This Place Could Be Beautiful

 

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Storm Damage From Hurricane Michael, October 2018.

Good Bones

by Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.


After every hurricane, tornado, flood, fire or earthquake, the same quote is printed over and over in the media; “residents vow to rebuild.” It’s true, someone will rebuild. Someone always does where the view warrants the risks. We should bring the same zeal to rebuilding the shambles of our lives. Except for the exceptionally fortunate, most of us are our own natural disaster at some point, wasting our time shaking our fists at unseen forces, rather than finding affordable marriage insurance with a reasonable deductible. So go ahead and buy that bouquet of flowers at the super market or farmer’s market on Saturday morning. Pick out a bottle of wine. Take it home, set a nice table for yourself. Cook a fine meal for your partner tonight. Say a blessing for all that you have that is grounded and not blown away. You’ll never say on your deathbed, “if I had only spent less money on flowers, think of where I would be today.”


 

The House

by Richard Wilbur (1921 – 2017)

Sometimes, on waking, she would close her eyes
For a last look at that white house she knew
In sleep alone, and held no title to,
And had not entered yet, for all her sighs.

What did she tell me of that house of hers?
White gatepost; terrace; fanlight of the door;
A widow’s walk above the bouldered shore;
Salt winds that ruffle the surrounding firs.

Is she now there, wherever there may be?
Only a foolish man would hope to find
That haven fashioned by her dreaming mind.
Night after night, my love, I put to sea.

Trust-busting Not Exactly At Its Word

Richard_Watson_Gilder,_by_V._Floyd_Campbell
Richard Watson Gilder by Floyd Campbell

 

President And Poet

by Donald Hall

Granted that what we summon is absurd:
Mustaches and the stick, the New York fake
In cowboy costume grinning for the sake
Of cameras that always just occurred;
Granted that his Rough Riders fought a third-
Rate army badly general’d, to make
Headlines for Mr. Hearst: that one can take
Trust-busting not exactly at its word:

Robinson, alcoholic and unread,
Received a letter with a White House frank.
To court the Muse, you’d think T. R.’d’ve killed her
And had her stuffed, and yet this mountebank
Chose to belaurel Robinson instead
of famous men like Richard Watson Gilder.


Of the more than 200 poems included in Donald Hall’s self compiled anthology published in 1990 titled Old and New Poems, this is the lone sonnet.  It is so out of place in terms of Hall’s body of work and so obscure, that the only thing I can make of it is that Donald was hoping we would all get the joke and laugh along with him.  There is a long history of using sonnets either as a vehicle to honor or insult a specific literary or political figure.  Miguel de Cervantes wrote a series of sonnets that were so clever in delivering their barbed critique that his insults seemed more like good-natured advice and remarkably made their way through the sensors of his day.

So what is going on in this sonnet?  Hall is skewering both Teddy Roosevelt and Edwin Arlington Robinson. History has not been kind to Robinson’s legacy as a poet.  Although the recipient of three Pulitzer prizes, largely because of the notoriety Roosevelt created by promoting Robinson as a poet, most of Robinson’s writing is dismissed by modern poets and critics as weak and worse, uninteresting. Robinson may have been a significant American poet in his day, who willingly paid the price in poverty and obscurity at the beginning of his career. But his success rested on Roosevelt’s patronage,  securing for him a government position, giving him a steady source of income and increased his literary stature through his personal praise. As for his work, his once-popular Arthurian trilogy has fallen out of favor and considered mediocre at best.

And how has Richard Watson Gilder faired in terms of history?  Well obviously Hall feels he should have been treated better. Despite being a prolific and popular poet, who was skilled at rhyme and meter, Gilder’s work has faded into obscurity as well. Gilder was the editor of the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, one of the nation’s most esteemed periodicals in the late 19th century. As such Gilder was a person of influence in American letters during this period. None of his sonnets would make my top 100 list.   But, as the punch line to Hall’s riddle, he is certainly worthy of a little investigating.


Sonnet

By Richard Watson Gilder

What is a sonnet? ‘Tis the pearly shell
That murmurs of the far-off murmuring sea;
A precious jewel carved most curiously:
It is a little picture painted well.
What is a sonnet? ‘Tis the tear that fell
From a great poet’s hidden ecstasy;
A two-edged sword, a star, a song–ah me!
Sometimes a heavy-tolling funeral bell.
This was the flame that shook with Dante’s breath;
The solemn organ whereon Milton played,
And the clear glass where Shakespeare’s shadow falls:
A sea this is–beware who ventureth!
For like a fjord the narrow floor is laid
Mid-ocean deep to the sheer mountain walls.

 

Hurled By Hurricanes To A Birdless Place

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Hurricane Michael hours before landfall 10/10/2018

Sonnet III

by Ted Berrigan

Stronger than alcohol, more great than song,
deep in whose reeds great elephants decay,
I, an island, sail, and my shoes toss
on a fragrant evening, fraught with sadness
bristling hate.
It’s true, I weep too much. Dawns break
slow kisses on the eyelids of the sea,
what other men sometimes have thought they’ve seen.
And since then I’ve been bathing in the poem
lifting her shadowy flowers up for me,
and hurled by hurricanes to a birdless place
the waving flags, nor pass by prison ships
O let me burst, and I be lost at sea!
and fall on my knees then, womanly.

I was just out of the reach of Hurricane Michael this week in Tampa Florida. A reminder of how local weather is, even extreme weather. Parts of the Florida panhandle were devastated yesterday while downtown Tampa got very little rain, almost no wind and only a small rise in sea levels channel side.

Storm Ending

Jean Toomer (1894 – 1967)

Thunder blossoms gorgeously above our heads,
Great, hollow, bell-like flowers,
Rumbling in the wind,
Stretching clappers to strike our ears . . .
Full-lipped flowers
Bitten by the sun
Bleeding rain
Dripping rain like golden honey—
And the sweet earth flying from the thunder.

Ted Berrigan, “Sonnet III” from The Sonnets. Copyright © 2000 by Alice Notley, Literary Executrix of the Estate of Ted Berrigan.  Used by permission of Viking Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.