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.

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Asking for what you want: submissions and gender

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My two daughters – let’s call them OD and YD – resemble me in many predictable ways. Seven-year-old OD has hair that relentlessly tangles in the same spot as mine, loves writing and rhyme, and is a tomboy in the best sense of the word. Three-year-old YD has my oversized cheeks, laid-back manner, and love of animals.

But even at their young ages, they exceed me in confidence and general courageous action. OD is a skilled negotiator; when she encounters a “no,” she rephrases the question again and again, looking for any cracks in my argument, and steadily moves toward a settlement. Younger YD hasn’t this skill yet, and relies on the simple “broken record” method of toddlers, which she knows can’t be ignored.

This week, you may have read this article on the male/female ratios of publication for more influential magazines, inspired by the annual VIDA count.  Rob Spillman, the editor of Tin House – one of the few publications that improved its ratio – had this to say about the process of encouraging submissions by women:

“After VIDA’s initial count three years ago,” Spillman said, “you would think others would move toward gender equality, or at least make a gesture toward it. It really isn’t rocket science. For us, the VIDA count was a spur, a call to action. Our staff is 50/50 male-female, and we thought we were gender blind. However, the numbers didn’t bear this out.” So why not?

“We did a thorough analysis of our internal submission numbers and found that the unsolicited numbers are evenly split, while the solicited (agented, previous contributors, etc.) were 67/33 male to female. We found that women contributors and women we rejected with solicitations to resubmit were five times less likely to submit than their male counterparts. So we basically stopped asking men, because we knew they were going to submit anyway, and at the same time made a concerted effort to re-ask women to contribute. We also adjusted our Lost & Found section, which featured short pieces on under-appreciated writers or books. We had been asking 50/50 writers, but the subjects were coming back 80/20 male to female, meaning that both men and women were writing about men versus women writers. We then started asking both male and female writers if there are any women writers they would like to champion. It has been a total editorial team effort, and each editorial meeting we take a look at our upcoming issues to see where we are for balance. Again, these are all simple solutions. What I found interesting was that we had all assumed that we were gender balanced, when in fact we weren’t. Now, with a concerted effort, we know that we are.”

Spillman’s comments were eye-opening to me; I hadn’t thought much about how “submission behaviors” might be different for women and men. But I do fit into the more submissive group that he describes: when rejected once or twice by a publication, I tend to scratch it off my list and move on – something that the men, at least the ones submitting to prestigious Tin House, tend not to do. Even though I know the primary rule of getting published is “Submit, Submit, Submit,” there is still something in me that has trouble trying again after that initial rejection.

It appears I need to take a page from my daughters’ playbooks: ask, and ask, and ask again. The fourth section of Denise Levertov’s “Matins” reminds us of the importance of “following through:”

iv.

A shadow painted where
yes, a shadow must fall.
The cow’s breath
not forgotten in the mist, in the
words. Yes,
verisimilitude draws up
heat in us, zest
to follow through,
follow through,
follow
transformations of day
in its turning, in its becoming.

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!

A season of waiting

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This winter, most of my quests for excitement have collided with a paralyzed will, or body. Yesterday, my mom offered to babysit the girls so Jeff and I could enjoy a kid-free outing. Jeff now has the cold I had a week ago (and older daughter (‘OD’) had a week before that), so we decided to do something that required little walking – a movie and dinner. But upon arriving at our favorite second-run theatre to see “Skyfall,” we learned that we had gotten the show time wrong, so ended up talking in the car for two hours, heading to the grocery store for cough drops and ibuprofen, then getting dinner at one of President Obama’s favorite hamburger spots, Ray’s Hell Burger.

I later realized that this was a perfect afternoon because in everyday life, I rarely get to talk. Both kids talk constantly; they’re full of rhymes, songs, potential projects and fresh observations. They are the texting keyboard to my sticky-keyed manual typewriter. (Knowing that this is temporary and that all too soon they will be shadows passing silently in the hallway, the language stays inside, or hides in my bedside notebook.)

Even as my body begs for more sunlight, I don’t want to let the winter go until we have a good snowstorm, at least enough snow to operate our sled and build a snowman. We may get it on Tuesday night, it seems. Fingers crossed for ending winter with a bang. 🙂

This time of year, I love Stephen Spender’s poem “Polar Exploration,” for its sense of suspended animation:

With faces swung to their prodigious North
Like compass needles. As clerks in whited banks
Leave bird-claw pen-prints columned on white paper,
On snow we added footprints,
Extensive whiteness drowned
All sense of space. We tramped through
Static, glaring days, Time’s suspended blank.
_______________________________________

I cannot sleep. At night I watch
A clear voice speak with words like drawing.
Its questions are clear rifts:–Was
Ice, our rage, transformed? The raw, the motionless
Skies, were these the Spirit’s hunger?

My top five anti-love poems

After last week’s Valentine’s Day love poem offerings (which you can read here), I thought a look at the flip-side was in order. So let’s get a little Alanis Morissette for a moment, and look at how some of the masters have handled the uglier moments. Because we’ve all been there. 🙂

1) Afraid to make a move: T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

I first read this during my sophomore year of high school, when pretty much all thinking teenagers are in this paralyzed state. Here’s an excerpt:

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

2) Mystified by love: Gavin Ewart, “Ella Mi Fu Rapita”

I love the last line of this poem, excerpted here:

And what can the lover do, when the time’s come,
when THE END goes up on the screen? …
Get friendly with men in bars, telling
how sweet she was, praising her statistics,
or admiring his own sexual ballistics?

No, that’s no good. Love lasts – or doesn’t last.
…Lovers must never crumple up like cissies
or break down or cry about their wrongs.
If girls are sugar, God holds the sugar tongs.

3) Unrequited love: Elizabeth Bishop, “Insomnia”

I love this excerpt, which describes the magical powers we’ve all longed for:

So wrap up care in a cobweb
and drop it down the well

into that world inverted
where left is always right,
where the shadows are really the body,
where we stay awake all night,
where the heavens are shallow as the sea
is now deep, and you love me.

4) Angry love: Margaret Atwood, “You fit into me”

This poem manages to capture all the intensity and anger of love gone wrong, in only four lines:

You fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

5) Jilted love: Louise Gluck, “Hesitate to Call”

(No commentary needed here.) 🙂

Lived to see you throwing
Me aside. That fought
Like netted fish inside me.
…Done?
It lives in me.
You live in me. Malignant.
Love, you ever want me, don’t.

My top five love poems

I’ve selected my top five love poems – one romantic, one intellectual, one humorous, one passionate, and one familial – in the hope that these will fill your Valentine’s Day needs. Here they are:

1) Romantic – “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond” by E.E. Cummings

I first heard this poem in the 1980’s Woody Allen movie “Hannah and Her Sisters,” in which a man gives this poem to a woman he hopes to seduce. It works. 🙂 The full text is here, but here’s an excerpt:

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose…

_________________________________________

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

2) Intellectual – “Variations on the Word Love” by Margaret Atwood

Love poems that are a bit more intellectual appeal to me since I’m more of a realist, less of a romantic. The full text is here, but here’s an excerpt:

This is a word we use to plug
holes with. It’s the right size for those warm
blanks in speech, for those red heart-
shaped vacancies on the page that look nothing
like real hearts.
_____________________________________

Then there’s the two
of us. This word
is far too short for us, it has only
four letters, too sparse
to fill those deep bare
vacuums between the stars
that press on us with their deafness.
It’s not love we don’t wish
to fall into, but that fear.
this word is not enough but it will
have to do. It’s a single
vowel in this metallic
silence, a mouth that says
O again and again in wonder
and pain, a breath, a finger
grip on a cliffside. You can
hold on or let go.

3) Humorous – Bob Hicok’s “Mortal Shower”

This is a funny poem that reminds us how everyday moments add up into love. The full text is here, but here’s an excerpt:

… I’m

in Pittsburgh tonight
and with her,
mirrors don’t scare me,
room service is a gas
because she’s alive, I’m a giant,
a tight-assed
titan because she’s alive
and says

come home, the Honda needs
new brakes, a robin flew
into the window today
but shook it off, just
dizzy, stunned
by reflection.

4) Passionate – Anne Sexton’s “Us”
This one speaks for itself! Read the whole text here, or this excerpt:

I stood up in my gold skin
and I beat down the psalms
and I beat down the clothes
and you undid the bridle
and you undid the reins
and I undid the buttons,
the bones, the confusions,
the New England postcards,
the January ten o’clock night,
and we rose up like wheat,
acre after acre of gold,
and we harvested,
we harvested.

5) Parental love – “Santa Barbara Road” by Robert Hass
I love Hass’s idea of being defined by the people who love us. Here’s an excerpt:

Household verses: “Who are you?”

the rubber duck in my hand asked Kristin

once, while she was bathing, three years old.

“Kristin,” she said, laughing, her delicious

name, delicious self. “That’s just your name,”

the duck said. “Who are you?” “Kristin,”

she said. “Kristin’s a name. Who are you?”

the duck asked. She said, shrugging,

“Mommy, Daddy, Leif.”

Snow Poems

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For the past two months, my older daughter (“OD”) has badgered me daily, asking, “When is it going to snow?” Snow finally arrived in our area about a week ago, and we rejoiced at the intermittent, lazy snowflakes Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Just as we’d begin to focus on a book or puzzle, one daughter or the other would shriek “Snow!!” at the first appearance of flakes, and both would scramble madly to the window.

When we saw the first snowfall, OD said, “Hey, you should write a poem about snow!” I got to say, “I did! Go look at the book.” She retrieved her copy of Between Gods and read through the table of contents, finally exclaiming, “Hey, there’s a poem called ‘Snow’!” and turning to the page. Then seconds later threw the book down to watch the snow from the window again. Oh well. 🙂

My favorite poem about snow is “The Snowman” by Wallace Stevens, which I wrote about here a few weeks ago. But there are so many others….

I love Michael Blumenthal’s “Abandoning Your Car in a Snowstorm: Rosslyn, Virginia” as it captures how he escapes the traffic, stress and tedium of city life. Here’s an excerpt (the entire text is here):

It is better
than leaving your wife or your nagging lover
could ever be.

It is better than anything
you have ever bought, better
than the best nights of sex in your life,
even better than quitting your job.

As you open your door to reclaim your feet
from the hungry clutch, you know
you are on to something: You are suddenly
a drowning man whose last stride has found
the ocean floor, a vagabond with a roof
over his head for the first time.

Around you, mothers curse red lights,
men in wide ties are reduced to a hilarious impotence.
All the revving in the world will not move them,
all their stalled money cannot buy rain.

And there you are,
Toyota-less and dancing to the Cadillac pace
of sure movement.

Another poem I love, excerpted here, is Margaret Atwood’s “Woman Skating,” in which Atwood watches her mother ice-skating on a snowy day:

With arms wide the skater
turns, leaving her breath like a diver’s
trail of bubbles.

Seeing the ice
as what it is, water:

seeing the months
as they are, the years
in sequence occurring
underfoot, watching
the miniature human
figure balanced on steel
needles (those compasses
floated in saucers) on time
sustained, above
time circling:    miracle

And here’s a quick excerpt from my aforementioned poem, “Snow” (previously published in Crab Orchard Review):

Flakes scramble from the mist – white
streaming like a new constellation –
and as quickly their paths end,

found and defined by their collision.
It is something to be measurable,
to add up – each click into place

a vanishing into ritual, flakes
unlacing into thaw, night grinding
this faceted rind smooth

to support our weight, or not.
We walk the undisturbed angles
that drift missed, the sudden

blacktop where snow has forked
like defectors’ footsteps…

A Poetry of Conviction

numbguy0120_H_20090120133844Today, we celebrate both the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the public swearing in of President Obama for his second term on the National Mall.  Perhaps to emphasize how our world has changed since Dr. King’s passionate movement for equality, President Obama has selected a Latino, gay poet, Richard Blanco, to read his original poem at the Inauguration ceremony. In his poem, “America,” Blanco describes the difficulties of assimilating his family into a new world:

A week before Thanksgiving
I explained to my abuelita
about the Indians and the Mayflower,
how Lincoln set the slaves free;
I explained to my parents about
the purple mountain’s majesty,
“one if by land, two if by sea,”
the cherry tree, the tea party,
the amber waves of grain,
the “masses yearning to be free,”
liberty and justice for all, until
finally they agreed:
this Thanksgiving we would have turkey,
as well as pork.

On the subject of conviction in one’s beliefs, I love Robert Frost’s poem “Choose Something Like a Star.” The final four lines seem especially applicable, with so many opposing forces within the same government:

So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

And perhaps the most famous lines on following one’s convictions are the final six in Lord Tennyson‘s “Ulysses:

  Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Renew, Reuse, Recycle…

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We live in a fairly eco-conscious area, so when my older daughter (OD) started kindergarten, she began talking about the importance of “renew, reuse, recycle.” We have a great recycling program in our city, so very little goes to waste; our recycling container is usually twice as full as our trash container.

I realize now that I’ve been recycling long before it was popular. I remember going to garage sales with my mom back in the 1970’s, and how exciting it was to find a great toy for a quarter. My mom would buy desks and dressers and fix them up. I haven’t been to a garage sale in a long time, but I love the thrift shop in our neighborhood, and Craigslist – really, a giant online garage sale – is the first place I look for furniture, toys, and video cassettes/DVDs. (And yes, I’m the strange woman driving slowly  through the streets on trash day, who gets excited when she sees your broken, two-legged chair.)

I’ve always encouraged OD to make things instead of buying them, and that has worked for a long time (except that one time when I was making dinner and she asked me if I could help her make an overhead projector). Although she uses a lot of paper, she reminds us that it’s wasteful not to use both sides; and after a project reaches the end of its useful life, she knows to put it in the recycling bag.

And wonderfully, as I’ve been cleaning out and organizing the house, I’m finding that the kids love putting to use items that have been lingering in cabinets or on basement shelves. OD fell in love with a CD rack (probably from the ’80’s) that I found, and is fascinated with an old tape recorder, which was obsolete long before she was born. She also loves going to thrift stores with me (which to someone her age, are like museums), and asking what eight-track tapes are, or what that strange appliance is. It’s weirdly educational.

Renewal is a common theme in the poetry of Modern writer H.D. In this excerpt from “A Dead Priestess Speaks,” she reminds us of the hidden life in everyday things:

If you take the moon in your hands
and turn it around
(heavy, slightly tarnished platter)
you’re there;

if you pull dry sea-weed from the sand
and turn it round
and wonder at the underside’s bright amber,
your eyes

look out as they did here,
(you don’t remember)
when my soul turned round,

perceiving the other-side of everything,
mullein-leaf, dog-wood leaf, moth-wing
and dandelion-seed under the ground.