Reading: Sunbathing by David Baker

David Baker is an American poet and professor of English born in 1954. His poetry books have titles like Never-Ending birds, Changeable Thunder, or The truth about small towns. I liked this poem at first sight.

The subtle rhyme and rhythm of the first verse, until “I suppose he is”, is a fine poetic craftwork. Both – chokes, Yabs – dab, shrubs – budging, yelping – help.

The dog is store-bought, we associate a certain type of people with that. We would befriend our own dogs in animal shelters. The chain (not a leash) is too short. What happens next in the poem is strange. The I lies in the sun (we assume it is a late afternoon). Why does the I say he is dying? Is the sight of the choking dog unbearable? Or is it the pup that says “I’m surely dying”, the line set italics to indicate that? The I and the dog are conflated in these lines. The author asks for help because he identifies with the suffering dog.

But in the second verse it is the cruel neighbor’s life that is ticking away like my own (my emphasis). The I also identifies himself with the cruel neighbor. This leads to inaction: I’ll stay right here in the cool shade. The crying of the dog is now perceived as the expression of the sadness of both the author and his neighbor. The explanation that follows is straightforward: both men are single and lack physical intimacy. Their chains are mental.

The last lines sound classical and remind me of Emily Dickinson. The yelping little pup reminds us of our own mortality and the poet is telling us implicitly, I believe, that we should not sit idly by when we see another being in pain, as death “comes quickly enough on their own, sweet time”.

Reading: Sunbathing by David Baker was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Beauty by Tony Hoagland

Saddened by the death of Tony Hoagland (1953 – 2018), the sharp and witty American poet, I read one of his poems today.

Beauty
When the medication she was taking
caused tiny vessels in her face to break,
leaving faint but permanent blue stitches in her cheeks,
my sister said she knew she would
never be beautiful again.

After all those years
of watching her reflection in the mirror,
sucking in her stomach and standing straight,
she said it was a relief,
being done with beauty,

but I could see her pause inside that moment
as the knowledge spread across her face
with a fine distress, sucking
the peach out of her lips,
making her cute nose seem, for the first time,
a little knobby.

I’m probably the only one in the whole world
who actually remembers the year in high school
she perfected the art
of being a dumb blond,

spending recess on the breezeway by the physics lab,
tossing her hair and laughing that canary trill
which was her specialty,

while some football player named Johnny
with a pained expression in his eyes
wrapped his thick finger over and over again
in the bedspring of one of those pale curls.

Or how she spent the next decade of her life
auditioning a series of tall men,
looking for just one with the kind
of attention span she could count on.

Then one day her time of prettiness
was over, done, finito,
and all those other beautiful women
in the magazines and on the streets
just kept on being beautiful
everywhere you looked,

walking in that kind of elegant, disinterested trance
in which you sense they always seem to have one hand
touching the secret place
that keeps their beauty safe,
inhaling and exhaling the perfume of it—

It was spring. Season when the young
buttercups and daisies climb up on the
mulched bodies of their forebears
to wave their flags in the parade.

My sister just stood still for thirty seconds,
amazed by what was happening,
then shrugged and tossed her shaggy head
as if she was throwing something out,

something she had carried a long ways,
but had no use for anymore,
now that it had no use for her.
That, too, was beautiful.

A precise narrative poem. I like the rich picture he paints of the girl who ‘perfected the art of being a dumb blond’. The superficiality of her beauty and how it was over so suddenly.
And that description of spring! Isn’t it gorgeous, climbing up on the mulched bodies of our forebears to wave our own flags in the parade?

Being done with beauty seems to denote a higher truth here, an acceptance of the circle of life and love. And the disinterested trance of the ‘other’ women who continue being beautiful. Isn’t it the same trance as the sister experienced when she throws out beauty, to the secret place that keeps it safe?

Reading: Beauty by Tony Hoagland was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Where The Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

Shel Siverstein (1930-1999) was an American painter, poet and songwriter. I read a sweet little poem about the end of the line.

Where the sidewalk ends
There is a place where the sidewalk ends
and before the street begins,
and there the grass grows soft and white,
and there the sun burns crimson bright,
and there the moon-bird rests from his flight
to cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
and the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
we shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow
and watch where the chalk-white arrows go
to the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
and we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
for the children, they mark, and the children, they know,
the place where the sidewalk ends.

He paints a precise picture of the place between the sidewalk and the street first, because these details will pay off later when we see the sidewalk as the obvious metaphor it is. It is a childlike, a playful place with the moon-bird and the crimson bright, and the peppermint wind.

