Sunday, January 31, 2016

January 31: Worry Worries, Another Evaluation, Classic Saint Marty

Welcome to the start of my morning.  Yes, it is quite early (a little past eight o'clock).  I find myself with some unexpected time on my hands this a.m., which almost NEVER happens.  So, I decided to make constructive use of these first minutes of my day by doing my daily blog post.

It's going to be a busy day.  I have much to accomplish--grading and reading and lesson planning.  Above, I have to complete my annual evaluation document for the university.  I worked several hours on it last night, and I will complete and submit it this afternoon.  This year, I am asking for a promotion, so there's quite a bit of extra pressure to make this little 40-page book as good as I can.  After 23 years of teaching at this institution, I am hoping that I won't be turned down.

In a few minutes, I have to go pick up my kids from grandma's house to take them to church.  They will be grumpy.  My daughter will be sighing and rolling her eyes, probably.  My son will whine and stomp his feet.  That pretty much describes the whole process.  It's fairly predictable.  I'm not complaining.  I'm an adult who understands the importance of a spiritual component in a person's life.  My kids are 14 and 7.  They understand the importance of sleeping in and playing computer games.

Two years ago, I was pretty much doing the same thing that I'm doing today:  working on my annual evaluation.  Strange how things change and yet stay the same, year after year.  Evaluation worries.  Kid worries.  Money worries.  Car worries.  Worry worries. 

January 31, 2014:  Surprise Work, End of a Long Day, Fairy Tale Work

It's going to be a busy weekend.  My daughter's ballet recital is tomorrow night.  That means she has a two hour rehearsal this evening and a two hour rehearsal tomorrow afternoon.  Then the show in the evening.  I am basically going to be a shuttle service Friday and Saturday.  And I still have to do some house cleaning to make some money.

On top of all that, I received an e-mail this morning from the English Department.  I have to write a document for my annual evaluation, and it's due by 5 p.m. on Monday.  I'm going to have to get that done this evening.  It's my only free time in the next few days.  Surprise work.  I have a feeling that, by Sunday afternoon, I'm going to be one tired little saint.

When Charlotte gets to the Fair Grounds with Wilbur, she's tired.  The end is very near for her, and she knows it.  Wilbur has no idea his friend is nearing the final days of her life:

"I'm awfully sorry to hear that you're feeling poorly, Charlotte," he said.  "Perhaps if you spin a web and catch a couple of flies you'll feel better."

"Perhaps," she said, wearily.  "But I feel like the end of a long day."  Clinging upside down to the ceiling, she settled down for a nap, leaving Wilbur very much worried.

Charlotte goes with Wilbur to the Fair because she knows her work is not finished.  Even when she feels like the end of a long day, she still has to save her friend's life.  At the end of my life, I know I'm going to be exactly like Charlotte.  There's still going to be some task I need to complete.  One last thing to do.  Work never goes away.  It just goes undone.

Once upon a time, there lived an old farmhand named Lotta.  Lotta rose every day before the sun, labored all day in the barn and fields, and fell into bed long after the sun was on the other side of the world.  Lotta never took vacations, and the milk from her cows was known to be the best in the kingdom.

One day, Lotta died, and nobody was there to take over her chores.  The cows went unmilked.  The corn rotted on the stalks.  And the pigs died of starvation.

Moral of the story:  Farms are a whole Lotta work.

And Saint Marty lived happily ever after.

Who does give a damn?

Saturday, January 30, 2016

January 30: Different Code, Santa Claus, Sandra Beasley, "August," Off the Top of My Head

When I was quite young I fondly imagined that all foreign languages were codes for English.  I thought that "hat," say, was the real and actual name of the thing, but that people in other countries, who obstinately persisted in speaking the code of their forefathers, might use the word "ibu," say to designate not merely the concept hat, but the English word "hat."  I knew only one foreign word, "oui," and since it had three letters as did the word for which it was a code, it seemed, touchingly enough, to confirm my theory.  Each foreign language was a different code, I figured, and at school I would eventually be given the keys to unlock some of the most important codes' systems.  Of course I knew that it might take years before I became so fluent in another language that I could code and decode easily in my head, and make of gibberish a nimble sense.  On the first day of my first French course, however, things rapidly took on an entirely unexpected shape.  I realized that I was going to have to learn speech all over again, word by word, one word at a time--and my dismay knew no bounds.

It's a completely kid thing to think.  The whole world, everything that is mysterious and confusing, is a coded message, and, as we get older, we are given the keys to these codes.  Suddenly, speaking Russian and Mandarin is as simple as doing a crossword puzzle or reading a map.  Inevitably, Annie Dillard learns the truth, as we all do:  the world is complicated and, at times, unknowable.

When I was a kid, I believed in Santa Claus a lot longer than most of my contemporaries.  While my friends begged their parents to buy them Commodore 64's and Atari game systems, I simply thought to myself "suckers!" and fired off a letter to the North Pole.  I was unwilling to let go of the idea of magic existing in the world.  Flying reindeer and a jolly Christmas elf with a bottomless bag of gifts.

Long about fifth grade (yes, fifth grade!), I had to let go of magic and, as Dillard, my dismay knew no bounds.  The world suddenly became, at once, smaller and larger.  More confusing.  Death and poverty.  Incredible wealth and incredible poverty.  And languages--all kind of languages--separating the peoples of the world.  I suddenly understood, in a much deeper way, the story of the Tower of Babel.  No code existed to unlock the divisions of country and religion and culture.  Santa Claus did not unite us all.

However, I still hold on to the idea, the possibility, of mystery.  I believe that the universe is divinely, infinitely miraculous.  That is the basis of hope, and hope is why I get out of bed in the morning, go to work, teach, read, write blog posts and poems.  I think that's what Santa Claus is all about, too.  Santa allows kids to put a face to the longings of their lives.  The empty holes.  Santa is mystery with a smile.  Hope with a big round belly, trimmed in red fur.

Yes, loss is a part of life (the burning up of the past, as in Sandra Beasley's poem below).  Phobias and fears are abundant (death, spiders in the shower).  However, each day is an opportunity for newness, for the blossoming of something beautiful and redemptive.

Maybe Saint Marty still believes in Santa Claus.


by:  Sandra Beasley

Sooner or later, the thing you value most will beg to be burned.
Trust me, says the phoenix, I'm immortal.  Watch your childhood
home--how the wires fray, how the baseboards splinter to tinder.
Your nights are split open by steam and the writhing of hoses.

Your sister learns to thicken gasoline with jelly, collects cannisters;
the man you love shares a mouthful of smoke with someone else.
Trust me.  Even Joan of Arc, age ten, tanned her arms as she tended
the sheep.  I'm immortal.  Tomorrow will rise to a full boil but still

you'll strip down, lay out, you'll slick the thin oil over your chest.
For six night before the city blazed Nero could not sleep, pacing
the palace balcony.  He fiddled to ease his nerves.  Pretty tune,
whispered Rome:  lips licked with flame, mouth readying to sing.

Off the Top of My Head

Friday, January 29, 2016

January 29: The Mockingbird, Tireless, Sandra Beasley, "The Experiment"

The birds have started singing in the valley.  Their February squawks and naked chirps are fully fledged now, and long lyrics fly in the air.  Birdsong catches in the mountains' rim and pools in the valley; it threads through forests, it slides down creeks.  At the house a wonderful thing happens.  The mockingbird that nests each year in the front-yard spruce strikes up his chant in high places, and one of those high places in my chimney.  When he sings there, the hollow chimney acts as a soundbox, like the careful emptiness inside a cello or violin, and the notes of the song gather fullness and reverberate through the house.  He sings a phrase and repeats it exactly; then he sings another and repeats that, then another.  The mockingbird's invention is limitless; he strews newness about as casually as a god.  He is tireless, too; toward June he will begin his daily marathon at two in the morning and scarcely pause for breath until eleven at night.  I don't know when he sleeps.

I love this paragraph about birds and birdsong.  I think it appeals to me right now because it is about the coming of spring.  A thaw in the air.  The return of boisterous life.  Whistles.  Chirps.  Squawks.  And the mockingbird, this creature that copies and repeats, invents and reinvents, over and over, from before daybreak until after nightfall.  A tireless harbinger of newness.

