Reading: Mother by L.E. Sissman

L.E. Sissman (1928-1976) was a child prodigy who won the National Spelling Bee. He had a typical American middle class career in a time when that was still possible, but he also had the calling of a poet. He was diagnosed with Hodgkins’ disease in the late sixties, which inspired him to write prolifically:

I. Mother (1892-1973)
My mother, with a skin of crêpe de Chine,
Predominantly yellow-colored, sheer
Enough to let the venous blue show through
The secondarily bluish carapace,
Coughs, rasps, and rattles in her terminal
Dream, interrupted by lucidities,
When, suctioned out and listening with hard
Ears almost waned to stone, she hears me say,
“Mother, we’re here. The two of us are here.
Anne’s here with me,” and she says, “Anne is so—
So pretty,” as if abdicating all
Her principalities of prettiness—
So noted in her teens, when she smote all
Who saw her shake a leg upon the stage
Of vaudeville—and sinking into deeps
Where ancience lurks, and barebone toothlessness,
And bareback exits from the centre ring
Of cynosure. Of little, less is left
When we leave: a stick figure of a once
Quite formidable personage. It is,
Therefore, no shock, when next day the call comes
From my worn father, followed by the spade
Engaged upon hard January earth
In Bellevue Cemetery, where he sways
And cries for fifty years of joint returns
Unjointed, and plucks one carnation from
The grave bouquet of springing flowers upon
The medium-priced coffin of veneer,
To press and keep as a venereal
Greenness brought forward from the greying past.

A relentlessly observing and heart-breaking account of a mother’s death. Deathbed poetry is never really pleasant to read (I selected this one perhaps because my own mother died in a car accident and I have never experienced someone’s death bed).

Here is the imagery that I like best: ears that almost waned to stone, a stick figure of a once quite formidable personage, the venereal greenness brought forward from the greying past. Such is the sound of a poet’s calling. This is the kind of language that makes death a little bit more bearable. Also note the humor: the barebone toothlessness juxtaposed sith the bareback exists of cynosure (what a word!) and the mentioning of the coffin’s price.

The grave scene is gripping but intensely beautiful. I think these lines deserve more fame. What do you think?

Reading: Mother by L.E. Sissman was originally published on Meandering home


These figures moving in my rhyme,
Who are they? Death and Death’s dog, Time. – N. Scott Momaday

was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Zebra by C.K. Williams

The great American poet C.K. Williams (1947-2105) writes in characteristically very long lines. He was a very engaged poet, for example with the nuclear disaster at Three Miles Island in Tar. He earned many awards and honors (National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize). I read a seemingly simple poem called Zebra:

Kids once carried tin soldiers in their pockets as charms
against being afraid, but how trust soldiers these days
not to load up, aim, blast the pants off your legs?

I have a key-chain zebra I bought at the Thanksgiving fair.
How do I know she won’t kick, or bite at my crotch?
Because she’s been murdered, machine-gunned: she’s dead.

Also, she’s a she: even so crudely carved, you can tell
by the sway of her belly a foal’s inside her.
Even murdered mothers don’t hurt people, do they?

And how know she’s murdered? Isn’t everything murdered?
Some dictator’s thugs, some rebels, some poachers;
some drought, world-drought, world-rot, pollution, extinction.

Everything’s murdered, but still, not good, a dead thing
in with your ID and change. I fling her away, but the death
of her clings, the death of her death, her murder, her slaughter.

The best part of Thanksgiving Day, though—the parade!
Mickey Mouse, Snoopy, Kermit the Frog, enormous as clouds!
And the marching bands, majorettes, anthems and drums!

When the great bass stomped its galloping boom out
to the crowd, my heart swelled with valor and pride.
I remembered when we saluted, when we took off our hat.

The poem starts with a funny observation about tin soldiers and how ‘these days’ we are so supersticious as to mistrust our charms. Even the zebra on his key-chain can’t prove his innocence to the lyrical I. Okay, the zebra is lifeless (why murdered? why does he project this violence? the I must be traumatized…) and can’t bite anybody’s balls. Also, her femininity, proven in a crude transgenderconfused-unfriendly way by pointing out the foal inside her belly. And ‘even’ murdered mothers which confuses the flow of argument.

