A Poem of Tomorrow for Today

In late 2011 WS Merwin visited BYU and read some of his poetry to students in the JSB auditorium. He said that after 9/11 books of poetry could not stay on the shelves. He said people needed poetry in those dark times. It helped them cope and understand and feel understood and less lonely. It reached deep and endless. It touched hollow and unrelenting. It was like pockets of fresh air displacing the billows of dust and sorrow and hate.

I was in a poetry class the semester of Merwin’s visit, trying to write poetry; trying to get it. Trying to learn things way beyond my grasp from my immensely talented classmates. It was a wonderful class. The semester happened to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. I wasn’t there, but I have friends who were. Today always makes me mournful, melancholy sinking my gut. This poem was my attempt to express an aspect of that tragic event.

It is 9/12/11

nine twelve eleven
nine one-two one-one
as if my fingers
swollen and sweaty
slipped while dialing
and starting over never crossed my mind.

No one will come
until I hang up
and think more carefully
to push
finger pads to keypad
with motions that should be automatic.

The Poets I Know

My penultimate semester at BYU I took a poetry class as a complete novice. Along with the curriculum and the professor, a couple of classmates awakened me to the vast and diverse world of poetry. It blew me away, intimidated me. Our class would have weekly workshops and while they did have nice things to say about my poetry, classmates were often brutally honest and mercilessly constructive. It was hard not to feel discouraged.

I read a poem every day. Occasionally I’ll write down a tentative idea for a poem. I’ve fallen out of practice; it’s easier to read than write. It hasn’t always been that way. But it’s always been easy to write crappy poetry. Here, let me whip up a gross haiku for you right now:

vulnerable brain
months of oxidizing then
flaking rust matter

See? That took less than a minute. And not something I’d be proud to show even Stephenie Meyer.

There’s so much to love about poetry: taking it apart, slathering the language all over me, listening to it, reading poets’ advice. I support people who are good at it, who devote their lives to capturing beauty, tragedy in such a specialized way.

From my experience in the class, it seems some of the best poets also make the best academics. They think about issues from multiple and often-rare angles. With intense focus, they express themselves with clarity and power. I covet them so, so much.

But I also want to brag about my poet friends and acquaintances, because they’re brilliant.

My poetry professor, Susan Elizabeth Howe:

Imagination, as I have experienced it, can be part of and lead to spiritual growth, and imagination is the natural province of the poet.

Someone I knew as a computer person before he became a poet, Neil Aitken:

Neil Aitken is a poet of consummate grace and skill. His poems are acutely observed, unerring musically, sensual and lyrical. Filled with longing and subtle epiphanies, his poetry plumbs the depths of the human heart, and hints towards the heights of the human spirit. His writing accomplishes what Wallace Stevens suggested—that, in the best poems, “description is revelation,” for each of Aitken’s poems reveals the world anew for the reader.  — Maurya Simon

A friend I worked with at church in New York City, Javen Tanner:

. . . he thus takes up his poetic cross and wills us to follow as he forges a path through variations on these ambiguous realities to the end of preparing us for more lasting psychological and spiritual connections and consolations.

Former classmate and also a BYU soccer player, Conner Bassett:

When reading poetry out loud, you see the poem for what it is; half of the poem is the words, but the other half is the sound of it,” Bassett said. “Reading and hearing it out loud is a completely different experience.”

Another classmate, Kylan Rice. He seems to have a relatively new tumblr:

…Stop looking so
shocked at the grammy fat. Are we not
all a tapestry of garbled hearts?

I have a few other poet friends, but I’m having trouble finding stuff about them on the internet. Which usually doesn’t happen. You’ll just have to believe they’re also talented and incredible and very awesome.

Look these people up. During any time of crisis, these are some of the people you can listen to.

Thanksgiving Ponderance

So I’m reading the Book of Mormon
and it’s the Rameumpton scene.
And I’m just so thankful that I’m not like that
looking down from that tower up
so high, thanking God
that I’m better than
everyone else.
That I’m more righteous,
that I have more.
People at the top of that tower
are so stupid and pious.
Pie? Yes, please.

I know friends who struggle with mental illness / gay friends who’ve found success after getting kicked out of BYU / friends who’ve had their hearts broken trying to have or adopt children / those who’ve had their hearts broken trying to find love / friends with children who have limb differences and other special needs / friends who mourn and grieve all manner of loss / soldiers who have died in military service / those who know sign language / friends who’ve had sexual trauma / friends who don’t have “traditional” parents / homeless people / creative people / angry|bitter friends / friends and family whose feelings I’ve hurt / dying friends / lost friends / people who are easily offended / loved ones who don’t care about the church / introverts / friends who have helped with tsunami relief in Japan / and who have survived 9|11 / and hurricane Katrina / and hurricane Sandy.

