Archive for October, 2010

Last night, I joined the Brotherhood of the Briar once again, this time with my friend Laura, who is visiting from Seattle. We had a rousing discussion around the bonfire, which included a generous amount of  time thinking through about C.S. Lewis’s Til We Have Faces and then a good interlude listening to Professor Jerry Root share about his recent adventures in South Africa. But all of it began with Dennis reciting Helen Hunt Jackson’s poem, “October’s Bright Blue Weather.” I share the poem here because it is so right for this month and our beautiful, shining fall season.

“October’s Bright Blue Weather”

O SUNS and skies and clouds of June,
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October’s bright blue weather;

When loud the bumble-bee makes haste,
Belated, thriftless vagrant,
And Golden-Rod is dying fast,
And lanes with grapes are fragrant;

When Gentians roll their fringes tight
To save them for the morning,
And chestnuts fall from satin burrs
Without a sound of warning;

When on the ground red apples lie
In piles like jewels shining,
And redder still on old stone walls
Are leaves of woodbine twining;

When all the lovely wayside things
Their white-winged seeds are sowing,
And in the fields, still green and fair,
Late aftermaths are growing;

When springs run low, and on the brooks,
In idle golden freighting,
Bright leaves sink noiseless in the hush
Of woods, for winter waiting;

When comrades seek sweet country haunts,
By twos and twos together,
And count like misers, hour by hour,
October’s bright blue weather.

O suns and skies and flowers of June,
Count all your boasts together,
Love loveth best of all the year
October’s bright blue weather.

Helen Hunt Jackson

Today, when the leaves on the tree outside my window are bright yellow — when the sky is clear blue, the air crisp, and the light almost tangibly bright — this poem sings through the soul. It is worth remembering, I think. I hope you will remember it.

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“My diary seems to be a journal of the wind, sunshine and sky!”

Charles Burchfield

26 September 1914

Charles Burchfield’s Journals: The Poetry of Place

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Yesterday, I received my copy of American Poet, the journal of the Academy of American Poets, in the mail ( ~ hooray for something interesting in the mailbox!) . I skimmed it this morning and discovered Stephen Kessler, translator of Desolation of the Chimera, the late poems of Luis Cernuda. I read these three stanzas from a poem in a review article by Edith Grossman and knew I wanted to share them:

Like a firebird
the moon perches in the branches
of the juniper.

The tree trunk is black,
the night air gray,
the moon gold.

This is God’s way of showing
that he’s heard tell of some
Japanese print.

Luis Cernuda
translated by Stephen Kessler

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This year, as in years past, I am sending out applications for university teaching positions. I’m applying for a number of creative writing jobs, and so, I am visiting the websites for hiring schools — and learning about my colleagues in other departments around the country. On the way, I’ve recently discovered two university poets I admire: Charles Hartman and Eric Nelson.

Charles Hartman is a professor at Connecticut College, and you can read five of his poems online ~ enjoy! Eric Nelson is a professor at Georgia Southern University, and I especially liked reading his poem “The Devil’s Almanac,” with its haiku-like stanzas and ironic puns. His poems “In Her Memory” and “From Verona with Love” making piercing points as well.

These writers made me remember writers I have known as friends, colleagues or teachers at other colleges and universities where I have been a member of the learning community: at Wheaton College, Brett Foster, Nicole Mazarrella, and David Wright … at UC Davis, Sandra Gilbert, Louis Owens, and Gary Snyder … at Sonoma State University, Gillian Conoley and Elizabeth Herron. Many poets are teachers — for many reasons — but certainly for one: it’s practically impossible to make a living from poetry in America!

Nevertheless, poets and poetry continue to thrive.

“Things Coming Toward Their Shadows”

    mostly falling
    speak to us of falling
    I think this through
    and my steps begin to meet
    the ground like mild ghosts 

    a monarch
    half asleep with autumn
    wobbling near my hand
    huge wings shuddering
    the body back and forth in
    pendulous air

    in heedless election
    falls and clings
    to the base of my thumb
    ebony pipestem
    legs embrace
    the feet prickle

    the tongue
    hangs like a mainspring
    O for the moment I
    bear that weight
    I weigh
    nothing else

    Charles Hartman

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I am in love with you. I want to be with you where you are, nestled against your heart, hearing the rhythm of your breathing and the pulse of your blood. The memory of your skin still presses against my fingertips. The smell of your body is still here, inside of me, in a way that comforts my soul. Like pumpkin at Thanksgiving, like peppermint at Christmas! But you are more intoxicating. The thought of you makes my eyes shine as if I had sipped honey or wine. Even one picture of your face is dear to me. I want to hold you in my arms. I want to tell you everything in whispers, listening to you whisper back, my mouth so close to yours that we kiss. Our kiss goes on for a long time. You breathe new life into me. I breathe new life into you. Our hearts resurrect. A bridge spans eternity. We’ve met here, in the middle, and now my hips sway and press against yours. I feel you, you feel me. We dance a rain-dance. We invite the Presence, and the Presence falls. We stay together in the light. The light through the rain illuminates our hearts.

scattering the seed

will the birds come to feed here? –

watching and waiting

Front Porch

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I am so happy today. I have been blessed to hear a new and beautiful song on the radio! I love music. Shakespeare wrote: “If music be the food of love, play on!” How right he was … and how right Train is when you hear their new single, “Marry Me.”

Listen to the on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ess2qlVHl6E

May the song fill your heart with joy!


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Every year, the Wheaton Public Library invites the citizens of my small town to join the summer reading program. I loved the “Mastering the Art of Reading” theme in 2008. I actually kept a photocopy of the library’s “little map” of famous landscapes and artists, under which were blank spaces where I could write the names of the books I read, and put it in my journal. (True story.) I wrote about my summer reading in a Poetry Place post of July 16, 2008, but I can’t find a similar post in 2009: I guess I fell off the wagon!

I think that was, in part, because the year’s theme was something do to with a car race, and I had a difficult time connecting to that imagery on my 2009 “little map” (but maybe I just need to go to the next Indy 500 and feel the power at the racetrack, I don’t know). This year’s theme, “Banking on Your Library,” with all of its coins and capitalistic metaphor, struck me as an attempt to draw attention to the fact that our city has shamefully slashed the library’s budget (woe to the budget hackers for such a wicked deed!!). But again, somehow, that imagery did not speak to me as a poet. In consequence, this year, my (aforementioned) wagon has been trudging along at a rather lackadaisical pace, and, as you see, I’m just getting around to writing about my summer reading now that it is October. So be it! “He makes everything beautiful in its time.”

Poetry: I love to read poetry, and I wrote about two collections of it that I enjoyed over the summer already in earlier posts — Martinez’s Heredities and Galway Kinnell’s Strong is Your Hold.

Fiction: Eva Ibbotson’s Star of Kazan celebrates a foundling child, a spirited girl named Annika who grows up with two guardians, a cook named Ellie and a housekeeper named Sigrid, in the Austrian home of three professors: Julius the geologist, Emil the art historian, and Gertrude the harpist. She learns many useful things, including kindness, which causes her to befriend the sickly great-aunt of a spoiled neighbor girl. The woman, in her youth, was a performer — a dancer and an actress — called La Rondine who loved to throw flower petals from swings hoisted high above the stages where she danced … and she had many admirers, some of whom gave her very expensive jewelry. With that jewelry, including a gorgeous emerald called the Star of Kazan, the intrigue begins … for La Rondine leaves gifts for the girl Annika that other people try to steal.

I loved this book. I enjoyed it tremendously, and I recommend it to the whole world. (It made me want to go to Austria tout suite!) It was very well-written, very beautifully and convincingly written. Anyone who reads it will enjoy it.

Since I was in a fictional mood, I picked up another book, convincingly set in our own day, in America, but particularly in Louisiana: The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Unlike the Star of Kazan, this book is not for children! But like Ibbotson, Rebecca Wells does a beautiful job of evoking historical setting and developing likable characters.

Siddalee Walker, the heroine, has a relationship with her mother that is fraught with tension and a confusion that stems from her mother’s troubled past: her own abusive parents and a coping strategy that made her rely more on bourbon than anything healthy. The mother-daughter unhappiness makes Sidda want to run from her otherwise charming and wonderful fiancé, Connor.

The book is actually set over the weeks when she is in retreat from her lover in Seattle, trying to decide if she is actually going to marry him. The ending is happy (which is what the readers are inevitably hoping for), in part because Sidda remembers some redeeming things about her relationship with her mother — her memories involving, at one point, a marvelous elephant named Lawanda the Magnificent. (Yes, you have to read the book to find out what I’m talking about — I can’t give any more details away — I’ve already said the book ends well!!)

I’m still thinking about this book and all that it means.

Memoir: Ever since Joan Didion published The Year of Magical Thinking in 2005, I’ve wanted to read it. It’s about the year of grief she experienced after her husband died and her only daughter almost died from complications that landed her in the hospital for brain surgery. The title alone spoke to me about what happens when we grieve deeply for someone we’ve loved and lost from this earth.

On Christmas Day in 2008, I lost one of my dearest friends in a car accident, and the year that followed was more profoundly shaped by the stages and cycles of grieving (shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression and reflection and loneliness, an upward turn, acceptance and hope) than I had previously realized. Walking with Joan through her story helped me remember the misty steps of mine.

Since I am no longer drowning, I am able to look back at the storm that swept over the ocean that holds my life (that’s one way to say it) and see just how deeply affected I was:  how profoundly my judgment was affected (perhaps impaired), how strange some of my decisions might have looked to others. For anyone who has grieved or is grieving, this book has something of value. I did not relate to many aspects of Joan Didion’s life — she is a very different person than I am — but still, like Joan, my experience of loss focused my attention on how death, with an immediacy that can’t be denied, makes us see what is truly important to us in this life.

Now I’m reading Isabel Allende’s My Invented Country, another memoir, more about place than loss (so far). Isabel’s place is, as she celebrates in the book, Chilé. I’ve wanted to read this book ever since I saw Isabel read from it at the Field Museum in Chicago in 2004. What a performance! She was brilliant, funny, gifted in evoking our imaginations. I loved that night.

I was, at the time, too impoverished to buy a book for her to sign, but she kindly signed the program I had managed to pick up for the evening — even tho’ the friend I was with told me it was a faux pas to ask for this. (I’m a writer myself, and I promise, I will sign any program any impoverished reader of mine wants! I understand!) Isabel is so creative …

… and creativity brings me back to childbirth.

Childbirth: I’m reading the 4th edition of Nilsson’s A Child is Born, which follows the life of a developing baby from conception to birth in all of her astonishing detail — complete with a wide variety of color photographs. I have to write a book report on it as part of my education in midwifery (really), but the book is not necessarily for specialists. Anyone could read it and learn from it.

Non-Fiction: In addition to having interests in midwifery, I’m a childbirth educator who recycles, so I thought I’d better brush up on the “green” trends in order to help the families I serve. (I actually have a doula friend who calls herself “The Green Mama.” Love that!)  So I picked up Green Babies, Sage Moms: The Ultimate Guide to Raising Your Organic Baby at the local Half-Price Books on my birthday — what a great day!

But I’m not going to lie to you — this book freaked me out. Parabens! Parafins! Hormones! Pesticides! Genetically modified organisms! After I read it, I didn’t feel safe eating chicken, wearing antiperspirant (not to mention make-up), or consuming strawberries grown in California (my beautiful home state!). I still haven’t quite recovered from the cortisol shock that blasted my internal chemistry after reading, but I have made some immediate changes in my grocery shopping and hygiene habits. And while I don’t wish my anxiety on another single soul, I do recommend learning about healthy options for our bodies and the planet.

And that brings me to …

David Bach’s latest book (or one of his latest):  Go Green, Live Rich! I have all kinds of admiration for David, who wrote Smart Women Finish Rich and Smart Couples Finish Rich and Start Late, Finish Rich. His book Smart Women was the first financial planning book I’d ever read that put the emphasis not on making more money (which I could frankly care less about), but on making a financial plan based on my own values. All the financial planners I’d read previously always assumed I wanted to be a millionaire, which I didn’t. But I did want to make wise choices and be able to give freely to people I love and causes I care about. And David’s book helped me pull together a plan that didn’t involve living in total poverty. Yay!

Go Green, Live Rich! is not about financial planning, however, but rather about wise, environmentally friendly choices we can make for sustainable, planet-friendly living. I felt good about the fact that I’m already doing many of the things Bach recommends … and glad that I could learn about a few more to implement. I definitely recommend this book!

Moving on …

Medieval Studies: I’m a medievalist by training (another true story!), and I write book reviews for The 16th Century Journal, the most recent on Heather Webb’s great book, The Medieval Heart. This book beautifully explores the history of medieval ideas about the heart, the unity and equality present in the body and relationships and society when the heart’s ruling power is the metaphor for being and doing (rather than say, for example, the hierarchy of the head ). I recommend it to other medievalists, the curious, and anyone who enjoys Italian love poetry, especially Dante’s.

Christian devotional literature: Like Dante, my friend Diana Pavlac Glyer is an artist — in her case, a potter. She has written a lovely book called Clay in the Potter’s Hand. Like the book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Diana’s meditation draws readers into a deeper understanding of what God means when he reveals himself by comparison, whether to shepherd or a potter. I read Diana’s whole book, cover to cover, in one sitting and felt enriched. I plan to gather my artist-friends and read it again, together with them, and meditate more on the book’s many meanings.

One of my favorite chapters in the book is “Redeeming,” which is about when, after the pot of our lives has been broken for the third time — something seemingly impossible — the Potter can take the pieces and make a beautiful mosaic out of them. That idea spoke to me profoundly, for it is the message of my life in Christ without a doubt. As Diana says:

“There is no raw material, no accident, no broken pieces

that our Creator God cannot redeem.”

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