end-of-semester report

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This is my favorite—as a Jane Austen character would say—prospect in my new house.

It’s part way down the stairs. This is and is not a metaphor.

The photos on the wall to the left are of my kiddos, at the First House, standing at the screen door, looking out. This is and is not a metaphor. These photos have adorned every entryway of every house since then (and if you’re just joining us, there have been many, too many).

The green light was my housewarming gift to myself. I call her Minerva and we have a quick conversation every morning when I go downstairs at 5AM to make my tea: Good morning. Good morning. Another day, another 70 cents on a man’s dollar. Yep. Let’s smash the Patriarchy. Yep.

Beyond that, the warmth of the living room, and my beloved books and bookshelves.

I am grateful for this view, for this house which I purchased ambivalently but with the intention of giving my kids a home for their last few years at home, for the relative peace it holds for me after some very difficult years. I am grateful for my kids and my books, for this lovely green light that makes magic when illuminated:

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I’m grateful to be a poet and a writer, (though, lately, I have felt a long way off from poetry); for whatever kind attention my work has received in the world; mostly, for the quiet mornings at my desk, in lamplight, with the words of others:

______…something

is running across the field,
______can you see it coming
through the yellow grass, can you see it coming
______from the windowpane,
are you closing the shutters, do you think it’s rain? (—Dana Levin)

I’m grateful for the work I do at The Rumpus, for our reviewers and my fellow editors there (which reminds me: here you can read about staff favorites from 2018). I’m grateful for my kitty; wouldn’t you be?:

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This year, I’m especially grateful for a teaching job I love, and for my colleagues, and my students, who, at this point in the semester, are stressed out and exhausted and coming to office hours with their final papers. Like them, I am going in early, skipping lunch, staying late (Unlike them, because I am older and wiser and, let’s face it, a mom, I am reminding everyone to eat and sleep; I am giving out chocolate and throat drops and Excedrin. I am saying, There’s a time to be perfect, and a time to be done.).

I never get through finals week without these words thrumming through me: In the evening we shall be examined on love. They are the words of St. John of the Cross, and the title of a poem by Thomas Centolella:

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Life is hard, even easy lives. This semester, I have lived every day in the “blue of no more daily evasions.” It is not a gentle blue. I often feel like the student who doesn’t even recall signing up for the course who now must take her orals (See: single mother of three teenagers). And like the teacher wracking her brain to find “what unknown quantity / will balance the equation.”

I don’t know, and may never, but I hope it’s the small, heartfelt acts that balance things out after all: Waking early to read and (try to) write even just one word in my notebook. Making the kids a hot breakfast, packing their lunches, because I can, and here they are, hungry. Going in early, skipping lunch, staying late. Cherishing my family and friends. Calling my elected officials again. Writing about books I loved and learned from. Living my small, wingéd, provisional truths; saying them out loud regardless of whether anyone’s listening; abandoning them when they show themselves to have been faulty after all.

I guess this is not your typical end-of-semester report. I meant to come here and say: here’s where you can find a few of my recent poems; here’s a review I wrote; I still haven’t published a book.

Instead it’s this: I’m grateful, my grades are in, my kids are well-fed, I have a gorgeous new red lipstick, I’ve kept my house reasonably clean. This semester, I tried; let’s all keep trying; in the evening we shall be examined on love.

poems for this fraught history

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My sister-in-law and I took the kids to see fireworks the night of July 3. We had a picnic while the Detroit Symphony Orchestra played. Waited for the long summer light to leave the sky. Then watched the darkness spangle and pop, ooohhed and ahhhed with the rest of the crowd.

I love fireworks. They amaze me. My favorites are the ones that pop, then trail off slowly, a thousand tiny lights spiraling down before ultimately succumbing to the dark. But I’ve also always felt (at least as an adult) a bit conflicted about them. They seem a glorification of war. They frighten dogs, not to mention many of the men and women who’ve served in our endless wars. They are, for me, beautiful, magical, and fraught.

This summer, as our country moves further and further away from what we say are our ideals—liberty, equality, justice—, the fireworks were even more fraught than usual. I kept looking and my kids and their cousins sprawled on the quilts we’d laid out for them, the fireworks lighting up their awestruck faces, and thinking of the kids separated from their parents at the border. Thinking of black boys killed by police (Tamir Rice would’ve turned 16 last week, had he not been shot dead at age 12). Thinking of pleas for civility in the face of abominable treatment over centuries. Thinking of kids who, though they may be fairly safe day-to-day, face subtle and not so subtle racism, homophobia, and other forms of bias that make the beautiful, magical, and fraught process of growing up even more fraught.

What to do? Read poems. Here are three that are not comforting, but feel true and so very important. In that way, they make me feel less alone in this deeply flawed nation, this fraught history that we’re all a part of.

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“Tamir Rice” by Sean Thomas Dougherty, whose latest book is The Second O of Sorrow (BOA, 2018):

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(originally published in The New York Times Magazine)

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“American Sonnet For My Past and Future Assassin” by Terrence Hayes, whose latest book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, is just out from Penguin.

