Before We Leave

It always happens. Just as soon as you think you’re ready to leave and go on to the next place, the one you’re in becomes incredibly beautiful. It happened to me this morning.

In a few days, I’ll be leaving this Florida island and going back to Minneapolis. I’ve told everyone I’m ready to go home: the island is too crowded with visitors, I say. I just want to go to my regular grocery store. I miss my Minnesota family and friends.

Then this morning as I sat outside reading the Sunday Times and drinking coffee, I dropped deep into the astounding beauty around me: the gentle air, the birds’ songs, the green of foliage, and the startling blue of sky and water. It all seemed impossible to leave.

The hibiscus and bougainvillea by our front door are putting on an incredible show saying to me, Don’t go. Stay and look. See what you will miss.

It also happened this morning that our radio was tuned to Krista Tippett’s “On Being” featuring the poet David Whyte.  April is National Poetry Month, so how pleasing to hear the musical voice of David Whyte read his poems and talk about poetry and the spirit.

                                                              Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice.

–David Whyte, “Everything Is Waiting for You”

The place I’m in now as I prepare to leave is the space of poetry. It is the time when you notice what you will miss, when you see all that you have not seen, when it will all go away in an instant. Poetry helps me see–if but for a moment.

The song of the cardinal is shriller than ever this morning. The pileated woodpecker searching the hole in the dead palm trunk is brilliant: red, white, and black, bright and clear against the brown. The sunlight through the blinds as I write makes a work of art of the keyboard and my desk.

I have missed much in the days before when I drove methodically down San-Cap Road focused on how slow the car in front of me was going.

My friend down the street created a delicious dinner for four of us neighbors on Friday night. How sweet to eat cooked-to-perfection lamb chops, to taste the caramelized walnuts in the strawberry salad, and to savor the beauty of her chocolate cake with its small lake of raspberry sauce and crown of piped whipped cream! All of this as the smooth words of conversation flowed around the candles; and there too, on the table, were three translucent pink hibiscus blooms to remind me of the temporality of all of this. They bloom for only a day.IMG_0030

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Writing Idea:  Look for something today that will be gone tomorrow. Go for ten minutes in your notebook. Try it again tomorrow. And the next.  It could be the last chocolate chip cookie in the bag. It could be that old shirt you decide to throw out. Is there a story or poem in the transitory? See what you have to say.

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“I’ll tell you how the sun rose, a ribbon at a time.
The steeples swam in amethyst,
The news like squirrels ran.
The hills untied their bonnets,
The bobolinks begun.
Then I said softly to myself,
“That must have been the sun!”

But how he set, I know not.
There seemed a purple stile.
Which little yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while
Till when they reached the other side,
A dominie in gray
Put gently up the evening bars,
And led the flock away.

Emily Dickinson 

My Love Affair with W. B. Yeats

5aed83b2a619426e0eb67d1145e3cc2d

I had not heard from Mr. Yeats in years. He was buried in my bookshelf with other old friends, tucked away in closed pages, long gone. Or so I thought–until this past October when I visited Ireland, a country in love with writing and with its writers–especially with William Butler Yeats.

In the interest of compression, the story goes like this: My husband and I were leaving the National Museum of Ireland where we saw the Cashel Man preserved in the Irish peat bogs. He was buried during the early Bronze Age, 2,000 BC, making him 4,000 years old!  (They had bogs; we have blogs.)

"The Lake Isle of Innistree"As we left,  we saw a notice for a Yeats exhibit next door at the  Irish National Library. “Oh my gosh,” I said to my husband, “we  have to go in.”  And there, as if Yeats too had emerged from the bogs of my memory, I found him still alive.  I heard his sonorous voice reading  “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” His words were music. The images of Innisfree were projected onto transparent screens:  the bees, the clover, the land. I listened as  other Irish poets read more of his poems. I was transfixed. One of my favorite poets, the complicated William Butler Yeats, whose poems sent me spiraling as a college student, was here alive and well. For the next hour, we made our way around the exhibit, visiting smaller rooms with multiple inter-active exhibits that captured his loves, his marriage, his politics, his interest in the occult, his writing, and finally his death and re-burial in Ireland. As we left, I knew that my love for Yeats had never really been lost.

If you won’t be making a trip to Ireland anytime soon, you can visit the Irish National Library exhibit and take a virtual tour. Go to The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats.

