Category Archives: Literature

Franz Wright // On the Death of a Cat

In life, death
was nothing
to you: I am

willing to wager
my soul that it
simply never occurrred

to your nightmareless
mind, while sleep
was everything

(see it raised
to an infinite
power and perfection)–no death

in you then, so now
how even less. Dear stealth
of innocence

licked polished
to an evil
luster, little

milk fang, whiskered
night
friend–

go.

The Five Stages of Grief // Linda Pastan

The night I lost you
someone pointed me towards
the Five Stages of Grief.
Go that way, they said,
it’s easy, like learning to climb
stairs after the amputation.
And so I climbed.
Denial was first.
I sat down at breakfast
carefully setting the table
for two. I passed you the toast—
you sat there. I passed
you the paper—you hid
behind it.
Anger seemed more familiar.
I burned the toast, snatched
the paper and read the headlines myself.
But they mentioned your departure,
and so I moved on to
Bargaining. What could I exchange
for you? The silence
after storms? My typing fingers?
Before I could decide, Depression
came puffing up, a poor relation
its suitcase tied together
with string. In the suitcase
were bandages for the eyes
and bottles of sleep. I slid
all the way down the stairs
feeling nothing.
And all the time Hope
flashed on and off
in defective neon.
Hope was my uncle’s middle name,
he died of it. After a year I am still climbing,
though my feet slip
on your stone face.
The treeline
has long since disappeared;
green in a color
I have forgotten.
But now I see what I am climbing
towards: Acceptance,
written in capital letters,
a special headline:
Acceptance,
its name in lights.
I struggle on,
waving and shouting.
Below, my whole life spreads its surf,
all the landscapes I’ve ever known
or dreamed of. Below
a fish jumps: the pulse
in your neck.
Acceptance. I finally
reach it.
But something is wrong.
Grief is a circular staircase.
I have lost you.

Bad English Teachers – a small rant

I do some tutoring as a bit of a sideline, and yesterday someone sent me the very piece of paper I wrote about in my second year in college. I was in English 435, and my reaction to it is the same today as it was four years ago.

My biggest pet peeve when it comes to education is being treated like I’m stupid.  My second biggest one is having my ability to work within the structure of an assignment, to create a paper that is creative enough for me to enjoy writing, limited. Today in class a professor handed out a page titled “How to Write an ‘A’ Paper.”  Leaving out most of the unnecessary examples, here were the highlights:

“1)  Paper should have a clear, complex, and surprising argument, neatly summarized in one or two sentences (aka ‘the thesis statement’) somewhere near the end of the first paragraph.”
First of all, it’s difficult to have a surprising argument when the topics given are so detailed and directive as to be limiting.  Asking someone to highlight the similarities of the image of the child in Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” and Mayhew’s “London Labour and the London Poor” hardly leaves room for revelation.  Secondly, are there really people in 400-level English courses who aren’t aware of the concept of a thesis?

“2) Each paragraph should be organized around a single main idea stated clearly in the first sentence of the paragraph.  The paragraph’s first sentence should also include a logical hinge or transition clause indicating its connection to the previous idea.  Look out for the most common warning sign that a paper lacks a strong overarching argument: paragraphs that open with plot summary rather than an analytical statement.”
This is the single most limiting thing a writer can be told.  It creates horrific copies of “The Five Paragraph Essay”.  This may be my own rebellion as a writer and a tutor, but I’m tired of the cookie-cutter format that’s inculcated into children from the moment they write more than one sentence at a time.  I’ll tell you now that I write phenomenal papers and essays, and I haven’t deliberately included an introductory sentence for my paragraphs since fifth grade.  Somehow I manage to make enough sense to get A’s.

“3) Paper should provide evidence for its argument by quoting directly from the text.  Once you quote something, don’t just leave it hanging there: analyze it closely, describing all of the associations that seem relevant to your argument.  Observe the steps here: first describe the detail, then give us its associations; then show us how the detail changes our initial interpretation of the larger whole or message.  See if you can move back and forth between specific and general in your paragraphs.”
Regarding the “don’t just leave it hanging there” comment: no shit.  As for the process…given this, there’s not going to be any work involved in writing the paper.  It’s a matter of reading the text, finding a mildly appropriate quote, plugging in all of the right adjectives and connecting sentences, and printing the damn thing.

“4) Don’t assume that your reader is familiar with the texts you’re analyzing.  Don’t write for your professor; write for a more general intelligent audience.  If you start talking about a text, make sure to introduce its major concerns, plot points, and/or reasons for existing.”
I thought that, according to #2, plot summary was bad?  Oh wait, only at the BEGINNING of a paragraph.

“5) Think about how your paper is structured.  Is there a logic behind what comes at the beginning, middle, and end?”
If there isn’t, you shouldn’t be in a 400-level class.  Period.

“6) Prose style.  Make your writing as clear, lucid, and logical as possible.  Avoid fancy clauses or abstruse world choice in favor of clarity and simplicity.  The best writing style conveys complex ideas with crystalline diction.”
I for one, plan to use every fancy clause I can dream up.  Why?  Because I fucking want to, and because as long as I communicate the material accurately and as per her strictly outlined format, I should be able to be as creative as I please with my sentence formulation and my thesaurus use.

The bottom line is that this professor wants twenty identical papers that she can grade by reading the first sentence of each paragraph.

