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Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

writers resist nypl event protest

I spent most of the last week in New York City, first attending a work conference and then enjoying a long weekend in Brooklyn with my husband. We walked and wandered: around Fort Greene, across the Brooklyn Bridge, up through SoHo and what felt like half of Manhattan. On Sunday afternoon, we joined the crowd on the steps of the New York Public Library’s main branch for the PEN America Writers Resist event.

It’s always worth gathering to listen to writers read their own words and the words of other writers whom they treasure; to hear them speak in impassioned defense of free speech, a free press and the vitality of individual voices. We stood on the steps for an hour, listening to poets and novelists, essayists and short-story writers and singers, lifting their voices in praise of creativity and free expression.

In a moment of serendipity (or magic), we arrived just in time to hear novelist Alexander Chee read Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem “Praise Song for the Day,” from which this post takes its title. I stood there among a crowd of passionate strangers and felt tears prick my eyes. (As regular readers know, Alexander’s poem “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” has been in my head for months.)

Lately, the loudest words in this country have seemed to be fear or division or prejudice. We are entering a time of political transition with many unknown factors, and I know a lot of us are struggling with fear and anger, every day. I can’t pretend that the protest solved that, for me or for anyone. But I believe it was important to show up and listen.

“In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, / any thing can be made, any sentence begun,” Chee read. I needed that reminder, and I’m sharing it in case you need it too. Pick up a pen, a paintbrush, a musical instrument – whatever tool you can use to make and remake the world. We need you: your work, your voice, your love. We are louder – and stronger – together. Let’s walk forward in that light.

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birds nest branches

Black Rook in Rainy Weather

On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident

To set the sight on fire
In my eye, nor seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall,
Without ceremony, or portent.

Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can’t honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
Lean incandescent

Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then —
Thus hallowing an interval
Otherwise inconsequent

By bestowing largesse, honor,
One might say love. At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); skeptical,
Yet politic; ignorant

Of whatever angel may choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant

A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content

Of sorts. Miracles occur,
If you dare to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait’s begun again,
The long wait for the angel,
For that rare, random descent.

—Sylvia Plath

The first time I came across this poem in Watch for the Light (over a decade ago), I remember being surprised at its inclusion. I knew Plath only as angry and suicidal, and her quiet, melancholy words moved me in a way I wasn’t expecting. Every year, I turn back to them and am grateful to hear them again.

This year, as I’ve edged slowly into Advent, these lines have run through my head on a daily basis. This is a “season of fatigue” and despair for many of us, but I am keeping a weather eye open for small miracles.

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orinoco glasses lights fence

After work on Friday evening, I caught the bus from Harvard Square to a house on a hill in Lexington, where my friend Hannah lives. I had a bottle of (boxed) rosé in my bag, and a poem to share with the women in my book club (we dubbed this meeting our “poetry potluck”). I walked up Massachusetts Avenue from the bus station in the soft evening light, the first act of Hamilton in my headphones.

When I pushed open the screen door, I found Hannah and our friend Rachael standing in the kitchen, chopping apples and kale, seeding pomegranates, laying figs and prosciutto out on a cutting board. I greeted them (and Percy the cat), then joined the action: whisking eggs for an omelet, slicing cheddar cheese, pouring water. The three of us gathered around a small round table, munching and laughing, talking about TV shows and weddings, work and friendship, the stuff of daily life. Two other members joined us later, and the five of us moved into the living room, curling up on chairs and couches, barefoot, utterly at ease together.

We took turns reading our chosen poems aloud: words by Billy Collins, Wislawa Szymborska, Elizabeth Alexander, Kevin Young. We dipped black bean chips into spicy salsa and poured out the last of the rosé, and heaved open the windows to listen to (and smell) a glorious fall rain. Much later, Louisa and I caught an Uber back to Cambridge together, and I walked the few blocks from her street to Central Square, listening to the rain patter on my umbrella.

The whole evening felt like a gift – a deep breath I badly needed.

