Christmas Books 2020

Christmas Books 2020

Strangers By Night: Poems by Edward Hirsch

The Task

You never expected
to spend so many hours
staring down an empty sheet
of lined paper
in the harsh inner light
of an all-night diner,
ruining your heart
over mug after mug
of bitter coffee
and reading Meister Eckhart
or Saint John of the Cross
or some other mystic
of nothingness
in a brightly colored booth
next to a window
looking out
at a deserted off-ramp
or unfinished bridge
or garishly lit parking lot
backing up
on Detroit or Houston
or some other city
forsaken at three a.m.
with loners
and insomniacs
facing the darkness
of an interminable night
that stretched into months
and years.


The Waking by Theodore Roethke 1908-1963

Theodore Roethke won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954. This is the title poem from the collection that won the prize. He grew up in Saginaw, Michigan. His parents ran a green house. His vision returns to those plants and his child’s perceptions of it all, the smell and the feel of plants and how they die and turn back to soil, and back into plants. This seems like an encouraging poem. The rhythms and repetitions sound like Robert Frost, another farmer poet. The two died in the same year.

The Waking

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

November by John Clare

Rural poet, son of a farm laborer, John Clare was at home among people who did not know what he was up to. A poet of the weather and of the small creatures that inhabit the gardens and fields, he noted the “…the checker’d moods” of November.

The landscape sleeps in mist from morn till noon;
And, if the sun looks through, ’tis with a face
Beamless and pale and round, as if the moon,
When done the journey of her nightly race,
Had found him sleeping, and supplied his place.
For days the shepherds in the fields may be,
Nor mark a patch of sky – blindfold they trace,
The plains, that seem without a bush or tree,
Whistling aloud by guess, to flocks they cannot see.

The timid hare seems half its fears to lose,
Crouching and sleeping ‘neath its grassy lair,
And scarcely startles, tho’ the shepherd goes
Close by its home, and dogs are barking there;
The wild colt only turns around to stare
At passer by, then knaps his hide again;
And moody crows beside the road forbear
To fly, tho’ pelted by the passing swain;
Thus day seems turn’d to night, and tries to wake in vain.

The owlet leaves her hiding-place at noon,
And flaps her grey wings in the doubling light;
The hoarse jay screams to see her out so soon,
And small birds chirp and startle with affright;
Much doth it scare the superstitious wight,
Who dreams of sorry luck, and sore dismay;
While cow-boys think the day a dream of night,
And oft grow fearful on their lonely way,
Fancying that ghosts may wake, and leave their graves by day.

Yet but awhile the slumbering weather flings
Its murky prison round – then winds wake loud;
With sudden stir the startled forest sings
Winter’s returning song – cloud races cloud,
And the horizon throws away its shroud,
Sweeping a stretching circle from the eye;
Storms upon storms in quick succession crowd,
And o’er the sameness of the purple sky
Heaven paints, with hurried hand, wild hues of every dye.

At length it comes along the forest oaks,
With sobbing ebbs, and uproar gathering high;
The scared, hoarse raven on its cradle croaks,
And stockdove-flocks in hurried terrors fly,
While the blue hawk hangs o’er them in the sky.-
The hedger hastens from the storm begun,
To seek a shelter that may keep him dry;
And foresters low bent, the wind to shun,
Scarce hear amid the strife the poacher’s muttering gun.

The ploughman hears its humming rage begin,
And hies for shelter from his naked toil;
Buttoning his doublet closer to his chin,
He bends and scampers o’er the elting soil,
While clouds above him in wild fury boil,
And winds drive heavily the beating rain;
He turns his back to catch his breath awhile,
Then ekes his speed and faces it again,
To seek the shepherd’s hut beside the rushy plain.

The boy, that scareth from the spiry wheat
The melancholy crow – in hurry weaves,
Beneath an ivied tree, his sheltering seat,
Of rushy flags and sedges tied in sheaves,
Or from the field a shock of stubble thieves.
There he doth dithering sit, and entertain
His eyes with marking the storm-driven leaves;
Oft spying nests where he spring eggs had ta’en,
And wishing in his heart ’twas summer-time again.

Thus wears the month along, in checker’d moods,
Sunshine and shadows, tempests loud, and calms;
One hour dies silent o’er the sleepy woods,
The next wakes loud with unexpected storms;
A dreary nakedness the field deforms –
Yet many a rural sound, and rural sight,
Lives in the village still about the farms,
Where toil’s rude uproar hums from morn till night
Noises, in which the ears of Industry delight.

At length the stir of rural labour’s still,
And Industry her care awhile forgoes;
When Winter comes in earnest to fulfil
His yearly task, at bleak November’s close,
And stops the plough, and hides the field in snows;
When frost locks up the stream in chill delay,
And mellows on the hedge the jetty sloes,
For little birds – then Toil hath time for play,
And nought but threshers’ flails awake the dreary day.

