Browsing Category

poems

Marvin Bell’s “Poem after Carlos Drummond de Andrade”

August 13, 2016

I’ve been thinking about this gorgeous poem since I wrote the post about Szymborska, and about the photo of her smoking so blissfully, chosen after she knew she was dying of lung cancer.  Bell’s poem is the most powerful embodiment I know of the inseparability of life and death, of the knowledge that there’s no way to embrace one without embracing the other.

Poem After Carlos Drummond de Andrade

     “It’s life, Carlos.”

 

It’s life that is hard: waking, sleeping, eating, loving, working and

dying are easy.

It’s life that suddenly fills both ears with the sound of that

symphony that forces your pulse to race and swells your

heart near to bursting.

It’s life, not listening, that stretches your neck and opens your eyes

and brings you into the worst weather of the winter to

arrive once more at the house where love seemed to be in

the air.

 

And it’s life, just life, that makes you breathe deeply, in the air that

is filled with wood smoke and the dust of the factory,

because you hurried, and now your lungs heave and fall

with the nervous excitement of a leaf in spring breezes,

though it is winter and you are swallowing the dirt of

the town.

It isn’t death when you suffer, it isn’t death when you miss each

other and hurt for it, when you complain that isn’t death,

when you fight with those you love, when you

misunderstand, when one line in a letter or one remark in

person ties one of you in knots, when the end seems near,

when you think you will die, when you wish you were

already dead–none of that is death.

It’s life, after all, that brings you a pain in the foot and a pain in the

hand, a sore throat, a broken heart, a cracked back, a torn

gut, a hole in your abdomen, an irritated stomach, a

swollen gland, a growth, a fever, a cough, a hiccup, a

sneeze, a bursting blood vessel in the temple.

It’s life, not nerve ends, that puts the heartache on a pedestal and

worships it.

It’s life, and you can’t escape it. It’s life, and you asked for it. It’s life,

and you won’t be consumed by passion, you won’t be

destroyed by self-destruction, you won’t avoid it by

abstinence, you won’t manage it by moderation, because

it’s life–life everywhere, life at all times–and so you

won’t be consumed by passion: you will be consumed

by life.

 

It’s life that will consume you in the end, but in the meantime . . .

It’s life that will eat you alive, but for now . . .

It’s life that calls you to the street where the wood smoke hangs,

and the bare hint of a whisper of your name, but before

you go . . .

 

Too late: Life got its tentacles around you, its hooks into your heart,

and suddenly you come awake as if for the first time, and

you are standing in a part of the town where the air is

sweet–your face flushed, your chest thumping, your

stomach a planet, your heart a planet, your every organ a

separate planet, all of it of a piece though the pieces turn

separately, O silent indications of the inevitable, as among

the natural restraints of winter and good sense, life blows

you apart in her arms.

 

You can hear Marvin Bell read this poem on youtube, 13:45 in.

Wislawa Szymborska

August 6, 2016

simic_1-122211No poet gives me more sheer pleasure than the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska ( Vee-shwava Zhim-borshka). The poems’ surfaces have a deceptive simplicity that opens onto bottomless depths.  Great clarity combines with humility–the title of her Nobel lecture was “I Don’t Know.”  No matter how dark the subject–“Hitler’s First Photograph,” “The Terrorist,” “Funeral”–a love of life shines through, an abiding affection for humans in all their imperfections, a rueful embrace of mortality.  The cover of her book Here features a photo of a younger Szymborska smoking, her eyes closed and a blissful smile on her face.  She had to have chosen this after she had been diagnosed with the lung cancer that would kill her, and I take it as an extension of the spirit that pervades her poems: embrace life, pains, pleasures and all.  Sorrow but not guilt.  Joy and humor in the face of loss.

I first came across Szymborska’s work years ago in Czeslaw Milosz’s Postwar Polish Poetry, and it was love at first read.  Over the years, more and more of her poetry became available in English.  I read her only in translation, and the best translators by all accounts are Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak.  I hesitated a little before I taught her work the first time–would my twenty-year-old American students connect to an ironic intellectual Polish poet?  The answer was a resounding yes.  The voice engaged them immediately, and the humor, the surprising questions and unusual takes on every day life.  And then, before they knew it, they were drawn into the poems’ depths.

Years ago I heard Ed Hirsch give a talk on poetry and photography.  Before he spoke, a black and white photo was shown on a screen onstage: a baby in what could be an old-fashioned christening dress.  Because it was a baby we all oohed and aahed and smiled.  And then Ed read Szymborska’s poem “Hitler’s First Photograph.”  I’m not posting it here, but you can find it online.

I joke that in my next life I want to come back as a Polish poet.  When Szymborska died it was front page news, and flags around the country were lowered to half-mast.  Poetry there is a major part of the conversation, along with philosophy, politics, science, and the other arts.  I dream of making ways for more of that to happen here, but we’re a long way from that now.

In addition to Szymborska’s poems, there’s a wonderful collection of short prose pieces, Nonrequired Reading.

Here are a couple of my favorites, both translated by Cavanagh and Baranczak. Feel free to add your own, and your thoughts about her work.

 

IDENTIFICATION
   Wislawa Szymborska
It’s good you came—she says.
You heard a plane crashed on Thursday?
Well so they came to see me
about it.
The story is he was on the passenger list.
So what, he might have changed his mind.
They gave me some pills so I wouldn’t fall apart.
Then they showed me I don’t know who.
All black, burned except one hand.
A scrap of shirt, a watch, a wedding ring.
I got furious, that can’t be him.
He wouldn’t do that to me, look like that.
The stores are bursting with those shirts.
The watch is just a regular old watch.
And our names on that ring,
they’re only the most ordinary names.
It’s good you came. Sit here beside me.
He really was supposed to get back Thursday.
But we’ve got so many Thursdays left this year.
I’ll put the kettle on for tea.
I’ll wash my hair, then what,
try to wake up from all this.
It’s good you came, since it was cold there,
and him just in some rubber sleeping bag,
him, I mean, you know, that unlucky man.
I’ll put the Thursday on, wash the tea,
since our names are completely ordinary—
MAYBE ALL THIS

Maybe all this
is happening in some lab?
Under one lamp by day
and billions by night?

Maybe we’re experimental generations?
Poured from one vial to the next,
shaken in test tubes,
not scrutinized by eyes alone,
each of us separately
plucked up by tweezers in the end?

Or maybe it’s more like this:
No interference?
The changes occur on their own
according to plan?
The graph’s needle slowly etches
its predictable zigzags?

Maybe thus far we aren’t of much interest?
The control monitors aren’t usually plugged in?
Only for wars, preferably large ones,
for the odd ascent above our clump of Earth,
for major migrations from point A to B?

Maybe just the opposite:
They’ve got a taste for trivia up there?
Look! on the big screen a little girl
is sewing a button on her sleeve.
The radar shrieks,
the staff comes at a run.
What a darling little being
with its tiny heart beating inside it!
How sweet, its solemn
threading of the needle!
Someone cries enraptured:
Get the Boss,
tell him he’s got to see this for himself!

 

 

Hot Weather Poem: The Emperor of Ice Cream

July 25, 2016

Stevens said this was his favorite of his own poems.  I’ve always loved it, first for the sounds and lush words, gradually for the scene that began to emerge.  My grandparents, just  a little younger than Stevens, shared his sense of ice cream as something new and magical.  My grandfather smiled at its mention in the same way he did when he described seeing women’s ankles for the first time as hems began to creep up.  My mother remembered hand-cranked pineapple ice cream as her favorite childhood dessert, and made a note in my baby book when I had my first taste of ice cream–then finished the bowl and wanted more.  Stevens’ poem captures the thrill and delight and sensual pleasure of ice cream, and its evanescence: death is just in the other room.  I found this great account at the Poetry Foundation.

Feel free to add your own thoughts about the poem, ice cream, and other hot weather favorites.

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

An Embarrassment of Poets

July 14, 2016

This discussion began in response to a cartoon posted on facebook, with poets silently pondering what to tell people when they ask what they do–on a plane, at a party, meeting your partner’s family.  My experiences parallel everyone else’s: if I don’t want to talk I say right off I’m a poet, and that’s the end of the conversation.  If I might want to talk I say “teacher,” ease into “literature,” “poetry,” and finally, “Yes, I write poetry myself.”  I know dozens of poems that convey this sense of embarrassment and apology, from Mona Van Duyn’s “A Vision Test” to Donald Hall’s “To a Waterfowl,” and I’m sure you can all add your own favorites.  I never questioned this posture until I read an interview with the wonderful Russian poet Joseph Brodsky after he had come to America.  He said something like, “Why do all you American poets apologize for what you do?  You should shout it out loud and proud.”  Wow.  What a concept.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how right he was.  We American poets live in a country where poetry is marginalized even among the arts–and that’s not our fault.  Maybe it’s no one’s fault, just a fact of our lives.  I joke that I want to come back as a Polish poet, because poetry is a valued and lively part of the general conversation there, and because when the poet Wislawa Szymborska died there the flags flew at half-mast.  I’m not necessarily arguing here that we poets should do something to make poetry more visible. Right now I’m not pondering ways to make it more so.  Those are interesting questions, but I’m thinking instead about how we carry ourselves here as poets, how we live our lives as poets in America, and about how that affects our own and others’ perceptions of what poetry is.  I don’t think for a second there’s a right answer, but I like Brodsky’s advice to shout it out.  I don’t hesitate or apologize anymore, I just say it straight out.  I have a little button I got years ago at AWP that says POET, and I like to wear it sometimes on the subway or walking down the street and let people see it.  Sometimes people look at it and look away.  Sometimes someone asks a question or two.  Maybe if we aren’t embarrassed to say what we do, others won’t be embarrassed to ask us more about what it is and why we do it.

