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.)

Because I Like to Bang My Head Against Brick Walls: Another Open Letter to Colorado Senator Cory Gardner

Another Open Letter to Colorado Senator Cory Gardner

Senator Cory Gardner
1961 Stout Street, Suite #12-300
Denver, Colorado
80294

5 October, 2020

Senator Gardner, 

I see that you voted for the bill calling for the Justice Department to to withdraw its support for the lawsuit that would end the Affordable Healthcare Act. I also see that you have introduced your own bill that putatively would protect those of us with pre-existing conditions. I thank you for your vote and hope that it portends a turn toward listening to and caring about the needs and opinions of your constituents.

However, your record of voting against the ACA makes this vote suspect. After the election, if you are returned to the Senate or during the liminal period between the election and the Senate’s new term, will you continue to support the ACA? Your own brief bill, which at first glance seems so promising, does not guarantee that insurers must accept applicants with pre-existing conditions, nor does it it spell out what kinds of coverage a plan must provide, nor does it contain a provision forbidding discrimination based on gender or sex. There are too many loopholes to bolster the impression you seem to want to cultivate that you are ready to stand up for health care and affordable insurance for all of us.

The most effective way to convince us that you do, in fact, care about the lives and health of your constituents, and of all inhabitants of the United States (we’re all too connected, as COVID-19 has taught us, to pretend that we need only be concerned with the health of our neighbours) is to oppose seating a new Supreme Court justice before the Inauguration. The push to put Amy Coney Barrett on the highest bench in the land before the tenth of November is motivated by the intention to destroy the act that has brought affordable insurance to millions of Americans. Commit to voting only for a nominee who will support not just the ACA, but who will also protect women’s health by preserving our reproductive choices, including our right to control our bodies, our lives, and our destinies through access to safe, affordable, and legal abortions. 

If you vote for the Justice Department to step away from the legal challenge that is trying to eradicate the Affordable Healthcare Act, but also vote to confirm a new Supreme Court justice to sit in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat, a justice who will strike down the ACA and overturn Roe v. Wade, then you are merely attempting to have your cake and eat it, too. 

Senator Gardner, I remain

Your voting constituent,

Ruth E. Feiertag

Thirty Reasons to Vote: #30 (The Power of One)

Last, and possibly the most important reason to cast your ballot: every vote counts.  EVERY VOTE COUNTS.

EVERY VOTE COUNTS.

In the 2017 / 2018 elections, there were two state races, one in Virginia and one in Alaska, that ended in a tie. The Virginia race was settled by drawing one of the candidates’ names from a bowl; a recount in the Alaska race found that one candidates had a single vote more than the other. In both cases, the Republican won. In both cases, legislative control was at stake.

ONE more vote in the Virginia election would have created a balance of power; ONE more vote in Alaska would have led to a coin flip.

EVERY VOTE COUNTS.

YOUR vote counts. But only if you cast your ballot. Remember that if you’re thinking of not voting. The fate of our country may be in your hands.

VOTE.

 

  1. Gregory S. Schneider. “A single vote leads to a rare tie for control of the Virginia legislature,Washington Post. December 19, 2017
  2. Eric Levenson. “Coin flips, poker hands and other crazy ways America settles tied elections,” CNN. January 4, 2018.
  3. Adelyn Baxter and Jermy Hsieh. “Pivotal House race recount now favors Republican LeBon by one vote,” KTOO. November 30, 2018.
  4. Steve Benen. “With legislative control on the line, Alaska faces rare election tie,” MSNBC. November 27, 2018.
  5. Trip Gabriel. “Virginia’s Tiebreaker Drawing is Back On. But It May Not Settle House Race,” New York imes. January 3, 2018.

 

 

Thirty Reasons to Vote: #29

 

 

Donald J. Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes the year he won the presidency. In his first year in the White House, he paid another $750.

He had paid no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years….

Also hanging over him is a decade-long audit battle with the Internal Revenue Service over the legitimacy of a $72.9 million tax refund…. An adverse ruling could cost him more than $100 million.

From Russ Buettner, Susanne Craig, and Mike McIntire. “Long-Concealed Records Show Trump’s Chronic Losses and Years of Tax Avoidance,” New York Times. September 27, 2020.

Thirty Reasons to Vote: #27

 

This is Erev Yom Kippur. Ten days ago, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, we learned of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Before the evening was old, Mitch McConnell and the president declared their determination to rush to fill Justice Ginsburg’s seat with a far-right judge, an intention they are working hard to fulfill.

So much, for now, for the re-cap. Just put that to the side for a moment; it’ll come back around again.

Every so often during the year — whenever there’s a Jewish holiday — I ask myself why I, as someone on the Agnostic-Atheist Spectrum, keep celebrating these holidays, but I know the answers. A lot of it has to do with being brought up that way, with maintaining an identity and a connection to my family, those living and those dead. (My idea of Pascal’s Wager is reminding myself that, if there is an afterlife, I don’t want to spend mine explaining to my Yiddishe grandparents why I stopped being Jewish. And then my Aunt Lillie would show up —— let’s not even go there.)

But aside from the fear-of-perpetual-guilt, there’s also an emphasis in Judaism on getting this life right, on cultivating right relations between people.¹ And that’s particularly true around the High Holy Days, when one is supposed to try to fix relations between one’s self and others one has hurt or done wrong before one can ask God for forgiveness. The making things right makes sense to me. Ideally, I’d just go around apologizing all year ’round, but I don’t, so I appreciate the yearly reminder. I actually take this ritual pretty seriously. I think I’m mostly a pretty innocuous person, but I have my moments, particularly when I’m angry or scared or just plain stupid, when I can lash out or not realize I’m saying the most keenly hurtful thing possible — either way, it’s important to me to make amends.

It was hard to start apologizing, to say “I was wrong,” but what really set me back was how hard it was for people to hear and accept my apologies. Almost everyone tried to turn the situation into a joke; some even got sharply angry with me, they were so uncomfortable. People reacted as if I were trying to wrong-foot them or as if I were exposing a soft spot for them to poke.

And this is where I want to start circling back to to the beginning of this post. We, as a society, have come to regard an apology — a sincere apology that signals a change of heart, a change of mind, as a fault, a flaw, a fatal error. And we avoid exposing ourselves to such judgement, to the power over us that an apology might give someone.

We see this attitude so clearly in politics. No politician wants to admit to being wrong lest the other political sharks start circling, letting blood, tearing out chunks of flesh. Constituents, too, may feel betrayed and lash out in anger.

We need to make it possible for people to apologize, to make amends, to change their minds. The decision to hurry Justice Ginsburg’s replacement onto the Court would be the perfect place to start. A majority of Americans²  — up to 62% — want to wait until after Inauguration Day to seat a new judge. If you’re one of those Americans, write and call and e-mail your senators. If they’ve come out for replacing Justice Ginsburg before the election or during a lame-duck period (if there is one), tell them you’ll regard them more highly for listening to their constituents and for changing their minds. 

Will it work? I don’t know. But please give it a try. And no matter what, sometime by the third of November — VOTE.
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  1. And here, everyone who’s Jewish and is reading this, who was probably nodding along during the guilt bit, is sitting up to argue and explain at length why I’m wrong. It’s what we do. You know what they say: where there are two Jews, there are three opinions.
  2. “A new poll showed that the American public agrees with him and opposes Mr. Trump’s plan to rush a new justice onto the court. Of those surveyed by Reuters and Ipsos since Justice Ginsburg’s death, 62 percent said her seat should be filled by the winner of the November election, including the vast majority of Democrats and even half of Republicans.” Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman. “Trump and Democrats Brace for Showdown Over Supreme Court Seat,” New York Times. 25 September, 2020.

Thirty Reasons to Vote: #26

  1. Jenny Lawson. The Bloggess, “I left my house today to fight for your rights and all I got was a sticker and the chance to change the world.” November 6, 2018.
    and here.
  2. What do we want to lose? Constant lying, myriad scandals, incompetent leadership, criminal pandemic mismanagement, misogyny, racism, voter suppression, global warming denials, ultra-conservative judges, misuse of the military…

Thirty Reasons to Vote: #25

 

Thirty Reasons to Vote: #23