When we realize the existence of the end of the sidewalk, we want to leave ‘this place’ with the black smoke and dark winding street, the dirty asphalt jungle of aimless (urban) life. And when we do so, we walk slowly and in a dignified manner. Just follow the arrows, and you will be saved.

Now the fact that the children draw the chalk arrows, and will have to redraw them because they will wash away, is an interesting turn here. The children “know”, but their knowing (about mortality) is a naive knowing. The “just know” and draw the arrows because they like to draw arrows, not because they are philosophers preoccupied with impending death.

Reading: Where The Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Carson McCullers by Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) was a legendary American poet, and writer of novels and short stories. I read a summer poem presented to me on a poetry website:

Carson McCullers
she died of alcoholism
wrapped in a blanket
on a deck chair
on an ocean
steamer.

all her books of
terrified loneliness

all her books about
the cruelty
of loveless love

were all that was left
of her

as the strolling vacationer
discovered her body

notified the captain

and she was quickly dispatched
to somewhere else
on the ship

as everything
continued just
as
she had written it

Carson McCullers (1917-1967) was a novelist who died of alcoholism in New York (as far as I know, not on an ocean steamer, but perhaps the City is an ocean steamer in Bukowski’s mind).

Of the novelist, only books remain. We could say the same for the recently deceased Philip Roth. It’s a sad affair, the whole “what remains” thing. “Dispatched to somewhere else on the ship” – that’s what happens when we die. And everything continues just as we had written it. Or, our imagination is immortal – is Bukowski hinting at some form of consolation here?

The image of the young woman (she was 50 when she died) on a deck chair, wrapped in a blanket, is so lively. I am compelled to imagine a glass of dry Martini in her hand and the beginning of a lustful smile from underneath a pair of gilded frame luxury sunglasses as she checks out a passing deckhand’s buttocks – something I would rather associate with Mr. Bukowski.

Reading: Carson McCullers by Charles Bukowski was originally published on Meandering home

Cloud Watching with my Child

We lie still on a silent green slope
watching the clouds for hours
in their unending transformation

You see a crocodile, I see a monkey,
you see a turtle, I see a tiny fish
then there is silence and I think of you

Much later, attuned to thoughts of grief
oblivious of the highs and lows that were
and how we share a name and a belief
that poetry will find us there.

Cloud Watching with my Child was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Eating Together by Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee (b. 1957) is a American poet born to Chinese exiles. His father, who plays an important role in his poetry, was the personal physician to Mao Zedong. His poetry has been compared to John Keats, Rilke and Roethke and he was influenced by old Chinese poems like Tu Fu, which shows in his economic use of language. I read a short but very powerful poem about:

Eating Together
In the steamer is the trout
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,
brothers, sister, my mother who will
taste the sweetest meat of the head,
holding it between her fingers
deftly, the way my father did
weeks ago. Then he lay down
to sleep like a snow-covered road
winding through pines older than him,
without any travelers, and lonely for no one.

The precise description of the trout the family will have for lunch so I can almost smell it is a great (and common) poetic device. We see the mother taking the sweetest meat of the head, thereby replacing the role of the father who has been gone for weeks. At this point, the reader realizes his passing and the beautiful ‘Chinese’ last sentence of the poem confirms this.

I picked this poem because I think the image of the snow-covered winding road through an old forest, that is lonely for no one is magical. I like the simplicity of such poetic diction, realizing that it is always at risk of turning into kitsch. But I also know that kitsch requires travelers and interpreters who repeat a phrase until it wears out. In the absence of travelers, in the domain of this poem, it is not only tolerable, but extremely powerful.

Reading: Eating Together by Li-Young Lee was originally published on Meandering home

Growl

Now that I am lowered into my trench language
I become an invocation. I am muscles and tendons,
a pressurized blood machine, slowly releasing
what was stored between the apostrophes, like a captured animal.
I am a cormorant of the apocalypse, a confessing nihilist.
Opinions grow on me like frozen waterfalls.
My rage is inculcated, like a laminated smile, I visit
bars barracks and barricades, I lick soft dew in the marches,
I piss glum images in morning prose, I kneel for a working prostate.
Father forgive me my reflection on the holy crotch, for it is not authentic.
Authenticity my friends is the leftover moral we shall heat up and re-eat,
do you hear me? There is authenticity in the original orgasm, and in origami,
in bullet holes and butterscotch, in old ladies staring at a cross,
in cutting onions and Birkenstocks, in traffic jams and coins that toss.
It is time to stand up, to dust the language off my suit.
Surrounding me is a great plain and I feel life again is gaining.

Growl was originally published on Meandering home