Even bees, the little almsmen of spring bowers, know there is richest juice in poison flowers.
On Seeing the Elgin Marbles
by John Keats
My spirit is too weak—mortality Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep, And each imagined pinnacle and steep Of godlike hardship tells me I must die Like a sick eagle looking at the sky. Yet ‘tis a gentle luxury to weep, That I have not the cloudy winds to keep, Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye. Such dim-conceived glories of the brain Bring round the heart an indescribable feud; So do these wonders a most dizzy pain, That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude Wasting of old Time—with a billowy main— A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.
“Is the spring coming?” he said. “What is it like?”…
“It is the sun shining on the rain and the rain falling on the sunshine…”
Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden
Instructions on Not Giving Up
by Ada Limon
More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees that really gets to me. When all the shock of white and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath, the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin growing over whatever winter did to us, a return to the strange idea of continuous living despite the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then, I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.
by John Clare
The spring is coming by a many signs; The trays are up, the hedges broken down, That fenced the haystack, and the remnant shines Like some old antique fragment weathered brown. And where suns peep, in every sheltered place, The little early buttercups unfold A glittering star or two–till many trace The edges of the blackthorn clumps in gold. And then a little lamb bolts up behind The hill and wags his tail to meet the yoe, And then another, sheltered from the wind, Lies all his length as dead–and lets me go Close bye and never stirs but baking lies, With legs stretched out as though he could not rise.
“I am two fools, I know, For loving, and for saying so.”
The World’s Last Night
by John Donne
What if this present were the worlds last night?
Marke in my heart, O Soule, where thou dost dwell,
The picture of Christ crucified, and tell
Whether that countenance can thee affright,
Teares in his eyes quench the amasing light,
Blood fills his frownes, which from his pierc’d head fell.
And can that tongue adjudge thee unto hell,
Which pray’d forgivenesse for his foes fierce spight?
No, no; but as in my idolatrie
I said to all my profane mistresses,
Beauty, of pitty, foulnesse onely is
A signe of rigour: so I say to thee,
To wicked spirits are horrid shapes assign’d,
This beauteous forme assures a pitious minde.
Holy Sonnet: XII
by John Donne
WHY are wee by all creatures waited on?
Why doe the prodigall elements supply
Life and food to mee, being more pure than I,
Simple, and further from corruption?
Why brook’st thou, ignorant horse, subjection?
Why dost thou bull, and bore so seelily
Dissemble weaknesses and by’one mans stroke die,
Whose whole kinde, you might swallow and feed upon?
Weaker I am, woe is mee, and worse than you,
You have not sinn’d, nor need be timorous.
But wonder at a greater wonder, for to us
Created nature doth these things subdue,
But their Creator, whom sin, nor nature tyed,
For us, his Creatures, and his foes, hath dyed.
The impulse to create is pure, self sufficient, its own reward or punishment.
Vernon Scannell, A Proper Gentleman.
by Vernon Scannell (1922 – 2007)
My son aged three fell in the nettle bed. ‘Bed’ seemed a curious name for those green spears, That regiment of spite behind the shed: It was no place for rest. With sobs and tears The boy came seeking comfort and I saw White blisters beaded on his tender skin. We soothed him till his pain was not so raw. At last he offered us a watery grin, And then I took my billhook, honed the blade And went outside and slashed in fury with it Till not a nettle in that fierce parade Stood upright any more. And then I lit A funeral pyre to burn the fallen dead, But in two weeks the busy sun and rain Had called up tall recruits behind the shed: My son would often feel sharp wounds again.
Happy Easter. It is a late spring after a cold winter in Minnesota. In my part of the world, regardless the date Easter falls, the minute a farmer puts down his fork after eating ham on Easter Sunday, they think its time to start planting. Patience will be required this year, as the soils are still too wet, the frost is still in the ground, and fields are not fit for spring planting activities to commence. Fresh snow fell across much of the state in the past week. A patient April reigns supreme.
