December 30, 2009

In a Speeding Car

In "A Quick Poem," Adam Zagajewski's speaker is "listening to Gregorian chants / in a speeding car / on a highway in France." He tells us that his life is "tattered / on both sides of the road, brittle as a paper map."

He notes a contrast between his pace and circumstance and that of the chanting monks. For him, "the trees rushed past." For "the sweet monks," it is as if "salvation were just growing in the garden."

For me, when a poem works -- as this one does -- the words lead me deeper into a quiet and stillness within myself. They bring me to a more deliberate state of contemplation. They are like prayer.

Later in the poem, Zagajewski's speaker again contrasts his circumstances with the monks:

In place of walls--sheet metal.
Instead of a vigil--a flight.
Travel instead of remembrance.
A quick poem instead of a hymn.

On the road myself today, I spoke with my great-uncle, always an exercise in clarity, wit, and wisdom. He said prayer, religion, meditation -- anything designed to bring transcendence -- ultimately slows us down so that we notice the amazements directly in front of us. If it all worked, he said, we'd just stand around staring at the world, slack-jawed with wonder.

New year's eve and new year's day are another an opportunity to consider time, pace, what has passed, and what is possible. I will try to spend some of it -- as much as possible -- in sincere contemplation of the mystery and magnificence of it all.

December 26, 2009

To Keep What I Already Have

This is a time of year when it is hard for me to avoid being reflective. It feels like a threshold moment. Arbitrary as it is, a year is ending and a new one will soon begin. And for some reason it was entirely lost on me -- until yesterday -- that we also enter a new decade next week.

I've spent the last twenty-four hours with my youngest daughter. She'll be a year and a half in January. Now that she has real words emerging, she seems to be surfacing into herself more profoundly than ever before. I feel impatient to meet the child, the teenager, and the young woman she will become. And at the same time, I want to keep her exactly as she is now.

As I get closer to the beginning of the new year and the decade that 2010 ushers in, I am grateful for the perspective of Jack Gilbert's "Bring in the Gods." It is such a substantial poem -- full of issues of mortality and the human condition -- and it comes from his book, Refusing Heaven.

He starts, "Bring in the gods I say," and "when they have eaten, I ask which of them / will question me." As the examination unfolds, the speaker says, "I stand on myself like a hilltop and my life / is spread before me." I can't translate all that he sees. You'll have to read the whole poem.

As he closes, he says, "I am hungry / for what I am becoming." One hope for my girls as they grow is that they want, as Gilbert's speaker says, "to keep what [they] already have." Another is that in all their changes, they stay hungry for what they are becoming.

December 21, 2009

Prayer for Our Daughters

Mark Jarman is a teacher of mine. I encountered this poem several years back alongside an interview with Mark in an issue of The Writer's Chronicle. My oldest was nearly six months old at the time, and I so appreciated the way it named my wishes for her, reaching from the hope that she "never be lonely at parties," to the broader wish that if she forget herself that "it be in music / or the kind of prayer that makes a garden of thinking."

The first time I heard Mark speak about poetry, I was grateful for his willingness to connect poetry and prayer. And here he offers a series of blessings that I will surely repeat many times on behalf of my daughters. I love the way he closes: "And may they find themselves, as we have found them, / complete at each stage of their lives, each part they add to." I re-see this in my children every day: they instantly become the accumulation of all they have been and all they are becoming. It is wondrous.

December 19, 2009

Into the Silence and the Light

Thanks to a friend, I've been thinking all day about the Japanese tradition of cleaning for the new year. Clean everything. Top to bottom. Close out the year that has passed and make space into which you can invite the new year. My oldest daughter helped us prune through toys today, carrying blocks, books, and stuffed animals to what we called "the give-away table" by the front door.

In the steady snow, we had nowhere to go. And the volume accumulating across the lawn and road was a metaphorical erasure. Out the window the world looks ready -- like a new year -- to be written on for the first time.

Soon I'll take the dog for a short walk, to enjoy quiet, the haloed streetlamps, our almost inaudible footsteps, and my head full of Mary Oliver's lines from "First Snow":

and only now,
deep into night,
[the snow] has finally ended.
The silence
is immense,
and the heavens still hold
a million candles, nowhere
the familiar things:
stars, the moon,
the darkness we expect
and nightly turn from.

December 13, 2009

Singing a Little in There

Charles Bukowski wrote some pretty cynical poems. I like the way they set the table for this little gem called "Bluebird."

"There's a bluebird in my heart," the speaker says, "that wants to get out." Turns out the bluebird is something like a metaphor for tenderness, and the speaker of the poem is determined to exert dominance over his vulnerability. "I'm too tough for him," the speaker says. But as he tells us later in the poem, they have a "secret pact":

I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody's asleep.
I say, I know that you're there,
so don't be
then I put him back,
but he's singing a little
in there, I haven't quite let him

I love the way the speaker invites us in to this inner dynamic: private compassion obscured by his projected toughness.

What's in your heart that wants to get out?

December 8, 2009

Rising Beneath My Feet

Jimmy Santiago Baca learned to read and write in jail. In the opening chapter of his memoir, Working in the Dark, he offers an image of his beginnings as a writer: "when at last I wrote my first words on the page, I felt an island rising beneath my feet like the back of a whale. As more and more words emerged, I could finally rest: I had a place to stand for the first time in my life. The island grew, with each page, into a continent inhabited by people I knew and mapped with the life I lived."

To me, this reads like someone finding god. At sea -- the ultimate metaphor for the disorder and chaos of life -- words became Baca's foundation, or what Robert Frost calls "a momentary stay against confusion." At some point, artistic practice is no different than spiritual practice. Reading a poem is like reading a prayer. Writing a poem is like offering a prayer out of nothingness. In Judaism there is a story about an uneducated man who, out of an impulse to pray, recited the Hebrew alphabet and trusted that god, with access to all of the letters, would know what was in the man's heart and therefore be able to shape the prayer into the language it required.

I heard an author speak today to a group of students. He told them that they should always be working on a project that stretches them. He said that the best way to grow is to work at something that you are not sure you can do. The first trick, I guess, is to summon the whale from below. From there, the work is, as Baca says, to keep shaping it and mapping it, and to grow it into a continent.

December 3, 2009

The Sound of the Wind

Today -- if I recall correctly -- is the anniversary of the death of a student at my school. He was never in one of my classes, but I knew him well from warm and casual interactions in the halls. Losing him was utterly tragic for our entire community. I remember walking from my car to our Meetinghouse on the Sunday after the accident. It was bright as a day can be and unusually warm for early December. I thought of him several times today, though it was long enough ago that there was no moment of silence among our student body. Instead, I thought of him on my patio this morning. The morning air was warm and the moon was midnight bright at half past six. I thought of him on my way in and out of the buildings at school and during the quiet stretches of class. I wrote a poem for him that month when he died. It felt like a way of praying for him. It is after Roethke's "Elegy for Jane." Roethke's images capture the impossibility of reckoning with a young life taken like this: "The sides of wet stones cannot console me, / Nor the moss, wound with the last light."

November 3, 2009

Spend it Now

The poems I own are like rare coins. They're currency for which there is no exchange rate. Lines that run through my head give me ways of naming the complexities of human experience and emotion. I can use a line from Stanley Kunitz to make sense of who I am now against the palimpsest of who I once was. A Jack Gilbert can remind me that "anything worth doing is worth doing badly." Larry Levis buys me an understanding of how death is like the "lights [going] off, one by one, / In a hotel at night, until at last / All of the travelers will be asleep, or until / Even the thin glow from the lobby is a kind / Of sleep."

If there was one of these rare coins that I could mint and pass out like pennies, it would probably be Rumi's line: "When someone bumps against you in the street, don't react with irritation. Everyone is careening around in this surprise."

If we all had endless supplies of this one to spend, I suspect that rush-hour traffic would be simpler. Bad days would get lighter. A moment of frustration could alchemize into a moment of human understanding and connectedness.

October 27, 2009

And Speaking of Teachers...

This was forwarded to me by a fellow alum from my MFA program. It's Dorianne Laux speaking about Philip Levine and using the style and voice of Merwin. And it feels like a direct echo of "Finding a Teacher."


after W.S. Merwin

What he told me, I will tell you
There was a war on
It seemed we had lived through
Too many to name, to number

There was no arrogance about him
No vanity, only the strong backs
Of his words pressed against
The tonnage of a page

His suggestion to me was that hard work
Was the order of each day
When I asked again, he said it again,
Pointing it out twice

His Muse, if he had one, was a window
Filled with a brick wall, the left hand corner
Of his mind, a hand lined with grease
And sweat: literal things

Before I knew him, I was unknown
I drank deeply from his knowledge
A cup he gave me again and again
Filled with water, clear river water

He was never old, and never grew older
Though the days passed and the poems
Marched forth and they were his words
Only, no other words were needed

He advised me to wait, to hold true
To my vision, to speak in my own voice
To say the thing straight out
There was the whole day about him

The greatest thing, he said, was presence
To be yourself in your own time, to stand up
That poetry was precision, raw precision
Truth and compassion: genius

I had hardly begun. I asked, How did you begin
He said, I began in a tree, in Lucerne
In a machine shop, in an open field
Start anywhere

He said If you don’t write, it won’t
Get written. No tricks. No magic
About it. He gave me his gold pen
He said What’s mine is yours

October 20, 2009

I Could Tell That His Line Had No Hook

Warning: I'm breaking my own rules here with a slightly longer post...

