After lunch with a friend, Finn and I made the figure eight: Jackson to Maplewood to Dudley, then home. It was almost three, so cars lined up on Cypress in front of the school and mothers with babies in slings and dogs on leashes walked past. Being so near the solstice, the sky was heavy with twilight. It will be dark long before five.
The mechanics of Tuesday writing class continue to be challenging — time and weather and whatnot, but the coalescing around words is powerful, so it all seems worthwhile. Zoom came to the rescue again.
Here is one of two poems that provided a writing prompt yesterday. From a publication (unknown) dated May 1981. Found in the clip file.
MAGIC WORDS (after Nalungiaq)
In the earliest time, / when both people and animals lived on earth, / a person could become an animal if he wanted to / and an animal could become a human being. / Sometimes they were people / and sometimes animals / and there was no difference. / All spoke the same language. / That was the time when words were like magic. / The human mind had mysterious powers. / A word spoken by chance / might have strange consequences. / It would suddenly come alive / and what people wanted to happen could happen — / all you had to do was say it. / Nobody could explain this: / That’s the way it was.
* * *
Just found this online (not including the link because it’s not secure):
Nalungiaq, an Inuit (Eskimo) woman, reported that she learned the song “Magic Words” from an elderly uncle named Unaraluk. Unaraluk was a shaman, a kind of sorcerer or priest. The song was first written down by Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen. Rasmussen, who was part Inuit and spoke the Inuit language, lived for some time with the Netsilik people during his expedition across arctic America, known as the Fifth Thule Expedition (1921–1924). He collected many Netsilik legends and tales in the desire to learn about the unique view such an isolated people had developed of their world and the universe. Poet Edward Field translated many of these stories. “Magic Words” is also included in Jerome Rothenberg’s collection of traditional Native American poetry, Shaking the Pumpkin.
You can also find the poem in Songs and Stories of the Netsilik Eskimos, edited by Edward Field. Published by Education Development Center (1968).
The first Native American poet has been named U.S. Poet Laureate: Joy Harjo. She is a writer and a musician and a member of the Muskogee Creek Nation, I just learned here: NPR piece.
Let’s all order a volume of her work from our local bookstore!
In the meantime, we say farewell to Tracy K. Smith.
Here’s one of the poems from Smith’s Pulitzer-prize winning, “Life on Mars.” I really like how she combines the most ordinary observations with the big questions.
The Universe as Primal Scream
Tracy K. Smith
5 pm on the nose. They open their mouths
And it rolls out: high, shrill and metallic.
First the boy, then his sister. Occasionally,
They both let loose at once, and I think
Of putting on my shoes to go up and see
Whether it is merely an experiment
Their parents have been conducting
Upon the good crystal, which must surely
Lie shattered to dust on the floor.
Maybe the other is still proud
Of the four pink lungs she nursed
To such might. Perhaps, if they hit
The magic decibel, the whole building
Will lift-off, and we’ll ride to glory
Like Elijah. If this is it – if this is what
Their cries are cocked toward – let the sky
Pass from blue, to red, to molten gold,
To black. Let the heaven we inherit approach.
Whether it is our dead in Old Testament robes,
Or a door opening onto the roiling infinity of space.
Whether it will bend down to greet us like a father,
Or swallow us like a furnace. I’m ready
To meet what refuses to let us keep anything
For long. What teases us with blessings,
Bends us with grief. Wizard, thief, the great
Wind rushing to knock our mirrors to the floor,
To sweep our short lives clean. How mean
Our racket seems beside it. My stereo on shuffle.
The neighbor chopping onions through a wall.
All of it just a hiccough against what may never
Come for us. And the kids upstairs still at it,
Screaming like the Dawn of Man, as if something
They have no name for has begun to insist
Upon being born.
“FIRE” by Claire Boskin
a fellow traveler in my writing circle
with family in California
designer, facilitator of issue-focused study groups, all ’round mensch
now history making
orange, yellow, red sky
black dense smoke
veils the air
eyes witness war zone
hell on steroids
california fires on the sweep
taste on the tongue
knot in the chest
grip in the gut
a whole city
razed to rubble
decisions to make
actions to take
children to calm
touch, hug, kiss
what to take
what to leave
a life stripped down
to fit a car
a friend’s place
a relative’s place
a strange place
anywhere but this place
california fire in your face
foot on pedal
seat belts bolted
will i ever see home again
move over world
we live among you
on a big screen
dedicate to my beloveds,
to all everywhere
who know this
and may again, and again
Look at the clipped grasses! The curb with its
divets. Tell me, could the ribbons of tar
shining in the midday sun be
any more gorgeous?
for the light to turn, for the grey
hulk of hospital to leave the rearview —
waiting for the return of things
or the start of them, or even the
Impatience is a surly thief!
And, shopping, a deficient religion.
I should have known better.
By the time I arrive,
the capris of summer are picked over.
Meanwhile, my sister’s heart flutters
in uncertain alarm and children
dead from cholera in Yemen pile up,
Somehow, I’m alive and shopping for pants.
In the swanky interior, the clack of my sandals
on the polished geometry stirs
sorrow. How it is these days.
“This is it,” my shoes percuss. “This is it.”
Going one place to another, you are never
anywhere but here.
Impatience acts the rude interloper
while uncertainty takes you to your knees.
Later, but not much, I slap my notebook
on the shiny ebon surface of a grand piano
and pull a pen out of my hair. One of
two. There, in the sunlit atrium, a prop of luxury
holds my weight. To one side, the familiar
bronze statue of girl and dog and to the other,
an absence I can’t get used to even though
the beloved fountain’s been gone for years.
(All those pennies tossed and wishes made
two little tow-heads at my side —
where are they now — pennies, wishes, and
boys turned brown-haired men?)
Regret followed far enough
takes you to love.
The Tiffany’s clerk paces
behind jewel-filled cases, not sure
what to make of a woman writing in fury
in the middle of the morning, in the middle of
the atrium and where did
that notebook come from anyway?
the ribbons of tar, the cement divets
polished geometry, regret,
Oh tissue first, silver medallion next and finally,
the tasteful grey bag. The clerk chirps
“Have a good day of shopping,” even as
my ribs smolder about to combust, one hour
being thirty minutes too long.
How much time do we have? Ever?
Tick. Tick. Swipe. Delete.
How much time do we have
to be kind, to be kind,
to preserve the republic?
Fairness gone amok in every quarter
makes a girl want to cry —
even a girl who never cries.
No wonder the ordinary sound
of sandals clacking on
polished tile calls out, “Wake up!
This is it!” rattling up a
ferocious grief twinned
“These are no ordinary times.” Say.
Repeat. Do nothing. The acts
held in reserve depend on gross
miscalculations of risk — as if we
have time and time and more time?
Tick. Tick. Delete. Swipe.
Regret followed far enough
leads to damnation.
Would the clerk in Tiffany’s understand
why a woman wails in the bathroom
corridor given our collective failure
or would she choose not to hear?
You lean your frantic frame against the
silent instrument, hoping to leave
behind more than the echoes of impatience
or a sweaty hand print that the cleaners
will have to buff off later.
Let me be kind. Let me speak up. Let
me pause long enough
to give thanks.
Regret expressed deeply enough always
turns into prayer.
The ribbons of tar, the polished geometry,
vanished pools and children, wishes
gathered and held in regions unknown.