Drool with me?

This morning, Alison Natasi’s piece “20 Poets on the Meaning of Poetry” in Flavorwire had me drooling.

It’s hard to pick a favorite from among such an abundance of riches, but number 9 from Carl Sandburg’s Tentative (First Model): Definitions of Poetry, did, pretty much, do what Emily Dickinson said poetry would: it made me feel as if the top of my head had been taken off!

9. Poetry is an echo asking a shadow dancer to be a partner.


Speaking of Carl Sandburg, here’s one of my favorite poems of his:

Wilderness (by Carl Sandburg)

THERE is a wolf in me … fangs pointed for tearing gashes … a red tongue for raw meat … and the hot lapping of blood—I keep this wolf because the wilderness gave it to me and the wilderness will not let it go.

There is a fox in me … a silver-gray fox … I sniff and guess … I pick things out of the wind and air … I nose in the dark night and take sleepers and eat them and hide the feathers … I circle and loop and double-cross.

There is a hog in me … a snout and a belly … a machinery for eating and grunting … a machinery for sleeping satisfied in the sun—I got this too from the wilderness and the wilderness will not let it go.

There is a fish in me … I know I came from saltblue water-gates … I scurried with shoals of herring … I blew waterspouts with porpoises … before land was … before the water went down … before Noah … before the first chapter of Genesis.

There is a baboon in me … clambering-clawed … dog-faced … yawping a galoot’s hunger … hairy under the armpits … here are the hawk-eyed hankering men … here are the blond and blue-eyed women … here they hide curled asleep waiting … ready to snarl and kill … ready to sing and give milk … waiting—I keep the baboon because the wilderness says so.

There is an eagle in me and a mockingbird … and the eagle flies among the Rocky Mountains of my dreams and fights among the Sierra crags of what I want … and the mockingbird warbles in the early forenoon before the dew is gone, warbles in the underbrush of my Chattanoogas of hope, gushes over the blue Ozark foothills of my wishes—And I got the eagle and the mockingbird from the wilderness.

O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head, under my red-valve heart—and I got something else: it is a man-child heart, a woman-child heart: it is a father and mother and lover: it came from God-Knows-Where: it is going to God-Knows-Where—For I am the keeper of the zoo: I say yes and no: I sing and kill and work: I am a pal of the world: I came from the wilderness.

I feel, paradoxically, more whole when I see the universe inside me in all its faces: now fierce, then gentle; now voracious, then soft; now violent, now yielding; now this, now that, and eventually somehow, always all. Something about recognizing everything inside me makes me gentler, more patient, and softer, somehow, when I see it —even the ugly bits— out there. Maybe in you.

Today, I am at once curious and frightened by what seems to be warbling “in the underbrush of my Chattanoogas of hope.” Also, I am in love with the word “warble,” which I am rolling around like a marble in my mouth. Because, like a 2-year-old, my favorite place to put favorite things still seems to be in my mouth.

Thanks for stopping by!


P.S. Drool with me over at Flavorwire?

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Repotting panic

Panic. Yesterday I caught its scent. Unchecked, this is how panic could go down…

The equation of doom

Stressful, scary thought + spinning of related, old and broken thought-records + automatic body reaction (e.g., tight chest + fast breath + light head + throwuppy belly) = Panic

Years ago, at its worst, this equation could, eventually, result in a full-blown panic attack. Not, shall we say, fun. Over the years, though, I’ve studied this panic monster as if my life depended on it, and these days I usually catch things in the stressful thought or anxiety stage, before things get to code red. Also, rather than trying to push the panic monster away, I’ve learned to turn toward him and get, even if just a little to start with, curious.

For me the trigger for an equation of doom is pretty much always related to loss.

Enter, new factor

Awareness is, hands down, the factor with the most potential to change everything. Awareness —which can look like curiosity, noticing, presence, being mindful— is the super-est of all personal(ity) superheros. With awareness as a new factor, a different outcome for the old equation is not only possible but inevitable.

Yesterday, in the grand scheme, I did pretty darned well: Nothing close to what used to happen years and years ago did. I was triggered, and sure enough, responded with fear. I could tell on account of the obsessive thoughts, the checking, the replaying of scenarios, and a sinking feeling in the belly. But as I went about my day I held it and watched it all with kind attention and then last night I went out with my friend and her cousin. We went to a comedy show and laughed. A lot. Which means that the anxiety was not so great that I couldn’t enjoy funny things. Over the course of the evening I took a few pictures to send to the love factor (who, yesterday, was doubling as the possible loss factor) in the equation of me. I wanted to connect. I wanted to include him. I wanted to be included. I got no reply (for whatever reason) and then watched another wave of anxiety, tending toward panic, arise, exacerbated by memories from long ago.

Anxiety/panic is like a fucked up game of mad libs wherein the blank lines get filled in by a mind whose neural pathways have all been primed with fear. Naturally, then, the blank lines (what I don’t know) end up looking like all sorts of doom and gloom.

For example: “He hasn’t texted me because I told him some things the lady who says she sees things said and it scared him.” Or, “He’s pulling away because I mentioned that she’d mentioned the m-word and now he is freaking the hell out.” Or, “He thinks that the little rain package I made for them was the dorkiest thing ever.” If I traced these mad libs a bit further to find the underlying fear, I’d complete the final line: “…and it means that ____.”

Yesterday, all of my mad libs meant that I would lose him.

Yep. Like I said, scared.

Same old triggers, plus awareness

“Oh, Sweetheart, there there. Shhhhh… Everything’s going to be OK. C’mere…”

First order of business when panic is in the house of me is to calm the disturbance, and those simple words —cliché though they may be— have the effect of dialing the scary down at least a notch. Hearing those words is just enough to then be able to proceed to the next bit wherein I remind myself that I don’t actually know what is going on for him. Not really. Other than that he and his 9-year-old are camping. And I wish I were there.

Actual bit (not fear-primed)

She is adorable. I didn’t meet her till yesterday but I’d seen lots of pictures and pretty much I had already made a nesty pillowy blanket fort for her in my heart.

Enter, fear

But yesterday, after they picked up the rain package, I obsessed.

I’d been sitting in the chair by the back door reading when they arrived, hair messily pulled up, un-showered and dirty from having my arms and hands in the dirt… None of that would usually matter too much to me, except for how panic can turn the most inane of proverbial molehills into mountains. I replayed the scene: The car pulling into the driveway. They getting out. Waves. Shy smiles. Quick introduction, just names. Hey’s. Me walking down the driveway slowly, nonchalantly. (As if!) La la la… More slightly-awkward smiles, a few words about shiners, about fishing, about the rain and the sun and about how camping would be great anyway. Canoe secured to car roof. Touching a knot. Not touching him. (I am, after all, just dad’s friend la la la. Too early to introduce full out.) Inside, my heart is warm and full and beating quickly, my senses on high alert, but on the outside I am —I like to think, at least— calm.

La la la.

Afterwards I don’t hear from him. A couple of hours later I text, “She’s adorable… twinkly-eyed like you.” A few hours later I get a picture of cherries: “Ate a whole bag. Thought of you.”

OK. Interesting bit: A picture of cherries with a note like that, without panic? Love! A picture of cherries with a note like that, with panic? Oh noes!

So yeah, so not about the cherries. So not about the note. Fear is the only factor that changed.

This morning I wake up and write. I sift out the most insistent stressful thought: I messed up. And then I do what I know to do with stressful thoughts.

Inquiry to the rescue! (Or, Awareness dons a superhero cape)

“You messed up.” Is it true?

I don’t know. I sure do believe it.

Yes, Sweetheart, that’s why we’re inquiring. Can you absolutely know that it’s true that you messed up? 


How do you react when you believe this thought, that you messed up?

I obsess. I feel ashamed. I want to jump in to try to fix and tidy everything up. And if that’s not possible, then I want to pretend none of it matters to me anyway. I think about being cold, aloof, even though I couldn’t be even if I tried. I think about trying to ignore him to make up for “too much” yesterday. To feign nonchalance. Ha. As if. (Very young part of me, obviously.)

How is all of that working for you, Sweetheart?

Not well.

Who would you be without this thought that you messed up?

