That Learning Thing

Grades. They’re mostly gone right now, at least as they refer to the COVID-19 impacted spring semester. That’s a thing. Some would say a good thing. Some would say a bad thing. It’s a thing.

And as those grades disappear, I’m reminded of that line by B.B. King: “The beautiful thing about learning is that nobody can take it away from you.” The world around us has taken grades away; that leaves us with …learning. That’s a thing too. I’d argue a good thing.

Because learning is the reason we do this thing called school, or at least it should be. 

I’ll leave the history of school marks to someone more qualified, and simply acknowledge here that our system of grading isn’t the only way people have taught and learned over history. And right now, in these few weeks that compose the end of the 2019-2020 school year, the pandemic we face has changed the way education does business.

The guidance we schools got from the state suggests that as we move from March to June the rules of the road are that we lose the letter grades and move to a system of “Pass” and “Incomplete.” As a group of us principals summarized in a letter to parents:

Grading expectations for 9th-11th graders for the Spring 2020 semester:

  • For second semester, grades for 9-11th grade students will be Pass (P) or Incomplete (I).
  • Students will earn a Pass (P) if they earn a D- or higher.
  • Students will earn an incomplete (I) if they earn an F mark.
  • Students with Incompletes have until they graduate to demonstrate proficiency to change the Spring Semester Incomplete grades to Pass grades.
  • A Pass grade for Spring Semester 2020 earns .5 Credit.

Other Important Information for members of the Class of 2021

  • No further state testing is required for the Class of 2021
  • All Essential Skills and Personalized Learning Requirements for the Class of 2021 are suspended as many students will not have the opportunity to participate in the statewide English Language Arts and Mathematics assessments necessary to meet Essential Skills requirements.
  • Juniors will be awarded the full career education credit.
  • Most colleges and universities have adopted COVID-19 guidelines related to the Spring 2020 semester. Students and families concerned about the impact that their Spring 2020 grades will have on their future college options should contact the admissions office of the college or university they plan on attending.  

What does it all really mean?

I think it means that we’re wise to focus on learning, not grading, not fretting over the difference between an A and a B, not worrying that a particular assignment is late or that we’ve done something wrong that will torpedo our grade. Learning.

This doesn’t mean no feedback or guidance from teachers to students, but it could mean that the conversations look different.

I mentioned to students in a video I sent home (filmed in front of a green screen so I could be sitting in Dumbledore’s study) that students didn’t come to Hogwarts just to get grades; they came to learn magic. It’s a little like that at our school too. Students come to ACMA to learn art, dance, and how to weave words magically. They come to learn the science and history they need, and they will need some; learn history, so they are not doomed to repeat it; and learn about what it means to participate in a crazy-creative learning community.

Much of that, looking back to B.B. King’s remark, hasn’t been taken away. We lost the physical building for a spell, but the teachers are still teaching, the students are still connecting, and while we miss seeing each other in person, this is a strange, relatively short time where we may just have some opportunities we wouldn’t have before.

Another jazz musician, Miles Davis, told us “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.” It’s a quotation that guided me in my early days as a teacher. Philosopher of (among other things) education John Dewey would disagree, but not in the way some would think. He wrote “Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.” Grades, particularly the letter grades that bruise spirits and stunt summative marks, don’t always support Dewey, and almost never support Davis. Those grades, at least right now, are gone.

Screen Shot 2020-04-20 at 4.34.40 PM

And with those grades absent, what is left for students (and educators too)? Learning. Learning to adapt. Learning to engage. Learning for the sake of learning. I don’t think that’s too idealistic; I think many of us, students and teachers alike, are hungry to gather together (in whatever way social distancing rules make that look) and learn.

To do that means staying connected and engaging in what’s happening in classes. It means not turning our back on our school communities, but renewing our commitments to making those learning communities strong. We are called on in these strange times to be kind, to be patient, to see the best in one another, and to, as Dewey says, “really think,” learning from our failures, our successes, and most importantly each other. That’s a thing.

“Nature, disposed to love”: Dante Alighieri

Nearly 800 years ago love looked like love. 

danteLa Vita Nuova is an unusual book, part collection of poems, part (allegedly) historical diary of a young lover, and part treatise by a master poet for other poets. It feels fragmented at best because of this, with the temptation (depending on audience) to hurry past the historical set up that prefaces most of the poems, or the semi-critical poetic reflections that follow, and get to the verse. Even more than seven centuries later, poetry is the language of love, and the prose that surrounds it an earthly casement for more heavenly words.