I sometimes feel like that mockingbird.  Not the prophet-of-spring bird.  No, I associate myself more with the up-before-dawn-and-work-until-midnight bird.  Dillard says that she doesn't know when the mockingbird sleeps.  I get that.  This morning, I got up at 4:45 to shovel snow.  Then I worked all day and took care of my kids most of the evening and night.  It is 10 p.m. now, and I just got back home a little less than an hour ago.  Probably won't get to bed until around midnight.  Are you seeing what I'm saying?  I AM that mockingbird.

I'm used to being near exhaustion around this time.  Some nights, I can barely keep my eyes open.  I sit on the couch and fall asleep during the ten o'clock news.  I simply don't have time to slow down or be tired during the day.  If I were a mockingbird, my call would go something like this:  "Too much to do!  Too much to do!  Too much to do!"

I am not complaining.  I am just bone tired of this week of snow and shoveling.  Tomorrow (Saturday) I get to sleep in until 7 a.m.  That might not sound like a big deal, but, for a person who usually rises between 4:30 and five every morning, it's a very big deal.  Those extra two hours of slumber are Rip Van Winkle hours.  Deep and long.

That's the extent of my wisdom tonight--naps are good.  I am going to leave the inspiration to Poet of the Week Sandra Beasley.

Time for Saint Marty to close his eyes, at least until Jimmy Fallon starts or I wake up twenty years in the future.

The Experiment

by:  Sandra Beasley

My mother mixed sugar and water in a jar.

I laid the thin sheet of cotton down on garden stone.

Her brush trailed islands across the paper--

one, two, a Fiji, a Hokkaido,

coastlines she'd seen only in magazines--

while I caught eight caterpillars and hunkered down,

cupping their fuzzy, blind blue, and as she lifted her brush

I fed them onto the edge of the page.

Then, a bath.  A card game.  Sandwiches.  Braiding.

Years later, she'll say she had never wanted children.

When we checked again the caterpillars were gone,

sugared spots chewed away.  Our map of hunger,

she said, holding the latticed sheet up to the sun--

light casting an archipelago across her face.

Just because it makes me laugh...

Thursday, January 28, 2016

January 28: Upside-down in the Sky, Snow, Sandra Beasely, The Story of My family

It snowed.  It snowed all yesterday and never emptied the sky, although the clouds looked so low and heavy they might drop all at once with a thud.  The light is diffuse and hueless, like the light on paper inside a pewter bowl.  The snow looks light and the sky dark, but in fact the sky is lighter than the snow.  Obviously the thing illuminated cannot be lighter than its illuminator.  The classical demonstration of this point involves simply laying a mirror flat on the snow so that it reflects in its surface the sky, and comparing by sight his value to that of the snow.  This is all very well, even conclusive, but the illusion persists.  The dark is overhead and the light at my feet; I'm walking upside-down in the sky.

Snow has a way of disorienting a person, as Dillard points out.  The sky dark as a skunk belly, the ground light as a winter weasel.  The universe inverted by the weather.  Of course, it's a visual trick--a matter of the reflection of daylight on the surface of freshly falling snow.  That doesn't make it any less of a (pardon my language) mind fuck.

That particular condition ruled the day in my little corner of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Light and dark playing that winter shell game.  I woke up to a whole lot of snow.  I shoveled my driveway in the early morning dark, and, indeed, all the illumination seemed to be coming from the drifts of freshly fallen powder.  If I hadn't been so annoyed about having to shovel at five o'clock in the morning, I may have appreciated the beauty and strangeness of the phenomenon.

And the snow continued all . . . day .  . . long.  It didn't let up.  By the time I got home after work, all of my shoveling work from the morning had been undone.  I had to spend yet another hour moving snow.  And again, the sky was a chalkboard slate, and the ground was a dry erase board.  It really did feel, as Dillard says, like I was walking upside-down in the sky.  Or that the sky had fallen, and I was pushing around pieces of it.

My book club met tonight.  It didn't go quite as planned.  Because of the snow, the author of the book we read this month had to cancel.  He cited wind and blowing snow and an abiding phobia of driving in such conditions. 

So, the members of my book club cane.  We ate, gossiped, ate some more, and talked about the book.  Of course, the author's absence made the discussion a little more digressive than usual, topics ranging from work problems to home problems.  We talked about headcheese and grape sherbet.  About obsession and loss.  And that was in just the first five minutes. 

The author is rescheduling for next month, and I am ready to go to bed.  I know that posts this week have been a little sparse.  I apologize for that.  Too much to do,  not enough time to do it in.  This weekend, more fun:  I have a huge project to complete--my annual evaluation and promotion request.  It's a pretty big deal.  I can't drop this ball.

Saint Marty has a poem this evening about light and family.

The Story of My Family

by:  Sandra Beasley

You're a tooth I tongue and tongue,
tasting blood as you loosen,

testing the sweet root of the hole.
The shudder and catch, the god spit,

and though I dip the bone in gold,
no lover wants to wear a necklace

of you.  Carry you in my pocket
and you smolder.  Sow the field with you

and you sprout in hours, white tops
thrusting through the meal soil--

one book says a bean pushes its husk
away, hauling the used body to the surface,

one book says the army is born whole,
fingers scratching toward any light.

Break out the shovels . . .

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

January 26: Merton's Prayer, Battling Time, Poet of the Week, Sandra Beasley, "Holiday"

My God, I look at the creek.  It is the answer to Merton's prayer, "Give us time!"  It never stops.  If I seek the senses and skill of children, the information of a thousand books, the innocence of puppies, even the insights of my own city past, I do so only, solely, and entirely that I might look well at the creek.  You don't run down the present, pursue it with baited hooks and nets.  You wait for it, empty-handed, and you are filled.  You'll have fish left over.  The creek is the one great giver.  It is, by definition, Christmas, the incarnation.  This old rock planet gets the present for a present on its birthday every day.

Dillard is all about time.  The passing of the seasons.  Winter giving way to spring.  No matter how hard we pray, time is simply slipping away all the time, like the water at Tinker Creek.  The present, basically, is all we get.  The past and future are simply different versions of present-was and present-will-be.

Sorry about my absence last night.  Thomas Merton prays, "Give us time!"  That's exactly what I needed last night and tonight.  More time.  But the clock beat me.  At 11 p.m., I was brain dead.  I fell into bed and went to sleep almost immediately.

I've been battling time this evening, as well.  Time is winning.  It is nearly 11:30 p.m. now, and I know that, in a few hours, I will hear the plows come roaring up and down my street, throwing a good foot of snow into my driveway.  I need to get to sleep.

This week, I have chosen Sandra Beasely as Poet of the Week.  And tonight's poem is about Christmas, since we only have 333 more shopping days left.

Saint Marty is feeling the crunch.


by:  Sandra Beasley

The tree is a spruce monster, refusing to fit--
so my father decapitates it with a handsaw.
We drape the body with tinsel before
he weaves in bulbs, their white and steady light,
and sneaks in his blinkers of blue and green.
This year there are strikes:  my sister refuses
to open her advent calendar until he sees a doctor;
my father refuses to see a doctor, popping Excedrin;
my mother votes for a cruise, her sister's house
anywhere she won't have to hang ornaments.
We thumb through her maps and clippings,
but it's that familiar silver that fills our palms,
tinsel we'll be picking from the carpet until May.
On the Eve we open one gift, make one toast, feast:
curried vegetables, green beans and bacon,
wine and more wine, always a knife sharp enough
to cut the roast of our hearts.  A lover said I've never
seen people trying so hard to make each other happy
manage to make each other so miserable.  Clearly, I said,
you do not understand the true meaning of Christmas.
Tonight we'll wrap gifts until dawn, alone
in our many rooms.  The house quiet except for
my father's cough; except for twenty-five chocolates
rattling behind twenty-five unopened windows,
except for my sister stringing up angels, in one hand
their tiny napes of neck and in the other hand, a hook.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

January 24: Work and More Work, Laughter Instead of Tears, Classic Saint Marty

All I have done all day long is work and more work.

I put together a presentation for my Wednesday night class.  I updated my Curriculum Vita for my upcoming annual evaluation and promotion.  Then I made a lesson plan for the class I teach tomorrow afternoon.  Finally, I read about 100 pages of a textbook.  I am pretty much brain dead.

