Monthly Archives: April 2009

Mary Oliver: Evidence

oliver4Once again, Mary Oliver fans may take heart: a new volume of her poetry, Evidence, has just been published and it is, as always, quite good.

Though not to everyone’s taste, Oliver has however managed to become one of the two most popular American poets of the last 20 years, among both the generally non-poetry reading and poetry reading public alike. In this, she is only surpassed by the ubiquitous Billy Collins.

As such, both poets have become easy targets among both mainstream and independent-minded poetry aficionados, as if popularity alone consigned a poet’s work to the realm of Hallmark “immortality.”

A continual criticism of both poets is that they are repetitive; they seem to be constantly rewriting the same poem over and over again. In fact, the exact same criticism might be leveled at every major poet, writer, musician, or artist, from Robinson Jeffers, to Kurt Vonnegut, to Vivaldi, to Gauguin.

Within a given style or subject, variety can be nearly infinite. Think of the short 3-line Japanese form, the haiku. Think of 12 bar blues. Think of Edward Hopper’s use of light, in both urban and rural settings.


Mary Oliver is constantly exploring our place in nature, our place in the universe. This is, in fact, one of the big themes in all of literature. Oliver typically, in her own unique way, approaches this idea by direct encounter with nature itself. She ventures out, much like Frost or Thoreau or Wordsworth before her, sees something unique, something telling, and she works hard through her verse to wrap her mind around it.

As a result we, her readers, wrap our minds around it, too.

So, she might find a piece of whale bone ear on a beach, or come upon a three legged buck, or a lovely flower, or a flock of departing geese. This is the stuff she transmutes into poetry, at once elegaic, ecological, and philosophical in nature. It is what you might expect from Oliver and it is largely what you get. It is in the execution that Oliver makes the connection to her readers.

Here are two poems from Evidence that are not typical Oliver, at least on the surface. The subject of the first is, ostensibly, the ancient Chinese poet, Li Po, and the subject of the second, again apparently, is the composer, Franz Schubert.

    Li Po and the Moon

There is the story of the old Chinese poet:
at night in his boat he went drinking and dreaming
and singing

then drowned as he reached for the moon’s reflection.
Well, probably each of us, at some time, has been
as desperate.

Not the moon, though.


He takes such small steps
to express our longings.
Thank you, Schubert.

How many hours
do I sit here
aching to do

what I do not do
when, suddenly,
he throws a single note

higher than the others
so that I feel
the green field of hope,

and then, descending,
all this world’s sorrow,
so deadly, so beautiful.

Quite simple poems, yet they cut right to the heart of the matter in a very different way than might normally be found in Oliver’s work. Not different in essence or theme, necessarily, but different in execution and approach.

The first retells the famous story of Li Po’s death when, in a drunken reverie, he tried to grasp the moon’s reflection in the water, fell in and drowned. The success of this poem rests in the delicate balance between the irony of the zen-like aphorism Oliver elicits from the scene and a very harsh underscoring of who we are and what the moon is. The moon, indeed, has never been desperate; inanimate objects rarely are. Alas, weak as we are, all people have been inflicted with desperation at one time or another. Nature doesn’t care. Nature doesn’t exact vengenance; nature just is.

Turns out this Eastern-style maxim is in actuality another type of nature encounter, so familiar to Oliver readers, yet found here in the most unlikely of places.

With “Schubert,” we visit the land of the desperate once again, this time with the listener of a beautiful, transcendent classical piece. What the listener is reminded upon the hitting of that highest of notes, and the resultant tumble downwards, is the pure sorrow in the world, evoked perfectly by the master composer, who strikes deep in our despairing little hearts with the notion that life, that nature, that the world, is “so deadly, so beautiful.”

The poem turns deftly on its last four words, a beautiful, deadly pirouette that we might not have anticipated but that surely, knowing Mary Oliver, we should have. One only has to look to her most famous poem, “Wild Geese,” and for “deadly” and “beautiful” substitute that poem’s descriptors “harsh” and “exciting,” to realize this message isn’t so very different at all.

Yet the two poems, “Wild Geese” and “Schubert,” could hardly be less similar. In fact, in all of these poems, Oliver addresses nature and our place in it, and out of it, from three distinctly different perspectives.

If this is repetition, bring it on. I’m ready for more Mary Oliver, anytime.

– Don


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a whole lotta nothing

I am eternally grateful to Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now and A New Earth, for introducing me to the idea that I am not the constant stream of chatter that goes through my mind, but instead the observer of it. Tolle suggests focusing on what he calls “the inner body,” feeling your body, even just your hands, from the inside out, as a way to step out of those thought-streams.  So your mind doesn’t necessarily go blank or empty, but you experience yourself outside of it, which can open up some room for a bit of peace or restfulness that you don’t necessarily get from your day-in, day-out routine. For many, the practice of meditation offers an inner richness that rivals the most exhilarating adventures.

Of course, there are many different approaches to meditation and other practices that are intended to offer respite from what some call “the monkey mind.”  And as always, the library has a large number of resources that can assist you in learning more about it.  The list below is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s available on the subject of meditation.  Other important authors include Pema Chödrön and Jack Kornfield, both writing from a Buddhist perspective.  You might prefer something written for a specialty audience:  Christian, Jewish, pregnant, teen, hurried, idiot, or goddess.  In any case, here are a few items to start with:

Science of Being and Art of Living: Transcendental Meditation, by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. One of several Indian teachers who introduced meditation to Westerners in the 1960s, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation was first popularized by The Beatles. More recently, scientists have been studying the effects of TM on the brain, with some very interesting findings.

The Blooming of a Lotus: Guided Meditation Exercises for Healing and Transformation, by Thich Nhat Hanh.  Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, founder of the “engaged Buddhism” movement during the Vietnam War, has written many books on mindfulness and peace. 

The Inner Wave, by Gabrielle Roth.  Available in both downloadable video and on DVD, this is just one of several videos by Gabrielle Roth, who sees dance as a path to awareness and ecstatic experience.

Guided Mindfulness Meditation, by Jon Kabat-Zinn.  Use these 45-minute sessions on CD to practice different kinds of meditation and “mindful yoga” from the founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.



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Go away!

Summer is on its way, and for lots of folks, that means it’s time for vacation preparation. Part of the fun of getaways is planning, from deciding where to go to exploring the destination’s restaurants, attractions and culture. When I take a trip, I do most of my research online and through travel guides.  

Travel guides are a great place to start for general information. Unfortunately, they can be a little tricky to find in the catalog. Try this trick: using a keyword search, type in the name of your destination, the word “and,” and the word “guidebooks.” (For example, use “Pittsburgh and guidebooks.”)  This search should retrieve all of the materials listed with the Library of Congress subject heading that includes that location’s travel guides. Another subject heading the LOC commonly designates is “Description and Travel.

McCall Homemaking Cover photo by Nickolas Muray from George Eastman House Collection

"McCall Homemaking Cover" photo by Nickolas Muray from George Eastman House Collection

 Travel guide publishers like Lonely PlanetMoon, Fodor’s, and Frommer’s are also good sites to look for itineraries, lodging, eating, commuting, and activity information. Some even feature interactive message boards where fellow travelers offer personal advice and anecdotes. 

For domestic travel, the US Department of State’s Travel, Transportation, and Recreation page offers a wealth of information on national destinations and links to official state and locality pages.

For international excursions, visit Travel.State.Gov for travel advice and the CIA’s The World Factbook for background information about the country. The CLP website lists more excellent links for country information.

Newspapers frequently include travel sections, like The New York Times’ 36 Hours column, in which reporters travel to various US cities, have as much fun as possible in one weekend, and report back to the rest of us who aren’t lucky enough to vacation for a living.  

If your flavor is more under-the-radar, and you’re visiting a larger city, check the Association of Alternative Weeklies’ directory to find a local rag akin to Seattle’s The Stranger or New York City’s Village Voice that’s loaded with entertainment listings and reviews. 

Of course, one of my favorite travel advisors is the ever-reliable CLP Tools & Research page, in the section dedicated entirely to Travel.  These pages do everything from help you pack to explain how to phone home.  They even offer advice to the armchair traveler.  

We’re happy to help, even if only because we secretly hope you’ll bring us back a souvenir.


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Magical Fruit

If ever a food were magical, it would be the beloved bean.  I grew up eating refried beans almost every day and have never gotten sick of them.   

Did you know that beans are actually seeds?  According to the gorgeous, fun-fact-filled book 100 Health-Boosting Foods: Facts and Recipes for Super Health, not only are beans low-fat and filling, but also are a great source of natural plant protein. It also states that if eaten four times a week beans may reduce the risk of heart disease by 22 percent.  Do you eat enough beans?  Check these books for tips, ideas and information about this magical fruit.  Err–seed.

The Bean Bible: A Legumaniac’s Guide to Lentils, Peas, and Every Edible Bean on the Planet! by Green, Aliza.

A comprehensive guide to the history of beans from around the globe.  With recipes.

The Bean Book by Roy F. Guste, Jr.  

This book is filled with fun facts about beans.  Did you know that in some early civilizations, beans were used as currency?  Or that in some countries, people eat the leaves from the bean plant?  

 The Instant Bean by Sally and Martin Stone. 

Now you can no longer use the excuse that beans take too long to cook to be a staple in your kitchen.  This mouth-watering collection of recipes (Black bean chocolate mousse pie, anyone?) has time saving tips like quick-soak methods, using a pressure cooker and freezing portions of cooked beans to use later.  

