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Archive for March, 2008

Lord, Who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
Most poore:

With Thee
O let me rise,
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day Thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne;
And still with sicknesses and shame
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Most thinne.

With Thee
Let me combine,
And feel this day Thy victorie;
For, if I imp my wing on Thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

George Herbert
(1593-1633)

Commentary: I read this poem every Easter. I love that George Herbert made his poem in the shape of wings. The form is perfect for the content. I hope that affliction advances the flight in me, too. Happy Easter!

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somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skillfully, mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me,i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain, has such small hands

e.e. cummings

Commentary: I’ve loved this poem for a long time, lost it, and found it again. When I was in California, I went to the Benicia Library Booksale, and this poem was in one of several poetry collections I gathered up … I think my aunt, Cheryl, introduced me to e.e. cummings. Reading his poetry always makes me want to write without capitalization, as if everything were being whispered, and with funny punctuation, asifwordswerenotseparateandeverythingtheyexpresswere intimatelyclosetogether. (for me, the first line, the seventh line, and the last line … areallverybeautiful.)

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Poets go on adventures.

It’s true.

I remember visiting the Château de Chillion in Switzerland, and that was a real adventure for me. I met Roshani there, and we’ve been friends ever since. Because of that meeting, I went to Roshani’s wedding, which was celebrated with two ceremonies–one for herself at the Grand Canyon in Arizona and one for her parents in New York City! Both were splendid. But back to Switzerland … Did you know that Lord Byron, the Romantic poet, was imprisoned in Château de Chillion back in the nineteenth century?

This is the same scandalous Lord Byron who fell in love with both his cousin and his half-sister and wrote, of still another cousin: “She walk in beauty, like the night, / Of cloudless climes and starry skies / And all that’s best of dark and bright / Meet in her aspect and her eyes …” When I was at the Château in Switzerland so many summers ago, I saw where Byron had carved his name in the stones of the dungeon of the castle – – an interesting place to leave a signature.

But I digress.

I was meaning to write of another adventure altogether: a wedding in California, my brother’s, in fact, which took place last week. On my most recent adventure, I escaped winter, which is desperately trying to hold onto its power over Chicago, for five or six days of spring in San Francisco. Lovely!

Among the many things I enjoyed were … sitting underneath the flowering pear-tree in my mother’s backyard …watching my dog, Joyful, play in the sunlight that never stopped shining … and walking in the hills with a full view of the waters of the Bay, everyday.

I love California. It is not just my home-state; it is like another country, within the country of the United States, and it is my country. I love it there. I always feel at home in the San Francisco Bay Area.

California is where I grew up.

It is where I will always return.

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Three times a week Mother set fire to the orphanage,
watched it burn to the ground.
If we poked among cold ashes we learned
records were destroyed. She cried over what we might
find. When the sun reappeared
she wrote letters. Tell me the true facts. You must
be hiding something. She thought
U.S. Grant had left her a fortune, too extravagant
for an orphan. The letter came back.
She tore up the Poles. What do they know? she said
watching eyes in the mirror
that were clearly Irish. They’ve mixed up the notes.

My father worked a bank that went broke. She took
to remodeling his side of the house. Dad
couldn’t escape the perfect picture
frame. She turned him French overnight, beat the Dutch
out of his name, dabbling in white-collar crime,
the capital flourished in the middle.
That was before the Idaho Panhandle. It was great
on the Payette Beach, Mother said, looking
magisterial. The Blackfeet came into Brother Gene’s
store and you had to watch them like Indians.
On our floor her wishes were law. For a minute
I nearly forgot she was Mother.

Madeline DeFrees
from Imaginary Ancestors (1990)

Commentary: One of my students, Chris, gave me Madeline DeFrees’ book, Imaginary Ancestors, and I’ve loved it since it deals so closely with themes of history, memory, and identity. This poem, “Burning Questions,” concerns Madeline’s mother, who was an orphan, and couldn’t ascertain either her parentage or her ethnicity, despite investigation.

