Reading Deeply

May 3, 2022

Last week’s post and Fridays at 4 conversation were about Poems You’ve Changed Your Mind About over time, for various reasons.   This week I’d like to do more of that, and I’ve invited poet Kevin Prufer to talk about it with me and with you.

I’ve added seven poems below for you to read and comment on here.  On this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time)  zoom discussion, May 6th, Kevin and I will look at as many of these as we have time for, talking about what we can see as we look–not past their surfaces, but through them–to what else they reveal.

Kevin Prufer has had a lot of practice both reading and writing poetry.  His three most recent books of poems are The Art of Fiction (nope, that’s not a typo), How He Loved Them, and Churches, all from Four Way Books.  He’s also co-edits the wonderful Unsung Masters series with Wayne Miller, and teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston and in the Lesley University low-residency MFA in Creative Writing Program.

As always, I’ll send the link for Fridays at 4 on Friday morning.  If you know someone you want to invite, please have them subscribe on the website or send me their name and email address  directly so that I can add them to the mailing list and make sure they get the zoom link.

In the meantime, enjoy the poems and post your thoughts in Comments.

 

#591.

Emily Dickinson

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

*

WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER

Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

*

KEROSENE

Tim Seibles

after the L.A. riot, April 1992

In my country    the weather
it’s not too good    At every bus stop anger
holds her umbrella folded her
face buckled tight as a boot     Along the avenues
beneath parked cars spent
cartridges glimmer     A man’s head crushed
by nightsticks    smoke still
slides from his mouth    Let out wearing

uniforms    hyenas rove in packs
unmuzzled    and brothers strain inside
their brown skins    like something wounded
thrown into a lake   Slowly
like blood filling
cracks in the street slowly   the
President   arrived     his mouth
slit into his face   Like candles seen
through thick curtains    sometimes
at night    the dark citizens
occur to him

like fishing lamps along
the black shore of a lake    like moths
soaked in kerosene     and lit

*

FIRST DEATH IN NOVA SCOTIA

Elizabeth Bishop

In the cold, cold parlor
my mother laid out Arthur
beneath the chromographs:
Edward, Prince of Wales,
with Princess Alexandra,
and King George with Queen Mary.
Below them on the table
stood a stuffed loon
shot and stuffed by Uncle
Arthur, Arthur’s father.

Since Uncle Arthur fired
a bullet into him,
he hadn’t said a word.
He kept his own counsel
on his white, frozen lake,
the marble-topped table.
His breast was deep and white,
cold and caressable;
his eyes were red glass,
much to be desired.

“Come,” said my mother,
“Come and say good-bye
to your little cousin Arthur.”
I was lifted up and given
one lily of the valley
to put in Arthur’s hand.
Arthur’s coffin was
a little frosted cake,
and the red-eyed loon eyed it
from his white, frozen lake.

Arthur was very small.
He was all white, like a doll
that hadn’t been painted yet.
Jack Frost had started to paint him
the way he always painted
the Maple Leaf (Forever).
He had just begun on his hair,
a few red strokes, and then
Jack Frost had dropped the brush
and left him white, forever.

The gracious royal couples
were warm in red and ermine;
their feet were well wrapped up
in the ladies’ ermine trains.
They invited Arthur to be
the smallest page at court.
But how could Arthur go,
clutching his tiny lily,
with his eyes shut up so tight
and the roads deep in snow?

*

SCHOOL DEMOLITION

Russell Atkins

shot through
the windows
— murdered?

so silently
about the rooms
the autopsy
begins —

the  moon coroner
working
late

*

VISITORS FROM ABROAD

Louise Glück

1

Sometime after I had entered
that time of   life
people prefer to allude to in others
but not in themselves, in the middle of the night
the phone rang. It rang and rang
as though the world needed me,
though really it was the reverse.

I lay in bed, trying to analyze
the ring. It had
my mother’s persistence and my father’s
pained embarrassment.

When I picked it up, the line was dead.
Or was the phone working and the caller dead?
Or was it not the phone, but the door perhaps?

2

My mother and father stood in the cold
on the front steps. My mother stared at me,
a daughter, a fellow female.
You never think of us, she said.

We read your books when they reach heaven.
Hardly a mention of us anymore, hardly a mention of  your sister.
And they pointed to my dead sister, a complete stranger,
tightly wrapped in my mother’s arms.

But for us, she said, you wouldn’t exist.
And your sister — you have your sister’s soul.
After which they vanished, like Mormon missionaries.

3

The street was white again,
all the bushes covered with heavy snow
and the trees glittering, encased with ice.

I lay in the dark, waiting for the night to end.
It seemed the longest night I had ever known,
longer than the night I was born.

