The Sole Performance Of A Life

Pulitzer-poetry-prize-win-001
W. S. Merwin

Sonnet

by W. S. Merwin (1927 – 2019)

Where it begins will remain a question
for the time being at least which is to
say for this lifetime and there is no
other life that can be this one again
and where it goes after that only one
at a time is ever about to know
though we have it by heart as one and though
we remind each other on occasion

How often may the clarinet rehearse
alone the one solo before the one
time that is heard after all the others
telling the one thing that they all tell of
it is the sole performance of a life
come back I say to it over the waters


William Stanley Merwin died four days ago on March 15.   Merwin was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize twice, separated by 38 years, the first in 1971 and the second in 2009, putting him in rarefied air among poets with everyone looking up at Robert Frost who received four, a bit hoggish I think, having the inability to write crap for an extended period in his career so someone else could bring home some bling.

Merwin and MacLeish helped balance the scales in the poetry world by showing it is possible to be a poet and live to a ripe old age and not smoke and drink yourself to death prematurely with an anxiety ridden existance as the source of your muse or worse yet, stick your head in an oven like a few other Pulitzer prize winners. Fortunately, the Pulitzer committee does not take into account the theatrical nature of the poet’s self-destruction as a criteria for receiving the award. They only look at the body of work and in both MacLeish’s and Merwin’s cases the body of work is long and substantial. Each lived big lives and expanded the world of poetry through their contributions. MacLeish also a recipient of the Pulitzer in 1933.

The poem below snuck up on me.  Preparing for this blog post, I read a number of MacLeish’s better known poems and kept coming back to this poem. I can’t explain why, other than it feels like a poem that is a private conversation between the poet and the reader in the quiet of the moment, a whisper in your ear, a confidence between a favorite uncle and his much younger protege, saying “pay attention, your life is happening, right now.”  So pay attention and enjoy, both your life and this poem.


The Rock In The Sea

By Archibald MacLeish (1892 – 1982)

Think of our blindness where the water burned!
Are we so certain that those wings, returned
And turning, we had half discerned
Before our dazzled eyes had surely seen
The bird aloft there, did not mean?—
Our hearts so seized upon the sign!

Think how we sailed up-wind, the brine
Tasting of daphne, the enormous wave
Thundering in the water cave—
Thunder in stone. And how we beached the skiff
And climbed the coral of that iron cliff
And found what only in our hearts we’d heard—
The silver screaming of that one, white bird:
The fabulous wings, the crimson beak
That opened, red as blood, to shriek
And clamor in that world of stone,
No voice to answer but its own.

What certainty, hidden in our hearts before,
Found in the bird its metaphor?

 

Not To Sink Under

 

Frostpicture
Robert Frost

The Investment

by Robert Frost

Over back where they speak of life as staying
(‘You couldn’t call it living, for it ain’t’),
There was an old, old house renewed with paint,
And in it a piano loudly playing.

Out in the plowed ground in the cold a digger,
Among unearthed potatoes standing still,
Was counting winter dinners, one a hill,
With half an ear to the piano’s vigor.

All that piano and new paint back there,
Was it some money suddenly come into?
Or some extravagance young love had been to?
Or old love on an impulse not to care–

Not to sink under being man and wife,
But get some color and music out of life?


It would not be grandiose of me to say that poetry has transformed my life. Poetry has been a journey, a trial, an unveiling and an unraveling the past 5 years. That it is 5 years since my mind suddenly took a left turn and found poetry soothing an ache that lost love had left behind, gives me pause on how fast the years recede and how important it is to make a few investments along the way, to get some color and music out of life.

I find myself suddenly in love again, which is not something that has happened very often in my lifetime, only three times prior. To have been in love with four women, each distinctly unique, is a gift that I do not take lightly, each having brought something completely different in terms of insights their love of me opened. I hope they would say the same of my love, at least the best of my love.

I know that a defense of anyone accused of misdeeds raises the specter that you are wrong, for we never really know what another human being is capable in the privacy of their life.  Yet, if writing is a window into our souls, and a writer who lives to write is constantly exposing some versions of their truths, then can we not deduce something of a person’s character by how they speak, by what they leave behind in words? The answer, is both yes and no. I have spent the past 5 years writing my beliefs as centering prayers, sonnets, and have completed a draft of a chap book titled The Canticle of Divine Doubt. I am in the process of sharing it, socializing it among friends and family, welcoming their feedback, positive or negative. But what will they take from those words, my poems? What can they deduce of my character from them? I wrote them not because I believe I have attained the attributes that the work describes, but because I hope by writing them and then reading them over and over, they will change me, and I will become more like the thoughts conveyed. Writing, for me, is not about arrival, it is about setting a course for my journey and correcting course as needed along the way.

If I were to judge Garrison Keillor solely based on his words,  the volumes of his writing shared on public radio as The Writer’s Almanac, what could I deduce? That he is a person emboldened by sharp intellect, that he has a tremendous taste in poetry and that he is able to share his love of writing and literature with an audience through his voice in ways that far exceed the gifts of but a very few.  That he is also human and potentially has committed acts that would neither honor the best of himself or those he might have assailed is the conundrum that makes the mystery of what compromises each life such a fascinating contradiction.  In offering a defense solely based on his public contributions, I do not deny the very real suffering that occurred by his accuser, for the courage to come forward and make an allegation is a weighty thing. And regardless of what happened between them, I hope that she has the support she needs to move on in her life and find healing, forgiveness and a return to what is good and best for her. Something happened that drove her to come forward and in no way, does my seeing some measure of redemption in the man she accused negate the harm he may have caused her and others along the way.  We are not one things as human.  No one is purely good or purely bad.  If we are lucky we find someone who is willing to love us fully, in spite of the entirety of our contradictions.

If you are not familiar with the Writer’s Almanac then there is a storehouse of podcasts just waiting for you. Here is a selection from March 16, 2017 along with a link so that you can explore on your own.  Enjoy them for what they are and in Keillor’s signature sign-off;

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

https://www.writersalmanac.org/index.html%3Fp=9654.html


For Frances

by Ogden Nash

Geniuses of countless nations
Have told their love for generations
Till all their memorable phrases
Are common as goldenrod or daisies.
Their girls have glimmered like the moon,
Or shimmered like a summer noon,
Stood like lily, fled like fawn,
Now like sunset, now like dawn,
Here the princess in the tower,
There the sweet forbidden flower.
Darling, when I think of you
Every aged phrase is new,
And there are moments when it seems
I’ve married one of Shakespeare’s dreams.

 

 

Anger Of Women

jmp Keillor
Garrison Keillor

“It’s a shallow life that doesn’t give a person a few scars.”

Garrison Keillor

The Anger of Women

by Garrison Keillor

The anger of women pervades the rooms
Like a cold snap, and you wait for the thaw
To open the window and air out the anger fumes,
And then a right hook KA-POW to the jaw!
And she says three jagged things about you
And then it’s over. She bursts into tears,
The storm spent, the sky turns sky-blue.
But a man’s heart can hurt for many years.
I have found the anger of women unbearable.
And when my goddesses have cursed the day
They met me and said those terrible
Things, I folded my tent and stole away.
I yielded to their righteous dominion
And went off in search of another opinion.


There are very few men whose reputations have been upended by the #metoo movement that I have felt compassion. For the vast majority the weight of the accusations has been overwhelming. Whatever disruption in their lives came about by shining a light on their criminal behavior or bad behavior is only a start to the justice the victims deserve.  I want to make it clear that I think the #metoo movement is an important force for positive change which I fully support.

However, I have read the accusations against Garrison Keillor and scratched my head a little by the response from Minnesota Public Radio. If there is nothing more behind Keillor’s behavior than what was reported in the news, then the actions taken by Minnesota Public Radio feel to me like he is the aggrieved not his accuser. It’s not that my fondness for Keillor’s writing and Prairie Home Companion is clouding my judgement.  It’s when does a lifetime worth of good work get erased without a day in court?  When do we allow a person’s reputation to be destroyed without allowing them to address their accuser?  It felt extremely hypocritical by MPR, a very profitable non-profit that was built on the back of Prairie Home Companion’s success. Let’s make no mistake, Prairie Home Companion was the brain child of Garrison Keillor and although he was just one artist among a talented group of artists, the bulk of the creation that was PHC was Keillor’s.  He was responsible for not only its sustained quality over decades but he wrote virtually the entire show every week. I cannot listen to Chris Thile’s Live From Here and completely enjoy it, until Garrison Keillor is welcomed back for a cameo. Thile is a talented artist and his show entertaining but everything he will accomplish is tainted in my mind if he and MPR do not acknowledge that the road to this show’s success was paved by Keillor.

