In the Polish newspaper Literary Life, Nobel Prize winning poet Wislawa Szymborska answered letters from ordinary people who wanted to write poetry. Clare Cavanagh, translates these selections.
The following are selections from columns originally published in the Polish newspaper Literary Life. In these columns, famed poet Wislawa Szymborska answered letters from ordinary people who wanted to write poetry. Translated by Clare Cavanagh, they appeared in slightly different form in our Journals section earlier this year.
To Heliodor from Przemysl: “You write, ‘I know my poems have many faults, but so what, I’m not going to stop and fix them.’ And why is that, oh Heliodor? Perhaps because you hold poetry so sacred? Or maybe you consider it insignificant? Both ways of treating poetry are mistaken, and what’s worse, they free the novice poet from the necessity of working on his verses. It’s pleasant and rewarding to tell our acquaintances that the bardic spirit seized us on Friday at 2:45 p.m. and began whispering mysterious secrets in our ear with such ardor that we scarcely had time to take them down. But at home, behind closed doors, they assiduously corrected, crossed out, and revised those otherworldly utterances. Spirits are fine and dandy, but even poetry has its prosaic side.”
To H.O. from Poznan, a would-be translator: “The translator is obliged to be faithful not only to the text. He must also reveal the full beauty of the poetry while retaining its form and preserving as completely as possible the epoch’s spirit and style.”
To Grazyna from Starachowice: “Let’s take the wings off and try writing on foot, shall we?”
Strip away cities and houses and walls;
strip away electricity and shopping malls.
Remove gears and machines
than a rock on a stick.
Take away pencil, paper and book.
Forget the wheel, medicine and gun,
Forget having enough to eat,
And climb into trees to sleep.
Strip away comforts in crowds,
Cancel the tools that
made us destroyers of worlds.
Go back to the time of Caligula
then fly before iron tools, tile floors, empire.
Strip away 90,000 years,
100,000, then more
all the way back to
when we were food for those
that slipped through the night
under the trees, or eyed
the campfire and caves where we hid
Half-naked and small,
huddled around the fire,
sharpened sticks and rocks within reach,
telling quiet jokes to break the tension,
teasing the young one’s nerves,
but living hushed lives,
every ear listening for the whisper of a big cat
chuckling and mumbling with hunger
just outside the circle of light.
How many of us will blunt the beast’s attack?
Will it find me first, or you?
Will our sharpened sticks and stone knives be enough?
This night goes on and on,
An owl call somewhere in the dark,
Something rustles a bush.
Some sleep and some watch,
seeing in the fires’ embers the fiery
memory of the awful relief of the sunrise,
will it come again?–
listening through the hours of darkness,
feeding wood to the fire,
praying the embers will somehow
reignite the blaze of morning
before hunger drives the cat
past the fire.
We are powerless and afraid.
Every night it is so,
watching the embers,
listening for what might be there
not sure if the morning will come.
I can’t go home, because
home has not stopped
But I do know that
this moment is real;
I know how your lips feel,
I know the heat and
weight of you
In the dark,
or pressed against me
at a dock, oblivious
to jealous eyes,
saying a goodbye,
me what feels right.
I know loneliness
in the heat of the
grace of you.
Stay with me a while, dancer.
Let’s walk on the beach,
and look in the sands for courage,
and sit at dawn,
watching the day come up like thunder.
Magic flows in the
brings new life,
But the risks…
it’s hard to take the risks.
We’re surrounded by
always taking the present
and turning it into the future,
over and over and over and over…
it doesn’t end until we do.
Creating courage never ends,
is never perfect,
always full of doubt,
—but only through risk. Continue reading “Magic Flows in the Wounded Places”
(Note: written several months ago as part of the recovery process.)
Hissing down Highway 1
in the rain,
Baltimore in the rear view.
Brushing against old pain
repressed for 20 years,
but suddenly bleeding
through my chest,
three grey hours ahead.
I wasn’t the one
who was sick, I said.
Not the one who died.
I was just the supporting cast
the nameless crew member
in the red tunic.
Disposable. Unimportant to the plot.
Everyone saw the patient,
Not the one holding the bedpan.
So it didn’t matter, I said,
Pretending to believe it.
I told myself
I didn’t matter—
So keep quiet.
Keep it quiet.
Be the good soldier.
Do what you must.
Six times, the same refrain.
You’re not the one who got sick,
the sneering voice said.
You’re not the one who died.
How can you think
But I did. I do.
The habit I fell into,
of automatically deferring,
balancing the demands of justice,
on the point of need,
took deep hold.
Justice parses, examines,
denies and diminishes,
but never tells the full truth.
And oh, my dear,
to hear the robin’s call,
the cardinal’s challenge,
the excited chatter
of all the returning
migrants, full of stories
about tropical fruits
and sunny days and
nights among the
trumpet vines and
on the Gulf of Mexico.
And Oh, my dear,
I’m a changing
mixture of contentment,
happiness and power.
With every day you’re
both further away and near.
Like water, I find
I’ve let the shovel handle fill
my hand, and bent
my back to the bloody work
you left for me,
stabbing deep in
pain’s dark soil
’til the blisters broke,
again and again.
I am here. Standing.
And oh, my dear, look:
Spring has come again
Note: This is from five years ago. A lot has happened since, and the woman I was talking to here has died. We were together for 50 years, and my life is a stranger to me now. But I’m back in a similar frame of mind. Perhaps this is just me, needing the solitude of exploration and the wild mountains from time to time. Actually, there is no “perhaps” about it.
Remember this: I still love you.
I still love you, but there are times, like now, I bleed inside, realize I’ve forgotten myself,
Or left chunks behind, or sold pieces of my soul
Too cheaply and must go and find and buy back,
No matter how sad and worn they are now.
I feel like the Tin Man with joints rusted in the rain;
The Cowardly Lion tired of being afraid;
The Scarecrow wanting to burn the bureaucratic straw
That’s stuffed in my head instead of brains.
Weary of those around of shocking dreariness,
Shallow people obsessed with silly things, fearful drones.
I still love you, but want to be alone sometimes;
I still love you, but I wonder these days what I’ve missed,
What one thing I can still do well.
I still love you, yet want to beat my wings against the cage of comfort
And embrace everything, and everyone, and taste each moment.
I still love you, yet know you’ll never share why I am drenched
In awe by the terrible beauty of deep space, of Shakespeare, of solitude.
I still love you, despite things you don’t understand, because
You are still there, loving me as you have forever.
We know each other deeply, truthfully, with
Forgiveness and amusement and tolerance and passion.
But that makes me uneasy, too. Guilty. Resentful. I don’t know why.
Comfort is a trap, sometimes;
Resistance is the Enemy.
Not you. Not ever you.
I still love you, even though I may move on ahead for a while, out of sight, through the mountains.
I still love you, though I need to know that who I am exists without constant validation.
It isn’t always good, and can be a distraction like the song of any
Of the Muses, sung at the wrong time.
I still love you,
So do not be sad.
I may be lost at times, and I will stumble
And happen onto strange and beautiful things.
Note: Don’t be alarmed. I am OK. This poem deals with something that happened nearly a year ago.. It will be in a collection soon to be published, but as I prepare the pieces, I find there are still loose ends in my heart that need to be tied up by remembering. This was one.
Death is not bitter death is a silence But dying is bitter. Dying is hard. With you, it was the sound.
It was like drowning, no detail spared, in slow motion…
with metastases of cancer that filled the lungs and grew, sending out ghastly spawn to live in bone and brain. The awful sound of drowning, frail breastbone lifting heart refusing to stop mind full of phantasms from opiates, the price for masking the pain,that terrified you.
The sound of drowning, but at least you did not feel your body chewing on itself, wasting away, fading from this life leaving me behind, leaving us all behind, one thousand gasps through water, and then more thousands.
Death is not bitter… death is a silence But, dying is bitter. Dying is full of the noise of the going out. It was the sound of the last hours— it haunts me, the sound of your struggle, the death rattle…. A bland phrase, nothing like the real thing.
It was a drowning, drowning slowly inevitably, the lungs full of fluids of the metastases of cancer that ravage the lungs and scatter foul seeds, ghastly, evil children to live in bone and brain.
The relentless sounds of drowning, your frail breastbone lifting heart refusing to stop. Morphine hid the pain but took your mind, filled it full of phantasms but lay a warm blanket over pain
But the lungs were full and drowned you deep in dreamy waters, hours after your spirit had abandoned the failing husk. An old friend said you visited, in a dream hours before you were pronounced. You had a spirit body, she said, alive and vigorous and young, happy, dressed in spring clothes and driving a sky-blue convertible.
While I listened to the rising dreamy waters, rattling, you had already gone. It was a comfort to learn you had escaped, and had driven away on the great adventure. In bright sunshine in a blue convertible, like the one you had when we met 50 years before.
The quality of these trees, green height; of the sky, shining, of
water, a clear flow; of the rock, hardness
And reticence: each is noble in its quality. The love of freedom
has been the quality of Western man.
There is a stubborn torch that flames from Marathon to Concord,
its dangerous beauty binding three ages
Into one time; the waves of barbarism and civilization have
eclipsed but have never quenched it.
For the Greeks the love of beauty, for Rome of ruling; for the
present age the passionate love of discovery;
But in one noble passion we are one; and Washington, Luther,
Tacitus, Aeschylus, one kind of man.
