Writing on an Envelope: Kim Stafford

I can picture the fellow from the photo on the back of my copy of Places & Stories scribbling verse on an envelope, as one of my favorite poems in Kim Stafford’s 1987 collection assured me he did. Tweedy and reckless, his hair a 19th century nest of attitude reminiscent of a Poe daguerreotype, the poet looks at the camera with the deportment of a young laureate. He’s grown into that title in the decades since, now Poet Laureate of Oregon and a literary lion of the Pacific Northwest.


Places & Stories is Kim Stafford’s third collection of poetry and the diverse poems inside live up to the book’s title. Stafford harvests stories, spins them together with a language rich and sweet, and produces poems both of very specific time and place and universal in their truth. “Tubby Tells About His Uncle Mike” is one such poem, taking us to a story Stafford curates for us with affection, skill, and an ear for the details that matter.

“My uncle rode with the James boys, you / heard, back them days before Jesse’s shot,” he begins, plunging us into the story told by this now “beer-soured old” narrator.

…I’d tag along to a shadow
canyon, two big silver sixguns
jangling at his sides. I’d stand

A heart-sized bottle on a stump
at forty feet, then crouch behind his legs
propped wide in the fern. He’d shout,
Come out the door you little coward!”

Stafford’s poems tell stories, and like the best of storytellers he is able to help us see the big events and little details that make those stories real. In “Living by Kindness” he describes capturing the kind of fleeting thought that those of us less poetic often let slip away.

Strange things happen in the mind —
like the time I stopped under a streetlight
to write on an envelope a chance thought
furrowing my head —”we haven’t all
killed each other yet”— and then went on
through the dark streets of my Idaho city
trudging coal dust and snow.

Next day at the lumber yard, I caught
a clerk glancing at me sideways.
Then I remembered the envelope
in my heart — pocket, its message
bold as a badge: “we haven’t
all killed each other yet.”

He was good to me.
Sliding a pine plank off the rack
so clean and sweet, so long, he said,
“You paid for an eight,
but all we got today is twelves.”

Words have made nothing happen yet
except a free four feet of pine
and the cradle it made
and the child I held
under a light in the snow.”

What starts simply ends profoundly. Like the old Gershwin tune “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” which describes the little things a lover remembers, items growing in importance from the way she wears her hat and the way she sips her tea to way she “changed my life” in this poem Stafford takes us from envelope to plank to child, a poetic slip of grace and greatness.

kstafford.jpgPlaces & Stories is filled with such well wrought poems, many taking readers on a tour of the back roads and unseen trails of the western United States. Little tales like “At Lost Lake” and “After the Barn Collapsed” remind me of my own growing up in Oregon. Stafford knows this place and captures it in a way inspired.

Sometimes decidedly shaggy titles introduce poems like a carnival barker coaxing an audience into a tent. “The Restless Calligraphy of the Human Form in Boundless Varieties of Change” sits beside “In a Photograph My Grandmother, Re-Shingling the roof, Pretends to Be Departing for Heaven.” The latter poem begins with an image as real as any in the reader’s own memory:

Wrinkled smile, gloved hands, the minister’s
Bride grips her saw to rip clouds wide”

In the end, Kim Stafford’s poems rip wide clouds and opens a window in places and stories that feel familiar and real. They suggest the spontaneity of scribbled lines, on first reading anyway, with the easy pacing and conversational feel so many have. This feels like Stafford (or one of his narrators) simply telling us a story. But the truth is that this collection of carefully crafted verse is more polished than that. Places & Stories is like that cradle from “Living by Kindness” an inspired idea crafted into something special out of clean, sweet pine.


Continuing this year of poetry next week with Five Decades: Poems 1925-1970 by Pablo Neruda.

