Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

day 14 of National Poetry Month ~

I grew up moving. And losing things — as the Elizabeth Bishop villanelle I posted earlier reminds us, the art of losing isn’t hard to master. Except, of course, it is…

Yesterday two of my sisters finally emptied an old dresser of my mother’s. Inside were old letters, photos, and ephemera from all over the world. My sister the keeper of everything familial asked me if I liked the irreplaceable grab bag of letters, postcards, poetry book (and more) that she gave me. Meaning: you aren’t going to throw this all away, are you?? :)

And no, I’m not. My family all think I’m anti-stuff. I am — too much stuff weighs me down. But I’m certainly not anti-memorabilia, or scrapbooks, or photo memories, or the fragile markers of lives well-lived. It’s just that all my life — yes, literally — I’ve either had to move and leave belongings behind, or catastrophe (robbery, flood, fire, war…) has stolen them. I suppose I’m almost afraid to love them…

From the age of no more than 9, I had to have a small suitcase packed w/ whatever I wanted to take out w/ me if we were evacuated from Việt Nam. Even earlier, a flood took my red teddy bear, and my mother had to confirm, when asked, that yes, Teddy was gone.

Class rings, graduation gifts, my sons’ bassinet, so many things lost. And always the knowledge that I might have to (as I did, more than once) move quickly, packing light. It’s the price of growing up an expatriate, I suppose. That feeling of no roots.

So today’s poem is for the expats among us, celebrating not the losses but the exhilerating sense of possibility that a new country, language, & culture offer. There are few things I hate more than packing (root canal, maybe??). But there also is little I like as much as going somewhere new.

Here’s Michael Hogan’s ‘Expatriate’:

Expatriate

There is much to recommend
staying where you are. Local
knowledge is the truest kind.
But the suitcase is in my closet once again.
The streets cough up a language
my dog can’t comprehend.

These moves choose me like love.
Or when love dies but clings
until I cut the white bars of skin
against the sharpest rock I find
to crawl newborn in the sun.

Staying where you are
you can still be startled in small ways:
the August lightning, an implausible death,
a glance in the bathroom mirror from a graceless angle.
But to move again!
The brain patterns itself and strains;
synapses brighten, then dim.
The rabbit heart beats wildly
in its tough tortoise skin.

day 13 of National Poetry Month ~

Having spent many years teaching at the ‘higher ed’ level (re: college), I feel qualified to say that the system is sick. Fattened on the blood of adjuncts, centred far too often on the desires of faculty and a profit-driven administration over the needs of students, it’s a system way past overripe. Think piece of fruit ready to implode…

That said, I loved my time teaching university. Mostly because of students, I admit, but also because of the dear friends I made. And living in an environment where learning is important, is valued. I think the ability to exist in a state of heightened learning is an almost sacred state…

So here’s a very cranky poem about what the tenure system does NOT buy us: poets. Any kind of master artist, really. Because the demands of the job suck a person dry, leaving only the fragile husk of some rare and unnamed bug…

Here’s David Lehman, with today’s poem, ‘With Tenure’:

With Tenure

If Ezra Pound were alive today
(and he is)
he’d be teaching
at a small college in the Pacific Northwest
and attending the annual convention
of writing instructors in St. Louis
and railing against tenure,
saying tenure
is a ladder whose rungs slip out
from under the scholar as he climbs
upwards to empty heaven
by the angels abandoned
for tenure killeth the spirit
(with tenure no man becomes master)
Texts are unwritten with tenure,
under the microscope, sous rature
it turneth the scholar into a drone
decayeth the pipe in his jacket’s breast pocket.
Hamlet was not written with tenure,
nor were written Schubert’s lieder
nor Manet’s Olympia painted with tenure.
No man of genius rises by tenure
Nor woman (I see you smile).
Picasso came not by tenure
nor Charlie Parker;
Came not by tenure Wallace Stevens
Not by tenure Marcel Proust
Nor Turner by tenure
With tenure hath only the mediocre
a sinecure unto death. Unto death, I say!
WITH TENURE
Nature is constipated the sap doesn’t flow
With tenure the classroom is empty
et in academia ego
the ketchup is stuck inside the bottle
the letter goes unanswered the bell doesn’t ring.


day 12 of National Poetry Month ~

I’m spending this week w/ the most wonderful professionals in the world: teachers. Yep. Teachers.

We get a bad rap these days.  But nowhere will you find men & women more committed to the future of America: our kids. Who else will work 60+ hours a week (yes; they really do) to make sure every child’s work is evaluated, and his or her abilities understood and considered in the next week’s lessons? Who else deals with body fluids, hormones, the results of negligent (to dangerously ignorant) parenting, the chaos of creativity, and the fall-out of both physical & emotional injuries? Who else cares so deeply they get cranky?

So today’s poem is in honour of the many teachers I know, admire, and love. Here’s another favourite poet — Canadian Margaret Atwood — with her poem ‘You Begin’:

You Begin

You begin this way:
this is your hand,
this is your eye,
that is a fish, blue and flat
on the paper, almost
the shape of an eye.
This is your mouth, this is an O
or a moon, whichever
you like. This is yellow.

Outside the window
is the rain, green
because it is summer, and beyond that
the trees and then the world,
which is round and has only
the colors of these nine crayons.

This is the world, which is fuller
and more difficult to learn than I have said.
You are right to smudge it that way
with the red and then
the orange: the world burns.

Once you have learned these words
you will learn that there are more
words than you can ever learn.
The word hand floats above your hand
like a small cloud over a lake.
The word hand anchors
your hand to this table,
your hand is a warm stone
I hold between two words.

This is your hand, these are my hands, this is the world,
which is round but not flat and has more colors
than we can see.

It begins, it has an end,
this is what you will
come back to, this is your hand.

day 11 of National Poetry Month ~

I am a sister. Sometimes I feel like I should preface that statement as they do in AA: Hi. My name is Britton and I’ve been a sister for all but a scant three years of my life. I don’t think I’ll ever recover…

My sisters are my best friends. It figures, since we moved a lot as children, but always had each other. Each of them has her own friends, as well. As do I. We call them our ‘other sisters.’ And the poem today is from that perspective.

Lucille Clifton is one of my very favourite poets — an amazing writer and person. This poem reminds me that not only are our kin are our family. But also? Our kin sisters are verry special.

Here’s Lucille Clifton’s ‘sisters’:

sisters

me and you be sisters.
we be the same.

me and you
coming from the same place.

me and you
be greasing our legs
touching up our edges.

me and you
be scared of rats
be stepping on roaches.

me and you
come running high down purdy street one time
and mama laugh and shake her head at
me and you.

me and you
got babies
got thirty-five
got black
let our hair go back
be loving ourselves
be loving ourselves
be sisters.

only where you sing,
I poet.

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