Our lives happen between the memorable.

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Watercolor by my dear friend Kristina Closs (WoodPigeon on Etsy)

“Highlights and Interstices”

by Jack Gilbert (1925-2012)

We think of lifetimes as mostly the exceptional
and sorrows. Marriage we remember as the children,
vacations, and emergencies. The uncommon parts.
But the best is often when nothing is happening.
The way a mother picks up the child almost without
noticing and carries her across Waller Street
while talking with the other woman. What if she
could keep all of that? Our lives happen between
the memorable. I have lost two thousand habitual
breakfasts with Michiko. What I miss most about
her is that commonplace I can no longer remember.

and memory itself has become an emigrant

I spent yesterday in a surreal fog as I worked on the Stanford obituary for the poet Eavan Boland, who was a touchstone for me and countless others. All the words I have for today are poured into that piece, so I will leave you with that remembrance and this brilliant poem, which encapsulates many of the themes Eavan wrote about with such precision, compassion, and depth.

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Eavan Boland and Tobias Wolff enjoying a moment of mirth at a creative writing dinner, 2015. Photo by me. 

“The Lost Land”

I have two daughters.

They are all I ever wanted from the earth.

Or almost all.

I also wanted one piece of ground:

One city trapped by hills. One urban river.
An island in its element.

So I could say mine. My own.
And mean it.

Now they are grown up and far away

and memory itself
has become an emigrant,
wandering in a place
where love dissembles itself as landscape:

Where the hills
are the colours of a child’s eyes,
where my children are distances, horizons:

At night,
on the edge of sleep,

I can see the shore of Dublin Bay.
Its rocky sweep and its granite pier.

Is this, I say
how they must have seen it,
backing out on the mailboat at twilight,

shadows falling
on everything they had to leave?
And would love forever?
And then

I imagine myself
at the landward rail of that boat
searching for the last sight of a hand.

I see myself
on the underworld side of that water,
the darkness coming in fast, saying
all the names I know for a lost land:

Ireland. Absence. Daughter.

from The Lost Land

Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us

A haunting poem I’ve always loved by Richard Siken from his stunning first collection, Crush.

green trees on forest during daytime

“Scheherazade”

Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake
                                      and dress them in warm clothes again.
         How it was late, and no one could sleep, the horses running
until they forget that they are horses.
                   It’s not like a tree where the roots have to end somewhere,
         it’s more like a song on a policeman’s radio,
                 how we rolled up the carpet so we could dance, and the days
were bright red, and every time we kissed there was another apple
                                                             to slice into pieces.
Look at the light through the windowpane. That means it’s noon, that means
         we’re inconsolable.
                               Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us.
These, our bodies, possessed by light.
                                                                Tell me we’ll never get used to it.

 

a return to the strange idea of continuous living despite the mess of us

Instructions for these days, and for all days. I could have filled this entire month with selections by one of my favorite contemporary poets, Ada Limón. If you have a moment after you read this one, I recommend you explore some of her other incredible poems I’ve posted over the years.

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Neighborhood walks, spring 2020. Photo by me.

“Instructions on Not Giving Up”

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.

from The Carrying 

The earth is not a dream but living flesh

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California garden views. Photo by me.

“Hope”
by Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004)

Hope is with you when you believe
The earth is not a dream but living flesh,
That sight, touch, and hearing do not lie,
That all things you have ever seen here
Are like a garden looked at from a gate.

You cannot enter. But you’re sure it’s there.
Could we but look more clearly and wisely
We might discover somewhere in the garden
A strange new flower and an unnamed star.

Some people say we should not trust our eyes,
That there is nothing, just a seeming,
These are the ones who have no hope.
They think that the moment we turn away,
The world, behind our backs, ceases to exist,
As if snatched up by the hands of thieves.

Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven, can I do better?

I wonder what poems Mary Oliver (1935-2019), in her infinite wisdom, would be writing right now if she hadn’t passed away last year. So much of her work has already brought me comfort and peace this spring.

song sparrow
Song Sparrow, Palo Alto Baylands Natural Preserve. Photo by my friend Jeff Schwegman

“I Worried”

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

As you express yourself in metaphor, think of others

I think of these words by the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) all the time, and I cannot help but share them again with all of you today.

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“Think of Others”

As you prepare your breakfast, think of others
(do not forget the pigeon’s food).
As you wage your wars, think of others
(do not forget those who seek peace).
As you pay your water bill, think of others
(those who are nursed by clouds).
As you return home, to your home, think of others
(do not forget the people of the camps).
As you sleep and count the stars, think of others
(those who have nowhere to sleep).
As you express yourself in metaphor, think of others
(those who have lost the right to speak).
As you think of others far away, think of yourself
(say: If only I were a candle in the dark).

Translated by Mohammed Shaheen

from Almond Blossoms and Beyond