Just grand

For my last National Poetry Month blog post, I respond to Grand Canyon, a mini-chapbook by Pennsylvania & Baltimore, MD poet Barbara DeCesare who, I confess, was a fellow student of mine when we were in grad school; and therefore I am tremendously biased about her work. But while bias enters into response to some degree, this post responds to the book, not to the poet. Well, okay–bit of both.

What’s different about this chapbook is 1) it is a long poem in 13 sections and 2) it is not available; I have a ‘self-published’ version personally photocopied and inscribed by the author. Therefore, I am reading what most of my readers do not have a chance to read. It’s kind of like finding a personal letter in a long-unopened drawer, and similar to the small chapbooks and photocopied zines of the late 1970s and 1980s. It is not easy to find those anymore, either.

barbara decesare poetry

DeCesare’s chapbook fits right in with my 1980s zines.

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Grand Canyon is a long poem structured as a series of shorter poems and came to me with the following back story:

“A friend visited the Grand Canyon recently with his wife and two preteen daughters.

He told me about how terrified he was that someone was going to fall from the narrow path that descends in. Not just one of his kids, but anyone. It was more than he could bear.

So he left the trail and went back up alone. He didn’t want his fear to hold his family back.

It made me think about parenthood, empathy, fear, and love in my own life. About the balance between care and detachment, and the weird places where they overlap, like my friend’s experience.”

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“He didn’t want his fear to hold his family back.” –This introduction felt oddly profound. I sat and thought about it for a long time before I turned to the first page of the poem itself.

Of which the first line goes: “An echo reminds you of your place in the world.”

Canyons, heights, fears. Echoes. Yes–as a person, especially as a person who has raised other people–I have felt those resonating. Often. The poem-pieces here are brief, poignant. They find me wrestling with my own worries, in my own life, which is not the poet’s life, nor her friend’s.

…I wonder/how long a mother can hold her child/before she needs that other hand on the railing.

The long poem, comprised of moments: short poems that feel so true I have to stop between each one, catch my breath, steady myself.

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Thank you, my friend, for writing this poem for your friend–for your children–for yourself. For me.

(Someone ought to publish this poem/book.)

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Intermission w/reflection

First, many thanks to Lesley Wheeler for her Virtual Salon series–in this one, she reviews/interviews Elizabeth Savage and Yours Truly: Virtual Salon No. 6

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Herewith, a different sort of response for National Poetry Month; and I’m not sure I would call it a poem so much as a reflection–indeed, a prayer. It’s too sentimental to work into a finished piece, perhaps. Let’s call it an intermission, as I have at least one more poetry collection to respond to before April closes.

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Easter Prayer for My Dad

A wedge of mackerel clouds points to the southeast horizon where just beyond
a low hill church bells ring for Easter morning and a woodpecker states
chuck chuck chuck as it makes its straight flight across field from one dead
ash tree to another, blackbirds calling wooker-chee after the bells cease chiming.
I think of Dad, standing at the pulpit, hands raised in grace or supplication, his
voice sonorous in the high-ceilinged church, a man wearing a robe and collar
and white silk embroidered in gold having laid away the purple of sorrow and
preparation. All the church’s raiment white, and we the congregants wearing our
best clothes not to impress our neighbors but to let God know we are grateful and
this is the best we can do. We know it’s not enough, Dad tells us, the huge Bible
open before him, but God will understand our good intentions.

Years later I develop questions such as if no human can understand the mind
of God—thank you, Job—or know His ways, how can a human assure us of such magnanimity on God’s part? To which Dad answers, faith, which has no reason,
ergo the question’s moot. But years-ago Easters I sat on the smooth oak
pew, staring at my best shoes, which always pinched, and pretending that
left foot and right foot were conversing or perhaps arguing until the organ’s
major chords and the words “All rise” brought me back to the community
of believers and Dad’s bass voice led us along the five-barred staffs, stacked verses,
and triumphant alleluias of “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.” And I knew
I was not good enough but believed that I could be forgiven, and if Dad has
offered me anything I can rely on it has been forgiveness—so today, as the
woods begins to soften into green and the chickadee pronounces its name
incessantly from the beech—Dad, I’ve so much to be grateful for.

