Category Archives: poetry wednesday

Peak colour on the ground

November for Beginners

Rita Dove

Snow would be the easy
way out—that softening
sky like a sigh of relief
at finally being allowed
to yield. No dice.
We stack twigs for burning
in glistening patches
but the rain won’t give.

 

So we wait, breeding
mood, making music
of decline. We sit down
in the smell of the past
and rise in a light
that is already leaving.
We ache in secret,
memorizing

 

a gloomy line
or two of German.
When spring comes
we promise to act
the fool. Pour,
rain! Sail, wind,
with your cargo of zithers!

 

 

***

 

I promised myself a return to this space some time ago, but the summer was one of long, full days, or what felt like the same long, full day lived over and over: damp laundry drying in the backyard, walks to the market under the searing sun, late afternoons spent catching my son as he jumped into the neighbourhood pool again and again and eventually, late in August, jumped into the pool and swam, immersed, to my outstretched hands.

Now we’ve begun a new routine. My eldest is at school all day, every day. It seems like a more sudden change than it must actually be. It feels like cheating. Indeed, in other parts of the country, four-year-olds (or their parents) are spared the indignities of bursting into tears over hairbrushing, of marching to catch the school bus. Meanwhile, my youngest is attending preschool two days each week, and I have two expanses of time in which to do what I like. Luxurious, yes, and yet I struggle at the end of those days to feel satisfied with how I’m spending my time. I’ve always been a dasher, a last-minute finisher, and I’m trying to unlearn that, to teach myself to work slowly and patiently on a story, to let the drops collect in a bucket. It feels possible, if not easy.

On other fronts, September was a productive month. Renovations begun in the spring are finally finished. A cheerful and noise-tolerant Italian has taken up residence in our bright new basement, which has offset the cost of said renovations, and has made me feel better about failing to net interviews for jobs applied for in September (to say nothing of afternoons spent bingeing on Elena Ferrante and ignoring the housework). I did pick up some editing work that mitigated my disappointment somewhat. I’m left wondering if this is something I should pursue more seriously.

I’m trying, in my restlessness, to sink into moments of beauty. Early in October, I drove my son to preschool under a saturated blue sky rippled with high cirrus clouds and sundogs. The leaves were turning, not yet littering the sidewalks and prompting the return of the city’s bizarre leaf-vacuum truck, and on the radio was Cuff the Duke’s cover of the Rheostatics’ “Claire,” a moody song that reminded me of heading off to high school in my mother’s white Buick, occupied with the drama of adolescence. I dropped him off and the morning was wide open to me. Now the days are shortening; we won’t have this much light again till February, and I’m tumbling into my winter life, dark in the morning, artificially lit at night, the lives of our friends and neighbours becoming secret and interior. How grateful I am that these hours to myself won’t shrink correspondingly.

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Year of hours

I.45

Rainer Maria Rilke

You come and go. The doors swing closed
ever more gently, almost without a shudder.
Of all who move through the quiet houses,
you are the quietest.

We become so accustomed to you,
we no longer look up
when your shadow falls over the book we are reading
and makes it glow. For all things
sing you: at times
we just hear them more clearly.

Often when I imagine you
your wholeness cascades into many shapes.
You run like a herd of luminous deer
and I am dark, I am forest.

You are a wheel at which I stand,
whose dark spokes sometimes catch me up,
revolve me nearer to the center.
Then all the work I put my hand to
widens from turn to turn.

From The Book of Hours, trans. Barrows and Macy

***

Tonight after I got the baby to bed I ate the last of the peppermint bark. It’s official: the holidays are over.

The older I get the more ambivalent I grow towards New Year’s Day. On the one hand, I am increasingly troubled by melancholy at the letting go of another year. Aging is making me maudlin on so many planes of my life. On the other, I am full of faith that this is the year I will change in ways both positive and fundamental, ignoring the facts: that I am still biting my nails even as I type, that I  was less than beatifically patient with my children between the hours of four and six p.m. (also, regrettably, a.m.). I fail at so many things every day; why should 1 January and all the days thereafter be any different?