At the end of this day, this weekend, I can honestly say that I did not accomplish half the stuff I wanted to accomplish over the last three days, but I never do.  That's the way my life goes. Big plan.  Not enough time.  I know that I don't always use my time wisely.  I pleasure read too much.  Maybe spend too much time playing with my son or watching American Idol.  Yet, as I get ready for bed, it feels like I still have miles to go before I sleep.  Miles to go before I sleep.

Today's episode of Classic Saint Marty first aired four years ago.  It's about taking joy in small, daily blessings.  Embracing light instead of dark.  Choosing laughter instead of tears.

January 24, 2012:  Happiness, Finding Happiness, Small Stuff

He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows; and found that everything could yield him pleasure.  He had never dreamed that any walk--that anything--could give him so much happiness.

Of course, this passage describes the Ebenezer Scrooge from the end of the novel, not the beginning.  In the beginning, Scrooge never looks up.  He keeps his nose to the ground and avoids human contact like a testy skunk, always ready to unleash his particular cloud of venom upon the world.  The Scrooge in this passage seeks out human interaction, goes searching the streets and alleys and street corners for opportunities to spread and receive joy.  He is a changed man, finding pleasure in beggars and bishops.

I would love to live my life the way the redeemed Scrooge lives his life.  I would love to find pleasure in everything, no matter what.  Of course, Scrooge has to be literally scared witless before he reaches this condition of perpetual happiness.  I'm not sure I want to go to those lengths (you know, visiting my own neglected grave) in order to attain the Scrooge state, though.  I'm wondering if I can reach enlightenment without so much...I don't know...drama, I guess.  I mean, I'm not quite as bad as Scrooge.  I don't kick small children and eat gruel every night for dinner.

Of course, I can make the choice to be happy.  Scrooge's problems haven't disappeared.  He still has business to conduct, debts to pay.  The difference is that he isn't letting those details ruin his life.  He's choosing to spread joy instead of grief.  He's not sweating the small stuff.

I have problems.  Sometimes those problems seem overpowering.  I need to stop letting my problems run my life.  I need to see the good in people and circumstances, not the bad.  That should be my goal for the day.  Not letting the small annoyances of my world bother me.

Saint Marty is doing his part to make the world a better place.  Really, he is.  He is, dammit.
Spreading Christmas spirit all year...

Saturday, January 23, 2016

January 23: Caddisfly Larva, Flight 145, Terry Godbey, "Rwandan Mother, 1994," Off the Top of My Head

When we lose our innocence--when we start feeling the weight of the atmosphere and learn that there's death in the pot--we take leave of our senses. Only children can hear the song of the male house mouse. Only children keep their eyes open. The only thing they have got is sense; they have highly developed "input systems," admitting all data indiscriminately. Matt Spireng has collected thousands of arrowheads and spearheads; he says that if you really want to find arrowheads, you  must walk with a child--a child will pick up everything. All my adult life I have wished to see the cemented case of a caddisfly larva. It took Sally Moore, the young daughter of friends, to find one on the pebbled bottom of a shallow stream on whose bank we sat side by side. "What's this?" she asked. That, I wanted to say as I recognized the prize she held, is a memento mori for people who read too much.

Dillard is right.  Children's senses are unfiltered, curiosity unlimited.  They hear things adults don't hear, smell things adults don't smell, notice things adults don't notice.  As we age, Dillard notes, we lose our innocence, and, with our innocence, goes our sense of wonder, as well.  The world becomes a place to be tamed and controlled, used for a purpose.  The universe becomes smaller and smaller the older we get.

I am at McDonald's right now, eating a burger.  My son is outside, in his snow gear, finding chunks of snow that are dinosaur eggs, pieces of ice that were spears in the siege of Troy.  In a little while, he'll come back inside, red-cheeked and breathless, returning from his expedition to the North Pole.  McDonald's is full of everything wondrous, like Christmas morning or Halloween night.

I wish I could see things the way my son does.  My vision is limited.  I have adult blinders on, too focused on what comes next.  I'm at McDonald's, but I'm thinking about cleaning my house tonight.  When I'm cleaning my house tonight, I will be thinking about the members of my Book Club coming to my house this coming Thursday night.  Thursday night, I will be thinking of Friday and the coming weekend.  That's the way adults work.  The present is just a layover to the past and future for us.  I can hear the announcement crackling over the speakers:  "Now boarding, Flight 145 for Saturday night.  Toilet scrubbing and vacuuming."

As a poet, and Christian, I know that the present is all we get.  The cheeseburger in front of me.  The French fries burning my lips.  And the sky outside, blue as a glass of raspberry Gatorade.  That's it.  Last night, I went to a basketball game with my daughter and her friend who's a boy.  I can't get that back.  Tomorrow, I may have a chili dinner at my parents' house, or not.  I may go to a movie.  Or not.  The future is an empty computer screen.

I accept the blessings I have now.  Try to notice them the way my son does.  Unfiltered and new.

Saint Marty needs to go now.  He has to catch his flight for the afternoon in order to make his connecting flight to tomorrow morning.

Terry Godbey and a lesson from the past . . .

Rwandan Mother, 1994

by:  Terry Godbey

          In three months, at least 800,000 people were murdered.

Her little girls are clotted with fat flies.
She screams to scare away the mob of vultures
and curses God for keeping her alive.
She cannot move her legs, heavy as cooking pots.

She screams to scare away the mob of vultures.
Still she sees the doctor swinging his machete.
He forced apart her legs, heavy as cooking pots,
fire blooming in her throat and belly.

Still she sees the doctor swinging his machete,
even a priest--men she did and did not know--
fire blooming in their throats and bellies
as they kicked and beat her, spit into her face.

Even a priest--men she did and did not know--
slashed her daughters' slender necks,
kicked and beat her, spit into her face.
She waits for the clods of dirt to drop.

They slashed her daughters' slender necks.
She curses God for keeping her alive
and waits for the clods of dirt to drop.
Her little girls are clotted with fat flies.

Off the Top of My Head

January 22: Curse of the City, Fearless, Terry Godbey, "Descent"

Self-consciousness is the curse of the city and all that sophistication implies.  It is the glimpse of oneself in a storefront window, the unbidden awareness of reactions on the faces of other people--the novelist's world, not the poet's.  I've lived there.  I remember what the city has to offer:  human companionship, major-league baseball, and a clatter of quickening stimulus like a rush from strong drugs that leaves you drained.  I remember how you bide your time in the city, and think, if you stop to think, "next year . . . I'll start living; next year . . . I'll start my life."  Innocence is a better world.

I love that Annie Dillard says that self-consciousness is a glimpse of "the novelist's world, not the poet's."  The novelist, with a wider canvas and more space and time, lives in a fictional city, surrounded by faces and storefront windows.  More opportunity for reflections.  The poet, however, lives in a cave on top of a mountain.  In a tent on the edge of a volcano.  In a cabin on the banks of Tinker Creek.  Singular.  Alone.  Innocent.

I think I spend way too much time worrying about people's opinions of me.  In the medical office where I work, I feel scrutinized.  Constantly.  How many phone calls I answer.  How many patients I register.  How much money I collect.  How many registration forms I scan.  How much time I spend answering, registering, collecting, and scanning.  At the university, I get observed by a full-time professor every fall; evaluated by students at the end of every semester; ranked by another group of full-timers every winter.  Someone is looking over my shoulder all day, every day.

I think that's why I write poetry.  The un-self-consciousness of it.  I don't have to think about other people.  It's just me and a pen and my journal.  That doesn't mean that audience never crosses my mind.  Of course, I want to publish.  However, I do not live in a poetic city.  I live in a poetic monastery.  A poetic Fortress of Solitude.  It's a smaller, more insulated place.  Poets are fearless.  No subject is too scary or dangerous or outrageous.

It is Friday.  I have a whole weekend of not worrying about work or teaching.  Nobody staring me down.  No cross-examinations.  Tomorrow morning, I will simply get up, go to McDonald's with my wife and son and sister, and do exactly what I want.  I will blog.  Read.  Maybe work on a new poem or draw a cartoon.

Saint Marty is living large and free and fearless for the next three days.

