26 March 2008

"the day is a woman who loves you"

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the rain does not fall down (not even mainly on the plain, not even in spain -- and certainly not in south bend) because it's winter. despite the fact that we've passed the vernal equinox, despite the fact that i am in sandals, it appears that we are still in winter. i am trying not to despair over this.

i am also trying not to write about the weather so often on this blog -- but it's to the point of tears, despair, and desperation every time i hear the word "snow." or "below freezing."

i want to plant my garden. my garden right now is full of trash -- an old pumpkin, someone's old coke box for a 24 pack, several plastic bags. they've been frozen there all winter. and they ain't the easiest to clean up when they're encased in ice. so, i'm keeping hope alive (that thing with feathers, you know) by dreaming up my garden, by thinking about where else i could dig a garden, by plotting (ha! no pun intended) and planning my garden. lantanas. sweet williams. verbena. impatiens. bloodleaves. and this time around, because i'm getting all hippie (getting?) and environmentalist -- and because anything that tastes good is wicked expensive at the store -- my own tomatoes, my own peppers, my own basil and oregano. (because those are the only things i know how to cook with).

and it is the province of poets to write using as many flower names and plant names as possible. we used to mock this a bit in graduate school -- no one can just say "flower"; they must say, "five-petaled vinca." no one can say "tree"; they must say, "loblolly pine." but truly -- the word "vinca" or "loblolly" is just so much. . . better than the other words. richer. sweeter. a wealth of sound and image, packed into each word. i'm defending myself here, of course, too -- i'm a sucker for plant names, much like i'm a sucker for the names of constellations and towns and even haircut places -- i once thought of doing a coffee table book on just the bad puns of haircut places: "curl up and dye," "the best little hairhouse in denver," "shear perfection."

but i digress. mostly, i like the story and history in specific names, and the image and sound that accompany them so easily. i like specifics in general (paradox?) and so i thought of this poem -- just the town names, the specificity of lunch and the car, of the colors of the farmhouse, the multiple senses this poem opens itself up to with ease and grace -- these all fill me with light. and i'm in need, again, of a little light. this poem is one of my all-time favorites; it's so full of hope and detail, and its ending is so wonderfully, gorgeously rich in sound that it makes me happy just to hold the words in my mouth. and it makes me think of a time -- sometime soon, we can hope -- when there aren't remnants of snow on all the roads, when there's just pure spring, when the day is, indeed, a woman who loves you.

Driving Montana

~ Richard Hugo

The day is a woman who loves you. Open.
Deer drink close to the road and magpies
spray from your car. Miles from any town
your radio comes in strong, unlikely
Mozart from Belgrade, rock and roll
from Butte. Whatever the next number,
you want to hear it. Never has your Buick
found this forward a gear. Even
the tuna salad in Reed Point is good.

Towns arrive ahead of imagined schedule.
Asborakee at one. Or arrive so late --
Silesia at nine -- you recreate the day.
Where did you stop along the road
and have fun? Was there a runaway horse?
Did you park at that house, the one
alone in a void of grain, white with green
trim and red fence, where you know you lived
once? You remembered the ringing creek,
the soft brown forms of bison.
You must have stayed hours, then drove on.
In the motel you know you'd never seen it before.

Tomorrow will open again, the sky wide
as the mouth of a wild girl, friable
clouds you lose yourself to. You are lost
in miles of land without people, without
one fear of being found, in the dash
of rabbits, soar of antelope, swirl
merge and clatter of streams.

(published in Making Certain It Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1984).

23 March 2008

"i became a feminist as an alternative to becoming a masochist."

i must tell you: i don't understand third wave feminism.

i identify with the second wavers -- gloria steinem, betty friedan, even the "second wave" literary theorists simone de beauvoir and luce irigaray -- far more than third wavers. i want to support the third wave, i do -- i just don't totally get it. i was born, perhaps, twenty years too late. and i really don't understand "post-feminism," which seems to me to be (pardon the phrase) a load of crap. (ann coulter? not a feminist. setting feminism back seventy years, perhaps, if we stick to what i believe is the truest definition of feminism: the belief that all people -- including women -- are equal. and my, oh my, if you've seen any of the negative media reactions -- especially the way they've been phrased -- to hillary clinton, then you know: we are not post-feminist. we are only just beginning).

