Indignant Immortal Nature: C.P. Cavafy

I saved C.P. Cavafy for the end of this Year of Poetry. He’s been a favorite of mine for a long, long time, the poet I turned to when I had my first chance to teach a pack of students at ACMA, the poet I went to for my first commencement as a principal back in Oregon (when rather than give a speech I simply read Cavafy’s “Ithaca” to the graduates), the poet who provides the final book by single poet this spring until I wrap up, full circle, with Yeats in a couple of weeks.

A number of years back, a surprising number as I do the math in my head right now, when a new translation of Cavafy’s poems came out I bought a copy for my dad. I’d learned to love poetry from him and thought the volume, a hardcover with a rich Greek mosaic on the dust cover, would be a good gift. It was, but that’s not the book this post is about.

IMG_4734My copy of The Complete Poems of Cavafy (translated by Rae Dalven) is a well worn paperback with a yellowed photograph of the author looking out at anyone there to see him. His tight lipped expression is that of a banker, maybe, or petty bureaucrat, which Cavafy was, working in Ministry of Public Works in Alexandria for decades. It’s an old soul that looks out through his round eyeglasses. His dark suit and thick striped tie tell a conventional story, only the handkerchief escaping from his breast pocket provides a hint at the poetic soul beneath that suit.

Cavafy was not a banker, but he would have slept with one, if the fellow was young and pretty.

A result of Cavafy’s sexuality, still taboo in the early twentieth century when he was writing, was that many of his poems, particularly the unapolgetically erotic ones,  were not published until after his death. Poems like “He Came to Read” show Cavafy’s longingly loving voice as he describes love, youth, and best laid plans oft gone awry.

He came so he could read. Lying open
are two or three books: historians and poets.
But he’d barely read for ten minutes,
when he put them aside. On the sofa
he’s half asleep. He’s completely devoted to books—
but he’s twenty-three years old, and very handsome;
and this afternoon desire has come
to his flawless flesh, and to his lips.
To his flesh, which is beauty entire,
the fever of desire has come;
without foolish shame about the form of its enjoyment. . . .”

Less shocking today that it would have been in the 1920s poems like this, and more ribald appreciations of male beauty and longing, are a facet of Cavafy’s work, sharing a very human spirit with even the more epic verses.

But Cavafy’s subject matter is not only love. Some of my favorites, and the ones I pulled from when I got to teach a class who were reading Homer’s Iliad, look back at the classics through more modern eyes.

“The Horses of Achilles” is a good example of Cavafy’s reimagining of ancient Greece. 

When they saw that Patroclus was slain,
who had been so stalwart, and strong, and young,
the horses of Achilles started to weep,
their immortal nature was indignant
at the sight of this work of death.

They would shake their heads and toss their manes,
stamp the ground with their feet, and mourn
Patroclus who they realized was lifeless— undone —
worthless flesh now— his spirit lost-
defenseless— without breath —
returned from life to the great Nothing.

Zeus saw the tears of the immortal horses
and grew sad. “At the wedding of Peleus,”
he said, “I should not have acted so thoughtlessly,
it would have been better my hapless horses
if we had not given you! What are you doing down there,
among woebegone humanity, the plaything of fate?

You for whom neither death nor old age he in wait,
you are harassed by transitory calamities.

Men have implicated you m their troubles.”- Yet the two
noble animals went on shedding their tears
for the never-ending calamity of death.”

This poem led to some of the richest discussions when I was working with the students. Fresh off their study of The Iliad, they talked about the humanity Cavafy brings to this epic story, and how differently he approaches this familiar and grand story. Whether talking about Patroclus or the patron at the cafe, Cavafy’s approach to humans is so very human.

There are other less heroic poems in The Complete Poems of Cavafy, poems that give modern readers a glimpse of taverns and old books, colored glass and broken hearts, flowers, inkwells and “Melancholy Hours.” 

The fortunate ones profane nature.
Earth is a sanctuary of sorrow.
Dawn drops a tear of unknown pain;
the wan orphan evenings mourn
and the select soul intones sadly.

I hear sighs in zephyr breezes.
I see sadness on the violets
I feel the painful life of the rose,
the meadows alive with mysterious sorrow;
and within the dense forest echoes a sob.

People honor the fortunate ones
and poetasters sing hymns to them.
But Nature’s portals are closed
to all those who indifferently, callously deride,
aliens who deride in an unfortunate land.”

He brings a poet’s eye to the city around him, and the result is small snapshots of life in a world now extinct.

But my copy of Cavafy falls open to the poem “Ithaca.”

It is, like the poem that started this series of posts (Yeats’ “Isle of Innisfree”), one of the poems that continues to inform my world view, always near the surface of my consciousness ready for the opportunity to be said aloud.

When you start on your journey to Ithaca,
then pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
Do not fear the Lestrygonians
and the Cyclopes and the angry Poseidon.
You will never meet such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty,
if a fine emotion touches your body and your spirit.
You will never meet the Lestrygonians,
the Cyclopes and the fierce Poseidon,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not raise them up before you.

Then pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many,
that you will enter ports seen for the first time
with such pleasure, with such joy!
Stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and corals, amber and ebony,
and pleasurable perfumes of all kinds,
buy as many pleasurable perfumes as you can;
visit hosts of Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from those who have knowledge.

Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind,
to arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would never have taken the road.
But she has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you.
With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience,
you must surely have understood by then what Ithaca means.”

Ye gads, what a poem. 

Always more of a fan of The Odyssey than The Iliad, not only does the story of Odysseus resonate with me, but Cavafy’s perspective on what that journey means reminds me to slow down and “pray that the road is long.”

In many ways that’s what this Year of Poetry has been about. Borges, Stafford, Brooks, and all the others, these are the “ports seen for the first time / with such pleasure, with such joy!” Angelou, Asghar, and Dove, these are the “beautiful voyage.”

Cavafy’s poems, familiar, beautiful, and human, are worth finding out and reading, or rereading, particularly in these uncertain times. And when I feel frustrated or overwhelmed, which is too often sometimes, I’m wise to turn to him to be reminded that if I “find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded” me, and hear him whisper to me: “With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience, / you must surely have understood by then what Ithaca means.”

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with A Treasury of Great Poems.

Strained

If you’re looking for someone to be mad at the choice of suspects is long, and I have no doubt that I’m on it. If remote learning has you frustrated, angry, sad, you’re not alone. It has lots of us feeling emotions we aren’t used to associating with school, all of us: students, teachers, parents, and even principals.

If you just want to scream, lash out at someone who made a choice that you think was wrong (no, you’re sure was wrong), or someone who sent a message that didn’t carry the right tone, or hold accountable someone on the other side of a computer screen, you will not find it difficult to find a name to put in the “To:” line of your email. These are frustrating times, and sometimes it feels like it should help if there is a person whose feet might get held to the proverbial fire. We see it all around us these days. So many of us are strained.

And before we type that email, assign that blame, or choose rigidity over kindness (and all are things that all of us are sometimes tempted to do) I’d encourage us to take a moment and think that…

Teachers are people. People doing their best to balance home and work, work being something that all of them know has the possibility of changing lives, work that involves kids we care so much about, and work that all of us feel obligated to do well. Really well. And for all of our professional lives those of us in education have been given a specific set of guidelines about what doing that job well entails.

Doing our job well means that when kids leave our classrooms they are prepared for what comes next, the next grade, the next level of math, the next English class that builds on the fact that students have already learned “x, y, and z.” This year we’re struggling to get halfway through “y.” 

And this kills us. One teacher I admire told me that he was struggling with the grading approach he was being told by the state to practice. “My classroom integrity and the faith I have in the system is really shaken when I’m asked to lie about what a student can and can’t do,” he told me. “It makes my work even more difficult to stand behind and do on a daily basis.” How will that student who leaves his class cope with the next class that she won’t be prepared for, and how can he hold on to the integrity that helps to define him if the “P” (for passing) at the end of the year doesn’t accurately reflect what happened in his (virtual) classroom? This isn’t a silly or frivolous question; we want teachers with integrity, and the strain he’s feeling from the situation is real. 

Another gifted teacher called a passing mark at the end of June “a governor’s P” (as opposed to “a gentleman’s C”). It was his way of processing what was being asked of him, imperfect, but true.

For many teachers, who work so hard and in this time away from campus are working as hard as ever, the tension caused by lack of student engagement, frustration with technology, and the chorus of concerns raised daily from all sides can feel overwhelming. Some see them as heroes; some call out every decision they make as the wrong one. They continue to work to help kids learn, but with every week that job feels harder. Students aren’t always engaging as we wish they could, some are struggling, and…

…and it’s important to remember that students are people. Midway through our discussions about how to best support our kids in this remote learning situation my staff had a discussion about the challenges our students were reporting to us and the fact that we all might benefit from taking a deep breath and thinking about the kids as “people, not pupils.” 

We batted around ideas for a coordinated response to some of the things our students had been telling us, things like: 

“This is a very stressful time for students and even though it may seem like we have more time to do work, it doesn’t mean we can necessarily. Anxiety and depression have gotten worse since the start of online school. Some students just feel like they are always behind and can never catch up. … The biggest concerns seem to be being behind next school year and failing classes as well as teachers assigning too much work, procrastination and pressure from parents.”

“Students have been dealing with stress by crying, breaking things, cutting or just not dealing with their stress and those are not healthy ways to deal with stress.”

“Some of us students are now facing food insecurity, abuse at home, a loss of support staff, and financial instability at a higher rate than ever before. I personally have A.D.D, and would not have been able to even begin to cope with the amount of work we are being given if I hadn’t had parents who were able to set up a complex system to help me. Many students do not have parents who either a) understand the issues their kids are facing or b) know how to help their children cope with online learning.”

These were very real student voices, strained by circumstances beyond what they were prepared for. Exactly zero of them had signed up for online school at the start of the year, the same number of teachers who had signed up to teach completely online. The stresses they were feeling were profound, immediate, and heart wrenching. They didn’t know what to do, and they were looking to the adults in their lives to help. And… 

…and we adults are stressed out too, particularly some of the moms and dads, aunts and uncles, grandparents and older siblings who are raising our kids. It’s easy for students to feel grumpy that their parents are forcing them to sit down and do schoolwork, and it’s easy for teachers to feel frustrated at some of the emails they get that question their teaching ability, dedication to the students, and (at least in one case I know of) even their parenting. That’s not fair, but…

Parents are people. And parents are people who are feeling as much strain as the teachers and kids. As one mom told me: “Sometimes I look at this situation and think to myself, ‘this is insane!’ It feels a tad impractical for my eleven year old to navigate seven classes remotely, all the while missing strong connections with her peers (which, arguably, peer-to-peer aids in the navigation of middle school). To state what you already know, it’s completely upside down. I’ve written to all of my daughter’s teachers to let them know she is struggling, and to get a grasp on what’s past due and what’s coming up. Since she’s behind in most of her classes, I’ve devised a plan to help her get caught up, but again, school work is met with negative emotions, the tears, the stress, the overwhelming feeling she can’t shake. For my family, the next 5 weeks looks like a mountain.”

Lots of parents feel the same. We want our kids to learn, we want our kids to engage with school (and with peers and with teachers). We see the stress in their eyes and just want to help …and want others to help.

There’s a line in Shakespeare that comes to mind when all of these stresses tempt us to lash out. It’s from The Merchant of Venice, a complicated play that knows its way around anger, bitterness, and societal stress. Midway through Act IV one character tells another (who is steeped in anger and embroiled in a lawsuit): “The quality of mercy is not strained.”

For context, the line is delivered to encourage the character to show mercy not because he is compelled to by law, but because it is the right, the kind, thing to do. Showing mercy, she tells him, not only blesses the person receiving mercy, but blesses him as well. The lines go like this:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”

In this modern age it isn’t only monarchs who get to have an opinion; we all have the power to speak our minds. But if I read Shakespeare correctly, it’s not in the vehemence of our opinions that we show our best true selves. Our criticisms, our angry words, our stated frustrations, and our calls for justice may all have merit, but it is when we allow “mercy to season justice” that we bring ease to our strain (and maybe the strain of those around us).

For anyone thinking that we don’t need Shakespeare for this, I’ll shift gears and offer a little mid-80’s pop to bring the point home.

Thanks, Depeche Mode. 

People are people.” All of us. We’re stressed out. We’re frustrated that we aren’t able to help in the way we’d like, that we aren’t able to do everything we wish we could do. But maybe what we’re able to do is simply what we’re able to do. Our best. Maybe we can show kindness to one another, recognizing that our current circumstances feel overwhelming …for all of us.

So I encourage all of us to pause, breathe, and allow ourselves to accept that while people make mistakes and can be easy to be mad at, one of the most human things we can do is show each other mercy.

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In the Company of the Paperblurrers: Philip Sidney

“Year of what?”
“Poetry.”
“Why?”
“Well…”

For anyone just tuning in to this blog, once a week (or so) since the start of the school year I’ve turned my attention to writing about poetry. It started with a hike along the Oregon Coast and a bunch of buzzing bees, and has since then led across continents and centuries through a roll call of amazing poets, alphabetically from Angelou to Walker. The merit of an enterprise like this? Well…

I think it’s helped me slow down, look more philosophically at the world around me, no, not philosophically, but poetically. There’s a line by Mary Wollstonecraft that reads: “The generality of people cannot see or feel poetically, they want fancy, and therefore fly from solitude in search of sensible objects; but when an author lends them his eyes, they can see as he saw, and be amused by images they could not select, though lying before them.” Poetry has done that for me this year.

sidneyAnd as I enter the final stretch of this Year of Poetry, with just a handful of books between me and the end of the series in June, I wanted to spend a week with a book that is not written in verse: Sir Philip Sidney’s A Defence of Poetry.

It’s a slim volume that has been on my bookshelf since I was an undergraduate, and the marginalia I re-read when I picked it up this week (scrawled in the cursive of a nineteen year old) reminded me of a time, a lifetime ago, when people like Philip Sidney were a bigger part of my life.

I’ve come a long way since I first picked up my copy of A Defence of Poetry at the Pacific University bookstore. It cost me $8.95 back then, a steep price for 112 pages, but if my jottings in the margins are any indication, I dug it back then. 

I certainly enjoyed it now.

A Defence of Poetry was written in the late 1570s, and at the time was Sidney’s attempt to define and explain poetry, its place, its power, and its purpose. With the thoroughness of a classic scholar, Sidney takes readers through a history of poetry, explicating the value of verse across cultures, and emphasizing the power of a poet “freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit.”

Poetry, Sidney explains, can sometimes tell truths unavailable in prose, and its influence reaches beyond rhyming verse. “It is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet—no more than a long gown maketh an advocate, who though he pleaded in armour should be an advocate and no soldier. But it is that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a poet by.” It is a concept echoed centuries later in that line from Wollstonecraft, and articulated in some of the prose poems I’ve seen in the volumes I’ve read since September, from Snyder and Borges this winter to Daley-Ward last week.

Spending the year with a cavalcade of poets, I’ve come to appreciate Sidney’s perspective that a poet is not tied to describing nature, but “lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature.”

Sidney’s “Defence” does much to categorize and rationalize the making of verse, but the middle aged reader I have now become focused less on his argument and more on the flashes of wit dotting the plain of his rhetorical battlefield. “Since the excellencies of [poetry] may be so easily and so justly confirmed,” he tells his readers midway through the text, “and the low-creeping objections so soon trodden down: it not being an art of lies, but of true doctrine; not of effeminateness, but of notable stirring of courage, not of abusing man’s wit, but of strengthening man’s wit.” He goes on, summarizing his careful arguments in bursts of sixteenth century insight.

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He does this not only as a critic, but as a poet as well. Sidney wrote the Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence and other short verse, and comes to his work in A Defence of Poetry in “the company of the paperblurrers” adhering to the “old proverb” orator fit, poeta nascitur (an orator is made, a poet born).

And while across town a scruffy playwright/actor was having his character respond an aging courtier who asked him what he was reading with the line “words, words, words,” Sidney spends a detailed section looking at the “diction” of poetry, or as he says from “the outside of it, which is words.” Critical of imitators whom he wishes would “not so much keep Nizolian paper-books of their figures and phrases, as by attentive translation (as it were) devour them whole, and make them wholly theirs.” Poetry is about sincerity and truth; imitating without owning an idea is, to Sidney, like casting “sugar and spice upon every dish that is served” regardless of taste.

That ownership of poetry is particularly praised with regard to the “lyrical kind of songs and sonnets, which, Lord, if He gave us so good minds, how well it might be employed.” He calls out Dante (though Shakespeare’s sonnets were too close for a contemporary nod) and those ideas Sidney lays out in the 1590s ring as true with poetry written today.

Reading A Defence of Poetry during this 2020 COVID-19 quarantine was a nice reminder that my own little appreciation for verse over the course of this year is something that an old courtier like Sidney would think is okay. 

And since this is a “Year of Poetry,” not a year of essays about poetry, as I near the end of this post I’ll include Sidney’s own Sonnet 21, from Astrophil and Stella. It says in verse some of what Sidney suggested in A Defence of Poetry, particularly the value of the heart as captured in a poem.

Your words my friend (right healthful caustics) blame
My young mind marred, whom Love doth windlass so,
That mine own writings like bad servants show
My wits, quick in vain thoughts, in virtue lame,
That Plato I read for nought, but if he tame
Such coltish gyres, that to my birth I owe
Nobler desires, least else that friendly foe,
Great expectation, wear a train of shame.
For since mad March great promise made of me,
If now the May of my years much decline,
What can be hoped my harvest time will be?
Sure you say well, your wisdom’s golden mine
Dig deep with learning’s spade, now tell me this,
Hath this world ought so fair as Stella is?”

Sidney’s self deprecation continues in his closing paragraphs of A Defence of Poetry, when he writes: I conjure you all that have had the evil luck to read this ink-wasting toy of mine, even in the name of the nine Muses, no more to scorn the sacred mysteries of poesy; no more to laugh at the name of poets, as though they were next inheritors to fools; no more to jest at the reverent title of a rhymer; but to believe, with Aristotle, that they were the ancient treasurers of the Grecian’s divinity.” Why a year of poetry? Just maybe because poetry matters, poetry tells the truth, and poetry can make a difference.

 

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with The Complete Poems of C.P. Cavafy.

Three (nice) Surprises

It’s my job to look for silver linings. As a principal one of the most important things I do (along with working hard to help my school continue to improve, addressing concerns, and supporting teachers and students) is keep fixed in my mind a vision of my school at its very best. Some days that’s tougher than others, particularly in this strange COVID-19 spring, when the challenges seem to outweigh the celebrations, at least in my in-box. And… 

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Even though we can’t be together on campus (a place where magic is commonplace), this past week saw three very happy surprises, beacons of hope in these uncertain times. Sharing them here makes me happy, and I hope can be a modest reassurance that even though there is much to be stressed by in the world around us, there is always the chance that very, very soon we might just get an unexpected surprise that doesn’t involve coughing.

Surprise #1: We are a school that makes things. Music, paintings, poems, stories, ACMA is a creative cauldron where students and staff support each other, applaud often, and encourage artistic risk taking. We love the polished performances we see on stage, whether a dance recital, play, or concert, and we love gathering together to entertain each other at more casual affairs like Open Mic Night (or Open Mic Afternoon during this pandemic). This leads to a real challenge for some of our classes, and has seen our art teachers offering to bring paint and sketch books to students, our staff finding ways to get musical instruments to kids, and most recently one of our art teachers to go the extra mile to help a class work that really shouldn’t during this time of sheltering at home: Ceramics.

I came to campus last week to find our ceramics teacher cutting and bagging clay for her advanced ceramics students. She filled ziplock bags with clay, put student names on them, and placed them in the shade in the front of campus. She’d reached out to her students and every one who wanted to create with clay at home had a package waiting for them. It wasn’t something she had to do, but it was something she wanted to do for her students. Kind, inspiring, creative, a surprise provided by an amazing teacher.

Surprise #2: Once a month ACMA students gather at lunch for an ACMA Student Forum. A pair of students run the event, an open conversation about what’s happening on campus and what we all ought to do about it. I’ve written about ACMA’s Student Forum before (a new tradition at our school inspired by a longstanding student forum at a fabulously funky school a thousand miles south of here), and when we left campus in March I wondered if we were done for the year. We weren’t.

The two moderators reached out to me a couple of weeks ago and we set an online version of the ACMA Student Forum for Friday. Students from 6th to 12th grade showed up and talked art, coping with the separation from school, and things they were doing to stay sane. Kids shared ideas, and positive words, and afterward one moderator told me “This student forum was great! I am glad we got to hear from the younger grades, and looking at participation, an online format is almost better than when we had it in-person.” Now I will never discount the thousand benefits of being in the same room with students sharing their voices, but that moderator was right: this was a pretty great event.

Surprise #3: At our little art school we have a “Sixth Grade Wheel” where our youngest students get to sample a mix of creative pursuits from instrumental music to theater to art. Since we left campus before the final rotation of the wheel, some students only got three flavors of ACMA this year rather than the usual four, and one family reached out during one of my (online) coffees with the principal to ask if there was any way her student could get the syllabus for the fourth and final spoke of the wheel, visual art, that he’d be missing since we opted to keep students in their third quarter classes to minimize disruption and not ask them to meet a new teacher and subject only through Zoom. It was a fair request, and one we said we’d follow up on, so after an email to the art teacher I figured we were about done. I was wrong.

The art teacher, so student supportive that I want to burst with pride, wrote back: “I could send the syllabus but what would be more helpful for them is if they could maybe get access to the class on Canvas as an observer. That way they could access and do the assignments and activities.” She didn’t know how to do this, she went on, since she had never met the student, but she hoped we could help make the connection. Our Canvas master, a middle school science teacher, hopped on the challenge right away. He found a solution and talked us through how to add the student to the class, so the student could see more than a list of topics, but get some instruction if he wanted it, and participate as much as he’d like. 

In a world where some choose to do the very minimum, to see a student and parent reach out asking for the opportunity to learn, a teacher willing to support them, and another teacher quick to help out gave me hope that as rocky as sometimes things can be, we’re going to be all right.

Those are just three of the many good things that happened last week. More did, and more will this week as well. As we navigate these waters, the final four weeks of the school year, I encourage all of us to look for those nice surprises. Celebrate them. Don’t ignore the frustrations, or swallow the angst that has a natural place in this situation, but allow yourself to see beyond the stress, breathe in the positive, and appreciate when things happen that bring us a smile. We will get through this, and if we look for the good in the world we might just be surprised.

Writing the Truth: Yrsa Daley-Ward

Yrsa Daley-Ward’s smooth, strong, poetic voice tells stories. Sometimes only a few lines long, like the quintet of lines in “Heat” they capture a mood perfectly:

I miss you in tiny earthquakes
in little underground explosions
my soil is a hot disaster
Home is burning.
You’re a lost thing.”

Sometimes those stories stretch over the course of pages. Like the best poets, Daley-Ward’s verse feels honest and transformative. It is polished in the way a professional poet’s words should be, even while the words create the illusion of spontaneity, the feeling of truth whispered to a friend.

bonebone (the lack of capitalization the poet’s), Daley-Ward’s first collection, was a book new to me when I started this Year of Poetry, and Daley-Ward is a poet I’ll now return to long after this series of posts comes to an end. A young woman born in England of West Indian and West African descent, Yrsa Daley-Ward is not the kind of poet I read in my undergraduate British Literature class, but she will be one read in Brit Lit a hundred years from now.

Even as a young poet (she wrote bone before she was thirty), Daley-Ward’s battle-won perspective feels wise: “You may have learned from your / mother or any other hunted woman” she writes in “a fine art.” Or the stanza in “artichokes” that reads:

Remember on the right night and
under the right light
any idea can seem like a good one
and love
love is mostly ill-advised but always
brave.”

But she is not defined by her hardships; Daley-Ward’s strength and sense of self rises from the page in poem after poem. And she tells stories.

Stories of love, like “she puts cinnamon on tomatoes.”

You knew you liked her when
she was talking about her life one day
and in the street the drunk women
were fighting
and the young men were playing
house music
and there were Muslims praying
amidst all this
and the taxis were honking their
horns all around her in a circle of
chaos

so she went back inside in all her
calm

and where the two of you are now, in
a different town
and different time, there are dogs
barking outside
and you love the way
her name feels behind your mouth.

She puts cinnamon on tomatoes
white pepper on carrots
mustard seeds on unlikely things
and takes wine and ice with breakfast.

She sits awake at night
and dreams with open eyes
so you are not afraid to tell her
every time you want to run.

There was a time when fingers on
white walls made you nervous
a time when you didn’t pray so much
a time when you worried about what
the men in the street had to say

a time when you weren’t yourself
they tell you you’re an abomination to
God
how so? You speak to God more
often now
than ever before.

She sketches jellyfish
and planets
smokes a broken white pipe
and you feel like an instrument
that she’s had for years.

You pool pennies together
for dinner, most nights
but you’re happy.
You are. You’re happy.”

Daley-Ward tells stories of hope, stories of triumph, and stories of broken hearts.

Some are Daley-Ward’s stories, some the stories of others, and all stories that have the power to resonate beyond geography, gender, or social status. Yrsa Daley-Ward tells human stories, with verse so beautiful that it feels more than human.

Her awareness of what it is to be a person in the world, and her understanding of her own complex self, bring a wisdom even to her wittiest of poems, like “I’ll admit it. I’m drawn to the wolves” which reads:

I’ll admit it, I’m drawn to the wolves

I like the lines you use on me
they crackle a little, like magic.

I cannot pull my mind off you
even though
I do not trust your hands.”

I happened upon an audio of Daley-Ward reading the title poem and “I’ll admit it…” and was delighted to hear her voice sharing those words. There is a truth in what she says, raw honesty that is refreshing, challenging, and real. 

As she says in an untitled poem late in the collection: “I suppose you know you’re writing the / truth when you’re terrified.” It’s hard to read terror in Daley-Ward’s voice; she is a poet of poise and power, but it’s easy to understand what she means. Poetry transforms our world, telling a truth we too often avoid.

bone is filled with truth, long stories and short ones, flashes of emotion and slow burns of reality. It’s a collection I’ll reread and share with a friend, filled with bits of verse already echoing in my head.

Yrsa Daley-Ward is a powerful poetic voice that I look forward to hearing for years to come. Her story, her stories, are our human stories, and to hear them through the cipher of her verse gives me hope, understanding, and inspiration.

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with Philip Sidney’s A Defence of Poetry.

Dungeons and Distance

COVID-19, week seven: the one where I learn how to be a Dungeon Master for my kids’ first game of D&D.

I’ll start with the acknowledgement that I am very, very fortunate to be sheltering at home during this time of global pandemic with people I like (and love). I get to continue to do my job (albeit in a way I haven’t before), and I even have a dog to walk. Which is awesome. While I don’t like not being able to visit my parents or browse Powell’s, technology allows me to Facetime with my folks and I have more than enough books here on my shelf.

I’m happy that one of those books is The Lord of the Rings (well, three books, but you know what I mean). It has been serving as inspiration not only in this time of pandemic, but more specifically for my attempt at the collaborative storytelling of Dungeons & Dragons.

IMG_4644We picked up the “Starter Set” of D&D for $20 at Target earlier in the week, our jigsaw puzzles and some of our well worn board games having exhausted their best efforts. It seemed like a natural place to begin. Then, with a spring rain filling the gutters and encouraging us to stay inside, we gathered around the kitchen table on a wet Saturday, mugs of tea at our elbows, and started down the road together toward the Lost Mine of Phandelver. We were a merry fellowship, making up in creativity and curiosity what we lacked in experience.

I’d read about D&D and the positive impact it can have for kids at school, first in an article in which one ninth grade teacher in Texas summed it up this way: “Participation in narrative role play can open up interests in topics such as mathematics, science, history, culture, ethics, critical reading, and media production. When D&D and its cousins are played in an inviting, encouraging, compassionate, and intellectually engaged environment, play opens the door to truly amazing possibilities for learning.”

We weren’t doing anything quite so grand at our kitchen table on Saturday; the three of us were simply trying to encourage some sanity on a rainy day of COVID-19 sheltering at home. But I could see what that teacher was talking about. The best parts of our game came when impromptu inspiration (that long haired goblin with a broken nose who lost an arm to my son’s fighter’s broadsword) and collective decision making brought my kids together and inspired a laugh or two.

I was the Dungeon Master in that D&D epic, and because I’m a bit dorky and don’t like to do things poorly, I prepared for the role by reading more than a few words of wisdom online. There are lots of D&D sites that have advice for novice “DMs” and I was struck by where the list of DM tips overlapped with what I do for a living: Be prepared, make things fun, err on the side of the players, improvise, tell a collective story. And I thought…

Being a DM is a lot like being a principal. 

In the best of times the preparation we put in (over the summer, on evenings and weekends, and behind the scenes every day) helps to nurture an environment that is positive for students, teachers, and families. We can tell when things are going well by the laughter in the hallways and in the classrooms. At our best, we show mercy and understanding to everyone in our school community, and we always do our best to put kids first. Improvisation is a part of every school, and when we do it in concert with the people around us the collective story we tell can be amazing.

In “5 DM Tips for Running Your First Game” an experienced Dungeon Master advises: 

Carefully listen to your players. Yes, you should hear them when they tell you what their characters would like to do. Yes, you should pay attention to the intent of what they are describing their character doing. But your players communicate with you in a number of other ways.

It’s easy to tell when your players are having fun and engaging with your story. People having fun will smile. People having fun will exclaim! People having fun will argue with passion. That means that what you are doing in your game is working and you should note that and do more of that thing.

Communicating your expectations and thoughts and perceptions of your game to your players is also very beneficial. Let them know what you think is working and what you see could be improved. They may agree with you, but even more likely they will offer you a point of view on your game that you had not considered. That is invaluable data for planning your game moving forward.”

He could easily be writing about school administration. Students at school should be having fun and engaging with the stories of their lives. They are helped most when we listen to them, engage with them, and can see that “people having fun will smile. People having fun will exclaim! People having fun will argue with passion.” We want that in our young adults, and don’t have to be facing a pack of orcs to see it happen.

Back to that article on D&D in schools, the author, educator Paul Darvasi, invites us to wonder: “These intriguing case studies point to what a comprehensive learning program might look like if subjects and skills were not taught in isolation from each other, but integrated into a single cohesive system where students are intrinsically motivated to participate.”

It is so easy to be so siloed in a middle or high school, and this grand experiment in remote learning that every school in our state is struggling with has exacerbated that separation even more. I’m fortunate that a few creative pockets at my school have actively worked to collaborate, but it’s harder to do online than fending off a stone giant.

ACMA has an active D&D club, and when we went into sheltering at home a few reached out to me to see if they could come to campus to pick up items so they could keep playing online. Like so many of our students these intrepid adventurers find themselves in a situation no roll of the dice can overcome. They’re working out ways to play from home, connecting with their community, or at least a part of it, and working together to accomplish a goal. There’s a lesson there for all of us.

And… at some point in the not too distant future we’ll go back to school. Those D&D Club members will roll dice together on campus. The teachers will be able to step out of their classrooms and see familiar faces and possibilities for connection. All of us, students and teachers alike, will return from this experience and have the opportunity to write our own story. 

Will we be different, more inclined to connect, more appreciative of the community we get to be a part of? Trying adventures do change people (and elves and wizards). I’m hopeful that with every experience we learn and grow, and that when we are done sheltering at home we can all go back to the people and places we had to separate from and engage again, like travelers coming home from the Lost Mine of Phandelver.

A Many-Sided Mind: Robinson Jeffers

In the early part of the 20th century Robinson Jeffers built a forty foot tall tower out of stone. Alone. He and his wife lived in Carmel, on the central coast of California, raised their family there, and it was in the house he crafted himself that he wrote decades worth of poetry, first elevating him to critical and popular status (he appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1932), then descending to the status of a poet to be feared, or at least not totally trusted in patriotic post war America (one collection carried with it a publisher’s warning that some of the poems could be considered unpatriotic), and finally lifting him back to some sort of respectability again as his poems (which had been constant in their praise of nature) were seen as prophetic and poignant examples of a new movement in poetry that valued the land and natural environment. Lots there.

As the world changed around him, as his reputation ebbed and flowed, Jeffers wrote in his tower overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Reading his poems now, particularly as so many of us are isolated at home because os COVID-19, is a walk on the more natural side of the mountain, a ramble through the landscape of a very particular mind to a place as rough hewn as the tower he built with the same hands that composed the wide range of verse in my battered copy of Selected Poems.

RJI picked up my copy of Selected Poems at a little bookshop in Pacific Grove, just a few miles from Jeffers’ Tor House and Hawk Tower. Over the years it has traveled in my back pocket on more than a few walks, and revisiting it for this Year of Poetry was a nice reminder of what I loved about Jeffers’ verse, an evocative and textured trail of words that seem to pace around the property on the bluff in Carmel and offer a glimpse of something greater than simple humans like us.

In “Their Beauty Has More Meaning” Jeffers allows himself to appreciate the world he sees independent of its connection to the human world. He finds nature transcendent, and us less so.

Yesterday morning enormous the moon hung low on the ocean,
Round and yellow-rose in the glow of dawn;
The night-herons flapping home wore dawn on their wings. Today
Black is the ocean, black and sulphur the sky,
And white seas leap. I honestly do not know which day is more beautiful.
I know that tomorrow or next year or in twenty years
I shall not see these things—and it does not matter, it does not hurt;
They will be here. And when the whole human race
Has been like me rubbed out, they will still be here: storms, moon and ocean,
Dawn and the birds. And I say this: their beauty has more meaning
Than the whole human race and the race of birds.”

Some poems are timeless not because of a generality, but because of the habit history has of repeating itself. Written in the jazzy gluttonous nineteen twenties, “Shine, Perishing Republic” feels as apt in 2020 as when it was written nearly a hundred years ago.

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity,
heavily thickening to empire,
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops
and sighs out, and the mass hardens,

I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make
fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances,
ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother.

You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life
is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than
mountains; shine, perishing republic.

But for my children, I would have them keep their
distance from the thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, and when the cities lie at the
monster’s feet there are left the mountains.

And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man,
a clever servant, insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught
—they say—God, when he walked on earth.”

This, and others like it, was the kind of verse that earned Jeffers a place in the pantheon of antihumanism, and to many critics anti-Americanism. But there is optimism in this poem, rising like fruit from Jeffers’ fading flower. In a time in the United States with some of the same challenges as the first two decades of the twentieth century (from pandemic to wealth inequality) Jeffers’ reassurance that “corruption / Never has been compulsory” is a reminder that we can do better. Maybe.

But not all Jeffers poems read like a Cormac McCarthy novel. Many do, but not all of them.

“The House Dog’s Grave” has a sweetness to it; Jeffers turning his pen to the feelings of a deceased pet. Maybe it’s because we just lost one of our own furry family members at my household (Chester, a loving nineteen year old tabby), but reading the poem felt comforting in a way that not many of Jeffers’ poems do.

I’ve changed my ways a little; I cannot now
Run with you in the evenings along the shore,
Except in a kind of dream; and you, if you dream a moment,
You see me there.

So leave awhile the paw-marks on the front door
Where I used to scratch to go out or in,
And you’d soon open; leave on the kitchen floor
The marks of my drinking pan.

I cannot lie by your fire as I used to do
On the warm stone,
Nor at the foot of your bed; no, all the night through
I lie alone.

But your kind thought has laid me less than six feet
Outside your window where firelight so often plays,
And where you sit to read–and I fear often grieving for me–
Every night your lamplight lies on my place.

You, man and woman, live so long, it is hard
To think of you ever dying
A little dog would get tired, living so long.
I hope than when you are lying

Under the ground like me your lives will appear
As good and joyful as mine.
No, dear, that’s too much hope: you are not so well cared for
As I have been.

And never have known the passionate undivided
Fidelities that I knew.
Your minds are perhaps too active, too many-sided. . . .
But to me you were true.

You were never masters, but friends. I was your friend.
I loved you well, and was loved. Deep love endures
To the end and far past the end. If this is my end,

I am not lonely. I am not afraid. I am still yours.”

Mary Oliver would be proud

Men have less warmth in Jeffers’ poetic universe than the house dog of that poem. In “Leave them Alone” he shouts from his tower to the world around:

If God has been good enough to give you a poet
Then listen to him. But for God’s sake let him alone until he is dead;
no prizes, no ceremony,
They kill the man. A poet is one who listens
To nature and his own heart; and if the noise of the world grows up
around him, and if he is tough enough,
He can shake off his enemies, but not his friends.
That is what withered Wordsworth and muffled Tennyson, and would have
killed Keats; that is what makes
Hemingway play the fool and Faulkner forget his art.”

