One night at a kava bar

One night at a kava bar I read a poem about. . . well, . . . that was many years ago. As National Poetry month concludes I hope you enjoy this recording. I do not believe I have read that poem in public since that night. Much gratitude to Caleb Beissert for recording and sharing the video.

Flood Fine Arts Gallery poster design

Back in February, I came across an event poster I designed. Shot all the photos. Including the white elephant. It was a child’s toy. Laid out the type and and composed the image for the event.

The poster was almost almost tossed into the trash. Early spring cleaning. But that morning I heard Garrison Keillor read “Admiring Audubon’s Carolina Parakeets” by Rose McLarney on the February 6th podcast of The Writer’s Almanac. She was a featured poet at that Asheville event.

Memories of Asheville poetry readings returned to me. The night I heard Thomas Rain Crowe and Coleman Barks reading Hafiz and Rumi poems. Rose McLarney was a rising poet. The Flood Fine Arts Gallery provided the space and community for poets young and old to share and grow.

That summer grew me as well. June 16th, there were two poetry readings I did in Durham. Later that summer I enrolled in a 5-week writing course. And received a scholarship to attend a writers residency in Queen City.

Those were different times. All good memories. But what to do with this poetry event poster I designed?

Collision of jazz and Chinese poetry

The train was late. Or rather, I was late for the train. Work ran later than expected. Missed the 5:45. The street car was running. No mechanical problems like Monday. But a few minutes behind schedule due to a presidential rally.

I decided to skip the street car and walk to the station in order to catch the last train home. There is almost two hours between one train and the other. Walking gave me a chance to find a coffee shop and some time to catch up on reading. The Public Market was on the way, but it tends be loud. And crowded.

Stone Creek Coffee is nice and near the train station. And open until 7 p.m. It displays a nice interior design. But sometimes the atmosphere feels a bit too mod. The baristas are often impertinent. And I feel inelegant when I visit. Maybe I am getting too old to haunt swanky coffee shops. Stone Creek coffee is luxurious. In spite of pretentious barista I bought a cup and then walked to the train station to wait and read a book. It is an autobiography of the Chinese poet Tu Fu. The fact that a book published in the 1930s is still in circulation at a public library is impressive. Also interesting are the translator notes. A few weeks ago I finished reading a recent translation of Li Po poetry. The translator, Seaton, made observations similar to those made nearly 100 years ago by Ayscough and Lowell.

I struggled with one passage in the book as the train station grew loud with passengers arriving from one train and departing on a Greyhound bus. Pulling a mobile device out of my pocket I placed in ear buds and cued up episode 88 of the Discovering Jazz podcast. As I listened I read that one Chinese ideogram may require more than one word to transliterate. Sometimes an entire phrase is used to convey the idea of a single Chinese character. The last train arrived. I boarded. Found a seat. Continued reading. And listening.

The jazz podcast explored absolute pitch. The show host mentioned that Asian languages are tonal. Pronouncing a vowel with one pitch may mean one thing while pronouncing the same vowel with a different pitch provides a different meaning. I experienced that when I visited Japan. But I did not have the knowledge to appreciate it then as I do now.

Reading a dozen pages was all I managed to accomplish before the train stopped at the home station. Thankful to be homeward. Grateful for the travel disruption that mingled American jazz and Chinese poetry into one commute.

Reflections on a decade of sharing Advent poetry and art


A 183-word blog post published a few years ago became the most visited blog post I have written. How did this all begin? Part of the story started with a family tradition of creating handmade greeting cards. Part of the story involved a search for good seasonal, Christmas poems. Part of the story was how a father learned about Advent.

Last year I had the ambition to share a poem a day throughout the season of Advent. Newly discovered poems by Czeslaw Milosz, Christian Wiman, Edmund Spenser, and others. Unfortunately, work life became unmanageable due to circumstances beyond my control. Only six poems shared during last year’s 2018 Advent season.

This year the plan was to share twelve poems during the Advent season. But again, work life demands became excessively burdensome. The poems were not released. They remain in the draft category of the content management system. In spite of the hurly-burly of this December, one of the children drew a very nice drawing on the chalkboard. It accompanies the Advent calendar that our family has used each year for more than a decade.

Finally, I wrote a long-ish essay to mark the decade. A story about the handmade greeting cards, the search for good Christmas poems, and how a father learned about Advent. But I decided not to publish it. I doubt anyone is interested in the story. In lieu of that, here are blog links that highlight the last ten years of Advent art, audio recordings, blog posts, and poems.

2018

Let Evening Come, Jane Kenyon
A Scandal in the Suburbs, X.J. Kennedy
Hill Christmas, R. S. Thomas
Remembering that it happened once, Wendell Berry
Advent, Mary Jo Salter
Advent, Patrick Kavanagh

2017

Exploring 12 Days of Advent poetry

2016

A holiday podcast for Christmas Day

2015

It’s that time of year
First Sunday of Advent — Poems
Second Sunday of Advent — Poems
Third Sunday of Advent — Poems
Fourth Sunday of Advent — Poems

2012

Advent Poems (or the 12 days of Christmas poetry)

2011

Mighty Mercy, John Piper
Advent Calendar, Rowan Williams
Annunciation, Denise Levertov
The God We Hardly Knew, Óscar Romero
Mosaic of the Nativity (Serbia, Winter 1993), Jane Kenyon
Advent, Donald Hall
For Christmas Day, Charles Wesley

2010

Into The Darkest Hour, Madeleine L’Engle
The Winter Is Cold, Is Cold, Madeleine L’Engle

2009

Woodblock printing on a budget
Diy woodblock prints/greeting cards
“Christmas night,” a limited edition woodblock print
Woodblock prints/greeting cards
“Peace on earth,” a limited edition woodblock print

National Poetry Month, weekend edition, five reflections on poems

Poems well composed haunt readers. Like the ache of an old injury during inclement weather. Good poems never quite disappear. They remain. Like a stubborn clump of April snow and ice on the corner of the street that refuses to melt. Here are five reflections on poems that continue to sparkle and shine throughout the year. At least in my mind.

1.

The May 2011 edition of Poetry magazine featured a Dana Gioia poem with a haunting opening line:

“So this is where the children come to die, . . .”

How can you not keep reading this poem? It is so good. So rich. Later in the poem the speaker says, “but there are poems we do not choose to write.” From the first line of the poem to the last line, “Special Treatments Ward” is an exceptional work.

2.

Poetry continues the Great Conversation. What is truth? How do we know it? Who are we and how should we live? Often reserved for philosophers, these questions are the result of friction from winds of poetry. What came first? Philosophy? Or Poetry? Since Theogony pre-dates many philosophical writings, I submit that poetry came first. Poetry is the wind that troubles the water.

3.

On a gray, stormy afternoon, I retreated to the public library in Racine. A book of translations of Han Shan needed to be renewed for the fourth or fifth time. And the children needed to get out of the apartment. Besides, the more you check out books of poetry the more funding the library gets based on your activity and/or interest in certain subjects. Or so I am led to believe by local librarians.

I was introduced to the Cold Mountain poems during one of the library’s writers groups. Since then I have read and studied several books of translations from Wang Wei, Ryokan, Basho and others.

During the last few years, I find my writings turning toward dialogues with these poets. Here is a poem from Han Shan, a Taoist/Buddhist hermit, as translated by Red Pine:

Since I came to Cold Mountain
how many thousand years have passed
accepting my fate I fled to the woods
to dwell and gaze in freedom
no one visits the cliffs
forever hidden by clouds
soft grass serves as a mattress
my quilt is the dark blue sky
a boulder makes a fine pillow
Heaven and Earth can crumble and change

A quick read reveals a surface feast of images and imagination — the woods, the cliffs, soft grass and Heaven and Earth. After reading and thinking about this poem for several months there are questions that come to mind. Is the An Lu-shan Rebellion referred to in the third line? Is there a reference to the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara? Heaven means the emperor. Earth means the empire. Is the last line political? Or philosophical? What do I say to Han Shan? Why did you flee? What and/or who did you leave behind?

Elsewhere in the world, at that same time Han Shan wrote this poem, Beowulf was composed. Charles Martel expanded the Frankish Empire. Three hundred years later The Song of Roland would commemorate one of the battles.

On a stormy afternoon, twelve- to eighteen-foot waves batter the rocky Lake Michigan shoreline. The world through literature expands and contracts with each line of poetry read.

4.

I like how Dick Allen stated this suggestion:

“Think of books of poetry the way you think of music CDs. A CD may have 12–15 songs on it. A small book of poetry may have 30–50 poems in it. Just as good songs will be played over, so good poems will be read over and over.”

Like a single track on an album, I return to a poem by Anna Akhmatova. A Russian poem about an English play — Hamlet. The line that gets me every time I read it is:

“It was the sort of thing that princes always say.”

To me it is a catchy phrase that I want to play over and over again on the stereo. At full volume. Until it drives the neighbors in the apartment across the hall crazy.

5.

In Sam Hamill’s notes regarding his translation of a Tu Fu poem he wrote about the mingled joy and deep resignation expressed in the work.

“What is implied in the original, . . . is the notion that somehow, . . . he will not waste away sitting before the wine jug. . . . [Tu Fu] asks the question every poet asks under such circumstances: Why do we do it?”

Indeed. Why do we do it? Why read poems? In an old literary journal? Why read a poem more than 1000 years old? Or older? Why write poetry? Some may desire to write poetry in order to express themselves. I thought that was me. But not so much anymore. I write poetry in response to Wang Wei. Or Anna Akhmatova. Or Ghalib. Or Dana Gioia. My modern-day peasant efforts are to continue the Great Conversation. One line at a time.

NOTES:
Edited, condensed and updated from three previous blog posts: National Poetry Month, weekend edition, part one, National Poetry Month, weekend edition, part two, National Poetry Month, weekend edition, part three

Advent by Patrick Kavanagh

Advent
by Patrick Kavanagh

We have tested and tasted too much, lover –
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child’s soul, we’ll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.

And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.

O after Christmas we’ll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning –
We’ll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we’ll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won’t we be rich, my love and I, and please
God we shall not ask for reason’s payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
Nor analyse God’s breath in common statement.
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour –
And Christ comes with a January flower.

Advent by Mary Jo Salter

Advent
by Mary Jo Salter

Wind whistling, as it does
in winter, and I think
nothing of it until

it snaps a shutter off
her bedroom window, spins
it over the roof and down

to crash on the deck in back,
like something out of Oz.
We look up, stunned—then glad

to be safe and have a story,
characters in a fable
we only half-believe.

Look, in my surprise
I somehow split a wall,
the last one in the house

we’re making of gingerbread.
We’ll have to improvise:
prop the two halves forward

like an open double door
and with a tube of icing
cement them to the floor.

Five days until Christmas,
and the house cannot be closed.
When she peers into the cold

interior we’ve exposed,
she half-expects to find
three magi in the manger,

a mother and her child.
She half-expects to read
on tablets of gingerbread

a line or two of Scripture,
as she has every morning
inside a dated shutter

on her Advent calendar.
She takes it from the mantel
and coaxes one fingertip

under the perforation,
as if her future hinges
on not tearing off the flap

under which a thumbnail picture
by Raphael or Giorgione,
Hans Memling or David

of apses, niches, archways,
cradles a smaller scene
of a mother and her child,

of the lidded jewel-box
of Mary’s downcast eyes.
Flee into Egypt, cries

the angel of the Lord
to Joseph in a dream,
for Herod will seek the young

child to destroy him. While
she works to tile the roof
with shingled peppermints,

I wash my sugared hands
and step out to the deck
to lug the shutter in,

a page torn from a book
still blank for the two of us,
a mother and her child.

Remembering that it happened once by Wendell Berry

“Remembering that it happened once”
by Wendell Berry

Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning’s light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.

Hill Christmas by R. S. Thomas

“Hill Christmas”
by R. S. Thomas

They came over the snow to the bread’s
purer snow, fumbled it in their huge
hands, put their lips to it
like beasts, stared into the dark chalice
where the wine shone, felt it sharp
on their tongue, shivered as at a sin
remembered, and heard love cry
momentarily in their hearts’ manger.

They rose and went back to their poor
holdings, naked in the bleak light
of December. Their horizon contracted
to the one small, stone-riddled field
with its tree, where the weather was nailing
the appalled body that had asked to be born.

A Scandal in the Suburbs by X.J. Kennedy

A Scandal in the Suburbs
by X.J. Kennedy

We had to have him put away,
For what if he’d grown vicious?
To play faith healer, give away
Stale bread and stinking fishes!
His soapbox preaching set the tongues
Of all the neighbors going.
Odd stuff: how lilies never spin
And birds don’t bother sowing.
Why, bums were coming to the door—
His pockets had no bottom—
And then-the foot-wash from that whore!
We signed. They came and got him.