Sunday, September 30, 2018

Emily Dickinson And Me

My experience with Emily Dickinson isn’t like other people’s in this series of essays by poets writing about how they discovered Dickinson. I didn’t read her when I was a child. In fact, there wasn’t much poetry in my house. My parents, my sister, and I were Displaced Persons, refugees. My parents were Polish survivors of Nazi slave labor camps who had somehow found themselves in Chicago after the war, and they were busy trying to make something of life in Chicago in the 50’s. We weren’t passing poetry around the dinner table. 

The only things that came into the house that resembled poems were the songs my father would sing when he would have a few drinks. He would sing Polish soldier ballads. I remember one about a young girl waiting near a deep well for her lover to return from the wars. He never returns. There was another about how the red poppies on Monte Cassino (a Benedictine abbey on the spine of Italy that stood in the way of an Allied advance toward Rome) will always remind people about how the Poles bled and died there. You get the picture. 

And my poetry reading in grade school and high school was shaped by the nuns of St. Francis in the former and the Christian Brothers in the latter. In grade school we read Catholic poets. The one who struck me most was Joyce Kilmer, the author of “Trees,” a good man who died in the trenches of France in World War I. My first poem used his rhymed iambic tetrameter couplets. In high school, we read lots of Robert Frost and Dylan Thomas. I had a teacher who began every class for a year reading out loud either Frost’s “Birches” or Thomas’s “Fern Hill.” It was boy’s poetry and young man’s poetry with a tinge of the brooding existential grayness of the early 60’s.

When I did finally start reading Emily Dickinson in college, the experience wasn’t one that touched me deeply or transformed the way I thought about poetry then. I can honestly say that I didn’t much care for her. Part of this, of course, may have come from the way she was presented back then, in the mid-60’s. One of my Profs referred to Dickinson as the “poet of minutiae”; another talked about her “domestic concerns.” Neither teacher was making me want to thumb through a volume of her poems. The feeling I was getting was that there were poets who said big things and poets who said small things. Looking back on all that now, I can see that a lot of what was going on was a dismissal of Dickinson on the basis of gender, but at that time I just didn’t see it. 

The first time I actually read her was in an introduction to poetry class. We read one of her “minutiae” poems, the one about the snake, “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass.” The poem didn’t move me at all until I got to the final stanza when she started talking about how she never ran across this snake “Without a tighter breathing / And Zero at the Bone.” I thought, there’s a great image, what a way to talk about fear: Zero at the Bone. Yes, she’s got that down, but the rest of the poem for me was a “so what.” I thought, one super image but where’s her philosophy, her worldview, and how about the zeitgeist? The big things? In this class, I was also reading Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and Yeats’s “Second Coming” and “Sailing to Byzantium.” Xanadu! Brooklyn Ferry! Byzantium! These were poems doing everything a poem should be doing. Structuring the world. Explaining the unexplainable. Revealing truths that would remain truths for always, and for everyone. Tossing around exclamation points and rejecting dashes entirely! 

What that introduction to poetry class taught me was that I preferred Yeats, Whitman, and Coleridge to Emily Dickinson and her simple matters. Yes, she was giving me a snake in the grass and “Zero at the Bone.” And she was giving me Eden, of course, but what about Leda and the Swan, the Cosmos, future generations staring me in the face, Khan’s Pleasure Dome? If I could have spoken to her, I would have said, “Give me the big picture, Emily.” 

My next encounter with Emily Dickinson was in an American Literature survey, and it was about the same. She was sandwiched between Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. I can imagine the three of them sitting on a bench waiting to be called into the game. The Whitman of Manhattan on one side, a lusty, big, brawling figure waiting for somebody like Carl Sandburg to describe him as the Poet of the Big Shoulders. And on the other side, the magnificently rotund and socially imposing James the First after whom there are no others, a writer for whom every sentence is encyclopedically complex and raring to go. 

