Sunday, September 30, 2007

What I Meant to Say

No but
what I meant to say
is that we are too long sighted,

that it is
a thing (like many)
known only in retrospect: that

is what we do
when still unsure that we are friends.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Mother of Exiles

(This rather formless post has been taking shape, or rather losing shape, for the past couple weeks: I've found that at a certain point it's better to just post these things and let God sort it out.)

The day I was leaving for New York, I realized I had no poetry with me. I stopped in at Powell's, and bought, for six dollars, a book that I would not have been caught dead carrying back when I was in graduate school: Committed to Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize. It's the sort of book that academics view with distaste. Popular. Hackneyed. Accessible. A dreadful thing, as if poetry was something that just anyone might read and enjoy. I still remember the crushing snub delivered to a friend of mine, when she said she was writing a paper on Ezra Pound's early poetry. "Ah, yes," said a fellow student. He, of course, was writing about the Cantos. "Well... the early poems are more... accessible." He has since become a distinguished professor, with a slew of books to his name.* My friend has become the sort of obscure one-book professor who wins her college's teaching awards, and whose students actually learn to write.

I found I had already memorized about half of the poems in the book. But the first poem was a sonnet by Elizabeth Bishop, which I'd never read. About poetry, of course:

Oh for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead

"There is a deep love of poetry here," the Velveteen Rabbi once said of mole. And it's true. I wonder when it began? I didn't always love poetry. I used to think it tedious.

My father encouraged us to memorize poetry. He is not at all a literary man, but he has a fine reading voice and a good sense of meter. I remember him reciting "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." And one Christmas, with our Texas relatives -- after the wound of the Vietnam War had healed enough for us to visit them again -- my father and his younger brother astonished us all by reciting, not only "Paul Revere," but a poem spoken in the person of Dawes, who rode with Revere, lamenting that his name was too dull and ordinary to be immortalized in song. They nudged each other on, gradually recalling the stanzas as they went, each remembering different bits that would spark the memory of another couple lines in the other, till they had reassembled the whole poem.

They were the last generation of Americans who memorized poetry, in school and out of it, as a matter of course. Holidays for countless generations must have been marked by recitations of verse, in just this way. A stream that nourished us for millennia has run dry.

We had in our house Louis Untermeyer's Golden Treasury of Poetry, which This Girl recalled to my mind recently. The first poem that I memorized that was longer than a few lines was in that book -- Southey's singsong karmic parable, "The Inchcape Rock." I also memorized Longfellow's "Skeleton in Armor," at some point -- I have a notion my sister and I learned it together: I have a vivid, isolated memory of saying

And with my skates fast bound
Skimmed the half frozen sound
That the poor whimpering hound
Trembled to walk on.

in unison with her.

My sister loved verse, and committed it easily to memory; I remember her coming out with bits of Shakespeare frequently. As she sank under schizophrenia, in the months before her suicide, lines of King Lear, especially of Edgar playing the madman, would surface with horrifying appositeness.

Now a love of poetry has become part of my identity. In explaining who I was going to visit in New York, I found it easiest to say it was a gathering of people who share poetry, and who were putting a book together. The young woman who sat beside me on the flight from Portland to Chicago said: "Oh! Are you a poet?" And my first impulse was to say, "Heavens, no!" I waggled my hand in the Spanish "así así" gesture and muttered, "um, I write poems, sometimes." It was, after all, difficult to know what the question meant. Do I write poetry? Obviously. Am I paid for it? Not a chance. Do I think of it as my vocation? No.

But if people ask me what I do for fun, I sometimes say "I write poetry." I've been invited to participate in a poetry reading, in a couple months. I realized with surprise that there is no one in my life now from whom I would conceal that. I shall invite everyone I work with and everyone I go to school with. I may not be a poet, but I'm someone who writes poems sometimes, and I don't care who knows it.

Poetry ought to be spoken aloud, and it ought to be memorized. I know, I say this over and over, but I'm going to say it again. Poetry ought to be memorized, till it sings in your head of its own accord. Reading a poem silently -- well, there's an off chance that it will be apposite to the moment. But probably not. The deepest function of poetry is to be available when we are in the moment of need or desire. There's no time to lose then. When love or grief or despair are wringing your heart is no time to be rummaging in bookshelves looking for a half-remembered poem.

A memorized poem takes residence with us in a different way. It weaves into our experience, informing it and informed by it. It's a country we can visit at any time.

In New York, Beth read one of my poems aloud. Hearing your own verse on someone else's lips -- especially someone who reads beautifully and who understands it down to the ground -- is a wonderful and diquieting experience. Like Pygmalion seeing his statue come to life.

Bishop again --

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.

One of the poems in my book, to my surprise, was a sonnet by Emma Lazarus. You may think you don't know this woman's poetry, but -- if you're American, anyway -- you're mistaken about that:

. . . Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. . .

The sonnet's about the Statue of Liberty. It gave a queer twist to my heart, to see that statue the next day, and to think of when this country was young and fearless, and committed to hospitality.

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.

She is no great poet, but poetry doesn't need to be great. It need not be fetishized and kept under glass, perfect and isolate. We give our words to each other because they're what we have to give.

