Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Tuesday Poem: "Poem (I lived in the first century of world wars)" by Muriel Rukeyser

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

by Muriel Rukeyser

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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Tuesday Poem: "First Light" by Chen Chen

I like to say we left at first light
        with Chairman Mao himself chasing us in a police car,

my father fighting him off with firecrackers,

        even though Mao was already over a decade

dead, & my mother says all my father did

        during the Cultural Revolution was teach math,

which he was not qualified to teach, & swim & sunbathe

        around Piano Island, a place I never read about

in my American textbooks, a place everybody in the family

        says they took me to, & that I loved.

What is it, to remember nothing, of what one loved?

        To have forgotten the faces one first kissed?

They ask if I remember them, the aunts, the uncles,

        & I say
Yes it’s coming back, I say Of course,
when it’s
No not at all, because when I last saw them
        I was three, & the China of my first three years

is largely make-believe, my vast invented country,

        my dream before I knew the word “dream,”

my father’s martial arts films plus a teaspoon-taste

        of history. I like to say we left at first light,

we had to, my parents had been unmasked as the famous

        kung fu crime-fighting couple of the Southern provinces,

& the Hong Kong mafia was after us. I like to say

        we were helped by a handsome mysterious Northerner,

who turned out himself to be a kung fu master.

        I don’t like to say, I don’t remember crying.

No embracing in the airport, sobbing. I don’t remember

        feeling bad, leaving China.

I like to say we left at first light, we snuck off

        on some secret adventure, while the others were

still sleeping, still blanketed, warm

        in their memories of us.

What do I remember of crying? When my mother slapped me

        for being
dirty, diseased, led astray by Western devils,
a dirty, bad son
, I cried, thirteen, already too old,
        too male for crying. When my father said
Get out,
never come back
, I cried & ran, threw myself into night.
        Then returned, at first light, I don’t remember exactly

why, or what exactly came next. One memory claims

        my mother rushed into the pink dawn bright

to see what had happened, reaching toward me with her hands,

        & I wanted to say
No. Don’t touch me.
Another memory insists the front door had simply been left

        unlocked, & I slipped right through, found my room,

my bed, which felt somehow smaller, & fell asleep, for hours,

        before my mother (anybody) seemed to notice.

I’m not certain which is the correct version, but what stays with me

        is the leaving, the cry, the country splintering.

It’s been another five years since my mother has seen her sisters,

        her own mother, who recently had a stroke, who has                          trouble

recalling who, why.
I feel awful, my mother says,
not going back at once to see her. But too much is                              happening here.
Here, she says, as though it’s the most difficult,
        least forgivable English word.

What would my mother say, if she were the one writing?

        How would her voice sound? Which is really to ask, what is

my best guess, my invented, translated (Chinese-to-English,

        English-to-English) mother’s voice? She might say:

We left at first light, we had to, the flight was early,

        in early spring.
Go, my mother urged, what are you doing,
waving at me, crying? Get on that plane before it leaves without you.

        It was spring & I could smell it, despite the sterile glass

& metal of the airport—scent of my mother’s just-washed hair,

        of the just-born flowers of fields we passed on the car ride                over,

how I did not know those flowers were already

        memory, how I thought I could smell them, boarding the                  plane,

the strange tunnel full of their aroma, their names

        I once knew, & my mother’s long black hair—so impossible              now.

Why did I never consider how different spring could smell,              feel,

        elsewhere? First light, last scent, lost

country. First & deepest severance that should have

        prepared me for all others. 

by Chen Chen

Photograph Credit: Jess Chen

For more information about poet, Chen Chen, see:

Monday, December 25, 2017

Christmas Poem: "Christmas Trees (A Christmas Circular Letter)" by Robert Frost

The city had withdrawn into itself
And left at last the country to the country;
When between whirls of snow not come to lie
And whirls of foliage not yet laid, there drove
A stranger to our yard, who looked the city,
Yet did in country fashion in that there
He sat and waited till he drew us out
A-buttoning coats to ask him who he was.
He proved to be the city come again
To look for something it had left behind
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.
He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;
My woods—the young fir balsams like a place
Where houses all are churches and have spires.
I hadn’t thought of them as Christmas Trees.
I doubt if I was tempted for a moment
To sell them off their feet to go in cars
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.
I’d hate to have them know it if I was.
Yet more I’d hate to hold my trees except
As others hold theirs or refuse for them,
Beyond the time of profitable growth,
The trial by market everything must come to.
I dallied so much with the thought of selling.
Then whether from mistaken courtesy
And fear of seeming short of speech, or whether
From hope of hearing good of what was mine, I said,
“There aren’t enough to be worth while.”
“I could soon tell how many they would cut,
You let me look them over.”

                                                     “You could look.
But don’t expect I’m going to let you have them.”
Pasture they spring in, some in clumps too close
That lop each other of boughs, but not a few
Quite solitary and having equal boughs
All round and round. The latter he nodded “Yes” to,
Or paused to say beneath some lovelier one,
With a buyer’s moderation, “That would do.”
I thought so too, but wasn’t there to say so.
We climbed the pasture on the south, crossed over,
And came down on the north. He said, “A thousand.”
“A thousand Christmas trees!—at what apiece?”

He felt some need of softening that to me:
“A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars.”

Then I was certain I had never meant
To let him have them. Never show surprise!
But thirty dollars seemed so small beside
The extent of pasture I should strip, three cents
(For that was all they figured out apiece),
Three cents so small beside the dollar friends
I should be writing to within the hour
Would pay in cities for good trees like those,
Regular vestry-trees whole Sunday Schools
Could hang enough on to pick off enough.
A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.
Too bad I couldn’t lay one in a letter.
I can’t help wishing I could send you one,
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.
by Robert Frost
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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Tuesday Poem: "Frederick Douglass" by Robert Hayden

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,  

usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,  

when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,  

reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more  

than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:  

this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro  

beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world  

where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,  

this man, superb in love and logic, this man  

shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,  

not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,

but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives  

fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

by Robert Hayden

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Tuesday Poem: "America Doubts Itself" by Andrew M. Bell

(Photo Credit: Andrew M. Bell)

the land of fat people is
now casting a thin shadow.
It is worried that it is not “great” any more.

It is afraid of China,
growing capitalist power out of
a communist socket.
Mao wouldn't have approved
of the American dollars bulging
in the people's pocket.

It has waged one too many
interventions”, got too much
egg on its face.
It has been nine-eleven-ed and it has
lost its swagger.
It is tentative like a
teenager with its first bloom of acne.

And now it is banking on a saviour,
a man who epitomises The American Dream
when the myth has been stripped away,
a self-made man whose father left him a huge sum,
a swaggering, shouting misogynist
whose ego squeezes the air out of
every room.

He is a man who has never known
hardship, never slept under a copy
of The New York Times on a park bench
in a windswept, dangerous park,
never pushed his meagre belongings around
in a supermarket trolley,
never wandered the streets talking to himself
because no one else will,
never known the escape of the crack pipe or
the bottle and never
searched through a trash can for his next meal.

An older man is trying valiantly to resuscitate
the vision of your founding fathers,
but he will be bought off with party favours because
Big Money has you by the balls, America,
and is squeezing ever tighter.

Ave, America, morituri te salutant.
Hail, America, those who are about to die salute you.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Tuesday Poem: "Happy first anniversary (in anticipation of your thirty ninth)" by Bob Hicok

I don’t have much time. I’m an important person
to chickadees and mourning doves, whose feeder

was smashed last night by a raccoon. Soon

I’ll be wielding duct tape, noticing the dew,

wanting to bathe in it, hoping the awkwardness

of yesterday (three instances of people talking

with bear traps for mouths) never repeats itself

and we all go forward as if to a party

for a five year old who refuses to smash candy

out of a burro. It’s too cute, the burro, too real

for him not to ask his mother, can I keep it,

and when the other children cry, they’re given

lake front property, it works out, this

is what I see for you, the working out. Think of the year

behind you as a root or think of going to Spain

and feeling sorry for bulls or don’t think,

this isn’t the SATs, don’t think but stay.

Stay happy, honest, stay as tall as you are

as long as you can using giraffes if you need to

to see each other above the crowd. I have these moments

when I realize I’m not breathing, my wife

is never why I’m not breathing and always why

I want to lick a human heart, remember that each of you

is half of why your bed will sag toward the middle

of being a boat and that you both will sag

if you’re lucky together, be lucky together

and acquire in sagging more square footage

to kiss and to hold. And always remember

that I hate you for being so much closer

than I am to where none of us ever get to go

again - first look, first touch, first

inadvertent brush of breath or hair, first time

you turned over and looked at who was surprising

you by how fully she was there.

by Bob Hicok

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Tuesday Poem: "Advertisement" by Wisława Szymborska

I’m a tranquilizer.
I’m effective at home.

I work in the office.

I can take exams

on the witness stand.

I mend broken cups with care.

All you have to do is take me,

let me melt beneath your tongue,

just gulp me

with a glass of water.

I know how to handle misfortune,

how to take bad news.

I can minimize injustice,

lighten up God’s absence,

or pick the widow’s veil that suits your face.

What are you waiting for—

have faith in my chemical compassion.

You’re still a young man/woman.

It’s not too late to learn how to unwind.

Who said

you have to take it on the chin?

Let me have your abyss.

I’ll cushion it with sleep.

You’ll thank me for giving you

four paws to fall on.

Sell me your soul.

There are no other takers.

There is no other devil anymore.

by Wisława Szymborska (translated from the Polish by Stanisław Barańczak)

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