Poem of the Week, by Naomi Shihab Nye

Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness” seared itself into my brain the first time I read it. She’s another of those poets to me, one whose name I google to see if she’s got another poem out there, one that I haven’t ever read before, let alone memorized. This particular poem makes me feel as if she’s with me throughout the day, happy in the same way, that feeling of secret love when the boiling water begins its steeping of the grounds, or the sheets and blankets are shaken out over the bed, or the sun slanting through the window makes soap bubble rainbows in the sink.

 

Daily
- Naomi Shihab Nye

These shriveled seeds we plant,
corn kernel, dried bean,
poke into loosened soil,
cover over with measured fingertips
These T-shirts we fold into
perfect white squares
These tortillas we slice and fry to crisp strips
This rich egg scrambled in a gray clay bowl
This bed whose covers I straighten
smoothing edges till blue quilt fits brown blanket
and nothing hangs out
This envelope I address
so the name balances like a cloud
in the center of sky
This page I type and retype
This table I dust till the scarred wood shines
This bundle of clothes I wash and hang and wash again
like flags we share, a country so close
no one needs to name it
The days are nouns: touch them
The hands are churches that worship the world.

​For more information on Naomi Shihab Nye, please click here.

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Four Sentences from the Road

On Day One she pointed the car south and drove through the frozen tundra of Minnesota, the barren cornfields of Iowa and the vaguely southernish-feeling byways of Missouri until she reached a place where the highway rest stop could be broached without the aid of mittens, hat or parka, and that land was called Kansas, and there, ignoring the fact that the entire motel smelled vaguely of poop, she slugged back some Jim Beam and rested.

On Day Two she angled the car southwest, fought the gale-force winds of western Kansas, crossed into the enormous flatness of the northern Oklahoma panhandle, shut the windows against the dense smell of manure and piss as she passed through massive holding pens of cattle in northern Texas, crossed into the Land of Enchantment to behold the vast magnificence of that rangeland and its fiery setting sun, and cruised through invisible mountains until the lights of Albuquerque twinkled in the distance.

On Day Three she pointed the car west-northwest, set the cruise to 78 and sang along with Greatest Hits of the 70′s all the way across New Mexico –a state that she fell in love with due to its unearthly beauty and the smiles and kindness of every single person she met eyes with or spoke to at gas stations, Cracker Barrel, rest stops and traffic lights– then crossed over into Arizona and made her way to Sedona, where she hiked Bell Rock and tried to feel the mysterious vortex energy but instead felt only an unmysterious happiness, after which she drove into the sunset to Prescott, where she took herself out for an old-school martini and made friends with the waitress, a woman born and raised in NH who two years ago took six weeks’ vacation to ride her motorcycle to Arizona and never went back.

On the Last Day she passed through a hundred miles of Arizona desolation, outposts with crumbling stores surrounded with razor wire, observed that the cars crawling their way up and down a steep and narrow road looked like bugs clinging to the side of the mountain, realized that her car was one of those bugs, crossed into the California desert at a gateway where every vehicle was photographed and where traffic began inexorably to multiply, until the wind turbines stood sentry by the hundreds on ridgetops and the sense of speed and density was so omnipresent and oppressive that she kept both hands gripped on the wheel and tucked the tiny car between two giant trucks, the better to hide for a while, until at long last she reached a small and beautiful town perched on the far western edge of the country where the mountains meet the sea, and that town was her destination, so she parked, unpacked, and drank some wine.

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Poem of the Week, by Ellen Bass

Some poets are so precious to me that sometimes, late at night usually, I start googling their names. Maybe they’ve got a new poem out there, one I haven’t yet seen, one that will instantly burn itself into my heart the way this one below did. It came to me by random chance –the Sun Magazine, probably– and I finished reading it and went on an immediate Ellen Bass hunt. The first question in this one is one I’ve asked myself at least once a day ever since I read it.

 

If You Knew
- Ellen Bass
What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line’s crease.

When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die.

A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
They’d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked a half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.

How close does the dragon’s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?

​For more information on Ellen Bass, please click here.

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Poem of the Week, by Lianne Spidel

When I was little I read a novel called “A Lantern in Her Hand,” by Bess Streeter Aldrich. It was about a pioneer woman, surprise surprise (you wouldn’t think that there could be all that many pioneer woman books, but take it from me, there are) who homesteaded on the plains. The husband in that book has stayed with me lo these many years. His name was Will and he was so kind (and goodlooking). This book was one of my favorites ever, and my mother cried when I described the ending of it to her, in which the long-dead Will came walking back across a field. This lovely poem brought that whole book right back to me: the small worn paperback copy I had, the picture on the front cover, the scent of cut grass (I must have read it in summer), the love that man had for his wife.

