Poems for Pandemic

5/22

 

Next week will be our last of daily pandemic poems as we move into the summer months.  However, in changing the format to a weekly poem, I hope that you will continue to submit your wonderful suggestions to ghiggin@emory.edu.  

Irish poet, Derek Mahon claims that there must be three things in combination before poetry can happen -- “soul, song and formal necessity.”  A master craftsman of poetic form, Mahon has long investigated the dark night of the soul. In fact, he said, “It’s practically my subject, my theme: solitude and community; the weirdness and terrors of solitude: the stifling and consolations of community.  Also, the consolations of solitude.” 

Here, for the Memorial Day weekend is his 2011 poem, “Everything is Going to be All Right”:

Everything is Going to be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate

the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window

and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?

There will be dying, there will be dying,

but there is no need to go into that.

The poems flow from the hand unbidden

and the hidden source is the watchful heart;

the sun rises in spite of everything

and the far cities are beautiful and bright.

I lie here in a riot of sunlight

watching the day break and the clouds flying.

Everything is going to be all right.

                               Derek Mahon

 

 

5/21

 

Today's wonderful example of poetry in motion was chosen by John Sitter:

"As Thoreau traveled widely in Concord, A.R. Ammons seems to have meandered mainly in Ithaca.  In a time of limited travel it helps to be reminded that so much happens at home."

 

Cascadilla Falls

 

I went down by Cascadilla

Falls this

evening, the

stream below the falls,

and picked up a

handsized stone

kidney-shaped, testicular and

 

thought all its motions into it,

the 800 mph earth spin,

the 190-million-mile yearly

displacement around the sun,

the overriding

grand

haul

 

of the galaxy with the 30,000

mph of where

the sun's going:

thought all the interweaving

motions

into myself: dropped

 

the stone to dead rest:

the stream from other motions

broke

rushing over it:

shelterless,

I turned

 

to the sky and stood still:

oh

I do

not know where I am going

that I can live my life

by this single creek.

 

 

 

5/20

 

William Tolbert chose William Carlos Williams’ poem ‘Danse Russe’ for today:

“I have always loved this poem. Williams just packs so much narrative into such an oddly relatable, intimate, and strange image. It's silly and comforting and poignant and sad. It's a lot of stuff. While I wouldn't say I share the exact same emotion as the speaker of this poem, I am finding that I occasionally miss the pre-pandemic quiet that came with working in isolation from home while my wife was at work and my daughter was at school. I have also found the odd elation of waking up before the rest of my family (my north room has delightful sunlight but, sadly, no mirror). I imagine that a lot of people have a new, or maybe more developed, relationship with loneliness these days.”

 

 

Danse Russe

 

If I when my wife is sleeping

and the baby and Kathleen

are sleeping

and the sun is a flame-white disc

in silken mists

above shining trees,—

if I in my north room

dance naked, grotesquely

before my mirror

waving my shirt round my head

and singing softly to myself:

“I am lonely, lonely.

I was born to be lonely,

I am best so!”

If I admire my arms, my face,

my shoulders, flanks, buttocks

against the yellow drawn shades,—

 

Who shall say I am not

the happy genius of my household?

 

 

 

5/19


The beautiful poem for today was chosen by Angelika Bammer who writes:

“This poem is by the Chinese poet, who publishes under the name, Bei Dao; it is translated by Bonnie S. McDougall. It is part of a series of poems he wrote between 1979 and 1983. My response to this poem is always a mix of conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I find it deeply comforting. On the other hand, it deepens my sense of foreboding at the losses we both experience and brace for. But the two lines, “if love is not forgotten/ hardship leaves no memory,” remain with me in this time of dread as a promise.”

 

Stretch out your hands to me

don’t let the world blocked by my shoulder

disturb you any longer

if love is not forgotten

hardship leaves no memory

remember what I say

not everything will come to pass

if there is only one last aspen

standing tall at the end of the road

like a gravestone without an epitaph

the falling leaves will also speak

fading paling as they tumble

slowly they freeze over

holding our heavy footprints

of course no one knows tomorrow

tomorrow begins from another dawn

when we will be fast asleep



5/18

An article in Saturday’s Guardian discusses Ireland’s turn to poetry to ease the strain of lockdown and social isolation.  This series was partly inspired by a tweet from the Irish health minister quoting Seamus Heaney. Lately the Taoiseach (prime minister), Leo Varadker, has been dubbed a “super-spreader in a poetry pandemic” because he quotes Heaney so often.  Today’s poem, chosen by Rebecca McGlynn, is an extract from Heaney’s play, The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes. These lines were often quoted by President Bill Clinton during the negotiations for peace in Ireland in the 1990s and have recently been revived in campaign speeches by Joe Biden.

 

Rebecca writes, “I always turn to Heaney’s work in times of stress and anxiety. It never fails to provide comfort. The final lines here have a particular resonance right now.”

 

History says don't hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up

And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change

on the far side of revenge.

Believe that a further shore

is reachable from here.

Believe in miracles

and cures and healing wells.

 

 

5/15


We end our eighth week of Pandemic Poetry with Lynn Unger’s ‘On the Other Side,’ chosen by Frances Smith Foster.


On the Other Side

(Lynn Unger)

Through the looking glass,

down the rabbit hole,

into the wardrobe and out

into the enchanted forest

where animals talk

and danger lurks and nothing

works quite the way it did before,

you have fallen into a new story.

