Poem-A-Day: Jeannie Gambill

My children are eleven and about-to-be-thirteen. Sometimes I wonder whether I will ever stop worrying about them. I’m confident the answer is likely no.

Sometimes at school events, I test this. I’ve been teaching at this school for eighteen years. They’ve been attending this school since they were four. They treat the campus — which, after all, is a comparatively safe one most of the time — like they have the run of it. This is not uncommon among faculty children who have grown up within its walls and gates.

But I still worry. Part of me wants to walk them to their building every morning and pick them up from it after school. (I don’t, though, not anymore.) And sometimes when we go to a game, I even let them run off and play — excuse me, “hang out” — with their friends on the other side of the fields, and I plant myself in the bleachers as if it were the only place I wanted to be.

On such occasions I like to tell my friends I’m snapping off a helicopter blade.

At the last reading I gave, several poets were presenting their work, and one of them, Jeannie Gambill, read this one. It resonated, to say the least.

I sometimes think I will start to relax when my kids are past the age of twenty-five. Jeannie assures me this will not be the case.

***

Directive
to a grown daughter

When you ride your motorcycle
wear your helmet.
Not the half helmet.
Wear your full helmet
always.
When you go out on your motorcycle
take only streets
where
there are no cars
no trucks
no buses
no other moving vehicles.
Do not go out in the rain.
Never on the freeways.
When you decide instead
to go on your bicycle
be faithful to all of these
instructions. The routes
you’ve shown us you take to work
through neighborhoods
on your bicycle, there are
cars parked on these narrow
streets. Be careful. It’s hard
to see you.
Your motorcycle surely lost
from view when you are in traffic.
Do not go into the traffic.
Do not go anyplace where
there is danger. Stay
blocks away from any vehicle
in which the driver
is un-focused. Please say
you will do these things.
When you train on the highways
in the hills   when you want
the challenge   need the long
stretch   the cumulative miles
when you bike into the hills

when you take your bicycle
round the curve   slow
on the upward incline
and   down   down   gaining speed
the curve   go round the curve
go round and down the hill’s
curve     not too fast.
When you line it out
the song of you
adhere please
to this
entreaty.

***

Jeannie Gambill’s poetry has appeared in Gulf Coast, Cenizo, The Weight of Addition: An Anthology of Texas Poetry, Untameable City: Poems on the Nature of Houston, and the Texas Poetry Calendars of 2011 and 2012. She was recipient of the 2011 Dana Award for Poetry, and a winner in the Artlines Competition (2012). She has been a featured poet in Houston’s Public Poetry Reading Series and was a finalist in the Ruth G. Hardman/Nimrod Poetry Competition. She lives in Bellaire, Texas.

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Poem-A-Day: Ani diFranco

So, the connection and crossover between poetry and song is storied and long. I think it was Paul Otremba, in a poetry workshop I was taking, who once suggested (and I’m paraphrasing) that if the song lyrics could stand on their own, if they didn’t need the experience of the music behind them to be meaningful or have an impact, they were probably also poetry. This seems like as wonderful an explanation as any I’ve ever heard about where these two forms overlap.

One of my favorite artists, without question, is the incomparable Ani diFranco. I love her work. Sometimes her albums (and her concerts) offer us a bit of spoken-word poetry, and because I’m keen to demonstrate that poetry comes to us in sometimes unexpected places and unexpected ways, tonight I’m sharing this song/poem of hers.

“Tamburitza Lingua” appears on the Reveling/Reckoning double album. It captures, adeptly, the existential angst of life in America at the apprehensive end of the last century and precarious dawning of this one, intertwined with the existential angst also of being a human of a particular mindset, age, and consciousness. I think you’ll understand this as you listen to the words, which are backed up deftly with a minimalist score that increases the feelings in the poem in an unexpectedly catchy, but never kitschy, way. (As a side note, a “tamburitza” is a mandolin-like instrument played in Slavic regions, and “lingua” means resembling or a part of a tongue.)

There are other videos of this song which are perhaps more interesting to watch, but I’m not really focused on that. This is a beautiful image, the lyrics show up like a moving poem over it, and the audio is good. Please to enjoy.

http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=tamburitza+lingua&qpvt=tamburitza+lingua&view=detail&mid=608041E006FCCCF07D49608041E006FCCCF07D49&FORM=VRDGAR

12 Days of Christmas Music That Isn’t Awful (Day 8)

Have you ever wanted to cry from a Christmas song?  I don’t mean in the my-ears-are-bleeding-and-I-can’t-believe-someone-committed-this-refuse-to-a-recording-for-sadistic-posterity sense, but in the unexplainable sense.  The way it feels when something just triggers your tear reflex, and you weep for no apparent reason that you or anyone else can discern.

