I seem to be going through a poetry phase, which isn’t a bad thing. Berryman’s poem below has been running through my head lately as I’ve been trying to keep in touch with people over assorted devices and apps, across all this expanding time and distance, through the phone and letters, just like all The Experts say we’re supposed to do. The poem, “Dream Song 14,” was one my mother quoted a lot when I was young. She mostly tossed out the first seven lines. Have a read:
The reason my mother liked this poem is that she was, indeed, bored. She found being a parent often boring (which is not to say that she found us boring, but the allure of diapers; laundry; square meals; schlepping us to school, to piano lessons, to doctors’ appointments; catering to our feverish demands when we were ill — somehow escaped her). And, unlike Berryman’s Henry (honestly, I’m kind of unclear about the relationship between the poet and Henry, even after a bit of reading around the ‘Net), my mother had no qualms about saying so.
To be fair, my mother inculcated in us, her children, some decent Inner Resources. She did so mostly by opening one door or the other and saying, “GO OUTSIDE,” and then leaving us to figure out what to do when we got there. But she also taught us how to throw balls and make mud pies (the trick is not to use too much water) and expected us to climb as high as possible in trees.
When we couldn’t play outside (often because of smog), we had clay and blocks and Lego and crayons and paper and I don’t remember anyone ever complaining about the mess. Our folks also had no problems about our covering the floor with pillows and blankets and doing indoor gymnastics, though they did get a bit nervous when we slid down the stairs on pieces of cardboard.
We weren’t constant hoodlums; we also played quietly in our rooms, alone or together (I spent hours reading), and grew up in a civilized era when we could do our homework every night and still have time to watch lots of sitcoms — Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, I Dream of Jeannie, I Love Lucy. Inner Resources.
So what does any of this have to do with the pandemic? Well, as I attempt to keep in touch with friends and family, I find these lovely people asking me questions such as “What’s new?” and “What have you been doing?” And I find myself answering “Not much” and “Laundry, paying bills, making dinner, napping.” One might assume that I am bored. But the truth is that I am not. “After all, the sky flashes…”
“the great sea yearns…”
“we ourselves flash and yearn…”
(this is as flashy as I get).
And I don’t find literature, especially great literature, boring.
Also, I have this blog where I can range around the scattered ideas that ping madly in my head. Inner Resources.
So what’s my problem? As I said, I’m not bored. The problem is that I am boring. Most people want to hear about the hassles of working from home (I’m not working right now) or about ventures outside the house (I’m staying put) or about dealing with family (my folks are dead, my kids are grown). I think about Henry Higgins’ admonition to Eliza Doolittle, his “strict orders as to her behavior. She’s to keep to two subjects: the weather and everybody’s health–Fine day and How do you do, you know–and not to let herself go on things in general. That will be safe.”** Everybody’s health is of course the first subject discussed and, if no one has COVID, disposed of. Discussion of the weather currently seems to be insultingly banal. Politics is either too risky or too distressing. I’m not sure how to get conversations properly balanced these days. Most don’t want to hear me read John Berryman or Richard Wilbur or Anne Sexton and then ramble on about their poems. Maybe you don’t either, yet here we are together.
**Henry’s mother presciently responds, “Safe! To talk about our health! about our insides! perhaps about our outsides! How could you be so silly, Henry?” And of course Eliza ends up telling the genteel gathering about how her aunt “come through diphtheria right enough the year before. I saw her with my own eyes. Fairly blue with it, she was. They all thought she was dead; but my father he kept ladling gin down her throat til she came to so sudden that she bit the bowl off the spoon.… What call would a woman with that strength in her have to die of influenza? What become of her new straw hat that should have come to me? Somebody pinched it; and what I say is, them as pinched it done her in.”
And here are some photos of November’s full moon, the Beaver Moon, and the poem of which it reminds me.
(See all the stars that show up in that shot?)
Sometimes my camera gets dramatic. On some of the options, the camera is stuck in a mode that takes six photos with different light settings. I don’t know why. When the pandemic is over, I’ll go back to the camera shop and ask someone to explain it to me.
A classic full moon photo. Lots of stars in this photo, too.
This photo comes closest to showing the colour of the moon when it rose.
With the moon in the background, the pine needles look soft, like the feathers on a gull, or perhaps the fur of a werewolf’s face.
((O))((O))((O))((O))((O))((O))((O))((O))((O))((O))((O))((O)) (Trigger warning: the poem and following comments discuss violence, death, images of assault, and rape.)
“Beasts,” by Richard Wilbur,* is one of the poems that I read several times a year — usually during the full moon. The poem fascinates me. I get swept up in its rhythms and the inexorable flow that rarely stops, even for the end of a stanza. Wilbur’s startling juxtaposition of concepts (I won’t give examples because that would be the poetic equivalent of spoilers) doesn’t quite reach Calvin-and-Hobbesian levels,
but it has its own originality. The poem puts my spine on alert and fills the suburban darkness outside my window with more wild things than Maurice Sendak could imagine.
Beasts in their major freedom Slumber in peace tonight. The gull on his ledge Dreams in the guts of himself the moon-plucked waves below, And the sunfish leans on a stone, slept By the lyric water,
In which the spotless feet Of deer make dulcet splashes, and to which The ripped mouse, safe in the owl’s talon, cries Concordance. Here there is no such harm And no such darkness
As the selfsame moon observes Where, warped in window-glass, it sponsors now The werewolf’s painful change. Turning his head away On the sweaty bolster, he tries to remember The mood of manhood,
But lies at last, as always, Letting it happen, the fierce fur soft to his face, Hearing with sharper ears the wind’s exciting minors, The leaves’ panic, and the degradation Of the heavy streams.
Meantime, at high windows Far from thicket and pad-fall, suitors of excellence Sigh and turn from their work to construe again the painful Beauty of heaven, the lucid moon And the risen hunter,
Making such dreams for men As told will break their hearts as always, bringing Monsters into the city, crows on the public statues, Navies fed to the fish in the dark Unbridled waters.
– RICHARD WILBUR
The poem is like a haunted house at a carnival, if it turned out that the haunts were real and the exit led into the prologue of Longfellow’s Evangeline.** You know something is waiting to leap out around the bends, but not what, or when it will spring. The first line, “Beasts in their major freedom,” conjures the image of beasts on the prowl, exercising their rights to wander the landscape of the poem and of the poet’s imagination, but in the next line we learn that they “Slumber in peace tonight.” (It’s a bit like that song, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” You think it’s going to be about a mighty lion doing mighty-lion things like terrorizing the jungle and the village, but noooo — it’s about how everything is so peaceful and copacetic that even the king of cats decides to take a nap. Bit of a let-down, really.)
From that initial rush of tension and subsequent calming, the poem slowly builds the tension back up again. The first specific “beast” we encounter is “the gull on his ledge,” dreaming, but his dreams are lodged not in his avian mind, but “in the guts of himself” — an image of imagined self-evisceration, of auto-haruspicy. Note that the gull doesn’t dream of “the moon-plucked waves below. Rather, he “dreams…the moon-plucked waves”; the waves are the direct object of “dreams.” In an act of creation, the gull somnolently envisions the ocean into being, though we aren’t told whether he saw that it was good.
In a similar syntactical maneuver, the stone in line four, the one the sunfish uses for a pillow, is “slept/ By the lyric water.” The gull dreams the waves, and the poetry of the water dreams the stone, and stone supports the fish. Wilbur’s poem ebbs and flows in a weaving that shuttles the reader forward and back and around, but never really stops moving.
We are not allowed to stop for breath at the end of the stanza, only to breathe long enough to plunge into the next with “the spotless feet/ Of deer.” The momentary charm of the “dulcet splashes,” like the the beasts slumbering in peace, puts us at our ease for another moment, but that calm is again pulled out from us as “The ripped mouse, safe in the owl’s talon, cries/Concordance.” And here I think of Isabella, in Measure for Measure, listening to Angelo’s demand that she “Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite;/ Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes,/ That banish what they sue for,” (MFM, II. iv). The mouse, already torn open, probably being consumed alive while “safe in the owl’s talon” (and here I sense no irony, but feel that there is some nuance beyond shock and contrast I am missing), fits its consent to the owl’s sharp appetite and acknowledges the barbaric harmony of its own destruction.
And what are we to do with the two “suches” — “no such harm/ And no such darkness” — that end the stanza? Our understanding of to what they refer is delayed until the middle of the next, a delay that once again propels us through the poem as we search for the way to the end of understanding. Between us and the conceit we find again the moon, the one that “plucked” the waves in line three and is responsible for the tides that ferry us along. The moon here is mediated by the glass of a window, a barrier between the moon and the interior of the room. that parallels the barrier that the moon provides between us and the meaning of the sentence. The “warping” of the moon also emphasizes the weaving motion that structures the poem, makes it the foundational thread upon which the tapestry will come alive.
Despite the effect of the glass, the distancing of the moon, the distortion to which our lunary satellite is subjected, we find that its power is not watered down. That “selfsame moon,” on whose light we glide into the bedroom, still “sponsors now/ The werewolf’s painful change.” And here we come to the referent for those suches in the previous stanza. There is no harm, no darkness, to compare with the change the man on the bolster is forced to undergo. The metamorphosis to the wolf is simultaneously a betrayal of and a return to different versions of a true self, a change that is less super than natural.
We see the man, like the mouse, already in pain, struggling to retain his former life, his “mood of manhood,” but (again like the mouse), he finally accedes to the inevitable and “lies at last, as always,/ Letting it happen,” a line that disturbingly echoes old “advice” that used to be given (and may still be, for what I know) to women about how to “keep themselves safe” while being raped. The poem takes us through the familiar pattern of comfort (“the fierce fur soft to his face”), mounting tension (“Hearing with sharper ears the wind’s exciting minors”), to threat (“The leaves’ panic”), and finally to violence (“the degradation/ Of the heavy streams.”) Note the return to water, the throw of the shuttle back to where we began.
The next stanza leads us back to a window, but here we start inside, looking out:
Meantime, at high windows Far from thicket and pad-fall, suitors of excellence Sigh and turn from their work to construe again the painful Beauty of heaven, the lucid moon And the risen hunter,
The same themes are iterated here: the division and refusion of man (all the beasts of the poem are male) and the “major freedom” of the worlds of nature and the imagination. The latter has already invaded the minds of these “suitors of excellence”; we learn in the next stanza that the suitors are “Making such dreams for men/ As told will break their hearts as always.” We started the poem with gull-dreams making the ocean, where life began, and circle around to the dreams of men gulling them into thinking they have left the wild behind. But the truth is that all their art, all their dreams, are merely
bringing Monsters into the city, crows on the public statues, Navies fed to the fish in the dark Unbridled waters.
It is the thoughts and fancies of these men that let the wild back into civilization, “bringing/ Monsters into the city, crows on the public statues,/ Navies fed to the fish in the dark/ Unbridled waters.”
And we return to the untamed beasts, to the “unbridled waters,” to all that is out of our control and will, in the end, swallow us whole and force us to “suffer a sea-change/ Into something rich and strange.”**** There is little left for us to do but cry concordance.
Throughout the poem, we readers are placed, like the glass, between the catalytic serenity of the moon and the lunacy and violence its light engenders. As readers, we stand (we think) at a distance, but the rhythms and cadences of the lines sweep us into the flow, into “the degradation/ Of the heavy streams,” and maybe out into the “unbridled waters.” That is the power of a well-wrought poem. There is little left for us to do but cry concordance.
This is what I’m thinking about the poem right now. Next month I might think something else — in an inverse Petruchio, my mind changes even as the moon.*** This poem is woven into my own imagination and it rises with every full moon, sponsors changes in my mind, and inspires dreams in the guts my own self.
Am I the only one waiting for the howling to begin?
Find the “Leave a Comment” option over on the left and let me know.
**“This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight, Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic, Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms. Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.
“This is the forest primeval; but where are the hearts that beneath it Leaped like the roe, when he hears in the woodland the voice of the huntsman?”
***Petruchio: I say it is the moon. Katherina: I know it is the moon. Petruchio: Nay, then you lie. It is the blessèd sun. Katherina: Then, God be blessed, it is the blessèd sun, But sun it is not when you say it is not, And the moon changes even as your mind. What you will have it named, even that it is, And so it shall be so for Katherine. (The Taming of the Shrew, IV. v.)
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them,—ding-dong, bell.
(The Tempest, I. ii)
Due to technical difficulties, I have fallen behind in my postings. And by “technical difficulties,” I mean that my daughter, who tries to make sure I take care of my assorted devices, told me that there was an iOS update and that I should download and install it. So I did that, and I saw that my iTunes button had turned red and that there was now a magnifier button on my screen, and I’m hoping to get Meredith to explain the new Privacy settings to me, but everything else seemed pretty much the same. That is, until (dramatic music here, maybe from a tragic opera or a truly frightening horror movie) I tried to upload my recent photos for my next blog post, and WordPress told me, and I quote, “Sorry, this file type is not permitted for security reasons.” I figured that I had just not given the photo enough time to latch onto the WordPress media library and tried again. And WordPress said, “Sorry, this file type is not permitted for security reasons,” though it sounded snarkier and more smug this time.
I thought maybe there was something wrong with the photo itself, so I took a new picture of the page, re-edited it, and tried to upload it to my media library. And what did WordPress say? “Sorry, this file type is not permitted for security reasons.” This time I think it was gloating. It may have stuck its tongue out at me, but it happened too quickly for me to be sure.
Obviously, I needed help. So I tried the WordPress fora. I immediately found an old thread started by someone who had had exactly the same problem with which I was struggling. I was sure that I was on my way to resolving my difficulty, but alas! All the thread had to offer was that, at the time the question had been asked, WordPress itself was being glitchy and the WP Fairies were working their magic to smooth out the bump. I couldn’t find anything more recent (and I was getting frustrated), so I sent my daughter a message, a cry for help, a plea for a light in the darkness of my blogging.
Now, Meredith is rather busy these days. She’s working full-time, going to school half-time, and volunteering with her local CASA organization. It is, therefore, not unreasonable that it took her a couple days to respond to me. But here I encountered a wrinkle I had NOT seen coming: Meredith didn’t know the answer. All of you who rely on your children to help navigate the often stormy seas of modern technology will understand how flummoxed I felt.
In desperation, I opened a browser window and typed in “Sorry, this file type is not permitted for security reasons.” One of the links I followed offered a list of file types that WordPress deems sufficiently innocuous to allow to cross its borders. “Huh,” I thought, “maybe I should make sure my photos are still JPEGs.” So after sifting through menus and sub-menus and randomly clicking on obscure options, I finally got my computer to confess that my new photos were NOT, in fact, JPEGs any longer. They were now something called HEIC. Apparently this new format saves space or something like that. I didn’t really care. I just wanted my JPEGgy photos back.
The next logical step, it seemed to me, was to find out how to change my HEIC photos back into nice, tractable JPEGs. So back to my browser I went to ask it how to effect such a transformation. My research revealed that it was possible to do this in fifteen simple steps that I would be able to understand as soon as I got a degree in computer programming. This sort of “solution” is why I like my pens and copy machine.
Even if I could have figured out how to take my poor image through these multiple stations, I don’t have the time to go through that process for every photo I want to upload to my blog. I was not happy. So I went to bed.
The next day I looked again for ways to re-dress HEIC photos in JPEG clothing, and after poking around on the ‘Net for years — well, maybe months, possibly days —OK: a couple hours, I FINALLY stumbled on a link that told me I COULD GO TO THE SETTINGS OF MY PHONE AND TURN OFF THE HEIC OPTION AND GO BACK TO TAKING JPEGS. And here, my friends, I realized that I had once again fallen prey to one of the persistent problems with my brain: not knowing what question to ask. (I once spend two weeks trying to order a new power cord for my computer and could NOT find one anywhere. Eventually I found out that what I wanted was a power cable, but I didn’t know to ask for one of those.)
In conclusion, I switched off the HEIC and restored the JPEG setting, re-took and re-edited the photos, and will now resume my “30 Inks in 30 Days” listing of a month of reasons to vote (really, if anyone is considering not voting, whether you agree with my views or not, please re-consider and vote. We all need to know what we, as a country, as a society, see as the direction in which we should take ourselves).
Thank you for reading. Stay well and safe and healthy.
Yesterday I ventured forth farther a-field than I have for three weeks. I had an health appointment and my son agreed to take me so I wouldn’t have to take the bus (I don’t drive). I thought I would be excited to leave the house, but in truth I was mostly nervous. I looked up how to make a mask from a bandana and hair bands:
You can find instructions on how to make your own COVID-19 fashion statement here. I had a hard time getting the elastic bands to stay looped over my ears, so when I got home, I strung three together, before slipping the bandana through the end two, to allow the elastic to go around my head. I haven’t tried wearing it outside as I walk around yet, but I have high hopes it will stay in place a little better.
On the way in, there were some cars, but many stretches of the road were almost empty.
We passed my favourite pond. There were two grey herons on it, a bird I hadn’t seen there before. I hope they’re nesting. Someone pointed out to me that the birds have been loving the quieter days and the cleaner air, and since then I have noticed that there are indeed more birds around than we’ve had for a while.
After my appointment, we had a couple errands to run, one on the pedestrian mall. It was stunning to see how empty it was. The homeless folk had gathered primarily in one area, but most were keeping several yards apart from each other and talking about the pandemic.
I was surprised by how many restaurants were not limiting themselves to take out or curbside pick-up. Quite a number were open for business as more-or-less usual. THIS IS WHY WE NEED A NATIONAL SHUT-DOWN, PEOPLE. We can’t count on folks to stay away from each other if it isn’t mandated as a necessity.
There were few shoppers around; many of them were wearing scarves or masks. We looked like a small convention of highway robbers.
Because I’ve been cooped up at home, my son and I took the scenic route home. We saw trees just coming out of dormancy, still all bones, but not for long.*
There were some mountains, too.
Honestly, I feel as if the world has undergone such a cataclysm that I wasn’t sure the Rockies would still be there. It’s like living in one of those SciFi movies in which most of the population has been swept away by a plague and everyone is afraid of everyone else, but it’s not a movie.
Well, I am sure everyone had a sleepless night, worrying about the peach tree. I am pleased to offer a bit of good news: I think the lights may have worked! Take a look:
Not only do most of the blossoms that were there before seem to be there still, but there are even some new ones:
The foreseeable future offers some dips down to freezing temps, but no hard freezes. But then there’s the rest of April, squirrels (who literally will take one bite of a peach and then throw it as far as they can), bugs, birds… Kinehora, all!