Of course, you do not have to be an orphan to be uncertain about who you are. Society often gives the impression that your identity is “who you are,” but really, identity is “who you are becoming.” And we are always becoming who we are. This is partly what my new little chapter in A Poet’s Life, “Statement Concerning Ethnic Identity,” is about. Once I posted the chapter, I wanted to poet this poem, too, because it surely connects to questions of discovery and perception and a desire, sometimes-painful-because-it-is-so-strong, to know who we really are.

And the ending of the poem reminds me of Louis Owens’ essay, “Finding Gene,” in his book, I Hear the Train. That’s important, too.

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Poets are witnesses to the trauma of history.

The Holocaust is one of the greatest traumas history has ever known. In order to describe what Hitler tried to do to the Jews – – to wipe them off the face of the planet – – a whole new word was invented: genocide. Recently, I read two books that testify of the authors’ experience of the Holocaust: Elie Wiesel’s Night and Corrie ten Boom’s Tramp for the LORD.

The stories in these books are ones I’ve heard, many times, before I ever read them because these two books, these two people, are two of the most influential in the world. Among educated people, Wiesel is well known; Miroslav Volf, in his book The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, has called Wiesel a “passionate prophet of memory.” In Christian circles, Corrie ten Boom is well known. Since I was a small girl, I have heard sermons that use examples from the life of Corrie ten Boom to illustrate points about faith, forgiveness, and miracles. Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize. Corrie ten Boom has been recognized by the State of Israel as one of the Righteous among the Nations. Both are survivors of the brutality of concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Their stories are powerful.

Wiesel was a fifteen-year-old Jewish boy who was taken captive and sent to Auschwitz where his mother, his sister, and eventually his father all died. Ten Boom was a fifty-year-old Dutch Christian who first hid the Jews in her house and then was taken captive and sent to Ravensbruch. Her father, brother, nephew, and eventually her sister all died as a result of Nazi cruelty. These two, Wiesel and ten Boom, lived to tell their testimony to the world.

Wiesel has said that he lost his faith in God as a result of his experiences in the Holocaust. Some of his writings now, in his later years, suggest he may have regained some of it. When reading Night, losing faith seems like one of many natural consequences of the experience of such terror, horror, and agony.

But not all faith perished in the Holocaust.

Corrie ten Boom struggled with hate for those who tortured her and her sister, Betsie, but her sister told her she must not hate but love and forgive. Her sister even said, “God showed me that after the war, we must give to the Germans that which they now try to take away from us: our love for Jesus.” And after the Holocaust, Corrie ten Boom returned to Germany and preached this message of love and forgiveness.

In 1947, at one of the meetings where she was preaching in Germany, one of her former guards, one of the most cruel at Ravensbruch, came up to her. He said to her, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein, will you forgive me?” And he held out his hand to shake hers. Corrie ten Boom froze.

Silently, she prayed, “Jesus, help me! I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.” For Corrie ten Boom did not feel forgiving; she merely decided she would forgive in that moment. And she said aloud, “I forgive you, brother! With all my heart.” She writes: For a long moment, we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.

In this story from Corrie ten Boom’s life, I see the power of forgiveness. I wonder how I, in my own life, can withhold forgiveness from others for the petty long list of things they’ve done to offend me … if Corrie ten Boom can forgive the man who tortured her and her sister in a Nazi concentration camp. I understand why Wiesel lost his faith at fifteen. But I want to be like Corrie ten Boom, a woman of faith, love, and forgiveness in my generation as she was in hers.

Postscript: The reality of the Holocaust has long been in my mind. I’ve read about it, taught about it, and written about it. I feel like a child of Holocaust survivors with vivid postmemories in my soul. In 1999, I wrote a poem called “Identification Card” in honor of Dezso Rosza after I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.. It can be found in my first poetry collection, Sanctuary.

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