Monthly Archives: May 2020

16 posts

“No Poem Is Ever Ended…”

ruefle

I am perversely attracted to philosophy books, but the rewards are few. As a rule, they speak their own language, which runs circles around mine. Straight talkers like Marcus Aurelius are one thing; trying to divine Descartes, Kant, and Heidegger another.

Barring philosophers, a good substitute for musing on the meaning of life has been reading collections of essays, especially ones by poets. Give me a poet who is equally adept at prose and I am a happy man. Certainly this was true of a slew of Tony Hoagland books. Ditto Jane Hirshfield. And now, this week, I can add Mary Ruefle to the list.

Though I don’t know how she pronounces her name (is it “rueful” like a pot of rue?), Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey has been a relaxing and thoughtful exercise in reading this week. She especially enjoys embedding quotes.

The drill, then, goes like this: Mary adds quote to essay, Ken highlights and annotates said quote. What more could any writer (her) and reader (me) ask? Here are a few I have noted:

“Paul Valéry, the French poet and thinker, once said that no poem is ever ended, that every poem is merely abandoned.”

Comment: Any poet who has read his published poem realizes the truth in this. The itch to improve through revision cannot be satisfied.

“Paul Valéry also described his perception of first lines so vividly, and to my mind so accurately, that I have never forgotten it: the opening line of a poem, he said, is like finding a fruit on the ground, a piece of fallen fruit you have never seen before, and the poet’s task is to create the tree from which such a fruit would fall.”

Comment: There you have it. If you have tried but failed to write decent poetry, perhaps you should make like Johnny Appleseed and stop barking up the wrong tree.

The least used punctuation in all of poetry, Ruefle asserts, is the semicolon. Some poets think they should be all-out banned from poetry.

Comment: As noted by my faithful readers of these pages before, I oppose any banning of anything: dog poems, poems that use overused words like “dark” and “darkness,” even poems about cicadas (sorry, Sir Billy of Collins, but that rule is fit for fools).

Among the last words Emily Dickinson wrote (in a letter): “But it is growing damp and I must go in. Memory’s fog is rising.”

Comment: Those last four words are awesome. I wonder if she ever considered poetry?

Charles Simic once said, “The highest levels of consciousness are wordless.”

Comment: Strange for a man who makes his living with words.

“Keats said only one thing was necessary to write good poetry: a feeling for light and shade.”

Comment: I like words like these because they are so cryptic. I can fashion one meaning from them, you another. It’s like getting a pencil to trace the exact spot where light ends and shade begins, then returning to find it the next day.

“Pablo Neruda warns us: ‘We must not overlook melancholy, the sentimentalism of another age, the perfect impure fruit whose marvels have been cast aside by the mania for pedantry: moonlight, the swan at dusk, ‘my beloved,’ are, beyond question, the elemental and essential matter of poetry. He who would flee from bad taste is riding for a fall.'”

Comment: Neruda creates a rule against rules (good), but isn’t this itself a rule (bad)?

That’s good for today. It’s Sunday, and I’m supposed to be Sabbathing my day. There are many more, anyway, and many more days to share them here, too.

I write them down for you and me both. Books get lost, after all. The great cloud hope is that websites never will.

Bringing Color to Your List Poem

Although Dorianne Laux’s poem, “Ode to Gray,” is dedicated to Sharon Olds, for poets it stands as a unique type of list poem, a more challenging one. What Laux did was what any of us could do, and though the concept is a simple one, the execution is another matter.

What you do is start with a color, any color, and then write a poem consisting of words or phrases that match the color. Of course, the order is up to your organizing spirit, as are the stanzas.

Here’s what Laux came up with when she launched with the seemingly-drab color, gray.

Ode to Gray by Dorianne Laux


Mourning dove. Goose. Catbird. Butcher bird. Heron.
A child’s plush stuffed rabbit. Buckets. Chains.

Silver. Slate. Steel. Thistle. Tin.
Old man. Old woman.
The new screen door.

A squadron of Mirage F-1’s dogfighting
above ground fog. Sprites. Smoke.
“Snapshot gray” circa 1952.

Foxes. Rats. Nails. Wolves. River stones. Whales.
Brains. Newspapers. The backs of dead hands.

The sky over the ocean just before the clouds
let down their rain.

Rain.

The seas just before the clouds
let down their nets of rain.

Angelfish. Hooks. Hummingbird nests.
Teak wood. Seal whiskers. Silos. Railroad ties.

Mushrooms. Dray horses. Sage. Clay. Driftwood.
Crayfish in a stainless steel bowl.

The eyes of a certain girl.

Grain.

You might wonder how some of the things in the list are actually gray (foxes? Angelfish? sage?), but I suppose, in certain states or parts, all qualify.

More mind-boggling is how many items Laux came up with and got across with specific nouns. By my count, 47.

And poetic items still play a role. Note examples of alliteration (“Silver. Slate. Steel. Thistle. Tin.”) for instance, and repetition (“Old man. Old woman.”)

Using the world at large, both natural and man-made, you can play this game, too, starting with your color and your list. See if you can reach 30 items, and then push yourself further.

Finally, bring some art to the arrangement, and just like that, you have a Neruda-like ode to the tune of “Color My World” by Chicago.

Good luck.

“The Silent Passion, the Deep Nobility and Childlike Loveliness”

star

Photographic memories are not necessary. A small pad of paper will do. I mean for those times when you feel a bit overwhelmed by the moment and can’t put it into words — yet.

For the time being, just make a note of the camping site: the rock walls and mountain ridges and forests. The stars. The camp-fire. The kids asleep in their sleeping bags.

After that, ode-like, you can sing the lovely rock’s praises. When all is said and done, it might be good enough to make your readers think they experienced it, too. Now that’s good!

 

Oh, Lovely Rock
Robinson Jeffers

We stayed the night in the pathless gorge of Ventana Creek, up
the east fork.
The rock walls and the mountain ridges hung forest on forest
above our heads, maple and redwood,
Laurel, oak, madrone, up to the high and slender Santa Lucian
firs that stare up the cataracts
Of slide—rock to the star—color precipices.

We lay on gravel and kept a little camp—fire
for warmth.
Past midnight only two or three coals glowed red in the cooling
darkness; I laid a clutch of dead bay—leaves
On the ember ends and felted dry sticks across them and lay
down again. The revived flame
Lighted my sleeping son’s face and his companion’s, and the
vertical face of the great gorge-wall
Across the stream. Light leaves overhead danced in the fire’s
breath, tree-trunks were seen: it was the rock wall
That fascinated my eyes and mind. Nothing strange: light—gray
diorite with two or three slanting seams in it,
Smooth—polished by the endless attrition of slides and floods; no
fern nor lichen, pure naked rock… as if I were
Seeing rock for the first time. As if I were seeing through the
flame-lit surface into the real and bodily
And living rock. Nothing strange… I cannot
Tell you how strange: the silent passion, the deep nobility and
childlike loveliness: this fate going on
Outside our fates. It is here in the mountain like a grave
smiling child. I shall die, and my boys
Will live and die, our world will go on through its rapid
agonies of change and discovery; this age will die,
And wolves have howled in the snow around a new Bethlehem:
this rock will be here, grave, earnest, not passive: the energies
That are its atoms will still be bearing the whole mountain
above: and I, many packed centuries ago,
Felt its intense reality with love and wonder, this lonely rock.

“Mother Nature Hasn’t Lost a Duel in 4.5 Billion Years”

golf

Yesterday we looked at Robert Bly’s book, News of the Universe, which — in terms of poetry — posited that man does best when he interprets himself as another animal subject to the same natural rules as all other animals.

Today, in The New York Times opinion section, columnist Thomas L. Friedman picked up on that theme in his piece called “Is Trump Challenging Mother Nature to a Duel?”

Basically it applies Bly’s argument to Covid-19 and those who foolishly think a rogue piece of the natural world (read: a virus) is political and therefore subject to the usual reindeer games certain politicians and their followers play.

Uh, no.

Here’s a key excerpt:

 

“Let’s remember, Mother Nature is just chemistry, biology and physics, and the engine that drives her is one thing: natural selection. That is the quest of all organisms, to survive and thrive in some ecological niche as they engage in the struggle to pass on their DNA to their next generation and not end up among those that get returned to the manufacturer and decommissioned.

“And that’s what viruses do, too: try to survive and replicate. The coronavirus, for instance, co-evolved with bats in the wild. But it apparently jumped to humans when someone ate an infected mammal in Wuhan, China. When it did, it made a warm home in human cells and tissues in ways that can harm or kill us. Once that happened, the coronavirus became just another one of Mother Nature’s fastballs that she throws at us to see who’s the fittest.

“Mother Nature is not only all powerful, she’s also unfeeling. Unlike that merciful God that most humans worship, Mother Nature doesn’t keep score. She can inflict her virus on your grandmother on Monday and blow down your house with a tornado on Wednesday and come back on Friday and flood your basement. She can hit you in the spring, give you a warm hug in summer and hammer you in the fall.

“As such, telling her that you’re fed up with being locked down — that it’s enough already! — doesn’t actually register with her.

“All that registers, all that she rewards, is one thing: adaptation. She doesn’t reward the richest or the strongest or the smartest of the species. She rewards the most adaptive. They get to pass along their DNA.

“And in a pandemic, that means she rewards a president, governor, mayor or citizen who, first and foremost, respects her power. If you don’t respect her viruses, wildfires, droughts, hurricanes, floods and so on, she will hurt you or your neighbors or your citizens.

“President Trump doesn’t respect Mother Nature, because he measures everything in terms of money and markets. He has no feel for natural systems, except golf courses, where he developed the illusion that he could tame nature, even building man-made waterfalls.

“Mother Nature also rewards leaders whose adaptive responses are the most thought-through and coordinated. She evolved her viruses to be expert at finding any weakness in your personal or communal immune system. So, if your family or community is not utterly coordinated in its response to her viruses, they will find the tiniest cracks and make you pay.

“Also, because Mother Nature is entirely made up of chemistry, biology and physics, she rewards only adaptation strategies grounded in those same raw materials. If your adaptation strategy is grounded instead in ideology or election-year politics, she will mercilessly expose that.”

 

Yesterday I quoted a excerpt about the 1851 Crystal Palace from Bly’s book. With its steel beams and glass walls containing full-grown trees, it stood as a metaphor for man conquering and subjugating of nature, as if it were his birthright to do so. And today, Friedman echoes that metaphor with his own: President Trump’s foolish belief that all of nature is like a golf course, something that can be tamed and used for one’s own profit and designs.

Friedman exposes that folly with these words:

 

“Basically China, Germany, South Korea, Sweden and many others have all been pursuing different strategies for sustainably and maximally saving lives and livelihoods. It is too soon to say that any of them has found the perfect strategy.

“But what it’s not too soon to say is that they are all reopening in ways that respect Mother Nature, appreciate the need for coordination and are grounded in science. So they’re still requiring some degree of wearing of masks in public, practicing social distancing, restricting the number of people who gather in any enclosed space, protecting the most vulnerable and limiting further spread by massive testing, tracing and quarantining to contain inevitable new outbreaks — until they get herd immunity.

“America, by contrast, is a mess. In some places you see reopenings that respect Mother Nature’s power, are coordinated and grounded in science, and in other places you see crowded restaurants or a gym owner defying his governor’s guidelines as cheering demonstrators waive signs that read “My freedom doesn’t end where your fear begins.”

“The people making those signs, and the morons on Fox cheering them on, don’t get it. We’re not up against each other. We’re all up against Mother Nature.

“We need to reopen and we need to adapt, but in ways that honor Mother Nature’s logic, not in ways that court a second wave — not in ways that challenge Mother Nature to a duel. That is not smart. Because she hasn’t lost a duel in 4.5 billion years.”

 

The Slender Sadness and Other Truths

nature

In 1907 the psychoanalyst Georg Groddeck wrote an essay called “Charakter and Typus” where he said, “Goethe’s short poems have a strange ring to them. They are entirely impersonal; in fact, you could say of them that they are not created by a person, but by nature. In them a person is not seen as an ‘I,’ but as a part of something else.”

Groddeck was distinguishing between poets who bring “news of the human mind” and poets who bring “news of the universe,” which is the title Robert Bly would adopt for his anthology of poets who write not so much like Narcissus, but like poets aware of their inconsequential place in the universe.

And talk about going against the tide! Groddeck even dares criticize Shakespeare. Why? For the Bard’s strength is his incisive commentary on the human animal, one that seemingly acts and lives and dies among other humans with little regard or mention of the natural world around him.

“Only a person with really sluggish blood could put up with the average interior state of the human being without yawning, and to make art out of it is impossible, at least not in the way Shakespeare and Beethoven go about it…. The only poet who could make anything out of it is a man who sees in human beings a part of the universe, for whom human nature is interesting not because it is human, but because it is nature.”

Bly quotes a short Goethe poem here, one where a man gets “the news” that counts:

 

Wanderers Nachtlied II
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

There is a stillness
On the tops of the hills.
In the tree tops
You feel
Hardly a breath of air.
The small birds fall silent in the trees.
Simply wait: soon
You too will be silent

 

Bly goes on to write in greater depth about nature and writers / poets who make it their muse:

“The psychic tone of nature strikes many people as having some melancholy in it. The tone of nature is related to what human beings call ‘grief,’ what Lucretius called ‘the tears of things,’ what in Japanese poetry is called mono no aware, the slender sadness with the incessant wheel of of reproduction, going on without pause.”

As an example of a poet understanding nature’s predominant role in human life, Bly cites Yeats:

 

Fragments
W. B. Yeats

I

Locke sank into a swoon;
The Garden died.
God took the spinning-jenny
Out of his side.

II

Where got I that truth?
Out of a medium’s mouth,
Out of nothing it came,
Out of the forest loam,
Out of dark night where lay
The crowns of Ninevah.

 

As Bly explains, “When Yeats says, ‘Locke sank into a swoon,’ he is summing up sixty years of experience during the Industrial Revolution, in which the inventiveness of human beings seemed a prophecy finally come true.”

As a metaphor for human mastery over nature, Bly goes to William Irwin Thompson, who pointed out the Crystal Palace built in 1851: “… in this palace, for the first time in history, steel beams were used, with glass, to enclose living trees. That was a great triumph for the Old Position, because it said that human consciousness, now intensified and narrowed into ‘technology,’ had succeeded in its ancient war with the consciousness of nature, and won.”

And this is where we are today, Bly says. A land that brought us Augustine, the railroad and airplanes, the Nuremberg rallies, doctors’ “war on death.” Bly calls it “Locke’s dizzy spell.”

“To feel the contrast between our contemporary experience when we look at an object or a hillside, and the experience that is possible when an ‘opened’ human being does that, we have to go far back into the past of the human race.”

For Bly, Yeats’ second stanza in “Fragments” does just that, in the name of truth.

news of the univers

 

Bobby Kennedy for President

RFK

My wife was away a few days, and I was doing the bachelor thing where you eat supper in front of the television. Usually I’ll do that with sports, but sports have gone viral, so I researched online for possible Netflix worthies.

I stumbled on a documentary with the odd name of Bobby Kennedy for President. Maybe it was the present tense (even though there’s no verb in the title) vibe, as if Bobby were still running 52 years later, that struck me.

As he was born in 1925, Bobby would be long gone by now anyway. Still, people who get gunned down at age 43 stay 43 forever. Watching video makes them appear alive and viable again.

The biopic comes in four parts. The first was mostly “Bad Bobby,” or the sharp-elbowed, go-for-the-jugular guy who served as calmer brother Jack’s attorney general. Bobby made lots of enemies in those years, none more durable than Lyndon B. Johnson, the man who would succeed his slain brother.

It’s Part 2 that got to me. No, that’s not the assassination part (which is Part 3), it’s the story of Bobby’s transformation after his brother was murdered. The video clips, many of them new to me, showed a change that was as much physical as psychological.

His face. It was as if it struggled to smile. His eyes. It was as if they were always brimming with tears. The impact on the viewer is a stark realization that this man never quite shed the shock of November 22, 1963. It was as if the period of mourning had opened into the bottomless years of forever.

And though the Part 2 reels show RFK running as a carpetbagger for U.S. Senator of New York, he seems to travel wherever there is trouble in the U.S. Not just to the riot-torn streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant, but to the striking migrant workers in California and the poverty stricken towns of Appalachia and Mississippi.

Yes, he was still driven politically, but more than one person comments on him as an amazing father: how he often brings his kids on trips, takes time out of his schedule to go home to be with his kids, or stays in contact by phone with his kids.

In one telling clip, he’s on the telephone with his assistant who is in Alabama during a tense time, tasked with confronting Gov. George Wallace who is physically blocking the doors into the University of Alabama so blacks cannot enter.

One of Kennedy’s daughters, looking around 4 or 5 years old, walks up to Bobby’s desk, so he actually stops the conversation and asks his assistant to say hi to Kerry (I think it was), then hands the phone so his daughter can make small talk. Watching him smile at her as she speaks was a small moment that spoke volumes to who he was as a man and how important family was to him.

When visiting regular folks and down and out folks, Bobby displayed more of the same. He connected especially with the poor and with children. He asked them questions because he wanted to learn if he was going to be able to help with legislation in the Senate. He admitted his mistakes. He could be funny and self-effacing. And he never promised miracles or claimed he was perfect, he just promised to do his best.

People who predicted he would simply use the New York seat to campaign for president were proven wrong. He turned out to be a bust-your-ass-for-the-people Senator.

I’ve seen my share of Kennedy clips over the years, but this documentary was a treasure trove, and it struck me how the more things change, the more they stay the same. The divisions between white and black, rich and poor, haves and have nots. All there in 1968. All here in 2020.

But, man. Seeing a guy running for president who actually demonstrates empathy and intelligence. It was so damn refreshing. It brought me hope — only it was a hopeless hope (look again at the cruel title).

This drive to help people, to understand them, to do something for the common good — that alone brought tears to the eyes, far before the Ambassador Hotel scene in L.A. on the night of his California Primary victory.

I had to think about it to get it: The sadness that overwhelmed me was as much for my country as for Bobby K. “My God,” I said to myself, “what we have lost and how far we have fallen.”

John Lewis, the civil rights leader and U.S. Representative from Georgia, is prominent among the interviewed. He breaks down when discussing Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy dying within a few months of each other. He’s weeping so bad he can barely finish his thought for the tape — this decades upon decades later.

And me, I couldn’t finish my meal. But, hey. One good thing about being a bachelor is you can cry a little if you want because there’s no one there to see it. Not that I counted on any of this when tuning into Bobby Kennedy for President, but this is what I got, anticipated or not.

I could blame all this emotion on the pandemic, sure, but I know better. It was something far worse.

 

 

A Day in the Life (Non-Beatles Version)

clock

5:30 a.m. Rise and, first and foremost, get water boiling for a carafe of freshly-ground coffee. The first cup is the best. Always. But that never stopped a man from nursing numbers two and three.

6:00 a.m. Before checking the old inbox, repeat three times: “I need some good news today.” Click. See Merriam-Webster’s word of the day only. Well, at least it’s not bad news.

6:30 a.m. Begin writing. The focus has moved in the direction of a YA novel, but some mornings I’m still in the mood to tinker with poems from MS #3, even though it’s out a-courting some nine lucky publishers. I Know, You Know, and Don’t Know (the names of Mark Twain’s dogs, and you can look it up) that, when the manuscript is accepted, these revisions will be allowed through the pre-publication gates, so it is a worthwhile habit.

7:30 a.m. Timeout for breakfast. For me, it’s been the same drill lately. The night before, I take out an 8-ounce Bell jar, put a few raisins and a dash of cinnamon on the bottom, fill halfway with organic Old-Fashioned Oatmeal, then another round of raisins and cinnamon, followed by the second half of oatmeal, topped off with a third and final touch of raisins and cinnamon. Then I slowly pour in unsweetened almond milk (you could use the milk of your choice) until all the oats are just covered. Put on the top, set in the fridge, and know that, by morning, it will be cool bliss. I follow up this cold oatmeal breakfast with a sliced orange.

8:00 a.m. More coffee, more writing. Some days it’s more deleting than writing. Some days I get to show off my addition skills. But more often I find myself tearing down yesterday’s progress, like a little bully boy at the beach who kicks other kids’ sandcastles down. The bully in me = eyes 24 hours wiser.

10:00 a.m. Take a reading break. Whatever the book of the moment may be (and right now, it’s Robert Bly’s News of the Universe), usually, or sometimes I go to the two “ongoing” reads when I’m in the mood for them: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (and would we had a leader who read it and followed it — or was even capable of reading it and following it!) or the Complete Essays of Montaigne. By now, Marcus and Montaigne are my best buds, a sad commentary on males and their lack of close friends, at least compared to women. Still, in the time of Covid, this lone wolf stuff works to guys’ advantage, no?

11:00 a.m. If it’s not raining, I make a short drive to the beach, where I get out and walk four miles. At the beach, everything is normal and as it ever was: the surf, the sand, the seagulls and all the other S’s. They have no clue what “coronavirus” means. Nor do they care to. I can learn from cheek like that. I get a lot of “writing” done while I walk, too, thinking about that morning’s writing and where it went wrong or could go “righter.” As I logged many years at the ocean’s side as a boy growing up, looking out at the shards of sunlight on the seas’ surface brings me back, too. From your eyes, without being able to see your body, you forget that you’ve aged because, damn, it all looks the same, just like the days when you were young and limber.

11:30 a.m. How is it I never gave white sharks a second thought all those years I swam in the ocean? Now-a-summer, it seems that’s all I think of while in the briny, being vigilant, being ready to do battle with the weapons at hand (read: none). Of course, there’s no telling if I’ll even be able to swim at the beach this summer. It depends on the C-word (for once, not “cancer”) that the surf, sand, and seagulls have never heard of because they never listen, anyway.

12:30 p.m. Home for lunch. These days, not much, because you cannot eat as much after 50, for one, and because lunch is the least interesting of meals, anyway. For me, it’s typically a protein powder shake (vegetable source) with frozen organic strawberries and blueberries and a sliced apple thrown in. And please, don’t get on my case about the “organic” thing by calling me a “foodie” or a “yuppie” or whatever label people like to throw about in our label-addicted world. “Organic” predates the conventional, herbicide- and pesticide-laden fruits and veggies we eat now. “Organic” simply means REAL and CONVENTIONAL because it’s what your granny (or certainly great-granny) ate before all the chemical giants came to the fore in the era of WW II (in that sense, we are all Germany and Japan). So “organic” means “real food,” straight and simple, the way it was from time immemorial. Got a problem with that?

2:00 p.m. Practice on-line French. I took cinq ans of French back in the day but recall precious little (or, as they say in Paris, “petite presciouse“). They say that this, along with learning a musical instrument, is your best hedge against Alzheimer’s. I try to do at least 30 minutes of practice de français une jour.

2:30 p.m. I think to myself: “Remember when people worried about Alzheimer’s? Remember when “going viral” was a good thing?” Then I stop thinking for a bit, at least in that direction. Safer that way.

3:00 p.m. Time for a 30-minute nap, though it’s not a sacred animal for me or an assured thing or even an everyday thing, necessarily. It all depends on how the old insomnia thing was acting the night before.

3:30 p.m. Afternoon coffee, about as late as I dare. This is a small leftover cup from the morning, so nowhere near as good, but still good, and still better than snacking on processed food (again, thank you WW II era). I do this while going through another hour or two of reading the book of the moment.

5:30 p.m. Supper. I’d make a lousy European or cosmopolitan sort, as those folks like to eat at 9 at night or so. Still, there is good new for early suppers like me. The later in the evening you eat, the more likely it is that calories become fat while you sleep. Unless, of course, you’re blessed with one of those metabolisms. You know, the ones where adults can eat like 14-year-old boys and still look like healthy sticks.

6:30 p.m. On bad days, the nightly news, although this almost assuredly brings on a bout of indigestion. On good days, straight to some bubble-brained comedy. Of late, it’s been the six seasons of Schitt’s Creek and the six seasons of Community. Now it’s Netflix movies. This is all Covid-caused. Previous to this homebody-by-force stuff, I mostly loathed the movies and television shows. You know. Like Holden Caulfield did. After the word “phonies,” he probably said, “I hate the movies” more than anything else.

8:30 p.m. Last check for “good news” in the inbox from editors fighting it out for the privilege of publishing my poems (and what a joyful cartoon image THAT is!). Why do these people take so long? Why do I continue to dream that, some day, some editor will happen to read the work I submitted via Submittable on the same day it arrives and JUMP on it before any other editor can? Blame the last thing out of Pandora’s Box. Anyway, after this delusion, I repair to the kitchen to make tomorrow morning’s Overnight Oatmeal (see 7:30 a.m. entry for, ahem, recipe)

9:00 p.m. To bed with the book of the moment. This usually lasts all of 20 minutes before I drop the book on my face, making a literary divot on the bridge of my nose.

2:30 a.m. If I’m lucky to get this far, the first wake up. If I’m really lucky, I’ll get back to sleep within 20 minutes, but if it goes longer than that, it usually drags out for 90 minutes at least, forcing me to witness that most unseemly of hours: 3 to 4 o’clock, the hour that inspired me to write these poems:

 

Insomnia
Ken Craft

Three is the loneliest number on a clock
when the night can’t save you.

No doubt it is the constellated tug,
a conspiracy of stars, the silent, primal

voice that whispers the uselessness,
that grinds greater gears,

that mocks the hubris of careful plans,
set alarms. Every blanketed life around you

sleeps safe and happy and secure
like nothing can touch them, like change

has made its exception, named it you,
and passed finally over the frosted roof.

 

 

3:30
Ken Craft

In the dark
from over the water, a rooster
celebrates my insomnia

 

5:30 a.m. Wake and sing the simple ditty by some obscure minstrels from long ago: “Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head.” And a fine déjà vu to you, too, using something as dated as a comb.

May you all have a great “day in the life” of your own, for today and many more.

God’s Little Addiction

essays at eightyGod has this little addiction. It’s called irony. Like O. Henry (only with more staying power), She can’t help herself when it comes to trick endings, little twists, wry surprises. Big G, they call her. Big “Gotcha!”

I was reminded of this while sailing through 85-year-old Donald Hall’s collection, Essays After Eighty. Folks who like poetry know that Hall was a poet of some renown. As happens, he married another poet — one 19 years his junior —  Jane Kenyon. Jane knew her way around an iambic and could leap pentameters with flair as well. Poetically speaking, it was a high-profile and poetically-inclined marriage.

Here’s a relevant quote, from an essay called (appropriately enough) “Death”:

“In middle life I came close to dying of natural causes. When I was sixty-one I had colon cancer, deftly removed, but two years later it metastasized to my liver. A surgeon removed half of that organ and told me I might live five years. Both Jane and I assumed I would die soon, and she massaged me every day, trying to rub the cancer out. I went through the motions of chemo and finished writing what I was able to finish. Aware of my own approaching death, I was astonished and appalled when Jane came down with leukemia. Her death at forty-seven — I was sixty-six — was not trivial. Six years later I had a small stroke and potential death felt matter-of-fact. A carotid artery was eighty-five percent occluded. Dr. Harbaugh removed a pencil-wide, inch-long piece of plaque during a two-hour operation under local anesthetic. I enjoyed hearing the chitchat of the white-coated gang. Now and then somebody asked me to squeeze a dog’s ball, which tinkled to affirm my consciousness. I was disappointed when Dr. Harbaugh wouldn’t let me take the obstruction back home.”

Elsewhere in the book, Hall mentions how Jane wrote three poems about his fatal illness and imminent demise. You Know Who was listening, apparently. Either that or She fancies poetry.

And bam. Next thing you know, the doomed lives twenty-eight more years (dying in 2018) while the prime-of-life wife and rising-star poet is gone in five  (dying in 1995). Funny? Hardly.

“Life,” the atheists would call it.

“Death,” the Stoics would murmur back.

Sadly, it’s all one. Especially when you consider God’s little addiction, the all-too-personal “I” word.

 

“We Are Small as Moth Wing Fall”

antelope

Yesterday our family blog lost its license by posting a 5-line poem that exploded four f-bombs, Mary Ruefle’s “Red.” As we no longer have the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval (I ran out of fish), I might as well go for it and share another f-balmy poem from Poetry, which was on an f’in run in its May issue.

This one uses the forward slash to separate would-be lines, a technique you, young poet, might consider for your increasingly messy (a good thing) toolbox. Ready, then? Fasten your seat belts!

 

Fuck / Time
Inua Ellams

Once upon a time / Yo-Yo Ma / traveling through Botswana searching for
music / crosses a local shaman singing / into the savannah / He rushes to
notate the melody / Please Sing Again he requests / to which the shaman
sings something else and explains / to the baffled Yo-Yo Ma that earlier /
clouds had covered the sun and wild antelope grazed in the distance / But
the dial of the world had twirled since / The antelopes had cantered into
some other future / The clouds had gone / so the song had to change / had to
slough off the chains us mortals clasp everything with / even our fluid wrists
/ The universe in fact is monstrously indifferent to the presence of man /
We are small as moth wing fall / in an orchestra broad as galaxies / playing
a symphony Time isn’t bothered to fathom / It respects no constant and is
always moving on

 

Note how no punctuation is used, though capitalization is utilized to signal sentence beginnings. Also, the forward slash is employed twice as a line ending and, curiously, once as a line beginning. The best explanation, from a distant vista, is the shape of the poem, which wants to be as rectangular as possible.

What I like best about the poem is the middle, how a song cannot be repeated because the physical world it was sung to has since changed. Thus, new songs must be sung. It’s how a shaman would think, diametrically opposed to the way an average Westerner would (though Yo-Yo Ma is neither average nor Westerner).

Having written a poetry collection called The Indifferent World, I also like the cameo of the word “indifferent,” as in “The universe in fact is monstrously indifferent to the presence of man.”

Can I get an “amen” to that?

My one quibble is that the strong center yields a milder finish. But hey, the poem’s creative, it uses a different technique, and it sticks to Poetry‘s May Theme in a Key of  F-Major.

All good, in other words / Have a ruby Tuesday

 

So Much for Red Wheelbarrows

red wheelbarrow

Happy Mother’s Monday (as the day after Mother’s Day isn’t called). I hope those of you with moms did yourselves proud by visiting or, more likely, calling or Face-Timing or Skyping or whatever’s happening nowadays. Moms are a rare breed. Look at what they put up with (a mirror can’t be far).

Me, I called my mom like a good son. Then I spread mulch for four hours, afterwards requiring a long Epsom salt bath for my back. The garden beds look great (you could flip a quarter on them), but I can’t say I feel equally robust.

Still, a long hot bath gives one opportunity to read. I avoid books in the bathtub because I tend to get dozy in the heat and drop them, so reading is confined to magazines. I brought in my last issue (I think) of Poetry instead.

Oh, man. I read this brief-ain’t-the-word-for-it poem and was consumed immediately with jealousy, as in “Why didn’t I think of that?” I’m told jealousy’s the mark of a true poet, so I feel good about it. I have arrived!

The poem was by the well-known poet Mary Ruefle. It’s a spoof on good old William Carlos Williams’ famous “The Red Wheelbarrow” poem, and it goes like this:

 

Red
Mary Ruefle

I fucking depended on you and
you left the fucking wheelbarrow
out and it’s fucking raining
and now the white chickens
are fucking filthy

 

I don’t know. I read poems like this and my mind ricochets all over the place. I couldn’t even get dozy in the heat after reading it.

First, I wondered if Mary Ruefle is a huge fan of WCW’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” poem or if she can’t stand it. I could see either being true. I could see either inspiring her to see red and write this ditty.

If she loves Williams’ poem, this is ha-ha laughing with him, and if she loathes Williams’ poem, this is ha-ha laughing at him (and at people who consider it a good poem). That’s the nature of ha-ha parody, after all.

But what made me more envious still is that I could not write this poem, send it to Poetry, and expect to see it published. If I could it would be so cool.

Alas, this is another clear example of a “Haves vs. Have Nots” poem. Joe Nobody (of Have Not, Georgia) sends it over the transom and it might not even get past the first reader. Joe Somebody (of Have, Ohio) sends it and, wham!, it’s accepted with a check written in J.S.’s name pronto (and make no mistake — Poetry pays well not only for wheelbarrows but for rain and chickens, too).

So, yeah. Brief poem but extensive brain meandering. But I did use a wheelbarrow for spreading mulch, anyway. Gray as a cloud, I fear. No rain and no chickens. And, oh. No f-bombs, either. (This is a family blog, after all.)

But synchronicity! Me and Mary! An f-ing team on Mother’s Day (even if she didn’t know it, and even if she isn’t a mother). Thanks for the fun, M. And thanks for your fame, WCW.

Wheeling over and out, KC.