To Switzerland with Love, from the Watchmaker’s Wife

Well, this is a pleasant first! When Literary Editor, Patricia Linderman from Talesmag, asked if I might have something they could publish about life in Switzerland, this poem came straight to mind; I’m so happy it has finally found a good home and — as you’ll see in the explanation and photos at the end – that I have, too, along with my personal Swiss Watchmaker.

To Switzerland with Love, from the Watchmaker’s Wife
as published in Talesmag, June 14, 2019

 Dear Helvetica,

I think I’ve finally figured us out. It took long enough!
Three decades, more or less. I know, I know,
you being the quiet type means I have to go first. And I will.
But only because I’m so in love with you.
How’d THAT happen? you wonder.
Well. Since you asked, first of all,
you have the sexiest watchmakers in the world, but there’s more:

Because instead of scissors, you gave my kids knitting needles
in Kindergarten to punch along dotted lines so they’d learn
precision, perseverance, and patience.
Because you made them walk to school.
Because you made them come home for lunch.
Because you made them walk back to school.
Because you have people with The Secret whom I can call for free,
and they’ll make 32 warts on the sole of a kid’s foot disappear.
Just like that.

It took some getting used to, but I’ve learned to love the peace and quiet,
that Sundays are sacred — no matter what your religion;
thank you for insisting that I NOT mow the lawn, or vacuum,
or shop on Sundays, and for teaching me that naps and watching
the grass grow can be forms of communal prayer.

Because you’re the heart of peace processes worldwide
but your citizens can rarely name their president.
You’re neutral but have enough bunkers for the whole country
to hunker down if need be. And those army knives rock.

Because you have the only direct democracy — and the creamiest
chocolate – on the planet, and even though over half of you
have guns, shootings are far out of the ordinary.
Did I mention that your watchmakers are the hottest?
Everything keeps on ticking, no matter what — right on time
because of your dashing watchmakers. Good thing, too, since you expect
everyone to be right on time … except for cocktails,
for which you’re always 15 minutes late, exactly, which is only possible
thanks to those clever watchmaking party animals. Right on! Right on!
What I wouldn’t do for a blissful kiss from a Swiss Watchmaker!
God, they crack me up. Now, where was I?

Because you’re tolerant and inclusive, even though one in four
of your residents is foreign — including me and mine, once upon a time.
Because, although you didn’t need me to teach you French,
you asked me to teach you English and taught me how to do it well.
Because I love teaching you English. And thank you for tolerating my French.
You, somehow, manage to communicate despite
having four languages; perhaps that’s because you demand respect
from everybody, and for everybody. You even expect the world to know
that CH* stands for Switzerland and that S is for some other country.

You have multicolored carpets of Alpine flowers up there, beneath snowy peaks,
palm trees down here, on the Montreux Riviera, and watchmakers in both
who get me going — keep me going —my time would stop without them.

You’re a 5-star country, Switzerland. I get you, I dig you, and am forever
grateful to you for my personal Swiss watchmaker, who learned from you
how to create gloriousness out of each precious beating minute of our lives
we’ve created within you, and who still really knows
how to    make     me     tick.

With love from the watchmaker’s wife,

Elizabeth Boquet
*CH, the abbreviation for Switzerland, stands for Confoederatio Helvetica

Author’s Note: On July 22, 1989, it all made perfect sense. After ten years of battling French (more on that here), I’d finally won the war. With a fresh MA (French) from Middlebury College in Paris, I was on an island in Maine, USA, marrying a Belgian French-speaking Swiss-trained watchmaker whom I’d met in Spain two years earlier. As one does.

 By August that year, I was a happy bride living and job-hunting, in Bienne/Biel, Switzerland — known as a bi-lingual (French-German) city. Only, my neighbors didn’t speak a word of French. Or English. Neither did the laundry machine repairman, or the plumber, or most people I encountered. I found myself illiterate, once again. Oh, and that hard-earned diploma? Well. In the USA, it, coupled with a secondary teaching certificate from the fine State of Maryland, got you a job teaching French in a snap. For some reason, however, the Swiss didn’t seem keen on having one of their national languages taught with my personal twist — an American accent.

 To make a 30-year-long story even longer, the Swiss are known to take time to appreciate – and, fair enough, it can take some time for the Swiss to embrace others. In my case, it took about 30 years but, somewhere along the way, my husband and I grew to appreciate Switzerland and its quirky ways — so much so that we wanted to become a part of it. Fortunately for us, the feeling was mutual and the Swiss kindly accepted my husband and me into the fold. With whopping gratitude for the all paths and people who lead me to Switzerland – and kept me there, I dedicate this poem to my personal watchmaker, Jean-François Boquet.


