Poem of the Week, by Carl Sandburg

River Roads
– Carl Sandburg

Let the crows go by hawking their caw and caw.
They have been swimming in midnights of coal mines somewhere.
Let ’em hawk their caw and caw.

Let the woodpecker drum and drum on a hickory stump.
He has been swimming in red and blue pools somewhere hundreds of years
And the blue has gone to his wings and the red has gone to his head.
Let his red head drum and drum.

Let the dark pools hold the birds in a looking-glass.
And if the pool wishes, let it shiver to the blur of many wings, old
swimmers from old places.

Let the redwing streak a line of vermillion on the green wood lines.
And the mist along the river fix its purple in lines of a woman’s
shawl on lazy shoulders.

–For more information on Carl Sandburg, please click here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/carl-sandburg

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Write about a word that makes you squirm

ANGELS

* * *

A children’s dentist in a little upstate New York city. A room on the second floor of an old house, light filtering in through large paned windows. A fish tank burbling in the corner, orange and blue and yellow fish darting in and out of the windows of a small castle.

A white dental chair and a gentle man with metal instruments that feel cool and soft in your mouth.

A basket of unpainted, blank-eyed, plaster-cast figurines. The post-dentist-visit treat to take home and paint.

“Which one do you want, Alison?”

You point.

“The angel.”

* * *

The neutral living room of a man reputed to diagnose the undiagnosed and heal them with psychic surgery. You are there with a friend in need of healing. You, interested, sit in the corner and listen and absorb the man’s changing face as he half-closes his eyes and tunes in to your friend’s malady.

But the man suddenly turns to you.

“I can’t ignore them,” he says. “Are you aware of them?”

You don’t know what he’s talking about.

“Angels,” he says. “Your guardian angels. There’s one on either side of you.”

He shakes his head.

“I can’t believe how beautiful they are,” he says. “Tall and yellow-green, rising like smoke.”

* * *

A hair salon in south Minneapolis. The calm and graceful woman who has been cutting your hair for eighteen years. You know secrets about each other.

You remember a look on her face once, long ago. You knew that what you both suspected was going to happen must have happened.

Another time, you sat down in the twirly chair and she stood behind you, lifting your hair and studying your face. Then, suddenly, her hands came down on either side of you and she held your shoulders and kept holding them. She said nothing and neither did you, while you fought to keep the tears back.

Now she is getting married again.

“Tell me again what day the wedding is?” you ask, and she tells you.

“And what exact time is it?” you say, and she tells you that too.

But she intuits what you’re thinking and she tells you that it’s a one-hour time difference, so be sure to factor that in.

“Bring in the angels,” she whispers in your ear as you hug her goodbye. “I want them all gathered around.”

* * *

Walk into your house to see your youthful companion bent over her biology textbook at the dining table. Watch as she mumbles long biology words to herself, prepping for a test tomorrow.

“Help,” you say. “I have to write about a word I don’t like. And I really don’t like the word I picked.”

“Don’t do it then,” she says.

She lifts her dark eyes from the notes strewn around the table and flashes her white grin.

“Write about me instead,” she says. “After all, I’m your youngest angel.”

* * *

Poem of the Week, by Coleman Barks

Hummingbird Sleep
– Coleman Barks

A hummingbird sleeps among the wonders.
Close to dark, he settles on a roosting limb
and lowers his body temperature
to within a few degrees of the air’s own.

As the bird descends into torpor,
he assumes his heroic sleep posture,
head back, tilted beak pointing to the sky,
angling steep, Quixotic, Crimean.

This noctivation, the ornithologist word for it,
is very like what bears do through the winter.
Hummingbirds live the deep drop every night.
You can yell in his face and shake the branch.

Nothing. Gone. Where? What does he dream of?
He dreams he is the great air itself, the substance
he swims in every day, and the rising light
coming back to be his astonishing body.

For more information on Coleman Barks, please click here: http://www.colemanbarks.com/


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"If we're not supposed to dance, why all this music?"*

“To be alive: not just the carcass
But the spark.
That’s crudely put, but…”

The lit-up second floor of a country grange hall. Silent countryside stretching for miles in the black night beyond. A polka band playing in the corner. A giant man –your father– telling you to hold his hands tight and stand on his feet. The crowd, lights, music, whirling past your half-closed eyes as he turns you around and around on the creaky wooden floorboards.

