Come! Come and draw your loose lines
of light against and into my open mouth
like the fine lines of a web being built
along my heavy face; led bellied, blood
clotted clouds of night’s sleep borne
brooding of your bright breast keeping me
from rest while you lay onto my chest—
the weight of your body spread,
your coarse beard presses into my neck.
Give me leave. Leave me like this night
of my marriage to the moon’s urgent flight;
leave me outright for the day’s light—I can’t
bear to close my eyes tonight because
I may not wake to see the end of this night.
by Ruben Quesada
We were given a curfew on the second day.
Clouds filling windows were replaced by soot
and ash from the burned out market on the corner.
We lost the smell of buttered beetroot, Wissotzky tea
and kishke; a tendril of root infiltrated a crack
in the floorboards. We kept our distance and let it grow
in disbelief. Someone said we should kill it
before it gets too strong. Hours, maybe even days,
went by as we hid waiting for attacks and looting
to end. At times, when the door opened, a waft of wind
made its way to those unfolding leaves
waving like the curtains out of blown out windows.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Take me. Take this. My wasted life and all
its bliss—the sea of your waking body
dawning with its warm grip on night’s wrist.
Your lips once curled into me. Your eyes
set me loose in a foggy lake. Loons call
to fill my deadened heart. To know
what loss is like you must lose everything,
you must lose even yourself, you said.
I am alone. Each night I lie and learn
to sing the dead back to life. Only they
can see what has been taken from me.
You are the bloodied cracks in my skin
so deep; I keep my hands together to hold
you in. Hear the damned prayers I reap.
Among the chaos of the 24/7 news cycle this week was this little gem: the 3M corporation raised a rainbow flag to honor Pride on Wednesday at their corporate headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota. If we are looking for small signs of change on how we treat each other as humans across the entire spectrum of our diversity it may seem a bit trivial, but it was in my mind none the less significant. That the flag will hang there for less a week is not important. This small step is not something that would have happened 5 years ago. It sometimes takes pain to foster change and healing. 3M is in the spotlight for providing masks to the world to protect ourselves during the pandemic and with the Twin Cities metro area in the global headlines for the wrong reasons, George Floyd’s murder, it is reassuring to see one of our corporate citizens do the right thing, take a risk and acknowledge in a public way the contributions of its LGBT scientists, employees and customers. It is a modest milestone that should be saluted.
Today’s poems are excellent examples of why not to read poetry literally. When I read the poem below it is obvious its about how readers take his poetry into their conscious and subconscious. How Whitman’s words are the essence of his best self. How poetry is sublime in ways that can cross metaphysical boundaries, but in the end, no matter how conjoined you become with a poet’s words, Whitman commands his independence and asks you, the reader to do the same. Even if you have been intimately moved and changed by what you have read and considered, you stand apart from the poet. Poetry can be a penultimate act of intimacy between two human beings but it remains personal in what we give and take as writer and as reader. Poetry in my opinion is procreation with our own souls. It is part of what I would consider essential living, the fulfillment of an exciting, passionate and considered life, whether writing it or reading it.
Another milestone this week: John Prine hit the charts with his first Billboard #1 hit with the last song he recorded before his death called I Remember Everything. He recorded it in his hotel room in London while under quarantine during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sadly isolation wasn’t enough and this insidious virus took his life. Prine’s song writing has always been a source of solace and inspiration to me. I smile that he is going out on top. Enjoy.
Whoever You Are Holding Me Now In Hand
by Walt Whitman
Whoever you are holding me now in hand,
Without one thing all will be useless,
I give you fair warning before you attempt me further,
I am not what you supposed, but far different.
Who is he that would become my follower?
Who would sign himself a candidate for my affections?
The way is suspicious, the result uncertain, perhaps destructive,
You would have to give up all else, I alone would expect to be your sole and exclusive standard,
Your novitiate would even then be long and exhausting,
The whole past theory of your life and all conformity to the lives around you would have to be abandon’d,
Therefore release me now before troubling yourself any further, let go your hand from my shoulders,
Put me down and depart on your way.
Or else by stealth in some wood for trial,
Or back of a rock in the open air,
(For in any roof’d room of a house I emerge not, nor in company,
And in libraries I lie as one dumb, a gawk, or unborn, or dead,)
But just possibly with you on a high hill, first watching lest any person for miles around approach unawares,
Or possibly with you sailing at sea, or on the beach of the sea or some quiet island,
Here to put your lips upon mine I permit you,
With the comrade’s long-dwelling kiss or the new husband’s kiss,
For I am the new husband and I am the comrade.
Or if you will, thrusting me beneath your clothing,
Where I may feel the throbs of your heart or rest upon your hip,
Carry me when you go forth over land or sea;
For thus merely touching you is enough, is best,
And thus touching you would I silently sleep and be carried eternally.
