If poetry isn’t basic, then what is?  We turn to poetry again and again.  At memorial services, funerals, weddings, showers, christenings, graduations, at any event that marks an essential life passage.  We turn to a poem to express loss, hurt, change, joy.  And there is no more perfect instrument for a poem than the human voice.  We soak and float in the sounds that poetry makes.

An ancient Kenyan proverb says, Talking with one another is loving one another. When Aunt Toby died, we gathered to share stories and remember the wise and graceful woman who touched us all.  She lived an ordinary life, one set off-course by sickness and loss, but enriched by good fortune and abiding love. Her granddaughter read a poem at the service, one that Aunt Toby tacked on her kitchen wall in the little house on Apple Street.  A poem of unassuming wisdom and grace. It now hangs on ours.


Max Ehrmann is the author of Desiderata (Latin: things desired as essential). He earned a degree in Philosophy from Harvard University, then returned to his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana to practice law. Eventually this led him to work in his family’s meatpacking business and in the overalls manufacturing industry. Finally at the age of 41, Ehrmann decided to become a writer. At the age of 55 he wrote Desiderata, which achieved fame only after his death.

Poetry is “life distilled”, as Gwendolyn Brooks said.  It is also language and experience distilled.  Poems tells us something about a way to live in the world.  Even the ones that make us laugh out loud.



Over the course of a few minutes, a poem gives us insights into our lives
that last throughout a lifetime.  I know.  I read Aunt Toby’s wall.

Toni 4/28/11

Moon, Mann and Otto and the White-Throated Sparrow

Remember Moon, Mann, and Otto? No!? I Cannot. Believe. It. Modern Biology? 1956 edition? Advanced Bio with Mr. Bertram? Unfortunately, its star is a bit dimmed for me thanks to the TEXTBOOKHISTORY site where I was reminded that All Mention of Evolution were scrubbed from this text. I’d learned this from my teacher, Mr. Bertram, who used the 1956 edition because he had to, but he had a 1921 edition of Mr. Moon’s earlier biology text on his desk to make a rev0lutionary point: Darwin was on the frontispiece and Mr. Moon started the book with the statement that the whole of biology is “based on the fundamental idea of evolution” and that “both man and ape are descended from a common ancestor.”  Holding both books up, Mr. B. asked us, So what’s changed?  He asked the question with that sly grin and lit-eye look he used to grab Everyone’s Attention Immediately. We thumbed through our textbook. Clueless as to what he was talking about. After a while, he asks, What’s changed is this: By 1956 Mr. Moon had to erase most mention of evolution from his book.  More profits for the publisher.

Even at 16 I had wondered at all the mention of God in my biology text. But despite the grave omission and probably because of Mr. B’s riveting teaching, I survived to be a nature lover.

(All sorts of memories here; please let me know if you had this book too and tell me your memories; I can see it now right there on the NYT Best Seller List: Moon, Mann, and Otto Reunion.)  

Today I want to connect MM&O to the White Throated Sparrow.

The White-Throated Sparrow is a hopping, flying anatomy lesson says the allaboutbirds folks. It’s because his face markings are so clearly delineated that you can match each color with the name of that part of the face.

In birding books we have these Learning Pages? Parts of a Bird learning pages usually take up a nice space with a pencil drawing of a bird with straight lines going from the name of the part to the actual part. Knowing the name of a body part helps you focus your attention on a specific part of a bird and notice what might be the distinguishing characteristic. (So, does it have an incomplete eye ring or what’s the color of the undertail covert?) But, it’s hard to learn from those charts; they pack a lot in.

White-throated Sparrow PhotoAdult white-striped

Enter Mr. White-Throated Sparrow. He’s a textbook example of  body parts.

For instance, his head. It has such a striking pattern it’s as clear as those Moon, Mann, and Otto charts. (Remember them? Those overlays? Very High Tech for 1963 we thought. Cutaway views of first the frog and then–yes!!-the human torso, albeit minus the reproductive organs, as we high school kids observed. Really, was that necessary, Mr. Otto? First you take Charles Darwin off your cover and then you remove body parts?)

Back to W-T-Sparrow: black eyestripe, white crown and supercillium, yellow lores, white throat bordered by black malar stripe (we’d call it a black whisker). Perfectly defined. Just like MM&O.

The Fox Sparrows who touched down last week to take a few days off from their migratory trek have left to continue North, but the White-Throated Sparrows who’ve been here all winter are sticking around. Both are stay-near-the-ground-scratch-through-leaves-in-search-of-food types. During the winter they loved my deliberately-placed-and-happy-to-be-of-service-brush piles. I notice they’re eating some of the new buds off the bushes now too. They usually go further north to breed, but who knows, maybe they’ll like it so much here, they’ll stay. I love waking up to their  sweet whistled song. I bet you’ve heard it too. It’s one of the most recognizable bird songs: Oh Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody, or, if you’re Canadian, Oh-sweet-canada-canada-canada.

Patty 4/26/11


The colony of bats are back. I hear them in the eaves near my chimney. During the day, the nocturnal critters hang silently by their legs, heads bent, covered by voluminous wings. But at dusk, there’s a lot of commotion as they head out to nab mosquitoes. (I just learned that the Latin name for the bat is vespertilio, which refers to when it flies – after twilight.) And in the early morning hours, when the bats return, there’s skadoodles of quarreling and bickering outside my window as they jostle for the prime resting spots.

File:9 Squadron RAF.jpg


The Royal Air Force No IX Squadron adopted the bat in its badge in 1917 along with the Latin language motto “Per Noctem Volamus” (We Fly Through the Night).  In heraldry, when a bat is used in a coat of arms ( to mark an historic event ), it’s called a reremouse. Legend has it that a bat collided with a drum, waking up the Christians and warning them of an attack by the Arabian army in Mallorca. Another version says that, in the heat of battle, an arrow fired at the monarch hit a bat instead, saving the king’s life.



Randall Jarrell was a literary essayist and one of the most astute (and feared) poetry critics of his generation. But he also wrote books for children. Like this lovely and humorous tale ~ The Bat-Poet.



It’s the story of a bat who likes to make poems that, well, the other bats just don’t get. The little brown bat couldn’t sleep days so he kept waking up and looking at the world. Before long he began to see things differently from the other bats, who ~from dawn to sunset ~ never opened their eyes. The Bat-Poet is the story of how he tried to make the other bats see things his way. In the book are the bat’s own poems about his world: the owl who almost eats him; the mockingbird whose irritable genius almost overpowers him; the chipmunk who loves his poems, and the bats who can’t make heads or tails of them; and the cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, and sparrows who fly in and out of this fable illustrated by Maurice Sendak.




By Randall Jarrell

A bat is born
Naked and blind and pale
His mother makes a pocket of her tail
And catches him. He clings
to her long fur
By his thumbs and toes and teeth.
And then the mother dances through the night
Doubling and looping,
Soaring, somersaulting-
Her baby hangs on
All night, in happiness,
She hunts and flies.
Her high sharp cries
Like shining needlepoints of sound
Go out into the night and
echoing back,
Tell her what they have touched.
She hears how far it is,
how big it is,
which way it’s going:
She lives by hearing.
The mother eats the moths and gnats
she catches
In full flight, In full flight.
The mother drinks the water of the pond,
She skims across,
Her baby hangs on tight.
Her baby drinks the milk she makes him.
In moonlight or starlight,
In midair
Their single shadow,
printed on the moon
Or fluttering across the stars,
Whirls on all night.
At daybreak,
the tired mother flaps home to her rafter
The others all are there.
They hang themselves up by their toes,
They wrap themselves in their brown wings.
Bunched upside down, they sleep in air.
Their sharp ears,
Their sharp teeth
Their quick sharp faces
Are dull and slow and mild.
All the bright day, as the mother sleeps,
She folds her wings about her sleeping child.


What’s Poetry Month without a Giveaway?

Here’s one that’s sure to please.  Fly fangs-first into Margaret Roach‘s blog ~ it’s brazenly good !

WIN ONE OF TWO hardcover copies of Emily Dickinson’s complete poems; giveaway closes Monday night.  Happy National Poetry Month!

Toni 4/24/11

Thoughts that Arrive with the Backyard Fox Sparrow

I’m pretty sure this gorgeous bird is  just passing through, but I wish I could convince him to stay, so he could be all mine to savor. This was probably the impulse of Ghengis Khan too. How can I keep them all?  Same with those emperors with  their caged nightingales. I want this beauty all for myself.

Here’s what’s out in our backyard.

Fox Sparrow Photo
A large, bold striped (also with a red tail and a messy chest spot) Fox Sparrow. He applies himself with great vigor to the ground litter under my pines. At first I thought he was a thrush and was about to call Ray and Ronnie, the birder pals. But then I see his bill. Thick and Conical. Sparrow! He’s double-scratching, as in using both feet to kick backward. Hopping too, it seems. I guess he’s getting at some tasty morsels underneath the debris.  This makes me think of  a Stanley Kunitz poem where he says we’ve got to learn to love the litter of our past lives, a poem I quote whenever regrets about past transgressions and faux pax and youthful callowness rise their ugly, nay-saying heads. I mean, what good is it to dwell on what’s happened? All it does is make us dull to the refreshing thrum of the Lovely Now and flatten the glorious future.

