A Very Poetry Poem for National Poetry Month – Richard Osler

A reminder of the subject of Robert Frost’s poem Birches (see below).

Two Poets Divorce
 
I want Cohen! No, I want him. You take Dickinson. No! I want Wilkinson.
             OK, OK, take them. I don't care. Just leave me
Gilbert, Ginsberg, Hass, Hirschfield, Hoagland. and Hughes. 

             Grass is greener when Whitman sings it. Take that! And Plath.
But I want Wah, Wallace ,Williams – C.K.,W.C., and Hugo. And the Wrights,- 
             all of them: C.D., Charles, Franz, James, Jay and Sandra. 

No, no, nothing's wrong. Above all, loud and clear, please leave me Laux
             and her Kissing and Kissing Again. Yes, Laux as in Lox
not low. And give me Lane, Lux, Dunn, Dubie and McHugh.
 
             Do you remember the first poet we read together? Don’t ask me. 
I don’t. But if you do, keep the book but please, leave it for the kids. 
             They like the poets, too. cummings, of course, and Olds.

But especially, they love Frost. His Birches. How they bend don't break.
             How he wants to get away from earth awhile 
 but later how he’s not so sure, wants to come back and begin over.

 No, not for anything will I begin over with you. But yes, Frost is right,
            he's right about this: Earth's the right place for love. 
And, do you remember our first sweet kiss? I have no poem for that.

Richard Osler from Hyaena Season, Quattro Books, 2016

Wasn’t planning on featuring one of my poems this national Poetry Month but after I found Tony Hoagland’s poem (featured in my April 3rd post) that included a series of poet’s names I though my poem would be a good fit to come after his!

I enjoyed being the narrator of this poem! And while it is true I was going through a divorce at the time of writing this poem the rest is  fiction except for one of the poets my two youngest daughters love: Frost and his Birches.

Not only was this poem cathartic to write I had so much fun playing with the associative music of the poets’ names. That’s what drove the poem forward. But then the poem surprised me, led me to mention Frost and then I remembered Birches which I then found and read. And the lines from that poem took me to my ending. The emotion in it surprised me.This way our poems have their way with us!

A Great Send Up of National Poetry Month – Tony Hoagland, in April 2013

American poet and professor Tony Hoagland (1953-2018). Teaching at the University of Houston. Photo Credit: Michael Paulson, Houston Chronicle

People Magazine Sponsors National Poetry Month

On this page Angelina Jolie is wearing
a skimpy barbarian leotard, laughing
and throwing a copy of Sonnets From the Portuguese
across the room

at the head of Brad Pitt,
who is deeply immersed
in his sixteenth reading of Do Not
Go Gentle Into That Good Night.

He is sweaty, shirtless, and tanned,
in boots and calfskin leather pants, and he is
looking aside to check his phone
where he is this very minute getting messages

from Sean Penn and Meryl Streep
about the February meeting
of the e.e. cummings club.

These celebrities
                 have come together
for the sake of poetry—not just this poem
but great poetry,
                 a lot of it,

and their erudite shenanigans
are by no means complete,
because now they are getting on board a private jet
to join their friend Nelson Mandela,

who is wearing a Free Gertrude Stein t-shirt.
High over the Atlantic, they are reading poems out loud
by Delmore Schwartz and Marianne Moore,


they are doing villanelles like designer drugs
they are really digging the verse
of Jean Valentine and Dean Young—

its hipness, its sensuality, its Zen gestalt.
Your strange unslakeable thirst
to enter their boudoir
has led you surprisingly here,

where Emma Thompson and Jaz-Z
are about to give a stereophonic performance
of Flow Chart by John Ashbery.

But now they are starting to sway and weep,
as if they had found an old wound
which had held them in thrall
until it was touched and unlocked by feeling;

until they saw the poem
looking up into their face with recognition.
Such is the power of poetry,
which you should remember more often—

perhaps by going shopping later today
for some of the products
brought to you by our sponsors,

Truth, Justice and Beauty.

