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Read about a recent review of my book Hyaena Season in Image Journal’s Good Letters blog by author, anthologist and long-time Image contributor, Peggy Rosenthal.


I recently posted my video about Poetry as Prayer, from the Logos Project, as well as the full article, and watch here for my upcoming Poetry as Prayer retreats.


What a time we had! La Romita Poetry Writing Retreat in Italy – Summer 2017


A community of poets and painters, great food and creative expression! And lots of laughter! What a time we had! You can check out my Facebook page for pics and blog posts by Sheila, one of the retreatants! Another retreatant, Tonya, wrote this about her experience:

Being at La Romita, in the hills of olive groves, within the deep history of Umbria and the story of the once-Capuchin monastery itself, was enchanting. I’d worked briefly with Richard Osler once and knew he would bring big energy and a head and heart full of poetry. He did that and more. The more is in his uncanny ability to enable people to find their own poetry. He invites, supports and nourishes the opening of inner channels of communication with the people we’ve been missing in ourselves, who all have so much to say. Richard gives poetry and while we received it and worked hard to learn to hear it, we also had an incredibly good time.

Read all about it!


hyaena-season-coverMy new collection of poems, Hyaena Season, launched last Fall! More than ten readings in Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver, New Westminster, Victoria and Calgary. And sold lots of books!

The poems in Hyaena Season touch on the intimacies of a wide range of human experience from the killing grounds of Rwanda and DR Congo, to settings more familiar here in Canada.

Hope to do some more readings in the upcoming months! Here are details on past readings! Launches and readings during the past year. Thanks to all those who came out to hear me read!

You’ll find a complete list of my works here.


Here’s a short piece on what this site is all about.


If you’re wondering where my page of readings has gone, it’s just moved – from the home page to its own place inside the site. You can always reach it from the main menu under “Richard Reading”.

Upcoming Events

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Priest and Poet – Andy Parker – 1956-2018

Andy Parker – Priest and Poet – 1956-2018

The Triumph of Love

from CXLVIII

So – Croker, MacSikker, O’Shem – I ask you
what are poems for? They are to console us
with their own gift, which is like perfect pitch.
Let us commit that to our dust. What
ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad
and angry consolation
. What is
the poem? What figures? Say,
a sad and angry consolation. That’s
beautiful. Once more? A sad and angry
consolation.

Geoffrey Hill from Selected Poems, Yale University Press, 2006

Geoffrey Hill might have taken these words, a sad and angry consolation, from Italian writer Leopardi but he makes them his own in this startling description of poetry, what it should be: a sad and angry consolation. That fits for me today with the shocking death from cancer of my beloved friend Andy Parker from Houston. Andy, dead, I still can’t believe it, at 62 after a five-month fight against cancer.

And so with those words in mind, a sad and angry consolation, I share this fierce poem by Anglo American poet David Whyte. Its sad and angry consolation. The consolation from stating so poetically the truth, the isness, of his grief. I dedicate this poem to Andy. I feel the same anger and confusion at the wrenchingly quick illness that took Andy from us, as does Whyte in this poem at the unexpected death of his friend:

NEWS Of DEATH

For Tom Charlotte

Last night they came with news of death
not knowing what I would say.
I wanted to say,
“The green wind is running through the fields
making the grass lie flat.”
I wanted to say,
“The apple blossom flakes like ash
covering the orchard wall.”
I wanted to say,
“the fish float belly up in the slow stream,
stepping stones to the dead.”
They asked if I would sleep that night,
I said I did not know.
For this loss I could not speak,
the tongue lay idle in a great darkness,
the heart was strangely open,
the moon had gone,
and it was then
when I said, “He is no longer here”
that the night put its arms around me
and all the white stars turned bitter with grief.