Then the relativism, the cynicism, the world-rot. The fear to hold a part of the murdered world against our ID card or our money, as if these would get infected. But of course I can’t get rid of the zebra, the more I try, the more it clings and the more it depresses me, the more it makes me cynical and wanton, larrikin, utterly annoyed.

And that is why after the cesure in the poem he enjoys the grotesque parade. Valor / pride /crowd / salute. That is exactly what makes us forget the evil of the world.

Reading: Zebra by C.K. Williams was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Lives by Derek Mahon

We travel to Northern Ireland. Derek Mahan (b. 1941)’s poetry has been compared to Louis MacNeice and W.D. Auden. Some critics have called it ‘too controlled’. I found this poem worth reading, with an attribution to yet another famous Irish poet:


(for Seamus Heaney)

First time out
I was a torc of gold
And wept tears of the sun.
That was fun
But they buried me
In the earth two thousand years
Till a labourer
Turned me up with a pick
In eighteen fifty-four.
Once I was an oar
But stuck in the shore
To mark the place of a grave
When the lost ship
Sailed away. I thought
Of Ithaca, but soon decayed.
The time that I liked
Best was when
I was a bump of clay
In a Navaho rug,
Put there to mitigate
The too god-like
Perfection of that
Merely human artifact.
I served my maker well —
He lived long
To be struck down in
Denver by an electric shock
The night the lights
Went out in Europe
Never to shine again.
So many lives,
So many things to remember!
I was a stone in Tibet,
A tongue of bark
At the heart of Africa
Growing darker and darker . . .
It all seems
A little unreal now,
Now that I am
An anthropologist
With my own
Credit card, dictaphone,
Army-surplus boots
And a whole boatload
Of photographic equipment.
I know too much
To be anything any more;
And if in the distant
Future someone
Thinks he has once been me
As I am today,
Let him revise
His insolent ontology
Or teach himself to pray.
Alright, 1854-2000 = 146 BC: The Battle of Corinth. The “I” was something buried with the dead, a torc of gold in the first instance. That riddle was fun. The oar in the shore happened probably in ancient Greece as well, given the reference to Ithaca.
I found that the Navaho covered the eyes of the dead with some clay. That gives away what Mahon wants to say, that the ‘thing’ is mitigating the god-like perfection, in a way.
The lights going out in Europe never to shine again could refer to the holocaust, if his ‘maker’ is god? Struck by an electric shock in Denver? We might be missing something here.

With Tibet and Africa (heart of darkness) he makes this truly international. But now he is an anthropologist, who feels it is unreal, all these many things to remember. So he is not anything anymore, a rather existentialist anthropologist.

How does he pay respect to all these things, representing all these many lives that were lost and buried with gifts that have lost their meaning? He demands that a future generation don’t identifies with him, it sounds like he wants to break a chain. Or, and he might be well aware of the fact that such is impossible. In that case that future person should teach herself to pray. Indeed, the ontology he describes, the one in which you become the stuff the dead are remembered by and are at some point reduced to such a thing yourself, is insolent and ultimately nihilist. And that is of course why he turns to prayer.
This is a strange enough poem, and I have the feeling there are some more things to be dug up here. Any suggestions?


Reading: Lives by Derek Mahon was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: A prayer that will be answered by Anna Kamieńska

Anna Kamieńska (1920-1986) was a Polish poet, literary critic, translator and children’s book author. I read a short elegy by her hand, in a translation by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanaugh

A prayer that will be answered
Lord let me suffer much
and then die

Let me walk through silence
and leave nothing behind not even fear

Make the world continue
let the ocean kiss the sand just as before

Let the grass stay green
so that the frogs can hide in it

so that someone can bury his face in it
and sob out his love

Make the day rise brightly
as if there were no more pain

And let my poem stand clear as a windowpane
bumped by a bumblebee’s head

Refreshing gallows humor. The harrowing opening lines must have been jotted down with a mischievous smile. From there, she builds up her hopes: Not even fear is left behind, the world continues to be a safe and meaningful place for animals and lovers, and the Lord keeps pretending there were no more pain. It all has come true, Anna, 30 years after your passing.

