Monday, December 24, 2012

Happy Holidays

One of the Family
Frederick Cotman 

This week, instead of memorizing a poem for the Mnemosyne Weekly, I'll be spending time with family. But I'd still like to share a poem with you. No matter what your faith or what you're celebrating, this poem, "Grace," highlights mealtime as a way of honoring both the past and the present, both those with whom we are sitting and those who are no longer here. Such a lovely, universal message--

The poet, Jake Adam York, just passed away on the 16th of this month. May he rest in peace.

By Jake Adam York

Because my grandmother made me
the breakfast her mother made her,
when I crack the eggs, pat the butter
on the toast, and remember the bacon
to cast iron, to fork, to plate, to tongue,
my great grandmother moves my hands
to whisk, to spatula, to biscuit ring,
and I move her hands too, making
her mess, so the syllable of batter
I’ll find tomorrow beneath the fridge
and the strew of salt and oil are all
memorials, like the pan-fried chicken
that whistles in the grease in the voice
of my best friend’s grandmother
like a midnight mockingbird,
and the smoke from the grill
is the smell of my father coming home
from the furnace and the tang
of vinegar and char is the smell
of Birmingham, the smell
of coming home, of history, redolent
as the salt of black-and-white film
when I unwrap the sandwich
from the wax-paper the wax-paper
crackling like the cold grass
along the Selma to Montgomery road,
like the foil that held
Medgar’s last meal, a square of tin
that is just the ghost of that barbecue
I can imagine to my tongue
when I stand at the pit with my brother
and think of all the hands and mouths
and breaths of air that sharpened
this flavor and handed it down to us,
I feel all those hands inside
my hands when it’s time to spread
the table linen or lift a coffin rail
and when the smoke billows from the pit
I think of my uncle, I think of my uncle
rising, not falling, when I raise
the buttermilk and the cornmeal to the light
before giving them to the skillet
and sometimes I say the recipe
to the air and sometimes I say his name
or her name or her name
and sometimes I just set the table
because meals are memorials
that teach us how to move,
history moves in us as we raise
our voices and then our glasses
to pour a little out for those
who poured out everything for us,
we pour ourselves for them,
so they can eat again.

For more information about the poem:

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Mnemosyne Weekly: Poem Forty-One (Zagajewski)

I'd like to dedicate this week's Mnemosyne Weekly to the victims and survivors of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and their families and friends. The poem, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” written by one of my grad school professors, Adam Zagajewski, ran on the final page of The New Yorker's 9/11 issue. Though it was written a year and a half before the attacks, it became the most well-known poem cited in relation to the tragedy. Now that we are once again blindsided by the agonizing symptoms of a mutilated world, I think again of this poem.

According to The Daily Beast, "'Try to Praise the Mutilated World' recalls a trip Zagajewski took with his father through Ukrainian villages in Poland forcibly abandoned in the population transfers of the post-Yalta years." No stranger to tragedy himself, Zagajewski was just an infant when his family was deported from their home, thus beginning a state of exile that would become a motif in both his life and his poetry. Bless him for transforming his experience into art.

As I memorize this poem this week, I'll be thinking of the community of Newtown, Connecticut, and sending prayers for healing.

Try to Praise the Mutilated World
By Adam Zagajewski

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Mnemosyne Weekly: Poem Forty (Dickinson)

This Thursday, 12/13/12, I'll join twenty other fabulous poets to read at the Annual Gathering of the Poets Emily Dickinson Birthday Bash. The reading, which is hosted by Dave Parsons and the Montgomery County Literary Arts Council, will take place at at 7 PM at The Corner Pub in Conroe, TX. We'll each read one poem of Emily's and one of our own. I've selected the lovely little poem, "How happy is the little Stone" for both the birthday reading and this week's Mnemosyne Weekly. My favorite thing about memorizing Emily Dickinson poems is having her unusual syntax, slant rhymes, and coupling of the concrete and abstract bouncing around in my head. I hope you enjoy this one too--

How happy is the little Stone
Emily Dickinson

How happy is the little Stone
That rambles in the Road alone,
And doesn't care about Careers
And Exigencies never fears --
Whose Coat of elemental Brown
A passing Universe put on,
And independent as the Sun
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute Decree
In casual simplicity --

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Mnemosyne Weekly: Poem Thirty-Nine (Amichai)

San Carlos Wildflowers
John Fowler

This week I've fallen in love with a new (to me) poet, Yehuda Amichai, whose selected poems I picked up at Half Price Books a few weeks ago and have been devouring since. Amichai writes in Hebrew and has been translated into more than forty languages. The poems in The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai (the collection I've been reading) were translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell.

According to another well-known translator, Robert Alter, "Yehuda Amichai, it has been remarked with some justice, is the most widely translated Hebrew poet since King David.” And I have to say, I can see why. The poems are stunning. Both universal and deeply personal, they deal with the most important aspects of humanity through compelling, brilliant metaphors and images.

Before you read the poem I've selected for this week's Mnemosyne, here are a few lines that really struck me from other poems: "God's hand is in the world / like my mother's hand in the guts of the slaughtered chicken / on Sabbath eve" (From "God's Hand in the World," translated by Stephen Mitchell). And from another poem ("Yehuda Ha-Levi"), also translated by Stephen Mitchell: "But in the white fist of his brain / he holds the black seeds of his happy childhood. / When he reaches the belov├Ęd, bone-dry land-- / he will sow."

Yehuda Amichai
Photo by Layle Silbert

By Yehuda Amichai
Translated By Chana Bloch

Not the peace of a cease-fire,
not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb,
but rather
as in the heart when the excitement is over
and you can talk only about a great weariness.
I know that I know how to kill,
that makes me an adult.
And my son plays with a toy gun that knows
how to open and close its eyes and say Mama.
A peace
without the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares,
without words, without
the thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it be
light, floating, like lazy white foam.
A little rest for the wounds—
who speaks of healing?
(And the howl of the orphans is passed from one generation
to the next, as in a relay race:
the baton never falls.)

Let it come
like wildflowers,
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.