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My alter ego, unmasked

Every dog has his day and so with every elf.

 

Welcome. You have landed in the department of self-promotion. You may leave at any time.

 

I’m thrilled to have a piece published in Lithub chronicling my ten years as Poem Elf. Thanks to any of you who read it. More importantly, thanks to all for your readership of this blog! Your support is one of the things that keeps me going.

 

(Dubious side benefit to reading the essay:  if you scroll down far enough, you’ll find out what I look like. Actually I can save you the trouble. What I look like is ten years older than when I started this project.)

 

How I Found Small Joys in My Life as a Poem Elf

 

Next week I get back to business with a death series. Never have been a fan of autumn.

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poem is on mirror, above pillow

 

Mirror

by Sylvia Plath

 

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.

Whatever I see I swallow immediately

Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.

I am not cruel, only truthful ‚

The eye of a little god, four-cornered.

Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.

It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long

I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.

Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

 

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,

Searching my reaches for what she really is.

Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.

I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.

She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.

I am important to her. She comes and goes.

Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.

In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman

Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

 

 

Hate to say it, but the first stanza of Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror” reminds me of a grade school creative writing assignment. You know the kind—“Write a poem from the point of view of an inanimate object like a sock or a globe.” I hate to say it because who am I to criticize a poem by the great and venerable Plath, even one of her lesser ones. This reluctance to show disrespect also stems from a personal history of undervaluing Plath’s work for reasons unflattering to myself. More on that later.

 

Still, even if I won’t sing the glories of this poem, I’ve found its punch and power. Some of it’s going to sit with me for a long while.

 

There’s a clever structure at work here. “Mirror” is a poem about a mirror in which two stanzas mirror each other. Both are nine lines each, and both present a psychological portrait of a character. The first stanza brings us to the inner life of the mirror, the second to the woman obsessed with the mirror. The mirror knows exactly what she or he is, seems self-contained and proud. The woman comes off as hysterical, crying, throwing up her hands.

 

One meditates. One agitates. One is truthful, the other enamored of liars—the candles and moonlight that present her in a softer light. The mirror focuses on what it sees, the woman on how she is seen. The woman has the formula for self-worth backwards, as mirror images always do.

 

The last lines burn. I won’t ever search out new wrinkles in the mirror without thinking of these images—

 

In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman

Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

 

Plath herself was only 28, fresh-faced and beautiful, when she wrote the poem. She couldn’t have seen anything remotely close to a terrible fish in the mirror. But being young and beautiful, she well understood the role that youth and beauty have in a woman’s sense of her own value.

 

I left the poem in a boutique dressing room where I felt disgust at how a certain pair of pants fit my behind. Silly to let that terrible fish share the mirror with me.

 

*

 

One night in my mid-twenties, my book group was discussing Plath’s only novel, the semi-autobiographical The Bell Jar.  My friend had read it in a woman’s studies class in college and was enamored of Plath as a feminist hero. I spent the evening arguing, in my bombastic and irritating way, that Plath was not a victim of patriarchy but of mental illness. This is not the story, I said, of someone who felt hemmed in by rigid gender roles, this is the story of someone who suffered from serious depression. I resented at almost a personal level the hagiography of a person I saw as a victim of biology and not of societal expectations. Of the latter I was dismissive.

 

That night I slept at my mother-in-law’s house, my husband and my father-in-law being out of town. As I lay in bed, the windowpanes rattled and rattled and I became convinced that Sylvia Plath was trying to get in the room to take revenge for my comments. l was frightened. I went to my mother-in-law’s room, woke her, and said, “I know this sounds silly, but Sylvia Plath’s ghost is haunting me. Can I sleep with you?” To her great and abiding credit, the dear woman acted not the least surprised. “Sure,” she said, pulling down the covers on the other side of the bed. I slept soundly and in the morning she didn’t mention it.

 

My fright, it seems to me now, was just leftover guilt at steamrolling over the other book club members’ opinions and not giving Plath her full due. Yes, she suffered from clinical depression, but in a different environment, less constraining for an ambitious young woman like herself, she might have survived without resorting to suicide. Whatever combination of chemistry and environment that brought on her depression, the fact is that she suffered. She suffered terribly. For me, researching the details of her biography was as penance for false judgment.

 

 

*

 

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was born in Boston, Massachusetts to a German entomologist and his graduate student Aurelia Schober. Plath was the oldest of two. Her father died when she was eight.

