A Poetic Voice for the Deaf and the Blind

braille

Recently, there’s been an interesting development in the arts–a reactive one that reflects turmoil in the political world. The more Trump and some of his emboldened followers continue their drumbeat of discriminatory words and policies based on race, religion, gender, and sexual identity, the more poets and writers begin to write about the minority experience.

To see this, you need only look at editorial statements from journals, many inviting minority voices to submit. And submit they have. Journals are showing more and more that not only black lives matter, so do female voices; Jewish and Muslim voices; and gay, lesbian, and transgender voices.

But the most politicized minorities are not the only ones. There are many minorities around us and, sometimes, within us. By way of example, for years Massachusetts poet Paul Hostovsky, a Braille instructor and interpreter for the deaf, has been writing poetry about the deaf and blind. His work is further proof that art humanizes us and shows how similar we all are despite our differences.

One of the hallmarks of Hostovsky’s work is his sense of humor. There is a place for righteousness and anger in our fraught political times, of course, but there is also reason to occasionally use the lighter touch, to show how humor can often demonstrate the ties that bind as well as any polemic. Here are a few examples from Hostovsky’s work, each in its way transporting the seeing and hearing majority–for a brief, shining moment–to a little-experienced point of view:

“Away Game at the School for the Deaf” by Paul Hostovsky

Maybe we were thinking ears
instead of hands.
Stepping off the bus, we glimpsed
a flicker, then a flitting
from a sleeve. We felt
annoyed, then afraid,
like spotting an ant on the tablecloth, then
another and another, till it hit us:
what we had on our hands was a nest, 
a population:
everyone here signed
except for us, and our bus driver
was departing in our empty yellow school bus
leaving us standing there, wondering
where the gym was.

Once inside, we polished our lay-ups,
stole looks
at the deaf team polishing theirs:
we were taller,
but something in the air—tunneling, darting,
singing among them—
said they were quicker.
Their whoops when they scored, their groans
when the ball rolled round the rim full circle
and out,
were perfectly intelligible.
But the ref was at a loss:
he kept blowing his whistle
while they dribbled to the hoop,
scoring points that didn’t count.

“Braille in Public Places” by Paul Hostovsky

Touch me, I know you want to.
What would you say if I told you
I’ve never been touched in my life
by anyone who understood me?
And even if they were having
their convention here in this building,
squeezing into this elevator,
looking around for this restroom,
bumping gently up against each other like
a queue of balloons at this
ATM–do you think they would
see me, or even think to look?
I hate my life. I should have been
a poem by Li Po with a pond
and a frog, a soft rain and a pebble
the size of a braille dot thrown in.
At least I’d have something to do
with myself for eternity. I have
nothing to do with anyone. I am
someone holding up a sign
in an airport terminal, waiting
for a look of recognition to come
from among the arrivals who never
arrive. And it never comes. What
would that look even look like? Would I
recognize it? Is it round like
a smile? Is it pointed like a greeting
or a touch? Would I mistake it for
love? All of my life I have waited
to be touched by someone who could
touch me like that. I have given myself
goose bumps, look, just imaging it.

 

— from Selected Poems by Paul Hostovsky, Future Cycle Press 2014

The Sheer Poetry of Dullness

eater

Quotidian. Mundane. For most of us, it’s the relentless repetition and ordinariness of the sun also rising and setting. But make no mistake, it once started in the fertile soil of dreams. And, somehow, a tendril of hope remains in the ground beneath our feet, no matter how scorched it has become by the cycling sun.

I think of this each time I feel empty of ideas and inspiration. I think of it when I hear students say the same upon being assigned memoir writing: “I can’t write because nothing ever happens in my life.”

Dull. Life is dull. The assignment changes on the fly. The assignment, then, is to write about dull. Find beauty in dull. Find heartache in dull. Sniff out hope and acknowledge despair–odd but constant bedfellows–in dull.

I think of this because we all have such ample material when it comes to making music from such ordinary chords. I think of this when I read about Gwendolyn Brooks’ bean eaters in their rented back room full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths and tobacco crumbs and vases and fringes. A polysyndeton of purposefulness, day in and day out, putting on their clothes and putting things away because life demands it of them.

Consider it, next time you’re feeling down. Consider it, too, next time you think you and you alone are denied of ideas–ideas which humbly lie all around you, hidden by a cloak woven of ordinariness.

“The Bean Eaters” by Gwendolyn Brooks

They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood, 
Tin flatware.

Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.

And remembering . . .
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that
          is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths,
          tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.

Political Poems Big and, Better Yet, Small

shihab nye.jpg

Political. It’s a big-tent word, all right. And these days most folks focus on the “big” as in bigmouths that crowd the field we should call “government” but instead call “politics” because there’s more politics than government going on by far.

You can write a political poem about this bigness, sure. But it’s a tricky business that walks a thin line between proselytizing in poetry’s chapter and verse and art-for-art’s-waking with a bit of mind-shifting meaning. Me, I prefer the “small politics” strategy, wherein you write about an everyday topic that takes a stand and demands a soap box. One that does not fit into the narrative being writ large on Washington D.C.’s gluttonous stage.

Materialism, for instance. Or raising children. Political acts? In their way, yes. And what better vehicle than poetry to prove the point? Today’s poem is from one of my favorite poets, Naomi Shihab Nye–her name itself a poem. It’s called “Rebellion Against the North Side” and, like any rebellion, can be considered a “shot heard ’round the world” to its readers.

 

Rebellion against the North Side 
by Naomi Shihab Nye

There will be no monograms on our skulls.
You who are training your daughters to check for the words
“Calvin Klein” before they look to see if there are pockets
are giving them no hands to put in those pockets.

You are giving them eyes that will find nothing solid in stones.
No comfort in rough land, nameless sheep trails.
No answers from things which do not speak.

Since when do children sketch dreams with price tags attached?
Don’t tell me they were born this way.
We were all born like empty fields.
What we are now shows what has been planted.

Will you remind them there were people
who hemmed their days with thick-spun wool
and wore them till they fell apart?

Think of darkness hugging the houses,
caring nothing for the material of our pajamas.
Think of the delicate mesh of neckbones
when you clasp the golden chains.
These words the world rains back and forth
are temporary as clouds.
Clouds? Tell your children to look up.
The sky is the only store worth shopping in
for anything as long as life.

 

I don’t know about you, but I smell poetry in the lines “We were all born like empty fields / What we are now shows what has been planted.” Also: “The sky is the only store worth shopping in / for anything as long as life.”

Only a poetic politician could pound her fist on the lectern and say, “The mall? It’s in the sky right above your noses! Look up! Look up!”

Does it preach a bit, like every political poem, to the choir? Yes. But “small-ly,” to coin a word from you-know-who’s “bigly” life. And if it convinces only the already-convinced (read: parents) more than any can’t-be-convinced teens, so be it. The point is that small political poems can be bigger than any two-party, power-grabbing, ego-massaging big ones. Easier to write and read, too.

 

The Ordinary–It Should Scare You to Death

cellar-stairs

Too often, when writers set out with a purpose such as “to make my readers laugh” or “to scare my readers,” they fall victim to stock props of the genre as found on TV, in the movies, and yes, in literature. But there’s more to, say, scaring people than vampires by night, zombies by day, and Sean Spicer press conferences by cable.

If you really want to write about fear, get in touch with your inner child. As adults drugged on maturity, we often forget the powerful knack children have for seeing malevolence in the most ordinary of objects, and there’s no better Museum of the Extraordinarily Ordinary than your basement.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a moment to regret the passing of poet Thomas Lux at the tender (by today’s standards) age of 70. I was reading some of Lux’s poems when I came across “Cellar Stairs,” a piece in which ice skates, ice picks, roofing nails, a fuse-box switch, and yes, even a freezer, do yeoman duty as witches, monsters, and boogeymen:

Cellar Stairs

It’s rickety down to the dark.
Old skates, long-bladed, hang by leather laces
on your left and want to slash your throat,
but they can’t, they can’t, being only skates.
On a shelf above, tools: shears,
three-pronged weed hacker, ice pick,
poison-rats and bugs-and on the landing,
halfway down, a keg of roofing nails
you don’t want to fall face first into,

no, you don’t. To your right,
a fuse box with its side-switch-a slot machine,
on a good day, or the one the warden pulls,
on a bad. Against the wall,
on nearly every stair, one boot, no two
together, no pair, as if the dead
went off, short-legged or long, to where they go,
which is down these steps,
at the bottom of which is a swollen,

humming, huge white freezer
big enough for many bodies—
of children, at least. And this
is where you’re sent each night
for the frozen bag of beans
or peas or broccoli
that lies beside the slab
of meat you’ll eat for dinner,
each countless childhood meal your last.

“Cellar Stairs,” from New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin).

The minute you go for laughs or frights in the usual, well-trod places is the minute you should stop and reconsider the tack you’re on. People are killed in droves by ladders, bathtubs, and stairs. Why, then, are you channeling Freddie Krueger?

Get your remote and channel this: your childhood home and how much it resembles your present-day home. There are places in the former that scared you and places in the latter that should, and even though those places are populated with objects both hum and drum, your job is to make them thrum.

See you later. I’m going down to the cellar for a minute.

A Poem Should Be…

macleish

Ars Poetica. According to both Merriam and Webster, it means “a treatise on the art of literary and especially poetic composition.” And strictly speaking, in the Dead Language (that’s Latin to you), it means “the art of poetry.”

Many poems carry this title, and it is considered a rite of passage to write your own Ars Poetica. Thus, if you count yourself a poet and haven’t written one, you should. I know, I know. What a pain in the ars.

So to start, think of this: What should a poem be?

Done? OK. Then here’s better advice: Think of what a poem should not be. Chances are, brainstorming this way will lead you to thoughts most no one else has had while parsing and arsing this fabled beast called poetry.

Don’t believe me? Check out Archibald MacLeish’s go at it:

Ars Poetica by Archibald MacLeish

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

Dumb
As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.

*

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.

*

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean
But be.

 

I don’t know about you, but I like this definition of poetry. As the Beatles (or what’s left of them) like to say: “Let it be.”

And if you’re looking for deeper meaning, find a beach and pound sand. Archie’s having too much fun telling us what poetry isn’t. Or maybe what it is but no one in their right mind ever would have guessed it is (poetry being for left minds, as you know).

Got it? Then good luck and get writing.

Review: Grief Is the Thing With Feathers

crow

DAD

My day-to-day work, see, is reading manuscripts, so you can see what put me on to publishing–my day job. By night I read Ted Hughes, my favorite poet, particularly his crow poems. The conjunction of bright idea (day) and Ted’s crows (night) put me on to this novella in verse…kinda, sorta verse.

BOYS

We got the tough job. We had to suspend our disbelief and pretend our mum was dead, and we were just little ones. Dad was a bit of a stereotypical bumbler. You know. Male of the species. Looks cute at our age, looks pathetic at his, but we got by. With a special helper, that is.

CROW

In this book I play antagonist, trickster, goad, protector, therapist, and baby-sitter. I know because the inner flap tells me so. (Ted Hughes or no, crows aren’t all that clever.) Here I make KRAAH noises. No caws for concern. Strictly KRAAH. And I am as clever as a shaman, or would be if I knew what a shaman is. I’m a CROW, for godssake.

DAD

Sometimes I get a little tipsy with wine–OK, a lot–and pass out, but that sort of thing is cool if you have a crow in the wings.

CROW

Once he had a little missy over–you know, once he had observed a respectable amount of time grieving over his dead wife–and I got to mimic his noises after missy left. KRAAH!

DAD

What a smelly, oily voyeuristic nuisance! But he’s the book’s conceit, so I endured it.

BOYS

Boys will be boys. That’s all we had to do here. That and collect pity like Oliver collects alms. It was rather fun. We missed Mum, yes, but we had a wonderful time breaking rules and making a mess of the place. The crow looked the other way. Or said, “Carry-on, lads” like a proud Mary Poppins.

CROW

I allowed Sylvia Plath to be mentioned a few times, but I have my limits. Beyond that, only TED talk. Clever as hell. Unique. Not that wonderful, writing-wise, but different, and difference can take you a long way in the publishing world of Stepford novels. And Stepford poetry. Plus, it was Hughes’ idea, really.

DAD

I’m a likable guy.

CROW

“Krickle krackle, hop sniff and tackle, in with the bins, singing the hymns.” That’s one of my lines of poetry. You must admit it’s wonderful, mustn’t you?

DAD

I like the Russians and James Joyce. I read lots of books and was quiet growing up. I sound a lot like a Goodreads prototype, really, which is why my book is so appealing. Also, there’s that appeal to pity thing. So don’t start with the logical fallacies, will you? I have a crow and I’m not afraid to use it.

CROW

A fast read, gentle readers. And amusing. With some decent lines. And a wonderful conceit that builds on another poet’s wonderful conceit, which stars my favorite conceit! Me! Playing Grief personified (black, get it?)! With feathers! How could I not answer the casting call?

BOYS

We think we heard Dad say you should rent it at the library vs. buy it, but the crow said KRAAH really loudly so it wasn’t clear. Crows know things. About royalties, even.

CROW

Buy it. Everybody loves crows. And royalties. And the little guy. And widowers with two devilishly innocent boys. It’s as good as a puppy, methinks. Do you suppose I’d waste my time inside a book otherwise? Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is recommended! Even for non-poets (of which there are a few, I hear). KRAAH!

Planes, Trains, and Poems

vietnam

Sometimes poems do the jobs of planes, trains, and automobiles by taking us places we’ve never been, then giving us a taste (a sight, a smell, a sound, a touch) of what that location is like.

