Are You Enjoying Spring?

You know it. Especially when the days fill with the flowers of my youth. Not the gasping-against-the-elements little bulb tulips that the hungry deer are waiting for. I like the wild, weedier, more indigenous flowers that blossom maybe from the selfsame plants of my youth, or their offspring. And are fragrant in a way that is missing in so many otherwise beautiful gardens. 

It’s the smells I like. Walking along and unawares, them surprising you. Slightly past now, the season of lilies of the valley, closely followed by lilacs, both of which formed the core of my May Mary bouquets. How pleased I’d be to plunk a bunch of them in front of the ceramic statue in my bedroom. Then the peonies, which I can never see or smell without remembering the ants crawling in and out of the blossoms around my grandmother’s foundation. And my grandmother. Next come the wild bridal wreath spirea…and their sweet, sweet breath.

Which will soon be gone. Because much as I love flowers, it’s their transitoriness that haunts me. Not exactly an original thought, this over-used trope in English poetry, and probably most other poetic traditions. The Bible got there first. Think of the Psalmist singing, the life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more (Psalm 103. 15-16). The brief bloom time of the most long-lived flower is, without a doubt, the perfect metaphor for any human life.

So when your dear, dear friend brings you a flowering plant on the same day she is sharing dire medical news, you know this is the season of watching and waiting. You don’t know how it will end, either her life or the necessary poem whose lines are thrumming in your head for months, until the day of her funeral. When saying goodbye, the assembled mourners take their leave and a flower to remember her by. Then you know, and it is not Thy will be done, o Lord

The resulting poem, “When Blooms Are Brief, and Friends, One Fewer,” has been published in the recent (2018) issue of Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry. After it was accepted, I asked the editor, Mary Ann Miller, if she thought the poem would be stronger if we removed the last stanza, which embodied the rookie last stanza error, hammering home the point of the poem in one loud summary statement. Yes, she agreed, let’s end on an image. So we did, and the poem is the better for it.

But I still want to shout out the last stanza for Lisa, and for everyone in my life, and everyone in your life, who has died too young.

To stand up on behalf
of the living and dead, bawl no, 
neit, não, nein, yo no tengo. No!

Have You Written Any Other Songs?

Now that you mention it, I have. “Sweet Baby Grand” and “Touch Dirt,” as detailed in the June 4, 2017 blog, were both collaborations with my singer-songwriter-instrumentalist brother Phil Casey. Both songs are available for download at several sites, including Amazon, Spotify, and iHeart radio. 

But a couple years ago, I was thrilled to discover that one of my poems, a straight-out lyric, was set to music in a song cycle with parts for soprano, flute, viola, harp and marimba. It has been performed in Boston, Glasgow, and elsewhere. 

Here is how that came about: A while ago, I had written “On Learning That My Daughter Was Pregnant,” in the aftermath of that startlingly wonderful event. I’m talking before the turn of this century! The poem appeared in the lovely Carquinez Poetry Review, which ceased publication in 2006, but in the meantime, was chosen by Beth Denisch, a contemporary composer at Berklee College of Music in Boston for use in her 17-poem lifecycle of women composition, One Blazing Glance. The title of the entire piece was taken from a line in my poem.

In addition to the thrill that my first grandson’s entry into the world was so celebrated, I found it especially meaningful to have written a lyric that called out to be sung and performed. As the name implies, in the ancient Greek tradition, a lyric poem was one intended to be accompanied by the lyre. 

And speaking of unusual stringed instruments, I collaborated with Phil on another song, "Double Luck," which is not yet available for download anywhere.

Demo Song on you tube "Cross Picking Demonstration on 3 string cigar box guitar.”

Demo Song on you tube "Cross Picking Demonstration on 3 string cigar box guitar.”

It is awaiting companion songs on a second album. However, if you are interested in listening to it, he sings and plays it as the demo song on his you tube video, “Cross Picking Demonstration on 3 string cigar box guitar.”

So, yes, I have written a few songs, very few, but their current whereabouts I’ve gathered into one spot, the Songs page on the drop-down menu. Songs are cool; they get sung again and again.

Do You Like Occasional Poetry?

Occasionally. Especially if it’s occasioned by an event of personal importance. And especially if it is set to music by my singer-songwriter-performer-master of guitar, mandolin, ukulele, harmonica, singing-strumming brother, Phil Casey. Also of Scuppernongaree fame. 

In 2014, our father’s life was coming to a close. On his last cogent weekend, my daughter was flying to Florida for a last goodbye when she got another long-awaited phone call. She had an invitation to meet with a birth mother to discuss adoption. What to do? No contest. My daughter cancelled her flight to visit her grandfather and met with the birth mother. As my father said, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. "

A time of great intensity, when the boundaries of the beyond seemed to lift. Tears and joy, no longer at odds. I wrote what I hoped would be a song to celebrate the upcoming birth of our new granddaughter, and my brother obliged by putting to music and performing what I think is one of the most beautiful songs ever written! An act of generosity for which I am profoundly grateful. 

