Rachel Lanik Whelan (Choral Music): tide & moon

Rachel Lanik Whelan (Choral Music): tide & moon

Using the evocative, lyrical poetry of P. L. Thomas (b. 1961), this work for unaccompanied choir aptly describes the ebb and flow of relationships. The text suggests devotion and togetherness, demonstrated in close harmonies between the voices. I’ve repeatedly been captivated by this poet’s ability to encompass such a variety of experiences and emotions in such direct language. This setting intends to capture the cyclical, circular movement of crashing waves, rippling tides, and stoic, measured moons.

Performed by the CCHS Treble Choir and Kaskaskia College Concert Choir, conducted by Mr. Eric Chrostoski, St. John’s UCC, Breese, IL, March 18, 2019.

tide & moon (2013)
P. L Thomas

i am your tide
& you are my moon

you pull the rhythm of me
& guide me through darkness

i am faithful in my motion
ceaseless as an elliptical orbit

we are water reflecting sky
incomplete each without the other

i will carry your water dear
if you will again swim in my sea

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On Poetry, Grief, and Depression

I won’t need any help to be lonely when you leave me
It’ll be easy to cover, gather my skeletons far inside

“Slipped,” The National

The week leading up to April 1 and the start of National Poetry Month afforded me one of my most cherished elements of my Being: My Poet-Self was invited to speak to two local high school classes and a poem of mine, “the philosophy of gerunds (my mother is dying),” was published in the March 2019 issue of English Journal.

My drive into work is almost an hour, so today I began thinking about this blog post, and as part of my driving/prewriting, I listened to a few songs by The National—crying during both “Pink Rabbits” and “You Had Your Soul With You.”

There are song lyrics that break my heart no matter how often I hear them, and then, there are simply moments when my heart overfills and the results slip from my eyes.

As I was talking with high school students about how I came to realize I am a poet and how I write poetry, I once again heard myself tell a story I have told often, an explanation I have teased out for other people many, many time.

One day in the spring of my first year of college, I wrote a poem, mostly inspired by a speech class where the professor introduced us to e.e. cummings’s poetry. This act of mine was a sudden compulsion, not so much a choice.

And it was then I knew I was a poet, and despite working hard to be a writer throughout my 20s, completing one full novel draft and dozens of short stories and poems, I published very little—never finding any publisher interested in the novel—and eventually resigned myself to never being that kind of writer.

Moving to higher education in my early 40s, however, opened a different door to being a writer. I have had a very rich and full life publishing since then, mostly academic writing along with becoming a dedicated blogger. For this, I am very thankful.

Throughout this journey as a writer, the one constant has been writing poetry—regardless of the possibility for publishing.

My scholarly writing and blogging have very distinct differences from that poetry, however.

Poetry, you see, simply comes to me; I cannot beckon it, and I cannot write poetry on demand. Often poems come when there are new music albums to listen to or novels to read. My word lives cross-pollinate.

Whether I am drawn to a popular band, such as The National or R.E.M., or a novelist, such as Haruki Murakami or Han Kang, and when those poems come to me, I am deeply aware of another powerful presence—grief and depression.

As a writer, I suffer what I have found to be a common feeling among writers; once a piece is finished, I fear I will never write another, that the well has gone suddenly dry.

As a music lover and reader, I often feel deeply depressed after a new album finally is released and when I come to the end of a novel; what if this beautiful experience never comes my way again?

The poem published recently by English Journal linked above was originally scheduled for the January issue, but when that journal was released, my heart sank when my poem was not included. The editors were quick to note that the poem had been moved, and I had just not been notified.

It seems fitting, then, for the poem to come to me at the beginning of National Poetry Month because poetry remains something of my heart and my intellect. When I shared the poem with my department, several of my colleagues replied kindly, a couple even moved to tears.

When I reread this piece, I too feel the urge of my tears returning.

It was the summer of 2017 when my mother was discovered in the floor unconscious, having suffered, we learned later that day, a stroke. Just two weeks later, my father died having been moved to share a room with my mother in a high-care facility.

After his death, I spent some of most every day visiting my mother, who moved to another facility and suffered a series of problems with her health. The worst being diagnosed with stage 4 kung cancer, which took her life by early December of that year.

Over those six months and after, I have written poems and blogs trying to understand the grief and depression of watching my parents die, in many ways quite badly. I may as well be seeking as the British Romantic poets argued a way to render my parents immutable through art.

As I contemplate poetry, and try always to explain to others or understand myself the sources of my urge to create poetry, I wonder about the place of grief and depression in art more broadly.

My life is often rich with joy and happiness, but I am not sure that compels me to art as the moments of grief and depression. I am certain that sadness in other people’s art, like the darkness that runs through songs by The National, do not make me sad but offer comfort, even as I drive down the highway sobbing.

