Category Archives: poetry

"Memorial Rain"

In honor of Memorial Day, a heartbreaking World War One poem. It’s by Archibald MacLeish, whose “Not Marble Nor the Gilded Monuments” I posted during poetry month. He wrote it for his brother.

###

Memorial Rain
For Kenneth MacLeish, 1894-1918

Ambassador Puser the ambassador
Reminds himself in French, felicitous tongue,
What these (young men no longer) lie here for
In rows that once, and somewhere else, were young…

     All night in Brussels the wind had tugged at my door:
     I had heard the wind at my door and the trees strung
     Taut, and to me who had never been before
     In that country it was a strange wind, blowing
     Steadily, stiffening the walls, the floor,
     The roof of my room. I had not slept for knowing
He too, dead, was a stranger in that land
     And felt beneath the earth in the wind’s flowing
     A tightening of roots and would not understand,
Remembering lake winds in Illinois,
That strange wind. I had felt his bones in the sand
     Listening.

         …Reflects that these enjoy
Their country’s gratitude, that deep repose,
That peace no pain can break, no hurt destroy,
That rest, that sleep…

         At Ghent the wind rose.
     There was a smell of rain and a heavy drag
     Of wind in the hedges but not as the wind blows
     Over fresh water when the waves lag
     Foaming and the willows huddle and it will rain:
     I felt him waiting.

         …Indicates the flag
Which (may he say) enisles in Flanders plain
This little field these happy, happy dead
Have made America…

                  In the ripe grain
     The wind coiled glistening, darted, fled,
     Dragging its heavy body: at Waereghem
     The wind coiled in the grass above his head:
     Waiting—listening…

         …Dedicates to them
This earth their bones have hallowed, this last gift
A Grateful country…

                  Under the dry grass stem
     The words are blurred, are thickened, the words sift
Confused by the rasp of the wind, by the thin grating
Of ants under the grass, the minute shift
     And tumble of dusty sand separating
     From dusty sand. The roots of the grass strain,
     Tighten, the earth is rigid, waits—he is waiting—

     And suddenly, and all at once, the rain!

     The living scatter, they run into houses, the wind
     Is trampled under the rain, shakes free, is again
     Trampled. The rain gathers, running in thinned
     Spurts of water that ravel in the dry sand,
     Seeping in the sand under the grass roots, seeping
     Between cracked boards to the bones of a clenched hand:
     The earth relaxes, loosens; he is sleeping,
     He rests, he is quiet, he sleeps in a strange land.

April 30th: "The Talker"

The Talker
by Chelsea Rathburn

The details of his story aren’t the point,
nor is the listener, who looked as bored
as we, two accidental eavesdroppers
in a London restaurant. The point is, well,
his point, which after ten long minutes
he came to abruptly, and with a flourish,
saying slowly and in perfect seriousness,
“All we are is dust in the wind. All
we are. Is dust. In the wind.” I think
we bit our fingers to keep from laughing,
I know we mocked him through Paris, Barcelona,
Rome, and even years later, when one
of us became a little too serious,
the other would turn and quote his quote again,
jabbing the air as he had jabbed the air.
I picture him still sitting in some café,
proclaiming we were always born to run
or urging wayward sons to carry on
the way we tried to carry on, the couple
at the next table who couldn’t help but listen,
with so little of our own to talk about.

###

I meant to post a lovely optimistic love poem for the last day of April, and then I read this on yesterday’s April Is and I couldn’t resist. Inside jokes are one of my favorite things, and one of the most tragic things to me when a relationship of any kind ends for whatever reason: “No one will ever get this joke again.” The hardest times for me after my mother died were (and are) when I saw something in the newspaper or heard a story and thought, “Mom would have thought that was hilarious,” and I couldn’t call and tell her about it.

As a writer, it can be hard to create a real sense of intimacy between two characters who are supposed to have known each other a long time. And I think giving them a few inside jokes that are hilarious to them, and maybe not to anyone else (sometimes including to the reader) is a great place to start.

I thought it was done really well between Holmes and Watson in the recent movie, who had practically an entire language of case-solving and Inspector-Lestrade-mocking that very, very clearly had a long, shared, affectionate history behind it. And while I’ve only seen part of the first season, I thought Marshall and Lily on How I Met Your Mother was a great example of a believable longterm relationship with its own in-jokes and rituals that still didn’t confuse or exclude the viewer.

Can you think of a time you’ve seen inside jokes done really well in a story or on TV?

