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