Woman sitting on porch sipping her early morning tea. Enjoying my time with Saffron, whom I’ve not seen much lately because I’ve been so much with him. Enjoying the house. Its spaciousness. Its rooms. Its porch. The plants I repotted. Caring for things I care about, things that are here, things that are now… Ahhh, the plants—

They were too big for the pots they were in. The Easter cactus kept hanging in there even though parts of it were struggling: it was leaning way over to one side of the pot and the soil looked way too tight and hardened. Yesterday I replanted it. I see it there now in its new and roomier, blue, ceramic pot with plenty of soil and space to grow its previously jammed-up roots into. The jade, too. The one I rescued from sure demise in the basement of my last apartment building. Now it has a larger and lovely, sage green, ceramic pot-home.

I imagine the relief the plants must feel: like a person finally able to stretch limbs out wide after being cramped for far too long in a tight place. A person, come to think, like me, stuck in ancient thoughts that no longer, really, fit but that I keep believing. Thoughts like, “I don’t get enough of him.” Thoughts, like, this morning: “I messed up.” There they are, these thought-children, these thought-orphans, coming to me from long ago, looking for home. There they are cascading down the familiar neural pathways they have always followed. They’ve gone down those mental grooves so often they’ve carved gullies into rockface. Except that now there are other options, other places, other ways the water could flow. Awareness helps.

I’ve changed. The triggers still smart (sometimes like hell), but the actions are different. With awareness, then does not have to be now. The roots of me have grown. And in a new pot they could get stronger.  Grow freely. More space. More creativity. More expression. More juice. More me-ness. More he-ness. Love. Our very own we-ness. I’m getting to see, freshly, how old ways no longer feel comfortable. How I am, now, in a much roomier pot. What is happening this weekend is just acting the trigger for an old, outmoded dynamic that used to set in motion that ancient and very painful attachment thing. It no longer has to go down the way it went before. And whether or not I have actually “messed up,” I am different. I have made room for other possibilities. I have repotted the pot-bound plant of me. Whew!

Oh oh oh. Something in me tightens. Don’t want to lose him. The sweetness of him. The playfulness. The eyes. The softness. The strength. The sensitivity. The laughter. The butt and cock of him, too, shhh! The books we share. And the book, being written, of us. Ahhhh. It’s OK. If I do end up losing him, then those things weren’t mine. Or rather, only for the time they were and only for what they brought in me, for, regardless of what happens next, he has and keeps showing me me.

I am OK without him while he and she are camping. I am.

Bringing orphan-thoughts home

Turnaround (for “I messed up”):

I didn’t mess up.

Examples, please, of how, in this situation, you didn’t mess up:

1. I was perfectly me. I had such a good time making that little in-the-event-of-rain gift for them. One I’d have appreciated getting if I were going camping and I were he, or she, 9 years old, stuck in a tent in the rain.

2. I went out last night. And laughed. A lot.

3. I repotted several plants.

4. I made myself a gorgeous kale salad last night.

5. I noticed my thoughts, my reactions, and as I fell asleep last night I spoke out loud into the darkness to something, to someone, who, I imagined, cared. I said it like it was —“I’m afraid I messed up”— and the darkness was kind. She started bringing to my mind’s eye all the people to whom I matter. Including him. And this morning I woke up to re-pot the plant of me. And maybe tonight I will fall asleep thinking of all the people who matter to me, including him, including them, happy and comfy in their tent.

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That thing that the other night I almost told you

We were doing that thing where we whispered things we love and it was your turn to ask and it was my turn to tell and my truest biggest answer was pounding in my chest so hard I thought surely YOU YOU YOU could hear–

But I got shy: what if you didn’t and what if you DID and then you went away and then you came back and then you went all Adam on me on my table and I went all Eve on you at the pond and then you needed to be alone and then you needed just to sleep and sleep and sleep and then I got scared

And today I am just one big long run on sentence with a loud-ass Greek chorus chiming in my ear for me to get my heart back on leash and reign it in in in so I don’t scare you away he doesn’t have time and he doesn’t have space and probably he doesn’t want you that way and anyway he probably only wanted you when you were hot and new and shiny

All of that is what is pounding in my chest and still the only thing I want to tell you is that thing that the other night I almost said

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Some Neruda for some sadness

Sadness is knocking on my door this morning. It is the house of me she has come to looking for company.