Check out this musical tribute to beans (Warning: You might need to be eleven to appreciate this video):  –Bonnie


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Dummies, Idiots, and Absolute Beginners

True confessions time:  I hate not being good at things. 

I blush to admit it, but it’s true. Even though I know, logically, that I can’t be a superstar at everything, it still kind of bugs me when I’m less than stellar at something. Knitting is currently driving me crazy – no matter how hard I try, I simply can’t cast on properly; I’m also pretty lousy at jewelry-making and (much to my parents’ chagrin) housecleaning.  So, unless you’re really desperate, please don’t ask me for a homemade sweater, DIY earrings, or the opportunity to eat dinner off my kitchen floor.

Despite my distaste for personal ineptitude, I keep stumbling across interesting hobbies and skills that I simply have to try; it still bugs me if I don’t master a thing right away, or ever, but I’m starting to come around to the notion that maybe the reward in trying a new thing is not in getting good at that thing.  Maybe the reward is in the trying.

In that spirit, here’s a short list of materials that aim to teach new skills. 

Quilting Through Life, Julia Teters-Zeigler. A collection of crafts meant to feed your soul as well as beautify your house. The content is meant to uplift and inspire, and give you some notions to dream on.

National Poetry Recitation Contest: Performing Poetry, An Audio Guide. Get pointers on how to read a poem out loud, and enjoy sample recitations from an all-star cast. To learn more about the actual competition, click here.

Divine Canine, the Monks of New Skete. Why not learn with a four-footed friend?  Bond with your dogs while teaching them obedience skills in a positive, productive way.

Learn to Play Cajun Accordion, Dirk Powell. If you’re going to learn something new, why not think outside the box? I had no idea this DVD existed until Tuesday, but you’d better believe I plan on mastering the Cajun accordion by 2012 (in case my presidential bid doesn’t work out).

The Chicks With Sticks Guide to Crochet, Nancy Queen. If you haven’t yet found a crochet club, this book is a great tide-me-over. It’s warm, it’s fun, and it’s easy to understand.

There are pros and cons to trying new things by yourself, of course.  If learning in a group is more your style, take a peek at the library’s events calendar. If you narrow your search with the “Classes and Presentations” option in the left-hand sidebar, you’ll find a list of interesting things you can try in a group setting.

This includes, of course, our knitting club, upon whose mercy I will have to throw myself if I ever want to make my own Gryffindor scarf. I suspect, however, that when it comes to the Cajun accordion, I’m on my own…

–Leigh Anne


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A Weekend in the Life of CLP Programming

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s always something interesting happening at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. While those of us at Eleventh Stack are often writing about an upcoming event that we’d like our readers to know about, we seldom write about events that have already happened. So, I’ve put together a little summary of some of the great programs that were hosted by the First Floor: New and Featured Department this past weekend:

bobby-womack1On Saturday we began our five-part personal finance speaker series, Money Matters, and  Bobby Womack (left) of Neighborworks Western Pennsylvania gave an excellent talk on the ins and outs of buying versus renting a home.  The second presentation in this series is Wednesday, April 29th at 6pm, and Jada Grandy of Fifth Third Bank and Iris Valentin of FDIC will be here to speak about understanding credit and debt.

Our Sunday afternoon programmideborah-bogen3ng featured poetry and science back to back. As part of our Sunday Poetry and Reading Series, local prizewinning poet Deborah Bogen (right) joined us to read from her books Landscape With Silos and Living by the Children’s Cemetery.  CM Burroughs, a professor of poetry at the University of Pittsburgh, will be here to read on Sunday, May 17th at 2pm.

Sunday afternoon closed with local science writer Ann Gibbons’s (left) lecture ann-gibbons1at the Black Holes, Beakers, and Books: Popular Science Book Club.  Ann talked about the research she did for her book, The First Human, and made many insightful remarks about human evolution.  Black Holes will discuss Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish on Sunday, June 21st at 3:30pm, and a scientist from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History will be bringing fossils to demonstrate some of the points Shubin makes about tetrapod evolution.

For a full listing of a lot more amazing programs, you should visit our events page. And to be certain you don’t miss any events in the future, be sure to sign up for our various e-newsletters


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Brazil Celebrates Anniversary, Petrol Freedom, Earth Day

It’s Earth Day today, and it also happens to be the anniversary of the discovery of the country of Brazil (by Pedro Alvarez Cabral in 1500).  There’s a synergy in these two occasions as Brazil has recently become independent of foreign oil imports by embracing sugar ethanol for its country’s cars and trucks.

Although not accomplished without some pain, Brazil’s petrol freedom places it in a position of economic strength in rough times, and shows us that we can do the same with a little forward thinking.

