Reading A. R. Ammons and Helen Vendler

from The Music of What Happens, by Helen Vendler: [Easter Morning] is a treasure of American poetry, combining the blankest of losses with the fullest of visions. It is a poem that should be published alone, in a three-page book by itself; it is so complete it repels company.  p. 329f

Easter Morning by A. R. Ammons

I have a life that did not become,
that turned aside and stopped,
I hold it in me like a pregnancy or
as on my lap a child
not to grow old but dwell on

it is to his grave I most
frequently return and return
to ask what is wrong, what was
wrong, to see it all by
the light of a different necessity
but the grave will not heal
and the child,
stirring, must share my grave
with me, an old man having
gotten by on what was left

when I go back to my home country in these
fresh far-away days, it’s convenient to visit
everybody, aunts and uncles, those who used to say,
look how he’s shooting up, and the
trinket aunts who always had a little
something in their pocketbooks, cinnamon bark
or a penny or nickel, and uncles who
were the rumored fathers of cousins
who whispered of them as of great, if
troubled, presences, and school

teachers, just about everybody older
(and some younger) collected in one place
waiting, particularly, but not for
me, mother and father there, too, and others
close, close as burrowing
under skin, all in the graveyard
assembled, done for, the world they
used to wield, have trouble and joy
in, gone

the child in me that could not become
was not ready for others to go,
to go on into change, blessings and
horrors, but stands there by the road
where the mishap occurred, crying out for
help, come and fix this or we
can’t get by, but the great ones who
were to return, they could not or did
not hear and went on in a flurry and
now, I say in the graveyard, here
lies the flurry, now it can’t come
back with help or helpful asides, now
we all buy the bitter
incompletions, pick up the knots of
horror, silently raving, and go on
crashing into empty ends not
completions, not rondures the fullness
has come into and spent itself from

I stand on the stump
of a child, whether myself
or my little brother who died, and
yell as far as I can, I cannot leave this place, for
for me it is the dearest and the worst,
it is life nearest to life which is
life lost: it is my place where
I must stand and fail,
calling attention with tears
to the branches not lofting
boughs into space, to the barren
air that holds the world that was my world

though the incompletions
(& completions) burn out
standing in the flash high-burn
momentary structure of ash, still it
is a picture-book, letter-perfect
Easter morning: I have been for a
walk: the wind is tranquil: the brook
works without flashing in an abundant
tranquility: the birds are lively with
voice: I saw something I had
never seen before: two great birds,
maybe eagles, blackwinged, whitenecked
and –headed, came from the south oaring
the great wings steadily; they went
directly over me, high up, and kept on
due north: but then one bird,
the one behind, veered a little to the
left and the other bird kept on seeming
not to notice for a minute: the first
began to circle as if looking for
something, coasting, resting its wings
on the down side of some of the circles:
the other bird came back and they both
circled, looking perhaps for a draft;
they turned a few more times, possibly
rising—at least, clearly resting—
then flew on falling into distance till
they broke across the local bush and
trees: it was a sight of bountiful
majesty and integrity: the having
patterns and routes, breaking
from them to explore other patterns or
better ways to routes, and then the
return: a dance sacred as the sap in
the trees, permanent in its descriptions
as the ripples round the brook’s
ripplestone: fresh as this particular
flood of burn breaking across us now
from the sun.

Immortal Autmn by Archibald MacLeish

Image result for woodstock vermont in autumn

Immortal Autumn

I speak this poem now with grave and level voice
In praise of autumn, of the far-horn-winding fall.

I praise the flower-barren fields, the clouds, the tall
Unanswering branches where the wind makes sullen noise.

I praise the fall: it is the human season.
No more the foreign sun does meddle at our earth,
Enforce the green and bring the fallow land to birth,
Nor winter yet weigh all with silence the pine bough,

But now in autumn with the black and outcast crows
Share we the spacious world: the whispering year is gone:
There is more room to live now: the once secret dawn
Comes late by daylight and the dark unguarded goes.

Between the mutinous brave burning of the leaves
And winter’s covering of our hearts with his deep snow
We are alone: there are no evening birds: we know
The naked moon: the tame stars circle at our eaves.

It is the human season. On this sterile air
Do words outcarry breath: the sound goes on and on.
I hear a dead man’s cry from autumn long since gone.

I cry to you beyond upon this bitter air.

Winter by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Such a short summer. Now we’ve turned into fall. This book of observations by the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard covers ordinary things with unexpected observation. The author is waiting for the birth of his daughter. He writes to her about Q-tips and winter boots, about buses and bonfires, toothbrushes, coins and sugar. It’s like a book writing exercises. It reminds me of how children renew the world for parents, and how the writer’s job is to go deeper into some dimension of the world we share. Also, I am drawn to writers with hearts of winter.

Why compare myself to summer? We’re like day and night, like sun and moon. And if I don’t snow, who am I then? Nobody. Then I am nobody. Then that damned self-righteous summer will triumph from here to eternity. Then no one will offer any resistance to that complacent idiot.  p. 27

This train is bound for glory

Mumford and Sons, Edward Sharpe, The Old Crow Medicine Show

We need a version of this wild American flower to blossom again. It will come from the spiritual centers of the land where native and immigrant spirits have not been entirely stamped out. It flourished when the train transported people together from the farms and fields to great American cities, full of promise and hope, where people from many nations lived together. The young people of our country need to step forward now-into positions of leadership and influence-and help us to a better place.


