Archive for the ‘Poems’ Category

The “new” math of community

March 3, 2010

This post on the crazy new math of the modern era drives me crazy.

Just like I don’t believe in heroes, I don’t believe in genius. I believe in community.

The long tail is everywhere, even poetry. The age of the elite creator is replaced by your neighbor the poet/journalist/insert-craft-here. Is there really a problem with anyone being able to write a poem? Soon, with 3-D printing, it won’t just be “media” that anyone can create. Soon it will be anything – shoes, mobile phones, vehicles. (Think I’m crazy? Read this and this and this.) And then, once anyone can create anything, brands and elite notions of excellence will be obsolete. It will all come down to relationship — to my neighbor (physical or digital) and my neighbor’s work. We will really dwell in our communities — be they geographical or otherwise. Personal relationships will matter — and not much else. It’s a beautiful chaotic day that is arriving / has arrived. Instead of lamenting the death of something (“The loss would be incalculable“), celebrate the creation of a radical new way of organizing the world. Burn the money, and the press used to print it. This is something completely different.

Poetry Month — Poetry Festival

April 7, 2009

“April is the cruelest month…” and it is National Poetry Month. I probably write more on this blog about poetry than about anything else. Poetry is art that sustains me; it is the quiet commentary on my day. Little things all around me call to mind lines from poems; my inner life lives in the company of poems. I am reminded of the George Bradley poem “Paideia” which begins:

My poems are my children, and I swear
on the graves of my ancestors
I never laid a hand on them,
not even when they exasperated me,
when caring for them left me exhausted
and their cries in the night disturbed my sleep.

I rarely write poetry; I read it and memorize it. Writing real poems seems to me like enormously hard work. But poetry is such an enormous part of my private life, such a part of my joy (and in fact all of my emotions), that when Michael Ansara invited me to help start the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, I knew there was only one answer. Last year we managed to pull of an incredible festival in Lowell, with readings by Marjorie Agosin, Lucie Brock-Broido, Martín Espada, Rhina Espaillat, Regie Gibson, Robert Pinsky, Nick Flynn, and Ed Sanders that left me wanting for more. I ended up buying many more volumes of poetry following the festival than I should have, but “Ink runs from the corners of my mouth. / There is no happiness like mine. / I have been eating poetry.” I was particularly thrilled to hear Robert Pinsky read one of my favorite poems, Samurai Song.

We had so much fun with last year’s festival, we are organizing it again – again in Lowell (Jack Keraouc’s hometown), this time October 16 & 17. I’m hosting a couple of planning meetings in April at EchoDitto’s Cambridge office – the first one is tonight! – so please ping me if you’d like to come. We need all the help we can get!

Africa Reading

April 4, 2009

My friend and colleague Chris is headed to Africa next week for a long, well-deserved vacation. I was trying to think of what reading I could recommend on Africa — good vacation reading, good travel reading — and realized how little I have read about the continent of my birth. I immediately thought of Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow, a stunning novel about going to Africa, although not particularly African. It is an astonishing ode to Living and strikes me as fine vacation reading.

I only recently read Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Walker; it is a very different book from Henderson the Rain King — a memoir about growing up in Rhodesia / ZImbabwe. It is a very dark book in some ways — but she is such a terrific writer that it is unstoppable. The smells and sounds, the very feeling of the tropics comes through with enormous intensity.

The final two books were not Africa related but were good reading for a long traveling vacation. Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters by Annie Dillard is serious, thoughful, artful, and just plain beautiful. The first thing you should do is read the chapter “Living like Weasels”. Nothing else in the book matters. I’m not even sure I can remember anything else in the book – but that one essay burns brightly in my memory, and I return to it often. It is rocket fuel – perfect for rejuvenating the mind and the spirit while away from home.

Finally, all travel requires poems. Still Life with Waterfall: Poems by Eamon Grennan is my regular companion. This book has my favorite all-time break-up poem and my favorite all-time love poem. The break up poem is called “To Grasp the Nettle” and it is on page 20. The Love poem is called “White Water” and it is on page 42. Fantods are butterflies in the stomach.

I made one small request of Chris. I asked him to find one night in Africa when the moon is high and full and brilliant. Step outside and read out loud, speaking to the sky, the poem “Full Moon” on page 54 of “Still Life with Waterfall”… “and start breathing.”

A letter to my son at 10 weeks old

March 10, 2009

You are almost three months old. Ninety days. Twelve weeks. The world already looks like a different place. During your short life a lot has happened: a new president, a terrifying economy, a snowy winter giving way to a wet spring. I still don’t know how to play the piano. I have not written as many poems as I had hoped. Your mother grows more beautiful by the day. I walk the dog every night. The dog continues to carefully observe the squirrels’ routine, preparing. I struggle with my work and my weight. The same books stare at me from the bedside table. I despair at the state of my basement study.

Every night I hold you and I hear another instrument enter the arrangement; your life is full of promise and mystery. I try to imagine your future; I am certain it will be different than mine, but how? You will not grow up with monkeys in the backyard, or large lizards in the driveway. There will be no mongoose creeping around your bedroom window, no ever-present geckos on the walls, clucking you to sleep. “I want to tell what the forests were like / I will have to speak in a forgotten language.” The tropical insects will not sing you to sleep; the monsoon rain will not leave you in a thundering stormy silence.

Or maybe I assume too much. Maybe I will convince your mother to move to the tropics, to live in some fabled rainforest, shrouded in mist, and somehow manage a living. What will you discover in your life? Will you be a scuba diver, reveling in the mysteries of the ocean? Will you walk on another planet, or at least the moon? What will the stars offer you? What beautiful things will you see in math? What animals will you share your life with? What plants will you cultivate and come to love?

The physical world has always called to me, but somehow my modern life, my chosen vocation, takes me far afield from the natural and instead deep into the machine, the mechanical, the virtual, the intangible. Sometimes I feel lost in that library of Borges. That’s why I imagine for you a life rich in the astonishing varieties of nature, full of the earth. I am reminded of a Charlie Smith poem called “Modern Art” but suddenly I cannot remember any of the words.

A life of art; A life of science; A life of discovery; A life of love. These are the things I desire for you, the prayer I say each night for my little boy. Tonight the moon is one phase shy of full, but it fills the night sky despite the clouds:

Full Moon

Clouds curdle round it, crack open, let it through.
Radiance shaded by cloudshapes; fat fruit
of incandescence; sphere of peeled silver. I wonder
what living by such light would be: soft
collusion of moonshine with grey gables; walls
in a whitewashed trance; argentine grass; twigs
limned in pewter. Ambition and rage all faded
from the air, the air subdued to a new sense
of self, something intimate and sure about the way
it whispers subtle truths neighbor to neighbor–
or how its ashen luminescence slides inside things
so they shed the cinder skin of what goes on
day by day in daylight, and start breathing.

By Eamon Grennan

Sunday Mornings in Fascist Spain`

November 20, 2008

These days I’m reading “Sunday Mornings in Fascist Spain” by Willis Barnstone. It’s out of print so I had to track down a copy, a fairly straightforward task in this wired age. How I came to be reading this particular memoir is odd in and of itself; I don’t have any idea who Willis Barnstone is.

Ten or eleven years ago, in the winter of 1997, I visited Haiti for a few weeks. An acquaintance of my parents’ heard of my impending travel, and asked me to bring this book to his brother. I carried the book around Haiti for a couple weeks, never reading it but reading the title over and over again. Haiti was in complete disarray and it took me some time to track down my friend’s brother. It seemed like it was going to be an odd quixotic quest that would end without delivery of the book until finally I found him in that strange, dis-jointed semi-providential way people found each other before mobile phones in a city without street names. The brother invited me in to his house, and we sat across from each other, a bit uncomfortable, nothing really in common, or so it seemed, so I handed him the book and left after just a few minutes of silence and snippets of conversation.

But I continued to carry around the title of that book, “Sunday Mornings in Fascist Spain”. A few years later another friend gave me a translation of C. P. Cavafy’s poems by a woman named Aliki Barnstone; I wondered if she was related to the Willis Barnstone of the Haiti Brother Book Quest. Turns out she’s Willis’ daughter (and a fine translator of poems!).