Snowfall at Solstice
- Lianne Spidel

I wonder if this might be the night
when you decide to go, with snow
stippling the screen of your small window
and you snug in your chair, wound
in an afghan, full of shepherd’s
pie and the sugar cookie dunked for you

in tea. You are at peace. Listening, you
feel the soundless weight of this night,
starless, without sentinel or shepherd,
as heaven comes down to earth in snow
to level each crevice, seal each wound,
fill the cup of space outside your window.

The courtyard framed in the window
is all that remains of the world you
knew, a place where whiteness has wound
the tree with garlands heavy as night,
where there is no respite from snow,
no landmark to be seen by shepherds.

In young years, friends—winter shepherds
and maids—summoned you from any window
when the sky threw itself blue over snow,
over the ice of the Rideau. With them, you
learned ski trails curving into night
up the Gatineau, and every path wound

its way through some adventure, wound
magically toward one who would shepherd
you through cities on starless nights,
whose homecoming you awaited at windows,
who carried your furred boots for you
through seventy winters of snow.

He will find his way in winging snow,
white-haired, a woolen scarf wound
at his neck, coming from darkness to you
stooped but sure-footed as a shepherd,
an overcoated angel reflected in the window,
stamping from his shoes the snow, the night.

When you choose, take the shepherd’s arm, leave
the narrow window, walk safe with him by night
out where all stars are wound in snow.

 

For more information on Lianne Spidel, please click here.

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Poem of the Week, by Jacqueline Osherow

​When I first saw this poem I almost didn’t read it due to its extreme length. (One of my friends has a “will not pay to watch” actors list; my semi-equivalent is the “super-long or too-freaky-looking-or-full-of-itself-in-my-instant-opinion poems list.) But the first stanza sucked me in with its reference to memory, and walls alive with light, and then I kept going all through the effortless length. It felt familiar to me in so many ways – the nature of memory, the unconquerability of childhood impressions, “all that captured, concentrated light.”

Penn Station: Fifty Years Gone
- Jacqueline Osherow

There must have been a train, a subway ride,
but what I remember is the palace
in between: its high glass walls alive with light

and so enticing I thought closed-in space
more open, even, than open air,
light the only presence in the concourse,

though I must have seen throngs of women there.
Wednesday was Ladies’ Day on the Pennsyl-
vania Railroad; women paid half fare

(a practice eventually declared illegal).
I was three or four and rode for free,
my unlucky sister stuck in school.

We did this often, my mother tells me—
Philly to Brooklyn in time for lunch—
and then the island on Eastern Parkway

where she sat with her mother on a bench
while I hopped from hexagon to hexagon,
examining the sidewalk, inch by inch,

for the secret of this new, compelling pattern
(molecule to petaled flower to star),
the quintessential feature of Brooklyn,

tightly fitted shapes nuzzling together
from Parkway pavement to bathroom floor.
Or did my notice of such things come after?

When we’d get there, as a family, by car,
the halfway mark in the Holland Tunnel
(whoever saw it first—always my sister—

awarded a nickel) arrival’s sentinel,
next Liberty from the Manhattan Bridge.
But even she—torch and all—could not annul

that more and more impossible assemblage
of wrought iron, granite, glass, and light
that gave me something of a sense of pilgrimage

a decade later in a window seat
on Amtrak, heading to a camp reunion.
My friends and I had arranged to meet

at the clock? information booth? in Penn Station,
then ride together to Valley Stream …
I’d be face-to-face with stored-up vision

(how much was memory? how much was dream?)
what for years conspired in me to nurture
the sort of intimate, fanatic claim

we make as children on what we adore
and though I didn’t know the terminology
my platonic ideal of architecture,

unaltered, really, to this very day:
openness corralled and sealed with light.
But on that day in autumn 1970,

I got off the train to find concrete
and crowds and trash and ugliness and smell.
I assumed that in the interim they’d built

a slapdash addition to my beautiful
(perhaps too good to use?) remembered space,
found my friends and convinced them all

to join—did we miss a train?—my wild-goose chase
until finally we asked a policeman,
who told us this was all there was

when we asked for the “main part” of Penn Station.
Perhaps I was thinking of Grand Central?
an easy subway ride, just go down

that stairway, ride one stop then take the shuttle …
But it was late; we had to reach Long Island
before the Sabbath (we were under the spell

of Jewish summer camp) so I abandoned
one dream for another. Adolescents
are flexible that way. And our weekend—

hectic and euphoric and intense—
turned my confusion at Penn Station
into a funny story, its disappointments

postponed for our reunion’s brief duration.
But on my train ride home, an acrid taste
pervaded everything: my initiation

into the recalcitrant mistrust
with which a bossy, noncompliant present
infiltrates and redesigns the past.

Still, I was, after all, an adolescent;
I had a world to change, a war to end,
and though I knew my vision wasn’t

of any other station, I abandoned
my newly defenseless memory—
though I would have liked to understand

where it had come from; perhaps TV?
But my childhood TV was black and white
and I could see pink stone against a shimmery

golden-yellow amplitude of light
extending in every known direction …
Only years later, as an undergraduate,

when the fate of Grand Central Station—
thanks to Jackie O’s gift for publicity—
became a topic of dinner conversation,

did I finally unravel my old mystery.
Jackie’s war cry was the demolition
of Penn Station in nineteen sixty-three!

I grabbed someone’s paper, in which Penn Station
was described as “great,” noble,” a “masterpiece,”
half-thrilled by this belated confirmation,

half-shamed at having betrayed my memories.
That light-struck little girl had not been wrong,
she and I the unsuspecting repositories

of the world’s lost treasure—all along
(there’s no overstating the world’s recklessness
with what’s irreplaceable) in our safekeeping—

and—or so it seemed—nowhere else.
Still, it was, at best, a Pyrrhic victory,
since there’d be no returning to my palace,

though I did have sightings: an illusory
thirty-five-millimeter meteor
flashing by me in The Palm Beach Story

(in those days, we saw movies in the theatre),
The Seven Year Itch, Strangers on a Train.
And then, a real find, outside a bookstore

in the used-books rack? remainders’ bin?
among the pages of photos in a cast-
off coffee-table book of old Manhattan:

wrought iron, stone and glass, possessed
by something more like sorcery than sun,
an image I suspect has long replaced

or perhaps just merged with? my childhood vision,
Berenice Abbott: Penn Station Interior.
Take a look, reader, it’s online.

(Perhaps I should have told you this before?)
You can even buy a print: an aura magical
enough to turn a person, even at four—

especially at four?—elegiacal
for at least another half century—
which explains the, for me, irresistible

allure of train stations—call it my history—
the more gargantuan and whimsical,
over the top, absurd, unnecessary

the more I love them: Antwerpen-Centraal
(Sebald’s Austerlitz), Milan, St. Pancras …
Forgive me, but, for all its grace, Grand Central

doesn’t have the lushness to redress
what turns out to be my great childhood loss.
The place—after all—is steeped in darkness:

too much travertine, too little glass.
And yet, reader, I still thrill to go there,
famished as I am for any trace

of the notion that arrival or departure—
anyone’s at all—is apt occasion
for unstinting outpourings of grandeur.

And there it is, reader—it’s not Penn Station:
Interior by Berenice Abbott I see
but an entire universe’s concentration

on the daunting task of welcoming me—
Jackie!—after my first ride on a train,
which—oh how memory breeds memory—

must have had a caboose, a little red one—
like the one in the story in the Golden Book
my mother surely read me on that train

(she made it an adventure to be stuck
at a railway crossing: the caboose! look!).
For a minute, I imagine she walked me back

to see the caboose on our train in New York—
but only freight trains had cabooses; wrong again.
Oh reader, forgive me, the nostalgic

wasn’t my intended destination
but what can I do? I’ve been derailed.
I wanted to tell you about Penn Station—

so magical a place even a child
would claim it as her private, secret palace—
how I once inhabited a world

so benevolent, its public space
seemed to cherish every human being.
I honestly haven’t thought of that caboose

for nearly fifty years (it wasn’t among
the Golden Books I read to my own children;
perhaps they didn’t reprint it?). I wasn’t expecting

to be blindsided by my mother all of a sudden,
but she had a way of singling out
anything she thought might give her children

even a brief instant of delight,
must have reveled in my private store of marvels,
though I was sure I kept them secret.

She’d present the simplest things as miracles
(not that she could have known they’d turn elusive).
Have I managed to do that for my girls?

