Friday, September 8, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: John Ashbery


This week, many people are sharing their favorite lines or poems written by John Ashbery, one of our very best poets, who passed on September 5th at the age of ninety. He had a long and prolific career, and touched a great many lives; find his biography here.

The New Higher

by John Ashbery (1927-2017)

You meant more than life to me. I lived through
you not knowing, not knowing I was living.
I learned that you called for me. I came to where
you were living, up a stair. There was no one there.
No one to appreciate me. The legality of it
upset a chair. Many times to celebrate
we were called together and where
we had been there was nothing there,
nothing that is anywhere. We passed obliquely,
leaving no stare. When the sun was done muttering,
in an optimistic way, it was time to leave that there.


Blithely passing in and out of where, blushing shyly
at the tag on the overcoat near the window where
the outside crept away, I put aside the there and now.
Now it was time to stumble anew,
blacking out when time came in the window.
There was not much of it left.
I laughed and put my hands shyly
across your eyes. Can you see now?
Yes I can see I am only in the where
where the blossoming stream takes off, under your window.
Go presently you said. Go from my window.
I am in love with your window I cannot undermine
it, I said.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Maya Angelou

A Brave And Startling Truth

by Maya Angelou

We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Jane Hirshfield


I recently watched this documentary about the Buddha, which features many speakers but I recognized the poet Jane Hirshfield immediately, because I had recently flagged one of her poems for this feature. Kismet, I guess, especially because this poem speaks to me quite loudly today. Hirshfield has received many accolades for her poetry and she's also an essayist, a translator, and a student of Zen Buddhism who spent three years in monastic practice. I love what she says here comparing writing poems to Buddhist practice, and I'd also highly recommend her poem "On the Fifth Day," which she read at the March for Science on April 22 of this year. But for this space, here's this one:

The Weighing

by Jane Hirshfield

The heart's reasons
seen clearly,
even the hardest
will carry
its whip-marks and sadness
and must be forgiven.

As the drought-starved
eland forgives
the drought-starved lion
who finally takes her,
enters willingly then
the life she cannot refuse,
and is lion, is fed,
and does not remember the other.

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.
                         

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Changing Currents




The Greek city of Chalcis (also known as Chalkida) is built on the two coasts of the straight of Evripos. As such, it’s a city of water and bridges. Perhaps the most famous is the sliding Negroponte Bridge, where tourists gather to watch the tidal phenomenon that has made Chalcis famous since ancient times. Here, the currents reverse direction every six hours. The water flows from the north Evian Gulf to the south for six hours, then becomes still for approximately eight minutes, then reverses direction. Because the currents can reach up to nine miles per hour, the churning visible from the bridge earned the nickname “mad waters” or “crazy waters.” The flow of the currents is entirely dependent on the moon and is directly connected to the duration of each lunar month.
 
There’s much to contemplate about this natural occurrence—scientifically, nautically, philosophically. Maybe you can relate to a time when you were between acts and seemed to be spinning endlessly, or stuck in a dormant lull. From all sides, the competing pulls of inspiration and obligation, as you churn in place, deciding. Or, an ominous surface as smooth as glass, too lacking in impressions to fully enjoy.
 
I’m between writing projects. Taking a break. Changing course. Attempting to appreciate the waves, the periods of calm. I read about Chalcis while doing research for a short story. Online, much information can be found. There are tourism sites touting the incredible sight of the “crazy waters.” Former visitors have posted videos and photos of the phenomenon. One website breaks down the entire lunar schedule for the changing of currents, minute by minute, hour by hour. But my favorite site about the amazing waters of Chalcis waxes philosophic about the whole thing:
 
The continuous function of the phenomenon in accordance with the laws of nature, for thousands of years, shows us that each and every day is a carrier of eternity."
 
And...
 
"Some have believed they have explained it—and remained with this illusion. Some others have comprehended its infinity and insolubility. Explanations are for mortals. The Universe never requires explanation in order to carry on its course in the infinite space."
 
And…
 
“Observing the tidal phenomenon one discovers, each and every time, that he has never been there before, even though he may have witnessed it so many times.”
 
Yep. Pretty much sums up the routine and surprise of creativity, its endless cycle of changing course, dormancy, and maelstrom. For now, I’m trying to enjoy the churning.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: James Baldwin


This week marked what would have been the 93rd birthday of the poet, novelist, essayist and social critic James Baldwin. Extensive biographical information here, including some wonderful videos about his life and times. And here you can read some of his memorable quotes.



Untitled
                                            
 by James Baldwin
 
                                            
  Lord,
              when you send the rain
              think about it, please,
              a little?
      Do
              not get carried away
              by the sound of falling water,
             the marvelous light
                on the falling water.
          I
              am beneath that water.
              It falls with great force
              and the light
Blinds
              me to the light.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Kenneth Mackenzie


The Australian poet and novelist Kenneth Ivo Brownley Langwell (Seaforth) Mackenzie was a character, and his colorful biography is well worth a read. Some excerpts: 

"at Guildford Grammar School, he took no interest in sport and studied only when he felt inclined."
"wherever Mackenzie was, 'wild comedy and wild adventures tended to break out'."
"He was strong, muscular and blonde, and immensely attractive to certain women."

Sadly, Mackenzie's life deteriorated, in large part due to a drinking problem. In his early forties, he accidently drowned in a creek while bathing.

Caesura

by Kenneth Mackenzie (1913-1955)

Sometimes at night when the heart stumbles and stops
a full second endless the endless steps
that lead me on through this time terrain
without edges and beautiful terrible
are gone never to proceed again.

Here is a moment of enormous trouble
wen the kaleidoscope sets unalterable
and at once without meaning without motion
like a stalled aeroplane in the middle sky
ready to fall down into a waiting ocean.

Blackness rises. Am I now to die
and feel the steps no more and not see day
break out its answering smile of hail all's well
from east full round to east and hear the bird
whistle all creatures that on earth do dwell?

Not now. Old heart has stopped to think of a word
as someone in a dream by far too weird
to be unlikely feels a kiss and stops
to praise all heaven stumbling in all his senses...
and suddenly hears again the endless steps.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Jody Gladding


Jody Gladding lives in Vermont and teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Art. She has also translated almost thirty works from French. More biographical information here.

Blue Willow

by Jody Gladding

A pond will deepen toward the center like a plate
we traced its shallow rim my mother steering
my inner tube past the rushes where I looked
for Moses we said it was a trip around the world
in China we wove through curtains of willow
that tickled our necks let's do that again
and we'd double back idle there lifting
our heads to the green rain
swallows met over us later I dreamed
of flying with them we had all the time
in the world we had the world
how could those trees be weeping?
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka