22 April 2008

"pine tree, rooftop, lighthouse, cold air"

as my friend nancy just said to me on her way out into this sun-gleaming april day,

"if you can't do what you want to do on your birthday, when can you do it?"

and yes, today is my birthday, and no, i have no compunction about advertising that to the entire world (well, the world that reads this blog, which is, to be fair, much smaller than "the world").

and thus far, it's been a really lovely day. i went to the farmers' market and bought parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. (seriously. i did. and i don't mean i purchased the simon & garfunkel song. i purchased the plants. and now i'm going to scarborough fair. . .). and then i bought a good cup of coffee. and i stayed in the sun as long as i could this morning, and i'm going back into it soon.

and so, today also seems like the right day to post a poem of my own, which is not something i do often, because it feels weirdly self-serving, and it feels a little (a lot) like self-promotion, and i'm not very comfortable with any of that. but, well, here it is anyway. (yes, it's the bird poem, for those of you -- cough*dad*cough -- who have requested it).

and, by way of a little introduction, i did make this bird book a long time ago. it's the first book my father said i should publish. it's still tucked up in my closet somewhere, in a faded blue folder with pages dog-eared and battered sticking out the top. it was never finished. but even if i had finished it, i think it would have been a bust of a publication, sadly, especially once the publisher discovered that i'd plagiarized over half of it from the world book encyclopedia "bird" section.

but, as i've talked about in earlier posts, i loved the specificity of the names of the birds; this bird book may be one of the many things that contributed early on to my love of naming things, to holding names in my mouth, to figuring out how to say them. (incidentally, i still have to stutter three times before i can get "quetzalcoatl" out of my mouth). between the bird book and the lands' end catalogues (oh, the colors! "coral, periwinkle, spruce"!) and my parents' gardens, i was set on course for poetry even then, whether i knew it or not.

this poem, then, came much later from a workshop in which we were required to visit with another artist, to spend time with their work and try to write from their work. (this class became the inspiration for the class i teach now on ekphrasis -- writing that comes from art). i visited "pottery rob" and his studio. he was wonderfully kind and patient; i stayed for several hours, in the quiet, the cool, the dark of it. and there were all these tiny pottery creatures in a little net -- sort of a hammock for his creatures. one bird had, it seemed, fallen on the ground a long while ago, and a long crack now ran up its belly, into its breast, ending just below its beak. i held that tiny pottery bird in my hand for a long, long while. i cried. not just for the pottery bird, but for the memory-dam that broke loose, for my own bones which weren't as strong as they should have been, for the bird i'd found long ago on our driveway, for all sorts of things. and this poem is what came from holding that bird.

so, in honor of one more year gone by, and in honor of that tiny cracked bird, and in honor of all the new birds coming out just now to bolster our hope again, here's the poem.

wing into cloud

when you were seven years old, you started on the bird book.
it was called that, the title page in blocky letters: ‘the bird book.’
a set of colored pencils in a blue and red striped bag, and you
remade the encyclopedia, the backyard, mexico and canada:
canary, quetzalcoatl, peregrine falcon, goose.

eight weeks in a row you worked: a folder for the papers, a ruler
for writing straight lines, the blue pencil shortened
and dulled for so much sky. you sketched and erased, drew
and erased until the paper wrinkled and smudged
and tore. you made pages of nests, branches, eggshells,
and all the places you could find for a bird, none of them
your home -- a rainforest, cliffs of gray stone, a stiff birch
tree branch, a wide softening sky. you wrote their names
in a table of contents: page two magpies, page five
pelicans, with captions: “a common songbird,”
“a pair of swimmers, with their young,” “a night hunter.”
all of it first in pencil, then traced over with marker.

the day after finishing the passenger pigeon
page, you walked outside to find a blackbird
on your driveway, its wing folded back, its eye closing
with a blue flower-petal eyelid, its glossed feathers
spoked at wrong angles.
with your mother’s lilac-print gardening gloves,
you scooped the bird up, placed him in a shoebox
on a folded towel. the bird’s eye stayed wild, his heart
against your palm beating like mosquito wings. for hours,
you rocked on your haunches, knee to ankle
numb. with your small girl-body shadow over the box,
you whispered, you hummed and sang, until the feathers
settled, the hollowed bones stilled, and you sat back
on the grass and looked at your wrists.

at night, you closed your nightstand drawer with
the book in its folder, its pages out of order, the heron’s wing
half-shaded, the magpie left without a branch, and a blackbird’s
half-memory of pine tree, rooftop, lighthouse, cold air.

(not yet published. please tell all your publishing friends.)

