Thursday, January 17, 2019

Tending the Fire

Here's another poem from my 2007 book  Scattered Showers in a Clear Sky:

Tending the Fire


Still I am in the hands of the unknown God; he is breaking me down to his new oblivion...


Don’t you love a good fire?


About every ten minutes,

add a small log.

Keep feeding it.

The heat must be intense enough,

constant enough,

steady enough

to set a husky arm of oak to

 burning from its core.


It’s messy work.

Grit from the twigs on the polished floor,

black soot from the poker

on my hands.


My father told me how to keep a fire burning.

Now he sits in the cold winter sunlight

at the Home,

when the sooty darkness

catches the twigs of day,



I sit before the fire in the dark living room,

on the floor before the fire,

feeding it,

watching it like a TV show about my

still burning, though crumbling love.

The flames orange my face.

Roaring silence

issues from their hunger.





Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

Shelley said that.   Yes.  Yes.    I was searching for this poem for someone else today, and when I found it again, I remember how I loved it.  I have probably posted it here before, but here it is again:

Eamon Grennan

I was watching a robin fly after a finch — the smaller bird
chirping with excitement, the bigger, its breast blazing, silent
in light-winged earnest chase — when, out of nowhere
over the chimneys and the shivering front gardens,
flashes a sparrowhawk headlong, a light brown burn
scorching the air from which it simply plucks
like a ripe fruit the stopped robin, whose two or three
cheeps of terminal surprise twinkle in the silence
closing over the empty street when the birds have gone
about their own business, and I began to understand
how a poem can happen: you have your eye on a small
elusive detail, pursuing its music, when a terrible truth
strikes and your heart cries out, being carried off.

by Eamon Grennan

When a terrible truth strikes.

Three Inaugurations

Here's a poem from my book Vexed Questions.

 I read it now and think about the inaugurations since then:  Bush 1, Clinton, Bush 2, Obama, and now, Trump. Eight, counting the two-termers-  about 30 years.  If you had told me six years ago, when I wrote that poem, how things would be in 2019, I would have laughed in your face.  Irony is bitter sometimes.

Three Inaugurations


On Nixon’s second ,

we migrated to the living room

of our crowded row house in Baltimore

on January 20, 1973,

all of us young, in our first or second jobs

after college, living like hippies with paychecks

and phone bills,

friends, lovers, hangers-on

with us, sitting on the worn grey rug

from someone’s family attic.

We sat on the floor in front of the TV

as we did when we were children

watching Howdy Doody.

We smoked and laughed at Nixon

as we did when we were children

watching Howdy Doody,

laughed like defeated Democrats.


 On Carter’s only,

snow barricaded the curbs

on January 20, 1977.

We rode the bus across Washington

in the frigid night, our evening gowns

under our coats.

When we walked over to Union Station

for Carter’s Inaugural Party, in the knee-deep snow.

In the light from taxis and cars

the snow was lilac, and we laughed,

single and joyous Democrats,

carried our own bottles of champagne.


On Reagan’s first,

Election Day started with pouring rain,

drenching me on the way to the polls

in Petersburg Virginia

to vote Democratic.

On January 20, 1981,in the Washington Post,

an editorial writer sounded the warning:

poor people, watch out.

The limousines rolled down Pennsylvania Avenue.

The rich, back in town.

Thus was the inauguration of

Homelessness in America.



Monday, January 14, 2019


Here's another poem from my 2007 book, Scattered Showers in a Clear Sky.

It's sort of a sonnet I wrote for my old friend Dorothy Mabey, who taught across the hall from me in Petersburg Virginia in the 1980's. 



The clothing did not fall from you in tatters,

nor did your feet swell these 40 years.

The Goodwill store sells everything that matters.

Forget the Lord and Taylor, all your fears

are smothered in the well worn corduroy

The warm grey sweater sent to you with love

Each time you wear it I can feel your joy.

