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I will still be making poems for you / out of silence . . .

I had a moving and humbling experience this afternoon. I was visiting poet William Matchett, who is a friend of my parents. Like them, he lives on the Hood Canal, in Kitsap County Washington. (He and my father would both want you to know that the Hood Canal is actually a fjord. Consider yourselves edified.) Bill turned ninety this year, and his fourth book, Airplants: Selected Poems, is due out shortly from Antrim House Books. He wrote me a couple of very thoughtful notes (like, actual typed-on-a-typewriter letters-in-the-mail) after reading Luck and A Thirst That’s Partly Mine, and I brought him a copy of Talking About The Weather. Hoping for another letter!

During our visit, Bill brought out a beautiful old leather-bound book, which his mother had given him when he was a student. She had proposed that he fill the blank pages (such luxe paper!) with his own poems. Instead, Bill has, across the span of seventy years or so, invited other poets to hand-write one of their own poems in the book. What a nice idea! And Bill was inviting me to copy one of my poems into the book. I even had my favorite fountain pen (with the brown ink) with me. (“Peepers,” from A Thirst That’s Partly Mine, was the one he requested, and of course I obliged.)

Before he set me copying down my poem at the dining table, Bill opened the book to show me some of what had been written there before.  Some names I didn’t recognize. Others…

Robert Frost’s “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be The Same,” in the author’s own hand. Howard Nemerov. Carolyn Kizer. Jack Gilbert. Heather McHugh. W.S. Merwin, William Stafford.

Gwendolyn Brooks’ “looking” from “Gay Chaps at the Bar.” GWENDOLYN BROOKS, people. The first poetry reading I ever went to (I was 12 or 13 years old) was Gwendolyn Brooks and she blew my universe. She is in my holy canon to this day.

Bill Matchett was on the faculty at the University of Washington for about fifty years. He helped coordinate the annual “Roethke Readings,” which brought well-known poets to campus, which accounted for some, but not all of these poems. Some of the poets had done their copy-work while visiting Bill and his wife Judy at this very house, perched above the fjord, a house named Nellita for the town that used to be here long ago. Others wrote out their poems in Seattle, a few elsewhere. I used my brown fountain-pen ink and my tidy penmanship and copied down my poem. It felt strange and wonderful for my penmanship to be inside a book with the penmanship of all of these poets. It will feel strange and wonderful for a very long time, I think. And I’m just so touched at Bill’s invitation, just a thing he does when a poet visits him, I guess, but with such resonance for me. I felt warmth and connection and, sure, a little fan-girl giddy. I felt like a part of poetry in a very physical, leather-bound way.

John Crowe Ransom. Adrienne Rich! James Wright. Seamus Heaney’s perfect “Mother of the Groom.” Roethke’s “The Waking” taking up a whole page. Richard Wilbur. Galway Kinnell. Stanley Kunitz. A poem from each. Some of the pages had sketches, watercolors, illustrations. One of the illustrations, early on in the book, Bill pointed out, was by a young “Ted” Gorey. Yeah, him. (They met at Harvard where Gorey was roommates with Frank O’Hara!)   

And.

Elizabeth Bishop. She wrote out part of “Sandpiper.” I stared at her handwriting for a long time. I tried to imagine her hand, her pen moving.

And.

And.

And when I turned the page to the gorgeous scrawl of “Then,” by Muriel Rukeyser, I wasn’t ready for it. I audibly gasped. I got inaudibly teary. I was supposed to finish copying my poem, but I kept going back to read hers. Here it is:

THEN

When I am dead, even then,
I will still love you, I will wait in these poems.
When I am dead, even then
I am still listening to you.
I will be still making poems for you
out of silence;
silence will be falling into that silence,
it is building music.

At Bill and Judy’s house in the woods next to the fjord where there used to be a town called Nellita, these words came up at me from that page, from Muriel, right up at me, and all of them were true.

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Poker & Poetry

This weekend, I played in the 2011 Foxwoods Poker Classic Ladies’ No-Limit Hold ‘Em “Deep Stack” tournament. “Deep Stack” means they gave us a whole lot of chips, so play generally lasts longer. One of our dealers suggested that women tend to play a tighter game than men, and that that contributes to the length of women’s tournaments as well — not sure whether that’s true or not.  I played for about five and a half hours, and went out around 67/68/69th in a field that started with 206 players.  I was playing at a table with some serious, serious players and frankly still can’t believe I lasted as long as I did. I went out as the short (WAAAAY short) stack — threw all-in pre-flop with KJ of hearts. It wasn’t enough.

In January I held my own for a while in one of Foxwoods’ regular lower-stakes tournaments, another “deep stack” hold ’em with a “bounty” chip, which is lots of fun — you win a cash “bounty” for each person you put out of the tournament.  I managed to come away with three chips (my own and two others), so the $200 buy-in ended up costing me only $25. In a field of 134, I came in 25th (not close enough to be in the money, alas). More thrilling (I am such a dork) was splitting a pot with poker-playing actor James Woods. Anyhow, I feel like I’ve played well in my last two “big” tournaments, but I need more practice at aggressive betting in the later part of a tournament. I’m a decent conservative player, which takes me a good ways, but I don’t think I’ll ever get into the money without learning to shift into higher gear. The two friends I go to the casinos with are more consistently better players than I am — partly (I think) because they are better at math than I am, but also because they know how to bet more aggressively than I do. Thankfully, I’m having a good old time learning, and slowly (SLOWLY) improving my game.

So of course today I had to share my poker status on Facebook, and part of my status update was crammed with poker lingo: “Best hand: quad 8’s, but no one took my bait. Went all-in as short stack on K/J hearts pre-flop. Got called by A/K. She flopped the straight, so what ended up being 2 pairs (K/J) for me just wasn’t enough to double up.” And later, in response to some friends’ comments about the inscrutable poker jargon, I commented that my King-Jack suited was nicknamed “Kojak,” and that the King-Jack unsuited (“Jack-King-Off) is called the Bachelor Hand. Naughty.

I love the word play (visual word play, metaphors, puns, etc) involved in all the poker jargon — here’s a great list of all the fun names for various cards and hands. I’m drawn to it both because I love the particulars of subcultures, and (mostly) because I’m a word nerd and a poet.  A friend commented, after all my jargony updating and comments on Facebook, that I ought to write a poker poem.  And I may have to write a new one — I want to write an ode to the player (she was so clearly the Boss of Our Table) who slow-played her pocket queens so well it was like I’d been hypnotized. It was an honor to be so well-played. She was that good. But before I get to that poem, this one goes out to Bill — a poker poem I’ve already written — several years back.  It appears in my chapbook, Luck, whose title poem is actually set at a craps table. Anyhow, here it is, and I’d love to hear about more poker poems.

All-In

Luck can’t be worked; sometimes you just fall in:
you’ve got the pocket aces and the nerve
and so you push your stack of chips all-in.

One player calls; another rubs her chin
and folds. The big blind checks. You feel in love.
Luck can’t be worked. Sometimes you just fall in

with a crowd of cards too bad to call. In
this instance, though, your mother would approve,
and so you push your stack of chips all-in.

The flop’s an ace, a seven, and a ten.
Two drop their cards. One raises. Then a five.
Luck can’t be worked; sometimes you just fall in

at the right time or table, or crawl in
to the warmest bed to stroke the softest curves.
And so you push your stack of chips all-in.

You block out the casino’s garish din.
You ride the river’s solitary wave.
Luck can’t be worked; sometimes you just fall in,
and so you push your stack of chips all-in.