*I am maligning him here: he was also a very kind and conscientious man, and he made wonderful Persian food to sustain us when we first had Tori home from the hospital. I remember him with great affection. But for him, as for many academics, the equation of "difficult to read" with "profound" was a given.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Vaux's Swifts

Thousands of swifts. They come in bands of thirty or forty, vaux's swifts, sillhouettes against the mirror-colored twilight sky. The firstcomers attract little notice, but I watch their company floating in. Each bird darts rapidly this way and that, but the band as a whole makes slow, deliberate undulations through the sky.

Every so often a new band arrives, and joins in. They circle the fields for nearly an hour, sometimes right over our heads, sometime so far from us that they're only tiny black grains swirling on the horizon.

There are currents and eddies, but the main flow is a great counterclockwise wheel, with the tall brick chimney of Chapman School as its free axis.

The eye attempts to deal with it in different ways. It follows one particular swift, zigzagging its way -- hunting, I'd suppose, except that they're so far up. Are there insects way up there? Or do they simply move in those rapid darts by habit? I succeed a couple times in following one swift's complete circuit. Its motions are eager. The swifts may be coming to the end of a long working day, but there's no trace of weariness to be seen in them. The overwhelming impression they give is one of joy and exultation. "Airy worlds of delight" -- is that what Blake said?

The eye gives up tracking, but it can't give up tracking, so next it follows a whole moving mass of swifts, the ones making the near turn. They swarm randomly, like bees, but there's a current to them. Behind them the ones making the far turn are distant blurs moving the opposite way. But soon the near ones are the distant ones, and with a drunken lurch the eye's focus involuntarily switches to the ones that are near now; it conveys the deeply disorienting conviction that the revolving sky has abruptly changed directions. A person could get seasick, watching them. Finally the eye relaxes and sees simply a wavering and shimmering in the evening sky.

It seems that each swift, at some point in its circle, ducks inward to make a reconnaissance of the chimney. There's a steady stream of them slowing, dropping down over it, bobbing down for one quick glance, and then climbing back into the great wheel. As evening draws down so do the swifts, tightening the wheel, and the scouting stream grows thicker and slower. I keep thinking they have begun to actually vanish into the chimney, but then I keep looking up at the sky, and there are, if anything, more swifts than before. Are they going in and coming back out? It's impossible to tell.

Eventually it's clear that they are going in. It's not nearly so defined as I had imagined: I'm only really sure because the cloud of birds is clearly diminishing. It's hard to imagine what the interior of the chimney must be like now. It's a huge chimney, but the birds must be packed into its interior shoulder to shoulder, clear down to the bottom. Are there favorite spots? Do they quarrel over them? Are some swifts more equal than other swifts?

All that warmth in the dark, all those tiny rapidly beating hearts. I imagine the outermost ones periodically wriggling down, throughout the night, to get warm, and the inmost ones struggling out to the cool air. Do they speak to each other, or is it all done in dreamy silence?

The nearly-full moon rises over the trees as the last few swifts settle in. There is no defined ending point. Even after we think they're done, a few late-comers are trickling over the brim of the chimney. I'm not sure if they have really stopped, at last, or if it has it simply gotten too dark to see them.

Around us, the crowd gradually disperses, folding their blankets, packing up their wine glasses. The kids, who had been determinedly sledding down the grassy slope on collapsed cardboard boxes, are cold now, snuggling up to their mothers, gleaning the last picnic treats. People are hugging. I'm curious to see if my colleagues will hug goodbye. We're celebrating reaching our four-year fundraising goal, a goal considered quixotically large, four years ago, but which we've reached handily. We toasted ourselves with champagne.

They don't hug, for the most part. Only four, after all, have been working together for more than few months. But the big-gifts person and the grant writer walk with their arms around each other down the hill. They've been working together for years now. I'm happy to see that.

At the bottom of the hill, we reach Faith's bicycle. I hug Faith. She's well bundled up in varied layers of cotton and wool, and wearing a knit hat molded to her head like an aviator's. The whole effect wavers between girlish and old-womanish. I am, as always, terribly fond of her: she evokes an almost painful tenderness in me. She is the analytic person, the tracker, the maker of procedures and policies, the indispensable lieutenant -- innovative and decisive, always cogent, always master of the relevant details, always problem-solving. There is nothing girlish about her, really, so I can't account for why I feel so protective of her. But I do.

I drive the grant writer home and come home myself, alighting in my own chimney. It's the turning of the year. The swifts, I understand, will be on their way to Venezuela soon.

Godspeed. Wayfarers all.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The End of Summer

Today is the last day of school. It has all gone by in a twinkling: but working in the cubicles is a distant memory, as if I left that world decades ago. Now I have only to pass my national certification exam, and take my state boards, and I'll be a licensed massage therapist. By November, I hope, though there are often exasperating delays in the system. Until then -- when I can legally charge for it -- I'm going to try to do as much free massage as I possibly can, on the theory that most clients come by way of personal referral, and the more people I lay hands on, the better. (So if you're in Portland and want a massage, send me mail! I want to hear from you.)

Last clinic class was last night. I felt very "on," even though my client was ten minutes late, so that we had barely more than half an hour. I love this work. I love listening with my hands, finding what's bound up, and convincing it that it's safe to let go. At the risk of sounding maudlin or self-important -- it's sacred work. The means by which people learn, as Rachel put it recently in a beautiful post, to trust with their bodies.

Feeling extraordinarily fortunate. Thanks, thanks to all of you who encouraged me to do this. Especially Sunim Soen Joon -- always a put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is kind of girl -- who sternly told me that I simply had to do it. I'm so grateful.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Woven Sky

Morning. A long weave of hope and anxiety patterns the sky. So much the same. The lurch and stumble towards new things comes to so much less than I think at the time. For good or ill, this is what I have: these hands, this heart.

But that's not quite true, either. There are holes, spaces, openings. Invitations. You make friends with them as you make friends with a wary cat. Slowly. Pretend it's not there. Put a little tuna in a saucer and set it on the ground, as if by hazard, and go about your business. But it's not that the cat has to learn to trust you; it's that you have to learn to trust the cat.

For reasons best known to itself, East-West held its commencement on the weekend before finals. It's an odd ceremony anyway -- nine months doesn't quite merit the formality of speeches and walking across the platform (in this case, to receive a rather aimless piece of paper commending our hard work, for of course they can't actually give us diplomas when we haven't finished the course) -- but too long to let pass without some marker. So the thing feels overelaborate, with some people taking it as a joke, and some taking it quite seriously. Some people dressed to the nines; some, like Clint and I, in old jeans, suspenders, metal-spiked bill-caps.

I love these people. I have been learning, slowly and painfully, to rest quiet with loving people. Not to be tormented by it, not to feel that there's something wrong that needs to be put right, not to hanker after acknowledgement. To welcome it as a good and complete thing, rather than as a hunger and an injury. It's been a difficult road.

Brooklyn. The same thing in spades. Much more than I can say. The immediate aftermath is melancholy and regret. Despite a publicly asserted policy of resisting agglommeration, I did no such thing. I agglomerated. I never had the private conversations I fully intended to have. I never said so many important things.

It was all too much, in a way. And ordinary group dynamics took their relentless way. I talked most with the people I'd already met face to face. One does, especially if one is shy, & my shyness got the better of me, over and over.

I had a wonderful time, don't mistake me. And I finally got to "meet" some people who are very dear to me. & next time, because of that, I will be less shy with them.

Feeling, as I do, so intimately connected with these people -- knowing them so well, and feeling so well-known by them -- I guess I couldn't help expecting that somehow that would make all the ordinary conditions of social interaction -- in which I am generally slow, awkward, and inarticulate -- vanish. Of course it doesn't, though it does mitigate them. And touch. Being able to give a couple chair massages -- and a rug massage -- was wonderfully restorative to me, and sustained me through more continuous social time than I have ever had in my life. I spent no time alone in Brooklyn. None. Extraordinary. I am well-known, in my family, for becoming impossible to be around if I miss even one of my solitary, two-hour, out-of-the-house breakfasts. Martha says that when I was at my worst, in my twenties, she learned never to stand between me and the door in the morning, lest I feel caged.

I don't quite know how to explain why touch should be restorative to me in the same way as solitude. But it is.

All that said -- I loved it. And I miss everyone intensely.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The wind comes down the long spaces

The wind comes down the long spaces
Questing for my hand, like the muzzle
Of an old blind dog.

In the airport, a boy of five or six
Korean but American-born
Peeks at my screen.

I smile and, emboldened, he reads the words
I have been copying from my book, lines from Auden.

"That doesn't make sense," he announces.
"You're right," I agree.
"How can kisses get lost?" he asks.

The wind comes down the long spaces
Asking for news of the mayors of
Small towns far away long ago
That never amounted to much.

I have never heard of them.
Somewhere in yellow curling newsprint
They smile wanly, no doubt,
At the long-vanished crowd.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

What I Did on my Summer Vacation

Synecdoche: a forme of metaphorr as when the parte betokeneth the whole.

Pilgrim in Brooklyn

High color, parted lips; bunched shoulders
Under my hands, unwilling to rest: too full
Of eager life, and desire for God
And the love of dear friends --
She burns like a shrine candle whose wick
Suddenly lifts, and the flare
Sends glittering sparks from every bowl,
From every sacred gold and silver surface;
Every curve and point throbbing with fire, every face
Reflecting the brilliance of love.

Saturday, September 01, 2007


There is a high singing in my ears;
a ticking of clocks, the spin of a fan.
I am stupid for want of rest,
unwilling, unable to sleep.

To sleep would be to admit it:
It's not going to happen, not today.
All day I have been waiting for your voice.
A wise man never waits. That's what they say.

I remember the pearl of the sun, in an ivory sky.
I remember the skin of your waist
bunching as you leaned, delighted
Over a puppy chance-met in the park.

Now far away, the rattle of the trainyards,
the half-heard concussion of containers
loaded onto frames;
I am wishing, wishing for rain.