My Oily Life: Anne Sexton

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

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

Then just as easily filled with disappointment and ennui, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

45 Mercy Street feels short on mercy.

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

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

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

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

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

A Whistling Woman: Alice Walker

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her words were far wiser than any of mine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My father and mother both
used to warn me
that “a whistling woman and a crowing
hen would surely come to
no good end.” And perhaps I should
have listened to them.
But even at the time I knew
that though my end probably might
be good
I must whistle
like a woman undaunted
until I reached it.”

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


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

Wanderings: William Stafford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo 1 (4)

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

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

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

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


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


King of Carrion: Ted Hughes

crow-coversIn college my favorite book of poetry was Crow. Brash, bold, and more than a little vulgar, Ted Hughes’ verse struck me as both smart and raw. I hadn’t yet gotten his biography (or read Sylvia Plath) so Crow stood on its own a testament to …something, something the collegiate fool I was found appealing.

Rereading it now meant knowing about Hughes’ complicated life and bringing my own middle aged sensibilities to the reading (a part of those informed by teaching The Bell Jar for years as a high school English teacher and coming of literary age at a time when Hughes, whose second wife took her own life in the same way Plath did after Hughes left her, was considered by some a pariah).

That didn’t stop me from using “King of Carrion” in my first teaching job, pairing it with John Gardner’s Grendel and a handful of other dark texts in a Senior English class. The epic quality of Crow resonated with the material at hand, and even out of context “King of Carrion” squawked true.

His palace is of skulls.

His crown is the last splinters
Of the vessel of life.

His throne is the scaffold of bones, the hanged thing’s
Rack and final stretcher.

His robe is the black of the last blood.

His kingdom is empty-

The empty world, from which the last cry
Flapped hugely, hopelessly away
Into the blindness and dumbness and deafness of the gulf

Returning, shrunk, silent

To reign over silence.”

…and while that wasn’t really about Grendel…

I still thank Hughes for the discussions that filled my first classroom.

But Truth is something slippery in poetry, and slipperier yet in Crow, which ricochets between reality, religion, and a mythos of its own. Often that Crow mythology alludes to Biblical or classical traditions, and sometimes resonates with imagery more indigenous or aboriginal, as in “Crow Alights” in which:

Crow saw the herded mountains, steaming in the morning.
And he saw the sea
Dark-spined, with the whole earth in its coils.
He saw the stars, fuming away into the black, mushrooms of the nothing forest, clouding their spores, the virus of God.
And he shivered with the horror of Creation.”

Like the trickster of Native American Lore, Crow inhabits a mythic place, cavorting with God and man, and some ambiguous poetic realm in between. In “Crow’s Account of the Battle” Hughes offers a commentary of conflict as real in the Vietnam War era in which he wrote the poem, war today, or when Richard fell at Bosworth Field.

There was this terrific battle.
The noise was as much
As the limits of possible noise could take.
There were screams higher groans deeper
Than any ear could hold.
Many eardrums burst and some walls
Collapsed to escape the noise.
Everything struggled on its way
Through this tearing deafness
As through a torrent in a dark cave.

The cartridges were banging off, as planned,
The fingers were keeping things going
According to excitement and orders.
The unhurt eyes were full of deadliness.
The bullets pursued their courses
Through clods of stone, earth, and skin,
Through intestines pocket-books, brains, hair, teeth
According to Universal laws
And mouths cried “Mamma”
From sudden traps of calculus,
Theorems wrenched men in two,
Shock-severed eyes watched blood
Squandering as from a drain-pipe
Into the blanks between the stars.
Faces slammed down into clay
As for the making of a life-mask
Knew that even on the sun’s surface
They could not be learning more or more to the point
Reality was giving its lesson,
Its mishmash of scripture and physics,
With here, brains in hands, for example,
And there, legs in a treetop.
There was no escape except into death.
And still it went on–it outlasted
Many prayers, many a proved watch
Many bodies in excellent trim,
Till the explosives ran out
And sheer weariness supervened
And what was left looked round at what was left.

Then everybody wept,
Or sat, too exhausted to weep,
Or lay, too hurt to weep.
And when the smoke cleared it became clear
This has happened too often before
And was going to happen too often in the future
And happened too easily
Bones were too like lath and twigs
Blood was too like water
Cries were too like silence
The most terrible grimaces too like footprints in mud
And shooting somebody through the midriff
Was too like striking a match
Too like potting a snooker ball
Too like tearing up a bill
Blasting the whole world to bits
Was too like slamming a door,
Too like dropping in a chair
Exhausted with rage
Too like being blown up yourself
Which happened too easily
With too like no consequences.

So the survivors stayed.
And the earth and the sky stayed.
Everything took the blame.

Not a leaf flinched, nobody smiled.”

What’s there? So much.

Hughes stays mythic even as he slides into contemporary killing machines and buries critique within lists of casualties that he describes as happening “according to universal laws.”

The character Crow’s only appearance in the catalogue of carnage comes in the title, and if the poet’s voice is to be believed, through the idea that this is his account of war. Black bird of death, like Poe’s raven or Stevens’ blackbirds, Crow sees all and chooses not to intervene.

But throughout this collection Hughes’ mythic Crow does act, clapping his beak, “telling loud lies,” mocking God, and futility battling the sun. Poem after poem show Crow to be hungry, mocking, and bold, insinuating himself into stories beyond his own. “Crow followed Ulysses till he turned/ As a worm, which Crow Ate” he writes in “Crowego” and “Drinking Beowulf’s blood, and wrapped in his hide,/ Crow communes with poltergeists out of old ponds.”

And Crow’s appetite doesn’t stop with mythology. In “A Horrible Religious Error” Hughes takes his readers back to Eden, or some sort of version of Genesis, with Crow.

When the serpent emerged, earth-bowel brown,
From the hatched atom
With its alibi self twisted around it

Lifting a long neck
And balancing that deaf and mineral stare
The sphinx of the final fact

And flexing on that double flameflicker tongue
A syllable like the rustling of spheres

God’s grimace writhed, a leaf in the furnace

And man’s and woman’s knees melted, they collapsed
Their neck-muscles melted, their brows bumped the ground
Their tears evacuated visibly
They whispered ‘Your will is our peace.’

But Crow only peered.
Then took a step or two forward,
Grabbed this creature by the slackskin nape,

Beat the hell out of it, and ate it.”

Crow’s solution to “that double flameflicker tongue” is brutal, simple, and in keeping with the personality given him by Hughes. Crow is the anti-hero of his own book, he is, to quote “Crow Frowns,”

He is the long waiting for something
To use him for some everything
Having so carefully made him

Of nothing.”

It’s the nihilism, I think, that got to me in the end. Reading poems like “In Laughter” as a young person, when poems like that feel so prophetic, is so different than reading them at fifty, when their truth is sobering and the prophecy has come true.

What I appreciate most now is Hughes’ mastery of language. As dark sometimes as Crow can be, and dark indeed that is, Hughes was aware of the power of words and he knew how to bend them to his purpose. In “Crow Goes Hunting” he allows his black bird a taste of that power.

Decided to try words.

He imagined some words for the job, a lovely pack—
clear-eyed , resounding, well-trained,
With strong teeth.
You could not find a better bred lot.”

Brash, bold, and vulgar, Crow may not now be my favorite book of poetry, but its narrative and linguistic power is just as real as it was, for me, a quarter century ago.

Crow is a lovely pack of words with strong teeth.



Continuing this year of poetry next week with William Stafford’s Even in Quiet Places.

Darning Worn-out Dreams: Maya Angelou

Coming off of the maelstrom of the opening weeks of school, picking up the slim volume of verse Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well by the incomparable Maya Angelou was a joyful reprieve. That’s not to say that the thirty-six poems that fill the book are all filled with joy; a serious sense of struggle stands shoulder to shoulder with the rumbling optimism that pervades the book, but taken as a whole, Angelou’s 1975 collection has the ability to transport a reader like me from the workaday world to something …more.

220px-Oh_Pray_book_coverWith the exuberance of Cannonball Adderley and the soul of Nina Simone, Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well reads like a jazz quartet at a familiar roadhouse. Sweet, soulful, and sometimes brutal too, Angelou riffs on relationships, race, and wrestling with what it means to be human.

Her poems weave their way from personal to political, intimate to infinite, and as they do retain a voice both distinctive and insightful.

Those of us of a certain age who remember a time of bulky telephones with coiled cords read “The Telephone” and can feel the weight of the plastic receiver, a relic from a world before caller ID or texting replaced voice.

It comes in black
and blue, indecisive
beige. In red and chaperones my life.
Sitting like a strict
And spinstered Aunt
Spiked between my needs
And need.

It tats the day, crocheting
other people’s lives
in neat arrangements
ignoring me
busy with the hemming
of strangers’ overlong affairs or
the darning of my
neighbors’ worn-out

From Monday, the morning of the week,
though mid-times
noon and Sunday’s dying
light. It sits silent.
Its needle sound
does not transfix my ear
or draw my longing to
a close.

Ring. Damn you!”

This poem and others in Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well erase time, the woman waiting by the phone in 1975 as clear an image as anything contemporary to today. It’s here that the power of poetry to connect people across decades feels the most real. In poems like “The Telephone” or “Poor Girl” the people and situations Angelou describes are not unlike those so many know every day.

It’s not only the individuals whose story rings true, but Angelou broadens her view to include countries and continents. In “America” she invites her reader to think about the contradictions of the United States and issues a challenge to better know this country.

The gold of her promise
has never been mined

Her borders of justice
not clearly defined

Her crops of abundance
the fruit and the grain

Have not fed the hungry
nor eased that deep pain

Her proud declarations
are leaves on the wind

Her southern exposure
black death did befriend

Discover this country
dead centuries cry

Erect noble tablets
where none can decry

“She kills her bright future
and rapes for a sou

The entraps her children
with legends untrue”

I beg you

Discover this country.”

I hear Maya Angelou as I read her poems, and hers is not the scratchy voice of Robert Frost battling wind at an inauguration or the haunting lilt of TS Eliot reciting “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as if it were a liturgy. It’s not even the confident bon mot of Billy Collins, or rehearsed patter of any number of slam poets; Angelou’s is a voice both poetic and performed, a strong river in comparison to those streams, waterfalls, and fountains. 

Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well is filled with striking images and descriptions that linger like dreams. “Your smile” she writes in “Woman Me” “delicate/rumor of peace.” Lines like this populate the collection of poems, bringing to life young mothers, old men, and poetic characters with rich stories of their own.

As my “Year of Poetry” spools into its second month, I’m struck by the way poets like Angelou (and Atwood, and others) remind me of how much we all share as humans. Our internal worlds, our struggles, our doubts, our hopes no matter the decade, country, or community in which we live have a universal quality. Poetry captures that, even as it juxtaposes the specifics of those decades, countries, and communities. Octavio Paz’s Mexico City is not Maya Angelou’s Hollywood or Julia Randall’s Maryland countryside; Seamus Heaney and John Keats walked different trails, but in each of these different voices there is a dollop of what it is to be human.

Spending some time with poetry every week is helping me slow down (at least a little), and inviting me to reflect, connect, and see the world in ways I otherwise wouldn’t, through eyes not my own.


Continuing this year of poetry next week with Ted Hughes’s Crow.


Itinerant School Conjuror: Seamus Heaney

heaneySeeing Things begins with the classics: Aeneas imploring the Sibyl of Cumae to let him see his father in the underworld, and ends with a Dantean boat trip on the River Styx. In between is Seamus Heaney’s own story, a poetic, allusion rich journey both universal and extraordinarily intimate. His poetic inspirations, particularly Dante, pepper the collection, even as he writes with grounded language in a way that makes it almost believable that he is, as he describes himself, “a nine-to-five man who had seen poetry.”

But Heaney is every inch a well read writer, the kind of poet who effortlessly slips Norse mythology into a series of fishing poems so real they capture the ripple of water and sound of a spinning reel.

Every summer my youngest son and I go camping, and over those days in the woods drop a line in whatever river or lake is near. The next time we do, months from this wet October day, I will think back to Heaney and:

The effortlessness
of a spinning reel. One quick
flick of the wrist
and your minnow sped away

Whispering and silky
and nimbly laden.
It seemed to be all rise
and shine, the very opposite

of uphill going—it was pure
duration, and when it ended,
the pulse of the cast line
entering water

was smaller in your hand
than the remembered heartbeat
of a bird.”

