Philosophy of Life by John Ashbery


Just when I thought there wasn’t room enough
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea—
call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly,
it involved living the way philosophers live,
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?

That was the hardest part, I admit, but I had a
kind of dark foreknowledge of what it would be like.
Everything, from eating watermelon or going to the bathroom
or just standing on a subway platform, lost in thought
for a few minutes, or worrying about rain forests,
would be affected, or more precisely, inflected
by my new attitude. I wouldn’t be preachy,
or worry about children and old people, except
in the general way prescribed by our clockwork universe.
Instead I’d sort of let things be what they are
while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate
I thought I’d stumbled into, as a stranger
accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back,
revealing a winding staircase with greenish light
somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside
and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions.
At once a fragrance overwhelms him—not saffron, not lavender,
but something in between. He thinks of cushions, like the one
his uncle’s Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him
quizzically, pointed ear-tips folded over. And then the great rush
is on. Not a single idea emerges from it. It’s enough
to disgust you with thought. But then you remember something
William James
wrote in some book of his you never read—it was fine, it had the
the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet
still looking
for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it
even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and
his alone.

It’s fine, in summer, to visit the seashore.
There are lots of little trips to be made.
A grove of fledgling aspens welcomes the traveler. Nearby
are the public toilets where weary pilgrims have carved
their names and addresses, and perhaps messages as well,
messages to the world, as they sat
and thought about what they’d do after using the toilet
and washing their hands at the sink, prior to stepping out
into the open again. Had they been coaxed in by principles,
and were their words philosophy, of however crude a sort?
I confess I can move no farther along this train of thought—
something’s blocking it. Something I’m
not big enough to see over. Or maybe I’m frankly scared.
What was the matter with how I acted before?
But maybe I can come up with a compromise—I’ll let
things be what they are, sort of. In the autumn I’ll put up jellies
and preserves, against the winter cold and futility,
and that will be a human thing, and intelligent as well.
I won’t be embarrassed by my friends’ dumb remarks,
or even my own, though admittedly that’s the hardest part,
as when you are in a crowded theater and something you say
riles the spectator in front of you, who doesn’t even like the idea
of two people near him talking together. Well he’s
got to be flushed out so the hunters can have a crack at him—
this thing works both ways, you know. You can’t always
be worrying about others and keeping track of yourself
at the same time. That would be abusive, and about as much fun
as attending the wedding of two people you don’t know.
Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas.
That’s what they’re made for! Now I want you to go out there
and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too.
They don’t come along every day. Look out! There’s a big one.

John Lawrence Ashbery was an American poet. He published more than twenty volumes of poetry and won nearly every major American award for poetry, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Renowned for its postmodern complexity and opacity, Ashbery’s work still proves controversial. But this one’s a gem, I think. And I always go to him for a challenge! R.I.P. dear man.


The Day Lady Died by Frank O’Hara


It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life

and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

Frank O’Hara, “The Day Lady Died” from Lunch Poems.
Copyright © 1964 by Frank O’Hara.
The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara (City Light Books,1995)

EVE & ADAM by Rethabile Masilo

Rethabile Masilo

This is a reading of this poem
because this poem yearns to be read.
‘Read me’, it says to girls passing with clay-pots
on their heads, bangles on wrists. Monica
read it to Bill, pausing between lines for this poem
to sink in, the way Camilla kissed Charles
with her tongue when this poem revealed itself
to her. And so this poem is barred from Poems
on the Underground. This poem
is read by women whose husbands
haven fallen to cancer, voices trailing the lines
like sound behind light, or mechanical waves
chasing photons, or the sound of an aeroplane
you can no longer see. Our neighbour
kept reciting this poem every day
till the moon of her mind moved
into her window, and she lay in the arms
of a gentleman’s kindness again. Strauss-Kahn
missed the point of the whole thing, but Eve
read it to Adam on the eve of their sin.
Suddenly aware of the lock and key design
of genitals, he said this poem back to her,
spat in his hand and rubbed her crotch.

Lesotho-born Rethabile Masilo is a Paris-based poet whose first poetry collection, Things That Are Silent, was published by Pindrop Press in 2012. His second book, Waslap, was published in 2015 by The Onslaught Press.Blog

Driving to Santa Fe by Paisley Rekdal

Rekdal_Paisley(c-Austen Diamond)

(Photo credit, Austen Diamond)

Quick swim up through my headlights: gold eye
a startle in black: green swift glance
raking mine. A full second
we held each other, then gone.
Gone. And how did I know
what to call it? Lynx, the only possible
reply though I’d never seen one. The car
filling with it: moonlight,
piñon: a cat’s acrid smell
of terror. How quickly the gray body
fled, swerving to avoid
my light. And how often
that sight returns to me, shames me
to know how much more this fragment
matters. More than the broad back
of a man I loved. More than the image
of my friend, cancer-struck, curled
by her toilet. More than my regret
for the child I did not have which I thought
once would pierce me, utterly. Nothing
beside that dense muscle, faint gold guard hairs
stirring the dark. And if I keep
these scraps of it, what did it keep of me?
A flight, a thunder. A shield of light
dropped before the eyes, pinned
inside that magnificent skull only time
would release. Split back, fade
and reveal. Wind
would open him. Sun would turn him
commonplace: a knot of flies, a rib cage
of shredded tendon, wasp-nest
fragile. The treasure of him, like anything,
gone. Even now, I thumb that face
like a coin I cannot spend. If I ever lived,
I lived in him, fishing the cold
trout-thick streams, waking to snow, dying
when he died, which is a comfort.
I must say this. Otherwise, I myself
do not exist. It looked at me
a moment. A flash of green, of gold
and white. Then the dark came down
again between us. Once, I was afraid
of being changed. Now that is done.
The lynx has me in its eye.
I am already diminished.

Source: Poetry (July/August 2017)

I had the pleasure of meeting Paisley Rekdal and hearing her read at the Cork International Poetry Festival a couple of years ago, and have her riveting collection, The Invention of the Kaleidoscope. She grew up in Seattle, Washington, the daughter of a Chinese American mother and a Norwegian father. She earned a BA from the University of Washington, an MA from the University of Toronto Centre for Medieval Studies, and an MFA from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is the author of the poetry collections A Crash of Rhinos (2000), Six Girls Without Pants (2002), The Invention of the Kaleidoscope (2007), and Imaginary Vessels (2016), as well as the book of essays The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee: Observations on Not Fitting In (2000).

In reviewing The Invention of the Kaleidoscope for Barn Owl Review, Jay Robinson observed that it’s “the razor’s edge that always accompanies eros that makes the poems of Paisley Rekdal fresh, intense and ultimately irresistible.” Rekdal’s work grapples with issues of race, sexuality, myth, and identity while often referencing contemporary culture.

Rekdal has been honored with a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, a Village Voice Writers on the Verge Award, and a Fulbright Fellowship to South Korea. Her work has been included in numerous anthologies, including Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (2006) and the 2010 Pushcart Prize Anthology.

Rekdal teaches at the University of Utah. In April 2013, Rekdal was a featured writer on Harriet.

(This bio comes from the Poetry Foundation.)

Postcards and conversations


For our fourth session on the theme of ‘Exchange’ we talked about going on holiday, and sending home postcards. We talked about the purpose of postcards, how although there’s only room for a brief sentence or two, it gives an impression of the place we’re visiting, and lets the people at home know we’re thinking of them.

We also talked about paying extra attention when we are abroad, because so much is new to us. To practise paying attention, I distributed some postcards for them to study in pairs, and to describe to the group in detail. Without looking at the back, they had to guess where the postcard came from. A number of these postcards depicted paintings, portraits, or sculptures, and as a link to yesterday’s session, I asked them to invent a name for their character, and to give them a backstory based on the background and their clothing. Some people rose to the challenge; but not all!

Scraps of the conversation overheard:

I’d chance France, or Scotland. A greyhound, some people sitting round.

A bit of a party going on.

Two women, a child they’re minding, a waiter with a dish of fruit.

That’s a pie, like a mince pie, a chalice, two plates, a half-peeled orange,

the wine half-drunk. The place looks Spanish.

Is it a queen or a princess?

She looks very romantic. She has all these nice things on. They should go together.

You know who he reminds me of – the two brothers who play in Gallaghers. He reminds me of one of them. Would he be in a film?

He looks like a monk, way out in the lonely places, under rocks in Gougane Barra. They’re in Leap too.

Would that be Pompeii? The pillars remind me of Barcelona.

His name is George. He’s in his fifties. He’s a writer. He’s wearing a cloak and meditating.

There’s a bed in a room. The table she ate off. She has the cross up there and the Lady, and holy water. The little stool, everything very plain. No fuss at all. The curtain to pull down around the bed when she wants to sleep.

There was a story about nuns – they were trying to get them out but they were doing nothing only praying and things like that.

They are two young sisters from England. Sarah and Lauren, aged eight and six.

This is after a shipwreck. There are two in a boat, the waves going over them. It’s very rough, very scary. I’ll be dreaming about it tonight.

I’ll call him Leo. He’s an Italian painter and sculptor. He’s very serious-minded. He’s a young fella, hardly twenty at all. He’s from a foreign place.

Something to do with justice, because there are the scales. He’s blindfolded, and wearing a helmet. The other figures are at his feet, and the lot of them are standing on a plinth.

A man in his thirties. Bernard is his name. I don’t want to insult him, but I’d say he’d be a bit of a hard case.

Jack and Mary are coming in from the bog in Connemara, with the turf. They’ll get some pocket money for their troubles.

Victoria is sixteen. She’s like the ones uptown with the long dresses, their hair up. Like a young duchess. She’ll be coming out soon.

He looks like my son, but not the eyes – he has piercing eyes. Some kind of foreign painting. He looks very romantic. I’m going back to the olden days.

I miss them. You could go on forever.


For the second part of the session, the participants re-enacted the experience of meeting a stranger while abroad.

I asked them to converse with the person next to them, and to exchange five facts about themselves that their partner didn’t already know; for example, a fear of heights, or the fact that they have a mole on their left shoulder. Or their favourite food. Or the time they got drenched in the rain. Or any unusual thing that happened to them.

Although many of the participants have known each other all their lives, each one of them discovered something new about their companion, for example, their favourite colour is lilac, or they have a great desire to visit Amsterdam, or they used to be the Vice President of the Countrywomen’s Association. It stimulated a lot of animated conversation, and I felt my job for the day was done!

History and poetry – working with the elderly

poems for session 5

Today was my final session at the Bantry Day Care Centre, as part of the Arts for Health project, in conjunction with the Bantry Literary Festival.

Writing is difficult for most of them so, mostly, we talked, and Anne, a staff member, and I wrote down some of their comments.

During the second session, some of the participants told me about the food rationing during ‘the war’. Today I asked them about other historical events that have impacted on their lives.

One talked about her grandmother who was in Cumman na Mban. She would hide guns in her baby’s pram, under the blankets. She also mentioned the curfew around 1916/7. Everyone had to be indoors from 6pm. A man was walking up the steps to the hospital and was shot in the back by the Tans. His friend ran to town to get help and was also shot. The bullet traces can still be seen on the wall.

They told me that the actress, Maureen O’Hara, lived in Glengarriff. She was in the film, Ryan’s Daughter, and fell in love with the place. So she bought 30 acres there, and spent lots of time there. She would go to Supervalu wearing a headscarf and sunglasses, but everyone knew it was her. Then her grandson came over and sold the place and put her in a home back in the States. She died there last year.

A number of the participants had a lot to say about the Whiddy Island disaster in January 1979, where a ship spilled crude oil into the sea and it went on fire, killing all 51 crew members on board. ‘Wind came from the north, and the smoke went south.’ Christmas decorations were still up, one of them remembered. Only men were allowed to help with the clean-up, so a girl dressed as a man and drove a tractor to help. She used straw to mop up the oil off the water.One woman talked about a woman who went into labour and was rushed to hospital to deliver her baby, while her husband was being pulled from the water. There were no survivors, but not all bodies were recovered. Denis O’Leary’s body only washed ashore the following November.

They described Sophie du Plantier’s murder in Schull, still unsolved, and how her French family come over every year, still trying to find closure.

