Ten Poems for Difficult Times
by Roger Housden
10 poems, 10 essays, 123 pages
Ebook ISBN 978-1-868-530-1
Publisher: New World Library
To Order: www.newworldlibrary.com
Reviewed by Michael Escoubas
Recently, I found myself struggling through a season of writer’s block. My heart was breaking because no poetry called to me like wild geese from an open sky, to quote a famous line from Mary Oliver. While perusing the shelves of the public library, I came upon the newly released Ten Poems for Difficult Times. Tucking the volume under my arm I planted myself in a nearby cubicle. First words jumping off the page, like a covey of quail rousted by an English Setter, Poetry is a concise and elemental means of expressing the deepest of human emotions. Then, it connects us as a people and a community as few other forms can do.And again, Great poetry has the power to start a fire in a person’s life. Like Paul on Damascus Road, scales began to fall from my eyes, light streamed in; I felt the faint warmth of fire stirring in my belly.
Similarly, Roger Housden’s latest book in his Ten Poems series takes center stage at a time when the world’s heart is breaking. Poet Robert Lowell, writing decades ago, captures the present moment:
I hear my ill spirit sob in each blood cell
Ten Poems for Difficult Times is a gift for today; a lighthouse shining in rough seas.
Each chapter begins with the printed poem. Housden then explicates the theme with surgeon-like precision. I hasten to point out that the author is not an ivory tower scholar looking down on lesser beings. He is transparent, often revealing personal experiences by way of applying the poems.
The book opens with Maggie Smith’s Good Bones. Written during the summer of 2015, Good Bones, which begins with the compelling, Life is short, though I keep this from my children, led to a worldwide internet posting after the Pulse Nightclub massacre in June of 2016. Housden’s sensitive analysis Don’t Tell the Children, changed the way I think about the life-saturating sponge of evil so prevalent in our times.
Conrad Aiken’s The Quarrel, chaperons the reader into familiar circumstances:
Suddenly, after the quarrel, while we waited,
Disheartened, silent, with downcast looks, nor stirred
Eyelid nor finger, hopeless both, yet hoping
Against all hope to unsay the sundering word:
I’m dreadfully ashamed of the many times my words have hurt my wife. Aiken’s poem opened my eyes to a new way of seeing, as well as to a new way of saying. Housden gets personal in his essay, Heartstrings, as he applies The Quarrel to everyday life.
William Stafford asserts in his poem Cutting Loose, which he dedicates to poet James Dickey, that,
Sometimes from sorrow, for no reason,
you sing. For no reason, you accept
the way of being lost, cutting loose from
all else and electing a world
where you go where you want to.
In his commentary, Listen for the Sound, Housden channels the Old Testament book of Lamentations and old spirituals that express the universal longing of grief, loss and sorrow. He shares about his own life-void, a hollow place that evaded filling despite his best efforts at doing good works. Stafford’s ability to say amazing things without raising his voice (Dickey’s observation about Stafford), is part of the key to learning how to look the feeling of being lost and empty straight into the eye and accept it for my reality. I feel as if Stafford is speaking directly to me, urging me, as he does in his poem Any Morning, to be content,
Just lying on the couch and being happy.
Only humming a little, the quiet sound in the head.
In addition to the works commented on above, other poems and essay titles include, The Thing Is, by Ellen Bass, essay, Remember This;Rain Light, by W.S. Merwin, essay, Original Wonder; How the Light Comes, by Jan Richardson, essay, The Light in the Dark; Now You Know the Worst, by Wendell Berry, essay, There Is No “Other”; A Brief for the Defense, by Jack Gilbert, essay, In Defense of Joy; It’s This Way, by Nazim Hikmet, essay, What Is a Man Anyhow?; and Annunciation, by Marie Howe, essay, Something Else Can Speak. You will want to read each poem and essay as one savors each course at an elegant dinner party.
In the summer of 2015, I attended a reading by then U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera in Springfield, Illinois. During his address Herrera made this observation from personal experience, “When people are going through hard times, they often ask, ‘Do you have a poem?’ ” In Roger Housden’s new book, that question is answered with a resounding “Yes.”