It is possible that you

are much bigger—or smaller—

than you thought.

It is possible to drown

in the ocean of your own tears.

It is possible that mysterious friends

have armed you with magical weapons

you don’t yet understand,

but which you will need

to save your own life and the world.

Everything here is foreign.

Nothing quite makes sense.

That’s how it works.

Do not confuse the beginning

of the story with the end.

 

 

 

5/14

 

Deepika Bahri introduces today's disturbing poem:

Philip Larkin wrote “Myxomatosis” in 1954, partly in response to the horror of human cruelty to animals, and partly to comment on the terror of nuclear war and the state of self-deception in which humans live. “Myxomatosis,” a disease caused by the Myxoma virus, was intentionally used to control the European rabbit population in several countries, including Britain, in the 1950s. Larkin’s poem deftly captures the invisibility of the threat, the poet’s inability to explain suffering or its manmade sources, and the helpless state of waiting for things to “come right again.” Larkin may have been cynical and politically incorrect in so many ways, but, as Christopher Hitchens notes, “about suffering, he was seldom wrong.”

 

Myxomatosis 

Caught in the center of a soundless field

While hot inexplicable hours go by

What trap is this? Where were its teeth concealed?

You seem to ask.

I make a sharp reply,

Then clean my stick. I'm glad I can't explain

Just in what jaws you were to suppurate:

You may have thought things would come right again

If you could only keep quite still and wait.

 

 

5/13

 

Today’s  pandemic poem, chosen by Paul Kelleher, takes a different turn -- "Something's Coming" from West Side Story.  Paul writes:

 

“Although I've lately taken great comfort in, for instance, the work of Mary Oliver and W. H. Auden, more often, I've been turning to some of the greatest poetry of the last century, poetry written to be sung to a popular or mass audience. For my money, Stephen Sondheim is one of our great poets. Recently, on March 22, Sondheim turned 90 (happy birthday!). 

 

‘Something's Coming’ reminds me of the keen pleasures of packing into a theater, shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, waiting for the curtain to go up on a Broadway show. Those days will come again--as Sondheim puts it, ‘Will it be? Yes, it will. / Maybe just by holding still, / It'll be there!’ (If you want to sing along, I recommend Larry Kert's rousing, joy-inducing rendition from the original Broadway cast album.)”

 

"Something's Coming" (music: Leonard Bernstein; lyrics: Stephen Sondheim)

 

Could be! 

Who knows? 

There's something due any day; 

I will know right away, 

Soon as it shows. 

It may come cannonballing down through the sky, 

Gleam in its eye, 

Bright as a rose! 

Who knows? 

It's only just out of reach, 

Down the block, on a beach, 

Under a tree. 

I got a feeling there's a miracle due, 

Gonna come true, 

Coming to me! 

Could it be? Yes, it could. 

Something's coming, something good, 

If I can wait! 

Something's coming, I don't know what it is, 

But it is 

Gonna be great! 

With a click, with a shock, 

Phone'll jingle, door'll knock, 

Open the latch! 

Something's coming, don't know when, but it's soon; 

Catch the moon, 

One-handed catch! 

Around the corner, 

Or whistling down the river, 

Come on, deliver 

To me! 

Will it be? Yes, it will. 

Maybe just by holding still, 

It'll be there! 

Come on, something, come on in, don't be shy, 

Meet a guy, 

Pull up a chair! 

The air is humming, 

And something great is coming! 

Who knows? 

It's only just out of reach, 

Down the block, on a beach, 

Maybe tonight…

 

5/12

 

The poem for today, ‘To Be of Use,’ by Marge Piercy was chosen by Rosemarie Garland-Thompson.

 

TO BE OF USE

 

The people I love the best

jump into work head first

without dallying in the shallows

and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.

They seem to become natives of that element,

the black sleek heads of seals

bouncing like half-submerged balls.

 

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,

who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,

who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,

who do what has to be done, again and again.

 

I want to be with people who submerge

in the task, who go into the fields to harvest

and work in a row and pass the bags along,

who are not parlor generals and field deserters

but move in a common rhythm

when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

 

The work of the world is common as mud.

Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.

But the thing worth doing well done

has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.

Greek amphoras for wine or oil,

Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums

but you know they were made to be used.

The pitcher cries for water to carry

and a person for work that is real.

 

 

 

5/11

 

On graduation day, Ben Reiss shares Elizabeth Bishop’s masterpiece, ‘One Art.’ Ben writes:

 

“The pandemic paints in many shades of grief.   Millions have lost jobs and livelihoods, and many have  lost loved ones.  We have all lost the company of friends; the pleasures of travel, live music, loud restaurants, and theatre;  the graduation ceremonies and the chance to say goodbye to students, classmates, and colleagues before summer; a sense of solidity and certainty about our world and our way of life.  But there are moments of beauty and connectedness, too.  Last Friday, we had a wonderful Zoom celebration for our beloved  Jericho Brown after he won the Pulitzer Prize.   Some old friends joined us for an hour that felt full of the richness of life.   One of the people on the call was Kevin Young,  the great poet, archivist and editor, joining us from New York. This weekend, I returned to Kevin’s edited collection, The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief & Healing, to see what it could teach me about grieving in this new context.  I turned first to the poem that contains the line that gives the book its title, by Elizabeth Bishop.  I find it gives excellent instruction in how to build up grief muscles, starting slow and easy like a runner stretching, and building toward a marathon.”

 

 

One Art

 

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

 

Lose something every day.  Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

 

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places and names, and where it was you meant

to travel.  None of these will bring disaster.

 

I lost my mother’s watch.  And look! My last, or

next-to-last of three loved houses went.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

 

I lost two cities, lovely ones.  And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

 

-Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied.  It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

 

 

 

5/8

 

Today’s poem is for all mothers (and their children) and is especially in memory of my own wonderful mother, Mary Higgins.

 

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.


“Late Fragment” by Raymond Carver, from A New Path to the Waterfall,  1989.

 

 

5/7

 

Jim Morey shares this pithy poem for today by Emily Dickinson, “No one packs more poetic punch, word for word, than Emily Dickinson.  Despite the brevity of the poem --only a quatrain--it is a ballad stanza (XAXA, 7-6-7-6) and thus implies that it is part of a longer poem, and of a longer story.”

 

“Faith” is a fine invention

For Gentlemen who see!

But Microscopes are prudent

In an Emergency!

 

 

5/6

 

Today’s  poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo was chosen by Levin Arnsperger.  Joy Harjo has just been elected for a second term as America’s Poet Laureate. Levin writes, “ I first read this poem in a class at Emory, and I have taught it a couple of times since then. As we are all still spending much of our days at home, it seems fitting to look at a poem that declares the centrality of the kitchen table.”

  

Perhaps the World Ends Here

By Joy Harjo

 

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

 

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

 

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

 

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

 

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

 

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

 

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

 

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

 

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

 

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

 

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

 

 

5/5

 

In celebration of the news that our brilliant colleague Jericho Brown has just been awarded the 2020 Pulitzer prize for The Tradition, here is his poem, ‘The Virus.’ The Pulitzer citation honors “A collection of masterful lyrics that combine delicacy with historical urgency in their loving evocation of bodies vulnerable to hostility and violence.”

 

The Virus

Dubbed undetectable, I can’t kill

The people you touch, and I can’t

Blur your view

Of the pansies you’ve planted

Outside the window, meaning

I can’t kill the pansies, but I want to.

I want them dying, and I want

To do the killing. I want you

To heed that I’m still here

Just beneath your skin and in

Each organ

The way anger dwells in a man

Who studies the history of his nation.

If I can’t leave you

Dead, I’ll have

You vexed. Look. Look

Again: show me the color

Of your flowers now.

 

 

5/4

 

We begin the week with Harry Thomas's powerful poem, 'Deor,' chosen by Daniel Bosch.

Deor

 

            Old English

 

Wayland in Värmland

suffered adversities,

that strong-minded man

knew misery.

Bitter setbacks, pains

of winter cold, these

were his companions.

His truck was with trouble

after Nithhad had done

the violence to him—

hacking his hamstrings,

hobbling the better man.

            —That was endured;

            so may this be.

 

Beadohilde despaired

when her brothers were butchered,

but when she was sure

she carried a child—

that was what wrecked her.

She couldn’t conceive

of a future.

            —That was endured

            so may this be.

 

We’ve all of us heard

how the Geat loved Mathilde,

loved her without limit,

loved with such love

his sleep was shattered.

            —That was endured;

            so may this be.

 

Thirty years Theodric

ruled the Maeringa’s town.

The facts are all known.

            —That was endured;

            so may this be.

 

We all know of Eormanric

and his wolflike ways—

subjugating subjects

the length of Gotland.

He was a cruel king!

Men sat unmoving,

shackled to sorrow,

thinking just one thing—

to cut the king down.

            —That was endured;

            so may this be.

 

Of myself I’ll say this:

I was once the poet

of the Heodingas,

dear to my lord.

My name was Deor.

Winter to winter

I had a good holding,

a lavishing lord.

Now one Heorrenda,

a masterly man,

finds praise in the place

until lately my lord

gave to me.

            —That was endured;

            so may this be.

                  

Translated from Anglo-Saxon by Harry Thomas.

 

 

  • Translator’s Note:

“Deor” is preserved in the Exeter Book, an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry that was donated to the Exeter cathedral library, where it still is, in 1071, by Leofric, the first bishop of Exeter. The poem is probably the work of a scop of the 9th century. It contains lines of Christian consolation that, feeling them to be at odds with the spirit of the poem, and disliking them, I have omitted. In his translation, published in The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation (2010), Seamus Heaney retains the lines.

 

“Deor” is the first poem in the book Some Complicities by Harry Thomas, published in 2013 by Un-gyve Press BUTTON: http://www.un-gyvepress.com in Boston.

Catalogue (pdf) BUTTON http://www.un-gyvepress.com/downloads/Un-Gyve%20Press%20Catalogue.pdf

 

 

5/1

 

Our May Day poem chosen by Michelle Wright is ‘The Universe is a House Party,’ from Tracy K. Smith's Life on Mars. A reminder, as Michelle says “that even when staying home and possibly standing absolutely still, there's a party going on in the universe.”

THE UNIVERSE IS A HOUSE PARTY

The universe is expanding. Look: postcards

And panties, bottles with lipstick on the rim,

 

Orphan socks and napkins dried into knots.

Quickly, wordlessly, all of it whisked into file

 

With radio waves from a generation ago,

Drifting to the edge of what doesn’t end,

 

Like the air inside a balloon. Is it bright?

Will our eyes crimp shut? Is it molten, atomic,

 

A conflagration of suns? It sounds like the kind of party

Your neighbors forget to invite you to: bass throbbing

 

Through walls, and everyone thudding around drunk

On the roof. We grind lenses to an impossible strength,

 

Point them toward the future, and dream of beings

We’ll welcome with indefatigable hospitality:

 

How marvelous you’ve come! We won’t flinch

At the pinprick mouths, the nubbin limbs. We’ll rise,

 

Gracile, robust. Mi casa es su casa. Never more sincere.

Seeing us, they’ll know exactly what we mean.

 

Of course, it’s ours. If it’s anyone’s, it’s ours.

 

 

4/30


Emily Dickinson has been nominated more than any other poet in this series.  Today, we have Kate Nickerson's selection, 'We grow accustomed to the Dark.' Kate writes, "Of course, Emily Dickinson was a champion social-distancer, and I’ve had a lot of her lines running through my head. I like this one as a way to think about slowly adjusting to new circumstances (and as a way to remember Dickinson’s sly comedy.)"

 

We grow accustomed to the Dark —

When light is put away —

As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp

To witness her Goodbye —


A Moment — We uncertain step

For newness of the night —

Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —

And meet the Road — erect —


And so of larger — Darknesses —

Those Evenings of the Brain —

When not a Moon disclose a sign —

Or Star — come out — within —


The Bravest — grope a little —

And sometimes hit a Tree

Directly in the Forehead —

But as they learn to see —


Either the Darkness alters —

Or something in the sight

Adjusts itself to Midnight —

And Life steps almost straight.

 

 

4/29

I know that it is unusual to feature the same poet two days in a row but this moving tribute to Eavan Boland by Richard Hermes arrived yesterday:


“She was one of the first poets to make me love poetry. As an undergraduate biology major, her poem ‘White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland’ thrilled me with its assertion that nature could ‘seem to be...language.’ And I remember vividly her visit to the department in the late 90's -- not the content of her seminar discussion, but the tone. I'd never seen anyone so unvarnished in her seriousness about the work of thinking about literature, and so comfortable putting imprecise ideas in their place! It was both intimidating and inspiring. Like her speaker in ‘Quarantine,’ she made ‘no place’ for ‘inexact praise,’ insisting instead on a ‘merciless inventory’ of whatever it was her imagination turned to in the poem. She will be missed.”

 

---

 

Quarantine

 

Eavan Boland - 1944-2020

 

In the worst hour of the worst season

    of the worst year of a whole people

a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.

He was walking—they were both walking—north.

 

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.

     He lifted her and put her on his back.

He walked like that west and west and north.

Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

 

In the morning they were both found dead.

    Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.

But her feet were held against his breastbone.

The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

 

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.

     There is no place here for the inexact

praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.

There is only time for this merciless inventory:

 

Their death together in the winter of 1847.

      Also what they suffered. How they lived.

And what there is between a man and woman.

And in which darkness it can best be proved.

 

 

4/28

Yesterday, the wonderful Irish poet Eavan Boland died at her home in Dublin. A pioneer of women’s poetry she transformed Irish writing at a time when she said it was easier to put a bomb than a baby in a poem. Professor and Director of the Creative Writing program at Stanford since 1996, she returned home to Ireland last month to be with her family during the pandemic. Countless readers across the world are mourning her loss and cherishing her poems.


Writing in The Irish Times last week, Boland said: “When I teach, there are always books I recommend to students. My chief category, however, is just this: books I wish I’d read when I was younger. I don’t think I knew when I was a student that books don’t just engage you. They change you. Long after the book is closed you take those changes with you into your life, where they continue to instruct it. They alter what you know and add to it. You may well read the book later. But those mysterious changes you never get back. I wish I’d understood that sooner.”


Of the many Boland poems that have changed me, this is the one I’d like to share today -


The Necessity for Irony

 

On Sundays,

when the rain held off,

after lunch or later,

I would go with my twelve year old

daughter into town,

and put down the time

at junk sales, antique fairs.

 

There I would

lean over tables,

absorbed by

lace, wooden frames,

glass. My daughter stood

at the other end of the room,

her flame-coloured hair

obvious whenever-

which was not often-

 

I turned around.

I turned around.

She was gone.

 

Grown. No longer ready

to come with me, whenever

a dry Sunday

held out its promises

of small histories. Endings.

 

When I was young

I studied styles: their use

and origin. Which age

was known for which

ornament: and was always drawn

to a lyric speech, a civil tone.

But never thought

I would have the need,

as I do now, for a darker one:

 

Spirit of irony,

my caustic author

of the past, of memory, -

and of its pain, which returns

hurts, stings-reproach me now,

remind me

that I was in those rooms,

with my child,

with my back turned to her,

searching-oh irony!-

for beautiful things.


Eavan Boland.

 

4/27

 

 

Living in the surprising forest that is Atlanta, we are surrounded by the drama of trees. This poem comes from Paul Muldoon’s first collection, New Weather, published when he was twenty-one. I love the first four lines and the implicit direction – “Look up!”

 

Wind and Tree

 

In the way that most of the wind

Happens where there are trees,

 

Most of the world is centred

About ourselves.

 

Often where the wind has gathered

The trees together and together,

 

One tree will take

Another in her arms and hold.

 

Their branches that are grinding

Madly together and together,

 

It is no real fire.

They are breaking each other.

 

Often I think I should be like

The single tree, going nowhere,

 

Since my own arm cannot and will not

Break the other. Yet by my broken bones

 

I tell new weather.

 

Paul Muldoon

4/24

I often teach Margaret Atwood’s eerie poem ‘This is a Photograph of Me,’ because it leads to many great discussions about representation and self-reflexive poetry. But in my anthology, on the facing page is this extraordinary poem, ‘Up.’

Up
Margaret Atwood

You wake up filled with dread.
There seems no reason for it.
Morning light sifts through the window,
there is birdsong,
you can’t get out of bed.

It’s something about the crumpled sheets
hanging over the edge like jungle
foliage, the terry slippers gaping
their dark pink mouths for your feet,
the unseen breakfast— some of it
in the refrigerator you do not dare
to open— you will not dare to eat.

What prevents you? The future. The future tense,
immense as outer space.
You could get lost there.
No. Nothing so simple. The past, its density
and drowned events pressing you down,
like sea water, like gelatin
filling your lungs instead of air.

Forget all that and let’s get up.
Try moving your arm.
Try moving your head.
Pretend the house is on fire
and you must run or burn.
No, that one’s useless.
It’s never worked before.

Where is it coming from, this echo,
this huge No that surrounds you,
silent as the folds of the yellow
curtains, mute as the cheerful

Mexican bowl with its cargo
of mummified flowers?
(You chose the colours of the sun,
not the dried neutrals of shadow.
God knows you’ve tried.)

Now here’s a good one:
you’re lying on your deathbed.
You have one hour to live.
Who is it, exactly, you have needed
all these years to forgive?

 

 

4/23

Although an autumnal poem in April, Francis Ittenbach's choice of "November Dusk" by Siegfried Sassoon reminds us to call our own "winged lovely moments" home as best we can. Francis writes, "Wanting to find a bit of stillness in our lives (somewhat paradoxically, given how isolation would appear to offer such opportunities) keeps occurring in conversations I've had with friends and family; reading this poem brings that directly to mind for me."

 

"November Dusk" – Siegfried Sassoon

 

Ruminant, while firelight glows on shadowy walls

And dusk with the last leaves of autumn falls,

I hear my garden thrush whose notes again

Tell stillness after hours of gusty rain.

Can I record tranquillity intense

With harmony of heart, — experience

Like a rich memory's mind-lit monochrome?

Winged lovely moments, can I call you home?

 

This texture is to-day's. Near as my mind

Each instant is; yet each reveals to me

November night-falls known a lifetime long:

And I've no need to travel far to find

This bird who from the leafless walnut tree

Sings like the world's farewell to sight and song.

 

4/22

Today’s poem, chosen by Valerie Loichot, comes from La Fontaine’s 1678 Fable “Les animaux malades de la peste.” (“The Animals Sick of the Plague”) Valerie writes, “I find it particularly resonant for our times. Highlights are: ‘Ils ne mouraient pas tous, mais tous étaient frappés’ [they died not all, but all were struck], and the moral of the tale whereby a grass-eating scabby ass gets scapegoated as the source of evil while the gluttons, greedy, and powerful are absolved.”

The sorest ill that Heaven hath
Sent on this lower world in wrath,--
The plague (to call it by its name,)
One single day of which
Would Pluto's ferryman enrich,--
Waged war on beasts, both wild and tame.
They died not all, but all were sick:
No hunting now, by force or trick,
To save what might so soon expire.
No food excited their desire;
Nor wolf nor fox now watch'd to slay
The innocent and tender prey.
The turtles fled;
So love and therefore joy were dead.
The lion council held, and said:
'My friends, I do believe
This awful scourge, for which we grieve,
Is for our sins a punishment
Most righteously by Heaven sent.
Let us our guiltiest beast resign,
A sacrifice to wrath divine.
Perhaps this offering, truly small,
May gain the life and health of all.
By history we find it noted
That lives have been just so devoted.
Then let us all turn eyes within,
And ferret out the hidden sin.
Himself let no one spare nor flatter,
But make clean conscience in the matter.
For me, my appetite has play'd the glutton
Too much and often upon mutton.
What harm had e'er my victims done?
I answer, truly, None.
Perhaps, sometimes, by hunger press'd,
I've eat the shepherd with the rest.
I yield myself, if need there be;
And yet I think, in equity,
Each should confess his sins with me;
For laws of right and justice cry,
The guiltiest alone should die.'
'Sire,' said the fox, 'your majesty
Is humbler than a king should be,
And over-squeamish in the case.
What! eating stupid sheep a crime?
No, never, sire, at any time.
It rather was an act of grace,
A mark of honour to their race.
And as to shepherds, one may swear,
The fate your majesty describes,
Is recompense less full than fair
For such usurpers o'er our tribes.'

Thus Renard glibly spoke,
And loud applause from flatterers broke.
Of neither tiger, boar, nor bear,
Did any keen inquirer dare
To ask for crimes of high degree;
The fighters, biters, scratchers, all
From every mortal sin were free;
The very dogs, both great and small,
Were saints, as far as dogs could be.

The ass, confessing in his turn,
Thus spoke in tones of deep concern:--
'I happen'd through a mead to pass;
The monks, its owners, were at mass;
Keen hunger, leisure, tender grass,
And add to these the devil too,
All tempted me the deed to do.
I browsed the bigness of my tongue;
Since truth must out, I own it wrong.'

On this, a hue and cry arose,
As if the beasts were all his foes:
A wolf, haranguing lawyer-wise,
Denounced the ass for sacrifice--
The bald-pate, scabby, ragged lout,
By whom the plague had come, no doubt.
His fault was judged a hanging crime.
'What? eat another's grass? O shame!
The noose of rope and death sublime,'
For that offence, were all too tame!
And soon poor Grizzle felt the same.

Thus human courts acquit the strong,
And doom the weak, as therefore wrong.

 

4/21

Our poem for today is Barbara Ladd’s choice of James Dickey’s ‘The Hospital Window.’

 

The Hospital Window

By James L. Dickey

 

I have just come down from my father.

Higher and higher he lies

Above me in a blue light

Shed by a tinted window.

I drop through six white floors

And then step out onto pavement.

 

Still feeling my father ascend,

I start to cross the firm street,

My shoulder blades shining with all

The glass the huge building can raise.

Now I must turn round and face it,

And know his one pane from the others.

 

Each window possesses the sun

As though it burned there on a wick.

I wave, like a man catching fire.

All the deep-dyed windowpanes flash,

And, behind them, all the white rooms

They turn to the color of Heaven.

 

Ceremoniously, gravely, and weakly,

Dozens of pale hands are waving

Back, from inside their flames.

Yet one pure pane among these

Is the bright, erased blankness of nothing.

I know that my father is there,

 

In the shape of his death still living.

The traffic increases around me

Like a madness called down on my head.

The horns blast at me like shotguns,

And drivers lean out, driven crazy—

But now my propped-up father

 

Lifts his arm out of stillness at last.

The light from the window strikes me

And I turn as blue as a soul,

As the moment when I was born.

I am not afraid for my father—

Look! He is grinning; he is not

 

Afraid for my life, either,

As the wild engines stand at my knees

Shredding their gears and roaring,

And I hold each car in its place

For miles, inciting its horn

To blow down the walls of the world

 

That the dying may float without fear

In the bold blue gaze of my father.

Slowly I move to the sidewalk

With my pin-tingling hand half dead

At the end of my bloodless arm.

I carry it off in amazement,

 

High, still higher, still waving,

My recognized face fully mortal,

Yet not; not at all, in the pale,

Drained, otherworldly, stricken,

Created hue of stained glass.

I have just come down from my father.

 

4/20

Today we share a poem in memory of our dear friend -- the brilliant, warm, and wonderful Pellom McDaniels, who died on Sunday morning.  "No More Elegies Today" by Clint Smith was selected by Justin Shaw who writes, "It reminds me of the beautiful and minute even in the realities of calamity and uncertainty."  For Pellom, we send a heartfelt round of applause.


*No More Elegies Today*

Clint Smith
Today I will
write a poem
about a little girl jumping rope.
It will not be a metaphor
for dodging bullets.
It will not be an allegory
for skipping past despair.
But rather about the
back & forth bob of her head
as she waits for the right moment
to insert herself
into the blinking flashes
of bound hemp.
But rather about her friends
on either end of the rope who turn
their wrists into small
flashing windmills cultivating
an energy of their own.
But rather about the way
the beads in her hair bounce
against the back of her neck.
But rather the way her feet
barely touch the ground,
how the rope skipping across
the concrete sounds
like the entire world is giving
her a round of applause.



4/17

We end our first month of pandemic poetry with a few stanzas from the last section of  W.B. Yeats’s great poem “Meditations in Time of Civil War.” Shortly after his marriage to George Hyde-Lees, Yeats bought a crumbling Norman tower in the West of Ireland and it became a powerful symbol of his work as much as a dwelling place for his young bride. These lines show Yeats facing up to the horrors of violent change but finding hope in the starling (stare) feeding her young outside his window and in his plea for the honey-bees to ‘Come build in the empty house of the stare.’  

 

The bees build in the crevices

Of loosening masonry, and there

The mother birds bring grubs and flies.

My wall is loosening; honey-bees,

Come build in the empty house of the stare.

 

We are closed in, and the key is turned

On our uncertainty; somewhere

A man is killed, or a house burned,

Yet no clear fact to be discerned:

Come build in the empty house of the stare.

 

A barricade of stone or of wood;

Some fourteen days of civil war;

Last night they trundled down the road

That dead young soldier in his blood:

Come build in the empty house of the stare.

 

We had fed the heart on fantasies,

The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;

More substance in our enmities

Than in our love; O honey-bees,

Come build in the empty house of the stare.

 

 

4/16

Deepika Bahri writes, "This 2017 poem by radiologist and poet Amit Majmudar (first poet laureate of Ohio) is a little on the nose at this troubled time, but Majmudar makes the written word sing!"

Virus by AMIT MAJMUDAR

 

Neither video

Nor bacterium,

Doorknob-slobber droplet-

Borne mysterium,

Born of nothing, knowing

Only how to breed

Like some dandelion-clock-less

Dandelion seed,

Protean protein,

Hijacker, safe-cracker,

Magical papyrus-

Scrap of genome

Sealed with a cork

To sail the maelstrom,

Mimetic malice,

Code and chalice,

Yours the message

All the Muses sing:

Purity of heart

Is to will one thing

 

4/15

Jonathan Goldberg writes, "Seeing Tony Fauci so often reminds me of him many years ago, also speaking truth to those in power about the AIDS pandemic. Here is a poem by Eve Kososfsky Sedgwick written then":

Guys who were 35 last year are 70 this year
with lank hair and enlarged livers,
and jaw hinges more legible than Braille.
A killing velocity – seen another way, though,
they’ve ambled into the eerily slow-mo
extermination camp the city sidewalks are.

In 1980, if someone had prophesied
this rack of temporalities could come to us,
their “knowledge” would have seemed pure hate;
it would have seemed so, and have been so.
It still is so.
                  Yet every morning
We have to gape the jaws of our unbelief
or belief, to knowing it.

4/14

This morning, Joe Fritsch chose ‘What the Living Do’ by Marie Howe, a poem that dwells on the phenomenal everyday - “we want more and more and/then more of it.”

 

What the Living Do

Marie Howe

 

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably

   fell down there.

And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes

   have piled up

 

waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we

   spoke of.

It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight

   pours through

 

the open living room windows because the heat’s on too high in here, and

   I can’t turn it off.

For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street,

   the bag breaking,

 

I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying>

   along those

wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my>

   wrist and sleeve,

 

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.

Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called

   that yearning.

 

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to

   pass. We want

whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and

   then more of it.

 

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the

   window glass,

say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing

   so deep

 

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m

   speechless:

I am living, I remember you.

 

4/13

We welcome the Spring with this cautionary William Carlos Williams poem, chosen by Walter Kalaidjian. Walter writes, “I’ve taught this poem many times and focus on Williams’s objectivist aesthetic of ‘no ideas but in things’ or the motif of birth from the vantage point of a practicing poet/OB-GYN.  I didn’t give as much thought to the sharp contrast set up in the first line and only lately have come to appreciate the gravity of Williams’s experience treating the 1918 influenza pandemic of which he later wrote: ‘We doctors were making up to sixty calls a day. Several of us were knocked out, one of the younger of us died, others caught the thing, and we hadn’t a thing that was effective in checking that potent poison that was sweeping the world.’

 

Spring and All

 

I

By the road to the contagious hospital

under the surge of the blue

mottled clouds driven from the

northeast-a cold wind. Beyond, the

waste of broad, muddy fields

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

 

patches of standing water

the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish

purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy

stuff of bushes and small trees

 

with dead, brown leaves under them

leafless vines-

 

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish

dazed spring approaches-

 

They enter the new world naked,

cold, uncertain of all

save that they enter. All about them

the cold, familiar wind-

 

Now the grass, tomorrow

the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

 

One by one objects are defined-

It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

 

But now the stark dignity of

entrance-Still, the profound change

has come upon them: rooted, they

grip down and begin to awaken

 

4/10

We end our third week sheltering in place with John Sitter's apt choice, 'Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room.' John writes, “I've found myself thinking of this poem by Wordsworth several times recently. In normal seasons, we students of literature probably hear the concluding "meta" lines most clearly. But now the metaphors have their say.”  

 

"Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room"

 

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;

And hermits are contented with their cells;

And students with their pensive citadels;

Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,

Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,

High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,

Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:

In truth the prison, into which we doom

Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,

In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound

Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;

Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)

Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,

Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

 

4/9

Today, Erwin Rosinberg chose Louise Erdrich’s ‘Advice to Myself’ because it leans into the messy disruption of everyday patterns and routines.  As Erwin writes, it also insists that something new can grow out of this process of paring down to essentials.

Advice to Myself 

 

Louise Erdrich

 

Leave the dishes.

Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator

and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.

Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.

Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.

Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins.

Don’t even sew on a button.

Let the wind have its way, then the earth

that invades as dust and then the dead

foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.

Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.

Don’t keep all the pieces of the puzzles

or the doll’s tiny shoes in pairs, don’t worry

who uses whose toothbrush or if anything

matches, at all.

Except one word to another. Or a thought.

Pursue the authentic—decide first

what is authentic,

then go after it with all your heart.

Your heart, that place

you don’t even think of cleaning out.

That closet stuffed with savage mementos.

Don’t sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth

or worry if we’re all eating cereal for dinner

again. Don’t answer the telephone, ever,

or weep over anything at all that breaks.

Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons

in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life

and talk to the dead

who drift in though the screened windows, who collect

patiently on the tops of food jars and books.

Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything

except what destroys

the insulation between yourself and your experience

or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters

this ruse you call necessity.

 

4/8

Today Melissa Yang chose Jorie Graham's beautiful poem, "The Geese," which “illuminates entangled movements in the natural world and the everyday work of meaning-making with elegance and urgency.” The poet Kerry Hardie once said, when she visited Emory many years ago, that so much of 'women’s work' involves looking down but that she had always loved hanging out the washing because it involves looking up at the sky. Melissa adds, “This is a poem I often revisit in my research and one I find meditative to re-read in moments of chaos.”

index.png

 

4/7

Nathan Suhr- Sytsma chose this untitled gem by Lucille Clifton. He discussed this poem with the students in his ‘Introduction to Poetry’ class on the first day of remote teaching a couple of weeks ago. As he says, the last few lines have a new resonance in this moment.

won't you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

 

4/6

Our week begins with Pat Cahill’s choice of Adrienne Rich’s poem from 1991 that takes its title from a Bertolt Brecht poem that asks, "What kind of times are these/ When to talk about trees is almost a crime/ Because it means keeping silent about so many wrongs?" Pat writes, “Reading this poem in our own perilous times, I am moved by the gorgeous cadences through which she evokes both trees and wrongs as well as by the sense of urgency in her direct address: a warning to not look away from the dire truths and dreadful complicities that define what is happening right here and right now.”

