A couple of years ago, I heard Anne Carson read at Stanford. I didn’t enjoy the reading or Autobiography of Red, and then never read anything else. But I came across this poem, which I like very much. I guess I’ll have to dig more deeply.
In the beginning there were days set aside for various tasks.
On the day He was to create justice
God got involved in making a dragonfly
and lost track of time.
It was about two inches long
with turquoise dots all down its back like Lauren Bacall.
God watched it bend its tiny wire elbows
as it set about cleaning the transparent case of its head.
The eye globes mounted on the case
rotated this way and that
as it polished every angle.
Inside the case
which was glassy black like the windows of a downtown bank
God could see the machinery humming
and He watched the hum
travel all the way down turquoise dots
to the end of the tail and breathe off as light.
Its black wings vibrated in and out.
from Glass, Irony and God (New Directions, 1995)
Because of the way this word is often used, as if it is a duty or in some very smarmy context, I rarely use it. But the poet Ross Gay has managed to integrate this into his daily life in a conscious and engaging way. Here is one of his odes:
Ode to buttoning and unbuttoning my shirt
No one knew or at least I didn’t know
what the thin disks threaded hereon my shirt
might give me
in terms of joy
this is not something to be taken lightly the gift
of buttoning one’s shirt
top to bottom
to top or sometimes
will be on the other
I am a woman
slipping the glass
through its slot
differently that day
or some of it
and the car bomb slicing the air
and the people in it
for a quarter mile
and the honeybee’s
legs furred with pollen
thing to me
than on the other days
which too have
been drizzled in this simplest of joys
in this world
of spaceships and subatomic this and that
two maybe three
times a day
I have the distinct pleasure of slowly untethering
the one side
from the other
The elegy is a form that has been around a long time, and can be so moving. I’ve written a few myself. I particularly love the ending of this one.
Elegy, Surrounded by Seven Trees
. All Saints Cemetery, Wilmington, Delaware
Ordinary days deliver joy easily
again & I can’t take it. If I could tell you
how her eyes laughed or describe
the rage of her suffering, I must
admit that lately my memories
are sometimes like a color
warping in my blue mind.
Metal abandoned in rain. My mother
will not move. Which is to say that
sometimes the true color o
fher casket jumps from my head
like something burnt down
in the genesis of a struck flame. Continue reading “Elegy”→
I wrote a post about how publication in the Harvard Advocate changed my life…
This is a part of a fundraiser for the Advocate. If you buy Catwalk directly from Longship press using the code HARVARD, the publisher will contribute 20% of the sale price to the Advocate, and I will match the full price. If you read the post, you’ll understand why.
As Berryman famously said, “ever to confess you are bored / means you have no / Inner Resources.” This period is stretching all of our inner resources, as it goes on and on. Here’s a short, powerful poem by Tracy K. Smith that should resonate.
The Everlasting Self
Comes in from a downpour
Shaking water in every direction —
A collaborative condition:
Gathered, shed, spread, then
Forgotten, reabsorbed. Like love
From a lifetime ago, and mud
A dog has tracked across the floor.
Tracy K. Smith Wade in the Water (Graywolf Press, 2018)
Protest poems abound right now, but the genre is not new. Here’s one from Adrienne Rich that is almost 50 years old.
Trying to Talk with a Man
Out in this desert we are testing bombs,
that’s why we came here.Sometimes I feel an underground river
forcing its way between deformed cliffs
an acute angle of understanding
moving itself like a locus of the sun
into this condemned scenery.
What we’ve had to give up to get here –
whole LP collections, films we starred in
playing in the neighborhoods, bakery windows
full of dry, chocolate-filled Jewish cookies,
the language of love-letters, of suicide notes,
afternoons on the riverbank
pretending to be children
Coming out to this desert
we meant to change the face of
driving among dull green succulents
walking at noon in the ghost town
surrounded by a silence
that sounds like the silence of the place
except that it came with us
and is familiar
and everything we were saying until now
was an effort to blot it out –
coming out here we are up against it
Out here I feel more helpless
with you than without you
You mention the danger
and list the equipment
we talk of people caring for each other
in emergencies – laceration, thirst –
but you look at me like an emergency
Your dry heat feels like power
your eyes are stars of a different magnitude
they reflect lights that spell out: EXIT
when you get up and pace the floor
talking of the danger
as if it were not ourselves
as if we were testing anything else.
Everything before mid-March is beginning to feel like the far past as the uncertainty of the future stretches. It’s hard to remember what getting up and going somewhere feels like. A month into this long ordeal, I created a poetic form I called the viral. It’s a poem about the virus that doesn’t use any of the words people use to talk about it. Here’s an example that came out of an exercise I was using by Tony Hoagland. Surprisingly, it was published soon after I wrote it in What Rough Beast, Covid-19 Edition, April 14, 2020:
First Person Plural, a viral
starting with a line by Diane Seuss
Let’s meet somewhere outside time and space
where panic cannot grab a toehold, in the crevice
between the president and the antiperspirant ad.
Observe as the sun gradually opens
the cymbidium’s curved purple sepals
to its gold labellum, it’s top like a tooth.
Let’s hunker down,
explore our fear of opening, turn
toward the page, the screen,
the one who shares our food,
our bed, our worries.
Let’s unfurl beyond terror
to be touched
by bird or bee or human finger,
wave our delicate fringe
unique, tremulous, perishable.
Poets have a form called “Ars Poetica” that they use to spell out their belief about their work. Here is one I love from Elizabeth Alexander. It’s simplicity, and the quick turns it makes are pretty darn good:
Ars Poetica #100: I Believe
Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry
is where we are ourselves
(though Sterling Brown said
“Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I’”)
digging in the clam flats
for the shell that snaps
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.
Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,
overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way
to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)
is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.
Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,
I had the good luck to host a reading by Elizabeth Bradfield on Saturday. We did this online, including several of her friends. I thought I’d post this poem by one of them, Sean Hill. He also hosts the Minnesota Northwoods Writers’ Conference, which starts Thursday. His most recent book is Dangerous Goods, from Milkweed Editions.
I posted some excerpts from The Fire Next Time last year. It seems appropriate to repost this one today.
“If one is permitted to treat any group of people with special disfavor because of their race or the color of their skin, there is no limit to what one will force them to endure, and since the entire race has been mysteriously indicted, no reason not to attempt to destroy it root and branch. This is precisely what the Nazis attempted. Their only originality lay in the means they used. It is scarcely worthwhile to attempt remembering ow many times the sun has looked down on the slaughter of the innocents. I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States. But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them. I think I know–we see it around us every day–the spiritual wasteland to which that road leads. It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself. That is not a mystical statement, but a most realistic one, which is proved by the eyes of any Alabama sheriff–and I would not like to see Negroes ever arrive at so wretched a condition…” Continue reading “Baldwin Redux”→
Sometimes it’s hard to pick a poem I think will offer some solace. Right now, the world seems so broken. I’m not sure this does the trick, but there is much we can’t do anything about, and some we can. Balancing those is key to remaining sane. I hope this poem helps.
Whatever It Is
I took some stones
from the overgrown fireplace
not too far from the maples
my father planted
that have outlived the house.
I have the tiny diamond
Aunt Barbara got from the man
she never spoke about
in my presence; today
only three people in the world
have any memory of her.
Here’s a diary entry I made
as a teenager: “Cicero says
one of the ‘six mistakes of man’
is to worry about things that
cannot be changed or corrected.” Continue reading “Troubles…”→
I came across this poem in a group I had saved and it felt like it had been written for this moment:
Everything is Going to Be All Right
How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.