Archive for the ‘Essays on Poetry’ Category

Sunday, 4 a.m.

An endless and flooded
dreamland, lying low,
cross- and wheel-studded
like a tick-tack-toe.

At the right, ancillary,
“Mary” ‘s close and blue.
Which Mary? Aunt Mary?
Tall Mary Stearns I knew?

The old kitchen knife box,
full of rusty nails,
is at the left. A high vox
humana somewhere wails:

The gray horse needs shoeing!
It’s always the same!
What are you doing,
there,beyond the frame?

If you’re the donor,
you might do that much!
Turn on the light. Turn over.
On the bed a smutch —

black-and-gold gesso
on the altered cloth.
The cat jumps to the window;
in his mouth’s a moth.

Dream dream confronting,
now the cupboard’s bare.
The cat’s gone a-hunting.
The brook feels for the stair.

The world seldom changes,
but the wet foot dangles
until a bird arranges
two notes at right angles.

Certain cultures believe that when you dream, your soul becomes a moth that travels the world. 

For this reason, some African tribes don’t allow cats where they sleep because their souls may be captured before they wake. This is what comes to mind when I read Elizabeth Bishop’s poem Sunday, 4 a.m.

This poem was written in Brazil in 1956, the year Bishop won the Putlizer for her book North & South. She had been in Brazil for five years, arriving there from New York in 1951 to visit friends Mary Stearns Morse and Lota de Soares.

She’d met the couple in New York in 1942 and arrived in Brazil for a visit, intending on staying only a few weeks. After several delays, she decided to remain indefinitely.

Soares later became Bishop’s partner, and Bishop remained in Brazil off and on for the next 20 years. When Soares died in 1967, Bishop and Morse were the two heirs to the Soares’ estate.

In this poem, we see the world of Bishop’s Brazilian house. I imagine her looking around her room and seeing the tick-tack-toe scenery of Brazil through her window. She later paints the landscape as a puzzle of squares, crosses and dots.

She wakes in the early morning light and sees a statue of the Virgin Mary in a recess of the wall. The image of Mary in her blue robes reminds her of a crucifix and the cross- and wheel-studded landscape out the window. In earlier drafts of this poem, the landscape is crucifix- and nail-studded.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

With the crucifixion in mind, she thinks of a knife box full of rusty nails in the kitchen, and from somewhere outside the window someone yells, It’s always the same. There’s so much work to be done and you’re off doing who knows what. The horse needs shoeing! Can’t you at least do that much! The old kitchen knife box is full of rusty nails, rusty thoughts, the way we speak to one another, our nagging concerns.

A few lines later the cat enters the poem with the moth in its mouth. The word moth brings to mind the 1946 poem by Bishop called The Man Moth. In that poem, a nervous, flittery man moth tries to fly to the moon but remains trapped on earth.

Draft One, Sunday, 4 a.m. from the Bishop papers
in the Vassar College Libraries

In Sunday, 4 a.m., the moth is caught in the mouth of the cat. This is how this poem works. From one image to another, we follow the mind of the speaker as she lies in bed in a half-dream state. She is in that thin place between worlds in the early morning hours.

This kind of poem, phanopoeia, varies from logopoeia, which follows a storyline. In phanopoeia, we receive layer after layer of image: landscape, crucifix, Mary, knife box, horse, cloth, cat, moth, brook, stair, bird song. There is no plot, narrative or sequence of events for the reader to follow.

Bishop also uses rhyme scheme in this poem. Rhymed words determine where the poem goes. She needs a word to rhyme with stair and decides on bare. In her first draft, a picture is bare instead of a cupboard. It later changes to cupboard, which is more specific and reminds us of the knife box in the kitchen.

Dream dream confronting—
& now the picture’s bare.
The cat has gone a’hunting.
The brook feels for the stair.

Draft Two

In the second draft of the poem, we see the words:

and gray mind nails brokenspaces


Before dangles, the handwriting is mostly illegible, but with a magnifying glass I can piece together the words:

where the (illegible) a stair

This is where the poem opens for me. I begin to see what lies behind the images. A gray mind tries to nail down broken spaces but dangles, is incapable of nailing down the gray places in her mind.

Draft Three

These words aren’t published but show up beneath the surface of the text. The reader can sense them in the way the words are structured, in the style of poem chosen, in the voice and tone of the poet.

These broken spaces dangle in the mind. The word gray appears in the poem earlier. The gray horse needs shoeing, the gray horse needs nailed down. It’s always the same!

What is there beyond the frame of the mind, beyond our eyes. What is it we think when we turn inward and detach from our surroundings?

Surrounding the poem is the idea of subordinance, of people under the rule of the church and government. She uses the words vox humana, the voice of mankind, in line 11, to suggest Latin chant in a Catholic church service.


Brazil currently has the largest concentration of Catholics in the world. More than 73 percent of the population is Catholic. This could have been true in the 1950s as well. She must have been surrounded by images of the Virgin Mary and crucifixes.

We are thinking of the nails in the hand of Christ on the cross, we are thinking of nails in the mind of people confronted with the price for their sins.

If we look at the beginning of the poem, we see that dreams are lying low. It’s hard to piece together the broken places in our mind if what we think is secondary to the whole.

