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Jim Harrison’s Complete Poems: Both Great and Outdoors

In “The Whisper,” one of the last poems he wrote before death finally caught up with him, Jim Harrison wrote: “But birds/lead us outside where we belong./Around here all the gods live in trees.

If you don’t get outside as much as you should (and, chances are, you don’t), you can at least get the vicarious thrill (and I would say a convincing argument) by reading the 900-plus paged Jim Harrison Complete Poems.

Though Harrison loved food, drink, and women, his first and most enduring love was the great outdoors. His poetry shows it. Among his gods, he shows greatest devotion to birds, fish, and dogs. And a keen eye for weather, land, and water. Harrison names things with a guide’s eye, and though any lifetime collection of poetry will be uneven, the reader can’t help but appreciate the voice, strong and friendly, that acts like Virgil guiding us through the book. Better yet, the voice only gets stronger as it wends its casual way to the end, too.

Many of the poems are built on memory. A good example is this tale of Harrison’s grandfather:

 

What He Said When I Was Eleven

 

August, a dense heat wave at the cabin

mixed with torrents of rain,

the two-tracks become miniature rivers.

 

In the Russian Orthodox Church

one does not talk to God, one sings.

This empty and sun-blasted land

 

has a voice rising in shimmers.

I did not sing in Moscow

but St. Basil’s in Leningrad raised

 

a quiet tune. But now seven worlds

away I hang the cazas-moscas

from the ceiling and catch seven flies

 

in the first hour, buzzing madly

against the stickiness. I’ve never seen

the scissor-tailed flycatcher, a favorite

 

bird of my youth, the worn Audubon

card pinned to the wall. When I miss

flies three times with the swatter

 

they go free for good. Fair is fair.

There is too much nature pressing against

the window as if it were a green night;

 

and the river swirling in glazed turbulence

is less friendly than ever before.

Forty years ago she called, Come home, come home,

 

It’s suppertime. I was fishing a fishless

cattle pond with a new three-dollar pole,

dreaming the dark blue ocean of pictures.

 

In the barn I threw down hay

while my Swede grandpa finished milking,

squirting the barn cat’s mouth with an udder.

 

I kissed the wet nose of my favorite cow,

drank a dipper of fresh warm milk

and carried two pails to the house,

 

scraping the manure off my feet

in the pump shed. She poured the milk

in the cream separator and I began cranking.

 

At supper the oilcloth was decorated

with worn pink roses. We ate cold herring,

also bluegills we had caught at daylight.

 

The fly-strip above the table idled in

the window’s breeze, a new fly in its death buzz.

Grandpa said, “We are all flies.”

 

That’s what he said forty years ago.

 

As he ages, Harrison grows more philosophical and tangos frankly with the more apparent subject of death. It only adds greater depth to his wisdom, nature being the perfect metaphor for the birth-death-birth cycle that so fascinated him.

 

Midnight Blues Planet

 

We’re marine organisms at the bottom of the ocean

of air. Everywhere esteemed nullities rule our days.

How ineluctably we travel from our preembryonic

state to so much dead meat on the ocean’s hard floor.

There is this song of ice in our hearts. Here we struggle

mightily to keep our breathing holes opened

from the lid of suffocation. We have misunderstood the stars.

Clocks make our lives a slow-motion frenzy. We can’t get

off the screen back into the world where we could live.

Every so often we hear the current of night music

from the gods who swim and fly as we once did.

 

Though he wrote novels, novellas, and essays, Harrison considered himself first and foremost a poet, making this lifetime collection that much more important to his legacy. Some compare him to Charles Bukowski (who had less of a connection with the natural world) and Ernest Hemingway (who lacked Harrison’s humor and gentle empathy), but neither comparison is fair. Harrison is Harrison, a one-eyed sage of the flower and fauna, river and ruin. Here is an example of his dark humor:

 

 

Poet Warning

He went to sea

in a thimble of poetry

without sail or oars

or anchor. What chance

do I have, he thought?

Hundreds of thousands

of moons have drowned out here

and there are no gravestones.

 

And here one of love for his wife on the occasion of their 50th anniversary. As is true with many of his works, he approaches subjects tangentially before hitting on this topic – the sort of thing a teacher of poetry would warn you against. Note, too, how he mines some of the same material as “What He Said When I Was Eleven,” only this time, being decades later, with a more mature approach.

 

Our Anniversary

 

I want to go back to the wretched old farm

on a cold November morning eating herring

on the oil tablecloth at daylight, the hard butter

in slivers and chunks on rye bread, gold-colored

homemade butter. Fill the woodbox, Jimmy.

Clots of cream in the coffee, hiss and crackle

of woodstove. Outside it’s been the hardest freeze

yet but the heels still break through into the earth.

A winter farm is dead and you want to head for the woods.

In the barn the smell of manure and still-green hay

hit the nose with the milk in the metal pails.

Grandpa is on the last of seven cows,

tugging their dicklike udders a squirt in the mouth

for the barn cat. My girlfriend loves another

and at twelve it’s as if all the trees have died.

Sixty years later seven hummingbirds at the feeder,

miniature cows in their stanchions sipping liquid sugar.

We are fifty years together. There are still trees.

 

 

Harrison is what is known as an “approachable” poet in that his style and topic matter is earthly. He is not one to tackle style or form. Rather, free verse is the lingua franca of his land. Don’t be fooled, however. His allusions have deep roots. Harrison read the best and used their names and experiences to leaven his own poetry. In these collected works, you will meet the likes of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Frederico García Lorca, Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Virgil, W.C. Williams, René Char, Ikkyū, César Vallejo, Octavio Paz, Su Tung P’o, and, famously (thanks to his collection Letters to Yesenin), Sergei Yesenin.

