A quick update on baby names

(A sad, terrible update.)

Last I checked the numbers, in May 2017, the Social Security Administration’s baby name data reported Patrick had fallen to 170th among boys, the name’s worst showing ever (or at least since 1900 when the data became semi-reliable).

Things have only gotten worse. The 2017 was not much more troubling, 171st place, but the name fell off a cliff in 2018, to 189th. The 18-position drop was the name’s largest ever. So sad. Is there no floor? No foundation under this house?

Boy names more popular than Patrick in 2018 included Richard, Zayden, Dean, Elliott, Rhett, Jasper, Maddox, Rowan, Bentley, Leonardo, and… Maverick (#73).

I regret to inform you that in 2018 we didn’t even name our own boy Patrick. I had a perfectly good chance to begin the comeback, and I blew it. I’m sorry.

(We did, however, hit two of the decade’s trends.)

Poems in a time of seasonal change

It has been a long time, hasn’t it?

But here we are.

Keeping up a train of published thoughts or even collected inspirations alongside a baby-turned-toddler and a job turns out to be not so easy.

But in free moments, those not given to sleep or TV escapes, I still read. Not thinking as cohesively as one might like – I can’t remember for what seasonal change I originally wrote the title of this post (May?) – but the trade-off has good. “Time is the school in which we learn,” writes Delmore Schwartz in his poem below. “Time is the fire in which we burn.” John Ashbery says the poem features “above all an apprehension of the whirling universe in the mundane décor of a municipal park.”

And here we are.

What Kind of Times Are These” by Adrienne Rich. “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.”

Calmly We Walk through This April’s Day” by Delmore Schwartz. “Each minute bursts in the burning room, / The great globe reels in the solar fire, / Spinning the trivial and unique away. / (How all things flash! How all things flare!) ”

They Sit Together on the Porch” by Wendell Berry. “Their supper done with, they have washed and dried / The dishes–only two plates now, two glasses, / Two knives, two forks, two spoons–small work for two.”

Related, this Jason Isbell song:

spring song” by Lucille Clifton. “the green of Jesus / is breaking the ground / and the sweet / smell of delicious Jesus / is opening the house and….”

in the end it was all flowers” by friend Malaka Gharib. “in the end it was all flowers: / the arrhythmia / moles and scars / wrinkles and white hair / veins and callouses….”

Turning Forty” by Kevin Griffith. “The major countries—mind and heart—have / called a truce for now. If this planet had a ruler, / no one remembers him well. All / decisions are made by committee.”

What I Would Give” by Rafael Campo. “I’d like to give them my astonishment / at sudden rainfall like the whole world weeping, / and how ridiculously gently it / slicked down my hair; I’d like to give them that, / the joy I felt while staring in your eyes….”

Ode to Marbles” by Max Mendelsohn. “I love the sound of marbles / scattered on the worn wooden floor, / like children running away in a game of hide-and-seek.”

“On being told my poetry was found in a broken photo-copier” by Malcolm Guite:

Extinction of Silence” by A.E Stallings. “That it was shy when alive goes without saying. / We know it vanished at the sound of voices / Or footsteps.”

Blue Elvis” by Faith Shearin. “I listened / to the sound of southern women’s voices / expressing disbelief; they said I swan / and I pictured something rippling / and solitary….”

First Love” by Stephen Rybicki. “But who sat in the drawing room / Sipping tea from white china / Without me—and sketched / A vision of you from memory?”

Semicolons” by Zubair Ahmed. “Forget me: my truth. / My masterpiece is / my nonexistence. / Sunrise: unbreakable dawn. / I open your book. / It has no pages.”

The Kindness of Others” by Cathy Song. “Those of the small flame, / who feed off envy and grow old quickly, / live out their lives / hungry….”

An obit for an obit writer

If you’ve been reading this blog for a long time, you know I’m a fan of a good obituary. Last month, Washington Post obituary writer Adam Bernstein wrote an obituary for Jim Nicholson, the heralded obituary writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. Nicholson’s speciality was obituaries for the common citizen.

A sister-in-law of one Lou ­Koreck, a writ server, conjured a most unusual memory to convey his personality.

“I had unfortu­nately burned up my cat Smokey in the dryer,” she told Mr. Nicholson. “Lou gave me a book, ‘101 Uses for a Dead Cat.’ You loved him and, at the same time, you wanted to strangle him.”

One of Mr. Nicholson’s finest obits was a 1993 ode to a man named Christopher Kelly. “Society today,” he wrote, “does not assign extraordinary attributes to a 35-year-old heavy-equipment mechanic who is living with his parents and whose possessions do not appear to much exceed a Miller Light and a pack of Marlboros on the bar before him, a union card in his pocket and a friend on either side.”

Another, in 1988, was for a 64-year-old construction worker named Thomas Robinson but universally known as Moose Neck. His brother was quoted as saying, “He was interested in going around asking people, ‘Have you got a dollar?’ I’m not going to tell you a lie. Moose was a drinker. He’d go around and ask people for money, and they’d give him anything he wanted. Everybody fell in love with him.”

Poems for right now, with its rain and previews of warmth

A favorite gift from Lori this Christmas was Tracy K. Smith’s American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, a vibrant collection of work from living American poets. Smith, the U.S. poet laureate, succeeds at making the book difficult to stop reading. I devoured the pages in two sittings, with a day’s interruption for sleep, work and baby. Each poem makes you wonder what the next poem is going to bring.

Here are five I couldn’t get off my mind.

Second Estrangement” by Aracelis Girmay. “Please raise your hand, / whomever else of you / has been a child, / lost, in a market / or a mall, without / knowing it at first, following / a stranger, accidentally / thinking he is yours….”

Charlottesville Nocturne” by Charles Wright. “The late September night is a train of thought, a wound / That doesn’t bleed, dead grass that’s still green, / No off-shoots, no elegance, / the late September night….”

Heart/mind” by Laura Kasischke. “A bear batting at a beehive, how / clumsy the mind / always was with the heart. Wanting / what it wanted.”

Object Permanence” by Nicole Sealey. “We wake as if surprised the other is still there, / each petting the sheet to be sure. / How have we managed our way / to this bed—beholden to heat like dawn / indebted to light.”

For the Last American Buffalo” by Steve Scafidi. “Because words dazzle in the dizzy light of things / and the soul is like an animal–hunted and slow– / this buffalo walks through me every night as if I was / some kind of prairie….”

Check out the book!

And speaking of poetry books, thanks to friend Becky (L) for giving me Grady Chambers’ North American Stadiums poems. The collection was the first book I finished (four months) after the baby’s arrival. Contrary to my initial belief (and hope), all the poems aren’t about literal stadiums (and I love literal stadiums). The range is better than that, and baseball still gets a starring role from time to time.

Two of my favorites from the book are thankfully online:

“The Life.” “And we bowled in a basement alley; and we got loaded / and sober and saw the wind carry a leaf / like a hand, stem down, brown palm open / and twirling like a waiter carrying a tray / brimming with champagne flutes….”

“Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, 1966.” “Anyone can tell it’s hopeless: early July, jackhammer heat, / Pittsburgh down two in the tenth—even the diehards / in the bleachers are heading for the exits….”

So, the rally begins. Check out that book as well! Meanwhile, here are more favorites from my feeds this fall-into-winter-into-spring period.

Annunciation” by Marie Howe, via friend Becky (H). “Even if I don’t see it again—nor ever feel it / I know it is—and that if once it hailed me / it ever does—”

August Morning” by Albert Garcia. “I wander from room to room / like a man in a museum: / wife, children, books, flowers, / melon. Such still air.”

First Thanksgiving” by Sharon Olds. “Those nights, I fed her to sleep, / week after week, the moon rising, / and setting, and waxing—whirling, over the months, / in a slow blur, around our planet.”

Duty” by Natasha Trethewey. “When he tells the story now / he’s at the center of it, / everyone else in the house / falling into the backdrop—”

Stay away from the bike lane” by Ronald Dudley. “I see so many people mad in the bike lane. / So many people think they bad in the bike lane.”

Encounter” by Czeslaw Milosz. “That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive, / Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.”

A Letter in October” by Ted Kooser. “I woke, / and at the waiting window found / the curtains open to my open face; / beyond me, darkness.”

If Feeling Isn’t In It” by John Brehm. “They don’t try to impress you with how serious / or sensitive they are. They just feel everything / full blast. Everything is off the charts / with them.”

My Therapist Wants to Know about My Relationship to Work” by Tiana Clark. “So many journals, unbroken white spines, / waiting. Did you hear that new new? / I start to text back. Ellipsis, then I forget. / I balk. I lazy the bed. I wallow when I write.”

The Loneliness of the Military Historian” by Margaret Atwood. “Confess: it’s my profession / that alarms you. / This is why few people ask me to dinner, / though Lord knows I don’t go out of my way to be scary.”

Rhymes for a Watertower” by Christian Wiman. “A town so flat a grave’s a hill, / A dusk the color of beer. / A row of schooldesks shadows fill, / A row of houses near.”

Grieving” by David Dragone. “Sometimes, the grieving heart / Turns away from what could heal it. / You wait out the long winter / Opposing spring’s green faith / The way every sun-starved vine in the world / Turns beclouded by shadows / Bittering wine.”

Late February” by Ted Kooser. “Through the heaviest drifts / rise autumn’s fallen / bicycles, small carnivals / of paint and chrome, / the Octopus / and Tilt-A-Whirl / beginning to turn / in the sun. Now children, / stiffened by winter / and dressed, somehow, / like old men, mutter / and bend to the work / of building dams.”

