I haven’t had my usual drive lately and there are projects littered across my desk and on my computer that I just don’t seem to have the energy to tackle. I’ve been neglecting regular exercise and wasting time on shallow pursuits that don’t benefit me or others. This morning I looked to the poet Mary Oliver for inspiration and found it in the third stanza of her poem Fourth Sign of the Zodiac.
I know, you never intended to be in this world. But you’re in it all the same.
so why not get started immediately.
I mean, belonging to it. There is so much to admire, to weep over.
And to write music or poems about.
Bless the feet that take you to and fro. Bless the eyes and the listening ears. Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste. Bless touching.
You could live a hundred years, it’s happened. Or not. I am speaking from the fortunate platform of many years, none of which, I think, I ever wasted. Do you need a prod? Do you need a little darkness to get you going? Let me be urgent as a knife, then, and remind you of Keats, so single of purpose and thinking, for a while, he had a lifetime
When we were in Rome we visited the house where John Keats spent the last few months before he died of tuberculosis at age 25.
I stood in his bedroom and saw the alcove where he may have sat at a desk and penned some of his last writings.
As Mary Oliver reminds us Keats lived a short life but hardly a wasted one. He wrote lines of poetry that still inspire us.
A thing of beauty is a joy forever: Its loveliness increases; it will never Pass into nothingness; but still will keep A bower quiet for us, and a sleep Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Today a new week begins and I’m going to let John and Mary inspire me to make it a productive and positive one.
If you are like me you have a kind of love-hate relationship with berries. I LOVE eating them but childhood memories of picking them in prickly heat amid clouds of mosquitoes are also vivid. Joanne Epp captures the two sides of the berry experience perfectly in five poems about berries in her new book Cattail Skyline.
Joanne made me recall the discomfort of….. branchfuls of prickles that scrape the forearm skin
but she also brought to mind the…… sharp sweetness…… of newly picked berries and the way berry jam…….. eaten on a fresh bun after school ……tasted…. cool and tart.
I so enjoyed the tour of rural Saskatchewan Joanne gives us in her How far can we follow part of the book. Many happy days of my childhood were spent on my grandparents’ farm near Drake Saskatchewan so Joanne’s experiences and evocative descriptions rang true for me.
LaniganCreek from this sectionof poems gives the book its title
Swaying on cattails, the blackbirds—
yellow-headed, red-winged—see it all:
their domain and one intruder.
I sidestep down the bank, crouch low.
Blackbirds whistle. I wait.…….
Below the cattail skyline, time
becomes elastic. The silence hums.
I have spent a fair bit of time in Cambodia and so it was Joanne Epp’s poems about her visit there that perhaps resonated with me most as she described the country’s ambience with lines like
the monks in orange yellow robes some of them just boys
the air’s too thick to wade through
Buddha looking down from his dais pink and smiling
sticky rice and cans of Coke for sale.
Like Joanne, I visited Tuol Sleng a former high school turned interrogation centre during the Pol Phot regime. Thousands of people were tortured and killed thereand Joanne’s words captured the scene graphically
In the bare room, an iron bed,
Photo on the wall verifies
the bloodstain on the floor.
I have biked through Omand’s Creek Park more times than I can count and have picnicked there while canoeing down the Red River. In her set of a dozen poems Joanne takes us through a whole year in the park telling us what is happening there each month. On my most recent visit I noted things from Joanne’s April entry about the park.
Welcome the warbler, the mourning dove,
startled wings rising from footpaths.
Welcome the prelude to leaves, red
stamens clustered on maples.
Welcome the footbridge rising from water,
the creek receding, fish odour of mud.
Cemeteries are one of my favourite places to visit so the eight poems about cemeteries in Cattail Skyline were very meaningful. For me the lines where Joanne best captures the experience of a cemetery visit are…..
you range back through decades, reading grey limestone
obelisks, concrete pillows, slant markers in granite. A
marble tablet, date of death: 1908—the oldest stone your
haphazard search has discovered. Almost ninety years
before your son’s birth—your grandparents were children
then. What else was here? Wagon tracks, pine seedlings
in rows, houses small against thehorizon—straight lines
scratched into the landscape. You look up: against the tall
hedge, a cloud of tiny flying things. A shimmer—
I am not a poet so I always appreciate it when a poet can bring to life experiences of mine in beautiful and memorable ways. Joanne Epp did exactly that for me with Cattail Skyline.
The poems in her collection which will resonate with you might be quite different than mine but you are sure to find them.
A book I am currently reading has introduced me to the poetry of David Whyte.
Self Portrait is one of my favouritepoemsso far.
It doesn’t interest me if there is one God Or many gods. I want to know if you belong — or feel abandoned; If you know despair Or can see it in others. I want to know If you are prepared to live in the world With its harsh need to change you; If you can look back with firm eyes Saying “this is where I stand.” I want to know if you know how to melt Into that fierce heat of living Falling toward the centre of your longing. I want to know if you are willing To live day by day With the consequence of love And the bitter unwanted passion Of your sure defeat. I have been told In that fierce embrace Even the gods Speak of God.
As far as I’m concerned the poet stole the show at yesterday’s inauguration of American President Joe Biden. Standing full of promise in her bright yellow coat and bold red hat twenty-two-year-oldAmanda Gorman’s voice rang true and clear across her country and the world as she recited the rich and rhythmic words she had written especially for the occasion. What passion! What poise! What purpose! I’ve listened to Amanda recite her poemThe Hill We Climb about half a dozen times now and so far I just can’t choose which is my favorite line.
We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another
Even as we grieved we grew, even as we hurt we hoped, even as we tired we tried
Victory won’t lie in the blade but in all the bridges we’ve made
We will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one
If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.
Let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left
For there is always light if only we are brave enough to see it. If only we are brave enough to be it.
I have a feeling Amanda’s poem will be read or listened to in many classrooms this morning. By yesterday afternoon my Twitter feed was lighting up with ideas from teachers about how they might share The Hill We Climb with their students.
I was thrilled about that. I taught high school English for six years and inevitably when I would introduce our poetry unit there would be groans in the classroom. Teenagers thought poetry was boring, hard to understand, and certainly not something they could write. I loved to watch them develop personal preferences for certain poems and poets, learn that a poem could mean something different and true to every person who read it, and realize they too could be poets.
Amanda’s poem will certainly become one that is oft-recited and loved and its words will be interpreted in a myriad of ways as people think about how its message applies to them. I wonder if it may have the power to inspire a whole generation to believe they can be poets and also practical people of principle who dream they can change the world and then go out and do it.
A very young and incredibly gifted Black female poet stole the show at yesterday’s American presidential inauguration. What could be more fitting or give the world more faith in the future?
In a book chat featured on the 2020 Thin Air Writers Festival site, Sarah Klassen and Sally Ito talk about Sarah’s latest volume of poetry TheTree of Life published by Turnstone Press.
Since I had just read The Tree of Life I was interested to learn from their discussion that many of the poems in the section of the book titled Ordinary Time were inspired by things Sarah observed in nature while standing on the balcony of her fourth-floor apartment.
Sarah introduces us to a convoy of geese as they “contemplate, courageously, the next long flight,” the sparrow with its “claws like little commas”, the hawk that “hovers, hungry, wings wide open as if in benediction,” and the bald eagle “in transit across the sky’s blue canopy.”
Readers are enchanted by foxes “yelping, chasing, wrestling on the grass like children unrestrained by fear of predators or vixen mother,” deer who “come softly to the garden bringing nothing but their hunger and their grace,” and even wasps who “nuzzle the patio’s torn screen door seeking refuge from the autumn wind.”
In keeping with the title of Sarah’s book The Tree of Life, there is a series of thought-provoking poems in the Ordinary Time section about trees…. the apple, fig, spruce, oak, elm, and sycamore. Of an oak tree remembered from childhood Sarah writes…..
“A branch of our oak had grown thick and bent into something resembling the handle of an oversized cup a giant could stick his fat thumb through.”
I thought the nature poems in Ordinary Time were particularly appropriate for our current time. Of course, nothing about 2020 is ordinary. But people unable to travel or socialize have been drawn to the natural world for activity, inspiration, and reflection. Sarah is a nature watcher and she reminds us not only of the beauty but also the brutality we can witness as we observe the natural world. In a poem about a loving pair of geese and their little family, Sarah also includes
“A crow couple clamped to a willow branch. Four jet eyes nail the goslings, a succulent quartet”
I was particularly drawn to the poems in the section of Sarah’s book titled Half the Sky. The first six are about women from the Bible and Sarah makes the choice to expose the darkness in their lives. The concubine in Judges 19:22-26 who is
“gang-raped in a town where all she wanted was a little rest from travel and some food”
Queen Esther for whom
“days are long, and nights she is at the mercy of the king’s whim. She could live, or she could die if she lifts onto her soft shoulders the burden of a nation’s fate.”
There are also poems about Jephthah’s daughter who becomes a human sacrifice, Eve whose son murders his brother, Hagar who is sent into exile, and Mary who is harshly judged for her impropriety in anointing Jesus’ feet with costly oil.
