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Booklover: That’s Me

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In a “one of these days we’ll have to move” mood recently, I began sorting through some folders of old poems.

I found early drafts of poems which ended up in Made and Remade, some of which I didn’t recognize until I looked up the final version.

Some of the poems in Made and Remade originally appeared in Ascent, the book I and four colleagues put together as “Five Southwestern Women Poets”  (Both of these books can be obtained from me through contact on this blog, by the way).

One poem in Ascent did not make it into the later book.  It says more about me than was fitting for the material in the book, the writing of William Paley..  It was fun to find the poem again.  It was even more fun to tighten it up – my sense of craft is stronger now than it was when this was first published.

Here’s a poet’s self-image:

Booklover

First editions, clean and jacketed?
I prefer those lived with,
lived in, a note card
slipped between pages.

I see myself in a used bookstore,
on a back shelf, loose cover,
yellow pages, among books not
classified: is it history, is it

romance, is it worth the paper
it’s printed on? The bookseller
does not come to dust.

I lean against another
volume, convinced there are
worse ends than this.

 

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Recommendation: Pansies by Carol Barrett

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scan0001This is a beautiful and gentle book.  It does not claim to be poetry, but it is written by a poet and it begins with a powerful image, comparing the children of a large family to pansies, which “are a persistent breed.  They take to the same soil, year after year.”  If you didn’t read the back of the book it would take you until the third of these finely crafted vignettes to find out what is going on; this is the story of a compassionate woman who needs a babysitter and ends up learning about a sub-culture very different from her own.  The young woman she hires teaches her bit by bit about another way of living, of understanding one’s place in the world.

Young people, who only hear bad stories about different peoples, such as Muslims or unwanted immigrants, should read this book.  So should those who are older and weary of bad news.  The writing is concise, elegant, and honest about the narrator’s mistakes and misunderstandings, as well as about the limits to the relationship.

No, these are not prose poems, but they are close cousins.  I will share it with my poetry group and I expect that they will like it as well as I do.

The World of the Unicorn Tapestries

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I am often irritated by radio announcers who talk on about the composers whose works they are about to play, some facts well known, some gathered from the internet and often tangential.

Yet, when I was working with the unicorn tapestries I wanted to know “more, more, more” about the world in which they were made.

DP118987 Defends cropped

The Unicorn Defends Himself (part)

I discovered two history books from the 1920s.  The Autumn of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga is translated from the Dutch.  The translation I have is from 1996, indicating that the book is still important.

A second, less well-known, history is Lucien Febvre’s Life in Renaissance France.  Both of these authors convey a sense of loss in describing the vitality of the era they describe.

These two books, and the energy of the tapestries themselves, persuaded me.  Pictured here is just part of one of the tapestries from the Hunt of the Unicorn series in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I’ve come to share the two authors’ sense of loss and wish I could know personally these two good writers.

 

Historians

When the world was half a thousand years
younger all events had much sharper
outlines than now.
     Johan Huizinga, Autumn of the Middle Ages (1923)

The unicorn’s realm is beyond our reach.
We cannot leap half a millennium
to dance with the lords and ladies
of the country in which he thrived.

Admiring the vigor of that age,
Lucien Febvre said we are hothouse
flowers.  The past is a mirror too distant
to give us clear sight of ourselves.

Lucien and I and Johan Huizinga
wander along cold, unswept streets,
wanting to crash the splendid parties
we are too late to attend.

Note:  “more, more, more” is a quotation from A Very Special House by Ruth Krauss.  See my post of August 28, 2013.

Poem for Taurus New Moon

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My mother was born in Taurus.  I’m a Scorpio.  We didn’t pay much attention to these signs, so I was not aware until recently that each of these signs has the other as its full moon.  That suggests to me a strong and lasting connection.

This, however, is a poem for the Taurus new moon.  It amazes me to realize that my mother would have been 98 this year.

Sign Language

Taurus is the sign of money.
My mother, born on its cusp,
never had much.
She made it enough.

Taurus is the sign of things.
She cared for her father’s saw,
the table he built when she was young,
her crowded closet and attic.

Taurus is the sign of earth.
She bent her ample body, seeding,
weeding, watering, her small plot
of ground inside a wire fence.

Taurus is the sign of matter.
It matters to me that she’s gone.

Reading a Poem: Mannone’s “Carrots”

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scan0002This is another poem I was particularly taken with from the current issue of Red Coyote. (Presented with the author’s permission.)

