Poem of the Week, by William Stafford

IMG_0695You know those maps where you fill in all the states you’ve been to? The only one missing from mine is Alaska (I don’t count the time that I landed at the Anchorage airport on my way to China). I’ve been to all the lower 48 states, most of them multiple times, because road trips are big in my life. The earth is a living being beneath the tires, rising and falling, sweeping west and shrinking east. Most of the time I’m solo, like last week, when I drove 2089 miles in three days. When I get tired, or when it gets dark, I tuck my old tiny car behind a semi for comfort. Truckers sometimes get a bad rap, and once in a while it’s justified, but for the most part they drive their trucks way more safely than most people drive their cars. 

Once, a few years ago, it was late at night in the Rockies, and I trailed behind a semi for over a hundred miles before I reached my exit. As I turned off, he tooted and waved, and I waved back. Strangers in the dark, acknowledging their connection. This beautiful poem reminds me of that night, and of all the road trips I have taken in my life.


Father’s Voice, by William Stafford

“No need to get home early;
the car can see in the dark.”
He wanted me to be rich
the only way we could,
easy with what we had.

And always that was his gift,
given for me ever since,
easy gift, a wind
that keeps on blowing for flowers
or birds wherever I look.

World, I am your slow guest,
one of the common things
that move in the sun and have
close, reliable friends
in the earth, in the air, in the rock.

For more information on William Stafford, please click here​.

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Poem of the Week, by E.E. Cummings

Screen Shot 2018-04-05 at 8.44.54 AMSometimes I dream that I’m trying to get to Paris. I’m at the airport but I left my passport at home, and I can’t get a cab to go fetch it, and once I’m home I can’t remember where the passport is, and once I’m back at the airport I’m at the wrong terminal, and now I can’t find my ticket, and what happened to my roller bag, and, and, and this dream goes on all night long and I wake up exhausted. Sometimes don’t you want to step out of yourself for a day, or even a few hours, and just be someone else? Or no one else? This is when you need to read the poem below, by the hypnotic Mr. Cummings, because he knows exactly how you feel.


You Are Tired, by Edward Estlin Cummings

You are tired,
(I think)
Of the always puzzle of living and doing;
And so am I.

Come with me, then,
And we’ll leave it far and far away —
(Only you and I, understand!)

You have played,
(I think)
And broke the toys you were fondest of,
And are a little tired now;
Tired of things that break, and —
Just tired.
So am I.

But I come with a dream in my eyes tonight,
And knock with a rose at the hopeless gate of your heart —
Open to me!
For I will show you the places Nobody knows,
And, if you like,
The perfect places of Sleep.

Ah, come with me!
I’ll blow you that wonderful bubble, the moon,
That floats forever and a day;
I’ll sing you the jacinth song
Of the probable stars;
I will attempt the unstartled steppes of dream,
Until I find the Only Flower,
Which shall keep (I think) your little heart
While the moon comes out of the sea.


​For more information on E.E. Cummings, please click here.​

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Poem of the Week, by Warsan Shire

Screen Shot 2018-04-05 at 8.44.01 AMI’ll rewrite this whole life and this time there’ll be so much love, / you won’t be able to see beyond it. 

These lines, from the gorgeous poem below, bring me back to childhood and the novel that more than any other book made me want to be a writer. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is about Francie Nolan, who grew up on the mean streets of Brooklyn in the early part of the 20th century.

She was a lonely girl, even though she was loved, and so was I. Her love for the world and being alive in it was wild and intense, and so was mine. She was filled with longing and confusion, and so was I. That one teacher –the one she adored—told her that in life, she should tell the truth of the way things happened, but that in the stories she wrote, she could make up her own endings. She could write life the way it should be. Warsan Shire is too young to have read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but she knows way down deep in her bones the profound power of words to transcend experience.  



