Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

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.

day #10, National Poetry Month ~

Seamus Heaney — Nobel Laureate that he is — doesn’t get the attention in popular poetry circles that folks like Dickinson and Frost do. And yet he’s a wonderful poet — a people’s poet as well as a poet’s poet.

His craft is amazing (how does he DO it??), and his content familiar to anyone who’s farmed, who’s been to old farms, who’s lived w/ the stories of elders.

Poetry is a practice for me — in the traditional Buddhist sense of the word dana: a giving, w/out thought of return. To read it is to honour someone else’s gift. To write is to send it out w/out knowing where it will find a home. Dana also means to share your time, your energies, for the benefit of others. Share your gifts, in other words. Surely that’s true of a master artist like Heaney.

Here’s his lovely poem ‘Digging':

Digging

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:

My father, digging. I look down

 

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds

Bends low, comes up twenty years away

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills

Where he was digging.

 

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked,

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

 

By God, the old man could handle a spade.

Just like his old man.

 

My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.

 

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

 

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

 

tea & memory: day #9 of National Poetry Month ~

If you’ve read any of this blog, you know I’m nuts about tea. Crazy, obsessive, elitist (and possibly boring) on the topic. Poetry, too.

I have almost as many tea ‘cookbooks’ as favourite poets. There are six tea sets in the china cabinet,  including two hand-painted by my grandmother, who also loved tea sets. That doesn’t include the celadon set my husband brought back from Korea, the antique Persian set he bought me in Saudi Arabia, the hand-thrown pottery set in our wedding stoneware, or various tempered glass ones. Did I mention I love tea?

Elsewhere — in poems, in essays, in letters and journals and who knows where else — I’ve written about learning tea. Long ago, in a galaxy and time far far away… In a desert city, in a box of a trailer, alone w/ the wintry desert shamal and new motherhood, I learned tea. It was my life line. Or rather the other women huddled together for support were my life line. A Brit, a Madrasan (now a Chennaite? ), an Aussie, three Texans, an Okie, a Canadian, a Vermonter… an eclectic group, my tea family.

Some of them already knew tea — the Brit, of course. And the Canadian and the Aussie.  The Queen’s brew has a long,  wide, and mixed history. Here in the US, we drink coffee — proof of our rebellious natures. But no one ever turned to coffee for comfort. And few people write poetry to coffee.

But there are poems to tea, and today’s poem is one of those. It’s new for me — new poets and new poems. I wanted something that married these two great comforts of mine. So here are TWO poems today, both on tea. After all, it’s my birthday!

Here’s Kenny Knight, with ‘Lessons in Tea-Making':

Lessons in Tea-Making

When I first learnt to
Pour tea in Honicknowle

In those dark old days
Before central heating

Closed down open fireplaces
And lights went out in coal mines

And chimpanzees hadn’t yet
Made their debuts on television

And two sugars
Was the national average

And the teapot was the centre
Of the known universe

And the solar system
Wasn’t much on anyone’s mind

And the sun was this yellow
Thing that just warmed the air

And anthropology’s study
Of domestic history hadn’t

Quite reached the evolutionary
Breakthrough of the tea-bag

And the kettle was on
In the kitchen of number

Thirty two Chatsworth Gardens
Where my father after slurping

Another saucer dry would ask
In a smoke-frog voice for

Another cup of microcosm
While outside the universe blazed

Like a hundred towns
On a sky of smooth black lino

And my father with tobacco
Stained fingers would dunk biscuits

And in the process spill tiny drops
Of Ceylon and India

And here’s Jo Shapcott, with ‘Procedure':

Procedure

This tea, this cup of tea, made of leaves,

made of the leaves of herbs and absolute

almond blossom, this tea, is the interpreter

of almond, liquid touchstone which lets us

scent its true taste at last and with a bump

in my case, takes me back to the yellow time

of trouble with bloodtests, and cellular

madness, and my presence required

on the slab for surgery, and all that mess

I don’t want to comb through here because

it seems, honestly, a trifle now that steam

and scent and strength and steep and infusion

say thank you thank you thank you for the then, and now

day 8, National Poetry Month ~

During my master’s, I was besotted with the poet Robert Hayden. I read every one of his poems, all his prose, the critical biography on him, and the few scholarly articles available. I still think he is the most under-appreciated of great American poets.

Hayden’s work had an enormous impact on me. He moved deftly between dialect and difficult image, between history and allusion, between the intimately personal and the disillusioned political. I adored him then, and I still do.

This poem is one of my favourites, ‘A Ballad of Remembrance.’ It speaks deeply to this Buddhist & Unitarian. Of place, of heritage, of the taste of words as rich as chocolate, melting on the tongue.

A bit longer than the other poems I’ve shared to date, it will seduce you if you’ll let it. As Hayden does.

Here’s Robert Hayden’s ‘A Ballad of Remembrance':

A Ballad of Remembrance

Quadroon mermaids, Afro angels, black saints
balanced upon the switchblades of that air
and sang. Tight streets unfolding to tile eye
like fans of corrosion and elegiac lace
crackled whit their singing: Shadow of time. Shadow of blood.

Shadow, echoed the Zulu king, dangling
from a cluster of balloons. Blood,
whined the gun-metal priestess, floating
over the courtyard where dead men diced.

What will you have? she inquired, the sallow vendeuse
of prepared tarnishes and jokes of nacre and ormolu,
what but those gleamings, oldrose graces,
manners like scented gloves? Contrived ghosts
rapped to metronome clack of lavalieres.

Contrived illuminations riding a threat
of river, masked Negroes wearing chameleon
satins gaudy now as a fortuneteller’s
dream of disaster, lighted the crazy flopping
dance of love and hate among joys, rejections.

Accommodate, muttered the Zulu king,
toad on a throne of glaucous poison jewels.
Love, chimed the saints and the angels and the mermaids.
Hate, shrieked tine gun-metal priestess
from her spiked bellcollar curved like a fleur-de-lis:

As well have a talon as a finger, a muzzle as a mouth,
as well have a hollow as a heart. And she pinwheeled
away in coruscations of laughter, scattering
those others before her like foil stars.

But the dance continued—now among metaphorical
doors, coffee cups floating poised
hysterias, decors of illusion; now among
mazurka dolls offering death’s-heads
of cocaine roses and real violets.

Then you arrived, meditative, ironic,
richly human; and your presence was shore where I rested
released from tile hoodoo of that dance, where I spoke
with my true voice again.

And therefore this is not only a ballad of remembrance
for the down-South arcane city with death
in its jaws like gold teeth and archaic cusswords;
not only a token for the troubled generous friends
held in the fists of that schizoid city like flowers,
but also, Mark Van Doren,
a poem of remembrance, a gift, a souvenir for you.

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