The Hill in the Woods

Some days I just want to share a poem that has held special meaning for me. I first read this wonderful translation by Robert Bly from the Swedish of Harry Martinson when I was 19.
Enjoy!

SK

The Hill in the Woods

Harry Martinson
(Translated from the Swedish by Robert Bly)

Two boys from town
Walked out in the woods one fall day
To reduce a farm girl
Whom the weird people had stolen.
They found the rock mountain in the woods
And knocked at the stone door
Hoping the troll was out somewhere picking
lingonberries.

But the troll was at home,
And came to the door himself.
“I guess you’re looking for the girl,” the troll said.
“But the’s not at home.
She’s gone out to pick lingonberries.
We’re going to have some lingonberry sauce.”

The boys wondered what direction that would be.
“It’s off there,” and the troll pointed.
The boys thanked him for the information
And set off in that direction.
They found the country girl alright
But she didn’t recognize them.

She wasn’t too wild about being interrupted picking
either, she said.
And how do I know about you.
Maybe you could just change the whole way I see things.
The boys understood then that she hadn’t gotten into
the spell.
She hadn’t been changed by the other world so much
As she’d picked up bad habits.
But they still wanted to get her to come along.
Then she really got angry and worked them over.
She was stone-strong all right.

Safely home they didn’t say a word to their parents,
And ate their mush in silence.
They realized also that the people around here
Were not interested, as they used to be,
In trolls and people stolen.

This and many other thoughts moved in their minds
While they bit still frightened on their wooden spoons.
They signaled to one another under the table
With their feet as usual and went on eating.
The milk was turning.
That usually happens when there are thunderstorms
Or when someone has been working with troll power.

Name Your Private Opera: Thoughts on Caruso’s Birthday

Well I don’t know about you but I love the Great Caruso. Today is his birthday. The greatest Italian tenor of all would today be one hundred and forty eight years old were he still among us. And he is of course since he was the first operatic star to make gramophone records. He sang into a cardboard horn and the force of his breath pushed a stylus which carved his voice into acetate grooves. How lucky we are to have him with us still.

I was a kid when I fell in love with a Victrola in my grandmother’s attic. It was summer. Kids were playing ball. And there I was with a wind up gramophone with a metal horn. Blind kid alone with an old fashioned record player at the top of a Victorian house. I fell under the spell of that machine. It worked perfectly and there were dozens of records featuring the great Enrico Caruso. You have to picture me, five years old, more than a little lonely, and then stunned to hear such a voice under the eaves. I’ve loved Caruso all my life and yet, even now, sixty years later, hearing him pulls me back to my provincial first opera house.

As a child the poet W. H. Auden loved machines, especially mining equipment, so much so his parents thought he’d grow up to be an engineer. With poets it’s the engines beneath the skullcap, those marvels those devices which are unseen in the outer world. And so for me it was the Victrola that signaled a recursive, shadowy, inner life.

There were lots of artifacts in that attic. A raccoon coat, a sea captain’s chest, a cracked boudoir mirror, cane chairs that were eaten through, dusty books, a sewing machine, oddments of all kinds, tools I couldn’t identify. I explored with my hands while the great tenor sang of vengeance or a broken heart.

Think about your private opera. I was lonesome as a cricket. I was in love with a strange singer.. Best of all I’d no one to tell.

I still hear the needle hitting the record. The sound of hay scratching hay.

In my case poetry has always been a kind of forsakenness. The solitude glitters. Do you know this feeling? Rain runs down the window and you press your forehead there. You see you need nothing.

D. H. Lawrence wrote: “It’s no good trying to get rid of your own aloneness. You’ve got to stick to it all your life. Only at times, at times, the gap will be filled in. At times! But you have to wait for the times. Accept your own aloneness and stick to it, all your life. And then accept the times when the gap is filled in, when they come. But they’ve got to come. You can’t force them.”

Yes there are moments when the fire warms and the inn is open. Family and lovers; neighbors, strangers well met—a trusty dog. Behind this scrim is the solitude. It was me. It was the voice of a tenor singing in the dark.

Just

Just

A little more to say
A little less
Anaximander knocking on my skull
Goodbye mother you deep sufferer
I’ve buried you beside my brother
Nature leans in
October’s falling leaves
Their dance macabre
Oh a little more
I’m sorry I didn’t understand
A little less
The undertaker hands me
Your hospital possessions
In a trash bag
Your teddy bear falls out
Lands on your fresh grave

And there I was holding someone’s teeth…

One fine day when I was in a fine day mood and therefore had the illusion nature was my friend I bent low to the sidewalk and discovered a set of false teeth. Now I must add it was springtime and the first bees were taking flight and the world smelled like damp hay as it does in the snowy north when finally the melting is through. It was warm in the sun and cool in the shadows. And there I was holding someone’s teeth.

This happened in downtown Ithaca, New York. There’s a pedestrian mall where once there were streets. And shops selling New Age jewelry and sneaker stores and mystifying boutiques no one ever visits.

Now holding a stranger’s lost teeth is not like anything else. It’s one of the many things in this life for which there’s no analogy. You can attempt it but you’ll fail. It’s a bit like stepping barefoot on a worm but not quite because holding someone’s dentures radiates sorrow–someone has lost their choppers and the loss invites the obvious “how” and then “why” wouldn’t you notice and was there a crime involved?

The teeth were dry.

What to do? I put them in my pocket and walked to the police station.

Of course you know what’s next. The cops didn’t care about the teeth. The desk sergeant said: “yeah, well, stuff happens.”

I thought he was going to hand them back but he agreed to keep them in their lost and found bin alongside umbrellas and lost mittens.

No one loses his or her teeth without knowing. Perhaps the teeth were in a purse or pocket? Maybe? Why would you take your teeth out in the middle of town? Was a crime involved?

I left the police and walked about for a time. I remembered James Brown saying: “Hair and teeth. (You) got those two things (you) got it all.”

It was spring. Unseasonably warm for April and someone was either dead or at the dentist.

Group Help and True Inclusion

Everyone knows “self help books” make up the biggest section in the bookstore. I’ve been assisted by them. I was a child of alcoholics. I’m disabled and I strive for emotional intelligence. As a stepdad of two teens I’ve read about “the launching years” and “mean girls.”

Because I hold many of these books in high esteem I’m reluctant to criticize the genre. (I’m a poet and once many years ago I had literary friends over for dinner. One guest saw “Weight Lifting for Dummies” on a shelf and sniffed loudly about our lowbrow habits. I said no one lifting weights is a genius and that ended it.) Of course smart people do lift weights but it’s good when you’re a novice at anything to acknowledge you might be a clod-pole.

So I believe in the self help category at least to an extent. Like the first rule of medicine a book should do no harm. (One can imagine parodies like “Go Play in the Traffic” and “Just Pretend You Have a Parachute.”

It’s good to critique a cultural norm even if it does some good. One huge drawback to self help books is that they generally avoid the subject of groups. This makes sense because Americans view pursuing happiness as a matter of individuality. You have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit, not the whole village. In turn small “d” democracy is understood in very subjective ways.

Because I’m disabled I’ve been asked many times to talk about disability as a factor in understanding diversity and inclusion. The disabled are part of every identity and rather significantly. Diabetes is the number one cause of blindness in the US and poverty heavily impacts this. Those without health care are far more likely to lose their sight.

When I talk about this I find myself thinking that where diversity and inclusion are concerned we often think in the manner of self help when what we really need is group help. How would group help differ?

I’m not saying diversity and inclusion programs should become group therapy. Perish the thought. I’m talking about curiosity. Let’s say group help is the art of taking true interest in the people around us. Too much diversity and inclusion work stops at “we’ve diversified now let’s get on with it” and therein lies a problem.

As a blind man who’s been in countless board rooms and meetings I know there are tons of people who’ve thought to themselves: “There’s a blind person. Nice dog. Good that he’s here.” This happens to members of each outlier group in any work setting. We’re in the room. The room is now inclusive. Down to business.

Group help means doing the work of diversity. It means taking the time to know where we’re from, what our interests are, what art forms do we like, what obstacles and triumphs have we had? We should admit we don’t know much of anything about our co-workers and moreover we’ve no experience with how to know each other. Personal questions are often offensive or racist, sexist or transphobic or ableist–it’s best to ignore our differences. Personally I’ve taken offense when the first thing a near stranger says to me is “how did you go blind?” There are of course a million variants of this. That person may be an ableist of course but it’s also possible he or she has no idea how to talk to people. I think Americans have almost no clue how to talk to each other. You can joke and say we’re better off not doing so. But if we want a civic sphere that’s rich and fascinating and yes, celebratory of our diversity we have to learn a few things about group help.

Here are some thoughts on the matter:

  1. We need to be curious about others in generous ways. Remember that the people around you are not the supporting cast in your personal drama. (This is a major principle of emotional intelligence.)
  2. Being curious doesn’t mean asking personal questions like “how did you go blind?” A better approach when you’re meeting someone who isn’t like you is to take what I like to call the “paper airplane gambit” which means asking someone if they’ve ever been successful making one. (You can come up with your own subject matter. I’ve never made a paper airplane that didn’t crash straight to the floor.) Group help means sharing small things that might be quirky and letting things go where they may.)
  3. Though number 2 above seems to belie this, group help isn’t a game. How many Human Resources events have you participated in where knowing others is turned into charades?
  4. Group help means knowing your students and co-workers are deep people, often heroic, marked by tragedy and occasional triumphs and yes, each and every person around you knows incredible stuff you don’t know. We’re very weak in this area in the US.
  5. Respectful curiosity makes working with others more interesting. The more one learns the more empathetic he becomes. Empathy is one of the prime antidotes for anger. Again, we’re very weak in this area in the US.
  6. True curiosity without vanity leads to reciprocal self-disclosure. Who knows you might make friends.

