Two for Tuesday: Mary Szybist

“I had the happy idea to polish the reflecting glass and say
hello to my own blue soul. Hello, blue soul. Hello.” ~ Mary Szybist, from “Happy Ideas”

Tuesday afternoon, cloudy, 32 degrees.

Today’s Two for Tuesday features poems by American poet Mary Szybist, winner of a Pushcart Prize in 2012; among her other awards are the 2013 National Book Award for Poetry, the 2003 Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books and the 2004 Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award. She is also the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rona Jaffe Foundation, and the Witter Bynner Foundation. Szybist teaches at Lewis & Clark College

You can read more about her in interviews with The Paris Review and with UVA Magazine. In July of this year Szybist was named the 2019 laureate of The George W. Hunt, S.J., Prize for Journalism, Arts & Letters for outstanding work in the category of Poetry.

The Troubadours Etc.

Just for this evening, let’s not mock them.
Not their curtsies or cross-garters
or ever-recurring pepper trees in their gardens
promising, promising.

At least they had ideas about love.

All day we’ve driven past cornfields, past cows poking their heads
through metal contraptions to eat.
We’ve followed West 84, and what else?
Irrigation sprinklers fly past us, huge wooden spools in the fields,
lounging sheep, telephone wires,
yellowing flowering shrubs.

Before us, above us, the clouds swell, layers of them,
the violet underneath of clouds.
Every idea I have is nostalgia. Look up:
there is the sky that passenger pigeons darkened and filled—
darkened for days, eclipsing sun, eclipsing all other sound
with the thunder of their wings.
After a while, it must have seemed that they followed
not instinct or pattern but only
one another.

When they stopped, Audubon observed,
they broke the limbs of stout trees by the weight of the numbers.

And when we stop we’ll follow—what?
Our hearts?

The Puritans thought that we are granted the ability to love
only through miracle,
but the troubadours knew how to burn themselves through,
how to make themselves shrines to their own longing.
The spectacular was never behind them.

Think of days of those scarlet-breasted, blue-winged birds above you.
Think of me in the garden, humming
quietly to myself in my blue dress,
a blue darker than the sky above us, a blue dark enough for storms,
though cloudless.

At what point is something gone completely?
The last of the sunlight is disappearing
even as it swells—

Just for this evening, won’t you put me before you
until I’m far enough away you can
believe in me?

Then try, try to come closer—
my wonderful and less than.


On Wanting to Tell [ ] about a Girl Eating Fish Eyes

—how her loose curls float
above each silver fish as she leans in
to pluck its eyes—

You died just hours ago.
Not suddenly, no. You’d been dying so long
nothing looked like itself: from your window,
fishermen swirled sequins;
fishnets entangled the moon.

Now the dark rain
looks like dark rain. Only the wine
shimmers with candlelight. I refill the glasses
and we raise a toast to you
as so and so’s daughter—elfin, jittery as a sparrow—
slides into another lap
to eat another pair of slippery eyes
with her soft fingers, fingers rosier each time,
for being chewed a little.

If only I could go to you, revive you.
You must be a little alive still.
I’d like to put this girl in your lap.
She’s almost feverishly warm and she weighs
hardly anything. I want to show you how
she relishes each eye, to show you
her greed for them.

She is placing one on her tongue,
bright as a polished coin—

What do they taste like? I ask.
Twisting in my lap, she leans back
sleepily. They taste like eyes, she says.

“Nothing is free. Everything has to be paid for. For every profit in one thing, payment in some other thing. For every life, a death. Even your music, of which we have heard so much, that had to be paid for. Your wife was the payment for your music. Hell is now satisfied.” ~ Ted Hughes, from Orpheus

Ted Hughes on the first day of trout fishing season in April 1986. Nick Rogers-REX/Courtesy of Harper

“Nobody wanted your dance,
Nobody wanted your strange glitter – your floundering
Drowning life and your effort to save yourself,
Treading water, dancing the dark turmoil” ~ Ted Hughes, from “God Help the Wolf after Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark”

Sunday afternoon, partly cloudy and quite warm, 90 degrees.

Yesterday was the birthday of notable British poet Ted Hughes (August 17, 1930-October 28, 1998).

I know that I said I would continue the NRA post today, but I just can’t. I need a break. I worked on that frigging post for over eight hours, and my body hasn’t recovered. When I get into intense writing mode, I don’t pay attention to my posture, and I tend to sit with all of my muscles tensed. Of course, the result is that I pay for it afterwards. Today my shoulders are a bundle of knots, as is my lower back, which negates any relief I may have gotten from the trigger point injections.