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(image from Google Books)

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“How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This” by Hanif Abdurraqib, whose poems and essays are new to me over the last year, and consistently blow me away (check out this poem in the May 2018 issue of POETRY):

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(originally published by the Academy of American Poets)

 

falling faintly, faintly falling

 

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One of my favorite passages in all literature, from the last paragraph of James Joyce’s The Dead:

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

an August poem

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I REMEMBER by Anne Sexton

By the first of August
the invisible beetles began
to snore and the grass was
as tough as hemp and was
no color—no more than
the sand was a color and
we had worn our bare feet
bare since the twentieth
of June and there were times
we forgot to wind up your
alarm clock and some nights
we took our gin warm and neat
from old jelly glasses while
the sun blew out of sight
like a red picture hat and
one day I tied my hair back
with a ribbon and you said
that I looked almost like
a puritan lady and what
I remember best is that
the door to your room was
the door to mine.

—from her collection All My Pretty Ones

last missive from the wee, small house

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Dear reader, I am up with the birds stealing a few moments at my desk. My desk which I will likely not see again until August. It will be a summer of transience—some time at my parents’, some at my aunt’s and uncle’s, maybe some camping(?)—as we wait to get into our new house, do a bit of necessary work, then finally move in.

The thought of this for a homebody such as myself is a bit overwhelming. But books and blank notebooks have a way of saving us (me), so I have sent some ahead to be kept out of the moving van and storage. Let’s not think now about how I will have to haul them hither and yon all summer as we make our wanderings from place to place.

The books that have been saving me this week are these:

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I have always loved early C. D. Wright (Translations..).  The Poet, the Lion &c. is brand new, and I feel it should be required reading for all human beings. You could say it’s a poetic poetics. You could say it’s one, long ars poetica. You could say it’s a road map for how to live.

Here are some lines that have kept me going this week, from “Concerning Why Poetry Offers a Better Deal Than the World’s Biggest Retailer”:

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That the poems we snatch from the language must bear the habit of our thinking.

That their arrangement strengthens the authority on which each separate line is laid.

That they extend the line into perpetuity.

That they enlarge the circle.

That they awaken the dreamer. That they awaken the schemer.

That they rectify the names.

That they draw not conclusions but further qualify doubt.

That they avail themselves of the shrapnel of everything: the disappearance of cork trees and coral, the destroyed center of Ramadi, the shape of buildings to come, the pearness of pears.

That they clear the air.

That they keep a big-box sense of humor at the ready (like an ax in a glass case).

That they bring the ship nearer to its longing.

That they resensitize the surface of things.

That they will not stand alone.

This is our mind. Our language. Our light. Our word. Our bond.

In the world.

–from The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All. 

 

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And now I’m off to gather bed linens and take them to the laundromat for washing (because I cannot even with the thought of used bedsheets of teenaged boys sitting in an un-air-conditioned storage unit all summer).

I don’t know when I’ll be back here, but I’ll check in when I can. Meanwhile, read on, write on. Meanwhile, let’s remember: You can quit anytime. Why quit now?

makeshifting

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I have begun to believe that the word makeshift should be a verb.

makeshift: serving as a temporary substitute; sufficient for the time being. Syn.: temporary, provisional, interim, stopgap, make-do, standby, rough and ready, improvised, ad hoc, extempore, jury-rigged, jerry-built, thrown together, cobbled together. Ant.: permanent.

I am makeshifting a writing desk here, as we prepare to move. Again. This time, it’s a happy move, home to The Mitten. Mostly happy. It’s always hard to leave people you love, and I love some very amazing people here.

For the record, I’m aware that winters will be longer and colder in Michigan (people in and around the Peninsula Town are fond of mentioning this). I have faith in my ability to endure, and expert knowledge of winter clothing strategies, sometimes makeshift in nature, but effective (bread bags in your boots, anyone?).

In the last few weeks we’ve: moved out of our house into a rental apartment, sold the house and rented it back, moved out of the rental apartment and back into the house, traveled to Michigan to look at houses, and traveled back again. In the next few weeks, the kids will finish the school year, the movers will come, we will say our ‘until-we-meet-agains,’ and then make our way north and east.

Which is to say: Life: 5,472; Poetry: 3 1/2.

Most of everything is packed away, so there’s a lot of makeshifting going on: borrowing clothes, hunting for eye drops in the oddest places, wishing I’d set a few more books aside to remain unpacked, making do, shifting expectations, even doing without my afternoon cup of tea from time to time (I know: it’s sad, but true). I’ve been thinking a lot about connections to objects (it’s the books I miss most, and my flannel shirts), about comfort; thinking a lot about refugees, their rooflessness, all the makeshifting they are made to do a thousand times a day. My makeshifting is nothing in comparison, of course.

I’m going to try not to disappear here, checking in when I can, maybe posting things in shorter bursts. Making, shifting, &c.

friday roundup: the first fact of the world, exile, and the only warm thing for miles

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Happy Friday! It’s “ski week” in the Peninsula Town, so I haven’t spent much time at my desk this week. A hike in the foothills, a trip to the city, many hours snuggling on the couch reading The Tale of Despereaux, and—let’s be real—settling arguments amongst siblings, reminding people to take out their laundry and put their dishes in the dishwasher… this is how I’ve spent my week. No complaints. Now on to the roundup:

the first fact of the world  I’ve slowly been making my way through Robert Hass‘s essay collection, Twentieth Century Pleasures. I’ve read some of these essays before, but it’s been a while and a re-visit seemed needful.