And your poem? Well, it stands clear on computer screens and your readers are bumping their little busy heads against it. You see?

Reading: A prayer that will be answered by Anna Kamieńska was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: A Dirge by Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was an American poet and Trappist monk in Kentucky who published over 70 books including a very popular autobiography. I selected a poem about the victims of war (Merton was a social activist) because I like its powerful language:

A dirge
Some one who hears the bugle neigh will know
How cold it is when sentries die by starlight.

But none who love to hear the hammering drum
Will look, when the betrayer
Laughs in the desert like a broken monument,
Ringing his tongue in the red bell of his head,
Gesturing like a flag.

The air that quivered after the earthquake
(When God died like a thief)
Still plays the ancient forums like pianos;
The treacherous wind, lover of the demented,
Will harp forever in the haunted temples.

What speeches do the birds make
With their beaks, to the desolate dead?
And yet we love those carsick amphitheaters,
Nor hear our Messenger come home from hell
With hands shot full of blood.

No one who loves the fleering fife will feel
The light of morning stab his flesh,
But some who hear the trumpet’s raving, in the ruined sky,
Will dread the burnished helmet of the sun,
Whose anger goes before the King.

I’ve read the graphic and concise World War One poems by Sassoon and Owen. Here is something else, something that feels like Ginsberg, expressionist, intangible. When those veterens where in the trenches, Mr. Merton lied in diapers. Still, his dirge is haunting. I like the opening sentences that strikes me like something translated from old Latin. To hear the bugle neigh, the Bard would be proud.

The structure of the poem is obvious: Each stanza begins with a sound and the final lines are an exception. The sky is ruined and the sun is a helmet, or, war is everything. And who is the King? It must be God, or His reincarnation after He died a few stanzas up. The angry sun, the natural world, must answer to the King. There is still some higher principle, some sense of right and wrong, although we can’t be sure about which is which. Anyway, I find this a difficult poem to dissect.

The betrayer is ignored by the faithful marching soldiers. Who cares about his flagness? Perhaps the betrayer is left to die in the desert and every stanza describes a different death to go with its opening sound?
The earthquake victims’ temples are still haunted by the treacherous wind. God died ‘like a thief’ reminds me of the great earthquake of Lisboa and its effects on the theodicy (Voltaire’s Pangloss).

We don’t hear our Messenger come home from hell? Hello, Jesus with your hands full of blood. I have the feeling that I am still missing something here. What could it be?

Reading: A Dirge by Thomas Merton was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: For The Anniversary Of My Death by W.S. Merwin

W.S. Merwin (b. 1927) is an American poet who became famous as an anti-war poet in the 1960s. He later developed an interest in buddism and deep ecology and moved to an old banana plantation on Maui, Hawai, which he restored to its original rainforest state. I read a timeless poem about celebrating the anniversary not of your birth, but of your death:

For the anniversary of my death
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

It’s a neat invention: celebrating your deathday instead of your birthday. The detail that we don’t know (thank god) which day it will be can be dealt with. Merwin mentions the last fires (cremation? He is a Buddhist after all). The astronomical metaphor seems to be a black hole, a collapsed star whose gravity is too strong for light to escape. It’s ‘beam’ is not visible light, but perhaps some kind of Stephen Hawking effect. Or the gravitational ‘beam’ that pulls everything inward and into spaghetti, like Neil the Grass Tyson explains.

In the second stanza he likens life to a strange garment. He observes himself with the gentle eye of a detached soul, a soul well versed in feeling detached. The love of one woman (Mr. Merwin married once, in 1983, to Paula Schwarz). The shamelessness of men could refer to the destruction of nature. Of course it does.

Three. Days. Interpreters will rush to point out the biblical, but let us not. After the rain the wren (brown insectivorous bird of the northern hemisphere) sings again and Merwin sums up the practice of his religion in a striking formula: bowing not knowing to what. It’s not a perfect rhyme, there is some difference between the sounds and I’m sure critics and do a dissertation on that. We just observe it’s an awesome formula for a religious experience that honestly accepts our ignorance in these matters.

Reading: For The Anniversary Of My Death by W.S. Merwin was originally published on Meandering home