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I was lucky enough to see and hear Seamus Heaney read before he died. Last March, at AWP in Boston, he was a keynote speaker, alongside fellow Nobel Prize-winner, Derek Walcott. I remember how witty they both were. I remember being astounded by their wisdom. I remember thinking: These two men are living legends.
Heaney was, of course, charming. Blame it on his Irish, sing-songy brogue; blame it on his happy eyes; blame it on that generous, hearty laugh. But when I think of Seamus Heaney, I think of a lullaby. After listening to the conversation and reading, I said to a friend, "I want Seamus Heaney to read me some bed time stories tonight." How lucky were his children to get lulled to sleep by that soothing voice.
This morning, after I found out that Heaney had passed, I looked up his reading on the Poetry Center's Voca archives. Heaney came to the Poetry Center on March 30, 1976, just two years after my parents graduated from high school. In the picture that was taken of him--outside of the old Poetry Center cottage--he has a curly, 70's-looking mess of thick hair. He looks sharp in dark clothing (such a poet!). He wears a dark button up long sleeved shirt, a dark blazer, dark pants, and a dark belt. And yet his expression is anything but dark; he has those same happy eyes.
The Owl and the Pussycat
by Edward Lear
Illustrated by Jan Brett
Growing up, I had an illustrated book of poetry for children, the illustrations of which were pretty lousy, but the poetry of which was pretty great. “The Owl and the Pussycat,” Edward Lear’s nonsense poem, was one of my favorite selections. So I was super-stoked to find the poem in board book form, meticulously illustrated by Jan Brett, when my son was about five months old.
He’s always been opinionated about books (screaming and batting away the ones he deems unacceptable), and I’ll be honest: he was indifferent to “The Owl and the Pussycat” at first. But he clearly didn’t hate it, so I kept at it, and eventually he succumbed to its charms, which are many.
The lush romanticism of it kills me. The Owl is an elegant fowl; he looks up to the stars above and sings to his small guitar (imagine poor Pussy’s discomfort if he creepily stared into her eyes while he sang about her) (though even with his discreet technique, after a year and a day, I’d be ready to abandon ship). The Pussycat is a decisive lady: O! let us be married, too long have we tarried.
The poet Lucille Clifton prefaces one of her poems during a reading at the Poetry Center in 1975 with this: “I have days when I want to stay in the house all day because the world shouldn’t have to look at me.” She’s joking, of course, but her sentiment is one that I’m sure many people can identify with. Even now, as I type up this review, I’m thinking, “Jesus, I have some stocky, cottage cheese thighs.” It’s an ever circling conversation, argument that many people have with themselves. I can remember in high school and even now into my adulthood, hearing friends of mine blurt out the following about their bodies:
I hate my thin hair.
I hate my curly hair.
I hate my big thighs.
I hate my small boobs.
I hate my baby face.
I hate my hips.
by Eve Merriam
Illustrated by Harriet Sherman
I first came across the poet Eve Merriam when 2012 Poetry Out Loud State Champion, Josh Furtado, recited her poem “Catch a Little Rhyme." The poem is simple and playful, but it was Josh’s spunky, West-Side-Story-like performance that really made the poem come alive. It wasn’t until recently, though, that I came across one of Merriam’s poetry collections. To my delight, in the Poetry Center’s Children’s Area, I came across her children's collection, Out Loud. Published in 1973 and with illustrations by Harriet Sherman, the drawings that accompany the poems are delightfully funkadelic, reminiscent of some of those commercials in between skits on Sesame Street, like this one.
These illustrations aren’t just illustrations that accompany the poems, per se. The illustrations are the poems. In other words, these poems are concrete poems, in that the shape of the poems mimic the subject matter of the poem. For example, in a poem about a snake, Merriam uses the form of a slithering snake (and also a lot of alliteration) to make the poem seem alive:
What Can You Do with a Paleta?
Written by Carmen Tafolla and Illustrated by Magaly Morales
Tricycle Press, 2009
It's summer. I live in the Tucson desert. It's hot outside. I'm expecting my first baby in a few weeks. Did I mention it's hot outside?
So when I recently saw the picture book, What Can You Do with a Paleta?, on the shelf at the Himmel Park Library, I knew I had to read it. After all, the paleta is a refreshing, frozen dessert bar made from natural ingredients like nuts, fruit, and milk (did I mention that Tucson is hot?). In the back of What Can You Do with a Paleta?, the author provides this information for those unacquainted with the Mexican dessert: “Paletas come in lime, coconut, pecan, mango, banana, kiwi, strawberry, watermelon, guava, chocolate, horchata, jamaica, tamarind, pineapple, vanilla and more.” Are you hungry yet?
The book itself presents the delicious paleta (which is sold all over the United States in paleterias, kiosks, carts, and even at Walmart, with varying degrees of quality and authenticity, of course) through the story of one little girl's barrio. We get sensory, poetic lines about her neighborhood:
“. . . where the smell of crispy tacos or buttery tortillas or juicy fruta floats out of every window. . . that's my barrio!” And finally, we learn about our protagonist's favorite summer treat: “. . . I think the very best thing to do with a paleta is to. . . lick it and slurp it and sip it and munch it and gobble it all down!” I'll have two, thank you very much.
Though I’d never recommend the majority of his work to young students, Roberto Bolaño’s poem, “Godzilla in Mexico,” is a one-time exception. I stumbled across this poem, which appears in the collection, The Romantic Dogs, with great surprise, since Bolaño always has a fun time bashing poets in his fiction. It’s a startling poem, an apocalyptic vision of Mexico City under attack by poisoned air that soon kills a father and his son, who then seemingly awake and ask, “What are we?” It’s both childish and morbid. The kid is “watching / cartoons on TV” just before his father realizes they are “going to die.” This begs the question: How do we talk about death with youth? It’s usually a taboo subject to bring up with youth, but I think it’s a topic that’d be interesting to hear about from their perspective. The poem’s title alludes to Godzilla, something I remember watching as a kid, so it seems Bolaño is trying to equate death, a very serious subject, with something a little more monster-like, like something we’ve watched on TV, as the child does in the poem. With this in mind, consider the following prompts after reading the poem aloud:
1. Bolaño sets the stage with a realistic setting (father and son watching cartoons) paired with a fantastical tone (the title, poisoned air, and the allusion to reincarnation). Use this combination of the mundane and the fantastic to create a setting for an imitation poem.
2. To add to the above prompt, think back on a childhood memory between you and a parent and what emotions that evoked or still evoke now.
Local artist Sid Henderson has been making quite the splash at the Poetry Center these days. The mural that he's creating in the Children's Corner is just about finished! Come on by to watch Sid in action, creating the mural, before he finishes up in the next week or so. One last thing: if you look at the black, rock geodes close enough, you'll notice that there a few poems, written in white chalk, on the rocks. When the mural is completed, the public will be able to come on in and write poems on these rocks, which are made of chalkboard paint. Pretty sweet, huh?
Last Spring, we asked folks at Family Days and at the Tucson Festival of Books to type up poems on our typewriters. One of the prompts we asked them was this: "Write about noises you have heard." Here are some of their amazing poems, in response to this question. Check them out, and then write a poem of your own!
Noises I Have Heard
I have heard the organ
Heliocopters at dawn
I have heard the singing of the birds, and the wind in the willows
I have heard dogs barking in the desert sun
I have heard the birds who sing in the morning
I heard my dog bark in the morning
I have heard the musicians in the heat, in the heart
I have heard the sweet sound of babies breathing
I have heard a beautiful hummingbird in the morning
I have heard the owls sing at ducks, I mean dusk
I have heard things I love and they sound like the wind
and I have heard things I hate and they sound like angry whispers
and still I am grateful I can hear the wind and the whispers
The Animal That Drank Up Sound
by William Stafford
Illustrated by Debra Frasier
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992
It’s not often that I read a children’s book, and really have to slow down. By this I mean that many children’s books that I've read have easy, simple texts that are predictable enough to allow me to scan through quickly and understand the narrative just fine. But William Stafford’s The Animal That Drank up Sound is different. Maybe it’s because this book—like many of the children’s books that will soon be reviewed here on Wordplay—are written by poets. And, in turn, the phrasing is original, unexpected, and complex.
When the story opens, I’m struck with the driving force right away: “One day across the lake where echoes come now an animal that needed sound came down.” So I now know that there’s a mysterious animal that needs sound. And I think: okay, how is he going to get this sound? So I read on: “He drained the rustle from the leaves…and folded a quilt over the rocks…he buried--thousands of autumns deep--the noise that used to come there.” What I love about the language here are the verbs. This animal didn’t just “get” sound from doing x, y, and z, he drained and folded and buried the sound. How else did he retrieve sound? Like the title implies, he “began to drink the sound out of all the valleys—the croak of toads, and all the little shiny noises grass blades make.” The narrative plays with the sense of sound, and how one could potentially manipulate it. Stafford expanded my notion of sound and how I typically describe it. When talking about sound, I usually say: “I hear this sound…I hear that sound,” as I’d imagine most of us do. A poet, though, looks at sound differently. A poet challenges us to taste sound, to smell sound, to touch sound, and to see sound. And that’s exactly what Stafford does in this story.
The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit
by Sylvia Plath
Illustrated by Rotraut Susanne Berner
St. Martin’s Press, 1996
In the little town of Winkelburg, where the mountains are all capped with scoops of vanilla and where the tables are always set with tarts, Max Nix wakes each morning and wishes he had a suit. A suit to wear proudly before the grocer and the goodwives. A suit to call his own. A suit to be admired by the minister and the mayor, the tinker, and even the tailor. Such is the great dilemma for this book’s Max Nix—a seven-year-old Robin Hood look-alike and the youngest of seven sons. Like many children’s books, the premise is a simple one; however, the book’s creator is anything but.
Sylvia Plath has been getting a lot of attention these days. But, as too often is the case, it’s more about the shadows than the light—the years of mental anguish and depression, followed by her dramatic suicide at age 30. For the average kid growing up now, it’s hard to think of Plath in any way that doesn’t involve an oven. But a couple of new-ish books are attempting to change all that. The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit presents a more carefree Plath; the manuscript was discovered in the years after her death, and it was first published in 1996. Another book comes from Elizabeth Winder; it’s a bit of nonfiction called Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, 1953 (Harper Collins, 2013).
My mom is reading Winder’s book right now, and she has spent the better part of her days off lately curled up in a yellow chair, reading about young Sylvia trying to make it in the Greatest Winkelburg of all – New York City. Winder’s angle is to provide a window into Plath’s life in a very specific way, by focusing on a single summer she spent with twenty other young women, serving as guest editors for Mademoiselle. This is the time in Plath’s life that would come to be loosely represented in her novel The Bell Jar—a heady cocktail of late nights and literati, a time where she would feel great insecurity in her own skin.