I am writing on behalf of the English department to express our grief and outrage at the recent shootings in and around Atlanta. Members of the English department faculty met on the day after the attacks to reflect on the anti-Asian racism, misogyny, violence, gun culture, and devaluation of precarious lives that have shaken the Atlanta community and that reflect a systemic pattern of increasing violence directed toward marginalized and vulnerable communities in this country. In the coming days and weeks, we hope to find meaningful ways to involve our students in these discussions as well. Because we study how discourses and cultural representations shape our lived experiences (and vice versa), we can both analyze the narratives emerging around the events and work to amplify the voices of communities that are too often unheard.
As a starter, here is a link to a thoughtful article in today’s New York Times that sets the tragedy of this week’s shootings in the context of the growth and political organizing of the Asian American community in Georgia.
Dear Friends, Relations, and Mildly Curious Observers of the Emory English department (all others may stop reading here):
Now that flowers are beginning to bloom, trucks are carting vials of vaccine around the country, and 2020 is officially history (where’s amnesia when you need it?), it’s time to take stock of some of the accomplishments, accolades, and important ongoingness of our department.
Curriculum, Hiring, and Planning
In the month of February, we welcomed four exciting scholars in the field of Asian American, Pacific Rim, and Transnational Asian Literature and Culture to the department as part of a faculty search in that field. The presentations and conversations have been wide-ranging and compelling: we’ve learned about the complicated histories behind turn-of-the-century Japanese dolls, the film Filthy Rich Asians, Chang-Rae Lee’s novel A Gesture Life, and Walt Whitman’s presence in Asian American novels. We are tremendously excited to have the opportunity to welcome one of these scholars to the department next fall.
This new faculty line underscores the importance of our continuing work of re-thinking what it means to study global literatures and cultures in English at Emory, in Atlanta, and in a post-2020 world. The department faculty is at work on crafting a curriculum that will reflect the breadth, diversity, tangled histories, and social meanings of our field today.
Our graduate program will also be seeing some exciting changes, too. Beginning next year, we will feature a number of team-taught seminars, sometimes involving faculty members from different areas of study who find common ground through a shared theoretical or methodological approach. Because our graduate program is small, with typically 5-6 students entering the PhD program and 2-3 4+1 BA/MA students each year, these pairings will allow students to study with a broader range of faculty members. And team-teaching will provide a great opportunity for faculty members to learn from each other.
Professor Valerie Babb is co-Principal Investigator of a $1 million Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant awarded to the University of Georgia’s Willson Center to fund partnerships with the Penn Center, one of the nation’s most important institutions of African American culture. The project, “Culture and Community at the Penn Center National Historic Landmark District” will include a range of programs: community-based artist residencies, a series of public conversations on the importance of preserving this cultural history, and in-place studies for students from UGA, Emory, and other HBCU partner institutions. Located on St. Helena Island within the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a National Heritage Area established by the U.S. Congress to recognize the unique culture of the Gullah Geechee people (descendants of formerly enslaved West and Central Africans who have traditionally resided in the coastal areas of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida), Penn Center is a nonprofit organization committed to African American education, community development, and social justice.
Director of Creative Writing Professor Jericho Brown was commissioned to write a poem, “Inaugural,” commemorating the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris by the New York Times Magazine.
Professor Nicole Guidotti-Hernández continues to chronicle the political scene for Ms magazine. Here’s a recent piece on the triumphs, perils, and unfinished business for feminists and women of color in the wake of the chaotic election season. We can look forward to the publication of her book, Archiving Mexican American Masculinities in Diaspora – coming later this spring from Duke University Press!
Professor Tayari Jones’s novel An American Marriage was cited as one of 25 defining works of what Time magazine is calling the Black Renaissance. Her work joins that of other major artists, including Kara Walker, Donald Glover, Claudia Rankine, Beyonce, Jordan Peele, Kendrick Lamar, Jesmyn Ward, and more.
In an online interview, Professor Laura Otis shared the story of her transition from science to literature with the editors of Youth Time magazine. This online journal, based in Prague and created by and for young people around the world, publishes stories on issues of interest to youthful readers. You can read Otis’s two-part interview here and here.
Professor Tiphanie Yanique has published this bittersweet reflection in Harper’s Bazaar on raising children during a time of Black Lives Matter, COVID-19, and (canceled) Carnival.
Now housed at Emory University, the journal Post-45 and editor Professor Dan Sinykin continue to make news. On March 15, a special joint issue of Post45 x Cultural Analytics will feature an essay on contemporary nonprofit publishing drawn from Sinykin’s forthcoming book, The Conglomerate Era. Also on March 15, Sinykin and collaborator Laura McGrath (Temple University) will launch the Post45 Data Collective, an initiative to peer-review and house post-1945 humanities data on an open-access website. This project will gather the work of a group of scholars who have been separately collecting data on publishers, literary agents, prizes, MFA programs, and the race, gender, and educational background of authors. The first dataset will feature collections of data on the Iowa Writers’ workshop.
Professors Nathan Suhr-Sytsma and Geraldine Higgins have been selected as Senior Fellows at Emory’s Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry for the academic year 2021-22. Suhr-Sytsma will be working on his new book project, African Poetry and the Future of Literature, which examines the new media ecologies that are giving shape to vibrant 21st-century African poetry in English. Professor Higgins will work on her digital and book project, Seamus Heaney’s Material, which bridges the gap between purely literary approaches to Heaney’s poetry and the visual and special impact of encountering Heaney’s life and work in an exhibition setting.
Palak Taneja has accepted a faculty position in Literature and Writing at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. She is excited to join the US’s #1 Green College, where students get to design their own majors. She will be teaching transdisciplinary courses deepening and broadening their understanding of human ecology.
Emily Banks’ book of poems, Mother Water, was published in December by Lynx House/University of Washington Press.
Jess Libow’s article, “Margaret Fuller’s Physical Education,” has been accepted for publication at Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers.
Dominick Rolle (PhD 2017) has accepted a position as Assistant Professor of Business and English at the University of the Bahamas.
Sophia Falvey has been working as Graduate Assistant for Emory College’s Humanities Pathways program, funded by a Mellon Foundation grant. Her responsibilities have included arranging career conversations with alumni of Humanities majors through the Alumni Connections program. In January, she arranged a conversation with distinguished Emory English majors Cindy Okereke (12C), Andy Tompkins (99C), and Jacob Silverman (06C). Their video biographies are here, and you can view the Zoom discussion here.
Our majors and minors have been making news in all sorts of ways. Here are some highlights:
An essay on Langston Hughes and Richard Blanco written by Krithika Shrinivas in Professor Walter Kalaidjian’s English 205 course has been accepted for publication in the upcoming edition of The Norton Field Guide to Writing.
2020 alum Dylan Schellenberg, who graduated with Highest Honors in English (and a double major in 2020), has an article forthcoming in the peer-reviewed journal Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction. The article draws from his honors thesis (directed by Professor Laura Otis), “A Retinal Twitch, A Misfired Nerve Cell: The Neurocybernetics of The Crying of Lot 49.” Dylan is currently working as a research assistant in a lab at Northwestern while he decides what career path he’d like to follow.
