This afternoon I attended the graduation of my niece, Anastatia Spicer, at The Cambridge School of Weston in Massachusetts and discovered firsthand what an amazing education she received. All the graduation speakers were excellent, and I was especially struck by the honesty and courage of one of the Senior Speakers, Raekwon Samir Walker. He ended his talk by reciting one of my favorite poems, "Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes. It's a poem with vivid, concrete imagery and deep humanity, and as he read it, I was moved to tears. We gave Raekwon a standing ovation. A good poem to tuck in your backpack for whatever journey you're on. Thanks, Raekwon.
When I first met my husband, Jim, he was hard at work on his dream--earning a PhD in English at the University at Notre Dame so he could teach literature. To make ends meet, he also taught legal writing in the ND Law School. I worked as an editor in the ND Publications Office. We crossed paths a couple times on campus, but for me it was not love at first sight. Then one day while we were talking, he found out I loved poetry. A couple days later, he gave me a copy of the poem below, which he eventually published. How could I resist "soothing daily language, / spleenic and fleshy, that sweats and breathes. / . . . giggles like children feigning sleep"?
It was love at first poem. Jim has written many poems since, but this is still one of my favorites.
Do you have favorite stories or poems where words act as aphrodisiacs?
(after teaching legal writing)
I retreat to verse, verses without any
smack of plaintiff, client, or defendant.
I’ve spoken my fill of memos, issues, briefs,
complaints, jurisprudent circumlocutions.
“. . . aforementioned decedent, that Pother
woman, found by defendant deceased beneath
said truck on or about that point in time,
in invitium, without consent or contract. . . .”
So I to verse, soothing daily language,
spleenic and fleshy, that sweats and breathes.
It touches, tints, babbles like common folk,
whispers, giggles like children feigning sleep.
Juridic jargon tries the tongue which forms it
as it meanders along obfuscating.
“. . . supply and furnish us this day and forward,
baked grain foodstuffs, hereinafter called ‘bread’ . . . .”
Caveat emptor; caveat lector.
I retreat to my verse, bland words, blank verse,
and hew of coarser, meaner stuff, some lines.
James A. Zarzana
Elizabeth Bishop's Art
Today is poet Elizabeth Bishop's birthday. Here's one of my favorites, a villanelle, by Bishop:
The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three beloved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.
-- Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) a disaster.
Do You Memorize Poems?
I am inspired by poets who memorize their own poems and recite them by heart at their readings--Philip Dacey, Susan McLean, Beth Ann Fennelly, to name a few. I have memorized one of my favorite poems, "Stepping Westward" by Denise Levertov, and I love that sense of portability--of being able to recite it in my head or share it with someone else wherever and whenever I want to do so. I know some of my own poems by heart, but memorizing more of my own poems and those by others is one of my goals. Do you memorize poems? Why or why not? What are some of your favorite memorized poems?
Happy Birthday, Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson is a poet I've come to appreciate more over time as I've matured as a writer and seen her work in its historical context. I enjoyed reading more about her life in today's Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor. She's a poet whose work I'd like to get to know better. In the past, part of me resisted being a Dickinson devotee just because it seemed to be the expected thing. Ah, my arrogance as a young writer. But with age, I have a greater need to honor and learn from poets who have gone before me, whose shoulders I stand on, to pay them homage. In that vein, I loved the poem in today's Writer's Almanac by Andrea Carlisle, "Emily Dickinson's To-Do List." I also love the Billy Collins poem "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes" in his book Picnic, Lightning. I am sure one day I will write my own homage poem to Emily. In the meantime, here is one of my favorites of hers:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
After I gave blood tonight at the Marshall YMCA, I sat and ate cookies with some of the other blood donors. One woman who lived on a farm, talked about her pets--dogs, goats and llamas. It reminded me of one of my favorite poems by Philip Dacey. I enjoy the narrative of the poem, I admire the craft, the way Phil uses form and rhyme, and I love the thread of the poem, where it takes me, how it opens up at the end, makes me want to be more aware of the llamas in my own life.
Because today I walked a llama back home,
I have a new standard for all my coming days.
Just minutes with the llama made this one a poem
of kindly wonders, long-necked woolly praise.
