Old Country Portraits

bodyturnFrom American Life in Poetry.

American Life in Poetry: Column 722
BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

There are so many fine poems in Richard Robbins’ new and selected poems, Body Turn to Rain (available at your local bookstore or on Amazon), published by LynxHouse Press, that I had a difficult time choosing one to show you.  This one, though, with its tablecloth trick, is one of my favorites. Robbins lives in Mankato, Minnesota, and teaches at Minnesota State.

 

 

“Old Country Portraits”

My lost sister used to try the trick
with the tablecloth, waiting until
the wine had been poured, the gravy boat filled,
before snapping the linen her way

smug as a matador, staring down
silver and crystal that would dare move,
paying no mind to the ancestor gloom
gliding across the wallpaper like clouds

of a disapproving front—no hutch
or bureau spared, no lost sister sure
the trick would work this time, all those she loved
in another room, nibbling saltines,

or in the kitchen, plating the last
of the roast beef. How amazed they would be
to be called to the mahogany room
for supper, to find something missing,

something beautiful, finally, they could
never explain, the wine twittering
in its half-globes, candles aflutter, each
thing in its place, or so it seemed then,

even though their lives had changed for good.

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We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2017 by Richard Robbins, “Old Country Portraits,” from Body Turn to Rain, (LynxHouse Press, 2017). Poem reprinted by permission of Richard Robbins and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2019 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.

Exit Glacier, from American Life in Poetry

41v1g3LottL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_If you don’t subscribe to American Life in Poetry, I suggest you do. You get a wonderful poem each week, with brief remarks from Ted Kooser, the former United States Poet Laureate.

American Life in Poetry: Column 719

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

The glaciers that flattened my part of the world made their exit eons ago, but in Alaska, where Peggy Shumaker lives and writes, they’re just now beginning to turn back. Only deep in a Nebraska snowbank can you shovel your way into the blue she describes at the end of this poem, from her new and selected poems, Cairn, from Red Hen Press.

 

Exit Glacier

When we got close enough
we could hear

rivers inside the ice
heaving splits

the groaning of a ledge
about to

calve. Strewn in the moraine
fresh moose sign—
tawny oblong pellets
breaking up

sharp black shale. In one breath
ice and air—

history, the record
of breaking—

prophecy, the warning
of what’s yet to break

out from under
four stories

of bone-crushing turquoise
retreating.

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We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2018 by Peggy Shumaker, “Exit Glacier,” from Cairn: New and Selected, (Red Hen Press, 2018). Poem reprinted by permission of Peggy Shumaker and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2018 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.
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American Life in Poetry provides newspapers and online publications with a free weekly column featuring contemporary American poems. The sole mission of this project is to promote poetry: American Life in Poetry seeks to create a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture. There are no costs for reprinting the columns; we do require that you register your publication here and that the text of the column be reproduced without alteration.

Spring

In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish’d dove;
In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.
–From Locksley Hall, Alfred Lord Tennyson

Alfred_Tennyson..jpgI am not a Tennyson fan, honestly. I found his work ponderous. I am happy to blame it on my own shortcomings; I was in college when I read everything I would ever read of his–In Memoriam, some parts of The Idylls of the King, and the play Becket. I think I liked Becket a little and the others not much at all. Perhaps I didn’t work at it, think deeply enough, read some good literary criticism to gain a deeper understanding. Or perhaps it was my professor for that survey course, a boozy guy who would cut class shorts most days–especially Fridays–to get to the campus restaurant where they served beer and wine. He was a funny, brilliant, caustic guy who had his opinions, and I made the opinions mine. I ended up with a love of Hardy, an admiration of Eliot, and the conclusion, at least for a while, that Pride and Prejudice was a perfect novel.

But Tennyson? Not so much.

There sits that wonderful line, though, about a young man’s fancy and thoughts of love. It comes to mind maybe as often as the word “spring” does. It’s there, beckoning to me, especially now, on March 10th, when it’s 61 degrees outside, and the clocks are about to change, and the Vernal Equinox is just days away. We could still have bad weather–it’s Boston, we have had blizzards in April–but if we do have snow it will be followed by warmer days and a strong sun that will beat down on the southern-facing front of my house and melt it all away.

The Red Sox are more than a week into spring training games. Opening day is in a little more than three weeks. I bet when I step aside this morning a cluster of irises will be pushing up through my front garden, along the brick wall. Spring will come I like to say, with the emphasis on will. I won’t let it not come, and of course it will whether I say so or not. Still, saying so has its own pleasure, when the winters are long and cold and deep, and you know that you’ll be standing outside soon, in a light jacket or a shirt, your face tilted to the sky, the warm sun on you, and the smell of fresh, warm, moist dirt rising to you, bringing you to life again.

An Ode to Grandma

11144900_10153465798260310_1750202460051145405_nSo I was sitting in this great kosher deli on the Upper West Side of Manhattan one day, enjoying this incredible half-sour pickle, and the thought suddenly occurred to me: Did my Italian grandmother ever have a half-sour pickle?

It’s possible she never did. I think I ate eat pretty much every type of dish my Grandma ever made–pasta, veal, chicken, pizza, soup, cream cheese pie, pizzales, anise cookies. I had breakfast, lunch, and dinner at her house hundreds of times. I left there with plates and bowls and platters of leftovers. I am close to 100% sure that nothing pickled was ever consumed there.

Why does this matter? Well, to begin with, it was an incredibly good pickle, and it got me thinking about how much pleasure there is in good, simple food. And I can’t think about good food without thinking of my Grandma. A lot of memories fade with time, but I have a million memories of my Grandma and food. In almost all of these memories she is cooking me something, serving me something, offering me more of something, cleaning up after something she has just made me, or asking me what I would like next. My grandma’s recipes and versions of things still dominate whole categories of food for me–pasta, sauce, veal, pizza, cookies, to name a few. Her tomato sauce alone had the whole world in it–tomatoes, paste, garlic, onions, seasoning, meatballs, sausage, chicken, pork. “Mangia,” she would say. “There’s plenty more. Mangia.”

Biting into that pickle the other day, I had the sudden specific realization that I was a million miles and light years from my Grandma. She’s been gone twenty years now, and the thought of my Grandma in a kosher deli on the Upper West Side makes as much sense as Khrushchev in Disneyland. Not that Grandma had any biases–I can honestly say she never had a harsh word for anyone–but that she would have been so completely out of context. I can picture my Grandma in precious few places–her kitchen, her dining room, her church. But New York City? Grandma came through Ellis Island on her way from Palermo to Boston, but I am pretty sure she didn’t stop on the Upper West Side.

Come to think of it, a more creative writer than me would put her there. It would be the 1970s. She would be a young, vibrant 80, with another decade to go before she is gone. Somehow, I have talked her into coming to New York with me to visit my brothers at Columbia. We are tired from the trip. It’s been a long day, but I convince Grandma to have dinner with me at this kosher deli, Barney Greengrass (The Sturgeon King!) while my brothers finish their studying. The menu might as well be Greek to her, but I pick a few things for us. “Let’s have the pastrami, Grandma. That sounds Italian.” She is unconvinced, but she lets me order. We sip our Cokes. In no time at all giant steaming sandwiches are in front of us. She looks carefully at the sandwich, the mustard, the assortment of pickles. I spread some mustard on her sandwich.

“Mangia, Grandma,” I tell her. “It’s been a long day. Mangia.”

American Life in Poetry: Animal Time

sandhills-windmillFrom American Life in Poetry, a delightful weekly poetry selection curated by former poet laureate Ted Kooser.

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Kooser: “Twenty years ago my wife and I had visitors from New York, and their car broke down on a country road about a mile from our home. One of them panicked because there were no phone booths from which to call for help. Nebraska is a place where there can be a lot of room between one land-line and the next. Carol V. Davis of California did a residency at Homestead National Monument, and this is one of the poems that came out of it.”

Animal Time

I do better in animal time,
a creeping dawn, slow ticking toward dusk.
In the middle of the day on the Nebraska prairie,
I’m unnerved by subdued sounds, as if listening
through water, even the high-pitched drone of the
cicadas faint; the blackbirds half-heartedly singing.
As newlyweds, my parents drove cross country to
Death Valley, last leg of their escape from New York,
the thick soups of their immigrant mothers, generations
of superstitions that squeezed them from all sides.
They camped under stars that meant no harm.
It was the silence that alerted them to danger.
They climbed back into their tiny new car, locked
its doors and blinked their eyes until daylight.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2013 by Carol V. Davis, “Animal Time,” from Harpur Palate, (Vol. 13, No. 1, summer/fall 2013). Poem reprinted by permission of Carol V. Davis and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2015 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.

Currently Reading: Good Poems, American Places

goodpoemsamericanplacesFrom the publisher, regarding Good Poems, American Places:”Greatness comes in many forms, and as Garrison Keillor demonstrates daily on The Writer’s Almanac, the most affecting poems in the canon are in plain English. Third in Keillor’s series of anthologies,Good Poems, American Places brings together poems that celebrate the geography and culture that bind us together as a nation. Think of these poems as postcards from the road, by poets who’ve gotten carried away by a particular place-a town in Kansas, a kitchen window in Nantucket, a Manhattan street, a farm in western Minnesota. Featuring famous poets and brash unknowns alike, the verses in this exhilarating collection prove that the heart can be exalted anywhere in America.”

I used this book in a writing workshop, using several poems as readings and prompts (including this delightful poem about a fanciful crush). A few are ones some of you will recognize, but many are new and deeply satisfying to me. I try, not always successfully, to read a poem each morning as a brief meditation. Perhaps I could expand this into reading the poem and writing in response. to it. Wouldn’t that be grand!