Category Archives: Poetry

The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories – Dr. Seuss

When I saw this book in the children’s section of the St. Agnes library, I thought the title said, The Bipolar Seed by Dr. Seuss. Life can be pretty bizarre in Manhattan but the idea of a picture book for kids about bipolar seeds seemed waaay over the top. Until I looked closer and read, The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories. Oh. Not nearly so interesting. But believable. So I checked it out.

It’s a very sweet book. A Seuss scholar, Dr. Charles D. Cohen, assembled this collection of early Seuss stories that were published in magazines and pretty much lost. Once he had tracked down seven tales, he restored the art and published them as a collection so they would be preserved–and read again. They are charming. “The Bippolo Seed” tells what happens when a duck finds a magic wishing seed and begins by asking for a week’s worth of duck food but is then persuaded to ask for the moon and about 9,000 other things he doesn’t need. Greedy duck gets his comeuppance. “The Rabbit, the Bear and the Zinniga-Zanniga” shows how cleverness can outsmart brawn–and escape being dinner. “Steak for Supper” introduces a wacky bestiary of imaginary creatures only Seuss could have created.

That signature rhyme lets you sing-song your way through a read-aloud and the sum of the parts adds up to wild make-believe that seems perfectly real. “Gustav the Goldfish” is an exploding disaster contained by the freaked out kid who caused it in the first place. “The Great Henry McBride” extols the virtues of dreaming large. I like the common sense and the good cheer of Dr. Seuss. He is as matter-of-fact and off-the-rails as the children he writes for. This rescued collection is a small gift of a little extra Seuss to dip into after your 357th reading of The Cat in the Hat and Horton Hears a Who!

The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories (Classic Seuss)   Dr. Seuss |  Random House   2011

Narrow Road to the Interior – Matsuo Basho

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Basho is a favorite poet of mine and, apparently, of Sam Hamill, too. Nearly 325 years ago, Basho yielded to his wanderlust and left his home by the plaintain tree to walk across Japan’s interior. He kept a record of his adventures, mostly events of spiritual insight and pilgrimage but some harsh rains, perilous mountain paths and encounters with kindness. The jewel-like book to survive Basho’s walkabout is called Oku-no-hosomichi, translated by Hamill as Narrow Road to the Interior

Hamill reveals that Basho’s account of his travails is not wholly reliable. The old poet was famous and welcomed by wealthy patrons into their homes along his journey. But the odd night or so of roughing it gave him plenty of inspiration for the spare, arduous tale he published. Basho’s words are as unadorned as his haiku–and the tiny travelogue is sprinkled with haiku.

All night long

listening to autumn winds

wandering in the mountains


Intense hot red sun

and this autumn wind


Solitary journeys like Basho’s (he was accompanied for most of his trip by one friend) were dangerous in 17th-century Japan. Basho was in poor health and in his forties when he set out and he wasn’t sure he would ever return. That seems to have heightened the exquisite clarity of the adventure for him–how much more intense to live in each moment when it might be your last? But he did return and he organized his notes and calligraphy and left an evocative record of one man’s search for something larger than himself.

Sam Hamill’s translation respects Oku-no-hosomichi’s simplicity. Basho’s personal quest has an honored place in the Japanese canon. Narrow Road to the Interior makes its graceful insights and encounters accessible to us. It reads like a really great trip.

Narrow Road to the Interior (Shambhala Centaur Editions)   Basho | Shambhala   1991

Beyond the Great Mountains – Ed Young

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Ed Young is a much-decorated Chinese-born artist and children’s book creator and Beyond the Great Mountains is a marvel of a picture book. Young uses ancient calligraphy to inspire and illustrate concepts–each double-spread features one or more “chops,” red symbols enclosed in seals. And each page displays one line of a poem that explains the evolution of the world and the physical wonders we know of it. The book opens sideways and reads like a calendar–the art covers both leaves. And it is gorgeous art. Young makes paper collages with rice paper and textures, vivid and rich colors, cut-out shapes for grasses and rivers and birds. It’s seductively beautiful.

Each line of the poem, a poem infused with Chinese sensibility and tradition, is written on the bottom of its two pages and the pages are graduated so that you can read the whole poem before unveiling the art by turning up each succeeding page. Young subtitles the book  A Visual Poem about China and explains that ideas in Chinese literature are not literal, the way they are in the West. The art and the words are evocative–the pictures capture a feeling rather than an example. The words hint at a larger story. “A precious stone embraced heaven and earth, jade” suggests a world of tradition. Jade had many qualities and associations, and was even used to protect the ancestors in their tombs.

