I had the good fortune a few years back of hearing the former U. S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan argue for the importance of clarity in poetry, a concept that would seem to go against the grain of contemporary poetics. That’s just one of the many reasons I admire Ryan, whose short, dense, powerful poems often remind me of Emily Dickinson’s. Reading a Ryan poem is like unpacking a Christmas stocking; each is loaded with treats and the joy of discovery.
Ryan’s not afraid to say what she thinks. Like her poems, though, her ideas are often more nuanced and complicated than a first reading suggests. She cited Robert Frost’s “Dust of Snow” as a poem that is utterly clear on the surface, while at the same time containing a mystery. Poetry, she said, should “destabilize and then reorganize us.” Here, at the end of our “surreal” year, are two gifts filled with clarity and mystery (both involving birds) that I hope will do just that. Happy holidays!
Dust of Snow
By Robert Frost
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
Home to Roost
By Kay Ryan
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
dense with them.
They turn and
then they turn
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
Now they have
the same kind
at the same speed.
As the days darken, both literally and figuratively, and the cold months loom ahead with unexpected bitterness, I find myself seeking solace in poetry as never before. Like so many others, I’ve turned to such masterworks as W. H. Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’ (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/september-1-1939) and Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/dover-beach) which ring with truth and meaning. But lighter fare can offer sustenance, too, such as this wise and witty poem by the contemporary American poet Ellen Bass.
Bad things are going to happen.
Your tomatoes will grow a fungus
and your cat will get run over.
Someone will leave the bag with the ice cream
melting in the car and throw
your blue cashmere sweater in the drier.
Your husband will sleep
with a girl your daughter’s age, her breasts spilling
out of her blouse. Or your wife
will remember she’s a lesbian
and leave you for the woman next door. The other cat—
the one you never really liked—will contract a disease
that requires you to pry open its feverish mouth
every four hours. Your parents will die.
No matter how many vitamins you take,
how much Pilates, you’ll lose your keys,
your hair and your memory. If your daughter
doesn’t plug her heart
into every live socket she passes,
you’ll come home to find your son has emptied
the refrigerator, dragged it to the curb,
and called the used appliance store for a pick up—drug money.
There’s a Buddhist story of a woman chased by a tiger.
When she comes to a cliff, she sees a sturdy vine
and climbs half way down. But there’s also a tiger below.
And two mice—one white, one black—scurry out
and begin to gnaw at the vine. At this point
she notices a wild strawberry growing from a crevice.
She looks up, down, at the mice.
Then she eats the strawberry.
So here’s the view, the breeze, the pulse
in your throat. Your wallet will be stolen, you’ll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles of a foreign hotel
and crack your hip. You’ll be lonely.
Oh taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth.
Last fall, I was given some milkweed pods by a fellow gardener who had turned over her entire garden to plants beloved by birds, insects, and butterflies. It was, as you can imagine, a magical place. I’d been hoping to plant milkweed to help sustain the struggling Monarch population, and I proudly took my prize home and opened up the pods at the top of the wild flower field. I watched the seeds drift like an army of tiny parachutes over the brown stubbled landscape. Winter soon descended, though not much snow, and I assumed the milkweed had been blown away when nothing sprouted up this spring. Continue reading
This long stretch of hot dry weather has left me with an embarrassment of cherry tomatoes. Though nothing’s quite as satisfying as a ripe tomato hot off the vine, I’ve discovered a pesto that freezes beautifully and keeps the cherry’s bright summery taste alive right into the winter months. The recipe (from Bon Appetit) calls for walnuts, anchovies, and basil (and luckily I have bushels of lemon basil on my hands right now, as well). I’ve also made it without the anchovies, adding extra salt to help balance the tastes. Continue reading
Morning glories shoot up like something out of a fairy tale — Jack’s bean stalk or the roses that twined around Sleeping Beauty’s castle. One morning they’re a tiny cluster of heart-shaped leaves, the next they’re cresting over the garden gate — a wild tangle of blue trumpets and tightly twisted vines. Once they get established in a place they like — they’re not picky about soil, but tend to like sun — they’ll come back year after year. Continue reading
