Dissolution, a Disaster, and the Disaligned: Louise Glück, W.H. Auden, and Anne Sexton (Happy Hallowe’en!)

We have a new U.S. Poet Laureate, Louise Glück. Ms. Glück was also recently became the latest  Nobel Laureate in literature. (That’s a lot of bay leaves). I couldn’t remember whether I had ever read any of Ms. Glück’s poetry, so I started skimming through her poems on a couple web sites — not a proper way to read poetry, I admit — and for reasons I haven’t begun to explicate to myself, none really spoke to me until I found this one, “All Halllows,” which, possibly because it’s a Hallowe’en poem, made me slow down to read it properly:

All Hallows
BY LOUISE GLÜCK

Even now this landscape is assembling.
The hills darken. The oxen
sleep in their blue yoke,
the fields having been
picked clean, the sheaves
bound evenly and piled at the roadside
among cinquefoil, as the toothed moon rises:

This is the barrenness
of harvest or pestilence.
And the wife leaning out the window
with her hand extended, as in payment,
and the seeds
distinct, gold, calling
Come here
Come here, little one

And the soul creeps out of the tree.¹

I like the imagery, the juxtaposition of conflicting interpretations of the fields as indicative equally of foison and famine. The opening sets us up for the dissonance: Glück offers us the promise of a landscape being assembled, and she gives us that: building blocks of darkling hills, sleepy oxen, fields, sheaves as the evidence of the harvest’s bounty. But the landscape is also one of disintegration. The gathering darkness  will cause the visual dissolution of the scene, the oxen are now purposeless, the fields are stripped, and the sheaves are set to the side. I find it interesting that the sheaves are placed “among cinquefoil,” as if they need healing. And the moon is “toothed” — crescent? Or gibbous, with the rough edges showing? — as if menacing the scene or ready to devour the stored harvest.

And then we get the wife, the image of interiority and domesticity, set, presumably, in contrast to the world of manly harvest, though it is noteworthy that no males are mentioned, so she may have brought in the crop herself. She is, after all, the one holding the golden seeds (shades of Zeus and Danae?). The poem suggests the seeds are a payment, but her call is coaxing and the seeds seem to be a bribe or incentive to persuade the spirit of the tree to emerge. If the seeds are a payment, then the soul in the tree — an allusion to Ariel in The Tempest? — may be the spirit that has ensured the harvest. But it seems a timid and possibly wounded sprite: it is little and must be cajoled, and it “creeps” out of the tree. 

Then there’s the question of why it is in the tree at all. Is it a kind of dryad? Was it imprisoned like Ariel? Has the wife tamed it? Is it the ghost of a child whose grave is marked by the tree? Since it is All Hallows, it seems most likely that it is an apparition of someone who has died. Did the wife trap the little one’s soul to keep it close, to fend off mourning?

In some ways, “All Hallows” reminds me of Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts”:

Musée des Beaux Arts
W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.²

The first stanza is a rather good explanation of how Glück’s poem works: the juxtaposition of the work-a-day world with loss and tragedy. In the second, we get the same kind of rural scene with harvesting and then the loss of a child (if that is, indeed, what “All Hallows” depicts) as a part of that landscape. But, in the end, Auden’s poem is more removed from the sorrow. It is a paean to the insight of the Old Masters, to Art’s ability to negotiate emotion for us. It does not offer direct experience, and we hear nothing of Daedalus and his tearing grief at watching his son drown while being able to do nothing to prevent Icarus’ fall nor to save him.

But more, “All Hallows” reminds me of Anne Sexton’s “Her Kind,” a poem to which I return often. Both poems offer us housewives, though the two women are markedly different. One seems to be a career witch, the other more of a hobbyist. 

Her Kind
BY ANNE SEXTON

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.³

The physical landscape of “Her Kind” is wider and in some ways less detailed than what we get in “All Hallows.” We see this witch both traversing the outside world and at home among her generalized possessions: “skillets, carvings, shelves,/ closets, silks, innumerable goods.” Her interior landscape is, however, excruciating delineated. The witch here, despite her healing work “rearranging the disaligned,” sees herself as wicked — though apparently she merely fantasizes about it: “dreaming evil” — and inhuman (“not a woman, quite”), mad, misunderstood, willing to die, perhaps even deserving to die. She ends defiantly, “waving [her] nude arms at villages going by,” but is wracked and tortured by the flames that bite her thigh and the wheels the crack her ribs. But both poems, “All Hallows” and “Her Kind,” make a point of contrasting the outside with the inside, of setting them in opposition to each other rather than seeing the two states on a continuum of experience. 

But there are also salient differences between the poems. The wife of Glück’s poem is alone, solitary, and seems to be safe and, to some extent, in control of herself and her environment. On the other hand, the woman of Sexton’s poem ventures forth to where normal people live and she makes friends with worms and elves. She actively attempts to set right what is out of place and distorted, and she recognizes her relationship to other women: they are of a kind, a natural grouping, one that is, I think, both chosen by themselves and imposed on them by the rest of society. And she/they/we pay a steep price for inclusion in that club.

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  1. “All Hallows” from The First Four Books of Poems by Louise Gluck. Copyright © 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1985, 1995 by Louise Glück.  Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
    https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49605/all-hallows; 18 October, 2020.
  2. https://poems.com/poem/musee-des-beaux-arts/; 18 October, 2020.
  3. Anne Sexton, “Her Kind” from The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981). Copyright © 1981 by Linda Gray Sexton and Loring Conant, Jr. Reprinted with the permission of Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.
    https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42560/her-kind; 18 October, 2020.

 

 

Getting Out the Vote While Staying Safe At Home

I didn’t used to be a particularly political person. I was raised in a moderate family; my parents never voted a party line. Growing up and into early adulthood, I didn’t find politics particularly consuming, though I have been an avid, informed voter since I turned eighteen. Until relatively recently, I was able to understand both sides of political points of view. The irony is, now that I am eager to become more involved, to do more to return our country to some kind of sensible, civil normalcy,  my own health issues and the pandemic limit what I can do.

But the Sierra Club gave me an option that allowed me to help get out the vote from home, when I had the energy to do so, even in the middle of the night: writing letters to voters who tend to vote on Election Day, rather than during early voting.

I had hoped to write an even hundred, but we were told to print rather than to use cursive because so many people can no longer read running script. I hadn’t done any extended printing for maybe twenty years, when my second child was learning to write. I had to think about each letter as I wrote it and I could feel different muscles in my hand, ones that had become accustomed to a life of ease and indolence, coming into play. I was surprised how much printing slowed me down. I managed to write only seventy-five of these letters (they came in sets of twenty-five), so I was a little disappointed with my output, but am still very grateful have found a way to have, I hope, persuaded some more people to vote.

If you’re eligible to vote here in the United States and haven’t done so yet, please please PLEASE find your ballot if one was mailed to you and send it in or get out and vote in person. Lives hang in the balance.
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Note to fountain pen users: After I wrote my first set of
letters, I realized that I wanted more fountain-pen-friendly paper on which to print out these letters. I found recommendations for sugarcane paper on BestFountainPen.com, reddit.com, and MountainOfInk.com (see the comments section for MoI). I got a ream and it was a vast improvement. Not only did my inks show their sheen and shading nicely on this paper (not to Tomoe River levels, but still noticeable), but also, when I used the paper in the copier, the print was both sharper and darker. I’m pretty happy about it. The brand I got was Treefree from Staples.

(For what it’s worth, this post contains no affiliate links, no one asked me to post my opinions, and the opinions here are my own.)

Thirty Reasons to Vote: #14

 

 

The constant denigration by elected officials of our leading researchers, of those who base their arguments on reason and evidence, erodes confidence in the science and research that produce the tested cures we need, that keep us safe from chemicals and pollutants, that track the food we eat. Remember last year when there was a sudden decision to shift USDA researchers from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City? That was an ill-advised move because

“Moving these researchers out of Washington puts them out of earshot from policymakers. A lot of the research that scientists and economists do at [the USDA] has policy implications, and members of Congress need this information and need to have face-to-face meetings with these researchers,” Rebecca Boehm, with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Hill.

“It keeps science out of the policymaking process. And we’ve seen many times that this administration doesn’t like facts or research that isn’t convenient or [is] an impediment to their agenda, so I think moving them away helps accomplish that,” she added.³

This separation of policy and science is outlined in a list compiled by the Union of Concerned Scientists. It includes, among many other items, “EPA refuses to Regulate Rocket Fuel Chemical in Drinking Water,” “White House Demands Rewriting of CDC’s COVID-19 Guidelines for Schools,” and “Trump Administration Disavows Own Meteorologists for Issuing Factual Statement on Hurricane Dorian.”4

The dangerous disrespect the current administration and other representatives show for the wisdom and advice of science have led to Scientific American, for the first time in its one-hundred-seventy-five-year history, to endorse a candidate for office, and its nod went to Joseph Biden. In the October 2020 issue, the editors explain that 

Scientific American has never endorsed a presidential candidate in its 175-year history. This year we are compelled to do so. We do not do this lightly.

The evidence and the science show that Donald Trump has badly damaged the U.S. and its people—because he rejects evidence and science. The most devastating example is his dishonest and inept response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which cost more than 190,000 Americans their lives by the middle of September. He has also attacked environmental protections, medical care, and the researchers and public science agencies that help this country prepare for its greatest challenges. That is why we urge you to vote for Joe Biden, who is offering fact-based plans to protect our health, our economy and the environment. These and other proposals he has put forth can set the country back on course for a safer, more prosperous and more equitable future.5

Finding out that SA felt it necessary to speak out and take a side feels monumental to me. I appreciate that way that, in normal times, many organizations stay out of politics. But sometimes there is no virtue in silence and neutrality, and we are living in such times. 

I’m a humanities person, but I understand the vital role science plays, should play, must be allowed to play in our lives and society. So vote for science, for representatives who respect science and research and who will encourage and support with both words and funding the scientific leaders whose voices must be heard loudly and clearly for our society to survive.

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Monteverde Fire Opal

 

  1. Governor Jay Inslee Calls West Coast Fires ‘Climate Fires.’” YouTube. September 15, 2020.
    Andrew Hammond. The News Tribune, “Wildfires one sign of the ‘New Washington’ created by climate change, Inslee says.” September 9, 2020.
  2. Philip Bump. The Washington Post, “The president who says the coronavirus will go away makes the same prediction about global warming.” September 14, 2020.
  3. Rebecca Beitsch. The Hill, “Scientists flee USDA as research agencies move to Kansas City area.” July 15, 2019.
  4. Union of Concerned Scientists. “Attacks on Science.” July 2, 2020.
  5. Editors. Scientific American, “Scientific American Endorses Joe Biden.” October 2020.

Thirty Reasons to Vote: #7

 

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  1. Foreign Affairs. “Present at the Disruption: How Trump Unmade U.S. Foreign Policy.” September/October 2020.
  2. The Conversation. “Trump’s foreign policy is still ‘American first’ — what does that mean, exactly?” August 27, 2020.
  3. VOA. “Trump’s ‘America First’ Agenda Shapes GOP Foreign Policy.” August 25, 2020.
  4. New York Times. “Trump Abruptly Exits NATO Gathering After Embarrassing Video Emerges.” December 4, 2019.

 

 

Thirty Reasons to Vote: #6

Back in April of this year, the National Geographic magazine for Earth Day was a double-sided issue. One cover bore the title, “How We Lost the Planet”; the flip-side offered “How We Saved the World.” The issue pretty much embodies how I exist these days: in a constant state of flipping between despair and hope.

Today, here in Colorado, the smoke from our own fires mixed with that from California. Early in the afternoon, the air reminded me of growing up in L.A. in the ‘sixties and early ‘seventies. We had “smog days” when we couldn’t go outside, when recess was held indoors and we played “Thumbs Up, Seven Up,” sitting at our desks with our heads down and a thumb up while a classmate would go around and tap a set of kids on the thumb. Once these children were chosen, we would be allowed to pick up our heads while the selected seven tried to guess who had tapped them. It was every bit as exciting as it sounds.

But even on the days when we allowed to play outside, our chests would hurt and sometimes we couldn’t get a full breath. We didn’t think too much about it; that was all we knew. But our parents did and for a while there were effective efforts to mitigate air pollution. The air in L.A.got better, as it did in other cities in America.

 Today, my lungs thought they were right back in the L.A. of my youth. Breathing ached; my throat felt scoured; my head ached; my stomach turned sour. And however poor the conditions are here, they are fractionally as awful as California’s.

My husband and I had planned a drive today, just to get out of the house. We made it up high enough to be away from the smoke briefly, but most of the time the cab of the truck was smoke-imbued.

 

 

It was difficult to come back down where the smoke blanketed everything like fog, and nothing like fog.

By early afternoon, I was no longer thinking of Los Angeles; I was thinking of Pompeii.

Ash on the window
Ash on the windshield


Ash on the hood of the truck 

Ash on the red bud leaves

 

 

 

 

I write this late in the day and ash is still falling. A plume from the Cameron Peak fire spiraled up thirty-five thousand feet (that’s a 35 with three zeroes after it. Think airplane-cruising altitude).

And these fires are not caused by a lack of raking. They’re caused by the climate changes brought on by humans. We must acknowledge that we have caused and are causing this damage and then work to undo it. Remember how quickly the air cleared when we were all on lock-down?

Wildfires are far from the only disasters caused by global warming. Plastic is raining down across the country, including in our delicate, protected preserves; hurricane season is far more dangerous now. The disdain for science so proudly promulgated by politicians and voters will cost us our lovely planet and guess what? There’s not room for all of us on the International Space Station.

In addition, a lot of us are going to be denied the opportunity to be grandparents because of climate change. The next generations are reluctant to bring children into a world that might not be around long enough for their children to live to old age or that will mean they have to live in a wasteland. I don’t have an effective counter-argument for them.

The setting sun and the moon have been orange and lurid for weeks now.

 

 

 

 

But this evening was the sun was new kind of eerie.

And tonight — tonight the moon is red, a mourning red, an angry crimson.

So vote for our lives, for our home, for our environment, for the continuation of our species, for leaders who will push us to evolve into stewards of the Earth. Vote. Please vote.

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  1. Union of Concerned Scientists. “The Connection Between Climate Change and Wildfires.” Updated March 11, 2020.
  2. Gavin Newsom on climate change and California’s wildfires. August 20, 2020.
  3. WBUR. “Meet Allie, One of the Growing Number of People Not Having Kids Because of Climate Change.” September 16, 2019.

Thirty Reasons to Vote: #2

 

Noodler’s Luxury Blue Eternal Ink

Please write your senators, your congressional representatives, your secretaries of state, and your state attorneys general to urge them to keep voting safe and accessible and to stand up to everyone who is trying to undermine the postal service. Public pressure matters. Apply some daily.

The Rest of Rivka’s Story

 Well, I’ve had a difficult two months, with my M.E. surging. Hot weather, whether I’m out in it or not, often makes it worse. We seem to be cooling off a bit now, despite the fires here in Colorado. I did finish up Rivka’s story; Meredith is thinking about rounding out Emma’s portion with a story of her own. So for anyone who is wondering how this tale concludes (spoiler: no one dies), read on:

Rivka’s Story #30Inks30Days; 30 June, 2020

For the last day of this round of 30 Inks in 30 Days I’m using Sailor Shikiori Yodaki. September will be the next round, immediately followed, of course, by INKTOBER!

I had hoped to finish this story today, but it seems to have taken on a life of its own. I think it’s close to finished, though. But maybe I ought to apply to write for a soap opera…

Rivka’s Story #30Inks30Days; 29 June, 2020

Lamy Amazonite

  

 

Rivka’s Story #30Inks30Days; 28 June, 2020

Lamy Azurite