Friday, December 19, 2014

Cuba Feliz, America Feliz!

Comida rica, musica para llorar y bailar, cantantes elegantes y tristes, coches viejos, revolucion....

Delicious food, music for crying and dancing, elegant and sorrowful singers, old autos, revolution - that's the idea I have of Cuba. If it's a narrow vision, that's because Americans haven't been able to travel there for many, many years. But now:

"Change is hard –- in our own lives, and in the lives of nations.  And change is even harder when we carry the heavy weight of history on our shoulders.  But today we are making these changes because it is the right thing to do.  Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past so as to reach for a better future –- for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere, and for the world."

Wonderful!! And to celebrate the announcement that the United States is, at long last, re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, I want to offer up this wonderful video of a serenade in the streets of Havana. The song is sad, but if you take the time to watch all the way through, you'll see the joy slowly growing in the faces of those musicians, and the camaraderie they share, and the beauty of that woman they're serenading, and the quick glance we get of people in the street.  Here's to getting more than a quick glance - here's to getting to know the Cuban people better.

Pope Francis and President Obama, among others, worked to open up paths of communication after more than 50 years of stubborn silence (not to mention a long campaign of poisoned cigars and exploding seashells, and USAID's infiltration of hip-hop groups,  - ??? - for Heaven's sake....). A short poem first, in the voice of Rosa, a character from Margarita Engle's lovely verse narrative, The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom:

I love the sounds 
of the jungle at night.

When the barracoon
where we sleep 
has been locked, 
I hear the music
of crickets, tree frogs, owls, 
and the whir of wings
as night birds fly, 
and the song of un sinsonte,
a Cuban mockingbird, 
the magical creature
who knows how to sing
many songs all at once, 
sad and happy, 
captive and free...

songs that help me sleep 
without nightmares, 
without dreams.

 She sings: "...and I cry without you knowing that my crying has black tears, like my life."

The Poetry Friday round-up is being hosted today by Buffy at Buffy's Blog. Head over there to see what other people have posted.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Why Does a Chicken?

I've been thinking a lot about riddles lately, since I've been reading a review copy of Peter Turchi's wonderful new book A Muse and A Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic (my review of it will be in January's Numero Cinq.)

Turchi, who wrote another favorite of mine (Maps of the Imagination) has written a book full of tidbits writers should be thinking about all the time. His observations about how puzzle-making enters into creative writing confirm my own: Good stories always ask a few questions we have trouble answering. Poetry is especially dependent on riddles, since metaphorical thinking is a form of puzzle-making (observing something to be equal to something else.) When we remember a story or a poem, isn't it because it has asked us questions that required contemplation? We  linger in the mystery. Genre fiction, on the other hand, leads readers to solutions. So the more generic (genre-centered) writing is, the less it approaches unknowns and the more it offers up answers. Nothing wrong with that, if reading is done for entertainment - at the end of a good detective story, you usually can hear the final click of the box that contains the solution to the puzzle closing again.  Granted, some genre work does push itself into literary territory. But if you read literary fiction and poetry, too, then you have to be comfortable with riddles that can't be solved - you don't hear that box lid clicking closed.  That's what Turchi's book is all about, and I encourage you to read it - you can find out about it at this link

Ah, the unsolvable riddle - give me one of those from time to time and I'm happy. So my Poetry Friday contribution this week is a poem by A.A. Milne, made all the better since it convinces me that unanswerable questions can be introduced to kids from the time they learn to walk. I mean, why does a chicken? If you know why, you can answer in the comments!


Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie,
A fly can't bird, but a bird can fly.
Ask me a riddle and I reply
Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie.

Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie,
Why does a chicken? I don't know why.
Ask me a riddle and I reply
Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie.

Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie,
A fish can't whistle and neither can I.
Ask me a riddle and I reply
Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie.

Today's Poetry Friday round-up is being hosted by Paul at These Four Corners. Head over there to see what other people have posted. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Poetry Friday: Happy Birthday, Calvin Trillin!

Deadlines like little fish floating past me....
I haven't been posting very often on The Drift Record lately, not sure why. Since retiring from my teaching position with Vermont College of Fine Arts, I find myself more than a little thrilled with the non-push and non-rush of not even knowing what day of the week it is. Deadlines float past me like little fish that I don't need to catch, I just want to enjoy their liveliness and their shimmer. I don't mind seeing these little fingerlings swimming around down there under the water - I like knowing life is bustling somewhere around me. But it's like being in the back of a rowboat that's being rowed around a calm lake by a good friend - there's no need for conversation, we're just lolling around in the sunshine (well, yes, it's December, but I mean the interior glow) and I'm letting my hand drift in the water alongside the boat. Drifting over smooth, silky, cool water - a painting by Claude Monet - that's what retirement has been feeling like.

Smooth, silky, cool water...

On certainly special days, I feel like I'm still at that lake, but this time I'm a fresh-water turtle on a log at the lake's edge, and I have my neck out and I'm absolutely still, soaking up the sun. All's right with the world. My breathing is all I hear. No, that's not true - I hear kids laughing in the distance. Maybe a dog barking. Maybe a crow cawing. No need to respond.
Basking and not knowing what day it is....

So if I don't post regularly on Poetry Friday - that's why. I'm out at that lake. I'm taking a turn at being a quiet turtle on a warm log....

Today, however, I'm not a turtle - I'm popping in because it's Calvin Trillin's birthday, so I want to say Happy Birthday, Calvin.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Trillin

I love the way that man writes (could that explain why I have a whole shelf full of his books?) He's a master of the humorous essay, and he writes fine satirical poetry - political commentary with meter and rhyme.  Reading his work can quickly change a bad mood (when I'm not drifting around on a lake, I'm in the Titanic and it's going down fast) into an okay-it's-not-the-end-of-the-world mood. He makes me laugh out loud, and that's not easy to do because I'm often a cranky, judgmental, hard-to-satisfy reader.

Here is a little something he said about writing poetry, so that's what I'm going to share for Poetry Friday. I think I've got it right:

When people say 'How do you think about what to write about in the poems every week?'  I say, 'Well, I have to turn it in on Monday, so on Sunday nights I turn the shower to iambic pentameter and it sort of works out that way.'

Iambic pentameter in the shower -not as easy as he makes it sound.

Hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving and that you are looking forward to being with family and friends over the holidays. I love the bustle of's still a season when I stop being a turtle on a log and I become one of those shimmering fish.

Poetry Friday this week is being hosted by Anastasia at Booktalking - head over there to see what other people are sharing. Don't miss the poem by the late Mark Strand over at Diane Mayr's Kurious Kitty.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Poetry Friday: Small Packages

It's Poetry Friday, and I want to offer up a song. The link to it was posted on Facebook by my friend Daphne Kalmar. The fact that I don't know what the words of the song mean - don't even know the alphabet in which the words of this song are written - makes me hesitate, but it's not really the meaning I'm attracted to. It's the smile on the singer's face. I can hardly describe how much I love the delight this woman feels as she sings her song.

(If the embedded video won't play, just click this link.)

Look at the way that woman's body moves - her arms, her hands, the way she makes that little "crazy" sign up by her head! Maybe she remembers something while she sings her song. Is it all joy, what she remembers? Maybe there's a little sorrow? I might be imagining it. For all I know, the song could be about a lost hat. But no, you can see it from time to time, the wrinkled brow, the catch in the voice, right?

What is she saying? Do I want to know? I imagine the woman is Russian, I imagine a long history of suffering, life under Stalin, Russian soldiers during the winter of 1942-43. But I have a huge imagination when it comes to sorrow.

While in Oaxaca this September, my husband and I walked past a thin young boy every day who played the accordion and hoped for spare change. He sometimes had an even younger sister with him, in charge of holding out her hand. We gave them whatever coins we had, sometimes more, on the way out from our apartment in the morning and on the way back in the late afternoon. He was always there. He couldn't play well; in fact, he didn't really play a tune, just a note here, a note there, while the accordion itself - pulled out, pushed in - did the job of wheezing and begging. Now I'm home in Seattle in my comfy house, but there's no doubt the boy is still there each day, his back up against the stone wall surrounding the Santo Domingo church. His song and the poverty and heartbreak it represents are there, but also here now, with me.

The woman in the video - her pleasure is as much a poem as the lyrics of her song, isn't it? The boy and his sister in Oaxaca - small as sighs - those sighs are poems. And when it comes right down to it, who can say what a poem is or how it comes to us?  I look at the woman while she sings - her hand slapping the table is a poem, her smile is a poem. And the melody drifting out into the Oaxaca air - I could hear the music before I could see the boy - that was a poem.   Delight, joy, suffering, songs, musical notes floating in the air, a teacup on a table, Mickey Mouse on a Russian apron, a hand held out for spare change - all poems. Sometimes they come in small packages.
This week's Poetry Friday round-up is being hosted by Diane over at Random Noodling. Head over there to see what other people have posted.

Friday, October 17, 2014

POETRY FRIDAY: A Wandering Scotsman

I've recently been researching the life, prose and poetry of the Scottish writer Alastair Reid for an essay soon to be published in Numero Cinq as part of my Undersung series.  Reid, who died a few weeks ago at the age of 88, was a wonderful poet in his own right but was probably best known as a translator of Pablo Neruda and Jorge Luis Borges and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. Reid also wrote a children's book that is a favorite of friends of mine (maybe it's reached cult status?)  The title (previously out of print but now back back in print via The New York Review Children's Collection) is OUNCE DICE TRICE; with pictures by the graphic artist and illustrator Ben Shahn.

The book includes, among other delights, several imaginative counting systems (from one to ten - a journey that Reid proves can be fun.) Two examples I particularly like:

Ounce, dice, trice, quartz, quince, sago, serpent, oxygen, nitrogen, denim


Instant, distant, tryst, catalyst, quest, sycamore, sophomore, oculist, novelist, dentist.

In the book, Reid collects relatively unknown words and offers them up to us in all their strangeness, the way a talented chef would reveal the secret ingredients of a favorite dish:

You can hear one of his best poems for adults, "Curiosity," by clicking here. The poem is a dog's and cat's (but mostly human's) view of the old adage "Curiosity killed the cat," with Reid coming down hard in favor of being curious.

That link can serve as my poetry contribution today to Poetry Friday, but here's what I'd really like to share - a description of childhood that Reid wrote:

“The principal difference between childhood and the stages of life into which it invariably dissolves is that as children we occupy a limitless present. The past has scarcely room to exist, since, if it means anything at all, it means only the previous day. Similarly, the future is in abeyance; we are not meant to do anything at all until we reach a suitable size. Correspondingly, the present is enormous, mainly because it is all there is.... Walks are dizzying adventures; the days tingle with unknowns, waiting to be made into wonders. Living so utterly in the present, children have an infinite power to transform; they are able to make the world into anything they wish, and they do so, with alacrity. There are no preconceptions, which is why, when a child tells us he is Napoleon, we had better behave with the respect due to a small emperor."

Like Maurice Sendak, Alastair Reid took children seriously while taking language playfully. I encourage you all to read more of his work. You can listen to the poet, with his slight Scottish burr, read several of his own poems for adults over at The Poetry Archive and at the Scottish Poetry Library

Poetry Friday today is being hosted by Michelle at Today's Little Ditty. Head over there to see what other people have posted. And if you want to read my most recent post at Books Around the Table, click here.