The mind does its mind-y thing, and, mind’s job is to know. The mind, especially in the throes of anxiety, jumps to conclusions, no matter how unreliable and incomplete the data set might be. And then it looks around all eagle-eyed for evidence, for proof to support its biases: this happened and it means that ___, which means ___,  (wherein, of course, all thisses and thats are scary and sad). And then, right on cue, body follows mind: belly sinks, chest tightens, and a huge lump lodges itself in my throat.

When I open the door for Sad, she is not alone. Worry, like a Greek chorus, is right on her heels, chanting a dirge: “What’s going on, going on, going on? Girl, get your heart back on leash, back on leash, back on leash…”

Oh, what the hell, come in, come in, the motley crew of you. Make yourselves comfy. Can I get you anything? Cup of tea? Shot of bourbon? Crayons? Silk handkerchiefs? Buffy?

[Sad and GreekWorryChorus look at each another, mumble a few things I can’t quite make out, then]: “Neruda,” they say, “we want Pablo Neruda.”

Anything specific in mind?

“Yup,” pipes up Sadness, “the one that starts with ‘Puedo escribir los versos más tristes…'”

Oh, my darling, that one will make me cry.

“How do you think I feel?”

Alright. Here it is: 

And here for you, dear reader, my translation:

Poem XX (by Pablo Neruda)
Translation copyright © 2013, Elisabeth Withaness

I can write the saddest lines tonight.

Write, for example, “It’s a clear night, and in the distance
stars tremble, blue.”

The night wind circles in the sky and sings.

I can write the saddest lines tonight.
I loved her, and sometimes she also loved me.

On nights like tonight I had her in my arms.
I kissed and kissed her under an infinite sky.

She loved me, and sometimes I also loved her.
How could I not have loved her large, fixed eyes.

I can write the saddest lines tonight.
To think that I don’t have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear the immense night, more immense without her.
And this line falls on the soul like dew falls on grass.

What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is starry and she is not with me.

That is all. In the distance someone sings. In the distance.
My soul is not quiet about having lost her.

As if to bring her near, my gaze searches for her.
My heart seeks her, and she is not with me.

The very same night that whitens the very same trees.
We, we of then, are no longer the same.

I no longer love her, it is true, but oh how I loved her.
My voice would search for wind with which to touch her ear.

Another’s. Surely she is another’s. As before she was my kisses’.
Her voice, her clear body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, it’s true, but maybe I do.
Love is so short and forgetting so long.

Because on nights like this I had her in my arms,
my soul is not quiet about having lost her.

Even if this were the last pain she brings me,
and these were the last lines I write her.

Even though I know, roughly, what this Sad-Scared visit is related to, I really don’t know what anything, really, means. I’ve been at this —watching the mind, being present with whatever arises in me— for long enough to have noticed that freaking the hell out and jumping to conclusions is most unhelpful. Everything is calmed when I can “just” be present with whatever sensations and feelings arise in my body… (“Just” being with things is a Practice. A capital-P Practice that I keep practicing.)

Today, can I let come, let be, what is here? Can I be with it just as it is, so that it can change in whatever way is best?

Copyright © 2013, Elisabeth Withaness. (Don’t steal! But DO feel free to share this post, or the poem translation, with attribution and link. Thank you.)

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I want to write about softness, about how things can be soft and hard all at once, like your cock last night. And again this morning.

Also, I want to write about how the hardest things can bring softness. Like your world falling apart last year, and your eyes telling me about it last night.

I write all this wearing your shirt, the one you handed me, saying, “See, I have soft things too.” Apparently, you thought I didn’t think so. But that was your thought, not mine. You see,

I always was a sucker for soft, even when, once upon a time, I thought it was weak. Even then, I secretly loved it in the dark, underground, where truths live, truths like how the strongest things are soft.

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Translating Neruda (Agua Sexual)

I share my hometown (Temuco, Chile) with beloved Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. Although Neruda died in 1973, when I was just a wee girl, still, I like to think that Neruda and I drank of the same water, breathed the same air. In my dreams we walk down Temuco streets together: I am 8 and he is old and always we are walking. He has the kindest, sparkliest eyes, and we play a game which only allows us to speak in metaphor.