This September has been crowded and insistent, hot and demanding – at work, at home, all over the place. The national news has been full of raw grief, and I have also been dealing with some heartaches (my own and other people’s) closer to home. Last week felt particularly hard and helpless, so much so that I couldn’t even write about it here. Hope and peace have been difficult to find.

That evening of poetry and rich conversation did not erase my problems: none of us left Hannah’s that night with a magic solution to our own struggles or the continuing (seemingly intractable) problems of race relations and civil discourse in this country. The pain and fear are still present: they have not disappeared, and neither have the smaller daily trials we all must face. But those hours in that living room, laughing and listening and holding space for each other’s stories, were a balm to my soul. They are lingering in my memory, bolstering me up as I face another week. And I am grateful.

Wishing you a peaceful week, friends – with lots of deep breaths.

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brattle bookshop doors boston

Fall is the time to dig into new books (though, really, that’s every season around here). The doors above are from the outdoor sale lot of the fabulous Brattle Book Shop in Boston, and the books below are what I’ve been reading lately:

A Very Special Year, Thomas Montasser
I heard Liberty talk about this novel on All the Books and picked it up at Three Lives & Co. Valerie takes over her aunt Charlotte’s bookshop after Charlotte disappears. Despite her career plans, Valerie (of course) finds herself utterly seduced by the shop’s books and readers. A truly delightful slim novel, in the vein of The Haunted Bookshop or The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

Outlander, Diana Gabaldon
I’d heard about this sweeping time-travel romance series from a dozen friends, plus my mom. Claire Randall is traveling with her husband in the Scottish Highlands after WWII when she steps through a circle of standing stones and finds herself in 1743. It’s a wild (often violent) ride as Claire adapts to an entirely different world and becomes tightly linked to the clan MacKenzie and a young outlaw called Jamie Fraser. Powerful storytelling, fascinating history and dry wit, though with waaaay more sex and violence than my usual fare.

Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms, Katherine Rundell
Wilhelmina “Will” Silver relishes her life running wild on the farm her father manages in Zimbabwe. But after his death, she’s sent to England and finds herself completely unequipped for the foreign, catty world of boarding school. I found the book’s African scenes much more fully realized than the English ones, but I loved Will’s fierce, bold spirit and Rundell’s writing. Found at Book Culture.

The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, Richard Hugo
I’d never heard of Hugo’s poetry, but I found this essay collection at Book Culture and loved much of his wry, thoughtful advice on writing poetry and being a poet (two different things). Witty, aphoristic and encouraging, if a little uneven. A good read to start off the fall.

First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies, Kate Andersen Brower
The role of First Lady is visible, public and largely undefined – so each woman who takes on that mantle truly makes it her own. Brower draws a sharp, thoroughly researched, fascinating portrait of First Ladies from Jacqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama. Really well done (and, obviously, so timely).

The Bell Family, Noel Streatfeild
I discovered Streatfeild via You’ve Got Mail, so I was delighted to find this novel at Book Culture on the Upper West Side (shades of The Shop Around the Corner!). The Bell family lives in a crowded vicarage in the East End of London, and their adventures are funny, sweet and altogether delightful.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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candle flower

Amid the horror and heartbreak of the past week, I have been turning back to poetry, because I honestly don’t know what else to do. I quoted this poem in a post I wrote last month (after the tragedy in Orlando), but I share it here in full.

Ars Poetica #100: I Believe

Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry

is where we are ourselves
(though Sterling Brown said

“Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I'”),
digging in the clam flats

for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.

Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,

overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way

to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)

is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

—Elizabeth Alexander

I also recommend Philip Larkin’s “The Mower,” Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Gate A-4,” and Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.”

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peony candle

I read this line last month in Krista Tippett’s gorgeous, luminous book Becoming Wise. It is from a poem by Elizabeth Alexander, and I have not been able to stop thinking about it. In the wake of this weekend’s tragedy in Orlando, it has been with me like a heartbeat, thrumming quietly but insistently through my veins.