What Kind of Times Are These
BY ADRIENNE RICH

There's a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill

and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows

near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted

who disappeared into those shadows.



I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don't be fooled

this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,

our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,

its own ways of making people disappear.



I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods

meeting the unmarked strip of light—

ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:

I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.



And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you

anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these

to have you listen at all, it's necessary

to talk about trees.

 

4/3

As we head into the weekend, let us take to heart Laura Otis’s choice of Anne Bradstreet’s “To My Dear and Loving Husband.” Laura writes, “ I believe this is a good time to be thinking about love, which can take so many different forms. Some of us are locked in with others; some alone, but I am sure we are all thinking about other people and the feelings we have had and still have for them.”


To My Dear and Loving Husband

Anne Bradstreet - 1612-1672

If ever two were one, then surely we.

If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;

If ever wife was happy in a man,

Compare with me ye women if you can.

I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,

Or all the riches that the East doth hold.

My love is such that rivers cannot quench,

Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.

Thy love is such I can no way repay;

The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.

Then while we live, in love let's so persever,

That when we live no more we may live ever.

 

4/2

Today, Ross Knecht chose the pertinent ‘A Litany in Time of Plague’ by Thomas Nashe. When we talked about this poem in our virtual happy hour last week, we thought that it had been written in the wake of the London plague of 1603. However, Ross tells me that it was published in 1600 and that Nashe himself died in 1601.

A Litany in Time of Plague
Thomas Nashe

Adieu, farewell, earth's bliss;
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life's lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
None from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen's eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector brave;
Swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds open her gate.
"Come, come!" the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Wit with his wantonness
Tasteth death's bitterness;
Hell's executioner
Hath no ears for to hear
What vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Haste, therefore, each degree,
To welcome destiny;
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player's stage;
Mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

 

4/1

I love today’s short poem, ‘Form,’ by Irish poet Michael Longley because it does exactly what it claims language can’t do. A form is also the word for the flattened nest of grass or home of the hare.

Let the content speak for itself.

Form

Trying to tell it all to you and cover everything
Is like awakening from its grassy form the hare:
In that make-shift shelter your hand, then my hand,
Mislays the hare and the warmth it leaves behind.

Michael Longley

 

3/31

Today's poem was chosen by Joonna Trapp who writes:

This poem has always been with me since my first class on Milton as a sophomore. Patience isn’t one of my virtues. Milton “chides” and reminds me that waiting is part of human existence. And so, we wait. And hope.

WHEN I consider how my light is spent
E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
Doth God exact day-labour, light deny'd,
I fondly ask; But patience to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State

Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o're Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite.

John Milton. 1608–1674

 

3/30

Our week begins with Walt Whitman, chosen by Jericho Brown.

Walt Whitman

Song of Myself, 27

To be in any form, what is that?
(Round and round we go, all of us, and ever come back thither,)
If nothing lay more develop'd the quahaug in its callous shell were enough.

Mine is no callous shell,
I have instant conductors all over me whether I pass or stop,
They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me.

I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,
To touch my person to some one else's is about as much as I can stand.

 

3/27

Today’s poem was chosen by Bailey Betik particularly for the last sentence and all its audacious, necessary hope.

“Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before” by Kaveh Akbar

I can’t even remember my own name, I who remember
so much-football scores, magic tricks
deep love
so close to God it was practically religious

When you fall asleep in that sort of love you
wake up with bruises on your neck. I don’t
have drunks, sirs, I have adventures. Every day
my body follows me around

asking for things. I try to think louder, try
to be brilliant, wildly brilliant (and naked
though I can never be naked enough). We all want

the same thing (to walk in sincere wonder,
like the first man to hear a parrot speak) but we live
on an enormous flatness floating between
two oceans. Sometimes you just have to leave

whatever’s real to you, you have to clomp
through fields and kick the caps off
all the toadstools. Sometimes
you have to march all the way to Galilee

or the literal foot of God himself before you realize
you’ve already passed the place where
you were supposed to die. I can no longer remember
the being afraid, only that it came to an end.

 

3/26

Today’s poem, ‘Anything can Happen,’ by Seamus Heaney. Chosen by Ron Schuchard as a way of seeing human calamities, past, present and future.

Anything Can Happen
after Horace, Odes, I, 34

Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well, just now
He galloped his thunder cart and his horses

Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth
And the clogged underearth, the River Styx,
The winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.
Anything can happen, the tallest towers

Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,
Setting it down bleeding on the next.

Ground gives. The heaven’s weight
Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle-lid.
Capstones shift, nothing resettles right.
Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.

 

3/25

Happy to inaugurate our series of ‘Poems for Pandemic’ with this Emily Dickinson poem chosen by Ben Reiss.

We grow accustomed to the Dark —

When light is put away —

As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp

To witness her Goodbye —

A Moment — We uncertain step

For newness of the night —

Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —

And meet the Road — erect —

And so of larger — Darkness —

Those Evenings of the Brain —

When not a Moon disclose a sign —

Or Star — come out — within —

The Bravest — grope a little —

And sometimes hit a Tree

Directly in the Forehead —

But as they learn to see —

Either the Darkness alters —

Or something in the sight

Adjusts itself to Midnight —

And Life steps almost straight.