Jess is really cool. I’ve been following her writing about feminism and Catholicism for a long time, and I love it. She is wise, yo. And, she like poetry. I know how to pick friends, don’t I? Today she’s talking about some of her favorite volumes.
A Post Where I Talk About Every Poetry Book I Own.
Hello, Fumbling Toward Grace readers! I’m Jess and I write over at Jess Fayette: Cathofeminism. As Sarah is taking it easy this week, (Ha!) I volunteered to fill in for a day, and I could think of no better subject than my favorite poetry.
As a sometimes angst-ridden tween and teen, I had spiral notebooks and boxes of loose-leaf paper filled with neatly rhymed poetry. I’d sit in my room with candles and incense lit, music playing, and write page after page of ABAB or ABABC verses. Sometimes I’d mix it up, but I was a pretty straight forward (and terrible) poet. There was even a terrible but ambitious song written that is burned into my memory. I lean more towards novels or memoirs these days, but poetry was my entrance into a love of being the author of the written word.
Children’s Poetry- Knock at a Star:
By far my most dog-eared book, and one of the only ones I have kept through the years. I am so happy that I have it around to pass on to my kiddos someday. It has different sections to introduce children to different forms of poetry. One of my favorites from this compilation is Travelers by Josephine Miles.
Poet– Edgar Allan Poe:
It might be cliché to name Poe, but I love his work. I was first introduced to him in the fifth grade by my lit teacher. He can be a bit tedious and long winded for some, but he knew what emotions he was trying to evoke. I always have appreciated his confidence in his own words. My favorite poem of his is definitely Annabel Lee, but I recently discovered he had written something involving Mary, so it has quickly become beloved.
At morn — at noon — at twilight dim —
Maria! thou hast heard my hymn!
In joy and wo — in good and ill —
Mother of God, be with me still!
When the Hours flew brightly by,
And not a cloud obscured the sky,
My soul, lest it should truant be,
Thy grace did guide to thine and thee;
Now, when storms of Fate o’ercast
Darkly my Present and my Past,
Let my Future radiant shine
With sweet hopes of thee and thine!
Blast from the Past – Revolution on Canvas:
In 2005, I heard about a poetry book that had work from all my favorite bands. It was an incredibly exciting find as the only poetry I was paying attention to at the time was in music form. Revolution on Canvas has some really great work from all your favorite early 2000 emo/punk/alternative bands: The Format, Taking Back Sunday, Something Corporate, and many more. It’s a great way to relive your angsty years.
To-Read – Brothers on Life (Matt and Mike Czuchry)
I was flipping through the channels a year or so ago when I found Matt Czuchry stumping his latest project- a book- on some talk show. Of course it went on my to-read list. When I opened it to thumb through it, I found most of it was poetry. I’m saving it for a rainy day when I have some time to myself. I think that a memoir-style poetry book is right up my alley.
If you’ve found yourself in a reading rut and you need something that is conducive to life as a parent or life as someone short on time, maybe poetry is just what you need!
I had so much fun doing the poem challenge in October. I only wish I’d actually been able to post a poem a day. Ah well, perhaps in a season of life when I don’t have two infants underfoot and a house that needs ready-ing. Ready for what, you ask?
I thought you’d never ask! Why, we are getting our lovely 78 year old Tudor style home ready to sadly, put it on the market. We’ve outgrown our little home and are moving out of the city and into the….dare I say it….suburbs. I know, I know. I swing like a pendulum on PED’s back and forth about this.
It’ll be amazing. I love the Monon Trail.
I’m a terrible sell out. I better burn my 317 t-shirt and give away my TOMS.
But free Catholic school and an amazing, amazing parish.
But living with rich people, who I hope will not be too terribly obnoxious.
And all those roundabouts.
Back and forth it goes.
