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.”
Does anyone else remember this classic Far Side cartoon by the inimitable Gary Larson? It was a favourite of one of my closest college friends (hey, Sara!):
Well, I ran into my own Far Side moment the other day.
It was a lovely day in Colorado and I was walking along the West End of the Pearl Street Mall, headed for a coffee shop, talking on the phone with my friend and colleague Jaynie (hey, Jaynie!). I stopped outside Ozo’s to finish my conversation, and as I soaked up the bright autumn sunshine, I noticed a small, grey, slightly fuzzy spider valiantly trying to spin a web across the busy sidewalk. She was slightly larger than the top of a pencil eraser, and on a cloudy day probably would have been virtually invisible. But as I was standing there, the sun shone right down between the buildings and caught her like another strand of her web. Even so, no one else seemed to notice her.
What blew me away was that she had managed to get at least four long strands in place, one from the awning of the coffee shop, one from the wall next to the awning, and two others across the walk, attached to a low newspaper dispenser by the curb. The spider herself was hanging upside down, binding her anchor threads together, about four feet right above the middle of the sidewalk. There were a lot of people walking by in both directions and I have no idea why no one had torn through any of her threads.
(I couldn’t get a photo, so you’ll have to imagine the scene from my sketch.)
Alas! Her good fortune did not last. First a young man walked, all unaware, through the webbing that ran from the wall. The spider swung away, but not far, since she was still attached to three of her strands. Then, as the spider swung back, still working to tie together her workings, a woman in a coat of the same grey as the spider, ran into the weaver. I thought for sure that the spider would be off for a ride on the camouflaging coat, but after a second I saw her on the sidewalk, crawling back toward the wall. Dozens of people and a couple kids on bikes all came within a hair’s-breadth of squashing the little arachnid into oblivion, but she seemed to have a force-field around her because everyone swerved without even seeing the scrambling spider and she made it safely to the lea of the wall.
I don’t know what happened to her after that. And I don’t know what the moral of this story is. I guess I just have a fondness for the quixotic, for creatures that decide to tilt at windmills — or try to spin them for themselves.