The title of the book stayed with me, completely without any context and so my imagination added context and layered meaning. When Morra and I traveled around Spain, I would find myself imagining Sunday Mornings in this particular spot in Spain half a century ago. But still I had not read the book. Finally, inexplicably, a month ago I tracked down the book online and ordered it. The siren call of that title had finally become to great to resist, and so now I find myself devouring Barnstone’s delicious memoir of poetry and a time when American and indeed the World was quite different.

Thus my life draws fuel ineluctably from triumph.

April 16, 2008

It’s National Poetry Month, and given my love of poetry I feel compelled to post something about poetry. I have always been a fan of Jim Harrison. I’ve often quoted his writing on this blog. But a few weeks ago I saw on Poetry Daily one of his poems that boldly spoke to me – titled simply “27“.

First I have to explain Poetry Daily. I confess I’m a little reluctant to admit its the start page on my browser, my “home” page. I guess I’ve always found bite-size morsels of poetry unsatisfying, not engaging enough, a little too stranded out there in the world without context. Poetry Daily seems like it should be too least-common-denominator to be satisfying. But in fact, I frequently find it satisfying. Whoever picks those poems has taste similar to mine at least part of the time.

So a few weeks ago Harrison’s “27” showed up. It was such a sharp, hard-edged poem, with a narrative force to it and more than a bit of mystery. I loved it, even with its bleak, dark commentary. I looked up the book, Letters to Yesenin. A new one for me. Hmmm. I ordered a copy.

I love reading an excellent book of poems, one that holds together and has a narrative force to it. It has been a while since I’ve read a book of poems that held together so tightly, with such a taut and compelling emotional thread driving it along. But Letters to Yesenin is exactly that sort of book of poems – one long poem, really. So good I couldn’t stop reading it and re-reading it. It’s dark, to be sure – Harrison wrote the book when he was a younger man, in the 1970s, when he was probably close to my age (30). He’s living as a hard-scrabble farmer, with his wife and small children, and is full of despair at the dead-end his life seems to have found, a dead-end without the excitement and engagement of the literary life he desires. Harrison writes the poems in a deep depression, as intimate letters to the Russian poet Yesenin (who wrote his last poem in his own blood and hung himself at 1925). Curiously, I had a hard time finding much Yesenin’s work online. But Harrison’s poems begin in the darkness of real despair, considering suicide like Yesenin, and ultimately through the letters to Yesenin, Harrision talks himself, ever so slowly, out of his depression and back into a love of life again.

It is a compelling and intense emotional journey. Hayden Carruth called it “one of the best [books of poems] in the past twenty-five years of American writing”. I’m forced to agree. It was fine. Thus my life draws fuel ineluctably from triumph.

Prayer for Henry James Dahl

November 17, 2007

(photos of Henry are here…)

Dear Lord, fire-eating custodian of my soul,
author of hermaphrodites, radishes,
and Arizona’s rosy sandstone,
please protect this wet-cheeked baby
from disabling griefs. Help him sense when
to rise to his feet and make his desires known,
and when to hit the proverbial dirt. On nights
it pleases thee to keep him sleepless, summon
crickets, frogs and your chorus of nocturnal
birds so he won’t conclude the earth’s gone mute.
Make him astute as Egyptian labyrinths that keep
the deads’ privacy inviolate. Give him his mother’s
swimming ability. Make him so charismatic
that even pigeons flirt with him, in their nervous,
avian way. Grant him the clearmindedness
of a midwife who never winces when tickled.
Let him be adventurous as a menu of ox tongue hash,
lemon rind wine and pinecone Jell-O. Fill him with awe:
for the seasons, minarets’ sawtoothed peaks,
the breathing of cathedrals, and all that lives —
for one radiant day or sixty pitiful years.
Bravely, he has ventured among us, disguised
as a new comer, shedding remarkably few tears.