Terry Godbey is pretty damn fearless, too...


by:  Terry Godbey

          . . . imagine the eyes staring back
               ---Newsweek article on Andrea Yeats
                         July 2, 2001

Was it like gazing into an aquarium,
looking into their eyes,
tendrils of hair still swaying,
as the bubbles stopped,
their legs quit kicking.
Nothing could stop her
as she drowned her five children
one by one, last night's boats
and ducks bobbing nearby,
after sending her husband
off to work with a kiss.
Did she tell the boys she was doing it
for their own good, that worn phrase
from every mother's lexicon,
or was she silent,
though they surely weren't?
As she wrestled
the 7-year-old into the tub
next to his baby sister,
he must have screamed Mommy, no!
but the woman who read him stories
and kissed his skinned knees
was as irretrievable
as his little brothers, lined up on the bed
like dolls.  He must have seen
that her eyes, floating above him,
were already dead.

Somebody's always watching....

Thursday, January 21, 2016

January 21: Brome, Finding Your Brigadoon, Terry Godbey, "Poison"

I am absolutely alone.  There are no other customers.  The road is vacant, the interstate is out of sight and earshot.  I have hazarded into a new corner of the world, an unknown spot, a Brigadoon.  Before me extends a low hill trembling in yellow brome, and behind the hill, filling the sky, rises an enormous mountain ridge, forested, alive and awesome with brilliant blown lights.  I have never seen anything so tremulous and live.  Overhead, great strips and chunks of cloud dash to the northwest in a gold rush.  At my back the sun is setting--how can I not have noticed before that the sun is setting?  My mind has been a blank slab of black asphalt for hours, but that doesn't stop the sun's wild wheel.  I set my coffee beside me on the curb; I smell loam on the wind; I pat the puppy; I watch the mountains.

I had no idea idea what "brome" was when I first read this paragraph.  It's not an everyday word.  In fact, if I tried to use it in a conversation tomorrow, I would be, like Dillard, absolutely alone, the subject of blank stares and confused smiles.  Dillard is contemplating the state of aloneness.  She has purposely driven into her own private Brigadoon, a place in time that is timeless.  And she finds herself untethered in her isolation.  (By the way, "brome" is a kind of decorative grass.)

During my work days, I frequently experience this same feeling of alienation.  In the medical office, I am the odd man out (literally--I am one of two men in an office of close to 40 employees).  On top of my gender, I'm a poet and college professor.  None of my coworkers share my love for the written word.  At the last medical office in which I worked, I had coworkers who read the same books I read, listened to my poems.  They got me.  I don't get "got" very much on a daily basis anymore.

Of course, aloneness is not always negative.  In fact, after a long day of answering phones, registering patients, teaching classes, I welcome the silence of an empty house.  For instance, today was insanely busy at the medical office.  When I clocked out this afternoon, I was ready to join a Trappist monastery and take a vow of silence.

That is why I write.  It's about meditation and inspiration.  Time outside of time.  It's also about being comfortable with yourself.  Finding your own Brigadoon.  (If you are not familiar with the story of Brigadoon, it is about a small Scottish village that appears for one day every one hundred years.  Brigadoon's citizens exist outside of time and place, in a state of mythic isolation.)

All artists require a certain amount of Brigadoon in their lives.  Creation is a solitary, not communal, act.  I find myself a little too crowded most days to think about writing a poem or story or essay.  Tonight, when I fall asleep, I'm not going to dream of the misty highlands of Scotland.  I'm going to dream of ringing phones and voices.  Piercing and insistent.

That monastery is sounding better and better to Saint Marty

A little poem about being alone among people...


by:  Terry Godbey

My grandmother, a wisecracker,
burned brightly at the head of the table
on our summer visits.
My parents blistered and turned away,
missing her winks as she wagged
her tongue at my mother
and called my father
by his last name.

I indulged her with endless games
of cards, sneaking sips of beer,
taking the dollar bills
and diamond ring she slipped me.
My parents' anger oozed and we'd leave
before her ginger cookies ran out.
All the long drive home
I was the outcast.
We should have left you there.

Now I stand beside her
and pat her cold hand.
I've never seen her quiet before,
believe it cannot last.
I'm not moving until she does.
But my parents, staring
at their shoes, insist it's time to go.

We drive straight to a seaside park
where raspberries grow wild.
"Those could be poison,"
warns my mother.
But I ignore her,
fill my mouth with fruit
and give up my grandmother
as the berries give up
their skins.  I smash them
between my teeth,
one after another,
swallow hard
and choke it all down.

God worked alone, too

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

January 20: Continuous Loop, M. C,. Escher, Terry Godbey, "The One With Violets in Her Lap"

Time is the continuous loop, the snakeskin with scales endlessly overlapping without beginning or end, or time is an ascending spiral if you will, like a child's toy Slinky.  Of course we have no idea which arc on the loop is our time, let alone where the loop itself is, so to speak, or down whose loft flight of stairs the Slinky so uncannily walks.

Dillard describes time as this M. C. Escher image, an eternal loop, rising and falling at the same time.  A snake eating itself.  A hand drawing itself.  A Slinky climbing and descending at the same time.  A blogger blogging about a blogger blogging.  A mother who's a daughter who's a mother.  A fluid thing, advancing and retreating at the same time.

I apologize for my absence last night.  I attended a basketball game to hear my daughter play in the pep band, and then I beguiled the rest of the evening preparing lesson plans and handouts.  I got done around midnight and had no energy for even the simplest of posts.  (If you're keeping track, this is a paragraph about a blogger blogging about a blogger blogging.)

Tonight, I am pretty spent, as well.  I worked all day, taught all afternoon and evening.  My brain is simply an uncoiling spring.  A Slinky, if you will, both ascending and descending toward exhaustion.  I am trying to string together coherent thoughts, but my mind keeps disappearing down rabbit holes of thought about baked ham and stoning and artichokes and steroids.  Sing with me:
It’s Slinky; it’s Slinky.
For fun it’s a wonderful toy.
What walks down stairs, alone or in pairs
And makes a slinkety sound?
A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing!
Everyone knows it’s Slinky.
It’s Slinky; it’s Slinky.
For fun it’s a wonderful toy.
It’s fun for a girl and a boy.
You get my point.  Or you don't.  Terry Godbey would get it.  She understands the mercurial state of time, both solid and liquid, present and past, daughter and mother.
Saint Marty is both awake and asleep and awake now.

The One with Violets in Her Lap

by:  Terry Godbey

     after a Sappho fragment

The one with violets in her lap
is my mother at six,
staring at her many braided selves
in the bay window.
No one notices
her new blooms
so one by one she upends
the pink and purple Africans
on which her mother lavishes
attention.  Their delicate stems crush
in an instant; potting mix soils
the easy chair, collects in the lacy
trim of her anklets.

Her mother, who's run
next door for a cup of sugar,
will be back any minute,
furious.  The girl watches
and waits, rehearses
piano scales of grief,
practices for more disappointment.
Soon enough she'll get her turn
to be an imperfect mother,
that tired, old refrain
passed down
along with thick ankles,
unruly hair, and inability
to sing on key.

This is a caption about not having a caption

Monday, January 18, 2016

January 18: Warmth from the Moon, Poet of the Week, Terry Godbey, "Every Stolen Breath"

I look to the sky.  What do I know of deep space with its red giants and white dwarfs?  I think of our own solar system, of the five mute moons of Uranus--Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, Oberon, Miranda--spinning in their fixed sleep of thralldom.  These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits.  At last I look to the moon; it hangs fixed and full in the east, enormously scrubbed and simple.  Our own hometown ultima moon.  It must have been a wonderful sight from there, when the olive continents cracked and spread, and the white ice rolled down and up like a window blind.  My eyes feel cold when I blink; this is enough of a walk tonight.  I lack the apparatus to feel a warmth that few have felt--but it's there.  According to Arthur Koestler, Kepler felt the focused warmth when he was experimenting on something entirely different, using concave mirrors, Kepler wrote, "I was engaged in other experiments with mirrors, without thinking of the warmth; I involuntarily turned around to see whether somebody was breathing on my hand."  It was warmth from the moon.

Dillard is cold.  Winter cold.  The grass is brittle.  Branches are frozen.  There's ice, frozen clay, and moonlight.  Lots of moonlight, the "lustre of elf-light."  Dream-like and iced.  She searches for warmth, finds it in the most unlikely of places.  Deep space, with its red giants and white dwarfs and mute moons.  She finds it in reflection, in lunar glow.

Sorry to wax so poetic this late at night.  I have had a rather long, eventful day.  The good news:  my broken tooth is no longer broken.  The bad news:  it took an hour-and-a-half in a dentist chair, several shots in the mouth, and a lot of drilling.  I am now on an antibiotic (my tooth broke below the gum line and got infected).  On top of all that, it's damn cold out.  Below-zero, cancel-school cold.

Yes, my kids went to school this morning, but the snow didn't crunch under my boots when I started my car to drive them to the bus stop.  The snow snapped, like pieces of Styrofoam.  And, tonight, the sky is cloudless, and the mercury slowly heading south again.  The moon is shedding no warmth on the Upper Peninsula.

Yes, I am writing a blog post about the weather and warmth and the moon.  Dillard somehow connects these disparate subjects, gives them weight and meaning.  I appreciate writers who do this--make connections between things that seem connectionless.

The Poet of the Week is Terry Godbey, a fantastic poet who has the gift of making connections.  Yes, she has been awarded this title before.  However, this evening I was paging through Godbey's collection, Hold Still, and I came across the poem below which makes connections that speak to me this evening.  Between illness and healing.  Pain and the heart.  Son and mother.  Grandfather and moon.

Saint Marty is feeling lycanthropic tonight.  He needs to howl a little.

Every Stolen Breath

by:  Terry Godbey

There is nothing left to believe in,
except illness.

Gasping, I must stop four times
to climb the stairs,
even with my son behind me,

Oxygen is scarce
but not doctors--
I have six of them on speed dial.
They make me take deep breaths
in a glass booth,
wheeze on a treadmill,
describe my malfunction:

It's as if your heart
is inside a stone.

I can't say you won't have a heart attack,
but we have to take care
of your cancer first.

So I am cleared for lumpectomy,
handed a note that warns
of moderate risk of a cardiac event,
told to stay calm
and return for repairs.

When the chest pain fires up
that night, I refuse to call
an ambulance.
My son persuades me to stay awake,
afraid I'll slip away
in my sleep.,
The full moon rises
outside my window,
stays with me till dawn,
a kindly grandfather,
finally something benign.

Give it a minute . . . It's really funny!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

January 17: Broken Tooth, Teeth Grinding, Classic Saint Marty

This morning at church, as I was rehearsing with the choir, one of my back teeth splintered.  I was talking one minute; the next minute, I was spitting out pieces of enamel.  All day long, my tongue has been rubbing against the jagged edges.  I can taste blood.

Sorry to be so graphic.  It's driving me crazy, though.  I don't know how I'm going to sleep tonight.  I'm hoping that dentist will be able to squeeze me in tomorrow.  I don't think I can deal with this situation for another day.

The reason this happened:  I'm grinding my teeth at night.  Every morning for the last few weeks, I've woken up with an aching jaw.

Three years ago, I broke the same tooth while eating Cheetos and watching American Idol.  That's what today's episode of Classic Saint Marty is all about.

January 16, 2013:  "American Idol" and a Broken Tooth

So, I'm sitting here, watching the first night of American Idol.  Keith Urban and Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey and Randy Jackson.  I was stuffing my face with cheddar Combos and enjoying the parade of freaks and tone-deaf wannabes.  Then I stopped chewing for a minute and realized that a piece of my back tooth was missing.  That's right.  I have a jagged fang in the back of my mouth.

I was having a good night.  Now, I can't even concentrate on Nicki Minaj's hair color.  All I can do is worry my tooth nub with my tongue.  With my luck, the rest of my tooth will fall out while I'm asleep, and I'll aspirate it and die.

Saint Marty is one step away from looking like a cast member from Deliverance.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

January 16: Ilya Kaminsky, "Marina Tsvetaeva," Confessions of Saint Marty

That the insects have adapted is obvious.  Their failures to adapt, however, are dazzling.  It is hard to believe that nature is partial to such dim-wittedness.  Howard Ensign Evans tells of dragonflies trying to lay eggs on the shining hoods of cars.  Other dragonflies seem to test a surface, to learn if it's really water, by dipping the tips of their abdomens in it.  At the Los Angeles La Brea tar pits, they dip their abdomens into the reeking tar and get stuck.  If by tremendous effort a dragonfly frees itself, Evans reports, it is apt to repeat the maneuver.  Sometimes the tar pits glitter with the dry bodies of dead dragonflies.

Last night, I focused on gifts.  How, in the natural world and life, there are certain creatures/people who are imbued with certain abilities that cross the boundaries of understanding.  Today's passage is about exactly the opposite:  dim-wittedness.  The foolish dragonfly laying its eggs on the hoods of cars, getting stuck on a shining black surface of hot tar.  Over and over.

Humans are not too far off from dragonflies.  We make mistakes, suffer for them, and then, in a little while, make the same mistakes again.  The United States didn't learn enough from Vietnam, so we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan.  The Holocaust.  The Rwandan genocide.  George W. Bush.  Donald Trump.  Over and over.

One of my sisters is stuck on failure.  Last night, I listened to her rail against all of the doctors who cared for my sister, Sally, who died last summer of lymphoma of the brain.  To a person, my sister called each of those physicians "murderers."  Listed all of the mistakes they made in caring for Sally.  At the end of this tirade, my sister said, "Sal would still be alive if it weren't for those killers."

I will be the first to admit that mistakes were made in the care my sister received in the last year of her life.  But, until very close to the end, nobody knew what we were dealing with.  Had the doctors diagnosed her earlier in her illness, Sally might have lived a little longer.  In the end, though, the outcome would have been the same.

My sister is stuck in a forest of blame and anger, and she can't seem to find her way out of it.  Now, it's affecting her health and life.  Panic attacks.  Insomnia.  Depression.  She sees Sally's ghost at night sometimes.  All my sister focuses on is failure--the dragonflies caught in the tar.

I wish I could make my sister understand that Sally's death is not about failure and blame.  That life is sometimes simply not fair.  It doesn't turn out the way we want it to turn out.  And we can spend all our time focused on the injustice of that statement--make ourselves sick over it--or we can accept it and try to carve out some happiness from this broken universe in which we live.

Failure is a part of the world.  Every day of our lives, we fail.  I'm failing right now at expressing my ideas clearly and accurately in this post.  Life is a series of failures, interrupted with moments of joy and blessing.

Saint Marty chooses to focus on the joy and blessing instead of the failure.

Marina Tsvetaeva

by:  Ilya Kaminsky

     During the first year of my deafness, I saw her with a man.  She wore a purple scarf knotted around her head.  Half-dancing, she took his head between her hands and laid it on her breast.  And she began to sing.  I observed her with devouring attention.  I imagined her voice smelling of oranges; I fell in love with her voice.
     She was a woman who lived like a conspirator sending contradictory signals.  "Do not eat the apple seeds," she threatened me, "Not the apple seeds.  The branches will grow from your belly!"  She touched my ear, fingering it.
     I know nothing of her husband except for his fatal heart attack in a moving bus.  There was no strain on her face, but looking at her, I understood the dignity of grief.  Returning from his funeral, she took off her shoes and walked barefoot in the snow.

Confessions of Saint Marty

Friday, January 15, 2016

January 15: Fish Gotta Swim, Dying Fish, Ilya Kaminsky, "Natalia," Star Trek

Fish gotta swim and bird gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another.  I never ask why of a vulture or shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see.  More than one insect--the possibility of fertile reproduction--is an assault on all human value, all hope of a reasonable god.  Even that devout Frenchman, J. Henri Fabre, who devoted his entire life to the study of insects, cannot restrain a feeling of unholy revulsion.  He describes a bee-eating wasp, the Philanthus, who has killed a honeybee.  If the bee is heavy with honey, the wasp squeezes its crop "so as to make her disgorge the delicious syrup, which she drinks by licking the tongue which her unfortunate victim, in her death-agony, sticks out of her mouth at full length . . . At the moment of some such horrible banquet, I have seen the Wasp, with her prey, seized by the Mantis:  the bandit was rifled by another bandit.  And here is an awful detail:  while the Mantis held her transfixed under the points of the double saw and was already munching her belly, the Wasp continued to lick the honey of her Bee, unable to relinquish the delicious food even amid the terrors of death.  Let us hasten to cast a veil over these horrors."