“Sweet Baby Grand” became available as an MP3 download on Amazon today, our father’s birthday, link here and lyrics below. Another occasion, to note! It is part of his new album, The Tidewater Fishing Report, self-produced and performed, conceived and created. Many of the songs are rooted in local Virginia history where he and his family now live. Fun, fun, fun. I also wrote the lyrics, with some tweaking by Phil, for “Touch Dirt,” but at least, if you’re reading this, sample “Sweet Baby Grand.” 


SWEET BABY GRAND

By the grace, grace, grace of God
Our family’s turnin’ round and right   
Oh, Lord, she’s birthin’ in the cool twilight
And more than her delivery is surely at hand
Our baby, sweet baby grand  (repeat at end)

On Sunday, we’re soaring ever so high
On Monday, we flow to th’ sound of her cry
On Tuesday, her smile’s midsummer’s night
Come Wednesday, no doubt, our princess delight

CHORUS

By Thursday, high noon on mountain tops
We watch when she dances, spins, and then stops
Whoever saw coming, this amazin’ surprise  
 A balm for our hearts, a feast for our eyes.

CHORUS

Come Friday, we’re worried, a shadow falls
Out and about, will she come when we call?
There’s valleys and chasms and trouble out there.
Be safe, cherished girl-child, always our prayer.

CHORUS

On Saturday, what if she seems all grown,
We belong to each other, perm(a)nent loan.
Sweet baby’s remakin’ our world each day.  
Our sunshine and starlight, come what may

CHORUS

                    Maryanne Hannan c 2014

Sweet Baby Grand
Good Time Tunes Va

Who Said “Poetry Is about Grief?"

Probably half of all initiates who’ve taken up the poetic pen, but today we’ll give the credit to Robert Frost, who reportedly said in 1962, “poetry is about grief, and politics is about grievance.” Have the twain now met?, I’d like to ask him. But seriously, there is great satisfaction in a poem that takes raw grief and remakes it, however sausage-factory-like it is behind the scenes.

This past summer, a very dear friend passed away. Six months prior to that, we spent the day together, discussing her decision to continue chemotherapy, but to refuse a probably necessary stem cell transplant. She noticed a handwritten sign on my desk, “If justice be the law of the universe, Lord, I pray for mercy” and loved it. We shared an affinity for the quirky, and this prayer of snarky faithfulness, which I’d written in a moment of contained fury, seemed to resonate for her, in her precarious health situation. I wrote out another copy for her, on the spot, and a flicker of her future might have passed between us.  

She appears only glancingly in “Revelation.” How many times can I rail directly at loss? But she is at the heart of it, she who died at 61, still in her prime. I’m happy to say that this poem concluding with “our prayer” has just been published in The Windhover 21.1, 2017. “Revelation” affirms my belief, that no matter what happens in poetry, politics, in life itself, that Love is at the heart of all creation. 

I am grateful, once again, to Nate Hansen, editor of The Windhover, for choosing to publish this poem and for placing it between Paul Willis’ and Richard Spilman’s excellent poems, in meaningful conversation. That’s what good editors do, I guess, and as I’ve already written in this blog, Nate is doing great work. 

Privately, reading the poem again, I say, “This one’s for you, April! May you live always in the eternal heart of Love.”

How Was Christmas?

Wonderful, full of wonder. Wondered and full. My favorite time of year, even though all that fullness and wondering do get in the way of writing. But something writing-wonderful did happen, some personal righting. 

Probably my best poem, or my most prestigious publication, or the poem most publically available, or whatever metric I would use, celebrates my first husband: “To My Husband, Who 33 Years Ago Died at the Age of 33.” Published in print Rattle #41, Fall 2013, it became available on the Rattle site, with audio, on March 25, 2014, which was ironically the 32nd anniversary of my wedding to my second husband. 

Potentially awkward, unless you have a very understanding husband or a husband who isn’t big into poetry. Fortunately, my husband qualifies on both counts, although he graciously read and congratulated me on a publication which meant so much to me. The poem, as the title indicated, was written in one blessed burst, on the day in question, while I was grappling with the failure of memory to keep anyone, no matter how deeply loved, alive. The dead keep dying. 

The transition from committed-to-death-and-the-past widow to okay-I’ll-try-and-move-on was not an easy one for me. In fact, I don’t think I could ever have moved out of my determined exile from life, were it not for the dazzling light my current husband shone on it. And so I opened up to a wonderful new life. And the drama of that time, with our joint decision to throw our lots together, is etched deeply in my core. 

Of course, falling in love again might sound like the stuff of poetry, but trust me—it’s not. Unlike loss, death, loneliness, the failure of memory, all of which have an eager readership. But I tried. Over and over, trying to catch the magic of a time, when clearly, you had to be there to understand how miraculous it all was.

This Christmas, success. I was able to give my husband a copy of the beautiful Australian journal, Rabbit 19: a journal of non-fiction poetry, Prose Poem issue, containing the publication of my poem, “Romance by Number.” I am so grateful to have balance somewhat restored. 