When I was a child, “Christmas Time Is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas made me cry.

Now, I looked forward to this holiday special every year and never missed it, but inevitably the scene of the children all skating on the pond, of Snoopy flying across the ice like joyfulness personified, struck a chord in me I didn’t like to acknowledge.  I didn’t have the conscious vocabulary then to express Charlie Brown’s angst myself, but I definitely felt a malaise come December 27th, after the holiday was finished and my cousins and I had separated from our inevitable holiday sleepover and there was nothing to look forward to but going back to awful school.  (I think that’s why I celebrate New Year’s Eve so persistently now.)  My father explained to me, when I was a child, that I had the “Christmas blues” and was sad that the holidays were over, and while this made sense to me logically, it didn’t really scratch the itch of not understanding my sadness.

And this song made me cry, inexplicably, every time I heard it, even into my early adulthood.  It doesn’t anymore, and in fact I rather like it.  I’m not sure, honestly, I ever didn’t like it.  Such a conundrum.

So this morning my kids gave their holidays concerts at school.  They sang with everyone else in their grades a delightful collection of holiday songs highlighting Christmas, Hanukkah, the winter weather, and world peace.  My son’s concert was fun and sweet, several dozen first graders bravely soldiering through some very cute melodies.  Then the third grade arrived, with my daughter front and center.  The opening notes of the first song wafted out of the piano, and boom — they opened with this song.  It was beautiful, clear, charming, and even better than Vince Guaraldi’s chorus of cherubs.  I very nearly started crying again, and this time I think I understood.

It’s not just about angst.  It’s not just about the emotional confusion of being a child and not understanding everything you want to know about yourself yet, or having the language to know how to ask someone else to explain it to you.  It’s not just about being younger than most when you come to the epiphany that life has a dark side, too.

It’s also about beauty and love and the preciousness of a singular moment when things fall into place the way they’re supposed to, and recognizing that sometimes that gift can happen to you, too.

 

 

So now we’re out of school.  I still have a few finals left to grade today and tonight, and then I’ll be done with this semester.  Yay.

Happy Texas Independence Day!

And here’s a poem for you.  I wrote it about ten years ago.

March 2nd, 2003

We sit, muted, restless of purpose
and wanting to feel joy.
It is a birthday, mine,
but it could be anyone’s.
We talk about movies, popular films
lacking in consequence or grace,
for thirty-seven minutes.

We are saying to each other, here,
here, take this.  I can give you
half an hour without news broadcasts,
without manufactured terror.
But such a long time lends itself
again to draining, and the subtle,
anxious bone of malcontent creeps.

It has the nerve to give my mother’s
lemon chicken a tired flavor.
They give me small envelopes of money
without cards.  We are all effete.

We are all waiting.
Later, at home, we turn on the radio
at surprise moments to see if
war has broken out.

Embracing my Inner Goth (part 5)

Look!  It’s another installment of my six-part gothiness series.  You can read the previous four parts by clicking on these links:

Embracing My Inner Goth (part 1)

Embracing My Inner Goth (part 2)

Embracing My Inner Goth (part 3)

Embracing My Inner Goth (part 4)

***

Part V:  More Fangs!

A few months after Tiny Beowulf, our second child, was born, my husband and I went away for the weekend.  Not far, just a few hours’ drive, but this getaway vacation was a big deal.  We headed to San Antonio, where I have family and friends, and which is also a great city to get away to when you don’t want to be gone for long or be too distant.  We saw a friend’s acting re-debut that Friday night and gallivanted around downtown and the Riverwalk that Saturday night with my cousin Andy.  It was a fantastic time that also taught us the valuable lesson that it was, in fact, perfectly okay to be away from our toddler and infant for a couple of days while they hung out with their doting grandparents.

But I also had a mission on this trip.  Ken Dracula (remember him from Part 2?) had moved away from Houston some years before, and my brother had told me he’d resurfaced in San Antonio — and Robert had his number.  Of course he did.  It had been over a decade since my last fangs.  Their color no longer matched my pearly whites so well, and as I’d grown into an adult, my jaw had grown too, so the bridge didn’t even fit well anymore.  I’d decided it was time for a new set.  I rationalized that I could be a vampire at school for Hallowe’en instead of the same predictable witch like so many of the other teachers.

I made an appointment with Ken to get some new fangs made.

I could not, however, entice my husband to come on this appointment with me.  “I want to take a nap,” he said that Saturday afternoon.

I certainly didn’t want to go alone.  But Andy was coming to meet us; maybe he could show up a little early?

“I like that idea,” my husband said through his yawn.  “Go spend time with your cousin.”