Let me sum up the above passage from Annie Dillard:  each to his own.  Fish do not go for walks on the beach.  Birds do not hitchhike south for the winter.  And some insects, it seems, will kill for some good honey.  The natural world is full of strange and (sometimes) slightly Hannibal-Lecterish wonders.  The Philanthus is doing what the Philanthus is genetically predisposed to do:  squeeze the living honey out of bees.

I like to think that I was born with certain natural gifts, things that come as naturally to me as swimming upstream to spawn does to salmon.  Of course, salmon die after spawning.  (Geez.  Dying fish.  Homicidal wasps.  Maybe Fabre was right.  Mother Nature is an unholy horror.)  I think gifts are talents that people are genetically predisposed to excel at.  The brain is some how wired for that gift.

Case in point:  I am in a band with two people who have the savant-like ability to sing anything in harmony.  They both play several instruments.  Guitar.  Cello.  Harmonica.  Drums.  Bass.  They breathe music.  It's their oxygen.  And I'm lucky enough to work with them on most Sundays, sharing the same musical atmosphere for a short while.

I know that I've talked about the one gift that I think I have.  It's writing.  In particular, poetry writing.  Yes, I've studied poetry.  I've got an MFA in it.  But, it has always been easy for me.  That's doesn't mean that I don't have to practice.  I write every day.  A lot.  In this blog.  In my journal.  I read other poets.  Gifts are muscles.  They have to be flexed, exercised.

I'm writing about this subject because I think gifts can be taken for granted.  My band mates do it.  I do it.  And sometimes it takes an outsider to remind me that my gift is unique.  Special.  I forget that poetry isn't easy for everybody.  My band mates will look at me like I'm a tentacled ostrich when I can't sing harmony on a song.  They forget that music isn't easy for me.

Ilya Kaminsky is a gifted poet.  I'm sure that he thinks in image, like me.  Like most of my writer friends.  I think in poetry.  My band mates think in music.  Charles Schulz thought in cartoons.  Einstein thought in relativity and mathematical theory.  Donald Trump thinks in stupidity.

Saint Marty is grateful for his gift tonight, the way he's grateful for good music and funny cartoons.  Idiotic Republicans are a whole other story . . .


by:  Ilya Kaminsky

Her shoulder:  an ode to an evening, such ambitions.
     I promise I will teach her to ride horses, we will go to Mexico, Angola, Australia.  I want her to imagine our scandalous days in Odessa when we will open a small sweets shop--except for her lovers and my neighbors (who steal milk chocolate by the handfuls) we will have no customers.  In an empty store, dancing among stands with sugared walnuts, dried carnations, boxes upon boxes of mints and cherries dipped in honey, we will whisper to each other our truest stories.
     The back of her knee:  a blessed territory, I keep my wishes there.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

January 14: Bad Winter, Crazy Uncle Ned, Ilya Kaminsky, "Joseph Brodsky"

Some weather's coming; you can taste on the sides of your tongue a quince tang in the air.  This fall everyone looked to the bands on a woolly bear caterpillar, and predicted as usual the direst of dire winters.  This routine always calls to mind the Angiers' story about the trappers in the far north.  They approached an Indian whose ancestors had swelled from time immemorial in those fir forests, and asked him about the severity of the coming winter.  The Indian cast a canny eye over the landscape and pronounced, "Bad winter."  The others asked him how he knew.  The Indian replied unhesitatingly, "The white man makes a big wood pile."  Here the woodpile is an exercise doggedly, exhaustedly maintained despite what must be great temptation.  The other day I saw a store displaying a neatly stacked quarter-cord of fireplace logs manufactured of rolled, pressed paper.  On the wrapper of each "log" was printed in huge letters the beguiling slogan, "The ROMANCE Without The HEARTACHE."

In certain places, like Tinker Creek, winter isn't just a season.  It's something that's chewed, like a piece of Juicy Fruit, from October until thaw.  It's about snow.  The depth of it.  The amount.  The frequency.  It's about cold.  Wind chills and arctic blasts.  Polar vortexes and nor'easters.  Winter is a relative you just can't get rid of.  Crazy Uncle Ned.

There's a winter weather advisory in effect for my area of the Upper Peninsula for tonight through tomorrow.  Not a dusting of snow.  It's supposed to be inches, accompanied by wind chills that kill car batteries.  And, yes, when speaking with neighbors or the guy in the checkout line ahead of me, I fall back on winter as a topic.  It's safe.  A common ground.  All Yoopers can talk about the weather.  Bitch about it.  Say, with a hint of pride, "Ten inches last night."

I will set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. tonight.  Get up.  Put on two pairs of pants, layers of shirts, and boots.  I will go outside and shovel.  And shovel.  And shovel.  After breakfast, I will probably shovel some more.  That is life in the Upper Peninsula in January.  A series of snow events, followed by Alberta Clippers and lake enhancements.

I am tired tonight, and I am getting up early to deal with snowplows and snowdrifts.  I will probably swear a great deal.  Howl into the wind.

Saint Marty wants Crazy Uncle Ned to go home.

A winter poem . . .

Joseph Brodsky

by:  Ilya Kaminsky

     Joseph made his living by giving private lessons in everything from engineering to Greek.  His eyes were sleepy and small, his face dominated by a huge mustache, like Nietszche's.  He mumbled,  Do you enjoy Brahms?  I cannot hear you, I said.  How about Chopin?  I cannot hear you.  Mozart?  Bach?  Beethoven?  I am hard of hearing, could you repeat that please?  You will have a great success in music, he said.

     To meet him, I go back to the Leningrad of 1964.  The streets are devilishly cold:  we sit on the pavement, he begins abruptly (a dry laugh, a cigarette) to tell the story of his life, his words change to icicles as we speak.  I read them in the air.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

January 13: Sublimation, Daughter, Anxiety and Sadness, Ice to Steam

In a dry wind like this, snow and ice can pass directly into the air as a gas without having first melted to water.  This process is called sublimation; tonight the snow in the yard and the ice in the creek sublime . . .

It's a sudden change.  One moment, solid.  The next, vapor.  Sublimation.  It's nature moving in fast forward, like a time-lapse Keystone Cops movie.  An eruption from one state into the next.  Annie Dillard witnesses this phenomenon at Tinker Creek, and it makes her reflect on wind and mares and foals.  Genesis.  The generation of something new.

Most people do not deal well with sudden change.  Sudden change is a heart attack or house fire.  A stroke or a car wreck.  Sublimation, that immediate change of states, is not comfortable.  It doesn't give a person a chance to adjust or acclimate.  It's simply a step out of an airplane into a free fall.

Certain aspects of my life are sublimating.  My daughter, whom I thought was confident and well-adjusted, tells me that, for years, she's been struggling with anxiety and sadness.  She has turned from ice to steam before my eyes.  I'm not sure if this sublimation is the result of puberty and hormones, or something deeper.  A fissure of mental illness.  It frightens me a little bit.

My daughter is going to see a doctor to talk about being mist, a cloud that was once clear and crystalline and beautiful.  Perhaps she has always been fog, and I have simply chosen to see ice (or water).  I don't know.  It's a question that's been bothering me for days, and I'm not any closer to an answer than before.

Maybe Saint Marty needs to sublimate some Bailey's.  Turn it from liquid into happiness.

Waldo, sublimating from "where" to "how"...

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

January 12: Bloom Indoors, Cold and Snowy, Intellectual Horizons

It is winter proper; the cold weather, such as it is, has come to stay.  I bloom indoors in the winter like a forced forsythia; I come in to come out.  At night I read and write, and things I have never understood become clear; I read the harvest of the rest of the year's planting.

Yes, when the arctic air takes control, Annie Dillard does what everyone else does:  she stays inside.  Reads books.  Writes in her journal (I imagine).  She doesn't lament the cold months of winter.  She takes advantage of them, expanding her understanding of the universe.

It was cold and snowy this morning.  School were canceled.  Roads were closed.  Unfortunately, I could not bloom indoors; I had to drive to the medical office to work.  For nine hours, I toiled away.  It's not exciting stuff.  It doesn't expand my intellectual horizons.  Exactly the opposite, as a matter of fact.

I really want to bloom indoors, like Dillard, during the upcoming months.  I'd love to teach myself to speak Spanish or read all the books of Leo Tolstoy.  Unfortunately, I'm more likely to read the collected works of Dr. Seuss and teach myself to take extended naps.

Speaking of naps, it's late, and Saint Marty has a long day tomorrow.

A little plug for vaccination...

Monday, January 11, 2016

January 11: Poet of the Week, Ilya Kaminsky, "Author's Prayer," Letting Go, Dips, Slinkies

Tonight, I have chosen Ilya Kaminsky as the Poet of the Week.  I saw him read many years ago, and his collection, Dancing in Odessa, is stunning.  Kaminsky has been deaf since he was four, and yet, his poems sing on the page.  One of my favorites:

Author's Prayer

by:  Ilya Kaminsky

If I speak for the dead, I must leave
this animal of my body,

I must write the same poem over and over,
for an empty page is the white flag of their surrender.

If I speak for them, I must walk on the edge
of myself, I must live as a blind man

who runs through rooms without
touching the furniture

Yes, I live.  I can cross the streets asking "What year is it?"
I can dance in my sleep and laugh

in front of the mirror.
Even sleep is a prayer, Lord,

I will praise your madness, and
in a language not mine, speak

of music that wakes us, music
in which we move.  For whatever I say

is a kind of petition, and the darkest
days must I praise.

This is the opening poem of the collection, a kind of psalm to loss.  Kaminsky is able to dance to grief, find the music in silence.  He looks at himself in the mirror and laughs at the animal he sees.

I got up at 5 a.m. today.  I worked.  I taught.  I came home.  I shoveled.  I put my son to bed.  I watched the news.  The end of vacation.  The start of a new semester.  I am trying to be like Kaminsky, praising madness, finding prayer in my day.  At the moment, I'm not being very successful.

I have decided to forgo doing "dips" this year.  I've done Carol dips during the year of A Christmas Carol.  I did Rye dips during my 365 days with The Catcher in the Rye.  I've done Web dips (Charlotte's Web) and Ives dips (Mr. Ives' Christmas).  I've decided that basing my future happiness on random passages from some book is, perhaps, not the healthiest way to find fulfillment.

Thus, I am letting go.  Annie Dillard writes this of letting go:

But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go.  When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied.  The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera.  When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter.  When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment's light prints on my own silver gut.  When I see this second way I am above an unscrupulous observer.

I am not going to allow myself to be boxed in by "dips."  I am letting go of that particular camera.  In doing so, maybe my vision of my days will change.  Like Dillard and Kaminsky, maybe I will become an unscrupulous observer of the universe.

Or maybe Saint Marty will just take a sleeping pill and go to sleep.

Another way of looking at the universe...

Sunday, January 10, 2016

January 10: Return to the Grindstone, Cold Sweats, Classic Saint Marty

I have been working all day on a syllabus for this coming week.  The start of a new semester.  And when I say all day, I mean ALL DAY.  I just finished after a marathon five or six hours of complete and abject panic.  The syllabus is done, but I'm still in a panic.  Tomorrow, I return to the grindstone of work and school and exhaustion.

One year ago, I was pretty much in the same state.  Panicked.  Suffering from insomnia.  Cold sweats.  The normal.  If you don't believe me, may I offer as Exhibit A this episode of Classic Saint Marty:

January 10, 2015:  The Enormity of It All, Richard Wilbur, "Boy at the Window"

Mr. Ives Senior was able to give his third son clothes and books, two brothers and a sister, a little money, and a room in his large, somewhat rundown brownstone, three stories high, on Carroll Street.  And a name:  Edward.  And encouragement when, in one of the miracles of his life, young Ives, at the age of seven or so, had started to draw, spending his leisure hours not out on the street playing with the local ruffians, who'd slide down coal chutes and throw bottles off rooftops at passing trucks, but resting on his belly on their front parlor floor, copying out drawings from newspapers and the illustrated books that found their way into the house.  His father had liked such books very much, notably those from England with engravings by the likes of John Tenniel or those artists who illustrated the works of Charles Dickens, whose line drawings enchanted the young Ives.  (There was a row of books, memoirs and sporting novels, illustrated by Phiz, Cruickshank, Alken, Leech, Seymour, and Heath, among others.,)  He also taught his son how to pray, when to kneel and stand and bow his head and close his eyes during the consecration of the Host, taught him to take in the beautiful goodness that he was desperate to believe existed; to tremble before the "enormity of it all."

There's a lot going on in this paragraph.  It's about Ives' origins as an artist and person of faith.  From a very young age, he demonstrates that he's different.  Quiet and thoughtful.  Interested in art and literature.  Humbled by the goodness and expanse of God's love.  The paragraph raises many questions and provides very few answers.  Ives struggles before the "enormity of it all" for almost the entire book.

This morning, I woke up in a cold sweat after a restless night of sleep.  This week marks the beginning of the winter semester at the university, and I am teaching a graduate-level poetry seminar this coming Thursday.  I chose my textbooks for the class almost two months ago, but I'm currently suffering through a great deal of anxiety over the enormity of it all.  I'm terrified, actually.  Every time I step into a classroom, I feel a little like a fraud, even if I've taught the subject before.  Over my years of teaching, I've become acutely aware of how much I really don't know.

And that's what's causing me so much stress.  Trying to pass myself off as some kind of expert.  One of my college professors told me about the day he received his doctorate from the University of Michigan.  He said he stepped outside the graduation ceremony and suddenly realized that he didn't know anything at all.  He felt completely inadequate to face life's challenges.

That's where I am at the moment.  Feeling completely inadequate and overwhelmed.  I love poetry.  I love talking about poetry.  Reading it.  Writing it.  Rewriting it.  Helping people write it.  Helping people rewrite it.  I want to make my students love it as much as I do.  Now, the million-dollar question is, how do I do that?  That's what keeping me up at night.

I'm going to make mistakes this semester.  I know that.  Hell, I've probably made a few mistakes already.  I just don't want to mess up too badly.  I'm one of the first contingent faculty members at the university to be assigned a graduate-level course.  For the sake of my contingent colleagues, I need to do well.  There are some people who would love to see me fail.

So, that's why I'm turning my blankets into knots at night.  Enormous fear.  Enormous anxiety.  Enormity.  Period.

Saint Marty has a great poem about fear to share tonight.

Boy at the Window

by:  Richard Wilbur

Seeing the snowman standing all alone
In dusk and cold is more than he can bear.

The small boy weeps to hear the wind prepare
A night of gnashings and enormous moan.

His tearful sight can hardly reach to where
The pale-faced figure with bitumen eyes
Returns him such a God-forsaken stare
As outcast Adam gave to paradise.

The man of snow is, nonetheless, content,
Having no wish to go inside and die.

Still, he is moved to see the youngster cry.

Though frozen water is his element,
He melts enough to drop from one soft eye
A trickle of the purest rain, a tear
For the child at the bright pane surrounded by
Such warmth, such light, such love, and so much fear.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

January 9: Purgatory Mountain, Seasons of Change, Kim Addonizio, "Man on a Corner," Confessions of Saint Marty

Once I stood on a humped rock on nearby Purgatory Mountain, watching through binoculars the great autumn hawk migration below, until I discovered that I was in danger of joining the hawks on a vertical migration of my own.  I was used to binoculars, but not, apparently, to balancing on humped rocks while looking through them.  I staggered.  Everything advanced and receded by turns; the world was full of unexplained foreshortenings and depths.  A distant huge tan object, a hawk the size of an elephant, turned out to be the browned bough of a nearby loblolly pine.  I followed a sharp-shinned hawk against a featureless sky, rotating my head unawares as it flew, and when I lowered the glass a glimpse of my own looming shoulder sent me staggering.  What prevents the men on Palomar from falling, voiceless and blinded, from their tiny, vaulted chairs?

I chose this passage from Annie Dillard simply for the name "Purgatory Mountain."  It appeals to my Catholic upbringing.  It makes me think of a mountain designed by Dante.  Circles of rock, reaching upward toward the clouds and sun and moon and stars.  Also, Dillard's distorted view of the migrating  hawks, the pine branch as big as an elephant.  It's all about perspective.

