Bonnie Larson Staiger

View from up here (46.9 N Latitude). Poetry, musings, and events. Come on in!

Throughout her lifetime of writing poetry, Mary Oliver was largely ignored by the literary establishment.

Crickets.

I have the sense she was humored, discounted, or metaphorically speaking patted on the head for being too plain-spoken. Yet, countless readers have found a home in her words, her style, and her reverence. Some found a greater appreciation for all poetry through her work. Aside from those poets attempting only to appease the publishing gods, shouldn’t we all hope our work brings readers to greater enjoyment of poetry?

For the most part, Oliver led a quiet and unassuming life—preferring serene walks at dawn near Blackwater Pond with her dogs and reveling in the silence of her natural surroundings. Farbeit for the literati to understand much less value those qualities and daily patterns when so many promote an urban ethos of steel, concrete, asphalt, and 24/7 ambient cacophony. Instead, she chose the primal sounds of birds, the surf, the crunch of pine needles underfoot and, yes, crickets. She wrote about all this and God—sometimes veiled and sometimes right up in the front seat. While I, grounded in the also overlooked Midwest and Great Plains, considered her a hero.

She made a practice of carrying in her pocket a 3 x 5 notebook which she hand-stitched (how Dickinsonian) and kept ready to jot snippets as she walked. Once finding herself without a pencil, she returned later to hide a bunch of pencils in the trees and bushes along her path in case that happened again.

Yes, I know she received many honors and accolades including the National Book Award and her fourth book, American Primitive, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. But the cynic in me can’t help but think those were, in part, a nod to pressure from her wide audience of fans and perhaps to mitigate the public rumblings about her being bypassed. The New York Times acknowledged her as “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.” Forgive me, but that’s a comment about retail book sales not her body of work.

Like so many poets and writers, her departure on January 17, 2019, brought a flood of posthumous praise and, alas, the recognition she deserved in life—although I’m sure she would have modestly declined the fame.

Here are a few quotes of hers I’ve saved over the years:

“I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.”

“I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty. I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life.”

“Rilke wrote, all companionship is but ‘the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes,’ you have to solve the conundrum of your solitude. Or to take the thoughts and emotions we don’t voice — and know what to make of them.”

“Attention without feeling is only a report.”

 

From Blue Pastures:

When will you have a little pity for
every soft thing
that walks through the world,
yourself included?”

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

 

And she ends Such Silence with:

I sat on the bench, waiting for something.
An angel, perhaps.
Or dancers with the legs of goats.
No, I didn’t see either. But only, I think, because
I didn’t stay long enough.

 

I invite you to mention any favorite poems of hers in the comments below.

 

 

Seraphim in Snow

IMG_3795

Midnight, 21 December 2016

Neither starshine nor moonlight.
Instead, snow shine wraps me
in diamond dust at midnight’s hour.

Clouds cling to the earth, yet
a thousand celestial luminaria
light this solstice night. In the yard

a host of snow angels pressed
everywhere. No sounds, no footfalls.
No crinkle of crenelated wings.

 

 

 

 

© Published in Destiny Manifested, the 2018 winning chapbook of ‘Voices of the Plains and Prairies Poetry Award’ from North Dakota State University Press

I restrained myself to 3 of her poems. Not an easy constraint because I could have easily included many more—her work is that inspiring. It is grounded, tactile, and rich in imagery. The Moose inspired my poem, Shuttle to Rockport by the Sea.  She said it took her 20 years to write and finish that poem.

 

The Fish

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen —the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
—It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
—if you could call it a lip—
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

 

The Moose

            For Grace Bulmer Bowers

From narrow provinces
of fish and bread and tea,
home of the long tides
where the bay leaves the sea
twice a day and takes
the herrings long rides,
where if the river
enters or retreats
in a wall of brown foam
depends on if it meets
the bay coming in,
the bay not at home;

where, silted red,
sometimes the sun sets
facing a red sea,
and others, veins the flats’
lavender, rich mud
in burning rivulets;

on red, gravelly roads,
down rows of sugar maples,
past clapboard farmhouses
and neat, clapboard churches,
bleached, ridged as clamshells,
past twin silver birches,

through late afternoon
a bus journeys west,
the windshield flashing pink,
pink glancing off of metal,
brushing the dented flank
of blue, beat-up enamel;

down hollows, up rises,
and waits, patient, while
a lone traveller gives
kisses and embraces
to seven relatives
and a collie supervises.

