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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Number 330: Stephen Dobyns "Tomatoes"


A woman travels to Brazil for plastic
surgery and a face lift.  She is sixty
and has the usual desire to stay pretty.
Once she is healed, she takes her new face
out on the streets of Rio. A young man
with a gun wants her money. Bang, she's dead.
The body is shipped back to New York,
but in the morgue there is a mix-up. The son
is sent for. He is told that his mother
is one of these ten different women.
Each has been shot. Such is modern life.
He studies them all but can't find her.
With her new face, she has become a stranger.
Maybe it's this one, maybe it's that one.
He looks at their breasts. Which ones nursed him?
He presses their hands to his cheek.
Which one consoled him? He even tries
climbing into their laps to see which
feels most familiar but the coroner stops him.
Well, says the coroner, which is your mother?
They all are, says the young man, let me
take them as a package. The coroner hesitates,
then agrees. Actually, it solved a lot of problems.
The young man has the ten women shipped home,
then cremates them all together. You've seen
how some people have a little urn on the mantel?
This man has a huge silver garbage can.
In the spring, he drags the garbage can
out to the garden and begins working the teeth,
the ash, the bits of bone into the soil.
Then he plants tomatoes. His mother loved tomatoes.
They grow straight from seed, so fast and big
that the young man is amazed. He takes the first
ten into the kitchen. In their roundness,
he sees his mother's breasts. In their smoothness,
he finds the consoling touch of her hands.
Mother, mother, he cries, and he flings himself
on the tomatoes. Forget about the knife, the fork,
the pinch of salt. Try to imagine the filial
starvation. Think of his ravenous kisses.

– Stephen Dobyns

Hap Notes:
I often get my books used, mostly thanks to my sister-in-law who scours thrift stores and books stores finding me treasures. I devour them ravenously because poetry, not tomatoes, is my mother. But, I mostly bring this up because often the books' past users write little notes in the margins. Most of the time the notation is a question they were more than likely asked in a class: "How does this relate to the first verses?' or"What is meant by this?" or "What does this symbolize?"

But the book in which I got today's poem ( New American Poets of the 90s) the notations are somewhat amusing/curious. Next to "Bang, she's dead." the note is "ouch!". Next to "Let me/ take them as a package" the reader writes "This guy is sick!" And next to the two end lines the note is "Was he intamint [sic] with his mother?" Interesting question if the reader means intimate and is not referring to some breath-freshening candy of which I am unaware (almost impossible to believe if you know me.)

Well, I wish I was teaching a class to this reader because the poem ends up making an impact even if the word "filial" has it's roots in the Latin word (filius -son, filia-daughter) so, no, the narrator is not talking about sex. Although, the bond between a mother and a child has certain sexual attachments, I don't believe that is what is being said here. But I'm charmed by the reader needing to make a few comments on the poem– there are few poems in the book  that even rate an exclamation mark in the margin for the book's former owner. The poem caught something "intamint" for that reader.

There is so much to this poem which is alternately amusing and alarming– there's a wonderful strange shock factor to this story in addition to talking about a man who can no longer recognize his mom. He misses her. He loved her. Which one is she? And, more interestingly, aren't all those women his mother in some way?

I'll let you toy with this– there's a good deal in this poem. I'll just add that an attractive women, in slang terms, can be called a "tomato."

Stephen Dobyns (born 1941) is an accomplished and award-winning poet and novelist. His book, Best Words, Best Order, is a must-read for understanding and writing poetry. He got his MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop (University of Iowa) and has taught at various universities.

You can find more Dobyns here.

Here's a good Dobyns quote:
" If I'm writing a poem, I want it to be finished, I want it to work, and I want it to be liked. There are arguments and sound structures within the poem which I am attempting to pull off in some way, and when I do them, I can say to myself, This works. This is good. This is finished. Many times when I say that, however, I'm simply wrong. I've confused the poem that exists in my imagination with the poem that exists presently on the page."

The two-part interview the quote was taken from in The Cortland Review is a good one and  is well worth reading. You can find it here

Monday, November 4, 2013

Number 329: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow "The Rainy Day""

The Rainy Day

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;

It rains, and the wind is never weary;

The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,

But at every gust the dead leaves fall,

And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;

It rains, and the wind is never weary;

My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,

But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,

And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;

Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;

Thy fate is the common fate of all,

Into each life some rain must fall,

Some days must be dark and dreary.

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Hap Notes:
Yeah, Longfellow wrote some cheesy verses and often seems to replicate Tennyson or Byron and others (Edgar Allan Poe accused him of  plagiarism but it was sour grapes, really) but he did write some very thrilling stuff. Today's poem is succinct and perfectly expressed; rainy days do bring up the past, failures, etc. and it does often feel as though the weather is a metaphor for one's life.

See how he uses the leaves and the wall and the vines to stand for youth, and clinging and the past. And he's right, everybody has to go  through this and the sun will shine again. However, he's not trying to convince you of this (although he might have done that) he's telling himself. If this were directed to us, it would be a Hallmark card– like advice from some goof who says the hated phrase "I know just how you feel."  Instead we relate to his sorrow as feels it. He's talking to himself and as we listen in our thoughts drift to our own pasts, our own dreary days and we regard his advice to his own heart as words for us. This is very cleverly done. 

We've talked about Longfellow before here and here, too but allow me refresh your memory on a few key points. Longfellow knew seven languages, taught at Bowdoin and Harvard and was a superstar in 1800s era America. He translated Dante's Divine Comedy into English. His writing career didn't really take off until he was almost 40.

Oh, and the beard– he grew it to cover the scar tissue after he suffered severe burns on his face while trying to rescue his wife whose dress had caught fire when she was using some sealing wax. His hands were bandaged for months. She didn't make it. He had courted her for seven years, had six children with her and adored her. Her death sank him into a deep depression, just reliving that moment over and over again. What horror to watch anyone, let alone a loved one burn to death.

The reason I used this poem today was because of the weather and I remembered it and looked it up and lo and behold, there was the ghost of my dead mother. She always said, when things in my life were topsy turvy, that "into each life some rain must fall" I'd forgotten it was Longfellow because she owned that darn phrase for me. I'm sure she memorized it in school.

So, thanks, mom, for reaching out to remind me on this gloomy dreary day.  Be still, sad hearts!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Number 328: Douglas Gray "Space Aliens Found Performing In Carnival Freak Shows"

Space Aliens Found Performing In Carnival Freak Shows

In 1920, my great-aunt Jane
hopped a midnight freight
and ran away from home
to sing on a New York stage.
She was only sixteen.
The family took her photograph
off the grand piano
and never again spoke her name.
Later, they grew lonely for her voice.

At sixteen I shimmied down
the same drainpipe Jane had used
and took off to see the fair.
That's where I met
the light-bulb boy from Neptune,
the lizard-woman of the Moon,
the human razor blade from some galactic swirl
and other artists of the weird.
All of them had hopped
midnight rockets off their worlds.

All artists come from outer space.
Like my great-aunt Jane,
they're just looking for some place
where gravity won't hold them down.

So parents– let your children
have their voices. Let them
have their feathers and their flesh.
Let your daughters and your sons
have their pens, their paints,
their music and their hearts.

Let them tattoo jackals on their thighs
and dance with the lawn furniture.
Let them drum so loud that the sound
shatters watermelons in your garden.

Ask them to play on,
because these children come from Mars.
Tell them they're welcome here on earth.
Tell them it's good to be strange.
Tell them they don't need to hop that freight.

-- Douglas Gray

Hap Notes;
Anyone who has chosen to live the creative life knows the feeling of being an alien in the midst of their family and peers. The brave ones run away from home, the less brave just feel tortured and miserable. There is a school of thought that says these experiences fuel the artist. This seems to me to be a load of, uh, mendacity. Those with creative inclinations will still have them and will, in fact flourish in an accepting atmosphere. A place where they are allowed to be creative will save them years of therapy, self-doubt and depression. There will always be things in the world to be tortured about– it doesn't have to be your own life.

This poem is from Douglas Gray's remarkable prize-winning book of poems, Words on the Moon. He grew up in Mississippi, got degrees in English Literature and classical languages and now teaches in Columbus, Ohio. and leads a website matching writers with writing projects in the South Central Ohio area.

Most of us eventually come to realize that it is, indeed, good to be strange. However, a world that accepts strangeness is a world that could be filled with beauty, interesting music, extraordinary literature and revelatory films and less angst. If all a person has to give the world is angst, that's not art. It could be sensitivity, it could be fine appreciation but art is not solely bred from angst– it just looks that way from the way creatives get treated.

I don't think I know one musician or artist or writer who has not felt as though they were probably from another planet, if not literally, then surely figuratively. They are just looking for a place where gravity (think of the meanings of this word carefully) won't hold them down.

Do you think the poet feels like, this, too?

The masthead today is a detail of The Magic Circus by contemporary surrealist painter Mark Ryden. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Number 327: James Fenton "God, A Poem"

God, A Poem

A nasty surprise in a sandwich,

A drawing-pin caught in your sock,
The limpest of shakes from a hand which
You'd thought would be firm as a rock,

A serious mistake in a nightie,

A grave disappointment all round
Is all that you'll get from th'Almighty,
Is all that you'll get underground.

Oh he said: 'If you lay off the crumpet
I'll see you alright in the end.

Just hang on until the last trumpet.

Have faith in me, chum-I'm your friend.


But if you remind him, he'll tell you:

'I'm sorry, I must have been pissed-

Though your name rings a sort of a bell. You

Should have guessed that I do not exist.

'I didn't exist at Creation, 

I didn't exist at the Flood, 

And I won't be around for Salvation

To sort out the sheep from the cud-

'Or whatever the phrase is. The fact is

In soteriological terms
I'm a crude existential malpractice

And you are a diet of worms.

'You're a nasty surprise in a sandwich.

You're a drawing-pin caught in my sock.

You're the limpest of shakes from a hand which

I'd have thought would be firm as a rock, 

'You're a serious mistake in a nightie, 

You're a grave disappointment all round-
That's all you are,
' says th'Almighty, 
And that's all that you'll be underground.'

-James Fenton

Hap Notes:
James Fenton may be the richest poet in the world, which is neither here nor there, really– he's won bushels of awards and is one of the most highly regarded poets in the world, and certainly Great Britain. He was just very clever in taking, as payment,  1% of the overall box office gross of a musical for which he helped write the theatrical "book": Les Miz. The total, and counting, is in the hundreds of millions world wide. I don't think his aim was wealth. But there you have it.

He also may be the poet who has entertained the most exciting life in the world. In college (Oxford, of course) he was close pals with Christopher Hitchens and maintained the friendship until Hitchens death in  2011. He is a close friend of Martin Amis. As a political correspondent he was there when the U.S. pulled out of Viet Nam, wrote about Cambodia and reported on the political upheaval in the Philippines. He was so close to the action with the Aquino-Marcos upheaval he is quoted as saying “I could even tell you what perfume Imelda Marcos was wearing.”He still has a towel from Imelda's bathroom which he took as a, what? Memento. Let's say that.  He has written books about all this in addition to garnering the Queen's Gold Medal and the Whitbread Prize for poetry.  Good Lord.

Today's poem is amusing, a bit Noel Cowardesque (well, it is, isn't it?) and quite a conundrum. How can an entity who doesn't exist have a conversation? What is the poet saying with this little twist. Who is creating whom in this?

I suppose you know that "laying off the crumpet" is about sex, "crumpet" being a slang term for a woman, girl, or any cute human you might have your eye on. Soteriological, if you'd rather I looked it up than you, relates to salvation. A drawing pin is thumbtack and the like. Pissed is the British term for drunk.

The mention of the diet of worms is clever– sure, underground you are worm fodder but also the Diet of Worms was an assembly, the most famous of which was the one in 1521 accusing Martin Luther of heresy. Interestingly enough, what the Diet was unhappy with  (well, there was more that just this) was Luther's assertion that salvation comes from faith alone without reference to good works, alms, penance, or the church's sacraments. Just an interesting twist on the poem. And yes, I feel certain Fenton knew this- he's one of those big brain guys who comes by the title genius more accurately than most.

I say genius in spite of the fact that he has written of his love for the "Carry On" movies. If you've never seen one, they are kind of a Benny Hill like slapstick that is completely lost on me. But then, I' not crazy about the Three Stooges either and they have a few intelligent defenders, too.

I'm just enough of a Lutheran to have held on to this poem until after Reformation Day(Oct.31) and All Saint's Day (Nov. 1).

You can certainly see an amount of Fenton's Auden influence, and indeed, the apocalyptic nonsense poem (as Dana Gioia calls it)  is Auden-like.

There is a great Telegraph  interview with Fenton .here.

Dana Gioia has a well-written (as usual) overview of Fenton here.

You can find more Fenton here but don't expect it to be strictly light acerbic verse. His poetry ranges from devastatingly serious to touchingly romantic, too.

Here's a good Fenton quote:
'My feeling is that poetry will wither on the vine if you don't regularly come back to the simplest fundamentals of the poem: rhythm, rhyme, simple subjects – love, death, war."

And another
"Production of a collection of poems every three years or every five years, or whatever, looks good, on paper. But it might not be good; it might be writing on a kind of automatic pilot."

By the by, I got the picture of the "ratburger" at (no kidding) If you go there be prepared - it's all ratty fast food. And that night gown in the masthead looks just like the awful ones I used to get for Christmas (they were scratchy, too, with cheap lace and sizing. Nasty things, really).

Friday, November 1, 2013

Number 326: Thomas Lux "Refrigerator, 1957"

Refrigerator, 1957

More like a vault -- you pull the handle out
and on the shelves: not a lot,
and what there is (a boiled potato
in a bag, a chicken carcass
under foil) looking dispirited,
drained, mugged. This is not
a place to go in hope or hunger.
But, just to the right of the middle
of the middle door shelf, on fire, a lit-from-within red,
heart red, sexual red, wet neon red,
shining red in their liquid, exotic,
aloof, slumming
in such company: a jar
of maraschino cherries. Three-quarters
full, fiery globes, like strippers
at a church social. Maraschino cherries, maraschino,
the only foreign word I knew. Not once
did I see these cherries employed: not
in a drink, nor on top
of a glob of ice cream,
or just pop one in your mouth. Not once.
The same jar there through an entire
childhood of dull dinners -- bald meat,
pocked peas and, see above,
boiled potatoes. Maybe
they came over from the old country,
family heirlooms, or were status symbols
bought with a piece of the first paycheck
from a sweatshop,
which beat the pig farm in Bohemia,
handed down from my grandparents
to my parents
to be someday mine,
then my child's?
They were beautiful
and, if I never ate one,
it was because I knew it might be missed
or because I knew it would not be replaced
and because you do not eat
that which rips your heart with joy.

- Thomas Lux

Hap Notes:

Before we talk about the poem, let's just luxuriate in the wonderful descriptions of maraschino cherries: "full, fiery globes, like strippers/at a church social" and "on fire, a lit-from-within red, heart red, sexual red, wet neon red, shining red in their liquid, exotic." Delicious words.

The "vault" like refrigerator (one is pictured to the right of the poem) had many different handles but they all had to pulled toward you to open and sometimes the vacuum pressure was tight, when the door opened it almost hissed. You couldn't surreptitiously open it, it made a noise.

Lux is talking about a time when most families did not have many convenience foods in the fridge, everything edible had to made from scratch so leftovers were sparse "dispirited" things wrapped in foil or waxed paper. You could open the fridge and look at it but there wasn't much appealing to eat in there– it needed work. Contrast this with the maraschino cherries, gorgeous in their red liquid, almost too elegant to eat. I recall that almost everybody had a jar of them, as if they were some sort of badge of better times. They weren't to be eaten, just had. The "vault's" treasure, so to speak.

Lux was born and raised in Massachusetts on a dairy farm and one assumes that his childhood meals (he would have been 11 years old in 1957) were similar to my Midwestern ones which consisted mostly of meat, potatoes, a sad soggy vegetable and plenty of bread and butter on the table. It was brothy, filling, and more than a bit bland. Contrast this to the neon beauty of those cherries.

My dad was a burgeoning alcoholic when I was a kid and we always had maraschino cherries for his nightly Manhattans. When he was at work, I made a point of sneaking the cherries since mostly he just used the liquid in the jars for the drink, the cherries being too sweet for his taste. My dad never complained about this that I recall, just bought new ones. Their shiny gorgeous color was just too hard to resist. They stood for something in my mind just as they do for the poet. What do you think he is talking about?

"Maraschino" is the word used to describe cherries that are made to be somewhat like the original marasca cherries preserved in Croatia for Maraschino liqueur ( so they could have actually been an heirloom in the poem). Preserved in alcohol, they were thought to be a luxury. The ones we get in jars are not preserved in alcohol (at least, not during and after prohibition) and are made with a sugar syrup made with oil of almonds. (Geeky sidebar: which is why the original Jergen's lotion (made with almond oil) my mom used always somehow smelled like cherries to me- the smell tasted a little like cherries if that makes any sense at all.)

In today's poem, think on what those cherries meant to the poet- don't forget the sensual, sexual side of it. A meal can have a bit of meaning on sensual/sexual level, too. And the stored beauty of those cherries means something, too. In a "vault." I always have maraschino cherries in my fridge just to see them (although, I occasionally do eat them- much to horror of most everyone I know who say they are "too sweet",  an expression that has no meaning to me.)

Why do you think the poet would not eat the cherries? Why do they "rip his heart with joy"?

There is so much more in this poem, it is as wonderful as that jar of cherries.

Lux is another favorite poet and we've talked about him (with bio and etc.) twice before: Here and Here, too.