pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Tag: poetry

the sodden state of summer’s back-to-school days . . .

it’s been getting heavier and heavier all week. my heart, that is. the boy i love—or one of ‘em anyway—is heading off again. one last time. to school, that is. we’ll be playing follow-the-leader, interstate-style, this weekend, when he pushes off with a trunk filled to the gills, and i follow not far behind with a wagon equally jammed. i’m enlisted only for my skill at hospital corners (a nurse’s way of tucking in bedsheets), and my knack for stuffing things in the teeny spaces that qualify as dorm-room closets. 

all week, amid a blur of other complications, i’ve felt my heart grow heavy with tears not yet spilled. the country roads the whole way home––just me and some fine book on tape––will make for a bucolic sponge for salt-water spillage. 

that boy is the best of company, that boy of the very big heart and the disposition best described as super chill, and ever animated. the boy fills this old house, and every heart in it.

so, once he’s left behind, back here at the homestead it’ll feel hollow once again till we get used to the long pauses of silence, till we get used to a room where the door isn’t sealed shut to hide the disarray inside. 

a wise someone once told me that if i thought high school blurred by in a blink, i’d find college blurred in half a blink. and so it is. eight years after dropping off his big brother one last time, it’s time for the caboose to part as well. this is it: the end of tuition checks and dorm vernacular, the end of considering time in back-to-school and semester allotments.

there’s perhaps a better chance that this one will find his way back home, to call sweet chicago the place where he belongs. but till then, nine months will trickle by. 

it’s the leave-taking that always bumps me up. the saying goodbye is not my strong suit. my trouble in that department dates back to when i was five and my papa got a big new job in a city far away, and every sunday night for the rest of a school year, he slid behind the wheel of his turquoise ford falcon and headed down the drive while i sat slumped on the concrete stoop there in the garage. i remember crying till my cheeks hurt. and going to bed with tummy aches. till he came home on friday nights.

nowadays i cry while spritzing the bathroom mirror, and when luring dust bunnies out from under the college kid’s bed, once he’s emptied it, once he’s faded into the faraway. then i try to find my way again, to find the joy in silence, in the slower pace with which the fridge and pantry empty, in the fewer loads of laundry. in that bathroom mirror that never splatters.

it’s come and go, all life long. and we’re wise to make the most of those blessed hyphens in between.

in the weeks ahead, i’ll be busy plotting my new cloister garden as a six-foot wall is being erected (straight through a chunk of what had been my garden, and hard up against our once-breezy screened-in summer porch) even as i type. i’m thinking of it as my monastery wall––the cedar barricade shutting out all the troubles of the world. but the thing i’ll miss most is the slant of sunlight at the twilight hour, as the great orb sinks low and the shafts of light get long and longer. it’s a golden glow that makes my summer porch seem gilded with celestial stardust. 

and because the last round of page proofs got delayed till next week, i’ll fill my quiet hours with the intense concentration those pages demand. and then it’s off to the printer as i await the day the box of books lands plop on my doorstoop. 


cook’s corner: here’s a truly nifty thing i bumped into this week (if meat lovers thrill to find a way to use every bit of the beast, from tongue to tail, then we who love the produce patch thrill just as mightily to find there’s more to the vine than just the fruits!). as one with a plethora of tangled vines, and one who sniffs deeply of my finger tips after plucking my daily tomato harvest, this enlightenment brings double the delight from those vines. and it’s all about the leaves…

How to Cook with Tomato Leaves

Tomato leaves contain 2-isobutlythiazole, a compound responsible for the plant’s distinctive aroma. Commercial tomato products, like ketchup, often include an isolated form of that compound to boost fresh tomato flavor.

If you have a garden full of tomatoes, though, you’ve got a great source of 2-isobutlythiazole right in your backyard. Here’s how to use tomato leaves to boost your sauce’s flavor.

1. When you harvest your tomatoes, pluck a handful of leaves from the plant.

2. Toss the leaves into the sauce and steep them for 10 minutes.

3. Remove and discard the leaves. 

Taste your sauce, and you’ll find that the tomato flavor has been both heightened and made more complex and earthy.


commonplacing:

from poet and pacifist William Stafford, found in his son Kim Stafford’s intimate portrait, Early Morning: Remembering My Father:
every day Stafford would write a page in his journal, his response to what he called “the emergency of being alive.” 

we are all of us deep in the emergency of our being alive…


a little bit of Buechner, in memory of the blessed man who died at 96 on monday. 

Frederick Buechner

a few years back, in 2016 to be precise, i counted a new collection of writings from theologian frederick buechner, with introduction by anne lamott, as one of the best books for the soul that year. his death this week made me pull that review from the shelf, and perhaps it’ll prompt you to pull a bit of buechner from your own bookshelf or that of your nearest library. 

Buechner 101: Essays and Sermons by Frederick Buechner

By Carl Frederick Buechner, Introduction by Anne Lamott, Frederick Buechner Center, 170 pages, $15.99

Maybe once a generation, once every few generations, someone is born with gifts literary and sacred, in equal brilliant measure. A translator, perhaps, of the highest calling. One who can at once lift our souls and our sights, by virtue of the rare alchemy of the poetic plus the profound. Therein lies the prophet. Therein lies Frederick Buechner, at 90, one of the greatest living American theologians and writers.

In these collected works, Buechner 101: Essays and Sermons by Frederick Buechner — a table of contents that includes excerpts from his Harvard Divinity School lectures, The Alphabet of Grace; a searing essay on his daughter’s anorexia; a seminary commencement address on the hard truths of pastoring a flock of believers, doubters and everyday sinners — we are introduced to, or immersed in, the depth and breadth of this rare thinker’s literary and soulful gifts. 

Anne Lamott, in her introduction, admits to being blown away by Buechner’s capacity “to be both plain and majestic” at once. She ranks him side-by-side C.S. Lewis, then declares, “No one has brought me closer to God than these two men.”

That alone might make you rush to pore over these pages. What I know is that this world sorely needs a prophet who reminds us to not give up our search for holiness amid the noise and hate and madness all around. Buechner, though, says it in words that work as poetry, shimmying through the cracks, burrowing deep within us, reverberating long after the page is turned. He writes: “We must learn to listen to the cock-crows and hammering and tick-tock of our lives for the holy and elusive word that is spoken to us out of their depths. It is the function of all great preaching, I think, and all great art, to sharpen our hearing precisely to that end.”

And it is that very sharpening that we find, paragraph upon paragraph, page after page, in Buechner 101


poet’s corner:

two poems worth pressing against your heart…

Field Guide

Once, in the cool blue middle of a lake,
up to my neck in that most precious element of all,

I found a pale-gray, curled-upwards pigeon feather
floating on the tension of the water

at the very instant when a dragonfly,
like a blue-green iridescent bobby pin,

hovered over it, then lit, and rested.
That’s all.

I mention this in the same way
that I fold the corner of a page

in certain library books,
so that the next reader will know

where to look for the good parts.

––Tony Hoagland

Moon

The moon is full tonight
an illustration for sheet music,
an image in Matthew Arnold
glimmering on the English Channel,
or a ghost over a smoldering battlefield
in one of the history plays.

