Manual Acts

Do this for the remembrance of me.
Starting position: palms flat, parallel,
now bend whole core toward the altar.
Now raise the chalice, arms an upward O,
and follow with my head.
My own private yoga.
Sometimes I see reflected there
a face stretched out across the silver
like some big broad mama without a care in the world,
shining out from the refiner’s fire.
My weekly guilty pleasure:
that woman in the chalice
looking back at me and saying
there you are! like I’ve just been discovered.

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Reading my father into Neruda

His hands shook so wildly he could not feed himself,
and as I watched his wife I wondered:
Is it possible to feed someone and not love them?
The love was part of the food.

Something in Neruda made him zigzag around “To Sadness”
(a la tristeza)—
All about black wings and longed-for darkness
Tristeze, necesito/tu ala negro
And wild scissor-lines around “Goodbyes”:
And, newly arrived, I promptly said goodbye…
left everywhere for somewhere else.
de todas partes a otra parte…

Poetry Night

Last night I got together with old and new friends to read and hear poetry. Loved every bit of it. Loved the side conversations, the poems people picked, the ones they didn’t pick. Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry are the patron saints of this particular gathering, but coffee table was strewn with others: lots of Neruda, a Manhattan-Yellow-pages sized volume of Thomas Merton, Walt Whitman, W.S. Merwin, and lots more Oliver. We began our time together hearing the story about how Jesus said bread and wine were body and blood, sacred glue of community and spirit. We passed broken bread and blessed wine around around our circle, and then listened.

There is always the challenge of hearing versus reading–can we enter into the words, the language, the life and work of the poet, when we don’t have the text before our eyes, simply the words in our ears, read one time through, with barely time to take root before other words take their place? Yes. I think the words get straight into our hearts and change us in some tiny way. I am changed, made richer because someone picked a poem and read it aloud, pouring the poet’s ordered words into the center of our circle. By the end of the evening, my own thirst for those words I didn’t even know I needed was both slaked and longing for more.

A brief interlude: small-e epiphany poetry

Do you have an epiphany poem or story? A small-e-epiphany poem? Or a story about an illuminating discovery? What the heck is an epiphany? you might ask. I like what Merriam-Webster has to say:

  1. a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something
  2. an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking
  3. an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure
  4. a revealing scene or moment

With some friends I’m hosting a twelfth night party and we want to share non-scriptural stories and poems about epiphany. If you’ld leave yours as a comment here, I’d be most grateful.  

Advent

Here’s an Advent poem from 1994. Do you have an Advent poem?

My cactus blooms again:
last year it surprised me in March, now
the faintest hints Thanksgiving week.
Just days ago, hard leathery leaves dismayed
all but their own mild thorniness.
Now they pinken at the tips with something so
incongruous and yet ~~

it’s inevitable, and
these buds surprise only me.

A cycle is not a circle
and seasons move only forward.
These are not the same buds
nor even the same leathered leaves.
As I am not and we are not,
as we were.

It’s not that I’m a poet, mind you

I recently joined Facebook’s “Networked Blogs.” It was one of those things that happened; I clicked someone else’s “follow this blog” button, and the next thing I knew, I was being prompted for three keywords to describe my blog. Uh-oh. I have resisted even a tag-line, for fear of being categorized, limited, button-holed, pigeon-holed, whatever. But I do want you, dear reader, to find me. So I plugged in practically the first three words that came to mind. Coffee. Poetry. God. (God? Really?? Stay tuned….)

It’s not that I actually write poetry, mind you. Well, except for long ago. And once in a rare while. And it’s not that I read tons of poetry or have that enviable gift of memorization, such that lines of verse roll off my tongue at the drop of a witty association.

It’s because twenty years ago when I thought I was a poet, I went to a writer’s conference in the midst of a bleak depression (is there any other kind) and Ed Hirsch took me out for breakfast on my birthday and made sure I had a copy of Wild Gratitude. Because in poetry making sense means something different. Because someone came up with wacky forms like villanelles and sestinas and I’m someone who thinks form is freeing. It’s because when I graduated from high school my aunt typed out Galway Kinnell’s “Saint Francis and the Sow” on special paper and I carried it in my wallet for years. Decades. It’s because Philip Levine wrote “Snow.” It’s because I know amazing people who write poetry and are willing to read it in public, print it, let it make my heart sing.

What’s poetry to you?


The Shorter Norton

I recently rediscovered an old love. I’ve been doing some reminiscing and writing about my first few years of college, imagining I’ll publish a zine called “Memoirs from a Sodden Adolescence.” (Would anyone read it? Who knows!) The old love I rediscovered was my textbook from “Major British Writers, Part II,” which I took at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 1978. (Yawn. Was anyone else in college that long ago??)

What your favorite college textbook? Your favorite poetry anthology?

Mine was, is, and ever more shall be the shorter, revised edition of the Norton Anthology of Poetry, which academic types called simply “the shorter Norton,” a single volume only an inch thick, as opposed to the heftier two-volume Norton Anthology other introductory English classes required. We read mostly poetry, from Samuel Johnson to T.S. Eliot. I carried my book with me everywhere, scribbling wherever I was: in class, in the library, in coffee shops. It became dog-eared and soft around the edges. The cover art was a painting by J.M.W. Turner, “Rain, Steam and Speed.” I’d never heard of Turner but fell madly in love based on that one painting.

During the heat of summer, while working on a piece about the professor of that course, I frantically culled through the boxes in my attic looking for the book itself, and, after some moments of horror that I’d misguidedly sold it to Powell’s, found it. Powell’s would never have taken it, of course, full of my notes, doodles, and turned-down pages.

The book’s flyleaf holds scrawled assignments and quotes from my professor:

“Neo-classical, pre-Romantic, Romantic…better to be able to shift—a category is just one person’s device, not truth.”

“When doing comparisons, do not fall back on verse form; like grammar, it’s useless.”

“Write one page on the differences between Keats’ poems” or “Look at ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ as the poet attempting to deal with change”

“One page on God as nature in Tintern Abbey.”

I was just grateful to be able to distinguish between Keats and Yeats.

After unearthing the book from the attic, I started carrying it around with me, the way some people carry a bible. I’ve gotten into the habit of reading it for a few minutes on my way to doing whatever work is set before me that day. Part of my daily devotion. All of that poetry was so long ago, and I’ve never been gifted with the ability to memorize, that I am able to read many of the well-marked works as if for the first time. But even more exciting in an old love is discovering works that we never got to in that class I took a hundred years ago, and spending as much time as I want with a poem before moving on. Reading the same poem over mid-morning coffee for ten days in a row, a daily routine like putting on lotion. I don’t think much about who made the lotion or what makes it smell so good or what makes it do whatever it’s doing for my skin. I just like the way it smells and feels. Same thing with poetry, these days.

My friend Melissa has a wonderful post about “Getting Poetry.” You should read it. She asks great questions about our poetry habits; mine are as varied as my knitting habits. Some weeks I tear through knitting projects like they’re going out of style and I’ve got nothing but time. Other weeks add up to months and sometimes even years when I don’t touch needles or yarn. Sometimes I’ll stumble on a poet and take everything she’s written out of the library (most recently, Mary Karr, after reading Lit). A few years ago, on another foray into my attic, I found a box of poetry collections, mostly individual poets, that I’d stored away when I decided I really wasn’t ever going to be a poet myself. I rearranged all of my bookshelves to make room for the contents of that box, not because I’d changed my mind about becoming a poet, but because I just wanted the books around. Some of those poets were a lot younger then, and a lot less famous than they are now. It’s fun to see how they’ve grown up.