Mr. Fox Sparrow moves out from under the trees so I can get a good look at him. He’s under the bird feeders now. And is he ever calling attention to himself!  If I hadn’t noticed him before, even from my periphery vision over here at the kitchen sink, without my glasses on or binoculars up, I would have caught the flurry of seed scatter. When one of our babies would start to yowl, Jack and I would look at each other, sigh, and say Another county heard from. And then we’d do whatever needed doing with this I MUST HAVE YOUR FULL ATTENTION RIGHT NOW OR ELSE little creature. Ideas are like that. They either make a quiet sound in your heart, or sometimes  they pull and tug. Our kids used both attention-getting methods. A favorite tactic of the kids would be to climb out of the crib or bed, pad into our room, and stand–just stand–next to my sound-asleep-head. Suddenly I’d awake–violently–with that shocked feeling that Something Was Up. Up and Staring patiently at me. How’s that for the quiet approach to getting attention. It’s in the sound-in-my-heart category. The actual tug category is more obvious: child stands at your side in the grocery store and tugs at your pant leg. I’m occupied with reading nutrition labels, What’s this corn syrup thinggy? Must be good since the box says NO SUGAR!  Sorry you grown up kids, I just didn’t know. But perhaps I didn’t feed you as much corn-syruped-food as I could have, what with the interruption of the pant-tugger. Many a grocery trip was short-circuited because of that pull and tug. Pay attention to me parent! My diapers are overflowing. My nose is bleeding. I’ve flipped the cap open on the cinnamon and inhaled. That sort of tug.

This attention-getting idea is more complicated with the Mr. Fox Sparrow. His seed scatter was the Pull and Tug, but just watching him made that sound in my heart that prompted me to think some more about Other Things.



More Juxtapositioning: When It Rocks, Roll and Let’s Get a 200-Year Global Warming Plan

Juxtaposition #1:

First read the top of the banner…“When it rocks….” then pause and study the picture of earthquake-induced mayhem, next proceed to the bottom of the banner “Are you ready to roll?” APRIL IS EARTHQUAKE PREPAREDNESS MONTH and then keep shopping or doughnut-buying or bar-hopping or playground-swinging. Where else but in LA.  But, like all good juxtapositions are meant to do, this one jars.

Disclaimer: I tossed in the free puns to lighten this juxtaposition up, and to prepare my head for a more serious pairing.

Juxtaposition #2:

Denmark has a plan for Global Warming.

You’re thinking, So what; we do too, er, don’t we?  

Read on.

Quick to take exception to Al Gore’s proclamation that the Netherlands are as vulnerable to the rising seas as Bangladesh, the Dutch explain they have long-range plans to get even greener and to keep the water out, plans that include pushing the coast out 4 kilometers and massive new storm-surge barriers and reinforcements around cities already built on marshy delta.  After Hurricane Katrina and as global warming data solidified, the Dutch, like many of us, realized that their present day risk calculations needed revision. So, as did the cathedral builders of old, who knew they’d not be around when the church was finished, the Dutch people asked what will it take to climate-proof our country for the next 200 years. 


In our country, we can’t even plan two months in the future. I hear the words it’s our grandchildren who will be paying off this debt. But the kids are mere props in a battle fought by those who insist that we must cut taxes. Have forgotten that our country was founded on the desire to have taxation with representation because our founding fathers KNEW a country needs a revenue stream? So, except for using our kids to supposedly weigh the effect of the debt and to figure out how to run a country without asking for citizen-contributed money, I see no consistent, thoughtful official consideration of the future.

No genuine concern for the state of the earth our grandchildren will inherit.

In fact sometimes it seems as if the apocalyptic-inclined are running the country, or surreptitiously behind the runners.  Are we really a people that want to invite the end of the Earth so as to serve the religious ends of a segment of the population? I remember the horror I felt when it was revealed that President Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior–guardian of our piece of  Earth–James Watt believed in a particular Earth-end date that hardly got him through his term in office. Although he may not have said after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back as claimed by some–and repeated by me–he did tell Congress that he doesn’t know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns. 

And for a juxtaposition within a juxtaposition: The Native Americans, like the Dutch, have a rule that says something like we need to be concerned about our children’s children’s children’s children. And yet we cannot seem to elect legislators or appoint Judges or find Presidents who can withstand pressure so as to lay out a long-range plan about out how to make us greener so as to reduce carbon emissions and at the same time plan for what to do when the sea levels will rise. No One.

I’m glad the land-reclamation the Dutch have embarked upon will bring them closer to North America. We need to feel their influence.

So, how about before it rocks, let’s start thinking about how we’ll roll.