                          Amen.

CH Chucrch

Church of my childhood, First Presbyterian Church of Hamptonburgh, New York

Feeder streams

A friend and I had a conversation about storytelling and human connectedness, relatives and family myths. We recognize that with age and relationships come references and allusions–some that operate only within the family system, others that interconnect with the wider social world. The televised funerals of some celebrated US citizens (Aretha Franklin, John McCain) offer excellent examples of how various eulogists–family, colleagues, close friends–endeavor to extend their feelings about the person to others. The best eulogies tell stories. It’s how human beings learn about one another, how we connect, bond, and cohere. The process reminds me of feeder streams that follow gravity and the earth’s geological patterns to wend their ways to join a river.

A river enlivened my childhood. Several rivers, in fact–the Hudson, the Delaware–but the one that comes to me at this moment is the Eel River in Indiana, pictured in my recent post here. By coincidence, just this week Streetlight, an online literary review, published my poem “Eel River Meditation.” In less cheerful news, someone whose presence I associate with South Whitley, IN has entered hospice care. These associations summon memories that carry me into that realm of family tales, rituals, jokes, sorrows, generational mythology.

My grandmother lived beside the Eel. A self-taught artist, she painted the bridge over the river many times, in all seasons. It must have steadied her sense of being in the world, of being in place; certainly, her paintings evoke that place, a small Indiana town, in those of us who knew and loved her.

And what could be more metaphorical than a bridge? Than a river? Than the changing seasons?

Locally, this rainy summer in my valley region, the feeder streams are full to overflowing and rushing to the Lehigh River, flooding the low-lying marshy areas, stranding the occasional cow or motorist. The fall semester has begun, and the garden’s mostly abandoned to the aforementioned weeds. My mind and heart are full, too. Maybe there will be poetry.

Eel River Bridge Edna Michael

South Whitley’s Eel River bridge, early summer. Edna Michael

 

Prunes & store tea

I just returned from an extended family gathering where a conversation or two arose concerning specific, regional, well-known-to-the-family phrases and sayings perhaps invented by some ancestor. These idioms are outdated; the young people often find them hilarious, quaint, or mystifying.

“What does that even mean?” became a common refrain.

I have heard these terms and phrases since I was a very young child, and they usually don’t seem strange to my ears. But a cousin reminded me of the phrase “full of prunes and store tea,” and while I know it means that the person full of said comestibles is lively, wound up, and possibly talking nonsense (in the region where I now reside, the term might be ruchy), I had never really thought about its origin.

Ruchy is a combination of Polish and Pennsylvania German derived from the word ruch (meaning movement or motion). So that new-world regional neologism makes sense. But prunes and store tea?

I did a little hunting around on various etymology and idiom websites (yes, this is part of my job!) and found that being full of beans and being full of prunes are somewhat but not entirely synonymous, depending upon region. Both can mean being wiggly and mobile, and both can mean acting silly. The layperson’s theory is that beans and prunes cause intestinal gas, hence fidgeting about or, alternately, being full of hot air. *

Store tea. Okay, tea purchased at a store? I suppose there was, in the days when the US was thinly populated in many areas, a reason to differentiate that which was made at home from that which was purchased at a store. I remember my great-grandmother saying that someone well-off she knew in her childhood had a house with “boughten rugs” rather than rag, home-woven, or rush rugs.

As for the odd combination of prunes and tea…eventually I found success by changing the and to in.

Prunes can be stewed in tea! This delicacy goes back centuries and is–no surprise here–probably British in origin. If you are curious, here’s one of several recipe sites you can check out for methods of stewing prunes in tea: melecotte. The author provides links to other tea & prune confections.

So it turns out that, all along, the idiom is “You’re full of prunes in store tea!” Though I doubt that will change the way we say it–in the rare times we blurt out an old-fashioned regional phrase at a ruchy child or a bullshitting teenager.

