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poems are on tree branches

poems are on tree branches

 

Poem #1: Miracles

by Walt Whitman

Why, who makes much of a miracle?

As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,

Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,

Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,

Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of

the water,

Or stand under trees in the woods,

Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night

with any one I love,

Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,

Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,

Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer

forenoon,

Or animals feeding in the fields,

Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,

Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so

quiet and bright,

Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;

These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,

The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.

 

To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,

Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,

Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with

the same,

Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.

 

To me the sea is a continual miracle,

The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—

the ships with men in them,

What stranger miracles are there?

 

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Poem #2: The Cigarette, the Beers, the Trash

by Alejandro Murguía

 

Everything is good for something

Even the trash, the ugly and the dirty,

What we throw away we can put in a poem,

Make art of our rejections, our defeats

All of it just grist for the mill of our songs.

 

It’s too bad that sometimes we want only the pretty,

That which makes us believe we’re saints, or holy,

Or some kind of artiste, for hell’s sake.

 

Send me storms when I’m walking home

Locusts in the harvest season

I’d rather go hungry than

Stuff my gills at some catered banquet

Where everyone is neutered by Martha Stewart.

 

Look outside your frigging window,

What you see is what it is—that’s all there is.

I see abandoned cars, newspapers, a beer bottle

Propped up against a half-dead tree

And I’m going to put them in this poem

Because that’s all I’ve got tonight.

 

Then I’ll smoke a cigarette, stare at the night clouds,

Let the wind whip my face

And that’s it, at least I’ll know I didn’t cheat,

Didn’t fake what’s in my life.

 

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We sat in the car waiting for a miracle. On that clear and cold March evening we had a chance, said the meteorologist, a small chance of seeing the Northern Lights at sundown. My friend and I had been waiting years to see the Northern Lights—she’s an ardent fan of extreme weather and starry phenomena, and I’m an ardent fan of the movie Local Hero, my introduction to the Northern Lights back in the early 80’s.

 

Sitting in a school parking lot, the widest open space we could come up with on short notice, we felt like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin. As hope for the miraculous display dwindled, I dashed out in the wind to put these two poems in a tree by some athletic fields.

 

Even then, before I had read the two poems closely, “Miracles” and “The Cigarettes, the Beers, the Trash” seemed to be talking to each other on their respective tree branches.

 

–See the just-barely buds on these bare trees—said the Whitman poem—a miracle!

-Yeah but look down at how the snow melt’s uncovered trash, said the Murguía poem.

-The wind is tossing us about! Another miracle!

-That wind’s going turn you into trash.

 

Which it did, a moment after I took the picture.

 

Originally I paired the poems together together because they seemed opposites. Whitman’s poem is so cheerful it’s all but wearing a curly red wig and nuzzling a dog named Sandy. The tone of Murguía’s poem is decidedly less sunny:

 

Look outside your frigging window,

What you see is what it is—that’s all there is.

 

But the poems have more in common than I thought at first.

 

Both poems start in the city. Whitman is in Manhattan, Murguía presumably in San Francisco. And even though Whitman travels from the city to beach, to woods, back to city and Murguía stays put, they’re both completely engaged with their surroundings. They see what others don’t.

 

Or maybe it’s not so much that they see what others overlook, as it is that they re-name what they see so that others can see things in a new way. Whitman re-names everything he sees a miracle, especially the everyday things: Strangers opposite me riding in the car; the wonderfulness of insects in the air.

 

Murguía, who sees the ugly and the dirty, calls his trash poetry. Or inspiration for poetry. His poem is like a recycling bin, full of discards that he finds new uses for. Like a poetic version of the Heidelberg Project in Detroit.

 

Both poems are not just about seeing and re-naming, but also about the creation of self. In listing what he sees, Whitman creates a persona who is childlike, full of wonder. He’s the master of the artless art, of spontaneous expression of feeling, Murguía not only sees the underbelly of what Whitman sees, he wants to see the underbelly:

 

Send me storms when I’m walking home

Locusts in the harvest season

 

Seeing “what’s really there” separates the artistes from the artists, and Murguía is definitely in the artist camp. He’s proud of being authentic, of not having been neutered by Martha Stewart.

 

(Neutered by Martha Stewart. That’s a phrase to tuck away for future use. It would be a great bumper sticker and an even better support group. Overeaters Anonymous in room 12, Neutered by Martha Stewart across the hall.)

