Odes

coalIn poetry class, you are writing odes, odes to soap, music, somebody’s distant cousin–even the sound S makes as you assemble an alliterative sentence. You are crafting tributes to colors and memories and all of the things you love in the world.

You are in front of the classroom describing how the gray blue tile you hold between your fingertips, a color you have named dad’s truck blue, a sort of primer blue hue, reminds you of dad’s old Chevy Apache. And, you explain how when you initially see this shade it reminds you of your first sleeping bag, but it is, in fact, more the shade of the vehicle that was dramatically flattened under a ginormous tamarisk in the late 70s. Decades later, this  tint can still evoke the explosive sound of the tree untethering from the earth just outside the chickens’ coop.

You read recently about Polish idioms, that Polish people don’t daydream. Instead, they think of blue almonds. They don’t speak bluntly. Rather, they tell it straight from the bridge. They don’t beat around the bush; they wrap the truth in cotton. And, you think this is the poet’s work; you spend entire days thinking of blue almonds, lecturing from bridges, and softening the truth.

You think about all of the odes there are left to write: salutes to Warsaw traffic, praise for pickled eggs and beets and herring, testimony for trust and faith and lust, homages to the lost, to the sky streaked with coal, to drunk people falling softly in snow, to every gilded representation of Jesus, to meeting your husband’s relatives who don’t speak your language–still they look into your face and love, love, love you anyway.

No Day

911 quote

On the way to Poland for winter break, M and I spent a couple of days touring New York City. One of the places we visited was the hallowed ground of the 9/11 memorial. It is a startling amphitheater of  deep sorrow,  a mausoleum for the 2,977 lost, a monument of remembrance for  the survivors–and the rest of us. It is horror amplified to sensory overload with the sounds of sirens and phone calls and news and the photographs of people frozen in disbelief, dumbstruck, confused, terrified.

There is an urgent seriousness buzzing through the halls, as if the tragedy hovers over us–and it does. I did not know how heavy the news of this particular morning (this vast crime) wears within me. Wandering through the exhibits, the heaviness inflates again with sorrow, and I am almost bursting with the deeply personal stories of the people.

Today is the birthday of a handful of victims whose names are marked with a white rose and whose stories play in a dark room, as a vigil of sorts, with friends telling the stories of their loved ones, how brilliantly they lived, how tremendous the loss.

How tremendous the loss. “No day shall erase you,” I am reminded at my discomfort. “No day shall erase you,” I promise to the void.

“No day shall erase you,” reminds the adamant woman who survived the terrorist attacks in 1993 and again in 2001 by climbing down the stairs, these same stairs where she reports to work each morning as a docent bound to share her story and the stories of those who cannot.

*

I am headed to Poland, and people keep asking me which Polish writers I like. And, I stall, wondering if I have categorized writers by country. I have not. I report that I know I love anything by Wislawa Szymborska. I think of her poem “Hatred” and how relevant it is now–and probably forever. I research other Polish writers and pull out pieces that might accompany blog posts.

*

I am searching now for other poets’ takes on 9/11. And, the first piece I find comes up Symborska. An audio poem with no companion text, it does not prepare me. It does not prepare me:  Photograph from September 11.

*

No day.

  • White roses, stories, monuments, museums, poems, and more combat erasure. What must we remember?

 

[More on Virgil’s quote.]

Even

 

“Even when folks are hitting you over the head, you can’t stop marching. Even when they’re turning the hoses on you, you can’t stop.” – -Barack Obama

Even though your voice is tired from preaching to the choir and anyone with ears and a heart, even though the plodding makes you ache, even when (perhaps especially when) it makes you afraid, even if you must crawl, you must. Even though some days you believe humans are incapable of goodness, of anything more than greed; though you doubt the point of this life or that any hope or light can guide us through darkness, you must march onward, bear witness, rage with all of your might.

Yesterday in poetry class we discussed how last week I speculated that all poems are love poems, but today I insist all poems are political poems. We realize this is not a “but” but an “and,” that these two approaches are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, they are complementary. We discuss Leroy V. Quintana’s “Poem for U-Haul,” from the anthology Poetry Like Bread. (https://www.amazon.com/Poetry-Like-Bread-Martin-Espada/dp/1880684748/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1517383267&sr=8-1&keywords=poetry+like+bread). The poem is a four-line masterpiece that shows how a simple and awful domestic scene can inspire reaction and even action. One of the students says sometimes the act of finally loving oneself is a political one.

Hours later, I am still excited about the conversation from class, about the imperative for writing to be “like bread” instead of  as “like cake”–or “caviar,” of the power of words to express love and show us the way to justice.

According to The Guardian, “Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, whose novels and stories record and define apartheid, argues that a writer’s highest calling is to bear witness to the evils of conflict and injustice.”

  • Write a love poem on the evils of conflict and injustice.

 

One Sock Almost Always Demands Its Pair

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I tell the friendly woman at the laundry that a pair of some other woman’s underwear (or interior clothing) made it into my bag. She says sometimes they are small and hide in the dryer. I agree that they are indeed small.
She laughsand offers the trivia that it is rare for people to return in search of panties, but one sock almost always demands its pair. Neither do people seem to notice the lost washcloth.I
I am grateful for insider information such as this. Of course, I don’t know its immediate application to my life and travels, but I am grateful that I can engage in this sort of small talk with someone who’s smiling and interested in my interest in her domain.
I’m off to the tailor in the market to try out new words.
I can’t help but recall the warning of WS Merwin in his short prose poem “Language,” from: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/language
Certain words now in our knowledge we will not use again, and we will never forget them. We need them. Like the back of the picture. Like our marrow, and the color in our veins. We shine the lantern of our sleep on them, to make sure, and there they are, trembling already for the day of witness. They will be buried with us, and rise with the rest.
  • Which words will you be buried with? Why?

Today’s News

Dog
Saul leaves the enclosed porch to listen to the town announcement. He says it’s often difficult to interpret what she’s saying into the loud speaker.
I say I thought I was hearing a flock of doves. Alma thinks I’m hilarious. I pretend that I am.
Saul reports that a small brown dog is missing. He adds that this is not news.
In fact, the large dog I just witnessed gulp down three featherless, white chicken heads will wander the town for days, returning only on empty to feast once again.

They Offer You an Umbrella…

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and you respond that you were born in the desert. They look at you confused. “Do you want an umbrella?”  You finish your thought. Because I was born in the desert, I hardly know how to use one.
Their laughter comes as generously as the rain. And you are filled with gratitude for all of this–even though you know you are far from the city and will surely be drenched by the time you return.
An elder in a cowboy hat hops on the bus you’re finally on. He’s holding a shovel. It’s as if he’s reporting for duty–somewhere down the bumpy road.
In English class, you practice saying, writing, owning words like carved, folk art, design, paint, and the dreadfully difficult pre Hispanic.
You struggle to spell things phonetically, so these students will remember how they are said long after you return to the US.
Your students are surprised by your English voice. It is faster and more confident than your Spanish one. Your Spanish voice is timid, quieter.
Back in the city, tourists fill the letters of the name Oaxaca. They line up to take photographs of themselves bending into the O, hovering over the X.
Your English students also hover over their letters, confusing E and I, trembling in the face of English’s irregularities.
You assure them that this is worth the labor it requires. You promise them that although it feels like a hailstorm of weird sounds that thud from the tongue, they are on their way.
Rain
–Kazim Ali
With thick strokes of ink the sky fills with rain.
Pretending to run for cover but secretly praying for more rain.
Over the echo of the water, I hear a voice saying my name.
No one in the city moves under the quick sightless rain.
The pages of my notebook soak, then curl. I’ve written:
“Yogis opened their mouths for hours to drink the rain.”
The sky is a bowl of dark water, rinsing your face.
The window trembles; liquid glass could shatter into rain.
I am a dark bowl, waiting to be filled.
If I open my mouth now, I could drown in the rain.
I hurry home as though someone is there waiting for me.
The night collapses into your skin. I am the rain.
  • What does the weather do to the story? How does the storm enter the characters? The speaker? How do we become the thunder?

And the Man in the Park?

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A scruffy-looking white guy is propped against his white Titan truck. He has been in the park for more than an hour. I am returning from an errand, and he still looks confused.
The magnitude of confusion is far beyond not knowing a word or how to conjugate a verb correctly or where the neighborhood Volcanes–that name they’re always hollering out of the bus window–is.
No, this confusion is tremendous, more like: How the heck did I arrive in Mexico? Am I really this far south? What am I going to tell my boss?
And where are my shoes?
Before he became my subject, I was thinking about how North American I am, too North American I thought–before seeing this dude.
I’m focused mostly on how my frankness, forthrightness, perhaps directness often come across as impolite.
Going to the butcher and asking for two pounds of meat without first:
1. Making eye contact.
2. Saying hello and good afternoon.
3. Broaching the subject with “please.”
4. Softening the request with “might I be able to have…”
5. Finishing with two pounds of meat
is akin to running into an establishment and demanding:  MEAT!
In Oaxaca, I never fail to be delighted that a man with a scowl will soften at a: “Hello, good afternoon,” from even the most foreign-looking stranger on the street.
It’s all about manners, I think. So I practice what I will say to the man selling hot tortillas. The more I improve my petition, the fresher the tortillas are. This morning I got a quarter kilo straight from the machine.
And, the man in the park?
I’m going to leave him there for now, for I’m quite certain that’s where he’ll be when I head out next.
Lost in the Forest
–Amy Gerstler
I’d given up hope. Hadn’t eaten in three
days. Resigned to being wolf meat …
when, unbelievably, I found myself in
a clearing. Two goats with bells
round their necks stared at me:
their pupils like coin slots
in piggy banks. I could have gotten
the truth out of those two,
if goats spoke. I saw leeks
and radishes planted in rows;
wash billowing on a clothesline …
and the innocuous-looking cottage
in the woods with its lapping tongue
of a welcome mat slurped me in.
Read the rest at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43397/lost-in-the-forest
  • Get your speaker this lost; take her off course; plunge her into the middle of the motion somewhere she’s never been before.