Poetry: Jean Valentine’s Ghost Elephants and To the Black Madonna of Chartres

Jean Valentine is a poet from New York whose poems often contain imagination and unexpected elements. Here are two of her poems:

Ghost Elephants
by Jean Valentine

In the elephant field
tall green ghost elephants
with your cargo of summer leaves

at night I heard you breathing at the window

Don’t you ever think I’m not crying
since you’re away from me
Don’t ever think I went free

At first the goodbye had a lilt to it—
maybe just a couple of months—
but it was a beheading.

Ghost elephant,
reach down,
cross me over—

To the Black Madonna of Chartres
by Jean Valentine

Friend or no friend,
darkness or light,
vowels or consonants,
water or dry land,

anything more from you now
is just gravy
—just send me down forgiveness, send me down
bearing myself a black cupful of light.

Poetry: Rita Dove’s “I have been a stranger in a strange land”


Rita Dove writes with lyricism and beauty. Her subjects range and are not easily typified. Not only did she win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her collection titled Thomas and Beulah, Dove was named US Poet Laureate in 1993. At the time of her appointment, she was only 40 years old and was the youngest poet ever elected to the position. She was also the first African American to hold the title. Gwendolyn Brooks had been named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985. Currently, she is a Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Please savor “I have been a stranger in a strange land.”

“I have been a stranger in a strange land”
BY RITA DOVE

Life’s spell is so exquisite, everything conspires to break it.
Emily Dickinson

It wasn’t bliss. What was bliss
but the ordinary life? She’d spend hours
in patter, moving through whole days
touching, sniffing, tasting . . . exquisite
housekeeping in a charmed world.
And yet there was always

more of the same, all that happiness,
the aimless Being There.
So she wandered for a while, bush to arbor,
lingered to look through a pond’s restive mirror.
He was off cataloging the universe, probably,
pretending he could organize
what was clearly someone else’s chaos.

That’s when she found the tree,
the dark, crabbed branches
bearing up such speechless bounty,
she knew without being told
this was forbidden. It wasn’t
a question of ownership—
who could lay claim to
such maddening perfection?

And there was no voice in her head,
no whispered intelligence lurking
in the leaves—just an ache that grew
until she knew she’d already lost everything
except desire, the red heft of it
warming her outstretched palm.

A Poem for St. Valentine’s Day: Derek Walcott’s “Love After Love”

Love After Love
by Derek Walcott

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Poetry: Frank O’Hara’s The Day Lady Died

Frank O' Hara

I am tired this evening. It has been a very long day. Many people don’t care for poetry. It is too obscure. Too hard to unpack. I love poetry. I love the tight economy of words like a penny pinched in the white knuckled grip of a skinflint. The value held tight and there none the less.

Much of Frank O’Hara’s poetry is autobiographical. He was a prominent member of the New York School of Poetry. He held a certain disdain for poetry and believed that it should be dashed off at odd moments. He did not use rhyme, rhythm, or meter. I like the exactitude of The Day Lady Died. The details of the to the minute times of events of the day lend to recreate that specific generational memory that happens to an age cohort when something significant happens. My grandmother’s generation all knew where they were and what they were doing when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. My generation will all remember with clarity where they were when they heard about the destruction of the Twin Towers on 911. For Frank O’ Hara the death of Billie Holiday was this kind of event.
The Day Lady Died

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

Water and If You Forget Me by Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda was a Chilean poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. His given name was Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto and he always wrote with a pen with green ink because he thought the color green was the color of hope. His poetry ranges from rather charged love poems to historical manifestos to surreal writings. He often includes natural images. He has been criticized for some of his politics, he served as a diplomat, and he lived in exile from Chile during his life. Here’s two of his poems:

Water
by Pablo Neruda

Everything on the earth bristled, the bramble
pricked and the green thread
nibbled away, the petal fell, falling
until the only flower was the falling itself.
Water is another matter,
has no direction but its own bright grace,
runs through all imaginable colors,
takes limpid lessons
from stone,
and in those functionings plays out
the unrealized ambitions of the foam.
If You Forget Me
by Pablo Neruda

I want you to know
one thing.

