Poet Mark Strand died on Saturday at age 80. During his 40+ year career he earned nearly every accolade an American poet could hope for: a Fulbright grant in the early Sixties, a MacArthur fellowship in 1987, a stint as poet laureate in 1990, and a Pulitzer prize in 1999. He published over 15 books of poetry, but I’ll always remember him for a single poem, my first and very late encounter with his work. “Black Sea” appeared in the March 31, 2003 issue of The New Yorker and immediately dug itself a small den in my mind and has lived there since. Anyone who has ever loved someone, or who has missed someone, who fails to be settled into silence by the last line of this poem should immediately be subjected to the Voight-Kampff test.
“Black Sea” can be found in Mark Strand’s 2008 book Man and Camel.
On the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the start of the second term of the United States’ first African-American president, today is an excellent time to remember Maya Angelou’s unmatched inaugural poem from President Clinton’s first swearing in, “On the Pulse of the Morning.”
“On the Pulse of the Morning”
by Maya Angelou
A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
The rule I made for myself most days was that I had to leave the house and smile at least three people that I didn’t know. I had to make eye contact and just say hello, which is to say even if I was shaking or had been throwing up from all the anxiety all day long I still needed to walk out on Claremont Blvd. and face the world.
This is the opening paragraph to Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s “The Year I Didn’t Kill Myself,” which she’s writing in a series of posts on The Best American Poetry blog over the next year. She’s now four entries in, and it hurts to read for anyone who feels sympathy, but mostly for anyone who feels hope.
Most of Ms. Calvocoressi’s story deals with her coping with her mother’s suicide, but that paragraph grabbed me immediately, through my chest and wrapped its fingers around my ribs and pulled. It’ll do the same for anyone who’s ever battled severe anxiety, whether they know the have or not. But after that initial familiarity the first thing I thought of, strangely, was Twitter.
It’s National Poetry Month, so I might as well post a poem. Here’s one I wrote 12 years ago called “Naked Jesus Women.”
“Naked Jesus Women”
Public money, our money, should not be given to a museum so that they can display photographs of naked women portraying Jesus. No!
Instead, naked Jesus women should fall from the sky, on parachutes knitted from our tax dollars, the actual bills. Clasping Metrocards between their thighs, the naked Jesus women should land on roofs and in trees and on the FDR. Their Naired legs should clog the chimneys at Gracie Mansion.
Naked Jesus women should touch down into Madison Square Park and entwine their limbs around the statue of William Seward. Their bodies should fill the shallow swimming lanes of the Asser Levy pool and stain the water with cocoa-butter.
The Jesus women should set up booths on the promenade and write Haiku for a dollar. They should swipe racks of clothing in the garment district and ride them through Chelsea, fragrant and whooping and popping wheelies.
Of course, we don’t get much of that out here in Brooklyn. See, this is a family town.
While you’re here, you might as well read my Taco Bell haiku.
One of my favorite poets has spoken from beyond the grave, and he’s been watching Law & Order out there, because what he has to say was ripped from the headlines!
A previously unknown, 45+ year-old poem by Carl Sandburg was discovered by an 83-year-old volunteer in the University of Illinois library. Called “A Revolver,” it’s a screed against guns and against the evil power we instill into them through our idolization.
If this all sounds like just another case of a lefty octogenarian trying to score political points with middle America by forging the work of a dead 1920s socialist labor poet, take note that the work’s been declared authentic by two Sandburg experts, in part because the manuscript includes specific key flaws known to exist on the poet’s typewriter.
Here’s the full text of the poem, emphasis mine.
Here’s “Eggs Norwegian,” from the latter part of that book, the section that the New York Times didn’t like as much as the rest. But only a joyless curb cut of a person wouldn’t enjoy this poem at least a little bit, because it’s about both a dog and frenching and contains possibly the best ever usage of the word “whispers.”