Monthly Archives: April 2012

More Memoirs & Icons (this time fiction?)

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The Postman and the Poet

In 1994 an Italian film “El Postino” (“The Postman”) was released to some acclaim (Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor).  It is the story of a postman, Mario, who is  assigned to deliver mail to the exiled Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, living in the film on an island off the coast of Italy.  The film is based on the novel Aridente Paciencia (Burning Patience) by Chilean writer, Antonio Skarmeta and published in the mid 1980s (later editions of the novel can be found under the English language title The Postman).

In this memoir Neruda and his wife are banished to an island for his political/Communist leanings yet as a poet he remained beloved by the people of Chile.  The postman, having lived all his life on the island, is not a learned man.  Yet his curiosity about this famous man who writes poetry (& who seems to receive a lot of letters from women) motivates him to make Neruda his friend.  As their friendship evolves, the postman begins to understand poetic language.  When he finds himself falling in love with a local woman, the postman asks the poet for love advice.

The story, both funny and heartwarming, originally had fairly overt political undertones related to Chilean politics.  This 1994 film changes the location, however, to an Italian island in the Mediterranean rather than taking place on the book’s truer location of Isla Negra off the coast of Chile.  The timeframe of the film is also changed, and in the original story the postman is much younger in age than the Mario portrayed in the film.  It is not clear if this was an attempt on the part of the filmmakers to steer the story away from its original political nuances and more towards a story of how an unsophisticated man learns with poetic language how to woo and win the woman whose affection he desires.  Not all the political aspects of the original story are ignored in the film, however.

After seeing this movie people have wondered if this story is based on fact.  For some it doesn’t matter one way or another, it is a beautifully rendered situation regardless.

I had heard of the poet Pablo Neruda before seeing this film, however I didn’t know much about his poetry.  Here is a selection of his love poems.  These are translations from Spanish.

Leaning into the Afternoons

Leaning into the afternoons I cast my sad nets
towards your oceanic eyes.

There in the highest blaze my solitude lengthens and flames,
its arms turning like a drowning man’s.

I send out red signals across your absent eyes
that move like the sea near a lighthouse.

You keep only darkness, my distant female,
from your regard sometimes the coast of dread emerges.

Leaning into the afternoons I fling my sad nets
to that sea that beats on your marine eyes.

The birds of night peck at the first stars
that flash like my soul when I love you.

The night gallops on its shadowy mare
shedding blue tassels over the land.

–Pablo Neruda

Clenched Soul

We have lost even this twilight.
No one saw us this evening hand in hand
while the blue night dropped on the world.

I have seen from my window
the fiesta of sunset in the distant mountain tops.

Sometimes a piece of sun
burned like a coin in my hand.

I remembered you with my soul clenched
in that sadness of mine that you know.
Where were you then?
Who else was there?
Saying what?

Why will the whole of love come on me suddenly
when I am sad and feel you are far away?

The book fell that always closed at twilight
and my blue sweater rolled like a hurt dog at my feet.

Always, always you recede through the evenings
toward the twilight erasing statues.

–Pablo Neruda

For people who know Neruda’s poetry there are some who have favorites among his poems.  I stumbled upon this web page recently where two additional love poems (Sonnets) have been posted:


Memoirs and Icons

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If a person writes about their own life, I don’t know what the difference is between it being called a “memoir” or being called an “autobiography.”   It used to be that if someone wrote about their life it was considered an autobiography.   In recent years the term “memoir” is being heard more often.  Memoir is perhaps a broader term in that it can be more than just a person writing about his/her own life and experiences – memoir can also refer to someone writing about his/her life experiences in regard to their relationship to another person and in most cases, a famous person.

I saw the 2011 movie “My Week with Marilyn” recently.  It’s based upon the book The Prince, the Showgirl and Me written by Colin Clark, a British man, who, when he was 23, worked on the set of the 1956 film starring Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier “The Prince and the Showgirl.”  The book The Prince, the Showgirl and Me was published in the mid 1990s and is based on the diary Clark wrote during the time he worked on the film.  What is interesting is a few years later Clark also published another memoir that details nine days during the filming where he spent concentrated time with Ms. Monroe.

The film “My Week with Marilyn” is pretty good.  It’s alternately humorous and yet sad, and depicts aspects of Marilyn Monroe that are closer to the bone than what’s been portrayed before.  Actress Michele Williams does a terrific job of capturing the persona of Marilyn Monroe, that’s for sure.


This memoir about Marilyn Monroe called to mind another film also based upon a memoir written about a famous person entitled “W.C. Fields and Me.”  Released in 1976, the film is based on the memoir written by Carlotta Monti in 1973.  Carolotta was Field’s girlfriend and lived with him for 14 years.  The film stars actors Rod Steiger as Fields and Valerie Perrine as Carlotta.  I remember liking this film and have now discovered it’s never been released as a DVD.

Of course, when it’s an icon being written about there is interest built into the memoir right from the start.  Have you ever wondered about the person who writes the memoir and publishes it – is he or she just cashing in on the other person’s fame?  If the person being written about has died along with other people who knew the situation being written about, how does the reader or film viewer know that what is being depicted really occurred?  I read, for instance, that only one incident from Carlotta’s memoir about W.C. Field was actually portrayed in the film.  Most of the incidents reflected in the film never actually happened.

Regarding the time frame for each of these memoirs, Clark’s memoir about Marilyn Monroe was published about 40 years after the event.  Similarly, Carlotta Monti’s memoir about W.C. Fields was written nearly 30 years after his death.   Marilyn Monroe is undoubtedly a larger more iconic personality of these two – someone recently commented that many young people today don’t know who W.C. Fields is and have little knowledge of his comedic talent or his films.

Addendum:  When I searched recently the Internet Movie Database (, the keyword “memoir” only listed 20 films.  This makes me think that yes, the term “memoir” is, in fact, of more recent vintage.

Wallace Stevens

     “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  Matthew 20:16

One of the first poets who fascinated me was Wallace Stevens (1879-1955).  His day job was working as a lawyer in a large insurance company.  Yet his interest in writing made him a poet in his spare time, and he equally excelled in this as he did in his day career.  Abstract and philosophical, his poems are complex, and yet accessible in strange and mysterious ways.  Something I read about Mr. Stevens’ poetry recently is that he also was proficient at creating memorable phrases in his poems.

Wallace Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania and was able to attend Harvard University where his writing ability was manifested in both articles and poems published in this university’s newspapers.  Unfortunately he was unable to graduate due to family financial problems.  After Harvard, Stevens wrote for newspapers in New York yet yearned for something more fulfilling.  He eventually finished college and entered law school.  During this time he wrote some poetry, however concentrated more on getting his law degree and acquiring work as a lawyer.  It was after he married, had a child and began to work full time for an insurance company in Hartford, CT that Stevens’ poetry began to flourish.

There are several poems of Mr. Stevens that I like.  It was hard to choose a selection for this blog.  One of these I’ve chosen I actually thought was written by another poet (!) so I decided to include it.  It’s an example of a renown modern poem.

Of Mere Being

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze distance.

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

(published 1954)

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird


Among twenty snowy mountains,

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.


I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.


The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.

It was a small part of the pantomime.


A man and a woman

Are one.

A man and a woman and a blackbird

Are one.


I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.


Icicles filled the long window

With barbaric glass.

The shadow of the blackbird

Crossed it, to and fro.

The mood

Traced in the shadow

An indecipherable cause.


O thin men of Haddam,

Why do you imagine golden birds?

Do you not see how the blackbird

Walks around the feet

Of the women about you?


I know noble accents

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;

But I know, too,

That the blackbird is involved

In what I know.


When the blackbird flew out of sight,

It marked the edge

Of one of many circles.


At the sight of blackbirds

Flying in a green light,

Even the bawds of euphony

Would cry out sharply.


He rode over Connecticut

In a glass coach.

Once, a fear pierced him,

In that he mistook

The shadow of his equipage

For blackbirds.


The river is moving.

The blackbird must be flying.


It was evening all afternoon.

It was snowing

And it was going to snow.

The blackbird sat

In the cedar-limbs.

(published 1917)

***Here is a link to Peter Y. Chou’s piece on that gives some brief additional background on Wallace Stevens and his poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:”

Denise Levertov

The Thread

Something is very gently,

invisibly, silently,

pulling at me–a thread

or net of threads

finer than cobweb and as

elastic. I haven’t tried

the strength of it. No barbed hook

pierced and tore me. Was it

not long ago this thread

began to draw me? Or

way back? Was I

born with its knot about my

neck, a bridle? Not fear

but a stirring

of wonder makes me

catch my breath when I feel

the tug of it when I thought

it had loosened itself and gone.


Denise Levertov

Born in England in 1923, Ms. Levertov immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1940s and became a U.S. citizen (befitting National Poetry Month when this blog is being written).  Ms. Levertov began writing when she was young, publishing her first poem at age 17 in the literary publication, Poetry Quarterly.  Her first book of poems “Double Image” was published before she reached age 21.

