Charity Come Home/Begin: W.S. Merwin Reading at Kent, Oct. 10th

In a 2008 in an essay for Larry Smith’s anthology, The Cleveland Poetry Scene, I wrote from Boston that “for me, these days it is the books and news of my fellow Clevelanders that keep me company, some quite far-flung, some deceased…[i]t was always about the words of that company, which we kept, which we keep, across the miles, despite the years.”
HUMPH, I am here to say that while all that is well and good and true enough, there is nothing quite like meeting again in the flesh, which is what I was able to do last week when W.S Merwin read at Kent State University.
There in the flesh would be Merwin, whom I remember incarnate at readings in Ohio in the early 1980s right about the time when the Naropa Poetry Wars was published and James Wright had died, and a group of us took him and his companion out to eat at the Greek restaurant near CSU. Still, the moment that stands out clearest from that visit was his reading of his poem on the recent death of Wright, a poem so true in its tiny five lines, that it both hurt and consoled. When he read that poem, I could not breathe. I have never heard an audience so quiet. I also remember Merwin as my hero during a week at a translation workshop in the late 1980s when I felt the academics terrorized the creative writers until Merwin’s arrival. But that is another blog. NOW,  he is returning as the Poet Laureate. Not that that made that much difference to those of us who have loved him all along for his poems and not for his position.
Before Merwin, KSU Provost Tim Chandler gave a welcome. I have heard administrators give both knuckle-headed and self-serving intros (a UMASS intro to Russell Banks a year ago springs to mind in the latter category), but I have never heard an administrator give such a warm, insightful, meaningful welcome to an event. Chandler was followed by poet and Wick Poetry Center Director David Hassler, who was as insightful and meaningful in the intro and conclusion to the event as I have always known him to be both in speech and on the page.
The Merwin that stood before me last week was definitely older and more loquacious than in the 80s, but disciplined in his loquaciousness. When he rambled, he was definitely rambling down three themes he had chosen for the evening.  One concerned his ongoing debate with Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, about which he notes, “If you have a voice, it will come through the influence.”  (Take that all you beginning poets who don’t want to read because you don’t want to be influenced—sheesh, do visual artists ever say they aren’t going to look at other people’s paintings?) He began with “Grace Note,” a poem which was printed as a broadside for the evening as the latest of Kent’s “Traveling Stanzas” broadside project. The poem ends with the image of a bird flying in and out, “leaving me/believing what I do not see.”
That poem also introduced his second theme for the evening, animals, leading him to read “Fly” and “Vixen,” two of my favorite Merwin poems, as well as “Air,” one of the last he read, one of the first of his poems I ever read, back in 1975 in Alberta Turner’s Contemporary Poetry class at CSU. That poem was a link to his third theme, song. It was a long, rich, thoughtful reading. I felt afterward like the Seamus Heaney lines: “and we all knew one thing by being there,/The space we stood around had been emptied/Into us to keep….” Immediately after the reading I felt that way, that is, because long after the reading, Merwin stayed quite late to sign for the throng that stayed to ask him to sign, and the special mood did dissipate a bit.
Before lining up, I said good-bye to my seatmates, Larry Smith and Joel Ruddinger, the first two editors who ever published a poem of mine, back in 1973 in Firelands Mixer. In the meantime, Larry has generously published my work many times. Now, nearly forty years later, I had met Joel for the first time. I gave them the seats I had been saving for Kate Fox, just in case she needed them as several hours previously she had posted to Facebook that she had gotten a flat tire on the long road from Athens, Ohio. I never found Kate until the next morning on Facebook, when I learned she was probably just a few feet ahead of me in the signing line.
Before I made it there, I stopped to buy the “Grace Note” broadside and heard a voice behind me say, “Oh my gosh, here is Diane,” and there was Zena Zipporah, who said, “Diane, I was just telling my friend that you and I went to Breadloaf together.” “Yes, and did an OAC residency with eight graders together,” I said, and we could  have gone on about the poetry things we had done together,  not to mention the eating things (Zena’s all-garlic dinner) and the parties and meeting things we had lived through when I lived in Cleveland.
By the time I made it to the line, I was the end. Fortunately, so was my long-time (I no longer say “old”) poet friend and new colleague, Robert Miltner. He didn’t make the line go any faster but the talk grew richer as he posed the question, “Who would you like to hear give a reading that you haven’t heard yet?” And we all laughed as the first response was “Neruda” to which we added Dickinson, Whitman, and a host of greats no longer around. My living choice is Wislawa Symborska, so please everyone, keep your eyes open for her this side of the Atlantic and let me know. Robert had a great Copper Canyon broadside to be signed by Merwin, who was amazed to see it and suddenly wondering if he himself had ever gotten a copy of it. I had Merwin’s poem “Canso,” open to sign in The First Four Books of Poems, which seemed to mystify him, even when I told him that my husband chose it to have read on our wedding day, and we are about to celebrate our 25th anniversary. But he signed, and now I am wavering in my plan to remove it from the book and frame it.
By then it was past 10:00 p.m., and the large ballroom was emptying out, cooling down. I had a long drive home and had to be up at 5:30 a.m. the next morning. I managed to say hail and farewell to David Hassler, who was still rushing around. I had missed saying hello to Maj Ragain and any number of favorite Ohio poets who were there and gone already, including Kate Fox, who had sent a message from Facebook that she had a flat tire. She made it, but I never saw her. However, I know I will see her and Maj soon. Meanwhile, what a great literary homecoming. Or, as Merwin’s poem dedicated to his friend Galway Kinnell puts it: “Charity come home/Begin.”


Grace Notes
…leaving me
believing what I do not see.
Coast of Maine
---“Poets aren’t prophets, but if the prophets aren’ts saying these things, the poets have to try.”
Dusk in Winter
Nomad Flute
Departure’s Girlfriend
The Black Jewel
Fly: …I who have always believed too much in words.
Love for October
Blind Seer of Ambon: …I continue to arrive at words.
Unknown Soldier
Late Spring
Convenience:  ...All we have to pay for it is ourselves.
A Step at a Time
A Chain to Her Leg
A Messae to Po Chi
To Myself
Laughing Thrush: if there is a future/ here is where they all sing the first daylight/
                                  whether or not there is anyone listening


Family Funerals and Nesting Rhymes

Whew. Here is another topic I didn’t plan to write about, but I spent most of Friday at the funeral, followed by what we hereabouts call the “bereavement dinner,” of my cousin Donna Mae Rohr, who died this week at age 78. I have missed a lot of these in my past 40 years away from home.
I missed the funeral of Donna’s mother, Aunt Ollie, the cheeriest and most fun of aunts, who played in the 1940s women’s baseball leagues, made famous by the movie, A League of Their Own. I did make it to the funeral of Donna’s father, Uncle Carl, clearly the wryest and funniest of uncles—or at least in the top three funniest, along with my Uncle Les—who was the coach of Aunt Ollie’s league, and from what I have heard, a prototype for the Tom Hanks’s character in A League. Along with my sister, I sobbed and sobbed at the calling hours for Uncle Carl, and Donna Mae, who should have been receiving consolations from us, put her arms around us and said, “Girls, don’t cry. Dad had a wonderful life.”
That was a point that Donna’s granddaughter, Taylor, made in her remarks at the funeral: that Donna had had 79 good years and three rough weeks at the end, when she struggled under the effects of a brain lesion. “Seventy-nine good years and three hard weeks is what I call a good life,” said Taylor. And I’d agree, except that I’d add that Donna spent several of those years as caretaker for both her husband, Glenn, who died after a long difficult cancer, and later her mother, who spent her last years in a cheerful dementia but finally in days of pain before she died. My dad showed up and spent some time with Donna during Aunt Ollie’s last hours, but Donna was there to the end, as she was with Glenn.  Having now spent the last 24 hours alone with two of my family members that died, I know what hard work it is, and what important work. Maybe it isn’t work. It is definitely important.
But Donna was never actually a Kendig in name. Her father’s surname was Herman, and most of her life, she was a Rohr, having married Glen Rohr. And though my cousin, she was nearly a generation older than me, closer to my dad, who thought of her as a little sister. He is holding her in his arms in a photo of the family taken shortly before he left for World War II.
Still, if you are a Kendig, one thing you do is you show up for things, especially funerals and weddings, and since I haven’t been showing up during my past eleven years in Boston, I wanted to show up, especially for Donna’s oldest daughter, Patty, who is closer to my age than her mom. Six other Kendig cousins were there on this Friday afternoon, as were four aunts and uncles, all  octo- or nona-generians.
The only thing that Kendigs do as well as showing up is eating, and since the dinner was provided by the VFW members of Canal Fulton, Ohio, there was a lot of very good Midwest cooking to eat: ham and cheese sandwiches, tossed salads with sweet dressing, lots of casseroles, including lasagna, and desserts—many homemade pies, including elderberry, and cheesecake, and that dessert with graham cracker crumbs and canned cherries and Dream Whip, which I know is a petroleum by-product I make fun of and love despite myself and did eat yesterday.
Kendigs really aren’t drinkers, but when the VFW announced we could get drinks downstairs, most went down and got a glass of white zinfandel and nearly passed out from surprise to find it was free. I know in a lot of families that might lead to a second glass of wine, but not among this clan.   
Oh, and the other thing you do if you are a Kendig is talk, which is really why we were the last ones left at the VFW and not because we ate all that much. We are now caught up on nearly everyone and everything, the ten of us who were there. The rest of you need to catch up. Isn’t it about time for a reunion without a funeral or wedding?
While I don’t intend to make a habit of posting poems here, I do have one about the Kendigs whose form poets might be interested in and one I invented based on an exercise by Susan Mitchell in The Practice of Poetry. Mitchell’s exercise was to write a 6-stanza poem with stanzas of three lines, ending in nesting rhymes, also called “diminishing rhyme,” and the example Mitchell gives is of ocean/motion/emotion. (This being English, they need have exact spelling but sound, and in some cases, I have stretched even that.) I expanded on Mitchell’s exercised in two ways. First, in some poems, instead of putting the nesting rhymes in diminishing order, I put then in what I call “augmenting rhymes:” emotion, motion, ocean. Second, I made the lines lengths mirror the diminishment or augmentation, growing longer if I was using augmenting rhyme, shorter if using diminishing rhymes. This poem moves both ways and takes liberty with rhyme by using slant rhyme. Two other poems of this type have been published at Poemeleon, and you can find them here:

Setting out Aunt Ollie's chicken, Uncle Les's melon basket, iced tea,
noodle dishes and some Italian in-law's tortellini, we cease all this mobility
to pay attention to the eight remaining oldest Kendigs, their dear indomitability.

"The Thirteen," as we still call the siblings, had a lifetime
of difficulty.  "The Great Depression?  Whew!  A time
you don't want to hear about, but since I'm

started now...."  Friends that I have brought in
have laughed how, when they call for photo-taking, the eldest kin
are "kids." We're grand and our kids are great.  We mean that under the skin

we have the stuff of Bess and Harry, a well-wed pair with manifold
capacity to reproduce and rear.  The four youngest of their fold
are World War II vets, but don't call them old,

and don't expect star-spangled frou-farrah, group games or anybody's speech.
We talk and eat, this repository of recipes, these mound-builders of peach
and strawberry and chocolate heaped desserts.  We speak to each

aunt and uncle; despite three who after the factory work no longer hear,
one oxygen tank, six canes, a Chemo-damaged appetite, both mild and severe
Alzheimer's. They meet here yearly on this date to do as they have always
                                                                                      done: they persevere.