“Poems use language to point us toward the world that is often overlooked—the world of stillness, the world where points of vital connection tremble and come into being,” Laurie Lamon has declared. “Danger”— reprinted below with her permission—is from her new manuscript Over Joy. These poems explore origins; they want to speak to the parts of our lives that are impossible to penetrate without the imagination’s vision, and they continue Lamon’s fascination with the closely observed, hauntingly familiar distinctions of our daily lives. —Ed.
In the pictures we drew as children, wind was green, aquatic,
so here was a tune only we could hear,
a green tune of cats we painted
in the morning when our mother’s illness kept us quiet.
And if blue was to be the color of danger
in pictures we drew as children, then sky would be green, and aquatic
the suns we painted yellow-on-yellow and left
in the room for our mother where the slightest motion was the color
of danger. What we knew we made, painting a green tune of cats
in the afternoons when our mother’s illness kept us quiet.
We knew the color of danger was brilliant: blue and red and deeper
blue in the pictures we drew as children, the aquatic
limbs of trees, birds above houses in a perfumed arc;
every night we found a tune of new paint for the greenest spire
of our green tune filled with cats.
In the hours of our mother’s illness, we painted wind and the flight
of wind with brushes and feathers, our names the letters
she found in the pictures we drew as children, blue-green and aquatic
when danger was greenest blue, was red, was a green tune filled with cats
Laurie Lamon’s poems have appeared in journals and magazines including “The Atlantic Monthly,” “The New Republic,” “Ploughshares,” “Arts & Letters Journal of Contemporary Culture,” “The Literary Review,” “180 More Extraordinary Poems for Ordinary Days, edited by Billy Collins,” and others. Her poetry collections include The Fork Without Hunger, 2005, and Without Wings, 2009. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and was selected by Donald Hall as a Witter Bynner Fellow in 2007. She is a professor of English at Whitworth University in Spokane.
Sophie Jewett was born in 1861. Her mother died when she was seven years old. Her father died when she was nine. She and her three siblings were reared by their uncle and grandmother until her adolescence, when, after their deaths, she chose her minister and his daughter for support. They encouraged her literary interests, and by the time she was twenty-eight she was a professor of English at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She never married and never had children, but she was able to express a mother’s love in this charming poem where aging is reversed by memory.
To a Child
The leaves talked in the twilight, dear;
Hearken the tale they told:
How in some far-off place and year,
Before the world grew old,
I was a dreaming forest tree,
You were a wild, sweet bird
Who sheltered at the heart of me
Because the north wind stirred;
How, when the chiding gale was still,
When peace fell soft on fear,
You stayed one golden hour to fill
My dream with singing, dear.
To-night the self-same songs are sung
The first green forest heard;
My heart and the gray world grow young—
To shelter you, my bird.
Just this past Monday, Tracy K. Smith turned 40. On that day she also recalibrated the height of the bar for redefining a life. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in recognition of her collection Life on Mars.
Smith’s dad died in 2008. He was an engineer on the Hubble space telescope and had told her of the import of the images to come from the Red Planet. Indeed, recent findings of the possibility of water on Mars suggest the possibity of once or future life there—a possibilty that inspired the tecnological pioneering of the Hubble and the people who worked on it.
Thus the book is part eulogy. It is also the a clear prediction of the future beauty and hope that will come to all of us from the lively mind of this Princeton professor of creative writing.
Here are the last lines from her poem “Sci-Fi.”
Eons from even our own moon, we’ll drift
In the haze of space, which will be, once
And for all, scrutable and safe.
So often the prizes that have become part of the lexicon of excellence go to the elders who have proven themselves by virtue of sustained output. It is refreshing to have the Pulitzer go to this woman who has three books to her credit and a two-year-old daughter by her side. She is now a highly recognized poet and will forevermore be someone who stands for doing one’s work while working at the rest of what life asks.
This week, in honor of Women’s History Month, we are continuing our look at American history’s treasure-chest of women poets. Here’s the second part of a two-part musing on the poets—in no particular order—who have made their mark on women’s history in our nation.
Not one of the first names you’ll hear in a discussion about great women poets in America, but a name you’re certain to hear when the topic is activist poets. Muriel Rukeyser had enormous gifts for writing and teaching poetry, and she used them to reflect on the gift of living in a land where one is allowed to question the status quo. From her arrest as an 18-year old reporter at the Scottsboro trials on, she championed those without advocates and gave voice to those who were not heard.
Great living animals grow on the stone walls,
their pelts, their eyes, their sex, their hearts,
and the cave-painters touch them with life, red, brown, black,
a woman among them, painting.
Three times nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, Lucille Clifton was recognized by the great Robert Hayden as a promising poet when she was awarded the YW-YMCA Discovery Award while still in college. In 2000, at age 64, she won the National Book Award for “Blessing the Boats,” having won a trove of other honors in between. Lucille Clifton was best known for turning her keen intelligence to the examination of the everyday and always emerging with riches.
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that
From “Blessing the Boats”
In 2001, Nancy Milford wrote Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, perhaps one of the most complete and compelling biographies to be published in this century. Of it, this was said: “Savage Beauty is the portrait of a passionate, fearless woman who obsessed America even as she tormented herself.” Millay was the first woman ever to win the Pulitzer Prize. She was a riveting stage presence, a legendary lover, and a self-immolating moment in American literary history. Her work endures for its relentless relationship to reality.
Typically brilliant Millay:
To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)
Anne Bradstreet was New England’s first published poet— regardless of gender. She was plagued by numerous illnesses and maladies, had eight children and moved her household six times before her beloved North Andover home burned with all of her 800 books and family possessions. Despite those challenges, she lived with grace within the strictures of the life of a colonial woman, and she endures as a cornerstone of American literature. “The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America,” by a “Gentlewoman from Those Parts,” was published in 1650. It was an enormous accomplishment that could be only partially enjoyed, since Bradstreet was careful not to color outside the lines of seemliness for a woman of her time and place.
There’s wealth enough; I need no more.
Farewell, my pelf; farewell, my store.
The world no longer let me love;
My hope and Treasure lies above.
From “Verses Upon the Burning of Our House”
Known to have described herself as one-half Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, Black, Irish, Southern Cheyenne, and Comanche, Ai was as American as a poet can get. Born Florence Anthony in the melting pot of Texas in 1947, she eventually changed her name to Ai, which means “love” in Japanese. Ai served as a voice for those who are most often barely heard as whispers. No one was marginalized in Ai’s world.
Some of what Ai said:
I know the difference between
what it is and what it isn’t.
Just because I can’t touch it
doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
From “Riot Act, April 29, 1992”
During Women’s History Month, it is only natural that our Poetry Sunday musings would linger on the women poets who have stood the test of time, whose words are embedded in memory, whose power to evoke emotion remains strong. It is a joy to present some of them—with the request that you forget Rolling Stone magazine as you read on. By that we mean that this is nothing like the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time” issue. The following list (arranged in no particular order, to further underline the sitting-around-a-table-offering-up-names nature of these choices) is a simple sampling of some of the women who come to mind when Great American Poets is the topic at hand. As always, it is quite a joyful topic to contemplate, just as each of these poets is a treat to read and an honor to call a fellow countrywoman.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). The Godmother of American Poetry and the poet we have featured the most here at WVFC, Emily cannot be overestimated in her powers of expression nor her power to fascinate. Google her name and you’ll find there are over 7 million entries. Enter “Emily Dickinson Seminars 2012” and you’ll see over 180,000 results. Through the miracle of public domain we are able to present one, perhaps unexpected, work of hers from 1755 here, in appreciation for and tribute to what the rest of the world of poetry could only aspire to after she put pen to paper.
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979). Genius is a word often used in description of this troubled and brilliant poet, long regarded as obscure and a “poet’s poet.” Never one to cave to the confessional, Ms. Bishop held herself to high standards of form and image, and dazzled at both. In the 1970s she was rediscovered and placed in the pantheon of literary greats—a position justly deserved.
A sample of Bishop brilliance:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
From “One Art,” by Elizabeth Bishop
Amy Lowell (1874-1925). Born to prominence, with blood as blue as it could be in the Boston of her time, Amy Lowell had access to the 7,000-volume library in her home. After a premier private-school education, she chose to dwell therein to become an outspoken and influential polymath who was both formal imagist and pioneer in free form. She was legitimately a scholar and practitioner of prosody at the highest level.
They brought me a quilled, yellow dahlia,
Flung out of a pale green stalk.
Round, ripe gold
From “Autumn,” by Amy Lowell
Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961). Where to begin when talking about the illustrious “H.D.”? Probably it’s best to start with the incredible. In 1911, as a single woman of age of 25, she traveled to Europe and never returned. She became part of the most fascinating artistic circle of the era—one that included the notorious and enduring Ezra Pound, who influenced her, though she outgrew his restrictive philosophy and went on to write book-length poems and be widely regarded as one of the most original and gifted poets of her generation and well beyond.
Hearken to H.D.:
Fruit cannot drop
through this thick air–
fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears
and rounds the grapes.
From “Heat,” by H.D.
Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000). The most highly regarded during her lifetime of all the poets presented here, Gwendolyn Brooks was first published at age 13; she was recognized for her gifts from the publication of her first book when she was 28 years old. She won a Guggenheim Fellowship shortly thereafter and a Pulitzer Prize (the first awarded to an African American for poetry) for her second book. She was also what would now be called United States Poet Laureate, a teacher, mentor, and spokesperson for her art and her race.
The power of Brooks echoes in these famous lines:
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
From “We Real Cool,” by Gwendolyn Brooks
Marianne Moore (1887-1972). What a joy it is to remember the sports fan who once threw the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. A spinster who mentored the likes of Allen Ginsberg and others, Ms. Moore understood the power of precision and the eloquence of specificity. She could elevate an image to existential example and played with form in signature ways that are still imitated.
A bit of Moore:
Fanaticism? No. Writing is exciting
and baseball is like writing.
You can never tell with either
how it will go
or what you will do . . .
From “Baseball and Writing,” by Marianne Moore
Next week: Some more of America’s women poets with a place in history.
Last week we introduced you to a new voice in poetry, Gwendolyn Jensen. After four decades in leadership roles in education, culminating in ten years as President of Wilson College, Ms. Jensen gave herself to the pursuit of poetry.
Her work is luminous, unexpected, reflective, poignant and powerful. Her voice feels as necessary as it is personal. We are beyond delighted to celebrate the season with Part Two of our conversation with her, followed by her poem entitled “Christmas.”
—Laura Baudo Sillerman
Your poem, “Each Unwritten Poem Has a Face” speaks of an intimacy with a dark ghost or maybe even a dark muse. Is poetry most often a dig in the darkness for you?
It depends what you mean by darkness. If you mean something sinister, or evil, or bad, then no, not darkness. (Though I have tried occasionally to speak of evil, but without success.)
But if you mean something that is unknown, that can only be found by the writing of the poem, then yes, that would be darkness. I have found it very important for me not to know where a poem is headed, not to have preconceived notions. It takes a long time to write a poem.
The back cover of Birthright speaks of a “procession both into and away from unmitigated heartbreak.” Is there healing for you in writing poetry?
Yes, that is from Frannie Lindsey’s blurb about Birthright. She is a very fine poet and a good friend. No, I don’t think there is healing for me in the writing of a poem.
There are many things in life that don’t heal, that shouldn’t heal. These things are often the raw material, the starting point, of a poem. But if the poem just stays with these things and doesn’t go beyond them, then the poem is too personal, just therapy, not especially interesting to another person, and probably not a very good poem.
Winter’s damp has an angular edge
like gratitude, or the will of God,
it inhabits us, not welcome
but inescapable; its charter blows
all imperfection, as nematodes
content to sleep curl themselves
upon another solstice.
And the host of dissolving dead
linger restless in their calm flat world,
wait for mercy, or soft ground.
