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.