There were spring-like overtones in the air last night at sunset, but not enough to keep me away from a reading at the Merriam Park Library of poets who've been published recently by Nodin Press.
The basement meeting room was packed—maybe 75 people— with chairs strategically positioned beyond several doorways. I'd gotten there late and looked ruefully at the last remaining cookie on the plate. (Of course I didn't take it.)
The event was sponsored by the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, and Alayne Hopkins, director of Friends' programming, buoyantly introduced the poets before each one took a turn at the podium. (Disclosure: I often work with Nodin Press and was involved in the production of all of the books involved in the reading.)
Jill Breckenridge read first, due to the spelling of her last name, and she was a good one to set the mood. She reminded us with a wry look on her face before she'd uttered a single word that poetry can be wise and fun at the same time. Though I can't claim to remember every poem that she (or any of the poets) read, she shared a good three-line poem about aging and a longer one about accidentally attending a party in her black Cuddl Duds.
Norita Dittberner-Jax read next, exploring a slightly more meditative vein. In one poem she described the mood of a different era, when the war in Vietnam was on the news and her children were very young. Before reading a second poem, she said, in a quiet voice, almost to herself: "I've been thinking a lot about trees lately."
Now, if we were at a meeting of the Parks and Trails Council, that remark would be followed by some sort of recommendation for planting trees, or cutting down trees, or caring for trees. Then again, in a psychiatric setting, the remark might lead on to considerations of the proper medical prescription and dosage to get those tree-thoughts under control.
But in a poetic context, instrumental reason (as the philosophers say) gives way to other modes of thought.
I, for one, knew exactly what Norita was talking about. I think about trees myself—not what to do with them, but about the trees themselves: their presence, their grandeur, their quiet durabilty, the differing character of the mulberry and the beech, and so on.
But if I remember correctly, the poem wasn't about any of that. The speaker was sitting under a tree, at a cafe, listening to snatches of conversation as people passed, appreciating all the snippets that were contributing to a stunning moment ... and praying that no disaster strike to puncture the moment. But the pray was not for herself. It was for the world, and the passing people, and the trees.
I suddenly had the feeling that I was at Quaker meeting, where all is silence until someone, moved by the "inner light," stands up to speak. The difference, of course, is that the poems being read had been conceived long ago, then polished and improved upon. Yet the spirit in the room was very similar, and no one in the audience, I think, would have had the slightest difficulty accepting the notion of an "inner light."
It's a remarkable thing when people, many of whom don't know each other, get together and share lives.
Carol Rucks made use of her time behind the podium to give us the flavor of growing up in a Roman Catholic family of twelve where the paterfamilias was strict with his children but easy on himself. She made it clear she has lots of vivid memories roaming around inside her head, but has transformed them in ways that shine new light on the enigmas of growing up. (If I could describe it better, I guess I'd be a poet myself.)
To the bubbly Dara Syrkin was given the challenge of reading a representative sampling of poems from the forthcoming Nodin Poetry Anthology. The poems were interesting, though at this remove I can only remember two. One related a dream in which the speaker assumes the personae of all the characters in The Wizard of Oz by turns. The line I remember is "I'm always too quick to trust the loudest voice."
I also enjoyed Dara's own whimsical poem about dating gladiators, then deciding to get a chariot for herself.
The last poet on the program, Greg Watson, was fighting a cough, but we wouldn't have known if he hadn't apologized for the cough drop in his mouth. He read one poem ostensibly found in the sleeve of an old 78—I remember the image of the vinyl discs dropping down the spindle, from the poem, and also from life. Another poem had the evocative title, "Let This Wine be the Night." Greg's images often morph in unusual ways without dispelling the mood or losing the thread. He can be describing something romantic and evidently concrete—and then it's not.
The entire evening was going that way for me, but in reverse. I'd been taken in quite a few directions— stimulated, delighted, anguished, or enthralled—and now I was back home in the library in the midst of a room full of thoughtful people.
Publisher Norton Stillman made a little speech before the event broke up, expressing how much he values the personal friendship of the authors he works with. I've worked with Norton for years and I have seen that this is true.
I enjoyed saying hi to Carol Connolly and Ted Bowman. My old buddy Don Ladig (no slouch as a poet himself) was there; his knee is healing nicely. And I chatted at length with poet Kate Dayton and her husband Joe about the Northern Lights, the flowers in the desert south of Palm Springs, and other important stuff.
As people were leaving and chairs were being put back in the closet after the event, I butted cordially into a conversation between Michael Moore and Linda White. It occurred to me only later that I was exhibiting all the hallmarks of those extroverts that Michael has grown more than a little tired of over the years.
But based on the humor and insight conveyed by his poems, I'm pretty sure he's already forgiven me.