The rest of us, our gifts, our songs,
unfold what never was,
Poems reprinted with permission from Birthright. Copyright 2011 by Gwendolyn Jensen. Birch Brook Press, Delhi, NY 13753. www.birchbrookpress.info (607) 746-7453.
Too late for last week’s Poetry Friday Gift List, we’ve just learned about a new collection from WVFC stalwart Millicent Borges Accardi, Injuring Eternity. The poet sent us a few sample poems from the collection, and let us know that the book is even available right now as a Barnes and Noble Online Holiday Special ( $11.74, list price $14.95). A great last-minute Christmas gift for any literary friends, yourself included.
Have such soulful
Eyes, their gray suit
Of feathers blurs and sinks
Them into the background
Like a creature in hiding.
They hover below the wild
Bird feeder set up for finches
And harvest the shells, the thistle
Seed casings and what drops after
The finches and faux robins and phoebes
Have feasted. The mourning
Doves huddle and nest in the mountains
Of seed shells and dirt and make circles
With their small bird bodies turning
Into the ground digging a place around
Them as if they were under a shrub with only
The black drops of ink from their tail feathers
Visible. In a group, they lie in wait, their dear gray
Eyes gloomy and sullen and innocent and they want
What the world desires, to be fed and comfortable
And consummated and happy.
Devotion to the Breath
I love you shallow.
I love you deep.
I love you in three parts and when you come in like a lion
And leave like ice.
Clear and lucid as a thought,
And unfelt in the night and tightened
When I am nervous or frightened.
But you always are there
For me; in junior high, my lungs
Ached with the growth of adolescence
So painful the tissues rapidly growing in my body,
Three inches in height one year played havoc
On my chest.
I take you in as new and shiny and promisey,
And full of dope, and I let you go and ease
Out of all the old and ancient and dusty:
Long kept rooms full of fears and relatives
I do not know any more, the mustiness of old
Dreams lost before they were even a thought.
Mornings, you come in thick and heavy
And close to my skin, so heavy that coughs
And grumbles are necessary to bring you up and over
And through my various allergies that have
Followed me through bed, cuddling my brain
And looking for a safe home when I was unaware.
Evenings you are quiet and sit still for the air
As it comes over my throat and whispers to me,
“Later, lover, later.”
Without you I would not press through
Versions and divisions and passageways.
Breath, without you I would not be able to fly or
To swim in the world of language and gauge
The value of love and forgiveness. I am dumb and easy and always here for you.
All my words are written between your punctuation.
Somewhere Ahead a Man is Waiting
He wants to see you
But not to talk. He has other
Things on his mind: maybe mystery,
Maybe evil. There is a road
And a broken phone and the shell
Of an Enco gas station that closed
30 years ago. This man thinks
He knows what is best. This man
Imagines himself stronger than you
Are, with your lost face and open map
Of a mouth. He knows that the signs
Are all there but twisted like dead
Birds in a storm or a young American
Girl who knots her pony tail and then
Nibbles on the end. At the dusky
Café, this man is standing by himself
Having given up the right to ordinary
Talk with others long ago. He knows
What he wants now. He looks at his
Shoes. There is a song called by
Her name he used to know
Before he was alone. The bird
Of paradise only blooms when its roots
Are crowded. He steps forward.
On Sunday, we presented Part 1 of WVFC’s Holiday Gift List, featuring authors of fiction and nonfiction. But poetry has been beloved at Women’s Voices for Change from the beginning. Our Voices in Verse archives begin in 2007 — with a congratulations for Elizabeth Alexander, whose voice we all heard last year on Inauguration Day. The list below includes Alexander and a few other poets we’ve featured over the years, as well as those in our 2010 Poetry Fridays who’ve released a book in the last year or so (all in alphabetical order). Whatever your poetic tastes, you’re likely to find it somewhere on this list. And when you buy and give these books, you’ll be helping us thank their creators yet again for being such an important part of the WVFC community.
Millicent Borges Accardi is a relatively recent member of the Poetry Friday family, but you’ve seen her throughout the year, on the WVFC site, our Facebook page, and in our Twitter stream. Many, though not all, of the poems we featured this year are from her collection Woman on a Shaky Bridge.
Long ago, Diane Ackerman was a rebel in the poetry world: only one reason we were thrilled and honored to have her at WVFC. Her most recent book is Dancing With Cranes And Other Ways to Start The Day.
| When we last saw Elizabeth Alexander, she had just written that inauguration poem, Praise Song for the Day. That poem is now included, with many others, in her recent retrospective collection from Graywolf Press, Crave Radiance.
|Many first learned of Rae Armantrout, 62, when she won last year’s Pulitzer Prize. Learn more from the collection that won the award: Versed.|
|Ava Leavell Haymon‘s 2010 treat, Why the House is Made of Gingerbread, fits the holiday…sort of.
|Our October of Poetry Fridays was a gift from Molly Peacock, whose latest c0llection is The Second Blush. But hot off the presses is The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72.
This Friday we bring you a cycle of poems that poet Carol A. Beane has forged of the particular and the universal. Her writing, so like quilting—meant to be seen in the individual patches and as a whole from a distance—is wonderfully appropriate for the season when night arrives early and our considerations are both of the present and past. We know you will read these three poems as we did—engrossed in their stories and carried to their deeper meanings—and are pleased to tell you more about this gifted and multi-dimensional poet after her work speaks for itself.
This first poem, Beane says, “Celebrates the consciousness of self and wholeness of being, attained or acknowledged, at whatever the age . . . the sweet with the bitter; the bitter mellowed by time and reflection.”
She was 92 years old
and 7 months when she decided
to sleep naked. The first time
was when she dreamt about
an old friend, a coulda been
lover but wasnt—just that
he was sick, poor fellow,
so nothing ever happened;
nothing was really possible,
Meditation on that which
had been done and that which had
been left undone.
It was the first night of
the full moon and the
moon bathed her in
faint noises of flowers
opening; mother of pearl
poppies on her cafe au lait
with a touch of cinnamon self;
her hair on the pillow was
moon glow and her moon
sign beauty marks were
suns in that deep night
which was her first
night of sleeping naked;
delighting in it, until
dawn came, tremulous
and delicate, almost
timid, and that was
only the first
She gave herself over
to the silence of the woods
at night and to the starlight;
joining laughing women
wild dancing trees;
with them, temptresses
for the while
he was sick, you know,
so it couldnt be,
but really, i liked
that fellow so much
so very very much
Now she divines
the time by
where sunlight falls
on her legs…
The doves’ murmurings
the new day.
she used to sleep
with her back to the dawn;
she used to sleep on a grate,
red high-heeled shoes neatly together at the head of
her cardboard-box-when-she-could-get-it bed;
she was a brown skinned woman,
the color of cloves,
thin as a winter’s day.
she used to wait for the bus;
gilded sandals of fine italian leather
over her shoulder, or by her side;
she would lean on a post
and wave all the buses by.
she grew thinner than stillness
on a razor’s edge;
she grew brighter than pain;
and when her bones got too weak
to bear the weight of flesh
grown meager and sad
and heavy beyond belief,
she put on her red high-heeled shoes
they made sculptures
with green long necked bottles,
setting them against the grey stone walls
where stale beer caught sunlight filled with refracted dreams
and drowned lost laughter and memories of
what would never be wrapped in silence and plastic bags.
there are screams that never dry in your throat;
scars that never leave your eyes;
the soul heals wounds with living—
fine sheer veils of grace.
Betsy Wing, reader, writer, translator, and WVFC contributor, offers these facts about Carol A. Beane:
Carol A. Beane is a Washington, D.C.-based poet and artist. She was awarded the 24th Larry Neal Poetry prize for Poetry (funded by the D.C. Commission for the Arts and Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts). Collaborating with Michael B. Platt, Beane has created widely exhibited artist’s books and broadsides of poetry and images that are represented in numerous public and private collections—among them, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the John Hay Library of Brown University, the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Founder’s Library of Howard University, and the Rare Books and Special Collections of the Library of Congress. She received the 2009 National Museum of Women in the Arts Library Fellows Book award for the streets of used to be, done with artist Renée Stout, whose images images distill and resonate with the emotions of Beane’s poetry. About the streets of used to be, Beane says her inspiration came from the life she sees in and on the streets while walking in D.C.; from efforts to survive with some measure of dignity, from people biding time. Beane teaches Spanish and Simultaneous Interpretation at Howard University and is also a translator.
Part two of our Thankgiving gift from Millicent Borges Accardi — whose awards have included fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the California Arts Council, the Barbara Deming Foundation (Money for Women), Jentel, and the Corporation of Yaddo. As we said last week, Accardi is high on the list of Poetry Friday Friends for whom we are grateful, and these three poems are yet another reason why.
Poem Starting with a Line from Norman Dubie
Whatever it is that watches,
Has kept you from loneliness,
Has kept you from pain,
Has urged you, like an old radio show,
Out into the ocean in a storm
To sight the boat crashed (you are sure)
Alongside the lighthouse where you
Have holed up awaiting the dragnet,
Or the shadow or the green hornet
To find you before your ex partner
Digs up the treasury bills you buried
On the side of the cliff your husband
Sent his car over the side of. And, yes,
You are afraid of the whistles, the clock,
The phone that rings inconveniently,
At times when you least want to be reached.
Whatever it is that has kept you
On this path, this trail of running away,
Then, running into yourself
Like a promise made as a child, whatever that is
I am paying attention, and I am listening.
Photograph of My Mother as a Young Mother
She was looking
Shyly into the camera
When this photo was taken,
In a light colored suit with
Large shoulders and belted
Pockets at the hips.
Her right arm was straight,
But she was making a small
Fist as if she were anxious.
She smiles weakly, as someone
Unused to being photographed.
I am not sure
If this is Easter or another holiday.
Maybe 2 or 3, I am beside her,
Sticking out like a strong bite
Of wood, sturdy pageboy haircut,
Tomboy, earnest eyes. My own suit
Of a darker color, a short
Jacket with four large white buttons
Across the front, like an honor badge.
In a fashion popular at the time,
My mother has on her lucky silver
Earrings, this I know from the
Hint of sparkle at the side of her
Hair. This picture was taken during
Her red-headed period, when she
Channeled movie stars with their flipped
Soft waves about the face, bangs to one side.
Clearly 20 years after the fad died
Out. My mother is turning slightly
So as to face the camera,
As if to jump in and say, “Stop, don’t
Take me in this outfit, just take the child,”
“Put the flowers in the background”
I have a lopsided bow in my hair, falling
Off, even with grandmother’s
Bobby pins. The wooden slats
Of the house next door are barely showing
Behind the purple hydrangea bushes,
Which are larger than the Buick. Just out of
Camera range, the car, the future, my father,
And everything else.
Living only with the Hands
In the room with a fire,
knotting as they go,
a mother’s open fingers curl inwards,
crossover through strands
of untamed hair.
Loved from love by love
Women and pieces of ribbon
twist into vows, routines, scuttled air.
Memory by memory, the braids
link everything permanent, to everything temporary.
Loved from love by love
Cupping the strands which travel
side by side, brushing the flax,
combing through snarls
the mother calms her child.
In another room
a man eases his lover’s flush
with a fingertip.
A man lays his vaulted head
on a woman’s breasts.
A man attaches his hips
A man coils the web of vocabulary
behind his back.
Neck above neck
palm over palm,
knees between knees,
he covers her mouth with his words.
Thanksgiving month has brought us these poems from Millicent Borges Accardi. Expect more over the next few weeks. We count Accardi high on the list of Poetry Friday Friends for whom we are grateful, and we happily offer you her words of recollection and comprehension as gateways to your own.
He Only Seemed
Like my Uncle, tall, thin
And wearing dove grey
Suits with a 1940′s hat.
In photographs, through the years,
Sent with the five dollar
Christmas money, we heard
About Arthur Martineau’s
Protective mother, his walks
To mass with shopping after
On Acushnet Avenue,
For purses for my Aunt.
There is some luck involved
And that is all that I know.
We heard he was kind and took
Up with Aunt Sally after
Her three week marriage
To Mr. Ford had ended,
When Sadie decided she
Would rather be a flapper
As if it had three syllables.
There is some luck involved
And that is all that I know.
We never knew the truth
But figured Sally was crafty
That it would have been
Her that did the leaving.
Although, looking back,
It was strange she kept
His name all those long
Years. A Ford instead of
A Thornton, or a Martineau.
Or, even, as a child I wished,
She were Markham like my own
Grandmother, her sister.
There is some luck involved
And that is all that I know.
Between the counter,
You and I work the swing
Shift. Food all night
Long, consuming us, as we
Fumble in our aprons
For pens. I can almost
Taste your smell.
Your face, like onion soup
I want. Long, hungry and
Awake, we pause together
Like cars at a stop sign.
Pause now, we are my hand
Near your trousers.
Take a breath, we are
Full of each other.
Full of your rummy skin.
Full of your slick hair.
Full of my calves.
Our hands now inside
The oily restaurant
Grill of you and me.
We press together
At the counter, serving
Coffee, writing checks.
We shift position,
Places for side work,
Wiping off ketchup
Lids, filling sugar
Dispensers while looking
Down at our legs.
As if we are under
Water, I see the slow curls
Of sweat in your hair.
We have a fast drink
Later, after work,
Confirming the tips
As they are packed
In tall stacks of coins, inside
Paper cylinders ready
For the bank.
It seems each year that October 27, Sylvia Plath’s birthday, brings more darkness around her memory. To be sure, the muse’s shadow side trails after her name, but when we asked Carol Muske-Dukes, California’s Poet Laureate, to briefly frame for us what reading Plath can be, she pointed out a warmth in her work, the muscularity of her efforts, her relationship to the natural world, and the woman she was yet to be.
Her bee poems, her flower poems, animal poems – and those lovely bittersweet poems to her children – keep reminding us how devoted to the earth she was. We see her gardening and bee-keeping in Devon and tending her children in a freezing winter in London. At the same time, her lyrical sensibility flourished, paralleling the rhythms of The Golden Bough and Yeats and Roethke. She had a flawless ear and the true poet’s dedication to endlessly honed craft. It is no wonder she achieved a style like no one else’s.
If she had lived she would have aged and altered in her work. But the astonishing mature poems we retain of hers are not autobiographical only or merely Confessional. They are flights of mastery. They are testimony to the power of imagination – not the limitations of our fixation on faux-authenticity.
Here’s to the miracle of Sylvia Plath – and what she still has to teach us.
The Bee Meeting
On The Arrival of The Bee Box
During last summer’s protests in Iran, while WVFC ran notes from NPR’s Jacki Lyden and honored the iconic Forugh Farrokhzad on Poetry Friday, we never got to mention the country’s current, prized poet laureate Simin Khalili, also known by her pseudonym ‘Behbahani’ — who was hailed by the Washington Post’s Nora Boustany as “A poet who never lost her pen or soul.”
This week, Behbahani’s name and face streamed across the headlines yet again: After returning to Iran after years of exile and talking to the media about the protests, the 82-year-old poet has been barred from traveling outside the country. She told the BBC that “The moment I was due to get on the plane, a man came and took my passport away from me and said that I was banned from going abroad.” It’s not surprising, giving the international reputation enjoyed by the Nobel Prize-nominated poet.
According to the Persian Cultural Foundation, which held a symposium on her work last year in Toronto, Behbahani was born in 1927 in Tehran to literary parents: noted feminist author Fakhr Ozma Arghoon was her mother and writer and newspaper editor Abbas Khalili was her father. She began writing poetry at fourteen. She’s now widely credited with reinventing the ancient Sufi verse form, the ghazal, making “a historic development in the form … as she added theatrical subjects and daily events.”
