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Thomas Lux

Here is a poem from a little-known poet whose work I like:

A Little Tooth

Your baby grows a tooth, then two,
and four, and five, then she wants some meat
directly from the bone.  It’s all

over: she’ll learn some words, she’ll fall
in love with cretins, dolts, a sweet
talker on his way to jail.  And you,

your wife, get old, flyblown, and rue
nothing.  You did, you loved, your feet
are sore.  It’s dusk.  Your daughter’s tall.

Thomas Lux – 1946-2017

From New and Selected Poems, 1975-1995, published by Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

The exemplary paragraph

I just finished reading all four of Katie Kitamura’s novels, in reverse order.  I love her writing. Here is a sample, the first paragraph of her new (and I think best) book, Intimacies.

“It is never easy to move to a new country, but in truth I was happy to be away from New York. That city had become disorienting to me, after my father’s death and my mother’s sudden retreat to Singapore. For the first time, I understood how much my parents had anchored me to this place none of us were from. It was my father’s long illness that had kept me there, and with its unhappy resolution I was suddenly free to go. I applied for the position of staff interpreter at the Court on impulse, but once I had accepted the job and moved to the Hague, I realized that I had no intention of returning to New York, I no longer knew how to be at home there.”

For more about this extraordinary novel, see my review on ZYZZYVA.

Anne Sexton

I’ve always felt that Sylvia Plath’s work was much more compelling than her contemporary, Anne Sexton, though they seem equally unhappy. But I saw a poem of Sexton’s from Paris Review recently that I like, though I still think Plath is far the better poet.

Here is the poem–I especially like it up until God slips in:

There is an animal inside me,
clutching fast to my heart,
a huge crab.
The doctors of Boston
have thrown up their hands.
They have tried scalpels,
needles, poison gases and the like.
The crab remains.
It is a great weight.
I try to forget it, go about my business,

cook the broccoli, open and shut books,
brush my teeth and tie my shoes.
I have tried prayer
but as I pray the crab grips harder
and the pain enlarges.

I had a dream once,
perhaps it was a dream,
that the crab was my ignorance of God.
But who am I to believe in dreams?

Anne Sexton, from The Poet of Ignorance

Yehuda Amichai

I was lucky to know Chana Bloch, a generous spirit, a poet and a translator.  Here is a poem she translated from the Hebrew with Stephen Mitchell. I often feel that I come from a world that no longer exists, a world where maids polished the silver and made little textured butter balls with wooden paddles for parties.

My mother comes from the days

My mother comes from the days when they made
paintings of beautiful fruit in silver bowls
and didn’t ask for more.
People moved through their lives
like ships, with the wind or against it, faithful
to their course.

I ask myself which is better
dying old or dying young.
As if I’d asked which is lighter
a pound of feathers or a pound of iron.

I want feathers, feathers, feathers.

Yehuda Amichai (trans. from Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell)

Once again this comes from the posts of Sean the Sharpener

Rita Dove’s Incantation

A few years ago, I heard Rita Dove read at the Berkeley Lunch Poems, when it was still a live event. I waited in line to have her sign her most recent book. The line was long and in front of me was an older man with two shopping bags full of books. Rita cheerfully signed every one. I think if had  been me, I would have said something like, Sorry, there are so many people waiting, pick your favorite three. That’s probably one of the many reasons why I’ll never be in that position. Luckily, Rita Dove graciously carried the day.

Here is a recent poem of hers that expresses another side of her. I especially love how it ends.

Incantation of the First Order

Listen, no one signed up for this lullaby.
No bleeped sheep or rosebuds or twitching stars
will diminish the fear or save you from waking

into the same day you dreamed of leaving—
mockingbird on back order, morning bells
stuck on snooze—so you might as well  

get up and at it, pestilence be damned.
Peril and risk having become relative,
I’ll try to couch this in positive terms:

Never! is the word of last resorts, 
Always! the fanatic’s rallying cry.
To those inclined toward kindness, I say

Come out of your houses drumming. All others,
beware: I have discarded my smile but not my teeth.

Rita Dove

“Incantation of the First Order,” originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 18, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets. © 2021. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Citrus Freeze

This phenomenon, of smudge pots or wind machines trying to keep fragile trees (or grape vines) from freezing, has always made me think how small and ineffectual humans are in the face of the natural world. We do our best to believe we have control, but…  I especially love how the poem ends…with a snap!

Citrus Freeze

To the north, along Orange Blossom Trail
thick breath of sludge fires.
Smoke rises all night, a spilled genie
who loves the freezing trees
but cannot save them.
Snow fine as blown spiders.
The news: nothing.
Large rats breed on the beach
driving smaller ones here.
Today both traps sit sprung.

Forrest Gander
from Rush to the Lake (Cambridge, Alice James Books, 1988).

The Exemplary Sentence

It’s been awhile since I published a prose piece.  This snippet is from Wisława Szymborska’s How to Start Writing (and When to Stop) and first appeared in Lit Hub’s Craft of Writing newsletter. It comes from the advice she gave—anonymously—for many years in “Literary Mailbox,” a regular column in the Polish journal Literary Life, and is translated by the indefatigable Clare Cavanagh, who has brought us most of the wonderful Polish poetry and prose that we have in English.

“The same old complaint about ‘youth.’ This time we’re supposed to forgive the author since he still hasn’t been anywhere, experienced anything worth mentioning, or read everything that he should. Such confessions betray the belief (adolescent, hence a bit simplistic) that external circumstances alone make the writer. That his creative quality derives from the quantity of his life adventures. In fact, the writer develops internally, within his own heart and mind: through an innate (we repeat, innate) propensity for thought, acute sensitivity to minor matters, astonishment at what others see as ordinary. Trips abroad? We sincerely hope you’ll take them, they sometimes come in handy. But before you head off to Capri, we suggest a trip to Lesser Wółka. If you come back with nothing to write about, then no azure grottoes will save you.”

When we were in Krakow a few years ago (sadly we missed Lesser Wółka), there was a museum show called Szymborska’s Desk, which had a facsimile of her writing room with many artifacts. I found it truly charming, and was only sorry I never got to meet the writer herself. Here is her yellow typewriter from that show.

The book of these snippets, How to Start Writing (and When to Stop) is published by New Directions. Hurray for them! I’m going to buy a copy myself.

Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland died over a year ago. For a long time, she was head of the creative writing department at Stanford, and I worked with her to bring several poets to California for readings. She was unfailingly courteous and helpful. And I love this poem of hers–I think she gets it just right:

The Necessity for Irony

On Sundays,
when the rain held off,
after lunch or later,
I would go with my twelve year old
daughter into town,
and put down the time
at junk sales, antique fairs.

There I would
lean over tables,
absorbed by
lace, wooden frames,
glass. My daughter stood
at the other end of the room,
her flame-coloured hair
obvious whenever—
which was not often—

I turned around.
I turned around.
She was gone.
Grown. No longer ready
to come with me, whenever
a dry Sunday
held out its promises
of small histories. Endings.

When I was young
I studied styles: their use
and origin. Which age
was known for which
ornament: and was always drawn
to a lyric speech, a civil tone.
But never thought
I would have the need,
as I do now, for a darker one:

Spirit of irony,
my caustic author
of the past, of memory,—

and of its pain, which returns
hurts, stings—reproach me now,
remind me
that I was in those rooms,
with my child,
with my back turned to her,
searching—oh irony!—
for beautiful things.

Eavan Boland

Lorine Neidecker

Sometimes the simplest poem can charm me, like this one from Sean Singer’s “The Sharpener” this morning:

You are my friend–
you bring me peaches
and the high bush cranberry
.                           you carry
my fishpole

you water my worms
you patch my boots
with your mending kit
.                  nothing in it
but my hand

Lorine Niedecker

I wonder if she is talking to another or to herself?

The full moon

This last week there was one clear night, the full moon peeping between the branches of the oak.  And here’s Borges’ take on the moon, dedicated to his secretary and later wife (from Paris Review):

The Moon

.            to María Kodama

There is so much loneliness in that gold.
The moon of every night is not the moon
That the first Adam saw.
The centuries
Of human wakefulness have left it brimming
With ancient tears. Look at it. It is your mirror.

by Jorge Luis Borges
Issue no. 125 (Winter 1992)—translated from the Spanish by Robert Mezey

 

One more from June Jordan

This poem reminds me a little of Evie Shockley’s “Ode to My Blackness.” But it was written long before “writing black” was common.  You can read this and more in The Essential June Jordan.

What Would I Do White?

What would I do white?
What would I do clearly full
of not exactly beans nor
pearls my nose a manicure
my eyes a picture of your wall?

I would disturb the streets by
passing by so pretty kids
on stolen petty cash would look
at me like foreign
writing in the sky

I would forget my furs on any chair.
I would ignore the doormen at the knob
the social sanskrit of my life
unwilling to disclose my cosmetology,
I would forget.

Over my wine I would acquire
I would inspire big returns to equity
the equity of capital I am
accustomed to accept

like wintertime.

I would do nothing.
That would be enough.

June Jordan