StewedPrunes2

Thanks to Melecotte

* See comment below…

Next door to God

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I’m currently reading a new Tupelo Press anthology of essays by poets, A God in the House. The essays are based on interviews with poets whose work engages with “the spiritual” or with “faith”–often in similar ways, though attained through widely varying means and experiences.

It’s lovely to savor these thoughtful commentaries on the spiritual. Many of the poets wrestle with the concept of faith, soul, or the spiritual as they try to put into words what that feels like. Poets know better than most people the limits of what we can say in words, and they push at those limits in and through their work.

And this book features some marvelous poets. Jane Hirshfield, Jericho Brown, Grace Paley, Carolyn Forché, Li-Young Lee, the incomparable Alicia Ostriker, Gregory Orr (one of my long-time favorite living poets), Annie Finch, and many others. Even if you are not interested in poetry all that much, the anthology is valuable if you are interested in the spiritual and how we obtain, understand, incorporate, question, and express it.

Can we attain transcendence? Or immanence, instead? Or are we fooling ourselves altogether?

Good questions.

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When I was a very young child, my father, a newly-minted Presbyterian minister, was assigned to a small parish in a rural area of New York. We lived in a ranch-style manse across the driveway from the 19th-century shingle-style church. We had a large yard which bordered a large field. There was a post fence along the side of the church yard and a barbed-wire fence in back of our own yard. I liked to sit on the post fence’s wooden stretchers and pretend I was riding a horse. There were tall pine trees at the front of the church and I recall watching birds fly in and out of the trees and also in and out of the eaves of the steeple. All of those memories I now associate with church-going and whatever the spirit is. I always think of that time of my life as the days I lived next door to God.

I was raised in the culture of God-the-Father. My father, my human father, was the man behind the pulpit. He wore flowing robes and he sang beautifully, but what I liked best was watching him as he opened the enormous Bible and read from it.

Yes, I was a bibliophile from the get-go.

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I suppose the words mattered. Certainly the verses, the language of scripture, its pacing, and the intonation of recitations, creeds, and prayer–not to mention the music–made their way into my forming mind. I learned to read by doodling on church bulletins and pretending to follow along in the hymnals as we sang “Fairest Lord Jesus” or “The Doxology.” But I do not recall ever believing, quite, that the words equaled the spirit, even though I memorized that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was God.

Now I have come around to words again. (Writers do that.) I am not in the right frame of mind to write eloquently, as the writers in A God in the House have done, about how my poetry, my practice, my beliefs entwine with the spiritual. Perhaps someday I will, inspired by the thoughts and reflections of others. It is a brave thing, to write about one’s faith–so personal. I am grateful to the editors (Illya Kaminsky & Katherine Towler) who envisioned this project and interviewed the poets; and I heartily recommend this book.

Kindred spirits

Kin=One’s family and relations. [Merriam-Webster]

My parents bred, bore, and raised me. That’s true for many of us human beings.

When I ask people about their parents, inevitably I learn that parents are people who are admired, influential, heroic, role models, (or sometimes, the opposite of these ‘ideals’).

My parents are, I have decided, kindred spirits. Kindred in the physical and specific sense, but also kindred in the more metaphorical, spiritual sense.

My dad’s my intellectual kindred spirit, my mother acts more as my artistic and intuitive kindred spirit. Not to put too dualistic a point on it…

The influence they’ve had is behind us now–many years have passed since I relied on them for sustenance and a roof over my head, for discipline and social or academic guidance, or for artistic or other taste.

I admire them for their qualities but have long ceased putting either of them on a pedestal; they are realistic in admitting their failings and flaws–and often accurate because they are wise and smart and reflective and aware. (And so am I, within my specific limits.)

As we age, I cannot help but think of these things more often: what the meaning if inheritance is, really, in terms of the physical (DNA), the cultural, spiritual, intellectual, psychological, and emotional realms. Not to mention the philosophical, which is where my dad comes in, though my mother has her own form of philosophy I will probably never be able to explain adequately.

