It Is The Singular Gift

Lisel Mueller (1924 – 2020)

Poetry, for me, is the answer to, ‘How does one stay sane when private lives are being ransacked by public events?’ It’s something that hangs over your head all the time.

Lisel Mueller

Hope

by Lisel Mueller

It hovers in dark corners
before the lights are turned on,
it shakes sleep from its eyes
and drops from mushroom gills,
it explodes in the starry heads
of dandelions turned sages,
it sticks to the wings of green angels
that sail from the tops of maples.

It sprouts in each occluded eye
of the many-eyed potato,
it lives in each earthworm segment
surviving cruelty,
it is the motion that runs
from the eyes to the tail of a dog,
it is the mouth that inflates the lungs
of the child that has just been born.

It is the singular gift
we cannot destroy in ourselves,
the argument that refutes death,
the genius that invents the future,
all we know of God.

It is the serum which makes us swear
not to betray one another;
it is in this poem, trying to speak.

Why We Tell Stories
(Excerpt)

2
 

by Lisel Mueller

We sat by the fire in our caves,
and because we were poor, we made up a tale
about a treasure mountain
that would open only for us

and because we were always defeated,
we invented impossible riddles
only we could solve,
monsters only we could kill,
women who could love no one else
and because we had survived
sisters and brothers, daughters and sons,
we discovered bones that rose
from the dark earth and sang
as white birds in the trees

 
3
 

Because the story of our life
becomes our life

Because each of us tells
the same story
but tells it differently

and none of us tells it
the same way twice

Because grandmothers looking like spiders
want to enchant the children
and grandfathers need to convince us
what happened happened because of them

and though we listen only
haphazardly, with one ear,
we will begin our story
with the word and

It Is Like A Memory Lost

Sonnet 97: How like a winter hath my absence been

By William Shakespeare
 
 
How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December’s bareness everywhere!
And yet this time remov’d was summer’s time,
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burthen of the prime,
Like widow’d wombs after their lords’ decease:
Yet this abundant issue seem’d to me
But hope of orphans and unfather’d fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And thou away, the very birds are mute;
Or if they sing, ’tis with so dull a cheer
That leaves look pale, dreading the winter’s near.
 
 

Winter Sunrise

by Robert Laurence Binyon

It is early morning within this room; without,
Dark and damp; without and within, stillness
Waiting for day: not a sound but a listening air.

Yellow jasmine, delicate on stiff branches
Stands in a Tuscan pot to delight the eye
In spare December’s patient nakedness.

Suddenly, softly, as if at a breath breathed
On the pale wall, a magical apparition,

The shadow of the jasmine, branch and blossom!

It was not there, it is there, in a perfect image;
And all is changed. It is like a memory lost
Returning without a reason into the mind.

Outside is Silence

First Snow at the farm in 2021

“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, ‘go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.”

Lewis Carroll

First Snow

by Ted Kooser (1939 – 

The old black dog comes in one evening
with the first few snowflakes on his back
and falls asleep, throwing his bad leg out
at our excitement. This is the night
when one of us gets to say, as if it were news,
that no two snowflakes are ever alike;
the night when each of us remembers something
snowier. The kitchen is a kindergarten
steamy with stories. The dog gets stiffly up
and limps away, seeking a quiet spot
at the heart of the house. Outside,
in silence, with diamonds in his fur,
the winter night curls round the legs of the trees,
sleepily blinking snowflakes from his lashe


Flying at Night

by Ted Kooser 

 

Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like
his.

In The Forest Of The Mind

Conrad Aiken (1889 – 1973)

All lovely things will have an ending, all lovely things will fade and die; and youth, that’s now so bravely spending, Will beg a penny by and by.

Conrad Aiken

The Ego 

by Conrad Aiken

Ego! Ego! Burning Blind
in the forest of the mind
what immortal alchemy
or what immortal chemistry
dared shape they fearful symmetry
dared dream they fearful liberty
and in the eye
conceived the I
and in the “Aye”
a Me!


I am enough years into this project that I can no longer remember exactly what poems I have shared from each poet. My process has evolved and I tend to stockpile poems in drafts as I stumble across them in my regular reading of poetry and then depending on my whimsy, use an old draft to start a new post. If its a poet that I have shared before, I go back and re-read those posts and make sure I am not regurgitating the same poems or same thoughts. In going through that process on this post, I laughed, because there must be something in my sub-conscious that draws me to Conrad Aiken in December.

Conrad Aiken’s life was turned upside down when he was 11 and his Father and Mother died as a result of domestic violence, his father murdering his Mother and then dying by suicide. He went on to live with a great, great Aunt in Massachusetts, who would change his life by giving him access to elite private schools and entry into Harvard. He was classmates and friends with T. S. Elliot and e. e. cummings. After Harvard he spent equal time in London and the U.S. for the next 30 years working for various journals as a correspondent and writing poetry, short stories, novels and literary criticism. Aiken’s writing influenced the trajectory of theories of consciousness and psychoanalysis. His greatest contribution, beyond his own writing, was possibly his work to anthologize and promote Emily Dickinson’s poetry, particularly outside the United States, helping to introduce her to readers around the world.

Aiken wrote poetry in a myriad of styles, so to only present his lyric poetry is a bit misleading. He wrote early in his career a series of what he called “symphonies”, poetry that he felt could be appreciated at multiple levels, like a bass clef and treble clef on a sheet of music. Aiken is one of those poets I tend to forget about and then when I stumble across him again I am amazed how fresh and interesting I find his work. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to have been a fly on the wall at a Harvard dining hall listening to Elliot, cummings and Aiken forge their way into the world as brash young men talking smart? It suggests that genius often needs other great minds to find their voice in pursuit of unique ideas. Friendship and fellowship with other creative and disruptive forces gives artists confidence that as a creative spirit we are not on an island by ourselves, and that creativity is limitless in its acceptance of eccentric minds because that very eccentricity often mirrors the commonness of our human condition while the artist ventures off into new territory, making all of us marching to our own tune feel less alone.


Six Sonnets

by Conrad Aiken

III

Think, love, how when a starry night of frost
Is ended, and the small pale winter sun
Shines on the garden trellis, ice-embossed,
And the stiff frozen flower-stalks, every one;
And turns their fine embroideries of ice
Into a loosening silver, skein by skein,
Warming cold leaves and stones, till, in a trice,
The garden smiles, and breathes, and lives again;
And further think, how the poor frozen snail
Creeps out with trembling horns to feel that heat,
And thaws the snowy mildew from his mail,
And stretches with all his length from his retreat:
Will he not praise, with his whole heart, the sun?
Then think, at last, I too am such an one?

Our Very Lives Hovering As Well

 

“The snow doesn’t give a soft white damn whom it touches.” 

—E.E. Cummings

Hovering

by Joseph Stroud
for Tom Marshall

Tom and I are walking Last Chance Road
down from the mountain where we had been
hunting mushrooms under a stand of coast oaks,
walking down and looking out to the Pacific
shimmering in the late fall sun, the light
on the surface like glittering flakes of mica,
when we see a white-tailed kite hovering
in the air, hovering over a green pasture,
hovering over the day, over the two of us,
our very lives hovering as well, there
on the California coast, in the fall, in the sun,
on our way home, with a sack of chanterelles,
with our love for this world, with so much time,
and so little time—all of it—hovering—
and hovering still.

 

There was a time in Minnesota when first snowfall meant the beginning of continuous snow for the remainder of the winter.   Not anymore.  Now we have a series of “firsts.”  We have several first snows that melt away and we slowly build to frozen soil where sometime in late December or early January we get enough snow that even a January rain can’t wash it away.   Basically, Minneapolis has turned into what Kansas City was 80 years ago when my father was growing up.  We are right on the dividing line of where snow falls and stays and where it doesn’t in Minneapolis.   The irony is the tendency to get days above freezing that were incredibly unusual 20 years from Thanksgiving through March, are now common, yet the warmer days still doesn’t shield us from the severe arctic air that slides down once in while throughout the winter plunging us well below zero.   Our winters have become bi-polar, pun intended.   Minneapolis can range from highs like today in the single digits and lows below zero and three days later be 42 degrees.   It makes it hard to commit to a single jacket this time of year.   Regardless, we had a lovely “first” snowfall this week with close to 3 inches covering the ground.  It will all be melted by next.This time of year both ends of my commute are in the dark and it makes the days feel incredibly short.   But Tuesday night driving home the darkness was  a joy as the sliver moon was crowned by Venus glowing brightly directly above its point. 

 I enjoyed these two poems by Stroud and his take on winter.   He has a similar tendency as myself to find joy in snow and cold in equal measures to summer’s warmth.   What season(s) are you the happiest?  Why?


Manna

by Joseph Stroud

Everywhere, everywhere, snow sifting down,
a world becoming white, no more sounds,
no longer possible to find the heart of the day,
the sun is gone, the sky is nowhere, and of all
I wanted in life – so be it – whatever it is
that brought me here, chance, fortune, whatever
blessing each flake of snow is the hint of, I am
grateful, I bear witness, I hold out my arms,
palms up, I know it is impossible to hold
for long what we love of the world, but look
at me, is it foolish, shameful, arrogant to say this,
see how the snow drifts down, look how happy
I am.

Peace On Earth, Good-will To Men

Harper’s Weekly Christmas 1863, Illustration by Thomas Nast

The best thing one can do when it’s raining is to let it rain.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

A Nameless Grave

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807- 1882)
 

“A Soldier of the Union mustered out,”
Is the inscription on an unknown grave
At Newport News, beside the salt-sea wave,
Nameless and dateless; sentinel or scout
Shot down in skirmish, or disastrous rout
Of battle, when the loud artillery drave
Its iron wedges through the ranks of brave
And doomed battalions, storming the redoubt.
Thou unknown hero sleeping by the sea
In thy forgotten grave! with secret shame
I feel my pulses beat, my forehead burn,
When I remember thou hast given for me
All that thou hadst, thy life, thy very name,
And I can give thee nothing in return.


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the most popular American poet prior to and during the Civil War.  Longfellow was an avid abolitionist and wrote anti-slavery poems prior to the war and patriotic poems during and after.  One of his most famous poems that is still heard at the holidays is Christmas Bells.  The legend is that Wadsworth wrote it on Christmas day in 1863, but that it wasn’t published until after the war was over in a children’s magazine. 

Christmas Bells

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Duty, Something More Than Life

George Henry Booker (1823 – 1890)

Fold him in his country’s stars.
Roll the drum and fire the volley!
What to him are all our wars,
What but death bemocking folly?

George Henry Booker

[Sonnet]

By George Henry Boker
 
Brave comrade, answer! When you joined the war,
    What left you? “Wife and children, wealth and friends,
    A storied home whose ancient roof-tree bends
    Above such thoughts as love tells o’er and o’er.”
Had you no pang or struggle? “Yes; I bore
    Such pain on parting as at hell’s gate rends
    The entering soul, when from its grasp ascends
    The last faint virtue which on earth it wore.”
You loved your home, your kindred, children, wife;
    You loathed yet plunged into war’s bloody whirl!—
    What urged you? “Duty! Something more than life.
That which made Abraham bare the priestly knife,
    And Isaac kneel, or that young Hebrew girl
    Who sought her father coming from the strife.”
 

Another poet closely linked with the Union was George Henry Boker.   Boker was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania into a wealthy family.  His father Charles Boker was the president of several banks, and by whose intelligence and financial wisdom was able to successfully steer them through the troubled economic cycle of the late 1830’s.  His son took advantage of his privileged economic station by pursuing interests other than business, becoming an accomplished poet, playwright and dancer.
 
The Civil War focused Boker’s writing on the Union Cause, and changed him forever politically, from a Democrat to a Republican.  Boker published widely during the war in periodicals and magazines, including a volume in 1864 titled fittingly, “Poems of the War.”  Boker’s writing fit the times he lived.  He did not push any new boundaries in terms of style and form, but hidden among his words are some interesting phrases and ideas, the guilt of the Northern upper class caught in the maelstrom of the times, he himself, his father’s Abraham.  
 
 
 

In the Wilderness

By George Henry Boker
 
Mangled, uncared for, suffering thro’ the night
    With heavenly patience the poor boy had lain;
Under the dreary shadows, left and right,
    Groaned on the wounded, stiffened out the slain.
      What faith sustained his lone,
      Brave heart to make no moan,
To send no cry from that blood-sprinkled sod,
Is a close mystery with him and God.
 
But when the light came, and the morning dew
    Glittered around him, like a golden lake,
And every dripping flower with deepened hue
    Looked through its tears for very pity’s sake,
      He moved his aching head
      Upon his rugged bed,
And smiled as a blue violet, virgin-meek,
Laid her pure kiss upon his withered cheek.
 
At once there circled in his waking heart
    A thousand memories of distant home;
Of how those same blue violets would start
    Along his native fields, and some would roam
      Down his dear humming brooks,
      To hide in secret nooks,
And, shyly met, in nodding circles swing,
Like gossips murmuring at belated Spring.
 
And then he thought of the beloved hands
    That with his own had plucked the modest flower.
The blue-eyed maiden, crowned with golden bands,
    Who ruled as sovereign of that sunny hour.
      She at whose soft command
      He joined the mustering band,
She for whose sake he lay so firm and still,
Despite his pangs, not questioned then her will.
 
So, lost in thought, scarce conscious of the deed,
    Culling the violets, here and there he crept
Slowly—ah! slowly,—for his wound would bleed;
    And the sweet flowers themselves half smiled, half wept,
      To be thus gathered in
      By hands so pale and thin,
By fingers trembling as they neatly laid
Stem upon stem, and bound them in a braid.
 
The strangest posy ever fashioned yet
    Was clasped against the bosom of the lad,
As we, the seekers for the wounded, set
    His form upon our shoulders bowed and sad;
      Though he but seemed to think
      How violets nod and wink;
And as we cheered him, for the path was wild,
He only looked upon his flowers and smiled.
 

The Children Know

Happy Halloween


The farther we’ve gotten from the magic and mystery of our past, the more we’ve come to need Halloween

Paula Curan: October Dreams, A Celebration of Halloween

Theme in Yellow

by Carl Sandburg (1878 – 1967)

I spot the hills
With yellow balls in autumn.
I light the prairie cornfields
Orange and tawny gold clusters
And I am called pumpkins.
On the last of October
When dusk is fallen
Children join hands
And circle round me
Singing ghost songs
And love to the harvest moon;
I am a jack-o’-lantern
With terrible teeth
And the children know
I am fooling.


Mr. Macklin’s Jack O’Lantern

by David McCord (1897 – 1997)

Mr. Macklin takes his knife
And carves the yellow pumpkin face:
Three holes bring eyes and nose to life,
The mouth has thirteen teeth in place.
Then Mr. Macklin just for fun
Transfers the corn-cob pipe from his
Wry mouth to Jack’s, and everyone
Dies laughing! O what fun it is
Till Mr. Macklin draws the shade
And lights the candle in Jack’s skull.
Then all the inside dark is made
As spooky and as horrorful
As Halloween, and creepy crawl
The shadows on the tool-house floor,
With Jack’s face dancing on the wall.
O Mr. Macklin! where’s the door?

After The First Pure Fall

David Whyte

The thing about great poetry is we have no defenses against it.

David Whyte

“Stone” (Thobar Phádraig)

by David Whyte

The face in the stone is a mirror looking into you.
You have gazed into the moving waters,
you have seen the slow light, in the sky
above Lough Inagh, beneath you, streams have flowed,
and rivers of earth have moved beneath your feet,
but you have never looked into the immovability
of stone like this, the way it holds you, gives you
not a way forward but a doorway in, staunches
your need to leave, becomes faithful by going nowhere,
something that wants you to stay here and look back,
be weathered by what comes to you, like the way you too
have travelled from so far away to be here, once reluctant
and now as solid and as here and as willing
to be touched as everything you have found.

 


The Old Wild Place

by David Whyte

After the good earth
where the body knows itself to be real
and the mad flight
where it gives itself to the world,
we give ourselves to the rhythm of love
leaving the breath
to know its way home.

And after the first pure fall,
the last letting go, and the calm
breath where we go to rest,
we’ll return again to find it
and feel the body welcomed,
the body held,
the strong arms of the world,
the water, the waking at dawn
and the thankful, almost forgotten,
curling to sleep with the dark.

The old wild place beyond all shame.

My Heart Is Gladder Than All Of These

Julia Kasdorf

Age is an issue of mind over matter, if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.

Mark Twain

 

A Birthday

By Christina Rossetti

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.

Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.


My Mother would have turned 89 this week.   Despite having lived to an age beyond what her parents and sisters experienced, it feels like she died young at 83 for a person who was as vibrant as her right up until the end.  Her death combined with COVID has changed my fall and winter routines.  Normally October is the beginning of theater season, with both her or I having secured tickets to ballets, and plays and concerts to look forward to throughout the fall and winter season and to help carry us through the coldest months to spring.   It seems like a foreign concept right now, the idea of attending live events.   The Rolling Stones tour came to Minneapolis last night and by all accounts put on a good show.   Its funny to think that Mick Jagger is closer in age to my Mother than to me.  But my Mother was a rock star in her own right. 

I am not sure if I am getting better with dealing with loss with age but I seem more resigned to it these days.   A new puppy arrived at our farm over the weekend.  A 7 1/2  week old golden retriever puppy that if all goes as planned will become a breeding female for a service dog program in the future.   I haven’t had a puppy in my life for 20 years, so it is feeling like we have a new born infant in the house again.   It is also a reminder on how fast our lives move by.  This puppy will carry me into my 70’s.  For now it is a confident ball of fluff that has the entire household on its tip toes, her 12 year old golden retriever brother genuinely enjoying showing the puppy the ropes, but also a little jealous at all the attention going the puppies direction.  Tasha the cat is a bit grumpy but will come around.  I have never seen a puppy this confident, a puppy so quick to adapt to its new environment.  Her name is Vida – life!   And she is just what our household needed this fall.    


What I Learned From My Mother

By Julia Kasdorf

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.