When Poetry Arrives – Neruda and Urrea

Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda


And it was at that age . . . poetry arrived
in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don’t know how or when,
no, they were not voices, they were not
words, not silence,
but from a street it called me,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among raging fires
or returning alone,
there it was, without a face,
and it touched me.
I didn’t know what to say, my mouth
had no way
with names,
my eyes were blind.
Something knocked in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,
that fire,
and I wrote the first, faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
pure wisdom
of someone who knows nothing;
and suddenly I saw
the heavens
and open,
palpitating plantations,
the darkness perforated,
with arrows, fire, and flowers,
the overpowering night, the universe.
And I, tiny being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss.
I wheeled with the stars.
My heart broke loose with the wind.

Pablo Neruda from Neruda – Selected Poems, Houghton Mifflin, 1990

The great Chilean and Nobel-prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda is celebrated as one of the premier poetic voices of the 20th Century.  His love poems and his Odes feel as if they are so well known as if to be, somehow, in the air we breathe. But his poem Poetry is the poem of his that brought him home to me. Made him an easy guest in my house of poetry. His poem, his ambassador. His poem that defines the creative chaos at the heart of poetry, a chaos as large as the universe. A chaos that’s transformed my life.

After reading Mexican-American Luis Urrea’s homage to Neruda’s poem a few weeks ago I could only respond with a poem. Written on the spot and now with some first edits. A risk I take: sandwiched between two outstanding poets! But the truest way I can enter into what is for me the great conversation: the what and how and why of poetry?!

After Urrea, After Neruda
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Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) – Part Two of a Two Part Series

Native American Mortar and Pestle

……something that I think poems do, is observe the world and make it new again.
Kevin Young (Poetry Editor of the New Yorker) from The New Yorker Poetry Podcasts, July 27th, 2018.

The Small Indian Pestle at
the Applegate House

Dense, heavy, fine-grained, dark basalt
worn river-smooth all round, a cylinder
with blunt round ends, a tool: you know it when
you feel the subtle central turn or curve
that shapes it to the hand, was shaped by hands,
year after year after year, by woman’s hands
that held it here, just where it must be held
to fall of its own weight into the shallow bowl
and crush the seeds and rise and fall again
setting the rhythm of the soft, dull song
that worked itself at length into the stone,
so when I picked it up it told me how
to hold and heft it, put my fingers where
those fingers were that softly wore it down
to this fine shape that fits and fills my hand,
this weight that wants to fall and, falling, sing.

Ursula K. Le Guin from Ursula K. Le Guin, Conversations on Writing (with David Naimon), Tin House Books, 2018

Kevin Young’s quote is perfect for this blog post, the second part of a two-part celebration of the poetry of acclaimed science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin. The quote so encompasses what Le Guin achieves in her poem above. And so do these lines from a small poem by American poet Greg Orr: Let’s /as Wordsworth said, remove “The dust of Custom” so things shine again, each object arrayed/ in its robe of original light.

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More on Ursula K. Le Guin – Part One of a Two Part Series

At the 2015 Oregon Literary Awards – acclaimed writers and dear friends, Luis Alberto Urrea and Ursula K. Le Guin

In class, she said, “We writers are the raw nerve of the universe. Our job is to go out and feel things for people, then to come back and tell them how it feels to be alive. Because they are numb. Because we have forgotten.” In class, she said, “We have forgotten our rituals. Out tribal practices. There is no more tribe. We don’t know how to tell our elders our dreams around the morning fire. There is no morning fire. We can’t receive insight from the mothers.”

Luis Alberto Urrea, from a tribute to Ursula K. LeGuin from his Website: http:/luisurrea.com

On Second Hill

Where on this wild hill alone
a child watched the evening star,
let these bits of ash and bone
rejoin the earth they always were,
the earth that let her sing her love,
the gift that made the giver
here on the lonely hill above
the valley of the river.

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) from Narrative On-Line, July 29th, 2018 and So Far So Good: Poems 2014–2018, Copper Canyon Press, October, 2018.

What a discovery: this new poem and others of Ursual K. Le Guin published today in Narrative On-Line. Oh, to hear these words written at the end of her life!  Oh, how I hope her bones are on that hill so they rejoin the earth they always were, the gift that made the giver….Oh, how we need her wisdom these fraught days. Oh, how much we all need to come alive!

I have been thinking a lot about  le Guin (life won’t let me forget), the  famed Sci-Fi novelist who died earlier this year. For a link to my January 23rd blog post celebrating her life please click here.
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The Silences That Move Us To Speak – Ilya Kaminsky’s Poetry

Ukranian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky reading at Centrum, Port Townsend, July 21st, 2018. Photo credit: Colette Tennant

Search Patrols

I cover the eyes of Gena, 7, and Anushka, 2,
as their father drops his trousers to be searched, and his flesh shakes,

and around him:
silence’s gross belly flaps. The crowd watches.

The children watch us watch:
soldiers drag the naked man up the staircase. I teach his children’s hands to make of anguish

a language —
see how deafness nails us into our bodies. Anushka

speaks to homeless dogs as if they are men,
speaks to men

as if they are men
and not just souls on crutches of bone.

watch children but feel under the bare feet of their thoughts

the cold stone of the city.

Ilya Kaminsky (April, 1977 – ) from Poetry (April 2018)

from Deaf Republic:10

I kissed a woman

whose freckles
aroused our neighbors.

Her trembling lips
meant come to bed.
Her hair falling down in the middle

of the conversation
meant come to bed.
I walked in my hospital of thoughts.

Yes, I carried her off to bed
on the chair of my
hairy arms. But parted lips

meant kiss my parted lips,
I read those lips
without understanding

soft lips meant
kiss my soft lips.
Such is a silence

of a woman who
speaks against silence, knowing
silence is what

moves us to speak.

Ilya Kaminsky ( April 1977 – ) from Poetry (May 2009)

(These two poems and other poems from this sequence based on a deaf and pregnant woman and her husband living in a city during wartime will be included in Kaminsky’s forthcoming book, Deaf Republic, from BOA Editions in March 2019.)

Gut punches to the body: Kaminsky’s embodied poems. In the first of these epigraph poems, flesh shakes….silence’s gross belly flaps. Ouch. I feel the trauma. And then a two-year old speaks to homeless dogs as if they are men,/ speaks to men// as if they are men/ and not just souls on crutches of bone. In these images, the terror and chaos of civic violence. These images: images crafted by a master.

Ilya Kaminsky in person, radiates the vigor and, dare I say innocence, of a far younger man. I have experienced this so evidently in his masterful poetry workshops including one at Centrum in Port Townsend I attended a week or so ago. His face does not carry the difficult lines (literally and metaphorically) his poems do. His eyes do not carry the burden of a man who has witnessed much hardship in his life including deafness from a medical mis-diagnosis at age four and loss of his Ukrainian homeland at age 16 when his family were given political asylum in the U.S. in 1993.

Nothing about Kaminsky’s outward appearance prepares me for the complexity and intensity of his poetry, let alone the dramatic way he speaks his poems; his unique singsong cadences, heart breaking one moment and ecstatic the next. (To hear his signature reading voice click here for the April 2018 Poetry podcast where, at two minutes and three seconds of the podcast, he reads his poem Search Patrols).

The second poem that is part of the epigraph for this blog post first appeared in Poetry nine years ago, five years after his acclaimed debut collection Dancing in Odessa. It is hard to believe, based on Kaminsky’s stature in the American and International poetry world, that his next full-length collection is only his second. Yes, he has edited two anthologies of international poetry, translated the Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva, edited the outstanding collection of poems and interviews, God in the House, but I think it is the quality, not the quantity of his own writing and his encyclopedic knowledge of poetry and poetics that have made him such a contemporary poetic force.

In the second of this blog post’s epigraph poems, Kaminsky’s tenderness is so evident. And also his reference to silence which shows up so often in his work. And also in his April Poetry podcast where at the end of a striking observation on resilience in the face of horror he paraphrases lines from Deaf Republic 10:

There can be war, there can be all kinds of violence, there can be grief in life but we go on. Somehow we stand up and try to survive and to my mind that comes from a quiet place that gives us support of some sort – the way to stand up. In some ways we speak against silence, but it is the silence that moves us to speak.

How easily, yet surprisingly Kaminsky moves into paradox. And it is in this paradoxical and mysterious place I think Kaminsky touches the great mystery that he knows as God; that compels him to praise this world again and again in his poems. The first poem in his first book is called Author’s Prayer and in its last line he echoes Rilke when he states: and the darkest days I must praise. And the last section of that book is titled: Praise.

I hear many echoes of other poets seamlessly fitted into Kaminsky’s poems, not just Rilke. And also some of their thinking. I hear echoes of American poet Li-Young Lee’s statement; the great silence which is God and Mary Oliver’s phrase: the soft animal of the body which works so well in Author’s Prayer, one of his best-known poems. Here it is:

Author’s Prayer

If I speak for the dead, I must leave
this animal of my body,

I must write the same poem over and over,
for an empty page is the white flag of their surrender.

If I speak for them, I must walk on the edge
of myself, I must live as a blind man

who runs through rooms without
touching the furniture.

Yes, I live. I can cross the streets asking “What year is it?”
I can dance in my sleep and laugh

in front of the mirror.
Even sleep is a prayer, Lord,

I will praise your madness, and
in a language not mine, speak

of music that wakes us, music
in which we move. For whatever I say

is a kind of petition, and the darkest
days must I praise.

Ilya Kaminsky (1977 – ) from Dancing in Odessa, Tupelo Press, 2004

When Death Came She Was Ready – A Deathbed Poem by Anna Swir

Polish poet Anna Swir (1909-1981)

Tomorrow They Will Carve Me

Death came and stood by me.
I said: I am ready.
I am lying in the surgery clinic in Krakow.
they will carve me.

There is much strength in me. I can live,
can run, dance, and sing.
All that is in me, but if necessary
I will go.

I make account of my life.
I was a sinner,
I was beating my head against earth,
I implored from the earth and the sky

I was pretty and ugly,
wise and stupid,
very happy and very unhappy
often I had wings
and would float in air.

I trod a thousand paths in the sun and in snow,
I danced with my friend under the stars.
I saw love
in many human eyes,
I ate with delight
my slice of happiness.

Now I am lying in the surgery clinic in Krakow.
It stands by me.
they will carve me.
Through the window the trees of May, beautiful like life,
and in me, humility, fear, and peace.

Anna Swir from Talking to My Body, trans. Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan, Copper Canyon Press, 1996

In her much quoted poem When Death Comes, American poet Mary Oliver says: When its over, I don’t want to wonder/ if I have made of my life something particular, and real/ I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,/ or full of argument./ I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world. 

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Life: Beautiful or Monstrous or Both? Three Poems by Swir, Mahon and Gilbert

American poet Jack Gilbert. Photo Credit: The Poetry Foundation

Poetry Reading

I’m curled into a ball
like a dog
that is cold.

Who will tell me
why I was born,
why this monstrosity
called life.

The telephone rings. I have to give
a poetry reading.
I enter.
A hundred people, a hundred pairs of eyes.
They look, they wait.
I know for what.

I am supposed to tell them
why they were born,
why there is
this monstrosity called life.

Anna Swir (1909-1984) from Talking to My Body, trans. Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan, Copper Canyon Press, 1996

What the heck!  When I read this poem a few weeks ago its harshness felt like a car crash. And so many questions. Is that the poet’s job? To speak only of life’s cruel severities? To explain them? Swir gives me no bolt hole. No place to escape. Monstrous life. Yes it is. But there, there’s my bolt hole. I know it’s not the whole story. So does she.

Swir, a celebrated Polish poet and contemporary of Nobel Prize Laureate Czeslaw Milosz knew so much suffering. She experienced the horrors of war in Warsaw during the second World War as a nurse during the Warsaw uprising and as member of the resistance. Yes a Milosz says in his afterward to her book Talking To My Body, reconsidering his previous emphasis on her bleak side: I have been more conquered by her extraordinary, powerful, exuberant, and joyous personality.

I am grateful for the provocation her poem is. How it reminds me that a poet’s job is to bring the difficulties of our lives into full focus, And all around me these days I see more and more poets striving to do that. I am thinking, in particular, of black and Asian American poets or North American indigenous writers or members  of the LGBTQ community who are bringing us their lives into the cultural mainstream.

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Built to Bend – A Poem by Jala al-Din Rumi and One in Response by Me (Richard Osler)


Sufi Mystic Poet, Jal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273)

Today like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love Be what we do.
There are hundred’s of ways to kneel and kiss the earth.

Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273) from The Big Red Book, trans. Coleman Barks (with John Moyne, Nevrit Ergin, A.J. Arberry, Reynold Nicholson), HarperOne, 2011

I know how popular he is: the great Sufi mystic poet Jal al-Din Rumi. And most of us have come to him through the versions or translations of American poet Coleman Barks. And I know that scholars can get quite touchy over how true Coleman’s versions or translations are to the original. That is a discussion for a another blog post.

But today I want to share one of Coleman’s wonderful version of Rumi regardless of how well known it is or not or how true to the original. This poem has long been a favorite of mine. And I used it in a poetry therapy session on Wednesday and Thursday. This idea that we can get out of our heads and make our music in the world. And I am inspired by the idea that we join what we love to what we do. And that there are hundreds of ways of saying I am here, truly all of me here, on this earth!

And now I continue to break a tradition of this poetry blog by sharing another poem I wrote this week. A good week for poems! I wrote this yesterday without any sense of what it might be. The first line came to me and I thought, ok, let’s go. I was not expecting Rumi to join me. Thank you Jala al-Din and Coleman!

After Reading a Poem by Rumi

Too many dogs barking.
The light on the thistles
too soft. Why did I wake
this morning and think
a cup of coffee was enough
to make the day bend
to my wishes? The purple tops
of the thistles won’t move in spite
of all the exhales I can muster.
Yesterday’s east wind forced
genuflection after genuflection.
When will I remember I am
the one built to bend? Rumi says
there are a hundred ways to kneel
and kiss the earth. Could it be
my words this morning – nothing
but knees asking me to kneel.

Richard Osler, unpublished, 2018

A Poem for Andy – Waiting for Surgery on July 12th, 2018

Arbutus on Maple Mountain. New pale green skin showing through.


A sound so loud:
a dry leaf falling.
The ground littered
with yellow silences.
I walked here with you
once, the Arbutus grove, their leaves
dropping and their copper
peeling, the new-skin green
underneath. New skin.
How many times dear Lord
our new skin? Each
green silence?

Richard Osler, unpublished 2018

It is not often I feature a poem of mine in a blog. But I wanted to share this small poem I wrote after hearing that my dear friend Andy Parker from Houston, Texas was having kidney surgery on Thursday, July 12th to remove what is likely a cancerous tumour.

The 12th is an auspicious day in my family. My son Alex’s birthday and the birthday of my great uncle, Sir William Osler, the celebrated physcian. I hope it will turn out to be an auspicious day for Andy. A day when his full recovery begins. That new skin.

Peeling Arbutus in Montague Harbour, Galiano Island, B.C.

See You in Italy in October?

I am pleased to announce that my October poetry retreat En Plein Air, in Umbria, Italy is a go! For details see above in Upcoming Events! I am also very happy to say we have a few spots left. If you have any interest please let me know asap!

En Plein Air, Nancy writng at Carsulae, 2017

The Bigness of Small Poems – #41 in a Series – Adelia Prado Unvarnished

Brazilian poet Adelia Prado, Winner of the 2014 Griffin Trust Lifetime Achievement Award

Object of Affection

What I have to tell you
is of such high order and so precious
that if I kept to myself
it would feel like stealing;
the asshole is beautiful!
Make what you will of this gift.
As for me – grateful to know this,
I feel not forgiveness but love.

Adelia Prado from The Mystical Rose –  Selected Poems, trans. Ellen Dore Watson, Bloodaxe Books, 2014

Adelia Prado. Mystical grandmotherly-looking octogenarian from Brazil. So often she surprises with her salty tongue, her playful irreverence. Her passion that strips all so-called properness away. As at home in her poems celebrating sex and its erotic connection to the divine as she is writing devotional prayer poems of love to God!

I have written a number of blogs on Prado including one earlier this year and here’s the link to the one celebrating her 2014 Griffin Trust Lifetime Achievement Award.  But after I came across the gem of a poem above a few weeks ago I wanted to highlight her again by adding this poem to my The Bigness of Small Poems series.

Talk about surprise and freshness deep down things as Gerard Manley Hopkins would say. This celebration of our human body in her little poem. Not just the nice bits. After all, without the asshole where would we be? I am grateful to Prado for the reminder: to love all of me. And maybe when I hear the whisper: you’re an asshole I’ll reply: that’s not so bad!