And yet I can’t kick the feeling that this year promises a sea change. I’m not sure to what I can ascribe it – the looming approach of a milestone birthday, the fact that this is the year I may well be finished with the parenting of infants, or the fact that said infant has basically stopped sleeping at night, which makes me feel light-headed, impetuous, like I might as well go for broke. Under the fatigue is a thin rod of resolve that this year, I will work on a whole host of projects that are near and dear to my heart. Chief among these is simply learning to work. It is my fiercest hope that by the end of this year, I will have developed a creative practice that will sustain me through the vicissitudes of young parenthood and the broken hours that are available to me.

There is so much I want to do. Over the last year – which was by most measurements an excellent one – I was frequently frustrated with my inability to make the most of stolen hours as they were available. I had that terrible Annie Dillard adage running on a loop through my mind: How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives, and it was depressing to see how slowly the labour of my days was adding up. I mean what I think of as writing work, not the necessary and unending labours of parenting and housekeeping and finances. I hope that in a year’s time, I’ll have aligned my days with my hopes for my life in a way that satisfies me.

We go too

Lullaby

John Fuller

Sleep little baby, clean as a nut,
Your fingers uncurl and your eyes are shut.
Your life was ours, which is with you.
Go on your journey. We go too.

The bat is flying round the house
Like an umbrella turned into a mouse.
The moon is astonished and so are the sheep:
Their bells have come to send you to sleep.

Oh be our rest, our hopeful start.
Turn your head to my beating heart.
Sleep little baby, clean as a nut,
Your fingers uncurl and your eyes are shut.

Found here.

***

This liminal state of late middle pregnancy is starting to get to me. I remember a friend, who had her first baby a few years ago, talking about her experience with the nesting instinct. She found it categorically horrible – the high-pressure sense that there are necessary tasks to complete, that they must be completed right now, because everything has to be ready for when the baby comes. I’m feeling that same nervous energy now. The trouble is that I know exactly what must be done before the baby comes, and also what I would like to accomplish personally, separately from maternity tasks, but my brain is too fuelled by insistent hormones to let me sit down and enjoy what I know are my last couple of months of quiet evenings meant for slow reading. I am knitting a complicated piece of lace for no real reason except that the mind-numbing repetition seems to quell the compulsion to do, do, do when what the self underneath desires is to breathe, breathe, breathe.

In the meantime, so many parts of life are easy to enjoy. On Friday, I will have a two-year-old, which boggles my mind. And yet her growing is so obvious. In the last couple of weeks, she’s given up naps (sob), diapers (praise be), and most assistance with her wardrobe. Her birthday present from her grandmother, a jazzy red raincoat complete with matching sou’wester, has a row of snaps down the front, and I watched this afternoon as she thrashed around the living room, irate that her small hands couldn’t manage to do up the bottom-most snap. The fit she pitched when I offered to help her was so loud and furious that I retreated to the kitchen. Of course, she managed it all by herself in the end.

I’m learning that my daughter has a great deal more determination than I do. After a full year of her quite literally refusing to take a diaper change lying down, we set a date for putting the diapers away, as recommended by the book I bought for guidance (of course I bought a book; having never housetrained even a dog, why wouldn’t I?). I had a feeling that she would be thrilled by the independence, as she’s elated by any measure of it in all other areas (see above re: raincoat snaps) but I wasn’t sure how things would go. We began just after we returned home from a trip east to see the in-laws, a trip which had frustrated me from the moment we booked the plane tickets because it meant postponing potty training, which meant wrestling an unwilling child into unwanted diapers for another month (extra fun in airports!). We still have a long way to go, but the initial process has been so smooth that it’s almost been fun. I wish I could take credit for the ease with which she’s taken control over this simple function of the body, but the success is all hers. I’m learning a lot, watching this happen right in front of my nose. How funny that it’s taken two years to figure out concretely what I now see are such basic aspects of her personality. How strange to think how long it may take me to do this all over again with a new baby.