Penciled in as a Hawk: Rita Dove

Rita Dove’s 1989 collection Grace Notes contains stories worth hearing. Plumbing her own life and the lives of her family, Dove compiles intimate insights into the world around (and inside) her, and the result is a powerful volume of personal observations and beautiful verse.

doveI’m partial to narrative poetry, or at least poems that masquerade as real life. It’s why I can spend hours with Maya Angelou or Billy Collins, but take my Keats and Shelley by the tablespoon. I like it all (heck, my next two weeks of this year’s adventure in poetry will be spent with the Victorians), but can only read so many poems about birds and vases before wishing for a story or the tangible reality of hearth and home.

Grace Notes captures the rich voice of Rita Dove, balancing big ideas with the melted butter on the top of a bowl of Quaker Oats.

Dove can tell a story. With rich details, well chosen to reveal the truth of the matter, the opening poems of this collection are alive with characters so real they might be sitting in the room where we’re reading Grace Notes.

In “Fifth Grade Autobiography” Dove describes a picture, and a man who gets more and more real as her lines fill the page.

I was four in this photograph fishing
with my grandparents at a lake in Michigan.
My brother squats in poison ivy.
His Davy Crockett cap
sits squared on his head so the raccoon tail
flounces down the back of his sailor suit.

My grandfather sits to the far right
in a folding chair,
and I know his left hand is on
the tobacco in his pants pocket
because I used to wrap it for him
every Christmas. Grandmother’s hips
bulge from the brush, she’s leaning
into the ice chest, sun through the trees
printing her dress with soft
luminous paws.

I am staring jealously at my brother;
the day before he rode his first horse, alone.
I was strapped in a basket
behind my grandfather.
He smelled of lemons. He’s died—

but I remember his hands.”

“Uncle Millet” expands that family with a charming rogue Dove describes as…

Sure, he was no good. And I wasn’t
allowed over when he pulled into town.
But I memorized the stories, imagining
Canada full of men who’d use
a knife to defend their right to say:

Man, she was butter
just waiting to melt.”

Dove captures her younger self poetically, and in a way that encourages us to see her stories through her child’s eyes. There is mischief there and longing, nostalgia and a sense that the woman she would become owed much to the child she had been.

But Dove’s poetry extends beyond family. As Grace Notes whirls into its second and third sections, her poems nod toward both history and greater humanity, personal emotion and our collective experience.

She takes readers through childhood and beyond in “Horse and Tree.”

Everybody who’s anybody longs to be a tree—
or ride one, hair blown to froth.
That’s why horses were invented, and saddles
tooled with singular stars.

This is why we braid their harsh manes
as if they were children, why children
might fear a carousel at first for the way
it insists that life is round. No,

we reply, there is music and then it stops;
the beautiful is always rising and falling.
We call and the children sing back one more time.
In the tree the luminous sap ascends.”

Tree climbing transformed into the wooden horses of a carousel, changed again as our perspective enlarges and Dove reminds us that we are not just the children, but the ones calling to the children, adults aware of the starting and stopping of music, the regular rise and fall of those imitation horses, and the ascension of “luminous sap” in all its incarnations. Dove is a marvelous guide through the human condition, a cartographer of emotion able to help us place ourselves on this emerging map.

Dove provides specific examples as she develops this poetic picture. Her image of Billie Holiday in “Canary” not only captures as much of the enigmatic performer as Dove wants, but connects the singer to readers in the imperative of the final line. 

Billie Holiday’s burned voice
had as many shadows as lights,
a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,
the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.

(Now you’re cooking drummer to bass,
magic spoon, magic needle.
Take all day if you have to
with your mirror and your bracelet of song.)

Fact is, the invention of women under siege
has been to sharpen love in the service of myth.

If you can’t be free, be a mystery.”

“Canary” brings the cadences of Holiday’s off tempo jazz to print, hardly strictly biographical, completely accurate in the feelings it inspires.

In “Ars Poetica” Dove seems to speak of herself as a poet, writing:

What I want is this poem to be small,
a ghost town
on the larger map of wills.
Then you can pencil me in as a hawk:
a traveling x-marks-the-spot.”

Throughout Grace Notes Rita Dove soars, dives, and rips her poetic talons into the flesh of the world like that hawk she pencils in in “Ars Poetica.”


Continuing this year of poetry next week with Places & Stories by Kim Stafford.

“Tumultuous Life and Great Repose” 

With winter break upon us and the weather outside turning cold, dark, and decidedly like something from a Christmas story by Dickens, it felt natural to spend a fortnight or so with the Victorians. Specifically, I pulled a battered green volume of Poetry of the Victorian Period from my bookshelf, knowing that Tennyson, Browning, and Brontë would be stalwart companions over a couple of weeks away from work, as I navigated the holidays and found renewal in the bracing December air.

Poetry of the Victorian Period edited by George Benjamin Woods in 1930 is one of those books that have been on my shelf for a long time. It’s a comprehensive volume, stretching from the 1820s to the early 1920s, from (an obscure to me) Thomas Babington Macaulay to (the very familiar) Thomas Hardy. Woods is generous in both quantity and quality; this is a book that would keep a dedicated undergraduate busy for a term or maybe two.

Screen Shot 2019-12-19 at 9.55.56 AMBut I’m no undergraduate, and for my “Year of Poetry” I know better than to try to capture the whole of Poetry of the Victorian Period in a single post. The book weighs in at 1112 pages and I’m on winter break, which makes anything so ambitious completely silly. So… 

I approached the book as a gentleman from the 1850s might navigate swimming by the shore: stroking out against the tide, paddling into little eddies, and exploring the rocks along the bracing sea. Some days I lingered in comforting waters; others I dashed in and out of rougher waves. As the delightfully named Coventry Patmore wrote in 1877:

Here, in this little Bay,
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,
Where, twice a day,
The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,
I sit me down.
For want of me the world’s course will not fail:
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.”

Such imperialistic optimism. Poetry of the Victorian Period is filled with such musings, more than half a dozen poems juxtaposing youth and age, commentaries on the changing world, poetic chronicles of glorious battles, and as with any collection of poetry, lots of ink spilled in the cause of true love, or something like it.

So I swam through the familiar poets: Arnold, Browning, Rossetti; thoroughly enjoyed coming upon some of my favorite individual poems: Hopkins’ “The Windhover” and Yeats’ “Lake Isle of Innisfree” to name a couple; and was delighted by finding names as unfamiliar to me as characters in the first reading of a book by George Eliot (who herself gets a page of poetry in this voluminous collection).

The inlet devoted to Tennyson was large, with soft sand and some familiar beaches. His easy cadences and beautiful words lapped against a shore I remember from my college days. Still…

Reading Tennyson’s “Recollections of the Arabian Nights” it’s easy to imagine the old poet sitting in a silk dressing gown and velvet smoking cap recalling the “exotic” images of “the orient” through decidedly western (and male) eyes.

When the breeze of a joyful dawn blew free
In the silken sail of infancy,
The tide of time flow’d back with me,
The forward-flowing tide of time;
And many a sheeny summer-morn,
Adown the Tigris I was borne,
By Bagdat’s shrines of fretted gold,
High-walled gardens green and old;
True Mussulman was I and sworn,
For it was in the golden prime
Of good Haroun Alraschid.

Anight my shallop, rustling thro’
The low and bloomed foliage, drove
The fragrant, glistening deeps, and clove
The citron-shadows in the blue:
By garden porches on the brim,
The costly doors flung open wide,
Gold glittering thro’ lamplight dim,
And broider’d sofas on each side:
In sooth it was a goodly time,
For it was in the golden prime
Of good Haroun Alraschid.”

Then, after more than a few more lines of opulent description…

The fourscore windows all alight
As with the quintessence of flame,
A million tapers flaring bright
From twisted silvers look’d to shame
The hollow-vaulted dark, and stream’d
Upon the mooned domes aloof
In inmost Bagdat, till there seem’d
Hundreds of crescents on the roof
Of night new-risen, that marvellous time,
To celebrate the golden prime
Of good Haroun Alraschid.

Then stole I up, and trancedly
Gazed on the Persian girl alone,
Serene with argent-lidded eyes
Amorous, and lashes like to rays
Of darkness, and a brow of pearl
Tressed with redolent ebony,
In many a dark delicious curl,
Flowing beneath her rose-hued zone;
The sweetest lady of the time,
Well worthy of the golden prime
Of good Haroun Alraschid.”

This feels a world away from the world of 2020, the easy self assurance of the Victorian gentleman manifesting itself in alleged appreciation of the “dark delicious curl” and “argent-lidded eyes” of Scheherazade. It is the appreciation of something otherworldly, meaning a world other than Britain.

I swam on from this polished nostalgia to darker waters.

The bay of Emily Brontë was rich with currents and eddies, her poems more dramatic than I remembered, filled with passages that wouldn’t feel out of place in one of the gothic novels of an earlier age:

In the earth–the earth–thou shalt be laid,
A grey stone standing over thee;
Black mould beneath thee spread,
And black mould to cover thee.

“Well–there is rest there,
So fast come thy prophecy;
The time when my sunny hair
Shall with grass roots entwined be.”

But cold–cold is that resting-place,
Shut out from joy and liberty,
And all who loved thy living face
Will shrink from it shudderingly,

“Not so. Here the world is chill,
And sworn friends fall from me:
But there–they will own me still,
And prize my memory.”

Farewell, then, all that love,
All that deep sympathy:
Sleep on: Heaven laughs above,
Earth never misses thee.

Turf-sod and tombstone drear
Part human company;
One heart breaks only–here,
But that heart was worthy thee!”

Like something out of Zastrozzi, that.

The waters of Brontë gave way to less tempestuous straights. “Young and Old” by Charles Kingsley, for instance, sounded to me like a Victorian version of the sentimentalist I’m sometimes accused of being, when friends tell me that when I wear a sweater I’m like everyone’s dad.

When all the world is young, lad,
And all the trees are green;
And every goose a swan, lad,
And every lass a queen;
Then hey for boot and horse, lad,
And round the world away;
Young blood must have its course, lad,
And every dog his day.

When all the world is old, lad,
And all the trees are brown;
And all the sport is stale, lad,
And all the wheels run down;
Creep home, and take your place there,
The spent and maimed among:
God grant you find one face there,
You loved when all was young.”

With two adolescent boys at home, I can see myself sometime soon on the porch reciting Charles Kingsley. Just get me a pipe and a cardigan. Perhaps a fez.

From time to time the poets dropped into dialect, like William Barnes’ 1844 gem:

The girt woak tree that’s in the dell!
There’s noo tree I do love so well;
Vor times an’ times when I wer young
I there’ve a-climb’d, an’ there’ve a-zwung,
An’ pick’d the eacorns green, a-shed
In wrestlen storms from his broad head,
An’ down below’s the cloty brook
Where I did vish with line an’ hook,
An’ beat, in playsome dips and zwims,
The foamy stream, wi’ white-skinn’d lim’s.”

He takes readers like me through his life around the tree, including heartbreak from the girl who will “never be my wife, / She’s still my leaden star o’ life” and his dedication to this marvelous bit of nature.

An’ there, in leater years, I roved
Wi’ thik poor maid I fondly lov’d,-
The maid too feair to die so soon,-
When evenen twilight, or the moon,
Cast light enough ‘ithin the pleace
To show the smiles upon her feace,
Wi’ eyes so clear’s the glassy pool,
An’ lips an’ cheaks so soft as wool.
There han’ in han’, wi’ bosoms warm
Wi’ love that burned but thought noo harm,
Below the wide-bough’s tree we past
The happy hours that went too vast;
An’ though she’ll never be my wife,
She’s still my leaden star o’ life.
She’s gone: an’ she’ve a-left to me
Her token in the girt woak tree;
Zoo I do love noo tree so well
‘S the girt woak tree that’s in the dell.

An’ oh ! mid never ax nor hook
Be brought to spweil his steately look;
Nor ever roun’ his ribby zides
Mid cattle rub ther heairy hides;
Nor pigs rout up his turf, but keep
His lwonesome sheade vor harmless sheep;
An’ let en grow, an’ let en spread,
An’ let en live when I be dead.
But oh! if men should come an’ vell
The girt woak tree that’s in the dell,
An’ build his planks ‘ithin the zide
O’ zome girt ship to plough the tide,
Then, life or death ! I’d goo to sea,
A-sailen wi’ the girt woak tree
An’ I upon his planks would stand,
An’ die a-fighten vor the land,-
The land so dear,-the land so free,-
The land that bore the girt woak tree;
Vor I do love noo tree so well
‘S the girt woak tree that’s in the dell.”

Not all poems are in praise of foliage.

William Schwenk Gilbert, for instance, writes of cannibalism.

Now it seems to me that there are several ways to write about cannibalism: horror, like Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs; clever philosophical banter, like WVO Quine’s “It Tastes Like Chicken”; or grotesque tragedy, like all those newspaper reports about the soccer team whose plane crashed in the mountains. WS Gilbert, the fellow who brought us the very model of a modern major-general, chooses none of those.

“The Yarn of the Nancy Bell” is a jaunty cannibalism poem.

‘Twas on the shores that round our coast
From Deal to Ramsgate span,
That I found alone on a piece of stone
An elderly naval man.

His hair was weedy, his beard was long,
And weedy and long was he,
And I heard this wight on the shore recite,
In a singular minor key:

“Oh, I am a cook and a captain bold,
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And a bo’sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain’s gig.”

And he shook his fists and he tore his hair,
Till I really felt afraid,
For I couldn’t help thinking the man had been drinking,
And so I simply said:

“Oh, elderly man, it’s little I know
Of the duties of men of the sea,
And I’ll eat my hand if I understand
However you can be

‘At once a cook, and a captain bold,
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And a bo’sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain’s gig.'”

Then he gave a hitch to his trousers, which
Is a trick all seamen larn,
And having got rid of a thumping quid,
He spun this painful yarn:

“‘Twas in the good ship Nancy Bell
That we sailed to the Indian Sea,
And there on a reef we come to grief,
Which has often occurred to me.

‘And pretty nigh all the crew was drowned
(There was seventy-seven o’ soul),
And only ten of the Nancy’s men
Said ‘Here!’ to the muster-roll.

‘There was me and the cook and the captain bold,
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And the bo’sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain’s gig.

‘For a month we’d neither wittles6 nor drink,
Till a-hungry we did feel,
So we drawed a lot, and, accordin’ shot
The captain for our meal.

‘The next lot fell to the Nancy’s mate,
And a delicate dish he made;
Then our appetite with the midshipmite
We seven survivors stayed.

‘And then we murdered the bo’sun tight,
And he much resembled pig;
Then we wittled free, did the cook and me,
On the crew of the captain’s gig.

‘Then only the cook and me was left,
And the delicate question,”Which
Of us two goes to the kettle” arose,
And we argued it out as sich.

‘For I loved that cook as a brother, I did,
And the cook he worshipped me;
But we’d both be blowed if we’d either be stowed
In the other chap’s hold,7you see.

“I’ll be eat if you dines off me,”says TOM;
‘Yes, that,’ says I, ‘you’ll be, ‘
‘I’m boiled if I die, my friend, ‘ quoth I;
And “Exactly so,” quoth he.

‘Says he,”Dear JAMES, to murder me
Were a foolish thing to do,
For don’t you see that you can’t cook me,
While I can and will cook you!”

‘So he boils the water, and takes the salt
And the pepper in portions true
(Which he never forgot), and some chopped shalot.
And some sage and parsley too.

“Come here,”says he, with a proper pride,
Which his smiling features tell,
“‘T will soothing be if I let you see
How extremely nice you’ll smell.”

