Updated: Jun 7, 2020
Dwelling in Possibility with Prartho Sereno , May 25 - June 7, 2020
Day 14: Like a Swimmer in the Sky
Pablo Neruda’s Autumn Testament
by Pablo Neruda
translation by Alastair Reid
From having been born so often
I have salty experience
like creatures of the sea
with a passion for stars
and an earthy destination.
And so I move without knowing
to which world I'll be returning
or if I'll go on living.
While things are settling down,
here I've left my testament,
my shifting extravaganza,
so whoever goes on reading it
will never take in anything
except the constant moving
of a clear and bewildered man,
a man rainy and happy,
lively and autumn-minded.
And now I'm going behind
this page, but not disappearing.
I'll dive into clear air
like a swimmer in the sky,
and then get back to growing
till one day I'm so small
that the wind will take me away
and I won't know my own name
and I won't be there when I wake.
Then I will sing in the silence.
First, a note about Alistair Reed as translator. Many years ago, I discovered that all translators are by no means alike. My first collection of Neruda’s work was a huge volume, which made me think I was getting more pages for my buck (!) Alas, the poems in translation rarely hit any notes in my heart. I can’t even tell you the translator’s name, as I soon discarded that book.
But when I discovered Alistair Reed’s versions—especially the collection Extravagaria, which ends with this poem—I fell in love. If asked to name my favorite poet, more often than not, my heart shouts, before I can even deliberate, Pablo Neruda. What is it that brings me back again and again to this poet-politician (almost an oxymoron, isn’t it?) I think this Autumn Testament both shows and tells why: He is
a clear and bewildered man,
a man rainy and happy,
lively and autumn-minded.
And he is willing to dive into clear air… and grow so small the wind will take him away.
Taking Neruda’s lead, for our last day together, let’s write our own Testaments. When I just now looked up the term, I discovered that Testament is defined in three interwoven ways:
1. one’s will (the distribution of personal effects)
2. evidence or a sign (of something on another plane/ in another time) 3. a covenant or commitment between God and His people.
1. What personal effects will you distribute into the world?
2. What evidence or signs have drawn you toward another dimension?
3. Describe the covenant you have made or wish to make with your god.
Oh, why not? Aim for the stars: The New Yorker !
Of course, only send the best of your best to what is considered Olympic Gold in publication. As encouragement, though, I’ve found the current poetry editor Kevin Young (we read at his poem Urgent Telegram To Jean-Michel Basquiat on Day 8) not only to be the most inclusive editor in decades, but (to my sensibilities) the most heart-based in his selections.
A Good Cup of Coffee
One of my brothers is fond of asking people what last taste they would want to have before leaving this world. (His is a certain East Coast brand of frozen custard.) Mine, strangely enough, is a good cup of coffee. I guess I’m in good company. I’ve been told the Russian mystic George Gurdjieff often remarked that he could never trust a man who couldn’t make a good cup of coffee.
In my endless pursuit, here’s what I have learned so far:
Buy whole beans, a weekly amount of which are kept in an airtight jar at room temperature. (I keep the rest in the freezer)
Heat an insulated container (either single cup for one, or larger for several imbibers) by pouring in boiling water and covering.
While kettle is boiling fresh water, grind beans to fine powder (NOT the extra-fine of espresso grind, a little bit coarser)
You’ll need 1/8 c of grinds for a little over 1c of brewed coffee (NOT per mug, which are almost always 1 1/2 to 2 cups); currently I use 1/2 cup coffee (four 1/8c scoops) per 3 1/2 c water, serves 2 or 3)
Wet an unbleached filter, set in a ceramic or glass cone (NOT plastic!), add the ground coffee beans
Begin to pour in the water, “just off the boil” (I literally lift the electric kettle up with it still boiling, but wait till it subsides before pouring.) Pour around the outer edge of the filter first and work your way toward the center; fill the cone only half way for the first pour.
I used to stir the soaked grounds, but my expert barista grandson says if you pour right, you can and should skip this step, as it can disturb the beans and increase acidity.
Once the water has disappeared and the grounds have puffed up a bit, repeat pours. The number of pours depends on hour water to grounds ratio (see #4). I make 4 cups of coffee each day for my sweetheart and myself, which takes three pouring rounds. You can see when the beans have given their all, as the brew in the cone will begin to show less action…less tiny bubbles on the surface as you stir. (DON’T over-leach the beans… if you see very little action, take the cone off and stop adding water.)
Cover and serve in pre-warmed (with boiling water) cups.
Drink slowly, contemplatively … and you’ll be at heaven's door!
Day 13: With a Child’s Heart & Soul
Paul Fentress's poem, written in first grade
at Brookside School in San Anselmo
A Dark Sea of Magic
by Paul Fentress
A dark sea of magic
Five rocks fall off songs
One wise old man in a lighthouse
A sparkly fish in the air
In my 21+ years as a poet-in-the-schools, this poem represents one of the highest (among thousands) of moments that have moved me, for this was the poem Paul wrote during a Mothers Day workshop, just a few months after his mother had died.
As we sat criss-cross-applesauce style on the carpet and I announced that we would write about our mothers that day, the students informed me that Paul didn’t have one. It is difficult to describe what I saw and felt as my eyes met Paul’s and his fellow classmates’—I felt like I had been admitted to a circle of wise elders. Their eyes were steady and clear with what felt like true compassion, without embarrassment or sentimentality. We sat quietly together with the fact of loss—its solemnity and its power to bring us together.
When it was time to write, I suggested Paul might write his poem to his father. But he shook his head no. Later, I suggested he could write to his mother, but again he said no.
Awkwardly, I went on to write what I’d prepared on the board: Compare your mother’s hair to a vegetable. What are her hands made of (e.g., water or fire or feathers)? What do you see her doing in your mind? Crown her the Queen of something.…
I noticed Paul moving his pencil, deep into the process, and left him alone for a while. When I finally came round to his desk and read the poem I’m offering here, I was speechless before its mystery and beauty.
Eventually, I asked, “Who did you write this for, Paul?… Is this for your mother?”
He shook his head no.
Again, no. Then he looked right into me and said, “This poem is for me. I wrote this poem for me.”
Although your main prompt today is to follow Paul’s open heart and forget any prompt I could give, I will offer this appreciation of the artistry of his Dark Sea of Magic: It eschews all explanation as it unearths its images. We are witness to an inner slideshow—his very own dark sea of magic where rocks fall off and sing. With no extra words, we are zoomed in to see one wise old man in his lighthouse (I love that he counts his characters—one!). And then, his unbelievably perfect ending… from that dark sea he brings up: a sparkly fish in the air!
Whenever I read this poem, which I consider a masterpiece (Paul is still writing, by the way. “Mostly songs,” he tells me when I run into him at Good Earth in Fairfax), I can feel the child that’s still alive in me. Doesn’t that happen for you too? She/ he is the one I’m asking to write your poem today.
Today, I’m going to ask you to follow in the great tradition of self-publishing. Uncle Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass came into the world that way. And he wrote his own glowing reviews for that book too!
Pick your favorite 12 to 18 poems, or find a theme that runs through your “collected works,” and create your own chapbook, using the “recipes” below!
from Poets & Writers
DIY: How to Make and Bind Your Own Chapbook
Whether you end up distributing your own prose or poetry at a reading or collecting the work of your friends in limited editions, the following instructions on how to create and bind your own chapbooks offer hours of bookmaking fun.
Day 12: Singing The Blues
Langston Hughes’es Miss Blues’es Child
Miss Blues’es Child
by Langston Hughes (1902—1967)
If the blues would let me,
Lord knows I would smile.
If the blues would let me,
I’d smile, smile, smile.
Instead of that I’m cryin’ —
I must be Miss Blues’es child.
You were my moon up in the sky,
at night my wishing star.
I love you, oh, I love you so—
But you have gone so far!
Now my days are lonely,
And my night-time drives me wild.
In my heart I’m crying,
I’m just Miss Blues’es child!
The African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance taught us that one of the best ways to transform the blues is to invite them in. To sit ‘em down and write a song together.
