Category Archives: poem

Living in the presence of Apollo

A dog roughs his tongue on cement
A callus rises. But words? Words are the reverse of pain.
Where pain is, no words are. Apollo loves words.

-Ange Mlinko

 

“The resonance of the final phrase depends on the prior description of Apollo as the god in whose presence it’s impossible to grieve, not because he overwhelms grief with joy, but by some process of bringing utter drought to it. It’s an indictment, in other words, and not any kind of praise.”

-Michael Gervasio on Ange Mlinko, 2014

I have been living in the presence of Apollo. Grief went missing but was not replaced by joy. Apollo saw to it that the sun-rays bleached out everything.

After a while, you trick yourself into believing that if you can’t see any darkness, it isn’t there. But darkness is always there behind the light. The light is the mask.

Apollo with his golden mask.

Grief is a wordless golden mask.

It always feels uneasy when the gods are fucking with you.  Not quite right. Not quite whole.  Gods cannot cure pain because they did not invent it. We mortals did. Not so much invent as require.

Pain is a warning. Pain is social control. Pain is the seed of healing.

Pain is the grain of grief that, when buried, sleeps tightly in a curling darkness and hears nothing. Until the sun, Apollo with his golden mask, oppresses it with a brightness that is not joy.

Out pops a trembling flower, a narcissus.

“Oh look at me,” it says. “I could not be born of darkness. My beauty could not be made from darkness.”

And the flower talks and talks until it learns to lie. This pleases Apollo.

But the flower has its own seeds now and each one speaks no words and each one mourns the darkness it has lost.

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The Editor’s Firstborn (Part I)

I stared at my inbox, unsettled by some unusually literary spam. The junk filter and my own eyes were sabotaged because the sender’s address included my first and last name, followed, I would later realize, by a spurious domain.  There was my name, and below it, in the Outlook preview, a little poem sent from the ether:

There came to port last Sunday night
The queerest little craft,
Without an inch of rigging on;
I looked and looked and laughed.
It seemed so curious that she
Should cross the Unknown water,
And moor herself right in my room,
My daughter, O my daughter!

 

Yet by these presents witness all
She’s welcome fifty times,
And comes consigned to Hope and Love
And common-meter rhymes.
She has no manifest but this,
No flag gloats o’er the water,
She’s too new for the British Lloyds—
My daughter, O my daughter!

 

Ring out, wild bells, and tame ones too!
Ring out the lover’s moon!
Ring in the little worsted socks!
Ring in the bib and spoon!
Ring out the muse! Ring in the nurse!
Ring in the milk and water!
Away with paper, pen, and ink—
My daughter, O my daughter!

–George W. Cable

What you see above was the complete content of the email.  No attachments.  No links.  No Nigerian Princes asking for my bank’s routing number. The attribution intrigued me. Why credit the poet in a spam email?  For that matter, why send poems at all?  I know a spam-bot or a hacker will use mass-downloaded public domain content to populate spam messages, but this was free of errors or ulterior motives. Perhaps it was a puckish English major, bored in his dorm somewhere, spreading Victorian poetry to the unlettered masses, a Pirate of the Digital Humanities!  But that was not my first thought.  My first visceral and irrational thought was that this poem was sent to me by my dead father.

In my defense, this wasn’t entirely irrational, my father’s being deceased notwithstanding. My dad used to email me poems on a daily basis. On his best days, they were poems he had written with an accompanying anecdote or commentary.  On tougher days, they were transcribed poems from a poet he was currently reading or particularly admired. Merwin, Tranströmer, Stafford, Szymborska, and Blake were some favorites in the last couple years. Sometimes he wrote his day into the poems. Sometimes he wrote his day around them. But he always sent a poem with his emails. After he died in February 2014, I grieved those missing poems the most. The connection that had spanned states and time and oceans was severed. The line was dead.

And now in January 2016, almost two years after his death, here was a missive from the Afterlife in which neither he nor I believed. Of course it couldn’t be from him, I reasoned.  The paranormal aside, Dad never sent messages to my work email!  Secondly, as all the writers for whom he was an editor and anyone who corresponded with him knew, he always used Courier font. All poems and emails he wrote were in Courier. Courier looked the most like his beloved typewriters; serifs gently caress the lowercase, the lines are thin as if a ribbon is running low, and the letters are padded with so much air you can inhale the breaths between them. This spam-poem did not have the Courier fingerprint of my father.

But on the other hand, said the part of my brain that always wants to believe in magic, maybe ghosts can’t afford to be so particular?  And Dad always used a different font–usually the bolder, more self-assured American Typewriter– when transcribing poems by published authors.  He would include the poet’s name at the bottom, just as “George W. Cable” appeared here. Although,  Dad would typically cite the book it came from in studied italics and include the title of the poem, bolded, above the verse. This poem had none of the meticulous citations I would expect.

The loudest signal of all against this spam being sent by my ghost-poet-father was that 19th century Victorian “common-meter rhymes” (particularly self-referential ones) were not at all my father’s style.  He preferred 20th century poetry.  A free verse poet who treated rhymes like tarragon or cumin– an exotic spice to sprinkle on occasion but not to base a meal around.  Really, wasn’t a refrain like “My daughter, O my daughter?” a bit too obvious for him?

What the petulant English-major spammer could not know—what perhaps only my father’s ghost could know—was how appropriate the content of the poem was to my life that week.  I had just learned that I was pregnant. The news was so fresh that I hadn’t told anyone except my husband. Not even my mother knew yet.  I wanted a baby. We had been trying deliberately to get pregnant. But as the blue plus-sign appeared in the blank eye of the pregnancy test like a ghostly polaroid, my immediate reaction was one of panic.  Not only panic but guilt about feeling a jolt of panic. Oh shit. This is really happening. How did this happen so quickly?  I should be feeling joy, not worry. What does this mean for my life now?  How can I have a baby so far from my family and friends, with such a small support network where I live?  How can I do this without my dad?

The last stanza in particular stirred me to attention. Both exuberant and a call for all hands on deck, it embraces the trappings of babydom (“Ring in the bib and spoon!”) in a surprisingly domestic way for a male poet of the 1800s. But it’s not without regret. “Ring out the lover’s moon!” sounds so ominous. Must we cease being lovers now that we are becoming parents?  Likewise, “Ring out the muse! Ring in the nurse!” and  “Away with paper, pen, and ink” felt foreboding.  When will I be able to write—how will I continue to be a writer—as a parent?

Yet, the narrator is clearly in the thralls of fatherhood. (How else could one justify such exorbitant use of exclamation points?)  And for a moment, I imagined telling my father I was pregnant. I imagined my father with his white beard–the little balls of his high cheekbones bursting off his face like they did on my wedding day–reacting just like the narrator of this poem.  Away with paper, pen and ink!  Making a child is more transcendent than writing!  And my dad’s enthusiasm, both inferred and imagined, transferred to the pit of my stomach and erased my panic. Just as it did when I chose which college to attend, when I boarded a plane for France, when I got engaged.  At moments of uncertainty in my life when I was overwhelmed by impending change, my father always pushed me to “do what scares you” and to boldly go, even to places he himself was not brave enough to tread.  His confidence in me, or in the trajectory of life despite its inevitable sorrows, made me believe that everything would be all right. If my father were here, he would be ringing out the wild bells, and the tame ones too.

As a librarian, I couldn’t just receive a spam-poem from the Beyond without researching where it came from.  On Google Books, I found a slightly edited version listed in American Familiar Verse (1904) attributed to George Washington Cable, 1844. I also found the missing title: “An Editor’s First-Born.”

My father was an editor, of course, and I am his firstborn daughter.

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anything goes

-a poem for the New Year

chickens are wearing sweaters now
“relatable” is a writer’s highest praise
rain in California is graded by severity on a scale of one to five
the world is too hot
this room too cold
if life is a choice
then we are all the makers of our own misfortune
if luck–some call it god–is a force,
then choice is nothing more than soup or salad
most people regret the things they didn’t do
and reconcile each mistake
as a footstep on the road to now
as if now is any place to envy
now only houses what we know
and have grown accustomed to
in olden days
a glimpse of stocking
cole porter smirks, pours swill from a champagne glass
his piano covered in confetti made of recycled newspapers
the past is always played in a minor key
and mostly played for laughs
something shocking
heaven knows
what the rains will bring
in this new year
this bold ignoble now
dolled up in the pearls of Madame Future
a glimpse of her shadow in the looking glass
shrugged off like a mink coat
never to be seen again

1.7.16

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Letter to a Lost Friend

Dear Friend,

I’ve been thinking a lot about you and your___________.

Family
Travels
New home
Wife

I hope you and yours have all survived the____________.

Wedding
Recession
First Semester
Cancer

I’m writing to wish you _____________.

Congratulations
Bon voyage
Good luck
Condolences?

I often think fondly of the time we ______________,

went camping for our friend’s 14th birthday
swam in the English Channel
hid in the sauna during the orchestra trip
got drunk at that graduation party

and you___________________.

went skinny dipping in an icy lake
lent me your spare bathing suit
admitted you didn’t really like your popular friends
grabbed my ass

I felt like another person, more______________.

spontaneous
adventurous
understood
desired

I always admired you for your ___________________.

brazenness
honesty
intelligence
wit

I wish that I had __________________.

stayed friends with your ex
never stopped trading letters with you
reconnected over coffee before you moved
known your wife a little better

I guess I always thought there would be another chance. I know it’s normal for friends to drift apart but ________________.

honestly, the choice was deliberate; I needed to move on
for a couple years there, it seemed like we were living parallel lives
I always wished we’d drifted closer, breaching each other’s inner circles
words seem so empty compared to life’s capacity to devastate

Now that __________________ ,

your brother is ill
we’ve taken divergent paths
you’re newly married in a new city
your days are filled with hospitals

I keep wanting to reach out to tell you that, whatever our friendship was or might have been, _________________________

you’re in my thoughts
we’re still connected
you cross my mind
I’m so, so sorry

Sincerely,

Your Long Lost Friend

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The gaps

I’m writing out my medical history
for Monday’s appointment
such a bureaucratic list of grievances
Is this what our lives look like
to doctors? A pillbox of
remission and relapse,
so much, so much blood?

These are barely the bones
of my life’s story.
All the important things
happened in between
colonoscopies
and cat-scans
prescriptions and
preventative screenings.

In these interims,
I moved to France,
fell in love
finished college
moved to France again
fell in love again
learned to lindy hop
brought my husband to America.

August 2007. Hospitalized 2 days.
I don’t remember what
the gastroenterologist said
or what the urologist said
I barely remember how sick I felt.

But I do remember
the opiate effects of sleeping pills
that I tried to fight so I could finish
watching Jon Stewart interview
Candidate Barack Obama.

I remember my boyfriend
(technically we were broken up—
technically he’s my husband now)
calling me from France on a cellphone
my mother held clandestinely to my ear
in the thin, moveable bed.
I wrote out a message in French for her
to email him word-for-word because
in the hospital they take away your cellphone,
apparently, like in prison.

And my father sitting in the corner
of the room by a small table,
as if at the tiny desk in a hotel
where he always looked so natural
writing travel poems early in the morning,
trying now, failing, not to appear worried.
“When your mother called me at work
and told me you were in the hospital,
it was like when they told me my brother was dead.
My first thought was:
who do I have to kill?”

Until then “in the hospital”
didn’t feel so serious to me.
I was relieved, grateful
to cede the tricky business
of getting out of bed and eating
to professionals. I didn’t have to pretend
to be healthy anymore.

My dad talked about Walter a lot
but never told me how he learned he’d died.
How did he find out? Was he at Berkeley?
Who made the call? (His mother, I assume,
but maybe not?). Who did my father
stop himself from killing?

This is what I remember.
Not the diagnoses, the prescriptions,
the IV, the recovery, the doctors.
I remember the startling ferocity
of my father’s love
powerless love
that changes nothing
yet mends everything.

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first day of school

Schoolgirl rhythms never quite leave you.
Summer holds its breath and then
the bad dreams come back:

a prison of lockers, tests
not studied for, classes
not attended, degrees
not earned.

You can still wear new shoes,
see old faces, hope
this year will be different.

Teachers are like farmers,
beholden to the calendar,
shaking their rakes at ideas
that settle, errantly, like crows,
trying to remember all their names.

 

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couple at panera

a very young woman at Panera
is pushing back the cuticles
of a man with tattoo-sleeves

she is scraping his nails with hers
with a mason’s intensity
with a surgeon’s finesse

he has to be in love
why else would he submit
to such a public grooming?

she has to be in love
why else would his cuticles
bother her so much?

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