My Oily Life: Anne Sexton

There’s a world weary way to much of Anne Sexton’s verse in her final, posthumous, collection 45 Mercy Street. Some of that voice is funny and wise, 

Now
in my middle age,
I’m well aware
I keep making statues
of my acts, carving them with my sleep —
or if it is not my life I depict
then someone’s close enough to wear my nose”

Then just as easily filled with disappointment and ennui, 

I walk in a yellow dress
and a white pocketbook stuffed with cigarettes,
enough pills, my wallet, my keys,
and being twenty-eight, or is it forty-five?
I walk. I walk.
I hold matches at the street signs
for it is dark,
as dark as the leathery dead
and I have lost my green Ford,
my house in the suburbs,
two little kids
sucked up like pollen by the bee in me
and a husband
who has wiped off his eyes
in order not to see my inside out
and I am walking and looking
and this is no dream
just my oily life
where the people are alibis
and the street is unfindable for an
entire lifetime.”

mercy45 Mercy Street was published in the same year the first Rocky movie was released, the US celebrated its bicentennial, and Wild Cherry told us to “Play that Funky Music.” It shares none of the joy of the times, and the sorrow it holds feels more personal than reflective of Sexton’s time or place. Sexton is an aggressively personal poet, her poems at times as difficult to spend time with as she might have been to those around her. 

Sexton’s author photo on the back of the book grins out at her audience, many of whom know something about her complicated life. Her eyes are almost closed in the picture, a drink in one hand, a jumble of books and papers behind her, a window into her poetic mind. The poems in 45 Mercy Street give a sense of those complications, and as a result are seldom easy and often tragic, as in “Praying to Big Jack.”

God, Jack of all trades,
I’ve got Ruthie’s life to trade for today.
She’s six. She’s got her union card
and a brain tumor, that apple gone sick.
Take in mind, Jack, that her dimple
would erase a daisy. She’s one of yours,
small walker of dogs and ice cream.
And she being one of yours
hears the saw lift off her skull
like a baseball cap. Cap off
and then what? The brains as
helpless as oysters in a pint container,
the nerves like phone wires.
God, take care, take infinite care
with the tumor lest it spread like grease.
Ruthie, somewhere in Toledo, has a twin,
mirror girl who plays marbles
and wonders: Where is the other me?
The girl of the same dress and my smile?
Today they sing together, they sing for alms.
God have you lapsed?
Are you so bitter with the world
you would put us down the drainpipe at six?

You of the top hat,
Mr. God,
you of the Cross made of lamb bones,
you of the camps, sacking the rejoice out of Germany,
I tell you this…
It will not do.
I will run up into the sky and chop wood.
I will run to the sea and find a thousand-year servant.
I will run to the cave and bring home a Captain
If you will only, will only,
dear inquisitor.

Banish Ruth, plump Jack,
and you banish all the world.”

From her clever wordplay to the inverted allusion to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, this bitter, smart poem shows a poet wielding a pen as knight would a sword (or more apropos for this poem, a surgeon would a scalpel). For any of us who have spent much time in a hospital Sexton knows where to carve to make the deepest wounds.

I read 45 Mercy Street on a week when I didn’t need help to have a broken heart, and after reading “Praying to Big Jack” and “Red Roses” (back to back in this collection), I put the book down and went for a walk. I cleaned the gutters. I had a cup of tea.

The thing about poetry is that it is more powerful than a trebuchet when battering a human heart. For some I know that isn’t true; a great many marvelous people, intelligent, insightful, capable people see poems as a series of mixed up words disconnected to any real meaning. But for some of us (and if you’re still reading this deep into a post about Anne Sexton I feel like I can count you as part of us) those words can be what help make sense of our own mixed up hearts.

IMG_2089But Sexton, that smiling drinker in a sleeveless sweater, was using poetry to wrestle with her own heart, a thing as complicated as it was itself often broken. For anyone reading her and looking for comfort she has less to offer than the clink of ice cubes in that glass on the back cover. And…

…and yet Sexton’s is a powerful poetic voice worth listening to. So…

I returned to 45 Mercy Street and found myself surrounded by animals, specifically the middle section of the collection, titled “Bestiary U.S.A.” Reading poems from “Hog” to “Cockroach” to “Star-Nosed Mole” was a striking shift in tone. While poems like “Whale” blur the lines between animal and human…

Whale on the beach, you dinosaur,
what brought you smoothing into this dead harbor?
If you’d stayed inside you could have grown
as big as the Empire State. Still you are not a fish,
perhaps you like the land, you’d had enough of
holding your breath under water. What is it we want
of you. To take our warm blood into the great sea
and prove we are not the sufferers of God?
We are sick of babies crying and the birds flapping
loose in the air. We want the double to be big,
and ominous and we want to remember when you were
money in Massachusetts and yet were wild and rule
and killers. We want our killers dressed in black
like grease for we are sick of writing checks,
putting on our socks and working in the little boxes
we call the office.”

…the titles and topics reminded me of another posthumous collection, A Ted Hughes Bestiary (another gathering of poems not strictly about animals), and made me feel like I was walking through the strangest zoo ever, a menagerie managed by Edward Gorey.

Sinking lower still, emotionally speaking, the third movement of 45 Mercy Street is simply titled: “The Divorce Papers.” One can imagine where this is going, particularly in poems titled “Despair,” “Bayonet,” and “Killing the Love.” Sexton does not disappoint expectations.

Most of the poems in this section conform to Sexton’s reputation as a confessional poet. Deeply personal, intimate and tragic, these selections give polished voice to the raw emotions of a person in crisis. Sometimes that voice speaks in concrete terms, other times Sexton invites metaphor to tell her story. 

In “The Love Plant,” for instance, she mutates a familiar poetic trope to express a complex jumble of emotions.

A freak but moist flower
tangles my lungs, knits into my heart
crawls up my throat
and sucks like octopi on my tongue.
You planted it happily last summer
and I let it take root with my moon-hope,
not knowing it would come to crowd me out,
to explode inside me this March.
All winter trying to diminish it,
I felt it enlarge.
But of course never spoke to you of this,
for my sanity was awful enough
and I felt compelled to think only of yours.
Now that you have gone for always
why does not the plant shrivel up?
I try to force it away.
I swallow stones.
Three times I swallow slender vials
with crossbones on them.
But it thrives on their liquid solution.
I light matches and put them in my mouth,
and my teeth melt but the greenery hisses on.
I drink blood from my wrists
and the green slips out like a bracelet.
Couldn’t one of my keepers get a lawn mower
and chop it down if I turned inside out for an hour?
This flower, this pulp, the hay stuff
has got me, got me.
Apparently both of us are unkillable.”

The poem goes on for another few stanzas, the malignant green of the title overfilling the poet’s self, the destructive actions of slender vials and bleeding wrists driving her to something akin to despair. These feelings are more complicated than sadness, however, they are the words of a woman fighting not only with herself. Brutal. Honest.

45 Mercy Street feels short on mercy.

In the final section, “Eating the Leftovers,” Sexton seems to sew up the eviscerated remains of her poetic body and come as close to resolution as she will allow herself or her readers to come. Typical of these last poems is “Demon” which begins:

I mentioned my demon to a friend
and the friend swam in oil and came forth to me
greasy and cryptic
and said,
“I’m thinking of taking him out of hock.
I pawned him years ago.”
Who would buy?
The pawned demon,
Yellowing with forgetfulness
and hand at his throat?
Take him out of hock, my friend,
but beware of the grief
that will fly into your mouth like a bird.”

Sexton addresses her demon for another few stanzas before coming to a moment of acceptance, when she tells us, her readers, that “I accept you, Demon/ I will not cover your mouth.”

At the end of such a harrowing series of poems, that acceptance feels somehow complete.

Continuing this year of poetry next week (in a much more uplifting tone) with the anthology Good Poems for Hard Times, edited by Garrison Keillor.

A Spectacular Parade

What will make it spectacular will be the students. Artists, actors, dancers, and musicians, photographers, poets, and performers of all types, these ACMA students will collaborate this February to fill our school with an astonishing extravaganza: The ACMA Spectacular!

The ACMA Spectacular is a joint effort between our school and Parent Teacher Organization. Replacing the auctions of yesteryear, The ACMA Spectacular is our biggest fundraiser of the year, with ticket sales for the performance going to help support students and programs, opportunities to purchase artwork at the event, and fun ways to support the school while getting a little something as a prize like live caricatures by our drawing students or copies of our literary magazine or student literature anthology.

At a place where so many departments produce amazing work, this is the one time of the year when everyone works together to celebrate the kaleidoscopic delight that is Arts & Communication Magnet Academy. The ACMA Spectacular will live up to its name.

Spectacular_2020_Poster

…and it will be different. Delightfully so.

For nearly thirty years ACMA has been tucked away on a little campus off of Center Street, and for the past decade most performances have taken place in our beautiful performing arts center. This year that campus is a flat lot, an expanse of dirt the blank canvas on which our new building will emerge. The new building will attach to the PAC, a fact that’s good for kids, but right now means that our most beloved venue is surrounded by chain link construction fencing. It is a reality that invites innovation.

At ACMA we know how to innovate.

So with this time of change in our minds and the energy that comes from improvisation filling our creative soul, this year’s ACMA Spectacular will embrace the notion of upheaval and take as its theme art in motion, a parade.

Specifically, Picasso’s 1917 ballet Parade. A performance of the ballet, complete with ACMA designed costumes and sets, is the starting point and one of three centerpieces of this year’s ACMA Spectacular. 

Parade was actually written by writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, with music by “gymnopedist” composer Erik Satie, and surrealistic sets and cubist costumes designed by Pablo Picasso. Their early 20th century collaboration was novel to say the least, and the result left Parisian audiences as confused as they were delighted. 

The story goes that E.E. Cummings was at the premiere of Parade, and dug the surrealist experience. I like to imagine that the show at least helped to inspire his 1924 poem…

Picasso
you give us things
which
bulge:grunting lungs pumped full of sharp thick mind

you make us shrill
presents always
shut in the sumptuous screech of
simplicity

(out of the
black unbunged
Something gushes vaguely a squeak of planes
or

between squeals of
Nothing grabbed with circular shrieking tightness
solid screams whispers.)
Lumberman of the Distinct

your brain’s
axe only chops hugest inherent
Trees of Ego,from
whose living and biggest

bodies lopped
of every
prettiness

you hew form truly”

And sure Picasso’s costumes were clunky, made of wood and cardboard, and the set tilted with shapes and angles, the work of a painter, not designer. And yes, the music slips into ragtime during the show (and ragtime ballet is not a rich genre …yet). And yep, the story was about a group of artists struggling  to gather an audience for their show, busking the streets of Paris, trying to capture the attention of passersby. But a century later the idea of Picasso’s Parade is as rich with possibilities as it was on the day before opening night 1917.

Such collaboration and innovation is something we’re proud to do at ACMA, and from the start of this year’s soirée both are evident in the work we’re doing to prepare.

You can see this inspiration finding its first voice in the artwork for the ACMA Spectacular poster. ACMA visual artists were asked to come up with representations of a parade, and shared a parcel of images with our PTO, a creative collective of parents tasked with marketing the event. Wildly diverse, these artistic interpretations reflected our students’ many points of view.

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A clever parent looked at these offerings and embraced the improvisational mantra: “Yes, and…” The end result was a wild mélange that included bits from many of the students’ work. Like so much of ACMA, this parent’s ingenuity embraced the abundance of art and allowed something marvelous and unexpected to emerge.

Last year’s Spectacular was epic, both in spectacle and duration. This year we’re already working on tightening up the show, even as we keep the connections between artistic pathways and representations from each. We hope, like Cummings’ Picasso, to “hew form truly.”

This year, in our temporary home on 118th, three venues will hold that “sumptuous screech of simplicity” (well, maybe not too simple), as one big experience fills campus for two nights of artistic celebration. Dance, song, art, spoken word, and so much more will be on display, some of it for sale. We’ll stage Picasso’s Parade in the large dance studio, with costumes by our visual artists and music by our orchestra and band, and have two other theatrical spaces where audiences can see the artistic power of our amazing students.

This is a fundraiser, so we hope our patrons and friends will give generously as they enjoy the show. Supporting art and artists is a tradition as old as time, and all of our students benefit when the community around them both believe in them and help provide the resources they need to create.

The 2020 ACMA Spectacular will be filled with some surprises, some standards …and all ACMA!

You can purchase tickets now at our PTO website!

A Whistling Woman: Alice Walker

I needed Alice Walker this week. I needed her clarity, her perspective, the way she empowers her readers and holds us accountable. I needed “We Alone,” a poem that grabs us by the lapels and speaks strongly to both what we can do and what we ought to do.

We alone can devalue gold
by not caring
if it falls or rises
in the marketplace.
Wherever there is gold
there is a chain, you know,
and if your chain
is gold
so much the worse
for you.

Feathers, shells
and sea-shaped stones
are all as rare.

This could be our revolution:
To love what is plentiful
as much as
what’s scarce.”

On a week where the world whispered stress into my ears, I needed Walker’s powerful poetry to remind me of a time, decades ago, when I was invited to speak at a high school graduation and chose to include Walker’s “Love is Not Concerned” as part of my message to the graduates.

love is not concerned
with whom you pray
or where you slept
the night you ran away
from home
love is concerned
that the beating of your heart
should kill no one.”

Her words were far wiser than any of mine.

There is much wisdom in Walker’s 1979 collection Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful, wisdom and passion too. A better poetic companion is difficult to imagine than Alice Walker. 

This is not to say that her poems, particularly those in this volume, are easy or gentle; fierce, personal, political, powerful, these are better descriptors of the forty or so poems that fill the book. Some, like “These Mornings of Rain” and “Listen,” in which she addresses another:

Listen,
I never dreamed
I would learn to love you so.
You are as flawed
as my vision
As short tempered
as my breath.
Every time you say
you love me
I look for shelter.”

…are intimate and so very real to the emotion of experienced love. 

WalkerOthers, such as “First, They Said” and “The Diamonds on Liz’s Bosom” radiate the rawness of racial and political injustice. These poems deserve a place with the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. or the novels of James Baldwin in classrooms ready to discuss the complexities of race in America. They are as insightful as they are justifiably fierce.

Still others, “Without Commercials,” “Gray,” and the nearly epic “These Days” stretch verse to cover the human condition, like a forensic scientist reconstructing a missing person’s face with molding plastic over a broken skull.

And this week I needed to read Walker’s words of warning, words of warmth, and words of wisdom. I needed to allow myself to see the world through her poetic eyes, fold her perspective into my own, and breathe deeply as I let poems like “Mississippi Winter IV” transform my own stress into something it wasn’t before.

My father and mother both
used to warn me
that “a whistling woman and a crowing
hen would surely come to
no good end.” And perhaps I should
have listened to them.
But even at the time I knew
that though my end probably might
not
be good
I must whistle
like a woman undaunted
until I reached it.”

Poetry has an ability to work magic. Just words on paper, but so much more.

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with Anne Sexton’s 45 Mercy Street.

Poe(try)

It started when my phone pinged with a text from one of my English teachers: “Nerding out over Poe in prep for some Halloween poetry. I’m proud of the pattens the kids caught here!”

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That pride, indicative of the relationship so many of our teachers share with students, moved me. I love being invited in to visit classes, and am always pleased to see teachers sharing a sense of wonder with their kids. It was late in the day when I got that message, but vowed to myself to visit the poetry class later in the week. 

The week got away from me.

The next week looked like it might too.

And then I got another text from that English teacher: “Next week, on Wednesday the 30th, in 6th per, we will be sharing our ‘Poe-try.’ I told the class I would invite you, and challenge you to draft an attempt. We are using the last line of “Annabel Lee” as a model. I’ll send you our scansion.”

And the world got a little better.

I said “I’m in!” of course, and took a look at “Annabel Lee.” Poe is a favorite of more high schoolers than you’d imagine, not just at ACMA, but an author I don’t read as often as others, so it took me a couple of days to get the meter and rhyme into my head enough to give my own stanza a go.

I opted for a holiday themed entry in the parade of poems, something I hoped was a serviceable stanza, one internal off rhyme, and a nod to both our school and our poet of inspiration.

Each year on Halloween, here at ACMA it seems
That the costumes I see are divine.
And the students and staff, with a smile and a laugh,
Show creativity greater than mine.
But this national holiday, here at our school anyway,
Is a glimpse of ACMA at play,
With capes and masks, a splendid show
And some poems in the style of Poe.”

The students, of course did even better.

Now I’ve been doing my best to read a book of poetry each week this school year, so it felt like I was coming home when I arrived at the classroom, a creative space filled with two dozen poets and a palpable positive energy.

After a few minutes of spooky music someone noticed aloud that it was far too sunny a day to be talking about Poe. Poetic smiles blossomed around the table. Then, the students looked up at the inspiration stanza from “Annabel Lee” and talked about some of the challenges they found in imitation: meter, refrains, internal rhyme.

Out of nowhere a student asked if anyone had a band-aid for her paper cut; a little blood on this day of “Poe-try” didn’t seem out of place.

A discussion of anapestic tetrameter broke out. It was glorious. 

poeThen the poets got to sharing.

Most followed Poe’s lead and took as their subject matter “real-life fears” from anxiety to climate change. Images of paralysis and abandoned roller coasters, people encased in tree sap and children drowning beneath the ocean waves rose from the pages. These amazing authors filled the room with a poetic energy that would have made the old Baltimorian proud. 

Some poets veered into satire (“Awful Edgar Poe”) or wit (a devilish voicemail) and others fully embraced the idea of the macabre. From pills and pixels to brain trauma and the synecdoche of a simple white sheet, these delightfully dark poems embraced the spirit of the day before Halloween.

One poet offered that she had two poems, the first “really gross” (which only made the class more curious) and asked us which we’d like to hear. “Both” was the only correct answer. When she told us the title of the first was “Fresh Meat” I heard a classmate whisper “Oh my god.” It got better from there, ending with the teacher’s wry question to the poet “Are you okay?”

She was, and we were, and the morning of poetry (Poe-try) could not have been better.

So I raise a glass to all those teachers who are proud of their students, so proud that they tell friends, call colleagues, and even text administrators like me. Caring, engaging, and making art together, here’s to everyone having the opportunity to “nerd out” over something we love and then share that with someone else.

Wanderings: William Stafford

If reading Ted Hughes’ Crow last week was like walking a mile along a gravel road carrying a bag of snakes, picking up William Stafford’s Even in Quiet Places felt like a gentle hike through an old growth forest.

staffordI’ve loved Stafford’s poems for as long as I can remember. He is one of the writers I return to most, and frankly one I most looked forward to spending some time with this year as I bent my attention to the joys of verse. Stafford is a giant in Oregon literature and a poet of national renown. One of the most vivid celebrity moments of my silly life came in meeting him in passing (what seems like a hundred years ago). Yeah, I’m dorky. A parcel of his books populate my shelf, and for this year of poetry I pulled down Even in Quiet Places, an omnibus drawn from four sources, a delightful reminder of some of what makes Stafford such a treasure.

The poems in this collection are as diverse as one might imagine, and in them it’s easy to see how the poet’s reminiscences on childhood inform his more philosophical sensibilities, and how those ways of looking at the world help to shape the poems in the final section, a series designed to be displayed along trails on public lands.

In “A Farewell, Age Ten” Stafford remembers childhood and a vivid incident of leaving it.

While its owner looks away I touch the rabbit.
Its long soft ears fold back under my hand.
Miles of yellow wheat bend; their leaves
rustle away and wait for the sun and wind.
This day belongs to my uncle. This is his farm.
We have stopped on our journey; when my father says to
we will go on, leaving this paradise, leaving
the family place. We have my father’s job.
Like him, I will be strong all of my life.
We are men. If we squint our eyes in the sun
we will see far. I’m ready. It’s good, this resolve.
But I will never pet the rabbit again.”

Nostalgic, heartbruising, and universal, even for those of us without literal rabbit moments of our own, Stafford’s juxtaposition of manly, Clint Eastwood style squinting and the softness of a rabbit’s ears has the potential to transport many of us to our own fifth grade selves, the innocence of youth and the leaving it.

Stafford, a story teller, knows the details to include and the space to leave for us to fill in ourselves. His “miles of yellow wheat” may conjure specific images for those of us who share the poet’s geography, but even for a reader in a place without farms like his uncle’s I’d wager Stafford provides enough of the universal experience of youth to connect.

Those connections continue as Stafford waxes philosophical in poems like “With Apologies All Around,” a poem that I’ll hold back from suggesting is representative of all readers; perhaps it’s just me who has, in moments of feeling overwhelmed, found even emotions like outrage or despair difficult to connect with. That fumbling feeling of not enough is something Stafford captures when he writes:

Now it seems that I am not sad enough. Some
terrible thing has happened and I only
shift my eyes to the moon coming up
or how the water catches the light.

And besides, my eyes keep following
a sentence that someone is saying. My head
accepts and it nods and hurries to say,
“And another thing….”

Meanwhile that big sadness hangs on
back there. What business do I have
with my easy agreeableness: “You’re right,”
“Sure enough, it’s that way,” “Please tell me more.”

So I’ll try to be sad. For all my wanderings,
my thoughtless delights, I’m sorry.”

People more comfortable with their emotions have not, I am sure, struggled as Stafford suggests, but for flawed fellows like me “With Apologies All Around” feels reassuring. I’m not alone in not always having the answers I need. Wanderings, thoughtless delights, shifting my eyes to the moon, or being distracted by the beauty of water, I belong to a greater collection of dreamers who don’t always resonate at the right frequency …though recognizing my limits, I promise to try.

Stafford, particularly Stafford read on a beautiful late autumn day in Oregon, brings with him a sense of the natural world. Seasons change in Stafford’s poetry, trees sway, it rains. 

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And on my drive to work in the morning, as I walk around the lake in my neighborhood in the afternoon, I see and am inspired to feel the landscape Stafford describes in poems like “Where We Are.”

Fog in the morning here
will make some of the world far away
and the near only a hint. But rain
will feel its blind progress along the valley,
tapping to convert one boulder at a time
into a glistening fact. Daylight will love what came.
Whatever fits will be welcome, whatever
steps back in the fog will disappear
and hardly exist. You hear the river
saying a prayer for all that’s gone.

Far over the valley there is an island
for everything left; and our own island
will drift there too, unless we hold on,
unless we tap like this: “Friend,
are you there? Will you touch when
you pass, like the rain?””

I can recommend no poet more than William Stafford, particularly as fall turns into winter, days shorten, and weather reminds us to slow down.

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with Alice Walker’s Horses Make A Landscape Look More Beautiful.