Monday, April 30, 2007


Every life lost and person killed at Virginia Tech is to be mourned. There are some stories that touch us differently, and the story of Liviu Librescu was the first I read — and it took my breath away.

The Tech professor, a native of Romania, survived the Holocaust (despite being sent to a labor camp and a ghetto) and was able to emigrate to Israel only after the personal intervention of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. After a sabbatical at Tech in the mid-1980s, the engineer chose to stay in the bucolic countryside and made Blacksburg his home. (Please read his life history — I cannot do it justice here. Please check out the information on Wikipedia and the Washington Post, among other resources.) (And yes, now you understand one of the reasons this man is dear to my heart.)

On the morning of April 16, despite already being shot, he held his classroom door closed while most his students lept out the windows before the gunman broke into the room. Librescu died giving many of his students a chance to live. His death, ironically enough, occurred on Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day).

I am among the many who never met him, yet weep at his death and admire his selfless act. I can only hope that I can find in myself even a small modicum of such bravery if ever I need it.

Philip C. Selz wrote a poem as a tribute to Librescu, and I thank him for his kindness in allowing me to share it with you. You may contact the poet at

My Stand
A Tribute to Liviu Librescu

In the darkest times we've seen, I was sent into the camps
As I smelled the stench of burning flesh, I knew my kin were gone
Survival was my only thought, I knew I must come through
But I didn't know the reason that my living must go on

And when the war had ended, liberation finally came
And I grew to be a man and shortly after took a wife
And we raised our kids in Israel and we did the best we could
And we lived for those who died and worked to make a useful life

Then a teaching job came to me in America one day
And I thought that building new young minds was destiny for me
So I traveled to Virginia and I made a brand new start
And I taught engineering in this homeland of the free

Now I hear the hallways screaming as shots are fired there
And I hear the terror in the screams and understand their plight
So I bar the door from danger and I tell my students "Run!"
And as the bullets breach the door I know that I must fight

And in these final moments as my life is seeping out
I think back over 60 years and finally understand
My own salvation now makes sense as children flee and live
I was saved that day to save this day, I've finally made my stand.

by Philip C. Selz

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Round out National Poetry Month with a visit to the Washington Post Web site Celebrating Poetry.

In the meantime, enjoy this gem from The Writer's Almanac.

Doing Nothing

When I passed him near the bus stop
on Union Square while the cops
cuffed his hands behind his back, while he
said, "I didn't do anything,"
I didn't, either,
do anything but look away,
a little afraid they might cuff me
if I paid too much attention,
and walked on still wondering
what he might've done
and still more what I
might've done.

by Dan Gerber from A Primer on Parallel Lives.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

A Classic, an Arachnid

Written and published in 1821, this fine verse is well-known and really fun. And who can't love a poem about a spider? (Arachnophobes are exempt from this question.)

However, do not dismiss this as a "silly" children's poem. The author, a Quaker, and her husband were very influential in their time, publishing 180 books between them and launching the careers of other famous writers. And who is to say a spider can't teach us something?

The Spider and the Fly

An Apologue.
A New Version Of An Old Story.

Will you walk into my parlour?" said the Spider to the Fly,
'Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;
The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I've a many curious things to shew when you are there."
Oh no, no," said the little Fly, "to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can ne'er come down again."

"I'm sure you must be weary, dear, with soaring up so high;
Will you rest upon my little bed?" said the Spider to the Fly.
"There are pretty curtains drawn around; the sheets are fine and thin,
And if you like to rest awhile, I'll snugly tuck you in!"
Oh no, no," said the little Fly, "for I've often heard it said,
They never, never wake again, who sleep upon your bed!"

Said the cunning Spider to the Fly, " Dear friend what can I do,
To prove the warm affection I 've always felt for you?
I have within my pantry, good store of all that's nice;
I'm sure you're very welcome -- will you please to take a slice?"
"Oh no, no," said the little Fly, "kind Sir, that cannot be,
I've heard what's in your pantry, and I do not wish to see!"

"Sweet creature!" said the Spider, "you're witty and you're wise,
How handsome are your gauzy wings, how brilliant are your eyes!
I've a little looking-glass upon my parlour shelf,
If you'll step in one moment, dear, you shall behold yourself."
"I thank you, gentle sir," she said, "for what you 're pleased to say,
And bidding you good morning now, I'll call another day."

The Spider turned him round about, and went into his den,
For well he knew the silly Fly would soon come back again:
So he wove a subtle web, in a little corner sly,
And set his table ready, to dine upon the Fly.
Then he came out to his door again, and merrily did sing,
"Come hither, hither, pretty Fly, with the pearl and silver wing;
Your robes are green and purple -- there's a crest upon your head;
Your eyes are like the diamond bright, but mine are dull as lead!"

Alas, alas! how very soon this silly little Fly,
Hearing his wily, flattering words, came slowly flitting by;
With buzzing wings she hung aloft, then near and nearer drew,
Thinking only of her brilliant eyes, and green and purple hue --
Thinking only of her crested head -- poor foolish thing! At last,
Up jumped the cunning Spider, and fiercely held her fast.
He dragged her up his winding stair, into his dismal den,
Within his little parlour -- but she ne'er came out again!

And now dear little children, who may this story read,
To idle, silly flattering words, I pray you ne'er give heed:
Unto an evil counsellor, close heart and ear and eye,
And take a lesson from this tale, of the Spider and the Fly.

by Mary Howitt

From Sketches of Natural History (1834), Effingham Wilson : London.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Great Grammar

I just purchased another grammar book to enjoy, so I think you can see why I enjoy the poem below.

The grammar book is my "light" reading. Also on my nightstand is a novel about Lady Jane Gray, a collection of essays on stepfamilies, a book of short stories involving time travel, Good Poems by Garrison Keillor and a book of Spanish idioms.

What are you reading? Let me know!

Appeal to the Grammarians

We, the naturally hopeful,
Need a simple sign
For the myriad ways we're capsized.
We who love precise language
Need a finer way to convey
Disappointment and perplexity.
For speechlessness and all its inflections,
For up-ended expectations,
For every time we're ambushed
By trivial or stupefying irony,
For pure incredulity, we need
The inverted exclamation point.
For the dropped smile, the limp handshake,
For whoever has just unwrapped a dumb gift
Or taken the first sip of a flat beer,
Or felt love or pond ice
Give way underfoot, we deserve it.
We need it for the air pocket, the scratch shot,
The child whose ball doesn't bounce back,
The flat tire at journey's outset,
The odyssey that ends up in Weehawken.
But mainly because I need it—here and now
As I sit outside the Caffe Reggio
Staring at my espresso and cannoli
After this middle-aged couple
Came strolling by and he suddenly
Veered and sneezed all over my table
And she said to him, "See, that's why
I don't like to eat outside."

by Paul Violi, Copyright © 2007, courtesy of the Academy of American Poets.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Silence or truth: which is more painful?

I had the great opportunity to study with Lucille Clifton when she was a visiting writer at GMU. I truly enjoyed working with her and learned much.

I also enjoy her poetry immensely and have gone to her readings whenever possible. There are a number of her poems I can recommend, including Homage to My Hips (check out her audio), The Message of Crazy Horse and wishes for sons.

The following poem tells about a tour Lucille took of a South Carolina plantation. The tour guide did not mention the slaves who lived on the plantation, later telling Lucille, the only black person in that particular tour group, that he thought mention of it would bother her. So, which is worse: the truth, or the silence it its absence?

at the cemetery,
walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989

among the rocks
at walnut grove
your silence drumming
in my bones,
tell me your names.

nobody mentioned slaves
and yet the curious tools
shine with your fingerprints.
nobody mentions slaves
but somebody did this work
who had no guide, no stone,
who moulders under rock.

tell me your names,
tell me your bashful names
and I will testify.

the inventory lists ten slaves
but only men were recognized.

among the rocks
at walnut grove
some of these honored dead
were dark
some of these dark
were slaves
some of these slaves
were women
some of them did this
honored work.
tell me your names
foremothers, brothers,
tell me your dishonored names,
here lies
here lies
here lies
here lies

Copyright ©1991 by Lucille Clifton. Reprinted from Quilting: Poems 1987-1990.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A good day


Sometimes things don't go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don't fail.
Sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war,
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best intentions do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen; may it happen for you.

by Sheenagh Pugh
Courtesy of Good Poems by Garrison Keillor

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Stop all the clocks

I took a class on W.H. Auden while in grad school and, although I could have had no better instructor for Auden than Roger, the poet in question remained as much a mystery to me as when I began.

And yet this poem is as clear as the grief it conveys. I think of my friend Kathy and her dear friend Cindy, and of how sometimes words fail me. I'm grateful that, for Auden, they did not.

Funeral Blues

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

While searching for an online version of this poem (I may be ambitious, but can be a little lazy), I found some great resources. Please consider exploring them at your leisure:

• End of Life: Exploring Death in America (with images of the Adams Memorial statue)
• Academy of American Poets entry on Auden
• Wikipedia entry on Auden (praised by the Auden Society)
• and, finally, The Auden Society.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Bard

Today is thought to be the birthday of William Shakespeare.

I could go on and on about Master Shakespeare, but let's just say he did as well as any teen father could have. (It didn't hurt to have Queen Elizabeth I as a patron.)

For more information about Shakespeare, read the brief biography written by Garrison Keillor Monday, April 23. Or the Shakespeare Resource Center. Or the Shakespeare Information site. Or my personal favorite site: the Academy of American Poets.

What are some words he created? What is your favorite quote? Your favorite poem? Your favorite play?

Here is one of his more famous poems:

Sonnet 18
Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft' is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Courtesy of Academy of American Poets.

Think about the poems within the plays, such as this familiar soliloquy:

As You Like It

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Courtesy of Art of Europe.

Shakespeare is as important today as he was in the 1500s, 1600s and into the modern era. Go Shakespeare!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Meg Kearney


I have a ticket in my pocket that will take me from Lynchburg
to New York in nine hours, from the Blue Ridge to Stuy Town,

from blue jays wrangling over sunflower seeds to my alarm
clock and startled pigeons. If I had a daughter I'd take her

with me. She'd sit by the window wearing the blue dress
with the stars and sickle moons, counting houses and cemeteries,

watching the knotted rope of fence posts slip by while I sat
beside her pretending to read, but unable to stop studying

her in disbelief. Her name would tell her that she's beautiful.
Belle. Or something strong, biblical. Sarah. She would tolerate

the blue jay and weep for the pigeon; she would have all the music
she wanted and always the seat by the window. If I had a daughter

she would know who her father is and he would be home writing letters
or playing the banjo, waiting for us, and I would be her mother.

We'd have a dog, a mutt, a stray we took in from the rain one night
in November, the only stray we ever had to take in, one night in our

cabin in the Catskills. It would be impossibly simple: two train tickets;
a man, a dog, waiting; and a girl with her nose pressed to the window.

by Meg Kearney
From An Unknown Kindness of Ravens
Courtesy of The Writer's Almanac

Friday, April 20, 2007

Show of Hands

Okay, by a show of hands, who read the poem on The Writer's Almanac April 18?

Just what I thought.

You can put your hands down now -- so you can scroll down and read the fabulous poem Garrison Keillor read April 18 on The Writer's Almanac:


Aunt Duly is here wallpapering our kitchen.
She is seventy-one years old
but still paints silos and moves pianos.
If I bet her, she will touch her palms
to the floor without bending her knees.

When she first sees me, long hair and beard,
she comes down the ladder waving her brush:
"Judas Priest, Kev, when I was a girl,
they used to beat guys like you with chairs."

She has been going up and down this last hour
as if her ladder is an escalator,
telling me about drunken gravediggers
or the grocer who wouldn't serve lawyers.
I'm afraid she'll slip or faint,

but she is coming down the ladder,
telling me about Barney Ruckle in the back pew
quietly mocking each bead during the rosary:
"Gimme a nickel, Mary. Gimme a nickel, Mary.
Gimme a nickel ..."

Going up the ladder
because she really does have work to do,
she pauses halfway and says,
"You know, they're all dead now,
all those characters who used to make us laugh."

by Kevin FitzPatrick, from Down on the Corner.
© Midwest Villages and Voices.

What else have you read on The Writer's Almanac that you've enjoyed? Let me know!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Haiku, DQ

The haiku is a form of poetry that is brief but complete: 17 syllables, three lines long. Very regimented. From Japan, originally.

Well, leave it to people with a sense of humor to come along and use poetry for their own amusement. Thing is, it amuses me, and today I could use it. My friend, DQ Prieto, died today. He was a 17-year-old cat who lived with my friend Alicia. (We know cats cannot be "owned," and if one in a home could be owned, it would be the human.) He was something special, and I know I'll miss his insistent "meow" and the way he raced down the stairs to lounge about on the cement. (Never ask "why" with a cat....)

So, in honor of DQ, I submit the following cat haikus (gray, like DQ):

The rule for today:
Touch my tail, I shred your hand.
New rule tomorrow.

The food in my bowl
Is old, and more to the point
Contains no tuna.

My brain: walnut sized.
Yours: largest among primates.
Yet, who leaves for work?

Please check out the rest of them at the Cat Haiku Web site and the Cat Fancier's Haiku Web site. They are not all perfect, but they're funny. (If you don't like cats, they're even funnier.)

Give it a try: write one or more of your own. The rule is three lines, with the first and third being five beats and the second being seven beats. Count out the ones above to see what I mean. Send me yours today!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Only a Passing Thought

When I was about 17 or 18, I decided to put a poem on my answering machine (I had my own line in my parents' house). I put the poem below first, then my idea was deep-sixed a few days later when I changed to another poem so dreary about death and war that sounded like a Herbal Essence commercial ("And they killed two people...."). (I didn't say it was good.)

The following poem is a quaint little piece. Great art? No. But I still like it.

Only A Thought

'Twas only a passing thought, my love,
Only a passing thought,
that came o'er my mind like a ray of the sun
in the ripples of waters caught
and it seemed to me and I say to thee
that sorrow and shame and sin
might disappear from our happy sphere
if we knew but to begin
if we knew how to profit
By wisdom dearly bought
'Twas only a passing thought, my love,
Only a passing thought.

by Charles MacKay

Now, for Pete's sake, go listen to The Writer's Almanac. Today's poem (4/18) is good.

One last thing: the Washington Post stories about the individuals killed Monday at Virginia Tech are poignant. Every death is a tragedy and should be mourned, and every story brings fresh sadness. One story in particular was so beautifully written you must read it, if you haven't already: Tragedy Beyond the Imagination. It is the kind of story I wish was hearing from a friend for any other reason. Please read it. You will cry, but it deserves to be read. I remember covering this kind of event and I have mixed emotions about it; I hope Post writer Tamara Jones was as respectful as I would have tried to be. From the tender story she wrote, I think she was.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

California Dreamin'

Frank Bidart is a Californian gone East. Sound familiar?

California Plush

The only thing I miss about Los Angeles

is the Hollywood Freeway at midnight, windows down and

radio blaring

bearing right into the center of the city, the Capitol Tower

on the right, and beyond it, Hollywood Boulevard


--pimps, surplus stores, footprints of the stars

--descending through the city

fast as the law would allow

through the lights, then rising to the stack

out of the city

to the stack where lanes are stacked six deep

and you on top; the air

now clean, for a moment weightless

without memories, or

need for a past.

The need for the past

is so much at the center of my life

I write this poem to record my discovery of it,

my reconciliation.

It was in Bishop, the room was done

in California plush: we had gone into the coffee shop, were told

you could only get a steak in the bar:

I hesitated,

not wanting to be an occasion of temptation for my father

but he wanted to, so we entered

a dark room, with amber water glasses, walnut

tables, captain's chairs,

plastic doilies, papier-mâché bas-relief wall ballerinas,

German memorial plates "bought on a trip to Europe,"

Puritan crosshatch green-yellow wallpaper,

frilly shades, cowhide


I thought of Cambridge:

the lovely congruent elegance

of Revolutionary architecture, even of

ersatz thirties Georgian

seemed alien, a threat, sign

of all I was not--

to bode order and lucidity

as an ideal, if not reality--

not this California plush, which


I was not.

And so I made myself an Easterner,

finding it, after all, more like me

than I had let myself hope.

And now, staring into the embittered face of

my father,

again, for two weeks, as twice a year,

I was back.

The waitress asked us if we wanted a drink.

Grimly, I waited until he said no...

Before the tribunal of the world I submit the following


Nancy showed it to us,

in her apartment at the model,

as she waited month by month

for the property settlement, her children grown

and working for their father,

at fifty-three now alone,

a drink in her hand:

as my father said,

"They keep a drink in her hand":

Name Wallace du Bois

Box No 128 Chino, Calif.

Date July 25 ,19 54

Mr Howard Arturian

I am writing a letter to you this afternoon while I'm in the

mood of writing. How is everything getting along with you these

fine days, as for me everything is just fine and I feel great except for

the heat I think its lot warmer then it is up there but I don't mind

it so much. I work at the dairy half day and I go to trade school the

other half day Body & Fender, now I am learning how to spray

paint cars I've already painted one and now I got another car to

paint. So now I think I've learned all I want after I have learned all

this. I know how to straighten metals and all that. I forgot to say

"Hello" to you. The reason why I am writing to you is about a job,

my Parole Officer told me that he got letter from and that you want

me to go to work for you. So I wanted to know if its truth. When

I go to the Board in Feb. I'll tell them what I want to do and where

I would like to go, so if you want me to work for you I'd rather have

you sent me to your brother John in Tonapah and place to stay for

my family. The Old Lady says the same thing in her last letter that

she would be some place else then in Bishop, thats the way I feel

too.and another thing is my drinking problem. I made up my mind

to quit my drinking, after all what it did to me and what happen.

This is one thing I'll never forget as longs as I live I never want

to go through all this mess again. This sure did teach me lot of things

that I never knew before. So Howard you can let me know soon

as possible. I sure would appreciate it.

P.S From Your Friend

I hope you can read my Wally Du Bois

writing. I am a little nervous yet

--He and his wife had given a party, and

one of the guests was walking away

just as Wallace started backing up his car.

He hit him, so put the body in the back seat

and drove to a deserted road.

There he put it before the tires, and

ran back and forth over it several times.

When he got out of Chino, he did,

indeed, never do that again:

but one child was dead, his only son,

found with the rest of the family

immobile in their beds with typhoid,

next to the mother, the child having been

dead two days:

he continued to drink, and as if it were the Old West

shot up the town a couple of Saturday nights.

"So now I think I've learned all I want

after I have learned all this: this sure did teach me a lot of things

that I never knew before.

I am a little nervous yet."

It seems to me

an emblem of Bishop--

For watching the room, as the waitresses in their

back-combed, Parisian, peroxided, bouffant hairdos,

and plastic belts,

moved back and forth

I thought of Wallace, and

the room suddenly seemed to me

not uninteresting at all:

they were the same. Every plate and chair

had its congruence with

all the choices creating

these people, created

by them--by me,

for this is my father's chosen country, my origin.

Before, I had merely been anxious, bored; now,

I began to ask a thousand questions...

He was, of course, mistrustful, knowing I was bored,

knowing he had dragged me up here from Bakersfield

after five years

of almost managing to forget Bishop existed.

But he soon became loquacious, ordered a drink,

and settled down for

an afternoon of talk...

He liked Bishop: somehow, it was to his taste, this

hard-drinking, loud, visited-by-movie-stars town.

"Better to be a big fish in a little pond."

And he was: when they came to shoot a film,

he entertained them; Miss A--, who wore

nothing at all under her mink coat; Mr. M--,

good horseman, good shot.

"But when your mother

let me down" (for alcoholism and

infidelity, she divorced him)

"and Los Angeles wouldn't give us water any more,

I had to leave.

We were the first people to grow potatoes in this valley."

When he began to tell me

that he lost control of the business

because of the settlement he gave my mother,

because I had heard it

many times,

in revenge, I asked why people up here drank so much.

He hesitated. "Bored, I guess.

--Not much to do."

And why had Nancy's husband left her?

In bitterness, all he said was:

"People up here drink too damn much."

And that was how experience

had informed his life.

"So now I think I've learned all I want

after I have learned all this: this sure did teach me a lot of things

that I never knew before.

I am a little nervous yet."

Yet, as my mother said,

returning, as always, to the past,

"I wouldn't change any of it.

It taught me so much. Gladys

is such an innocent creature: you look into her face

and somehow it's empty, all she worries about

are sales and the baby.

her husband's too good!"

It's quite pointless to call this rationalization:

my mother, for uncertain reasons, has had her

bout with insanity, but she's right:

the past in maiming us,

makes us,


is also


I think of Proust, dying

in a cork-linked room, because he refuses to eat

because he thinks that he cannot write if he eats

because he wills to write, to finish his novel

--his novel which recaptures the past, and

with a kind of joy, because

in the debris

of the past, he has found the sources of the necessities

which have led him to this room, writing

--in this strange harmony, does he will

for it to have been different?

And I can't not think of the remorse of Oedipus,

who tries to escape, to expiate the past

by blinding himself, and

then, when he is dying, sees that he has become a Daimon

--does he, discovering, at last, this cruel

coherence created by

"the order of the universe"

--does he will

anything reversed?

I look at my father:

as he drinks his way into garrulous, shaky

defensiveness, the debris of the past

is just debris--; whatever I reason, it is a desolation

to watch...

must I watch?

He will not change; he does not want to change;

every defeated gesture implies

the past is useless, irretrievable...

--I want to change: I want to stop fear's subtle

guidance of my life--; but, how can I do that

if I am still

afraid of its source?

by Frank Bidart, courtesy of The Academy of American Poets.
From In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-1990, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990. Copyright © 1973 by Frank Bidart.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Nothing like a little Elizabeth Bishop to make the day right!


September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It's time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle's small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

by Elizabeth Bishop

Thanks to Poems to Read: A New Favorite Poem Project Anthology (check it out from your local library) and Anna Headley, a (former?) Swathmore student with an old blog -- and decent taste in poetry, I might add.

I am a huge fan of Elizabeth Bishop and encourage you to read more of her materials. Visit the Web site for a few more poems, check out her books at the library, purchase her collected poems and collected prose. She is worth reading time and again.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Is memorizing cremation moiling?

In eighth grade, my English teacher charged us with memorizing a poem. I don't remember what my poem was, but this was the one by one of my classmates. It was memorable.

What poems did you have to memorize as a youngster? Do you still memorize poems? What do you think of memorizing poems?

(And before you ask: yes, moil is correct. I, too, thought it was toil -- but moil is so much better. Go ahead, look it up and see.) (See?)

The Spell of the Yukon: The Cremation of Sam McGee

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he'd often say in his homely way that he'd "sooner live in hell."

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn't see;
It wasn't much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o'erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and "Cap," says he, "I'll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I'm asking that you won't refuse my last request."

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
"It's the cursed cold, and it's got right hold till I'm chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet 'tain't being dead -- it's my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you'll cremate my last remains."

A pal's last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn't a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn't get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say:
"You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it's up to you to cremate those last remains."

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows -- O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I'd often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the "Alice May."
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then "Here," said I, with a sudden cry, "is my cre-ma-tor-eum."

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared -- such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn't like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: "I'll just take a peep inside.
I guess he's cooked, and it's time I looked;" . . . then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: "Please close that door.
It's fine in here, but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm --
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm."

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

by Robert W. Service, courtesy .

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Today: the limerick

Because of its humor, a limerick often is passed over as a simple poem. Frankly, some of the best images can be caught in this little five-line critter. Webb School created a fabulous page on the limerick and how it's constructed.

Here are a few limericks. Which one do you think I wrote?

A jolly young fellow from Yuma
Told an elephant joke to a puma;
Now his skeleton lies
Beneath hot western skies -
The puma had no sense of huma.

There once was a wise cat named Mao
Who said to herself, "Anyhow,
I will not make a sound
That is not as profound
As Lao-Tse's poetical Tao."

A decrepit old gas man named Peter,
While hunting around for the meter,
Touched a leak with his light.
He arose out of sight,
And, as anyone can see by reading this, he also destroyed the meter.

So, do you want to try your hand at it?

Friday, April 13, 2007

The truest of love poems

The Changed Man

If you were to hear me imitating Pavarotti
in the shower every morning, you'd know
how much you have changed my life.

If you were to see me stride across the park,
waving to strangers, then you would know
I am a changed man—like Scrooge

awakened from his bad dreams feeling feather-
light, angel-happy, laughing the father
of a long line of bright laughs—

"It is still not too late to change my life!"
It is changed. Me, who felt short-changed.
Because of you I no longer hate my body.

Because of you I buy new clothes.
Because of you I'm a warrior of joy.
Because of you and me. Drop by

this Saturday morning and discover me
fiercely pulling weeds gladly, dedicated
as a born-again gardener.

Drop by on Sunday—I'll Turtlewax
your sky-blue sports car, no sweat. I'll greet
enemies with a handshake, forgive debtors

with a papal largesse. It's all because
of you. Because of you and me,
I've become one changed man.

by Robert Phillips, from Spinach Days.
© The Johns Hopkins University Press
courtesy of The Writer's Almanac

And don't forget about another source of poetry: Poem-a-Day from American Academy of Poets -- while not the same a Hedgehoglover, it's still a great service. For, truly, can one ever get enough poetry? (Poppycock!)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Deep tracks

I think of my grandmother, Mimi, when I read this next poem. Soon after she died, her house was renovated and nothing of her was left: her furniture, her walls of photos I helped her hang (more than four dozen photos, I am proud to say -- most on the wall you see above), the paint on the walls.

There were still sodas in her refrigerator, and I had one as I stood in this house that wasn't hers anymore. She always had made sure there were cold sodas in the fridge, and I always drank one when I visited. I couldn't break the tradition. Even as she lay in her hospital bed across from her wall of photos, I had a soda. (I just made sure the hand with which I held hers was the warm one.)

Consider this poem, re-read it a few times. It will surprise you. It did me.

Things Shouldn't Be So Hard

A life should leave
deep tracks:
ruts where she
went out and back
to get the mail
or move the hose
around the yard;
where she used to
stand before the sink,
a worn-out place;
beneath her hand
the china knobs
rubbed down to
white pastilles;
the switch she
used to feel for
in the dark
almost erased.
Her things should
keep her marks.
The passage
of a life should show;
it should abrade.
And when life stops,
a certain space—
however small—
should be left scarred
by the grand and
damaging parade.
Things shouldn't
be so hard.

by Kay Ryan from The Niagara River. © Grove Press.
Thanks to The Writer's Alamanac

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

What does the queen carry in her handbag?

Today I share with you two poems I found in Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times. The two poems sat together on a page and were too perfect to separate.

What Every Woman Should Carry

My mother gave me the prayer to Saint Theresa.
I added a used tube ticket, kleenex,
several Polo mints (furry), a tampon, pesetas,
a florin. Not wishing to be presumptuous,
not trusting you either, a pack of 3.
I have a pen. There is space for my guardian
angel, she has to fold her wings. Passport.
A key. Anguish, at what I said/didn’t say
when once you needed/didn’t need me. Anadin.
A credit card. His face the last time,
my impatience, my useless youth.
That empty sack, my heart. A box of matches.

by Maura Dooley


My mother's old leather handbag,
crowded with letters she carried
all through the war. The smell
of my mother's handbag: mints
and lipstick and Coty powder.
The look of those letters, softened
and worn at the edges, opened,
read, and refolded so often.
Letters from my father. Odour
of leather and powder, which ever
since then has meant womanliness,
and love, and anguish, and war.

by Ruth Fainlight

What have you stopped carrying in your handbag? What do you wish your significant other would carry in hers? Discuss.

One last thing: check out this book (and other books listed in this blog) at your local library. I link to because the dynamic URL from the library wasn't a successful link. I'm all in support of purchasing poetry, but consider checking them out at your local library as well. Libraries rock!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Lincoln and frogs (sorry, Vicky!)

Boy, do I have some insightful poetry readers! Yes, President Abraham Lincoln is the hero eulogized by Walt Whitman. The first answer was submitted by MaryClare Maslyn, who will receive a copy of Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness. One of the first poems in this book, The Dance by Siamanto, is about the Armenian genocide. Please read it and let me know what you think.

The three runners-up were Kathy Mahoney, Bob Sisson and Suzanne Levy, who deserve not only recognition (yeay you!) but also a small book of poems for their personal enjoyment. (Each. Oh, c'mon, that would be mean -- not to mention logistically challenging....)

Thank you for reading, and your books are on the way. There will be another contest later in the month, so keep your thinking caps nearby!

Now, back to our regularly scheduled poetry.

Years ago, as I finalized my divorce, I read this poem have kept it tacked to the wall in my office ever since. Sometimes the only way to be alive is to take a risk.

Small Frogs Killed On The Highway

I would leap too
Into the light,
If I had the chance.
It is everything, the wet green stalk of the field
On the other side of the road.
They crouch there, too, faltering in terror
And take strange wing. Many
Of the dead never moved, but many
Of the dead are alive forever in the split second
Auto headlights more sudden
Than their drivers know.
The drivers burrow backward into dank pools
Where nothing begets

Across the road, tadpoles are dancing
On the quarter thumbnail
Of the moon. They can't see,
Not yet.

by James Wright
courtesy of

Monday, April 9, 2007

Whitman's tender heart and Bartleby's generosity

Walt Whitman was one of the most important voices for modern American poetry. The man, as a boy, walked through New York City's dusty unpaved roads. As an adult, he nursed the wounded in Washington, D.C. hospitals. He saw and felt the ragged wound of the American Civil War deeply.

Read "When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd" and appreciate the love with which he loved his country and his hero.

Can you name the hero eulogized in the poem? E-mail me with your entry, and the first person to answer the question correctly wins a special prize.

BTW, is an excellent source of books, stories and reference material to read online or download for a dollar. The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins
(a favorite of Elizabeth Bishop's), Edward Arlington Robinson and others are there for the reading.

Peruse the shelves at Bartleby and find also the under-appreciated The Education of Henry Adams or the oft-read Pride and Prejudice, even Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo or Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the Inaugural addresses of the U.S. Presidents -- all at your fingertips.

I could go on, but I'd rather you went there yourself. You will be glad you did.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Another poem about a sloth

.... because can there be only one poem about a sloth?

The Sloth

In moving-slow he has no Peer.
You ask him something in his Ear,
He thinks about it for a Year;

And, then, before he says a Word
There, upside down (unlike a Bird),
He will assume that you have Heard--

A most Ex-as-per-at-ing Lug.
But should you call his manner Smug,
He'll sigh and give his Branch a Hug;

Then off again to Sleep he goes,
Still swaying gently by his Toes,
And you just know he knows he knows.

by Theodore Roethke
(more by this poet at Famous Poets and )

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Poetry in the movies

In the movie 10 Things I Hate About You, the poem written by the lead character Kat (but really by screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith) was perfect for the scene: it scanned like something written by a high school student and captured the angst of the situation.

Here is the poem below. Tell me: what other poems have you liked in the movies?

10 Things I Hate About You

I hate the way you talk to me
And the way you cut your hair.
I hate the way you drive my car.
I hate it when you stare.
I hate your big dumb combat boots
And the way you read my mind.
I hate you so much it makes me sick.
It even makes me rhyme.

I hate the way you're always right.
I hate it when you lie.
I hate it when you make me laugh;
Even worse when you make me cry.

I hate it when you're not around
And the fact that you didn't call,
But mostly I hate the way I don't hate you;
Not even close;
Not even a little bit;
Not even at all.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Yep, there's been poems written about it.

The Internet has everything, including this horse poem courtesy of Angelfire. I do not see the name of the poet, but if anyone finds it, please let me know and I'll be glad to include it.

This poem is for Karen, because she asked. (And even if she hadn't!)

Forever Free

Of all the things I've ever seen,
Of all the dreams I've ever dreamed,
The finest sight that's come to me,
White horses wild beside the sea

They ran across the trackless sand
In that remote, forgotten land,
And in their running they were free
Beside the boundless, unchained sea.

They raced the first light of the day
And surged across a shallow bay
To feed at ease in grassy plains
With wind alone to groom their manes.

No barn or stable was their home.
No one could govern where they roamed.
They galloped on the fenceless tracts
With no ones burden on their backs.

And each swift horse was nature's child
At home on land forever wild,
And each wild horse was meant to be
At home on land forever free.

So, what would you like to read a poem about?

Thursday, April 5, 2007

What does a poem sound like?

Would you like to hear your favorite poet read your favorite poem? Chances are you can.

Visit the Academy of American Poets and see who's on tap. I enjoyed hearing Robert Frost read "The Road Not Taken."

Take a look, then tell me who you heard. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Poem-a-Day from, plus a poem

Sign up to receive a poem a day from the American Academy of Poets! No muss, no fuss, just poetry galore!

And while you're here, enjoy the poem below, with more thanks to Garrison Keillor. Wow, I just realized, it's from the same poet as yesterday's entry. Completely unintentional (and what a lovely surprise). I heard this on The Writer's Almanac months ago, and the images literally made me catch my breath.


When I was a kid,
there was always someone old
living with my friends,
a small, gray person
from another century
who stayed in a back room
with a Bible and a bed with silver rails.

They were from a time before the time
the world just plain went haywire,

and even though nothing
made sense to them anymore,
they'd gotten used to it,
and walked around smiling vaguely
at the aliens ruining the galaxy
on the color console television,

or the British invasion
growing from the sides of our heads
in little transistorized boxes.

In the front room, by the light of tv,
we were just starting to get stoned,
and the girls were helping us
help them out of their jeans,

while in the back room
someone very tired
closed her eyes and watched
a wheat field where a boy
whose name she can't remember
is walking down a dusty road.

No sound
but the sound of crickets.
No satellites,
Or even headlights in the distance yet.

by George Bilgere from Haywire
© Utah State University Press.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Hug a Poet -- it's National Poetry Month!

I have been remiss. My friends and family expect to find a poem a day in their e-mailboxes in April. I am nothing if not habitual in my flogging of poetry.

I don't think they do it to humor me. At least, I hope they don't. I fervently hope, instead, that at least one poem startles them into realizing that language is the most beautiful art in the world. That words can stir emotions, images, thoughts, memories in ways they forgot. That poetry is as fun now as it was when they were children reading nursery rhymes and Ogden Nash. That silliness can wrap a serious idea in a bewitching way, lure them into reading just one more.

Maybe they'll pick up a book of poems at the bookstore. Maybe they'll listen to The Writer's Almanac on public radio. Maybe they will secretly try to write a poem themselves and, with great surprise, realize that poem is perfect. Maybe they'll share it, maybe not.

In honor of National Poetry Month, and with a generous thanks to Garrison Keillor for doing all the hard work, I share the following poem, with a promise of many more:

Unwise Purchases

They sit around the house
not doing much of anything: the boxed set
of the complete works of Verdi, unopened.
The complete Proust, unread:

The French-cut silk shirts
which hang like expensive ghosts in the closet
and make me look exactly
like the kind of middle-aged man
who would wear a French-cut silk shirt:

The reflector telescope I thought would unlock
the mysteries of the heavens
but which I only used once or twice
to try to find something heavenly
in the windows of the high-rise down the road,
and which now stares disconsolately at the ceiling
when it could be examining the Crab Nebula:

The 30-day course in Spanish
whose text I never opened,
whose dozen cassette tapes remain unplayed,

save for Tape One, where I never learned
whether the suave American
conversing with a sultry-sounding desk clerk
at a Madrid hotel about the possibility
of obtaining a room
actually managed to check in.

I like to think
that one thing led to another between them
and that by Tape Six or so
they're happily married
and raising a bilingual child in Seville or Terra Haute.

But I'll never know.
Suddenly I realize
I have constructed the perfect home
for a sexy, Spanish-speaking astronomer
who reads Proust while listening to Italian arias,

and I wonder if somewhere in this teeming city
there lives a woman with, say,
a fencing foil gathering dust in the corner
near her unused easel, a rainbow of oil paints
drying in their tubes

on the table where the violin
she bought on a whim
lies entombed in the permanent darkness
of its locked case
next to the abandoned chess set,

a woman who has always dreamed of becoming
the kind of woman the man I've always dreamed of becoming
has always dreamed of meeting.

And while the two of them discuss star clusters
and Cézanne, while they fence delicately
in Castilian Spanish to the strains of Rigoletto,

she and I will stand in the steamy kitchen,
fixing up a little risotto,
enjoying a modest cabernet,
while talking over a day so ordinary
as to seem miraculous.

by George Bilgere from Haywire
© Utah State University Press.