 

Plath was an excellent student with a genius level IQ. While at Smith College she was chosen to be a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine in New York City. The experience was disillusioning. Clinical depression set in, and at age twenty-one she made her first suicide attempt. She crawled under her mother’s house with a bottle of sleeping pills, and was found two days later. She was sent to a private hospital, treated with electric and insulin shock therapy, recovered, and returned to school.

 

Plath graduated from Smith with highest honors and was granted a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge. There she met and married poet Ted Hughes. She returned to Smith to teach, and finding that teaching made writing difficult, took a job as a receptionist while taking a writing seminar with poet Robert Lowell at night. Lowell and Anne Sexton (who took the seminar with her) encouraged her to write in the more confessional vein for which she is famous.

 

She moved back to London, had two children, a miscarriage in between. She wrote to her mother that Hughes beat her two days before the miscarriage. Hughes seems to have been a hunky, charismatic fellow but obviously no prince. After discovering he was having an affair with their tenant, Plath moved into a flat with the two children, ages two and under one. This was a period of great creativity for her but also deep depression. London had one of the coldest winters on record, the pipes in the apartment froze, the telephone didn’t work, and the kids were often sick.

 

That February she committed suicide at age 30, famously sticking her head in an oven while her children slept in the room next door. I remember at book club judging her harshly for putting her children at risk this way. Turns out she carefully taped the doors to seal the kids off from the gas, and killed herself at 4:30 a.m., a few hours before the nanny would arrive.

 

Her daughter Frieda is an artist, and her son Nicholas, a fisheries biologist. He  committed suicide by hanging in middle-age. Theirs was a difficult life. After their mother’s death, the woman their father had an affair with moved in to care for them, and six years later committed suicide in the same fashion, killing her own daughter as well.

 

My heart aches for such suffering.

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poem is on center line

Dan’s Bugs

by Jim Harrison

I felt a little bad about the nasty earwig

that drowned in my nighttime glass of water,

lying prone at the bottom like a shipwrecked mariner.

There was guilt about the moth who died

when she showered with me, possibly a female.

They communicate through wing vibrations.

I was careful when sticking a letter

in our rural mailbox, waiting for a fly to escape,

not wanting her to be trapped there in the darkness.

Out here in the country many insects invade our lives

and many die in my nightcap, floating and deranged.

On the way to town to buy wine and a chicken

I stopped from 70 mph to pick up

a wounded dragonfly fluttering on the yellow line.

I’ve read that some insects live only for minutes,

as we do in our implacable geologic time.

As a longtime Jim Harrison fan, I can’t read this poem without an image of the poet, grizzled and drunk, winking at me for the tenderness on display, but I was surprised to find another northern Michigan man springing up, a man I encountered long ago in a plain little church one Sunday. He lumbered up to the lectern to sing and I thought, geez they must be really hard up for a cantor. He had a face like a pork butt and the hands of a butcher, but my goodness his voice was honey. He filled the church with some of the most beautiful church singing I’ve ever heard.

That same incongruity is at work in “Dan’s Bugs.” Weather-beaten, chain-smoking Harrison, prolific killer of animals and fish, stops on the highway to tenderly pick up the smallest of roadkill, a wounded dragonfly fluttering on the yellow line.

This poem is everything I love about my fellow humans, how surprising people can be with their beauty hidden under donkey skins, their talents wrapped in coarse coverings, their kindness under gruff exteriors. The poem is also everything I love about Harrison, his humor, his morbidity, his wry take on the human condition, his sweet heart.

Did I mention I love this guy?

*

Jim Harrison (1937-2016) was born in Grayling, Michigan, about an hour south of where I taped his poem to a country road. He was second of five children in a close-knit, book-loving family. As a young boy he lost an eye when a little girl smashed a broken bottle in his face.

Two years after he graduated from Michigan State, his father and sister were killed by a drunk driver, an event that committed him to a writing life. He said in an interview, “If people you love are going to be taken from you, why compromise?” He got his masters in comparative literature and taught briefly at Stoneybrook University before rejecting academic life and turning to writing full-time, supporting his wife and two daughters with manual labor. The family lived in poverty for many years until he published Legends of the Fall, a novella which was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt.

He worked as a screenwriter on several movies, making fast friends with the rich and the famous in Hollywood, including Jack Nicholson and George Harrison.

His appetite for food, alcohol, drugs during his Hollywood days, and sex were over-the-top, leading to health problems in his older years. Which of course didn’t stop such an animal-nature from continuing to indulge. Here’s a characteristic bit from his obituary in the New York Times:

“If you’ve known a lot of actresses and models,” he once confided with characteristic plain-spokenness to a rapt audience at a literary gathering, “you return to waitresses because at least they smell like food.”

 

He was a prolific writer, publishing seven novellas, eleven novels, thirteen poetry collections, and three books of nonfiction. A nature lover, he kept a cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and a farm in Leelanau. In later years he and his wife spent summers in Montana and winters in Arizona.

Harrison is my second favorite food writer (M.F.K. Fishers holds the top post). The Raw and the Cooked is earthy and hilarious, a perfect read for fall.

Married for 55 years he died at 78, six months after his wife passed. He was in the middle of writing a poem when his heart gave out.

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poem is on left-hand white post

 

from “Corinna’s Gone A-Maying”

by Robert Herrick

 

Get up! get up for shame! The blooming morn

Upon her wings presents the god unshorn.

See how Aurora throws her fair

Fresh-quilted colours through the air:

Get up, sweet slug-a-bed, and see

The dew bespangling herb and tree!

 

 

For the final installment of the Bedtime Series, the other side of the mattress. Time to get up and face the day, because poet Robert Herrick has a lot of beauty to lay before us—

 

See how Aurora throws her fair  

Fresh-quilted colours through the air

 

But first, a word in support of us night-owls. Shame has been heaped upon us since childhood. Unfair that early risers aren’t yelled at by their mothers,

 

Stay up! stay up, for shame!

Shame on you, going to bed before ten!

 

No, the early bird, worm in beak, gets accolades for industry. And just because we night-owls miss out on sunrises, everyone assumes we’re lazy.

 

That has nothing to do with “Corinna’s Gone A-Maying,” which is a one of those carpe diem poems where men nag women to have sex with them. Later in the poem (full text below), after much gorgeous language and clever argument, Herrick pulls out the stops—

 

Come, let us goe, while we are in our prime;

And take the harmlesse follie of the time.

                     We shall grow old apace, and die

                     Before we know our liberty.

                     Our life is short; and our dayes run

                     As fast away as do’s the Sunne

 

Tricky little bastard, isn’t he. Get out of bed, he says to poor sleepy Corinna, so we can go back to bed.

 

I left the poem fragment early one morning (early for me that is, round about nine-thirty) at the entrance to a kids’ summer camp. I was thinking of the slug-a-beds who feel as poet Charles Simic does (from the poem “Summer Morning”)—

 

I love to stay in bed

All morning

 

sentiments which if expressed would drive a camp counselor to whip off the covers and shake a body; and if said counselor happened to have encountered the Corinna poem fragment, to shout the opening lines.

 

But this is a case of my imagination overtaking good judgment. This poem-elfing was a flop. It’s always a terrible idea to post a poem fragment instead of a poem in its entirety—lines taken out of context can be misconstrued and misused as we see here—but that’s the least of it. Putting a poem about sex at a kids’ camp is plain creepy. What can I say. At least the camp is closed for COVID-19 and only a stray walker will encounter Herrick’s racy little poem.

 

*

 

 

Robert Herrick (1591-1674) was born in London, the seventh child of a goldsmith. When he was a baby his father fell out of a window, probably intentionally, and died. At age 16 he apprenticed with an uncle to follow in his father’s profession. Later he  went to Cambridge, became a clergyman at country vicarage, and served for many years until he was removed from his post because of his Royalist sympathies. With the ascension of Charles II to the throne fifteen years later, Herrick was re-instated.

 

In 1648 he published his one and only collection of verse, Hesperides. It was a massive volume with over 1,000 poems.

 

Herrick was a lifelong bachelor. The women to whom he addressed his love poems, Corrina among them, are thought to be fictional. He died at age 83.

 

*

Corinna’s Gone A-Maying
by Robert Herrick
Get up, get up for shame, the Blooming Morne
Upon her wings presents the god unshorne.
                     See how Aurora throwes her faire
                     Fresh-quilted colours through the aire:
                     Get up, sweet-Slug-a-bed, and see
                     The Dew-bespangling Herbe and Tree.
Each Flower has wept, and bow’d toward the East,
Above an houre since; yet you not drest,
                     Nay! not so much as out of bed?
                     When all the Birds have Mattens seyd,
                     And sung their thankful Hymnes: ’tis sin,
                     Nay, profanation to keep in,
When as a thousand Virgins on this day,
Spring, sooner than the Lark, to fetch in May.
Rise; and put on your Foliage, and be seene
To come forth, like the Spring-time, fresh and greene;
                     And sweet as Flora. Take no care
                     For Jewels for your Gowne, or Haire:
                     Feare not; the leaves will strew
                     Gemms in abundance upon you:
Besides, the childhood of the Day has kept,
Against you come, some Orient Pearls unwept:
                     Come, and receive them while the light
                     Hangs on the Dew-locks of the night:
                     And Titan on the Eastern hill
                     Retires himselfe, or else stands still
Till you come forth. Wash, dresse, be briefe in praying:
Few Beads are best, when once we goe a Maying.
Come, my Corinna, come; and comming, marke
How each field turns a street; each street a Parke
                     Made green, and trimm’d with trees: see how
                     Devotion gives each House a Bough,
                     Or Branch: Each Porch, each doore, ere this,
                     An Arke a Tabernacle is
Made up of white-thorn neatly enterwove;
As if here were those cooler shades of love.
                     Can such delights be in the street,
                     And open fields, and we not see’t?
                     Come, we’ll abroad; and let’s obay
                     The Proclamation made for May:
And sin no more, as we have done, by staying;
But my Corinna, come, let’s goe a Maying.
There’s not a budding Boy, or Girle, this day,
But is got up, and gone to bring in May.
                     A deale of Youth, ere this, is come
                     Back, and with White-thorn laden home.
                     Some have dispatcht their Cakes and Creame,
                     Before that we have left to dreame:
And some have wept, and woo’d, and plighted Troth,
And chose their Priest, ere we can cast off sloth:
                     Many a green-gown has been given;
                     Many a kisse, both odde and even:
                     Many a glance too has been sent
                     From out the eye, Loves Firmament:
Many a jest told of the Keyes betraying
This night, and Locks pickt, yet w’are not a Maying.
Come, let us goe, while we are in our prime;
And take the harmlesse follie of the time.
                     We shall grow old apace, and die
                     Before we know our liberty.
                     Our life is short; and our dayes run
                     As fast away as do’s the Sunne:
And as a vapour, or a drop of raine
Once lost, can ne’r be found againe:
                     So when or you or I are made
                     A fable, song, or fleeting shade;
                     All love, all liking, all delight
                     Lies drown’d with us in endlesse night.
Then while time serves, and we are but decaying;
Come, my Corinna, come, let’s goe a Maying.

 

 

 

 

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poem is taped to rock

 

Solitaire

by Amy Lowell

 

When night drifts along the streets of the city,

And sifts down between the uneven roofs,

My mind begins to peek and peer.

It plays at ball in odd, blue Chinese gardens,

And shakes wrought dice-cups in Pagan temples

Amid the broken flutings of white pillars.

It dances with purple and yellow crocuses in its hair,

And its feet shine as they flutter over drenched grasses.

How light and laughing my mind is,

When all the good folk have put out their bedroom candles,

And the city is still.

 

 

No wonder nighttime wakefulness is so delightful to poet Amy Lowell. She slept by day and wrote at night. Would that I could be so industrious. For those of us cursed with two a.m. racing thoughts, Lowell’s trilling about how light and laughing my mind is when everyone else is fast asleep sounds like someone raving on about how fun it is to toss the kettle ball.

 

But let’s look at “Solitaire” from a less bitter angle. The poem was written in 1917, two years after T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which begins

 

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

 

Lowell surely had read that poem before she wrote “Solitaire.” (She was close friends with Ezra Pound who famously promoted Eliot’s publication.) I can’t help but hear Lowell echoing the “Prufrock” opening with her own—

 

When night drifts along the streets of the city,

And sifts down between the uneven roofs

 

and then choosing to wander in a completely different direction. To hell with your whiny neuroses, she could be saying. I’m going to enjoy the hell out of this.

 

And it’s off to the races. Or rather, to the Pagan temples and the Chinese gardens.

 

I left the poem at a scenic overlook of Lake Charlevoix in northern Michigan. It was 9:00 p.m. and the sun was just going down:

 

*

 

Amy Lowell (1974- 1925) was born the youngest of five children to a wealthy Boston-Brahim family. What a family—her great-grandfather a founder of the Boston Athenaeum, one brother a famous astronomer, another the president of Harvard, two cousins poets (James Russell Lowell and Robert Lowell) and the Lowell clan itself featured in a famous ditty—

 

And this is good old Boston,

The home of the bean and the cod,

Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots,

And the Cabots talk only to God.