Of late, I have been spending more and more time reading and wanting to translate his poems into English, which is now my main language. There are wonderful translations out there (Stephen Mitchell is a favorite), but invariably I find myself quibbling over some turn of phrase that’s not quite right, or some nuance that surely it helps to have come up in Chile to catch.

But mostly I like translating Neruda because it allows me to sink into his world and his words, and, what a world that is!

How do I pick which, among hundreds upon hundreds of fantastic poems, to translate? Hmm… It seems to come to this: The poem either, 1) lifts me off my feet and twirls me about, 2) chokes me up, or 3) makes me so horny I could fuck a tree. (And, by the way, “Agua Sexual” did all three.)

Sexual Water (Pablo Neruda)

Rolling in plump raindrops, alone,
in raindrops like teeth,
in thick raindrops of marmalade and blood,
rolling in fat raindrops
the water falls,
like a sword of drops,
like a tearing river of glass,
it falls biting,
knocking on the axis of symmetry, hitting on the seams of the soul,
breaking abandoned things, drenching what is dark.

It is only a whispered breath, moister than a cry,
liquid, sweat, some nameless oil,
a sharp movement,
forming itself, thickening,
the water falls
in slow big drops,
toward its sea, toward its dry ocean,
toward its waterless wave.

I see the vast summer, and a rasping breath as it leaves the barn,
warehouses, cicadas,
settlements, incentives,
bedrooms, girls
sleeping with hands on heart,
dreaming of bandits, of fires,
I see ships,
I see trees of marrow
bristling like enraged cats,
I see blood, daggers and women’s stockings,
and man’s hair,
I see beds, I see corridors where a virgin screams,
I see blankets and organs and hotels.

I see stealthy dreams,
I admit passage to the final days,
and also their origins, and also memories
like an eyelid forced open with dread
I am looking.

And then, this sound:
a red noise of bones,
a slapping of meat,
and yellow legs coming together like pegs.
I hear, between the firing of kisses,
I listen, tossed between breaths and sobs.

I am watching, listening,
with half my soul at sea and half my soul on land,
with both halves of my soul I look at the world.

And although I close my eyes and cover my heart entirely,
I watch deaf water fall,
in big, deaf raindrops.
It’s like a gelatinous hurricane,
like a waterfall of sperm and jellyfish.
I see a turbid rainbow run.
I see its waters flow across the bones.

Listen to me read Neruda’s “Agua Sexual” in Spanish:

Read Neruda’s original “Agua Sexual” here, in Spanish.

Translation copyright © 2013, Elisabeth Withaness. Don’t steal! But DO feel free to share, with attribution and link.

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I like you when you are quiet

This morning, apropos of nothing better to do —which is not to say there aren’t many things to do, just, no thing better than translating some favorite lines of verse— I bring you my translation of Pablo Neruda’s Sonnet 15 from “Veinte Poemas de Amor y una Canción Desesperada.”

Sonnet 15 (Pablo Neruda)

I like you when you are quiet because you are as if absent,
and you hear me from afar, and my voice doesn’t touch you.
It seems as if your eyes had flown away
and it seems as if a kiss were closing your mouth.

Since all things are full of my soul
you emerge from among things filled with my soul.
Butterfly of dreams, you look like my soul
and you look like the word ‘melancolía.’

I like you when you are quiet and you’re as if distant.
It’s as if you were moaning, lullabied butterfly.
And you hear me from afar, and my voice doesn’t reach you:
let me become quiet with your silence.

Allow me also to speak to you with your silence
clear as a lamp, simple as a ring.
You are like the nighttime, quiet and constellated.
Your silence is of a star, so far away and simple.

I like you when you are quiet because you are as if absent.
Distant and sorrowful as if you had died.
One word, then, one smile is enough.
And I am happy, happy that it not be true.

[Pablo Neruda’s original here.]

Copyright © 2012 – 2013, Elisabeth Withaness. Don’t steal! But DO feel free to share, with attribution and link.

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