Sarah Klassen – photo from Turnstone Press by Nadine Kampen
During her interview with Sally Ito, Sarah revealed she had not written the poems that appear in The Tree of Life in any particular order and certainly not with the idea they would fit into a certain section of a book. I felt that gave me a kind of license to skip around the book too, savouring Sarah’s rich and riveting texts, one at a time, thinking about the questions they raised and the personal connections they brought to mind.
Four of my favourite poems in TheTree of Life were Country which turns a pedicure into a moving experience, NewMusic where a young violinist inspires an ageing heart, Itinerary which catalogues the anxieties of travel, and Tower which offers a child’s perspective on a tragedy. I could connect with each poem in such a personal way.
I can highly recommend Sarah Klassen’s The Tree of Life. You are sure to find poems on its pages that will inspire you to look at the natural world with new eyes, help you see old stories from new points of view, and poems that will make you think about your own personal experiences in new ways.
My friend Esther introduced me to the beautiful Great Spirit Prayer. She learned it from the children in an inner-city Winnipeg school where she was a student-teacher. It’s words have stayed with her over many decades. I thought I’d share it this Sunday morning along with some photos I’ve taken that I thought might illustrate it well. Oh, Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the wind, whose breath gives life to all the world.
Hear me; I need your strength and wisdom.
Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made and my ears sharp to hear your voice.
Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people.
Help me to remain calm and strong in the face of all that comes towards me.
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and rock.
Help me seek pure thoughts and act with the intention of helping others.
Help me find compassion without empathy overwhelming me.
I seek strength, not to be greater than the other, but to fight my greatest enemy, Myself.
Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes.
So when life fades, as the fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame.
Photo of my grandparents’ tombstone by my cousin Al Loeppky
My grandmother Margaretha Peters had a marvellous memory for poetry and well into her 90s could still recite long German narrative poems. An excerpt from a favourite poem is engraved on her tombstone.
Yesterday The Atlantic published an article by Elliot Cohen called Go Memorize a Poem. Cohen suggests that memorizing a poem may be just what we need to do in these uncertain times. We can choose a poem that gives us hope, a poem that inspires us or brings us peace.
Oprah Winfrey’s inspirational poem is Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou
Cohen talks about how civil rights leaders John Lewis and Nelson Mandela both believed in the power of the poem Invictus by W.E. Henley. Cohen says that poems we have memorized can stave off self-pity, offer us a new world view and make us feel powerful. Oprah Winfrey has often stated that Phenomenal Womanby Maya Angelou is that special kind of poem for her. Stephen Spielberg says for him it‘s Self-Portrait by David Whyte.
I published a poem by Marge Piercy with my blog post on Sunday and one of my readers commented that she was going to memorize it.
I think it may be a good time to add another memorized poem to my canon. What should I choose? What poem might be the perfect one for you to memorize right now?
This week as I listened to Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez give her brave and incredibly important speech decrying the sexism and misogyny still firmly entrenched in politics, I was reminded of a poem by Marge Piercy called To Be of Use. Ms Cortez follows a long line of women who have not been afraid to jump in headfirst to bring about the changes so necessary in our world.
Social justice fighter Dorothy Day photographed in Solanus Casey Center in Detroit
To Be of Use by Marge Piercy
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
A trio of Quebec suffragettes who fought for 22 years to get women the right to vote in their province. Photographed in Quebec City.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
Rosa Parks civil rights activist in a portrait by Tony Scherman photographed at the Winnipeg Art Gallery
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlour generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
Maria Leal de Noguera influential educator, literacy pioneer and writer of children’s literature in Costa Rica photographed in Santa Cruz Costa Rica.
Small stones I photographed at The Arches in Newfoundland
It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones; just pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.
― Mary Oliver from the poem Praying
Wicker basket of oranges I photographed in a shop in Lisbon
I pick an orange from a wicker basket and place it on the table to represent the sun. Then down at the other end a blue and white marble becomes the earth and nearby I lay the little moon of an aspirin.
I get a glass from a cabinet, open a bottle of wine, then I sit in a ladder-back chair, a benevolent god presiding over a miniature creation myth,
and I begin to sing a homemade canticle of thanks for this perfect little arrangement, for not making the earth too hot or cold not making it spin too fast or slow
so that the grove of orange trees and the owl become possible, not to mention the rolling wave, the play of clouds, geese in flight, and the Z of lightning on a dark lake.
Then I fill my glass again and give thanks for the trout, the oak, and the yellow feather,
singing the room full of shadows,
as sun and earth and moon
circle one another in their impeccable orbits
and I get more and more cockeyed with gratitude.
– Billy Collins from As If to Demonstrate an Eclipse