Reincarnation & Other Stimulants

8 posts

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.

 

When It Comes to Books, You’re Probably Too Fast and Too Far-Flung

Chances are you eat too fast. And buy food from very far away (which is next to Fiji, I believe). And financially feed the profits of some incredibly huge corporations, be they retail (Amazon, 24 billion in 2020, as an example), Big Food (Cargill, 115 billion, for another), or Big Pharma (Pfizer, 42 billion, and I could go on) .

Is it any wonder things like the Buy Local and the Slow Food movements came on the scene like Davids without their slingshots? In the case of slow food, the basic tenet is a throwback: People (especially families) should sit at the table together every day, break bread, eat their food slowly, and talk to each other. 

No televisions. No electronics on or within reach. Just speaking, listening, and slowly savoring (vs. inhaling) a home-cooked meal — a talent most of us lost somewhere along the line.

Then there’s the Buy Local Movement, which gave rise to farmers’ markets, which in turn gave hope to The Little Farmers That Could (and DID, but it took a village).

Turning these admirable trends to literature, you might ask yourself this as a reader: Why don’t more readers (or people who want to read more) subscribe to the Slow Reading Movement. Or how about the Read Local (as in someone you know, either well or virtually) trend?

Poetry offers unique answers to both questions because poetry is a unique animal. As Randall Jarrell once wrote: “Since most people know about the modern poet only that he is obscure — i.e. that he is difficult, i.e. that he is neglected — they naturally make a causal connection between the two meanings of the word, and decide that he is unread because he is difficult. Some of the time this is true; some of the time the reverse is true: the poet seems difficult because he is not read, because the reader is not accustomed to reading his or any other poetry.”

Think about it. Reading novels — which the majority of readers do — is often a race. You “inhale” your entertainment and turn pages in the name of that golden calf, Plot. Speed means page-turner means reader pleasure.

Chances are pretty good, too, that you financially feed the bottom line of the equivalent of large literary corporations (“Big Lit,” if you will — or even if you won’t): Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, John Grisham, Danielle Steele, et al.

If only more readers would diversify by mixing a little poetry into their reading regime. Poetry requires different reading skills than novels do. With different rewards, too. You need to slow down, first of all. Savor words and white space. Reread in the name of “How did the poet do that?”

Unlike a novel, which you might reread five or ten years from now if you truly loved it, you can no sooner finish a 100-page poetry collection then set to rereading it again, start to finish. You won’t just notice one or two new things on the second voyage, I assure you. It’s like being a driver the first time and a passenger the second — you see a lot more scenery coming back. 

Some things you may notice include sound devices that are music to your ears, metaphors that you first skimmed over, or multiple word meanings which, at first glance, you never considered. Or how about a rhythm equivalent to a favorite song’s. Or imagery that brings good old Kodak to mind. Or even unlikely word pairings — words you’ve never seen together that, after some thought, belong together.

Nice? Nice!

And what of “reading local”? For decades we paid no mind to the farmer in town beyond maybe mooing at his cows (irresistible!) as we drove by those big, doleful-eyed cuties along the fence. Now, despite realizing we can’t get EVERYthing we need from this farmer, we sure can savor the limited (and still growing) specialties his farm has to offer.

Read Local means taking a flyer on the writers you know or have heard of but Archie in Oshkosh has not. The up-and-comers who are where the large literary “corporations” stood themselves once upon a time. (Yes, Virginia, there once was an unknown writer named Stephen “Who?” King.)

Without the spirit of a Slow Reader Movement and a Read Local Movement, literary grassroots turn brown and die from lack of attention. Farming is work, and without support from the locals, small farmers go under and are forced to stop production.

Writing is work, too. Few realize it, but months and often years of writing and revision go into any finished product — the book you can hold in your hand. Like farming, writing is a business we don’t consider a business. And like farming, to reach the next level, it needs leaps of faith on the part of the locals. 

A poem that falls in the wilderness, after all, is heard by no one. Even if no one has an imagination like Emily Dickinson (“I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you — Nobody — too?)

The silver lining to this advice? Diversifying your reading, like mixing up your buying and exercising habits, will make you a better person. An eclectic person! (That’s Greek for “fascinating.”)

As Robert Frost would say: 

Whose readers these are I think I know.
Their house is in my village though;
They may not see me writing here
For the sake of their reading, you know.

OK, so I left out the snow. And I’m only pretty sure Frost would write that. On a slow day. In a good mood. While thinking about “books less traveled by.”

 

 

 

 

 

When Poems Start Speaking Another Language

The greatest mystery in life is death. Yet another coup for irony, no? And also for literature, which has been preoccupied with this central mystery ever since Adam & Eve brought the (tree) house down by biting an apple, thus opening the door for that narrow fellow not-in-the-grass.

As for me, I’m not above getting on the mystery train myself. Or of using light humor to treat such heavy topics. The poem “Death of a Conversation” (included in this post), found in the first section of my new book Reincarnation & Other Stimulants, attracted the attention of translator Ralph Polumbo. Taken by the comic exchange between two neighbors – one a man trying to get to his car for a grocery trip, the other an ex-Jesuit hazarding answers to the great beyond – Polumbo decided to translate the poem (also include in this post) for a Spanish audience .

The lapsed Jesuit, Peter, has a thing for irony, too. His theory on the other side points to the contrast between the light people with near-death experiences claim to see and the dark that has been debated by others in both ways metaphorical and literal. Whether Peter has lost his way is left for the reader to decide. As for the poem’s speaker, he is simply in a situation familiar to  all of us, trying to disengage himself from small talk so he can return to the task at hand.

Here is the poem, which originally appeared in The Westchester Review, followed by Polumbo’s translation:

 

 

Death of a Conversation

by Ken Craft

 

Peter catches me between front door and car,

pretends to weed around marigolds. “Oh hey.”

That casual greeting his specialty. Daily conversations

mostly desultory before he breaks into his pet topic:

 

suicide. I know, a bad sign, but idle talk of killing himself

is Pete’s sole joy in life. At least he’s not overly repetitive.

He’s too much the lapsed Jesuit for that.

“That blinding light they talk about at the end,” he says.

“All bullshit. Black as coal dropped down a well at midnight,

if you want the truth. You recall anything –

a blessed thing — before you were born?

 

I want to say yes, I do, in fact. Make up stuff

about bullets bubbling the surf off Normandy,

the stench of canvas and sleeping soldiers in tents

under Shiloh’s heat, the wet patch of earth stuck to

Squanto’s umber knees as he finally stands

in his Pilgrim field of corn seed and fish corpse.

 

“It’s what makes death so easy,” he says. “It’s why

every fool manages it so professionally. It’s not

like we meet some snowy-bearded Maker

after unmaking ourselves — an angry God

directing us to Hell for jay-walking violations.

 

Mercifully, he never talks ways or means. Never razors

or hoses from exhaust pipes to windows of opportunity.

And certainly never the taste of metal, the last bullet

train to nighttime Tokyo.

 

“In fact it’ll be peaceful like the Garden of Eden

before the damn fruit and the sweet-talking serpent. Trust me.”

I want to trust him. I do. But I have to buy a quart of 2% milk.

A dozen pastured, cage-free eggs. Unbleached flour.

 

“Deer been at your hydrangeas again,” I note, pointing.

He glances at his patch of Eden, and I take the opportunity

to tell him I have to go. We all do, eventually.

 

 

Muerte de una Conversación

by Ken Craft, Ralph Polumbo (Translator)

 

Pedro me detiene entre la puerta de entrada y el automóvil,

simula estar quitando las malezas de alrededor de las caléndulas. -¡Oye!

Ese saludo informal es su especialidad. Las conversaciones diarias,

generalmente inconsistentes, antes de irrumpir en su tema favorito:

 

suicidio. Lo sé, un mal señal, pero cháchara de suicidarse

es la única alegría en su vida. Al menos él no es demasiado repetitivo.  

Él es demasiado reflexivo el ex Jesuita para eso.

-Esa luz cegadora de la que hablan al final –dice.

Son todas mentiras. Negro como el carbón cayó en un pozo a la medianoche,

si quieres saber la verdad. ¿Tú evocas algo –

alguna bendición- antes de nacer?

 

Quiero decir que sí, de hecho, lo recuerdo. Inventar algo acerca

de las balas burbujeando las olas en la costa de Normandía,

el hedor de lonas y los soldados dormidos en tiendas de campaña

bajo el calor de Shiloh, el húmedo parche de tierra pegado

a las rodillas marrones de Squanto, mientras él finalmente se para

en su campo Peregrino de semillas de maíz y cadáver de pez.

 

-Es lo que hace que la muerte sea tan fácil, -él dice. -Es por eso que cada

tonto lo maneja tan profesionalmente. No es que

nos encontremos con un Creador de barba

nevada después de deshacernos –un Dios enfadado

que nos dirige al infierno por cruzar la calle imprudentemente.

 

Afortunadamente, él nunca habla de formas o medios. Nunca de navajas 

o mangueras de tubos de escape a las ventanas de oportunidades.

Y ciertamente nunca del sabor del metal,

del último tren a Tokio nocturno.

 

-De hecho será tranquilo como el Jardín del Edén

antes de la fruta maldita  y de la serpiente que habla dulcemente. Confía en mí.

Yo quiero confiar en él. Yo sí. Pero debo comprar un cuarto de galón de leche al dos por ciento.

Una docena de huevos de pastura, libres de jaulas. Harina sin blanquear.

 

-El venado estuvo en tus hortensias nuevamente, – lo noto, señalando.

Él echa un vistazo a su porción de Edén, y aprovecho la oportunidad

para decirle que debo irme. Todos lo hacemos, eventualmente.

 

 

Translating is no easy business. Tough enough in prose, it is considered even more challenging in poetry, where questions of literal vs. figurative language arise, not to mention the minefields presented by idioms, slang, and sound devices.

Still, when you wake to find one of your poems speaking another language overnight, it’s a bit of a shock. Just like that, poems smarter than their author. Bilingual, even!

As for me, I’m OK with it. Flattered, even. After all, I’m still trying to conjugate the verbs to lie and to lay.

 

 

 

Memorable Lines: They Want To Be a Poem

Sometimes the genesis of a poem is an innocent but memorable remark someone once said to the poet. Many of my poems come into the world this way. 

For instance, “The Morning After,” which appears in my new book Reincarnation & Other Stimulants, sprung from something my mother once said the morning after a party at our house. She woke up, came out into the kitchen where my brother and I were eating cereal, saw all the liquor bottles still on the counter, and asked us to put them away.

But it’s the words she chose that struck my young mind and lingered to the present day. The words had to out somehow. They chose poetry as a way to do so.

Here’s the poem I wrote to recollect that moment. It originally appeared in South Florida Poetry Journal.

 

The Morning After

by Ken Craft

 

The kitchen ceiling is a soft cirrus of cigarette smoke,

and the white globe light Mom loves glows like a full

gaseous moon. Below, a table of highball glasses, cards,

coin kitties, napkin-bedded baskets, chips and Chex mix,

 

ashtrays of butts bent 90 degrees, some ringed with lipstick, 

some slipped off the edge. Sounds tinny and thin through 

the tube of time: radio jazz, Kennedy halves, quarters 

sliding like silver pucks across polished wood. In memory,

 

hours and minutes sprint by, stopping only for Sundays. Talk

and laughter grow louder as we grow little-kid groggier, falling

asleep in our beds up the hall, dreaming of family, friends, and

neighbors who never grow old and never feel pain and never die 

 

of lung cancer or cirrhosis of the liver or, God save us, natural 

causes. In memory, we eat Trix or Cocoa Puffs or Frosted Flakes 

as Mom comes out of her room in a housecoat Sunday morning. 

She’s squinting against a sunrise of empties and glasses half-filled 

 

with dead ice, the accordioned remains in ashtrays, the wounded 

bottles of liquor, brown and green and clear. She’s turning back

for the refuge of her room, saying: “Boys, could you put the bottles 

away for me, please? I can’t stand looking at them in the morning.”

 

Our Ambivalence Toward Reincarnation

 

It is said that love and death are the two great themes of literature and, to some, reincarnation appears to be a convenient escape hatch for the latter. For Buddhists and Hindus, however, reincarnation isn’t as rosy a concept as it might first look.

From an Eastern perspective, it has historically meant another slog through pain, illness, old age, and death – perhaps in different form – while working on your karma in a quest to end the cycle. This final escape goes by various names – moksha, enlightenment, nirvana – but, to Westerners, second (and third, and fourth) chances all sound rather heavenly, much like having St. Peter and the Pearly Gates in your rearview mirror.

You know: Self, 1. Death, 0.

My third collection of poems – Reincarnation & Other Stimulants: Life, Death, and In-Between Poems – delves into this east-west ambivalence. It  happened only because the poems gathered enough force and numbers to demand some organizing principle, and reincarnation came to the fore. The first poems were brought on by adversity — a sudden onslaught of bad news bedeviling me and people I knew and loved. On the Internet, I learned, we are not alone. Those who suffer chronic pain every day, for instance, may feel singled out (“Why me?”) but are decidedly not. 

In a 2019 study, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that, worldwide, 20.4% of people suffer from some form of physical pain on a daily basis — and this doesn’t even consider those suffering from the psychological pain of despair and depression. Scarier still for these individuals? No matter how bad things are, there’s always someone who is enduring even worse. 

The darkness of yin seeks out the lightness of yang, however. The questioning poems I was writing began to seek out answers for their own good. If the future of the body looks bleak and all too mortal, my writing seemed to be telling me, then perhaps it’s time to look through the lens of the spirit. 

When I stepped back, I realized that poems I was writing were pairing off — opposites circling each other, craving each other, sharing each other. Poems of youth and old age, disease and health, sadness and joy, self and no-self, vanity and modesty.

Despite the Buddhist themes, this is not a Buddhist book per se. Nor do I consider myself an expert on the matter. Rather I borrow freely from Christianity (memento mori) and Buddhism (reincarnation) alike. 

Loosely speaking, these poems are about me, people I’ve read about, characters I’ve made up. And it is not about people alone. You’ll find poems about the four seasons, old dogs, stranded cats, nesting birds, New England weather, and riprap (rock on!). There are even cameos starring Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, Frank O’Hara, Hamlet, and Emily Dickinson — some of my favorite people.

My hope, through all these pasts, presents, and futures, is that there will be something both novel and familiar for every reader. My other? That, like me, readers will agree that lightness and humor have a place in most any subject matter — even the required do-overs and karma overhauls we call “reincarnation.”

 

 

What Color Is Your Book Cover?

A poetry friend asked an interesting question last week. She said, “What color is your new book’s cover? Is it blue like the first two?” (Leave it to a poet to rhyme.)

What’s intriguing is that colors of book covers never occurred to me. Or did it, only subconsciously? The first two are indeed blue, but the new collection, Reincarnation & Other Stimulants, is green. Color never entered the decision equation when choosing the first books’ cover, but it did in this most recent. The fir tree branches are evergreen. The connection for me was in the title: reincarnation. So I chose the simple metaphor of trees that are green when all else is dead in winter: evergreen branches.

Of course, I know there’s a science built around colors. For example, I read that chronic pain sufferers, when shown the color red, will feel more pain than when shown the color blue, even though the pain is the same. But I guess the pain isn’t really the same, is it, because impressions count as much as logical facts. Science be damned — you feel what you feel.

So now I’m left with this — two blue books, one green book. Since it’s come up (thank you, friend!), I’m saying to myself now: Earth colors! Blue, green. This from a man who loves nature and writes not a few nature poems (including in this book).

Now I wonder what marketers would say about all this. I admit to “judging books by their covers,” but I didn’t realize color might be part of the judgement — subliminally if in no other way — when I reach for a book to purchase it (or eyeball it online before clicking “CART”)!

The question remains, then, for authors and readers alike: Do we favor certain colored book covers over others? Maybe it’s time for a little excavation of your bookshelf. You might find you’re part of Team Red or Team Yellow or Team Blue. For the moment, I’m squarely in the Team Green camp, holding in my hands a beautiful new cover designed by my evergreen daughter.

Reveal Party: It’s a Book!


This reveal party will include no explosives, no unexpected brush fires, and no confetti, pink or blue. No, just this: It’s a book!

A third book, actually. A collection of poems that I hope will look up to its older books, now aged 5 and 3. A collection that I hope will find some readers like they did, too. Readers who might not only enjoy some of the poetry, but relate to it as well.

So without the noise and the fire extinguishers, let’s celebrate the July 13th birthday of Reincarnation & Other Stimulants by passing the cake. Have seconds, if you want. Life is sweet and frosting was invented to be enjoyed!

My Poem in the Sunday Paper (Or: “Extra, Extra, Read All About It!”)

Although poetry is a familiar sight in small literary and university-based journals, it is increasingly rare to find it in larger, more mainstream magazines and newspapers. Meaning? When you do see poems in such widely-distributed periodicals, you cheer its editors and their priorities, which include getting more eyes on more poetry!

Perhaps the most famous example comes each Sunday in the New York Times Magazine, which features a regular column dedicated to poetry. 

Another, just up the coast a few miles, comes from the Portland (Maine) Press Herald’s Sunday paper, the Maine Sunday Telegram, where the poet Megan Grumbling edits and introduces the “Deep Water” poetry column each week. In the June 13, 2021, paper, she writes a gracious introduction to my poem, “Core Body Temperature,” which will appear in my third poetry collection, Reincarnation & Other Stimulants, due out in a matter of weeks.

Like many of my poems, the idea stems from a few simple words — in this case, a man who once knelt in a Maine lake, water neck-high, on a scorching hot day and told us he wasn’t coming out until he “lowered his core body temperature.” I’d never heard of such a thing, but both the words and the example surely impressed me, leading to this poem.