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Tag: poetry

reporter’s notebook: on poetry and peepers and what’s hierophany?

reporter notebook faith and writing

because it’s sunday night, and late at that, and because i promised to ferry home a satchel filled with poetry and wisdoms to mull for a week or a day or a lifetime, i’ll cut straight to the cuttings from my notebooks, the two i filled front and back, draining three fine pens of all their ink.

i will say — because it’s impossible not to — that besides the breathless whirl of words and words and kindness and words that sometimes lifted me from the hard pew on which i was sitting, or the hilarity of anne lamott that made me marvel — and love her rare brand of kooky brilliance — all over again, the most mystical moment came late two evenings, as i walked alone toward the far end of the vast asphalt acre that was the calvin college parking lot.

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.

and now, from my notebooks:

notes from the festival of faith & writing:

reading list*:

william spencer, the poet’s poet according to keats.
brian young, one of the more powerful poets writing today, according to poet geoffrey nutter. died last week. “recollection.”
theodore roethke opened up nature and poetry for poet and scholar kimberly johnson.
before the door of god, religious poetry through history, by jay hopler and kimberly johnson.
“man killed by pheasant,” john t. price. short story.
loren eiseley, “the star thrower.” 16-page essay.
chenjerai hove, zimbabwean author, poet, playwright and human rights activist (outspoken critic of robert mugabe) who lived in exile in norway, wrote the novel bones, and inspired okey ndibe.
jessica mitford, great memoirist, the american way of death.
patricia hampl: “if i could tell you stories.”
“the whaling chapters” of moby dick.
“the inheritance of tools,” essay by scott russell sanders.
lia purpura, “rough likeness.” a book of essays.
john fowles, “the tree.” essay.

* these are the titles i scribbled every time one of the truly enlightened speakers tossed out an exhortation, “you must read…” a reading list in progress (in perpetuity, actually)….

words to fall in love with:

pullulating: means “sprouting.” or breeding or spreading.
hierophany: places where sacred and secular meet. The term “hierophany” (from the Greek roots “ἱερός” (hieros), meaning “sacred” or “holy,” and “φαίνειν” (phainein) meaning “to reveal” or “to bring to light”) signifies a manifestation of the sacred.
petrichor: word for the smell of rain on dry rock. petra, rock; ichor, blood that flows through vein (in greek mythology, the ethereal golden fluid that is the blood of the gods and/or immortals). in modern usage, it’s a glorious word for a pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather. (who knew there was a word for that most delicious spring perfume?)
adiaphora: “meaningless things.”

a few fine lines, and the lively minds who put breath to them:
notes scribbled from my notebook (in order of appearance over the three-day festival)…

uwem akpan, nigerian catholic priest (formerly a jesuit), author of say you’re one of them, collection of five short stories telling of african horrors, each told through the voice of a child:

“if you’re afraid to fail, then don’t try. sit in your room. don’t marry. don’t give birth.”

“for those who want to be writers, be brave, act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly before your god.”

most poignant moment, after his talk when a young blogger walked up to him and said she’d been writing from darkness all month, in the eclipsed days since feb. 13 when her 29-year-old husband died, after a years-long battle with cancer, leaving her alone with a not-yet one-year-old. akpan, a priest since 2003, magnificently ministered to her with his gift of words. i cried, and through tears, i scribbled some of what he said after folding her into his embrace: “get into rhythm. don’t shy away from anger. the prayers may not come. go to the psalms, let them fall off your tongue. when God sends you on a trip, he arrives there before you.

“right now you’re alone in that body of water, rowing toward the shore.”

geoffrey nutter, poet, author of four poetry collections, most recently, the rose of january. teaches poetry at princeton:

it’s been said that his writing gestures toward what t.s. eliot called, “frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist.”

“comprehension is unnecessary in reading a poem. apprehending is instantaneous response: what poetry does best. to poets, the image creates the powerful image more so than ideas. images are more intelligent in the poet, do more work. unfold into resonance. it’s where the soul work is done. poems resonate with mystery.”

“the moment when empathy was born: when jesus, scribbling in the sand, said, ‘don’t judge lest you wish to be judged.’”

calls 17th-century poet henry vaughan “one of my best friends.” adds: “words written in the 17th century in a moment of passion, like a note slipped under the door to us.”

“certainty leaves no room for imagination. if uncertainty can wake up our imagination, our imagination is the beginning of empathy.”

eliza griswold, guggenheim fellow, journalist and poet, author of the tenth parallel: dispatches from the fault line between christianity and islam, and a new collection of poetry, i am the beggar of the world: landays of contemporary afghanistan

“heirophany, places where sacred and secular meet. one of the most fundamental places in my life, this space where the horizontal, secular, meets the ultimate; literally, the shape of the cross. that’s poetry, everyday time is punctured by the sacred….my calling is there, the place where sacred and secular meet.”

mary szybist, poet, 2013 national book award winner for poetry for incarnadine:

szybist, a reviewer wrote, has “an appetite for the luminous; reaches for the heavens without bypassing earth.”

“hard for me to believe faith is possible without doubt. or reverence without irreverence.”

kimberly johnson, poet, translator, literary critic, professor of renaissance literature and creative writing:

“writing a poem is like walking around all day with someone pecking on your forehead. something just beneath the surface is waiting to be let out.”

“i want to live my life in epiphany. i want all my pores open. it’s easier for me when language and culture and stripped away. it’s unmediated experience. my antennae is tuned to stuff that exists beyond the social sphere.” (it’s why she loves nature).

from john t. price, essayist, nature writer, professor of english:

quoting mary oliver: “attentiveness is the root of all prayer.”

okey ndibe, nigerian writer, poet, journalist, author of arrows of rain and foreign gods, inc.:

referring to some not-so-cheery bloke: “no milk of human kindness in him….” (an expression that found me muffling my out-loud sigh of verbal wonder)

“a story that must be told never forgives silence.”

thomas troeger, professor at yale divinity school, hymnist, ordained episcopal and presbyterian minister, who has been quoted as saying (not in this festival, but i couldn’t resist):

“I am trying to map the landscape of the heart that still rejoices in God yet lives in a world that is often oblivious to the spirit.  I believe to live gracefully with this tension is the mark of wisdom.  Such an understanding may baffle the dogmatic mind, but it does not lie beyond the capacity of the poetic imagination.  The imagination often holds together realities that are logically inconsistent yet dynamically coherent.”

reading from his essay, “season of lament”:
“we are living in a season of sorrow for the human community, and part of our role as musicians is to help the human heart relieve its tears so that we might sense anew the resilience of hope that we will never know if we have never wept.”

might i mention that he was a textbook portrait of old-school yankee sartorial splendor, with taut bow tie, tweed jacket, and crisply-creased khakis. all topped off with a mop of professorial white curls.

anne lamott (who was brilliant through and through, and hilarious to boot. oh, and who had just turned 60 the day before her friday night keynote).

“it doesn’t help that when you sit down to write, all your unresolved psychiatric issues choose to come visit you that day.”

(and as she sat down let sunday morning to type a facebook post about turning 60) “all the psychiatric issues sat on the bed with me — and they’d had a lot of coffee. they wanted me to know how they thought it was going — not very good.”

“laughter is carbonated holiness.”

“because we’re religious people we’re not going to spackle our hearts closed to block out the hurt.”

panel with peter marty (pastor/writer), christine byl (seasonal laborer, clearing trails in alaska, where she lives in a yurt with her husband and a band of retired sled dogs, author dirt work: an education in the woods), john t. price (nature writer)

quoting henry james: “a writer is someone to whom nothing is lost.”

quoting patricia hampl: “we don’t write what we know; we write to discover. to go off on an adventure.”

christine byl: “i write about what i don’t know about what i know. that’s where i enter. i enter the familiar with an eye toward the undiscovered.”

fred bahnson, writer, farmer, former peacemaker among mayan coffee farmers, author of soil and sacrament: a spiritual memoir of food and faith

“our job is not so much to make a point but to evoke something. invocation is one of the oldest forms of communication. it’s a priestly urge. the act of focusing your attention on something. creating a shared empathy. they’re not beating them over the head, you’re simply saying, ‘look, attend.’”

mycelium (vegetative part of fungus): “perfect metaphor for prayer.”

amen and amen. and good night.

it’ll be two more years till this festival convenes again. i’ve plenty to read till then, and more than enough to think about….(and in the meantime, big giant thanks to my dear old friend and latter-day pathfinder, bruce buursma, the tribune’s longtime religion writer — later baseball writer — who pointed me to the festival in the first place…what a mensch. and great wise soul.)

anything above strike your poetic fancy? who would you add to an essential reading list of poets and thinkers and brilliant essayists (oh, by the way, some fine soul reminded me this weekend that the word essay, with french roots, means “to try, to attempt.” is that not all we can ever do, weaving words into thoughts into rocket blasts from our heart)? what words would be among the most delicious on your plate? 

poetry school

poetry school

when the school bell rings, i shuffle over to class in my holey-est slippers. and, dating my pedagogical style, i haul out my spiral notebook, my pen, and settle in. click a couple buttons, and poof! poetry school’s in session.