Why I Can’t Cook for Your Self-Centered Architect Cousin” by Beth Ann Fennelly. “Because to me a dinner table’s like a bed— / without love it’s all appetite and stains. Let’s buy / take-out for your cousin, or other pizza—his toppings— / but I can’t lift a spatula to serve him what I am.”

Sinkholes” by Joyce Carol Oates.

Last, cheers for the neighbors who’ve recently put a poetry box in their front yard, which I passed on a rainy day. The first poem is “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry. “When despair for the world grows in me / and I wake in the night at the least sound / in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, / I go and lie down where the wood drake / rests in his beauty on the water….”

Regarding the Kansas-Colorado border

The writer Caity Weaver has given us many wonderful experiences about the years. The first two that come to mind are “My 14-Hour Search for the End of TGI Friday’s Endless Appetizers” and “What Is Glitter?” A new experience arrives today in the New York Times Magazine Voyages issue. The Times sends Weaver on Amtrak across the country.

I’ve always thought I’d like to take trains across the country. Every time Amtrak emails about a sale on the Auto Train, I briefly consider travel to the one spot in Florida where the Auto Train goes. Car-less, of course. The car part is expensive. The seat, cheap. Which explains why I haven’t taken that train. One seat for so long? I’d need to spend every moment of a 12-hour or 72-hour ride in an observation car, I think. And no matter how good the view is, who wants to be the man hoarding the seat?

Anyway, Weaver. My favorite moment is when the Plains meet the West.

Kansas shares a border with Colorado. I never could have imagined that I would one day say this, and I know many people will be disconcerted by the statement. They will wonder if, this whole time, they have been reading an avant-garde work of science fiction, or perhaps a Mad Lib. “Is magical realism always this scary?” they will ask themselves. Some will claim I am lying. Many will assume I am wrong, demented or a clumsy typist.

To all of whom I respond: The truth of our nation’s internal demarcations is stranger than fiction — stranger than even the kind of brilliant avant-garde science fiction I am most likely capable of producing yet choose not to. But the unvarnished fact is Colorado has to start somewhere, and for whatever reason, that’s inside Kansas.

‘Mercy, then, was everywhere around me’

For Valentine’s Day, Lori gave me a copy of naturalist Sy Montgomery’s How to Be a Good Creature, a memoir of what animals have taught her about being. The book is relatively short and quite beautiful, even regarding her close encounters with large spiders, but the chapters about her own dogs get to me the most.

Of course they do, Lori would tell you. The arrival of the dog a year and a half ago and the baby almost a year ago have turned on my emotional spigots like a child loose among functional spigot displays in a spigot store. I find this new style of life strange and repeatedly unexpected. One moment I’m reading a bedtime story about Arfy the dog (who writes letters in hopes of adoption) or Corduroy the bear (searching for his missing button in hopes of a family taking him home). The next moment I am president and client of the spigot factory.

So, in Montgomery’s book, along with a chapter about her time with an octopus, the chapter about dealing with the loss of her dog has special power over me. On a trip to Papua New Guinea, she finds herself on the edge of a cloud forest.

At our campsite, ancient tall trees stood guard over our tents like benign wizards bearded in moss. The moss was studded with ferns. The ferns were dotted with lichens and liverworts, fungi and orchids. But it was the moss that most enchanted me. The world seemed cloaked in its velvet, as if the clouds in these tall mountains had congealed into green and come alive. John Ruskin, a nineteenth-century British art critic, called moss — humble, soft, and ancient — “the first mercy of the Earth.” Mercy, then, was everywhere around me: it covered tree trunks, vines, the ground, forgiving every clumsy step and cushioning every fall.

‘They know—and can show—love’

I didn’t see Springsteen on Broadway — not the right year or two for dropping that kind of money on a show (after all the money I’ve spent on Bruce shows in the past) — but I’m looking forward to watching it on Netflix this month. I’m also hoping to finish his autobiography sometime in the months ahead, or at least the audiobook. A couple years overdue on that one. But they’ve been busy years!

With the Netflix taping for a hook, Esquire‘s new conversation with Springsteen is a good one, particularly in his thoughts on raising his two sons. How to raise a son in the current world is a discussion Lori and I have around the house pretty often these days. In the interview, Bruce gives a nice answer and hits on qualities we were both pretty fortunate to have our parents encourage. Keeping on…

“… I would say their qualities are, they’re sensitive. They’re respectful of others. They are not locked into a 1950s sensibility of manhood, which I had to contend with. Consequently, their attitudes toward women and the world are free of those archetypes, and that frees them to be who they are and have deeper and more meaningful relationships. They know themselves pretty well, which is something I can’t say for myself when I was that age. They know—and can show—love. And they know how to receive love. They know what to do with their problems. I think they have a sense of process as to how to work on themselves, which is something that I certainly didn’t have at twenty-five. These are the things that I’m proud of my boys for.”

Poems for all seasons, catching up

From a NYT article on Chinese poet Yu Xiuhua:

“What is poetry?” she wrote in an epilogue to “Moonlight.” “I don’t know and can’t tell. It’s when my heart roars, it emerges like a newborn. It’s like a crutch when one walks unsteadily in this unsteady world. Only when I write poetry do I feel complete, at peace and content.”

I’ve been saving these up for far too long! Favorites as they’ve passed across my email and feeds. All worth reading for some kind of fire or peace.

After the Wedding” by John Daniel, via Lori. “…how good it is / to find you now beyond all / the loud joy, driving north in rain / and the lovely ease of our silence.”

Enemies,” Wendell Berry. “If you are not to become a monster, / you must care what they think. / If you care what they think, / how will you not hate them, / and so become a monster / of the opposite kind?”

Antique” by Robert Pinsky. “I drowned in the fire of having you, I burned / In the river of not having you, we lived / Together for hours in a house of a thousand rooms / And we were parted for a thousand years.”

Early October Snow” by Robert Haight. “The pumpkins, still in the fields, are planets / shrouded by clouds. / The Weber wears a dunce cap / and sits in the corner by the garage….”

Enough Music” by Dorianne Laux. “…we fall into this rhythm of silence. / It swings back and forth between us / like a rope over a lake.”

Peace” by C.K. Williams, via Lori. “We fight for hours, through dinner, through the endless evening, who / even knows now what about, / what could be so dire to have to suffer so for, stuck in one another’s craws / like fishbones….”

Thanksgiving for Two”  by Marjorie Saiser. “The adults we call our children will not be arriving / with their children in tow for Thanksgiving. / We must make our feast ourselves….”

Ennui” by Elizabeth Murawski. “lightning bolts of sorrow / knowing he’s neither here / nor there my new life / making my way through drifts….”

Dust of Snow” by Robert Frost. “The way a crow / Shook down on me / The dust of snow / From a hemlock tree….”

Bread” by Richard Levine. “Each night, in a space he’d make / between waking and purpose, / my grandfather donned his one / suit, in our still dark house, and drove….”

A Perfect Mess” by Mary Karr. “I read somewhere / that if pedestrians didn’t break traffic laws to cross / Times Square whenever and by whatever means possible, / 
the whole city / would stop, it would stop.”

Frederick Douglass” by Robert Hayden. “…beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world / where none is lonely, none hunted, alien, / this man, superb in love and logic, this man / shall be remembered.”

Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall. “Mother dear, may I go downtown / Instead of out to play, / And march the streets of Birmingham / In a Freedom March today?”

I, Too” by Langston Hughes. “Tomorrow, / I’ll be at the table / When company comes. / Nobody’ll dare / Say to me, / ‘Eat in the kitchen,’ / Then.”

May You Always be the Darling of Fortune” by Jane Miller. “March 10th and the snow flees like eloping brides / into rain. The imperceptible change begins / out of an old rage and glistens, chaste, with its new / craving, spring.”

St. Patrick’s Day” by Derek Mahon. “Not even the love of friends can quite appease / the vertigo, sore ears and inner voices; / deep-draughted rain clouds, a rock lost in space, / yahoos triumphant in the marketplace, / the isle is full of intolerable noises.”

Don’t Bother the Earth Spirit” by Joy Harjo. “Don’t bother the earth spirit who lives here. She is working on a story. It is the oldest story in the world and it is delicate, changing. If she sees you watching she will invite you in for coffee, give you warm bread, and you will be obligated to stay and listen. But this is no ordinary story.”

In a Word, a World” by C. D. Wright. “I love the particular lexicons of particular occupations. The substrate of those activities. The nomenclatures within nomenclatures.”

Walking on Tiptoe” by Ted Kooser. “Long ago we quit lifting our heels / like the others—horse, dog, and tiger— / though we thrill to their speed / as they flee.”

The Late Wisconsin Spring” by John Koethe. “The sky shakes itself out. And the invisible birds / Winter put away somewhere return, the air relaxes, / People start to circulate again in twos and threes.”

Voyage” by Carmen Tafolla. “I was the fourth ship. / Behind Niña, Pinta, Santa María, / Lost at sea while watching a seagull, / Following the wind and sunset skies, / While the others set their charts.”

Prayer” by Francisco X. Alarcon. “a god / who spits / blood from / tuberculosis and / doesn’t even have / enough for bus fare.”

More Than Enough” by Marge Piercy. “Season of / joy for the bee. The green will never / again be so green, so purely and lushly / new, grass lifting its wheaty seedheads / into the wind.”