Tuesday Short Poem: Barenblat’s “And Then There Are Days”

I don’t often put up poetry any more, but I want to make an exception this week to promote the new book from my friend Rachel Barenblat (also known as the Velveteen Rabbi.) I had a few of her lovely offerings up on my old Thursday Short Poem series, and I’m excited to announce her new poetry collection Waiting to Unfold. Rachel wrote one poem a week during the first year of her son’s life — and she beautifully captures the wonder, the fear, the exhaustion, and the surges of stupendous love of new parenthood. “Waiting to Unfold” would make a most excellent Mother’s Day Gift.

Here’s one of my favorites:

AND THEN THERE ARE THE DAYS

when nothing is easy
your dad drives away at dawn
you wail through your diaper change
the formula in your bottle is too hot
you push my hands away and flail your feet
when I try to fasten your corduroys

the days when you decide that naps
are for other babies
and the cat’s tail looks enticing
and none of the food I put on your tray
appeals to you at all, except the cheese
and maybe the sliced banana

and the stroller is confining
but the floors of our house are dull
you’ve already crawled every inch
of this kitchen, it holds no secrets
and the Hungarian dvds won’t play
and darkness falls too soon

when you howl through the potluck
and throw your Cheerios on the floor
and I try to tell the other parents
he’s not usually like this
but they don’t believe me
though at least they are kind

even on days when I can’t wait
to glide your pocket door shut
and pour myself a fishbowl of red wine
my heart still swells two sizes
as I collect the colored plastic cups
you’ve strewn across the living room

Thursday Short Poem: Szymborska’s “Thank-You Note”

I haven’t had a Thursday Short Poem up since 2011. This struck me hard when a friend posted it on Instagram, of all places; I knew a lot of Szymborska’s work but had somehow missed this.

Thank-You Note

Wisława Szymborska

I owe so much
to those I don’t love.

The relief as I agree
that someone else needs them more.

The happiness that I’m not
the wolf to their sheep.

The peace I feel with them,
the freedom –
love can neither give
nor take that.

I don’t wait for them,
as in window-to-door-and-back.
Almost as patient
as a sundial,
I understand
what love can’t,
and forgive
as love never would.

From a rendezvous to a letter
is just a few days or weeks,
not an eternity.

Trips with them always go smoothly,
concerts are heard,
cathedrals visited,
scenery is seen.

And when seven hills and rivers
come between us,
the hills and rivers
can be found on any map.

They deserve the credit
if I live in three dimensions,
in nonlyrical and nonrhetorical space
with a genuine, shifting horizon.

They themselves don’t realize
how much they hold in their empty hands.

“I don’t owe them a thing,”
would be love’s answer
to this open question.

Thursday Short Poem: Berry’s “Peace of Wild Things” (again)

I first had this Wendell Berry poem up in 2004, when I was new to blogging — and not yet a father. Older now, a papa living in a neighborhood with too much asphalt, the longing for wild places grows stronger. It is hard not to tax oneself with forethoughts of grief.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Thursday Short Poem: Pollard’s “Thirtieth”

This Clare Pollard poem ran in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago. And as I have many younger friends who are hitting their 30th birthdays (with mothers who worry that they’re “running out of time”), this seemed as good a piece on “how we live now” as I’ve seen in a while. The last line is perfection.

Thirtieth

Sandy Denny’s singing: “who knows where the time goes?”
and it isn’t us, still partying on a Sunday afternoon,
slumped on a garden patio beneath a greasy sun,
after a night of pale, crooked lines;
after improvised cocktails of gin and raspberry vodka.

“She died at thirty one”, someone says, plucking
an olive from an ashy slick.
“Fell down the stairs.”

And I’m aware I’m wearing grim, glittery rags; yesterday’s knickers.
My back to honeysuckled brick, I flick tongue over gums
that taste like a gun in the mouth.

A mobile flashes MUM. No one picks up.
We know how mothers fret over the ticking clocks:
our one-bed flats,
our ovaries.

Instead we fill our plastics up with cider,
and watch wasps as they circle spikes of lavender;
the big sky’s cirrus scraps –
a Brimstone butterfly flaps, then settles
on a blackened bone.

My friends, we are so lucky and disgusting,
and will pay for this tomorrow.

Saturday Short Poem: Lopate’s “We Who Are Your Closest Friends”

Taking a weekend breather from blogging and writing and commenting. I appreciate the continued discussion below some of the recent posts; thanks, everyone.

My sister Elizabeth sent me a link to this Phillip Lopate poem, which appeared on Garrison Keillor’s website yesterday. Lopate, a distinguished critic and professor as well as poet, captures the idle paranoia that more than a few of us have known. It’s very fine.

We Who Are Your Closest Friends

we who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting
as a group
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
frustration
discontent and
torture
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift

your analyst is
in on it
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us

in announcing our
association
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
against uncertainty
indeed against ourselves
but since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community of purpose
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make
unreasonable
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your
disastrous personality

then for the good of the collective

Thursday Short Poem: Cope’s “Nursery Rhyme”

Heloise’s favorite nursery rhyme is Baa Baa Black Sheep, and she sang it frequently with my mother over the Independence Day holiday. Wendy Cope, who is famous not least for her ability to mimic the work of other poets, offers the Wordsworth version of that famous children’s ditty. If you know Wordsworth, this is very funny. If you don’t know Wordsworth, not so much.

A Nursery Rhyme

as it might have been written by William Wordsworth

The skylark and the jay sang loud and long.
The sun was calm and bright, the air was sweet,
When all at once I heard above the throng
Of jocund birds a single plaintive bleat.

And, turning, saw, as one sees in a dream,
It was a Sheep had broke the moorland peace
With his sad cry, a creature who did seem
The blackest thing that ever wore a fleece.

I walked towards him on the stony track
And, pausing, for a while between two crags,
I asked him, ‘Have you wool upon your back?’
Thus he bespake, ‘Enough to fill three bags.’

Most courteously, in measured tones, he told
Who would receive each bag and where they dwelt;
And oft, now years have passed and I am old,
I recollect with joy that inky pelt.

Thursday Short Poem: Calhoun’s “Mapping Desire” (again)

I had this poem on the TSP three summers ago, but it fits nicely with some of my recent writing, so here it is again.

The Thursday Short Poem will be on hiatus until September. Please visit my poetry archives for lots more!

My body doesn’t look the same as it once did. It’s not just being 44, it’s being 44 with a lot of scars, a lot of running in the wind and the sun, a lot of hard living when I was younger. And though my wife is the only one who touches me and sees me in my naked vulnerability, I am prone, when I’m not careful, to making self-deprecating remarks to her about my skin and my flesh. But she loves the familiar ruts, the turns and the textures of the imperfect and interesting body with which she shares a life. Jeanetta Calhoun’s poem captures this nicely.

Mapping Desire


“i look like a roadmap,” he says,
intending, i suppose, to deflect
any unrealistic expectations of
the power of passing time on
a face i haven’t touched in years
but he is forgetting
how i love a road trip
sometimes screaming down the freeway
at 2 am, the bass thumping in the speakers
like the pounding of my heart
most often, though, i like to
take the side roads
roll the windows down
inhale the sweet smells
sheltered under the arching
bowers of trees linked
together like fingers of two hands
spanning what separates them
i like to slide into
a roadhouse on the county line
have a beer, some barbecue and
a slowdance to the blues
then unfold my beloved roadmap
run my finger along a chosen course
imagine all the s-turns and heaves
glory in the forgotten lanes
and remember that the end
of one journey is the
beginning of another

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Thursday Short Poem: Zach’s “As Agreed”

Natan Zach is one of the great living Israeli poets, and this is a very, very Israeli poem in its prickliness, its tenderness, and its bittersweet realism.

As Agreed

Look, as we promised each other,
we changed nothing and the world
is as wonderful as it was, the rain
tarries this year, but it will come:
it will come as long as we’re still here.

