This is just to say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
In memorium, William Carlos Williams, who died today, and alive again today.
WHEN THE WORLD IS MUD-LUSCIOUS–
MENU FROM THE POET’S PERCH: LITERARY INFLUENCES DISHED UP, A DE-LUSCIOUS WAY TO WELCOME IN JUST SPRING, DEAR MARCH
(COME IN! WE’VE GOT A POET’S BREW FOR YOU!)
(Bells are ringing)
Dear March, come in!
That’s Emily Dickinson, being occupied by March, welcoming March, and this is Professor Barbara Mosserg, welcoming you to our Poetry Slow Down—you know you move too fast—and we’re making last our metaphoric mornings, the time we are most awake, Thoreau would say the only time we are awake, and alive. I love March 1, you can talk about the Ides of March, and we will (our show March 15, of course), but I have loved this day for 42 years, ever since I read the poem “Dear March Come In.” Isn’t that the way of poetry, that words strangely and wonderfully put, words uttered differently than the ordinary way we speak, make us feel differently about our world, the people and things and processes and beings in it, makes see it, and value it in a new way. So that every year on the first of March, I am charmed and thrilled and all emotional, all because a little lady wrote a poem welcoming March right into her home, and she didn’t welcome everyone, believe me, in fact, she didn’t really welcome ANYone, it was sort of a you’re not welcome zone, she said the soul selects herself then SHUTS THE DOOR, but here, she’s all about the gushing hostess, yes, this poet of brevity, compression, saying things so succinctly and abbreviately that she will leave out the verb or even the subject, (yeah don’t spell abbreviately at home but you know what I mean), well, here she’s not only throwing open and wide the door, but she is jabbering and falling all over herself in her excitement that this month has appeared. She greets March affectionately, an old pal, DEAR March, and she isn’t reticent, or coy but emphatic, not I’m glad to see you but: How glad I am! She is so charming. She has been waiting for March, and March marches up to her door, Dickinson asks her or him to take off her or his hat, and she is like Anne in the opening scene of Anne of Green Gables, have you read that? Oh, that is the best book, by Montgomery, set in Newfoundland, when Anne’s garrulous nonstop chatter charms a tight-lipped laconic deeply reserved withdrawn curmudgeon, invoking his inner tender protective charmable good heart. March can’t get a word in edgewise the whole poem, and it appears March is pretty winded anyway, out of breath, panting gusts. It’s so nice to see Dickinson flustered with happiness. It’s a giddiness and bubbliness and such deep warmth as Dickinson exclaims, asks questions, goes on before March can answer—tries to be polite, use good manners, inquire after March’s relations Nature, but she interrupts herself, breaks off and says Oh, March, come right upstairs with me, I have so much to tell! I think we can safely say that no one with a few exceptions, and we’ll get to those in a later show, we’re talking a nephew, a sister in law, perhaps a lover—besides her sister in law, perhaps one of her father’s friends who goes by the name Lord, is invited right upstairs with her, you know what I mean? Even relatives who visited had sit outside her room and talk to her through a door that was left ajar . . . mainly, I’m sayin, she’s not a hostess with the mostest. She makes Thoreau look downright convivial to guests at his Walden cabin. She even writes a love poem saying, I cannot live with you, that would be life, and life is over there . . . . So March is special, VIP, gets into her club purple carpet, and her emotion in the poem is given away by the use of how, and oh, and it has always made me feel momentousness when March rolls around, thinking of Emily Dickinson’s ebullient joy. Poetry can do this to us. So, how canwe, you and I, welcome March? Well, isn’t food the way we express welcome and joy about occasions? I thought of a celebratory dinner, for the poet-loyalists of Pacific Grove, where I am by this good city’s graces Poet in Residence, these people are absolutely poets in residence, present in community, making their life energies a devotion and practice to poetry out into the public ethos, my fellow Pagrovians, come on over to the Poet’s Perch, my Victorian tent, given to the City by Whitney Latham Lechich, a poet, and so my husband and I rent it, and I wanted to have a dinner to honor March and people with a taste and hunger and thirst and healthy appetite, lusty appetite, robust appetite, for poetry. So what to serve? I knew the dishes I wanted to make to welcome March, but the funny thing is, I realized that so many of the dishes I wanted to make there are not really poems about—we don’t see Milton or Yeats or Keats or Hopkins or Donne or Burns or Collins or Gilbert or Ostriker or Gregg or Oliver writing about lasagna, for example, well wait—hold on . . . I just remembered a poem about lasagna I wrote for Sandra Gilbert, “The Fear Poet.” That does have lasagna in it: “we know fear is a spice we need for word lasagna.” Anyhoosals, I am going to share with you what I did cook up, and so our show today is called,
WHEN THE WORLD IS MUD-LUSCIOUS–MENU FROM THE POET’S PERCH: LITERARY INFLUENCES DISHED UP, A DE-LUSCIOUS WAY TO WELCOME IN JUST SPRING, DEAR MARCH—(COME IN! WE’VE GOT A POET’S BREW FOR YOU!)
So our menu today is roughly
Shakespeare Cakes and Ale
Elizabeth Bishop Fish
Pablo Neruda Onions and Tomatoes
W.S. Merwin Bread
Sophia Mossberg Sweet Potato Salad
Pacific Grove Poet in Residence Lemon Cake
William Carlos Williams Plum Pudding
Gerald Stern Grapefruit Salad
Emily Dickinson Gingerbread
Wallace Stevens Ice Cream
And that’s not all! We’ll select from a buffet of Li-Young See on persimmons, Lisa Martin DeMoor on durum wheat, Billy Collins joshing on bread, and we’ll hear tasty luscious exuberant poems on the tastiness of life, Derek Wolcot, Judyth Hill, Mark Strand, e.e. cummings, and what spring has to do with it: our tongues are for tasting and words; what better than words that are mind’s food? Dickinson said, “he ate and drank the precious words.” So I hope youPoetry Slow Down have worked up an appetite, let’s forthwith begin, you and I.
We’ve been talking about love in the past few weeks, so let’s start with “Love after Love” by Derek Walcott, and like Dear March, this is a welcome poem . . . .
And we hear how he is encouraging us to be as welcoming to ourselves, our unknown selves, who arrive on our doorstep and he wants us to say, Dear Self Come In, he wants us to be the gracious host to the March in ourselves, saying sit, take off your hat you must have walked, or in his words, sit, feast on your life, so that gets us started on our tasty menu.
And what do we usually begin with? Well bread, so let’s hear W.S. Merwin write about bread, as a tribute to the poet Wendell Berry who writes so passionately about earth, do you remember his Farmer’s Manifesto, he wants us to lead the good life, and the only way to do this is to do good by the earth and each other. Here is Merwin’s Bread . . .
And finding yourself alone before a wheat field confronting your earlier self—very much like Merwin’s poem–calls to mind Lisa Martin-Demoor, “Durum Wheat,” and for you pasta fans, we love durum wheat,
here the poet self remembers when one was not a poet but really was, engaged with the passing scenery
and epiphenonema of life, wondering about it, and full of awe, and how we have to connect with this earlier essential self, welcome it as Derek Wolcot tells us to confront, forgive, embrace this self arriving on our doorstep, our deepest self, and somehow bread and wheat and grains and fields and land are all tied up in our understanding of what it means to be human and living on earth and experiencing the coming of March, which in ancient times was the New Year . . . As we’re eating metaphoric bread at our literary feast, while there’s still time! I will share with you a poem I wrote at St. Helena in the Napa Valley, called Napa Napkin, don’t worry, it’s paper, on which I literally wrote this poem, at a restaurant by a courtyard fountain, Tres Vignes, the three vines:
Napa Napkin (Don’t Worry, It’s Paper)
Fountain /4:40 p.m.
St. Helena, under a black and white striped awning, and they must be poplar trees
Far away from home, surrounded by beauty,
The least I can do is write a poem.
I see it as a duty: I mean here, the trees
Lining the road, you have seen them in your dreams,
Tall, light green, leaning in, like in a French painting by Pissarro.
Yellow grape leaves, a hazy blue sky, warm,
And I am eating yellow and green tomatoes,
With pepper and olive oil, and I want to do justice
To this experience, of salt, really good salt,
And pepper and oil on bread that crunches, with sesame
Seeds, and I wonder how ancient this food is,
When grains and seeds and salt and oil from olives
And pepper came to our human tongues, how much I owe
To genius. The same genius that figured out
Grain, seed, salt, spice, oil, made roads on land and sea,
Roads which take me, and bring me, from you, to you
Back and forth, like some sea current swerving urgent
Business and affairs, we traverse the old ways
Through grape fields as old as the hills, as the oak trees
the olive trees. My darling.
I pause now and think of you; as a railroad passes by,
Making such a sweet whistle, a little joyful howl,
I miss you. I see it as my duty,
I said, the least I could do: express how happy
The earth makes me, and the dappled filter I see it through,
Your beauty. I am talking about all that is simple,
Like salt and oil, pepper and sun, seeds and grain, and rain,
Feeling warm and fresh, as people have ever felt,
But finally it is a miracle, the whole thing.
What grows. What seems so good. The day.
The land. The knowledge of you.
c Barbara Mossberg 2010
So we are on our bread course, and next up is salad, and that means Virgil’s Aeneid— what? Really! And Gerald Stern and Pablo Neruda, poems that are luscious, mouth-watering, possibly life-saving, heart-healthy, but wait, has anyone offered you any wine? Well, hold on, here’s a little Baudelaire, because we have to have some wine to toast the coming of March! I’ve opened it and let it breathe, it’s called, “Always Be Drunk,” and before you put your hands over your children’s ears, hold on, because Poetry Slow Down this is your kind of ethical poem.
So we’re not the martyred slaves of time, Poetry Slow Down, we’re slowing time down to make the morning last, we’re welcoming March and doing it right, salute!
Then we’re “Waging Peace,” a poem by Judyth Hill that takes my breath away. It is a poem about breathing, transforming miracle of life, turning death to life, the transformation that a poet does by thinking, which invites us to sit down, rejoice and have a cup of tea, and celebrate life.
In the midst of bread and wine, images of the land, we hear Billy Collins refreshing our water glass so to speak, joshing us about metaphors linking love and land that only whets our appetite for precisely such imagery, and we can count on Pablo Neruda for that, Odes on Onions and Tomatoes, delicious engagement with our world, and salad in The Aeneid, a long detailed homage to salad, and of course, Gerald Stern’s Grapefruit, which I take as a daily diet for transforming blessing, what Hill calls waging peace, he’s standing at the kitchen sink, looking out the window at his garden, and it’s a pitiful sight if truth be told, he’s aging, and the vegetables and fruits he sees are withered, puny, pathetic, but we’ll see what the poet does with this seemingly sad state of affairs when salad doesn’t seem to be an option any more, the salad days, as they say, are no more:
“Thou milkweed Queen of the sky, burster of seeds, Who bringeth forth juice from the earth.” Take this poem every day for good health, Gerard Stern’s Grapefruit, Stern writing today at 87, the juices still juicy, mind, spirit, poetry, in sync with earth’s juiciness. And thinking of spring, Dear March, this time of year, in its juiciness, e.e. cummings tells us just why Emily Dickinson is so excited to see March, what March means, in what he calls “in just Spring,” that
first, first moment when Spring arrives, and it’s pretty de-luscious, delicious poetry for our welcome to March, juicy and rejoicing. . .
In just Spring, when the world is puddle-wonderful and mud-luscious, and we’re celebrating the juices reappearing in our earth with a literary feast, a de-luscious menu of poetry, ringing in the just spring, so speaking of ringing, our next up dished up deliciousoso is a sweet potato dish. We just heard Gerald Stern, getting transcendental and down with it on his back and up on his feet, making the glorious most of an aging experience, he’s waging peace, breathing in signs of decrepitude inside and out, he’s getting older, and he looks around at the world and he sees it is drying up, withering, pathetic, weak, and in the poem, the miracle poem, he can breathe out a victory and declare a majesty to everything that goes into salad, from sweet earth to the juices of the sweet, and this juicy sensibility is also captured in a poem for our sweet potatoes and yams, a ringing poem of juiciness, year by Sophia Mossberg, Sweet potatoes ringing.
Sweet potato ringing!
Four minutes to sweet mush
One minute to mash
Sweet potato ringing! Rescue its steaming body from the heating house!
Hands are stinging
Butter sinking, cinnamon sweeping, while the world is weeping.
Sweet potato ringing! Rescue the weeping world!
With your mush and mash and sweet and salt
And warmth to heat the house.
In the world’s houses they seek to weep
But you offer heat and sweet
As you are heaped onto the plate of mother earth, smooth as moon’s white shell.
Sweet potato ringing!
Four minutes to sweet mush
One minute to mash
Sweet potato ringing! Rescue its steaming body from the house!
Open earth’s doors!
The world is weeping, but butter is sinking, cinnamon sweeping!
Earth’s doors ajar are creaking! Sweet potato ringing!
The world is leaping!
c 2010 Sophia Mossberg
Ah youth, spring that is in us, that can be invoked. So we are having wine and bread, salad, sweet potatoes, and the main dish was a little problematic, what poems are on the main course, so we’re not going to have a main course, we’re going to have an anti-main course, and the reason why is The Fish, Elizabeth Bishop, why we’re not going to have salmon, after all:
Aren’t you glad? That is the best non salmon I ever had. She is doing what Judyth Hill said in “Wage Peace,” what Gerald Stern is doing at the sink confronting the withering all around him, seeing in it blessing, plentitude, she sees spilled engine oil, pollution, breathes that in and out comes rainbow, rainbow,
rainbow, and saying it over and over, we get the pulse, the shimmer of it, the pant of it, finally, the ex-citement, ex-ultation of this vision.
So now we’re ready for dessert. Emily Dickinson’s gingerbread, of course, and a lemon cake with ice cream. When I say ice cream, Poetry Slow Down, I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream, I know you are thinking of Wallace Stevens, The Emperor of Ice Cream, so am I, its last line goes, “The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.” Now Poetry Slow Down we have discussed this poem before, you and I, “let be be finale of seem,” “in kitchen cups concupiscent curds,” and when in my ripe old aging
wisdom I figure it out we will get back to it, for now, we invoke his ice cream imagery and move on to the lemon cake, and I will share with you a poem I wrote, called Poor Barbara! Can’t Eat—I know, another poetic pity party, but let’s see if we can’t turn this around with the agency of poetry, sitting down, slowing down. Poor Barbara! Can’t Eat
Poor Barbara! Can’t Eat
So sad, so sad.
The box of Chinese food–
No, no, I say, you can’t,
As I open the lid and eat the brown
Sticky gooey rice and eggplant
With my fingers,
No, no, I say, you can’t,
And eat another handful
Now you’ve done it,
Now you’ve done it,
I mumble, horrified at my crime,
And I say, all right, in a week
I can eat, that gives me enough time
To fit into my lecture suits,
But then after that I have the Lilly,
Let’s see, do I have clothes that fit
If I gain five pounds?
And what I want right now,
It isn’t even lemon pie
Except when ever is it not lemon pie
Nor Key Lime nor Panna Cotta–
No, not even those sweet cold textures
On my tongue. Oh, a grilled cheese,
Or even cold rice, just with soy, without guilt,
Why are these clothes so unforgiving,
Why why why do they insist on such a skinny waist
No waist at all, stomach flat, insides shriveled,
And hungry heaving unfed heart, complaining mind.
I feel so sorry for Barbara, not able to eat,
Carrot soup and green tea,
Liquid me, without continents or landfall,
Lonely seas. I shall wear the white robes of Venus
Arms to my chest. Coming from the seas, you don’t see
Goddess in anything form-fitting, back fat, muffin top,
You wouldn’t get Aphrodite in jeans in a million years.
Nothing tight, and in my mournful swirling rise, oh, I spy lemons,
Lemons on the shore, see me reaching out towards land
In what we all agree is a woman of beauty.
And then I remember poor Persephone, snatched into the Underworld,
And what I have never been able to figure out,
Is when her mother hatched the plan to get her out of there,
And they thought up the condition that she could not have eaten,
She could not have eaten anything,
(My own daughter would say, do you know me?)
And then they found out she ate four pomegranate seeds?
What, in all that time, she only ate four seeds?
You may be thinking now, she was surely heartsick,
And no one can eat when they are lonely beyond words.
Did Hades urge her, eat, eat, and she reluctantly accepted the fruit
And picked out one, two, three, all right, one last pout, four,
Or even in hell, was she on a diet? Or did no one eat in hell,
And she is starving, and that’s all there was to eat?
Because when your mom is the CEO of agriculture,
Whose idea of threat and ultimate blackmail is to withhold food,
And she comes up with the plan to spring her daughter from a fate worse than death–
She counted on her daughter not eating. Maybe Persephone was a picky eater.
Mama counted on lack of cuisine in hell.
Maybe there was nothing else to eat, maybe she was starving down there.
The paintings afterward show that even in the curtailed growing season
As earth learned winter, Persephone has eaten fruit pie,
And this is what I do. Dreaming of lemon pie, I suck out a lemon now,
I keep the seed in my mouth, and imagine the dark green leaf, the round yellow
Fish-shaped fruit, which needs sugar, and you’ve heard of the blue bird of happiness,
I’m dreaming of lemon pie, I transcend hell, mouthing seeds, my throat aching,
And my dreams make me fit for only goddess wear, loose draped sheets.
What am I doing now, you ask, seeing me put down my briefcase.
This is almond meal for the crust, with vanilla, and butter, and sugar,
And I’ve got a dozen eggs, they provide the color yellow in the bubbling sweetness,
The lemon taste of yellow is in my mind, yellow against green on a summer morning,
I’m going to eat again,
Ascend from an Underworld that always was here, the struggle against don’t eat voices,
Eat, eat, the devil speaking, eat, says the goddess, it has always been so,
And look carefully at the paintings, see the lemon, see the loose robes,
See the radiant faces, see the glow. See the ladies flying, and let’s not pretend,
They are hefty, and the clouds hold them, they rise in cloud meringue, light as air.
© Barbara Mossberg 2007
Packing for Oxford University Lecture Tour, October 16, 2007
I hope you enjoy listening to our early March frolic feast. Thank you for joining me today for our de-luscious menu of in just Spring, ink dripping from the corners of my lips, there is no happiness like mine, I have been eating poetry–that’s Mark Strand, and that’s certainly me today, thank YOU listeners for putting down your hat and sitting down with me, waging peace, celebrating today, with the Poetry Slow Down, I’m Professor Barbara Mossberg. Next week: Middlemarch, Ides of March, Everything March! Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Barbara Mossberg 2012