Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category


June 15, 2008

It’s summer, and I have fallen headlong into my new job. I’m sorry for the break in writing here. In May, I got bowled over by a flying calendar, 72 pages’ worth, and since then my quiet three-page weekly section of the local paper has bloomed into a weekly magazine, 24 pages and counting.

So this blog will run on a kind of reverse academic schedule for the forseeable future. Whatever writing time I carve out over the summer I’ve been saving for my novel. But I’ll still be here when I can.

There’s a pleasure in absorption. It’s finding out what I can produce, and holding each magazine in my hands when it’s finished. It’s walking through new buildings, and reading my freelancers’ hikes up trails three miles from here that I’ve never heard of, and getting to tell people about them. It’s sending a staff writer off on his first trail ride and hearing him laugh about it afterward. I feel that I’m doing good work.

And in the cracks, when I’m walking home late on a deadline day, blissful because it’s done, sometimes somewhere along the wood fence by the stream in the park I pull out a pocket notebook and jot a note about my own book. My novel is always with me, and it hasn’t stopped reminding me that the hardest chapters are here already.

I am loving this season for its bareness. Mixing bread dough in the morning, barefoot in pajamas, I gloat when the stretched neckline of the old shirt I wear slides over my shoulders. I’m loving the blue haze of mountains, and I’m loving the headlong rush of work, most of the time. In part for the way it makes me think, and carefully finger all my spare moments, and for the way it keeps me here.

It’s easy to be impatient in a new place, in a new job — to want comfort and company all at once, and to feel I should be doing more, faster. I still have five chapters left in a draft I wanted to have done in May, and I’m still single, and I still haven’t planted snapdragons under the front window or oregano by the drain pipe. And I’m still laughing at myself. You see what I mean?

Too much absorption can be dangerous. But all the same, if you never let yourself fall wholly into something, you never stretch yourself wholly. The greatest joy of graduate school was to let myself love the work I wanted, and choose it, and knock myself silly finding out how to do it. Now I’ve done that, a few minutes by the stream in the dark, and a few hours writing longhand in my arm chair, will keep me going weeks at a stretch.

Without that time to want it openly and think it through, I wouldn’t be able to see the work clearly. I feel more firmly myself for it. So I’m wishing, for many people I know, enough sleep, and enough spurring from like minds, and enough space, and enough time to fall in love.

World enough and time
For Rachel on her birthday, March 21, 2008

When you are walking wide streets under palms
or leaning forward at an outdoor table,
let the sun steep you in the gentle heat
of argument. A breeze lifts linen from you.
Bowls of dates hold corners of translations,
and muezzins call, not far away.

People from all reaches of away
felt with you the soft, dry shade of palms
and read with you translations of translations.
They cupped a flame and blessed a sabbath table
and left that flame to live today with you.
Hold to your forehead that absorbing heat.

This afternoon you will run the first heat.
The canopy has been folded away
and all the courtyard beckons bright around you.
Drink among the orange trees and palms.
Talk begins like rain around the table,
and you begin to write your own translations.

Among you, you will write your own translations
as once Toledans quickened in the heat
a university around a table
with a hundred definitions of away.
A ladder rung leaves friction on your palms.
Stories out of stories will enthrall you.

Classmates chant a blessing, turn to you,
laughing with the quick joy of translations.
Clap and sing contemporary psalms
until your palms are glowing with the heat.
Now within time, every here and away,
every sabbath table is this table.

Swallows’ shadows fly across the table.
Dusk has cooled the courtyard stones while you
were rapt, while you were looking for a way
to unite the root and all translations,
imprint the dates, the swallows and the heat,
this communion touching palms to palms.

Let palms inscribe your palms then; let this table
heat in the sun and brand its knot holes through you:
translate away from love — love from away.


flesh and spirit

April 28, 2008

In the last week, too many people I know have talked about feeling distant from their bodies, confused by them.

Read, Write, Poem talked about specific or specialized vocabulary this week, and about sonnets. I found myself thinking about scientific classifications. Too many people I know have felt classified in unnatural ways and unable to move freely. I don’t think classifications have to bind. A name can give the essence of what’s named, and can change in reaction to what’s named — a name can recognize.

This is a love poem, then. (I’ll put the translations below, for anyone curious.)


When you look up from dishes, flushed with steam,
you are amica blanda. When you pass,
fides baccata, bearing a wet wine glass
wild in reflection from a candle flame

you sing old words and dig the roots and gaze.
Soft down lines your temple. Meadow lark,
alauda mega singing in the dark,
you are the whole creation that you praise.

Rename yourself now. Name your living body.
Anima caronis, name each sinew,
tongue and toe and forehead, palms and lips.

Name every cell and fluid wall within you.
Shiver in frost and darkness, bare before God,
holding out your arms to the eclipse.

* * *
For three days, I have danced my feet sore. Dancing to live music, in a familiar pattern, with several hundred people at all hours of the day is tiring, and blissful, comforting the way all hard exercise is comforting. It clears your head. You can forget time and place in a dance. And at the same time, it is inescapably physical.

You can’t pass through a hundred people’s arms and not be aware of yourself in space, spinning and aching and steadying yourself against their hands. You can’t help feeling the way they move, feeling those who make you comfortable and those who put you off. And you talk by touch. Without speaking (you have no time, and you can’t be heard over the fiddles) you read enjoyment, pressure, confusion, confidence in their hands and bodies, and you decide to match their steps or to assert your own.

It is as clear an illustration as I’ve ever had that mind and body have no clear limits. And every single separation I’ve ever seen has been painful. Lord knows, I wish I knew how to say that in any useful way.

Amica blanda — alluring friend or loved one. (blanda suggests blandishments, not blandness at all.) Latin, like English, seems to need more words for different kinds of love.
fides baccata — fruit-bearing faith
alauda mega — great skylark (mega evokes vastness for me, omega, though I know very little Greek.)
Anima caronis — soul or spirit of the body or flesh.

Early for thunderstorms

February 25, 2008

This week, Read, Write, Poem prompted weather… and also characters. I haven’t often written from another point of view in poetry, and I remembered friends telling me about a Midsummer Night’s Dream they saw years back at the Folger’s Library, and big, brassy Helena who knew how to laugh at herself. And she started talking. Don’t know whether she’s finished yet.


I know what I want.
Don’t you know the strength of that?
All their minds blowing around me
like aspen leaves in yellow storm light,
and the air heavy with mischief,
and only I come straight
through the wood.
I sleep in the fern beside the path
and wake and come on.
If you know your longings —
and what would you give to know?
— would you not walk barefoot
over wet pine needles
to meet them? The clouds build.
The woods breathe, waiting for the rush.
Rumble in my throat, static lightening
in my hair — give me the shock
of closing space. Say it with me:
I want you.

True story

February 19, 2008

Thanks to a prompt from Read, Write, Poem and a half-memory of a story someone told me once, and I’ll swear it’s true… I wrote a poem today at lunch. The final image came to me with brilliant clarity as I sat reformatting the calendar, and I carried it down with me. Our lunch room has good tall windows, mostly full of sky, for writing by.

The British garden club makes a naked calendar

Hail the gentle ladies on a fine May morning
who created a new scheme to raise funds.
Among their arching borders of roses
and roses, Levant, Gloire de Dijon, Bridal Pink,
they sat and stooped and bent over
a watering can. Who raised the first arm
of a neat beige jumper? Who slid
the first wool over her cropped head
and lowered the first hem to the grass?
The earth crumbed over their feet,
and on the cool pine boards of the sun room
they appraised slowly their mature skin.
Did the teapot hold more heat, held
in a bare hand, with the oak chair
cool on bare legs, stuck with sweat
to the small of the back?
They said this was the hardest part.
They had never seen each other so
or any women sweat since birth.
And now, after the years of speeches,
seed catalogs, planned beds in winter,
to drink tea laced with orange, clove,
and lean a bare midriff against
the planed table gave them grace.
Did they speak, unrecorded,
as the water poured from the spout,
or laugh a good, round laughter
as the first woman knelt in silence
in the turned earth, with the sun a dazzle
over a shoulder, and the full-throated roses
open and lifting from her breasts
in the sweet wild air?