 

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 2.54.05 PM I hadn’t heard of Alejandro Murguía until a friend gave me a book of his poems for my birthday last year. He was born in 1949 in California. After his mother died when he was two, he was moved to Mexico City, where he lived until he was six. He writes in both English and Spanish and has been called “the activist voice of refugees and exiles.” He’s written two novels, a history of the Nicaraguan Solidarity movement in San Francisco’s Mission District, two books of poetry. He’s professor of Latin American literature at San Francisco State University. In 2012 he was named the Poet Laureate for San Francisco, the first Latino poet to be given the honor.

 

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 2.54.33 PMWalt Whitman (1819-1892) was born in Long Island to a family of nine. At various times throughout his life, he worked as a journalist, a newspaper editor, a teacher, a volunteer nurse in the Civil War, a government clerk. Although he struggled to earn a living, he shared any money he earned with his ailing mother, his sick brother, and wounded soldiers.

 

I’ve written about Whitman before, so I’ll copy commentary from previous posts:

 

Walt Whitman sure has a lot of laudatory titles :  “poet of democracy,”  he’s called, “father of free verse,” “America’s poet,” to name a few.  Critic Harold Bloom proclaimed Whitman’s importance in his introduction to the 150th anniversary edition of Leaves of Grass:

“If you are American, then Walt Whitman is your imaginative father and mother, even if, like myself, you have never composed a line of verse. You can nominate a fair number of literary works as candidates for the secular Scripture of the United States. They might include Melville’s Moby-Dick, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Emerson’s two series of Essays and The Conduct of Life. None of those, not even Emerson’s, are as central as the first edition of Leaves of Grass.”

 

And no, we never did see the Northern Lights. If you are a lucky person who has, post a comment and tell me when and where.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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poem is on trashcan

poem is on trashcan

 

Equinox

 

by Elizabeth Alexander

 

Now is the time of year when bees are wild

and eccentric. They fly fast and in cramped

loop-de-loops, dive-bomb clusters of conversants

in the bright, late-September out-of-doors.

I have found their dried husks in my clothes.

 

They are dervishes because they are dying,

one last sting, a warm place to squeeze

a drop of venom or of honey.

After the stroke we thought would be her last

my grandmother came back, reared back and slapped

 

a nurse across the face. Then she stood up,

walked outside, and lay down in the snow.

Two years later there is no other way

to say, we are waiting. She is silent, light

as an empty hive, and she is breathing.

 

 

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Years ago I visited a dear friend a few days before she died from cancer. She was sleeping when I came into her bedroom. She was so shrunken and still and dessicated that I thought for a moment she might already have passed. Her heavy eyes opened at the sound of my voice. It seemed to take her a moment to process who I was, and a moment longer to realize that I was there to visit the sick, and that this was a sickroom and she was the sick person. All the sudden she sprang up like a jack-in-the-box and got out of bed. “Let’s open the blinds, it’s so dark in here,” she said. She took a step or two with her old energy, but I got her back in bed before her bones collapsed under the little weight she had.

 

It was a shock to see her so suddenly up on her feet—as if she had risen from the dead before she was dead—but it was also, if it’s okay to say, a little comical. Like she didn’t get the memo that she was on her deathbed. Like she thought, Damn, this room is depressing.

 

So forgive me if I also find humor in Elizabeth Alexander’s beautiful poem “Equinox.” Grandma slapping the nurse, marching out into the snow while the family stands around the hospital bed in shock–I love that kind of crazy, that refusal to stop living, that last burst of energy, which as Alexander says, could be a drop of venom or of honey. Either way shows a defiance I admire. She’s Dylan Thomas’ dictum come to life:

 

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at the close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

 

What’s marvelous about this poem is that the comedy of the grandmother’s behavior sits side by side with the painful vigil of the family, and neither side is denigrated. There is no other way to say, the speaker says, slightly ashamed to admit that the family is ready for her to permanently rest in peace. Waiting two years for someone to die must be tedious and unnerving. The poem’s title, “Equinox,” becomes an unanswered wish. The equinox is a temporary suspension of reality, a single day of near perfect balance between day and night. The grandmother’s state—neither dead nor fully alive—begs for a resolution that does not come. The last line of the poem is chilling, like the last line of a ghost story: and she is still breathing.