The Blues is a formal poem (or song); i.e., we are given a template which prescribes rhythm, rhyme, and repetition, into which we are to fit our blues. The form is simple on the surface: Three statements (as a poem, usually each statement is broken into two lines). The first statement is a clear delineation of your complaint; the second is an almost exact repetition of that complaint. (Almost being the chief operative here—a little variation helps the music move along, as Lord knows I would cry becomes I’d cry cry cry in its second iteration.)
The third statement brings a brief conclusion to the stated difficulty, with more linguistic freedom. It must stay true to the established rhythm and the last word must continue the rhymed endings of the first two statements; in Hughes’s poem child provides a slant-rhyme with the smile that ends the first two parts of the poem/song.
Langston Hughes was one of the artists of the Harlem Renaissance, which took place in upper Manhattan, with famous musical celebrations at the Cotton Club. It was there that Hughes learned the blues form from singers and brought it into his poetry.
Here’s a few more examples, from blues songwriters to get you ready to sing your blues:
Green River Blues
Some people say
the Green River blues ain’t bad.
Seems I’m always hearin’
the Green River blues ain’t bad—
then it must not have been
them Green River blues I had.
Black Cat, Hoot Owl Blues
Last night a hoot owl
came to sit outside my door.
Last night a hoot owl came
and sat right at my door.
A feeling seemed to tell me
I would never see my man no more.
I got off my pallet and I laid down across my bed.
Got off my pallet and laid down
across my bed.
And when I went to eat my breakfast, the blues were all in my bread.
Now, Try these:
Name your blues… Keep revising it: the Green River Blues; them Sad Green River Blues; the Alligator Chompin Green River Blues… etc.
Put your blues in strange places: blues all in my head; all in my bread.
Let your blues be a spirit, capable of action.
Try to Write at least 3 Verses
A few places to begin:
Been so long ____________________________________________________
Only thing I know for sure_______________________________________________
I miss her/ him like_______________________________________________________
Seems this got off course when_______________________________________________
Know it might seem strange to you, _______________________________________
Salt Hill is the Journal produced by MFA students at Syracuse University, where I studied, taught, and wrote for 3 years, between 2010 and 2013. The team is small and intimate. This is their statement about submissions:
We are interested in work that represents a broad spectrum of experience. We believe it is critical to lift up the voices of writers and artists who have been traditionally underrepresented in the literary arts. As such, we feel an urgency to read and consider work by people of color, women, queer people, non-binary folks, and anyone else who has been marginalized by the institutions which have, for so long, dominated the publishing scene.
Left-Overs—my favorite ingredient!
Left-Over Saag-Paneer Quesadilla
1 multi-grain tortilla
Left-over Saag Paneer
(or Palak Paneer… same dish, both words mean spinach in different regions of India)
Handful of crumbled feta cheese (I prefer sheep’s milk feta)
Other grated cheese to help it all stick together
Place tortilla in lightly greased pre-warmed frying pan
Turn over and spread with saag paneer
Sprinkle in feta, (amount depends on how much paneer is left…I’ve usually eaten most of the paneer in the first round)
Sprinkle in other cheeses… which is what keeps the two halves sticking together, and what qualifies it as a quesadilla
I enjoyed this as my lunch yesterday, and decided to share it.
Day 11: All of Us, Boat People
Juan Ramon Jimenez’s Oceans
Oceans by Juan Ramon Jimenez (translated by Robert Bly) I have a feeling that my boat has struck, down there in the depths, against a great thing. And nothing happens! Nothing…Silence…Waves... —Nothing happens? Or has everything happened, and are we standing now, quietly, in the new life?
First, a little meditation on boats: The boat is one of our most timeless metaphors. How often lately, have you heard (or said yourself), “We are all in the same boat now.”
But perhaps this has always been the case: one boat/ one ocean. It only recently occurred to me that the five oceans we’ve named to keep our bearings are really only one big body of water… there is no line to divide the waters of the world.
Our most enduring myths have us crossing waters in boats. Consider Noah, who was instructed to build his boat on dry land and to invite in the animals. How the seas rose and took him, piloting that noisy boat through a storm of 40 days and 40 nights.
It is now thought that the first immigrants to North America arrived not on foot as previously theorized, but from Asia, by boat. To this day, especially during crises, people leave their homes for better lives by boat. They are often called The Boat People, and the way is almost always very difficult.
When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive. – Thich Nhat Hanh
Jimenez’s small poem with its huge title Oceans, begins in a boat, floating above the depths, and striking against a great thing.
The line-breaks here create a dramatic pace for… nothing to happen. —Nothing happens?/ Or has everything happened
Isn’t this exactly where the stopping of our world, which we all share in right now, has brought us: … standing now, /quietly, in the new life?
Today’s assignment is simple enough. Consider yourself, your life, your world, as a boat. Allow the boat and the oceans that carry it to be your poem’s commanding metaphor. Extend the metaphor... possibly with the help of the following lists (to jar your memory) of nautical terms and terms for the sea and its elements... until your vessel strikes against a great thing.
captain crew ship craft canoe sailing ship ropes
ark (offering protection) vessel sails mast anchor deck
engine oars bow stern cabin hull portside
wheel (for steering) rudder bow spirit (or figurehead) starboard
port dock bridge port of call (stop before destination)
Terms for the Sea and her Elements
high seas (beyond national jurisdiction) gale winds white-capped waters
salt water lagoon reef sandbank bay inlet
becalmed (when a sailing ship can’t move because the winds have stopped) calm seas
gulls albatross wandering albatross arctic terns dolphins
whales nets iceberg knots (measurement of wind velocity)
fair winds (perfect for sailing) open seas
The Bellevue Literary Review
From their website: The Bellevue Literary Review, founded in 2000, was created as a forum for creatively exploring a broad array of issues in medicine and society, using fiction, nonfiction, and poetry to better understand the nuanced tensions that define our lives both in illness and in health.
What better place to submit your poems at this time?
One of the easiest, yet somehow impressive, side-dishes I know
Curried Brussel Sprouts
Steam Brussel Sprouts (preferably fresh, but frozen will do, follow cooking directions on package)
Stir in a few dollops of our secret ingredient…ready for this?…mayonnaise!
Add your favorite curry powder to taste.
Reheat in a sauce pan, stirring constantly till warm
That’s it! This came from an old hippie friend who wowed everyone with her simple culinary skills. Whenever I’ve brought the dish to a potluck, everyone wants to know how I made such a delicious sauce! (shhh… now it’s your secret too. Don’t tell!)
Day 10: Our Verbs Know
How to Dance
The Ancient Christmas Dancers, written by Angel Mejia when he was in third grade under my tutelage at Venetia Valley School, San Rafael, CA
The Ancient Christmas Dancers
by Angel Mejia
On the longest night the moon fades the bells.
The trees fade in the darkness. The light of the ancient dancers sweeps, floats, flirts, somersaults. And I hear the wind say, Dance. Dance for the ancient dancers. For the moon, for your whole family and the Christmas spirit. And reveal that your great grandpa isn’t dead in your heart.
This is a poem that knows how to dance—a poem we can witness dancing its way into its young writer’s heart and opening his ears so he can feel the love and hear the voices of the Ancient Christmas Dancers.
I watched Angel write this poem… painstakingly at first, but once he found his verbs: The light of the ancient dancers/sweeps, floats, flirts, somersaults… Something took over his pencil. I love how he began to receive instructions from the wind—The urgent instruction to Dance. For the ancient dancers! For the moon (!) And soon enough, for everyone he loves, a dancing which performs the ultimate magic—bringing his late great grandpa back to life… in his heart.
Angel and his fellow poets were given two essential prompts for this poem; I am giving you the same:
1. To consider what happens, secretly, in the long and mysterious hours of the year’s longest night. (We were writing in December and began our session thinking together about the changes in daylight and nighttime throughout the year, with the imminent arrival of the longest night of that year.) I encouraged them to include what happens to the moon? The trees? The wind and light? The People?
2. We also spoke about the power of verbs to get things moving. I gave each student a list of Verbs to Move You, which I am including here. I think what makes Angel’s poem so remarkable is how generous he is with his verbs. Today, take his spirit, and the spirit of the ancient dancers, as your guide!