 

Lowell was something of a terror in the private schools she attended, talking back to teachers and clowning around to make the class laugh. She was not allowed to go to college (being female) but she had a post-secondary education of sorts in the family’s 7,000 volume library and in the many trips she made abroad.

 

While in Europe she befriended and promoted Ezra Pound with whom she shared a passion for Imagist poetry. They had a falling-out over the direction of Imagist poetry, he unkindly calling her version “Amygism” and his protégé Eliot snidely calling her “the daemon saleswoman of modern poetry.” She published a journal of Imagist poetry in the United States, toured the country to promote poetry and provided financial assistance to other poets including Carl Sandburg. She didn’t begin publishing her own poetry till she was 36. As well as explicit love poetry to her partner of many years, Ada Dwyer Russell, Lowell wrote a 1,300 page biography of John Keats.

 

Lowell had a big personality and a glandular problem that led to obesity and health issues. She was also known for smoking cigars.

 

She died at age 51 of a stroke and won the Pulitzer Prize posthumously.

 

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For the second installment of the bedtime series, Wayne Dodd’s “Of Rain and Air.” I left it on an evergreen tree bordering an RV park.

 

 

Of Rain and Air

by Wayne Dodd

 

All day I have been closed up

inside rooms, speaking of trivial

matters. Now at last I have come out

into the night, myself a center

 

of darkness.

Beneath the clouds the low sky glows

with scattered lights. I can hardly think

this is happening. Here in this bright absence

 

of day, I feel myself opening out

with contentment.

All around me the soft rain is whispering

of thousands of feet of air

 

invisible above us.

 

 

It’s a common phenomenon that when you’re pregnant or wanting to get pregnant, suddenly you see pregnant women everywhere. That same selective attention carries over to covid-19 and poetry. Suddenly every poem seems to be a pandemic poem, a reflection on quarantine, anxiety, isolation, longing, loss. Like so—

 

All day I have been closed up

inside rooms

 

The closing emotion of the poem, too, might belong to the pandemic, to those moments when the slowing and reduction of regular life brings peace instead of panic—

 

I can hardly think

this is happening. Here in this bright absence

 

of day, I feel myself opening out

with contentment.

 

I’ve had many such moments the past few months, and I hope you have too, but then again I haven’t experienced the virus itself, the loss of loved ones from the virus, severe isolation, job loss, home loss, being quarantined with an unstable or abusive person, exhaustion and stress from full-time childcare.

 

Well, take what you can from the poem. In classic woe-is-me conditions—darkness, rain, aloneness—the speaker feels happy. Standing in the elements enlarges his soul. His connection to the natural world is just so beautifully expressed, it bears re-reading, and more re-reading, and then reflecting upon as you lay your head on your pillow tonight:

 

All around me the soft rain is whispering

of thousands of feet of air

 

invisible above us.

 

*

 

Poet, essayist and novelist Wayne Dodd was born in Oklahoma in 1930. He taught at University of Colorado and Ohio University where he served for many years as editor of the Ohio Review. He’s published eleven books of poetry.

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Bed in Summer

by Robert Louis Stevenson

 

In winter I get up at night

And dress by yellow candle-light.

In summer, quite the other way,

I have to go to bed by day.

 

I have to go to bed and see

The birds still hopping on the tree,

Or hear the grown-up people’s feet

Still going past me in the street.

 

And does it not seem hard to you,

When all the sky is clear and blue,

And I should like so much to play,

To have to go to bed by day?

 

 

And now for something completely different:  a short series of bedtime poems. Robert Louis Stevenson kicks us off with this sweet little complaint about going to bed when you don’t want to.

 

As a young mother, I was a strict about bedtime. By 7:30 everyone was tucked in with lights out and doors closed so I could get the break I needed. In July when we vacationed in northern Michigan I had to relax my schedule because up here in high summer it stays light at least until nine and it’s not fully dark till ten-thirty or eleven.

 

Still, I made the kiddos go to bed long before the stars came out. That was always a battle. To settle down the restless brood of bed-averse children (my four and their three cousins), my husband told stories he made up on the spot. The stories always had the same cast of characters—Jelly Bean and Winston, their friend Gloria, their enemies the Sea Witch, the Cave Witch and meanest of all, the Doodledoo. Night after night he told these stories. Year after year. When he ran out of ideas, he’d ask, “What do you think happened next?” And the kids would move the plot forward, as kids do.

