Tag Archives: poetry

Of course you’ll recognize your parents in heaven

This from the heart-breaking poem called “Washing the Elephant.”

And here’s the heart-breaking part:

What if Father Quinn had said, “Of course you’ll recognize your parents in heaven,” instead of “being one with God will make your mother and father pointless.
Lily sent this to me after a weekend in Florida, visiting not one but two in-laws in not one but two Memory Care facilities in not one but two cities, not one but two hours away from each other.
In many ways, mother-in-law Mary is already gone. She who rests her forehead on the tabletop as we converse with her, falling asleep, startling awake, drifting off again to who knows where. Come to think of it, we didn’t even think about taking a photo of us together.
On the other side of the state, father-in-law Al is all too aware of his decline. He is failing, before our very eyes, but so slowly, that it comes as a hard surprise when whole functions disappear: walking, conversation, self-feeding. He wants to tell us a “cute story,” but its meaning evaporates after a set-up that involves a company, its sales force, a trip to another city.
Perhaps to compensate, we took many, many photos of him. As if to keep him with us? His last few words with me were so lovely: “You classed up this whole operation,” he said of me about my role in the di Costanzo family.

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So here’s to “the ones that have etched themselves in the laugh lines and frown lines on the face” And here’s to the rest of the poem:

Washing the Elephant

Isn’t it always the heart that wants to wash
the elephant, begging the body to do it
with soap and water, a ladder, hands,
in tree-shade big enough for the vast savannahs
of your sadness, the strangler fig of your guilt,
the cratered full moon’s light fueling
the windy spooling memory of elephant?
What if Father Quinn had said, “Of course you’ll recognize
your parents in heaven,” instead of
“Being one with God will make your mother and father
pointless.” That was back when I was young enough
to love them absolutely though still fear for their place
in heaven, imagining their souls like sponges full
of something resembling street water after rain.
Still my mother sent me every Saturday to confess,
to wring the sins out of my small baffled soul, and I made up lies
about lying, disobeying, chewing gum in church, to offer them
as carefully as I handed over the knotted handkercheif of coins
to the grocer when my mother sent me for a loaf of Wonder,
Land O’Lakes, and two Camels.
If guilt is the damage of childhood, then eros is the fall of adolescence.
Of the fall begins there, and never ends, desire after desire parading
through a lifetime like the Ringling Brothers elephants
made to walk through the Queens-Midtown Tuunnel
and down 34th Street to the Garden.
So much of our desire like their bulky, shadowy walking
after midnight, exiled from the wild and destined
for a circus with its tawdry gaudiness, its unspoken
pathos.
It takes more than half a century to figure out who they were,
the few real loves-of-your-life and how much of the rest—
the mad breaking-heart stickiness—falls away, slowly,
unnoticed, the way you lose your taste for things
like Popsicles unthinkingly.
And though dailiness may have no place
for the ones that have etched themselves in the laugh lines
and frown lines on the face that’s harder and harder
to claim as your own, often one love-of-your-life
will appear in a dream, arriving
with the weight and certitude of an elephant,
and it’s always the heart that wants to go out and wash
the huge mysteriousness of what they meant, those memories
that have only memories to feed them, and only you to keep them clean.
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Yes, it’s an Audi ad

cuba-road

The road between Trinidad and Havana

But my attention is caught by Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road,” an extremely long poem that I excerpt here, just the first and last parts. A plus: it’s also a love poem.

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! Let the money remain unearn’d!
Let the school stand! Mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! Let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?
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Why Poetry?

Why now? Why at all? Daniel Halpern’s essay in the New York Times found answers to these questions by emailing notable poets and researching what past poets said about their medium. There are anecdotes that get to poetry’s essential nature. The Greek Poet Yiannia Ritso was jailed, wrote poems on cigarette papers and walked out at the end of his sentence wearing his collected poems stuffed in the lining of his jacket. From Moonlight Sonata (1956) about an old woman in an old house, thinking about death, translated from the Greek.

But who can play this game to the end?
And the bear gets up again and moves on
obedient to her leash, her rings, her teeth,
smiling with torn lips at the pennies the beautiful and unsuspecting children toss
(beautiful precisely because unsuspecting)
and saying thank you. Because bears that have grown old
can say only one thing: thank you; thank you.
Let me come with you.

Then there’s the Ukraninain poet Irina Raushinkskaya, also jailed, who wrote her poems on bars of soap and when she had memorized them, washed them away.

Are these two stories true? Is poetry true? What is true? What is truth? These are the questions poetry puts before you, like leaves on a tree, waving madly, like vivid flags, in the wind, if only you would stop to notice them. If only you could get out of your own thoughts and notice them. From Raushinkskaya’s I Will Live and Survive:

I will live and survive and be asked:

How they slammed my head against a trestle, 

How I had to freeze at nights, 

How my hair started to turn grey… 

But I’ll smile. And will crack some joke 

And brush away the encroaching shadow. 

And I will render homage to the dry September 

That became my second birth. 