Finding a Teacher
In the woods I came on an old friend fishing
and I asked him a question
and he said Wait

fish were rising in the deep stream
but his line was not stirring
but I waited
it was a question about the sun

about my two eyes
my ears my mouth
my heart the earth with its four seasons
my feet where I was standing
where I was going

it slipped through my hands
as though it were water
into the river
it flowed under the trees
it sank under hulls far away
and was gone without me
then where I stood night fell

I no longer knew what to ask
I could tell that his line had no hook
I understood that I was to stay and eat with him

~W.S. Merwin

There is something about the simplicity of the exchange in this poem that says volumes to me about teaching at a spiritual level. When I think of my most significant teachers, I think of gestures, manners, cadences, moments of insight, and about a feeling I had in their classrooms and in their presences.

Ultimately, these were the teachers who found some way to create space for me to discover truth -- about myself and about life. It’s hard to be sure that there was a neat relationship between what they hoped I would learn and the lessons that rose to the surface for me. They gave me reason to wait and to let my questions hang in the air. They allowed me to feel safe enough to let my guard down and invite the arrival of unexpected discovery.

In some cases, I have found these people in the classroom. In other cases, these encounters have been more coincidental. Regardless, I think that finding a teacher requires a sense of openness captured by this poem.

The speaker of the poem sees that his friend’s line is not stirring, but he waits. It is not entirely logical, but perhaps he knows -- consciously or unconsciously -- that this time spent together will be of value even if no words are exchanged.

I love the way this poem deals with the dailiness and simplicity of teaching and learning. Real teaching and real learning are unfolding processes which require abundant patience. The idea that this encounter between friends can be boiled down to standing together quietly watching a loose line linger in the water is magnificent.

It feels to me like a gathering akin to a Meeting for Worship in which no words are spoken but the silence is so rich that when it is over friends shake hands and are in some deep way replenished. You can feel the quality of centeredness when everyone stands and stretches and begins to walk out of the Meetinghouse with intention. Good teaching, like good art and good worship, has the capacity to leave us changed -- both teacher and student -- in quiet and unnamable ways.

October 17, 2009

Instruments and All

I remember asking Mr. Blauvelt, my favorite high school English teacher, about whether or not I could call my favorite hip-hop songs poetry. He wasn't so interested in that possibility. He loved music. I know that he was a record guy. He once played us Simon & Garfunkel's "Richard Cory" when we read the poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson.

I'm sure I asked him because I was starting to frame my own theories and wanted to test his sensibilities. No doubt mine were more inclusive then than they are now, but I still see the overlap. More than anything, it's the language play, the bending of words and their taste in the mouth that keep lines of hip-hop angling for space in my brain alongside the poetry. It's also the possibilities of any song. Catch me at the right moment and I can get moved by Ray LaMontagne, Beth Orton, or Mos Def just like I can get struck dumb by Wislawa Szymborska, Larry Levis, and Jack Gilbert. But they're different. A poem has to generate all of its power through the words. They sit on the page alone. No accompaniment. None of the aggregation of force that Billy Collins talks about in his "Man Listening to Disc."

October 15, 2009

He Takes Off, Last of All, The World

In Randall Jarrell's "Field & Forest" -- definitely one of my all time favorites -- he offers a luminous image at the end of undressing, both physically and mentally. I didn't hear this poem until I was several semesters deep into my graduate program, but I think it offers a unique and haunting account of quieting down, turning off, and slipping into deep, self-forgetting solitude. The entire poem is wonderful, but this is the image that gets me every time...

At night, from the airplane, all you see is lights,
A few lights, the lights of houses, headlights
And darkness. Somewhere below, beside a light,
The farmer, naked, takes out his false teeth:
He doesn’t eat now. Takes off his spectacles:
He doesn’t see now. Shuts his eyes.
If he were able to he’d shut his ears,
And as it is, he doesn’t hear with them.
Plainly, he’s taken out his tongue: he doesn’t talk.
His arms and legs: at least, he doesn’t move them.
They are knotted together, curled up, like a child’s.
And after he had taken off the thoughts
It has taken him his life to learn,
He takes off, last of all, the world.

October 5, 2009

The Gift

I lifted up her chin so she could look me in the eye while I told her about the scarecrows and what her grandmother said. She winced. She looked down to see her mother's fingers pushing at the splinter. I lifted her chin again and kept on about the scarecrows.

When she looked down again the splinter was out, and I was left with Li-Young Lee's words in my mouth: "to pull the metal splinter from my palm / my father recited a story in a low voice... I can't remember the tale, / but hear his voice still, a well / of dark water, a prayer."

Who knows whether she'll remember this splinter or not. But the kindnesses we give her are our way of "planting something... in [her] palm." All we can do is give and hope. The rest is up to her.

October 2, 2009

This Being Human

The last few days have left me short on sanity and patience, and clinging to some of my favorite lines by Rumi from his poem, "The Guest House." "This being human," he says, "is a guest house. / Every morning a new arrival." Later, he says, "Welcome and entertain them all." Even "a crowd of sorrows .... may be clearing you out / for some new delight."

Today, the delight has been my family. This morning when I asked my three year old how she learned to dress herself, she told me, "Mommy taught me how." I told her, "your mommy is one smart lady. That's why I married her!" Tonight, that same smart lady oriented me to her system of organization and time management. Already I feel more prepared to meet the next arrivals "at the door laughing and invite them in."

September 23, 2009

Too Early to be Looking Back

I thought about my nephew all day today. He turns ten tomorrow. He's the oldest person I know who I've known since he was a baby. Now he's interested in baseball cards and starting to learn the cello. For now, he's able to move with the currents of who he is, following an impulse started by a story he reads in school or taking up an instrument he's been pining for for years.

At some point, all of his choices will get more intentional. He'll live his way gradually into a deeper sense of who he is, what drives him, and what he wants to work for or pursue next.

I wonder how much of a pivot it is to turn ten.

Billy Collins offers a solemn take in "On Turning Ten." He calls it "the first big number."

"You tell me it is too early to be looking back
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit."

I'm drawn to the dawning sense of complexity that this young man experiences, holding ten in contrast to the "perfect simplicity" of his younger years. "Now," he says, "I'm mostly at the window / watching the late afternoon light."

Though Collins dwells on the solemnity of this passage, I prefer to focus on the idea of ten as an entry point. It's a threshold. Before long my nephew will be asking even more profound questions of the world and of himself. I am excited to know the young man he is in the process of becoming. He's sure to keep his sensitivity, his kindness, his curiosity, his ambition, his capacity to dive into something with abandon, and so much more. And he's sure to surprise us all. As it all continues to unfold, I am grateful for my window on his journey.

September 20, 2009

Not a Hair of Our Head

At lunch, my oldest -- just three -- was talking again about my father. When I said something about missing him, she asked, "Does he miss me?" "Of course he does," I told her, knowing how thoroughly he would have loved her (and his other three grandchildren).

"I miss him too," she said. "Because he was my grandpa." Then she spread her arms wide, looked out the window, and said, "but he is all, all, all around."

W.S. Merwin has a poem I adore called "The Initiate." It's surreal and hard to translate into tidy sense, but the imagery names something that I associate with eternity.

He starts with the image of a "juggler" who "is led out under the stars" where "tears begin to roll down his cheeks." A few lines later "he sees the stars swimming up / in his tears," and then:

later when the morning star
is dry

he is singing Not a hair
of our head do we need to take with us
into the day

not even a hand do we need
to take with us
not even an eye
do we need to take with us
into the light"

My children will never meet my father, and still he is teaching them to see precisely what we do need to take with us into the day -- and then later, into the light.

September 16, 2009

Now I'm a Believer

I was pulling into the driveway with my girls. It was bright and sunny, the car windows were open, the Monkees were blaring, and I was singing along. I turned back as we parked and I hadn't even been paying attention to the lyrics I was belting out.

I've only been a father for three years, but already these strange pangs of worry surface from time to time when I realize that each of my children will one day fall irrationally in love with someone else. In that moment in the car, I caught a glimpse of my little one's infectious smile. She's fourteen months with a permanent glimmer in her eye, and she just beams with joy over the littlest things. In mid refrain, I suddenly realized: one day someone else is going to fall hopelessly in love with her.

The whole thing brought to mind Gary Soto's "Oranges." It's this wonderful little narrative of a boy going on something of a date -- he calls it a walk -- with a girl. He's obviously smitten. It's cold outside and they head to the drugstore. He offers to buy her something, and thanks to the compassion of the shop-owner winds up quietly trading a nickel and an orange for the ten-cent candy she wants.

Soto closes with this wonderful image of the boy and girl outside, "fog hanging like old / coats between the trees." Then he closes:

I took my girl’s hand
In mine for two blocks,
Then released it to let
Her unwrap the chocolate.
I peeled my orange
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, from some distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making a fire in my hands.

The whole thing is a telling of the alchemy of love, and though I'm madly in love with my girls, it was an astonishing thought for me to realize that my children are likely to elicit that pitch of feeling in someone else one day.

September 13, 2009

As the Breeze Rises

Life gets filled with images and it's hard to say why some of them stick and some of them don't. Writing them down is certainly a means of preservation. Photographs are another. In fact, I have my share of memories which may have been manufactured by photographs rather than preserved by them.

When the garbage truck passed on Saturday, I lifted my fourteen month old to one of our deep window sills so she could watch. I stood inside the curtain while she sat there, fascinated by the sight and the perspective. Is that a little cocoon that she'll have a flash of somewhere in her unconscious? What about pressing her face to the window of the playhouse in our neighbor's basement full of hilarity at some simple peekaboo? Or collapsing in her sister's bed or chasing a dog at a street fair in the city?

