Spring Burial: The Legend of the Service Tree

We grew up thinking that if there wasn’t pavement under our feet, we were lost,” Marc Kaminsky said, as he sat with his longtime friend George Getzel, who lay dying in a hospital bed at Calvary Hospital, talking about spring. They were two Bronx kids who morphed into two aging, brilliant intellectuals. Struck by George’s tranquility in the face of mortality, Marc asked his friend, filmmaker Menacham Daum to videotape their conversation, and sent a copy to me.

In his better days, George told Marc, he’d loved to visit the New York Botanical Garden in all four seasons. Each time it would be a totally different world: the garden was a symbol of nature and birth and growth and decay.

“I was especially close to the service tree,” George explained. “It’s an indigenous tree in northeast America. It’s a tree that may be considered a bush—but it’s a tree. It actually fruits, and a sweet little fruit comes out of it when the weather warms up. It’s also the first tree to blossom in the woods. It has soft, large flower petals, light pinkish-white, and if you can reach out and smell it, it has the most delicate perfume.”

“Our ancestors had a real problem when people died during the winter, because they couldn’t bury them; the ground was too hard. So what they did was wait till the service tree bloomed, and then they knew that the ground was soft enough.”

That touched me deeply.

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The serviceberry tree in bloom, courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden.

“So for the last few years, when I could still walk, I would go into the Bronx botanical garden to walk on a trail through fifty acres of virgin forest, and there was the service tree. And I tried—it has a life of flowering of, like, three days— to imagine, ‘Is the ground soft?’ ‘Will I make it?’ And sometimes I made it and sometimes I didn’t, but I think that it is emblematic of my notion of immortality in life: a brief time, a beautiful fragrance, and then passing, disintegrating, falling to the ground, and renewal.”

Alone with his mortality in the hospital late one night, George spontaneously texted Marc some of his spiritual musings. It ended:

 

 

 

Humankind calls out for compassion

For one’s self and then the other

The spent perfume of the petals

Of the service tree

Fall to the forest bottom

When earth loses its chill

Back in the hospital room, George continued to express his deep and thoughtful perspective on life in the face of imminent mortality.“I remember holding my wife’s hand when she was dying,” George told Marc, “and having a great sense of intimacy, the same as when I held my hand over her belly when she was pregnant. There’s this mixture. Even in the face of the grim realities of life that nauseate you and shatter your dreams, I’ve found—with difficulty—deeper meaning.”

“We all hold down to something that we would hope would have permanence,” he continued. “Something that would lead us beyond our grave and have something of eternity tied to it. We discover that the idol—be it money, position, your own children, the neighborhood you live in—it’s not forever and it falls apart and isn’t what you thought it was when you were a young man. It becomes moth-eaten and dissipates, and then with that it’s followed by new growth, new possibilities.”

George Getzel died on January 7, 2018. The serviceberry tree he loved so well will bloom again this spring.

 

Related event: Spring Writes Literary Festival – May 3 to May 6, 2018

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About the author of this blog post: Steve Zeitlin is the founding director of City Lore, and the author or co-author of ten books on America’s folk culture. He has documented, recorded and fallen in love with carnival pitches, children’s rhymes, family stories, subway stories, ancient cosmologies, and oral poetry traditions from around the world.

You can purchase his latest book: The Poetry of Everyday Life, here

 

 

Spring Burial: The Legend of the Service Tree

Inspiration for poets: a behind-the-scenes look at Yeats’s creative process

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The poetry of a great master such as William Butler Yeats marvels us. His written words leap off the page and dance. Evocative images and subtle emotions emerge from the act of reading it.

His poem “The Pilgrim”, from New Poems, is short and succinct but delves deeply into Yeats’s journey for the meaning of existence. In his pilgrimage, Yeats searches everywhere for answers, from worldly pleasures to the realms of spirit, but his questions are never answered in anything other than a nonsensical phrase – “Is rol de rol de rolly O!” Embracing what he has been given, he decides in the last stanza that this absurd wisdom is the answer he was looking for the entire time.

The ultimate understanding that Yeats was striving to comprehend can never fully be expressed in words alone. “Is rol de rol de rolly O!” is as good as any other answer when using the limited tools of language. It bypasses our logical side and opens us up to the great mystery that this life is. And it can also be used as a mantra when we are at work. Similar to one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, the phrase can lift you out of stuck spot and inspire you to take a completely different direction. It can even be used to simply get you started on a creative endeavor.

The spirit of “Is rol de rol de rolly O!” is proudly anti-perfectionist. Not that it doesn’t admire an ideal, but it doesn’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. The wisdom lies not in the content but in the process. The Cornell Yeats volumes allow us to see this by providing us with Yeats’s unpublished drafts and manuscripts. Peel back the curtain on the creative genius of Yeats and take a look at the initial drafts of this poem:

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It’s a bit of a mess.

The additional pages are no better, with large sections crossed off and revamped:

Even the more orderly type-written final draft got revised:

Now let that sink in. The creative process of one of the greatest poets in history is messy. Chaotic. Confusing. Just like yours.

So embrace the mess, embrace the chaos, and the confusion. Let go, embrace your creativity and follow its meandering path to see where it leads. And if you run into obstacles in the road that stop you in your tracks, you now know the words to move yourself forward . . . “Is rol de rol de rolly O!”

Suggested post-reading watch:

 

About the author of this blog post: Jonathan Hall is the Digital Marketing Manager at Cornell University Press. He embraces chaos with his trusty saxophone, Taoist martial arts, and mountain biking.

 

 

 

 

Inspiration for poets: a behind-the-scenes look at Yeats’s creative process

Won’t you celebrate with me? 31 ways to celebrate National Poetry Month

It’s National Poetry Month and the Academy of American Poets have come up with 30 different ways to celebrate it. The ideas are creative and include subscribing to a daily digital poetry series featuring more than 200 previously unpublished poems, chalking a poem on a sidewalk or memorizing one, and listening to Mark Doty’s talk, “Tide of Voices: Why Poetry Matters Now.” NPR has claimed that “you can bet we’re not letting April slip by without a nod to the art of the verse,” inviting listeners to submit a 140-character poem on Twitter together with the hashtag #NPRpoetry, and at Cornell University Press, we feel the same.

Our 1869 podcast interviewing author Susan Eisenberg on her latest book, Stanley’s Girl, a collection of touching poems about gender inclusion, sexual violence and women in the workplace, has inspired us to add one more idea to the list. And for that purpose, we have invited two women at the Press to contribute their own poetic visions of the world. The result is insightful and exciting, and together with our selection of fine poetry books, they make us part of what has become the largest poetry celebration in the world:

 

Baltimore, You Are a Pocket Full of Copper Nails

by Cheryl Quimba

A lot of the time I want to push people

into giant manholes then fly down

to save them, introduce myself as their

long-lost sister who has finally sold everything

to come home. They would be confused but then

so happy for having found something they didn’t know

was lost, and it would feel like a piano playing

beams of colored light against the wall.

In your poems I’m always sad and saying

sad things but in real life I say I am the mountain

sitting on this park bench, so small a microscope needs

binoculars to find me. Baltimore is filled with dirty bathrooms

but no one cares because fun is happening.

Where I live the places where

people die are marked with stuffed animals tied

to lamp posts. There is a store called Hair Strategies

and little kids push strollers filled with

cans of soda up and down the medians.

I like to cross the street like

I’m walking through a casino.

The bells are ringing and ringing

and ringing goodbye.

Quimba, Cheryl. (2015). Nobody Dancing. Publishing Genius Press

 

Meticulous Landscaping

by Ana Carpenter

Here in the passenger side lie Wendy’s bags crumpled by boots

The gentle pungent mulch compacts beneath each nail

Picking at the leather seats to stroke the tattered brail

And decode Dad’s lesson of the day like stringed stray roots:

The ones you mulched over the mornings of summer through July.

Disembarking the diesel F450 with silver smokestacks,

You’re mapping on your hands the clay-dried, thorn-bruised cracks

Wiping the Wendy’s grease on your sister’s off-brand “Nike” slacks

Step out into the cicada-thick air where, like Wendy’s, you fry.

You let the grass prick your bare calves and adjust in the sticky bed

Wiping soil across your forehead, swatting away flying things

And quietly recoiling from the grubs unearthed as dad sings,

Something he beat-boxed under his breath about marriage and rings-

Wash your hands in the cold hose-water until they turn Wendy-hair red.

 

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Order Stanley’s Girl here

 

Other suggested media for our readers on #NationalPoetryMonth:

 

Cheryl Quimba is the Publicity Manager at CUP. She eats, sleeps, and breathes books (but loves a good movie or music debate any day). Follow her on Twitter @ cheryl_quimba.

Ana Carpenter is a member of the Cornell University Class of 2019 and Student Publishing Associate at Cornell University Press. In her free time she likes to sing, salsa, be in the company of dogs of all shapes and sizes, and collect mugs to home-brew cheap coffee.

 

Won’t you celebrate with me? 31 ways to celebrate National Poetry Month

Marching Ahead: Books to Celebrate Women’s History Month

This last year brought about a sea change nationwide in the ways that women have come together as a social, cultural, and political force. The #MeToo movement has broken years of silence around sexual assault and harassment, women turned out in historic numbers to march on Washington, and women are running for public office at record levels. In fact, multiple media outlets have dubbed 2018 “The Year of the Woman.”

In these times, honoring women’s history takes on special resonance. As such, we’re joining the celebrations the best way we know how—through books! Here’s a selection of the many books we’ve published over the years on women’s history and women’s issues.

Continue reading “Marching Ahead: Books to Celebrate Women’s History Month”

Marching Ahead: Books to Celebrate Women’s History Month

Love in the English Language: A Valentine’s Day Missive

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By Eva Pedriglieri

A story. It is said that once when the famous violinist Itzhak Perlman was playing a concert in Carnegie Hall, a string on his violin snapped. His playing came to an abrupt halt. The audience expected the violinist to disappear backstage to restring his instrument. Instead, he motioned to the conductor to begin the movement again. Then, through sheer genius and determination, he proceeded to play the entire length of the piece on only three strings. The audience was stunned. He silenced them with one simple sentence: “The challenge in life is to make music with what remains.” Continue reading “Love in the English Language: A Valentine’s Day Missive”

Love in the English Language: A Valentine’s Day Missive

BOTNIK versus the Romantics! Can an App Help You Write Like a Romantic Poet?

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Lord Byron at his computer

By  Bob Holman and Steve Zeitlin

John Keats might have called the computer “a thing of beauty.” Or perhaps “an unravish’d bride of quietness.” Coleridge’s question, “Is very life by consciousness unbounded?” could just as aptly apply to the computer.

What Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats did with pen and paper is still accessible 200 years later. But can our new computers help us write in the style of the Romantics? Can the zeros and ones of digital technologies collaborate with us to write poetry? Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor of Esquire, says Yes.

Along with Jamie Brew of the Onion’s satirical website the ClickHole, he founded the app company Botnik, which is “very semi-seriously” looking into this question. Its new app Predictive Writer can harness the vocabularies of Seinfeld episodes, recipes, Bob Dylan, country music, and more to create playful word games that enable you to write in different styles. When you go to the Predictive Writer app, you can select from a number of idiom-specific “keyboards” that the Botnik community has uploaded:  Seinfeld season 3, cooking recipes,  Savage Love (a syndicated sex-advice column), and the Romantic poets that we ourselves suggested to them. Say you want to write a poem in the style of Keats. You choose the Keats option, enter a word or two into the app, click on the eighteen choices they offer for the next word à la Keats, and on it goes. Try it at apps.botnik.org/writer/.  But why, pray tell, would anyone want to do this? Continue reading “BOTNIK versus the Romantics! Can an App Help You Write Like a Romantic Poet?”

BOTNIK versus the Romantics! Can an App Help You Write Like a Romantic Poet?

