Blue Iris: Poems and Essays

A great collection of poetry and brief essays by Mary Oliver that I found while in the “O”s of the poetry section recently. Two favorites:

Black Oaks

Okay, not one can write a symphony, or a dictionary,

or even a letter to an old friend, full of remembrance
and comfort.

Not one can manage a single sound though the blue jays
carp and whistle all day in the branches, without
the push of the wind.

But to tell the truth after a while I’m pale with longing
for their thick bodies ruckled with lichen

and you can’t keep me from the woods, from the tonnage

of their shoulders, and their shining green hair.

Today is a day like any other: twenty-four hours, a
little sunshine, a little rain.

Listen, says ambition, nervously shifting her weight from
one boot to another — why don’t you get going?

For there I am, in the mossy shadows, under the trees.

And to tell the truth I don’t want to let go of the wrists
of idleness, I don’t want to sell my life for money,

I don’t even want to come in out of the rain.

 

and Blue Iris

Now that I’m free to be myself, who am I?

Can’t fly, can’t run, and see how slowly I walk.

Well, I think, I can read books.

“What’s that you’re doing?”
the green-headed fly shouts as it buzzes past.

I close the book.

Well, I can write down words, like these, softly.

“What’s that you’re doing?” whispers the wind, pausing
in a heap just outside the window.

Give me a little time, I say back to its staring, silver face.
It doesn’t happen all of a sudden, you know.

“Doesn’t it?” says the wind, and breaks open, releasing
distillation of blue iris.

And my heart panics not to be, as I long to be,
the empty, waiting, pure, speechless receptacle.

Lunch Poems

The beauty of shopping at the library is to stumble on old friends when picking up new ones. While I was in the 811.54’s fetching Sharon Olds, I spied Frank’s lunch poems and even though I’ve read them before (but somehow not catalogued here) they made me giddy as I walked out with them at lunchtime into the sunshine. Hayes Valley never saw me smile so much. Maybe it’s coming back to Frank after knowing about his closeness to Grace Hartigan, after learning more about his role in the art scene in the 50s/60s, knowing that it was to his desk at MOMA he was returning from all those lunch breaks he records. The poems swirl and dance and themes recur (Iroquois, construction hats, Lana Turner [“oh Lana Turner we love you get up”], Pierre Reverdy) “Everything suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of a Thursday.” “I had a teacher one whole summer who never told me anything and it was wonderful” and “I read what you read/ you do not read what I read/ which is right, I am the one with the curiosity/ you read for some mysterious reason/ I read simply because I am a writer” One of my favs is Personal Poem, “but now I’m happy for a time and interested”

One Secret Thing

I had not read this collection of poems by Sharon Olds but my sister had just replaced a book at her library in the display I’d suggested books for, and so I trudged down to the library to discover what it was I’d supposedly recommended (I’d previously enjoyed her poems in The Father). I was a bit unimpressed until I got to the last section of the collection, the eponymous One Secret Thing, and staggered by her descriptions of her dying and then dead mother, her application of vaseline to dried lips.”The secret was how deeply I did not want to touch inside her, and how much the act was an act of escape, my last chance to free myself.” She crawls into the hospital bed sobbing, her mother tilted up “eyes closed, mouth open,” and then is there for her last hour, the death rattle described as a gasp forced in then quiet, then a sign of relief. “I felt as if she had always wanted to escape and now she had escaped.”…. “my mother’s dying was like an end of life on earth, some end of water and moisture salt and sweet, and vapor, till only that still, ocher moon shone, in the room, mouth open, no song.” …. “It was like walking away from someone who is drowning in inches of water—and I’d bent beside her, and called to the morphine to drown her, she had lain face up in the cloud of it lowered like a pool to her face. It was time. It was past midnight, the air of the quiet town was wild with fresh salt sea and pine. Never again. Always. Never again. Always.”

XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century

An overly ambitious project from McGrath, to capture the 20th century in 100+ poems (at least one for each year of the century) and somehow get at the essence of that time. Reading it, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that women barely exist, although he throws us token bones in the form of nods to Gertrude (which is actually one of the best poems- see below), Virginia, Sylvia (married as always to mention of Ted), Frida, Georgia. Part of my problem is knowing too much about Woolf to enjoy her fragments in here, of course mentioning her suicide (so exasperating that this above else is remembered, just like Sylvia’s poem).

I did enjoy a few other poems in here, like the one for Edward Bernays (1928), the man enlisted to craft a PR campaign that would get women smoking, the man behind the force of advertising that swept over us in the 20th century. Other favorite was Hiroshima (just the letters ‘a’, ‘o’, ‘*’ scattered across the page, raining terror down below).

Overall, he grants the voice of authority to Picasso and Chairman Mao by giving them frequent poems throughout the century. Elvis got an inexplicably long poem, and Woody Guthrie & Orson Welles pop up occasionally.

The Apple That Astonished Paris: Poems

Beautiful words from Billy Collins, most especially this one describing how his students react and analyze poems:

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Letters to Wendy’s

Some people have classified Wenderoth’s book as a novel but this feels much more like a book of poems— philosophical bits and pornographic rants scrawled onto the tiny space of a Wendy’s comment card, submitted between July 1996 and July 1997. The narrator reminded me of the creepy-hiding-in-plain-sight of Connell’s Diary of a Rapist. He’s occasionally lucid and occasionally off the rails but always always sticking whatever he has to say into the small space of the card. Originally discovered by way of a quote from Ada Limón where she peels off the end of the July 12, 1996 letter, “I’m a fleshy bell, incapable of vibrating any more vigorously. If I rang out with any more force I don’t know that I would remain a bell—and I don’t know that the air could stand me.”

A few that I enjoyed:

Oct 7, 1996: Why is there somewhere that is not Wendy’s? The question haunts me. Perhaps there need be a coming into Wendy’s, a coming into that’s only possible when there is a no-Wendy’s. Perhaps the question should be: is there truly somewhere that is not Wendy’s? Could our conception of where we are have developed within an unconscious need to forget how far Wendy’s truly extends?

Nov 16, 1996: It’s good, this not knowing anyone’s name. The employees have name-tags, but no one believes them. Their anonymity is far too obvious. How monstrous to introduce oneself to one’s register person! How useless, how wearying, that information is! Only the shouted names of children make sense here, denoting not a person but a drifting off, a subversive fascination.

Dec 3, 1996: Today I had fifteen dollars worth of coffees. I got them one at a time, and dined in. The first five were leisurely, but then the leisure disintegrated. I went through the last five in about five minutes. After awhile the register girl looked at her manager as if to say: “Is there something we should do?” The manager said nothing. I said nothing. We understood one another perfectly.

Apr 8, 1997: Sometimes I think of Wendy’s as a library without books. Without records, magazines, maps, or videos. Without a rare books room, and without an Information desk. As such, it is the most pleasant library I’ve ever visited. It offers one text—on reserve and on view. This text explicitly organizes the way we feed ourselves. And it allows us to act as though a greater significance has never been attempted.

Bright Dead Things

I’m coming to love Ada Limón’s poems and starting to get mad when bookstores I wander into don’t have anything of hers.

This is a collection spawned from her move away from Brooklyn down to Kentucky with a boyfriend, musings on the dying of her step-mother.

The poems hop around to various locales, mentioning her parents coupling in San Francisco in their apartment above a bar in the Castro, to Oklahoma, Boston, the San Fernando Valley, the bluegrass state. Looking forward to her novel.

What We Carry

Exquisite poems from Dorianne Laux in this 1994 collection. I don’t know what to say here, there’s no point in recapping a book of poems, so I suppose I’ll offer up a rendering of one of my favorites:

Late October

Midnight. The cats under the open window,
their guttural, territorial yowls.

Crouched in the neighbor’s driveway with a broom,
I jab at them with the bristle end,

chasing their raised tails as they scramble
from bush to bush, intent on killing each other.

I shout and kick until they finally
give it up; one shimmies beneath the fence,

the other under a car. I stand in my underwear
in the trembling quiet, remembering my dream.

Something had been stolen from me, valueless
and irreplaceable. Grease and grass blades

were stuck to the bottoms of my feet.
I was shaking and sweating. I had wanted

to kill them. The moon was a white dinner plate
broken exactly in half. I saw myself as I was:

forty-one years old, standing on a slab
of cold concrete, a broom handle slipping

from my hands, my breasts bare, my hair
on end, afraid of what I might do next.

This Big Fake World: A Story in Verse

Recapping a book doesn’t quite work for a book of poetry; I need a new method. Ada Limón gives us layered poems stacked into a story, filled with snow globes and hardware stores, a troubled marriage, letters to Ronald Reagan. Her four characters are the hero, his soon-to-be-estranged wife, the woman at the hardware store he has a crush on, and his friend Lewis who writes those notes to Reagan. Each poem can be taken separately, exists in its own universe of a page. But they press together to tell the story of a lonely man whose wife leaves him and he eventually finds happiness at the hardware store. Limón chooses epigraphs from Hamlet (“What a piece of work is man?”), Letters to Wendy’s, and song lyrics. All of the poems sparkle, but if I had to pick a favorite part it’d be the end of The Hardware Lady Repeats Herself where she asks a customer Will that be all? “and the woman nods, but seems not to have heard hear, so again, Will that be all? Then nothing, as if together, they had already answered this question one thousand times and finally that had been enough.”

Seven Notebooks: Poems

Interesting concept—McGrath supposedly kept seven distinct notebooks during this time, each seems to have a theme (e.g. Hurricane, Luxury, Dawn), he went through a haiku stage plus liberal quotes from other male poets, his obsession with Whitman and Neruda, his interactions with the world at large and his family on a smaller scale, observations from his son Jackson (Sam seems more distant, older?) and wife Elizabeth. Preferred the work where he circles around the same theme (like in the Bob Hope poem, circling capitalism and snowstorms) instead of the meandering loose tongued snippets from his life.

I think what I hate about this approach is that it makes it seem as if McGrath simply oozed into 7 different notebooks and clapped them shut and sent them off to the publisher, as if there were no editing involved. Words don’t fall perfectly from our brains onto the page.