I read poems to my girls with the hope that they'll keep fragments of language, or at least know that I did and possibly value that as well. I write things down to be sure that I keep fragments of life. I trust the page more than my memory alone.

One image I have of my father is in his living room, his eyes fixed to pages of a book, his mouth full of Robert Frost's words. Some of my father's favorite poems are my favorite poems. The tone I remember in his readings is the tone I often look for when I read.

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and take me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

September 9, 2009

Among the High Branches

The first day of school -- today was it for me and for my girls -- is my way of marking the end of summer. Taking on the responsibilities of the school year means shifting my mind into completely different rhythms. Time speeds up and that means less time for everything to settle into the quiet and out of stillness. Don't get me wrong. I love the rapidity of the school year, the possibilities unfolding, and the chance to help students learn, open up to things, and enjoy something -- school -- that's pretty easy to get the wrong idea about.

In "August," Mary Oliver catches that moment when everything has reached its purest place. "All day," she says, "my body accepts what it is." The poem helps her hold onto the self-forgetting experience of picking blackberries, tearing up her "ripped arms," and "cramming the black honey of summer" into her mouth. It's a little psalm of sorts and a reverent naming of a kind of greedy mindfulness.

My oldest turns three tomorrow, and for the last year I've watched her in total engagement with her life. It seems that all day, every day, her body "accepts what it is." I'm nervous for that to change and at the same time I'm excited for the new understandings and questions that will come for her as she lives and grows into more of the layers of being a fully-realized individual.

September 4, 2009

With Gratitude

I tried this once a few years ago, and it failed. Why is this different? I’m not yet sure that it is. I am different. But it remains to be seen whether I can sustain this project. I think the last one was a good concept, but I set myself up for failure with a task too big to keep afloat. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about blogging, mostly by reading Seth Godin's daily doses. Also, I’ve been thinking a lot about technology and education, largely following the nourishing posts from The Fischbowl and Will Richardson's tweets.

Now that I’m heading back to the classroom to teach a writing course, I feel like I need to put to practice some of what I hope to show my students about the role that writing can and does play in the world today. Finally, I’m a few years out from finishing a writing program, and the stuff of my life doesn’t feel like it needs to be woven into poetry right now. Still, there’s some worth sharing, and I still want what I’ve always wanted -- to put poems out into the world that I can give to my sister to read. So, take two…

September 2, 2009

The Figure a School Year Makes

This was the first official day of faculty meetings at school. Students return next week. For now, there's psychic space to consider what's ahead. After next week, the whole thing propels itself forward at (mostly) breakneck speed.

Today I was reminded about the inherently hopeful exercise of beginning. Starting a year of school is so much like sitting down to write. No matter what I bring to the table with me, one of the surest delights is the promise of surprise and the prospect of discovery.

I can't help but link the arc of the school year to Robert Frost's essay, "The Figure a Poem Makes." It's about the craftsmanship of poetry. Frost connects writing to love, and I think his insights apply to teaching as well.

"It begins in delight," he says. "It inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life — not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion."

It took me a long time to wrap my mind around that idea of a "momentary stay against confusion," but I've come to see that when I read a poem that speaks to me, it brings stillness. It takes all the disorder of life and gives it -- maybe just for a moment -- a shape and a name. For as long as that feeling lasts, something makes sense, and from there it becomes easier to continue forward.

Working in a school creates the same possibilities. Luminous moments rise out of the tumult of the day, and as Frost says later in the same piece, "Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing."

Writing, love, teaching, and parenting are all acts full of promise. So much can surface at any instant and the richer the revelation, the more of a gift it is.

About poems specifically, Frost says, "It is but a trick and no poem at all if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last... No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader."

September 1, 2009

Clear Profit

Mid-seventies, no humidity, hardly a cloud. On a day like today, even cooped up in meetings for hours, it's hard not to think of this little gem by Issa. On his fiftieth birthday, he wrote:

From now on,
every sky,
clear profit.

August 29, 2009


School starts again for me in about ten days. I keep thinking about the accompanying loss of time and togetherness with my girls. Our daily pace for the next stretch of months will leave us with significantly less time together. I want to take the surplus of wondrous moments from this summer, store the whole lot of them in a silo, and ration them out to myself each dizzying day of the year to come. And that brings me to the end of Jack Gilbert's poem, "Moreover":

What we are given is taken away,
but we manage to keep it secretly.
We lose everything, but make harvest
of the consequence it was to us. Memory
builds this kingdom from the fragments
and approximation. We are gleaners who fill
the barn for the winter that comes on.

This is one gem from a brilliant collection, Refusing Heaven. And though I can't quite figure this out, it appears that you can read the whole book here. Read it slowly. Enjoy.