The question is whether the sentence fits the crime in this case?  If taken at face value,  Keillor is guilty of inappropriate leering and flirting in the workplace. It’s not acceptable behavior, but I wonder why was it not dealt with professionally at the time by management? There is zero accusations of sexual assault, nor was there multiple women accusing him. If blundering, inappropriate sexual attraction is sufficient cause to destroy a person’s career and legacy, enough to justify MPR turning its back on its biggest star, then the legacy of the #metoo movement in this case is not justice or a move forward, it resembles more mob action with a guillotine running a muck in the streets of St. Paul, looking for its next victim for blood sport.

In this situation, I hope there is justice for both the accuser and the accused.   I hope that the art that Garrison Keillor created is judged on its merits. Art created by an artist who may be a flawed human being, but when is being human and flawed a fatal disease to be shunned?   Keillor crafted a world I enjoyed visiting on Saturday afternoons for decades. He was committed to support of poetry and support of book arts over his entire career on the radio.  He wrote countless books that bring me enjoyment. If we are to judge each other on only our worst actions and ignore all the good on the other side of the ledger, we will all look ugly in the eye’s of our judges. I for one, do not want to live in that world.  I want to live in a #metoo world that is also equally focused on forgiveness. And for what its worth, I forgive Garrison Keillor.

 

 

Happiness Is Woven Out of The Peace of Hours

May Sarton
Polly Thayer portrait of May Sarton

Fruit of Loneliness

by May Sarton (1912 – 1995)

Now for a little I have fed on loneliness
As on some strange fruit from a frost-touched vine  –
Persimmon in its yellow comeliness,
Or pomegranate-juice the color of wine,
The pucker-mouth crab apple, or late plum –
On fruit of loneliness have I been fed.
But now after short absence I am come
Back from felicity to the wine and bread.
For, being mortal, this luxurious heart
Would starve for you, my dear, I must admit,
If it were held another hour apart
From that food which it alone can comfort it –
I am come home to you, for at the end
I find I cannot live without you, friend.


“Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help.”

May Sarton


The Work of Happiness

by May Sarton

I thought of happiness, how it is woven
Out of silence in the empty house each day
And how it is not sudden and it is not given
But is creation itself like the growth of a tree.
No one has seen it happen, but inside the bark
Another circle is growing in the expanding ring,
No one has heard the root go deeper in the dark,
But the tree is lifted by this inward work
And its plumes shine, and its leaves are glittering.

So happiness is woven out of the peace of hours
And strikes its roots deep in the house alone:
The old chest in the corner, cool waxed floors,
White curtains softly and continually blown
As the free air moves quietly about the room;
A shelf of books, a table, and the white-washed wall –
These are the dear familiar gods of home,
And here the work of faith can best be done,
The growing tree is green and musical.

For what is happiness but growth in peace,
The timeless sense of time when furniture
Has stood a life’s span in a single place,
And as the air moves, so the old dreams stir
The shining leaves of present happiness
No one has heard thought or listened to a mind,
But where people have lived in inwardness
The air is charged with blessing and does bless;
Windows look out on mountains and the walls are kind.

For My Lover I Am A City of Peace

Rockwell Kent The lovers
Rockwell Kent The Lovers

Song of Songs 8:8-10

Old Testament

New translation by Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch

Chorus of Brothers:

We have a little sister
and she has no breasts.
What shall we do for our sister
when suitors besiege her?

If she is a wall, we will build
a silver turret upon her.
If she is a door, we will bolt her 
with beams of cedarwood.

Shulamite responds:

I am a wall
and my breasts are towers.
But for my lover I am
a city of peace.


It is Sunday morning, we lose a precious hour today, in this foolishness of changing clocks, but not time.  We should never move clocks forward. We should only move them back an hour, always giving us one more hour on a Sunday until we wake in the dead of night and then we would stop pretending time is something we can manipulate and give this idiocy up.

I write this post knowing my words won’t do it fairness, the beauty of the real life discovery far beyond what I can share in words.  But here goes.

I think everyone should indulge themselves with the serendipity that used book stores provide. About a month ago, the evening before the weather forecast said we were going to get a foot of snow, I stopped by my local used book store and figured I needed a book or two if I was going to be snowed in the next day.  As I usually do, I went to the poetry section and just looked at authors and titles. To my surprise, I discovered a volume that was on my long-term shopping list, an author who just recently came into my consciousness, Chana Bloch, who published back in 1995 a new translation of the Song of Songs or as it more widely known if you have a bible at hand, The Song of Solomon or by a less familiar name, The Canticle of Canticles.

The translation itself is short, taking me less than 30 minutes to read through the first time, the bulk of the book is made up of a lengthy academic forward and then an exhaustive line by line justification, (word by word in some cases), for the translation based on the Bloch’s selection of words, in their attempt to stay true to the ancient text, but setting it free as poetry not scripture.

What makes this poem remarkable is what it does not say.  It is the only book in the Bible that does not contain the word “God”, not once. It is the only book in the Bible that I am aware, in which the narrator is in first person as a young female; an empowered, strong, sensual female, for whom sexuality is not something to be avoided or ashamed, but is a thing that is sacred, a sanctity to be shared with her lover and her God.

“I am dark, daughters of Jerusalem,
and I am beautiful!
Dark as the tents of Kedar, lavish
as Solomon’s tapestries.” 

Song of Songs 1:5:6 Translation by Ariel and Chana Bloch

I cannot do an analysis of the poem justice, so I will not even try.  This is a poem that in the last month I have probably read 15 times.  I am simply absorbing it at this point, its’ insights unwrapping itself in my consciousness at its own pace.  But what I will tell you is that for me, it has restored a little wonder in my soul.  I recommend you find a copy for yourself and see what it could do for you.

The real story today is what happened several days after the snow day.  I had read the poem through probably 3 times by that point and my curiosity got the better of me on how the Bloch translation compared to my Mother’s Bible.  So I got out of bed and went and retrieved her Bible and slid into bed under the glow of my reading lamp. I am not familiar enough with the Bible to know exactly where The Song of Solomon lies so I went to the table of contents in the front, found the page number and made an attempt to open it up close to its beginning. As I did a sheet of paper fell out along with several very old pressed rose petals, pressed so thin with time between the Bible’s pages that they fell out on my naked belly in a flutter motion startling me. I carefully picked up the rose petals, trying not to damage them and set them on my bedside table and then picked up the piece of paper.  This is what it said;

IMG_3764 (1)

The prayer, (poem), is one written by Mother’s and my good friend Liz Heller.  The next time I visited Liz, I told her the story, read a little of the Blochs’ translation and read to her, her own words.  She smiled deep in thought and we sat for a bit and she said to her friend Jerry who was seated by her having lunch “You didn’t know I was a poet, did you Jerry?”  And he said, “There are lots of things I know about you Liz.”

Where ever this post finds you today, give some thought to being a city of peace, for yourself and those you love.


 

Flour and Ash

by Chana Bloch

“Make flour into dough,” she answers,
“and fire will turn it into food.
Ash is the final abstraction of matter.
You can just brush it away.”

She tacks a sheet of paper to the wall,
dips her hand in a palette of flour and ash,
applies the fine soft powders with a fingertip,
highlighting in chalk and graphite,
blending, blurring with her thumb.
Today she is working in seven shades of gray.

Outside the door, day lilies
in the high flush of summer-
about-to-be-fall. Her garden burns
red and yellow in the dry August air
and is not consumed.

Inside, on the studio wall, a heavy
particulate smoke
thickens and rises. Footsteps grime the snow.
The about-to-be-dead line up on the ramp
with their boxy suitcases,
ashen shoes.

When I get too close she yanks me back.
She hovers over her creation
though she too has a mind
to brush against that world
and wipe it out.

