Saturday, May 9, 2015

30th Letter: Thom Gunn

Thom Gunn's sturdy
handsome stanzas

show he grew up in a time
of well-schooled youth

when poets and others
learned how to write.

His verses about
lovers taking chances

(and dear friends dying)
wound with their truth,

their hell-bent clarity,
their dark delight.

29th Letter: Would We Have Been Friends?

Eliminating the parallax between us
of fifteen years
and a thousand miles,
I wonder:
would we have been friends
had we sat in the same class
in high school?

Our temperaments are different,
yours and mine.
I, the awkward chatterbox,
careless even in middle-age;
you, ostensibly serene and cautious,
serious but perhaps not overly so!

When I was young, I did not suffer
from a deficit of self-esteem.
The word "obnoxious," while merciless,
might justly have been used of me --
I did not take great care to conceal
what I thought was an abundance of knowledge.

Had we been classmates,
you might have detected my conceit
and turned away, and looked elsewhere.
Maybe not! Who knows?
On my part, our common membership
in the confraternity of poetry
would have sufficed

to kindle my admiration (if not my envy!)
and to create a bond of deep respect.

28th Letter: The Single Area

As I once told the Reverend Peggy,
my cherished spiritual advisor,
the single area of my unkempt life

where I act with a measure of aplomb,
a degree of resiliency, where I rarely
if ever become discouraged by setbacks,

where I am almost an adult despite
my sophomoric humour, is here, is now,
when I take up pen and notebook

or sit and type in the prosy-fingered dawn,
and work at language, nudging sluggish words
toward something that resembles poetry.

Friday, May 8, 2015

27th Letter: Grendel's Den

Someday, dear friend, we'll meet at Grendel's Den;
We'll grab a bite to eat at Grendel's Den.

Am I foolhardy to anticipate
An afternoon made sweet at Grendel's Den?

Cambridge welcomes both townie and traveller:
We'll rest, pull up a seat at Grendel's Den.

Gregarious chatter thrives between its walls:
For lunch, you can't compete with Grendel's Den.

Abandon gloom, all ye who enter here!
The atmosphere's upbeat at Grendel's Den.

Professors, punks, join forces, raise a glass!
There's no room for conceit at Grendel's Den.

Bless your floorboards, once blond as beer, well-worn
By waiters' youthful feet, O Grendel's Den!

Barn-swallow, hasten, I pray, to Winthrop Park:
Table for two, my treat, at Grendel's Den!

26th Letter: In '90s Boston

In '90s Boston, a cosmopolitan city
Noted more for Progress than for propriety,
I found religious bookstores, holy nooks:
Sheehan's, Cowley, and the Mass. Bible Society
(Catholic, Episcopal, ecumenical).
I'd stand at their endless shelves and take long looks,
Selecting the latest from the Paulist Press,
Alba House, St Vladimir's, or Orbis Books.
I believed that I could read myself to grace!
In a noise-plagued city, a bookstore is a refuge,
As a haven of serenity and peace.

I'd bury my brain in books to stifle doubt
In the power of God to change my sinful ways.
I won't lie: these were far from my best days.
Angry at Life Itself, I sought relief
Among tomes of theology and poems of praise.

The lady in 408 would yell at her kids. Good grief!
How dare she interrupt my meditation?
Her boyfriend with the radio: another "pet peeve."

My good will choked by nettles of frustration,
I'd read and brood, a surly thirtyish slacker,
And pray for quiet, and listen to the jazz station,
Vexed all the while by an implacable Attacker,
Twisting every meaning, tainting every blessing
With cogitations dire, dour, dark, distressing:

Would God, reputedly merciful, take pity?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

23rd Letter: When I Don't Feel Like Praying

When I don't feel like praying,
when beads and booklets fill me with distaste,
I often tell myself to "do a psalm."

When I'm stuck in writers' block,
unable to muster even the scraps of a lyric,
I drink two mugs of coffee, black and unsweetened,
and lower my impossibly high standards.

When I'm debating politics on Facebook
with Jim, the incorrigible
but friendly jacobin,
I tell myself, stay calm, don't waver,
and keep it light.
Throw in a joke or an atrocious pun.
More wit and less insistence.

But when I lose my sense of humor,
I'm in a very bad way, indeed.

When I lose that effervescence of spirit
that delights in the daily mysteries,
that laughs at my mistakes and those of others,
that smiles upon the folly of myself,
then I have truly and sadly
lost everything.

Humor and mercy must be related somehow,
don't you think?
Aren't we more merciful to others
when we can perceive the ridiculous quality
in our own bitter self-criticism,
when we can banish worry
to some closet or attic,
and play at smiling and jesting for a time?

Now, obviously there are times
when a sober demeanor is appropriate.
But most days, do we really suffer
from too much laughter? from too little gloom?
Are we ever at fault for being flexible?
And is it a crime to listen?

When propagandists of discord would install
in my teeming restless noggin
a diabolic caricature of humanity
as irredeemable fiend, as wolf to his fellow,
shouldn't I just throw the papers in the trash,
ignore the interwebs, switch off cable
and talk to a friend --
a vulnerable human being
who lives and breathes
and anguishes and loves?
And shouldn't I thank God?
And shouldn't I rejoice?

Sunday, May 3, 2015

22nd Letter: My Work

What is my work?
At the moment, it is listening to the birds
whose names I do not know, and whose language
I can never understand.

It is writing a poem over the second cup
of morning coffee.

It is planning the day's activity:
phone calls, pharmacy, confession, lunch.

It is learning to hope with the hope that knows no bounds.
It is learning to rejoice as the first Christians did
at the first Easter.

My work is correcting my own faults, and bothering less
about the faults I seem to see in others.

My work is to accept whatever weather comes.
My work is to replace complaining with endurance.

My work is to become
as light-hearted as Edward Estlin Cummings
when he sings that "deeds cannot dream what dreams can do."

My work is learning how.

My work is not to teach.
My work is not to preach.
My work is not to inveigh, to exhort, to compel.

My work, at the moment, is listening.
Listening to whatever, to whoever, comes my way.

My work is an hour of solitude at the start of the day,
in communion with the saints and sinners,
in communion with the blest and holy ones
who have gone before.

My work is clearing the front yard of pine-cones.
My work is raking leaves.
My work is placing stone upon stone
and building a chapel.

My work is prayer. To the One,
who made the rivers, the blossoms, the bluejays,
who made the fall foliage and the first snow of winter,
who made the deserts and the humid summers,
who made my vexing brothers and my distant sisters.

My work cannot be done
without the help of God.


earliest version 2011
revised 2015

21st Letter: Springtime Singer

Springtime singer, friend of butterflies,
farewelling "snows that wither and frosts that sting,"
you live, you love, you praise, and you surprise.

Who would have known, who'd have dared to surmise,
the grace you'd give to every living thing,
springtime singer, friend of butterflies?

As riotous blossoms that delight our eyes,
as the proud bounty of long-hoped-for spring,
you live, you love, you praise, and you surprise!

In these bright days when chilly prudence dies,
you teach deaf ears the art of listening,
springtime singer, friend of butterflies!

Obliterating cowardice, slaying lies,
with joy that overwhelms our reasoning,
you live, you love, you praise, and you surprise!

Graybearded sonneteers cannot disguise
elation as the barn-swallow takes wing:
springtime singer, friend of butterflies,
you live, you love, you praise, and you surprise.

Friday, May 1, 2015

20th Letter: Chelsea

[Note: All names of persons and streets in this poem --
except my own name, of course! -- are invented.]

***

I should write about my years in Chelsea.
At times I thought of it as an Alcatraz
From which I saw no avenue of escape!

It had its good points, don't get me wrong.
The folks I met while living on Madison Street:
Miriam and Joshua, Gabriel and Wesley --

The first pair, Kenyan; the latter, Nigerian.
Such charity, such magnanimity
I rarely have encountered before or since.

The four were staff in a group residence
For me and those like me, a wee bit less than steady,
Fresh from the hospital, and needing support.

Most days, we'd shoot the breeze. They were all aware
Of politics and "football" (I mean soccer),
The men obsessive about World Cup statistics!

I won't forget the look of horror that greeted me
When I informed Gabriel of the news
That Tim Russert had died of a heart attack.

"Jesus of Nazareth!" Life drained from his cheeks
And we both were magnetized by the TV
As we all are when the famous die untimely.

I won't forget Joshua helping me move
From Madison to Babcock, lugging books
With me up three weary flights of stairs.

It was Joshua who dubbed me "TD Banknorth"!
Handsome, tall, genial. Just shy of thirty.
Later, I think, he worked for Senator Kerry.

Wesley was a good egg. He irritated me
At first by calling me Tim instead of Tom.
He bore a strong resemblance to David Ortiz.

Once, over-ruling me and saving me,
He called 911 when I needed an ambulance
To race me to MGH (atrial fibrillation).

Miriam, diminutive slender beauty,
Always helped me cook when I had to do so,
Making sure I didn't burn the hamburgers.

Miriam, whose voice was peace and blessing,
Resuscitating me from pill-induced lethargy
Into a state where my heart could almost smile.

And then there was the cast of characters
Whom I cannot name, or whom I must re-name:
My fellow residents, with their quirky charms!

Pedro, I'll call him: coffee-grinder voice,
Enthusiastically greeting me, "Taaaaahhm!" --
The only syllable I could understand!

Elliott, perennially mopey and complaining,
Whose radio played decent '70s music
Which helped me, in the next room, get to sleep.

My roommate, Brendan, on dialysis,
Quiet but notoriously untidy!
I never quite knew where I'd find his socks.

Maria, childlike, chubby and chattery.
Her words rushed forth in irrepressible Spanglish
Punctuated by "that good?" or "terrible!"

I spent three years of my life on Madison Street,
And three more at Babcock, unsupervised there
Except for weekly visits from Tatyana,

An angel with two skin-sleeves of tattoos.
She'd drive me over to Mom's place (seven miles)
On days too inclement to wait for buses,

When temperatures plunged dreadfully close to zero.
I also recall, with ineradicable fondness,
The happy and supportive conversations

About the serious trivia of our lives
When she'd pop in on Wednesday mornings
To ascertain that I was basically all right.

And you know what? I was slowly getting there.