 It’s as full as it was
in that poem by Coleridge
where he carries his year-old son
into the orchard behind the cottage
and turns the baby’s face to the sky
to see for the first time
the earth’s bright companion,
something amazing to make his crying seem small.

 And if you wanted to follow this example,
tonight would be the night
to carry some tiny creature outside
and introduce him to the moon.

And if your house has no child,
you can always gather into your arms
the sleeping infant of yourself,
as I have done tonight,
and carry him outdoors,
all limp in his tattered blanket,
making sure to steady his lolling head
with the palm of your hand.

And while the wind ruffles the pear trees
in the corner of the orchard
and dark roses wave against a stone wall,
you can turn him on your shoulder
and walk in circles on the lawn
drunk with the light.
You can lift him up into the sky,
your eyes nearly as wide as his,
as the moon climbs high into the night.

––Billy Collins


listening nook: because i’ll be coursing through the countryside in my red wagon this weekend, i’m bringing my reading nook on little discs. here’s the stack assembled from the library shelves:

A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean: i once was graced to work alongside Norman’s son John, a fine fine bespectacled gent with a much quieter, more studious demeanor than many of the newsroom characters. his father’s masterwork  stands as one of the great “evocations of nature’s miracles…and a probing of human mysteries.”

The Abundance, Annie Dillard: a landmark collection from the writer i consider my north star.

Five by Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald: i’m ever trying to expand and deepen my knowledge of the American canon and F. Scott deserves more of my attention. 

Dear Ann, Bobbie Ann Mason: mason, like me, is a kentucky native, so i feel it my native obligation to inhale her prose and her poetic ways of unspooling a story. i read my first bobbie ann mason so long ago, and it’s been ages since, so where better to reacquaint ourselves than the rolling countryside of the heartland we both call home?

Wallflower at the Orgy, Nora Ephron: ephron makes me laugh so hard i’d best keep an eye out for rest stops along the way. en route to one parents’ weekend, we listened to Heart Burn, her tale of woe from her years married to and divorcing from none other than journalistic legend Carl Bernstein. we loved listening so much we were sort of bummed we had to stop the car in ohio, where our kid was a freshman in college, and couldn’t roll along till, say, the atlantic seaboard, where we could have gotten a few more hours of ephron under our belts….


a bit more buechner, because there’s never enough:

“What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else 
is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that 
is often just what we also fear more than anything else. 
It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are . . . because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier . . . for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own . ”

Frederick Buechner

and with that, this week’s edition of the chair gazette is a wrap. question of the week: how will suck the succulence out of summer’s august sweetness?

college kid this week, on the brink of one last back-to-school.

summer’s fever pitch

i feel it, as if a whoosh about to come, when suddenly i’ll be sitting wrapped in a sweater looking out at the glistening autumnal goldenness, asking myself “where did the summer go?”

maybe we all feel it. maybe that’s why there’s a fever pitch in the air. squeezing in those few things you would not let pass by in these summery months: the sitting outdoors with a breeze in your hair, as you order your food and let someone else do the cooking; the staying up late, under the stars, talking the night away with the college kid who, once he’s gone, might go weeks without finding time for a phone call; throwing a towel on the sand, baring your arms and your legs, sensing the splash and the roar of the waves just inches away, and hours later, perhaps when sliding into your jammies, unplucking the last stubborn grains of sand from in between your toes. because summer is all of those things. 

summer is for savoring because summer, like any season when we’re keeping close watch, is fleeting. evanescent, a fancy name for flashing by. 

we all have our own definitions for the season of indolence, the season when sloth is not only allowed but welcomed. what makes it special in my book are the moments i dare to break rules, do what otherwise might count as overindulgence (oh, my catholic childhood––just post-baltimore catechism––does continue to hold me in its clutches). 

i remember as vividly as anything the summer’s night when my mom and i sat in the dark of the kitchen, our backs pressed against the fridge, with an aluminum pan of chilled fudge (the kind you made from a box) and two spoons and we giggled like schoolgirls trying out truancy. 

sometimes what makes summer summer is simply its sense of abandon, the que-sera season, i’ve called it.

i remember chasing through the yard with a glass jar and a lid poked by a nail, in quixotic pursuit of the flickering lights of the firefly. (speaking of fireflies, how’s this glorious expression thereof: “To behold the skywriters tracing poesy in summer’s vapors, to decipher their sticky sweet nothings, their blinking reminders that we are meant to shine in our short time.”) i remember running barefoot, something i’ve not done in a long, long swath of years.

nowadays––now that trays of fudge are no longer, and chasing through grass in the dark would count as orthopedic risk––summer is finally getting to sink into a book once the work of the week is turned in. summer is piling high whatever i find in the fridge, and calling it “salad for dinner.” summer is waking as soon as the birds start to sing, so i can sneak into the day ahead of the blistering heat. 

mostly nowadays, summer is holding on tight to the hours i’ve got before the boy i so love packs up and goes. back to college, one last time…

how do you define summer? and what are the summery moments you’ll never forget?


summer reading:

these are the books i’m diving into once i turn in my latest round of pages scoured and scrubbed of all typos and bloops. my stack inspires me….

The Living Mountain, by Nan Shepherd, introduced by Robert Macfarlane, afterword by Jeanette Winterson: a masterpiece of nature writing, first published in 1977, describing Shepherd’s journeys into the Cairngorm mountains of her native Scotland.

The Beginning and the End, and Other Poems, by Robinson Jeffers
The Selected Poetries of Robinson Jeffers, edited by Tim Hunt: The bard of the California coastline, a giant of modern letters who somehow has gotten a bit overshadowed, but whose capturings of words crash against me like the Pacific surf.

Early Mornings, by Kim Stafford: A biography of the great poet William Stafford,  a pacifist who called himself “one of the quiet of the land,” written by his son, a poetic force all his own.

The Odyssey, by Homer: Because it’s about time.

The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition: Because it’s every page-proofer’s best friend. Or it should be.

i also just started karen armstrong’s The Case for God, and oh dear gracious, it’s blowing my mind. i’ve borrowed it from the digital library, but i already think i might need to grab a page-turning copy cuz just a few chapters in, this is already a book screaming for marginalia…

a snippet of summer poetry:

‘Can we learn wisdom watching insects now,
or just the art of quiet observation?’
from ‘Summer of the Ladybirds’ by Vivian Smith


summer cooking, er, non-cooking: 

i’m trying this for tonight, perfect in a week when there’s not much cooking time in between hours and hours of page proofing

Corn Salad With Tomatoes, Basil and Cilantro
By Genevieve Ko

INGREDIENTS
5 ears of corn
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1 lime
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil Salt
1⁄4 teaspoon minced seeded fresh habanero or other very hot chile (optional)
(*i’m adding a pinch of ground ancho chile peppers; maybe more than a pinch)
1⁄2 cup fresh basil leaves
1⁄4 cup fresh cilantro leaves 

PREPARATION
Step 1
Microwave the corn in their husks on high for 3 minutes. Shuck the corn — the silks will come off easily. (If you want to boil or steam the corn on the stovetop, you can shuck the corn first then cook just until brighter in color, 2 to 3 minutes.) Cut the kernels off the cobs, transfer them to a large bowl and add the tomatoes. 