Carrots

John C. Mannone

My grandfather’s fingers shook a little
until they clamped the base of the plant
as if ready to yank weeds.  Gently,
he coaxed the root to the surface—
the bulbous end cresting loamy clay.
Muted orange poked through the soil
as if a morning sun lifting through mist.
Dirt clung to the carrot.  He rubbed it
off leaving that good scent of earth
on his hands.  He snapped the green leaf
canopy clear off, let it drop to the ground,
and dangled the tapered end in front
of my face.  The tendrils whiskering
the carrot caught the same glints
as grandpa’s white hairs stubbling his chin.
He urged me to take a bite, to feel
that cool crisp flesh of carrot on my tongue,
taste its earthy sweetness.

I was barely six.  His blue eyes winked
with wisdom.  He said carrots were good
for my eyes, that they would help me see
more clearly the world outside this garden.

Here are my thoughts as I read, and reread this poem.  What caught me up first was the detail of slow description of what is a fairly brief event: details like noting when the boy is seeing the bulbous end or the tapering end of the carrot.

Second, the word choices.  “Bulbous” is not a plain word. I particularly notice the way “whisker” is used as a verb and applied to the carrot, not the white hairs on a chin.  The “same glints” on the two caught my attention also, because I’ve seen such glints in early morning sun.

Another good touch is the delaying of the boy’s age until the short second stanza.  Now we meet the one for whom this very ordinary event is not ordinary at all.  And when the poem ends on “the world outside this garden” how could this garden not be Eden?

John C. Mannone has contributed to Sin Fronteras Journal, of which I am one of the editors.  I look forward to seeing more of his work wherever it appears.

Find out how you can contribute to Sin Fronteras Journal at http://www.sinfronterasjournal.com.  Submissions are open until June 30.

More About Tapestry Unicorns

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lady0001I did not begin with unicorns.  My fascination with the tapestries began when a friend gave me a souvenir bookmark from her trip to Paris.  This lady is at the center of one of the six panels of the “Lady and the Unicorn” series.

What entranced me was her fly-away hair.  Why would a weaver of tight threads fuss with such a detail?  Why would a lady be portrayed this way?

Each of the six ladies in these panels is flanked by a lion and a unicorn.  These unicorns are not hunted.  They are tame as can be.

This set of tapestries had no original connection with the Hunt of the Unicorn Series in the Met.    Yet writers who discuss one set usually also refer to the other. Their connection is that they are close in age and have survived.

There is much to discuss: style, technique, symbolism, significance.  My reading went in many directions.

I learned that guilds are basically conservative.  Innovation was frowned upon because it may give one artisan an advantage over the others.  Designs and methods did not change quickly.

 

I also learned about the dyes:

From “Colors”:

Red made from roots of madder,
yellow from everything but the roots
of weld, the challenge is blue:
woad leaves dried, fermented, spread
on stone for nine stinky weeks.

From India Vasco da Gama
brings indigo, a better blue.

Before science can prove
the chemical’s the same, central heat
warms walls; tapestries are not needed.

Other colors were made from these three, as we learned from the color wheel in grade school.  The lion is some shade of yellow.  The unicorn stands out because he is white.

Encounter with Unicorns

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DP118983 Healing croppedA unicorn uses his horn to purify a stream of water.
Section of a tapestry in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

For about two years I was obsessed with unicorns.  Not just any unicorns.  I was studying, writing about, responding to, two sets of unicorn tapestries from 500 years ago.  These are the Hunt of the Unicorn series in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Lady and the Unicorn series in the Musee du Moyen Age in Paris.

These unicorns are a different species (yes, species) from those imagined in our time.  Today’s unicorns look like horses.  The unicorns of circa 1500 are goats, with beards and cloven hooves.

They also can be dangerous.  They have magic as well as physical power, and complex symbolic meaning.

Their horns were believed to heal.  For lack of actual unicorns, the tusks of narwhals, creatures who live in the north Atlantic sea, were sold as unicorn horns.

In A Natural History of Unicorns Chris Lavers has identified some one-horned animals in east Asia.  After discounting a number of theories about the origin of unicorns as errors and mistranslations he cites a 19th century letter from an English explorer who recounts how unicorns are created by humans: the herders choose a newborn goat and bind his horns together.  Having one horn in the center of his head instead of two angling out apparently gives this kid an advantage and he becomes a leader.

When did these feisty beasts turn into gentle horses?  Was it Disney, with his stuffed animal creatures in Fantasia, or did it happen earlier?  I see it as part of a modern human tendency to reject mystery, and to insist that nature, even imaginary nature, can be tamed.  Another loss from the so-called Enlightenment.

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