–Richard Le Gallienne
(apologies to Richard Le Gallienne and Mrs. D.G.S.)
–Richard Le Gallienne
(apologies to Richard Le Gallienne and Mrs. D.G.S.)
the rain is full of ghosts tonight
Had the day off from work, and I’m wondering now if it might’ve been a better idea to go in, just to keep my mind occupied from nine to five, if anything. Instead, I’ve spent this mostly grey day mired in melancholy, haunted by ghosts and watching the strange weather through my window as it shifted back and forth between ominous skies and sunshine. Showers came in fits and starts all day, often even when the sun shone.
There’s an old wives’ tale that claims if it’s raining while the sun is shining, it means the Devil is beating his wife. I made that comment off-hand once at work during a sunshower, and most of my officemates were appalled. Only the oldest person in the room, one of our retired volunteers, had ever heard that expression before– to everyone else, it was arcane. Standing at my kitchen window today, wistful and watching the sun shine through the trees while the rain fell, I remembered that old wives’ tale and I couldn’t help but think how fortunate the Devil is to still have a wife, and how he should probably be treating her better.
I was originally going to post the poem “Neutral Tones” by Thomas Hardy to commemorate my old anniversary, as it’s a perfectly greyish poem for this greyish day, but ironically enough, the tone of the poem wasn’t quite right. Instead, I’m going to share a sonnet from Edna St. Vincent Millay, as it’s much more beautiful and its sentiment seems more appropriate.
-Edna St. Vincent Millay
He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Just felt like sharing a poem. No particular reason.
The Emperor of Ice-Cream
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Happy Bastille Day to all the Francophiles and other freedom lovers out there. Bastille Day 2016 marked a banner day for the Closser clan. I am wallowing in my own misery, per usual, while damn near everyone I love is going through something terrible. My mother is lying in bed in a nursing home with pneumonia. My brother’s life “got flipped turned upside down,” as the Fresh Prince would say. And my father had to put down his dog of nearly sixteen years, a black Dachshund named “Nietzsche” who was in such poor health that there was really no other course of action but to put him to sleep.
It’s always a sad affair when one loses an animal, but as the poet Mark Doty once noted, to have a pet is to make a “pact with grief.” Unless you own a tortoise, odds are that you will inevitably outlive the creature you’ve agreed to love and nurture, and one day you will have to deal with the grief that comes with its loss.
It’s not a Mark Doty poem I’m choosing to share below, but rather it’s a poem from Billy Collins. I had forgotten about this particular poem, but my father mentioned it in our phone conversation this afternoon, and now I feel the need to share it. (Apologies to Billy Collins.)
I am the dog you put to sleep,
as you like to call the needle of oblivion,
come back to tell you this simple thing:
I never liked you–not one bit.
When I licked your face,
I thought of biting off your nose.
When I watched you toweling yourself dry,
I wanted to leap and unman you with a snap.
I resented the way you moved,
your lack of animal grace,
the way you would sit in a chair to eat,
a napkin on your lap, knife in your hand.
I would have run away,
but I was too weak, a trick you taught me
while I was learning to sit and heel,
and–greatest of insults–shake hands without a hand.
I admit the sight of the leash
would excite me
but only because it meant I was about
to smell things you had never touched.
You do not want to believe this,
but I have no reason to lie.
I hated the car, the rubber toys,
disliked your friends and, worse, your relatives.
The jingling of my tags drove me mad.
You always scratched me in the wrong place.
All I ever wanted from you
was food and fresh water in my metal bowls.
While you slept, I watched you breathe
as the moon rose in the sky.
It took all of my strength
not to raise my head and howl.
Now I am free of the collar,
the yellow raincoat, monogrammed sweater,
the absurdity of your lawn,
and that is all you need to know about this place
except what you already supposed
and are glad it did not happen sooner–
that everyone here can read and write,
the dogs in poetry, the cats and the others in prose.
My previous post about poet Stevie Smith got me thinking about one of the other prized volumes in my poetry collection: Vachel Lindsay’s Collected Poems. Discovered by chance while browsing the poetry section of a used bookstore in Knoxville, Tennessee [note: used bookstores in academic towns are the best places to find fantastic yet forgotten books of poetry], it was the first (and only) time I’d ever encountered the volume, and I bought it immediately.
One of the first things I noticed about the book (other than its wonderful illustrations) was its dedication page:
“this book is dedicated to Sara Teasdale, poet”
For those who don’t know, Sara Teasdale was a poet with whom Vachel was romantically involved and very much in love. A man whose means were as modest as his self-image, Vachel was far too worried about his ability (or inability, rather) to provide for Sara, and over much hand-wringing managed to convince himself that no matter how much she might also love him, he just wasn’t good enough for her. So she, of course, ended up marrying a wealthy businessman with whom she was ultimately unhappy. (Ain’t life grand?)
For lack of a better term, Vachel was an “interesting” dude. Handsome, brilliant, and too artistic for med school (he dropped out to pursue his calling as an artist/poet), he was a romantic at heart as well as a bit of a politico. Nicknamed “The Prairie Troubadour” for the impassioned poetry readings he delivered as he travelled the midwest, he was known as a nationalistic progressive, which seems something of an anachronism now (believe it or not, there was a time when patriotic people could both love their country and want to change it without having to be labeled a Communist). Never to be mistaken for a cynic, Vachel was an extremely sincere man who stood for his convictions and among those convictions was fighting for equality, especially among racial and socio-economic divides, as evidenced in both his writing and his life (he was an early mentor of Langston Hughes).
Vachel also believed strongly in the musical roots of poetry, most of his verse carrying an undeniable musical rhythm within its meter. I’ve often wondered what he would’ve thought of the last forty years or so of musicians who fancy themselves poets, particularly the more progressive songwriters such as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, et al.
Like Stevie Smith, Vachel was also a draftsman (and a talented one, at that), and his art is scattered throughout his Collected Poems. And like Stevie, he, too, suffered from depression. But Vachel didn’t handle his depression nearly as well as Stevie did. On December 5, 1931, he killed himself by drinking a bottle of Lysol. I can remember reading about Vachel’s suicide when I was a child, and that image haunted me then just as much as it haunts me now– I cannot imagine a more particularly terrible or horrific way to go. [note: two years after Vachel’s suicide, Sara Teasdale would kill herself by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills]
I’ll finish this post with one of Vachel’s poems. It’s not his best poem, but it’s one I have always enjoyed for shallow and superficial reasons. Though Vachel was from Springfield, Illinois, the woman he loved was from St. Louis, Missouri, and I’ve always identified with this poem as a writer from Springfield, Missouri.
Stevie Smith was a tiny thing. A diminutive poet of tremendous talent with a truly unique and wonderful voice, her Collected Poems remains one of my favorite volumes of poetry I own in part for its uniqueness (her Thurber-esque line drawings scattered throughout the book are particularly priceless).
Stevie suffered from depression (as many poets and creative types are want to do) and yet she never seemed to let that depression get the better of her, channeling that sadness into a prolific writing talent whose lighthearted and humorous tone belied the loneliness and melancholy at its roots. To this day, I never cease to be amazed at how she managed to accomplish that.
Below is perhaps her most famous poem, and also (admittedly) my favorite.
Every time I read this poem, I can’t help but recall a family vacation to Ha Ha Tonka when I was a child. My younger brother Cole, who was about eight or nine years old at the time (and who couldn’t swim), had waded out from the lake shore far enough for my father to take notice. Seeing that my brother’s head was just above water, my father called out to Cole to stand up. My brother yelled back, “I AM standing up!” Dad quickly dived into the water to retrieve my brother before he drowned. Sometimes family’s good that way, I guess.
My brother called me the other day while I was in the shower and thus unable to answer my phone, leaving me a message stating that he had some “shitty news” and asking me to call him back. I envisioned a dozen different doomsday scenarios for what he had to report, but when I spoke with him, none of those fears were realized. Rather, in typical fashion, the bad news was something completely unexpected– straight out of left field (but isn’t that always the case?). His news was that an old family friend had died, and he wanted to tell me over the phone before the information would inevitably (and impersonally) reach me through the grapevine via text or e-mail. I’m thankful that he did, because when a family member dies, that’s a loss you need to be able to share with someone on a much more intimate level. And Jane (or “Aunt Jane” as we called her) was family, goddammit.
Jane Hoogestraat (pronounced “Hogue-eh-straht”) was a poet and an English professor at Missouri State University. My father was on the search committee that originally hired her at MSU, and she would later become a close friend of both my parents (particularly my mother). Looking back, I’m proud to say that my brother and I had the privilege of spending some (but not enough) time in her company. Aunt Jane was one of the handful of genuine and truly decent human beings in this world with a heart almost as big as she was. She was a giant of a woman at over six feet tall, but that tall frame belied her soft-spoken and sincere personality. If you were to look up the word “staid” in the dictionary, it could easily read “see also: Jane Hoogestraat.”
Jane was an intelligent, quiet, and kind woman. While she may have battled a handful of personal demons (namely depression), she refused to allow her dark thoughts to cloud her eternal optimism. She believed in the goodness of others, often in spite of any meanness she may have been shown. She was a hard luck woman and was no stranger to experiencing hardship or being mistreated by those she put her faith and trust in, but that just seems to be par for the course when it comes to people with good hearts– the nicest folks are oftentimes the ones who are taken advantage of or trodden on the most. Life has a funny way of dealing the worst cards to those who have the best intentions, but Jane always chose to play the bad hands she was dealt rather than fold, and she did so with the same brand of optimism exhibited by Candide or Job. And she deserved better.
I have many fond memories of Aunt Jane. My favorite memory comes from the Christmas she chose to spend with me and my mother in Fayetteville, and how happy she was when we accompanied her to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to see the Christmas service. Jane had fully expected to attend the service alone, but we weren’t about to let that happen, and I know that it meant the world to her to have us there. During that same visit, Jane also played a small role as matchmaker in reuniting me with the woman I would eventually marry, and that is something for which I will always be grateful.
And I’ll never forget the time she asked me and my brother to house sit for her. “Help yourself to anything in the fridge,” she told us, and when we opened her fridge, it was stocked full of nothing but hummus and black beans– foodstuffs we would only ingest if we were literally starving to death (I believe we ate a lot of Hardee’s that week). That same week we witnessed Helga (one of her morbidly obese cats) nonchalantly watch a mouse run along the baseboard of the living room without batting so much as an eye. We were incredulous, and we let Helga know it. “You call yourself a cat?!?” we yelled, but the incredibly fat Helga just stared up at us, then glanced back at the mouse, and promptly laid her head back down.
I loved Jane’s house– it was an older home just down the street from the house I grew up in, so it always held an extra sense of familiarity to it. It was your typical English professor’s dwelling: small and modest with a couple of cats, close to campus, lots of books, and very little else in the way of material possessions with a few exceptions. Jane was particularly fond of her original set of turquoise FiestaWare, which we shared a meal or two on, and she was even more proud of her collection of black depression glass. My mother simply couldn’t understand Jane’s fascination with that ugly glass (“It’s hideous,” she would say. “I mean, it’s fucking BLACK!”). But my brother and I understood, because when you held that black glass up to a bright light, you could see the deep purple sheen shine through at its thinnest and most fragile parts, and I think that’s why Jane loved it so much. I believe Jane was one of those folks who appreciated the little bits of beauty hidden amongst the ugliness of the world, and I think that appreciation came by her honestly, as it’s a theme that shines through with the same subtle loveliness in her writing.
I’m one of a handful of human beings left who believes there are few things more important in this world than poetry, and I would be remiss if I didn’t write about Jane’s work. I’ve always enjoyed Jane’s poetry despite the fact that it runs contrary to the style of poems I’m typically drawn to. I’m a sucker for gritty poems about the human experience, full of passion and raw emotion, with the kind of profound volta that either punches you in the stomach or leaves you clutching your heart. Jane’s work is far more understated and pastoral– lots of topographical references and glimpses of nature with plenty of descriptive lines about flora and fauna, but almost always with the profound and human turn that transforms a poem into a poem. Her words are well-chosen and her lines are often eloquent and beautiful. You can get a glimpse of her work (as well as listen to her read one of her poems) by checking out this brief write-up PBS did on her by clicking here.
Jane was a strange and marvelous lady who carried herself with a special kind of stoicism. I didn’t know just how special that stoicism was until her death, when I learned that she had been quietly continuing to battle the cancer that most of us thought was in remission. She had many of us fooled as to the severity of her condition, and I myself had no idea how sick she was. She endured a tremendous amount of pain and suffering in her last year, and yet she didn’t see any point in complaining about it– she preferred to keep that information to herself, and I’m not sure that anybody had any clue as to the extent of what she was going through. She shouldn’t have had to shoulder that like she did, but that’s just the kind of person Aunt Jane was. And she deserved better.
I’ll leave you with one of Jane’s poems, as I think it wraps up this remembrance beautifully. “Near Red Lodge, Montana” is a poem not just representative of Jane’s poetic voice (with her fondness for the pastoral and her acute attention to detail), but also emblematic of her soul and how she always chose to acknowledge hope in the presence of despair. Oddly enough, it’s the final poem from her last publication, Border States, which won the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry. I regret (infinitely more so, now) that I wasn’t able to attend her last poetry reading, but my brother was there and he told me she received a standing ovation. And she deserved it.
Near Red Lodge, Montana
Are even the field stones charred, the rugged sienna clay
on the road, the white rocks along the creek bed,
are they darkened like snow in a late urban winter?
Can a part of the past be torched, just like that,
by a lightning strike that has you hanging up the phone
on a year, a summer, on the green fields leading in?
Here’s how it happened. Days earlier, near East Rosebud,
in isolated country behind Shepard Mountain
a lightning fork caught a tree, a patch of needles,
smoldered for days in its remoteness, then started
back drafting and blew, a fire that funneled the ravines,
jumped the smaller creeks, took out the grassy plains.
The sweet grasses lost in that fire, alfalfa, short grass,
buffalo, the trees, juniper, lodge pole, spruce, willow,
become only some residual sifting down from time to time,
ash of memory, dust of trivia, the unlabeled pictures
of the year … to whom was this year lost? Fire crews
will tell you they train to recognize what they can’t save.
And here’s how it comes back, when it does, new growth
from scorched earth. The fireweed spreads its roots,
then paintbrush or crocus. Spring snow cover melts away
over the first juniper seedlings, a start of mountain ash.
Lichen returns to a blackened trunk, spreads to the fragile base
of a lodgepole pine that has needed fire to seed.
Far from human fear or desire, the water rinses a little soot
from the edges of a still-charred rock, the kind a hiker
might pluck, polish like a talisman to carry home and hand
over, shyly, stupid and late, another one for your collection,
maybe for those rock gardens you’ve been designing,
dreaming of, from a little part of the world you used to know.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
– T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”
Don’t worry, I won’t be reproducing “The Waste Land” in its entirety–there’s no point in making this month any meaner than it already is. I’m admittedly not much of a T.S. Eliot fan, but he was right about one thing: April really is the cruellest month. At least for me it is, as there are specific dates in this month which serve as a painful reminder to me of what will never be. Perhaps more importantly, April marks the first full month of spring, a season of rebirth and renewal when color and life return to the flora and fauna of this mortal coil–plants and animals both coming into bloom for the primal purpose of propagating the species. With the warm weather come equally warm bodies in short skirts or sundresses, their felicitous female forms turning the heads of men whose minds become monomaniacal with desire–the blood coursing through their veins rising in temperature like a reptile on a rock. ‘Tis the season for twitterpated lovers ambling by hand in hand while those of us without a hand to hold become melancholic and bitter as we watch life return to the living while leaving the rest of us out. April is a month when loneliness can get the better of you if you’re not careful, and it all kicks off with an entire day devoted solely to fucking with somebody’s head.
I’ve never much cared for April Fool’s Day–always been kind of a sourpuss about pranks, to be honest. I trace it back to a particularly awful April Fool’s prank that was played on me as a child. I was about ten years old and getting ready to go to bed when I heard my stepmother scream. My father began yelling at me to call 911, and I ran into the bathroom to see my stepmother holding her left hand over the sink. There was blood covering both her hand and the sink, and I panicked. I ran as fast as I could to the telephone and managed to dial the number nine when my father snatched the receiver out of my hand and pulled me away from the phone. “No, no, no–Cindy’s all right!” he said. “It’s a joke–it’s just a joke–see?!?” I looked up to see my smiling stepmother clutching a bottle of ketchup, and I immediately began bawling. They were shocked to see me in tears because the gore was so obviously fake that no one could possibly mistake Heinz 57 for actual blood. No one, that is, except for a ten-year-old boy who was as blind as a bat without his glasses. They could have used Hershey’s syrup and I still would have thought my stepmother was bleeding out before my eyes. Needless to say, my family refrained from participating in April Fool’s Day from that point forward.