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)
Sorry about the long hiatus – again.* My accustomed afflictions raised their unlovely heads — again. You’d think they’d get bored with this game, but no; they are constant companions, committed to keeping me off kilter.
What energy I have had has gone into writing more Get Out The Vote letters, this time for the Georgia Senate run-off races. (Just when we thought is was safe to go back in the water….) For now, I am writing letters for Vote Forward:
These letters have to go out ON the seventh of December. Apparently that’s a magic date. I’ve managed to write one hundred so far, and will plug away as best I can until the seventh. If anyone wants to join in, I believe it’s not too late to sign up and download letters of your own. (If you’re a fountain-pen user, invest in some sugarcane copy paper. It’s much more welcoming to fountain-pen ink than run-of-the-mill copy paper.)
I have no idea whether there’s a chance that the Democrats might take those Georgia seats; in fact, I rather doubt it. But if they don’t, I have no idea whether our new president will be able to effect any meaningful change or get any useful legislation passed. So I’m writing.
And in the midst of the pandemic and the politics and the personal perturbations, there was Thanksgiving week. When I was a kid, Thanksgiving was a simple holiday, purportedly celebrating the amity between Indians and the settlers in the “New” World. Now the day is rightly complicated by the realization that the stories we were told as children were heavily skewed to support the colonial hegemony about to displace, enslave, and murder the indigenous populations, to justify the actions of the white people who would corral in reservations the Native Americans who survived, while attempting to eradicate cultures, languages, and identities of the civilizations that were here for millennia before any Europeans stumbled upon these shores. And yet my family celebrates the day because it is a family occasion — except not this year. And that was hard. Zoom just doesn’t replace prescence.
Moreover, this week, for us, held the anniversary of the death of my husband’s mother, the wedding anniversary of my parents, and the birthday of my mother, so it was a week of remembrance.
And here I must segue into a mention of an app that provides me with a Shakespeare quotation for each day. Why do I have such an app? Well, aside from the fact that everyone should have such an app, my mother was a Shakespearean actress at the Pasadena Playhouse in her youth and she passed on her love of Shakespeare to me. I majored in English lit, emphasis in Renaissance drama, and so, between my mother and my major, I must have this app. It often serves up eerily appropriate passages, like fortune cookies that seem to have an uncanny awareness of what is happening in the lives of those who area about to consume them.
And so, into this poignant week, on the very birthday of my mom, the daily Shakespeare quotation was
which pretty much sums up the last eighteen months for my family.
*A perpetual question is whether to apologize for something that isn’t my fault. I certainly didn’t choose to have depression or M.E., and a number of my fellow-sufferers say we should not apologize because doing so makes it seem that we are choosing not to do whatever it was we were supposed to have been doing. Nevertheless, these conditions affect other people, too. So, in case there’s anyone out there who might have been kind enough to hope that I would have posted something new sooner: apologies.
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:
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 darknesswill 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.
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.
Ack. As if getting a verb yesterday wasn’t bad enough, today’s prompt had to be an abstraction. I mean — really? What are the options? There’s always the stand-by of Pandora’s box/jar; the potter could be throwing the container for the legendary woman who supposedly was endowed with all the gifts necessary to make a perfect woman. But I dislike the misogyny of the story.
Then there’s Emily Dickinson’s famous poem that seems to show up on home decoration plaques everywhere these days:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.¹
But the current ubiquity of the poem made the bird option seem trite. So I decided to go ahead and try an abstract representation. Right now, hope seems to me to be a fragile, fragmented thing, an emotion that is bright, but on the verge of disintegrating, rather like the lacy ice that forms on the edge of a pond or frost on a window.
1. Poetry Foundation, 19 October, 2020. Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson Edited by R. W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)
Today’s word — throw — was difficult because my already unsatisfactory drawing skills don’t extend to comprehensible depictions of verbs. My first thought was to go with throw, as in throw rug or throw blanket, but I couldn’t see that going anywhere. So I pulled up the thesaurus and learned that throw also refers to a potter’s wheel. That option seemed much more promising than a blanket. So here we are:
Writing a poem like this, one word at a time, with the words already chosen, feels a little like trying to channel someone else’s free-association session. It’s an interesting mental/creative exercise.
I went for the obvious sense of blade. I could have gone for blade of grass, or shoulder blade, or even roller blade (that one could have been fun), but sometimes the blatant meaning works best. As we approach Hallowe’en, the definition with the potential for menace seemed to suit. We’ll see where it leads.