On the current occupant: it’s a boy. We were gobsmacked to learn this, which is dumb, given the odds. But I have a sister, and I fully expected to leave the ultrasound office in the knowledge that I would provide my daughter with one, too. This is not to say that I’m unhappy about it, despite knowing nothing about boys, except to run them daily, like German shepherds (not an analogy of my own invention), and avoid getting pee in the eye. While we were away we had dinner with friends, who responded to the news with, “Congratulations! So you’re done.” I wish I felt as confident in that statement as they did. I would really like a big, flashy sign from above when I am Done, done. Alas, I suspect one is not forthcoming. For now, I wait, and try to calm the frenetic pacing of my brain, and to enjoy the quiet while it lasts.

For Poetry Wednesday.

Word of the year

IMG_0681

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]

e.e. cummings

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

***

A Canadian writer whose blog I read does a “word of the year” project annually in January. I’ve been reading her site for a long time; we used to live down the street from each other, and I’d often look out my window to see her herding her children off to school in the mornings, looking harried. We’ve never met face-to-face. She’s a person of intense, serial passions, and frankly, she terrifies me a little bit. I’m not certain I will ever have that kind of energy or drive. Her words of the year are usually expansive, but oblique, capable of positive mutation.

I have an ongoing list of goals, both public and private, that I roll over into each new year, like turning over compost. This year, my public double-yolk challenge agreed upon in consultation with my family (the members of which have themselves set impressive goals) is to complete and submit for publication three pieces of fiction. I decided at the last minute to avoid a physical challenge, since from mid-May I will be occupied with the incoming baby, i.e., fatigued. I feel like this project is doable, if difficult.

But I’m still hungering for a touchstone, a talisman, a theme. The baby-on-the-way is the first major change to my life in a long time that I feel I went about making purposefully, happily, deliberately, even though I know there is a lot of chaos and disruption waiting for me on the other side of his or her arrival. Last year, I did not feel purposeful, happy, or deliberate about much of anything. Before the present moment, the last time I felt like I was living my life, rather than simply enduring a series of events that were happening to me, was almost three years ago. In the time since, I proved not to have fortitude over and over. I despaired a lot, became pessimistic. I disappointed myself.

My word of the year is heart. As in, take it. As in whole, or open. When I read this poem of cummings, which I’ve only ever read as a poem for a lover, I think of speaking to another self frozen in time in early 2010, about to need and lose, or spend, a lot of fortitude, of heart. I feel that I’m inexplicably on the cusp of getting it back, and I want to say to that past self, I remember, I will carry your heart through this. To use less acquisitive language, I want to think of being heartened as a practice, an exercise. For what else will move this body through the year, and years to come? What can I give to my children, if not it?

***

For Poetry Wednesday.

Ripening

Momma Said

Calvin Forbes

The slice I ate I want it back
Those crumbs I swept up
I’d like my share again
I can still taste it like it was

The memory by itself is delicious
Each bite was a small miracle
Both nourishing and sweet
I wish I had saved just a little bit

I know it wasn’t a literal cake
It’s the thought that counts
Like a gift that’s not store-bought
Making it even more special

Like a dream that makes you
Want to go back to sleep
You can’t have your cake
And eat it too Momma said

I was defiant and hardheaded
And answered yes I can too
The look she gave me said boy
I hope you aren’t a fool all your life


Found here
.

***

Two Christmases ago, when my mother was dying but we did not understand that precisely yet, she charged my husband and I with driving an hour from her house into the city to deliver a box of preserves to her elderly friend. I think it was peaches and sweet pickles. It was the twenty-third of December, and it had snowed a lot the night before. We had to leave her alone for the day to accomplish the task, plus a couple of other errands. I was to purchase on my mother’s behalf a pair of ski socks for my husband, covertly, while he rented a pair of cross-country skis to use over the holiday. We would do some banking for her and stop briefly to visit some family. When we were about to load up the car and go, she said from her nest of blankets on the sofa, “I’m going to be lonely while you’re gone.” I was sympathetic but also exasperated. But you wanted us to go, I said. Yes, she said, go. And so we went.

On the way to the elderly friend’s house (where we were plied with ancient sherry and ginger ale), my husband hopped out of the car to ring the bell of a friend of a friend, a sort of colleague of his, just to say hello. When he came back to the car he was holding a foil-wrapped package. “Pauline says hi. Here’s a fruitcake,” he said.

“A fruitcake?” I asked. “Do people even make those anymore? Isn’t that something old people eat? Isn’t there a joke about there being only one fruitcake in the world that keeps getting passed around? Is this that fruitcake?”

“I kind of like it,” he confessed.

At my mother’s the next day, we held a stressful family meeting with a palliative care doctor. Plans for the future, for I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay with her indefinitely, were put into motion. She stopped being able to eat, then to sleep. In the evening, after she went to bed but before she gave herself up to insomnia, I stood in the kitchen and watched my husband eat a slice of the fruitcake. “It’s really good,” he said. “Try some.”

I’m not sure if it was the anxiety, or the fact that I was pregnant and eating everything in sight, or the fact that Pauline is an amazing cook and baker, but that fruitcake was the best thing I had ever eaten, and I am not a person who ordinarily exaggerates about food. It was substantial without being heavy, sweet without being cloying, and rich without tasting overwhelmingly of booze. If I could only eat one thing for the rest of my life, I thought, chewing, it would be this fruitcake. Why has it taken me so long to discover it? I ate it for sustenance, weeping for my mother, every night until it was gone.

This year, at home in my own kitchen and armed with Pauline’s recipe, I candied my own clementine peels, steeped a pot of dried fruit in five kinds of liquor, and mixed a golden, buttery batter to pour over top of the lot. Today, after the obligatory five days of ripening, I tasted the cake. It was as good as I remembered it. It’s not quite the same as the first, but this year it doesn’t have to work as hard. I don’t need it to be miraculous. A whole wedge of it will go to that sherry-tippling old lady friend of my mother’s, to friends whose whole wedding cake was a fruitcake, to select uninitiated acquaintances who are about to eat the best thing they’ve ever tasted, but who don’t know it yet.

For Poetry Wednesday.

Essentially

On a Ray of Winter Light

George Seferis

(selections; trans. Keeley & Sherrard, from the Complete Poems)

1
Leaves like rusty tin
for the desolate mind that has seen the end –
the barest glimmerings.
Leaves aswirl with gulls
frenzied by winter.

The way the heart finds release
the dancers turned into trees,
into a huge forest of trees stripped bare.

3
My companions have driven me mad
with theodolites, sextants, lodestones,
with telescopes that enlarge things –
better if they kept at a distance.
Where will roads like this lead us?
But maybe the day that began then
has not yet died out
with a rose-like fire in a ravine,
with a sea ethereal at the feet of God.

4
Years ago you said
“Essentially I’m a matter of light.”
And still today when you lean
on the broad shoulders of sleep
or even when they anchor you
to the sea’s drowsy breast
you look for crannies where the blackness
has worn thin and has no resistance,
groping you search for the lance –
the lance destined to pierce your heart
and lay it open to the light.

***

I know there are some hardcore Rilke fans among the Poetry Wednesday faithful, but my favourite poet to read in translation is George Seferis. He’s firmly twentieth century, and so is all the more modern, bare, erotic. But he’s also rooted in the ancient traditions of Greece, and reading him, I imagine myself high above the Mediterranean, eating olives on a warm rock, and I could use that extra vitamin D of the mind these solstitial days.

It isn’t that I’m bothered by winter. Quite the opposite. Last week we had snow on the ground, and it was glorious, clean and white. But the temperature keeps spiking, and the days have turned gray and wet. “Green grass,” says my toddler, pointing through the window to the backyard. One day, when I am fifty and there are to be no more winters, ever, I’ll be the person harping on at parties about how my parents used to hire the farmer down the road to blow out our long country driveway after a blizzard. He had a snowblower that attached to a big tractor, and it shot snow forty feet into the air in an efficient fountain. If he couldn’t come right away, it would take my father all day to dig us out with the scoop on his little, two-ton tractor. There would be no school for days because the buses wouldn’t run reliably in the bitter cold. When spring came, often not until mid-April or May, it felt genuinely miraculous. But I digress. I would rather have Winnipeg’s purifying cold, frostbite warnings issued down to the second, and the white snow brightening the dark, a palette for the Christmas lights, than this unceasing in-between-ness.

I’ve been feeling in-between in general lately, restlessly but also gratefully. I am suddenly very visibly pregnant, and so there is the predictable element of waiting. This second time around, having a general idea of what I can expect from the first weeks, months, year of tending to an infant’s life, I feel both calm and resigned. So far, no one is dying, knock wood. Barring disaster, I will not have to pack up my belongings and move house, or country. We have all the stuff. There will be chaos as we adapt, but adapt we will, and perhaps one day I will be able to sleep a healthy number of uninterrupted hours again.

The reason I’m resigned, or really just wistful, is that I know how little time I’ll have for myself, again. To soften this lament, I should say that I’m honestly looking forward to having another baby, to re-doing the baby stage with, I hope, a little more confidence and less anxiety than the first time. Also, with less grief. But even now, with an almost-two-year-old, I feel myself reaching towards pursuits other than mothering, to find that my reach perpetually exceeds my grasp. A month ago, as a result of winning runner-up in a poetry contest run by a well-respected magazine that happens to be based here in town, I was invited by the outgoing editor to read at the opening night launch of the literary festival they were hosting. Would I be interested, she asked, in attending a dinner for the participating writers beforehand, at a nearby wine bar? Yes, I would. I got dressed up, and at dinner was seated next to a poet I admire, who happened to have her four-month-old with her at the table. We discovered that we have a few mutual acquaintances. (This is Canada, after all.) The reading took place in a gigantic, packed auditorium in a university building, and despite nerves and first-trimester nausea, I read well and did not throw up on the main attraction, a writer of (apparently) famous political comic novels. It was one completely out-of-the-ordinary evening, and I was very grateful for it, even as I found it a little disorienting to be completely disconnected from everything I do on a daily basis, i.e., diapers, cleaning rejected food off the floor, &c.

It’s not that I came home that night thinking, How can I do this more often? I’m not all that drawn to the spotlight. What I would like is to purposefully carve out some time for practicing being a person who is not only a parent. This sounds like such a stupid, basic desire, but I’m constantly thwarting myself by not pursuing it seriously. I’m not working right now, and don’t really want to be, but it’s hard to find motivation to move forward with my own projects, literary or otherwise, without a paycheque, or mentorship, or some source of external encouragement who is not my husband. Also, I think that in parenting my first, I’ve had a strong desire to do most everything myself, and I suspect this desire may be dulled a little by the time the second one arrives. I read an interview with Joan Didion, done when she was promoting Blue Nights, in which she says that after becoming a mother, she became “totally wrapped up in keeping some time free for myself,” and while I have that longing often, it’s all too easy to sink weakly into routine without realizing that I’m running dangerously low on spirit. With two children, I suspect it will only be worse. This winter, therefore, I am committing to finding a babysitter for two mornings a week so that I can get some time. Being a basic cheapskate, it’s my hope that paying for time will make me value it more.

I wish I could wrap this up in a pithy way by turning back to Seferis, but I’m not confident that he’d have been able to relate to anything I’m saying. Now, it’s snowing. Let me fiddle with my lodestone in peace.

For Poetry Wednesday.

The real dream

The Green Car

Landis Everson

Defend me. I am not capable.
The river sweeps by three minutes at once
cleansing me of guilt. But the bear
crashes through it and breaches my
innocence.
He rages and frightens my innocence.

The psychologist says, “You are the bear.
You are the river.
You are the green car
crossing the bridge. Defend yourself.”