A List of Verbs… to move you:
veer skew teeter shuffle circle branch
lurch shiver lean swallow slog whisper
dilly-dally glance soften pour sprinkle dust
dig dive flick flutter plunge rock
flash drizzle bounce spring settle slump
hover brush sweep flow blossom bump
climb cradle touch sing darn mend
fan pluck collapse stutter shrink grow
drive duck release catch reach drop
scribble crack glue tape tremble sigh
uproot upstage reroute wade float rise
sink soar sail slosh fly flirt
fumble flit race rustle row wrangle
engulf envelop vanish relinquish dissolve disintegrate
balance shape carve hover hide flare
jump linger loiter lag land stretch
flap flounder scatter tumble mumble open
close pass blaze brighten plow blur
stitch scribble smooth rumple scatter mar
bellow sip saunter limp creep sway
drift scuttle inch sidle launch parse
tip flip flap turn scratch cartwheel
somersault skateboard splash grumble squish crumble
swing save jitterbug foxtrot skate slide
Barrow Street Review was founded in legendary Greenwich Village, in New York City. https://barrowstreet.org/press/
One of my dearest friends lived on tree-lined Barrow Street for more than 40 years, which was what first drew me to this high quality journal. Their next reading period is a ways off… Gives you plenty of time to polish those poems!
From their website: Send your submission during the reading period by using our Online Submission Manager. Our open reading period is from Dec. 1 - Dec. 15. Dec. 16 - March 15th there is a $3 charge per submission. Submit up to five pages maximum. Name, address, and phone number should appear on each page. Submissions that exceed the maximum cannot be read.
The Good Old Green Banana Smoothie
(Not with green bananas, but a banana smoothie suffused with green!)
Put all ingredients in blender:
1 frozen banana, cut into cubes (freezing it is the secret!)
1 c. plain low-fat yogurt
Other fruit (optional… whatever’s in the fridge or kitchen bowl)
1 Tbs. wheat grass or other green powder (or a few chard leaves)
1 tsp. vanilla
5 to 6 ice cubes, crushed
(my method for crushing: put cubes in a bag and wack with the back of an ice cream scoop till the pieces are quite small)
Blend on medium until all ingredients are fully blended. I make mine with only the sweetness of the fruit, but ice cream or sweeteners, such as maple syrup or agave juice or honey, can be added to taste.
Day 9: Let the Songs of the Night Touch Our Bodies
Kosrof Chantikian’s A Meditation on the Poem
from his forthcoming collection The Songs Inside of You (Kosmos, July, 2020)
A Meditation on the Poem
by Kosrof Chantikian
The poem’s deepest foundation is love
which is why it is revolutionary
the poem transmutes our lives in the world
it restores us to ourselves and each other
each time it does so history rises from its dull sleep
washes its dirty hands and feels itself breathe again
the poem undresses us
we become aware of our own and each other’s skin
this is how we invented the kiss
love in its true state is erotic
as moss slowly touches and enters the heart of the flower
love and eroticism are inseparable from each other
they are the original subversives
the poem asks nothing from us except that we remain true
to our dreams our work ourselves
this is the original insight of all poets the poem creates the poet
of the poet the poem requests nothing
but exacts everything
it is impossible to go beyond without language beyond words
the heart would choke and die if words
were shot at sundown
even the sparrow sings
as it waits to touch the wind
a poet’s intuition music as the sky
as songs of the night touch our bodies
Descartes’ cogito ergo sum must be undressed by the poem
I think, therefore I am must be forged by our lips into
we imagine and invent ourselves
and each other
is it necessary to prove the value of your laughter the sky your kiss?
and why the fields of wild iris at twilight
call to hold you tightly?
This poem, which opens Kosrof Chantikian’s forthcoming collection, is most obviously an ars poetica, a self-reflective poem about the art of poetry. But what sets it apart from legions of other poetic meditations on poetry (almost every poet has written at least one!) is its unabashed sensuality. For Chantikian, love and eroticism are the original subversives, and from this sensibility we are urg