It has been a week of poetry for me. Last week, my wife Ann and I discovered that Natasha Trethewey has been named the country’s poet laureate, and we have been devouring her story (born of a white father and black mother and then living through her mother’s murder at the hands of her step-father) and her poetry (which is filled with voice and imagery and multiple comparisons). We also went to hear Vermont’s newly appointed poet laureate, Sydney Lea, at the Red Barn on the property of the Robert Frost Stone House in Shaftsbury. He, too, has a great story (a terrific literary scholar, especially of all things Frost) and is a fabulous writer.
Below is a poem from each writer. I think you’ll see why they have been appointed poet laureates.
Domestic Work, 1937—Natasha Trethewey
All week she’s cleaned
someone else’s house,
stared down her own face
in the shine of copper-
bottomed pots, polished
wood, toilets she’d pull
the lid to–that look saying
Let’s make a change, girl.
But Sunday mornings are hers–
church clothes starched
and hanging, a record spinning
on the console, the whole house
dancing. She raises the shades,
washes the rooms in light,
buckets of water, Octagon soap.
Cleanliness is next to godliness …
Windows and doors flung wide,
forward and back, neck bones
bumping in the pot, a choir
of clothes clapping on the line.
Nearer my God to Thee …
She beats time on the rugs,
blows dust from the broom
like dandelion spores, each one
a wish for something better.
To a Young Father—Sydney Lea
This riverbend must have always been lovely.
Take the one-lane iron bridge shortcut across
the town’s west end and look downstream
to where the water backs up by the falls.
Boys once fished there with butterball bait
because the creamery churned by hydro
and the trout were so rich, says my ancient neighbor,
they tasted like heaven, but better. Try to
stop on the bridge if no one’s coming
to see the back of the furniture mill
in upside-down detail on the river,
assuming the day is clear and still.
I’ve lived here and driven this road forever.
Strange therefore that I’ve never taken
the same advice I’m offering you.
I’ve lived here, but I’ve too often been racing
to get to work or else back home
to my wife and our younger school-age children,
the fifth and last of whom will be headed
away to college starting this autumn.
I hope I paid enough attention
to her and the others, in spite of the lawn,
the plowing, the bills, the urgent concerns
of career and upkeep. Soon she’ll be gone.
Try to stop on the bridge in fall:
that is, when hardwood trees by the river
drop carmine and amber onto the surface;
or in spring, when the foliage has gotten no bigger
than any newborn infant’s ear
such that the light from sky to stream
makes the world, as I’ve said — or at least this corner –
complete, in fact double. I’d never have dreamed
a household entirely empty of children.
It’ll be the first time in some decades,
which may mean depression, and if so indifference
to the river’s reflections, to leaves and shades,
but more likely — like you, if you shrug off my counsel
or even take it — it’ll be through tears
that I witness each of these things, so lovely.
They must have been lovely all these years.