Look, as we agreed,
I am in one place, you in another.
We didn’t become one, which is also natural,
and in your weakness and in mine
there looms a promise, too:
after memory forgetfulness is all.

And if the road already may incline downward
in the famed sloping print of life’s curve,
it does, in some sense, aspire upward,
and aspiration is a great thing in life,
on this, too, we agreed, you surely remember.

And if now I’m alone and aching and ailing more than ever,
this, too, was a choice,
if not always conscious. And if you too are alone,
it makes my loneliness less just
and this should sustain you as well.

How fortunate that we’ve agreed on so little:
on parting, on loneliness and fear, the basic certainties,
and there’s always something to return to,
you will see how young we will be in the end,
and the end, when it comes, will be almost just.
And everything, you will see, will be almost welcome.

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Father’s Day Poem: Justice’s “Men at Forty”

I recite this very famous Donald Justice poem to practically anyone who will listen, and have posted it many times before. I’m in my mid-forties now, and really, I love this poem because what Justice describe is my life — I have closed softly the doors to so many rooms to which I will not return (would that more men would do so!) I see my father’s face when I look in the mirror, just as I still see the little boy whom I once was…. and there is a special call that seems to me to come with growing older, as if only now can I have the courage and the clarity to do things I simply couldn’t do before.

I’m thinking this father’s day of my Daddy and my daughter, and of all of my forefathers. I got up at 4:30 this morning, and before my run, went through the house and looked at the pictures of my two grandfathers (both dead for decades), and at the old photos of earlier generations of bewhiskered men. I carry their DNA in me, and I carry their hopes. That burden rests lightly, like a soft warm jacket rather than a crushing weight. It is good to be a Dad, good to be growing older, good to feel my fathers in my fathering.

Men at Forty

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

At rest on a stair landing,
They feel it
Moving beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.

And deep in mirrors
They rediscover
The face of the boy as he practices tying
His father’s tie there in secret

And the face of that father,
Still warm with the mystery of lather.
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
Something is filling them, something

That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.

Thursday Short Poem: Larkin’s “Letter to a Friend”

I discovered Philip Larkin in high school, and for a while he was my favorite poet (he died when I was a college frosh). Later, reading him through a feminist lens, I loathed him for his misogyny and his bigotry. And as is the way of these things, I grew later still to appreciate him in all his imperfect complexity as a man very much of his time. The bitterness is almost always present, but an almost avuncular sentimentality as well.

And this is one of his famous ones, describing a sexual marketplace that one would like to think is gone.

Letter to a Friend about Girls

After comparing lives with you for years
I see how I’ve been losing: all the while
I’ve met a different gauge of girl from yours.
Grant that, and all the rest makes sense as well:
My mortification at your pushovers,
Your mystification at my fecklessness—
Everything proves we play in separate leagues.
Before, I couldn’t credit your intrigues
Because I thought all girls the same, but yes,
You bag real birds, though they’re from alien covers.

Now I believe your staggering skirmishes
In train, tutorial and telephone booth,
The wife whose husband watched away matches
While she behaved so badly in a bath,
And all the rest who beckon from that world
Described on Sundays only, where to want
Is straightway to be wanted, seek to find,
And no one gets upset or seems to mind
At what you say to them, or what you don’t:
A world where all the nonsense is annulled,

And beauty is accepted slang for yes.
But equally, haven’t you noticed mine?
They have their world, not much compared with yours,
But where they work, and age, and put off men
By being unattractive, or too shy,
Or having morals—anyhow, none give in:
Some of them go quite rigid with disgust
At anything but marriage: that’s all lust
And so not worth considering; they begin
Fetching your hat, so that you have to lie

Till everything’s confused: you mine away
For months, both of you, till the collapse comes
Into remorse, tears, and wondering why
You ever start such boring barren games
—But there, don’t mind my saeva indignatio:
I’m happier now I’ve got things clear, although
It’s strange we never meet each other’s sort:
There should be equal chances, I’d’ve thought.
Must finish now. One day perhaps I’ll know
What makes you be so lucky in your ratio

—One of those ‘more things’, could it be? Horatio.

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