But the green car
is in a forest I have failed to speak to.
The green car was never intended
to drive in that forest,
not cross a bridge
that must not exist in a real dream.
Further, the real dream
defends itself.

found here.

***

I’ve been waking up a lot at night and early in the morning. I have always been a vivid dreamer, but right now all of my dreams are impossibly episodic. After some enjoyable storylines last night, I dreamt that I was sitting in the back of a school bus, tormenting the children who were riding home. I was not myself; I was some sort of sinister entity with Bradburyesque mind-control powers, and I embodied and amplified the fears of the passengers until they cried. It was not a pleasant dream to remember upon waking unnecessarily early at six. I don’t hold a lot of stock with dream interpretation (though I’m apt to find it sort of compelling, and sometimes fun), but I am interested in my own emotional responses to my dream life. I was basically horrified.

The fertilizer for this dream was a day that began, in most respects, as total crap. Yesterday morning we all got up early because A. and I both needed to have some routine bloodwork done. The medical system in this province is entirely different from those with which we grew up, and we were sent to local independent lab to have the blood drawn instead of having it done at the doctor’s office during the appointments at which the bloodwork was deemed necessary. We had to cart along Miss N., who despite a raging head cold behaved charmingly toward the staff. It was raining buckets. As usual, my arm veins proved impossible to locate. Half an hour later and minus several crucial millilitres of B+/O-, we tramped back into the rain. N. and I drove A. to work and then, in a fit of guilt and industry, I took N. to storytime at the library.

We’ve been home now for almost three full months, and I have not been doing a very good job at reintegrating myself with society at large. N. is still sorely lacking in toddler pals, and I, in mom-friends. Partly this stems from my homebody tendencies, and partly from pure sloth. But I really miss having conversations with other women who understand and don’t care that we will be constantly, inevitably interrupted by our offspring. In Germany I made friends with an ideal companion, whose son was just ten days younger than N. She was a complete extrovert, always up for trips to the playground, and a loud, unembarrassed, unapologetic beginner at German. Whenever we took the kids out for lunch, the wait staff didn’t even let her say “Guten Tag” before switching to English, which in turn relieved me of all pressure to attempt any conversation in German. I was always grateful.

But I digress. I’m trying to meet new people; I’m working hard at it. And N. enjoys getting out and being a ham in front of others. So we went to storytime. Naturally she refused to tolerate it, sprinting from the meeting room into the children’s department, bashing away at the multicoloured computer keyboards, throwing herself at the large stuffed animals ranged about the place. Due to the rain, I had parked in the paid lot underneath the projecting second floor of the building, which I normally never do. Our time on the meter was up, and so I scooped up N., now fully in the throes of a tantrum, and stood in line at the checkout. She wriggled away and dashed back to the fun stuff. Repeat. I got her in the car, still screaming, and in reversing out of the space and trying to avoid running over some small children, managed to grind the car’s fender against the massive concrete pillar holding up the library’s second floor, heretofore in my blind spot. (Later, the insurance agent would ask my husband if I was certain that there was “no damage to public property.” Um, no. Giant eff-off concrete pillar, 1; modest hatchback, 0.)

We both shouted with frustration all the way home. I aspire to be a rolls-with-the-punches kind of mother, one who takes deep breaths and looks on the bright side and all that, but mostly I fail and then promptly resolve to do better. I know it does precious little good to lose it, especially when N. is already distraught; what memory will she have of moments like these when she’s grown? I shudder to think of the bus passengers in my dream, requiring reassurance and receiving none, especially not from me.

At any rate, the day turned when we got home, had lunch, and N. went for a much-needed nap. The mail came, and it was good: a parcel of books from a dear university friend, and a copy of a literary magazine in which a poem of mine appears. I won runner-up in the magazine’s annual verse competition, which came as a shock, but a really good one, as when I opened the front door on Monday to discover that the weather was too fine for jackets, and demanded a walk to the park.

For Poetry Wednesday.