And in the end…

Summer starts next week, the rapids of the end of the school year slowing as the river of life widens into the more placid flow of summer vacation. We’re all ready, I think.

The days are more reliably sunny now, stretching well past nine o’clock, a bugbear to parents of elementary school kids who have no interest in bedtime before dark, but a harbinger that summer is coming soon.

In that spirit, a couple of weeks ago a friend reminded me of some lines from a poem by James Russell Lowell, “The Vision of Sir Launfal.”

And what is so rare as a day in June?
Then, if ever, come perfect days;
Then Heaven tries the earth if it be in tune,
And over it softly her warm ear lays:
Whether we look, or whether we listen,
We hear life murmur, or see it glisten;
Every clod feels a stir of might,
An instinct within it that reaches and towers,
And, groping blindly above it for light,
Climbs to a soul in grass and flowers;
The flush of life may well be seen
Thrilling back over hills and valleys;
The cowslip startles in meadows green,
The buttercup catches the sun in its chalice,
And there’s never a leaf nor a blade too mean
To be some happy creature’s palace;
The little bird sits at his door in the sun,
Atilt like a blossom among the leaves,
And lets his illumined being o’errun
With the deluge of summer it receives;
His mate feels the eggs beneath her wings,
And the heart in her dumb breast flutters and sings;
He sings to the wide world, and she to her nest,—
In the nice ear of Nature which song is the best?

Now is the high-tide of the year,
And whatever of life hath ebbed away
Comes flooding back with a ripply cheer,
Into every bare inlet and creek and bay;
Now the heart is so full that a drop over-fills it,
We are happy now because God wills it;
No matter how barren the past may have been,
‘Tis enough for us now that the leaves are green;
We sit in the warm shade and feel right well
How the sap creeps up and the blossoms swell;
We may shut our eyes, but we cannot help knowing
That skies are clear and grass is growing;
The breeze comes whispering in our ear,
That dandelions are blossoming near,
That maize has sprouted, that streams are flowing,
That the river is bluer than the sky…

The notion that “every clod feels a stir of might” is one to cling to as we put the school year behind us and look forward to a deep breath of summer air and then a return to school with a new energy and renewed connections. 

Before that… time to “sit in the warm shade and feel right well.”

Lowell is swell and all that, but it’s about this time of year that I think of another couple of poets, Lennon and McCartney, who told the world that “in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

This pandemic and the last year and a half of adjusting to it in ways unexpected and unrelenting is a reminder that in the end it’s love that really matters. Now, in this “high-tide of the year,” I look forward to some days when “whatever of life hath ebbed away / Comes flooding back with a ripply cheer.”

“The horizon leans forward”

February is Black History Month and on the heels of Amanda Gorman’s amazing poem at this January’s inauguration, I was reminded of a time, now long before any of the students at my school were born, when Maya Angelou delivered an inaugural poem that echoed in our collective consciousness and included the still relevant lines:

History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

“On the Pulse of Morning” is still fresh in my memory, though I heard it first in 1993. I used it in the English classes I taught that year, and for years afterward, alongside poets like Alice Walker, Rita Dove, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Their words told stories my students needed to hear.

They are stories and perspectives that we still need to listen to; too much of Angelou’s call to action has been left unfinished. As the years move forward, however, and we as a nation recognize systemic and deep rooted injustice, I’m hopeful that we will hear and act on the words of the artists who push us to change.

Those voices are many and varied. While Amanda Gorman’s beautiful poem and exquisite performance of “The Hill We Climb” reverberated with the energy of youth, when Maya Angelou stood on that cold inauguration stage she was a poet of great renown, respected, celebrated, and familiar. Angelou brought both passion and gravitas to her reading, and hers is a poem I’d encourage us to revisit as we are inspired by Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” to know that poems sometimes transcend the occasions for which they are written. Years from now it will not be the inaugural speeches by any politicians that are remembered, but the poems.

As a nation, and world, are still learning to face history with courage, still struggling and still would do well to hear Angelou’s words: 

Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.

Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands,
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For a new beginning.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.

It is important for all of us to strive to lean forward, and live up to another line from Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” I believe that poetry can help us do just that.

I encourage us all to embrace the spirit of “On the Pulse of Morning,” show kindness, and have the courage to change our world for the better.

How Much — How Little

Emotions are high. Tears, anger, frustration, arguments, hurt feelings, and a feeling of failure have all been on my computer desktop this week, through emails, Zoom meetings, and snippets of social media. It’s been weeks since we started school, such as it is, not together on a campus, but remotely through keyboards and computer screens across town, and few days go by when, as the principal of an amazing school, I don’t see tears and shaking heads as part of my working day.

Emily Dickinson caught the emotion of it all in her short, short poem:

In this short Life
That only lasts an hour
How much—how little—is
Within our power

It’s in those last two lines that I suspect at least some of the emotions originate. It’s easy to feel that much, very, very much to be honest, is not within our power.

A counselor I work with made the comparison between our pandemic prompted separation and being an astronaut. Astronauts, she said, know when they’re coming back to earth. We don’t.

And so… as a high school principal I see small things turning big ones for many of the students and families I work with: that mis-marked absence, that grade on a quiz, that inability to see anyone beyond an inch wide square in a video conference. Day after day, week after week, those small things add up and can feel big.

When it’s not in our power to chat with a friend in the hallway, stay after class to ask the teacher a question (discreetly), or stop by the counseling office without an appointment, we start wondering what is within our power.

For some the answer is disheartening, unhealthy, or worse. The pain I see in the eyes of my staff, students, and parents is real. And…

In another, more well known poem Emily Dickinson reminds us that:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

“Chillest land” and “strangest sea” sound about right, at least on some days, and the hope that Emily Dickinson writes about, resilient, consistent, and quietly powerful, is appealing. We all want to believe that the stress we feel can be overcome. We need to hope and hold on to hope, and Dickinson’s “thing with feathers” is a nice reminder of that need.

Nice, of course, but… right now this present gale does seem to be “abashing the little bird” and, for me at least, that familiar poem isn’t the only place I’ve found some comfort and inspiration from the Belle of Amherst, and it might not even be the best.

One poem that struck me as apt for today was a lesser known piece (at least to me) from early in Dickinson’s poetic life.

Besides the Autumn poets sing
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the Haze –

A few incisive mornings –
A few Ascetic eves –
Gone – Mr. Bryant’s “Golden Rod” –
And Mr. Thomson’s “sheaves.”

Still, is the bustle in the Brook –
Sealed are the spicy valves –
Mesmeric fingers softly touch
The eyes of many Elves –

Perhaps a squirrel may remain –
My sentiments to share –
Grant me, Oh Lord, a sunny mind –
Thy windy will to bear!

This poem, which I didn’t remember as I was reading it out of the big book of Emily Dickinson poems I brought out during the summer, reminds me that while there is much not in our power (the coming of fall, for one thing, and its attendant chill), we can control our view of it. We can choose to notice “the eyes of many elves” where others might see only gray days and frost on the ground) and look inside ourselves for peace and “a sunny mind” to see us through the winds we bear.

I like that, a sunny mind against the winds. How much is within our power.

Or maybe it’s just time to go watch Elton John sing “I’m Still Standing.”

I think if she were alive today even Emily Dickinson would smile at that.

This was supposed to be…

Commencement looked different this year. No bagpipes echoing in the performing arts center, no lines of graduates in robes, faculty packed shoulder to shoulder on stage, or flowers in front of a podium. With COVID-19 keeping us distanced from each other we had to find new ways of doing things: a drive through experience where graduates could decorate their cars and motor through the parking lot to the physically distanced cheers of the staff, delivering balloons to the valedictorian, and signs to every senior. But commencement… that’s a different story.

IMG_5304We planned for a drive-in experience, but the curve wouldn’t flatten and good sense meant we ought to put together a celebration of the Class of 2020 on film, which we did, complete with amazing student speakers, a heartfelt message from the teacher they’d chosen to address the class, and the obligatory few words from the principal.

I’ve made it through two years without giving a conventional speech at graduation. My first year at ACMA I read C.P. Cavafy’s poem “Ithaca” and last June I opted for a nine word address, well three words repeated three times. This year, with such uncertainty in the air, it felt like I ought to be reassuring, not too goofy, so I opted to record some remarks straight from the heart.

I started with a poem, nothing fancy, just a few lines I jotted out on a yellow legal pad as I thought about what my seniors had been through, and were still going through now.

I thought about them as people and as artists, as important members of our school community, and as a collective force for change. The poem I wrote to read to them this year went like this.

This was supposed to be
a graduation speech, but…

You’ve seen behind the curtain
and it’s different now.

You saw disarray.
You saw a stage
without room to dance
or make music
or maybe even read a poem.

So you looked around
and took a deep breath
and struck out to the world beyond
our little stage.

You’d probably gotten tired of the
over thirty crowd
telling you about “the real world”
you know you’ve already been living in
the real world.

So you stepped outside
our school and saw

Things were different there too.
Torn up.
Chaotic.
Changing
and…

You realized that there is still art to be made
films to shoot, songs to write, plays to perform.

And it’s up to you to do that.

I’ve often said “ACMA isn’t a building”
…boy the universe took me up on that one.

But I hope that ACMA can be a beacon,
a place of memories,
and of inspiration.

I hope ACMA can always be home.

Because you are ACMA,
and just because you’ve seen behind the curtain
to that world of chaos and disorder,
(or maybe because of it)
doesn’t mean you’ve been robbed;
it means you’ve been catapulted into a world
that needs you.

Needs you.

And you’re up to the task.

So go out and make art
make friends
and make a difference.

We’ll be here, wherever ACMA is, cheering you on.

Screen Shot 2020-07-06 at 3.34.46 PM

I filmed myself delivering the poem, using a green screen to toggle between our current campus (at an unused middle school while they’re building our new school building) and our established performing art center, a place that all of us miss very much.

I will miss the students who made up ACMA’s Class of 2020; in fact, I’ve been missing them since we left campus on March 13th. I know I’ll see many of them again, whether on campus or off, once all this is over, but that only goes part way in softening the blow of losing them too soon.

But I believe what I said to them in that video: they are up to the task of making art, making friends, and making a difference, and we here back at home will be cheering them on.

 

Poetry Kiosk

There’s a house in my neighborhood with a homemade kiosk in the front yard where they tack up pages of poetry. Every few days a new poem appears, and over the course of the year words from Alfred Noyes to William Stafford to Seamus Heaney have looked out from behind the glass offering little bits of verse to the world around them.

IMG_4115

Walking the dog, I make a point of passing that house every week, and the little bit of joy it provides —poetry in a prosaic world— is the same kind of magic I hoped to replicate in the series of posts that made up my “Year of Poetry” and ran from a sunny day in August through the end of the school year in June.

A couple of folks have asked about seeing a list of those poets and posts, and I include it here for anyone curious about the diverse group of writers I’ve spent time with over the year. They’re a fantastic bunch, spanning decades and continents, and my life is richer because of them.

Poet: Book Post
Introduction Bee Loud Glade
Margaret Atwood: Two-Headed Poems Unshelled Turtle
Julia Randall: The Puritan Carpenter August Eyes
Octavio Paz: A Draft of Shadows Edén Subvertido
Seamus Heaney: Seeing Things Itinerant School Conjuror 
Maya Angelou: Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit… Darning Worn-out Dreams
Ted Hughes: Crow King of Carrion
William Stafford: Even in Quiet Places Wanderings
Alice Walker: Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful A Whistling Woman
Anne Sexton: 45 Mercy Street My Oily Life
Good Poems for Hard Times Not Single Spies
Tracy K. Smith: Life on Mars One Notch Below Bedlam
Jorge Luis Borges: In Praise of Darkness No será menos un enigma
Margaret Avison: Winter Sun Warming and Bewildering
Victorians “Tumultuous Life and Great Repose” 
Rita Dove: Grace Notes Penciled in as a Hawk
Kim Stafford: Places & Stories Writing on an Envelope
Pablo Neruda: Five Decades: Poems 1925-1970 Dios de los perros perdidos
Doug Moench: Hit It Crowning Madness
Mary Oliver:  Dog Songs  A Sweet Arrangement
“Finna” by Nate Marshall Finna
Floyd Skloot: Wild Light Time to Dream
Gwendolyn Brooks: Selected Poems Like Narrow Banners for Some Gathering War
Jane Hirshfield: The Beauty Noun and Story
Fatimah Asghar: If they Come for Us Making Eye Contact with Pain
Gary Snyder: Turtle Island Swirl in the Flow
Jack Kerouac: San Francisco Blues Breboac! Karrak!
Sharon Olds: The Wellspring Without Belief, Praying
Leonard Nimoy: We Are All Children Searching For Love A Being Little Known
Billy Collins: Picnic Lightning Wind like the hair of dryads
Dante: La Vita Nuova “Nature, disposed to love…”
Kim Whysall-Hammond The Cheeseseller’s Wife
Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems A Many-Sided Mind
Yrsa Daley-Ward: Bone Writing the Truth
Sidney: A Defense of Poetry In the Company of the Paperblurrers
C.P. Cavafy: The Complete Poems Indignant Immortal Nature
A Treasury of Great Poems A Treasury of Memory
Yeats redux (and end) “Take down this book…”

Poetry can be healing, challenging, kind, harsh, honest, and transformational. The poets on this list are just a random sampling, a selection of folks who fill my own bookshelf, but hardly comprehensive in the world of poetry. For anyone still reading this post about poetry, and that takes a pretty special person in my opinion, I’d love to know who would be on your list if you were to read a poet a week over the course of a school year.

George Sand said that “He who draws noble delights from sentiments of poetry is a true poet, though he has never written a line in all his life.” To all my friends, poets or poetic souls, I wish you happy reading.

Summer, I suppose

It is summer
I suppose
though the rain is falling
hard
outside my window
and the sky is gray
and we had to turn the heat on this morning
after coming back in with a wet dog.

It is summer
I suppose
classes ended on Thursday
of last week
I’m told (though the proof of it
is as unseen as faith)
there were no screams as students
left the building
no lockers left open or papers scattered
just that today the kids won’t log on.

It is summer
I suppose
though we’d like to be at school
seeing friends, at least, or
somewhere other than our houses
where it feels we have been
for so long.

It is summer
I suppose
though no baseball
comes from my radio
the cheering crowd a murmuring
that has never in my half century on the planet
paused
as it has now.

Crowds will return
it will stop raining
students will come back to school
and
sometime
the world will
say in more reassuring tones,
it is summer again.

IMG_5534

January

Snow days
in Oregon are
aspirational, more often than not
meteorologists promising
just enough
to raise the hopes of every student
and teacher
to heights as unrealistic
as a legitimate January snow.

Sometimes,
sometimes
it happens
(not every year, but…)
once in a grade school lifetime
once again in middle school
maybe
and in high school
at least a late start or two.

Instead, we go to school
frozen mornings
crisp afternoons
every eye looking out
classroom windows
for the whisper of snow
that will not stick
not today
not during math class
or English or history
but might tonight

because sometimes…

IMG_2152

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.