A few weeks after we returned from Ireland,  I opened my e-mail to find  that Yeats was still speaking to me. There in my mailbox was his poem, “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” (Poem-a-Day, Academy of American Poets). Go to a Video Homage to “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” for a lovely reading of this poem.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve met many times with my friend, W. B. Yeats, reading his poems and biography and tracking him down on the internet.  I discovered a favorite poem, “When You Are Old,” one of his best-loved poems, written when he was quite young. As an extra bonus, I found a wonderful love story related to “When You Are Old”  from the Favorite Poem Project (founded by former Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky) about a young woman, her grandfather, and her husband-to-be. The lovely video shows how one poem can connect several people and give meaning to each of their lives. Click here to watch it:  “Yeats, When You Are Old,”  Favorite Poem Project.

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When You Are Old

BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

 

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Writing Ideas: Take the phrase “My Love Affair with _________.” Try out different words to fill in the blank: “My Love Affair with the Ocean,”  “My Love Affair with My ’62 White Buick Convertible,” “My Love Affair with Chopin or Elvis.” Don’t think too much about it. Just write for at least ten minutes. There’s passion there–and longing. I know.

Or take the lines: “But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you/ And loved the sorrows of your changing face.” There’s plenty there to fill a few pages of your writer’s notebook. Go.images-9

What the Leaves Believe

I was going to write about my rekindled love affair with William Butler Yeats, but he will have to wait. Because today all I can think about are the leaves and Lucille Clifton. I have to start by saying I cannot describe the brilliance of the trees today.the leaves today

We’re lucky to live in a small stand of maples on Gleason Lake about fifteen minutes west of downtown Minneapolis.  I enjoy these trees in the spring when the shadowy green of their leaves emerges after the long winter and, of course, in the summer when they reach their deep glory to cover our lane allowing only a few rays of sun, yet it is now in October when they tell the real story. The trees scream out: “See it only gets better because we will soon do it all over again.”

Yesterday in our poetry class, Deborah Keenan brought in this poem by Lucille Clifton:

the lesson of the falling leaves

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god
i agree with the leavesIMG_7612

A few years ago when I was under the spell of Lucille Clifton, I wrote a poem inspired by her. I bring this poem to you because not only did Lucille Clifton lead the way and help me see the leaves and state my credo, but also because the poem shows how what others write can lead us to what we can write. Without Lucille Clifton, I could never have written this poem. I owe her gratitude–and the leaves too for all their lessons. _______________________________________

What the Leaves Believe

After Lucille Clifton

that they will fall
and wither on the ground

that they will have gone to
all that trouble

to make abundance
to make glory

all that trouble every spring
to fill those branches

so full that a bird is lost
in their midst

and then gone
leaving the bare bones

the bare black bones of branches
what the leaves believe

is what I believe

––Vicky Lettmann

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Writing Idea:  What do you have to say about this time of year? about the leaves? Seasons appear in all genres, so if you’re writing memoir, go in your memory bank to fall. Try picking one fall: the fall when you went to junior high, the fall you learned to drive, the fall your father died. Fall on the east coast of North Carolina is not like fall in Minnesota. Give us your fall. Go for ten minutes–just write it out without over-thinking. Smells, colors, sounds, feelings, the light. That kind of thing.

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Next blog, I promise: “My Love Affair with William Butler Yeats” (R rated)

The Size of My Life

Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield’s poem, “My Life Was the Size of My Life,” (The New Yorker, March 10, 2014) begins:

My life was the size of my life
Its rooms were room-sized,
its soul was the size of a soul.
In its background, mitochondria hummed,
above it sun, clouds, snow,
the transit of stars and planets.
various airplanes, a donkey.
It wore socks, shirts, its own ears and nose. . . .

Some days, I look out from my body and forget it is the age it is. I forget the size of my life. That is until days like last Sunday when my five-year-old granddaughter, Lucia, and I were making funny faces at each other on FaceTime. Now FaceTime is great, but unfortunately a tiny square at the bottom of the screen shows you exactly how you look to the other person. So you see yourself talk at the same time you’re trying to focus on what the other person is saying. Very distracting. Lucia is much less critical of her image than I am of mine. I’m thinking: Who is that woman with several chins, lots of wrinkles, and big age spots? Lucia doesn’t care: she is busy looking at her own teeth, eyes, hair–all of which we talk about in great detail!  For a few minutes, my life is the size of a small square on the bottom of an i-Phone. And there, surrounding it, is the beautiful face of Lucia.

Roger Angell

Roger Angell and Andy; Central Park, January, 2014. (Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.)

Roger Angell in his wonderful essay, “This Old Man”(The New Yorker, Feb. 17 & 24, 2014), begins with a detailed description of his body at age 93. “Check me out,” he says. He then describes his arthritic hands, trying to find just the right metaphor to help us see them: “The top two knuckles of my left hand. . . if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Arthritis.”

He goes on to catalogue a long list of what it is like to live in his ninety-three-year-old body. Besides the residual effects of arthritis, he writes about shingles, macular degeneration, arterial stints, shaky knees, herniated discs–not to mention the loss of his daughter and wife and many friends. Still he brings us the news that “the pains and insults are bearable” and that at the end of life he still longs for touch and love. “Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love. ” Yes, to deep attachment and love. Good that the size of our souls still has room for these–no matter our age.

Mary Junge

Mary Junge (photo by Joey McLeister)

When Carol Roan and I put together our anthology When Last on the Mountain: The View from Writers over Fifty, we were amazed at the stories we heard: so many of us out there writing and writing, about our bodies, our loves, our lives, our past and futures. We’re all on this march together, so hearing news of the terrain ahead is a good thing.

My friend Mary Junge recently sent me a poem she wrote in response to Jane Hirshfield’s poem. Thank you, Mary. (For more of Mary’s poems, click here to visit her website: birdloverpoet.com.)

My Life at Sixty

It looked foreign suddenly, and small, inconsequential.
Yet, it was all too familiar. It was surely mine.
As light as a wisp or shadow, an exhale.
The untied silk scarf that slips to the floor without notice.
I thought of my mother long ago, asking
How I’d spent the gone money. Now it was I who
Wanted an account of the gone dawns and sunsets,
The dreamless and dream-filled nights of slumber,
The days wasted in too much sadness or too much frivolity.
The meals carefully (or carelessly) prepared and eaten,
The love given and received generously (or begrudgingly).
Injuries to the body, kindness given and received—even the days of
Cruel insults I wanted back now.
Was it true? Had I spent it so soon?
I thought of my grandfather,
Illiterate, poor speaking German immigrant farmer,
Who hid his radio in the barn during WWII. After his passing,
The shy list of farm equipment, animals, and all grain on hand.
So I thought of the shy list that will follow my passing:
Quilts, poems, photo books, stories. Somehow I had expected more,
Yet there it was, the small life undeniably mine.

–Mary Junge

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Writing Idea:  How would you size up your life? Take a careful look at yourself at whatever age you are, in whatever place you occupy, in all shapes and sizes, on any given day, from any perspective. “My Life at Seventy-One” or “My Life on an Island” or “My Life as an Ant”  or “My Life on March 21.” Try it in several versions. Try it in prose and/or poetry. Enjoy looking around at your life!

_______________________

“It was clear when I left the party/ That although I was over eighty I still had/ A beautiful body. . . .” (“When I Turned a Hundred” by Mark Strand. For an outstanding essay about Mark Strand, see “Mark Strand’s Luminous Nostalgia” by Willard Spiegelman, Kenyon Review, Winter 2014).

Going Home and Leonard Cohen

Last week our family, all twelve of us, returned to my home in southeastern North Carolina. We stayed at Wrightsville Beach, one of my favorite places in all the world. I grew up in Wilmington, N. C., only a few miles from this beach. So this would be a time to come together with family to celebrate my mother’s life and to scatter her ashes in the ocean.

Wrightsville Beach, N. C.

Wrightsville Beach, N. C.

She used to fish in the surf next to the house we would be renting. It turned out to be a beautiful, hurricane-free week. Yet as much as I wanted it to be the same beach, the same place–it all had changed. Now my mother was gone, and I had become the matriarch. I missed sitting around our dining room table eating her home-cooked food. I missed the house I always returned to when I came to visit.  I missed that sense of life going on forever in a certain way. Not to say, that we didn’t have a great time. We walked the beach, swam, laughed, and enjoyed a great week. But I had lost my anchor to this place I loved so much.