I am personally in need of a James Wright kind of spring; one where in a flourish I suddenly blossom, a spring where the world is in a hurry to become a kaleidoscope of color. We don’t always get what we want. We don’t even get what we need sometimes. In the words of my Mother, a wise, long time kindergarten teacher, “you get what you get, so don’t get upset.” It works for what’s left on the cookie plate and for dealing with mother nature.
In contemplation of Easter’s story of sacrifice, I ponder if human kind is capable of evolving from a state of conflict to a process of resolution or is all peace a solitary and temporary detente? I spent time reviewing religious sonnets with Easter themes and came away from all of them feeling grim. Not the kind of emotion I wanted to share today. Instead I decided to think of Easter as a prayer for our collective sons. What do we wish for our children? Happiness, prosperity, a life well lived. When are we going to stop sending sons (and daughters) into contrived battles of our own making and set them free to live their own lives? Conflict is a generational curse, passed down as an obligation, an inheritance, unless people have the courage to change course. Who will change the course of the war in Ukraine? If it left to the battle field, the conflict will only be seeded deeper in the fertile Ukrainian soil. Easter can also be a story of transformation, rejuvenation, re-birth, the best of what Spring has to offer. What re-birth awaits for you in the coming month? What transformation do you summon the courage to awaken?
by Mihaela Moscaliuc
for my son, enwombed
May you harvest your language from the alphabet of butterflies, may their wings brushstroke your name on translucent scrolls, filter air for your breath, teach you flight the way I can’t.
May you preserve the wisdom with which you arrive, the metaphors through which you’ll first parse the world, the moon always a ripe banana, always within reach.
May your fingers tease and probe all truths. It’s not the grain of sand, as we hold dear, but organisms wayward in their drift that, trapped, abrade the oyster’s flesh.
Errant breather smothered into loveliness, the pearl has its own song. If you drag it ashore
language loses meaning, so bring your ear to the ocean floor. There, neither fish nor son, eavesdrop.
Neither fish nor son yet, call sister sister and lie awhile by the echo. While there, bless the echo and learn
When I was a little boy, mine was the kind of toy box that contained a gyroscope, tops of various sorts, a microscope, magnifying glasses, bottles and bug collectors and other assortments of things that were not strictly toys, they were ways to investigate the world. If I reflect on it, I spent the vast majority of my play time engaged in a study of physics. Isn’t that what a frisbee is ultimately, a tool for the study of physics? Also a hot wheel car set upon a track with no power other than the size of the height of the encyclopedias I would concoct, to get the best run and series of undulations, right down to the last book, so that the car could make it to the end of the track that I had created through the living room and down the long hall way. Climbing trees, is a study in physics, so is riding a bike, ping pong, baseball. The problem with electronics is a video game is not a study in physics, it is a study in communication. I preferred the world when it was dominated by the former.
I have had a hard time of late finding anything relevant to add to the poems I have been sharing. It is hard to watch the world be ill, seriously ill. I feel like we are watching our planet spin like a gyroscope, on its axis, like it always has and we have assumed it always will. Suddenly it has begun to wobble and without our collective imaginations to get it spinning at the proper speed again, its at risk of falling over, motionless and emotionless. Is emotion an extension of motion? Does that mean it is an extension of physics, our physical selves?
I spent some time this week in unbridled play, sheer silliness, like children chasing after a ball. There was no point to the 2 hours other than to have fun. There was nothing profound about it, yet the time was utterly transforming for the emotions of the group. Everyone came away energized, excited, closer. Why don’t we play with our friends more? The great tragedy of the COVID pandemic is not just the millions of lives lost, but also the life lost of the living. We started seeing our friends as something to avoid, something we had to protect ourselves from, rather than the cure to what ails us all. Netflix and books and social media can not replace playing with your friends. Electronics can not replace physics. Physics is what makes the world go round. I think we have to re-imagine our futures, like Stevenson. But this time, let’s imagine a future without toy soldiers, without any soldiers. Let’s get the planet spinning again at its proper speed, sustainably, enthusiastically.
FYI – a counterpane is a quilt or bedspread.
The Land of Counterpane
Robert Louis Stevenson – 1850-1894
When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head, And all my toys beside me lay To keep me happy all the day.