But these leaves conning you con at peril,
For these leaves and me you will not understand,
They will elude you at first and still more afterward, I will certainly elude you,
Even while you should think you had unquestionably caught me, behold!
Already you see I have escaped from you.
For it is not for what I have put into it that I have written this book,
Nor is it by reading it you will acquire it,
Nor do those know me best who admire me and vauntingly praise me,
Nor will the candidates for my love (unless at most a very few) prove victorious,
Nor will my poems do good only, they will do just as much evil, perhaps more,
For all is useless without that which you may guess at many times and not hit, that which I hinted at;
She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightlest bondage made aware.
I have used this time at home to continue the purge of belongings I began 10 years ago. There is something healthy about going from 3,000 square feet to 710 square feet of living space. It puts a premium on prioritizing what belongings have value. In cleaning out my garage this week, I came across the REI six man tent that was my car camp tent when my children were small. It accompanied us on many adventures. It is now 30 years old and despite multiple attempts at re-water proofing the fly, the last few times it has been used it has proven disappointing in its ability to function as a tent should. It also is bigger than I need now and weighs more than I want for hiking, so I decided it was time to part ways. I ran a CL list ad basically giving it away to a family as a kid fort in the back yard, to serve as some outdoor summer fun. I had an immediate response and it has found a better home where I hope it can create for another child some of the memories I have of the family tent as a fort in the back yard for daytime adventures and the occasional fair weather sleep over with a friend.
It is surprising to me there are not more poems written with tents as a metaphor for something grand and mystical. But then I have to remind myself that those of us that have been lucky enough to grow up with tents as part of their summer adventures are not in the majority, too many families either weren’t capable of vacations or parents ideas of vacations did not include biting insects, sand in your underwear and burned hot dogs over a fire. I am so grateful my parents did.
Do you have a favorite memory regarding a tent? What’s happened to your family tent? Is it still serviceable? Do you have plans to use it or is it time to let it find a new home and another purpose?
by Naomi Shihab Nye – 1952
When did hordes of sentences start beginning with So?
As if everything were always pending,
leaning on what came before.
What can you expect?
Loneliness everywhere, entertained or kept in storage.
So you felt anxious to be alone.
Easier to hear, explore a city, room,
mound of hours, no one walking beside you.
Talking to self endlessly, but mostly listening.
This would not be strange.
It would be the tent you slept in.
Waking calmly inside whatever
you had to do would be freedom.
It would be your country.
The men in front of me had whole acres
in their eyes. I could feel them cross, recross each day.
Memory, stitched. History, soothed.
What we do or might prefer to do. Have done.
How we got here. Telling ourselves a story
till it’s compact enough to bear.
Passing the walls, wearing the sky,
the slight bow and rising of trees.
Everything ceaselessly holding us close.
So we are accompanied.
Never cast out without a line of language to reel us back.
That is what happened, how I got here.
So maybe. One way anyway.
A story was sewn, seed sown,
this was what patriotism meant to me—
to be at home inside my own head long enough
to accept its infinite freedom
and move forward anywhere, to mysteries coming.
Even at night in a desert, temperatures plummet,
billowing tent flaps murmur to one other.
“When the wound is deep, the healing is heroic. Suffering and ascendance require the same work.”
― Terrance Hayes, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin
Snow For Wallace Stevens
by Terrance Hayes
No one living a snowed-in life
can sleep without a blindfold.
Light is the lion that comes down to drink.
I know tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk
holds nearly the same sound as a bottle.
Drink and drank and drunk-a-drunk-drunk,
Light is the lion that comes down.
This song is for the wise man who avenges
by building his city in snow.
I know what he said in his poem.
“Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery.”
How, with pipes of winter
lining his cognition, does someone learn
to bring a sentence to its knees?
Who is not more than his limitations,
who is not the blood in a wine barrel
and the wine as well? I too, having lost faith
in language have placed my faith in language.
Thus, I have a capacity for love without
forgiveness. This song is for my foe,
the clean shaven, gray-suited, gray patron
of Hartford, the emperor of whiteness
blue as a body made of snow.
Is it not true that if we were to assemble enough of our life’s work and thoughts in one place, and dug through it carefully, we would find it would be an erector set of contradictions, or at least an odd creation with parts of it out of place? Are we to throw out everything a person creates because the worst of it is worse than we expect of them or that they expect of themselves? Is that not the nature of being human? Maybe it’s impossible to walk a straight line on a round planet forever twirling endlessly in two trajectories, one a slanted axis; the very nature of it dizzying, causing us to lose our balance once in a while and go akimbo.
One of the purposes of art is to hold ourselves and other artist’s accountable, for their genius and their failures or limitations. One of the sins of white privilege, particularly in the realm of poetry, is the reverence placed on the tradition of affluent white men of means who are held up as the pantheon of poetic tradition, without recognizing their legacy of poetry is tainted by the ease with which they found a publisher and an audience, the ease they were afforded recognition, while there were equally as many gifted voices of people of color that went unnoticed, unrewarded, unpublished, unheard. We best be careful as we venture back in literature to not let the whiteness of the page on which the words are set blind us to the whiteness of the privilege of the writer’s life that for many have persisted into the present.
Terrance Hayes has a knack for connecting the present to the past, for wading in the pools of literary history, feeling their swirling eddy’s, but then making the current his own. I love his lines; “I too have lost faith in language have placed my faith in language. Thus, I have a capacity for love without forgiveness.” These are the words at the core of how we might find a path to heal as a nation. Have we the people, lost faith in the words of our founding fathers? Words like “freedom” and “justice for all“? Maybe, if we can as a nation, hold on to love, we’ll find our way forward, even if the sins committed by our founders, in allowing slavery on these shores, and institutionalizing racism by that very act and suppression of rights under Jim Crow and segregation will never deserve forgiveness.
The Brave Man
By Wallace Stevens
The sun, that brave man,
Comes through boughs that lie in wait,
That brave man.
Green and gloomy eyes
In dark forms of the grass
The good stars,
Pale helms and spiky spurs,
Fears of my bed,
Fears of life and fears of death,
That brave man comes up
From below and walks without meditation,
That brave man.
When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed.
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so!
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay!
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.
One of the blessings of writing a blog is the opportunity for connection with people in the world you would never have had the opportunity to cross paths otherwise. Such is how I have come to have a copy of Scott Newstock’s new book How to Think Like Shakespeare. Newstock is is a professor of English and founding director of Pearce Shakespeare Endowment at Rhodes College. Newstock is a follower of Fourteen Lines and graciously sent me an advance copy.
The entire premise of the book is simple; if we could understand how genius arises, deduce where the ability to reshape the world through new ideas gestates, could we be more successful in opening doors into the vast potential of our own minds? Could we reshape education to greater assist the learning of every student’s inner Shakespeare? Hundred’s of years have passed since Shakespeare laid down his pen and yet what do we really know about his creative process? All we have is the evidence of his genius. Isn’t that true of every great writer, innovator, architect, scientist and artist? How much do we really understand where and how inspiration is conjured? It does not come from logic, or a sequence of numbers and equations to be added up, even when the outcome may look somewhat rigid or mathematical as in the form of a sonnet. Great art and science and innovation comes from a place beyond reason to inform and inspire reason. And in that way there are no formulas for learning it, but there are interesting insights to be had to step back and we think about thinking.
Newstock’s book is fourteen chapters on the essence of thinking. It is a playful, quote filled romp into the mind of Shakespeare. It is also an indictment on the failure of outcome based education and a plea to students and educators everywhere to remember one thing; the purpose of education is to learn how to think, not just to learn facts and process. For facts become irrelevant nearly as fast as they are minted.
If you would like a quick primer on some of aspects of the book, check out how Newstock playfully uses the metaphors around sonnet structure to help us look at the world differently. I have provided a link to his recent article below. And if you are a teacher or student and looking for a fun read this summer, check out his new book. I will close with another genius, William Wordsworth, who laid down his own thoughts on how to think like a sonnet, in a sonnet. Enjoy.
Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.
Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past, and Future see;
Whose ears have heard
the Holy Word
That walked among the ancient trees,
Calling the lapsed Soul
And weeping in the evening dew
That might control
the starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!
“O earth, O earth, return!
Arise from out the dewy grass;
Night is worn,
and [the morn] rises from the slumbering mass.
“Turn away no more;
Why wilt thou turn away?
The starry floor,
the watery shore,
Is given thee till break of day.”
To The Evening Star
by William Blake
THOU fair-hair’d angel of the evening,
Now, whilst the sun rests on the mountains, light
Thy bright torch of love; thy radiant crown
Put on, and smile upon our evening bed!
Smile on our loves, and while thou drawest the
Blue curtains of the sky, scatter thy silver dew
On every flower that shuts its sweet eyes
In timely sleep. Let thy west wind sleep on
The lake; speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,
And wash the dusk with silver. Soon, full soon,
Dost thou withdraw; then the wolf rages wide,
And then the lion glares thro’ the dun forest:
The fleeces of our flocks are cover’d with
Thy sacred dew: protect them with thine influence.
Even washing is a task, in war and daily
life. The warm and pour, the fresh linen,
the hourglass of soap in its melt telling
us how our tired flesh gleams to fiction
renewal. Time is at war. We are meant to lose
that we may grasp what we know: the waste
of passioned effort. The soldier nearest to us
dunks his face in the bowl, a murky foretaste
of baptismal death. This halo we discover
from which he’ll surely rise, suspender cords
rhyming the sink. Next to him another
wrings the towel and turns his head toward
Bellona. Not incongruous. The patroness,
too, of the trench of days and the hearth’s duress.
There is a different feel to Memorial Day this year, a bit more melancholy, like there is a collective mourning that goes far beyond remembrances of veterans in our families and communities, but an appreciation and sorrow for the disconnect from the recent past to our current present. Grief is a part of life, loss is a part of life, and allowing ourselves to feel the full range of our emotions is an important part of mental health.
I picked the poem Soldiers Washing by Pau-Llosa because of how the act of washing has taken on a different meaning since the pandemic. A habit I have gotten into is washing my hands as I enter the house. The act of hand washing has started to take on a new ritual, a chance to pause, reflect and be grateful. It is an opportunity to be in the present.
The poem above makes more sense if you have a proper context for the word Bellona as the ancient Roman goddess of war. On this memorial day, are you reflecting? Where are your thoughts? What are you mourning? What are you celebrating? For what are you grateful?
by Edgar Albert Guest (1881 – 1959)
IF no one ever went ahead,
If we had seen no friend depart
And mourned him for a while as dead,
How great would be our fear to start.
If no one for us led the way,
No loved one, garbed in angel white
Stood there, a welcome word to say,
Then we should fear the Heavenly flight.
If we should never say ‘good bye,’
Should never shed the parting tear,
We’d face the journey to the sky
In horrible despair and fear.
It is because our friends have gone
And left us in this vale of breath,
Because of those who’ve journeyed on,
That we can bravely smile at death
I was never afraid of failure, for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.
by John Keats (1795 – 1821)
O soft embalmer of the still midnight!
Shutting with careful fingers and benign
Our gloom-pleased eyes, embower’d from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine;
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,
In midst of this thine hymn, my willing eyes,
Or wait the amen, ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities;
Then save me, or the passèd day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes;
Save me from curious conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oilèd wards,
And seal the hushèd casket of my soul.
A Long, Long Sleep
by Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)
A long — long Sleep — A famous — Sleep —
That makes no show for Morn —
By Stretch of Limb — or stir of Lid —
An independent One —
Was ever idleness like This?
Upon a Bank of Stone
To bask the Centuries away —
Nor once look up — for Noon
“Suddenly I realize that if I stepped out of my body I would break into blossom. ”
Lying in a Hammock on William Duffy’s Farm
by James Wright
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
One of the things I appreciate about James Wright, is the slight fog which permeates even his most sunny days. On a week that saw me turn a rather harmless late 50’s birthday, I have had that thought more than once in the past month, “I have wasted my life.” Hasn’t every late 50’s something man and woman thought that at least once? However, maybe not in the way you might think. When I read the last line of Wright’s poem, what I think he is saying to me is, “I wasted my life” not by doing nothing or not doing more, but by not doing nothing more often!
There is a symmetry to my late 50’s. My children are the ages that I was when I had them. My surviving parent is likely older than the age I will be when I die. It feels like I am at a juncture where I can see the past and the future and the question is what is yet to be done? It certainly isn’t climb the corporate ladder or build a bigger house or buy typical retirement toys, in other words do the things many people aspire to do as a measure of success at this stage in their lives. For me its strive to still write a few more good poems, nourish my irresponsible self and be the person sitting in a hammock on William Duffy’s farm and do absolutely nothing but think, read and look at the beauty around me. My greatest ambition the next 30 years is to do less more often and do it in peace.
Wright is an interesting character. He wrote more than one masterful sonnet, but metrical structured poetry was not his best legacy. Wright’s poetry fit the era in which it came forth: a celebration of fly over land, the unremarkable Midwest and a reconciliation of the beginning of when working class, middle class unexceptional white men began fading into obscurity, or so it has felt, maybe they were always in obscurity and Wright’s poetry was finally just stating the obvious. Reading Wright always feels to me like I am so grateful they hadn’t invented medications for depression yet, because a placated, medicated Wright would have been a boring writer I fear.
If you could waste your life more brilliantly, what would you do? What unremarkable thing do you still aspire to achieve? Where do you need to hang your hammock and let the clouds and bronze butterflies float by? During this time of working from home, ask yourself this question? How hard should you really be working right now? Is your 70% good enough at a time when productivity and all measures of it by an economist are not going to improve our national economy and GDP, unless we define GDP as Good Devoted People. Be good to yourself. Do good for others. Let that be our measure of GDP and if you take a few minutes to read or write some poetry today, look at it as the most productive thing you did all day.
by James Wright
When I went out to kill myself, I caught
a pack of hoodlums beating up a man.
Running to spare his suffering, I forgot
My name, my number, how my day began,
How soldiers milled around the garden stone
And sang amusing songs; how all that day
Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone
Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away
Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten,
Stripped, kneed, and left to cry. Dropping my rope
Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:
Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,
The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope,
I held the man for nothing in my arms.