A YEAR IN POEMS 3/31/2021


“won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in Babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?”
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

Lucille Clifton, “won’t you celebrate with me?” 

When you are reading poetry in anthologies, especially older publications, you are overwhelmed by the ponderous weight of male voices, with the occasional Emily Dickinson or Elizabeth Barrett Browning thrown in for good measure. It is sometimes difficult to respond to a female voice, especially a Black female poet, without feeling on the outside or without fear of sounding condescending. But Lucille Clifton’s voice is radiant and inclusive. She speaks to everyone, inviting them to revel in her strength, in her  industry. And she does not seek congratulation but only to ask people to join in an ironic recognition that could be equally apportioned to much of mankind –  “everyday/ something has tried to kill me/ and has failed.”


A YEAR IN POEMS 3/29/2021

            “The blessed damozel leaned out
                    From the gold bar of Heaven;
             Her eyes were deeper than the depth
                    Of waters stilled at even
             She had three lilies in her hand
                     And the stars in her hair were seven.”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “The Blessed Damozel”

It is worth unpacking the neo-pre-Raphaelites as a poetic and artistic movement. Their artwork is lush and dense as is the imagery and language in their poems. The soft edges and the somewhat blurred realism of both verse and image make the poems hard to work through. You must immerse yourself in the pre-Raphaelites as they did in their entire lifestyle. The most striking aspect of this (and all Dante Rossetti poems) is the dichotomy of a truly modern reference point (no classical or even Renaissance poem would proceed from the woman subject’s point of view) within its self-consciously archaic ballad framework. 


A YEAR IN POEMS 3/28/2021

            “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
            And sends the frozen ground-swell under it,
            And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
            And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.”

Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”

Unusual mysticism from this stoic poet. With its hint of magic, or even of some deeper natural force this feels more Yeats than Frost. But Frost always had that strange undercurrent of passion and curiosity that belies his gruff Yankee persona.


A YEAR IN POEMS 3/26/2021


“Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.”

Emily Dickinson, “Because I could not stop for Death” 

Like many of her poems, this work is spare and elegiac. She provides a paradoxical mingling of movement and immobility, of time passing and frozen. Most notable is its matter-of-fact quality. There is no fear or grief, just a sense of the inevitable mixed with a slight tang of regret. The very antithesis of Romantic poetry.


A YEAR IN POEMS 3/25/2021


“O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing”

Percy Shelley, "Ode to the West Wind" 

More weather-related verse. This has a fascinating rhyme scheme (ABA BCB CDC etc.) and is justifiably considered one of the most elegant poems of its or any age.

The Western Wind was a powerful but ultimately benevolent force in most of Eurocentric human culture. It was a harvest wind, so stood for family and hearth as well as the promise of plenty. (see my post from 3/16/21)


A YEAR IN POEMS 3/24/2021

"Driving a cardboard automobile without a license

                           at the turn of the century
             my father ran into my mother
                                               on a fun-ride at Coney Island
                  having spied each other eating
                                       in a French boardinghouse nearby
And having decided right there and then
                                         that she was for him entirely
       he followed her into
                                      the playland of that evening
          where the headlong meeting
                                         of their ephemeral flesh on wheels
                    hurtled them forever together 

And I now in the back seat
                                          of their eternity
                                                     reaching out to embrace them"
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, "A Far Rockaway of the Heart, 2"
When Ferlinghetti died earlier this year, not only San Francisco but all of poetry lost its mad-cap voice. His poems were form-inspired, feisty, funny and grounded all at once - the voice of a lunatic cavorting under a spectacular and solemn moon.


NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 365 - 3/23/2021

A year ago, the mandate went out for Dallas to go indoors.

Masks came out and toilet paper disappeared as if by magic. Restaurants struggled to figure out how to provide take out for an entire city. A huge and desperate calm settled over the entire Metroplex.

Now, since even before our Governor’s rash removal of restrictions, the city has been burbling back to life in slow halting steps but with a remarkable sense of industry. Businesses found ways to work from home. Restaurants found ways to have their food delivered. People found new skills of cooking and artistry. Sometime along the way the country finally got a haircut. Vaccines began to be delivered and injected in astonishing number and now the end may, just may, be in sight.

There is much to mourn over the course of the year. More than 500,000 Americans died, far more than might have been lost had we been serious and committed to the temporary restrictions that our health experts recommended. Yes, temporary, until we could find the cure and the prevention as we have always done. Millions lost their jobs and their security. Scores of children struggled in the absence of their schools and playmates. People languished in loneliness and fear.

But there is much to celebrate in this year as well. National resilience, innovation and ingenuity for a few. The kindness of strangers has been on display in the form of food banks and charitable giving. Creativity has blossomed. Pet shelters have been emptied. The courage of medical staff and cleaners and grocery clerks and the millions of other essential providers has been a wellspring of pride.

It is curious that the pandemic has run the cycle of a year. I never understand why we begin the calendar in the full of winter, when nothing changes between a cold gray December and a cold gray January. The real start of the year is the spring: the greening of the trees, the budding of the flowers, the return of warmth and fecundity.