Goodbye to the elms,
to the farm, to the dog.
The bus starts.  The light
grows richer; the fog,
shifting, salty, thin,
comes closing in.

Its cold, round crystals
form and slide and settle
in the white hens’ feathers,
in gray glazed cabbages,
on the cabbage roses
and lupins like apostles;

the sweet peas cling
to their wet white string
on the whitewashed fences;
bumblebees creep
inside the foxgloves,
and evening commences.

One stop at Bass River.
Then the Economies
Lower, Middle, Upper;
Five Islands, Five Houses,
where a woman shakes a tablecloth
out after supper.

A pale flickering.  Gone.
The Tantramar marshes
and the smell of salt hay.
An iron bridge trembles
and a loose plank rattles
but doesn’t give way.

On the left, a red light
swims through the dark:
a ship’s port lantern.
Two rubber boots show,
illuminated, solemn.
A dog gives one bark.

A woman climbs in
with two market bags,
brisk, freckled, elderly.
“A grand night.  Yes, sir,
all the way to Boston.”
She regards us amicably.

Moonlight as we enter
the New Brunswick woods,
hairy, scratchy, splintery;
moonlight and mist
caught in them like lamb’s wool
on bushes in a pasture.

The passengers lie back.
Snores.  Some long sighs.
A dreamy divagation
begins in the night,
a gentle, auditory,
slow hallucination. . . .

In the creakings and noises,
an old conversation
–not concerning us,
but recognizable, somewhere,
back in the bus:
Grandparents’ voices

uninterruptedly
talking, in Eternity:
names being mentioned,
things cleared up finally;
what he said, what she said,
who got pensioned;

deaths, deaths and sicknesses;
the year he remarried;
the year (something) happened.
She died in childbirth.
That was the son lost
when the schooner foundered.

He took to drink. Yes.
She went to the bad.
When Amos began to pray
even in the store and
finally the family had
to put him away.
“Yes . . .” that peculiar
affirmative.  “Yes . . .”
A sharp, indrawn breath,
half groan, half acceptance,
that means “Life’s like that.
We know it (also death).”

Talking the way they talked
in the old featherbed,
peacefully, on and on,
dim lamplight in the hall,
down in the kitchen, the dog
tucked in her shawl.

Now, it’s all right now
even to fall asleep
just as on all those nights.
–Suddenly the bus driver
stops with a jolt,
turns off his lights.

A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.
It approaches; it sniffs at
the bus’s hot hood.

Towering, antlerless,
high as a church,
homely as a house
(or, safe as houses).
A man’s voice assures us
“Perfectly harmless. . . .”

Some of the passengers
exclaim in whispers,
childishly, softly,
“Sure are big creatures.”
“It’s awful plain.”
“Look! It’s a she!”

Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly.
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?

“Curious creatures,”
says our quiet driver,
rolling his r‘s.
“Look at that, would you.”
Then he shifts gears.
For a moment longer,

by craning backward,
the moose can be seen
on the moonlit macadam;
then there’s a dim
smell of moose, an acrid
smell of gasoline.

 

Filling Station

Oh, but it is dirty!
—this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it’s a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide
the only note of color—
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
ESSO—SO—SO—SO
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

 

In the noise and busyness of the season, here are a few from Kay Ryan, who boasted about living a quiet life and having a blank history. She says, “My poems talk about that palpable silence – a creamy, latexy kind of silence, that when we’re experiencing it, is as a dream luxury.”

SPIDERWEB

From other
angles the
fibers look
fragile, but
not from the
spider’s, always
hauling coarse
ropes, hitching
lines to the
best posts
possible. It’s
heavy work
everyplace,
fighting sag,
winching up
give. It
isn’t ever
delicate
to live.

 

THAT WILL TO DIVEST

Action creates
a taste
for itself.
Meaning: once
you’ve swept
the shelves
of spoons
and plates
you kept
for guests,
it gets harder
not to also
simplify the larder,
not to dismiss
rooms, not to
divest yourself
of all the chairs
but one, not
to test what
singleness can bear,
once you’ve begun.

