Overdue public thanks to my quite-literary friend Elizabeth for picking up Susan Terris’ Memos at the AWP conference this year and sending me a copy. The book in the mail was a surprise, and then so were many of the poems in the collection. My three favorites at the moment are: “Memo to the girl with the port-wine stain across her face” (“your parents I’d like to know them”), “Memo to the deadbeat dad” (“think about the no-garden garden”) and “Memo to the young streetwalker” (“I can still see the soft spot your parchment / head cradled”).
My mom passed along the Commonweal interview with the former Poetry editor. I need to share a few parts I loved. (There were many.) You may not read a better meditation on lit-faith ties all year.
The great enemy for all of us is the “I” we interpose between ourselves and experience, the self we mistake for our soul. Nothing but difficulty destroys that “I.”
Can one really just decide to be more joyful, though? One aspect of joy is the suspension of will—the obliteration of will, really—though probably there is an element of discipline in being prepared for joy, just as there is in being prepared for poetry. “Iridescent readiness,” W. S. Di Piero calls it.
3. From a quoted poem by poet Anna Kamienska…
Make the day rise brightly
as if there were no more pain
And let my poem stand clear as a windowpane
bumped by a bumblebee’s head
We all live in an agony of unbelief, and we all survive it by solidarity with others, including those minds we meet only through their works. I suppose no artist has the duty to make his or her faith available to an audience, but just think how heartening it is when one does.
Poets are still guardians of the truths of faith, but poetry has less and less to do with the institutions that presume to name that faith. This makes some religious leaders think they do not need poetry, when in fact they need it now more than ever, because within poetry is the same anarchic energy and disabling insight that causes people to seek religion at all. It is the aboriginal energy of existence itself that is missing from most religious services these days. Art has this energy in abundance.
I don’t know much about poet James Merrill. But in my New Yorker catch-up this spring, I do love these Dan Chaisson lines about him. Aspirational.
Merrill had few blind spots: his head was aware of his heart, and his imagination had unusual access to both. He approached his life with a weird mixture of abandon and detachment. There are no Merrill scandals. He wasn’t Mother Teresa, but he kept most of the friends he made, inspired forgiveness in most of his ex-lovers, and treated those whose lives drifted through the rarefied precincts of his own as though they were kings in disguise.
Two of them. First, Mark Strand’s “Lines for Winter,” which showed up in the Poetry Foundation’s great Poem of the Day feed.
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
And James Richardson’s “Essay for Clouds,” from a recent New Yorker. So many good lines but maybe the most excerpt-able ones: “O / miracle not miraculous! Everything / we know well / lightens and escapes us, and isn’t that / when we escape?”
In an old notepad of mine, there’s mention of a Mary Oliver poem. I have no idea where I first heard the poem or when I wrote down a line from it, but it’s wonderful. You can read the work in full here.
You are young. So you know everything. You leap
into the boat and begin rowing. But listen to me.
Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without
any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me.
On a different page of my notes, there’s “belted kingfisher.” I learn from research today that the bird is a wild one. “When a Belted Kingfisher catches a fish, it will fly back to its perch, bang the fish against the branch, throw it up into the air, catch it, and swallow it.”
Another page: “Catholic guilt. Never connected with it. Always saw it more as a kind of restlessness to do better. An interconnectedness.”
“Hog Island Oysters” by Devin Johnston, via Lori after we went to Hog Island Oysters on Highway One two winters ago. “Voluptuous and cold, / Kumamoto trembles / on a thin fork, / liquefaction / of cloud.”
“Ear” and “Asking the Way” by Ko Un. “How to Draw a Perfect Circle” by “Terrance Hayes. “I Wanted to Make Myself like the Ravine” by Hannah Gamble. “Dinosaurs in the Hood” by Danez Smith. And a repeat/reminder for the year ahead: Alice Fulton’s “Personally Engraved.” So: “In this spirit I force my eyes across your message, / revisiting that due diligence tone you do so well. / I’m searching for some whispered twist or shout….”
Michael Homolka’s “Riposte to Ode.”
It isn’t like that Horace Life stresses us out
However many hundreds of decades later we’re told
to welcome anxiety is beneficial
and to quote honor our imperfections
W.S. Di Piero’s “Chicago and December.”
I walk north across
the river, Christmas lights
crushed on skyscraper glass,
bling stringing Michigan Ave.,
sunlight’s last-gasp sighing
through the artless fog.
Mary Oliver’s “White-Eyes.”
all the singing is in
the tops of the trees
I can’t describe exactly what leads to put these three links together. Two are poems, and one is an essay by a poet. They all remind me of fall. None of the three are too cold or set late in the year. But they all contain an idea of early darkness — some of them clearly and others less so — and, most importantly, consider how to push back. Or set themselves apart from it.
“Vespers” by Louise Gluck.
In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.
“Elegy for the Living” by Kathryn Simmons. “We wash up side by side / to find each other / in the speakable world, / and, lulled into sense, / inhabit our landscape….”
And an essay, “Omphalos: Returning to the troubles of a Northern Irish childhood” by poet Colette Bryce, who gives us a great word and stories.
Dan Chaisson’s review of Louise Gluck’s new book is a good piece that finds a great passage, true for just about any blogger, myself included.
My mother and father stood in the cold
on the front steps. My mother stared at me,
a daughter, a fellow female.
You never think of us, she said.
We read your books when they reach heaven.
Hardly a mention of us anymore, hardly a mention of your sister.
I write about you all the time, I said aloud.
Every time I say “I,” it refers to you.