Friday, October 17, 2014

POETRY FRIDAY: A Wandering Scotsman

I've recently been researching the life, prose and poetry of the Scottish writer Alastair Reid for an essay soon to be published in Numero Cinq as part of my Undersung series.  Reid, who died a few weeks ago at the age of 88, was a wonderful poet in his own right but was probably best known as a translator of Pablo Neruda and Jorge Luis Borges and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. Reid also wrote a children's book that is a favorite of friends of mine (maybe it's reached cult status?)  The title (previously out of print but now back back in print via The New York Review Children's Collection) is OUNCE DICE TRICE; with pictures by the graphic artist and illustrator Ben Shahn.

The book includes, among other delights, several imaginative counting systems (from one to ten - a journey that Reid proves can be fun.) Two examples I particularly like:

Ounce, dice, trice, quartz, quince, sago, serpent, oxygen, nitrogen, denim


Instant, distant, tryst, catalyst, quest, sycamore, sophomore, oculist, novelist, dentist.

In the book, Reid collects relatively unknown words and offers them up to us in all their strangeness, the way a talented chef would reveal the secret ingredients of a favorite dish:

You can hear one of his best poems for adults, "Curiosity," by clicking here. The poem is a dog's and cat's (but mostly human's) view of the old adage "Curiosity killed the cat," with Reid coming down hard in favor of being curious.

That link can serve as my poetry contribution today to Poetry Friday, but here's what I'd really like to share - a description of childhood that Reid wrote:

“The principal difference between childhood and the stages of life into which it invariably dissolves is that as children we occupy a limitless present. The past has scarcely room to exist, since, if it means anything at all, it means only the previous day. Similarly, the future is in abeyance; we are not meant to do anything at all until we reach a suitable size. Correspondingly, the present is enormous, mainly because it is all there is.... Walks are dizzying adventures; the days tingle with unknowns, waiting to be made into wonders. Living so utterly in the present, children have an infinite power to transform; they are able to make the world into anything they wish, and they do so, with alacrity. There are no preconceptions, which is why, when a child tells us he is Napoleon, we had better behave with the respect due to a small emperor."

Like Maurice Sendak, Alastair Reid took children seriously while taking language playfully. I encourage you all to read more of his work. You can listen to the poet, with his slight Scottish burr, read several of his own poems for adults over at The Poetry Archive and at the Scottish Poetry Library

Poetry Friday today is being hosted by Michelle at Today's Little Ditty. Head over there to see what other people have posted. And if you want to read my most recent post at Books Around the Table, click here.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Poetry Friday: Ahhhhhh....Home!

I am back from a long trip to Oaxaca - the entire month of September spent there, speaking Spanish, hearing Spanish, wandering through the city markets, wandering through the churches and plazas, wandering in general. I posted on August 29th, over at Books Around the Table, in anticipation of the trip, wondering whether Oaxaca would inspire me to write. After all, the stimulation of "all six senses" (taste, touch, smell, sight, sound - and wonder) is usually a good nudge toward creativity. Oaxaca certainly doesn't disappoint in terms of sensory excitement: Senses were stimulated. I think three photos (the tablecloth in our dining room, a pile of small rugs for sale in the market, a stack of tamales) say everything that needs to be said about textures, tastes and colors.

We heard the church bells ring every morning and afternoon, calling people to mass. We heard oompahs coming from tubas in parades going down our street. We watched giant puppets spinning and dancing at a church where a wedding party was just arriving, and we spent an evening watching and listening to danzon: couples swaying - with a surprising mix of formality and sensuality - to Cuban music. Wonderful.

Oddly, I did no writing at all - other than postcards to family. Having prepped all the sensory receptors, maybe I overloaded on stimulation. And maybe I just wanted to live in the moment, not processing everything through the greedy How-Can-I-Use-This side of my brain. It's not that I was feeling blocked. I just didn't want to write. I wanted to buy chiles and plantains and sesame seeds and grapes up at the market, and I wanted to toast them and grind them up with chocolate into  a delicious mole without thinking, "I'll write a poem about delicious mole."