My great and spacious building
faces the tower,
and we go around the table
with our abundant plentiful
copious many blessings
or list something every day
this month
that we are just so thankful for.
Guilt arrives,
awkward, familiar guest.
Help yourself to some stuffing,
turkey.

I remember the sick feeling I got the day after this past election / what it’s like to be “chee-choh-ching”ed at / what my own prejudices are / talking with African college students on a dilapidated campus about their dreams to teach their children and give their country hope / being at a drag show / my own sexual abuse as a child / being with my mom the first time she returned to the temple / the outhouse that my Filipino grandpa built that reminds me of the one the the beginning of Slumdog Millionaire / the trailer that I lived in as a kid / my barefoot cousins in a bamboo village / seeing friends who’ve been separated by distance and time and contention become reunited / a constant feeling of helplessness for this world / watching Muslims in Africa as they kneel in prayer / playing with malnourished, licy children who don’t care that my French is horrible / yelling at a homeless man / ordering another round / sweat.

This feast won’t settle. I wipe
the cranberry sauce and spleen
from my face. I excuse myself
and walk out of the room
and down the stairs.
I trip across the threshold
onto packed snow,
into fog.

The well-cloyed see me and scoff
because I keep slipping
away from the tower and the building.
I slide into a canyon of people
who slid there too,
better than anyone else
without knowing it.
You help me up.
It’s warm here.

Reliability

A month is not
twenty-eight days.
On time is always
early.
The fifth of September means
October third then
thirty-first.
Whites of my eyes can bleed
twice in October.
Excuse for swinging moods.
Pressure that only
caffeine and a nap
lessen.
Excuse for insecurity,
inferiority, opportunity
missed.
Weakness.
Just an excuse.
Logic, charm, work, love,
strength,
with the clock
and her bell to chime
every twenty-eight
days as
a reason.
Indicate my sex–
XX marks the spot.
Eggs float
hot,
flow
red, unused.
Almost too eager,
never late.

At the New York Public Library

Patience and Fortitude wait outside. Still.
Who takes a tour of a library? Tourists? Bibliophiles?
Newlyweds?
Polished marble, dark wood, vaulted ceilings.
Shelves lining walls. Tomes packing shelves
For miles.
We walk through noncirculating corridors.
The man leading us with his Ben Stein voice
Brings us to the periodicals room, where
One can read newspapers or other journals from
Time to time. Periodically.
I take a picture of Reilly underneath
A painting of the Hearst Building
Citizen Kane-ing
Me
About freedom of speech.
Somewhere near the history hall or the Great Reading Room
A woman from France talks about how the Google Maps team
Can’t take pictures of her street.
I want to parler but
The tour runs long and
Unlike the books here I am
Checked out. But the tour ends eventually and we go down
Into the Children’s Library and take pictures by original
Winnie the Pooh dolls that came from the 53rd Street branch.
The now-closed Donnell Library Center.
Basement smells like kids and mildew
Waft us back onto the main floor.
We come out of revolving doors
Onto descending stairs and in front
Of those steady lions waiting
To devour us
Other triumphant victims,
Library lovers.

This Poem Stunned Me When We Read It Aloud in Class Last Week

BEFORE THE AIR BECAME THE JOURNEY

It is Good Friday
and I am seven.
I don’t understand the priest
who speaks in Latin
or in Polish,
but I like the hopeful smell of
candles burning.

Inching forward
on our knees,
we sway and shuffle towards
the giant crucifix
propped at the railing.
The men’s heads are bare.
The women wear bubushkas.
Everywhere I look
there are soles of shoes.

My turn. I stand
and stretch to reach
the bleeding instep.
An altar boy
wipes away my kiss
with a white handkerchief.

I bow my head
to imitate the old man
who on Sundays stays
for all the Masses,
locked in place
at the altar rail, face
buried in his hands,
hunched over and sad
as if, like me,
he’d done everything wrong.

Someone like him, I think,
could stop the nails
from going in.

Elisabeth Murawski

Just a Few Things Intentionally and Unintentionally Related to Today

HOME TO ROOST

The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
with chickens,
dense with them.
They turn and
then they turn
again. These
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
and small–
various breeds.
Now they have
come home
to roost — all
the same kind
at the same speed.

–Kay Ryan

From her interview at NPR at the time she became the poet laureate:

First of all, it comes from the thing we say to other people when they’ve done a lot of stupid things, and now they’re getting their comeuppance. We say, well, your chickens are coming home to roost, and I have no doubt that when I wrote this, I was chastening myself, and I was telling myself this, but unfortunately, this poem was sitting on the desk of an editor in New York at the time of 9/11, and it suddenly took on this terrible added significance, and I had to withdraw it because it seemed cruelly appropriate. . . . Now right after 9/11, that sounded, you know, the blue sky in here, the clear sky, sounded just like the beauty of that day, and those chickens sounded much too much like airplanes.

In relation to the beautiful day it was 10 years ago, here are a friend’s sentiments.

You can view this interactive map from the New York Times to see where people were on that day. You can click on it and write where you were and how you felt/feel.

This is an NPR interview with John Adams and his commission to compose a piece to commemorate the one-year anniversary of 9/11.

This is the first third of the composition:

10 years.

Still healing.

The Last Post for This Week Is A Poem

“Swept Up Whole”

You aren’t swept up whole,
however it feels. You’re
atomized. The wind passes.
You recongeal. It’s
a surprise.

Kay Ryan

And, an excerpt from the linked interview:


What do you think about the state of poetry and the reading of poetry in our country?

I never, ever worry about poetry or its survival because it’s the very nature of a poem to be that language that does survive. Poems are even better than tweets – they don’t require any electronic equipment. They can lodge right in your brain. They are by nature short. You don’t even have to remember all of them — you can remember just a phrase. That can be something you can turn to in any emergency, good or bad. You’ll pluck out a little group of words, just maybe a phrase, and that’s exactly what poetry is for. It’s for the things that really last. Because it lasts.

Proof I’m Learning Stuff

Well, at least about writing.

I got a paper back tonight. My first of the semester that wasn’t French. It earned an A. Nice surprise, considering I’d written it in a big hurry, pretty much until just before it was due.

A year ago, I don’t think I would have written a first paper – in that manner – that would have done as well.

I’m becoming way too comfortable with procrastination.

Also, I’ve learned just not to write about Jane Austen.

So far, I’ve gotten A’s and A-‘s on French papers.

My first French grammar midterm earned a B+ (89% – so close!), which relieved me. I remember leaving the testing center thinking I’d be perfectly content with a B. The exam ended with writing a short composition about the novel we’re reading. I remember feeling pretty good about the essay. The professor gave me a bonus point for style, with a little comment at the end: “Vous êtes poète!” Also, thank goodness for bonus points, for I  might have dipped down into B- or C range without them.

So, that balances the ridiculous crying I did today. If those good things hadn’t happened, I would have chalked today up as an epic loss. Of course there are worse things.

Thanks for the comforting texts, you. I wish I had a gold star to give.

Was It All the 1s in A Row or Something?

1/11/11: People outside “the bubble” seemed très occupés or surtout agacés or something. Nothing I could do, except probably be less annoying. I admit I can be annoying at times, but really, I haven’t done anything out of character. And people’s reactions are what they are.

Awesome things that happened today:

It was 1 degree this morning. Fahrenheit. It’s more impressive as Celsius: -17.

I blushed for nearly a full 75 minutes because someone decided to call on me three times throughout class AND decided to administer un intérro, after which that someone graded the quizzes one at a time as we stood in line to turn them in. In conjunction with my flushed face, I may have gotten close to 100% with the bonus question. The only reason I don’t know my exact score is I was too scared to look over the professor’s shoulder while she held her mighty red pen. I did notice that there weren’t giant slashes as on some other quizzes, but instead tiny slits, maybe indicating half-point deductions. And maybe there were two of those. Again, I was scared to look, so I’m not certain.

Part of that classroom experience today was my changing seats in class. I was no longer in the front row, but me câchais behind a new friend who served her mission in Madagascar. And the instructor, with her sixth sense, could tell I was hiding. But I was relieved when she pulled out the photo class roster and starting calling students au hasard. It’s just a little stressful when I’m 1) at the top of the alphabet and 2) the teacher knows who I am for a different reason than 1).

Oh, other awesome things:
1) I had lunch with a good friend, and our parting always results in a big hug.
2) I found out about some submission conditions for some symposia where I’d like to present.
3) I made a new friend in another class who is quite cute, but in accordance with my luck or style, this will not progress beyond a platonic level.
4) I realized I like William Wordsworth quite a bit, although I wasn’t entirely sold on him during the assigned reading this past week.
5) I felt extra alert during classes today. Relaxed situations intermingled with rigorous intellectual training seemed to be in perfect proportions. It was cool.
6) I helped coordinate a Free Club reunion. If you’re not already a member or otherwise haven’t been introduced, don’t worry about it.
7) I had fun text conversations with some friends. This is nothing new, but it’s still awesome.

Now, let’s see what tomorrow brings! Hopefully, more of the same.