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A poem from Split This Rock

This poem was featured on their site last week. It caught my attention, and hope it catches yours:

Prayer for those who run 

I wish you swift wind.
I wish you a changed phone number
that stays changed.

I wish you throwing away the cell the parents bought to track you with.
I wish you the Greyhound,
PATH train, whatever transit you’re waiting for
coming on time
and taking you away express with no stops.

I wish you a city with affordable housing.
An apartment where you smear blood above the door
so their angel of death
will pass you by.

I send you this story:
my people are the fuck ups
the runaways, the ones who waited to tell their parents they were queer,
or remembered, til they were over 21
and couldn’t be committed
— not as much.

Continue reading “A poem from Split This Rock”

Sorrows

It’s hard to remember it’s Monday when it’s a holiday, especially a vague one like President’s Day. But it is, and here is your Monday vitamin

Lately when sorrows come

—fast, without warning—
whipping their wings down the sky,
I know to let them.
Not inviting them, but allowing each
with a deep breath as if inhaling a wish I can’t undo.

Some days the sky is so full of sorrows
they could be mistaken for shadows of unnamed
gods flapping the air with their loose black sleeves:
the god of head-on collisions,
the god of amputated limbs,
the god of I’ll-dress-you-in-mourning.

Is the buzz in the August trees,
that pulsing husk of repetition, an omen?
I hear it build to a final shaking. I hear it build
louder and louder, then nothing.
Like a long, picaresque novel that’s suddenly over.
Like the last inning of kickball until the rain.

Continue reading “Sorrows”

Tomaž Šalamun

A February Poem, translated from the Slovenian. Of course, here in Northern California, February is a month of emerald green and blossoms. But for the rest of you, a more apt description.

There is a time when

There is a time when
pure emotions
invade us like
bags from the black pressed
leather
of a shark—
February. The month
of raked leaves under
the thick blanket of snow, Continue reading “Tomaž Šalamun”

Mark Strand on Monday

Mark Strand has written many poems I like, but this one seems particularly relevant as the year turns and the light begins to return.

The Coming of Light

Even this late it happens:
the coming of love, the coming of light.
You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,
sending up warm bouquets of air.
Even this late the bones of the body shine
and tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.

Mark Strand

A raucous poetry reading

Last night I went to the San Francisco JCC to hear Danez Smith, a powerful youngish black poet, read from his new book, “Homie.” Sam Sax and Safia Elhillo read with him. The crowd was mostly young and very enthusiastic. Danez is a poet who comes from the loud and proud tradition, often found at poetry slams, less often in books. I enjoyed his reading, and the light, noisy atmosphere, so different from a standard poetry event. But after the reading, in the inevitable Q&A, a woman asked in relation to the publishing industry, still mostly owned and staffed by white people, “How do we dismantle the publishing industry so more diverse voices can be heard?” Neither Safia or Sam had much to say to that. To his credit, Danez said, “Well I don’t know that we want to dismantle it, just support the publication of diverse voices.” There was more to his response than that, but the question reminded me of a passage in James Baldwin’s amazing essay, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region of My Mind.” In it, he is being driven to meet friends after a dinner with Elisha Muhammad. His driver (a follower of Muhammad), is talking about the wonderful day when the Negro (his word) population has its own, separate economy. Baldwin asks him, “On what, then, will the economy of this separate nation be based?” and goes on:

“I was thinking, in order for this to happen, your entire frame of reference will have to change, and you will be forced to surrender many things that you scarcely know you have. I didn’t feel that the things I had in mind, such as the pseudo-elegant heap of tin in which we were riding, had any very great value. But life would be very different without them, and I wondered if he had thought of this. Continue reading “A raucous poetry reading”

A prose poem for Monday

It seems to me that Mary Ruefle, one of my very favorite poets, has perfectly captured something in this poem, though it would be hard for me to articulate exactly what. Perhaps you will experience that, too (photo of Mary by Hannah Ensor):

