Poetry Wednesday: Three Poems for September

I had a completely different post in mind for today . . . because I’d forgotten.

Isn’t that something?

But Philip Metres, who has forgotten more about poetry than I will ever attempt to know, reminded me with an article that says exactly what I’d like to think I’d have said—if not as well—if I’d remembered.

But I didn’t remember until this morning and I know I wouldn’t have said anything half as eloquent or thoughtful.

So maybe I’ll just get out of the way today, and let these poems speak.

Full Flight
(Bob Hicok)

I’m in a plane that will not be flown into a building.
It’s a SAAB 340, seats 40, has two engines with propellers
is why I think of beanies, those hats that would spin
a young head into the clouds. The plane is red and loud
inside like it must be loud in the heart, red like fire
and fire engines and the woman two seats up and to the right
resembles one of the widows I saw on TV after the Towers
came down. It’s her hair that I recognize, the fecundity of it
and the color and its obedience to an ideal, the shape
it was asked several hours ago to hold and has held, a kind
of wave that begins at the forehead and repeats with slight
variations all the way to the tips, as if she were water
and a pebble had been continuously dropped into the mouth
of her existence. We are eighteen thousand feet over America.
People are typing at their laps, blowing across the fog of coffee,
sleeping with their heads on the windows, on the pattern
of green fields and brown fields, streams and gas stations
and swimming pools, blue dots of aquamarine that suggest
we’ve domesticated the mirage. We had to kill someone,
I believe, when the metal bones burned and the top
fell through the bottom and a cloud made of dust and memos
and skin muscled across Manhattan. I remember feeling
I could finally touch a rifle, that some murders
are an illumination of ethics, that they act as a word,
a motion the brain requires for which there is
no syllable, no breath. The moment the planes had stopped,
when we were afraid of the sky, there was a pause
when we could have been perfectly American,
could have spent infinity dollars and thrown a million
bodies at finding the few, lasering our revenge
into a kind of love, the blood-hunger kept exact
and more convincing for its precision, an expression
of our belief that proximity is never the measure of guilt.
We’ve lived in the sky again for some years and today
on my lap these pictures from Iraq, naked bodies
stacked into a pyramid of ha-ha and the articles
about broomsticks up the ass and the limbs of children
turned into stubble, we are punch-drunk and getting even
with the sand, with the map, with oil, with ourselves
I think listening to the guys behind me. There’s a problem
in Alpena with an inventory control system, some switches
are being counted twice, switches for what I don’t know-
switches of humor, of faith-but the men are musical
in their jargon, both likely born in New Delhi
and probably Americans now, which is what the flesh
of this country has been, a grafted pulse, an inventory
of the world, and just as the idea of embrace
moves chemically into my blood, and I’m warmed
as if I’ve just taken a drink, a voice announces
we’ve begun our descent, and then I sense the falling.

We the People

Death Be Not Proud
(John Donne)

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

We the People

My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears
(Mohja Kahf)

My grandmother puts her feet in the sink
of the bathroom at Sears
to wash them in the ritual washing for prayer,
because she has to pray in the store or miss
the mandatory prayer time for Muslims
She does it with great poise, balancing
herself with one plump matronly arm
against the automated hot-air hand dryer,
after having removed her support knee-highs
and laid them aside, folded in thirds,
and given me her purse and her packages to hold
so she can accomplish this august ritual
and get back to the ritual of shopping for housewares

Respectable Sears matrons shake their heads and frown
as they notice what my grandmother is doing,
an affront to American porcelain,
a contamination of American Standards
by something foreign and unhygienic
requiring civic action and possible use of disinfectant spray
They fluster about and flutter their hands and I can see
a clash of civilizations brewing in the Sears bathroom

My grandmother, though she speaks no English,
catches their meaning and her look in the mirror says,
I have washed my feet over Iznik tile in Istanbul
with water from the world’s ancient irrigation systems
I have washed my feet in the bathhouses of Damascus
over painted bowls imported from China
among the best families of Aleppo
And if you Americans knew anything
about civilization and cleanliness,
you’d make wider washbins, anyway
My grandmother knows one culture—the right one,

as do these matrons of the Middle West. For them,
my grandmother might as well have been squatting
in the mud over a rusty tin in vaguely tropical squalor,
Mexican or Middle Eastern, it doesn’t matter which,
when she lifts her well-groomed foot and puts it over the edge.
“You can’t do that,” one of the women protests,
turning to me, “Tell her she can’t do that.”
“We wash our feet five times a day,”
my grandmother declares hotly in Arabic.
“My feet are cleaner than their sink.
Worried about their sink, are they? I
should worry about my feet!”
My grandmother nudges me, “Go on, tell them.”