If you go looking for group help books you won’t find any. But our national effort at understanding diversity and inclusion (launched far too late in our democracy as I see it) may lead to a new section of the bookstore and take emotional intelligence to a whole new level. Nowadays when I speak to groups I aim to promote curiosity and its best practices because as I see it the pursuit of happiness lies in this direction.

Confessions of A Horse Husband

Well there it is. That thing from Amazon and which you don’t remember ordering. And you haven’t been drinking. Why can’t you recall what’a in the box? It’s big.

You think maybe algorithms are involved. A sequence of ones and zeros hatched a plot. Autonomic systems have sent you a replica Czarist sleigh or a set of punch bowls made from the stretched skins of sharks.

Then you remember. You’re a “horse husband.”

It’s your wife’s box, which means it’s her horse’s box. She’s purchased a lead horse blanket; thirty pounds of nutritious rare algae harvested from beneath the permafrost of Greenland–just add water and voila, you have a Viking horse! (Did the Vikings have horses? Probably not. They weren’t patient. Everyone knows horses require calmness and sufferance and lots of shipments from Amazon.)

There are other objects: metal tools that resemble 19th century dental implements–hoof picks, spurs, fancy mouth bits, and something that looks like a mouse trap.

And of course there are a hundred herbal preparations designed to offset the ordinary tendency of the horse to be a large rascal. Mark Twain once wrote:

“I know the horse too well. I have known the horse in war and in peace, and there is no place where a horse is comfortable. A horse thinks of too many things to do which you do not expect. He is apt to bite you in the leg when you think he is half asleep. The horse has too many caprices, and he is too much given to initiative. He invents too many new ideas. No, I don’t want anything to do with a horse.”

The horse needs anti-caprice tablets, poultices, unguents, viscous substances known to Paracelsus, flower satchets, hoof hardeners, hoof softeners, hoof polish, breath mints, and equine anodynes for the bites of other horses.

As you drag the box into the house it clanks and rattles. It sounds like a Lackawanna freight car.

Yes you’re a horse husband.

Unlike Mark Twain you love the horse. And the woman behind him.

Dear Ted Cruz

Dear Ted Cruz:

My stepdaughter lives in Austin, Texas and has been entirely without power, water, and nutritious food for many days. She is not a symbol or metaphor–she’s one of the millions of Texans currently fighting to stay alive. Do you understand fighting to stay alive? Do you know the “golden rule?” I sense it’s fruitless to ask. After all you’re the man who, speaking of history said: “Twenty years from now if there is some obscure Trivial Pursuit question, I am confident I will be the answer.”
Question: “Who was the Texas Senator who abandoned his constituents and fled to a Mexican resort during a pandemic and a vast power and water crisis?” Maybe those people of the future will play Trivial Pursuit in Cancun? But let’s forget them. What other “obscure” questions might be asked which your name could fit as an answer? Your Princeton roommate Craig Mazin might help with this. He said of you: “Ted Cruz is a nightmare of a human being. I have plenty of problems with his politics, but truthfully his personality is so awful that 99 percent of why I hate him is just his personality. If he agreed with me on every issue, I would hate him only one percent less.” Ready? Here’s another TP question: “What male Senator would be most likely to dress as a woman to escape the Titanic?”

Strawberry Jam

Poetry is to prayer as wheat is to bread. One of the reasons I’m uncomfortable with academic creative writing programs and organized religion is because too few professors or priests have strawberry jam.

**

Joan of Arc ate quince jam before battle as it gave her courage.
I’ve had quince jam and judge it to be fine, but it’s not strawberry.

There’s a Finnish saying: “Sweden is a blueberry, Finland a strawberry.”

How I wander.

**

The soldiers who survived the Crusades introduced  jam to France. Many of them were blind. I picture them tramping over hostile terrain, sightless, clutching jars in their arms.

Nostalgic for the local bus there’s a pandemic…

Nostalgic for the local bus there’s a pandemic…

Thinking of Saarikoski
Windows retreating to Platonic originals
God’s casements now dirty over the world

(Or “less than” God, press two)
Women and men drive circles in the dark
Herakleitos in Finnish more sensible than Keats

Through Logos all things are understood
Sick lights on at the neighbors
“One must talk about everything according to its nature…”

Nostalgic for the local bus there’s a pandemic…

Nostalgic for the local bus there’s a pandemic…

Thinking of Sarrikoski
Windows retreating to Platonic originals
God’s casements now dirty over the world

(Or “less than” God, press two)
Women and men drive circles in the dark
Herakleitos in Finnish more sensible than Keats

Through Logos all things are understood
Sick lights on at the neighbors
“One must talk about everything according to its nature…”