Whether you read this hefty book cover-to-cover or use it as a side-dipper while reading others, you will feel, at the end, like you are saying farewell to a good friend and, in doing so, saying hello to your own approaching end. Thinking about his boyhood days, Harrison finishes the poem “Seven in the Woods” with these words: “It is the burden of life to be many ages/without seeing the end of time.” And in “The Present,” he meditates on birds yet again before ending on this note of a lifetime: “The cost of flight is landing.”

Alas, Jim Harrison has landed, but reading his collected work in the genre he considered most important, we can only give thanks for what he learned during his long, migratory flight.

Tempted to Give Up? You’re Not Alone

 

It’s on everybody’s lips: These are dark days, especially between the pandemic and politics. I’m of two minds, torn between the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. One preaches activism, the other isolation. One says get more involved. The other says quit while you’re behind. Trouble is, I can’t tell which is advocating which.

By way of explanation, here’s a little context: Thirty years ago, my wife and I rented a cottage on a lake with our young children. A pine cabin, it stood on concrete blocks and was equipped with electricity and running water thanks to a pump drawing water from the lake.

When vacationing there, we did not bother with a television or newspapers. For two weeks, we simply read books, played cards and board games, had conversations, swam in the water, dozed on the sun-drenched dock, and listened to the occasional Red Sox game on AM radio.

In effect, there was no “out there.” The world as we knew it was put on hold. Instead, it simply consisted of lake, woods, and a cabin seemingly ignorant of time. No politics. No crime. No national or international news. This isolation was a balm for the soul – and what’s good for the soul is good for the body.

If stress is so bad for us, it can be argued that turning in and logging off is a great strategy for healing and staying healthy. Thoreau, I’m sure, would approve. Yet for all his walks in the woods and stays in a cabin by Walden, Thoreau was also an activist fighting hard for the abolitionist cause and a man who spent time in jail for civil disobedience.

That’s why, as soon as I get comfortable with the warm blanket of escapism, I wonder about being a better Citizen of the World. Or, even more difficult, about my own country. If the Republic we all grew up pledging allegiance to is in trouble, don’t we owe it to the Founding Fathers to get involved? To speak up? To do something about saving it before all hell breaks loose and we fall into “soft fascism” á la Hungary – and all because of one man’s untreated psychological problems and a cable “news” channel that is doing Russia’s dirty work by spreading misinformation and division (thank you, Comrade Carlson)?

It’s questions like this that invite cloud cover over memories of those halcyon days at the lake. On one side I get an earful: Wouldn’t it look selfish and foolish to make like an ostrich and bury your head in the sand just because you just can’t deal with it anymore?

Then, in the other ear, another: If Covid wars, culture wars, and history repeating itself to the refrain of the 1930’s are only shortening your life, don’t you owe it to yourself to pull back from it all and breathe, Zen-like?

I don’t have any answers. I hear both figures on both shoulders, but sometimes it’s unclear who has the halo and who has the pitchfork, who advocates for the light and who for the dark. Nothing is obvious, and on any given day, my thoughts lean gray as dawn and dusk.

Here’s a Maggie Smith poem that speaks, in its own poetic way, to our assumptions about right and wrong being as easy as light and dark. In a way, it reminds me of the light and dark plying my ears!

How Dark the Beginning

All we ever talk of is light—

let there be light, there was light then,

good light—but what I consider

dawn is darker than all that.

So many hours between the day

receding and what we recognize

as morning, the sun cresting

like a wave that won’t break

over us—as if light were protective,

as if no hearts were flayed,

no bodies broken on a day

like today. In any film,

the sunrise tells us everything

will be all right. Danger wouldn’t

dare show up now, dragging

its shadow across the screen.

We talk so much of light, please

let me speak on behalf

of the good dark. Let us

talk more of how dark

the beginning of a day is.

 

One of my favorite phrases from the Bible is “Through a glass darkly.” These days, I see a lot of things “through a glass darkly” because so much is sinister in a déjà vu kind of way.

Is it selfish to brighten my own life? Might I then be accused of contributing to the dark forces by failing to assist the various causes for good?

Smith’s poem seems to speak to things that have crawled out of dark sewers and into the light of day. They are the new normal, and they are decidedly encouraged by each other and by their newfound freedom to operate with impunity in fresh air and sunlight. They see each other and are emboldened by each other.

That may be far from Smith’s intent, but the reader-writer compact tells us that there’s a gray area between light and dark, not only come dawn and dusk, but come our daily deliberations over how much or little to be agents of change — and at what cost.

 

A Word to the Wise: Jim Harrison Goes Aphoristic

I am wending my way through the late Jim Harrison’s Complete Poems – almost 900 pages of them. A prolific writer, Harrison wrote before his death, “This book is the portion of my life that means the most to me. I’ve written a goodly number of novels and novellas but they sometimes strike me as extra, burly flesh on the true bones of my life, though a few of them approach some of the conditions of poetry.”

Here are a few of the aphoristic stanzas from one of the books, Braided Creek, included in this collection:

All those years

I had in my pocket.

I spent them,

nickel-and-dime.

 

All I want to be

is a thousand blackbirds

bursting from a tree,

seeding the sky.

 

On every topographic map,

the fingerprints of God.

 

The biomass of ants,

their total weight on earth,

exceeds our own.

They welcome us to their world

of small homes, hard work, big women.

 

When Time picks apples,

it eats them with the yellow teeth

of bees.

 

I might have been a welder,

kneeling at a fountain of sparks

in my mask of stars

 

Midday silence is different

from nighttime silence.

I can’t tell you how.

 

Between the four pads

of a dog’s foot,

the fragrance of grass.

 

What if everyone you loved

were still alive? That’s the province

of the young, who don’t know it.

 

I’m sixty-two and can drop dead

at any moment. Thinking this in August

I kissed the river’s cold moving lips.

 

A welcome mat of moonlight

on the floor. Wipe your feet

before getting into bed.

 

I was born a baby.

What has been

added?

 

Treasure what you find

already in your pocket, friend.

Parlez-Vous English?

Thanks to Netflix, I’ve learned that I don’t understand English as well as I thought. I’ve seen more than one British-based show, but the one that’s taking it out of me is the darker-than-dark After Life, starring Ricky Gervais. I admit as much here: At times I’m completely lost and only picking up 40% of what’s being said. Maybe it’s English I speak well and British that gives me fits. Cornwallis’s revenge? I can hear him now: “Tea party that, mate!”

You Carry Your Breath Everywhere, So Why Ignore It?

Recently I’ve been making like George Harrison (one of two departed Beatles) by getting into a book about Indian spiritualism. As a break from reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s ponderous Brothers Karamazov, I picked up Jay Shetty’s Think Like a Monk

Turns out, monk-like thoughts suit me well. Unlike most self-help books, this one didn’t come across as so much reheated claptrap. Shetty, a British-born Indian, disappointed his parents by passing on becoming a lawyer or doctor and instead flying to India to join an ashram. There he learned a lot about hardship and spiritualism thanks to one of the oldest civilizations in the world. 

Unfortunately, health concerns eventually forced him back to England, where he decided to parlay all he’d learned about himself from various holy men by writing a book. The spin? He shows how a few practices and a more Eastern mindset can be put to good effect in the hustle of modern Western life. Reading it, you realize just how much room for improvement there is when it comes to your spiritual side. First and foremost is dealing with the ego.

Sound easy? Listen again.

 

Into the Fray on Valentine’s Day

February 14th has never been my favorite day. I mean, really. A day to prove your love to someone? Shouldn’t that be every day? And to make matters worse, there’s the flower shortage to confound last-minute shoppers (the ones carrying Y chromosomes, typically). Be prepared to say it with chocolates, gentlemen. Or a backrub. Or a Covid-free restaurant (I’m almost sure one’s out there). 

Into clever word-play, maybe? Try saying it with flour!

Or you can do what I do. Take a page out of Hallmark’s book (and bottom line) by creating your own card. My wife has saved them since time immemorial (also known as “1982”). Not sure what will become of them when the prefix “im-” invades our “permanence,” but that’s OK. I won’t much care by then.

Two Thoughts on Christmas Past & One on New Year’s Future

 

For me, Christmas creates both anticipation and dread. There’s the undertow of nostalgia, for one. That tug toward childhood — a time when warm meals magically appeared at the table, dirty clothes found their way to your dresser drawers smelling clean and neatly folded, and bills were names of men vs. “pay up” statements arriving in the mailbox with startling regularity.

But the demands of Christmas can get to you, too. All that gift buying, food purchasing, entertaining, overeating, and now, Covid-dodging during a time of family and friends.

Traditionally, I’ve been a Christmas Eve guy because, for me, it focuses more on anticipation than reward. Christmas Day? That tends to play out like that old Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is?”

Somehow, Christmas hype can’t keep pace with Christmas reality. And so, come Boxing Day, you’re ready to pack Christmas away and call it a season. 

Why? Because, come the 26th, both tree and decorations look stale and cheesy. You want to box and banish it to its Basement Captivity (Babylon being busy), go all Kondo (a shout-out to Japan) and glory in a house with clean, sparse lines (and to Scandinavia) again.

I’ll admit, also, to a fondness for resolutions, hopeless or not. January 1st is not a drinking holiday for me because, long ago, I saw the futility in it (drinking is a little like Christmas Day in a bottle… more promise than delivery). 

The Roman God Janus, who looks both forward and back, symbolizes New Year’s nicely. Resolutions, fertilized by regret, come from the past but are premised on the future. Thus, each New Year’s Eve, I typically try myself, find myself guilty, and sentence myself to some constructive service or other. 

This new year it’s being more religious about keeping a writer’s journal. And, if Covid ever relents, fulfilling my retirement pledge to volunteer somewhere. 

One needs distraction from oneself, after all, especially if one is trying to better oneself at “being human” (the impossibility of perfection being its appeal).

Meanwhile, the writing thing. It’s essentially Christmas Eve as an avocation, no? You write, revise, and anticipate. Sure, you get a lot of rejections, but there are those acceptances that sneak through the door, too, surprising you. 

Then there’s the reward of seeing your writing published. And finding a few people who actually respond by obtaining, reading, and appreciating it. 

The ‘22 fine print, then, looks like this: 100 rejections (a barometer of discipline in marketing your work) and 20 acceptances. Because 20% acceptance ratios are a good thing for non-famous writers who can’t coast on the reputation of their names. That doesn’t work when the reading public still knows you as “Who?”

How about YOU, fellow “Who’s?” What’s your 20%-is-better-than-nothing pledge to improve in ‘22?

 

Merry Divide-mas!


Arundel, Maine. Christmas Eve morning. My daughter is waiting in line outside The Lobster Co. Fishmarket for the shrimp and scallops we ordered for dinner. Two people behind her strike up a conversation – an older woman and an older man. But first the woman says, “Are you local?” When the man assures her that he is, the woman says, “Good. We can talk.” And talk they did, according to my daughter. For the 20 minutes it took to reach the register.

When she returned to the car with this story, she wondered what would have happened if the woman had directed the question at her (a visitor from Minnesota). Heck, I wondered about myself. What exactly was this woman’s definition of “local”? I moved here from out of state three years ago. Would I pass muster as “local goods”? Somehow, I fear not.

 

Judge This Book by Its Cover


In The New York Times Books section, I read a short piece on new books scheduled for release in January. One that looked interesting was Barbara F. Walters’ How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them. Looking at the book’s cover, I’m amazed at how small the subtitle’s font is. Heck, to my mind, How to Stop Them is the important part! Why is it barely discernible beneath the burning, provocatively red How Civil Wars Start?

It’s depressing to think that more readers might be interested in how our country will get ripped apart than in how we might prevent it by going after politicians and media outlets promoting it.

Love and Other Poems: Alex Dimitrov

Reading this collection brought up the uncomfortable question (for a poet reading another poet): When is poetry self-indulgent? On the one hand, this collection contains the 10-page list poem, “Love,” included in Tracy K. Smith’s Best Poetry for 2021 anthology (and deservedly so). On the other, this collection contains more than a few solipsistic lines that had me scratching my head. For my full Goodreads review, jump down this rabbit hole.

Eternal Abe


If you look at Abraham Lincoln quotes, you might wonder how so many of his thoughts seem like they were written at 10 o’clock this morning. There’s a reason for that, of course. For the past five years, there have been a lot of Jefferson Davis-types working hard at turning Americans against each other.

Here’s a great quote showing why we wish Honest Abe walked among us today. Nothing is as simple as it looks at first glance, especially if it’s a beloved abstraction like liberty:

“The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, and all professing to love liberty.”

 

The Seven Best Poetry Books of 2021… Maybe

T’is the season for “Best of” lists, and yes, even poetry gets in on the game, at least if the playing field is as large as The New York Times, where the Book Review’s poetry columnist Elisa Gabbert selected seven favorites from 2021 only to be pounced on by readers.

One named “to each their own taste” commented “The NY Times carries great authority, yet this list is so arbitrary and slants so steeply toward poets who are not widely known. How can any round up being called the year’s ‘best poetry books’ not include even Kaveh Akbar’s “Pilgrim Bell,” let alone the Louise Glück book seemingly ignored exactly because it’s by a Nobel poet. Does being better-known disqualify?”

I couldn’t disagree more. I mean, I get it. Having read both Nobel winner Louise Glück’s wonderful Winter Recipes from the Collective and Kaveh Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell: Poems, I can understand why they might merit consideration for a “Best of” list. But really, do Nobel winners and familiar names like theirs even need the attention? And isn’t that a little too easy for an expert like Elisa Gabbert?

Unlike “to each their own taste,” I favor slants “toward poets who are not widely known.” In fact, I think The Times’ Gabbert could slant even more. Two of her seven selections were choices of a Brooklyn bookstore’s poetry subscription series – one I myself receive. And while I’m in the confession box, I’ll state here that one of those two choices struck me as ordinary while the other I abandoned (though now I may give it a second go, to see if it’s me or Gabbert). In any event, keep slanting, Elisa! Make the widely unknown a little bit more known and trust that the famous can fend for themselves!

****

SHORT TAKES

I’ve been reading Michael Ignatieff’s short essays, On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times, and so far have most enjoyed the pieces on Marcus Aurelius and Michel De Montaigne. Poor Marcus Aurelius. Like Bartleby the Emperor, he would “prefer not to” do anything Roman emperors had to do – rule, lead battalions against barbarians, entertain fools. Yet he slogged on, writing his Meditations to reprove himself (for lack of Stoic discipline) as much as others.

Montaigne, though he lived in the 16th century, struggled with the party (read: religious) line on consolation. He was too busy writing essays about himself as a human mind and a human body. How 21st century of him!

“I renounce any favorable testimonials that anyone may want to give me not because I shall deserve them but because I shall be dead,” he said, neglecting that little business of an after-life. As he lived in a time of Catholic vs. Protestant bloodshed in France, one can see why he loathed religious zealots.

***

Care to sample a few poems from my book online? In the Miracle Monocle out of the University of Louisville, you’ll find “A Boy, A City” (originally written as an ekphrastic poem to go with a photograph) and “Loyalty,” one of my favorite short poems in the book.

You can also find one of the “lost brother” thematic poems, “My Brother’s Bedroom,” in Jacar Press’s poetry publication, one, Issue 21.

***

Speaking of Reincarnation & Other Stimulants, my thanks go out to Steve Penkevich from Reader’s World Bookstore in Michigan, who published this awesome-isn’t-the-word-for-it review of my book on Goodreads.

***


Am I the only one who thinks the scariest bit in the news these days is the slow taking down of our Republic? In this sense, the good news of Donald Trump’s defeat may turn out to be the bad news. If not for his legitimate defeat in the 2020 presidential election, none of this perfidy would have been turned loose.

Ever child-like and narcissistic, Trump denied losing and insisted it could only happen if he was “robbed.” His slavish minions in countless key states with Republican majorities in their houses and senates have taken this lie as an excuse to blatantly gerrymander voting districts so the GOP can’t possibly lose future elections.

Couple that with voter-suppression laws designed to favor voters registered with the GOP and the purging of any election official (Republicans as well) who had the integrity to stand up to Trump’s lies, and you get a recipe for one-party rule, much like you see in, say, Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China today. Elections may occur in those countries, but they are little more than bad jokes with outcomes a preordained given. Is that what we want for the formerly United States? To see Trump succeed where Jefferson Davis failed?

I’m not sure why Republicans and Democrats alike in states like Arizona, Texas, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina are not up in arms over this breach of citizens’ rights. Why are they OK with some American voters counting more than others? Is it patriotic to acquiesce to electoral systems used in Fascist and Communist (small difference, as both are built around cults of personality in a single leader… sound familiar?) countries today? I’m looking for ways to fight back, but it’s difficult when you don’t live in one of the states that are betraying basic precepts of the Constitution, all while cloaked in a false flag of patriotism.

 

When Wrong Place & Wrong Time Means Forever

coffee

Gun violence. Poetry. Yes, please, to some sanity. Read Joseph J. Ellis’s book, American Dialogue, where, among other interesting things, he traces the history of the Second Amendment, which was, according to the Founders, all about militias vs. individuals, not that this stops some people in modern-day from rewriting history.

Ellis goes in-depth on how the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia did just that, painting himself, as many others presently do, as a Constitutional “originalist” when he was anything but (that is, if you care, like Ellis, to look at the actual facts from the time of Madison, Jefferson, and Adams).

Once upon a time, even the NRA was a noble organization dedicated to hunting and gun safety. Given the Rambo-style, political leadership that has hijacked it and runs the show today, the NRA of old seems like a quaint fairy tale now, as we read yet another story in the news about senseless shootings in public places.

Why is it that we endure gun violence in society like no other modern nation on earth? Why is it that we endure pain and death and fear? Why is it that we re-elect politicians who offer thoughts and prayers instead of solutions?

The poet Lia Purpura gives these questions some thought in ways that most of us would rather not. We read her poem “Proximities” and realize that we all have lines we could retrace in our every day lives — from last year, last month, or even yesterday at a coffee shop, in a movies theater, at a night club, or in a school.

This is true whether you are a law-abiding gun owner (and I know many) or not. It’s being at the wrong place at the wrong time, a quirk of fate that no citizen, no matter what his political stripes, should be subject to. As Purpura puts it, quite simply, “It’s never a joke / to walk in or out of a shop / unharmed.”

Here’s praying for practical solutions, then, ones that will address the issues while still respecting the rights of hunters and other gun owners who are all about gun safety, not blocking common sense legislation to protect Americans from routine gun violence. It would require profiles in courage from unexpected places (Congress), but I’m convinced it can be done. It has to, or else matters will only gets worse…

 

“Proximities”
by Lia Purpura

A man walks into a coffee shop.
But it’s not a joke.
I bought coffee there
last summer.
Small, with milk.
It’s never a joke
to walk in or out of a shop
unharmed. It’s easy
to forget
you aren’t a person
being shot at.
I’m not.
I wasn’t, though
I was there,
last summer.
Not-shot-at
and I never knew it.
Did not once
think it.
Thinking it now
the moment thins,
it sheers,
and I move back to
other coffee shops
where I never fell, or bled,
and then
I sit for a while
with my regular cup
and feel things collapse
or go on, I can’t tell.

The Ordinary–It Should Scare You to Death

cellar-stairs

Fringe. Niche. Eccentric.

These are words you might hear when people describe poets or poetry in general, at least in the States. Thing is, the joke’s on them (or at least in their mirrors). Why? Because everyone’s a poet, or at least was at one time.

As proof, my favorite 2 minute and 37 second video to share with students is Naomi Shihab Nye’s “One Boy Told Me.” Before reading a found poem wholly consisting of things her son said when he was 2- and 3-years-old, she shares what William Stafford once said when someone asked, “When did you become a poet?” He responded: “That’s not really the right question. The question is, when did you STOP being a poet? We’re all poets when we’re little. Some of us just try to keep up the habit.”

A little logic tells us, then, that the kid in all of us is the poet in all of us. It’s kind of like Halloween. You never quite get it out of your system. Now #2 behind Christmas in retail sales, October 31st has practically been taken over by adults who want to play dress up and “trick or treat” (without the door-to-door nonsense), too.

Whether you’re a student, a writer, or a party animal, then, you should take note: It’s the ordinary that should scare you to death.

What if I asked you to write something scary, for instance? Too often, when writers set out to scare readers, they fall victim to stock props of the genre as found on TV, in the movies, and yes, in literature. But there’s more to scaring people than vampires by night, zombies by day, and Fox News talking heads by any measure of time.

If you really want to write about fear, get in touch with your inner child (whether you’re age 50 or 12). As adults drugged on maturity, we often forget the powerful knack little kids have for seeing malevolence in the ordinary, and there’s no better Museum of the Extraordinarily Ordinary than a house’s basement.

Don’t believe me? Close your eyes a moment and conjure the basement of the house you grew up in. In my case, there was a rec room of no account on one side and then the unfinished side: concrete floor, washer/dryer, sump pump, oil tank, furnace, and that all important basement prop, “thing that goes bump in the night.” I can recall many a nightmare where various horrors came through the door separating these two sections.

But let’s move on to a good example of how basements tap can into our inner child mentality (and therefore our poetic imagination). It appears in the late poet Thomas Lux’s poem,  “Cellar Stairs,” a piece in which ice skates, ice picks, roofing nails, a fuse-box switch, and yes, even a freezer, do yeoman duty as witches, monsters, and boogeymen. As it’s only three 9-line stanzas, let’s take a look:

      Cellar Stairs
      by Thomas Lux

      It’s rickety down to the dark.
      Old skates, long-bladed, hang by leather laces
      on your left and want to slash your throat,
      but they can’t, they can’t, being only skates.
      On a shelf above, tools: shears,
      three-pronged weed hacker, ice pick,
      poison-rats and bugs-and on the landing,
      halfway down, a keg of roofing nails
      you don’t want to fall face first into,

      no, you don’t. To your right,
      a fuse box with its side-switch-a slot machine,
      on a good day, or the one the warden pulls,
      on a bad. Against the wall,
      on nearly every stair, one boot, no two
      together, no pair, as if the dead
      went off, short-legged or long, to where they go,
      which is down these steps,
      at the bottom of which is a swollen,

      humming, huge white freezer
      big enough for many bodies—
      of children, at least. And this
      is where you’re sent each night
      for the frozen bag of beans
      or peas or broccoli
      that lies beside the slab
      of meat you’ll eat for dinner,
      each countless childhood meal your last.

      “Cellar Stairs,” from New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin).

The minute you go for laughs or frights in the usual, well-trod places is the minute you should stop and reconsider the tack you’re on. Heck with masked, chainsaw-wielding psychopaths, people are killed every day by ladders, bathtubs, and stairs.

My advice, if it’s scares you’re after? Put down your remote and channel your childhood home and how much it resembles your present-day home. There are places in the former that scared you and places in the latter that should, and even though those places are populated with objects both hum and drum, your job — as a writer, as a poet, and as an aficionado of Halloween — is to make them thrum. Basements, attics, crawlspaces, closets, the one room people tend to avoid.

After that, scare yourself even more. Try reading some poetry. Or scare ME by writing a short poem about your cellar and sending it my way. I promise it will not be shared here or any other place, like behind the furnace.

See you later. I’m going to the cellar for a ball-peen hammer and some ideas I’ve been toying with.

 

The Secret Superpower You Don’t Know About

If you’re like me, you probably remember teachers who asked you to memorize a speech (“Four score and seven years ago…”), a Shakespeare soliloquy (“The quality of mercy is not strained…”), or a political document (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”).  And, if you’re like me, you probably hated the assignment. After all, as you pleaded, you were terrible at memorization. Suzy Straight-A might manage it (like everything else), but you? Never!

Trouble is, your high drama was a bit of a lie. 

You see, as humans, we are hard-wired for memorization. It’s something we do naturally, if not by design then by happenstance. Why? Because memorized words are possessions, and if there’s one thing people like, it’s owning stuff (look around yourself or, for more dramatic purposes, think of Gollum speaking preciousssss nothings to a mere ring).

Still doubtful? The proof is in the pudding. You know hundreds of idioms like “the proof is in the pudding.” Chances are you know a few prayers by heart, too: “Our Father, who art in Heaven,” “Hail Mary, full of grace,” “Now I lay me down to sleep,” “It is our duty to praise and thank you, to glorify and sanctify Your name, “ etc.

And songs. There’s no telling how many lyrics you can pull out of nowhere once a song you love graces your ears.

Pretty impressive for someone incapable of memorization, no?

One of the most interesting English professors I took a course with at college had the misfortune of being a prisoner of war during WWII. He told us stories about the war and said he kept his sanity thanks to memorized poetry. Each day, throughout months of misery, he would recite poems in his mind over and over — words he had learned during his own schooldays — to keep himself together.

These poems became his company. His friends and his succor. His daily mantras. Without them, he said, he would almost surely have pleased his captors by going mad.

A memorized poem or three is a tool we all should have in our kits. They are great for your mental health in that they are like meditations: Calming touchstones. Sweet treats from inner voice to inner ear. Or, if you want to amaze your family or a few friends, there’s that, too.

To start, go short. Poems that rhyme and have a nice beat are easiest. Here are three that I memorized in minutes, meaning you can con them in less time still. The go-to guy for short rhymes that blend with the great outdoors and the great indoors we call gray matter is Robert Frost. Let’s start with an 8-liner that works especially well in winter (coming soon to a northern hemisphere near you):

 

Dust of Snow

by Robert Frost

 

The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree

 

Has given my heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued.

 

Face it, in these pandemic days, saving a part of a day you had rued is vastly underestimated, crow or no. 

Here’s another rhyming 8-liner. It’s featured in S.E. Hinton’s young-adult classic The Outsiders. In that book (and movie), the protagonist Ponyboy Curtis lowers his defense shields in front of his pal Johnny by showing off some memorized poetry. The catalyst? Sunrise. And Johnny, who promises not to tell the gang back in Tulsa, thinks it’s plenty cool, too. (If you need better endorsement than Johnny, who coined the words, “Stay gold, Ponyboy,” there’s no helping you.)

 

Nothing Gold Can Stay

by Robert Frost

 

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

 

With those two under your belt, you can look to the stars and belt out Frost’s ode to the heavens — in particular, the brightest star Sirius, which is part of Canis Major, loyal dog co-starring in the winter sky with his owner, the constellation Orion.

 

Canis Major

by Rober Frost

 

The great Overdog,

That heavenly beast

With a star in one eye,

Gives a leap in the east.

He dances upright

All the way to the west

And never once drops

On his forefeet to rest.

I’m a poor underdog,

But tonight I will bark

With the great Overdog

That romps through the dark.

 

On winter mornings, if I’m out before sunrise, I like to recite “Canis Major” and watch Frost’s words rise as white steam in the beam of my headlight. They rise to join Orion’s best friend for eternity — and how cool (or, depending on the month, cold) is that?

Your confidence high and your inner powers bolstered (I kid you not — having poems memorized for any moment is a superpower), I’ll leave you with the most beloved Frost poem, one you probably heard a lot as a child and had half-memorized once upon a time anyway.

Let’s revisit this sweet-16 liner (really 15, as the last two lines echo each other through the ages), practice, and become a foster parent to four poems, shall we? You’ll thank me later, guaranteed.

 

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

by Robert Frost

 

Whose woods these are I think I know.   

His house is in the village though;   

He will not see me stopping here   

To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

 

My little horse must think it queer   

To stop without a farmhouse near   

Between the woods and frozen lake   

The darkest evening of the year.   

 

He gives his harness bells a shake   

To ask if there is some mistake.   

The only other sound’s the sweep   

Of easy wind and downy flake.   

 

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   

But I have promises to keep,   

And miles to go before I sleep,   

And miles to go before I sleep.

 

Will you sleep better after memorizing these poems? No doubt. And feel better. And feel more a part of the nature of things, like men who gathered round the fires long ago to hear bards unfold their long, memorized songs and sagas about heroes and heroines, monsters and dragons, et and cetera.

Speak, Memory, I say.

And why not? You’re already good at it. Very good.

 

Leaping Poetry, or When Poems Make Like Frogs

frog

The sedentary reader is often moved by his discoveries. Recently I learned about a style of writing Robert Bly referred to as “leaping poetry.” In 1975, he defined it as “a long floating leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.”

This sounds a lot like Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit who went there and back again, but Bly took his inspiration from the works of such French poets as Gérard de Nerval and Charles Baudelaire, as well as Spanish poets Juan Ramón Jiménez, Rafael Alberti, and Antonio Machado. Bly also cited ancient Chinese poets who spoke of “riding on dragons,” a term defining moments of “inspiration,” of leaps between planes of thought.

If you read Bly poems that demonstrate “leaping poetry” nowadays, you might not even notice the leaping. Our modern sense of metaphoric leaps seems to fill the bill quite nicely, thank you, but here’s an example anyway. Can you guess which stanza makes like Mark Twain’s Calaveras County frog and leaps?

 

Driving Toward the Lac Qui Parle River by Robert Bly


I am driving; it is dusk; Minnesota.
The stubble field catches the last growth of sun.
The soybeans are breathing on all sides.
Old men are sitting before their houses on car seats
In the small towns. I am happy,
The moon rising above the turkey sheds.

 II 
The small world of the car
Plunges through the deep fields of the night,
On the road from Willmar to Milan.
This solitude covered with iron
Moves through the fields of night
Penetrated by the noise of crickets.

 III
Nearly to Milan, suddenly a small bridge,
And water kneeling in the moonlight.
In small towns the houses are built right on the ground;
The lamplight falls on all fours on the grass.
When I reach the river, the full moon covers it.
A few people are talking, low, in a boat.

 

If you chose stanza #3, you are correct. The turn comes with the word “suddenly,” and although some imagery anticipates it in the first two stanzas, in stanza #3 Bly leaps to a more emotional, subjective lens to describe sights seen on this drive.

As I said, leaping is less exercise than you thought, so you need not worry about training so much as freeing your mind to the possibilities.

Here is another Bly poem that leaps. Like the last line of haiku, a leaping poem might first focus on a concrete image (in this case, some lovely description of a humble mushroom) and then finish on an imaginative metaphor, such as the trip our migratory souls prepare for near the end of life. By the end of the poem, you might wonder what “A” has to do with “B” but, skillfully done, leaping poetry makes the transition not only reasonable but seemingly obvious.

Leap well done, in other words!

 

The Mushroom by Robert Bly

This white mushroom comes up through the duffy
lith on a granite cliff, in a crack that ice has widened.
The most delicate light tan, it has the texture of a rubber
ball left in the sun too long. To the fingers it feels a
little like the tough heel of a foot.

One split has gone deep into it, dividing it into two
half-spheres, and through the cut one can peek inside,
where the flesh is white and gently naive.

The mushroom has a traveller’s face. We know there
are men and women in Old People’s Homes whose souls
prepare now for a trip, which will also be a marriage.
There must be travellers all around us supporting us whom
we do not recognize. This granite cliff also travels. Do we
know more about our wife’s journey or our dearest friends’
than the journey of this rock? Can we be sure which
traveller will arrive first, or when the wedding will be?
Everything is passing away except the day of this wedding.

Don’t Look Now, But Your Books Are Talking About You

Fallout from the ongoing pandemic has affected all aspects of life — many in negative ways, as might be expected, but some in positive ways, too (even if your name isn’t Jeff Bezos). One of the more pedestrian positives? Warming relations between you and your books.

First let’s look at England comma Jolly Olde. According to book sale monitor Nielsen BookScan, over 200 million print books were sold in England during 2020 — the first time that rampart had been scaled since 2012.

In the Somehow-Still-United States, news for 2020 book sales was equally good. NPD BookScan reported an 8.2% increase in sales from 2019, clocking in at 750.9 million sales — the largest annual American increase since 2010.

Book spines have joyfully photo-bombed us during this pandemic, too. Or maybe Zoom-bombed is a more accurate term. How many talking heads have appeared on our screens with books leering and mugging from over their shoulders? This is usually intentional, of course. Rather than broadcast with the expensive clothes hanger (read: Peloton) in the background, Zoomers set up shop before bookshelves with strategically-placed spines showing both outstanding posture and pedigree. That or they “set up” before strategically-placed illusions (known in the chicanery business as “credibility shelves”).

Not that anyone’s complained. During meetings, looking at book titles behind people gives us something to do while they yammer on. You see self-help books and say, “Hmn.” Or tomes on the Reformation in 16th-century Germany and say, “Interessant!” Or Donald Trump, Junior’s, book Triggered and say, “Seriously?” Or possibly Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, leading to “Yeah, right!” (that’s English for “Oui, droit!”)

You see, books speak clothbound volumes. Paperback volumes, too. About who we are (if we’ve read them) or who we wish we were (if we haven’t). Our relations with our books go deeper than we suspect. They say something about our personalities.

Though the following list is not definitive, here are 9 Ways Our Books Are a Rorschach of Who We Really Are.

1. We are ambitious. Are some of your books fat, like Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (1040 pages), David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1,088 pages), or Stephen King’s It (1,168 pages)?

2. We hide our old Monarch Notes (or modern SparkNotes) well. As evidence, I give you leatherbound classics on the shelves competing with your expensive red wine in the aging well category. Check tops of books for dust.

3. We are detail-oriented. Some people arrange their bookshelves by color (at first I thought this was a joke, but I looked it up and it’s a thing!). Others arrange books by topic. Or genre. Or year purchased. Or height (tall boys to the left, shorties tapering right). Or alphabetically by author’s last name (it’s the frustrated librarian in us). Or — wait for it — not at all!

4. We can be depressing. Do you lay your books on their backs or stomachs? Are you a horizontal couch sort vs. a stand-tall vertical one? Do you realize how difficult it is to pull a book from the bottom of a prostrate heap? Like the old tablecloth trick, that. Pull fast and hope nothing falls to the floor as breaking news (cue CNN).

5. We can be one-trick ponies. I once saw a shelf that was all mysteries. Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Sue Grafton, etc. Or pick a genre, any genre. Some bookshelves are just. all. that. Some readers know what they like, that’s all. They’re like me at the ice cream stand selling 100 flavors — I still order black raspberry chip on a waffle cone every time.

6. We can be kind to orphans. Library books have a place in every reader’s house, too. A temporary place. When I visit Dewey’s Decimals at my local library, I sometimes peek at the “Date Due” sticker in the back. If it’s an empty grid, I next look for the date the book was entered. Recently, in the 811’s, I found a copy of Adrian Blevin’s Live from the Homesick Jamboree that had been stamped into circulation on July 24, 2015. For over six years, no one had taken this little gem home! Like a foster parent at the ugly dog shelter, I had to check it out and read it front to back (and like the Ugly Duckling, it was pretty impressive). That’s for you, Adrian!

7. We can cry for help or seek the Holy Grail of Perfection. When you see titles like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 12 Rules for Life, and How to Win Friends and Influence People, you know books are answering the call. Whether they’re answered or not is another thing (maybe saying something about the reader, maybe saying something about the writer).

8. At times, we can cut lines. Two words: “Credibility” and “Bookshelf.”

9. We can be messy. Maybe your system is like mine — no system. Maybe your books like where they may (or may not) land. Maybe you own a copy of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and leave it precariously atop a mish-mash of books. Maybe you refuse to hand over one of your darlings by saying “They all spark joy, and I’m not letting a single one go!” Maybe you dog-ear pages instead of using bookmarks, which horrifies some people. Maybe you annotate in the margins, which horrifies the remaining people. Maybe you even EAT and DRINK while reading, leaving crumbs for the ages in the book’s crevice (spelunking, anyone?) and red wine-stained pages for the ages that look a lot like Gorbachev’s forehead.

Whatever, any of the above can be a reflection of who you are, all through the medium of books. Whether they’re accurate or not will take some research. If someone who knows you well comes over, reread the 9 Ways. Then meet them in the reference section for further discussion.

 

 

Cheating Death (Sort Of…)

jack gilbert

The old axiom has it that writers can cheat death if their words live on. I’m not terribly impressed with the formula because my words don’t experience the five senses as well as I do. If they live on, a lot of good that does me, in other words. And yes, you might say words (and plots and characters and Muses) have a mind of their own, but that’s like arguing that a computer has a mind of its own, too. It sounds good, but it’s a pleasant and popular fallacy.

When I read Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems, it was on a train (I always remember books read on trains, especially) and, as you might expect, I felt like I knew the guy quite well. Immortality, right? Cheated death (asterisk, wink, fingers crossed), right? But poor Jack doesn’t know any better. He died in 2012 after 87 good years.

Anyway, back to the book. It was a loan from the Worcester Library and contained a sacrilege. When I reached page 350 (of 384) with supplies and water running low, I noticed a page cleanly ripped out of the book.

Who does such things? What kind of person? Going to the table of contents, I find the answer. The missing poem, starting on the now-ghost page of 351, is called “The Answer.” So someone found an answer, all right, but apparently couldn’t memorize it, so they stole it, and the devil take the rest of us, apparently. The rest of us who are left with “The Question.”

Of course, curiosity piqued, I had to look the missing poem up on the Internet. Why couldn’t the mad ripper have done the same? Is printer toner that expensive? Anyway, here’s what I (and all readers of this library’s book) was missing:

 

“The Answer” by Jack Gilbert

Is the clarity, the simplicity, an arriving
or an emptying out? If the heart persists
in waiting, does it begin to lessen?
If we are always good, does God lose track
of us? When I wake at night, there is
something important there. Like the humming
of giant turbines in the high-ceilinged stations
in the slums. There is a silence in me,
absolute and inconvenient. I am haunted
by the day I walked through the Greek village
where everyone was asleep and somebody began
playing Chopin, slowly, faintly, inside
the upper floor of a plain white stone house.

 

Now, where was I? Ah, yes. Immortal Jack. When people say, “You don’t know Jack,” they’re wrong. I got to know his eternal soul well. He likes one-stanza poems. A lot. Mostly on one page, though occasionally on two. None as far as three. So if long poems drive you to distraction because your attention span is shorter than a Dachshund, check out Jack.

Frequently, Jack discusses past loves — wives divorced (Linda Gregg… a poet, too) and wives died (Michiko). He also is a well-traveled guy. Like Virgil, his ghost gave me more than one tour of towns and villages in Greece and Italy and Japan and New England. Also big cities like San Francisco and New York City. Pittsburgh as well. Jack is a Pittsburgh boy, after all.

Like the ancient Chinese and Japanese, he’s heavily invested in nature. And women. Fixated on nipples, too — a word that makes frequent cameos in his work. And life and death, anticipating his immortality, as in the final poem in the book:

 

“Convalescing” by Jack Gilbert

I spend the days deciding
on a commemorative poem.
Not, luckily, an epitaph.
A quiet poem
to establish the fact of me.
As one of the incidental faces
in those stone processions.
Carefully done.
Not claiming that I was
at any of the great victories.
But that I volunteered.

 

Jack doesn’t think he has much of a sense of humor, but he’s being modest. The man who totally lacks a sense of humor is rare, indeed (though he sometimes gets elected to the highest public office in the land). Some of the poems have a bemused tone, the kind of thing you hear in any work where writers are trying to figure life out (a poetic pastime). He also writes about writing on more than one occasion. For those who try to write poetry, there’s this “insider” poem:

 

“Doing Poetry” by Jack Gilbert

Poem, you sonofabitch, it’s bad enough
that I embarrass myself working so hard
to get it right even a little,
and that little grudging and awkward.
But it’s afterwards I resent, when
the sweet sure should hold me like
a trout in the bright summer stream.
There should be at least briefly
access to your glamour and tenderness.
But there’s always this same old
dissatisfaction instead.

 

For true immortality, some might say, you need to reach the level of the Bard and such. And remember, some writers seem shoe-ins for immortality when the moods of Fate turn against them. Famous today, not so much tomorrow. T. S. Eliot is famous, but how much is he read anymore? Longfellow was a Victorian giant, but try to find him now.

On a local level, Jack Gilbert is now famous to me. With this many poems read in this fast a succession, you’re bound to find quirks and holes (e.g. if poems are supposed to be “cut to the bone,” then many of Jack’s dodged the butcher’s poetic blade). But overall, it was a man that began to take shape beside me as I read on the train and, later, on the patio under the spring-break sun. It was a life revisited in a world where very few remain.

Immortal? Cheating death? Of a sort. In a way. But it’s the best a writer can do, so let’s celebrate the lie and leave philosophical arguments for the academics.