Standing between the door and the mirror, I can see
at multiple angles, my grandmother and the other shoppers,
all of them decent and goodhearted women, diligent
in cleanliness, grooming, and decorum
Even now my grandmother, not to be rushed,
is delicately drying her pumps with tissues from her purse
For my grandmother always wears well-turned pumps
that match her purse, I think in case someone
from one of the best families of Aleppo
should run into her—here, in front of the Kenmore display

I smile at the midwestern women
as if my grandmother has just said something lovely about them
and shrug at my grandmother as if they
had just apologized through me
No one is fooled, but I

hold the door open for everyone
and we all emerge on the sales floor
and lose ourselves in the great common ground
of housewares on markdown.

Poetry Wednesday: Three Way Love Fest

I’m sure St. Valentine didn’t intend to become the patron saint of crappy poetry, and I know the Vatican hasn’t officially ruled on that, yet, but let’s not kid ourselves.

You can, as many do, ignore the brightly colored rhyme schemes and schlocky phrases, and go for romantic poems that were created for a less commercial purpose, but even then, there’s only so much one can do with the old standbys.

Call me burned out, but it’s getting to the point where Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch could knock on my door with flowers and ask me if they could Compare me to a Summer’s Day and/or Count the Ways, and I’d ask if they could help me clean out the kids’ playroom instead.*

The newer stuff, while more to the point, doesn’t always do it for me, either.  Modern poems—and lyrics, too—always seem to be on one side of the scale or the other: true wuv that borders on Jerry Springer codependency or cynical Bah, Humcupidity:

English: Spinach plant, Castelltallat, Catalon...

Red is the rose
Green is the spinach
If you think love is all that
Just hold on a minute . . .

That doesn’t mean there aren’t poems about romantic love out there that don’t resonate with me, but the stuff that would have worked just fine when I was a yearning sixteen-year old or a defiantly single twenty-something just doesn’t feel the same to a happily married forty-cough mother of two.

So I sorted through my stash until I found three that don’t send me into sugar shock or a deep depression.

They’re all from the 17th Century, which wasn’t my intention but doesn’t surprise me—surely no other time produced poets such as John Donne, who could so smoothly and suavely compare the natural growth of love with tax increases:

Love’s Growth
(John Donne)

I scarce believe my love to be so pure
As I had thought it was,
Because it doth endure
Vicissitude, and season, as the grass;
Methinks I lied all winter, when I swore
My love was infinite, if spring make’ it more.
But if medicine, love, which cures all sorrow
With more, not only be no quintessence,
But mixed of all stuffs paining soul or sense,
John Donne, one of the most famous Metaphysica...And of the sun his working vigor borrow,
Love’s not so pure, and abstract, as they use
To say, which have no mistress but their muse,
But as all else, being elemented too,
Love sometimes would contemplate, sometimes do.
And yet no greater, but more eminent,
Love by the spring is grown;
As, in the firmament
Stars by the sun are not enlarged, but shown,
Gentle love deeds, as blossoms on a bough,
From love’s awakened root do bud out now.
If, as water stirred more circles be
Produced by one, love such additions take,
Those, like so many spheres, but one heaven make,
For they are all concentric unto thee;
And though each spring do add to love new heat,
As princes do in time of action get
New taxes, and remit them not in peace,
No winter shall abate the spring’s increase.

And then there’s Thomas Campion, who was a lyricist, as well as a poet—again, I’d argue that all lyricists are—and while he appears to have written plenty of the usual rose-blush odes to love during his career, he does occasionally indicate that just because he knew what would sell doesn’t mean he didn’t know the score:

Never Love Unless
(Thomas Campion)

Never love unless you can
Bear with all the faults of man:
Men sometimes will jealous be
Though but little cause they see;

And hang the head, as discontent,
And speak what straight they will repent.

Men that but one saint adore
Make a show of love to more.
Beauty must be scorned in none,
Though but truly served in one:
For what is courtship but disguise?
True hearts may have dissembling eyes.

Men, when their affairs require,
Must awhile themselves retire;
Sometimes hunt, and sometimes hawk,
And not ever sit and talk.
If these and such-like you can bear,
Then like, and love, and never fear!

But I think that my beloved Ben Jonson wins this round, because it’s my blog and also my considered opinion that this is the kind of thing any woman of a certain age would be glad to hear:

A Celebration of Charis: I. His Excuse for Loving
(Ben Jonson)

Let it not your wonder move,
Less your laughter, that I love.
Though I now write fifty years,
I have had, and have, my peers;

Poets, though divine, are men,
Ben_JonsonSome have lov’d as old again.
And it is not always face,
Clothes, or fortune, gives the grace;
Or the feature, or the youth.
But the language and the truth,
With the ardour and the passion,
Gives the lover weight and fashion.
If you then will read the story,
First prepare you to be sorry
That you never knew till now
Either whom to love or how;
But be glad, as soon with me,
When you know that this is she
Of whose beauty it was sung;
She shall make the old man young,
Keep the middle age at stay,
And let nothing high decay,
Till she be the reason why
All the world for love may die.

It that doesn’t get you in the mood, you’re not paying attention.

What’s your favorite romantic poem?  Song?  Cleaning product?


