Collected Poems, by Emily Dickinson

Emily

For our first meeting this year, our Poetry Discussion Group read Dickinson’s poems, a mix of famous and now-so-famous works. To prepare, I reread this collection from my bookshelf, finding notes from my schooldays tucked in its pages, enjoying old favorites and rediscovering ones I’d forgotten.

At our meeting one person remarked that almost anyone reading an unattributed poem by Dickinson would know immediately that it was by her. Why is that? It’s partly her remarkable concision—the way she can pack so much into a handful of lines—and partly her combination of whimsy and practicality.

Of course there are her distinctive dashes. In many cases, they designate a pause, as here:

It’s all I have to bring today —
This, and my heart beside —
This, and my heart, and all the fields —
And all the meadows wide —
Be sure you count — should I forget
Some one the sum could tell —
This, and my heart, and all the Bees
Which in the Clover dwell.

In others, they indicate a modern fracturing of perception, as here:

Each Life Converges to some Centre —
Expressed — or still —
Exists in every Human Nature
A Goal —

Embodied scarcely to itself — it may be —
Too fair
For Credibility’s presumption
To mar —

Adored with caution — as a Brittle Heaven —
To reach
Were hopeless, as the Rainbow’s Raiment
To touch —

Yet persevered toward — sure — for the Distance —
How high —
Unto the Saint’s slow diligence —
The Sky —

Ungained — it may be — by a Life’s low Venture —
But then —
Eternity enable the endeavoring
Again.

Sometimes they add emphasis to certain words or ideas.

I taste a liquor never brewed —
From Tankards scooped in Pearl —
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of Air — am I —
And Debauchee of Dew —
Reeling — thro endless summer days —
From inns of Molten Blue —

When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door —
When Butterflies — renounce their “drams” —
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats —
And Saints — to windows run —
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the — Sun –

She can be joyous, as in the previous poem, or satirical, as here:

What Soft — Cherubic Creatures —
These Gentlewomen are —
One would as soon assault a Plush —
Or violate a Star —

Such Dimity Convictions —
A Horror so refined
Of freckled Human Nature —
Of Deity — ashamed —

It’s such a common — Glory —
A Fisherman’s — Degree —
Redemption — Brittle Lady —
Be so — ashamed of Thee —

More often, though, she’s kind, appreciative of the world around here and aware of its transience:

I had no time to Hate —
Because
The Grave would hinder Me —
And Life was not so
Ample I
Could finish — Enmity —

Nor had I time to Love —
But since
Some Industry must be —
The little Toil of Love —
I thought
Be large enough for Me –

Some of her poems seem straightforward, but may have layers within. Some—such as the last one—are so sweetly positive as to border on sentimentality, though never (in my opinion) crossing over. Some we found baffling, such as this one where the two stanzas seem to be separate poems, the first clear and the second bewildering (Himmaleh indicates the Himalayas).

I can wade Grief —
Whole Pools of it —
I’m used to that —
But the least push of Joy
Breaks up my feet —
And I tip — drunken —
Let no Pebble — smile —
‘Twas the New Liquor —
That was all!

Power is only Pain —
Stranded, thro’ Discipline,
Till Weights — will hang —
Give Balm — to Giants —
And they’ll wilt, like Men —
Give Himmaleh —
They’ll Carry — Him!

As writers we’re often advised to eliminate adjectives and adverbs, yet she deploys them brilliantly, as in this poem where it is the adjectives that give it power:

For each ecstatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ration
To the ecstasy.

For each beloved hour
Sharp pittances of years —
Bitter contested farthings —
And Coffers heaped with Tears!

I have plenty of friends IRL (in real life) and online, but books too are my friends, and none more welcome than wise and witty Emily.
All the poems I’ve quoted and more may be found here.

What is your favorite Emily Dickinson poem?

Songs and Carols for Midwinter & Christmastide, by Nowell Sing We Clear

Songbook

The release of this fantastic resource caps a glorious 40 years of performances by Nowell Sing We Clear—Tony Barrand, Fred Breunig, Andy Davis, and John Roberts. These four traditional musicians toured the Northeast and beyond with a performance of Anglo-American songs and carols of the season, drawing on their backgrounds: Tony and John’s English, Fred and Andy’s American. (Full disclosure: three of the four have been friends of mine all that time).

