On Wednesday, during our exploration of Wallace Stevens’ work through his “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, I instructed you to be mindful of this piece of poetics. Stevens observed his subject from many different angles, yet staying true to his subject, blackbirds.
I ask that you choose a subject, be it something in your travels or something in your realm of influence, and write your observations in as many parts as you see fit. The point of view is all yours. There is more than one way to skin a cat, so they say. There are many views of your chosen subject. Write them!
This week, the tables have been turned. Instead of me introducing you to new works by a previously lesser known poet, I have been taken to school on Wallace Stevens. I thank Daniel Paicopulos for steering us in Mr. Stevens direction.
More than any other modern poet, Stevens was concerned with the transformative power of the imagination. Composing poems on his way to and from the office and in the evenings, Stevens continued to spend his days behind a desk at the office, and led a quiet, uneventful life.
Though now considered one of the major American poets of the century, he did not receive widespread recognition until the publication of his Collected Poems, just a year before his death.
Stevens died in Hartford, Connecticut, on August 2, 1955.
THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A BLACKBIRD
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
I chose this piece by Stevens for its study of a single simple subject. Keep this thought in mind as we near the next Sunday Seed! 😉 Walt.
Today is September 12th. Twenty years after The Day After. We’re writing “The Day After” poems. You decide what day you are referencing and write that poem. “The Day After Tomorrow”, “The Day After I Lost My First Tooth”, “The Day After The Earth Stopped”… Let’s revisit that day. The day after.
We’re writing a night poem. The shining could be the moon and stars. The armor can be an alcove of trees. The romance is whatever stirs your emotions! Take your words and try to get medieval on us. Or better yet, make us swoon.
Around these parts, today marks the first day of the new school year. And no more appropriate time to introduce a “School” poem and another obscure poet.
John Greenleaf Whittier (December 17, 1807 – September 7, 1892) was an American Quaker poet and advocate of the abolition of slavery in the United States. Frequently listed as one of the fireside poets, he was influenced by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. Whittier is remembered particularly for his anti-slavery writings, as well as his 1866 book Snow-Bound.
By John Greenleaf WhittierStill sits the school-house by the road,
A ragged beggar sleeping;
Around it still the sumachs grow,
And blackberry-vines are creeping.
Within, the master's desk is seen,
Deep-scarred by raps official;
The warping floor, the battered seats,
The jack-knife's carved initial;
The charcoal frescoes on its wall;
Its door's worn sill, betraying
The feet that, creeping slow to school,
Went storming out to playing!
Long years ago, a winter sun
Shone over it at setting;
Lit up its western window-panes,
And low eaves' icy fretting.
It touched the tangled golden curls,
And brown eyes full of grieving,
Of one who still her steps delayed
When all the school were leaving.
For near it stood the little boy
Her childish favor singled;
His cap pulled low upon a face
Where pride and shame were mingled.
Pushing with restless feet the snow
To right and left, he lingered; ---
As restlessly her tiny hands
The blue-checked apron fingered.
He saw her lift her eyes; he felt
The soft hand's light caressing,
And heard the tremble of her voice,
As if a fault confessing.
"I'm sorry that I spelt the word:
I hate to go above you,
Because,"---the brown eyes lower fell, ---
"Because, you see, I love you!"
Still memory to a gray-haired man
That sweet child-face is showing.
Dear girl! the grasses on her grave
Have forty years been growing!
He lives to learn, in life's hard school,
How few who pass above him
Lament their triumph and his loss,
Like her, because they love him.
THE LITTLE BOY AND THE OLD MAN
By Shel Silverstein
Said the little boy, sometimes I drop my spoon.
Said the little old man, I do that too.
The little boy whispered, I wet my pants.
I do too, laughed the old man.
Said the little boy, I often cry.
The old man nodded. So do I.
But worst of all, said the boy,
it seems grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
I know what you mean, said the little old man.
This week we breech a subject with which more of us here deal than not. Aging. As we get a little older, we become more and more a shell of our former selves. Our highlighted poem by Shel Silverstein (a personal favorite poet of both Marie’s and mine) approaches the subject tenderly and lovingly as the similarity between the little boy and the aged gentleman is compared.
In spite of the prompts I post and the Reading Room features offered on occasion, I am again faced with my mortality and the prospects of aging. Health issues have prevented me from being more of a presence than I’d like of late. But, my saving grace is my wonderful granddaughter, Brooklyn Ariel. She pulls me from the brink of that precipice time and time again.