Tony Hoagland from Smartish Pace, Issue 20, April 2013

What a benefit of cleaning up a library! As I was culling masses of old literary journals from my stacks today I leafed through the April 2013 issue of  the literary journal, Smartish Pace, a dangerous move during a book cull, and to my delight found this poem by Tony Hoagland, which I cannot find in any of his poetry collections. Did he forget it? Did he deem it unworthy? We will never know.  But I was thrilled by the serendipity of finding this poem at the start of National Poetry Month!
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The Unexpected in the Overknown – Ada Limón’s Spring poem from “The Carrying”

American poet Ada Limón, winner of the 2019 National Book Critics Circle award for Poetry for her collection The Carrying. Photo Credit: National Book Critics Circle.

Instructions on Not Giving Up

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.

About this poem:
It was a hard winter. My whole body raged against it. But right as the world feels uninhabitable, something miraculous happens: the trees come back. I wanted to praise that ordinary thing as a way of bringing myself back too.”

— Ada Limón from Poem-a-Day, the Academy of American Poets, May 15, 2017

This must be, for me, Ada Limón’s month – April! I featured her and the poem above included in her collection The Carrying during National Poetry Month last April. But now March is her month as well since it was the month when she won the U.S.-based 2019 National Book Critics Circle award for poetry for The Carrying. A huge accomplishment for any American writer. To read my post from last April please click here.

This poem has even greater currency for me this year in light of the death of friends and also so many great poets who have gone in the past year including Lane, Rosenblatt, Merwin, Hoagland, Oliver and Gregg. The grace of the resilience caught in the poem and in its title especially! And the phrase: I’ll take it all. The courage of that declaration.  In spite of it all, I keep on keeping on! Now here is an excerpt from last April’s post:
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Reprise for National Poetry Month – The Ah! Ah! Genius of Jack Gilbert – Two Huge Small Poems – # 47 in a Series

American Poet Jack Gilbert (1925-2012)


The Cucumbers of Praxilla of Sicyon

What is the best we leave behind?
Certainly love and form and ourselves.
Surely those. But it is the mornings
that are hard to relinquish, and music
and cucumbers. Rain on trees, empty
piazzas in small towns flooded with sun.
What we are busy with doesn’t make us
groan ah! ah! as we will for the nights
and the cucumbers.

Jack Gilbert from Monolithos, Alfred A. Knopf, 1982

Just home from the delightful madness that is the annual AWP gathering of writers, this year in Portland. They say up to 12,000 participants! Yikes.The highlight for me: the astonishing reading given by Ilya Kaminsky from his latest poetry collection: Deaf Republic. One of those once-in-a-lifetime moments.

As this is April 1st I want to acknowledge this, the first day of National Poetry Month. And I thought this small poem of Jack Gilbert’s which I featured in a post back in 2017 would be a great way to start. Here is a short excerpt from that piece:

“His name was unknown to me when poet Heather McHugh included his name in a reading list of poets she gave me fifteen years ago. That list changed how I saw my own poetry; was what began my commitment to poetry.

American poet Jack Gilbert, oh my. His work both clear and mysterious. Layered. Confident. Full of wisdom statements that only the best of poets can pull off. Statements like this one in celebration of the 5th Century Greek Lyric poet Praxilla and her three line fragment that celebrated among other things, cucumbers:

What we are busy with doesn’t make us
groan ah! ah! as we will for the nights
and the cucumbers.”

Here are Praxilla’s lines translated by Richard Lattimore:

Loveliest of what I have left behind is the sunlight,
And loveliest after that is the shining stars and the moon’s face,
But also cucumbers that are ripe, and pears and apples.

Gilbert’s poem is a great example of pojacking (using another poet’s poem to create your own). But how he expands Praxilla’s terse fragment. Enriches it. Turns it into a much more dramatic ah!ah! moment!

This poem of his in stark contrast to another small gem, Games, in the same collection, Monolithos, published in 1982. I was alerted to this poem, one I had overlooked, by a poet whom I met at AWP. Here it is:

Games

Imagine if suffering were real.
Imagine if those old people were afraid of death.
What if the midget or the girl with one arm
really felt pain? Imagine how impossible it would be
to live if some people were
alone and afraid all their lives.

Jack Gilbert, ibid

The terrifying irony of this poem. How possible the impossible: to live alone and  afraid all of one’s life. A horror. And yet as much as Gilbert was not afraid to list life’s darknesses neither was he shy to celebrate its joys: mornings, light and cucumbers. And in spite of the suffering that is real and the pain and the loneliness in the world I live and love in I celebrate the sunlight that woke me this morning – water light on the canal running through La Conner, Washington.

Oh No, Another Great Poet Gone – Linda Gregg (1942- March 19th, 2019) – Her “Eyes Open, Uncovered to the Bone”

American poet Linda Gregg (1942-2019) Photo Credit: Palm Beach Poetry Festival

Each Thing Measured by the Same Sun

Nothing to tell. Nothing to desire.
A silence that is not unhappy.
Who will guess I am not
backing away? I am pleased
every morning because the stones
are cold, then warm in the sun.
Sometimes wet. One, two, three days
in a row. Easy to say yes and no.
Realizing this power delicately.
Remembering the cow dying on the ground,
smelling dirt, seeing a mountain
in the distance one foot away.
Making a world in the mind.
The spirit still connected to the body.
Eyes open, uncovered to the bone.

Linda Gregg from Sacraments of Desire, Graywolf Press, 1991

Thanks to my friend Barb Pelman I only learned of the death of the American poet Linda Gregg a few hours ago. She has been a poetic talisman for me for about ten years. I have written much on her over the years. (See previous blogs dated Dec. 4th, 2012 and Nov. 30th, 2012. Also April 17th, 2014 and January 16th, 2016). The poem above, one my favorite Gregg poems. Statements like gunfire’s staccato. And the defining statement of the last line: Eyes open, uncovered to the bone. Linda, that was your genius along with the hammer-head simplicity and impact of the way you wrote what you saw, eyes open, uncovered to the bone.

I discovered Linda through her connection to the celebrated American poet Jack Gilbert (1925-2012) her former husband for eight years early in her life and life-long friend. Their relationship was tempestuous, filled with Gilbert’s betrayals, but their lives were inextricably intertwined until Gilbert died. When I met Gregg at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival about five years ago she was still visibly shaken by Gilbert’s death about two or three years before.

Gregg’s spare but searing poems with her matter of fact diction coupled with graphic images, confront and astound me. And her detached tone which heightens the shock value of what she says ! Like these lines from her poem, Wife, below:

My husband sucks her tits.
He walks into the night, her Roma, his being alive.
Toward that outer love. I wait in the hotel
until four…..
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The Bigness of Small Poems – #46 in a Series – Crozier and Lane (and Tranströmer)

A broadsheet of two poems by Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane. Printed by Sally Green of the Brooding Heron Press, 2010

Two exquisite, yet for me enigmatic, poems by the Canadian poets Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane, partners for more than forty years before Patrick’s death eleven days ago. This broadsheet hangs in my home office and I revisit it now again. And every time I feel happily lost in a lyric mysteriousness, much the way I do when I read Nobel Prize Laureate Tomas Tranströmer whose poem Tracks concludes this blog post.

I have to leave my head, my mind behind when I approach these poems. I have to ask my heart what it sees what it feels. And I get to love the haunting spareness of both of them! Their language and images. I have to surrender to the images first and only while immersed in them allow my mind a little wiggle room with the huge thoughts, huge abstractions. First, in Lorna’s poem: a dark that lives in us and hard-won grief and second, in Patrick’s poem: what language can’t say, can’t reach.
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The Bigness of Small Poems – # 45 in a Series – A Small Gem by Patrick Lane (1939-2019)

A poem by Patrick Lane: Calligraphy by Martin Jackson, 2000

The benefit of cleaning up a chaotic office! Finding this exquisite small poem by Patrick Lane. As I remember him telling me, and here my memory may be a touch thin in places, this poem was part of a larger piece and his “Beloved”, Lorna Crozier, told him this was the poem!

I appreciate the complexity of this poem. This is where I can get geeky about craft! The extra richness its syntax provides. And the line breaks. So much to feast on! Beneath the tree; glutted on winter. That meaning. Then this: Beneath the tree; glutted on winter apples, seven sparrows lie. The wonderful delay of the verb! Then the more of: drunk, beating small wings on snow.