Upstream // Mary Oliver

One tree is like another tree, but not too much. One tulip is like the next tulip, but not altogether. More or less like people – a general outline, then the stunning individual strokes. Hello Tom, hello Andy. Hello Archibald Violet, and Clarissa Bluebell. Hello Lilian Willow, and Noah, the oak tree I have hugged and kissed every first day of spring for the last thirty years. And in reply its thousand of leaves tremble! What a life is ours! Doesn’t anybody in the world anymore want to get up in the middle of the night and sing?

In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed. I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it, before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be. Wordsworth studied himself and found the subject astonishing. Actually what he studied was his relationship to the harmonies of the natural world. That’s what created the excitement.

I walk, all day, across the heaven-verging field. And whoever thinks these are worthy, breathy words I am writing down is kind. Writing is neither vibrant life nor docile artifact but a text that would put all its money on the hope of suggestion. Come with me into the field of sunflowers is a better line than anything you will find here, and the sunflowers themselves far more wonderful than any words about them.

I walked, all one spring day, upstream, sometimes in the midst of the ripples, sometimes along the shore. My company were violets, Dutchman’s breeches, spring beauties, trilliums, bloodroot, ferns rising so curled one could feel the upward push of the delicate hairs upon their bodies. My parents were downstream, not far away, then farther away because I was walking the wrong way, upstream instead of downstream. Finally I was advertised on the hot-line of help, and yet there I was, slopping along happily in the stream’s coolness. So maybe it was the right way after all. If this was lost, let us all be lost always. The beech leaves were just slipping their copper coats; pale green and quivering they arrived into the year. My heart opened, and opened again. The water pushed against my effort, then its glassy permission to step ahead touched my ankles. The sense of going toward the source.

I do not think that I ever, in fact, returned home.

Do you think there is anything not attached by its unbreakable cord to everything else? Plant your peas and your corn in the field when the moon is full, or risk failure. This has been understood since planting began. The attention of the seed to the draw of the moon is, I suppose, measurable, like the tilt of the planet. Or, maybe not – maybe you have to add some immeasurable ingredient made of the hour, the singular field, the hand of the sower.

It lives in my imagination strongly that the black oak is pleased to be a black oak. I mean all of them, but in particular one tree that leads me into Blackwater, that is as shapely as a flower, that I have often hugged and put my lips to. Maybe it is a hundred years old. And who knows what it dreamed of in the first springs of its life, escaping the cottontail’s teeth and everything dangerous else. Who knows when supreme patience took hold, and the wind’s wandering among its leaves was enough of motion, of travel?

Little by little I waded from the region of coltsfoot to the spring beauties. From there to the trilliums. From there to the bloodroot. Then the dark ferns. Then the wild music of the water thursh.

When the chesty, fierce-furred bear becomes sick he travels the mountainsides and the fields, searching for certain grasses, flowers, leaves and herbs, that hold within themselves the power of healing. He eats, he grows stronger. Could you, oh clever one, do this? Do you know anything about where you live, what if offers? Have you ever said, “Sir Bear, teach me. I am a customer of death coming, and would give you a pot of honey and my house on the western hills to know what you know?”

After the water thrush, there was only silence.

Understand from the first this certainty. Butterflies don’t write books, neither do lilies, or violets. Which doesn’t mean they don’t know, in their own way, what they are. That they don’t know they are alive – that they don’t feel, that action upon which all consciousness sits, lightly or heavily. Humility is the prize of the leaf-world. Vainglory is the bane of us, the humans.

Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect.

Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do. Show them daisies and the pale helatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin-flowers. And the frisky ones – inkberry, lamb’s-quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones – rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms.

Attention is the beginning of devotion.

The Ponds // Mary Oliver

Every year
the lilies
are so perfect
I can hardly believe

their lapped light crowding
the black,
mid-summer ponds.
Nobody could count all of them —

the muskrats swimming
among the pads and the grasses
can reach out
their muscular arms and touch

only so many, they are that
rife and wild.
But what in this world
is perfect?

I bend closer and see
how this one is clearly lopsided —
and that one wears an orange blight —
and this one is a glossy cheek

half nibbled away —
and that one is a slumped purse
full of its own
unstoppable decay.

Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled —
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing —
that the light is everything — that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

Starlings in Winter // Mary Oliver

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly

they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,

dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,

then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine

how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,

this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.

Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

A Dream of Trees // Mary Oliver

There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees,
A quiet house, some green and modest acres
A little way from every troubling town,
A little way from factories, schools, laments.
I would have time, I thought, and time to spare,
With only streams and birds for company,
To build out of my life a few wild stanzas.
And then it came to me, that so was death,
A little way away from everywhere.

There is a thing in me still dreams of trees.
But let it go. Homesick for moderation,
Half the world’s artists shrink or fall away.
If any find solution, let him tell it.
Meanwhile I bend my heart toward lamentation
Where, as the times implore our true involvement,
The blades of every crisis point the way.

I would it were not so, but so it is.
Who ever made music of a mild day?

Now I Become Myself // May Sarton

Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
“Hurry, you will be dead before–”
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

On Turning Ten // Billy Collins

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

Wasted // Marya Hornbacher

I was perpetually grief-stricken when I finished a book, and would slide down from my sitting position on the bed, put my cheek on the pillow and sigh for a long time. It seemed there would never be another book. It was all over, the book was dead. It lay in its bent cover by my hand. What was the use? Why bother dragging the weight of my small body down to dinner? Why move? Why breathe? The book had left me, and there was no reason to go on.