Tag Archives: poetry

Poetry and Hope, for many reasons

There is quite a lot of inauguration buzz around me these recent days.  For me, the thing that stands out about this election and this inauguration is that in some major way we won.  An important win.  The racism of Mitt Romney’s and others of the Republican campaigns was so virulent, so wide open, so vast, so carefully calibrated to pull at people’s fears and confusions.  But it didn’t win.  We won.  

Two friends have pointed me to this recently.  One, a beautiful, tireless and hopeful activist, a close friend–posted this quote on her own website as she works, and I do mean works, at caring for herself and keeping life in order as she goes through treatment for cancer.  The second, another beautiful woman, a Jewish woman, just sent it to me this morning.

 It’s Adrienne Rich, but no one has yet been able to identify for me what poem this is from.  If you know where it came from please send the poem’s title and/or the title of the book it is from as a comment or email me privately if you prefer.  

On Monday at the inaugural ceremony we will hear from Richard Blanco– a Latino gay man who will read a poem of his own creation and mind.  I don’t know him or his poetry, nor do I know whether I will love the poem or not.  But I will love that there will be poetry there.  And with Obama’s inauguration and inaugural poetry, more hope and more poetry to come.

What would it mean to live
in a city whose people were changing
each other’s despair into hope? 
You yourself must change it. 
what would it feel like to know
your country was changing? 
You yourself must change it. 
Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange
what would it mean to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?

Adrienne Rich 1983

Adrienne Rich 1929-2012 & what feminist bookstores gave us

I got word last night that Adrienne Rich, our much-needed, beautiful,  female, Jewish, lesbian, mother, U.S., poet-of-conscience, died Tuesday.  I was at work today and I didn’t find an opening to say to my colleagues, “I suspect none of you know her work, but Adrienne Rich died on Tuesday—and know it or not, the world is a poorer place without her. Your world is a poorer place without her.”  Perhaps more importantly I didn’t bring them and read them a poem.  Nor one for you here.  But her death has been on my mind all day.  Through a public hearing that I staffed and while sitting at my desk and while walking around.

For me Adrienne Rich was a poet whose voice I truly relied upon; a teacher, foremother, and sister from afar.  The times (which were quite a few, but once someone like Adrienne is gone, turn out to have been not nearly enough)  that I was in her presence in person date back to the 80’s.  I remember a particular moment, standing in a huge, standing-room-only room at the Memorial Union in Madison, Wisconsin where I was a student– listening to Adrienne read—about being a Jew and then poems from Twenty-One Love Poems—and thinking “I am happy.  Alive.  How lucky, lucky I am to be born in a time and place where I can read and hear this poet.”

I remember arriving home relatively late from work last night to my daughter and partner sprawled on the sofa, reading a very excellent young people’s book about a Chicana girl—a story about racism and classism and family and triumph called, Esperanza Rising,  together.  The phone rang and my daughter answered and handed it to my partner,M.  It became clear that it was my friend Deb—and that someone had died.  Someone in Deb’s small family? I stage-whispered, worrying.   M. shook her head no.  And then she mouthed, Adrienne Rich, and she started to cry.  I have not yet cried.

I remember several times hearing Adrienne read in my partner’s feminist bookstore in the 80’s and 90’s—listening to her words, watching my partner’s careful caretaking of Adrienne (she had rheumatoid arthritis)—and Adrienne’s genuine, spoken, warm affection for bookstores and for feminist bookstores and for feminist bookstore owners and for my partner in particular.  I loved their relationship and I loved listening to Adrienne.

Poetry and poets have been a lifeline for me in times of loneliness and confusion and have also been a source of deep, abiding hope and pleasure and engagement in the best sense, with life and the world, in all it’s harshness and beauty.  Adrienne was typical, to me, of what Jewish women are.  In her case, she was very small in physical stature– and a woman with an enormous mind, command of ideas and language and issues.  She also had a powerful command of the difference, increasingly difficult to discern in this world, between truth and falsity.  And she had a powerful understanding of the interconnectedness of us.

She wasn’t the only–but  she was one significant moral compass for all of us living with and hoping to see clearly and to untangle racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, every day, in our midst, here in the US.  And she brought us words, beautiful and hopeful.

Before I end, I really should say a special thank you here too– to my beloved M. You, my love, did your own labor of love, working with a great vision and with much joy, for so long, for almost no pay.  Your important work of running your wonderful feminist bookstore for so many years.  Adrienne did the writing and you dear, so deeply understood the power of words and the importance to all of us– of bringing Adrienne and other important women writers to me and to some of you who read this and to so many women.  I heard Adrienne do this on more than one occasion and if Adrienne could, she would thank you again one more time.  I do.

Three women and the poet’s alternative

I’d like to write some poems again.  Poems were all I wrote for years.  In 1995 I learned that Grace Paley was teaching a week long summer writers’ workshop on short story writing at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, so I started writing prose so that I could work with her.  I hadn’t written stories since I was a child.  It turned out I liked writing prose and have worked at that when I’ve worked at any writing at all, but some days and for some purposes I’d like to get back to poems.  Besides stories and essays, Grace wrote poems too. 

Once in one of her classes a young woman brought a poem she had written and asked apologetically to read it to the group.  Grace said yes, and the woman read.  Then there was quiet and Grace asked her to read it again aloud to us.  She said in that definitive way she had of speaking it was because “every poem in the world deserves to be read out loud at least twice.” 

I was thinking of Grace today because of the sad very recent deaths of two beautiful Jewish women–one from the city that I now live in and the other from the city I was born in.  The death of the friend from the city I was born in was a woman I have known my whole life — a woman who remained close to my mother and with whom my mother spent time often, including a long talking visit on the day before she died.  I didn’t get to make it to the funeral. 

This morning I found myself at the funeral of the Jewish woman from this city.  I say “found myself at the funeral” because I read an email at 8 a.m. saying she had died and that the funeral was this morning.  I was there by 10 a.m.   At the funeral I thought of all three women, as well as a lot about my father and his funeral in a synagogue that felt similar to mine today, and I cried some. 

The woman whose funeral was today was a woman I barely knew but even with that amount of knowing we could tell she was a special person.  She was not very much older than I am.  My partner and daughter and I met her and her husband at synagogue and we talked at length several times and liked each other a lot.  She wasn’t really a friend but it seemed we all had plans to become friends.  She had recently written her phone number on a napkin that is still sitting on my partner’s dresser asking us to call her so we could all take a long walk in the spring.  Then she got sick and died. 

The funeral today was a kind of a huge affair, by which I do not mean fancy, but I mean the family shared a lot of themselves throughout the service and there were many words.  The whole thing painted a vivid picture of a life, big and well-lived and a picture of a certain generation of Jews.  All kinds of stories were told, including the story of how the mother and aunt of the now- gone woman had been in five different concentration camps through the Holocaust and stayed alive together.  Then the sisters escaped under a fence together and walked into the countryside where they found a family who hid them for the duration of the war.  The woman who died was born in Europe at the end of the war.  There were grandchildren big and small; a couple of them about 6 or 7, were crying hard, then later running around and laughing and then later came forward and sang a song to their grandmother.  There was a baby granddaughter whose first birthday was today. 

Grace was another older Jewish woman who has meant much to me through her writing, her activism and then personally when I got to know her and study with her several summers in Provincetown. 

I cannot quite find my equilibrium today and to try to find my balance, I find myself thinking about Grace Paley and reaching for her poetry.  Here is one of many favorites which is from her book, Begin Again.  You should, as she emphatically taught me, read it aloud.  Twice. 

The Poet’s Occasional Alternative

 I was going to write a poem

I made a pie instead    it took

about the same amount of time

of course the pie was a final

draft    a poem would have had some

distance to go    days and weeks and

much crumpled paper

the pie already had a talking

tumbling audience among small

trucks and a fire engine on

the kitchen floor

everybody will like this pie

it will have apples and cranberries

dried apricots in it    many friends

will say    why in the world did you

make only one

this does not happen with poems

because of unreportable

sadnesses I decided to

settle this morning for a re-

sponsive eatership    I do not

want to wait a week    a year    a

generation for the right

consumer to come along

Grace Paley 1922-2007

Split this Rock

Split this Rock was a poetry festival, two years ago– a poetry festival celebrating poetry of provocation and witness.  It was a festival about the role of poetry in activism and social change.  The next Split this Rock festival is coming up in Washington, DC –Wednesday, March 10- Saturday March 13, 2010.  Although I have been getting their emails for almost two years, I have only just taken a little time to look closely at some of what they send– they send a link to their “Blog this Rock” which is full of amazing poems and news of interesting and very alive people doing very interesting and very alive things with poetry and writing. 

In 2008 I got to hear Naomi Shihab Nye read– and brought my daughter to hear her and meet her.  I heard Martin Espada whose work I have known for a long time, but it just got better hearing him in person; I was introduced to the work of Alix Olson http://www.alixolson.com/ whose work is part of a remarkable and wonderful new generation of female spoken word artists/ writers/ performers — and Alicia Ostriker whose work is part of an immeasurably important and also inspiring older generation of women poets.  Remember how I said I wasn’t feeling so great on Thursday?  Well I got better, but then much worse today.  I have a hope that I can soon find some way to sit on the couch and read a little for awhile this evening.  You should check out Split this Rock– the webiste and the blog.  



In the past few days, in addition to doing a little bit of writing, I have spent some time trying to painstakingly and slowly (I don’t wish for it to be slow and painstaking, it just goes that way) figure out simple things, like inserting the links above into a post– and I would still like to be able to do it that cleaner way– by just writing Alix Olson and having the link to her website embedded in her name…but I still have to learn how.  So check out Split this Rock and keep the patience with me as I learn on this blog.