“Introduction To Poetry”

On Saturday afternoon I head out for a walk under the guise of needing to pick up a prescription from the pharmacy. I do, in fact, need to pick up a prescription from the pharmacy, but Thomas and I both know that when I say I’m “going to walk to the pharmacy” that’s code for “I’m going out for a walk and there’s no knowing when I’ll be back.”

Needless to say, I take a slight detour at Pegasus Books on Shattuck. In my defense, it’s the first time since the beginning of the pandemic that Pegasus has been open for in-person browsing, and obviously I have to support my local bookstore (f*** Amazon!!!!!!!!!).

I spend thirty minutes browsing and in every section – philosophy, spirituality, literature, gardening, poetry, critical theory – I see a book I want to take home and spend the rest of the afternoon reading. I wish for not the first time that I had room in my apartment for more books, instead of the already-overflowing few shelves I hacked together in our bedroom. There’s a chance it collapses at some point soon; I keep stacking more and more books horizontally on the top shelf.

My book-browsing is interrupted by the realization that the pharmacy closes soon and if I don’t leave now I’ll fail to accomplish the actual task I set out to do. I hurriedly grab and pay for two of the used books I’ve had my eye on: Natalie Goldberg’s The Great Spring and Poetry 180, an anthology of contemporary poems.

The mini-haul.

On Tuesday morning I remember that, because Thomas is a student, we have a free subscription to The New York Times. I browse their website and come across this Letter of Recommendation that suggests you read the same poem every day for a month. While not a novel idea, I loved the author’s intention and practice behind it: “I always read my selected poem aloud, to hear the rhythm, and I like to read it first thing in the morning. Reading the poem at dawn, with my coffee, is a kind of meditation. And rereading the same poem forces me to slow down, to hone my observations.”

Over the past few months I’ve strayed further from starting my mornings in a meditative way. I used wake up and read or write; now, I immediately open my laptop to start work, or spend too long on Twitter catching up on the latest apocalyptic news. This letter feels timely – especially since I’d just bought a poetry anthology a few days prior. I resolve to start my next few mornings by reading a poem.


On Wednesday morning I wake up and open the anthology to the first poem, Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry.”

“Introduction to Poetry”

I’ve read it before – shout-out to my favorite high-school English teacher who introduced me to some amazing poems – but poetry will always be better when chosen rather than assigned. In the words of Billy Collins himself: “High school is the place where poetry goes to die.” (I might be one of the few who gained a greater appreciation for poetry in an academic context. To all the high school teachers: don’t give up hope!)

I will spare everyone my commentary on the poem (which would also be ironic given its content) but here are two of my favorite Billy Collins verses I want to share in the hopes others enjoy them as much as I do:

“But tomorrow, dawn will come the way I picture her,
barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window
in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor.
She will look in at me with her thin arms extended,
offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.”

“And I should mention the light
which falls through the big windows this time of day
italicizing everything it touches…”

Little Things / March 2021

1.

In a brief moment of culinary inspiration last weekend I decided I wanted to bake some scones. I’d just had my morning coffee – so the possibilities for my day were seemingly endless and I dreamt my biggest, most wild dreams – and seen an inspiring photo of local produce from Berkeley Bowl.

“What flavor scones should I make?” I asked myself as I sat on the couch, already envisioning the Samin Nosrat I was about to become. I had the essential ingredients in my pantry – flour, butter, heavy cream, sugar – and decided on lemon poppyseed: a classic, hard-to-mess-up flavor that would only require buying a lemon or two from the grocery store. And then – of course, as usual – the moment of inspiration passed before I even made it to the store.

I went for a walk through the neighborhood later that afternoon. I had spent most of the day attempting to read, but mostly ruminating, and sought fresh air to clear my mind. A few blocks from my house I came across a plastic dog bowl placed on the sidewalk with a paper sign taped to the rim that read “FREE” in black Sharpie. Inside the bowl were three large, bright yellow lemons that a neighbor had picked from the ripening tree in their yard. I smiled, picked one up, and put it in my fanny pack (yes, I was wearing a fanny pack).

Lemon x fanny pack

As I walked home with the lemon displayed proudly in the pocket of my fanny pack I felt so blessed. A lemon in a bowl on the sidewalk. It was such a small thing and yet it felt like a huge gift, to have this thing that I’d been “needing,” but hadn’t been able to give myself, brought to me with no strings attached. It was as if someone, somewhere had known that if I were presented with a lemon it might have the capacity to turn my day around.

At home that evening I stood at the counter zesting the lemon over a glass bowl. I grated the frozen butter, mixed in heavy cream and flour, and added just the right amount of poppy seeds. I’m not much of a baker but every time I bake or cook I notice how wonderful it feels to make something from scratch, to shape and create it with my own hands. When the scones came out of the oven looking and smelling just as I’d hoped, I thanked the world for the gift of a lemon that reminded and inspired me to create.

2.

The wildflowers are in bloom!

On Sunday afternoon I sat on a bench by a field of poppies and reread one of my favorite poems by Wendell Berry:

I dream of a quiet man
who explains nothing and defends
nothing, but only knows
where the rarest wildflowers
are blooming, and goes, 
and finds that he is smiling
not by his own will.

3.

Ben Howard released a new album that I (shockingly!!!!!) have not been able to take off repeat: https://open.spotify.com/album/09P40BHcaue9iF4QasXMTK?si=hVrCF0tbRQOcOkeRzxl6Og. Every time I listen to his music I think about what a gift musicians are to the world; how talented artists have the ability to make us feel and experience the world more deeply.

I read an interview he gave with Flood Magazine after the album release and one particular quote resonated with me:

“I think I’m always just looking for a little flash of inspiration rather than working on some great orchestral piece, and that kind of became what the record was—it was little fragments. I hate to use the word “vignette,” but these songs are little glimpses of life and of musical ideas. They didn’t even need to be completely finished—as long as the essence is there, it counts.”

Sometimes that’s how I feel about this blog (I am not, by the way, attempting to compare myself to a musical genius!): it’s a place where I can capture my flashes of inspiration – a poem, a wildflower, a lemon on the sidewalk – rather than trying to produce something cohesive or complete.

I’ll leave you with something else he said in the interview that I thought he articulated beautifully:

“I think that’s why I’m always reluctant to spell out every single element of a song, because feelings are supposed to change. It’s supposed to change with interpretation, and that’s one of the most interesting aspects of it all. Meaning can be quite an elusive thing. And actually, the most incredible moment is when you get presented with an image that you can’t get out of your brain, but you don’t know why.”

Happy spring, everyone! May it bring lots of wildflowers and hope.

The world is a beautiful place

I first read Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry in AP Literature my senior year of high school. I can’t remember which of his poems we read (was it “Sometime During Eternity“? “Constantly Risking Absurdity“?); since then I’ve read his poems so many times that most of the words seem familiar.

When I moved to San Francisco I started seeing a therapist whose office was in North Beach. Every week after our session I would walk from her office to City Lights Bookstore and spend as long as I could among its shelves before walking the next few blocks to my office downtown. That was always a jarring transition: from the quiet of therapy and a bookstore to the noisy, crowded office.

For Christmas two years ago my mom got me a copy of Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems. I didn’t remember telling her about any of his poems that I loved, or all the hours I’d spent kneeling by the shelves in the cramped basement of City Lights.

I took the book with me down to Ocean Beach one day and read my favorite of his poems, “The world is a beautiful place,” by the water. It begins:

And then, later:

I read of Ferlinghetti’s death in between meetings yesterday afternoon, during a five minute break in which I was scrolling through Twitter.

In the evening, after work, I took the book of his poems and went out for a walk. I looked at everything and smelled the flowers.

Respite in the Redwoods

Last Thursday morning I went for a bike ride. The best kind of bike ride, in my opinion: one on which I take more pictures than I ride miles.

It was the first day that week the smoke had cleared enough to get outside and I can’t remember ever breathing in the morning air so heavily.

Since then, the smoke has returned, and – maybe related, I’m not sure (so many confounding factors these days!!!!) – I’ve been feeling exhausted and sad.

I’m too tired to write anything of my own but I have spent the past week doing a lot of reading. So, in appreciation for the healing powers of both nature and art, I thought I’d share some of my favorite redwood-related poems and excerpts with you all:

The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.”

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

WHEN I AM AMONG THE TREES
by Mary Oliver

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

OPTIMISM
by Jane Hirshfield

More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs — all this resinous, unretractable earth.


Woods are not like other spaces… They make you feel small.. like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs. Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you are in a big space. Stand in a woods and you only sense it. They are a vast featureless nowhere. And they are alive.”

Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods

Lavender

It’s 5:18am but I get up anyway because it’s easier to start my day tired than it is to toss and turn in bed with only anxious thoughts as company. (No, wait, Thomas is also here…but he’s fast asleep and has been working so hard the last thing I want to do is wake him…)

It’s a quiet morning. The sun hasn’t yet risen but who knows if it will today. Fog and smoke and dwindling hope.

Coffee.

And music. Ben Howard, I think. That sounds about right.

Oh man. I dream of the days where I could cry to live music in public and not just from my couch. Imagine! And now, living less than a mile from the Greek Theatre…my heart aches.

For some reason I think of lavender and how much I love its color. I take out my pastels (ugh, I don’t have the right shades of purple!) and try to create whatever small thing I can.

It feels good to create. Rather than destroy.

Maybe one day I’ll know what I’m doing. Or maybe one day I won’t care that I don’t know what I’m doing.

One day when I have my own garden I’ll plant some lavender. Better yet – I’ll grow a whole field of lavender so that when you look out from my kitchen window all you see is a purple haze that stretches for miles and when you open the door the aroma hits you so strongly you have no choice but to feel free.

TV & Poetry

I like to think of me and Thomas’ brain cell count as a zero sum game: if he’s gaining brain cells, I have to be losing them at the same rate. For example: it’s 8pm on a Saturday evening and he is doing readings for his policy classes. Therefore, in order to balance out his brain cell gains, I must lose the same amount by binge-watching “Love Island.” I don’t make the rules.

(Look: it’s not my favorite show, but I’ve already rewatched “New Girl” twice during the pandemic and I read an entire book today so I’m not sure what else to do with my time.)


I’m feeling lighter-hearted now because it’s 6am and I’m always more optimistic in the morning, but a lot has been weighing on me the past few days. My excuse for watching “Love Island,” therefore, is the same one most would give: it’s escapist. If I can’t be outside or with friends due to a pandemic and wildfire smoke, I might as well live vicariously through the dramas of 20-something-year-olds in Las Vegas.

Most of the weight I’m experiencing is feelings of helplessness; I see my friends (not to mention the world) struggling and I feel powerless to help them. Maybe it’s the pandemic or maybe it’s just life (probably the latter) but so many of my friends are going through tough times and I want nothing more than to make their pain and anxiety and hurt go away. Maybe I feel more helpless than usual because it’s hard to physically be there for others and therefore I’m relegated to sending texts, cards, and small gifts to let them know I’m thinking of them. I sit on my couch and read (or watch “Love Island”) but no matter how hard I try to concentrate on some alternate reality my thoughts inevitably return to my friends and family.

I don’t know what to do with this pent-up energy, this frustration that I can’t flip a switch and make the problems of those I care about go away. It’s not like I had that power before – though I can probably attribute a lot of my anxiety to the fact I can’t accept that as truth – but something about being physically still and confined aggravates it. That’s probably why my most effective form of escapism (or coping mechanism, whatever you want to call it) is being outdoors and exercising. (Jury’s still out on the fine line between helpful and harmful there.)


The sun is finally rising (I think? It’s impossible to tell through the smoke) and I want to end this post with a poem I read yesterday:

I, like most others in California right now, have been dreaming of rain…

My intention for today is to keep the spirit of the rain within me: “to fall, to be fellow, to feel to the root, to sink in…”

Poems from Zion

Thomas and I squeezed in a quick lil trip to Zion and Bryce Canyon over Labor Day weekend. We flew in and out of Las Vegas and managed to check just one under-40-pound suitcase for the trip (#SpiritAirlines) in which we brought some hiking clothes, a tent, and our sleeping pads, in the hopes the weather would be warm enough for us to substitute a bedsheet for our heavy and too-puffy-to-fit-in-a-suitcase sleeping bags. We spent the nights camping (fo’ free!) on the side of the road just outside the park boundary — which apparently is entirely legal in Utah (I’m so used to “no camping” California) — and the days driving and hiking and eating baguettes and chugging water because it was a zillion degrees outside and we were living in a state of perpetual sweat. Both places were prettttyyyy magical, but based on what I knew about the parks and myself going into the trip, I expected to feel that way.

Highlights from the trip included:

  • Buying a bunch of bananas at the supermarket upon arrival that we hoped would last us the next few days, only to find that after a few hours in a hot car they’d all turned black and melted in the backseat
  • Substituting river swims for showers
  • Gaming the Zion National Park shuttle bus system by jogging two miles to the third stop on the Canyon route, thus avoiding a three hour wait in the line from the Visitor’s Center to get to the start of the popular hiking trails
  • Eating multiple baguettes accompanied by avocados, peanut butter, canned tuna, and nutella, because baguettes are objectively the best camping and hiking food and can be a vessel for almost anything
  • Ice cream, which is a highlight of life in general but also does taste better when you’re living in a sauna
  • Sunrises and sunsets — again, highlights of life in general, but arguably more impressive when they’re lightning up a canyon

I brought a notebook and jotted down some poems that you can read below, after which you can decide which is worse: my prose or my poetry.

 

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River

Heat, sweat, dirt, mouth dry as the desert we drove through —
and then the foreign feel of cold,
hair heavy on my shoulders,
the evening sun painting orange ripples on the water
and the sky glowing softly, a humble mother.

The days are long, a golden road fading into the horizon,
and the water smooths the rocks underneath my feet, slowly, slowly,
covering them like a blanket as the bedside candle burns.

I am dirt and skin and soul together,
here below the sky and the stars starting to show their bright faces,
all of us, together, sheltered in the growing darkness.

 

Rocks

Red rocks pressed up against the blue sky
Imperfect in their crooked edges but unafraid to be noticed.
Why can’t I make such a statement

Even in the dark I feel them
Standing there in the quiet but ever-present as my shadow on a summer noon.
Does anyone even know I’m here?

I don’t want to scream but I want you to listen
and know I am important and have something to say,
so that you pay attention even after the sun sets and the stars take over

I’m either noise and shame
Or quiet and heartbroken
I don’t want to live in extremes, like the red rocks pressed up against the blue sky.