Poetry Friday: Ellen Steinbaum and
Loving the Locked Drawers

h1 May 1st, 2009 by jules

I’ve been reading Container Gardening, the latest collection of poetry from journalist, poet, and playwright Ellen Steinbaum (published last year by CustomWords). Ellen also, until very recently and for almost a decade, was a columnist for the Boston Globe, writing at “City Type,” conversations with Boston-area writers and poets. (Those columns are archived, for those interested, at her site.)

Ellen’s poetry is new to me, but I ripped right through this collection and I’m even currently re-reading it. I find many of these poems—whose themes often swirl around life’s most perplexing elements, memory, the rush of time, loss, and hope—to be moving. At her site, she writes, “I think of my new book, Container Gardening, as a collection of poems about what is perishable, what endures, and what makes us who we are. After my first book, Afterwords {pictured below}, which dealt very specifically with loss, these speak of how we pick up the pieces and go on to create the private and public worlds we inhabit.”

I asked Ellen if I could post two of her poems in their entirety today, and then I pushed my luck—since I found it difficult to choose favorites—and asked for three. Fortunately, she gave me the green light. These three poems, particularly the first two, struck me with their sharply-observed and inherent reverence for the mysteries of our emotional lives — yet Ellen pulls it all off without insufferable navel-gazing and just the right balance of introspection and acceptance. Rilke once (famously) instructed someone to “try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.” I think Ellen echoes the same here in these poems I’m sharing today.

And I think the final poem, “One Photograph,” fits snugly with these other two, what with the longing and searching at its center, but I also want to share it now, since we are edging up to Mother’s Day. I couldn’t help but think of my own mother in “One Photograph,” and it got me. Got me good. From one poet’s experience to paper to a random reader like me, getting all verklempt: We take it for granted all the time, but isn’t it all simply splendid?

Thanks to Ellen for letting me share. I’m not going to ask folks to share their one “Question” (see the second poem below) today, as that’s way too private and, for many, might be painful. But if anyone wants to share in the comments their “favorite bauble” (see the first poem)—if it’s one not too terribly private for you—you’d pretty much make my day.

My favorite bauble, or baubles, in my case: When my daughters each (separately, of course) came out of my body and into this world and were handed to me.

The Time Emporium

And which was your favorite
bauble—the perfect summer evening,
sky just darkening amethyst,
a scattering of fireflies for props?
Or maybe the birthday
when you were six, everyone
close around you singing, you
feeling beloved and fortunate?
The child’s birth, first heart-stopping
smile, cheeks pink and damp from
sleep? The love, the passion,
intimate exchange, secret look in
the offhand moment? What was
that instant when you soared beyond
your skin, felt your benevolent soul
stretch outward? Which trinket catches
light, which jewel is bright with fire?
Which, looking back, would you never
exchange for what was coming next?

More poems from Container Gardening are here at CustomWords’ site.

The Poetry Friday round-up today is being hosted by Maya Ganesan over at allegro.

* * * * * * *

CONTAINER GARDENING © 2008 Ellen Steinbaum. Published by CustomWords, Cincinatti, Ohio. Poems posted here with permission of Steinbaum. All rights reserved.

The cover art for Container Gardening was painted by Faith Hochberg.

10 comments to “Poetry Friday: Ellen Steinbaum and
Loving the Locked Drawers”

  1. What lovely poems. The watercolor illustration on the cover is gorgeous too!

  2. Thanks for the intro to Ellen’s poems. The three you shared here today are all lovely. My favorite bauble? The day a scruffy man with a moustache knocked on my door. 🙂

  3. Well, I collect what I think of as “perfect moments” and store them away in little cubbyholes of memory for ready retrieval. For now, I’ll choose this one: Joseph Heller, laughing in delight when I told him I first read Catch-22 when I was 12 (over the objections of the town librarian). The way he threw back his head, y’know? (And FWIW, if he were still alive he’d be 86 today.)

    And oh, jeez, that “Question” poem…! Ellen Steinbaum seems to have a gift for packaging up the past in little crystal boxes, so you can appreciate them without opening but even — with a glance over the shoulder to see if anyone’s watching — crack them open juuuust enough to touch with the fingertips a little bit. I *love* that.

  4. Those are pretty great baubles, you guys. You got to TELL Joseph Heller that, John? That’s wonderful.

    Before I got married and helped populate the world by plus two (just because, for me, nothing trumps meeting my daughters for the first time), my bauble would have been composed of certain moments I had onstage when I used to do theatr-uh. Particularly in college. Granted, I look back on some of the shows I did and cringe a bit, thinking they may have been way worse than I envisioned them at the time. (And who WAS I, thinking I could play an almost-middle-age woman, which I did at one point, with my limited life experiences then?) But there was still nothing like it — also because I loved my college theatre friends so dearly, including the one and only Eisha. Oh and still do lurv them.

    John, as for Ellen’s ability to perfectly package those moments, I’m also quite taken with her “standing at the shore,” which is here.

  5. Oh, that moment with Heller was just the start of one of the biggest bauble-nights of my life. The Missus-to-Be, a friend, and I closed the bar at the Radisson hotel here… with JH, Vonnegut, and Styron. Just the six of us at a couple of big shoved-together tables. Even today, over 10 years later, I have to pinch myself, as the saying goes.

    Now I am officially on the prowl for Ellen Steinbaum’s books. That “standing at the shore” brought me to the breaking point.

  6. Thanks very much, Jules, for this post. I am going through some wild life transitions and have been thinking more about fleeting moments, the segmenting of life into before and after, and the point at which the present becomes a memory and then finally, nostalgia.

    ANYWAY, that is all to say, this was a moving post for me! Thanks for sharing Ellen’s poems.

  7. Beautiful, beautiful poetry, Jules, thank you! I am still rather choked up over here. I now must get her books (and WHERE am I going to put them)?

    As for baubles, mine do not even get close to the miracle of giving birth, but a few would be: the moment each and every friend came into my life; the smile on my dog’s face when she was alive; discovering Sam Phillip’s music and getting to meet her last year; every change of season; and all the baubles to come…

    A quick aside: I know you did a piece on Amy Krouse Rosenthal awhile back – she is going to be at a local bookstore in my area and they linked to this wonderful video announcing her tour which I encourage everyone to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tgo8olC7aWs&feature=player_embedded

    Anyone know what song is playing at the beginning? It’s lovely.

  8. Elise, glad you liked it.

    Jill, I’ve seen that and wish she’d come to Nashville.

    That is a Coldplay song off “Viva La Vida,” a CD I’m very familiar with but still can’t tell you the title of the song. I’d have to have the CD with me to do that. Any time Chris Martin plays the piano I’m happy.

  9. Jules, thank you for such a generous mention of my poetry and for asking people about their “baubles.” I love the ones mentioned. Mine would include watching my daughters with each other’s children.

  10. These books are new to me too, but now I am looking for them! I think I have too many lovely happy moments with my sons, seeing them smile and holding their warm little hands, to pick just one or two. I guess I’d have to boil it down to the times I first met each of them. The joy! Nothing beats becoming mom to such treasures.

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