Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers
on Monday mornings. This is an Open Thread forum,
so if you have an off-topic opinion burning a hole in
your brainpan, feel free to add a comment.
In politics, arts
no issue’s dramatic
nor will ‘play’ till its heart’s
simplified to fanatic.
– Mona Van Duyn
May 9, 1921 – Mona Van Duyn born in Waterloo, Iowa; American poet, editor, and academic; Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (1992-1993). She won most of the major U.S. prizes for poetry: Bollingen Prize (1971); National Book Award for Poetry (1971); Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts (1972); Shelley Memorial Award (1987); Ruth Lily Poetry Prize (1989); and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1991). She taught at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1940s, and was a longtime lecturer in the University College adult education program at Washington University in St. Louis. Van Duyn was co-founder and co-editor with her husband Jarvis Thurston of Perspective: A Quarterly of Literature and the Arts (1947-1975). Her many poetry collections include: A Time of Bees; To See, To Take: Poems (National Book Award for Poetry winner); Near Changes (Pulitzer Prize for Poetry); Firefall; and If It Be Not I: Collected Poems, 1959-1982. She died at age 83 of bone cancer in December 2004.
“I believe that good poetry can be as ornate as a cathedral or as bare as a pottingshed, as long as it confronts the self with honesty and fullness. Nobody is born with the capacity to perform this act of confrontation, in poetry or anywhere else; one’s writing career is simply a continuing effort to increase one’s skill at it.” – Mona Van Duyn
by Mona Van Duyn
All spring the birds walked on this wormy world.
Now they avoid the ground, lining up on limbs
and fences, beaks help open, panting. And behold,
in a romper suit and tap shoes, my neighbor comes
click, click, past the gawking birds to her patio.
A middle-aged woman—they’ve known her for months, as have I,
coming down the sidewalk in a housedress twice a day
to throw them breadcrumbs and talk over the fence to me
as I weed and plant or write poems in the backyard garden.
Now I am dazzled by the flowers and by my neighbor in rompers.
She says it’s hot, so hot, her house is like an oven.
Aren’t the flowers bright, she says. They are worse
than bright these days, it seems to me, they are burning,
blazing in red salvia and orange daylilies,
in marigolds, in geraniums—even the petunias are turning
violent. Rose, red, cerise,
yellow flame together and spread over their birders,
The earth and my diligent gardening, what have we done
to my neighbor? Arms wide out, she suddenly flutters
up into the air and comes down, and leaps again,
and clickety-clickety-clickety rat-a-tat-tat,
all over her patio she goes in a frenzy of tapdancing.
What new July conflagration is this, and what
would her husband say, who works in a drugstore? In the spring
she admired my jonquils and, later, the peonies calmly,
tossing bread to the birds as she chatted. They grew tamer and tamer.
Now they are squeaking and wheeling away from what they see,
and I am making a good resolution for next summer:
This collaboration with the earth should be done with care.
Even gardens, it seems, can set off explosions, and so
I’ll have blue salvia and blue ageratum next year,
pale petunias, more poems, and some plumbago.
“Earth” from A Time of Bees, © 1964 by Mona Van Duyn – University of North Carolina Press
A Relative and an Absolute
by Mona Van Duyn
It has been cool so far for December, but of course the cold
doesn’t last long down here. The Bible is being fulfilled so rapidly
that it looks like it won’t be long until Jesus will come in
the air, with a shout, and all those who have accepted Jesus as
their own personal Saviour will be caught up to meet him
and then that terrible war will be on earth. The battle of
Armageddon. And all the unsaved people will have to go
through the great tribulation. Hope you are both well. Bye.
An aunt, my down-to-earth father’s sibling, went to stay
in Texas, and had to continue by mail, still thanklessly,
her spiritual supervision of the family.
Texas orchards are fruitful. A card that would portray
this fact in green and orange, and even more colorfully say
on its back that Doom is nearly upon us, came regularly
at birthday, Easter and Christmas—and sometimes between the three.
That the days passed, and the years, never bothered her prophecy;
she restressed, renewed and remailed its imminence faithfully.
Most preaching was wrong, she felt, but found for her kin on Sunday,
in one voice on one radio station, one truth for all to obey.
Salvation being thus limited, it seemed to me
there was something unpleasant about that calm tenacity
of belief that so many others would suffer catastrophe
at any moment. She seemed too smug a protegee.
Otherwise, I rather liked her. Exchanging a recipe
or comparing winters with neighbors, she took life quietly
in a stuffy bungalow, among doilies of tatting and crochet.
She had married late, and enjoyed the chance to baby
a husband, to simmer the wholesome vegetables and see
that vitamins squeezed from his fruit were drunk without delay.
Though she warned of cities and churches and germs, some modesty
or decorum, when face to face with us, wouldn’t let her convey
her vision of Armageddon. But the postcards set it free.
It was hovering over the orange groves, she need only lay
her sewing aside, and the grandeur and rhythm of its poetry
came down and poured in her ear, her pencil moved eloquently.
She wrote it and wrote it. She will be “caught up,” set free from
as Christ comes “with a shout in the air” and trumpeting angels play,
and “the terrible war will be on earth” on that Judgment Day,
expecting all those years her extinction of body would be
attended by every creature, wrapped round in the tragedy
of the world, in its pandemonium and ecstasy.
When she died last winter, several relatives wrote to say
a kidney stone “as big as a peach pit” took her away.
Reading the letters, I thought, first of all, of the irony,
then, that I myself, though prepared to a certain degree,
will undoubtedly feel, when I lie there, as lonesome in death as she
and just as surprised at its trivial, domestic imagery.
“A Relative and an Absolute” from If It Be Not I: Collected Poems, 1959-1982, © 1992 by Mona Van Duyn – Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
by Mona Van Duyn
Setting the V.C.R. when we go to bed
to record a night owl movie, some charmer we missed
we always allow, for unprogrammed unforeseen,
an extra half hour. (Night gods of the small screen
are ruthless with watchers trapped in their piety.)
We watch next evening, and having slowly found
the start of the film, meet the minors and leads,
enter their time and place, their wills and needs,
hear in our chests the click of empathy’s padlock,
watch the forces gather, unyielding world
against the unyielding heart, one longing’s minefield
laid for another longing, which may yield.
Tears will salt the left-over salad I seize
during ads, or laughter slow my hurry to pee.
But as clot melts toward clearness a black fate
may fall on the screen; the movie started too late.
Torn from the backward-shining of an end
that lights up the meaning of the whole work,
disabled in mind and feeling, I flail and shout,
“I can’t bear it! I have to see how it comes out!”
For what is story if not relief from the pain
of the inconclusive, from dread of the meaningless?
Minds in their silent blast-offs search through space—
how often I’ve followed yours!—for a resting-place.
And I’ll follow, past each universe in its spangled
ballgown who waits for the slow-dance of life to start,
past vacancies of darkness whose vainglory
is endless as death’s, to find the end of the story.
“Endings – Part II” from Firefall, © 1992 by Mona Van Duyn – Alfred A. Knopf Publishing