(by Amy Gerstler. Originally titled “Prayer for Jackson”)


November 1, 2007

As many friends know, I love poetry. It fuels me and gives me inspiration and energy. But I generally don’t write poetry; I read other people’s poems, and memorize my favorite ones. I don’t write poetry because it is a fine art, a serious craft, and to come to it requires diligence, patience, intensity. Who wants to write a bad poem? It’s worth the effort to write a good poem – but it’s a lot of work. So given my respect for the craft, and the effort involved, I don’t write poems.

That’s not to say I don’t want to write poems; I just don’t want to write bad poems. There’s enough bad poetry in the world – more than enough. But I’m also an insomniac, and I am sometimes prone to wake in the middle of the night and what else is there to do but write a poem? More often than not an intense dream has driven me to awake suddenly, with a stark awareness of the night, and that’s a place where many of the few poems I have written have been born.

My desire to write excellent poems constricts me; it prevents me from writing too many poems, and it prevents me from publishing (or seeking publication) of most of my poems. Something has changed for me today; I found this bit of a poem I had written some time ago and felt the impulse to publish it on I am also constricted by the intimacy of my poems; given that my dreams provide the raw wood for most of my poems, and my dreams tend toward the intense and intimate, I’m further reluctant to share them publicly. There is the dark stuff, taken from the depths of the subconscious, and although it may be hard to make sense of, it has power and it is intimate and revealing in oblique ways.

Despite all that, I’ve published this poem and maybe that’s the small opening required to publish more – and more importantly, to write better poems.

Shard of a poem inspired by a dream

November 1, 2007

The first time I cried,
there were no tears.
You spoke to me from a dream,
and told me to shave my beard.

My beard? My strength?

I woke up and went swimming in the lake,
cold and dark in late September,

Inside, a painting on the wall,
provenance unknown, ugly
but from a distance decent.

My hair wet, I watched the leaves outside
and waited for the rain.

The cat on the wide windowsill
turned her head as if to speak,
as if she sensed my mouth about to open,
and the forest quiet kept my self to a minimum.

For Aunt Joey

December 29, 2006

Martina Austin is the wife of Paul Austin, my grandmother’s nephew. Martina sent me this remembrance about Joey:

It is three weeks to the day since Aunt Joey passed on and two-and-half weeks since Paul and I had the honor to stand with our family at Assumption Catholic Church in Bellingham to celebrate her life and mourn her passing.

Aunt Joey was an extraordinary woman who took on the many challenges in her life with common sense, spunk, and grace, and with the steadfast assistance and devotion of her husband, our Uncle Peter. They lived busy lives as professionals, participants in their church and communities, and parents, not only to Mary Helene and Jim, but to other children who sojourned under Peter and Joey’s roof. I stand in profound admiration of them both.

As we drove to the services at Assumption Church, I was struck by the winter landscape. Browns and grays, the silhouettes of trees standing before quietly clouded skies. Nature’s work is done, and the year is coming to a close, I thought. It’s going underground to be able to come forth again as spring when the sun grows stronger and the skies clear.

Let Evening Come

Let the light of late afternoon
Shine through chinks in the barn, moving
Up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the crickets take up chafing
As a woman takes up her needles
And her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
In long grass. Let the stars appear
And the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
Go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
In the oats, to air in the lung
Let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
Be afraid. God does not leave us
Comfortless, so let evening come.

–Jane Kenyon

Aunt Joey accomplished so very much personally, and as a mother, wife, citizen. She and Uncle Peter raised Jim and Mary Helene to be thoughtful people who live meaningful lives and who have, in turn, raised their children – Jesse, Sarah, Tony; Nicco and Peter – to do the same; they are making a difference in our world. Aunt Joey surely sighed many times over a job magnificently done.

I am thankful for our visits with Aunt Joey and Uncle Peter, first at Pollock Pines, and then in Bellingham. We talked of so many things – raising children, religion, and ethics mixed in with cooking, movies, stories, and playing Monopoly. She always listened, really listened, and always encouraged each of us – Paul, James, Meridian, and me – in what we were doing.

So the year passes into the next, and Aunt Joey passed from this life into the next, into the fullness of God which she so fervently sought. Bless her soul.