Books that change your life

lowellI’ve been reading some essays by C.K. Williams (who wrote last week’s poem). In one essay he talks about reading a book by Robert Lowell, Imitations, which broke open a new way of thinking about poetry.

Imitations was influential and controversial. Lowell took poems in other languages and rather than translate them, he created his own poems in English inspired by them. Many deplored this technique, finding it arrogant and disrespectful. But it definitely gave poets something to think about. For Williams, it “released something in me I hadn’t grasped had been keeping me from moving ahead in my own work.”

How amazing it is that books can crack you open, can shed light into your own struggles and world view. Continue reading “Books that change your life”

A morning in the room of available time

lilaThis morning, I open one of the four books on my desk, Mothers, by Rachel Zucker. I have to read it right away even though I only took it out on Wednesday, because someone at UC requested it and now it’s due Friday.

I drink my organic High Mountain Red Tea and read “I am lame in the memory,” quoted from Jorie Graham quoted from Sylvia Plath, and go downstairs and get Plath’s collected poems and find “Little Fugue,” the poem it was quoted from. Meanwhile, I text back and forth to my granddaughter about the cats. I find this strange photo she made of herself on my phone when I go to text her a picture of the cats eating.cats Continue reading “A morning in the room of available time”

Monday poem

I’ve been thinking about this little syllabic by Sylvia Plath, a riddle of nine lines, each with nine syllables:


I’m a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there’s no getting off.

Sylvia Plath

Did you get it?

Wilbur could not rescue Plath

Thanks to my daughter, who forwarded on this poem, about a meeting in which Richard Wilbur was recruited to encourage Sylvia Plath after a suicide attempt:

Cottage Street, 1953

Framed in her phoenix fire-screen, Edna Ward
Bends to the tray of Canton, pouring tea
For frightened Mrs. Plath; then, turning toward
The pale, slumped daughter, and my wife, and me.

Asks if we would prefer it weak or strong.
Will we have milk or lemon, she enquires?
The visit seems already strained and long.
Each in his turn, we tell her our desires.

It is my office to exemplify
The published poet in his happiness,
Thus cheering Sylvia, who has wished to die;
But half-ashamed, and impotent to bless

Continue reading “Wilbur could not rescue Plath”

Submitting my work

I’ve had a very ambivalent relationship to submitting poetry to magazines for publication. I don’t read small literary magazines, so why submit to them? And if you pay the reading fee to enter a contest, they just pile up unread on the shelf, an unpleasant reminder of the problems of publication.

On the other hand, a friend recently had a poem of his published in the New Yorker, which I do read, and said he simply submitted it online.  Of course, he studied with the current poetry editor, so that helps. But I decided to submit one.

The online submission page said something like “due to the volume of submissions, it may take three or four months for us to respond.” However, I received a rejection note the very next day. I guess they really didn’t like it. But undaunted, I am printing it here.

In Praise of Research

Here’s to the researcher’s neck arched over his microscope
with the single-mindedness of a horse bent to its oats
hour after year in the bright box of the lab
decoding the origin of a sub-family of mosquito
that only lives sealed in the London underground.
Or Marie Curie burning her hands over and over
in the luminous blue-green glow of the radium
she extracted before anyone knew it was there
or what it could do.
Or the scholar holed up in the library carrel
working on the meaning of the “the.”

Quinine, x-rays, meaning itself, the way the world
is constructed of waves and particles and a something else
we can’t agree on, that time stretches and light bends,
and like horses in traces
impelled by the will of our kind
we bend our necks to it
as hungry for knowledge
as for grain from a loving hand.

*                      *                         *

I hope you like it better than the editors at the New Yorker. I think I’ll just keep sending them poems. Like Sylvia Plath, I could create wallpaper with rejection slips.



