Sometimes, Everything I Write

Robert Lowell (1917 – 1977)

“If we see light at the end of the tunnel, it’s the light of the oncoming train.”

Robert Lowell

Epilogue

by Robert Lowell 

Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme—
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
All’s misalliance.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name


 

Happy New Years.   My intention has been to spend the month of January doing a deeper dive into Robert Lowell,  the last white male poet to be on the cover of Time Magazine.  It is said we all foreshadow our own destruction, but in the case of Lowell, he foreshadowed not only his own, but also nearly the down fall of poetry itself in America. 

In my mind Lowell epitomizes where the politics of poetry went wrong in the 20th Century.   For an artform that is irreparably bound to breaking all the conventions in its creation, there is still politics in the way that new poets are vetted and published and paid.  Something happened as Lowell reached the zenith of his career in the 1960’s that nearly broke poetry.  The business of poetry, which was and still is in some ways, largely controlled by an elitist insulated establishment, committed the gravest of sins in my mind, it became boring.  Lowell is the demarcation point where poetry hit the proverbial white male wall. And although there have been many fine white male poets who have carried on since, the sun has set on that regime to have the type of influence, readership and popular appeal that was possible in the first half of the 20th century.  

The 1970’s, 1980’s and beyond have seen the rise of  greater diversity, different perspectives, different expressionism and  the full ascension of free verse, to the point that many poets have forgotten,  that poetry at its essence should go beyond the page and live in our mouths as well as our minds.  It should read well aloud.  The past 40 years have carved out a niche for nearly ever type of poetry, but along with it a smaller and smaller readership, at least published, even for the most successful, such that it is harder and harder for a poet to make a living as a poet.  Poetry has become what it always was, a way of thinking, a life style, but it is only for a very talented few, who can actually make a living at it without subsidizing their passion through teaching or another line of work or an acceptance of poverty.  You don’t have to be wealthy to be a poet, but it certainly doesn’t hurt if it is your desire for it to be your vocation. And such as it has been since Homer and Browning. 

Lowell wrote 100’s of sonnets in his lifetime and translated nearly that many as well from other poets.   Yet, there is not a single sonnet of Lowell’s that I can point to that anyone is likely to be familiar or that I would give a resounding, thumbs up.  The problem with celebrating Lowell is he is hard to like because his poetry is so overtly academic, it is not accessible.  Lowell’s poems are inside jokes of arcane knowledge written for the critics and his other academic friends to decipher.  And because Lowell won nearly every award a poet can win, and was heaped with praise and success, other’s followed mistakenly down his rather drab path, creating a self-compounding problem of scaring off more and more readers.  Poetry became up and through the 1990’s more and more incestuous in the process of what is published.  In my opinion, the only thing that saved poetry from extinction was the internet.  The internet over the last 20 years made it possible for writers to self publish in ways that harken back to Dicken’s selling single page periodicals in the streets.  Anyone willing to set up a blog and willing to write could access the world.  

I honestly believe more people on the planet are reading poetry than ever before, though you wouldn’t know it to look at the poetry section in your local bookstore, that is if your local book store has survived the ravages of the past 20 years and the pandemic.  The fact that local book stores have closed in droves across the United States is further evidence of the challenges that writers face in finding their audience in the traditional printed sense.  And yet, I am blown away by the level of talent that emerges year after year.   There are more good writers of poetry than ever before, even if book sales continue to decline. 

The internet has made it possible for people to create, find and share poetry like never before.  So why spend a month diving into someone I so dislike and worse disdain? Life is too short to read bad poetry. My mantra about reading poetry is the same as it is for food, consume what you enjoy!   The reason is I have decided I would like to figure out  maybe where poetry took the wrong road less traveled, particularly classical poetry and why it hit a dead end.  And to do so, I thought it might be interesting to follow that trail back and look about.   If the sonnet is a vehicle of artistic endeavor rusting in the scrap yard in most readers minds, then let’s spend a little time with one of the writers who helped run it off the road into some trees.   Lowell was connected to so many poets, first as a student,  then through his social network as friends, and then as a professor and the writers he mentored as students, that he is one of those literary figures that sits at the center of an incredible spider web of authors from the 20th century.  I will do my best over the next 30 days, to spend the majority of the time on writers other than Lowell, to which Lowell was connected, and to actually find a poem or two of Lowell’s in his vast collected works, that I enjoy.  Wish me luck.   

Happy New Years!  And if Lowell and his cronies are not to your liking.  I will see you in February. 


Bringing A Turtle Home

by Robert Lowell

On the road to Bangor, we spotted a domed stone,
a painted turtle petrified by fear.
I picked it up.  The turtle had come a long walk,
200 millennia understudy to dinosaurs,
then their survivor.  A god for the out-of-power….
Faster gods come to Castine, flush yachtsman who see
hell as a city very much like New York,
these gods gave a bad past and worse future to men
who never bother to set a spinnaker;
culture without cash isn’t worth their spit.
The laughter on Mount Olympus was always breezy….
Goodnight, little Boy, little Soldier, live,
a toy to your friend, a stone of stumbling to God —-
sandpaper Turtle, scratching your pail for water. 


Stay Yet, My Friends, A Moment Stay

New-Year’s-Eve

New Year’s Wishes!
(body parts sonnet)

by Bruce Ballard

Your heart has wished folks well on New Year’s Eve.
You’ve sung “Should old acquaintance be forgot…”
(Your brain recalled the right words – did it not?),
And felt deep in your gut all you’ll achieve
In the year ahead.  You’ve mouthed the words
And eyed the prize you’re sure you’ll win within
The first few months.  Oh, toe the line, begin
A diet, lend a hand…it sounds absurd
Because you’ve voiced this every year.  But now
That you have Parkinson’s, you need to arm
Yourself much more, to hold at bay the harm
That Mr. P has slapped across your brow.
So, yes, you’ll face the facts, and double check
To work out, keep your chin up, save your neck.


I wonder what 2020 will mean to us 10 years from now?   Will it be just one year of discontinuity and hardship that signals the start of better things? Will we look back at it nostalgically with some small amount of pride of having survived it and been the better for it?  Or will 2020 become the moment America and the world looks back and realizes it was the start of when nothing was ever going to be the same?  

I am optimistic that the vaccines will improve our ability to return to more normal lives.  But I do not think it will convey the type of immunity that polio or measles or even the chicken pox vaccine conveys.  More likely it will be more analogous to the current flu vaccines, which improve our ability to fight off that year’s flu strain but do not totally protect us from it.  Likely this will become another requirement in our yearly flu shot routine.  The new COVID vaccines available today and the improved versions in years to come will be key tools for our public and personal health, but likely won’t be perfect.  There will inevitably be reports of people who received one of the vaccines, only to die from COVID.  In my mind, that does not mean the vaccines did not confer benefits to individuals and to society.  Nothing in health care is 100% effective. 

In the next 10 years, we will learn what the long term health consequences of having multiple infections of COVID.  We will learn whether there are positive or negative impacts of having COVID when you are younger that convey benefits or harm when you are older and a myriad other questions that only time can answer.  We will learn what the impact is on our health care system of the “long haulers”, individuals that have recovered from initial infections but continue to have debilitating symptoms long afterwards.  We will learn the consequences for those that do not take the vaccine and the impacts on their families.  We will learn as a society whether we can implement public health policies and practices that have benefited us for generations with the latest technology or will misinformation campaigns that sow seeds of fear prevail?  Will the fear of science and the onslaught of misinformation in the media steer misguided thinking towards an increase of unvaccinated?  I fear what is already a difficult proposition of getting our society inoculated at rates that benefit everyone, will be made all the more difficult by the media giving too much voice to anti-vaxers individual right to choose and thereby erode a greater public good.  I worry that bogus conspiracy theories that influence individual’s leaning towards not getting the vaccine could impact inoculation rates at levels that might erode the effectiveness of our public health.   

I think those of us that are confident in the science have an obligation to speak up for this incredible opportunity we have been given in 2021.  Vaccinations work because we mutually agree to enter into a compact as a society to take them together. We have already seen that countries with a greater mutual  cooperation around practical public health measures, like wearing a mask, achieve far superior outcomes than the United States in terms of infection rates and death.  Will we see the same with vaccination success in the coming years?   Will there be a divide between countries that achieve a high rapid percentage of  the population vaccinated and those that don’t in terms of life expectancy and COVID infection?  Will we see the United States, which used to be among the top in public health outcomes and life expectancy, continue to slip further and further behind the world’s best countries that spend far less and achieve far more? 

It all feels pretty bleak when there is such a large percentage of our community/country that still is rallying behind a much more disturbing myth of a second Trump presidency that is based on a completely imaginary alternative reality.   If we can’t agree as a society on something that is pretty black and white at this point, that Biden won a fair and accurate election, then how do we deal with more complicated issues around vaccines in which there is some shared risk and some unknowns, not so much in their safety, but in their long term efficacy?  The misguided fears of vaccines seems trivial in comparison to the current political divide, which begs the question is America capable of  mutual cooperation to achieve a greater good anymore?  

But, it’s New Years! As someone with high blood pressure and type II  diabetes I fit into the high risk category of the cross hairs of COVID.   I am looking forward to the day that I get my chance to be vaccinated and the second day sometime in 2021 or early 2022 when I will receive my booster and my body will be in a better position to fight it off.   And that hope is a bright spot waiting out there somewhere for me in the coming year.

Happy New Years!   Be well! 


A Song For New Year’s Eve

by William Cullen Bryant (1794 – 1878)

Stay yet, my friends, a moment stay –
.         . Stay till the good old year ,
So long companion of our way,
.          . Shakes hands, and leaves us here.
.            .      . Oh stay,  oh stay ,
One little hour , and then away .

The year , whose hopes were high and strong ,
.           . Has now no hopes to wake ;
Yet one hour more of jest and song
.            . For his familiar sake.
.            .   Oh stay , oh stay ,
One mirthful hour , and then away .

The kindly year, his liberal hands
.     . Have lavished all his store.
And shall we turn from where he stands,
.     . Because he gives no more?
.          . Oh stay, oh stay,
One grateful hour, and then away.

Days brightly came and calmly went,
.     . While yet he was our guest;
How cheerfully the week was spent!
.     . How sweet the seventh day’s rest!
.         . Oh stay, oh stay,
One golden hour, and then away.

Dear friends were with us, some who sleep
.    . Beneath the coffin-lid:
What pleasant memories we keep
.     . Of all they said and did!
.          . Oh stay, oh stay,
One tender hour, and then away.

Even while we sing, he smiles his last,
.     . And leaves our sphere behind.
The good old year is with the past;
.     . Oh be the new as kind!
.          . Oh stay, oh stay,
One parting strain, and then away

 

So Much Hope Now Around The Heart of Lightning

Kamau Braithwaite (1930 – 2020)

Guanahani, 11

Kamau Brathwaite 
 

like the beginnings – o odales o adagios – of islands
from under the clouds where I write the first poem

its brown warmth now that we recognize them
even from this thunder’s distance

still w/out sound. so much hope
now around the heart of lightning that I begin to weep

w/such happiness of familiar landscap
such genius of colour. shape of bay. headland

the dark moors of the mountain
ranges. a door opening in the sky

right down into these new blues & sleeping yellows
greens – like a mother’s

embrace like a lover’s
enclosure. like schools

of fish migrating towards homeland. into the bright
light of xpectation. birth

of these long roads along the edge of Eleuthera,
now sinking into its memory behind us

Not to Mention Love: A Heart for Patricia

(An Excerpt)

by David Clewell (1955-2020)

So when you turn out the light
and this page goes as dark as the room you’re lying down in
and for one night at least there are no more distractions,
it’s my heart you’ll be listening to. And it’s yours.
We fit together so well sometimes it’s not easy
telling whose lips, whose arms, whose heat in the groin,
whose very good idea. I’m not taking any chances
bigger than the one you’ve given me–your insistent heart
mixed up with mine: uh-huh, uh-huh, huh-huh,
and my heart has never been the heart it is right now.
It’s what we’ve both been waiting for: I’m asking you
to make of it what you surely will, to take it from here,
in your love beyond these imperfect words, please
take it wherever you’re going tonight from here

Nobody, But Nobody Can Make It Out Here Alone

Star Tribune Special Edition Honoring George Floyd Dec. 27, 2020

Alone

by Maya Angelou  (1928-2014)

 

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.


When I walked out to get something out of my car this Sunday morning, running out in bare feet despite snow and a temperature of 18 degrees F, I was surprised to see a copy of the Star Tribune sitting in my drive way, safely encased in a plastic bag, protecting it from the elements.  I figured it had been mistakenly delivered to our driveway and was a neighbor’s, but as I looked around wondering which door to knock on and the need to go back and put on boots to carry out that errand, I realized that every driveway in my St. Louis Park neighborhood had a copy of the Star Tribune sitting delivered, waiting for them, regardless if they had a subscription to the Sunday paper.   When I went inside, glad to have the Sunday paper to read with my morning coffee, I was incredibly moved by what was waiting for me inside.  