I talk a lot, lately, about my deep love for Darwin’s, the coffee shop down the street from my office. I am there so often – for chai or lunch or an afternoon snack – that I know at least half the staff by name. Several times a week, I stand in the lunchtime line that winds around the wine racks and past the ice cream freezer, and exchange smiles and hellos with the folks I know: Al, Kiersten, Ariel, Justin. If I’m lucky, my friend Gamal is working the register, and he always has a smile and a good word for me.

I have spent much of the past year not knowing quite where I belong: shunted between different offices, learning the ropes of two temp gigs while searching for the next right thing. I am both shy and introverted, and it’s hard sometimes for me to reach across and connect with new people, especially when I’m not sure I will be welcomed. (My first couple of years in Boston were hard and heartbreaking in that way, and it’s taken a long time for me to believe that people here want to know me, or be known by me.)

Especially during this year, I’ve been grateful for Darwin’s, and for other places of sanctuary and welcome in my life. The teams at both my temp gigs are full of smart, warmhearted people, and I’m lucky to have other folks to lean on: my husband, my family, a few treasured close friends.

And yet.

Relishing, and appreciating, the existing friendships in my life can’t be enough. Not when we wake up over and over to news reports of violence and tragedy, perpetuated by people full of hate and fear of those who are different from them. I can’t let my shyness – or my perceptions about any group of people – override my simple human responsibility: to be interested in others, and to treat them with dignity and compassion.

I am straight. I am white. I can’t imagine the discrimination experienced by some of my friends who don’t fit those descriptors. But I can – I must – be interested in them and their stories. Not as tokens or examples, but as people – complicated, messy, gloriously individual.

Alexander’s poem starts out being about poetry, as the narrator tells her students that poetry is “idiosyncratic.” But it quickly becomes about the human condition: “poetry is where we are ourselves,” she says. Her voice rises until it reaches the poem’s final crescendo:

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

Yes. We are of interest to each other. We must be, if we are going to stem the tide of hate and fear that seems to be spilling out all over the place. We must remain interested in – and delighted by, and full of compassion for – each other. We cannot afford to do otherwise.

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peter and the starcatcher set

The curtain goes up,
The curtain goes up,
It’s a wonderful moment,
When the curtain goes up…

—Maud Hart Lovelace, Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown

On Friday, the hubs and I met up downtown after work, to catch the Lyric Stage Company’s opening night performance of Peter and the Starcatcher. It’s a fast-paced, witty, hilarious prequel of sorts to Peter Pan, and we loved every second of it. Elaborate wordplay, swashbuckling fights, wildly colorful mermaid costumes, and a story with friendship and magic at its heart. (Because you can’t have Neverland without either one, really.)

I didn’t know much about the play beforehand, but I knew that the Lyric Stage puts on fabulous shows, since I took my parents to see their production of My Fair Lady last fall. That show is an old favorite of mine – my dad and I can quote Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering for hours – and their version felt both familiar and wonderfully fresh. Both nights reminded me of something I often forget: how much I love live theatre.

my fair lady set

Aside from a drama class in ninth grade and a few church plays, I don’t have much acting experience. But I love the immediacy of live theatre: the way it binds audience and actors together in a vital dynamic. In this age of carefully produced everything – Instagram filters, sharply cut films, painstakingly edited music – live theatre still holds the potential for surprise.

I know it takes a lot of work to get to opening night, and I know these actors and crew members spent weeks perfecting the set, the lighting, the lines and the blocking. But after all that preparation, each performance – the thing itself – is a glittering, singular entity all its own. Telling stories and listening to them is a deeply human act, and live theatre brings stories into the open, in all their glorious particularity.

There wasn’t an actual curtain on Friday night: the Lyric Stage space (see above) is small and intimate, and the audience simply waits for the lights to come up. But I still felt like Betsy Ray in the Deep Valley Opera House, alive with anticipation:

It’s like Christmas morning,
Stealing down stairs,
It’s like being hungry,
And saying your prayers.

It’s like being hungry,
And ready to sup,
It’s a wonderful moment,
When the curtain goes up.

Betsy, as usual, had it exactly right. As the cast came bounding onstage for the first scene, my eyes filled with sudden tears. This is what it means to be human: telling each other our stories, and delighting in them. (And maybe catching a few stars along the way.)

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