David Whyte from River Flow – New & Selected Poems 1984-2007, Many Rivers Press, 2007

This is one of my favorite David Whyte poems. How it captures the shock and surprise of grief at the death of a beloved friend. That sense of dislocation. Blossoms like ash, fish belly up, fish as stepping stones to the dead. A world gone wrong. And this morning when I heard the news, my world gone wrong, terribly. No night to put its arms around me. No white stars, bitter with grief. Just west coast gray clouds. And rain.

When I think of Andy I can’t separate him from poetry. Nor from prayer. How he used poetry so often for devotional purposes to take him deeper into the mystery of God whom he so trusted all the way through his life as an Episcopalian priest. One of those poems was by Geoffrey Hill, a favorite poet of his, and I wish I could remember it. He had it memorized, and he recited it once impromptu with the English priest and poet Malcolm Guite in Houston.

When Andy knew he had cancer he began to meditate through particular poems to give him strength. One such poem he shared with me was this much celebrated poem by Rainer Maria Rilke as translated by Robert Bly:

The Man Watching

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great.
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Robert Bly from Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke,Harper & Row, 1981

Andy and I talked about this poem a month or so ago and I promised him I would memorize it. Haven’t yet. But I will! I promise! Andy read out these lines: What we choose to fight is so tiny!/ What fights with us is so great. He went on: When we win it’s with small things, / and the triumph itself makes us small./ What is extraordinary and eternal/ does not want to be bent by us. Ouch, I say. But I wonder if he was consciously bending to a courageous acceptance of his illness? Trusting God. Trusting the deep poetic wisdom he felt in this poem.

Then Andy kept reading about the wrestlers being beaten by the angel and then read out the line he said resonated most with him: Winning does not tempt that man. I don’t remember if he finished reading the last lines. They sure get me: This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively/ by constantly greater beings.

Andy was gentle man. But oh, so strong. But not in a look-at-me way. His strength came from deep integrity inside him. It made his gentleness for me even that more admirable. I felt that strength in his choice of this poem.

Andy didn’t stop fighting when the cancer hit. He kept working and enduring the impact of his drugs with great courage. And I wonder as I read this poem again and again if he found a comfort in the idea of accepting the possibility of defeat without giving up and from this gaining a sense of spiritual strength? Now, I wish I had asked him this directly.

I so appreciate that in thinking of him hours after his death I am thinking of him in the context of a poem. Of wrestling over what it meant for him. Because it was poetry and God that brought Andy I together when we met at the Glen Writers’ Workshop in Santa Fe in the late 2000’s. There Andy invited me to lead a poetry as prayer retreat in the Fall of 2009 for his parishioners at St. Timothy’s in Lake Jackson, south of Houston, where he was the rector. A gift I will cherish always!

I led that retreat for nine years in Lake Jackson and another two in 2016 and 2017 in Houston after Andy and his wife Liz (also a cherished friend of mine and an Episcopalian priest) moved to new parishes there; Andy as rector of Emmanuel and Liz as the associate priest at Palmer Memorial. I was scheduled to lead another Houston retreat a few weeks ago but my health and Andy’s made that impossible.

In June this year Andy and Liz sent me a birthday present: a book of prayers. Many of them poems. Here is an excerpt from one by John Henry Newman:

So long thy power has blest me, sure it still
            Will lead me on
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
            The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

I don’t doubt for a moment this prayer/poem would resonate with Andy. Priest and poet. Not an unusual combination according to this quote by Friedrich von Hardenberg-Novalis:

“Poet and priest were one in the beginning – only later times have separated them. The true poet is however always a priest, just as the true priest has always remained a poet. Ought not the future to bring back this ancient condition of things.” In this, perhaps Andy was ahead of the times. Already priest and poet.

Dear father, dear grandfather, dear husband, dear friend, dear priest and poet. Farewell. So many will miss you.

Everything Waits For Us – A Reminder by Greek Poet Elias Polimeneas

A Typical Byzantine Church in the Back Country of the Greek Pelopenese.

What is next
Next is what is called New.

For everything is patiently
awaiting us.

- Allow me please, to make you a coat

said the craftsman’s wife.

