Poem of the Week, by Homero Aridjis

Eight spots remaining in our June 10-16 Write Together week of twice-daily no-pressure writing together on Zoom! Click here for details. I’d love to write with you next month.

Last weekend I watched a friend dance alone as a band played directly in front of them. The world isn’t easy to navigate for this friend, but as the hours passed and they danced on and on, you could see them shed their layers of confusion and bewilderment until they were nothing but their own body fused with music, fully at ease.

I think I needed that, was all they said at the end of the night, drenched in sweat, relaxed and happy.

Who am I without the names and categories the world slots me into? Who would I be if everything fell away, if my shadow was cast far behind me because I had no need of a shadow? The first time I read this poem I nearly cried. I keep reading it to myself, out loud, wondering who I am.

The Desire to Be Oneself, by Homero Aridjis (after Kafka)
– translated from the Spanish by George McWhirter

If you could be a horseman riding
bareback through the winds and rains
on a transparent horse
constantly buffeted
by the velocity of your mount
if you could ride hard
until your clothes were cast off far behind you
because there is no need of clothes
until reins were done with
because there is no need of reins
until your shadow was cast far behind you
because there’s no need of a shadow
and then you might see countryside not as countryside
but a fistful of air
if only you could cast the horse far behind you
and ride on, on yourself

Click here for more information about Homero Aridjis.

Click here for more information about poet and translator George McWhirter.

My podcast: Words by Winter

Poem of the Week, by Rosanna Young Oh

Are you interested in a week of twice-daily no-pressure writing together on Zoom? Click here for details on our June 10-16 session of Write Together. I’d love to see you there!

Breakfast at a Kowloon hotel: waiters in black pants, white shirts, red vests. Platters of fruit and dumplings and smoked fish, bowls of congee, you tiao. It was all so beautiful. Then I saw a cockroach crawling around one of the fruit platters. I touched a waiter’s arm and silently nodded at the roach. His eyes widened and he bore the platter away through a door that swung open onto a different world: fiery woks, steam, cooks and busboys racing around shouting.

Did the waiter flick the cockroach off and bring the fruit platter back out? Maybe. Everyone’s trying to survive. There are other worlds within ours, just behind a swinging door, and if you look for them you see them everywhere.

Picking Blueberries, by Rosanna Young Oh

It was a risk my father had taken in midwinter:
ordering 240 pint boxes of blueberries
in less than desirable condition at a discount
so they could be repicked, repacked, and resold.

We stand together before crates of blueberries—
the color of river pebbles in water, some flecked with mold.
I am twenty-nine years old, and yet my father instructs
me as though I were a child again, hiding
between the aisles of lettuces and squash in the store.

“Daughter, look,” he says. He squeezes a blueberry
between his thumb and finger until the skin tears.
I see now: rotten ones bruise to the touch.

We pick in silence. By the second hour,
our fingers stiffen, their nail beds
purple from juice.

Suddenly, my father’s voice emerges as though from a distance:
“You were not meant to live this kind of life.”

But nor was he—a man with a mind made wide by books,
who as a child rose with the sun to read by its light.

We’re left with fewer boxes than we had thought.
How, how to price them? $3.99 per pint.

Click here for more information about Rosanna Young Oh.

My podcast: Words by Winter

Poem of the Week, by Alison McGhee

Are you interested in a week of twice-daily no-pressure writing together on Zoom? Click here for details on our June 10-16 session of Write Together. I’d love to see you there!

More than seventeen years have passed for the woman who wrote this poem. She re-upped her bargain with the planets when Venus and Jupiter and Mercury again conjoined in the southwestern sky, and if she’s lucky she’ll keep re-upping it as long as she’s alive. This poem goes out to everyone –not just mothers, but everyone–who would trade their own life if it meant someone they loved could keep living.

Bargain, by 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.

My podcast: Words by Winter

Poem of the Week, by Ishikawa Takuboku

Interested in a week of twice-daily no-pressure writing together on Zoom? Click here for details on our June 10-16 session of Write Together. I’d love to see you there!

A couple of weeks ago my daughter demonstrated a theragun to me. A theragun is a personal massager that’s kind of like a jackhammer, in a good way, and my daughter ran it up and down my shoulders and back a little fearfully.

I just don’t want to hurt those tiny bones of yours, she said at one point.

Which made me laugh, because I think of myself as tough and strong. Which I am. But then I read this poem and remembered the theragun, and for a second imagined a distant future, one I hope never happens.