I write about you all the time, I said aloud.
Every time I say “I,” it refers to you.

4

Outside the street was silent.
The receiver lay on its side among the tangled sheets,
Its peevish throbbing had ceased some hours before.

I left it as it was;
its long cord drifting under the furniture.

I watched the snow falling,
not so much obscuring things
as making them seem larger than they were.

Who would call in the middle of the night?
Trouble calls, despair calls.
Joy is sleeping like a baby.

*

THE PAPERWEIGHT

Gjertrud Schnackenberg

The scene within the paperweight is calm,
A small white house, a laughing man and wife,
Deep snow. I turn it over in my palm
And watch it snowing in another life,

Another world, and from this scene learn what
It is to stand apart: she serves him tea
Once and forever, dressed from head to foot
As she is always dressed. In this toy, history

Sifts down through the glass like snow, and we
Wonder if her single deed tells much
Or little of the way she loves, and whether he
Sees shadows in the sky. Beyond our touch,

Beyond our lives, they laugh, and drink their tea.
We look at them just as the winter night
With its vast empty spaces bends to see
Our isolated little world of light,

Covered with snow, and snow in clouds above it,
And drifts and swirls too deep to understand.
Still, I must try to think a little of it,
With so much winter in my head and hand.

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Poems You Changed Your Mind About

April 26, 2022

 

All of us who read poetry spend a lot of our time re-reading.  Whether it’s a poem we’re new to or one we’ve known for years, the impact changes from one reading to the next–something comes clear that wasn’t, it means something different to us at different times in our own lives, it thickens as we know more of the historical context, or look up a word or an allusion, see a pattern we’d missed.  Sometimes it thins as we realize it’s all dazzling surface, no depth.  Sometimes it’s just incremental changes, but sometimes it’s a real shift from something we disliked to something we find deeply moving.

One of the most significant examples for me was Wallace Stevens’ poetry.  I loved the words and images, but I could not find a way in, a way to take hold.  I kept reading for the surface beauty, and because all my teachers said he was a great poet.  Eventually something clicked, I started to see and hear them as whole poems, and he became one of my central poets.  I never understood why everyone assigned W. C. Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” until I knew the historical context of imagism and free verse lines.  I loved the music and beauty of his poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” without paying much attention to what it was saying, the way I listened to rock songs, until someone mentioned it was about a man asking for his wife’s forgiveness.  Then I liked it even more, for a few minutes, until I re-read the poem and discovered that the speaker ends up forgiving himself.

I liked but didn’t sense the power of Dickinson’s poems until I read them without the reductive punctuation that had been added by editors.  And just last week I came to see how much deeper one of Whitman’s short poems, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” is than I had ever thought when I did a little discussion with the poet Kevin Prufer and he drew an illuminating diagram of it.

I mention him specifically because he’ll be a guest at next week’s Fridays at 4, May 6th, and we’ll be talking about something similar.

I’d love to know what poems and poets you changed your mind about as you read, and why. Please post the examples here, and plan to bring them to this week’s Fridays at 4, April 29th.  I’ll send the zoom link Friday morning.

 

#465 (with added editorial punctuation)

I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.

The eyes beside had wrung them dry,
And breaths were gathering sure
For that last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in his power.

I willed away my keepsakes, signed away
What portion of me I
could make assignable–and then
There interposed a fly,

With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see.

 

#465 (as Dickinson wrote it)

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portions of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

 

THE RED WHEELBARROW

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

 

Marvin Bell, from his essay “Noun/ Object/ Image,” in Old Snow Just Melting:

“So much depends,” he writes, “upon a red wheel/ barrow,” and then says nothing about what depends upon it.  The poem argues for Imagism, but its method is rhetorical; the effect of the poem depends on the rhetorical beginning of its only sentence and on those expectations which it may thereby establish and frustrate.  From the frustration itself arises the point to be made.  In other words, though one could argue the propriety and advantages of a red wheelbarrow, it could have been something else.”

 

 

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Poems of Place

April 19, 2022

 

Lvov

The first thing I thought of when I saw that the Russians had attacked Lviv was Adam Zagajewski’s poem “To Go to Lvov.”  In fact, the only things I know about Lvov/ Lviv come from his poems, and from his prose  book Two Cities, about Lvov and Gliwice.  Zagajewski was just a few months old when his family was forced to leave Lvov, a beautiful old, cultured town, a World Historical Site, for Gliwice, an industrial German city traded to Poland at the end of World War II.  Zagajewski’s family kept the city they’d had to leave alive with stories, and the poet absorbed their vision:  “My grandfather, despite walking right next to me in Gliwice, was in Lvov. I walked the streets of Gliwice, he walked the streets of Lvov.”  This in turn made me think of poems where place looms large–real places like Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, Frank O’Hara’s New York City, Alice Oswald’s Dart, about the river.  But I also think of wholly imaginary places, like Xanadu in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” or Dante’s vision of Hell in the Inferno, or the metaphorical ship in Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck. And then the places in between–actual places summoned up in memory, like Zagajewski’s Lvov.  The place could be as small as a room or a garden, as large as a city or mountain range or ocean–Frost’s “Once By the Pacific.”

