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Today is Kouign Amann Day, which was inaugurated in 2015. It honors Kouign amann, a round crusty cake, made with a yeast-raised dough containing layers of butter and sugar, traditional in Brittany, originating in the 1860s during a flour shortage when butter was still abundant.
These words made an instant connection between bread and poetry for me: poetry is the “sweet bread” of hard times.
Even when it isn’t sweet, poetry offers us a place to get lost for awhile, sympathy when in distress or despair, or urges us to fight whatever bedevils us.
Actually, poetry chose me ...
“You’re coming with me, poor thing. You don’t know how to listen. You don’t know how to speak. You don’t know how to sing. I will teach you.”
I followed poetry.
― U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, from Crazy Brave: A Memoir
This week, there are seven poets’ birthdays, giving us a sustaining amount of sweet bread to counteract all the troubles surrounding us.
June 20, 1786 – Marceline Desbordes-Valmore born, French poet and novelist; an orphan by 16, she became an actress and singer, at the Paris Opéra-Comique and other theatres, but retired from the stage in 1823; in 1819, she became one of the founders of French romantic poetry when she published her first poetic work, Élégies et Romances, followed in 1821 by her narrative Veillées des Antilles and five more volumes of poetry between 1825 and 1860 (the last one published posthumously). She was the only woman writer included in the notable Les Poètes maudits anthology published by Paul Verlaine in 1884.
Les Roses de Saadi
par Marceline Desbordes-Valmore
J'ai voulu ce matin te rapporter des roses;
Mais j'en avais tant pris dans mes ceintures closes
Que les nœuds trop serrés n'ont pu les contenir.
Les nœuds ont éclaté. Les roses envolées
Dans le vent, à la mer s'en sont toutes allées.
Elles ont suivi l'eau pour ne plus revenir;
La vague en a paru rouge et comme enflammée.
Ce soir, ma robe encore en est tout embaumée ...
Respires-en sur moi l'odorant souvenir.
The Roses of Saadi
by Marceline Desbordes-Valmore
I wanted to bring you roses this morning;
But I have placed so many into my sashes
That the knots were too strained to contain them.
The knots have now burst ; the roses have flown
And have all gone to the sea in the wind
Where they followed the waters no more to return;
The wave appeared red as if bursting in flame.
This evening, my dress is still full of their fragrance …
Breathing remembrance in odours upon me.
– translation © by David Paley
June 20, 1910 – Josephine Johnson born, American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet; at age 24, she was the youngest winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, in 1935 for her first novel, Now in November. She won the O. Henry Award for short stories four times – for “Dark” in 1934, “Alexander to the Park” (1942), "The Glass Pigeon" (1943), and "Night Flight" (1944). Her poetry was published in magazines, and in one collection, Year’s End.
by Josephine Johnson
Over our spoken words the words unspoken
Shouted like trumpets, and like violins
Were the deep after-tones that circled round us.
Now a new year begins!
This is my solstice. All my winter season
Bends but to this: the hour we meet — and then
The rising sap, the budding leaf, boughs shaken
With bloom again!
Swift is our summer, salt the pain of parting,
Silent and cold the long implacable night.
Oh let no cloud estrange, no darkness hover —
Shine out, my sun! I live but in your light!
“Solstice” by Josephine Johnson appeared in the August 1936 issue of Poetry magazine
June 20, 1914 – Zelda Schneersohn Mishkovsky born, Israeli poet; awarded the Brenner Prize, the Bialik Prize for Literature, and the Wertheim Prize.
A Sabbath Candle
by Zelda Schneersohn Mishkovsky
My heart asked the evening,
my deep and compassionate companion:
How can fire
sprout golden wings
and embark on a magical flight.
What is its secret?
A lonely flower replied to the heart:
Love is the root of fire.
The sea breeze
answered my thoughts:
The lily of all freedom in the universe,
this is the fire of wondrous light.
My blood hearkens—
and weeps bitterly.
Woe, a flame--even an auto-da-fe.
It was also said—
fire is a wondrous mockery of dust.
Is it proper for a mortal woman,
soft of heart,
to roam and wander
in the garden of fire.
How dare she
in the smoke of waste conjure
the ember of peace,
an ember with which Sarah Bat Tovim would light
a Sabbath candle in the gloom of pain.
Between the walls of nightmare
it would bloom, burning slowly
in the crumbling house, in the pit.
Facing it, the woman of sorrowful depths
shut her eyes,
to worry, to mourning, to shame, to the mundane.
The candle's sparks are palaces,
and in the midst of the palaces
mothers sing to the heavens
to endless generations.
And she wanders in their midst
toward God, with a barefoot baby
and with the murdered.
The soft of heart comes in dance
in the golden Holy of Holies, inside a spark.
“A Sabbath Candle” from The Spectacular Difference: Selected Poems of Zelda, © 2004, translations by Marcia Falk – Hebrew College Press
July 20, 1951 – Paul Muldoon born, prolific Irish poet, winner of the 1994 T.S. Eliot Prize for The Annals of Chile, the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Moy Sand and Gravel, and the 2004 Shakespeare Prize for Achievement in the Humanities and Arts.
Pineapples And Pomegranates
by Paul Muldoon
To think that, as a boy of thirteen, I would grapple
with my first pineapple,
its exposed breast
setting itself as another test
of my will-power, knowing in my bones
that it stood for something other than itself alone
while having absolutely no sense
of its being a world-wide symbol of munificence.
Munificence—right? Not munitions, if you understand
where I'm coming from. As if the open hand
might, for once, put paid
to the hand-grenade
in one corner of the planet.
I'm talking about pineapples—right?—not pomegranates.
“Pineapples And Pomegranates” from Selected Poems 1968-2014, © 2016 by Paul Muldoon – Farrar, Straus and Giroux
June 21, 1950 – Anne Carson born, Canadian poet, essayist, translator, and professor of classics. Since 1979, she has been teaching at American universities, including the University of Michigan, NYU, and Yale. In addition to numerous translations of ancient Greek plays and poetry, she has published books of poetry, mixed collections of poetry and prose, and a verse novel. Her vast number of awards and honors include the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry; the T.S. Eliot Prize (for The Beauty of the Husband); and the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature.
by Anne Carson
Three silent women at the kitchen table.
My mother’s kitchen is dark and small but out the window
there is the moor, paralyzed with ice.
It extends as far as the eye can see
over flat miles to a solid unlit white sky.
Mother and I are chewing lettuce carefully.
The kitchen wall clock emits a ragged low buzz that jumps
once a minute over the twelve.
I have Emily p. 216 propped open on the sugarbowl
but am covertly watching my mother.
A thousand questions hit my eyes from the inside.
My mother is studying her lettuce.
I turn to p. 217.
“In my flight through the kitchen I knocked over Hareton
who was hanging a litter of puppies
from a chairback in the doorway. . . .”
It is as if we have all been lowered into an atmosphere of glass.
Now and then a remark trails through the glass.
Taxes on the back lot. Not a good melon,
too early for melons.
Hairdresser in town found God, closes shop every Tuesday.
Mice in the teatowel drawer again.
Little pellets. Chew off
the corners of the napkins, if they knew
what paper napkins cost nowadays.
That volcano in the Philippines at it again. What’s her name
Anderson died no not Shirley
the opera singer. Negress.
Not eating your garnish, you don’t like pimento?
Out the window I can see dead leaves ticking over the flatland
and dregs of snow scarred by pine filth.
At the middle of the moor
where the ground goes down into a depression,
the ice has begun to unclench.
Black open water comes
curdling up like anger. My mother speaks suddenly.
That psychotherapy’s not doing you much good is it?
You aren’t getting over him.
My mother has a way of summing things up.
She never liked Law much
but she liked the idea of me having a man and getting on with life.
Well he’s a taker and you’re a giver I hope it works out,
was all she said after she met him.
Give and take were just words to me
at the time. I had not been in love before.
It was like a wheel rolling downhill.
But early this morning while mother slept
and I was downstairs reading the part in Wuthering Heights
where Heathcliff clings at the lattice in the storm sobbing
Come in! Come in! to the ghost of his heart’s darling,
I fell on my knees on the rug and sobbed too.
She knows how to hang puppies,
It isn’t like taking an aspirin you know, I answer feebly.
Dr. Haw says grief is a long process.
She frowns. What does it accomplish
all that raking up the past?
Oh—I spread my hands—
I prevail! I look her in the eye.
She grins. Yes you do.
“THREE” is part three of “The Glass Essay” from Glass, Irony, and God, © 1994 by Anne Carson – New Directions Publishing
June 23, 1889 – Anna Akhmatova born, pseudonym for Russian poet Anna Andreyevna Gorenko, one of the most acclaimed and significant Russian poets of the 20th century, noted for remaining in the Soviet Union, even after her work was condemned and censored by Stalinist authorities, and writing in secret about the horrors of living under Stalin. Requiem, her interconnected set of poems about Stalin’s Great Purge, is considered her masterwork. Her first husband was executed by the Soviet secret police, and her son spent many years in the Gulag. Requiem was written and rewritten between 1935 and 1961, and published in Germany in 1963. Requiem wasn’t allowed to be published in the USSR until 1987.
You Will Hear Thunder
by Anna Akhmatova
You will hear thunder and remember me,
And think: she wanted storms. The rim
Of the sky will be the colour of hard crimson,
And your heart, as it was then, will be on fire.
That day in Moscow, it will all come true,
when, for the last time, I take my leave,
And hasten to the heights that I have longed for,
Leaving my shadow still to be with you.
“You Will Hear Thunder” from The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova – Zephyr Press, 2020 edition
June 24, 1916 – John Ciardi born, American poet, translator, etymologist, editor, and columnist. He was the director of the Middlebury Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in the 1960s, poetry editor for Saturday Review, and recorded commentaries on word histories for National Public Radio. His many poetry collections include Homeward to America; Live Another Day; The Reason for the Pelican (one of several books of verse for children); Echoes: Poems Left Behind; and Stations of the Air.
Bees and Morning Glories
by John Ciardi
Morning glories, pale as a mist drying,
fade from the heat of the day, but already
hunchback bees in pirate pants and with peg-leg
hooks have found and are boarding them.
This could do for the sack of the imaginary
fleet. The raiders loot the galleons even as they
one by one vanish and leave still real
only what has been snatched out of the spell.
I’ve never seen bees more purposeful except
when the hive is threatened. They know
the good of it must be grabbed and hauled
before the whole feast wisps off.
They swarm in light and, fast, dive in,
then drone out, slow, their pantaloons heavy
with gold and sunlight. The line of them,
like thin smoke, wafts over the hedge.
And back again to find the fleet gone.
Well, they got this day’s good of it. Off
they cruise to what stays open longer.
Nothing green gives honey. And by now
you’d have to look twice to see more than green
where all those white sails trembled
when the world was misty and open
and the prize was there to be taken.
“Bees and Morning Glories” from Person to Person, © 1964 by John Ciardi –
Rutgers University Press
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