After a slow start, my nasturtiums are finally hitting their stride. I love these bright, happy flowers! They’re versatile, even-tempered, and ever-willing. Toss them into a salad — “no problem!” you can almost hear them say. Add them for color and drape to a window box or planter, surrounded by more hoity-toity annuals, and nasturtiums will find a way to fit right in. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with pestos. Parsley, arugula, tomatoes have all gone under the Cuisinart knife. And wouldn’t you know it? The spicy nasturtium turns out to be the perfect foil for pine nuts, garlic, and parmesan. Fold it into a seafood risotto or spread it across a fresh baguette for the base of a wonderful sandwich or — what the heck, it’s summer! — just lick it right off the spoon. Continue reading
The poppies are in bloom in what I call my sun garden. Though it’s actually more a haphazard collection of flora, thrown together on a stretch of land that’s half hill and part swamp. It’s a cutthroat kind of neighborhood for plants, and only the intrepid survive. But those that do — monkhead, monarda, shasta daises, blue lobelia, goose-neck loosestrife — tend to thrive. Like most toughs, they’re constantly angling for more territory, and I tend to just let them fight it out. Continue reading
I spent most of the weekend on my hands and knees planting seeds in our vegetable garden. I’m a firm believer in the “square foot” gardening method developed by the late Mel Barthelme who advocated the use of raised beds and planting in tight rows inside 12 x 12 inch grids. Over the years, the grid has given way to a more relaxed and larger planting swath, but our eight raised beds — each about the size of a twin mattress — still yield enough lettuces, beans, peas, cucumbers, tomatoes, and cutting Continue reading
Here come the ferns again! At this point they look like bunched, slightly hairy yellow knuckles punching their way out of the ground. Within the next week or two they’ll be a foot high, grouped in small green pods, facing inward, like close-knit families of aliens.
There is something otherworldly about them. They reproduce from spores and have neither seeds nor flowers. Their fiddleheads unfurl into fronds as they grow, delicate as butterfly wings. Despite their seeming fragility, ferns Continue reading
We watched the royal terns on Captiva Island last week gather in a group on the beach, facing the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico. They clustered together in a loose V-shaped formation, alert and somewhat pensive. It was as if they were waiting for someone or something that was long past due. The thick black caps of royal terns grow patchy in the winter months,
Photo: Nicholas Atamas
making them look a little like grumpy old men with comb-overs that lift in the breeze. They eyed us suspiciously as we walked past, shifting from foot to foot, muttering amongst themselves. We’d seen them in groups like this before and remain puzzled by what they were up to — neither feeding nor breeding — but forced together like strangers on a train platform. Continue reading
In another month or two, the families of birds who have kept us company through the long winter will disappear once again into the canopies of green. Black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, red-breasted nuthatches, cardinals, blue jays, junkos, woodpeckers, and a variety of finches — these birds of winter are often the only signs of life in an otherwise frigid and monotone landscape. Chattering at the birdfeeders or swooping in long, graceful swags across the fields, they have brought movement, color, and song into the darkest months of the year. In the spring and Continue reading
I thought of John Berryman’s poem about Pieter Bruegel’s painting ‘Hunters in the Snow’ as I walked through the winter wonderland this morning. Transforming the every-day, a snowfall makes you see the world more clearly — or in a new way — at least for a little while.
Bruegel’s paintings do the same thing, I think, which is probably why they’ve inspired so many poems over the years, including W. H. Continue reading
It’s been an oddly snowless winter in the Berkshires this year. The storm that is barreling up the coast will bypass us for the most part. All remains quiet, the ground a patchwork of tired brown and white. But winter is a state of mind as much as anything, a season of inwardness and contemplation. And so I woke this morning, thinking of this poem by the prolific and versatile American poet William Jay Smith who died this past year at the age of 97. Continue reading
When I left home after college, my mother gave me two books which I think she believed would fully equip me for life on my own: The Holy Bible and Irma Rombauer’s original edition of The Joy of Cooking. In those days I wasn’t much of a cook — and even less of a baker. So I was lucky to stumble upon a particular recipe at the very start of my baking career. It was in The Joy of Cooking for a bar cookie called Angel Slices. Continue reading