Poem of the Moment, “At a Certian Age”

At a Certain Age

By Czesław Miłosz

We wanted to confess our sins but there were no takers.
White clouds refused to accept them, and the wind
Was too busy visiting sea after sea.
We did not succeed in interesting the animals.
Dogs, disappointed, expected an order,
A cat, as always immoral, was falling asleep.
A person seemingly very close
Did not care to hear of things long past.
Conversations with friends over vodka or coffee
Ought not to be prolonged beyond the first sign of boredom.
It would be humiliating to pay by the hour
A man with a diploma, just for listening.
Churches. Perhaps churches. But to confess there what?
That we used to see ourselves as handsome and noble
Yet later in our place an ugly toad
Half-opens its thick eyelid
And one sees clearly: “That’s me.”


For Jessica and my long-put-off but recently remembered country challenge (books of the world challenge? I don’t know), I picked up a volume of Czeslaw Milosz’s poetry today at the library to conquer Poland. Milosz is one of those poet’s I’ve known about for a long time, hazily, but have never gotten too involved in. He’s an important influence on bunches of poets I adore (Heaney and Ted Hughes, for example), and I’ve read a few poems. Then I opened Facing the River (1995, the Ecco Press) and the poem above more or less slapped me in the face. Oh how I love it. The line breaks, I think, are what makes it spectacular. I also am obsessed with the shift at the end of the poem from the communal we into the singular voice. Maybe what makes me love it so so much is that I definitely read it as a poem of old age (Milosz was 83 or 84 at the time of this poem’s publication), and old age poems have become (usually) the poems that I love the most.


Poem of the Week, “Why I Wake Early”

Why I Wake Early
by Mary Oliver

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and crotchety–

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light–
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.


I am posting a poem because my life should finally be back to normal soon. Classes start next week, and with them I am hoping that I will regain some balance and some scheduling in my life. Poems of the week might actually happen every week! Of course, I’ll be working 5 different jobs, so we’ll have to see.

Anyway! I chose this poem because I am feeling especially grumpy today and I had to get up very early. The only redeeming thing about this morning was the beautiful, bright, warm sun on my face. It almost made the fact that all three of my normal coffee haunts were closed because they had no power (seriously, the universe is out to get me).

“Why I Wake Early” is the title poem of Mary Oliver’s 2004 collection Why I Wake Early. Mary Oliver writes deceptively simple poetry, which is delicious and exactly what suits my mood right now.
Poets.org link: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/265
Poetry Foundation link: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/mary-oliver

Poem of the Week, from Eleven Stars Over Andalusia

From Eleven Stars Over Andalusia
by Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Agha Shahid Ali with Ahmad Dallal

“10. I want from love only the beginning”

I want from love only the beginning. Doves patch,
over the squares of my Granada, this day’s shirt.
There is wine in our clay jars for the feast after us.
In the songs there are windows: enough for blossoms to explode.

I leave jasmine in the vase; I leave my young heart
in my mother’s cupboard; I leave my dream, laughing, in water;
I leave the dawn in the honey of the figs; I leave my day and my yesterday
in the passage to the square of the Orange where doves fly.

Did I really descend to your feet so speech could rise,
a white moon in the milk of your nights . . . pound the air
so I could see the Street of the Flute blue . . . pound the evening
so I could see how this marble between us suffers?

The windows are empty of the orchards of your shawl. In another time
I knew so much about you. I picked gardenias
from your ten fingers. In another time there were pearls for me
around your neck, and a name on a ring whose gem was darkness, shining.

I want from love only the beginning. Doves flew
in the last sky, they flew and flew in that sky.
There is still wine, after us, in the barrels and jars.
A little land will suffice for us to meet, a little land will be enough for peace.


Mahmoud Darwish was a Palestinian poet who passed away in 2008. For more information about him and his work, poets.org has a biography and a few poems in translation. If you speak arabic, his own website looks great (though I am unable to read anything on it). Darwish wrote exclusively (as far as I can tell) in arabic, so if you want to read him in English it has to be via translation.

Agha Shahid Ali was an amazing poet in his own right who passed away in 2001. He is probably best known for introducing (or, well, perfecting? maybe?) the ghazal form in English, but his work is more interesting than just that. His poems blend ethnic backgrounds in a beautiful mixture of free verse and form. I just finished reading Rooms Are Never Finished, Ali’s collection that deals with the death of his mother, and I highly recommend it. “Lennox Hill” is especially awesome. More information about Ali is available through the Poetry Foundation or through poets.org .

Poem of the Week, “Stray Paragraphs in February, Year of the Rat”

Stray Paragraphs in February, Year of the Rat
by Charles Wright

East of town, the countryside unwrinkles and smooths out

Unctuously toward the tidewater and gruff Atlantic.

A love of landscape’s a true affection for regret, I’ve found,

Forever joined, forever apart,

outside us yet ourselves.


Renunciation, it’s hard to learn, is now our ecstasy.

However, if God were still around

he’d swallow our sighs in his nothingness.


The dregs of the absolute are slow sift in my blood,

Dead branches down after high winds, dead yard grass and


The sure accumulation of all that’s not revealed

Rises like snow in my bare places,

cross-whipped and openmouthed.


Our lives can’t be lived in flames.

Our lives can’t be lit like saints’ hearts,

seared between heaven and earth.


February, old head-turner, cut us some slack, grind of bone

On bone, such melancholy music.

Lift up that far corner of landscape,

there, toward the west.

Let some deep light in, the arterial kind.

Sorry for the wonky formatting, but where the lines are actually matters (as in, some lines are intended to not be flush left), so I thought I would try to preserve that in this e-text version of Wright’s poem. However, that means that it HAS to be double spaced for indentation to work on wordpress (counting each line as a separate paragraph), which pretty much distresses me. Imagine it single spaced!! There are periods on the lines between stanzas to force double spaces to preserve stanza breaks. Eesh.

Charles Wright is a poet I’m only beginning to really appreciate. He’s from Tennessee! Before I came to Charlottesville, I’d only read Black Zodiac. I thought it was good, but wasn’t in love enough to go and buy more. Well, people here are a little crazy about Charles Wright. I read Littlefoot for a class I had last semester, and then I picked up Appalachia from the library purely out of curiosity. Man, Appalachia is crazy good. I am wild about it. This poem is the opening one of that collection. Maybe this piece resonates with me right now because I’ve been in a seminar on Hagiography this spring, which makes me excited about lines like “Our lives can’t be lit like saints’ hearts / seared between heaven and earth.”

If you think this poem is the cat’s pajamas, I suggest reading more of Wright’s work. Poets.org and the Poetry Foundation have several poems available to read online. I really love Littlefoot, 19, which is super-short.

Poem of the Week, “Tropical Death,” Plus Links!

This week I was asked to do the unthinkable. Pick one poem from the 19th, 20th, or 21st century and discuss its rhyme in a class. Just one poem? It was one of the most difficult choices I’ve made all semester. I finally decided on Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” but I felt terrible to not be able to share Grace Nichol’s “Tropical Death” or Philip Larkin’s “Wires” (to name but two on my list of ones I love). So, instead of sharing with the class, I will post “Tropical Death” here along with an abridged commentary on why it’s badass, awesome, and beautiful.

Tropical Death
by Grace Nichols

The fat black woman want
a brilliant tropical death
not a cold sojourn
in some North Europe far/forlorn

The fat black woman want
some heat/hibiscus at her feet
blue sea dress
to wrap her neat

The fat black woman want
some bawl
no quiet jerk tear wiping
a polite hearse withdrawal

The fat black woman want
all her dead rights
first night
third night
nine night
all the sleepless droning
red-eyed wake nights

In the heart
of her mother’s sweetbreast
In the shade
of the sun leaf’s cool bless
In the bloom
of her people’s bloodrest

the fat black woman want
a brilliant tropical death yes

What I love about this poem is how carefully wrought it is. Of course, as Jessica recently pointed out, that is true of most of the poetry that I love. This poem takes the idea of a ballad stanza’s rhyme (abab or abcb) and completely subverts it. Most stanzas provide a rhyme with the final line, but the line rhyming with the final one is not consistent throughout the poem. Even the final stanza has a rhyme that closes the stanza, in the uncomfortably close “death yes” phrase. Other awesome things? The way that Nichols controls capitalization of beginning lines. The anaphora in the penultimate stanza. The very Emily Dickinson move of providing two options for the reader to consider (far/forlorn, heat/hibiscus) and choose between (like Dickinson does in her manuscripts!). The incredible assonance and alliteration throughout. The creolization of language without that device driving the poem. ANYWAY. So as to not make this a beast of a post, I shall progress onto the links promised in the post’s title! (More information about Grace Nichols can be found here)

Recently, I’ve found some neat ways to indulge in poetry in a scheduled way!

Poetry Foundation offers a poem of the day, via a podcast! It’s great. If you subscribe to it with google reader, or some similar RSS apparatus, you can look at the old ones… I spent a good two hours this weekend combing through and finding exciting things (Charles Wright and Wallace Stevens reading their own poems to name a few). http://www.poetryfoundation.org/features/audiolanding

Poems of the day, for the eye rather than the ear, are also available through poetry daily (http://poems.com/) and through verse daily (http://www.versedaily.org/).

Last, but not least! Daily Lit offered a few neat things during national poetry month, and you can still enjoy them! Two books I am currently subscribed to are the Farrar, Straus and Giroux Featured Poets (http://www.dailylit.com/authors/farrar-straus-and-giroux) and the Knopf Poem-a-Day Collection (http://www.dailylit.com/books/poem-a-day-collection).

In other news, Jessica’s poem of the week was an imposter!!

I am not resigned – Poem of the Week

Amelia is in Hawaii this week to spread the ashes of her dearest friend, who died earlier this year. This poem is for Mia, whose week (I can only imagine) will be a bit surreal; for all those I have lost; for all those my loved ones have lost; for Osama Bin Laden; for Diana Wynne Jones; for all deaths everywhere and in every time; and for all those affected by death. That is to say, for all of us.

Dirge Without Music
by Edna St Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, — but the best is lost.

The answers quick & keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Poem of the Week, “Why I Am Not a Painter”

Why I Am Not a Painter
by Frank O’Hara

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg,
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

I am not usually a big fan of ekphrastic poetry, but there are a few poems that take my breath away. Charles Wrights’ “Homage to Paul Cézzane,” Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “Poem” to name a few.  I am also crazy about this O’Hara poem. I hadn’t had the opportunity to read it before this week in my Contemporary Poetry class, but now I am happy to add it to my list of poems I love about the visual arts. Interestingly, Mark Goldberg does have a painting “Sardines” (shown below). What I really love about the poem is it’s playfulness in lines like “‘You have SARDINES in it.’ / ‘Yes, it needed something there.'” that so concisely suggest how ineffable the artistic process can be. And then, of course, the best part is that the painting by Goldberg is primarily orange and does indeed have sardines in it. Also, O’Hara really does have a squence of poems titled “Oranges” without any explicit reference to oranges. But, alas, it does not live on the internet as far as I can see and so I cannot link to it.

If you’d like to read more by or about Frank O’Hara, I recommend the Poetry Foundation’s page about him, though I kind of hate their new format.