Carrying mother on my back, by Ishikawa Takuboku

Carrying mother on my back
Just for a joke.
Three steps: then weeping—
She’s so light.

Click here for more details on Ishikawa Takuboku.

My podcast: Words by Winter

Books I Read in April

The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai. This is my first Makkai novel but it won’t be my last. Because I don’t read book descriptions, reviews, or book jackets before I read a book, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional heft of this novel, which revolves around a core group of beloved friends and flips back and forth between the 1980s and 2015. Makkai’s command of detail and deep knowledge of the beginning of the AIDS crisis brought me right back to those early days, when my gay friends were so young and confronting that hideous, bewildering disease that took so many of them. The emotional and physical havoc of AIDS, and the love, support and anger within the community, reverberates throughout this elegy of a novel. Intense. Painful. Powerful.

Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary. After The Great Believers I turned to Beverly Cleary as both a palate cleanser and to continue my goal of reading children’s classics I never read when I was a child. Cleary’s trademark hilarity, deadpan realism, and inventiveness with structure and situation are on full display here, but I did not expect to tear up as many times as I did. This small book, structured first as letters from a child to his favorite author, Mr. Henshaw, and then as Dear Mr. Henshaw entries in a private journal, grows in depth and power as we experience the boy’s life along with him from childhood to adolescence. So much wisdom in this novel, which packs an emotional punch I did not anticipate. Then I looked at the book cover again and saw it had won the Newbery, so…duh. Wonderful book.

Kudos, by Rachel Cusk. In this, the final novel in the Transit trilogy, Cusk again stunned me with the precision, strangeness, and almost overwhelming honesty with which the people in her books speak to each other. Every bit of social niceties is stripped away, so that each conversation goes straight to the gut, or jugular, or heart of the heart of the situation. Our same novelist is again traveling to another part of Europe for a book conference. Cusk neither analyzes nor returns to conversations between the people in her novels, but fragments of them haunt me, such as the unknowing contempt, in Kudos, of a celebrated male writer for the wife he describes as perfectly happy being the stay at home mother of their children. After which he casually mentions she just finished a book for children which happened to sell in a three-book deal. DUDE. Cusk’s people have conversations that lay bare the complexities of marriage and divorce in a way that’s profoundly uncomfortable for me to read. I’ve never read someone who writes like Rachel Cusk.

Lucy by the Sea, by Elizabeth Strout. Because of my no-prior-info policy with regard to reading, this latest Lucy Barton novel by Strout took me by surprise. This is the first pandemic novel I’ve read, and it hurt in ways I wouldn’t have predicted. Everything we/the world went through. All the ways we/the world changed. Add to the omnipresent fear, pain and loneliness the murder of George Floyd, which happened a 20-minute from my own house in Minneapolis, which Strout pinpoints as ground zero for the resulting wild anger and uprisings that rose around the country, and this novel went straight to my gut. Although I initially wanted to throttle Lucy for her dithering, by the end of this slender novel I was struck –yet again—by the odd, organic wisdom this fascinating fictional woman brings to her understanding of life and human relationships and, by extension, to our current lives.

You Could Make This Place Beautiful, by Maggie Smith. In this memoir, by the poet who penned Good Bones, a poem that stunned me (and the rest of the world) when it came out, Smith wonders aloud on the page in each of the brief, illuminative passages that compose the book about the selves she was in her marriage, as it crumbled, and as she makes her way through the first years afterward. Widely thought of as a “divorce” memoir, I see this book as so much more than that: a woman finding her place as an artist in a world that regards the work of writing as not work, as something to be done when it doesn’t inconvenience others, as something so difficult to claim that I remember how awkward and embarrassed I felt when, in my own life, I forced myself to say “I’m working” instead of “I’m writing.” Why can’t we (and I’m talking specifically about women here) be partners and mothers and artists? Answer: we can. You Could Make This Place Beautiful is the fierce, searching story of a woman staking her claim in the world.

Poem of the Week, by Kathryn Nuernberger

Fourteen spots still open in our June Write Together session. Click here for details and to register. I’d love to see you in the Zoom room!

A heart-shaped box of drugstore chocolates was a big deal, back in the day. It was an annual Valentine’s treat from my parents, my dad really, since my mother hates to shop and he did almost all of it. Covered in cellophane, a big red bow, a whole little box for each of us.

As a grownup I turned into a chocolate snob, but when I pass by the Valentine’s chocolate display at CVS I remember how special it was, what a treat, to hold that heart-shaped box and know it was mine. Most of the time it’s not the thing itself that matters but the person, the homeland, the time of life behind the thing. Those, we hold in our heart of hearts forever.