In the end, it’s the best choice for our family, and I know we will love it. But I’m still left feeling sort of guilty about leaving a neighborhood with true socio-economic diversity to live in a town where the median household income is about 100k a year. Whew. There, I said it. I know that in some ways it’ll be easier to get involved in working with the poor and getting to know them, since our parish runs the largest food pantry in the county as well as a free medical clinic for the uninsured. I know myself and I know that as soon as the boxes are unpacked and Maggie is back in school, I’ll be finding time and ways to get involved. But still, when I was a starry-eyed dreamer living in Chicago, I never thought I’d be a suburban Indiana housewife. Let me tell you that.
So we are prepping our home for the market. Which involves lots of painting. Lots and lots of painting.
The thing with 78 year old houses is, they are mostly made with plaster for the walls and plaster is very heavy and cracks. So many cracks. The good news is, after its done, it will look so nice. We’re painting the living room (including domed ceiling like a hobbit house) a color called Sand Dollar. I love it.
The worst part was taking all of my many and varied framed photos and artwork from the walls. I just adore my objets d’art. And by that I mean my million and a half artsy fartsy family pictures and some random artwork I’ve acquired over the years like a crazy cat lady on adoption day at Petsmart.
Thus things have been quiet over here and I did not get as many poems posted as I hoped to. Womp womp.
Our goal is to have everything done that needs done by mid-January so we can list the house then if we feel like it (ie. if there homes on the market where we’re moving that we like bunches). In January, the real fun begins! Figuring out what to do with a 4 year old, two 14 month olds, and a dog during the middle of winter when we have showings. Laugh a minute over here.
Why yes, I am a crazy person. How did you guess?
Since I’m crazy, I’m going to include one of my favorite crazy poems, from one of my favorite writers, Wendell Berry. He’s a lunatic farmer in case you haven’t heard my proclamations of love for him before. This poem makes me laugh and makes me think. A perfect combination.
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” from The Country of Marriage, copyright © 1973 by Wendell Berry
I’ve been Catholic my whole life, but my relationship with Mary has not always been strong. When I was a child, mourning the loss of my own mother, I naturally turned to her, though in a very child-like way. I was enamored of statues and images of her. I remember a prayer card of Our Lady of Lourdes that somehow made its way to my possession. Though I can’t quite recall how I acquired it, hours were spent looking at her and wishing she were “real”. Eventually, I misplaced that prayer card, and my desire for a mother in Mary waned. For a while. Mary, ever patient, ever present, waits for us to reach for her. Eventually, I did.
Our Lady has filled a very special place in my heart, and her love and gentle guidance has altered the course of my life. I truly believe that she drew Atticus and I together, and through her intercession, we grew together into the family we are today. While I was in graduate school, being educated by some wonderful Jesuits, I came across Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins was a Jesuit poet and author. I just fell in love with his writing style and especially the following poem, where he describes in great detail how vital is “Mama Mary” in this life of discipleship.
This is a long poem. It’s long. However, it is the best poem about Mary that I have ever come across, and I so hope you will read it all. (Don’t worry, if you don’t – I have bolded my favorite portions) But please, just read it all. You won’t be sorry.
The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe
Gerard Manley Hopkins
Wild air, world-mothering air,
Nestling me everywhere,
That each eyelash or hair
Girdles; goes home betwixt
The fleeciest, frailest-flixed
Snowflake; thats fairly mixed
With, riddles, and is rife
In every least thing’s life;
This needful, never spent,
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;
This air, which, by life’s law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise,
Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindled to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race—
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.
I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air: the same
Is Mary, more by name.
She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God has let dispense
Her prayers his providence:
Nay, more than almoner,
The sweet alms’ self is her
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air.
If I have understood,
She holds high motherhood
Towards all our ghostly good
And plays in grace her part
About man’s beating heart,
Laying, like air’s fine flood,
The deathdance in his blood;
Yet no part but what will
Be Christ our Saviour still.
Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvellous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn—
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;
Who, born so, comes to be
New self and nobler me
In each one and each one
More makes, when all is done,
Both God’s and Mary’s Son.
Again, look overhead
How air is azurèd;
O how! nay do but stand
Where you can lift your hand
Skywards: rich, rich it laps
Round the four fingergaps.
Yet such a sapphire-shot,
Charged, steepèd sky will not
Stain light. Yea, mark you this:
It does no prejudice.
The glass-blue days are those
When every colour glows,
Each shape and shadow shows.
Blue be it: this blue heaven
The seven or seven times seven
Hued sunbeam will transmit
Perfect, not alter it.
Or if there does some soft,
On things aloof, aloft,
Bloom breathe, that one breath more
Earth is the fairer for.
Whereas did air not make
This bath of blue and slake
His fire, the sun would shake,
A blear and blinding ball
With blackness bound, and all
The thick stars round him roll
Flashing like flecks of coal,
Quartz-fret, or sparks of salt,
In grimy vasty vault.
So God was god of old:
A mother came to mould
Those limbs like ours which are
What must make our daystar
Much dearer to mankind;
Whose glory bare would blind
Or less would win man’s mind.
Through her we may see him
Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.
Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God’s love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer:
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.
Just beautiful. Like Our Lady.
I’ve had the great good fortune of finding a poem that succinctly captures two of the most important moments in my life: the day I met my husband, and the moment our first child was born. I call these threshold moments. When something completely new is beginning. Sometimes we know, or at least think we know, what these moments will look like. Thankfully, we are usually wrong and some combination of God’s grace and our choices lead us places we never thought we’d go, or even want to.
Mostly, when I look back over the trajectory of my life, I’m surprised at how I got here. To this moment, with this man, and these tiny humans who call me mama. I look around at all of this joy, this chaos, this very life swirling around me and wonder how the woman who started this life with sorrow upon sorrow could have a heart so filled with love.
The beginning of this poem by Louis MacNeice encapsulates that day so perfectly. And I keep thinking it’s a poem about that moment when we met. When we looked at each other and felt that feeling…“At last, this one is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”. The beginning that has no end.
But the end of this poem, oh the end. It is all my Margaret Gianna and the moment I heard her first cry, and saw her perfect body. “And life no longer what it was…”
Time was away and somewhere else,
There were two glasses and two chairs
And two people with the one pulse
(Somebody stopped the moving stairs)
Time was away and somewhere else.
And they were neither up nor down;
The stream’s music did not stop
Flowing through heather, limpid brown,
Although they sat in a coffee shop
And they were neither up nor down.
The bell was silent in the air
Holding its inverted poise –
Between the clang and clang a flower,
A brazen calyx of no noise:
The bell was silent in the air.
The camels crossed the miles of sand
That stretched around the cups and plates;
The desert was their own, they planned
To portion out the stars and dates:
The camels crossed the miles of sand.
Time was away and somewhere else.
The waiter did not come, the clock
Forgot them and the radio waltz
Came out like water from a rock:
Time was away and somewhere else.
Her fingers flicked away the ash
That bloomed again in tropic trees:
Not caring if the markets crash
When they had forests such as these,
Her fingers flicked away the ash.
God or whatever means the Good
Be praised that time can stop like this,
That what the heart has understood
Can verify in the body’s peace
God or whatever means the Good.
Time was away and she was here
And life no longer what it was,
The bell was silent in the air
And all the room one glow because
Time was away and she was here.
I almost titled this post “To let it go” but then I realized that everyone will think I am going to blog about Frozen. I am not going to blog about Frozen. I promise. I swear.
What I am going to blog about is the sadness of changes that happen to the places that have made us. Most especially those changes that happen when we aren’t looking, during those moments when we have turned away, either willfully or via distraction. Or both.
I no longer live where I grew up. In this, I know I am not alone. However, I don’t know many my age for whom the home where they grew up is somewhere they can no longer go. Frost said, in another poem, “Home is the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” But what happens when ‘there’ is no longer there? Or rather, when the place may remain, but none of the people that made it home. What then?
I’m facing the fact that my children will not know the place that made me. They will not play on the land where I played as a child. They will not know the people I have known there, because those people aren’t really there anymore.
A little over four years ago, my grandmother went into a nursing home. The last day I saw her in the house where she raised me, she was disoriented and sad, the dementia already beginning its slow burn through every synapse of her beautiful mind. I was pregnant then, with Maggie, when I watched her namesake, Margaret, leave ‘home’ for the last time. She has been there in the nursing home, and Maggie has only known her there. She has not, will not, know her easy smile while cooking, standing over the kitchen island with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, in her element. She will not know the woman who took me to brownies and held my hand through the sadness of watching my mother (her daughter) be lowered into the ground. None of them will know her, and this is another kind of death.
And now, she is nearing the end of her life. The dementia has ravaged her mind and body, and she is a shell of the person who helped me with my homework and was the closest thing to a mother that I have on this earth. The end is drawing near for her, and it is profoundly sad. Another deep sorrow, heaped upon the others.
My grandfather too, probably the proudest, strongest man I’ve ever known, is also slowing down. He has been living alone since the day she left, and his health is drawing those days to a close. It’s hard to imagine him living in the need of others, and even though he is 83, he seems so strong to me, still. Soon he may be leaving his home, and going to assisted living. The home where I grew up, where I played and laughed and learned and cried so many tears may soon be gone forever. My children may never again step foot into that house, may never see these people who rearranged their world to care for me in the home where all of this caring happened.
And I am completely powerless. I cannot make them well. I cannot make them young enough to do it all again, this time with my children. I cannot fill the void that exists where my mother and father should be. I cannot do anything but stand by and watch it all happen, from a thousand miles away. I still have to get up and wash the dishes. I have to play with the children, and feed them, and change them, and keep a smile on my face.
I have had to let them go gradually, so the pain would not be too severe all at once. I have tried to distance myself from this truth, but it haunts me in those quiet moments: soon and very soon, every parent that I have had will be gone. The people who shepherded me through the first 20 years of my life will be gone. And all before my 40th birthday. Who can say the same?
I am sad, I am bitter, I am resentful of those who have never known profound loss, including at times, my own husband. I am trying so hard to hang on to the idea of that place, but I know that soon, I will have to let it go.
So Mary Oliver speaks again, and I know these words are true and they are fall, especially this one.
In Blackwater Woods
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
This poem makes me stop and re-evaluate the trajectory of my life each and every time I read it. “I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.” Isn’t that what we all want? To know we have been part of something real. The statement turns into a question, daring me to answer.
Then, she ends with a real gob-smacker. “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” This poem is everything a poem should be. Evocative, simple, and transports you to somewhere you didn’t know you wanted to go. I love Mary Oliver.
When Death Comes
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;
when death comes like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
In another of her poems, Oliver says, “Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
We women spend a lot of time on our hair, don’t we? I do. I found my first gray hair when I was 18, a senior in high school. A classmate loudly said, “Sarah, I see a gray hair!” It began. A box of Feria and two hours in the bathroom. I’ve been doing it ever since, though after moving to Chicago I graduated from a box to a salon chair. For a while it wasn’t too bad, until after Maggie was born. Ever since my first pregnancy, my hair has gotten more and more silver, faster and faster. The skunk stripe has gotten increasingly “skunky” and my stress over keeping the grays covered has increased.
Then, I think about a month ago, I woke up one morning and made a decision.
“I think I’m done coloring my hair” I said to myself. Myself said, “Yes, that sounds like a wonderful idea.”
Immediately, I was afraid. After all, I am 30 years old and if my roots are any indication, the front half of my head is close to 75% silver. Yikes. Am I going to age myself 15 years? Is my husband going to look like he’s married to an old lady? Will he be embarrassed to be seen with me?
So I did what any sane woman living in America in 2014 thinking of changing her hair does. I went to Pinterest. I searched “gray hair under 40” and found some reassurance.
So, here we are. As part of growing out my natural color, I decided to cut my hair short, so there would be less dyed hair, thus less two-toned for a shorter amount of time.
This is the shortest I have ever had my hair cut in my adult life. I think I love it. Its very freeing.
What on Earth does this have to do with poems? I’m getting there, I promise. I swear.
There’s a poem I love written by Fleur Adcock, where she talks about growing older gracefully, and frankly, not giving a shit because she’s too busy living and loving her life. Yes, I know I am only 30. Yes, I know that is not old. But I also know that it is very uncommon for a woman my age to have as much gray hair as I am going to soon be sporting, and this has naturally made me think of getting older. Of how to do so with grace and class. Of how to not care so very much what other people think. Of Weathering.
My face catches the wind off the snow-line and flushes
with a flush that will never wholly settle.
Well: that was a metropolitan vanity,
wanting to look young for ever, to pass.
I was never a pre-Raphaelite beauty,
nor anything but pretty enough to satisfy
men who need to be seen with passable women.
But now that I am in love with a place
which doesn’t care how I look, or if I’m happy,
happy is how I look, and that’s all.
My hair will turn grey in any case,
my nails chip and flake, my waist thicken,
and the years work all their usual changes.
If my face is to be weather-beaten as well
that’s little enough lost, a fair bargain
for a year among lakes and fells, when simply
to look out of my window at the high pass
makes me indifferent to mirrors and to what
my soul may wear over its new complexion.
Ah, the freedom to be who we really are, and even, miraculously, find some beauty there. Joy.
Life is crazy. But here I am, with more poems to share. Since I missed a few days, today, a few poems.
Atticus and I have this crazy dream to have a lake house someday. We both just love a lake. We fell in love walking around lakes at Notre Dame, and that big lake in Chicago. We are water people, and this poem shares our dream.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
Since finishing Hannah Coulter (my goodness YES I am still talking about this book), I have been thinking a lot about place, and the places that have made me. One of the biggest of these must be Chicago. I grew up when I moved to Chicago. I was truly on my own for the first time in that city of the Big Shoulders. I made the transition from starry-eyed college girl to a woman who had, for the first time, fallen flat on my face. With that skyline as my backdrop, I picked myself up and tried again.
I met my husband in Chicago, on the steps of the Cathedral. On the threshold of my life, I shook his hand and looked into his earnest blue eyes. I said yes to him and our life together, in Chicago, not many steps from the place we first imagined a future that might hold us both.
Today’s poem is one from Carl Sandburg, the Chicago poet. This poem, titled Halsted Street Car, seems particularly apt, since the first place that Atticus and I shared as man and wife was a small (I do mean small) apartment on Halsted Street. Our first child, the one we never got to meet, was created in that apartment on Halsted Street, and as such, it’s as much a part of me as any place I have lived.
HALSTED STREET CAR
COME you, cartoonists,
Hang on a strap with me here
At seven o’clock in the morning
On a Halsted street car.
Take your pencils
And draw these faces.
Try with your pencils for these crooked faces,
That pig-sticker in one corner–his mouth–
That overall factory girl–her loose cheeks.
Find for your pencils
A way to mark your memory
Of tired empty faces.
After their night’s sleep,
In the moist dawn
And cool daybreak,
Tired of wishes,
Empty of dreams.
I finished Hannah Coulter last night. After spending the last 100 pages or so in tears, sometimes full on sobs, I can say I was somewhat relieved when it was over. But then, oh then, I was so desperate to know what happens next. To know if the farm lives on in the Culter family or floats away as so many family farms have. HC is the type of book I would have probably not read if not for the Well-Read Mom program, but I am so very glad I did. It’s a beautiful, beautiful work of prose. Berry’s ability to write convincingly as an old woman is amazing. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading a thing of beauty.
For today’s poem I chose another of Berry’s. You may recall passages of it from such places as the sidebar on this blog. It is one of my favorites and I am so eager to share it with you all.
To My Mother
I was your rebellious son,
do you remember? Sometimes
I wonder if you do remember,
so complete has your forgiveness been.
So complete has your forgiveness been
I wonder sometimes if it did not
precede my wrong, and I erred,
safe found, within your love,
prepared ahead of me, the way home,
or my bed at night, so that almost
I should forgive you, who perhaps
foresaw the worst that I might do,
and forgave before I could act,
causing me to smile now, looking back,
to see how paltry was my worst,
compared to your forgiveness of it
already given. And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven of which
we have heard, where those who love
each other have forgiven each other,
where, for that, the leaves are green,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed.