We lie back to back. Curtains
lift and fall,
like the chest of someone sleeping.
Wind moves the leaves of the box elder;
they show all their light undersides,
turning all at once
like a school of fish.
Suddenly I understand that I am happy.
For months this feeling
has been coming closer, stopping
for short visits, like a timid suitor.
In the poem above, I’m moved by the way things knock into each other in the scene described, and how that knocking mirrors how the poem is working structurally. The lyric momentum here swings between the three “likes” in the poem. Each one is a simile of life: a person sleeping, a school of fish, a timid suitor.
The specificity of each, however, is what makes their presence move beyond image and metaphor. The whole poem moves through them: the suggested breath of “someone sleeping”knocks into the next line about the wind; the fish “turning all at once” turn in such a way that they knock like the mind of the speaker’s sudden understanding; and then the ending pushes things into a further understanding of silence and resilience.
This short lyric brought to mind this haiku by Bert Meyers:
I can only laugh when my daughter spreads her arms to catch the cold wind
Both poems, for me, reflect a bit of what this time of year feels like. May is like a hinge between spring and summer, and you can hear the seasons’ doors creaking on the leaves.
As I am on the road – in Corpus Christi, Texas promoting Everything We Think We Hear to be exact – I thought I would do a short, fun post of some seasonal short lyrics. Could be that the winters in Cincinnati are tough that I’ve got spring on my mind already.
I’d like to say a special thanks to everyone who made it out to my readings this week. Thank you for braving a rather stormy week in Corpus Christi. A very special thanks as well to Alan Berecka and Tom Murphy for the opportunity to read at Del Mar College and TAMUCC, respectively.
Below are poems by Kay Ryan, Issa, Izumi Shikibu, and Edward Thomas. The Shikibu tanka is an old favorite of mine. I ran into it almost ten years ago in an essay by its translator, poet Jane Hirshfield. In writing about doing the translations for her book The Ink Dark Moon, Hirshfield’s essay broke down how in five lines Shikibu is able to present an image of enlightment (“moonlight”) reaching through to even the most materially impoverished life (“ruined house”).
Spring – Kay Ryan
It would be good to shrug out of winter as cicadas do: look: a crisp freestanding you and you walking off, soft as new.
* * *
The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
* * *
Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.
The Cherry Trees – Edward Thomas ***
The cherry trees bend over and are shedding
On the old road where all that passed are dead,
Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding
This early May morn when there is none to wed.
*translated by Robert Hass
**translated by Jane Hirshfield & Mariko Aratani
The flowers fly – why so fast?
As I grow old, I wish that spring would linger.
What a pity that scenes of joy
Came not all in my youth and prime!
To set free the mind there must be wine,
To set forth one’s feelings nothing is better than poetry.
This thought you, T’ao Ch’ien, would understand,
But my life has come after your time.
I can tell the semester’s over because I have begun going on walks in the mornings again. Doing so has allowed me to make the following observation which I will pose as a question: Did you know it’s Spring?
The semester ended last week and one telltale sign of how busy I’ve been is how I’ve neglected to look up (or around for that matter) and really take in what’s been happening. I mean, I haven’t been completely oblivious: I have found hyacinths sneaking into my daily writing. Ani’s good about pointing things out. There’s also been an increase of birds in our neighborhood. Cardinals and robins kinda point themselves out 🙂
This week, I share two poems from The Penguin Book of Chinese Verse which I read last summer when we first landed here in Cincinnati. I like to start each season by reading the work of early Chinese and Japanese poets for their poetry’s ability to encompass not only the universe but nature, and not only nature meaning the outside world, but the nature of the heart.
While I may have neglected the official start of Spring, I like to think I’m up to date with the change of season in my daily life.
Bees – Lo Yin
Down in the plain, and up on the mountain-top,
All nature’s boundless glory is their prey.
But when they have sipped from a hundred flowers and made honey,
For whom is this toil, for whom this nectar?
This show changed my life. I was a cynic. It brought back the joy…
This week on the Influence: Philip Larkin!
FIRST, though, a confession: I watch The Voice. There I said it.
Sharing this information in a public forum is tough. Indeed, admitting what T.V. shows one indulges in can be as nerve-wracking and potentially embarrassing as…uhm, I don’t know – writing poetry.
Growing up in Texas, some of my homeboys back in the day didn’t take kindly to my versifying ways (I say it this way because it wouldn’t be polite of me to share exactly what they said of my ambitions to be a poet).
And yet I forged on – not out of any well-thought out conviction that I had been born with a direct line to the Muse – I forged on out of a sheer inability to do anything else but forge on.
It is this reflex, this connection that cannot be denied, that gets me to the page each day. This reflex has its roots down where everything I enjoy resonates – from what I eat to what I read – and, yes, what I watch on T.V.
What moves me about Adam Levine’s words above is that simple admission: that he was a cynic. One spends years entrenched in an art and risks slowly growing competitive and desensitized, unwilling to see beyond the niche one works out of. One must seek ways to push beyond such limits, experiences that bring back the joy of what you do, that bring you back to why you do it.
Nothing beats finding a new writer you enjoy – someone who raises the temperature in the room you’re in, that has you smiling despite yourself as you read each incredible, engrossing word.
Afterwards, you judge. You gauge how good it is against what you see as better. You go back to your page to catch up, to outdo. But for awhile there, you simply read.
Watching Adam Levine & co. listen to music and talk about it passionately has taught me a lot about humility and generosity.
Philip Larkin, too, has been a model for humility.
His poem “This Be the Verse” is infamous for its bitterness and warning against ever becoming a parent. He HATED this poem being what most people recalled when his name was brought up. While being popular, he felt it also made him seem less serious. People often miss when the bitterness gives way. He was a man of strong opinions – who knew what he liked – and it is that strength and nerve that guided the many illuminating and well-crafted poems he left us.
Here’s another poem about “mum and dad.” I love how it leaves you at that moment of not understanding something fully but feeling it.
Ultimately, what we like is what we feel.
Coming – Philip Larkin
On longer evenings,
Light, chill and yellow,
Bathes the serene
Foreheads of houses.
A thrush sings,
In the deep bare garden,
It’s fresh-peeled voice
Astonishing the brickwork.
It will be spring soon,
It will be spring soon –
And I, whose childhood
Is a forgotten boredom,
Feel like a child
Who comes on a scene
Of adult reconciling
And can understand nothing
But the unusual laughter,
And starts to be happy.