ESSO Station 2

Image by *Kid*Doc*One* via Flickr

I love a poet with a sense of humor and who delights in wordplay, especially when she achieves her poem’s aims while making the reader smile.

Those who know me or read my poetry blog or follow me on Twitter or have been on my National Poetry Month email list for some time know that Elizabeth Bishop is my favorite poet.  And you also know that this year marks the centennial of her birth (born 8 February 1911).  I’ve been celebrating this important centennial in a variety of ways.

I’d like to close this year’s National Poetry Month with a poem by Ms. Bishop called “Filling Station.”  I suggest you read it out loud and pay attention to the alliteration and internal rhymes.

It starts with an observation of a “dirty” family filling station, run by a father in a “dirty,/ oil-soaked monkey suit” with “several quick and saucy/ and greasy sons.”  They are “all quite thoroughly dirty,” which creates an incantation of “oily” and “dirty,” evolving into almost a portmanteau of dirty and oily in “doily.”

Bishop is playful in this poem and when she concludes with the final stanza by repeating “oi” and “so” and “-y” sounds, culminating in that brilliant arrangement of oil cans, I can’t help chuckling no matter how many times I read it.

Somebody loves us all, indeed. Happy Birthday, Ms. Bishop.

Here is Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Filling Station”

Oh, but it is dirty!

—this little filling station,

oil-soaked, oil-permeated

to a disturbing, over-all

black translucency.

Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,

oil-soaked monkey suit

that cuts him under the arms,

and several quick and saucy

and greasy sons assist him

(it’s a family filling station),

all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?

It has a cement porch

behind the pumps, and on it

a set of crushed and grease-

impregnated wickerwork;

on the wicker sofa

a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide

the only note of color—

of certain color. They lie

upon a big dim doily

draping a taboret

(part of the set), beside

a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?

Why the taboret?

Why, oh why, the doily?

(Embroidered in daisy stitch

with marguerites, I think,

and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.

Somebody waters the plant,

or oils it, maybe. Somebody

arranges the rows of cans

so that they softly say:

ESSO—SO—SO—SO

to high-strung automobiles.

Somebody loves us all.

–Elizabeth Bishop

Here’s a recording of Ms. Bishop reading this poem from Poetry Foundation/Bishop

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Czeslaw Milosz, Miami Bookfair International, 1986

Czeslaw Milosz, Miami Bookfair International, 1986

This year marks a couple of important centenaries in poetry, which I will celebrate this week and next.  The first is the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, who was one of the giants of 20th-century Polish literature.

Miłosz was born in Lithuania, where his parents escaped the political upheaval in their native Poland.  Late, as an adult, he fled Poland and the oppressive post-war Communist regime.  He could not have picked a place of greater contrast in which to settle: Berkeley, California in the 1960s.

As Seamus Heaney wrote recently, Miłosz “was poised between lyricism and witness.”  Indeed, as Miłosz himself wrote in The Witness of Poetry, “A peculiar fusion of the individual and the historical took place, which means that events burdening a whole community are perceived by a poet as touching him in a most personal manner. Then poetry is no longer alienated.”

But Heaney sums up the poet’s lasting power. “What irradiates the poetry and compels the reader is a quality of wisdom,” wrote Heaney. “Everything is carried and feels guaranteed by the voice.  Even in translation, even when he writes in a didactic vein, there is a feeling of phonetic undertow, that the poem is a trawl, not just talk.  And this was true of the work he did right up to his death in Kraków in 2004.

Probably one of Miłosz’s most famous poems, “Dedication,” was written in 1945 in Warsaw at the end of World War II.  That is, as Stephen O’Connor wrote in an excellent essay on sentimentality in Miłosz’s poetry, “after more than six years of Nazi occupation, after the bloody suppression of the Warsaw uprising, the subsequent deportation of the city’s more than one million inhabitants, the destruction of all its remaining buildings, and its liberation by the Soviet army… under such circumstances, the notion that poetry might help ‘save nations and people’ takes on a rather different character than it had for me when I first read ‘Dedication’ back in 1973.”

Here is Czesław Miłosz’s “Dedication,” in his own translation:

 

You whom I could not save

Listen to me.

Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.

I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.

I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

 

What strengthened me, for you was lethal.

You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,

Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty;

Blind force with accomplished shape.

 

Here is a valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge

Going into white fog. Here is a broken city;

And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave

When I am talking with you.

 

What is poetry which does not save

Nations or people?

A connivance with official lies,

A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,

Readings for sophomore girls.

 

That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,

That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,

In this and only this I find salvation.

 

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds

To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.

I put this book here for you, who once lived

So that you should visit us no more.

 

Czesław Miłosz,Warsaw, 1945

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Photograph by Ernest Goh

The world is rarely an ordered or orderly place.  Poetic forms often seem to try to impose order or uncover it by using rhyme and repetition.

Repetition especially indicates an order that may, in fact, not be in our experience of the world, yet it can be one of the most comforting uses of language.

When the tsunami of 2004 hit coastal Aceh, Indonesia, it turned their world upside down — in some very profound and powerful ways. So much destruction was left in its wake, yet the tsunami also brought rebuilding and healing to that region. Where there had been strife and conflict, the people came together in the wake of the disaster.

Ernest Goh‘s photographs of the post-tsunami devastation in Aceh were the subject of a competition some time ago, which solicited poems in response to the images.  Because the pantoum originated in Malaysia in the fifteenth-century, I thought it a particularly useful form to approach the subject matter.

The pantoum is composed of four-line stanzas with the second and fourth lines of each stanza becoming the first and third lines of the next stanza, and the last line of the poem repeating the first line.

Here is my poem, “A Pantoum for Aceh”:

 

Think of the world turned upside down,

The boat on the mud simulating the sea.

The wave beating down on the coast was brown.

Two-hundred-thousand swept into the sea.

 

The boat on the mud simulating the sea;

Remember the baby doll rising out of the flood.

Two-hundred-thousand swept into the sea.

The mosque, still standing, is covered in mud.

 

Remember the baby doll rising out of the flood?

Think of the houses, each righted by mercy;

The mosque, still standing, is cleaned of its mud.

Can you ever get dry after soaking in sea?

 

Think of the houses, each righted by mercy;

Building back better, lifted up from the ground.

Can you ever get dry after soaking in sea?

Rebuilding a land that was altered and drowned.

 

Building back better, lifted up from the ground.

The wave beating down on the coast was brown.

Rebuilding a land that was altered and drowned:

Think of the world turned upside down.

 

–Scott Edward Anderson, 2009

Rebecca Schumejda, her Dad, and a friend.

I met Rebecca Schumejda a few weeks ago at her reading at the Ryerss Museum in Fox Chase, PA.  She had driven down from New York’s Hudson Valley and had been in an accident, which she handled with wit and grace.  I was not familiar with her work before.  I found it touching and often as self-deprecatingly funny as her asides during the reading.

Her poems are about loss and longing, gardening and dishwashing, motherhood and marriage — and not a few of them are about the seedy side of life.  (Rebecca once co-owned a pool hall.)

Rebecca Schumejda is the author of Falling Forward, a full-length collection of poems (2009); and several chapbooks, including The Map of Our Garden (2009); Dream Big Work Harder (2006); The Tear Duct of the Storm (2001); and the postcard poem “Logic.”  She received her MA in Poetics and Creative Writing from San Francisco State University and her BA in English and Creative Writing from SUNY New Paltz.

You can read more about Rebecca’s poetry at http://www.rebeccaschumejda.com/

Schumejda’s poem “In This Picture” was written after she found a photograph of her father some time after he died and her own daughter was born.  The photo of Rebecca and her father was taken at the end of a fishing trip.  I like the simplicity of this poem and the short lines, which calls to mind the shortness of breath one gets when faced with loss.

It also made me think of a dear friend whose father passed away ten years ago today; so this is for her, and for Rebecca who wrote the poem, and for everyone who has lost a parent or loved one.

Here is Rebecca Schumejda’s poem

“In This Picture”

 

Never will you

bait the hook

for the child

floundering

inside me.

 

In this picture

we sandwich

a blue fish.

 

In this picture

we both wear

stubborn noses.

 

In this picture

you smell like

saltwater.

 

In this picture

is all I have

left of you.

 

I am seven

and in love

with you, forever.

 

In this picture

your heart

was not weak.

 

In this picture

no tombstones,

just fishhooks.

 

Someday, curious,

your grandchild

will ask

who you were

and I will say

in this picture

you were Neptune,

god of the sea.

 


–Rebecca Schumejda

Today is “Poem-in-Your Pocket” Day and the poem in my pocket is Elizabeth Bishop‘s villanelle “One Art.”

This is perhaps the most famous of Bishop’s poems, touching as it does on the loss of love.   It is also a poem about writing poetry, as has been asserted by a number of critics,  and about giving up control for the sake of art.  There is a kind of mastery in losing control that I think both frightened and emboldened Bishop.

In the end, the poet (and the speaker) is not in control and the poem ends (almost) in disaster, with a stroke of poetic mastery in that last line.

Here is Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”:

 

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel.  None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied.  It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

–Elizabeth Bishop

 

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This mug shot was taken by U.S. armed forces i...

Pound in Pisa

I am really enjoying John R. Keene’s run at the helm of the Poetry Foundation’s Twitter moniker @harriet_poetry. He regularly talks about forms of poetry and offers examples — famous and not so famous — and asks poets to submit their own versions.

Last Friday night, John was talking about centos, which the Academy of American Poets describes as “From the Latin word for “patchwork,” the cento is a poetic form made up of lines from poems by other poets.  Though poets often borrow lines from other writers and mix them in with their own, a true cento is composed entirely of lines from other sources.  Early examples can be found in the work of Homer and Virgil.”

I composed a cento using several lines from several sections of Ezra Pound’s “Pisan Cantos.”  Pound wrote this section of his long, incomplete poem, which totals 120 sections, while incarcerated in Italy during World War II.

Here is my cento,

A Cento dei Cantos di Ezra Pound[1]

What thou lovest well remains,

the rest is dross

a man on whom the sun has gone down

and the wind came as hamadryas[2] under the sun-beat.

What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee

nor is it for nothing that the chrysalids mate in the air

color di luce,

green splendor and as the sun through pale fingers.

What thou lovest well is thy true heritage—

I don’t know how humanity stands it

with a painted paradise at the end of it

without a painted paradise at the end of it

the dwarf morning-glory twines round the grass blade

whose world, or mine or theirs

or is it of none?

Nothing matters but the quality

of the affection—
in the end—that has carved the trace in the mind;
dove sta memoria?

Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.

The mountain and shut garden of pear trees in flower

here rested.

What thou lovest well remains—

–Scott Edward Anderson



[1] Composed of lines from “The Pisan Cantos” by Ezra Pound; specifically Cantos LXXIV, LXXVI, LXXXI.

[2] May refer to Hamadryas (mythology), the daughter of Oreios and mother of the Hamadryads in Greek mythology, or to Hamadryas argentea (also called Silvery Buttercup), a species of plant in the Ranunculaceae family.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 25:  Author Jo Shapc...

Jo Shapcott. (Image by Getty Images via @daylife)

Another poet from across the Pond for this week.  British poet Jo Shapcott was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004.  She once described how the treatment left her feeling “reborn as someone slightly different.”  Last year, she published a collection that emerged from this experience, Of Mutability.

“The body has always been a subject for me,” she told The Guardian in an interview. “It is the stage for the high drama of our lives, from birth to death and everything in between.  When you observe your own body under physical change like that, there’s a new kind of urgency.  I had a lumpectomy, my lymph glands out, chemo and radiotherapy.  You go through several different stages, so you don’t know how ill you are for a while, and the verdict keeps getting worse and worse, until you can actually take action, start treatment.”

The concept of mutability has a long tradition in English poetry extending back as far as Chaucer.  Mutability points to the transience of things and of the inevitable changes of life.

Wordsworth spoke of “the unimaginable touch of Time” in his poem, “Mutability.” Shelley ended his poem of the same title,

It is the same!–For, be it joy or sorrow,

The path of its departure still is free:

Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;

Nought may endure but Mutability.

Shapcott is no stranger to life’s mutability.  Her parents both died unexpectedly when she was 18.  She found solace in the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, who had also suffered early loss and dramatic change throughout her life.  Shapcott went to Oxford to pursue a PhD on Bishop’s poetry, but left for Harvard to study with poet Seamus Heaney when she received a scholarship.  It turned out to be a fortuitous mentorship.

Her books include Electroplating the Baby (1988), Phrase Book (1992), My Life Asleep (1998), and Her Book: Poems 1988-1998 (2000).

Shapcott writes with a “‘rangy, long-legged’ brio,” as one critic described her tone. Her language is equally intellectual and sensual, enigmatic and direct, which makes for poetry of breadth and range.  Consequently very few poems feel alike in the way you can tell the work of certain poets, a Gary Snyder poem or a Billy Collins poem, for example.  (The one exception in Shapcott’s work is her “Mad Cow” persona poems.)

Like Bishop, Shapcott is rarely overtly personal, even when writing about her illness from which she is now, thankfully, fully recovered and working on a new book.

Here is Jo Shapcott’s poem, “Of Mutability”:

 

Too many of the best cells in my body

are itching, feeling jagged, turning raw

in this spring chill. It’s two thousand and four

and I don’t know a soul who doesn’t feel small

among the numbers. Razor small.

 

Look down these days to see your feet

mistrust the pavement and your blood tests

turn the doctor’s expression grave.

Look up to catch eclipses, gold leaf, comets,

angels, chandeliers, out of the corner of your eye,

join them if you like, learn astrophysics, or

learn folksong, human sacrifice, mortality,

flying, fishing, sex without touching much.

Don’t trouble, though, to head anywhere but the sky.

–Jo Shapcott

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