i am often reminded of why i "became" a feminist in the first place; i say "became" in quotation marks (and if you could see me, and if i weren't typing, i'd do those irritating air quotes with two fingers from each hand -- and i'd do them dramatically) because it became clear to me in college, once i'd adopted the word, that that was all i'd done -- i'd found a name for who i had always been. who knows where these sorts of things come from? nature or nurture, it's clear that i had been a wee raging feminist since at least third grade. maybe it was all the nancy drew (and my somewhat sour reactions when she was rescued by ned), maybe it was all the boys in grade school who made me one of their favorite targets, maybe it was the good training i got from my strong-minded mother and father, or maybe it was watching my older sister deal with high school, body image, women's issues in sports and academics, etc., long before i got there. either way: the word "feminist" -- no matter the new idea that we're "post-feminist" (ha!) or the vehement fears and reactions to the word "feminist" (still -- which, of course, proves that we ain't nowhere near post-feminist) -- suits me just fine.

on a terrific website called "antigone magazine" which my friend kris found (and she has postcards posted there this week!), they're selling a t-shirt that reads, "i became a feminist as an alternative to becoming a masochist." yes. yes, i think. yes. (sidenote: i'll be happy to take this t-shirt for my birthday. i'll take ten.) and that, for me, is the most basic way to say it: i had to become a feminist to stop hurting/starving/loathing/damaging myself, and to make sure that i protected myself from other folks who might want to, and to start up (for myself and for others) a brand new way of thinking of ourselves as a community, as in relationship, as equal to one another and protectors of one another.

and feminism, of course, is a fight for freedom. in the novel we're reading in class, (which i think is brilliant, genius, magic), the handmaid's tale, margaret atwood describes the "training school," the "rachel and leah center" for the handmaids, where they "learn" their new place in the world. one of the "aunts" -- the wardens, really -- says to the women, "there's freedom to and freedom from." the women are meant to be grateful that while they've given up their freedom to (hold jobs, earn money, run alone, go to school, in short -- live), they've been "given" freedom from (men's lascivious gazes, whistling, harassment, assault, etc.). and really, while that's a lovely, pithy idea -- it just doesn't hold. atwood knows this, of course, and after reflecting on that dichotomy for a while, i've realized that freedom to and freedom from have to come at once, together, that they're not at all separate. in other words, a substitution of one kind of oppression for another is no progress at all.

which brings me to this poem, which i've come across again. (everything -- classes, websites, memories, conversations, the next round of the michiana monologues -- renamed, but similar -- even happenstance browsing -- is starting to coalesce. i'm having a liberal arts moment!). it's by susan browne, who has a brave sense of humor and sharpness and sarcasm in her writing which does not, somehow, overpower her sincerity, but instead makes it that much stronger -- because, to put this badly, when she's crying, she's really crying, and when she's laughing, she's really laughing.

this one strikes me as hugely important, in thinking about not being a masochist, thinking about freedom to and freedom from -- because at the end of the poem, the speaker has both, and she has neither. she's locked herself in her room -- no freedom to. in the beginning, driving around braless, carefree, even reckless -- she doesn't have freedom from. and her solution is disturbing, and not a solution, and yet, and yet. i understand. i've been lucky enough to have been in bad relationships that never turned violent or threatening like this. but i do understand. and i think: there's got to be some other way to do this -- this relationship between men and women, this liberation that must be guarded, this falsehood of the "post-patriarchy." it's no error, of course, that she brings up in this poem the women she does -- one beaten by her husband, the other who wrote to her mother that she was glad ted hughes published a book before she did because it would make it so much easier on her. freedom to? freedom from? but the speaker, at least, has made her decision, and she's taken back control -- some freedom regained. on the other hand, this is very problematic, yes? because it seems to perpetuate the exact cycle with which she wants to break, and this is one of the most common complaints about feminism -- that it takes a hierarchy and simply flips it. and so: it's got to be more complex than this. and i don't think for a minute that the speaker of this poem doesn't struggle with exactly this for the rest of her life. at least, the reader here does.

however, i'm also reminded of how very human this is, and how the poem is made better by its honesty. as one of my writing professors told me once, "say it as truthfully and accurately as you can, and it will be beautiful."

regardless, here's the poem. let me know what you think.


~ Susan Browne

In September of 1970 we took off our bras
and waved them like flags over our liberated heads,
cruising in Jan's convertible Bug
to the college we would attend.
When we let the bras go, they fluttered up
on various cup-sized wings and flew
into a cornfield.