This is what happened for me in one of the poems included in Jane Hirshfield’s Ten Windows. It’s called “Facing It,” a poem where Yusef Kanunyakaa has me standing in front of a memorial I’ve never seen: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Notice the images, how some the figurative language mirrors what many of these names went through in that faraway land, that faraway folly instigated by old men back home. This is but one thing that poetry does–and does well.

Facing It by Yusef Kanunyakaa

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn't,
dammit: No tears.
I'm stone. I'm flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way--the stone lets me go.
I turn that way--I'm inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap's white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman's blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet's image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I'm a window.
He's lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman's trying to erase names:
No, she's brushing a boy's hair.

From Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa. Copyright © 1988 by Yusef Komunyakaa.

Jane Hirshfield as Scheherazade

hirshfield

In education, lectures are vilified with good reason. They are boring. They are so much bombast. They are inflicted by vainglorious pontificators on passive victims who must endure or find ways to daydream through it all.

What happens, though, when a speaker is so knowledgeable, silver-tongued, and interesting that the restless audience (or reader) begins to sit up and pay attention like the Sultan before Scheherazade? That’s what happens when I read a collection of Jane Hirshfield essays on poetry, last year Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry and these past few days Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World.

The poetic title points to the ten essays, here as chapters titled “Kingfishers Catching Fire: Looking with Poetry’s Eyes,” “Language Wakes Up in the Morning: On Poetry’s Speaking,” “Seeing Through Words: An Introduction to Basho, Haiku, and the Suppleness of Image,” “Thoreau’s Hound: Poetry and the Hidden,” “Uncarryable Remainders: Poetry and Uncertainty,” “Close Reading: Windows,” “Poetry and the Constellation of Surprise,” “What Is American in Modern America Poetry: a Brief Primer with Poems,” “Poetry, Transformation, and the Column of Tears,” and “Strange Reaches, Impossibility, and Big Hidden Drawers: Poetry and Paradox.”

As you can see, Hirshfield covers a lot of poetic turf in this collection, my favorite being the lengthy section on the enigmatic but interesting 17th-century haiku master, Basho. Buddhism is a Hirshfield specialty, and if anyone can rescue haiku from American elementary school classrooms (where it is being held for ransom), raising them to the adult art form they were and still are, it’s Jane Hirshfield.

Equally compelling is the essay with the intriguing title “Thoreau’s Hound.” As a fan of Henry David Thoreau (my poetry collection features as an epigraph his famous line from Walden, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”), I wondered where this would doggone lead.

Turns out, the essay is based on another Thoreau line from Walden: “I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travelers I have spoken to concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.”

Hirshfield pairs this with a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir tree.”

The point? Mankind, as Jane Hirshfield points out, “wants to know,” yet there is an equal attraction to mystery, to not knowing, to the chase and the journeys such pursuits entail. This, too, is a province of poetry, which is forever looking at the intangibles of mystery and trying on various concrete forms. With metaphor and imagery comes the hunt for le mot juste, the baying of hounds on the scent, the nearness of capture… and  yet, and yet, despite not finding our quarry, we are often grateful for the closeness, the magical proximity, we enjoy when reading a good poem.

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Hirshfield’s essay collections is the number of poems, both complete and excerpts, she introduces as concrete examples of her abstract points. Among these I find new poets, new poems, new possibilities to explore. One of my favorites in this book was an excerpt from Jack Gilbert’s “Going Wrong.” I found one line–about the eyes of dying fish, of all things–that led me to the entire poem online. I leave it for you to enjoy. The line “the grand rooms fading from their flat eyes” is worth the price of admission alone. Only a poet could conceive of the sea as “grand rooms” captured in the eyes of the fish who live there.

GOING WRONG

by Jack Gilbert

The fish are dreadful. They are brought up
the mountain in the dawn most days, beautiful
and alien and cold from night under the sea,
the grand rooms fading from their flat eyes,
Soft machinery of the dark, the man thinks,
washing them. “What can you know of my machinery!”
demands the Lord. Sure, the man says quietly
and cuts into them, laying back the dozen struts,
getting to the muck of something terrible.
The Lord insists: “You are the one who chooses
to live this way. I build cities where things
are human. I make Tuscany and you go to live
with rocks and silence.”  The man washes away
the blood and arranges the fish on a big plate.
Starts the onions in the hot olive oil and puts
in peppers. “You have lived all year without women.”
He takes out everything and puts in the fish.
“No one knows where you are. People forget you.
You are vain and stubborn.” The man slices
tomatoes and lemons. Takes out the fish
and scrambles eggs. I am not stubborn, he thinks,
laying all of it on the table in the courtyard
full of early sun, shadows of swallows flying
on the food. Not stubborn, just greedy.

from The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992 (Knopf, 1994)

Poems That Stick

crow

For many decades, I was a plainclothes reader of poetry. I took a course at university, like people do, but wasn’t terribly impressed. Still, impressions were made. A few poems, for reasons quirky to me, stuck. That is, I remembered certain lines and, like stubborn lint that’s taken up residence in wool, they refused to give. Strands of them took up permanent residency in those out-of-the-way lobes of my brain.