16 April 2008

"what turns up with the dust"

it's spring. i think, today, we can officially call it "spring."

now, all of you go knock furiously on wood before i get caught saying this and we get sent another batch of rain, another heaping serving of snow, another pile of gray days.

and, whenever spring rolls around, i notice that there are several rooms in my house that need that heavy-duty kind of cleaning. and there are only five rooms in my house, and so you can envision what "several" means. the problem with cleaning (okay, with me doing the cleaning) is that i tend to get distracted.

i was just talking to my folks about this habit of mine on the phone the other day -- when i was small, i was often sent to "clean my room" on a saturday. i hated cleaning, for one, but what usually happened is that it took hours. from 9:00 a.m. till 5:00 p.m. from 8:00 a.m. till 6:00 p.m. because i liked the museum of my room. i liked curating it, giving myself a tour through it, retelling the stories of these objects i found under the bed, in the drawers. i found books that needed to be read. . . again. i found stuffed animals that needed arms and legs bandaged with toilet paper and scotch tape. i found socks that needed to be tried on, hand-me-down skirts from my sister that needed to be twirled in. i found music in the cassette deck that was begging me to be the star of my own (two hour) show.

at 5:00, my mother would come in and say, "is it clean?" i would say, "yes." she would say, "really? because those legos belong in front of your closet? those books belong under the bed?" if i was feeling sassy, i would say yes. but i would have to clean more. if i was feeling penitent, i would say no. and i would have to clean more.

so you can see how much i'm looking forward to cleaning up my rooms. because that same wandering, distracted, reminiscing kind of cleaning is already happening. today, i pulled a poetry book off the shelf and found, in the back, a poem that one of my boyfriends had once written. he was a physics teacher; we had made a bargain. i'd try to teach him how i looked at poems; he'd try to teach me physics. i got as far as being able to pronounce "mobius" correctly, and he got as far as reading over the comments i'd written all over his poem. we didn't work out, really. no, say it straight, sally: we didn't work out. and so, it's likely i should just dismiss this poem as some kind of sentimental nonsense that i cling to for no reason anyone can discern.

but i can't throw this poem out. not for any reasons you'd expect; there's only one line about us, after all, out of fifty. there isn't any beautiful memory or pretty card or dead rose to go along with it.

i have to keep it because we worked so hard, respectively and together, on this poem. (read: obvious metaphor for relationship as a whole). i had written an encyclopedia of comments on this poem. he worked on line breaks, for heaven's sake -- and he worked on them harder than i worked on reading a brief history of time. but we both worked hard to make that thing between us work.

and, even though it's spring, and it's time for renewal, and it's time for throwing out and starting over, i have to keep it to remember what difficult winters i've already been through. while spring cleaning feels like a fresh start, i like to remember, with a bit of distance, how cold and icy and mean some of those winters were (and there were good moments in the snow, sure. there were some). and i need to remember what i learned from this physics teacher i once loved. and then i need to move it to a new place, and figure out how to live with my lessons there.

and this poem, more succinctly, i think, than i ever could, does a beautiful job describing how difficult it is to move to a new place, to keep some kind of relationship in a new context, to start over, to pay homage to the past but not live solely there, to trust the new. to clean not as i do, perhaps, which can't really be called "cleaning" at all, but can only be called "moving old brooms around new rooms" -- without fully cleaning and without fully mourning what's been thrown out. or maybe the poet is, in some way, recommending that we hack the past all to pieces and find out what remains when we've tried to rid ourselves of everything -- and maybe what's most important will remain intact. or maybe you'll have an entirely different read on it. either way, i think you'll like it.

The New Place

~ Julia Kasdorf

We can't admit that we can't make love
in our old bed positioned like this.
You no longer cook, and I seem to know

only three recipes. The towel racks
on the floor hoard lint, and like drunks
who can't see past a need to stay numb

we sit in our rooms unable to work.
You spend long days in the city and return
to me, talking, but silence always

catches up. You think the place is possessed,
and I blame the broom we moved despite
that superstition about dragging old

dirt into new rooms. I can't even pitch
scorched pot holders or properly mourn
those turquoise walls, dull with eight years

of our own grease and happiness. Maybe we grew
so fond of the known that we can't arrange
ourselves here, and we'll just have to chuck

something out with the oversized bookcase
and table, or else take a saw to it all
and see what turns up with the dust.

(published in Eve's Striptease by Julia Kasdorf. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998.)