Last night, I was not in the greatest frame of mind, as evidenced by my blog post.  Too much to do, too much on my mind.  As my four or five Constant Readers know, I don't deal well with endings and beginnings.  Yet, my life is a stream of stops and starts.  Semesters begin.  Semesters end.  Change is the one constant in the medical office in which I toil.  Procedures and policies and duties are amended, appended, addended ad infinitum.

Sometimes, my life strikes me as purgatorial.  I have to endure seasons of change in order to have seasons of joy.  Work--early mornings, moody coworkers, impatient patients, needy students, elitist colleagues, all of it--can seem a little penitential.  Yes, I know it's all a matter of perspective.  Punishment or blessing, two sides of the same coin, like the pet of a homeless man.  Desperation and love sitting on the same soiled blanket.

Right now, I'm at the base of Purgatory Mountain, gazing up at the circling hawks.  Vacation is dwindling.  Work is looming.  Ditto teaching.  There's a snowstorm blowing into the Upper Peninsula tonight.  More shoveling.  And then arctic air for days.

Time for Saint Marty to start climbing.

Man on a Corner

by:  Kim Addonizio

The man with the golden retriever is still sitting
Against the bank’s brick wall on his blanket, while
all along the street the store owners are quitting,
a florist carrying in bouquets, the mild
fragrance of the flowers a brief antidote
to the exhaust of a bus, just releasing
its passengers; they swirl around him, like notes
of some random music, scattering in the increasing
dusk. Now the prone dog lifts its head
and looks at him, as though a sudden thought’s
occurred to it; the man still slumps, dead
or dreaming, figure in a drama not
of the dog’s making, but all it knows
of love; it shifts, sighs, lays its head close.

Confessions of Saint Marty

Friday, January 8, 2016

Janaury 8: Deepest Stars, State of Dread, Kim Addonizio, "Wine Tasting"

I walked home in a shivering daze, up hill and down.  Later I lay open-mouthed in bed, my arms flung wide at my sides to steady the whirling darkness.  At this latitude I'm spinning 836 miles an hour round the earth's axis; I often fancy I feel my sweeping fall as a breakneck arc like the dive of dolphins, and the hollow rushing of wind raises hair on my neck and the side of my face.  In orbit around the sun I'm moving 64,800 miles and hour.  The solar system as a whole, like a merry-go-round unhinged, spins, bobs, and blinks at the speed of 43,200 miles an hour along a course set east of Hercules.  Someone has piped, and we are dancing a tarantella until the sweat pours.  I open my eyes and I see dark, muscled forms curl out of water, with flapping gills and flattened eyes.  I close my eyes and I see stars, deep stars giving way to deeper stars, deeper stars bowing to deepest stars at the crown of a infinite cone.

Annie Dillard is talking about darkness, what she can or can't see once light is gone from the world.  With her eyes open, she sees creatures leaping from Tinker Creek, sleek and muscled.  With her eyes closed, she sees stars swirling in the Milky Way, feels herself rocketing through the galaxy, the universe, the night.

It is almost 11 p.m.  I'm waiting for my wife to get home from work.  I'm sitting, trying to finish this post as quickly as I can.  I'm tired.  I spent most of the day shoveling thick, wet snow and running errands.  Unlike Dillard, I don't sense the speed of the planets and stars at night.  The darkness holds nothing for me except the promise of sleep and the approach of a new day.

I am in an end-of-vacation state of dread.  In a few days, I will have to resume the responsibilities of my life again.  Medical office.  University.  Spending the majority of my days away from home, from my family.  It's strange how so much of my life is about movement and pace.  In the medical office, I'm judged by how fast I work, how much I can accomplish in eight or nine hours.  At the university, I'm judged by how I perform in the classroom--the efficiency of my teaching and grading and rule-following.

Yet, my favorite time of my day comes at its end, when darkness takes over.  That's when I come home.  Shut and lock my front door.  My life slows down when the stars are spinning overhead.  I can sit, talk to my son and daughter and wife.  Or read a book.  Or watch TV.  It's quiet, calm.  I may be moving 64,800 miles an hour around the sun, 43,200 miles an hour through the universe, but the couch in my living room is soft, warm, and inertly solid.  Unmoving.

Saint Marty isn't ready to give up his seat on the couch yet, unless he's pouring himself a glass of wine.

Wine Tasting

by:  Kim Addonizio

I think I detect cracked leather.
I’m pretty sure I smell the cherries
from a Shirley Temple my father bought me

in 1959, in a bar in Orlando, Florida,
and the chlorine from my mother’s bathing cap.
And last winter’s kisses, like salt on black ice,

like the moon slung away from the earth.
When Li Po drank wine, the moon dove
in the river, and he staggered after.

Probably he tasted laughter.
When my friend Susan drinks
she cries because she’s Irish

and childless. I’d like to taste,
one more time, the rain that arrived
one afternoon and fell just short

of where I stood, so I leaned my face in,
alive in both worlds at once,
knowing it would end and not caring.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

January 7: My Keyhole, Edit the Universe, Kim Addonizio, "Eating Together"

Peering through my keyhole I see within the range of only about thirty percent of the light that comes from the sun; the rest is infrared and some little ultraviolet, perfectly apparent to many animals, but invisible to me.  A nightmare network of ganglia, charged and firing without my knowledge, cuts and splices what I do see, editing it for my brain.  Donald E. Carr points out that the sense impressions of one-celled animals are not edited for the brain:  "This is philosophically interesting in a rather mournful way, since it means that only the simplest animals perceive the universe as it is."

In her reflections on seeing, Annie Dillard laments all that she cannot see, all that her limited vision filters and obscures.  Trees filled with red-winged blackbirds.  Deer gliding through a copse of trees.  A bullfrog the size of a plate dozing in muddy shallows.  Somehow, the human mind edits the world, allowing us to view only what we can handle, only what is necessary.  To see everything, like a one-celled animal, like God, would be overwhelming.  Too much for our feeble brains.

I sometimes lament things I cannot see, too.  I have a writer friend whose observations continuously intrigue and confound me.  His vision is very different from my own.  Where I see a snowy field of frozen cattails, he would probably see the stubbled leg of a fallen giant.  I envy his ability to make associations like that.

Peering through my keyhole, I see what I want to see.  I try to avoid visions that frighten me.  A house that is in serious need of repair.  A daughter that is struggling with serious anxiety problems.  A job that deadens my joy.  A country run by Donald Trump.  I make choices every day, try to edit the universe to fit my definition of happiness.

Of course, I'm constantly surprised every day.  For example, I planned to finish sending out Christmas presents to distant family and friends today.  That was my plan.  I was also going to wrap up beginning-of-semester work, as well.  Those were the two big things on my to-do list.  That was my vision for today. 

Instead, I shoveled my sidewalk and driveway early this morning.  Went back to bed for a little while.  Had lunch with my wife.  Picked up my daughter at school.  Tonight, I'm going to a basketball game to watch my daughter play in the pep band.  I didn't touch the Christmas presents I wanted to mail.  I did minimal work for school.

When Dillard talks about peering through her keyhole at Tinker Creek, she's editing, as well.  Seeing only what she expects to see.  Keeping her world in a certain order.  That's what we all do.  Every day.  Yet, the universe has a way of intruding.  Forcing us to see the miraculous or mysterious or frightening.

Poets have a way of widening the keyhole.  Seeing things from a one-celled perspective.  Dinner with a friend can become something deeper, a communion with loss.

Saint Marty prefers sangria with his dinner.

Eating Together

by:  Kim Addonizio

I know my friend is going,
though she still sits there
across from me in the restaurant,
and leans over the table to dip
her bread in the oil on my plate; I know
how thick her hair used to be,
and what it takes for her to discard
her man’s cap partway through our meal,
to look straight at the young waiter
and smile when he asks
how we are liking it. She eats
as though starving—chicken, dolmata,
the buttery flakes of filo—
and what’s killing her
eats, too. I watch her lift
a glistening black olive and peel
the meat from the pit, watch
her fine long fingers, and her face,
puffy from medication. She lowers
her eyes to the food, pretending
not to know what I know. She’s going.
And we go on eating.