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."