I'd been raking leaves, bent forward, head down,
eyes on my country acre, so that when
I raised them and saw at my driveway's end
a llama standing tall there, checking me out,
I was all stammer and gawk and disbelief
until I thought of Leon, my neighbor half-
a-mile away, whose land was mostly zoo,
menagerie, whatever, I called him Doo-
little, the animal doctor himself,
though Leon was no vet, just one big heart
for anything that walked on paw, web, or hoof--
goat, peacock, sheep, horse, donkey, mink, hare, hart.
But llama? I'd never noticed one before,
though no doubt my surprise at seeing him
was matched by his at seeing me--or more
than matched, he being lost, freedom become
a burden twice as bad as any bars,
so much so panic struck and he turned back,
high-stepping it onto the road, two-lane, tarred,
and I saw the headline, "Llama killed by truck."
Dropping the rake, I raced to rescue him,
who now stood frozen, straddling the centerline,
looking this way and that--oh, too much room,
too little clue. I had to herd him to Leon .
With slow approach and arms a traffic cop's,
I eased him into action in the lane
leading to llama-chow and fell into step
beside him--well, sort of, his two to my one.
I talked him down the road, an unbroken string
of chatter my invisible halter and rein:
“Howyadoin? Where'd you think you were going?
A little farther now, big guy. You'll be just fine.”
Luckily, no car came to make him bolt,
though I almost wished for one, wanting someone
to see us, like old friends out for a stroll,
shoulder to shoulder in the morning sun.
Once we got close enough to what he knew,
he was gone, down the right driveway this time,
and I was left alone to wave goodbye: “You
take care now.” His thanks silent. “You're welcome.”
I don't expect the llama to escape again.
Leon 's repaired a fence, no doubt, or gate.
So I know tomorrow I'll have to find my own,
invent one, a facsimile, and I can't wait.
Already I see him coming like a dream,
disguised as odd events, encounters, small dramas
worth at least a laugh. Let “He walked his llama home”
be my epitaph. I wish you lots of llamas.
Cumberland Poetry Review, 2004
The first big snow in Marshall today, slow but steady accumulation all day long--like living in one of those miniature snow globe worlds.
By the time my daughter Elaine came to pick me up from work, the roads were bad, and plows had not made the rounds yet. But we only had a short 3-minute drive from campus to home. No sweat.
As Elaine pulled up to the stop sign at a busy cross street two blocks from home, a driver came barreling along on our left, too fast for the poor road conditions and attempted to turn right. But the driver must have realized that wouldn't be possible. There was no traction to turn. The car's trajectory would crash it right into my daughter's side of the car. My daughter who turned 25 today.
The car swerved back onto the cross street rather than attempting the turn.
As I watched, time slowed as they always say, as Kelly Madigan Erlandson writes in the poem below. We were driving home to celebrate my daughter's birthday, but in one instant it could have been otherwise. I felt my heart rise into my throat, as the car whooshed so close to our front bumper. "A God thing," a gift moment. It reminded me of Kelly's poem, so I share it here:
After the Test Said Yes
Stopped at the crossroad on 14th street, ice clean
as an apple slice under my wheels, I am waiting
for my turn and I don't know yet about looking back
which is why I cannot describe the color or make of what hit me,
moving too fast to brake on the black, and my blue Volkswagen
shoots out into oncoming lanes and once there begins to spin--
and that is where time slows, like they always say,
forming an opening in the day that was already thick with news.
The man comes to the car window,
wants to know if I'm okay, and I tell him I'm pregnant,
that I just found out this morning, and he looks like he will faint,
and I open the door and step out into the street,
and this, I believe, is the story of conception; how my daughter
used momentum and ice and velocity and impact
to pierce the atmosphere and enter the world.
-Kelly Madigan Erlandson
(from Born in the House of Love. Main-Traveled Roads. Originally published in Barrow Street. Selected for Poem of the Day, The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor, March 4, 2006. Reprinted with permission.)
I love to play with words. To capture moments on the page. To explore the physical and spiritual geography of what I call "fly-over country." I write from imagination, observation and my own experience of wandering in fly-over country--the literal, physical spaces of my life on the Minnesota prairie and the inner territory of the soul.