I think of February as the Month of Unknowing, because there was still so much I didn’t know and because there was so much that our elected officials did know, but chose to forget or ignore — to un-know. And that “unnocence” has cost thousands of lives and jobs, shattered health and families, and riven our country even further apart. I am trying to be hopeful that with a new administration in the White House and vaccinations in arms, we’ll be able to mend some of these rifts, but I do think we can’t expect politicians to take care of these problems unless we keep our eye on them and do some of the work ourselves. So be nice and play well with others, people.
Meanwhile, back to 2020.
The first of February, 2019, was the day my mother went to the hospital, the day we learned how ill she was, the day we were told she had little time to live. My mother, who had been an actress, had always wanted to play Hamlet; I always thought she should would have been a magnificent Cleopatra. At her funeral service, I quoted from the end of Enobarbus’ speech (the one about the barge) and, on the anniversary of the beginning of the end, my Shakespeare app served up the lines I quoted:
What do I make of this coincidence? Not much. It neither comforts nor upsets me. But I do think coincidences are usually kind of neat.
February also started off with a repeat trip to the Monet exhibit. We were lucky to get to go twice, but I happily would have gone a dozen times. I’d seen a few Monets here and there before, but this exhibition made me understand Monet’s genius and artistry and feel the emotion in his paintings. Suddenly his work wasn’t just another pretty face.
I hadn’t known that Monet had worked as a cartoonist. This drawing reminds me of my grandfather:
Grandpa is the adult in the middle.
Many of the same paintings made me stop and re-contemplate them,
but the second time, others got more of my attention than they did the first time through.
This is a scene of the beach of Trouville, which reminds me of Gigi.
My new plan for our yard (which is a little larger than the frame of this painting):
I was, again, often taken by the details in the paintings.
Some of the paintings reminded me of California.
It was almost impossible to get my camera to catch the colours accurately.
After the exhibit, we stepped out into an evening that was almost as beautiful as the paintings.
We walked over to Civic Center Park. It was one of those evenings when the sky changed measurably from moment to moment and each change was more striking than the last. (The Capitol was lit red for Women’s Heart Health, a good cause, but against the clouds, it did look a little ominous.)
It was the sort of sky that made me think of the word “firmament.”
Civic Center Park has a rather splendid colonnade,
one that was set off by the glorious beauties of that evening’s show.
The evening display ended on a somewhat ominous tone:
There were quiet days: more sunrises,
And then another trip, this one eastward, to Kansas.
No going over misty mountains this time. Those were left behind for the stretching plains of Eastern Colorado and Western Kansas.
There was an odd, event-horizon sort of sunset.
The cardinals were still living in the yard.
There were lambent sunsets.
There was a full moon.
The creek near us tried to catch it.
So did the trees.
The climbing ivy made some of the trees look green.
I did some cooking.
There were more sunsets.
I thought about my parents.
I rambled around at night.
The moon started to wane.
I rambled around during the day.
And then I headed home. The plane took off several hours late. This time the sunset was less event horizon, more nuclear:
And I was back to the view from my front door:
The old moon in the new moon’s arms.
I was still riding the bus, running errands, going to appointments, visiting the book store.
My indoor plants started to sense the coming of Spring.
The sun and moon did more of that rising-and-setting thing they do.
So it is another new year. I am having a hard time saying “Happy New Year” because, honestly, it isn’t. I hear everyone saying “Thank God 2020 is over!” but there’s been no miraculous, overnight transformation of the situations in which we all find ourselves. The Atrocity is still in the White House; McConnell still makes the Senate the Graveyard for legislation; COVID-19 runs rampant through the planet; here in the U.S., too many people refuse to wear masks or maintain a safe distance from others; people are hungry and homeless and losing health and hope. I think I shall feel a new year has started at noon on the twentieth, when Joe Biden takes the oath of office and the Atrocity in the White House has left the building. Maybe the end of the year will be happy, but right now, all I can wish us all is that we survive the first part of 2021. Then let’s see where we are.
Meanwhile, I have been going through my photos from last year. I take photographs as a way to remind myself to notice the world, to see the beauty, the memorable, the stirring aspects my small space, as a way to distract myself from my depression. Sometimes it even works. I have monkeys-and-typewriters¹ approach to photography: I figure that if I take enough photos, statistically, some of them have to be half-way decent. It’s one of the few theories I have that seems to pan out.
If you like, come with me on a review of what I chose to see through my cameras last year. Here are some of my photos from January. I have come to think of it as the Pre-Pandemic Month, because even though SARS-CoV-2 was making its still insidious way into almost every corner of every country, we had no idea that there would soon be a pandemic. I was too busy hoping against experience that our president’s impeachment would lead to his removal from office.
One the first day of 2020, I went out into the world beyond my yard. I saw mountains,
and the ponds along my bus route.
There were graceful wisps of clouds and the moon up early in the day-lit sky.
I was out with my family, and we lingered until evening. The mall was still decorated for the season,
and the star that’s lit on the the mountainside every year was still shining over the town.
Our tradition is to visit the Boulder Book Store on New Year’s to take advantage of their Readers’ Guild inventory sale. We did not go this year, and I find missing that visit to my happy place has sharply reminded me of how my life has changed.
We went out for dinner. We sat inside a restaurant. We didn’t worry about it.
I tracked the phases of the moon.
I tracked the changes to the pond (note the ice and all the geese).
I watched the sun set. And I watched the moon rise…
AND THEN — I went to the Monet Exhibit at the art museum. It was astonishing —
especially the details.
I saw a whole — shoot, I can’t find the word (stupid aphasia; I’ve had it since the time I was on Prednisone years ago) — phase? group? category? set? of Monet’s work of which I had been completely unaware: the winter scenes:
I don’t have the artistic vocabulary to describe techniques or effects properly, but what struck me about these paintings were the co-existing qualities, the way they were simultaneously subdued yet vibrant, misted in frost while brightened by it, exciting and calming. The chill of the icy blues was almost palpable, but so was the warmth of the coral tones.
Some of these qualities were apparent in other paintings,
One prosaic note about the exhibition: the paintings were so numerous and the galleries so extensive that it took up two levels in the museum and, half-way through, visitors were allowed to take a bathroom pass, leave the exhibit, and return. I’ve never been to a show where one was allowed back in after leaving. My only complaint about the experience is that the museum was very firm in its policy of not letting me take any of the paintings home.
I haven’t figured out how to make movies work in my site, but I think if you click the link below, it will show you one of the “trees” on display in downtown Denver that evening:
It rose in a burnt-yellow colour, but brightened as it climbed the sky.
One of the books I got at the Book Store sale was Take Me With You, by Andrea Gibson:
I’m not entirely sure to what genre it belongs; it was on a sale cart. But several of the author’s observations stayed with me. This one seemed apt enough when I read it, but in retrospect, it now seems absolutely prescient:
I think, after last year and the beginning of this, we are going to have to learn to to say this and then find ways to speak our revival.
Some random shots of what caught my eye:
We took a trip to San Diego for a family gathering.
(“Far over the misty mountains cold To dungeons deep and caverns old We must away, ere break of day, To find our long-forgotten gold.” —J.R.R. Tolkien)
And spent a bit of time at the beach (though not long enough).
I saw this person walking along the beach for quite a while, collecting things in a basket. I wish I had known how to approach her (?) and ask about her gatherings without being forward. I feel there’s a story in this photo.
Look where we went:
Proof I really was on the Surprise.
Unfortunately, it was being renovated, so I didn’t get a lot of good pictures.
Back over the Misty Mountains…
to the familiar light of home.
We attended the symphony. It’s almost frightening to think how dangerously reckless we were to go somewhere in such a crowd, but, like almost everyone, we had no idea was coming.
There were the usual interplays of light and shadow, real and metaphorical,
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)