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.
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 pleasePLEASE 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.
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.)
Dunes have to be sand dunes. Are there other kinds of dunes? Sand dunes are naturally kind of slippery because the sand slips as one walks up anyway; putting ooze on one is kind of painting the lily.
Therefore, to be possess’d with double pomp, To guard a title that was rich before, To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, To throw a perfume on the violet, To smooth the ice, or add another hue Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.
I know, I know — “slippery slope” is pretty cliché. But it seemed to work here. The strained and inverted syntax is supposed to reflect the opposing forces of gravity and the climber’s desire to get to the top of the dune. I’m not sure it works; I confess my choices were dictated by what I could draw. What I had verbally sketched out was
…And gnashing teeth —
Lodged in a lethal throw
The slippery slope she barefoot treads
Up the oil-slicked dune…
But I didn’t know how to draw “disgusting” on its own.
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:
I had rather hoped to give this poem a bit more narrative structure, but I think it’s going to depend more on evocation of mood and feeling than on story. At least it’s Hallowe’en season, so I’ll try to keep it a little spooky.