August 26, 2009

And the Line is Gone

“That’s how it is sometimes,” Dorianne Laux says, “God comes to your window, / all bright light and black wings, / and you’re just too tired to open it.” This – from “Dust,” which appears in her book, What We Carry – says so much about the work of writing as a young parent. Says so much really about the discipline you need to do anything difficult.

She says it again in “Finding What’s Lost,” where the needs of the day, of her daughter, of being a present parent, trump the music of the line she’s working on. Of course, by the end of the poem, she’s found her way to something else entirely. She's lost the line she tried to keep in her head, but the whole process has become its own poem.

I’m in the middle of the poem when my daughter reminds me
that I promised to drive her to the bus stop.
She waits a few beats then calls out the time.
Repeats that I’ve promised.
I keep the line in my head, repeat it under my breath
as I look for my keys, rummage through my purse,
my jacket pockets. When we’re in the car, I search
the floor for a Jack-in-the-Box bag, a ticket stub,
a bridge toll dollar, anything to write on.
I’m still repeating my line when she points
out the window and says, “Look, there’s the poppy
I told you about,” and as I turn the corner I see it,
grown through a crack between the sidewalk and the curb.
We talk about it while I scan driveways for kids
on skateboards and bikes, while the old man who runs
the Rexall locks up for the night and a mangy dog
lifts a frail leg and sprays the side of a tree.
Then we talk about her history essay and boyfriend,
and she asks again about her summer vacation, if we’re
going somewhere or just staying home. I say
I don’t know and ask what she’d rather do, but by now
we’re at the bus stop and she leans over
and, this is so unlike her, brushes her lips
quickly against my cheek. Then, without looking back,
she’s out the door, and the line, the poem,
is gone, lost somewhere near 8th and G, hovering
like an orange flower over the gravel street.

August 23, 2009

If I Stepped out of My Body

We stopped along the road to watch three horses grazing. All week I had worried over my 1-year old who was sick and finicky about everything. We all quieted and turned off the engine to listen. I thought of James Wright’s “A Blessing,” the first poem I was ever asked to write about by a teacher. At the end of the poem, after the speaker watches two ponies from the roadside, he reflects: “Suddenly I realize / that if I stepped out of my body I would break / into blossom.”

For the moment, my daughter was settling back into herself, and I was sitting there thinking about how there is something in us that resists being contained by the body.

We were on our way to pick blueberries and I thought about Galway Kinnell’s poem about blackberries and Mary Oliver’s August, and wondered why there’s no poem about blueberries…

August 20, 2009

Out of the silence

I work in a Friends School. I went to a Friends School. I love that once again, our president's children attend a Friends School. I like to say that if I was in charge of the world, everyone would get a Friends education.

In a Quaker Meeting for Worship, you sit in silence, on plain benches, with no liturgy, no clergy, and no iconography. If you are moved to speak, you stand a deliver a message to the meeting.

I have this vision of poetry that connects to Quaker Meeting. It's as though the people who wrote the poems I love are sitting in a Meetinghouse, outside of time and space, and the poems rise -- in no particular order -- out of that silence. Regardless of when they were written, how well known they are, I carry them with me in that way. The quieter I get, the easier it is for them to rise.

This might be idealistic, but the internet can function that way. It also exists outside of time and space, and though it's full of noise, anyone can rise and deliver a message.

August 19, 2009

I Would Like to Describe

When it comes to poetry, I’m basically happy just to be a reader. Coming across – or returning to – the right poem at the right moment makes order out of the various pieces of my life. The poems I love offer ways of naming what exists in the workings of the world, in the human condition, in the spectrum of experience and emotion.

It feels like a gift – and something of a duty – to be able to teach poetry. Whether or not I have a class, I proselytize. The poems I’ve been given – mostly by teachers of my own – are my most precious possessions.

Then there are times when the poetry I’m reading is so rich and inspiring, or when something strikes me that feels like it warrants translation to words, and I feel compelled to write a poem. When that happens, the impulse ties right into what Zbigniew Herbert says in “I Would Like to Describe”:

I would like to describe the simplest emotion
joy or sadness
but not as others do
reaching for shafts of rain or sun

I would like to describe a light
which is being born in me
but I know it does not resemble
any star
for it is not so bright
not so pure
and is uncertain

I would like to describe courage
without dragging behind me a dusty lion
and also anxiety
without shaking a glass full of water

to put it another way
I would give all metaphors
in return for one word
drawn out of my breast like a rib
for one word
contained within the boundaries
of my skin

but apparently this is not possible

and just to say – I love
I run around like mad
picking up handfuls of birds
and my tenderness

Something in a poem resists its own expression. The hard work of writing is getting as close as possible to getting the words right. This is also my joy as a reader: a well-made poem is nothing short of miraculous.

August 17, 2009

Out of My True Affections

I owe a debt of gratitude to Seth Godin. And another to Stanley Kunitz. To Seth, I am grateful for the daily model of his posts. More often than not, he inspires me with his thinking, his provocative questions, and his general missive to get up, harness possibility, and make something happen. He also provides the best model that I’ve seen for clear, digestible writing online that is smart, useful, and nourishing. His posts have this wonderful DNA and voice, and I look forward to them each day.

To Stanley Kunitz, I am grateful first for the poems. For “The Layers,” “The Portrait,” “Halley’s Comet,” “The Knot,” “Route Six,” and so many more. He was 100 when he died and wrote stunning poems in his eighties (and nineties?). He was a generous teacher, a trail-blazer as a Jew, and he wrote with such honesty and poignancy to address his personal loss – his father commited suicide while his mother was pregnant with him. His is a model of artistry, longevity, patience, generosity, and beauty. I have a friend who tells of Kunitz, in his eighties, visiting his undergraduate program and telling the undergrad writers, “your job right now is to become the people who will write the poems.”

And where they overlap is in the territory of Tribes. Seth might be interested to know – if he doesn’t already – about “The Layers,” which starts “I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was, though some principle of being abides from which I struggle not to stray.” And in the middle of his poem, he says, “Oh, I have made myself a tribe of my true affections,” and I can’t help but wonder what better task there could be for a person in this world than to go about doing just that. So Seth and Stanley, thank you.

August 15, 2009

Handkerchief of the Lord

I was on the way to services with my girls and we called to leave a message for my mother. “That was your mommy?” my two-year old asked. “Yes,” I told her. “But your daddy is dead?” she asked.

What followed was the longest exchange we’ve had yet about death and my father. (It’s hard enough to explain morning fog.) Much of what I drew upon comes from poems, the best place I know for answers about life and death, body and spirit.

She knows that I see my father everywhere now. She knows that his body is gone. She knows that I carry some of his spirit inside of me. And since she asked specifically, she also knows that his hair is still growing.

Though I stopped myself from taking her on a tour through section six of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” that's where I went in my mind...

A child said, "What is the grass?" fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is, any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer, designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and
remark, and say, "Whose?"

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic;
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white;
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them
the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you, curling grass;
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men;
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;

It may be you are from old people, and from women, and from offspring taken
soon out of their mothers' laps;
And here you are the mothers' laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers;
Darker than the colorless beards of old men;
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out
of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;
And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to
arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.

All goes onward and outward-nothing collapses;
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

August 12, 2009

Hopelessly Missing

I do wonder, after reading this post by Victoria, who reads poems now and why. Over the years, I’ve put a great deal of myself into some poems. I hope that one or more of them can be of use one day, to someone. After all, it’s a tenet of my faith that to save one life is to save a whole world.

All the same, what I really want is for others to have access to poetry as a place to turn and a source from which to draw something of value. The poems do not need to be mine. I suppose Charles Simic is right that “The time of minor poets is coming.” I just hope poetry can become less minor. It is very real to those who write it, but I want it to be read by everyone, and for ours to be a culture where people quote poems and need poems, and not see them as irrelevant puzzles written by a little clan talking in codes to each other.

August 11, 2009

No Difference So Profound

I took my one-year old to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for the six-week follow-up after having tubes put in her ears in early June. CHOP has this gorgeous, friendly facility out in Bucks County, and I’m so grateful to have access to their first-rate care. The funny thing is that this is a place for kids. A hospital for kids. Each time I’m there, I’m struck by the way my anxiety over my own child’s clogged ears gets cut and dissipated by the notion that any of the parents and children I see walking in or out, or sitting in the waiting room, could be dealing with something so much more significant than ear infections and the potential of mild hearing loss.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line from The Great Gatsby surfaced again – as it often does for me. “There is no difference between men in intelligence or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well.”

August 9, 2009

We'll drive non-stop till dawn

To get to Provincetown, you have to drive the length of Cape Cod -- or fly, or arrive by boat. If you drive, your last stretch is Route 6. I associate this road and the whole town with Stanley Kunitz. Among other things, he tended a garden here for many years. In fact, there's a wonderful book that includes interviews with Kunitz, his poems, and images of his garden.

Every time I arrive in Provincetown, I think about a poem of his that shares the name of the highway you take to get here: "Route Six." I picture Kunitz in a Manhattan apartment talking to his wife. "The city squats on my back," he tells her, and then follows with something like an exhausted apology:

I am heart-sore, stiff-necked,
exasperated. That's why
I slammed the door,
that's why I tell you now
in every house of marriage
there is room for an interpreter.

This feels like such an honest enactment of those days when I get stuck in the dailiness of work, the responsibilities of parenting, the challenge of just getting it all right. That's when all of my escapist tendencies rear their heads. In those moments, I want to do what Kunitz does next when he tells his wife:

Let's jump in the car, honey,
and head straight for the Cape,
where the cock on our housetop crows
that the weather's fair
and my garden waits
for me to coax it into bloom.

Without even getting into his later mention of their "transcentdental cat," I'll just say that reading this poem is a kind of wish-fulfillment for me on the days when I'd like to pack what matters most -- my wife and kids -- into the car and just drive until the end of the road brings us to something that feels more in keeping with the fabric of how things should be. It's exhilarating to read this one.

August 7, 2009

A touch of brightest red

Why Twisting Pipe Cleaners? It’s a reference to the first poem I ever really wrote. It happened during the culminating exercise of a professional retreat for teachers in Friends Schools. We were meant to reflect on our learning and growth, and our charge was to create an artifact that we could bring back to school as a marker and reminder of our time together at Pendle Hill.

As usual, I clammed up at the prospect of making something. I brought pipe cleaners back to my seat and I began -- by default -- twisting them into a rinky-dink pair of eye glasses. Conscious that I was far from the spirit of the exercise, I started to bend them into different shapes. As my fingers formed a red bird, I thought of my sister’s recent admission to me that she was seeing cardinals everywhere and had the sense that they were an embodiment of our father who had been dead for just two years.

There’s precedent in our family for this kind of lunacy – our grandmother always said that our grandfather had been reincarnated as a hummingbird and she kept her spaces full of hummingbird images.

As I sat there, making of all things a red bird, I wondered if my sister wasn’t onto something. Before I knew it, I felt like I was sitting in the central metaphor of a poem. I got up, grabbed pen and paper, and happily bent the rules of the exercise and wrote for the remaining half-hour. When we were done, I did not want to stop. My heart was racing and I felt like I had found my way into something extraordinary – the process was remarkable and enough to make me want to write more poems.

So my writing here takes its name from that. It’s a place to put ideas together and see what unfolds. It’s a vehicle to make more space for the poems I own as a reader and want to share.

August 6, 2009

Something That Is Like the Twilight Sound of the Crickets

I won’t be forty for a long time still, but there are some new grey hairs popping up more frequently around my temples. When my daughter told me this morning that she wanted to watch me shave, I couldn’t help but think of Donald Justice’s “Men at Forty,” and his image of a father’s face “still warm with the mystery of lather.” That poem is brilliant and devastating. He names the condition that I feel already, of men who are “more fathers than sons themselves now.” And he also has what I find to be a remarkable articulation of the way my mortality is a current I have to negotiate mostly subconsciously but almost continuously. He says that:

At rest on a stair landing,
They feel it moving
Beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.

Though he doesn’t name “it” explicitly, I think he’s talking about Mortality. And it is gentle because it is subtle. And it is a swell because gradual as it is, its presence is unmistakable.

Despite its darkness, this poem anchors me. Being a father is the best antidote I’ve found for the grief of losing my own father. And there is so much of his face to find in the mirror, so much more for sharing the role I now play as parent – even in his absence – with him.

August 4, 2009

Better Than You Know Yourself

Later in the day yesterday, I found myself meditating still on the blooming inner lives of my children. It was Randall Jarrell who took on the persona of a mother and wrote about the way this interiority – the parts of themselves that they own entirely – changes the dynamic between parent and child. In “The Lost Children,” Jarrell says:

It is strange
To carry inside you someone else’s body;
To know it before it’s born;
To see at last that it’s a boy or girl, and perfect;
To bathe it and dress it; to watch it
Nurse at your breast, till you almost know it
Better than you know yourself—better than it knows itself.
You own it as you made it.
You are the authority upon it.

But as the child learns
To take care of herself, you know her less,
Her accidents, adventures are her own,
You lose track of them. Still, you know more
About her than anyone except her.

That is absolutely it. In our bedroom this morning, my oldest – who will be three in September – said, “but mommy, when are we going to go to the gym again?” When we asked what made her think of that, she looked up and said, “I was thinking of that in the nighttime. While the stars were out.”

August 3, 2009

I Promise I Will Not Follow

This morning, I kissed my oldest daughter and walked past her little sister who was sitting in a high chair in the babies room playing with her sippy cup. She didn’t notice me slowing down for a last glance before I walked out through the double doors. When I turned for a moment to look back through the small square of tinted glass, my oldest was having her snack at the table. Walking home I thought of Larry Levis’s poem, “Blue Stones,” written for his son Nicolas. He says, toward the end:

But you? Little believer, little
Straight, unbroken, and tireless thing,
Someday, when you are twenty-four and walking through
The streets of a foreign city, Stockholm,
Or Trieste,
Let me go with you a little way,
Let me be that stranger you won’t notice,
And when you turn and enter a bar full of young men
And women, and your laughter rises,
Like the stones of a path up a mountain,
To say that no one has died,
I promise I will not follow.

My girls, young as they are, have their own interior lives brewing. I am rich for my nearly unbounded access to their thoughts and discoveries, and every day they become more themselves and some distance grows. I am so taken with who they are becoming and so grateful for the chance to know them so completely – for now.