so it goes when you go to college from the comfy confines of your kitchen table. when you’re hauled out on field trips to the lower east side, and south street seaport, without so much as buttoning a sweater.

over the wintry weeks, i’ve grown fond of my professor — she tells us to call her lisa, even though she’s listed as elisa in the course book. (she lets on, in a cozy email, that only strangers call her by her full name, first syllable vowel-prefix attached; she seems to be inferring that we are now admitted to her inner circle — how kind of her, how generous. see why i like her already?)

she tells that to the thousands and thousands of us who click into class from wherever we sit on the globe, and learn a thing or two about poetry in america, and walt whitman, specifically.

thousands and thousands, you ask? yup, if they packed us all in a lecture hall it’d need to be about as big as beijing’s bird’s nest, that iconic steel-strung stadium built for the 2008 summer olympics.

back on the days when we were settling into class, when virtual papers were being passed out, and we were going around the room to introduce ourselves, i tried to scribble down all the countries we come from. i started with ukraine, scribbled india, UK, bangladesh, serbia, south korea, nigeria, netherlands, lebanon, swaziland, kosovo, even togo. i practically ran out of room after packing in itty-bitty letters clear to the bottom of the notebook page, and sideways up the margins. i just counted 49, and i’m sure i missed a few.

we are all huddled round our laptops, our iPads, our clunky desktops for a class called “poetry in america: whitman.”

think not that this is mamby-pamby read-along at home. this is sit-back-while-the-brilliant-professor — from the comfy confines of her book-lined office in the red-brick barker center just off harvard square — waxes-eloquently (and without notes) about the quintessentially american 19th-century poet. and when she wants to show us an original manuscript, she just hauls her video crew over to the rare books vault in harvard’s houghton library and pans the lens up and down the page. and when she wants us to know the streets whitman walked in new york city, she pops up yet another video and walks us up and down the sidewalks, pointing out the print shop where he set type, showing us his newspaper’s proximity to new york’s city hall, and even the back alley where whitman got to know the prostitutes and actresses of mid-19th-century manhattan.

this is hardly a hands-off matter. why, this fine professor insists on “two well-crafted paragraphs,” in open response to questions about the poems. she and her technical wizards have provided a nifty annotation tool, so we — the thousands of students, all of whom speak a thousand different mother tongues — can identify anaphora (repeating the same word at the start of successive lines) and parallelism (repetition of certain structures throughout the poem) and the latest poet-trick of the week, apostrophe (an address or salutation, as in O sun!). and we have to post these things in public manner. so anyone who’s in the class can scroll along and peek over our shoulder and figure out whether we are complete dunces or might be onto something.

in fact, this global classroom comes complete with office hours and TAs. and those brilliant almost-PhD’s actually scroll through the online postings, those “two well-crafted paragraphs,” and comment on our postings.

now, for a timid soul like me, one whose hand might be quaking in an early round of hand-raising in a lecture hall the size of kingdom come, it is scary enough to hit the submit button, and watch your thoughts on walt whitman’s “crossing brooklyn ferry,” or “song of myself” get all but nailed to the village crier’s blackboard. but even i can suffer the possible indignities and disgraces from the loneliness of my kitchen, so imagine how the soul doth swell, when hours later you circle back and find the nice TA has scribbled “you’re really onto something,” there beneath your humble words.

this whole exercise, in fact, might be far more than what i signed up for. i thought it was a vigorous way to dig deeper into the world of poetry that so captivates my imagination. but, slowly and certainly, i am discovering it might just be a brilliant bathtowel-rub of confidence and faith.

we all have a million reasons why we never think we’re good enough. the joke at harvard, we learned last year, is that nearly every freshman shuffling across the yard is peeking over his or her shoulder, wondering who in the admissions office made the mistake and let her or him in. “they must have mixed me up with the brainiac whose name was after mine in the applicant pile,” you can’t help but think — unless, that is, your mother gave you cans of ego-builder for breakfast with your eggs. (mine did not.)

so, i bumbled into this class in the ways i often do. first i wasn’t sure if i was allowed to sign up. (i was; it’s free and open to the public.) then i thought i wouldn’t take it for the nifty certificate that says i passed (i figured i didn’t need any more papers in my rat’s hole of an office, and besides, what if i couldn’t cut it?). and i sure didn’t think i’d ever muster the courage to say a single thing out loud (you could film a video introduction of yourself, or cobble a few penned sentences; i opted for the pen — aka keyboard).

but then, somewhere along the way, i started reading and thinking, and melting under the warmth of this professor with her deep love of poetry and her proclivity for messed-up hair and quirky field trips. and then i wrote what i thought, dug down not too deep — because what i thought had already bubbled up and wanted to be typed — and found myself deeply engaged in conversation with mr. TA and a few other students of poetry, who, for all i know, might be typing from a drafty hovel in azerbaijian or a dim-lit flat in kosovo.

it’s what happens when you go fling yourself into any one of life’s classrooms, the ones that don’t come with comfort guaranteed. you find a two-track curriculum — the one where you absorb the lesson plan, as penned by the professor, and the one that’s more of an independent study, and you find yourself quietly, wholly, learning who you are and who you might become.

walt whitman, i’ve learned, was the son of a carpenter who came of age during america’s building boom. he schooled himself in new york city, first as a newspaperman and, always, a flaneur, a fellow who strolled the city inhaling its street theater and its lessons.

but i’ve learned too that the wobbly-legged just-born thoughts that spill from deep inside, might “really be onto something.” and that’s a gold star i’ll carry closest to my heart.

word of the week, thanks to poetry school: amative — sexually potent. (i learned that whitman might be described as such. you decide for yourself how you choose to apply to your very own self or someone you admire.)

any hour now, i am sliding into my snow boots and riding the clackety el downtown to meet my dear professor in the flesh. yes, indeed, she is coming to the poetry foundation on chicago’s north side — that transparent cube of glass on aptly named west superior street. she is coming for conversation about whitman and gwendolyn brooks, chicago’s own poet wonder. i can’t wait to look into her sparkly eyes — the professor’s, i mean.

learn more about MOOCs (massive open online course) and EdX, in particular, by clicking on those hyperlinks. 

do you have a favorite whitman poem, or better yet, have you flung yourself into any discomfort zone this week, and did you find that you somehow stayed afloat? 

tea therapy

tea therapy

against the arctic whistle on the far side of the glass, the shrill siren of the tea kettle is all but marking shift change, with its regular rhythmic blasts. here at the old maple table all week, it signals: “in session.”

it’s the steam-driven bellows of the mugs of teas that punctuate a holy ritual taking place here. almost as if a shingle had been hung, with red neon arrows blinking, pointing up the bluestone walk, past the paned front door in shade of oceanic blue, lighting the way past snow drifts to the tucked-in table where the talk unfolds.

it’s been a blessing of this month of college interlude. my own sweet boy is long gone, now back in classes, but a host of other college kids, kids with heavy hearts and twisted potholed paths, kids who’ve lost their way, they are finding their way here, to this table, to this ample-bellied teapot where the water never empties and the teas are always spiced. my bowl of clementines is at the ready, so too the cookies under glass, where a swift lift of the domed lid offers sweet accompaniment for salty tears.

i find it a whisper of a miracle that kids have figured out they are always welcome here, and that there’s a heart who will listen without judgement, who makes a place for them to dump their worries and their fears. and who lives and breathes the promise that these dark days will end; there’s a grownup — right here in the flesh — who’s known the shadow and the great abyss, and who — with skinned knees all her own — found her way up the side of the steepest trail.

“it’s the 10-minute rule,” one wise tea-sipper intoned. she meant that she’d been taught to take on her overwhelming dread or angst or out-of-this-world anxiety in 10 minute chunks. endure it. know it has an end, and will not swallow you whole. and in a good 10 minutes, something deep inside will shift. or not. and you’ll enter into yet another 10-minute exercise in sheer survival. and soon enough, sure as sure can be, it will pass. the vista will change. and those baby steps — those 10-minute triumphs of straight-up enduring — they will, through simple additive powers, combine into hour- and then hours-long stretches of breathing. curled in a ball, perhaps. or with the self-propelled motivation to pick up a book, climb on a treadmill, call a friend, tiptoe to the kitchen to see if warm company might be found.

i’ve seen the gamut here this week, had kids whisper words, and follow swiftly with, “i hope that doesn’t shock you.” no, it doesn’t shock. no, no. never. it only breaks my heart that smart kids, gorgeous kids, kids with hopes and dreams  are nearly train-wrecked by the vicissitudes of hurdles set too high, of broken promises and betrayals, of a world in which no sin goes un-broadcast and there’s too little wiggle room for the fine art of making honest mistakes.

so while i steep in my own brand of guilt for not raking in freelance assignments, and while my bank account is on the decline and not the rise, i find more than a dose of solace that the pages of my life flipped forward to the chapter i long ago dreamed of: where i’m the old lady at the maple table, the old lady (not yet hunched-over, thanks be to the pharmaceutical gods who give us bone-boosting weekly white horse pills) whose shoulders are wrapped in the woven folds of woolen shawl, and who with lumps of sugar and dollops of milky cream doles out vast acreages of her heart and what scraps of wisdom she’s tucked into her apron pocket all along the way.

