Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Four Mugs


One mug is my everyday working mug. It’s large, wide, and very round, the kind of vessel one might drink almost anything out of. It’s perfectly white, as plain and practical a drinking utensil as I could buy that day, long ago, when I was visiting the village of Hampstead Heath after touring Keats’ house. I was fired up to re-commit to my writing, moved as much by the fact that England had made Keats’ house into a museum as by his small handwriting, his Shakespeare, his death mask. And I was moved by the enormously old plum tree which he would’ve known, now grown so old it had to be supported by wooden planks to keep from falling over. I was in my thirties, and I had finally found a way to make a life for myself and could get serious about my writing. To honor that feeling, I went into the local hardware shop and bought this mug and a tablespoon. They were cheap. The ground of everything good is simple: get to work, it says. Nothing more fancy than that.


The second mug is more beautiful and more expensive. It’s heavy stoneware and made by hand by the wife of a poet I am Facebook friends with. One day he posted a picture of his wife’s work, and I ordered a mug immediately. I’ve since become one of her regular customers, buying mugs and bowls as gifts for friends and acquaintances. She mixes her own glazes and the results are startling greens and golds and blues that other people usually say something about. I have learned over the years that I need a flash of color some mornings, a little weight with my tea, an extra layer of consciousness maybe. Some mornings I need to believe there’s something startling in me, something that might surprise everybody else, that life isn’t only work, that I can afford occasionally to buy myself nice things, to support other artists, to show off. This mug has been especially nice to bring to those inevitable meetings where everyone else arrives late and with disposable cups. It reminds me that my real self is something other than responding to complaints. 


The lime-green mug I took from my mother’s kitchen after she died. It was the mug I drank from whenever I came to visit. We’d sit down at her small kitchen table each morning, after she’d set out the cat’s breakfast. At some moment the three of us would just sleepily stare out the glass door that led to the back balcony of the condo complex where she lived. Sometimes a squirrel would run by and the cat would chatter with excitement. We’d all light up. She and her cat lived there with the disciplined pride of an queen in exile and her last loyal servant. Everything in that one bedroom space was either useful or thrown away. All her paintings were of flowers, animals, or open windows, things see liked looking at or through. At that small table, we laughed and argued and over the years surprised each other. The green mug was the first and last thing I’d drink out of each visit. Mug in hand, I learned how to ask her the right kind of questions that lead to the stories about her childhood, stories I listened to then and thought I’d never remember better than I do. I use that mug when I need to ask better questions of my life, when I want to remember how to listen.


The fourth mug is the same model as the lime-green one but, because it’s white, seems older. It’s the mug my mother drank coffee or tea out of every morning. She stored it and green mug on the shelf above the smaller cups she kept for company, so that the white mug and the green mug kept each other company all those years, a married pair. When I use this last mug, listen, things are bad. There may have been tears, as she said the night she called me with her Stage 4 diagnosis. I took it too when I was wrapping things up to take. In its white plainness, because I only turn to it at moments of crisis, it seems made out of her bones, even though we burned those to grit and scattered them into the Atlantic. While I drink the black tea we both prefer out of it, I summon her spirit. Take it one step at a time, she says. Do the hardest thing first, she says. Nothing’s worth having to lie about it, she says as she will always say in my head. I remember her tears when she told me about seeing as a girl the first pictures of Auschwitz. I remember her adult energy standing up for Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X at our otherwise Republican family dinners. She was tough; she refused to lie. If I’m drinking out of her cup, I’m gathering up that strength, finding fire. Something’s going to change. Take down the green mug and wait. There might be hot tears. Remember: you’ve made it this far. 

For the Bowling Green Dead

 This morning I had a fresh massacre
with my coffee. Tomorrow I will have 

another, possibly warm, with butter. 
Nobody notices or cares what I eat

because after all I am white and a man
who’s quiet and never complains about

what’s right or wrong. Never stand out,

I was taught, always say yes to a massacre

and a coffee, dress like a normal person,
be useful to others, don’t irritate

anyone else by thinking too much. Try,
if you can, to massacre quietly and with

a minimum of fuss. In this way
I am privileged to disappear with the dignity

befitting my position, to leave only a memory,
a man who was easy to miss, who merely happened 

to love his mornings of coffee and massacres

in the very seat you might be sitting in now. 