The cloth has been altered, the dreams have been altered. Mary’s close and blue, like the sky.

In draft two, we see the words that will become the final stanza:

Where the gray dark mind rises
(while) it’s foot dangles
above a bird places
two notes at right angles.

In the gray, dark mind of this poem, a bird appears. Its song rises at right angles in a two-note chorus. It later becomes:

The world never changes
the wet foot dangles
and a bird arranges
two notes at right angles

The poem ends at right angles. On our right, we see Mary Mother of God, on our left is the old kitchen knife box. We turn from right to left in the bed, we turn from the woman lying next to us to a statue of a woman in a recess of the wall. The wet foot dangles in the waters of this life, in this culture, in this home, in a world it is trying to be part of, in a place confronted with dreams.

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The writing assignment last night was from the book The Practice of Poetry, edited by Robin Behn (born 1958) and Chase Twichell (born 1950), and published in 1992. The book is a collection of writing exercises from poets who teach. It serves as a good base of exercises for writers in all genres.

I assigned the exercise by Deborah Digges (1950-2009) from the chapter entitled Evolutions: “Write a poem [or paragraph] in which an animal figures prominently. As you decide on your subject, consider an animal that fascinates, even confuses you, one that incites in you wonder, perhaps even fear. Brainstorm a bit, taking quick notes on any particular experiences you’ve had or heard about in relationship to that animal. Reread stories, fairy tales, biology texts, in which your animal appears. Go look at it if you can, or study its features in a book.
“You might also trace the etymology of its name to discover new facts and information that might trigger your imagination. For instance, squirrel comes from the Latin skia or shadow. Tortoise comes from the Greek tartarchos, meaning god of the underworld . . . . Be careful not to sentimentalize. . . .The animal is not a stand-in. The animal is itself. Look hard at your subject and render it in its strangeness, in its integrity, wholly animal.”
What struck me as I read the paragraphs today was the name Deborah Digges written on top of one of the pages. The student did that to reference the assignment, but I didn’t expect to look down and see Digges’ name as I leafed through the pages — as if she’d done the assignment herself.

Digges published four books of poetry and two memoirs and died in April 2009 in what was believed to be suicide. She apparently jumped from the upper level of the Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium on the campus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (New York Times, April 16, 2009).

When I saw the name written on the paper today, I thought of the young Deborah Digges sitting in class with her teacher Larry Levis (born 1946) in 1981, working on the same writing exercise — just as unsure of her future, hoping her teacher would like what she wrote, carefully writing her name on the top of a page, with all her hopes and dreams ahead.

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Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

The painter does not paint in order to fill the canvas with colours, any more than a poet writes to fill a page with words. — René Magritte

There are things in each of us as humans so fragile they exist nowhere except in ourselves. These watercolors by Bishop seem like fragile pieces of the poet, each a small poem in a way, providing some glimpse into the interior of her life. In 1977, she wrote in a letter to some friends, How I wish I’d been a painter . . . that must really be the best profession — none of this fiddling around with words — there are a couple of Daumiers at the Phillips that make me feel my whole life has been wasted.

Bishop had been the poetry consultant at the Library of Congress, a Pulitzer prize winner in 1956, and a Neustadt prize winner in 1955, and yet she could say she was a “poet by default.”

The paintings in this post are from the book Exchanging Hats, published in 1996. The text in parenthesis by the title is from the editor, William Benton.

Nova Scotia Landscape (watercolor and gouache, 5 1/4 x 8 inches)

Nova Scotia Landscape: What interests me about this painting are the colors she chooses. The pale blue of the waves seem to be diffused with light. By painting the lake in the foreground, she gives us a sense of space, a wide area of water and a landscape that expands out from that. The lake dominates the foreground as a living, working cluster of brushstrokes crowded together to form its own sky. The water gives a sense of time and motion, splinters in time and the illusion of movement.  She uses flat, overlapping strokes to form the water as Van Gogh sometimes does.

Vincent Van Gogh. Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun, 1889

Bishop claimed to be a primitive painter. By definition that is art with an awkward relationship to the formal qualities of painting. Difficulties with drawing and perspective result in an awkward and charming vision, strong use of pattern, unrefined color and simplicity rather than subtlety of tones. But however primitive Bishop’s paintings are, in looking at them we begin to realize a painter was at work when she wrote her poems. An example of this can be seen in the second stanza of “Poem”:

It must be Nova Scotia; only there
does one see gabled wooden houses
painted that awful shade of brown.
The other houses, the bits that show, are white.
Elm trees, low hills, a thin church steeple
-that gray-blue wisp-or is it? In the foreground
a water meadow with some tiny cows,
two brushstrokes each, but confidently cows;
two minuscule white geese in the blue water,
back-to-back, feeding, and a slanting stick.
Up closer, a wild iris, white and yellow,
fresh-squiggled from the tube.
The air is fresh and cold; cold early spring
clear as gray glass; a half inch of blue sky
below the steel-gray storm clouds.
(They were the artist’s specialty.)