And then…

She skillfully managed
to place inside the stiches
all the communions
of her
life.

Elias Polimeneas from Like bridges, 2012

Here in Kardamyli, Greece a paradox – churches and chapels everywhere (in one tiny village nearby more than thirty) but all of them as far I can tell, locked and closed unless a service is being held. Luckily the poet, hotelier and rancantour, Elias Polimeneas, whose apartments I am staying in, knows the local priest so I made it into a particularly old church dating back to Byzantine times. Frescoes cover every surface.

While active church-going might be great these days (one weekday service I glimpsed inside an open door only had two older people) there is a sense for me of this being a god-drenched place. Not just a Christian god but the Greek gods of the myths that hold such power in the imagination even today.

And that sense is caught so well in this poem by Constatine Cavafy (1863-1933) even now perhaps the best-known Greek poet in the West.

Ionic

For we smashed their statues,
for we drove them from ther temples,
even so the gods are by no means dead.
O land of Ionia, its you they cherish still,
it’s you their soul’s remember still.
When an August morn dawns upon you
your air is filled with vigour from their lives;
and at times an ethereal adolescent figure,
indistinct, with swift stride,
Passes over your hills.

Constantine Cavafy from C.P. Cavafy – Selected Poems, translated by David Connolly, Aiora Press, 2015

I can’t say that in my hours of hiking here I have seen a figure, indistinct, with swift stride passing over the hills, yet there is a sense of the numinous in the rugged landscape, its upheaval of gorges and mountains and thickets of dense trees and, always scattered about, the tall spires of the dark green cypress trees. And churches!

It was that unexpected sense of the numinous in Elias’s poem that drew me to it when he read it to me a few days ago. And also the surprising turn that occurs after for everything is patiently/awaiting us. The abrupt switch from the abstractions in the first four lines to the particular of a coat and a craftsman’s wife.

The sense of anticipation, the celebration of the new in the first four lines and then the narrowed focus on making a new coat. How here, the image of a new coat, carries such weight. How we cloak ourselves in the world. What we wear for protection as we travel. And this is no ordinary coat or cloak. This is one saturated with religious and spiritual meaning: She skilfully managed/ to place inside the stiches/ all the communions/ of her life.

What a loaded word: communions. The central religious ceremony or liturgy of the Christian church also known as the eucharist. The eating of the bread and drinking of the wine. The body and blood of Christ. This intimate connection with Christ or the divine or the holly or the numinous is living inside the stitches of this coat.

And what compels me even further is that it is the woman, the feminine that crafts this coat. Not a black-frocked priest. The sense of the holy I feel so alive and present at the poem’s conclusion. I would wish to wear such a cloak. Especially as each day I face the new, what the world patiently holds for me. And the new, whether or not it is joyous or troubling or utterly difficult.

And as I read Elias’s poem I heard another echo, not just of Cavafy, but from the Anglo American poet David Whyte. An almost word for word echo made even more meaningful because Elias has never heard of David Whyte let alone read his poems. The echo was here: For everything is patiently/ awaiting us.

That line so close to the title of Whyte’s book and the corresponding poem in it: Everything is Waiting for You. Here’s Whyte’s poem:

Everything Is Waiting For You

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the
conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

David Whyte from Everything Is Waiting For You, Many Rivers Press, 2003

Whyte’s poem carries such a sense of an invitation for a reader to fully engage in the world. To be wholly  present. And so does Elias’s poem but with an added specifically holy dimension. To wear a coat stiched through and through with the numinous, the transcendant, the holy. Now that’s a coat I would like to take with me on my travels today!

Words that Fly Through Our Minds in the Dark! Capture Them! A Poem by Denise Levertov

American poet Denise Levertov


Writing in the Dark

It’s not difficult.
Anyway, it’s necessary.

Wait till morning, and you’ll forget.
And who knows if morning will come.

Fumble for the light,
And you’ll be
Stark awake, but the vision
Will be fading, slipping
Out of reach.