The Sound of Music, by Kathryn Nuernberger

When I tell you I love
the song “Edelweiss”
you have to understand
that even though I too
am a sophisticate
who scorns musicals,
I was once a little girl
who stood in my grand-
father’s living room
singing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo! while he sipped
his scotch and laughed
at my preciosity.
And when I sing the lyrics
in your ear—Small and
bright, clean and white,
you look happy to meet me
you have to understand
my grandfather only ever
had one friend, a jeweler
who also drank scotch,
and left his $10,000 Rolex
to my grandfather, who
wore it even though
it turned his wrist green,
wore it to the funeral,
where the daughter sang
in her ethereal voice. Blossom
of snow may you bloom
and grow, bloom and grow
forever. She couldn’t take
her eyes off the casket.
You have to understand that
my grandfather kept spinning
that heavy gold around
his wrist, and when he raised
his voice to join in, he cried
to sing it. Edelweiss, edelweiss,
bless my homeland forever.

Please click here for more information about Kathryn Nuernberger. 

My podcast: Words by Winter

Poem of the Week, by J. Estanislao Lopez

Click here for details and to register for our new Write Together session in early June. I’d love to see you in the Zoom room!

One evening last week I did a series of interviews with various media in Japan for my book Someday, which is about a mother’s dreams for her child. It was late night for me, morning in Japan, and each interviewer asked specifically about two pages in the book, one in which the child is alone, entering a deep wood, and another in which the child, having just received painful news, is folded up with sorrow.

Why did you include those pages? each interviewer asked.

Through the years, my best friend and I have talked about wishing we could bear our children’s pain for them. How much easier it would be, easier on us, and how wrong. To be fully alive means facing the unknown, experiencing everything, come what may. I remember not wanting to write those two pages and also knowing I had to.

Living in the Moment, by J. Estanislao Lopez

I like to live
         in the moment. No,
not that one —

Click here for more information about J. Estanislao Lopez

My podcast: Words by Winter

Poem of the Week, by Cecilia Woloch

Click here for details and to register for our new Write Together session in June. I’d love to see you in the Zoom room!

Someone I love told me recently that she had first glimpsed her future husband at a dance and was instantly captivated by the sparkle in his eyes and his intense interest in everyone and everything. Four months later they were engaged.

She told me about their wedding long ago, and how when it was over, and she and her new husband were driving away from the reception, just the two of them, she looked at him and felt everything in her relax. A feeling of deep security, of I’m safe now, I’ll always be able to count on him, filled her entire being.

Anniversary, by Cecilia Woloch

Didn’t I stand there once,
white-knuckled, gripping the just-lit taper,
swearing I’d never go back?
And hadn’t you kissed the rain from my mouth?
And weren’t we gentle and awed and afraid,
knowing we’d stepped from the room of desire
into the further room of love?
And wasn’t it sacred, the sweetness
we licked from each other’s hands?
And were we not lovely, then, were we not
as lovely as thunder, and damp grass, and flame?

Click here for more information about Cecilia Woloch.

My podcast: Words by Winter

Poem of the Week, by Marge Piercy

Click here for details and to register for our new Write Together session in early June. I’d love to see you in the Zoom room!

One of my grandmothers worked as a legal secretary in a Manhattan law firm, proud of her skill with shorthand and typing. Once, her boss, who was otherwise a good guy, yelled at her in front of the entire secretarial pool. Later that day he called her into his office to apologize. You shouted at me in public, she said, and you’ll apologize to me in public. Which he did.

My grandmother marched in the streets of New York as a suffragette. She had her first and only child at age forty and raised her with a love at once fierce and unconditional. This poem made me think of her, as I often do, and her hard, brave life. It hurts me to remember how much she always wanted to go to France. One of my first short stories, drafted while sitting on a bench on Sacré-Coeur, was about a young woman wandering the streets of Paris in honor of the grandmother who never had the means to travel.

My time in better dresses, by Marge Piercy

I remember job hunting in my shoddy
and nervous working class youth,
how I had to wear nylons and white
gloves that were dirty in half an hour
for jobs that barely paid for shoes.

Don’t put down Jew, my mother
warned, just say Protestant, it
doesn’t commit you to anything.
Ads could still say “white” and
in my childhood, we weren’t.

I worked in better dresses in Sam’s
cut-rate department store, $3.98
and up. I wasn’t trusted to sell.
I put boxes together, wrapped,
cleaned out dressing rooms.

