Oh, Maria

Here’s my performance of another poem from Irish-American poet Ethna McKiernan’s final collection Light Rolling Slowly Backwards.  In McKiernan’s later years of life she did social work with people who were homeless, and she dedicated Light Rolling Slowly Backwards  to “the hundreds of homeless clients I’ve worked with through the years — to their resilience, courage and care for each other.” Given that Ethna was somewhat frail even before her final illness, I marveled at her strength in taking that work on.

I recommend this collection, a fine summation of McKiernan’s poetry and its range. Here’s that link again to the Irish publisher of this book.

Why this one to start reading McKiernan? She herself created this “New & Selected Poems” book before she died late last year.

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When I first encountered “Oh, Maria”  in draft form as a member of the Lake Street Writers’ Group I couldn’t help but flashback to my time working in Emergency Departments as a young man. As one side-point Ethna’s poem tries to convey the feeling of being next to someone experiencing a sudden, and unexpected death. I’d summarize those memories of mine as being full of intense experience, intent action, and if stabilization isn’t achieved, a solemn ceasing. Ethna’s account adds poignancy because it’s missing that middle part. I ached with her both as she feels guilt for not immediately recognizing the mortal nature of Maria’s incident — and then comes the line as she considers if she should have performed CPR: “If I remembered, God help me, how.”

I probably did my usual awkwardness in responding to that first hearing, perhaps mentioning how it reminded me of my experiences — something which was likely no help in her revision process. I think I did express that her missing the initial diagnosis of what was happening was not only forgivable, but par for the course. Could that have been worthwhile?

Indeed, my experience was that most people, even people who are otherwise medically trained, are likely to get this wrong in some way. Although my experience is now decades ago, I’ve seen CPR being performed on breathing people with a pulse — which is not a good thing. And effective CPR requires a degree of skill and frankly cold intent that is hard to practice outside of repeated actual events. Given that I last worked in an Emergency Department more than 30 years ago, and last went through the practice-with-dummies certification around a dozen years ago, I myself would likely not be the best person to be next to you if you were to experience a cardiac arrest.

If you ever take, or have taken CPR training, pay attention to that first step of assessment.   It’s important.*

So, besides the imperfectly empathic personal reaction I had, this poem’s core matter is Ethna’s continued sharing of the experience of those without homes, which exceeds even my old ER experience with our un or underhoused “regulars.” Notice the subtle point Ethna weaves into this poem: she expects that Maria is severely intoxicated when she collapses, and then she concludes her memories of this person dealing with complex problems imperfectly in the telling line “I laughed at your antics weekly.” What were the antics? Maria might have had a sense of humor, that could be part of it. It’s also possible, even probable, that Maria’s human attempts to deal with the difficult state of homelessness and its context were at times comically imperfect or ineffective.**   Ethna knows this from her intimacy with Maria, just as you know it with those you have in your lives. Intimacy isn’t just the experience of joyous connection, it’s the experience of our misapprehensions too.

Same with poetry. We write it imperfectly, read it imperfectly. That is part of our human experience of it.

To hear my performance of Ethna McKiernan’s “Oh, Maria”  you can use a player gadget if you see it below, or this highlighted hyperlink which will work if you don’t see the player.

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*Several decades ago a book called The House of God  by Samuel Shem was written that was like unto a modern Machiavelli’s The Prince,  only about practical hospital medical training instead of statecraft. In Shem’s book there is a list of “laws,” one of which is “At a cardiac arrest, the first procedure is to take your own pulse.”

**Dealing with homelessness either as one who has reached that state or, as McKiernan did, as someone trying to mitigate it, is much more difficult than dealing with cardiac arrest. In my couple of decades in Emergency Rooms, I’ll admit that in the course of a shift or two dealing with intractable problems and complexly impossible situations, the “break” of dealing with a crash-cart severe trauma case or a cardiac arrest with their steps of immediate choose/act instants was, strange as it might seem, a relief.

Christmas in the Workhouse

One thing about the Christmas and winter holiday celebrations is that they can occasion the sharing of strands of different traditions. For the teenager in the house, hardly old enough to have traditions, it’s been watching Hogfather,*  and at least for this year, as many of the Matrix movies** as can be found to stream. For the wife, it’s been revisiting a memorable-to-her Seventies’ Christmas TV movie The Gathering.***

The Gathering stars Ed Asner and Maureen Stapleton. The former not yet transformed from the comic Lou Grant of the Mary Tyler Moore Show  to the more dramatic Lou Grant of the spinoff series, and the later known only to most as the ditsy wife of Archie Bunker. Both were capable actors, and the objective pleasures of this cheaply and quickly made TV movie are the scenes where the two of them get to show off some of the range the viewing public probably didn’t know they had yet. The script’s story by James Poe could be viewed as a blander suburban-set predecessor to The Royal Tenenbaums,  with a thoughtless and self-centered older patriarch trying to reunite his varied family and his connection to them.

One lovely scene stood out for me, one odd enough that it could have made it into a Wes Anderson version. Male family members surround the partially redeemed patriarch Asner amid Christmas decorations in the old family home to enact what is presented as a family Christmas ritual. Adapting a broad Cockneyish accent, Asner recites a poem he ascribes to Rudyard Kipling while another family member, who well knows the piece, “bleeps” offending words with a little Zuzu Bailey Christmas ornament bell.

Readers here will know this’ll ring the Parlando bell too. I had to know more about this poem! First off, there’s no evidence that it’s by Kipling, though its audience would likely have been familiar with Kipling’s poetic style. Rather it’s an Edwardian parody of unknown authorship of an earlier Victorian sentimental poem by George R. Sims.  Sims’ poem is a critique of the limits and constraints of the workhouse solution**** of poverty and vulnerable citizens without support, couched in a Dickensian weeper of a personal story by a poor man who the system has failed. The original aims to engender angry tears.

The parody on the other hand is a much more compact work, though too a critique of the same workhouse system and limits of charity. This work by an unknown author is meant to make one’s anger laugh at such human coarseness. It can be enjoyed, immaturely, as simple travesty, a variation of the “Jingle Bells, Batman smells…” substitution of sentimental holiday cheer with the lyrical equivalent of fart noises or singing dogs. But Batman is a fairytale character who wears his underwear on the outside of his tights, and riding a sleigh to grandma’s house is unexperienced nostalgia; while residents of a workhouse, or the unhoused modern equivalents, are actual fellow human beings who we emphasize with and aid imperfectly.

If you’re of the mood to shout “balls” at unexamined Christmas cheer or the faults of Capitalism, or if you’ve ever been condescended to by a “better,” then you’re the audience for this piece. Perhaps you’re not of that mood? Well then, here are two Christian Christmas hymns the Parlando Project has done: Christina Rossetti’s sad-sounding yet beautiful and joyous “In the Bleak Midwinter”  and my adaptation of Henry Wadsworth’s Longfellow’s “The Three Kings”  which is full of precise majesty even with undernotes of parental anxiety.

Christmas in the Workhouse chords

Here’s a chord sheet in case you want to form your own workhouse chorus to sing this one

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In the 1977 movie, the missing but rhyming rude words of this ditty were assumed to be understood even if missing. In modern TV standards they’d all be allowed. Rude British slang probably even adds unintended charm to American audiences. “Beer” of course isn’t a curse other than to abstainers, though too much may be a burden to be coarsely unburdened of. “Balls” or bollocks are testicles, and patriarchally still somehow measurably more polite than the “c word” (also used more freely in British than American slang.) “Sods” is more obscure, but is short for Sodomite, which gets its suppositorian retort from the don’t ask, but will tell, crusty veteran.

Assault your tender ears with my performance of “Christmas in the Workhouse”  using the player below. No player to be seen? This highlighted hyperlink will serve.  I was aiming for a bit of the early Billy Bragg sound for this one, but I ended up somewhere else nearby. Wife and teenager were dragged away from their Matrix series home-viewing festival to play members of the workhouse chorus, so the least you can do is listen. Happy Holidays to all you intoxicated, genital flaunting, gender-queer, ass-owners who despite it all manage to listen to a variety of musical presentations combined with a variety of words — only some of which are solemn — here.

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*A wonderful British TV movie presentation of an episode from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Unreservedly recommended.

**I saw the first one and liked it well enough to not have a great desire to see the continuations.

***Footnotes, it’s like even more gifts to unwrap after that package of socks — and wait…it’s… another…pair of…socks.  Watching The Gathering  made me grateful for the much higher standards expected of modern “event television” productions. The Gathering  won an outstanding dramatic event Emmy for 1977, so it was considered good of kind for that era.

****Workhouses were a British invention to solve the problem of the chronically unemployed, unhoused, indebted, and sometimes frail or mentally abnormal citizens. The idea was that if you couldn’t scrape together enough to survive otherwise your option was to be sent via government edict to a facility where you’d be given enough to arguably survive under a discipline and order that might include being treated as inmate labor.

This sounds exactly Dickensian and out of the mouth of Scrooge before conversion, but this solution was also widely adopted in America. Even in my childhood I can remember driving with my dad past a local Iowa “county farm,” which was founded on the same principle. In practice these institutions varied from hell-on-earth abusive places through ascending circles of shame and shaming up to sites that, at least when under the best administrations, may have been not altogether worse to what came before and after. The degradation was often “designed-in,” as the workhouse was supposed to make even the worst of wage-labor situations look better than the alternative.

In some ways then, today’s piece continues my honoring of the life of Ethna McKiernan, who worked with the unhoused professionally up until the onset of her final illness.

Edward Thomas’ “The Owl” as heard in a yurt

Every so rarely I treat this Project as a “regular blog” and talk about what I’ve done recently. Not my usual mode, but this is one of those.

In case you’ve noticed a gap in posting, this week I’ve been in a yurt situated in a forest a few miles from Lake Superior. No cellphone service, no Internet, just books, bicycles, an acoustic guitar, and my woodland-nymph wife for whom this is just the right sort of place.

A yurt is a circular tent adapted from Central Asiatic designs.*  The tent fabric is stretched over a wooden lattice so that it becomes in effect a small rustic cabin with no corners and soft walls. In the example we rented for our stay it had an elevated wooden floor, a conventional bed, a couple of chairs, and a door and windows that looked out onto the woods it sat in. In the center of its fabric roof, where the smoke from a central fire would exit in the original yurts, the modern version substitutes a clear plexiglass dome, a device I always read as an emblematic Sistine Chapel of The Sixties: like those domes fitted to Ken Kesey’s Furthur bus or Ed Roth’s Beatnik Bandit.

Three Plexiglass Domes

Three Plexiglass domes. Salad bowls of my salad days.

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I brought books, poetry and poetry adjacent: Rush Hour  and Still Living in Town  by Kevin FitzPatrick, Rhythmic Stories & Prehistoric Mythteries  by Dave Moore, Swimming with Shadows and Light Rolling Slowly Backwards New & Selected Poems  by Ethna McKiernan, How to Read a Poem  by Edward Hirsch, and Dickinson’s Nerves, Frost’s Woods  by William Logan.

The three from the poets I know were particularly piquant reads, Kevin having just died, Ethna facing serious illness, and Dave and I both a little worse for wear. This post won’t allow me to speak at length about those five books, which I read completely from cover to cover in the yurt. The Hirsch book turned out a little too basic and introductory for my mood, though it might well serve for someone seeking to get more involved with poetry. The Logan book was outrageous in a way that made me shake my head and yet keep reading.

I never assumed the Parlando Project was going to involve as much short essay writing. The reason that the Parlando audio pieces (which are available as podcasts in the usual places like Apple Podcasts et al) are simply the performances, not discussions and descriptions, is that I wanted to present and to allow listeners to experience poetry in the ear without a lot of framing or explaining, the same way that they largely experience lyrics in a song. But over the years I’ve fallen into writing here more about experiences with the poems, even delving into explications and musings about how the poems are set into poet’s lives.

When I enter into that mode and come upon a question — where many bloggers would simply say “I don’t know” or “One could guess” — I often make an attempt to find out if there’s an answer. These searches can take up more time than composing and recording the music. One of the most consistently popular posts here was my presentation of Yeats’ “To A Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing”  where I felt I had to find out who the friend was that the poem addresses, and what the work was. That wasn’t something easily discovered on the web — and apparently thanks to my post, it now is.

Logan takes this sort of thing to another level and then another, and another and…. I sensed him smiling and shaking his own head to the levels he was driven to go. In his discussion of Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”  Logan makes sure to determine what livery Frost’s farm owned in order to estimate what the speaker in Frost’s poem might be sitting in. In his discussion of Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”  he takes note of a story surrounding it: that a draft of the quickly-written sonnet was in the hands of the other young man that Keats’ had spent an all-nighter reading a rare copy of Chapman’s English translation with, by early the following afternoon. Logan tries to determine if this was possible via normal “penny post” service in London at the time, or would it have to have been a specially hired courier service. For poetry obsessives, Logan’s book will wear you out with “do we know, can we find out” side-trips like that.

Meanwhile, back at the yurt whose woods we are knowing, upon a peak above Lake Superior, we had planned to ride our bikes into town for breakfast, a distance figured at three miles via GPS maps. The same maps accessed at home warned me that it was a nearly 400 foot elevation climb on the way back to our yurt’s address, but I have done double that and more in my dotage. Both of us took our original generation “mountain bikes” which by modern standards are both heavy and altogether too mechanically unsophisticated, but this was good in that the first-part of our journey was a rutted gravel access road from our yurt to the local highway which descended steeply for about a half a mile.

From that point on into town I could have passed for a motorcyclist, coasting at 30 mph on the steep downward slope of the blacktop highway. At a stop sign I looked over to my wife and said, “You know, we’re going to have to climb this on the way back.”

After breakfast, she went off to take pictures, and I started the ride back by myself. **

Three years ago this autumn, I climbed 800 feet in 25 miles on Minnesota’s Iron Range. Not only am I older but doing 450 feet of climb in 3.3 miles is different. Different, as in harder. Different in as pedaling up a wall verses pedaling up a ramp. The temp that day was in the 50s and I wore a light vest and a non-zip long-sleave shirt, both of which were good during the speed of the descent into town. But when I finally arrived back at the yurt, I was quite tired and soaked in sweat — an autumn mixture of hot and chilled as soon as you stop.

Bayfield Climb

Graph of the climb back to the yurt from town. My research said 400 feet net climb, but it didn’t include the steep gravel access road at the end which added another 50 feet. Well-conditioned bikers will scoff at this climb, but where’s your understanding of Robert Frosts wagons?

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That night as we went to sleep in the yurt, the leaves falling on the taunt roof gave us a sound like we were inside a scattered drum-roll. Off in the distance then we heard piercing owl cries*** that this musical-obsessive would liken to Eric Clapton signaling the wind-up of Ginger Baker’s drum feature “Toad”  — but then this person, whose Project has made him equally poetry-obsessed, also thought of Edward Thomas, and his poem “The Owl.”

Thomas besides being an avid walker (he was the actual walking companion Frost was chiding in “The Road Not Taken”)  was also a bicyclist, and “The Owl”  appears to be telling of a bicycle tour ride as it begins “Downhill I came…” and the full text goes on to describe that cold “yet heat within me” feeling that vigorous exercise produces in changing temperatures like my October ride. Thomas’ poem and his welcome rest at nightly lodgings on his tour turns in the middle on the sound of an owl’s cry.

Thomas’ thoughts are turned in that cry not to the band Cream and rock power trios of The Sixties, but those who didn’t have shelter in the night. And I had been reading the new poems section of Ethna McKiernan’s New & Selected  which is dedicated by her to “the hundreds of homeless clients I’ve worked with through the years.”

I performed Thomas’ “The Owl”  a few years back, but it’s one of my performances that I don’t think got all it could out of the piece, so here’s a fresh performance of my setting of that poem, recorded back home, but in yurt-style with acoustic guitar. For some, you can use a player gadget below to hear it. Others won’t see that, so this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.

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*This Wikipedia listing about yurts says that a Mongolian Buddhist variation is called “uyangiin ger” which means “home of the lyrics.” I didn’t know that.

**She too had to struggle with the climb. While she stopped often to take pictures, breaking up the exertion somewhat, she found it difficult to overcome gravity to get her old bike going from when she stopped on steeper sections. Pictures of what? This and that in the local scene, though the highlights were a catalog of closeup pictures of various fungi in their autumn-leaf colors and fairy architecture.

***I’m not sure what species of owl. It might have been a barred owl or a horned owl. The calls were not the characteristic “who cooks for you” barred owl melody, but it had a similar pitch and timbre.