Poetry Friday: “The Spirit of Promise”

image of an individual in a church looking upwards and maybe taking a photo; her back is to the camera.Memories can make good material for poetry. In “The Spirit of Promise,” Daniel Donaghy is remembering his Catholic childhood in the particular church that he’s now re-visiting. At first the poet’s memories are negative: “my grade-school nuns shaking // their heads at me”; the priest “putting down his Chesterfield / to tell me how many decades // of the rosary I’d need to say.” Then he recalls his parents in church: a softer memory, which however ends in their deaths from smoking. The remainder of the poem turns to his interlocutor, who had asked “what church was.” I love the poet’s multifaceted answer. “Church is a building, // or a service, or a group of Christians.” But then it’s even more: “something / you can give, so I’ll give it here”—and this something is “a blessing.” To think of “church” as a “blessing” is very moving to me. And the blessing given carries out the “Spirit of Promise” of the poem’s title: it’s “a blessing to a young woman / at the start of something or, /  like you, the start of everything.”

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Rain”

rain on the window of a car with yellow and purple light from the cars illuminating the droplets.The emotional landscape of motherhood can often be hard to describe and is underrepresented in genres such as poetry. As a poet and mother of a two-year old with a new baby on the way, I appreciated “Rain” by Tara Bray and found it very instructive on several levels. In this candid poem, a “family of flight” rests at a truck stop. The mother, still awake, observes her sleeping husband and daughter and affectionately compares them to birds, husband as “flycatcher, scrub jay, kingfisher” and daughter as “little chickadee.” While the family is placeless and neither here nor there, Bray’s devotional voice both grounds and comforts me. She writes, “There’s only night and rain, husband, babe, sleep, / this black string of small good things.” Amidst uncertainty and the obscurity of a dark, rainy night Bray celebrates her tribe, her “two glimpses / of the afterlife.” She is enlivened, versus saddened, by the sound of the rain and her hope, as well as her honesty, are stirringly contagious.

—Jessica Gigot [Read more…]

Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer

Portrait of Robert Oppenheimer reclining a chair with his legs crossed, holding a cigarette in a very cavalier manner. What would you think of a biography of a famous person written in the form of a poem?

I don’t mean just a portrait of the person: Stephanie Strickland did this (masterfully) in her The Red Virgin: A Poem of Simone Weil. No, I mean a full, chronological biography—birth to death and reputation beyond—complete with socio-political context and analysis of the subject’s inner life as well as his public achievements. And even more: a biography that becomes at the same time an epic poem, with its towering yet tragic central character.

All this is what Kelly Cherry has managed to do in her new book Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. The subtitle is “A Poem,” though 121 distinct poems make up the book, much like chapters and subheadings in a prose biography.

The Quartet of the title refers to the four “movements” into which Cherry has divided Oppenheimer’s life: his childhood through schooling and his early professional career as physics professor (with the horrors of Nazism’s rise always in the background); his position as Scientific Director of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; his post-war downfall, caught in the net of Senator Joe McCarthy and the country’s anti-Communist hysteria; his later life, death, and assessments of his life’s significance. [Read more…]

Disturbing the Silence: Part 2

photo of a blurred human behind a door

Continued from yesterday.

It’s not until my husband and I return from our getaway weekend and arrive home from the cabin to the Internet, to the noise of children, to the chaos of community life creeping in, that I find the space to read Wendell Berry’s poetry. This poem, in particular, resonates with me:

How to Be a Poet
By Wendell Berry

(to remind myself)


Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.   


Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.


Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

I read this poem of quiet—of communicating without screens, of living without air conditioning and technology, in order to “make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it came”—to my husband in our bed at home and we nod and say, “hmmm, yes,” together.

Berry often writes of loss and the quirkiness of community, but his writing spins visions of a world long past: one that is idyllic, beautiful, and ultimately fulfilling. In those moments of reading his poetry, I find Berry’s words affirming of the life we’ve chosen and pushing us to even more difficult choices.

But after nearly a decade of attempting to eschew some of the attractions and amenities of urban life, I’ve also begun to wonder if Berry’s pure ideals are feasible, if this idyllic long ago that he writes about ever really existed at all. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “The Aging Maria”

a plaster house with a yellow painted wooden door sits behind a tree with draping green foliage. the image is light and warm.The prose poem is a challenging genre. After all, what distinguishes “plain prose” from “prose poetry”? Here, in Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “The Aging Maria,” I’d say it’s, first, the liberty with sentence structure. Take the opening sentence: in a prose work we’d say it’s too long, stretches in too many directions. But here, each phrase moves us further into the image and context of this garden statue of Mary: she forbears the elements, the tropical hurricanes; she has held her place through generations; her “calm blue gaze cut[s] through time”; she stares at the avocado tree. Also, there’s the hint of an iambic beat in most of these opening phrases. Second, what feels poetic is the changes rung throughout the poem on the statue’s aging, the vivid imagery of its disintegration over time. Finally, the movement back and forth between mere statue and Mary the “Queen of Heaven” feels poetic: reality and saint seamlessly interchanging places. The saint wins out at the poem’s very end, where—in the twilight—“the yellow patina of age briefly turn[s] to a luminous gold, as though she were lit, as she is, from within.” Listen, too, to all the luscious alliteration of “l”s in this final sentence, and you’ll know you’re hearing poetry.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]