Wednesday, July 30, 2014

For These Times: One of My Literary Heroes

One of my literary heroes
Paul Celan (1920-1970) is a poet that I read again and again, there is so much to absorb. I've spent all morning trying to get these line breaks right and my sincere apologies if it doesn't transfer onto the web quite right. I need to read his work again right now. I'm especially in need of this quote:

Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, 'enriched' by it all.

Here is one of my favorite poems of all times. Thank you to Peter Aaron for first introducing the work of Paul Celan to me. 

Fugue of Death

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall

we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night

we drink it and drink it

we are digging a grave in the sky it is ample to lie there

A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes

he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden

hair Margarete

he writes it and walks from the house the stars glitter he

whistles his dogs up

he whistles his Jews out and orders a grave to be dug in

the earth

he commands us strike up for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you in the morning at noon we drink you at


drink you and drink you

A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes

he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden

hair Margarete

Your ashen hair Shulamith we are digging a grave in the sky it is

ample to lie there

He shouts stab deeper in earth you there and you others

you sing and you play

he grabs at the iron in his belt and swings it and blue are

his eyes

stab deeper your spades you there and you others play on

for the dancing

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at nightfall

we drink you at noon in the mornings we drink you at


drink you and drink you

a man in the house your golden hair Margarete

your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the serpents

He shouts play sweeter death’s music

death comes as a master from Germany

he shouts stroke darker the strings and as smoke you

shall climb to the sky

then you’ll have a grave in the clouds it is ample to lie


Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you at noon death comes as a master from


we drink you at nightfall and morning we drink you and drink you

a master from Germany death comes with eyes that are blue

with a bullet of lead he will hit in the mark he will hit


a man in the house your golden hair Margarete

he hunts us down with his dogs in the sky he gives us a

grave he plays with the serpents and dreams death comes as a

master from Germany

your golden hair Margarete

your ashen hair Shulamith.

Paul Celan

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

I Know. But I Do Not Approve. And I Am Not Resigned.

This poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay is one of the most moving elegies I know --- especially the final stanza. Millay, or Vincent, as her friends called her, was also a fiercely political poet. She wrote against the use of atom bombs and on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti --- two anarchists who were convicted of a murder in Braintree, Massachusetts although they both had clear alibis for the day of the murder.

Millay wrote poems against the death penalty and against war. This did not make her popular. She published pamphlets and news articles. None of this helped her career; in fact it hastened the end of the love affair the public had had with her.

She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer prize in poetry and her book of Love Sonnets was the first book of poems I ever bought. The first residency I attended was her Sears barn in Austerlitz, New York. She remains one of my poetry foremothers --- although best pal to go partying with --- describes her more accurately.

Dirge Without Music

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

In an Effort to Find Ways to Humanely Deal with Each Other

"Why must the living walk among ghosts?" poet Lena Khalaf Tuffaha asks in her beautiful and heart-wrenching poem, "History." This weekend, Lena and I read together at a fundraiser for the Middle East Children's Alliance based in California. I also recorded a couple of poems which will hopefully be approved for our local NPR station. In fact, I've been thinking a great deal lately about what makes a strong "political" poem ."Political" is in quotes because that word can be understood in many different ways. In many parts of the world poetry is expected to be political, not so in the US -- except in the vaguest of terms.

When I worked at Antioch University several years ago, I taught a seminar on political poetry for their Low Residency MFA Program. More recently I taught a course on the politics of social change. I dug up my notes tonight to see what, if any, wisdom I passed on to my students. Here are a few quotes I found.


“I keep thinking as did millions of other people, what can we do? Writers, believers in words, could not give up words when the going got rough. I found myself as did millions did, turning to poetry. Why should it be any surprise that people find solace in the most intimate of literary genres? Poetry slows us down, cherishes small details. We need poetry for nourishment and for noticing, for the way language and imagery reach comfortably into experience, holding and connecting it more successfully than any news channel we could name.”
                                                     ---Naomi Shihab Nye


“The moment when a feeling enters the body ---
is political. This touch is political.
By which I mean, that politics is the effort to find ways of humanely dealing with each other --- as groups or individuals --- politics being simply process, the breaking down of barriers of oppression, tradition, culture, ignorance, fear, self protectiveness.”  --- Adrienne Rich


I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connoly and Pearse
Now and in time to be
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly
A terrible beauty is born.

“Easter 1916,” William Butler Yeats


Political poetry as solace, political poetry as joining us together in a common humanity, political poetry as historical document. Solace, community, and memory as our touchstones. Not a bad place to live.

The past three weeks, when so much news out of the Middle East is gut wrenching beyond my wildest nightmares, words are perhaps all we have. I can write letters to politicians --- and I do; I can write blog posts, but perhaps most useful of all is to make the attempt to write poetry. Poetry is what grounds me. In some ways writing poems feels like a minuscule gesture. It won't stop the bombs falling but perhaps it will allow American readers and readers from around the world, another way to apprehend the conflict rather than try to comprehend it.


My daughter asks me to explain
but my words falter
I try numbers
dates of accords made and broken
defeats and victories
numbers of casualties and refugees
United Nations resolutions.
My daughter doesn’t want to know how
She isn’t asking about the play-by-play
of death that engulfs us.
The trails of the dispossessed I watched
in childhood are identical to the ones she sees today.
More limbs trapped and swelling
beneath crumbling concrete
More streets crowding with the dying
trying to outrun the dead
the Godzilla of sulfurous smoke
the bombs that rain a thousand miniature poisonous spears
chasing them down.
somehow all these decades later
all we can do is watch
with different lenses and on flatter screens.
My daughter wants to know why
Why must the living walk alongside ghosts
marching out of black and white photographs
and into the fresh rubble
still seething and blood-stained?
My daughter wants to know why
instead of Never Again
which she took into her tender heart
as a sacred oath nestled in the pages
of her history books
and surveying the smoldering expanses of human apathy
why it is always again and again somewhere,
why must we live forever in the dark prison of the past,
and gather at its alter for more bloodletting?

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha -- 7/22/14

And William Stafford: 

Entering History

Remember the line in the sand?
You were there, on the telly, part of
the military. You didn't want to
give it, but they took your money
for those lethal tanks and the bombs.

Minorities, they don't have a country
even if they vote: "Thanks, anyway,"
the majority says, and you are left there
staring at the sand and the line they drew,
calling it a challenge, calling it "ours."

Where was your money when the tanks
grumbled past? Which bombs did you buy
for the death rain that fell? Which year's
taxes put that fire to the town
where the screaming began?

William Stafford

Sometimes I Breathe, 1992


I will end, for now, with Adrienne Rich who wrote so eloquently:

“A revolutionary poem will not tell you who or when to kill, what and when to burn or even how to theorize. It reminds you (for you have known, somehow, all along but may have lost track) where and when and how you are living and might live – it is a wick of desire. It may do its work in the language and images of dreams, lists, love letters, prison letters, chants, filmic jump cuts, meditations, cries of pain, documentary fragments, blues, late night long distance calls. It is not programmatic: it searches for words amid the jamming of un-free, free market idiom, for images that will burn true outside the emotional theme parks. A revolutionary poem is written out of one individual’s confrontation with his/her own longings (including all s/he is expected to deny) in the belief that it’s readers or hearers ( in that old, unending sense of the people) deserve an art as complex, as open to contradiction, as themselves.” Adrienne Rich

Friday, July 18, 2014

Happy Birthday, Nelson Mandela -- Day of Action and Tears

Today Nelson Mandela would have been 96 years old. The United Nations declared July 18th an international holiday in 2010 but I am just learning of this today. Nelson Mandela remains my only political hero. He managed the impossible with a huge heart, a keen intellect, and 27 years in jail so that he came out of the anti-apartheid struggle with his hands clean.

Mandela also believed that non-violence had not been effective against the South African Apartheid government although the ANC had tried this path for more than two decades.

According to friends in the anti-apartheid movement, what finally worked was when the ANC presented maps to De Clerk of all the nuclear sites in the country and told him they were prepared to start bombing them which would leave no South African for whites or blacks. I can't verify its veracity but since living there in the 1990's, it seems highly plausible to me.

Today we in the global community celebrate South Africa as a model of reconciliation. We love the messages of love that Madiba and Archbishop Tutu provide. We forget the war that was fought with blood and abuses on both sides --- but clearly one side -- the Afrikaans government -- perpetrating over 85% of the crimes.

The news today is filled with the invasion of Gaza by Israel. I have spent time in both Israel and Gaza --- working for Amnesty International and as a visitor. My heart is breaking. And I am angry that my government is funding this war. But today is Mandela's birthday and in his honor I am posting a poem of my time in Gaza. A peaceful and hopeful time just after the Oslo Peace Accords in 1995. During my ten days in Gaza and Ramallah I was treated with an enormous amount of hospitality and respect. I can't help but think of the women and men I met in the market, in the classroom, and at a wedding I was invited to. Where are they now? Are any of them still alive?

What would Mandela do today? What can we do? All I have is a poem that tells something of my stay in Gaza City and it's connection to my home. The poem seems incredibly naive given today's world but in that moment I was just one Amnesty International trainer working with other Amnesty International supporters --- men, women, young and old. When I see the footage on TV, I look for their faces.

The Filigree of the Familiar

                        Gaza City, Gaza

Here, all the men wear mustaches
which decorate their faces
in soft curved designs.
Mornings they bring me tangerines,
faux French bread,
and the daily day-old news.

The mustaches shift in color, shape, and size
depending on the wishes of each man
to expose his better self; to project his own
combed landscape: a miniature scissors,
a mirror in his hand.
So many mustaches! Such strange lands!
Some thick as kitchen brooms,
smooth as the Negev sands; Ibrahim's
opaque as winter light
brushed from the rim of the moon.

In laundry rooms, in stairwells,
in cities, on continents, there are periscopes
and clocks, garbage cans and front door lights
that whisper shyly if we just stand still
a warrantee will be provided
with instructions for our lives:
how to settle for less, how not to grow old.

Do I leave to take a stand?
Or circle around the globe,
passport in-hand to get away from the incessant
no-win scenes, the frantic filigree of the familiar
pressing like dead dreams inside my head?

And is it right that I speak of the women of Gaza
in their hijabs and long sleeves,
to imagine stories of their domestic breathing?
Must I turn away from Ramallah, Hebron,
the East Gate entry way? Decline sweet offers
from Yusef and Samir ---
not dance at Omar's wedding
but keep my body alone?

But then, if I describe only what is already inscribed,
I'd never see the black man on my street
who sweeps with an imaginary broom,
never see the Indian Ocean
assert itself, then recede. We move about the world
watching for signs of what we  already know
is best;  a parentheses of photographs to pause in,
an isolated palm lined beach to rest.
And at what point do I become the souvenir?
A faceless history set in amber?

Must  I write only of home town corners
swan boats, street cars, Boston Harbor ---
to stay in the odd intersections
New Englanders call Squares?
And which house is the home where I remain?
Juggler Meadow Road or Edinburgh?
Devon Street or Chelsea?
Home or travel, and which is which
and whose choice is it to say?

And if home might be any dot on the map ---
maybe the one which is furthest away,
then I'll find mine only with a telescope.
Somewhere there's a life with tethered satellite
linking the outbound voyage to the every day.

Susan Rich / The Cartographer’s Tongue ~ Poems of the World

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Literary Magazine for the Ear - Drum Magazine

I rarely feel comfortable with the sound of my own voice. Perhaps I write because in conversation I never get it right. And yet, my interview with Kirun Kapur for Drum: A Literary Magazine for Your Ears makes me happy. Like many interviews these days, I pushed record and answered the questions speaking into my iphone. Kirun asked smart questions and I had time to think about them before responding. As someone who has sat on both sides of the microphone, I know the best interviews happen when the interviewee surprises herself with an answer, discovers some new aspect of (in this case) her own writing practice. I hope you enjoy. I know I did!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Giving Thanks in Blue ~ Mongolian Style

Watson attempts to claim my surprise gift as his own
Today I received an incredible gift in the mail.

A gold envelope (you know the type) big enough to house a small dog was folded into my mailbox -- the top of it sticking straight out. I love that moment between looking and touching --- knowing that a mysterious package awaits. How awe inspiring that six days a week the mailman visits my door delivering missives from faraway. Okay, sometimes it's electric bills and advertisements, but not today.

Today a beautiful blue scarf, still in its original package arrived. And with it a brief letter which I'll copy (in part) below:

                         The blue scarf was purchased in Mongolia some ten years ago (I have two others ---                           one to wear and one in my studio) and is similar to white ones from Nepal and Tibet.                            When you refer to blue in your poetry, this is the color blue that I see. Enjoy!

This gift from a woman I greatly admire but do not know well.  She is a painter. Several years ago when I first moved to Seattle she was very kind to me. Although she lives far up north on an island, she comes to town for each of my book launches.

And now this is the color blue I see in my Cloud Pharmacy as well -- although the color in my mind might be slightly lighter, or darker. This scarf comes as close as any real color can.

Along with the scarf were very kind words about what this recent book of poems meant to her. Most of all I was touched that she took the time to write me, to collect the scarf, padded envelope and stamps. How often do I think about writing someone whose work moves me, how often I fail to finish the task.

This scarf will go out with me in the morning to my writing studio. A reminder of Diane's generosity and spirit. Send someone a surprise that let's them know their work matters. I know I am planning to.