There was also the Air India disaster, where a plane went down near Ahakista. The town rallied to take care of the family members who came from India. The families were given food in West Lodge Hotel. One woman remembers that they made chicken salads for 130 people, and were asked to take off the skin as the families didn’t eat chicken skin.

They remembered Princess Di’s murder, the landing on the moon (the first TV arrived in 1951. one woman in Bantry had a TV, so they all watched it at her house) and the Pope’s visit to Knock shrine. A number of Bantry locals went up to see him.

The Twin Towers – people thought they were watching a movie at first.

Happier memories were summer dances at the crossroads, and the way people would visit each other’s houses for a sing-song or a game of cards. It was called stríochting. Songs like ‘Bantry Bay’ and ‘The Rose of Tralee’.


Historical events create a frame for individual lives. Poetry enhances our life by giving it a philosophical and/or emotional resonance. For the second part of the session, we looked at poems (and thanks to Paul Casey for those!): Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Love is Not All, Robert Frost’s Nothing Gold Can Stay, Piano, by D.H. Lawrence, Michael Hartnett’s Death of an Irishwoman, and for the craic, The Health-Food Diner, by Maya Angelou. To my surprise, I discovered that most of them had never learned poetry at school and didn’t know any poems by heart. ‘It was all Irish and maths’, someone said. Only one woman could recite a poem by heart, and she did so, beautifully – Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’. But they were pleased to get the handout of poems and some asked if they could take them away to keep, and read.

With pleasure, my darlings. It’s been an interesting week.

A character and a stranger – working with the elderly

Rosie's hand

What’s the first thing you notice about a stranger?

Today, for my third session at Bantry Day Care, we talked about how our own nature selects the details that please us most. That might be appearance: height, size, hair colouring, clothing, etc, or personality: gestures, body language, smile, handshake. Or voice: timbre, accent, tone, delivery, form of expression.

I asked a friend of mine to come and distribute brochures about the festival, and chat about what was happening. When she left, I challenged everyone to tell me what they had noticed about her. Not surprisingly (as she was young and attractive), the men in the room had absorbed a great deal, even perceiving attributes such as intelligence, confidence, education level etc. They remembered her name, clothing, height, quality of voice, body shape (‘slim’) and their only mistake was taking her for an English person. She’s from Cork, but is well-spoken. In the minute or so that they had to gain an impression of her, they managed a character profile that would have impressed an investigator! We talked about how in interviews, an employer would have decided intuitively whether to employ the person within thirty seconds.

Mary and Tom

We talked about first crushes and what attracted us to that person. There was much hilarity as one woman told us she chose a man who was ‘short and stout’ but owned the farm next door, and that was his attractive quality! She married him. Others went for people who were ‘kind to all and sundry’ rather than their looks. I was very touched. Another man said he chose a girl in London, where he was working, ‘not for sex or anything like that, just to keep the loneliness away.’ I imagined loneliness as an ogre bearing down on him. So many moving stories too. It was an honour to hear them.

We also talked about language, and how we use clichés. We collected a list of these. One surprising one was ‘quick as a ferret.’ And I really liked ‘hunger is the best sauce.’ They told me things that their parents used to say to them, such as ‘if you fall, don’t wait to get up.’ And a quirky Irish expression that translated as ‘praise the youth and they will come.’

We talked about ‘characters’ we had known. From the conversation, and with the help of Yvonne, who assisted as a scribe, I extracted lines to create a pantoum:

Scott Skalahat

I remember a travelling man coming to our house

made up songs on the spot, anything that was happening.

Scott Skalahat, as we called him, looked old to me.

He had nine fingers and a very small foot.

Made up songs on the spot, anything that was happening,

and took me poaching salmon.

He had nine fingers and a very small foot,

walked down the road in the ladies’ heels my sister gave him.

He took me poaching salmon.

My father would give him breakfast in the morning.

He walked down the road in the ladies’ heels my sister gave him

after he made flowers from crepe paper, and I cut his hair.

My father would give him breakfast in the morning,

the travelling man who came to our house.

After he made flowers from crepe paper, and I cut his hair,

Scott Skalahat, as we called him, looked old to me.