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen

In his song/poem “Going Home,” Leonard Cohen lends his distinctive voice and intellect to the idea of home. Cohen, our Renaissance man, is still writing and singing at age 79. In this poem, another voice enters:  “I love to speak with Leonard/He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.” In the song, Leonard becomes a conduit for this greater voice of wisdom that says: “Going home/Without my burden/Going home behind the curtain/Without the costume/That I wore.” This voice takes the idea of “going home” and lifts it out of a literal place and out of real time. It made me think about how my mother’s ashes looked when we tossed them in the surf on a moonlit night. It made me think of home in a different way.

Here is Leonard Cohen’s poem as it appeared in The New Yorker (1/23/12):

Going Home

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He will never have the freedom
To refuse

He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tube

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
To where it’s better
Than before

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without the costume
That I wore

He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for living with defeat

A cry above the suffering
A sacrifice recovering
But that isn’t what I want him to complete

I want to make him certain
That he doesn’t have a burden
That he doesn’t need a vision

That he only has permission
To do my instant bidding
That is to say what I have told him
To repeat

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
To where it’s better
Than before

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without the costume
That I wore

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

–Leonard Cohen

Listen to  Cohen sing/speak “Going Home” in his inimitable way. (Click highlight.)

 
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I wrote the following poem before my mother died. It is about an earlier visit home when she sat beside me at the same beach and sketched. I remember her saying that she needed an eraser. Even then I was feeling “erased” from this landscape that had been home to me as a child.
_______________________________________

Erased

“By now, I think I have been entirely erased.”
–Henri Cole, “The Erasers”

Time was when this piece of an island
(the blues of rolling surf,
the whites of shifting sand
its language with words like in the beginning
and holy, holy, holy
that stopped at that ridge of sand dunes)
owned me;
and I, it.

Today the dunes are feathered
with sea oats waiting
for the summer sun to fan their seed pods.
I smell fried chicken cooking for Sunday dinner
and hear Southern voices
and the birds—yes the birds.

I have forgotten this language, their language,
while these flitting, floating birds continue to speak
in the same codes—a genetic path that I cannot seem to find again.

I have been erased—the she who spoke this way
disguised now under a blue hat behind purple sunglasses.
I wear turquoise—only turquoise.

My mother starts her sketches in pencil
I need a good eraser, she says today.

And I am the one erased from this landscape
(the child running through the surf,
the young girl in love,
the good daughter,
who knew the language of wind
and of hurricanes and these birds.)

–Vicky Lettmann

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Writing Jumpstart: As you go about your life today, notice all the ways you see “home.” Then sit down for ten minutes and write as fast as you can using “home” or “going home” as your base. Try not to analyze or to write something “good,” just write first thoughts and observations. Leonard had to let another voice speak. It said, “He doesn’t need a vision.” Go.

Note about Jumpstarts: The idea grew out of my Sanibel writing classes: “Jumpstart Your Writing.” They are a way to stay in touch with your writing self. All you need is a notebook and a pen. Or use them as part of some writing project you’re working on. (For example, if you’re writing fiction, you could riff on a character who is going home or a character’s home.)

September

We’re enjoying a lovely string of early fall days here in Minnesota. The children are off to school. I always feel like writing in the fall.

Fall in Minnesota

Fall in Minnesota

Here’s a poem by Mary Jo Salter from her collection,  A Phone Call to the Future.

Absolute September

How hard it is to take September
straight—not as a harbinger
of something harder.

Merely like suds in the air, cool scent
scrubbed clean of meaning—or innocent
of the cold thing coldly meant.

How hard the heart tugs at the end
of summer, and longs to haul it in
when it flies out of hand

at the prompting of the first mild breeze.
It leaves us by degrees
only, but for one who sees

summer as an absolute,
Pure State of Light and Heat, the height
to which one cannot raise a doubt,

as soon as one leaf’s off the tree
no day following can fall free
of the drift of melancholy.

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In the “now I feel better about my personal chaos” category:

From an interview with Mary Jo Salter in New Letters:

Mary Jo Salter

Mary Jo Salter

 

NL: Another student wanted me to ask if, as a formal writer, you are organized and structured in your own life as well?

SALTER: Not in the least. I can tell you that I wake up at 4:00 in the morning and remember something I was supposed to do at 4:00 in the afternoon the day before. I am terribly disorganized. What I say in my poem “Office Hours” about having files on the floor that haven’t gone into the filing cabinet is really alarming, because I wrote that poem at least five years ago, and those same papers are still on the floor. No. I think I put whatever orderliness I’ve got into my poems, and the rest is chaos.

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A big thank you to all of you who sent me mail and commented about life-changing books. I’m keeping a list that I’ll post in the future. I always enjoy hearing from you. So send me what you write or more on life-changing books.

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Writing Jumpstart: September. Go for ten minutes. Whatever comes to you. Just write.

 

The Vertigo of Possibility

I enjoy the daily audio poems I receive via email from the Poetry Foundation because I can listen to them unencumbered by words on the page.

In “Prelude,” A. E. Stallings carries us along as we wait for the moment at the end of the poem when she reveals why she is moved by art and music.ae-stallings

Listen to the poem here for the sheer joy of it:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/audio/Prelude.mp3

Did you notice the rhyming? The beauty of the language? A. E. Stallings is a contemporary poet who works with rhyme and forms.

Now that you’ve heard the music, read her poem below and note how she uses original rhymes and creative line breaks to give the poem a definite structure. I also

Monet's Water Lilies (MOMA)

Monet’s Water Lilies (MoMA)

like the way she writes about tears while avoiding clichés (i.e.”tears gushed from my eyes”) as her poem reveals how moved she was by the possibility of creativity.

On our recent trip to NYC, we visited MoMA and saw Monet’s huge triptych, “Water Lilies.” When I remember my feelings as I stood before the painting, I can understand “the vertigo of possibility” and some of what A. E. Stallings was trying to convey in “Prelude.”

_____________________________________________________

Prelude

Lately, at the beginning of concerts when
The first-chair violin
Plays the A 4-40 and the bows
Go whirring about the instruments like wings
Over unfingered strings,
The cycling fifths, spectral arpeggios,

As the oboe lights the pure torch of the note,
Something in my throat
Constricts and tears are startled to my eyes,
Helplessly. And lately when I stand
Torn ticket in my hand
In the foyers of museums I surprise

You with a quaver in my rote reply—
Again I overbrim
And corners of the room go prismed, dim.
You’d like to think that it is Truth and Art
That I am shaken by,
So that I must discharge a freighted heart;

But it is not when cellos shoulder the tune,
Nor changing of the key
Nor resolution of disharmony
That makes me almost tremble, and it is not
The ambered afternoon
Slanting through motes of dust a painter caught

Four hundred years ago as someone stands
Opening the blank
Future like a letter in her hands.
It is not masterpieces of first rank,
Not something made
By once-warm fingers, nothing painted, played.

No, no. It is something else. It is something raw
That suddenly falls
Upon me at the start, like loss of awe—
The vertigo of possibility—
The pictures I don’t see,
The open strings, the perfect intervals.

A.E. Stallings

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Writing Jumpstart: Think of a time when you had difficulty writing or talking about an emotional moment. Use this line as a starting point:  “No, no. It is something else.” Then go for ten minutes saying (as best you can) what it is.

Crow School

Kay Ryan has a way of getting right to the point. I’ve been subscribing to Poetry Foundation’s Audio-Poem-of-the-Day. So each morning I get to hear a poem read to me. It’s a good way to start my writing time.

A Draft of a Kay Ryan Poem

A Draft of a Kay Ryan Poem

This morning “Felix Crow” was in my ear. It made me think of my last post, “The Secret.” So far (it has been only a few days now), I’ve been good about looking for that moment during the day when I see something new or beautiful or amazing.

Kay Ryan’s “Felix Crow” calls attention to those things we don’t always see as beautiful, like crows. We tend to over-look certain creatures who don’t meet the standard definition of beauty. Here in Florida, we certainly ooh-and-aah when we see the roseate spoonbills or a tri-colored heron. Not so much, a crow or buzzard. imgres-1

“Felix Crow” called me up on that. So I’m opening my eyes a little wider today. Thanks to Kay Ryan.

Here’s the poem. Just click to hear the reading.

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/audio/FelixCrow_byKay.mp3

P. S. For those of you following my earlier posts on writing prompts, the poem (and crows)   made me think of another writing prompt.  Today look for something others might not think of as beautiful. Later when you return to your notebook, write for ten minutes or more about what you saw.  

Felix Crow 

Crow school
is basic and
short as a rule—
just the rudiments
of quid pro crow
for most students.
Then each lives out
his unenlightened
span, adding his
bit of blight
to the collected
history of pushing out
the sweeter species;
briefly swaggering the
swagger of his
aggravating ancestors
down my street.
And every time
I like him
when we meet.
________________
Kay Ryan
Source: Poetry (November 2004)

Li-Young Lee’s “The Gift”

imagesAs I prepare for a writing workshop here at BIG Arts in Sanibel, I’ve been looking for poems to use as inspiration and a source for writing ideas. “The Gift” by Li-Young Lee seems like a good choice, especially for focusing on writing about family.

Here’s the poem and a video of Li-Young Lee reading and discussing the poem. If you’re looking for writing ideas today, try a line or two from the poem and go for ten minutes.

The class (“Jumpstart Your Writing”) will meet for the next five weeks. I’ll be posting some of our readings and writings. If you write something (poem, short nonfiction, fiction) inspired by the readings, send your work my way (vlettmann@mac.com).  I’d love to hear what you’re doing and will post some of the writing on this site.

Click the link below to hear Li-Young Lee reading “The Gift.”

http://vimeo.com/36988030

“The Gift” by LI-YOUNG LEE

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.

_________________

Li-Young Lee, “The Gift” from Rose.  Copyright ©1986 by Li-Young Lee. Reprinted with the permission of BOA Editions Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.

Source: Rose (BOA Editions Ltd., 1986)

More on C. K. Williams: “On Being Old”

C. K. Williams, who is now 75, has been writing poetry since his twenties. Along the way, he has published eighteen books of poetry and has won almost every prize out there, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

I’ve read and admired many of his poems because of his willingness to take the plunge and stay with the long line. He holds an idea or an image and doesn’t let it go, wringing everything out of the language he pours upon the page.  (You can hear this in the poem “Whacked,” which he reads in the video, “On Being Old,” linked to my last blog.)

Courtesy of Jesse Nemerofsky
C. K. Williams: His collection “Repair” won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for poetry

I enjoyed watching Williams in the video, sitting there in his corduroy jacket behind the podium, reflecting “On Being Old.”  I liked looking into his lined face and hearing his voice.  Sure, we can read the essay (The American Poetry Review, July-August 2012), but how much better to see him before us, talking straight out about being old.

Most of us are in a state of denial about being old. One friend responded to my last post: “You’re not old.” Well, I’m certainly not young, so what do you call me? I’ll turn seventy this month. True, most of us don’t feel old. So what is it we feel? Let’s hear from those of us who stand at this end of life.

C. K. Williams speaks out from age 75.

He begins by making some funny comments about his sagging body when glimpsed in a mirror, naked, late at night, after a few glasses of wine. ‘’The body,” he says, “doesn’t seem to realize what an important person it is carrying around.” He tells us about trying to imagine his literary heroes, like Robert Frost in his 80’s, whose “face was like a sculpture,” in such a state.

We can’t avoid the subject of our bodies. We live in them after all. Now at almost 70, mine is beginning to show signs of wear. Yet it was able to take me to see the vistas of Machu Picchu, and for that, I am thankful. After the trip, it let me know that such climbing wasn’t as easy as it would have been in my thirties.  Yet how pleasing that my body is giving me this extra time to do the things I was too busy for when we (body and spirit) both were much younger.

Williams covers many topics in his talk: taste and how it changes over one’s lifetime, critics, the depression that comes from not writing, the changes in his own poetry, his past and the “stupid things” he said and did, his obsession with a future that terrifies him, his thoughts on death (“It doesn’t hang around the way it did when I was in my twenties”), and the gratitude he feels for the beauty and miracles of the present.  Finally he ends his talk by reading a poem entitled “Writers Writing Dying.” The final line: “Keep dying, keep writing it down.”

In The Art of Growing Old: Aging with Grace, Marie de Hennezel quotes Hermann Hesse in her chapter entitled “The Fecundity of Time.” “We who have white hair derive strength, patience, and joy from sources the young know nothing about,” says Hesse. “Watching, observing, and contemplating gradually become habits and exercises, and imperceptibly all our behavior begins to be influenced by this state of mind and the attitude to which it leads.” And I would add writing to those habits and exercises.

We are living—and dying—every day; we will keep writing it down, at every age.