You must have paper at hand,
A felt-tip pen, ballpoints don’t always flow,
Pencil points tend to break. There’s nothing
Shameful in that much prudence: those are our tools.

Never mind about crossing your t’s, dotting your I’s –
But take care not to cover
One word with the next. Practice will reveal
How one hand instinctively comes to the aid of the other
To keep each line
Clear of the next.

Keep writing in the dark:
A record of the night, or
Words that pulled you from the depths of unknowing,
Words that flew through your mind, strange birds
Crying their urgency with human voices,

Or opened
As flowers of a tree that blooms
Only once in a lifetime:

Words that may have the power
To make the sun rise again.

Denise Leveretov from Collected Poems, New Directions, 2013

A dream woke me this morning here in Kardamyli, Greece. It was early for me: 5:30. And I remembered the poem, Writing in the Dark, by Denise Levertov. The poem that stands out for me as the one that said wake up, take your writing seriously when I began to write again in the early 2000’s. The poem that said believe this: Words that may have the power / To make the sun rise again.

And its so appropriate I remembered Levertov’s poem. Because today, back home in Canada (October 24th) was her birthday in 1923. Considered one of the important English-speaking poets of her time she was a poet of astonishing range (from quiet and mysterious devotional poems to poems of protest and other social commentary).

Levertov was deeply influenced by William Carlos Williams and they had a wonderful correspondence by letters for many years which has been published. She was born in the U.K. but moved to the U.S.in 1948 where she lived for the rest of her life. She died in Seattle in 1997.

Here is what Mary Oliver says about her: Levertov was musical, fierce, absolute in her honesty and for us, her public, as indispensable as any modern poet. To young writers asking for direction Denise Levertov’s name comes to my tongue, always, among the very first of our important forbearers., Her work was, and is, a brave gift to us all.

And for the gift of Levertov’s poem I am ever grateful for Susan Wooldridge’s book Poemcrazy where I found the Levertov poem on page 185! It was Poemcrazy that inspired me to begin leading poetry writing groups even as I was beginning my own road to becoming a poet. It was how, in teaching, I began to teach myself. And then in 2004 I began taking retreats with master poets, especially Patrick Lane!

But back to Levertov’s poem. What a great reminder. Especially these lines:

Keep writing in the dark:
A record of the night, or
Words that pulled you from the depths of unknowing,
Words that flew through your mind, strange birds
Crying their urgency with human voices,

Or opened
As flowers of a tree that blooms
Only once in a lifetime:

Words that may have the power
To make the sun rise again.

And I so like the suggestion in the poem that we must write out of a dark that might not be night alone. I was feeling that dark a few days ago. The usual mind-clatter about not having the poetic chops anymore. Then I began a postcard to a dear poet friend and began a poem having no idea what to say. But the near-full moon must have been talking to me because I had just read a poem by Jack Gilbert and so haltingly line by line this poem happened, and my inner darkness lifted:

Lunar

What was the poet thinking
when he wrote: Moon is horses
in the tempered dark? Tonight,
moon is Mallory on Everest
before he fell. Tonight,
moon is nothing
more than night’s cold glare,
no canter or gallop
inside it. Tonight,
moon is not
earth’s shy concubine. She’s
flagrant, almost full-
bodied enough to bed
but not tonight, tonight
the moon’s a prayer I forgot
to pray. Desolation
painted over with light.

Thank you Denise for being with me at the start of this journey. Not as a young poet then as Oliver talks about but young in the way of being a poet and so I am so grateful that she was there as a guide and inspiration.

The Bigness of Small Poems – # 42 in a Series – Patrizia Cavalli’s Honeyed Dome

Italian Poet Patrizia Cavalli

What is lost is returned to me,
what is far away is near me today,
Whether you’re here, wherever you are, doesn’t matter today,
today I am held within a honeyed dome
that dampens and mingles the surging skein
of sounds. I am inside
and the outside enters me.

Patrizia Cavalli, trans.J.D. McClatchy, from my poems won’t change the world, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2013

I leave for Italy and La Romita School of Art today! My ten day generative poetry writing retreat – Catching Fire – Writing en Plein Air – begins Thursday. I send out, as Annie Lamott would say, travelling mercies to all my retreatants as they their way to Rome in the next few days.

And by way of celebrating the upcoming retreat I feature this lovely meditative poem by Italian poet Patrizia Cavalli who was born in Todi not far away from where we will be in Terni, Umbria.

Cavalli’s poem wonderfully reorients me into my day! Especially good for a big travel day. When I read this poem I think of Virginia Wolfe’s expression: a daily miracle. This poem fits that bill. That moment when a profound unity and peace enters us. Might not, usually doesn’t, last that long but what a powerful place to live in side while we are in it.

What a sense of wholeness Cavalli creates in her poem. The utter isness of it. And she does it with such ease it seems: What is lost is returned to me,/ what is far away is near me today. And then the ending:

…………….I am inside
and the outside enters me.

My hope for my retreat that we will all share many moments of being inside and allowing the outside to enter! In that order. And from that place may many meaningful poems be born! And for those of you reading this from wherever you are may you find a honeyed dome moment in your day to day!

The Bigness of Small Poems – # 42 in a Series – Ellen Doré Watson – She Wants Eager

American Poet Ellen Doré Watson (1950 – )

Word

Nightsmell of sweet-aged wood, and curtains
are a breathing. Wet palm of wave gentle-slaps
thighsand. Not like yesterday’s brutal. The ribs
of the room with their generous. Resting places.
I understand where charity comes from but clarity?
(No no-see-ums here in the white float of almost
sleep.) Looking for a word, I’ve stepped into a boat.
I want eager. Pray me. Astonishment. I’m courting
the best of abstractions. It says: Look at the fish.

Ellen Doré Watson (1950 – ) from pray me stay eager Alice James Books, 2018

All in one book of poems –poem after poem for readers (and so key for poets) on how to think differently about abstractions! And how better than to title a number of these poems Field Guide to Abstractions. This title already makes the point: go beyond abstraction to the detail, the image. As American poet Ellen Dore Watson has done in her wonderful poem above from her recent 2018 collection pray me stay eager.

I call her poem wonderful for lots of reasons. First, the way she takes an abstraction like word (gargantuan abstraction) and gives us rich images and then shows us that the word she is targeting is astonishment. Itself a huge abstraction. But already she has placed images provoking astonishment in her almost-sleep room. And then she has her punch-line fun: Astonishment. I’m courting/the best of abstractions. It says: Look at the fish. How she embodies the astonishment in an astonishingly effective way! How she makes it mean something. The astonishment of seeing underwater fish.
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Celebrating Wedding Vows! Two Poems by Crozier and Lane

Canadian poet and novelist Patrick Lane (1939 – )

A poet friend of mine is getting married today. And in a brief text exchange she invited me to remember how I felt the day I took my vows with my wife Somae. A great reminder of that day for me and the grace those vows have brought into my life. Thank you M. And it reminded me of the poems my friend Liz had invited Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane to write for our wedding. A total shockingly wonderful surprise. One of the deep blessings in my life. Thank you Liz, Lorna and Patrick.

And so in honour of M and J today and to celebrate, as in Lorna’s words, the wisdom and non-wisdom,/ the iron and the sweetness of I do,  I offer these two poems by Patrick and Lorna, poems Somae and I continued to cherish. And I hope that all of my friends and family members who are married can carry Patrick’s words: In your arms there are a thousand stories, a single tale, a whisper./ It begins with the wind in the cedars, your hearts at rest. /Be each other, for surely you are one dance, one wild thing.

Now the poems:

SMALL BLESSING FOR YOUR WEDDING DAY

The little we can give each other in this life:
a see-through stone, arbutus skin, a soft
invisible pocket to tuck a hand inside,

or, at most, a note. What is written there
will carry the cold and clarity of water,
water that goes deeper than your fear.

This is the word-water the heart sips from
and when your tongues touch
you’ll taste the good and wet of it,

the wisdom and non-wisdom,
the iron and the sweetness of I do.

Lorna Crozier, unpublished

Canadian Poet, Lorna Crozier (1948 -)


ONE WILD THING

Let there always be the comfort of silence between you,
the consolation of hands in the hour of the candles.
Their songs will find you, the frogs in the arms of the moon,
the far cries of the herons at dawn as they bend to the nest,
and the hummingbird’s wings at the stoop of their fall.
Let there be eagles and owls and the vanishing of quail.
Listen to the beetles as they make their thin music among stones.
In your arms there are a thousand stories, a single tale, a whisper.
It begins with the wind in the cedars, your hearts at rest.
Be each other, for surely you are one dance, one wild thing.
When you cry out, let your song go to the dove who mourns,
to the wren in her hiding, to the mole in his tunnel of grass.
But always let there be the comfort of silence between you,
the consolation of hands in the hour of the candles.

Patrick Lane, unpublished

My Poetry Retreat in Umbria a Week Away! But First: A Poem from Last Year by Tonya Lailey

La Romita School of Art, Terni, Umbria

Outrider

her soul goes ahead to Umbria
a slow traveller
on horseback
by boat
in turns

sends a note home
after a few days

don’t worry
I’ve prepared a place for you
there’s a hook for your coral necklace
a bedside perch for your notebook
a casement window
open to a line
for drying your clothes

a few things to keep in mind…
one pair of shoes is all you need to cover your feet
cotton breathes best
you’ll want a hat
maybe cecil and wide-brimmed

when she arrives months later
she smells like where she is
sounds in local frequencies
cycles with daylight

but there are small rhythms
to learn

still
the last ups
and downs
of riding
to shed

Tonya Lailey, 2017, Unpublished, with permission

It begins in almost a week, my sold-out ten day poetry retreat, Poetry en Plein Air – Catching Fire – in Umbria at the La Romita School of Art. I am thrilled to be going back. Poetry and Italy in October, a wonderful combination.

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For Sunday Three God Poems – Akbar, Tsvetaeva, Crozier

American poet Kaveh Akbar
American/Iranian poet Kaveh Akbar

Learning to Pray

              My father moved patiently
cupping his hands beneath his chin,
              kneeling on a janamaz

then pressing his forehead to a circle
              of Karbala clay. Occasionally
he’d glance over at my clumsy mirroring,

       my too-big Packers T-shirt
and pebble-red shorts,
       and smile a little, despite himself.

Bending there with his whole form
         marbled in light, he looked like
a photograph of a famous ghost.

         I ached to be so beautiful.
I hardly knew anything yet—
         not the boiling point of water

or the capital of Iran,
           not the five pillars of Islam
or the Verse of the Sword—

        I knew only that I wanted
to be like him,
        that twilit stripe of father

mesmerizing as the bluewhite Iznik tile
        hanging in our kitchen, worshipped
as the long faultless tongue of God.

Kaveh Akbar (1989 - ) from Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Alice James Books, 2017

Not the Sunday morning I planned! But poetry intervened, thank God! Or maybe the God of SUNDAY intervened as Lorna Crozier might say. Why? Because poem after poem I was reading to start my day made me trip over God!

First, I was reading the vivid new book, Calling A Wolf A Wolf, by Kaveh Akbar, another of the striking new poetic voices in the contemporary poetic world adding to those of Sam Sax, Danez Smith, Warson Shire, Rupi Kaur, Ocean Vuong, Billy-Ray Belcourt and others. Notable to me is that so many of these up and coming writers, who are adding a new vigour to the poetic cannon, are not from mainstream but from cultural minorities.

So often this is where transformative movements happen. Not from the safe center of the mainstream. But at the challenged edges. What a gift these writers are. Thank God for diversity! I, located as I am in the mainstream, am grateful for what I learn from them. For the risks they take!

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With Death Looming, Two Astonishing Poems of Presence – Mandelstam and Stafford

The Russian poet Osip Madelstam (1891-1938)

AND I WAS ALIVE

And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear,
Myself I stood in the storm of the bird-cherry tree.
It was all leaflife and starshower, unerring, self-shattering power,
And it was all aimed at me.
What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth?
What is being? What is truth?
Blossoms rupture and rapture the air,
All hover and hammer,
Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot.
It is now. It is not.

(4 May 1937)

Osip Mandestam, from Stolen Air, selected and translated by Christian Wiman. Ecco Press, 2012

Thanks to a Twitter post by Ilya Kaminsky, the Ukranian/American poet, I was reminded of this poem by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam a few weeks ago.

Without context, what a singular poem of presence, of isness. A poem of celebration of living, of this miracle earth. With context, simply astonishing. This is the last poem Mandelstam wrote according to his translator Christian Wiman, former editor of Poetry and now a teacher at Yale Divinity School.

Mandelstam wrote his poem in a Siberian prison/work camp for undesirables. He had fallen into disfavor with the Russian regime years before for a poem that mocked Stalin.  Already in ill health before his final imprisonment he died later, in 1938, in a transit camp. As Wiman says in an interview he died for poetry.

I can’t comment on the original poem in Russian but the music in this so-called version by Christian Wiman, former editor of Poetry is so arresting. Especially this line: What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth? Doesn’t that just about sum it all up! A line loaded with the yes and no that makes up our reality here on earth.

A man in a work camp, victim of two previous heart attacks and yet he could write a poem this vital. Facing his end. He must have known this. And I think of the American poet William Stafford and his remarkable poetic testament written three days before he died. Lying in his death bed, still paying utter attention to the vital sounds and smells of the world around him.

American poet William Stafford (1914-1993)


You Reading This, Be Ready

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life –

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around.

William Stafford from The Way It Is – New and Selected Poems,Graywolf Press 1998.

Stafford wrote this August 26th, 1993 two days before he died at home in Oregon. His third last poem. Famously, he is said to have written a poem a day all his adult life.

To die with that aliveness. What an example. Thank you Osip and Bill.

Tom Crawford – R.I.P. – 1939-May 2018

American poet Tom Crawford and his dog Walt

How to Draw a Better Bird

Resist eloquence. Get mad.
If your bird is the snowy Clark’s Grebe,
if that’s your bird, the one out there
sitting on its eggs in a floating nest – stunning bird,
serene bird – if that’s all you see, then it’s no good.
You might just as well take your iPhone out,
take a picture for Audubon. That’s not a better bird.
Better you try to draw the bird almost gone,
banging its wings against your heart.
Scare us. Make it real, like an eraser big as a house.
What you feel knowing the bird’s clutch
will never hatch. End of a colony.
Gone bird.
Our lives, once a wetland,
drained, is the bird you want to draw.

Tom Crawford from Such a Waste of Stars, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017

Six years ago I featured the American poet Tom Crawford in a blog post and then, again, two years ago. In the mean time we had a few email exchanges. And now, when I wish I could email him again it’s too late. Thanks to friends of his who knew Tom and I had connected I heard he had died in late May. Damn.

Tom was a fine poet and today we would likely label him as a fine eco-poet for his love of birds expressed in so many of his poems and his alarm over how so many are disappearing. Eco-poet or just a plain old poet, Tom to my mind deserved a much wider audience. As evidence: the poem above. What a beautifully written call to be a poet of feeling, of heart. Sure, the poem is an instruction to a painter but heck, it could just as aptly an instruction to a poet. A huge wake up. Go beyond mere description:


Better you try to [write] the bird almost gone,

banging its wings against your heart.
Scare us. Make it real, like an eraser big as a house.
What you feel knowing the bird’s clutch
will never hatch. End of a colony.
Gone bird.
Our lives once a wetland,
drained, is the bird you want to [write]. Read More »