Poetry Friday: Armistice Day 2016

The years roll on, and take their toll.  I come to this day a little wearier each time.  I have less to say, other than to trot out the familiar phrases—my unease with American jingoism on holidays like this one, where we pretend that the day is to honor the brave and not the fallen, to exult in the nobility of war rather than to lament its destructive wrath; then, more sadly, something pious and humble and mostly true about what the memory of those long dead, especially the dead from the Great War whose hallowed day this November 11th was from the very beginning (and will always be, to me), means to someone born many decades later.  You can click on the Veterans Day tag and see the rest, if you like.  I hope the collection of my reflections and each year’s poem or poems brings you solace, or solemnity, or anything fitting the occasion.

But that’s more than enough from me: as always, I yield the floor (and will not comment afterwards) to a poet who knew the horrors of war.  This is the final section of Alan Seeger’s “Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France”, written in 1916.  It has been a century, Alan.  Young American volunteers still die—not for France, but for other nations the world over, for causes that (however they seem to us at our safe remove) must have seemed good to them.  May we honor their memories as you do.  May we end the wars and bring them home before next year, for their sake, and their families’.

“There, holding still, in frozen steadfastness,
Their bayonets toward the beckoning frontiers,
They lie—our comrades—lie among their peers,
Clad in the glory of fallen warriors,
Grim clustered under thorny trellises,
Dry, furthest foam upon disastrous shores,
Leaves that made last year beautiful, still strewn
Even as they fell, unchanged, beneath the changing moon;
And earth in her divine indifference
Rolls on, and many paltry things and mean
Prate to be heard and caper to be seen.
But they are silent, clam; their eloquence
Is that incomparable attitude;
No human presences their witness are,
But summer clouds and sunset crimson-hued,
And showers and night winds and the northern star
Nay, even our salutations seem profane,
Opposed to their Elysian quietude;
Our salutations calling from afar,
From our ignobler plane
And undistinction of our lesser parts:
Hail, brothers, and farewell; you are twice blest, brave hearts.
Double your glory is who perished thus,
For you have died for France and vindicated us.”

Poetry Friday: Good Friday 2015

As is my custom on two or three Christian holidays in the year, I share today a poem that I think has particular resonance for me in the context of an important day to my faith tradition.  I have tried, as usual, to select a poem that I think will speak to people from other traditions, or having no particular connection to faith at all—in fact, this Good Friday, my poem is not particularly Christian at all.  And in talking about it, I’ll try to say some things that I think might resonate with anyone, in addition to things that may make sense only to other people in my broadly-defined community of faith (and probably one or more things that make sense only to me).  For today’s poem, I’ve picked the work of a very well-regarded poet from the Pacific Northwest (my neck of the woods)—Tess Gallagher—specifically a short poem she wrote entitled “Wake”:

“Three nights you lay in our house.
Three nights in the chill of the body.
Did I want to prove how surely
I’d been left behind? In the room’s great dark
I climbed up beside you onto our high bed, bed
we’d loved in and slept in, married
and unmarried.

There was a halo of cold around you
as if the body’s messages carry farther
in death, my own warmth taking on the silver-white
of a voice sent unbroken across snow just to hear
itself in its clarity of calling. We were dead
a little while together then, serene
and afloat on the strange broad canopy
of the abandoned world.”

Gallagher’s poem is clearly referencing, on one level, the death of her husband, the famous author of short stories, Raymond Carver.  But I think the emphasis on three-ness, especially the three days dead, are adding an intentional layer of Christ imagery that I’ll talk about later on, which may explain why something about this poem catches hold of me today in particular.

There’s a loveliness to this poem on so many levels, despite the deeply sad setting and what I think are obviously very raw emotions for Gallagher even as she looks back at these days from a distance.  One of the things that draws me in is the ambiguity of the language: are the three nights “in the chill of the body” a reference to Carver’s three days lying in state?  Or is it Gallagher whose days are caught in the “chill” of this cold form, incapable of tearing herself away?  Is her proving she’s been “left behind” a reference to her keeping his body in the house, or is her climbing into bed a strangely inverted way of proving this, creating the most intimate of moments in order to prove to herself that intimacy has been lost?  Even the poem’s title is a cipher: a prosaic reference to this as a kind of “wake” like that practiced in many communities (often Catholic families, I think?), a shouted admonition to herself to snap out of the dark reverie she is in, a hopeless plea to her lost love to turn this eternal sleep into something more human and temporary?  The way we take these little moments certainly affects the way the poem delivers its message—and in some ways alters the message itself entirely.

