Chamber Musicians Also Wash the Dishes, Check the Mail

But now the chamber musicians are
just past halfway in Glazunov’s Elegy,

the part where in rehearsal they stopped.
“It feels as if I’m behind.” “I don’t think

so. I think I’m ahead.” When I listened
all I heard was a whole note held

in the third movement of a symphony
by Tinnitus, all I felt was the wax waning

onto the timpani of my ear drum.
Next comes another elegy, this by Suk,

Suk who was fifteen when he wrote its
sorrow-filled walk through what he did

not yet know. The chamber musicians
know. They carry elegy in their fingers.

They open the world on the other side
of every note and let us breathe

within the haunting space between each
touch of key and pull of bow. They believe

heaven is between the stars, music
in the empty sleeve of the one-armed man.

–Jack Ridl

The mystery of music. This time of year it surrounds us. But then again it can always surround us. Let’s let it.

The Materialism of Angels

“Who would say that pleasure is not useful?”—Charles Eames

Of course the angels dance. If not
on the head of a pin, then maybe
on the boardwalk along the ocean of stars.
And they eat hot and spicy: salsa,
tabasco, red peppers. They love
mangoes. They can munch
for hours on cashews. Olives
sit in bronze bowls on the cherry
tables next to their canopy beds
where the solace of pillows swallows
their sweet heads and the quiet
of silk lies across their happy backs.
They know the altruism of material things.
They want to say to us, “We’ll sleep
next to you. Feel our soft and unimposing
flutter across your shoulders, on your
heartbroken feet.” They want us
to take, eat, to smell the wood,
run our tired fingers over the rim of
every glass, give our eyes the chance
to see the way the metal bends and
curves its way into the black oval
of the chair. They want us to feel
the holiness of scratching where it
itches, rubbing where it hurts. They
want us to take long, steamy showers
and a nap. They know how easily
we follow directions: hook the red wire
to the front of the furnace, fill in only
the top half of the life insurance form.
They have no manuals for joy.
They can’t fix anything we break.
They wonder why we never laugh
enough, why we don’t know God
is crazy for deep massage, and loves
to wail on an alto sax whenever they dance.

Jack Ridl

from Broken Symmetry (Wayne State University Press)

____________________________________
During this season, I hope these angels bring you comfort and joy. That’s their job!

 

Here’s some joy in our household.  I learned yesterday that that the first poem I sent you, “While the Dog Sleeps,” has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize by The Louisville Review.  So good of them to do that. And so we’ll go through the winter with our fingers crossed…

 😇

When a Quiet Comes

When a Quiet Comes

Sometimes when the morning surrounds 7am,
a quiet comes. A neighbor wakes, lets out
the dog, fills the songbird feeder. Often

a jogger goes by. Mostly there is the quiet.
There is a pot of coffee. Here in this house
there is a cat who seems to take the day’s

oncoming disappointments and hold them
in her purr. The mind almost shuts down.
The garden’s tapestry of buds and blooms

waits for not a thing. There is this quiet,
this way the day has of being where
we belong. At precisely 7:45 the bells

of St. Peter’s will send an old hymn into
the quiet and we who are still pilgrims
will soon walk our way into another day.

The Louisville Review, 2015

My thanks for each of you pilgrims on
this Thanksgiving Day and in every day.

Subscribe to receive these poems each week via email.

In Time

Friends,

Some whacked-out sociologist has written that we make no more than four or five friends in our lives. How did I get so lucky? He needs to meet each of you.

I don’t need to proclaim anything more about what has happened to us. Here’s what I want to do, and do with some self-consciousness: send a poem each week.

W. H. Auden announced that poetry makes nothing happen. I have fought that notion all my life. If I don’t believe that what I’ve given my days to can matter a tiny bit for even a moment to one human heart, then at this age, I’d be looking back at one humungous waste of time. I don’t believe I have wasted my time.

So each Thursday for the next four years, I’m going post a poem of mine (that’s where the self-consciousness enters) on my blog, as a kind of protest against the anti-soul perched atop the once free world. Please don’t worry about responding to it. If the poem can be a friend for you for a bit, that’s plenty. And feel free to “pay it forward” if you know of someone who would benefit from this.

I suppose I want to do this because I am nagged by a need to do something. I hope this will be my little protest on behalf of lovingkindness, for what is good. And all the more these days I want to feel connected to all of you during a time that has darkened the days in multiple ways.

I doubt many of us want to be uplifted. Being uplifted can feel all wrong when so many are suffering. I do think many of us want to feel respected, honored, affirmed, comforted. I hope this little project will help to fill that need.

So to see the poem each week, you can click on the Subscribe link at the top of the page, enter your email, and you’re good to go. Or just visit here on Thursdays. Of course, we’ll never use this email list for anything but sending you content from the blog.

Namaste, Shalom, Amen, Whatever. Here’s the first poem:

 

While the Dog Sleeps

November the first: Cold.
The last gangs of geese flying
through the gray of the day.
It’s the birthday of Stephen Crane.
On this date, Michelangelo said yes
to the Pope and gathered his brushes.
At the church next door, the choir
is rehearsing. There is nothing
I want to rehearse. Recently I’ve
been realizing, “If that didn’t exist, I
would never miss it.” I say it a lot.
But not about you. We put isinglass
over the screens on the porch so we
could sit there in sweaters, take the time
to see what was in front of us. Now
“tomorrow” is a strange word, “now”
even stranger. “Yesterday” makes sense
but not much of it is true. Our dog still
keeps sleep. I imagine him dreaming
La dolce far niente. When asked
if I miss what I did for forty years
I like to say, “That never existed.”
Now here on the porch I take in the light
crossing the last leaves doing their slow
dance in the breeze, watch the chickadees
at the feeder, once in a while glance at
the sundial we set in the shade of the redbud.

Published in  The Louisville Review, October 2015

Being With, Now

I am writing here to my students. But even if you and I have never shared a workshop, class, time together with poetry, you are welcome to read it as well:

Dear students, you who created my life,

Thank you.

As I have been making my way through the aftermath of the election, I realized again what we created together and what I, and maybe some of you, understandably took for granted — not blithely — but because we created a world where we delighted in our differences.

I had one “social rule” — prevent in any way a fellow student’s ability to be authentic in vision and voice, even with so much as an eye roll, and I will ask you to leave the class and not return. You all welcomed that “regulation,” that way of making our little place safe for everyone to, well, to be.

And now each of you will spend your days with a “Leader of the Free World” whose cruelty would laugh at our care for one another. You took us beyond tolerance, beyond the condescension of acceptance. You never thought about anything but the richness of being with those who were not like you. And our souls opened and welcomed, celebrated and danced, felt the unity of grief and the unifying joy of seeing the world through the hearts of those we were with.

Yes, with.

As daughter Mimi taught us, “with” is the most important word in the world. We are always “with.” Cruelty destroys every way of being with. It may now take its place in the land’s highest office.

But in our memories of being with one another, and in each day ahead, we will still be with, we will always be with, with one another and with all those who, on Wednesday morning, woke in fear, shame, humiliation, grief, despair, and rabid uncertainty. And woke, too, with the understanding that lovingkindness can be overruled and out-voted.

But it can never be overcome. Thank you.

Tonight I know more overwhelmingly than ever before what you created. And I know also that you have since then, every day, created places where those you are with are able to be who they truly are.

As I sat down to write to you, in came this message. Yes, this message came just as I was walking to the computer! From one of my friends, a student long ago:

Hi Jack,

I hope you are well.  Thinking of you today and grateful that on days like today when I can’t make sense of my world, I can turn to poetry to at least look at it from another lens.

The Peace of Wild Things

 When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.      

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

 –Wendell Berry

Love to you,

Carrie Mitchell

Learning to Suffer

A blog post written first for CavanKerry

Several years ago, I was invited to be on a panel at a writers conference. The participants were asked to talk about the topic, “Can Poetry Be Healing?” We all gathered or were stuffed into a rather small meeting Room. It seemed that most everyone attending the conference came to this particular panel. I laughed to myself as I imagined that, like being in the audience of a phony evangelist, they had come to be healed. I wasn’t sure if they would find that funny or even amusing.

The first panelist began by stating outright that in no way can poetry be healing.

He talked about the loved people he had lost to cancer, accidents, any number of other physical cruelties that he never could imagine poetry possibly healing.

The second panelist seconded the first’s conclusion. She added that she had read many a poem, none of which would heal anyone, that many poems would likely only make things worse.

My turn. Well, all along I had figured that we would all be agreeing that poetry can heal. So, whew, here I come now cast as the antagonist. That’s a part I flee from playing. And so I agreed with them. Then I said that there may be another way of looking at poetry and its possible connection to healing. There is the illness and/or the pain, but there is an inner suffering as well. And so I followed, somewhat self-consciously, with my story…

By the time I was 35, I had been in and out of six psychiatric units, lost a marriage and a young child, had worked with easily a dozen therapists, taken so many drugs that several times I had to go into cold turkey before they “tried another,” and along the way had been given a total of thirteen shock treatments. Nothing relieved my suffering. (I can go into what did, but that’s not the import of this blog.)

Among the effects of my experiencing ten traumatic events as a very young child was an inability to suffer. What does that mean? For one thing it meant that there was no way that I could trudge down the blue highway to healing until I was capable of experiencing the pain that accompanies recovery. I needed to discover suffering. It was this realization that enabled me to “go on” and arrive where I am today, talking to you.

However, what might help? I couldn’t read even a sentence that described the least sense of suffering without plunging back into the need for caregiving. I had tried to read the gentlest of books, Ring of Bright Water. It wasn’t long before I put it down.

At some point I decided to try reading poetry, lyric poetry. Most of it was short. I could read the first few lines and see if I was able to go on. And I wrote poems, not very effectively, but with enough artistic technique to create a sense of control over what I put down on one of those yellow legal tablets.

After a week or so I found myself no longer putting the words away. I kept reading. I suppose it was fortunate that I was reading lyric poetry, and a lot of it was lyric poetry about those who suffered and/or by those who suffered, because at some point—slow learner that I am—I realized that “That’s it!” Most of those who wrote or spoke these poems were able to, somehow, live within their suffering. And so I read and read and wrote and read myself into the realization that something in me was becoming able to experience, to feel, that which one must be able to face.

And so it was this story that I told for my panel presentation—my explanation of why poetry just might be able to heal, to assure us that we can suffer, perhaps comfort us, help us feel we aren’t alone, that someone understands. We may even prevail, even if it’s making the day a bit cheerier for those who care for us.

It’s now been thirty plus years since I didn’t know I could suffer. I have lived this time with profound understanding from my wife and daughter. Most certainly, like everyone, I do suffer, but now with the confidence that I can.

 

All I Have Is Words

(This post appeared first on the blog of the wonderful publishers of my book Losing Season, Cavan Kerry Press. I’ve remained connected with these wonderful people through their great good work in bringing the experience of beautifully made books and great untold stories to populations who might not normally receive them. I just love this publisher….

Just now Cavan Kerry is focusing their intentions on people who have disabilities. So we are writing about these, and finding writers with disabilities to write about their/our own experiences. This put me in mind of a writer I’ve been writing with for a while…)

I’ve just come back from spending a couple of hours, a couple enriching hours, with Randy Smit, the Reverend Randy Smit.

Randy and I get together at his home once every month. About a year ago, I received an email from him. I had no idea who he was. He asked if I would be willing to look over his poems and talk about poetry. Randy said that he was an ordained minister, had two graduate degrees, and through a former student of mine had developed an interest in poetry. He wanted to learn how to write poems that dealt with important experiences, ones that he felt prose simply wouldn’t embody. I was hesitant. I get a lot of these requests, and though I try to fulfill as many as I can, most of the time those who contact me do not want to develop the art; most want me to say that “these poems are very moving.” And I do understand that as well. After all, in our culture poetry is not an especially psychologically safe subject to talk about.

Randy asked if we could meet in his home. “It will be easier,” he said. And so I drove up to his place, parked, knocked on the door. A young woman answered. “Come in. I’m Elaine. This is Randy.” And she walked out of the room. “Elaine looks after me while my wife is at work at the hospital,” Randy said and welcomed me, smiling from his wheelchair. “Hey, I know you,” I said. “I’ve seen you in Sanctuary Woods when I walk our dog. I recognize you.” “It’s probably my glasses,” he replied, “a line I use all the time.” I reached out to shake his hand. “Sorry,” he said. “I can move only my head, and even that only a little bit. When we look at poems, you will need to hold what we’re looking at in front of me.”

He invited me into a spacious room with bookcases and floor to ceiling windows. “I spend most of my time here. I’ve come to know, really know the trees, the sky, the different animals and birds that hang out in the back yard. And of course the books.”

We sat at a large round table, Randy’s poems spread out there. “Okay,” he said and took a deep breath, and laughed. “I’m ready. Show me the ropes.”

“Well, what do you want to do?”

“I want to be able to write real poetry. I want it to be about my days, but I don’t want it to draw attention to myself. I want us to talk about poetry. I want us to read poems together. And I want to just see what happens when we hang out.”

“We can do that,” I said, hoping that we could.

We looked at some poems, some of Randy’s, some of mine, some of poets I thought he would learn from. Randy can’t write anything down, but it was clear that he was absorbing it all, and loving it. I asked him if he wanted me to “write any of this down.” “I’ll tell you if I think you’ve said something I might not remember. Then you can write it down.”

After a while our conversation began to explore and reveal the intersection of poetry and theology and what Randy called “spiritual practices.” It was as if the subjects themselves were having a conversation.

During a pause in our chattering away, I asked Randy the name of his condition. “I have no idea,” he said. “This is how I came into the world. All I can do is open my eyes, think, imagine, and feel. I feel a lot. And I live in words. Words are my world. All I have are words. I live in my head in a world of words. Even when I’m with other people, and I love being with other people, it’s words that bring us together. Like us, now.

I couldn’t help but think of the biblical passage about the word becoming flesh. I mentioned it to him. After all, he is a minister. “Yes!! That is what happens. For me words become flesh.”

And so since that first meeting we have gotten together and lived in a conversation that enlarges the world of each of us—through words.

After we had met a few times, I said to Randy, “You know, I will never know what it’s like to be you.” He laughed. He laughs a lot. “And I can never know what it’s like to be you,” he replied and then added, “But we can keep getting closer and closer to understanding. We’ll never get there, but we’ll keep getting closer. Poems, yours, others, mine are going to do that for us.”

From that first meeting on, if asked what it’s like to be a poet, I am no longer able to offer one of the more common replies: “Poets live in words.” No, I, and likely most poets, live in words for part of each day. Randy lives in words all day, every day.

(Randy Smit writes the very next post on Cavan Kerry’s Blog. See that here…)

Lifetime Achievement

I would never have hallucinated that the day would arrive when I might be given recognition for a lifetime’s work. Yikes!
A lifetime’s work?

Here’s how that happens. You do what you do every day for some 45 years and then you get an email informing you of such.

Some things, I admit, I did dream about: hitting the game winning home run in the seventh game of the World Series, receiving a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, draining a thirty foot jump shot with time running out to win a championship for my father, seeing Julie well, but what happened a couple weeks ago I could never imagine.

Okay, so what happened? First the Poetry Society of Michigan informs me that they have named me Honorary Chancellor for the next two years. This means so much: these poets work with poetry and poets for all the right reasons: respect for both poet and poetry, support for those who compose work that connects us to one another and to what deeply matters, encouragement to those learning the art, and an affirmation of poetry as crucial to  sustaining all that is humane. They give themselves to bringing out the compassion and understanding that we carry into each day.

Then, along comes a message announcing that the Literary Society of West Michigan has recognized me with one of their four awards given to those who have contributed to enhancing, enriching literacy. I was cited for a lifetime (there it is again) of work restoring understanding of what poetry really is and what it can bring to and do for others.

I feel okay celebrating these two recognitions because they were not something I worked for or dreamed of or hoped for or even knew about. They came as a result of doing what I do. I learned from my father, the coach, to never make “winning” a goal. It should always be a result. I’m even more fortunate than he was. I didn’t even know there was something that would come from, I say again, doing what I’m still doing.

Yes, I was floored when told of these. I will try to believe this was deserved. I’ll try.

PS. Speaking of the Poetry Society–the other day, their anthology, Peninsula Poets arrived. Reading the poems, I was once again shown how important poetry can be to one’s life. Every poem in the collection matters. Each came from what mattered to the poet; each connects to what matters to us all. The editor, Edward Morin, should be named “Editor-of-the Year.” He, James Ahearn, Julie George, and Angela Maloy must have given up half the hours in their days to devote themselves
to creating this edition. Gratitude abounds.

I have, of course, overlooked others who deserve celebration. If you are interested in joining this soul-sustaining organization, contact Cynthia Nankee at cwnankee@aol.com

And now back to earning the right to carry these recognitions.

TEDx Macatawa: The Perfectly Imperfect

A TEDx Talk.

I was asked to give a TEDx Talk.

These talks bring new ideas to the world, or at least ideas that have been overlooked. The last time I had a new idea, it was defeated in a faculty meeting.

Well, it wasn’t exactly a new idea. Actually it was a very old idea, an ancient idea, and one I’ve continued to promote through retirement and onward. So, what new idea could I come up with? I came up with a chair. TED talkers walk around the stage. I walk my dog, or follow as he sniffs,  a rather uncoordinated, random walk. I am quite good at sitting. It’s how I’ve always done my best work.

TEDx and TED Talks are stunning, flawless, perfect, excellent. I’m very uncomfortable with stunning, flawless, perfect, excellent. When I taught at a nearby college, people were constantly pursuing excellence. Like Charlie our dog doing his sniffing. “There! Nope…. Maybe over There! Nope.”

I never had any idea what in this or any world Excellence was or looked, sounded, tasted or smelled like. But everyone  seemed to know it was there, somewhere. I knew that it was used in conversation: “Like, ya know, that’s excellllent!”

Really? Excellent? When I asked, I was told it meant “doing or making a thing better than most everyone and everything else.” At what cost? And how do you know when you’ve arrived? Merely by measurement?

Only that can be excellent which can be measured? There is a reason standards have lowered from reaching for wisdom or inspiration to spelling all the words correctly. Reaching for perfect measures is the new black.

Not being much of a fan of it, what could I talk about if I couldn’t talk about excellence? This gnawed my bones for a long time before it came: I would talk unexcellently about other things worth pursuing. Or I chose to state the positive: I would suggest that a thing is worth doing even if you don’t do it well.

In fact, most things worth doing have more important reasons for doing them than doing them well. And so I sat in my chair, promoting The Perfectly Imperfect*

I TEDx Talked about the virtue of not focusing on doing things well, or even doing them well at all.

And my microphone fell off my ear.

And I went 34 seconds past my allotted time.

And my chair squeaked.

*The title came from our daughter, who at age 7 said to me when I hung holiday lights up one side of our front door, across the top, and 1/3 of the way down the other side, “Daddy! Let’s leave them up this way. They are perfectly imperfect.”

Dombrowski

 

It’s the day after reading with my former student Chris Dombrowski at Horizon Books in Traverse City. I asked Chris to read first because, as I told the audience, “I wanted Chris to read first, because then you might be thinking what an amazing teacher I am. If I read first, after Chris, you would be thinking, “Well, he most certainly must have learned in spite of his professor.”

On April 3, at the former Literary Life building, 758 Wealthy in Grand Rapids,  I’ll get to give another reading with Chris Dombrowski. Chris will be reading from his new collection, Earth Again, from Wayne State University Press. I’ll be reading a few poems from Practicing to Walk Like a Heron, also from Wayne. Yes, Chris and I have collections out at the very same time from the very same press.

Okay, yeah, for nearly 40 years I’ve given readings. What’s another one? As William Stafford said in reply to one of my students asking him if he was nervous before a reading, “Oh no. Not at all… Resigned.” Well, with these readings, I am nervous and joyful because Chris is a former student. I wonder if, unless you are a teacher, you can fully feel, understand, what it means to be up there reading with someone who was 18 when you first met in a classroom. Teachers are fond of saying that they learn more from their students than their students learn from them.

What did I learn from Chris? I learned how to work with Chris. When he came to the college he was already knowledgeable about the artistry of composing a poem. He already knew the work of a remarkable range of poets. What was there for me to offer him? I brooded. And then I realized that, of course, the best thing I could do was stay out of his way, be an attentive reader for him, and kick him back on track if he started being unknowingly disloyal to his vision.

So can you imagine what it was like for me to open this year’s catalogue from the Press and see on facing pages Chris’s collection and mine. I wonder if there is any teacher out there who has had this happen? If you know, let me know.

Several times with the launch of our books, Chris and I will share the podium. I won’t go sappy here about this (too late?), but I feel as sappy as any proud “Uncle Lou.”

One other time I was invited by a former student to read with her. Sally Smits, who was teaching at the Indiana University campus in South Bend asked me to “share the stage.”  I had no idea how much it would come to mean to me. Quite a lot, it turns out.