And sometimes for an hour or so I watched my leaden soldiers go, With different uniforms and drills, Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;
And sometimes sent my ships in fleets All up and down among the sheets; Or brought my trees and houses out, And planted cities all about.
I was the giant great and still That sits upon the pillow-hill, And sees before him, dale and plain, The pleasant land of counterpane.
From weariness I looked out on the stars And there beheld them, fixed in throbbing joy, Nor racked by such mad dance of moods as mars For us each moment’s grace with swift alloy. And as they pierced the heavens’ serene deep An envy of that one consummate part Swept me, who mock. Whether I laugh or weep, Some inner silences are at my heart. Cold shame is mine for all the masks I wear, Belying that in me which shines and sings Before Him, to face down man’s alien stare— A graceless puppet on unmeaning strings, I that looked out, and saw, and was at rest, Stars, and faint wings, rose-etched along the west.
by Léonie Adams – 1899-1988
When I stepped homeward to my hill, Dusk went before with quiet tread; The bare laced branches of the trees Were as a mist about its head.
Upon its leaf-brown breast the rocks Like great grey sheep lay silentwise, Between the birch trees’ gleaming arms, The faint stars trembled in the skies.
The white brook met me half-way up, And laughed as one that knew me well, To whose more clear than crystal voice The frost had joined a crystal spell.
The skies lay like pale-watered deep, Dusk ran before me to its strand And cloudily leaned forth to touch The moon’s slow wonder with her hand.
Some might find it an odd pairing, Ogden Nash and Sir Thomas Wyatt. But the two could not be better mates in my opinion as poets, as each loved a bit of a riddle, mixed heavily with their rhyme. I find more humor when I look for it; in life and in poetry. Why must sonnets be stuck with the reputation as “serious” poetry? What stodgy English department proclaimed that the sonnet has to be “classic” verse? It’s only because we allow ourselves as readers to be buffaloed into believing such a thing, that we accept it to be true. We the reader are the one placing lofty expectations on the fourteen line form because we have been misled into thinking that’s what we are required to do. Generations of high school and college literature classes have boxed the sonnet into a corner. Maybe it’s time we unpacked the sonnet from it’s historical baggage, time to set the sonnet free.
There is a solution for friends of the sonnet; read the sonnet above through a different lens, a lens that you are reading a comedy, it may be a tragic comedy, but a comedy. Have you ever written a sonnet or tried to write a sonnet? If you have, you can speak from experience there is a moment during its creation where you recognize the silliness of it all – 10 syllables, 14 lines, rhymes all in their proper place. How could it not go off the rails a bit from drama into comedy, if for no other reason than to break the tension? Next time you are inspired to write a sonnet, trying doing it with your tongue set firmly to one side of your mouth as you write to remind yourself of the absurdity of it all and see if it yields a comedic gem along the way.
Most great sonnets have at least one great one-liner contained within them. The question is whether that one line is drama, action adventure, romance, horror, sci-fi, rom-com or stand up comedy? It may be all of them depending on your whim as a reader. But don’t limit your options. Trying reading Shakespeare’s sonnets sometime with the eye of looking for the punch line and then go ahead and laugh at the silliness of it when you find it. Don’t force Shakespeare to be so serious. It’s lots more fun slogging through old English, looking to be inspired by its brilliant comedy, than trying to sleuth out something weighty and intellectual; Oh, where art thou? And like all good comedies, the audience laughs the hardest when it releases the tension of something more serious, something darker. Just look at Ogden Nash.
Progress might have been alright once, but it has gone on too long.
by Ogden Nash
Behold the hippopotamus! We laugh at how he looks to us, And yet in moments dank and grim, I wonder how we look to him.
Peace, peace, thou hippopotamus! We really look all right to us, As you no doubt delight the eye Of other hippopotami
“Life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community.”