 

THINGS SHOULDN’T BE SO HARD  (about her mother -from whom Kay inherited her need for silence and a quiet life)

A life should leave
deep tracks:
ruts where she
went out and back
to get the mail
or move the hose
around the yard;
where she used to
stand before the sink,
a worn-out place;
beneath her hand
the china knobs
rubbed down to
white pastilles;
the switch she
used to feel for
in the dark
almost erased.
Her things should
keep her marks.
The passage
of a life should show;
it should abrade.
And when life stops,
a certain space—
however small—
should be left scarred
by the grand and
damaging parade.
Things shouldn’t
be so hard.

 

THE LIGHT OF INTERIORS

The light of interiors
is the admixture
of who knows how many
doors ajar, windows
casually curtained,
unblinded or opened,
oculi set into ceilings,
wells, ports, shafts,
loose fits, leaks,
and other breaches
of surface. But, in
any case, the light,
once in, bounces
toward the interior,
glancing off glassy
enamels and polishes,
softened by the scuffed
and often-handled, muffled
in carpet and toweling,
buffeted down hallways,
baffled equally
by scatter and order
to an ideal and now
sourceless texture which,
when mixed with silence,
makes of a simple
table with flowers
an island.

Gentle Reader: My deep sorrow around today’s politics is that people are turning on each other. Even more disturbing is poets are turning on poets via elitist and invective posts that may be therapeutic for the writer and “red meat” for like-minded followers but ignore the diversity among us and border on blacklisting.

I’m reminded of Martin Neimoller’s poem (1892-1984) about German intellectuals coming for others including so-called incurables. He was a Lutheran pastor who spoke out against what was happening in his country at the time.

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn’t a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

Who is next in the current waves of political cleansing? Here’s a deeper look into all this:  A Gentle Corrective for Identity Politics

Food for thought?

 

IMG_4457Amherst June 2017

Gentle Reader: I’ve been asked to tell about my pilgrimage to Amherst but I had to put that aside until I got a good start on the poems which immediately percolated from that seminal experience. Frankly, I also had to let the emotions subside so I wouldn’t blather on about it here. But I willingly admit that adrenalin was my frequent companion during that visit.

I call it a  pilgrimage because that is the best description in every sense of the word and my activities leading up to it–from planning the extra days tacked onto a business trip, picking up the rental car in downtown Boston amidst hundreds of pre-marathoners doing the same thing, trusting google maps to get me onto the turnpike under construction and enjoying winding roads in western Massachusetts where fast-driving locals did not share my interest in the countryside and historic homes along the way.

From a short 2-day perspective, Amherst is everything you might imagine nestled in the New England setting I’ve described. It’s a quaint small-college town with picturesque shops, and bookstores built around the campus which is seamlessly integrated into the neighboring area.

The Dickinson Homestead and Evergreens next door are not set off or protected in a way that many homes-turned-museums are. The grounds look largely the way they did when Emily lived there. Of course, some small modifications have been made to accommodate people moving about inside and for the museum shop—now in the kitchen.

While the house and grounds have a certain commanding presence due in part to the stately architecture and increased elevation above the street, one could unknowingly drive past because it also blends into the area. Although typical of the era, all the rooms in the house are slightly smaller than I imagined from seeing pictures—including Emily’s room. They’ve done remarkable work restoring and recreating it in her time—especially given the acrimonious split among those carrying on her legacy and the items now in Harvard’s possession.

Her bedroom is—again—smaller than I imagined but the aura there is palpable. Her writing desk is no bigger than 20 x 20 inches square with one tiny drawer underneath. That surface had to accommodate a lamp and an ink well plus pen/pencil and paper. She was known to carry that desk downstairs to the library and sometimes out into the yard to write. During the height of her most prolific writing, one must envision scraps of poems and pieces of paper strewn all around her room.

The cemetery where she and her family are buried (about half a mile cross-country to the north of the house) is also barely protected. There is a small fence around her immediate family’s graves but that is mostly decorative although it does deter people from trampling the area. She was quite clear in writing instructions about her wishes for final disposition: no funeral carriage and she wanted family servants as pallbearers. Her casket was to be carried out the back kitchen door and over land to the cemetery. She was also specific that her brother Austin’s directives were not to supersede her own.

