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poem fragment on wall in foreground

poem fragment on wall in foreground

 

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
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

from T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

 

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Sometimes you rifle down into your purse and find treasure. Quarters for the meter, a lipstick you forgot about, a funeral card for someone dear. The same with pictures on your phone, which at least for me, are taken and re-taken to get the light right or goofy expressions eliminated, and then sit buried with thousands of others photos in cyberspace till your storage is full.

 

So with these pictures. I happened upon them because I was missing my daughter who’s studying abroad. I pulled up pictures from my visit to her in early November and found this excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” (Link to the full poem here.)

 

Not bragging (or am I) but I do like how the yellow light looks so seedy, the way I’ve always imagined Prufrock’s streets–

Streets that follow like a tedious argument

of insidious intent

 

Some of you may already have seen this from my Twitter account. I’m pulling it out for my blog because posting it on Twitter led me to a beautiful video I want to share.

 

Another tweeter (DareToEatAPeach@twitter.com) shared a link to a video interpretation of the poem. Actually, I shouldn’t call it an interpretation. The actor in the video, Daniel Henshaw, calls the film a “response” to the poem, and the poem a “love song to existence.”

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The film is directed by Laura Scrivano, produced by The Passion Films, and filmed in New York.

 

It’s only eight minutes long and worth watching. I loved it. It’s quiet and mesmerizing with lots of cigarrette-smoking, something I don’t often see anymore. You’ll hear the old familiar poem anew. Link here. 

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poem is under Callaghan sign

poem is under Callaghan sign

 

What the Doctor Said

by Ray Carver

 

He said it doesn’t look good

he said it looks bad in fact real bad

he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before

I quit counting them

I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know

about any more being there than that

he said are you a religious man do you kneel down

in forest groves and let yourself ask for help

when you come to a waterfall

mist blowing against your face and arms

do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments

I said not yet but I intend to start today

he said I’m real sorry he said

I wish I had some other kind of news to give you

I said Amen and he said something else

I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do

and not wanting him to have to repeat it

and me to have to fully digest it

I just looked at him

for a minute and he looked back it was then

I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me

something no one else on earth had ever given me

I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

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Tuesday afternoon I left Ray Carver’s “What the Doctor Said” outside my local polling station and posted the pictures on Twitter. My thought was to provide some perspective on an election which was hyped as a life-or-death-of-the-republic event. Things could always be worse, I tweeted.

 

I myself was not especially anxious about the election result.

 

But hours after the sun had set I began to tremble and shake. That’s what I do when I’m nervous. I put myself to bed and left my phone downstairs so I wouldn’t reach for it in the middle of the night to find out who won. The next morning I woke at six and approached my phone with the same dread I had twelve years ago when I answered a call from my radiologist.

 

When I read the news, I thought, strange that I chose to cover the election with a poem about the shock of getting a cancer diagnosis. All day Wednesday I walked around in a similar state of shock.

 

If you think I’m being dramatic, well, yes, I am, but then you probably are also someone who’s happy right now.

 

This begins my story of being given “something no one else on earth else had ever given me,” which is one way to look at the election results.

 

Foolishly I started my day with a Facebook post, not the best idea when one is in a highly reactive state. I wrote that I was getting off Facebook because reading other people’s Facebook comments made it too hard to behave with “charity towards all and malice towards none.” I planned to wait to the end of the day to de-activate my account so I could see what response I got. Which wasn’t much, it never is, just a few likes, and then unfortunately two comments that sent me into a froth of rage. Both people wrote that they were sure I’d be pleasantly surprised. They meant well, but such tone-deaf, insular views and thinly-disguised gloating made me want to scream till my teeth fell out.

 

A friend had seen the post and the comments and called to say she was in front of my house, did I want to go for a walk. Yes, please. She was calm. She listened to me vent. What is that they say, she said, You get to tell your story three times and then you let it go. She suggested I try the serenity prayer.

 

That helped a little. I worked all day, wavering back and forth between trying to be calm and feeding my anger. Later I headed to the grocery store, wary of being around other humans. The people in Krogers might as well have come from central casting for a movie about groups insulted during the campaign. A woman in a hijab, disabled grocery baggers, more black shoppers than I usually see at that particular grocery store, and of course women, women, women of every shape, size and age, few dressed to charm men.

 

Then I saw a white woman cruising the aisles in a Trump t-shirt. Blond bimbo asshole, I said to myself (I was never good at putting together curse words). I gave her the stink-eye. She failed to notice. I hoped to cross her path again so I could make an even more dramatic face. Wouldn’t that show her.

