Poetry Friday: “Recovery”

sunflowers by Nick Page on flickrWhat I like about this poem is how it slides almost unnoticeably from a simple, upbeat view of life into increasing complexities and ambiguities. The title and opening stanza announce that this will be an unequivocally optimistic poem. But something a bit unnerving happens in the second stanza: that glorious golden sunflower’s head seems to start choking (“grasping / its cowled neck”)—because, the following single line stanza tells us, its head is “outweighing its stalk.” It’s an image of discomfort, distress, almost of disease. The next stanza “recovers” the poem’s opening optimism, with the sunflower now “full bonneted” and turning toward “absolute light.” The “light” is the sun, of course, but it also hints (in “absolute”) at the divine; and, further, it seems to counterbalance the heaviness of that head outweighing its stalk. “What wonders are these,” the poet continues; and we think we’re back in full recovery mode. But no: the “wonders” are a “struggling” and a confusion of contradictions. Those birds’ chirps: are they joy or sorrow? They “could be” either; we just can’t know. Then in the final three lines, the poet pulls back from nature’s phenomena to “this world,” where ambiguity reigns. In this world of ours, the weak get stronger—or maybe not: maybe gradually, painfully, inexorably (“a day at a time”) they drag to a snail’s pace, drying out till they “crack.” I’m amazed at how, in so few short lines, Judith Harris has imaged with such nuance the push and pull, the downs and ups, of being alive.

-Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Fit for Immortality?

4290784933_312dfbb2ed_z-2“How’s your health?” my long-time friend asked me with concern.

“The leukemia is creeping toward trouble zone,” I answered, “and I’m not sleeping much, so sometimes I’m pretty wiped. I don’t deal well with physical discomfort.” Then I added, laughing but serious, “I feel ready for eternal life.” [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Sometimes I Am Permitted”

trainOn my first reading of this poem, I felt disoriented by all the non sequiturs, all the disconnected images leaping here and there. But then I thought: isn’t this how my own attention works (or doesn’t work)? The poem skips in a breath from winter snow to the red line train to the speaker’s sins “of digression.” Later the speaker moves—in the space of a period—from the mirror in which “I cannot recollect / my face” to an artichoke and the spoon to eat it with. At the poem’s end we are back in the train… but then suddenly we’re observing “the glossy Tyvek.” Tyvek on what? We’re not told. The poem seems chaotic, intentionally so. It carefully crafts a vision of the world as wildly scattered pieces. We’re left longing for a grounding beneath it all—the grounding that, for me, would be God. 

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Why We Write

9301874154_2571798618_zWhat is it about words that so moves those of us who are writers? We take the most common of media—language—and can’t resist caressing it, playing with it, taking it apart and putting it together again in some new shape.

Why do I love to write, even need to write? I’ve been pondering this question for decades, in various ways, various words.

Today I’ll start the pondering with some personal history: how I discovered my passion for words.

I was in my early twenties and had just started graduate school in literature—which I chose just because I knew I loved reading. But I’d barely started grad school when my husband got a year’s job in London. So we moved there, and suddenly I had my days free while he went to work. One day I went to the University of London to ask about taking some literature courses there.

Strolling through the University campus, I noticed the library and walked into it—and instantly I felt an excited, giddy sensation. It actually affected my whole body: my heart beat faster, I felt tingly all over, with a rush of energy—as if I’d just gobbled my entire stash of Halloween candies. [Read more…]

Adam Zagajewski’s Trench Warfare

15221101821_df7492d443_z“Writing poems is a duel / that no one wins…” As I’m reading the poem that opens with these words, I think: this could be describing my life.

The poem is called “Writing Poems.” It’s by the superb contemporary Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, in his new collection, Unseen Hand. And in fact, nearly all the poems in this collection could be describing my life—because the “duel” that Zagajewski refers to is between opposites that battle each other, or sometimes balance each other, or sometimes swing back and forth between each other.

This is Zagajewski’s vision not only of writing poems but of living life. And it’s my own experience of living.

My husband has ongoing and seemingly interminable heart disease dis-ease, yet he delights in a phone call from our son and laughs heartily (hmmm, interesting pun) during a friend’s visit. His days are like Zagajewski’s poem-writing: [Read more…]