Elizabeth and Jean-François Boquet
Wedding on Heart Island, Maine, USA, 1989


30 years later, Swiss Citizens, in Lausanne, Switzerland

 

Elegy for the Prisoners in My Study

Much fun to have this poem published by California’s Las Positas College in their anthology, Havik: The Las Positas College Journal of Arts and Literature (Spring 2019)

Elegy for the Prisoners in My Study

To get to my desk, I shuffle across parquet
made of pine trees who once swayed their days away
in faraway forests before they were stripped
naked, sliced up and slapped with varnish.

To sit at my desk, I plunk into a wicker chair
whose reeds once shilly-shallied in the breeze
somewhere balmy before they were ripped up and
water-boarded until they’d conform into appropriate shape.

To write on my desk, my glass desk, sand stretched
some sunny expanse tickled by wild waves before
it was kidnapped and cremated into transparent flatness
on which I put pencil to paper. Paper. Pencil. More trees…

I’ve taken many prisoners to create poetry.
May the trees, and reeds, and sand forgive me.
May I honor them each time I forge my way through
this forest to sit by the shore in the reeds and write.

Reverse Musical Chairs

“Reverse Musical Chairs” was published by Stoneboat Literary Journal (April 2019)

Sundays at noon
for years
at my mother’s table with eight chairs
the seven of us sat.
We’d take our usual seats
and there was always room
for another.

That winter
the six of us struggled
to find our spots at the same table
among the eight original chairs
despite my father’s permanent absence
leaving room for two.

This afternoon
the eight chairs remain
waiting round the same table.
There are only five of us left.
We search in desperation
but my mother took the music with her;
no one can find a seat.

Birthright

“Birthright” was first published in Snapdragon: A Journal of Art and Healing (March 2019). 

 

Back then, back there — as a child in the summer
on month-long sails with my mother
down the coast of Maine, we’d gaze east,
as far as our eyes could see, across the Atlantic.

Hey, Mom! I think I see France! or maybe…Portugal?
Oh my! Pass the binoculars! Let’s see!

She’d let me believe each island from Kittery Point
to Penobscot Bay might be uninhabited, just waiting
for exploration — or the discovery of a new welcoming land.
She let me practice possibilities.

What do you suppose they do for fun there?
I wonder what they’ll have for supper tonight?

So, in my teens, when I finally made it all the way
across the Atlantic to study in France, it was a matter of course
to fit right in with a new world and its inhabitants —
who, after all, had just been waiting for me to come and join them.

Bonjour, Mademoiselle. Comment allez-vous?
Très, très bien, Monsieur. Merci. Et vous?

Unsure where I am most foreign in the eyes of others —
there, back home — or here, in this life abroad without birthright,
I know I belong because of summer mornings
along Portuguese and French shorelines.

I still connect by looking as far west as my eyes can see
towards those Atlantic islands, grateful liquid bridges never burn.

State of Grace

“State of Grace” was first published in  Offshoots 14 – Writing from Geneva (2017). The poem and my process for writing it were featured by National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo) in April 2017.

State of Grace

It’s a bit like

that moment when you’re asleep but realize someone is
on the fire-escape trying to open your window
and you hear them freeze just before they jump off and run away

or when

your due date has passed and, while setting the table, your back muscles
decide to rise and finger their way forward, `round your ribs and
grip each other over your belly for that first whopping contraction,

or like that dripping August afternoon

in West Virginia when you were sweating out a game of checkers
on the front porch with Grandpa and you saw a way to beat him,
but couldn’t stand the thought of him losing so you goofed on purpose.

Yes, it’s like that, only this time, when it hits you,

it lowers your shoulders and drops your head because you’ve been up all night sorting out fifty years of stuff from your parents’ basement and you remember
where you hid that purple starred sparkly marble from your brother after that fight

and you know exactly what to do —

you make your way to the defunct freezer, fingertip the metal ice cube tray
still on the top shelf to the left where it’s always been and you feel for it —
tangible proof the past can become forgivably present

and you clasp that last piece of a smooth rounded past

in the palm of your hand and head for the stairs leading to the kitchen where you know your brother is sitting in his old spot at the table just staring into his old bowl of cold oatmeal he never eats and you plop that marble right into the thick of it.

by Elizabeth Boquet

Carrying the Ashes

Thrilled that this poem was featured 18 April ’18 by National Poetry Writing Month – Global Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo – GloPoWriMo). The generative prompt for it appeared the preceding day. It was inspired by the word “saplings” in – and the concept and format of — “Directions” in Sailing Around the Room by Billy Collins.

April 17
NaPoWriMo’s prompt: “…write a poem re-telling a family anecdote that has stuck with you over time.”
 
Carrying the Ashes*
dedicated to Nanci Hamblett Wilson

You know the granite chunks on the beach,
the ones you see from the dinghy,
the ones that wend their way to
the path?
And you know how if you follow the path
up the steepest part of the slope
and climb up into the woods you might
have to grab hold of saplings until
you come to the raspberry patches, picked over
by each of us every summer
right under the grove of tall pine, dripping now
with grandfather’s beard?
And farther on, you know how the path
twists to the left and narrows between juniper
and if you go beyond that you arrive
in the clearing with the long stone ridge
bordered by the small field
followed by the big field that tumbles
right back down to the sea
just to the left of the cabin
where there was the singular chair?
That’s a fine place to stop
and catch your breath.

Of course, the journey’s best done with
your hands free. But you know when
you have a load to carry and your hands are so full
you can’t even grasp a sapling?
Just remember that the beginning of the path
is the steepest and, with each step,
the raspberries are getting closer.
And it helps if you have someone
to chat with when you take breaks
and can switch the load from one to the other
up the path to the singular chair.

So, let me know before you set out next time.
I’ll row the dinghy and you can put your hand
on my shoulder as we cross the granite chunks.
Bring a bowl for the raspberry patch
and I’ll bring an old blanket
and we’ll nibble away an afternoon
where there the singular chair once sat
and catch our breath.

By Elizabeth Boquet, April 2018, *This poem was inspired by the word “saplings” in – and the concept and format of — “Directions” in Sailing Around the Room by Billy Collins.

 

Interview by The Woolf

Interview by JJ Marsh at The Woolf, Ranging the Cultural Landscape. The visuals offered by the link are much more interesting than this copy-paste version of the article: 

In this issue of The Woolf we launch our Poetry Competition, which is why we wanted to interview a poet from Switzerland. June’s theme is ‘High and Mighty’ and that has a certain relevance. Poetry seems to be considered a higher and more rarefied art form than prose. Do you see it that way?

Perhaps it’s in the eye of the beholder; any writing that grabs me and makes me dread the last word—whether it be poetry or prose—is what I’d classify as rarefied art. Sometimes poetry, however, suffers from its ‘high and mighty’ or aloof reputation. Perhaps this is due more to poor teaching methods, rather than to poetry itself. In my case, I loved poetry as a child, thanks to my mother who read fun poems to me, wrote poems herself, and got me writing them for pleasure. When I was presented to old-school poetry in high school, however, poetry and I shunned each other. It transformed into an impossible code to crack and my own poetry suddenly looked silly; I put it back in the play box with my other childish things.

On a more positive note, ‘high and mighty’ could refer to the mysterious source of poetry. In my case, I have no idea where it comes from, or when it ‘might’ show up. I imagine it floating around up ‘high’ somewhere, looking for a safe place to land. My role, as a poet, is to remain aware and available, ready to write should it choose to come to me. 

My experience as a reader of/listener to poems was love, passion, cooling and renewed ardour, but I grew up in Wales, where verse is regarded as our birthright. How far was your youth influenced by the mighty American poets and a sense of pride in what our language can do?

My experience with poetry as a youth was playful. As mentioned, my mother introduced me to poetry when I was very little. We had fun with Silverstein, Sandburg, A.A. Milne, Stevenson, and Seuss. The greatest honor in the family was, as soon as you were able to read well enough, tp be asked to read “The Night Before Christmas” to the entire extended family on Christmas eve. Of course, everyone older knew the poem by heart and chimed right in without the slightest hesitation, so we all were very keen and proud to read.

After I went off to school as a teenager, communication with my mother was primarily by letter; in many of hers, she’d transcribe bits of Bishop, Rilke, Sarton, Rumi, e.e. cummings, Moore, Rich, or Dickinson, among others. I’m ashamed to say that I remember rolling my teenaged eyes at some of those passages—but thank goodness she sent them! The only other poetry I remember being exposed to at the time was an endless version of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. If that wasn’t rough enough, it was followed by Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” Talk about high and mighty! I still have the textbook and when I look at my desperate notes in the margins, I cringe. 

How did that sense of identity and ownership of language change after your move to the French-speaking part of Switzerland? Can you enjoy Francophone poetry to the same degree?

I haven’t lived in an English-speaking country since 1988. Ever since then, English has been my refuge. At times, as far as communication goes, living daily life in another language (French, Spanish and Cantonese) has been a bit like having my shoes tied—to each other. Sometimes I stumble and shuffle along. With determination, and a good smile, I eventually get where I need to go. But it can be frustrating, and I often long for an easy carefree run in the woods. Writing in English—expressing myself clearly—with words that I own and that aren’t borrowed, feels like a good run, even now, after living in French-speaking Switzerland for 22 years.

I thoroughly enjoy reading novels in French, and wish I could enjoy Francophone poetry to the same degree. I’m incapable of doing so. Even though I hold an MA in French, and am supposedly fluent, French can still get a bit ‘high and mighty’ when it gets around me—or when I step into the thick of it. However, I’ve learned not to fight with French anymore and can even laugh at my spectacular failures—more on that in my essay, Mastering French, which was recently published in Tales from a Small Planet.

Your blog contains a wonderful image of the huge, sprawling oak of ideas whittled down to its essence, an acorn. How do you go about reducing an amorphous set of thoughts to a few hard-hitting lines?

Thank you! Sometimes, the constraints of haiku and senryū help me get to the essential of what I’m trying to say. Limited lines and syllables make word choice especially dear. Some of my haiku come from pages and pages of notes. The title of my blog, Oaks to Acorns, reflects that thought process; when I write poetry, it’s an attempt to reduce an oak (something huge and unwieldly) to a simple acorn (something manageable that anybody could hold in their hand). To get to the essential, and put a vast and complex thought into a nice neat shell, is one way I reconcile my worlds.

Old-school poets have a pretty romantic/tragic image as solitary figures expressing a personal reaction to the world. Geneva Writers’ Group offers plenty of opportunities to learn the craft and meet other writers working in all forms. You also took part in NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month). What do you gain from these writerly connections?

The Geneva Writers’ Group (GWG) pulled my poetry out of the old play box and onto the dance floor. While swirling around with all sorts of writers, I mustered up the courage to tap on the shoulder of The Frost Place. After a few shots at publishing, I headed over to Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf in Sicily Conference. My dance card filled right up when NaPoWriMo featured one of my poems in 2015, again in 2017 and, just recently in 2018. It’s incredible to be in contact with poets from all over the world who also ‘play’ poetry. Who knew? By the way, most writers I know are party animals—they may prefer solitude when they write, but when they gather together, well, let’s just say, anything goes.

Thanks to the GWG, and the Pernessy Poets in Lausanne, I’m constantly gaining not only confidence, knowledge, advice, feedback, and the joy that comes with a sense of kinship—but also, since the writers I know like to nibble and sip deliciousness when we gather, a lot of weight.

Much of your work comes from a personal perspective. Do you think poetry encourages a more subjective take on experience, inviting the reader to identify, rather than an overt attempt to entertain?

I suppose so; I’ve never fact-checked my poetry and it is entirely from my perspective. Just as some people do needlepoint, or play rugby or video games to entertain themselves, I play poetry. In short, it’s one way I entertain myself. If others find my writing entertaining, then it makes me even happier.

Let’s talk about the haiku. An impressive woman once told me it is the best way to condense an experience. But this quote from Chris Harris is a criticism of teaching children poetry through haiku: “If we can help kids think of poetry as expansive rather than constrictive, they can discover just how many directions there are to explore.” What’s your take?

I agree with Chris Harris that children should be encouraged to ‘play poetry’ without limits—unless the child finds this overwhelming and then, why not provide haiku as an option? I don’t believe there is any one form that could suit every age universally, but I do believe there is a form (which may be form-less) out there, somewhere, for everybody.

Harris’ poems are of the sort I enjoy best—they’re the bubbles in the bath. They make me kick back, relax and let the child inside have good giggle, along the lines of Silverstein or Sandburg. On that note, if there are any adults out there who were forced to write or swallow unwanted poetry in some academic institution, like I was, may I suggest you try again, at least once, with just one poem, An Introduction to Poetry, by Billy Collins?

All writers tinker and twiddle before they are ready to send a piece of work out into the world. Surely poetry is much harder? You are crafting a delicate piece of jewellery, weaving precious stones and metals into something beautiful. When your only materials are words and your tools your imagination, when do you know when to stop?

Good question! I don’t know if poetry is any harder to work with than prose; my first novel was a six-year revisionary disaster. I never did manage to form anything resembling a delicate piece of jewellery, draft after draft. Pity my poor writing group at the time!

Here’s the thing: I don’t know when to stop. If anyone out there does, please let me know. I have beaten many poems—and one sorry novel—to death with endless drafts. Maybe a reasonable stopping point would be when I start swearing at Word’s pop-up, ‘Welcome back!’ I take it personally and wonder, How dare Word get snarky with me, working so hard to get things right. It might as well say, ‘You? AGAIN?!’

Finally, The Woolf special question: Which work of fiction, including poetry, means most to you, and why?

For fiction, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany for its honest physical and spiritual portrayal of my New Hampshire roots; I’ve reread it at ‘the worst of times’ for comfort and it always gets me where I want to go. As for poetry, I could never choose just one; my bottomless play box holds poetry collections by Vievee Francis, Elizabeth Bishop, Sharon Olds, Kay Ryan, Charles Simic, Naomi Shihab Nye, Rilke, Susan Hylen, Ross Gay, Carol Ann Duffy, Robert Frost, Aracelis Girmay, Sarah Browning, Carmen Bugan, Laura Kasischke and, of course, my mother, Eve Hamblett Cassatt … to name just a few.