Today I wrapped a few Christmas packages in silver snowflaked paper, with neat folds pressed on the boxes. I went for a run on the hills, with the sharp pain in my calf reminding me that I cannot force myself back into my lithe and limber sixteen year old body in under a month’s time, or ever perhaps. I tucked my knees up under myself on the sofa and made a list of things yet to be done. I listened with rapture as my daughter told me about her first brave jump into the deep, deep end of the pool. I tossed my dirty socks to mingle and dance with my husband’s in the washing machine. I pared away the bruised bits of a Braeburn before I arranged the slices on a white porcelain plate.
It didn’t feel like drudgery. I was content. It all reminded me of this poem I tucked away many years ago.
I have spread wet linen
On lavender bushes,
I have swept rose petals
From a garden walk.
I have labeled jars of raspberry jam,
I have baked a sunshine cake;
I have embroidered a yellow duck
On a small blue frock.
I have polished andirons,
Dusted the highboy,
Cut sweet peas for a black bowl,
Wound the tall clock,
Pleated a lace ruffle …
I have lived a poem
Have you lived a poem today?
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
The new bookshelves are here. I’m being deliberate about what goes where, which books will get priority seating. It’s a task that I could get lost in forever, perhaps especially this summer. Truth is, I’m having a rough go of it. I feel perpetually raw for so many reasons, known and unknown. My status, it seems, has hovered somewhere between salt in wound and gnat in room, with a cloak of irrelevance worn too many times in between. It’s hard to feel like that all of the time. Books have become my balm. They are my friends right now. We’re tight. We hang.
Yet given the many obligations I have to tend to, I can’t take all that much time to ponder the placement of my closest confidants. Maybe another time, but not right now. There are repair men to wait for, suitcases to be packed, dust motes to battle.
Still, I am indulging in a quick glance at my books as I tuck each one away. When I picked up Observe the Lark, poems by Katie Louchheim, I happened to turn to this poem. I don’t remember ever reading it, though I must have. It’s almost like she was speaking directly to me, right here in this moment. Maybe that’s why I don’t recall having read it before, when it wasn’t relevant. I suppose this is why books can so easily become friends—they always offer exactly the right words to say at exactly the right time.
The Sensitive One
You who are so sensitive,
so finely honed, so favored,
you walk through words.
The trees talk to you,
fiercely dispute their right
to own your silence.
Lush meadows, pleading streams,
lonely paths call you by name,
memorize your footfall.
You close the troubled doors,
You were last observed
reforesting, planting a new world.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
I don’t have too many regrets in life, but one regret I do have is not taking any humanities classes while in college, save for one photography class. I was a biology major with hopes of becoming an ecologist (didn’t happen), and so I focused all of my attention on those kinds of labs and classes. At the time, I did not appreciate that the whole point of a liberal arts education is to actually take part in the diversity and range of classes available, including those outside your major. For this reason (and because I certainly didn’t pay attention during English classes in high school either), I often feel woefully lacking in an understanding and appreciation for literature and poetry. I have not read most classics. I have only a vague knowledge of some of the famous, long dead poets. Suffice it to say, you do not want me on your trivia team.
Yet, I find myself increasingly drawn to poetry lately, both writing and reading it. I’m not sure if it’s because of my 40th birthday (a month away) and having more clarity of what interests me, succumbing more to the writing life or even just my slow immersion into Twitter (saying so much with a pithy 140 characters!). Though I want to read more poetry, I often just don’t know where to start looking. Only certain “voices” and topics seem to speak to me yet there is just so much to sift through.
So, imagine my delight when, while at the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair in November, I stumbled upon Urban Nature: Poems About Wildlife in the City, edited by Laure-Anne Bosselaar (2000). Even more exciting? It’s a signed copy (Ms. Bosselaar and several of the poets). Even more exciting than that? The bookseller personally knew (and has stayed with while on vacation) the editor. This kind of “closeness” to the players forces me accept the limits of my iPad and ebooks.
Aside from any regrets I have about not taking classes about poetry, I also live with a certain sense of occasional melancholy about living in an urban area rather than the wooded rural type of environment I grew up in as a child. Indeed, I think much of my appreciation for trees, birds and the awesome interconnectedness of ecosystems stems from living in upstate New York for the years that I did. I am equally drawn to the urban life as I am to solitude in the woods. At the moment, the city wins.
So for me this collection was, in a word, perfect. It introduced me to several new poets that I likely would not have otherwise come to know. The poems focus on subjects—cities and wildlife—that are near and dear to me. I often find myself looking for the wild in our built environment. It’s harder some days than others, but there is a whole world thriving right before our eyes. But we have to be receptive to it, just like these poets.
The poems are separated into several categories: Cityscape; Streets, Highways, Bridges, Rivers; Seasons and Skies; Backyards, Gardens, Parks, and Zoos; and Animals in the Cities. There were several that resonated with me and provided much beautiful imagery. Like the collage that Gerald Hausman describes in “September City” and the changing of foliage by Lloyd Schwartz in “Leaves”. In “Nocturne”, Ellen Bryant Voigt has a way of describing, if not pardoning, the violence that inevitably occurs in cities and nature alike.
In “Going Home Madly”, Brooke Wiese describes the night sky like this:
The moon was new, a sliver rising over
Queens. The sky was plush as crushed velvet—
a midnight blue wedding lapel purpling over
the East River like the inside of a clamshell.
I must have read “Outlook” by Crystal Bacon at least four times on the first pass. It seems to so aptly describe a feeling I often have about living in close proximity to other people and all that comes with it, including the sights and sounds. You hate it on the dreary days—the clutter, grey and detritus of modern life—but then you are in awe of the sunset or trees that also fill that vista. The first stanza is just beautiful:
I’ve begun to love the cold, the slick, bitter seed
of this life: brittle, brilliant. Even the bare trees
have embraced the ice: arms and fingers shelled
in diamond, in glass, and still they wave and click,
bend and freeze in the chill kiss of the wind.
Loving trees as much as I do, I felt the sense of loss and sorrow described by Robert Ayres in “The Neighbor’s Elm”, which had been cut down due to disease. Birds also permeate throughout many of these poems and they are another living species to which I feel connected on a deep level. I love the description of the owl taking flight in “A Death in Larkspur Canyon” by Richard Garcia:
Going out that evening with the garbage
I saw something crouched below me.
Then it rose—an owl, dark, silent
billowing like a silk scarf thrown in the air.
“Brave Sparrow” by Michael Collier is just lovely, and gives a much needed acknowledgment to one of the most ignored urban birds, the lowly sparrow. Cardinals are one of my all-time favorite birds, so I understood and appreciated “Red Bird” by Gerald Steen. The tenderness and mystery of eggs and nests are so apparent and heartbreaking in “The Nest” by Carol Moldaw.
I could go on. Indeed, there are many, many good poems in this collection. It seems like a book that is best read across different seasons or city vantage points, though so far I’ve only read it in the fall from the comfort of my living room. If you’re a city person who likes to notice the “unnoticed” among the bustle, this book will speak to you. If you’re a nature lover who happens to live in an urban environment and you feel the tug of a more pristine world that you cannot access right now, this book will give you a bit of hope and comfort that there is an abundance of beautiful wildlife even within the concrete jungle.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
First, a bit o’ housekeeping: little lodestar is on Twitter (@littlelodestar). Actually, it has been for a while, but I am not usually one for a lot of shameless self-promotion (and that is why my brother and my husband have been my only followers for the past several months!). But it’s there. If you want to be “there” too, cool. If not, you probably won’t miss much anyway. Now, onto more important matters!
Isn’t winter a great time for cuddling up with a book? Of course it is, and, as promised, here is my review of two new books of poetry we recently added to M’s permanent collection.
The first, Forget-Me-Nots: Poems to Learn by Heart, selected by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Michael Emberley, is fantastic. Published in 2012, it contains a really excellent collection of poems (obviously!) that are so great for young children (and older too) to explore. I did not pick this one up for the purpose of having M actually memorize them, though over time it will be almost impossible not to since there are several that are worth re-reading a hundred times over. The book is organized into categories, such as “The Short of It” (really short poems; if you’re interested in memorizing these are how you start flexing that portion of your brain), “Beautiful Beasts” (about animals), “Delicious Dishes” (food), “Happiness Is” (poems about happiness), “Sad and Sorrowful” (poems about sad events/emotions), “Weather and Seasons”, and “Poems from Storybooks”, among others. The poets range from the historical, classic and well known—Robert Louis Stevenson, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Sara Teasdale—to dozens more from more modern times, most of which I admittedly have not heard of before (though someone more literate than I am in this genre may see a slew more recognizable names). I love these kinds of collections because they show kids that poems do not have to rhyme, that language can be fun, especially when spoken aloud rather than read to oneself (alliteration, anyone?), and that you can both write at length about something very finite or express a profound thought in just a few short lines. The colorful illustrations are definitely kid-oriented too, giving some additional depth to already interesting writing (I think illustrations are particularly good with poems for kids around M’s age–it keeps their attention and sometimes explains nuances and gives context in poems that are not fully understood within a still-developing vocabulary). This one makes a great gift and certainly is one for your own personal bookshelf at home. I am positive it will get read many, many times. In fact, M is already starting to have some favorites and we’re not even halfway through the book.
The other one I picked up was If You Were a Chocolate Moustache, by J. Patrick Lewis (children’s poet laureate) and illustrated by Matthew Cordell. OK, I love this one right now more than M, but I think that is primarily because she doesn’t understand what many of these poems are about (like references to school at the elementary level). She’s probably a year or two out before really appreciating these. His poems remind me a lot of Shel Silverstein’s (which I loved as a kid). There are some really neat things he does with riddles, word play, poem structure/layout and even anagrams. The illustrations that accompany the poems are ink sketches much like what we see in Shel Silverstein (perhaps another reason my kid is not as interested—she is drawn more to color illustrations). The sketches are silly and give some additional humor, and often some much needed context for kids. For example, like the sketch of the park bench covered with pigeons and pigeon poop that accompanies “Spotted Park Bench” which is a three line poem about….well, I’m sure you can guess (OK, M did like this one…what is it with 5 year olds and poop?!). Ditto for the illustration that accompanies “Never Spit from a Roller Coaster”—I had to explain what this one meant, but the illustration certainly would have helped an older child who has been on a roller coaster and understands the physics involved with forward spitting (ew!). I am happy with this one for sure, but it will likely not get read cover to cover for quite some time before she understands what some of these are about, though there are at least a few that are fun to read now.
Incidentally, you may find yourself spontaneously starting to think of poems yourself once you start reading poetry on a regular basis. I am by no means a legitimate poet, trained or otherwise, but I do like to write them from time to time. Ever since M has started talking in earnest, I find myself making up rhymes, stories or poems with phrases or words that she makes up as she tries to master English. Like right now, I’ve got something cooking with the word “goosebunnies”, which was her inadvertent cross of dust bunnies + goosebumps. I love stuff like that.
I do this mostly in my mind, but occasionally I take pen to paper (fingers to keyboard?) and work them into something for her keepsake box (once I even dared to submit one elsewhere). Like this one I wrote the other day when she told me she was going to make me drink “spider web tea”, a phrase that immediately conjured up strange yet vivid images (and to M’s credit, I think she was inspired by “Tear Water Tea” in one of the Frog & Toad books I recently reviewed!):
Spider Web Tea
How do you drink spider web tea?
Ever so, ever so delicately.
From dew drops on silk,
should I take it with milk
or stir in a honey bee?