And you, America, that passion made you. You were not born
to prosperity, you were born to love freedom.
You did not say ‘en masse,’ you said ‘independence.’ But we
cannot have all the luxuries and freedom also.
Freedom is poor and laborious; that torch is not safe but hungry,
and often requires blood for its fuel.
You will tame it against it burn too clearly, you will hood it
like a kept hawk, you will perch it on the wrist of Caesar.
But keep the tradition, conserve the forms, the observances, keep
the spot sore. Be great, carve deep your heel-marks.
The states of the next age will no doubt remember you, and edge
their love of freedom with contempt of luxury.
I will remember the kisses
our lips raw with love
and how you gave me
everything you had
and how I
offered you what was left of
And now, for a time, I must find the parts of me I’ve lost, and glue them back into a new whole. Kintsugi, finding beauty in imperfection; the art of precious scars. Perhaps I’ll mend the broken edges with gold this time.
“It’s over, at last. Don’t you wonder what I can see now? I can’t tell you; it’s the rules. But all the stuff you worry about and fear and hate is so utterly petty I can’t be bothered with it any more. It’s just not important.
This will be quick…
You’ll get here soon enough. You’ll find out. I did the best I could there, and I don’t have anything to feel ashamed of. If you can say that, it’ll be OK.
I’m going, now. I won’t be back. (Ghosts are fake news. Why would anyone come back to this after seeing the truth.?) Try to do the best you can.
I do remember certain things,
how it was a Sunday in
April, and the daffodils were late,
How the spring sun was out and
poured through the bay windows
happy and warm,
as though nothing was wrong…
as though everything was normal.
I can’t feel it now–the exhaustion
of that awful last night–
blessed by how the brain
softens things with time.
Then I remember
the Hospice nurse coming at dawn,
to relieve me.
I stumbled downstairs,
leaned against the kitchen counter
beyond my limits,
glad to escape the sound.
Time was short, now.
The nurse said “She’s leaving us.”
Two hours passed, and the
nurse called down
so I could
be there at the end.
She gave us time together.
And then, with sudden stillness
it was over.
TOD: 8:24 a.m.
I opened the curtains to let
more sun in, confused by
a world outside that
didn’t seem to notice.
I touched her cold lips,
amazed at the quiet
and stillness the soul leaves behind.
*Moments like this are rare, now, nine months later. But they do rise up without warning sometimes. If you have known loss, you know this. If you know someone who’s had a loss, don’t hurry them along. Let them know you will listen. Grief is a river you cannot push.
*From almost two years ago. A fantasy from one of my favorite places.*
A pile of poems,
a scattering of short stories,
a minor mess of manuscripts,
all in a state of perpetual preparation,
wait while I, as usual, wait to see
what will happen today.
These things of mine,
Hopeful of attention,
Not expecting much.
It is as though I and these
things are sitting behind a card table
on Jackson Square in
New Orleans, Saturday morning,
while Jock, Buffalo and Michelle
play a mix of the classics
just over there, in the next patch of shade.
Lovely and dark Michelle on the violin,
Jock, recently of Columbus, on the keyboard.
Buffalo, the veteran, with hair held back
by a leather band, plays guitar.
A guitar case is open on the worn
stones and a few coins and bills
are slowly collecting, never enough
to do more than buy one or two meals,
a share of a dive to sleep in
a ratty old apartment in the Tremé.
They all look like they’re barely out of
high school, or some music program
up north. Each floated to NOLA
to live the mythical life of music,
at first for the joy of it, happy
with friends, happy to live
rough, running from gig to gig,
earning a street corner on Thursdays
to make tips from tourists,
getting thinner and gradually
realizing that love alone will
not feed the bulldog.
But oh, there are times, just
like this morning, as tourists
walk by and glance at my books
without buying, that Michelle
raises the violin to her chin,
closes her eyes and moves the bow.
She calls forth the voices of angels
who are lost and crying to heaven,
and I feel a touch of the holy,
just for a minute, and my
heart remembers what it waits for.
A dead moon falls forever
above a blasted world
Where thin winds stir
only powders and grains of sand;
Once shallow seas sang wetly to the moon,
And watered wonders
in the shadows and deeps,
rose and fell
by the hand of
the ancient moon.
But for 500 million years
the rocks forgot
the coolness of water
and know only dust
And thin breezes,
And awful silences.
But still the moon rolls past,
night after night,
Playing its pale beams over the
sands, looking, looking,
Sending seductive waves of gravity,
Searching abandoned places,
Reaching out to nothingness,
Not knowing futility, only
The buoyancy of light.