09 April 2008

in honor of iva

my friend told me today that julie moulds, a brilliant poet and wonderful teacher who has battled cancer for a long while, passed away yesterday.

i didn't know julie all that well -- she and her husband john rybicki came to visit one of jack ridl's poetry classes when i was in college. and john, of course, fired up the room like a lightning strike -- he's out of his chair, he's up, he's down, he's gesticulating wildly about the BRILLIANCE of METAPHOR. . . and julie remained, quite calmly, in her chair, saying the smartest, most thoughtful, kindest things to us, about us, about poems. she's a stunning human being -- so gracious, so sharp, so very dear.

and her poems are stunning -- and some of them absolutely wild. i remember jack talking about one of her first breakthroughs as a poet -- that she adopted this great persona, named her "iva," and then could go absolutely anywhere and do absolutely anything in a poem. "iva" was a saving grace, a rebellious soul, an alter ego, a surprising tell-it-like-you-see-it gutsy persona. iva and julie both do what emily dickinson says poetry should do: make you feel like the top of your head has blown off.

and mine exploded this way: just reading these iva poems, after briefly meeting julie (not nearly a long enough visit -- but they never are, are they?), was a revelation for me. she taught me a lot through just a few poems -- that i, too, (who was, once upon a time, quiet and shy to the point of panic and muteness and disappearing, if you can believe it) could take on outrageous and daring acts in my poems, that i didn't have to tell the bland "truth" (by which i mean "facts"), that sometimes wonderful outrageous lies lead to wonderful, stunning, truthful revelations. that there are more true selves than just one, than the one most of the world sees. that there are complexities in every action -- iva is never just one thing, one emotion, one person. for example, at the end of the third iva poem i'll post below, the similes imply that being in love for iva is both a glorious and a helpless thing, an empowering and a powerless thing. a goddess, and a bowling pin -- one of the most powerful deities, and one of the clumsiest, stumbliest objects around, one whose entire purpose is to be knocked over again and again.

and so, i think, julie taught me that truth -- that the self is always in motion, shape-shifting, and so are the self's poems and personas, which was enormously liberating for me. and her poems continue, and we're all, i'm certain, carrying john in our thoughts and hearts and prayers, and we're carrying julie on in our hearts and our work, too. even though i only met her once, julie had a profound impact on me -- and meeting her just once meant a lot for not only my work, but also for me as a person trying to grow into someone as gracious and smart as she was.

Three Iva Poems

~ Julie Moulds

1. Iva Drunk with Steel-toed Boots on

didn't have to borrow
her uncle's Harley.
She had her own -- deep red
as a whore's lipstick.
She roared to the bar,
black chaps over Levi's.
Eagle wings patched
her scrawny behind.
A leather laced halter
fringed her belly,
exposing a small rose tattoo.
Iva hadn't drunk enough
to pose for Easyriders; she
would surely try.

2. The Fish Poem

Iva looked at the clear fishline, the canned
beer on ice. You'll like this, he said.
There's peace in this warm sun.
I'll teach you to cast and reel. . . Iva wanted
to be on the water. To be the pheasant
feather fly a brook trout would die for.
To wiggle into that pink mouth,
and whisper, wicked, It is too late.
You should not have swallowed,
while the line pulls his gills into air.

3. Wedding Iva

Stars shot gold
over evening mass --
she planned the wedding
so the sky gave blessing;
married a man
no one had seen.
(His face appeared
when I do's began,
rose as the stone
in her ring.)

In their wedding room
she read
from Modern Dimensions
of Heroic Life.
He licked her ribs
still she softened.
She nibbled his neck
like a mushroom stem.
When he held her
she became
white and armless
like a goddess
or a bowling pin.

(published in The Woman with a Cubed Head by Julie Moulds. Kalamazoo: New Issues Poetry Press, 1998).

04 April 2008

"tell them you have a new project. it will never be finished."

and so. eventful week. and these are things not totally related to poems, but they likely will be sometime very soon, and so, let's begin:

1. my crazy neighbors have been, from all discernible signs, evicted. there is a sign made of red construction paper and written in black messy sharpie on the door that reads: "locks have been changed. if you forgot anything, please call mgr."

this is -- how else to say it? -- a tremendous relief.

this means: no more midnight knocks on the door to ask if my walk needs shoveling for five dollars when it is well below freezing outside and not even well-furred and well-insulated bears should be wandering the streets.

no more creepy christmas presents -- "crystal" angels that sit upon mirrors with their chipped wings, their broken noses; slippers in a size 6 1/2 that wouldn't fit even if i cut off half my foot -- ugly stepsister, indeed; a bracelet, with gold hearts and rhinestones, that i might have loved if i were five years old and wandering through k-mart's costume jewelry section.

no more emma yelling, "hey, girl! my name is emma! whenever you see me, you say, 'hey emma!' say it! SAY IT!"

no more of emma's son coming out in the morning (when, again, it's too cold for bears) to watch me get in my car, hollering, "hey sexy!" because, i promise you, in the a.m., i ain't anywhere near sexy, and no one should be using that word anyhow. especially not him.

now, i am in no way celebrating that they have no home. that would make me an awful person. i wish them well, i do. i just don't want to tell them in person.