Step 2
Finely grate the zest of the lime directly over the corn mixture, then squeeze the juice from the lime all over. Add the oil, a generous pinch of salt and the chile, if using. Mix well, then tear the herbs over the salad and gently fold them in. Season to taste with salt and serve, or refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 1 day. 


until i wrap up this little old book in the works (final deadline, end of august), i’m continuing on in the spirit of the gazette, that old-fashioned compendium of things worth tucking under your belt for the day (not that any of my scribblings above so qualify).

and while we’re at it, and in case you’ve ever wondered where in the world the word comes from: gazette is “a loanword from the French language, which is, in turn, a 16th-century permutation of the Italian gazzetta, which is the name of a particular Venetian coin. Gazzetta became an epithet for newspaper during the early and middle 16th century, when the first Venetian newspapers cost one gazzetta.”

and, with that, may yours be a summery week. however you define it.

juneteenth

in which, once again and imperatively, we listen. this time to the words of abraham lincoln, Black activist jadon-maurice forbes, and poets maya angelou and marilyn nelson…

“a proclamation,” it begins, simply, declaratively. a beginning ground deep in the soil of justice. long overdue justice. 

“Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”

so begins president lincoln’s emancipation proclamation, issued at the dawn of the new year, 1863.

so why did it take till the 19th of june in 1865 for the slaves of galveston, texas, to find out they were free?

juneteenth, at heart, is the commemoration of that announcement of overdue emancipation— marking the official end of slavery in these united states — a full two and a half years after lincoln’s proclamation. 

quoting from juneteenth.com:

“Later attempts to explain this two and a half year delay in the receipt of this important news have yielded several versions that have been handed down through the years. Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. And still another is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. All of which, or none of these versions could be true. Certainly, for some, President Lincoln’s authority over the rebellious states was in question.  Whatever the reasons, conditions in Texas remained status quo well beyond what was statutory.”

why did it take till the 19th of june in 2020 for most of a nation to awake to the lingering injustices, to finally empower one Black activist, jadon-maurice forbes, to write: “Juneteenth, perhaps for the first time, is for all of us.”

for all of us to inventory our souls, to ask the hard, hard questions: what are the isms in my life that put up walls? where are my blinders? what are the ways i acquiesce to otherism? and, most emphatically, how can i break down whatever stands between me and true and unbiased justice for all?

forbes goes on to write:

This is a day that my grandmother taught me to honor as the beginnings of a new life for the African diaspora. She was very close to her African-American heritage and wanted to impart that quality to me. So much so that she would replace my Hooked-on-Phonics books with ones she felt were more suitable — like Imani and the Flying Africans — a fantastic tale of a band of Africans taking to the sky to escape to freedom.

When I think of Juneteenth, I often imagine those winged, black faces breaking their chains and finding freedom. But the true American tale of how slaves were freed is more grounded in a nuanced, complicated, and painful struggle for freedom that has continued for 155 years (read: that means ‘til today). Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day the last of the enslaved Africans in America were freed from their chains, having continued to work in bondage for a full two years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

In many ways, Juneteenth is a bittersweet reminder of what was promised but never delivered to Black folks post-emancipation. It’s a reminder of delayed justice. Every year, even after my nana passed away, we celebrated this holiday. And every year, we do so in honor of progress as much as for a continually delayed sense of justice and equality.

But this Juneteenth is different. Can you feel it? We’re in a rare moment in that the world is coming together to really grapple with that delay. In the last three weeks, millions have taken to the street in honor of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and now, Rayshard Brooks, in addition to the many other Black people who have been killed at the hands of vigilantes or law enforcement. The explosion of protest is in response to a pattern of killings, piled onto the deadly impacts of COVID-19 and four years of Donald Trump.

linger over these unanswered questions. let them settle deep down to where your conscience unsettles you. ask where you might begin. and in the meantime, let maya angelou further stir your soul.

here she is reading “the slave auction,” a poem by frances ellen watkins harper, written in 1854, after harper, a Black poet, witnessed one such auction…

and read the words of poet and author marilyn nelson’s “juneteenth.” nelson, the daughter of one of the last of the tuskegee airmen, was a three-time finalist for the national book award, poet laureate of connecticut, winner of the robert frost medal, and more and more and more. but before you read her poems, read this short bit she wrote on “how i discovered poetry”:

It was like soul-kissing, the way the words
filled my mouth as Mrs. Purdy read from her desk.
All the other kids zoned an hour ahead to 3:15,
but Mrs. Purdy and I wandered lonely as clouds borne
by a breeze off Mount Parnassus. She must have seen
the darkest eyes in the room brim: The next day
she gave me a poem she’d chosen especially for me
to read to the all except for me white class.
She smiled when she told me to read it, smiled harder,
said oh yes I could. She smiled harder and harder
until I stood and opened my mouth to banjo playing
darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats. When I finished
my classmates stared at the floor. We walked silent
to the buses, awed by the power of words.

and, now as promised, nelson’s poems. first up, “juneteenth,” and then, the riveting “worth.”

juneteenth

With her shiny black-patent sandals
and her Japanese parasol,
and wearing a brand-new Juneteenth dress,
Johnnie’s a living doll.

Juneteenth: when the Negro telegraph
reached the last sad slave…
It’s Boley’s second Easter;
the whole town a picnic.

Children run from one church booth
to the next, buying sandwiches,
sweet-potato pie, peach cobbler
with warm, sweaty pennies.

The flame of celebration
ripples like glad news
from one mouth to the next.

These people slipped away
in the middle of the night;
arrived in Boley with nothing
but the rags on their backs.
These carpenters, contractors, cobblers.
These bankers and telephone operators.
These teachers, preachers, and clerks.
These merchants and restaurateurs.
These peanut-growing farmers,
these wives halting the advance of cotton
with flowers in front of their homes.

Johnnie’s father tugs one of her plaits,
head-shaking over politics
with the newspaper editor,
who lost his other ear
getting away from a lynch-mob.

Worth

For Ruben Ahoueya

Today in America people were bought and sold:
five hundred for a “likely Negro wench.”
If someone at auction is worth her weight in gold,
how much would she be worth by pound? By ounce?
If I owned an unimaginable quantity of wealth,
could I buy an iota of myself?
How would I know which part belonged to me?
If I owned part, could I set my part free?
It must be worth something—maybe a lot—
that my great-grandfather, they say, killed a lion.
They say he was black, with muscles as hard as iron,
that he wore a necklace of the claws of the lion he’d fought.
How much do I hear, for his majesty in my blood?
I auction myself. And I make the highest bid.

how will you mark juneteenth? how will you join in the movement for justice for all?

this american moment: of poetry and protest

photo by Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times

this moment in america is one that won’t be bracketed by a solitary summer. this is one of those moments when first the rumbling comes, the thrumming down below our soles. and then the shift begins to come, tectonic shift (or so you pray). wake up, america. it’s been too long now. all of a sudden the rush of history — long overdue, long overspent in costs of brokenness, of cruelty, of gravest injustice — it’s washing over us, washing something from our eyes.

maybe we will see now.

maybe, beneath the din, beneath the shouts and shattering of glass, we will at last hear the whispers and the cries. it’s been too long now. far, far too long.

this summer reminds me of the summer when i was 11. i remember riding in the front seat of our wood-sided station wagon, stopped at a red light, when the news came on. i heard the word assassinate once again. this time, bobby kennedy; last time, only months before, martin luther king, jr. assassinate is an ugly word. a word that scares a kid. a word that makes you freeze inside your bones, a word that makes you afraid to breathe, not sure where or why all these bullets seem to be soaring through the darkness, piercing people’s brains. it’s a word i’d heard too often in the first half of 1968.

in the summer of ’68, america took to the streets. in this, the summer of 20-20, we’re at it once again. we should be. what we’ve seen is wrong, and ugly, and violent. and shattering. imagine — just imagine — what we’ve not seen. that scares me. really scares me. leaves my heart — yours too, i’m guessing — in shards. leaves me — you, too? — gasping.

i’m not so much a take-to-the-streets kind of someone. i’m more turn-the-page and pound-on-heaven’s-door. i inhale words to rouse my soul the way others pound the pavement. i feel a deep-down curdling, a rage, when i read the words of poets who are witness to the unimaginable. i wipe away streams of tears. sit motionless, not breathing, when i get to the end of a line that’s just shot through me like a rock to the side of the head.

the transportive power of poetry — its capacity to draw us into the kitchen where the shouting comes, or the bedroom where the wailing rises up, or the street where blood is spilling — it’s what moves me. its ugly truths can mark me for a lifetime, scenes and moments seared indelibly, ones my eyes and ears have never witnessed but which, nevertheless, i’ll never shake.

maybe that’s why — when i got an email the other day from a most beloved poetry professor of mine, elisa new, creator of Poetry in America, now a public-television series, i read these words so closely, considered them instruction for this long, hot summer ahead. maybe, too, for you.

this is what lisa (who is also a professor of american literature at harvard, and something of a polyglot of poetry and poets) wrote:

Protest is the voice of the people, elevated and offered to society at large. The protests we are hearing fulfill art’s, and especially poetry’s, greatest function—which is to make human beings truly audible to one another, to let them hear one another’s humanity and take in one another’s pain. The opposite of hearing the human voice is denying, muffling, strangling its cry: that is what we saw with deadly and literal explicitness in the murder of George Floyd, and in the appalling murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and so many others. Killings committed by deputed servants of the public good implicate the public, and they require us to reckon with the full gravity of what these acts represent. Their stain is on us all, and any institution, large or small, that endeavors to serve the public good must accept its own responsibility, and review its own past failings, in an effort to do better.

The voices we hear on the streets of our cities right now are doing as poets [since before the American founding] have done: decrying injustice, asking for redress, but also: telling the particular stories, naming the particular names, with every city and region and neighborhood now being brought to account by its own residents. On these streets, as on the page and in songs and performances, what we are now hearing is not abstract. It is the sound of people mustering language in its highest forms for the largest civilizational ends. 

And so in the work of 20th century poets such as Claude McKay, Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, and June Jordan, and in the work of so many writing today—Rita Dove, Claudia Rankine, Evie Shockley, Terrance Hayes, Jamaal May, Clint Smith, Joshua Bennett, Kendrick Lamar and so many others—Black American poets have continued to carry what Langston Hughes, seventy years ago, called “a heavy load”—of “dream[s] deferred” and plain truths denied.

“…to make human beings truly audible to one another, to let them hear one another’s humanity and take in one another’s pain.”

the power of poetry. of witness.

in the spirit of gathering up a cadre of page-turning protestors, of dialing up our capacities for empathies, i’ve begun to gather something of a 20-20 summer reading list. any of the poets named above would be a place to begin.

but i turn, always, always, to lucille clifton, a poet who doesn’t believe in upper case or think much of punctuation, but whose words might never ever leave you. here are but two that leave me breathless….

 slaveships

by LUCILLE CLIFTON

loaded like spoons

into the belly of Jesus

where we lay for weeks for months

in the sweat and stink

of our own breathing

Jesus

why do you not protect us

chained to the heart of the Angel

where the prayers we never tell

and hot and red

as our bloody ankles

Jesus

Angel

can these be men

who vomit us out from ships

called Jesus    Angel    Grace of God

onto a heathen country

Jesus

Angel

ever again

can this tongue speak

can these bones walk

Grace Of God

can this sin live

Lucille Clifton, “slaveships” from Blessing the Boats: New And Selected Poems 1988-2000. Copyright © 2000 by Lucille Clifton.

the lost baby poem

by LUCILLE CLIFTON

the time i dropped your almost body down

down to meet the waters under the city

and run one with the sewage to the sea

what did i know about waters rushing back

what did i know about drowning

or being drowned

you would have been born into winter

in the year of the disconnected gas

and no car       we would have made the thin

walk over genesee hill into the canada wind

to watch you slip like ice into strangers’ hands

you would have fallen naked as snow into winter

if you were here i could tell you these

and some other things

if i am ever less than a mountain

for your definite brothers and sisters

let the rivers pour over my head

let the sea take me for a spiller

of seas        let black men call me stranger

always        for your never named sake

Lucille Clifton, “the lost baby poem” from good woman: poems and a memoir, 1969-1980. Copyright © 1987 by Lucille Clifton.

and, then, there is claudia rankine, whose words will push you to the edge of your chair. the place to begin would be her 2014 citizen: an american lyric, voted the book — not the poetry book, but the book — most likely to endure in the literary canon of a decade from now by the literati at literary hub, a virtual public square for bibliophiles and word junkies of every stripe. the good folk at LitHub wrote of citizen:

It is a special hybrid of a book, part poetry, part critical essay—the book won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, and was a finalist for the same award in Criticism—making use of screenplay form, screengrabs, art, and iconic pop culture images. It is a complex assessment of racism in contemporary America, on both a micro and macro scale, addressing Rankine’s own experiences, as well as stories of Serena Williams, Zinedine Zidane, stop-and-frisk, President Obama, Hurricane Katrina, police violence—the whole heartbreaking, embarrassing litany of examples of American prejudice, or at least as close as we’ve gotten in recent memory. Rankine won a MacArthur in 2016, but most of us have been calling her a genius for years.

The book is also artful, beautiful, sometimes funny, subtle when subtlety is required, razor sharp when that better suits her needs. It investigates memory and identity and the nature of narrative and self-doubt and self-expression. I don’t know anyone who has read it who was not profoundly moved by it. As Dan Chiasson put it in The New Yorker, “The realization at the end of this book sits heavily upon the heart: ‘This is how you are a citizen,’ Rankine writes. ‘Come on. Let it go. Move on.’ As Rankine’s brilliant, disabusing work, always aware of its ironies, reminds us, ‘moving on’ is not synonymous with ‘leaving behind.’” 

