Poems for Memorial Day

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As I did last Memorial Day, I’m posting excerpts from poems that especially speak to me today. I hope you enjoy these, and will share some of your favorites in the comments.

1) “It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers” by Margaret Atwood (full text here):

…Now I am grownup
and literate, and I sit in my chair
as quietly as a fuse

and the jungles are flaming, the under-
brush is charged with soldiers,
the names on the difficult
maps go up in smoke…

Even my
passive eyes transmute
everything I look at to the pocked
black and white of a war photo,
how
can I stop myself.

It is dangerous to read newspapers.

Each time I hit a key
on my electric typewriter,
speaking of peaceful trees

another village explodes.

2) A Mad Fight Song for William S. Carpenter, 1966″ by James Wright (full text here):

At the edges of Southeast Asia this afternoon
The quarterbacks and the lines are beginning to fall,
A spring snow,

And terrified young men
Quick on their feet
Lob one another’s skulls across
Wings of strange birds that are burning
Themselves alive.

3) “Learning Experience” by Marge Piercy:

I have come out on the train from Chicago to talk
about dangling participles. I am supposed
to teach him to think a little on demand.
The time of tomorrow’s draft exam is written on the board.
The boy yawns and does not want to be in the classroom in Gary
where the furnaces that consumed his father seethe rusty smoke
and pour cascades of nerve-bright steel
while the slag goes out in little dumpcars smoking,
but even less does he want to be in Today’s Action Army
in Vietnam, in the Dominican Republic, in Guatemala,
in death that hurts.
In him are lectures on small groups, Jacksonian democracy,
French irregular verbs, the names of friends
around him in the classroom in Gary in the pillshaped afternoon
where tomorrow he will try to fail his license to live.

4) “19 January 1944” by Salvatore Quasimodo (full text here):

Someone is alive.
Someone, perhaps, is alive. But we, here,
absorbed in listening to the ancient voice
seek for a sign that outreaches life,
earth’s dark sorcery
where even among the tombs of rubble
the malign grass rears up its flower.

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My Top Five Poems about Motherhood

With Mother’s Day coming up next Sunday, I’m adding to last year’s list of poems that I love about motherhood. Enjoy!

1) From “Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons” by Diane Wakoski (full text here):

I want to thank my mother
for letting me wake her up sometimes at 6 in the morning
when I practiced my lessons
and for making sure I had a piano
to lay my school books down on, every afternoon.
I haven’t touched the piano in 10 years,
perhaps in fear that what little love I’ve been able to
pick, like lint, out of the corners of pockets,
will get lost,
slide away,
into the terribly empty cavern of me
if I ever open it all the way up again.
Love is a man
with a mustache
gently holding me every night,
always being there when I need to touch him;
he could not know the painfully loud
music from the past that
his loving stops from pounding, banging,
battering through my brain,
which does its best to destroy the precarious gray matter when I
am alone;
he does not hear Mrs. Hillhouse’s canary singing for me,
liking the sound of my lesson this week,
telling me,
confirming what my teacher says,
that I have a gift for the piano
few of her other pupils had.

When I touch the man
I love,
I want to thank my mother for giving me
piano lessons
all those years,
keeping the memory of Beethoven,
a deaf tortured man,
in mind;
of the beauty that can come
from even an ugly
past.

2) From “Waterwings” by Cathy Song (full text here):

I watch the circles
his small body makes
fan and ripple,
disperse like an echo
into the sum of water, light and air.
His imprint on the water
has but a brief lifespan,
the flicker of a dragonfly’s delicate wing.

This is sadness, I tell myself,
the morning he chooses to leave his wings behind,
because he will not remember
that he and beauty were aligned,
skimming across the water, nearly airborne,
on his first solo flight.
I’ll write “how he could not
contain his delight.”
At the other end,
in another time frame,
he waits for me—
having already outdistanced this body,
the one that slipped from me like a fish,
floating, free of itself.

3) From “The Puppet of the Wolf,” by Margaret Atwood (full text here):

This is a miracle, there is never
any death:
the wolf comes back whenever
he is called,
unwounded and intact;
piglets jump from my thumbs.

My dying right
hand, which knots and shrinks
drier and more cynical
each year, is immortal,
briefly, and innocent.

Together with my left hand, its
enemy and prey, it chases
my daughter through the warm air,
and muted with soapsuds, lifts her
into the water.

4) From “Taking Notice,” #13, by Marilyn Hacker:

…In
another room, my daughter, home from school,
audibly murmurs “spanking, stupid, angry
voice” — a closet drama where I am
played second-hand to unresisting doll
daughters. Mother and daughter both, I see
myself, the furious and unforgiven;
myself, the terrified and terrible;
the child pushed into autonomy;
the unhealed woman hearing her own voice damn
her to the nightmares of the brooding girl.

5) From “Wanting a Child” by Jorie Graham (full text here):

Sometimes I’ll come this far from home
merely to dip my fingers in this glittering, archaic
sea that renders everything
identical, flesh
where mind and body
blur. The seagulls squeak, ill-fitting
hinges, the beach is thick
with shells. The tide
is always pulsing upward, inland, into the river’s rapid
argument, pushing
with its insistent tragic waves — the living echo,
says my book, of some great storm far out at sea, too far
to be recalled by us
but transferred
whole onto this shore by waves, so that erosion
is its very face.

Spring Break: heading for the sea

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With my older daughter home from school for the week, my mom and stepdad braved the long car drive down to the Outer Banks with me and the girls, for a few days in a hotel by the beach. Though the girls wanted to spend most of our visit at the indoor pool (and I in the adjoining hot tub), we visited our usual summer haunts: Kelly’s for seafood and warm sweet potato biscuits, Duck’s Cottage for books and coffee, and The Kids’ Store for toys.

I have a love-hate relationship with the beach. When I was growing up, we went to Virginia Beach every summer, and by my teens, I often preferred to read in the hotel room rather than face sunburn and sand-induced itchiness. The idea of the beach was often better than the thing itself. But I always liked the salty smell as our car neared the ocean, and the rush- then-fade of the waves crashing.

This excerpt from Seamus Heaney’s poem “Oysters” captures the tang and textures of the shore:

Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water.
______________________________
…I ate the day
Deliberately, that its tang
Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.

My Favorite Irish Poets

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I won’t be one of the many imbibing on St. Patrick’s Day this Sunday. But as a fan of Irish poetry – at least that written in English – I wanted to share a few of my favorite moments.

Contemporary Irish poet Eavan Boland beautifully extracts a place from its political past in “How We Made a New Art on Old Ground.” Here’s an excerpt (full text is here):

A famous battle happened in this valley.
You never understood the nature poem.
Till now. Till this moment—if these statements
seem separate, unrelated, follow this

silence to its edge and you will hear
the history of air: the crispness of a fern
or the upward cut and turn around of
a fieldfare or thrush written on it.

The other history is silent: The estuary
is over there. The issue was decided here:
Two kings prepared to give no quarter.
Then one king and one dead tradition.

________________________________________

I try the word distance and it fills with
sycamores, a summer’s worth of pollen
And as I write valley straw, metal
blood, oaths, armour are unwritten.

…what we see
is what the poem says:
evening coming—cattle, cattle-shadows—

and whin bushes and a change of weather
about to change them all: what we see is how
the place and the torment of the place are
for this moment free of one another.

 

In “The Cave Painters,” contemporary poet Eamon Grennan describes the light we find in an art composed in darkness. The full text is here, but here’s an excerpt:

They’ve left the world of weather and panic
behind them and gone on in, drawing the dark
in their wake, pushing as one pulse
to the core of stone. The pigments mixed in big shells
are crushed ore, petals and pollens, berries
and the binding juices oozed
out of chosen barks.

___________________________________________

We’ll never know if they worked in silence
like people praying—the way our monks
illuminated their own dark ages
in cross-hatched rocky cloisters,
where they contrived a binding
labyrinth of lit affinities
to spell out in nature’s lace and fable
their mindful, blinding sixth sense
of a god of shadows—or whether (like birds
tracing their great bloodlines over the globe)
they kept a constant gossip up
of praise, encouragement, complaint.

It doesn’t matter: we know
they went with guttering rushlight
into the dark; came to terms
with the given world; must have had
—as their hands moved steadily
by spiderlight—one desire
we’d recognise: they would—before going on
beyond this border zone, this nowhere
that is now here—leave something
upright and bright behind them in the dark.

 

The last two stanzas of Yeats’ “Among School Children” remind us that our labors – how we “blossom” and “dance” – are gifts we bring to the world, imbued with their own mystery. (The full text is here.)

VII

Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother’s reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts — O presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise —
O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;

VIII
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

 

And finally, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney finds his path in “Digging:”

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

 

Update, 3/15/2013: After I posted the above, many of my well-read Facebook friends chimed in with additional recommendations of Irish poets. Just click on these links for beautiful work by Paul Durcan, Dennis O’Driscoll, Ciaran Carson, and Richard Murphy. Plus, a great selection from the Poetry Foundation. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Books and Chocolate

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Sometime in December, I realized that in my immediate family, the gifts most appreciated are books, chocolate (either the solid or liquid variety), and gift cards (to buy more books and chocolate).  I love the January routine of settling down with new books, under a blanket with an oversized red mug of hot chocolate (topped with whipped cream, a sliver of candy cane, and if it’s evening, a dash of Bailey’s Irish Cream). This is bliss, and it isn’t the same when the winter wind isn’t whistling outside.

This year, I received copies of Infinite Jest, The Broom of the System, and Wild. (It took me an embarrassing nine weeks to complete my library copy of The Broom of the System; I kept putting it down for a week, then had to reread to remember what was going on.)

I also received a Kindle Fire HD, which is quickly becoming my personal entertainment system. Within days, I learned why the birds in Angry Birds are angry, and learned that Pandora isn’t just the woman associated with the Box. I can email documents to my Kindle (like the PDF file of my book, new poems, or anything else handy to have on hand), read books or magazines, listen to music, surf the web. This won’t replace physical books for me because I like writing in them, but it’s a lovely thing to have until the kids steal it away completely. 🙂

I love this excerpt from Randall Jarrell’s “A Girl in a Library,” which describes the luxuries of words and dreams:

An object among dreams, you sit here with your shoes off
And curl your legs up under you; your face moves toward sleep. . .
_________________________________________________

Here in this enclave there are centuries
For you to waste; the short and narrow stream
Of Life meanders into a thousand valleys
Of all that was, or might have been, or is to be.
The books, just leafed through, whisper endlessly. . .

Here’s wishing you a little bliss on a cold day!

Rejoicing

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We have another reason to celebrate this season: although the Mayan calendar suggested that the world would end on Friday – the day of winter solstice – we continue as we were.

I love how Timothy Steele brings the holidays and astronomy together in his contemporary holiday poem, “Toward the Winter Solstice.” Here’s an excerpt – and happy holidays!

 

Some wonder if the star of Bethlehem
Occurred when Jupiter and Saturn crossed;
It’s comforting to look up from this roof
And feel that, while all changes, nothing’s lost,
To recollect that in antiquity
The winter solstice fell in Capricorn
And that, in the Orion Nebula,
From swirling gas, new stars are being born.

Wallace Stevens’ Winter

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With winter only a few weeks away, I started thinking of modern poet Wallace Stevens after reading Benjamin Glass’s excellent commentary on the 32 Poems blog. Here’s an excerpt:

Perhaps I read Stevens this time of year because his poems reflect the only type of Christmas atmosphere I can endure: mostly solemn, mostly isolated, and if there is to be cheer, it must be diluted thoroughly into the first two attributes (The hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel” encapsulates this dynamic). On Christmas Eves the midnight ritual at the Episcopalian church of my childhood was somber, liturgical, and ornate. During the candlelit mass, I groggily sang from the hymnal while the robed clergy led the congregation. Despite experiencing the heights of anticipation (Christmas morning was just hours away), it was all incredibly peaceful, too. And dark. I think many of Stevens’ poems reflect this solemnity and peace, “The Snow Man,” a particular holiday favorite, especially.

“The Snow Man” is probably my favorite Stevens’ poem (although it may be a tie between it and “A Postcard from the Volcano”). It describes the holiday season’s quiet reflection, idealized snow-covered pine trees, and the relationship between absence and presence that we work to reconcile during a season rife with memories. The full text is here, but I wanted to note a few of my favorite sections:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind…

Stevens’ “mind of winter” is the state the speaker enters when he has truly become one with a place, when he realizes that the circumstances that surround him – in this case, the chill and lonely howl of the wind – mean him no harm. These sounds and sights are mirrored in the speaker; he realizes that he also contains those dark, lonely places:

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow…

Standing alone in the cold, the speaker experiences what we feel listening to the blues when we’re sad: there is someone, or something, feeling the same thing. The chilly, bleak scene resonates for the speaker, becoming a source of comfort.

Preempting the Holiday Blues, Part II: Simplicity

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Yesterday Jeff and I went to see the new movie version of “Anna Karenina.” Although I might have preferred a more traditional take on the novel (the movie kept pushing the concept of “life is a stage,” which I feel has been done to death), the cinematography was sumptuous and the costumes luxe with pearls, fur, velvet.  The main characters travel in a world with every luxury, but the most satisfying scene by far is when pampered society girl Kitty, newly married to a philosophical young man, tends to her new husband’s very ill father. When she helps clean his ravaged body and we see the surprised expression on her husband’s face, we forget the opulence and focus on this brief episode of humanity and connection, in a time when a simple bath was rare, and water was not necessarily clean or disease-free.

Although I probably have too many pairs of shoes to call myself a minimalist, I love reading about the simplicity movement, and its emphasis on experiences versus things. One of my favorite books is The Simple Living Guide, in which author Janet Luhrs describes how to move toward a simpler life in every way, from how we celebrate the holidays to choosing a place to live. I first read this book after graduating from college, and it gave me faith that no matter what I became or what income I was able to earn, I would be okay in the most important ways.

In our depressed economy, when we have less to give materially, the simple act of caring for another – through touch, listening, or simple eye-contact amid a world of distractions and iPhones –  is a gift we all can use. I love Tomas Transtromer’s poem “The Half-Finished Heaven,” which describes this kind of ideal connection:

Everything begins to look around.
We walk in the sun in hundreds.

Each man is a half-open door
leading to a room for everyone.

The endless ground under us.

The water is shining among the trees.

The lake is a window into the earth.

 

(Translated from the Swedish by Robin Fulton)

Preempting The Holiday Blues

Yesterday as we left my mother’s house, where we spent the afternoon enjoying lunch and decorating her Christmas tree (yup, we don’t waste any time…), my six-year-old daughter commented with great melancholy, “The holidays go by so fast.” It was funny, but also sad that she felt that way while we were still enjoying Thanksgiving leftovers.

I read this article on how to avoid the holiday blues the other day (on the wonderful Apartment Therapy blog), and thought it really hit the mark, although it doesn’t really address the cause, just the treatment. Beyond the obvious, and important, reasons for sadness (missing loved ones, having financial issues, feeling that the rest of the world has it better than you do), I’m realizing that part of the holiday blues is the fact that during those six weeks or so, we become more aware of the things that truly make us happy: time spent with family and friends, the rituals of creation (baking cookies, decorating a freshly-cut tree, taking time to create a unique tablescape), indulging our senses with candlelight, delicious smells, music, and flickering lights in darkness. It is a time when we make phone calls rather than send emails, and one of the few times during the year that we acknowledge that all those technological advances don’t fill the void.

During the rest of the year, I don’t take care of myself in the same way. I rarely bother to light a candle or turn on music to make a meal more special (and this may be just me; with little kids around it’s a major accomplishment just to get the food onto the table). So when January 1st hits, I want to remember the slowed-down time, the sensations that mark the holidays and integrate them into everyday life. (I may need to make an Excel spreadsheet just to remember to do this.)

This excerpt from Gary Soto’s poem “Oranges” describes the delicious sensations and images available to us, even as we turn our calendar pages:

Outside,
A few cars hissing past,
Fog hanging like old
Coats between the trees.
I took my girl’s hand
In mine for two blocks,
Then released it to let
Her unwrap the chocolate.
I peeled my orange
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, from some distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making a fire in my hands.