Threshold

Meaning the point at which

the dam breaks,

the valley flashes silver.

You wake to a cottonmouth

snake on your pillow.

The tail side of truth is beauty is that

lies are a borderless blue meadow.

In my dreams I am somewhere I can’t

find my way out of.

Now What

I was pleased and honored to be invited to write a poem around the theme “Beyond the Voting Booth” for Anythink Libraries Civic Saturday. Writing a poem on this topic was beyond difficult; no one likes a preachy poet. In the end, I kept coming back to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, so eventually I invited Whitman’s words to thread through my own (less perfect) ones. His words are the italicized lines below. And I decided to add hyperlinks to each of my original lines; these links are meant not as an endorsement or final word on any subject, but are simply some of the links I visited while spending a week trying to get at the question, “what does it mean to be a citizen?”

In my story, I was a white woman asking now what?
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals

What does it mean to be an American?
despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks

Loving our neighbors isn’t one of our founding tenants.
stand up for the stupid and crazy

Here I stayed silent when I should have spoken, here I spoke when I should have shut up.
devote your income and labor to others

My ancestors stole this land.
hate tyrants, argue not concerning God

I say yes to it.
have patience and indulgence toward the people

I let the shame of it sit till it lifts me out of it.
take off your hat to nothing known or unknown

I seek the stories of those different from me and those the same
go freely with powerful uneducated persons

to find that no one is the same as me and no one is different
and with the young, and with the mothers of families

I find out where my orange juice comes from.
re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book

I drink the 5-hour empathy.
and dismiss whatever insults your own soul

I remember it was love that made me.
I will accept nothing which all cannot have

And though the earth is burning under my feet,
All truths wait in all things

and the rivers have burst to flame,
every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you

the sunset behind the mountains
is a spool of gold unraveling.

Clear and sweet is my soul,
and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul

If we are driving west into darkness,
let us love each other while we travel.

On Louise Glück

Reading the news that Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize this morning was the first time in a long, long time that reading the news made me smile. I wish I had time to write a winding, beautiful tribute to her; she is one of my very favorite poets. But for now, here is a fragment.

Every October, I think of Glück’s long poem “October,” which begins the award-winning Averno. It was also published on its own as a chapbook. I once had a teacher (the wonderful Jim Seay) who forbid his college poetry students to write about “fall leaves” or “spring flowers” because writing about these changes of seasons, the death of fall, the birth in spring, often (or inevitably) leads to cliche. “October” shows us what a master can do when she writes about autumn. The poem’s first stanza unfolds in what feels like one astounding, long sentence:

Is it winter again, is it cold again,
didn’t Frank just slip on the ice,
didn’t he heal, weren’t the spring seeds planted

didn’t the night end,
didn’t the melting ice
flood the narrow gutters

wasn’t my body
rescued, wasn’t it safe

didn’t the scar form, invisible
above the injury

terror and cold,
didn’t they just end, wasn’t the back garden
harrowed and planted–

I remember how the earth felt, red and dense,
in stiff rows, weren’t the seeds planted,
didn’t vines climb the south wall

I can’t hear your voice
for the wind’s cries, whistling over the bare ground

I no longer care what sound it make

when I was silenced, when did it first seem
pointless to describe that sound

what it sounds like can’t change what it is–

didn’t the night end, wasn’t the earth
safe when it was planted

didn’t we plant the seeds,
weren’t we necessary to the earth,

the wines, were they harvested?

Every fall, her words echo in my brain: “Is it winter again, is it cold again, didn’t Frank just slip on the ice?” And from later in the poem: “This is the light of autumn, not the light of spring. / The light of autumn: you will not be spared.”

Damn. And later in that section:

You will not be spared, nor will what you love be spared.

Averno uses the myth of Persephone throughout the book; Persephone feels at times like the speaker, but she is also written about. One of my favorites is this almost laugh-aloud passage:

Persephone is having sex in hell.
Unlike the rest of us, she doesn’t know
what winter is, only that
she is what causes it.

What I love about “October” is what I love about much of Glück’s work: how it can weave the personal, the natural, the mythical, and the flat-out banal into poetry:

My friend the earth is bitter…

I think we must give up
turning to her for affirmation.

or

I was young here. Riding
the subway with my small book
as though to defend myself against

this same world:

you are not alone,
the poem said,
in the dark tunnel.

October, the dark tunnel in the darkest tunnel of years. Order the chapbook October here. And congratulations, Louise Glück.



(13) on Juneteenth

If, like me, you didn’t grow up knowing about Juneteenth, think about why that might have been.

Then check out:

today’s Google Doodle and the story behind it.

an astounding poem by Patricia Smith (about halfway down the page) (pay attention to the bolded words)

Priscilla Jane Thompson’s “Emancipation

student athletes (at one of my alma maters) narrating We Rose

Langston Hughes’ Let America Be America Again and I, Too

June Jordan’s Poem About My Rights

Claude McKay’s If We Must Die and discussion of that poem

George Moses Horton’s On Liberty and Slavery

and the Emancipation Proclamation