Archive for April, 2009

Claudia Emerson’s poem “Drought,” from LATE WIFE

Dear Reader,

I continue to post my favorite poems in honor of National Poetry Month. Today’s poem is “Drought,” from Claudia Emerson’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize winning volume of poetry, Late Wife (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2005).

The clarity in this poem stuns me, its quick dive into my gut catches me off guard. Its meaning forbids translation, at least by me. And its nature imagery—“still air cleft by their repeating patterns”—clings to me, inspires me. (Maybe I’ll once again try to write a poem about what happens to me when I watch Swainson’s hawks perform in thermal spirals. I’ll share it with you when it’s finished.) I wonder if this poem will affect you. Its sounds parch my throat.

(I apologize for how the poem is formatted here. Emerson intends it to appear in 8 two-line stanzas, with a indent on every second line. The / indicates where the second line should begin.)

Drought

I began to understand/      its severity when glassy

crows came shameless, panting at last/     to the birdbath, and when the locusts

fell to the ground, another failed/     crop. The street lay empty all day,

and the river grew thinner, its spine/     showing through. Only butterflies

thrived—the still air cleft by their/     repeating patterns, the feathering

wings of swallowtails, monarchs;/     I learned from their bright emersion

to rely, for a while, only/     on the eye, the dry horizon.

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BAD MOTHER: Ayelet Waldman’s Latest Book

“One of the reasons we tell stories is to find meaning in events that seem devoid of it, to make sense of the senseless.” Ayelet Waldman

Dear Reader,

Author Ayelet Waldman wrote Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace to explore “the perils and joys of trying to be a decent mother in a world intent on making you feel like a bad one.” And there are lots of perils, as any mother knows. Society blames her when children are anything less than its definition of perfect, and she blames herself for whatever society misses. But Waldman’s book is not a droning sociological dissertation. Not at all. It’s light and weighty, humorous and intimate, thought provoking and entertaining.

Waldman starts off by listing the numerous fuzzy and unattainable definitions of a GOOD mother, she then goes on to describe the judgmental workings of the BAD Mother police, mothers compelled to correct other mothers’ poor parenting. Why do they do this? She says, “Perhaps it’s because there is so much at stake. Another parent’s different approach raises the possibility that you’ve made a mistake with your child. We simply can’t tolerate that, because we fear that any mistake, no matter how minor, could have devastating consequences”

Waldman gets serious as she examines how her mother’s feminist influence/agenda has affected her marriage and mothering choices. She notes there are women “who have ended up, contrary to their expectations, living lives disturbingly similar to those of their mothers.” And she confesses she’s a bad mother because she allowed her newborn to starve for weeks before she realized he wasn’t nursing correctly, and because she loves her husband more than her children.

She takes a look at gender roles in her marriage, and she takes on her relationship with her husband’s mother— a GOOD mother, of course. She then complains that mothers shouldn’t be asked to shepherd their too-young kids through complex, time-consuming homework tasks and that her kids shouldn’t have to go through the shame of being a dodgeball target like she did. But then she says, “sometimes what you have to protect them [your children] from is the ongoing avalanche of your own childhood.”

In some chapters Waldman is incredibly vulnerable. For instance when she relates her extensive sexual history: “At Wesleyan University there was no dishonor in being a slut… I slept with roommates and bandmates (although never at the same time), with frat boys and stoners, with exchange students and grad students.” Most touching is when she shares her agony about her decision to have an abortion in her second trimester. She says it is “the most serious of the many maternal crimes I tally in my head when I am at my lowest, when the Bad Mother label seems to fit best.”

Waldman lightheartedly describes her children’s reactions to her arguments with her husband and her guilt over the disparity between the documented minutia of her first child’s life with that of the occasional references to her fourth child’s life. She reveals her family’s legacy, bipolar disorder, and how difficult it was to accept that she too has the disorder. She states she will like her children just the way they are, even if they turn out to be gay and that when she said this in a column she created uproar.

In the later chapters, Waldman confesses her desire to have more children, even though she knows four is enough. She examines her tendency to be pessimistic, yet she’s hopeful her children will soon live in a more tolerant world. In the last chapter she concedes that children who don’t excel in school, who have physical or cognitive problems—one of her sons has ADHD—aren’t necessarily the product of bad mothering, that even good mothers can have less than academically perfect children.

***

Waldman speaks for many women who don’t buy into the latest mothering fad, which pins a “Good Mother” badge on those whose reason to live is to bolster their children’s success, and pins “Bad Mother” on those who insist they have a name other than so-and-so’s mom. This book is bound to rile some mothers, and I hope it does.

Note: This review is based on an advance review copy and not a final copy of the book.

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Lawrence Ferlinghetti says, “Johnny Nolan has a patch on his ass”

Dear Reader,

Johnny Nolan has a patch on his ass

Kids chase him                                                                                                                        thru screendoor summers

Thru the back streets                                                                                                                      of all my memories

Somewhere a man laments                                                                                                                        upon  violin

A doorstep baby cries                                                                                                                and  cries again

like                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      a                                                                                                                      ball                                                                                                                                                       bounced                                                                                                                                   down steps

Which helps the afternoon arise again                                                                               to a moment of remembered hysteria

Johnny Nolan has a patch on his ass

Kids chase him

(Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “22”. A Coney Island of the Mind. NY: New Directions, 1978.)

I love the rhythm and story of this poem. I love how it’s derived from only a few words. It made me a Ferlinghetti fan.

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THE OTHER SIDE OF PARADISE is a Well-Written Memoir by Staceyann Chin

Dear Reader,

The first sentence of the prologue in The Other Side of Paradise, “The front of the car was not designed for having sex,” will snag you, and you won’t be able to shake free of it until you read the book’s last word, “paradise.” You’ll experience amusement, fear, suspense, horror, revulsion, relief, and satisfaction.

