Friday, August 22, 2014

Hidden Gems

    “Why is the heart alone in the chest?” Ona Gritz asks in her book of poems, Geode.
     She doesn’t give an easy answer, but in the poems you feel her heart at work.
     The collection takes one through her life, and she covers an impressive amount of territory without a single shallow note.  I have often found, in poems of trouble, the difficulties are set out like a sad offering at a flea market.  As is.  But Gritz uses each difficulty as a catapult to lift her vision, to look deeper into things, and further into future, or the past, or the lives of others.
     The beginnings and ends of her poems are double-edged.  When her father says, “a man of twenty / only wants one thing / and when I get pregnant, don’t come running to him,” she writes:
              how unfair a man is,
              this man, the first one I loved.
     In a poem about waiting for a late justice, at the hour of her marriage, she writes,
             How fully I want to love.
             Of course, anything one does fully
             is a journey alone.  But I don’t yet know this.
     I appreciated the perspective shifts.  Some poems were honed to a single, stunning image; others took you to the startling line by a meandering drive; they reflected what she called the shifting ‘ratio of love to heartbreak.’
      Most poems about relationships are stuck in the claustral space of the poet’s current thoughts.  Gritz’s poems about her relationships are not just memories, but interrogations of memory, layers of moments, words address to dead relatives, and notes to and from her past selves.
       I loved the poems about her blind lover, and the doors of perception he opened to her.  She notes that when your lover is blind, your fashion advice is gospel, and “You can stop shaving your legs.”
       The poem, “Route 2” begins:
             Why is divorce so expensive,
             Lynn asks . . ..
             Because it’s worth it.
      Humor is tragedy examined closely, and inside tragedy lies a seed of humor: humor is the flower and tragedy is the seed, each lies within the other in an endless unfolding.
       “People change and forget to tell each other,” Lillian Hellman said.  They even forget to tell themselves.  In this book, Gritz tells us, in order to grasp it all herself.  It’s a pleasure to accompany her.
      There is nothing sanctimonious in this volume, but every connection is sacred.  She speaks of the unpromising texture of the geode, which, when broken, reveals startling brilliance.  Each poem in Ona Gritz’s Geode was a rough moment opened by her hard work to offer us insight from the heart.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Laura Maffei's poetry

I read Laura Maffei’s book of tanka, “Drops from her Umbrella.”  I loved the quiet shock of the sharp turn in the small space of a short, traditional Japanese form:

Halloween—
infant Batman
in my arms
barely aware of this world
that needs saving

Maffei uncovers the quiet chaos of our private life:

how much laundry
is too much
the dark tangle
of many sleeves 
inside the machine

She plays with traditional poetry material in sharp lines:

tight buds
against the gray sky
this spring
you might, I tell them,
want to wait a while

Maffei can write originally about desire—no mean feat.

let’s not
fall for each other
this new guy tells me
little metal cell phone
hot on my ear

not unlike 
Death himself
a man in a black sports car
flirts with me
at sixty-five miles per hour

I loved the shocking juxtapositions:

sunny day
unexpectedly 
a hearse
in my rear-view mirror
and the long line behind it

These poems are long stories made short, honed to that moment when something strikes the mind like a match, so one is burned and enlightened with her.  The language is so pure it perversely conveys emotion.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Inspired by Spielberg's film, Lincoln


There is one photograph of Lincoln’s second inaugural address.  It had rained for weeks, but crowds jostled to witness him speak.  Crowds pressed those on the edge of the balcony so they leaned halfway over the railings.  On the graded ground beneath the marble steps, the crowd strains visibly toward the point above, where the president stood, his body the one thing blurred, as if the world had stopped turning, but he was passing through.
He spoke briefly, a single handwritten sheet.
“Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
He folded the sheet roughly, like a note of no further interest.  He lowered his head and turned from the crowd to walk back to the White House.
Recently, three more photographs have been found—mislabeled in the National Archive.  Soldiers with bayonets lined the path through which Lincoln passed.  If you look close, on the left behind a flag, you may see the woman in a ragged dress who pressed through and plucked his sleeve.  He turned and paused to let her speak.  We can only imagine her words:
“When the war’s won, your battle will be lost,” she whispered.  “In the theater of war, there is no third wall.  You cannot draw a line of fire.”
Lincoln leaned closer, as if her face reminded her of a mourner in recent dream.
“The last act will be played with a curtain for a winding sheet, but your enemies shall be hung with the curtain wrapped around their heads.”
“Don’t listen to such nonsense,” an aid said.  Lincoln was too inclined to predict his own assassination.  He’d joked on the walk over, “Is it time for me to walk to my scaffold?”  He felt that, having drawn the great nation through this nightmare, could he wake unscathed?  Would he lie in peace if he had not paid, as so many did, with his own blood?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Poem from Osip Mandelstam


The taunting form of your face
eluded my grasp in the cloud.
God, I called out by mistake—
I’d never called him aloud.

God’s name unfurled from my chest
like a bird from a cage and
soared through the thick, swirling mist.
Behind the bare cage I stand.


                  trans. Holly Woodward

Osip Mandelstam's poem


My mouth is frozen cold—

my skin is shivering,

but the sky dances gold,

commanding me to sing:


Weep, suffer love, know it,

and don’t drop the frail ball,

you tormented poet,

that I’ve lightly let fall.


So this is the real tie

to heaven’s secret realms,

in this heavy, dark sky—

the sadness overwhelms.


What if, above that shop,

this star shining so hard

were suddenly to drop

through my heart like a shard?

translated by Holly Woodward

Two judgments bookend Mandelstam’s work:
Osip’s mother wanted her son to enter a more secure profession than poetry and dragged him at eighteen to the eminent editor, Makovsky. She demanded that he read the boy’s poems and decide on the spot if they showed any talent. If not, she would forbid her son to write. The editor glanced at a few verses and was about to dismiss them. But Makovsky said that he saw in the boy’s face “such an intense, agonized beseeching, that he won me to his side—for poetry and against the skin trade.” He turned to the mother and said gravely, “Yes, Madam, your son has talent.” He then had to publish the poems.
A second judgment came n 1934, under Stalin’s escalating reign of terror. Mandelstam recited to five people a short verse that mocked a man with a cockroach mustache. He never wrote the lines down.
When a copy arrived on Stalin’s desk, everyone in Moscow knew it. Stalin called Boris Pasternak and asked him, “Mandelstam is the best living Russian poet, isn’t he?’ “Yes,” Pasternak answered. Stalin bellowed, “So why haven’t you called me to defend him?”

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Daisy from my Mother's Grave


My great-grandmother, Elizabeth Woodward, wrote poems as a girl growing up in Brooklyn. Her ten children left her with little time to write, but some of her childhood verse was published in the New York papers. This poem in memory of her mother she kept to herself. Into this page of her journal she slipped a tiny wild daisy from her mother’s grave in Green-Wood Cemetery.

To a Daisy from my Mother’s Grave, 1852

When hills and meads were brown and bare

And wintry winds swept chilly by

This little daisy blossomed fair

Beneath a cold and foreign sky.


Sweet little flower, it raised its head

Within the Greenwood’s hallowed ground

And smiled above the lovely dead

The last which graced that quiet mound.


In youth the hand of her now cold

Beneath the spot that marked thy smile,

Oft plucked the daisy from the mould

In her and thine own native isle.


Yet like thee from the English shore

Transplanted neath the western sky

She passed away life’s transient hour

Midst peaceful scenes at last to die.


Tis thine to boast no colors gay

Tis thine no stately green to wear

So would affection stoop to pay

A tribute to the one so dear.


I doubly prize the little gem

Since blooming on my mother’s grave

My father snipped thy tender stem

To me this simple flower gave.


Sweet daisy we would learn from thee

To scorn no power that we may hold

The humblest offering that may be

Is oft more dear than gems or gold.