Back from Bemidji

I had a wonderful week in Northern Minnesota, and heard many new poems, I’m sure I will be posting some soon. But this one has been on my mind for awhile, by Louise Glück.


My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer
I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and unfamiliar
Like what I remember of love when I was young—

love that was so often foolish in its objectives
But never in its choices, its intensities.
Too much demanded in advance, too much that could not be promised—

My soul has been so fearful, so violent:
forgive its brutality.
As though it were that soul, my hand moves over you cautiously,

not wishing to give offense
but eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance:

It is not the earth I will miss,
it is you I will miss.

Louise Glück

from A Village Life, 2009

You can hear her read it here.

And the winner is…

Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize in literature this week, and I’m so pleased. I really admire her work. And each book is different. Here’s a sample, from Averno.

October (section 1)

Is it winter again, is it cold again,
didn’t Frank just slip on the ice,
didn’t he heal, weren’t the spring seeds planted

didn’t the night end, didn’t the melting ice flood the narrow gutters

wasn’t my body rescued, wasn’t it safe

didn’t the scar form, invisible above the injury

terror and cold,
didn’t they just end, wasn’t the back garden harrowed and planted—

I remember how the earth felt, red and dense, in stiff rows, weren’t the seeds planted, didn’t vines climb the south wall

I can’t hear your voice
for the wind’s cries, whistling over the bare ground

I no longer care what sound it makes

when was I silenced, when did it first seem pointless to describe that sound

what it sounds like can’t change what it is—

didn’t the night end, wasn’t the earth safe when it was planted

didn’t we plant the seeds,
weren’t we necessary to the earth,

the vines, were they harvested?

Late, but still Monday

Louise-Gluck-credit-c-Katherine-Wolkoff-300x225Louise Glück is a poet whose works seems to evolve with each new book. This poem is one of my favorites:

Cottonmouth Country

Fish bones walked the waves off Hatteras.
And there were other signs
That Death wooed us, by water, wooed us
By land: among the pines
An uncurled cottonmouth that rolled on moss
Reared in the polluted air.
Birth, not death, is the hard loss.
I know. I also left a skin there.

Louise Glück


Louis Gluck

I’ve been waiting for this…

I’ve had this Epiphyllum for a long time, but it’s been languishing in the wrong corner of the garden–too much sun or not the right sun. A few months ago I moved it towards the street where it gets filtered late afternoon sun, and I’ve been watching it revive and bud… This morning, the first bloom.


And lots more to come…


All of which made me think of Stanley Kunitz, as I often do when I’m in the garden, as he was almost as famous for his garden as his poetry.

But often, when weeding especially, creating my own little piles (both physical and metaphorical), I think of this poem by Louise Glück…

Purple Bathing Suit

I like watching you garden
with your back to me in your purple bathing suit:
your back is my favorite part of you,
the part furthest away from your mouth.

You might give some thought to that mouth.
Also to the way you weed, breaking
the grass off at ground level
when you should pull it by the roots.

How many times do I have to tell you
how the grass spreads, your little
pile notwithstanding, in a dark mass which
by smoothing over the surface you have finally
fully obscured. Watching you

stare into space in the tidy
rows of the vegetable garden, ostensibly
working hard while actually
doing the worst job possible, I think

you are a small irritating purple thing
and I would like to see you walk off the face of the earth
because you are all that’s wrong with my life
and I need you and I claim you.

Louise Glück

So deceptively simple and darkly complex! Now we’ll wait and see what the deer think of the Epiphyllum–I doubt my feeling if they eat it will be complex at all.

The exemplary sentence, take 3

Here are some notes from the little pad I keep inside my purse to capture the stray sentence or idea, or in Brenda Hillman’s words, to be a rancher of phrases. These are all the more pleasing to me because they are surrounded by directions, movie and book titles, stray phone numbers.

We got ready and showed our home.
The visitor thought: you live well.
The slum must be inside you.
…  Tomas Tranströmer, “The Scattered Congregation” (translated by Robert Bly)

Words make things happen. We must weigh them carefully.
…  Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon (see more of these)

Maybe he better get out of here
before it’s too late, but maybe too late
was what he wanted.
…  Philip Levine Continue reading “The exemplary sentence, take 3”

Cluck and Glück

I didn’t know that Louise Gluck pronounced her name to rhyme with “click,” but that’s how it is. She read on Thursday night at Moe’s (yes, we still have a few bookstores in Berkeley!). It was a pleasure to listen to her read though she announced at the start that she doesn’t like to read. I had to strain to hear, but it was worth it. She read from her new book, A Village Life.

The NY Times review mentions “her signature desolation,” and there is certainly a generous measure of pain in her work. I don’t find this off-putting.