Backwards, by Warsan Shire
         for Saaid Shire
The poem can start with him walking backwards into a room.
He takes off his jacket and sits down for the rest of his life;
that’s how we bring Dad back.
I can make the blood run back up my nose, ants rushing into a hole.
We grow into smaller bodies, my breasts disappear,
your cheeks soften, teeth sink back into gums.
I can make us loved, just say the word.
Give them stumps for hands if even once they touched us without consent,
I can write the poem and make it disappear.
Step-Dad spits liquor back into glass,
Mum’s body rolls back up the stairs, the bone pops back into place,
maybe she keeps the baby.
Maybe we’re okay kid?
I’ll rewrite this whole life and this time there’ll be so much love,
you won’t be able to see beyond it.

You won’t be able to see beyond it,
I’ll rewrite this whole life and this time there’ll be so much love.
Maybe we’re okay kid,
maybe she keeps the baby.
Mum’s body rolls back up the stairs, the bone pops back into place,
Step-Dad spits liquor back into glass.
I can write the poem and make it disappear,
give them stumps for hands if even once they touched us without consent,
I can make us loved, just say the word.
Your cheeks soften, teeth sink back into gums
we grow into smaller bodies, my breasts disappear.
I can make the blood run back up my nose, ants rushing into a hole,
that’s how we bring Dad back.
He takes off his jacket and sits down for the rest of his life.
The poem can start with him walking backwards into a room.



For more information on Warsan Shire, please read this profile of her.

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Poem of the Week, by John Freeman

Screen Shot 2018-04-05 at 8.43.51 AMWhat wearies you? What renews you? Who brings you joy? Who exhausts you? When you think of safety and comfort and happiness, what place or person comes to mind? The answers to these questions are already known to you. They live in your body, in a place beyond conscious thought and its dangerous companions, rationalization and overriding.

If you turn to your body for answers you will know when someone’s love is not love but control and need. You will know when you are living not in safety but in fear. Over time, you will slowly learn to trust yourself. When I first read this small, curious poem below, a deep heaviness descended on me and I physically shrank into my chair in recognition and sorrow. John Freeman says so much in so few words. 


Mail, by John Freeman

We wrote one another a lot
those days, long winding
letters that crossed a country, in which
I asked if she knew my gratitude;
her replies so generous
it’s only now I realize
my gratitude wasn’t gratitude
but another request.



Books of the Month, March 2018

The Song Poet, by Kao Kalia Yang.

IMG_9345Everything that Kao Kalia Yang writes I read slowly and usually twice, not because there is anything confusing about her sentence structures but because her words and stories fill my heart with emotion. Sorrow, love, longing, rage and redemption – page by page, they all swim through. This is the second memoir by Yang. Her first, The Latehomecomer, was published some years ago and is (to my knowledge) the first Hmong American memoir, about her family’s long and arduous journey from the mountains of Laos to the refugee camps of Thailand to the grueling new world of Minnesota. In The Song Poet, which is primarily about her father Bee Yang, she adopts the voice of her father along with her own in order to tell his personal story and the family’s continuing saga. I treasure this book. It belongs on bookshelves everywhere, not only because of its beautiful portrayal of the painful triumph of a family beset by a new world, but also because it’s a reminder of just how hard it is to build a new life in a distant land. A profoundly moving book.


Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples.

IMG_9347I’m late to the Saga party, but WOW. What a fabulous beginning to a graphic epic of one small family in a universe at war. Volume One and I spent the whole day together curled up on the couch, because I couldn’t put this book down. Fierce Alana, tender Marko, and baby Hazel –who is one of the narrators of the book, from an unnamed perspective many years hence– are impossible to resist. Artwork by Fiona Staples perfectly complements Brian K. Vaughan’s narrative, which leaps into action with the first sentence and Does Not Let Up. I’m swept away. Volume Two of many is up next. Highly recommend.


IMG_9349Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich. 