Something Completely Different: Working with John Cleese on a Public Talk and a New Book

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Mapping the directions of John Cleese’s Escher-like mind. Drawing by Julia Smith.

By Dean Smith

In the fall of 2015, Cornell University Press hosted a folk concert in our offices at Sage House with author and Cornell history professor Richard Polenberg to celebrate Hear My Sad Story, his new book about the true stories of folk songs like “Casey Jones,” “Stagger Lee,” and “John Henry.” Sixty people showed up for the free event. Folk music enthusiasts jammed the foyer and sat knee-to-knee on the staircase all the way to the second floor. Polenberg played four songs on his acoustic guitar and the crowd sang along with him—a magical Ithaca moment—as the sunlight shafted in from all sides after a cold rain.

After the concert, I noticed three women at the top of the second-floor steps. We’d roped off access to the offices on the second and third floors. I asked if they wanted a tour of what had been Cornell benefactor Henry Sage’s mansion and the university infirmary for most of the twentieth century. I showed them our carved oak bats and owls, stained glass windows, and fireplace tile sequences featuring fairy tales such as Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin. Our managing editor’s fireplace is adorned with Arthurian characters such as Lady Guinevere and Sir Lancelot.

At the end of the tour, one of the women, Gerri Jones, told me that Professor John Cleese would like a place like this. At first, I didn’t think I heard her right. Continue reading “Something Completely Different: Working with John Cleese on a Public Talk and a New Book”

Something Completely Different: Working with John Cleese on a Public Talk and a New Book

The Bell Tolls for Ringling

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Ringling Bros. circus performer Gleice Gillet on the lead elephant

By Steve Zeitlin, author of The Poetry of Everyday Life

This past spring I bought two tickets to the last show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, scheduled for May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, New York. The iconic three-ring circus, mother of all American circuses, was closing its doors after 146 years. At the time, my friend the circus historian Richard Flint was busy researching a book commissioned by Ringling Bros. to commemorate the history of the famed circus for its 150th anniversary in 2021. Ringling didn’t make it that far. 

“People call it the Greatest Show on Earth,” Richard told me, “but it literally was the greatest show on Earth.” A large, profitable circus, Ringling was able to deliver grandeur no other show could match. Not just horses, acrobats, and clowns. Not only numerous elephants, but lavish costumes, state-of-the-art lighting, three rings, five weeks of rehearsals, Broadway choreographers to help train a bevy of showgirls and clowns, original music composed annually for each season. As Richard’s friend said to him, “Ringling’s demise is something like the Catholic Church shutting down.” Continue reading “The Bell Tolls for Ringling”

The Bell Tolls for Ringling

Consulting Hafez on the Trump Administration

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Sahar Muradi

By Steve Zeitlin, author of The Poetry of Everyday Life

In a bedroom she shared with her three siblings in Elmhurst, Queens, 9-year-old Sahar Muradi snuggled up to her mom.  Sensing her daughter’s pensive mood, her mother asked, “Is there something on your mind?” Then her mom reached for the magical red book. Sahar remembers, “I can picture it—the book was leather-bound, frayed from overuse. It was small and fit perfectly into my little hands.” This was Hafez’s Divan, the collected works of a revered fourteenth-century poet from Iran, where great poets are considered seers. Hafez’s sobriquet or nickname is lesān-al-ḡayb, or The Tongue of the Unseen. Continue reading “Consulting Hafez on the Trump Administration”

Consulting Hafez on the Trump Administration

Treasure Language

By Steve Zeitlin, author of The Poetry of Everyday Life

“There are nine different words for the color blue in the Spanish Maya dictionary,” writes Earl Shorris, “but just three Spanish translations, leaving six [blue] butterflies that can be seen only by the Maya, proving that when a language dies six butterflies disappear from the consciousness of the earth.”

Over 6,500 languages—with at least that many words for butterflies—are spoken in our fragile world. By the end of the century more than half will disappear. Our languages are melting like the icecaps. Continue reading “Treasure Language”

Treasure Language