Jessica

I met up with a former student today. The last time I’d seen her she was seventeen and I was twenty-five. Out of the blue a few weeks ago she sent me an email reminding me of our time together in an English Literature class I taught at Hood River Valley High …in 1995. She is teaching now in the same district where I work and she’d spotted my name in some district something or other and reached out to say hello. It was amazing.

We figured out that I’d be over at her school for a district meeting a couple of weeks later, and I planned to swing up to her classroom afterward. The meeting ended early, so I walked upstairs and was guided to her room, empty, but with its door open, sunlight streaming in, a welcoming place. I went inside and looked around. Her Billie Holiday poster on the wall reminded me of the classroom we’d shared twenty five years ago (and a poster of Miles Davis I had over my desk). The student work on the wall, personal photos, and a glowing lamp in the corner made the room feel comfortable and kind.

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I was alone long enough to remember just how young I’d been when I taught in Hood River, and how old I am now. The pictures around her desk told me my student looked amazingly the same, but somewhere in the past quarter century I’ve gone from looking like Captain Kirk to Captain Picard.

And then, as I was thinking about that English Literature class, my first teaching job and one whose lessons I still carry with me, the successes as well as failures, she stepped into the room.

Too seldom do we as educators get to hear from our students. More seldom still are the opportunities to really connect with them as adults and see the people they have become. Today moved me as I got to do just that.

We talked, reminiscing for a few deep and rich minutes before falling into the easy conversation shared by educators and parents everywhere. We both have eleven year olds and teenagers at home, and both share a positive world view rooted in kindness and a profound desire to make a difference.

I’m a gentleman, so I’ll keep the details of our conversation out of this post, but I can say that I left feeling anything by old; our conversation left me renewed. Here was a strong young woman who not only overcame adversity, but who is positively impacting kids every day. With humor and grace she navigated life over the quarter century since I’d last seen her and emerged with a positive perspective and profound power to make a difference. She does.

She certainly made a difference to me as she remembered a couple of instances from that English Lit class, and then told me (smiling and pointing to some notes one the whiteboard at the front of her room) that she’d even used Mary Wollstonecraft in her lessons on the Enlightenment. 

Wollstonecraft was a favorite of mine (particularly when used to set up future discussions on Virginia Woolf) in that class in 1995, and it was a mixture of pride and joy that made me laugh aloud when my former student told me that she’d introduced Wollstonecraft to her own students by comparing her in the Enlightenment to a woman at Star Trek convention: “Yes, there is a girl here! You should listen to her.” 

The same, I thought, could be said of my former student, now the teacher, doing important work with high schoolers every day. 

“I was just young and foolish back then,” I admitted to her as we talked. “I had no idea what I was doing.”

“I thought that,” she told me. “Afterward,” she added, smiling. “Not when you were teaching us, but later.” Another shared connection between two educators.

Mary Wollstonecraft, that woman at a Star Trek convention, wrote: “Friendship is a serious affection; the most sublime of all affections, because it is founded on principle, and cemented by time.” It had been too long since I got to talk with my former student, but seeing her again erased that time, and made our conversation feel to me like one between two old friends.

A long time ago…

I write a lot about Star Wars. I realized that the other day as I paused composing a post long enough to preorder tickets to the new movie, making good on a promise to my son that I’d take him to see the show early in the Rise of Skywalker run. For the last half decade or so stories inspired by that epic space opera pepper this blog, usually nostalgic, always heartfelt.

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Me looking like old Luke

With the latest in the series opening this week, I thought I’d take some time over the next five days to celebrate a few of my Star Wars inspired posts. I’ll link to one a day on Twitter, but for any constant reader who’d like to know what’s coming…

A few years back, when my youngest son was very into Star Wars action figures, we happened on some toys that an 8 year old me had purchased in 1977. A plastic C3PO got me thinking about technology and the differences we’ve seen emerge in the past four decades.

Star Wars has always been about imagination, and on the eve of taking my son to his first Star Wars movie in the theater, I got to remembering “Space Week” and a host of creative enterprises I shared with students when I was an English teacher. I’d tried to capture some of that magic in a post called “Young Jedi.”

When Star Wars Legos first took over my house I wasn’t sure what to make of it. When I saw my dad and my son building Lego ships together I figured out that it was all pretty swell. These “Couple of Jedi” were, and are, an inspiration.

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 6.35.26 PMIf you’re still reading this post, you’ve probably muttered to yourself “Star Wars Nerd” at least once. I take that as a compliment.

Finally, being a principal means many things, among them sometimes feeling like cloud city Lando Calrissian. There are certainly worse ways to feel.

Whatever your Star Wars, I wish all my readers some fun escapes this winter season. I hope that you and yours can find time in the wild rumpus of the school year to breathe, laugh, and maybe even visit a galaxy far, far away.

Warming and Bewildering: Margaret Avison

I found Margaret Avison’s poetry in Victoria B.C. on a summer vacation a couple of years back, a trip that inspired a series of posts I’m still proud of today. I do my best to scour small bookshops for local poets when I’m on vacation, and the volume of Avison I picked up was the first by this Canadian poet, The Winter Sun. It’s a book that sixty years after its publication feels both familiar and innovative, filled with blank verse that is at times so dreamy even an old salt like me can get a little lost.

At their heart, the poems in The Winter Sun seem to have an affection for the familiar. In “All Fools’ Eve” it is the warm weather of a “toasted evening” that roots Avison’s verse in images so tangible that her readers might recognize the world, even as the poet transforms it into something it is not.

From rooming-house to rooming-house
The toasted evening spells
City to hayrick, warming and bewildering
A million motes. From gilded tiers,
Balconies, and sombre rows,
Women see gopher-hawks, and rolling flaxen hills;
Smell a lost childhood’s homely supper.
Men lean with folded newspapers,
Touched by a mushroom- and root-cellar
Coolness. The wind flows,
Ruffes, unquickens. Crumbling ash
Leaves the west chill. The Sticks-&-Stones, this City,
Lies funeral bare.
Over its gaping arches stares
That haunt, the mirror mineral.

In cribs, or propped at plastic tablecloths,
Children are roundeyed, caught by a cold magic,
Fading of glory. In their dim
Cement-floored garden the zoo monkeys shiver.

Doors slam. Lights snap, restore
The night’s right prose.
Gradually
All but the lovers’ ghostly windows close.”

There is much going on here, indicative of Avison’s verse, and more than a couple of places where readers are wise to circle back and reread, pause, hold the book at arm’s length, squint as they tip the page into better light, bit their lip, and decipher the “cold magic” of the poem.

It’s the kind of poem I would have used in class when I was an English teacher, and one (to be honest) that feels a little odd to read outside a classroom. With students I’d have talked about the juxtaposition not only of city and country, but of hot and cold. We’ have questioned together Avison’s capitalization, her use of off rhyme throughout, and the rhyme of “prose” and “close” to end the poem. “All Fools’ Eve” begs for students and conversation, and reading it on my back deck beneath December’s winter sun all alone felt somehow a trifle odd.

avisonOdd, but worth doing.

Because it is in books like The Winter Sun that we find connections between the poet’s world and our own, little truths that transcend differences of experience and coalesce in some greater recognition of our shared humanity.

I have never had a Christmas party on a snowy day at which a woman’s pearl necklace broke, or guests wore furs and perfume. The birds I see outside my window are not all the same that Avison saw from her Canadian sill, and…

Reading “New Year’s Day” on a December morning more than half a century removed from the poem’s composition, I can feel exactly what Avison means.

The Christmas twigs crispen and needles rattle
Along the window-ledge.
A solitary pearl
Shed from the necklace spilled at last week’s party
Lies in the suety, snow-luminous plainness
Of morning, on the window-ledge beside them.
And all the furniture that circled stately
And hospitable when these rooms were brimmed
With perfumes, furs, and black-and-silver
Crisscross of seasonal conversation, lapses
Into its previous largeness.
I remember
Anne’s rose-sweet gravity, and the stiff grave
Where cold so little can contain;
I mark the queer delightful skull and crossbones
Starlings and sparrows left, taking the crust,
And the long loop of winter wind
Smoothing its arc from dark Arcturus down
To the bricked corner of the drifted courtyard,
And the still window-ledge.
Gentle and just pleasure
It is, being human, to have won from space
This unchill, habitable interior
Which mirrors quietly the light
Of the snow, and the new year.”

As the days are short and the weather cold, how like her I appreciate my own “unchill, habitable interior” and the luxury of poets like Margaret Avison who capture truth in (occasional) iambic pentameter.

 
Continuing this year of poetry over the winter break with a battered old volume of Victorian Poetry.

Unperfect Actor

As an unperfect actor on the stage
Who with his fear is put besides his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart.
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite…
-Shakespeare, Sonnet 23

The students were fantastic, a couple of dozen young actors gathered in the library to talk Shakespeare, clever, confident, and more than able. 

As a principal (and recovering English teacher), I’m always thankful for the opportunity to get to work with students in the classroom, and my appreciation was real and profound to the drama teacher who allowed me time to introduce these kids to a raft of poems, the joys of scansion, and the delight that comes with reading Shakespeare’s sonnets for the first time.

My lesson was nothing fancy: a little (only a little) context, time on sonnet structure, guided practice scanning a poem, and then some work in small groups on structure and meaning.

We talked about the sonnets as a sequence, reading one I suspected might have the best chance of being familiar to them, sonnet 18, together, and then (after some time for smaller conversations with peers) ticking through half a dozen others as a class.

IMG_2279This was an acting class, so their reading aloud of the poems was inspiring; these were some of the same actors I’d seen perform Romeo and Juliet a couple of weeks earlier. Their understanding of the sonnets was strong too. Some youthful wrestling with the language (“ow’st” means…?) aside, they were able to use context to gain understanding and came up with clever readings of Shakespeare’s verse.

It was a reminder of just how fun it is to see students grapple with new material, in this case kids predisposed to Shakespeare engaging with texts they didn’t know as well as the plays they’d already studied. Watching them talk with each other was a lesson in the importance of prompting students and then getting out of their way.

And then, because it was a special schedule that day, the bell rang ten minutes before we were really done, sonnets 116, 130 and 138 still on the shelf. 

I am, I thought, to use Shakespeare’s words: “an unperfect actor.” How could we not have had time for three sonnets that would have enriched our conversation? Heck, I hadn’t even introduced them to the dark lady or fair youth, not really anyway.

And… while we might not have had “the perfect ceremony” what we did have was an opportunity to engage, both with the text and each other. As a principal I’ve come to believe that this kind of interaction is more important than many of the other things I do at school.

We all know that teachers are the most powerful force for good at a school, and when students can see their principal as a teacher too, recognizing that I didn’t get into this profession to be a principal, but to work with students, then we begin to break down the artificial barriers to connection that sometimes come when a fellow puts on a tie.

I loved working with the students on sonnets, and hope to get back to that class for our last few sonnets sometime soon. Until then I’ll whisper Shakespeare’s words: “For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”

No será menos un enigma: Jorge Luis Borges

In my first year of teaching, I took a minimalist approach to decorating my classroom; I had exactly one thing on the wall, a framed 8 x 10 black and white photograph of Jorge Luis Borges that I’d clipped from The New Yorker magazine. The Argentine writer looked blindly over the classroom I shared with students as we marched through literature from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf, from Shelley’s Zastrozzi to Sherlock Holmes.

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My fondness for Borges began somewhere around the time I first read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in a between terms philosophy class and realized that Eco had inserted Borges into the story as the blind librarian of a hidden labyrinth of medieval manuscripts. That Eco could essentially fold Borges’ story “The Library of Babel” into a mystery novel that pulled from sources both classical and modern was a revelation and led me to Borges’ Ficciones. Ficciones led to Borges’ nonfiction, and then to In Praise of Darkness, a book of poetry that has been kicking along in my life since it sat on the shelf of my dorm room.

It’s a volume I hadn’t opened in too many years, and prompted by my “year of poetry” I was reminded of the mystery and mischief that make Borges such a delight.

In Praise of Darkness isn’t strictly a book of poetry; there’s prose inside and a short introductory essay about aesthetics. It is, however, very much a book of Borges’ poetry. As he explains: “In the present pages, I believe that the forms of prose and verse coexist without a clash. I could invoke the example of illustrious forerunners… I would rather say that although the difference between prose and verse seems to me superficial, my wish is that this volume be read as a volume of poems.”

I’m game.

And the poems that Borges shares are wonderful, in this collection both in his original Spanish and as translated (or as Borges like to say “re-created”) by Thomas di Giovanni.

“John I:14” takes biblical inspiration and bends it to encompass Borges’ own approach to verse and story.

No será menos un enigma esta hoja
que las de Mis libros sagrados
ni aquellas otras que repiten
las bocas ignorantes,
creyéndolas de un hombre, no espejos
oscuros del Espíritu.
Yo que so el Es, el Fue y el Sará
vuelvo a condescender al lenguaje
que es tiempo sucesivo y emblema.”

In English: 

This page will be no less a riddle
than those of My holy books
or those others repeated
by ignorant mouths
believing them the handiwork of a man,
not the Spirit’s dark mirrors.
I who am the Was, the Is, and the Is To Come
again condescend to the written word,
which is time in succession and no more than an emblem.”

Sure, I may be projecting too much of the holy on Jorge Luis Borges, but it has always struck me that his inspired writing was in some way divine. Certainly it is otherworldly.

borgesAnd yet, even as he writes of “the Spirit’s dark mirrors” and says later in the poem “I have entrusted the writing of these words to a common man;/ they will never be what I want to say/ but only their shadow” (a sentiment as real for God and man as for poet and translator), Borges infuses his work with a knowing, and sometimes self deprecating humor, and an understanding of the power of words and his place in the scheme of literature

“To the mirrors, mazes, and swords which my resigned reader already foresees,” he writes in the introduction to In Praise of Darkness, “two new themes have been added: old age and ethics.” This he does.

As in “June 1968,” 

On a golden evening,
or in a quietness whose symbol
might be a golden evening,
a man sets up his books
on the waiting shelves,
feeling the parchment and leather and cloth
and the satisfaction given by
the anticipation of a habit
and the establishment of order.
Stevenson and that other Scotsman, Andrew Lang,
will here pick up again, in a magic way,
the leisurely conversation broken off
by oceans and by death,
and Alfonso Reys surely will be pleased
to share space close to Virgil.
(To arrange a Library is to practice,
in a quiet and modest way,
the art of criticism.)
The man, who is blind,
knows that he can no longer read
the handsome volumes he handles
and that they will not help him write
the book which in the end might justify him,
but on this evening that perhaps is golden
he smiles at his strange fate
and feels that special happiness
which comes from things we know and love.”

…where Borges touches on so many of the motifs in his work: books, blindness, the magic of a library, and adds to it the perspective of the septuagenarian he was when he composed In Praise of Darkness.

The reassurance of the books, books the poet’s age and blindness makes him unable to read, wasn’t something I appreciated when I read “June 1968” back in college, but is today. I’m not seventy yet, but when this morning I got an email from a former student now a teacher in my district who reminded me that she was in my English Lit class in 1995 (back in that sparse classroom with Borges on the wall), I realized that my memories of that time were now almost a quarter century old. 

But those memories are good ones, rooted not in books, but in kids (even if those kids -or some of them- are now teachers themselves), and I can feel Borges’ optimism when, despite his blindness, he suggests that this “might be a golden evening.”

Anyone less sentimental than me, who comes to In Praise of Darkness looking for labyrinths, a staple of Borges, or those other recurring Borgesisms that caught Eco’s literary eye, will find them here, where, to quote Borges, we should “hope not that the straightness of your path/ that stubbornly branches off in two,/ and stubbornly branches off in two,/ will have an end.” And yet…

When Borges gets to the final poem of this volume it feels as if he is offering something akin to completion. “In Praise of Darkness,” the last offering of the book, seems a cousin to Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” an ode to the end, whatever that end might be.

I see the image of Borges from my classroom wall when I read “In Praise of Darkness,” almost hearing the poet whisper…

Old age (this is the name that others give it)
may prove a time of happiness.
The animal is dead or nearly dead;
man and soul go on.
I live among vague whitish shapes
that are not darkness yet.
Buenos Aires,
which once broke up in a tatter of slums and open lots
out toward the endless plain,
is not again the graveyard of the Recolets, the Retiro square,
the shabby streets of the old Westside,
and the few vanishing decrepit houses
that we still call the South.
All through my life things were too many.
To think, Democritus tore out his eyes;
time has been my Democritus.
This growing dark is slow and brings no pain;
it flows along an easy slope
and is akin to eternity.
My friends are faceless,
women are as they were years back,
one street corner is taken for another,
on the pages of books there are no letters.
All this should make me uneasy,
but there’s a restfulness about it, a going back.
Of the many generations of books on earth
I have read only a few,
the few that in my mind I go on reading still––
reading and changing.
from south and east and west and north,
roads coming together have led me
to my secret center.
These roads were footsteps and echoes,
women, men, agonies, rebirths,
days and nights,
falling asleep and dreams,
each single moment of my yesterdays
and of the world’s yesterdays,
the firm sword of the Dane and the moon of the Persians,
the deeds of the dead,
shared love, words,
Emerson, and snow, and so many things.
Now I can forget them. I reach my center,
my algebra and my key,
my mirror.
Soon I shall know who I am.”

“Shared love, words.” Borges is a stalwart companion on this journey of life, labyrinthian as it sometimes can be, and In Praise of Darkness, in my library anyway, is a holy book.

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with Margaret Avison’s Winter Sun.

One Notch Below Bedlam: Tracy K. Smith

She had me at the first Bowie reference. 

Of everyone on my list for this “Year of Poetry” Tracy K. Smith is the poet with the most recent birthday …at least so far, and her 2011 collection Life on Mars feels both modern and marvelous and like the kind of book that will be read in forty years in the same way we read Alice Walker’s or Langston Hughes’ early poetry collections today.

Life on Mars is divided into four sections, each with its own flavor and all with the confident verse of a gifted poet. Smith’s voice is at turns strong, whimsical, agonizing, and willing to dive into any abyss, be that outer space or something inside the human heart (or maybe both at once).

In the first section Smith’s verse reads like one of the mid 20th century science fiction authors she references, touching on dystopia in poems like “SCI-FI” in which she imagines a world gone strange:

There will be no edges, but curves.
Clean lines pointing only forward.

History, with its hard spine & dog-eared
Corners, will be replaced by nuance,

Just like the dinosaurs gave way
To mounds and mounds of ice.”

Later in the poem, Smith gets to the natural end of a progression like the one she has described “…for all, scrutable and safe.” Two words that read like an insult to good poetry.

But Smith’s poems push beyond scrutable and safe. In the long poem “My God, Its Full of Stars” Smith acknowledges the standard metaphors for understanding life around us (“some like to imagine / A cosmic mother watching through a spray of stars”), nodding to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and settling on her father’s work on the Hubble Telescope for perspective on the scope of our lives on this planet. It is perspective to give pause, and Smith allows us to pause with her in this opening section as she spins through a philosophical investigation of (to use a title from one of her poems) “a largeness we can’t see.”

Kubrick and artists like him can help us on our way, she seems to suggest; art is another telescope to truth, and maybe we ought to see, as she does in “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?” the metaphor not as a cosmic mother or father, but “…something elemental. Not God, exactly, more like / Some thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being.”

marsMemories moving to the man with the red hair in the suit a lighter blue than his eye shadow, I’m in for that. But as present as he is in Life on Mars, Bowie isn’t the man who looms largest over this collection.

Section two contains the extended elegy “The Speed of Belief” addressed to Smith’s father, who we met in the first section of the book lighting his pipe, reading Larry Niven, and helping create our clearest window into deep space, the Hubble Telescope.

If I were a teacher of poetry I’d use “The Speed of Belief” in class to show a virtuoso presenting seven pages in seven styles, from free verse to a sonnet, in service of celebrating a life while reflecting on relationships and the broader human condition poets have been speaking to for centuries. Smith does it brilliantly, her rhyme and meter at its most polished in this section, her purpose at its most focused.

More than simply reflecting on her own grief at her father’s passing, Smith slides into a remembrance of her father experiencing his father’s death.

When your own sweet father died
You woke before first light
And ate half a plate of eggs and grits,
And drank a glass of milk.

After you’d left, I sat in your place
And finished the toast bits with jam
And the cold eggs, the thick bacon
Flanged in fat, savoring the taste.”

The poet, squarely sitting in her father’s place of grief, continues with the childhood memory, tracing her father’s leaving for a week, and her family sitting at that kitchen table:

We bowed our heads and prayed
You’d come back safe,
Knowing you would.”

And Smith, in this poem still sitting in her father’s place, will too. The second section ends with “It’s Not,” a poem twisting the notion of death presented in this section as a closing couplet might a sonnet.

Twists and turns are part of Life on Mars, and in the final two sections of the book Smith turns her attention to matters as diverse as dark matter, love, and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. 

“Who understand the world?” she asks in the poem “Life on Mars” and “when / Will he make it make sense? Or She?” By these third and fourth sections we are miles away from the “scrutable and safe” dystopia of the opening poems, no less tragic, but certainly inscrutable and unsafe.

Smith makes that tragedy concrete in “They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All He Has Rejected,” a poem chronicling a series of violent anti-Semitic, racist, and hate filled events from 2009. Poems like these are hard to read, or better put an emotional bludgeoning important to read. If poetry is a means by which we understand our world, writers like Tracy K. Smith are the philosopher-poets who will help us with that comprehension. 

In Life on Mars, however, much of that understanding, such as it is, comes through the heart more than the head. 

Tina says we do it to one another, every day,
Knowing and not knowing. When it is love,
What happens feels like dumb luck. When it’s not,
We’re riddled with bullets, shot through like ducks.”

Dumb luck and dead ducks, Life on Mars looks at life as unflinchingly as the Hubble Telescope views the universe.

This isn’t accidental; Smith tells her readers early in the collection:

Maybe the dead know, their eyes widening at last,
Seeing the high beams of a million galaxies flick on
At twilight. Hearing the engines flare, the horns
Not letting up, the frenzy of being. I want to be
One notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial,
Wide open, so everything floods in at once.
And sealed tight, so nothing escapes…”

This was my first reading of Life on Mars, but it most certainly won’t be my last. Tracy K. Smith is a poet who makes sense of the bedlam, open to everything, able to seal up what she needs to and release truth, not simply let it escape. If you’re interested in poetry, and you’re someone who keeps David Bowie in your heart, Life on Mars should be on your playlist.

 

 
Continuing this year of poetry next week with In Praise of Darkness by Jorge Luis Borges.