Now they’ve pulled together the band’s repertoire in this songbook. It’s musician-friendly, containing words and music for the songs and carols we love: wire-bound to lie flat, with chord symbols and harmonies. The extensive background material will fascinate musicians, singers and scholars alike.

Their concerts quickly became a December tradition for many of us, one that we’ve missed since the band retired from touring after a final concert in 2014. Each concert had the same template, which you’ll find in the songbook too. The first half featured music related to the Christmas story, often pub-sing versions of familiar carols, many filled with more directness and energy than the church versions. The second half was devoted to traditional songs of the season, such as wassail songs, visiting songs, the hunting of the wren, and counting songs.

The first half ended with a mummer’s play, and sometimes a sword dance. As their Facebook page says: “Performed in the traditional manner, the play is typical of folk dramas which survive to this day throughout Britain and North America symbolizing and portraying the death of the land at midwinter and its subsequent rebirth in the spring.” It was always different, with timely quips about current events or politics inserted, bringing guffaws from the audience.

Anyone who loves to sing will enjoy this book that celebrates this season when the light begins to return and many people celebrate the birth that became attached to the ancient rituals. For me, these songs have become such a part of my life for so long that they are inseparable from this season, but even those new to Nowell Sing We Clear will enjoy discovering new and old favorites. My two-year-old grandson’s favorite is Kris Kringle with its rollicking chorus.

Check out more videos from their concerts on YouTube. You can purchase the book and other Nowell Sing We Clear recordings here. I have no financial interest in purchases, just a friendly one: I want to bring together the music of my friends and you, my friends who will enjoy it.

Do you love to sing? This book is for you!

Playlist 2019

Robb

Songs are stories too. And sometimes poetry. And often a comfort to me. This year some on my list are favorites of the little one who spends days with me. Many thanks to my friends for their music.

Over The Rainbow, Eva Cassidy
Over the Rainbow, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole
Come Away With Me, Norah Jones
Nightingale, Norah Jones
Northern Sky, Nick Drake
Spry Street Hotel. Owen Morrison
Stonegate Waltz, Owen Morrison
Lonely Time of Year, Arielle Silver
The Handloom Weaver’s Lament, Arrowsmith:Robb Trio
The Mermaid And The Swallow, Arrowsmith:Robb Trio
The Trees They Do Grow High, Arrowsmith:Robb Trio
Snowmelt, Owen Morrison
Over The Hill And Over The Dale, John Roberts & Tony Barrand
The Holly And The Ivy, Nowell Sing We Clear
The Wren (The King), Nowell Sing We Clear

Daybreak

In This Grave Hour, by Jacqueline Winspear

maisie

As I’ve mentioned before here and here, I’m a fan of the Maisie Dobbs mystery series. Besides liking psychologist/investigator Maisie herself a lot—she combines integrity with intelligence, a strong work ethic with a warm heart—I especially like the way Winspear includes the historical context. As the author says:

I wanted to focus on the impact of extraordinary times on the lives of ordinary people. And I wanted to use the mystery to give form to the journey through chaos to resolution—or not, as the case may be.

When we first met Maisie, she was rebuilding her life after serving as a nurse in the front lines of WWI. This installment, the 13th, begins with Neville Chamberlain solemnly declaring the start of WWII.

Echoes of WWI and its long tail of consequences pervade this story as Maisie tries to find the assassin of a former Belgian refugee before he or she kills again. As several characters remark, who would take a life at a time when there is so much fear of the killing to come? And why would anyone want to kill this harmless man?

I am reading the books in order; some I’ve read before but I wanted to fit them into the larger framework. It’s been said that a series is like a television show, with each book equating to an episode. The struggle for the writer is to include enough information that a new reader won’t be lost without boring someone who’s read the other books.

It’s a little hard for me to judge, since I’m not coming to it as a newbie, but I think this book would work as a stand-alone. Winspear adds just a sentence or two of background as needed. However, I think the reading experience is considerably deepened by having read the previous books. Most of the characters have appeared before, so prior knowledge helps you better understand their actions and reactions. Plus your emotional commitment to the characters is much greater. For example, some of the children you’ve seen tumbling about like puppies are now old enough to fight in the war.

There are some new characters here as well as old familiars. Among them are Anna, a little girl who has been evacuated from London along with the other “Operation Pied Piper” evacuees, but who has no papers. No one knows who she is and she herself refuses to speak, just as she refuses to let go of her small case and gas mask.

Anna and two other children are billeted at Maisie’s home in Kent. Maisie, who lost her husband and baby only three years previously, finds her heart turning toward the child even as those around her warn that she will only be hurt again when the girl returns to her family.

Maisie also becomes involved in the families of other former Belgian refugees as she pursues the killer, even as their former country faces new devastation.

The threads of the story are tightly woven. What makes a person kill? What makes a family, holds it together, and releases it? How does the past continue to shape the present?

I only have one quibble with this book. Maisie repeatedly uses the expression “It begs the question . . . “ incorrectly. She means “It raises the question . . . “ Where was Winspear’s editor? This common error stood out like a starburst in the midst of the otherwise delightful prose.

The perspective of ordinary people during this liminal time, when war has been declared but the fighting not yet begun, is fascinating. One mother travels with great hardship to Kent to reclaim her sons and take them back to London, even though the schools are closed, even though bombs are expected to fall. But who can imagine bombing before it happens? What parent can bear to put their children on a train to some unknown place with unknown people? I don’t know if I could have done it.

Chaos may not always be resolved, though some small part of it may be. We do what we can.

Have you read any of the Maisie Dobbs books?

Lucky Fish, by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

lucky fish

True confession: I bought this book for its cover. Not knowing much about graphic design, I took advantage of an AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference to wander through its sales hall where a couple of gymnasiums full of publishers displayed their books. When a cover caught my eye, I started a conversation with the representative staffing the table about why it was so intriguing (I’d chosen a slack time so as not to inconvenience them).

Tupelo Press, the publisher of this collection, Nezhukumatathil’s third, had quite a number of outstanding covers. And their representative was generous with their knowledge.

But it’s the inside of the book I’m here to talk about. Nezhukumatathil draws on her Indian-Filipino heritage, her Florida childhood nurturing recalcitrant citrus trees, and her husband’s Kansas farming experiences to create these poems. She writes about two-headed calves, made-up folk remedies, fables and families. She writes about love in fresh yet simple ways, such as this excerpt from “Suppose You Chopped Down a Mulberry Tree”:

I know a man who has such a sweet face,
bees follow him down the street. Ants still collect

in the tread of his shoes.

Many of the poems are a luscious cornucopia of images. The author doesn’t hold back, but sprinkles them liberally throughout, often in surprising combinations that still work. Here’s the beginning of “Fortune-Telling Parrot”:

I will pick
a black card

of luck for you;
star, pinkmoon,

mirror, ostrich, eye,
and jasmine bloom.

How does she do it? What a remarkable imagination!

In the third part of the book the poems are about giving birth, speaking simply and directly about this most fundamental experience, yet incorporating whimsical images and strong emotion. She imagines her baby born with a hedgehog resting in its hand and how that might play out. She speaks of the small moments every new mother will recognise, such as in “Waiting for Him to Speak” where she notes that “his hair // is the tobacco hue of an owl feather.” She worries about whether the baby will latch properly, thinking that “if she thought to wear the silver anklets her Indian grandmother gave her, at least there would be happy bells.”

But she doesn’t shy away from the larger world, writing about the Chinese children assembling her child’s toys. In other poems throughout the book there is a welcome astringent note within the sweet and magical songs. In these specific and sensual poems, whether about the taste of soil or the sound of the stone found in an eel’s head, Nezhukumatathil captures the universal and invites us to share the celebration.

Have you read any poems that overwhelmed you with their richness?

Tracks in the Snow, by Wong Herbert Yee

tracks

I’ve been reading a lot of picture books lately since I’ve been babysitting for a two-year-old. We’ve both fallen in love with this one. It starts with a child looking out the window at the snow and wondering what made the tracks there, and where the tracks go.