Dante traces his affection for Beatrice back to a chance meeting when they were preteens and follows it through years of longing that set the gold standard for unrequited love.

The poetry is marvelous, classical sonnets and such written by a master.

To every captive soul and gentle lover
Into whose sight this present rhyme may chance
That, writing back, each may expound its sense,
Greetings in Love, who is their Lord, I offer.
Already of those hours a third was over
Wherein all stars display their radiance,
When lo! Love stood before me in a trance:
Recalling what he was fills me with horror.
Joyful Love seemed to me and in his keeping
He held my heart; and in his arms there lay
My lady in a mantle wrapped, and sleeping.
Then he awoke her and, her fear not heeding,
My burning heart fed to her reverently.
Then he departed from my vision, weeping.”

This invitation for readers to offer the poet their interpretations of his vision of Love holding his heart in his hands and then feeding it to Beatrice is Dante being both bold and more meta than a 13th century composition date might initially suggest. The poem alone is both interesting and compelling, filled with the almost gothic images that might appeal to an emotional, or over emotional, “captive soul and gentle lover.” Like the other poems in La Vita Nuova, it doesn’t need the explication the poet provides immediately after the text of the verse.

Reading La Vita Nuova, I was reminded of reading Shakespeare’s sonnets this fall in preparation for teaching a theater class. The mystery, or at least historical ambiguity that surrounds those poems add a delicious openness to interpretation that makes the sonnets richer. Dante, in his expressed desire to speak directly to poets reading his work, robs the poems of that power.

A poem like “Death villainous and cruel, pity’s foe” is rich on its own. It neither needs a paragraph following hard upon that begins: “This sonnet is divided into four parts. In the first…” Just no. At least not for me.

But the poems…

Love and the noble heart are but one thing,
Even as the wise man tells us in his rhyme,
The one without the other venturing
As well as reason from a reasoning mind.
Nature, disposed to love, creates Love king,
Making the heart a dwelling-place for him
Wherein he lies quiescent, slumbering
Sometimes a little, now a longer time.
The beauty in a virtuous woman’s face
Pleases the eyes, striking the heart so deep
A yearning for the pleasing thing may rise.
Sometimes so long it lingers in that place
Love’s spirit is awakened from his sleep.
By a worthy man a woman’s moved likewise.”

La Vita Nuova is filled with verse that (at least in Barbara Reynolds’ fine translation) feels fresh today, even as the subject matter places it firmly in historical past.

O pilgrims, meditating as you go,
On matters it may be, not near at hand,
Have you then journeyed from so far a land,
As from your aspect one may plainly know,
That in the sorrowing city’s midst you show
No sign of grief, but onward tearless wend,
Like people who, it seems, can understand
No part of all its grievous weight of woe?
If you will stay to hear the tale unfold
My sighing heart does truly promise this:
That you will go forth weeping when I’ve done.
This city’s lost her source of blessedness,
And even words which may of her be told
Have power to move tears in everyone.”

Dante’s pining, his passion from afar, his loyalty to this idea of Beatrice is both antiquated and somehow real. For those of us who love books, read poetry, and are willing in daily life to suspend disbelief, La Vita Nuova is filled with riches worth digging for. We are all part of that “Nature, disposed to love,” that Dante writes about, longing to create “Love king.”

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with “The Cheeseseller’s Wife.”

Three Kindnesses

In these times of stress, and even for those of us who are still working, like those we’re sheltering at home with, and are able to watch the blossoms opening for spring there is stress, last week brought three acts of kindness into my life that I am so thankful for I almost cried. They’re personal, so I’ll keep my descriptions brief and my nostalgia briefer still, but the emotion runs deep and the boost each of these three gifts of kindness was profound.

IMG_4511The first came in the mail, the US Postal Service, when an oversized envelope arrived at my door containing a quilt square with the design of a pirate. It was a marvelous (m-ARRRRRR-velous) gift from a generous colleague I’d worked with when I was a middle school principal. Robin ran the library, and not a day went by when after I’d tucked kids into classes after the opening bell I didn’t find myself leaning on her circulation counter having a conversation. It was a new building at the time, but I can imagine now that there are two grooves from the elbows of leaning teachers and kids worn into the top of that counter where countless others like me asked for advice, listened to wisdom, and laughed together as friends. 

It was at Diegueno that my staff, knowing I like pirates, surprised me one Halloween with an act that I will never forget and at that special little middle school that I left a piece of my heart. Reading the note that accompanied Robin’s gift brought back a flood of memories and a sense of gratitude that someone so kind would reach out to me. She explained that she started the project soon after I’d left the school, then life got in the way, and now quarantine gave her the time to finish. There is much to bring us down in times like these, but as Leonard Cohen sang “There is a crack, a crack, in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” And that quilted swashbuckling square was light indeed.

Screen Shot 2020-04-19 at 7.47.50 AMThe second act of kindness came in response to my advertisement for a (virtual) coffee with the principal. It would be my second of this quarantine, and I included a photo of myself in my backyard with a coffee mug given to me a lifetime ago by a ceramics teacher. The mug was familiar to a bundle of teachers I’d worked with in California, and not long after I posted it on Twitter I started seeing a string of responses.

One, from a gifted teacher I miss working with more than I can say, made me laugh aloud. “I just want to check in” he wrote, “to see this scene (slowly lifts mug and takes a sip, speaking with a steady, paternal tone) “all will be well, all will be well.” I could use that!” The comments from these Mavericks made a huge difference in the way I did everything last week. Yes, I believe that “all will be well” and I’ve been kidded for the phrase for decades (though it is true, honest), but even optimists need a little inspiration, and Jim, Danielle, Kari, and Gwen gave me that and more.

Then, Scott, another friend from a high school I’d worked at a thousand miles from here, actually showed up the morning of my coffee. He was on the Zoom, quietly smiling and wearing the baseball cap of my favorite team (not his own). Magic, that.

These COVID-19 restrictions have taken us away from our daily routines, our daily lives, our daily companions, but even as they have, at least at times they’ve brought some of us together in ways that might not have happened, or happened in the same way before.

The third act of kindness last week came from a more recent and local source. With campuses closed through the end of the school year we find ourselves needing to clean out student lockers and return belongings to the kids. I posted the date for students to pick up their stuff on Instagram (where the kids live) letting them know when they could pick up their notebooks and miscellany. A couple asked questions about art or dance gear, and then, tucked in the comments, was a response from a recent grad that melted my heart. “I left all my favorite teachers and principal there,” she wrote. “Can I come pick those up?”

IMG_4555Kindness.

And all three of these acts of kindness did inspire me. They inspired me to stay positive and look for the best in the world, and they inspire me now to find ways that I can show kindness to others. As we all wrestle with the emotions of being separated from so many who mean so much to us, I would encourage everyone to take inspiration from the little acts of kindness like this. And then, being the light that gets in, find ways to show kindness to those around us, both near and a thousand miles away.

Wind like the hair of dryads: Billy Collins

Billy Collins is sly. He is witty and often wise. The voice I hear in my head as I read his poems is his from a marvelous video of a poem not in the volume I chose for this post, but of the poem “To My Favorite Seventeen Year Old High School Girl.” It captures the whimsy and a hint of the critical eye that inform so many of his poems, and make him a favorite of mine.

I was introduced to Collins poetry by a fellow English teacher whose last class of the day I offered to cover when she got tickets to hear the poet speak in San Francisco. She brought me back a signed copy of Nine Horses by way of a thank you. She loved Collins and I’ve loved his poetry since she gave me that book.

collinsFor this Year of Poetry I knew I wanted to include one of the volumes from my shelf, and when COVID-19 pushed us all indoors I decided that Picnic, Lightning would get the call. It’s a collection from 1998 and is filled with poems that take me from the kitchen table to the world outside. 

Collins has the ability to invite readers to share quiet moments, as he does in “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of ‘Three Blind Mice’” (which should send all of us looking for Blakey’s rendition of the song right now). “I start wondering how they came to be blind,” Collins tells us, “If it’s congenital, they could be brothers and sisters” and “Or was it a common accident, all three caught /  in a searing explosion, a firework perhaps?” The poem then slips into something more musing than bemused, as the poet hears the song and entertains the “rising softness” he feels imagining these blind, tailless rodents.

It’s in those inner and reflective poems that Collins shows us that the life of the mind is rich when observation and reflection are allowed to play together like drummer Blakey and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. But Collins’ rich music isn’t limited to the interior of the poet’s mind.

“Serpentine” takes us to the spotting of “the moving question mark of a snake.” “Looking West” sees us standing aside the poet on his back lawn, and “After the Storm” invites us to sidle up with Collins at the bedroom window and look outside to see:

The world calm again, routine with traffic,
After its night of convulsions,
When storm drains closed at the throat,
And trees shook in the wind like the hair of dryads.”

Reading that poem today, and looking up at a world neither calm again nor routine with traffic, I’m comforted by the poet’s ability to bring some sense of peace that eludes our more prosaic world.

Collins also captures a world of jazz in his verse that had me cuing up a list of masters (Art Pepper, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis) as I sat down to type this post. It’s difficult to marry jazz and verse, or at least to do it well, but in lines like “The drums are drops of water / on my forehead, / one for every inhabitant of China” Collins does just that.

Then, on page 74, he takes off Emily Dickinson’s clothes.

“Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” is a poem worth reading complete, so I’ll simply quote the line: “…but, of course, I cannot tell you everything” and move on with discretion.

Reading Billy Collins is a treat, and in these days of staying at home it is a joy I wish on everyone I know. So I raise a glass to Patricia O’Brien, my colleague and friend, and the person who introduced me to a poet who has become part of the landscape of my bookshelf, rider of Nine Horses, inquisitor of Questions About Angels, and poetic guest at that deliciously dangerous Picnic, Lighting.

 

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with Dante’s La Vita Nuova.

The Times

IMG_4129These are weird times. Stuck at home, but with company I love (thank heavens); struggling as a principal to help my school keep its center, even as we’re all “doing school” from a few hundred different kitchen tables; and unsure as I squint into the future to see just what might be coming next …except, of course, taking the dog for another walk, a dog who seems quite happy with this COVID-19 nonsense keeping the humans at home thank you very much. Weird times.

A friend of mine, a classical guitarist, sent me his “Coronavirus Isolation 2020 Playlist.” “Remember,” he told me, that “some will perplex you. It’s filled with chaos and balance. Some will make sense, some will make you go “what the hell?” There is no guitar music. That one is coming soon.  And it will not hurt my feelings if you do not care for most of it. These were handpicked.”

IMG_4459“Chaos and balance.” There’s something that rings true there, and the mix was as eclectic as I thought it might be, The Kinks nestled in next to Johnny Cash, Mozart, Tom Waits, Bob Marley, and Death Cab for Cutie, this was a musical landscape as confusing as the times suggest. The Smiths, then David Bowie, Pink Floyd, and Nine Inch Nails. Perplexing, but in a way so much better than the perplexing world around us right now. Weird times.

But truth be told, “Isolation 2020” is not my soundtrack to this sheltering at home. For me right now the music is live, my fifteen year old and his acoustic guitar. He’s pretty good, and getting better each day; lots of time inside means time to practice. And not one day of this time at home has gone by when I haven’t heard his voice singing Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’Changin’.”

Yes, they are.

And feeling that change, which impacts all of us, makes me wonder what the kids will take out of this. As an adult going through the social distancing of COVID-19 I can see a few things that I will do differently when this is all over and much that I won’t take for granted again. But, as both a principal and a dad, I can’t get out of my head my concern for the impact this is having on the younger crowd.

IMG_4462I was a kid in the 1970s, which left me with a healthy fear of nuclear war, a musical taste shaped by The Clash, and the fundamental knowledge that Han shot first. The experience that these kids are living through, the enormous and close to home reality of school closures, and the uncertainty of a world around them filled with adults who right now don’t know exactly how this will end …how is all that hitting the kids?

We won’t know the answer right away, of course, but as we navigate these weird times, it’s important to remember that the kids around us, both in our own home and those educators like me interact with remotely, are looking at us and how we respond to the stress we’re all facing.

We might be filled with chaos and balance, we might want to turn up the volume on R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as we Know it” (and that’s just fine to do), we might look around and wonder what’s next. And as we do, I’d encourage us all to also reach out to some of the younger crowd we know and be a reassuring adult. I think they need that right now.

Right now, as the events of the world become the formative influences on the youth of today, as some feed on the fear they see in the eyes of those they see, some find strength in themselves, and some aren’t sure what to do next as they hear Dylan’s call to:

…admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone”

Thirty years from now, when the “kids today” are the adults in charge, these weird days will have played a part in forming who they are at their core. How important then that those of us who have a chance to support them do just that. We’ll get through this, whatever our soundtracks, and we’ll get through this best if we do so together. What it will look like on the other side, that’s a story for a future day.

Right now, the times, they are a’changin’.

A Being Little Known: Leonard Nimoy

We Are All Children Searching For Love is a 1977 collection of poems and photographs by Leonard Nimoy. Let me repeat that. We Are All Children Searching For Love is a 1977 collection of poems and photographs by Leonard Nimoy, whose half lit countenance, surrounded by multiple exposure silhouettes of dogs and bicycles, graces the earth toned cover. 

nimoyIt is everything you think it is.

Maybe more.

I happened upon my copy of We Are All Children Searching For Love at a Friends of the Library bookstore. For just $2 I walked away with an unexpected delight.

Don’t get me wrong, measured on prosody or poetic devices Nimoy is no Neruda, or Keats, or Dickinson, but…

This marvelous little time capsule, so earnest, so genuine, is a slender volume well worth including in this series of posts that make up my Year in Poetry.

The pictures in this post matter more than any included in entries on Atwood or Oliver; Nimoy’s photographs, and artistic images he turns those photos into, are as much a part of the experience that is We Are All Children Searching For Love as any of the verse. Read: 

We are all children
Needling laughter
Fighting tears
Hiding fears

We are all children
Seeking release
Hungry for peace”

…and you might give a polite nod. Read those words superimposed over a murky brown background from which a woman’s arm stretches across the page and a sliver of her illuminated face, deep 70s eye shadow included, seems to peek around a corner, and that polite nod turns into a head shaking expression of wonder.

IMG_4452…maybe wondering.

At least for me.

We Are All Children Searching For Love is not Leaves of Grass, nor does it attempt to be. It is sixty one pages of two dimensional performance art (followed, of course, by a two page biography that reads in part: “If a man is measured by the various dimensions of his character, and by the integrity and love that are expressed in the fulfillment of each facet, Leonard Nimoy is surely one of the world’s ‘special’ people.” Alongside this, a photo of the author as a child.) Ye gads, this is unexpected and somehow wonderful.

Nimoy’s is a collection of verse from the heart, and his consistent use of “we” and “us” draws readers into his groovy world of 1970’s photographic techniques where he tells us:

A silence with you
Is not
a silence

But a moment
rich with peace”

When I plunked down my $2 last July, I got We Are All Children Searching For Love to chuckle a bit with a couple of friends I’ve had since college, two fellow Trekkies who I knew would guffaw over their cigars when we read snatches of poetry aloud during our once a year sojourn to the Oregon Coast (a ritual marking the end of summer, particularly now that the three of us live in separate states). We did chuckle, but…

IMG_4450Reading it now, almost a month into this COVID-19 sheltering at home, the sincerity of Nimoy’s verse strikes me as a throwback to a different world, a nice reminder of what things were like back when people did things like gather in groups and laugh together, sometimes finding that love we all are searching for.

I’m not making fun of Nimoy or this fantastic dollop of art when I say that it was fun to reread the book, appreciate the care Nimoy brought to it, and the obvious love that appears on every page.

We are the miracle
And the salvation

We are the expected
We are the past
Present
And always

We are the faith
And the faithful”

There’s something good in that.

And to give pause to anyone who might suggest that the poet doesn’t bring himself into the book, I offer a page without a photo, just black text on white page, reading:

There is in me
A being little known
To others
A person,
man or boy,
Locked away

I believe
That he is me
More me
Than the one
Anyone knows

And that he
Deserves at least
A trial
Before being sealed away
Forever
Locked inside
The public face.”

This from a fellow whose first memoir was titled I Am Not Spock.

I’m not sure what kind souls out there actually read these modest posts, particularly the ones about poetry, but I thank you, and for any still reading now, I honestly believe that our own lives —yours, mine, and anyone who has the pleasure of finding a surprise like this at the library bookstore— our lives are richer because in this world there are copies of We Are All Children Searching For Love is a 1977 collection of poems and photographs by Leonard Nimoy. 

And you know what, as we slog toward our second month of staying away from others, I like to think that maybe, all cheekiness aside, Nimoy was right: we are all just children searching for love.

I hope everyone reading this is well, can stay safe, will brighten someone else’s day, and finds love. 

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins.

Without Belief, Praying: Sharon Olds

Life in a poem, well a series of poems, from before her birth (the poet imagining her own mother’s college days), through infancy, childhood, growing up, and growing older. The Wellspring traces decades of Sharon Olds’ personal history. Her storytelling is rich, her voice beautiful, and her ability to connect her readers to the emotions of each very personal poem is profound.

Moving mostly chronologically through a sometimes complicated life, The Wellspring offers glimpses of Olds’ world in page long poems. With thirty of forty lines, Olds puts us at the kitchen table of her childhood as she lisps embarrassingly, but willingly, the awkward recital a reprieve from a “house of silence” and, as she ends the poem “The Lisp”:

…they’d tell me to say it, mist of their
lost affection coming back on their faces,
Sharon sswallowss ssaussagess, they would
get me to say it again, they would ask me to speak.”