And what about Emily? She sits in the middle, in white of course, quickly fading to a gray, dusty shadow, then little less than a shadow, then nothing, just a silence. She vanished for me. I’m sorry, but there it was. The professor who taught the class was working on a book about roaring radicals in American literature from 1850-1900, and he couldn’t see Emily Dickinson either. Amid the gas and bellowing of the second half of the 19th century, there were only about 15 minutes for Dickinson and her domestic concerns. We read her poem about the porcelain cup on the shelf (“I cannot live with you”) and scratched our heads. A poem about a cup? Students looked around at each other and looked again at the poem, and by then the 15 minutes were up and we were deep on the track of the Henry James Express! My poem “Midnight” in part comes out of these early experiences with Dickinson. At that time, I did feel that all that her poetry was good for was cattle fodder, something to feed the cows.

When was it that I started looking at Emily and liking what I saw? I guess it was in the middle of my teaching career, about fifteen years ago. I was teaching the second half of our freshman composition sequence, a course yoking literature and writing, and I wanted to do a unit on poems about death, so I was going through the anthology searching for appropriate poems. I found “Because I could not stop for Death,” “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died,” and “There’s a certain Slant of light.” When I read these poems, I stopped looking for others. These poems became the whole unit. 

What moved me about them then, and still moves me, is her absolute clarity. Maybe clarity isn’t the right word, but I don’t know how else to say it. She’s talking about death, she’s talking about her shifting attitudes toward it, she’s talking about fear and expectation and despair and God and love, and she does it all with words so straightforward and so clear and so welcoming to me that I feel as if all poetic artifice is gone from the poems, and it’s just Dickinson talking to me in a darkening room about what it is she felt when she thought about death. I’m not saying that the poems aren’t complex and carefully crafted and deliberately shaped in such a way as to inspire deep and serious and critical readings. They’re clearly all that, and they express a worldview besides! All I’m saying is that she writes with such humane forthrightness that, for me, she becomes fully real and alive. When she says, “There’s a certain Slant of light,” I have to look at a window because it’s like she’s standing next to me and pointing. “Look there,” she’s saying, “do you see it, John? I have to tell you, it makes me feel so cold. So cold. Do you see it?” 

When I read her and feel this, I know it’s exactly how I wish I could speak in my poems.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Autumn Memories

Autumn Memories

The best part of deer hunting was of course the long night of drinking that always followed.

Out in a cold november night, drinking wild turkey under the stars, chasing the turkey with ice cold beer, lying about who we were when we were kids.  I always liked that part of hunting deer.

The part that I didn't like was hauling the deer back from where we killed it.

Sometimes even for a medium size buck, it would take four of us to drag it through the woods and the mud.  And then the cleaning.  Flushing out the deer's insides with a hose.  Too much dirt work.

But some people liked it.  One of my friends always got philosophical as he washed the deer out.  He'd start talking about his dad and his grandfather, and what they said to him about life before they died.

I guess that was a part of deer hunting I liked too.  I liked listening to my friends soften up, become the kids they were a long long time ago.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Is Old Age a Gift?

Is Old Age a Gift?

I got a message from a friend Barbara Pauls with a post that tried to make the case that old age is a gift.

Is it?

I look at myself and I generally don't feel any different from when I was 60 or 50 or 40 or 30.

I can't say I'm the same way I was when I was 20 but that's probably a good thing as you'll see if you read my forthcoming collection of poems True Confessions (Darkhouse Books)?

But is old age a gift?

If it is, it gets to be less so as you move on.  At least that's the way I see it from the people I saw aging.

My dad grew up on a farm and spent years in a concentration camp, and he was always working and laughing until his last years when he didn't have the strength to go into his garden and water the beautiful flowers he had planted in his home in Arizona.

My mom too felt her age.  At the end, when she was in her 80s, she couldn't stand up out of her wheelchair, and she didn't have the hope that had fueled her in the concentration camps and in the US when we came her as refugees.

I'm sure that this isn't the way age hits all of us, but this is what I saw in the aging people I loved the most.

Anyway, I sent my facebook friend  Barbara Pauls a note.  I said that finally all we can hope for is that old age is a gift and it lets us feel that gift for us long as it will.

And I sent her a link to a poem I wrote for the Atticus Review about why we age.  If you follow the link, you'll see the poem and you can hear me reading it in my not so old man's voice.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

A Story My Mother Heard in the Slave Labor Camp

A Story My Mother Heard In the Slave Labor Camp

They took me from my children, three little ones.

They said the children would be useless in the camps in Germany. They were too young to do anything but cry for food.

I begged the soldiers to let me take them with me. I said I’d care for them and do the work for all of us.  I even dropped on my knees and wept, clung to their boots, but they said no. I asked them who would feed them, and they said surely a neighbor would.

I couldn’t stop weeping, and they said if I didn’t, they would shoot the children.

So I left them behind in Dębno.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Eye Contact with the Dead

Eye Contact with the Dead

Don’t make eye contact
with the dead in their coffins.
They’ve suffered long enough,
walked too long upon the earth,

smelled its sweet air in the morning,
loved the people they’ve loved,
loved you as much as they could,
probably more than you guessed.

Now, it’s time to look away.
You don’t need to see their eyes
on you as you turn away,
their eyes watching as long

as they can, watching until
you turn into your own grave.


An audio of me reading this appears at 2River

Monday, July 2, 2018

Dead Deer in the Backyard

Dead Deer in the Backyard

I found a deer in the backyard today.  It was dead.

I had gone out to mow the back terrace, a section of the yard that slopes down to the next street, and there was this deer there.  I don't know if it was male or female, or how old it was.

There were lots of flies around its head, especially around its eyes.  I think the flies were trying to get to whatever moisture was still there in the deer's eyes.  I don't kow for sure.

It wasn't that big, but I didn't know how I was going to move it out of there.  For a moment, I thought about just covering it with leaves and letting it rot down there.  It was far enough from the house, and Linda and I didn't go down much to that part of the yard.

But then I thought I couldn't that.  Linda's parents are coming later this week for a visit, and I bet they would want to walk around the backyard.  The terraces there are beautiful.  They are handmade, boarded by stone, and flowers whose names I don't know are everywhere.

So I knew I had to get the deer out of there.  I grabbed its front legs and pulled it.  It wasn't big but even a small deer weighs enough to slow a guy down, and I just turned 69.  I got it up half way to the first of the three terraces, and I knew I couldn't drag it any further.  I was covered with sweat by then, and the flies buzzing around the deer were all around me too.

So I walked to the shed up by the house, and I got the wheelbarrow and brought it down.  It wasn't easy getting the deer in the wheelbarrow.  Dead weight.  You know what that means.

It was slow work but I managed it.  I pushed the thing up the slope, up the terraces with their beautiful flowers.

It wasn't easy, but it wasn't hard either.  The wheelbarrow was sort of balanced.  The deer was small but it filled that wheelbarrow.  The head and most of the neck, the front legs and the back legs -- all of that was outside, balancing the wheelbarrow so even an old man could push the thing and the dead deer in it up a slope to the street.

What did I think about as I pushed the thing up the hill?

Stupid things.

About Prometheus.

About Bill Stafford's poem about finding a dead deer on a road at night.  About how the hell he was able to drag that deer off to the side of the road so nobody would run into it.

About another poem, William Carlos Williams' poem about how so much depends upon a wheelbarrow.

Stupid things.

Why did I think about them?

I thought about them, so I wouldn't have to think about this dead deer in my backyard and how she died and whether her dying would touch any one except me.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

My Father Before the War

Before the war, my father imagined that he would always live in Poland according to the seasons and the holy days that came regularly like the ringing of church bells from the steeple of the small church in the village nearby.

A good Catholic boy, he loved going to the church on Holy Saturday to have the eggs and butter, the salt and bread blessed by the priest.

My father loved going early to church on Easter Sunday too, leaving the farm in the wagon even before the sun was a pink silence over the east, and coming to the church where the little girls stood in their white dresses holding lilies while the boys seemed serious and awkward in their older brothers’ suits.

And there was May Day when they pledged themselves to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and then Pentecost when he imagined the tongues burning above the heads of the apostles, and Christmas with its mysterious midnight mass that began in darkness and ended in light, and the feast of the three kings and more.

My father imagined that this would always be the life he lived.


To read more about my mom and dad, please consider buying a copy of Echoes of Tattered Tongues