We were eighteen, we could do whatever we wanted,
and that first Friday night staring awestruck
at Tina Turner singing on the outdoor stage,
I wanted to belt out the lyrics of my life,
a life unlike any woman's I'd known.
I was free in my gauzy blouse,
dancing in the street with a man
with long curly black hair and a paisley bandana.
He quoted Nietzche and Rimbaud,
and he knew all about Plath.

How old are you? I asked.
Let's go to a party, he said.
It was dark under the oaks by the creek,
no other cars but his station wagon.
The party's here, he said, pressing
my hand into his lap.

I told him I was a virgin,
and he held my hair back so hard
I thought my skull would crack.
He bit my neck, whispering
that he was so big,
I couldn't handle it,
but he'd know when I was ready
just by looking at me.

Thank you, I said.

As we drove to the dormitory,
he said he'd come by tomorrow.
I have homework.
You sure are a smart girl. He winked.

I locked the door of my room,
lay down on my narrow bed,
the stack of books on the desk
outlined in the light
from the streetlamp.
I would get smarter.
And if a man ever did anything
like that again,
I would do what I wanted.
I would kill him.

(published in Buddha's Dogs by Susan Browne, New York City: Four Way Books, 2004.)

18 March 2008

"envy of other people's poems"

i have this kind of envy. a lot. sometimes it's even jealousy.

this envy does not negate appreciation -- in fact, it may enhance appreciation, increase close reading, intensify focus.

or not.

the envy quite often gets in the way of reading, and reading well, and thoughtfully. and it's soon followed by panic (why am i not writing like this? why am i writing so much NOT like this? why am i writing? why am i not writing?), and it's followed thereafter by either giving up, beating myself up, or quitting the reading of poems entirely -- none of which i really want in my life. and so, i've started to try to think of poems as gifts -- tiny page-long (or more, if you write as i do) gifts for the day -- even as i admire or marvel over them, even as i quash the envy threatening to take over.

and this one was a gift for today -- and also, it's a poem about that kind of envy. doubly good for today. and, i believe, it's about what happens if that envy takes over and plugs up your ears against the poem, and it's about the envy we may have built up in our minds that may just be ridiculous, out of proportion, but at the same time, stifling and deafening. and, of course, that envy (and its results) isn't limited to poems.

(and that's a very simple overview of a complex and rich poem -- apologies for my watering down of said poem. and yes, i am a little envious -- a lot -- of this poem, too).

Envy of Other People's Poems

~ Robert Hass

In one version of the legend the sirens couldn't sing.
It was only a sailor's story that they could.
So Odysseus, lashed to the mast, was harrowed
By a music that he didn't hear -- plungings of the sea,
Wind-sheer, the off-shore hunger of the birds --
And the mute women gathering kelp for garden mulch,
Seeing him strain against the cordage, seeing
the awful longing in his eyes, are changed forever
On their rocky waste of island by their imagination
Of his imagination of the song they didn't sing.

(published in Time and Materials, Robert Hass, New York: HarperCollins, 2007)

17 March 2008

"things i needed to hear myself"

it's a monday, and it does seem like the world should not have gotten up to turn on its lamps and the radio, to dress for the workday, to leave the house.

maybe the worries that are nearing us now are worries that we've just held at bay for a while -- they're there, but we're able to put on our shoes and go for walks and eat our lunches and do our jobs anyway. maybe they're new; it's hard to say, from one day to the next. there are plenty of instances -- huge or smaller, bear stearns or a lost and starved pit bull (no, i don't own a pit bull, but if you need one, i know where you can get one), two unending wars or a broken engagement -- where it seems that the world might be ready to call it a day and close up shop.

and all this worry and struggle reminded me of the poem, "paradise," which does a magnificent job of remaining in the present moment -- not only that, but finding peace in that moment -- despite the surrounding dark waters of grief and loss. it does a magnificent job, for me, of reminding me how to go on -- not "move forward," necessarily, which i'm not convinced is an apt metaphor for anything we do, especially for grieving or worrying or living in a messed-up world, because what is "progress" here? what marks or measures "progress"? progress, for the US, has often meant our own success at the expense of others. "progress," for me at least, has come from a continual mining of the past -- which is technically looking backward.

regardless of that tangent, this poem seems to me to be about how to continue, even if our actions or our words are "unreceived," even if they seem not to matter at all in the face of something unsayable, threatening, difficult, scary, or unknown. tess gallagher wrote this book after her husband, raymond carver, died, and it's one of the most beautiful books i've ever read. the title of this poem, while possibly ironic at first glance, seems more and more appropriate and not ironic the more often i read it. this poem has always given me a moment of sorrowing peace, if that's a good enough phrase for it.


~ Tess Gallagher

Morning and the night uncoupled.
My childhood friend
who had been staying awake for me, left the house
so I could be alone with the powerful raft of his body.

He seemed to be there only for listening, an afterlife
I hadn't expected. So I talked to him, told him
things I needed to hear myself
tell him, and he listened, I can say "peacefully,"
though maybe it was only an effect he had, the body's surety
when it becomes one muscle. Still, I believe I heard
my own voice then, as he might have heard it, eagerly
like the nostrils of any mare blowing softly over
the damp presence he was, telling it
all is safe here, all is calm and yet to be endured
where you are gone from.

I spoke until there was nothing unfinished between us.
Since his feet were still there and my hands
I rubbed them with oil
because it is hard to imagine at first
that the dead don't enjoy those same things they did
when alive. And even if it happened only as a last thing, it
was the right last thing.

For to confirm what is forever beyond speech
pulls action out of us. And if it is only childlike and
unreceived, the way a child hums to the stick
it is using to scratch houses into the dirt, still
it is a silky membrane and shining
even to the closed eye.

(published in Moon Crossing Bridge, Tess Gallagher, Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1992.)

i've been paying particular attention to the rhythms of language and of line breaks here, in this read-through, and i find them incredibly careful. for example, the line, "things I needed to hear myself" doubles beautifully -- the speaker is not only talking, then, to her husband, but recognizing through line break that she's talking to herself, saying things she needs to say, needs to hear. the way words are put together, here, too, is very powerful: saying, for example, "Since his feet were still there and my hands/I rubbed them with oil" is very different in tone, rhythm, and meaning than saying, "Since his feet were still there, I used my hands to rub them with oil." in the first (and actual) phrasing, the antecedent for "them" could be both the hands and the feet -- there's far more merging of the two than separation in this phrasing. if it were the other way, the speaker's hands are more distinctly separate from her husband's feet, not nearly as blended, not nearly so much one body, one spirit, "one flesh" -- one person resisting separation again into two.

there. i'm starting to feel a little better. the world isn't mended, but one moment is, at least. and yes, i'm going to order and read very soon the book Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy. seems like that oughta be the title of this whole blog...

13 March 2008

"the problem of architects in an old city"

today is a good day in indiana. there is sun, finally, and not just sun -- actual warmth. i am wearing flip-flops for the second day in a row. the grocery store is selling those tiny daffodils in pots, and hyacinth, and easter lilies -- finally, not just those pallid, dry, bland carnations. i have my front door open, and it's clearing the old winter heater air out of the house. it's delicious. my sister tells me often that winter in the midwest makes you appreciate spring, and while i like to grumble at her and tell her i'd appreciate it anyway, even if it were all the time, i suppose she's right (but shhh. . . don't tell anyone i've confessed to that, because i'd still like spring all the time).

and it is a good day for reading poems in a square of window sunlight.

by way of introduction to the poems i've been reading, i'll say this: talking last night to some creative writing folks, i made the claim that there are three types of poets in the world: 1) the kind who make me love poems again and sincerely want to go home and write and write, 2) the kind who are so good i throw up my hands and say, "i'm never writing again," and 3) the kind who are good but somehow get under my skin and so i go home and say, "i'm going to write better than you ever could, you jerk." yehuda amichai, the poet i've been reading this morning, is mostly in category 2, and a little in category 1.

i've had his book for several years but haven't really dug into it because i was always intimidated by it. maybe it's because it's a "selected poems" book, and it's big and chock full of several decades' worth of poems. or maybe it's because amichai is brilliant. he is, according to the brief bio on the back of the book, "Israel's most popular poet as well as a literary figure of international reputation." he can also "say virtually anything and give his words enough sting to defuse both sentimentality and hyperbole." i find him to be a master of startling simile and metaphor -- some of his descriptions give me so much pause that i cannot move on to the next poem. you see? intimidating.

and so, i will share a little of this with you -- this poem, a section from his long poem, "Songs of Zion the Beautiful," struck me as astonishing, especially that last stanza. and i agree with the back of the book -- he's able to make me see a war-battered place that's deeply loved and troubled, a landscape i've not seen (except in little blips on television), and he makes it not sentimental, but certainly emotional, and not hyperbolic, but accurate to the point of searing. i read it, and i thought, "yes, exactly." and then, "how do you do that?" and then i closed the book for a bit and stared out the window.

This is the end of the landscape. Among blocks
of concrete and rusting iron
there's a fig tree with heavy fruit
but even kids don't come around to pick it.
This is the end of the landscape.
Inside the carcass of a mattress rotting in the field
the springs stay put, like souls.

The house I lived in gets farther and farther away
but a light was left burning in the window
so that people would only see and not hear.
This is the end.

And how to start loving again is like the problem
of architects in an old city: how to build
where houses once stood, so it will look like
those days, yet also like now.

(published in The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, trans. by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.)

12 March 2008

more thoughts on "mercy"

the poem i posted the other day, "mercy," has kept spinning around in my head, stirring up conversations with several folks, and so i want to keep talking about it here, despite my claim that i wouldn't. and this isn't going to be coherent, perhaps, because it's brought up a lot of enormous questions -- but i'll do my best.

someone brought to my attention that the poem could be read very differently than i read it: that the last line, "And the Lord sent rain," could be construed as a sarcastic response to the situation of the poem, as a dismissal of or a slam on religion or faith -- that the Lord's "response" is horribly inadequate, much too late, far too minimal for the grief of the man in the poem. and i can see that now; i can see the poem through a different lens, and it's caused me to think and rethink what that tiny poem might mean (though a poem should not mean but be, etc.) and what the tone and meaning of the last line might be.

and so, i want to tell a story first, and then rethink the poem (and my response) through that story.

when i was seven years old, i was playing alone in my bedroom. we got a phone call; shortly after my mom hung up the phone, she came into my room. she had gotten the news that a boy my age, a boy in my class, had just died. his name was andy. he had bright blonde hair, as i remember, and he was funny -- the kind of kid teachers call "sweet." his older brother had been driving a forklift; andy asked him if he could have a ride. he fell off the forklift. i don't remember many of the details now, beyond those basics, but i remember thinking, almost immediately, "will i die soon, too?" i don't remember if i asked out loud, or just thought it. i thought, too, about his brother, how i didn't know if i could stand that kind of guilt living with me for the rest of my life. and the rest of his family, i thought about them; i liked his mom, and i liked his mom's name.

later, i remember -- at least, i think i remember (always the difficulty with memory) -- we went to see andy's family. i don't remember if it was the funeral, or the wake, or just a gathering of folks from our church. i remember wandering around between people's knees. i remember the light was dimmed. and i remember someone saying, very quietly, that andy's death had made his father angry at God -- that he was shaking his fist at the sky. and i remember thinking that seemed wrong, because i didn't know you could be mad at God, i didn't think it was possible. and then i thought, i think i would be, too. and the questions started: why would God take away a seven-year-old? why would he want to wreck a family that way? what would happen to my family? why didn't it happen to my family? what kind of justice is this; what kind of justice is there in the world at all?

these aren't new thoughts, of course; why bad things happen to good people, why bad things happen at all, is maybe one of the most-asked, most-unsolvable questions of being human. there are books and books written on the "problem of suffering," and there are thousands of sermons about it, i'm sure, but i don't know that anyone finds an answer, ever. even the answer that "evil is in the world" doesn't really work here -- andy wasn't an evil kid, his family wasn't. and i don't like the "test of your faith" theory, either -- Job, for example, never gets an answer to why his entire life has been stripped away; he wasn't an evil man at all; and he never gets a response from God about why he'd been tested, if that's what it was.

it seems to me that the poem asks this same question in its various forms -- where was the Lord when the house was burning? where was the Lord when the drought went on for so long? why does the rain come only after it isn't needed? why were two children taken away? what kind of justice is that? is there justice at all in the world? is God looking on at all? and so, reading that last line as a kind of question, a "shaking the fist at the sky," seems not like a slam, but rather a human response to tragedy -- a foundation has been shaken, a lot has been lost, and there's no explanation that's adequate for why someone would have to lose so much.

