Letter Writing Series, Day Three

Dearest benevolence, singing Christmas morning, bedtime story. Home. My first glimpse at creativity and stamina. Hope. Positive energy. Frost ended a poem with miles to go before I sleep. You began every day with that. Raised children with that.

Surely the weight of it was only burden some days, rather than reward. Still, you offered the sweetest lessons with good bedtime stories.

I wonder what we gave you as children, tucking us in, making sure we were fed and had room to play. I wonder what we can possibly give you as adults. Singing Christmas mornings, good stories, benevolence?

I can only hope.

Tell The Truth But Tell It Slant

Once again I am indulging in ModPo, a free Coursera presentation by the University of Pennsylvania. It is a treasure. Today I listened to the close reading and discussion of Emily Dickinson’s Tell The Truth But Tell It Slant (sometimes presented as #1129, sometimes as #1263). Below the link (which I hope y’all can all access and enjoy) is an item I wrote up directly after viewing the videos this morning. I hope the viewing, and the reading is as enjoyable for y’all as it was for me.



Tell all the truth …
It is possible to get lost in the lines that follow, to mistake Dickinson’s intent as an attempt to perpetuate paternalistic attitudes, or the assertion of myth over fact in order to salvage the feelings of lesser beings. It is possible, unless the reader pays close attention to the first four words of this poem.

but tell it slant –
When I read this separate from those first four words, I immediately think of spin doctors – those speech writers employed by politicians that value tone and presentation more than content. Slant is not immediately recognizable as a tool of honesty, but of creativity. And creativity can be a tool used to twist honesty into lies. Is Dickinson suggesting that people corrupt the truth in order to spare feelings, in order to salvage the self-confidence and hope of the less mature, the less intelligent? No.

The Truth must dazzle gradually …
Again, truth. I like what Max says about a harsh light vs. a softer light. A softer light allows the viewer to see. Think of the heat and glare of a spotlight blazing into a dark area of the woods. Sure, it can kill the darkness that existed in that targeted area, but the onlookers cannot see anything on either side of that targeted area, and the ability to see where they stand becomes impossible. If that light is shone into the eyes of a living thing, seeing beyond the light becomes impossible, the option of movement becomes frightening and dangerous.

Or every man be blind –
When presented with the bare ugly truth from someone else’s perspective, negative results can outweigh the importance of what is being revealed. Negative results such as, loss of hope, revulsion, a sense of losing control on one’s own life. Truth, therefore, becomes unbearable. When we cannot bear something, many of us are apt to question, to doubt, to disbelieve for the sake of our own wellbeing.

Al states that Dickinson was a radical in terms of how she challenged traditional verse. This fact stands in sharp contrast, upon first glance, of her seemingly obvious acceptance of traditional social roles and religion revealed in her poetry. That radicalism is overshadowed by what we know of her personal history as well – her agoraphobia and reluctance to publish makes her seem a fragile creature, and her tendency to chastise and plead through poetry lends to that sense of minding a Christian woman’s place in society, and in literature of the time.

But this recognition of how she challenged traditional verse, coupled with Anna Maris’s revelation of just how not acceptable a woman’s direct opinion would have been in Dickinson’s time, lends to the profoundness of this particular poem upon a close reading. The wisdom gleaned and retained from Dickinson’s personal experiences shines through in #1263 like no other, in my opinion.

Imagine a woman of the era entering a room where men are debating the topics of the Civil War. The woman interrupts and states her own opinions to the shock and horror of all those men. At best, she would have been ignored. However, if she were a creative woman, a wise and intelligent woman of that era, she would have never made the mistake of interrupting and overtly challenging their opinions. She would not chance being ignored. Such a woman would make it possible for those men to be gradually dazzled by the Truth.

APAD: Fox and Furnace, by William Wright


Tonight so clear the Milky Way shimmers like a stoked furnace,
the scattered stars like rogue embers deep in a bloomery.

I recall my father’s face, the orange light of the wood stove
imprisoned in his skin, his eyes trapping the firelight

until he’d lobbed and poked the pine logs, then shut
and latched the grate. The chimney roiled the wind

with the sweet-sharp scent of charred trees, a smell
that I catch tonight through the open window despite

the lingering scent of a cold rain that’s come and gone,
rushed and vanished over town like smoke.