 

One of my daughters has made northern Michigan her home, and so I left the poem on her bed as a reminder of those sweet moments. For any parents reading this, “Bed in Summer” is a wonderful poem to read to your kids at night. They’ll appreciate the sympathy for their plight and perhaps with a little encouragement might memorize it as a summer project!

 

*

 

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was born in Edinburgh, an only child in a family of lighthouse engineers. From childhood on he suffered from lung problems  and was often bedridden, a biographical detail that adds a poignant note to “Bed in Summer.” Helicopter parents, take heart:  this most prolific novelist and poet, the twenty-fifth most translated writer of all time, didn’t start reading until age seven.

 

He enrolled at University of Edinburgh to study engineering and continue in the family business, but spent his time in brothels and smoking hashish. He switched to law and earned his degree but never practiced, deciding to devote his energies to writing instead. He was a lifelong traveller, roaming by donkey, canoe, and ship all over the world despite frequently becoming ill to the point of death.

 

While in France at an artists’ colony, he fell in love with a married woman eleven years his senior. Later he secretly travelled to the United States to reunite with her. The voyage nearly killed him. They married after she divorced, and travelled together with her children and his widowed mother through the Pacific, eventually settling in Samoa, where he died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at age forty-four.

 

His most famous works are the adventure novels Kidnapped, Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Master of Ballantrae, and the children’s anthology of poetry, The Child’s Garden of Verses.

 

Wildly popular in his time, Stevenson has fallen in and out of favor through the years. These days he’s found his way back into anthologies. I love this anecdote from film critic Roger Ebert (courtesy of Wikipedia):

 

I was talking to a friend the other day who said he’d never met a child who liked reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

 

Neither have I, I said. And he’d never met a child who liked reading Stevenson’s Kidnapped. Me neither, I said. My early exposure to both books was via the Classics Illustrated comic books. But I did read the books later, when I was no longer a kid, and I enjoyed them enormously. Same goes for Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

 

The fact is, Stevenson is a splendid writer of stories for adults, and he should be put on the same shelf with Joseph Conrad and Jack London instead of in between Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan.

 

 

 

 

 

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Touch Me

by Stanley Kunitz

 

Summer is late, my heart.

Words plucked out of the air

some forty years ago

when I was wild with love

 

and torn almost in two

scatter like leaves this night

of whistling wind and rain.

It is my heart that’s late,

it is my song that’s flown.

Outdoors all afternoon

under a gunmetal sky

staking my garden down,

I kneeled to the crickets trilling

underfoot as if about

to burst from their crusty shells;

and like a child again

marveled to hear so clear

and brave a music pour

from such a small machine.

What makes the engine go?

Desire, desire, desire.

The longing for the dance

stirs in the buried life.

One season only,

and it’s done.

 

So let the battered old willow

thrash against the windowpanes

and the house timbers creak.

Darling, do you remember

the man you married? Touch me,

remind me who I am.

 

 

I’m going to try to write a post about a poem called “Touch Me” without mentioning our long months of physical distancing and bumping elbows to say hello and pantomiming hugs to say goodbye; without mentioning how we are all old people now, isolated and longing to be touched; without mentioning the parallels between the forty years since the poet spoke his words of love (“Summer is late, my heart”) and the biblical forty years of wandering in the desert which is how long it feels some days being separated from people we love because of the coronavirus.

 

Instead I’m going back thirty-three years, to my wedding day. The summer I got married cicadas came out of a seventeen-year hibernation to sing, mate, lay eggs and die, all in a few short weeks. They covered lawns and sidewalks with their toe-sized shells and filled the air with their shrieks and unexpected dive-bombings. Outdoors you had to shout to be heard and watch your step lest you crunch one underfoot. I didn’t know if the cicada swarm was a good omen—they live to love!—or bad—life is brutally short, you’ll just have babies and die!— or as Kunitz puts it

 

The longing for the dance

stirs in the buried life.

One season only,

and it’s done.

 

But it didn’t matter. Something was happening. Something elemental and big. As it happens, the day of our wedding was brutally hot and marked by an epic thunderstorm, so between the downpour of rain and locusts, my sense of—what was it?—wildness? freedom? possibility?—let’s call it my animal sense—was stronger than the stifling strictures of wedding traditions.

 

This poem brings back that feeling with force. Being in nature, particularly before a storm, the animal parts wake up. Notice the speaker in the poem is feeling the old zing-a-ding-ding after being in the garden. Not after sitting at his computer watching old-people porn or noticing a beautiful young girl in her thong at the beach or swiping through Instagram pictures of hybrid beings with duck lips and hair extensions. He’s on his knees, digging earth. Crickets are whirring, the dark clouds forecast the heavy rain that will come later as he lies in bed with his wife.

 

If you didn’t notice just how sexy this poem is, listen to the poet read it. Yes, he is a very old man. Doesn’t matter. As he reads, the thrashing willow branches turn into thrashing bodies and the creaking house timbers signal a creaking mattress or maybe even creaking joints, given his age.

 

 

 

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Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) had a tough start in his very long life. Weeks before he was born, his father, a bankrupt dressmaker, committed suicide by drinking carbolic acid in a public park. Kunitz had two older sisters and a mother who worked, unusual for the time, as a dress designer and manufacturer. His mother remarried, and Kunitz’s stepdad too, came to an unfortunate end. After declaring bankruptcy and learning he was being investigated for concealing assets in his dry goods store, he had a heart attack while hanging curtains. Kunitz was fourteen.

 

Kunitz moved out of the house the next year, worked for a butcher, then for a newspaper, saving money to go to Harvard. He graduated with highest honors in English and philosophy, and went on to get a masters degree. He was foiled in his attempt to get a PhD by an administrator who old him that no one at Harvard wanted to be taught by a Jew. His “revenge” was becoming, later in life, a beloved teacher and mentor who influenced a generation of poets, including James Wright and Louise Gluck.

 

After completing his education, he worked as a reporter and editor. During World War II he registered as a conscientious objector (he was denied) and sent to serve as a noncombatant at a base in Washington in charge of information and education.

 

Kunitz taught at many colleges, including Bennington, Vassar, New School, Yale, Princeton, SUNY, eventually teaching writing for eighteen years at Columbia.

 

He married three times and had a daughter with wife number two. His third wife, to whom “Touch Me” was written, was artist Elise Asher. Theirs was a long marriage. They split their time between New York and Provincetown, where he was famous for his garden.

 

Kunitz published more than twenty books of poetry, received the Pulitzer Prize and became U.S poet laureate for the second time at age 95.

 

 

 

 

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Today’s the last of the guest postings on Poem Elf.  I’m not going to throw shade on all the other posters by suggesting I’ve saved the best for last—each entry has been a wonder to me—but I am mighty pleased to end this collaboration with a poem perfectly suited to these pandemic days and posted in the same spirit of delight that I still feel, ten years on, every time I poem-elf.

 

Brooklyn editor and screenwriter Molly Virostek posted not one but four (clearly she loves this poem and you will too) copies of Mary Ruefle’s “Some Nondescript Autumn Weekend.” I don’t often cry reading a poem but this poem brought up a lot of buried emotion and yikes here I go again.

 

Before I hand the space over to Molly, let me thank all the assistant elves. You introduced me to poems I’d never read and locations I’ve never visited. Whether you offered an extensive commentary or just a line or two, your matching of poems with places was insightful, fun, and (to me) deeply moving. I’ve loved sharing this enterprise with you. If I know you, I love you, and if I don’t know you, I’m sure I would.

 

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Some Nondescript Autumn Weekend

by Mary Ruefle

 

Remove everything beautiful from your home, remove everything you like, love, cherish, or are fond of. Remember to include pets and people. Remove everything which reminds you of these things in any way. Remove everything which brings you happiness or a feeling of peace. Remove everything which reminds you of your life.

 

Leave everything which you feel is ugly, disgusting, broken or painful. Leave everything that makes you uncomfortable when you look at it or use it. If necessary, add to these things by bringing more of them from the outside in. Make sure your home is as full as it once was and be certain everything is crummy and repulsive. Live in this space, among these things you cannot bear, for sixty days.

 

Empty the space completely. Leave nothing in it. Clean it thoroughly and wash the windows. Sleep on the floor, or on a clean thin mattress the exact dimensions of your own body. Live in this space for sixty days, during which your primary activity, when you are home, is to stare at the ceiling.

 

Bring the beautiful things back in, bring your beloved belongings, your most cherished possessions, back into the space and place them in their original positions. Make sure everything is as it was before. Live as you once did; if this is not possible, live twice.

 

 

The poem I chose is “Some Nondescript Autumn Weekend” by Mary Ruefle. I came across this poem about a year ago. Pre-quarantine, I just liked the poem and vaguely understood what it was saying about resilience and renewal and rebirth. Over the next year, I ended up sending it to dozens of friends going through different life transitions—breakups, job changes, moving cities, losing family members, just generally feeling lost. It always said what I didn’t have the words for—and that was before the pandemic. It’s all the more resonant now. I’m not sure what phase I’m in currently, but it’s nice to know where we are all headed:  living again, or even better, living twice.

 

I posted a few copies of the poem around Williamsburg, Brooklyn—on my neighborhood subway stop (for the incredible healthcare workers who are bravely heading to work each day and keeping NYC going) and in the park (for all the rest of us who are working through all the phases the poem describes, even though sometimes it feels they are playing out of order). It was fun to watch people watch me post it, wait for me to get far enough away, and then swarm to read. I hope it gave them a smile on this sunny Saturday.

 

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Today’s guest poster is the unlikeliest of elves, a man who does not move quietly in the world, a man not especially given to silliness although I have on occasion coerced him into performing a dance called the Shorty George with silly pointed fingers. This is not a person I ever imagined creeping around a burned-out bar in Rockville, Maryland to tape up a poem he loves, so shiver me timbers and color me surprised.

 

My brother Donny has always loved words, so it’s not a surprise that he loves A.E. Housman’s “Terence, This is Stupid Stuff.” The poem is from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad and it’s as fun to recite as any other poem in the collection. George Orwell wrote, “these were the poems which I and my contemporaries used to recite to ourselves, over and over, in a kind of ecstasy.” (Below I’ve included a video of some of the many men who’ve recorded themselves reciting this poem—might be easier to listen to than read.)

 

In spite of all the drinking in the poem, the message is sobering, and I suspect that the advice in the poem attracts Donny as much as the tuneful lines:

 

Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,

I’d face it as a wise man would,

And train for ill and not for good.

 

This round’s on Donny! Thank you!

Terence, this is stupid stuff

by A.E. Housman

 

“Terence, this is stupid stuff!

You eat your victuals fast enough;

There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,

To see the rate you drink your beer.

But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,

It gives a chap the belly-ache!

The cow, the old cow, she is dead;

It sleeps well, the horned head…

We poor lads, ’tis our turn now

To hear such tunes as killed the cow!

Pretty friendship ’tis to rhyme

Your friends to death before their time

Moping melancholy mad!

Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad!”

 

Why, if ’tis dancing you would be,

There’s brisker pipes than poetry.

Say, for what were hop-yards meant,

Or why was Burton built on Trent?

Oh many a peer of England brews

Livelier liquor than the Muse,

And malt does more than Milton can

To justify God’s ways to man.

Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink

For fellows whom it hurts to think:

Look into the pewter pot

To see the world as the world’s not.

And faith, ’tis pleasant till ’tis past:

The mischief is that ’twill not last.

Oh I have been to Ludlow fair

And left my necktie God knows where,

And carried half way home, or near,

Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:

Then the world seemed none so bad,

And I myself a sterling lad;

And down in lovely muck I’ve lain,

Happy till I woke again.

Then I saw the morning sky:

Heigho, the tale was all a lie;

The world, it was the old world yet,

I was I, my things were wet,

And nothing now remained to do

But begin the game anew.

 

Therefore, since the world has still

Much good, but much less good than ill,

And while the sun and moon endure

Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,

I’d face it as a wise man would,

And train for ill and not for good.

‘Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale

Is not so brisk a brew as ale:

Out of a stem that scored the hand

I wrung it in a weary land.

But take it: if the smack is sour,

The better for the embittered hour;

It should do good to heart and head

When your soul is in my soul’s stead;

And I will friend you, if I may,

In the dark and cloudy day.

 

There was a king reigned in the East:

There, when kings will sit to feast,

They get their fill before they think

With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.

He gathered all the springs to birth

From the many-venomed earth;

First a little, thence to more,

He sampled all her killing store;

And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,

Sate the king when healths went round.

They put arsenic in his meat

And stared aghast to watch him eat;

They poured strychnine in his cup

And shook to see him drink it up:

They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:

Them it was their poison hurt.

–I tell the tale that I heard told.

Mithridates, he died old.

 

 

 

Here is my entry. I posted it on the boarded-up door to Hank Dietles, the oldest bar in Montgomery County. There was a fire there about two years ago and it hasn’t reopened because they haven’t been able to make all the repairs.

 

I first read this poem in high school English at [Georgetown] Prep, just two blocks from Dietles. I always liked it because it presents a good life lesson in a very clever way. If the proprietors of Dietles had read this poem before the fire, they would surely be open by now. Also, the beer references in the poem fit with the Dietles experience.

 

Enjoy!

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[Please note: the man in the video is not my brother Donny.]

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