book reviews, education, history, poetry

Book Reviews, July 2016

This post is a little late.  Sorry for the handful of you who actually read my reviews.  I read a lot in July, but only managed to finish two books.  Fortunately they were both quite good.  One is a fine collection of poems and the other a history of education in America.

  • New and Selected Poems (1992) by Mary Oliver is a solid selection of poems from the early career of a great poet.  I picked up this collection years ago because a friend of mine told me he really liked Oliver’s poetry, but it languished on my shelf.  More recently, someone shared “Wild Geese” on Facebook and I realized I had to read more of her poetry after coming across lines like “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. / Meanwhile the world goes on.”  I discovered many more poems I liked as well or better as that one, from an early poem about Theseus and the Minotaur to the many nature poems later.  Interestingly, this collection puts the poems in reverse chronological order, starting with the newest ones first and going backwards to the earliest poems.  I liked being able to track the growth and changes in a poet in a collection like this that spans more than 25 years.  There’s something similar in a collection like this to a greatest hits package for a musical artist versus going through a back catalog album by album.  Sometimes I prefer to experience an individual album (or poetry collection) and see it as a whole unit.  But sometimes an artist’s offerings lend themselves to selections plucked from the field and placed in their own vase to be admired as their own bouquet.  This set of wildflowers are beautiful.
  • The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein is a helpful and even-handed look at education in America.  By tracing the history of teaching, Goldstein is able to show how many ideas that seem new have been tried in the past as the country continually tries to improve our educational system.  For instance, ideas like merit pay and complex teacher evaluations have been used in the past without seeing much improvement.  Merit pay has been tried numerous times in the past 100 years, but the programs failed because of “excessive administrative paperwork, low funding, disagreement about how to judge good teaching, and strong opposition from teachers themselves” (174).  Merit pay programs were often implemented as a way to cut overall teacher pay.  Too often the programs pit teachers against each other, causing acrimony instead of harmony.  Teaching should be a collaborative job, where teachers mentor each other and share materials that work.  But most merit pay systems only reward a few top teachers, creating an incentive not to work together.  The chapters each focus on a different time period or type of reform from the first common schools to the beginning of teachers unions to our own day of high stakes testing and charter schools and programs like Teach for America.  Goldstein attempts to give the history straight, showing what teaching was like at the time and how it changed over time.  But she does interject with what the research shows, like when she points out in a discussion about teacher quality (a current hot topic in school reform discussions) that “the current achievement gap is driven much more by out-of-school factors than by in-school factors” and that teacher quality differences amount to about seven percent of the equation.  She withholds her own policy prescriptions for the end, where she recommends some commonsense ideas like focusing on principals as much as teachers because the work environment matters, or that testing is more useful as a diagnostic tool to let teachers know what they need to teach to students, not as a tool to evaluate the teachers themselves.  Above all, teachers should be part of the equation whenever it comes to reform projects because they are the ones doing the job.  Too often, outsiders with business experience or some philanthropist tries to impose strictures on teachers without their input.  This is a useful book for anyone who is invested in the public education of the children of our country, which is basically everyone.
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book reviews, history, literature, poetry

Book Reviews, January 2016

A new year of books and book reviews!  I’m hoping to match my reading and reviewing goals from last year and do them one better (i.e. 51).  These three books were a great start to the year.

