Eastern Redbud Tree (Cercis canadensis) blossoms - photo © Valerie Reneé
on Flickr - noncommercial use permitted with attribution / no derivative works

The Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is one of my favorite trees. Native to eastern North America from southern Ontario to northern Florida, the redbud is an early harbinger of spring.

Also known as the “Judas tree,” it is among the first to bloom. In my experience, it flowers before the cherries and magnolias in the mid-Atlantic.

The redbud is easily recognizable from its showy, magenta to fuchsia-pink flowers appearing in clusters from March to May. Rather than bursting out of the ends of branches, however, the redbud’s flowers seem to “break out” on bare stems before the leaves and sometimes on the trunk itself.

The flowers are pollinated by long-tongued bees such as blueberry bees, carpenter bees and mining or miner bees.

Calvin, my pitbull, is no stranger to my readers and friends. I’ve written about him before and he had quite a few followers on my Twitter account (@greenskeptic) where I often post pictures of him.

Calvin in the Wissahickon

My poem, “Redbud & Pitbull,” originated from a scene I witnessed sitting on the porch of my former house two years ago. The redbud I had planted there a few years back had still produced no flowers.

I was curious about this fact and about the frenetic activity of the mining bees, which should have been pollinating the redbud, because both seemed to be indicative of my life at the time. I was simultaneously unsettled and not yet ready to flower.

What a difference a few years makes: the redbud flowered for the first time this year — and what glorious flowers have bloomed in my life!

Here is my poem, “Redbud & Pitbull”:

 

The mining bees are emerging.

Males zipping around

tiny holes in the ground

where females are burrowing

beneath the redbud.

The males have a curious display;

more manic than romantic,

expecting a mate to think crazy

is sexy or superior.

 

I guess we all

fall prey to a little crazy

love now and again,

do something foolish,

cross a line or two.

But the bees flying too close

to the ground are just frantic,

can’t imagine they’d make

suitable mates.

 

They course and dive and zip

(yes, that’s the best word for it, zip),

while females wait below the redbud.

My pitbull Calvin watches

the mining bees swirling

above and into the ground

beneath the redbud. He thinks,

Who or what are these (things)

buzzing and drilling in the dirt?

 

Truth is, the mining bees

–neither food nor friend—

pay him little interest.

Now Calvin grows bored,

slopes over to the sidewalk

flopping down in the sun.

The redbud’s waxy leaves

glisten in the same sun,

green edging into red.

 

Calvin is mottled, piebald,

brindle and white with a big brown

eye patch that makes people smile.

He’s a lover, not a fighter.

He cares little why the redbud’s shock

of fuchsia flowers, like scales or

a rash running up the limbs hasn’t shown.

He has no word for flowers

and little time for bees.

 

–Scott Edward Anderson

P.S. This poem, along with “Calvin’s Story,” appeared in Dogs Singing: A Tribute Anthology, published by Salmon Press. If you love dogs and poetry, you must have this book – it makes a great Mother’s Day gift too!

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Alison Hawthorne Deming and raccoon cub.

I love when poetry shows up in unexpected places.

The Poetry Society of America and the MTA recently revived their “Poetry in Motion” program on the New York City subways.

The Clint Eastwood Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler, written by poet Matthew Dickman, is another example.

“The Language of Conservation,” a Poets House project that provides residencies for poets in zoos around the country, is still another.

So I was thrilled when American Scientist magazine published my friend Alison Hawthorne Deming‘s poem “Mosquitoes” in a recent issue.

Alison lives in the Tucson desert and draws inspiration from the natural world there, her native New England, as well as Grand Manan Island, Canada, where she has a family home, the Everglades, Alaska — really, wherever she is.

Her work has long been concerned with the relationship between art and science — her first book was titled Science & Other Poems — and the science of looking at the world. So her appearance in a scientific magazine is not really a surprise, but the fact that the magazine publishes poetry at all is to be celebrated.

Alison’s books include the poetry collection Rope (Penguin, 2009) and the essay collection The Edges of the Civilized World (Picador USA, 1998). She is coeditor of The Colors of Nature: Essays on Culture, Identity, and the Natural World (Milkweed Editions, revised edition 2011).