My girlfriend and I bought a navy
taffeta dress with cutout top, wore it
one or the other to parties, till it failed
my sophistication test. The older
“girls” in sales, divorced, sleek,

impressed me, but the man in charge
I hated, the way his eyes stroked,
stripped, discarded. How he docked
our pay for lateness. How he sucked
on his power like a piece of candy.

Click here for more information about Marge Piercy.

My podcast: Words by Winter

Books I Read in March

March 2023

Saints of the Household, by Ari Tison. Brothers Jay and Max live in a home charged with the constant worry and fear that their abusive father will again unleash his violence on their mother and them. Their own unspoken, buried rage at their father erupts one day when they beat up their cousin Nicole’s threatening boyfriend. That single act of violence propels the boys into both enforced counseling and a first-ever pulling away from each other. Max turns his pain into art in the form of paintings, while Jay’s awareness of his own frustrated sorrow begins to inform his plans for the future, his close friendship with Nicole, and his understanding of his place within his family. Alternating chapters in the voice of each brother interweave stories and wisdom from their Bri Bri and Anishinaabe ancestors, and the physical presence of their gentle Bri Bri grandfather lends depth and insight to their struggles. A beautiful, heartfelt book.

Away, by Amy Bloom. Damn, this writer can tell a story. Fearless, funny, written in times and places far from ours but so rich in detail that you feel as if you’re living her people’s lives right along with them, Away is the story of Lillian, who survived the massacre of her family and village back in Russia and escaped to the Lower East Side. When you’ve lost everything, you’ll do whatever it takes to thrive, and Lillian does. But the news that her daughter survived death sets her on a quest across America and into Alaska. Bloom never, not once, loses sight of the joy and humor that can be found in the darkest of circumstances. This novel propels its way forward, shimmering with light and life and laughter and love.

This Costly Season, by John Okrent. It usually takes me a while to read a book of poetry –poems I love being to me tiny emotion bombs—but not this one. A collection of free-form sonnets written by a family physician in the Pacific Northwest over several months in the beginning of the pandemic, This Costly Season is almost hallucinogenic in its evocation of those early days. The fear. The inability to help. The lack of knowledge or cure. The title of each poem is the day’s date, and each ending line is woven into the first line of the next poem. Time marches on, the pandemic deepens, questions remain unanswered but for the fact that all answers, for the living, still and always remain the same: to love our people and our world and hold them close, because time, time is always short.

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve been a writer my entire life, something that influences the way I relate to structure, point of view, storytelling. Most of the time, I instinctively understand the decisions a writer made, no matter the form, because the process of writing is so familiar to me – I’ve been there and done that (this is not a negative). But with writers who are my personal giants, I am rarely able to anticipate from which deep well their books emerged or how they managed to pull them off. These writers are few. Ishiguro is one of them. I space out his books because I know each one will in a small, profound way transform me – but the transformation will not come without cost. Few writers break my heart the way Ishiguro does. Set in post-Arthurian England, The Buried Giant is odd, dreamlike, unlike anything else I’ve ever read by the man, and, like everything he writes, mesmerizing.

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri. To pick up a Lahiri novel or collection of stories is to commit yourself to a journey: through time, eras, over continents, in and out of the minds and hearts of the people who populate these deeply internal worlds. I seem to be in a heartbreaking-book streak and The Lowland is not an exception. Set in post-partition Calcutta and Rhode Island and spanning half a century, this novel, despite a plot that in one particular way occasionally strained my credulity (possibly because one of my own plots strains my credulity in the exact same way?) kept me up late. Two brothers, alike and unlike, one enigmatic woman, political divides, and the weight and painful beauty of parenthood. Carefully wrought and utterly absorbing.

Notorious Nineteen, by Janet Evanovich. Years ago my parents, believing I should read more books that make me laugh, turned me on to the Stephanie Plum novels, about a Jersey bond enforcement girl. After reading the first in the series I realized my parents were correct, so I bought the first twenty-two off eBay in one big cheap used batch. I dole them out to myself when in need. These books exist in a slightly parallel world that looks like ours but is funnier, and where everyone has a gun but the guns aren’t actually dangerous. By the end of each book Stephanie will have ordered from Cluck in a Bucket at least twice, had great sex with Joe Morelli and contemplated even greater sex with Ranger, been covered with paint, garbage, or something else icky, witnessed her car go up in a ball of fire, done something mildly illegal with her friend Lula, and rescued her grandmother from making yet another scene at yet another funeral viewing. There’s a reason people read Evanovich novels. If you know you know.