Ms. Levertov did not want her poetry to be affiliated with any particular group of poets and shunned any attempts to categorize her poems.  What did become evident, however, is that her open, experimental style placed among other American avant garde poets of her era, the mid twentieth century, and also earlier experimental poets.

In 1959 a collection of her poems entitled “With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads,” established Ms. Levertov as a strong and prominent poet.  She went on to publish more than twenty volumes of poetry before her death in 1997.  She also worked as the poetry editor of several periodical publications such as “Nation” and “Mother Jones.”

In the mid 1990s I did some research into Denise Levertov and her poetry, having made selections of her work for a performance piece.  Her imagery is often direct and concrete, and her poems can also be intimate and lively.

Ms. Levertov is buried at Lakeview Cemetery in Seattle, Washington, a place she made her home in the later years of her life.

James Wright


Born in the Midwest, poet James Wright (1927-1980) it is said, was haunted all his life by the poverty and despair he experienced while growing up during the Depression in an Ohio factory town.  It was his good fortune that as an adult he was able to escape, attending college where his writing thrived under the guidance of accomplished professor poets.  Wright went on to earn his Ph.D. in literature and was able to procure academic teaching jobs during this lifetime.

Wright’s poetry evolved as he continued to write and he became a well-respected poet known “for his willingness and ability to experiment with language and style, as well as for his thematic concerns.”   I first encountered Wright’s poetry while searching a few years ago for modern “American” poets during this very same time frame, i.e. National Poetry Month.   I find Wright’s poems to be hard to interpret at times yet strangely rewarding when the meaning can be understood.  When I am unable to grasp one of his poems, it is usually that for me his imagery proves to be too complex and elusive (in those instances the poem is, I guess you would say, “over my head” much to my chagrin).

Just Before a Thunder Shower

Cribs loaded with roughage huddle together

Before the north clouds.

The wind tiptoes between poplars, carrying its shoes.

The silver-maple leaves squint

Toward the ground.

An old farmer, his scarlet face

Apologetic with whiskey, swings back a barn door

And calls twenty black-and-white Holsteins

From the clover field.

(published 1961)

A Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,

Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.

And the eyes of those two Indian ponies

Darken with kindness.

They have come gladly out of the willows

To welcome my friend and me.

We step over the barbed wire into the pasture

Where they have been grazing all day, alone.

They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness

That we have come.

They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.

There is no loneliness like theirs.

At home once more,

They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.

I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,

For she has walked over to me

And nuzzled my left hand.

She is black and white,

Her mane falls wild on her forehead,

And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear

That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.

Suddenly I realize

That if I stepped out of my body I would break

Into blossom.

(published 1963)

****For more in-depth insight on the poet James Wright, here is a link to the blog “The Compass Rose” that featured a discussion in May 2010 about this poet and his work:

Lucille Clifton (born Thelma Lucille Sayles)

African American poet, Lucille Clifton (born 1936 – died 2010) is one of the first women poets whose poetry I discovered while browsing in a college bookstore in the Midwest in the mid 1970s (a college English major I enjoyed looking at the literature books).  Ms. Clifton’s poetry felt refreshing and spontaneous in its frankness.  To me, she was a kindred spirit who had wisdom and insight that she shared with her reader generously.

About 10 years later, living in a city in the Northeast, I attended a workshop with Ms. Clifton.  Unfortunately since I didn’t find out that this event was taking place until 3 days after it started, I was a latecomer and was not able to fully be involved in the sharing of poetry that was occurring with the participants.  However for me it didn’t matter.  I was just thrilled to see Ms. Clifton in person, this poet whose work I had found on my own and admired a lot.

It’s funny, as I thought when I showed up the final night of the workshop that Ms. Clifton looked at me strangely.  There were only 7-8 people gathered around a table in a small conference room. I mumbled something about just hearing about the workshop the day before and wanting to attend anyway.  She was gracious about my being an interloper.  I tried to keep a low profile and was grateful she allowed me to remain.

My Mama Moved Among Days

My Mama moved among the days

like a dreamwalker in a field,

seemed like what she touched was here

seemed like what touched her couldn’t hold,

she got us almost through the high grass

then seemed like she turned around and ran

right back in

right back on in


e.e. cummings


Poet and novelist, e.e. cummings, was born in Cambridge, MA in 1894 and died in 1962 in North Conway, New Hampshire.  He first began writing poems when he was in elementary school.  Later both his undergraduate and graduate studies at Harvard introduced him to advant garde writers who influenced him significantly.  Cummings became known himself for his “experimental” style that included a departure from traditional form, punctuation, spelling and syntax.

Sometimes criticized that eventually his poetry did not evolve beyond his experimental style, Cummings’ poems nevertheless captivated people, making him a fairly well known and popular poet during his lifetime.  He was the recipient of a number of honors and grants.

To commemorate today being Easter Sunday and the first few weeks of spring with the world in bloom, this is an e. e. cummings poem that carries with it that feeling of rebirth:

i thank you God for most this amazing

I thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today, and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Stevie Smith (aka Florence Margaret Smith)

Stevie Smith (1901-1971) is not an American poet, and while it’s currently National Poetry Month in the U.S. (and I’ve been blogging here about American poets), I still want to feature her poetry.  I’m including her as she’s British, writes in the English language and her poetry is sometimes readily understandable and other times, more obscure.  The impression I formed of her is that of a modern woman.  I found out about her when I saw a feature film about her life entitled “Stevie” starring Glenda Jackson.  I saw the film in the 1980s — it was actually released in 1978 according to

Stevie was both a poet and novelist.  I found her to be compelling, and while I’d never heard of

Image her before, I was intrigued as she lived something of a working woman’s life in suburban London yet her home life was portrayed as more or less the center of her existence.

In the early 1990s I was given by my stepmother, Jane, a book entitled “The Things that Matter: An Anthology of Women’s Spiritual Poetry.”  There are several poems of Stevie Smith’s included in this anthology.  Here is one of them:

 I do not Speak

I do not ask for mercy for understanding for peace

And in these heavy days I do not ask for release

I do not ask that suffering shall cease.


I do not pray to God to let me die

To give an ear attentive to my cry

To pause in his marching and not hurry by.

I do not ask for anything I do not speak

I do not question and I do not seek

I used to in the day when I was weak.


Now I am strong and lapped in sorrow

As in a coat of magic mail and borrow

From Time today and care not for tomorrow.

(published in her first collection of poems, “A Good Time Was Had By All”, 1937)


American Poet, Langston Hughes

     Langston Hughes was a 20th century African American poet.  He  lived from 1902 – 1967 and is considered part of the Harlem Renaissance of Black writers, visual artists and musicians who flourished in the 1920s and 30s in and around Harlem in New York.  I first discovered Langston Hughes poetry during the mid 1990s in a children’s department of a public library.  I believe it was his collection of poems in the book “The Dream Keeper and Other Poems.”

     To be honest Langston Hughes poetry bowled me over.  His poems are direct and speak to the regular person.  I’m realizing now from some research that his poetry was not readily accepted when he first wrote, and he was considered, I guess you might say, “low brow.”  I didn’t know that and it’s a shame he was the subject of much criticism.  His poetic voice and tone (in prose terms, the tact that he had) didn’t mince words, however, so perhaps his being offensive didn’t matter to him as long as it communicated how he truely felt.

Here are some poems of his.  Honestly there are quite a few of his that I like.  It was hard to choose.

Mother to Son

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
and splinters,
and boards torn up,
and places with no carpet on the floor-

But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
and reachin’ landin’s,
and turnin’ corners,
and sometimes goin’ in the dark
where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now-
for I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
and life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

(written in 1922)

The Dream Keeper

Bring me all of your dreams,
You dreamer,
Bring me all your
Heart melodies
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world.

(published in 1932)

Theme for English B

The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York too.) Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me NOT like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B

(written in 1951)


R.I.P. Southern male writer, Harry Crews

I just found out yesterday the Southern author, Harry Crews, died last week (on Wednesday, 3/28/12).  He was 76.  I remember him from reading his novel “Body” in the early 1990s.  What I don’t recall is how I found out about him — that is, I think someone told me to read him.  At that time I was reading alternately a book written by a woman and then a book written by a man.  I was also open to reading a wide variety of authors.

Anyway I enjoyed “Body” — it was odd for sure — the story took place within the world of female bodybuilding and the lengths these people go to in order to both create and keep their physique.  Funny, I actually learned something about this realm of life from reading this novel.  It’s a small thing yet unforgettable.

I didn’t read anything else he wrote and from two obituaries online (from the LA Times and from the NY Times,) this is how I found out Mr. Crews passed away.  (also thank you, Cassie, from your blog “” for posting links to both these obits about him).

I don’t know many Southern men writers, and since i’ve written here about Southern women writers and I actually read something by Mr. Crews, I wanted to blog about him.  If you’ve never read him he’s worth trying.

Here are the links to the recent write-ups about him in the LA Times and the NY Times:,0,1537312.story