–Emily Temple, Senior Editor, LitHub

and i will leave you with langston hughes, and his 1927 masterwork.

song for a dark girl

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
They hung my black young lover
To a cross roads tree.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Bruised body high in air)
I asked the white Lord Jesus
What was the use of prayer.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
On a gnarled and naked tree.

break the heart of me, indeed.

how do you join in the protest, the urgent call of this american moment?

our friends at wordpress have birthed a new way to post, and i am just getting used to its kinks and trick-box. for the life of me, i can’t find where you add images. so i will poke around and see if i can figure this out. for now, these are my words…. (figured it out!) and photo above by Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times

notes from poetry school

IMG_2059

“…the great poet should not only perceive and distinguish more clearly than other men [sic], the colours or sounds within the range of ordinary vision or hearing; he should perceive vibrations beyond the range of ordinary men, and be able to make men see and hear more at each end than they could ever see without his help. … it is therefore a constant reminder to the poet, of the obligation to explore, to find words for the inarticulate, to capture those feelings which people can hardly even feel, because they have no words for them; and at the same time, a reminder that the explorer beyond the frontiers of ordinary consciousness will only be able to return and report to his fellow-citizens, if he has all the time a firm grasp upon the realities with which they are already acquainted…

“the task of the poet, in making people comprehend the incomprehensible, demands immense resources of language; and in developing the language, enriching the meaning of words and showing how much words can do, he is making possible a range of emotion and perception for other men, because he gives them the speech in which more can be expressed.”

t.s. eliot, “what dante means to me”

“perceive vibrations beyond the range of ordinary [inhabitants of this moment in time on this place called earth], and be able to make [those souls] see and hear more at each end than they could ever [otherwise] see…”

that’s the essence of it to me. the whole draw toward language, toward poetry in particular, the knowledge that at the far reaches of this thing called our capacities we might — if we work at it, if we think about it — possess the possibility of capturing the ephemeral, the ineffable, the slipping-through-our-fingertips. those quivers of human heart and spirit that shimmer just beneath the surface, but once illuminated prompt us — each and every one of us — to sigh in recognition. “i am not alone.” i too know that pain, that joy, that loneliness. that hallelujah of the heart. the long dark night of the soul.

it’s why from the beginning, in writing — be it the stories i scribbled as a child, sprawled across my bedroom’s braided oval rug, or later in chasing and telling the stories of heartbreak and crime and injustice for the chicago tribune — i reached toward poetics, i reached toward those combinations of words that shattered through the barriers of the every day.

i never set out to write poems, i still don’t (i’ve written one to my name and it’s locked in a drawer, just as my mother tells me she too has reams locked in drawers, some burned along the way), but i have always always sought to understand the work, the magic, that poetics does, so that i too could weave it into the plainspoken sentences as i try to write my way through life.

the more deeply i read, the more deeply i study the powers of poetry, the more amazed i am by its otherworldly capacities. the more i ache to reach its borders.

why write? because we are plopped onto this planet as if a babe in the woods. there are mixed-up trails all around, and we are finding our way, every one of us. some are born with illuminators nearby. some are not. we all stumble onto lessons, onto truths, endure trials and temptations. come out wiser, if we’re paying attention. if we’re listening and keeping close watch. if along the way, we can trace the trails, write what we see and hear and come to understand, well then don’t we begin to serve as cartographers for those in the woods with us? might we cover more of the woods if we all share what we etch in our notebooks?

writers write, painters paint, dancers dance. we all illuminate the coursings of the heart in the movements that most stir us. poetry — the art of distilling the unseen, unheard, but often felt gyrations and quiverings of the heart and soul — poetry enters it all.

we reach beyond the range of the ordinary, we illuminate what’s often lost. we aim to hold it high, to whisper, “behold this holy moment, study its undulations, its depths and inclines. extract a droplet of wisdom.” and go on with your humdrum day.

that’s what i thought about at poetry school last week. that’s what i wrapped myself in. and carried home in my backpack.

***

culled from my notebook:

books you might choose to read, all highly recommended:

scott cairns, Recovered Body (especially, “The Recovered Midrashim of Rabbi Sab”)

denise levertov, The Stream and the Sapphire (poems that wrestle with faith and doubt)

mary karr, Sinners Welcome (her poem, “Descending Theology: Nativity,” reimagining the birth in the barn, leaves me limp, the poem i should read every Christmas morning…)

lucille clifton, Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988 – 2000, winner of the National Book Award

 

how do you try to capture the ineffable? and why does it matter to see and hear what’s beyond ordinary range? your thoughts on eliot’s thoughts up above? 

i can’t leave the chair this morning without a cannon’s blast of birthday blessings for my beautiful firstborn, who is off in DC, without an actual mailing address (he’s living in a condo not yet on the market and for some reason the developer can’t give him a reliable street address nor the promise that any mail would actually be delivered…), and who is turning 26 tomorrow. the only thing worse (for the mama, anyway) than a kid having a birthday far far from home, is not being able to send a single care package! so, not that he’d wander by to read this, but i am sending all the love in my heart and then some. i send prayers as well, mountains of them. may this year ahead illuminate all that is good and joyful in you and around you and because of you. i love you to the moon. have since long before you were born. xoxoxoxo

willie yawn

oh, dear God, i love this child, love him far beyond the borders of my humble little heart….

wisdom: extracting / seeking

 

before i pack my bags for summer camp for nerdy nerds (the so-called camp i’m going to has a pack list rife with yellow highlighters, five-tab binder, reams and reams of pages; dictionary, encouraged), i am dipping back into my nursing days, and wielding ice bags and ibuprofen like nobody’s business.

i’ve been up every hour on the hour through the night, employing what amounts to a giant-sized sock filled with ice, tied round the not-yet-swollen cheeks of my now-college-bound kid, the one who had his wisdoms extracted yesterday. excavated would be a more apt choice of verb, the friendly oral surgeon whispered, suggesting muscle (perhaps pick axes?) — more than usual — might have been involved. not exactly the last hurrah of high school anyone would wish for…

soon as we round the bend on impending swelling, soon as pudding and jello gives way to mushy mac-and-cheese (a second-day staple), once this escapade in extracting/excavating wisdom fades into the sunset, i am seeking wisdoms all my own: i’ll scramble to pack the last of my poetries and hop a plane to NYC, whereupon i’ll glide my way to new haven, aka elm city, where an empty apartment waits for me, and a whole div school besides.

in the rarest fluke of my non-adventurous days, i somehow found myself signing up for a one-week summer course, “reading poetry theologically,” at yale divinity school, a bastion of ecumenicism (with a strong dash of anglicanism) since 1822. i’d have signed up for this first week too, when a tantalizing class in henri nouwen was stretched across the days, but those wisdom teeth got in my way, so i’m signed up for next week’s poetry, taught, curiously, by a professor named david mahan, and i’ll soon find out if he’s my distant cousin who’s done away with his closing syllable, lobbed off his exclamatory y. (ours is not a name — with or without all its syllables — you bump into very often.)

i never was much for camp of the mosquito-and-sunscreen variety. never did like that kool-aid poured from vats, the red stuff they called bug juice, as if that would warm me to its redness. but i am positively twitterpated at the notion of making believe i’m back in school. the thought of loping down the cobblestones, my book bag swinging by my side, well, it’s akin, i’d think, to how cinderella felt when she traded in her whisk broom for her sparkly shoes.

for anyone who wants to play along at home, the reading list of poets (a brilliantly eclectic mix of voices, the very sort i love the most) includes: gerard manley hopkins, wendell berry, scott cairns, lucille clifton, denise levertov, mary karr, langston hughes, louise erdrich, and the glorious (new to me) r.s. thomas, an anglican priest from wales, often ranked as one of the three great english-language poets of the 20th century, alongside yeats and eliot, and often called “poet of the hidden God.” (be still my hidden heart.)

as was the case back in our year of thinking sumptuously, when in one academic year my appetite for binging at the course-list trough was forever whetted, i’ll send along a dispatch of whatever poetic morsels stir my hungry heart.

and now, before the timer pings reminding me to grab an ice pack, here’s the latest book for the soul, an exploration deep into islam, and my review of Muhammad: Forty Introductions, by Michael Muhammad Knight, as it ran in the pages of the Chicago Tribune last week:

‘Muhammad: Forty Introductions’ is a soul-stirring primer on Islam

IMG_1929‘Muhammad: Forty Introductions’

By Michael Muhammad Knight, Soft Skull, 320 pages, $16.95

Review by Barbara Mahany Chicago Tribune

When Michael Muhammad Knight — whom The Guardian of London has called “the Hunter S. Thompson of Islamic literature” — set out to teach a religious studies seminar on classical Islam at Kenyon College in Ohio, he promptly realized that no single snapshot served to introduce his mostly non-Muslim students to the great prophet Muhammad, “Messenger of God.”

Instead, the professor settled on 40 such snapshots, or “introductions,” drawn from a broad swath of voices — the canonical as well as the marginalized — citing ancient Islamic scholars, French philosophers, and even “Star Wars” (though not in equal measure).

His “Muhammad: Forty Introductions” is part gonzo devotional, part Muslim primer, and, ultimately, a soul-stirring portal into a personal vision of Muhammad.

The narrations Knight turned to are a bedrock of Islam: the hadith, an oral tradition of “news” or “reports” of Muhammad’s sayings or doings, a tradition that traces its lineage of authenticity through a chain of teachers, resting in proximity to the prophet himself. Hadiths — apart from the Qur’an — serve as instruction for Muslims looking for guidance in how to live their lives. As Knight put it, “I want to know Muhammad’s way of being human.”

Knight is a novelist and essayist who converted to Islam at 16, traveled to Islamabad at 17 to study at a madrasa, then got a master’s degree at Harvard Divinity School and a Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina. In gathering 40 hadiths, the author followed the ancient Islamic literary tradition of the arba’in, wherein scholars over the millennia have collected and curated 40 hadith, often by theme. For Knight, who rose to literary fame with his 2003 self-publication of his novel “The Taqwacores,” now considered a cult classic and a “manifesto for the Muslim punk movement,” his “Forty Introductions” is a decidedly contemporary collection, reaching into queer theology, feminist commentary and core Islamic teachings.

Something of a crash course in Muhammad, Knight’s intellectually charged collection of fragments makes for a multi-textured, many hued mosaic. In a revelatory aside, Knight acknowledges that for every student of Muhammad, the prophet becomes a “montage of images, an arrangement of moving parts.” This fragmentation is inevitable — and necessary — he writes: “the ingredients of my Muhammad often come to me as shattered pieces that have been chipped away from something else.”

Alternating between the professorial and the personal, Knight hits his highest notes when he pushes away from the seminar table and bares his own soul. “Some hadiths soften my heart and bring me to tears,” he writes toward the end of the book. “I cling to the image of Muhammad as a gentle grandfather who lets his daughter’s sons Hasan and Husayn climb onto his back as he prays.”

While the introductions he’s chosen cover a full range and complexity — from Muhammad’s physical appearance to his family life, infallibility, legal authority and mystical nature — and while Knight boldly puts one interpretation or argument up against another (a seamless synthesis is hardly the point here), it seems particularly telling that he chooses as his closing introduction Islam’s parallel to the Golden Rule:

“The Messenger of God (God bless him and give him peace) said, ‘One of you does not believe until s/he loves for another what is loved for self.’ ”

And then, Knight reminds why this, of all teachings in all religions and world views, matters most in the end.

“Claimants upon a religious tradition have numerous modes by which they can disqualify each other as illegitimate. You pray wrong; you dress wrong. You read the wrong books, or perhaps read the right books wrong. Your prophetology is wrong. Your preferred scholarly authorities are wrong. Your opinions about permissible and forbidden acts are wrong. This hadith reminds us that we can get everything right … and still fail as Muslims on the grounds that we’re selfish pricks.”

Muhammad, the professor reminds us, came “to perfect the noble traits.” For emphasis, he adds: “Muhammad reminds us that becoming less of a selfish prick would confront many of us as an epic struggle. Being a good person isn’t the easy part.”

Knight, by way of his 40 Muhammadan introductions, illuminates the way.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

back to the summer-camp question: what would be your rendition of the ideal mosquito-free summery week away, with or without a tent? 

and before we go, i am sending the biggest smushiest birthday blessings to beloved nan, whose big birthday is today, and beloved amy, whose blessed day was yesterday. love you both to the moon and stars and back…..xoxoxo

book of delights, indeed

IMG_1331

there’s a little book in my stack of books to read, and it’s titled quite honestly, without the usual hyperboles and obscurities that sometimes find their way into titles. the book of delights: essays is its name. unadorned. not hiding its purpose. in most anyone else’s hands it might be too saccharine by doubles. but it’s in the hands of ross gay. and he’s a poet, and someone i wish i could spend a long afternoon with. or a semester. in one of the classes he teaches at indiana university.

IMG_1332professor gay might be one of the most ebullient hearts i’ve read in a very long time. in true poet fashion he sees what most miss. he writes longhand in pen (he tells us, in a line i underlined, that susan sontag once said somewhere something about how “any technology that slows us down in our writing rather than speeding us up is the one we ought to use”), and, pen in hand, he notices everything from a church marquee to his predilection for licking driblets of coffee off the edge of his cup. somehow, deep in the landscape of each and every something he notices, he finds room to wend to a place that explodes into joy, or take-your-breath-away revelation about the quirks of being human.

the book of delights is a collection of one-a-day “essayettes,” anywhere from a paragraph to five pages, written from one august-first birthday to the next. professor gay tells us that one delightful day in the month of july a couple years back he decided to write a daily essay about something delightful. he wrote 102. his book (published this month from algonquin) has been called “a joy explosion.” that, from lidia yuknavitch, author of the misfit’s manifesto, no less.

before i pluck out a few things that shimmered for me — and hopefully for you — you should know a few things about the poet-professor. mostly this (at least for now): one of his collections of poetry, catalog of unabashed gratitude, (2015) was the winner of the national book critics circle award, and a finalist for the national book award in poetry in 2015. in his day job, he’s the director of creative writing at indiana. oh, to be a student in bloomington. oh, and he’s a gardener, plucks plenty of wisdoms in the patch of earth he tends.

in fact, catalog of unabashed gratitude has been described as “a sustained meditation on that which goes away—loved ones, the seasons, the earth as we know it—that tries to find solace in the processes of the garden and the orchard. that is, this is a book that studies the wisdom of the garden and orchard, those places where all—death, sorrow, loss—is converted into what might, with patience, nourish us.” (i’ve already added it to my reading list…)

but here’s the passage from book of delights i wanted to bring to the table today, because in a world sodden with sorrows, every shimmering shard of gentle goodness is a necessary daily multivitamin for me.

listen to this from an essay titled, “the sanctity of trains” (and then we’ll consider it):

I suppose I could spend time theorizing how it is that people are not bad to each other. But that’s really not the point. The point is that in almost every instance of our social lives, we are, if we pay attention, in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking – holding doors open, offering elbows at crosswalks, letting someone else go first, helping with the heavy bags, reaching what’s too high or what’s been dropped, pulling someone back to their feet, stopping at the car wreck – at the struck dog, the alternating merge, also known as the zipper. This caretaking is our default mode, and it’s always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise – always.

“an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking….”

“this caretaking is our default mode, and it’s always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise — always.”

that stopped me in my tracks — both of those bursting-out truths. made me begin an inventory of caretaking, one worth making a communal effort.

caretaking:

–how my husband literally never fails to say thank you for dinner. even if all i did was slurp into a pot a tupperware vat of leftover chicken noodle soup that my beloved down-the-alley neighbor sarah left on our doorstep.

–how my cross-the-street neighbor ran out in the ice and cold to hand-deliver half a box of  “ugly” produce — all organic, but too bumped-up to be sold at the store or something. coulda fooled me. those sweet potatoes and zucchini — on a cold winter’s day — were perfect to me.

–how the lady in the parking lot let me go first. how the whole line at the checkout stepped aside to let the woman, clearly in a hurry, with an armload of stuff, go ahead of all of us.

–how my mom shuffles up the walk every tuesday with her blue plastic cooler filled with zip-lock bags of ingredients (a cup of rice, an already-chopped onion) and various cans and a package of meat. because tuesdays have been grammy tuesday for the last 26 years (the night she cooks for us, sits down to eat with us), and she can’t imagine a week without tuesdays.

what ross gay is getting at, though, are the nearly invisible caretakings, the ones hardwired, perhaps, into our DNA. the ones that sometimes rise up into heroic proportion — make us run into the street if someone’s been hurt, or we’ve heard a loud thud or a crash. but more often than not, they’re the gentle empathies — the instinctive “otherness” — that propels us to not always and only be out for ourselves. they’re the random acts of kindness that, collectively, quietly, weave heart into the fabric of the nitty-gritty everyday.

and they matter. more than we often realize.

because ross gay made me pause to consider the nearly invisible art of taking care of each other — strangers, and friends, and dearly loved ones, besides — i’m going to keep watch. and work a little bit harder to do my fair share.

what caretakings have caught you unaware, and melted your heart for even one nearly invisible moment?

polestar now illuminates the heavens: mary oliver (1935-2019)

Mary Oliver cover closeup

Mary Oliver spoon-feeding tiny feathered friend, close-up from the cover of Oliver’s 2017 “Devotions,” a collection of poems spanning five decades. photo by Molly Malone Cook, Mary’s life partner

Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose work, with its plain language and minute attention to the natural world, drew a wide following while dividing critics, died on Thursday at her home in Hobe Sound, Fla. She was 83.

so begins the New York Times obituary for Mary O, polestar of poetry as prayer for some of us, for many of us. for me, most certainly.

as with most every death that shakes you at the marrow, my first response was cloudy, was confused. why, out of the blue yesterday, was a dear friend sending me lines from Mary O poems in the middle of an ordinary afternoon? then i looked again, closely, at the subject line and saw the dates spanned by hyphen, 1935 – 2019, our vernacular shorthand for “death has come.” it sank in slowly, as if my brain cells refused to register.

it’s not everyday that a death in the news so dizzies me, jerks me into momentary disbelief before settling with a thud, one that opens into sorrow. but mary O had long ago burrowed deep inside my soul; i’d made a whole room for her in wherever is that place that holds our heaven-sent synapses and soarings.

mary O had the gift of belonging to each and every one of us who read her, who memorized her lines, who traced our fingertips across the page, all but absorbing the unspoken, the shimmering sacred, she infused between the words, the images. to read a mary oliver poem is, often, to feel “the telltale tingle of the spine,” as nabokov so unforgettably put it. it’s as much what mary oliver doesn’t say, the unspoken, that catapults off the page, that reverberates, that catches in your chest, your throat, your mind, and lies there pulsing while you absorb the holy inference, the Truth.

mary oliver takes us by the hand, and down the trodden path into the woods, along the marsh, the tide pool, the ocean’s noisy shore. we sit beside her on the sodden log. keep watch with her as she keeps watch on the box turtle slithering into the pond. we hear the cry of the owl, the heron, the kingfisher, the red bird, the stirring in the trees. we are right beside her, footsteps behind her, always, when we enter into her poetry.

she was for me — and maybe for you, too — my polestar of prayerful poetry, the poetry of astonishment, the poetry of the Book of Nature. she was my doorway into all those poets — w.s. merwin, david whyte, wendell berry, terry tempest williams (i’ll think of more) — whose critical attention teaches us to see the divine — feel the divine, know the divine — in the stirrings of the earth and sky, those poets who remind us that the holy is all around, and it’s ours to enter any time. all it asks is that we open — even just a crack — the doorways of our soul.

mary O opened those doorways every time.

i met her once. sat in the same room, breathed the same air. shared words, shared silence. listened. laughed. it was heavenly, but i’d dreamed of more. had hoped to trek to cape cod when she was there, and i was in cambridge. hoped to comb the beach with her. walk the woods. then, when she up and moved to florida, i rearranged my dreams. imagined sending her a letter, asking if perhaps she’d meet with one of her disciples. i fully imagined sitting beside her on that log, listening, absorbing. learning.

she was, though, famously, intensely private. and it’s that thin-shelled soul, the porous, almost fragile cell wall of self that i recognize. that i honor with my distance. i’d not dare disturb.

i did though send her a letter. i had to once. i wanted to begin my first book, slowing time, with a mary oliver epigraph, her poem “praying;” these lines especially…

just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

so i wrote her, asked if i could please have permission. her assistant wrote me back. but the letter came from mary O’s writing place, and that was close enough for me. (that and a letter from wendell berry are among the two treasures in the narrow drawer of my writing table.)

i never met her. but she knew me — or so it felt as her words slipped over me, put voice to my heart’s beat, my breath, my prayer, my hope, my faith. and that’s what made her my patron saint of poetry. delicate as the little bird she spoon feeds up above, a close-up from the cover of her last collection, her life’s work, bound. 455 pages.

img_1224devotions, indeed.

Her poems, which are built of unadorned language and accessible imagery, have a pedagogical, almost homiletic quality. 

so says the new york times, which goes on to say:

For her abiding communion with nature, Ms. Oliver was often compared to Walt Whitman and Robert Frost. For her quiet, measured observations, and for her fiercely private personal mien (she gave many readings but few interviews, saying she wanted her work to speak for itself), she was likened to Emily Dickinson.

Ms. Oliver often described her vocation as the observation of life, and it is clear from her texts that she considered the vocation a quasi-religious one. Her poems — those about nature as well as those on other subjects — are suffused with a pulsating, almost mystical spirituality, as in the work of the American Transcendentalists or English poets like William Blake and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

i say, simply, thank you, mary O. thank you, thank you, thank you.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s 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.

bless you, mary O. may astonishment be yours eternally.

what’s your holiest line or poem from mary oliver?

 

pilgrimage to the land of poets – and spring peepers, while we’re at it

IMG_7469

a short interlude of my poetry bookshelf (alphabetical by poet, of course)

i’m told tales of folks who slip their finery off their boudoir shelves, who tuck silks and satins into trunks and valises. i’m told they jet off to faraway places, wiggle their toes in pure white sands. sip intoxicants adorned with wee paper parasols and wedges of papaya. then, i’m told, they manage to find their way home, whole again.

i’d not know from such exotica. and i doubt it’d do much besides break me out in patchy hives.

i, in sharp contrast, am yanking out a sweater or three, tucking them alongside my toothbrush. i’ll pack a stash of honeycrisp apples (an upgrade for the occasion) and piles of reporter’s notebooks, then slide behind the wheel of my old red wagon, and motor my way to grand rapids, smack dab in the palm of the mitten state just to the north and the east of my land of lincoln. i’ll hole up for three days of prayerful prose and poetry, and thinking way beyond the quotidian box.

it’s called the festival of faith and writing, and it’s a poet’s idea of heaven on earth. especially if you take your poetry infused with a dollop of holy. it’s an every-other-year consortium where the mystical meets iambic pentameter, or more likely the freest of free verse. it’s a forget-about-lunch, who-needs-sleep, dawn-till-midnight fill-your-lungs-with-real-life-bylines-who-make-you-swoon jamboree.

this year it’s where tobias wolff and george saunders (professor and protege, respectively, long ago at syracuse university) will put heads together for a public tete-a-tete. where dani shapiro, memoirist and essayist, will “insist that sorrow not be meaningless.” and where poet scott cairns will mine eastern orthodox liturgy to “clear a pathway through the slings and arrows of modern life.” ashley bryan, the 92-year-old children’s book author and illustrator, will illuminate the art-making behind his collections of black american spirituals for children. and, before the first day’s dinner hour, i’ll sit down in a small room to listen to christian wiman, guggenheim fellow, former editor of poetry magazine, now senior lecturer in divinity and literature at yale’s divinity school, read poems from every riven thing, or passages from my bright abyss: meditation of a modern believer, which the new republic called “an apologia and a prayer, an invitation and a fellow traveler for any who suffer and all who believe.” before i nod off, i’ll whirl in the incantatory vapors of zadie smith who will ponder the question, “why write?”

yes, by day, i’ll binge on words and thoughts that stir the soul, and, often, put goosebumps to the flesh (the surest sign i know that God’s in the neighborhood). and then at night, i’ll make my escape to a historic inn, where a room under the eaves will be my hideaway. and where i’ll forego dreams for the sheer joy of turning pages upon pages, all while plopped atop my featherbed. or perhaps i’ll shrivel like a prune in the depths of my victorian claw-footed tub.

and it just might be the surest cure for my tattered soul.

as i did two years ago, i’ll be taking copious notes, and promise to report back next week, with all the snippets and moments that make me woozy.

but, of all the poetry the days will bring, the one i’m most awaiting is wholly otherworldly, and not propelled to sound waves by human breath. it’s amphibian, as a matter of fact: the wee spring peepers, whose dissonant and deafening nightsong, rising from a blur of woods, stopped me more than anything i’d heard two years ago april.

back then, i described the soul-perking moment thusly:

the moon was half both nights, or nearly so. the sky, a western michigan sodden blue. the daylight not yet rinsed out. the night shadow inking in. and then, from the lacy backdrop of leafless woods, the rising vernal chorus of the spring peepers, that amphibian night song that breaks you out in goosebumps — or it does me, anyway. it’s a froggy croak — a high-pitched rendition, indeed — i’d not heard since trying to fall asleep in the upstairs dormer of my husband’s boyhood home, where the backyard pond and its full-throated citizens lull me to dreamland with their percolating melodies. i wanted to record a few bars for you, so you too could share the goosebumps. instead, i offer this, borrowed from the land of internet.

listen in to the peepers for now, and i’ll be back next week, to pour forth the very best i tuck into my writerly notebooks.

and a bit of poetic amuse-bouche till then:

A Word
BY SCOTT CAIRNS

For A.B.

She said God. He seems to be there
when I call on Him but calling
has been difficult too. Painful.

And as she quieted to find
another word, I was delivered
once more to my own long grappling

with that very angel here — still
here — at the base of the ancient
ladder of ascent, in foul dust

languishing yet at the very
bottom rung, letting go my grip
long before the blessing.

Source: Poetry (July/August 2013).

if you imagined a getaway for the soul, a stretch of days to soothe and restore, where would you go? what would you ink into your itinerary? 

and, p.s., happy blessed birthday to my mother-of-heart, ginny, the most loyal reader of the chair that ever there was. and happy one day late to my little ellabellabeautiful! 

quiet season

IMG_7215

it’s quiet season in my house. in my soul, actually.

it’s odd then, when i tiptoe outside in the dawn and hear the world achatter. the winged choristers — robin and sparrow and cardinal — are having at it, calling out from limb to bough to bush. staking turf. declaring the early hours of starting all over again, survival of the species, the No. 1 task on the vernal to-do list. it’s what happens when the globe tips toward the sun, the angle draws nearer, draws shorter; the light longer, not so thin anymore.

it happens to all of us, one season or another. we’re out of sync with the world beyond our window sill. i’m still deep in the burrows of winter. but the world wants to shake off its slumber, awaken.

i’m not ready yet.

i will be. i have no doubt.

but not yet.

now, i am curled under blankets, turning pages, soaking up the words of other quiet souls. and so, when i cracked open a book of poems the other day, i nearly dissolved into tears, into the mystery of grace, of feeling tapped on the wall of my heart, with sacred whisper.

i was turning slowly through the pages of mary oliver, my patron saint of poetry. i was inhaling her latest infusion of wisdom distilled, of heaven on earth, of sacred scripture rising up from out of the dawn, out of the trail through the woods where the poet keeps pace.

i read, among other words, these:

there are moments that cry out to be fulfilled.

like, telling someone you love them.

or giving your money away, all of it.

 

your heart is beating, isn’t it?

you’re not in chains, are you?

 

there is nothing more pathetic than caution

when headlong might save a life,

even, possibly, your own. 

 

then i turned a few pages, and stumbled on this:

 

God, or the gods, are invisible, quiteIMG_7208

understandable. But holiness is visible,

entirely.

i pulled out my pen. the sound of ink scratching along sheaf of paper, the only perceptible noise interrupting the season of silence.

and now i’ve shared my silence with you.

may your week be blessed. silent or not.

mary oliver’s latest slim volume of prayer poem is titled, felicity (penguin press, 2015). the words above, first, from the poem, “moments,” and finally, a few lines from “leaves and blossoms along the way.”