in Oregon are
aspirational, more often than not
to raise the hopes of every student
to heights as unrealistic
as a legitimate January snow.
(not every year, but…)
once in a grade school lifetime
once again in middle school
and in high school
at least a late start or two.
Instead, we go to school
every eye looking out
for the whisper of snow
that will not stick
not during math class
or English or history
but might tonight
In his introductory essay to Five Decades: Poems 1925-1970 Pablo Neruda advises his reader that “it is good, at certain hours of the day and night, to look closely at the world of objects at rest. Wheels that have crossed long, dusty distances with their mineral and vegetable burdens, sacks from the coal bins, barrels, and baskets, handles and hafts for the carpenter’s tool chest. From them flow the contacts of man with the earth, like a text for all troubled lyricists… In them one sees the confused impurity of the human condition, the massing of things, the use and disuse of substance, footprints and fingerprints, the abiding presence of the human engulfing all artifacts, inside and out.”
This very human perspective on the world around him is one constant in a wildly diverse collection of verse spanning Neruda’s distinguished and varied poetic career. It echoes in the earliest of his poems, like “Burial in the East.”
I work nights, in the ring of the city,
among fishermen, potters, cadavers, cremations
of saffron and fruits shrouded into red muslin.
Under my balcony pass the terrible dead
surrounding their coppery flutes and their chains,
strident and mournful and delicate—they hiss
through the color of poisoned and ponderous flowers,
through the cries of the smoldering dancers,
the tom-tom’s augmented monotony,
in the crackle and fume of the woodsmoke.”
That humanity and lived-in-ness continues up through poems from later in Neruda’s life. Even in Neruda’s nature poems there is a sense of something human made juxtaposed with the world beyond humans.
Lichen on stone: the web
of green rubber
weaves an old hieroglyphic,
unfolding the script
of the sea
on the curve of a boulder.
The sun reads it. The mollusk devours it.
on stone, with a bristling of hackles.
An alphabet moves in the silence,
printing its drowned incunabula
on the naked flank of the beaches.
climb higher, plaiting and braiding, piling
their nap in the caverns of ocean and air, coming
and going, until nothing may dance but the wave
and nothing persist but the wind.”
The poem’s personification of the natural world invites a particular view of his subject matter, even as the relative permanence of the cave and ocean and boulder put that humanity into paled perspective.
The Neruda collection on my shelf, edited and translated by poet Ben Belitt, presents Neruda’s original Spanish alongside English translations. It’s as comprehensive as the title suggests, and marvelous to see poems as Neruda wrote them as well as in a language I’m more familiar with.
Neruda uses language to present himself and his world in terms both real (like those coal bins and carpenter’s tools from his essay on poetry) and lyrical. In “Savor” he writes:
The inner guitar that is I, keeps the catch of a ballad,
spare and sonorous, abiding, immobile,
like a punctual nutriment, like smoke in the air:
force in repose, the volatile power in the oil:
an incorruptible bird keeps watch on my head:
an unvarying angel inhabits my sword.”
Neruda’s “interior de guitarra” makes music from the 1920s through the 1970s, songs that are at times political, personal, and populated by the humans (and animals) around him.
Sprinkled throughout the decades, Neruda’s animal poems, often about more than simply animals, form a bestiary worth visiting.
The dogs, indifferent to roads
leading one way only
through haphazard dust to the light
of a lackluster weather.
O God of lost dogs,
little god of the woebegone paws,
come close to our hemisphere
of long, humbled tails
and famishing eyes that point
to a bone-colored moon!
O negligent God, I’m
a poet of highways and byways and sorts
floundering vainly to find
a language of dogdom
that stays with all dogs to the end
and bays in the dust-cloud and storm.”
I’ll skirt Neruda’s politics here; it seems to me that given the right amount of time and distance poets tend to transcend politics anyway. Suffice it to say (at least in my modest post) that Neruda seems to have his eye on human truths beyond laws and governments. In “The Truth” he writes:
Realism, idealism: how I dote on you both,
like water and rock,
parts of my world,
light and the tree of life packing its roots underground.”
Neruda digs deep to look at those roots. He engages with his world, not polishing the objects he sees so much as marveling at their dustiness, grime, and sometimes threadbare reality. He revels in “the confused impurity of the human condition” and brings that to his reader with a poetic wink. We are, all of us, made of the memories, ambitions, and experiences that Neruda reflects as his poems honestly capture our “footprints and fingerprints.”
Continuing this year of poetry next week with Hit It by Doug Moench.
A notable moment came when the kids were just talking. A group of ACMA 6th graders were sitting in the commons with thirty-seven kids their age visiting from Shanghai, and ahead of the Chinese students visiting a few classes they got to comparing notes on school. Our students, who know our 7:30 am start time is early, asked when they started at their school in China. 7:00 am. ACMA eyes opened wide. What time did our kids finish? 2:05. It was time for our guests’ jaws to drop. What time are you out? We asked. 5:00 pm, and then two or three hours of homework. Did they have time to hang out with friends? Go swimming? Play basketball? No. No. and No. To be eleven years old at ACMA is different than being eleven in Shanghai.
Those differences, from what kids wear to what kids eat, faded, however, as the students talked about the classes they loved and the classes they …didn’t love as much. Believe it or not, preteen attitudes toward some academic subjects seem to cross cultural lines.
Similar too was the playfulness of both ACMA students and students from Shanghai; both groups laughed easily, clowned around, and smiled when someone did something goofy. Kids, no matter if they live in Beaverton or Wujiaochang giggle, are tempted to toss fruit at lunch, and feel like running up the stairs in the hallway.
Here at ACMA we are very fortunate to have a longstanding tradition of dancers visiting from an art school in Shanghai. They perform for our student body and dance with our ACMA dance students. After the performance they join our kids for lunch and attend classes for the rest of the day. It is fantastic.
This year a second group of students visited ACMA the day before the dancers; it was these students who shared wonder with school hours, homework, and attitudes toward math. After their mixing and mingling they broke off into groups to visit a theater class, a science class, and a couple of music classes.
Later that day our theater teacher told me: “when we started playing games it was great to see the Chinese students start to engage little by little. We played simple games, like whoosh, I am a tree, and Boppity-Bop-Bop-Bop. It took a little while for the kids to understand what was happening, but once they were able to see the demonstration and get a little bit of translation, they were able to engage and we could see genuine joy on their faces.” If only we could get world leaders to play Boppity-Bop-Bop. ” At one point, it started snowing,” he told me, “and all the kids rushed to the window to see the snow fall.” There is something universal about snow falling.
It’s experiences like this that help kids see a world broader than their own. Those youngsters from China return home knowing that the United States is made of a diverse collection of people, included among them kids in capes and rainbow unicorn hats. It also helps our students understand that kids from China are …kids. Like them, very often anyway, and even if those students don’t have opportunities to wear as many capes, they share more in common than some in the world would like to believe.American, Chinese, from Beaverton or Shanghai, kids are kids, artists are artists, and all of us rush to the window to see falling snow.
I can picture the fellow from the photo on the back of my copy of Places & Stories scribbling verse on an envelope, as one of my favorite poems in Kim Stafford’s 1987 collection assured me he did. Tweedy and reckless, his hair a 19th century nest of attitude reminiscent of a Poe daguerreotype, the poet looks at the camera with the deportment of a young laureate. He’s grown into that title in the decades since, now Poet Laureate of Oregon and a literary lion of the Pacific Northwest.
Places & Stories is Kim Stafford’s third collection of poetry and the diverse poems inside live up to the book’s title. Stafford harvests stories, spins them together with a language rich and sweet, and produces poems both of very specific time and place and universal in their truth. “Tubby Tells About His Uncle Mike” is one such poem, taking us to a story Stafford curates for us with affection, skill, and an ear for the details that matter.
“My uncle rode with the James boys, you / heard, back them days before Jesse’s shot,” he begins, plunging us into the story told by this now “beer-soured old” narrator.
…I’d tag along to a shadow
canyon, two big silver sixguns
jangling at his sides. I’d stand
A heart-sized bottle on a stump
at forty feet, then crouch behind his legs
propped wide in the fern. He’d shout,
Come out the door you little coward!”
Stafford’s poems tell stories, and like the best of storytellers he is able to help us see the big events and little details that make those stories real. In “Living by Kindness” he describes capturing the kind of fleeting thought that those of us less poetic often let slip away.
Strange things happen in the mind —
like the time I stopped under a streetlight
to write on an envelope a chance thought
furrowing my head —”we haven’t all
killed each other yet”— and then went on
through the dark streets of my Idaho city
trudging coal dust and snow.
Next day at the lumber yard, I caught
a clerk glancing at me sideways.
Then I remembered the envelope
in my heart — pocket, its message
bold as a badge: “we haven’t
all killed each other yet.”
He was good to me.
Sliding a pine plank off the rack
so clean and sweet, so long, he said,
“You paid for an eight,
but all we got today is twelves.”
Words have made nothing happen yet
except a free four feet of pine
and the cradle it made
and the child I held
under a light in the snow.”
What starts simply ends profoundly. Like the old Gershwin tune “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” which describes the little things a lover remembers, items growing in importance from the way she wears her hat and the way she sips her tea to way she “changed my life” in this poem Stafford takes us from envelope to plank to child, a poetic slip of grace and greatness.
Places & Stories is filled with such well wrought poems, many taking readers on a tour of the back roads and unseen trails of the western United States. Little tales like “At Lost Lake” and “After the Barn Collapsed” remind me of my own growing up in Oregon. Stafford knows this place and captures it in a way inspired.
Sometimes decidedly shaggy titles introduce poems like a carnival barker coaxing an audience into a tent. “The Restless Calligraphy of the Human Form in Boundless Varieties of Change” sits beside “In a Photograph My Grandmother, Re-Shingling the roof, Pretends to Be Departing for Heaven.” The latter poem begins with an image as real as any in the reader’s own memory:
Wrinkled smile, gloved hands, the minister’s
Bride grips her saw to rip clouds wide”
In the end, Kim Stafford’s poems rip wide clouds and opens a window in places and stories that feel familiar and real. They suggest the spontaneity of scribbled lines, on first reading anyway, with the easy pacing and conversational feel so many have. This feels like Stafford (or one of his narrators) simply telling us a story. But the truth is that this collection of carefully crafted verse is more polished than that. Places & Stories is like that cradle from “Living by Kindness” an inspired idea crafted into something special out of clean, sweet pine.
Continuing this year of poetry next week with Five Decades: Poems 1925-1970 by Pablo Neruda.
About a year ago I had the pleasure of introducing Arts & Communication Magnet Academy’s ACMA Spectacular with three truths: “I believe in art. I believe in artists. I believe in ACMA.” I do, and I also believe that art has a transformative power that makes our world better for everyone, the audience and the artists. Everyone.
Art doesn’t happen without support. Sometimes that support is wild applause. Sometimes it is quiet encouragement, gentle reassurance, and the unwavering belief that the artists can and will make magic. Sometimes that support is as simple as a few dollar bills.
Artists have had patrons since artists have been artists, and in a world of education where the arts sometimes takes a back seat to other worldly concerns (at least in the minds of decision makers) patrons of art education have never been more important.
Right now you have an opportunity to make a profound difference. With a few mouse clicks or touches to the screen of your phone you can change lives by supporting student artists and art education.
On February 7th and 8th ACMA is staging this year’s ACMA Spectacular, a celebration of arts and artists that draws on the talents of all of our disciplines, showcases student work, and shouts to the world that art matters!
The Spectacular is our biggest fundraising event and all the profits go directly to helping kids.
Those young artists are hard at work now, rehearsing songs, dances, and scenes that they’ll share with audiences in less than a month. Our filmmakers are shooting and editing, our painters are painting, our sculptors are sculpting, and our poets are polishing verse. All of them are passionate about the work that they are doing, proud that patrons will be able to purchase that work at the event, and excited to share their performances with anyone who buys a ticket.
It’s through those tickets that you can support these creative souls, and I would encourage anyone reading this post to consider the $45 ticket price not only as admission, but even more as a contribution to something that matters: art and artists and ACMA.
You can find out more and purchase tickets through our PTO website. I hope to see you there and thank every person who helps to support out kids.
Rita Dove’s 1989 collection Grace Notes contains stories worth hearing. Plumbing her own life and the lives of her family, Dove compiles intimate insights into the world around (and inside) her, and the result is a powerful volume of personal observations and beautiful verse.
I’m partial to narrative poetry, or at least poems that masquerade as real life. It’s why I can spend hours with Maya Angelou or Billy Collins, but take my Keats and Shelley by the tablespoon. I like it all (heck, my next two weeks of this year’s adventure in poetry will be spent with the Victorians), but can only read so many poems about birds and vases before wishing for a story or the tangible reality of hearth and home.
Grace Notes captures the rich voice of Rita Dove, balancing big ideas with the melted butter on the top of a bowl of Quaker Oats.
Dove can tell a story. With rich details, well chosen to reveal the truth of the matter, the opening poems of this collection are alive with characters so real they might be sitting in the room where we’re reading Grace Notes.
In “Fifth Grade Autobiography” Dove describes a picture, and a man who gets more and more real as her lines fill the page.
I was four in this photograph fishing
with my grandparents at a lake in Michigan.
My brother squats in poison ivy.
His Davy Crockett cap
sits squared on his head so the raccoon tail
flounces down the back of his sailor suit.
My grandfather sits to the far right
in a folding chair,
and I know his left hand is on
the tobacco in his pants pocket
because I used to wrap it for him
every Christmas. Grandmother’s hips
bulge from the brush, she’s leaning
into the ice chest, sun through the trees
printing her dress with soft
I am staring jealously at my brother;
the day before he rode his first horse, alone.
I was strapped in a basket
behind my grandfather.
He smelled of lemons. He’s died—
but I remember his hands.”
“Uncle Millet” expands that family with a charming rogue Dove describes as…
Sure, he was no good. And I wasn’t
allowed over when he pulled into town.
But I memorized the stories, imagining
Canada full of men who’d use
a knife to defend their right to say:
Man, she was butter
just waiting to melt.”
Dove captures her younger self poetically, and in a way that encourages us to see her stories through her child’s eyes. There is mischief there and longing, nostalgia and a sense that the woman she would become owed much to the child she had been.
But Dove’s poetry extends beyond family. As Grace Notes whirls into its second and third sections, her poems nod toward both history and greater humanity, personal emotion and our collective experience.
She takes readers through childhood and beyond in “Horse and Tree.”
Everybody who’s anybody longs to be a tree—
or ride one, hair blown to froth.
That’s why horses were invented, and saddles
tooled with singular stars.
This is why we braid their harsh manes
as if they were children, why children
might fear a carousel at first for the way
it insists that life is round. No,
we reply, there is music and then it stops;
the beautiful is always rising and falling.
We call and the children sing back one more time.
In the tree the luminous sap ascends.”
Tree climbing transformed into the wooden horses of a carousel, changed again as our perspective enlarges and Dove reminds us that we are not just the children, but the ones calling to the children, adults aware of the starting and stopping of music, the regular rise and fall of those imitation horses, and the ascension of “luminous sap” in all its incarnations. Dove is a marvelous guide through the human condition, a cartographer of emotion able to help us place ourselves on this emerging map.
Dove provides specific examples as she develops this poetic picture. Her image of Billie Holiday in “Canary” not only captures as much of the enigmatic performer as Dove wants, but connects the singer to readers in the imperative of the final line.
Billie Holiday’s burned voice
had as many shadows as lights,
a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,
the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.
(Now you’re cooking drummer to bass,
magic spoon, magic needle.
Take all day if you have to
with your mirror and your bracelet of song.)
Fact is, the invention of women under siege
has been to sharpen love in the service of myth.
If you can’t be free, be a mystery.”
“Canary” brings the cadences of Holiday’s off tempo jazz to print, hardly strictly biographical, completely accurate in the feelings it inspires.
In “Ars Poetica” Dove seems to speak of herself as a poet, writing:
What I want is this poem to be small,
a ghost town
on the larger map of wills.
Then you can pencil me in as a hawk:
a traveling x-marks-the-spot.”
Throughout Grace Notes Rita Dove soars, dives, and rips her poetic talons into the flesh of the world like that hawk she pencils in in “Ars Poetica.”
Continuing this year of poetry next week with Places & Stories by Kim Stafford.