Cherries

While there are many wonderful blackberry poems,  I know only three poems about cherries, all from previous centuries–one by Thomas Campion, one by Robert Herrick, and this one, by D. H. Lawrence, that Larry mentioned as we were eating the exceptionally sweet cherries of this summer:

The Cherry Robbers

Under the long, dark boughs, like jewels red
In the hair of an Eastern girl
Shine strings of crimson cherries, as if had bled
Blood-drops beneath each curl.
Continue reading “Cherries”

An occasional poem

robert-hassI wasn’t looking specifically for a Thanksgiving poem, and this one might not be to everyone’s taste, but I like its realism–the confusion of emotions amid the celebration:

The Feast

The lovers loitered on the deck talking,
the men who were with men and the men who were with new women,
a little shrill and electric, and the wifely women
who had a repose and beautifully lined faces
and coppery skin. She had taken the turkey from the oven
and her friends were talking on the deck
in the steady sunshine. She imagined them
drifting toward the food, in small groups, finishing
sentences, lifting a pickle or a sliver of turkey,
nibbling a little with unconscious pleasure. And
she imagined setting it out artfully, the white meat,
the breads, antipasto, the mushrooms and salad
arranged down the oak counter cleanly, and how they all came
as in a dance when she called them. She carved meat
and then she was crying. Then she was in darkness
crying. She didn’t know what she wanted.

Robert Hass, from Praise

An  Elegy

elephantsA friend leant me Inventions of Farewell, A Book of Elegies, by Sandra Gilbert. This is a wonderful collection and in the introduction she references a passage on “elephant grief” from Fragments on the Deathwatch, by Louise Harmon, which in turn cites a National Geographic article about the mourning behavior of a herd of elephants after the death of an old bull. The elephants “approached his body by twos and threes, ‘sweeping their trunks slowly over him, not touching him for the most part but maintaining an inch of distance between his skin and the moist tips of their trunks. The ritual was more impressive for its silence.’ ’’  Continue reading “An  Elegy”

Gadgets, writing, and domestic tranquility

I am a sucker for kitchen gadgets–for me the Williams Sonoma or Chef’s Catalog is a kind of kitchen porn. Many of them aren’t worth the trouble, but I have two onion gadgets that really work: the onion keeper and the onion dicer.

IMG_1495The onion keeper I picked up one day in the supermarket. It’s a plastic onion-shaped container that opens in the middle with a twist. You put an open onion in it, twist it shut, and your onion is saved without smelling up the fridge.

The dicer has three sets of blades, two of which (rough dice and fine dice) can handle onions. There’s also a slicer blade, which I sometimes use for mushrooms. But it’s the onion dicing that is the real timesaver, especially when you have multiple onions to dice.

IMG_1496Set a half or a quarter of the onion flat side down on the dicer and pushed down the lid with your palm.

The machine gives a satisfying whump and you have instant, perfectly uniform chunks of onion.

IMG_1497Kitchen magic! It does for onions what my corn stripper does for corn kernels. This is a little plastic module with teeth at one edge that you run along an ear of corn to remove the kernels. Continue reading “Gadgets, writing, and domestic tranquility”

Envy of Other People’s Poems

Talking with another poet about the discouraging series of rejections, the endless worry that one’s work is really good–how can one know? I remembered this wonderful little poem by Robert Hass, from Time and Materials.

Envy of Other People’s Poems

In one version of the legend the sirens couldn’t sing. Continue reading “Envy of Other People’s Poems”

The fascination of translation

I don’t know exactly why translating poetry is so fascinating. For me, it’s a way to work on a poem when I have no ideas of my own. The demands of translation–the fact that a literal translation just won’t do, and that you have to try to somehow capture the spirit of the poem without straying too far from the literal–is the challenge and the art. In some ways, I feel that all poetry is translation–sometimes I’m trying to translate my own glimmers of an idea, sometimes those of someone else.

A decade ago, when Bob Hass had his weekly poetry column in a number of daily papers, he printed a translation of a poem by the Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo. I’ve mentioned these columns before–they’ve been collected into two books, Poet’s Choice and Now and Then–great morning readings, both of them. You can find Bob’s original column on Vallejo in the Washington Post archives.

At the time I didn’t know about the column, and happened to read the one on Vallejo riding home on BART, chancing on it in an abandoned copy of the San Francisco Examiner.  Bob printed the Stanley Burnshaw translation and one of his own. Ed Hirsch, when he did his own version of Poet’s Choice, printed Robert Bly’s translation. Here is the Spanish: Continue reading “The fascination of translation”

Poetry Monday

The prose poem is a medium difficult to describe–a paragraph? a story? a reflection? It’s shorter than a story, but not in short lines. It should make you catch your breath the way a poem does, I think. This one, by Robert Hass, does everything it should: A Story About the Body The young composer, working that summer at an artist’s colony, had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she made amused and considered answers to his questions. One night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, “I think you would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you that I have a double mastectomy,” and when he didn’t understand, “I’ve lost both my breasts.” Continue reading “Poetry Monday”

California’s got four

San Francisco’s fine,
You sure get lots of sun,
But I’m used to four seasons,
California’s got but one.
cc                               California, Bob Dylan

When I first came here, I thought Dylan was right about the seasons, though not so much about sunny San Francisco! In the over 40 years I’ve lived here, I’ve learned to appreciate the subtlety of the seasons: the parched summers when the hills bake from a golden beige to tired, brittle brown, the way the brown shades into blue as the rains come. Then the blue intensifies, slowly greening over the rainy winter, till one sudden day, like yesterday, you notice that the hills have turned a green to rival Ireland. For a week or ten days they are so green, you want to roll around in the grass–a mistake, as it’s full of prickles! I’ve had some serious misadventures based on those intoxicating hills. Then in another moment they turn from an unbearably luxuriant green to a yellow-green, to the gold of early summer, and the process starts over.   Continue reading “California’s got four”

Bob Hass and Jim (Royal Dick) Rathmann

These two people have nothing in common, one a famous poet and teacher the other a renowned race car driver, except that I was reading first the obituary of Jim Rathmann in the NY Times this morning, and then Bob’s poem “Shame: an Aria.”

Larry was reading to me Jim Rathmann’s obituary over breakfast (vegetable hash–yummy–let me know if you want the recipe). He started racing before he was legally eligible, so used his brother James’ ID.  Hence his career as Jim Rathmann, record breaking race car driver, whose given name was “Royal” but whose family name was Dick. It must have been confusing, as his older brother was a decent racer, too. The part Larry read was: “He earned renown in Southern California drag-racing circles, receiving 48 traffic tickets before he was 18 — four during one lunch break.” But my favorite part was the last paragraph of the article.  He became friends with the astronauts, and one taught him to fly:

Gordon Cooper, one of the original members of NASA’s Mercury program, told him never to fly under a seagull lest the bird excrete on the plane. Rathmann made the mistake of laughing.

Colonel Cooper proceeded to prove his point, flying so low under a flock of gulls that a terrified Rathmann could hear the propellers cutting marsh grass. On landing, Cooper jumped from the plane and pointed to the spattered roof.

“I told you,” he said. Continue reading “Bob Hass and Jim (Royal Dick) Rathmann”

A bushel of blackberry poems

Even though I have been unsuccessful in my efforts to find and pick enough blackberries for jam, or even a pie, I have gathered five of my favorite blackberry poems, each somewhat characteristic of its author.

First is Sylvia Plath, whose vision of blackberries is personal–a blood sisterhood, dark, menacing full of hooks:

Blackberrying

Nobody in the lane, and nothing, nothing but blackberries,
Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly,
A blackberry alley, going down in hooks, and a sea
Somewhere at the end of it, heaving. Blackberries
Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes
Ebon in the hedges, fat
With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers.
I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood; they must love me.
They accommodate themselves to my milk bottle, flattening their sides.

Overhead go the choughs in black, cacophonous flocks —
Bits of burnt paper wheeling in a blown sky.
Theirs is the only voice, protesting, protesting.
I do not think the sea will appear at all.
The high, green meadows are glowing, as if lit from within.
I come to one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies,
Hanging their bluegreen bellies and their wing panes in a Chinese screen.
The honey-feast of the berries has stunned them; they believe in heaven.
One more hook, and the berries and bushes end.

The only thing to come now is the sea.
From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt.
I follow the sheep path between them. A last hook brings me
To the hills’ northern face, and the face is orange rock
That looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space
Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths
Beating and beating at an intractable metal.

Sylvia Plath

Seamus Heaney’s poem focuses on the rot at the heart of the sweetness–a metaphor for Irish politics, or just a childhood memory? Either way, a disturbing poem from the glossy purple clot of the berry to the rat-grey fur of the mold:

Blackberry-Picking

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Seamus Heaney

Mary Oliver’s is pure transcendence, with a thick paw of self reaching for more:

August

When the blackberries hang
swollen in the woods, in the brambles
nobody owns, I spend

all day among the high
branches, reaching
my ripped arms, thinking

of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body

accepts what it is.  In the dark
creeks that run by there is
this thick paw of my life darting among

the black bells, the leaves; there is
this happy tongue.

Mary Oliver

For Bob Hass, the blackberry evokes so much else: loss, longing, love, tenderness, metaphysics. His thought reaches out like intractable blackberry vines, covering all available ground, coming to rest with the vibrant specific fruit. I especially love the line “a word is elegy to what it signifies” and the image of the “thin wire of grief” in a friend’s voice. There is so much to admire in the journey this poem makes between the meditative and the specific:

Meditation at Lagunitas

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange–silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

Robert Hass

And finally, Galway Kinnell’s inimitable voice, squinching the joy from the fruit onto our tongues:

Blackberry Eating

I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

Galway Kinnell