Louise Erdrich’s latest is her first novel set in a future dystopia. Although scratch that – the future dystopia she describes in Future Home of the Living God feels pretty damn familiar. The flow of this novel is both waterfall and still pool and I read it with mounting unease and fear, the same way I remember feeling when I read The Handmaid’s Tale many years ago. In fact, Future Home of the Living God might best be read as a later edition, a companion piece to Atwood’s novel: an uneasy pairing, both harbingers of doom, both battle cries for the resistance. Highly recommend.


Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green.

Years ago, when I read TIMG_9348he Fault in Our Stars, I remember thinking, damn, this guy is captivating. I passed that book on to both my daughters and we all held it to our hearts and still quote lines from it to each other. Turtles All the Way Down is another book I’ll hold in my heart. John Green has an uncanny way with snappy dialogue, the profundity of best-friendship, setting (this one is set in his native Indianapolis, and after reading it I feel as if I could draw a map of the neighborhood), and his books are both deeply sorrowful and funny as hell. The man doesn’t shy away from the harshness of life, in this case the loss of a parent and the main character’s ongoing struggle with debilitating OCD and other mental health issues. Nor does he shy away from how beautiful life can be. What I most love about Green’s writing is how his characters slice through the external layers and speak to each other directly from the heart. It’s as if instead of turning away from the fact that they –and we–are all mortal, they fully know themselves to be exactly that, and they cut away the bullshit and get straight to the heart of the matter. Wonderful novel.


IMG_9418Landscape with Invisible Hand, by M.T. Anderson. 

Argh! Why does everything this man writes destroy me! But also leave me weirdly gratified despite my deep disturbation! I swear, M.T. Anderson cannot not write an incredible book. This one reads like a return to the world of Feed, which was written fifteen years ago and which has haunted me ever since. In the brief, hilarious, and devastating Landscape with Invisible Hand, the hapless inhabitants of planet Earth have traded their soul permanent colonization by the alien Vuuvs in exchange for advanced technology and cures for all diseases. But now there are no jobs, no money, and more illness than ever, because no one can pay for the Vuuv cures. Like Future Home of the Living God, this novel reads like a near-future/present-day dystopia. Help. I kind of hate to recommend because this one hits so close to home, but I have to recommend anyway. Hugely. It’s brilliant.


WPA Guide to 1930s New York City, by the WPA writers.


This was a very cool and unexpectedly moving read for me. The Federal Writers Project was sponsored by the fabulous post-Great Depression Works Progress Administration (God, I wish we had something like that these days). My mother lent this book to me, urging me to read the Lower East Side section because my Jewish grandfather and his family settled in the tenements there after escaping the pogroms in Russia at the turn of the previous century. (My family’s story is a familiar one: they worked in the sweatshops, suffered from grinding poverty and poor health and unending work, and my great-uncle eventually died of suicide rather than put his family through the pain and expense of watching him die of tuberculosis. But I digress.) To read the descriptions of an area I know well, through the eyes of a 1930’s observer, is to experience the era in a particular and specific way – instead of a movie creating an era and scene, it’s words on a page. Fascinating glimpse into our country’s history.


The New Yorker, by a whole bunch of very talented writers.

IMG_9346Yes, I’m adding a bunch of latest New Yorkers to this list, because let’s face it, people: A single New Yorker is the equivalent of a book. Which means that if you make it through an entire New Yorker every week, you’re reading a book a week. I used to panic when the New Yorkers would start piling up – I felt guilty and ashamed and like a loser. Then I said the hell with it and gave myself permission to read whatever I happened to read that week, or any week, or even years later. I have loved this magazine my entire adult life, and not once have I let my subscription lapse. The writers are so damn good, and they take their time, and I take my time, and that’s a beautiful thing in a world paced the way this one is paced. Some of my favorite writers ever began and/or still write for The New Yorker, people like Atul Gawande and John McPhee and Jelani Cobb and Jia Tolentino and Jerome Groopman. My secret pleasure: Reading the tiny reviews of restaurants I’ll never go to, just because I love the way a room and tables and plates of food on those tables come to life in my mind.