Love in the Time of Plague

I got an email from Kickstarter a few days ago that spoke to the current moment:

“In times of crisis, some might feel selfish pursuing creative work. It might be hard to imagine why your art matters in the midst of a pandemic. But think of the book that shaped your childhood; the movie you watch whenever you feel sad. Creative work transports us. It recharges and renews us. And in order to experience it, someone needs to make it—to get that strange, unprecedented idea out into the world.” (No author cited)

But a few hours earlier, for the first time in a long damn time I started writing a poem, which I will find tomorrow and finish and post here. But in the meantime I wrote this for a prompt on one of my Facebook groups. It is dedicated to Musashi, who is now the Teaching Assistant for my now-online classes.


Love in the time of plague is this black cat

walking over my keyboard because he knows

attention is love, attention to what your loved one

attends to is love, and also when she doesn’t yell at you

for making all the M’s run across the screen

that reticence, the soft voice calling you

a goober, that most of all is also love.


And yes. That is my rollbook he’s sitting on.

Cascading Home


I learned about this form of poetry, the Cascade, from Kat Myrman. With a three-line stanza, and capital letters representing repeated lines, the form is ABC deA fgB hiC. (I have also seen this done where the repeating line is the first line of the following stanzas rather than the last, now that I think of it.) Naturally, I chose a seven-line stanza because I am a bloody showoff. Don’t go there, people, or at least not without stretching out first.


Home is the place where you write your name

In the dust and it remains your name,

Your dust, your cat’s pawprints telling the tale

Of small peregrinations, domestic pilgrimages.

All the books are yours. You have read them all.

You make your way from room to room in the dark

And as day recedes, your bed embraces you.


In other places, you wander, a stranger

Unremarked and nameless, a cipher

To those you pass by, who do not think

To wonder about your loves and dislikes.

They have their own shopping lists of worries.

Out in the world, you are ever nameless.

Home is the place where you write your name.


The geography of naming is such that

Your name points the way back to your birth

Or rebirth. Tell me who you are and I will

Point you toward the river whose water runs

Through your veins, calling itself blood.

Drop your name down a well or toss it

In the dust and it remains your name.


The story of your life would require volumes

Or a skilled raconteur with a very long string

Tied end to end and woven into itself,

A cat’s cradle of intention, obstacle, outcome,

And the serendipities that every life engenders.

Come to the window. Trace out your tale in

Your dust, your cat’s pawprints telling the tale,


Which would include a heroic company of friends,

Sister travelers, the wise one, the warriors,

A ring to find, a cup to destroy, some evil

To overcome, and now and then a resting place

Like this homely place, a place to pause between

The small battles and the long weariness

Of small peregrinations, domestic pilgrimages.


Returning home to your bed, your armchair,

Your cat sleeping on all the notes you took

On your travels, you settle in almost as if

You had never left. But now you see it

Anew: You have chosen every picture that hangs

On the walls. You have sat in every chair.

All the books are yours. You have read them all.


All of it is as familiar as your own hands:

Small and compact peasant hands that belie

The spectacles and teeming brain, the sword

Hanging over the fireplace. You can lay your hand

On any book you want at a moment’s notice,

Predict the pattern of new spring leaves in the window.

You make your way from room to room in the dark.


At dawn, both sun and cat pat your face,

Clamoring for your attention. As the sun passes

Overhead, the light turns this way and that,

Caressing doors and bookcases, chairs and the cat

Who stretches out in the bright patch of carpet.

In the afternoon, he ambles over to welcome you back.

And as day recedes, your bed embraces you.


Art by Laura Wilder.

Compressed Attention

One of my favorite poems that I didn’t write is “The Art of Blessing the Day” by Marge Piercy. It is framed in a way that uses some of the language of religion to talk about the beauty of the thing-ness of our lives and the events that don’t automatically get celebrated formally. It is in fact about poetry itself, in the widest sense, which is the sense I much prefer to the very narrow sense we get taught in school.


The Art of Blessing the Day


This is the blessing for rain after drought:
Come down, wash the air so it shimmers,
a perfumed shawl of lavender chiffon.
Let the parched leaves suckle and swell.
Enter my skin, wash me for the little
chrysalis of sleep rocked in your plashing.
In the morning the world is peeled to shining.

This is the blessing for sun after long rain:
Now everything shakes itself free and rises.
The trees are bright as pushcart ices.
Every last lily opens its satin thighs.
The bees dance and roll in pollen
and the cardinal at the top of the pine
sings at full throttle, fountaining.

This is the blessing for a ripe peach:
This is luck made round. Frost can nip
the blossom, kill the bee. It can drop,
a hard green useless nut. Brown fungus,
the burrowing worm that coils in rot can
blemish it and wind crush it on the ground.
Yet this peach fills my mouth with juicy sun.

This is the blessing for the first garden tomato:
Those green boxes of tasteless acid the store
sells in January, those red things with the savor
of wet chalk, they mock your fragrant name.
How fat and sweet you are weighing down my palm,
warm as the flank of a cow in the sun.
You are the savor of summer in a thin red skin.

This is the blessing for a political victory:
Although I shall not forget that things
work in increments and epicycles and sometime
leaps that half the time fall back down,
let’s not relinquish dancing while the music
fits into our hips and bounces our heels.
We must never forget, pleasure is real as pain.

The blessing for the return of a favorite cat,
the blessing for love returned, for friends’
return, for money received unexpected,
the blessing for the rising of the bread,
the sun, the oppressed. I am not sentimental
about old men mumbling the Hebrew by rote
with no more feeling than one says gesundheit.

But the discipline of blessings is to taste
each moment, the bitter, the sour, the sweet
and the salty, and be glad for what does not
hurt. The art is in compressing attention
to each little and big blossom of the tree
of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit,
its savor, its aroma and its use.

Attention is love, what we must give
children, mothers, fathers, pets,
our friends, the news, the woes of others.
What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.


I think Piercy gets to the heart of the matter when she says:

The art is in compressing attention
to each little and big blossom of the tree
of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit,
its savor, its aroma and its use.
The work of the poet (not unlike one of the tasks of the lover) is to pay attention to the details. God is in the details. We have only to look, and we have to look. We look at everything outside ourselves, and then, if we dare, we can start to look at all the things that are inside ourselves, and then we look out again.

And then we write.

Marge Piercy. The Art of Blessing the Day. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1999.

Happy Birthday, Musashi



So today Musashi, my animal companion, turns eight years old. This is as old as he’s ever been, though he would be the first to tell you that I am “way olderer” than him, as in “like elebenty.”

Meanwhile, in other news, a blizzard has just come in on little cat feet and is threatening to drop a foot of snow on much of Southern New England, particularly our little part of it, Boston. Boston public schools, Northeastern University, Episcopal Divinity School, Emerson College, Brandeis University, New England Conservatory—just to name a very few—have closed for the day. But not MIT, in part because not Harvard. Sigh.

On His Eighth Birthday, Musashi Poeminates

Cry havoc! And let slip the dogs of war. –Shakespeare, Julius Caesar


Cry havoc! And let slip the cats of winter,

Chasing the icy wind across parking lots,

Down streets, up trees into the branches

That only months ago wore leaves like green

Fur. February, that month cruelest to those of us

Who never spell easily, tightens its grip,

With every flurry a kitten ready and willing

To ravage your toes with her tiny claws.


Havoc is coming. The schools all know it,

The big men who drive the snowplows all

Know it, the bus drivers for whom havoc is

A daily burden, they know it too. And I,

Lying reflectively in my turquoise catbed,

Contemplating the existential drift, I too

Know the true havoc that is the lack of my

Housekeeper, soccer partner, butler,


Just because she has mad writing skills

And her school, like a German Shepherd

Facing off with a Rottweiler, all growl

And lack of poetry, refuses to accept

How weather makes fools of us all

Sometimes. The snow comes down,

An unfurling of fluffy white cats, stretching,

Shedding, everywhere, and all day.

Mu with String

Photo by Jack Siberine.


The Thing about Existential Dread

So I saw this illustration on Facebook the other day and it felt so accurate that I am bringing it here, although I cannot find the illustrator. If you happen to see it, please let me know.

existential dread

The thing about existential dread is how it drains

The color from every wall in your head, how it grows past


Every other emotion, the way a shadow can inflate itself

Until it is taller than the thing the light is hitting, whether


Self or other. The trick with existential dread is to move

So that the shadow must run if it wants to keep up:


Vacuum the rug, do cardio, chase the cat through

The living room—the room for living not simply existing—


Follow the cat’s example and live in the present moment,

This present moment, the only one we ever really have,


The one so hard to stay in. Don’t let the existential dread

Set in, don’t let it set in. Make pasta if you must, add pesto,


Eat it with gusto. Shop for a new tie to look dapper in. Don’t

Let the existential dread set in. Don’t let it set in. Keep moving.

The Block of the Writer, Redux


So there I am, sitting with my Brilliant Colleague, Rebecca, complaining about how I don’t have ideas for either of my blogs, this one or the one that my cat, Musashi writes, primarily for my parents and my other Brilliant Colleague, Pamela. And Rebecca told me to write about that blog for this blog. So brilliant.

It is an odd thing, writing for such a small audience from the point of view of someone I love very much and will never really know. He’s a cat. He probably doesn’t do a lot of linear thinking, and the idea that he would spend his summer writing (with a purple crayon) a novel about pirates does seem a little silly, especially because, as a tuxedo cat, if he were to enter the Great Philosophical Argument: Pirates vs. Ninjas, he would most likely come down on the side of the ninjas.

And yet, and yet…

It also helps the storytelling process that Musashi, as a writer, has a Somewhat Less Than Puritanical attitude toward spelling. For example, he is still not convinced about silent h’s, such as those in words like “might,” and so he does without. He is okay on the g because of it having a tail, but the h, not so much.

And then it is simply a matter of retraining my point of view downward by about four and a half feet or so, and adding fur and irony.


Dog people go out in the rain, snow and sleet to take Fido for a walk. Cat people put off doing important work on the computer because Musashi is lying on the chair looking blissful. Procrastination: if you do it for love it doesn’t half count.

Mu with StringPhoto by Jack Siberine 2014.

A Turn in the Conversation


Well, I have been rereading my previous posts and I feel a little like you sometimes do at a party when some poor innocent stranger asks what you do and, in your enthusiasm, you talk their ear off until that blessed point (from their point of view) when you suddenly notice the glazed look on their face and you turn the conversation to them (this also allows you to take a bite of your canape or a sip from your drink: enlightened self-interest).

So I know the things I would like to talk about in this blog and I have a list of other things I want to cover eventually, but here is a question for you, O GENTLE READERS: What questions do you have about poetry? What topics make you curious or annoyed? What forms are you interested in? What poets have you read? What kind of poets would you like me to recommend (or warn you about)?

Let me know in the comments section, and I will squeeze in requests between my small, humble, illustrated rants.

Line Endings, Line Beginnings


I was first made aware of the importance of line endings in the mid-1990s, when a friend of a friend was taking a class with Bill Knott, a professor at Emerson College. Apparently, this young man was sitting in a workshop and Bill was reading his poem. Bill looked at him over his glasses and asked, “Why do you break your lines where you do?” Baffled, the young man just shrugged. Bill balled the poem up and bounced it off the young man’s head.

Whether or not that caused enlightenment for that student, the story of it sure did for me. I spent the next two years studying how different poets broke their lines. I read somewhere that the last lines of a poem should, on their own, sound like a poem. (Obviously, they were talking about free verse, since formal forms or even Hallmark Card Crap have their own logic for ending lines, whether with rhyme or with repeated words, etc.) Here is an example taken at random from one of my college textbooks, Beginning with Poems: An Anthology, the end words of Wallace Stevens’ “The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man”:

baths soul clouds leaves gold white wind sky

suddenly rays myths gods grenadine occurs stars alone life life bronze

That is the easy part of line breaks. What took me much longer to realize is that, just perhaps, the first words of the lines might also be a poem, though they rarely are. Let’s take the first words from the same poem:

one’s one’s occur occurred of as came threw

could would around the to and and it has that that.

You see the problem. We get so caught up with our last word that our first words tend to be articles, auxiliary verbs, prepositions and conjunctions–grammar words, not sensory words. Now there is nothing wrong with grammar; we couldn’t very well communicate without it. But if I am going to put a word in a power position of a poem, I probably don’t want that word to be “of.” Or at least not often.

HOWEVER, having just looked at the few poems I have in a file on my computer here at MIT, I realize that I have not been paying very close attention to this lately. (Bad poet, go sit in the corner!) So I wrote a new poem.

“My cat is a poem with claws,” she said,

mopping up the blood that still spilled

from her arm where that fluffy ebony

ninja clung hard before leaping off the bed

and onto the dresser. “Most poems,” I said,

hesitantly, “do not draw blood.” But she

laughed and threw the tissue away. “Most

poems also do not eat kibble and poop in a small

sandbox. But some poems snuggle up to you,

tangled in the blankets of a Sunday morning. Some

poems see your hands resting on the keyboard and lie

down upon them, purring. Some poems will even

pat your face to wake you up at four in the morning

on a day when you didn’t need to rise early.”

Her cat watched me with narrowed, golden eyes.

Brower, Reuben A., Anne D. Ferry, and David Kalstone, eds. Beginning with Poems: An Anthology. New York: Norton, 1966. (Its date explains why the examples are mostly British with a few Americans and why, out of 62 poets, only 3 of them are women.)

Bonus points if you recognize the pun in the picture.