.

I remember how I’d discuss

Society, politics, culture.

It was easy then.

 

Qui vivra verra*

 

But that was in France.

Now I have to find my words.

I don’t have enough English

But no matter what,

I improve it through English classes.

 

*French for “Time will tell.”

 

*

 

Nostalgia

by Mabel from Ecuador

 

My Spanish isn’t enough.

I remember how I used to get the whole family together to share time.

 

Está servido y se enfría! Ya vengan a sentarse y siguen conversando mientras comen!” **

 

But that was in Ecuador.

Now it’s just my husband, my children, and I against the world.

We are a very close family standing together at all times,

But Birthdays, Holidays, and special dates are not the same anymore.

Now, they are more intimate, just us

The Happy Birthday song no longer sounds as uproariously as it used to.

 

However, we are very happy.  The four of us came together to begin a better new life here.

 

**Spanish for, “It’s served and the food is getting cold! Come have a seat and you guys can keep chatting as you eat!”

 

*

 

Teacher’s Note

These Imitation Poems express the deepest and most profound feelings of my students as they strive to make new roots in a new country with a new language. The poem, Elena, by Pat Mora was the inspiration. Writing poetry is an unfamiliar and challenging task for most of us, but writing poems in a second language is even more difficult. I applaud their efforts and congratulate them on challenging their minds and thank them for sharing their personal struggles of learning English while trying to make a new life here as they search for their “second soul.” The poetic images of floating alphabet letters, blurry worlds, birthday songs that are no long uproariously sung, and so many more touch my heart. I am so proud of their  determination and persistence to never stop trying, like Elena.

 

Ceci Greco

 

 

Read Full Post »

Ceci, Chicago ESL teacher par excellence, taking a break from work

 

On day two of the ESL poetry series, let’s turn to native speakers of Japanese and Spanish.

 

(This week Poem Elf features poems written by Chicago ESL students in imitation of “Elena” by Pat Mora. Link here to read that poem. At the end of this post is an explanatory note from the ESL teacher, my sister Ceci.)

 

Anyone else delighted by the translated phrases in each poem, the way they connect readers to the poet’s previous life? They’re so unexpected they make me smile.

 

 

Tomomi

by Tomomi from Japan

 

My Japanese isn’t enough.

I remember how I’d shoot the breeze with friends.

 

「最近どう? ちょっと聞いてよ〜。」*

 

But that was in Japan.

Now I don’t have parents and friends nearby

No one to easily talk with about silly things.

 

Japan and the U.S. with different common senses.

At the grocery store, I try to read the numbers on the cans to see how much they contain.

But the unit looks like just a sign. I can’t understand.

All the alphabet and numbers float fluffy in the grocery store.

 

Reading and understanding worksheets that my daughter brings home,

Also, the alphabets begin to float in the room.

 

It takes so much time to collect and understand; I felt stressed.

I gave up contacting people except for my daughter’s school and public matters.

My heart got nervous and lonely, like when l’m driving on a snowy frozen road.

I want to go back to Japan. Tweet in my heart.

 

I escaped from learning English.

 

One day I noticed

My daughter is laughing. My husband is laughing. The dog is waving its tail.

Everyone is living here and moving forward.

Spring is coming little by little.

 

I want to be able to speak English little by little.

I change my mind.

 

*Japanese for, “Hey what’s up? Let’s have a chat!”

 

 *

 

Luisa

by Luisa from Columbia

 

My native Spanish language isn’t enough

I remember my family, my mother, my house and the weather with the wonderful landscapes in my city:

 

Baila conmigo mama y sonríe, estamos todos juntos, disfrutemos de este lindo dia, de la naturaleza, siempre en familia  **

 

But that was in Colombia, my country.

Now, I am speaking with Americans

in another culture, in another world, with another language.

I listen to Podcasts all the time  about diferent topics—meditation, brain, foods.

These things help me to improve my new language

And I have my English teachers (Ceci, Marie, Robbie) who help me and support me all the time with new knowledge.

I’m happy because I live with energy and I can learn.

 

**Spanish for, “Dance with me, Mom, and smile, we are all together as a family and enjoying this beautiful day, with nature, always with the family united.”

 

 

 

Ana

by Ana Maria from Columbia

 

My Spanish isn’t enough

I remember how I would go out with my mother or friends for long walks and long talks,

 

            Que clima tan rico, vamos a caminar hasta el zoológico y a tomar un poco de sol.  Salgamos ya para almorzar en el camino! ***

 

But that was in Colombia

Now, for me it is not easy to have these special spaces here

I miss my mother, friends. . . the nice weather of my country.

I still have difficulties trying to understand what people say.

But I keep trying

Despite the frustration of not understanding what people are saying

Or the fear that people will not understand me.

 

*** Spanish for “What a nice weather! Let’s walk all the way to the zoo and we can take some sun on the way.  Let’s go now, and we will have lunch on the way.”

 

*

Teacher’s Note

These Imitation Poems express the deepest and most profound feelings of my students as they strive to make new roots in a new country with a new language. The poem, Elena, by Pat Mora was the inspiration. Writing poetry is an unfamiliar and challenging task for most of us, but writing poems in a second language is even more difficult.  I applaud their efforts and congratulate them on challenging their minds and thank them for sharing their personal struggles of learning English while trying to make a new life here as they search for their “second soul.” The poetic images of floating alphabet letters, blurry worlds, birthday songs that are no long uproariously sung, and so many more touch my heart. I am so proud of their  determination and persistence to never stop trying, like Elena.

Ceci Greco

Read Full Post »

Chicago snow for these Chicago poets

 

Writing a poem in a foreign language is a feat for any poet, but writing a poem in a language you are still learning seems difficult on the order of cooking two dishes at the same time, whisk in one hand, beater in the other, different timers and directions for each.

 

This week I’m featuring poems from people writing in their second language. My sister Ceci, a longtime ESL teacher in Chicago, tasked her students with writing an imitation of “Elena” by Pat Mora, a poem about learning a new language in a new country. I’ll re-print the original poem at the end of this post, and in future posts will link to it, but to give you an idea of what Ceci’s students were working with, here’s the opening lines of “Elena” —

 

My Spanish isn’t good enough.

I remember how I’d smile

listening to my little ones,

understanding every word they’d say,

their jokes, their songs, their plots,

Vamos a pedirle dulces a mamá. Vamos.

But that was in Mexico.

Now my children go to American high schools.

They speak English. At night they sit around

the kitchen table, laugh with one another.

I stand by the stove, feel dumb, alone.

 

*

 

I thank all these poets for sharing their work, their vulnerabilities, their dreams. Each imitation poem touched me deeply, and some moved me to tears.

 

Let’s begin the series with an explanatory note from Ceci, followed by poems from native Korean and Ukrainian speakers.

 

Teacher’s Note

These Imitation Poems express the deepest and most profound feelings of my students as they strive to make new roots in a new country with a new language.   The poem, Elena, by Pat Mora was the inspiration. Writing poetry is an unfamiliar and challenging task for most of us, but writing poems in a second language is even more difficult.  I applaud their efforts and congratulate them on challenging their minds and thank them for sharing their personal struggles of learning English while trying to make a new life here as they search for their “second soul.” The poetic images of floating alphabet letters, blurry worlds, birthday songs that are no long uproariously sung, and so many more touch my heart.   I am so proud of their  determination and persistence to never stop trying, like Elena.

Ceci Greco

 

*

 

Sarah

by Sarah from South Korea

 

My Korean isn’t enough.

I remember how I’d enjoy

Reading books to my children.

I’d mimic the sounds, using some different voices for each character.

I remember how they liked it

읽어주세요! 읽어주세요 *

But that was in Korea.

Now my children are grown and educated in America.

One day we had a family movie night,

My husband and children were talking and laughing about the movie,

I was silent, and smiled.

One day my daughter called me from college.

She was talking and talking, crying and crying

I couldn’t stop her, couldn’t say “can you say it again?”

I comforted her and we were sad together.

I was sad because my daughter was sad,

I was sad because I could not understand more than half of what she was saying

I was living in a blurry world

I got the chance to join the ESL class.

I will learn more English and keep on going to practice

To see clearly, to hear clearly, to understand clearly.

Someday, I will read children’s books to my grandchildren

They will say, “Read it again!  Read it more please.”

I dream it and smile now.

 

* Korean for “Read it again!  Read it more please.”

 

*

 

 Iryna

by Iryna from The Ukraine

 

Ukrainian, Russian,

Both my languages are not enough now.

I remember how I’d study them hard,

Memorizing rules and exceptions,

Getting writer’s calluses after too much writing.

Studying hard and passing exams.

            Пані ШанськаВи не здали, приходьте ще *

Were the scariest words for me then.

But that was in Ukraine.

Now my son is in his last year of elementary.

Four years flew by so fast,

Nowhe speaks English fluently.

Before I helped him a lot with his English,

But now I need his help more and more.

I’m almost forty and still embarrassed at my poor English skills,

Disappointed with my useless studying forso long.

Frustrated with the thought that those who taught me before

Knew English from Russian school books and no more.

It’s harder to study right now,

With all my home duties and kids on the arms.

But I gave a promise to myself:

“I’ll never stop studying and I’ll do my best.”

And one day, I really believe it,

I’ll speak English fluently without any limit.

 

Ukrainian for “Ms Shanska, you failed the exam, please come back again.”

 

*

 

Here’s the “starter poem”—

 

Elena

by Pat Mora

 

My Spanish isn’t good enough

I remember how I’d smile

Listening my little ones

Understanding every word they’d say,

Their jokes, their songs, their plots

Vamos a pedirle dulces a mama. Vamos.

But that was in Mexico.

Now my children go to American High Schools.

They speak English. At night they sit around the

Kitchen table, laugh with one another.

I stand at the stove and feel dumb, alone.

I bought a book to learn English.

My husband frowned, drank more beer.

My oldest said, “Mama, he doesn’t want you to

Be smarter than he is.” I’m forty,

Embarrased at mispronouncing words,

Embarrased at the laughter of my children,

The grocery, the mailman. Sometimes I take

my English book and lock myself in the bathroom,

say the thick words softly, for if I stop trying, I will be deaf

when my children need my help.

 

Read Full Post »

 

 

Poem Elf sub and daughter Lizzie has a cat, so I asked her to post “On a Night of Snow” by Elizabeth Coatsworth, a poem about a cat who wants to go outdoors in wild weather. Santa would not cooperate for a photo op, so Lizzie placed the poem sans Santa at the entry to Cathead Bay Trail in Leelanau. The trail leads to Lake Michigan. Last summer we spent a glorious day on the trail escaping the confines of quarantine, feeling free and happy and unbound, a fact not unrelevant to this posting.

 

poem is on framed sign

 

On a Night of Snow

by Elizabeth Coatsworth

 

Cat, if you go outdoors, you must walk in the snow.

You will come back with little white shoes on your feet,

little white shoes of snow that have heels of sleet.

Stay by the fire, my Cat. Lie still, do not go.

See how the flames are leaping and hissing low,

I will bring you a saucer of milk like a marguerite,

so white and so smooth, so spherical and so sweet –

stay with me, Cat. Outdoors the wild winds blow.

 

Outdoors the wild winds blow, Mistress, and dark is the night,

strange voices cry in the trees, intoning strange lore,

and more than cats move, lit by our eyes green light,

on silent feet where the meadow grasses hang hoar –

Mistress, there are portents abroad of magic and might,

and things that are yet to be done.  Open the door!

 

 

This poem is at least seventy years old and probably older than that. It has absolutely nothing to do with coronavirus and yet I can’t read it any other way.

 

Here we have a conversation between mistress and cat. (Mistress, by the way, is an old-fashioned term that should be revived to describe the human-cat relationship. Cats would never agree to have “owners.”) Mistress tries to entice the cat to stay indoors with promises of cozy fires and saucers of milk. Picture Dr. Fauci at the doorway with granny glasses and a lacy cap, calling after the cat, Be safe! Stay inside!

 

In the second stanza the cat speaks for all the stir-crazy among us—Open the door! Cat is not scared, Cat is excited. Outdoors there’s magic, adventure and possibly danger—

 

more than cats move, lit by our eyes green light,

on silent feet where the meadow grasses hang hoar

 

Even in non-lockdown days, the neat contrast laid out between indoor and outdoor life points to a very human set of preferences, between those who want safety and comfort and those who want risk and adventure. Most of us probably want a little of both—a cup of that milk so white and so smooth, so spherical and so sweet and some portion of portents abroad of magic and might.

 

Coatsworth herself seems to have spent a lifetime balancing the two instincts. She was a world traveler, a woman who rode donkeys across Egyptian deserts, but also a woman spent years and years at idyllic Chimney Farm in Maine raising her two daughters. Her life takes me back to my favorite poem, “Among Women” by Marie Ponsot, which begins with the question What women wander? and ends with these lines—

 

Women wander

As best they can.

 

*

 

Elizabeth Coatsworth (1893-1986) is known primarily as a writer of children’s books, but she also published poetry in the New Yorker, and wrote a few memoirs and novels for adults.

 

She was born to a wealthy family in Buffalo, New York.  As a child she traveled in Europe and the Middle East. She graduated from Vassar, and earned a Master of Arts in 1916 from Columbia University. After graduating she went traveling through Asia. She rode horses in the Philippines and spent time in a Buddhist monastery.

 

When she was 36 she married writer and naturalist Henry Beston. They lived in New England and had two daughters. Her daughter Kate Barnes later became poet laureate of Maine.

 

Coatsworth’s children’s book The Cat Who Went to Heaven (1930) won the Newbery Medal. (The book tells the story of a saintly cat in a Buddhist monastery who wants to be included in a commissioned painting, truly a strange tale. Link here for a summary.) In spite of poems and stories about cats, she wasn’t a cat lady and said she liked cats just as well as any other animal. She published over 100 books,

 

In her eighties she wrote something which might offer comfort to all frustrated travelers—

 

I have a thousand memories. I could, I suppose, travel still, but so cautiously and in such a diminished world! I am content to remember larger times. The world in which I live is enough for me. After so many travels, I am home, and my happiness here is no less than it was in foreign lands and my sense of wonder has not dulled with all these years. I am as happy as an old dog stretched out in the sunlight. I remember other times, other places, but (in the sunlight) I am content with the here and now.

 

*

 

Here’s stubborn Santa and his cat prints:

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »