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Lost Children

May 25, 2022

Thinking of all the families steeped in grief now, and the rest of us grieving with them.  Two poems, one by the 20th century Cuban poet Gabriela Mistral, in English and Spanish (I couldn’t identify the translator), and one by 17th century English poet Ben Jonson, on the death of his son.



Gabriela Mistral

Soft hair, hair that is all the softness of the world:
without you lying in my lap, what silk would I enjoy?
sweet the passing day because of that silk, sweet the sustenance,
sweet the ancient sadness, at least for the few hours it slips between my hands.

Touch it to my cheek;
wind it in my lap like flowers;
let me braid it, to soften my pain,
to magnify the light with it, now that it is dying.

When I am with God someday, I do not want an angel’s wing
to cool my heart’s bruises;
I want, stretched against the sky, the hair of the children I loved,
to let it blow in the wind against my face eternally!




Cabellos suaves, cabellos que son toda la suavidad del mundo:
Que seda gozaría yo si no os tuviera sobre el regazo?
Dulce por ella el dia que pasa, dulce el sustento,
dulce el antiguo dolor, solo por unas horas que ellos resbalan entre mis manos.

Ponedlos en mi mejilla;

Revolvedlos en mi regazo como las flores;
dejadme trenzar con ellos, par suavizarlo, mi dolor;
aumentar la luz con ellos, ahora que es moribunda.

Cuando ya sea con Dios, que no me de el ala de un ángel,
para frescar la magulladura de mi corazón;
extienda sobre el azul las cabelleras de los niños que ame,
y pasen ellas en el viento sobre mi rostro eternamente!




Ben Jonson

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage,
And if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

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First Loves Redux

May 23, 2022

  For the past few weeks we’ve talked about deep reading and allusion–heady stuff, and crucial.  This week I’d like to turn to the heart of poems, the emotions they set off in us.  And in particular, I want to hear about some of your earliest examples of that experience, whether they’re poems you still love or poems you’ve moved on from.  What follows is an earlier post I did on this topic, but it’s been a while, and it was before the Fridays at 4 (eastern time) zoom discussions.  Think back to poems (maybe even nursery rhymes) that gave you early glimmerings of the magic that words can create.

Sometimes I start a class with a book that takes me straight to the heart of wanting to write poetry: First Loves: Poets Introduce the Essential Poems that Captivated and Inspired Them, edited by Carmela Ciuraru (Scribners 2001). If you don’t already know it, I’d recommend the amazon page review for a sense of what it’s like. Ciuraru asked a wide range of contemporary poets to choose a poem that inspired them early on and say a few words about it. Every time I read around in the book I’m taken back to some of my own sources, and the same thing happens to students when they read it: a direct line opens to those original urges. The book is full of surprises: Robert Creeley chooses Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman” and Wanda Coleman picks Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” for example.

A number of experiences made me fall in love with words: my father asking “What’s black and white and red all over?” I was stumped. “A newspaper.” What? Oh! Read! That language could do that. Or my grandmother writing out “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and little lambsy divey” after she’d sung it. Later it was Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and—like Creeley—the galloping “Highwayman.” But it was Frost’s ability to see through tranquil surfaces to the depths below that resonated with something in me, from the opening of “My November Guest” (“My sorrow, when she’s here with me/ Thinks these dark days of autumn rain/ Are beautiful as days can be….”) to the horrifying “Out, Out—,” where a young boy is mortally wounded as he’s sawing lumber. But one in particular seemed to speak directly to me, where I lived in Utah’s arid landscape:


Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

I’m curious to hear about your first loves. Please post your own examples and the reasons you chose them here, and join us for this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) reading and discussion.  I’ll send the zoom link on Thursday.

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More on Allusion in Poetry with guest Judith Baumel

May 16, 2022


This week’s post is a continuation of our last discussion about allusion in poetry.  Each poet’s imagination is a world of its own, and poems are public translations of pieces of that world.  The questions  that always comes up with reading poems, whether in a workshop or on the page, have to do with the writer needs to put on the page for it to be a successful poem, and what are a reader’s responsibilities when it comes to meeting the poem itself at least halfway.

Some very interesting points came up in last week’s Fridays at 4 discussion, and we have a perfect chance to continue that this week with guest Judith Baumel, who will read from her new book Thorny, just out from Arrowsmith Press.  Since you won’t have had a chance to read the book, I’m going to provide a little context from the publisher’s description: “Walt Whitman Award winner Judith Baumel’s latest collection of poems, Thorny, is a fearless and poignant book connecting political displacement with personal and generational loss.”  And: “The first section is a set of strolls (‘passeggiate’) with characters from classical pastoral poems reborn as contemporary Sicilians and Bronxites….The middle section, ‘The American Cousins A-Z,’ is an experimental fugue of Jewish women’s voices, post-Holocaust, lamenting, remembering and forgetting….’Bound,’ the last section, is an intensely personal consideration of family and loss.”

The three poems here come from each of those sections, in order–first, second, third.  I’d suggest that you read them several times, including out loud, before you look up anything.  Make notes as you do, about your responses and your questions.  Wring everything you can out of it. Then look up anything you think will be helpful–words, historical references, pastoral poems. The poet reading on youtube.  And make notes again.  Then go back and just read again, with that information in hand.

As always–please comment here, and plan to join us for this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) with guest poet Judith Baumel.


from Passeggiate



 I drive from east to west from work to rest
from suburb to suburb across the Throgs Neck Bridge
as the sun drops in Throgmorton’s Colony,
The Frog, its little islands swallowed in swells,
the Lighthouse dark. So daily end my days.


 You mean the battleground where General Howe
escaped Hand’s Riflemen and Glover’s band
but barely. Tactic: bring to ruin and make
of all the troops a human waste when the
negotiations of September Eleventh failed.


 I mean that while the jets roared low and lower,
the sirens streamed past and I was stopped,
stopped by incurious reservists, weapons
slung behind, a checkpoint in suspension,
I tried to call you from the road, the sun bearing down.
I wanted to ask another way to go, to ask
from what I was fleeing, to ask toward what.


 I would have said—Friend, stay the troubled night.
I have ripe apples, mealy chestnuts, pressed cheese.
Look left the shadows lengthen out and fall
where smoke rises–powder of computers,
asbestos, concrete, paper, a Parcaean air.


 But on the right in the Sound the lozenge boats,
their sails rolled up, were scattered brilliant white
like a vial of Ambien spilled on navy silk
that I could gather to my pockets, one
bitter fact dissolving under my tongue


from The American Cousins A-Z


We built with bitumen and brick hard
but simple walls. We had enough
straw. Then they sent us out
to the Bitumen Valley and
it was bad. We were too many
Yekkes and Sepharads and gesture
did not cut through the rumors of
people lost in mountain passes,
others setting out in dinghies
to sweltering islands. It wasn’t
the words of our mouths but the foods
of our talk that were alien
one to the other. Nothing
human, etc. yet
our stomachs turned with kishkes
and rote grutze and fasoulia,
their recipes thrown up and standing
in for what we’d lost.
Long treks ended for the lucky
in this land of pizza. Looking upwards
was our first and biggest mistake
but staying where we landed close
to dust brought us to bitter dust.


from Bound


The Hangover: Suzanne Valadon by Henri de Toulouse-

The hair of the dog? Mementos?
What has been? What will be?
The bottle’s got wine, the glass does too.
Plenty of mistakes we see coming
and can’t stop, won’t stop.
Of this painting, Professor Boggs taught
the shape of the whole mirrors the shapes
of the parts. The rhythms of my teachers
fundamentally, irrevocably, hysterically,
adverbially shaped me: bronzed, breezy,
a shade too ruddy. That’s Robert Lowell
in “Terminal Days at Beverly Farms.”
Lowell’s drinker is killing time—there’s nothing
else, he says at first, but thirty-four lines later
asks, Is he killing time?
Each week Lowell pushed through the crowd
on Mass Ave toward Leavitt & Peirce
for his cigarettes before the bone-crushing surge
we created, converging on the seminar room
in Holyoke Center. A high floor between the infirmary
and those sun-ruined Rothkos in the Corporation’s
dining room. Thirty-plus years later I can’t
determine how the hangover went after my college
flirtation—the scotch—went down. I remember
the acquired taste of acquiring it.
Now a hangover is about time:
operational time and Poincaré’s time,
imprints, pentimenti, cyclical returns,
somatic memory, the way wine brings
the taste of its own history, earth and sun
and casks and the memory
of successive samples, the way
the smell and the pour bring distant ghosts
forward to the spilled circle, bring regret
and promises to bear against the future
as if it were the moment before
some car smashes through the walls
of this café, as if a parking meter outside
were ever clicking down to zero time.
As if, perhaps, the future just proceeds
upon the street, the cold of April rain
on the rangy disappointments of forsythia.

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Reading Deeply: Allusion

May 10, 2022


Sometimes reading poems deeply requires not just repeated readings, but looking up information off the page: unfamiliar words, words in another language, historical references, classical mythology, references to other cultures and practices.  It’s not just a matter of learning more of a poem’s context, but understanding a poem’s basic terms.  The first examples that come to mind are T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, but there are endless examples, past and present.  The three poems below all required some looking up for me to follow them. This is a kind of warm-up for next week, when we’ll be joined by poet Judith Baumel, who will read and discuss poems from her new book, Thorny–poems full of allusion.  This is a chance for us to talk about the relationship between poem and reader, and what they each need to do to meet on common ground.  What does a poem need to do to make us curious enough to learn its vocabulary?  What do we need to do to meet it on its own terms?

I hope you’ll add your own examples here, and bring them to this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time).   As always, I’ll send the zoom link on Friday morning.


The opening of The Waste Land
T. S. Eliot

for Ezra Pound, Il Miglior Fabbro

  1. The Burial of the Dead

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

                      Frisch weht der Wind

                      Der Heimat zu

                      Mein Irisch Kind,

                      Wo weilest du?

“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
“They called me the hyacinth girl.”
—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed’ und leer das Meer.



Natalie Scenters-Zapico

This is how macho :: hembra play house.  This is how macho :: hembra
play love.  This is how macho :: hembra crave violence.  This is how
macho :: hembra purge themselves.  These events are related.  A man
whispers in my ear: I want to break you & I think I am in love.  I accept
machismo.  Hembra is to let men bite your mouth until it bleeds.  Hembra
is to witness your thighs cut to stars by the thrusts of men.  Hembra is
to know sex is a blind flicked shut.  Machismo is not about the father.
Machismo is not about walnuts waiting to be peeled, chiles turned soft,
pomegranate thrown on a plate to be served to your macho.  Machismo
is men as animals hunting: kiss her neck, crack it, still her under your chin.




Anne Carson


Isaiah awoke angry.

Lapping at Isaiah’s ears black birdsong no it was anger.

God had filled Isaiah’s ears with stingers.

Once God and Isaiah were friends.

God and Isaiah used to converse nightly, Isaiah would rush into the garden.

They conversed under the Branch, night streamed down.

From the sole of the foot to the head God would make Isaiah ring.

Isaiah had loved God and now his love was turned to pain.

Isaiah wanted a name for the pain, he called it sin.

Now Isaiah was a man who believed he was a nation.

Isaiah called the nation Judah and the sin Judah’s condition.

Inside Isaiah God saw the worldsheet burning.

Isaiah and God saw things differently, I can only tell you their actions.

Isaiah addressed the nation.

Man’s brittleness! cried Isaiah.

The nation stirred in its husk and slept again.

Two slabs of bloody meat lay folded on its eyes like wings.

Like a hard glossy painting the nation slept.

Who can invent a new fear?

Yet I have invented sin, thought Isaiah, running his hand over the knobs.

And then, because of a great attraction between them—

which Isaiah fought (for and against) for the rest of his life—

God shattered Isaiah’s indifference.

God washed Isaiah’s hair in fire.

God took the stay.

From beneath its meat wings the nation listened.

You, said Isaiah.

No answer.

I cannot hear you, Isaiah spoke again under the Branch.

Light bleached open the night camera.

God arrived.

God smashed Isaiah like glass through every socket of his nation.

Liar! said God.

Isaiah put his hands on his coat, he put his hand on his face.

Isaiah is a small man, said Isaiah, but no liar.

God paused.

And so that was their contract.

Brittle on both sides, no lying.

Isaiah’s wife came to the doorway, the doorposts had moved.

What’s that sound? said Isaiah’s wife.

The fear of the Lord, said Isaiah.

He grinned in the dark, she went back inside.

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