The Bench

My husband and I were arguing about a bench we wanted to buy and put in part of our backyard, a part which is actually a meadow of sorts, a half-acre with tall grasses and weeds and the occasional wildflower because we do not mow it but leave it scrubby and unkempt. This bench would hardly ever be used and in the summer when the grasses were high would remain partially hidden from view. We both knew we wanted the bench to be made of teak so that it would last a long time in the harsh weather and so that we would never have to paint it. Teak weathers to a soft silver that might, in November or March, disappear into the gray hills that are the backdrop of our lives. My husband wanted a four foot bench and I wanted a five foot bench. This is what we argued about. My husband insisted that a four foot bench was all we needed, since no more than two people (presumably ourselves) would ever sit on it at the same time. I felt his reasoning was not only beside the point but missed it entirely; I said what mattered most to me was the idea of the bench, the look of it there, to be gazed at with only the vaguest notion it could hold more people than would ever actually sit down. The life of the bench in my imagination was more important than any practical function the bench might serve. After all, I argued, we wanted a bench so that we could look at it, so that we could imagine sitting on it, so that, unexpectedly, a bird might sit on it, or fallen leaves, or inches of snow, and the longer the bench, the greater the expanse of that plank, the more it matched its true function, which was imaginary. My husband mentioned money and I said that I was happier to have no bench at all, which would cost nothing, than to have a four foot bench, which would be expensive. I said that having no bench at all was closer to the five foot bench than the four foot bench because having no bench served the imagination in similar ways, and so not having a bench became an option in our argument, became a third bench. We grew very tired of discussing the three benches and for a day we rested from our argument. During this day I had many things to do and many of them involved my driving past other houses, none of which had benches, that is they each had the third bench, and as I drove past the other houses I could see a bench here and a bench there; sometimes I saw the bench very close to the house, against a wall or on a porch, and sometimes I saw the bench under a tree or in the open grass, cut or uncut, and once I saw the bench at the end of the driveway, blocking the road. Always it was a five foot bench that I saw, a long sleek bench or a broken-down bench, a bench with a slatted back or a bench with a solid, carved back, and always the bench was empty. But I knew that for my husband the third bench was only four feet long and he saw always two people sitting on it, two happy or tired people, two people who were happy to be alive or two people tired from having worked hard enough to buy the bench they were sitting on. Or they were happy and tired, happy to have reached the end of some argument, tired from having had it. For these people, the bench was an emblem of their days, which were fruitful because their suffering had come to an end. On my bench, which was always empty, nothing had come to an end because nothing had begun, no one had sat down, though the bench was always there waiting for exactly that to happen. And the bench was always long enough so that someone, if he desired to, could lie all the way down. That day passed. Another day followed it and my husband and I began, once more, to discuss the bench. The sound of our voices revealed a renewed interest and vigor. I thought I sensed in him a coming around to my view of the bench and I know he sensed in me a coming around to his view of the bench, because at one point I said that a four foot bench reminded me of rough notes towards a real bench while a five foot bench was like a fragment of an even longer bench and I admitted it was at times hard to tell the difference. He said he didn’t know anything about the difference between rough notes and fragments but he agreed that between the two benches there was, possibly, just perhaps — he could imagine it — very little difference. It was, after all, only a foot we were talking about. And I think it was then, in both of our minds, that a fourth bench came into being, a bench that was only a foot long, a miniature bench, a bench we could build ourselves, though of course we did not. This seemed to be, essentially, the bench we were talking about. Much later, when the birds came back, or the leaves drifted downwards, or the snow fell, slowly and lightly at first, then heavier and faster, it was this bench that we both saw when we looked out the window at the bench we eventually placed in the meadow which continued to grow as if there were no bench at all.

Mary Ruefle, from The Most of It

New Year’s poem

As a sure sign of January, I saw an exercise bike by the side of the road with a “Free” sign on it. New year, new exercise resolutions, which segues nicely to Lucille Clifton’s poem:

i am running into a new year

i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what i said to myself
about myself
when i was sixteen and
twenty-six and thirty-six
even thirty-six but
i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
i leave to forgive me

lucille clifton

A poem from Paris Review

I get lots of poems from various sources in my in box every day. This one I really like, problaby from his new book, Felon Poems:

Blood History

The things that abandon you get remembered different.
As precise as the English language can be, with words
like penultimate and perseverate, there is not a combination
of sounds that describes only that leaving. Once,
drinking & smoking with buddies, a friend asked if
I’d longed for a father. Had he said wanted, I would have
dismissed him in the way that the youth dismiss it all:
a shrug, sarcasm, a jab to his stomach, laughter.
But he said longing. & in a different place, I might
have wept. Said, Once, my father lived with us & then he
didn’t & it fucked me up so much I never thought about Continue reading “A poem from Paris Review”

Larry at the breakfast table

As background to this anecdote, yesterday both Larry and I read Mark Jarman’s excellent essay on Gilgamesh from his forthcoming book, Dailiness, which I will be reviewing. If you don’t know the Sumerian epic, Gilgamesh, it’s the oldest written story we have, in which a king and his friend kill the monster Humbaba.

This morning we were discussing, over fresh eggs and wonderful toast, the lack of acknowledgement and apology for our national racial history. I have just finished the Bryan Stevenson book, Just Mercy, and listened to him on Preet Bahara’s podcast. In addition to his work with unjustly incarcerated death row inmates, he has created a monument and a museum in Alabama that deal with slavery, lynching, etc. He said, “You don’t see any statues of Hitler in Germany, but there are 150 statues of Confederate heroes here. In Germany you can’t go five steps without a memorial or a museum about the holocaust. No one’s proud of that history.”

Talking with Larry, I said I thought as a nation we needed to acknowledge and talk about our terrible history of racial discrimination, starting with the native populations, slavery, Manzanar, etc.

Larry said, “I don’t know. Grudges run deep. I’m not sure talking about them would do much good. Humbaba’s descendants probably still hold a grudge against Gilgamash.”

Something brutal but beautiful

I have just finished reading Natalie Diaz’ first book, My Brother Was an Aztec. The poems are powerful, the imagery lush and unusual, but the subject matter–addiction, pain, the struggle with family and poverty–is told in unsparing detail. So I thought I’d start of 2020, a year that itself promises to be harsh, with one of her poems from the book:

The Beauty of a Busted Fruit

When we were children, we traced our knees,
shins, and elbows for the slightest hint of wound,
searched them for any sad red-blue scab marking us
both victim and survivor.

All this before we knew that some wounds can’t heal,
before we knew the jagged scars of Great-Grandmother’s
amputated legs, the way a rock can split a man’s head
open to its red syrup, like a watermelon, the way a brother
can pick at his skin for snakes and spiders only he can see.

Continue reading “Something brutal but beautiful”

Psychics

There was a time in my life when I wanted very much to know the future. I went to many psychic readers of various kinds, from carnival tents, to very “serious” future tellers. As it is now, one day at a time is enough!

Still, I really loved this prose poem, and wish you all the white light of Alma, which in my time of psychics they called simply “white light.”

The Psychic

He said I must pay special attention in cars. He wasn’t, he assured me, saying that I’d be in an accident but that for two weeks some particular caution was in order, &, he said, all I really needed to do was throw the white light of Alma around any car I entered & then I’d be fine. & when I asked about Alma, he said, Oh, come on, you know Alma well. You two were together first in Egypt & then at Stonehenge, & I nodded though I’ve never been— in this life at least—to Stonehenge; then I said, Shouldn’t I always throw the white light of Alma around a car? & when he said, Well, it wouldn’t hurt, I said, What about around planes, houses? What if I throw the white light of Alma around anyone who might need protection from the reckless speed of driving or the reckless swerve & skid of the world? & the psychic opened his hands & shrugged up his shoulders. So despite your doubt or mine as to why I’d gone there, to a psychic, in—I kid you not—a town of psychics—in the first place, right now, as you read this, let me throw the white light of Alma around you & everyone you pass close to today, beloved or stranger, the grocer, the bus driver, the boy on his longboard, the lady you stand silent beside in the elevator, & also I am throwing it around anyone they care about anywhere in the spin of the world, because, we can agree that these days, everywhere, particular caution is in order &, even if unverifiable, the light of my dear sister Alma, couldn’t hurt.

Victoria Redel

No snow here, but

this poem still resonates. I love that it is a sonnet, and how that definition can stretch and morph. Orr’s bio is worth reading, too:

Aftermath Sonnet

Letting my tongue sleep,
And my heart go numb.

Sensing that speech
Too soon,
After such a wound,
Would only be
A different bleeding.

Even needing to leave
The page blank.
Long season
Of silence—

Trusting that under

Its bandage of snow,

The field of me is healing.

Greggory Orr