Just reading that now, on an afternoon when the sturm und drang of the day has been anything but an effortless reel, transported me to the Wilson River and the sun of July, when my son and I were in pursuit of “little antic fish” like those in Seeing Things.

I’m not sure if Heaney has ever visited Tillamook County, but because of poems like “Casting and Gathering” and “Man and Boy” I’ve been transported to his Irish landscape. Good poetry has the ability to work magic that way.

Heaney plays magician throughout the book, weaving words that refocus his readers’ attention of everything from “A Basket of Chestnuts” to “The Schoolbag.”

My handsewn leather schoolbag. Forty years.
Poet, you were nel mezzo del cammin
When I shouldered it, half-full of blue-lined jotters,
And saw the classroom charts, the displayed bean,

The wallmap with its spray of shipping lanes
Describing arcs across the blue North Channel…
And in the middle of the road to school,
Ox-eye daisies and wild dandelions.

Learning’s easy carried! The bag is light,
Scuffed and supple and unemptiable
As an itinerant school conjuror’s hat.
So take it, for a word-hoard and a hansel,

As you step out trig and look back all at once
Like a child on his first morning leaving parents.”

In that sonnet, dedicated to Irish poet John Hewitt, whom Heaney refers to (in Dante’s Italian) as halfway through his life when Heaney was a student, takes a familiar object as its starting point, spinning into a paean to youth and learning and those complicated emotions familiar to educators from Belfast to Portland.

While our students might tuck other items into their backpacks as well, those “blue-lined jotters” and pile of books (that one can imagine including Inferno, The Aeneid, and Beowulf) —all part of the unemptiable “conjuror’s hat” of education— are familiar even here and even now.

In fact, for students at my school Heaney is a familiar name, best known as the translator of the volume of Beowulf they carry in their own schoolbags. He, through this work from his own nel mezzo del cammin, is a part of that same unemptiable legacy of learning.

And while the “Hazel stealth” and “Hedges hot as chimneys” he describes in the seemingly autobiographical poems that form the bulk of Seeing Things are specifically Heaney’s, they carry with them the possibility of resonance in the ears and minds of those of us reading him today.

We have all been that “child on his first morning leaving parents” and stepping into the schoolhouse, and it is a poet like Heaney who reminds us that as unique as that fear and anticipation was in our hearts, we are not alone.

Continuing this year of poetry next week with Maya Angelou’s Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well.

Edén Subvertido: Octavio Paz

“Sarcastic crows,” “A hive of diligent bees/In a horse’s skull…” reading Octavio Paz is like living in a dream. Unexpected images appear, poems seem to disappear as quickly as they arrive, and finishing a half hour or so of reading it’s easy to feel like you’ve dined on a long platter stacked high with the individual seeds of a pomegranate. 

A_Draft_Of_ShadowsHeck, read enough and you might even allow yourself to pepper your own writing with purple images like a platter stacked high with the individual seeds of a pomegranate.

A Draft of Shadows is a collection of poems that span the life of Octavio Paz, a Nobel Laureate from Mexico, presented in Spanish and English translation. Careful with his words, Paz crafts poems, both short and long, with an eye toward the white space on the page and an ear to the interplay of syllables and sound.

My own Spanish is not strong, but I found myself reading both sides of A Draft of Shadows, first (for me) English on the right, then the Spanish language originals on the left. This slowed me down and made me appreciate the sound and look of Paz’s verse, as here in “Homenaje a Claudio Ptolomeo.”

Soy hombre: duro poco
y es enorme la noche.
Pero miro hacia arriba:
las estrellas escriben.
Sin entender comprendo:
también soy escritura
y en este mismo instante
alguien me deletrea.”

I think of the beautiful advantage many of my students know to be bilingual. Do they always recognize the value of this ability of reading Paz or Borges in the language in which they wrote? Do we as a school or society tell them that this is a value or advantage? Or do we let our envy or small mindedness, our insecurity or our fear muddy words that should be clear?

A Draft of Shadows gives me pause as an educator and inspires me to think about how I might honor my talented students —those who can read Paz in Spanish, or Kim Seung-hee in Korean, or Pushkin in Russian— and celebrate the part of their stories spoken in a language other than English.

Independent of the language of composition, there is a universal quality to Paz’s poems. In “A Tale of Two Gardens” he describes something like love, writing”

I crossed paths with a girl.
Her eyes:
the pact between the summer and the autumn suns.
She a partisan of acrobats, astronomers, camel drivers.
I of lighthouse keepers, logicians, saddhus.”

If that last word had you scrambling to a dictionary, it did me too. …and it was worth it.

This notion of attraction and differences, tension and intrigue, isn’t limited to any one language, and Paz brings his own poetic sensibilities to the subject. Likewise, a third of the way through A Draft of Shadows Paz leaves behind the short verse that opens the collection and stretches out to luxuriate in the language of poems four, six, eight, and ten pages long. These poems expand Paz’s story, reaching across memory to deliver a view of his world in the midst of change.

mexico city bus 1971

One specific change for Paz was returning to Mexico City after a dozen years spent as the Mexican ambassador to India. The metropolis he came back to was not the place he left, and the changes he found in the early 1970s he saw as neither positive nor healthy. 

Of those he saw causing this degradation, he shared no kind words, describing them in “The Return”:

                               On corners and plazas
on the wide pedestals of the common places
the Fathers of the Civic Church
A silent conclave of puppet buffoons
Neither eagles nor jaguars
buzzard lawyers
wings of ink               sawing mandibles
Ventriloquist coyotes
peddlers of shadows”

Bringing himself into the poem, Paz describes the scene both internally and externally.

                             I walk toward myself
toward the plaza
Space is within
it is not a subverted paradise
it is a pulse-beat of time


I walk without moving forward
We never arrive
Never reach where we are
Not the past
the present is untouchable”

For many of us of a certain age, Paz’s words carry a grudging truth about change. This part of the collection, while some of the darkest in A Draft of Shadows, show a poet crystallizing his feelings and capturing the grief of seeing a city changed in ways that dismay him. “Return” and the other poems in this section are like a frozen ocean, compelling, dramatic, and disconcerting.

The ice cracks in the second half of the book, as Paz turns his poetic energy to a reflection on his own youth.

In “San Ildefonso nocturne” Paz traces life through a series of images and snatches of memory.

The boy who walks through this poem,
between San Ildefonso and the Zócalo,
is the man who writes it:
this page too
is a ramble through the night.
Here the friendly ghosts
become flesh,
ideas dissolve.”

For Paz the “ramble through the night” finds its way toward greater meaning, even if that meaning may extend beyond the bounds of his verse. “Poetry is not truth,” he admits, but rather a “suspension bridge between history and truth.”

A Draft of Shadows crosses that bridge and ends squarely on the artistic shore. In a poem dedicated to American assemblage artist Joseph Cornell he addresses the power of art, writing:

“One has to commit a painting,” said Degas,
“The way one commits a crime.” But you constructed
boxes where things hurry away from their names.

Slot machine of visions,
condensation flask for conversations,
hotel of crickets and constellations.

Minimal, incoherent fragments:
the opposite of History, creator of ruins,
out of your ruins you have made creations.”

cornell assemblageThis is poetic observational praise for a visual artist whose work could fit, to quote Paz’s poem, in “Hexahedrons of wood and glass/ scarcely bigger than a shoe box.” It is a window into Paz’s self realization to see him admit to the artist to whom he addresses the poem: “inside your boxes/ my words became visible for a moment.”

Paz uses every poetic device in his formidable poetic toolbox to capture the complexities of memory, objects, and art. Words, in their native language or translation, have the ability to transform and transport. Slowing down enough to let them is a challenge for all of us in this busy world, and a challenge that can provide us with perspective, if we let them. 

I’ll let Octavio Paz’s words end this post, the translation of that first poem that started this little essay, “Homage to Claudius Ptolemy.”

I am a man: little do I last
and the night is enormous
But I look up:
the stars write.
Unknowing I understand:
I too am written,
and at this very moment
someone spells me out.”

Continuing this year of poetry next week with Seamus Heaney’s Seeing Things.