Heart In A Jar by Kathleen McGookey

415JSKnCH9L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_It is a world in which Death is part of the equation, children disappear or appear in unique ways, and animals move into doll houses. In Kathleen McGookey’s “Heart In A Jar,” her latest collection of prose poems, it is not a fantasy world, but a way of looking at our own experience in new ways. McGookey excels, both in her earlier work and this outstanding new collection, at peeling back the surface layer of existence and giving us a glimpse of what lies behind it. Although it is not often pretty, she proceeds without fear.

“Dear Death” is the opening letter (or poem) where she asks Death to “pretend you forget all about us.” She is out riding bikes with children, visiting the first graders with “gap-toothed smiles,” and learning about penguins. It is the essence of innocence with Death standing right in the moment. McGookey is not a pessimist, but a realist who understands how fragile life is. Death is not a scary presence in her poetry unless you find the mere concept of Death scary. McGookey’s Death drives to a school Valentine party in his red pick up. “…you’re welcome to braid a friendship bracelet and balance an Oreo on your forehead. Cupcakes go next to the juice boxes.” And she reassures Death, who may feel uncomfortable in the midst of such life. “It’s ok if you don’t exactly fit in. No one wants to believe you are here.”

But Death is here and McGookey explores the impact as she writes about grief. In “The Grief Jacket Project” we find a committee combining different materials to create “a wearable jacket that physically protects and comforts mourners” — sea turtle eggs, small river rocks. In the end, barn swallows provide inspiration and they create a jacket that volunteers would like to pass on to their loved ones. The issue not addressed is why they would need not need such a jacket themselves? In another poem (“At the John Ball Zoo”) she wonders when she’ll be done with grief. And, then, “When will I say, Grief, do you miss me, too?” Like Death, Grief is a presence.

McGookey has explored these ideas before, very clearly in Stay, but she avoids repetition. They are concepts ripe and deep that she may delve into for a long time. In Stay, much of her thinking revolved around her parents, but here Death and childhood are intertwined. Childhood is a magical place of everyday joys and distant fears, where children grow in the flower bed, and where a son escapes the day in a bird suit. And she ends the collection with a “P.S. Death” where her daughter hands her a crumpled page from her first-grade unit on space, not knowing that the elderly neighbor who watched her swim, died that day. She knows her daughter would engage death, but she wants to protect her. Her final line to Death says “I don’t want you to feel at home here.”

If you have not entered McGookey’s world, you are missing a place both familiar and strange. It is a world where we can wander through the possible, the unsaid, and the unacknowledged, and emerge back into our lives with a new perspective.
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“Let Evening Come” by Jane Kenyon

9781555971311Jane Kenyon is the rare poet who shared her Christian faith and was still recognized as a critically important poet. Perhaps it is because her faith avoids any syrupy raptures, instead, providing a different glimpse into everyday life. Still, even an excellent site like the Poetry Foundation can ignore her faith when writing about her life.The literary world is not comfortable with faith, even with “one of their own.”

Anyone reading the collection “Let Evening Come,” will see Kenyon’s faith clearly. It is present in her everyday mentions of her work at church or in one of her daily walks with her dog. In “At the Winter Solstice,” we get a glimpse of a Christmas Eve pageant in a small church:

“At the village church last night
the boys–shepherds and wisemen–
pressed close to the manger in obedience,
wishing only for time to pass;
but the girl dressed as Mary trembled
as she leaned over the pungent hay,
and like the mother of Christ

wondered why she had been chosen.”

But it is a faith of honesty. While she often finds comfort, she also struggles — as do most jane-kenyonpeople. Kenyon suffered from depression, wrestling with it for most of her short life (she died from leukemia at age 47 in 1995). Struggling to reconcile it with her beliefs, she is left short of answers. In “Now Where?” she opens with verses that can reflect depression or grief:

“It wakes when I wake, walks
when I walk, turns back when I

turn back, beating me to the door.

It spoils my food and steals
my sleep, and mocks me, saying,

‘Where is your God now?'”

Most of her poetry celebrates the rural and rustic found around her New Hampshire farm, although she was born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan, not leaving until she married the poet Donald Hall after finishing her Masters degree at the University of Michigan. Kenyon sees much in the simple actions of the day. In her poem, “Father and Son,” she writes how the neighbor keeps cutting wood with his chainsaw as his son helps. He does it on Sunday afternoons and she comes to “mind the noise.”  But the neighbor is:

“intent on getting wood for winter, the last,

as it happened, of their life together.”

So, she takes from this everyday scene which can even be annoying and gives us pause to think about these moments when either the father or son (she hints it is the father) dies before the next season. The importance of the present moment is never lost on Kenyon. She often sees in others the stories they carry with them, revealed in tiny glimpses. She does the same with seasons as they come and go. She tends to embrace each season. In, “Dark Morning: Snow”:

“It falls on the vole, nosing somewhere
through weeds, and on the open
eye of the pond. It makes the mail

come late.

The nuthatch spirals head first

down the tree.

I’m sleepy and benign in the dark.

There nothing I want…”

Kenyon appeals to me and others because she reveals how many of us feel. As a Christian, I can relate to her moments of comfort and her moments of despair. She does not need to go far to find her inspiration — it is the farm she lives on, the people surrounding her, her faith, her dog, and her friends. We benefit from how her eyes often see more than we do. The present does not slip by her. Instead, she lives in the moment with an eye on eternity.

The collection ends with the title poem, and it is one that is often reprinted. In fact, it has been set to music by several composers  with my favorite being by  M. L. P. Badarak.

It is a beautiful poem, so I’ll let it end this post
.

Let Evening Come

 

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving

up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles

and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear

and moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed

go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung

let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

“Stay” by Kathleen McGookey

Stay_cover_smDeath and life have long been tied together in literature, a reflection of our shared experience. One of the strongest connections between the two is grief when life transfers into death and love takes on the lens of loss. All these elements emerge strongly in Kathleen McGookey’s stunning book of poems, Stay. From the loss of children not yet born, to the loss of parents long lived, McGookey struggles to retain what is lost and to accept what is left.
McGookey writes prose poems, allowing her the freedom to develop her thoughts while using the fragmentation of poetry to create lines of depth. In “Shallow” she describes a living moon. “She is pinned to the sky, unapproachable: to be aloof, to be cold and disinterested and not afraid if anyone knows is a decent strategy.” McGookey clearly does not emulate these traits, and so her poems reach out to the reader.
We listen as McGookey interprets life through the decision of becoming a mother, and then the mother who does not conceive.  In “Again” she opens with: “Never conceived, never arrived into the light and the clatter and the chill. Never rapt, like a statue. Never arrived for the slap…” She is grieving the loss of the life never created with the same intensity we grieve the loss of those who die. In both situations, we are left with an absence. One carries memories and the other possibilities, but neither are tangible no matter how much they are experienced.

She is continually struck by the grief and horror an individual can experience that does

mcgookey

Kathleen McGookey

not impact the world. How life seems to go on all around you as your own life falls apart. In “Like Stars” she describes an awe-inspiring evening setting full of the life of insects and birds, and ends with the line: “Right now my friend is having a baby boy who is expected to die.”  In “Sometimes the Ache Sleeps” we see her facing her parent’s declining health, “But each day the purple morning glories bloomed after the sun rose, and each day promised to be just like the one before.” At times, the poet seems to be torn between the thankfulness for ongoing life and being stunned that all the world does not understand your grief. But grief, while universally experienced, is a private affair.

The title poem expresses a theme found throughout these poems. The longing to hang on to what we had while having what is changing. She wants to stay with her ailing mom, who sends her up to her husband. But they only trade places so the husband cares for her mother while she nurses her child. We have a desire to keep what we have, yet we want what we do not have. You cannot care for your dying mother and your young son at the same time. We desire change and we desire to stay in our place.
Clearly, this collection is full of much pain. But she does not lose herself in the pain. She acknowledges it, struggles with it, but still recognizes the beauty around her. She seems in awe of life, wanting to experience it from a distance but finding herself an active part of it. When no hope seems left, she finds it in a note from her mother, the unconditional love of her child, or in the vision of a teenage boy with one leg water skiing and looking for girls in bikinis.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

citizen coverI’ve read this fifth volume of Rankine’s poetry three times, and each time I learn more about what I do not know. Rankine exposes the everyday incidents of personal racism, the public racism of how Serena Williams is treated throughout her career, and the violent racism revealed in the deaths of unarmed black men. But the adjectives of “personal,” “public,” and “violent,” are mere artifacts. What Rankine is showing is that all racism is personal, public, and violent. As she, and the rest of the world, watch Williams be the object of blatantly erroneous calls, it is personal for her. And it is violent in how it attacks her very humanity. The deaths of unarmed black men, the “unintentional” racist comments of her white, liberal, and educated friends, and the public shaming of someone responding honestly to being harassed live beyond the moment.

The book itself is a scrapbook of poetry, creative prose, quotes, verbal collages, and visual art. She almost seems to be scrambling, desperately, for a way to get her message across. At times, she hits it over and over, as she experiences it over and over.

“Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship, when distracted,

Author_Photo_of_Claudia_Rankine

Claudia Rankine

would call you by the name of her black housekeeper?  You assumed you two were the only black people in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this, though she never acknowledged her slippage. And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don’t forget.” These are the daily reminders of the racism inherent in our society but only experienced by those who are not white.

 

Ranking divides her book into several sections, including ones focusing on her daily encounters with racism, one on the treatment of Williams, and one focusing on headline events such as the killings of Trayvon Martin and James Craig Anderson. In addressing so many forms of racism, Rankine requires a response (and, of course, not to respond is to respond). If you want to feel good about the U.S. (and the world) and race, don’t read this book. If, like me, racism is not something personally experience, this book will give you some insight to the pervasiveness and horrendous impact of racism.

Visit Claudia Rankine’s Website

See a Video of Rankine Reading from Citizen

“A Boy’s Will” by Robert Frost

A_Boy's_Will_1915This is Frost’s first book of poems, published in 1913, and it set him on the path that we are all familiar with. What surprised me is that this was published when Frost was 38 years old — and he still accomplished so much after this book. The poems reflect Frost’s interest in the rural landscape, the individuality of a person, and ruminations on our place in the world. Like many good writers, Frost is easy to read, but also not content with an unexamined life. He avoids the pretentiousness of many writers and

frost-1913-x

Robert Frost, 1913

 

manages to say more in the process. When poets become popular (e.g. Mary Oliver), some people tend to see them as superficial. Instead, they are often strong poets who have found a way to connect their art with the public. Frost did this.

“Mowing” and “Reluctance” are two of the better-known poems hers. There are many recordings of Frost’s own straightforward style of reading. Here is a recording of him reading “Mowing.”

Personally, I returned several times to:

“Storm Fear”

When the wind works against us in the dark,
And pelts with snow
The lower chamber window on the east,
And whispers with a sort of stifled bark,
The beast,
‘Come out! Come out!’–
It costs no inward struggle not to go,
Ah, no!
I count our strength,
Two and a child,
Those of us not asleep subdued to mark
How the cold creeps as the fire dies at length,–
How drifts are piled,
Dooryard and road ungraded,
Till even the comforting barn grows far away,
And my heart owns a doubt
Whether ’tis in us to arise with day
And save ourselves unaided.

Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays

owls and other fantasiesMary Oliver’s gift of making you look anew at nature is well documented. Still, I approached Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays, with some trepidation. Was this compilation of poems about birds just a slick packaging/re-marketing of her previous work? It could be, but of the 26 poems appearing here, 10 have never been collected. In addition to the poems are two outstanding essays, including one written for this collection.

I’m not a birder — I can pick out the main ones, but my wife and teenage son know far more that I ever will. But no knowledge is needed. Instead, Oliver’s poems show you birds through the unflinching eye of a nature observer. This is not a collection of cute bird poems — it is a celebration of these creatures in their beauty and frightening power.

White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field

Coming down
out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel,
or a buddah with wings,
it was beautiful
and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings–
five feet apart–and the grabbing
thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys
of the snow–

Owls are portrayed as highly efficient killing machines. In her essay on owls she says “In the night, when the owl is less than exquisitely swift and perfect, the scream of the rabbit is terrible. But the scream of the owl, which is not of pain and hopelessness and the fear of being plucked out of the world, but the sheer rollicking glory of the death-bringer, is more terrible still.” Both of her essays in this collection are a natural fit within her poetry. Her prose writing is also poetic, even when describing a small bird her and her partner raise after it is injured.

Reading all the poems together show Oliver’s life-long love of nature and birds, culminating in this thematic collection. She has followed this model in a book of dog poems, which I have yet to read (but expect a similar style). The range of birds (swans, owls, hummingbirds, wrens, hawks, herons, and many more) show an appreciation for a species more than a particular bird. Oliver envies them for their flight, beauty, power, and song. In a poem about a thrush singing, “Such Singing in the Wild Branches” she writes of feeling like she is singing with the thrush in a fleeting, magical moment. She then offers this advice:

Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?

Are there trees near you,
and does your soul need comforting?
Quick, then–open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.

Even those not of the birding persuasion will find this to be a volume worth spending a couple of hours with — I recommend on the front porch. For those with birding friends, this will serve as an accessible entry into the world of poetry.