2. vienna teng. my father (who, except for the month of the gregorian chants) has very good taste in music (by which i mean, it often overlaps with mine), and he sent me the website of this singer/piano player. i bought her album, dreaming through the noise, the other day, and have listened to nothing else since. go, go ye, and get it. a.s.a.p.

3. i made it through 60 student conferences. my students are wonderful; the difficulty is sitting in my fluorescent-lit office (where one colleague recommended that i put a picture of a window up, just to help...) for 12 hours a day and getting caught playing online scrabble between conferences.

4. i cleaned my house. remarkable feat, that.

and so, i'm thinking of a celebratory kind of poem. one that sort of lifts my heart up further (which is hard to do; after the bathroom's clean, it's sort of like i say to myself, "well, nowhere to go but down..."). and so, here's this one. and, like everything i think is celebratory, this one has its blue, sweet darkness, too. but oh, i have loved this poem since i was sixteen years old, and have not stopped loving it since.

and somehow, the lines, "someone telling you in a loud voice/they once wrote a poem," always make me laugh. because this happens a lot with poets who tell someone they're poets. and maybe it's that the person is trying to make a connection, trying to say, "i understand what you do." which, if that were the case, would be lovely. what it more often feels like is that the subtext is: "oh, i can do that. and also, i have a real job, which you're gonna need if you keep saying you're 'a poet.'"

and i know this is going to make me sound elitist, and for this i apologize, but there is a sense in this culture, in this world, that really, if you know your letters, if you have access to a pen, and you have emotions, you, too, can write poems. and in part, that's absolutely true. but it's the view that writing is not a craft, not an art that's studied and learned, like any profession, that gets on my nerves a bit. one woman, a real estate agent, interviewed on NPR the other day said, "well, if real estate doesn't go well for me in the next couple of years, i think i'll quit and be a writer instead." and i thought: *sigh.* it's not that folks can't quit their jobs and become writers (see also: john grisham, who makes more money in a year than i will ever see together in one place). it's just the perception that writing is easy, that writing a "good" poem or story (which we don't really know how to define, which makes it even harder to make this argument) is easy. and really, after working at it for years, and studying it for years, i still struggle with it. and it's my job.

for me, it comes down to respect, i guess. the same thing is said about teachers (you all have heard that awful phrase, "those who can, do; those who can't, teach" -- which, again, after having been in several classrooms over these last few years, i can tell you is simply not true). and i've been fighting this same battle for years, which is likely why i'm so full of piss and vinegar about it here (see also: the boyfriend who told me that "if poetry were important, he would do it"). and of course, living in a culture that values money more than (am i really going to use this phrase? yes, yes i am) soul-work, this kind of disrespect is, i suppose, inevitable.

but i do value other people's professions, other choices, and i keep working at it, and isn't that all we can do? and i know -- beyond a shadow of a doubt -- that i'd really, really suck at selling real estate, but that's the reason i don't say, "you know, if this poetry thing doesn't work out, i think i'll just go sell real estate."

and that's enough (too much?) of that rant... onto the poem, the brilliant poem:

The Art of Disappearing

~ Naomi Shihab Nye

When they say Don't I know you?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.

Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?

It's not that you don't love them anymore.
You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven't seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don't start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

(published in The Language of Life, ed. Bill Moyers. New York: Doubleday, 1995).

01 April 2008

No right left up down past or future

i'm stealing this straight from another blog, the "one poet's notes" blog, which was mailed to me by the dearest andrea c.

why am i stealing? because i'm drowning in work, because i miss blogging but can't think straight enough to make sense, because i'm much too much in the mind of an analytic critic of student essays to switch over easily (it will sound like switching gears without the clutch -- that awful grinding "i've just destroyed this car" sound -- not that i've ever done that, of course) to the creative side of my brain.

and because: it's hugh laurie and stephen fry, who, thanks to the show jeeves & wooster, have become a favorite comedic pair for me, and because: it's hilarious. absolutely hysterically funny. i loves it.

here you are. see poems in full text below. not that they make any more sense when you read them.

—by Hugh Laurie

Underneath the bellied skies
Where dust and rain find space to fall
To fall and lie and change again
Without a care or mind at all
For art and life and things above
In that there look just there
No right left up down past or future
We have but ourselves to fear.

—by Richard Maddox


—by T.P. Mitchell

“Forward and back,”
Said the old man in the dance
As he whittled away at his stick,
Long gone, long gone
Without a glance
To the entrance made of brick.