Kindred. A lovely word rich with metaphorical possibilities. And spirit…well, that’s another day’s work to explore.

Texts

“Text” has taken on new meanings during the past 10 years or so, informally and formally. For one thing, in its techno-language sense, it has become a verb: “Text me later today.” It is a word that has likely undergone a huge uptick in frequency of usage in recent years.

Even in the realms of academe, “text” has for some time now been used to refer to things which are not, strictly speaking, texts: movies, advertisements, and art, for example. We can view archeological sites as texts, as palimpsests that layer one era upon another. Derrida offered us a method to using some of these concepts through deconstruction, “an effort to understand a text through its relationships to various contexts” (in a 1988 translation).

This post is not about deconstruction.

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Context: it contains the word text (from the Latin texere, to weave; context, therefore: to join together, structure). When I tutor students in writing papers, I stress context. What are you writing about, what are your sources, what era, what place, which people or theories or machinations are involved? Give us a structure on which to layer your observations, research, or argument.

This post is not about composition or research papers, either. Well, not exactly.

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What I want to write about—briefly, and perhaps more another time—is some old-fashioned texts recently unearthed from my parents’ house. My mother handed me a paper bag full of texts that includes letters I sent when I was a young adult living on my own for the first time, letters friends wrote to me and to my sister, high school transcripts, essays written my freshman year at college, poems composed in my junior year at college, as well as—amazingly enough—report cards not only from my childhood but from my parents’ elementary-school years and an essay my father wrote while he was a junior at Wabash College in, as near as I can calculate, 1953.

This last item fills me with a tenderness I find difficult to describe or explain. Typed on a manual typewriter I later used in my college years, on now-yellowed linen-content paper, stapled at the corner with four still-unrusted staples, “Luther’s Concept of Grace” is a 14-page essay for a class entitled Church History 340. The text on which his essay is based was Martin Luther’s A Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians from an anonymous translation into English dated 1575. The copy he read was published in London in 1830.

When my father composed this assignment, he was younger than my son is now. And my son seems so young to me as he wrestles with his own concerns about ethics and law and philosophical matters and moving on into adulthood. I imagine my young dad reading this 19th-century book, Bible beside him for reference (Gal. 2:19, etc.), wrestling with the theology Luther set forth in order to explain the complex relationship(s) Luther sees between faith and grace, or grace and law, or liberty and sin. My father wrote and revised by hand, taking notes, and—though he is an excellent typist—probably had to re-type several pages to be sure the final draft was error-free and that the end-of-page notes all fit. (Today’s students have no idea what a hassle formatting on a typewriter could be). He made one typing error, a stray “the” on page 7; Dr.  Pauck caught it, and also commented that though the paper is “well written and clearly organized…certain points are left ambiguous.”

I value my dad’s ambiguity on those points. Looking at the places in this text where his professor offered minor quibbles, I interpret that the writer was a young person who was eager to please but unwilling to accept doctrinal thinking without examination or, as may be, allowing some reasonable ambiguity. At one point, for example, my dad writes, “Luther has again come close to ascribing to grace a substantial status. But even though it must be felt, it is the feeling of an emotion…it is clear that relationships or states of being are meant, and not something substantial.” The professor faults him: “Is this the correct way of stating the matter?”

My father went on to pursue theology, pastoral care, psychology, and teaching; emotion mattered to him. At 21 years old, and in the context of an examination of Martin Luther, he didn’t know how to phrase the valuable emotional aspect of grace (substantial or not) he intuited as necessary. Perhaps Luther did not possess this characteristic—in fact, from my admittedly limited reading of his work, he seems not to have. My father does possess this trait.

I think what this text evokes in me is the awareness that he was who he is even when he was youthful and inexperienced and hadn’t read or learned a fraction of what he knows now. The context for this 60-year-old text matters to me personally in terms of its relationship to me and to the man who raised me, among other possible relationships tactile, historical, socio-cultural or otherwise, and—richly and often—ambiguous.