Formerly director of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, Alison teaches creative writing at the University of Arizona and also serves as chair of the board of directors for Orion magazine. She recently completed a new nonfiction book titled Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit. 

Whether writing about individual species (The Monarchs), entire ecosystems, or the human despoilment of nature, Alison trains a scientist’s eye on her subjects. Yet, she’s not afraid to add a little wry humor into the mix.

“Mosquitoes” offers an enlightened victim’s view of this annoying insect, prompting us to appreciate its singleness of purpose and a reciprocity with which most of us would rather not comply.

Here is Alison Hawthorne Deming’s “Mosquitoes”:

 

 First came the scouts who felt our sweat in the air

and understood our need to make a sacrifice.

We were so large and burdened with all we had carried,

our blood too rich for our own good. They understood

that we could give what they needed and never miss it.

Then came the throng encircling our heads like acoustic haloes

droning with the me-me-me of appetite. We understood

their pleasure to find such hairless beasts so easy to open and drink.

We understood their female ardor to breed and how little

they had to go on considering the protein required to make

their million-fold eggs. Vibrant, available, and hot,

we gave our flesh in selfless service to their future.

 

 

 — Alison Hawthorne Deming

 

 

 

Bobby Orr flies through the air after scoring the Stanley Cup winning goal in 1970. Photo by Ray Lussier

The Stanley Cup Playoffs have been on my mind this week as my home town Boston Bruins attempt to defend their championship from last year — our first since my childhood.

I started playing hockey the same year I started writing poetry. And hockey legend Bobby Orr had something to do with both pursuits.

Poetry and hockey may seem unlikely bedfellows, but not to me. I was the player in the back of the bus with a stack of library books: the Beats, Transcendalists, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and a slim volume of Stephen (“Red Badge of Courage”) Crane’s poetry I’d love to find today.

To me, hockey is a kind of poetry; perhaps because my earliest memory of the sport is tied to a flying Bobby Orr in black and gold. The game is comprised of all life’s elements: brutality, grace, and fragility; the speed, tenacity, and acumen it takes to succeed in the world. All life’s triumphs and heartbreaks played out on a hard, frozen surface.

Bobby Orr and the Bruins won the Stanley Cup 1970 in a Mother’s Day overtime game captured in my memory by twin images: Orr flying through the air over the collapsing St. Louis goalie Glenn Hall — triumphant, jubilant, having just scored the winning goal; and the trajectory of my father’s beer can that I sent flying in my enthusiasm of the moment.

To this day, I don’t wear socks in my skates because that’s how #4 rolled, and Inever rest a beer can on the arm of a chair.

Orr’s first year in the league — 1966-67 — was the last year of the National Hockey League’s “Original Six”: Boston, New York, Montreal, Detroit, Chicago, and the improbably, poetically named Toronto Maple Leafs. That was also the last time Toronto won the Stanley Cup. The Leaf’s goalie that season, Terry Sawchuk, was one of the best of the golden era of goaltending.

It’s called the golden era because the game was rapidly changing, becoming a “shooters game.” Goaltenders had to develop new techniques and new approaches in response to the goal-scoring, stick-handling legends of the age, guys with names like Howe and Hull and Rocket Richard.

And unlike the heavily armored and padded goalies of today, Sawchuk and Hall and Jacques Plante and Gump Worsley didn’t wear masks; their faces were exposed to screaming pucks and sharpened blades and wooden spears brandished by bruisers careening down the ice at breakneck speeds.

Terry Sawchuk as a Boston Bruin, 1956. Associate Press Photo,

Canadian poet Randall Maggs wrote a book-length poetic tribute to the game and the complicated man who was Terry Sawchuk, Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems, is some of the best hockey writing I’ve read and it contains some pretty good poetry too.

Here are a few sections from Randall Maggs’ poem “Different Ways of Telling Time,” from Night Work:

 

(i)     last minute of play

Four-faced, the clock sees everywhere.
Dead centre over the ice, it hangs from chains.
The players glance up, exchange a word, a sideward
look – less than a minute to go. They know time’s rough
and tumble. Space and time, that’s where they live,
arcs and angles, a quick move to open ice.
Their flashy physics.

Spectacles shift and glitter behind the glass.
Maybe someone they know but they never look
at the crowd. They’re at the bench to hear the plan –
“Boys, you get a bounce here, things can happen fast.”
Left out on the ice – they might as well be
on the moon – both goalies eye the clock,
one’s for zero, the other likes infinity,
but things can change.

Get going clock.
Slow down slow down.

No one in the building likes time’s pace.

 

(ii)     you could drift out here forever

Jesus, here we go.
Seventh game, and seconds left to overtime.

Talk’s over at the glass, the captains
waved away. The referee holds four fingers up
and folds his arms, four seconds he wants put back
on the clock. Son of a bitch, an old defender
sags against the boards. Still, imagine the power,
to kick time’s arse like that.

 

(iv)     ice time

The guys arrive as if at random intervals,
lay out their gear, lucky shirt, same skate first,
same old jokes about my liniment, Jesus,
Ukey, lose that shit why don’t you?
Roll their eyes and tiptoe by.
Check the clock and tape my own stick,
thank you, heel to toe, no wrinkles, tape the ankles.
Time to go out and get loose, guys in twos and threes
at home on ice, tucking pucks lazily under the crossbar.
Same old talk, someone you got to slow down,
a glance where he’s talking it up
with his own guys.

Here’s the house where I live, I can’t say no.
Howe and Lindsay’s eyes on me. Pronovost, tough
as a bag of batteries, slaps my pads. I see myself as I pass
in the glass, pick up that look from the other side, a nice pair
of knees that edge apart as I go by. I get a whiff of ice
and something in me starts alive. I take
a few shots, catch and flick, feeling
quick, clank behind me,
lucky too.

Then back inside and bedlam now. Adams
flapping but I don’t hear. Holy Mary, don’t let me
fall on my face tonight. I try to loosen a pad, my shaking
hand so bad Jesus Jesus. Tommy Ivan shoves in beside me,
knowing he needs to settle me down. New cufflinks on.
Knocks my stick for luck I’m nodding but Mother of Christ
I’m dying inside, can’t keep still now everybody wants to go,
the clatter, the chatter, rockers, talkers. “Gotta have this one.
Gotta have it guys.” This was where we’d bellow out
some raunchy song when we were young, scare
the bejesus out of everyone. “Nice neighbourhood like this,”
they’d say. “Who let the bloody DPs in?” Tommy drums
a rhythm on my leg – I watch his moving hand
distracted by the veins and lines that make the hand
a miracle, an acrobat, a thief. Gotta have it, guys.
I brace for the roar at the end of the tunnel.
“Give me a hand here, Tommy, tuck that in, that – look,
that bloody strap.” Then bang the door and Jesus here we go,
someone shouts those words I love and dread, I hear
them all my life – “Let the goalie go first.”

— Randall Maggs

 ##P.S. During the Bruins 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, I’m participating in Beardathon, a fundraiser for kids charities, by growing my beard. You can vote for my beard, contribute towards my fundraising goal, and watch my progress at: http://www.beardathon.com/bruins/seabear/profile.aspx

Frederick Seidel at home in New York, 2009. Photo by Antonin Kratochovil/Vii

Poet Michael Hofmann, in his entertaining review of Frederick Seidel’s Poems 1959-2009, writes that “from the beginning, Seidel was always a bogeyman, a Bürgerschreck, an épateur—a carnivore if not a cannibal in the blandly vegan compound of contemporary poetry.”

Hofmann draws comparisons with V.S. Naipaul and quotes from a new biography of that author saying the two are purveyors of “picong, a Trinidadian term, ‘from the French piquant, meaning sharp or cutting, where the boundary between good and bad taste is deliberately blurred, and the listener is sent reeling.’”

The New York Times called Seidel the “Laureate of the Louche,” which is to say simultaneously rakish and appealing. He is a poet with a penchant for the most expensive hotels, bespoke suits, handmade shoes, and Italian racing bikes – of the motor kind, not pedaling – and a strange, nearly fatal attraction to all that is dark and violent and decadent.

One is never quite sure if Seidel is putting it on – does he really do the things he says in his poems or is it all a persona? Is he playing with the reader the way he plays with form, with lines, with puns, with rhyme? That is to say, masterfully.

“Convinced life is meaningless, / I lack the courage of my conviction,” Seidel wrote in an early poem, “After the Party,” but then opens two poems – “Racer” and “Fog” — with the same line: “I spend most of my time not dying./ That’s what living is for.

Seidel’s poetry burns with a fury matched only by the leatherclad poet hitting 120 MPH on his custom-built Ducati. He takes a perverse pleasure in imagining his own fiery death, which hasn’t come; the poet turned 76 this year.

Take these lines from “A Gallop to Farewell,” quoted by Hoffmann:

The most underrated pleasure in the world is the takeoff
Of the Concorde and putting off the crash
Of the world’s most beautiful old supersonic plane,
with no survivors,
In an explosion of champagne.

Readers and critics either love or hate Seidel. There is no middle ground. But he couldn’t care less. He’s never taught or sought tenure or prizes or even a “career” in poetry, which is kind of an oxymoron anyway. He studied with Robert Lowell, but shook off his teacher’s influence pretty early on and hasn’t been associated with any poetry “movement.”

And while Seidel’s first book came out in 1963, he blossomed late, with 17 years between his first and second collection and 10 books published over the past two decades, culminating in his 500-page, 50 years worth of poems, which is the best of poetry I’ve read in a long time. What I mean by that is Seidel’s POEMS does what William Styron said a good book should: it leaves you slightly exhausted at the end because you lived several lives while reading it.

Here is Frederick Seidel’s “Fog”:

I spend most of my time not dying.
That’s what living is for.
I climb on a motorcycle.
I climb on a cloud and rain.
I climb on a woman I love.
I repeat my themes.

Here I am in Bologna again.
Here I go again.
Here I go again, getting happier and happier.
I climb on a log
Torpedoing toward the falls
Basically, it sticks out of me.
At the factory,
The racer being built for me
Is not ready, but is getting deadly.

I am here to see it being born.
It is snowing in Milan, the TV says.
They close one airport, then both.

The Lord is my shepherd and the Director of Superbike Racing.
He buzzes me through three layers of security
To the innermost secret sanctum of the racing department
Where I will breathe my last.
Trains are delayed.
The Florence sky is falling snow.

Tonight in Bologna is fog.
This afternoon, there it was,
With all the mechanics who are making it around it.
It stood on a sort of altar.
I stood in a sort of fog.
Taking digital photographs of my death.

–Frederick Seidel


 

Robert Browning

Next month marks the bicentennial of Robert Browning, who was born on May 7, 1812, in Camberwell, England. My Samantha recently sent me his poem “Now” and it spoke to me, although it was not familiar to me.

Browning is a bit of an enigma: simultaneously overshadowed by his more famous wife, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and lionized as one of the great creators of the dramatic monologue.

Victorian readers found his work somewhat difficult, in part because of his sometimes arcane language and obscure references. He was home-schooled and self-taught – subsequently, many of his allusions were lost on his more conventionally educated audience.

Ultimately, Browning, as Wordsworth said of all great poets, had to “create the taste by which [he was] to be enjoyed.”

One of Browning’s enduring themes was “ideal love,” which for the poet meant the consummation and culmination of an intuitive course of action wherein a pair of lovers pierce the barrier separating them to become one in an all-consuming spiritual union — the “moment eternal” between two human beings.

To Browning, the passion and intensity of romantic love was often at odds with conventional social morality. Ideal love in Browning’s conception required giving up everything, what others have called “the world well-lost for love.”

Here is Robert Browning’s short lyric poem, “Now”:

 

Out of your whole life give but a moment!

All of your life that has gone before,

All to come after it, — so you ignore,

So you make perfect the present, condense,

In a rapture of rage, for perfection’s endowment,

Thought and feeling and soul and sense,

Merged in a moment which gives me at last

You around me for once, you beneath me, above me —

Me, sure that, despite of time future, time past,

This tick of life-time’s one moment you love me!

How long such suspension may linger? Ah, Sweet,

The moment eternal — just that and no more —

When ecstasy’s utmost we clutch at the core,

While cheeks burn, arms open, eyes shut, and lips meet!

 

–Robert Browning, 1812-1889