While waiting for an MRI on my left wrist at Upstate University Hospital, as a follow up for my rheumatoid arthritis, I spotted a cheap Van Gogh print hanging on a wall directly opposite from me. The image displayed was Vincent’s Irises (1889), and the text read:
Van Gogh in Saint-Remy and Auvers
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
November 25, 1986-March 22, 1987
Inside the small waiting room, on a wall-mounted TV set, local broadcasters recited the morning headlines and a meteorologist gave the weekend forecast. I paid little attention, instead choosing to focus my eyes on the Van Gogh painting. From far across the room, and taking my weak eyesight into consideration, the slanted vertical green leaves looked like snakes writhing in the dirt; even so, the longer I stared at the image, the calmer I felt. The one word that came to my mind was placid.
I don’t meditate, but I have discovered that good art, like classical music, has a way of centering my thoughts and ushering a sense of peace in difficult and stressful situations. And even a minor MRI can start the brain working on all of the “what if,” worst-case scenarios. So I was thankful that Vincent spent a little time with me in the hospital waiting room before my procedure.
Here’s a better image of the painting.
And after I left the hospital, inspired by Vincent, I captured my own “still life” image.
While perusing for books in the library, I spotted a large volume entitled The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. In the few moments I took to scan the 700-plus-page book, I felt like I peered into the troubled soul of the confessional poet and author of the novel The Bell Jar. Plath struggled with depression much of her life and committed suicide in 1963.
The intensity of the language in one of the passages from a section dated 22 November 1955 – 18 April 1956 captivated me, and I thought if you rearranged the sentences in verse form, they would construct a splendid poem. I had no sense of context from where Plath’s agitated emotions sprang, and standing in the library stacks, I felt a great sense of loss about Plath’s life and sadness that she took her unique voice with her to the grave.
Here’s an image of the passage I read:
Plath, Sylvia. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000.
I recently spotted this scrap of legal pad paper on the ground in the parking lot of a medical complex in Liverpool.
When I picked it up, I read a list of items needed for a kids’ party. Some of things jotted down included: hot dogs, water, sunscreen, juice box, ice cooler and plastic spoons and forks. There was also a reference to yard games, e.g. potato sack races.
On the flip side of the paper were the following notes: “order sheet pizza, order cup cake cake. Emoji. Approx 15 kids. Adults?”
I love stumbling upon these little notes because I feel like I get a glimpse into the person making up the list. Also, I know that if I were planning a party for 15 kids, I would do the exact same thing—make up a detailed “To Do” list. I was curious, however, about the absence of a “bouncy house” on the list.
I recently stumbled upon a short collection of poems by D.H. Lawrence when I went to Syracuse University’s Bird Library to borrow his famous novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Amid the works penned by Lawrence, I found the slim volume of verse and pulled it off the shelf.
I thought the worn book might disintegrate as I held it in my hands and turned the pages, and with an original copyright of 1918, its title amused me: New Poems by D.H. Lawrence. The last stamp on the checkout slip is dated December of 1999, so it appears no one else has picked up the book in nearly 20 years.
Lawrence’s poems display sophisticated language with an “Old English” quality to them, and as I read the book, I had to stop several times to write down words that I would later look up on Dictionary.com. Many of the poems were short and possessed a timelessness, as they focused on nature and emotions, which cannot be bracketed by date or era.
Here are a few selections I liked:
I, the man with the red scarf,
Will give thee what I have, this last week’s earnings.
Take them, and buy thee a silver ring
And wed me, to ease my yearnings.
For the rest, when thou art wedded
I’ll wet my brow for thee
With sweat, I’ll enter a house for thy sake,
Thou shalt shut doors on me.
Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.
In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.
These final two poems are ideal for summer reading, and I needed to look up the definitions of the two “p” words that stand out in the verses—primula and palimpsest. According to Dictionary.com, primula is a primrose, while palimpsest is a noun, meaning “a parchment or the like from which writing has been partially or completely erased to make room for another text.” The reference to twilight as a palimpsest suggests night overtaking day.
WHEN I woke, the lake-lights were quivering on the wall,
The sunshine swam in a shoal across and across,
And a hairy, big bee hung over the primulas
In the window, his body black fur, and the sound of him cross.
