Friday, March 24, 2017

Poetry Friday: A Box Full of Darkness, Response

Last week I shared a prompt from my writing group.  Three of us wrote poems in response to it, and lively discussion ensued.  Here's mine.  I found it a lot of fun to write.  I kept paring it and paring it; my final version was probably a third the length of my first draft.  I enjoyed the process so much - even though the subject of the poem is so sad - that I found myself wondering again why I don't routinely write every day.  The only reason I made myself sit down and write this was that I had my group meeting coming up.  I think the answer to my question is that I usually prioritize my "real work," which involves reading student writing, and on the rare occasions when that is finished, my brain is tired and picking up my own writing seems too much.  Yet writing is the one thing that reliably makes me feel better when I'm tired and down.

Box Full of Darkness

Someone I love gave me
A box

A box full of velvety black-hole darkness,
Sound-swallowing silence,
Absence, not-there-ness, all-gone-ness,
A box filled to the brim with emptiness,
A box of goodbye.

I’d throw the box away,
But it will take me years to unpack,
And besides, it’s from someone I love.


Here's today's roundup.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Poetry Friday: A Box Full of Darkness

One of the members of my writing group sent us this poem to use as a prompt for our meeting next week.  I haven't written anything yet, but I've been thinking about it.  Maybe you'd like to think about it, too. 

The Uses of Sorrow
by Mary Oliver
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

Here's today's roundup.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Poetry Friday: Birthday Gifts Edition

Today is a busy day for me because it's a due date in both seventh and eighth grade.  The seventh graders made poetry anthologies, and the eighth graders are turning in a variety of things, but the main genre of the quarter was feature articles, and there are lots of very interesting topics, based on interviews they have done.  The piles are a little daunting, but there should be some great reading.

Speaking of great reading, I got some in the mail yesterday, too.  For my recent birthday, I received two Amazon gift cards, and I decided to treat myself to some poetry that had been on my Wish List for a while.  I got three books, one a download and two analog (I've typed and deleted several ways of referring to the book books - I'm not sure what to call them!).  I got a box from Amazon yesterday, and as soon as I get a little control of the grading, I'm excited to dig into these books.

I downloaded Derek Walcott's Omeros, which is a Caribbean retelling of the Odyssey (Walcott is from the island of St. Lucia).  I've been wanting to read this for a long time, and I couldn't wait, so I started it already.  It begins with a description of the building of canoes.  An islander called Philoctete is explaining to tourists:

"Wind lift the ferns.  They sound like the sea that feed us
fishermen all our life, and the ferns nodded 'Yes,
the trees have to die.' So, fists jam in our jacket,

cause the heights was cold and our breath making feathers
like the mist, we pass the rum.  When it came back, it
give us the spirit to turn into murderers.

I lift up the axe and pray for strength in my hands
to wound the first cedar.  Dew was filling my eyes,
but I fire one more white rum.  Then we advance."

I'm sure I'll write about this when I'm done with it, or maybe even while I'm in the process of reading it.

I've been reading poems by Gregory Djanikian for several years, and have posted some on this blog in the past (here, here, here), but have never read any of his books.  The one I got is called Years Later
Djanikian immigrated to the United States from Egypt as a young child, and if you follow the links to the poems I've posted by him, you'll see that he writes a lot about his experiences.  

The third book I got is by Jan Richardson, whose blog I love.  In fact, I've read several of the poems from this book, The Cure for Sorrow, there.  I have been wanting to get the book since it came out.  It's about her sudden loss of her husband after less than four years of marriage, but her format is blessings, with titles like "Blessing in the Chaos," "Blessing of Memory," "Blessing for a Whole Heart." 

There are few better feelings than having a whole little stack of books you are looking forward to reading.  Yay!

Here's today's roundup. I'm looking forward to reading that, too!

Friday, March 03, 2017

Reading Update

Book 6 of the year was Love Well: Living Life Unrehearsed and Unstuck, by Jamie George.  "God does not delete your story - " writes George, "He redeems it!"  He shares his own experiences with God redeeming his life story.

