Poem of the Week, by Eileen Sheehan

Garvin and meAn upstairs cupboard in my house holds three cardboard boxes filled with letters from my friend Garvin Wong. For the eighteen years of our friendship, beginning when I was in my thirties and he in his fifties, we exchanged hundreds and hundreds of letters. His were typed on an old typewriter that could have used a new ribbon, mine were printed out from computers, first by dot-matrix and then on lasers. 

Before I was a published writer, frustrated that no one seemed to want to read what I wrote, I used to print out my stories, copy them at Kinko’s, and then leave them lying around town in laundromats and coffee shops. One of my sisters gave one of them to a late-night talk radio host in Manhattan who read the story on air and then gave his listeners my post office box address. The box was soon flooded with letters, one of them from Garvin. Something about that first letter, typed on his ancient typewriter, moved me, and I wrote back. 

Garvin was a quarter-century older than me. He lived his entire life in Queens, most of it in the house he grew up in and where he cared for his parents until they died. He was a dentist and he worked in his uncle’s Chinatown dental office. He also volunteered at a free dental clinic and worked at a pediatric dental clinic. He loved children. When he found out I had three small children, he began sending them gifts: T-shirts, little trinkets he thought they might like, special Chinese candies. Each year on the lunar New Year, a box of red-bean paste cookies would arrive. He knew how much I love ginger, and every few months ginger, in multiple forms, showed up on the doorstep: ginger candy, dried ginger, ginger cookies, ginger tea. Garvin was a native English speaker but he also spoke Cantonese, and I understand rudimentary Mandarin. We used to celebrate our love of Chinese by sprinkling it throughout our notes, the characters for love, peace and ginger chief among them. 

Years went by. Garvin met my whole family and began to spend Thanksgiving with my sister Holly in New Jersey, where every year he brought his own carving knife to her house, carrying it on the subway, so that he could carve the turkey. It took him an hour, so precise was he, and she nicknamed him “Carvin’ Garvin.” Whenever I was in New York, he would arrange an elaborate meal in Chinatown, complete with handmade menus full of punned names for each course (he loved puns and wordplay in general) and a theme for each dinner. Afterward we would wander around Chinatown, stopping here and there so that he could fill his backpack with fresh fruit and groceries. Garvin always wore a backpack, and the backpack was usually filled with empty plastic containers so that he could order lots of food and take the leftovers home for the rest of the week. 

More years went by. In one of his letters, he mentioned that someone had offered him a seat on the subway: “I’m getting on.” In another, he said that he thought of himself as my adoptive, second father. After he came to visit us –the first time he had been on a plane in 37 years– he wrote to say that he had seen a pretty flight attendant in the airport and “It makes me wish I were 20 years younger.”

My letters became more frequent; he was old now, and his twice-weekly trips from Queens to Chinatown were harder and harder. He wrote of resting at the top and bottom of the subway steps, and how difficult it was to do things like mop up his basement, which tended to flood. He wrote of how his neighbor Foon watched out for him and helped him with heavy packages. 

Then came the day when he called from the hospital to say that he had fallen in his home, and how Foon had found him after almost two days. That he was injured and would be in rehab for quite a time before he could return home. My sister and I got him an iPad so that we could Facetime. We found a wonderful eldercare specialist who helped coordinate care and visits. But in the hospital his never-diagnosed or treated diabetes came to light, and then his foot was amputated, and everything went downhill. 

I sent him a letter in which I recounted our life together, the many years we had known each other, the small adventures we had had, the love and caring he had shown me and my family. I told him that if and when he was ready to go, he should know that my love surrounded him. His heart stopped beating a day later. Someone else decided to resuscitate him, but he died alone in the ICU the next night. I was not with him. I wish I had been with him. It haunts me that he died without me. 

Garvin’s death brought a sense of loss that I thought I was ready for, but I wasn’t. In the five years since his death, I have talked to him in my mind. All the questions I never asked him, out of respect or because I hadn’t thought of them: Had he ever been in love? Had he, with his liveliness around children, the way he lit up in their presence, ever wanted to be a father? I remembered his last visit to us, when he was sitting across the kitchen table from me and looked visibly tired and old, and it came to me that it was possible, maybe probable, he had never held someone’s hand. That no one had ever touched him that way. I reached across the table and picked his hand up and held it in my own. He said nothing. Neither did I.

Maybe he was much lonelier than I ever knew. Maybe he wasn’t. It troubles me that I don’t know the answers to these questions, and it troubles me that I never asked. It troubles me that even now, in the wake of my loss, I still hold questions inside me for and about the living people I most love in the world. How well can we ever truly know each other? What do we hold in our hearts that we won’t, or don’t, talk about?

In his last months, Garvin told me he had been talking to his father in his mind, and asking for advice. That, unlike his mother, his father had been a comfort to him, a gentle, kind man who always listened to his painfully shy son. Who loved him as he was. This beautiful poem below brought Garvin back to me, along with his father, who died before I ever met his son.

 

My Father, Long Dead, by Eileen Sheehan
        

My father, long dead,
has become air

Become scent
of pipe smoke, of turf smoke, of resin

Become light
and shade on the river

Become foxglove,
buttercup, tree bark

Become corncrake
lost from the meadow

Become silence,
places of calm

Become badger at dusk,
deer in the thicket

Become grass
on the road to the castle

Become mist
on the turret

Become dark-haired hero in a story
written by a dark-haired child

 

 

For more information on Eileen Sheehan, please click here.

