Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

When the doctor runs out of words and still
I won’t leave, he latches my shoulder and
steers me out doors.

So begins Lucia Perillo’s “The Body Mutinies,” from our February 1996 issue. Perillo passed away last October after decades of living with and writing about multiple sclerosis. She was diagnosed with the disease at the age of 30, and her awareness of her mortality and struggles with her failing body shaped her often humorous, often heartbreaking verse in the years that followed.

In “The Body Mutinies,” Perillo deals with the dazed realization of a new kind of life in the immediate aftermath of diagnosis with affecting simplicity and clarity. Here are a few more lines:

& me not griefstruck yet but still amazed: how
words and names—medicine’s blunt instruments—
undid me

Read the full poem here. Then, take a look at Perillo’s more metaphysical “Pharaoh,” from our October 2010 issue.

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Kieran Doherty / Reuters

Robert Frost once described his initial joy in making a poem as “the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew.” As a method of getting at the truth, poetry has no claims to scientific rigor—and that’s not why I read it. Rather, I think of poetry as the fact of feeling: what happens when experience transcends received forms of knowledge. Much of the pleasure I take in reading poetry is discovering, through the beauty of language, human truths that I feel but cannot utter.

Such is the case with Frost’s “Directive,” which I love for its depiction of a grief so enormous and incomprehensible that it can only be understood through the story the speaker tells. It’s a story of the impossibility of wholeness and the inevitability of loss—of how humans’ carefully built structures of order and meaning must give way to the indifferent natural laws of death, erosion, and decay:

The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.

First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.

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From our October 2009 issue, here’s Ted Kooser’s “Gabardine” in its entirety:

To sit in sunlight with other old men,
none with his legs crossed, our feet in loose shoes
hot and flat on the earth, hands curled in our laps
or on our knees, like birds that now and then
fly up with our words and settle again
in a slightly different way, casting a slightly
different shadow over our pants legs, gabardine,
blue, gray, or brown, warmed by the passing sun.

This poem exemplifies the conversational style for which the former poet laureate is known—and which seems perfectly suited to a lazy Sunday afternoon. For more, you can read Kooser’s “Two,” from our May 2013 issue.

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The dome of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, England Alessia Pierdomenico / Reuters

John Donne begins the fourteenth of his Holy Sonnets with a demand that surprised me with its intensity:

Batter my heart, three person’d God, for you
As yet but knock breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

Donne himself was a man of apparently conflicting pursuits and passions: He not only wrote many love poems, but also delivered some of the most influential sermons ever penned in English. In Sonnet 14, his speaker, addressing the Trinity, seems to wrestle with an angel and argue with a partner at once, wrangling abstraction and spirituality in visceral, bodily terms.

The poem’s formal excellence lies not in appearing effortless, but in actualizing immense effort, doubt, and strain. Fine, hairline cracks appear in the sonnet’s form—the occasional extra syllable, for example—as it drags readers inexorably from line to line, and from one phrase of its unusual argument to the next. The poem, like the poet, generously accommodates tension, paradox, and even outright contradiction to achieve a final unity.

It’s a piece worth keeping posted on your wall as a reminder to continue pushing and being pulled by whichever gods batter your heart.

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In “Projection,” from our May 1967 issue, two-time poet laureate Howard Nemerov muses about map-making and artistic possibility:

They were so amply beautiful, the maps,
With their blue rivers winding to the sea,
So calmly beautiful, who could have blamed
Us for believing, bowed to our drawing boards,
In a large and ultimate equivalence,
One map that challenged and replaced the world?

Read through some of Nemerov’s other poems in our archives to hear more of his thoughtful and often witty voice.

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Linda Gregerson’s “Waterborne,” from our May 2000 issue, captures many of the distinctive features of her verse. It’s subtly, hauntingly beautiful and suffused with a creeping sense of horror cut through with poignant wonder. With associative sleights of pen, it connects a varied collection of stories, places, and emotions. And it’s built from the helical stanzas—with their short, central middle lines acting as narrow waists to the longer first and last—that Gregerson invented, and that she once said “saved my life.”

Here are a few lines of the poem:

                            … When Gordon was a boy
                        they used to load
              the frozen river on a sledge here and

in August eat the heavenly reward—sweet
                        cream—
              of winter’s work. A piece of moonlight saved

against the day, he thought. And this is where
                        the Muir boy
              drowned. And this is where I didn’t.

Read the rest here. Then, explore some of Gregerson’s other work for The Atlantic and see what Garth Greenwell had to say about her latest poetry collection.

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Saul Loeb / Pool Photo / AP

Since the 1930s, a president’s first 100 days in office have been used to measure the new administration’s progress and potential success—for example, by his 100th day, former President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed 76 bills into law and pushed for new federal jobs programs. President Trump will reach his 100-day mark on April 29. This week, we asked our Politics & Policy Daily readers to share their assessments of his early days in office.

Against the standard set by FDR and other presidents, reader Sean described Trump as a “deadbeat,” and Maria Melnick said she could sum up his first 100 days in one word: “Sad!”

Jim Young offered a more thorough examination of the president’s performance, looking at Trump’s early days from several perspectives:

Let’s be clear: The 100-day standard is simply a journalistic attempt to benchmark progress of a presidency. It is a simplistic but reasonable attempt to judge a leader's impact.  On that basis, Trump has to be a failure judged by answers to the question: “Are we as a country better off now than 3-4 months ago?”

From a security perspective, all polls show anxiety and uncertainty at a much higher level largely due to the president's decision making. From an economic perspective, the economy is doing better than public impression would have it, but that is largely due to the rhetoric of the administration that is still in campaign mode. From a political perspective, there is no cooperation at all at the federal level, and almost all institutions are in “lockdown” mode. Lastly, from a cultural perspective, Trump’s scapegoating of so many groups in the country (Muslims, liberals, reporters, Democrats) is divisive, and the very slogan “America First” contradicts many of our national values.

Tom Lucas isn’t surprised by Trump’s performance so far; he thinks it’s a pretty accurate reflection of the Republican’s campaign:

There is no consistent focus, advisers are dropping in and out of favor, and Trump claims everything good that happens (good January job numbers) is a result of his greatness, while things that fail (AHCA) are somebody else’s fault. Overall he is showing terrible leadership attributes. He also seems to have a desperate need for approval, evidenced by the fact that he is already holding campaign events where he can bask in the glow of those that see him as the solution to their problems.

Michael Porcaro, on the other hand, would give Trump an A for effort:

I feel he is doing his very best to carry out his agenda. Congress has to make adjustments to meet his demands. He won due to what he ran on. It's what the majority of working people want. He has more to do.

Ken Smith echoed that assessment: “Considering that the mainstream media is STILL against him and the Dems are doing everything in their power to deter his progress, I’d say he is doing a great uphill job.”

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Luke MacGregor / Reuters

There are endless poems about the beginning and end of love. Poems celebrating loves that have somehow managed to endure years of familiarity, however, are somewhat thinner on the ground. That’s a pity, because we need them—both to reflect many people’s lived experience, and to give readers trying to make sense of a new love affair hope that the accompanying angst, joy, and general hysterics won’t necessarily end up sputtering out in meaninglessness somewhere down the line.

Thom Gunn’s poem “The Hug” provides a beautiful snapshot of this sort of enduring love. The poet, sleeping drunkenly after his lover’s birthday party, wakes during the night. He finds himself locked in a tight heel-to-shoulder hug with his partner, in which the intervening years of their relationship seem to disappear:

It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
             Or braced, to mine,
         And locking me to you
     As if we were still twenty-two
     When our grand passion had not yet
         Become familial.