 

I’d like to know what poems of place you think of.  Please post them here, and choose one to read at this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time).  I’ll send the zoom link on Friday.  Let me know if you have any questions about how to post a comment here–just go to the red link on the right, then scroll down–about being on the mailing list if you aren’t already, about working with me privately, or pretty much anything else about poetry.

 

To Go to Lvov

To go to Lvov. Which station
for Lvov, if not in a dream, at dawn, when dew
gleams on a suitcase, when express
trains and bullet trains are being born. To leave
in haste for Lvov, night or day, in September
or in March. But only if Lvov exists,
if it is to be found within the frontiers and not just
in my new passport, if lances of trees
—of poplar and ash—still breathe aloud
like Indians, and if streams mumble
their dark Esperanto, and grass snakes like soft signs
in the Russian language disappear
into thickets. To pack and set off, to leave
without a trace, at noon, to vanish
like fainting maidens. And burdocks, green
armies of burdocks, and below, under the canvas
of a Venetian café, the snails converse
about eternity. But the cathedral rises,
you remember, so straight, as straight
as Sunday and white napkins and a bucket
full of raspberries standing on the floor, and
my desire which wasn’t born yet,
only gardens and weeds and the amber
of Queen Anne cherries, and indecent Fredro.
There was always too much of Lvov, no one could
comprehend its boroughs, hear
the murmur of each stone scorched
by the sun, at night the Orthodox church’s silence was unlike
that of the cathedral, the Jesuits
baptized plants, leaf by leaf, but they grew,
grew so mindlessly, and joy hovered
everywhere, in hallways and in coffee mills
revolving by themselves, in blue
teapots, in starch, which was the first
formalist, in drops of rain and in the thorns
of roses. Frozen forsythia yellowed by the window.
The bells pealed and the air vibrated, the cornets
of nuns sailed like schooners near
the theater, there was so much of the world that
it had to do encores over and over,
the audience was in frenzy and didn’t want
to leave the house. My aunts couldn’t have known
yet that I’d resurrect them,
and lived so trustfully; so singly;
servants, clean and ironed, ran for
fresh cream, inside the houses
a bit of anger and great expectation, Brzozowski
came as a visiting lecturer, one of my
uncles kept writing a poem entitled Why,
dedicated to the Almighty, and there was too much
of Lvov, it brimmed the container,
it burst glasses, overflowed
each pond, lake, smoked through every
chimney, turned into fire, storm,
laughed with lightning, grew meek,
returned home, read the New Testament,
slept on a sofa beside the Carpathian rug,
there was too much of Lvov, and now
there isn’t any, it grew relentlessly
and the scissors cut it, chilly gardeners
as always in May, without mercy,
without love, ah, wait till warm June
comes with soft ferns, boundless
fields of summer, i.e., the reality.
But scissors cut it, along the line and through
the fiber, tailors, gardeners, censors
cut the body and the wreaths, pruning shears worked
diligently, as in a child’s cutout
along the dotted line of a roe deer or a swan.
Scissors, penknives, and razor blades scratched,
cut, and shortened the voluptuous dresses
of prelates, of squares and houses, and trees
fell soundlessly, as in a jungle,
and the cathedral trembled, people bade goodbye
without handkerchiefs, no tears, such a dry
mouth, I won’t see you anymore, so much death
awaits you, why must every city
become Jerusalem and every man a Jew,
and now in a hurry just
pack, always, each day,
and go breathless, go to Lvov, after all
it exists, quiet and pure as
a peach. It is everywhere.
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Poems that Grab You and Never Let Go

April 11, 2022

    

We can all think of poems that took powerful hold of us the first time we read them, that we responded to viscerally at the time, and still do whenever we remember or re-read them.  The poem speaks deeply to something in our lives, and our response is as physical as it is mental–these poems live as much in our bodies as in our minds.  The impact is so powerful we often remember not just the poem, but our surroundings in that first encounter–the physical details, and where we were in our lives.