Last spring, we went inside; we all fled to our island of isolation. We watched the world brown then gray then wilt and crumble. But it never died because there were always seeds and roots beneath. And this spring, with a surge of new hope, those flowers that emerge will be brighter and heartier. We will be wiser and stronger, saddened by the memory of our loss but heartened by the knowledge of our survival.


A YEAR IN POEMS 3/22/2021


                “love between us is
                speech and breath. loving you is
                a long river running.”

Sonia Sanchez, “Haiku [for you]” 

Haiku has a tendency towards arrogance, if not pomposity. This one is gentle and tender, with a charming open-ended feel that lends it implied length and substance.


A YEAR IN POEMS 3/21/2021


“The birds were louder this morning,
raucous, oblivious, tweeting their teensy bird-brains out.
It scared me, until I remembered it’s Spring.
How do they know it? A stupid question.
Thank you birdies. I had forgotten how promise feels.”

Michael Ryan, “Spring (Again)”

A simple spring ode that mostly speaks for itself. In fact, he pointedly does not allow the poem to become deeper. Don’t ask questions, it reprimands; just enjoy the surge of hope.


A YEAR IN POEMS 3/20/2021


“The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.”

Earnest Lawrence Thayer, “Casey At the Bat”


With a baseball season about to begin and a beautiful spring sun shining in the sky, what better poem to celebrate. The storytelling in this latter-day ballad is exquisite, from the beautiful pastiche of language (“the former was a hoodoo, while the latter was a cake”) to the elegant set-up of the dénouement. Not much art in this ditty, but oh, so much style!


A YEAR IN POEMS 3/19/2021


“Time it was, and what a time it was. It was.
A time of innocence.
A time of confidences.

Long ago it must be. I have a photograph.
Preserve your memories.
They’re all that’s left you.”

Paul Simon, “Bookends” (text grouping by KPM)

There are only a handful of song lyrics that read as poetry, but I’ve always had an affinity for this one. Some of the affinity is personal – this was one of my father’s favorite songs, a song I once was summoned to the office to sing for him. From a poetic sense, the theme is familiar and the homily obvious. But the conversational simplicity of the writing and the unexpected balancing of ‘innocence” and ‘confidences’ are full of aching nostalgia.


A YEAR IN POSTS 3/18/2021


“A thousand hairy savages
Sitting down to lunch
Gobble gobble glup glup
Munch munch munch.”

Spike Milligan. “A Thousand Hairy Savages”

What’s poetry without a little onomatopoeia?


A YEAR IN POEMS 3/17/2021


The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

William Butler Yeats, “The Wild Swans at Coole”

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, the most versatile and lyrical of Irish poets. On the surface, this descriptive piece may be about the beautiful birds whom he is observing, but like the swans themselves, there is an undercurrent. His observation is more about affirmation – the swans are still there and therefore there are still anchors in his life. But his relief and his appreciation of beauty is tempered by the inevitable and heart-rending understanding that there will come a day “when I awake…/ To find they have flown away”.


A YEAR IN POEMS 3/16/2001


“Western wind, when wilt thou blow?
The small rain down can rain.
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again.”

Anonymous, “Western Wind”

One of the oldest poems extant in the English language and surely the first that is neither balladic nor courtly. A gentle half-lament, it is wistful but somehow resolute and hopeful. Although I’ve never seen attribution, I think that Bernstein referenced “Western Wind” in the opening song of his great musical “On The Town”.


A YEAR IN POEMS 3/15/2021


The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees. 
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas. 

The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,   
And the highwayman came riding—
    The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.”


Alfred Noyes, “The Highwayman”

Ballads are in essence adventure stories told in song meter and ballad poets are the extension of Homer’s bards. "The Highwayman" is one of the most rip-snorting and famous of the bunch. It’s a thrilling ride, capturing the edge of adventure in every metered nuance.



A YEAR IN POEMS 3/14/2021


“Pies have a reputation.
And it’s immediate – no talk of potential

Regarding a pie. It’s good
Or it isn’t. but mostly it is – sweet, very sweet”

Alberto Rios, “Perfect For Any Occasion”

There are very few serious poems about pies (it being Pi Day) but this one hits the mark. The poem is a bit heavy handed in its allegorical message, reaching out in its second part to types of pie (“Mincemeat? What the hell is that people ask” or “Mr./ ‘I-can-do-no-wrong’ pecan pie”), but mainly it is about personality and a sense of self-worth/ self-deception. It features gentle comedy with a bite (just as all the best pies do).


A YEAR IN POEMS 3/13/2001

             “Yesterday, upon the stair,
            I met a man who wasn’t there.
            He wasn’t there again today.
            I wish, I wish he’d go away.”

Hughes Mearns, “Antigonish”

Charming, lilting nonsense, with just a enough edge to sit in your mind and create disturbing visions. Like nonsense poetry is supposed to do. I was never aware of the title until now, which clearly points to the blurred line between tragedy and farce.


A YEAR IN POEMS 3/12/2021

 “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date”

William Shakespeare, “Sonnet”

Perhaps the most recognizable piece of poetry ever written, giving truth to its couplet “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,/ So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Curious that for a love song, it refers so rarely to the inamorata. 


A YEAR IN POEMS, 3/11/21

Since January 1 of this year, I have been choosing a poem a day for my own personal indulgence.

Poetry, like art, is always a personal indulgence. You like a poem because you have heard it before or because your mother read it to you or because it reminds you of a friend. You like a poem because there is a clever rhyme or a haunting image. You like a poem because the message sits in your soul.

The hardest part of collecting a poem for each day had not been finding a poem, although admittedly it is still early in the year. It has been examining the verse and myself to try to understand why I have included it; why the poem is meaningful enough that I wanted it to be a part of my year.

My log follows no pattern, although I have on occasion chosen timely poems (Amanda Gorman's magnificent Inaugural ode on January 21 for instance). I also have toyed with the idea of themed days (Silly Fridays for nonsense rhyme, Ripping Saturdays for story poems, etc) but have found it hard to stay on those rigid tracks. I have excerpted the beginning of each poem, even if the most famous line is later in the piece, because I believe that a poem has to be read in entirety to have integrity. So on January 18 my entry read:

        “Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
            Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
                Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
                    A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme” 

Not even a mention of Keats's most famous line, the couplet at the end "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all you need to know." I hope that if a poem moves you, you will seek out the whole. Discovering a work of art is one of life's sweetest moments.

My entry for March 11:

“it’s 1962 March 28th
I’m sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
night is falling
I never knew I liked
night descending like a tired bird on a smoky wet plain
I don’t like
comparing nightfall to a tired bird”

Nazim Hikmet, “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved”

I chanced on this charming poem while looking for another. It rambles a bit but tells the story of a life to a rail car rhythm as a series of contradictions and discoveries.


NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 352 – March 10, 2021 - X Marks the Spot!


The problem with doing anything alphabetically is that you must run into that vestigial menace, the letter X.

There are precious few words that start with the benighted letter. Even my trusty Shorter Oxford Dictionary only devotes three pages. The word ‘xenophobia’ may be timely but in my mind, it is horribly pretentious. And even I can’t spin a useful yarn about the many variations of the prefix “xantho” (meaning yellow).

Instead, I’m going to write about Sesame Street. Bear with me. There is a connection.

Although I am slightly old to be a Sesame Street child, I will confess to watching it with religious fascination when I was younger. Even at nine or ten-years, there was something comfortable about the familiar rote lessons and the easy puzzles (I could tell “which of these things is not like the others” with the best of them). Beyond that, there was the sense of warmth and family that the show projected, a sort of cradling in a safe environment that even a jaded peri-teen could relish.

I discovered the show around the time of a turbulent family move from New York to Boston. In my new turf, I didn’t know the streets or the shops or even the television stations. I had no friends at first. But there, on an unfamiliar channel but just as cheerful and welcoming as ever, were my old friends – monster, chimp and human. I could count (literally) on the corny rhymes, the broad puns and the wholesome songs. I could revel in the fact that everyone who arrived on the street was always part of the neighborhood.

There are many, many vignettes from the old shows that have stuck with me and many of them are now my canonical language. When in the operating room I would count spinal levels ala the Count (“One spinal level, two spinal levels, hah ha ha!”) every nurse who was a mother would chuckle along with me. I could joke about “people in the neighborhood” or sing a song that was “simple to last the whole day long” and people would laugh or sing with me.

One of my favorite moments, buried deep in my early watching days, would feature on days when the show was brought to us by the letter X. I would wait in eager anticipation for the furry green sleuth Sherlock Hemlock, deerstalker on head and magnifying glass in hand, to make his dramatic appearance. “Egads!” he would sing with only somewhat comic seriousness. “X marks the spot/ X means there’s danger” and so forth.

I knew my alphabet well before I watched Sesame Street. But I'm not sure I loved it quite so dearly.


NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 352 – March 3, 2021 - False Bravado


When is too long not long enough?

On this Island of artificial time and enforced separation, we have suffered through almost a year of stricture. We have masked and stood our ground, waiting patiently for the scientific miracle that finally arrived, Then, with less patience but more resolve, we have waited for the inevitable farce of rolling that miracle out.

The ordeal has seemed forever, this year of solitude, fraught with loss and sacrifice on everyone’s part. Finally, with the turn of the new calendar page, we have started to see some glimmer of relief, the faintest outline in the fog of a causeway that will lead us off the Island. Will lead us home.

Now is not the time to lose patience or resolve. Now is not the time to ignore the discipline that gave us this mere suggestion of relief. Now is not the time to abandon the measures that are leading us forward.

But that is exactly what our so-called leaders are doing. Texas and Mississippi are scaling back any emergency declaration, declaring their states 100% open, well before anything of substance has changed. To think that the global crisis can be beaten by sheer force of will, that we may “fake the end of the pandemic until you make the end of the pandemic,” is both dangerous and delusional.

No, I won’t be leaving my Island for the moment. It has seemed like forever, but the only real forever, oblivion, lies ahead for those who ignore the scientific truth. Too long, too soon. I’ll choose patience and hope and what I know is the safer course.