 

The unsettledness of this perpetual equinox is steadied by the poem’s tight structure. Like a sturdy tripod, the three stanzas balance the loop-de-loops and the loopiness. The bees and the grandmother, mirroring each other as they do, each get their own stanza. They meet in the middle stanza, and the transition is so nimble I keep going back to it.

 

I left the poem a week before the autumn equinox (September 23 this year) on a trashcan near a picnic area. Any other year that might have been counterproductive. Swarms of bees would prevent people from lingering to read the poem. But this year I haven’t seen bees in weeks. Maybe that’s because of CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) or maybe because here in Michigan our season of mists and mellow fruitfulness came and left in a matter of hours. Sandals and nearly nude runners are long gone too, and woe is me and everyone else in the state as we look forward to a winter worse than last year’s.

 

Screenshot 2014-10-08 11.02.36Poet, essayist and playwright Elizabeth Alexander was born in 1962 in Harlem but was raised in Washington , D.C. There her father, Clifford Alexander, Jr., served as Chairman of the Equal Opportunity Commission under President Johnson and Secretary of the Army for the Carter administration. Her mother was a writer and professor of African-American women’s history at George Washington University.

 

Alexander graduated from Yale and then earned her Master’s at Boston University and her PhD at University of Pennsylvania.

She worked as a reporter for the Washington Post for a year, but left to teach at the University of Chicago. There she met Barack Obama who was a senior lecture at the law school. When he was elected president, he asked her to compose and deliver the inaugural poem. You can read “Praise Song for the Day” here.

 

She also taught at Smith College and currently at Yale University, where she chairs the African American Studies department. She’s a founding member of Cave Canem, a recipient of an NEA grant, a Guggenheim fellowship, and two Pushcart Prizes, among many other awards.

 

A widow, she lives with her two sons in New Haven, Connecticut.

 

Fun fact: the PBS miniseries “Faces of America” revealed that Alexander is distantly related to comedian Stephen Colbert. Coincidentally she had appeared on the Colbert Report a year before that connection came out. It’s a really funny interview in which she answers the question, “What is the difference between a metaphor and . . . A LIE?”  Watch here.

 

 

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Dust of Snow

by Robert Frost

 

 

The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree

 

Has given my heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued.

 

 

The Wall Street Journal reports that scientists have identified a new syndrome: Pedestrian Aggressiveness Syndrome, also known as Sidewalk Rage, the eco-friendlier cousin to Road Rage.  Symptoms include muttering at other pedestrians, making insulting gestures (I’m not making this up–see the other 12 traits of P.A.S. here), and walking much faster than other people.

As humorists everywhere scramble to identify other Rage Syndromes (soon to come:  Dance Floor Rage, Bathroom Line Rage, and Cosmetic Counter Rage), I’m knee-deep in Snow Rage. Here in the Midwest, we’re all darned sick of snow.  We want to store our shovels, behead our neighbor’s snowman family, wear flip-flops.  Even with unseasonably warm temperatures that melt the snow from lawns and roofs, we feel only mild relief.  We know the snow is coming back.  It’s only February, after all.

When snow does return, try to remember early December (pardon me while I channel The Fantastiks) when snow was young and oh so lovely. Or re-read the last paragraph of James Joyce’s “The Dead” and let the snow falling faintly and faintly falling refresh your outlook.  Or even better, recite “Dust of Snow” till you’ve memorized it, and carry it around in your head for protection against S.R.

On my first few reads of this poem, I thought the rhyme and meter were a little heavy-handed, nearly taking over.  “Dust of Snow” is so sing-song that it sounds like a misconceived entry at a cheerleading competition. And in last place, all the way from New Hampshire, the Robert Frost Middle School Squad! But not a word is forced for the sake of rhyme or meter, and the central image is expressed so elegantly that the poem becomes meditative, haiku-like.

Robert Frost (1874-1963) was arguably America’s most beloved poet, four-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, celebrated teacher at Middlebury College, and unofficial poet laureate of the United States, earning the previously unknown privilege of reading a poem at a presidential inauguration.  I’ve always thought of him as a Burl Ives’ kind of guy, avuncular and cheerful, growing apples in New England and writing sweet little nature poems.  But Frost lived through his share of darkness:  the early loss of his father, the deaths of four of his six children, and his own depression. He seems to have had a difficult personality and he wasn’t much of a farmer either.  And his poems, sweet though they may seem because of the traditional rhyme, are grounded by a dark spirit.

In the simplest of language, without a single adjective of adverb, Frost captures the beauty of the New England winter landscape and his own loneliness.  We see the black crow, the white snow, the green of the hemlock, and the solitary poet.  Then in the stillness and silence, the crow plays a little joke.  He drops snow on Frost.  The poet is jolted out of his sadness, renewed by encounter.  Just a few words, a little movement, and whoosh! everything’s better, at least temporarily.  For all the renewal of mood, the poem still ends on a dark note, a day I had rued.

I have my own mood-lifting hemlock tree experience.  Once I saw a sweet old fellow in my neighborhood, a man with a loping stride who walks for hours everyday, stop by a hemlock tree whose branches hung from a neighbor’s lawn deep into the street.  He pulled a needle off a branch and put it in his mouth.

I caught up to him.  “Did you really just eat something off that tree?” I asked.

“Yes, I did,” he said.  “It’s very refreshing!”*

Like Frost’s dust of snow, that pine needle lightened my day.

*(Don’t worry, my neighbor is still in good health.  Socrates was poisoned by the hemlock plant, not the tree.)

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poem is on window frame above tossed coat

A Man Said to the Universe by Stephen Crane A man said to the universe: “Sir, I exist!" “However,” replied the universe, “The fact has not created in me “A sense of obligation.”

Here in Michigan, last week’s Blizzard of the Century earned the same distinction among storms as Student of the Month has among bumper stickers. We never got much snow at all.  But then again it’s not unusual for Detroit to get less of what’s expected while the rest of the country gets more.  Sigh.

Anyway, the day before the Storm That Dropped Six Inches!, I was at the airport.  Anticipating travel delays, cancellations, and frustrated travelers to follow behind me, I left Stephen Crane’s poem at the Southwest gate.  A poke in the eye, the naughty elf in me thought.

This little hairshirt of a poem could fit inside a New Yorker cartoon.  Picture a puffed-up little man, a comic character on the order of Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins or Lady Bracknell from Importance of Being Earnest or a Margaret Dumont character from an old Marx Brothers movie.  He bangs his indignant fat fist on the desk of a bureaucrat called The Universe, insisting, “Sir, I exist!”  The universe, looking like John Malkovich at his most affectless, says, “Do I look like someone who gives a damn?”

If you studied Crane’s short stories “Open Boat” or “Blue Hotel” in high school or college, you probably wrote the phrase “indifference of nature” in an essay.  But that’s probably (hopefully) the last you had to deal with the concept.  Most of us are protected by enough safety nets that our only glimpse of nature’s indifference is when really bad weather or natural disasters hit.  Mother Nature doesn’t care that you have to fly to California for your terminally ill uncle’s 89th birthday party or that you need to get home before your bloated old dog craps all over your beige carpet.  Sob stories, saintly intentions, money and connections make no difference when a blizzard arrives. Snow falls on the just and unjust alike, Matthew might have written if he were stuck in Chicago last week.

While I don’t share Crane’s fatalistic view of an indifferent universe, I do respond to the equalizer that his universe is, its refusal to grant privilege to those who think they’ve earned it.  In my book the only people who deserve special treatment are those who need it, the sick and the old.

Crane wrote this poem in his mid-twenties.  That’s awfully young to have so bleak an outlook, but the indifference of the universe seems to have been beaten into him. The youngest of 14 children, Crane was small and sickly from birth. His father, a prominent Methodist minister, died when Crane was 8, and thereafter relatives died on him left and right—from train accidents, drug overdoses, and disease—until he himself succumbed to tuberculosis at age 28.

But it was an action-packed 28 years, one that no one would have forecast for a minister’s son from New Jersey. He lived with the poor and destitute in New York City’s Bowery, worked as a war correspondent in Cuba, Mexico and Greece, was shipwrecked, suffered from malaria, had a common-law wife who was a brothel owner when he met her, became friends with Henry James, H.G. Wells and Joseph Conrad, and earned fame during his lifetime for his Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage.  It’s hard to imagine too many 28 year olds doing all that today, but maybe I just don’t know that many people.

The airport emptied early last Tuesday.  Most flights were cancelled shortly after I flew out, and the poem was probably tossed in the trash by a janitor, dare I say, indifferently.

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