For the non-religious—and for those people of faith whose beliefs about the world do not encompass the idea of a personal afterlife or resurrection—it seems to me the poem is mainly intended.  It offers a vision of death that is, however remote and in some ways unsettling, more a traveler’s passage than a snuffing-out, yet without giving in to any impulse to describe where the passage takes us or what that means.  Carver, lying there dead, can still for a time inhabit his house and his marriage-bed, cold but still bodily present.  Gallagher feels her life drawn out of her into something spare and far away—the icy beauty of that field of frost, and her voice going out via his body into some vast, echoing space.  But that drawing out is not terrifying to her: in a way, it comforts her, as she and Carver go those first few steps into death together.  Somehow grieving and dying become one in that placid image of them afloat and at peace, like lilies in a springtime pond, like cosmic bodies gently adrift in the universe.  The world sinks beneath them and yet simultaneously bears them up.  It is abandoned but not empty.  It is a strange place to which Carver no longer need accommodate himself, and to which Gallagher will return changed, once she rises from that cold embrace.  There are only a few non-religious or areligious poems that give me a sense of death’s inhuman loveliness, and this is one of them (Swinburne’s “Garden of Proserpine” is another).  I hope that, whatever it means to you, it provides you with a sense of comfort about that ultimate frontier to which all of us are borne.

Today, of course, for someone identifying as a Christian (as I do), contemplation of death is particularly important.  What it means to die, and what it might have meant for someone undying to, inexplicably, die.  What it means if death is no longer an end, but instead the opening of a doorway into some other place.  To me, there is more comfort in the poem than Gallagher herself may see or have intended.  She forces herself to recognize the death of a loved one by staying with him far past what a medical professional would deem “the end”.  She responds to death with love, and does not even deny the physical connection between her and her absent husband, wrapping her arms around him one last time.  I think of the cold form of a broken man being carried down from the hill of execution.  Based on the accounts we have, we think most of his friends were gone, but that some few still remained.  His mother was there.  Did they hold him close, any of them?  Did Mary wrap her arms around her dead son and wonder why the angel had lied to her, promised her a triumphant redeemer and yet delivered only a man condemned by his own people to die in ignominy?  Did John, the disciple he loved, wonder where love could go when the loved one passed into death’s arms?  When the enigmatic Joseph of Arimathea lifted the body to place him in a rich man’s tomb, did he remove his fine robes and rings first, to better feel the chill of a fallen Messiah’s stopped blood just once before rolling a stone between them?  I wonder.  Surely they felt, in their own ways, a grief as deep and profound as Gallagher’s.  That night, after lighting the Sabbath candles, I wonder if any of them lay quietly in bed, arms out and face upwards, envisioning themselves adrift and calm on death’s waves with the cold form of Jesus nearby.  I hope they did.

For resurrection to mean anything to a church founded on it, we have to confront death, I think.  Certainly, for me, if I don’t really engage with what it was like that Good Friday evening, that Holy Saturday morning and all that long afternoon, Easter morning feels superficial, excessively cheery.  Whatever it means to rise again, first we must fall into that cold, dark place, in order to feel the rising.  I am glad for poems like Gallagher’s that remind me how to look with both eyes at death and not rush past it into whatever comfort the ideas of new life and Heaven bring.  Christianity is often tarred with the brush of being too glib about death, too quick to see “oh, but Heaven will be wonderful” as an excuse for all Earth’s sorrows.  I think there can be truth in that, and I want to avoid it for myself, if I can: I am grateful to Gallagher, and all the other writers who have walked right up to the edge of death and peered into it, for helping me see humanity and mortality with clear eyes and a serious heart.

Poetry Friday: Olav Hauge

I’ve been investing time in my Pulitzer novel this week—remember that? Upton Sinclair and Dragon’s Teeth? well, if you don’t, never mind that; the blog’s leitmotif will return soon, is all you need know at present—and so this will be brief.  In keeping with that brevity, I turn to one of the best modern poets at getting something alive and enticing into a short verse, Norway’s Olav Hauge.  Here is his “Don’t Give Me the Whole Truth,” which appeared in a collection by that name in 1985:

“Don’t give me the whole truth,
don’t give me the sea for my thirst,
don’t give me the sky when I ask for light,
but give me a glint, a dewy wisp, a mote
as the birds bear water-drops from their bathing
and the wind a grain of salt.”

Hauge takes a strange tack in this poem, and one that, for that reason, intrigues and draws me in.  Unlike plenty of poems that are desperate for truth, Hauge—a little world-wearier, perhaps, a little wiser—asks for something short of revelation.  He just needs satisfaction, not excess; happiness, not ecstasy.  Not the ocean, but that grain of wind-borne salt.  Not a fortune, but the unexpected coin.  Not a forest, but the shade of a single slender tree.  Like a prayer, he offers it to us, like a whispered hope.  Do not ask for the whole world; just that corner of it where you can find a roof and a bed, a smile to return to and a simple meal on the table.  As winter gives way to spring, it sounds about right to me.

Poetry Friday: Casey at the Bat

It may seem that the middle of winter is a strange time to tackle a poem about the national pastime, since baseball’s season is still weeks away (pitchers and catchers have yet even to report to spring training), but if you’re someone like me—a guy who’s been a Seahawks fan so long he still has a little slip of paper tucked away in a keepsake box with Chuck Knox‘s signature on it—the thrilling and then gut-punch agonizing finish to this year’s Super Bowl instantly brought to mind Ernest Lawrence Thayer‘s classic poem about anticipation, arrogance, talent and disappointment.  You may be most familiar with it as the narration to a Disney cartoon, and indeed, there’s a side of the poem that is cartoonish.  But Martin Gardner, who wrote essays on American literature for the better part of a century, championed the poem for years as “America’s epic poem”, a verse that is titanic and powerful in what it says about who we are, and viewed especially through the lens of the emotions I went through last Sunday, I’m coming around to the notion that Gardner was right.  Without further ado, here’s the whole text of Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat”:

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to the hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, “If only Casey could but get a whack at that—
We’d put up even money now, with Casey at the bat.”

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a hoodoo, while the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despisèd, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It pounded on the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile lit Casey’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ‘twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt;
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance flashed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped—
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one!” the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore;
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And it’s likely they’d have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew;
But Casey still ignored it and the umpire said, “Strike two!”

“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered “Fraud!”
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate;
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.

Thayer presents us with a mesmerizing little poem: one that, yes, has gotten quirkier as the years pass and some of the slang becomes increasingly comical (I love the narrator’s calm assertion that Flynn and Blake, Mudville’s lesser lights, are, respectively, a “hoodoo” and a “cake”).  It can seem almost like a joke, presenting us with a setup, the gradual build of tension, and then the little shock of laughter as the outcome we expect—the triumph of “mighty Casey”—is pulled out from under us.  But we don’t really laugh at Casey, do we?  He’s not a clown; he’s a tragic hero.

Or at least that’s what I’d like you to try to bring to this poem.  Walk through it with me—it has its weaknesses (Thayer was no great poet, and even he came to look disapprovingly at this piece as he aged), but I think in spite of his inexperience and the poem’s frequently silly tone, you’ll see there’s a grandeur to the poem that explains why it endures.  Let’s start with the rhythm—seven metrical feet per line, iambs—which may feel familiar if you read it out loud and really listen to the rise and fall.  It’s the same rhythm Emily Dickinson uses in most of her famous pieces—“Some keep the Sabbath going to church”, etc.—although she breaks the lines in two (four feet and three).  She almost certainly borrows the rhythm, consciously or unconsciously, from the rhythms of the hymns sung in the New England churches she would have grown up attending (however she chose to keep the Sabbath once she was grown).  There’s a stateliness to the sound: it doesn’t quite sound funny to us, aloud.  It’s tapping into something about English and the way we’re accustomed to hearing it, I think: the meter says “these are thoughts to dwell on”.  Thayer chose it well.

Then the setup: I think it’s worth noting that Casey doesn’t lose Mudville a game it has in the bag.  Mudville’s played 8 of 9 innings and is in a real bind.  They haven’t been fast enough, strong enough, precise enough.  Any baseball fan will tell you that down two heading into the ninth inning is heartbreak territory, most of the time: close enough to believe in the possibility of a win, but almost guaranteed to end with a lazy pop-up or a rage-inducing called third strike.  And then, when Cooney and Barrows make quick work of themselves, well, most fans would be packing up their peanuts and crackerjack, if not physically heading for the exits.  But then something wonderful happens.

It’s too easy to see the end of the poem as all that counts, I think, but there are these little miracles in the middle of it, and plucky Flynn and doughty little Jimmy Blake are the two gems—they give Mudville all it could have asked.  Whatever failures lay behind them when they came to the plate—and there must have been some, to inspire the foul feelings in the stands as they are announced—each of them has a moment to shine, and they seize it.  They take what could have been an ignominious loss, 4-2 finishing with a routine ground ball to short, and turn it into a shout of delight, a thrill of expectation, a dawning realization that, no matter how it ends, this will be a game we go home remembering.  Sport has that instant memory-making quality, for those who love it: the chance to know just a moment in advance you’ll have this image clear in your mind all your life, and to revel in that knowledge (as much as it terrifies you).

I love those two fellows for their contributions, but of course, this is a poem about Casey and to him our eyes must go.  After Blake’s astonishing double puts the tying run in scoring position, Thayer gets a little Old Testament in his language—the echo of the spectators goes out and makes a clamor in the natural world like something out of Isaiah or Ezekiel.  Casey is almost apocalyptic as he steps forward, and rightly so, since in the lives of those five thousand standing there, it feels at least a tiny bit like the world might end if he can’t manage to knock in the runs.  This is hyperbole.  All sporting language is, and fans know it: we are watching fiction.  But it doesn’t diminish the way those real feelings well up, unasked for, in our minds.

What makes Casey tragic, and American, to me is his unconquerable confidence.  He is the perfect image of the superstar, a vision that haunts all our society’s best and worst moments.  We prefer our leaders like this, whether quarterbacks, captains of industry, or even presidents: we like them unruffled by doubt, untroubled by the very real and slim odds they may face in a given situation.  There’s something reassuring about that confidence, even if we could never find it in ourselves (maybe especially so).  Casey is easy, light-hearted—he tips his cap as though out for a stroll through the park.  He saves his sneers for the opposing pitcher, but even then, he really is very relaxed about the encounter, at least at first.  He’s too good to swing at a less than perfect pitch, and really we sense he’s saving himself for the perfect moment, as though his legend would be diminished by a first-pitch single into right field.  He wants the 0-2 count so desperately that he might as well have laid down and watched the first two pitches go by while doing a crossword puzzle.  He steps in to save the umpire, and when the crowd erupts in anger after the second strike, it’s to them he darts a look of scorn—even they, the gang in his corner, shouting his name, praying to Heaven for one swing of his bat, they are really beneath him in that moment.  He gradually seizes control of the whole event: you’ll notice, he signals to the pitcher for the second pitch, as though it was foreordained, as though Casey is writing the script and even the opposition must play along.

What, then, do we make of a script that ends in the way it does?  There’s sudden hate and violence inside Casey as he waits for the third pitch, but who is it for?  Even though, situationally, it seems obvious it should be the enemy pitcher, it can’t really be, can it?  He’s more or less sent engraved invitations to have the pitcher throw two by him.  And who could hate Flynn or Blake, or even his other teammates who’d let him down—baseball is certainly a team sport, and without the efforts of the others, Casey could never have gotten into this position.  Despite that scornful look, I’ll go ahead and even clear the audience of the charge.  Who’s left to hate, then?  Where does the violence go?

Casey reminds me in this moment of Captain Ahab, the one-legged monomaniac who seizes Moby-Dick out of the hands of its so-called narrator, Ishmael. At one point in that novel, we are told that Ahab “piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.” There’s something that elemental about Casey, in that moment, and this is why the poem for me is large and intimidatingly wonderful. Casey’s anger reaches beyond the game he is playing and the moment he is responding to. This is the anger that anyone with talent and opportunity has to stare down—the realization that to be good at anything means to dare failure, and that to be great demands putting ourselves in positions where the only possible failures will be catastrophic ones. He might be angry on some level that there is such a game as baseball and that he was born to be good at it—angry at the inescapability of error and loss, because even if he launches this pitch into the next county, a day will come when he swings and misses, and it will look like all the others. Casey’s monstrous third strike has the power to haunt us because it’s not a particular failure. It’s the failure that awaits us all at least a few times in our lives. But it’s the kind of failure that can only come to us when we’ve been good enough at something to be put in that position. Cooney and Barrows, the first two outs of the inning, will not see the spectre of those outs in their sleep all their lives. No one will write “Cooney at the Bat” about his unfortunate line out to the third baseman as the leadoff batter in the 9th.  This is the kind of loss that can only come to us in a Casey moment in our lives.

I called this a tragedy, an epic poem, and it really is both of those things, because it ends in darkness and sorrow, like Priam cradling his son’s body in his arms as he returns to the gates of Troy.  That may seem like I’m putting too much stock in something that’s a game—just a game.  But it doesn’t feel that way to anyone involved, and as I’ve been suggesting above, it’s because the game allows us to confront something larger and truer about our real lives, where the strikeouts and goal-line interceptions and missed free throws won’t be quite as easy to spot, but where the prospect of victory can be as sweet, and the impact of failure just as immediate.  Thayer strikes just the right note, I think.  No failure, not even one as huge as Casey’s, which looms over the poem’s final stanza, can douse the sun, end happiness or music, halt the progression of time as it draws us forward into new challenges and prepares us for new wins and losses.  But before we move on we have to mourn, even something as silly and inconsequential as a swinging third strike.  The Mudville nine will play again—Casey will probably bat hundreds, even thousands more times in a long and successful career ahead of him.  None of that will erase that perfect afternoon, the unexpected wonder of the two-out rally, the tension tight as a piano wire as Casey prepares all for his glorious apotheosis, and then the sudden end to all.

Maybe you don’t see any of this in what seems to you an outdated and really very silly baseball poem.  I’ll acknowledge there’s a case to be made on that side of the verse.  But I expect more than a few of you know what I’m talking about.  Seahawks fans (and before them Packers fans, and Ducks fans, and Royals fans, etc.) have been hearing the usual refrains—you have to be pretty great to finish that close to the top, you have to be pretty talented to be right there with a chance to win it all, etc.  We know how all those words really feel; we know how it felt in the Mudville stands that day, standing there wearing a replica Casey jersey and watching his face fall as the umpire called out the third strike and raised his fist.  Poetry, if it is to speak to the whole of the human condition, has to go there too—to take the silliness of our immersion in a sport and capture what is also grand and noble and terribly sad about the moments sport brings.  For me, Thayer goes there with Casey, and I’m glad he did.

Poetry Friday: In memory of grandparents

It’s time to dust off the old blog, begin anew the consideration of literature, America, and how those two massive entities tug me in their gravitational fields as I encounter them.  I’m settled in enough at my new university to feel I can begin reading Upton Sinclair again, and start talking poetry here on Fridays again.  So consider this the blog’s sixth or seventh rebirth—hopefully with some staying power.  Today, though, I won’t be picking out some great poet of days gone by, and if you come here for something more polished today, you might want to look elsewhere on the Internet for a great poet.  This is one more personal Friday, one more chance for me to impose a little of my own verse on you, and perhaps you’ll enjoy it, or at least it will give you something to think about.  Saturday is my grandmother’s memorial service, and we’ll be commemorating both her and her husband, my grandfather, who died several years ago, before I moved to Chicago, and never had a formal service.  Today we drive across the mountains to be able to join the family for the occasion.  Grandma’s loss is still too recent for me to have set down any thoughts about it in verse form—I don’t know if I ever will, but if I do, surely they’ll make their way here someday.  But I do have the poem that saying goodbye to Grandpa Olander brought out of me, several months after his passing.  So I offer it today as my meditation on loss and love, on Grandpa and Grandma, on the world as it is and the world as it will be—as always, with my own work, I won’t comment in the post itself, but I’m happy to talk about it in comments if anyone cares to do so.  This is “Penn Cove Thanksgiving”, by James Rosenzweig:

The Thanksgiving after my grandfather dies,
my wife and I drive to his cabin.
A crisp blanket of snow surrounds us
on the drive up—
hems us in with its white glory,
but the roads are not icy.
We have an easy journey.

The last stretch of road is familiar to us—
we walked it arm in arm, once,
a decade ago,
the night we first saw that
two friends were going to fall in love,
at last.

That was a mild May evening.
It is full of frost air now.
The woods are ominous.
The world is going into the dark
and will not return again.
Not the same world.

We are slowly unpacking the car,
preparing to trudge our way to the front door,
when she stops.

“Look,” she says, and points out
at the deck illuminated by our headlights.
We walk forward together,
our eyes aimed downward
as she shows me the tracks left in the snow.
Unfamiliar small footprints—
they belong to a creature neither of us can name,
so we follow them, our breath swirling around
and behind us in visible clouds.

On the deck the tracks swirl and loop
in chaotic patterns, until a single trail
of prints leads away westward
and stops.
“A bird”, we both say,
but we remain motionless for a moment.

We are standing in a place
where something living broke free from the earth
into the open sky,
or else in a place where,
a life traded the unbounded expanse of the air
to walk where we do,
leaving strange prints on the frozen earth,
intersecting itself with us for reasons we cannot guess.

We return to our bags and boxes,
we pack ourselves into the cabin and sleep.
The next morning we watch the prints on the melting snow
as they darken, soften, and vanish.

It is Thanksgiving morning.
We will be full today.

Poetry Friday: Albany Park

I know it’s been awhile, folks, but I’ll try to make up for it today with something more personal.  I’ve been packing and organizing, since (as I alluded to in my last post) we are leaving Chicago, as I take on a position as a tenure-track Education Librarian at Eastern Washington University in Cheney.  This of course has a major impact in my life—leaving Chicago and the friends we’ve made here, learning the ways of a new institution and a new city, all the chaos that comes with a cross-country move (in December, no less)—and I’m approaching it with excitement, curiosity, anxiety, and at least a little melancholy as I start my farewells to all I’ve loved about my years in this city.  In a few weeks it’ll all settle down and I hope to be back to business here, but for now this post is me planting a little flag as both a jumping-off point for all that’s about to be new, and as a banner waving in the winds of the place I will always look back to with a smile.  The city that gave me my first professional experience as a librarian, and (for the rest of her life) the city my daughter will name when asked where she was born.

So for Poetry Friday today, I offer not one of the works of the great poets of the past, but rather this humble verse from yours truly—something I’ve tinkered with for a couple of years now (and truthfully have never really felt finished with).  An ode to my neighborhood and my library, and one of the songs of these days in my life.  I won’t comment after it in the post, but you’re more than welcome to comment to if you have anything to say (or ask) about it.  All my best to all of you this wintry afternoon: This is James Rosenzweig’s

“Walking Home from the Library on a Winter Evening;


Albany Park, I thought about writing you a love-letter, but I decided our friendship is too important for me to risk it”

One scarf for your neck;
a second protects your face.
Your eyes go naked.

The robing begins as you listen in on Andy
and the man with the hat full of questions,
who’s been a student
of most of his life
for most of his life,
and whose goatee grin is the metronome
of the afternoon reference desk.
His gratitude twinkles in his eyes.
He mixes his questions with stories about jam sessions
from the 1970s: the jazz that fills his imagination.

As the gloves come on, you talk with Andy about the weather
in Mordor
as he’s diving into Tolkien for the first time
and hearing his progress report lets you take the journey
vicariously, as though remembering were reading.
You discuss whether your 12 year old nephew
is too young for The Hobbit,
and wonder why it’s so hard to decide.

Now your mountain coat,
veteran of a dozen snows,
doing lowland duty.

The door swings behind you: you walk into white.
The rattle of the university plow echoes off brick walls
and half-buried public art.
The remnants of last Wednesday’s storm
lie beneath this fresh fall
like cats asleep under the blankets.
The flakes sting your eyes when you look east;
your second scarf comes undone.
You accept your helplessness.

The cars on St. Louis have churned the snow,
now slightly yellow, powdered in texture
like corn masa flour.
An elderly Hasid passes you on his way to shul,
his black hat wrapped in Saran to keep dry:
Shabbat is descending.

Kimball Avenue:
two boys shovel the sidewalk
with their grandfather.