What will they half recall, half try to prove
in fifty years? With what tenacious
if hazy spectacle they’ve caught a glimpse of

(one I likely see as commonplace)
will I—or, rather, my memory—be entwined?
Just let it be wide-open and gratuitous,

evocative of something like the kind
of—what shall I call it?—solicitude?
that made me think the world had been designed

with only me in mind, my childhood
a string of wonders. With each fresh thing—
a stray leaf clinging to a piece of fruit,

a twin yolk in an egg, a cardinal idling
in our neighbor’s birdbath: my mother’s voice,
so urgent and excited we’d come running.

Back from the laundry, a pillow case
with a tiny Chinese character inside its hem
was bounty from an over-brimming universe

with a prize (Cracker Jack writ large) in every item.
No doubt it was she who pointed out
the way Penn Station’s granite walls would gleam

in all that captured, concentrated light,
the roof of windows letting in the sky’s
wide-open pathways, the infinite

just one among a host of possibilities
in a world so enthralling, so magnanimous
all you had to do was open your eyes

and you’d be swept up in a fast embrace
of deft if momentary harmonies,
an eleventh-hour glimpse of iron, stone, and glass,
an ultimatum from paradise.


For more information on Jacqueline Osherow, please click here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/jacqueline-osherow

For those of you interested in poetic form, this poem is written in terza rima, a series of three-line stanzas with a (very loose, in this example) aba, bcb rhyme scheme.

My blog: alisonmcghee.com/blog

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Poem of the Week, by Suzanne Cleary

Yesterday I wrapped gifts and hit Play over and over on a youtube recording of my niece’s choral group singing a capella. I clapped for a six year old friend who had been instructed by his piano teacher to play Jingle Bells (for someone besides his parents) in preparation for his recital today. I read this poem and dug out my old tape –yes, tape– of the Messiah so I could listen to it, but I had nothing to listen to it on, so I youtubed it instead. Then I read this poem and was, for no reason that makes sense, transported back to 8th grade All-County choir, where I stood on the back riser (always the tall girl) of an unfamiliar bleacher in an unfamiliar school, practicing Amazing Grace over and over with no one I knew, the smell of May sun and spring wind and cotton and empty-school-on-a-weekend rising all around us.

Glory
- Suzanne Cleary

My husband and his first wife once sang Handel’s Messiah
at Carnegie Hall, with 300 others who also had read
the ad for the sing-along, and this is why I know
the word glory is not sung by the chorus,
although that is what we hear.
In fact, the choir sings glaw-dee, glaw-dee
while it seems that glory unfurls there, like glory itself.
My husband sings for me. My husband tells me they practiced
for an hour, led by a short man with glasses,
a man who made them sing glory, twice, so they could hear it
fold back upon itself, swallow itself
in so many mouths, in the grand hall.
Then he taught them glaw-dee, a distortion that creates the right effect,
like Michelangelo distorting the arms of both God and Adam
so their fingertips can touch.
My husband and his first wife and 300 others performed
at 5 o’clock, the Saturday before Christmas,
for a small audience of their own heavy coats,
for a few ushers arrived early, leaning on lobby doors.
But mostly they sang for themselves,
for it is a joy to feel song made of the body’s hollows.
I do not know if their marriage, this day, was still good
or whether it seemed again good
as they sang. I prefer to think of the choral conductor,
who sang with them. He sang all the parts, for love
not glory, or what seemed to be
glory to those who wandered in
and stood at the back of the hall, and listened.

 

- For more information on Suzanne Cleary, please click here.

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Poem of the Week, by Philip Dacey

Once, when my older daughter was about 12, she played a newspaper reporter in a school play. I arrived at the school for the performance to see her emerge from the dressing room wearing a skirt and heels, clutching her clipboard prop. Her hair was pulled back in a bun and her face was made up with lipstick and eyeshadow. It felt as if time had unfolded itself and this was my one possible glimpse into a 20 years’ distant future, a life in which she was all grown up. It made me want to cry, the same way this poem does.

Lifeboats
- Philip Dacey

“Life is a shipwreck but we must not
forget to sing in the lifeboats.”
— VOLTAIRE

I’m visiting my son’s 8 a.m. philosophy class,
one he’s teaching, not taking, a graduate student,
tall and serious though not unsmiling
before a sea of backwards baseball caps
and Siren-like hairdos on heads inclined
to dream of last night’s deeds or misdeeds.

His topic’s Utilitarianism, and I
have tucked myself into a desk at the back
of the room, unsuccessful at inconspicuousness,
target of stares as one by one
the acolytes of wisdom scuffed past me to their seats
already occupied by morning light

Now Austin’s talking ethical choices,
as prisoner either kill one fellow prisoner
and save the rest or refuse to kill any,
though all will then, by design of the captors, die.
Bentham says kill the one, the end is good;
Kant none, our acts are us, and nothing else.

Soon I am weeping, not, I think, for any prisoners
who might die, or for one faced
with an impossible, a killing choice
guaranteed to leave the chooser’s
peace of mind dead either way
and choice suddenly no choice at all,

but for something I can only guess at, the loss

of the child my son once was,
or the beauty of the man he has become,
heroic in this time and place, facing
the most benign of enemies, youth
not fully awakened to the world.

The drops pool on my notes, blurring the words
“maximize utility.” The students don’t notice
I am losing it, engaged as they are
in friendly argument now with my son
about members of a lifeboat,
who’s to stay, who’s to feed the fish.

The whole room begins to rock under me,
who have traveled hundreds of miles
to visit him in his world, to glimpse,
first-hand, his life, the boat he is in.
By this weeping surely I have thrown myself
overboard, and I begin to swim.

Later, he’ll write to me that the students,
and he, will miss the old visitor
in the back of the room, and I will want to
tell him then that, not to worry, once there,
the old man’s always there,
his tears the lecture’s constant subtext,

his presence something useful perhaps,
a chance for those left behind to choose, or not,
to see him, that prison doors open wide
into other prisons and all lifeboats leak,
though waking up, eyes pried apart by the light
of language, is one act that sends everyone

to the head of the class.

 

For more information about Philip Dacey, please click here.

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Poem of the Week, by Mark J. Mitchell

The image of Sisyphus has been in the back of my mind forever, head and shoulders down, legs and back straining, grimly pushing that damn boulder up and up and up an endless hill. I make jokes about him, reference him to friends when one is trudging through an awful stretch, turn to the thought of him for a weird kind of solace when things feel unbearable. But I never thought of him this way before: A human being, drawn to something beautiful, something unexplainable, something that surely must be worth all the effort it’s going to take.

Mechanics of a Myth
- Mark. J. Mitchell

Sisyphus, aching under moonlight,
Looks down the mountain.
Something confuses him.
Fresh reflections are bouncing
Off a boulder or something
Way down in that valley.
It’s blue and beautiful.
He thinks, weary as he is,
“I ought to go get that.”


For more information on Mark J. Mitchell, please click here.

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Poem of the Week, by Mark Strand

I just returned from the Red Balloon Bookshop, where I sat at a table for a couple of hours signing books and talking to any of the customers who felt like talking. One of them was an older woman wearing a big poofy winter jacket. She was in town for a few days from Kentucky, where she lives, and buying up bunches of picture books to give to her grandchildren. She admired my pigtails; I admired her smile. “Well, I certainly am happy,” she said (and she was, she gave off a kind of lightness of being), and I told her that the older I got the happier I got. “Just wait till you’re 70!” she said. “You’re not going to BELIEVE how happy you’ll be!”
* * *
The Coming of Light
     - Mark Strand

Even this late it happens:
the coming of love, the coming of light.
You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,
sending up warm bouquets of air.
Even this late the bones of the body shine
and tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.



​For  more information on Mark Strand, please click here.


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Poem of the Week, by Suzanne Cleary

We’re born with backups, twinned in so many ways: two hands, two ears, two eyes, two kidneys. Lose one and the other steps right up and does the job of both. But not with the heart. We each have only one of them.

Echocardiogram
- Suzanne Cleary

How does, how does, how does it work
so, little valve stretching messily open, as wide as possible,
all directions at once, sucking air, sucking blood, sucking air-in-blood,
how? On the screen I see the part of me that always loves my life, never tires
of what it takes, this in-and-out, this open-and-shut in the dark chest of me,
tireless, without muscle or bone, all flex and flux and blind
will, little mouth widening, opening and opening and, then, snapping
shut, shuddering anemone entirely of darkness, sea creature
of the spangled and sparkling sea, down, down where light cannot reach.
When the technician stoops, flips a switch, the most unpopular kid in the class
stands off-stage with a metal sheet, shaking it while Lear raves.
So this is the house where love lives, a tin shed in a windstorm,
tin shed at the sea’s edge, the land’s edge,
waters wild and steady, wild and steady, wild.

​For more information on Suzanne Cleary, please click here.


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