Poem-A-Day: John Donne (again)

John Donne wrote his fair share of love poetry, some of it racy. If you saw yesterday’s poem by him, you know that even his spirituality could be infused with passion of more than one sort. It’s no great stretch to imagine that anyone who feels things so deeply might also feel deep pain, deep anger, even deep resentment.

In the poem “Witchcraft By A Picture,” Donne expresses the leavings of trauma from a failed affair, but I invite your commentary on what’s happening in this poem. What witchcraft? Why witchcraft? How does he leave things?

***

Witchcraft By A Picture

 

I fix mine eye on thine, and there
Pity my picture burning in thine eye;
My picture drown’d in a transparent tear,
When I look lower I espy;
Hadst thou the wicked skill
By pictures made and marr’d, to kill,
How many ways mightst thou perform thy will?

But now I’ve drunk thy sweet salt tears,
And though thou pour more I’ll depart;
My picture vanished, vanish all fears
That I can be endamaged by that art;
Though thou retain of me
One picture more, yet that will be,
Being in thine own heart, from all malice free.

 

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Women Writer’s Wednesday 4/8/15

Shortly after I’d graduated from college and was teaching, one of my coworkers at Houston Community College, Eddie Gallaher, introduced me to the poetry of Leslie Adrienne Miller. “She’s good,” he said. “You’ll like her.”

He spoke of her as if he knew her personally. She was a contemporary poet, still producing work. He handed me her book Yesterday Had A Man In It. The author photo on the back cover was of a beautiful, young looking woman.

I had never read Miller’s work before and was happy to take it home and give it a look. “Thank you,” I told him and slipped it into my briefcase.

That night I opened up to a random page and started reading. After that poem was finished, I flipped to another random page and started reading again. And again. Soon I just went to page one and dug in, then read the entire volume in a single night. Miller’s poems imprinted upon me in a way that other poems, other poets, simply hadn’t. I couldn’t explain why — and to this day, I’m not sure I can. I just read them and love them. I don’t flag them to teach one day, I don’t recommend them to people obsessively for two weeks after I’ve read them, I don’t leave her books out on my coffee table. I just read them and love them.

And sometimes they make me want to write.

When I first read Yesterday Had A Man In It, I finished it in the middle of the night after a long work day. At the time I was on a sestina kick; that was my favorite and go-to form back then. (I confess I still enjoy writing them.) At that time I was trying to process a relationship that had sort of maybe ended but not for any identifiable reason other than distance. It had been with a good man whom I loved, who wouldn’t say he loved me but sometimes really acted like it. And the relationship didn’t appear to have truly ended. It was in a weird place, and I was willing to allow that without complaint because of the possibility of something more our current friendship promised.

It’s possible I may have been emotionally delirious.

At any rate, I picked up a pen and a legal pad and, in response to Miller’s book, wrote this poem. It first appeared in my chapbook Barefoot on Marble: Twenty Poems, 1995-2001.

 

***

 

Bleeding the Sky

 

In the time when my fingernails
were painted to perfection with a color
called “Granite” (poorly named, for proudly I wore it), I wished
for perfection poetic like the sky’s and knew as do the sage
gods (with wisdom buried and hard to recognize) it did not exist, could not
exist, as long as I thought about, wished for it.

 

I understood finally that it
was no small thing, that I could not drag my fingernails
across the sky (dark as a blackboard) and not
expect it to bleed with a dark color,
the color of wild primrose and sage
bound together with the strings of a deep red wish.

 

And I read the other poems, the wishes
of people who had scraped past its
perfection, beyond the sky where stars (like sage
old nuns) lay embedded like granite pebbles, breaking my thin fingernails
when I disagreed and tried to scrape them away to write their pale colors
out of the sky. And those other poems were not

 

gentle! Their words twisted my heart into knots
and turned my brain onto its side, wishing
for darkness to overpower their colors:
fear and passion and shame and anger, and love so deep it
grows outward from myself until its reach is longer than my fingertips’ –
even after I’ve stretched my arms out to touch the sagging

 

sky. And those other words were the sky, painted in colors (sage
and wild primrose and granite and black and red) and not
forgiving of my inept, fumbling fingers.
But I wanted to write! And even so I wished
a paradox: for you to hold my impulse down, to keep it
from spilling the perfect sky’s blood-colors

 

on my hands… but even now I do not know how to keep the colors
from their heaviness, to stop them from their sagging.
Had you been there you’d have had no small task holding it,
that fire-out-of-bounds impulse, and I could not
have been responsible for my actions or my wishes…
But I might have held you down with the sky (saved from my nails

 

by the exquisite distraction of you), my fingers dipped in the colors
of sage and wild primrose red (the hues of wishes
never before filled), not ashamed to paint granite words all over you and love it.

 

 

 

In Praise of Love Notes

I was nineteen, almost twenty. We were on the glorious five-week hiatus our university called Winter Break. My college friends all hailed from different states, and everyone had gone home for vacation. And one of them wanted me to go out with him, so to make sure I thought about him while we were on opposite sides of the country, he wrote me a letter. He was an English major and I liked Shakespeare so the prose was filled with archaic forms of “you”: thou and thee and thy sprinkled everywhere like inky blossoms trying really hard.

 

We all wrote letters in those days, honest-to-goodness personal notes written on paper and folded into envelopes, with stamps and ink and licking the whole thing. Stamps and envelopes weren’t self-adhesive, the paper was real stationery, email was not a thing we’d even heard of, only drug dealers and doctors carried cell phones. We had long-distance phone cards, but it cost a lot more money to talk on the phone than it did to write a letter, so we wrote. The more romantically-minded of us even used sealing wax for fun, for special occasions, though often it had cracked and crumbled by the time it left the post office.

 

Letters are so much fun to receive. When I was a child, any piece of mail I might receive was a treasure. Birthday cards, letters from pen-pals, Highlights magazine. When I was in high school, the flood of brochures from colleges and universities that started in tenth grade filled a filing cabinet before I ever sat down to write my first application essay. In college, the mail was letters from friends at faraway schools and bills. Now it’s mostly junk mail and bills. Things that must go into the recycling or into the file, things that take up mental energy but give little of value in return. I miss correspondence and, frankly, wish I were better at it.

 

The one thing I always manage to accomplish, though, is love letters. Certainly for my husband, and a different sort for my children. If I’m going on a trip without them, I leave them letters on the kitchen table to find when I’m gone. If my husband has to go on a business trip, there’s always something tucked away in his suitcase, slipped in while he’s rushing around and not paying attention, a letter or card or heart-shaped stone waiting in the pocket of his dress shirt or rolled into his socks. Other than the holiday greetings we try to send out almost every year, Valentines and anniversary cards for my husband are the only cards I still give.

 

I love letters. I adore love letters. We need, in such a busy and disjointed world, those tactile reminders, those tangible artifacts of human interaction and loving connectedness. Write a love letter today, and someone can read it every tomorrow.

 

What is the most interesting love letter you’ve ever given or received?

A Film I Hope Everyone Will See

Recently a friend and colleague of mine, director Mike Akel, released his latest project:  An Ordinary Family.  This is a movie I would like for everyone to see.  It deals with a sensitive, timely, and important subject in a funny yet poignant way, a manner which Continue reading “A Film I Hope Everyone Will See”

National Poetry Month — Just a Little Over a Week Left! (Until Next Year, That Is…)

Hey there.  Have you all written a poem or two in honor of April, National Poetry Month?  Maybe you’ve attended a poetry reading?  (I know some of you have, because I saw you at mine a few weeks ago.  Thanks!)  Or maybe you’ve gone out and purchased a book of poetry, thereby doing your small part to help stimulate the economy?  No? Hmm…we can fix that…

Go out and support a local independent bookstore this week by purchasing a book from them, ideally (since it’s still April), a book of poems.  If you don’t like to read poetry yourself, then get one as a gift for someone who does.  And for the next week or so, you can even find copies of one of my chapbooks of poetry, still available till the end of month, at Brazos Bookstore in Houston.  Here’s their website:  www.brazosbookstore.com.  (Perhaps if sales of it go well this month they’ll want to keep featuring it on their shelves.  Wouldn’t that be nice?  It could happen.)

The chapbook they have in stock right now will likely be out of print soon, so this might be one of your last chances to find it anywhere.  It’s entitled Barefoot on Marble:  Twenty Poems, 1995-2001.  I thought, for this weekend’s post, it might be nice to share with you a sampling from this volume.  Back in the late 90’s when I was living part of every year in Los Angeles, I had written a short series of poems which my friend and poetry colleague Greg Rea had dubbed “mermaid lit.”; this is one of the poems from that series, a sestina.  (And because of the vagaries of WordPress formatting, I’ve placed an asterisk each time there’s a stanza break, just to make it clear.  Sorry I had to do that, and if you WordPress bloggers out there know how to insert a space-break on here without having the formatting ripped out when the post gets published, I’d love the guidance.  Thanks.)

Enjoy!

***

Moving to Green Rain Island, Your Home

We’ve been sitting on the bed
in the place where it rains
every afternoon as a part
of the natural order of things.
The afternoons become evenings
quickly here under the rainy sky.

I recall an afternoon when a green sky
made me want to crawl into bed
and wait for the dark, wet evening
to clean the greenness away with rain.
The sky-light washed all of our things
in a pale green bath, and a part

of me wished we could make a departure
from this place, jump into the wet sky,
leaving all our things
in the house, piled on our bed
in case rains swallowed the land.  Blanket-cocooned, I trembled for rain
to wash the daylight out of the evening

air, but the green tint slid even
onto the darkness, partially
dripped in sheets by the rain,
partially a reflection on the sky
of the wet trees.  The window by the bed
shook with the wind, and little things

started to scare me.  I packed a few things
into a satchel in case we left for the evening
to sleep in your old bed
at your parents’ house.  They were never a part
of the plan, but even I could not resist the sky’s
thundering, the ugly greenness of rain.

Now, wrapped in the blanket, we watch the rain
dripping rivers on the window.  You reassure me our things
will be safe in this house, under this sky,
under our bed, and that we will stay home all evening.
I’m not wild about the weather here, but I guess it’s part
and parcel of being with you, together in this bed,

in this house, under this rainy sky,
on an island where people leave their things under their beds
and the evening is part of the afternoon.

Another Poetry Challenge

So here’s a little game for you, should you choose to accept it.  (I’m guessing at least one or two of you might.)  And it’s a contest.

It’s a popular technique these days to write poems which are inspired by fragments of poetry written by other people.  The idea is to build your own new poem around something you’ve seized upon, but to italicize the text you’ve borrowed so that it stands out from your own words.

I’ve done this below with some fragments of Sappho.  (The snippets I’ve chosen are italicized.)

Here’s your challenge:  You pick a poem, any poem, which has some words in it you like.  Then let your ideas grow around those pieces of verse into something else which is your own entirely.  Write in any form or style.  (The piece I’ve included below is a prose-poem.)  Then post your new poem into the comments section of this blog post.

I recognize writing a poem like this can take a while, so the contest will be open until the end of this month, midnight central time on the evening of March 31st.  Depending on how many entries there are, there may even be a readers’ choice run-off for the best poem.  The winner will win a lovely book — which book, I haven’t decided yet, because I’d like the prize to be tailored to fit the winning entry in some way.

Here’s an example for you, a prose-poem I wrote entitled (coincidentally) “Sappho’s Torque.”  (And yes, the poem was written before I began this blog.)  If you don’t know any other poems that you’d want to borrow text from, feel free to take the Sapphic snippets from mine here (or any other fragment of this poem, should you so desire).  Regardless of which poem you borrow from, be sure to acknowledge where your italicized stuff came from.

I’m looking forward to reading your entries!  Happy writing.

***

Sappho’s Torque

“It is too much to bear,” she said, “this weighing upon my mind.”

The roses in the garden burst in full floribundance, infusing the air with decadence and coloring the day and even the night with their velvet flesh.  “Beauty is as beauty does,” they told her, and she thought then that the garden must be the locus of outrageous fortune, a siren’s lair filled with killing thorns, slings and arrows.  So it is thus, she knew, that she first came to love the very idea of love, so often the gift of the image of a demi-god, tempered by the grotesquerie of real life.

“I am tired,” he intimates, while she relents for the love of him.

Eros, she thinks, melter of limbs, you who imprison me now again, are the sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in, who ignites my dependence and fuels it with my passion; you burn me.

She thinks that birds will fall into sea, that worms will climb the walls of the house, that lizards will come into the kitchen looking for food.  And only she will be awake to notice.

Kissing Barbie

One day in my early twenties when I was out shopping with a few friends, we happened upon a distressingly pink display of Barbie-related products in the middle of a store that wasn’t a toy store. Immediately my memory filled with all the evil wickedness of the feminine stereotype that Barbie had ever represented, everything from an unreasonable figure to ugly fashions to “Math is hard! <giggle>”

I glared with contempt at the precociously saccharine offerings and muttered, “If I ever have a daughter one day, I will never let her play with Barbies.”

One of my friends smiled at me as if she were trying really hard not to laugh. “How on earth do you think you can stop her? She’s going to play with Barbies. There’s nothing you can do about it.” She said it in her characteristically sweet lilt, a voice both mild and accommodating, but behind her mousy cuteness was something slightly more skeptical than outright disdain.

At the time, neither of us had children of our own; they weren’t even on the horizon yet. I thought, What does she know? I said, “I just won’t ever buy them for her or let anyone else buy them for her.” I think I might have even shrugged. End of story.

Parenting magazines ought to come with a recipe section for the various tasty ways one might prepare crow, meal for one or two.

***

The Barbies of today are not the Barbies of fifteen years ago. We’ve had other Bad Influences in the interim (hello, Bratz and Moxie dolls) to push Barbie into positively wholesome territory. And have you seen any of Barbie’s movies? Not only has she co-opted at least as many fairy tales as Disney (and taken just as much artistic license with them), she has done it in a way that Disney is trying to, finally: with a young female protagonist capable of making her own decisions without letting concern for what the male lead will think of her be her primary motivation. Instead, she’s motivated by thoughts of doing what’s best for her family, for her kingdom, for her pets. The generic Ken-doll boyfriend — who ends up admiring her for her compassionate spirit, independent nature, and oh yeah, good looks — is just icing on the three-layer bejeweled, beribboned, and be-flowered wedding cake. (I mean, come on, we weren’t expecting Barbie to give up her nature, were we? She’s just expanding it to include a little gray matter and a backbone.)

Don’t get me wrong: the Barbie movies are still awful. But rather than being insidiously damaging to a little girl’s burgeoning self-concept — and note I’m talking about the fairy tale ones here, not the high school diaries sort — now they’re just too goody-goody for my taste. But then, I am not their target audience, and I’ll endure the annoyingly catchy songs and cloying vocal inflection from the safety of the next room. And I do have to endure them, because my kids love the Barbie movies.

Their concept of Barbie is nothing like the Barbie of my childhood. When I was a little younger than my daughter’s age, in the late 1970s, I scored my first Barbie Doll for Christmas. I actually received two dolls, the first one a Darcy doll, who was taller and more proportionally realistic and had lush dark brown hair to her elbows. I liked Darcy just fine. She was pretty and had dark hair and eyes just like me. Her clothes were cute. I played with her and appreciated her, but on some subconscious level which I was too polite and obedient to express or even understand, I knew she wasn’t Barbie, and my friends had Barbies.

In fact, I didn’t even recognize that I’d wanted a Barbie, much less how much, until I opened the wrappings off that pink box and saw the yellow and white name. Kissing Barbie. She was new that year and all the rage. And now she was mine.

Kissing Barbie’s golden hair, long and silky, was pulled back from her ears in a tony ponytail at the back of her head. She came with a pink heart-topped tube of inky magenta lipstick as big as her torso, a petite bouquet of dark pink roses, and a layered chiffon evening gown (we’d now call this a maxi dress with pouffy sleeves) of pale pink decorated with magenta pucker-lipped kiss marks. She was a vision.

But the best part of Kissing Barbie was her function. Yes, she had one other than looking pretty. She actually kissed. You could ink up those smoochers with the enclosed tube of lipstick, press a large button in Barbie’s back, and just marvel as she would leave a kiss mark on Ken-doll’s cheek. Or on you. Or on your little brother. Or on your pale pink Easter dress, over and over again, until it resembled Barbie’s frock. Or on every sheet in the box of typing paper in your mom’s office. Or on the sofa, on the dog. Oh, the possibilities stretched as far as the heavens!

More Barbies followed as the years progressed, though none ever held quite as special a place in my affectionate heart as that first one. And when I was a teenager, being educated in the social-justice-oriented bosom of my all-girls’ Dominican high school and learning about the subtle shades of feminism from those faculty members who knew how to slip it into the conversation, Barbie and her comic-book-like proportions began to take on a different meaning for me. She was no longer the feminine ideal. She was instead a monster of the Male-Dominated World, a woman who, had she been alive, would have been seven feet tall with a giant head, so top-heavy in her bosom and so minuscule in her feet that she’d have had to crawl around on all fours.

Barbie became the freak of nature that chased the other dolls, who ran screaming in terror from her outlandish physique as she tried, unsuccessfully, to plant magenta-ink kisses upon them.

***

As I’ve said, Barbie now is not Barbie then. Barbie is now a different sort of freak. She dresses badly when she’s not in a generic evening gown. She and Ken impersonate popular characters such as Bella Swan and Edward Cullen (and I think you know how I feel about them). She wears stripper-shoes and leggings, so ugly golfers wouldn’t wear them, to astronaut camp. And though it looks like math is still hard, apparently veterinary medicine is not. And her movies, well, they’re palatable if not my particular taste.

And for those of us who prefer the dark side, there’s always Monster High.

***

I should note that my daughter has had many Barbie dolls, most of them fairies or mermaids. She even got a Monster High doll for Christmas this past year. But because she sometimes quickly Moves On To Other Things, all of those dolls held her attention for only a little while, and eventually, all of them became grossly unkempt, hair tangled like sticky straw, clothes in one state of disarray or another. The collection of them, if you were to dig them out from the corners of her room and closet, look like some sort of horror scene from a sex-ploitation movie war zone.

And if I wait long enough to dig them out of the mess, my daughter will acknowledge she doesn’t want them anymore, and I’ll fix the little dolls up, clothe them and brush their hair, collect their pink belongings into neat bundles, and send them back out into the world, presentable and redeemed. I have become a one-person Barbie shelter. Perhaps subconsciously, in an environmentally responsible sort of way, I’m making up for the fact that all my childhood Barbies probably ended up in the garbage.

Or maybe I just feel bad for her. Barbie’s old. She’s had a lot of growing up to do. And poor girl, she’s done the best she could to evolve without losing herself, without denying her core nature, without becoming unrecognizable. And isn’t that what so many of us try to do? She’s just going with the flow as best she can, trying not to drown.

So come here, Barbie, before you go, and give us a kiss.