Moments of grief, I think, are small celebrations and recognitions of the joy that is life, an awareness that life and its joys are fleeting so we better pay attention.

We can reach out and touch it, even hold on, but we cannot stop it from moving toward the inevitable.

Watching my mother die, sitting beside her while knowing I could do nothing really to change the trajectory of her dying, was just as much about me or anyone living—I realized.

And was driven to words.

To me, living and dying are the very human of being human, but so are words. We have less control of our living and dying than we would like, I think, but some times we have such great control of our words, of language.

Few things are more marvelous than a human creating words in a way that drives other people’s heart to full. And it wells up inside of us pushing free through our eyes.

I reread my poem in print and see through the blurring of tears that I am a truly inadequate son. I am fully human.

Investigating Purposeful Writing: From Poetry to Essay

One of the first activities I share with my first-year writing students is a writing exercise based on Sandra Cisneros’s “A House of My Own,” a chapter from her The House on Mango Street.

A key lesson I am reaching for involves recognizing that each sentence in this chapter is a grammatical fragment. It is here that I introduce my students to the problems they have faced in being taught rules (that fragments are errors and should be avoided in their writing) instead of being guided into purposeful language.

The difference, I explain, between Cisneros’s fragments and most of the ones they have included in their writing for school is that Cisneros constructed these with purpose—and the students likely were completely unaware of the fragments, and thus had no real purpose for them in the writing.

Purposeful writing is an overarching goal in my writing instruction—notably focusing on the craft of word choice and sentence formation as they drive tone. Most novice writers are composing carelessly. The result is that the reader couldn’t care less about the product.

As I have examined before, poetry is an ideal text for helping students grow as essayists.

Here I want to walk through January Gill O’Neil’s “The Blower of Leaves” as a model of purposeful writing.

For poets, the economy of language often required by poetry drives well the need to labor with purpose over word choice and sentence formation (although I often have to stress to misinformed students that poetry is almost entirely driven by complete sentences, even as they carry over for more than one line).

As I anticipated, discussing O’Neil’s poem spurred students to notice a variety of effective examples of purposeful writing.

We highlighted the powerful use of “fall”—signaling both the season and the motion. Here I stress that writers often look for layers of meaning carried in the fewest words possible (the power of concision) as well as reaching for ambiguity (this contrasts with most students believing writing is mostly about making grand certain statements).

The poem draws together simple yard work (and we also noted the effectiveness of the accessibility of language throughout the poem) with a grounded but ambiguous condition: “the hard work/of yard work made harder without you.”

Readers know someone is missing—but not the who, why, or how. That phrasing (repeating “work”) emphasizes a key element of the poem (possibly what we would call its meaning) through repetition, which in this case is a bit clunky, possibly jarring the reader.

I emphasize here that students often come to first-year writing having been cautioned against repetition. But the lesson they have learned is mechanical and works against purposeful writing that seeks key works to repeat for effect. “Hard work”/”yard work” comes not from a careless and lazy writer, but embraces the sound devices common in poetry in order to make the central message cohesive with the literal scene.

Here we may be drawn to discuss emotional labor, in fact, but not because it is explicitly stated—the emotional labor of loss.

Sound, I note moving them back to the beginning, gives the poem cohesion throughout—sound as that is combined with the visual:

A million brilliant ambers twisting into

the thinning October sun, flooding my eyes
in a curtain of color.

The rhyme of “million/brilliant” that is not end rhyme, and then the series of words with double letters—”million,” “brilliant,” “thinning,” and “flooding.”

In some ways, poets play word games, but rarely are they games for games’ sake; in other words, these games lend cohesion through patterns. Patterns, we must recognize, create meaning.

O’Neil’s poem is also driven by imagery, concrete language and details. Augmenting the concrete nature of the discourse is the use of analogy (and personification), a powerful but dangerous strategy in purposeful writing.

“My yard is their landing strip,” “the stiff kiss of acorns puckers the ground,” “the gaping mouths of lawn bags/with their remains,” and the final line, “Dependable as a season”—the comparisons, we examine, help emphasize the concrete—becoming more vivid—but those comparisons must also resonate accurately. In other words, purposeful writing does not make analogies simply to make comparisons; they must be true and then must elevate the ideas being addressed as well as working with the tone established.

This poem raises a complicated aspect of purposeful writing, however, since it demonstrates the effectiveness of specific and concrete details along with craft (comparison, personification, rhyme, etc.) in order to create an ambiguous message.

Readers are compelled to believe the speaker of the poem has experienced loss, and that speaker’s hurt over the loss is somehow triggered by doing lawn work. Yet, we cannot be certain of the who, why, and how—although those details help nudge us in some credible directions.

Maybe the speaker has been left by a lover, or maybe someone close has died?

