Poem of the Week, by Anna Marie Sewell

Screen Shot 2017-07-15 at 4.04.18 PMMama passed, honey. That was the subject line of my friend S’s email to me last week. S had been by the side of the woman who, though not her mother, was close enough to be. S had helped Mama out of this world into whatever comes after. Before work, after work, on weekends, she was with her, a steadying presence full of love and jokes. When Mama told her she was hungry, S would feed her little bites of avocado, apple sauce, ice cream. S was with Mama when she finally said goodbye to the world. Mama was in her 90’s. It was time. 

But it’s not always time. I remember the day that the mother of one of my daughter’s best friends died. I hung up the phone and screamed and threw it across the room. So unfair, that this middle-schooler, a girl I adore, should have to live with that loss. 

The stars of my new novel, Never Coming Back (my first novel for adults in a long time, forthcoming in October), are Clara Winter and her mother Tamar. Tamar has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, which means that she and Clara are running out of time together. While most of us, if we’re lucky, have decades to resolve our relationships with our parents –the ins and outs, the nuances and realizations and disconnections and reconnections– Clara and Tamar have only months. This small, lovely poem by Anna Marie Sewell makes me think about mothers and daughters, parents and children, my friend S and Mama, and all the ways in which we do or don’t cradle each other.  

 

Nocturne: Tiny Now, by Anna Marie Sewell

She is tiny now, my mother
and jokes in the morning, when
her teeth aren’t in, how she whistles
like a little bird. And i want to reach
back to the nights when
she brought the piglets in
laid them in the woodstove oven
so tiny, but she believed in them
and in that warm cradle, the spark
of life rekindled in them. How
do i cradle her? now
she is so tiny, softly
drawing nearer to
the Western Door.
This poem won’t do it.
This poem is for me
a piglet grown, with
my snout astonished
at discovery, how the power
that built a world for me still
reveals itself, blue
slight, soft, tiny

 

For more information on Anna Marie Sewell, please click here.

Poem of the Week, by Yehuda Amichai, translated by Assia Gutmann

Screen Shot 2017-07-15 at 7.55.54 AMRemember the man in the photo to the right? He stood in front of those tanks during the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989, nothing but a briefcase in his hands. When the tanks tried to maneuver around him, he stepped in front of them again. I don’t know what became of him.

When the protest happened, I was teaching Mandarin at a big urban high school in Minneapolis, and I wheeled a television into the classroom each day so that we could watch world history being made. I was young and naive and I assumed that the protest –thousands of pro-democracy unarmed students occupying a massive public square– would end peacefully. I was wrong.  

But the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement continues to this day. One of the bravest to carry its flame throughout his life was one of my heroes, poet, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo*, who died yesterday from liver cancer after spending much of his adult life in prison. He consistently refused offers of freedom in return for admissions of guilt. He hoped to transcend his own personal nightmare, writing “If you want to enter hell, don’t complain of the dark.” In these terrible, ominous times –a time when our own elected employees seem bent on destroying American democracy– his example brings strength.Screen Shot 2017-07-15 at 11.12.38 AM

His wife, Liu Xia, entered into hell with him. Also a poet and activist, she suffers physical and emotional problems from the cruelty of their long separation and, now, his death. Their love was unwavering. Liu once said that it was the thought of his wife that kept him steady and strong. In mourning, I combed through my thousands of poems last night, looking for one to mark the passing of a person who had such courage and steadfastness. In the end I took a sideways turn and chose this one by Yehuda Amichai, in honor of the remarkable love between husband and wife.

 

In the Middle of This Century, by Yehuda Amichai (translated by Assia Gutmann)

In the middle of this century we turned to each other
with half faces and full eyes
like an ancient Egyptian picture
and for a short while.

I stroked your hair
in the opposite direction to your journey,
we called to each other,
like calling out the names of towns
where nobody stops
along the route.

Lovely is the world rising early to evil,
lovely is the world falling asleep to sin and pity,
in the mingling of ourselves, you and I,
lovely is the world.

The earth drinks men and their loves
like wine,
to forget. 
It can’t.
And like the contours of the Judean hills,
we shall never find peace.