Dearest, Teach Me How To Hope

Lincoln_Beachey_at_Grant_Park_in_1911
Lincoln Beachey in 1911

The Skipping Rope

by Alfred Lord Tennyson

SURE never yet was antelope
Could skip so lightly by.
Stand off, or else my skipping-rope
Will hit you in the eye.
How lightly Whirls the skipping-rope !
How fairy-like you fly !
Go, get you gone, you muse and mope –
I hate that silly sigh.
Nay, dearest, teach me how to hope,
Or tell me how to die.
There, take it, take my skipping-rope,
And hang yourself thereby.


Lincoln Beachey was a pilot and daredevil beyond compare during the hey day of the bi-plane in the early days of human flight. Beachey mastered flying in ways that other pilots couldn’t conceive, maneuvers so difficult that copycats often lost their lives in their attempt to learn them. Then Beachey committed the greatest flaw of the human condition, he made an assumption that proved fatal. When the monoplane came along, the early versions were constructed with the same flimsy materials that bi-planes were made of, but since monoplanes require faster speeds to provide lift, it meant the g-forces exerted on the structure of the plane are greater as well in aerial manuevers, and when Beachey took his first monoplane up to test its ability to execute the skills he had mastered in a bi-plane, the wings fell off and he plummeted to his death.  Some mistakes you don’t come back from.

Beachey’s ignoble death has relegated him to the back lot of history, with the only early aviators who are commonly known are the Minnesotan Charles Lindbergh who made the first crossing of the Atlantic in 1927 and Amelia Earhart who is famous for crashing into the Pacific Ocean somewhere and was never heard from again.

What does Beachey have to do with poetry? Sometimes we have to fly faster than our wings were designed, and then like Tennyson says, “Teach me how to hope, or tell me how to die.”

Check out the Radiolab podcast link below to hear the whole wonderful story about Lincoln Beachy and how he became immortalized in San Francisco culture as a line in a jump rope song.

https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/159748-loop-loop


Sonnet

by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Me my own fate to lasting sorrow doometh:
Thy woes are birds of passage, transitory:
Thy spirit, circled with a living glory,
In summer still a summer joy resumeth.
Alone my hopeless melancholy gloometh,
Like a lone cypress, through the twilight hoary,
From an old garden where no flower bloometh,
One cypress on an inland promontory.
But yet my lonely spirit follows thine,
As round the rolling earth night follows day:
But yet thy lights on my horizon shine
Into my night when thou art far away;
I am so dark, alas! and thou so bright,
When we two meet there’s never perfect light.

Holding My Breath, No Shore In Sight

Calcium

Calcium Ca, 20

by Julia Klatt Singer

She tells me she doesn’t leave her room much anymore.
Is sleeping.  Cannot stay awake.
Cannot remember if she dreams.

I picture her auburn hair, how she pushed it back
from her cheek, hair she no longer has.
Shut my eyes tight and I can see

the way the sun spilled on her floor, smell
autumn in her hair.  Shut my mouth and I can taste
the milk of every word she’s swallowed

to protect me from this.  She never told me
life could feel like drowning;
holding my breath, no shore in sight.

She never told me knowledge could feel
like shards of coral
buried carefully under skin.

She never told me sadness
could cement my heart,
each new sorrow thicker than the last.

All I know is that our bodies betray us.
And in the end, all we leave
are teeth and ash, love and bones.


 

There are some poems that stick with me, find a place inside my brain and take up residence. Julia Klatt Singer’s poem Calcium is one such poem. This poem reminds me of William Stafford’s best poetry, honest, raw, powerful and haunting. In my opinion, men can never completely understand the relationship that exists between mothers and daughters. It’s not that we are incapable of loving in our own way or being deeply observant of those ties, it’s that we do not have the ability to bring life into this world and then pass it to the next generation and by so doing cement a connection, an umbilical cord that remains tethered, though invisible between them. Good Mothers have two wombs, one in which life is conceived and nurtured to birth and another which lovingly protects their children as best they can for the rest of their lives.

I was in Tampa, Florida last week, and east of there lies the bone valley, named for the rich deposits of phosphate ore, the fossilized remainders of marine animals whose bones and teeth sunk to the bottom of a shallow ocean millions of years ago. Bones and teeth are comprised of calcium phosphate, something that might surprise you if you associate phosphorus only as the currency of energy in plants and animals.

A brief biology lesson. Every living cell of plants and animals are powered by the release of energy stored in the compound called adenosine triphosphate or ATP. ATP is produced in chloroplasts in plants and in mitochondria in animals. Chloroplasts and mitochondria are called organelles, tiny structures that exist within cells to provide the energy and raw materials to keep cells alive and functioning for the purpose they were designed to support the whole of that individual living being.

Mitochondria are curious little structures within our bodies.  They have a distinction of having their own genetic DNA structure, which resembles more a foreign invader from millions of years ago that decided to work together within a larger multi-celled organism to provide synergies that would power the evolution of all higher organisms on our planet.  A mitochondria’s DNA is a crude circle, akin to more a bacteria’s than higher organisms like plants and animals.  In humans mitochondrial DNA is only passed on from your mother, which means we can trace all of our lineages back to a common theoretical Eve or a small handful of Eve’s based on the similarity of our mitochondrial DNA.   There are somethings only mother’s can do and providing the capability to power our cells with ATP is one of them.

What makes energy transfer by ATP possible to power respiration and cellular repairs is the release of energy as it is degraded to ADP, adenosine diphosphate within the mitochondria. As these compounds are literally the fuel at the cellular level of all higher living organisms the availability of phosphorus is a requirement for either uptake by plant roots, or digested in the food that animals eat if both are going to have adequate supply for a healthy life.

Phosphorus is present in all soils to some extent, but native soils throughout much of the world in both the tropics and the high plains are often very low in phosphate levels, low enough to severely limit the productivity of those soils.

Phosphorus was discovered 350 years ago by Hennig Brand in Hamburg Germany in 1669.  He did so by boiling down 60 buckets of urine to find out what was present and discovered phosphorus. Phosphorus is not a component of gun powder, but is a source of ignition, safety matches ignite due to the extreme reactivity of phosphorus with the potassium chlorate in the matchhead.

The Mosaic Company is the largest manufacturer of phosphate fertilizer in the world currently and supplies approximately 50 percent of the dry phosphate fertilizer to North America used to provide balanced crop nutrition to support the most productive farmland in the world. The process of making that fertilizer is truly a feat of human ingenuity, from the mining and reclamation process, to the separation of the phosphate containing ore from the matrix of sand and clay in which it is found, to the production of phosphoric acid by taking the phosphate pebble and pulverizing it into a fine powder and then reacting it with sulfuric acid to produce gypsum, calcium sulfate, and phosphoric acid. The phosphoric acid is then reacted with ammonia in a very specific mole ratio to produce either Monoammonium phosphate, MAP or diammonium phosphate, DAP, both forms of plant available dry phosphorus fertilizer that are effective in supporting greater productivity and greater profitability for farmers all over the world.

Poetry is also a form of stored energy.  It awaits suspended, within the pages of a book, for you to absorb it, to nourish you in ways you never expected and then power your cells with energy, power your brain, power your soul to light up and shine.  I doubt that Klatt Singer consciously thought of a connection between her poems Calcium and Phosphorus, though they lie in her volume of poetry Elemental separated by only one poem, Chlorine, trace amounts of which are trapped in the calcium phosphate ore. That’s the beauty of poetry, each reader brings a different perspective to the connections the poet’s lines make in our lives. Each of us find the energy stored within and release it to feed us for another day.

Enjoy the poem Phosphorus below and I encourage you to go to the Prolific Press website and order a copy of Elemental for yourself.  Love and friendship are elemental. Poetry is elemental.  Become elemental in your thinking and it will take you to what’s important.


Phosphorous  P, 15

by Julia Klatt Singer

On the overnight ferry

from Copenhagen to Oslo, we slip
through the narrow channel
heading further north than
I have ever been before.
The Baltic Sea as dark as
the sky and colder.

The snow-topped mountains
reflect in the water
. .           ,  deep Vs,
zigzag teeth without bite.

Around midnight,
little glowing jellyfish swirl
in the wake. The night sky
clouded over – the sea
full of stars.


 

Poems  from Elemental, Prolific Press 2018.  Used by permission of the author.