Pain is filtered in a poem so that it becomes finally, in the end, pleasure.
by Mark Strand
There is a girl you like so you tell her your penis is big, but that you cannot get yourself to use it. Its demands are ridiculous, you say, even self-defeating, but to be honored, somehow, briefly, inconspicuously in the dark.
When she closes her eyes in horror, you take it all back. You tell her you’re almost a girl yourself and can understand why she is shocked. When she is about to walk away, you tell her you have no penis, that you don’t
know what got into you. You get on your knees. She suddenly bends down to kiss your shoulder and you know you’re on the right track. You tell her you want to bear children and that is why you seem confused. You wrinkle your brow and curse the day you were born.
She tries to calm you, but you lose control. You reach for her panties and beg forgiveness as you do. She squirms and you howl like a wolf. Your craving seems monumental. You know you will have her. Taken by storm, she is the girl you will marry.
Keeping Things Whole
by Mark Strand
In a field I am the absence of field. This is always the case. Wherever I am I am what is missing.
When I walk I part the air and always the air moves in to fill the spaces where my body’s been.
We all have reasons for moving. I move to keep things whole
It’s time to make love, douse the glim; The fireflies twinkle and dim; The stars lean together Like birds of a feather, And the loin lies down with the limb.
The Old Age of Nostalgia
by Mark Strand
Those hours given over to basking in the glow of an imagined future, of being carried away in streams of promise by a love or a passion so strong that one felt altered forever and convinced that the smallest particle of the surrounding world was charged with a purpose of impossible grandeur; ah yes, and one would look up into the trees and be thrilled by the wind-loosened river of pale and gold foliage cascading down and by the high melodious singing of countless birds; those moments, so many and so long ago, still come back, but briefly, like fireflies in the perfumed heat of a summer night.
The spectacle of the June firefly light show in our yard is at its stunning zenith. 2022 is a spectacular crop after a dry year last year, the full wetlands that surround our house and tall grasses have brought forth a breath taking wonder. I have always been amazed by the magic of fireflies. They are the fireworks of the insect world. They attract their mates by the power of their greenish glow and signal to the world that life is amazing.
When my kids were young I would take them fire fly hunting with a repurposed sweep net and a canning jar. My rule is that they could keep them on their night stand for one night, with some delicious grass to eat, but in the morning they had to let them go, that magic too powerful to keep in a jar to die.
When was the last time you chased a fire fly down or sat and watched them shimmer in the dark night, suffering a few bites of mosquitoes for the pleasure of their company?
So You Say
by Mark Strand
It is all in the mind, you say, and has nothing to do with happiness. The coming of cold, the coming of heat, the mind has all the time in the world. You take my arm and say something will happen, something unusual for which we were always prepared, like the sun arriving after a day in Asia, like the moon departing after a night with us.
“We all have reasons for moving. I move to keep things whole.”
Mark Strand: Keeping Things Whole
Lines for Winter
by Mark Strand
Tell yourself as it gets cold and gray falls from the air that you will go on walking, hearing the same tune no matter where you find yourself— inside the dome of dark or under the cracking white of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow. Tonight as it gets cold tell yourself what you know which is nothing but the tune your bones play as you keep going. And you will be able for once to lie down under the small fire of winter stars. And if it happens that you cannot go on or turn back and you find yourself where you will be at the end, tell yourself in that final flowing of cold through your limbs that you love what you are.”
by Mark Strand
Not everyone knows what he shall sing at the end, Watching the pier as the ship sails away, or what it will seem like When he’s held by the sea’s roar, motionless, there at the end, Or what he shall hope for once it is clear that he’ll never go back.
When the time has passed to prune the rose or caress the cat, When the sunset torching the lawn and the full moon icing it down No longer appear, not everyone knows what he’ll discover instead. When the weight of the past leans against nothing, and the sky
Is no more than remembered light, and the stories of cirrus And cumulus come to a close, and all the birds are suspended in flight, Not everyone knows what is waiting for him, or what he shall sing When the ship he is on slips into darkness, there at the end.
—from Rattle #17, Summer 2002 Tribute to Pulitzer Prize Winners
Blessed art thou, O God our Lord, Who made us holy with his word, And told us on this feast of light To light one candle more each night.
(Because when foes about us pressed To crush us all with death or shame, The Lord his priests with courage blest To strike and give his people rest And in the House that he loved best Relight our everlasting flame.)
Blest art Thou, the whole world’s King, Who did so wonderful a thing For our own fathers true and bold At this same time in days of old!
If it feels like things are speeding up this year, it may be because holidays on the lunar calendar, like Hanukkah, are especially early. Hanukkah, which means dedication in Hebrew, begins on the 25th of Kislev, which is November 28, and continues to the second day of Tevet in the Hebrew calendar or Monday Dec 6th this year. Hanukkah a tradition of remembrance, associated with the gift of light is celebrated with the menorah, a candelabrum with holders for 8 candles, one for each day of the celebration, plus a ninth, the shammash used to light the other candles. One candle is lit on the first night, two on the second, three on the third, through to the eighth night when all are lit.
In my house growing up we lit advent candles during the month leading up to Christmas Eve. There were four candles in a ring, with a fifth in the middle, lit on Christmas Eve. There were five in our family, so each got to light one candle and read the prayer associated with that day. As I was the youngest, I got to light the first candle the first Sunday in Advent and kick off the season. The lighting of the first advent candle also coincided with the creation of a paper chain that my Mother would make with us children with the number of paper loops corresponding for the number of days leading up to Christmas. The paper chain hung in the hallway leading to our bedrooms, and consisted of three colors, one for each child, so we knew which night it was our turn to take down a link. The shortening chain helped build the excitement for the holiday.
Though I don’t celebrate with a paper chain or advent wreath anymore, I recognize the wisdom of my Mother’s gentle way of helping us children prepare for the holidays. These traditions slowed time down in ways that made sure we finished the preparations on the gifts we were making and helped silently guide us mentally towards our family and church celebrations. I think it might be time in this dark December, to light some candles in preparation for this year’s holidays. I am considering a hybrid between the two traditions, but useful for all the same reasons. Do you have holiday traditions involving candles that you have implemented with your family that are a carryover from your childhood?
The Coming of Light
by Mark Strand
Even this late it happens: the coming of love, the coming of light. You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves, stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows, sending up warm bouquets of air. Even this late the bones of the body shine and tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.
Is that Eric Garner worked for some time for the Parks and Rec. Horticultural Department, which means, perhaps, that with his very large hands, perhaps, in all likelihood, he put gently into the earth some plants which, most likely, some of them, in all likelihood, continue to grow, continue to do what such plants do, like house and feed small and necessary creatures, like being pleasant to touch and smell, like converting sunlight into food, like making it easier for us to breathe
For the first time since George Floyd’s death, I feel a little better, a little more hopeful. I cancelled my meetings on Thursday afternoon from 1 to 3 pm central time and watched the George Floyd memorial on TV in Minneapolis. I was moved by the poise and the power of the message of everyone who spoke. I was particularly struck by the eulogy delivered by Reverend Al Sharpton. He bridged the anger the entire world is feeling with hope. He called out the white elephant of failed leadership in this country. His message was inclusive but continued to build the foundation of Black Lives Matter. He delivered an indictment on the endemic racism that plagues America and called for us to work together to remove the barriers and realize the true dream that America can become and needs to be.
Despite that small injection of optimism on Thursday, it is with some trepidation that I select poems at this time for this blog. It is a such a time of sadness that it is hard to decipher whether words are appropriate to the gravity of the situation. Poetry can be a force for change. Poetry can be a respite from the anguish and frustration many of us are feeling, it can be a pleasant diversion. But poetry by its very essence is a framework around which each person can attach their own perspective and emotions. I am guarded that I might easily misstep. I worry that I might include a poem I find meaningful or enjoyable based on my interpretation but without realizing it, offend someone else for reasons I haven’t even considered.
I have not lived the experiences of African Americans. It would be wrong for me to only post pleasantries when my heart feels none of those things at this moment. It would also be wrong to usurp black poet’s words and feel that I am doing them justice. It is not my intent for this blog to become a commentary on social justice or politics. Fourteen Lines is about enjoyment of poetry. But it is also about sharing poetry that is relevant to what is happening in my life. And what is happening right now is more complex and more screwed up than at anytime in the past. So dear reader, if one of my selections misses the mark for you, please accept my apology and know it was not my intention to offend. The purpose of Fourteen Lines is to amuse, inspire and touch base with kindred souls across this planet, who find in the poetic arts our common humanity and an imprint of our spiritual voices that we share beyond what only reason conveys.
Why do I pair Mark Strand’s Coming to This with Ross Gay’s A Small Needfull Fact? Several imperfect reasons. First, its going to take voices on all sides to move forward; perspectives from African American, White, Latino, Native American, Asian, male, female, straight, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, trans, Republican, Democrat and disenfranchised. We need to even share ideas and voices about things which we may disagree, for no other reason than to find empathy and help us better understand our cultural diversity, and ultimately move towards a better measure of equity. But the main imperfect reason is that each poem has at least several lines and ideas or words that illuminated my thoughts in recent days or re-enforced I am not alone in thinking this way. I see in each poem things that reflect my current state of mind. It is reassuring for me to know I am not crazy. Reassuring to know someone else has tread this path before, tread it well enough to write it down, share it in a poem and seemingly survived and moved forward. If they can do it, so can I. I hope you find a line or thought or emotion or idea that helps you do the same in today’s poems. Be safe, be well. We can do better. We will do better. The time is now for change. Like Reverend Sharpton said during the memorial, the time has arrived “to make America great for everyone for the first time.”
Coming To This
by Mark Strand
We have done what we wanted.
We have discarded dreams, preferring the heavy industry
of each other, and we have welcomed grief
and called ruin the impossible habit to break.
And now we are here.
The dinner is ready and we cannot eat.
The meat sits in the white lake of its dish.
The wine waits.
Coming to this
has its rewards: nothing is promised, nothing is taken away.
We have no heart or saving grace,
no place to go, no reason to remain.
A life is not sufficiently elevated for poetry, unless, of course, the life has been made into an art.
by Mark Strand (1934 – 2014)
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.
The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.
Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.
She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.
Old Man Leaves The Party
by Mark Strand
It was clear when I left the party
That though I was over eighty I still had
A beautiful body. The moon shone down as it will
On moments of deep introspection. The wind held its breath.
And look, somebody left a mirror leaning against a tree.
Making sure that I was alone, I took off my shirt.
The flowers of bear grass nodded their moonwashed heads.
I took off my pants and the magpies circled the redwoods.
Down in the valley the creaking river was flowing once more.
How strange that I should stand in the wilds alone with my body.
I know what you are thinking. I was like you once. But now
With so much before me, so many emerald trees, and
Weed-whitened fields, mountains and lakes, how could I not
Be only myself, this dream of flesh, from moment to moment?