Bees, Seasons, Lanyards, Ruby Bridges, and Tubs of Acquiescence: Plath, Blochs, Collins, Sarton, and Pinsky
As April comes to a close, I’ll let you in on a secret. I set out to read a book a day in April and succeeded. Granted, I made a pile of slim volumes and mostly read those – it helped that in the United States it has been National Poetry Month. But, Yippee!
487)Ariel by Sylvia Plath, 1961 (hard copy)
This is a roundup of Plath’s later poems introduced by Robert Lowell. She died in 1963 and the book was reissued in four additional re-printings before 1965, so Lowell amended the introduction to acknowledge her death.
I know Plath to be considered one of the preeminent 20th Century poets. This is the first time I’ve read her work in an extended fashion. Some of the poems are violent and others domestic, for example, the multiple poems in a series about bees. But even Plath’s bees are murderesses, dangerous, like a Roman mob.
I found it painful to read this book – I couldn’t get beyond her suicide – especially since a number of her poems refer to her attempted suicides and suicidal thoughts. I’ve known a lot of people who completed suicides, so this is not an abstract concept to me. I find it voyeuristic to read Plath’s work, thinking of all the rage, despair, and self-destructiveness encapsulated in it. It’s very hard to help someone truly intent on suicide, but I can’t stop thinking of her poems as pleas for help, daggers thrown at readers, family, friends. Not someone I’ll seek out again.
495) Moving Stillness by David Samuel Bloch and Julie Hagan Bloch, 1999 (hard copy)
Years ago, when I was in the thick of paper arts as a hobby, Julie Bloch was on a paper arts listserv with me. She talked about her books with her husband and I bought one.
Their books combine David’s award-winning haiku with Julie’s gorgeous carved block stamps. I was going through a phase of carving stamps out of erasers (you can make quite lovely stamps with not too much practice, although nowhere near the level of an artist like Julie).
They live in Hurleyville, New York in the Northern Catskill Mountains, not far from where I grew up. You can visit their website and buy their books and music. As I told Julie years ago, David’s haiku and her images seemed to me like tiny jeweled, familiar moments out of my childhood.
Their work moves through multiple cycles of seasons, remarking on frosts, spring peepers (tiny frogs who gather by the scores and sing together in early spring evenings – it is the sound of spring to many living in the temperate United States), summer thunder, happy dogs, fall rains…
“Mid-April sun, you’ve missed some…
ice on the lake,
snow on the forest floor”
“White ball bounces off…
bunny, wait, don’t you want
to help me walk the dogs?”
This is a lovely book to take outside, read a bit, then sit quietly, smelling, listening, seeing… And you might yourself be inspired to try your hand at a little haiku.
485) The Trouble with Poetry by Billy Collins (2005, hard copy)
This is the last of my Billy Collins’ books.
It starts with a poem: “You, Reader.” He often includes a poem to his readers. While the poem pulls us to him and acknowledges us, it also says, somewhat forcefully, “hey! this is nothing special, I’m just noticing everything around me – you can do it too.” Collins didn’t start writing until he was 40 and he likely has a little less sense of proprietorship than some other poets.
And the book includes one of my favorites:
“The Lanyard” (a lanyard goes around your neck – you hang name tags and such on it and American kids often make them at camp, as Collins did) with part of its fourth stanza:
“She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sickroom,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.”
You can read it in full (and if you haven’t, please, please do!) here and listen to him recite it here. (How many American poets can announce the content of their next poem to clapping as the audience anticipates a familiar poem?)
He goes on to funnily and poignantly talk about all that his mother gave him (“a beating heart, strong legs, bones and teeth,”) and him giving her a lanyard – and skillfully captures and integrates the vast amount we owe our parents, our inability to ever repay them, with a little’s boy’s confidence that giving his this tchotchke would make them “even.” And as you let the poem roll around in your head, you see (refracting) all of the relationship – the enormity and impossibility of a debt repaid, his childish selfishness, but also the fact that, as trite as his little gift was, it was also, in its way, a lot – and nothing.