One “sticker” was some poem a guy wrote about his cat, Jeoffrey. Perhaps it was the poem. Perhaps it was the idea that a poet would riff for an entire poem on his cat. And I’m a dog guy, so don’t get it in your head that I like the poem because I watch inane youtube videos about kitties. This poem transcends all that silliness.

The poem in question? “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey” by Christopher “Really” Smart, a guy who spent seven years in an insane asylum (while Jeoffrey ran affairs back home, no doubt). A taste (brace yourself for a strong dose of anaphora):

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry. 
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord’s poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually–Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep. 

To qualify as a “stick” poem, the poem doesn’t have to be remembered whole hog. Oh, no. One line will do. The best example is a two-word line from a poem that I frequently mutter as I look up at raucous crows in the sky, on tree limbs, or on the peak of the roof. It is, simply, “Pass, crow.” The words rattle like two marbles in the empty cup of my mind every time I see my dark-feathered friends.

And what a lovely conceit! I mean, the very thought of man commanding crow! If crows appear to laugh, their heads bobbing with due caws, this final line from this poem is the reason. Ted Hughes, a crow specialist, is the deluded poet:

“Examination at the Womb-Door”

Who owns those scrawny little feet?    Death.
Who owns this bristly scorched-looking face?    Death.
Who owns these still-working lungs?    Death.
Who owns this utility coat of muscles?    Death.
Who owns these unspeakable guts?    Death.
Who owns these questionable brains?    Death.
All this messy blood?    Death.
These minimum-efficiency eyes?    Death.
This wicked little tongue?    Death.
This occasional wakefulness?    Death.

Given, stolen, or held pending trial?
Held.

Who owns the whole rainy, stony earth?    Death.
Who owns all of space?    Death.

Who is stronger than hope?    Death.
Who is stronger than the will?    Death.
Stronger than love?    Death.
Stronger than life?    Death.

But who is stronger than Death?
                          Me, evidently.
Pass, Crow.

Of course, you cannot be a registered reader of American poetry if you don’t have some Frost covering the frozen grass of your mind. For me, it’s two lines: “Whose woods these are I think I know” (though, like Frost, I don’t really) and “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.”

If the roads had diverged in a red wood, it wouldn’t work as well. Yes, it’d be a nod to Frost’s birth state of California, but memorable? No. It may be read multiple times, but it just wouldn’t stick.

I should know. I’ve been going left at every fork in a yellow wood I’ve come across. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

Jarring Wilderness for Future Use

jar

Last night my wife was making homemade chocolate–the kind you crown a scoop of vanilla ice cream with. Her chocolate factory was initially profligate, bubbling in a large saucepan, but she tamed it by pouring it into Mason jars.

Chocolate that rich begs for a smaller home like these little Mason jars, ribboned and destined for relatives and friends with a sweet tooth or two. Downsize rich chocolate, I always say, and no one’s objected yet.

With this saying still echoing in my head this morning, I read Wallace Stevens’ ode to a jar, one left out in the Tennessee wilderness. Give it a read-see, why don’t you?:

“Anecdote of the Jar”

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

A minor piece, as Stevens poems go (he being the darling of academic readers especially). Still, there’s that unexpected, pleasing-to-the-ear rhyming Wallace often injects in his works. And the notion of wilderness coming up to sniff a glass port of manmade (“a port in air”).

That something “gray and bare” could take dominion everywhere, despite giving neither bird nor bush, is disconcerting, which makes me wonder, as with much of Stevens, what he’s about here. Is the jar’s victory in its ugliness–ugly by dint of its surroundings? Juxtaposition is a powerful thing, after all, which is why I never stand next to handsome men, strong men, or successful men. Too jarring, if you catch my drift, and difficult on standers-by.

One might also ask what Wallace was doing in Tennessee. My favorite part of his being a poet was his daily job as an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut. Isn’t that jarring, too? Only which is the jar and which the wilderness–Stevens or a staid, 9-to-5 insurance office with his nameplate?

It’s the question of the day for you. If you need a jar opener, check the junk drawer….