This is the voice of high midsummer’s heat. The rasping vibrant clamour soars and shrills O’er all the meadowy range of shadeless hills, As if a host of giant cicadae beat The cymbals of their wings with tireless feet, Or brazen grasshoppers with triumphing note From the long swath proclaimed the fate that smote The clover and timothy-tops and meadowsweet.
The crying knives glide on; the green swath lies. And all noon long the sun, with chemic ray, Seals up each cordial essence in its cell, That in the dusky stalls, some winter’s day, The spirit of June, here prisoned by his spell, May cheer the herds with pasture memories.
The Cow Pasture
by Sir Charles G. D. Roberts
I see the harsh, wind-ridden, eastward hill, By the red cattle pastured, blanched with dew; The small, mossed hillocks where the clay gets through; The grey webs woven on milkweed tops at will. The sparse, pale grasses flicker, and are still. The empty flats yearn seaward. All the view Is naked to the horizon’s utmost blue; And the bleak spaces stir me with strange thrill.
Not in perfection dwells the subtler power To pierce our mean content, but rather works Through incompletion, and the need that irks, — Not in the flower, but effort toward the flower. When the want stirs, when the soul’s cravings urge, The strong earth strengthens, and the clean heavens purge.
I stopped after class for some Chinese food I figured I would just grab a quick bite For sesame chicken is always good and I hadn’t had much to eat that night.
I got my food and I got in the car, and I felt my stomach begin to growl. So before I had gotten very far, I decided to sneak a taste of fowl.
I waited until I’d stopped at a light; I grabbed something tasty without concern. I took one and then another small bite, but soon I felt something hot start to burn.
Alas! on my chin, I now have a scar from eating Chinese food inside my car!
Statistics are an imperfect way to share information. Stats are notoriously unreliable in that they sound factual but are inevitably outdated or biased in some manner in which the data was collected and summarized. So when I share that I read recently that nearly 70% of Chinese restaurants have closed in the United States since the start of the pandemic, you can feel free to object and say the stat is wrong, because from your perspective it is either too big or too small. Yet the statistic is directionally correct. Chinese restaurants have born the brunt, more than any other type of restaurant, during the pandemic not only because of closure of in-restaurant dining reducing income but also because of the blatant anti-Chinese racism that is occurring from the misinformed and small minded who are blaming China and by extension Chinese-Americans and Asian businesses. Despite being ridiculous, the economic downturn has resulted in successful Chinese restaurants that have been institutions for decades, from New York to San Francisco, from small towns to large, to confront the sad reality of bankruptcy and closure. Behind this glaring statistic are family businesses, many passed down through generations, that are having to confront the reality of a change in American dining habits and questioning the opportunity for Chinese food as a profitable venture in or out of traditional urban centers with diverse ethnic populations. If the only Asian food that is going to survive in the United States are chain restaurants, then America will be all the more culturally impoverished in the future for lack of finding ways to help authentic small ethnic restaurants flourish and thrive through the pandemic.
If you haven’t stumbled across the blog – Putasonnetonit – I highly recommend it. Evelyn Curtis set herself the herculean task of writing and sharing a sonnet everyday for a year. I can’t imagine myself writing a limerick every day for a year, let alone a sonnet, so I have huge respect for the undertaking. It would be interesting to ask her what she feels are her top 5 sonnets from that year looking back? I have no idea where this one would rank, but since it is a sonnet about an actual scar she will carry forward for the rest of her life, I thought it might rank up there a bit. Its a great example that sonnet writing doesn’t have to take itself too serious. It can be simply a Polaroid picture of the moment, that might take on more meaning with time, even unexpected meaning. I wonder if the restaurant in which she purchased the food that the sonnet is based still exists?
For many years I had a subscription to The New Yorker and I enjoyed Calvin Trillin’s regular contributions. Trillin shared a view of New York that was illuminating to a Midwesterner. It felt like I had an irascible great Uncle giving me the inside scoop on how the big city works. I was saddened when Trillin was hit with criticism and blow back on his poem below. It wasn’t quite cancel culture, but it was roughing up a veteran journalist who had been sharing his unique perspective for decades with gentle humor and a tinge of grumpiness. I personally don’t think Trillin’s poem rose to the level of the accusations – racism. But since that criticism was invoked, it felt to me that the The New Yorker drifted into blander and blander territory, less interesting while more politically correct. Which is why my subscription eventually lapsed, I ceased to find it compelling. Cancel culture works in both directions and I must admit from the subscription department I am assuming that the editors can’t tell which is the cause; the loss of Trillin like pieces causing subscriptions to dwindle or is it because of “vocal” critics of such work being so outraged they cancel their subscription. In the end the result is the same.
I had a boss many years ago who teased me all the time, teased me in ways that were definitely not always politically correctly and did it in front of the entire group. After several years, I asked a co-worker about it and he said; “You have to realize that he only teases the people he likes. Its when he stops teasing you that you should be worried.” I had never thought about it before in that way. I stopped worrying. I’m not saying that being emotionally inept in your approach to interacting with others is a role model for success as a current business leader, but the truth is the worst insult is to be ignored. Teasing is an acknowledgement that you like the person or institution enough to think about them. Teasing taken too far is bullying and I acknowledge teasing can be racist. But teasing in and of itself is not inherently racist. I consider Trillin’s poem a form of literary teasing, something that has a long history- think Cervantes. In my opinion, its far worse for people to stop supporting Chinese restaurants and see them fail, then to publish a silly poem about all the different kinds of Chinese restaurants and to take the time to make it rhyme. I am guessing that the New York Chinese Restaurant Owners Association, if such a thing exists, would be happy to have Calvin Trillin writing silly poems about the diverse array of thriving Chinese food options in New York in 2021. It would mean that people were walking through those doors and dining. Its far worse that 70% of them have had to close their doors for lack of business.
Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet
by Calvin Trillin
Have they run out of provinces yet? If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret. Long ago, there was just Cantonese. (Long ago, we were easy to please.) But then food from Szechuan came our way, Making Cantonese strictly passé. Szechuanese was the song that we sung, Though the ma po could burn through your tongue. Then when Shanghainese got in the loop We slurped dumplings whose insides were soup. Then Hunan, the birth province of Mao, Came along with its own style of chow. o we thought we were finished, and then A new province arrived: Fukien. Then respect was a fraction of meagre For those eaters who’d not eaten Uighur. And then Xi’an from Shaanxi gained fame, Plus some others—too many to name. Now, as each brand-new province appears, It brings tension, increasing our fears: Could a place we extolled as a find Be revealed as one province behind? So we sometimes do miss, I confess, Simple days of chow mein but no stress, When we never were faced with the threat Of more provinces we hadn’t met. Is there one tucked away near Tibet? Have they run out of provinces yet?
“Art can never exist without naked beauty displayed.”
by Helen Hunt Jackson
Mysterious shapes, with wands of joy and pain, Which seize us unaware in helpless sleep, And lead us to the houses where we keep Our secrets hid, well barred by every chain That we can forge and bind: the crime whose stain Is slowly fading ’neath the tears we weep; Dead bliss which, dead, can make our pulses leap— Oh, cruelty! To make these live again! They say that death is sleep, and heaven’s rest Ends earth’s short day, as, on the last faint gleam Of sun, our nights shut down, and we are blest. Let this, then, be of heaven’s joy the test, The proof if heaven be, or only seem, That we forever choose what we will dream
A Cradle Song
By William Blake
Sleep, sleep, beauty bright, Dreaming in the joys of night; Sleep, sleep; in thy sleep Little sorrows sit and weep.
Sweet babe, in thy face Soft desires I can trace, Secret joys and secret smiles, Little pretty infant wiles.
As thy softest limbs I feel Smiles as of the morning steal O’er thy cheek, and o’er thy breast Where thy little heart doth rest.
O the cunning wiles that creep In thy little heart asleep! When thy little heart doth wake, Then the dreadful night shall break.
Motherhood is priced of God, at price no man may dare to lessen or understand.
Helen Hunt Jackson
Poppies On The Wheat
by Helen Hunt Jackson (1830 – 1885)
Along Ancona’s hills the shimmering heat,
A tropic tide of air with ebb and flow
Bathes all the fields of wheat until they glow
Like flashing seas of green, which toss and beat
Around the vines. The poppies lithe and fleet
Seem running, fiery torchmen, to and fro
To mark the shore.
The farmer does not know
That they are there. He walks with heavy feet,
Counting the bread and wine by autumn’s gain,
But I,—I smile to think that days remain
Perhaps to me in which, though bread be sweet
No more, and red wine warm my blood in vain,
I shall be glad remembering how the fleet,
Lithe poppies ran like torchmen with the wheat.
Helen Hunt Jackson’s poetry is filled with the loss she experienced in her life. By 1865, at age 25, Jackson had lost her first husband and two children to disease and accidents. She moved to Colorado Springs and a sanitarium seeking a cure for tuberculosis. There she met a wealthy banker and married. The final 20 years of her life she became devoted to the cause of improving the rights and conditions of Native Americans, after having met Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca Tribe from Nebraska at a lecture in Boston. Upset about the mistreatment of Native Americans, Jackson became an activist on their behalf, publicizing the government’s misconduct. She began circulating petitions, raising money, and writing letters to The New York Times on behalf of the Ponca. Jackson’s became so focused on this issue she was quoted as saying, “I would wake up in the morning and write 2,000 to 3,000 words, faster than I could write a letter, as if I could do anything else.” She would go on to write A Century Of Dishonor (1881) which describes the mistreatment of Native Americans by the American Government. In 1884 she shrewdly wrote a romance novel to popularize the issue among a broader audience in the novel Romana, which used the backdrop of romance to tell the plight of Native Americans in Southern California after the Mexican-American war for her heroine. The novel was a success and reprinted over 300 times. It attracted a large readership to the issues surrounding Native American rights.
“If I could write a story that would do for the Indian one hundredth part of what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for slaves I would be thankful for the rest of my life.”
Helen Hunt Jackson
Jackson obviously had sufficient wealth to travel, her opening line giving it away with the reference to Ancona. Poppies are not a frequent flower in the wheat fields of North America, but are in Europe and England. The poppies she is referring to come from a picturesque field in Italy to which she must have traveled. Both Jackson’s and Kemble’s poems deal with the brevity of life and use the metaphors of weeds in our own plot of land that we till. In Jackson’s case the poppy is the carefree interloper to remind us of the enjoyment of life’s pleasures, despite her losses, whereas Kemble’s weed is more poisonous, an “evil weed of woe” that casts its shade upon the productive soils of her youth. Both poems are a bit melodramatic and old fashioned for my tastes, but solid reminders of how the sonnet form has inspired writers over hundred of years in expressing their emotions and memories. One of the reasons I think the sonnet lends itself to theme’s of loss, is its relatively short. The sonnet allows the author to release and heal while not wallowing in past. Of the two sonnets, I enjoy Jackson’s more, with the optimism and the beauty of the red poppies a reminder that even in the solidarity of wheat’s goodness, it can’t quench the exuberance and defiance of the poppy to spice up life.
Thou Poisonous Laurel Leaf
by Frances Anne Kemble (1809 – 1893)
Thou poisonous laurel leaf, that in the soil Of life, which I am doomed to till full sore, Spring’st like a noisome weed! I do not toil For thee, and yet thou still com’st darkening o’er My plot of earth with thy unwelcome shade. Thou nightshade of the heart, beneath whose boughs All fair and gentle buds hang withering, Why hast thou wreathed thyself around my brows, Casting from thence the blossoms of my spring, Breathing on youth’s sweet roses till they fade? Alas! thou art an evil weed of woe, Watered with tears and watched with sleepless care, Seldom doth envy thy green glories spare; And yet men covet thee—ah, wherefore do they so!
When I was marked for suffering, Love forswore
All knowledge of my doom; or else at ease
Love grows a cruel tyrant, hard to please
Or else a chastisement exceeding sore
A little sin hath brought me. Hush! No more!
Love is a god! All things he knows and sees,
And gods are bland and mild! Who then decrees
The dreadful woe I bear and yet adore?
If I should say, O Chloe, that ’twas thou,
I should speak falsely since, being wholly good
Like Heaven itself, from thee no ill can come.
There is no hope; I must die shortly now,
Not knowing why, since, sure, no witch hath brewed
The drug that might avert my martyrdom.
How many connections can you find between these two poets, these two poems? The obvious ones and the personal that are only meant for you? It is interesting to use poetry as a way to connect ourselves to others that we will never meet, either through time or place. Poetry forgives all the things left out and unexplained. There is no requirement in poetry the author must footnote each sentiment and expression. There is no journalistic standards to which a poet must abide. Poetry allows for more than casual punctuation, it encourages the reader to usurp the writer’s words and find in them something personal, intimate that only the two of you know to be true in the way the words speak to you. What secret do you share with Cervantes, Lorna Dee and Miguel?
I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination.
by John Keats (1795 – 1821)
Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art— Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night, And watching, with eternal lids apart, Like Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite, The moving waters at their priestlike task Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores, Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask Of snow upon the mountains and the moors— No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable, Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast, To feel for ever its soft fall and swell, Awake for ever in a sweet unrest, Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, And so live ever—or else swoon to death.
The Flower (An Excerpt)
by George Herbert (1593 – 1633)
How fresh, oh Lord, how sweet and clean Are thy returns! even as the flowers in spring; To which, besides their own demean, The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring. . Grief melts away . Like snow in May, As if there were no such cold thing. Who would have thought my shriveled heart
Could have recovered greenness? It was gone Quite underground; as flowers depart To see their mother-root, when they have blown, . Where they together . All the hard weather, Dead to the world, keep house unknown.
And now in age I bud again, After so many deaths I live and write; I once more smell the dew and rain, And relish versing. Oh, my only light, . It cannot be . That I am he On whom thy tempests fell all night.
You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.
by Pablo Neruda
Naked, you are simple as one of your hands, Smooth, earthy, small, transparent, round: You have moonlines, applepathways: Naked, you are slender as a naked grain of wheat.
Naked, you are blue as the night in Cuba; You have vines and stars in your hair; Naked, you are spacious and yellow As summer in a golden church.
Naked, you are tiny as one of your nails, Curved, subtle, rosy, till the day is born And you withdraw to the underground world,
as if down a long tunnel of clothing and of chores: Your clear light dims, gets dressed, drops its leaves, And becomes a naked hand again.
by Pablo Neruda
Desnuda eres tan simple como una de tus manos, lisa, terrestre, mínima, redonda, transparente, tienes líneas de luna, caminos de manzana, desnuda eres delgada como el trigo desnudo.
Desnuda eres azul como la noche en Cuba, tienes enredaderas y estrellas en el pelo, desnuda eres enorme y amarilla como el verano en una iglesia de oro.
Desnuda eres pequeña como una de tus uñas, curva, sutil, rosada hasta que nace el día y te metes en el subterráneo del mundo
como en un largo túnel de trajes y trabajos: tu claridad se apaga, se viste, se deshoja y otra vez vuelve a ser una mano desnuda
Body of a Woman
By Pablo Neruda
Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs, when you surrender, you stretch out like the world. My body, savage and peasant, undermines you and makes a son leap in the bottom of the earth.
I was lonely as a tunnel. Birds flew from me. And night invaded me with her powerful army. To survive I forged you like a weapon, like an arrow for my bow, or a stone for my sling.
But now the hour of revenge falls, and I love you. Body of skin, of moss, of firm and thirsty milk! And the cups of your breasts! And your eyes full of absence! And the roses of your mound! And your voice slow and sad!
Body of my woman, I will live on through your marvelousness. My thirst, my desire without end, my wavering road! Dark river beds down which the eternal thirst is flowing, and the fatigue is flowing, and the grief without shore.
Cuerpo de Mujer
by Pablo Neruda
Cuerpo de mujer, blancas colinas, muslos blancos, te pareces al mundo en tu actitud de entrega. Mi cuerpo de labriego salvaje te socava y hace saltar el hijo del fondo de la tierra.
Fui solo como un túnel. De mí huían los pájaros y en mí la noche entraba su invasión poderosa. Para sobrevivirme te forjé como un arma, como una flecha en mi arco, como una piedra en mi honda.
Pero cae la hora de la venganza, y te amo. Cuerpo de piel, de musgo, de leche ávida y firme. Ah los vasos del pecho! Ah los ojos de ausencia! Ah las rosas del pubis! Ah tu voz lenta y triste!
Cuerpo de mujer mía, persistiré en tu gracia. Mi sed, mi ansia sin límite, mi camino indeciso! Oscuros cauces donde la sed eterna sigue, y la fatiga sigue, y el dolor infinito.
It is not only the Romans who are gone. Belli, unhappy a century ago, Won from the world his fashionable stone. Where it stands now, he doesn’t even know. Across the Tiber, near Trastevere, His top hat teetered on his head with care, Brushed like a gentleman, he cannot see The latest Romans who succeed him there.
One of them bravely climbed his pedestal And sprayed a scarlet MERDA on his shawl. This afternoon, I pray his hidden grave Lies nameless somewhere in the hills, while rain Fusses and frets to rinse away the stain. Rain might erase when marble cannot save.
by James Wright
Praying down the gulley, Slowed by the rainy mire, I will discern, across the void, Two flies winding a fire, And a long thick leaf Hanging on another, And a leg of root and a leg Of bough twining together.
That will be she forever; Lightning bugs for eyes, That see no farther in the dark Than my own blind eyes; A limp leaf for a cheek, Cracking before it slips; Tendril and twig for ankle bones, And nothing at all for lips
When darkness hovers over earth, and day gives place to night, Then lovers see the Milky Way gleam mystically bright, And calling it the Way of Love they hail it with delight.
Joyce Kilmer, Summer of Love
by Joyce Kilmer
I think that I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day, And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain; Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.
In Minnesota, May is the month of trees even more so than the splendor of the fall. Minnesotan’s come out of a long winter eager for the warmth of spring. The bare and brown trees tease us all April long, with hints of green and growing things. But it isn’t until May that the canopy is filled with as many colors of green as the mind’s eye can imagine. Then, about the middle of the month, crab apples and lilacs fill our neighborhoods with their delights. By Memorial day their blossoms will be gone, their sweet smells a reminder to slow down, close your eyes and breath.
The beauty of this year’s greenness got me thinking about poems about trees. It’s what lead me to James Emanuel’s poem A Fool for Evergreen. Of course the most famous poem about trees is Joyce Kilmer’s Trees. I asked a good friend of mine who was in her 90’s at the time a few years back; “what are some of your favorite poems?” The first one she recited from memory was I think that I shall never see…. I was surprised. It feels like such a simple poem for her sophisticated and educated pallet. I hate to say I had even found Kilmer’s Trees a bit cliche prior to writing this entry. But of course I hadn’t realized Kilmer died in World War I as a young soldier, on a brave and fool hardy mission, in which lives were shed needlessly, as easily as petals fall from the trees. I had not stopped to listen to her reverence for the poem through her eyes until today.
Kilmer entered the army as a statistician for the New York National Guard in the summer of 1917, shortly after the death of his daughter Rose and the birth of his son. He left his wife and newborn son with visions of writing a book of prose and poetry based on his wartime experiences. The reality of being a soldier drained him of his creative energy and he wrote little during the final 9 months of his life. He arrived in France in November 1917 and like so many young men of that war, who thought there was glory to be found, found something else was waiting. By spring of 1918 he was volunteering for ever more dangerous assignments putting him in harms way at the front lines, possibly out of survivor’s guilt. On July 30, 1918 he was shot and killed while as an advance scout for the 165th Infantry Regiment in an open field, at the crest of a small hill, trying to identify the precise location of a nest of German machine guns that were raining down death upon his comrades.
I didn’t think about it until now, my friend who was born in the early 1920’s, that in her grade school years the healing from World War I had barely begun for the families scarred by its tragedies. She memorized Kilmer’s poem in grade school a decade after Kilmer’s death, probably from a lesson plan taught by a young female teacher; Kilmer’s poem both a way to honor those that they had known who had died in the war and as a primer for young students for a life long love of literature. The poem is sometimes looked down in the halls of literary criticism for its simplicity, an object that is not valid in my mind. Simple poems, in my opinion, are the foundation of literature that offer a foot path into the vault of our adult imaginations.
Do grade school children memorize poetry anymore? What poems will become their primers for healing for the dissonance of the past couple of years? Are the poems that this generation memorizes in childhood similar or different than the past? What literature is lurking beneath the beats of hip hop and Tik Tok, countless young people absorbing its artistic energy, without the rest of us even aware? A hundred years from now, what poems will people share with each other from this decade? Do you have a poem that has touched your heart in a different way these past two years that you will carry with you from here forward in a different light, a perfect light about you? In what form did that poem come to you? You may not even realize how it has buried itself under your skin until that day you find yourself saying it out loud to a friend….
by Joyce Kilmer
Tired clerks, pale girls, street cleaners, business men, Boys, priests and harlots, drunkards, students, thieves, Each one the pleasant outer sunshine leaves; They mingle in this stifling, loud-wheeled pen. The gate clangs to—we stir—we sway—and then We thunder through the dark. The long train weaves Its gloomy way. At last above the eaves We see awhile God’s day, then night again.
Hurled through the dark—day at Manhattan Street, The rest all night. That is my life, it seems. Through sunless ways go my reluctant feet. The sunlight comes in transitory gleams. And yet the darkness makes the light more sweet, The perfect light about me—in my dreams.