I do not know if this special edition was delivered only to St. Louis Park residents for free because it was where George Floyd lived at the time of his death or whether it was done more broadly across Minneapolis, but what I know, is that I am incredibly grateful to all the individuals involved in giving this special tribute, and to the Star Tribune for its generosity in making it happen.  It had a profound impact on me.  I sat down and read every word as emotions swept over me.   

I have written before about how much George Floyd’s death has shaken my sense of self and my sense of home.  It has made me question what role I am called on now to play to reassess my own prejudice, ingrained in ways beyond my creation, but still very real, even in ways that I might have perceived before as good intentions.  I feel tremendous shame in George Floyd’s murder by policemen whose salaries are paid by the money I contribute through property taxes on my home.  I still ask myself, “how did this happen?”  How do men sworn to protect and serve in my community act so callously towards a human being in obvious need of assistance over a matter so minor in importance?  Floyd’s death is a sea change in how I feel about myself and my hometown and the responsibility we all share in figuring out how to narrow the opportunity gap that exists in our community and change the trajectory of our combined futures.    

The article also gave me a little glimmer of hope, despite all that has happened.   I was moved how George was proud of Minneapolis while he was alive of how he felt about how it had afforded him the opportunity for a new start in life.  All Floyd wanted was the chance to put the past behind,  the opportunity for honest work, honest wages and a chance to contribute.  Floyd and I want(ed) the same things,  we have the same ambitions.   It’s not fair that so many barriers were put in his way on what should have been his human right, whereas for me, barriers were cleared out of my path without me even knowing it.   I cried as I read his pride in finally having a place of his own with a room mate in a St. Louis Park duplex that is less than a mile of the home that I own. Though I never met George Floyd we were neighbors in the sense we both lived in and love the same neighborhood.    

https://www.startribune.com/george-floyd-hoped-moving-to-minnesota-would-save-him-what-he-faced-here-killed-him/573417181/

I don’t have the words to express how much George Floyd’s death has impacted me and challenged me to think differently.   I still have not figured out what that means in terms of how thinking differently will lead to action.   I know  his death has had a remarkable impact on this community,  that it has altered things in ways we can not go back.   And yet, the start of a long journey does not mean we have arrived.  Thoughtful memorials and moving tributes have not yet fundamentally changed things in our community.  We have yet in Minneapolis and St. Louis Park to narrow the education, income and achievement gap that people of color face today, nor improved health care access or fair housing or the endless other things that myself and so many others who prosper in the riches of Minneapolis the past 100 years take for granted.  What I do know is that his death has made me more consciously aware that those that have prosperity have an obligation to figure out how to improve the opportunity for those that don’t.   Action starts with awareness.  Now, I have to figure out where that will lead me. 

I am grateful for the staff and writers at the Star Tribune that provided this  healing gift this morning in helping me live in the present and not look any farther than myself in resolving to do better.   Thank you.  The James Wright poem, published in 1992,  is a reminder the challenges we face as a community have been with us for a long, long time and aren’t going away soon.   It is going to take hard work to make a dent in the problems our community faces.  It is going to take sacrifice and resources committed that don’t exist today.   Let’s not waste time debating the matter.  George Floyd’s life and death are testament for the need for change.  Let’s figure this out, together. 


The Minneapolis Poem

By James Wright

to John Logan

1
I wonder how many old men last winter
Hungry and frightened by namelessness prowled   
The Mississippi shore
Lashed blind by the wind, dreaming
Of suicide in the river.
The police remove their cadavers by daybreak   
And turn them in somewhere.
Where?
How does the city keep lists of its fathers   
Who have no names?
By Nicollet Island I gaze down at the dark water   
So beautifully slow.
And I wish my brothers good luck
And a warm grave.
 
   2
The Chippewa young men
Stab one another shrieking
Jesus Christ.
Split-lipped homosexuals limp in terror of assault.   
High school backfields search under benches   
Near the Post Office. Their faces are the rich   
Raw bacon without eyes.
The Walker Art Center crowd stare
At the Guthrie Theater.
 
   3
Tall Negro girls from Chicago
Listen to light songs.
They know when the supposed patron
Is a plainclothesman.
A cop’s palm
Is a roach dangling down the scorched fangs   
Of a light bulb.
The soul of a cop’s eyes
Is an eternity of Sunday daybreak in the suburbs   
Of Juárez, Mexico.
 
   4
The legless beggars are gone, carried away
By white birds.
The Artificial Limbs Exchange is gutted
And sown with lime.
The whalebone crutches and hand-me-down trusses   
Huddle together dreaming in a desolation
Of dry groins.
I think of poor men astonished to waken   
Exposed in broad daylight by the blade   
Of a strange plough.
 
   5
All over the walls of comb cells
Automobiles perfumed and blindered   
Consent with a mutter of high good humor   
To take their two naps a day.
Without sound windows glide back
Into dusk.
The sockets of a thousand blind bee graves tier upon tier
Tower not quite toppling.
There are men in this city who labor dawn after dawn
To sell me my death.
 
   6
But I could not bear
To allow my poor brother my body to die
In Minneapolis.
The old man Walt Whitman our countryman
Is now in America our country
Dead.
But he was not buried in Minneapolis
At least.
And no more may I be
Please God.
 
   7
I want to be lifted up
By some great white bird unknown to the police,
And soar for a thousand miles and be carefully hidden   
Modest and golden as one last corn grain,
Stored with the secrets of the wheat and the mysterious lives   
Of the unnamed poor.
 
 

Often, On Christmas

DollyForSue

On Christmas

by Marion Strobel

Often, on Christmas,
I listen to a chant
Float from a colored window
Softly sibilant.

Often, on Christmas,
I wait until a glow
From a colored pane of glass
Slides across the snow.

Yet though I hear songs,
And listen from without,
I never quite know what
Christmas is about.

I never quite know –
Till, singing on my breast
And warm as a colored light,
Your head is at rest.


The idea of gift making rather than gift buying is something I wish we could wrestle away from the marketing blitz of advertising.  I received several very thoughtful gifts this year as well, all of which I am thankful but the gift that stands out is the one hand made gift.  My father made his gift for me again this year and I will always treasure it.  It is a pair of walnut wooden tongs that is brilliant in the simplicity and elegance of its design.  It is light weight, durable, functions perfectly and stores flat and easily.  I will think of him every time I use them to make bacon, serve a salad, fish out pickles and olives from a jar and admire them on my counter top.   In addition he wrote me a poem, which is brilliant in its wit and clever rhymes.  I shall maybe share it on Fourteen Lines sometime this winter.

When I was growing up, for months leading up to Christmas, I could hear my Mother sewing on her sewing machine.  Sewing clothes for all of us to wear to holiday gatherings and Church, sewing dresses for herself, sewing doll clothes for favorite dolls of my sister’s given in previous Christmases, as well as a small wardrobe of clothes for any new dolls that Santa might bring.   It was common that doll’s would receive new outfits in the left over scraps of the things that were sewn up for one of us, such that the doll would continue to wear that outfit long after we had grown out of ours.   She would mix and match scraps, with some of the fabric used to make my clothes showing up in doll clothes.

To keep this impressive production going meant many trips to the fabric store and what we called the five and dime store (Ben Franklin) and with it, opportunities to pick out that year’s ornament tree ornament kits that my sister’s and I would turn into new decorations for our own tree as well as gifts to give Grandparents and others.  There were endless kits back in those days, but lots of silk covered foam balls with a bag full of pearl handled long pins and beads of all different shapes and colors that you could thread onto the pin and then attach various pieces of sparkly sequins, beads, braided gold or silver cord or trinkets.  There was usually a several page instruction manual and these were no small undertakings to sort out all the items in the kit and then assemble them.  It would keep us busy for days. The kits were good training on how to keep yourself occupied and also how to organize your time as if the plan was to make 2 or 3 as gifts and each one took several days on weekends or evenings to make, you had to be a little disciplined in moving the projects forward in the weeks leading up to Christmas to get them all done.  The kits were a way to keep us occupied as my Mother did all the things she had to do to get ready for the holidays.  Once we were grown, probably half of my Mother and Father’s Christmas tree ornaments consisted of things we had made as kids.

This year I decided to do some paper arts as gifts, making folded paper hearts and a variation where the folded hearts were wings of an angel and gave them out as decorations.    Do you have a favorite hand made gift from this year or year’s past? What hand made gifts are part of your holiday traditions?


My Offerings

by Marion Strobel

Now that I am bringing you
Dolls of wool, and dolls of tin,
Dolls that squeak when you press in,
Rattles that you shake, or chew,

Now that toys are on your bed –
All the new ones and the old,
And the ones you like to scold,
And those to be comforted –

Now, that you are holding things
That I bring, and carefully
Breaking them – it seems to me
You approve my offerings!

The Secret Of The Center Of The Heavens

The Lovers Marc Chagal
The Lovers by Marc Chagall

When, With You Asleep

by Juan Ramon Jimenez
Translated by Perry Higman

When, with you asleep, I plunge into
. . your soul,
and I listen, with my ear
on your naked breast;
to your tranquil heart, it seems to me
that, in its deep throbbing, I surprise
the secret of the center
of the world.

. . It seems to me
that legions of angels
on celestial steeds
as when, in the height
of the night we listen, without a breath
and our ears to the earth,
to distant hoofbeats that never arrive – ,
that legions of angels
are coming through you, from afar
like the THree Kings
to the eternal birth
of our love – ,
they are coming through you, from afar,
to bring me, in your dreams,
the secret of the center
of the heavens.


John Prine Christmas Album – All The Best

There are some years in which the new music of that year is my inner soundtrack. Not this year. This year was one of attrition, music being lost in my life temporarily as I didn’t go see live music, I didn’t buy new music and I boxed up and put away temporarily 99% of the music collection I own in the midst of a long drawn out move.

We lost a few musicians who have brought me joy for as long as I can remember in 2020. John Prine headlines that list. I have been a John Prine fan since my middle sister brought home his album Bruised Orange in 1978 and I loved every song on it. I honestly have bought at least one copy of every album he ever put out and more than one I have bought two or three copies having worn the old ones out. And though not every song was brilliant there was always at least one great song on every album that wormed its way into my heart. I was a John Prine fan when it wasn’t cool to be a John Prine fan. I saw him in concert in small venues, large venues and everything in between. I saw him live in every decade since 1980. I have never seen a musician who could captivate an audience with his story telling in between songs with his gentle humor and smooth growly voice.

I saw him at the Minnesota Zoo after his first round with throat cancer in the 00 years when he was still self conscious of the disfigurement of his face. It is an outside amphitheater, relatively small, seats maybe 500 or so and the warm up act had come and went and we were nearly 45 minutes beyond when the start of his show was supposed to begin on a lovely summer evening. There was beer available, so we were making the best of it, but doubts were starting to creep into our heads whether he was going to show up. And then there was an announcement over the loudspeaker, saying; “John’s Town car from the airport had been delayed in traffic and he apologizes, but before you welcome him with to the stage, would everyone in the audience please turn off and put away your phone as John has asked personally that we respect his wish for no photographs this evening.” Every single person put away their phones. I have been to a lot of events where they made the same request and it is largely ignored. This was different. John walked out on stage with his band, and before he started he stood with his head cocked and bowed, in its crooked position because of the surgery, with his guitar around his neck and he told a story. And the moment he opened his mouth it was clear his voice, although challenged, was the same voice I had heard 1,000’s of times before. It wasn’t the longest set I ever heard him play, it wasn’t the best concert of his I ever attended, but it was by far the most intimate. And as he played his guitar and sang his songs and made music with his band, there was a kinship with that audience that went beyond what most musicians ever achieve; he was singing to his friends and family.

In a year where everything else stood on its head, John Prine’s voice was one of the things that didn’t waver for me. He died of COVID in the spring and his last song that he recorded in a hotel room in London , a short time before his death, wound up being his only number one hit, posthumously. Well, that is, if you weren’t a John Prine fan. He had been making number one hits for me for decades.

Like John Prine, I wish you all the best.

Merry Christmas.

My Grateful Christmas Spirit’s Still Alive

Childhood Creche purchased at the Ben Franklin store on main street in North St. Paul in the early 1960s.

 

Sonnet in the Shape of a Potted Christmas Tree

by George Starbuck

*
O
fury-
bedecked!
O glitter-torn!
Let the wild wind erect
bonbonbonanzas; junipers affect
frostyfreeze turbans; iciclestuff adorn
all cuckolded creation in a madcap crown of horn!
It’s a new day; no scapegrace of a sect
tidying up the ashtrays playing Daughter-in-Law Elect;
bells! bibelots! popsicle cigars! shatter the glassware! a son born
now
now
while ox and ass and infant lie
together as poor creatures will
and tears of her exertion still
cling in the spent girl’s eye
and a great firework in the sky
drifts to the western hill.


Heading into the final days before Christmas I am trying to be upbeat.   I have much to be grateful for this year.  And yet, even a vastly toned down version of my normal Christmas cheer feels a bit overdone.   2020 is going to take some time to process.  How are you processing all that has happened in 2020?   Has your creativity been fueled or stunted by the dislocation of the pandemic?   For me it has been a year of getting up everyday and trying to move forward with little energy for creativity.   I am grateful for whatever small bit survived along the way. 

I wrote A Christmas Sonnet over Thanksgiving weekend.   It is not a great poem, but it feels genuine.  I think there are good things that have come out of 2020’s toughest moments.   It feels like we took a tiny faltering step forward as a nation of recognizing systemic racism for what it is, despite the failure of  our leadership in our federal government. It feels like change is coming as an organic outgrowth of individuals and organizations searching their conscience and trying to do not necessarily “the” right thing but something better than silence or ignorance.  The fact that multiple sports teams changed their names from something blatantly disrespectful and racist is a tangible example, even if they haven’t figured out what the new name is going to be.   The fact that monuments to a racist, slave owning past are being taken down and towns are acknowledging their part in that history in ways that do not glorify it, because there never had been glory in those institutions that warranted memorializing it in bronze, is a start to a conversation around actual reparations.   The fact that state flags are being changed to forge a new symbol away from the cultural identity of hate is a good thing.   Change is hard.   It’s painful.  Not everyone is going to peacefully join in.  But the herd has moved in a direction away from status quo and there is no stopping it now, no matter how much white privilege objects. These birth pangs of moving towards a more equitable future is worth it even if its still in its infancy and screaming its head off because its hungry.   

I do not believe poetry has one interpretation.  Poems have as many different meanings as people who read them,  which is why I find literary criticism an inherently suspect enterprise.  I believe poetry by its very nature is a personal language of an individual  that by its public sharing creates a thread of common humanity regardless of what other readers take from it.  

I chose the words of A Christmas Sonnet carefully.  They represent as best as words can how I feel right now.  I generally enjoy Christmas.  But I have been wresting with how I reconcile the pleasant traditions and memories of my past with the reality of the things that are completely broken in our society today and have been for hundreds of years?   How do I allow those two things to live peacefully in my mind side by side?  I haven’t figured that out yet.  For now I have decided the best I can do is to not create an emotional moat around the memorabilia of Christmas past and pretend it is above the pain of Christmas present.   Instead I will welcome that pain and confusion into the emotional mix and stir it up in the holiday pot and let the two co-exist, hoping that it brings a clearer ownership on my part in moving forward in the right direction next year.   And if nothing else, it feels authentic to seek redemption from things that represent the good of what was in the past, even when in some ways it represents the white blindness of my suburban childhood experience.


A Christmas Sonnet

By T. A. Fry

I would like to think I am not too old
For magic. This year’s endless tragedies,
Hunger, Fire, Floods, Injustice, Death, Disease,
Ran rough-shod o’er my nostalgic soul.
Will New Year’s bells ring as clear? Will hanging
Stockings, trimming trees, blot out blatant lies?
Fascists mocking humility, raging
At democracy in their bright red ties.

My grateful Christmas spirit’s still alive.
Despite the horrors; George Floyd’s death,
A pandemic stalking loved one’s breath,
Our compact frayed, but for now, survives.
I’ll honor the flesh of “I Can’t Breathe,”
Redeeming childhood crèche and Christmas wreath.

The Wind Of A Dream

Snow in Northern Minnesota Forest

White Nocturne

by Conrad Aiken

IV

I would like to touch this snow with the wind of a dream,
With a sudden warmth of music, and turn it all
To petals of roses …. Why is it that I recall
Your two pale hands holding a bowl of roses,
Wide open like lotus flowers, floating in water?
I would like to touch this snow with the wind of a dream;
To hold the world in my hands and let it fall.
We have walked among the hills immortally white,
Golden by noon and blue by night.
I would like to touch this snow with the wind of a dream:
And hear you singing again by a starlight wall .



VII

White hours like snow, white hours like eternal snow ….
Long white streets jewelled with lights ….
Our steps are muffled and silent, we scarcely know
How swiftly we cross the nights.
I would like to touch this snow with the fire of a dream,
With the mouth of a dream. And turn it all
To petals of roses …. I would like to touch you, too,
And change you into the chord of music I knew.
Can you not change?…. Run back again to April?
Laugh out at me from among young lilac leaves?….
Play with your jewels, and sing!
Feeling the earth beneath you float with spring!….
You talk in an even tone, I answer you;
And all about us seems to say
Peace …. peace …. the hills and streets are cold.
You are growing cold.

Give Me Back That Night

Conrad Aiken (1989 – 1973)

I love you, what star do you live on?

Conrad Aiken

 

Bend As The Bow Bends

by Conrad Aiken 

Bend as the bow bends, and let fly the shaft,
the strong cord loose its words as light as flame;
speak without cunning, love, as without craft,
careless of answer, as of shame or blame:
this to be known, that love is love, despite
knowledge or ignorance, truth, untruth, despair;
careless of all things, if that love be bright,
careless of hate and fate, careless of care.
Spring the word as it must, the leaf or flower
broken or bruised, yet let it, broken, speak
of time transcending this too transient hour,
and space that finds the beating heart too weak:
thus, and thus only, will our tempest come
by continents of snow to find a home.


Conrad Aiken, it is reported, avoided military service during World War I by asserting writing poetry was an “essential industry”.  I love the idea of that claim but suspect Aiken, like 200,000 other young men during conscription into service in WWI, registered as a conscientious objector. 

I am glad that Aiken’s life experience was not distorted by the horrors of war.   His poetic voice served our nation better as a gentle soul.   His writing earned him the Pulitzer Price,  a National Book Award, and he was U.S. Poet Laureate from 1950 to 1952.  Although primarily a poet, he published novels, short stories, criticism and children’s stories during his long career.  Most of Aiken’s poetry reflects an interest in psychoanalysis and the development of identity.  His short story Silent Snow, Secret Snow was widely anthologized and is an example of the theme in his writing about imagination and how it shapes our inner and outer world. The short film based on it, might appear outdated, but its black and white images fit the black and white of the words of Aiken’s page.  

I wonder if I am a member of the last generation for which black and white photography and black and white films are nostalgic, comforting and not foreign feeling.   It’s not that they were the norm when I was growing up, but it was commonplace.   The short reels our parents and grandparents shot on home camera’s that were silent, by and large were black and white, photographs our our parents as children and grandparents were mostly black and white.   When it came time to shoot my own wedding photographs, we choose black and white, it just felt right.   There is a purity and simplicity to black and white photography that is lost in our ultra stylized, colorized, customized and filtered graphic world.  We have become accustomed to high quality video and photography with brilliant colors that anything else feels amateurish.  However, I often convert my favorite digital photos into black and white to see what’s really going on in the picture.   Do you have a favorite black and white family photograph?

Silent Snow, Secret Snow

Six Sonnets

I

by Conrad Aiken

Broad on the sunburnt hill the bright moon comes,
And cuts with silver horn the hurrying cloud;
and the cold Pole Star, in the dusk, resumes
His last night’s light, which light alone could shroud.
And legion other stars, that torch pursuing,
Take each their stations in the deepening night,
Lifting pale tapers for the Watch, renewing
Their glorious foreheads in the Infinite.
Never before had night so many eyes!
Never was darkness so divinely thronged,
As now – my love! bright star! – that you arise,
Giving me back that night which I had wronged.
Now with your voice sings all that immortal host,
That god of myriad stars whom I thought lost.

To Swell Thy Christmas Chime

A Wreath

by George Herbert

A wreathèd garland of deservèd praise,
Of praise deservèd, unto Thee I give,
I give to Thee, who knowest all my ways,
My crooked winding ways, wherein I live,—
Wherein I die, not live ; for life is straight,
Straight as a line, and ever tends to Thee,
To Thee, who art more far above deceit,
Than deceit seems above simplicity.
Give me simplicity, that I may live,
So live and like, that I may know Thy ways,
Know them and practise them: then shall I give
For this poor wreath, give Thee a crown of praise.



The Christmas Wreath

by Anna de Brémont

Oh! Christmas wreath upon the wall,
     Within thine ivied space
I see the years beyond recall,
     Amid thy leaves I trace
The shadows of a happy past,
     When all the world was bright,
And love its magic splendour cast
     O’er morn and noon and night.

Oh! Christmas wreath upon the wall,
     ’Neath memory’s tender spell
A wondrous charm doth o’er thee fall,
     And round thy beauty dwell.
Thine ivy hath the satiny sheen
     Of tresses I’ve caressed,
Thy holly’s crimson gleam I’ve seen
     On lips I oft have pressed.

Oh! Christmas wreath upon the wall,
     A mist steals o’er my sight.
Dear hallow’d wreath, these tears are all
     The pledge I now can plight
To those loved ones whose spirit eyes
     Shine down the flight of time;
Around God’s throne their voices rise
     To swell the Christmas Chime!