an August poem

AnneS

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.

friday roundup: “or none, or few” edition

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view from my window, through blinds: “where yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang”

Hello Reader. I’ve thrown the calendar to the wind lately… or perhaps it has thrown me to the wind. Either way, I’m just showing up here when I feel like I can. So, happy Friday and here’s what I have for a roundup this week:

book flood  I’ve heard a lot of people say this year that they’re having a hard time getting into the holiday spirit. I am one of them. Indeed, all I’ve done holiday-wise is 1. book our flights back to the Old Country, and 2. receive, gratefully, the holly boughs my neighbor brought over (still sitting in their paper grocery bag) and the poinsettia my other neighbor brought over (still wrapped in its plastic). But a few things have lifted my spirits:

A friend reminded me this week to sing, so I’ve been singing.

And people are lighting candles in the dark for Hanukkah.

And in Iceland there is this thing called the Christmas Book Flood. Apparently, a book (an actual, physical book) is the best holiday gift to give/get in Iceland. Also, according to NPR, Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world. I don’t know about you, but I’m packing now. Here’s more on the Christmas Book Flood if you need something to lift your boat.

a personal sheaf of riches  Somewhere this week (I wish I could remember where—some other writerly type probably shared it on Facebook) I came across this article describing William Stafford‘s daily writing practice. According to the article, his daily writing always included four things:

  1. The date
  2. A few lines of prose on a recent experience, encounter, dream, etc.
  3. An aphorism
  4. “something like a poem… or notes toward a poem… or just an exploratory set of lines that never became a poem”

If you’re looking for a framework for your daily (or, if you’re like me, almost-daily) writing practice, you could do worse.

I’ve been using this framework for the last several days and I have to say that it’s gotten me out of my mind and memory and into the actual, physical world more than I might otherwise be. I credit numbers 2 and 3 for this.

I’ve also noticed (and this has nothing to do directly with William Stafford’s framework) that, if you have a daily or nearly-daily writing practice, even when it feels like you haven’t been writing very many poems lately (who, me?), you end up with, as the article says, “a personal sheaf of riches” from which to write poems.

“or none, or few”  I try to be always memorizing a poem, or sometimes a poetic block of prose. Sometimes I fall down on the job, but mostly I stick to it, although I am slow about it. I’ve found that memorization helps me notice things I hadn’t noticed before about a poem (also, reciting a poem is a great way to soothe anxiety for me). Example: Until I memorized it, I never really noticed that in Jack Gilbert’s “Poem for Laura,” all the lines end with one of the following words: life, pain, heart, sorrow, love, night. Once I noticed, I could not believe I hadn’t noticed before. I hereby rest my case for memorization.

At any rate, last week and this, I’ve been memorizing Sonnet 73 (Shakespeare). Because it’s that time of year “When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang.” (At least, it is here in the Peninsula Town; I know it’s more wintry other places).

What I’ve noticed is that Shakespeare so often reverses our expectations. In that phrase—”When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang”—the expected progression would be to go from few to none, not none to few.

He also uses syntax that allows slips of meaning. Look at this bit of the poem, which comes right after the line I quoted above:

Upon the boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

I love that “bare ruined choirs” might be an appositive to describe the boughs which shake against the (noun) cold, or the choirs might be their own thing altogether against which the boughs shake, with cold, bare, and ruined modifying choirs.

Also, note what he does with rhythm in the second line above. After a line of perfect iambic pentameter (da-DAH, da-DAH, da-DAH, da-DAH, da-DAH), he begins the second line with five stressed syllables in a row, then an unstressed syllable, then three more stressed syllables.

Oh, Bill, you still amaze us.

Anyway, I’ll stop talking now and let the poem speak for itself: here is the whole of Sonnet 73.

I wish for everyone at least a few yellow leaves still hanging against the graying landscape—literally and figuratively. Thanks for reading.

 

a poem on memorial day

"Night Bombers Getting Off from the Trezennes Aerodome, 1917" by Harold Wyllie (wikimedia)

“Night Bombers Getting Off from the Trezennes Aerodome, 1917” by Harold Wyllie (wikimedia)

THE EMBANKMENT
(The Fantasia of a Fallen Gentleman on a Cold, Bitter Night)

Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy.
In a flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.
Now I see
That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy.
Oh, God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.

by T. E. Hulme (16 September 1883 – 28 September 1917)

one by one

Six Persimmons, Muqi 13th century, wikimedia

Six Persimmons, Muqi 13th century, wikimedia

In my little circle of beloveds — family, friends — there has been a lot of loss and suffering lately.

This morning I woke up headache-y, but needing a particular poem. I couldn’t remember its title, but knew it was by Thomas Lynch. I remembered reading it for the first time when a friend made a copy of a handout she’d received in a poetry class long enough ago that there was no hope of my having filed it electronically.

I remembered: there is a blue bowl in the poem. There is a tree.

I knew once the headache fog lifted, I would have to go out into the garage and paw through old files. I knew this could take me all day (or all week), but I needed that poem.

By some miracle I found it after about five minutes of searching. Thank you, Universe.

This poem reminds me of something a friend of blessed memory used to say: Yesterday is gone and tomorrow is not yet promised to us. Today is all we have.

And although it is hard — probably impossible — to live that way every day (I, for example, am thinking about how I must thaw the meat for tomorrow’s dinner), this poem is a good reminder of Today is all we have.

Here is:

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A NOTE ON THE RAPTURE TO HIS TRUE LOVE by Thomas Lynch

A blue bowl on the table in the dining room
fills with sunlight. From a sunlit room
I watch my neighbor’s sugar maple turn
to shades of gold. It’s late September. Soon…
Soon as I’m able I intend to turn
to gold myself. Somewhere I’ve read that soon
they’ll have a formula for prime numbers
and once they do, the world’s supposed to end
the way my neighbor always said it would —
in fire. I bet we’ll all be given numbers
divisible by One and by themselves
and told to stand in line the way you would
for prime cuts at the butcher’s. In the end,
maybe it’s every man for himself.
Maybe it’s someone hollering All Hands On
Deck! Abandon Ship! Women and Children First!
Anyway, I’d like to get my hands on
you. I’d like to kiss your eyelids and make love
as if it were our last time, or the first,
or else the one and only form of love
divisible by which I yet remain myself.
Mary, folks are disappearing one by one.
They turn to gold and vanish like the leaves
of sugar maples. But we can save ourselves.
We’ll pick our own salvations, one by one,
from a blue bowl full of sunlight until none is left.

from Still Life in Milford by Thomas Lynch
Originally published in Poetry East: Origins (#43)

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Hug your beloveds. Say a little prayer for peace and other miracles. Choose your salvations one by one.