*After I hyperventilate  and tell them who they are a couple of times in a croak because my vocal cords have seized up, and then drop like an ungainly pile of unflattering clothing at their feet,.  And I’m not saying that after I recovered I wouldn’t hand them both copies of the first door stop-sized tome I could find around the house— Shakespeare’s complete works, Lewis Carroll, Stephen King, Anaïs Nin, the phone book—because who seriously cares what these two men recite as long as they don’t stop?

Poetry Wednesday: I am not Resigned

Two poetry posts today.  

I’d prepared something vastly different from this one, and I’ll post it later this afternoon—but pretending, by omission, that I wasn’t affected by the events of last week seemed . . . disrespectful, somehow.


There are as many poems about death, mourning, funerals, and grief as there are ways to die and mourn, and honor, and grieve.

Some poets find death a friend, some find it an enemy, some choose to comfort, some to despair, some to describe, rejoice, bargain.

And some stand defiant.

This week, after a devastating reminder that death does not always provide time, reason, or closure. . .  I believe I do, too.

Death be not proud
(John Donne)

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures bee, 5
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe go,
Rest of their bones, and souls delivery.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, 10
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better then thy stroke; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleep past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.


Dirge without Music

(Edna St. Vincent Millay)

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, — but the best is lost.

The answers quick & keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Poetry Wednesday: John Donne, Love’s Fool

Stay, O sweet, and do not rise ;
The light that shines comes from thine eyes ;
The day breaks not, it is my heart,
Because that you and I must part.
Stay, or else my joys will die,
And perish in their infancy.

I adore me some John Donne, y’all.  Though I’m not always sure why . . .

He could be caustic, cruel, and severely misogynistic —certain that God himself made women deceitful and untrue and that love was the pastime of idiots.

Sex, sure—nothing wrong with that and he’ll tell you why in a most convincing fashion—but love? Ha.

But then I’ll read another poem of earnest romanticism and tender hope . . .  and wonder if the man was just a touch bipolar. If it weren’t for that singular voice and style, evident even within the restraints of the 17th century form,* I might suspect a sort of Donne collective.

This odd combination of love and scorn, holy and bawdy, blunt and delicate, hopeful and despairing, appears to run the gamut of the human experience.

And, frankly, the man’s afterglow is difficult to resist:

Break of Day
(John Donne)

‘Tis true, ’tis day ; what though it be?
O, wilt thou therefore rise from me?
Why should we rise because ’tis light?
Did we lie down because ’twas night?
Love, which in spite of darkness brought us hither,
Should in despite of light keep us together.

Light hath no tongue, but is all eye ;
If it could speak as well as spy,
This were the worst that it could say,
That being well I fain would stay,
And that I loved my heart and honour so
That I would not from him, that had them, go.

Must business thee from hence remove?
O ! that’s the worst disease of love,
The poor, the foul, the false, love can
Admit, but not the busied man.
He which hath business, and makes love, doth do
Such wrong, as when a married man doth woo.

Not bad for an Anglican priest. The third and fourth lines are probably my favorites—in my mind’s eye, there’s a sly smile that goes with them— though I certainly can’t fault the man for extolling the virtues, so to speak, of taking one’s time and paying attention.

Negative Love
(John Donne)

I never stoop’d so low, as they
Which on an eye, cheek, lip, can prey ;
Seldom to them which soar no higher
Than virtue, or the mind to admire.
For sense and understanding may
Know what gives fuel to their fire ;
My love, though silly, is more brave ;
For may I miss, whene’er I crave,
If I know yet what I would have.
If that be simply perfectest,
Which can by no way be express’d
But negatives, my love is so.
To all, which all love, I say no.
If any who deciphers best,
What we know not—ourselves—can know,
Let him teach me that nothing. This
As yet my ease and comfort is,
Though I speed not, I cannot miss.

That’s the stuff. And Donne, though he took some of his subject matter very seriously—especially in his sermons—he appeared to maintain a certain sense of humor about his poetry:

The Triple Fool
by John Donne

I am two fools, I know,
For loving, and for saying so
In whining poetry ;
But where’s that wise man, that would not be I,
If she would not deny ?
Then as th’ earth’s inward narrow crooked lanes
Do purge sea water’s fretful salt away,
I thought, if I could draw my pains
Through rhyme’s vexation, I should them allay.
Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For he tames it, that fetters it in verse.
But when I have done so,
Some man, his art and voice to show,
Doth set and sing my pain ;
And, by delighting many, frees again
Grief, which verse did restrain.
To love and grief tribute of verse belongs,
But not of such as pleases when ’tis read.
Both are increasèd by such songs,
For both their triumphs so are published,
And I, which was two fools, do so grow three.
Who are a little wise, the best fools be.

I could share more, but I might save it for another Wednesday, when I’m in a more melancholy mood.


*I found this comment  scribbled in the margins of my copy of  17th Century Poetry and Prose— but it is in my handwriting.