By the turn of the 20th century, Behbhani was Iran’s most famous living female poet, and inspired loyalty that reached far beyond her command of verse form. In 2006, she told The Washington Post about being approached by police during International Women’s Day:
“Hey, don’t hurt this lady. She is Simin Behbahani,” a student in the crowd protested. “If you touch her, I will set myself on fire.”His outburst enraged the police. One of the officers lashed Behbahani’s right arm and back with a whip and then beat her with a club that emitted electric shocks, she recalled. A passing policeman recognized her, intervened and bundled her into a taxi.
Behbahani is close to Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian exile poet WVFC recently named as one of our Nine Women to Run the World. Like Ebadi, Behbahani has been vocal in support of the “green movement” in Iran following the disputed 2009 elections. When stopped last week she was on her way to Paris, where she was scheduled to read one of her poems.
Below, we present video of Behbahani speaking at UCLA in 2004 (in Persian, but you can see the charisma Tehran may fear), and one of her classic poems.
GRACEFULLY SHE APPROACHED
Gracefully she approached,
in a dress of bright blue silk;
With an olive branch in her hand,
and many tales of sorrows in her eyes.
Running to her, I greeted her,
and took her hand in mine:
Pulses could still be felt in her veins;
warm was still her body with life.
“But you are dead, mother”, I said;
“Oh, many years ago you died!”
Neither of embalmment she smelled,
Nor in a shroud was she wrapped.
I gave a glance at the olive branch;
she held it out to me,
And said with a smile,
“It is the sign of peace; take it.”
I took it from her and said,
“Yes, it is the sign of…”, when
My voice and peace were broken
by the violent arrival of a horseman.
He carried a dagger under his tunic
with which he shaped the olive branch
Into a rod and looking at it
he said to himself:
“Not too bad a cane
for punishing the sinners!”
A real image of a hellish pain!
Then, to hide the rod,
He opened his saddlebag.
in there, O God!
I saw a dead dove, with a string tied
round its broken neck.
My mother walked away with anger and sorrow;
my eyes followed her;
Like the mourners she wore
a dress of black silk.
As I write this I am looking out of a window in an air conditioned (!) Barnes & Noble in Houston. I have just seen a crow. Once again I am reminded of how Lisa Russ Spaar can take the particular and poetically turn it into the pertinent, the powerful, the universal.
It is snowing where I live. The shops of Houston are air conditioned as I visit. Some one of our readers in Florida is possibly applying sun protection before a beach walk. Another is drying off after last week’s California rains. And one is even having a birthday in London.
What is true of all of us is that we have been united for all of January by our great good fortune in reading a poet-in-residence as wise, as generous, as soaring of spirit and grounded in truth as Lisa Spaar, whose gloss on the poem you can see below, after the poem itself. I bemoan the ending of this month and at the same time celebrate this one more poem for us to take to heart.
(Laura Baudo Sillerman)
Crows, Rt. 29
Wind shifts the power line,
repairing our dark quarrel, slurred
& loaded above the rushing hour.
Our narrator is melancholy.
She rarely weeps, & mostly like this,
in the car, an intake as though to speak,
then not. At the border,
let’s return her name, if we can.
Take it back, take it back,
she once cried, straddling her sister.
Undertow, abacus of blood
and haloed headlamps below: make silence.
At the signal, let us bellow
our call, awe, awe, awe.
“‘Crows’ was an experiment in allowing crows hunched against wind on a power line overlooking a line of traffic at rush hour to speak, in an kind of metaphysical way, for the speaker of the lyric (“our narrator” — a woman in a car at approaching a stoplight where the crows are perched, musing) — a way of allowing the prescient otherness of the animal to address the speaker’s interiority, her “melancholy,” with what I hope is a welcome and refreshing distance. I was, of course, talking back in some ways, in homage, to the wonderful anonymous ballad “The Twa Corbies,” with its haunting final couplet: “O’er his banes, when they are bare, / The wind shall blow for evermair.” I liked the idea of turning the sadness stalking the ballad and my poem into a kind of beauty (“abacus of blood / and haloed headlamps”), a cause for awe.