Bethany Reid’s Body My House

It’s great reading weather here in the Pacific Northwest since it’s far too blustery and rainy to walk outside. I’ve actually been reading several different books, but I just finished Body My House by Bethany Reid. Bethany has been kind enough to leave comments on my site several times, so when I saw on her site that she had just published a book of poetry (a while ago) I ordered it (a while ago). Like most of the people I know, I have stacks of books sitting around waiting to be read, but this 63-page​ book seemed like the perfect book to read while I tried to figure out what I want to say about Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, which I also just finished reading.

My favorite poem in the book was probably “Unripened” because it reminded me of  childhood outdoor experiences, but even though I’m currently immersed in a review of CSS I didn’t want to spend the hours involved in trying to reproduce the format the poem used in the book and wouldn’t consider presenting it any other way. “I Could Love You that Way” was another favorite, but I couldn’t put into words why I liked it. After staring at a computer screen for nearly a week waiting for words to suddenly appear, I dispersed those electrons and chose to tackle this poem instead:

What She Wanted to Put in Her Poem

When he decided to end it all, he took his pistol
to the garden and held the muzzle to his ear.

His brains would fertilize the cucumbers,
the heirloom tomatoes, the white flesh

of the onions. His blood would seep from him
into the soil where the beans drifted over their stakes.

He would waste nothing.
Through the kitchen window, his wife

and step-daughters watched. The son of a bitch
is nothing but a coward
, his wife said.

He couldn’t hear what they said.
But he lowered the pistol. He sank to his knees.


Divorce followed. Years of apartments. Jobs
not worthy of his genius. His younger stepdaughter

still remembers him standing in the garden.
She remembers how dark the soil, how green

the plants. A mist of rain, so light, adorning
his head like a halo. How brave he was, is what

she thinks (holding a pen, staring at the white page),
to have stood from there and walked

back into his life, not knowing what it would hold,
whether bounty or lack.

I especially liked this poem because I can identify with the first part of the poem; I’ve always wanted to be buried under my tomato plants — not in a sterile graveyard.  The garden is the perfect place to retire to.  There’s a reason my study is full of Aerogarden hydroponic gardens growing tomatoes and herbs. Gardening is in my blood.

I’m afraid I’d probably be more apt to kill the spouse than commit suicide, but I could easily identify with how he must have felt when I read “The son of a bitch is nothing but a coward.”  Someone is definitely a bitch, but it’s probably not his mother.  It’s hard to imagine what kind of person would say this out loud with her daughters standing there, especially since the younger stepdaughter seems to adore him:  “A mist of rain, so light, adorning his head like a halo.” 

One suspects the daughter (the later poet staring at the white paper ?) knows, and must have had, the kind of courage it takes to step back from a moment of darkness and go on. Courage is usually identified with heroic deeds, like shooting a criminal or saving others in combat, but there are many kinds of courage. Some of us need more courage than others just to get up and face everyday challenges. Most of us experience at least a few times in our life when it takes all the courage we can muster up to just to get back on track. Poems like this remind us that we should always give others the benefit of the doubt because it’s impossible to know what struggles they might be facing.  And, in fact, we, too, can never know what life holds for us in the future.

Robert Michael Pyle’s Evolution of the Genus Iris

Whenever we visit the Bloedel Reserve we end our walk at the gift shop. Usually I end up buying garden-related items, naturally, but on a visit this summer they were featuring poems posted throughout the reserve and poetry books in the gift shop. I ended up buying three or four poetry books by local poets I hadn’t heard of before and one by Robert Michael Pyle who I knew only from his non-fiction. In fact, I wrote about Sky Time in Gray’s River several years ago.

I’ll have to admit to a certain ambiguity about his poetry though I definitely identify with his view of nature and life in general. I tend to prefer his short, concrete poems but am less fond of others when I feel overwhelmed by his “vast knowledge and lexicon of a scholar” (as touted in the cover blurb by Henry Hughes).

Evolution of the Genus Iris is short, only 70 pages long, so I’ll try to give a few examples of the kind of poems I really liked.

ALL THINGS CONSIDERED

Two river otters fished the salmon,
diving and rising side by side,
almost down to the surf. Watching
their sleek and pointy loop-de- loop,
over and over and over,
I managed to miss the evening news
.

Considering the state of “The News” today, it’s probably easy to see why this is a personal favorite. It doesn’t hurt that river otters are a personal favorite, either. Though it’s obviously too long to be a haiku, it has the kind of concrete imagery that most appeals to me in haiku. It also has that surprising twist at the end that the best haiku has. In other words, this is the kind of poetry that I really favor at the moment.

While trying to figure out what I wanted to say about Pyle’s book, I started reading Sam Hamill’s “Crossing the River” and in the preface W.S. Merwin notes, “The great Chinese poets, for all their formality and regard to conventions, speak often with a surprising directness which makes them seem surprisingly intimate and close to us.” I really hadn’t thought about this before, but it’s another characteristic I like in poetry. It turns out, that’s a characteristic of my favorite Pyle poems.

JUST ABOUT

What I want to say is how mianthemum
and stream side violet and spring beauty and oxalis
cover the ground in April as thick as the mosses
and club mosses and ferns jacket
the boughs of vine maples. How
the elderberry springs beneath the spruce
and the winter wren’s many notes ride
the single chord of varied thrush. How
corydalis and salmonberry meet you
across the skinny bridge. What I want to say
is that all this ought to be enough
for anybody.

“Mianthemum” and “ corydalis” aside, this seems to me to have precisely the “surprising directness” W.S. Merwin ascribes to the great Chinese poets. Though I can’t image one of the great Romantic poets ever using the phrase “What I want to say,” it fits the tone of this poem. And he’s right, “… this ought to be enough/for anybody.”

I ended up marking ten poems in this short volume that I particularly liked and wanted to reread, as many as I often mark in a much longer book. I guess that makes it a good investment of both money and time.

Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Rain”

Although I liked a lot of the poems in Naomi Shihab Nye’s Words Under the Woods, it’s only 157 pages long, so I thought I would just cite one more poem, one that seemed particularly poignant to me after 30 years of teaching and provides ample evidence that William Stafford was right on when he was quoted on the back cover as saying, “In the current literary scene one of the most heartening influences is the work of Naomi Shihab Nye. Her poems combine transcendent liveliness and sparkle along with warmth and human insight. She is a champion of the literature of encouragement and heart. Reading her work enhances life.”

Rain

A teacher asked Paul

what he would remember

from third grade, and he sat

a long time before writing

“this year sumbody tutched me

on the sholder”

and turned his paper in.

Later she showed it to me

as an example of her wasted life.

The words he wrote were large
as houses in a landscape.

He wanted to go inside them

and live, he could fill in

the windows of “o” and “d”

and be safe while outside

birds building nests in drainpipes
knew nothing of the coming rain.

I taught high school, not the third grade, but I can still identify with the poem, even if I can’t identify with the teacher who saw Paul’s paper as an “example of her wasted life.” Hopefully, she was the “sumbody” that touched Paul on the shoulder providing him with the feeling that someone cared for him, though she seems too out of touch to have been the one that did that.

As a converted caseworker, it was precisely students like Paul who inspired me to turn to teaching in hopes that I could help people before they ended up on welfare. As it turned out, that was a lot harder to do than I ever imagined, and I failed a lot more than I succeeded in helping them to succeed. While that failure makes it easy to believe that I “wasted” my life trying to help students like Paul succeed, there are more important things than “book learning.” The most important thing you can do as a teacher is to make students feel good about themselves, no matter what skills they may or may not have.

Having been a caseworker and been married to a caseworker for 17 years, I was always aware that some of my students lived unimaginably hard lives, ranging from abuse to neglect, never knowing what was coming next in their lives. Before they can move on they need to feel safe, not like “birds building nests in drainpipes.”

The Anti-Trump

It’s either been too cold, too wet, or too cold and wet to get out birding recently, so I’ve finally used up all the pictures I’ve taken. Hopefully, I’ll get out shortly, but until I do I either have to write about the many books I’ve read recently but haven’t had the ambition to organize my notes into a rational statement or read some new poetry books and comment on them.

For now I decided to do the latter and began by reading Naomi Shihab Nye’s Words under the Words: Selected Poems. published in 1995. I actually commented on Nye’s Fuel in 2002 but had almost forgotten about her in the intervening years. Luckily, I was reminded of her poetry recently, for it seems like a perfect antidote to the constant barrage of Trump news that has filled my Facebook page and my news feeds.

Tell, me can you imagine Trump, or his supporters, for that matter, ever reading, much less writing, a poem called “Kindness.”

Kindness

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride

thinking the bus will never stop,

the passengers eating maize and chicken

will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Colombia

For better or worse, I’ve never lost all the things Nye mentions in the first stanza, though I suspect losing my faith in the American Dream after serving in Vietnam probably made me kinder, and less self-centered, than I might otherwise have ever become. I know it inspired me to become a caseworker instead of a banker or businessman which, in turn, forced me to see just “how desolate the landscape can be.” Afraid I would end up staring “out the window forever,” I left casework to become a teacher where it seemed more likely that I could actually help people.

I’ve never seen where an “Indian in a white poncho/lies dead by the side of the road,” but I’m still haunted by fellow officers who died in Vietnam pursuing their dreams. Though I’m not sure seeing those bodies made me kinder, I do know it made me realize just how precarious life really is, that there are never any assurances that things will “turn out for the best.”

I’ve certainly experienced my share of sorrow, and at times felt overwhelmed by it and empathized with the sorrow of others who haven’t been as lucky as I’ve been. The Buddha had it right when he said, “What is the noble truth of suffering? Birth is suffering, ageing is suffering and sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering.”

The Buddha’s answer to that suffering was “compassion,” or, in Nye’s words, “Kindness.” I suspect some of us are going to need all the kindness we can muster to get through the next four years and a President who tries to bully and belittle anyone who opposes his ideas. Though I’ve already managed to fly off the handle at some Trump supporters, I would consider myself a better person if I could manage to empathize with them while still standing up for what I believe in myself. After all, kindness would seem to demand that we treat all people, and not just those who agree with us, the best we can.