Saturday, May 23, 2020

The Garden of Verse: A Brief Tribute to Verse-Virtual May 2020, Even As We Mourn the Loss of Founder Firestone Feinberg

As our journal's managing editor Jim Lewis put the matter recently, "I cannot think of a better way to show appreciation and support for Firestone than to continue to build this community that he started."
            Firestone Feinberg, the founder and editor of Verse-Virtual, the online journal and community of poets I have been fortunate to be part of for the last five years, passed last Monday.
           I had just written these comments on a few of the many poems that particularly impressed me in the May 2020 issue of As Jim implied, we can best honor him by doing what we do.
            So here are some thoughts on a few of the poems in the May issue of Verse-Virtual I am particularly fond of. You can find all of these poems, and many others at Verse-Virtual May 2020

            Barbara Crooker's depiction of this time of year in "It's May," -- "the time of year when

everything we’ve been waiting for opens" -- accords very much with my own thoughts. The idea of the world's 'opening' is wittily captured in the images that follow:

"The iris wave their flags, every shade of the rainbow,

and the peonies have unclenched their fists"

The poem continues an imagistic walk through this season of delights -- "An Oriental poppy is about

to stamp its orange exclamation mark" --

            leading to a nature-centered pitch for an earth-friendly politics. If I wasn't already marching in this parade I would swiftly join it. It's time to plant a perennials garden on the White House lawn. (It can't hurt.)

Two strong poems Marc Alan Di Martino walk us down the other side of the street. Skillfully and affectingly told, "Dark Matters" connects its 'matter,' a piece of  family history, to universal themes:

"The blades of life
spare no one—eventually, each of us
is butchered in one fashion or another
like Isaac on the chopping block."

And I thought its ending  (which I won't spoil here) was perfect.

Neera Kashyap's satisfying exploitation of the villanelle form, "Self-Rule" sees both dark and light in a world imaged by the poem's first line:

"There is work to be done on this hill."

After several tightly pinioned instances --

"The rabbit runs, paws tremble, thoughts mill;
Stumbles and falls, sorrows break in."
-- the poem's final lines fulfill its form and offer a satisfying reflection. 

Tamara Madison's "Seeing Paris" is not about the conventional associations of its two-word title. The irony of what it is about makes for a moving poem. The truth of the poem's observation that many of us"even learn

to free their faces of feeling,
to meet the world with a mask
that is smooth and shiny and which may
indeed look good, but we are not fooled"

...seems to me to take on an even stronger impact now that we are so often meeting one another behind the barrier of actual, physical masks.
            A deep and complex poem about a troubling reality, the extent to which we all wear masks. And what we wish them to say.

David Graham's "Accidental Blessings" is another poem that suggests there is so much more to life -- and much of it pretty hairy -- than we're likely to put on that other kind of officially made-up 'face,' the resume.

            While the poem's tone is relaxed and informal, its tally of bumps and bruises is scarily impressive: A little childhood brain fever, a near-miss run-over, a swinging collision with a tree; pills not taken, fights ducked. It's enough to prompt a class assignment on near-misses (start making lists...). The poem ends with a vividly phrased toast to survival I won't spoil here by quoting.

As so often in the past, I am grateful to Marilyn Taylor for the pleasure of form. Her sixteen-liner, "Piano Overture" finds the essence of a certain species of formal occasion, the twice-a-year visits of the piano tuner. I can't help quoting these two lines

"brandishing his hammer like a sword,

we watched him wring concordance from the air."

            Nor can I refrain from pointing out what a beautiful rhyme "concordance from the air" makes with the line it rhymes ending with the words "clean and spare." Please read this poem if you haven't. It requires something more than a semiannual visit.

These and so many more strong poems can be found at

Sunday, May 10, 2020

The Garden of the Seasons: Birds and Plants Remind Us That the Earth Is Still Turning, Even If We're Kind of Stuck

Let's do something hands on.   Let's look at the evidence

all around us, the birds, and plants and trees are doing their jobs, right on schedule. 
Let us take off the heavy gloves of social caution and put on the work gloves, the ones with holes in the fingertips. These holes are pre-installed, free of cost, thanks to heavy use last year, and probably the year before that. 

                The Covid pandemic is real enough. But pandemic and springtime are separate empires of thought, incommensurable ideas, maintaining their own quite borders. 
                I confess to voting for Spring, for all its routine disappointments. And yet today's forecast for a cold, blustery, partly-cloudy day turned into a cool, breezy and ecstatic celebration of sunny skies, a sublime background for occasional flotillas of fair weather, cottony clouds, turned into an unexpected Mother's Day bonanza. 

                Springtime's poll numbers go up and down regularly with the standard fluctuations in the weather, but on the whole I am a firm supporter, casting party line approval for April, May and June. Arguably, June is summer, and I am always happy to arrive there, but feel no need to rush through the early floats in this luxurious parade through the season of hope and renewal. 
             Already, April's bounty floats down to the pavement.
The trees weep blossoms, open-faced white like those on our weeping cherry. The promising pink buds curled tight as shuttered lips on wild cherry in the woods we walk now have opened and ornament the trails. 
The young street trees turn the skyline lemon-lime with fresh new leaves. While their heavy forbears show tiny blossom, catkins, or bare branches against the deep blue skies.

          In the front and backyard gardens, dried leaves and wintry grasses give way to new greens: and to the Japanese Primrose in the top photo on this page; the reliable spring bloomer Bleeding Heart; the Hellebores (Lenten Rose); and in the final pic at the bottom of the page with the oddly delightful name of Spring Vetch.

Monday, May 4, 2020

The Garden of the Seasons: Restoring the Sidewalk Strip

When the company hired by the city last fall to rebuild our street and its sidewalks got to our house they told me I would have to remove all my plantings from the strip of soil between the sidewalk and the curb stone. New cement sidewalks, new curb stones, and new soil in between were being provided by the city.
             The most likely reason why those sidewalk strips exist on residential streets such as our own is to plant trees. 
              Trees are good for neighborhoods. They're good for the whole community. They clean the air, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The reason we have an atmosphere breathable for human beings is the presence of green plants. Earth's forests and trees and green plants everywhere habituated a plant capable of supporting large, air-breathing land animals. 
               No trees were growing on the strip of dirt in front of our house, so we put our name on our list for the city to plant a tree, which the city did a few years later. Then a second tree was added. They've grown, providing more shade for our house, front yard, and our street.
                 The rest of the sidewalk strip held the tattered remains of lawn grass. But these areas by their size and position are not hospitable to lawn grass. They're too small to mow. No one takes care of them. And lawn grass is a non-native plant that grows poorly in Northeastern cities and towns, requiring frequent watering, fertilizing, weed-killing and re-planting when the dead spots appear. So we didn't plant grass in our strip of dirt between the trees. 
                 We planted perennial and annual flowers. Since the strip is a hot, dry spot -- surrounded by pavement and automobile exhaust, it is vulnerable to road salt and visitations of urban waste -- we planted a patch of Autumn Joy sedum, because sedums survive in hot, dry climates. We planted flowering annuals, rotating them through the season. Our daughter planted a patch of crocuses and grape hyacinth for spring color. I added some hardy mums, some of them hardy enough to return each year. 
                     Those were the plants we lost when the city's contractor ripped up the sidewalks and started over.
                      But a new start is also a new opportunity. A long trough of new dirt is a blank canvas. Unwilling to face a completely blank canvas when a new spring rolled around, I decided to look for some spring bulbs. But the contractor didn't finish work until mid-November. When I went to the garden section of a big box store, no bulbs were to be found anywhere. Everything was Christmas greens. However I asked a guy in work clothes if the store still had any bulbs -- and got lucky. He confided that he had just thrown the last of them out, leaving them in a big box next to the store's dumpsters. 
            He suggested I go see if they were still there. I took the hint.
            The bulbs were there. A big box, with netted sacks containing probably a couple hundred daffodil bulbs altogether -- all daffodils, nothing else. I rescued a half dozen sacks and tossed them in to the trunk of the car. 
              So the new composition of the sidewalk strip began on a raw Thanksgiving morning when my daughter Sonya and I planted eighty or a hundred bulbs -- those fat spuds of floral potential -- in the Thanksgiving cold, a couple hours before the family feast.
                We waited five bare months to see if they would bloom, and when they did, happily, springfully, I began to look for what I could find in Covid Time to keep them company. 
                 In April green plants spring up, free of cost, out of the ground. Which is a good thing, especially this year, when shopping for anything, or taking yourself out in public, can be a fraught, restriction-hedged errand.
                So I looked closer to home, i.e. our own backyard, for candidates for missions Sidewalk Strip. Violets, I noticed, the kind of New England wildflower that grows in your lawn unless you poison them. I transplanted them from the weed-addicted soil of the backyard perennial garden; some already had buds, I hoped they would all bud and flower. 
                  Today, as I look around, they are. I found other flowering weeds -- another world for wildflowers whose names I do not know -- and added them to the mix. I added in some newly prominent, suspiciously prevalent, fast-growing plants -- I suspect them of being invasives.... but these, joined with violets and daffs will do for spring color. 
                Then I broke down and masked myself and visited a small garden center where I found some small planters of lavishly priced pansies. I bought three of these, divided the contents and added them to the pebble-strewn soil of the strip. 
                 These will do for spring. We have color, we have life. 
                 I will have to find more plants, more color to add, and soon, because the daffs after a beautiful month's showing are beginning to fade. 

                  So that's the formula: Add rain, repeated squattings followed by subsequent lower back complaints; two weeks of subnormal chill for the end of April, plus a surprise, summer-like May weekend -- and there you have it, one floral sidewalk strip, restored to the homeowner's -- temporary -- satisfaction

The Garden of Verse: In the Locked-Down Spring of 2020, Verse-Virtual Looks Into the Hearts of People Much Like Ourselves (or Not)

The May 2020 issue of Verse-Virtual is now online. Thanks go to Managing Editor Jim Lewis and guest editor Tom Montag. 
          I have three poems in this issue. The crazy one, based on a highly unlikely premise is titled
 "Trump Watches 'Turandot' on Late Night TV."                 To explain the unlikelihood: 'Turandot' is an opera by Puccini set in China. It's about selflessness and, ultimately, love. 
             I watched it recently -- not exactly on 'late night TV,' but on a screening of a Metropolitan Opera performance of the opera taped live a few years ago. These broadcasts are being screened on the Met's own channel, a new free offering every evening, but just for that one evening. You can, but don't have to, watch them late at night. 
              The greater unlikelihood has to do with that other proper name that appears in the title of the poem.... But, just suppose, this unlikely intersection came to pass. Here's an excerpt from  "Trump Watches 'Turandot' on Late Night TV":

People, the ordinary ones who live on the streets,
gather outside the temples, read the news on the billboards,
are nervous, fearful, they cower
amid presentiments of catastrophe
Even the bureaucrats are fed up, frightened, and desperate to
go home, lock their office doors behind them,
and turn off the spigot
of blood that runs through the capital..."

He's bored. What else is on?
He calls for Conway, or whichever of his stooges 
     hangs outside his door 
to demand that publicly funded TV
screen only biops of famous white males 
who succeed and triumph without a single dime of their 
father's money.
Everything they touch turns to money!
But, holy moly, who are all these people, look at them!
Dirty, ragged clothes, crowds of them—they make me sick...
To read the rest of the poem, click the link 
Trump Watches Turandot   
My other, shorter poems in this issue, "Saturday Soul,"
and "In a Younger Day," both have to do with memories
of earlier days.
You can find them at the same link.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Tangible Spring of 2020: Something You Can Touch -- No Virus on Spring Blooms

In a world where we're afraid to take off our gloves and touch something, here's something you don't have to be afraid of touching: Spring. Plants. 
         New blooms; no virus.
         So I happen to love Aprils. They have their ups and downs, often in the same day. Writing this on Tuesday, the day after Earth Day, we are currently waitng for the sun to shine, as yesterday's forecast said it was going to do, at least for a while, before taking our walk.
           I'm watching the wind suddenly gust and blow off the last white petals from a beautifully blossoming weeping cherry tree. They disappear, these precious petals, as I look on. It's like watching time disappear. 
           But comings and goings are what April is all about.
           It's free, and it's safe. It's safe to put your hands in the soil, to work it, and prepare it for seed. You can also put your hands on on leaves, on stems, flowers. Cut them even. You can pick up last year's dried brown leaves, which is mostly what we do here in the first weeks of April, after leaving them as a natural winter blanket over all the garden, both front and back yards, to cover and hold the earth.
             Now they are ready for us to pack them up by the bagful. Twenty 'yard waste' bags, probably more. We have a very large oak tree, and a few other trees. 
             And when you rake away the leaves, you expose the new growth. That's the season's biggest treat: seeing new growth pop up.
             Earth is pregnant, and new deliveries come by the day.
             I took these photos at the end of March and the first weeks of April. I love the rough imperfection of this season of new growth.

              The first daffodils break the ground and then bloom with signs of the winter still around. Leaves on the ground, dried stalks from perennial shrubs, as seen in the top photo. I enjoy looking at plants in situ, especially if that 'situ' -- situation; surroundings -- is a little wild. 
               There's nothing very wild about living in Quincy, Mass. But if you give nature even a little space, things happen, as in the second photo, Japanese primrose. The plant blooms very early, because they're very small. This photo exaggerates their size... But early in the season they have space to get the light they need to bloom, because the perennials that grow up higher and crowd this space haven't begun growing yet; man of them haven't even sprouted. The primrose have their close-ups surrounded by bare ground and the dross of last winter. 

               Crocus, the famously early starters among the common bulbs, are shown in a photo blooming against a curbstone. Others bloom among the dried oak leaves we haven't managed to clear yet. 
                 Another classic early bloomer is the  Lenten Rose (hellebores), the fourth photo down. 
                  The Japanese weeping cherry tree I spoke of earlier was just beginning its bloom when I took this photo (the last on the page). That's the way things are this time of year. Things happen fast in April.


Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Garden of Verse: A World of Wonder and Creativity in April's Verse-Virtual, Magicked Up Before Eveything Changed

Here's my take on some of the poems that spoke to me in the April Verse-Virtual... Everything in this issue so wonderfully seems to evoke the world we loved, or worried over, or had various issues with while also delighting in the countless wonders of being alive, even the most quotidian... all of this written before, of course, our world changed so radically.
            So, maybe in light of the more narrowed existences we are all experiencing, I am particularly aware of the presence of wonder in these poems.
            In Steve Klepetar's "My Father Quotes Goethe at the Restaurant," when the recitation begins -- "something about golden apples" -- an ordinary hour suddenly became extraordinary.
"... The waiter walked by and stopped to listen.
Soon all the waiters were gathered there
as my father went on through several scenes.
One had tears in his eyes, another stared at us in wonder."
            I love poems when some kind of special experience breaks away, organically or not, from the facts at hand and lifts us all, at least a little ways, out of ourselves.
            I found a similar pleasure in his poem about the "Magic Girls," who one moment are simply cousins, making Halloween decorations, and then -- wonderfully -- achieve poetic lift-off:
"How talented they were, those magic girls
who sang like wild angels and climbed trees
and brought home trophies every week."

Other poems bring home these trophies at well. It's the madness of spring, perhaps, an idea I take from David Graham's poem "First Day of Open Windows." The speaker is watching the truck traffic on a state road when the spirit of Walt Whitman, bard of the open road and "Song of Myself" inhabits the moment: "in exactly the American tune
full of stink
and clank, two men on a loading dock
sharing a cigarette and talking shit..."
            Others share the tune, such as "the lone cardinal," narrating the tale, the poem tells us, in his own understanding.

The American open road tells a tale, called an "omen" here, in William Greenway's "Black Pick-up":
"and so I pictured,
just for a moment, me, migrant,
squatting in the empty bed,
my hair blowing backwards,
on the way to some green field
of sweet watermelon manna..."
            Read the rest of the poem to see where the omen leads.

The elevated moment takes place in the mind of the speaker of the poem in Martin Levinson's poem "Making Contact," a kind of classic demonstration of the extended metaphor. A marital conversation turns into a sort of 'inside baseball':

"I haven’t decided what pitch
to fling to the catcher sitting in
my skull, who’s motioning for a
fast ball, which may not be the
best idea,"
... because, as the speaker tells us, the batter might be expecting just that. We know how important those 'expectations are.' Just ask the Houston Astros.

On the theme of memorable moments -- the unexpected kind -- Penelope Moffet's complex, beautifully written poem "Trust" has a big cat in its tank.
"By a creek in the woods
a flicker of movement
and there she is,
upwind of me,
fifteen feet away, cougar
I’ve been seeking for decades.
She doesn’t see me
as she comes my way.
Only when I stand and shout
does she lift her head
to stare into my eyes."
            This poems is about as close as I've come to being stared at by any comparable creature. "Trust" delivers a complex vision of animals and, especially, people, some of whom, its ending suggests, you shouldn't trust very far.

Mary Makofske's poem "Ask Her" depicts the state of mind of a student who resists the pull of a poem's word magic. To the poem's 'her,' an older student, the poem in question is a flight from responsibility.
"She fought the current, built 
a dam against the poem’s seduction.
It was clear she’d had enough comings
and goings, alibis, evasions."
            Well told, the poem is a tale with a persuasive conclusion.

Robert Wexelblatt's "Bolting" isn't about wonder, but it is one. Too big for a brief description, the poem's rhymed stanzas, alternating with the free verse passages, provide a kind of commentary: "Her hair’s fragrance is so sweet
            yet his liberty’s so dear;
            tonight he’ll kiss her feet— 
            tomorrow he’s not here."
            And I can't help quoting the stanza that's like an entire ballad in itself, implying the frame of the tale and providing the perfect, down-through-the-ages refrain:
"Consolation is the pleasure of soothed pain. 
            They were sometimes one: a May night in the rain
            when they got drunk and laughed like they’d gone insane;
            when she crooked her finger saying, Do that again.
            Consolation is the pleasure of soothed pain."

Wonder is dreamlike in Michael Gessner's "Irving's Piazza," the Hudson River retreat from which one of the first 'name' American writers found the components of his reveries. The poem's speaker finds his own inspiration in a Southwestern setting, where  
"the moon’s lost
delirium embraces the memory
of casual sylphs, enchanted poets..."
Find the rest of this poem, and so many others at