  • People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks is an enthralling fictionalized account of the history of a book, the Sarajevo Haggadah.  The story starts in 1996 after the ceasefire in the Bosnian War when a rare book conservationist is brought in to restore the illuminated Haggadah, the book Jews use for the Passover seder.  While taking apart and then re-binding the book, Hanna Heath finds a few clues that might shed light on the remarkable history of the book that spans 500 years of European history.  Interspersed between the main narrative of Hanna’s sleuthing are short pieces from the book’s history such as when it was saved from destruction at the hands of the Nazis during WWII.  Other moments give glimpses into Vienna in the declining years of the Austro-Hungarian empire and Spain at the time of the expulsion of Jews in 1492.  It’s all rather riveting as the moments are about people—Jews, Muslims, and Christians— who have some connection to the book.  I’m kind of a sucker for books about loving books, at least if they are done well (e.g. Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, or Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose).  It’s not very deep, but I enjoyed it a great deal.
  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf is a book I’ve read before and hope to read again someday.  In other words, it’s a classic, and deservedly so.  It’s a novel that somehow encompasses so much of life even though the main action only takes up a day.  Periodically we hear the tolling of the bells marking the hours of a day in London of 1923.  It starts with one of the famous lines of literature: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”  From there, we follow Clarissa Dalloway (and other characters) through all the preparations for a party that evening at her residence.  The guest list includes the Prime Minister, revered physicians, pompous bureaucrats, a poor cousin, an old suitor of Clarissa’s, and one of her oldest friends who, though living in Manchester and thus uninvited, happened to be in town and came anyway.  Running parallel to the story of the events leading up to the party is the story of Septimus Smith, a veteran of World War I who is suffering from shell shock (what we would now call PTSD).  Through the use of flashbacks we find out some of the backstory of how Clarissa chose Dalloway instead of her old suitor, and how Septimus is haunted by the memory of his officer who was killed in the war.  The narration floats and glides from character to character, in and out of minds, seamlessly transitioning from one to the next, like a butterfly flitting here and there.  It can be disorienting, but it is also so fluid.  We get to experience life through so many eyes and minds.  It’s exquisite.  It’s not an easy read despite being a tad under 200 pages, but it’s totally worth it.
  • Our List of Solutions by Carrie Oeding is a collection of poetry full of longing and insight and barbecues.  One thing I noticed is that this collection works as a cohesive book and not merely a random selection of poems by one author.  Characters and objects and themes recur throughout the book, filling out the neighborhood feel to the proceedings.  There’s Sandy who says “No more!” before being introduced to the concept of Beauty by a neighbor and finally closing the book with her own list of solutions.  There’s the neighborhood barbecues where people eat meat and someone is always on the edge of the group, where there’s gossip and someone disappointing someone else.  And then there’s the way the world works, first its prelude and then its understanding.  It’s an understanding that’s really a curse.

    Some who curse knowing the world, punch who we love saying, This can’t be

    how the world works!

    And some of us cursers learn

    to just watch those in the world who don’t know how it works.

    Of course those aren’t the only two options, and that’s not the only way to curse.  It’s a complicated book, and these are intricate poems that don’t follow the same narratives or structures I’ve seen before.  A speaker in one of these poems is just as likely to imagine a lengthy discourse on a new enemy before fumbling towards complete stasis as imagine that an old high school band mate had the key to beauty and freedom in a great bike metaphor, but that it was now lost.  The poems do new and interesting things like revise themselves as they go along as in “Ruby, Give Leo One More Chance”: “You can know a person […] You can know a person too well.  You can know a story. / You can feel nothing at all. // I can walk up to a stranger and, and I— / who cares what I could say. / This isn’t about talking to strangers.”  It’s intriguing, and it’s a neighborhood I’d like to visit again, even if all the deer have left.

    [disclosure: Oeding and I were in grad school together, but I didn’t know her very well.  I actually decided to read her book because of a review by Angie Mazakis, another grad student and mutual friend.  Angie’s review is much better.  You should probably read that one instead of this one.]

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book reviews, faith, history, poetry

Book Reviews, August 2015

The August installment of brief book reviews includes the work of a southern poet, John Hersey’s classic on the devastation of the first atomic bomb, and a meditation on church.

  • Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans is a mix of memoir and a meditation on church.  The book is structured around the seven sacraments (baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and marriage), which helps hold the fragmentary nature of the chapters together.  In her earlier memoir she talked openly about her doubts with Christian faith that led her to adapt; in this new memoir she details how she left the evangelical church she grew up in, struggled to attend any church for a time, tried and failed to start a church, and then found solace in the Episcopal church.  As I said in my earlier review, I could relate in the broad strokes with her experiences (I, too, have found solace in the Episcopal church).  But I really appreciate that Evans doesn’t repudiate her evangelical upbringing.  For her, it’s the community that introduced her to Jesus and still part of the universal church, so she can’t turn her back on it.  I also appreciated her honesty when talking about her judgmental attitudes about churches she would visit.  She talked about how she would intellectualize everything and remain aloof in her pride.  Her awareness was welcoming and a reminder of my own judgmental attitudes.  Later, when discussing the incident in the gospel of John where Jesus refuses to condemn a woman caught in adultery who the Pharisees bring to him ready to stone, Evans discusses judgmental attitudes within the church.  She had been talking about sin-sorting: the habit of classifying some sins as worse than others in order to feel better about our own sins.  She points out that some use this story of Jesus and the woman and what he tells her at the end (“Go and sin no more”) when they think the church is being too soft on sin.  She counters that kind of thinking: “I think it’s safe to say we’ve missed the point when, of all the people in this account, we decide we’re the most like Jesus.  I think it’s safe to say we’ve missed the point when we use his words to condemn and this story as a stone” (94).  To me this is a strong reminder of the example of the grace Jesus gives that Christians are supposed to emulate.  I thought this book was stronger than her first.  I’d definitely recommend it.
  • Hiroshima by John Hersey is one of those classics that I always knew I should read, but never did until now.  I was prompted to pick it up by seeing articles and blog posts on the 70th anniversary of the devastation.  I can see why it is a classic.  In a plain reportorial style, Hersey tells the stories of six survivors.  It begins a few hours before the bomb hits, and then follows the six individuals through the rest of the day and the ensuing aftermath.  Hersey never interjects his own thoughts, letting the details of the injuries and deaths and wreckage and destruction and sickness and weariness inform the reader.  We see the other burned survivors wandering around the streets (many of whom died later of wounds or radiation sickness); we see the destruction of homes, hospitals, factories, and churches; we see the shadowy outlines of those vaporized in the initial blast.  And though this is a survival story, we see death everywhere.  It’s important to reckon with this, look at the death and destruction square in the face.  As an American, this is my legacy: America is the only country to have used atomic weapons.  Now some argue that it was necessary, that there was no other way to end the war with Japan, that it was a psychological weapon as much as a physical one.  But even if we grant all that, allowing the dropping of two atomic bombs as the least of all evils, we still must look at the evil those bombs wrought.  (And this says nothing about the firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities before the final two bombs.)  I did not read the fifth and final chapter called “The Aftermath,” where Hersey revisits Hiroshima forty years afterwards and tells what has happened to the six survivors in the meantime.  My copy appears to be a first edition from 1946, though the story itself was published first in The New Yorker a few months before being rushed out separately as a book because of great demand (the original New Yorker article can be read at the link).  This is a book everyone should read.
  • We Almost Disappear by David Bottoms is the most recent poetry collection from a southern poet I’ve liked for a while now.  Here’s a quick taste: “[O]ther than gratitude / so little survives the world’s chronic revision—a boss line, maybe, / from a poem you’ve forgotten, a penny / you picked up in an alley / for luck, / a voice that blessed you in passing.” (from “Romanticism I”). It’s a collection that is concerned with the passage of time and the themes of aging and family.  Early poems recollect the poet’s early days and memories of his grandfather.  One whole section later in the book concerns the poet’s aging father, with many of the titles describing him as “my old man,” as in “My Old Man Loves Fried Okra.”  That particular poem shows the painful moment when someone loses a defining characteristic to age: the speaker’s father is too tired to thank the church lady for bringing over fried okra, and even too tired to eat it.  Another section takes up the poet’s relationships with his wife and daughter, and it had my favorite poem in the whole book: “My Daughter Works the Heavy Bag.”  In this poem, the speaker observes his fifth grade daughter in karate class as she negotiates the physical movements of the martial art and the social movements of being the only girl in the class.  The images at times are perfect: “Again and again, the bony jewels of her fist / jab out in glistening precision.”  I discovered Bottoms, the former poet laureate of Georgia, from the recommendation of a friend in grad school.  He told me to read Under the Vulture Tree, and after I did I was hooked.  The collection was full of boss lines; see for yourself in the poem “Under the Vulture Tree.”  This latest collection isn’t quite as good, but it’s still worth checking out.
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book reviews, faith, history, literature, parenting, poetry

Book Reviews, July 2015

In July I read a wide variety of books.  Let’s get straight to the reviews!