Starting with Staceyann Chin’s birth in Lottery, Jamaica, and continuing through her early college years, this memoir reads as smoothly as a novel, its dialogue and characters moving the story forward. Its chapter headings, based on Bible verses or Bible stories, cleverly echo Christianity’s grip on every aspect of Chin’s upbringing.

Written in a Jamaican dialect, the dialogue flip-flops sentence structure and mixes in strange words. This can be difficult to follow at first. But with a little patience, you will find this dialect endearing, and possibly what you’ll carry with you after you close the book.

Women will enjoy this book.  So will men who love memoirs.

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Rachel Contreni Flynn’s Poem “The Physics Of The Inevitable”

Dear Reader,

It’s National Poetry Month, and I’ve been celebrating. I’ve enjoyed poetry open mics, (I hosted Third Thursday Open Mic); drank Irish red ale at Liquid Poetry, sponsored by Wyncoop Brewery and led by Denver Poet Laureate Chris Ransick; attended Cowboy Poetry night at Broomfield Auditorium; participated in a journal writing workshop presented by Carolyn Jennings and Karen Douglass, and I have led an impromptu writing session to create Etheree poems.

I’ll use what’s left of this month to share some of my favorite poems with you. I’ll start with “The Physics Of The Inevitable,” from Rachel Contreni Flynn’s poetry collection entitled Ice, Mouth, Song (Dorset,VT: Tupelo Press, 2005). Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Dunn selected this book for the 2003 Tupelo Press Dorset Prize.

The Physics Of The Inevitable

My hometown mourns the farm boy/who kicked a cob stuck/in the combine’s flywheel,/and I imagine his foot swinging just as he was thinking/I know better than this,/but it was too great, the weight/of his crusted boot,/not to follow through./And I think

of the Viking ship pitching/in its greasy groove all summer/at Lake Schaefer, and how the carny said/It don’t hardly take any juice at all to run this ride—/once set to rock, it just about/went on its own.

And I’ve made love like this,/the whole time thinking/how I wasn’t/the whole time my mind watching my body/as a thing in motion but not a mystery,/more like math—more like the arc of a burlap sack/tossed from Moots Creek Bridge,/then the heavy spiral/of rocks and cats.

Whenever I read this poem I remember I’ve forgotten the boy in my hometown, the Manthe family’s only son, who kicked the corncob stuck in the columbine. The flywheel grabbed his jeans, pulled him in, and ripped off his leg. My brother, a volunteer EMT, couldn’t save him. My stomach remembers too; it feels as heavy as a sack of drowning cats.

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Earth Day Poetry: “Everything Turns” by Faye Quam

Dear Reader,

April 22nd is Earth Day, so I thought I’d honor the day by posting “Everything Turns,” my poem that arose from a tactile fantasy about the earth surrounding Rutland, North Dakota, earth my great grandmother used to farm. It’s sensuously fertile, this earth, and I want to plunge my hands into it until I’m up to my armpits in its cool, luscious blackness.

I can’t break Colorado earth with a spade, much less my hands. It’s stubborn, clay hardness, survival in little rainfall; it’s beautiful in a way. But this poem isn’t about North Dakota or Colorado earth; it’s about indulging my fantasy.

Everything Turns

Green crumbles to fall dry

I bend to brush it from

my shoes, but something seizes

my fingertips, insists I burrow

nose and nail through damp

clay, sand, foundation rock

Wrists, armpits, and navel wriggle

Thighs, shins, tips of toes slither

deep then dead-drop to where

dark mixes with day, ice spins

to heat, to where hair dissolves

into water, into before and after

Everything turns a slow turn until

spring’s sun resurrects me with

clumped dirt filling my mouth, with

root arms embracing my waist, with

a pussywillow plume brushing

my chin as it flies north.

This poem appears in Scarf Dancer: Poems & Other Writing.signature11


Journaling: Saying Goodbye To Another Writing Journal

Dear Reader,

The end is near. Today I’ll fill up the last few lines in my journal.Then I’ll look through it to assure myself I have actually thought and done a few things since I started it December 12, ’08. I’ll leaf through it and remember I saw The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (I tape ticket stubs newspaper articles, flyers, and other scrapbook type items in my journal), The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire, The Grocer’s Son. I’ll reread the prayer card from my father-in-law’s funeral, the cardinal illustration  will remind me of his favorite bird song. I’ll read a sympathy card and notes from my daughter’s eulogy for him, “Grandpa Sam.” I’ll feel satisfaction that ’ve crossed off hundreds of items in my to-do lists and frustration that some things never got done.  I’ll also see I’ve scribbled and highlighted and turned my thoughts around and around until I didn’t recognize them anymore, that I talked to myself, scolded, and sometimes praised myself. This pleases me.

The end is near. It’ll be bittersweet. I’ll deliberate before I select my next journal. I always do. I’ll wonder if I should go for the journal I received as a gift from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, the one gorgeously filled with handmade paper, or for the thrift store find with a goofy cover intended for a teenage girl. Or will I choose one of the promotional notebooks I picked up at a publishing trade show? And I know once I pick “the one” I’ll feel guilty for abandoning my latest journal. I imagine my old journal will pout, ask what that new journal has that it doesn’t.  I’ll say, “What you once had that the journal before you didn’t: blank pages and potential.” “But, but, that’s not my fault,” it’ll say; and I’ll have to close my heart to its sputtering, just as I’ll close my closet door to it and the rest of my discarded journals.

My parting words might be “You’ve been an important part of my life, dear journal. Go sweetly into my past.”

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