 

At the seafood counter, a woman, older and African-American, started talking to me about the rising price of fish. She was a talker, and talkers always send me running in the opposite direction, plus I only had an hour to clean house and cook for my mother-in-law and aunt who were coming for dinner. The conversation kept going, even after I got my salmon and was ready to hurry off. She moved on to various ways to cook fish, and when she heard I was having elderly people for dinner, she talked about how fish is a good meal to serve old folks, how the fish flesh is soft in their old mouths and easy to chew even with sore gums and missing teeth. That was a short step to telling me about her mother, now deceased, and how she took care of her in her last illness and how sometimes they just sat together and had so much fun doing that.

 

That’s when I stopped wanting to get away from her.

 

Me too, I said. I used to like to sit next to my mother on the couch, reading. I told her my mother died last May.

 

Just like that my eyes watered. I was about to cry. She saw it. She opened her arms to embrace me. We hugged.

 

As she let go of me, she said, when you miss her, just think about all the good times you had. Hold on to that, she said.

 

The interaction was slightly absurd, two strangers hugging in front of the seafood counter, the seafood clerk watching and waiting for the older woman’s order, the older woman consoling me over something that happened months ago, even though I was initially upset about what happened only a few hours ago.

 

The interaction between the two characters in Carver’s poem is absurd as well, and darkly funny. The bumbling doctor and shocked patient don’t know how to act with each other. The conversation is dislocated from the awful reality, especially on the patient’s end. He says he’s been given something he’s never gotten before, and out of habit he thanks the doctor. As if he’s been given a gift.

 

Cancer is sometimes described as a gift. It isn’t, but the perspective it supplies can be. Bad news says, This is the reality, straight up. Focus. Bad experiences bring up hard questions. You can face those questions and act on your answers, or you can look away. What’s important? What do I believe? The doctor in the poem asks,

 

do you stop and ask for understanding

 

and

 

do you kneel down

in forest groves and let yourself ask for help

 

For me, leaving the grocery store, I asked if I would react to a hate-filled campaign with hate. Would I sneer at those I disagree with? Would I despair of my country?

 

And also, would I get dinner made on time?

 

Later that night, the dishes done, back in bed, back in my head, I pictured all of us Kroger shoppers from above, as if I were looking at fish in an aquarium. I believe in the grocery store, I thought. What a beautiful place. The day after the most divisive, ugly election in recent history, and there we were, shoppers, clerks and baggers all going about our business. Here people of different backgrounds, races, faiths, and political beliefs push carts in peace. They ignore each other, they smile at each other, they let someone with fewer groceries go ahead in line. Sometimes they even connect over shared experience.

 

These everyday relations, how marvelous.

 

And out beyond the grocery store, a non-violent transition of power. A graceful concession by the loser. Peaceful protests.

 

Our democracy, I sing of it. People who think differently, whose lives are different, who want different things, all live together. That is our country. That is our experiment and we continue to work through it.

 

The lab result is in, but the prognosis is never final. Treatment lies ahead.

 

For me the treatment begins with how I treat other people.

 

I’m not going to be hateful. I am not going to make assumptions about why people voted the way they did. People have reasons. People have their own priorities.

 

Humility is called for. Empathy. And as one of my daughters puts it, love:

 

screen-shot-2016-11-12-at-10-26-24-amPlanet Earth, there is so much healing to be done. We know that love is the only way to do it. May we each explore what that looks like in our lives, in the tiniest and vastest of ways, and may we all move forward together. The thought that keeps coming back to me, is that love means looking at the most challenging, ugliest things we can imagine, and keeping an open heart. Do no harm, take no shit, and pour out your heart. We are capable of infinite amounts of love. I’m grieving today. I’m on fire tomorrow.

 

 

 

screen-shot-2016-11-12-at-10-17-25-amRay Carver (1938-1988) is not known primarily as a poet, although he published several books of poetry in his short life. Considered the reviver of the short story form, he’s a fiction writer admired for his spare style and peerless dialogue. Critic Thomas Edwards writes that Carver’s working class characters live in a world where

 

people worry about whether their old cars will start, where unemployment or personal bankruptcy are present dangers, where a good time consists of smoking pot with the neighbors, with a little cream soda and M & M’s on the side. . . . Carver’s characters are waitresses, mechanics, postmen, high school teachers, factory workers, door-to-door salesmen. [Their surroundings are] not for them a still unspoiled scenic wonderland, but a place where making a living is as hard, and the texture of life as drab, for those without money, as anywhere else

 

Sound familiar?

 

Surely Carver would have been a worthy bard of this election.

 

He was born in Oregon and raised in Washington. His dad worked in a sawmill, his mother worked various other blue-collar jobs.

 

At 19 he married his 16-year old pregnant girlfriend, a young woman at a prep school whose mother never forgave him for interrupting the upward course of her life. The couple had two children and worked odd jobs to keep afloat, he as a janitor, flower-picker, gas station attendant, library assistant, she as a waitress and office assistant.

 

They moved to California where he enrolled in school and found a mentor in novelist John Gardner of Grendel fame, and began publishing his short stories. He was given a fellowship to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, but didn’t complete his MFA in part because he felt out of place among the upper-middle-class students.

 

Eventually he landed a white-collar job as a textbook editor, and wrote in his spare time. He started teaching, and developed a drinking problem (no connection). He wasn’t able to quit drinking till 1977. Two years later he moved in with poet and writer Tess Gallagher. He and his first wife divorced in 1982. He married Tess in 1988 and died six weeks later of lung cancer.

 

 

*DJ Lizzard Blizzard can be found on Wake Up and Dance. Subscribe and she’ll send a dance song to your email every morning.

 

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elevator was moving really fast, so picture is blurry

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 

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

 

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

 

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another

 

and pushing back against

 

for the world . . .

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Is the world that offers this beauty–

 

the cliffs of England stand,

Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Dover Beach

by Matthew Arnold

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hard to believe I’ve never left a poem at an ATM before. I rectified that situation today when I taped an excerpt from C.H. Sisson’s “Money” to a drive-through ATM.

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You can read the complete poem here.

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I’m a lacksadaisical tweeter. A now-and-then and if-the-mood-strikes-me user of social media.

Which is why I only have 65 followers. That’s ten less people than I follow myself.

This post isn’t a plug for my twitter feed (I tried that here before and it didn’t help). It’s an announcement that I’m going to start posting some of my tweets on this blog. (Re-read that last sentence and realize that less than ten years ago it would have been complete gibberish.)

My tweets are different than my blog posts in that usually I use just a few lines from a longer poem instead of a complete poem. Also, I only feature pictures and I skip the commentary.

My latest one is  “Beauty School Dropout.” I left “Skin Deep” by Gail A. Chastain (the whole poem, because it was so short) at the Aveda Institute, a beauty school and salon.

poem is under sign and light fixture

poem is under sign and light fixture

 

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Of course, if you’d like to get all my tweets, follow me @poemelf.

 

 

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If you’ve got a fever and the only prescription is more Poem Elf  (and you’ve already had all the cow bell you can take)–

 

–Or– if you like poetry in very small doses and you don’t like reading long blog posts–

 

 

–I have a suggestion for you. Follow me on Twitter. @Poemelf is just pictures and not so often that it takes over your timeline.

 

I was slow coming to Twitter and even slower to realize that my original idea was lame. (I typed in excerpts from poems and tried to relate them to current events, the weather, celebrities, my personal life.) Now I’m just posting pictures of short poems (or short excerpts from poems) that I leave around town. Like I do on the blog, I take one up-close picture of a poem and one that shows where I put it.

 

No scandal, no trending hashtags, no selfies. Just a poem now and then where you least expect it.   Check out the sidebar on the right for an example and consider following me @poemelf.

 

Also, if you live near enough Ann Arbor, you can catch a wonderful art show, running now through April 9. The Prisoners Creative Arts Project is sponsoring the 19th annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners at the Duderstadt Gallery on North Campus of University of Michigan. Link here for details.

 

With limited materials and in difficult working conditions, these artists have produced powerful works in many different mediums. It’s such a humane and emotional show. Longing, joy, rage, hope, anxiety–each piece seems like a part of someone’s soul. Here’s one of my favorites. It’s called “Gracias” and the artist is Martin Vargas:

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Vargas features the Botero-like figures in many of his paintings. He calls them PUDGIES.

PUDGIES have a gentle spirit. They have no body shame and no obsession with clothes or hair.

I want me some PUDGIES in my life.

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poem is on iron gate below the handicapped entrance sign

poem is on iron gate below the handicapped entrance sign

 

Expect Nothing

by Alice Walker

 

Expect nothing. Live frugally

On surprise.

become a stranger

To need of pity

Or, if compassion be freely

Given out

Take only enough

Stop short of urge to plead

Then purge away the need.

 

Wish for nothing larger

Than your own small heart

Or greater than a star;

Tame wild disappointment

With caress unmoved and cold

Make of it a parka

For your soul.

 

Discover the reason why

So tiny human midget

Exists at all

So scared unwise

But expect nothing. Live frugally

On surprise.

 

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bon voyage!

bon voyage!

 

I was planning to write this post about graduation speeches, and I’m still planning to get to that, but right now I’m thinking about my daughter Lizzie, whose graduation was the occasion for this poem-elfing, and whose present whereabouts have me thinking about the poem entirely differently.  Lizzie is in Cameroon, Africa for a month.  I hear from her every couple of days, a few texted phrases about the heat, the rains, the mud, the lush green hills, the beauty of the children she meets, the likelihood of getting diarrhea. She’s tagging along with a crew that includes a dentist and an ophthalmologist, visiting villages to distribute the luxuries of toothbrushes, reading glasses and dental exams.  Later, in a Cameroonian version of Call the Midwife, that wonderful BBC television series, Lizzie will be shadowing midwives who are also nuns, and living in a convent with them.  Like the nuns in the BBC show, these nuns attend to the poor, to mothers who could not imagine creating a birth plan or getting to make the choice between a water delivery in a plastic baby pool and an epidural in a hospital bed.

 

If I had originally intended “Expect Nothing” to be a counterpoint to the world-is-your-oyster stuff of graduation speeches (you can see where I’m going with this), now I see how the poem operates on the assumption that oysters are readily available for consumption.  Two weeks ago Lizzie filed into a graduation arena among peers for who take only enough is one of many lifestyle choices, and now she’s living among people who truly expect nothing.

 

So this poem becomes a luxury too. Because being able to make choices about how to live is a luxury of first world countries.

 

Speaking of choices, and getting back to graduation, a short film about David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College was going viral on blogs and Facebook until it was recently removed by the David Foster Wallace Trust.  Too bad because it was a well-done excerpt from a great speech about the work of choosing.  Post-college life, Wallace says, is full of “boredom, routine, and petty frustration.”  The measure of education is how we choose to look at those tedious moments, how we can transcend frustration if we become more aware and less automatic in our responses, perhaps turning our eye to our “mystical oneness” with people who annoy us. It’s an inspiring speech for graduates (read the full text here, please, it’s great), but it’s heartbreaking too.  As I read along, I kept wishing his own words had inspired him in his darkest hour. The popularity of the speech three years after his death brings me to another poem, his ex-lover Mary Karr’s “Suicide’s Note: An Annual” which has these lines:

 

I just wanted to say ha-ha, despite

           your best efforts you are every second

alive in a hard-gnawing way for all who breathed you deeply in

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The speaker at my daughter’s graduation, Twitter CEO and former comedian Dick Costolo, gave a more conventional speech, and that’s not a criticism. Most graduation speeches satisfy audiences in the same way Thanksgiving dinners do:  by giving a good-enough version of what’s expected.  We expect to hear, and if the speaker is charming and brief, we’re delighted to hear, a few nuggets of our collective cultural wisdom:  follow your dreams, make your own path, give back, be grateful, the future is yours, live in the present, say yes, make mistakes, do work you love, do good work, thank your parents, eat whole foods.

 

Costolo was better than good enough, he was excellent, really funny with a compelling personal narrative and a solid message about making courageous choices and staying in the moment.

 

I put Alice Walkers’ “Expect Nothing” on the entrance to the stadium where graduation was held.  Like any good graduation speech (not that Walker intended the poem to be one) the poem opens with an attention grabber.  Expect nothing. If you skim the poem and separate the directives from the modifying phrases, it becomes a depressing if realistic guide for graduates burdened by debt and shrinking job prospects.  Expect nothing, live frugally, take only enough, stop short.  You can almost hear a mother of a certain generation or a certain personality type saying similar things to her children—be tough, don’t get your hopes up—all the while hoping silently in her heart that her children have the best of everything.

 

Which is the hope offered in the poem.  Through a series of wonderful aphorisms (my favorite:  Wish for nothing/larger than your own small heart), Walker suggests that anyone asking the big question—why are we here?—can have a big, big life, as big as a star.

Alice Walker

Poet Alice Walker was born in 1944 in Georgia, the youngest of eight children.  Her father was a sharecropper, her mother a maid.  When she was eight, her brother accidentally shot her in the eye with a BB gun.  Because the family didn’t own a car, it was a week before she got to the doctor, and she became blind in one eye.  She went to Spelman College on a full scholarship, then transferred to Sarah Lawrence.  She met Martin Luther King, Jr. as a student and was inspired to join the civil rights movement.  She and her ex-husband, civil rights lawyer Melvyn Rosenthal, became the first legally married inter-racial couple in Mississippi.  The harassment they faced makes it easy to understand why she advises, Stop short of the urge to plead.

 

Her 1982 bestseller The Color Purple was made into a movie and a musical.  She’s written seven novels, several collections of short stories, essays, children’s books, and poetry.  She’s won the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and a Guggenheim fellowship.  She continues her work as a political activist.

 

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