Ode to Gray
by Sherman Alexie (1966 –
Has anybody written an ode to gray? Well, if not, let me be the first. Let me praise The charcoal pit, tweed suit, and cloudy x-ray That reveals, to your amateur dismay, Nothing you understand. Who has been amazed Enough to write a breathy love song to gray and gray’s Nearly imperceptible interplay With other grays? O, how beautiful the haze Of charcoal pits, tweed suits, and cloudy x-rays Of airport luggage. I love the dog day, The long delay, and existential malaise. Has anybody written an ode to gray? If not, then let me proceed without delay. O, let me construct an army made of clay. Marching, marching, they will be my ode to gray, To charcoal pit, tweed suit, and cloudy x-ray.
Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World
by Sherman Alexie
The morning air is all awash with angels . . . . . – Richard Wilbur
The eyes open to a blue telephone In the bathroom of this five-star hotel.
I wonder whom I should call? A plumber, Proctologist, urologist, or priest?
Who is most among us and most deserves The first call? I choose my father because
He’s astounded by bathroom telephones. I dial home. My mother answers. “Hey, Ma,
I say, “Can I talk to Poppa?” She gasps, And then I remember that my father
Has been dead for nearly a year. “Shit, Mom,” I say. “I forgot he’s dead. I’m sorry—
How did I forget?” “It’s okay,” she says. “I made him a cup of instant coffee
This morning and left it on the table— Like I have for, what, twenty-seven years—
And I didn’t realize my mistake Until this afternoon.” My mother laughs
At the angels who wait for us to pause During the most ordinary of days
And sing our praise to forgetfulness Before they slap our souls with their cold wings.
Those angels burden and unbalance us. Those fucking angels ride us piggyback.
Those angels, forever falling, snare us And haul us, prey and praying, into dust.
Anybody can write a poem saying evil is no good…. If you want people to read socio-political poetry, if you really want it to have an effect, maybe you should write prose poems because prose poems don’t scare off people afraid of poetry.
by Marvin Bell
You are not beautiful, exactly. You are beautiful, inexactly. You let a weed grow by the mulberry and a mulberry grow by the house. So close, in the personal quiet of a windy night, it brushes the wall and sweeps away the day till we sleep.
A child said it, and it seemed true: “Things that are lost are all equal. “But it isn’t true. If I lost you, the air wouldn’t move, nor the tree grow. Someone would pull the weed, my flower. The quiet wouldn’t be yours. If I lost you, I’d have to ask the grass to let me sleep.
Marvin Bell met his wife in Chicago. He was a single father at the time and working on his Master’s degree. The two of them formed a lifelong partnership, determined to define their relationship as a commitment each and every day. They did not marry until after many years of living together and it wasn’t until their son was 30 that he asked that Dorothy to adopt him. The sonnet above was of course written by Bell to his wife. One wonders if the child he refers to in line eight is his son? I agree with Bell, there are lots of people in this world that are not equal if they are lost in the hearts of at least one other person. Who are the people in your life that are irreplaceable, unique, invaluable?
Bell’s quotes on writing poetry sound like the kind of professorial splendor one would expect from a master teacher. It’s hard to pick just one from the many interviews and essays he has written on the subject. But here are a few:
“I’ll tell you right now the secrets of writing poetry. … First, one learns to write by reading. … Number two, I believe that language, compared to the materials of other art forms, has only one thing going for it: the ability to be precise. … And the third and most important secret is that, if you do anything seriously for a long time, you get better at it.”
Well, poetry is a manifestation of a life. It can show us the diversity of cultures, and of individual inner wiring, and teach us empathy, it can express what conventional language cannot, perhaps even be life-saving. On the other hand, it’s just poetry
by Marvin Bell
We need to think of what might grow in the field from our ashes, from the rot of our remains, from tillage and spoilage, from the watery corn plowed under. We need to picture lilies of the valley and the hard weeds on the mountain haloed by clouds, and the minutest beads of water as they roll up into raindrops to replenish what we relinquished through expiration. We have been breathing-in the wild rosebuds and the spoor left by those who avoid us, we have been to the sea and the forest to learn who we are, and it is time to say yes to the intangible reach of our being, the stirring that sifts, pans and rearranges the billion parts of us, who once thought we were goners.