There was something I ought to remember: and yet
I did not remember. Why should I? The running lights
And the airy primulas, oblivious
Of the impending bee—they were fair enough sights.
Palimpsest of Twilight
Darkness comes out of the earth
And swallows dip into the pallor of the west;
From the hay comes the clamour of children’s mirth;
Wanes the old palimpsest.
The night-stock oozes scent,
And a moon-blue moth goes flittering by:
All that the worldly day has meant
Wastes like a lie.
The children have forsaken their play;
A single star in a veil of light
Glimmers: litter of day
Is gone from sight.
Lawrence, D.H. (David Herbert), New Poems. London: Martin Seeker, 1918.
One of my poems, Black Trees, was recently published in Issue #5, The Poetry Issue, of Spirit’sTincture, a literary magazine that publishes speculative fiction and poetry. Here it is:
The limbs of the black trees
cradle the roadkill porcupine
splattered against the asphalt.
The leaves of the black trees
whisper to the deceased animal,
telling it: “With the spring rain
your bones, blood, and quills
will flush into the soil
and fertilize our roots.
Your death sustains our life.”
But the porcupine
is long gone from this earth,
snuffed out by a texter or tweeter who
failed to notice it crossing the street.
And the black trees stand erect
as a storm roils in the distant.
They remain impassive,
aware the forces of nature
could target them next—
uprooting their trunks,
shearing their branches.
And the black trees know
they could soon occupy
the same ground
the dead porcupine rests upon.
In celebration of Saturday’s 143rd running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland, I thought I would offer a horse racing-themed poem inspired by Charles Bukowski and his penchant for betting on the ponies.
Hanging with Bukowski
I wish I could spend an afternoon
with Charles Bukowski—
drive out to Santa Anita,
watch the horses parade in the paddock,
then head up to the grandstand and
compare theories about breeding,
jockeys, trainers, and finishing times.
But I know he wouldn’t share
any betting tips with me.
I’d ask him: “Hey, who do you like in the fourth race?”
And I can hear him say,
“Screw you man, figure it out for yourself.
I don’t have the answers for you.”
But maybe if I hung around long enough—
if I bought him a hot dog
and a few draft beers,
his tongue would loosen
and his disposition turn.
He’d let me stick around,
and I’d get to see him composing a poem,
scribbling notes in the margins
of the Daily Racing Form,
flashes of images preserved,
like the glistening muscles of the horses,
or the curves of a tan woman
wearing an orange sundress
and standing along the rail.
Maybe after the last race
we’d go out to a bar
and have a couple of drinks,
maybe meet some women
and take them back to his place.
He’d fry some eggs or make sandwiches,
and we’d drink some more,
while listening to
Mozart or Beethoven on the radio.
This is how I imagine
I would spend the day with Bukowski.
But since the social interaction is not possible,
I will seek out Bukowski
in the pages of his books.
There I will discover the writer
who rises above the legend.
The odd jobs and shabby apartments,
the drinking, gambling, profanity, and women—
they entice readers, draw them in
like a trailer for a summer blockbuster.
But once there, you’re hooked by the stories,
the prose and poetry of a man who
sacrificed everything to express his art.
And what he had inside
is now stored for us to review,
volumes upon volumes
in any public library.
I will keep reading,
cracking open Bukowski books,
and saying “hello” to my friend.
And maybe I’ll spot his ghost
the next time I go to the track.
I may even place an exacta bet on his behalf.
But he would probably complain
about the horses I’d pick.
“Jesus, you wasted six bucks on those nags,”
he would say.
“You don’t know your ass
from a hole in the ground.
Next time don’t do me any favors.
Stay home if you’re gonna blow money like that.”
When I headed to my office Thursday morning to go to work, I noticed several small envelopes scattered throughout the Food.com cafeteria area inside the Newhouse Three building. All of the cards read something like, “Open Me! A letter for you.”
No one was around and so I decided to open one. I found a card inside that had a gold design with word “Wassssssup?” written on the front. Inside, this greeting appeared, written with a blue marker:
give up, there
is no such thing
as an ending
just a new
A small slip of paper tucked inside the card listed the social media accounts of Campus Cursive at Syracuse University, the SU branch of the national More Love Letters program, “lifting and empowering individuals through tangible acts of love.”
The idea of anonymous letters given to strangers is so appealing to me. Someone I’ve never met actually took the time to purchase a card, write a warm greeting, stuff the card in the envelope and then place it in a location where it would be discovered.
I loved the feel of the heavy paper and the handwritten words on the page, and this random, tangible act of kindness is so much more meaningful than a Facebook “like” or a text message. It demonstrates the positive impact of real human connection, and I am happy to know that a bunch of merry well-wishers are spreading joy and love in the universe. No doubt our world needs it!
I just wanted to share that I have a short patient essay published on the website of The Pituitary Foundation. It’s part of a coming-of-age memoir in progress. You can read the piecehere. Thanks for taking a look. I am still working to shape the messy memoir into a very bad first draft.
Do the dead still have voices? That’s the question I asked myself on Saturday night as I left the Onondaga County War Memorial after game two of the Syracuse Crunch-Rochester Americans Calder Cup playoff series. The Crunch won 6-5 to take a 2-0 series lead.
The question about death was incited by a solitary moment I experienced early in the game. With about five minutes left in the first period, I left my seat in section 19 to beat the rush to the concession stand. I bought a coffee, a bottled water and an order of chicken tenders and then wandered through the concourse until I stepped into Memorial Hall, the grand space that honors the brave men and women from Onondaga County who gave their lives in battle.
I let my eyes wander around the room. Sunlight streamed through high windows and a row of American flags lined one side of the hall. There were two huge murals on opposite walls (painted by G. Lee Trimm) and bronze tablets with the names of those who died in the line of duty. The mural closest to me displayed figures dressed in World War I uniforms who appeared to be scaling what looked like a large block of white granite.
In the bottom left corner of the painting a man stood with his right arm raised, an American flag sweeping down near him, and the words to the poem “In Flanders Field,” written by John McCrae, inscribed over the man’s torso.
According to PoemHunter.com, McCrae was a Canadian poet, physician, author, artist and soldier during World War I.
I read the poem and the words struck me.
In Flanders Field
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
(John McCrae, 1915)
The poem made me aware of the transitory nature of existence and gave me the sense that death looms even in a place like a hockey arena bubbling with life—with kids screaming, loud music blaring, and fans chugging beer and yelling until their throats become hoarse.
It goes beyond honoring deceased veterans; the poem should make us all feel grateful for the time on earth we’ve been granted, for the opportunities we’ve been given and for the people we love and who love us back. But I think McCrae is also telling us we will all face our Flanders Field in one form or another, and so we had better enjoy living while we can.
For me, living meant savoring four of my favorite things intersecting in one place and at one time—art, poetry, coffee and hockey. And that’s not a bad way to spend a Saturday night.
The calendar may say April but Old Man Winter is still holding on in central New York, refusing to step aside and let spring take over the scene. So while temps fail to crack 50—at least for now—I will offer a fictional, cold weather-themed poem from my latest collection.
The woman in 309B rolls over on her side.
She reaches across the bed,
seeking the warmth of her lover’s body.
But no one is there.
And she remembers sending her man away.
She recalls a conversation filled with words
like freedom, space, and separation.
At this hour, though, she would trade them in
for flesh in her bed,
the presence of a person she no longer claims.
She can accept failed love, a relationship fizzling.
The end is not so awful
when examined with the passage of time.
She does not need the man.
She can excel on her own.
But with soft light entering her room,
and the radiator wheezing as it releases heat,
she realizes no remedy exists
for the empty feeling of being alone
in bed on a winter morning.
So she gets up,
makes a half-attempt to straighten the covers,
then goes out to the kitchen to fix a pot of coffee.
And the tasks of the day will help her
to shake off the loneliness, keep it at a distance,
until the following morning, when the yearning
for someone else nearby will return.
But let tomorrow take care of itself, she thinks.
She resigns to stop wasting time
on these cold mornings, replaying her regrets,
and bemoaning the absence of a man in her bed.
I also wanted to mention that poet Elinor Cramer, author Jo Lynn Stresing and I will be reading from our recent books on Friday, May 4, at 7 p.m. at the YMCA’s Downtown Writers Center in Syracuse. The DWC is located at 340 Montgomery Street and you can find out more information at its website.