And I’ll be asked: ‘Doesn’t it hurt you to remember?’ 

Not being deceived by my outward flippancy. 

But the former names will detonate my memory – 

Magnificent as old cannon. 

And I will tell of the best people in all the earth, 

The most tender, but also the most invincible, 

How they said farewell, how they went to be tortured, 

How they waited for letters from their loved ones. 

And I’ll be asked: what helped us to live 

When there were neither letters nor any news – only walls, 

And the cold of the cell, and the blather of official lies, 

And the sickening promises made in exchange for betrayal. 

And I will tell of the first beauty 

I saw in captivity. 

A frost-covered window! No spy-holes, nor walls, 

Nor cell-bars, nor the long endured pain – 

Only a blue radiance on a tiny pane of glass, 

A cast pattern- none more beautiful could be dreamt! 

The more clearly you looked the more powerfully blossomed 

Those brigand forests, campfires and birds! 

And how many times there was bitter cold weather 

And how many windows sparkled after that one – 

But never was it repeated, 

That upheaval of rainbow ice! 

And anyway, what good would it be to me now, 

And what would be the pretext for the festival? 

Such a gift can only be received once, 

And perhaps is only needed once.

Poetry is personal and for me it makes me read more slowly, stop to notice a frost-covered window, rise above words concerned with politics and celebrity and anything that starts with a hashtag. That’s why.

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New Year’s Resolutions For Me This Time 2017

It’s only fair that I share my list, now that I’ve posted my mostly annual New Year’s Resolutions For Others.

  1. Choose Kindness. Because it is always a choice.

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  1. Judge less.
  2. Write more.
  3. There is beauty everywhere. Find it.
  4. Read poetry. It pretty much explains everything.
  5. Keep working on these things.
  6. Lest this start to sound like a Pinterest board waiting to happen: Stop drinking so much wine, you wino.
  7. Also: would it kill me to learn Spanish?
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right place, right time

This has been a charmed weekend in Portland. My visit coincided with the city’s first spring-like weekend, weather that brought on bursting cherry blossoms and new-green leaves and people going barefoot (maybe they do this in any kind of weather; I think they do, in fact ) and singing tunes on the street corners, accompanied by ukeleles. I am sitting outside on a second-floor balcony, waiting for by bubble tea. Iced, ginger, green. What the bubbles are, I do not know.

At the Portland Farmer's Market

At the Portland Farmer’s Market

I have been thinking about a concept I’ll “displacement,” thanks to Delia Ephron who made me realize other people feel this too. Essentially, it’s the feeling that whatever you’re doing and wherever you’re doing it, you wish you were doing something else, somewhere else. More complicated than that is that you don’t wish at all — rather, you wonder if you should be otherwise and elsewhere occupied. Frustrating, isn’t it, when not even what you want is clear to you? For instance, working inside on a Saturday you think you’d be better off outside playing, but if you were doing that you’d feel guilty about not working. Out at night, you want to be home in your jammies; in at night, you want to be at a swanky party like everyone else. Exercising, you’d like to be doing anything but. Not exercising and that’s exactly what you should be doing.

If you don’t know what I’m talking, read no further. I don’t want to infect you with this kind of thinking.

Dog in the hot weeds is from a poem that Merrie gave in a card on my birthday the year before she died. I looked for it last weekend (when I found the letter from Gladys). I can’t recall the line but it said something like “the dog in the hot weeds doesn’t think he should…” An extremely weak support for why the “dog” poem is just right for this feeling. But Merrie gave it to me and we talked about it and I want to stick with this little piece of what’s left of it (and her).

Suffice to say, in Portland, in the springtime, with the sun shining through pink-blossomed trees, drinking iced ginger tea and writing and thinking about Merrie … there’s no other thing I’d like to be doing right now and no other place I’d like to be doing it.

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a fairy tale of a poem.

where is lily?

We were very tired, we were very merry–
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable–
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on the hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry–
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawlcovered head,
And bought a moming paper, which neither…

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Tell me, what is it you plan to do

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with your one wild and precious life

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver, from The Truro Bear and Other Adventures: Poems and Essays. © Beacon Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission.

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getting and spending

On my mind, of late, as I declutter my house and life. A sordid boon indeed, that which we acquire. Who is it that said that our possessions possess us? Next question: if we manage to give them away our we ourselves again?

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not. –Great God! I’d rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

– Wordsworth, 1908

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auden, by way of didion

Loved Blue Nights, loved even more Joan Didion’s recitation of the Auden poem:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, 
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone, 
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum 
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. 

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead 
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’. 
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves, 
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves. 

He was my North, my South, my East and West, 
My working week and my Sunday rest, 
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; 
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong. 

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one, 
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun, 
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood; 
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Which puts me in mind of another mournful poem, Ithaka. Cavafy, by way of Merrie:

As you set out for Ithaka

hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon-don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon-you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

 

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind-
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

 

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

 

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

 

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