* * *

A ballet studio on the second floor of a frame house in a nearby village. First position. Second position. Third, fourth, fifth positions. Plie. Arabesque. Releve.

* * *

The darkened gym of a high school in the country. Rock ‘n roll so loud your ears ring all the next day. The feel of the cinder block wall against your back as you wait out the slow dances, wondering will your turn ever come.

* * *

The Alibi, a bar in a tiny town in Vermont. Nickel beers on Wednesdays, dancing every Friday and Saturday. Ellen in her lavender shirt, you in your red shirt, waiting in the entry way until the cover charge drops to half price. The tiny square dance floor where every song, in your memory, is by the Police.

* * *

A party in Maine. A swing band. A skirt that swings, a man with dark eyes. Your body unsure of itself, unable to follow the tight rhythms. Not like that. Like this— the dark-eyed man curls your fingers tight around the tips of his– Resist me. Follow me, and at the same time resist me. And off you go.

* * *

A wedding outside on a rainy night under a big tent. Boards laid across mud. The band strikes up and the athlete guests spring to their feet. A laughing man holds out his hand: Come on, Alison, let’s go. Mud-soaked red shoes: one heel broken, one strap missing, carried in your hand by the end of the night.

* * *

Late night. A crowded apartment. The music on shuffle. Dancing in the new year with a glass of whiskey in one hand, the other draped around a man’s back. His hand on your waist. The world turning on its axis and the world’s inhabitants waiting for another midnight. Another chance.

* * *

Late night in an empty house. Ouzo on ice. Windows open to the summer air. Bare feet. Dog half-asleep on couch. 92-year-old neighbor washing dishes at her sink. All the lights turned off, the music turned up, and you, dancing around your dining table.

* * *

A summer night high in the grandstand. 95 degrees in the shade. A man pointing up in your direction: I’m not gonna forget about you people way up there. Clapping and laughing with everyone else as he dances his way down from the stage, leaps the fences, up through the crowd, up and up and up until he’s right there in the aisle, next to you, and you and everyone else are dancing with him, dripping sweat and laughing.

 

 

“. . . If we’re not supposed to dance, why all this music?”

 

*To Be Alive, by Gregory Orr.

Poem of the Week, by Richard Kenney

Coda
– Richard Kenney

I tried lacing loss into these lines,
thinking to bind it safely there.

But when much lifetime had raced by I
saw rather

trapped in the scrag noose, too,
joy and daylight.

I bottled also bile in these poems,
thinking to isolate

the toxin. But when much lifetime had raced by I
found it on the mantel.

I thought to lower these poems into a salt dome—
stable, it’s said, for aeons.

And who isn’t one?
Once

I tried to write invisibly,
but all lifetime is a candle.

F​or more information on Richard Kenney, please click here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/richard-kenney​

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Miniature Torta #4: Three Words

“Sublime.”

A long time ago. A house that I used to live in, being repainted by two house painters. One of them a young man with red-blonde hair, newly diabetic, still figuring out how to live with it. Sometimes he started to crash, so I kept the door unlocked and orange juice in the refrigerator for him.

His partner: a young man with dark hair that came down to his shoulders and brown eyes and a smooth, tan face. His handsomeness inseparable from the sense of calm and happiness that surrounded him.

It was fall. A stretch of crisp golden-leaved days. One afternoon I walked onto the porch as they were cleaning up to go home. The brown-eyed painter saw me standing there, looking out at the maple, turning itself to flame, and smiled.

“Sublime,” he said.

I hear the word sublime now and it is him I see in my mind, his face tilted to that blue, blue September sky.

* * *

“Okay.”

Many years ago, when I first moved to Minneapolis. A big urban high school where I taught Chinese for four years. One of my students: tall and lean, a basketball player. Smart –not in a bookish way– and funny. He flirted with all the girls, including me.

One day he didn’t show up in class. Word filtered through school that his father had died the previous night from a heart attack.

When the last bell rang I sat at my desk in the empty classroom, the door ajar. Suddenly there he was, poking his face around the doorframe, his irrepressible grin on his face.