Book 7 was News of the World, by Paulette Jiles.  It's 1870.  Johanna was abducted from her family when she was six, and now that she is ten, she's been ransomed and she's on her way "home."  Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a a man who travels around and reads newspapers to audiences who pay a dime each to hear the "news of the world."  He's agreed to take Johanna back to her original family, whether or not she wants to go.  I loved this book, with its intricately detailed portrayal of Johanna and Captain Kidd, and the way they grow in importance to one another.  Highly recommended.

Book 8 was Ann Patchett's latest book, Commonwealth.  It took me a while to figure out what was going on here, because there were lots of characters whom I couldn't keep straight very well.  But when, about halfway through, I figured it out, I was glad I hadn't given up.  The book explores issues about childhood, siblings, and how much of our story belongs to us.

Book 9 was The Girl with All the Gifts, by M. R. Carey.  If I had known what this book was about, I wouldn't have picked it up, and that would have been a shame.  I know that is no help at all for you if you're trying to decide whether to read it, but I think it's best read without knowing too much about it, since you're supposed to realize the situation gradually.

Book 10 was The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country, by Helen Russell.  I hadn't read any of the current spate of Denmark books, and knew very little about the country.  I learned a lot reading this book, written by a British woman whose husband got a job at Lego, sending the couple to Denmark for a year.  It's a mixture of very personal memoir and investigative journalism, and great fun.

Book 11 was Three Sisters, Three Queens, by Philippa Gregory.  I have been waiting for this to become available for download from my library ever since it came out.  The three queens of the title are Katherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII, and her two sisters-in-law, Mary and Margaret.  I'm quite familiar with Katherine and Mary, but Margaret's story is much less known, and while it's pretty harrowing - like all the Tudors and anybody who came near them, particularly women, Margaret had a rough time of it - it also makes for exciting and entertaining reading.  I think I've read all Philippa Gregory's novels about the Plantagenets and Tudors, and now I'm ready for the next one!

Book 12 was A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving.  I've wanted to read this ever since a good friend mentioned years ago that it was her favorite book.  I read it aloud to my husband, and since it's over 600 pages long, it took us a while.  This was only my second Irving book, and my husband's first.  Owen Meany is an unforgettable character, and I loved the leisurely manner in which the story is told.  At times hilarious, at times reverent, at times shocking and profane (language and content alerts for days), always vivid, this is the story of John and Owen's friendship against the backdrop of the late sixties and the beginning of the Vietnam War.  John Irving is a simply brilliant writer, and it's a pleasure watching this story unfold.  As John is trying to figure out how he will handle the threat of the draft, he tells Owen that he wants to go on reading, as a student and a teacher: "I'm just a reader."  Owen tells him that's nothing to be ashamed of, because reading is a gift.  It certainly is, when there are books like this to be read.

This post is linked to the March 4th Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon.

It's also linked to Modern Mrs. Darcy's "What I'm Reading Lately" post for March.

Poetry Friday: Strange Lands

Today, in honor of Billy Collins' 76th birthday this month, we have an all-Billy episode of Poetry Friday.  Our host, Heidi, suggests that "all who care to will post a favorite Billy Collins poem (or Billy-inspired original)." I've got one of each - one of his and one of mine - for you today.

I've been thinking a lot about photography lately, since I'm doing a year-long photo-a-day project.  For the last couple of years, I've also done a photo-a-day project during Lent, so this year during Lent (which started on Wednesday), I'm posting two photos each day on Facebook, responding to prompts I got here as well as the regular ones I got here.  I'm very much an amateur photographer; my husband bought me a nice camera that is able to do way more than I know how to do, but I'm experimenting and learning, and having all kinds of thoughts about connections between photography and writing, photography and being fully present in the moment, and photography and love.  Maybe I'll develop some of these thoughts further in writing in the future.  

Meanwhile, I picked the Billy Collins poem "Strange Lands" to share today.  This poem is from Collins' 1988 collection  The Apple that Astonished Paris.  In the poem, people back from a trip pass out their vacation photos, "like little mirrors," to friends after dinner.  Isn't that quaint and old-fashioned?  Even though the technology is dated, though, I like what the poem has to say about taking pictures and why we share them with others: "to make them believe we really found / some sweet elsewhere, away from here."  

Here's the poem:

Strange Lands
 by Billy Collins

The photographs of the summer trip are spread
across the table now like little mirrors
reflecting our place in European history.

They are the booty of travel, bordered and colorful,
split seconds that we pass to friends after dinner
one by one to make them believe we really found
some sweet elsewhere, away from here.

There we are, the familiar gazing out of the foreign,
stopped in front of a carved Cistercian door,
or leaning obliquely against a kiosk;
frozen behind a blue and white Della Robbia,
or parked at a café table strewn with phrasebooks,
obscured there in the underexposed shadow of an awning.

Here's the rest, including the travelers walking on after taking a photo, "unfocused, unphotographed...two blurs," as though they really only fully exist when they are documenting their travels.  

I wish Billy Collins would update this poem, but in the meantime, I tried my hand at it.  I sound a bit more negative and cynical about social media than I really am; I enjoy connecting with people that way, but it is, let's face it, a pale substitute for being with our friends in person. 

Strange Lands on Social Media
by Ruth, from

The photographs of the trip are posted,

like little digital gifts,
ready for friends all over to like,
be startled or saddened or angered by,
or even love.
Pics, or it didn’t happen.

See what a good time we’re having?
That’s us, in the pictures,
smiling, or posing ironically duck-faced.
That’s what we ate, what we drank, 

artfully arranged and gleaming,
the walks we took.
Those are the sights we saw,
and you can see them now, too.

We can’t share the smells or tastes or textures with you - yet -
But you can experience some of the sounds in this short video.

Hear those exotic birds?  Those foreign-sounding voices?
(Feel free to share.)

Do you have any comments for us?
If so, we’d like to read them.

We wish you were here,
next to us,
laughing and swapping stories,

spilling your drinks in an unpicturesque manner,
instead of far away,
scrolling through our photos 

on your phone.

Here's today's roundup. 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Poetry Friday: How to Mend a Broken Vase

At an early meeting of my writing group, a member shared the Frank O'Hara poem "Why I Am Not a Painter".  It was photocopied from a book, and it was prefaced by this suggestion: "Make a title beginning with 'How' or 'Three Ways That...' or some such implied promise, and then in your poem that follows break or defy the promise, or complicate it."

The poem that follows was my effort to respond to that prompt.  This is a second draft, changed using some of the group's criticisms.

How to Mend a Broken Vase

First, gather up the shards.
Don’t forget that the shattering sent them in all directions;
There’s one, under the fridge,
And over there is another.
You’ll probably be finding pieces for quite a while.

Once you have them all picked up,
Put them in a pile,
And stare at them.

Think about whatever possessed you
To pick up that vase full of dead flowers
With butter on your hands
And scold yourself roundly.

When you’re ready, get to work with the glue.
Make a smeary mess.
Peel glue off your fingers and try again.
Cut yourself on pieces of glass,
Drop some on the ground and step on them,
Generally fail to mend the broken vase.

Give up.

Leave the pile where it is
And get irritated with it every time you see it.

Start enjoying the way the slivers of glass
Shine and sparkle as the light hits them.
Think about what you could add
To make a mosaic.

If, by chance,
It is your heart instead of a vase that you have carelessly
Allowed to get broken,
The same procedure will work.

Ruth, from

 Karen Edmisten has the roundup for this week.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Poetry Friday: Love, by Classic Authors, and by Me

This week, in honor of Valentine's Day, that festival of hormones and sugar, I read love poetry with my eighth graders.  I chose some classic poems to share with them, and I made the point every day that people throughout history have had some of the same experiences and emotions as we do now, even though their technology and surroundings were very different.  On Monday we read Michael Drayton's "Since there's no help," on Tuesday "The Constant Lover," by John Suckling, on Wednesday "To Lucasta, On Going to the Wars," by Richard Lovelace, and on Thursday, Ezra Pound's "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter." 

I framed "Since there's no help" as "a break-up poem," and taught the word ambivalent to discuss the difference between Drayton's claim: "And I am glad, yea glad with all my heart, /That thus so cleanly I myself can free" and then his wistful suggestion in the couplet at the end that his girlfriend might be able to make their love recover, even at this point.  We also talked about the amazing metaphor of their relationship as a patient in a hospital bed.  Here's the poem, or you can read this photo I took of my handout, on the floor, with footprints on it.

(By the way, I really think ambivalent is a highly useful vocabulary word, no matter how old you are, and I was reinforced in this belief by the delighted response of a girl in the front row as I explained that you could feel both that you loved someone and that you hated that person, or both happy and sad, and that was called ambivalence: "Hey!  That's how I feel!")

Tuesday's poem, "The Constant Lover," was a chance to talk about how it feels to have crushes on lots of people at once.  I taught the word constant (used ironically in the poem), and we evaluated the idea that if this girl Suckling is currently in love with were any less wonderful than she is, he'd have loved a dozen dozen others during the three days he's loved her.  How much is a dozen dozen?  (Someone always says twenty-four, but then we figure out that it's...well, look at what my white board said.)  Here's Suckling's poem.

On Wednesday, with "To Lucasta, Going to the Wars," we looked at the idea of going off to war, from the point of view of the guy who's leaving, and from the point of view of the girl who's getting left behind.  And that fabulous line: "I could not love thee, dear, so much, loved I not honour more."  Here's that poem.  I just about jumped for joy today when an eighth grader turned in a response from Lucasta.

And then on Thursday, with "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter," we talked about arranged marriages and falling in love with someone you're already committed to, the opposite of the way we think of it today in the culture we live in.  Being married at fourteen to someone your parents picked for you?  Ew!  (Although one boy remarked, "Well, it depends who it is.")  But missing someone you love?  They have all experienced that.  Here's that poem.

I absolutely love all these poems, and you probably already know (especially if you're a teacher) that the students aren't quite as enthusiastic about them as I am.  But still, we have fun.  Yes, we do!

For my own love, I wrote a sonnet as my Valentine's gift, and he was very pleased with it and gave me permission to share it here.  You will probably recognize my opening couplet as a borrowing from William Shakespeare.  My husband and I were in a seminar together in college where we read all of Shakespeare's sonnets.  (We met in college, when I was still a teenager, and got married when I was twenty-one.)

Valentine for my Husband

“Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come.”

In all these years of Monday - Friday weeks
Our hair’s grown grayer, happy days and glum
Have been and gone.  Our fortunes rise and fall,
We’re sick, then well, our children quickly grow,
And still our love abides, and through it all
We learn some more of what we need to know.

It’s thirty years since we first read those lines.
Back then we thought we understood how time
Would reinforce our love, how Valentines,
Poems, and roses would endure, sublime.
Earthquakes of life we didn’t then foresee,
And yet, here we still are, my love and me.

by Ruth, from

Here's today's roundup.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Poetry Friday: Waiting

On Tuesday morning I was listening to the radio, and I heard a Syrian refugee talk about his journey to the US, interrupted by the travel ban but then completed when the ban was lifted.  It struck me that this is the story of humanity: ordinary people's lives getting altered by what people with power decide to do, and how those ordinary people make the best of it.  What I heard turned into this poem.

Waiting, February 2017

The voice on the radio, according to the interpreter, says:
“I waited very long in Istanbul.”

I wonder how many times in history
This exact phrase has been used:

“I waited very long in Istanbul.”

And before that:

“I waited very long in Constantinople.”

And before that:

“I waited very long in Byzantium.”

For three thousand years,
People have waited,
Observing the vagaries of empire, war, and power,
Without being able to do much about them.

There’s baklava,
Turkish tea and coffee,
A cruise down the Bosphorus,
A Turkish bath.

I wonder how many of these things
And the other delights of Turkey
Came into being
To entertain those who were waiting,
Waiting very long in Istanbul.

Ruth, from

When I shared this poem with my writing group, one of the members played this song:

I did some research on Istanbul for the poem, and now I really want to go.  Check out this link on fifty things to do there.

Here's today's roundup.