In addition to 1,789 poems, she was a prolific letter writer and deeply expressive in them—hardly characteristic of reclusive behavior although in later life she avoided people and seldom left the house. Still she wrote letters right up until her death. In today’s high tech and truncated technology she still serves as a model for epistolary communication.

I was attracted first to her poetry but her world, her life and her letters are bottomless layers of complexity worthy of study to understand and learn from one of the world’s greatest poets.

Gentle Reader: Yesterday, I spent a fair amount of time re-centering myself after several weeks of work-related busyness which left me out of sorts and, frankly, cranky.

That kind of hubbub was my norm for so many years that I’ve needed time to shift my focus and reprioritize my time. The first step came about 3 years ago during a seminar on work-life balance. As a result, I chose to set aside the early morning hours each day for poetry: writing, revising, study and reading. This has worked well since I’m usually awake around 4-4:30am. A second goal was to take 1-2 poetry workshops or classes each year. bookcase

While I am accomplishing both goals, my morning study has been random and I recently realized it lacked order.

Another breakthrough came couple weeks ago when I moved a bunch of books around and now all my poetry books are in a more accessible place. Looking at them staring back at me, I realize the wealth of poems/poets at my fingertips. I decided to study one poet a week. Yes, there will always be diversions and distractions, but the overall strategy sets me on a path of achievement.

I begin with the list of poets recommended to me for further study and to hone my craft by Ilya Kaminsky, faculty poet I studied with at a Iowa Summer Writers Festival. Some examples he suggested are: Kay Ryan, Frank Bidart, Derek Walcott, Paul Celan, and Yehuda Amichai.

But my plan already starts with the first diversion. The recently released translation by Emily Wilson of Homer’s The Odyssey has caught my attention along with many favorable reviewers. Confession: not sure how I avoided it in school but I’ve never read it. Based on the press buzz, it seems like the time to start both the epic poem and my new goal.

Gentle Reader: Here are some random thoughts after seeing A Quiet Passion, a movie about the life of Emily Dickinson.

-The set, scenery, costumes, and casting are extraordinary.
-Cynthia Nixon’s portrayal of Emily is world-class. It helped me create my own image of her. Nixon’s voice-over of poems throughout the film adds that cerebral dimension and fits both Emily and each scene.
-The special effect of advancing time via aging characters during a photo sitting is mesmerizing.
-For those who know Dickinson history, some factual inaccuracies in the script and character portrayals are bothersome and perhaps misleading for anyone wishing to study more.
-The movie character of Vryling Buffam had to represent many women because she was insignificant in Emily Dickinson’s life.
-For how important Carlo (her Newfoundland) was over 15 years of Emily’s life, he should be visible–somehow.
-Also missing is the important subtext of bisexual relationships widely accepted as true.
-Regardless my impressions, the film does much to advance Emily Dickinson and all poets. I am elated that it was nominated for an academy award.
-Finally, the reviews are fair, for the most part, but rarely written by women. What’s up with that?

Gentle Reader: We, the people of the United States of America, have an ancestral longing for selfless and competent leadership. Those who carved this country out of the failures they left elsewhere intended that it be so. Here we are today with what has evolved from the freedoms they designed and some that would make them cringe. We have, instead, spawned a culture rampant with selfishness, both entitlement and victim mentalities, hyper-individualism, and hyper-partisanship abounds.

As a result, we have anything but selfless and competent leadership in our nation’s capital and capitol. The near future harkens little improvement in the 2016 election. We asked for and received a wider field of candidates. We asked for and received representation from outside the beltway and those who bring fresh perspectives. Yet, a sweeping, 180-degree view of all the candidates is revealing. Some might be selfless but are clearly incompetent. Others are considered by observers as competent but are anything but selfless. Many in the pool are intent to manipulate whatever they are able to achieve their goals. The end justifies the means.

History going back to ancient Roman emperors is littered with leaders such as these. Many came to power without benefit of free and open elections but many of  those who were elected had serious faults. Today’s dilemma is nothing new as history repeats itself. Through the grooming process of state and local elections, we have encouraged and condoned those who represent less than the most honorable traits.

