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.

- 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.

- Philip Dacey

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

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.

- 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.

My blog: alisonmcghee.com/blog

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Poem of the Week, by Antonio Machado

Thursday I had some minor heart surgery to fix a lifelong glitch. There was a moment of pure fear before they went to work –it’s my heart, you know?– and I asked them all please to take good care of me. Later I didn’t think I remembered anything, but then, the next day, I had a memory of my heart burning inside my chest. Because it had literally been burned, lasered in four places. And I thought of this poem, which is one of the five I would bring to a desert island if I hadn’t already memorized it. Golden bees making sweet honey out of past bitterness.

Last Night I Had a Dream
- Antonio Machado (translated by Alan Trueblood)

Last night I had a dream–
a blessed illusion it was–
I dreamt of a fountain flowing
deep down in my heart.
Water, by what hidden channels
have you come, tell me, to me,
welling up with new life
I never tasted before?

Last night I had a dream–
a blessed illusion it was–
I dreamt of a hive at work
deep down in my heart.
Within were the golden bees
straining out the bitter past
to make sweet-tasting honey,
and white honeycomb.

Last night I had a dream–
a blessed illusion it was–
I dreamt of a hot sun shining
deep down in my heart.
The heat was in the scorching
as from a fiery hearth;
the sun in the light it shed
and the tears it brought to the eyes.

Last night I had a dream–
a blessed illusion it was–
I dreamed it was God I’d found
deep down in my heart.


For more information on Antonio Machado, please click here.

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Poem of the Week, by lucille clifton

The ongoing focus of my fabulous church for the non-churchy is racial justice, and the service this morning was particularly fabulous. We started out dancing in the pews to Pharrell Williams, we listened to the words of two of my favorite Nina Simone songs, we read a little Thoreau and Frederick Douglass and we all left laughing and full of energy. Halfway through the last song, some of my favorite lines from lucille clifton came ghosting into my head, including the last lines of this particular poem, so here you go.

The Lost Baby Poem
- lucille clifton

the time i dropped your almost body down
down to meet the waters under the city
and run one with the sewage to the sea
what did i know about waters rushing back
what did i know about drowning
or being drowned

you would have been born into winter
in the year of the disconnected gas
and no car     we would have made the thin
walk over genesee hill into the canada wind
to watch you slip like ice into strangers’ hands
you would have fallen naked as snow into winter
if you were here i could tell you these
and some other things

if i am ever less than a mountain
for your definite brothers and sisters
let the rivers pour over my head
let the sea take me for a spiller
of seas    let black men call me a stranger
always     for your never named sake

- for more information on lucille clifton (she spelled her name lower case), please click here.

- ​My blog: alisonmcghee.com/blog

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Poem of the Week, by Janee H. Baugher

Every time I read this poem, the last line brings a lump to my throat. Not sure why. Maybe thinking about all the times in my life I’ve been afraid, but all those times there was something next to me, made by me, that was “never afraid”?

Light’s Effect on the Body
-  Janée J. Baugher

You’re not alone.
Your shadow’s your perfect fit.

It has no specificities
just imperial black — sum of all colors

all possibilities
to cast the pure, generalized you.

You are the body
that makes shadow possible.

Your body
is light’s filter on shadow.

When you run
from light, shadow’s the one sure thing before you.

Upon your death
shadow becomes a shadow of itself.

It began small
as you did. And through all that happened

your shadow was never afraid.

For more information on Janee H. Baugher, please click here.

My blog: alisonmcghee.com/blog

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Poem of the Week, by Tracy K. Smith

“Poems infatuated with their own smarts and detached from any emotional grounding can leave the reader feeling lonely, empty and ashamed for having expected more.” YES. That line is excerpted from a tiny but fierce essay that the poet Tracy K. Smith wrote this past summer. Don’t try to be smart, don’t try to hide. Just put your heart on the line.

Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?
- Tracy K. Smith


After dark, stars glisten like ice, and the distance they span
Hides something elemental. Not God, exactly. More like
Some thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being—a Starman
Or cosmic ace hovering, swaying, aching to make us see.
And what would we do, you and I, if we could know for sure

That someone was there squinting through the dust,
Saying nothing is lost, that everything lives on waiting only
To be wanted back badly enough? Would you go then,
Even for a few nights, into that other life where you
And that first she loved, blind to the future once, and happy?

Would I put on my coat and return to the kitchen where my
Mother and father sit waiting, dinner keeping warm on the stove?
Bowie will never die. Nothing will come for him in his sleep
Or charging through his veins. And he’ll never grow old,
Just like the woman you lost, who will always be dark-haired

And flush-faced, running toward an electronic screen
That clocks the minutes, the miles left to go. Just like the life
In which I’m forever a child looking out my window at the night sky
Thinking one day I’ll touch the world with bare hands
Even if it burns.

For more information on Tracy K. Smith, please click here: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/07/18/does-poetry-matter/wipe-that-smirk-off-your-poem

My blog: alisonmcghee.com/blog

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Poem of the Week, by William Butler Yeats

I went to a literary festival last week and took part in a flash fiction workshop, in which you had to write a story under 250 words. My story was titled “The Pilgrim Soul in Her,” and I was feeling pretty smuggish-proud of myself, having come up with that clever title, because it’s a line lifted from the below poem by Mr. Yeats and I thought that most in the room (writers all) would recognize it. But nope. Nary a one did. This raised a silent hue and cry inside me, along the lines of Bring Back Yeats, so here you go.


When You Are Old
- William Butler Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

​For more information on Yeats, please click here.

My blog: alisonmcghee.com/blog

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