April 29th: "Love in the Campagna"

Two in the Campagna
by Robert Browning

I wonder do you feel today
As I have felt since, hand in hand,
We sat down on the grass, to stray
In spirit better through the land,
This morn of Rome and May?

For me, I touched a thought, I know,
Has tantalized me many times,
(Like turns of thread the spiders throw
Mocking across our path) for rhymes
To catch at and let go.

Help me to hold it! First it left
The yellowing fennel, run to seed
There, branching from the brickwork’s cleft,
Some old tomb’s ruin: yonder weed
Took up the floating weft,

Where one small orange cup amassed
Five beetles,—blind and green they grope
Among the honey-meal: and last,
Everywhere on the grassy slope
I traced it. Hold it fast!

The champaign with its endless fleece
Of feathery grasses everywhere!
Silence and passion, joy and peace,
An everlasting wash of air—
Rome’s ghost since her decease.

Such life here, through such lengths of hours,
Such miracles performed in play,
Such primal naked forms of flowers,
Such letting nature have her way
While heaven looks from its towers!

How say you? Let us, O my dove,
Let us be unashamed of soul,
As earth lies bare to heaven above!
How is it under our control
To love or not to love?

I would that you were all to me,
You that are just so much, no more.
Nor yours nor mine, nor slave nor free!
Where does the fault lie? What the core
O’ the wound, since wound must be?

I would I could adopt your will,
See with your eyes, and set my heart
Beating by yours, and drink my fill
At your soul’s springs,—your part my part
In life, for good and ill.

No. I yearn upward, touch you close,
Then stand away. I kiss your cheek,
Catch your soul’s warmth,—I pluck the rose
And love it more than tongue can speak—
Then the good minute goes.

Already how am I so far
Out of that minute? Must I go
Still like the thistle-ball, no bar,
Onward, whenever light winds blow,
Fixed by no friendly star?

Just when I seemed about to learn!
Where is the thread now? Off again!
The old trick! Only I discern—
Infinite passion, and the pain
Of finite hearts that yearn.

###

I adore love poems that explore how far we’re connected to people we love, and how much distance remains between–the limits and boundaries of love and loneliness and whether they matter and whether they’re a source of grief, or part of what makes love exciting. Have you got a favorite poem like that?

April 28th: "After the Movie"

After the Movie
by Marie Howe

My friend Michael and I are walking home arguing about the movie.
He says that he believes a person can love someone
and still be able to murder that person.

I say, No, that’s not love. That’s attachment.
Michael says, No, that’s love. You can love someone, then come to a day

when you’re forced to think “it’s him or me”
think “me” and kill him.

I say, Then it’s not love anymore.
Michael says, It was love up to then though.

I say, Maybe we mean different things by the same word.
Michael says, Humans are complicated: love can exist even in the murderous heart.

I say that what he might mean by love is desire.
Love is not a feeling, I say. And Michael says, Then what is it?

We’re walking along West 16th Street—a clear unclouded night—and I hear my voice
repeating what I used to say to my husband: Love is action, I used to say to him.

Simone Weil says that when you really love you are able to look at someone you want to eat and not eat them.

Janis Joplin says, take another little piece of my heart now baby.

Meister Eckhardt says that as long as we love images we are doomed to live in purgatory.

Michael and I stand on the corner of 6th Avenue saying goodnight.
I can’t drink enough of the tangerine spritzer I’ve just bought—

again and again I bring the cold can to my mouth and suck the stuff from
the hole the flip top made.

What are you doing tomorrow? Michael says.
But what I think he’s saying is “You are too strict. You are a nun.”

Then I think, Do I love Michael enough to allow him to think these things of me even if he’s not thinking them?

Above Manhattan, the moon wanes, and the sky turns clearer and colder.
Although the days, after the solstice, have started to lengthen,

we both know the winter has only begun.

###

Isn’t this great? I just discovered it today. I apologize for the crummy formatting–if you want to see more clearly where the line breaks go, you can read it here–thanks Ursula for directing me to the site!

The question the narrator and Michael are debating is something I wrestle with as a romance writer. In the end, is love a feeling or an action? I’ve definitely said, “Well, he thought he loved her, but if he could do that to her, then it wasn’t really love.”

Then sometimes I think that okay, maybe it was really love, who am I to say that love is only love when it meets my personal standards; but that if you can’t treat someone you love right, then it doesn’t matter whether you love them or not. It took me a long time to understand that if someone says “I love you,” and you love them back, that still doesn’t mean you’re a bad person for not letting them make you miserable.

