Friday, February 20, 2015

The Gatekeeper

The world of words lost another poet this week when Philip Levine passed away on St. Valentine's Day.

Levine graduated from college and entered into adulthood like many of us do,  as a part-time poet and full-time something else, until he decided to shake off the shackles of normal, responsible, blue (or white or no) collar employment and go for it by returning to school to study for an MFA.

How many of us would love to say, "You know what? My soul is too big for this life. Fuck it. I'm going to become a career writer"? 

Full disclosure: He did teach after he got his MFA and, in fact, taught throughout his (second) career but he was a poet first.

He published his first book of poetry at age 35, won a Pulitzer at 67, and last year - at age 85 - was awarded the Wallace Stevens Award for proven mastery in the art of poetry by the Academy of American Poets. Tucked between those achievements his book Ashes: Poems New and Old received the first American Book Award for poetry, and he was the U.S. Poet Laureate in 2011 and 2012.

Levine said, "I believed...that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it value and dignity it did not...possess on its own. I thought too that if I could write about it I could come to understand it. I believed that if I could understand my life...I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life."

Raise your hand if you can relate. 

Goodbye, Philip Levine. You will be missed and remembered.

The Gatekeeper’s Children

This is the house of the very rich.
You can tell because it’s taken all
The colors and left only the spaces
Between colors where the absence
Of rage and hunger survives. If you could
Get close you could touch the embers
Of red, the tiny beaks of yellow,
That jab back, the sacred blue that mimics
The color of heaven. Behind the house
The children digging in the flower beds
Have been out there since dawn waiting
To be called in for hot chocolate or tea
Or the remnants of meals. No one can see
Them, even though children are meant
To be seen, and these are good kids
Who go on working in silence.
They’re called the gatekeeper’s children,
Though there is no gate nor—of course—
Any gatekeeper, but if there were
These would be his, the seven of them,
Heads bowed, knifing the earth. Is that rain,
Snow, or what smearing their vision?
Remember, in the beginning they agreed
To accept a sky that answered nothing,
They agreed to lower their eyes, to accept
The gifts the hard ground hoarded.
Even though they were only children
They agreed to draw no more breath
Than fire requires and yet never to burn.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Three White Leopards Sat Under a Juniper Tree

