A poem by Jane Hirshfield

This poem, which I found on the site Women’s Voices for Change, seems to perfectly encapsulate this moment. Jane’s new book, Ledger, from Knopf,  just came out. It’s worth buying a copy from your local book store.  You won’t regret it.

Today, When I Could Do Nothing

Today, when I could do nothing,
I saved an ant.

It must have come in with the morning paper,
still being delivered
to those who shelter in place.

A morning paper is still an essential service.

I am not an essential service.

I have coffee and books,
time,
a garden,
silence enough to fill cisterns.

It must have first walked
the morning paper, as if loosened ink
taking the shape of an ant.

Then across the laptop computer—warm—
then onto the back of a cushion.

Small black ant, alone,
crossing a navy cushion,
moving steadily because that is what it could do.

Set outside in the sun,
it could not have found again its nest.
What then did I save?

It did not move as if it was frightened,
even while walking my hand,
which moved it through swiftness and air.

Ant, alone, without companions,
whose ant-heart I could not fathom—
how is your life, I wanted to ask.

I lifted it, took it outside.

This first day when I could do nothing,
contribute nothing
beyond staying distant from my own kind,
I did this.

Jane Hirshfield

First published in the San Francisco Chronicle

Monday vitamin

This poem came to me from one of the many poem of the day services, and I really like it, so thought you might, also. It grabs me with its elbows and angles and I know that process of rubbing against the rough edges when you live with someone. I think this is a beautiful exposition with a terrific metaphor running through it.

The First Rule of Rock Tumbling Is Rocks Must Be of Similar Hardness

Naked on the front porch, the moon unfurling its light
as though for a picnic, our yard is silver
and set for feasting.

When we married I
was all elbows and angles, with one pace, which
was my pace, which was fast

forward. She was all cushion and curve, considerable
sharpness shivved inside a pillow; deliberate
thinker, decision circler, all around

slow goer. Despite this, we loved hard enough
to want the other always at our side.
So, where others reminisce

of honeymoon years, ours were more
rock tumbler, more slurry and coarse grind,
two roughs bashing together until our edges wore

not smooth exactly but worn
into each other—gear-tight, cog in cog, turning
our shared hours.
Like this hour on this night,

when I stand between the moon and her
so she wears the light
like an unzipped jumpsuit: shoulders plated,

nipples burnished, outer thighs striped bright.
At her center, my shadow, that tailor-made
eclipse, a darkness exactly my size—though

we could easily change places, and have,
and will. She steps (sides-lit),
I step (backlit), to match

our shaded places. And only once we’re
fit like this, dark to dark, are we once more bound
by the light we each carry.

Jessica Jacobs
from the Bellingham Review

Monday Poem

Ross Gay is a sincerely upbeat poet, optimistic but never smarmy.  Here is his poem from Bringing the Shovel Down (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011).

Sorrow Is Not My Name

after Gwendolyn Brooks

No matter the pull toward brink. No
matter the florid, deep sleep awaits.
There is a time for everything. Look,
just this morning a vulture
nodded his red, grizzled head at me,
and I looked at him, admiring
the sickle of his beak.
Then the wind kicked up, and,
after arranging that good suit of feathers

This one seemed perfect for my good friend Laurie, a natural perfumer. You can see her products at https://purrfumery.com/collections.  But I don’t think you’ll find this one there.

When You Can Get It

A woman went to the perfume counter and asked,
What scent says, I think it rained last night?
The clerk turned to her cabinet, put her hands on her hips, then
offered a small blue bottle. The woman put a drop
on her wrist. It smelled of jasmine and wood smoke.
There was also iron and something like mint, only
colder. No, she said, I mean I think it rained but I’m not
sure. The clerk consulted her bottles again, opened
a drawer by her feet. Finally, she went to a coat hung
on the back of a chair and dug in the pockets. She
withdrew something tiny and held it out. It was a gray
bird, wet and alive. Its throat flashed purple and green
as it panted. This is the last of it, she said.

Brendan Constantine

From Moira, The Woodbury University Literary Magazine

Henri Cole

Henri Cole has written many powerful poems, but “Radiant Ivory” is one of my favorites, starting with the title, which seems so vibrant just on its own. I think it is the specificity of the language that makes the poem come to life for me. Phrases like “perforated silver box,” and snow as “white, insane, slathery,” reflecting the poet’s inner turmoil:

Radiant Ivory

After the death of my father, I locked
myself in my room, bored and animal-like.
The travel clock, the Johnnie Walker bottle,
the parrot tulips—everything possessed his face,
chaste and obscure. Snow and rain battered the air
white, insane, slathery. Nothing poured
out of me except sensibility, dilated.
It was as if I were sub-born—preverbal,
truculent, pure—with hard ivory arms
reaching out into a dark and crowded space,
illuminated like a perforated silver box
or a little room in which glowing cigarettes
came and went, like souls losing magnitude,
but none with the battered hand I knew.
from Middle Earth, Farrar, Straus & Giroux

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