Sunday, May 30, 2010

while buzzing around the house on espresso...

"Morning" by Billy Collins

Why do we bother with the rest of the day,
the swale of the afternoon,
the sudden dip into evening,

then night with his notorious perfumes,
his many-pointed stars?

This is the best—
throwing off the light covers,
feet on the cold floor,
and buzzing around the house on espresso—

maybe a splash of water on the face,
a palmful of vitamins—
but mostly buzzing around the house on espresso,

dictionary and atlas open on the rug,
the typewriter waiting for the key of the head,
a cello on the radio,

and, if necessary, the windows—
trees fifty, a hundred years old
out there,
heavy clouds on the way
and the lawn steaming like a horse
in the early morning.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Words in Air

A couple of days ago something about Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell in one New York publication or another caught my eye. I was doing ten things at once and could not stop and read the article, but I could have sworn it said something about their letters being turned into a play. The only thought I had time for was "I'm going to this, and who is going with me?" The latter half of that question will forever be a mystery because a) I don't know anyone who is as obsessed with the Bishop-Lowell letters/relationship as I am, and b) I missed the show! A one-night-only reading at the 92nd Street Y this week. Would have loved to have seen who showed up at that event. Kindred spirits, people who love letter-writing as much as I do...a bunch of senior citizens? Betting on that last one. One of my dearest friends with whom I still correspond (though we've moved from letters to email) kidded me recently that I was channeling 40 back when I was 17. Thus finding myself in a room with senior citizens at age 33 would not at all have been surprising.

I remember wanting to write letters as soon as I learned to read. I thought it would be fun to create fictional characters and have them send letters back and forth. My neighborhood friend, whom I tried to persuade into writing with me, would have none of this so-called "fun." So instead I had to dress up as Darth Vader and Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz for the next several years. Fun, I suppose, but not the kind of creative outlet I was hoping for.

I think if this blog is anything - even from the start - it's been letters. A way to process through writing where I am creatively, emotionally, and intellectually. A way to safekeep the loveliness I find in others' words. A way to share some of this with readers, though I never expect a reply.

Anyway, back to Bishop and Lowell. I find their letters, or their relationship through letters, fascinating. Two brilliant writers - both emotional messes, really - creating a world on the page that could never have come to pass in real life.

Here is my favorite snippet from one of Lowell's letters to Bishop:

There's one bit of my past that I would like to get off my chest and then I think all will be easy with us.
...I remember one evening presided over by Mary McCarthy and my Elizabeth was there, and going home to the Bard poets' dormitory, I was so drunk that my hands turned cold and I felt half-dying and held your hand. And nothing was said, and like a loon that needs sixty feet, I believe, to take off from the water, I wanted time and space, and went on assuming, and when I was to have joined you at Key West I was determined to ask you. Really for so callous (I fear) a man, I was fearfully shy and scared of spoiling things and distrustful of being steady enough to be the least good. Then of course the Yaddo explosion came and all was over. Yet there were a few months. I suppose we might almost claim something like apparently Strachey and Virginia Woolf. And of course there was always the other side, the fact that our friendship really wasn't a courting, was really disinterested (bad phrase) really led to no encroachments. So it is.
Let me [say] this though and then leave the matter forever; I do think free will is sewn into everything we do; you can't cross a street, light a cigarette, drop saccharine in your coffee without really doing it. Yet the possible alternatives that life allows us are very few, often there must be none. I've never though there was any choice for me about writing poetry. No doubt if I used my head better, ordered my life better, worked harder etc., the poetry wold be improved, and there must be many lost poems, innumerable accidents and ill-done actions. But asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had...

~August 15, 1957

So today on my first day off for the summer, I went back and found that article on Bishop and Lowell. Here is the link to The New Yorker's article and a video of the reading.

And here is Elizabeth Bishop's final letter to Lowell, which she wrote upon his death:

"North Haven"

In memoriam: Robert Lowell

I can make out the rigging of a schooner
a mile off; I can count
the new cones on the spruce. It is so still
the pale bay wears a milky skin; the sky
no clouds, except for the long, carded horse's tail.

The islands haven't shifted since last summer,
even if I like to pretend they have
--drifting, in a dreamy sort of way,
a little north, a little south or sidewise,
and that they're free within the blue frontiers of bay.

This month, our favorite one is full of flowers:
Buttercups, Red Clover, Purple Vetch,
Hackweed still burning, Daisies pied, Eyebright,
the Fragrant Bedstraw's incandescent stars,
and more, returned, to paint the meadows with delight.

The Goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the White-throated Sparrow's five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.
Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.

Years ago, you told me it was here
(in 1932?) you first "discovered girls"
and learned to sail, and learned to kiss.
You had "such fun," you said, that classic summer.
("Fun" - it always seemed to leave you at a loss...)

You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue...And now - you've left
for good. You can't derange, or re-arrange,
your poems again. (But the Sparrows can their song.)
The words won't change. Sad friend, you cannot change.

So lovely - my colleague, Marla Faith, sent this to me yesterday. She lost everything material in the flood and still manages to create beautiful things on a daily basis. Including this poem.

After the great flood of May 2
the support and love of the universe is
throwing flowers upon my footsteps
opening doors on sunlight streaming
in on me the invisible angels are here
kissing my forehead with healing balm
Mother earth father sky and I,
the ether in between
the damp and dark run out
and clear air returns
The fullness of this life
is bigger than the body
or the home we cling to
The fullness of the Spirit
is our true home
So why grieve over the house
emptied by the flood to a few
sticks holding it up?
'Twas a skeleton we filled with
what we thought we were
And when all the stuff is washed away
what remains?
When Spirit is freed from form
it is still Spirit
The car that became my private billboard, an extension of myself
had the same end as my collection of books
under muddied waters
Yet I remain
untethered to these things of which
I'd grown so fond
And too, my loves will one day leave
their physical forms
I myself will say goodbye to this body
Yet what remains is bigger and more real
for those who see
Spirit inhabits and is beyond habitation
Love alone is real
only this Essence abides

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Distraction Extraordinaire

How can I grade exams when The New Yorker that just arrived at my doorstep has a brilliant poem (villanelle?) about my hometown?

"Roanoke Pastorale"

Cardinal, goldfinch, titmouse, turkey buzzard -
dear companions of my afternoons -
above this field, high clouds dream of blizzards

to snow me in till spring ends my solitude.
Sober's my binge now, nature my saloon.
Wren, mourning dove, house finch, turkey buzzard -

for your entertainment, I sing the words
of old fifties songs, use baby talk, croon
as I walk the field beneath great blizzard -

dreaming clouds. You gaudy pretties, sweet birds
of my senior years - my later's my soon.
Catbirds flit through cedars in the graveyard,

turkey buzzards swirl their patterns overhead,
across the mountainside sunlight bows a tune
rising to blue eternity but heard

by the heron fishing the creek, wizard
of stillness, creature designed by the moon.
Bluebird, jay, chipping sparrow, turkey buzzard,
clouds, and field - I dream this life, walk this world.

~David Huddle

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Colors by Robert Creeley

Colors of stars,
all you people. Cars,
lights, wet streets.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"The Effort" by Billy Collins

Would anyone care to join me
in flicking a few pebbles in the direction
of teachers who are fond of asking the question:
"What is this poet trying to say?"

as if Thomas Hardy or Emily Dickinson
had struggled but ultimately failed in their efforts -
inarticulate wretches that they were,
biting their pens and staring out the window for a clue.

Yes, it seems that Whitman, Amy Lowell
and the rest could only try and fail,
but we in Mrs. Parker's third-period English class
here at Springfield High will succeed

with the help of these study questions
in saying what the poor poet could not,
and we will get this done before
that orgy of egg salad and tuna fish known as lunch.

Tonight, however, I am the one trying
to say what it is this absence means,
the two of us sleeping and waking under different roofs.
The image of this vase of cut flowers,

not from our garden, is no help.
And the same goes for the single plate,
the solitary lamp, and the weather that presses its face
against these new windows - the drizzle and the
morning frost.

So I will leave it up to Mrs. Parker,
who is tapping a piece of chalk against the blackboard,
and her students - a few with their hands up,
others slouching with their caps on backwards -

to figure out what it is I am trying to say
about this place where I find myself
and to do it before the noon bell rings
and that whirlwind of meatloaf is unleashed.

Monday, May 17, 2010

"Comfort" by Robert Creeley

Staggering, you know
they fall
forward to

their desire. Garbage,
pain, people,

want it all,
their comfort
every time.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

For My Seniors

“Aristotle” by Billy Collins

This is the beginning.
Almost anything can happen.
This is where you find
the creation of light, a fish wriggling onto land,
the first word of Paradise Lost on an empty page.
Think of an egg, the letter A,
a woman ironing on a bare stage
as the heavy curtain rises.
This is the very beginning.
The first-person narrator introduces himself,
tells us about his lineage.
The mezzo-soprano stands in the wings.
Here the climbers are studying a map
or pulling on their long woolen socks.
This is early on, years before the Ark, dawn.
The profile of an animal is being smeared
on the wall of a cave,
and you have not yet learned to crawl.
This is the opening, the gambit,
a pawn moving forward an inch.
This is your first night with her,
your first night without her.
This is the first part
where the wheels begin to turn,
where the elevator begins its ascent,
before the doors lurch apart.

This is the middle.
Things have had time to get complicated,
messy, really. Nothing is simple anymore.
Cities have sprouted up along the rivers
teeming with people at cross-purposes—
a million schemes, a million wild looks.
Disappointment unshoulders his knapsack
here and pitches his ragged tent.
This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,
where the action suddenly reverses
or swerves off in an outrageous direction.
Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph
to why Miriam does not want Edward's child.
Someone hides a letter under a pillow.
Here the aria rises to a pitch,
a song of betrayal, salted with revenge.
And the climbing party is stuck on a ledge
halfway up the mountain.
This is the bridge, the painful modulation.
This is the thick of things.
So much is crowded into the middle—
the guitars of Spain, piles of ripe avocados,
Russian uniforms, noisy parties,
lakeside kisses, arguments heard through a wall—
too much to name, too much to think about.

And this is the end,
the car running out of road,
the river losing its name in an ocean,
the long nose of the photographed horse
touching the white electronic line.
This is the colophon, the last elephant in the parade,
the empty wheelchair,
and pigeons floating down in the evening.
Here the stage is littered with bodies,
the narrator leads the characters to their cells,
and the climbers are in their graves.
It is me hitting the period
and you closing the book.
It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen
and St. Clement with an anchor around his neck.
This is the final bit
thinning away to nothing.
This is the end, according to Aristotle,
what we have all been waiting for,
what everything comes down to,
the destination we cannot help imagining,
a streak of light in the sky,
a hat on a peg, and outside the cabin, falling leaves.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The point is to live everything. ~ Rilke

My sis sent me a book last week that opens with the above line from Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. I've been wondering since last Thursday: What exactly does this mean? And do I, can I do this? A little googling and I found the full source, or some version of it:

"I want to beg you, as much as I can, to be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."

Yesterday I lived my way into fostering two baby cats who have been displaced in the flood. Saying yes to this was one of the most peaceful things I've done in weeks. It wasn't a question - just an answer.

So I see...this is how the universe unfolds, if I can be patient enough with it.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

When I think about the work being done all over Nashville right now, these lines from Eliot's "The Wasteland" come to mind: "Shall I at least set my lands in order?/...These fragments I have shored against my ruins..." A poem that is, admittedly, impossible for me to understand in any way other than in fragments. So, too, with Nashville post-flood. The widespread devastation is overwhelming and certainly has the potential to be paralyzing. But everywhere people are shoring fragments one piece at a time, setting the land in order again. And once again I find myself in awe of the human capacity to shoulder grief and loss, and to move forward in the midst of it.

It would be a misreading to say that Eliot's poem celebrates the triumph of the human spirit - or celebrates anything for that matter - but today I appreciate the gesture towards it.