Marks (Linda Pastan)

August 29, 2008

My husband gives me an A
for last night’s supper,
an incomplete for my ironing,
a B plus in bed.
My son says I am average,
an average mother, but if
I put my mind to it
I could improve.
My daughter believes
in Pass/Fail and tells me
I pass. Wait ’til they learn
I’m dropping out.

* * *

Social commentary aside, Pastan demonstrates the remarkable capacity of poetry to say so much in such little space. I mean, what a punch that last line is.

Hook (James Wright)

August 19, 2008

I was only a young man
In those days. On that evening
The cold was so God damned
Bitter there was nothing.
Nothing. I was in trouble
With a woman, and there was nothing
There but me and the dead snow.

I stood on the street corner
In Minneapolis, lashed
This way and that.
Wind rose from some pit,
Hunting me.
Another bus to Saint Paul
Would arrive in three hours,
If I was lucky.

Then the young Sioux
Loomed besided me, his scars
Were just my age.

Ain’t got no bus here
A long time, he said.
You got enough money
To get home on?

What did they do
To your hand? I answered.
He raised up his hook into the terrible starlight
And slashed the wind.

Oh, that? he said.
I had a bad time with a woman. Here,
You take this.

Did you ever feel a man hold
Sixty-five cents
In a hook,
And place it
Gently
In your freezing hand?

I took it.
It wasn’t the money I needed.
But I took it.

* * *

“Hook” describes the movement from isolation to communion through an unlikely and unexpected discovery of human connection. I have always admired how easily Wright seems to pull off such discoveries with a terse, sometimes raw, vernacular. How he packs such a tremendous movement into a handful of chopped up, skeletal lines. These strangers are sharing not just a cold night awaiting the arrival of a bus, but human suffering so deep and familiar that even the slightest, smallest gesture, brings it into view. So few words are necessary, shared scars being enough.

Snow hurries
the strawberries
from the bush.
Star-wet water rides
you into summer,
into my autumn.
Your cactus hands
are at my heart again.
Lady, I court
my dream of you
in lilies and in rain.
I vest myself
in your oldest memory
and in my oldest need.
And in my passion
you are the deepest blue
of the oldest rose.
Star circle me an axe.
I cannot cut myself
from any of your emblems.
It will soon be cold here,
and dark here;
the grass will lie flat
to search for its spring head.
I will bow again
in the winter of your eyes.
If there is music,
it will be the weather’s bells
to call me to the abandoned chapel
of your simple body.

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
on of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

* * *

I finally got a hold of a collection of Zagajewski’s poems (Without End: New and Selected Poems) which I’ve been chewing on these last few weeks. Zagajewski was part of a movement in Poland in the late 60s called the New Wave which I know very little about, just that their poetry is often characterized as “straight-talk,” and was an attempt to subvert governmental propaganda.

Zagajewski’s variations on the title here are interesting, at least in translation: “Try…you must…you should…praise the mutilated world.” Why? Because to simply condemn it denies its beauty, a beauty made possible only in the midst of mutilation. Because like light we too stray and vanish and return–sometimes mutilated ourselves–and are familiar with the earth’s scars, which are our own. How? By remembering. And not just remembering our ideas, or our beliefs, or the facts, but the details of life as it comes to us.