A writer of modest talent can only hope one day to put together a word or two—on on a rare week, a phrase—that’s worth keeping. This is not the conceit of perfectionism. This is just the reality of a mediocre vision that cannot totally grasp and share what floats in and out of view. It’s the frustration that has to be managed—The gap between what might be glimpsed, a brief impression of something sublime, and the skill that, were it a painting, only produces stick figure drawings.
So the experience is one of enduring a sense of constant failure, working to press my cheek up against the foggy glass that keeps me from the truth, but still trying to catch a scent of it and convey it honestly….Throwing the lariat a thousand times at a stallion that prances just out of reach, hoping that one more throw will tame the beast and bring him nearer to feel the heat and the true wild life of him.
That’s the job. (Neurotic? Of course it is. But what’s a little neurosis among friends?). It’s just a matter of putting up with failure long enough to feel the hot breath of something beautiful. It is insanity. But oh, so seductive.
by Raymond Carver
I want to get up early one more morning,
before sunrise. Before the birds, even.
I want to throw cold water on my face
and be at my work table
when the sky lightens and smoke
begins to rise from the chimneys
of the other houses.
I want to see the waves break
on the beach, not just hear them
break as I did all night in my sleep.
I want to see again the ships
that pass through the Straight from every
seafaring country in the world—
old, dirty freighters just barely moving along,
and the swift new cargo vessels
painted every color under the sun
that cut the water as they pass.
I want to keep an eye out for them.
And for the little boat that plies the water between the ships
and the pilot station near the lighthouse.
I want to see them take a man off the ship
and put another up on board.
I want to spend the day watching this happen
and reach my own conclusions.
I hate to seem greedy—I have so much
To be thankful for already.
But I want to get up early one more morning, at least,
And go to my place with some coffee and wait,
Just wait, to see what’s going to happen.
The patience of Old Testament Jøb the vision of a Steve Jobs…
Good eyes and ears, Strong heart and lungs Not too many aches and pains, not too many pills. The ability to stay in shape without exercise.
And a quick end.
And I’d like Striking women to smile and say ‘hi’
And those precious, luscious few– I hope you’re out there– Confident enough To permit that faint, wet stirring And dare to pause, question, First silently, then aloud: “Hello. I’ve never done this… but Is there a chance we might Find a good way to spend the afternoon?”
And I’d be in favor of some more surviving, (Without getting hung up about it.) I’m one day older than yesterday… One younger than tomorrow, But– having never been strong in math– I will n’t count days Letting them come as they will.
Aside from all that…
What Do I wish?
Good sleep several times a week. And a warm body curved Contented into me, A person hunting for the true in herself. Always looking.
I wish for the wisdom I’ve paid for with so many dumb mistakes,
And I wish the stamina of my 60s flows into my 70s I’m grateful for The satisfactions of my 50s and 60s The energy of my 40s; The happiness of my 30s; The libido of my teens and 20s. If only I knew then how to Be unselfish. I wish I’d known…
If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too; If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, Or being hated, don’t give way to hating, And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same; If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings And never breathe a word about your loss; If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch, If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much; If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
I came from a place of fireflies,
where men were reasonable and tall,
Where people knew me by who my grandfather was, and his, and his.
Where farmers didn’t block views with trees,
To see at a glance from the kitchen window
How the corn was doing, the soybeans.
Where cemeteries were so old they had no one living who cared
and the raspberry bushes
And groundhogs had taken over;
Where being a child meant living outdoors, year-’round.
Where you waved at a passing car
Because they probably knew your parents:
And you didn’t want to hear at church on Sunday about being rude.
I came from a place where my nearest playmate was a cousin, a mile away;
Where going to hang out meant
Riding the old fat-tired-hand-me-down bike,
With one gear, but was great for
Popping the tar bubbles on hot summer days;
And watching the big grasshoppers and flies whiz by,
the birds calling from the trees,
And watching my dog chase another rabbit.
I came from a place of spirits, haunted by the land,
by deep roots down five generations;
Where uncles and aunts would come over
for summer dinners after the milking,
And sit outside after dark in our yard talking,
And how those adult voices murmering made things
Safe somehow as
My cousins and I would chase each other
through the darkness, making up games
Hiding in the bushes and the darkness
on the edge of safety,
Thrilling in the freedom to roam, to be children;
In awe when the fields and grass would
Erupt in a billion fireflies, and we would put
dozens in quart canning jars
For study, and marveling at yet another mystery.
I came from a place, a very common place, that had an order
Of season and harvest, planting and animals, birth, death, renewal;
A place where the farm animals taught
about sex very early, but also about stewardship,
pragmatism, kindness and death;
There were the late nights wading through
snowdrifts to the barn in February’s lambing season,
Fields draped deeply asleep in white under hard,
cold moonlight and wicked winds;
Of helping with the births—which only seemed
to come in bitterest cold—
cleaning newborn lambs off with
old burlap feed sacks
Holding the newborns under heat lamps
until their mothers licked them clean,
Made sure they found the teat and began to nurse,
coats still steaming, tails wiggling.
It was there I learned about birth, and
the miracle of it.
I came from a place that has slowly died since then.
I feel an ache of loss of a place
that gave me my sense of who I was,
Where the places I roamed with my dog
are now owned by Arab sheiks,
where even bigness did not guarantee survival.
It is a place where the invisible glue that once
nurtured communities evaporated from
change and neglect and globalism and meth and, now, heroin,
Where people stay inside and hide from themselves,
Surfing the web for porn, and never once see the
Fireflies rising up in the June nights,
calling children to mystery but with
fewer there to hear the answers.
I give the undertakers permission to haul my body
to the graveyard and to lay away all, the head, the feet, the hands, all:
I know there is something left over they can not put away.
Let the nanny goats and the billy goats of the shanty people
eat the clover over my grave
and if any yellow hair
or any blue smoke of flowers
is good enough to grow over me
let the dirty-fisted children
of the shanty people pick these flowers.
I have had my chance to live with the people who have
too much and the people who have
too little and I chose one of the two and I have told no man why.
“I think everyone must love life more than anything else in the world.’
‘Love life more than the meaning of it?’
‘Yes, certainly. Love it regardless of logic, as you say. Yes, most certainly regardless of logic, for only then will I grasp its meaning. That’s what I’ve been vaguely aware of for a long time. Half your work is done, Ivan: you love life. Now you must try to do the second half and you are saved.”
“A work of a lifetime, in a way.The story of being human, loving, hurting and healing. It will move you. Read this only if you are passionate about your journey and all that comes to you along the way.”
When the sands
of our deeper selves
shift, slide, scald
at 3 a.m.,
when buried grief
slithers out again,
the night holds its
breath a moment,
exhales and the Eastern
Safe again, we wake.
Strange things stir,
mazes, links, leaps
of magic and yearning,
There is no passion so pure
as when it springs
from the loins of
an ancient earth, from the night.
Secrets lurk between
every second on the clock,
there, then gone, then back…
neither light nor shadow,
but mere potential.
Hiding in plain sight.
shifting with the sand,
teasing us to pull
them into the light,
poisoning us until
Those with the least gift are the most anxious to receive a commission. It seems to them that there lies waiting a topic, a new book, a performance, and that this is known as material. The true prose writer knows there is nothing given, no idea, no text or play seen last evening, until an assault has taken place, the forced domination that we call ”putting it in your own words.” Talking about, thinking about a project bears little relation to the composition; enthusiasm boils down with distressing speed to a paragraph, often one of mischievous banality. To proceed from musing to writing is to feel a robbery has taken place. And certainly there has been a loss; the loss of the smiles and ramblings and discussions so much friendlier to ambition than the cold hardship of writing.
Robert Frost held a special place in President Kennedy’s intellectual pantheon. Frost died in January 1963, at age 88. The following October, Amherst College held a groundbreaking ceremony for the Robert Frost Library. Kennedy traveled to Massachusetts to deliver this speech; a month later, he, too, was dead.
(Did the headline catch your eye? Maybe pissed you off? Sorry. This is a political post, not really about poetry. But it is about poetry’s relationship to power, and how one president used to be. And how that compares to today.)
“Our national strength matters; but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost.
“He brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society. His sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation. Continue reading “The Purpose of Poetry”
A gentle reminder for July’s sales (going gangbusters!.. probably): if you meant to get a copy of “Snowflakes & Ashes….” and haven’t yet, it’s available through several channels, including Barnes and Noble.
(It’s in stock at the State College (PA) B&N store near the mall, by the way. Or, you may order from B&N online and pickup at a store near you instead of home delivery.)
It’s also on Amazon, both paperback and e-Book. It is helpful if you leave a review and rating, as they use that for the algorithm to determine how visible it is. Thanks in advance. Now I can tell my marketing department I did my bit. 😉
Bulk orders for book clubs are available. Just email me with quantities and location so I can get you the discount price with shipping.
Oh, and I mentioned other channels. Your local small bookshop or library can order this one if you ask them to: ISBN: 978-1-64237-194-9
I’m happy to announce that I’ve just published (via Gatekeeper Press), “Snowflakes and Ashes: Meditations on the Temporary.” It’s still being propagated through the internet, but Amazon (paperback and Kindle) and Barnes & Noble (Nook) have it up already. Distribution will also be through independent bookstores, libraries and academic users.
Steve Jobs said once that we can’t connect the dots of our lives looking forward. It’s only later, after the journey has a few miles on it, that one can look back and draw some conclusions and see the patterns that are usually invisible at the time. Some things we know, but some things are surprises. I wrote this out of the jumble of my own life, but have the conceit that my experiences and accidental insights are probably similar to some of yours. I hope so. (Solitary journeys can be lonely. Glad to have some company.) I’ll be posting some promo codes as soon as I get them if you can’t handle buying a book at the moment. I am gladly welcoming reviews, however.
Grant me, O Lord, good digestion,
and also something to digest.
Grant me a healthy body,
and the necessary good humor to maintain it.
Grant me a simple soul that knows to treasure all that is good
and that doesn’t frighten easily at the sight of evil,
but rather finds the means to put things back in their place.
Give me a soul that knows not
boredom, grumblings, sighs and laments,
nor excess of stress, because of that obstructing thing called “I.”
Grant me, O Lord, a sense of good humor.
Allow me the grace to be able to
take a joke to discover in life a bit of joy,
and to be able to share it with others.
Some days it’s all about limitations,
And while it’s no use complaining,
That’s never stopped me before.
I feel like a blind man living inside a kaleidoscope;
A glutton with but one taste bud left;
A monk who’s forgotten what he knew of God;
A tin-eared drunk waking up just as angels
burst across the heavens in song.
I’m a coma patient wrapped in wool,
strapped in a closet in a blackened room
in the back of the basement. Continue reading “Umwelt”
Doubt is my most trusted traveling partner, that “curious questioner” who comes in the night, that voice that says what I’ve done is not what it should be, that I’m not what I should be. And it is then—out of a last-ditch, almost reluctant refusal to betray myself— that everything comes of which I am most proud.
Doubt is my friend and lover. Doubt need not be fear’d, but endured and embraced as a means to an end. I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way I became strong enough. Strong enough…. If I can, you can, too.
I too have— Have—have— I too have—felt the curious questioning come upon me. In the day they came. In the silence of the night came [they] upon me
It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, The dark threw its patches down upon me also, The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious, My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre? Nor is it you alone ho know what it is to be evil, I am he who knew what it was to be evil, I too knitted the old knot of contrariety, blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudged, Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I cared not speak, Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant, The world, the snake, the hog not wanting in me, The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting, Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting, Was one with the rest, the days and haps of the rest. …” —”Leaves of Grass, ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ briefs, p. 219.
I’ve been reluctant to post some personal news here, but because just disappearing without an explanation seems odd, at the least, here goes.
Starting in November, my wife started coughing, and kept coughing. A blood test and then some scans detected a tumor in her lung, and some additional spots on her spine and pelvis. Biopsies confirmed these were Stage IV lung cancer, metastasized to 5-7 spots on vertebrae, the lungs, and pelvis.
She had radiation therapy to knock back the bone pain in her back, then had one chemotherapy infusion. Within 36 hours of that, we both came down with the flu that everyone’s getting. But it hit her very hard because her immune system is severely compromised. She ended up in the hospital for the flu as one very, very sick girl, and then for the pneumonia that followed. She recovered, although unable to eat much, was at home for nine days, then pneumonia returned and then she spent another week in the hospital. She’s on a feeding tube now and is regaining her strength.
I’ve been well occupied with all of this, obviously, and thought that a few of you would appreciate knowing what’s been happening. I’ll probably be absent a lot over the next months, as what’s ahead is going to be rough. I miss writing and reading your creations, and hope to be back. Until then….
“I like grit, I like love and death, I’m tired of irony. … A lot of good fiction is sentimental. … The novelist who refuses sentiment refuses the full spectrum of human behavior, and then he just dries up. … I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and take a chance on being corny, than die a smartass.”
― Jim Harrison
I asked for the superpower of “Folding” for my birthday.
It cuts out the middle man:
Gimme a calendar with tricky bits, I said.
I’d fold weeks, months, years, centuries together,
jump to any time, past or future.
The first would be hanging with
the first human band to walk out of Africa .
I’d wait in the shade of a date palm, by the Nile,
bounce rocks off crocodiles, watch the south trail.
I’d cook hot dogs and hamburgers,
and have beer chilling on ice.
History’s first tailgate.
I would show them an iPhone, photos, movies.
Order something from Amazon—
Wouldn’t that be a good trick!…
Maybe a slinky, some bows and arrows and knives.
A chemistry set. Aspirin. Cargo pants,
broad-brimmed hats and sunglasses.
Trail mix. Snickers.
It’s in our interest that they survive the trip.
I’d tell them to be kind to one another,
Let them think I was the Great Spirit, then disappear.
I remember once I ran after you and tagged the fluttering
shirt of you in the wind.
Once many days ago I drank a glassful of something and
the picture of you shivered and slid on top of the stuff.
And again it was nobody else but you I heard in the
singing voice of a careless humming woman.
One night when I sat with chums telling stories at a
bonfire flickering red embers, in a language its own
talking to a spread of white stars:
It was you that slunk laughing
in the clumsy staggering shadows.
Broken answers of remembrance let me know you are
alive with a peering phantom face behind a doorway
somewhere in the city’s push and fury.
Or under a pack of moss and leaves waiting in silence
under a twist of oaken arms ready as ever to run<
away again when I tag the fluttering shirt of you.
I wanted to be Steve Jobs
I wanted to be Joni Mitchell
I wanted to be Leonard Cohen
I wanted to be Carl Sagan,
I wanted to be that person, they’ll say,
“yeah, whatever happened to him?”
The way people do, about certain
Rare, shining talents, like Joni, or Steve,
Mysteries that can’t be explained.
Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year,
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.
One after another my former lives were departing,
like ships, together with their sorrow.
And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas
assigned to my brush came closer,
ready now to be described better than they were before.
I was not separated from people,
grief and pity joined us.
We forget – I kept saying – that we are all children of the King.
For where we come from there is no division
into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be.
We were miserable, we used no more than a hundredth part
of the gift we received for our long journey.
Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago –
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror
of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel
staving its hull against a reef – they dwell in us,
waiting for a fulfillment.
I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.
Look, I’m not getting much sleep lately,
so chalk this up to grumpiness, if you want.
Or the back spasms…
And I’m no prude, believe me.
But I am a man who’s old, so most
of you would’t notice me on the street.
I’m a tad bitter about that, you might say,
but have learned what’s important.
Maybe, you could just listen.
I get it: Sex sells,
fantasy sex sells cars and everything else..
All those selfies of you on FB, Instagram,
You posed coyly just to show your good side,
your amazing boobs or butt, the come-hither look.
(And yes, I notice. ) Continue reading “Dear Ladies”
I’m traveling light
It’s au revoir
My once so bright, my fallen star
I’m running late, they’ll close the bar
I used to play one mean guitar
I guess I’m just somebody who
Has given up on the me and you
I’m not alone, I’ve met a few
Traveling light like we used to do
Good night, good night, my fallen star
I guess you’re right, you always are
I know you’re right about the blues
You live some life you’d never choose
I’m just a fool, a dreamer who forgot to dream of the me and you
I’m not alone, I’ve met a few
Traveling light like we used to do
It’s au revoir
My once so bright, my fallen star
I’m running late, they’ll close the bar
I used to play one mean guitar
I guess I’m just somebody who
Has given up on the me and you
I’m not alone, I’ve met a few
Traveling light like we used to do
But if the road leads back to you
Must I forget the things I knew
When I was friends with one or two
Traveling light like we used to do
I’m traveling light
This is about a guy named Lenny. Lenny Kravitz. But not the famous one born in 1964. (No relation, actually. That name has been a burden.)
This Lenny was in a British rock band in the late 70’s. The drummer. The band had one monster hit and then sank without trace. The hit was played occasionally on oldies stations after a decade, then less and less. While the craziest part of fame lasted (from the spring of 1973 through the next summer) they lived the rock-star life on the road, tearing up hotels left and right.
It was the 70s, when the national nervous breakdown began in earnest. Lenny was known for dressing up in a giant pink cloth penis outfit and dancing around the stage, the uncircumcised head flopping back and forth, the girls screaming in the audience, Continue reading “Lenny”
On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.
On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.
And those who expected lightning and thunder
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.
Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world.
We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn
A red wing rose in the darkness
And suddenly a hare ran across the road
One of us pointed to it with his hand.
That was long ago
Today neither of them is alive
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.
O my love, where are they, where are they going?
the flash of hand, streak of movement,
rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.
“Darkness” is a poem written by Lord Byron in July 1816. That year was
known as the Year Without a Summer, because Mount Tamborahad erupted in
the “Dutch East Indies” (the highest peak on the island of Sumbawa in
Indonesia), casting enough sulphur into the atmosphere to reduce global temperatures and cause abnormal weather across much of north-east America and northern Europe. This pall of darkness inspired Byron to write his poem.
The Earth rises and roils the seas,
smashing warnings of
against the land, afflicting
houses all the same,
But we misread the moment.
As usual. Like Pharaoh,
we are stiff-necked and proud,
and must lose our children
before we can be humbled.
The skies are not filled with clouds and rain
but signs and portents,
locusts and frogs,
crocodiles and snakes…a
growing rage of non-human things
too long abused.
Confused, soulless like
we cannot see what
does not please us,
and so wander alone,
merely touching magic
glass in a crowd.