I wanted to laugh with Teresa, the woman who worked cleaning up the Airbnb garden apartment we rented - she gave me mole-making and tamale-making lessons. I wanted to look at the power in her arms as she stirred and stirred and stirred the mole, and just luxuriate in that strength and be amazed by it, without putting my amazement to practical use in a poem.

But two weeks into the vacation, I found myself wanting to come home. I began to read G. K. Chesterton, whose writing is quintessentially English - precise prose about the chalk hills of Sussex. I began to fantasize about my green garden, with the leaves on the cherry and apple trees beginning to turn gold; as I walked in the Oaxacan sunshine - 80 degrees year-round -  I thought about the way Seattle's air would now be filled with an autumn chill. I wondered what was the matter with me - why couldn't I stay in the moment?

Missing home has a powerful, powerful pull on people. Or maybe I should just say "on me." It's part and parcel of any wanderlust drama I create. It sits just off stage, smiling at me, ready to interrupt any poetic soliloquy I conjure up. "Home," it whispers. Or, after thirty days, "Home," it shouts - I can't control the volume. The longer I stay away, the louder it gets.

I heard recently that a poem I submitted to Seattle's On the Bus series was accepted and will appear on buses (or maybe just one bus?) around town. The title? "Home."

There's a good chance I'm more creative when life is slightly less stimulating. A nice walk around the block might be all I need from time to time - a chance to reflect, but not time to take in more and more and more. Maybe a few months from now, I'll write something inspired by Oaxaca. But one thing I've been reminded of: The life of a wanderer is not for me. I do like a bit of adventure, short, sweet, and temporary. And I do like to drift - you know that feeling in a rowboat, when you put the oars down and the current takes you for awhile? Drifting like that is lovely. But when I drift, I like to stay within sight of the shore. I like to know that with a few strong strokes, I can turn the boat shoreward, and I love the sound of the boat's hull scraping slightly along the pebbles as it comes back to rest on the beach.

My trip to Oaxaca helped me remember that I am at my most creative not while rowing, not while traveling, not while taking in what is new and strange - but while leaning with my back up against a log on a rocky Northwest beach. My gaze and my thoughts might eventually turn outward, but my body - the real, physical me  - needs the taste, smell, touch, sight, sound and wonder of home. Cherry trees turning gold, cold air, sturdy evergreens, a rocky cove, saltwater and logs and a shore - definitely a shore - to pull into.

Here is a poem by Nelson Bentley about a Pacific Northwest beach. To some of you who read The Drift Record, it will be familiar - I've posted it twice before - maybe I'll post it each time I come home from a long trip to Somewhere Else.

Zero Tide 

I walked from our cabin into the wet dawn
To see the white caps modulating in,
The slow wash of the word in the beginning:
Wind on the bowing sedge seemed from Japan.
A cloud of sandpipers wavered above the dune,
Where surf spoke the permanence of sun.
Back inside, I sat on my son's bed
Where he sweetly slept, guarded by saints and poets,
Oceanic sunrise on his eyelids;
I whispered, "Sean, get up! It's a clamming tide,"
And thought of chill sand fresh from lowering waters,
Foam-bubbled frets across the hard-packed ridges.
"Sean, it's a zero tide!" From a still second,
He came out of the covers like a hummingbird.
"Don't wake up Julian." In the pale blue light
He dressed in whirring silence, all intent.
Along the empty coast the combers hummed:
Sleepy gulls mewled in the clearing mist.
My wife and baby slept folded in singing calm,
Involuted by love as rose or shell.

                                             - Nelson Bentley

Be sure to follow the links (here and here) to read more poems by Bentley - he was a generous teacher and mentor, and an undersung poet; he's not afraid (as I am) to use the word "sweetly,"; it makes me happy to think I can introduce his work to more of you. If you teach English to young adults, his beach-centered poems are the perfect way in to poetry - direct and heartfelt, with a story-telling voice that doesn't put kids off.

Just look at that water - deep emerald green - brrrrr....wonderful!
Poetry Friday was going to be hosted today by Monica at Cartwheels (previously The Poem Trail) - but she is unable to host due to an illness in the family. Instead, head over to Tricia Stohr-Hunt's blog, The Miss Rumphius Effect, for the round-up. Thanks, Tricia. And Monica, hope all is well soon.