I believe in the power of love to change lives. And yet in my own experience love, all by itself, isn’t enough to change someone. There have been times in my life when I loved someone desperately and I still wasn’t able–wasn’t brave enough or mature enough or knowledgeable enough or whatever enough–to be what they needed, and times when someone couldn’t change just because they loved me and I wanted or needed them to. We all fail people we love, and we’ve all been failed by people who loved us.

But my favorite kind of romance novel is still the kind where the love of another person and their faith in you, and loving another person and wanting to be what they need, can jolt you out of the bad place you’re in and help you become the person you want to be.

These questions show up a lot in In for a Penny. I think the answer the book comes to is that true love is both. It’s that feeling classical poets write about, and it’s also the day-to-day struggles of being a good partner.

Another book I love for the way it handles these ideas is Megan Chance’s Gilded-Age-set historical novel An Inconvenient Wife. Both the heroine’s husband and her new hypnotherapist love her, but the constraints of the era affect how they express it in ways that can be extremely damaging to her. (WARNING: The book is fabulous and I highly recommend it, but it’s NOT a traditional romance novel.)

What do you think? Can true love conquer all, even someone’s inner demons? Do you have a favorite book, romance or otherwise, that deals with this question?

April 27th: "Love After Love"

Love After Love
by Derek Walcott

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

###

I stole this poem from today’s April Is, because it really spoke to me. Because I’m single, and I’m mostly happy with that but sometimes I can’t help feeling as if I shouldn’t be, as if I’m not supposed to be whole if I’m not in a relationship. (Or as if I shouldn’t be writing romance novels! I’ve actually had a couple of people ask me about that, and I never know what to say, other than that I think love is great and I love writing about it, even if I don’t happen to be in love with anyone at this particular moment in time.) And because I try to like myself, and I’ve been having a little trouble with that recently. Not because I’ve been doing Evil Things Wot I’m Ashamed Of, or anything. Just because I’ve been feeling kind of stressed and insecure.

Are any of you Adam Lambert fans? I have a really great idea for tie-in merchandise. It would be an Adam Lambert plushie, and it would have one of those pull-ties with a ring on the end. And when you pulled it it would say things like “Just remember, you are not alone,” and “Thanks for loving me, ’cause you’re doing it perfectly,” and “It’s okay to be confused about your life,” and other heartwarming lyrics and quotes. How comforting would that be? Adam Lambert thinks you are great just the way you are!

If any of you know his publicist, feel free to pass along my idea…

April 26th: "Fiveness"

Fiveness
by Sibelan Forrester

I speak of beauty sharpened to a point:
Da Vincian figures, angels in the sphere.
It’s Aphrodite’s number, lingering
code of the body – stretch from palm to heel.

I am so taken with the way you move,
no frozen image can approximate –
only wind in branches, only slow
and gracious rays through interrupting clouds…

A long elastic curve, but interspersed
with a moment’s hesitation – so.
Each line tends to the next one. Spread
your fingers wide so I can hand you this

sweet ripened fruit, and if you missed
its petals several weeks ago, we may
find the same mystery sliced from the side –
stars and roses, love. Apples and pears.

###

This one is by my college Russian professor! Isn’t it great? She was (and still is, of course) incredibly cool—she played the guitar and led Russian folksinging, and also taught a seminar about translation that I really enjoyed. Here are a few quotes from that class that I just found in an old notebook:

SIBELAN, ON MAKING CHOICES IN POETRY: “People read it, and they’re either moved or they’re kind of irritated.” This expresses my experience of poetry SO WELL.

DRYDEN, IN THE PREFACE TO HIS TRANSLATION OF CHAUCER: “Chaucer, I confess, is a rough diamond, and must first be polished before he shines. I deny not likewise, that, living in our early days of poetry, he writes not always of a piece, but sometimes mingles trivial things with those of greater moment.” This is exactly the sort of 18th and 19th century obsession with “good taste” and “elegance” and “speaking seriously on serious subjects” that kind of traumatized Penelope in In for a Penny.

WILHELM VON HUMBOLDT, INTRODUCTION TO HIS TRANSLATION OF AGAMEMNON, 1816: “And think how our nation has progressed, not just the well-educated among us but the masses as well—even women and children—since the Greeks have been available to our nation’s readers in an authentic and undistorted form.”

SOME SOVIET DIRECTOR, IN HIS MEMOIRS, AS REPEATED BY SIBELAN: “All I ever wanted in life was to have a horse. And do I have a horse? No.”

…Sibelan, if you read this, I also took useful notes, I promise! Anyway, gentle readers, you can find more of her poetry here.

April 25th: "The Precision"

The Precision
by Linda Gregg

There is a modesty in nature. In the small
of it and in the strongest. The leaf moves
just the amount the breeze indicates
and nothing more. In the power of lust, too,
there can be a quiet and clarity, a fusion
of exact moments. There is a silence of it
inside the thundering. And when the body swoons,
it is because the heart knows its truth.
There is directness and equipoise in the fervor,
just as the greatest turmoil has precision.
Like the discretion a tornado has when it tears
down building after building, house by house.
It is enough, Kafka said, that the arrow fit
exactly into the wound that it makes. I think
about my body in love as I look down on these
lavish apple trees and the workers moving
with skill from one to the next, singing.

###

Sorry I missed yesterday! Anyway, I like this one, in particular the way it talks about the clarity and quiet of attraction, the way when you’re desperately into someone you see their every movement in perfect focus, almost slow motion.

I’ve got houseguests till Tuesday, but after that be prepared for photos from my signings. And thanks to everyone who showed up–we had great turnout at both our events which was very reassuring for a debut author!

April 23rd: "The Clod and the Pebble"

My signing with Gayle Ann Williams, Amy Rench, and Marie-Claude Bourque is in two hours! I think it’s going to be lots of fun.

###

The Clod and the Pebble
by William Blake

“Love seeketh not Itself to please,
“Nor for itself hath any care,
“But for another gives its ease,
“And builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.”

So sang little Clod of Clay
Trodden with the cattle’s feet
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

“Love seeketh only Self to please,
“To bind another to Its delight,
“Joys in another’s loss of ease,
“And builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.”

###

What I like about this poem is that both can be true. I find it interesting that it’s the trodden clod that has the more optimistic version–what is Blake trying to say? Possibly something icky about suffering making us better people, I’m not sure. What do you think?

Fresh Fiction and April 22nd: "Fighting Words"

Today I have a piece up at Fresh Fiction about the difficulty of taking feedback on your writing. I’m giving away a book in the comments! And in honor of that, here’s a poem by Dorothy Parker. We writers have our priorities, don’t we?

###

Fighting Words
by Dorothy Parker

Say my love is easy had,
  Say I’m bitten raw with pride,
Say I am too often sad —
  Still behold me at your side.

Say I’m neither brave nor young,
  Say I woo and coddle care,
Say the devil touched my tongue —
  Still you have my heart to wear.

But say my verses do not scan,
  And I get me another man!

April 21st: "Sorry"

from “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf”
by ntozake shange

one thing i dont need
is any more apologies
i got sorry greetin me at my front door
you can keep yrs
i dont know what to do wit em
they dont open doors
or bring the sun back
they dont make me happy
or get a mornin paper
didnt nobody stop usin my tears to wash cars
cuz a sorry

i am simply tired
of collectin
     i didnt know
     i was so important toyou’
i’m gonna haveta throw some away
i cant get to the clothes in my closet
for alla sorries
i’m gonna tack a sign to my door
leave a message by the phone
     ‘if you called
     to say yr sorry
     call somebody
     else
     i dont use em anymore’
i let sorry/didnt meanta/& how cd i know abt that
take a walk down a dark & musty street in brooklyn
i’m gonna do exactly what i want to
& i wont be sorry for none of it
letta sorry soothe yr soul/i’m gonna soothe mine

you were always inconsistent
doin somethin & then bein sorry
beatin my heart to death
talkin bout you sorry
well
i will not call
i’m not goin to be nice
i will raise my voice
& scream & holler
& break things & race the engine
& tell all yr secrets bout yrself to yr face
& i will list in detail everyone of my wonderful lovers
& their ways
i will play oliver lake
loud
& i wont be sorry for none of it

i loved you on purpose
i was open on purpose
i still crave vulnerability & close talk
& i’m not even sorry bout you bein sorry
you can carry all the guilt & grime ya wanna
just dont give it to me
i cant use another sorry
next time
you should admit
you’re mean/low-down/triflin/& no count straight out
steada bein sorry alla the time
enjoy bein yrself

###

I loved this is high school when I first read it (my favorite part of the play, though, was the story about the girl who read the biography of Toussaint Louverture), and I still love it. I probably love it more now, on account of the guys who have told me “sorry” in between then and now.