With this poem’s publication or maybe even more compelling, as a result of the changed political landscape, I feel my long foray into personal poetry is ending. I/we’ve got to find our way into other arenas. Or not. Stay tuned.

 

Who’s Laughing Now?

I, for one. My poem, “Inter-Subjective Affect,” has been published in Oxford Poetry XVI.i. As in the Oxford University, Magdalen College, poetry journal. It doesn’t get much better than that, certainly not on these shores. I’ve had lightning strike three times in the UK, Stand Magazine and Magma, as well as this latest. All three poems share – what would you call it? – a poignant snideness. Am I British in my core?

Maybe. Biologically, through my father’s line; intellectually, by virtue of being educated as an English major in the ‘60s when American literature was an elective; and comedically, by means of suppression and survival. Anyhow, how much would I like to share the news of this victory with some forbearers? For instance, my grandmother and her father, John Reese, born in 1870 in Staffordshire, England, a bit more than 100 miles from Oxford. Or one hour and forty three minutes away, if I left now, according to Google. Assuming I was in one or the other place. 

At the age of fourteen, Great-Grandad arrived with his mother and siblings in New York, aboard the good ship Egypt, carrying a pair of Staffordshire dogs. Which my father admired so much as a “young lad” that he inherited them. As a young mother, I lived in terror that my kids would bump against one of them, positioned on the floor next to a bench in my parents’ foyer where we all kicked off our boots and shoes. My angst and acute regard for “the dogs” apparently impressed my daughter so much that she wanted nothing less than the dogs as a family heirloom. A shout-out, no, a standing ovation, to my brother Phil Casey of Scuppernongaree fame (Like them on Facebook) for agreeing to let the dogs bypass him and reside with my daughter and her family. 

Where we now puzzle over their significance. What did they mean to Great-Grandad? Maybe he was helping out his mother and had no interest in them. I doubt that because, according to my father, Great-Grandad took pride in claiming he carried them, as a young boy, and still honored them decades later. Maybe they represented to him a bit of home, having been manufactured locally in Staffordshire. Maybe considering them the most beautiful items he had ever seen, he commited early on to beauty. Think Aeneas, carrying his father along with the Lares and Penates out of burning Troy.

I remember Great-Grandad vividly, with no specifics. If that is possible. He died at 85. I was seven years old. My cousins remember him smoking a cigar. True, but I remember more his presence. If he had a touch of the British humor, he sure didn’t share it with me. Nor did my beloved Grandma. A gentle humor, quiet laughs, desire for the facts of the matter, commitment to family. And undoubtedly, a belief that simple objects could become invested with history and meaning. That some things were worth carrying into the unknown. Maybe even poems.

Staffordshire pottery dogs come from the many pottery companies located in the County of Staffordshire, England, which produced them to sell to working class families to decorate their homes. While they produced dog figures from 1720 to1900, the peak of interest and, therefore, production came towards the end of the 19th century. 

                Thank you, Great- Grandad!

                Thank you, Great- Grandad!

What Else Did I Say to Myself?

If you think this blog is nauseatingly self-referential, you’d be right. Nearly self-reverential. A shameless mind selfie!

What are we humans to do with all this feeling, all these emotions that we keep to ourselves, or share with the special few who have signed on with us for the long haul? “Too full of self” does not work in poetry. Nor does any emotion, served thick and visible to the naked eye. I’m willing to bet most of us are awash in emotion, what with one darn thing or another. And not always the noblest kind.  

Beyond the embargo on emotional excess, poems about life, death, love, faith, motherhood are nearly verboten in an ironic culture. Yet these are the poems I want to read and write, the subjects nearest and dearest to my heart. Those last few words would be tracked cliché! by any decent editor. I once had an editor tell me, “You can’t write that unless you’re Rumi.” I get the point, that what has already been said must be re-envisioned into a new-and-improved version of itself before it has merit, beyond personal satisfaction. Original: good. Sentimental: bad. Although maybe the pendulum is swinging again. The New Sincerity. All the post-post-ironies. 

In the meantime, I’m trying to render personal experiences and feeling/s on the big topics with words as perfectly suited as I can. Sometimes sentimental, sometimes ironic, whatever an individual poem demands and my personal skill set allows. A long way from Wordsworthian “emotion recollected in tranquillity,” but not less satisfying when All We Can Hold: Poems of Motherhood posted my poem, “Coming of Age in Lesbos,” on  its site  May 9, 2016. An anthology of the same name has just been published by Sage Hill Press. The poems on the website are not included in the anthology, although I was told by the editors that there may be a second volume. 

People want to read poems affirming and lamenting the trajectory of generations through time:  separation is good, it’s natural, it’s painful. At least I do. What epitomizes this necessary transition better than the coming of age of a daughter? And how nice to step back and contextualize any personal experience in the gorgeous-sounding words of Sappho’s fragment. I fell in love with those words, oi moi, alas! right around the time my own daughters were leaving home. Yet I hope the poem moves the experience through Sappho’s mother’s mind and heart, part of the universal river of mothers and daughters.