Worry about me later, for barbarians are coming over the hills, carrying long pikes and angry words, searching for reasoning they do not possess. My sleepless nights are a gene inside me, melatonin leached from my skin, my fascination with the moon, my dark monarch taking flight to greet the lamps lighted.
Learning is, almost always, amongst the holliest and purest of time allocations. We must know so very much to know we know nothing. Though schools can harm this at times, it is worth reminding ourselves of this. The same way a puppy is reminded of the horrors of nature when a lightning strikes. No matter […]
This is a bit thick to read, but if you’re publishing books, this is a look inside the seamier side.
“…Nowadays, you can make the bestseller list with about 5,000 sales. That’s not the heights of publishing’s heyday but it’s still harder to get than you’d think. Some publishers spend thousands of dollars on advertising and blogger outreach to get that number. Everyone’s looking for the next big thing and that costs a lot of cash. For the past 25 weeks, that big book in the YA world has been The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a searing politically charged drama about a young black girl who sees a police officer kill her friend, and the fallout it causes in her community.
Through publisher buzz and exceedingly strong word of mouth, the novel has stormed to the forefront of the YA world and found thousands of fans, with a film on the way. Knocking that from the top of the NYT YA list would be a major deal, and this week it’s going to happen. But something’s not right….”
The City of New Orleans pulls out of downtown,
setting the ground rumbling, gaining speed,
steel nose pointed hard north,
toward the coming night.
Like a thousand times before,
she finds the scent of the line away from the party,
leaving street-corner musicians,
Heavenly beignets and chicory coffee….And joy.
Leaving Joy, behind—despite misery under freeway overpasses;
Falling away in the rear window down parallel bands of steel
The party goes on, the music getting
fainter, but stuck in my skin like a vaccination scar,
in my ear like an old love song playing soft.
Despite the worst that could happen, the People endure.
God bless the People.
The train rolls north, but carries the place with it.
The passengers carry the place with us.
Old Bourbon St., Canal St. with it’s clackety trolleys;
flood-stained Poydras, Gravier, Decatur streets.
The bars and the shops and the throngs of
sun worshipers on Jackson Square
who lounge and dance to a saxophone player
and drop coins and bills in his open case on the sidewalk.
Or listen to the tolling of the cathedral bells.
The steamboat down at the dock breathes
a hot, breathy calliope tune, luring passengers to the
Big Muddy to taste something old, something new
Something borrowed, and some Blues.
The blond woman, on her cast iron balcony above
The traffic and crowds, waters her flowers, looks
Down at me and smiles. It’s OK, Honey, she seems to say,
Life is good. Isn’t this a great place?
It’s New Orleans: Laissez les bon temps roulez, after all.
Let the good times roll…
So we roll. The horn blasts again and silent
steel wheels start to turn, gathering speed.
Number 58 follows an old steel line up, up,
slowing now and then but
Always up, up, up, past
Metairie, Kenner, New Iberia, the old names.
Hugging the shore of vast
Lake Ponchartrain, goddess destroyer,
Up, up the steel magic carpet ride
In dusk’s gathering, into the
dark memories of Delta country,
Past fields greening with winter wheat,
into the Mississippi night,
A stop at McComb, then Jackson,
then all the way up, up to Memphis by midnight.
And as we sleep, the car rocks unevenly,
the engine horn blows warnings
Into the darkness, the stars move slowly past.
The conductor’s voice comes over the speaker, tinny,
An hour and a half to Chicago.
“Get your things ready. Breakfast is served.”
Dawn comes early in places like this,
A mist covers the fields and coats them out of focus.
At breakfast, a retired doctor traveling with his daughter
Back home to Chicago
Tells about strawberries
(they’re on the menu this morning)
And remembers tending strawberries
on his father’s farm in
New Orleans, and how sweet
they were, and how he hated
Working in the beds, but loved
eating the sweetest berries in the world.
The sweetest in the world… his voice trails off.
Watching him, his eyes gone soft with old memories,
I wondered if their sweetness was more than rich soil,
But rather some small consolation to the People for
Enduring the swamps and fevers and mosquitos and the hurricanes.
The old doctor remembers the flavors
of strawberries on his father’s farm
In the French Quarter, 70 years, a lifetime ago.
He can taste the past again, and smiles.
The miles evaporate under the clicking wheels
as we talk, and eat
And the car rocks and rolls.
The waiter flies up and down the aisle,
Used to the way the car bucks and pitches on rough spots,
Never spilling the coffee.
The eastern horizon begins to glow.
Through fallow fields and past naked trees we fly.
And like the Resurrection, the sun is up and claims the day,
Keeping pace, rising in the east, burning bright, banishing darkness again.
And out the window,
over the frosty stubble
of an Illinois cornfield,
the old promise rises,
runs alongside, keeping pace.
We race the sun to Kankakee,
yet the faint music still plays,