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.
Last week, a PBS News Hour interviewer asked our new poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith, why she wrote poetry. Her answer? ‘Because it forces you to submit to something’.
The evocative phrase has lingered.
What do you submit to and why — and if enduring something is different from submitting to it, is there a way to convert one to the other? Maybe reverence is involved. Silence? I might cleverly suggest that karma dictates what we endure, while our gifts and aspirations determine places of submission, but that seems facile. Oversimplification is not what’s called for here.
An examination of distractions, might be, though.
TV-viewing habits are ‘up’ right now, starting with a disastrous re-boot about a week ago, after which I was left with sound but no picture (well, and another entry in the annals called, “Only When K is in China”). I submitted (wrong word!) to watching a little local, live TV in the kitchen now and then. There was a mood of nostalgia and curious forbearance. I read more.
Next came a four or five hour power outage, leaving me with no TV whatsoever. It wasn’t like I was dying to watch local news or catch up on reruns of ‘Get Smart’, but if the reboot was a nudge, the subsequent power outage was a kick in the shins. I wanted to read the synchronicity for the fullness of its message — to submit to it.
The power outage was precipitated by a dramatic shorting wire out front. It was a real emergency. After hearing a loud crackle and seeing a lightening-like flash, I went to investigate, thinking I’d be reassuring myself that it wasn’t electrical.
Instead, I was greeted by a series of violent flashes up in my neighbor’s maple tree. Ill-positioned wires had heated up the bark, igniting it in two places. I dashed in to take shelter behind my neighbor’s front door while she called 911. Children and nanny clustered ’round. “It might’ve used me to go to ground,” I said in slight panic.
Soon, the zapping melted the wires, leaving one end dangling from the pole nearest our driveway and draping the other along the road like a venomous snake playing dead. A teen-aged boy emerged from across the street. I quipped, “You can tell E. is home alone,” but then as he approached stuck my head out to holler, “Stay back! That wire might be live!”I could tell my neighbor thought me a little hysterical. Perhaps because I cussed out her landscaper last week? No matter. Thanks to my electrical engineer father’s pragmatic warnings about current and conductivity over the course of my entire childhood, I knew mine was not an overwrought assessment of the danger.
Firemen arrived, police set up yellow tape, etc.
Once the wires were severed, it was safe to return home and await the restoration of power. Then, two thunderstorms rolled through.
As if it wasn’t enough for the elements to cut off my power, the first storm filled the house with a preternatural dark. I donned a ‘miner’s lamp’ and carefully climbed the garage-attic ladder to fetch our camping lantern, although I’m not sure why, since my last solo attempt at lighting it nearly set the Sangre de Cristo mountains on fire. I wasn’t likely to give it another try.
I gathered a few candles for later and made myself a tasty chicken salad. I wondered if our hot water heater held enough hot water for a bath (it does). Soon sun flooded the back room again and I read Smith’s memoir “Ordinary Light.”*
Not long after, the canopy out back set up a noisy rattle, signaling imminent rain. The display made me wonder: when had I stopped submitting myself to summer storms?
The metaphors swirl, still — restoration of power, providing ground, a live wire, electrical storms rolling through, sudden, zapping current.
The repair guy arrived at the height of it. Seeing him up in his metal bucket, head in the trees and handling electrical wires was unnerving, but I had to assume he knew all the safety precautions. As the sky pulsed with lightening, the power came back on in three waves. The fridge resumed its humming. I padded about, resetting the digital clocks, glad to be capable of that at least.
*I’ll refrain from commenting until I’m done. How my opinion of Plum Johnson changed between when posting and finishing her memoir!