Julie Park and her Professor Ben Miller have published a proceedings paper, “Computing Narrative.” This double-blind peer reviewed paper explores how the modeling, study, and generation of stories with computational methods gives us an opportunity to better understand both narrative, and the computational architecture upon which these models rely. In their paper, they consider the underlying computational concepts, like finite state machines and elements in the architecture of databases, and how those actualized concepts affect generated stories and our understanding of their structures. The paper is published as part of the upcoming Computational Humanities Research Workshop convened by a group representing The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, the University of Cambridge, the Alan Turing Institute, Wageningen University & Research, and the University of Amsterdam. The publication is available at http://ceur-ws.org/Vol-2723/.
Playwriting major Drew Mindell was recently awarded the Region IV David L. Shelton Award through the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, for his play “The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare (or at least our best approximation).
English minor Erica Kahn has found a fascinating part-time job as an English Secondary Language Tutor with the tutoring service Ringle. She is working remotely with South Korean professionals to advance their English skills and practice for the IELTS, TOEIC, and TOEFL exams. In this position, Erica’s students have included employees of Samsung, Hyundai, Luis Vuitton, and the South Korean Consulate in Houston.
English major Jack Wolfram’s essay, “Paradise Uncaged: John Milton’s Subtle Fixation with Constraints” was recently accepted for publication in Butler University’s Butler Journal of Undergraduate Research! This will be Jack’s third publication that has originated from research completed for an Emory English course over the past six months, with earlier essays appearing in Fairfield University’s Apollon Undergraduate Journal and the UK-based Spellbinder Magazine on January 1st!
The eminent historian, New Yorker staff writer, and podcast host Jill Lepore will be delivering a lecture hosted by Emory’s Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry this Thursday, February 25 at 6 p.m. The title of her lecture is “The End of Knowledge: How Data Killed Facts.” The English department’s Professors Laura Otis and Dan Sinykin, along with WGSS faculty member and Executive Associate Dean of Emory College Carla Freeman, will be respondents to the lecture.
2020 English honors student Dylan Schellenberg was awarded highest honors for his thesis, “A Retinal Twitch, A Misfired Nerve Cell: The Neurocybernetics of The Crying of Lot 49,” and an article-length reworking of the thesis will now be published in the journal, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Literature!
Dylan graduated last May with a double major in English and Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology. His honors thesis was directed by Professor Laura Otis. Professor John Johnston served on his committee along with Dr. Annaelle Devergnas, the neurologist in whose lab he was studying the propagation of seizures. He is currently working as a research assistant in a lab at Northwestern.
Congratulations to Professor Valerie Babb, who is co-Principal Investigator of a $1 million Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant awarded to the University of Georgia’s Willson Center to fund partnerships with the Penn Center, one of the nation’s most important institutions of African American culture. The project, “Culture and Community at the Penn Center National Historic Landmark District” will include a range of programs: community-based artist residencies, a series of public conversations on the importance of preserving this cultural history, and in-place studies for students from UGA, Emory, and other HBCU partner institutions.
Located on St. Helena Island within the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a National Heritage Area established by the U.S. Congress to recognize the unique culture of the Gullah Geechee people (descendants of formerly enslaved West and Central Africans who have traditionally resided in the coastal areas of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida), Penn Center is a nonprofit organization committed to African American education, community development, and social justice.
We look forward to seeing this vital public humanities project develop and to the exciting opportunities it will provide for students over the coming years!
Dear Students, Colleagues, and Friends – both near and far:
The English department at Emory may be doing most of its work remotely, but we have managed to do quite a bit collectively over the past few months. And faculty and students have continued to make news with their accomplishments in research, teaching, publication, and service. Here is some of what we’ve been up to in these long and strange months of 2020.
Curricular and Teaching Initiatives
The summer’s protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement inspired us in the department to think critically about what we teach and how we teach it. As a discipline, literary study in English has for too long been tied to a Eurocentric canon that privileges dead white (and usually male) authors. While our own curriculum features a much more diverse array of writers and traditions (including a range of courses in African American, Black British, Latinx, Native American, African, Caribbean, South Asian, and Asian American literatures), you wouldn’t know this from looking at our major requirements or at many of our standard course descriptions. Because we passionately believe that the study of literature and culture is central to understanding the world around us in its full diversity, the department has been focused this semester on crafting a curricular proposal that will reflect literature’s amazing capacities to help us view life from perspectives radically different from our own. Stay tuned!
We have also initiated two new fora for sharing ideas more broadly about teaching. Graduate student Emily Banks is leading an Anti-Racist Pedagogy reading and action group, in which faculty and grad students have met to share how our own teaching can contribute to a broader effort to dismantle racism. If you are interested in participating or learning more about this effort, please contact her at emily [dot] a [dot] banks [at] emory [dot] edu. And Writing Program lecturer Melissa Yang is now leading a series of mid-week teaching conversations, featuring faculty, post-docs, and graduate students sharing ideas, questions, and experiences on topics such as collaboration in the classroom, stimulating play and inventiveness in on-line teaching, and community and public engagement through coursework. For more information or to be involved, please contact melissa [dot] yang [at] emory [dot] edu.
Another departmental initiative has involved the power of poetry to speak to our times. Last spring, Prof. Geraldine Higgins launched a Pandemic Poetry project that invited faculty, staff, and students to share poems that could help us to understand our current predicaments: isolation, fear of contagion, separation from loved ones, lost opportunities, and our hopes for a better future. This semester, we have continued that project, with student leadership from English and Human Health major Kate Appel). We have also launched a new Black Poetry at Emory series, supervised by Prof. Jericho Brown, with graduate student leadership from PhD student Ra’Niqua Lee. Check your email inbox for periodic newsletters that share poems and reflections on their deep relevance to our contemporary lives. If you would like to contribute an entry, please make a submission.
On the subject of teaching, most instructors had an unwanted initiation into the world of on-line teaching last spring. Over the summer, we were fortunate to have time to learn more about the opportunities for effective online pedagogy, thanks to College-designed workshops led by two wonderful graduate students in our department, Ariel Lawrence and Tyler Tennant. If our classes have gone better this fall (and we think they have!), much of the credit goes to those two.
Faculty and Graduate Student Accomplishments, Arrivals, and Accolades
Creative writers at Emory are getting used to their professors gaining major recognition. The pandemic has forced us to continue waiting for the time when we can all celebrate Prof. Jericho Brown’s Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in person, and now we have another reason to celebrate: he has been named the Charles Howard Candler professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory.
Our other Pulitzer-prize winning colleague, Prof. Hank Klibanoff, has continued to win major awards for his ongoing podcast Buried Truths, in which he (and a number of Emory students) have uncovered stories about Civil Rights-era cold cases. Last year, the podcast garnered a Peabody award, and now the second season has earned a Murrow Award in broadcast journalism – two of the highest awards in the field.
Prof. Heather Christle’s gorgeous book about the cultural and psychological meaning of tears, The Crying Book, has been honored with a Georgia Author of the Year Award in the category of memoir. Prof. Tayari Jones’ monumentally successful novel An American Marriage continued to rack up awards, including being selected as a finalist for the International Dublin Literary Award. And Prof. Tiphanie Yanique’s “The Special World” has been included in the prestigious Best American Stories 2020 volume.
This fall, we welcomed Prof. Nicole Guidotti-Hernandez, a specialist in Latinx literary and cultural history, to the department. She has made an immediate impact in the classroom with her new course on Latinx literary history, and she has also contributed powerful commentary on contemporary manifestations of voter suppression in Ms. magazine. Look out for the publication of Prof. Guidotti-Hernandez’s fascinating new book, Archiving Mexican Masculinities, coming out from Duke University Press next spring.
Several other faculty members and graduate students stepped out in public with their work. Our director of undergraduate studies, Paul Kelleher, brought his deep knowledge of eighteenth-century literary to bear on the pandemic, with an article in the Washington Post on what we might learn from reading Daniel DeFoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year.
Reflecting on how the pandemic has affected our teaching lives, Prof. Sheila Cavanagh published an account of how she rapidly adapted her spring course, “Shakespeare in Text and Performance,” to take advantage of a wealth of online materials – especially performances and other resources related to Shakespeare in Prison programs: https://www.escj.org/early-modern-classroom?page=1. On the subject of literature and prisons, recent Emory PhD alum Stephanie Iasiello has begun a position as Director of Education for the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison.
I myself collaborated with a group of wonderful graduate students – Sophia Leonard and Makenzie Fitzgerald of English, and Victor Velázquez Antonio of Hispanic Studies – on an article that grew out of our experience as students and teacher in a new Public Humanities graduate seminar. The research collaborations we fostered between Emory and several partners – including the Alliance Theatre here in Atlanta – were all disrupted by the pandemic. Yet the experience pointed toward some hopeful opportunities for re-imagining graduate education, which we wrote about for the journal American Literature. If you’d like to see an advance copy of the article, please contact me at breiss [at] emory [dot] edu.
Another public-facing departmental initiative is the journal Post-45, a leading venue for the analysis of contemporary literature and culture whose production is now housed at Emory. Under the direction of Prof. Dan Sinykin, the journal’s born-digital archives are now housed at Emory’s Rose Library. Profs. Sinykin and Prof. Lauren Klein will be holding a conversation about their own recently published books (celebrated in last spring’s newsletter) and their work in developing the exciting field of digital humanities at Emory on Nov. 16 at 4 p.m. More information here.
Several of our graduate students have had work featured in public venues. Tesla Cariani was featured for her work on the Georgia Coast Atlas in the article “Georgia Cost Atlas: A Portal to Hidden Stories,” and Joe Fritsch has a lovely new essay on object-oriented poetry and visual art in Public Books.
In addition, Joseph Fritsch and Jareema Hylton have been selected to attend the 2020 Podcasting the Humanities Winter Institute hosted virtually by the National Humanities Center and the Digital Humanities Center of San Diego State University. We’re looking forward to seeing the work they create there!
For inspiration about where your Emory experience may take you, check out this recording of our recent panel featuring the exciting career paths of four undergraduate alumni: Randall Slaven, MBA, MPH, Senior Director at the Carter Center; Adrian Tonge, Senior Analytics Executive at Accenture; Nina Burris, George Washington University Law School Student; and Bernadette Davis, Founder and CEO at Bernadette Davis Communications.
We’d like to hear more from undergraduates about your accomplishments, especially any exciting and surprising opportunities that have come your way as a result of our strange new circumstances. Please send them along to eric [dot] canosa [at] emory [dot] edu.
Kemp Malone Lecture
Last week, the Kemp Malone Committee hosted Fletcher Professor of English Literature at Tufts University Lee Edelman for a three-event series. On Thursday, October 29, Professor Edelman presented a workshop for Emory graduate students on the process of taking research from a dissertation to a first book. On Friday, October 30, Lee Edelman gave his keynote lecture “Queerness, Afro-Pessimism, and the Return of the Aesthetic.” After the keynote, Lee Edelman engaged Emory Professor Calvin Warren in a rousing discussion on Afro-pessimism, moderated by Emory Professor Elizabeth Wilson. By going virtual, the 2020 Kemp Malone Lecture Series was able to challenge and inspire an unprecedented number of attendees from the Emory community and beyond.
Be well, all – and if you have ideas or feedback about departmental initiatives, please let me know!
The English Department is delighted to welcome Professor Nicole Guidotti-Hernández, who has joined our faculty as part of Emory College’s student-driven cluster hire to recruit new faculty members across departments who study and teach about Latinx literatures and cultures. Professor Guidotti-Hernández comes to us from the University of Texas at Austin by way of Harvard University’s Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, where she was a research fellow in 2019-2020. In a recent interview, she described her teaching, research, and program-building goals at Emory.
What would you say are the central questions of your teaching and research?
I’m interested in why people behave the way they do. My research and teaching are most informed by the relationship between Latinx communities and the subjects that emerge from archives. I am an archival research junkie, and I try to infuse my classes with ample opportunities to engage primary sources, just as I do in my research. My work is also informed by the study of violence, for we cannot study Latinx peoples and their literatures without understanding how we are products and sometimes agents of colonialism and imperialism.
In the move to Emory and your first weeks of teaching, what have you noticed about Emory students?
I absolutely love the Emory students! They are inquisitive, articulate, and hungry for the classes I’m teaching. People in my E290W Survey in Latinx Literature (first contact to 1898) are having so much fun learning about how Indigenous peoples across the continent pushed back against Spanish, American, and British empires to present their own world view in maps, treaties, and discourse. I’m impressed with their wide range of interests. Students double majoring in English and Biology who want to go to medical school strike me as the kind of people we need to lead us into the next 50 years. These students are savvy about racial and cultural differences and understand that one needs to be able to tell stories, recognize the value of differences, and know the science to become well rounded professionals.
What new classes would you like to teach in the next couple of years?
I am looking forward to teaching the second half of the Latinx Lit Survey (1900-Present), a series of classes on genre (Latinx Poetry, Latinx Novels, and Latinx Performance Studies), and hopefully a graduate seminar on Theories of Violence.
What can you tell us about your forthcoming book, Archiving Mexican Masculinities?
I’m SO excited Archiving Mexican Masculinities is finally being published! There were two things that compelled me to write the book: 1) a frustration with the machismo paradigm’s dominance for understanding masculinities in the field, and 2) a rich early 20th-century archive of materials about Mexican men’s migrations that needed more critical engagement. I grew up in the Salinas valley, and the legacy of the Bracero program is part of the agriculture industry’s built environment. However, I didn’t learn about the program and the way it limited migrant men’s lives via segregation until I was in graduate school. I found this fact disturbing. This also holds true for my chapters about the social circle of the PLM (Partido Liberal Mexicano), which is over-represented as egalitarian in its anarchism. My work shows that what is praised as an anarchist movement known for equality of the sexes was, in many cases, misogynist and invested in heteronormativity.
You’re working on a book on suicide in the Latinx world, plus two other projects. In what directions do you think your research will be going in the next few years?
The book on suicide has evolved into a focus on domestic violence, murder, and suicide. I’ve discovered, through my research, that these kinds of events in the period between the Gilded Age and WWII were a period of intensive economic and racial upheaval that fomented intimate forms of violence. I was lucky enough to have colleagues at the Warren Center provide feedback about how to think through intimate forms of violence through the prism of racial capitalism. I also have two other half-finished books: one about Tucsonense Spanish Mexican sisters and another about all of the programs I’ve created or helped create over the years. I really want to write a book about women of color in prisons in the 19th century and the way they were classified and “reformed.” Their writings for newsletters like those within the walls of Blackwell’s Island Women’s prison, in contrast with how prisons saw them, are of great interest to me. I suspect I’ll have more ideas for more books. Every trip to the archives in Mexico and all over the U.S. produces new ideas and things I haven’t thought about yet. This is the beauty of the work we do.
What developments for Emory students do you see emerging from Emory’s Latinx cluster hire?
Students are really jazzed about the fact that their activism has materialized in the institutionalization of the field they have clamored for. Several students in my 290W class are seniors, and they said they’ve waited their entire time at Emory for a course like this. As all of the faculty members in the Latinx cluster hire get settled and the student interest builds, I suspect we’ll form a minor, a major, a graduate certificate, and hopefully a program. I’d also love to do a study abroad program that focuses on migration, and I suspect students would like this too.
We encourage students interested in any of the many facets of Professor Guidotti-Hernández’s work to get to know her as a teacher and mentor. In this unprecedented year, she is offering courses that provide much-needed information and that open new perspectives.
Next week will be our last of daily pandemic poems as we move into the summer months. However, in changing the format to a weekly poem, I hope that you will continue to submit your wonderful suggestions to ghiggin [at] emory [dot] edu.
Irish poet, Derek Mahon claims that there must be three things in combination before poetry can happen — “soul, song and formal necessity.” A master craftsman of poetic form, Mahon has long investigated the dark night of the soul. In fact, he said, “It’s practically my subject, my theme: solitude and community; the weirdness and terrors of solitude: the stifling and consolations of community. Also, the consolations of solitude.”
Here, for the Memorial Day weekend is his 2011 poem, “Everything is Going to be All Right”:
Everything is Going to be All Right
How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart;
the sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right. Derek Mahon
Today’s wonderful example of poetry in motion was chosen by John Sitter:
“As Thoreau traveled widely in Concord, A.R. Ammons seems to have meandered mainly in Ithaca. In a time of limited travel it helps to be reminded that so much happens at home.”
I went down by Cascadilla
stream below the falls,
and picked up a
kidney-shaped, testicular and
thought all its motions into it,
the 800 mph earth spin,
the 190-million-mile yearly
displacement around the sun,
of the galaxy with the 30,000
mph of where
the sun’s going:
thought all the interweaving
into myself: dropped
the stone to dead rest:
the stream from other motions
rushing over it:
to the sky and stood still:
not know where I am going
that I can live my life
by this single creek.
William Tolbert chose William Carlos Williams’ poem ‘Danse Russe’ for today:
“I have always loved this poem. Williams just packs so much narrative into such an oddly relatable, intimate, and strange image. It’s silly and comforting and poignant and sad. It’s a lot of stuff. While I wouldn’t say I share the exact same emotion as the speaker of this poem, I am finding that I occasionally miss the pre-pandemic quiet that came with working in isolation from home while my wife was at work and my daughter was at school. I have also found the odd elation of waking up before the rest of my family (my north room has delightful sunlight but, sadly, no mirror). I imagine that a lot of people have a new, or maybe more developed, relationship with loneliness these days.”
If I when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,—
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
“I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!”
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,—
Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?
The beautiful poem for today was chosen by Angelika Bammer who writes:
“This poem is by the Chinese poet, who publishes under the name, Bei Dao; it is translated by Bonnie S. McDougall. It is part of a series of poems he wrote between 1979 and 1983. My response to this poem is always a mix of conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I find it deeply comforting. On the other hand, it deepens my sense of foreboding at the losses we both experience and brace for. But the two lines, “if love is not forgotten/ hardship leaves no memory,” remain with me in this time of dread as a promise.”
Stretch out your hands to me
don’t let the world blocked by my shoulder
disturb you any longer
if love is not forgotten
hardship leaves no memory
remember what I say
not everything will come to pass
if there is only one last aspen
standing tall at the end of the road
like a gravestone without an epitaph
the falling leaves will also speak
fading paling as they tumble
slowly they freeze over
holding our heavy footprints
of course no one knows tomorrow
tomorrow begins from another dawn
when we will be fast asleep
An article in Saturday’s Guardian discusses Ireland’s turn to poetry to ease the strain of lockdown and social isolation. This series was partly inspired by a tweet from the Irish health minister quoting Seamus Heaney. Lately the Taoiseach (prime minister), Leo Varadker, has been dubbed a “super-spreader in a poetry pandemic” because he quotes Heaney so often. Today’s poem, chosen by Rebecca McGlynn, is an extract from Heaney’s play, The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes. These lines were often quoted by President Bill Clinton during the negotiations for peace in Ireland in the 1990s and have recently been revived in campaign speeches by Joe Biden.
Rebecca writes, “I always turn to Heaney’s work in times of stress and anxiety. It never fails to provide comfort. The final lines here have a particular resonance right now.”
History says don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.
We end our eighth week of Pandemic Poetry with Lynn Unger’s ‘On the Other Side,’ chosen by Frances Smith Foster.
On the Other Side
Through the looking glass,
down the rabbit hole,
into the wardrobe and out
into the enchanted forest
where animals talk
and danger lurks and nothing
works quite the way it did before,
you have fallen into a new story.
It is possible that you
are much bigger—or smaller—
than you thought.
It is possible to drown
in the ocean of your own tears.
It is possible that mysterious friends
have armed you with magical weapons
you don’t yet understand,
but which you will need
to save your own life and the world.
Everything here is foreign.
Nothing quite makes sense.
That’s how it works.
Do not confuse the beginning
of the story with the end.
Deepika Bahri introduces today’s disturbing poem:
Philip Larkin wrote “Myxomatosis” in 1954, partly in response to the horror of human cruelty to animals, and partly to comment on the terror of nuclear war and the state of self-deception in which humans live. “Myxomatosis,” a disease caused by the Myxoma virus, was intentionally used to control the European rabbit population in several countries, including Britain, in the 1950s. Larkin’s poem deftly captures the invisibility of the threat, the poet’s inability to explain suffering or its manmade sources, and the helpless state of waiting for things to “come right again.” Larkin may have been cynical and politically incorrect in so many ways, but, as Christopher Hitchens notes, “about suffering, he was seldom wrong.”
Caught in the center of a soundless field
While hot inexplicable hours go by
What trap is this? Where were its teeth concealed?
You seem to ask.
I make a sharp reply,
Then clean my stick. I’m glad I can’t explain
Just in what jaws you were to suppurate:
You may have thought things would come right again
If you could only keep quite still and wait.
Today’s pandemic poem, chosen by Paul Kelleher, takes a different turn — “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story. Paul writes:
“Although I’ve lately taken great comfort in, for instance, the work of Mary Oliver and W. H. Auden, more often, I’ve been turning to some of the greatest poetry of the last century, poetry written to be sung to a popular or mass audience. For my money, Stephen Sondheim is one of our great poets. Recently, on March 22, Sondheim turned 90 (happy birthday!).