They (I’m deliberately using the plural because the child is not named and is not obviously a particular gender—part of the book’s charm) put on boots, coat and mittens (a skill my young friend has been working on recently) and go outside.

Following the tracks, the child wanders through typical landmarks for a little one: a garden gate, woods, some rocks and over a small footbridge. As they meander, they are shadowed by various animals: a squirrel, rabbit, fox, deer. The child considers what could have made the tracks: a duck? a woodchuck? a hippopotamus?

As you might have guessed, they follow the tracks all the way back to their own house and realise they themselves made these tracks the previous day.

This is a quiet book, like the snow’s hush, full of curiosity and imagination. The gentle illustrations are minimal, almost suggestions, yet they capture a child’s body language beautifully. Being snowy landscapes, of course there’s lots of white space.

In my opinion, the best picture books tell a story and, indeed, even in this brief text we have a full story. The protagonist is the child; the problem is to solve the mystery of the tracks. The antagonist is more abstract: ignorance, what we don’t know, the impenetrability of the world.

I remember as a preschooler being terrified by the vast sea of things I didn’t know. I knew my house and yard. I knew my block, more or less. But everything beyond that was a blank, simply inscrutable. For all I knew, there could be dragons. If I wandered off my block, how would I find my way back home?

Solving these mysteries, mapping out the nearby streets a little at a time, became my ambition. I think it’s partly why I enjoyed being a mechanic and then an engineer: understanding how cars and computers work. I never liked black boxes, those enigmatic spots in a flowchart labeled “Here the magic happens”.

So in this brief tale, I see not only an outward journey for our protagonist—following the tracks, answering the question—but an inner journey to satisfy that yearning to explore the world and begin to comprehend its mysteries.

What picture book have you read that you particularly enjoyed?

The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, by Stuart Hall

hall

It’s actually all about race, I often find myself thinking as I read the euphemisms and cover stories promulgated by blustering politicians and repeated by their supporters. Growing up in a racially mixed city in the U.S., coming of age during the civil rights movement, I learned the code words and recognised what was really meant. It was so clear to me that “poor people” meant people of color that when a new friend told me she was on welfare, I blurted out, “But you’re white!”

As Lewis Carroll wrote in Through the Looking Glass:

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

You might think that this collection of talks given at Harvard in 1994 by Stuart Hall couldn’t be relevant 25 years later, but nothing could be more germane to what is happening today. Hall, a prominent intellectual and one of the founding figures of cultural studies, examines the three words in his subtitle and how their meanings—how we understand them—have changed over time.

In examining these three terms of cultural difference, Hall uses Saussure’s concept of the linguistic sign, which is that language, each word that we use, that sign has two parts: the signifier which is what we hear and what is actually signified, i.e., the abstraction behind it.

Thus, the title of the first part is “Race—The Sliding Signifier”. In this talk he examines how what we understand by the word “race” has changed over time, yet retains echoes of its earlier meanings. He finds these changes in what is signified by this and the other two terms by looking at public discourse, saying:

As we set out to ask what it means to rethink cultural difference in discursive terms, discourse should be understood as that which gives human practice and institutions meaning, that which enables us to make sense of the world, and hence that which makes human practices meaningful practices that belong to history precisely because they signify in the way they mark out human difference.

These three lectures are obviously not light reading, but they are immensely rewarding. Hall also invokes Saussure’s theory that our words do not operate independently; instead they are part of a web of meaning, related to other words, a systemic model. These three concepts are central to the process of classifying difference in human societies. And this system is hierarchical. It’s all about power or, as Humpty Dumpty says, who is to be master.

By looking at how the discourse around these three terms has changed over time and what lies behind those changes (see what I did there?), Hall challenges us to consider how these terms can slide in the future, as we look at the things that are changing our culture such as globalisation and mass diasporas, which are leading to a “weave of differences” rather than a binary (e.g., black versus white) definition of identity.

He says (italics the author’s), “The question is not who we are but who we can become.”

Who can we become?

Memento Mori, by Charles Coe

memnto

I heard Charles Coe read from his new collection at the Brattleboro Literary Festival and had to take a copy home with me. Coe is a teacher and an award-winning poet, designated “A Boston Literary Light” by the Associates of the Boston Public Library. The poems he read that day celebrated ordinary days, finding treasure hidden in plain sight.