Here are two poems that did that to me, at different points in my life, and still do.  I hope you’ll add your own examples here, and the circumstances.  I also invite you to bring them to this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) to read to the group.  I’ll email the zoom link Friday morning.  If you aren’t on the mailing list, contact me through the web site so that I can add you.  As always, invite your friends.

I first read the Frost poem when I was a young teenager, and its opening line registered the astonishment I felt at that touch.  But that was the speaker’s past, and as I went through the poem–carried by its beautiful rhymes and meter–I could also feel the loss of that intensity long before I would ever feel it myself firsthand.  That’s what the imagination can do.  I pictured the speaker as an old man by the end, but Frost was just forty when he wrote the poem–once again, that’s what the imagination can do.  It’s one of the few poems I know by heart–in every sense of the word.

 

TO EARTHWARD

Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air

That crossed me from sweet things,
The flow of—was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Downhill at dusk?

I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they’re gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.

I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
The petal of the rose
It was that stung.

Now no joy but lacks salt,
That is not dashed with pain
And weariness and fault;
I crave the stain

Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love,
The sweet of bitter bark
And burning clove.

When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length.

 

 

*

I was in my mid-twenties when I decided I was going to write poetry “seriously,” and I started by signing up for a class in Contemporary Poetry.  The book assigned was Poems of Our Moment, edited by John Hollander.  I didn’t recognize any of the names in the Table of Contents, and couldn’t seem to take hold of the first few I tried to read, so I decided to start with the poems by women.  That’s when I discovered that out of thirty-seven poets in the book, just three were women: May Swenson, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath–names that meant nothing to me.  I could at least follow the Swenson poems, and admired the ones by Rich–little steps forward.   And then I read “The Bee Meeting.”  It was one of those moments that divide our lives into before and after.  It took me over completely, mind and body, as if I’d been abducted not by aliens but by someone who knew deep things about me that I didn’t yet know myself.  I felt as if I had  to write to her, to connect.  And then I turned to the Contributors’ Notes and discovered she was already dead.  Elation, then devastation.  But at least the poems were still there.

 

THE BEE MEETING

Sylvia Plath

Who are these people at the bridge to meet me? They are the villagers——
The rector, the midwife, the sexton, the agent for bees.
In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection,
And they are all gloved and covered, why did nobody tell me?
They are smiling and taking out veils tacked to ancient hats.

I am nude as a chicken neck, does nobody love me?
Yes, here is the secretary of bees with her white shop smock,
Buttoning the cuffs at my wrists and the slit from my neck to my knees.
Now I am milkweed silk, the bees will not notice.
They will not smell my fear, my fear, my fear.

Which is the rector now, is it that man in black?
Which is the midwife, is that her blue coat?
Everybody is nodding a square black head, they are knights in visors,
Breastplates of cheesecloth knotted under the armpits.
Their smiles and their voces are changing. I am led through a beanfield.

Strips of tinfoil winking like people,
Feather dusters fanning their hands in a sea of bean flowers,
Creamy bean flowers with black eyes and leaves like bored hearts.
Is it blood clots the tendrils are dragging up that string?
No, no, it is scarlet flowers that will one day be edible.

Now they are giving me a fashionable white straw Italian hat
And a black veil that molds to my face, they are making me one of them.
They are leading me to the shorn grove, the circle of hives.
Is it the hawthorn that smells so sick?
The barren body of hawthorn, etherizing its children.

Is it some operation that is taking place?
It is the surgeon my neighbors are waiting for,
This apparition in a green helmet,
Shining gloves and white suit.
Is it the butcher, the grocer, the postman, someone I know?

I cannot run, I am rooted, and the gorse hurts me
With its yellow purses, its spiky armory.
I could not run without having to run forever.
The white hive is snug as a virgin,
Sealing off her brood cells, her honey, and quietly humming.

Smoke rolls and scarves in the grove.
The mind of the hive thinks this is the end of everything.
Here they come, the outriders, on their hysterical elastics.
If I stand very still, they will think I am cow-parsley,
A gullible head untouched by their animosity,

Not even nodding, a personage in a hedgerow.
The villagers open the chambers, they are hunting the queen.
Is she hiding, is she eating honey? She is very clever.
She is old, old, old, she must live another year, and she knows it.
While in their fingerjoint cells the new virgins

Dream of a duel they will win inevitably,
A curtain of wax dividing them from the bride flight,
The upflight of the murderess into a heaven that loves her.
The villagers are moving the virgins, there will be no killing.
The old queen does not show herself, is she so ungrateful?

I am exhausted, I am exhausted ——
Pillar of white in a blackout of knives.
I am the magician’s girl who does not flinch.
The villagers are untying their disguises, they are shaking hands.
Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold.

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