If Mona Van Duyn could keep writing poetry after the experience she describes here, so can we all.

 

A VISION TEST

Mona Van Duyn

 

My driver’s license is lapsing and so I appear

in a roomful of waiting others and get in line.

I just master a lighted box of far or near,

a highway language of shape, squiggle and sign.

As the quarter-hours pass I watch the lady in charge

of the test, and think how patient, how slow, how nice

she is, a kindly priestess indeed, her large,

round face, her vanilla-pudding, baked-apple-and-spice

face in continual smiles as she calls each “Dear”

and “Honey” and shows first-timers what to see.

She enjoys her job, how pleasant to be in her care

rather than brute little bureaucrat or saleslady.

I imagine her life as a tender placing of hands

on her children’s hands as they come to grip with the rocks

and scissors of the world. The girl before me stands

in a glow of good feeling. I take my place at the box.

“And how are you this lovely morning, Dear?

A few little questions first. Your name?—Your age?—

Your profession?” “Poet.” “What?” She didn’t hear.

“Poet, I say loudly. The blank pink page

of her face is lifted to me. “What?” she says.

“POET,” I yell, P-O-E-T.”

A moment’s silence. Poet?” she asks. “Yes.”

Her pencil’s still. She turns away from me

to the waiting crowd, tips back her head like a hen

drinking clotted milk, and her “Ha ha hee hee hee”

of hysterical rings through the room. Again

“Oh, ha ha ha ha hee hee hee.”

People stop chatting. A few titter. It’s clear

I’ve told some marvelous joke they didn’t quite catch.

She resettles her glasses, pulls herself together,

pats her waves. The others listen and watch.

“And what are we going to call the color of your hair?”

she asks me warily. Perhaps it’s turned white

on the instant, or green is the color poets declare,

or perhaps I’ve merely made her distrust her sight.

“Up to now it’s always been brown.” Her pencil trembles,

then with an almost comically obvious show

of reluctance she lets me look in her box of symbols

for normal people who know where they want to go.

 

Poetry of Witness

July 4, 2016

786699._UY475_SS475_One of the graduating students in Lesley University’s low-residency MFA Program, Eileen Cleary, gave a moving talk on poems of witness last week.  Examples ranged from Bruce Weigl’s “The Last Lie” to Tadeusz Rozewicz’s “Pigtails” to Yusef Komunyaaka’s “After Ferguson.”  It has made me think about what a complicated topic this is, and I’m pondering two specific questions right now.  One is that we use the term to refer to tragedies, not to celebratory, joyful, or ordinary events–an untroubled birth, the first spring beauties coming up through remnants of snow.  The origins of the word witness seem to be legalistic from the beginning: testimony based on knowing, on having your wits about you.  So it’s witness to a crime, to bad behavior, to tragedy.  It laments injustice and gives voice to outrage and to those who can’t speak for themselves.

But the larger, more complicated question, has to do with point of view: where is the witness in relation to the events being described?  Is the testimony firsthand or secondhand, is it grounded in direct observation or in empathy, in the imagination?  In Bruce Weigl’s poem the speaker is an American soldier describing a fellow soldier’s casual violence–throwing a food canister hard at the forehead of one of the hungry children.  Komunyaaka’s speaker is an American black man raging against racial injustice–we assume he’s felt it himself though he didn’t witness the Ferguson shooting firsthand.  Rosewicz was a Polish poet whose mother had converted from Judaism to Catholicism.  He and his brother both fought the Nazis as part of the Polish underground, and his brother was captured and executed.  The anonymous speaker of his poem imagines the the lives of the girls and women who have left behind “clouds of dry hair.”

So the question I’m pondering is: what’s our relationship to events that move us from a distance: Hiroshima, the Holocaust, Ferguson and all its shameful company if we’re white, a drowned Syrian child on a Greek beach, gays and lesbians targeted at a Florida nightclub.  Not acts of god, but of human rage and savagery.  What ground do we have to stand on and speak from that will make us more than sensationalists, voyeurs, co-opters, poachers?  Shared humanity–and inhumanity?  What poems come to mind?  Have you written poems you consider poems of witness?