Imagining Boston, A Literary Landscape by Shaun O’Connell

John Winthrop 1587-1649

…those places which have held significance for Bostonians and their writers: the Garden and Common, Back Bay, the South End, all clustered in the city’s center. Beyond lie the hard edges of the city, where immigrant energies, racial and ethnic identities have long been felt: the North End, South Boston, Charlestown and Dorchester. To the west lies Cambridge, central to Boston’s self-definition from the beginning, and particular Harvard, which embodies so much of the city’s mind and soul. We travel from Beacon Hill to Harvard to Concord, the pastoral and ideological counterpoint to pragmatic, commercial Boston. Farther West lie Amherst and the Berkshire Hills, Lenox, and the other towns, at the outer edge of Boston’s reach. The sphere of influence arcs north to include southern New Hampshire and south to encompass Cape Cod. All of these are sites which have been illuminated by the imagination of Greater Boston’s writers who have infused such places with ideas, passions, and symbols. America’s city upon a hill, though radically transformed, is still, as John Winthrop imagined it should be, a beacon–“the eyes of all people are upon us.”  –Shaun O’Connell, Imagining Boston, A Literary Landscape

Jean-Francois Millet at the MFA

Millet’s Angelus is named after the Marian devotional prayer. Millet 1814-1875 depicts two peasants bowing their heads at the end of the day and praying, as the Angelus bell of blessing tolls in the church on the horizon. The image was placed long ago over my mother’s dining room table. The evening silence and rural spiritual obedience of it makes it hang heavy and famously in my memory.

See the source image                                               The Angelus (1857–59) by Jean-François Millet

Salvador Dali 1904-1989 was fascinated by Millet’s Angelus. He painted his own variation on it. Dali did not believe that the peasant planters were praying. He thought they were mourning the death of an infant they had buried there in the field. The figures are too focused and quiet, too relaxed, to be praying a devotional prayer at the end of the work day, or so Dali thought.

                Jean-Francois Millet, Farmyard by Moonlight, MFA, Boston

Pastels by Millet and other French painters are at the MFA now. There’s a note about how much Millet meant to Impressionists such as van Gogh 1853-1890 who viewed a group of Millet’s pastels and said to his brother, “Take off your shoes, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”

Neil Simon 1927-2018

For a man who wants to be his own master, to depend on no one else, to make life conform to his own visions rather than to follow the blueprints of others, playwriting is the perfect occupation. To sit in a room alone for six or seven or ten hours, sharing time with characters that you created, is sheer heaven. And if not heaven, it’s at least an escape from hell.
-Neil Simon

Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith

Here’s a poem from Tracy K. Smith’s new volume, Wade in the Water. She is the current poet laureate of the United States and a teacher at Princeton.

See the source image

The United States Welcomes You

Why and by whose power were you sent?

What do you see that you may wish to steal?

Why this dancing? Why do your dark bodies

Drink up all the light?  What are you demanding

That we feel?  Have you stolen something? Then

What is that leaping in your chest? What is

The nature of your mission? Do you seek

To offer a confession? Have you anything to do

With others brought by us to harm? Then

Why are you afraid? And why do you invade

Our night, hands raised, eyes wide, mute

As ghosts? Is there something our wish to confess?

Is this some enigmatic type of test? What if we

Fail? How and to whom do we address our appeal?

Ordinary Light by Tracy K. Smith

Extraordinary passages of light shine out of the poet’s memoir. Here’s one that made me blink. It’s the author as a college student, on a trip to New York City, and back to Cambridge: a young person, finding herself, forming herself with ideas, finding comfort in movement at night along a most populated corridor.

I made a trip to New York [from Cambridge] one weekend….my aunt Carla had given me a tour of the Harlem neighborhoods, weaving along the blocks of Striver’s Row and, farther north, pointing out the abandoned buildings that had once been magnificent, too, but that now stood like doll houses on burnt-out blocks. After dark, as we were heading back down Lenox Avenue, I’d pointed to the silhouettes warming themselves around garbage cans whose contents had been set aflame…There was something about it that delighted me, something real…

“When I graduate, I want to come here. I want to live in Harlem, with all these beautiful black people,” I announced. It felt like a homecoming. The little sliver of blackness I’d known growing up in California, a sliver that sat inside the walls of our family house, or inside the silence of my mind, leapt in joy to know that there was an immense realm whose facets gave back occasional glimpses of itself.

On the Greyhound back to Boston, signs everywhere told me how much further there was to go…Moving over ramps and bridges, and back and forth across lanes, I relaxed my grip around the confusion, the sorrow, the independence, the wanting, the shifting allegiances, the insatiable wondering that fueled so much of my life. High above the ground, watching the bus’s shadow skimming north on Interstate 95, I felt vacant, expansive, subjective, far away. Like a cloud pushed along by the wind.
pp. 290-291.

Kendrick Lamar

Image result for to pimp a butterfly

My son Nate introduced the poetry and music of Kendrick Lamar to me by playing episodes of the podcast Dissect on a long road trip. The episodes explore, in detail, the raw energy, passionate theology and unnerving social commentary in the tracks of Lamar’s album, To Pimp A Butterfly. The lyrics explode in performance, unfolding the seethe and rage of black America in powerful, introspective art.

Art that is soft and easy on our hearts is not all there is. When we are on top of the world, safe and secure, music and poetry can be quiet and mild. There are other voices, from other places, down the street, that speak from very different experiences.