41 Charles Street (watercolor, gouache, and ink 8 1/4 x 6 3/4 inches)

41 Charles Street (A candidate for Bishop’s earliest-known painting. In 1934, she lived at 16 Charles Street in New York’s Greenwich Village – a block away from number 41.) In many of Bishop’s paintings we see layers of bricks. The repeated patterns here train our eyes on the painting in the same way the brush strokes do on the lake in Nova Scotia Landscape. Repeated patterns in painting as in poetry give the image a sense of rhythm. They remind us that patterns are everywhere in the shapes and figures around us and that familiarity gives our world a sense of balance.

Sha-Sha (1937, watercolor, 9 x 6 inches)

Sha-Sha (Sha-Sha is the nickname of Charlotte Russell, a Florida friend of Bishop’s. It would be nice to know the story behind the silly arithmetic 1 + 4 = 7; although something of the same spirit exists in the relation between the loosely handled figure and the fancy realism of the wood grain, complete with mildew.) I’m not sure what Charlotte Russell looked like, but I know how difficult it is to paint a human figure. Once again, we see a pattern in her sweater and in the wood grain.

Sha Sha is set against the wavelike pattern in the wood, as if she’s not part of the natural world. When you paint a person, you want to communicate some level of experience you have with them. Sha Sha seems only a decorative part of this world set against the shifting patterns behind her. Even though this painting seems partly doodled because Bishop didn’t finish the arms, the light complexion of Sha Sha and the spring-like color in her clothes set against the dark complexity of the wood suggest to me the relationship between the two women, light and dark.

Bishop painted Sha Sha  during two months she spent in Keywaydin camp in Naples, Florida, with her friend Louise Crane in 1937. According to Brett Millier in her biography about Bishop, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It, the poet met “Charlotte (Sha Sha) and Red Russell, newlyweds spending their honeymoon at the camp, who remained her friends for forty years . . . . She discovered her love for fishing on that trip to Florida and pulled in a sixty-pound amberjack days after she arrived. Her notebooks show lines and images that later became the poem The Fish.” (p. 113)

Palais Du Senat (1938, watercolor and gouache, 5 1/2 x 9 inches)

Palais Du Senat (Henry Miller, a fellow watercolorist, wrote ecstatically about his discovery of Chinese white. Bishop uses it off and on in her work, here perhaps for the first time.) When I look at Bishop’s paintings, I often question what perspective I would use if I were doing the same one. Here she paints the tops of these buildings against a pale sky. The Chinese white makes the buildings more three-dimensional than the figure of Sha Sha is. To paint roofs and windows and walls and solid spaces in contrast to a washed open sky, you must know how to build up the surface of the building to make it look powerful enough to stand on its own. Contrasting white with black gives any painting a sense of detail and structure.

Sleeping Figure (watercolor and gouache, 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches)

Sleeping Figure (The figure here is Louise Crane, with whom Bishop traveled in Europe and lived in Key West. They were lifelong friends.) Louise Crane met Bishop at Vassar in 1930. The two traveled extensively in Europe and bought a house together in Key West in 1937. Crane’s father was a millionaire and her mother founded MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She and Crane toured many art galleries together while they were in Europe, and this may have contributed to Bishop’s desire to paint.

Bishop’s paintings don’t have shadows or contrasts in delicate grays or blacks. They are point blank tone color next to tone color. There are no mists in Bishop’s paintings or the difficult graduating of tone. One central figure usually dominates the image. She paints Crane here asleep in a bed. Crane looks small and distant in the patterns of the blanketed wood-framed bed and not as sturdy as the wooden panels surrounding her. She seems impossibly small in relation to her heavy surroundings and almost untouchable. She lies in contrast to the horizontal lines of the blanket, stuck and unmovable, not going with the flow but firm-lipped and stolidly wrapped in her robe and scarf.

When I look at this painting, I think of a car accident Bishop was in with Crane and Margaret Miller, another friend of Bishop’s. Crane was driving fast at about five thirty in the afternoon through the Burgundy countryside of France when a passing car forced them off the road. The car rolled and all three women were thrown out. “At first I thought we were safe,” Bishop wrote. “Then we realized simultaneously, I think, that Margaret’s right hand and forearm were completely gone.” (Millier, 124) Bishop was traumatized by Margaret’s injury, not only because this happened to such a close friend but because it meant the loss of the right arm to an aspiring painter. From the apartment on the Ile St. Louise near the Quai d’Orléans where they stayed after Margaret left the hospital, Elizabeth wrote Quai d’Orléans and dedicated it to Margaret. The poem ends:

We stand as still as stones to watch
the leaves and ripples
while light and nervous water hold
their interview.
“If what we see could forget us half as easily,”
I want to tell you,
“as it does itself–but for life we’ll not be rid
of the leaves’ fossils.”

E. Bishop’s Patented Slot Machine (undated, watercolor, 10 x 8 inches)

E. Bishop’s Patented Slot-Machine (The rainbow arc at the top of the picture – resembling the handle of a suitcase – bears the legend “The Dream.” In the diagram of the slot machine the notations read: “Crystal Ball; spark: handle; opening in glass case.” The two sets of numbers are: 2 3 8 10 7 1 and 3 2 5 4 1.) This is one of the most fascinating paintings by Bishop. How is a slot machine a dream? A dream is a response within us in search of new ways to respond to our emotions. But this is a thing made of metal and wood, a strange surreal house with a crystal ball. This hollow image with its openings and closings is assembled in the center of the painting. It isn’t three dimensional but flat and square. The contraption is an expression of opportunity, the different ways numbers can fall and are woven with fate. This dream is a simply constructed machine, but it enjoys the challenges of effort and numerous directions our lives can take.

Interior With Calder Mobile (watercolor and gouache)

Interior with Calder Mobile (The interior of Samambaia, the house built by Lota near Petropolis, in the mountains outside Rio de Janeiro, where she and Bishop lived. Rosinha Leao, to whom it is inscribed, was a friend of theirs in Brazil.) Lota de Soares was Bishop’s domestic partner for 15 years. Another thing that interests me about Bishop’s paintings is what she chooses to paint, interior and exterior landscapes. Her book titles also reflect this same relationship to space: North & South, Questions of Travel, Geography III. This painting celebrates the warm interior space around a stove. The placement of the stove is juxtaposed with a mobile, the desire in the painting and perhaps in the painter for imagination and spontaneity. Life isn’t all solid and stable. Part of it is out of control. The mobile represents a more abstract part of Bishop’s mind, one that isn’t grounded in reality. It’s not furniture, it’s not flowers, it’s not bricks, it’s a floating, evolving object, like planets revolving in space.

Red Stove And Flowers (1955, watercolor and gouache)

Red Stove and Flowers (The inscription reads: May the Future’s Happy Hours/Bring you Beans & Rice & Flowers/April 27th 1955/Elizabeth. This is one of the very few pictures composed as an explicit symbolic statement. It contains a poem – and a formula of proportion – for domestic balance. The stove is “magic”; and against a wall of blackness, the aggregate whites voice an impassioned reassurance. All underlined by one of her specialties: wood grain.) This painting like the last centers around a stove. The stove is the same size as the vase of flowers and proportionally incorrect. I think of the small stove in Bishop’s poem Sestina, which begins:

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

Some of Bishop’s paintings have softer edges than others. Red Stove and Flowers, emphasized by a black background and a red brick box is very simple to take in visually. Red box, blue circle, two pans with opposite facing handles. It’s a study in balance. Everything has its place. All the shapes fit in a space inside the puzzle. It’s a simple, strong painting about the most important things in life, food for our bodies and beauty for our souls.

Red Flowers On Black Devil's Paintbrush (gouache, 9 1/2 x 6 inches)

Red Flowers on Black Devil’s Paintbrush was painted in Maine a year or two before Bishop’s death. I have made numerous attempts to paint red flowers and appreciate that Bishop came up with a way to do it using a black background to give the petals a sense of delicacy. Alienating the slender flowers in the black space brings out the intention of the flowers and how we are to relate to their fragility. Our eyes are drawn to the arch of the stems. In this painting as in all of Bishop’s paintings, she recreated the images as authentically as her skill allowed. Magritte said, “The language of authenticity ‘gives the word’ to words by making them say what they never said.” In other words, representing something as authentically as we can gives it all the depth and mystery it needs.

Pansies (1960, watercolor and gouache, 12 1/2 x 15 inches)

Pansies (Ambitious in its realism, it is also, as far as we know, Bishop’s largest painting 12 1/2 x 15 inches.) These pansies in contrast to the red flowers are surrounded by patterns. The weave in the basket and the vertical and horizontal lines in the tablecloth give our eyes a lot to take in. The circular shapes of the flowers contrast the square patterning in the cloth and the books. When I look at a painting, I ask myself what I would add or delete if I were painting the same thing. There are no unwanted objects in this painting, and the objects find relief by being placed inside patterns as the subjects often do in Bishop’s poems.

Brazilian Landscape (watercolor and gouache)

Brazilian Landscape There are so many places for the eye to go in this painting, it’s hard to take it all in at once. Thick and thin strokes, short and long lines end up on top of each other. This is a painting almost entirely about movement and about efficiency of space, fitting in a landscape so that all the surfaces meet each other at the right places. It’s made more complex with dots and a rich mix of colors. No particular object dominates the painting. It’s a package of details.

When I look at this painting, I think of Japanese prints of waterfalls and mountains with a tiny human figure in the foreground to show the insignificance of man in the scheme of things. There aren’t any humans in Bishop’s Brazilian landscape either, and they are rarely central in her poetry. She never did a self-portrait that I know of, but all her paintings are self-portraits in a way, with well-designed, rhythmic spaces where little is exaggerated and everything seems slightly understated. We can hear the painter at work again in her poem about Brazil. It begins:

Brazil, January 1, 1502

… embroidered nature… tapestried landscape.

Landscape into Art, by Sir Kenneth Clark

Januaries, Nature greets our eyes
exactly as she must have greeted theirs:
every square inch filling in with foliage—
big leaves, little leaves, and giant leaves,
blue, blue-green, and olive,
with occasional lighter veins and edges,
or a stain under leaf turned over;
monster ferns
in sliver-gray relief,
and flowers, too, like giant water lilies
up in the air—up, rather, in the leaves—
purple, yellow, two yellows, pink,
rust red and greenish white;
solid but airy; fresh as if just finished
and taken off the frame.

Graveyard With Fenced Graves (watercolor and gouache, 5 3/4 x 6 3/4 inches)

Graveyard with fenced Graves The Poinciana Tree in Key West, also called The Flame Tree, is said to be one of the world’s most colorful trees. When I see this painting by Bishop, I think of the Japanese woodcut by Hiroshige that Van Gogh made a copy of. When Bishop painted her poinciana tree, she must have had the Hiroshige/Van Gogh plum tree image in mind.

Comparison of a woodblock print by Hiroshige (left) to its copy painted by Van Gogh

In looking at both Bishop’s paintings and poetry, I have been trying to discover more about the person behind the work. There are no sensuous surfaces in either her paintings or poems but reality made in thin brush strokes. These paintings represent an intuited need in Bishop to express the limpid fluidity of her own life. She stands back away from her subjects and regards them, not with thick heavy brush strokes or harsh outlines but with a close embrace of details and a strong sense of composition. In many paintings, I see a woman not surrounded by a whorl of activity but a woman sitting alone in a room, trying to discover her place in the space she finds herself in. She painted what presented itself to her in dimly lit rooms. She was a watercolorist, and all these paintings of rooms and islands and flowers and horizons originally lived in water, something that’s never solid. There’s a mutability about watercolor we don’t have with oil. I think flowers are anchored better in water than they are in oil. It suggests the vulnerability of the image. The 42 paintings in Exchanging Hats represent their own form of lyrical interludes in Bishop’s life. It was a new way for her to absorb the details around her.

Tombstone For Sale (undated, watercolor, gouache and ink, 6 x 9 inches)

Lillian Hellman said in the opening of her book Pentimento: “Old paint on canvas as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines. A tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento, because the painter ‘repented,’ changed his mind. Perhaps it is as well to say that an old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.”

What interests me about both the poetry and paintings of Bishop is that underneath the surface of her text or her paint seems to be something else waiting to reveal itself, another poem, another painting. In her art, whatever form it takes, are things, objects, places she manages to save on paper and beneath the surface of each lies a mystery. I read one of her poems and think, there must be something I’m missing. So I read it again, searching for what lies beneath the exterior, a song of love or of pain or of some vision she had of life, some truth about the human condition. I search to find the dress, the child, the dog beneath the open sea.

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Paper Bird

americanrobinEarlier this year I worked with Robin Behn through the writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Each month she mailed a cassette tape discussing my poems. I asked once if she could e-mail me a lecture she’d given, and she told me they weren’t written down. “I just talk,” she said. And so she “just talked” about my poems, line by line, word by word telling me what she saw in them, clearing the way for me to think about them in a new way.

The poems in this essay are from Robin’s book Paper Bird, published in 1988. I first met her in a workshop in 2007. She sat cross-legged on the couch, listening to each student talk about their experience with poetry. The day I read my poems, nerves got the better of me and I couldn’t finish. Without missing a beat Robin took over. She’s like that, very matter of fact about this serious stuff we call poetry and knew it was better to just keep moving.


My father never said why–
not even to me, the silent one–

but silently, all through my childhood, he never
fixed anything

though the lathing drifted down
through the plaster ceiling

like the planks of a dock
we all lived beneath.

Meanwhile, he seasoned and stirred
his aquariums, his little wet houses;

like a god, he engineered tidal waves, resettlement,
even genetics–guippies’ tails bred

into lavish, ripped flags of countries
our relatives never sent us letters from.

And the house went on with its own
sweet life. The roof turned algae-green, slugs

abided, my bedroom wall cracked
like a cup you lit your lip on.

–The pairs of fish called angels
had rubbery, nerveless lips

and killed each other for beauty
at night when he wasn’t looking.

At breakfast I’d find it: a chunk
of silvery money with whiskers . . .

An angel is dead, I’d say.
And then, as if we were all already angels

and had a right to mourn,
a hush passed through the house:

the smaller fish looked smaller,
hours sucked by like snails,

dust filtered down and we opened
our gills to its mood for days, recycling our own

breathed air;
until finally

I took my allowances–the coins
they’d given me for some good cause–

and went out into the world for the white
paper carton with the wire handle

that grooved my palm as though a fish
with a cut lip were straining

for its life across my life–
line, and brought

the thing back
and set it down in front of him:

the silver, storebought wife
already married to the water.

In this poem, we are building toward the line, An angel is dead, as if this were a family member who died and not a fish in an aquarium. The family seems to live inside those glass walls. Even the walls in the speaker’s room are cracked like the planks of a dock they all live beneath.

Angel Fish (watercolor)

Angel Fish (watercolor)

In a lecture Robin gave called In The Music Room she described her father’s study. He was an English professor, and his study served as sacred space not only for his books but as a place for her to practice and teach flute. Her flute music shared shelf space with his literature and poetry books. Small girls would come and go from their flute lessons while their mothers sat waiting in heated cars. This is what I think of when I read this poem. And in this poem, we see part of the world he seasoned and stirred.

We see the tails of guppies flow by like flags to countries she will one day visit, to poetry books in her father’s room she will one day read, to her own career as an English teacher. She is married to the water of that world. Who wouldn’t want a father like this, an absent-minded professor who cared more about creating an imaginative place for fish to swim than he did household chores. He is the angel she is always trying to replace. It is around his actions in the poem that the sweet life is centered.

Dear Sky

I’ve asked everyone,
but no one has as good a view
as you do over the comings and goings
and livings and dyings of us
here so small on this accidental planet.
I know, I should keep tabs.
Especially in light of the thick fog
the past is always slapping down among us
like deliberate roadblocks
to our obvious desires.
But I thought you might have seen her.
It strikes me this evening, as I see
you’re having a fine old draw
from your expensive cigar–I can see
the dense smoke wafting up through the sunset
from the huge old lips of this Gertrude-
Stein-type guy lounging just
over the horizon where what looks
like mountains is his skirt
between his knees–
I thought maybe you could help,
maybe send up a signal
if you see her . . .

She’s tall, for a woman.
She has a bald spot just above
her left ear that you notice when she’s lying
on her right side, say,
on Sunday mornings when the light
comes in and warms it–
It’s where her brother dared her
to touch her tongue to the spinning lathe
when she was fifteen and she only
got as far as her beautiful hair. I
was sixteen. By then she was older.
So many years older (two at least) that
kissing her was like going
to a very respectable party
where real adult things were being done,
and in the vacant parlor the sun
just sang with it, gushing
into corners that had somehow gotten dark:
the hinged collection box inside the piano bench,
even the slats of darkness
that forbade the piano strings from playing
unwritten, cacophonous songs–

Dear sky,
I keep thinking I’ll be walking through pines
and suddenly I’ll see it:
a clearing just that soft, a spot
that shy, and I’ll look to my left and where
her ear would be is all of her,
and the whole sky a patch like that,
sudden and touchable, and I’ll ask her
in its presence to forgive me now
after so much troubled time.
And because there is no God
that looked down on her that night
she was beaten and her body was consumed
four times, though somehow
she rose and stumbled back in pieces
and into my arms;
and because nothing I could do
could repair her soul
though I flew at it with cloth
with glue with bandages kisses anything
and still there was a rift
between her and her body and therefore
between us
while the criminal crouched at some
boundary of our love,
I think now that passion
should be something like sunlight
while the sky looks on and nothing
in the process asks God to raise
the least hand to bless us.

Dear Sky has a conversational voice wrapped around denial and outrage. It is a poem about a friend who has been raped. In that same lecture, In The Music Room, Robin talked about a friend who had been raped, but I never heard the end of the story because the tape was damaged. I almost called for a replacement but never did. I think I know the end of the story. Rape affects everyone it touches, not only the victim but family members and friends long after it happens.

paperbirdHow do we stop pain in those we love? Why doesn’t heaven stop it? Why does heaven allow it to happen in the first place? That’s what this poem is asking. It’s what we’re all asking, it’s the big question we ask the sky. What are you doing up there? Does my life down here matter to you at all? We look up at heaven where God seems to reside over our destinies, nonchalantly smoking an expensive cigar and enjoying the show.

It would be very traumatic for a young girl to have a friend turn to her after being raped. That helplessness would remain with her forever. We see these two young friends lounging on the horizon of their youths and the lives they will one day lead. What draws me back to the poem again and again is the description of the friend:

She’s tall, for a woman,
She has a bald spot just above
her left ear that you notice when she’s lying
on her right side.

This soft spot on the side of the girl’s head is a compelling detail. It’s where we are all most vulnerable, that soft place we only allow some people to touch. Perhaps it is in our souls, but it is there in all of us and we build walls to protect it. Somehow that place on the girl’s head was violated, touched by someone who only wanted to hurt her. Doesn’t the sky understand how sensitive this place is and how much it needs guarded. It is a clearing amid the clouds that offers beauty and tenderness and rooms with fading lights and cacophonous sounds. I’m reminded of the soft spot on a baby’s head before the cranial bone plates form. The girl seems like a baby who is still forming, who needs the friend to nurture and take care of her:

she rose and stumbled back in pieces
and into my arms;
and because nothing I could do
could repair her soul
though I flew at it with cloth
with glue with bandages kisses anything
and still there was a rift
between her and her body and therefore
between us

The rape creates a rift not only in the body and mind of the friend but between the two girls. The speaker shares in the friend’s trauma as she once shared in her love. The rape consumes them both.

In the end, the speaker says passion is like sunlight, not something blessed or cursed by God, but under the earth or on top of it warming us or leaving us behind, creating patterns on the walls. If we survive what happens to us in life, it is our responsibility. We patch our wounds together like the sky that wraps itself in clouds.

Fogging the Bees

God, somehow I’ve made them drink
the gold from their bodies.
They drive as fast as they can
through the hot kitchen air–
they plunge into dishwater, cat’s milk.
Those that have the strength
disappear into the hive,
come out staggering like gyroscopes,
Is loyalty like that?
I switch on the bulb.
The kitchen is a microscope:
between screen and glass, a smear of them,
a Rorschach, half
alive like my sister who claimed
she could decode that kind of truth
when she came home from the Buddhists,
dusted with peace.
In her head there was a clearing.
Names came to graze there, names
of perfect animals she chanted
till her head was a hive strung with words
for every kind of honey.
Now, the attic is a carpet of bees.
By spring they will be dust, the house
will inhale them, next winter gold heat
will rise through the blowers into the room
where my sister lies, larval.
I hope it is the right gold.
I hope that the “l” lodged in the word for it
will fall out when it stings her
and leave a god in the room to talk her
into her next incarnation: a life
both loyal and sisterly, like bees.

This is a poem that questions what loyalty is. Loyalty has been the theme in all three poems. We have loyalty to the father in the first poem, loyalty to the friend in the second, and loyalty to the sister in the third.

BeeHiveShe opens this poem with the color gold. It appears in the poem three times. The Tibetan Buddhists believe in five sacred stones: the crystal for light, turquoise for infinity of sea and sky, coral for life and form, gold for the golden ray of the sun, silver for the light of the moon. Gold is linked with divinity and those gods associated with the sun. It symbolizes wealth and success.

I don’t pretend to understand what the narrative is here. I feel I should. I have walked around puzzling over it for weeks. I can only offer some interpretation of what I think may be happening in the poem. I feel like part of my failure to understand the narrative is that I understand so little about bees. I’ve written stories at the newspaper where I work on local beekeepers, but still I know very little about beekeeping.

But I don’t think this narrative has anything to do with beekeeping but bees that have gotten into the house and must be “fogged” or exterminated by pesticides. That is why there is a carpet of bees in the attic by spring. Still, the image brings to mind the “fogging” beekeepers use to tame bees.

The “fogging” in the kitchen seems to be happening between two places, the life in the hive and the life of the two sisters. The event serves as a gate between those two worlds. In all three poems we are in between two worlds. We are in and out of the water in Angels. We are in between earth and heaven in Dear Sky and we are inside and outside of a beehive in Fogging the Bees. We go back and forth between two places, the world of the imagination and the world of reality. Reality always enters in. Fish die, people get hurt and bees must be killed with pesticides. In these transitory places, we are watching to see what will happen next. We live in two places at once.

When she says, Is loyalty like that, I at first think she means, the bees are loyal (tamed) only because they have been fogged. That’s not loyalty, however, because loyalty is something that can only be offered by choice.

The bees fly back into the hive and come out one-winged perhaps because they’ve been “fogged” and have found no loyalty in the hive. Their ability to fly has been compromised, and they are spinning like gyroscopes, looking like half of a Rorschach inkblot test. This act of killing bees is linked to a sister who is “half alive” and lying in her room in a larval state.

bee-hive-coloring-pages-1From the little I know about beekeeping, bees reflect something of the personality of their keeper. The hives mirror some aspect of the person who cares for them. What strikes me in this poem is the reflection the two sisters have of each other. One seems practical. She is fogging the bees. The other is “dusted with peace” by the Buddhists and perhaps shares the Buddhist sentiment of respect for all living beings.

I think of the two sisters in Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility. Elinor lives her life practically and ignores her feelings in regard for common sense, and Marianne lives a life based around her emotions and feelings. When I see the sister lying in bed in this poem, I think of the scene in Austen’s novel where Marianne is dying and Elinor begs her to stay alive because she doesn’t know how to face life without her.

I never had a sister, and perhaps because of this I imagine sisters to be like this, seeing in each other the strengths or weaknesses they lack. It is a golden moment in the lives of the two sisters in this poem when they are young and share conversations and experiences they may not have together when they are grown.


Pied piper (watercolor)

This poem, like the first two, is a poem based around halves: half of us can fly and half of us is spinning out of control, half of us is dead and half of us is alive, half of us is quiet and half of us speaks, half of us we leave behind in the corpses of angels and half of us we take with us, half of us is learning and half of us is teaching, half of us is consumed by life and half of us survives, half of us is lost in the clouds and half of us remains on the ground. From one side to the other, we weave our way back and forth in Robin’s poems in order to see both halves of ourselves.

When Robin was in Vermont, she played her flute. As I watched her, I thought of both the pied piper and of the Kokopelli, the dancing flute players the Hopi use to symbolize music and mischief and fertility. They carry the seeds of creativity on their humped backs.



As Robin migrates back and forth between her two worlds as poet and teacher, she inspires too. In her matter of fact way, she helped me open up my poems to a longer line length so that my own voice could come through more authentically. And this stuff called art, whether we are writing poetry or playing Bach or Bluegrass, is about having fun and trying new things, collaborating with something beyond us and between each other so that we carry those creative seeds to the world. She teaches us how to drink the gold from our bodies.

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Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

The crisis of our lives do not come, I think, accurately dated; they crop up unexpected and out of turn, and somehow or other arrange themselves to a calendar we cannot control.” Elizabeth Bishop

Virginia Woolf bases her novel Mrs. Dalloway on the idea that one day in a person’s life summarizes an entire life. In a similar way, one piece of art can summarize an artist’s work. One self-portrait by Van Gogh expresses something about all his paintings. And one poem can sum up something about a poet’s work. That poem for Elizabeth Bishop was her villanelle, One Art. In many of her poems I hear a similar theme of loss. It became the crisis of her life, and we hear the making of that poem in much of her work.


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Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

One Art is considered one of the best villanelles in existence, and it is based on a relationship Bishop had with a woman named Alice Methfessel. They were domestic partners from 1971 to 1979, the year of Bishop’s death.

There are 16 drafts of this poem written in 1976. The first draft of One Art interests me because we can hear the woman in this, not just the poet. Her stream-of-consciousness writing in this draft is where many poems begin. The poem in its original state is all over the page emotionally. It took 15 more drafts for Bishop to craft in the understated tone she needed to give the poem power.

But that voice isn’t here. This is a poem written by an alcoholic who is losing her love because of frequent black outs. This is a woman who is losing her teaching job at Harvard because she is missing classes. She is losing her friends because she would say things to them when drunk she couldn’t remember later.

Bishop did not lose the relationship with Methfessel as she feared. She wrote about her, “Alice [is] a wonderful traveling companion. Since she is so athletic and big, tall, I mean – I thought I’d never keep up with her (and she is 28 or 29 too [in 1972] – but I manged to. I think you’d like her very much – very American in the nicest way; she cheers me up a lot about my native land – …. Alice has had a happy life and is the only child of devoted parents – pampered, really – but nevertheless has turned out to be kind and generous and very funny. – She’s good for me because she cheers me up.”

Brett Millier wrote about the couple in her book, Elizabeth Bishop Life and the Memory Of It, “Although Elizabeth still described Alice as her ‘young friend’ or ‘secretary’ to certain correspondents, very quickly ‘Elizabeth and Alice’ became a recognized couple in the circle of poets and teachers in which Elizabeth moved and in her letters to faraway friends.

“But an intimate relationship between apparently unequal partners, one of whom was an alcoholic, was bound to have its unruly energies. Alice grew weary from time to time of the great demands placed on her by Elizabeth’s pain and poor health; of the cycles of illness, drunkenness and injury that often marked the last years of Elizabeth’s life; and of doling out the Antabuse that helped to prevent such cycles from getting started. And Elizabeth lived in mortal fear of losing Alice and of what would happen if she were to be left alone to grow old and care for herself in her indispositions and incapacities. Alice’s attempts to put distance between herself and Elizabeth’s myriad problems resulted in desperate attempts on Elizabeth’s part to get her back.”

In the chaos of her life, Bishop created one of the most beautiful poems ever written. It begins here, it begins really in the last lines of the first draft when she starts trying to describe her lover’s blue eyes. You can see the writer failing then. You can see a person who is desperate to hold onto a woman she can’t imagine living her life without.


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Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

“The crisis of our lives do not come, I think, accurately dated; they crop up unexpected and out of turn, and somehow or other arrange themselves to a calendar we cannot control.” Elizabeth Bishop

In the first half of the poem At the Fishhouses, we are above the water, smelling and seeing the fish houses. But with the entrance of the seal in the last stanza, we go beneath the surface.

It’s a delightful image. The speaker sings “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” to a seal. Seals are curious and playful, and something about them seems human. That’s the basis for the Orcadian folklore that seals can shed their skins to become human. As the seal watches from the water, it’s half in one world and half in another.

At the Fishhouses (1955)

Although it is a cold evening,
down by one of the fishhouses
an old man sits netting,
his net, in the gloaming almost invisible,
a dark purple-brown,
and his shuttle worn and polished.

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As I listened to Elizabeth Alexander’s poem today, I heard echoes of Maya Angelou’s poem from Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration. Alexander’s line, “On the brink, on the brim on the cusp” reminds me of Angelou’s line, “On the pulse of this new day.”

Both poets were aware this needed to be a poem about beginnings. They were aware of other things too. So little poetry is ever heard in our country, the poem needed to be something that would speak to the masses. It needed to be simple and forthright, words people could grasp quickly, that had the flow and rhythm of our American speech.

My favorite lines in the poem are, “Praise song for every hand-lettered sign, the figuring it out at kitchen tables.” She addresses what words are here, what language is, how words change the way we think and eventually change the way a country thinks.

We encounter each other in words,
words spiny or smooth,
whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

What are words of the masses? They are the words painted on the signs carried to the inauguration. The figuring it out at kitchen tables speaks to families, friends and neighbors working together to come up with language, poetry of their own to hold up for the world to see.


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150px-pasternak1I first became familiar with Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) when I was an undergrad in college. Walking through the library late one night, I was startled by a book falling off a shelf. When I went to see what it was, it was a book of his poetry.

I later found out he is the author of the novel Dr. Zhivago, which was made into a 1965 drama romance with Julie Christie and Omar Sharif. Years later I was visiting a friend on Vancouver island. She and her mother had recently bought a Victorian house. When my friend’s mother found out I was a poet, she said, “Oh, I have something you might like. It was the only thing left in this house when we moved in.” It was a book of poetry by Pasternak.


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Love Poems


Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1907-1908

I once tried to define love with a friend of mine, and she gave me this poem by Maya Angelou (born 1928).

Love is that condition
in the human spirit
so profound
that it allows
one to survive
and, better than that,
to thrive
with passion,
and style.

What struck me in the poem is the word thrive. We use it most often to refer to plants or newborn babies. The poem reminds me of another by Angelou with the words, “Lying, thinking last night how to find my soul a home, where water is not thirsty and bread loaf is not stone, I came up with one thing and I don’t believe I’m wrong that nobody, but nobody can make it out here alone.”


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