I’ve also been reading poems (Larry Levis, James Wright, Frances Leviston, Chase Twichell) with an eye to trajectories: What is the journey of this poem, and how is the journey implemented?  What are its structures and formal properties?

In Hass’s “On Form,” he writes: “The first fact of the world is that it repeats itself.” He argues that, from our earliest days, “we are clued into the hope of a shapeliness of things”—hunger felt, then satisfied; the school bus coming along right on time.

But what is form in an era of poetry dominated by free verse? It’s so much harder to define than a certain number of lines, with a certain metrical pattern, and a certain rhyme scheme.

Hass defines it this way: The form of a poem is “the shape of its understanding”; it “exists in the relation between its music and its seeing.”

Not exactly a step-by-step guide for finding a poem’s best form, but worth thinking about… .

exile  n. 1. the state of being barred from one’s native country, typically for political or punitive reasons. 2. a person who lives away from their native country, either from choice or compulsion.

I’ve also been dipping in and out of Speaking and Language: Defence of Poetry by Paul Goodman. Regarding why he writes poetry, Goodman says:

“I am in exile. Like everybody else, I live in a world that is given to me—I am thankful for it. It is not made by me—and that too is very well. But it is not my native home; therefore I make poems.”

Goodman writes of a spiritual exile, of course, and I’m not entirely comfortable with using the concept of exile vis-a-vis art-making in a world when so many people are in actual, physical exile, and/or are risking their lives to achieve it. But his words resonate with me, and have me thinking about of poetry as a means to reconcile ourselves to the world, to ourselves, and to each other.

Each poem a little bridge, a little patch, a little healing, a little closer to home.

the only warm thing for miles  Speaking of home, it’s that time of year when those who live in winter climes are beginning to doubt that spring will ever arrive. While I’m leaving my house in a light sweater and enjoying the earliest-blooming trees, I remember well that slightly crazed doubt, and I miss the way the sharp edges of changing seasons can mirror our inner lives. A friend sent me this poem by Danez Smith; you could call it an argument for winter:

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I’M GOING BACK TO MINNESOTA WHERE SADNESS MAKES SENSE by Danez Smith

 

O California, don’t you know the sun is only a god
if you learn to starve for him? I’m bored with the ocean

I stood at the lip of it, dressed in down, praying for snow
I know, I’m strange, too much light makes me nervous

at least in this land where the trees always bear green.
I know something that doesn’t die can’t be beautiful.

Have you ever stood on a frozen lake, California?
The sun above you, the snow & stalled sea—a field of mirror

all demanding to be the sun too, everything around you
is light & it’s gorgeous & if you stay too long it will kill you

& it’s so sad, you know? You’re the only warm thing for miles
& the only thing that can’t shine.

(originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review)

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Stay warm, Reader, stay warm. And thanks for reading.

 

friday roundup with Ishmael, stress, and “Song After Sadness”

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Hello and happy Friday. Known also as the last day the children will be in school until January 6th. So yes, I’m at my desk trying to get as much bang for my buck as I can, while I can. Here’s this week’s roundup:

Dear Ishmaelyou had me at Call me Ishmael. But I had forgotten how deeply I love you. These last two weeks I’ve been reading your story again. The one about which people in my house keep asking “Have they seen any whales yet?”; the one about which I keep saying, “No. This book is not about hunting whales.”

Ishmael, I’ve read your story so many times, but every time I fall in love again. That you named the Huzza Porpoise the Huzza Porpoise (The name is of my own bestowal… . I call him thus, because he always swims in hilarious shoals, which upon the broad sea keep tossing themselves to heaven…) . That you spend a whole chapter on cetology (Already we are boldly launched upon the deep; but soon we shall be lost in its unshored harborless immensities…) and then another whole chapter on the whiteness of the whale (But not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness… .).

This time, Ishmael, it’s on page 128 where I fall hard. Do you mind if I take this for a prayer?

“God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience.”

Ever yours,

Molly

stress  I’m remarkably unstressed this year regarding the holidays. I attribute this mostly to a continual lowering of my own and others’ expectations. But in case you need a friendly reminder about stress and a possible remedy:

“Nothing is that important. Just lie down.” –Natalie Goldberg

Sounds good to me.

Song After Sadness  This week, I’ve been reading Katie Ford‘s Blood Lyrics. I so admire how she manages to conjure the universal from the everyday, and how she addresses enormous subjects (death, war, despair) from her own, concrete place of being (“If we are at war let the orchards show it, / let the pear and fig fall prior to their time” — from “Our Long War”).

I’ve spent a lot of time reading and admiring “Song of Sadness” in particular. It seems apropos to this particular moment on earth.

Here’s the poem at the Academy of American Poets website.

 

I’ll be taking a little blog break over the holidays. See you back here in 2016. Thanks for reading.