at long week’s end, i find myself bowed in prayer for these children, these wide-eyed pilgrims trying so hard to find their way, to find the shafts of light breaking through the tight space between the rocks. and i find myself so deeply grateful that my years of being lost now pay me back in solid company where it matters most: here at the old maple table, where hope is served around the clock.

no need to knock: i promise you, the door is always open. and so’s the heart.

word of the week: i believe i’ve let languish a promise made back in 02139 to bring you a delectable word of the week. well, here’s one for this week — salmagundi (provenance: nigel slater’s “notes from the larder”)  a hodgepodge is what it means, and it comes from a literal mix of chopped meat, eggs, flavored with oil, vinegar, anchovies, and onions. but used freely far beyond the bounds of the kitchen, as in “they were a salmagundi of old and young, wise and fool.”

and before arriving at the query of the week, another bit of poetic thought picked up last week in my online “poetry in america: walt whitman,” class, taught by professor elisa new of harvard college. in her introduction to poetry lecture, she riffed on poetic language, and its powers. i thought you might find it worth pondering, and so i snipped it to bring to the table, though i forgot to leave it here, as last week’s recipe took up so very many lines….here tis, from elisa new, harvard’s powell m. cabot professor of american literature (and wife of former treasury secretary and former harvard university president larry summers):

Poetic language is language worth pausing over. It’s language that slows down time. It’s language that takes us into corners of our experience we might have overlooked. It’s language that is conscious of itself as language. It’s language trying out and expanding and pressing at the borders of what language can do, just as in other media, in painting, painters think about how to use paint in new ways. In the world of music, musicians think about how to use tone and sound in new ways.

Poetry is language curious about language itself. To say that is, in a way, to put poetry at the very center of the humanistic enterprise, since human beings are the creatures who use language. When we study poetry, we think about what it is to be human, the ways in which our existence is mediated and created and advanced and expanded by language.

oh, to be so supremely conscious of the words we choose, and how we push the boundaries of human connectedness….

where do you dish out your best counsel? the kitchen table, the cutting board, the cookstove, the couch, the driver’s seat of your mobile, the bedroom, the work bench, the miles and miles upon which you walk? 

hummingbird birthday

hummingbird cake

with this day of birth tucked amid snow drifts, and clearly beyond the holiday statute of limitations, i long ago taught myself to upholster the day with wee delights, delights all my own, partaken of in modest degrees of solitude.

this birthday, the one my little one tells me is stellar because i am turning the number of the year i was born — that’s ’57 for those keeping track — has been bursting out of its seams and it’s only just a wee bit after dawn as i sit here at the table tapping on keys. keys to my heart, indeed.

there was a hummingbird cake last night, served up with a B of blueberries, all festive and lit, poised upon a one-footed pedestal. there was a fireplace crackling just over my shoulder, and i was nestled on a velvety couch with people i love.

hummingbird wish

and this morning, once i’d trudged through the snow with my old banged-up coffee can of seed for the birds, once i’d read the love notes left on the old maple table by my moppy-topped night-owls (boy 1 and boy 2), once i’d clicked on the christmas tree lights and poured my best blue willow mug with cinnamon-spiked coffee, i discovered this poem of perfection, written by my beloved mary oliver. it’s as if she peeked in my hearts and put words to my fumbles. and it is all we need here for all of us to launch into this holy new year. (but, since birthdays, especially ones that are stellar birthdays, are best done without that level-headed note of restraint, i am going to dig up the receipt (tasha tudor word for recipe) for that hummingbird cake i’ll never forget.)

so, first, mary oliver. followed by a fat slice of hummingbird cake. could there be a more perfect beginning to a year that had me on my knees last night, praying mightily for all good and heavenly blessings?

one last thing: thank you, always, for keeping me company here at the table. you are loved simply for listening. isn’t that all anyone of us wish for, deep down inside? to be heard….

and now…

Mindful
by Mary Oliver

Everyday
I see or hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant —
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these —
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

“Mindful” by Mary Oliver from Why I Wake Early. © Beacon Press, 2005.

and now, for that hummingbird cake…

it’s a southern cake, one whose name might come from the whimsy that it makes you hum, it’s so heavenly. it’s known to be something of a symbol of sweetness, and it’s so rich it’s best sliced in thin and elegant fractions of the whole. my hummingbird cake baker said she used orange in place of some of the pineapple. and the toasted pecans gave it a hint of southern groves on a cold chicago’s night. here is art smith’s rendition of that south-of-dixie cake….

hummingbird cake, ala one unforgettable and stellar birthday

the recipe notes this: This cake is one of the most requested desserts at Art Smith’s Chicago restaurant, Table Fifty-Two.