‘Something’s Coming’ reminds me of the keen pleasures of packing into a theater, shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, waiting for the curtain to go up on a Broadway show. Those days will come again–as Sondheim puts it, ‘Will it be? Yes, it will. / Maybe just by holding still, / It’ll be there!’ (If you want to sing along, I recommend Larry Kert’s rousing, joy-inducing rendition from the original Broadway cast album.)”
“Something’s Coming” (music: Leonard Bernstein; lyrics: Stephen Sondheim)
There’s something due any day;
I will know right away,
Soon as it shows.
It may come cannonballing down through the sky,
Gleam in its eye,
Bright as a rose!
It’s only just out of reach,
Down the block, on a beach,
Under a tree.
I got a feeling there’s a miracle due,
Gonna come true,
Coming to me!
Could it be? Yes, it could.
Something’s coming, something good,
If I can wait!
Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is,
But it is
Gonna be great!
With a click, with a shock,
Phone’ll jingle, door’ll knock,
Open the latch!
Something’s coming, don’t know when, but it’s soon;
Catch the moon,
Around the corner,
Or whistling down the river,
Come on, deliver
Will it be? Yes, it will.
Maybe just by holding still,
It’ll be there!
Come on, something, come on in, don’t be shy,
Meet a guy,
Pull up a chair!
The air is humming,
And something great is coming!
It’s only just out of reach,
Down the block, on a beach,
The poem for today, ‘To Be of Use,’ by Marge Piercy was chosen by Rosemarie Garland-Thompson.
TO BE OF USE
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
On graduation day, Ben Reiss shares Elizabeth Bishop’s masterpiece, ‘One Art.’ Ben writes:
“The pandemic paints in many shades of grief. Millions have lost jobs and livelihoods, and many have lost loved ones. We have all lost the company of friends; the pleasures of travel, live music, loud restaurants, and theatre; the graduation ceremonies and the chance to say goodbye to students, classmates, and colleagues before summer; a sense of solidity and certainty about our world and our way of life. But there are moments of beauty and connectedness, too. Last Friday, we had a wonderful Zoom celebration for our beloved Jericho Brown after he won the Pulitzer Prize. Some old friends joined us for an hour that felt full of the richness of life. One of the people on the call was Kevin Young, the great poet, archivist and editor, joining us from New York. This weekend, I returned to Kevin’s edited collection, The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief & Healing, to see what it could teach me about grieving in this new context. I turned first to the poem that contains the line that gives the book its title, by Elizabeth Bishop. I find it gives excellent instruction in how to build up grief muscles, starting slow and easy like a runner stretching, and building toward a marathon.”
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! My last, or
next-to-last of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
-Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Today’s poem is for all mothers (and their children) and is especially in memory of my own wonderful mother, Mary Higgins.
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
“Late Fragment” by Raymond Carver, from A New Path to the Waterfall, 1989.
Jim Morey shares this pithy poem for today by Emily Dickinson, “No one packs more poetic punch, word for word, than Emily Dickinson. Despite the brevity of the poem –only a quatrain–it is a ballad stanza (XAXA, 7-6-7-6) and thus implies that it is part of a longer poem, and of a longer story.”
“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!
Today’s poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo was chosen by Levin Arnsperger. Joy Harjo has just been elected for a second term as America’s Poet Laureate. Levin writes, “ I first read this poem in a class at Emory, and I have taught it a couple of times since then. As we are all still spending much of our days at home, it seems fitting to look at a poem that declares the centrality of the kitchen table.”
Perhaps the World Ends Here
By Joy Harjo
The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.
We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.
At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.
Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.
This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.
We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.
At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.
In celebration of the news that our brilliant colleague Jericho Brown has just been awarded the 2020 Pulitzer prize for The Tradition, here is his poem, ‘The Virus.’ The Pulitzer citation honors “A collection of masterful lyrics that combine delicacy with historical urgency in their loving evocation of bodies vulnerable to hostility and violence.”
Dubbed undetectable, I can’t kill
The people you touch, and I can’t
Blur your view
Of the pansies you’ve planted
Outside the window, meaning
I can’t kill the pansies, but I want to.
I want them dying, and I want
To do the killing. I want you
To heed that I’m still here
Just beneath your skin and in
The way anger dwells in a man
Who studies the history of his nation.
If I can’t leave you
Dead, I’ll have
You vexed. Look. Look
Again: show me the color
Of your flowers now.
5/4 We begin the week with Harry Thomas’s powerful poem, ‘Deor,’ chosen by Daniel Bosch.
Wayland in Värmland
that strong-minded man
Bitter setbacks, pains
of winter cold, these
were his companions.
His truck was with trouble
after Nithhad had done
the violence to him—
hacking his hamstrings,
hobbling the better man.
—That was endured;
so may this be.
when her brothers were butchered,
but when she was sure
she carried a child—
that was what wrecked her.
She couldn’t conceive
of a future.
—That was endured
so may this be.
We’ve all of us heard
how the Geat loved Mathilde,
loved her without limit,
loved with such love
his sleep was shattered.
—That was endured;
so may this be.
Thirty years Theodric
ruled the Maeringa’s town.
The facts are all known.
—That was endured;
so may this be.
We all know of Eormanric
and his wolflike ways—
the length of Gotland.
He was a cruel king!
Men sat unmoving,
shackled to sorrow,
thinking just one thing—
to cut the king down.
—That was endured;
so may this be.
Of myself I’ll say this:
I was once the poet
of the Heodingas,
dear to my lord.
My name was Deor.
Winter to winter
I had a good holding,
a lavishing lord.
Now one Heorrenda,
a masterly man,
finds praise in the place
until lately my lord
gave to me.
—That was endured;
so may this be.
Translated from Anglo-Saxon by Harry Thomas.
“Deor” is preserved in the Exeter Book, an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry that was donated to the Exeter cathedral library, where it still is, in 1071, by Leofric, the first bishop of Exeter. The poem is probably the work of a scop of the 9th century. It contains lines of Christian consolation that, feeling them to be at odds with the spirit of the poem, and disliking them, I have omitted. In his translation, published in The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation (2010), Seamus Heaney retains the lines.
“Deor” is the first poem in the book Some Complicities by Harry Thomas, published in 2013 by Un-gyve Press BUTTON: http://www.un-gyvepress.com in Boston.
Our May Day poem chosen by Michelle Wright is ‘The Universe is a House Party,’ from Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars. A reminder, as Michelle says “that even when staying home and possibly standing absolutely still, there’s a party going on in the universe.”
THE UNIVERSE IS A HOUSE PARTY
The universe is expanding. Look: postcards
And panties, bottles with lipstick on the rim,
Orphan socks and napkins dried into knots.
Quickly, wordlessly, all of it whisked into file
With radio waves from a generation ago,
Drifting to the edge of what doesn’t end,
Like the air inside a balloon. Is it bright?
Will our eyes crimp shut? Is it molten, atomic,
A conflagration of suns? It sounds like the kind of party
Your neighbors forget to invite you to: bass throbbing
Through walls, and everyone thudding around drunk
On the roof. We grind lenses to an impossible strength,
Point them toward the future, and dream of beings
We’ll welcome with indefatigable hospitality:
How marvelous you’ve come! We won’t flinch
At the pinprick mouths, the nubbin limbs. We’ll rise,
Gracile, robust. Mi casa es su casa. Never more sincere.
Seeing us, they’ll know exactly what we mean.
Of course, it’s ours. If it’s anyone’s, it’s ours.
Emily Dickinson has been nominated more than any other poet in this series. Today, we have Kate Nickerson’s selection, ‘We grow accustomed to the Dark.’ Kate writes, “Of course, Emily Dickinson was a champion social-distancer, and I’ve had a lot of her lines running through my head. I like this one as a way to think about slowly adjusting to new circumstances (and as a way to remember Dickinson’s sly comedy.)”
We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye —
A Moment — We uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —
And so of larger — Darknesses —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —
The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —
Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.4/29
I know that it is unusual to feature the same poet two days in a row but this moving tribute to Eavan Boland by Richard Hermes arrived yesterday:
“She was one of the first poets to make me love poetry. As an undergraduate biology major, her poem ‘White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland’ thrilled me with its assertion that nature could ‘seem to be…language.’ And I remember vividly her visit to the department in the late 90’s — not the content of her seminar discussion, but the tone. I’d never seen anyone so unvarnished in her seriousness about the work of thinking about literature, and so comfortable putting imprecise ideas in their place! It was both intimidating and inspiring. Like her speaker in ‘Quarantine,’ she made ‘no place’ for ‘inexact praise,’ insisting instead on a ‘merciless inventory’ of whatever it was her imagination turned to in the poem. She will be missed.”
Eavan Boland – 1944-2020
In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking—they were both walking—north.
She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.
In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.
Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:
Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.4/28
Yesterday, the wonderful Irish poet Eavan Boland died at her home in Dublin. A pioneer of women’s poetry she transformed Irish writing at a time when she said it was easier to put a bomb than a baby in a poem. Professor and Director of the Creative Writing program at Stanford since 1996, she returned home to Ireland last month to be with her family during the pandemic. Countless readers across the world are mourning her loss and cherishing her poems.
Writing in The Irish Times last week, Boland said: “When I teach, there are always books I recommend to students. My chief category, however, is just this: books I wish I’d read when I was younger. I don’t think I knew when I was a student that books don’t just engage you. They change you. Long after the book is closed you take those changes with you into your life, where they continue to instruct it. They alter what you know and add to it. You may well read the book later. But those mysterious changes you never get back. I wish I’d understood that sooner.”
Of the many Boland poems that have changed me, this is the one I’d like to share today –
The Necessity for Irony
when the rain held off,
after lunch or later,
I would go with my twelve year old
daughter into town,
and put down the time
at junk sales, antique fairs.
There I would
lean over tables,
lace, wooden frames,
glass. My daughter stood
at the other end of the room,
her flame-coloured hair
which was not often-
I turned around.
I turned around.
She was gone.
Grown. No longer ready
to come with me, whenever
a dry Sunday
held out its promises
of small histories. Endings.
When I was young
I studied styles: their use
and origin. Which age
was known for which
ornament: and was always drawn
to a lyric speech, a civil tone.
But never thought
I would have the need,
as I do now, for a darker one:
Spirit of irony,
my caustic author
of the past, of memory, –
and of its pain, which returns
hurts, stings-reproach me now,
that I was in those rooms,
with my child,
with my back turned to her,
for beautiful things.
Living in the surprising forest that is Atlanta, we are surrounded by the drama of trees. This poem comes from Paul Muldoon’s first collection, New Weather, published when he was twenty-one. I love the first four lines and the implicit direction – “Look up!”
Wind and Tree
In the way that most of the wind
Happens where there are trees,
Most of the world is centred
Often where the wind has gathered
The trees together and together,
One tree will take
Another in her arms and hold.
Their branches that are grinding
Madly together and together,
It is no real fire.
They are breaking each other.
Often I think I should be like
The single tree, going nowhere,
Since my own arm cannot and will not
Break the other. Yet by my broken bones
I tell new weather.
I often teach Margaret Atwood’s eerie poem ‘This is a Photograph of Me,’ because it leads to many great discussions about representation and self-reflexive poetry. But in my anthology, on the facing page is this extraordinary poem, ‘Up.’
Up Margaret Atwood
You wake up filled with dread. There seems no reason for it. Morning light sifts through the window, there is birdsong, you can’t get out of bed.
It’s something about the crumpled sheets hanging over the edge like jungle foliage, the terry slippers gaping their dark pink mouths for your feet, the unseen breakfast— some of it in the refrigerator you do not dare to open— you will not dare to eat.
What prevents you? The future. The future tense, immense as outer space. You could get lost there. No. Nothing so simple. The past, its density and drowned events pressing you down, like sea water, like gelatin filling your lungs instead of air.
Forget all that and let’s get up. Try moving your arm. Try moving your head. Pretend the house is on fire and you must run or burn. No, that one’s useless. It’s never worked before.
Where is it coming from, this echo, this huge No that surrounds you, silent as the folds of the yellow curtains, mute as the cheerful
Mexican bowl with its cargo of mummified flowers? (You chose the colours of the sun, not the dried neutrals of shadow. God knows you’ve tried.)
Now here’s a good one: you’re lying on your deathbed. You have one hour to live. Who is it, exactly, you have needed all these years to forgive?
Although an autumnal poem in April, Francis Ittenbach’s choice of “November Dusk” by Siegfried Sassoon reminds us to call our own “winged lovely moments” home as best we can. Francis writes, “Wanting to find a bit of stillness in our lives (somewhat paradoxically, given how isolation would appear to offer such opportunities) keeps occurring in conversations I’ve had with friends and family; reading this poem brings that directly to mind for me.”
“November Dusk” – Siegfried Sassoon
Ruminant, while firelight glows on shadowy walls
And dusk with the last leaves of autumn falls,
I hear my garden thrush whose notes again
Tell stillness after hours of gusty rain.
Can I record tranquillity intense
With harmony of heart, — experience
Like a rich memory’s mind-lit monochrome?
Winged lovely moments, can I call you home?
This texture is to-day’s. Near as my mind
Each instant is; yet each reveals to me
November night-falls known a lifetime long:
And I’ve no need to travel far to find
This bird who from the leafless walnut tree
Sings like the world’s farewell to sight and song.
Today’s poem, chosen by Valerie Loichot, comes from La Fontaine’s 1678 Fable “Les animaux malades de la peste.” (“The Animals Sick of the Plague”) Valerie writes, “I find it particularly resonant for our times. Highlights are: ‘Ils ne mouraient pas tous, mais tous étaient frappés’ [they died not all, but all were struck], and the moral of the tale whereby a grass-eating scabby ass gets scapegoated as the source of evil while the gluttons, greedy, and powerful are absolved.”
The sorest ill that Heaven hath Sent on this lower world in wrath,– The plague (to call it by its name,) One single day of which Would Pluto’s ferryman enrich,– Waged war on beasts, both wild and tame. They died not all, but all were sick: No hunting now, by force or trick, To save what might so soon expire. No food excited their desire; Nor wolf nor fox now watch’d to slay The innocent and tender prey. The turtles fled; So love and therefore joy were dead. The lion council held, and said: ‘My friends, I do believe This awful scourge, for which we grieve, Is for our sins a punishment Most righteously by Heaven sent. Let us our guiltiest beast resign, A sacrifice to wrath divine. Perhaps this offering, truly small, May gain the life and health of all. By history we find it noted That lives have been just so devoted. Then let us all turn eyes within, And ferret out the hidden sin. Himself let no one spare nor flatter, But make clean conscience in the matter. For me, my appetite has play’d the glutton Too much and often upon mutton. What harm had e’er my victims done? I answer, truly, None. Perhaps, sometimes, by hunger press’d, I’ve eat the shepherd with the rest. I yield myself, if need there be; And yet I think, in equity, Each should confess his sins with me; For laws of right and justice cry, The guiltiest alone should die.’ ‘Sire,’ said the fox, ‘your majesty Is humbler than a king should be, And over-squeamish in the case. What! eating stupid sheep a crime? No, never, sire, at any time. It rather was an act of grace, A mark of honour to their race. And as to shepherds, one may swear, The fate your majesty describes, Is recompense less full than fair For such usurpers o’er our tribes.’
Thus Renard glibly spoke, And loud applause from flatterers broke. Of neither tiger, boar, nor bear, Did any keen inquirer dare To ask for crimes of high degree; The fighters, biters, scratchers, all From every mortal sin were free; The very dogs, both great and small, Were saints, as far as dogs could be.
The ass, confessing in his turn, Thus spoke in tones of deep concern:– ‘I happen’d through a mead to pass; The monks, its owners, were at mass; Keen hunger, leisure, tender grass, And add to these the devil too, All tempted me the deed to do. I browsed the bigness of my tongue; Since truth must out, I own it wrong.’
On this, a hue and cry arose, As if the beasts were all his foes: A wolf, haranguing lawyer-wise, Denounced the ass for sacrifice– The bald-pate, scabby, ragged lout, By whom the plague had come, no doubt. His fault was judged a hanging crime. ‘What? eat another’s grass? O shame! The noose of rope and death sublime,’ For that offence, were all too tame! And soon poor Grizzle felt the same.
Thus human courts acquit the strong, And doom the weak, as therefore wrong.
Our poem for today is Barbara Ladd’s choice of James Dickey’s ‘The Hospital Window.’
The Hospital Window
By James L. Dickey
I have just come down from my father.
Higher and higher he lies
Above me in a blue light
Shed by a tinted window.
I drop through six white floors
And then step out onto pavement.
Still feeling my father ascend,
I start to cross the firm street,
My shoulder blades shining with all
The glass the huge building can raise.
Now I must turn round and face it,
And know his one pane from the others.
Each window possesses the sun
As though it burned there on a wick.
I wave, like a man catching fire.
All the deep-dyed windowpanes flash,
And, behind them, all the white rooms
They turn to the color of Heaven.
Ceremoniously, gravely, and weakly,
Dozens of pale hands are waving
Back, from inside their flames.
Yet one pure pane among these
Is the bright, erased blankness of nothing.
I know that my father is there,
In the shape of his death still living.
The traffic increases around me
Like a madness called down on my head.
The horns blast at me like shotguns,
And drivers lean out, driven crazy—
But now my propped-up father
Lifts his arm out of stillness at last.
The light from the window strikes me
And I turn as blue as a soul,
As the moment when I was born.
I am not afraid for my father—
Look! He is grinning; he is not
Afraid for my life, either,
As the wild engines stand at my knees
Shredding their gears and roaring,
And I hold each car in its place
For miles, inciting its horn
To blow down the walls of the world
That the dying may float without fear
In the bold blue gaze of my father.
Slowly I move to the sidewalk
With my pin-tingling hand half dead
At the end of my bloodless arm.
I carry it off in amazement,
High, still higher, still waving,
My recognized face fully mortal,
Yet not; not at all, in the pale,
Drained, otherworldly, stricken,
Created hue of stained glass.
I have just come down from my father.
Today we share a poem in memory of our dear friend — the brilliant, warm, and wonderful Pellom McDaniels, who died on Sunday morning. “No More Elegies Today” by Clint Smith was selected by Justin Shaw who writes, “It reminds me of the beautiful and minute even in the realities of calamity and uncertainty.” For Pellom, we send a heartfelt round of applause. *No More Elegies Today* Clint Smith Today I will write a poem about a little girl jumping rope. It will not be a metaphor for dodging bullets. It will not be an allegory for skipping past despair. But rather about the back & forth bob of her head as she waits for the right moment to insert herself into the blinking flashes of bound hemp. But rather about her friends on either end of the rope who turn their wrists into small flashing windmills cultivating an energy of their own. But rather about the way the beads in her hair bounce against the back of her neck. But rather the way her feet barely touch the ground, how the rope skipping across the concrete sounds like the entire world is giving her a round of applause.
We end our first month of pandemic poetry with a few stanzas from the last section of W.B. Yeats’s great poem “Meditations in Time of Civil War.” Shortly after his marriage to George Hyde-Lees, Yeats bought a crumbling Norman tower in the West of Ireland and it became a powerful symbol of his work as much as a dwelling place for his young bride. These lines show Yeats facing up to the horrors of violent change but finding hope in the starling (stare) feeding her young outside his window and in his plea for the honey-bees to ‘Come build in the empty house of the stare.’
The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
Deepika Bahri writes, “This 2017 poem by radiologist and poet Amit Majmudar (first poet laureate of Ohio) is a little on the nose at this troubled time, but Majmudar makes the written word sing!”
Virus by AMIT MAJMUDAR
Born of nothing, knowing
Only how to breed
Like some dandelion-clock-less
Scrap of genome
Sealed with a cork
To sail the maelstrom,
Code and chalice,
Yours the message
All the Muses sing:
Purity of heart
Is to will one thing
Jonathan Goldberg writes, “Seeing Tony Fauci so often reminds me of him many years ago, also speaking truth to those in power about the AIDS pandemic. Here is a poem by Eve Kososfsky Sedgwick written then”:
Guys who were 35 last year are 70 this year with lank hair and enlarged livers, and jaw hinges more legible than Braille. A killing velocity – seen another way, though, they’ve ambled into the eerily slow-mo extermination camp the city sidewalks are.
In 1980, if someone had prophesied this rack of temporalities could come to us, their “knowledge” would have seemed pure hate; it would have seemed so, and have been so. It still is so. Yet every morning We have to gape the jaws of our unbelief or belief, to knowing it.
This morning, Joe Fritsch chose ‘What the Living Do’ by Marie Howe, a poem that dwells on the phenomenal everyday – “we want more and more and/then more of it.”
What the Living Do
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably
fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes
have piled up
waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight
the open living room windows because the heat’s on too high in here, and
I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street,
the bag breaking,
I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying>
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my>
wrist and sleeve,
I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called
What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to
pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and
then more of it.
But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing
for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m
I am living, I remember you.
We welcome the Spring with this cautionary William Carlos Williams poem, chosen by Walter Kalaidjian. Walter writes, “I’ve taught this poem many times and focus on Williams’s objectivist aesthetic of ‘no ideas but in things’ or the motif of birth from the vantage point of a practicing poet/OB-GYN. I didn’t give as much thought to the sharp contrast set up in the first line and only lately have come to appreciate the gravity of Williams’s experience treating the 1918 influenza pandemic of which he later wrote: ‘We doctors were making up to sixty calls a day. Several of us were knocked out, one of the younger of us died, others caught the thing, and we hadn’t a thing that was effective in checking that potent poison that was sweeping the world.’
Spring and All
By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast-a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen
patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees
All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches-
They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind-
Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined-
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf
But now the stark dignity of
entrance-Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken
We end our third week sheltering in place with John Sitter’s apt choice, ‘Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room.’ John writes, “I’ve found myself thinking of this poem by Wordsworth several times recently. In normal seasons, we students of literature probably hear the concluding “meta” lines most clearly. But now the metaphors have their say.”
“Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room”
Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.
Today, Erwin Rosinberg chose Louise Erdrich’s ‘Advice to Myself’ because it leans into the messy disruption of everyday patterns and routines. As Erwin writes, it also insists that something new can grow out of this process of paring down to essentials.
Advice to Myself
Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.
Don’t sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we’re all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don’t answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in though the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.
Today Melissa Yang chose Jorie Graham’s beautiful poem, “The Geese,” which “illuminates entangled movements in the natural world and the everyday work of meaning-making with elegance and urgency.” The poet Kerry Hardie once said, when she visited Emory many years ago, that so much of ‘women’s work’ involves looking down but that she had always loved hanging out the washing because it involves looking up at the sky. Melissa adds, “This is a poem I often revisit in my research and one I find meditative to re-read in moments of chaos.”
Nathan Suhr- Sytsma chose this untitled gem by Lucille Clifton. He discussed this poem with the students in his ‘Introduction to Poetry’ class on the first day of remote teaching a couple of weeks ago. As he says, the last few lines have a new resonance in this moment.
won’t you celebrate with me what i have shaped into a kind of life? i had no model. born in babylon both nonwhite and woman what did i see to be except myself? i made it up here on this bridge between starshine and clay, my one hand holding tight my other hand; come celebrate with me that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.
Our week begins with Pat Cahill’s choice of Adrienne Rich’s poem from 1991 that takes its title from a Bertolt Brecht poem that asks, “What kind of times are these/ When to talk about trees is almost a crime/ Because it means keeping silent about so many wrongs?” Pat writes, “Reading this poem in our own perilous times, I am moved by the gorgeous cadences through which she evokes both trees and wrongs as well as by the sense of urgency in her direct address: a warning to not look away from the dire truths and dreadful complicities that define what is happening right here and right now.”
What Kind of Times Are These BY ADRIENNE RICH
There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.
As we head into the weekend, let us take to heart Laura Otis’s choice of Anne Bradstreet’s “To My Dear and Loving Husband.” Laura writes, “ I believe this is a good time to be thinking about love, which can take so many different forms. Some of us are locked in with others; some alone, but I am sure we are all thinking about other people and the feelings we have had and still have for them.”
To My Dear and Loving Husband
Anne Bradstreet – 1612-1672
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me ye women if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,
That when we live no more we may live ever.
Today, Ross Knecht chose the pertinent ‘A Litany in Time of Plague’ by Thomas Nashe. When we talked about this poem in our virtual happy hour last week, we thought that it had been written in the wake of the London plague of 1603. However, Ross tells me that it was published in 1600 and that Nashe himself died in 1601.
A Litany in Time of Plague Thomas Nashe
Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss; This world uncertain is; Fond are life’s lustful joys; Death proves them all but toys; None from his darts can fly; I am sick, I must die. Lord, have mercy on us!
Rich men, trust not in wealth, Gold cannot buy you health; Physic himself must fade. All things to end are made, The plague full swift goes by; I am sick, I must die. Lord, have mercy on us!
Beauty is but a flower Which wrinkles will devour; Brightness falls from the air; Queens have died young and fair; Dust hath closed Helen’s eye. I am sick, I must die. Lord, have mercy on us!
Strength stoops unto the grave, Worms feed on Hector brave; Swords may not fight with fate, Earth still holds open her gate. “Come, come!” the bells do cry. I am sick, I must die. Lord, have mercy on us!
Wit with his wantonness Tasteth death’s bitterness; Hell’s executioner Hath no ears for to hear What vain art can reply. I am sick, I must die. Lord, have mercy on us!
Haste, therefore, each degree, To welcome destiny; Heaven is our heritage, Earth but a player’s stage; Mount we unto the sky. I am sick, I must die. Lord, have mercy on us!
I love today’s short poem, ‘Form,’ by Irish poet Michael Longley because it does exactly what it claims language can’t do. A form is also the word for the flattened nest of grass or home of the hare.
Let the content speak for itself.
Trying to tell it all to you and cover everything Is like awakening from its grassy form the hare: In that make-shift shelter your hand, then my hand, Mislays the hare and the warmth it leaves behind.
Today’s poem was chosen by Joonna Trapp who writes:
This poem has always been with me since my first class on Milton as a sophomore. Patience isn’t one of my virtues. Milton “chides” and reminds me that waiting is part of human existence. And so, we wait. And hope.
WHEN I consider how my light is spent E’re half my days, in this dark world and wide, And that one Talent which is death to hide, Lodg’d with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present My true account, lest he returning chide, Doth God exact day-labour, light deny’d, I fondly ask; But patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need Either man’s work or his own gifts, who best Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed And post o’re Land and Ocean without rest: They also serve who only stand and waite.
John Milton. 1608–1674
Our week begins with Walt Whitman, chosen by Jericho Brown.
Song of Myself, 27
To be in any form, what is that? (Round and round we go, all of us, and ever come back thither,) If nothing lay more develop’d the quahaug in its callous shell were enough.
Mine is no callous shell, I have instant conductors all over me whether I pass or stop, They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me.
I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy, To touch my person to some one else’s is about as much as I can stand.
Today’s poem was chosen by Bailey Betik particularly for the last sentence and all its audacious, necessary hope.
“Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before” by Kaveh Akbar
I can’t even remember my own name, I who remember so much-football scores, magic tricks deep love so close to God it was practically religious
When you fall asleep in that sort of love you wake up with bruises on your neck. I don’t have drunks, sirs, I have adventures. Every day my body follows me around
asking for things. I try to think louder, try to be brilliant, wildly brilliant (and naked though I can never be naked enough). We all want
the same thing (to walk in sincere wonder, like the first man to hear a parrot speak) but we live on an enormous flatness floating between two oceans. Sometimes you just have to leave
whatever’s real to you, you have to clomp through fields and kick the caps off all the toadstools. Sometimes you have to march all the way to Galilee
or the literal foot of God himself before you realize you’ve already passed the place where you were supposed to die. I can no longer remember the being afraid, only that it came to an end.
Today’s poem, ‘Anything can Happen,’ by Seamus Heaney. Chosen by Ron Schuchard as a way of seeing human calamities, past, present and future.
Anything Can Happen after Horace, Odes, I, 34
Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head Before he hurls the lightning? Well, just now He galloped his thunder cart and his horses
Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth And the clogged underearth, the River Styx, The winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself. Anything can happen, the tallest towers
Be overturned, those in high places daunted, Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one, Setting it down bleeding on the next.
Ground gives. The heaven’s weight Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle-lid. Capstones shift, nothing resettles right. Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.
Happy to inaugurate our series of ‘Poems for Pandemic’ with this Emily Dickinson poem chosen by Ben Reiss.