Thursday, July 31, 2008

Henry Clay's Mouth

Here’s a poem that is just good for no real reason. It makes me happy when I can get all the way through it without having to reread a couple lines… you’ll see why.

Thomas Lux

Senator, statesman, speaker of the House,
exceptional dancer, slim,
graceful, ugly. Proclaimed, before most, slavery
an evil, broker
of elections (burned Jackson
for Adams), took a pistol ball in the thigh
in a duel, delayed, by forty years,
with his compromises, the Civil War,
gambler ("I have always
paid peculiar homage to the fickle goddess"),
boozehound, ladies' man -- which leads us
to his mouth, which was huge,
a long slash across his face,
with which he ate and prodigiously drank,
with which he modulated his melodic voice,
with which he liked to kiss and kiss and kiss.
He said: "Kissing is like the presidency,
it is not to be sought and not to be declined."
A rival, one who wanted to kiss
whom he was kissing, said: "The ample
dimensions of his kissing apparatus
enabled him to rest one side of it
while the other was on active duty."
It was written, if women had the vote,
he would have been President,
kissing everyone in sight,
dancing on tables ("a grand Terpsichorean
performance ..."), kissing everyone,
sometimes two at once, kissing everyone,
the almost-President
of our people.

There are so many brief clauses here that make sense when spoken or heard aloud, but it’s very difficult to read this cold. The second sentence alone is made up of TWENTY clauses! That’s insane! But somehow, Lux makes it work. Lux always makes it work.

Besides the clauses, this poem contains that trademarked Lux humor (out of nothing). “The ample/ dimensions of his kissing apparatus/ enabled him to rest one side of it/ while the other was on active duty.” Ha! “If women had the vote,/ he would have been President….” Seriously, when I finally untangled this poem and made sense of it, I laughed out loud.

I can say beyond any shadow of doubt that I never in my life expected to either read or laugh at a poem about Henry Clay. Lux is the man!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Baseball and Classicism

I don’t really remember where I first came across this poem, but as the summer drones on and I find myself wasting away in front of the tv watching baseball games, baseball highlights, and baseball news, I often return to this one simple question: why? Why do I care so much who starts in left field for the Blue Jays against lefties (Kevin Mench) or how many runs are scored on average in day games at Seattle (8.3/game)?

And when I get carried away and find myself absorbed in the minutia of score cards and box scores, I think of this poem:

by Tom Clark

Every day I peruse the box scores for hours
Sometimes I wonder why I do it
Since I am not going to take a test on it
And no one is going to give me money

The pleasure’s something like that of codes
Of deciphering an ancient alphabet say
So as brightly to picturize Eurydice
In the Elysian Fields on her perfect day

The day she went 5 for 5 against Vic Raschi

It’s easy for me to imagine just what Clark was thinking when he wrote this, and I think that even a non-baseball fan can relate to this too. It’s really just a portrait of (healthy, non-threatening) obsession. In terms of things non-physical/sexual, why do we love what we love? What makes us care about the things we care about, even if we’re “not going to take a test on it/ and no one is going to give [us] money”???

What I don’t easily see is why Clark chose to use Eurydice as his main allusion. She was, according to Greek mythology, the loving and loved wife of Orpheus, the poet and musician. In the Oedipus trilogy, she was the wife of Creon, the selfish king of Thebes and uncle/brother-in-law to Oedipus. I can cay beyond any shadow of doubt that I have no idea what either of those references has to do with baseball.

In can tell you, though, that Vic Raschi was pretty good pitcher for the Yankees, Cardinals, and A’s in the 40’s and 50’s. He’s well-known among baseball fact-junkies as the guy who gave up the first of Hank Aaron’s 755 home runs.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Jersey Rain

Robert Pinsky was one of the first “contemporary” poets heard read. I remember it very clearly; I was a senior in high school on a trip to the Dodge Poetry Festival, and he was reading in the big tent just before the bus was scheduled to go. We waited to hear him and then hit the road for the long drive back home. I was always glad we waited, and I’m sure that that was a defining moment in my love of poetry. Pinsky was spell-binding. He was serious and silly at the same time, and he read with such passion and grace that I was sure the guy was the greatest writer who ever lived.

Yet despite that experience, I have never been a big fan of Pinsky’s writing. I wanted to love him. I really did. I read through one of his books while in college and was bored to tears. Every now and again, I look up a poem or two of his and go through it, hoping to capture some of the magic of that day 12 years ago, but it’s never been the same. I’ve actually seen him read since then, and again was fascinated by him. So I have been left to think that he’s the type of person who is just better in person and doesn’t translate well into reading.

And then I read this:

Robert Pinsky

Now near the end of the middle stretch of road
What have I learned? Some earthly wiles. An art.
That often I cannot tell good fortune from bad,
That once had seemed so easy to tell apart.

The source of art and woe aslant in the wind
Dissolves or nourishes everything it touches.
What roadbank gullies and ruts it doesn't mend
It carves the deeper, boiling tawny in ditches.

It spends itself regardless into the ocean.
It stains and scours and makes things dark or bright:
Sweat of the moon, a shroud of benediction,
The chilly liquefaction of day to night,

The Jersey rain, my rain, soaks all as one:
It smites Metuchen, Rahway, Saddle River,
Fair Haven, Newark, Little Silver, Bayonne.
I feel it churning even in fair weather

To craze distinction, dry the same as wet.
In ripples of heat the August drought still feeds
Vapors in the sky that swell to drench my state -
The Jersey rain, my rain, in streams and beads

Of indissoluble grudge and aspiration:
Original milk, replenisher of grief,
Descending destroyer, arrowed source of passion,
Silver and black, executioner, source of life.

Man, was I missing something! This poem actually took my breath away. I read it late last night and have had it on my mind since. (I recently discovered the joy of the Amazon Marketplace, where you can buy “used” books for next to nothing, and I’ve purchased a dozen poetry books in the last month. Jersey Rain by Robert Pinsky was one of them.)

Pinsky creates a vivid image of a dull reality. I knew that he was a NJ native, but so few people not named Bruce Springsteen have been able to capture that sense of tough vulnerability that so defines this state. “The chilly liquefaction of day to night,/ The Jersey rain, my rain, soaks all as one:/ It smites Metuchen, Rahway, Saddle River….” Ahh…. just perfect lines. And he manages to do it all while maintaining a very effective and subtle rhyme, which helps create a rhythm of rain throughout.

Now, after reading this poem, I am looking back over the rest of the poem in this book and realizing that, one-by-one, I have been wrong. I’ve gone through the first six or seven poems in the book and loving each of them.

Mr. Pinsky, I apologize. I have been wrong about you for years and I regret wasting this time. What can I say? I wasn’t ready, I guess.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Traveling Through the Dark

Here’s a nice and thoughtful one for today. Don’t know why I wanted to post it but I woke up this morning with it on my mind after reading it last night, so I guess it had the desired effect of the author.

by William Stafford

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason--
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all--my only swerving--,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

When I first read this, I was absolutely appalled that the speaker didn’t try to save the unborn fawn. What kind of monster would kill a helpless, tiny baby deer? But, as usually happens, practicality swept over me and I realized that the did the right thing, as the deer would have most likely been killed on the road just like it’s mother. But just the fact that I’m still thinking about this poem after a full and long night’s sleep tells that it’s quite powerful.

On a possibly unrelated sidebar, I’ve never read a William Stafford poem before but I do have a history with him (maybe). I spent five great years at Monmouth University (four for me, and one for my wife), and one of the buildings there was named after him (or someone else with his name). It occurs to me now that I’m quite lazy for having gone to that school for so long and never actually finding out exactly who the person whose name is on the building was. That’s somewhat shameful, especially finding out that it was a poet’s name, and I pride myself on the fact that I know poetry. I guess I’m lazier and less informed than I thought.

I’ll probably sleep fine tonight.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

*Wilbur's Son

So this poem was inspired by a get-together with a couple friends, including Wilbur, a fellow poetry lover and teacher. Suffice to say, I was struck by something that he said and it stayed with me enough to want to write about it.

I did something I've never done with this poem, and that is I took a different perspective. Most of my writing is from my own perspective using my own voice and my own opinions; with this one, I felt it necessary and more affective to write from my father's perspective. I hope it's clear why I did that and I hope it helps the poem be more real.

by Me

Today Wilbur told me about his son.
It was perfect, he said.
Wilbur looked down at his forearm,
He fit right there;
and, with his right hand,
he measured out the length from the crook of his elbow
to the bottom of his wrist.
Now, he told me, my son is nineteen,
in college, and smarter than me
But it was perfect.
He looked me in the eyes, rare for him, and said it
like a great lost troubadour announcing a
universal truth to a desperately quiet audience.
When my son was born, I replied quite easily,
he went bloolp--
I motioned my hands together in front of me
and rushed them both forward,
displaying the suddenness of the moment.
--just like that.
We finished our coffee, talked of other things less
substantial, and went home.
As I made the left to enter the southbound side of the highway
I waved simple salute to Wilbur, heading north,
and I thought of his eyes as he told me of his son.
It was perfect. Bloolp.
How many times have I made that sound
and waved my arms in that gesture?
How many times have I told that story?
Wilbur looked at his forearm and made that hand measurement
as though he’d done it every day for nineteen years.
My car exited the ramp and I accelerated onto the highway,
and thought of Wilbur’s son in college, and mine,
much older. I can’t remember if I ever held him on
my forearm and gazed down at him,
and Wilbur’s wife made him stand next
to her head during their son’s birth.

Saturday, July 5, 2008


Here’s one I just found online and I really like a lot. Maybe it’s because I’m such a positive, sun-shine-y person. Obviously.

By Jane Hirshfield

More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another.
A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers, mitochondria, figs--all this resinous, unretractable earth.

I read the first line and thought I was reading a dull poem about overcoming struggle or lost love or something like that. Boring, I thought. But then the second line hit me like pillow in the face. What an amazing image, “the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam returns over and over to the same shape.” That is so brilliant and so true. It’s quite impressive to note how stubborn, how “resistant,” the foam of a pillow or a mattress truly is.

Then the poem turns into a simple statement of nature. The “blind intelligence” of trees and leaves turns slyly into the grown of other creates (“turtles, rivers, mitochondria, figs”); I was not expecting the author to connect the ideas of resilience and optimism with those of evolution and geology. The leaps from the first line are surprising and yet easy to connect, which is a very difficult combination of elements.

So I have to wonder why the poem is titled as it is, rather than “Resilience” or something like that. Are trees being “optimistic” when they move their leaves to face the sun? It’s one think to ascribe intelligence to plants, but to give them emotions is a bit of a stretch. So if that’s not it, then what am I missing? When things are not working out, we move on and create something else? I guess that seems logical.

I’ve heard of Jane Hirshfield, and even read a few of her poems in various magazines, but this poem makes me wonder if I’ve missed something somewhere. I’m going to be looking up a few more of her poems soon.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


This has been one of my favorite poems for a couple of years now, ever since my best friend Tucker came into my life.

by Jane Kenyon

The dog has cleaned his bowl
and his reward is a biscuit,
which I put in his mouth
like a priest offering the host.

I can't bear that trusting face!
He asks for bread, expects
bread, and I in my power
might have given him a stone.

Tucker spent Tuesday and Wednesday of this week at daycare. I take him there a few days a week during the school year so he can play and socialize with other dogs, rather than sit and sleep on his little doggie-bed all day long, but he’s very sensitive and now that I’m not going to work every day, his routine is thrown off. So I took him to daycare and plan on taking him every other week or so, just so he doesn’t get too out of whack. I’d take him more often, but it’s a 45 minute drive and I’m not getting paid during the summer, so a couple of days every other week is the best compromise.

Anyway, this poem is as true a poem as I’ve ever read. The dog has complete and utter trust in his owner, and so he truly believes that all his owner would give is something good. Tucker is the same. He doesn’t waste time looking at what I’m giving him; he simply opens his mouth and gobbles down whatever was in my hand. If I chose to put a rock in my hand, he would probably eat it without thinking twice.

I’ve wondered if this poem is an allusion to Cronus and how he was tricked into swallowing a rock, which gave birth to Zeus (and the other Titans). This could simply be a coincidence, but I like the idea that there’s something epic about this poem.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Sunday Morning

Lately, my wife has been watching Jon and Kate Plus Eight on TLC, and she’s gotten me into it a bit Today, we were watching an episode where the kids were in a pumpkin patch and then a corn maze, and my wife and I just had to laugh at how absurd the whole idea of having that many young kids to take care of would be for us. And that made me suddenly remember this poem that I read a few years back. The connection is somewhat obvious.

By Corrine Hales

Crowded around the glowing open mouth
Of the electric oven, the children
Pull on clothes and eat brown-sugared oatmeal.

The broiler strains, buzzing to keep up
500 degrees, and the mother
Is already scrubbing at a dark streak

On the kitchen wall. Last night she’d been
Ironing shirts and trying her best to explain
Something important to the children

When the old mother cat’s surviving
Two kittens’ insistent squealing and scrambling
Out of their cardboard box began

To get to her. The baby screamed every time
The oldest girl set him on the cold floor
While she carried a kitten back to its place

Near the stove, and the mother cat kept reaching
For the butter dish on the table. Twice, the woman
Stopped talking and set her iron down to swat

A quick kitten away from the dangling cord,
And she saw that one of the boys had begun to feed
Margarine to his favorite by the fingerful.

When it finally jumped from his lap and squatted
To piss on a pale man’s shirt dropped below
Her ironing board, the woman calmly stopped, unplugged

Her iron, picked up the gray kitten with one hand
And threw it, as if it were a housefly, hard
And straight at the yellow flowered wall

Across the room. It hit, cracked, and seemed to slide
Into a heap on the floor, leaving an odd silence
In the house. They all stood still

Staring at the thing, until one child,
The middle boy, walked slowly out of the room
And down the hall without looking

At his mother or what she’d done. The others followed
And by morning everything was back to normal
Except for the mother standing there scrubbing.

The tension in this poem rises very slowly and very subtly, but when you look back at the first few stanzas, it’s there and it’s powerful. It’s the slow pace of the rising tension that makes the poem so uncomfortable. The woman snaps, obviously tired from the constant pressures of her children, and she does something horrible to the kitten. But the author has already hooked us from the start, so when the terrible event starts to happen, we’re too much invested in the poem to stop reading.

There are a lot of clues early on about the direness of the poem, especially in the colors. The “brown-sugared oatmeal” and the “dark streak on the kitchen wall” help to paint a very uneasy image. And then the sounds the woman hears (the kittens “insistent squealing,” the screaming baby) complete the sensory impressions.

But the most disturbing part of the entire poem, I think, is that the woman “calmly stopped.” She didn’t get upset or angry. She had not yelled at her kids or the kittens, and she had never given any outward signs of her building anger. But it’s there, under the surface, building since the first lines of the poem. Brilliant stuff.

I’m not trying to imply that the mother from Jon and Kate is going to snap and kill a kitten, but you do have to wonder how anyone is able to have the patience to deal with the constant stresses of being the mother of eight toddlers.