Serves 12
Ingredients
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups chopped ripe bananas
1 cup drained crushed pineapple
1 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs , beaten
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup (4 ounces) finely chopped pecans
8 ounces cream cheese , at room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter , at room temperature
1 pound confectioners’ sugar (about 4 1/2 cups sifted)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions
To make the cake, position racks in the center and bottom third of the oven and preheat to 350°. Lightly butter two 9″ round cake pans, sprinkle evenly with flour and tap out the excess. (If you wish, butter the pans, line the bottoms with rounds of parchment paper, then flour the pans and tap out the excess.)

Sift the flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon and salt into a bowl. In another bowl, stir or whisk the bananas, pineapple, oil, eggs and vanilla until combined. Do not use an electric mixer. Pour into the dry mixture and fold together with a large spatula just until smooth. Do not beat. Fold in the pecans. Spread evenly into the pans.

Bake until the cake springs back when pressed in the center, 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer the cakes to wire racks and cool for 10 minutes. Invert the cakes onto the racks (remove the parchment paper now if using). Turn right side up and cool completely.

To make the icing: Using an electric mixer on high speed, beat the cream cheese and butter in a large bowl until combined. On low speed, gradually beat in the sugar, then the vanilla, to make a smooth icing.

Place 1 cake layer, upside down on a serving platter. Spread with about 2/3 cup of the icing. Top with the second layer, right side up. Spread the reaming icing over the top and sides of the cake. The cake can be prepared up to 1 day ahead and stored, uncovered in the refrigerator. Let stand at room temperature 1 hour before serving.

that’s it for today. what’s your birthday cake of choice? or your poem for the new year, or your stellar birthday?

well that was going to be it, but then i popped up from the couch to pour more coffee into my mug, and there before my wondering eyes appeared a kitchen table decked out for the broccoli girl’s birthday, with a load of brussels sprouts to boot. do my boys know me, or what? i nearly melted. the biggest boy of all, the one to whom i wed my life, he was puttering about while i sat here typing, not realizing what in the world he was up to, just beyond the cookbook shelves and the old ticking clock. hilarious. and more than worthy of this morning’s frame of glory…..brussels

hummingbird birthday

99 psalms: prayer-poems that “refuse to leave us unattended”

99 psalms

it was nearly 17 months ago, on a hot saturday’s afternoon, with little sleep the night before, that i climbed the stairs of a gray triple-decker (boston vernacular for what chicagoans call the “three-flat”), just down the lane and around the corner from harvard square. there i met a bearded gentle man, a man who presided over an aerie where birds came to the windows, where sunrise poured into the living room, and sunset washed the kitchen in a rose-tinted rinse. cabinets were stacked with pottery, cobalt rough-hewn plates, heavy to the hand; mugs whose handles met the flesh of your palm with solid tenderness. and books, books lined the walls, floor to ceiling, in half the rooms.

the bearded bespectacled man was mark burrows. he was, for 11 months, our landlord. and he will be, for life, my lighthouse keeper and my teacher.

mark (for in this moment i address him as a friend) is a professor of poetry and divinity, a scholar of mysticism, and a historian of medieval christianity. in that first walk-through of the two-bedroom-two-office apartment for rent, as i spied the titles on his desk, i knew i needed to live there. i needed to inhale the essential texts, and the poetry and prayer that breathed there.

almost a year ago, mark, who is now teaching theology and literature at the university of applied sciences in bochum, germany, published the luminous “prayers of a young poet” (paraclete press, 2013), a collection of 67 poems of rainer maria rilke, the great german poet. that book, the first english translation of rilke’s prayers in their original form, evoked for poet jane hirshfield, “leonardo da vinci’s notebooks — it shows the same mix of surety, roughness, genius, and the sense of a precipitous creative speed.”

rilke explores “the poetry of search,” or as burrows writes, “poetry that ponders darkness.”

just weeks ago, my teacher, professor burrows, published another translation of a poet whose work dares to explore the often unexplored landscape — the soul in exile. this time, burrows put his considerable intellect to the work of a poet i’d not ever known, one who goes by the pen name of SAID.

the book is titled, “99 psalms: SAID,” translated from german by mark s. burrows (paraclete press, 2013).

born in tehran, SAID emigrated to germany as an engineering student in 1965, but he abandoned those studies to pursue a writing career, and through the power of his poetry, has become a prominent figure in the german literary scene.

burrows first encountered SAID, he recalls, on a “dreary, rain-soaked night” in munich’s old city hall in may of 2010, at a poetry reading held in conjunction with the second ecumenical Kirchentag, a massive gathering sponsored by the roman catholic church and the protestant church of germany.

as SAID took to the microphone, burrows writes that he noticed the audience leaning forward, the better to absorb what flowed next.

“the psalms he chose…were blunt, vivid, and often startling in their language and imagery. none betrayed any trace of sentimentality…the fierce directness of their language conveyed a marked impatience with intolerance, probing the ambiguities of life with an unflinching honesty in order to remind us — if we had forgotten — that ‘purity isn’t the sister of truth.'”

burrows goes on to write that “these are psalms that cry out against the confidence of zealots, with their claims of righteous authority over others — crusaders, campaigners, and jihadists alike.”

in other words, the exile SAID writes poems of exile, “psalms arising from a ‘no-man’s-land.'” he employs a metaphor of wind as “a hope that reaches beyond religious differences and across the growing disparities between the affluent and poor,” as burrows writes.

in the tradition of the hebrew psalmist, SAID’s works are poems of praise and lament. burrows writes that “the poems we need are often the ones that refuse to leave us unattended.” they remind us “to look beyond what we know, or think we know.”

these poems, writes burrows, “bear witness to the heart’s descent into loneliness and despair, and gesture to the ascents we also know in moments of compassion and generosity.”

as always, poetry does the work of capturing the unspoken, unformed fragments of our heart, of our deepest imagination. the poet, as the butterfly catcher, employs the vessels of language to net, to gather, to collect the flitting-about, untethered, winged idea, the moment.

the poet does the work so we — the reader, the listener, the lonely pilgrim — can stake some claim of understanding in a landscape that until the moment of the poet’s poetry has escaped us.

the poet places us, solidly, in territory at once familiar and foreign. we trip upon the syllables of the imagination, and we find ourselves breathless at the poet’s deep knowing, at the exhilarating moment of loneliness collapsed. we recognize, we understand anew the depths of the human spirit, in wordform before un-uttered.

SAID addresses his psalms to “lord,” though not one bound by any religious tradition. he is certainly a late-modern psalmist, and his prayer poems speak to the complexities of the tangled fractious world in which we live. he explores the human condition with more urgency, perhaps, than he explores the divine. and therein is tension, poetry that refuses to leave us unattended.

one last thing, before i leave you with a psalm or two: about the 99 psalms, the number ninety-nine in the muslim tradition is the precise number of names by which Allah — God — is known. there remains one name — “the last/ the hidden” — that is unknowable, beyond us. so too with the 99 psalms; we are left wondering about the one beyond, the one which, perhaps, is written but not known, or not yet written. what might the unknowable tell us? why are we left not knowing?

here, a pair of SAID psalms that “refuse to leave you unattended”:

[Psalm 35]

lord

pray

that we recognize you

when you come

destroy the go-between gods

with their grand airs and their daily needs

set your seal upon your houses

and don’t be afraid of our nakedness

let the cypresses be your messengers

for they stand upright and whisper

and don’t try to convert the wind

[pause for silence.]

and now, one other, though choosing only one was tough, indeed…

[Psalm 10]

lord

spread wide your arms

and protect us

from the multitudes of your guardians

stand by those who wander

who’ve not lost the gift of hearing

and listen within their solitude

stand by those too

who stay and wait for you

[silence, once again…]

chair friends, i come to you on a wednesday, because in the publishing world these days, blogging about a book is one way to cast wider the net. and today was the day they asked me to write. 

i ask: is there a poem in your life — or especially in your now — that refuses to leave you unattended? and what about the 100th psalm, do you wonder what it asks or says? 

donald hall’s farm

dispatch from 02139, en route to 03287 (in which a flock of fellows and co-vivantes board buses and roll along route 4 into new hampshire, for an audience with a high priest of american poetry)…

back in the faraway house that hums without me now, back in the heat of summer, when the fog was lifting on this year of thinking sumptuously, when i first got a peek at the calendar of what the days and weeks and months would bring, my eye was drawn sharply and swiftly to a little rectangle tucked at the top of the month of october.

it read: field trip to new hampshire farm of poet donald hall.

be still, my hurried heart.

i promise you i am not indulging in the great irish art of embellishment when i tell you i nearly slumped from my chair. i slapped the pine ledge of my writing desk, slapped hard, flat palm against the knotty plank of old french pine. i gasped. i am certain, if memory serves me, i felt a quiver in my arms.

one doesn’t stumble across an invitation to might-as-well-be mecca, the holy place and farmstead of an american poet laureate, just any old friday.

like so many things in my life, i’d come late to donald hall.

but when i did — stumbling across him in an essay in the new yorker last january, one titled, “out the window,” one you can find here — i sat transfixed by the power of his words.

hall, now 84, was named u.s. poet laureate in 2006, the 14th such poet potentate of the library of congress.

billy collins, himself the poet laureate from 2001 to 2003, once wrote that hall “has long been placed in the frostian tradition of the plainspoken rural poet.”

he has written some 22 books of poetry, at least four biographies, 11 children’s books (most notably, “ox-cart man”), six memoirs, three plays, and more. but it wasn’t till page 40 of the january 23, 2012, new yorker, that i sat up and took hard notice.

he wrote there, straight through to the bottom of page 43, about aging, about growing old in a particular place, his family’s 150-year-old  new hampshire farm, a place he’d long ago committed to memory. knew by heart, by season, by length of light and shadow. knew by fluttering of birds and drifting of snow on the old barn roof.

he wrote words that rocket-launched into my heart, ricocheted around in there, and left me gasping, quite frankly, for air.

take a listen (i’ll offer snippets, a swatch from here and there, all from that one glorious four-page essay)…

“twenty years later,” hall writes on page 41, “my circles narrow. each season, my balance gets worse, and sometimes i fall…my fingers are clumsy and slow with buttons…

“new poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance. i feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven (when his wife, the poet jane kenyon, died) or fifty-two (the age of his father when he died). when i lament and darken over my diminishments, i accomplish nothing. it’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers. it is a pleasure to write about what i do.

“generation after generation, my family’s old people sat at this window to watch the year. there are beds in this house where babies were born, where the same babies died eighty years later….

“after a life of loving the old, by natural law i turned old myself. decades followed each other….however alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. it is alien, and old people are a separate form of life…if we forget for a moment that we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up, or when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances.”

i could go on. but, you, please, read for yourself.

check out books from your library. i did. some 17 in all. only just the other day, i checked out two more. and bought one, “life work,” a slender volume i’ll tuck inside my backpack, pull out if i get brave, hand to mr. hall, and ask, shyly, if he’d put pen to a page that is his, but lives on my shelves now.

and since i promised you, long ago, that we would share the glories of this year, i wanted you to have a head start. to spend a swatch of time whirling and swirling inside the poetry of donald hall, while i poke around the clapboard farmhouse, with the narrow porch where the birdfeeder hangs. where, if i’m lucky, i’ll press my nose to the window, deep and wide, where he looks out, keeps watch, as autumn turns to winter, turns to spring, and back to summer.

i’ll drink in the gnarly branches of the maple and the oak, and the “bluing air of afternoon.”  i’ll tiptoe into the cow barn, built in 1865, and scan the hayfields that are the crossbeams and the vaults of a lifetime of pure poetry, born and raised and resurrected in a little town nestled in the mid-hills of new hampshire.

i’ll stand deeply still. inhale and pray. words of thanks, first, for this rare gift. and begging words just after, that whatever’s in the air, the earth, the floorboards, seeps into me, and teaches me to see, out the window, in the ways that mr. hall so clearly sees.

and now, as promised, a few assigned readings:

let’s start with ox cart man, a book that might be tucked on every child’s library shelf.

or this, short one, “the things”

The Things

by Donald Hall

When I walk in my house I see pictures,
bought long ago, framed and hanging
—de Kooning, Arp, Laurencin, Henry Moore—
that I’ve cherished and stared at for years,
yet my eyes keep returning to the masters
of the trivial—a white stone perfectly round,
tiny lead models of baseball players, a cowbell,
a broken great-grandmother’s rocker,
a dead dog’s toy—valueless, unforgettable
detritus that my children will throw away
as I did my mother’s souvenirs of trips
with my dead father, Kodaks of kittens,
and bundles of cards from her mother Kate.

and lastly, though, please don’t stop here…

a poetry corner, where you can curl up, on this fine october day, and drink in the sounds of donald hall in his many forms. please do click on “letter with no address,” written to jane kenyon, his wife who died of leukemia in 1995. you will hear your heart crack.

i promise to post dispatch, post field trip, once we’re back from eagle pond farm, up new hampshire way. if you could visit any poet in the world, who might it be, and why? and feel free to leave a line of poetry here as proof. 

p.s. i realize that if you don’t have a subscription to the new yorker the link above won’t get you directly into the essay, but rather to a bit about the essay. i wish i could get around that, but i can’t. your library will have a back issue of the new yorker, i do believe. if you’re stuck, i will xerox and snail mail. you can send me your address via email.