Archive for the ‘Poems’ Category

"My poems are my children"

October 30, 2006

It was ten years ago, in April of 1996, that I found myself in a bookstore in the town of Lexington, Virginia. It was (as April always is) National Poetry Month, and the bookstore had some free postcards with singular lines from poems to celebrate the occasion. I devoured them, and many of those lines stay with me to this day –

“I want to tell you what the forests were like.
I shall have to speak in a forgotten language.”
(W.S. Merwin)

and this one which is particularly haunting:

“Night beside me, I turn from her toward day / Cloyed with the stillness of our common clay / and twitted by the birds in the morning / for not delighting in their brightened grey.”

Trouble is, I don’t remember who wrote that last one. And there was another one that I cannot quite remember, I’m sure I don’t have the words right, but it went something like this:

“My poems are my children / and I never laid a hand on them / not even when their crying kept me up in the night.”

It is those singular lines from poems that I carry with me. Joseph Brodsky describes poetry as “accelerated thinking”, but I think of poetry as a sort of talisman – all these lines from poems that I carry with me to bring intensity or the right kind of clarity or light to a given moment. Marina Tsvetaeva has a line that is meant to be critical but describes for me the role of poetry – “where inspiration is kept as though in a thermos!” What a mad, mad, mad, mad world!


October 27, 2006

I have been thinking a lot about marriage lately (surprise, surprise). A poem I read this morning was delightful:

I Married You

I married you
for all the wrong reasons,
charmed by your
dangerous family history,
by the innocent muscles, bulging
like hidden weapons
under your shirt,
by your naive ties, the colors
of painted scraps of sunset.
I was charmed too
by your assumptions
about me: my serenity—
that mirror waiting to be cracked,
my flashy acrobatics with knives
in the kitchen.
How wrong we both were
about each other,
and how happy we have been.

by Linda Pastan
from Queen of a Rainy Country

I want not, ever, to know this…

September 11, 2006

Most of my friends would probably describe me as a storyteller — and one prone to exaggeration at that. But there are a handful of stories I do not like to tell, and at the top of the list is about September 11, 2001. I had just moved to New York City, and worked near the World Trade Center, on Williams Street near the corner of Williams and Fulton. I got to work early for new job, eager to make a good impression, and found myself at ground zero on Sept. 11.

That day is a very bad memory that I do not care to summon, ever. But as bad as that was, the weeks that followed were worse. First, there was the waiting. Then there were the funerals. But mostly the whole city was just heartbroken. I remember a few days after it happened I saw a woman sobbing, violently sobbing, as she was grocery shopping at the supermarket near my apartment.

At one point I wrote about September 11, but I couldn’t write about what happened. I still can’t. Last week someone asked me about it, and although I managed to avoid discussing it, just the asking shut me down deep inside — I was not in a mood to talk about anything for several days.

This is not something I know; I’m generally a talkative, transparent person. My friends would probably tell you I don’t keep secrets well (it’s true: I don’t). So being unwilling to talk about something is not familiar or comfortable for me. At the same time, it’s not something I want to share. It’s deep, and dark, and terrifying. And there is nothing to be done about it; there is no comforting it. Poems have sustained me through a lot of things, but September 11 makes me think of this poem by CK Williams, which is — warning — pretty dark:


This time the hold-up man didn’t know a video-sound camera hidden up in a corner

was recording what was before it or more likely he didn’t care, opening up with his pistol,

not saying a word, on the clerk you see blurredly falling and you hear – I keep hearing –

crying, “God, God,” in that voice I was always afraid existed within us, the voice that knows

beyond illusion the irrevocability of death, beyond any dream of being not mortally injured –

“You’re just falling asleep, someone will save you, you’ll wake again, loved ones beside you. …”

Nothing of that: even torn by the flaws in the tape it was a voice that knew it was dying,

knew it was being–horrible–slaughtered, all that it knew and aspired to instantly voided;

such hopeless, astonished pleading, such overwhelmed, untempered pity for the self dying;

no indignation, no passion for justice, only woe, woe, woe, as he felt himself falling,

even falling knowing already he was dead, and how much I pray to myself I want not, ever,

to know this, how much I want to ask again why I must, with such perfect, detailed precision,

know this, this anguish, this agony for a departing self wishing only to stay, to endure,

knowing all the while that, having known, I always will know this torn, singular voice

of a soul calling “God!” as it sinks back through the darkness it came from, cancelled, annulled.

