Monthly Archives: April 2020

25 posts

Son Fall and Footsteps: Two Fergus Poems

galway

Writers often mine their own families for material because the well is so deep. This is especially true of memoirists—even more so if their childhood was miserable due to whatever reason (the more reasons, the better for sales).

But what about happy family material? And using your kids, vs. your parents, as creative inspiration?

One poet apt at this was Vermont’s Galway Kinnell. His eye-catching title, “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” leads into a poem that touches on both innocence and mortality, all in one fell swoop. It’s audacity like this that makes poetry worth reading, no?

And although I prefer the “Footsteps” poem, more famous of Kinnell’s poems about his son is the alliteratively-titled “Fergus Falling.” From a tree, if you must know.

Here’s both. Which do you prefer?

 

After Making Love We Hear Footsteps
Galway Kinnell

For I can snore like a bullhorn
or play loud music
or sit up talking with any reasonably sober Irishman
and Fergus will only sink deeper
into his dreamless sleep, which goes by all in one flash,
but let there be that heavy breathing
or a stifled come-cry anywhere in the house
and he will wrench himself awake
and make for it on the run—as now, we lie together,
after making love, quiet, touching along the length of our bodies,
familiar touch of the long-married,
and he appears—in his baseball pajamas, it happens,
the neck opening so small he has to screw them on—
and flops down between us and hugs us and snuggles himself to sleep,
his face gleaming with satisfaction at being this very child.

In the half darkness we look at each other
and smile
and touch arms across this little, startlingly muscled body—
this one whom habit of memory propels to the ground of his making,
sleeper only the mortal sounds can sing awake,
this blessing love gives again into our arms.

 

Fergus Falling
Galway Kinnell

He climbed to the top
of one of those million white pines
set out across the emptying pastures
of the fifties – some program to enrich the rich
and rebuke the forefathers
who cleared it all at once with ox and axe –
climbed to the top, probably to get out
of the shadow
not of those forefathers but of this father
and saw for the first time
down in its valley, Bruce Pond, giving off
its little steam in the afternoon,
pond where Clarence Akley came on Sunday mornings to cut down
the cedars around the shore, I’d sometimes hear the slow spondees
of his work, he’s gone,
where Milton Norway came up behind me while I was fishing and
stood awhile before I knew he was there, he’s the one who put the
cedar shingles on the house, some have curled or split, a few have
blown off, he’s gone,
where Gus Newland logged in the cold snap of ’58, the only man will-
ing to go into those woods that never got warmer than ten below,
he’s gone,
pond where two wards of the state wandered on Halloween, the Na-
tional Guard searched for them in November, in vain, the next fall a
hunter found their skeletons huddled together, in vain, they’re
gone,
pond where an old fisherman in a rowboat sits, drowning hooked
worms, when he goes he’s replaced and is never gone,
and when Fergus
saw the pond for the first time
in the clear evening, saw its oldness down there
in its old place in the valley, he became heavier suddenly
in his bones
the way fledglings do just before they fly,
and the soft pine cracked.
I would not have heard his cry
if my electric saw had been working,
its carbide teeth speeding through the bland spruce of our time, or
burning
black arcs into some scavenged hemlock plank,
like dark circles under eyes
when the brain thinks too close to the skin,
but I was sawing by hand and I heard that cry
as though he were attacked; we ran out,
when we bent over him he said, “Galway, Inés, I saw a pond!”
His face went gray, his eyes fluttered close a frightening
moment.
Yes – a pond
that lets off its mist
on clear afternoons of August, in that valley
to which many have come, for their reasons,
from which many have gone, a few for their reasons, most not,
where even now and old fisherman only the pinetops can see
sits in the dry gray wood of his rowboat, waiting for pickerel.

Poems of Sickness and Hope

reading

At a time when the whole world seems sick, at a time when no one seems able to solve the puzzle and shout, “I’ve got it! The answer!”, at a time when various quacks are offering up various remedies for pandemics, it’s good to know that prayer is always there, stockpiled and plentiful.

Prayer, of course, has religious connotations, but the word is big-tent and willing to accommodate any plea to any higher force. Prayer can simply be a wish in hope’s clothing. Why not?

In the poem “Prayer,” Keetje Kuipers uses the second-person point of view with the pronoun “you.” Some readers object to this because “you” can mean an actual someone else and “you” can also mean a narrator addressing herself.

Me, I have no problem with it because, in my opinion, it works the way the reader wants it to work. That is, it gives the sense that a speaker may be referring to me personally, to everyone in the world, or to herself only. All good.

As for “Prayer,” it could be categorized as a sickness poem or a mother poem. But really, the two can be interpreted as one. Memories of mothers caring for us in childhood run strong and deep as a tap root — so strong and deep that many people, delirious on their deathbeds late in a long life, call out for their mothers, even if that mother has been dead for too many decades to recall.

Both sad and beautiful, that. But for now, let us pray:

 

Prayer
Keetje Kuipers

Perhaps as a child you had the chicken pox
and your mother, to soothe you in your fever
or to help you fall asleep, came into your room
and read to you from some favorite book,
Charlotte’s Web or Little House on the Prairie,
a long story that she quietly took you through
until your eyes became magnets for your shuttering
lids and she saw your breathing go slow. And then
she read on, this time silently and to herself,
not because she didn’t know the story,
it seemed to her that there had never been a time
when she didn’t know this story—the young girl
and her benevolence, the young girl in her sod house—
but because she did not yet want to leave your side
though she knew there was nothing more
she could do for you. And you, not asleep but simply weak,
listened to her turn the pages, still feeling
the lamp warm against one cheek, knowing the shape
of the rocking chair’s shadow as it slid across
your chest. So that now, these many years later,
when you are clenched in the damp fist of a hospital bed,
or signing the papers that say you won’t love him anymore,
when you are bent at your son’s gravesite or haunted
by a war that makes you wake with the gun
cocked in your hand, you would like to believe
that such generosity comes from God, too,
who now, when you have the strength to ask, might begin
the story again, just as your mother would,
from the place where you have both left off.

Huckleberry Poems

huck

In rereading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn this week, I found myself pausing most often when Mark Twain took a moment to describe nature. To me, these excerpts were Twain at his most poetic — even if it was prose.

Here are four excerpts I liked especially. Maybe it will send you back to your raft days, too?

Ch. 8

The sun was up so high when I waked that I judged it was after eight o’clock. I laid there in the grass and the cool shade thinking about things, and feeling rested and ruther comfortable and satisfied. I could see the sun out at one or two holes, but mostly it was big trees all about, and gloomy in there amongst them. There was freckled places on the ground where the light sifted down through the leaves, and the freckled places swapped about a little, showing there was a little breeze up there. A couple of squirrels set on a limb and jabbered at me very friendly. I was powerful lazy and comfortable—didn’t want to get up and cook breakfast.

Ch. 9

We spread the blankets inside for a carpet, and eat our dinner in there. We put all the other things handy at the back of the cavern. Pretty soon it darkened up, and begun to thunder and lighten; so the birds was right about it. Directly it begun to rain, and it rained like all fury, too, and I never see the wind blow so. It was one of these regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale underside of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they was just wild; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest—fst! it was as bright as glory, and you’d have a little glimpse of tree-tops a-plunging about away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before; dark as sin again in a second, and now you’d hear the thunder let go with an awful crash, and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling, down the sky towards the under side of the world, like rolling empty barrels down stairs—where it’s long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know.

Ch. 19

Two or three days and nights went by; I reckon I might say they swum by, they slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely. Here is the way we put in the time. It was a monstrous big river down there—sometimes a mile and a half wide; we run nights, and laid up and hid daytimes; soon as night was most gone we stopped navigating and tied up—nearly always in the dead water under a towhead; and then cut young cottonwoods and willows, and hid the raft with them.

Then we set out the lines. Next we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the day-light come. Not a sound anywheres—perfectly still—just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering, maybe.T he first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line—that was the woods on t’other side; you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softened up away off, and warn’t black anymore, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away—trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks—rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by and by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there’s a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log-cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t’other side of the river, being a wood yard, likely, and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it anywheres; then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh and sweet to smell on account of the woods and the flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they’ve left dead fish laying around, gars and such, and they do get pretty rank; and next you’ve got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it!

A little smoke couldn’t be noticed now, so we would take some fish off of the lines and cook up a hot breakfast. And afterwards we would watch the lonesomeness of the river, and kind of lazy along, and by and by lazy off to sleep. Wake up by and by, and look to see what done it, and maybe see a steamboat coughing along up-stream, so far off towards the other side you couldn’t tell nothing about her only whether she was a stern-wheel or side-wheel; then for about an hour there wouldn’t be nothing to hear nor nothing to see—just solid lonesomeness. Next you’d see a raft sliding by, away off yonder, and maybe a galoot on it chopping, because they’re most always doing it on a raft; you’d see the axe flash and come down—you don’t hear nothing; you see that axe go up again, and by the time it’s above the man’s head then you hear the k’chunk!—it had took all that time to come over the water.

So we would put in the day, lazying around, listening to the stillness. Once there was a thick fog, and the rafts and things that went by was beating tin pans so the steamboats wouldn’t run over them. A scow or a raft went by so close we could hear them talking and cussing and laughing—heard them plain; but we couldn’t see no sign of them; it made you feel crawly; it was like spirits carrying on that way in the air. Jim said he believed it was spirits; but I says: “No; spirits wouldn’t say, ‘Dern the dern fog.’”

 

Ch. 32

When I got there it was all still and Sunday-like, and hot and sunshiny; the hands was gone to the fields; and there was them kind of faint dronings of bugs and flies in the air that makes it seem so lonesome and like everybody’s dead and gone; and if a breeze fans along and quivers the leaves it makes you feel mournful, because you feel like it’s spirits whispering—spirits that’s been dead ever so many years—and you always think they’re talking about you. As a general thing it makes a body wish he was dead, too, and done with it all.

 

The Physics of Aging

astro

When you market your poems, you’re often as surprised by the ones editors don’t select as the ones they do.

“Really?” you say, when they select “A” from the bundle of five you submitted instead of, say, “C” or “D,” which you liked better.

Then, when a publisher accepts your collection, the clock starts ticking and time works against you. A point is reached where you can no longer market the remaining poems that did not win a spot in poetry journals and thus, the Acknowledgments page.

Orphans, you can call them. But sometimes poets hold a special place in their hearts for some of these orphans — the guys that were rejected more than once by editors who just didn’t see the poem as a “fit.” (Editors love that word, though it gives writers fits.)

One longish (for me) poem I was always partial to is “The Physics of Aging,” found in my rookie effort, The Indifferent World. I like how it’s divided into three parts that seem different yet share a thread. I like how it gets high on alliteration, especially the first part’s “…mortality stumbles on / starlight, slows like satellite / parabolas raking the soft black / silt of a summer night.”

Of course, as any experienced poet will tell you, coming up with a great phrase like “raking the soft black silk of a summer night” does not a poem make. It’s like doing a great hundred yard dash in a 5-mile race. You’ve still got work to do, kiddo.

Anyway, it was fun. And I still have fond memories of writing it. And I still enjoy rereading it. What else can a poet ask of his own stuff?

 

The Physics of Aging
Ken Craft

I. Einstein Says

In space, aging trips against air
so thin it’s unseen; the march
to mortality stumbles on
starlight, slows like satellite
parabolas raking the soft black
silt of a summer night; in this
empty silence, Einstein says,
age gets silently sucked
into vacuums of immensity,
of immortality. Time
slows. God yields.

II. Story of the Star Sailor

Time jammed on noon Eastern
Standard, the astronaut peered
through his bubble helmet, swiped
a fat, clumsy glove at some
celestial smudge that turned out
to be inside the polycarbonate.
Squinting scientifically, he verified
that Ponce de León,
Conquistador of Death, got
as far as the Pleiades in his age-
old quest. Said star
sailor felt for the reassurance
of his vent pad—carafes of cupped
oxygen from Cape Canaveral—
then sipped of time, borrowed
and decanted. No moments later,
he transmitted coordinates
to Houston: “Spanish flag
floating beside Taurus, over.”
The astronaut waved
his immense hand at the blue planet
below. With youthful indiscretion,
he coined his upcoming
reentry “the second coming.”

III. Dust to Dust

Here I humbly shave
before a thinner space,
the thrift of a mirror.
Its silver truths shift
in hydrogen clouds. Swirling
a bath towel, I observe
the distant whorls of me, white
stubble hidden in nebula
of steam and Barbasol. Within
seconds, unbeknownst
to mankind, the second coming
will shred Einstein’s
sky, bleeding the blue
days upon us.

 

“The Physics of Aging” © Ken Craft, The Indifferent World, FutureCycle Press, 2016

The Poetry of Magic Numbers

juliet

Milestones. Not so much the obvious ones, like births, graduations, marriages, and deaths, but birthdays.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: Not all birthdays are created equal. Logically, we know they are, but humans are anything but logical. Thus the magic of numbers like 12, 16, 21, followed by all birthdays ending in zero (bigger flips of the page, in our illogically logical minds).

Going back in time, we see that many cultures started with or around age 12 for special ceremonies, as this was the age when children became adults. Elaborate rituals, such as Native Americans’ vision quests, were observed to honor the importance of the moment.

In modern day, age 12 seems much too young to be coined an “adult,” especially when you consider the extension of “childhood” to envelop “kids” in their 20s, 30s, and even 40s still living at home with their parents. But tell that to people in Renaissance times as a for instance. Juliet weds Romeo at age 13, after all, and it wasn’t unusual for girls that age to marry and have children, given the brevity of life spans in earlier eras.

But back to the magic of number 12. Today’s poem, Dorianne Laux’s “Girl in the Doorway,” focuses on how a 12-year-old daughter is not the same as an 11-year-old one. Reading it, note how Laux uses imagery, metaphor, hyperbole, alliteration, and symbolism (among other devices) to note subtle and not-so-subtle changes.

 

Girl in the Doorway
Dorianne Laux

She is twelve now, the door to her room
closed, telephone cord trailing the hallway
in tight curls. I stand at the dryer, listening
through the thin wall between us, her voice
rising and falling as she describes her new life.
Static flies in brief blue stars from her socks,
her hairbrush in the morning. Her silver braces
shine inside the velvet case of her mouth.
Her grades rise and fall, her friends call
or they don’t, her dog chews her new shoes
to a canvas pulp. Some days she opens her door
and musk rises from the long crease in her bed,
fills the dim hall. She grabs a denim coat
and drags the floor. Dust swirls in gold eddies
behind her. She walks through the house, a goddess,
each window pulsing with summer. Outside,
the boys wait for her teeth to straighten.
They have a vibrant patience.
When she steps onto the front porch, sun shimmies
through the tips of her hair, the V of her legs,
fans out like wings under her arms
as she raises them and waves. Goodbye, Goodbye.
Then she turns to go, folds up
all that light in her arms like a blanket
and takes it with her.

The Most Precious Gift: Declamation

roth

These days, gift-giving is too much about cursors and clicks to cart. Material goods bought with plastic shipped to porches by UPS.

You don’t need to be a poet, however, to give a better gift to someone you love: declamation. This came to mind while reading the May issue of The Atlantic. In a piece called “Being Friends with Philip Roth” by Benjamin Taylor, the latter mentions Roth’s 74th birthday party.

Apparently Roth turned to the assembled guests and, casual as all get-out, asked if anyone cared to recite a poem from memory. As if that was still done. As if each guest had brought a poem gift-wrapped in their brain pan.

To kick things off, Roth recited a Mark Strand poem: “Keeping Things Whole.” According to Taylor, Roth “then looks at me as if to say, ‘Your serve.'” Luckily, Taylor was able to return volley. He recited Robert Frost’s lesser known poem “I Could Give All to Time.”

Roth was so impressed that he brought it up on the phone the next morning: “Those rhymes!” he said to Taylor. “It’s as if nature made them.”

And I thought, how cool. Shouldn’t this happen more often? Not just between writers of poetry, but between readers of poetry, too?

Anyway, it was enough to set me to the task of memorizing both, starting with the easier—the Strand piece. So here’s to you two, Philip and Benjamin.

Oh. And Mark and Robert, too!

 

Keeping Things Whole
Mark Strand

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

 

I Could Give All to Time
Robert Frost

To Time it never seems that he is brave
To set himself against the peaks of snow
To lay them level with the running wave,
Nor is he overjoyed when they lie low,
But only grave, contemplative and grave.

What now is inland shall be ocean isle,
Then eddies playing round a sunken reef
Like the curl at the corner of a smile;
And I could share Time’s lack of joy or grief
At such a planetary change of style.

I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
And what I would not part with I have kept.

The Poem Outside Your Window

nuthatch

Occam’s Razor is a philosophical principle that even laymen like me can understand: When given competing theories, side with the simpler one until proven wrong.

At times, in an effort to be novel and upset the apple cart I call Ecclesiastes (where it intones, “There is nothing new under the sun”), poets get overly complicated with ideas, styles, and wordplay.

Egads, man. Just look out your window, why don’t you? Jane Kenyon, who had a bird feeder outside her New Hampshire window, did exactly that. The poem “At the Feeder” cuts clean and simple, each stanza a blend of description and simile for familiar birds: Chickadees, Evening Grosbeaks, Bluejays, Nuthatches, and Slate-Colored Juncoes.

There’s even a first-stanza treat for poets: the nostalgia of getting replies from poetry journals via snail mail. (As Orwell would say: Such, such were the days!)

So instead of the all-too commercial line, “What’s in your wallet?”, let’s shift today to “What’s outside your window?” Chances are, it’s a poem in hiding. You know, like those old Highlights for Children drawings with hidden images to circle with a crayon or pencil while you waited for the dentist to scare the hell out of your mouth.

 

At the Feeder
Jane Kenyon

First the Chickadees take
their share, then fly
to the bittersweet vine,
where they crack open the seeds,
excited, like poets
opening the day’s mail.

And the Evening Grosbeaks—
those large and prosperous
finches—resemble skiers
with the latest equipment, bright
yellow goggles on their faces.

Now the Bluejay comes in
for a landing, like a SAC bomber
returning to Plattsburgh
after a day of patrolling the ozone.
Every teacup in the pantry rattles.

The solid and graceful bodies
of Nuthatches, perpetually
upside down, like Yogis…
and Slate-Colored Juncoes, feeding
on the ground, taking only
what falls to them.

The cats watch, one
from the lid of the breadbox,
another from the piano. A third
flexes its claws in sleep, dreaming
perhaps, of a chicken neck,
or of being worshiped as a god
at Bubastis, during
the XXIII dynasty.

 

FYI: Bubastis was an Ancient Egyptian city, perhaps the birthplace of Occam IV.

Revisiting Larkin’s Two-Headed Toad

toad

If you’re old enough to remember the 50s or 60s, Philip Larkin, with his bald head and Coke-bottle glasses, looks a lot like your typical middle-class pharmacist. Or businessman. Or what bespectacled vanilla have you.

His poetry, depressing as Hades, might not be a place to wander during a pandemic, but it does offer insights into our ever shifting love-hate relationship with work. Remember that? Working 9 to 5, I mean?

Many people who railed against work now are taking it all back for a chance to return. And while that day will come once sacrifices for the common good are seen through, it may not be the same for many of us for, like the Bubonic Plague, this pandemic may rearrange the social game board permanently. This could be good news or very, very bad news. It depends on where it all lands.

Let us turn, though, to the word “toad.” It sounds so sluggish and repugnant. A perfect metaphor for work. Larkin wrote two poems about the warty little guys: “Toads” in his collection The Less Deceived, and “Toads Revisited” in The Whitsun Weddings.

In the first stanza of the earlier poem, Larkin wastes no time in serving up that wonderful metaphor: Toad = Work that squats on our life. I imagine most everyone can identify with that, the working day in and day out for all your years until it is time to die and cry, “For what?”

Bummer, yes? Depressing, no?

In the second poem, the speaker walks in a British park on a day off and finds the people who are NOT working to be “stupid or weak.” He looks down on these people. Thus do we get working, the toad that squats on us, and not working, an equally repugnant creature that wallows in the mud of boredom and listlessness. Thus does work come off a little better than previously presented.

Thus, too, do clichés like “you can’t win for losing” and “the grass is always greener” come into being. For Larkin, happiness find a way to frown no matter what the conditions.

At the risk of warts on our hands, let’s look at the poems side by side:

 

Toads
Philip Larkin

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison –
Just for paying a few bills!
That’s out of proportion.

Lots of folk live on their wits:
Lecturers, lispers,
Losels, loblolly-men, louts-
They don’t end as paupers;

Lots of folk live up lanes
With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines-
they seem to like it.

Their nippers have got bare feet,
Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets – and yet
No one actually starves.

Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
That dreams are made on:

For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,

And will never allow me to blarney
My way of getting
The fame and the girl and the money
All at one sitting.

I don’t say, one bodies the other
One’s spiritual truth;
But I do say it’s hard to lose either,
When you have both.

 

 

Toads Revisited
Philip Larkin

Walking around in the park
Should feel better than work:
The lake, the sunshine,
The grass to lie on,

Blurred playground noises
Beyond black-stockinged nurses –
Not a bad place to be.
Yet it doesn’t suit me.

Being one of the men
You meet of an afternoon:
Palsied old step-takers,
Hare-eyed clerks with the jitters,

Waxed-fleshed out-patients
Still vague from accidents,
And characters in long coats
Deep in the litter-baskets –

All dodging the toad work
By being stupid or weak.
Think of being them!
Hearing the hours chime,

Watching the bread delivered,
The sun by clouds covered,
The children going home;
Think of being them,

Turning over their failures
By some bed of lobelias,
Nowhere to go but indoors,
Nor friends but empty chairs –

No, give me my in-tray,
My loaf-haired secretary,
My shall-I-keep-the-call-in-Sir:
What else can I answer,

When the lights come on at four
At the end of another year?
Give me your arm, old toad;
Help me down Cemetery Road.

 

It’s as if the narrator has left marriage therapy more happy with his betrothed toad. No longer is it squatting on him. Now it is arm and arm with him, prepared to disappear with him arm in arm until death do they part.

I say “more happy,” but really, only by dint of the alternative. Wasting your life in a job that consumes your years like toads consume flies may be depressing, but Larkin has come back to say that it might just be better company en route to the cemetery of life than nothing at all.

Being out of work and home with the kiddies (a breed Larkin had little regard for) so long might offer a new angle on the reviled toad.

Or not.

Still, good poetry’s good poetry, and they’re fun to read together.

 

One Defining Moment Deserves Another

dictionary

Thinking back to school daze, you’d probably agree that one of the original sins of “education” is a teacher forcing students to copy definitions out of a dictionary. They wrote the Geneva Conventions about stuff like that, no?

But definition is, in its humble way, sophisticated stuff. No, not Merriam’s or Webster’s. Yours.

Redefining, or defining something in your own way. I put it right up there with metaphor, a type of redefinition itself. But, if you think about it, taking a list of abstracts and then redefining them with concrete images is a great poetry-writing warm-up, like push-ups at 6 a.m. And, like any warm-up, it leads to greater feats and bigger accomplishments, in this case a poem based on definition.