Political parties have moved their philosophy and platforms to the extreme edges of reason and created litmus tests meant to exclude all candidates except those willing to sign their pledge of fanaticism.  We, the electorate combined with the failures and blatant bias of the media, bear much of the blame. Now, the wished for and wider field representing broader perspectives is scorned by pundits, cynics, and the media. Surely, we deserve this scenario, this pool of candidates and, ultimately, who we elect.

Gentle Reader: Fair warning: this subject has been brewing for a long time. It is short but not so sweet.

To the acquaintance at a small gathering of friends: How dare you preach at me about one political party’s lack of respect and mean-spirited attacks against yours. Does your moral superiority permit you to pour vitriol on me? Does it occur to you that you have just demonstrated what you rail against?

Respect? Apparently you have no respect for me and now I’ve lost what I might have had for you.

The old rule “Never discuss religion and politics in polite conversation” is not practiced by many who claim to be –but are neither polite nor enlightened. What a price to pay for being entitled to vent their spleen at the expense of others.

Now what was I doing again?

Gentle Reader: A recent conversation with a fellow writer has prompted me to give thought to what I might do with my time if I were to achieve a better balance in my life.

What occurs to me, in the context of an alternate use of time and inclination is that I would like to write as an avocation –and more than just dabbling. I use the word alternate because the personal well from which I dip for creative writing also seems to be drawn upon for any creativity needed for professional demands. Often that well is depleted without a single poem to show for it.

However, I am prodded and perhaps a bit haunted by Shakespeare’s admonition about the responsibility of poets to both portray and confront the world. I know in my core that is what I am compelled to do. In the meantime, I scratch seeds of poems and poem parts on napkins and business cards—saved for another day. All too often, I turn my back on emergent poems leaving them to die of neglect.

While entertaining the thought of writing as it could naturally flow, I am quickly confronted with my own demons. Alas, I confess the well is not dry but capped—at my own hands. You see, there have been times when the muse has been more of a relentless curse than a companion.

I suspect—and must admit–I fear becoming lost in that realm. “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer” . . . I think not.

Gentle Reader: The annual List of Banished Words— a release by Lake Superior State University—has caught my attention again. Fortunately, normal people can take consolation that much of the blame for this year’s list goes to politicians and the news media.

For the rest of us, the advent of texting, instant messaging, and Facebook has created another media which has leeched into our more formal writing and punctuation. While I must admit to the fun of using some fad words, I also take notice when slang begins to unknowingly permeate my conversational speaking and, worse, shows up in my professional writing.

Here is my personal list of top 6 offending words and phrases for 2012 and if I were queen they would be banished.

#6.  Right, right, right or Yes, yes, yes—(said rapid-fire.) Why isn’t just one yes or right enough? What’s possibly more offensive is ‘No, no, no’ because it is dismissive to the 3rd power.

#5.  At the end of the day— This phrase has replaced other weary words: ‘the bottom line’ and ‘when all is said and done.’ There you have it.

#4.  Look . . .— Sometimes said at the beginning of a sentence to stop others in a group from over-talking, but more often it’s a maneuver to convince others what he/she is about to say is really important. Usually, others are not convinced.

#3.  Breaking News— Why is Day 2 of an oversaturated story still breaking news?

#2.  Clearly— Among many intensifiers that are overused, ‘obviously’ is another. While making the writer feel more effective, both can render the words powerless rather than more powerful.

#1. Green— Including all variations, such as: ‘going green,’ ‘green buildings,’ ‘greening,’ ‘green technology,’ ‘green products’, topped the LSSU list in 2009. However, I would be willing to let the term ‘greenwashed’ (yes, a form of brainwashed) be overused until all the others fade.

As long as I’m on a soapbox, here are some grammatical fingernails on my proverbial chalkboard:

Invite— While some dictionary sources have relaxed this rule, the word is more properly used as a noun not a verb. I wrote a poem about this for a daily poetry contest on the subject of pet peeves. (See below)

Impacted— Just think of bowels or wisdom teeth as a reminder not to misuse this word. Better to use ‘had an impact on’ or use the words affect and effect correctly.

Golfing— A few dictionary sources have also softened the rule but it’s not the queen’s English, albeit this queen. We play golf. We don’t say hockeying, tennising, or wiiing*.

* Wiiing could only be remotely acceptable if one is toilet training a child.

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