Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lingering in Happiness

Forgive all the poetry, or hopefully love it and forgive it. I am only this week able to settle down and read, really read, in what seems like ages. I read a whole chapter of a novel yesterday. Felt like coming home again.

February has dazzled me. Bleak, cold, snow-filled February. It has been one of the happiest months of my life, and I feel as though I ought to pay some tribute to it before it slips away tomorrow. I keep thinking of these lines from Linda Pastan's poem, "Weather":

your life now seems

to you exceptional
in its simplicities.
You speak of this,
throwing the window open
on a plain spring day,
after such a winter.

February is my spring this year. Borrowing Mary Oliver, here is my ode to it, happiest of months:

"Lingering in Happiness"

After rain, after many days without rain,
It stays cool, private and cleansed, under the trees,
and the dampness there, married now to gravity,
falls branch to branch, leaf to leaf, down to the ground

where it will disappear -- but not, of course, vanish
except to our eyes. The roots of the oaks will have their share,
and the white threads of the grasses, and the cushion of moss;
a few drops, round as pearls, will enter the mole's tunnel;

and soon so many small stones, buried for a thousand years,
will feel themselves being touched.

reading - and loving - Macbeth

My poor students. All last fall they heard the same refrain, "Well, if you had already read Macbeth you'd know that..." I'm finding it impossible to fill in the blank here because I honestly can't remember what it was they were supposed to know. And neither can they. I was probably comparing a guilt-wracked Dimmesdale to the Macbeths, or John Proctor to Macduff (should have blogged about this!). Although I'm pretty sure I was throwing around Macbeth references during our study of Gatsby too...? Anyway, I decided in December that the only fair thing to do was to dump some portion of next semester's course - War in American Lit and Poetry - and add in Macbeth.

Since early February my seniors and I have been reveling in this gory and fantastic tragedy. We are, each day, witches, royalty, sleepwalkers, ghosts, owls, and schemers. The girls have their own Ning site where they blog in character for homework and post on each others' wall pages (I got this idea from a teacher/friend in CA - really grateful for it). Last I checked, Macbeth was threatening folks to show up for his coronation and the witches were dropping Anon every other sentence.

My favorite class was last Friday, though, when we discussed the concept of manhood in the play. By the end of Act IV there are three primary male characters: Macbeth, Malcolm, and Macduff. We started off talking about which of the three would be the best ruler of Scotland. Macbeth of course was out of the running immediately(bit of murder problem on his hands), so we looked at a revealing conversation between Macduff and Malcolm to determine whom we would choose. Malcolm is the rightful heir, and my students don't know yet that he will be crowned King at the end of Act V. Interestingly, none of them picked Malcolm (not a leader; kind of a wimp; wears his manhood as if for show only).

So in this conversation Macduff has just found out that Macbeth has killed his wife and children ("All my pretty ones? Did you say all?"), and Malcolm is urging him to take revenge through war.

Malcolm: Dispute it like a man.

Macduff: I shall do so;
But I shall also feel it as a man;
I cannot but remember such things were
That were most precious to me. Did heaven look on,
And would not take their part? Sinful Macduff,
They were all struck for thee. Naught that I am,
Nor for their own demerits but for mine,
Fell slaughter on their souls. Heaven rest them now. (IV.iii.221-230)

This passage always takes my breath away. Really, Shakes was writing this in the early 17th century? Some of my favorite lines of all time. My students don't forgive Macduff for leaving his wife and children unattended, but they appreciate his admission of humanness, his desire to grieve. This led to an interesting discussion about politicians: how and when does one choose between family and country?

Fired up about this play, this class in general. Felt like spreading the exuberance. Spring semester seniors - how much longer do I have their attention spans anyway?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A House of My Own

"Not a flat. Not an apartment in back. Not a man's house. Not a daddy's. A house all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias. My books and my stories. My two shoes waiting beside the bed. Nobody to shake a stick at. Nobody's garbage to pick up after.

Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem."

~from House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Monday, February 22, 2010

the art of losing

I accept that it's practically cliche to post this Bishop poem, and yet I'm in one of those transitional periods in my life where I can't find ANYTHING. I'm between two houses and nothing is where it seems. A pair of jeans walked off for about an hour on Friday night, right before I was supposed to be somewhere in them. I have 25 copies of my new house key so that I can't possibly miss them, and yet miraculously, I still do. Important mail that I definitely spied this weekend has officially vanished somewhere today before I could open it.
Today by zany coincidence, one of my students was reading aloud "Cross" by Langston Hughes and accidentally turned the page halfway through, where she picked up in the middle of "One Art" without skipping a beat. This poem is everybody's old friend, and I loved that it paid a visit during freshman English today. Also makes me think of an address that the minister of my church gave at our school's graduation. I wish I had a copy of it now. What I remember is her looking out at rows of girls in perfect white dresses, and telling them that at some future point in their lives, they were probably going to find themselves lost. Really lost. And how that moment or phase of confusion, despair, or disorientation just might end up being the greatest gift.

One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop

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.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"Ethics" by Linda Pastan

In ethics class so many years ago
our teacher asked this question every fall:
if there were a fire in a museum
which would you save, a Rembrandt painting
or an old woman who hadn't many
years left anyhow? Restless on hard chairs
caring little for pictures or old age
we'd opt one year for life, the next for art
and always half-heartedly. Sometimes
the woman borrowed my grandmother's face
leaving her usual kitchen to wander
some drafty, half-imagined museum.
One year, feeling clever, I replied
why not let the woman decide herself?
Linda, the teacher would report, eschews
the burden of responsibility.
This fall in a real museum I stand
before a real Rembrandt, old woman,
or nearly so, myself. The colors
within this frame are darker than autumn,
darker even than winter - the browns of earth,
though earth's most radiant elements burn
through the canvas. I know now that woman
and painting and season are almost one
and all beyond saving by children.

~ Linda Pastan

Monday, February 8, 2010


Today our artist in residence gave a talk about the importance of carving out space for her artwork each day. Her paintings of interior rooms and woods and fabrics were so beautiful that I found myself thinking, "I want to paint like this, too!" Funny reaction, since I can't remember the last time I painted anything. Maybe a wall or the door of my house, which is not the same by any stretch. Right after the art talk, one of our seniors played from memory a piece by Chopin. Same reaction from me, all over again. As the music washed over me I was trying to figure out when and how I could fit in piano lessons.
I'm not sure what came over me during this assembly; I experienced a whole lot of beauty in 45 minutes. And then someone read the following poem, and it just captured perfectly the mood of my life right now. I've been nesting in the loveliest of houses with no TV and no radio for almost five months. I don't miss either a bit. I think the silence must unnerve visitors, but right now I can't imagine living otherwise. My time in this space is wrapping up, but I'm really grateful for the days and weeks and months of possibility that I experienced here.

Afternoon in the House"
by Jane Kenyon

It's quiet here. The cats
sprawl, each
in a favored place.
The geranium leans this way
to see if I'm writing about her:
head all petals, brown
stalks, and those green fans.
So you see,
I am writing about you.

I turn on the radio. Wrong.
Let's not have any noise
in this room, except
the sound of a voice reading a poem.
The cats request
The Meadow Mouse, by Theodore Roethke.

The house settles down on its haunches
for a doze.
I know you are with me, plants,
and cats - and even so, I'm frightened,
sitting in the middle of perfect

Saturday, February 6, 2010

"Monet Refuses the Operation"

Doctor, you say that there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
wisteria separate
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and change our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.

~Lisel Mueller