Having read Sarton, Plath, Pinsky, and Collins in the same week, I have a better sense of what people mean when they demean Collins’ poetry. While he has a way of capturing little important moments powerfully, his poems are mostly small – not searing like Plath, not dense and powerful and opaque like Pinsky. But, while I can enjoy those other poets, I still prefer Collins – over and again he captures and turns on its head and brings to our attention that little thing that happened, making us see its poignancy, showing us our mortality, placing us within a vast universe, and celebrating life.
491) A Grain of Mustard Seed by May Sarton, 1971 (hard copy)
Years ago I read a biography of Sarton (1912-1995) and some of her autobiographies that I think I happened upon at Artis Books. By the time I was done, I was struck by what a pain in the butt she was – whiny, needy, clingy, hanging onto Elizabeth Bowen until she threw her off, overstaying places, draining her loved ones. Oh my. This put me off her, unloading the books as quickly as I could. But I held on to A Grain of Mustard Seed and decided to read it in the past few days.
The poems are divided into sections: the first, focuses on the 1960s, another memory and Europe, one section on animals, and the last: religion and death. One, “The Ballad of Ruby” is the story of Ruby Bridges, the beautiful, terrified little black girl who desegregated her school despite daily threats, hatred, and horror. The poem chronicles her story and tells how Ruby internalized the epithets and moves to the decision that black skin is ugly and then to the notion that whites may be pretty on the outside, but are black and ugly on the inside. Other poems chronicles Dr. King’s death and the Kent State student shootings.
But Sarton can be silly too, writing about: “My parrot is emerald green, His tail feathers, marine.”, the challenges of photographing frogs, and a lovely “Eine Kleine Snailmusik.” These are poems to savor, read and reread, with depths to plumb. Like many artists, her work belies her life.
478) Jersey Rain by Robert Pinsky (2000, hard copy)
Finally, Jersey Rain, the last of my books of single-authored poetry.
This book of poems is about memory – growing up in the Northeastern United States, enduring his mother’s insanity, turning to poetry and literature to find sustenance and relief. His poems are dense with reference – to history, classical Greek and Roman literature and myth, other poets. But it is also accessible, such as his prose poem, “An Alphabet of My Dead” where his lists and describes the sad and tragic losses he has known. And “ABC”
“Any body can die, evidently. Few
Go happily, irradiating joy,”
continuing blithely through the alphabet as he talks about the most weighty topic of them all.
“Not a ‘window on the world’
But as we call you,
A box a tube
Homey miracle, tub
Of acquiescence, vein of defiance.
Your patron in the pantheon would be Hermes”
Hermes was the messenger god, son of Zeus, carrying messages between the gods and humans, as televisions carry messages between today’s gods (Reality show winners, movie stars, Rupert Murdoch) and all of us. It takes effort to read Pinsky, but it is worth it – I don’t get all the references, but I get enough. And I know from his class that his work is meant to be read. Out loud. Over and over again, as all poetry should be.
So, the end of a month of a lot of poetry. More than I’ve ever read before. Lots that I want to go back to. Lots that I enjoyed, plenty that moved me, some too much. I feel more comfortable and at home with poetry now. That makes me feel good, like I’ve accomplished something, added a lovely, new dimension to my reading. And I’m continuing to read my books about poetry – how to read a poem, the sounds of poetry, poemcrazy, etc. I’ll keep you posted!
The Berry With Many Names
All hail the Saskatoons, June Berry, Shad Bush, Service Berries, Amelanchiers! Hundreds of them thrive where I hike my dogs daily. They are a tree that bears a berry-like pome (like an apple). Up here, people call them “Sugar Plums” which is probably the most accurate name.
June berries cycle through good years and bad, at least up here, blooming as they do, so early in the spring before every other pome and berry, they frequently get frost damage and/or lack for pollinators because it is too cold. Not this year – it was a warmish day today and it is going to get hot. Yippee! Should be an excellent june berry year.
I love berry picking and june berries are one of my favorites. Not only do they grow on a smallish tree making them easy to reach, but they also have a luscious, succulent taste that, to me, is a cross between a grape and a truly ripe, excellent plum. Very rich and sweet and fruity. Excellent eaten out of hand, unparalleled in cobblers, and amazing in jam. These trees should have ripe fruit in July and the season often lasts through August. Come on up! I’ve got an extra bucket.
Happy reading, Ruby