There’s a bittersweet history hiding behind this simple poem from Gunn. A British poet who in his early years was linked to the bleak, clear-eyed austerity of The Movement, he escaped in the 1950s to commune life and, ultimately, gay liberation in San Francisco. Gunn lived to reflect devastatingly on the death of many friends from AIDS, but much of his later poetry, written before the epidemic’s axe fell, contains a strain of clear contentment.

Does “The Hug” show the direction in which all our mature loves might happily progress? I certainly hope so.

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Gerald Herbert / AP

Yesterday I wrote about the patriotic myth of “Paul Revere’s Ride,” recounted in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous 1861 poem.

Longfellow’s fellow Atlantic founder John Greenleaf Whittier put a similar, though less historically accurate, myth to paper in “Barbara Frietchie,” from our October 1863 issue. The poem—inspired, like Longfellow’s, by the abolitionist cause—tells the story of an elderly woman who refused to lower her American flag when Confederate forces marched through her Maryland town:

Forty flags with their silver stars,
Forty flags with their crimson bars,

Flapped in the morning wind: the sun
Of noon looked down, and saw not one.

Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;

Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;

In her attic-window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet.

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Carlos Barria / Reuters

Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri-American poet who passed away in 2001, wrote about a lot of things. Some of those things were specific—Hindu ceremonies, American highways, his mother—but many of them were universal: saying goodbye, the moon, friendship, God. What strikes me about Ali was how he always seemed to be writing from a distance, like he was observing something through a window or from very far away.

I like to imagine it’s because he felt caught, like I often do, between two places that were meant to be home but suggested hostility. For a child of immigrants, his poetry is cathartic. It makes me think about China—about how I can recognize its images and symbols, but don’t really know it. And about how fully I accept America as part of myself, but how it doesn’t always feel the same way about me.

Ali wrote about the violence that tore Kashmir into two separate parcels of land, as well as his lasting feeling of dislocation in American tableaus after he moved to the States at 26. Maybe that’s why he had moments like he does in “Stationery,” a short, dreamy piece about an ownerless landscape and a vague wish that it would say something back to him. And I think everyone who’s ever felt adrift, or abandoned, or lonely, can relate to these last two lines:

The world is full of paper.
Write to me.

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Murad Sezer / Reuters

Last week, I wrote about some of the reasons airlines can get away with bad customer service. One extreme example came earlier this month, when a passenger was seriously injured while being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight—but overall, the amount of control airlines have over their customers is the envy of other industries, the marketing expert Joseph Turow told me:

“Irrespective of any individual fare, they have this overarching notion of who their valued customers are, and what their lifetime value is,” he said. “And because of the structure of the system, they can take advantage of it to the point of being mean to people.”

Business travelers, who are less likely than leisure travelers to comparison-shop for airfare, reap the rewards of pricey, company-sponsored travel in the form of miles. They’re pampered, while passengers in the back, who are more likely to have simply searched for the best deal, are left without many frills.

A reader emailed over the weekend to share her own harrowing experience with a major airline in the ’90s, which quickly escalated from a routine complaint to an emergency landing and a round of questioning with the FBI:

I and my then-boyfriend were flying to Portland from NYC. His father, an executive with loads of mileage to spend, got my BF a business ticket and me a coach ticket for some reason. We were chatting at my BF’s seat, thinking it should be okay until the departure. A flight attendant approached us and as soon as he knew that I was a coach customer, he started to get very mean and raise his voice at me—even though we explained I was going back to my assigned spot before takeoff.

We decided my BF would come to my seat later to watch a film together after a meal. When I was going to enter the business section to pick him up, the same flight attendant stopped me, saying my BF was asleep and I couldn’t get in the business area since I didn’t have a business ticket. He even said I shouldn’t bother my BF and shut a curtain in my face.

So, I complained about this flight attendant’s rude attitude, but nobody was decent and I started to cry. My BF came and he also told them that the flight attendant was very mean to me.

All of a sudden, an announcement was made to be seated, so we went back to our seats. Later I would learn that the captain decided to make an emergency stop to kick us out. We were handcuffed.

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