Poem of the Week, by Dante di Stefano

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Write about something you’ve never told anyone before. That was the prompt a few years ago, given to a tableful of sundry people sitting in a library far from the big city. You have twelve minutes. I’ll let you know when you have two minutes left. Pens to paper. Fingertips on keyboards. We went around the room and read aloud, everyone listening intently. 

One older man read about the night in Vietnam when his best friend died in his arms. How he tried to keep him from dying. How they were both nineteen. How he had whispered to him and his friend whispered back as he bled to death. How he had thought of that boy every day of his life since. When he finished, we were all silent. He looked up at us in confusion and wonder. I have never told anyone about this before, he said, not even my wife.

 

Prompts (for high school teachers who teach poetry), by Dante di Stefano

Write about walking into the building
as a new teacher. Write yourself hopeful.
Write a row of empty desks. Write the face
of a student you’ve almost forgotten;
he’s worn a Derek Jeter jersey all year.
Do not conjecture about the adults
he goes home to, or the place he calls home.
Write about how he came to you for help
each October morning his sophomore year.
Write about teaching Othello to him;
write Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven.

Write about reading his obituary
five years after he graduated. Write
a poem containing the words “common”
“core,” “differentiate,” and “overdose.”
Write the names of the ones you will never
forget: “Jenna,” “Tiberious,” “Heaven,”
“Megan,” “Tanya,” “Kingsley,” “Ashley,” “David.”
Write Mari with “Nobody’s Baby” tattooed
in cursive on her neck, spitting sixteen bars
in the backrow, as little white Mike beatboxed
“Candy Shop” and the whole class exploded.
Write about Zuly and Nely, sisters
from Guatemala, upon whom a thousand
strange new English words rained down on like hail
each period, and who wrote the story
of their long journey on la bestia
through Mexico, for you, in handwriting
made heavy by the aquís and ayers
ached in their knuckles, hidden by their smiles.
Write an ode to loose-leaf. Write elegies
on the nub nose of a pink eraser.
Carve your devotion from a no. 2
pencil. Write the uncounted hours you spent
fretting about the ones who cursed you out
for keeping order, who slammed classroom doors,
who screamed “you are not my father,” whose pain
unraveled and broke you, whose pain you knew.
Write how all this added up to a life.

 

 

 

For more information on Dante di Stefano, please click here.

Poem of the Week, by Alison McGhee

Whether you’re a parent or not, everyone was once someone’s child. This one goes out to all of you. 

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Bargain
     – Alison McGhee

The newspaper reports that at twilight tonight
Venus and Jupiter will conjoin
in the southwestern sky,
a fist and a half above the horizon.
They won’t come together again for seventeen years.
What the article does not say is that Mercury, the
dark planet, will also be on hand.
He’ll hover low, nearly invisible in a darkened sky.
I stare out the kitchen window toward the sunset.

Seventeen years from now, where
will I be?
Mercury, Roman god of commerce and luck,
let me propose a trade:
Auburn hair, muscles that don’t ache, and a seven-minute mile.
Here’s what I’ll give you in return:
My recipe for Brazilian seafood stew, a talent for
French-braiding, an excellent sense of smell and
the memory of having once kissed Sam W.

Then I see my girl across the room.
She stands on a stool at the sink,
washing her toy dishes and
swaying to a whispered song,
her dark curls a nimbus in the lamplight.
The planets are coming together now.
Minute by minute the time draws nigh for me to watch.
Minute by minute my child wipes dry her red
plastic knife, her miniature blue bowls.

Mercury, here’s another offer, a real one this time:
Let her be.
You can have it all in return,
the salty stew, the braids, the excellent sense of smell
and the softness of Sam’s mouth on mine.
And my life. That too.
All of it I give for this child, that seventeen years hence
she will stand in a distant kitchen, washing dishes
I cannot see, humming a tune I cannot hear.

 

Poem of the Week, by Ed Bok Lee

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“Is it lonely to be a writer?” “What is the greatest and worst thing about being a writer?” “I loved your book because the brother in it is mean to his sister and my brother is mean to me.” “What if reading is really, really hard for you – can you still be a writer?” “My grandma used to read to me but she died.”

And, as the others file out, the solemn child who stands before me and whispers: “I’m the new kid.”

When I first began writing, I wrote only novels for adults. I couldn’t have imagined that my life would someday include visits to schools where hour by hour, first and second and third and fourth graders sit in criss-cross-applesauce rows on the carpeted library floor, listening. Watching. Thinking.

Why do I do so few school visits? Because kids. Their questions go straight into your heart, and then you carry them around with you forever. We bring kids into this fraught world and they have no idea what awaits them. But there they are, like the child in this poem below, by the brilliant Ed Bok Lee, turning their faces skyward.

Pink Lady’s Antenna Receives the Future
 
Atop my shoulders, she trots me like a Clydesdale.
Pink pussy hats & hearts, 100,000, thronging the Capitol.
When it begins to rain, some head for shelter,
Most chant even louder.
                   Is she okay? I shout.
Bridget momentarily lowers our umbrella & takes a picture:
Between pink hat and pink scarf,
                   Babygirl’s tongue, extended skyward like a stamen.

​For more information on Ed Bok Lee, please check out his blog