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:


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:


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:


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

The Arrival of the Bee Box

Although I love this poem by Sylvia Plath, in my case it’s more the arrival of the bee egg. My friend Laurie, an amazing creator of natural perfumes among other things, has been keeping bees for several years. She was written up in a new book on Backyard Beekeepers of the Bay Area. I’d been thinking about maybe having bees, and when she told me she had a swarm, I decided to take the plunge.  Laurie directed me to a couple of places in Sebastapol that sell “top bar” hives—easier, less honey than commercial bee boxes.  I went online to Michael Thiele’s site, read what he says about apiculture, and when I saw the Haengekorb, I was hooked. I called Michael, and this happened to be the only hive he had available at the moment, so I arranged to pick it up yesterday. I was a little perturbed when he told me in the email that I might want to cover it with cow dung(!) but I persevered. When Laurie heard I was going, she wanted to come meet Michael (if you look at any of his online videos, you’ll see why).

So we drove up yesterday. It turned out that Leslie, Michael’s wife, helped us, because Michael had a dental emergency. She was terrific, and showed us several hives (one made out of straw (and yes, covered in cow dung) and one made from a hollow log. I asked her if she was familiar with Andy Goldsworthy’s work, and when she said yes, I said “You’re married to the Andy Goldsworthy of bee keeping.” She smiled and said, “I know.”

I asked her about the cow dung, and she said it preserves the hive, and she really didn’t know if was necessary. In any case, on the way home, we passed by a field of cows, and gathered a bucket full of cow plops. It’s a true friend who’s willing to wander a cow pasture and help collect cow dung.  But when I talked to Michael that evening, I asked about it. I wasn’t reluctant to use it if I had to, but it seemed a shame to cover the beautiful straw basket with dung. I was relieved when he said it would be fine to use the Haengekorp as is, and if I want to I could cover it a few years down the line. The cow plops will go into the compost.

In any case, we assembled the hive last night, and this morning at 6 am, before the bees were out, we got the swarm box, and brought it down.  We banged the bees into their new home, added the frames, the cloth and beeswax cover, and the top of the hive.

It went amazingly smoothly.

I was worried that the bees would all want to fly up and it would be hard to assemble frames and coverings on top of them, but they stayed placidly in the bottom of the basket and allowed me to slowly assemble the top of the hive. It was all set up within an hour.

Now the sun is out, the bees are all in their hive, and I am a beekeeper.  Those little dots in the picture are bees. There is something about being around thousands of bees that is very magical. I didn’t feel at all frightened by them. In fact, I went and removed the cheesecloth we’d put around the bottom without my (loaner) bee suit. The bees pay no attention to me.  They are intent on their own concerns.

I can’t say that I share the exact sentiment of Sylvia Plath’s poem, though I’ve always loved it. The menace she feels from the bees, the ambivalence about her control is as different from my experience as a square wood box is from my egg-shaped basket.  Still the imagery is marvelous, and it does convey something of the powerful energy bees emit. As a metaphor for the swarm within, it works perfectly.  This was the first long poem I memorized.

The Arrival of the Beebox — Sylvia Plath

I ordered this, this clean wood box
Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.
I would say it was the coffin of a midget
Or a square baby
Were there not such a din in it.

The box is locked, it is dangerous.
I have to live with it overnight
And I can’t keep away from it.
There are no windows, so I can’t see what is in there.
There is only a little grid, no exit.

I put my eye to the grid.
It is dark, dark,
With the swarmy feeling of African hands
Minute and shrunk for export,
Black on black, angrily clambering.

How can I let them out?
It is the noise that appalls me most of all,
The unintelligible syllables.
It is like a Roman mob,
Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!

I lay my ear to furious Latin.
I am not a Caesar.
I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.
They can be sent back.
They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.

I wonder how hungry they are.
I wonder if they would forget me
If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree.
There is the laburnum, its blond colonnades,
And the petticoats of the cherry.

They might ignore me immediately
In my moon suit and funeral veil.
I am no source of honey
So why should they turn on me?
Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.

The box is only temporary.

I read recently that in her layout of the book Ariel, in which this poem first appeared, it was the final poem of the book. This seems to me such a optimistic statement, because the ending “Tomorrow…I will set them free./The box is only temporary” seems so positive. It confirmed for me that her suicide attempt wasn’t meant to succeed. Of course, with her death, Ted Hughes got to rearrange the book as he felt it should be; she wasn’t around to argue one way or the other.