And then the turn. The leap and the clear evidence of a master poet’s mind at work. The move from pure image to something more complex and infused with thought. The alchemy Lane creates as if the these birds could transform ice and snow into air, something to fly free inside!

And where this poem flies me is my own wings beating against death these days. Patrick’s, Merwin’s, Hoagland’s and the death in December of my my dear friend in poetry, Andy Parker from Houston, Texas.

My version of these lines. The comfort it brings:

as if he could fly into it
and make of death an element as free as air.

Maybe gratitude, not death, is what will free me of some of my sadness. The gratitude for the gift of poetry as a poet and teacher, Patrick gave so many of us.

 

Absences Gone Through Me – R.I.P. W.S. Merwin and Patrick Lane – The Bigness of Small Poems – # 27 in a Series – Updated and Revised

American Poet W.S. Merwin (1927-2019)

EARLY ONE SUMMER

Years from now
someone will come upon a layer of birds
and not know what he is listening for

these are the days
when the beetles hurry through dry grass
hiding pieces of light

W.S. Merwin from Migration: New and Selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 2005

What a great poem to celebrate W.S. Merwin who died today in Hawaii, age 91. Another one of the greats gone, this time south of the border while I am still reeling from the death of one of our greats on this side of the border, Patrick Lane.

Putting it simply, Merwin was one of the American poetic giants of the past fifty years. He was the recipient of countless awards and honours including two Pulitzer Prizes and the position of U.S. Poet Laureate in 2010. But perhaps his greatest accomplishment was, with his wife Paula, his reclamation of nineteen over-farmed and cleared acres in Maui, Hawaii, transforming it into a unique preserve of more than eight hundred species of palm.

Early One Summer. What an image rich and yet, mysterious little poem. Are these birds dead or alive? I may be way off but I love the idea of an archeologist coming across a layer of bird bones with no idea what songs, from bones, sang a summer morning into even more beauty, years before! Or, the idea of someone coming across a mass of birds with no idea what the songs could call from their heart!

I wonder as well if I hear an echo of these lines from e.e. cummings’s poem # 53:

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know

And what to make of the last tercet with its striking image of beetles hiding pieces of light. Now, after, for us here on the West coast a long dark winter, I especially cherish the image of the beetles hiding summer light. Would I, could I, find that light now to light my way in my late day walks in the nearby woods. And figuratively, to light my way in dark times of war and random acts of terrorism like the horrible mosque attack in New Zealand yesterday.

Merwin, what a human treasure. The author of more than fifty books of essays, prose, poems and translation.Even at eight-nine, effectively blind, he was still composing poems. His last book of poems, The Essential W.S. Merwin came out in 2017. And in 2016 he released two books: Garden Time, a poetry collection, and an illustrated volume, What Is a Garden, including poems and essays centered around  the remarkable palm sanctuary he and his wife created over forty years.

Here is another small-poem gem of his. One of my favorite small poems. A perfect choice on this day of his passing, his absence and Patrick’s:

Separation

Your absence has gone through me
Like a thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

W.S. Merwin from Migration: New and selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 2005

The coherence of the metaphor in this poem astounds me! And another thing: it has punctuation, something Merwin discarded in the late 1960’s.

But to go back to Early One Summer, Merwin’s deft image of the beetles brought to mind a poem many of my American friends may not have encountered. One from my my much-loved mentor and friend, Canadian poet Patrick Lane who died last week. Gardens were also a passion of Lane’s. Here is Lane’s poem:

Patrick Lane (1939-March 7th, 2019)


UNDER THE SUN IN THE DRY DESERT HILLS
WHERE THE RAIN NEVER FALLS IN AUGUST

In deep sand a beetle shoulders her way toward paradise.
A sunflower, wild with yellow, covers her with one shadow.
Among the grains of quartz, one bruised garnet, a cone of pine.
The beetle clambers. There is nothing like her in the world.
Almost blind, I get down on my knees.
My bare feet have the same soles they had when I was born.
My mother is dead.
Among many things I am alive. Still.
A single drop of water falls.
The beetle stops for a moment but she does not drink from the salt.
There is somewhere she has to go and she goes on.
Mightily.