How do you drink spider web tea?
Ever so, ever so delicately.
With both pinkies raised
to avoid the eight legs,
and six eyes staring back at me.
How do you drink spider web tea?
Ever so, ever so delicately.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
You know how you will occasionally borrow a book from the library and it ends up being a found treasure, such that you reluctantly return it (and, in our house, usually a week late!) and realize you just have to have it for your own collection? Well, Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors, written by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, is one of those books, and it will soon be added to M’s collection.
As a side note … when I take M to the library, she can take out several books at a time and I give her free range of picking out whatever might strike her fancy. But, after going a few times, I realized that one of two things usually happened: she would spot the “Dora and Thomas” shelf from a mile away and would want to take out only those books, or she would take the first five or six books she sees as we walk into her section and then run off to play with the wooden puzzles. Unfortunately, that meant that we were stuck for a whole week reading “CAN YOU SAY BACKPACK?” and “SWIPER STOP SWIPING!!!!” ad nauseam –it’s not just me that feels like Dora talks in all capital letters, is it?–and never got to know authors whose last names were after Ab-Af.
I’m sure with time M will be more interested in actually combing through the stacks, but until then, I now usually go with a short list of titles I’ve heard about or authors that we’ve liked in the past so that I can balance out the borrowed book stack. But I had no intentions of borrowing Red Sings… before we got to the library. It was just one of the books featured near the librarians’ desk among a display of books related to the seasons. It was the cover that drew me in, but since I was in a rush I just added it to our short but heavy stack of books to check out and hoped for the best.
If there was ever a case to be made for judging a book by its cover, this is it.
It is easy to see why this book is a 2010 Caldecott Honor Book (among many other distinctions). It is not only beautifully illustrated, but beautifully written. And since it is more poetry than straight storytelling prose, I was excited to read this one many nights before bed because each time I noticed something different in the illustrations or took away a different appreciation of the language that was used by the author. I think that is often hard to do with books written for preschoolers/kindergarten aged kids, where you not only have a very short story you’re reading given the kids’ attention spans, but also when the book is requested night after night after night after night after night . . . .
The colors of the seasons have never quite been so accurately captured by words and poetry that, while simple, speaks to both children and adults. When you are reading the poems–there’s one for each season, spanning several pages but using tight, descriptive prose and imagery–you really start to wonder whether the scent of fall leaves is actually wafting through your window.
Using a cardinal and his surroundings as the common thread to tie the seasons together, the author describes colors in a way that is not limited to noting the standard ROY G BIV that preschoolers (and the books written for them) tend to focus on. Instead, Ms. Sidman includes colors like cerulean and pink among the palette, and incorporates them into descriptions that beckon all five senses, particularly sound and touch. The result is a multi-sensory experience based in color and expressed only through the written word. That is not an easy job to do, particularly in a children’s book where the text is usually limited and the readers’ attention spans even more so.
M is certainly on the younger end of the intended audience, but she definitely liked looking at the illustrations and the topic lent itself to questions from her during and after the book. The pictures were all filled with rich colors and contained enough detail to hold her interest, yet were simple enough that she could pay attention to my reading simultaneously without being distracted while trying to decipher the illustration. Despite being poem more than story, M understood the main themes, one of which was noting how vastly different the same landscape can look from season to season. Living in Massachusetts lends itself well to seeing a similar story unfold outside our very own window each year, but it’s always nice when I can relate things back to a book that M has read.
And! I did not know this until preparing this post–Ms. Sidman even has a reader guide for Red Sings… The guide is for grades 1-4 reading this book, but I can see there are at least a few exercises that could work with a preschooler as well. Bonus!
All in all, it is the kind of book that, over time, I hope M and I will read again and again and get something different from it each time. To me, that is the hallmark of a well written book or poem.
Overall rating: 5 out of 5 stars.
Copyright (c) 2011-2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz. All rights reserved.
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