Author Archives: Arwen

July 2, 2012 November for Beginners

From one former poet laureate to another: Rita Dove served in the post from 1993-4. Her work is noted not only for its political import, but also a lyricism and simple beauty. Many of her poems and characters seem easy to talk to. This one, however, had me stumped a bit. Who’s the we she’s speaking from? And this poem, too, brings us an examination of seasons, or seasons changing. Those of us the hotlands can welcome its mention of snow and wind. -ed.


Snow would be the easy
way out—that softening
sky like a sigh of relief
at finally being allowed
to yield. No dice.
We stack twigs for burning
in glistening patches
but the rain won’t give.


So we wait, breeding
mood, making music
of decline. We sit down
in the smell of the past
and rise in a light
that is already leaving.
We ache in secret,


a gloomy line
or two of German.
When spring comes
we promise to act
the fool. Pour,
rain! Sail, wind,
with your cargo of zithers!



June 25, 2012 A Set of Seasons

Dear readers,

Donald Hall has been writing poetry since he was 12. He was born in 1928. So he’s been writing poetry since about 1940. Wow, imagine the changes in a writer’s landscape since then. At Harvard, Hall studied alongside Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery. He’s written a fair amount of what could be called nature poetry, and his early work had a strongly formalist bent–lots of rhyme and even line lengths. He was appointed the U.S poet laureate in 2006.
Since I’ve been MIA for about 3 weeks, I was looking for something to mark our entry into–calendrically speaking–summer. The poem here, written in the mid-1950’s, is a general reflection but has a summery feel. -ed.
He suspects that the seasons
Are not as they should be. How
Should he know that seasons
Are not to be suspected?
This gelatin of air
And splendid haze infers
Mistaken complements
To circumstance and phrase.
How should he come to know?
And how to score the seasons,
When he is making them
As red as grass, backwards?
Sir, the beginnings of pleasure
Erupt from the green and the red,
Scored in the head as grass,
Seasonal, unsuspected.

May 14, 2012 Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons

Dear readers,

In “Blue Monday” Diane Wakoski (b. 1937) describes love as a banker, remember? He wears a blue business suit and a fedora, and also black patent leather shoes and a moustache. In today’s poem–and who would think we’d find a mother’s day poem from Diane Wakoski, of all people?–all that remains is the moustache, which she spells “mustache.” Moustache is the preferred spelling, people–although she somewhat redeems herself by using the pleasing plural option at one point.

You’ll notice that Ms. Wakoski’s plan of attack here is very similar to what we see in “Blue Monday”–fiercely free verse, with the use of indentation to set off voices and themes. Long sentences, piled-up clauses, repetitions… she snaps her subject into focus through a long, multi-perspectival approach, sort of like driving all around a farmhouse before finally figuring out where the driveway is. Critic Marjorie Perloff says Wakoski “strives for a voice that is wholly natural, spontaneous, and direct. Accordingly, she avoids all fixed forms, definite rhythms, or organized image patterns in the drive to tell us the Whole Truth about herself, to be sincere.” I’d bet there are many among us who can relate to the emotional base of this poem. And double-special MV greetings to member Meg Harry, who gave birth to twins last week! -ed.


