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A poem by Jericho Brown

This poem won the Lyric Poetry award from the Poetry Society of America two years ago. Hope you like it:

As a Human Being

There is the happiness you have
And the happiness you deserve.
They sit apart from one another
The way you and your mother
Sat on opposite ends of the sofa
After an ambulance came to take
Your father away.  Some good
Doctor will stitch him up, and
Soon an aunt will arrive to drive
Your mother to the hospital
Where she will settle next to him
Forever, as promised.  She holds
The arm of her seat as if she could
Fall, as if it is the only sturdy thing,
And it is since you’ve done what
You always wanted.  You fought
Your father and won, marred him.
He’ll have a scar he can see all
Because of you.  And your mother,
The only woman you ever cried for,
Must tend to it as a bride tends
To her vows, forsaking all others
No matter how sore the injury.
No matter how sore the injury
Has left you, you sit understanding
Yourself as a human being finally
Free now that nobody’s got to love you.

Jericho Brown

Your Monday vitamin

It’s been awhile since I posted a prose poem. This one, from Poetry Daily, caught my eye although we are still in the the long light days as summer wends to a close.

In the Winter in Fairbanks, Even the Light Comes Late to Class

On Monday in December the sun rises at 10:40. Red sky. Black clouds.Among all the slouched backs, curved necks, and notebook-scrawling hands,only one student notices, a girl, the one writing about the room in whichher mother died. She says, I have never seen a sunrise like that, and twenty-eightother heads look up from their pens and notebooks. I had never and willnever again read a description of a hospital bed like the one she was writingat that moment. Years later,,he will email to ask if I have that piece she wroteabout her mother, and I will have to tell her I don’t. But this morning, neitherof us can foresee this future small grief. So I stop class while all twenty-nineline up at the windows to watch the light. Fifty-eight eyes open out ontosnow, the parking lot, the shovel-scraped sidewalk, red brake lights, dullfrosted stop signs. Red sky and burnt clouds. This morning, deep winter,sunrise comes, hours late, long after the tardy bell and without excuse.

Nicole Stellon O’Donnell, from You Are No Longer in Trouble

Darwin Comes to Town

I just finished this book, Darwin Comes to Town by Menno Shilthuizen, about adaptation and evolution in urban environments, which seemed somewhat hopeful. It’s a discussion about how quickly certain species change to thrive in cities. Stories include the hawksbeard dandelion, which evolved to produce heavier seeds so their little parachutes would keep them in the island of green instead of floating off onto asphalt and how crows learn to throw heavy-shelled walnuts into intersections, wait for cars to run over them and then when the light changes, run out to grab the walnut meat after the cars crush the shells.

But most encouraging was his chapter on the way cites are cooperating globally to understand and improve urban environments. He notes that cities all over the word have similar soil compositions, microbes, insect, bird, and plant life. So “cities as far apart as 2,500 miles share about half their birds, while the avifaunas of natural areas that distant are almost completely different.” The author states that “cities worldwide are beginning to exchange information and undertake concerted action.”

Given the pace at which the natural world is disappearing, at least it’s heartening to know that there are many groups working on innovative ways to make urban spaces more habitable for plants and animals, including humans. My only quibble with the book is the often anthropomorphic language of the anecdotes. Still, worth a read.

A short rant against poetry contests

Almost every day, a new solicitation for a poetry contest pops into my inbox. I have read articles and heard rumors about their transparency or lack of transparency. But even if all entries are read blind, and the awards are based solely on what the appointed judges fell is the best work (or the best of the screened entries provided to them), I am writing this very short rant against the whole dynamic of the poetry contest.

At this  point there is almost a contest every day–some days multiple contests. Entry fees go from $15-40 per contest. In fact, the raison d’être of the contest is to fund the offering organization, a journal, a publisher, whatever. Some organizations run multiple contests a year, a continuous income stream. Each of these contests must have a winner regardless of the quality of the submissions, producing a glut of meaningless winners of contests, and allowing the organization to keep publishing.

This glut of fundraisers masquerading as contests seems opposed to the very spirit in which poetry should be written. I have entered and won or been a finalist in contests in the past, and with this little note plan to opt out in the future. Let my poetry stand or fall based on my own taste and the pleasure of those who read or hear it.

Monday Poem

I went to an event to support poetry in the jails of Santa Cruz County on Saturday. Ellen Bass read this poem, which knocked me out, Her new book, for which this is the title poem, will be coming out this spring:

Indigo

As I’m walking on West Cliff Drive, a man runs
toward me pushing one of those jogging strollers
with shock absorbers so the baby can keep sleeping,
which this baby is. I can just get a glimpse
of its almost translucent eyelids. The father is young,
a jungle of indigo and carnelian tattooed
from knuckle to jaw, leafy vines and blossoms,
saints and symbols. Thick wooden plugs pierce
his lobes and his sunglasses testify
to the radiance haloed around him. I’m so jealous.
As I often am. It’s a kind of obsession.
I want him to have been my child’s father.
I want to have married a man who wanted
to be in a body, who wanted to live in it so much
that he marked it up like a book, underlining,
highlighting, writing in the margins, I was here.
Not like my dead ex-husband, who was always
fighting against the flesh, who sat for hours
on his zafu chanting om and then went out
and broke his hand punching the car.

Continue reading “Monday Poem”

Monday Poem

On Monday! Here you go, a poem I found on Split This Rock:

The Day I Learned to Speak My Grandmother’s Tongue

 

 

The day I learned to speak my grandmother’s tongue
An Eastern wind shifted the earth
While the western walls were whisked away…
And the mountains of Laos rose on the horizon,
Roaring with the sound of river dragons
Splashing rainbow tail waves
Across oceans of opium poppies
Just awakened from their slumber
By the baby chick with no feathers
Hiding under the house board floor
Waiting to teach the next generation
That to live means to save the most vulnerable
 
The day I learned to speak my grandmother’s tongue
I tied my own tongue upon the eight tones
Of the Hmong language
Stumbling upon words like a baby, like it should be
Restoring back the balance between the ages
As I freed my grandmother’s voice
To rise clearly, to rise wisely
Mighty like the elders’ powers should be
 
And my fears faded away, like the black spots on her skin
Revealed for their true glory, as battle scars
From a life lived completely
And I found the ultimate truth
That I will not escape my nature
That I am a rock from the old mountain
A strong Hmong woman
Carved from another strong Hmong woman

Pacyinz Lyfuong

 

The Watergate

If you lived through the Nixon administration, this poem has a deep resonance. It might even work if you didn’t:

The Watergate

For most in the United States the word brings a phase
when mortars in Vietnam still whistled around them
and the scandal of Nixon and his Machiavellian buds
poured from the news into their subconscious—I see
that Watergate too: the televised hearings, and in particular
one session—Sam Ervin had just asked Ehrlichman
or Dean or Haldeman, a long-winded, periphrastic,
left-branching question—it must have lasted
forty seconds and seemed three days before he paused
for effect, and Ehrlichman or Dean or Haldeman
answered: “Senator, could you please repeat the question?”
And he did, verbatim! And that is one Watergate.

But I think also of the morning my father sent me to the creek
that ran through our pasture to remove a dead calf
a flood had floated north to lodge against our water gate—
a little Guernsey heifer—I had petted her often—
Now flies buzzed around her, bloated and entangled
in the mesh—and I remember her eyes were open,
so she seemed to watch as I pulled first one leg
then another from the vines and wire that trapped her,
and pulled her to the bank through the shallow water.

Because the second water gate, which features the tender
relationship between a dead calf and a little boy,
happened twenty years before the first, in which men
break into an office complex in a hotel, I prefer its
posts and hog wire that kept cows from a neighbor’s field
to the gray rows of filing cabinets that brought down a presidency.
The water pours out of the mountain and runs to the sea.
Sometimes I say it to myself, until the meanings leave.
I say Watergate until it is water pouring through water.