John Clare

Island of the Innocent: A Consideration of the Book of Job by Diane Glancey

My review of Diane Glancy’s new book is in the current issue of The Christian Century

Glancy’s book fills gaps of understanding and probes instances of suffering in a creative composition that keeps readers rocking forward in anticipation of another interpolation or surprising insight. Researched facts, explanations of the author’s literary intentions, and presuppositions of her mind are set between her poems. These bridges of language lead back and forth across time and space, turning in and out through the poet’s biography.

Election Day, November, 1884

On this election day, like no other, we can still hear Whitman. The big-hearted, patriotic poet praises the idea of a general election as something grander even than the unsurpassed American landscape. Voting seems to Whitman a divine idea: The still small voice  (1 Kings 19 ), vibrating across the country, is the sound of American citizens casting their votes, transferring authority to govern to other Americans, in a peaceful, ritual process. Whitman did not care for the details of politics, but he affirmed the thought of that final, cleansing snowfall of votes covering the dirt and muck of the election and bringing in a new season of governance, even of heroic leadership, as recalled in the names of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,

‘Twould not be you, Niagara—nor you, ye limitless prairies—nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,

Nor you, Yosemite—nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,

Nor Oregon’s white cones—nor Huron’s belt of mighty lakes—nor Mississippi’s stream:

—This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now, I’d name—the still small voice vibrating—America’s choosing day,

(The heart of it not in the chosen—the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing,)

The stretch of North and South arous’d—sea-board and inland—Texas to Maine—the Prairie States—Vermont, Virginia, California,

The final ballot-shower from East to West—the paradox and conflict,

The countless snow-flakes falling—(a swordless conflict,

Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s:) the peaceful choice of all,

Or good or ill humanity—welcoming the darker odds, the dross

—Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify—while the heart pants, life glows:

These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,

Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.


Louise Glück wins 2020 Nobel Prize for Literature

Here is a post from 2014 about one of Louise Glück’s books.

Louise Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night, is a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry. Glück is a writer in residence at Yale.

Her Vespers is a garden poem that brought to mind my failures in that area this year. My garden partners and I were hoping for giant sunflowers again, but the rabbits ate every plant, even the plants started late in the year within a fortified fence.  Oh well.

The poet might not call this a religious poem but to me it is an example of what might happen to a Christian idea when it wanders outside on a weekday evening. The poem presents like a prayer of lament–with a spiritual consciousness of stewardship of the earth–in a very attractive package.  Humility, gentle irony, playfulness, quiet observation, all these are superior to the usual ways our religion is sold and marketed, that is through loud clamor and boasting of one kind and another, literal misreading of sacred texts, self-righteousness and judgmentalism,  doctrinaire teaching and trumped up enthusiasm. Here’s momentary relief from all that.

Image result for louise gluck

In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.
I think I should not be encouraged to grow
tomatoes. Or, if I am, you should withhold
the heavy rains, the cold nights that come
so often here, while other regions get
twelve weeks of summer. All this
belongs to you: on the other hand,
I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots
like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart
broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly
multiplying in the rows. I doubt
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term. You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
even in August, in early darkness: I am responsible
for these vines.

My son Nate’s birthday

Nate’s 25th birthday today, September 17.

Late Feeding

A fair wind blows in two ways:
from a pug nose and a bud of a mouth.

This breath was not felt twelve days ago
when black bathed and pillowed the head.

Now currents crackle curves on his scalp,
thundering tympanum, rumbling out charges

over flushed, powdered skin, ruffling roots
of feathery hair, green wheat in the wind.



Island of the Innocent by Diane Glancy

See the source image

God Answers Job, William Blake, 1757-1827,  Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

My review of poet Diane Glancy’s book-length dance through Job will be published in The Christian Century.  The Book of Job has drawn the attention of poets many times before, of course. In the late 50’s Archibald MacLeish published JB, a dramatic retelling of the story in free verse, and won the Pulitzer Prize for his efforts.

Glancy’s abstract text dreams in her Cherokee ancestors, and dreams up Job’s wife, who is nowhere to be found in the biblical narrative. Following a quick review of the biblical story, a reader of a certain nimble and humble mind will be charmed by Glancy’s book.


COVID-19 rereads: The poetry of Hemingway’s stories

Film critic David Thomson wrote that “[Hemingway’s] short stories are still surprising, and in great part that’s because he rejected or could not do the excessively neat, shaped story….and so he pursued fragmentation, mood and a broken talk that seemed more lifelike, or was it just plain beautiful?”

Image result for Ernest Hemingway

Thomson comments on the deadpan humor in Hemingway, the grim facts of war and the ironies of human communication.

She had a pretty face and a nice smooth skin, and a lovely voice and she was nice all right and really friendly. But my God she was big. She was as big as three women. Tom saw me looking at her and he said, “Come on. Let’s go.”
“Good-bye,” said Alice. She certainly had a nice voice.
“Good-bye,” I said.
“Which way are you boys going?” asked the cook.
“The other way from you,” Tom told him.
-final lines of The Light of the World

Thomson points out that Hemingway’s clipped dialogue and trimmed description are in fact “very literary talk that only seem idiomatic, but which are founded in pause, rhythm, and breathing.”