And so, we come to this week’s prompt. Re-read the Silverstein poem to refresh the concept. Then, you are charged with writing a poem that reflects your process as told to a young person. You are the Old (Woman/Man) talking to a little one, be they a grandchild, a young family member, a wide-eyed neighbor child… someone who can benefit from your packet of wisdom surrendered in your poem. You’re writing a poem in language a child would understand. It’s a bit of a challenge if you are not used to writing a children’s poem, but I have faith in your collective poetic abilities to be able to pull it off. As always, I appreciate each and every one of you as poets and friends.
Jack Kerouac, (1922-1969), was an American novelist, poet, and leader of the Beat movement. Born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac. His most famous book, On the Road (1957), broadly influenced cultural perceptions before it was recognized for its literary merits. On the Road celebrated the spirit of its era.
While enrolled at Columbia University, Kerouac met two writers who would become lifelong friends: Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Together with Kerouac, they linked to the literary movement known as Beat, inspired by Herbert Huncke, a Times Square drifter. (Read: junkie, petty thief, hustler, and writer). It expressed a feeling of being “down-and-out”. Also, there is a sense of being beat down and therefore signified the bottom of the barrel (from a financial and an emotional point of view), but as well the utmost spiritual high.
Jack Kerouac was severely beaten in a drunken brawl and later died from the internal injuries suffered in the altercation.
They say, “Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it!” So we’ll change that. We’ll write about it.
With the hot days and the cooler nights, fog has been a morning issue and the prime inspiration for this prompt. Think “The rain in Spain,” “A foggy night in London Town,” lightning strikes. Anywhere the weather takes you is prime for your piece! Whether good or bad, weather’s the word.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” ~ Jesus, Son of God (Matthew 5:43-45)
Love Your Enemies
While rain and sun are not ours to give, cool drinks and warm smiles hinder hate.
THE STORM WE LIVE
Caught in the cross hairs of fate,
in the eye of the storm we live on.
Winds destroy and water washes,
in the eye of the storm we live on.
Danger in the swell of torrents,
in the eye of the storm we live. On
the gasp of collective breaths held,
in the eye of the storm we live on.
Semantics makes it no less severe
in the eye of the storm. We live on!
Today, we vilify technology. We found some new gadgets made our lives better. But some were like opening Pandora’s Box. Think of some technological wonder of this modern age and then consider its predecessor. We want that poem. Write of an old technology as it was or as we remember it. Lift it up or paint it with a dour brush. Your cell phone is your old land line (still have one). A cassette or CD was your music player. We’re getting anachronistic of you. Today, everything old is still old but we’re resurrecting the idea of them. Write a new poem about an old thing!
MARIE’S OLD DAYS:
Back in the days of house-to-house milk delivery, Uncle Ray had the greatest technology: a horse-driven, refrigerated milk cart. The horse knew what she was doing. She would take Uncle Ray to the first home on the route. He would grab enough ice-cold milk from the cart for the next several homes. She would walk the cart to the spot where he would need to grab more milk, and wait there for him. Then along came even newer and greater technology: refrigerated delivery trucks. Unfortunately, Uncle Ray was not permitted to turn down the newer technology. Not only did it make his job harder, but he lost a dear friend and coworker.
Often new knowhow’s know how is negligible or nearly inept.
Today’s guest, Mary Elizabeth Todd, speaks her life in poems. If we were to piece together all her poems, her life story would unfurl before our eyes. Most of her poetry is told in the voice of a storyteller born of mountain and hardship, and unselfish love of all living things — for that is who Mary is. This prompted me to go about her interview differently than my others. Rather than question-and-answer dialogue, I gleaned portions of Mary’s poems and writings, and have simply invited her to expound on them. I’m saddened by the fact that I had to pick and choose what to share from her extensive writings and sated life. I hope you enjoy these snippets of our poet friend Mary as much as I have enjoyed stitching them together.
I was born in Waynesville, North Carolina. I spent my first eight years there (except for a summer on Lake Huron in Michigan). It was a small town, and I was known in the community because I visited all my neighbors freely. I knew many of the mountain people and learned storytelling from them. I grew up hearing some of the best storytellers.
I often ate down the street with an Italian family. Their son Zoli was my first hero because he introduced me to Italian cooking. His father cooked every Saturday, and I sort of invited myself. It was not typical Appalachian small town.
Da (my father) was a road builder. Until President Kennedy, the men that worked building roads did not have a main office. There was one in Gatlinburg over Region 15, but there was no office except a plywood building with a window opening, a door opening, a barrel for a fire, and a bathroom out in the woods. On really bad days, the men who worked for Da worked at our home. During the 1950s, the Parkways were often drawn up on our dining room table. I was a mascot of sorts. My biggest dream is that I want to ride on the roads my father built, and there is lot of them in many states and one foreign country. I need someone to go with me willing to stop at every overlook, so I can get the names of the places, then I need to research his government records for his work. I would like to write a book, and I know the name, “The Man who Loved Roads.”
I grew up knowing people of all races and many different religions. I was encouraged to ask questions, and to be respectful of them. I didn’t know this was not the normal experience for white children. It seemed normal to me to have people from all these backgrounds sit down for a meal with us. We learned to be respectful of other religious eating habits. One Thanksgiving we had a Muslim eat with us. But my favorite was the year we had beatniks and hard-shell Baptists sitting down with us for Thanksgiving. Conversation was lively, but respectful.
When I was 8, we moved to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Back then it was a tourist resort from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The rest of the year it was a small town in the mountains.
My brother Joe was shot soon after we moved there, and it was very traumatic for me. He was seriously injured, and in the doctor’s office while waiting for the ambulance to arrive, I saw things that an eight-year-old should never see. When my father was getting ready to get into the ambulance, a man who worked with him offered to take me. Da agreed. It was at that moment fear was born into my life.
Then we moved to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. I loved living there. We had great neighbors. One of them took several of us frog gigging one night: Nancy (his niece from New Jersey, who is still my friend), my cousin Beverly, and myself. We had to catch the frogs with our hands. We laughed and splashed in that mountain creek, and I think we caught only one frog.
I love the mountains. They are rich with history and wonderful people who love music, and faith, and grieve deeply. I am first and foremost a mountain woman. I grew up seeing beauty everywhere. The second house we lived in in Gatlinburg was on a mountain, and I loved to look at the night sky. It had a long patio that went to the edge of the mountain. I loved that place so much I put it in my novel series as my character Sardis’ mountain home.
In 1973, we moved to where I now live in South Carolina. I was twenty-one. If we had not moved then, I probably would have moved back to the mountains after college, and never left.
The house I live in now is filled with memories of all those I love that are gone. My brother Joe was the architect of the house, and my parents did all the rockwork, including a fireplace with a staircase. I live in an 86-acre forest. I have, at one time or another, roamed the entire forest.
Poet and Storyteller of Appalachian Persuasion
While I wait, I will open the gate, And see the sea, And the lea.
(Mary Todd, Age 10)
When I was in the fifth grade Mrs. Lane was my teacher. She was wonderful. She looked to the talent of her students. She had us write a poem to read in front of the class, and that is what I wrote.
After that, I kept a notebook where I wrote my poems – about 200 of them. I am known for keeping a poetry notebook with me at all times. I have also used napkins and whatever scrap of paper to write. I take notes; I lose notes.
I do have an office. It’s very small and holds a myriad of things. My father’s slides, about 3,000 plus. Two piles of genealogy material. A yellow box my father made and about 50 years ago I painted yellow and within it is old letters from friends. I have my father’s engineering tools he used. A pair of antique handcuffs. One metal thermos in a leather container that I have carried up a couple of mountains. I have my very funky earring collection. I like the kind that dangle. I have lots of paper. On the bookcase above me I have my desk name tag from my days of working. I also have a place for my cat Binkey to sleep. Under my desk is where Gus used to sleep, and Tillie sometimes joins me. Gus knew my ways and whenever I would stop writing and lean back to think, he would pop out his head and talk to me…I miss that the most of him being gone.
I grew up with poetry. My father wrote poetry. He could recite about 20 of his near 200 poems. I can still see him standing with his arms behind him and holding his fedora, as we are about to leave and someone saying, “Joe, recite one of your poems.” He always did.
When I was a freshman in high school, I placed third in poetry for high school students for the state of Tennessee. I like poetry because I can play around with the way it is presented. I had a whole e.e. cummings era. In the end, free verse fits me best. I was the kid who liked to color outside the lines. I can do some form poems, but my wild nature feels like I am scratching my fingers on a chalkboard. Still, I am determined to eventually master the sestina. I also write my poetry on hard subjects because there are people who need to hear that I have overcome those difficulties, and just maybe they can also. I believe that poetry should be for the masses, and not just locked away in colleges. I learned this watching people love my father’s poems. I also get rap, and like some of it. It speaks to people.
I also write essays, and do some critical studies of the Bible for Lent each year. I have enjoyed those studies, for they have helped me grasp a new view. When I lost 12 people in two years, I could not find a way to grieve. Every one of them was important to me, plus I became the last remaining member of my immediate family. I did a book called “The Time I Did Not Dance…” It is an odd book, and doesn’t fit in exactly. It is a book of poetry and essays on each stage of grief. The essays address how I dealt with that stage of grief, and the poetry deals with my emotions at that time. Some of my best poetry is in that book. It healed me … still heals me. If it is never published, it has did what I wanted it to do.
Soon after I started writing poetry, I also began a novel. I wrote on it every night from the age of 11 until I was 18. In one of the most stupid moves of my life, I burned them all just before I went to college.
I have also written a couple of short stories. I have found them more difficult to write than a novel. I think I would like to do more.
I do know this: Whatever I write when I sit down to write, I have no idea where it will take me. I have an idea, and the idea gets fleshed out and sometimes goes nowhere I had planned it to go.
There were two times I stopped writing. The first time was when I dated a man who told me my writing was not of God, and therefore I should give them up. I was young and stupid and did not write. He wanted a submissive woman. The thing is, I wasn’t. He decided on another woman, and sent me a Dear John letter. I told him I would not have married him anyway. Then I wrote the first poem I had written in two years. It was about being free.
The second time I stopped writing was after the death of my father. After he died, it took me three years and a trip to Scotland to get me writing again.
Of Heart and Hurdle
Seeing him cry those silent tears Crushed my heart for I loved this man, my father. I closed my eyes and said, “Da,” He turned and said, “Don’t worry I am visiting the ghosts Who died here.”
I heard the story Many men and women lynched For the color of their skin By people whose blood Runs through me.
A novel series I am writing is based on a dark history of my family: My paternal grandfather murdered a black man named Utz Earl. Writing it has gutted me, and yet has made me euphoric. When I finished the first novel in the series, I was floating on air. I could not believe I had actually finished it. I wanted to do a non-fiction book about it, but there is simply not enough info. My father suffered much because of this family history. My grandfather was convicted in South Carolina in 1921, and sentenced to three to five years on the chain gang. Grannie became the cook and laundress for the chain gang, and my father and his sister grew up living in tents, traveling around South Carolina all year long.
I was told by Grannie that my family did not love me and would give me away if they could, and the physical abuse was bad … the edges of my retinas in my eyes are dead, due to being shaken by her when I was about three years old. She placed hate and anger in my heart. My parents did not know the worst of it. They found out at four I was being locked under the stairwell when I was left in her care. She was sent to my aunts for almost a year. When she came back, in an effort to keep from her, I did not eat at the table with my family, but in the kitchen alone. When she was not there, I slept in the bedroom she had, but when she was there it got complicated. Da was gone a lot so when he was gone, I slept on a cot in my parents’ room. Otherwise, I slept on the couch. I had no place that I belonged. I was a nomad in my own house. Da realized that, and put a bar crosswise under his shirts. He took me to their closet and said, “I can’t give you a bed, but I can give you a place to put your dresses.” In later years, as a caseworker, it helped me to understand how the children I worked with felt.
What Grannie did was teach me to keep secrets. It laid a groundwork for keeping quiet when I was bullied at school, when I was sexually abused from ten to fifteen, when I was made to sit in the dining hall until the end of the day for refusing to eat certain foods in the fourth grade, when I was physically and emotionally abused by a teacher … I said nothing. I speak out now, but it took me decades to get to that point. Because I did try to tell a few people, and they told me to say nothing or treated me like I was a slut. I learned to be silent. Even though I am telling you some of what happened, there are parts of it I will not discuss.
Then I heard Jesus, as he washed my wounds and hurts, “Why did you think you must do this alone? I said I would be with you.” He pulled the splinters from my hands and they healed as he said, “Here. Let me help you carry this. I have been there, and I know the way.” He wiped the tears from my eyes and said, “Come and rejoice; it is a beautiful day.” He smiled and I smiled. We picked up the cross … I knew I would follow Him anywhere. (From Were You There, (c), MET)
I am a person of faith, and it has been a journey of renewal of myself. I had planned to go to seminary in Boston, but that fell by the wayside. My mother did not want a daughter who was a preacher. It didn’t matter that I wanted to be a Chaplin. My father was getting ill, and my mother didn’t drive. So, I stayed to care for them.
I know in this life I need to be kind and patient. Kindness most of the time I do, but patience will take a little time. I believe faith has to be worked on and tuned up, and I need to learn more … so I seek knowledge. I am connected to the Northumbrian Community, in that I try to follow their rules of life: To be available to God and others, and to be vulnerable to God and others.
As my mother was dying, the Celtic Daily Prayer Book kept me going. I did not come willingly to God. I fought him all the way, but He gave me what I call a 2×4 moment and it woke up my soul’s desire to be connected to God through his son Jesus Christ.
Then one day I remembered The last words you spoke to me. You struggled to speak and When you did your voice was raspy raw. I felt my tears pool in my eyes To see you struggle so hard- I wanted to tell you not to try, but I knew What you needed to say was important. Then this rough voice said, “I love you.”
These were the last words Ma spoke to me. In fact, it was the only time she ever told me she loved me.
The day she died, all of my immediate family was gone, and I was alone in this world. You don’t realize it until you are there, that when your immediate family is all gone but you, there is no one to discuss your memories with about how it was to live as a family. At the same time, I lost the last of my uncles and my aunts. I was close to them all. I visited many of them every week for decades. Their houses were sold, and I could no longer go visit familiar and loved places. I had to rebuild my society. When you are in your late 50s it is a daunting task, but I do have good friends.
“I want you to take care of my cats when I am gone.”
Ma said the words that I knew was coming. She had dementia, and she was fading. She would be gone soon. I closed my eyes for my heart wanted to cry, but I needed to be present in her life at this moment. It was not my loss but her need that was important.
“Ma I will care for your cats.”
She then said to me firmly, “Promise me!”
That is when the tears came to my eyes. I knew in that instance that a part of her still knew me. She knew I did not take promises lightly. It was a point of honor with me. It had been part of me since I was about ten years old. I rarely make a promise unless I can keep it. Because come hell or high water that promise is going to be kept. It is so engrained in me that Ma knew that about me. She knew that when others tried to get me to say I promise that I won’t do it because I am also stubborn. Ma knew in asking me that night to promise her she was asking me to keep what I was saying. It was April 8, 2008 at 2 AM that I said, “I promise.” My fate was sealed. Ma had given me an Inheritance of cats. I sat with her as she fell into a peaceful sleep. I kissed her forehead.
I went outside and cried into the cool spring night. I looked into the beautiful night sky, because to me the night sky even when overcast is beautiful. I love the inky dark blue of night. I began to laugh, for my life now belonged to forty-six cats.
(Above adapted from Mary’s Christmas Story, 2019)
Those cats became my purpose, and they saved me. As I went through years of poverty, I made choices to make sure they were fed. I would be cold or hot or hungry, but those cats were fed. In 2018, they died. My purpose died with them.
This toddler empress With her dark nearly black eyes And smooth dark chocolate skin Had a presence at three. She was regal, As she held her back Ramrod straight
“No, it is dark.” Her voice deliberate, As she repeated her answer. I knew Victoria knew the color. She, also at this young age, Knew she was called black, And she wasn’t the color Of that crayon. I studied her a minute and then asked, “Victoria, is this the color of your room When the lights go out for you to sleep.” She smiled and nodded her head, “Yes, Dark!”
I believe strongly that each and every one of us has service to do while we live, and that purpose is not to serve ourselves but to serve others. When I got the job as a foster care worker, I wanted to do the best that I could do. I loved the work I did. I did not have children of my own, but I got to love over 800 children. I miss having children in my life, but I am thankful for each of them that crossed my path. Every child, even the difficult ones, were a gift to my life. I tried my best to find the key to help each child individually. I loved my work.
In 2004 I was named Social Worker of The Year by the SC Foster Care Association.
Quick note from Marie:There is far too much to be said and shared regarding the sacrificial work Mary has done for children in the foster care system. I would encourage everyone to seek out her poems on this topic. There are many … all heartrending, and all fill me with awe and respect for Mary. We need more Mary Elizabeth Todds in our midst.
My friends tell me That I have always heard A different drum. I think it is a different Saxophone…. But same difference.
I am a warrior in spirit. I have to have a purpose.
Now, my purpose is to write. Where it will take me in this life, I have no idea, but it is my purpose. It is what I am here for at this moment. It fulfills me like all those previous purposes.
I danced with death On three occasions… Saw the dead visit me, Walked in a cloud of unknown colors, and Said to those come for me My dance in life is not done.
Mary, it has been a pleasure presenting you, here. I’d like to end with this sassy, pretty photo of you. May you forever be kindhearted and adventurous, and may you get to travel the roads of your father’s making.