“Hey Mai Laoshi,” he said (Mai Laoshi was my Chinese teaching name).

There he stood, smiling at me, his voice normal. But it was as if the air was shaking around him. I could almost see it, vibrating. I pushed myself up from the desk and put my arms around him.

“I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s okay, Mai Laoshi.”

It’s okay, Mao Laoshi. 

That word okay, does it ever really mean “all right”? Most of the time it’s like a spoken punctuation mark. A sound meant to put a pause in something, an acknowledgment of something that’s not okay at all, a word meant to get you from someplace you don’t want to be to another, different place.

When I hear the phrase It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s that boy’s face that I see, peeking around the door of my empty classroom.

* * *

“Dinosaurs.”

Spring. A two year old boy. A back yard garden overrun with ferns just beginning to unfurl themselves. A young mother hauling bag after bag of groceries from the car into the house.

“Come on, little guy, let’s get into the house now.”

But he was stopped by the overgrown patch of yard, bent over and laughing. Pointing.

“Dinosaurs!” he said. “Dinosaurs.”

I bent down so I was as short as him and followed his pointing finger. It took me a minute, but then I finally understood: the ferns uncurling, bent under the weight of their own fronds, looked just like the T-Rexes that he was currently obsessed with.

Dinosaurs. They’re everywhere.

Poem of the Week, by Tony Hoagland

The Word
– Tony Hoagland

Down near the bottom
of the crossed-out list
of things you have to do today,

between “green thread”
and “broccoli” you find
that you have penciled “sunlight.”

Resting on the page, the word
is beautiful, it touches you
as if you had a friend

and sunlight were a present
he had sent you from some place distant
as this morning—to cheer you up,

and to remind you that,
among your duties, pleasure
is a thing

that also needs accomplishing.
Do you remember?
that time and light are kinds

of love, and love
is no less practical
than a coffee grinder

or a safe spare tire?
Tomorrow you may be utterly
without a clue

but today you get a telegram,
from the heart in exile
proclaiming that the kingdom

still exists,
the king and queen alive,
still speaking to their children,

—to any one among them
who can find the time,
to sit out in the sun and listen.

For more information about Tony Hoagland, please click here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/tony-hoagland

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Miniature Torta #3: "The Voyage of Life"

My mother, an only child born and raised in Manhattan by poor but arts-loving parents, tried her best to instill an appreciation of culture in her own children. This was a strictly uphill battle.

She used to sign us up for things against our will, such as the symphony usherette program in Utica, 20 miles south. Being a Symphony Usherette meant escorting symphony attendees to their seats, with the reward of listening to the concert for free.

Sounds good, right? But we were semi-feral teenagers, raised in the woods, and we resisted her efforts by 1) never really learning the seating layout of the auditorium, thereby leading elderly patrons up and down various aisles while apologizing profusely, and 2) fleeing to the nearest McDonald’s in our long dresses the minute the orchestra started up.

The one thing she did that actually worked, though, was to take us to the Munson Williams Proctor Museum of Art. We went there a lot. I can still see the galleries in my mind. Our mother didn’t try to teach us anything about art; she just let us wander around. My sisters and I were transfixed from an early age by The Voyage of Life, a series of paintings by a man named Thomas Cole. Childhood, Youth, Manhood, Old Age. They were huge, majestic, old-school paintings. That’s the Childhood one up at the top of this post.

My whole life I have thought about those paintings. I loved them as a child, but they also disturbed me. That sense of inevitability, the passage of time, progressing from Childhood to Old Age. And the last one always felt to me as if the artist had stroked pain out onto that canvas. Resignation. Loss.

The last time I was at Munson Williams was many years ago. I pushed my grandmother around in a wheelchair and we admired the art. There was the Voyage of Life, in its customary place. I remember resolutely pushing her past the last one.

I wish I could paint, the same way I wish I could write music. Thomas Cole knew exactly what he was doing, even though he painted the Voyage of Life when he was a young man.

The closest thing I have to the Voyage of Life are the quotes I have taped to my computer over the years. There have been only three.

A diamond is a piece of coal that stuck with the job.

That one stayed on the computer for ten or so years.

Write a little every day, without hope and without despair.

That one also lasted maybe ten years.

There must have come a day when Thomas Cole looked at his fourth painting –“Old Age”– and thought, Okay. I guess I can’t do any more. And then he must have put down his paintbrush and moved on to something else.

Now I’m on my third taped-up quote, a line I heard in a song by one of my favorite singers.

Make yourself a blessing.

That one’s still in progress. Maybe it’ll be the one that outlasts me. Some of us have oil paints and paintbrushes and giant canvases that hang in art museums where little girls stand before them, transfixed, absorbing something that they will never forget.

And some of us have Precise V7 Extra Fine Rolling Ball black pens and scratch paper that we scissor into quarters and use to jot down shopping lists and to-do lists and, once in a while, a quote that might last us the rest of our lives.

Miniature Torta #2: A nimbus-clouded voice

I walked into the Y this morning and saw an old friend at the other end of the room, next to the window, studying the instructions for a new machine. She lifted her hand and tucked her dark hair behind her ear. She looked young and fit.

Happiness rushed through me at the sight of her, along with the feeling of Wow, how long has it been?

Then I realized that time had done one of its hiccups. The darkhaired woman across the room wasn’t the friend I was thinking about. I haven’t seen that particular friend, even though we live in the same city, in well over a decade. The woman I was looking at could have been her niece, or her much younger cousin.

Sometimes time picks you up and sets you down, momentarily, in another place. Another era. My old friend might not think about me anymore. The last time I saw her I was forging solo into new territory. Maybe it seemed too hard to maintain the friendship; maybe she wished I would stay put, in the place where she had always known me.

But as I stood there, looking at the familiar-looking stranger studying the machine across the room, I was suddenly back in the living room of an apartment I used to rent, back when I was struggling my way into that new life.

This was the last time I saw her. We were both sitting crosslegged on the floor and drinking red wine and she was telling me about something hard in her life. I could hear her voice, which I remember as calm and bell-like, as if all the vowels became somehow rounded and soft when they emerged from her throat into the air.

Her voice had the texture of what I imagine bubbles from a bubble-pipe would feel like if you could touch them without them popping. What a beautiful voice she had, I thought.

She must still have that voice.

I left that room and went down to the weight room and started doing pull-ups, conjuring up people from my past, to see if their voices were still there. My grandmother, yes. As clear as if she were standing right there in the Y.

Do I hear her so clearly because of the six hours of video I took of her and then had transferred to a cd and then into my computer, so that sometimes, when I’m cooking or cleaning, I pull her up on the screen and she keeps me company?

No. At least I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure I will remember her voice forever and ever. But I don’t really know.

How about my best friend from childhood? She appears immediately in my mind, the way she would have looked in, say, fifth grade. Blonde hair, bangs, blue-blue eyes. She was a very small person but her voice was low, older than her years.

Was it, though? I try to listen, but I can only see her, standing in the framed-up doorway of her always-in-progress bedroom. Her voice is low and calm. I can hear it, and yet I can’t. The way I hear it is the way you remember a bubble drifting in the air, undulating in that rainbowy way, just before it vanishes. It’s the sense of a voice, but not the voice itself.

Try someone else. My friend Absalom, yes, I can hear his voice whenever I want, maybe because I spend a fair amount of time with him these days. But I distinctly remember driving to the airport to pick him up a few years ago. This would be the first time I had seen him since college, when we were great friends.

Will I even recognize him?, I remember thinking. And I also remember trying to conjure up his voice, there in the car as I drove down the highway to the airport. No. Nothing.

I pulled up to Baggage Claim and there he was, standing by a post, the same but not. Twenty and more years pass; how can someone not change? Then he called out Allie! and we both started laughing, and his voice came washing over me in that moment but also it came welling up from some deep reservoir of memory.

Now I’m picturing people from long ago in my mind and trying to conjure their voices. Some are there, others are lost. But are they really?

I’m thinking of my darkhaired friend’s voice as it was that night, the last time I saw her. Is that conversation –her soft words, filled with sorrow, and my responses– still somewhere in the world? Do the voices of everyone we know, everyone we loved, hang somewhere in the air after they’ve spoken? After they’re gone from the earth?

Does everything that rises converge, somewhere beyond where we can see and hear?

. . . In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me . . .
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.