noticing with katha pollitt

I’m always surprised when a poem turns around and offers me something that opens up a whole other personal meditation. In this week’s poem “What I Understood” by Katha Pollitt, the moment happens in two lines before the end:

people are saved every day
by a sparrow, a foghorn, a grassblade, a tablecloth.

These two lines follow a meditation on childhood memories of “futility, cruelty, loneliness, disappointment” and answer that brief yet heavy list with the list of things noticed “sparrow, a foghorn, a grassblade, a tablecloth.” It’s the kind of move that leaves me asking myself what things “save” me in everyday life.

Having just moved back to Oregon, Ani and I are surrounded by a whole new set of things to notice. On the walk to work, for example, there is a brief dip down a long stretch of road, the brief steepness leading to a small bridge that crosses a creek, a creek that one can only hear and smell and see if one is on the side of the road by foot, a creek that gives me moments so much like being inside a cathedral, or reading a poem, moments turned over, silent while not silent, alone yet not alone. This brief pocket of woods and water save me.

Also saving us these days is a California scrub jay who has a route by our new home. While it’s likely more than one bird passing through, we have gotten to calling each one we see “Leonard.” He passes the tree in the front yard then lands on the fence beside the house like so:20170521_172852-1.jpg

Here’s to what you may notice today and in the days to come. Like the speaker in the poem below, we may be left not understanding what we notice, but it may save us nonetheless.

What I Understood – Katha Pollitt**

When I was a child I understood everything
about, for example, futility. Standing for hours
on the hot asphalt outfield, trudging for balls
I’d ask myself, how many times will I have to perform
this pointless task, and all the others? I knew
about snobbery, too, and cruelty—for children
are snobbish and cruel—and loneliness: in restaurants
the dignity and shame of solitary diners
disabled me, and when my grandmother
screamed at me, “Someday you’ll know what it’s like!”
I knew she was right, the way I knew
about the single rooms my teachers went home to,
the pictures on the dresser, the hoard of chocolates,
and that there was no God, and that I would die.
All this I understood, no one needed to tell me.
the only thing I didn’t understand
was how in a world whose predominant characteristics
are futility, cruelty, loneliness, disappointment
people are saved every day
by a sparrow, a foghorn, a grassblade, a tablecloth.
This year I’ll be
thirty-nine, and I still don’t understand it.

*

Happy noticing!

José

**from The Mind-Body Problem (Random House, 2009)

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watching with joe wilkins

One of the things poetry is able to do is help reflect the minor shifts in life after something major happens. After the election this past November, for example, I joined many others in shifting the things we paid attention to. Whether it was checking the news more regularly or vetting clear, accurate news sources, or simply noting how I am no longer able to laugh at satirists while the political climate shambles on, I find myself  not exactly jaded but rather more aware and, thus, more watchful.

This spirit of watchfulness pervades this week’s poem “Note to My Unborn Son concerning Manufacturing Economics and Courage” by Joe Wilkins, from his collection When We Were Birds. Within an address to an unborn son, Wilkins’ speaker is able to navigate the territory of job loss and its effect on lives in an intimate and direct manner. As the speaker centers a meditation on courage around the image of a family walking at evening, the poem makes a case for presence: presence as resistance, presence against the odds.

pexels-photo-249392“Watch the world, child, / it will teach you,” says the speaker, and in saying so within the conceit of this “note,” the speaker becomes part of the world to be watched. The final image of breath mirrors other things that pass (factories, time), and ends the poem on a note of human vulnerability in which the speaker’s own watching teaches him.

*

Note to My Unborn Son concerning Manufacturing Economics and Courage
Joe Wilkins

Oh, now they have closed the factory.
We do not work at the factory,
so we are lucky,

which means we do not have to be brave.
It is no good having to be brave
all the time. You’ll see. I see

those ones who do. In the evenings
they walk their snuffling mutt,
smoke slowly their cigarettes.

Watch the world, child,
it will teach you. See, this is courage —
how he sets his steak-thick hand

to the small of her back,
how she bends and itches the ears
of that lucky, goddumb dog,

the way they breathe and their very breaths —
smoky, full of evening’s coming freeze —
seem to big for them to breathe.

*

Happy watching!

José

new doors via richard tillinghast

A few big changes have happened in my life that I am barely catching up on enough to relate here. The first is that I have happily accepted an Assistant Professor position at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon. I am really excited to be joining a stellar faculty at an institution known for cultivating a great intellectual and creative atmosphere. I am also excited to be back in Oregon, with its supportive and vibrant poetry community, bookstores, coffee (OMG, coffee!), and proximity to family.

What this big turn also means is that we’ve had to leave Cincinnati sooner than expected. The past few weeks have had us cleaning and packing and cleaning again, until we landed in Oregon last week. Hence, the catching up (with consequent catching of breath).

Along with all the moving work, I have also been working with FutureCycle Press and placing the final touches on Small Fires, which is due out next week. More details to come.

Big moves like this one always take me back to this week’s poem by Richard Tillinghast. Tillinghast’s meditative lyric hooks into the symbol of “big doors” and deftly begins to weave various narratives of “Many things never to be seen again!” The energy and clarity of this particular line does the work of bringing the reader closer to the poem, the speaker seeming to be on the level of awed gossip as they relate the rich details and images that follow. As the poem ends, the reader themselves has been on a ride, ruminating alongside the speaker, and, like them, knowing both a bit of what has passed and that there remains so much more they cannot know.

church-doors

Big Doors – Richard Tillinghast**

I have seen with my own eyes doors so massive,
two men would have been required
to push open just one of them.
Bronze, grating over stone sills, or made of wood
from trees now nearly extinct.

Many things never to be seen again!
The fury of cavalry attacking at full gallop.
Little clouds of steam rising
from horse droppings
on most of the world’s streets once.

Rooms amber with lamplight
perched above those streets.
Pilgrimage routes smoky with torchlight
from barony to principality through forests
which stood as a dark uncut authority.

A story that begins “Once upon a time.”
Messengers, brigands, heralds
in a world unmapped from village to village.
Legends and dark misinformation,
graveyards crowded with ghosts.

And when the rider from that story at last arrives,
gates open at midnight to receive him,
two men, two men we will never know,
lean into the effort of
pushing open each big door.

*

Happy dooring!

José

P.S. The Influence is now considering poetry submissions. Check out the “submissions” tab to learn more.

**This poem is from The New Life (Copper Beech Press, 2008).

* travel update & some life sketches

Hello y’all!

Since I am moving this week back to Oregon and am on the road as I write this, I decided I would forgo the usual Friday Influence post and share some life sketches.  I will resume the usual astrologically-centered good times next week.  Enjoy!

***

 

walking in Flagstaff

the folds of her blue dress

in the wind

our laughter folded there

 

***

 

driving at night

the lights of Bakersfield

disappear behind the hill

like so many gleaming eyes

closing

 

***

 

on the highway

in the half-light of sunset

the passing lights of trucks

like the eyes of a man

leaving

when told to go

 

***

Happy driving!

J