You can see the pride behind Abuelito’s stern eyes,
his pleasure at their love of labor,
his commitment to have his 30 feet of pavement
the cleanest in Albany Park.
On Foster, you see a child with a shovel,
utterly alone,
slowly clearing the whole block in front of his apartment,
and wonder if somewhere above, behind a parted curtain,
another grandfather looks down.

North Park‘s campus security drive around
in golf carts that handle the snow
exactly as well as they are designed to:
elephants in a wetland,
children spun from a merry-go-round.
The tower of Old Main is postcard-perfect
as it foregrounds the storm.

Kedzie Avenue:
immigrants of every race
wait for the same bus.

You look down as you cross the bridge:
the Chicago River is crowded with drifts,
swirling in big, slow eddies
like albino starfish at sea.
The snow fills with water, mottling like clouds,
clinging at both banks against
a current that will take it south.

With every step you become less a poet
and more a poem,
your feet beating out a meter no one else can scan,
the images you see are less around you
than they are in you, filling you up
before you can trap them in words.

Where Albany meets Ainslie
you see the crisp edges of a snow-blown sidewalk —
the fingerprints of José, whose war on ice is absolute.
As the crunch of footfalls is replaced
by the slap of pavement, you slip off one glove
to unlock the gate and check your mail:
then the dash across the empty courtyard.

As key turns, a sound —
her voice welcomes you to the
rooms she makes a home.

Poetry Friday: Memories of Home

It is a cool, rainy day in Chicago—the kind of cool, rainy day that a Northwesterner like me responds to immediately, and gets the feeling of home and homeliness deep in his bones.  I’ve walked around today in the light misting rain too gentle for an umbrella (for the most part), the temperatures just chilly enough for a coat but not so cold that you zip it, and immersed myself in many old memories from similar days back in Seattle and the surrounding area, where I lived for my first three decades.  It’s been a while since I shared one of my own poems on Poetry Friday, and so perhaps on a day when I mull over thoughts of home, you can indulge me as I share another.  This is the poem I’ve read in public most often, in part because it’s maybe the oldest poem I have (or among the oldest, anyhow) that I would be willing to inflict on an unsuspecting audience.  For that reason, though, it’s a poem I have an increasingly strained relationship with—I still admire its strengths but am more and more attentive to its flaws, and furthermore it’s a poem that’s personal enough to feel like it’s saying “this is where James is at” but now that over a decade has passed it’s really not where I’m at, at all.  Or maybe it is, and that’s what rankles.  You will be able to speak to that better than I can, I suspect.

So here is a poem I wrote when I was a student teacher at Mount Vernon High School in Skagit County, Washington.  It comes late enough in the semester to be affected by the chaos imposed on that experience by my dreadful supervisor, but early enough that I have yet to experience that moment of triumph I wrote about last Halloween.  Since it’s me and not another poet, I won’t rush in afterwards to explain it or offer my thoughts—you’re getting enough of me in one dose already.  But if comments are left, I’ll happily respond to them and continue any conversation you want to have (positive, negative, or indifferent).  This is “Insomnia”, by James Rosenzweig:

Four in the morning, alone, on the
boardwalk above the flooding Skagit River, I
am pacing along the east bank
in the gusts that follow the storm,
watching the wind whiten the water in shivers,
as pieces of the national forest float
downstream faster than I can walk.
Sleepless, between careers, ears freezing, I
hear in the distance the whistle of the train.
Then louder, closer in, the whistle leans into
the air—three, four blasts. I think
there is a man wailing that sound, partly
out of habit, and partly out of the human desire
to wake the children of Mount Vernon
with the news that the steel rails and boxcars
are still America’s backbone,
or maybe he just wishes they were.
At the end of the boardwalk I turn back upstream,
the snags racing past me now, making
their driftwood way to the Pacific, where their
white forms will be children’s playgrounds
and lovers’ benches beneath the stars.
Halfway back I see a salmon fighting upstream,
shaking his body like a whip. He takes his swimming
sideways across the current, as though hoping
to overcome the torrents with geometry
and sheer force of heart. I do not tell him
he is gliding backwards three feet
with every swipe of his weary fins.
He will admit it to himself soon enough,
and rest,
and win the river later when he can.