That cruel invitation to speak, with the very real result of breaking the silence of the house, is the first example of Olds finding an audience of sorts. That she will transform from this child into a powerful poetic voice is a truth the reader knows, even as the character of the little girl does not.

wellspringOlds is able to capture her childhood in synecdoche, through poems with titles like: “Killing My Sister’s Fish,” “The Swimming Race,” and Mrs. Krikorian.” This last poem describes the kindness and wisdom of a sixth grade teacher who acknowledged Olds’ boredom in school and that “the devil glanced into the room” when she had nothing to do. It was Mrs. Krikorian, an “amiable giantess / with the kind eyes,” who changed her by inviting her to write, opening the library for her, and showing her love.

Stories of childhood give way in the second section to the first blushes of adulthood. Though blushing might not be the right word.

Section Two is very much about the sexual awakening of a college student in the 1960s, detailed and wide eyed, until Olds turns the world upside down in “May 1968” and a narrative of students protesting, police arriving, and a pregnant poet laying on the ground looking up “at the steel arch of the horse’s / shoe, the curve of its belly, the cop’s / nightstick.” It is a moment of tension and fear that overwhelms the physical experiences that dominate the section. Honest, frantic, real, “May 1968” captures the voice of a person living life just beyond her control.

…Give me this one
night, I thought, and I’ll give this child
the rest of my life, the horses’ heads,
this time, drooping, dipping,until
they slept in a circle around my boy and my daughter.”

Part Three is that life.

From the beautiful “First Birth” Olds’ story broadens to become a story not only her own, but opening to include her daughter and then her son.

Olds’ description of bathing her baby took me back to my own first days as a parent.

…I love that time
When you croon and croon to them, you can see
The calm slowly entering them, you can
Sense it in your clasping hand,
The little spine relaxing against
The muscle of your forearm…”

But as much as we would like to keep our children safe, to have the ability to croon and croon and see the calm slowly entering them, they don’t stay babies long. The poems that follow trace parenthood into the perilous period of adolescence. Whether it is her daughter on a diving board or her son’s discarded jeans, Olds provides meaningful snapshots of youth from a mother’s point of view. It is the other side of the coin from the first two sections, and it made me stop to savor my own kids’ growing up, and recognize how quickly that time disappears, replaced by something more allegedly adult.

The mother poet is as elemental as the reflective poet of childhood or the passionate poet of the roaring physicality youth. She puts to words feelings familiar to many of us who have raised young kids, as she does when recalling instances of hardship or transformation in “Poem to Our Son After a High Fever” or “The Last Birthday at Home.” Olds knows what it is to worry, and there is something universal in her confession “I would sometimes find myself leaning on a doorframe, / a woman without belief, praying.”

Not all the poems in this section read as high drama. In the fabulously titled “Forty-One, Alone, No Gerbil,” Olds describes the evolution of understanding, the faltering of best laid plans.

Charlie is dead, the last of our children’s half-children.
When our daughter found him lying in the shavings, trans-
mogrified backwards from a living body
into a bolt of rodent bread
she turned her back on early motherhood
and went on single, with nothing. Crackers,
Fluffy, Pretzel, Biscuit, Charlie,
buried on the old farm we bought
where she could know nature. We, now she knows it
And it sucks.”

Olds reliably chronicles the journey through childhood from a parent’s point of view better than any poet I know. Read a list of titles: “The Cast,” “First Formal,” and “A Mother at the End of June” and any parent can suppose that this is a writer who knows their heart. Read lines like this from “Physics” “…When she reads the college catalogues, I / look away and hum” …and every parent knows that Olds’ story encompasses theirs.

And then they grow up. As Olds left her parents, and her mother (whom we met way back in that opening poem) left hers, the daughter and son we have seen through fevers and formals prepare to leave home, and the fourth and final section of The Wellspring turns its attention to matters of death …and sex.

More eloquently put, the final eight poems bring the collection full circle, themes and ideas spiraling in easy echoes of the poems that have come before.

Ending The Wellspring, a line about the poet and her lover reminds me of the relationship she has built with us, her readers, over the decades of history and pages of verse. “Bound to each other / like mountaineers coming down from a mountain.”

Finishing The Wellspring feels a bit like this climb back to earth, satisfying, complete, all of us connected to an able poetic mountaineer.

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with We Are All Children Searching For Love by Leonard Nimoy. (Yep, you read that right! Spock.)