  • Get in Trouble by Kelly Link is a collection of strange and beguiling stories.  The stories feature pyramids and ghosts and pocket universes and automaton boyfriends and superheroes and my brother.  Yes, I was shocked to find my older brother named in the third story, an epistolary tale about secret identities.  So maybe it wasn’t my brother after all, but someone pretending to be him.  Either way, it was unnerving to find his name there.  It’s not like I have a common last name like Smith or Jones.  The first story “The Summer People” was one of my favorites (and can be read here for free online).  In it, a girl in the country takes care of a mysterious and magical cottage behind her house that is home to playful strangers (sprites? elves?) that no one can quite see. When she comes down sick, she ropes a friend from school into helping her.  It hit the right tone between reality and fantasy that got under my skin so I didn’t know what to believe.  Another favorite came near the end called “Two Houses,” in which a group of astronauts tell ghost stories to each other while they travel to distant stars.  The central story within the story features an art installation of two houses, one a house transported piece by piece from the southwest United States to the English countryside (in a twist from the castles or bridges disassembled and transported to America) and the other an exact replica of the same house.  Terrible murders had taken place in the first house and there were bloodstains on the carpet, and these stains were copied in the second house.  It was impossible to tell which house was the original and which the copy, which was haunted and which had imagined ghosts.  It was a great story.  I’d recommend this book to fans of Neil Gaiman and anyone who likes stories that are a little strange and exciting.  It was another book I found from the Girl Canon list.
  • The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money by Ron Lieber is a useful book for parents.  Lieber’s main argument is that kids need to learn about money from parents before they are on their own and making decisions about student loans and everything else, and he has lots of ideas on how to go about it.  How we handle our money is a reflection of our values, so talking to kids about money is a way to teach them about patience, generosity, and perspective.  One idea I found especially interesting was that he advocates separating allowances from doing chores.  He thinks kids should get an allowance even at an early age (by 1st grade, which seems pretty early to me), and that it is a way for kids to practice with money.  The cover of the book shows three jars with the signs “Give,” “Save,” and “Spend,” which is his idea for what kids should do with the allowance.  This allocation system sounded familiar from my upbringing that involved a set of envelopes.  Lieber likes clear containers so that a child can see the money accumulate as they save money to give away or to spend on a larger item.  The act of waiting is hard for a kid, but a crucial lesson to learn.  He argues that kids should still do chores because they are part of the household and everyone is responsible for its maintenance.  Parents don’t get any money for doing the dishes or cooking or vacuuming, so neither should the children.  He says that if kids have trouble doing their contribution of chores, there are plenty of privileges that can be taken away to help motivate them instead of withholding an allowance.  Another area that he advocates parents involve children is in charitable giving.  He provides lots of ways that kids can be involved in the conversation, including their own giving.  The main drawback to the book is that it is clearly written for people at the median of wage-earners and above.  Many examples are from affluent families, though often the principles could be applied across the spectrum.  I suppose that is the audience for a book about teaching kids about money.  I found out about the book from an article in Slate.  It was worth checking out of the library.
  • God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case for Same-Sex Marriage by Matthew Vines is an important argument for Christians and churches to consider.  My own denomination, the Episcopal Church, recently decided to allow same sex marriages at their General Convention, a move that came soon after the Supreme Court decision that declared all states must recognize same sex marriages.  But many other denominations and churches will continue to wrestle with what to do about LGBT individuals and same sex marriage.  Vines presents a well-organized and detailed argument that the church should affirm LGBT individuals and marriage between same sex partners that is monogamous and committed.  And it fulfills the promise of its subtitle: it is a biblical argument.  He takes the Bible seriously, stating early on that he believes “all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for [his] life” (2).  One thing I especially appreciated about the book is that he never presents strawmen to knock down.  The book is thoroughly researched, and he’s read the books of non-affirming scholars and teachers (especially Robert A. J. Gagnon, among others) and presents their arguments fairly when disagreeing with them.  Here’s a quick summary of his arguments.  He first presents a utilitarian question: does the church’s current stance produce the good fruit that Jesus says a good tree will?  Then he provides a history lesson showing that sexual orientation is a modern concept that the biblical writers were not addressing when they wrote about same sex behavior.  Next comes a look at celibacy in scripture and history where he notes that it has always been a voluntary decision, not forced on an individual.  A large portion of the book is devoted to understanding the six passages in the Bible that concern same sex behavior, focusing especially on the historical context.  After that, he examines marriage and shows that its essential feature is the covenantal bond, not the sex or gender of the partners.  Lastly, he writes about how everyone, including LGBT individuals, are created in the image of God, without dismissing the doctrines of sin and grace.  All in all, it is an impressive and comprehensive argument on same sex marriage.  I would highly recommend this book to all Christians, especially evangelicals.  Even if they read it and still disagree with his conclusions, they will still come away knowing that those who are affirming of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Christians and same sex marriage have good reasons for their beliefs. [see comment below for my discussion of the “refutation” of Vines’s book]
  • Carver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson is exactly what its title would make a reader expect: a biography of George Washington Carver in poetry.  And it works.  While I would be unlikely to pick up a prose biography of Carver (not because he led an uninteresting life, quite the opposite, but because there are too many biographies of interesting people that I will never pick up), I decided to read this volume because I knew and liked Nelson’s poetry (her much anthologized sonnet “How I Discovered Poetry” is a particular standout).  By telling his life story in brief moments told from many different points of view allows the reader to enter the scenes and the thoughts of Carver and the people in his life.  Though it is marketed for children (my used copy is a Scholastic school market version), there is nothing about it that is only for children.  Carver was a generous man, giving away formulas and secrets that he could have kept to get rich, such as a blue pigment that was deeper and richer than any known for thousands of years (“Egyptian Blue”).  He received “[o]ffers to pay / for answers the Creator gives / him for nothing” (“The Year of the Sky-Smear”).  He is, of course, famous for his work with peanuts and crop rotation, but he was interested in most everything in the natural world.  The poem “Ruellia Noctiflora,” spoken from the point of view of woman who meets Carver unexpectedly in the woods, shows how he could see the world differently than others: “Where he pointed was only a white flower / until I saw him seeing it.”  In many ways, I thought it read better than a traditional biography would have.  It reminds me of Ted Kooser’s The Blizzard Voices, which I enjoyed more than the prose history of David Laskin’s The Children’s Blizzard (both tell the stories of those who lived and died during the horrific blizzard of 1888 on the Great Plains).  I would recommend Nelson’s volume of poems for anyone who is remotely interested in Carver and anyone who likes good poetry.
  • My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier is a good, but not great, gothic romance from the same author as Rebecca.  It shares a similar setting as Rebecca, a large estate in Cornwall, the southwestern peninsula of England, and it also shares a similarly mysterious woman at the center of the story.  In  Rebecca the mysterious woman was the absent title character: she haunts the novel from beginning to end.  In My Cousin Rachel, the title character Rachel is very much present throughout the novel, but her thoughts and motivations are unknown to the narrator, her cousin Philip Ashley.  Rachel is Philip’s cousin by marriage.  Philip is a young man who lives with his older cousin Ambrose Ashley as a ward since his parents died at an early age.  Ambrose, himself a bachelor at the beginning of the novel, raised him as his own son.  But soon after those first pages of the novel, he travels to Italy for his health during the winter and meets and marries Rachel.  Not long afterwards, Ambrose dies under mysterious circumstances.  It is believed that he had a brain tumor, but Ambrose had sent cryptic letters back to Philip that point to Rachel somehow being the cause of his illness.  Philip begins by hating Rachel because she has taken away Ambrose, but when he finally meets her (still quite early in the novel), he finds her very difficult to hate.  As readers, we worry for our naïve narrator Philip until we eventually pity him.  I was worried that I might end up disliking the book, but du Maurier wraps it all up satisfactorily by the end.  She uses the technique of foreshadowing rather explicitly in the first chapter, but it wasn’t clear to me until the end what she had done, so I had to reread the first chapter afterwards to see how she had done it.  It was rather like a Möbius strip, circularly leading back from the end to the beginning.  I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Rebecca or gothic romance in general, with tempered expectations.
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personal, poetry

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d

Lilacs closeup image

“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

[…]

Yet each to keep and all, retrievements out of the night,
The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird,
And the tallying chant, the echo arous’d in my soul,
With the lustrous and drooping star with the countenance full of woe,
With the holders holding my hand nearing the call of the bird,
Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, for the dead I loved so well,
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.”

(Walt Whitman, from “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”)


In our backyard the lilacs are in bloom. Their sweet smell is one of the best things we inherited from the previous owner of the house (the thistles we could do without). I don’t remember noticing the smell of lilacs before, whether because of ignorance or inattention, but now I don’t think I’ll forget their scent. The sense of smell is strongly associated with memory and can stir up strong thoughts as they did for Whitman. For me, cigarette smoke always brings my grandma and her house on the lake to mind.

Last month was the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination. Lincoln is a mythic figure in American history. Every politician wants to claim his mantle: he’s someone that everyone, Republicans and Democrats, can agree on. It’s so easy to put Lincoln on a pedestal. Heck, we’ve already done that right here in South Dakota when we carved his 60 foot visage in rock. Normally I’m not much interested in “great man” history; that is, I’m not interested in studying merely the rulers and elites of the past as if they are all that shaped what happened. American history is so much more than the lives of the 43 men who have been president. I’m not opposed to biographies, but they by and large don’t interest me (says the person who recently read a biography of Malcolm X—my reasons in that case were more personal, to compare it with his autobiography which I had read and been impressed by many years earlier. Also, it told a lot of the history of the era, especially how his life intersected with the Civil Rights movement and the Nation of Islam.)

But Lincoln is a different matter for me. He does interest me, probably because of the unique period of the time, a time when the country was at declared war with itself. The country was built and prospered because it enslaved millions of Africans. But the Civil War was a turning point in the ongoing story of our nation as it relates to African Americans. It’s a story that is still unfolding, from Reconstruction to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights movement to mass incarceration and the Drug War of today (with many other aspects of the story that I’m leaving out).

I wonder how the post-bellum years would have turned out if Lincoln hadn’t been killed. His vice president, Andrew Johnson, a Tennessee Democrat, was the worst person to be in charge of putting the country back together after the war. How successful would Lincoln have been? Would he still be beloved as the savior of the Union if he had presided over the tough conflicts of Reconstruction? In some ways, his murder froze him in time right after the war ended. The Union had been saved, the slaves had been freed, and it was all because of Lincoln. The narrative had been fixed for all time.

I’m also interested in Lincoln because we named our third child Abraham, in part because of the positive associations with the 16th president (we had other reasons, too). Perhaps I’ve burdened him with the association. I can see the appeal of inventing a new name for a child so that he has no expectations to live up to, no weight to live under. He only has to be himself. But I’m going to continue to read about Lincoln, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, while striving to let my son grow up and be himself.

The lilacs have already begun to droop, and the petals are falling to the ground. I’ll have to wait until next year to smell their sweetness again.

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poetry

Two poems and an explanation

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

(James Wright, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”)


We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

(Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” trans. Stephen Mitchell)


Last week I received a mysterious call from Pine Island, MN. After listening to the voicemail, my confusion cleared. It was the basement waterproofers calling to confirm the dates of the work crew coming. But the mention of Pine Island on my phone’s caller ID made me think of the poem by Wright, which in turn made me think of its cousin, the poem by Rilke. Both poems turn on their last line and go big. Definitely ending with a bang and not a whimper. One a pronouncement of regret, the other a call to arms. It’s the kind of trick a poet can only pull off once; to try it again would be to negate its effect. I almost feel that putting them side by side like this does the same thing, canceling each other out. So why put them together? Their differences are interesting. One is an encounter with nature, the other with art. In one, the viewer is ignored by the surroundings; in the other, the viewer cannot escape the gaze of the sculpture. In the first, the speaker despairs; in the latter the speaker compels the listener to transform.

While I like these two poems very much, the bold pronouncements they end with don’t appeal to me as much as they did when I was younger. It’s not that I’m immune to the warning of wasting my life and the exhortation to change, it’s just that I’m more likely to listen to a quieter voice now. Does this mean that I’ve grown complacent, settling into middle age? I don’t like to think so, but it’s hard to rule out. Now I’m a homeowner who has to call specialists to help us keep water out of our basement.

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personal, poetry

Forget the Words

I told you once to forget the words I say,
and I told you twice to remember that.
You told me you never listen anyway.

Most of the time my thoughts are on display,
written on my face, shallow and flat.
I told you to forget the words I say.

And then I asked you, “Parlez-vous Français?”
to find the difference between chien and chat.
You told me your French is rusty anyway.

So then I tried some Spanish andale!
But you never studied the other Lat-
in tongue—just forget the words I say.

Our languages never can convey
meaning beyond one little caveat—
you weren’t even listening anyway.

I love and hate you. I listen. I pray.
The words didn’t stir you; you still sat.
I told you to forget the words I say.
You told me you never listen anyway.

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