“Forgive” and “forgiveness” sit near “refuse,” “dying clover,” and “weeds.” Readers may be drawn to reading “leaves” darkly (a double meaning as with “fall”), yet the reader is also left with only informed speculation.

“Nothing is ever easy or true” may serve as a ironic line against the poem’s ambiguity, but the poem becomes effective and compelling because of the power of purposeful writing—moves students can make their own as they grow in the writing of essays.

Barbara Kingsolver’s “Justicia” and “Refuge”

“I wasn’t prepared for the knowledge of what one nation will do to another,” Barbara Kingsolver explains near the end of the Introduction to her poetry collection, Another America/Otra America, continuing:

But knowledge arrived regardless. I saw that every American proverb has two sides, can be told in two languages; that injustice does not disappear when you look away, but seeps in at the back of the neck to poison your soul. The unspeakable things can be survived, and sometimes there is joy on the other side. (pp. xvii-xix)

And so Kingsolver presents a collection of poems, each translated into Spanish by Rebeca Cartes, written over many years and finally published in 1998.

“My way of finding a place in the world is to write one,” Kingsolver concludes. “But when I want to howl and cry and laugh all at once, I’ll raise up a poem against the darkness. This is my testament to two Americas, and the places I’ve found, or made, or dreamed in between” (p. xix).

This idea of two Americas grounded in culture and language, poems now two decades old and well before the rise of Trump’s America, offers a way to navigate what seems to be contradictory claims: Trump’s politics represent enduring ideologies and patterns that in fact reveal who America is while also confronting the nation and the world with a unique bravado and crassness that deserves an equally resolute response.

“Justicia” and “Refuge” speak to historical problems with the American character and current tensions inflamed by Trump’s rhetoric and policies.

“The feral incantations of our dreams” begins “Justicia,” a title evoking “justice” but also (possibly) the flower of that name. Nature is always prominent in Kingsolver, and this poem is grounded in the lone wolf (given a human pronoun):

His orange pain becomes a desert sunset.
His hunger perceives the scent of blood
on the wind,

the sleep of sheltered animals,
everything
but borders.

Kingsolver investigates civilization (“borders”) and the wild, the wilderness (“feral”), a paradoxical tension in which it is the wild that is framed as violent and dangerous but that is often sacrificed.

Next, Kingsolver turns to the politics of race and geography:

The television says McAllen, Texas,
is closer to Managua than to Washington, D.C.,
and housewives in McAllen

check their own
possibly Bolshevik eyes in the mirror
and lock the windows.

The poem ends with a crescendo of “peaceful,” “liberty,” and “justice” building to “the wolf deserves a meal.”

Reading “Justicia” in 2018, in the wake of Trump’s incessant demonizing of Mexicans and invoking images of immigrants as “animals,” I am compelled to suggest Kingsolver is offering a powerful exploration of racism and nationalism folded into the image of the lone wolf reappropriated as a sympathetic symbol of the dignity all living creatures deserve.

Quoted in full in Feroza Jussawalla’s “Cultural Rights Theory: A View from the U.S.-Mexican Border,” “Refuge” fits equally as well into the state of mangled U.S. politics under Trump.

Kingsolver dedicates the poem “[f]or Juana, raped by immigration officers and deported”—replayed with an awful intensity during the current debate about separating children from parents seeking political asylum and reports of children being sexually assaulted by immigration officials.

“Give me your hand,/He will tell you”—the opening inviting tone triggers for me Adrienne Rich’s equally disturbing interrogation of how the criminal justice system subjects victims of rape to a second assault in her “Rape”: “There is a cop who is both prowler and father.”

“[B]arbed wire,” “desert,” and “hunger” create next an oppressive tone, building to “I will/take your hand./Take it” and then:

First
He will spread it
Fingers from palm
To look inside,
See it offers nothing.
Then
With a sharp blade
Sever it.

Again paralleling Rich’s poem, the language is both violent and sexual, dehumanizing and invasive.

The final stanza is disturbing in its simplicity detailing the officer keeping the severed hand as a token of “the great/desirability/of my country.”

In these two poems, civilization—specifically America—is the rapacious aggressor, the taker that objectifies the weak, as Others, foreign, less than. This is the America that is contrasted with the America claimed.

Kingsolver’s poetic recreation of two Americas, another America, resonates in awful ways that should turn our stomachs, that may prompt us to turn our eyes.

“Another America” confronts us as not the America we claim to be; “another America” challenges us to become the ideal we have yet to achieve—a people devoted to human dignity, to enduring values such as each child is everyone’s child, such as there are no strangers, such as anything we have we will halve and share.

In her poems, essays, and fiction, Kingsolver implores us to be our better selves. I wonder if that is a dream also, an ideal, something we simply are not capable of being.