Rodney Jones

The exemplary sentence

 

I’ve been reading The Shadow Lines, by Amitav Ghosh, and have come across so many well-written passages. Here’s one about watching beggars scavenge a mound of waste and sludge for usable debris:

“It was true of course that I could not see that landscape or anything like it from my own window, but its presence was palpable everywhere in our house; I had grown up with it. It was that landscape that lent the note of hysteria to my mother’s voice when she drilled me for examinations; it was to those slopes she she pointed when she told me that if I didn’t study hard I would end up over there, that the only weapon people like us had was our brains and if we didn’t use them like claws to cling to what we’d got, that was where we’d end up, marooned in that landscape: I knew perfectly well that all it would take was a couple of failed examinations to put me where our relative was, in permanent proximity to that blackness: that landscape was the quicksand that seethed beneath the polished floors of our house; it was that sludge which gave our genteel decorum its fine edge of frenzy.”

Back in commission

It’s funny that we say “out of commission,” but rarely the opposite. In my case, I just had hip replacement surgery, and had a lot of worrying to do beforehand. I mean a LOT. But it turned out to be so much less invasive than I imagined. I was up and walking within hours, and went home the next morning. In any case, I am back, and here is your belated poem selection for the week:

Learning How to Write the Beginning

I’d want it to be early autumn,
a day like today, still green,
but gold around the edges,

our old yellow lab lying at your feet,
a Red Stripe beer
on the redwood table.

The sky would be as soft and faded
as that shirt you used to wear,
and it would be quiet, not even birdsong,

nothing to betray
what led up to the middle
or happened in the end.

by Judith Waller Carroll

Frogs on Monday

I attended a poetry workshop on Saturday, and my favorite poem of the day was by Terry Lucas, the new Marin County poet laureate. I said in the workshop that I had recently read that by writing about a bad experience one was able to shift one’s relationship to it to that of witness. I think this poem does that perfectly.

Dear Frogs of Pinckneyville, Illinois

Forgive me for all the times I forced you
into Welch’s Grape Jelly jars filled with cotton balls
soaked with ether from my father’s starter fluid can

he sprayed into dead diesel engines 
on frozen December mornings. I am truly sorry
for not throwing you higher. Please know that I wanted to

put you into orbit like Belka and Strelka, the first
warm-blooded animals to trick gravity and return
alive, but my nine-year old arm wasn’t strong enough

Continue reading “Frogs on Monday”

The Exemplary Sentence

There is a new book of Bette Howland’s stories out, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, and I immediately purchased a copy. Since posting about her last year, I have come to know her son, Jake, and was so pleased to see a review of this book last weekend, and see him quoted about her. The new book contains some of the stories from Blue in Chicago, and some I hadn’t read.

It contains the same quality of writing that I loved so much in the earlier book. Here’s a sample, talking about a walk through the park in Chicago peopled by the old and the minders. I love the quality of her observation, and how she paints a picture that ends in beauty:

“They come from the Shoreland, the Sherry-Netherland, Del Prado, Windermere–hotels once famous for the ballrooms, dance bands, steak houses, now providing package care for the elderly. My favorite of these couples is an old gent with a hooked back, houndstooth check cap and plus fours and his young pregnant nursemaid. He likes to get out of his chair and push; she dawdles at this side. Her belly lifts the front of her coat; her legs look gray in white stockings. Meanwhile the great yellow maple is shaking its branches, squandering leaves. They scatter like petals. It’s raining beauty; the air is drenched with gold.”

Memorial

 

The Marin Poetry Center held a memorial for Linda Gregg last week that was very moving. Forrest Gander spoke of visiting her in New York in her small, very spare apartment near St. Marks Place. She had just gotten home after a chemo treatment, and had no one, as he said, to make her a bowl of soup or a cup of tea. But she was uncomplaining.

It made me think of this poem of hers:

Staying After

I grew up with horses and poems
when that was the time for that.
Then Ginsberg and Orlovsky
in the Fillmore West when
everybody was dancing. I sat
in the balcony with my legs
pushed through the railing,
watching Janis Joplin sing.

Continue reading “Memorial”