That was the year my father smelled of tobacco and rum,
leather and stone, the year the house creaked hollow,

ticking down into the gravity of his loneliness. That was the year
his silence began in earnest, the months he embraced

his bitterness, mantled it on his body like a second skin.
Nothing mattered then save the language of the woods—

the single plum tree sprouting tiny, sour hearts, the bullfrogs’
blaring counterpoint to owls that never asked any question,

only swooped to snag a shrew or mouse and disappear
back into the darkness of their hunger. That winter, the nights

were stitched with screams, half-human, half-angel, nephilim
wails that braided through trees so loud they woke one

from deepest dreams of attics afire, of possession lost to the throat
of flame. They woke one to stand dizzy and stumble numb-footed

out into the cold with no malice, only dazed wonder at the face
that glowed low from the dead leaves: a fox so still and obsessed

it became a creature of ruby, of snow-mask and bloodroot
whose radiance granted my father rare joy, first healing.

This poem abounds with nature, with human pain, and eventually with an understanding the human might survive his pain. I like this piece because it is all that and more. It is a wordsmith at his task, alive and well; a son sharing family history; a naturalist soaking in nostalgia. And it is poetic precision.

Believe it or not, I know little of William Wright. I intend to rectify that.


APAD: Proof of Poetry, by Tom Sleigh

I wanted first to end up as a drunk in the gutter
and in my twenties I almost ended up there—

and then as an alternative to vodka, to live

alone like a hermit philosopher and court
the extreme poverty that I suspected lay in store for me anyway—

and then there were the years in which

I needed very badly to take refuge in mediocrity,
years like blunt scissors cutting out careful squares,

and that was the worst, the very worst—

you could say that always my life
was like a patchwork quilt always ripped apart—

my life like scraps stitched together in a dream

in which animals and people,
plants, chimeras, stars,

even minerals were in a preordained harmony—

a dream forgotten because it has to be forgotten,
but that I looked for desperately, but only sporadically

found in fragments, a hand lifted to strike

or caress or simply lifted for some unknown reason—
and in memory too, some specific pain, sensation of cold or warmth.

I loved that harmony in all its stages of passion,

the voices still talking inside me . . . but then, instead of harmony,
there was nothing but rags scattered on the ground.

And maybe that’s all it means to be a poet.

Here is an exceptional demonstration of metaphor at work. My favorite poetry professor gave his opinion often on the purpose of poetry: “Say something without saying it.”

Sleigh is a classically trained poet, a playwright, and has taught at prestigious schools. Classical poets aren’t usually my thing, but this piece is among my list of favorites.

What say you?


APAD: Empty House, by James Kimbrell

Every few nights I walk over here, screen door opened
And springless, leaves now up to the second step,
No one watching out the window but me with my
On the ledge, my face staring back at my staring in.

What if, all along, I’d been waiting in there? What if
The bird left its nest behind the mantel and built
Another beside this glass? I still wouldn’t know
How to read something so physical as any moment is,

Something as known as a loose twig, as the look
Of one wing in the other. Maybe it’s true that everything
Leads to this, a night in which silence displays its own

Hidden architecture, the hewn gables, the untranslatable
Syllable of moon in a tilt above the roof, only to show
How absent the self is, picked of words. How near at

Growing up, there were few things that fascinated me more than abandoned houses. Left standing in a yard, porches gone crooked, empty windows staring out at me. Weeds growing out of the eaves, looking like an old woman’s unkempt, thinned hair. An empty house beckons. Still. I can’t control the urge to have a look. To step across a crooked porch and listen to how the boards creak. Let those windows peer back at me up close, sometimes distorting the shape of my face or showing me multiple reflections: me looking at me looking at me. I can stand there, waiting breathless for the moment when that final reflection reveals a dark room at my back rather than a warm, wet afternoon.

And how about that? Kimbrell just happened to write a freaking awesome poem about the topic! I can hear the Jackson in his voice. The way his syllables slow down and sprawl. Makes me smile.

APAD: Be Nobody’s Darling, by Alice Walker

Be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Take the contradictions
Of your life
And wrap around
You like a shawl,
To parry stones
To keep you warm.
Watch the people succumb
To madness
With ample cheer;
Let them look askance at you
And you askance reply.
Be an outcast;
Be pleased to walk alone
Or line the crowded
River beds
With other impetuous

Make a merry gathering
On the bank
Where thousands perished
For brave hurt words
They said.

But be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Qualified to live
Among your dead.

Is it possible that a middle road exists today? Do we dare continue to press against the confines that were so real two decades ago, or three? Four? Do we dare stop? Has an inch been won for gender and race? Considering that gender and race are still such controversial topics, maybe an inch is all we’ve gained.

Perhaps some place might exist today, a place on which I can stand that is neither for pacifying men nor the masses. Maybe standing alone isn’t a selfish act.

Humans are so equally complicated and fickle, too often fierce then complacent. I wonder if we’d recognize when progress actually showed up.

Today will be a day for reading Walker. For contemplating an era of poet warriors and tumultuous change.