The relief of putting your fingers on the keyboard,
as if you were walking on the beach
and found a diamond
as big as a shoe;
as if
you had just built a wooden table
and the smell of sawdust was in the air,
your hands dry and woody;
as if
you had eluded
the man in the dark hat who had been following you
all week;
the relief
of putting your fingers on the keyboard,
playing the chords of
         in an afternoon when I had no one to talk to,
         when the magazine advertisement forms of soft sweaters
         and clean shining Republican middle-class hair
         walked into carpeted houses
         and left me alone
         with bare floors and a few books
I want to thank my mother
for working every day
in a drab office
in garages and water companies
cutting the cream out of her coffee at 40
to lose weight, her heavy body
writing its delicate bookkeeper’s ledgers
alone, with no man to look at her face,
her body, her prematurely white hair
in love
         I want to thank
my mother for working and always paying for
my piano lessons
before she paid the Bank of America loan
or bought the groceries
or had our old rattling Ford repaired.
I was a quiet child,
afraid of walking into a store alone,
afraid of the water,
the sun,
the dirty weeds in back yards,
afraid of my mother’s bad breath,
and afraid of my father’s occasional visits home,
knowing he would leave again;
afraid of not having any money,
afraid of my clumsy body,
that I knew
         no one would ever love
But I played my way
on the old upright piano
obtained for $10,
played my way through fear,
through ugliness,
through growing up in a world of dime-store purchases,
and a desire to love
a loveless world.
I played my way through an ugly face
and lonely afternoons, days, evenings, nights,
mornings even, empty
as a rusty coffee can,
played my way through the rustles of spring
and wanted everything around me to shimmer like the narrow tide
on a flat beach at sunset in Southern California,
I played my way through
an empty father’s hat in my mother’s closet
and a bed she slept on only one side of,
never wrinkling an inch of
the other side,
I played my way through honors in school,
the only place I could
       the classroom,
       or at my piano lessons, Mrs. Hillhouse’s canary always
       singing the most for my talents,
       as if I had thrown some part of my body away upon entering
       her house
       and was now searching every ivory case
       of the keyboard, slipping my fingers over black
       ridges and around smooth rocks,
       wondering where I had lost my bloody organs,
       or my mouth which sometimes opened
       like a California poppy,
       wide and with contrasts
       beautiful in sweeping fields,
       entirely closed morning and night,
I played my way from age to age,
but they all seemed ageless
or perhaps always
old and lonely,
wanting only one thing, surrounded by the dusty bitter-smelling
leaves of orange trees,
wanting only to be touched by a man who loved me,
who would be there every night
to put his large strong hand over my shoulder,
whose hips I would wake up against in the morning,
whose mustaches might brush a face asleep,
dreaming of pianos that made the sound of Mozart
and Schubert without demanding
that life suck everything
out of you each day,
without demanding the emptiness
of a timid little life.
I want to thank my mother
for letting me wake her up sometimes at 6 in the morning
when I practiced my lessons
and for making sure I had a piano
to lay my school books down on, every afternoon.
I haven’t touched the piano in 10 years,
perhaps in fear that what little love I’ve been able to
pick, like lint, out of the corners of pockets,
will get lost,
slide away,
into the terribly empty cavern of me
if I ever open it all the way up again.
Love is a man
with a mustache
gently holding me every night,
always being there when I need to touch him;
he could not know the painfully loud
music from the past that
his loving stops from pounding, banging,
battering through my brain,
which does its best to destroy the precarious gray matter when I
am alone;
he does not hear Mrs. Hillhouse’s canary singing for me,
liking the sound of my lesson this week,
telling me,
confirming what my teacher says,
that I have a gift for the piano
few of her other pupils had.
When I touch the man
I love,
I want to thank my mother for giving me
piano lessons
all those years,
keeping the memory of Beethoven,
a deaf tortured man,
in mind;
            of the beauty that can come
from even an ugly

St. Patrick’s Day smart aleck, 2012 The Beatles

Dear readers,

please follow the chain-of-connections here as we close out our curricular section on poetic smart-alecks with shout-outs to 2 long-time Monday’s Verse favorites. First a tip of the keyboard to founding member Sara Cohan, for being quoted in a news story last week claiming that–I swear I am not making this up–she and her organization “look forward to continuing to work with all the Kardashians in ending the cycle of genocide worldwide.” Yes, those Kardashians. For more see:

A more smart-alecky comment has never been made, and she said it with a straight face (Sara claims the soundbite was ghost-written, but if so it was the ghost of Oscar Wilde).
Hey speaking of funny Irish guys, Saturday was St. Patrick’s Day and I feel like I sold Mr. Paul Muldoon somewhat short with his 2-line contribution to our smart-aleck reading list. So here’s a slightly more filled-out piece by him, from his 1998 collection Hay. He’s been more smart-alecky in tone elsewhere; here he’s reserving a mischievous grin for the stuttering forced rhyme (it’s from a series of short poems called “Sleeve Notes”) and the too-clever, show-offy latin play on words. But before you read the poem, if you have time, please see the video below, which could be the most smart-assed literary effort of all time. Classic Muldoon:
All in all, it’s a rather overwhelming expanse of wiseacreage for one day, and thus a fitting conclusion to a good run. We are now open to suggestions for our next reading theme. -ed.

THE BEATLES: The Beatles


Though that was the winter when late each night
I’d put away Cicero or Caesar
and pour new milk into an old saucer
for the hedgehog which, when it showed up right

on cue, would set its nose down like that flight
back from the U.S. … back from the, yes sir, …
back from the … back from the U.S.S.R. …
I’d never noticed the play on “album” and “white.”

Feb 27, 2012 Afghanistan

The elusive, allusive trickster, smart-ass extraordinaire, Paul Muldoon (born near Portadown, County Armagh, 1951). He’s not usually known for his concision.This poem, while no ways funny or glib, shows that sometimes brevity is the soul of his wit. -ed.


It’s getting dark, but not dark enough to see
An exit wound as an exit strategy.


Feb 21, 2012 two poems with long titles

aka, a return to smartassery.
I’m not the biggest Ogden Nash (1902-1971) fan in the world. Which really means, I don’t like Ogden Nash much at all. His best work was in conjunction with composer Camille Saint-Saens, a children’s verse accompaniment to the French master’s “Carnival of the Animals.” And this is pretty much the appropriate audience for all his poems: children.
Nonetheless, he is kind of a smart-ass, you can hear it in his cutesy rhymes and quips. Now here are two on slightly more mature topics, and I have to say I love the title of the second one. I also love the subject matter of the first one, but that’s a conversation for a different forum. -ed.
There is something about a Martini
A tingle remarkably pleasant;
A yellow, a mellow Martini;
I wish I had one at present.
There is something about a Martini,
Ere the dining and dancing begin,
And to tell you the truth,
It is not Vermouth–
I think that perhaps it’s the gin.
I find it very difficult to enthuse
Over the current news.
Just when you think that at last the outlook is so black that it can grow no blacker, it worsens,
And that is why I do not like the news,
because there has never been an era when so many things were going so right for so many of the wrong persons.

Feb 13, 2012 Blue Monday

Dear readers,
once again we find ourselves together on Valentine’s Day–were you expecting it? Did you forget? Were you lulled into complacency by the general misery that is the month of February? Has the quotidian grind of work-a-while adult existence ground you into a fine, dullish grey powder? Well prepare to be rehydrated by the blue, watery depths of Michigan poet Diane Wakoski’s greatest work, our annual hymn to the coterminus of love and loss. -ed.
Blue and the heaps of beads poured into her breasts
and clacking together in her elbows;
blue of the silk
that covers lily-town at night;
blue of her teeth
that bite cold toast
and shatter on the streets;
blue of the dyed flower petals with gold stamens
hanging like tongues
over the fence of her dress
at the opera/opals clasped under her lips
and the moon breaking over her head a
gush of blood-red lizards.
Blue Monday. Monday at 3:00 and
Monday at 5. Monday at 7:30 and
Monday at 10:00. Monday passed under the rippling
California fountain. Monday alone
a shark in the cold blue waters.
                You are dead: wound round like a paisley shawl.
I cannot shake you out of the sheets. Your name
is still wedged in every corner of the sofa.
                Monday is the first of the week,
and I think of you all week.
I beg Monday not to come
so that I will not think of you
all week.
You paint my body blue. On the balcony
in the soft muddy night, you paint me
with bat wings and the crystal
the crystal
the crystal
the crystal in your arm cuts away
the night, folds back ebony whale skin
and my face, the blue of new rifles,
and my neck, the blue of Egypt,
and my breasts, the blue of sand,
and my arms, bass-blue,
and my stomach, arsenic;
there is electricity dripping from me like cream;
there is love dripping from me I cannot use–like acacia or
jacaranda–fallen blue and gold flowers, crushed into the street.
                Love passed me in a business suit
and fedora.
His glass cane, hollow and filled with
sharks and whales. . .
He wore black
patent leather shoes
and had a mustache. His hair was so black
it was almost blue.
                “Love,” I said.
“I beg your pardon,” he said.
“Mr. Love,” I said.
“I beg your pardon,” he said.
                So I saw there was no use bothering him on the street.
                Love passed me on the street in a blue
business suit. He was a banker
I could tell.
So blue trains rush by in my sleep.
Blue herons fly overhead.
Blue paints cracks in my
arteries and sends titanium
floating into my bones.
Blue liquid pours down
my poisoned throat and blue veins
rip open my breast. Blue daggers tip
and are juggled on my palms.
Blue death lives in my fingernails.
If I could sing one last song
with water bubbling through my lips
I would sing with my throat torn open,
the blue jugular spouting that black shadow pulse,
and on my lips
I would balance volcanic rock
emptied out of my veins. At last
my children strained out
of my body. At last my blood
solidified and tumbling into the ocean.
It is blue.
It is blue.
It is blue.