We all know that an extended metaphor is one that finds multiple ways that one thing is like something else. A successful definition poem — I mean, uber successful — would be one that does the same, and although I cannot find one that extends like that right now, I did stumble across a simple definition poem by way of illustration. Cue the late David Budbill of Vermont:


The Sound of Summer

David Budbill

The screened door slamming tells me it is summer.

There are other sounds only in the summer, too.
The hummingbirds moving from
feeder to feeder on the porch, chickadee’s two-note
song we hear early on summer mornings, ravens
croaking back to their aeries on the ledges
every summer evening.

There are other birds too, visitors we hear only
in the summertime, but it’s the screened door slamming
that is the definition of summer for me.

 

Simply put, this poem takes an abstract (summer) and redefines it in concrete terms (the screened door slamming). Summer to you might be something quite different. Summer to you, in fact, might be ten different concrete sorts of familiar imagery, which is the point. Definition poems are a great “in,” especially if you, unlike me, are a believer in writer’s block.

Maybe, if your well is dry and you’d like to write the first draft of a poem today, the “Merriam and Webster Way,” as I don’t call it (you’re welcome), is your “in.” For me, definition poems (concrete) are one definition of “creativity” (abstract).

Don’t believe me? Go ahead and check under “C.”

For What Ails You: “A Crush of Old Sweetness”

pear

It’s so simple it’s complex. I mean feeling a wave of warmth and happiness in our time of pandemic.

Oh, we’ve got the negatives down. Many have complained they’re living in one of Dante’s Circles of Hell: The cabin fever. The boredom. The vague sense of unease and dread.

Mostly, though, it’s the lack of light at the end of this, our first real tunnel. Sure, we’ve been in tunnels before, but not this dark. Not since 1918, and there are no witnesses left with wisdom gleaned from that one.

But getting back to warmth and happiness. You can meditate. Do the self Reiki treatment. Eat comfort food till your aggrieved pants go online to order the next size up while you’re sleeping.

You can stop reading news, too. It truly compounds the teeming negativity, especially if you live in the U.S. where the “leader” specializes in dividing houses. I think of poor Abraham Lincoln, set Joe DiMaggio aside, and sing, “Where have you gone, old Abe Lincoln (oh!), a nation turns its lonely eyes to you… woo, woo, woo.”

So what, then, Ken?

OK. Back to the complexity in simplicity. I read Rosie King’s “Again” and said to myself, “My God, it’s so simple it escapes us. Especially now. In fact, most will insist such moments aren’t even available to us anymore. The stupid little things, I mean. The ones that have trouble translating. The ones that beg the cliché, ‘You had to be there’ when you repeat them.”

What think you, distressed reader? Here’s Rosie’s poem:

 

Again
Rosie King

I’m on my knees among the crisp brown crunch
then stand         in time to see
two boys         slim teens in shorts         white t-shirts
faces glowing         talking quietly
bounce of a tennis ball fading as they pass
and I’m filled again
with a crush of old sweetness
at how giving a moment can be as it vanishes
the roughened grey branches of the pear
small knobby fingers flung out at every tip
fresh clutch of weeds at my chest

 

Are you buying this “crush of old sweetness”? Are the moments still out there for the harvesting — ones as “giving” as this one — or is such truck only for special people like Rosie?

Often it’s a question of perspective. With age comes unique angles on the past. An older person might overhear two teens passing while talking and bouncing a ball and that’s all it takes to send them back, back to a time when bubbles of moment were as simple and effective as you and a friend shooting the breeze. Friendship was the world at back then, a world constructed of of unapologetic happiness, a world at large that was as small as your own individual circles.

Face it. As you age, you grow more jaded. Moments like these grow more stubborn and vanish every second. They’re so damn unassuming, you almost feel like you have to be atop Cold Mountain with Hanshan and a full moon to catch them.

I don’t know. Maybe now’s a good time to hike the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest. Something that takes a long time to accomplish. Something that lends itself to being alone in the Wilderness of Virus-less Eden with a few beloved friends or family members.

Something far from the madding crowd with its signs, guns, and protesting pitchforks outside state capitol buildings.

Yeah, that’s it — like the house undivided days. Again.