Oh the poems

August 2, 2006

As always my life is busy. Absurd. Bizarre. But every day, in the small moments, are the poems I read that seem to be all I’ve really got. A line from Rilke last night: “the bathing huntress heard the forest stir”. Or Yeats this morning: “They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds.” And Ernst Stadler: “when I use words without really / having known their strict openness”…

"refusing heaven"

June 14, 2006

Jack Gilbert is amazing. Many thanks to Anne for introducing him to me…

I gain in speed and confidence.

March 1, 2006

Ted Kooser is the current Poet Laurete. I wrote about his book “Local Wonders” a while back – but this poem of his both cracks me up and stops me in my tracks:

They had torn off my face at the office.
They had torn off my face at the office.
The night that I finally noticed
that it was not growing back, I decided
to slit my wrists. Nothing ran out;
I was empty. Both of my hands fell off
shortly thereafter. Now at my job
they allow me to type with the stumps.
It pleases them to have helped me,
and I gain in speed and confidence.

I first saw it a while back on Poetry Daily.

comments are broken

May 11, 2005

Comments have been broken for a couple weeks. My comment spam had picked up to an unbearable level, so I fooled around with blacklist and now every comment is blacklisted. damn. I can’t figure out what I’ve done wrong, so it may just be time to build a new blog, in wordpress or manila or something. Dave Pentecost wanted to leave the below comment about our poetry podcast, but wasn’t able, so he just emailed it to me:

A tear in my eye, a hoot at the end. Thanks to all concerned (who edited? the closing music was a kick) for a magical ride on the F train and walk through the flower district to work yesterday. Pod on, my friends! And read Dharma Bums – you folks are in a grand tradition. You just work too hard.

Remember that time in the jungle in the rain with the gringos?

March 21, 2005

“…shed the cinder skin of what goes on day by day in daylight, and start breathing.” I get wrapped up in my daily life, in my ambitions large and small (although mostly small). I start to worry about things like cappuccino and wifi, and my heart begins to shrink. Soon I’m unable to comprehend shopping, meeting, or eating outside of a strip mall. I don’t mean for it to happen; it just does. After a while I get tired of resisting and capitulate.

It was a gift from heaven, a suggestion from Dave Pentecost, an email titled “Jungle Proposal”, detailing a week spent among the Maya ruins, on the river, and in the highlands, carousing with all manner of strange people who have made their life in Chiapas. The email closed with the line “Good kickstart to the rest of your life. Lots of flowers.” He wasn’t kidding, on either count.

It’s like this: you get off the airplane, on to the tarmac, and right away the humidity and the heat hit you so hard it’s difficult to breathe. The cab drive in the middle of the night on rural Chiapas roads ought to be terrifying, but it isn’t. And then, dropped off in what appears to be the middle of the jungle, you hunt around and find someone who’s got beer and chocolate cake. The heat and sheer intensity of the jungle has you so keyed up you can’t sleep — this place is alive, full of stark beauty and a mean streak of fearlessness (even the ants in your own hut aren’t afraid) — and it is terrifying.

The jungle, the Maya, the reading (Gringos by Charles Portis, poetry by Eamon Grennan, a few pages torn from a Jim Harrison book, and finally the Hunter S. Thompson Memorial Rolling Stone magazine, something Dave brought with him and shoved into my hands before a long bus ride), the people (the backpackers, the tourists, the local folks who oblige the crazy gringos, the archaeologists with a taste for fearless exploring that I thought had disappeared, the artists who care deeply about the people around them, the great friends you didn’t know you had). It all swirls together and begins to boil, a thick, heavy soup that mashes up your mind and appears to be muddying your thinking right and left until suddenly you’re out in the open, the sun is clear and true, “morning riding your shoulders like a pet monkey, and all is pause for a cracked moment of amazement,” and suddenly you start to find yourself.

It’s strange — as the days went by without cell phone et. al. I start to recognize certain gnawings on my inside — certain appetites that had gone ignored for so long that they had withdrawn to the shadows of myself. I found myself desiring, deeply desiring, a chance to really write. To write with intensity, with ambition towards art. And I was surprised to re-discover an appetite for the jungle. I remembered the jungle from 10 years ago, but I wasn’t sure if that was a fluke or not. I don’t entirely trust my own memory, which enjoys its indulgences. So it was a great delight to discover I really do like the intensity and misery of the jungle; it suits me. And I found myself with an unexpected appetite for deep knowledge – to know more about the ancient Maya, about Chiapas today and the descendants of the ancient Maya who live there.