Reject stiff clothing, that which does not give,

the labels biting back into the neck.

the slippery polyester you once wore.

Embrace the blouse so fine it feels like silk.

The cotton blouse whose ironing was a chore.

Choose vibrant reds and purples from the rack.

Discover cashmere that the rich gave back.





Sunday, January 13, 2019


Here's a poem from my 2007 book  Scattered Showers in a Clear Sky:



An iceberg holds secrets

that nobody knows

but the dead whose ships

have encountered

those frozen mountains

in the sea.


Surely the mouse knows,

with her folded brown body,

who's wintered with her

small cocoa children

in plastic flowerpots

stacked in the garden shed

stuffed with soft

shredded lawn and leaf bags....

surely her closet-like

palace by the garden in the woods

appears like a corrugated

iceberg to the grass

which slants like waves

around its edge.





Saturday, January 12, 2019

Waiting for Snow

Red-Tail Hawk in the tree outside my window, on a snowy day in another year.

All day long the air has been full of the promise of snow. It's just twilight and it's not here yet, but any time now.
I have hunkered down, slept, gone out for the groceries early in the morning, prayed, listened to an audiobook  ( Over Sea, Under Stone  by Susan Cooper) and finally , finished a poem I've been struggling with.  I sent it, and five others, to the New Yorker just now.  Always hoping!

Here is a song I like very much, by John McCutcheon.  It's a love song, so it doesn't apply to me particularly, but I still like it.

Waiting For Snow

  Wintersongs            by John McCutcheon 

The nights are so long
They shorten the day
Over the mountains
The sky's turning gray
The geese all fly southward
As homeward they go
I'm sitting here waiting
And waiting for snow

Waiting for snow
The first of the year
I just can't believe
That it almost is here
Like cousins and Christmas
And places to go
Nothing takes longer
Than waiting for snow

Waiting for sledding
Waiting for fun
Piled high around me
Bright mountains of sun
Waiting for snowballs
For shouting and laughter
For sliding down hillsides
With hot chocolate after


The longer I'm waiting
The longer it takes
`Til I stick out my tongue
To catch the first flakes
Wash your face in the snow
You'll be pretty all year
Look out the window
It's finally here

Waiting for snow
Waiting for you
To bundle me up
Like you always do
Your glove in my mitten
Together we'll go
To make footprints and angels
In our brand new snow

Friday, January 11, 2019

Poem published

Bearings Online, a publication from the Collegeville Institute, published my poem "Ten Thousand Garden Questions Answered"  this week!
Here it is:

Ten Thousand Garden Questions Answered

Brick of a book my uncle Ernie gave me
in the days when I didn’t know shade from sun.
Now I ask it plaintively:
what is that white rice which coats the bachelor’s button?
How do I keep the mice from eating the tulip bulbs?
Why can’t my lavender live through the frost?
Why does my skin make cancer in the sun?
Why did the warbler fly into the window?
How do I prevent the Sudanese from starving?
How do I keep the Syrians from dying of war?

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

On the Cusp of Change

I have decided to undergo the surgery that will repair my radiation damaged guts.
It might not  work.  The surgeon won't know ,until he gets inside, whether that friable radiated tissue will hold stitches.  I'm hoping.  I'm also considering that this might change my life, and not for the better.

In any case, it will be a long recovery. So I backed out of teaching this semester.  I hope to return to teaching in the Fall, but in the meantime, months stretch ahead full of mystery.

I have begun to re-read Mary Catherine Bateson's wonderful book  Composing a Life. I'm reading it in order to join in a discussion of it with several other women of about my age. Several of them are wives of  colleagues, women I thoroughly like.  I read this book about twenty years ago , but I remember almost nothing about it.  Maybe this time , more will stay with me. It's about how women of this age have lived lives of improvisation and creation even in the midst of stable situations.

I will try to write more of my thoughts down as I go.

art:  Yuko Hosaka

Saturday, January 5, 2019

I've kept a rein on my life

On this feast of the Epiphany, here's a poem by George Seferis:

Epiphany, 1937
Translated by Edmund Keeley 
The flowering sea and the mountains in the moon’s waning
the great stone close to the Barbary figs and the asphodels
the jar that refused to go dry at the end of day
and the closed bed by the cypress trees and your hair
golden; the stars of the Swan and that other star, Aldebaran.

I’ve kept a rein on my life, kept a rein on my life, travelling
among yellow trees in driving rain
on silent slopes loaded with beech leaves,
no fire on their peaks; it’s getting dark.
I’ve kept a rein on my life; on your left hand a line
a scar at your knee, perhaps they exist
on the sand of the past summer perhaps
they remain there where the north wind blew as I hear
an alien voice around the frozen lake.
The faces I see do not ask questions nor does the woman
bent as she walks giving her child the breast.
I climb the mountains; dark ravines; the snow-covered
plain, into the distance stretches the snow-covered plain, they ask nothing
neither time shut up in dumb chapels nor
hands outstretched to beg, nor the roads.
I’ve kept a rein on my life whispering in a boundless silence
I no longer know how to speak nor how to think; whispers
like the breathing of the cypress tree that night
like the human voice of the night sea on pebbles
like the memory of your voice saying ‘happiness’.

I close my eyes looking for the secret meeting-place of the waters
under the ice the sea’s smile, the closed wells
groping with my veins for those veins that escape me
there where the water-lilies end and that man
who walks blindly across the snows of silence.
I’ve kept a rein on my life, with him, looking for the water that touches you
heavy drops on green leaves, on your face
in the empty garden, drops in the motionless reservoir
striking a swan dead in its white wings
living trees and your eyes riveted.

This road has no end, has no relief, however hard you try
to recall your childhood years, those who left, those
lost in sleep, in the graves of the sea,
however much you ask bodies you’ve loved to stoop
under the harsh branches of the plane trees there
where a ray of the sun, naked, stood still
and a dog leapt and your heart shuddered,
the road has no relief; I’ve kept a rein on my life.

                                                                        The snow
and the water frozen in the hoofmarks of the horses.

George Seferis, "Epiphany, 1937" from Collected Poems (George Seferis). Translated, edited, and introduced by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Copyright © 1995 by George Seferis.  Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.
Source: George Seferis: Collected Poems (Princeton University Press, 1995)

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The Shadow Man

Here's a haunting poem by J.R.R. Tolkien:
The Shadow Man
There was a man who dwelt alone
beneath the moon in shadow,
He sat as long as lasting stone,
and yet he had no shadow.
The owls, they perched upon his head
beneath the moon in summer;
They wiped their beaks and thought him dead,
who sat there dumb all summer.

There came a lady clad in grey
beneath the moon a-shining.
One moment did she stand and stay
her hair with flowers entwining.
He woke, as had he sprung of stone,
beneath the moon in shadow,
And clasped her fast, both flesh and bone;
and they were clad in shadow.

And never more she walked in light,
or over moonlit mountain,
But dwelt within the hill, where night
is lit but with a fountain-
Save once a year when caverns yawn,
and hills are clad in shadow,
They dance together then till dawn
and cast a single shadow.

~ J.R.R. Tolkien ~
The Shadow Man

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

There is your world within

art  Henri Magritte   Beautiful World

Happy and hopeful New Year!

Here's a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

"The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less;
The times are winter, watch, a world undone:
They waste, they wither worse; they as they run
Or bring more or more blazon man’s distress.
And I not help.
Nor word now of success:
All is from wreck, here, there, to rescue one—
Work which to see scarce so much as begun
Makes welcome death, does dear forgetfulness.
Or what is else?
There is your world within.
There rid the dragons, root out there the sin.
Your will is law in that small commonweal…"

-  Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Times Are Nightfall, Look, Their Light Grows Less

Monday, December 31, 2018

Those pages never written

This poem by Rhina Espaillat really speaks to my feelings on this New Year's Eve:


December thirty-one: too rich a spread,

Too much of what there is, too strange, too bright,

Too many dishes tasted that instead

Of filling, feed the hunger, every bite

Promising to be perfect – but not quite;

Too much to want, when nothing but excess

Will do, spiraling skyward like a kite.

And too late now to wish it any less.


Too many pearls on gold silver thread

For needlework begun by young delight

Finished by duty, if not left for dead:

This tapestry, that kinship starved on spite,

Those pages never written, safe and white

with cowardice,unwilling to confess

What the light does that makes the dark contrite.

And too late now to wish it any less.


Too many books meant to be read, unread

On shelves youth stocked when it believed it might;

Too much meant to be said but left unsaid

That wanted saying when the time was right;

Too much said wrong, too much held close and tight

That should have been let go, have been largess

Flung free at once and never kept from flight.

And too late now to wish it any less.


Face in the mirror, reading by cold light

The lines that spell your history, come bless

What one more year decrees this final night.

Much too late now to wish it any less.
 by Rhina Espaillat


My Worries and Fears

This morning I listened to an interview on the New York Times Book Review podcast.
The interviewee, Yascha Mounk, was talking about the decline of the Roman Republic, and comparing it to the present situation in the United States.
This is part of what he said. I cut and paste it from his article on the same subject:

"...the principal purpose of his book is to allow “readers to better appreciate the serious problems that result both from politicians who breach a republic’s political norms and from citizens who choose not to punish them for doing so.” Does he accomplish that ambitious goal?


In Watts’s telling of the Roman Republic’s agonizing death, slow-moving structural transformations gradually sowed the seeds of demise. As the population exploded and the economy became ever more sophisticated, the growing share of poor citizens started to demand redress. But since the institutions of the republic were dominated by patricians who had much to lose from measures like land reform, they never fully addressed the grievances of ordinary Romans. With popular rage against increasingly dysfunctional institutions swelling, ambitious patricians, determined to outflank their competitors, began to build a fervent base of support by making outsize promises. It was these populares — populists like Tiberius Gracchus and his younger brother Gaius — who, in their bid for power, first broke some of the republic’s most longstanding norms.

The transformation of Rome’s army compounded the challenge of growing inequality. In the early days of the republic, soldiers thought of their participation in military service as a civic duty. Commanders hoped to win great honors and perhaps to attain higher office. But by the late second century B.C., the army had essentially been privatized. Commanders knew that the plunder of new lands could garner them vast riches. Their soldiers signed up for the ride in the hope of gaining a generous allotment of land on which to start a farm. With soldiers increasingly loyal to their commanders, and commanders doing whatever it took to maximize the prospect of private profit, the Senate was no longer in charge.


It took a long time for these tensions to build. But once they reached a critical point, Rome’s descent into chaos and dysfunction was astonishingly swift.


During the century and a half between the days of Pyrrhus and the rise of Tiberius Gracchus, there had not been a single outbreak of large-scale political violence. Then Tiberius pushed through land reforms in defiance of the Senate’s veto. In the ensuing fracas, he and hundreds of his followers were murdered. The taboo on naked power politics had been broken, never to recover.

Over the next years, it quickly became normal for populist politicians to set aside longstanding norms to accomplish their goals; for military commanders to bend the Senate to their will by threatening to occupy Rome; and for rival generals to wage war on one another. “Within a generation of the first political assassination in Rome, politicians had begun to arm their supporters and use the threat of violence to influence the votes of assemblies and the election of magistrates. Within two generations, Rome fell into civil war.”


If we are to avoid the fate that ultimately befell Rome, Watts cautions, it is “vital for all of us to understand how Rome’s republic worked, what it achieved and why, after nearly five centuries, its citizens ultimately turned away from it and toward the autocracy of Augustus.” In a sense, the book fails in this ambition. Especially as it progresses, Watts, a professor of history at the University of California at San Diego, abandons a careful analysis of the larger trends for a blow-by-blow account of the many conflicts that divided the republic in the last century of its existence. At times, this endless onslaught of calamities — a new violation of some traditional norm, the latest commander to threaten an invasion of Rome, one more shift in the ever-fragile constellation of power — starts to numb the mind.


But in another sense, the sheer repetitiveness of the calamities that befell Rome only serves to underline the book’s most urgent message. If we were to make explicit the implicit analogy that runs all the way through “Mortal Republic,” we would most likely cast Donald Trump as a farcical reincarnation of Tiberius Gracchus. Like the original populist, Trump was propelled to power by the all-too-real failures of a political system that is unable to curb growing inequality or to mobilize its most eminent citizens around a shared conception of the common good. And like Gracchus, Trump believes that, because he is acting in the name of the dispossessed, he is perfectly justified in shredding the Republic’s traditions.


If that analogy is right, the good news is that Trump will, once the history of our own mortal Republic is written, turn out to be a relatively minor character. Far from single-handedly destroying our political system, he is the transitional figure whose election demonstrates the extent to which the failings of our democracy are finally starting to take their toll.


The bad news is that the coming decades are unlikely to afford us many moments of calm and tranquillity. For though four generations stand between Tiberius Gracchus’ violent death and Augustus’ rapid ascent to plenipotentiary power, the intervening century was one of virtually incessant fear and chaos. If the central analogy that animates “Mortal Republic” is correct, the current challenge to America’s political system is likely to persist long after its present occupant has left the White House. "

 He thinks our country is at the beginning of such a decline.  I tend to agree with him, and it really scares me.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Incorrigibly Plural

These last days of December are very mild this year... no snow.

But here's a great snow poem   by Louis MacNeice that is more about the world than about snow:


The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was

Spawning snow and pink roses against it

Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:

World is suddener than we fancy it.


World is crazier and more of it than we think,

Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion

A tangerine and spit the pips and feel

The drunkenness of things being various.


And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world

Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes –

On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands –

There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

 Louis MacNeice


Saturday, December 29, 2018

When will you be coming back?

Angela Harding    Winters"

No snow here,  but still I want to post this poem by Linda Pastan:

December in the garden

"It is December in the garden,
an early winter here, with snow
already hiding my worst offenses --
the places I disturbed your moss
with my heavy boots; the corner
where I planted in too deep a hole
the now stricken hawthorne: crystals
hanging from its icy branches
are the only flowers it will know.

When did solitude become
mere loneliness and the sounds
of birds at the feeder seem
not like a calibrated music
but the discordant dialects
of strangers simply flying through?
I have tried to construct a life
alone here -- coffee at dawn; a jog
through the chilling air

counting my heartbeats,
as if the doctor were my only muse;
books and bread and firewood --
those usual stepping-stones from month
to freezing month. but the constricted light,
the year closing down on itself with all
the vacancies of January ahead, leave me
unreconciled even to beauty.
When will you be coming back?"

-  Linda Pastan, The Letter



Friday, December 28, 2018

Feast of the Holy Innocents

Today the Christian Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the children who were killed by King Herod's soldiers while they searched for the Christ Child.

Here we are in 2018, and children are still being killed in the name of power and politics all over the world.
Just in the last weeks, these two died of curable illnesses in US Custody on our southern border:

Jakelin Caal, age 7

Felipe Gomez Alonzo, age 8

Words fail me.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The web in a loom

Marc Chagall,  Madonna of the Village

Sunny and thirty degrees in Maryland. No snow here - a blessing for travelers.

I like this observation from a book called 4000 years of Christmas:

"Shall we liken Christmas to the web in a loom?  There are many weavers, who work into the pattern the experience of their lives. When one generation goes, another comes to take up the weft where it has been dropped. The pattern changes as the mind changes, yet never begins quite anew. At first, we are not sure that we discern the pattern, but at last we see that, unknown to the weavers themselves, something has taken shape before our eyes, and that they have made something
very beautiful, something which compels our understanding."

-   Earl W. Count, 4,000 Years of Christmas

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Irregular Life Begins

art by Mickey O'Neill McGrath

It's still the Christmas season, so not entirely back to irregular life.

Here's a poem by Galway Kinnell:

The 26th of December

Galway Kinnell1927 - 2014

A Tuesday, day of Tiw,
god of war, dawns in darkness.
The short holiday day of talking by the fire,
floating on snowshoes among
ancient self-pollarded maples,
visiting, being visited, giving
a rain gauge, receiving red socks,
watching snow buntings nearly over
their heads in snow stab at spirtled bits
of sunflower seeds the chickadees
hold with their feet to a bough
and hack apart, scattering debris
like sloppy butchers, is over.
Irregular life begins. Telephone calls,
Google searches, evasive letters,
complicated arrangements, faxes,
second thoughts, consultations,
e-mails, solemnly given kisses.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Blessing for the Longest Night

Christmas Eve 1928   by Carl Gaertner

One more Long Night poem, this one from Jan Richardson:

Blessing for the Longest Night

All throughout these months
as the shadows
have lengthened,
this blessing has been
gathering itself,
making ready,
preparing for
this night.

It has practiced
walking in the dark,
traveling with
its eyes closed,
feeling its way
by memory
by touch
by the pull of the moon
even as it wanes.

So believe me
when I tell you
this blessing will
reach you
even if you
have not light enough
to read it;
it will find you
even though you cannot
see it coming.

You will know
the moment of its
by your release
of the breath
you have held
so long;
a loosening
of the clenching
in your hands,
of the clutch
around your heart;
a thinning
of the darkness
that had drawn itself
around you.

This blessing
does not mean
to take the night away
but it knows
its hidden roads,
knows the resting spots
along the path,
knows what it means
to travel
in the company
of a friend.

So when
this blessing comes,
take its hand.
Get up.
Set out on the road
you cannot see.

This is the night
when you can trust
that any direction
you go,
you will be walking
toward the dawn.

—Jan Richardson
from The Cure for Sorrow

Welcome Yule!

art by Anyi Despacho

For many years I have loved the series by Susan Cooper … can't remember the name... but my favorite book is The Dark is Rising. Some English children edge into a world of fantasy and folklore around the Arthurian legends.  Part of it is about the Solstice. The following passage isn't from that book, but it's a lovely passage:

"So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us - Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, fest, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome Yule!!"
-   Susan Cooper, The Shortest Day

About The Dark is Rising and list of books in this series:
Fire on the mountain shall find the harp of gold
Played to wake the Sleepers, oldest of the old;
Power from the green witch, lost beneath the sea;
All shall find the light at last, silver on the tree.
When young Will Stanton discovers he has come of age as the lastborn of the Old Ones, the immortal keepers of the force of the Light, he is swept up in the age-old struggle between the powers of Light and Dark. The battles against the last dreadful rising of the Dark are waged across time in the most ancient myth-haunted places of England and Wales. Will, his ageless master Merriman, and their allies and adversaries—human and mythic alike—seek the objects of power that will tip the uncertain balance of good and evil that exists throughout the world and within the mind of man.
The five-book cycle, a classic work of children’s literature, is deeply rooted in the rich heritage of Arthurian legend and Celtic mythology.

“The mounting excitement of the narrative is well-matched by the strength of the writing, which can be as rich and as eloquent as a Beethoven symphony. Full of symbolism and allegory, the story and its implications are nevertheless clear, comprehensible, and enormously exhilarating.” — Ethel Heins, The Horn Book
 Book 1: Over Sea, Under Stone
Book 2: The Dark is Rising
 Book 3: Greenwitch
 Book 4: The Grey King
Book 5: Silver on the Tree