I’m still awaiting a prior authorization on my Robaxin (muscle relaxer), which is what I take during the day, every day. I really need that. Well, that, or a masseuse. Don’t have either at the moment.

Corey and I both got a lot done yesterday: I wrote a thoroughly researched article, and he finished the fence on the back pasture for the goats. Hoorah, hoorah.

Sylviai Plath and Ted Hughes in 1956

Anyway, back to Ted Hughes, who some of you may know as the husband of the poet Sylvia Plath; their marriage and her suicide negatively colored his reputation as a writer until his death, but he was incredibly talented in his own right. Unfortunately for Hughes, the woman for whom he left Plath, Assia Wevill, killed herself and their 4-year-old daughter Shura after Plath’s death. Hughes spent the remainder of his life writing and farming with his second wife, Carol Orchard.

If you want to know more about Hughes and Plath, the 2008 book The Letters of Ted Hughes is a great read, as is his 1998 book Birthday Letters. I own the latter but not the former; it’s on my wish list. I enjoy reading the correspondence of writers as the majority of them lay themselves bare in notes and letters. It always strikes me as being much more immediate than a biography.

You can find a good biography here on the Poetry Foundation site. The Paris Review interviewed  Hughes for its “Art of Poetry Series” (No. 71) in 1995. You can find the article here. In the following quote Hughes discusses how location affected his writing, something I am always pondering myself:

Ever since I began to write with a purpose I’ve been looking for the ideal place. I think most writers go through it.

. . . When I came back to England, I think the best place I found in that first year or two was a tiny cubicle at the top of the stairs that was no bigger than a table really. But it was a wonderful place to write. I mean, I can see now, by what I wrote there, that it was a good place.

I chose “A Woman Unconscious,” the poem below, because once again, its content seems so timely, especially in light of the recent nuclear missile explosion in Russia

More later. Peace.

A Woman Unconscious

Russia and America circle each other;
Threats nudge an act that were without doubt
A melting of the mould in the mother,
Stones melting about the root.The quick of the earth burned out:
The toil of all our ages a loss
With leaf and insect.  Yet flitting thought
(Not to be thought ridiculous)Shies from the world-cancelling black
Of its playing shadow: it has learned
That there’s no trusting (trusting to luck)
Dates when the world’s due to be burned;

That the future’s no calamitous change
But a malingering of now,
Histories, towns, faces that no
Malice or accident much derange.

And though bomb be matched against bomb,
Though all mankind wince out and nothing endure —
Earth gone in an instant flare —
Did a lesser death come

Onto the white hospital bed
Where one, numb beyond her last of sense,
Closed her eyes on the world’s evidence
And into pillows sunk her head.

Music by You + Me, “Love Gone Wrong”

“They’re dangerous as all gifts from the sea are; the sea offers death as well as immortality.” ~ Giuseppe di Lampedusa, from “The Professor and the Siren”

“We spoke of those magic summer nights, looking out over the gulf of Castellammare, when the stars are mirrored in the sleeping sea, and how, lying on your back among the mastic trees, your spirit is lost in the whirling heavens, while the body braces itself, fearing the approach of demons.” ~ Giuseppe di Lampedusa, from “The Professor and the Siren”

Two for Tuesday: Mermaids

Tuesday afternoon. Humid with impending storms, 82 degrees.

A bit of serendipity today: read an essay in The Paris Review by Marina Warner called “The Professor and the Mermaid,” and then came upon a poem by Pablo Neruda that I had never seen before. Love when things like this happen.

Howard Pyle The Mermaid 1910
“The Mermaid” (1910, oil on canvas)
by Howard Pyle


Fable of the Mermaid and the Drunks

All those men were there inside,
when she came in totally naked.
They had been drinking: they began to spit.
Newly come from the river, she knew nothing.
She was a mermaid who had lost her way.
The insults flowed down her gleaming flesh.
Obscenities drowned her golden breasts.
Not knowing tears, she did not weep tears.
Not knowing clothes, she did not have clothes.
They blackened her with burnt corks and cigarette stubs,
and rolled around laughing on the tavern floor.
She did not speak because she had no speech.
Her eyes were the colour of distant love,
her twin arms were made of white topaz.
Her lips moved, silent, in a coral light,
and suddenly she went out by that door.
Entering the river she was cleaned,
shining like a white stone in the rain,
and without looking back she swam again
swam towards emptiness, swam towards death.

~ Pablo Neruda


The Little Mermaid by Charles Santore
“The Little Mermaid” (1993, illustration)
by Charles Santore

Mermaid Song

for Aya at fifteen

Damp-haired from the bath, you drape yourself
upside down across the sofa, reading,
one hand idly sunk into a bowl
of crackers, goldfish with smiles stamped on.
I think they are growing gills, swimming
up the sweet air to reach you. Small girl,
my slim miracle, they multiply.
In the black hours when I lie sleepless,
near drowning, dread-heavy, your face
is the bright lure I look for, love’s hook
piercing me, hauling me cleanly up.

~ Kim Addonizio


Music by Jon Allen, featuring Amy Smith, “When the Morning Comes”

annual housecleaning………….

My page might look weird for a day or two as I try to figure out what theme I’m going with. I’ve decided not to renew the customizable Quintus theme, which expires in five days, so I’m playing with themes/looks at the moment.

Bear with me………..

In the meantime, click here to read a wonderful essay on Primo Levi and writers’ epitaphs.

“(heart,could we bear the marvel of this thing?)” ~ E. E. Cummings, from “If I learned Darkness from Our Searched World”

So hot today. Heat migraine won’t leave . . .

Reblogged from The Paris Review

“I was in doubt that I could make something of myself as a writer until I met two people who were very important to me: one was Gaston Lachaise and the other was E. E. Cummings. Cummings I loved, and I love his memory. He did a wonderful imitation of a wood-burning locomotive going from Tiflis to Minsk. He could hear a pin falling in soft dirt at the distance of three miles. Do you remember the story of Cummings’s death? It was September, hot, and Cummings was cutting kindling in the back of his house in New Hampshire. He was sixty-six or -seven or something like that. Marion, his wife, leaned out the window and asked, ‘Cummings, isn’t it frightfully hot to be chopping wood?’ He said, ‘I’m going to stop now, but I’m going to sharpen the ax before I put it up, dear.’ Those were the last words he spoke. At his funeral Marianne Moore gave the eulogy. Marion Cummings had enormous eyes. You could make a place in a book with them. She smoked cigarettes as though they were heavy, and she wore a dark dress with a cigarette hole in it.”

~ John Cheever, on E. E. Cummings

Photograph: E. E. Cummings leaning out a window, by Henry Dunham.

Link to list of Cummings’ Poems


Music by David Jacobs Strain, “Half Way to the Coast”


Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love by Christina Thompson

I have been unable to write for several days for various reasons, hence the reblogs from other places. This particular one, though, I would have reblogged regardless of the circumstances. It’s a beautiful essay about love and loss.

Reblogged from The Paris Review:


Three years before my mother’s final illness she had a major stroke. It was not a typical stroke—more cascade than cataclysm—but when it was over it had laid her low as effectively as a bolt of lightning.

At first, we didn’t know if she would live or die. She couldn’t move any part of her body, couldn’t speak, couldn’t swallow. This last was particularly distressing—swallowing is such a primitive function, but the stroke, it seemed, had struck a primitive part of her brain.

During those first few nights I sat by my mother’s bed in the dim double ward, the curtains drawn between us and the other occupant, who coughed feebly and rustled like an animal in the walls of a house. My mother breathed quietly, the lights on her monitors blinked and glowed. Occasionally an alarm would go off somewhere down the hall with the high, persistent beeping that hospital staff, remarkably, never seem to notice.

I sat there for I don’t know how many hours, drifting in and out of exhaustion and anxiety, and at some point a fragment of poetry came into my mind. “Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm . . . ”

Over and over it played in an endless loop, while I racked my brains to identify it. It was definitely something I knew, but I couldn’t even think what century it belonged to. For some reason it became incredibly important to me to figure out what it was.

My first not terribly clever notion was that it might be part of a Shakespearean sonnet, it was certainly forlorn enough. But as anyone who knows anything about English poetry will instantly recognize, the meter was wrong.

My fragment was written in trochaic tetrameter—DUM-da, DUM-da, DUM-da, DUM—and the sonnets, like all of Shakespeare, are in iambic pentameter—da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Clearly, it had nothing to do with Shakespeare.

I ran through some other possibilities. Was it, maybe, Browning? Was it Donne? But eventually, I was forced to acknowledge that I wasn’t going to get the answer just by thinking about it. I was also annoyed that I couldn’t remember the rest of the poem. I was sure I’d known the whole thing once, and this made me think of stories about people in solitary confinement who discover that they can miraculously summon whole novels word for word.

As it turned out, I wasn’t in the critical care ward long enough to find out if this would happen to me because, against all odds, my ninety-year-old mother began to improve. First she started to move her limbs, then to utter a few indecipherable words, and even, after a week or so, to take a spoonful of food. My nighttime vigils gave way to daily trips with flowers and ramekins of chocolate mousse and Agatha Christie novels. My mother was moved to a rehab unit and we moved on to the next chapter of our lives.

It was only months later that I remembered the lines of poetry and went to look them up. They belonged, of course, to a well-known poem by W. H. Auden—how could I not have gotten that?—a modern work with a romantic slant from 1937.

What I had remembered were the first two lines. The next few, which had seemed in the gloom of the hospital to be floating just beyond my reach, ran as follows: “Time and fevers burn away / Individual beauty from / Thoughtful children, and the grave / proves the child ephemeral.”

How curiously the mind works. I had completely forgotten these references to illness and death and the sharp juxtaposition of childhood with the grave in what is, essentially, a poem about the erotic love of one man for another. Yet surely these were the very elements that had brought the poem into my mind by some subterranean channel.

The speaker in Auden’s poem, who is also awake in the night, looks on his sleeping lover with tenderness and something like pity. It is partly pity for himself, partly for the boy on the bed, but also pity for humanity as a whole, for the plight of mortal men and women who live and love and cherish beauty only to fade and die. At one level it is a poem about the anticipation of loss.

Which is, of course, why I had conjured it up. At the same time, it struck me funny that Auden’s lullaby for his lover—some handsome, sleek-haired youth in tangled sheets—should have seemed so perfectly applicable to me and my elderly mother. But love is love; that’s the point. You don’t care about losing someone unless you love them, and the more deeply you love them the more painful the prospect of losing them is.

My mother eventually recovered, not perfectly, but well enough to enjoy her last years, and I began to see her stroke as a sort of dress rehearsal. Having peered into the abyss, I was able step back, but I knew that it was there.

The stroke had altered her. She was smaller, thinner, more fragile, less vivid, though the sweetness of her personality still shone through, perhaps even brighter now that her vivacity was diminished.

I had been living with her for years already—my husband and I on one side of the house with our children; my mother and, until his death, my father on the other side—but after her stroke she was no longer really independent and it fell to me to look after her more and more.

Once a week I took her to the hairdresser, often stopping afterwards for a frappe. I picked out DVDs for her at the library and baked crème caramel, which she found easy to eat. I washed her cashmere sweaters by hand and helped her with her elastic stockings and filled her hot water bottle at night.

She still complained that my boys needed haircuts, but many of the things that had once seemed important had gone by the by. We had both become more agreeable, and there was really nothing to argue about anymore. She gave me advice when I asked for it; I tried to pay attention to her needs. After a year or two I realized that I had grown so used to being with her that I knew what she wanted before she even opened her mouth to speak.

And then, one day, it dawned on me that she was getting weaker. At first it was nothing I could pinpoint, she just didn’t seem entirely well. Then something happened that put her in the hospital and the next thing I knew she had been diagnosed. Pancreatic cancer: in her case painless but incredibly swift.

This time there was no chance of a reprieve, no hoping she would get better. There were no cures, no treatments, no other outcomes, just the imminent prospect of her death.

The night before she died I sat up with her, in a chair pulled close to the side of her bed. There was a nightlight burning in the corner of the room and I sat with a duvet wrapped around me, even though the night was warm. Her breathing was becoming labored and I could feel that she was in distress. I stroked her hand and told her that I wouldn’t leave her, that she could sleep and when she woke I would still be there.

Hour after hour passed. At some point I dozed off and woke, terrified. But she was sleeping, her fine white hair spread across the pillow, the muscles of her face relaxed. The Auden poem came back to me—how could it not? But this time it was not the first lines but the last: “Beauty, midnight, vision dies . . . / Find the mortal world enough . . . / Nights of insult let you pass / Watched by every human love.”

Again it came to me in that darkened room—not pity for my mother exactly, nor even necessarily for myself, but a deep, intractable sadness that our lives were changing and, at the same time, a wave of gratitude that I had been lucky enough to have had a mother I loved so very much.

Christina Thompson is the author of Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All and the editor of the Harvard Review.

Wanted: Literary Mentor by Michael McGrath

I like the whole concept of a literary mentor, but I suppose I’m too old to ask for one, not that I have ever had occasion to come across a possible candidate. Oh well . . .

Reblogged from The Paris Review:

I’m in the market for a mentor. My qualifications? I’m educated. Some (prospective employers, Stafford Loan sharks, OKCupid algorithms) would say too educated. More importantly, I have wide shoulders and solid vision, am able to open most jars and decipher prescription fine print. I’m handy with sticky file cabinets and missing memory sticks. I can sort e-mails and convert floppy disks, screen calls from editors and exes, purchase trinkets and gadgets for departing lovers or estranged children.

Past potential mentors (professors, friends of friends, intermittent pen pals) have proved unwilling or unworthy for a variety of reasons. Some were in no position to accept or provide help, requiring their own full-blown interventions. Others had full plates—book tours, a slew of international residencies—or had already been claimed by another dedicated sycophant. One candidate of desirable vintage (tottering, affable, largely abandoned) preferred nubile female mentees. Another candidate projected an intriguing otherworldly aura. A certified genius, she was very kind but too far removed from the cynical workings of the world to offer much practical assistance. (In one dreamlike afternoon workshop, just prior to dropping another brilliant, indecipherable insight: “First, allow me to put on my human-being suit.”)

But enough about me, let’s talk about you. Ideally you are a cultural touchstone who would like to see your career reincarnated through a willing and qualified vessel, a literary lion(ess) seeking to direct and amplify the ripples of your influence, a charming gadabout with a tennis court and celebrity godchildren. You are able to offer constructive praise of my stalled novel (feel free to characterize it as “a more soulful rendition” of your own debut) and you are happy to engineer introductions to heiresses with serrated shoulder blades, impressionable patrons, pocket-squares-in-chief, and other figures commonly found at the fizzy intersection of art and commerce.

In these blooming, feral months of early summer there is doubtless much to do at your summer cottage. Allow me to spray the hornets’ nest in your outdoor shower, prune your butterfly bush, wax your musty MG, collect intelligence on the local unmarrieds, crack your lobsters, brew your tea, administer your nightcaps, track down exotic pipe tobaccos, sand your dock, paint your dinghy, rearrange pots and buckets as the ceiling springs the usual leaks. Deputize me to hand wash your cardigans in the sink and retrieve daily gossip, newspapers, and jugs of gin from the general store.

I’m even willing to enter into a vaguely forebidding psychosexual relationship, waking to find pieces of sea glass rearranged on my nightstand in some significant way or a constellation of fireflies scooped from the meadow and released into my rooms above the garage. Accidentally leave your diary open to a particularly suggestive passage, point out photographs of dead lovers who shared my likeness and “energy,” paint watercolors in the nude.

Perhaps in July I’ll chauffeur you through green New England hills to various conferences and retreats, manage ferry schedules and tire pressure, proofread craft talks and other remarks, prepare picnic lunches, replace reading glasses left in a truck-stop washroom, provide cold comfort and fake contact information for clingy attendees. In a humid lull between award ceremonies, I’ll use satellites to locate your cherished childhood swimming hole, shepherd you up the steep trail, apply sunscreen to your ravaged skin, and either turn my head modestly or note your fragile grace (your preference) as you strip before plunging into the cold water.

In August, as the nights cool and rents rise, I’ll ghostwrite blurbs and upload your syllabus, invite culturally significant neighbors over for cocktails and croquet while rebuffing the local book clubs. One night, drowsy from the day’s sun, picking at a cold chicken, we discuss the impending fall with unusual candor. Your editor threatens legal action over an undelivered manuscript; your biographer is bored; your department head hints at forced retirement. The last of the movie money must go to a new roof. There are no calls from Stockholm forthcoming. We jokingly contemplate murder-suicide while toasting the freedom of diminished circumstances.

The big maple in the yard turns a mournful red. You spend Labor Day with family. Shunned, I write a story about a dying, vice-riddled artist haunted by regret. You retaliate by writing a story about a talentless, deceitful striver who worms his way into the confidences of a trusting, benevolent sage.

Our falling out is quick and bloodless. You instruct the groundskeeper to pack my belongings while I’m off at the pharmacy. I return to tutoring while you pen a widely mocked editorial on the fecklessness of millennials. My story is rejected at the usual places while yours is acquired by the latest well-funded online outfit.

CV, samples, and references available upon request.

Michael McGrath is a writer living in Connecticut and a former Poe-Faulkner Fellow at the University of Virginia. Visit him at