Tonight Sona called, and she said “I can hear the vacation in your voice.” All week long this Eamon Grennan poem was running through my head:

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 neighbour to neighbour —

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.

It’s those last few lines — that’s what my week felt like “ambition and rage all faded from the air”, and how I feel like I’ve shed something, and started breathing again.

My Return

March 1, 2005

My return to the blogging world after two weeks of silence. I’d like to take refuge in my recent fever, which kept in me in bed for days, or in a trip to New York to see the Gates — but I wasn’t too sick to play World of Warcraft and I didn’t go to New York until after the Gates came down.

I’m in New York now, taking a brief break between work-related meetings — although I did stop in to see my brother, who promptly took me around the corner to see his fiance Barbara, working in a new flower shop recently featured in the daily candy.

But what really caught my attention was today’s poem at poetry daily:

If You Were Still in That Novel Composed at the Head of the Stairs

Listen, nothing happens. Your whole body wants to turn from slush
to fire. Think of something that surprised you. Perhaps from the back
porch you saw a woman standing barefoot in a hospital gown by the
Mutability roses; come on now, there’s a story here. You ask the
disaster in and sitting on a kitchen chair she begins to sway in time to
unseen waves. Her green smell makes black pools in the table cloth
and you know whatever you have always been having done to you
was wounded out of her voice and the stiff height of the bed on the
fourth floor of the hospital in which a pale a shudder a breathing
hard escaped into stinging death. She’s crude, you think indignantly,
as she laughs at nothing at all. When you open the door on a rainy
mauve dusk and point the way out in your sternest manner, she
kisses you on the soft center of the cheek and whispers into your ear
with burning conviction that happiness might still burst into your life
like a marvelous catastrophe.

Cal Bedient

Denver Quarterly

Volume 39, Number 2 – 2004

The poem seemed especially appropriate given our travel companion; this morning, on the train ride up to New York from DC, Larry and I had a pleasant chat while a strange woman accosted Joshua and spilled out her life’s story. Somehow the poem seemed to get at the woman’s bizarre story (featuring, among other things, conjoined twins, fake ears, strippers, and medical school) for me. I hope he blogs it.


January 30, 2005

Yesterday morning Anne called my attention to The Writer’s Almanac poem for Saturday, by Robert Bly. I remember going to a small Robert Bly poetry reading at the local library in Williamsburg, Virginia while I was in college. I was a little mystified as to why this major poet was coming to town, and instead of reading at the college he was reading across the street at the local library. I was one of the only college students in the audience, which was pretty small. But it was a hell of a thing — he was more than just a poet, he was performer, drawing the audience close to him and reciting poems from memory as they seemed appropriate. It all seemed relatively stream-of-consciousness. He sat on the little stage and played some kind of Norse sitar. Sounds strange, I know, but I swear that it was a Norse sitar, with some connection to Vikings and his Northern European heritage. He was a real troubadour, strumming away a bit randomly, telling stories and breaking into song, talking to people in the audience, drawing folks in, reciting poems, and occasionally picking up the book of poems he was ostensibly there to promote.

In general, I’ve found Bly’s poetry hit and miss — sometimes it is stunningly beautiful, absolutely on-target and just perfect clarity, embodying my aesthetic ideal which might be best summed up by William Carlos Williams’ “No ideas but in things” mixed in equal measure with D. H. Lauwrence’s poem “Sense of Truth”: “You must fuse mind and wit with all the senses / before you can feel truth. / And if you can’t feel truth you can’t have any other / satisfactory sensual experience.”

But sometimes Bly’s poetry is just not there; it feels too abstract, too tossed off and unrefined, not deliberate enough. A lack of craft. That’s allowed, by the way — I don’t expect every poet and artist to create a perfect work of art every time. But I guess I get annoyed by Bly sometimes, because I feel like sometimes he does not approaching his poems with the intensity they need and deserve — and that he’s capable of. Nothing offends me like work that is deliberately below a known capacity for excellence.

My ranting about Bly aside, yesterday morning’s poem was truly beautiful:

Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter

It is a cold and snowy night. The main street is deserted.
The only things moving are swirls of snow.
As I lift the mailbox door, I feel its cold iron.
There is a privacy I love in this snowy night.
Driving around, I will waste more time.