You know how this is:
if I look
at the crystal moon, at the red branch
of the slow autumn at my window,
if I touch
near the fire
the impalpable ash
or the wrinkled body of the log,
everything carries me to you,
as if everything that exists,
aromas, light, metals,
were little boats
that sail
toward those isles of yours that wait for me.

Well, now,
if little by little you stop loving me
I shall stop loving you little by little.

If suddenly
you forget me
do not look for me,
for I shall already have forgotten you.

If you think it long and mad,
the wind of banners
that passes through my life,
and you decide
to leave me at the shore
of the heart where I have roots,
remember
that on that day,
at that hour,
I shall lift my arms
and my roots will set off
to seek another land.

But
if each day,
each hour,
you feel that you are destined for me
with implacable sweetness,
if each day a flower
climbs up to your lips to seek me,
ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated,
in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten,
my love feeds on your love, beloved,
and as long as you live it will be in your arms
without leaving mine.

Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound is the poet probably most responsible for establishing and promoting the modernist aesthetic in poetry. He, as one individual, promoted and facilitated the exchange of ideas and work across the globe. He connected British and American writers. He also very generously advanced the careers of writers and poets such as T. S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway. His Cantos is an epic work of modern poetry.

In 1945 Ezra Pound returned to the United States after a voluntary exile in Italy where he had participated in Fascist politics. He was promptly arrested. In 1946 he was acquitted but then committed to a hospital for the mentally ill. He was released from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington D.C. after twelve years due to the continued efforts of writers and poets who petitioned on his behalf. While he was committed in St. Elizabeth’s, the jury of the Bollingen-Library of Congress Award (which included many of the most eminent writers of the time) decided to look past Pound’s political involvement with the Fascists in the interest of recognizing his poetic achievements. They awarded him the prize for the Pisan Cantos (1948).

Pound’s significant contributions to poetry began with his conception of Imagism, a movement in poetry which derived its technique from classical Chinese and Japanese poetry. The Imagists movement stressed clarity, precision, and economy of words over traditional rhyme and meter. Pound summed up his ideas by saying that a poet should “compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome.”

Portrait d’une Femme
by Ezra Pound

Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea,
London has swept about you this score years
And bright ships left you this or that in fee:
Ideas, old gossip, oddments of all things,
Strange spars of knowledge and dimmed wares of price.
Great minds have sought you—lacking someone else.
You have been second always. Tragical?
No. You preferred it to the usual thing:
One dull man, dulling and uxorious,
One average mind—with one thought less, each year.
Oh, you are patient, I have seen you sit
Hours, where something might have floated up.
And now you pay one. Yes, you richly pay.
You are a person of some interest, one comes to you
And takes strange gain away:
Trophies fished up; some curious suggestion:
Fact that leads nowhere; and a tale or two,
Pregnant with mandrakes, or with something else
That might prove useful and yet never proves,
That never fits a corner or shows use,
Or finds its hour upon the loom of days:
The tarnished, gaudy, wonderful old work;
Idols and ambergris and rare inlays,
These are your riches, your great store; and yet
For all this sea-hoard of deciduous things,
Strange woods half sodden, and new brighter stuff:
In the slow float of differing light and deep,
No! there is nothing! In the whole and all,
Nothing that’s quite your own.
Yet this is you.

Basic Dialogue by Charles Wright

I woke early.
The snows are falling on Aspen mountain.
I am reading Charles Wright’s poetry which I have said before that I am quite taken with his poetry. Here is one that I just read that I think speaks to the writing process.

Basic Dialogue

The transformation of objects in space,

or objects in time,
To objects outside either, but tactile, still precise…
It’s always the same problem–
Nothing’s more abstract, more unreal,
than what we actually see.

The job is to make it otherwise.

Two dead crepe-myrtle bushes,
tulips petal-splayed and swan stemmed,
All blossoms gone from the blossoming trees– the new loss
Is not like the old loss,
Winter-kill, a jubilant revelation, an artificial thing
Linked and lifted by pure description into the other world.

Self-oblivion, sacred information, God’s nudge–
I think I’ll piddle around by the lemon tree, thorns
Sharp as angel’s teeth.
I think
I’ll lie down in the dandelions, the purple and white violets.
I think I’ll keep on lying there, one eye cocked toward heaven.

April eats from my fingers,
nibble of dogwood, nip of pine.
Now is the time, Lord.
Syllables scatter across the new grass, in search of their words.

Such minor Armageddons.
Beside the waters of disremembering.
I lay me down.

The Meadow Mouse by Theodore Roethke

While eating miso soup after getting home late tonight I looked up some of my favorite poets. I read Tinturn Abbey by Wordsworth and then thought of Theodore Roethke. Here is The Meadow Mouse:

The Meadow Mouse

1

In a shoe box stuffed in an old nylon stocking
Sleeps the baby mouse I found in the meadow,
Where he trembled and shook beneath a stick
Till I caught him up by the tail and brought him in,
Cradled in my hand,
A little quaker, the whole body of him trembling,
His absurd whiskers sticking out like a cartoon-mouse,
His feet like small leaves,
Little lizard-feet,
Whitish and spread wide when he tried to struggle away,
Wriggling like a minuscule puppy.

Now he’s eaten his three kinds of cheese and drunk from his
bottle-cap watering-trough–
So much he just lies in one corner,
His tail curled under him, his belly big
As his head; his bat-like ears
Twitching, tilting toward the least sound.

Do I imagine he no longer trembles
When I come close to him?
He seems no longer to tremble.

2

But this morning the shoe-box house on the back porch is empty.
Where has he gone, my meadow mouse,
My thumb of a child that nuzzled in my palm? —
To run under the hawk’s wing,
Under the eye of the great owl watching from the elm-tree,
To live by courtesy of the shrike, the snake, the tom-cat.

I think of the nestling fallen into the deep grass,
The turtle gasping in the dusty rubble of the highway,
The paralytic stunned in the tub, and the water rising,–
All things innocent, hapless, forsaken.

by Theodore Roethke

Possibilities by Szymborska

I have been researching literary criticism about this poem and was struck by the simplicity and simultaneously the complexity of the sentiments in it. I am posting it to share and to encourage anyone reading this to seek out the poetry of Wislawa Szymborska.

Possibilities, by Wislawa Szymborska

I prefer movies.
I prefer cats.
I prefer the oaks along the Warta.
I prefer Dickens to Dostoyevsky.
I prefer myself liking people
to myself loving mankind.
I prefer keeping a needle and thread on hand, just in case.
I prefer the color green.
I prefer not to maintain
that reason is to blame for everything.
I prefer exceptions.
I prefer to leave early.
I prefer talking to doctors about something else.
I prefer the old fine-line illustrations.
I prefer the absurdity of writing poems
to the absurdity of not writing poems.
I prefer, where love’s concerned, nonspecific anniversaries
that can be celebrated every day.
I prefer moralists
who promise me nothing.
I prefer cunning kindness to the overtrustful kind.
I prefer the earth in civvies.
I prefer conquered to conquering countries.
I prefer having some reservations.
I prefer the hell of chaos to the hell of order.
I prefer the Grimms’ fairy tales to the newspapers’ front pages.
I prefer leaves without flowers to flowers without leaves.
I prefer dogs with uncropped tails.
I prefer light eyes, since mine are dark.
I prefer desk drawers.
I prefer many things that I haven’t mentioned here
to many things I’ve also left unsaid.
I prefer zeros on the loose
to those lined up behind a cipher.
I prefer the time of insects to the time of stars.
I prefer to knock on wood.
I prefer not to ask how much longer and when.
I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility
that existence has its own reason for being.

(trans by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh)