“Only the curious have, if they live, a tale worth telling at all.”
by John Updike
And another regrettable thing about death is the ceasing of your own brand of magic, which took a whole life to develop and market- the quips, the witticisms, the slant adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears, their tears confused with their diamond earrings, their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat, their response and your performance twinned. The jokes over the phone. The memories packed in the rapid-access file. The whole act. Who will do it again? That’s it: no one; imitators and descendants aren’t the same.
Poem Without Ends
by Alastair Reid
One cannot take the beginning out of the air saying ‘It is the time: the hour is here’. The process is continuous as wind, the bird observed, not rising, but in flight, unrealised, in motion of the mind.
The end of everything is similar, never actually happening, but always over. The agony, the bent head, only tell that already in the heart the innocent evening is thick with the ferment of farewell.
Mother doesn’t want a dog. Mother says they smell, And never sit when you say sit, Or even when you yell. And when you come home late at night And there is ice and snow, You have to go back out because The dumb dog has to go.
Mother doesn’t want a dog. Mother says they shed, And always let the strangers in And bark at friends instead, And do disgraceful things on rugs, And track mud on the floor, And flop upon your bed at night And snore their doggy snore.
Mother doesn’t want a dog. She’s making a mistake. Because, more than a dog, I think She will not want this snake.
One of the delights of having small children in your life is the opportunity to sit down and read to them every day. It’s a way of unplugging from the adult world and entering the world and ideas of children’s books. One of my favorite books when my children were little was Viorst’s; Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. I read it so many times, I think I remember the opening lines by heart – “I went to bed with gum in my mouth and woke up with gum in my hair. Its going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.” Viorst continues on to illustrate in a funny way, that things happen and we all have to deal with it.
It feels like we have been a streak of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days lately, more than our fair share. And unlike Alexander, where a scissors and a bit of snipping can set things right on the first disaster, there is nothing we can do to protect ourselves and our children from the onslaught of no good that is all around us. The senseless tragedy in Minneapolis this week in the death of Dante Wright is beyond comprehension and I am not going to even attempt to comment other than to acknowledge the tremendous sadness myself and others in my immediate community are feeling. No words feel like they address the scope of the frustration and sadness of the ongoing police violence in the Twin Cities.
For today, I am going to retreat into the simplicity of children’s verse and blot out this terrible, horrible, no good very bad day. And offer a silent prayer for my city, that some level of healing happens and change is not just rhetoric but real, real soon.
by Shel Silverstein
Sandra’s seen a leprechuan Eddie touched a troll, Laurie danced with witches once, Charlie found some goblins’ gold. Donald heard a mermaid sing. Susy spied an elf., But all the magic I have known I’ve had to make myself.
Nothing is so beautiful as spring– When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush; Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing; The glassy pear tree leaves and blooms, they brush The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy? A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning In Eden garden.–Have, get, before it cloy, Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning, Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy, Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
Spring has sprung in Minnesota and with it the smells and sounds and sights of green and growing things. We had a gentle rain this week and grass overnight turned emerald green. On most lakes the ice is out and our world is turning phases, from solid to liquid. I am eager to get some dirt under my finger nails, rake up the detritus of winter and allow the recent rains to soak in and get the spring flowers growing.
There have been many poets who have used the sonnet form as a spiritual medium, to let their minds wander into the sublime, beyond the boundaries of human love and into the infinite. Both Donne and Hopkins used their poetry as testaments to God, but in doing so reaffirmed their very human relationship with nature and in their eyes its manifestation God’s love in nurturing all life on earth. In this way, Christianity and Buddhism share some common themes, in that we are all manifestations of God’s (Buddha’s) consciousness and yet, as Donne reminds us, it is in the forgetting, at least in the forgetting of the worst of ourselves, that we are best remembered.
“I didn’t have very many people around to say beautiful things to me.”
“I used to go from the house of one neighbor to the next collecting beautiful things people had to say to each other.”
“By myself, I whispered the words to comfort my heart. One day, the words escaped on a sigh and a song was born.”
I have waited to write this entry, hesitant on how to approach it, not wanting exuberant language to not live up to the respect this work deserves. Every year I have a favorite book that grabs a hold of my heart and imagination and makes a lasting imprint. In 2020, that book was The Song Poet by Koa Kalia Yang. Yang is a local St. Paul writer, who tells the story of her families journey from the jungles of Laos to St. Paul. It is a book that delves deeply into war, cultural displacement, racism, equity, fairness and the courage of love and hard work in the immigrant community so that children can have better lives than their parents. Mostly its a love story between father and daughter and the power of words to be trans-formative from one artist to another, from one generation to another.
On the opening page the first line begins; “My father would never describe himself as a poet…I am the only person I know who describes my father’s work as poetry….My father is not a writer. He does not write down his compositions. He is a singer. He sings them.” Koa Yang goes on to describe how as an adult listening to a copy of a cassette, worn and scratched with repeated play and then transferred to CD, she hears the sound of her father’s voice singing his traditional compositions through a fresh perspective as an adult. “What I found…was not a work of suffering. The first time I listened through my father’s album as an adult, it was striking to me that there was humor, irony, and astute cultural and political criticism. There was so much more than the hurt that he had harnessed in his songs. There was the beauty of endless hope….”
I have not been the father my children have wanted or needed me to be. I have been, at my best and at my worst, only the father I imagined for myself.
In Koa Yang’s memoir I unexpectedly found a flood of memories. In the late 1970’s my childhood household hosted several immigrants and visitors for short periods of time, depending on your definition of short and time. The first were two Vietnamese helicopter pilots that were sponsored by the Presbyterian church we attended. It was right after the fall of Saigon. They were both highly educated engineers, resilient yet deeply emotionally wounded, having survived the war but also having left family and their hearts behind in Vietnam. I was 12 years old, not emotionally mature enough to totally understand the complexity of the situation, but very much cognizant of the upheaval their presence created in our home during their stay of about 10 months. They needed relatively little from us. Our house was a safe house in a way, a place to figure out their next steps in their new life in America, a place to save some money and decompress and plan. They quickly found good jobs and became the success story that is the immigrant experience that is idealized in America; they worked hard and moved to California where they married and continue to live good lives. However, in looking back I realize this was the start of my Mother using the cover of strangers living in our home for extended periods to do good work but also keep up the appearance that her marriage was not unraveling. It’s amazing what the presence of outsiders will do to keep the lid on stress within a family.
The stranger baton was handed from Bong and Long, the helicopter pilots, to my Mother’s adult cousins, who lived with us for one complete summer, while building a house and stored what seemed like all their earthly possessions in our basement, to a year long exchange student from Peru until eventually even the stretch wrap of strangers couldn’t prevent what was inevitable and my parents separated.
This didn’t stop my Mother’s need to do good work as a way of healing. When the second wave of immigration from Southeast Asia began happening in 1980 of Hmong refugees to St. Paul, our church again sponsored a family; my Mother put up her hand once more and invited into our house a family of seven from Laos, our home filling with the noises of a family and not the quiet it had become as result of my two sisters having left for college and my Father having moved out, my parents separated but not yet divorced. I was now a 17 year old and more aware and a bit resentful to all the chaos as well. The Hmong family lived in the basement suite, which was the old master bedroom with a private bathroom and large play area as well as their own entrance. They cooked in our kitchen and played in our huge back yard. It wasn’t good or terrible, it was just awkward. Unlike Bong and Long, who spoke fluent English, and were largely self sufficient, this family spoke no English, and were completely dependent on us and the church for all of their basic needs at first. This level of dependence was not exactly what I think my Mother had imagined. Their lack of English combined with the circumstances made all communication in the household difficult. My mother handled most of the interactions and negotiations that have to occur between two families living under one roof in sign language. But in reality, in the end, both sides just put up with each other, knowing it would eventually come to an end. The cultural divide was even bigger than the language barrier. It only lasted about 4 months, two of which I wasn’t there much. I dealt with it by trying to be home as little as possible, busy with athletics, a job and friends. I pretended it wasn’t happening. It wasn’t until I read Yang’s book that I really even thought about that experience again. Just like Koa Yang listening to her father’s voice as an adult helped her see her father through a fresh lens, reading Yang’s memoir helped put me back into those years, only to emerge with a new perspective, to acknowledge how awkward it must have been for that family as well as my Mother and myself. In her memoir I found new respect; and an acknowledgement of the courage and strength of that family, to come to America and their quiet dignity in accepting the support of the church and my family in living in our house, even if it just was my Mom and I living there at the time.
We all have those moments when we think about our deceased loved ones with sentences in our minds that begin with; “I wish..” I wish my Mother and I had read The Song Poet together when she was alive and used it as way to heal those few remaining cuts from those years that still require a few stitches. Not stitches in our relationship, stitches in ourselves. In retrospect when I add up all the things that happened in that short period of time from 1975 to 1980 and all the people that came and went from that house, with my Mother and I the only two people that were consistently together during about a 5 year stretch, it hardly seems real. It is hard to fit the narrative of all those experiences into so short a time span.
One of the curses and blessings that haunt immigrants as well as the generation that grew up in the depression of the 1930’s is the lasting impact that poverty has on your entire lives and the lives of your children. It creates this driving beat that underscores all conversations with children around the need for education and the need to work, to define success through the lens of a career. Reading Yang’s memoir it was striking how similar my experience in listening to my father growing up was similar in some ways to hers. I look back on that period today as a father myself, proud of his adult children, knowing I have done my best, like my father has done his best, but also knowing, like Bee Yang, I may not have been everything my children needed or wanted, only the father I imagined myself to be. Maybe that is the eternal song of all fathers from the beginning of time, the true curse of fatherhood, a piece of us becomes our own father’s victories and defeats.
On Yang’s opening page, she says; ” My father says that on his grave-stone he wants it known that his wife and children are his life’s work. He would love it if I could add: “All of Bee Yang’s children became good people.” Those lines set the table for the rest of Yang’s beautiful book and it was with those lines she had me as a reader. For it is exactly those same sentiments about her children that my Mother lived and breathed and sang her entire life. Not just to her biological children but all the other children she taught and cherished and adopted and loved over her years. My mother’s legacy in work was people. And she too would want me to add, all of her children became good people….
If you are looking for a book to help you think in new ways about the immigrant crisis from a lens slightly different than the one portrayed in the media, I can’t recommend The Song Poet highly enough. Though it speaks of another time and another place than the world we live in today, it is still relevant. It is a book that will wrap itself around your imagination and not let go and maybe bring to light much needed healing in your own life or at least shed light on the larger issues of migration and the immigrant experience in America and set it to a rhythm of mutual respect, born of courage to re-frame our lives to the challenges of today.
Song of Separation
by Bee Yang Translated by Kao Kalia Yang
A son wakes up in the early morning. At the threshold of his house, he says, “Father show me . . where you have gone.” He walks the dirt path to the garden he must till. He wonders, “Is this the direction where my father . . could be?” At the edge of the forest, there is a buzzing bee, perched . . upon a flower whose soft petals glisten in the morning . . light. The son wanders close and asks, “Father, did this flower . . bloom for you years ago when this was your home?” In the center of his garden, there is a young deer, head . . bent toward the earth, eating shoots of green rice. The son quiets his steps and he wants to know, “Is this . . the animal who now carries my father’s soul?”
Desert heat, high clouds, and sky the color of lapis. On this journey, anything seems possible, so we stop by an ancient cottonwood to kiss. The beauty trembles, doesn’t say a word, just watches me, so open. Small birds fly by, flock in the shady tree above us. What settles in her heart? What congeals? Hope? Despair? Far off, the river churns in its sandy banks, swallows veer, turn in fiery air. Will these kisses seal her to me? I her lover, she my wife? Is all of this a dream, my whole life?
For the wanderers among us, the self restraint of not traveling during the past year has been difficult. Two years ago I embarked on a mad journey with my partner, packing enough activities for 3 vacations into 11 days, driving more miles than is therapeutic, hiking, skiing, rock hounding while car camping across Colorado and Utah the first week of April. As slightly crazy as it was, I would do it again in a heartbeat with only one change; add another week onto the trip to slow the pace down of the miles covered. The incredible beauty of Utah and the diverse nature of its National Parks and public lands make it truly one of the great wonders and wanders of the United States.
I am fearful that post pandemic vacations will become even more difficult, not less. I had not taken a full week off prior to 2018 in over 10 years. The reason: I return to a mountain of work that it makes it a worry while away. The pre-pandemic work pace was bad enough that long weekends – leave on a Friday return on Tuesday – felt doable, because I was never gone for an entire week. But that was before Teams or Zoom calls filled up every minute of every day. This idea that we have created a mobile work force that can work from anywhere is a fallacy. We have given permission to now think everyone is available on-demand at anytime and it is ruining workplace quality of life and undermining human interactions. It is exhausting to be on remote calls hour after hour, day after day. It sucks the life right out of me. I find that things we used to solve over lunch or an impromptu 5 minute discussion in someone’s office now turn into 30 or 60 minute calls. We have become less efficient to the god of technology, not more efficient. The problem is I seem to be in the minority of hating the state of this virtual insanity. So the slow decent into digital existence continues unabated. I fear, it is Dante’s new rings of hell. It’s why we need to clear our lungs once in a while and get out and see the world. Gould’s sonnets are a splash of Utah sunshine on the high desert vista. Sacred. Sacred. Sacred. Beautiful words to fit the beauty of the West.
Zion National Park April 2018.
Six Sonnets: Crossing the West
by Janice Gould
4 Sacred. Sacred. Sacred. Sacred. (Speak in a whisper.) We slip into this space half cognizant. The land is very large indeed: bones of the earth worn down, though she is a living thing. See how she exposes her grace? Antelopes graze on the far plain—their high, white tails—the red soil throbs its slow heartbeat, and the blue sky clears so smartly, perfectly, like radiance. Are the ancestors near? What can we know? We decide to wander around this prairie, mistaken for Utes, buy commodities in little towns.
Believe me, if all those endearing young charms, Which I gaze on so fondly to-day, Were to change by to-morrow, and fleet in my arms, Live fairy-gifts fading away, Thou wouldst still be adored, as this moment thou art, Let thy loveliness fade as it will, And around the dear ruin each wish of my heart Would entwine itself verdantly still.
It is not while beauty and youth are thine own, And thy cheeks unprofaned by a tear, That the fervor and faith of a soul may be known, To which time will but make thee more dear! No, the heart that has truly loved never forgets, But as truly loves on to the close, As the sunflower turns on her god when he sets The same look which she turned when he rose!
by Paul Muldoon (1951 – )
They’re kindly here, to let us linger so late, Long after the shutters are up. A waiter glides from the kitchen with a plate Of stew, or some thick soup,
And settles himself at the next table but one. We know, you and I, that it’s over, That something or other has come between Us, whatever we are, or were.
The waiter swabs his plate with bread And drains what’s left of his wine, Then rearranges, one by one, The knife, the fork, the spoon, the napkin, The table itself, the chair he’s simply borrowed, And smiles, and bows to his own absence.
I was falling helpless in a shower of waste, reaching my arms out toward the others falling in disorder everywhere around me.
At the last instant, approaching the surface, the fall slowed suddenly,
and we were all unconcerned, regarding one another in approval.
The Force of Eloquence
by Thomas Kinsella
The brink of living is inhabited.
Unbrooding as an ox, he thrusts a bald Muscular head out smiling. Though his tongue Chains are fastened, radii of gold. Gently hauled by these, his swayed captives Yield their wrists in lithe angles of peace – A charmed plight, halted in faint relief Against a line of hills full of quaint promise.
A token of bronze, long out currency, Vivifies an impossible worn world, Of speech constricted into other terms: An equilibrium of gift and threat Moulded in external breathless appearance.
March is a muddy dog Muddy boots, a muddy slog Muddy kitchen, muddy jeans In March we march in mud it seems.
With arms outstretched, shouting stop Barring all with broom and mop Parents tire of the constant chore, Cleaning foot prints from the floor.
If muddy March is your downfall, Show you’re not a neanderthal. Take off your shoes at the door, Don’t track across a nice clean floor!
And though in March it’s a bother, Grab the dog by the collar. Prevent paw prints on the carpet. Wash their feet before they’re on it.
Mud does not limit itself to farms, but there is an extra helping of mud if you have livestock and daily chores. Years ago I lived on a small acreage and had a few furry beasts, more pets than livestock. At the time we lived in an old two story farm house with good bones. One of its best features was a mud room, an entry area where you could disrobe out of work attire and take off your shoes or boots before entering the kitchen. It served as a containment area for the dog and cast as well so that you could wipe off their paws before allowing entry into the kitchen. The kitchen was enormous, bigger than the dining room with a large wood stove towards the center that made everything cozy.
This was a well built farm house from the early 1920’s, with traditional features like hard wood floors and leaded glass windows on the first floor. In the 1980’s the wood kitchen flooring had been covered over with indoor/outdoor carpeting with a rather ornate pattern, in browns and golds and dark greens. It wasn’t attractive or unattractive, it was practical because it was easy to clean and disguised whatever dirt remained when you inevitably tracked some inside. We were young and broke and so it was not on the top of the list to replace when we moved in but was on the bucket list to do someday.
Our son was only a little over two that first spring in the house and with a newly arrived puppy and cat that had moved from barn to house when it got cold we had our hands full. One Saturday morning in March we came down and had coffee, made breakfast and were chatting for awhile, catching up on the week and generally enjoying the warmth of the kitchen, when in near simultaneous movement we both looked down at our son who was sitting on the floor smiling up at us. In slow motion we watched as he raised his right hand up to his mouth realizing he was about to suck on the head of dead mouse like a pacifier. My wife let out a shriek that peeled paint off the ceiling and my son dropped it and started crying. A prodigious scrubbing occurred in the sink of his hands and face as my wife shuddered not wanting to know if the head of the mouse was wet. She looked at me uttering one of the classic lines that occur in marriages; “from now on, I want flooring in our kitchen I can see the dead mice.” I silently agreed as I winked at the cat and disposed of the offender.
Like Pastan’s sentiments below, I find that pets remind me that I am not as much in control of my life as I would like to believe. Pets introduce a level of unpredictablity that is both hilarious and heart breaking. Pets are a reminder of how fast life speeds by and to enjoy it like “anything can happen.”
The New Dog
by Linda Pastan
Into the gravity of my life, the serious ceremonies of polish and paper and pen, has come
this manic animal whose innocent disruptions make nonsense of my old simplicities-
as if I needed him to prove again that after all the careful planning, anything can happen.
“The freethinking of one age is the common sense of the next.”
by Matthew Arnold
Foil’d by our fellow-men, depress’d, outworn,
We leave the brutal world to take its way,
And, Patience! in another life, we say
The world shall be thrust down, and we up-borne.
And will not, then, the immortal armies scorn
The world’s poor, routed leavings? or will they,
Who fail’d under the heat of this life’s day,
Support the fervours of the heavenly morn?
No, no! the energy of life may be
Kept on after the grave, but not begun;
And he who flagg’d not in the earthly strife,
From strength to strength advancing—only he,
His soul well-knit, and all his battles won,
Mounts, and that hardly, to eternal life.
It can be a bit of a head spinner to jump from the language of the mid 19th Century to the 21st Century from one day to the next and then back again, but that’s one of things I find fascinating about the sonnet form. It is a framework that has remained relatively unchanged and relevant for hundreds of years. Although the language has changed, many of the themes Arnold is exploring are universal. Matthew Arnold is not a poet I would ever come across if not for this project and my radar always being up and listening for sonnets. Arnold is not a poet who has remained popular. His language sounds a bit stilted to my ears. Yet if I push through the language and listen to his themes that he is wrestling, it sounds familiar. In the middle of a pandemic, where all of our patience has been tested, his opening to Immortality is dead on to thoughts I have been having. Where should I place my energies? Work doesn’t have the same feeling as it used to, working remotely has lessened the humanness and the fulfillment of working alongside other people so that I question a bit, what am I really doing and does it really matter as much as it once did? I like his language if I let it transport me and embrace its foreign qualities. It raises questions in my mind; what energies of my life will live past me? What will give strength to my children to others? What battles are worth winning other than the one we all can win, enjoying our lives.
by Matthew Arnold
Others abide our question. Thou art free. We ask and ask – Thou smilest and art still, Out-topping knowledge. For the loftiest hill, Who to the stars uncrowns his majesty,
Planting his steadfast footsteps in the sea, Making the heaven of heavens his dwelling-place, Spares but the cloudy border of his base To the foil’d searching of mortality;
And thou, who didst the stars and sunbeams know, Self-school’d, self-scann’d, self-honour’d, self-secure, Didst tread on earth unguess’d at. – Better so!
All pains the immortal spirit must endure, All weakness which impairs, all griefs which bow, Find their sole speech in that victorious brow.
All that will remain after an apocalypse is glitter. – British Vogue
You have a daughter now. it’s everywhere, And often in the company of glue. You can’t get rid of it. It’s in her hair: A wink of pink, a glint of silver-blue. It’s catching, like the chicken pox, or lice. Its travels, like a planetary scar. Sometimes its on your face, or you look twice And glimpse, there on your arm, a single star. You know it by a hand’s brushing your neck – You blush – It’s not desire, not anymore – Just someone’s urge to flick away the fleck Of borrowed glamour from your collarbone – The broken mirror Time will not restore, The way your daughter marks you as her own.
The Pull Toy
by A. E. Stallings
You squeezed its leash in your fist, It followed where you led: Tick, tock, tick, tock, Nodding its wooden head.
Wagging a tail on a spring, Its wheels gearing lackety-clack, Dogging your heels the length of the house, Though you seldom glanced back.
It didn’t mind being dragged When it toppled on its side Scraping its coat of primary colors: Love has no pride.
But now that you run and climb And leap, it has no hope Of keeping up, so it sits, hunched At the end of its short rope
And dreams of a rummage sale Where it’s snapped up for a song, And of somebody—somebody just like you— Stringing it along