Two weeks ago I was looking at Istanbul from our rooftop terrace, celebrating my husband's birthday, my daughter's graduation from high school, my son's finishing his master's and moving on to a real job in the real world. And me, of course, in the unreal world, as always, startled by the beauty of a city I'd not really wanted to visit. Twenty million people live there now and I didn't really know it existed. Not like Rome, or Paris. Not even like Paris, Texas, which was the name of a boutique around the corner from our rental flat. Twenty million now, but it was also the birthplace of so many things, so many centuries ago, built by the anonymous artisans of days gone by.
Somehow, the glorious view of the tip of Asia brought me to think of all those artists who labor, not for fame or money, but simply because it's what they do. It's not easy, but it's something they give to the world. One of the things I treasure, every day, when I start my work, is a painting my sister, Teresa Maria, sent me several years back. She doesn't call herself an artist, she wouldn't dare. Painting is hard work, it's angst-ridden, but it's something she does, and then dismisses as not worthy.
I beg to differ.
And then there is a dear friend, whose name is Jane Ulrich. She is a poet, but like my sister, wouldn't call herself that unless horsewhipped into it by fans like me. She is a mom, first and foremost, she is a wife, a gardener, and a brilliant cook. But it's her poetry that I treasure, over and over, and present to you, just a small sample. These two poems wrestle with the difficult business that is this creative life, whether it's art or writing, or making a mosaic ceiling that years later tourists will squint to see.
The laundry is soaking upstairs, down here the dishes need to be washed
and the piles on the tables weigh on me like wet snow on the pool cover outside
just like this so-called poem demanding I put all that aside
But on this desk I can’t help but see
papers are heaped high
a bag next to me half filled with trash
practically screams to be fattened
are quivering with desire
to clean even the toilets, anything but this sitting here
staring at the blank incriminating screen
AH! my husband is stirring upstairs, perhaps coming down
to eat lunch, to chat
despite the fact that I so obviously have nothing to say
warranting the words Poet or Wife
Failed like the dinner party with too many people
all talking about work, not one of them
unveiling scars covered by party clothes
And just like them I am afraid to remember even the act of remembering
my son’s four inch long feet in sheepskin slippers
or the way his father said
“I’d have a million if they were all just like him”
Jane and I have been friends since before our first born sons were born, just a month apart, and now these boys are 24 year old men. Still, our conversations are peppered with worry and the sense we have, as mothers, of constantly failing to do it perfectly, as though such a thing were possible. Like poetry, motherhood is filled with uncertainty. Like housework, it's never finished, or when it is, an impermanent feast.
|Spring vegetables, laid out, still warm.|
It is these small triumphs that we don't remember, the accomplishments that won't boost anyone's resume, that often are the most satisfying, if only because no one expects them to be more than that.
Perhaps it is the knowledge of so much impermanence that leads us to try for something beyond the moment, that something that if we are lucky, someone else will call 'art.' Right here, right now, I am calling my dear friend's poetry just that.
The cavernous hole in the wall
my son put his foot through
much to his surprise and mine
covered by a poster of smiles
taped poorly and falling down
On the counter and table and floor
are worksheets of verb tenses
in a language I do not know
fourth grade math problems
too difficult to solve at 10 or 50
maps of Turkey and Afghanistan
of earth’s tectonic plates
Upstairs the clothes and linens
are tossed in corners and in the hallway
leading to the laundry room
or perhaps not needing cleaning
and tiles in the bathrooms crack
and crinkle underfoot
the house itself shifting in ways
I do not understand
requiring a beam
or some other massive support
in the cellar I do not wish to enter
an underworld of mess
I cannot dwell upon
Disorder drips from the very ceiling
of this house tiny footsteps
amplified in aluminum air shafts
echo hugely at 4 in the morning,
reminding me of all the critters in the house
I have lost control of
all the contractors I have not called
all the towels that have leapt
so unaccountably out
from the closet where I crammed them
no more than a day ago
Someone must DO something I think
This can’t go on
So I write it all down
wad the clothes into the closet of this poem
file the pictures of volcanoes between the lines on this page
fill the hole in the wall with the spackle of my mind
create my own universe
and only when the paper runs out
do my hands touch anything real.
What I love about Jane's work is how clearly she roots the words in the experience we all live, in the domestic life that is so often disdained by the literary establishment. This, I would claim, is the curse and the blessing of being a woman writer. It might be a ghetto, or is it a gated community?
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