While corn-based ethanol is likely not the solution for the United States, a number of books address the sticky issues related to freeing ourselves from our petroleum habit:

The End of Oil : On the Edge of a Perilous New World / Paul Roberts

Clean Energy Nation : Freeing America From the Tyranny of Fossil Fuels / Gerald McNerney

Beyond Fossil Fools : The Roadmap to Energy Independence by 2040 / Joseph M. Shuster

A Declaration of Energy Independence : How Freedom From Foreign Oil Can Improve National Security, Our Economy, and the Environment / Jay Hakes

Hot, Flat, and Crowded : Why We Need a Green Revolution– and How It Can Renew America / Thomas L. Friedman

Any move away from petroleum will probably have to happen gradually, but with powerful examples like Brazil out there, getting ready for this transition to begin cannot happen soon enough.


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Technology Playground

Leigh Anne mentioned this recently, but I couldn’t resist adding my own little reminder about the library’s Technology Playground event that’s happening this Saturday, April 25.  It’s an all-ages “tour” of some of the different technology-based things that CLP has to offer.  At different stations throughout the library you can try out the Wii, learn about chat reference, find out more about Web 2.0, download eBooks, or explore the Pennsylvania Department’s geneaology databases.  Between 1:00 and 4:00 there will be 10 stations where you can try out some of the less traditional services that we offer.  Stop by three stations and you’ll get entered into a drawing to win a gift-card for Best Buy!


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Presidential Puppy

Obama Portuguese Water Dog Bo by Daniel Semper.

image by Daniel Semper

Getting a new pet is always exciting, but imagine if you were a puppy, and you got a new home, and it just so happened to be the White House.  This past week, Sasha and Mailia Obama got the puppy they earned, Bo, a six month old Portuguese water dog with family ties to Pittsburgh.   Bo’s father, Watson, is a pet and breeding dog to a family from Ambridge.  

Historically, first families have resided with a variety of first pets. Canine companions appear to be the most prevalent, however, silkworms, alligators and opossums are among some of the more unusual creatures on the list of presidential pets.  Founded in 1999, the Presidential Pet Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia has answers to everything you want to know about first pets.  

Test your knowledge of White House pets by matching the pet with its presidential pal.

– Lisa

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Vibrant Hues at CLP

Everyone has a passion for something outside of his or her job,  and it’s often something completely unrelated.  For many, especially among the staff here at the Carnegie Library, their passion lies somewhere on the creative spectrum.  The Annual CLP Staff Art Show here at Main is a living testament to this. The hallway across from the Large Print Room currently features magnificent pieces of artwork, all made by the staff in the Carnegie Library system.  The display will run throughout the month of April, partially in honor of National Library Week.

Do you have a creative outlet, or some other passion that you love to indulge in outside of your normal routine?   Is there any craft or medium that you’ve wanted to dabble in but never dared to try?  Allow me to recommend a few useful resources to get you on your way:

Stitch n’ Bitch:  The Knitter’s Handbook is by far my favorite book when it comes to learning how to knit.  It has some of the best illustrations and descriptions, which really come in handy.  It is also filled with a variety of patterns to try after you get the basics down.

The Happy Hooker:  Stitch n’ Bitch Crochet is in the same series as the one listed above, and is likewise just as useful for the crochet newbie. 

If you have tried books to learn how to knit and/or  crochet, but still find yourself at a loss, you can always come to Carnegie Knits and Reads at Main.  It’s on the first and third Wednesday of every month and is chock-full of yarn masters who can aid you in your crafty quest.

A Short Course in Photography is a great book for people who want to take their photography to the next level.  This book will give you plenty to think about when it comes to perspective and personal style.  Definitely a must for anyone who wants to progress beyond taking merely a “nice photo.”

Glass Blowing: A Technical Manual is an excellent source for explaining the overall process of glass blowing by using an array of completed pieces as examples.   It provides a stellar overview of the basic techniques as well as gives the reader plenty to ponder when it comes to color and personal style.

Art Class: A Complete Guide to Painting is a marvelous book for anyone who wants to learn how to paint.  The author, with the help and advice of several artists, provides the reader with insight on everything from choosing a medium to deciding on a subject.  An absolute must for those who yearn to add some extra brush strokes to their days.

The New Artist’s Manual is essentially four years of art school without the hassle of expensive loans and college applications.  A hands-on art text, it is a great resource for beginners and advanced artists alike.  One of my favorite books.

The Big-Ass Book of Crafts is one of the most fun books you can have on your creative shelf.   Ever wonder what to do with all that extra silverware you obtained from your dorm room days?  Or how about all those clothes pins or subscription cards that fall out of your magazines?  This book offers fun-filled, imaginative and creative solutions to such problems.  A great book for anyone who wants to dabble in the creative world, but has no preference when it comes to medium.

Happy creating!! 


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