How are we to find eight short English words
that actually stand for autumn?
One peculiar way to die of loneliness
is to try. Pretend November has
a sliver of ice in her throat.
Pretend it is nice, pretend the sliver
of ice is nice, and beckons you.
Talk for half an hour about the little churchyard
full of the graves of people who have died
eating nachos. Go on until you can go no further brown.
Let the river flow. It is written in stone.
Let the sparrows take your only coin
and fly with it, twittering over some main event.
What color ribbon will you wear in your hair?
Now the clouds look burnt. But first they burned.
To you I must tell all or lie.
I am not a poet but reading certain poems gives me a feeling which I like to believe tells me something of what it might feel like to be a poet, one who makes the compositions that bear that sacred name. That’s how I feel when I read the work of Mary Ruefle. Her poems are sweetly mysterious and captivating, with a decisive momentum like tobaggans swiftly barreling to their last lines—sometimes holding on for dear life, sometimes fairly squealing with abandon. And thus my love of tobogganing has been restored to me.
Mary read at the 92nd Street Y in New York City this week with Christian Wiman, another illustrious contemporary poet, chief editor of Poetry Magazine from 2003-2013 and currently on the faculty at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School.
We plan on posting poems by Christian Wiman soon in the new year, and this week we’ll feature three of Mary’s. Others of hers from The Dish can be found here, here, and here, all from the same book from which these three are drawn, Trances of the Blast, published by Wave Books in 2013.
“Platonic” by Mary Ruefle:
Did it mean anything? The stone, the rose,
darkness, wood, wind, flame, the violin.
The practical man, the visible world,
the painted ponies, the sea, the wilderness
of cellophane, my last word, my crumpled message
to my friend? Was I in search of something,
tools maybe, or seeds, for many odd things
are stowed under the overthinking.
Let’s begin to talk about things,
and what they should be named,
and whether it will be necessary
to draw any of them.
The sound of the teakettle—
it was the most terrible thing in the world.
Sometimes it was a wolf, and sometimes
a man or a woman, whatever it felt like,
even falling cherry blossoms, and always
it could take you out, and then it did,
leaving the whole room as impressive
as an unexplored cave.
Mark Strand was (even for a poet) exceptionally captivated by a cat-and-mouse game – whimsical and profound – with the subject of death. He left this realm on Saturday, November 29th, to the great sorrow of his many, many dear friends and admirers. He was, I reckon, mostly cat in this fluidly shifting contest, empowered by the strength of his indelible and charming artistic wiles.
I am not thinking of Death, but Death is thinking of me.
He leans back in his chair, rubs his hands, strokes
his beard, and says, “I’m thinking of Strand, I’m thinking
that one of these days I’ll be out back, swinging my scythe
or holding my hourglass up to the moon, and Strand will appear
in a jacket and tie, and together under the boulevards’
leafless trees we’ll stroll into the city of souls. . . .”
The above photograph of Mark Strand with Charles Wright, our current U.S. Poet Laureate, was taken by Lawrence Schwartzwald on Thursday, October 9th, when nineteen poets—lifelong friends like so many in the audience—joined his daughter Jessica on stage at the New School’s Auditorium at 66 West 12th Street to celebrate his 80th birthday and his new Collected Poems, just published by Alfred A. Knopf. No one present will ever forget his wit, sweetness, and radiance that night.
The schoolboys still their morning rambles take
To neighbouring village school with playing speed,
Loitering with pastime’s leisure till they quake,
Oft looking up the wild-geese droves to heed,
Watching the letters which their journeys make;
Or plucking haws on which the fieldfares feed,
And hips, and sloes! and on each shallow lake
Making glib slides, where they like shadows go
Till some fresh pastimes in their minds awake.
Then off they start anew and hasty blow
Their numbed and clumpsing fingers till they glow;
Then races with their shadows wildly run
That stride huge giants o’er the shining snow
In the pale splendour of the winter sun.
“At the IGA: Franklin, New Hampshire” by Jane Kenyon (1947-1995):
This is where I would shop
if my husband worked felling trees
for the mill, hurting himself badly
from time to time; where I would bring
my three kids; where I would push
one basket and pull another
because the boxes of diapers and cereal
and gallon milk jugs take so much room.
I would already have put the clothes
in the two largest washers next door
at the Norge Laundry Village. Done shopping,
I’d pile the wet wash in trash bags
and take it home to dry on the line.
And I would think, hanging out the baby’s
shirts and sleepers, and cranking the pulley
away from me, how it would be
to change lives with someone,
like the woman who came after us
in the checkout, thin, with lots of rings
on her hands, who looked us over openly.
Things would have been different
if I hadn’t let Bob climb on top of me
for ninety seconds in 1979.
It was raining lightly in the state park
and so we were alone. The charcoal fire
hissed as the first drops fell….
In ninety seconds we made this life—
a trailer on a windy hill, dangerous jobs
in the woods or night work at the packing plant;
Roy, Kimberly, Bobby; too much in the hamper,
never enough in the bank.
Years later, long single,
I want to turn to his departed back,
and say, What gifts we had of each other!
What pleasure—confiding, open-eyed,
fainting with what we were allowed to stay up
late doing. And you couldn’t say,
could you, that the touch you had from me
was other than the touch of one
who could love for life—whether we were suited
or not—for life, like a sentence. And now that I
consider, the touch that I had from you
became not the touch of the long view, but like the
tolerant willingness of one
who is passing through. Colleague of sand
by moonlight—and by beach noonlight, once,
and of straw, salt bale in a barn, and mulch
inside a garden, between the rows—once—
partner of up against the wall in that tiny
bathroom with the lock that fluttered like a chrome
butterfly beside us, hip-height, the familiar
of our innocence, which was the ignorance
of what would be asked, what was required,
thank you for every hour. And I
accept your thanks, as if it were
a gift of yours, to give them—let’s part
equals, as we were in every bed, pure
equals of the earth.
Last week I introduced Sharon Olds at a benefit for Red Hen Press in Pasadena. At Knopf in 1983, I was her editor for The Dead and the Living, her second book of poems, winner of both the Lamont Prize from the Academy of American Poets and the National Book Critics’ Circle award. On the plane to LA two days before the event, I reread a number of her splendid books, all devotedly published by Knopf. Stag’s Leap, from 2012, her compelling collection centered around the end of her marriage—part elegy, part dirge, part paean to all it was—was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and Britain’s T.S.Eliot Prize. We’ll post several poems from that book this weekend and in the days ahead, including a poem especially apt for Thanksgiving.
“The Last Hour” by Sharon Olds:
Suddenly, the last hour
before he took me to the airport, he stood up,
bumping the table, and took a step
toward me, and like a figure in an early
science fiction movie he leaned
forward and down, and opened an arm,
knocking my breast, and he tried to take some
hold of me, I stood and we stumbled,
and then we stood, around our core, his
hoarse cry of awe, at the center,
at the end, of our life. Quickly, then,
the worst was over, I could comfort him,
holding his heart in place from the back
and smoothing it from the front, his own
life continuing, and what had
bound him, around his heart—and bound him
to me—now lying on and around us,
sea-water, rust, light, shards,
the little eternal curls of eros
beaten straight out.
people say they have a hard time
understanding how i
go on about my business
playing my ray charles
hollering at the kids—
seem like my afro
cut off in some old image
would show I got a long memory
and I come from a line
of black and going on women
who got used to making it through murdered sons
and who grief kept on pushing
who fried chicken
swept off the back steps
who grief kept
for their still alive sons
for their sons coming
for their sons gone
“to the unborn and waiting children” by Lucille Clifton:
i went into my mother as
some souls go into a church,
for the rest only. but there,
even there, from the belly of a
poor woman who could not save herself
i was pushed without my permission
into a tangle of birthdays.
listen, eavesdroppers, there is no such thing
as a bed without affliction;
the bodies all may open wide but
you enter at your own risk.