My favorite of the poems she read was “The Crossroads.” You can hear her read it–the poem starts about one minute in if you want to skip the pretentious intro. She’ll be reading again as part of the Lunch Poems series at UC on March 1.

Earlier that day (here is the cluck part) my wonderful friend and expert builder, Jeannie, finished creating a set of plant protection boxes for my garden. Now that it’s planting season, I’d like to let the chickens out to weed and fertilize, but you may remember what they do to anything that grows.

So we created a set of 2′ x 4′ boxes with bird cloth stapled around the sides to put around various areas where things are growing. They are lightweight and transportable. We painted them with camouflage paint so that they blend into the landscape (Jeannie’s idea).

Now the plants can thrive, and the chickens can do their work:

I give a fig

Well, the fig poem project has been fun. Of course, the fig is the leaf that Eve and Adam use to cover their nakedness. It’s been around a long time.  I wondered, what about that expression “I don’t give a fig.”? I looked it up and discovered:

The saying is based on the Spanish Fico (= Fig) which gave its name to a traditional gesture of contempt made by placing the thumb between the first and second fingers… Making the Fig of Spain is called in Spanish “dar una higa.” But the Spanish for “fig” is “not “higa” but “higo”. There is a pun here, because “higa” means the female genitals – which is what the thumb peeping out between the fingers of the closed fist is meant to represent.

Given all this, I thought that there must be other fig poems. I did a quick search and found several. One of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s books is called Figs and Thistles, and the famous quatrain:

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

is called “First Fig.” Less well known is “Second Fig”:

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

Of course, these don’t have much to do with figs. In fact few of the poems I found dealt as particularly with the fig as the blackberry poems do with the blackberry. So here is my effort to write a fig poem that is really about (or at least mostly about) the fig.

Consider the Fig

Why do poets seek the black art
of the berry when the fig parts
the leaves like a talisman,
slips into the outstretched palm?
A one-thumbed glove,
the fig has nothing to prove.
Soft as a scrotum,
smooth as a baby’s bottom,
smug as a full house
where wasps drowse
and raccoons wait
to plunder by night.

Spun gloss of end of summer,  concentrate
of lush long days: late
slanted shadows, sleepy children
loll in their parents’ arms,
toys scattered, lawn chairs akimbo,
hammocks swing empty. Slow
dusk drapes the landscape
and fig seeds detonate
on the tongue in one last bright
blaze of honeyed light.

Meryl Natchez

In my brief scan of the poetic fig world, I did find two figgy offerings worth sharing. The first by Louise Gluck, is about faith:

from Vespers

Once I believed in you; I planted a fig tree.
Here, in Vermont, country
of no summer. It was a test: if the tree lived,
it would mean you existed.

By this logic, you do not exist. Or you exist
exclusively in warmer climates,
in fervent Sicily and Mexico and California,
where are grown the unimaginable
apricot and fragile peach. Perhaps
they see your face in Sicily; here we barely see
the hem of your garment. I have to discipline myself
to share with John and Noah the tomato crop.

If there is justice in some other world, those
like myself, whom nature forces
into lives of abstinence, should get
the lion’s share of all things, all
objects of hunger, greed being
praise of you. And no one praises
more intensely than I, with more
painfully checked desire, or more deserves
to sit at your right hand, if it exists, partaking
of the perishable, the immortal fig,
which does not travel.

Louise Gluck

And (happily) I discovered a poet new to me, a Scotsman, Roddy Lumsden.

My Life

The fig was full of worms.
The joke was on me.
The joke went over my head.
I made myself hollow for others.
I took delight in the sight of a trap.
I learned to lie with grace.
I tried to hide horned animals in a sack.
I ate the food and then the food ate me.
And when at last I danced the music stopped.
The cream was skimmed too soon.
My wings and tail were plucked.
My mouth was primed with mud.
My larynx was a shrine.
I left the room to talk about the others.
The thorn in time extracts the thorn.
My years were two of yours.
No bird was of my feather.
I was blait and toom and fykesome.
The rice just wouldn’t fluff.
I never lived it up
and never lived it down.
The fish was full of bones.
The skunk curled on my lap.
I was torn in the bush of ghosts.
The point was not worth proving:
the proof was in the pudding
in the form of a split penny.
The jellyfish was in my mouth.
The landslide happened in my mouth.
I pressed and pressed the button
but Truth wouldn’t happen.
Time wasted me and I wasted time,
like the night lost in the wynds
and back lanes, searching for a strut
that will take my weight when the time is right.

Roddy Lumsden

I like the playful seriousness of this poem, and the word play. There are a few strange words of Scots origin. I couldn’t find “blait” anywhere, but toom means empty and fyke is a fishtrap. Roddy may have made up fykesome, which based on various definitions might mean  restless like a fish caught in a trap, or full of insincere flattery, or a combination of both. A third difinition of “fike” (noted as the root) is fig!