‘And he stirred it round and round and round,
And he sniffed at the foaming froth;
When I ups with his heels, and smothers his squeals
In the scum of the boiling broth.

‘And I eat that cook in a week or less,
And as I eating be
The last of his chops, why, I almost drops,
For a wessel in sight I see!

* * * * * *

“And I never larf, and I never smile,
And I never lark nor play,
But I sit and croak, and a single joke
I have–which is to say:

“Oh, I am a cook and a captain bold,
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And a bo’sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain’s gig!”

I hadn’t thought to expect such a thing, this foundering vessel of people eaters on the sea of Victorian poetry, but there it was, tucked into the same volume that brought me “The Lady of Shalott” and “Dover Beach.” Go figure.


I spent time paddling in larger waters, “Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti, a nice example of the kind of poem that stretches for pages, a Victorian attention span, unapologetically narrative and prone to a playfulness within the strict meter and rhyme.

If I were that undergraduate I mentioned earlier in this post I’d offer some explication here, but I’m just a fellow posing as a Victorian swimmer, so I’ll offer appreciation, not analysis, of this ocean of Victorian verse. It really is vast, and I’m just a buffoon in striped bathing trunks. Even with the more relaxed pace of winter break, I could never paddle all the waters in Poetry of the Victorian Period, but I will be back, perhaps in the springtime, a time poets love even more than they like cannibalism.

Until then I’ll end with Henry Dobson looking “On the Future of Poetry.”

Bards of the Future! you that come
With striding march, and roll of drum,
What will your newest challenge be
To our prose-bound community?
What magic will you find to stir
The limp and languid listener?
Will it be daring and dramatic?
Will it be frankly democratic?

Will Pegasus return again
In guise of modern aeroplane,
Descending from a cloudless blue
To drop on us a bomb or two?

I know not. Far be it from me
To darken dark futurity;
Still less to render more perplexed
The last vagary, or the next.

Leave Pindus Hill to those who list,
Iconoclast or anarchist —
So be it. “They that break shall pay.”
I stand upon the ancient way.

I hold it for a certain thing,
That, blank or rhyming, song must sing;
And more, that what is good for verse,
Need not, by dint of rhyme, frow worse.

I hold that they who deal in rhyme
Must take the standpoint of the time —
But not to catch the public ear,
As mountebank or pulpiteer;

That the old notes are still the new,
If the musician’s touch be true —
Nor can the hand that knows its trade
Achieve the trite and ready-made;

That your first theme is Human Life,
Its hopes and fears, its love and strife —
A theme no custom can efface,
Common, but never commonplace;

For this, beyond all doubt, is plain:
The Truth that pleased will please again,
And move men as in bygone years
When Hector’s wife smiled through her tears.”

Then, as now, poetry is a world of “ tumultuous life and great repose.” …and happy swimming.


Continuing this year of poetry next week with Grace Notes by Rita Dove.

Warming and Bewildering: Margaret Avison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

avisonOdd, but worth doing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No será menos un enigma: Jorge Luis Borges

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


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

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

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

I’m game.

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

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

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

In English: 

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

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

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

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

As in “June 1968,” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

One Notch Below Bedlam: Tracy K. Smith

She had me at the first Bowie reference. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Not Single Spies

Good Poems for Hard Times is the first anthology I’ve chosen for this Year of Poetry, and it made the list as a direct response to a couple of challenging weeks, when life proved (once again) the truth of Shakespeare’s line: “When troubles come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” 

As I get older, I’m more and more convinced that all the truth of the world lurks in Hamlet.

Good poemsI’m also increasingly sure that a part of the answer to those battalions of sorrows, a reality for all of us at some point or another (they are, as that mopey Dane reminds us, just the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”) can be the humanity and perspective poets capture in words.

Edited by Garrison Keillor, and delivered with the ease of an episode of The Writer’s Almanac, Good Poems for Hard Times collects a diverse mix of poems and poets in service of Keillor’s belief that “the meaning of poetry is to give courage. A poem is not a puzzle that you the dutiful reader are obliged to solve. It is meant to poke you, get you to buck up, pay attention…”

Some of the poems in this collection do just that. “Things” by Lisel Mueller shines light on one way we cope with the world around us.

What happened is, we grew lonely
living among the things,
so we gave the clock a face,
the chair a back,
the table four stout legs
which will never suffer fatigue.

We fitted our shoes with tongues
as smooth as our own
and hung tongues inside bells
so we could listen
to their emotional language,

and because we loved graceful profiles
the pitcher received a lip,
the bottle a long, slender neck.

Even what was beyond us
was recast in our image;
we gave the country a heart,
the storm an eye,
the cave a mouth
so we could pass into safety.”

Other poems invite us to slow down, see the humanity in others, and understand that we are part of a greater pageant of humanity that stretches back for centuries. Clipped from Marvell’s “Thoughts in a Garden,” for example:

What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons, as I pass,
Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind from pleasure less
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.”

And some, like Gregory Djanikian’s “Children’s Hospital, Emergency Room,” use a specific subject to inspire the more universal emotion shared by parents now then and always.

You do not want to be here
You wish it were you
The doctor is stitching up
It is a cut on the chin, fixable
This time but deep enough
To make you think of gashes
Puncture wounds flesh unfolding to the bone
Your child is lying on the table
Restrained, You must be still
The nurse who cradles her head is saying
And the doctor is embroidering
Delicately patiently like a kind aunt
But there is not enough solace in that
To make you stop thinking of other children
Whose hurt blooms like a dark interior bruise
In other rooms there is hysteria
The sound of glass shattering
And in the next bay there is the child
Who is sleeping too soundly
You do not want to hear such silence
The evidence which convicts, puts away
Wake up, you whisper, wake up
You want to think of water
A surface with no scars
You want the perpetuity of circles
A horizon clear and unbroken
And the sky a flat blue immensity
Without sides or depth
But there is nothing you can do
When you daughter calls out It hurts
And things regain their angularity
The vulnerable opaqueness, I’m here
You say, Be still, I’m here
Though you wish none of you were
And if anyone offered you now the life
Of the spirit you would take it for all of you
The child asleep or your child
Those in pain or mercifully out
You would take it and fly though never
Would you feel this rush of joy
As you do now when your daughter
Is returned to you unhealed but whole
Your lips pressing against her cheek
And your hands hovering
Like two shy birds about her face.”

“Unhealed but whole.” Good Poems for Hard Times doesn’t promise resolution, few poems do, but it does give something else, something captured in poems like Galway Kinnell’s “Prayer.”

Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.”

IMG_1802The selections in Good Poems for Hard Times do “give courage” and provide hope. Reading the book on my back deck, leaves turning fall color around me and sailing to the ground on November winds, poets like Dickinson and Nemerov gave me reprieve from the stresses of the moment.

I know that those falling leaves will need to get raked soon, a Sisiphysian task if there ever was one, but reading poems like Robyn Sarah’s “Riveted” reminded me that that too is part of this greater adventure of life.

It is possible that things will not get better
than they are now, or have been known to be.
It is possible that we are past the middle now.
It is possible that we have crossed the great water
without knowing it, and stand now on the other side.
Yes: I think that we have crossed it. Now
we are being given tickets, and they are not
tickets to the show we had been thinking of,
but to a different show, clearly inferior.

Check again: it is our own name on the envelope.
The tickets are to that other show.

It is possible that we will walk out of the darkened hall
without waiting for the last act: people do.
Some people do. But it is probable
that we will stay seated in our narrow seats
all through the tedious denouement
to the unsurprising end- riveted, as it were;
spellbound by our own imperfect lives
because they are lives,
and because they are ours.”

Sure, a book of poetry isn’t the only answer to hard times. It would be silly to suggest such a thing. And…

…and this fall Good Poems for Hard Times was the book I needed to read.


Continuing this year of poetry next week with Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars.