Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sun! Flower!

My friend Amy gave me sunflower seeds after the summer was well under way. I planted them in front of the porch, a space that seemed a bit empty after I took out some scruffy, overgrown yews. The sunflowers grew fast, but they looked a bit gawky for awhile, like huge weeds. Then one day they were full of enormous buds. They're like the ostrich of the plant world - even the little ones are giant. Now each stalk is high as the porch roof with flowers all over, some with lovely rust colored petals, and a new one that's bright lemon. They're loud with bees. And I don't know why, but some flower heads lean in over the porch, instead of facing the sun, and the sun backlights them.
I have a favorite chair on the porch, and I took my book out today. These last days of summer are numbered.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Three Books: Simmons Buntin, Robert Bly and Primo Levi

The poems in 'Bloom' by Simmons B. Buntin are beautifully grounded in the desert southwest. A several page glossary follows, listing plants, birds and other creatures as well as geographical features. The natural specificity pulls the poems into this life among the natural world, not just at the edge of it. Many poems touch on Buntin's love for his children; they are tender and give the stories a greater call. This is a wonderful collection, poem after poem.
I picked up Robert Bly's 'Reaching Out to the World: New & Selected Prose Poems' at the White Pine Press table at last year's AWP conference. Forgive me for thinking it was a slow starter. Some of the first poems are from Bly's early writing, and their bluntness surprises. But the writing transforms before you, and becomes lush and rich, like being lowered into a dream.
Between these books I read Primo Levi's 'Survival in Auschwitz.' I purposely sandwiched Levi between poems; still, I had several sleepless nights. Whenever I think I understand the scope of the horror, I find I had yet fallen short. I think we make a mistake in forgetting the black-hearted live among us. We see many in our country slipping deeper into obsessive, intolerant religion, superstition and hatred, and their desperation to gain control is worrisome. I resist the Holocaust metaphor, since what happened there deserves its own memory. But the brutal impulse crosses the lines of time and nation.
So does the impulse to create and imagine and love, and I thank Buntin, Bly and Levi for the gift of their words.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Poetry Book Discussion Group

A new book discussion group begins in September in Youngstown. We'll meet at the Lemon Grove on the first Tuesday of each month at 7:00. Our first book will be James Harms' After West. You can find it at Powell's Books for a squeak under $20, including shipping.
I have a few reasons for starting this group. A lot of us are in book discussion groups, so we are reading and talking about a range of fiction and non-fiction. My group includes faculty from varying disciplines, a librarian, and several intellectuals, and the books selections are amazing.
But our poetry reading, well, I'll just speak for myself here. I pick up books when a reader knocks my socks off, but now that I'm out of school, I am not fed with a steady diet, no one saying, 'Here. Read this.' I miss the conversation, too. When I discover a book of poems I love, I want to tell everyone.
Also, many of these presses are struggling, and I consider it my member dues to buy the books. No one expects to get rich selling poetry in this country, but that's a crying shame, isn't it? We won't fund a desert getaway, but maybe we can buy a poet a good pair of pants.
And I encourage everyone to consider switching to independent book stores. Let's break our Amazon habit. Hail to Amazon for putting books into peoples' hands, but as an electronic box store of books, there's a price to be paid. Here's a link to indie bookseller Powell's. You can also buy After West right from Carnegie Mellon Press. Even better to buy local, but unfortunately, our Youngstown indie book store no longer orders books.
We'll take turns choosing books of poetry or about poetry. Come, join us! The Lemon Grove has wonderful food and coffees, teas and craft beers.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

On friendship

My friends from college stopped over on their way from southern Ohio to the Poconos. I invited a few kindred souls to join us. I had fresh vegetables from my CSA shares, so I roasted green beans, eggplant, hot and sweet peppers and tomatoes. I tossed sauteed zucchini and pattypan with olives, sun dried tomatoes and whole grain pasta. And I made large tarts of thinly sliced green, yellow and red tomatoes over grated fontina cheese on a crust of delicate puff pastry. For dessert, a 3-layer chocolate cake with white chocolate frosting and locally made ice cream. The conversation stretched through two and a half bottles of wine and two carafes of coffee.
The next morning, after a quick tour of Youngstown, my friend hugged me and said, "Thank you for sharing your wonderful life with us."
What a gift. Thank you, friend, for looking past the unfinished projects, chronic disorganization, blight in my city. You saw the community and connection, the celebration, so many flowers in bloom. Much is good here.

Monday, August 15, 2011

New York State of mind

New York, you get it right, with your wide, shallow rivers, park large as a small state, hills and towns and barns and of course The City, but the smaller, jivey cities like Buffalo, Syracuse and Binghamton, too.
We began our trip in Buffalo and spent an afternoon on the waterfront. Buffalo, like other rust belt cities, has had to figure out what to do with itself since the jobs and half the people left. It’s like one day everyone said, hey! we have a waterfront. Fancy condos and boat slips went in, but lots of public access in wide, shady parks, too. The day we were there, Oneida dancers invited us to join a Smoke Dance; kids in the giant (giant!) sandbox, roller skaters, bike riders, boaters, ice cream eaters and WWII submarine tourists were all out in summerosity.
The day before, we walked with hundreds of others, raising money to research a cure for spinal muscular atrophy. The hope and love were palpable.

Our friends in Syracuse have a small boy who turned from one to two between visits. He is growing up speaking Russian and English, and lives in the country with a small number of beautiful, wooden toys. His parents are both working on doctoral degrees, and are nurturing themselves and each other.

From there we visited friends on Lake George in the Adirondacks. The water was too cold to swim in, but I was the only one who thought so. We kayaked and walked and read and rested and talked and talked and laughed and talked.
I thought a lot about West Virginia. In Lake George, the residents have the political resources to make sure the mountains and water remain clean. Chances are good there’s something in those hills that could make someone very rich. In West Virginia, the people who would protect the mountains are not the ones with the power to do so.
We swung through Binghamton on the way home to Ohio, where we visited more, dear friends and I read my poems at a gorgeous bookstore on the Chenango River. The bookstore owner said they are struggling to survive. We can find our books cheaper on Amazon, but do we want to live in a world without bookstores?
My inspirational friend Mary is working to save her Binghamton neighborhood, by inviting everyone into the conversation. She’s held neighborhood events and thinks in the on-the-ground way that activists here in Youngstown are thinking.
I’ve been calling myself and others new urbanists, people who want to invest in city cores, not just to raise property values and push low-income families away. We want integration: we’re not afraid of people who look different from us. We want working sidewalks and bike lanes, good schools, community gardens, and communication between neighbors.
After a week of close friends, delicious food, fantastic conversation, and gorgeous landscape, I am renewed and ready to get back to the work of home.