Ode to Feet, Hips, Lungs, and Cheeks

The last few months have been a wild ride with the development of my business, Sundog Poetry Center, Inc. into a nonprofit corporation. It that weren’t enough to do, Wind Ridge Books of Vermont and Sundog have just started a new publishing imprint, SunRidge Poetry, which will publish the voices of Vermont poets. We’re set to publish our first two selections this fall – announcements of poets and titles coming soon. With these new developments and with all the events going on during National Poetry Month, it’s been hard to catch my breath. But, I was able to do so – and reflect on the wonders of life’s small gifts – with inspiration from Mary Jane Dickerson’s poetry workshop taking place during April’s Monday evening. It’s definitely a feel-good poem for spring.

Ode to Feet, Hips, Lungs, & Cheeks
“Heaven lies about us in our infancy! from “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of EarlyChildhood”by William Wordsworth

If you try, you can imagine your feet shrinking
into baby feet, to first-day feet,
before they became the current monstrosities
of callouses, cracks and corns.

Oh, go back to those tiny baby feet – the fresh smell
of new flesh – feel your mother push
her thumb along the wrinkles that haven’t touched
the ground yet, haven’t been pounded

into crust. You were once able to clap your feet together
with infant springs that bounced
against each other, free from pinching shoes, wrapped only
in the softest cloth, and you were able

to put your big toe in your mouth – it was that clean!
It has taken me decades to hammer my baby feet
into their current state of aches, in search of a massage,
a caress, thumbs under the arch.

Oh, baby hips, no, not your rear end – that is too funny
and soft to think about – but baby
hips tucked away, folded into baby pudginess. Remember
lying on your back as a baby,

helpless but already kicking your legs, pumping
and pumping with primeval
vigor, rolling tiny balls in sockets back and forth,
practicing, practicing for eventual

running and climbing, dancing and sitting long hours
in classrooms, and now, now
your legs hang heavy from those hips that have won races,
held up underwear, pushed out babies.

I woke up on my hip this morning, under covers while the wind blew,
and I stretched into consciousness
from the hip. My hips have worked for 18,934 days
in a row, counting today.

And I awoke today with clear lungs, the first time in over a week
from suffering through the flu
and head cold and breathed deeply through my nose
to fill up my lungs of spongy

pink tissue that has processed every breath I’ve taken—
how many breaths would that be?
In your first breath was the catch of all that would come
to you in your life, a shock,

a rush, but if you were lucky like me, by your tenth breath
your lungs had mastered the automatic
art of breathing. Oh baby lungs! The cold sharp air of northwest
Iowa has stung my lungs and the acridity

of sheep dung, the zest of pine trees, and the delectation
of apple pie have seeped into my lungs
that lie behind ribs protecting the lungs’ vulnerable abundance
of breaths – breathe each beautiful breath!

Your cheek, such a cheek! Do you recall the feel of your father’s
rough finger stroking it
in admiration, in wonder? Your cheek changed his life forever.
Someone you didn’t know

kissed your downy tenderness, and your eyes opened in bewilderment
as a shadow zeroed in so close
it could have swallowed you, all done in a flash
over the softness of a cheek.

As a child playing outside, the flush of late autumn appeared
as fire upon your cheek,
but to kiss it was to taste a winter harbinger, caused your mother
to recoil at its glaze. My cheek

has weathered the years now, and I lean it against my fist to steal
a nap – I have been caught doing it!
I tap it, absent from any here and now, when I see things of beauty:
baby feet, or oh! the blessedness of baby cheeks.

The Ode

What is an ode, anyway? The most basic definition is that an ode is a lyric poem that addresses a particular person or thing. Odes have been around a long time and the first ones are credited to Pindar who lived in Greece about 2500 years ago. I find it hard to believe people weren’t writing, or at least saying, odes before then. I think odes have probably been around for as long as love has been.

The “ode” above  is not an ode in the traditional sense. That is, it isn’t a Pindaric Ode like that of Wordsworth’s poem, “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of EarlyChildhood” from which the epigraph above is taken. I happen to love this poem of Wordsworth, but its structure -a pattern which Pindar, who is credited for inventing the ode, created  –  is difficult. Here is more about the Pindaric ode from the Poetry Archive website: “It originated in Ancient Greece, and the Pindaric ode (so-called because it was written by the Theban poet Pindar, 518 ? 442 BC) was based on a pattern of three stanzas called the strophe, antistrophe and epode. It was performed by a chorus, which walked along one side of the orchestra chanting the strophe and down the other side chanting the antistrophe, then came to a standstill before the audience and chanted the epode. This performance was repeated with each set of three stanzas.”

Sappho is also recognized as one of the first odists. Instead of writing for a chorus, Sappho wrote in a single voice as is heard in this ode of hers, “Ode to Aphrodite.”

The development of the ode didn’t stop with Sappho or Pindar. A few hundred years later, the Roman poet Horace dabbled in odes as well. With his renditions, odes became less formal and less suited to be performed and developed into more peaceful, more contemplative pieces better suited for reading. The poem above is definitely less formal, but more contemplative than Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead“? Definitely not.

A third type of ode, the Informal ode, keeps to the tone of a traditional ode, but the formal structures used in them are varied. This is the category that Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” falls under. And Neruda’s. We cannot speak of odes without mentioning Pablo Neruda‘s odes. Neruda took the ordinary and celebrated it in his poems. And that is what we all must do as poets.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources): 

Ode to Bread, Pablo Neruda

Ode to My Socks

Mara Mori brought me
a pair of socks
which she knitted herself
with her sheepherder’s hands,
two socks as soft as rabbits.
I slipped my feet into them
as if they were two cases
knitted with threads of twilight and goatskin,
Violent socks,
my feet were two fish made of wool,
two long sharks
sea blue, shot through
by one golden thread,
two immense blackbirds,
two cannons,
my feet were honored in this way
by these heavenly socks.
They were so handsome for the first time
my feet seemed to me unacceptable
like two decrepit firemen,
firemen unworthy of that woven fire,
of those glowing socks.

Nevertheless, I resisted the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere as schoolboys
keep fireflies,
as learned men collect
sacred texts,
I resisted the mad impulse to put them
in a golden cage and each day give them
birdseed and pieces of pink melon.
Like explorers in the jungle
who hand over the very rare green deer
to the spit and eat it with remorse,
I stretched out my feet and pulled on
the magnificent socks and then my shoes.

The moral of my ode is this:
beauty is twice beauty
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool in winter.

Pablo Neruda