The poems are those of a man no longer young, one who has looked at his own mortality and chosen to live every day, every moment; a man who wishes he could go back and give advice to his teenaged self about what really matters.

Coe is also a jazz musician and his musicality comes through in every line. His experiences and knowledge of jazz rhythms come through especially in several poems about musicians where he explores the peculiar doubleness of performing: the invitation to the audience to respond and the physical, intensely personal, rapt absorption in the playing itself.

He writes movingly about Boston, by which I mean Boston and its surrounding towns, taking a moment on a stalled subway train, for example, to illuminate the peculiar raggedness of a New England winter and the moments that can lift us into the universal.

Long ago, with other young friends, I visited an older man we knew in New York City who took us on a peculiar tour. “Don’t look at anything until I tell you to,” he said, leading us to one odd and beautiful space after another: corners, pockets, a particular painting. In the same way, Coe’s poems celebrate the secret delights of city life. One such is “The Dance Hall of Porter Square”, inviting us to share a sweet moment among the street people gathered there.

Some poems speak specifically to the experience of being old in this culture, while others to the experience of being black. Many find something unexpected in common sights, such as divining the lineaments of their ancestors in landscape gardeners in “Yardwork”.

Using humor as seasoning, he can pull the rug out from under the reader, turning our laughter to thoughtful frowns as the reversal sinks in. Even “The Saga of the Fish Sticks”, which is even funnier than its title, takes us back to the theme of his title poem and of this collection.

He includes a few prose poems, which use the syntax of prose but have the imagery, compression and music of poetry. An example is “The Night My Sister Danced with a Mouse”, a retelling of a family anecdote taken to a higher plane by the use of an image reimagined in the course of the piece. With humor and minimal but precise details, Coe brings us into this scene to relive it with him, and be warmed by it.

As with some of the best poems, Coe’s work draws our attention to something so small and ordinary, perhaps even ugly, that we would normally overlook it. He invites us into the fullness of the moment, unfolding the lotus to reveal the heart. Here is one such poem quoted in full:

mnemonic

It is sometimes necessary
to walk along a moonlit riverbank
barefoot, on the sodden strip
where water meets land,
to remind oneself
that something in the mud
remembers the stars.

Have you read poetry that made you see the world with new eyes?

The October Palace, by Jane Hirshfield

Jane2

Hirshfield is one of my favorite poets, and I welcomed the opportunity to reread this early (1994) collection of hers for my poetry discussion group. I’ve written before about her essays on poetry in Nine Gates. I return to these essays frequently to remind myself of what I love about poetry and what I aspire to in my writing.

The poems in this book hold mysteries that, like koans, can leave me pondering a few lines for days, such as these from the beginning of “Within This Tree”:

Within this tree
another tree
inhabits the same body . . .

Or this from the beginning of “Floor”:

The nails, once inset, rise to the surface –
or, more truly perhaps, over the years
the boards sink down to meet what holds them.

My favorite poem in the collection is “Autumn” which so brilliantly evokes this particular moment in time, as the wind sweeps through the trees here, taking our glorious season into its next phase. Here is the poem in its entirety:

Again the wind
flakes gold-leaf from the trees
and the painting darkens –
as if a thousand penitents
kissed an icon
till it thinned
back to bare wood,
without diminishment.

Think about these images for a moment: flaking gold-leaf such a perfect description of yellow leaf-fall, an icon thinned by kisses for the tree’s gradual disrobement. Most of all, though, the bare wood—of the painting, of the tree—is not only without diminishment but is in truth the real value of each. What do we value? What do we repent of? What do we revere?

Winter-lover that I am, I adore the bare black skeletons of trees; they are a revelation, the strong bones beneath the leaves and fruit, a promise.

One thing I love about The October Palace is the section at the end titled Notes on the Poems where she gives a snippet of background on some of the poems: a dedication, a description of a proper name, a slight hint at what inspired the poem.

With some of the poems, my group floundered a bit, offering different interpretations and personal responses. To me, this openness is one of the great gifts of poetry: the leaps we readers must take, as Robert Bly said. Or as Hirshfield says in Nine Gates about storytelling in poetry:

. . . the reader as well as the writer must bring the full range of memory, intellect, and imaginative response. The best stories are almost mythlike in their ability to support alternative readings, different conclusions . . . The words of a poem are not ends, but means into an exploration without limit.

Rather than a response to the commonly asked question “What author living or dead would you like to have dinner with?”, I would most love to walk in the woods with Hirshfield or perhaps prepare a meal with her. I would ask her questions about her poems and essays. But in the end it’s the poems that matter, and I value the distance they must travel to reach me because it leaves me free to bring my own memory, intellect and imagination to them.

Have you read any of Jane Hirshfield’s poems? Is there one you particularly like?

My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite

my sister

Don’t be put off by the title of this brief but powerful debut novel. I myself hesitated, wondering if it would be sardonic humor or a grotesque butchers’ ball, but was persuaded to read it by one of my book clubs. I’m glad I did!

This is the story of two sisters. In the first chapter Korede, our narrator, gets a call from her younger sister, the beautiful and pampered Ayoola, asking for Korede’s help in cleaning up after her latest murder. This is the third one, leading Korede to note that her sister has now met the definition of a serial killer.

Not that Ayoola believes she’s a murderer. No, these are boyfriends who threatened her in some way and she pulled her knife in self-defense. The knife was their abusive father’s proudest possession which Ayoola helped herself to after their father’s untimely death.

Despite the title and this first chapter, the story is very much grounded in Korede’s everyday life. It’s more about family dynamics and personal worldviews than about violence. As one person in my book club said, “. . . there are rich veins to mine when you take ordinary, commonplace conflicts and amplify them to the extreme.”

So far from resenting her sister’s favored status, Korede has made it her mission to protect Ayoola, though of course we only get this through Korede’s eyes so she could be deceiving herself or us. But the crisis comes when the handsome young doctor at the hospital where Korede works, the doctor she has been trying to attract, catches sight of her irresistable sister. Should she warn him? Or will she continue to enable her sister?

The Nigerian author is also a poet, so it’s not surprising that she brings a poet’s use of compression and white space to this novel. What is astonishing is how effective it is. Each short chapter burns with purpose. There are no subplots or plot layers to distract us. Characters other than her sister and the young doctor are not presented as complex, which makes sense because we see them only through Korede’s eyes and she is focused, laser-like, on the two of them. As another person in my book club said, “For that reason [her succinct prose], the story delivered a sense of smooth, inexorable movement toward its resolution.”

Korede’s deadpan voice gives us her character: practical, straight-forward, a little OCD about cleaning. Eventually we begin to question her reliability. Was the father’s death an accident? Isn’t her protectiveness toward Ayoola laced with some other emotions? Does she care more about the idea of protecting her sister than for Ayoola herself?

There is good, if understated, use of symbolism and setting. Korede keeps coming back to the idea of the third bridge under which the sisters disposed of the body in the first chapter. The bridge isn’t described; it’s more the idea of it. I’ve mentioned the knife as a symbol, but there are others, such as the use of flowers and the bleach Korede uses to clean up the blood.

There are glimpses throughout the novel of conditions in Nigeria, such as an interaction with the blatantly corrupt police at one point, or the accepted patriarchal system. Also, a third person in my book club mentioned that “ . . . there’s a whole genre of Nigerian films that feature over-the-top, comedic violence, with the strength of the family prevailing in the end.” This idea gives me a different perspective on the novel and how it fits within its cultural context. From within my own context, though, I saw the humor but concentrated on the co-dependency of the sisters and Korede’s ethical dilemma.

Expanding further, while ostensibly about the relationship between the two sisters, the story can also be read as a comment on today’s inequality: the gap between the pampered one-percenters, so entitled that they can lie, abuse and rape with impunity, and the rest of us, beaten down by the treadmill of getting by while we labor to provide their goods and services. Since they pay almost nothing in taxes, with miniscule tax rates and generous offshore hideaways, the tax burden is left to us.

However you read this story, you’ll find much to think about and discuss with friends.

What would you recommend as a good book club choice?