Andy was happy to go with me.  He seemed to look on this errand as a weirdly grand adventure; I looked on it with excitement, an exuberant throwback to my younger days to prove I hadn’t lost my sense of self in becoming a mom, as so often I’d seen happen to women at my stage of life.

We got to Ken’s apartment, and immediately I felt something was off.  For one thing, it was hard to find him.  Not the building itself, which was actually rather easy; it was difficult to figure out where the entrance to his apartment was.  The building was a retail storefront of indeterminate identity, closed on the weekends.  Ken’s apartment ended up being in the back of the building.  A few phone calls and some wandering in the driveway later, Ken came out of a screen door onto his porch to meet us, all flip-flops and bermuda shorts and faded t-shirt, all tousled hair and bags under his eyes and anemic, gaunt frame.  It had been a very long time since I’d seen Ken Dracula, but in his younger days, he’d been reasonably good-looking and spunky and generally entertained by every aspect of his life.  This Ken was a changed man; he did not appear to have weathered the intervening decade well.  He’d gone all nosferatu; instinctively I worried about him, but then I brushed the feeling away.  I barely knew the man.  He was my brother’s contact, and even Robert barely knew the man anymore.

Suddenly I thought, What the hell am I doing here?  I’m a mother, for pete’s sake.  I’m a grown woman.  The image of myself as a twenty-year-old traipsing up the stairs in my parents’ house as quickly as I could to hide my fangs from my own mother — that woman who is a grandmother now — shimmered briefly and then faded like a ghost in the clear reason of self-awareness.

I was on a fool’s errand.

But Ken had seen us; we couldn’t leave now without being jerks, and jerks we were not.  Clumsy, manic, he bounded down the few porch steps and held out his hand to me to shake it.  I had the impression of someone who never got many visitors anymore.

Andy gave me a sideways glance as if to say, Is this the guy who’s going to make you fangs?  Honey, I love you, but you’re kind of a freak.  What he muttered quietly was, “You ready?  Because it looks like Ken Dracula is.”

We were ushered up onto the porch and then through the screen door into a cramped kitchen that was more clutter than function.  Pots and pans and tupperware pieces piled onto tiny squares of countertop.  A few half-empty supermarket-brand spice bottles littering the top of the ancient stove unit.  A sink whose white enamel was chipped, rust stains dripping from the drain vents.  On a fridge too new to be vintage and too old to be trustworthy, crumbling newspaper clippings and fliers from the San Antonio club scene.  The walls were covered in empty cardboard daiquiri carriers with here and there an early 90s-era CD box.

This place was such a far cry from Ken’s former, tastefully decorated apartment in Houston I was actually afraid, for a moment, of what I had gotten myself into.

He gestured for me to sit upon the red chair in the middle of the kitchen.  It was one of those dinette models that in another setting would have been cutesy-kitsch sitting next to a sparkling formica table against a turquoise wall.  But here, resting with its back up against a cluttered one-foot-by-one-foot butcher block island — because that’s all that this kitchen could fit — it took on the aspect of a dentist’s chair.  Orin Scrivello, D.D.S. came to mind.  And then so did Sweeney Todd.

Andy had been discreetly peeking through the doorways — there were two.  When Ken stepped out to retrieve his tools, my cousin hissed me over to take a look.  One opened into a hallway, which Ken had disappeared down into, that led to other rooms in various states of disarray.  A pile of laundry in a corner, a short stack of yellowing Anne Rice paperbacks next to an end table.  The other doorway revealed a large room that might have been great for entertaining with its hardwood floor and lack of furniture.  And maybe it was used for parties: we saw festive crepe-paper decorations and man-sized cardboard character cutouts of Frankenstein and Darth Vader.  A frayed straw sombrero topped an ancient stereo cabinet, and large speakers stood a sad sentry in the corners.

Andy said, “Where did you find this guy?”  I couldn’t tell if he was terrified, bemused, or in awe.

“Um…” I began, but then Ken came back.  He glanced at us as if to wonder why I wasn’t sitting in the chair but said nothing, and I quickly sat down on the puffy red vinyl seat.

Ken had brought his denture acrylic and latex gloves.  Instead of using metal tools, he used a bamboo skewer and some Q-tips.  In spite of his apartment and his general appearance, it was clear to me that he was operating safely.  His materials were reliable.  I felt ashamed of my inner voice for questioning the situation.

It was just fangs, that’s all.  Easy-peasy.  Just like he’d done hundreds of times before.

While Ken worked — and, I had to admit, with competence — he chatted easily with Andy about the night life in San Antonio and about Anne Rice.  The club scene was all right, Ken guessed, but then he took on a slightly sad tone when he began talking about the woman who had been his idol.  While my bridge was curing, the acrylic heating up in my awkwardly open mouth as I tried not to compulsively touch my tongue to the bar behind my teeth, Ken patiently answered Andy’s questions about the author, who had in recent years (a.k.a. Andy’s adolescent and early adult life) fallen out of the mainstream.

“She sort of stopped writing her vampire and witch books a while back,” Ken said with…was that a hint of wistfulness?  “After her husband died a few years ago, she just sort of…stopped.”  Ken was quiet a moment, checking on my fangs, putting the final shaping touches to them.  I looked up into his eyes, which focused intently on his handiwork and not at all on me, though my face lay in his gaze.  I wondered if Ken still worked in a dental office.  Then he said, “Of course, losing your partner…well, no one ever really recovers from that, do they.”  It wasn’t a question.  And no, it wasn’t wistfulness, either, but commiseration.

Ken himself had lost his partner a few years before, he informed Andy, as if I were supposed to have known about it already and just hadn’t brought my cousin up to speed because I couldn’t speak while in the dentist’s chair.  And then suddenly Ken’s appearance, his apartment, his bizarre decor came into clear, puncturing focus.

“But Annie used to throw these amazing Hallowe’en parties every year in New Orleans,” he continued.  “I used to go out there and make fangs for people.”  He began shuffling around in a clutter of papers and photographs from one of the nearby stacks.  “I’d set up in the corner and just crank them out for the guests, fifteen dollars a pop.”  He half-smiled.  “That was back in the day.  Fangs were cheap then.”

I’ll say, I thought.  These are setting me back fifty.  I mentally shrugged it off.

He dug out an ancient photo of himself in full Dracula regalia and make-up, fangs prominently protruding from his grin, the affectionate arm of Anne Rice herself, cloaked in black panné velvet, slung around his shoulders.  As he showed off his photo to us, a little of the spark of exuberance the old Ken Dracula had radiated back in the day tried to shine.  I would have smiled politely had the bridge finished curing.  Andy did so for both of us.

“That’s really cool,” he said.  He sounded sincere.

I sort of waved my hand a little in the direction of my mouth.

“Oh, of course,” Ken said and removed my new bridge.  I relaxed my jaw and took a deep breath.  He inspected my new set and then smiled.  “All done,” he assured me and handed them over.  As he explained the rules for caring for my new fangs — rules I’d heard before and remembered well — I noticed that the color was slightly too dark, that the bridge itself was a little jagged in places.  I put them back in and tested the fit.

Just a bit too snug to be comfortable, like wearing retainers I had grown out of long ago.  I knew I wouldn’t be wearing these again.  But I didn’t say a word other than a very sweet “thank you.”  Ken smiled.

“So does Anne Rice still have that big Hallowe’en party every year?” Andy asked.

Ken blinked his eyes thoughtfully a couple of times before answering.  “Well, I haven’t been back for some time,” he said.  “But last I heard, the party was still going strong.  Annie, though, she hasn’t been seen there in years.”

***

Click on this link to be taken to the final installment in this series.  Thanks for reading!

Embracing My Inner Goth (part 6)

 

A Reminder and A Poem…

…and the poem is a reminder.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time memorializing 9/11 today, even though it is a Tuesday and the sky is that gorgeous shade of blue that heralds the impending drift of autumn. But I do want to highlight a poem that is particularly meaningful, in case you want to read it, entitled “How My Life Has Changed” by Hilary North. Here’s the link to a prose-poem version of it.

And here’s a piece I wrote about anxiety last year at this time.

In a short moment, I will get on with the rest of my day, not forgetting or diminishing what happened, but also realizing that to dwell upon it could lead to a waste of all the other wonderful things I could be doing to make my life and the lives of people around me better and more fulfilling.

For another reminder, this Thursday is the 13th of the month. I call upon all rêveurs to celebrate with me!

What is she talking about? you may be wondering.

If so, you’re not alone. Here are two previous posts — the first to jog your memory or the second to clue you in, if you’re new to Sappho’s Torque (and if you are, welcome!).

Be well.

Three of the Best Books I’ve Ever Read Which Made Me Miserable While I Was Reading Them

It seems like everyone comes out with a list of must-read books each summer.  And since I’m clearly too late to jump on that bandwagon, I thought I’d do it up a little differently and give you some suggestions of books which are very, very good but which made me rather unhappy while I was reading them.  These are books which were well written or technically astute enough to break through my misery, distaste, or other negative reaction to convince me they were still awfully good books.

And a warning: this post isn’t just a series of book reviews.  I’ve often said that one Continue reading “Three of the Best Books I’ve Ever Read Which Made Me Miserable While I Was Reading Them”