Resolutions: 2016

How to resolve this past year? It has become a bitter, too-large pill stuck in the throats of many many people.  There was the Trump upset, in which all the power of government has fallen into the hands of Republicans. There was the Brexit upset. There was the standoff between the Water Protectors and the Pipeline corporations with their rented “security” and police forces from all over the Midwest. There was the continuing deaths of black men by policemen. Power everywhere grew very touchy about any call to examine itself, its actions, the facts. It quickly felt victimized. Any call to self-examination became an existential threat. The television news media continued its new job to make us feel good, to help us understand events by simplifying them. Most of them are mere corporate pawns anyway. 

There were the many, many deaths of important role models and personalities–Bowie, Prince, Cohen, John Glenn, Muhammad Ali, to name just a few. Touchstones, they were called. Out of their lives and bodies they made art, broke barriers and changed the world. They did things beyond the possible. They appeared among the stars. They sang out of darkness, with difficulty sometimes, to the difficult, against the difficult. Some had long lives of fame and glory. Some had shorter ones. They bore the limelight for better or worse, and gave us all something to see or hear and talk about. Sometimes they kept us going in difficult times.  
So there’s grief at those changes, those losses. And lots of fear and uncertainty about the direction of world and national politics. I feel personally as if I’ve been standing in a line of mourners for the entire year, unable to sit down or laugh without wincing. The Obama years have made standing up for things like art and social justice and environmental protection easier; there was always, at least, the president to veto ridiculous ideas, which seemed to be all the Republican parts of Congress had. They weren’t even pretending anymore that those ideas were about cutting the budget.

I still can’t believe that when Mitch McConell said the Republicans in the Senate would shun President Obama’s moderate choice to replace Scalia for the Supreme Court, the American People did not all travel to D.C. in protest. But we didn’t. We let gerrymandering happen in a number of Republican states. We stood there in shock, emailed our petitions, and lost an election.

With the Trump administration, we got a cabinet of million-and billionaires who all seem to want to subvert or convert their respective departments away from protecting people and toward relieving corporations of responsibility. 

Marches are planned. Protests are being mounted. Donations have been flowing to those institutions whose work is with groups likely to be vulnerable now–women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, immigrants’ rights, protectors of water and air and common lands. There are signs of resistance everywhere, and every sign that no one in power needs to listen to that resistance. 

The imagination is of course made up of crisis and drama and conflict. Many would like it to be made up of love, peace and joy, wth no rupturing of the status quo, of the way it used to be. Many would like it to disappear altogether, that its absence–its chatter of possibilities and revisions, its perverse reversals of roles, its negative capabilities–would be a relief. A world of black and whites promises to make acting simpler–you just say no, you just do it, you make America Great again. You only need to have one book around and someone else to interpret for you.

The imagination wants more books, more art, more music. It can get caught up in the imagining of nightmarish scenarios, which bring with them a spike in flight or fight chemicals our bodies can get addicted to. But to work in opposite ways–to introduce calm and withdraw ourselves from the future, to return to the present breath, the present half-cup of tea sitting on the table here in the cafe–feels like a form of collaboration with the enemy. How many people, finding themselves suddenly citizens in a frightening country, thought to themselves: if only I slow down and rationally wait for things to cool down, things will grow bearable again? We don’t know. 

We don’t know so much. My personal hope is that certain senators who are Republican will resist the temper tantrums of the new president. My deep hope is that the president and the senate and the house will engage in such in-fighting that they’ll forget or be unable to hurt the most vulnerable citizens. So many of the worst characteristics of the Republican Party are now on view–Ryan’s uber-passionate no-nothings; McConnell’s boring agents of no-change; and Trump’s Robber-Baron Bacchae ready to behead anyone who interrupts their frenzies. It seems impossible to me they won’t come to blows quickly. (This is, I see now, the default hope of a child who grew up with battling parents.)

It would be good for me to actually read The Bacchae before I write things like that, for instance. Discovering that Euripides’ version of The Bacchae is a political play is exciting to me. I hope to find or be reunited with a whole new set of poems and plays and art in the new year, work that helps me to see how the current-fractured consciousness I’m lugging around might be made productive. Maybe it will be a year for theater. 

Getting Used to Hearing Sound: an Exercise

One of the immense benefits of being a teacher is that I’m constantly making exercises to engage young people’s imaginations. Sometimes the goal of an exercise is the focus the senses, sometimes it’s to challenge the perception, sometimes it’s to distract their anxious minds long enough that the unconscious can speak suddenly.

Sometimes, when I’m looking at an old syllabus, I find these and think–“I need to do this.” My throat is thick with anxiety and fear, right now. Every day I wake up thinking–What can I say that will make a difference? Power isn’t interested in truth, so what’s an artist to do?

