How to Choose a Future, Line by Line: A Work in Progress

Inspired by the painting that Wikipedia used yesterday on its homepage, on President Barack Obama’s last day.

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“Hope” George Frederic Watts, 1886

 

There have always been moments

Like this: the whole world a weeping

Woman, half-collapsed, up to her knees

In tears for our unborn futures.

 

There/like/woman/in: blah

Moments/weeping/knees/future: so-so

good enough start; carry on.

In 1886, my great-grandparents chose

 

(or turned?) (Look this up; give context;

History is personal and political:

The sweat of a single brow, the blood

Of thousands soaking a nation’s fields)

 

Since then, the vote and indoor plumbing:

Yes, all that. But also, a nuclear arsenal

In the small idle hands of a man

With neither conscience nor safeguards.

 

And so, this lyre–all strings but one long since

Broken, washed away in these salt waves,

The tears of my people, my tears–

And all the air above this musician

 

Awaiting the quiet note still to come perhaps

From this final trembling audacious

String and the transformation

That may yet follow its music.

NaNoWriMo: Nation over Novel

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So yesterday I was struggling to write a blogpost about how we need to vote to avoid turning this country into an English-speaking version of 1930s Italy or Germany, how if we fail our country now, we are both figuratively and literally screwed, all our buried racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia, all our buried shit will come up from where it has been buried for so long and will be turned into public policy.

I am a student of history. I know how that sort of thing turns out.

And I was trying to write this, I found it easier to write about writing, something neutral and safe. But I am a writer and I cannot stay neutral and safe. Yesterday on Facebook, I put out a post saying this:

“Well, even if Wednesday does not begin with a hail of jackboots, we have our work cut out for us trying to unfuck this country from its toxic political discourse and the reality of recharged institutional oppressions. Where do we even begin?”

And while many of my friends focused on my (apparently) original use of the verb “unfuck,” my old friend Jack Reynolds wrote the following:

“Where to begin? Create things of beauty; art, music, poetry, food. Step out of comfort zones with small acts of kindness, not random unplanned ones but something to do everyday. Smile. Tell a joke. Give compliments. Break bread (gluten free if needed) with others and find out what makes them tick. As Dan Berrigan once said “Lets tell the truth to each other and see what happens.” Make community. Don’t search for it, make it or it’ll never happen. Smile. Take quiet time and not take ourselves too serious. Take others seriously. Be grateful for any and all things that are beautiful and unearned and are gifts. I heard a sailor say that you can’t control the wind but you can control the sail.”

He is wise.

So I thought I would write a poem to give us hope, because I seriously believe that this is a huge part of what art is for. So this is my offering to you and to God and whatever other gods might be out there: for sanity and liberty and the hope that this country stands for.

Election Eve, November 7, 2016

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live…” Deuteronomy 30:19-20

 

The moon is half-and-half tonight, like

A mitzpah coin holding out its promise:

That this is not some space-opera dystopia,

Where the creepy demagogue wanna-be

Is going to shoot down the moon, leave

All our tides raging out of control, our seas

Washing their bloody waves, troughing through

Our silent, ravaged, grey cities. No. Never.

 

The moon will remain to govern all our tides,

Those of water, those of blood: like clockwork.

The shining silver half-coin will grow to full,

Showing that we shall be together, not long hence,

With what this country was always meant to be:

The melted alloy of many elements, the gift given,

The promise kept: that we are stronger together,

And together we can heal all the broken pieces.

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And again, Robert comes through…

In Response to Nadia’s Misdirected Email, I State Exactly What I Am Looking For Balance. The ability to stand on one foot, on a tightrope, and juggle AR-15s, ethics and dollar bills, while chanting the U.S. Constitution, in tongues. Or good health. Unweighted dreams. A mechanism for disagreeing without needing to annihilate the opposition. […]

via In Response to Nadia’s Misdirected Email, I State Exactly What I Am Looking For — O at the Edges

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St. Patrick’s Day Concerns

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That moment when you look in your closet

For the only green shirt you own and even

Consider wearing all red and hoping to run into someone

Colorblind. That daft hope that someone, anyone

Will say, “Top of the morning to you!” just

So you can reply, “And the rest of the day to you!”

That memory of being able to wear a green sweater

To school instead of the uniform cranberry, because

Irish Americans are exactly that weird and yes, we did

Go to Catholic school. That craving for corned beef,

With or without the cabbage and Guinness. That dread

Of someone spelling it St. Patty’s as if the bishop was

Named Patricia. That memory of the one single time

You ever drank green beer, and that quizzical look

People give you when you have a Polish last name.

 

Illustration by Sandra Boynton.

A Made Thing before Valentine’s Day

“My Foucault-friend, who is now an ­anthropologist, observes that in the West we tend to think of made things as being false” (Biss).

Anti-Valentines-Day-Metal-Playlist

If the poem I make is a false thing, as made as my house,

As false as your eyelashes that you also made this morning,

As thing-like as your car that falsely carried you

To work yesterday and just as falsely, eventually,

Carried you home last night, then how am I to cultivate

Truth like a garden of earthy, homegrown delights?

 

If my poem, made from words, which presumably also

Have been made, in this case by our ancestors

Who agreed what the grunt would mean, and the hiss

And the slow accumulation of consonants, then how

Can beauty be real, since there too we simply have to

Agree on the symmetry and style of another face?

 

If the song you made from notes just lying around

The universe is false, if the story you told yourself

Of love and loss and, eventually, redemption and love

Again, if that too is made and therefore false, what hope

Do any of us have to find the real thing, the true and

The beautiful thing, the unmade heart beating to ours?

 

Biss, Eula. “‘The Folded Clock,’ by Heidi Julavits.” Review. New York Times. 27 Mar. 2015. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.

Something For an Actor at Winter Solstice

Even in December, your eyes are prodigal

Green like the low and leafy mountains

Of my youth, or variegated green like an autumn

Field that the breeze fingers and the sun flickers

Over, the bright greens of still summer and the faded

Sepia greens of summer drifting away.

 

Lie back as you would adrift on the ocean,

That constantly floating green that wraps the globe

In an embrace of waves constantly, constantly

Ebbing green, flowing green, the flash of sunlight

On the mighty roaring green, the hiss of foam

Like a promise or a kiss. Such greens dazzle

 

This heart, which far away contemplates that one

Distinct gift of the rainbow that light presents us, this time

Through you as you look in this direction, unseeing

But seen, showing all the lively greens—friendship,

Envy, desire and wrath—we come to know through your eyes,

So prodigal green, even in cold December.

Preparing for Christmas in a Changing Climate

plain door wreath 450

Fall has been lingering this year. Normally, cold weather in Boston starts at the beginning of November, and by “cold” I am thinking below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at which I begin to consider locating my long Johns. The first (usually uneventful) snowfall tends to be between Thanksgiving and the start of December. Not this year.

I’ve heard people say how “lucky” we’ve been with the mild weather, but in my book if the weather is routinely 20-30 degrees different than the usual temperature not for a day or a week but for (so far) a month and a half, that has got to be a bad sign. It also means that I have had a hard time accepting that Christmas is really on the way. I keep forgetting to pick up the wreath I usually put on the inside of our main door (trees don’t work in a small apartment with a large cat).

 

Now as the high glaciers melt into green

Ocean water, rising, rising, now when we look up

Expecting the water to fall in flakes for hungry tongues,

Now the sky is grey and strangely warm.

 

Unseasonal, that’s what it is. The nights are long

Just as you might expect, but the air lacks crispness,

The blue of the afternoon sky lacks snap. I cannot say

I feel lucky. Even after nine feet of snow in Boston,

 

Which only finally melted six months ago, I fear

What might be coming: either ten feet this winter, or,

Possibly, none at all. Either way we lose. Already

Polar bears are drowning for lack of arctic ice.

 

Already small Pacific islands are losing ground

The way an old man loses hair: a little at a time,

Then all at once. It’s the opposite with the stores,

Switching the candy and hangings from one holiday

 

To the next overnight and at least three weeks early.

I cannot make that transition at all this year. So much

Worry about the Earth, not enough glad tidings.

Too much grey and drear, not enough merry and bright.

 

In the face of this, I force myself to find a small, green

Wreath for the inside of my door, to dangle small golden

Pigs—for abundance—a red bow to remind me to take

The bull by the horns and face the absence of winter

 

And the endless presence of winter, both living in me

As I move through the warming world feeling colder

Now than I ever felt as a child in a snow fort. Courage,

Says the angel in the branches. Embrace hope.

Refrigerator Poetry, Stealth and Otherwise

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One of the great inventions of the 20th century is Refrigerator Poetry, little boxes of magnetized words with which anyone with a rudimentary understanding of grammar can make unfathomable stabs at Poetic Meaning or at least Colorful Descriptions of Nothing Much. For those of us with decades of practice and training, we can make (with enough words, including articles, prepositions and S’s) Art Sublime, or At Least Almost.

It is one thing to do this on one’s own refrigerator. In that case, you are the person responsible for all the lost articles and S’s, so if you can’t make it work, you have no one to blame but yourself (and possibly your roommates).

Much more fun is Stealth Refrigerator Poetry, which is when you go to a party and, when your Host is off Hosting, you steal into the kitchen and rearrange their words to be something sublime, humorous, useful, or at last resort, unfathomable. When it is someone else who is to blame for too much penury and not enough the, you can claim to be Tragically Limited by your Medium, with which You Did Your Best. It can help, if you know in advance that the party will have magnetized words, to wear a beret to the party. This is called Priming your Audience.

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Occasional Poetry, Part 2

setsubun

As a working poet, I often have the opportunity to write for specific circumstances, as I mentioned a few days ago when I offered the poem I wrote for the wedding of some friends many years back. This is called occasional poetry. It is a more public poetry, in comparison with what might be considered the “more intimate … lyric” poem (Sugano 5).

Wikipedia tells us:

‘As a term of literary criticism, “occasional poetry” describes the work’s purpose and the poet’s relation to subject matter. It is not a genre, but several genres originate as occasional poetry, including epithalamia (wedding songs), dirges or funerary poems, paeans, and victory odes. Occasional poems may also be composed exclusive of or within any given set of genre conventions to commemorate single events or anniversaries, such as birthdays, foundings, or dedications.’ (Occasional)

Some occasions are not as obvious as those listed here. For example, many years ago a good friend ended up on the wrong end of a restraining order from her roommate and bunked on my couch for three days while she sorted it out. When the judge had thrown the roommate out of court and out of my friend’s apartment, and after all the dust had settled, my friend had an Exorcism Party, for which I wrote the following poems. The goal was not only to celebrate the end to an excruciating time but also what I think of as the prophetic task of reminding us to forgive our enemies eventually.

The Exorcism, First Movement: The Beans

oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi

(out with the devil, in with good fortune)

In this place, we rise and shout:

Good luck in and demons out!

To darkness that has gathered here,

We now demand: Go! Disappear!

In foreign lands, where now sunlight

Is rising silver on beached stones,

Many-colored demons wrapped

In deerskins wander winter night

Free. They fear one thing alone.

They tremble when they hear beans tapped

Together, gathered for the rite

Of Setsubun, Bean-Throwing Fest,

Which, every February, means

The end of winter-darkened fright.

All folk have ways to expel the Beast;

There they drive it out with beans.

But here no Oni stalk our night,

Steal our rice, upset our shelves

Or walk the night to work us ill.

It’s with each other that we fight:

The dark fire is within ourselves

To stoke or extinguish as we will.

Now in this place, we rise and shout

To darkness that has gathered here,

Forgiveness in and anger out!

We eat the beans. It disappears.

The Exorcism, Second Movement: The Book

The book proclaims

that God’s voice

strips the bark from trees

standing in the wilderness

arms raised–

Your money or your life–

How long O Lord–

How long can I stand

here without skin. The wind is cold;

the thunder cracks through; each layer

around layer cowers.

The book reminds

that wilderness is wild

but not empty.

Look!

the voice shouts,

you do not stand alone:

all around you I have planted

my people, whose arms reach out.

Now

the voice whispers

Now

I will sing you

into new skin.

We Speak of Exorcism, Yet

demons never lived here. Just a woman

surrounded by light, who ground the heels of her

palms into her eyes, a woman surrounded

by the spirit, who steadfastly refused

to inhale. We must know the spirit; like a child-

woven paper chain, it rises and falls

here between us, these people you have

called to your side in trouble. We all have

breathed, these forty days, its freshening wind.

The spirit is the only part of God

I trust: out of darkness, invisible eyes see us

in our frailty. We skitter below like woodmice

cowering alone–we think–waiting,

praying for the spirit to swoop down,

not a dove but a hunting owl: accurate,

terrifying, saving us.

When She Has Finally Moved Out

After the room has emptied, you weigh

the air between winter-locked windows

with your kitchen scale: lighter, easier

to breathe now. You take a sip

of tea, the saucer in your left hand as

you wander, a sacrament. Liberated

like this air, like this room’s white door

now you are swinging

wide

open–

setsubun-1

Occasional Poetry. Wikipedia. 9 Jan. 2015. Web. 25 April 2015.

Sugano Marian Zwerling. The Poetics of the Occasion. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1992.

Occasional Poetry, Part 1

cecelia

On Her Fifty-Somethingth Birthday, Greater Boston Rejoices

Lo, the Amazing C. Musselman has been

On the Earth these last five decades and we,

Waving our hands and dancing with our feet,

Are grateful. So we show our gratitude

With colored banners, cakes and ale, broad cheers,

And songs (probably in Finnish) and small bonfires.

We light up the bay. The tourists likely think

It must be some local holy day but we

Know better. Having had the mission furniture

In our brains rearranged by her speeches

Over the preparations for every dinner,

We know that holy is not the word for it.

The word is knowledge, or wisdom perhaps,

The domain of Athena. What they both bring

The world is yearning for knowledge,

That sudden spark that lights the conflagration

That annihilates all we thought we knew

To make room for what we never thought

Possible. This is their gift to us, ever being

Offered, ever received. And so the fireworks

(Fireflowers, the Japanese call them) erupt

Across the skies of the world this night

In their honor, in the honor of her chariot

Pulled by cats, that she won from Freya

When Apollo decreed that he liked Cecelia’s

Pottery better, in honor of her baked

Mac & Cheese that Thor decreed could make

A warrior weep, in honor, in short, of her birth.

And though those who do not know the woman

Might think this paean overwrought because

They have never seen the shine of her mind or

Eaten the food she offers with such love, I, who

Know her, tell you it is not. As with many we know

And underestimate for their size or quietness,

Though she is but tiny, she is fierce.