Yesterday I took the two-hour trip to see my mother. It was a sparkling blue day and the ferry crossing was blue, blue, and blue.
It was Earth Day, and we all might continue celebrating by reading something about Science and our besieged planet, or by checking to see if there’s a March for Science coming up in your hometown.
You might write a poem. Here’s an old one by Amy Clampitt:
Late in the day the fog
wrung itself out like a sponge
in glades of rain,
sieving the half-invisible
cove with speartips;
then, in a lifting
of wisps and scarves, of smoke-rings
from about the islands, disclosing
what had been wavering
fishnet plissé as a smoothness
of peau-de-soie or just-ironed
percale, with a tatting
of foam out where the rocks are,
the sheened no-color of it,
the bandings of platinum
and magnesium suffusing,
minute by minute, with clandestine
rose and violet, with opaline
nuance of milkweed, a texture
not to be spoken of above a whisper,
began, all along the horizon,
gradually to unseal,
like the lip of a cave
or of a cavernous,
I glanced at her and took my glasses
off — they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. “I am your own
way of looking at things,” she said. “When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.
August is Postcard Poetry month. I hadn’t taken part in the last few years (August is always so busy!), but this year I decided to rejoin, and I’m so glad I did. The idea is to write a new, original poem, on the back of a postcard, and send it to someone on the address list. Each day, someone sends a postcard poem to you. The postcard images are the inspiration…but the received poems and postcards start to mix in, too.
I prepared by collecting short poems that I loved, by other poets, and thinking about what it was that that made me love them. I decided that it has to do with the way a short poem quickly captures an image, and then makes something more of it, something symbolic and surprising. In this poem (above) by William Stafford, you don’t expect the glasses to sing or buzz, but while you’re distracted by that, here comes a new voice, “belled forth,” and the awakening is so keenly drawn that even the nails in the ceiling insist on a role in it.
This awakening, it strikes me, is what all poetry is really about. Be awake. See the world with new eyes. Be saved by what you see.
The poem itself is a pair of glasses. And then there’s the legerdemain — the magic — of the seeing with/without them at the same instant.
I have been singing the praises of Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor for some time. I have not mentioned that I have been a fan of Priscilla’s poetry for…about 30 years. A popular writing teacher in Seattle (I’ve taken two of her classes), Priscilla is better known as an essayist; among her accomplishments, she authored the wonderful Science Frictions blog at The American Scholar from 2011-2013. But now, at long last, we have a book of poetry.
In her first poetry collection, Crossing Over (University of New Mexico Press, 2015),Long once again demonstrates her intense love of language. I have read most of these poems before, some of them, many times. There is a dark and desperate beauty here. A number of the poems deal with death, especially untimely death. Bridges are a literal and symbolic presence, and are interwoven with authors (some named, some alluded to or quoted) whose fictions and poems are bridges into otherwise obscure or unknown worlds. War raises its ugly head, and trash glitters amid the (always precisely named) weeds. But what strikes me most, in seeing these poems together, in this setting, is the playfulness of the language. Lines are littered with vowel rhymes and alliteration. Words repeat and ping off one another line to line and poem to poem, section to section.
Here is the first poem, which sets off a volley of sounds (and themes):
Your beauty stuns, but
it’s static, photographic.
Your stories stir the dust,
stick to the broom.
Your drawings dream
your fine-stitched quilt.
Your death–your gift
of stones to us. No blame.
Suicides are deranged
with despair. Oh Susanne.
Were there a bridge back to you,
I would take it anywhere.
The next poem, “Queen of the Cut,” is a tribute to a Washington State bridge (the first of several), but seems as though it could be part of a diptych with the first poem, its images mirroring back toward “Sister Ghost”: “Night-gem, sun-brooch, sky-jewel,” “girl-queen,” “smoke-daughter.”
The back cover copy suggests–spot on–that these poems beg to be read aloud. And even a quick sampling of lines proves that true: “Derelict brick,” “Bluebells ding the dipthongs,” “Shall I tuck a notebook / into your rucksack, your rum cake?” But I hope no one will miss the dark undercurrent of these poems, themes of fire and smoke and ash that pull and tug at a reader’s body and threaten to pull us under.
A month or so ago I was fortunate to be able to have lunch with an old friend, poet Holly J. Hughes. I have mentioned her on this blog before, as she is one of the authors of The Pen and Bell(with Brenda Miller). And, as if catching Holly between a thousand other calls for her attention wasn’t accomplishment enough, she gave me a copy of her new poetry book, Sailing by Ravens, published by University of Alaska Press (2014).
“Read the poems in order,” Holly told me as we parted. But I always read poetry books in order, gobbling them up (in fact) like novels–not short stories or novellas, by the way, novels, because the best books of poetry have just as much emotional content. Not easy, not on the surface like a more conventional narrative, but there nonetheless.
Sailing by Ravens did not disappoint. I knew from reading her earlier chapbook, Boxing the Compass (Floating Bridge, 2007), that learning to navigate rough seas would be interwoven here with the trickier navigation of a marriage and its end. But in Sailing, the metaphor of navigation is extended. Holly spent 30 summers working in (on?) the waters of Alaska (I’m quoting a review by Tim McNulty), “fishing, skippering a sailing schooner, and working as a ship’s naturalist. Her poems shimmer with authenticity.” The poems about human relationships shimmer with authenticity, too. And all of the poems benefit from Holly’s willingness to carefully observe her world (and read about it), no matter how painful, or how beautiful. The prose poem, “Navigating the Body,” had an epigraph that sent me scurrying for a pen (“No land in human topography is less explored than love” -Jose Ortega y Gasset) and then took me into unexpected territory:
Navigating the Body
Our bodies an accumulation of coordinates, paths not taken, streets pulled up short, lonely alleys, dead ends. In the dark I reach out, find crows’ crooked feet, scrim of scars–proud flesh–read each scar, remember its time and place, its bright spurt of blood. These are the landscapes we think we know. These are the landscapes we’ll never know. In the dark, we make our way, mapping and remapping the continents each night. Like Scheherazade we keep doing this; like Scheherazade, this is how we stay alive.
Confession: I’ve read this book three times. The first time through, the forms (sestina, villanelle, ghazal and others) as well as some of the subjects (Mercator, Flavia Gioia, John Harrison are only three) were lost on me. But as I read and absorbed the notes, and reread the poems, the book seemed to have a trapdoor in its floor that dropped me down into another level (into water? over my head?). It was only then that I began to appreciate the encyclopedic knowledge that I was being offered, in addition to the poetics, “Isinglass darkened, but not enough to shield our Eyes, / rays of Sun Fractal, spatterpaint retinas, Shutter stutters.” (Just two lines from “The Forestaff 1587.” Such sounds!) So, not just argot, then, but shovel-loads of sound and sense detail, “scooped, shovel by shimmering shovel, into the fish hold” (“What She Can’t Say”).
True, it takes a while to process such a treasure. But the trip is well worth it–and I’m pleased to heartily recommend this book.
My mom has had a series of strokes and I’ve spent a lot of the last week in her hospital room. We thought we were losing her for a while there, but now she seems stronger and we’re just waiting to see. I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, a picture and a poem. (published in Jeopardy, spring 1992)
Calling a Daughter
Each spring you call me,
your word from home, some number
of new calves born on the farm,
your voice flowing
a dozen years of miles,
conjuring red and perfectly white babies stumbling
under their mothers’ bellies,
clean as Jesus, bawling “maa.”
I hear dishes clinking in a sink,
as you wander your kitchen
tethered by the wall phone’s curling cord,
your kitchen where five children crept
underfoot and then abroad.
In summer dusk my name
swept the yard, curving
outward from your throat,
sound liquid as perfume spilling
from where you stood on the old porch
and I ran over the damp grass
waving my arms like wings.
One morning I found my way
down the road around that dangerous corner
to Granma’s house. She called you
on her black telephone
and you fetched me back,
tickling my legs with a switch
every step the way home.
After you hang up, I stand
on my own front porch where night air
blooms sudden and voluminous,
lavender and roses,
the scent of your powder puffs.
Memory, like a mother catches me up,
like you, lap at the upright piano,
fingers jangling ivory keys Abundant grace you gave to me.
How daughter looks like laughter,
sounds like water,
always here, always going away.
At POETRYisEVERYTHING, for Day 29 of National Poetry Month, Chris Jarmick assigned a house remodel poem. He also made some lovely, encouraging comments about the challenge to write a poem a day this month, for instance:
“And if you’ve paid a little more attention to poetry during our month long sharing of prompts and writing —thank you… I know good things will come of it.”
Because of Chris, I also have become a subscriber at Elsewhere in the Rain (the link should take you to a post that includes a list of poetic terms), which I highly recommend.
So here is my poem. Er, draft of a poem. May good things come to you.
I’m not sure why, but I have been thinking
about how death reorganizes us.
I don’t mean anything simple, no cleaning out of closets,
it’s more than donating the old suits
and scuffed shoes to Good Will,
throwing out the years of National Geographics
and Good Housekeeping. Something more primal,
more like remodeling, tearing out closets,
breaking out a window to add a cupola
or a deck, making the kitchen brighter,
expanding the bathroom to make room for a tub.
It isn’t our own death that does all this hammering
at the stays of existence. Other peoples’ deaths,
or whatever that category of event
that wakes us, that insists we see
the necessity of a wicker chair under a skylight.
Don’t wait to call the carpenters until things are dire,
until the time is more expedient–
Your own death will arrive one midnight and then your house
will be a small room, smaller than this one
in which you sit and write. You can promise
to write, but no letters arrive from the dead.
There’s no desk there and the ink
in your lucky pen dries up after the first millennium.
I tried to take seriously Chris Jarmick’s assignment for day 28, to “translate” a poem into English from a language I don’t know. I found a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and printed it out. I carried it around. I don’t know German, but I thought I could make out a few of the words. I opened my poetry book and copied out the poem in longhand. It’s a longish poem (“Erlkoenig” is the title, I think) and I thought I would copy only a stanza or two, but I ended up copying the whole thing. Then…for a long time…I stared at it. Then, I wrote this (please excuse the lack of cool accent marks):
The assignment is to translate a poem into English
from a language I don’t know–
and knowing so little of languages other than my own,
it seems an easy enough assignment.
“Translate,” in smart quotes, which must mean,
“not really translate,” though I can guess
that Nacht und Wind
means Night and Wind. (Is that cheating?)
Assignments, I tell my students, are about
getting out of our accountant, linear left brains
and into our creative, more imaginative
right brains, into what poets count our better half.
But aren’t I beyond assignments, beyond
all that sturm und drang, not to mention the Nacht
und Wind? No knave or knabe, not I.
And spat (which I looked up) has nothing to do with spitting,
not even a spitting wind. Mein Vater, my father,
let me off the hook of this difficulty,
let me mutter and growl in my own tongue,
write (whatever it might mean) birgst du so bang.