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.
On Friday, I took a dawn hot tub steam curling tranquilly around the sweet peas, heading towards the bay just visible between oak branches. Then I noticed that the electric fence, which guards my chickens from predators, was not blinking, which meant it was shorted out somewhere. I dressed and went down to find a sizable oak limb had split off and crashed through the chicken run, rupturing the bird net and the fence.
Luckily both the tree guy and the handyman were able to come right away, and by noon the fence was secured and the confused chickens all in place.
Then my grandson and I decided to try to trap the cheeky squirrel who has been pilfering the chicken and bird food despite lacing it with hot pepper. We got out my old trap, set it with peanut butter, and scattered a trail of sunflower seeds up to and into it. By evening, the sunflower seeds leading right up to the trap were gone, but no squirrel.
“Maybe he’s too smart for us,” I told my grandson. We decided to leave the trap baited overnight, and this morning I woke to find a skunk in it. I’ve had a lot of experience with skunks from the time our house backed onto a large open space in Lafayette. The county used to drop off traps and then pick up trapped skunks. Those traps were very narrow, so once caught the skunks couldn’t raise their tail to spray. My trap has plenty of room for the skunk to spray, so it was a problem. I got an old towel and held it in front of me as I approached the trap. The skunk sprayed and sprayed until his little spray reservoir was depleted. Then I covered him with another old towel, put the cage on a rubber mat in the back seat and drove the trap to Tilden Park, where I propped the trap open and let him flee. The car smells only a tiny bit skunky, as does my right arm. The towels and cage are out in the sun, waiting for time to reduce the smell. Continue reading “Unexpected events”→
You may know Raymond Carver for his short stories, but he also wrote poetry. Here’s an example, appropriate for this moment:
Make use of the things around you.
This light rain
Outside the window, for one.
This cigarette between my fingers,
These feet on the couch.
The faint sound of rock-and-roll,
The red Ferrari in my head.
The woman bumping
Drunkenly around in the kitchen . . .
Put it all in,
For over 50 years, Larry and I have ignored Mother’s Day, Father’s Day…I mean, really, showing up for each other for the other 364 days of the year is what counts. But for some unknown reason, Larry made me breakfast yesterday. And later in the day, my grandson brought over this bouquet that he picked himself.
So I guess this year we celebrated. Therefore, today you get a mother’s day poem. I especially love the line “Among your earthiest words the angels stray,” though I’m not sure I could tell you why, perhaps just the sounds of it.
Those Irishmen have a certain earthiness to them that is unmistakeable.
In my early twenties I wrote a letter to John Berrryman, and he replied saying something about my “witchy name.” But surely Witter Bynner has the witchiest name of all, and though born in 1881, his work seems utterly contemporary: