May 27, 2010

Things I Didn't Know I Loved: After Nazim Hikmet

by Linda Pastan

I always knew I loved the sky,
the way it seems solid and insubstantial at the same time;
the way it disappears above us
even as we pursue it in a climbing plane,
like wishes or answers to certain questions—always out of reach;
the way it embodies blue,
even when it is gray.

But I didn't know I loved the clouds,
those shaggy eyebrows glowering
over the face of the sun.
Perhaps I only love the strange shapes clouds can take,
as if they are sketches by an artist
who keeps changing her mind.
Perhaps I love their deceptive softness,
like a bosom I'd like to rest my head against
but never can.

And I know I love the grass, even as I am cutting it as short
as the hair on my grandson's newly barbered head.
I love the way the smell of grass can fill my nostrils
with intimations of youth and lust;
the way it stains my handkerchief with meanings
that never wash out.

Sometimes I love the rain, staccato on the roof,
and always the snow when I am inside looking out
at the blurring around the edges of parked cars
and trees. And I love trees,
in winter when their austere shapes
are like the cutout silhouettes artists sell at fairs
and in May when their branches
are fuzzy with growth, the leaves poking out
like new green horns on a young deer.

But how about the sound of trains,
those drawn-out whistles of longing in the night,
like coyotes made of steam and steel, no color at all,
reminding me of prisoners on chain gangs I've only seen
in movies, defeated men hammering spikes into rails,
the burly guards watching over them?

Those whistles give loneliness and departure a voice.
It is the kind of loneliness I can take in my arms, tasting
of tears that comfort even as they burn, dampening the pillows
and all the feathers of all the geese who were plucked to fill

Perhaps I embrace the music of departure—song without lyrics,
so I can learn to love it, though I don't love it now.
For at the end of the story, when sky and clouds and grass,
and even you my love of so many years,
have almost disappeared,
it will be all there is left to love.

"Things I Didn't Know I Loved: After Nazim Hikmet" by Linda Pastan, from Queen of a Rainy Country. © W.W. Norton, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of hard-boiled detective novelist Dashiell Hammett (books by this author) born in St. Mary's County, Maryland (1894). He's the author of The Maltese Falcon (1930) and The Thin Man (1932), both of which were made into classic movies.

It's the birthday of novelist John Barth, (books by this author) born in Cambridge, Maryland (1930). He's known for writing innovative fiction in novels like The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), Chimera (1972), and Letters (1979).

It's the birthday of ecologist and nature writer Rachel Carson, (books by this author) born in Pennsylvania (1907). Her best-selling book about the dangers of pesticides, Silent Spring (1962), became one of the most influential books in the modern environmental movement.

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer John Cheever, (books by this author) born in Quincy, Massachusetts (1912). The Stories of John Cheever, published in 1978, won the Pulitzer Prize and became one of the few collections of short stories ever to make the New York Times best-seller list.

Cheever kept journals his entire life, and a few years before he died in 1982, he told his son that he wanted selections from his journals to be published. The Journals of John Cheever came out in 1990.
Cheever said, "A page of good prose remains invincible."

It's the birthday of poet Linda Pastan, (books by this author) born in New York City (1932). She's the author of more than a dozen poetry collections, including A Fraction of Darkness (1985), The Imperfect Paradise (1988), Carnival Evening (1998), and most recently, Queen of a Rainy Country (2006). She's known for her short lyrical poems. Each one of her poems goes through about 100 revisions before finding its way to print. She said, "I want a certain kind of impact on the reader ... the sort of condensed energy that can then go out."

She was nearly 40 years old when she published her first collection. She wrote about domestic things, motherhood, cleaning house, the woods outside her window, the declining health of her parents. She once said: "There are only really a few subjects in poetry: growing old, dying, intellectual or physical passion, the search for self or identity. The smaller subjects we might write about are just ways to get into those basic things." While her poems are often "a reflection of [her] so-called "real life," she said, "I lead such a quiet life that I have to invent, or at least embroider."

She was poet laureate of Maryland in the early 1990s. She has won a Pushcart Prize and twice been a finalist for the National Book Award. Then in 2003, at the age of 71, she won the Ruth Lilly Prize, a lifetime achievement award from Poetry magazine, which comes with $100,000. It was more than she'd earned from her nearly 40 years as a working poet, more than the sales of her books and lectures and readings combined. An interviewer asked her what she planned to do with the money, and she said she would help her grandchildren pay for college. And she said she would do "something really fun for [herself]."

She once said: "I often write poems in my head to distract myself during hard times. ... Years ago, after a car crash, while I lay waiting for the ambulance, I actually finished a poem I had been working on, determined not to die before I had it right."

Her next book of poems is due out in January 2011; it's called Traveling Light.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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