Patrick Lane, from The Collected Poems, Harbour Publishing, 2011

Ah, the slowness of this poem. Its end-stopped lines. How this poem moves like the beetle. Carefully. Slowly. Mightily!

What a pleasure to say good-bye to these poets by featuring two great beetle poems by two true masters of the craft! And now, also the sadness, knowing that both these great lives are end-stopped. No next lines.

A Poem and a Blues Hurting Song – Haunted and Haunting Words from Patrick Lane’s Hard, Hard Days

Patrick Lane (1939-March 7th, 2019)

ASSINIBOINE

Deep summer nights and you, far off, quiet in the dawn.
That last morning the mute swans were on the river and I was unclean.
I placed hot stones in water as you told me of the old people
beside the slow current singing. If I look hard enough I believe
I can see the swans slide past on that long river going toward the lake.
It took many stones, you weaving grouse feathers in your hair, and laughing.
Do you remember the swans? The birds whose wings were song?
Your mother told you they were ghost birds. But she was crazy, you said.
And then the city and you lost again in the bars, the empty rooms.
It was the time one of my last lives was changing.
I looked hard, but there was no finding you.
I turned all the way around then and headed west toward the grey rain.
It was a far way, that walking to the place where the sun drowns.

Patrick Lane from Washita: New Poems, Harbour Publishing, 2014

One of the things I learned from Patrick Lane as a student of his retreats and then as a friend was his unflinching honesty about his years of addiction, in his conversations public and private, in his poems and especially in There Is a Season, his 2004 memoir of his first year in recovery from forty five years of alcohol and drug abuse. Patrick was not afraid to go back to those hard days. And name their dark bleakness. He was not afraid either to write poems of the ones left behind, especially women, in that crepuscular drug and alcohol world. These haunted poems of women who may not have escaped that world. The one he did escape with such courage in his early 60’s.

Because of my work as a poetry therapist with men and women in recovery I see the value of the hard naming. Of poems set in the time of addiction. Poems as a reminder, a warning about what was, and the darkness there, if they were to return. Which too many do return to. And Patrick, thank God, didn’t. Because if he had many of us who were taught by him during his sober years would have missed him. I for one, would have lost my greatest teacher.

Patrick is not the only recovering addict to name their dark days. I think especially of American poets Thomas Lux, Franz Wright and Mary Karr and most recently books by American poets Kaveh Akbar and Chelsey Minnis recounting harrowing addicted times. Also Marie Howe, her poems in her most recent collection, Magdalene, of being addicted and the early days of recovery. The searing lines of this poem called Magdalene – The Addict: I liked Hell./ I like to go there alone./ Relieved to lie in the wreckage, ruined, physically undone./ The worst had happened. What else could hurt me then?/I thought it was the worst, thought nothing worst could come./Then nothing did and no one. What an ouch in that poem.
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The Desolate “Isness” of Addiction – A Poem by Patrick Lane

Canadian author Patrick Lane (1939 – 2019)

Half-Hearted Moon

Sometimes I don’t feel anything. It’s best
to be with people when I do. I stare
across the coke and whiskey at Jimmy
and Moon. We are talking about nothing.
The half-hearted night stumbles
up the cracked pane and no one cares.
Moon is crying and there is nothing
I can do. She isn’t mine
and if she was I’d leave her. Right now
I’m staring at the scar of light
cut in the sky. You may think it hard,
the part about Moon.
But she is here and she is stoned
and she’s paid nothing for the trip.
She will.
The dark will come soon and eat her alive.
But not tonight.
Tonight it’s just me, safe for the hours,
a bottle hidden behind the wrecked sofa,
most of an eight-ball tucked into my sock,
knowing no matter what, I’m okay.
For now.
but you tell me, if you know.

Patrick Lane from Go Leaving Strange, Harbour Publishing, 2004

Tomorrow I facilitate a poetry writing session with men and women in recovery. In the aftermath of the death of the great Canadian writer Patrick Lane I have been thinking a lot about his poetry. And especially about this devastating poem written about the dark days of his addiction to alcohol and drugs before his recovery in 2000 at age sixty.That journey to recovery is portrayed in his award winning memoir There is a Season. Still one of the finest memoirs I have ever encountered.
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