Armed with poetry

February 8, 2008

Last weekend, I spent a day with the AWP.

Friday afternoon, I drove through sleet and farm country to a train station smaller than the train —six feet of baking heat behind glass, four wet benches, a patch of parking, and long lines of mountains. And I got on the train and got off in Grand Central.

My sister gave me most of the floor in her dorm room to sleep on, and half a sandwich at her favorite café, and a ticket to Rock and Roll, the new Stoppard play. It’s Czechoslovakia in the 1960’s right after the tanks went through. The narrative feels like a playlist deliberately at times, a series of short, scored scenes. Music tells the story and moves the plot; people betray for it, risk arrest for it, talk with it, learn indifference from it and let it move them to protective kindness and courage and passion.

And the play feels feels — contemporary. The hippies are outgunned and scared. Communism is not always unsympathetic, but it is inefficient and cold. And the narrative follows two stories in two places, among a crowd of people, across two generations. One actress plays a wife in act one and her grown daughter in act two. How many novels can you name that use that structure, a crowd of characters and a hundred years? Middlesex; Little, Big; A Hundred Years of Solitude….

I have a theory about the modern passion for writing novels across generations. Most novels want some kind of hope of continuity or union — most novels have both comic and tragic structure, things falling apart and things coming together. The early novelists had humanism and heaven and clan kinship and the family name, kinds of continuity that America manages to deny a lot of the time. But we do still have children.

I started out to write this post about poetry. A lot of Stoppard qualifies, at that. I’ll never forget the night I saw Indian InkLike Radha, most beautiful of the herdswomen, undressed for love in an empty house. But I did also, on this Saturday, hear poetry and prose beautifully read. Here’s a sampling.

A bent for history

December 3, 2007

I have been dabbling in histories these last two weeks: Froissart’s astonishingly courteous Edward II, Daniel C. Matt’s translation of the Zohar, and most recently, Josephine Tey’s A Daughter of Time. In the form of a carefully researched commentary and a mystery, Tey makes a strong argument that Richard III did not murder his nephews — that in fact his family held strongly together, his rivals lived free and well cared for, and he came closer to settling the York/Lancastrian feud than anyone else. Every time I read the book, I wonder what would have happened if he had not died at the battle of Bosworth.

I picked it up this time, inspired by Read Write Poem and its challenge of threes. Here is a draft in his honor, and a toast to his memory.

Richard III Turns 30

On the last day of Christmas, his true love
gave to him six naming trees. She said they were —
one for his father, one for his son,
one each for his brothers, and one
for his wife, the companion of his childhood
— to hold in long needles drawn down with snow.

Speak of them she said. Speak of your loss.
The hemlocks clasped the frozen ground.
Edmund died at seventeen, in his first battle.
I was five.
He shook the trunk.
The stiff whorls of the blue spruce
slapped him with blood and ice.

Edward, never seasick or single, came
every night from his new throne
to roar beside our fire while we parsed Latin.
George landed head down in a tankard,
when his coat turned the colors of fall.

My father, with my own name,
nailed above the Micklegate Bar;
my own Edward, too light to break
this crust of snow; and Anne, oh God,
who held me in the unfamiliar south—

What good can come? I grant them bail,
pardon my own murderers,
hold the border against the Thanes,
and in this spot, six months hence
I will fill your mouth with raspberries
one, two, three four for the boys who will outlive me.

Snow shook down on his shoulders
as thick on his cloak as on the branches,
and under its canopy he kissed her.
In the darkening march of firs,
knit with ground pine, the kingship
was worth no more than a rogue horse.