So, this is the kind of exercise I developed a few years ago because I realized students couldn’t hear sound effects in poems except rhyme. I wanted to give them a way into listening to and making subtler sounds as well.

Sound Exercise

Part 1)

Write five 10 syllable lines for each of these five long vowel sounds:

ay, ee, i, oh, oo

Write five 10 syllable lines for each of these five short vowel sounds:

ah, eh, ih, on, uh

There should be at least three instances of each particular vowel sound per line.
Avoid direct rhyming.

So, for a line of “ay”, you might have this:

The pain of hating is halfway to ache.

For “eh”:

The wet bed stands silent, a memory.

The lines don’t have to make sense exactly, but it’s not a bad thing if they do.

Part 2)
When you’re done with the fifty “sound” lines, take some of the lines and use them to write a poem in which one of the vowel sounds plays a noticeable role.

Begin (Root Song)

The dirt is good enough     a kiss       a hair

of earth, flecked with minerals        whose thoughts bite

with what’s almost light         hissing where each

chemical edge unlocks another door to

the long stairways to the dead          where you’ve had

your ear pressed so long waiting for a word

When You Think About It

Most of marriage is managing comfort and discomfort in such a way you can live with a person who steals half of everything you buy. You have agreed to steal half back of whatever he or she buys of course. You make each other cry occasionally, and if that’s all you’ve got, you’ve got a problem. Most of crying is embarrassment, as most of the river is other people’s dirt. Most of work is waiting. Almost nothing sold can stay. Staying around is after all mostly not having anywhere else to go. There are two minutes of terrible pain before loading or emptying the dishwasher or the washing machine, and then the rest is mostly reassembling an old kitchen you remember. Before the in-laws for the children for the strangers throwing rice into your freshly cut hair.

The God Abandons Donald Trump : a dream

Say goodbye to her, the America you thought you could take
as, suddenly, all that silence you bought long ago begins to leak.
You were never worthy, only wealthy. It’s an easy mistake,
in America, to assume all a god needs to do is to speak
and make his enemies disappear. Your own sons
hunted leopards without fear, casting off their bodies.
Your daughters fit themselves to your small hands.
Around you men calculated disasters into profits, bought
judges like baklava, turned the poor into things to bear your name.
Your gardeners’ bushhogs went silent as you stepped out
of your enormous black limousines onto your enormous lawns,
or into your enormous gardens full of things you couldn’t smell.
Now the smoke of sharpening scythes clings to your ties;
the voices of the women you thought you’d smothered in gold
are rematerializing. There never was a god after all.
Watch the processions of smiling politicians sneaking away,
their hands in their pockets at last, their tails tucked under,
their horns under their hats. Let them go. Don’t whine.
They move in a world of such belief it makes them mean.
So what if your sponsors are already forgetting your name,
if it’s all you ever had? Say goodbye to it. Like a cloud.

after Cavafy’s The God Abandons Antony

Lines for the Left Hand

Doing what, the right hand 

doesn’t always seem to know.

Having given up the work

of subtle textures, the snug

handshake, the little ways 

dominance betrays its teeth. 

Why do we put a ring on it? 

For its commitment? Its ability

to stay quiet, to maintain balance? 

Its occasional silliness? 

It remembers the name before 

your name; every so often

you need to see again what a wreck

it was before the right took over. 

It watches the margins for crumbs. 

It loves the universe you made 

on the napkin unconsciously 

dabbing the water or the too thick

colors from your delicate brush 

while you were trying to get right

some flowers, a thistle, 

what a beautiful wreck. 


I ate the coffee cake because I wanted 
to eat a sunflower. I drank the coffee

because I wanted to be a sunflower.

I chose my loose clothes, I chose these dark shoes

so I might keep my sunflower secret

from the small birds who steal things for a living. 

I choose my word carefully, tilt my face

into the solar locutions, make of myself

a field of rustling so rich a man might

never tire of saying sunflower, sunflower. 


Of the two pods left after the rain–

one empty, one still packed with feathers–

I cannot choose between. I take them both.

The one’s stalled seed silks are so delicate

I can’t feel anything when I touch them,

a series of desires, phantoms, angels,

beginning to yellow. All the dry rattle of September

lost, twisted free or matted now, 

it had its chance. It still has its chances,

I have trained myself to say over the years,

the stem stripped of everything green and beaten down. 

The open pod might after all be laughing, surprised.

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