In the middle of this century we turned to each other,
I saw your body, throwing shade, waiting for me,

the leather straps for a long journey
already tightening across my chest.
I spoke in praise of your mortal hips,
you spoke in praise of my passing face,
I stroked your hair in the direction of your journey,
I touched your flesh, prophet of your end,
I touched your hand which has never slept,
I touched your mouth which may yet sing.

Dust from the desert covered the table
at which we did not eat
but with my finger I wrote on it
the letters of your name

 
 

*Transliterated Mandarin is not pronounced the way it looks in English. Phonetically, Liu’s name is pronounced more like this: Lee-yu Shee-yow Baw. His wife’s name is pronounced more like Lee-yu Shee-yah.

 
​For more information on Yehuda Amichai, please click here.​
For more information on Liu Xiaobo, please click here.

Poem of the Week, by Alden Nowlan

Digital story, cartwheelI’m going through my entire house, cleaning and sorting and organizing and paring. Most things I can jettison, but the things I can’t ever seem to throw away are cards and notes and notebooks and little scraps of paper with lists jotted onto them. The other day I found one that I had written a long time ago, titled Things I Love. Among them: that one small cup of coffee with heavy cream at dawn, the way the little white solar lights look when they flicker on at dusk, the raspberries that ripen for three weeks each summer, the sound of my best friend’s voice on the phone, time with my parents, time with my children, time with my friends, time with my sweetheart, doing nothing but being. It’s a big fat life and it’s filled with love and today’s my birthday so I’m celebrating, beginning with this beautiful poem by the wondrous Alden Nowlan. Enjoy.

Great Things Have Happened, by Alden Nowlan

We were talking about the great things
that have happened in our lifetimes;
and I said, “Oh, I suppose the moon landing
was the greatest thing that has happened
in my time.” But, of course, we were all lying.
The truth is the moon landing didn’t mean
one-tenth as much to me as one night in 1963
when we lived in a three-room flat in what once had been
the mansion of some Victorian merchant prince
(our kitchen had been a clothes closet, I’m sure),
on a street where by now nobody lived
who could afford to live anywhere else.
That night, the three of us, Claudine, Johnnie and me,
woke up at half-past four in the morning
and ate cinnamon toast together.

“Is that all?” I hear somebody ask.
Oh, but we were silly with sleepiness
and, under our windows, the street-cleaners
were working their machines and conversing in Italian, and
everything was strange without being threatening,
even the tea-kettle whistled differently
than in the daytime: it was like the feeling
you get sometimes in a country you’ve never visited
before, when the bread doesn’t taste quite the same,
the butter is a small adventure, and they put
paprika on the table instead of pepper,
except that there was nobody in this country
except the three of us, half-tipsy with the wonder
of being alive, and wholly enveloped in love.

 

For more information on Alden Nowlan, please click here.

Poem of the Week, by Marie Howe

See that old photo to the right? I found it yesterday in a scrapbook filled with random high school mementoes. The girl with the beautiful smile playing the violin used to be one of my closest friendsIMG_7430. She lived in a small bright green ranch house right across the street from the middle school, which meant that all she had to do was walk out her front door, cross Route 365 –the main street of the town– and there she was, at school. Unlike me, sitting on that accursed bus, groaning and lurching its way around endless curve after endless curve, down from the foothills, 45 minutes or more to school.

In my memory she is always smiling. She had silky dark brown hair, parted in the middle, falling over her shoulders. Her nose was sharp and red and a bit hooked, and her eyes, in my memory, are blue, blue, blue. And the smile. A big, merry smile that showed off her high cheekbones. I can picture her in the yearly school class photo. She would have been in the back row, with me, because when we were kids she was tall, too. She would have been smiling that big happy smile.

In middle school the two of us used to escape at lunch and walk across the street to the bright green ranch house. She lived there with her older brothers and her older sisters and her mother, who was, I’m pretty sure, a teacher down in Utica. Her father had died when she was a baby.

Her sisters and brothers were in high school, unimaginably older and cool. They were hippies. She and I were too young, we missed out on that. But often, when we walked into that little house with her, they and their friends would be there. Lying on the old couch, sitting on chairs, laughing and talking and wrestling and making offhand comments and jokes about things like sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll.

Had I been alone I would have been stunned and cowed and half-paralyzed by their coolness, their easy laughter. But I wasn’t alone. I was with her.

Why did she like me? In retrospect I was quiet and reserved and an observer and not much fun back then, although maybe I’m not the best judge of that. But one reason she liked me is easy: she liked nearly everyone. She had a huge and generous heart. She was also unafraid of things that I was afraid of, like saying out loud that which scared me, hurt me, made me angry. She was honest about things. She saw life clearly, and stating the obvious didn’t scare her.

The boy I had a crush on used to ask if he could have a punch off my lunch ticket.

“Sure,” I used to say.

“I’ll pay you back,” he used to say.

I would watch him run across the grass, back into the school. She and I would be nearly to Route 365 now, ready to zip across and into the safety of that little green house.

“He won’t, you know,” she observed. “He won’t pay you back. And you’ll give it to him tomorrow if he asks.”

I looked at her. She looked at me and smiled. She was wise. She was honest. She stated things the way they were. And she was unjudging. Into her house the two of us would go, breaking the school rule, although in retrospect it’s hard to imagine that any number of teachers didn’t see us zipping across that street every day and mentally shrug.

The cool older siblings and their cool older friends might be lounging about. She would greet them all, smiling, and then the two of us would go into the tiny dark kitchen and pour enormous glasses of milk. Stir in the Quik with tall-handled spoons. Dig the knife into the big jar of peanut butter and spread giant swaths of it on slices of Wonder bread.

We would sit eating and drinking while I tried to overhear the conversations in the other room, trying to get some sense of what life could be like, were I cooler and older and wore tight bell bottoms and peasant shirts. She was one of the few friends I kept in touch with after high school. She stayed there, in the tiny town, population 300. She went to college, sure, but she never wanted to leave the town. Me? I left at 18 and never went back other than to visit my family. Not that I didn’t, and don’t, love it there, love the way I grew up. But staying there never felt like an option. For her, there was no other.

“I love it here,” she said. “I want to live here my whole life.”

She got a degree in gerontology and worked with old people. She loved them too. People on the fringes, people unnoticed, people quiet and shy, she saw them. She noticed them.

Twice that I know of, because she told me, men asked her to marry them.

“I said no,” she said. Smiling that big bright smile.

I asked her why. She shrugged.

“Didn’t feel right,” she said. “I don’t know. I’m happy just the way I am.”

She was Catholic and that, too, was something she loved. Hers was a happy Catholicism, a big bright generous religion whose God was always with her.

Everyone in the town knew her. At the drugstore, at the one tiny bar, at the church, in the one tiny grocery store, at the bank. She was one of those rarest of creatures, a human being completely comfortable in her own skin.

She’s been gone almost twenty years now, but I think of her most every day. When she appears in my mind, it’s always in winter. She’s always brushing up against me, wearing a bright blue nylon parka. That dark hair, those blue blue eyes, that grin. On the rare occasions when I drink chocolate milk, I make a mental toast to her. When I write my annual check to the food bank in that little town, I fill in the “in honor of” box in her name. If she were still here, she’d no doubt be running the place. I wish I could go home and see her again. Walk into that bright green house and have a peanut butter sandwich. I’d go to the bar with her, let her introduce me around. 

When I think of her, I also think of this poem by Marie Howe, one of my all-time favorites. Whatever leads to joy, they always answer, to more life and less worry.

 

My Dead Friends, by Marie Howe

I have begun,
when I’m weary and can’t decide an answer to a bewildering question

to ask my dead friends for their opinion
and the answer is often immediate and clear.

Should I take the job? Move to the city? Should I try to conceive a child
in my middle age?

They stand in unison shaking their heads and smiling—whatever leads
to joy, they always answer,

to more life and less worry. I look into the vase where Billy’s ashes were —
it’s green in there, a green vase,

and I ask Billy if I should return the difficult phone call, and he says, yes.
Billy’s already gone through the frightening door,

whatever he says I’ll do.

 

​For more information on Marie Howe, please ​click here.