Friday, March 25, 2011

Poetry Friday: Joining the Life Poetic

Be warned: this post is a commercial for the weekly online poetry book club run by Laura Purdie Salas and Susan Taylor Brown. It's not too late to be hooked. Each Wednesday, she and Susan are reading a short chapter from Sage Cohen's Writing the Life Poetic and inviting us to read along with them and write a draft of a poem to share with each other. It began here, with Laura's post about why we write and read poetry. This week, Susan hosts the conversation which flows from Wallace Stevens' 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (a poem I love, and yet poked at until it bled one Poetry Friday, see here. )

I haven't responded to this week's chapter yet because I was fiddling with last week's assignment, which was to observe someone you only know in passing. In my head, I called this assignment "Imagining a Life." And it lead me to what I'm sharing today, which is not a life imagined, but a poem that ran away with itself and became something else---perhaps a call for you to join us in writing poetry.

I used to know her name

She moved out;
her possessions---divans, taped rugs, 
lamps as long as lances---exiting

in stately procession from the maw
of her garage, whose walls thinned 
under the beat of the monster drum set

caged there when a family with a black-haired 
son moved in. His mates bumped up

in a van with scraped doors to whoop 
him out of bed at ten in the morning, 
sunny profanities pricking

holes in the bird song until he squared
his ass and backpack in the middle seat
for a gig twelve hours away.

Then, one morning, she's back,
parked boldly in the midline

of her driveway, renters gone, her dog arched 
over the front seat, paws on a lamp. 
Dark ovals shade her eyes as she emerges;

I lift my hand; Why, Burger, I could say 
to her dog, you've grown! But to her, 
who moved to Potomac Landing, 

I have nothing to shout; we fade;
I should've hopped in the battered 

van with the hooligans, tossed
my name out the busted window,
grafted it to the thigh of a song.
                         ---Sara Lewis Holmes (all rights reserved)

Poetry Friday is hosted today by the always wonderful Mary Lee at A Year of Reading.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Poetry Friday: Teaching the Girls

I don't box as much as I used to. My gym moved the heavy bag to a crowded spot, the speed bag is always deflated, and there's no room to jump rope. I know: excuses, excuses. Plus, I'm developing a strange addiction to TRX, still doing boot camp, and loving the hot yoga class I discovered. The thing about my exercise routine is that it's never routine. I like change. I like variety. I like a dash of fun. But in reading today's poem, I remembered why I loved boxing. It's expansive, in the sense that it widens the way you see the world. It's not solitary, although the training can be. It's tough, but not solemn, work. Like love itself.

Teaching the Girls
by Janice Lynch Schuster

After dinner the girls shadow box
In the kitchen. There is hardly space
For their joy, their blonde energy
As they bob and weave near the counter.
I warn them away from the burners,
coffee pot and knives.
Metaphors fly; they are merry and warm,
I am their crazy coach, reciting
Poetry and combinations
As what’s left of dinner burns.
Chin down, guard up!
I mimic my trainer. Light on your feet,
Move! I’ve been training them for years
For the punches life will land,
The world beautiful and brutal,
Everyday and extraordinary.
I want them ready to slip
Through it as we do this night,
So wired by their own lives,
Nothing crowding them in a corner
The whole arena of my love
Resounding in their laughter.

---printed with permission of the author, all rights reserved by her.

Janice Lynch Schuster is the author of a new collection, "Saturday at the Gym," due out in April. Her poems have appeared in Poet Lore and The Broadkill Review. Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post and Washingtonian Magazine. She is the co-author of several books on how to improve care at the end of life, and is senior writer for the Altarum Institute. A mother of six, she enjoys boxing, walking, and writing. She'll be giving a reading at The Writer's Center on April 17, if you'd like to hear more.

Poetry Friday is hosted today by Andi at a wrung sponge

Monday, March 7, 2011

What I'm Reading Now: A Time of Miracles

A Time of Miracles by Anne-Laure Bondoux,
 translated from the French by Y. Maudet

I would've loved this book when I was in middle school. Back then, I sought out stories of heartbreak and disaster---most of them set in wartime and most of them offering a glimpse of the beauty still possible in the middle of human waves of conflict.  Most of those stories would've been set during the Holocaust, but this one isn't.  It begins in a makeshift camp called the Complex, in 1992, a time so recent that I was bewildered not to know of it, scrambling to figure out what was going on and why bad things were happening around me.  Everything seemed as achingly real and as slightly off-kilter as a vivid dream.

The precise language here is stunning, and manages to be wholly clear while retaining a cadence that makes you believe the translator didn't stray far from the original French.  Most of all, the novel never wavers from the viewpoint of the child narrator, a boy named Koumail, who as a baby was rescued from a train wreck with only a French passport. As he journeys with his rescuer, the saintly Gloria, he grows slowly more aware of both his past and his dangerous present until at last, he (and we) can see the whole of the story which has engulfed him.

If I'd have studied the map at the front of the book, I might have realized sooner that this was a story of refugees fleeing the armed conflict that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union, but I was afraid of learning too much too soon. And to me, this is the magic of A Time of Miracles. We witness only as much as we are able to bear, but grow capable by the end of the story of knowing the full truth.

Highly recommended. Cross-posted at my Goodreads account.

Note: This book was the winner of the 2011 Batchelder Award for "a children's book considered to be the most outstanding of those books originally published in a language other than English in a country other than the United States, and subsequently translated into English and published in the United States."  I'm not embarrassed to say that I read it because my friend, Adrienne Furness, served on the committee that chose it, and I was deeply curious to see what she and her fellow librarians had selected.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Poetry Friday: The Comedy of Errors

Image from the Folger Shakespeare Theater

My husband and I saw Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors at the Folger Shakespeare Theater last weekend. It was a twisty farce done up right with clever masks and extraordinary physical clowning.

But, as most comedies do, it got me thinking seriously.

From The Comedy of Errors, here is Antipholus of Ephesus at the end of the play, in Act V, Scene I, describing his earlier mental health evaluation by a Dr. Pinch:

"They brought one Pinch, a hungry lean-faced villain,
A mere anatomy, a mountebank,
A threadbare juggler and a fortune-teller,
A needy, hollow-eyed, sharp-looking wretch,
A dead-looking man: this pernicious slave,
Forsooth, took on him as a conjurer,
And, gazing in mine eyes, feeling my pulse,
And with no face, as 'twere, outfacing me,
Cries out, I was possess'd. Then all together
They fell upon me, bound me, bore me thence
And in a dark and dankish vault at home
There left me and my man, both bound together;"

Well, that IS what happened. We saw it in Act III, Scene IV. But it was all a big misunderstanding. Because Pinch thought Antipholus was someone else. Namely, his twin, also named Antipholus, but of Syracuse.

So why is it funny to hear Antipholus's outrage at the incident? Especially when he concludes with this (unwitnessed) account of his escape:

"Till, gnawing with my teeth my bonds in sunder,

I gain'd my freedom, and immediately
Ran hither to your grace; whom I beseech
To give me ample satisfaction
For these deep shames and great indignities."

Well, it's funny because of the gnawing.

But mostly, we delight in his over-the-top catalog of Pinch's faults, an exaggeration with which we secretly concur, having seen the duped doctor's monstrously unjust mistake just stage minutes earlier.

Which brings me to my serious thinking: How much of poetry is built on the fulcrum of error? Overblown words balancing on one teensy tiny point of truth?

Many poems describe what we, as ordinary people, have already witnessed---we've all seen a flower, or a bird, or a deserted street. We all lived through loss and love and danger and disaster. We don't need poets to catalog the soap operas of our lives.

No, we need them to make deliberate errors in their wild depictions of such things. We need their words to bind us, to confirm our madness, to force us to gnaw our way out of the "dark and dankish vault."

Is that an exaggeration? Yup. Go ahead and Pinch me.

A review of The Comedy of Errors and a short video preview can be found in the Washington Post. If you want to see it, a limited number of standing room only tickets are available for the run through March 6.  The dramaturg's notes are here.

The Comedy of Errors is also playing at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA through March 31.  Their Ten Things You Might Like to Know about the play is great background material. And as a side note, registration for their Shakespeare camps for adults is now open. Go! Make your own errors! I did last year, and may do it again.

Poetry Friday is hosted today at The Small Nouns.