“To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian”

Poem for a Tuesday — Ross Gay “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian”

Tumbling through the
city in my
mind without once
looking up
the racket in
the lugwork probably
rehearsing some
stupid thing I
said or did
some crime or
other the city they
say is a lonely
place until yes
the sound of sweeping
and a woman
yes with a
broom beneath
which you are now
too the canopy
of a fig its
arms pulling the
September sun to it
and she
has a hose too
and so works hard
rinsing and scrubbing
the walk
lest some poor sod
slip on the silk
of a fig
and break his hip
and not probably
reach over to gobble up
the perpetrator
the light catches
the veins in her hands
when I ask about
the tree they
flutter in the air and
she says take
as much as
you can
help me
so I load my
pockets and mouth
and she points
to the step-ladder against
the wall to
mean more but
I was without a
sack so my meager
plunder would have to
suffice and an old woman
whom gravity
was pulling into
the earth loosed one
from a low slung
branch and its eye
wept like hers
which she dabbed
with a kerchief as she
cleaved the fig with
what remained of her
teeth and soon there were
eight or nine
people gathered beneath
the tree looking into
it like a constellation pointing
do you see it
and I am tall and so
good for these things
and a bald man even
told me so
when I grabbed three
or four for
him reaching into the
giddy throngs of
wasps sugar
stoned which he only
pointed to smiling and
rubbing his stomach
I mean he was really rubbing his stomach
it was hot his
head shone while he
offered recipes to the
group using words which
I couldn’t understand and besides
I was a little
tipsy on the dance
of the velvety heart rolling
in my mouth
pulling me down and
down into the
oldest countries of my
body where I ate my first fig
from the hand of a man who escaped his country
by swimming through the night
and maybe
never said more than
five words to me
at once but gave me
figs and a man on his way
to work hops twice
to reach at last his
fig which he smiles at and calls
baby, c’mere baby,
he says and blows a kiss
to the tree which everyone knows
cannot grow this far north
being Mediterranean
and favoring the rocky, sun-baked soils
of Jordan and Sicily
but no one told the fig tree
or the immigrants
there is a way
the fig tree grows
in groves it wants,
it seems, to hold us,
yes I am anthropomorphizing
goddammit I have twice
in the last thirty seconds
rubbed my sweaty
forearm into someone else’s
sweaty shoulder
gleeful eating out of each other’s hands
on Christian St.
in Philadelphia a city like most
which has murdered its own
people
this is true
we are feeding each other
from a tree
at the corner of Christian and 9th
strangers maybe
never again.

in The American Poetry Review, vol. 42, no. 3.

Poet, professor, and essayist Ross Gay is all about joy. His four books of poetry include Be Holding, winner of the PEN American Literary Jean Stein Award; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. His first collection of essays – The Book of Delights – was a New York Times bestseller. His current work Inciting Joy is a Publisher’s Weekly best book of 2022. Editor John Freeman says Ross’s work, “throws off so much light, I’ve often wondered if it was powered by a superior energy source.” Ross Gay teaches at Indiana University, where he gives out lots of “A” grades and invites students to wonder with him.

Photo by Zaid Ahmed on Pexels.com

December Moon

Poem for a Tuesday — “December Moon” by May Sarton

Before going to bed
After a fall of snow
I look out on the field
Shining there in the moonlight
So calm, untouched and white
Snow silence fills my head
After I leave the window.

Hours later near dawn
When I look down again
The whole landscape has changed
The perfect surface gone
Criss-crossed and written on
Where the wild creatures ranged
While the moon rose and shone.

Why did my dog not bark?
Why did I hear no sound
There on the snow-locked ground
In the tumultuous dark?

How much can come, how much can go
When the December moon is bright,
What worlds of play we’ll never know
Sleeping away the cold white night
After a fall of snow.

in Good Poems, New York: Penguin Books, 2002, p. 306.


Born in Belgium, May Sarton emigrated with her family to the United States as a small child at the outbreak of the First World War. Her father, a science historian, taught at Harvard. Sarton returned to Europe as a young adult and traveled in literary circles, meeting Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, and Julian and Juliette Huxley. Her extensive body of work, which included poetry, novels, journals, and essays, was controversial for the time, exploring themes of feminism and sexuality. Linda Barrett Osborne, critic for the Washington Post Book World, once noted that “in whatever May Sarton writes one can hear the human heart pulsing just below the surface.”


Photo by Simon Berger on Pexels.com

Testimony

Poem for a Tuesday — “Testimony” by Jane Flanders

This is how death

came to the old tree:

in a cold bolt, a single

thrust from a cloud,

in a tearing away of bark

and limbs, a piercing

of much that was necessary.

We had no choice then

but to cut it down–a pine

of great height, that knew much

about weather and small life.

It had been here longer

than any of us. And now

there is a hole in the sky.

In Cries of the Spirit, ed. Marilyn Sewell. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991. P. 126.


Jane Flanders was a poet, musician, and gardener. A three-time recipient of the Pushcart Prize, Flanders was the author of three volumes of poetry at the time of her death from cancer in 2001. Not long afterward, her husband Steve discovered more than 700 of her uncollected, unpublished poems, a number of which were subsequently published in three posthumous volumes. Reviewer Andrew Hudgins wrote that “Flanders constantly probes the commonplace, seeking what message it has to reveal about the infinite or to discover in what way a particular moment contains the eternal” (Hudson Review).


Photo by Tanya Gorelova on Pexels.com

The Sacred

Poem for a Tuesday — “The Sacred” by Stephen Dunn

After the teacher asked if anyone had
a sacred place
and the students fidgeted and shrank

in their chairs, the most serious of them all
said it was his car,
being in it alone, his tape deck playing

things he’d chosen, and others knew the truth
had been spoken
and began speaking about their rooms,

their hiding places, but the car kept coming up,
the car in motion,
music filling it, and sometimes one other person

who understood the bright altar of the dashboard
and how far away
a car could take him from the need

to speak, or to answer, the key
in having a key
and putting it in, and going.

in Songs for the Open Road. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1999, p. 12.


Pulitzer Prize-winner Stephen Dunn once said he was an unlikely poet. The first in his family to earn a college degree, he attended school on a basketball scholarship, worked writing copy for Nabisco, and quit it all to travel to Spain and pen a failed novel. He found his calling as a writer when his purpose shifted from prose to poetry. The author of twenty-one collections of poetry, Dunn was hailed for his ability to explore the complexity of life by attending to the mundane. Rita Dove once wrote that Dunn was “a poet who time and again achieves that most difficult magic of the ordinary. He can take you by the hand and lead you along a street you may have passed through every day without much notice, and suddenly, at this new angle, the ordinary reveals in itself all the splendor and terror of existence.” He served as a distinguished professor of creative writing at Richard Stockton College before his death in 2021.


Photo by Tobi on Pexels.com

The Dogs in Dutch Paintings

Poem for a Tuesday — “The Dogs in Dutch Paintings” by David Graham

How shall I not love them, snoozing

right through the Annunciation?  They inhabit

the outskirts of every importance, sprawl

dead center in each oblivious household.

They’re digging at fleas or snapping at scraps,

dozing with noble abandon while a boy

bells their tails.  Often they present their rumps

in the foreground of some martyrdom.

What Christ could lean so unconcernedly

against a table leg, the feast above continuing?

Could the Virgin in her joy match this grace

as a hound sagely ponders an upturned turtle?

No scholar at his huge book will capture

my eye so well as the skinny haunches,

the frazzled tails and serene optimism

of the least of these mutts, curled

in the corners of the world’s dazzlement.

— in 180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, ed. Billy Collins. New York: Random House, 2005, p. 160.


David Graham is a teacher, writer, and poet. For twenty-eight years, he taught English literature and writing for Ripon College in Wisconsin. He was selected to serve as Resident Poet, as well as faculty member, at The Frost Place, a nonprofit educational center for poetry and the arts based at Robert Frost’s old homestead in Franconia, New Hampshire. Retired now, Graham lives on the southern edge of the Adirondack Park in Glens Falls, New York. He writes a monthly column, “Poetic License,” on poetry and poets for Verse-Virtual, an online community journal of poetry. He has written nine books of poetry. The most recent The Honey of Earth is available now from Terrapin Books.


“The Arnolfini Portrait” by Jan Vam Eyck, 1434.

Pennsylvania Station

Poem for a Tuesday — “Pennsylvania Station” by Langston Hughes

The Pennsylvania Station in New York
Is like some vast basilica of old
That towers above the terror of the dark
As bulwark and protection to the soul.
Now people who are hurrying alone
And those who come in crowds from far away
Pass through this great concourse of steel and stone
To trains, or else from trains out into day.
And as in great basilicas of old
The search was ever for a dream of God,
So here the search is still within each soul
Some seed to find to root in earthly sod,
Some seed to find that sprouts a holy tree
To glorify the earth—and you—and me.

In Songs for the Open Road, Mineola: Dover Publications, 1999, p. 38.


Langston Hughes was an innovator of jazz poetry and one of the foremost poets of the Harlem Rennaissance. He was a descendant of the elite, politically active Langston family, free people of color who worked for the abolitionist cause and helped lead the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society in 1858. Hughes wrote from an early age, moving to New York City as a teen to attend Columbia University. In addition to poetry, Hughes wrote plays, short stories, essays, and non-fiction. From 1942 to 1962, he wrote an in-depth weekly column in a leading black newspaper, The Chicago Defender. In 1960, the NAACP presented Hughes with the Spingarn Medal for distinguished achievements by an African American. In 2002, his image was added to The United States Postal Service’s Black Heritage series of postage stamps.


A southward view of the concourse and its famous clock as seen on April 24, 1962. Cervin Robinson photo. Accessed online at https://www.american-rails.com/pnstn.html

Witness

Poem for a Tuesday — “Witness” by Denise Levertov

“Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.”

in A Book of Luminous Things, ed. Czeslaw Milosz. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996, p. 72.


When British-American poet Denise Levertov was five years old, she declared she would be a writer. At the age of 12, she sent some of her poems to T. S. Eliot, who replied with a two-page letter of encouragement. Her father Paul Levertov was a Russian Hasidic Jew who taught at the University of Leipzig. During the First World War, he was held under house arrest as an enemy alien by virtue of his ethnicity. After emigrating to the UK, he converted to Christianity and became an Anglican priest. Denise said, “My father’s Hasidic ancestry, his being steeped in Jewish and Christian scholarship and mysticism, his fervor and eloquence as a preacher, were factors built into my cells.” She was described by the New York Times as, “the most subtly skillful poet of her generation, the most profound, the most modest, the most moving.” She wrote and published twenty-four books of poetry.


Photo by Tobias Bju00f8rkli on Pexels.com

To a Milkweed

Poem for a Thursday — “To a Milkweed” by Deborah Digges

Teach me to love what I’ve made and judgment

in that love.

Teach me your arrogance.

With each five-petaled horned flower teach me

how much blossoming matters

along roadsides, dry-

beds, these fields no longer cleared.

Teach me such patience at each turning, how

to live on nothing but will, its milky

juices, poison

to the others, though when its stem is broken,

bleeds. Teach me to

need the future,

and the past, that Indian summer.

Let me be tricked into believing

that by what moves in me I might be saved,

and hold to this. Hold

onto this until there’s wind enough.

in Cries of the Spirit, ed. Marilyn Sewell. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991, p. 159.


Deborah Digges grew up in Jefferson City, Missouri, the sixth of ten children. Her poetry explores themes of family, nature, gender roles, and the complexities of being human. She taught for a number of years at Tuft’s University outside Boston. Digges authored four acclaimed volumes of poetry, including Vesper Sparrows (1986), which won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Prize for a best first book of poetry. Her death by suicide in 2009 at the age of 59 deprived the world of a gifted voice. John Michaud of The New Yorker wrote, “She was the kind of writer whose work went deep into the lives of her readers.”


Image source https://www.britannica.com/plant/common-milkweed

Before Dark

Poem for a Tuesday — “Before Dark” by Wendell Berry

“From the porch at dusk I watched

a kingfisher wild in flight

he could only have made for joy.

He came down the river, splashing

against the water’s dimming face

like a skipped rock, passing

on down out of sight. And still

I could hear the splashes

farther and farther away

as it grew darker. He came back

the same way, dusky as his shadow,

sudden beyond the willows.

The splashes went on out of hearing.

It was dark then. Somewhere

the night had accommodated him

—at the place he was headed for

or where, led by his delight,

he came.”

In Collected Poems: 1957-1982. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984. P. 63.


Wendell Berry is a farmer, author, and poet. For more than forty years, he has sustainably worked the land in eastern Kentucky that his ancestors first settled in the early 19th century. His writing embodies a deep reverence for the land and its wild creatures. He believes that we must learn to live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the earth or perish. Berry was awarded a National Humanities Medal in 2010 and a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Books Critics Circle in 2016.


Photo by Monique Laats on Pexels.com

To the Dust of the Road

Poem for a Tuesday — W.S. Merwin

“And in the morning you are up again
with the way leading through you for a while
longer if the wind is motionless when
the cars reach where the asphalt ends a mile
or so below the main road and the wave
you rise into is different every time
and you are one with it until you have
made your way up to the top of your climb
and brightened in that moment of that day
and then you turn as when you rose before
in fire or wind from the ends of the earth
to pause here and you seem to drift away
on into nothing to lie down once more
until another breath brings you to birth”

in 180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, ed. Billy Collins. New York: Random House, 2005. P. 8.


W.S. Merwin

William Stanley Merwin was the son of a Presbyterian Minister. His first foray into poetry came as a boy: writing and illustrating hymns for his father, almost as soon as he could hold a pencil. Strongly rooted in classical studies, his translation of Dante’s Purgatorio and the Middle English epic Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were heralded for their “graceful, accessible language,” and his Selected Translations won the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award. Merwin was a staunch pacifist and proponent of deep ecology. In 1976, he moved to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism and remained there for the rest of his life, buying an old pineapple plantation and carefully restoring the native habitat. One of the most highly decorated poets in American literature, Merwin was the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes and served twice as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1999-2000 and 2010-2011.


Photo by Ivy Son on Pexels.com