Friday, May 4, 2012

I think I have always loved Cambridge. It was partly because of Harvard and its incredible campus.  I saw grace and history and an exciting intellectual energy.This poem was written many years ago  and reflects  my feelings for  the city, and. as all  personal art does, reminds me of whom I was then.


Not an apostrophe,

Or the lyric of a wandering Romantic,

Or an echo of Whitman’s passionate catalogues.

Just Cambridge, on a Fall afternoon.

Before the trees turn  and lawns of Harvard

   are still green,

And the air is sharp with the promise of coolness.

Clapboards and lanes recall

A  time of pewter and muslin and hand-blown glass.

And the Charles River, dotted with white sails,

    curls slowly under its bridges.

Why do you call me at each summer’s end?

What draws me to your streets and Square?

I remember when Western Avenue held a mystery for me.

I looked at it as it arched away into other

   people’s  lives

And I wanted to follow it forever.

Hidden, hidden, hidden,

In modern brick and old stone,

In small cafes and campus quads,

Revelations of intellect and energy,

    vigorous,  yet measured.

I would walk past domed MIT, down

   Massachusetts Avenue to the Square:

A pilgrimage to a citadel of knowledge

   that promised to transcend

All I had known

And all I was to know.


Are you memory or regret?

Across the river, elegant townhouses brace

   against the salt air,

And the shadows of cast-iron statues

   Slant across parks and streets.

No matter.

Cambridge still charms.

Shipbuilders and whalers and candlemakers

Came to Boston,

And flung their strength up and out

In  glass  and steel.

But Cambridge still remains

Itself, in grace and reflection,

 A  Yankee  meditation  on Continental traditions.

The green-gold air of Fall reminds me,

Once again Cambridge draws we to is avenues and streets,

To images I cannot grasp.

And I remember other Falls, their youthful yearnings walk with me,

Reflected in casement windows,

Echoed in  broad New England accents.

To  be  part of it.

To wonder at the history of darkened spires,

To measure my life in books,

To  dream.

October is the spur that moves me,

Once again, I yearn, and go,

Once again I walk and gaze,

At  my repository of might-have- beens.

Cambridge, on a Fall afternoon.

Friday, April 27, 2012

I was  about ten days too late for the cherry blossoms in DC this Easter break. They had blossomed early because of the early, unseasonably warm weather.They were a gift to Washington, DC by the city of Tokyo in 1912.

I walked along the mall anyway, to the Lincoln Memorial. I visit it every time I go to DC. The architect was Henry Bacon, the sculptor of the primary statue was Daniel Chester French, and the painter of the interior murals was Charles Guerin. It stands on the opposite end of the mall from the Washington Monument, which always sruck me as cold and abstract by comparison. The mall seems to be in perpetual renovation, but that does not distract from the number of monuments around it.These two monuments define the length of the mall area.

The Memorial never fails to move me. On this  visit I saw it near evening and it was already lit. It moves me partly because of its elevation and the extraordianry words of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural - both of which I teach - inscribed on its walls. But it is primarily because the scultor captured both the humanity and majesty of the man. Pictures of Lincoln show him to be tall, gaunt, almost ungainly,with deep , piercing yet wise eyes.The Memorial shows him seated and forceful, noble but not distant. Lincoln looks as if he could easily stand up, go down, and walk away, unemcumbered by the stone. That and the fact that visitors always have to ascend stairs, always looking up at the huge seated figure, make the visit a form of reverence for the man and his historical role.

The somber simplicity of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall,  designed by Maya Lin and completed in 1982, is a stark contrast to the Lincoln Memorial and to the other monuments in proximity to the mall. I also visit it whenever I am in DC.

There are always bunches of flowers or some personal mementos, some candles or small flags or even pictuires left near that extraordinary  written roll call of names. Even in the evening, there are people standing and searching the list of names or crying softly when they have located the names they were searching for.Sometimes they touch the names and bow their heads in prayer. Their pain made so public, is also intensely private.

The wall itself seems to rise out of the ground, slants graually up and stretches for a distance, several feet taller at its highest point, than the people who visit it,and slopes down again, like a huge black headstone for the fallen. I remember that at the time of the competition there was a strong reaction to the design. All that has melted away.And the solemn, black, polished stone with its precisely carved, perfectly spaced, equally sized list of names organized in stately columns, staggers the eyes by its simplicity and directness.

I plan to see the cherry blossoms bloom next year.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

I started traveling  by bus when I was in college.I ranged form the East Coast to the Midwest.I traveled for conferences, to visit friends who had moved away, and to see some of the places friends had come from. I traveled from New York City to Minneapolis, Chicago, New Orleans, Boston, Durham, Richmond, and they became familiar to me and left an indelible imprint. The small towns along each route some lovely, some nondescript, some beckoning, some forgettable, showed me views I could never have traveling by train.

I traveled mostly in late afternoon and evening or throughout the night. It saved a night's expense, but part of the reason was I loved nighttime travel. For a true night person, the night is magical.

There is a sense of peace and anonymity in nighttime bus travel. The driver speaking in lowered tones even for announcements, the other passengers either silently looking out the windows or whispering to one another, establish a sense of intimacy that is lacking during daytime travel.The whole world seems either resting or asleep. And the motion of the bus as it speeds along is lulling. I did some of my best thinking and writing at night on these trips. I still do.

William Least Heat Moon spoke of blue highways in his book of the same name that recorded his travels across the United States. I never could envision what he meant until one day on one of my own trips I was fortunate enough to see a blue highway. The time of day was late afternnon; a bit of sunlight was still evident although dusk was moving in. I glanced at the physical highway and in that perfect light, the highway appeared to be blue liquid. It has never happened again since, although I have taken many bus trips over the years. I treasure the rarity and beauty of that moment when I saw what he saw.

And I hope one day I may see a blue highway once again.

Iowa Rest Stop

A green field level, closely cropped, moving gently in the moist air,
And an orange-pink swath of clouds skimming it.
Above, a single line of white jetstream, the tail reflecting
the last shimmer of sunlight,
 streaking across a purpling sky,
 angling up and across my vision.
To the right, a small, clapboard, gray-shingled shack,
the single window slanting toward the highway.
And the silence between dusk and night:
Twilight in Iowa.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Frost’s swaying birches and Whitman’s ferry muscling through the Brooklyn waters

            had their own eloquence. They framed the movement of their minds through time.

Time folds in on itself

And makes sharp lines in memory like the deep creases in a soft old suit

      that cannot be shaken out.

These poets knew the importance of time,

And measured it out in formal tones and elegiac images of nature.

They understood also the reverence of silence.

Yet silence is the death of art.

And so they struggled – and created beauty.

Memory always remains,

   even when time betrays us.

And art – the intermediary - negotiates the gains and losses.

I prefer my experiences frozen and stately,

     each in its own place.

An ordered life is a gift.

 But a life without memories is no life.

I cannot swing from hanging branches

Or ride the placid Brooklyn waves.

My life is honed by concrete and steel:

Dust and noise shut out wind and water.

In my mind I travel between past memories  and  present desires,

Moving to the rhythms of my  present,

Dreaming of beauty forever just beyond my reach.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

This 'n That

Lines that always move me to tears:

- The last two lines of John Donne's "Death, be not proud . . ."
- The last line of Simon and Garfunkle's "I Am A Rock"
- The last paragraph of Louise Erdrich's "The Shawl"

My favorite sonnet:  Shakespeare's  "That time of year ..."(those simple, incredible first four lines . . . )
My favorite British Romantic poet: William Wordsworth  (especially for "Tintern Abbey")

Two books I came to love (but only after I had to teach them): Dickens' Hard Times and Austen's
Sense and Sensibility

Music I wish my students would listen to: the folk and rock songs of the 60's and 70's. The incredible imagery and symbolism would lead them to better understand and interpret the poetry I try to teach them.

Something I hope everyone will read: Toni Morrison's "To A Sudanese Woman," Newsweek, September 26, 2011.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Street Scenes I

The pigeon, feet splayed,
 bobs his head, looking for crumbs on the  gray,  stained sidewalk.
I watch,
marveling at his mindless intensity.
I cannot disturb him as he steps aside, his head always moving, to let me pass.  
 I see the elegance of his patient walk as he balances on those claws, nibbling
until he spreads and lifts and soars –
     to a park, a street, a roof.

He leaves some crumbs behind -
and I think about the stateliness of pigeons.