i also find it to be one response to those who would say that the fire is punishment for the man -- the same kind of idea that was circulated after katrina: that God was "cleansing" the city with the hurricane. which is an idea that makes me want to swear and pull out my hair and scream with its kind of horrible religiosity, false piety, and misconstructed notion of faith or the divine or God's role in the world. i don't think God sends tragedy as punishment, and i don't think God sends rain or money or success or whatever as reward (see also: my sincere loathing for books that make the claim that if you pray hard enough and faithfully enough, god will send you financial reward). andy's family didn't "deserve" to lose their son. people in new orleans didn't deserve to lose their families, their homes, their city. people closer to me, in nappannee, who were just recently devastated by a tornado, are some of the most faithful (in religious terms) folks i've met -- and i think anyone would be hard-put to find an answer to why so many of them lost their homes and still haven't managed to get any funding to rebuild. the last line of the poem does, then, i suppose, call into question that kind of thinking -- that the Lord is somehow doling out punishment and reward. and i also (to say it again, as i'm trying to get this complicated answer under control) think it's the sincerest human response to tragedy i've heard -- we're looking and looking and searching and searching for reasons, and we don't get answers. we get rain. really, God? rain? that's all you've got?

however, i do think it's more complex than that, too; i find the last line of the poem to be both question and answer, both doubt and relief. it's not just a slap in the face to religion -- though losing two children seems to warrant plenty of doubt -- because there is still some faith, some answer, some kindness in the midst of the horror. maybe i find comfort in the last line of that poem because, at least, there is a presence of God, a possibility of a God who is listening, who is sympathizing. if i look at the poem not as a literal reconstruction of events (which i do often because of its directness and its clarity) but instead as layered and also artfully done, then rain (as a symbol, as a metaphor) becomes a representation of renewal, of the possibility of new growth and revival, of a "quenching" of the thirst for answers, for reasons, and as a balancing out of the tragedy and suffering in the first lines. that may be too easy, too much of a "god cries with you" or "pastoral sympathy" answer -- i don't know. but a drought and a fire can certainly be seen as representative of suffering, doubt, pain, "going without," and loss -- and so rain becomes reprieve, healing, answer, return, and "going with." there is a sense in that line, for me, that God has not abandoned this person, though all signs previous may be read as pointing to the contrary. at the end of Job, while Job gets no answers, he does get the presence of God, the reassurance that God is still there, and that may be all we ever get to know.

i take the line, then, as a very complex response in very simple words -- because i don't think there is an easy answer for anyone who has lost anyone. giving up on faith wholly is a possibility, of course, but perhaps we are not abandoned, even at the worst moments -- "my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" but sticking to faith without question, without doubt -- and saying simply or dismissively that "God has 'his' reasons" -- is deeply unsatisfying, lacking in compassion or honesty or both, and not acknowledging the complexity of the world we live in. why andy died is not clear to anyone, to this day. why i've lost other people in my life -- even if they were seventy or eighty years old -- is not clear to me. i don't know that we ever know "why," and i think we know that any reasons we come up with are inadequate. and so it's all we can do to hang on; it's all we can do to say "i don't understand, and while i'll keep trying to understand, i'll also keep trying to believe."

and maybe, while the loss always burns, the Lord is still sending rain.

10 March 2008


i'm having a little difficulty getting my brain to kick into gear these spring break days -- whenever i try, i get the sound my neighbor's car made all morning: eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-EEEEEEE. cough, splutter, die.

but: i spent a lovely afternoon with my friend nancy, and she pulled out a book she'd recently found. and i recognized it as one i have had for several years and haven't gone back to in much too long. we both love this poem so much -- and it really does speak for itself. there's no need to say much more about religion, spirituality, suffering, grief -- this poem does it all in such a short space. i am stunned by it, every time i read it.


~ Jo McDougall

The night after his two children burned
in a frame house in a searing drought,
the man, the neighbors said,
wandered through his yard
murmuring "Lord have mercy."
And the Lord sent rain.

(published in Dirt by Jo McDougall, Pittsburgh: Autumn House Press, 2001).

06 March 2008

"april, come she will"

several folks in the last few days have kvetched, bemoaned, and sighed with me over the fact that, in indiana, march is the month of "almost-spring." it's a month of spring teases.

even garrison keillor brought it up in one of his recent shows -- that we get so close, the wind has lost its bite, we see the sun, the sun! -- and then we look out the window the next day to find snow.

some folks are okay with this. i say: winter is no good for anyone, unless you're a bear.

i say: winter is no good, no matter how much zoloft you're on.

a colleague came into my office today to say that one of her friends in kansas city reports that there are crocuses appearing there. we are a month behind kansas city in the changing of seasons. there is hope, and then there is waiting. they can co-exist, but i am tired of the waiting.

i finally heard birds as i woke up this morning, and while they were those big, scary crows with big, menacing black beaks, they were birds. and i was grateful.

and it's better than finding a bird in my house when i get home in the evening, a bird that likely got in (this is the best hypothesis i've heard for how it got in -- thanks, dad) through the furnace chimney. and flapped around my head, dive-bombing me in the kitchen, then making a cozy little nest out of my heap of scarves in the closet. and finally made his way out after i flung both doors open and hid in the bedroom with my cat, who would much rather have gone back out to start another game of "chase the bird until it hates you."

this poem, then, i dedicate to the bird who may finally be getting warmer, and so will not need my chimney anymore, and to surviving (almost) another gray indiana winter.


~ Louise Gluck

Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you.

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn't expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring --

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world.

(published in: Claiming the Spirit Within, ed. Marilyn Sewell, Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.)

p.s. i could just live in her line breaks in this poem: "survive, expect, feel, body, remembering, again, light, spring, again, joy, world." even just those words are music, climactic, hopeful!

05 March 2008

"what is it i send to auction?"

more thoughts, now that i've been away from the poem (below) for a little bit:

the phrase "bad girl" comes up more than once in the poem, and it's because the horse is the speaker's "bad girl" that she's sent away. and because the speaker is hesitating over sending her away, and because i'm always suspicious of the words "bad girl" (because of the several stereotypes that they conjure, and because they're oft applied to "keep her in line"), i started thinking: the horse is a bad girl because... she's untamed? because she refuses to be tamed? refuses to be tethered, tied down, reined in? because she refuses to give up the wildness -- the "temper," the anger, the -- let's be frank, those last few lines ask us to be -- sexuality? while the speaker does not explain what made her a "bad girl," it does seem quite possible that the wildness, the anger, the sexuality that she sees in the horse is what she also saw in herself, and perhaps her mother saw in her. after all, the speaker compares herself to -- and conflates herself with, in some lines -- the horse, after being beaten: they were both indomitable, undefeated, resilient, or at least defiant.

and so i'm thinking, again, of resistance, but this time, i'm thinking more of resistance against the general and oft-used definitions of "good girl" -- not angry, not loud, not boisterous, not opinionated. and i'm thinking especially of feminist theology and feminist thinking in general, which works to explain that our anger can be our push to work for change -- much of our best work is done when we're livid about the state of things. of course, you can't stay angry all the time.

but some of the time: it ain't all bad. and some of the time, it shouldn't be auctioned off.

and enough from me on this one. i'm fairly certain it's best just to read the poem. :)
this poem, "Sending the Mare to Auction," strikes several chords with me today, and the more i read it, the more i love it. it's not because it's in any way connected to my literal experience (for example, i can't ride a horse to save my life, unless the horse is from one of those "rent-a-ride" places in which the horses plod in a single file line up a hill and -- excitement! -- back down).

but there's something about the energy, the defiant, pure, red-hot blood energy, that the speaker remembers in herself when she was younger: "one day vicious, indomitable, the next/crying at the gate...". that energy to resist, to reject, whatever is limiting, damaging, is nearly tangible in the poem. these lines, too, aren't entirely clear -- do they apply to the speaker, the horse, or both? the raw animal energy seems very present in both the descriptions of the mare and of the speaker herself when she was younger -- and it's as though the speaker mourns it even as she recognizes its destructive potential. and when she's sending the mare to auction, well -- "what is it I send to auction?" how much of that energy and drive and fierceness do we lose?

it's not that i'm feeling old and creaky these days (though, in some ways, i am, and i'm generally cranky), but that i've been very grateful lately to lend my energy to projects that work to make the world a better place for someone -- students, this community, the women who've been hurt or abused, the local environment. but i'm also remembering when i was much bolder, when i fought harder for change in institutions, when i worked hard to write about, speak about, create discussions about what i saw that needed changing -- and then to see that change take place.

in the class that i'm teaching, we've been thinking a lot in class about how to use this kind of energy, this forcefulness, this fierce conviction -- and if it could lead to destructive or positive ends. i'm thinking especially of an essay we read recently by Carter Heyward, "Sexuality, Love, and Justice," in which she writes about creating love and justice in our religious, educational, business, and social structures, and how difficult it can be to create that kind of change: "To challenge these assumptions is, in some very real sense, to go mad."

and while i don't advocate crazy all the time, i like the kind of crazy and the kind of energy that fights injustice, that creates hope, that reclaims humanity for all folks, that understands that, as Heyward writes, "loving is always a revolutionary act."

i recognize that i'm on a bit of a soapbox here, and so i'll step down, so as to let the poem take the spotlight, as it does a far better job of illuminating these complexities.

and in the meantime, here's to challenging assumptions, to making change, to "going mad."

Sending the Mare to Auction

~ Jana Harris

choosing the gelding, younger, more placid
I remember my mother chose my brother

over me for that reason, today I am
packing my bad girl off to auction,

the whites of her eyes, red, the vet's
hypnotic voice, temper, he says, such

a temper, but her loveliness outweighs
everything, the shape of her head,

the neck arch, I think of Isak Dinesen
leaving Africa -- "these horses!" she cried

in goodbye -- my first mare the one I should
have had as a girl when I was bolder,

one day vicious, indomitable, the next
crying at the gate, already I've forgotten

she bit me with fury, with her hind legs
struck me down, that day I took a crop,

beat her until I could no longer raise
my arm, the look in that mare's eyes said

it made no difference, there was no way to
make this bad girl good, when she struck me

across the face, was that the look my mother
saw in me? lovely thing, the dreams I had

for her, I am shipping her off the way
my mother did me, her black tail flowing

in my dreams, now I wait for the van,
she waits -- little clock -- by the fence

haunches spread, the stallion watches her
tail cocked, tart, sweating from head to hoof

flesh hot as stove burners, selling this mare
what is it I send to auction?

(published in Claiming the Spirit Within, ed. Marilyn Sewell, Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).

04 March 2008

postcards from indiana

long, long ago, i wrote a poem that seems suitable, just now, for the beginning of a blog. i don't really know the ins and outs of blogging, nor do i know exactly how "funny" or "relevant" or "engaging" works on a blog. but i do know that i used to, am, and want to continue writing poems, and i figure this kind of a thing -- reading poems, seeking out poems, passing along poems to you that you might like -- might be the way to continue that trend.

i'm also a little weary of the analysis of everything, the questioning of value, the evaluation of it all -- what grade do i get for this? am i going to get a ticket for parking here? what's that in my teeth? did they notice? that song -- is it horrid, poppy, beautiful, sappy? wait, he wrote about pigeons? why did he write about pigeons? what's at stake in this poem/novel/letter? do we need to know more about the narrator? is the narrator reliable? how much whiskey does the narrator drink? did he mean what he said? did she define her terms? does she love him enough? what does it mean to love someone enough?

i'm guessing this blog, and this whole post, is partly inspired by jack ridl's recent post about grading, evaluation, and what happens when you lift that burden from folks' shoulders -- what sorts of doors open, what windows, what light comes in. i'm in need of a little light. and i'm in need of a little celebration of a good bunch of poems. it might get schmaltzy, sappy -- that's what i do best. (read: he wrote about pigeons because he loves pigeons, their feathers, their bewildered eyes.) it might get sarcastic (read: you go write about important things, like politics, war, love, death, the afterlife, the bloody angels and their swords. i'm staying here with the damned pigeons).

either way: a little light.

mostly, i'll post other folks' stuff (and figure out which laws i'm violating as i do it) and i'll revel in their poems. and it'll keep me reading. and it'll keep me from playing too much online scrabble. and it'll give a little light to the day.


my dear,
this is the world's largest
thermometer. this is the turquoise-soaked
ocean. these are green hills, stacked
like your knuckles. this is my hand
writing to you. here: a sea, a mountain, your
name. which side will be taped to your
mirror? which side is the reverse? did i leave
my socks in your drawer? there is music
here, a guitar sometimes
in the evenings, and there are gulls
in the morning, with sunlight. i have lived nineteen
summers and twenty winters. the day i caught
my train, do you remember watching from
a fourth story window? i turned, looked up, and you
were there, leaning on the sill. and now i know
how to shoulder a backpack, catch rain in the collar
of my jacket, listen to the sounds of bookshops
opening, turn myself toward seasalt or sleep.

~ sally