Making Up for April’s Tweets: Beyond the #FavoriteLine

After an April chock-full of every poet and poetry reader’s tweeted first and favorite lines, I’d like to share some lines that didn’t fit into 140 characters, or didn’t make sense extracted from their surroundings.

Although there are plenty of terrific “stand-alone” lines, when I set myself the goal of sharing a #FavoriteLine or #1stLine throughout the month, I realized that most of my favorites are favorites for what comes before or after, inextricable from the poems they live in. In fact, on the last day of the month, I broke down and cheated, slipping in a virgule so that I could share the magical ending of James Wright’s “A Blessing”:

twitterapril

The poem is what its title says – a blessing. Read it here.

Some other lines that kept coming to me in April – and have been part of my mental landscape in many cases since I first started reading poetry — that would have made little sense by themselves:

“I got so I could take his name” (Emily Dickinson) (link; ignore the reading)

“Bow-wow, bow-wow, bow-wow” (Mark Doty, “Golden Retrievals”) (link)

“I, having loved ever since I was a child, a few things” (Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Modern Declaration”) (link)

“And we let him in” (Thomas Hardy, “Snow in the Suburbs”) (link)

“No doubt left. Enough deceiving” (James Agee, “No doubt left. Enough deceiving” – included at the end of this post)

“Ah, Grief, I should not treat you/like a homeless dog” (Denise Levertov, “Talking to Grief”) (link)

“Love is not all, it is not meat nor drink” (actually, maybe that does work by itself, especially since so many poetry lovers will immediately hear the next lines –

Nor slumber, nor a roof against the rain, nor yet
A floating spar to men that sink, and rise, and sink and rise again… (link)

The favorite-line doesn’t favor enjambment, so I couldn’t tweet such lines as those one can’t hear without their wrap-around completion:

“Ah love, let us be true/to one another” (Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”) (link)

“Is that dance slowing in the mind of man/that made him think the universe could hum” (Theodore Roethke, “The Dance” in “Four for Sir John Davies” – included at the end of this post)

“…Whatever/what is is is what/I want.” (Galway Kinnell)

The whole poem is not much longer, so I’ll include it here – memorizable the first time you read it!

“Prayer,” by Galway Kinnell, from A New Selected Poems (Mariner Books).

Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.

Finally, when I posted my chosen first or favorite lines for #NationalPoetryMonth, I felt a little sheepish about space constraints preventing me from including a link or the text of the whole poem. So here are some of those lines with links to their poems.

#1stLine: “He thought he kept the universe alone”—Robert Frost “The Most of It” (included at the end of this post)

#FavoriteLine: “Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.” –Walt Whitman “A Noiseless Patient Spider” (link)

#FavoriteLine: “Prove that I lie”—WB Yeats “Her Anxiety” (link) (ignore the reading)

#FavoriteLine: “To the eyes of a man of imagination, nature is imagination itself”—William Blake, Letter

The context is this paragraph, brilliantly cited by W.S. Merwin in his 2010 Poet Laureate Inaugural Reading, “The Imagination of Man’:

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way”. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of a man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”

#FavoriteLine:“The certainty of others—the life, love, sight, hearing of others.”—Walt Whitman “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (link)

#FavoriteLine:“I can remember when he was a pup”—Robert Frost“The Span of Life”
(link) (ignore the reading)

#FavoriteLine: “All that I saw was China, China, China.”—Richard Wilbur “Digging for China” (link to the Writers Almanac with text and reading)

Poems for which there is no good online link (I recommend the books!):

No doubt left. Enough deceiving.

James Agee (from Promise Me Voyage – that title is a quote from Hart Crane)

No doubt left. Enough deceiving.
Now I know you do not love.
Now you know I do not love.
Now we know we do not love.
No more doubt. No more
deceiving.
Yet there is pity in us for each other
And better times are almost fresh as true.
The dog returns. And the man to his mother.
And tides. And you to me. And I to you.
And we are cowardly kind the cruellest way,
Feeling the cliff unmorsel from our heels
And knowing balance gone, we smile, and stay
A little, whirling our arms like desperate wheels.

Four for Sir John Davies:

The Dance

Theodore Roethke (from Words for the Wind)

Is that dance slowing in the mind of man
That made him think the universe could hum?
That great wheel turns its axle when it can;
I need a place to sing, and dancing-room,
And I have made a promise to my ears
I’ll sing and whistle romping with the bears.

For they are all my friends: I saw one slide
Down a steep hillside on a cake of ice,—
Or was that in a book? I think with pride:
A caged bear rarely does the same thing twice
In the same way: O watch his body sway!—
This animal remembering to be gay.

I tried to fling my shadow at the moon,
The while my blood leaped with a wordless song.
Though dancing needs a master, I had none
To teach my toes to listen to my tongue.
But what I learned there, dancing all alone,
Was not the joyless motion of a stone.

I take this cadence from a man named Yeats;
I take it, and I give it back again:
For other tunes and other wanton beats
Have tossed my heart and fiddled through my brain.
Yes, I was dancing-mad, and how
That came to be the bears and Yeats would know.

The Most of It

Robert Frost (from any good Frost collection)

He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree–hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder–broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter–love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff’s talus on the other side,
And then in the far distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush—and that was all.

The Debt of It: To Six Poets and a Moose

moose
Not the actual moose I saw (I had no camera) but very similar

As poet Leslie McGrath wrote in selecting my poem “The Pity of It” for the Tiferet Journal 2016 Poetry Award, the poem is “a paean to Robert Frost’s ‘The Most of It.’” But my debt is to more than Frost, and describing that debt is a way of explaining how my own small poetic powers are sometimes transcended through immersion in reading and seeing through the eyes of other writers. For me, this can be a magical process, almost as magical as the human-wild encounters in “The Most of It” and the other poems that echo in mine. I suspect I’m not the only writer who experiences this.

Several years before I had my own encounter with a moose, I was drawn to Frost’s poem “The Most of It” by what poet Molly Peacock wrote in her introduction to the “Passages” section of the Animal Companions, Animal Doctors, Animal People anthology:

“It’s not our own images that help us recognize ourselves, but our visions of other species. As Robert Frost says in my favorite poem about a person’s essential being, “The Most of It,” the spirit that truly recognizes us arrives in animal form. “He thought he kept the universe alone,” Frost begins, yearning for a response to his loneliness, and finds that this response, “instead of proving human” is “a great buck” swimming in a lake, “pushing the crumpled water up ahead” as it emerges on shore and lands “pouring like a waterfall.” He meets himself in the buck.”

Who could resist looking up such a poem? I found it on page 451 of my Complete Poems of Robert Frost (New York, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964) – previously glanced at and, I am ashamed to say, passed over in favor of something a little more relatable, say, “The Oven Bird.” But if it was Molly Peacock’s favorite poem “about a person’s essential being” (one of my favorite subjects, or so I like to think), it was clearly worth an hour or so of quiet reading and re-reading. So I sat in my reading chair and came to see with my own eyes (mind’s eyes) what Frost’s “he” saw:

…the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff’s talus on the other side,
And then in the far distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush—and that was all.

One sentence! One breath, simultaneously held and taken away with the emerging apparition, a form imagined to be human turning into something not at all human, looming, landing – I can almost feel the spray of the waterfall on my face, my shoulders — then stumbling (but with horny tread, a majestic stumble) and disappearing into – no, this creature does not just fade away — forcing the underbrush.

And that was all?! I began to understand what Molly wrote. All? More than enough. But even as I sat with the shadow of that apparition, I knew there were still mysteries in the poem that were beyond me, but perhaps not beyond Randall Jarrell. Jarrell is the critic who in the early 1950’s rescued Frost from his mid-century, cracker-barrel Yankee geniality (“a sort of Olympian Will Rogers out of Tanglewood Tales…neglected or depreciated by intellectuals”) and brought him into the canon as a great poet whose best poems “are extraordinarily subtle and strange, poems which express an attitude that, at its most extreme, makes pessimism seem a hopeful evasion” (“The Other Frost” in Poetry and the Age).

Also in Poetry and the Age is Jarrell’s longer essay on Frost, “To the Laodiceans,” where I found what I was looking for:

“Another impressive unfamiliar poem is “The Most of It,” a poem which indicates as well as any I can think of Frost’s stubborn truthfulness, his willingness to admit both the falseness in the cliché and the falseness in the contradiction of that cliché; if the universe never gives us either a black or white answer, but only a black-and-white one that is somehow not an answer at all, still its inhuman not-answer exceeds any answer that we human beings could have thought of or wished for.”

Its inhuman not-answer exceeds any answer that we humans could have thought of or wished for. Thank you, Randall. Although he wrote in a very different time, long before today’s commonplace acceptance of our kinship and even shared personhood with non-human animals (long before even the need to qualify “animals” or “person”), I think he’s saying something very like what Peacock says. We stand before what is beyond any answer we might have thought of or wished for, but we stand in awe and recognition that makes us more than we were.

I live part-time in western Massachusetts, where over the last twenty years or so wild animals have been returning – wolves, foxes, coyotes, black bears, wildcats, and, depending on who you believe, mountain lions. Thrilling if sometimes unsettling, as you see something low and lithe amble up your driveway at twilight, or a dark crouched figure lope past your bedroom window at  teatime.

And then one day I saw, on my own road, my own moose, close enough for – well, for what my poem tells. What was she doing here, south of where she belongs – Canada, Maine, New Hampshire?

Looking for food. And what is she prey to? Ticks – not only here, but also up north, now that it’s warm enough that ticks thrive where it was once far too cold. In epidemic proportions.

I won’t recap the National Geographic and other stories about the devastating effect of ticks on moose (here’s one http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/wild/videos/ticks-can-kill-moose/), but that knowledge was with me as I stood, and the moose stood, on our road, each a witness (or so it felt to me, perhaps not to her) to the other alien being.

Later, wanting to say what I saw, I began to make my own way back through Frost’s poem, as McGrath says, to write what came to be “my paean,” but I needed more than Frost, I needed the courage and the sight and the awe felt by gutsy New England women as well as Frost’s “he.”  Women and their moose poems, their joyful encounters with the strange and magical other. I knew I’d read it over the years, in Bishop, Sexton, Kumin.

Most famously in Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose” and its “strange sensation of joy,” a long poem ending with this encounter:

—Suddenly the bus driver
stops with a jolt,
turns off his lights.
A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.
It approaches; it sniffs at
the bus’s hot hood.

Towering, antlerless,
high as a church,
homely as a house
(or, safe as houses).
A man’s voice assures us
“Perfectly harmless….”

Some of the passengers
exclaim in whispers,
childishly, softly,
“Sure are big creatures.”
“It’s awful plain.”
“Look! It’s a she!”

Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly.
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?

“Curious creatures,”
says our quiet driver,
rolling his r’s.
“Look at that, would you.”
Then he shifts gears.
For a moment longer,

by craning backward,
the moose can be seen
on the moonlit macadam;
then there’s a dim
smell of moose, an acrid
smell of gasoline.

Or “hopelessly alive,” in Anne Sexton’s section “II. Bestiary USA” in 45 Mercy Street

MOOSE

American Archangel you are going –
your body as big as a moving van –
the houses, the highways are turning you in.
Before my house was, you stood there grazing
and before that my grandfather’s home with you
on the wall. Antlers for hat racks
and I felt the rest of your body somewhere outside
the wall merely asking for an invitation.
You stand alone now in a field in Maine,
hopelessly alive,
your antlers like seaweed,
your face like a wolf’s death mask,
your mouth a virgin, your nose a nipple,
your legs muscled up like knitting balls,
your neck mournful as an axe,
and I would like to ask you into my garden
so that I might pack you quickly in salt
and keep your body proud past your mystery
and mine.

And in Maxine Kumin’s “My Elusive Guest”:

Thoreau loved the grayness of them, homespun
with leafy horns like lichen made of bone.
God’s own horses, poor timid creatures, he said
in 1846 in THE MAINE WOODS
and then went on to wonder why they stood
so high at the shoulders, why so long a head,
no tail to speak of. How like the camelopard,
he said, rolling the archaic word
on hit tongue: high before and low behind
and stayed admiring them, upwind.

A hundred years later, the widow Bliss
whose rockbound farm I now inhabit
broomed a moose out of her kitchen garden
thinking it the neighbor’s brown cow
marauding among her vegetables at dawn
then looked up to behold those rabbit
ears, that wet nearsighted eye
that ferny rack of gray on a still-gray sky
and none since. Spring mornings at first light
sometimes through fog some heavy weight
shufts and wavers against the line of trees
and wanting it in my blood, like a spray
of musk, I beckon the elusive guest,
willing it close. My wild thing, my moose.

With all of these poets and pages around me, and the dirt road of my encounter 50 feet or so below the window in my writing room, I stitched my way into and through my own poem, and the experience it reached back for, using Frost’s poem, as Leslie McGrath so aptly noted, for its formal constraint (as Ursula Le Guin says in “Form, Free Verse, Free Form: Some Thoughts,” “My most revealing discovery was that a form can give me a poem.”), but seeing too glimpses of what Bishop, Sexton, Kumin, and through Kumin, Thoreau, saw. A kind of stealing I hope is so obvious as to make its debt, and love, clear – but if it wasn’t before, let it be, now. And of course, the original debt, to what Molly Peacock and her colleague, Randall Jarrell, recognized. My moose? Hardly. My poem?

Here’s “The Most of It” in its entirety.

ROBERT FROST

The Most of It

He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree-hidden creek across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder-broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter-love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff’s talus on the other side,
And then in the far-distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush – and that was all.

From his book A Witness Tree, 1942

——————————————

My poem “The Pity of It” is in the 2017 Tiferet Winter issue and reproduced here.

From Judge Leslie McGrath: “Hilde Weisert’s “The Pity of It” is both a paean to Frost’s “The Most of It” and a beautifully restrained portrait of an encounter with another moose as the earth sits on the edge of environmental disaster. The poem’s formal constraints and the speaker’s humility make this poem not just memorable, but haunting.”

About Tiferet Journal: Tiferet is a non-sectarian, non-dogmatic publication and community at the nexus of literature and spirituality. We publish high-quality poetry, prose, and art that further meaningful dialogue about what it is to be humane and conscious in today’s often divisive world.

The Path Is Made by Walking

The valley is made by water

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A quote from a poem by Antonio Machado at the beginning of a fine mystery novel, The Drifter, by Nicholas Petrie…

“Traveler, there is no path.
The path is made by walking.”

…led me to want to find out more about Machado. The first thing Google turned up, a Derek Walcott poem, “Reading Machado,” seemed like a good place to start. To read it in The New Yorker archives, I signed up for a digital subscription, which I should have anyway, and posted a little self-congratulatory note on Facebook about paying for news.

Now, prompted by a request for a Machado poem from Joan Biren responding to my Facebook post, I’ve typed out the Walcott poem – something I like to do with poems I want to get more of a sense of, and also a way to feel I’m not really stealing it to share it here. Fair use, I hope!

READING MACHADO
by Derek Walcott
in The New Yorker Nov. 18, 1996

The barren frangipani branches uncurl their sweet threat
out of the blue. More echoes than blossoms, they stun the senses
like the nocturnal magnolia, white as the pages I read,
with the prose printed on the left bank of the page
and, on the right, the shale-like speckle of stanzas
and the seam, like a stream stitching its own language.
The Spanish genius bristling like thistles. What provoked this?
The pods of a dry season, heat rippling in cadenzas,
black ruffles and the arc of a white throat?
These are all echoes, all associations and inferences,
the tone of Antonio Machado, even in translation,
the verb in the earth, the nouns in the stones, the walls,
all inference, all echo, all association,
the blue distance of Spain from bougainvillea verandaha
when white flowers sprout from the branches of a bull’s home,
the white frangipani flowers like the white souls of nuns
that move like ponies under pine trees in the autumn mountains,
onions, and rope, the silvery bulb of garlic, the creak
of saddles, and fast water quarrelling over clear stones,
rooted and stunted as olive trees, these heat-cracked stanzas,
all inferences, all echoes, associations.

Information on Antonio Machado at the Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/antonio-machado#about

I like Walcott’s poem a lot, for the strong physicality, earthiness, and how well it conveys something about translation – the possibilities as well as what is impossible (lines 4-6 are wonderful). Of course it makes me want to read Machado, too. I am not so sure about the white souls of nuns moving like ponies under pine trees, but maybe when I come to know Machado, the image will work.

Does anyone else find the list at the end of Walcott’s poem puts them in mind of  something by another Antonio,“The Waters of March” by the Brazilian musician and songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim? “A stick, a stone…” A song I always find great comfort in.

Finally, in this rather circuitous progression, the way of water reminds me of what I am so glad Ursula Le Guin has written for us at this time, a clarifying piece, in the way that water may clarify. The blog post also includes a new poem, “Meditation”:

“119. The Election, Lao Tzu, a Cup of Water”

As one of our finest Lao Tzu translators, Le Guin knows what she’s writing about. And how sweet it is, when looking up a reference to that book to post here, to find myself returned to a walk:

“Reading [Le Guin’s] translations is like taking a shared walk down a familiar trail where we discover rocks and water that we somehow missed before. . . . Undeniably refreshing, capturing a language that is casual and clear, reflective and pointed, full of the wise humor of the Way.”—Parabola

The sun just broke through the clouds on a chilly day here in Sandisfield, a good time for a walk on a dirt road, and to see if the recent snow and rains have filled up the streams that have been dry for months.

2016 Paterson Poetry Prize-winning books – Get them from an independent!

doty-maria
Maria Gillan and Mark Doty

The selections for the 2016 Paterson Poetry Prize (announced here by Maria Gillan) are as good a line-up as I’ve seen from any poetry prize in recent memory. Each book is one I want to have, starting with the winner, Mark Doty’s Deep Lane, of which the announcement says:

“In Deep Lane, Mark Doty writes of “the wild unsayable,” yet manages in this brilliant book to find the precise words to describe what it means to be alive and human with all our flaws. He leads us on a brave journey through grief and loss and joy, to all that lies below the surface of our lives, all the hard-earned moments that redeem us.”

Any new book from Mark Doty is a cause for celebration, as are the others on this wonderful list. The announcement page has links so you can go right ahead and get the books – from Amazon. If you remember  Ursula Le Guin’s bracing acceptance speech when she received the 2014 National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, you may want to think twice about succumbing to Amazon as the default target of every Internet book link.

I am too lazy not to succumb sometimes – as my Kindle list and Amazon Prime-ordered gadgets will show – but today, buoyed by the energy of writing one good new poem (or believing I have), my will to not feed the Amazon beast is strong, enough so that I spent 20 minutes replacing the original links with links to IndieBound (or, in one case, Powell’s) in the list below, in the hopes that, one click at a time, we may support our independent poets while at the same time supporting our independent bookstores. On IndieBound, you can order from them or put in your zip code to get the name(s) of local stores near you. Where a human being will greet you and you’ll walk out with three or four more books you would not otherwise have discovered – a treat Alan Gurganus describes so beautifully in his tribute to Nancy Olson and her Quail Ridge Bookstore (“My North Carolina State of Mind”).

Of course, if you’re already a committed indie brick-and-mortar bookstore-goer, you don’t need these links at all. But if you like to order from the comfort of your chaise longue, here are the guilt-free links:

WINNER: Mark Doty, Deep Lane, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, NY

FINALISTS for 2016:

As a well-known writer once said, what a wealth!

Lorna Crozier: “One of the Most Original Poets Alive”

Lorna Crozier
Lorna Crozier at the November 28, 2013, University of Victoria launch of the Lorna Crozier Undergraduate Poetry Scholarship.

With Justin Trudeau saying that “We need poets to change the world,” * it’s a good time to think about the Canadian poets that are changing the world. We can start with Lorna Crozier. If you’re an American (US American), the sad truth is that you may not have heard of her. If you have a global consciousness that encompasses Canada, however, you won’t need me to tell you:

  • That she’s widely celebrated in Canada, a recipient of the Governor’s General Award in Poetry, “one of Canada’s most read and most honoured poets…[whose poems] become a part of the reader’s permanent memory.”** and “one of the most original poets alive.”*** I believe that last description is not hyperbole. But read on and judge for yourself.
  • That her poems are funny, gorgeous, beautifully crafted, intelligent, new, telling, completely in the moment and our era and also universal and timeless. Engaged in the world and the things that matter, but never polemical. She writes and has spoken widely on animal rights, poverty, the importance of wilderness (she collaborated with world-renowned photographer Ian McAllister (executive director of Pacific Wild).on The Wild in You: Voices from the Forest and the Sea).

If you don’t know Lorna Crozier’s work, below is my short review of her 2008 collection, The Blue Hour of the Day. The review was written for the 2010 Veterinary Medicine and Literature Conference at Ontario Veterinary College, Guelph, Ontario, and is thus more animal-oriented than the book itself (my post was first published in our Veterinary Medicine and Literature blog).  To get a glimpse of Crozier as a reader and person, check out the “Five Favourites” piece she wrote about selecting her favorite pieces in our Animal Companions, Animal Doctors, Animal People anthology. For a full picture of Crozier’s amazing breadth, craft, and originality, visit her website, http://www.lornacrozier.ca/.

The Blue Hour of the Day. By Lorna Crozier. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2007. 252 pp. Paper $22.99.

“Non-human animal” – that’s what we say, these days, to show we know that a simple “animal” refers not only to “them,” but to all of us. No such qualified terms are needed in Lorna Crozier’s world. “Animals” in all their manifestations – two-footed or four, serpentine or feral; crawling out of the sea, grazing in the pasture, or dancing on the sand – are vividly present throughout the poems in Crozier’s wonderful The Blue Hour of the Day, a selection from eight major collections of her work over a distinguished career.

Where animals appear in these poems – which is on almost every page – it’s rarely for Crozier to contemplate anything as distant as our relationship with them. Instead, they give form to our own desire, delight, devotion, or sense of loss. “What Comes After” begins:

I am my own big dog.
Walk, and I’m at the door;
eat, and I take what I offer,
lie down, and I curl on the floor,
my heavy head between my paws…

As in Denise Levertov’s “Talking to Grief” (“Ah, grief, I should not treat you / like a homeless dog”) the dog is the – dogification? – of loss, but the poem’s dogness is so true that it honors both the real canines in our lives, and what we make of them.

These are poems teeming with life and its constant transformations, a lush shape-shifting where the fox travels across the night and “One minute he’s a cat, the next a coyote” (“It Is Night”). The heart is “a winter hare. Soft-pawed and quick” (“Remember the Heart, Little Mole”); a snake is “the first saxophone / in the world” (“The Start of the Blues”); the soul is “bright-eyed / and feline, each paw placed/so carefully” (“Evolution in Moonlight”). Light – another constant presence – is also physical (in this case, equine!), needing a “shape to move inside, / a likeness tawny and thick-maned” (“Apocrypha of Light”).

Crozier’s metaphors are no mere literary device to show how two disparate things are alike, but the rich reality revealed by her glorious imagination. In the whimsical and memorable series, “The Sex Lives of Vegetables”, even vegetables are sentient and sensual. I urge you to read “Cauliflower” or “Brussels Sprouts” aloud tonight while you prepare dinner.

Like that time of day the book is named for, the creatures in The Blue Hour of the Day are always on the verge of turning into something else, being and becoming their inner and other selves one paw or mouth at a time. When you read this book, you will know again why the word “animal” has its origins in “anima – breath, soul”. You’ll also understand something new about poetry, the tame, and the wild, and have had much pleasure in the process.

     If a Poem Could Walk

It would have paws, not feet,
four of them
to sink into the moss
when humans blunder up the path.

Or hooves, small ones,
leaving half-moons in the sand.
Something to make you stop
and wonder
what kind of animal this is,
where it came from, where it’s going.

It draws nearest when you are most alone.
You lay red plums on your blanket,
a glass of cool cider, two sugar cubes,

knowing it is tame and wild –
the perfect animal –
knowing it will stop for nothing
as it walks
with its four new legs
right off the page

 

If, indeed!

***

A short anecdote that is a reminder that the best poets can also be the most kind and generous human beings (a counter-example to the full-of-themselves fellows we sometimes meet at poetry conferences). Saturday morning at the 2010 Veterinary Medicine and Literature Conference, we got a call that the scheduled reader for our big-hall event that evening was seriously ill and couldn’t make the trip up to Canada from the US. Lorna and the equally luminous poet, Molly Peacock**** (Canada and the US both get to claim her), had read already, and also participated in conference sessions – they had done their part, and more, and were looking forward to a relaxed evening of listening to someone else up on the stage.

But they put their heads together to save our evening session, and what they came up with was the two of them reading their favorite poems by the missing poet (along with a few of their own that harmonized), in a funny, moving, lively back-and-forth that brought the audience to their feet.

What I saw that night was better than anything that could have been planned – two friends, world-class poets at the top of their game, open-heartedly giving the audience another poet’s work. And incidentally, saving the day for me, OVC Dean Dr. Elizabeth Stone, and our conference coordinator Tara O’Brien who had received the dread phone call, as well as the people who had traveled from near and far expecting a capstone to their conference experience.

Justin Trudeau was right. We have poets who are changing the world. Two of them, at least, are in Canada.

—-

* Thanks to Jane Eaton Hamilton for writing about Trudeau on poets in her blog,  to  Carolyn Marie Souaid for sharing the letter that Hamilton cites, and to Kathryn Kirkpatrick for sharing Hamilton’s post!

**Ottawa Citizen

***Books in Canada

****I also want to thank Molly Peacock for introducing me, a typical parochial US American, to Lorna Crozier, person and poet.

Questions for Our Mothers

ilonasdesk
Ilona’s desk, in the apartment on Attila Ut, Budapest, June 2005 (her ninetieth birthday)

On October 16, 2015 at the West Stockbridge Historical Society, I’ll be reading one or both of these “question” poems as part of an evening of readings from the anthology Writing Fire, edited by Jennifer Browdy, Jana Laiz, and Sahra Bateson Brubeck, Green Fire Press, Housatonic, MA, 2015. Other readers are Jayne Benjulian, Jennifer Browdy, Barbara Dean, Teresa Gentile, Lorrin Krouss, Jana Laiz, and Robin Zeamer. 

These poems were occasioned by the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers call for writing on the topic of “Questions for our mothers,” for Mother’s Day, 2014.

It’s a wonderful topic, taking us out of the usual “what we want to tell our mothers,” and our often arrogant, immature assumptions and presumptions, into a new realm of curiosity and genuine open-mindedness. What have we failed to ask? To understand? What did we assume we knew, and now realize we did not? Who was, or is, this person? Whether the questions are ever answered, or can be, is in a way beside the point. Just recognizing how much one doesn’t know is itself a revelation.

Read first at the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers Mother’s Day Celebration, Sandisfield Arts Center, May 17, 2014.

Questions for Our Mothers

What we haven’t asked.
What we don’t,
or can’t, ask now,
except on a page.
What we imagine they knew
but didn’t say. (How do you say
such things to a child?)
If they are dead,
we imagine they know
everything, and would tell
the women we’ve become
if we find the right words
at a certain time of night.
If they are alive, we grab this chance
for a different kind of conversation.

Of course, they did know everything.
Of course, we never asked them much
except for what we needed.
Now what we need has changed.

***

All those years I asked “Who were you?”
to the mysterious woman in the photograph,
when what I really wanted to know was,
“What does who you were make me?”
No wonder you didn’t answer.
This time, let the question be real.
Tell me about that other woman –
the you who has nothing to do with me.

To Ilona, My Step-mother

How did you stand my father?
The tantrums that drove my mother
to tears, to drink, to leave?
The red face and clenched fists
I mirrored at twenty-one, squared off
across a room, standing up to him  –
didn’t scare you. You laughed
as if he were a child.
How did you know he was?
Was it the actual war you’d lived through,
or just being a Hungarian
instead of a Swede? I don’t know
what he deserved. I do know
you were more than I did,
loving that difficult man
until the end, bringing together
the broken family – a daughter,
a son, a father – in your home.

My question began as a joke,
but now, remembering,
I think you deserve more.
Ilona, if you will tell me,
I will listen…

How did you stand my father?

September 19 at the Sandisfield Arts Center: Two Literary Launches

It was a pleasure to share a “literary launch” at the Sandisfield Arts Center last Saturday with Antonia Lake and the readers from Stone Walls II, the handsome new journal of the literature and art of the western Massachusetts hilltowns.

Also a pleasure was the wonderful, attentive, responsive audience from our town and around western Mass and Connecticut, North Carolina, and, in the case of an old and dear friend, California.  You never know about poetry readings, especially on a gorgeous early Fall day at 4 in the afternoon, so when I discussed the chair setup with the coordinator Barbara Elton* I estimated, crossing my fingers, something between 25 and 35. At about 5 minutes to 4, all 35 seats were taken and a few helpful souls were putting out extra chairs. A friend later told me she counted 50 people.  Because this is Sandisfield, if we’re lucky (and we were) we get local residents who would be dignitaries most anywhere, like Simon Winchester and Ben Luxon. People who braved the drive from points west included the poet Irene Willis, who I was delighted to meet (although we agreed we must have met when we were both in New Jersey and Geraldine Dodge Poets), and the indefatigible Jenny Browdy, founder of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers and a continuous inspiration to the writing community here.

I think something clicks when you have such an engaged audience.  Beginning with Susie Crofut’s introduction, the afternoon rolled along with literary grace, humor, warmth, and the pleasures of unexpected connection. One thing we forgot was a written program so the audience could follow along with the readings as well as with the words. I’ll remedy that now, with a recap and a few annotations.

stonewallsIIissue2STONE WALLS II 

After an introduction by magazine poetry editor Toni Lake, Evan Johnson of the editorial board gave a brief history of the journal. Stone Walls II is a successor (thus the “II”) to the original Stone Walls, a regional journal begun in 1975 to showcase the rural character and creativity of the western Massachusetts hilltowns. “From the humble distribution of a few copies, it quickly grew to over 500 copies published quarterly with 200 regular subscribers,” in print until 1993. Stone Walls II is the creation of “a group of people that fondly remember this valuable contribution to the folklore of Western Massachusetts.”

Toni then talked about and read from the first issue’s interview with Cummington Poet Laureates (yes, one town, two Laureates) William Jay Smith and Richard Wilbur.  For anyone who cares about poetry, this interview, done by Toni and Patty Kimura — informal, wide-ranging, personal — is thrilling.

William Jay Smith died this August and we were lucky to hear a remembrance from the person who worked with him for years and until his death, his Literary Assistant Patty Kimura. We learned of his extraordinary span of professional life —  in the last months of his life, at age 97, he was still writing! Here’s what Patty said about that:

The tribute ended with Patty reading Smith’s well-known, powerful poem, “Invitation to Ground Zero.”

Other selections from the journal were read by their authors or, if they were unable to attend, by members of the editorial board:

Helena Alves read Lisa McLoughlin’s “To Build a House in a Forest.”
Evan Johnson read from Paula Schmidt’s “Mud Season.”
David Giannini read his prose-poem, “Epithalamium.”
Julie Britton read her poem, “There is a Moment.”

schemeofthingscoverweisert
Cover art by Jim Haba

THE SCHEME OF THINGS

In the second half of the program, I read poems from my just-off-the-press poetry collection, The Scheme of Things. A few below have audio or video clips (production values not so great).

“The Certainty of Others”
Grandfather, Balloon (on Vimeo)  epigraph: “How deep is the ocean”

“The Transit Hall on Pier 86”
“Tuckerman: The Line”
“Finding Wilfred Owen Again” (print version online)
“The Best Funeral Ever” (print version online)
“March Ladybugs,” “The Year of Reading Yeats,” and “Wake-Robin Trillium” – audio recording (the word mumbled at the beginning is “vacuum” as in the ritual of vacuuming up ladybugs on sunny winter days):

CONVERSATION

Finally, we gathered downstairs in the Gallery where wine, seltzer, cheese and other snacks, plus the many literary and personal connections discovered or renewed, kept people happily conversing and noshing for almost an hour. (This is the sign of a good poetry reading!) Patty Kimura remarked on the number of people she talked to who had a connection with Bill Smith, whether as his student at Williams College or a colleague at Princeton, interested in her insights into the last chapter of his life.


*  Bits and Pieces, a show of Barbara Elton’s striking “deconstructed” quilts and Lucinda Shmulsky’s assemblages opens at the Sandisfield Arts Center October 3.

Maxine Kumin: Still and always, essential

I wrote this last February (2014) on the Society for Veterinary Medicine and Literature blog, but have been reading Kumin again recently and was again blown away by her vivid presence, the essentialness of her being, and of course her poems, and wanted to share this short appreciation here for people outside the “vet med and lit” world. 

This isn’t the first Sunday morning I’ve gone to my study and begun the day by reading Maxine Kumin – a way to settle into poetry and its capaciousness, to revive my own faith in possibility, to meet a companion able to face and understand – everything. But this is the first Sunday morning without the sure sense of that companion being not only on the page but out there, on the farm in New Hampshire, in a work shirt and jeans, going up to the barn to feed the horses or back in the kitchen cutting bread. Of course she could have been somewhere else, doing something completely different, but the immediacy and intimacy and intelligence of the life on the page always seemed paired with a real woman thinking and feeling and moving in the world. Eighty seven? Eighty eight? To the granite of New Hampshire, what are years?

The first book I take off my shelf today is the first one I bought, The Nightmare Factory, black and blood-red. Later works would have a little less of the nightmares, lovers, and turbulence, with an enrichment of the rest, all here in 1970: horses, pastures, family, history, pain, friendship, place, humor, love; a physicality of form masterly in the service of its subject, passion and coolness at once.

I had known about the special phone line the best friends, Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, had had installed, but it took yesterday’s New York Times obituary for me to learn that they kept the connection open while writing, each in her own house, until one would whistle that a poem was ready to read aloud. What must it have been like to lose that open line, that ear; that whistle, that voice? Kumin took a long time to tell us, honoring her friend by not writing soon or easily. And still, even with the poems and the memories, the friendship seemed to stay private and personal,  theirs.

When Elizabeth Stone and I put together our course inveterinary medicine and literature, it was thrilling to remember the Amanda poems, and it was thrilling to “teach” them. Teach? They taught themselves. They taught us. On the day we introduced them, the 3 or 4 “horse” people in the class who had tolerated the domestic house animals we began with suddenly sat up and leaned forward, as if a window had been opened. And it had – the fresh smell of hay, the pungency of boots and saddles, as present in the room as our seminar table and notebooks. They were hearing what they knew, but probably did not know could be said in words:

We sit together.
In this time and place
we are heart and bone.
For an hour,
we are incorruptible.

“Amanda Dreams She Has Died and Gone to the Elysian Fields”

In veterinary school, horses are in the “large animals” group. In the Amanda poems, the largeness is fully there, in all its grace, mystery, and weight. If we did nothing else for our students, we gave them an introduction to Maxine Kumin and poems they can turn to for solace and renewal throughout their lives.

Turning to Selected Poems, I realize that any animals-and-literature course could make its entire syllabus out of Kumin. Poems, essays, someone as alive to horses, cows, moose, swan, bears, as to Paris and martinis, war and playing Monopoly with a grandson. Kumin explains it in “Sleeping with Animals”:

“loving my animals too much
letting them run like a perfectly detached
statement by Mozart through all the other lines
of my life…”

Why not? The whole of life.

The New York Times obituary ends with the last lines of the last poem in Selected Poems: 1960-1990, “A Game of Monopoly in Chavannes”, and they are a knockout:

His lower lip trembles, this luxury of a child
who burst naked into our lives, like luck.
Our sole inheritor, he has taken us over
with his oceanic wants, his several passports.
I will deed him the Reading Railroad, the Water Works,
the Electric Company, my hotel on Park Place.
All that I have is his, under separate cover
and we are the mortgaged nub of all that he has.
Soon enough he will learn, buying long, selling short
his ultimate task is to stay to usher us out.

But I’d prefer to end my Sunday morning with the last verse of a different poem, “Itinerary of an Obsession” (epigraph “Just remember that everything east of you has already happened. – Advice on a time-zone chart”), and a glimpse of where she might be, and what she might be doing, now, as she wrote to her friend:

Years pass, as they say in storybooks.
It is true that I dream of you less.
Still, when the phone rings in my sleep
and I answer, a dream-cigarette in my hand,
it is always the same. We are back at our posts,
hanging around like boxers in
our old flannel bathrobes. You haven’t changed.
I, on the other hand, am forced to grow older.

Now I am almost your mother’s age.
Imagine it! Did you think you could escape?
Eventually I’ll arrive in her
abhorrent maribou negligee
trailing her scarves like broken promises
crying yoo-hoo! Anybody home?

——————————-

Maxine Kumin’s Academy of American Poets page

A very nice, human remembrance by Philip Schultz in the New Yorker shortly after Kumin died

Working It Out

This winter the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers sent out a call for writings on the topic of “the labors of women” for a May reading at the Sandisfield Arts Center. I realized this would give me the opportunity to put into words a long overdue appreciation of the landmark book by Sally Ruddick and Pamela Daniels, Working It Out: 29 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk about Their Lives and Work (Pantheon, 1977).

Below is what I wrote, and read in May, thanks to the Berkshire Festival’s call, and especially thanks to its founder, Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez for conceiving of such a resonant theme (check out Jenny’s excellent blog, Transition Times: Writing to Right the World) and Susie Crofut for bringing the Festival to Sandisfield. The event was terrific, varied, powerful – hope to say more about it when the Festival posts on it.

Working It Out: 29 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk about Their Lives and Work

A poem for Sara (Sally) Ruddick, Feminist philosopher, 1935 – 2011

Twenty-three faces look out from the book’s cover,
young, earnest, marked with intelligence and hope.
Twenty-three women struggling with a simple thing:
To sit down at a desk, stand at an easel,
lean over a laboratory table, and surrender
to their own, original thought –
To the work.

Why was it so hard? Didn’t they have it all –
education, babies, husbands willing to “help” —
And still so hard to close the door, for an hour
or a day, close out the willing husbands,
the babies following with alert, expectant eyes,
the kind, bemused professors that had called them “bright”
but not quite known what to do with them.

And even more, why so hard, once the door closed,
once every obstacle was lifted, to lay claim
to the empty page, blank canvas, forbidden realms
of their teeming minds? Why the deep, inexplicable
paralysis, this “acute pain of worklessness”?

One by one, each of them worked through
that pain in these pages. Read them
and you will see a generation
coming to life in its work, coming to serious,
womanly work embedded in their lives,
work and pleasure not enemies,
but joined.

Sally ends her essay (“A Work of One’s Own”)
saying simply, elegantly, “I turned,
as I had learned to do,
to other women.
We put together this book.”

**

So this was how: twenty-three women facing the pain
with courage and fear, and making the claim together.

Thirty-seven years, Sally, Pamela, Adrienne, Evelyn,
Virginia, Alice, Catherine, Naomi, and the rest,
and we still need your book,
still need to hear those voices, still need
to see you working it out
for us, at any age,
and for the work still before us.

—–

Here is the cover of the book, with all the wonderful faces:

workingitout

You can find a dog-eared copy of the book on Abe Books for a few dollars, and you can read Sally’s essay, “A Work of One’s Own” at a site established by her family as a living memorial. (Much gratitude to them for the site, absolutely necessary.) Take a look, on that site, for example, at “New School Courses” if you want to see the range, daring, and sheer vitality of one of our era’s most original, generous minds.

Working It Out: 29 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk about Their Lives and Work
A collection of essays edited by Sara Ruddick and Pamela Daniels, published 1977, Pantheon.
Sara Ruddick (Editor), J. Green (Contributor), Alice Walker (Contributor), Tillie Olsen (Contributor), Pamela Daniels (Editor), M. Young (Contributor), Adrienne Rich (Contributor), M. Thornton (Contributor) , C. Sears (Contributor), N.V. Mengel (Contributor), Catherine.R. Stimpson (Contributor), Evelyn Fox. Keller (Contributor), M. Schapiro (Contributor), C. Gilbert (Contributor), M. Stevens (Contributor), D.G. Michener (Contributor), Virginia Valian (Contributor), C.Y. Yu (Contributor), A. Lasoff (Contributor), K.K. Hamod (Contributor), A. Rorty (Contributor), N. Weisstein (Contributor)