Poems to Spur Reflection

While searching for some novels at Bird Library recently, I discovered a poetry collection by an author whose work I would like to share. David Ignatow’s Living Is What I Wanted: Last Poems (BOA Editions, Ltd. 1999) drew me in with its short poems, spare language and universal themes of family, advancing age and death.

I was also attracted to the small, black and white author photo to the right of the title; with his white hair, glasses and mustache, I felt an immediate affinity for David Ignatow. He seemed like a great uncle who would serve you lemonade on the porch of his house in the summer while discussing his crop of tomato plants.

The publisher’s note in the back of the book indicated Ignatow wrote most of the poems in the collection in 1996, a year before his death at age 83. He was born in 1914, raised in Brooklyn and passed away at his home in East Hampton, New York, on November 17, 1997. He wrote several poetry collections, served as a poetry editor and professor and earned numerous honors, including two Guggenheim fellowships, the Robert Frost Award and the William Carlos Williams Award.

In Living Is What I Wanted, Ignatow reflects on his life and presents truths accessible to any reader; you don’t need an MFA in creative writing or a Ph.D. in English literature to understand or appreciate these poems. The most prominent subject is death, which seems to hover like the figure in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal; yet Ignatow does not run from death, but rather greets it head on, accepting the inevitable.   

Here are a few selections from the book:

Staying alive

Reason for living.
I don’t have any.

What is your reason for not having a reason?
Is there a difference?

Are you that sour on life?
Can I separate one from the other?

What is your strategy for staying alive?
Isn’t being oneself enough?

Is it worth living without a reason?
Do I have a say in the matter?

Would you prefer not to have been born?
Did I have a mind of my own then?

Would you rather be dead now?
Do I have a choice?

Then you are opposed to suicide?
Isn’t living hard enough?

Then to live is to be brave and on the move.
Are you telling me?

What would you recommend for others?
Can’t they make up their own minds?

Then you should be congratulated.
Have I said something exceptional?

All living is lying

All living is lying:
we are unable to say what this life is.
We speak about it in metaphors
as if it could be other
than what it is, and even of ourselves
we say we are like this or like that.

Patient we wait
so that
once dead
we’ll know perhaps just who we were,
with others thinking back on us.

Where I built my house

Does being born matter
now that I am leaving it behind? Where
is a world I can go to
other than this ground
on which I walk and where I built my house?

Am I complaining of the shortness of life?
I am, and that makes me much like everyone else.
Follow Adam, the leader, into the ground.

Into the circle

To my friends I am in good health
and voluble, but I have moved
into the circle, after many years
in sun and shadow, having walked
as does a sightseer, in no fixed direction.

Into the circle I stand looking back
on that life. I cannot leave
nor seem to want to. As though programmed
I look out in an act of living.

Presence in an empty room

I must accept aches and pains of the body
if I am to accept
my presence in the empty room,
with no motive for being
in an empty room, and so
with no motive for being. If
I can accept aches and pains,
I exist.

Ignatow, David. Living Is What I Wanted: Last Poems (American Poets Continuum). Rochester, New York: BOA Editions, Ltd., 1999.

Winter Survival Revisited

I wrote this poem about a year ago, and thought I would re-post it in light of the fact we are in the grips of a polar vortex and with Groundhog Day set for this weekend. Let’s hope February will be warmer with less snowfall than January. But I wouldn’t count on it, at least in Central New York.

How to Survive Winter in Syracuse

The only way to survive
a Syracuse winter
is to think of the snow
as a friend and not a foe.
When you scrape the ice
crusted on your windshield
and the snow clogs the streets,
when your tires spin,
or your car veers off the road—
regarding the snow
as a friend and not a foe
will help you to endure the season.
Even when the snow lashes
your face as it blows sideways,
or frozen clumps melt inside your boots,
making your feet cold and damp,
you must remember to
view the snow as a friend instead of a foe.
And what a friend … a friend that keeps on
giving and giving and giving
six months out of the year.
To which I say:
thank you my dear friend,
but I don’t need your generosity.

Unsung Christmas Song

Leave it to legend Roy Orbison to shatter the festive mood of the holiday season.

John Hercock/Central Press/Getty Images

While listening to the “Holiday Favorites” station on Amazon Music, I heard Orbison’s “Pretty Paper” sandwiched somewhere between “Jingle Bell Rock” and Burl Ives’ “Holly Jolly Christmas.”

The song packs a narrative punch in just two minutes and forty-five seconds, as it tells the story of a lonely man on a sidewalk ignored by Christmas shoppers. Sadness prevails in the lyrics and the vulnerability expressed in Orbison’s voice and in the backup vocals draws us into the story, putting the listener on the busy street with the other passersby. I asked myself: Would I pay stop and say “hello” to the man? Would I even bother to notice him?

It’s also worth mentioning that Orbison did not write the lyrics. According to Wikipedia, Willie Nelson wrote “Pretty Paper” in 1963.

Photo by Jeffery Washington, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The line that devastates me is, “And in the midst of the laughter he cries …”

The full lyrics follow. And I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Pretty Paper
Willie Nelson

Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue
Wrap your presents to your darling from you
Pretty pencils to write I love you
Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue
Crowded street, busy feet, hustle by him
Downtown shoppers, Christmas is nigh
There he sits all alone on the sidewalk
Hoping that you won’t pass him by
Should you stop? Better not, much too busy
You’re in a hurry, my how time does fly
In the distance the ringing of laughter
And in the midst of the laughter he cries
Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue
Wrap your presents to your darling from you
Pretty pencils to write I love you
Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue.

Songwriters: Willie Nelson
Pretty Paper lyrics © Roy Orbison Music Company, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Happy Thanksgiving: Italian Style

I wanted to share a recent Thanksgiving tradition in our family. During Thanksgiving week, my wife, Pamela, and I make Italian pizzelles—both anisette and chocolate flavored—according to the recipe of my late mother, Carmella DeCosty Ruane. This simple Italian cookie pairs well with a cup of coffee; it’s also one of the few things I can make from scratch, along with pasta fagioli (fazool), lentil soup with ditalini pasta (box version) and marinara sauce (pronounced madinad in Rome, New York). The pizzelle tradition is even more meaningful as this time of year always reminds me of my mother, since she passed away seven years ago on Nov. 22, 2011.

You will need a pizzelle maker in order to cook up a batch of your own.  Here’s a snapshot of our final product:

Chocolate and anisette flavored pizzelles.

And here are the instructions from Carmella’s original recipe, with some slight modification by Pamela and me:

Italian Pizzelles

3 Eggs
1 Tsp. Anise Flavoring
1 Tbsp. Vanilla Flavoring
2 Tsp. Baking Powder
2 Cups Flour
½ Cup of Butter or Margarine, melted
1 Cup Sugar

Beat eggs and sugar. Add cooled melted butter or margarine, and vanilla and anise. Sift flour and baking powder and add to egg mixture. Batter will be stiff enough to be dropped by teaspoon. Makes 30 Pizzelles.

Before the first pizzelles of the day only, use a pastry brush to carefully coat the entire surface of the both halves of the pizzelle maker with vegetable oil or melted shortening. Spray shortenings work very well for this purpose. Do this only at the start of each day that you bake pizzelles. Wipe excess shortening off the grids. The first pizzelles may not come out well. These directions are for my pizzelle maker. Your pizzelle maker may not require you to do this.

Pick up about one heaping teaspoon of batter and place in the center of each grid pattern. With some experimenting, you will learn that placing the batter slightly behind the center (that is, away from you) can produce full-size pizzelles. You may also prefer to use half as much batter to produce smaller pizzelles with a snowflake border. Baking will take approximately 30 seconds depending on your preference for browning, or the consistency of your batter. Remove pizzelles with spatula and place on a flat tin. Once pizzelles are completely cool, put in a plastic container or a plastic bag so the pizzelles stay crisp.

Chocolate Pizzelles

Use 1 ¾ cups of flour (not 2 cups), add 3 heaping tablespoons cocoa and add 3 tablespoons sugar to the basic pizzelle recipe. If desired, you can substitute chocolate flavoring instead of the vanilla. Do not add anise flavoring.

Medical Magazine Message

Please forgive my terrible alliteration, but I couldn’t think of a more accurate headline.

While getting some blood work done at the Upstate University Hospital patient blood draw lab, I spotted this message written on the back of an issue of Upstate Health magazine (Winter 2018):

Dear Meadow,
I am so Glad
you have a friend
like reily (or reilly). I hope
you have fun tonight.
I Love You!
You deserve to have fun!

The message was dated Saturday, Sept. 22 and was written with a black Sharpie and adorned with two red ink hearts.

I hope Meadow had a fun weekend.

Hike: A Poem

Here’s a speculative poem that seems to fit an autumn theme.

Tree Canopy. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Hike

The trees are haunted with ten-thousand eyes,
hanging in the place where leaves should be—
the remains of those who came this way before,
but did not survive in the forest.

They study me as I hike along the path,
searching for an opening to the other side.
I grow weary and stop to rest.

And then ten-thousand eyes blink in unison.
It seems like a signal.
And as I look around,
buzzards and crows fly at me,
then peck away at the flesh.
I fall to the ground and
the birds snatch pieces of me
as they take off in flight.

When I wake up, the sun is shining
and my eyes are now hanging in a tree.
Another man is walking on the path.
I look down on him and
when he looks up at me,
I give him a wink and then close my eyes,
as the birds circle him and dive in to attack.

©2017 Francis DiClemente
(Sidewalk Stories, Kelsay Books)

Farewell Summer: A Poem

Here’s a short poem I wrote about the shift of seasons, as we transition from late summer to fall.

Wiki photo by Acidburn24m.

Farewell Summer (Apologies to Bradbury)

The death of summer—
sadness reigns
as the season wanes.
No more soft-serve
ice cream cones,
lakeside walks,
baseball games and
backyard cookouts.
Late August
blues ensue,
giving way to the
birth of autumn.
And you know
what comes next.
Mother Nature
pulls Old Man Winter
down from the attic,
sharpens his dentures
and deprives him of food—
until she’s ready
to set him loose
on the world again.

©2018 Francis DiClemente

 

My Mother’s Tupperware

My late mother’s handwriting. Black Sharpie marks on masking tape stuck to an old Tupperware container.

She wrote this out on August 30, 2011, less than three months before she died from lung cancer. I claimed the Tupperware from my stepfather’s house after her passing and never had the heart or the desire to peel off the tape.

This summer I cooked my mother’s zucchini and green bean stew with onions, Italian seasonings and crushed tomatoes. I don’t have a recipe of hers to follow, but I winged it and it came out edible. For the full effect you need to dunk fresh Italian bread in the juice.

And it was fitting to dump the leftovers in my mother’s Tupperware and stick the container in my freezer. Marking this date, I thought I would defrost the Tupperware today to honor my mother’s memory and enjoy the last zucchini stew of summer.

Yet when I pulled out the container from the freezer this morning, I saw another one, filled with the same stew I made, with my mother’s handwriting on masking tape (also dated 8/30/11), tucked in the back of the freezer. I think I’ll save that one for a frigid night in the middle of winter.