The endpapers are a key with ancient and contemporary characters for each word used in the poem pictures–the rounder shapes giving way to the more angular writing we are familiar with. Paper, of course, is a Chinese invention so using cut paper to illustrate the calligraphy closes the circle. Everything about this book is a pure pleasure, not least its evident intelligence. According to Ed Young, “There are things that words describe that pictures never can, and, likewise, there are images that words can never describe.” True. So get hold of a copy of  Beyond the Great Mountains and explore it yourself.    

Beyond the Great Mountains: A Visual Poem about China   Ed Young | Chronicle Books   2005

Odes to Common Things – Pablo Neruda

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I love Pablo Neruda–complete fan girl, always. I love him in Spanish and in English and it is a tribute to his lovely lucid language that he sounds irresistible in both. Odes to Common Things is a collection of poems translated by Ken Krabbenhoft and published more than  20 years after Neruda’s death. He was so prolific and wrote so often of subjects that fascinated him that there are twenty-five odes about everything from scissors to gillyflowers. Scissors have cut the shape of all life, loves, grave clothes and fingernails. Gillyflowers have evolved from discarded weeds to “fragrant light, perfect protagonists of silence”. Neruda makes you think about the commonplace as if you are encountering it for the first time–and as if you have the eyes of a poet.

La mesa fiel


sueño y vida

titánico cuadrúpedo.

Tables are trustworthy:

titanic quadrupeds,

they sustain

our hopes and our daily life.

Ode to French Fries — What sizzles / in boiling / oil / is the world’s / pleasure 

Ode to a Pair of Socks — So this is / the moral of my ode: / beauty is beauty / twice over / and good things are doubly / good / when you’re talking about a pair of wool / socks / in the dead of winter.  

Ode to the Cat — There was something wrong / with the animals: / their tails were too long, and they had / unfortunate heads. / Then they started coming together, / little by little / fitting together to make a landscape, / developing birthmarks, / grace, / pep. / But the cat, / only the cat / turned out finished, / and proud: / born in a state of total completion, / it sticks to itself and knows exactly what it wants… / Nothing hangs together / quite like a cat

Neruda touches on loneliness, war, hunger, kindness, memory in his adoration of things. He is lush, rich and sensual–an apple is an opportunity to seduce:

You, apple, / are the object / of my praise. / I want to fill / my mouth / with your name. / I want to eat you whole.

A ti, manzana, / quiero / celebrarte / llenándome / con tu nombre / la boca, / comiéndote.

How could you not love things and the poet who enshrines them?  I would write an ode to Pablo Neruda, but my Spanish is nowhere near as mellifluous as his.  

Odes to Common Things, Bilingual Edition   Pablo Neruda / Bulfinch Press  1994

Woolgathering – Patti Smith

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Woolgathering is a curious little book. Patti Smith wrote it, on demand, for the publisher of Hanuman Books who was a friend. The books were as small as chapbooks so she wrote something more like runes or fragments of poems than a continuous story.

Parts of it read like a nervous breakdown set to words.

Some of it is poetry.

Most is reminiscence and reflection but some seems made up.

The language is oddly mannered, European and old-fashioned, sprinkled with jarring words like ‘kink’ and ‘hairy’ and discordant images like ‘razor blades’ and ‘walkie-talkie.’

She circles back again and again to rubies and blood. She tells a heartbreaking story of the death of her childhood dog. She moves in some mystical fog and dreams about dancing on clouds.

Reading Woolgathering, I was alternately irritated and fascinated. Is this book a spell or a self-indulgence?  I couldn’t tell. But a few bits about India I recognized. And cattail punks and minnows from the creek of my own childhood I remembered.

I decided it was an artifact, a thing mind-made or handmade in a slow time out of time. It holds blurry photographs from family albums. The focus is off, just slightly, a metaphor for another way to see.

Woolgathering   Patti Smith | New Directions Books   2011

The Ruins of the Heart – trans. Edmund Helminski

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Mevlána Jeláluddin Rúmi, the great Islamic mystic, was born in 1207 in Persia, present-day Afghanistan. His peregrinations eventually landed him in Konya, Turkey, where he stayed and developed the ecstatic contemplation of the Beloved that found expression in countless luminous poems and utterances. His poetry has been translated into Victorian verse and contemporary quatrains but, no matter the language, Rúmi’s message, delivered from the heart, touches the heart.

Edmund Helminski translates a few of Rúmi’s verses into contemporary idiom in the slim volume The Ruins of the Heart.

          In this house of mud and water

          my heart has fallen into ruins.

          Enter this house, my Love, or let me leave.

Rúmi was a highly educated philosopher dedicated to the sublime experience of pure love. His work was informed by Plato, the Koran, Aesop’s fables, the works of Jesus, Buddha and the whole rich tapestry of world spiritual utterances embodied in the Persian culture of his time. Perhaps that is the secret to his widespread appeal. His ideas have influenced Chaucer, Goethe and Emerson, according to Helminsky, and I have half a shelf of various translations of Rúmi by different contemporary scholars and poets.

But the other undeniable attraction is his utter abandonment to ecstasy. Rúmi intended to become love, to lose himself and his identity in bliss. For a time, the object of his rapture was the nomad Shams of  Tabriz. Shams became for him the incarnation of perfect love and, even after Shams was murdered, or disappeared, Rúmi’s poetry concretized his stunning experience of dissolution into bliss. Those words were never meant to track a love affair, they are a universal expression of love, longing and transcendence.

          This is love: to fly toward a secret sky,

          to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment.

          First, to let go of life.

          Finally, to take a step without feet.

          To regard this world as invisible,

          and to disregard what appears to the self.

          Heart, I said, what a gift it has been

          to enter this circle of lovers,

          to see beyond seeing itself…

The Inquisition had Europe in its blazing grip as Rúmi spun poetry and danced with deliberate abandon in Konya. Genghis Khan was pillaging and annexing all of the East. The codification of heresies, the auto-da-fé and torture were spelled out in the halls of the Vatican. Cathar towns and populations were exterminated. Mystics and metaphysicians were at work in Bhagdad, in Egypt, in Delhi. There was a great foment of ideas, benign and malign. And in its midst, a bard of uncommon and enduring talent.

We might actually study Rúmi now to learn what can exist in a realm without drones and Kalishnikovs and thinking so dull and muddy it breeds only misery and destruction. Rúmi’s world was real and fractured but his vision was lucid and enlightened.

          What shall I do, O Muslims?

          I do not recognize myself…

          I am neither Christian nor Jew,

          nor Magian, nor Muslim.

          I am not of the East, nor the West,

          not of the land, nor the sea.

          I am not from nature’s mine,

          nor from the circling stars…

          Oh Shams of Tabriz, I am so drunk in the world

          that except for revelry and intoxication

         I have no tale to tell.

The Ruins of the Heart   Jelaluddin Rumi (translator: Edmund Helminski) | Threshold Books   1981

Diving into the Wreck – Adrienne Rich

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Adrienne Rich died this week. Her voice, in her poems, writing, and speaking, was never strident, always insistent that we remember our highest selves and live for them. She wrote about class differences and indifferences and the pain and joy we cause ourselves and others in concise and brilliant language that placed her at the forefront of American letters. She never compromised—and she rued the compromises we make in the pursuit of comfort. Someone, she reminded us again and again, always pays for that untroubled comfort. She was unwilling to settle for comfort.

Diving into the Wreck, a collection of poems written in 1971-72, remains one of my favorite of her books. “…poems taut with pain and intelligence,” writes Marge Piercy of this volume. “…nobody else writes quite like this,” said Margaret Atwood. The poems are observations, introspections, revelations. They range wide and go deep, skating from social commentary to searing metaphor. Even the early poems never seem dated. It’s possible to slip inside every one and experience the life it transcribes as the poet did.

The title poem, “Diving into the Wreck,” is a marvel of fact and symbol. I don’t know whether Rich was a diver but she gets the precise detail of a scuba dive on a wreck in the shallows exactly right, so I assume she’d been there. She gets the rest right, too. What is the wreck but an image of a life, an emblem for the battered heart, broken against rock or shoal? Rich writes: 

 I came to explore the wreck.

The words are purposes.

The words are maps.

I came to see the damage that was done

and the treasures that prevail.

I stroke the beam of my lamp

slowly along the flank

of something more permanent

than fish or weed


the thing I came for:

the wreck and not the story of the wreck

the thing itself and not the myth

the drowned face always staring

toward the sun

the evidence of damage

worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty

the ribs of the disaster

curving their assertion

among the tentative haunters. 

You tend to realize, at the end of a line or a stanza, that you have been holding your breath, loathe to miss a beat or a syllable or the architecture of an unexpected phrase. Adrienne Rich wrote powerful, powerful poetry—poems designed to conjure or, at the very least, agitate for keen personal awareness and social change. Diving into the Wreck won the National Book Award. Rich won nearly every award bestowed on a poet in her long writing life. But she never lost her edge, her discomfort, the pebble in the shoe that leads, inevitably, to the poem.     

Diving Into The Wreck: Poems 1971-1972   Adrienne Rich | W. W. Norton & Company 1993

New and Selected Poems – Mary Oliver

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It is reported that the poet Mary Oliver is seriously ill and has canceled all her appearances. The heralds of this sorry news have urged people to share via social media something about what the poems and the poet have meant to them. That sounds like code for “mortal” or “fatal” or “terminal”—why do all the ending words rhyme?

Rather than scribble unoriginal comments on a laundry line of the same thoughts over and over, better to read the quiet and the dazzling poems. New and Selected Poems (volume 1) holds bears, egrets, snows, swamps, winters and springs from 1963 through 1992. Oliver has her fervent fans—devoted to the holy gospel to be read in the pulpy guts of a freshly filleted fish and the epiphanies to be found in a host of pond lilies. She has her dismissive detractors—high-minded lovers of the lofty and the abstruse who might never have broken apart an owl pellet to let its history spill out in their hand or dared to offer a drift of sugar to a grasshopper. I’m in it for the epiphanies.

“Nature poems” sounds like the artifacts of a pastime for ladies of leisure who pen couplets in gardens. But poems rooted in nature can be muddy shards of a rough world that remind us where we come from and how we should live in this world. Oliver insists on this disorderly encounter with reality as a means of remembering what is authentic, of being mindful. In “Rice” she writes:

I don’t want you just to sit down at the table.

I don’t want you just to eat, and be content.

I want you to walk out into the fields

where the water is shining, and the rice has risen.

I want you to stand there, far from the white tablecloth.

I want you to fill your hands with the mud, like a blessing.

Of course, my favorite is the well-known “The Summer Day” with its heart-stopping last lines:

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

And, while you ponder your answer to that, contemplate the final stanzas of “When Death Comes” which is as much a game plan as a reflection:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.


When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.


I don’t want to end up simply having visited the world.

Dig into some Mary Oliver. And then get out of the house and turn your face to the wind or step out of your shoes and walk barefoot on the ground. Feast your eyes on a garden slug or a breaching whale and be as deliberate as that slug or as exhilarated as that whale. Wear some crumbs of rich dark dirt or a scatter of salt spray. Reconnect to the physical creature that you are to rediscover your soul.

New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1   Mary Oliver | Beacon Press   1992

Howl — Allen Ginsberg

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Maybe it was reading Patti Smith’s memoir that sent me to the poetry shelves for Howl. I have a City Lights pocket-size square of a book, slightly warped from some dousing or other—probably one of the upstairs neighbor’s floodings. I hadn’t read it for years. Hadn’t seen Ginsberg for years either.

But he used to show up sometimes at the loft with the bathtub and toilet behind a curtain in SoHo where a dancer lived and held open meditation sessions. A Tibetan monk ran the talks and meditations—I think he might have lived there, too, in a curtained-off corner of the huge open space. We arrived to share momos—Tibetan dumplings—on feast days, talks and reflections and a meditation on others. We sat on cushions scattered around the floor and I don’t remember if Ginsberg ever talked—I think not. I was a little bit in awe of him then but not entirely.

The first time I saw him was in Miami at an elegant party in the fabulous home of wealthy Cuban exiles who were feting some arts group or museum or something. My life in Miami had a lot of yacht racing and little-black-dress parties in it. Ginsberg smiled politely and shook the requisite hands but kept mostly to himself–introverted? bored?–and kept his eye on a skinny young guy in black jeans and black shirt. When the guy slipped over the low wall off the patio and vanished into the night, Ginsberg disappeared, too. I never actually made his acquaintance.

I owned Howl by then, though. It was a rough intrusion into my Pablo Neruda/Audre Lorde/translations-of Rumi/Yeats/Whitman/Dickinson world. The life Ginsberg described was so unadorned, so graphic, so frightening in its poverty, bruises, depravities and blood. At the same time, the poems—the volume contains “Howl” and a number of additional poems—were so clear-eyed, appreciative of beauty amid the ruins, hopeful in an uncompromising grimly optimistic way. The poet seemed to me to have extraordinary courage—and he owned language the way a master artist owns the colors of his paints.

Back in the day, Howl was grabbed by the local constabulary and the U.S. government and subjected to an obscenity trial. Today, most of the material, if not all of the specific language, is available on nightly TV. Howl’s depictions of the chasms of experience between the artists and the merchants survived the passage of time. We still starve our poets and parade them at receptions. A few have the self-preservation, or self-gratification instinct to duck out the back. We still relegate the insistent questioners to the fringes and celebrate the mediocrity that feeds commerce. We still regard imagination and idiosyncrasy with suspicion or contempt. We’re still not getting it right.

Howl peels back the covers and exposes the raw heart. Ginsberg’s poetry embraces life. He elevates a dead sunflower in a railyard to something holy. He exults in a litany of Holy!s like the repeat Sanctus in a liturgical chant. His beat poet friends, lovers, coldwater flats and filthy streets are holy. His sin and his salvation is that he wrote it true, used his own unrefracted lens, left the dirt and snot on the images, saw those as holy, too. Howl hasn’t lost any of its power in more than half-a-century. It’s worth a revisit.

 Howl and Other Poems   Allen Ginsberg | City Lights  37th printing

Selected Translations 1968-1978 W.S. Merwin

W.S. Merwin at OWS

The book was stained, its pages rippled and dried after a soaking, some of them stuck together. An orange circular sticker had OWSL scribbled on it in black marker and so did the top of the book, across the edge of the closed pages. Whomsoever’s it was before, now it belonged to the Occupied Wall St. People’s Library in Zuccotti Park. Selected Translations, 1968-1978 by W.S. Merwin was still in one piece and I like Merwin’s poems so I picked it up to read it.

I could have taken it home; one guy was worried he wouldn’t have time to finish a Lawrence Block book before he had to return to Phoenix so a volunteer librarian told him to take it with him and donate it to Occupy Phoenix when he was finished with it. I read Merwin on a convenient wooden chair in the park because I thought I might read some of these daily books in bookstores and libraries and Occupy Wall St.’s library has a very nice vibe. 

Merwin has done a lot of translating—Pablo Neruda, Dante, Osip Mandelstam, Muso Soseki, Euripides, Rumi, Garcia Lorca, Basho and others. This book is one of several translation collections, ambitious in its range. He includes poems from Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Swedish, American Indian, Quechua (Incan), Txeltal and Tzetzil (Mayan), Eskimo, Malgache (Madagascar), Korean, Chinese, Sanskrit, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu. There are a few lines from Michelangelo, the loveliest: “…even if I were quite blind, I would find you…”

Nicanor Parra wrote in Spanish:

“I’m sad I’ve got nothing to eat / nobody cares about me / there shouldn’t be any beggars / I’ve been saying the same thing for years…”

Osip Mandelstam wrote in Russian:

“Your thin shoulders are for turning red under whips, / turning red under whips, and flaming in the raw cold.

Your child’s fingers are for lifting flatirons / For lifting flatirons and for knotting cords.

Your tender soles are for walking on broken glass, / walking on broken glass, across bloody sands.

And I’m for burning like a black candle lit for you…”

In the preface to the translations, Merwin says of his work: “Without deliberately altering the overt meaning of the original poem, I wanted the translation to represent, with as much life as possible, some aspect, some quality of the poem which made the translator think it was worth translating in the first place.” 

This was a departure from the advice Ezra Pound gave when Merwin visited him in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane where Pound was incarcerated for twelve years as an outspoken and unapologetic political dissident. Pound said to get as close to the original form and language of the poem as possible. Merwin’s ‘possible’ is always infused with the music of the English language he writes in and colored by the music of the poets whose work he translates. The romance languages flow in English; the Mayan translations have the particular rhythm and magic of Mayan myth and syntax; the Asian poets resonate with exquisite imagery and rich symbolism.

A delightful thing about rummaging in tubs of old books for something to read is the inevitable out-of-print gem you will find to taste and savor. Despite the occasional high-energy chants, the constant jazz combo enlivening a nearby circle, the camera-wielding tourists and the difficulty of quiet reflection, you can read in the middle of an occupied park. And the words may make a different kind of sense to you—reading revolutionaries, rebels, nonconformists and passionate poets surrounded by a few yet to find their way into print.

W. S. Merwin  Selected Translations, 1968-1978   Atheneum  1980