Jeffers was on the cover of Time magazine in 1932, thirty years before this poem was published, but enough of that. 

Selected Poems covers half a century of verse, and does a nice job capturing the stormy nature of a poet who lived on a bluff overlooking the sea. Reading a lot of poetry this year has reminded me of the importance poetry can play in the world we live in, as a Cassandra shouting out against the craziness of the world, a chronicler of the spirit of the times, and as a perspective that spans eras, drawing us closer together as people. Even if Jeffers might think us less significant than birds.

This year of poetry has also reinforced how right Jeffers is when he tells us that a poet is one who listens / To nature and his own heart.” Now, I think it’s time to go build a stone tower…

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with Bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward.

Real Seniors; Virtual School

They were a subdued bunch, my seniors, as we held an online meeting for the Class of 2020. Nearly all of them joined in, some asking follow up questions to the shared doc we’d started the week before when the governor sent out word that students would not be returning to campuses this school year and that seniors would receive grades of “Pass” rather than any particular letter.

They are an exceedingly talented group of young adults, creative, curious, and today, quiet.

When my dog, Luna, hopped onto my lap, caught a buzzing fly out of the air, ate it, and then licked my face, only a couple managed a chuckle. These are serious times.

Earlier in the day I’d gotten an email from a senior teacher. He told me that for his class he had “a discussion board up since the day after we were sent home. I asked for four thread responses from each participating student. The Senior thread has nearly 300 responses. This suggests that [nearly] the entire Sr class has responded.”

These are young people who want to be connected, and while state guidelines have now removed grades from senior transcripts, many of the students want to keep that tether to learning, classmates, teachers, and school. It’s not that all of them care about English or history or math or science (though many do), but many do want to stay a part of the larger community that is our school. 

Beyond classes, we know that staying connected is important.

A CNN article came out that same day suggesting that “in the time of coronavirus, traditional hallmarks of the high school experience have all but disappeared. And as everyone settles into new routines inside, at home, teens are feeling angry, anxious and reticent. Their identities are fracturing in isolation, and the people who love them, teach them and study them fear they’ll wear the effects of the pandemic for years to come.” 

We do worry about them, but that’s nothing new, and we understand the need to support all our students, particularly right now our seniors. 

The article goes on to say that “It’s hard enough being a teenager on a good day. But the conditions that accompany social distancing may exacerbate the painful parts of adolescence to the point of crisis. Adolescents typically have a heightened reactivity to stress, thought to be the result of hormonal fluctuations and changes in brain development.”

And these are times of stress.

We talked during that first senior meeting about some of the losses of the spring: prom, performances, and commencement. Particularly commencement.

With social distancing in place, a traditional graduation ceremony isn’t possible in June. We know that, we mourn it, and we have to find a way to carry on. As a district, a district determined to support our seniors, every high school originally agreed to do a virtual commencement in June and then some kind of senior celebration in July or early August, as soon as pandemic restrictions ease enough for us to get together in person. And…

The notion of graduating online was filled with frustration for many. Me included. We want so much to have that celebration together, and hearing it can’t happen in June is a rocket of disappointment in an already pockmarked battlefield of emotion.

A couple of follow up emails captured that emotion the next morning. They were passionate, honest, and thoughtful, and showed a maturity nestled in alongside the exuberance of youth. My response to one earnest message, as limited in comfort as it might be, was from the heart. I wrote:

I share your disappointment in not being able to have a traditional commencement ceremony in person in June. It feels frustrating that after all the class of 2020 has done to reach graduation we aren’t able to celebrate together …at least not yet. 

Our hope with the virtual commencement ceremony is not to replace an in person ceremony; we know we couldn’t. To do nothing, however, felt even more wrong, as it would deny seniors a chance to have some of the good things that come from a ceremony, like student performers, student speakers, and a message from one of the staff the class has chosen. That, I believe, is why every high school and option school in the district is committing to some online event for June, and then for some in person (or as in person as we are allowed by state social distancing rules) in July.

We have another senior meeting on 4/29 about how we can make an online event as positive as it can be, and if we know more about what the lay of the land might be in later summer we can talk about that as well. Pandemic allowing, July’s celebration of seniors might be one that can have more of a commencement feel, but right now, as you mentioned, it could be limited in how many could gather. As soon as we know more we’ll work with the seniors to develop what that in person activity could be.

And if July sees us all still at home, then we’ll figure out something for August. We want the students together on campus, we want to celebrate them robustly, and we are all a bit heartbroken right now as we see the semester and end of the year slip away from us without seeing their faces except through a computer screen.

I do appreciate you reaching out. I hope you and all your family are well. I’m sorry for the disappointment, and hope that it’s not an “or” but an “and” with regard to the end of the year celebrations: a virtual commencement as every other school is doing and a meaningful (and ACMA spirited) celebration as soon as we can all be back together.”

True, maybe, but even rereading it now, my response can only go so far in reassuring seniors in these strange days. 

Discussions continued at the district level; we have six big comprehensive high schools and four smaller options schools, like ACMA, and the desire was to have everyone on the same page. The merits of simply postponing  commencement to July were championed by more than a few: students want to be together, they want the experience of walking across the stage, they want that celebration that many of them have been thinking about since the realized what a graduation was all about.

We’d like that too, and…

I’d like to be 6’3 with a full head of hair. On a more serious note, I’d like to be saying good morning to my students every day at school. I’d like to be visiting classes, watching performances, hosting open mic nights, and all of the things that right now we just can’t do. This pandemic has brought disappointment to so many of us, as well as frustration, isolation, and a feeling of missing out.

We are missing out, and disappointment about that is natural and appropriate. So too is doing what we have to do to help protect those for whom disappointment is less a worry than falling ill to COVID-19. For the health care workers, the elderly, and people with compromising preexisting conditions, this pandemic is life threatening. Every day.

Social distancing measures aren’t meant to be an inconvenience; they are meant to save lives. As a school system, an organization where we see thousands of students shoulder to shoulder every day walking to classes, we know a thing or two about germs and viruses. We know too that as much as we’d like to be on campus together, the risks of that enterprise (right now) are great. So too, commencement. Right now.

And a reality, in these days when there seems to be no agreement on how or when social distancing will loosen, is that an in person commencement still might not be able to happen by July, or even August. Add to that that teachers aren’t working in July, and some (in what look to be difficult budget times) may not even be working in the district at all, and things get more complicated still. But challenges don’t define us as much as our response to them. This experience should help us understand that. So…

In the end a lot of discussion the district decision was to shift gears away from any virtual commencement and postpone graduation ceremonies until later in the summer, July or early August. There are lots of detail still to be figured out, but if we’re able the plan is that we’ll do something in person outside, under the summer sun.

When I told my seniors about that change at our meeting this week they seemed happy about the idea. Happy-ish, anyway. These are serious times.

They are such a great group and I want, like all of the adults at ACMA, to give them everything we can give them. Seeing their faces (so many of them on our video call) reminded me of how much these students mean to me, to our school, and how much they mean to each other.

Some of our performers even performed (bringing more smiles, even muted) than almost anything anyone who wasn’t in the Class of 2020 could have done.

These are unprecedented times and as a result the unsettled sense of uncertainty is great. And, to quote Robert Frost, we still have miles to go before we sleep, so…

Screen Shot 2020-04-16 at 9.58.28 AM

Over the next few weeks many of us adults at ACMA will do our best to connect with and support our seniors. Counselors are making calls now, teachers continue to reach out to students, and my admin team will host opportunities for the seniors to get together to talk.

We’ll collaborate with our seniors to make sense of a commencement of sorts, look ahead to the time we can be together again, and do our best to understand that it’s natural to be working through the stages of grief right now. 

We also have a few surprises we hope will bring them a smile, like the yard signs our staff delivered last week, and a senior awards not-quite-ceremony we’re plotting for June.

I wish I could give my seniors a prom in May, an in person graduation ceremony in June, and the normal joy of a normal spring. I can’t. And…

We will do what we can. We will do what we can together.

The conversation during our second senior class meeting suggests to me that “what we can” might just be really good.

I keep a copy of Shakespeare’s Henry V on my desk at work. It may be the corny former English teacher in me, but I refer to it far more than you’d suspect, particularly when I need a pinch of leadership inspiration. After our senior meeting I turned to act three, scene six and the line:

We would not seek a battle, as we are;
Nor, as we are, we say we will not shun it”

None of us would have chosen to do school from our kitchen tables. None of us prefer to wrestle with the emotions of crisis without the human contact of friends and school. None of us particularly want to be facing the situation as we are, but as we are, we will not shy away from the challenges. Together we will find our voices, our community, and our laughter again.

The Cheeseseller’s Wife: Kim Whysall-Hammond

I started this Year of Poetry with a line from Yeats, rumbled through Atwood and Walker, Hughes and Borges, Angelou, Avison, and Rita Dove. I spent some time with the familiar volumes on my bookshelf: William Stafford, Seamus Heaney, and Pablo Neruda, then picked up some new favorites: Fatimah Asghar, Nate Marshall, and Tracy K. Smith. With each book, from the slim volume of Kerouac to the doorstop collection of Victorian poetry, I watched verse poke and prod at the world around us, seep into the cracks, and bring forth blossoms like the lilacs clinging to Whitman’s dooryard.

The thing all of those posts so far have had in common is that they come from books. They live, as any good book lives, in neat rows on the shelf or less neat stacks atop shelves, end tables, and the floor near my desk. Kim Whysall-Hammond’s verse lives in my in-box and on my computer.

I don’t follow very many blogs, but one that I look forward to notifications from every week is “The Cheeseseller’s Wife” a collection of “Anything and Everything, but mostly Poetry.” It is a delight.

Screen Shot 2020-04-22 at 10.46.37 AM

Kim Whyhall-Hammond describes herself and her blog with the cheery welcome: 

Hello, I’m Kim.

My mother was a poet, and I have always written poetry, long before I found books of the wonderful stuff  (Mum had none in the house). I have never shared any of it before I set up this blog in 2015.

Here you will find my poems and others I feel the need to share with you (but mostly my poems). There will also be the occasional post about other things, but as the tag line says it’s “mostly poetry”.

And, yes, my husband sells cheese. Sometimes I help.”

And those poems she shares are wonderful.

Since you’re reading this online, I suppose I’d be wise just to direct you to her page: The Cheeseseller’s Wife. Even if you chose to stick around for the rest of this post, I hope you’ll circle back and spend some time in Berkshire, a corner of the UK that I know mostly from The Cheeseseller’s Wife.

Because you do get a wonderful window into this part of the world, both present and past, from Whysall-Hammond, in poems like “Green” with the evocative description: “Green rumbles rambles rolls and ripples / in all its shades and hues / rustles murmurs sways and drifts / floats on and under the waters of both / chill chalk stream and ocean.”

Cheeseseller's WifeBut her poetry is not limited to landscapes; The Cheeseseller’s Wife is as comfortable dashing through love, in poems like “Bleeding my Words” and “The Things You Have Said”; history, asking (of our distant ancestors in the poem “Neanderthal”) “Was it the red hair / that so entranced us?”; and art, as in the poem “Art for My Sake” and accompanying watercolor, of which she tells us:

Brush in hand
I decide on the first stroke
Relieved to have got this far”

Her poetry also reminds us that we need each other, whether in recent poems like “Sunshine in Darkness” written in this time of COVID-19, or an older poem I love about Guy Fawkes, “Fireworks over England (Penny for the Guy)” that ends with the stanza:

We need to take back the small anarchies,
set off Fireworks in our own gardens in November,
burn the Guy as effigy of all we are told to be frightened of,
embrace the neighbours, we are all in this together.
Whatever colour or creed.”

How we need to “take back the small anarchies” and poetry reminds us to do that in a way that prose cannot.

How fortunate I count myself to have access to living poetry, not just in books, but in the world. The Cheeseseller’s Wife is a poet I appreciate (as I do Yeats, who started this year of posts on poetry, or Skloot, or Snyder) and (unlike Dickinson, or Brooks, or Milton, whose best days are behind them) one I look forward to. And when there’s something I need to hear, some bit of verse that just might make my day, transport me to the green fields of a part of the world I have never visited (outside of poetry and a novel or two), her notifications even has the kindness to send me an email.

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with Selected Poems of Robinson Jeffers.