Saturday, September 27, 2014

For the Woman In Ithaca

The only time I recall hearing someone cry I didn't know or couldn't see was in the tent next to me outside Jackson, Wyoming in the middle of August in the middle of the 1970's. It  was also the middle of the night. I thought perhaps the bar had closed and disappointment had set in. I went back to sleep.

The next day, my companion and I stopped in a bar/cafe somewhere up the line to get a bite to eat. A few people were shooting pool and playing the jukebox. I noticed every song they played was by Elvis and thought, "They sure are Elvis fans." You know where I'm going with this, right?

We drove through Yellowstone, saw some elk, stopped at Old Faithful - the usual things one does in Yellowstone - still out of tune with the rest of the world. It wasn't until we were leaving Yellowstone that we finally turned on the radio. Just as I did so, the announcer said, "They're lining up at Graceland to pay their respects ..."

When I read this poem today, that came to mind. But, the poignancy of this poem far outweighs, for me, the poignancy of losing the King. This is about a real person hurting over a real life who, for all we know, still struggles through the occasional night when she wonders ... I like how the poet honors that grief.


There was a woman in Ithaca
who cried softly all night
in the next room and helpless
I fell in love with her under the blanket
of snow that settled on all the roofs
of the town, filling up
every dark depression.

Next morning
in the motel coffee shop
I studied all the made-up faces
of women. Was it the middle-aged blonde
who kidded the waitress
or the young brunette lifting
her cup like a toast?

Love, whoever you are,
your courage was my companion
for many cold towns
after the betrayal of Ithaca,
and when I order coffee
in a strange place, still
I say, lifting, this is for you.

~ Leonard Nathan

Painting by Edward Hopper

Friday, September 5, 2014

Things to Consider When Closing a Door

I'm afraid I've discovered a new poet. I'll try to go easy on you, not overdo it. This is the one I started with:

"A Brief Lecture on Door Closers"

Although heretofore unconsidered
in verse or in song, 
the ordinary door closer is, I submit, a device
well worth considering. 
Consisting primarily
of a spring and a piston, in combination, 
here's how it works: 
                  You open a door, 
either pushing or pulling. 
The spring is compressed, the piston extended. 
Now, having passed through the doorway, 
you relinquish control, 
and the door closer takes over. The spring remembers
how it was— 
it wants to return. But the urge is damped
by the resistance the piston encounters, 
snug in its cylinder
filled with hydraulic fluid. 

Such is the mechanism of the door closer, 
invented in 1876
by Charles Norton, when a slamming door
in a courtroom in Cincinnati
repeatedly disrupted
the administration of justice. 

Whether concealed beneath the threshold
or overhead in the head jamb, 
whether surface-mounted as a parallel-arm installation
or as a regular-arm, 
door closers are ever vigilant, 
silently performing their function, rarely

Whereas doors can be metaphorical—as in, 
for example, "He could never unlock
the door to her heart"— 
door closers cannot. 

Remember this when you
pass through, and the door closes behind you
with a soft thud
and final click
as the latchbolt engages the strike.

~ Clemens Starck  (1937), from Traveling Incognito

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

I Am Not A Rock, I Am Not An Island

On Labor Day I labored, and it felt really good. I sawed dead branches from several trees and from shrubs near the greenhouse; both the shrubs and the greenhouse needed more sunlight. There is great satisfaction for me in this work. I have grown to love piling brush, something I hated doing as a child. I like knowing I'm clearing away those things that need clearing both in my physical and spiritual life. Sometimes we just need to do it.

Half a century ago my father developed lakeshore around Ox Yoke Lake - the lake of my childhood - building cabins for summer and weekend residents. The family spent many days clearing brush and hauling it into piles. In the evening we would be rewarded with hot dogs roasted on sticks over the fire followed by s'mores. If you've never eaten a s'more, well, time's a wastin'. Here's how: graham crackers with a couple of squares from a Hershey chocolate bar and a marshmallow, also roasted on a stick. This is the preferred method. When times get tough other methods may be employed. You'll figure it out.

After clearing the brush I worked on a new compost pile out by the garden. As they say, next year in Jerusalem. I followed that with much baking of zucchini bread, some with dried cranberries added. Fortunately I froze most of it. I also decided to find new ways to use zucchini, so I shredded a bunch (that's Minnesotan for a lot) and have added it to BLT's and other sandwiches, as well as omelets. It's non-stop zucchini season as some of you might know. Years ago there was a wonderful writer for the Christian Science Monitor named John Gould. He did a weekly column for them about life in the northeast - Maine, if I remember correctly. In one column he wrote of zucchini season and how, out of necessity, everyone started locking their cars. If you didn't you might return from your errand with a back seat full of zucchini. This type of story has now become ubiquitous, and I more fully understand it.

Later in the evening Buddy and I were treated to a sky show. With thunder rumbling overhead and the sky lowering, the sunset went on as usual. It turned all shades of pink and violet. Across this beautiful expanse came some amazing horizontal lightning bolts. Buddy soon decided he'd had enough so I let him in the house and continued to stand on the porch at what I was sure was a safe distance. But, Buddy must have faced reality sooner than I, covered in fur and all. With the next one I could feel the small hair on my hands stand up. It was time to go inside and watch from the window.

I like summer but I love fall. The Farmer's Almanac has purportedly predicted another long, very cold winter for my neck of the woods. So, I'm going to relish every day of this slanted sunlight and prepare for what may come. I have short story collections by my favorite writers and more than a few books of poetry. I have a set of watercolors yet to have the package broken open on them. I have the cooking channel (I'm hooked on "Chopped"). I have music, I have Buddy, and I have all of you. I am not a rock. I am not an island. But, I'll post the song anyway because who doesn't like Simon and Garfunkel.


Today's poem:

The photograph is mine, taken in the fall of 2012.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day: For the One Hundred and Forty Six


The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band

Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze

At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—

The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out

Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.

A third before he dropped her put her arms   
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once

He stepped to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers—

Like Hart Crane’s Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.”
Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked

Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord.   Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans

Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,

Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
To wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,

The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:

George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit

And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
Both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,

The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.

~ Robert Pinsky  (b. 1940 )