Ash Wednesday - TS Eliot
Because I do not hope to turn againBecause I do not hopeBecause I do not hope to turnDesiring this man’s gift and that man’s scopeI no longer strive to strive towards such things(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)Why should I mournThe vanished power of the usual reign? Because I do not hope to knowThe infirm glory of the positive hourBecause I do not thinkBecause I know I shall not knowThe one veritable transitory powerBecause I cannot drinkThere, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again Because I know that time is always timeAnd place is always and only placeAnd what is actual is actual only for one timeAnd only for one placeI rejoice that things are as they are andI renounce the blessèd faceAnd renounce the voiceBecause I cannot hope to turn againConsequently I rejoice, having to construct somethingUpon which to rejoice And pray to God to have mercy upon usAnd pray that I may forgetThese matters that with myself I too much discussToo much explainBecause I do not hope to turn againLet these words answerFor what is done, not to be done againMay the judgement not be too heavy upon us Because these wings are no longer wings to flyBut merely vans to beat the airThe air which is now thoroughly small and drySmaller and dryer than the willTeach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still. Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our deathPray for us now and at the hour of our death. II Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-treeIn the cool of the day, having fed to sateityOn my legs my heart my liver and that which had been containedIn the hollow round of my skull. And God saidShall these bones live? shall theseBones live? And that which had been containedIn the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:Because of the goodness of this LadyAnd because of her loveliness, and becauseShe honours the Virgin in meditation,We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembledProffer my deeds to oblivion, and my loveTo the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.It is this which recoversMy guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portionsWhich the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawnIn a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.There is no life in them. As I am forgottenAnd would be forgotten, so I would forgetThus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God saidProphesy to the wind, to the wind only for onlyThe wind will listen. And the bones sang chirpingWith the burden of the grasshopper, saying Lady of silencesCalm and distressedTorn and most wholeRose of memoryRose of forgetfulnessExhausted and life-givingWorried reposefulThe single RoseIs now the GardenWhere all loves endTerminate tormentOf love unsatisfiedThe greater tormentOf love satisfiedEnd of the endlessJourney to no endConclusion of all thatIs inconclusibleSpeech without word andWord of no speechGrace to the MotherFor the GardenWhere all love ends. Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shiningWe are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand,Forgetting themselves and each other, unitedIn the quiet of the desert. This is the land which yeShall divide by lot. And neither division nor unityMatters. This is the land. We have our inheritance. III At the first turning of the second stairI turned and saw belowThe same shape twisted on the banisterUnder the vapour in the fetid airStruggling with the devil of the stairs who wearsThe deceitul face of hope and of despair. At the second turning of the second stairI left them twisting, turning below;There were no more faces and the stair was dark,Damp, jaggèd, like an old man’s mouth drivelling, beyond repair,Or the toothed gullet of an agèd shark. At the first turning of the third stairWas a slotted window bellied like the figs’s fruitAnd beyond the hawthorn blossom and a pasture sceneThe broadbacked figure drest in blue and greenEnchanted the maytime with an antique flute.Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,Lilac and brown hair;Distraction, music of the flute, stops and steps of the mindover the third stair,Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despairClimbing the third stair. Lord, I am not worthyLord, I am not worthy but speak the word only. IV Who walked between the violet and the violetWhe walked betweenThe various ranks of varied greenGoing in white and blue, in Mary’s colour,Talking of trivial thingsIn ignorance and knowledge of eternal dolourWho moved among the others as they walked,Who then made strong the fountains and made fresh the springs Made cool the dry rock and made firm the sandIn blue of larkspur, blue of Mary’s colour,Sovegna vos Here are the years that walk between, bearingAway the fiddles and the flutes, restoringOne who moves in the time between sleep and waking, wearing White light folded, sheathing about her, folded.The new years walk, restoringThrough a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoringWith a new verse the ancient rhyme. RedeemThe time. RedeemThe unread vision in the higher dreamWhile jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse. The silent sister veiled in white and blueBetween the yews, behind the garden god,Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but spoke no word But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang downRedeem the time, redeem the dreamThe token of the word unheard, unspoken Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew And after this our exile V If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spentIf the unheard, unspokenWord is unspoken, unheard;Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,The Word without a word, the Word withinThe world and for the world;And the light shone in darkness andAgainst the Word the unstilled world still whirledAbout the centre of the silent Word. O my people, what have I done unto thee. Where shall the word be found, where will the wordResound? Not here, there is not enough silenceNot on the sea or on the islands, notOn the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,For those who walk in darknessBoth in the day time and in the night timeThe right time and the right place are not hereNo place of grace for those who avoid the faceNo time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice Will the veiled sister pray forThose who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, betweenHour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who waitIn darkness? Will the veiled sister prayFor children at the gateWho will not go away and cannot pray:Pray for those who chose and oppose O my people, what have I done unto thee. Will the veiled sister between the slenderYew trees pray for those who offend herAnd are terrified and cannot surrenderAnd affirm before the world and deny between the rocksIn the last desert before the last blue rocksThe desert in the garden the garden in the desertOf drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed. O my people. VI Although I do not hope to turn againAlthough I do not hopeAlthough I do not hope to turn Wavering between the profit and the lossIn this brief transit where the dreams crossThe dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these thingsFrom the wide window towards the granite shoreThe white sails still fly seaward, seaward flyingUnbroken wings And the lost heart stiffens and rejoicesIn the lost lilac and the lost sea voicesAnd the weak spirit quickens to rebelFor the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smellQuickens to recoverThe cry of quail and the whirling ploverAnd the blind eye createsThe empty forms between the ivory gatesAnd smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth This is the time of tension between dying and birthThe place of solitude where three dreams crossBetween blue rocksBut when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift awayLet the other yew be shaken and reply. Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehoodTeach us to care and not to careTeach us to sit stillEven among these rocks,Our peace in His willAnd even among these rocksSister, motherAnd spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,Suffer me not to be separated And let my cry come unto Thee.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Poetry: Not Unlike Sex

During an epically long and multitask-worthy conference call this morning I logged into Gmail to work through the backlog of spam and feed alerts.

One of the few great remaining things about email is that it gives you an excuse to binge read your feeds - like watching an entire season of House of Cards in a weekend. Seven unread posts from theSkimm? Yes, please.

My guilty e-binge is poetry - I have subscribed to nearly every poetry blog, email and podcast I've ever come across. That's a lotta poems, delivered directly to me like morphine through a PICC line, every day. 

Many, many people think they just don't get poetry. Which is just silly. Everyone gets songs, everyone remembers nursery rhymes and jump rope rhymes, and jokes.  

Which is why you do, actually, get poetry.

"But how do I know if a poem is good?" is nearly everyone's next concern. My advice is to stop worrying about what is generally - and by generally I mean academically - considered to be "good."

Good poetry, like good food and good music and good sex, is relative. Did you enjoy it? Yes? Then it was good.

Back to binging: Binge reading poetry - not unlike experimentation in college or playing Pandora roulette - helps you figure out what you like. 

Actually, the experimental sex metaphor is not a bad one. Let's go with it. (That's what he said).
  • Open a poem, whether in a book or randomly selected from a site like (Metaphorically find someone with whom you have a bit of chemestry)
  • Read the opening stanza (Kiss him/her)
  • Does it repel you? No? 
  • Read the next stanza (Press against him/her)
  • Are you bored? No? Read the next stanza (Let your hands wander)
  • Do you feel something? Yeah? Keep going (Keep going...)
  • Read the first stanza (Kiss)
  • Does it repel you? Yes? Move on to the next opportunity. Life is too short to be spent with bad poems and poor kissers
This is when you discover what moves you. In either context.

Try it. Click through the poems. You may give up on the first one and click away after reading one line, one stanza, two stanzas... Click on the next poem...and the next poem...keep clicking until you find yourself reading all the way through a poem. When you find the poem you want to read to the end I guarantee you will get it. 

Here is the poem that sent me down this path today. I've never heard of Craig Arnold but I kissed him and I liked it.

Poem of the Day: Bird-Understander

Of many reasons I love you here is one

the way you write me from the gate at the airport
so I can tell you everything will be alright

so you can tell me there is a bird
trapped in the terminal      all the people
ignoring it       because they do not know
what do with it       except to leave it alone
until it scares itself to death

it makes you terribly terribly sad

You wish you could take the bird outside
and set it free or       (failing that)
call a bird-understander
to come help the bird

All you can do is notice the bird
and feel for the bird       and write
to tell me how language feels
impossibly useless

but you are wrong

You are a bird-understander
better than I could ever be
who make so many noises
and call them song

These are your own words
your way of noticing
and saying plainly
of not turning away
from hurt

you have offered them
to me       I am only
giving them back

if only I could show you
how very useless
they are not

Friday, November 7, 2014

Big Shoulders and Little Cat Feet

In March 1914, Poetry magazine published the Carl Sandburg poem Chicago and introduced the literary world to the City of Big Shoulders. 

It is difficult to believe the poem celebrated (did it celebrate?) its 100th anniversary this year.

The graspability of that number - 100 -  is particularly difficult for me because when I was a tiny Chicagoan, memorizing poems and learning about poetry in grammar school, Sandburg was considered a modern poet having died only a decade earlier. Adults still made reference to Carl Sandburg like he was a sports columnist or the guy with the bowtie on the evening news. 

Although the great metropolis on the Great Lake is no longer the hog butcher for the world it is still stormy, husky and brawling. One hundred years isn't really that much time after all; just long enough for something modern to become a classic.

A century after Carl Sandburg was impressed by the fog rolling into the harbor, Chicago and its natives continue to influence poetry. 

These works are by two of my favorite modern, poetic Chicagoans:

Agoraphobia by Susan Hahn

It isn’t that she doesn’t
want to go to the marketplace, if only
to buy one small
compliment. She can remember each
time she went,
got one, took it
home, put it in
porcelain cup she kept
beside her bed.
She stopped 
going out of fear
of wanting too much to fill
the fragile container,
decorated her house in muted
and moved onto her bed
a color TV
which she watches
She likes the news, especially
the accidents what happen
when people travel too far 
from home.
They secure her place.
And when she faces
a scene filled with good
time, she wanders—
but only in her mind.

In Spite of Everything, the Stars by Edward Hirsch

Like a stunned piano, like a bucket
of fresh milk flung into the air
or a dozen fists of confetti
thrown hard at a bride
stepping down from the altar,
the stars surprise the sky.
Think of dazed stones
floating overhead, or an ocean
of starfish hung up to dry. Yes,
like a conductor’s expectant arm
about to lift toward the chorus,
or a juggler’s plates defying gravity,
or a hundred fastballs fired at once
and freezing in midair, the stars
startle the sky over the city.

And that’s why drunks leaning up
against abandoned buildings, women
hurrying home on deserted side streets,
policemen turning blind corners, and
even thieves stepping from alleys
all stare up at once. Why else do
sleepwalkers move toward the windows,
or old men drag flimsy lawn chairs
onto fire escapes, or hardened criminals
press sad foreheads to steel bars?
Because the night is alive with lamps!
That’s why in dark houses all over the city
dreams stir in the pillows, a million
plumes of breath rise into the sky.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Poet You Should Know - Clementine von Radics

Is Clementine von Radics on your "emerging poets" radar?

You have one of those, right? If you went to a liberal arts college they embedded an EPR chip in your neck at graduation. If you went to a universidad gigante your Sophomore Lit prof should have provided you with a radio frequency and code book.

Either way, if you aren't familiar with her work, we can remedy that situation right here and now.

Source unknown
More than just an astounding name, Clementine von Radics is  a modern philosopher, a fantastically gifted writer, and the clichéd to a crisp but true voice of her generation. 

As such she is everywhere poetry is represented in social media, and she's published two books of work for the tactile among us: Home and As Often as Miracles.

Her Goodreads profile gives you a good indication of what her work will be like:

Clementine von Radics likes reading palms and getting friendship tattoos. She drinks a lot of cheap red wine and all the women in her family are beautiful. She is the author of As Often As Miracles and a founder and collective member of Where Are You Press. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

From Ten Love Letters
It’s 11 am and I’m sitting in a restaurant 
3 beers in. Believe me, even I’m surprised 
I’m still alive sometimes. 
I have been drinking about you for 2 days. 
Lately you remind me of a wild thing 
chewing through its foot. But you
are already free and I don’t know what to do 
except trace the rough line of your jaw
and try not to place blame.
Here is the truth: It is hard to be in love 
with someone who is in love someone else. 
I don’t know how to turn that into poetry.

I love this one....

But my heart is an old house
(the kind my mother
grew up in)
hell to heat and cool
and faulty in the wiring
and though it’s nice to look at
I have no business
inviting lovers in.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Samhain's Sisters

Credit: Holger Motzkau
Every autumn Halloween - that attention whore - gets all the holiday face time. Which, I admit, is justified. Who doesn't love to try on a different side of themselves, binge on nostalgia and party anonymously? Admit it, we all do.

But this year, do yourself a favor. When the booze-stained sexy witch costume or sexy fireman costume... or sexy nerd costume?... is tossed into the dumpster and the sugar buzz evaporates, stop and take some time to notice a couple of underrepresented holidays: All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

If you want a history or theology lesson about Samhain, Hallowe'en, and the like, there are better places to get it.  

But if you are interested in a bit of poetry associated with Allhallowtide, keep scrolling.

For all the Saints - Protestant Hymn

(aka - poetry set to music)

For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed
Alleluia, Alleluia! (*)

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
For the Apostles’ glorious company,
Who bearing forth the Cross o’er land and sea,
Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee:
For the Evangelists, by whose blest word,
Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord,
Is fair and fruitful, be Thy Name adored.
For Martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Sugar skulls are more than body art

Calavras are used to celebrate the Latin American version of All Souls Day: Dia de los Muertos.

Poem for Day of the Dead - Author Unknown

Do not stand at my grave and weep. 
I am not there, I do not sleep. 
I am a thousand winds that blow. 
I am the diamond glints on the snow. 
I am the sunlight on the ripened grain. 
I am the gentle Autumn's rain. 

When you awaken in the morning hush, 
I am the swift uplifting rush 
of quiet birds in circled flight. 
I am the soft stars that shine at night. 
Do not stand at my grave and cry: 
I am not there, I did not die. 

From Day After Day of the Dead - Nathanial Mackey
“While we’re alive,” we kept
repeating. Tongues, throats,
roofs of our mouths bone dry,
skeletons we’d someday
Panicky masks we wore for
effect more than effect,
more real than we’d admit...
No longer wanting to know
what soul was, happy to
shadow, know touch...
Happy to have sun at our
backs, way led by shadow,
happy to have bodies, block
Afternoon sun lighting leaf,
glint of glass, no matter what,
about to be out of body it
Soon to be shadowless we thought,
said we thought, not to be offguard, caught out.
Gray morning we
to be done with, requiem so
sweet we forgot what it lamented,
turning to sugar, we

Monday, October 28, 2013

A Poet You Should Know - Anna Akhmatova

Anna Andreyevna Gorenko, better known by the pen name Anna Akhmatova, was a Russian modernist poet, and is one of the most acclaimed writers in the Russian canon.
Why is she not better known to readers outside Russia? Because she was a woman? Because she died during the cold war and we just didn't pay attention? Even today it is difficult to find information online about Akhmatova. Either her work is not typically studied in the west, or the research and papers are not widely published. 
Akhmatova's work ranges from short lyric poems to intricately structured cycles, such as Requiem , her tragic masterpiece about the Stalinist terror. Her style, characterized by its economy and emotional restraint, was strikingly original and distinctive to her contemporaries. 
(Primarily purloined from The Source of All Things Knowable)

They Didn’t Meet Me
They didn’t meet me, roamed,
On steps with  lanterns bright.
I entered quiet home
In murky, pail moonlight.
Under a lamp’s green halo,
With smile of kept in rage,
My friend said, “Cinderella,
Your voice is very strange…”
A cricket plays its fiddle;
A fire-place grew black.
Oh, someone took my little
White shoe as a keep-sake,
And gave me three carnations,
While casting dawn eyes –.
My sins for accusations,
You couldn’t be disguised.
And heart hates to believe in
The time, that’s close too,
When he will ask for women
To try on my white shoe.
Anna Akhmatova