Friday, February 27, 2015

Poem for the Weekend: Philip Levine


Philip Levine's writing was influenced greatly by his childhood in Detroit, where he began working in the auto factories at the age of fourteen. The people and industry of the Motor City would remain a concern of his work throughout his life; he vowed to "find a voice for the voiceless." Levine was appointed poet laureate of the United States in 2011, and received the Wallace Stevens Award for proven mastery in the art of poetry by the Academy of American Poets. He passed away earlier this month. Read his biography here.

A Sleepless Night

by Philip Levine (1928-2015)

April, and the last of the plum blossoms
scatters on the black grass
before dawn. The sycamore, the lime,
the struck pine inhale
the first pale hints of sky.
An iron day,
I think, yet it will come
dazzling, the light
rise from the belly of leaves and pour
burning from the cups
of poppies.
The mockingbird squawks
from his perch, fidgets,
and settles back. The snail, awake
for good, trembles from his shell
and sets sail for China. My hand dances
in the memory of a million vanished stars.

A man has every place to lay his head.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Poem for the Weekend: Peter E. Murphy

Peter E. Murphy was born in Wales and grew up in New York City. A former high school teacher of English and creative writing, he is the founder of Murphy Writing of Stockton College, which organizes retreats and programs for poets, writers and teachers, in the U.S. and abroad. You can read more here.

At the New Age Hotel
by Peter E. Murphy

Below my balcony, bright November
warms the participants
from the Inner Work Symposium
who stretch for chi to infuse their well-fed lives.

Swaying to the rhythmic music
of traffic, they inhale New Jersey
where the euphonious Passaic
flows into the Yang Tze.

Light breaks out of their tail bones,
rises through a forest of spines
into their brains as fifty bodies raise their arms
and rock their torsos to solve the calculus

of consciousness, the problem of gravity.
Then back, back into the ballroom
where macrobiotic chefs prepare a banquet
out of nothingness.

The devout are ravenous to eat
what they have become and hope
it will nourish them when they sag
back into their Blazers and drive home.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Poem for the Weekend: Christina Rossetti


Born in England to a family of artistic Italian immigrants, Christina Rossetti is considered one of the finest of the Victorian poets. Here's a love poem for Valentine's Day weekend. Although Rossetti received three proposals, she never married. Her complete and fascinating biography is here.

I loved you first: but afterwards your love

by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

Poca favilla gran fiamma seconda. – Dante
Ogni altra cosa, ogni pensier va fore,
E sol ivi con voi rimansi amore. 
– Petrarca

I loved you first: but afterwards your love
    Outsoaring mine, sang such a loftier song
As drowned the friendly cooings of my dove.
    Which owes the other most? my love was long,
    And yours one moment seemed to wax more strong;
I loved and guessed at you, you construed me
And loved me for what might or might not be –
    Nay, weights and measures do us both a wrong.
For verily love knows not ‘mine’ or ‘thine;’
    With separate ‘I’ and ‘thou’ free love has done,
         For one is both and both are one in love:
Rich love knows nought of ‘thine that is not mine;’
         Both have the strength and both the length thereof,
Both of us, of the love which makes us one.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Me n' My DNA

Recently, two of our boys had a family history project at school. They were supposed to interview a relative about their heritage: what countries their ancestors came from, what cultural remnants were familiar to them, things like that. “No offense, Mom,” one of them said to me, “but I’m going with Dad’s side because yours is too complicated.” I wasn’t offended. He’s right, in a way.
I have a regular family, the Vensel side. Grandparents, siblings and cousins, aunts and uncles, and all the memories and stories that go along with growing up with extended family. I heard the stories about first jobs and first homes, about family businesses and family feuds. Divorces, deaths, and other tragedies. I was part of this web, this network that existed long before I dropped down to take my place.
And yet, I was adopted so I have no genetic ties to my family. When I was twenty years old, I met my other family, the people who are biologically related to me. Over the years, I’ve formed some very nice relationships, especially with my natural mother. And so there are more stories, more details and another entire network in which I take my late and in some ways, honorary place.
I’ve always been interested in ancestry, beginning, obviously, with my desire to know my biological roots. I like stories about people finding long-lost relatives, twins reuniting, researchers discovering a connection to someone of historical significance. Yet when it comes to matters of my own ancestry, I find I’m probably more interested in my first family’s history, given that it bears more relevance to the family unit in which I began my life. When I think about discovering ancestors, I think about it in terms of my grandparents and what I knew of them, or my parents and what they know of those who came before. I know that the ancestry of the biological side probably has much more to do with me, and yet, I can’t help where my interests lie.
For Christmas, my family gave me a kit to test my DNA. Lots of companies are doing this now. You give them a small amount of saliva; they’ll give you a percentage breakdown of where your ancestors originated. This, for some reason, really interested me. When asked about countries of origin, I always say “Germany and Poland” because that’s what I know for sure. It always seemed like enough. As I waited for the results, however, I was hoping for much more. I wanted one wildcard, something unexpected, maybe a smidge of Asian or African, maybe a dash of Native American. I didn’t care what, just something I didn’t know. I have to say, when the results came, I had an unexpected little wave of emotion. I felt very possessive of that little report and in a strange way, proud. The list of percentages seemed like something much more concrete than the trees of either of my families. It seemed like something uniquely particular to me (which of course it was), and something unrelated to anyone else (which of course it wasn’t).
The report, an “ethnicity estimate,” gives a breakdown of percentages and a handy map to show you the areas identified in the report. What mine said:

I am 100% European. I’m 39% Eastern European, a section on the map highlighted as most of Poland and Ukraine. This is no surprise. My natural mother’s father had a Polish name. Also, I’m 23% Western European. This is Germany and France, basically. Two natural grandparents had very German names, so this is also expected. And next, my wildcard, the unexpected: 23% Scandinavian. I love this! The map shows this to mean Norway (home of Per Petterson, one of my favorite writers!) and Sweden (home of Bergman, one of my favorite filmmakers!). I think this is where I started feeling that rush of individuality. Next, 10% Great Britain (London, one of my favorite cities!). To finish, 3% Finland/Northwest Russia, 2% Italy/Greece.
What can I say? I love my results and knowing that I’m the only person in the world with these results. I suppose others may feel the same way, but if you have full-siblings, I’d wager their results would be pretty similar. And although I didn’t get anything terribly shocking or exotic, it still gives me one more piece to the puzzle of where I began, and it feels completely scientific and objective and not subject to the whims of anyone else. And it brings a certain clarity because of that. It can be a very simple question, this “Where did you come from?” The greater question, I think, has more to do with where you’ll go from here.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Poem for the Weekend: Lucie Brock-Broido

Lucie Brock-Broido's 2013 collection, Stay, Illusion: Poems, was a finalist for the National Book Award. In an interview, she said of poetry: "It’s not a thing that blooms; it’s a thing that wounds," and her poems keep you on their toes with their shifting syntax and diction. They demand close attention and are often difficult reads in the best of ways: their ideas and images force themselves into your consciousness and then, your memory. More on Brock-Broido here.

You Have Harnessed Yourself Ridiculously to This World.
by Lucie Brock-Broido
Tell the truth I told me                                When I couldn’t speak.

Sorrow’s a barbaric art, crude as a Viking ship                Or a child

Who rode a spotted pony to the lake away from summer

In the 1930s                                       Toward the iron lung of polio.

According to the census I am unmarried                And unchurched.

                                    The woman in the field dressed only in the sun.

Too far gone to halt the Arctic Cap’s catastrophe, big beautiful

Blubbery white bears each clinging to his one last hunk of  ice.

I am obliged, now, to refrain from dying, for as long as it is possible.

For whom left am I first?

                                                          We have come to terms with our Self

Like a marmoset getting out of  her Great Ape suit.
"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