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Last weekend my parents-in-law took the baby overnight for a cousins’ sleepover. When the baby is gone, and she’s over two so maybe I should stop calling her a baby, but every time she’s gone on the weekend I have to actually think about what I want to do. On Sunday, it was go to church, and be inspired mid-service (by ye olde hymn Fairest Lord Jesus) to go take a long and solitary walk on the greenway over the river.
Taking long, solitary walks—like rising early—used to be one of my favorite things to do, ever. Partly a product of a lonely adolescence with no car to jump into and drive away, partly a product of some lonely college years in a new city, also with no car for the first couple years. Partly also a product of my fierce love of Gerard Manly Hopkins, whom I always imagined roaming the coombs and coasts of Wales with note-paper and pencil. Leaning against trees, etc.
A friend turned me on to Hopkins’ fragment The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo while I was still in high school, and it’s stuck with me, but the older I get, the more the poem Spring and Fall appeals to me. As a matter of fact, I have been using my (infrequent) trips to this particular greenway to memorize it. On Sunday, I believe I finally got it. I’m so bad at memorizing anything these days. But rhyme and rhythm help, and this poem lights a dark way. I also re-read God’s Grandeur, as I wanted another sonnet but felt The Windhover or Spring were too cheery.
Spring and Fall: it means infinitely more to me than it did when I was in college. I remember one English professor saying it was her favorite Hopkins poem, and—in the way of young snobs everywhere—I thought, “she must not have really give *my* favorite a deep reading,” and moved on. But it’s written from the perspective of an older person who has seen much of life, especially suffering, and is moved by the sight of a young child’s sadness. Now that I have a young child, who is sometimes sad, this is a strange perspective that I have slipped on like a glove. It allows me to look forward to my daughter and her experience of grief, and backward to my own experience of grief as a child. “Sorrow’s springs are the same.” Yes.
And God’s Grandeur: I read this young—maybe it was even in my elementary school curriculum—and loved everything about its structure, visual and auditory. I think I remember connecting it to the Industrial Revolution, or the Great War. Now that climate change’s work is no longer subtle, now that renewables are still mostly a cool idea in our country and nothing more, now that environmental protection is a partisan issue (and therefore in the process of becoming “de-funded,” in large or in small part), and so on, it is an eyepiece that suddenly zooms in on the present day. On my Sunday walk, I read the octave aloud while walking, but reached the volta with a surprising surge of feeling. The sestet, especially the last couplet, had me in tears, tears that maybe I’d been squashing down all day, all month, all winter.
I feel like this is a super-crap post but I’m trying to write as often as I can…regardless of whether I feel like it. In other news, I was typing away and listening to the baby wake up, and after a preliminary cough or two, she made this horrible gurgly-choky sound and I ran down the hall like Miss Clavel, “fast, and faster,” and up her head pops over the railing, big grin, two stuffed animals in her arms. Turns out she was just “clearing her throat” in this horrible growly-raspy way that she’s started doing here in the last month or so. Wth. Good morning.
Who would have imagined that I would have to go
a million miles away from the place where I was born
to find people who would love me?
And that I would go that distance and that I would find those people?
In the dream JoAnne was showing me how much arm to amputate
if your hand gets trapped in the gears of the machine;
if you acted fast, she said, you could save everything above the wrist.
You want to keep a really sharp blade close by, she said.
Now I raise that hand to scratch one of those nasty little
scabs on the back of my head, and we sit outside and watch
the sun go down, inflamed as an appendicitis
over western Illinois—which then subsides and cools into a smooth gray sea.
Who knows, this might be the last good night of the summer.
My broken nose is forming an idea of what’s for supper.
Hard to believe that death is just around the corner.
What kind of idiot would think he even had a destiny?
I was on the road for so long by myself,
I took to reading motel Bibles just for company.
Lying on the chintz bedspread before going to sleep,
still feeling the motion of the car inside my body,
I thought some wrongness in my self had made me that alone.
And then God said, You are worth more to me
than one hundred sparrows.
And when I read that, I wept.
And God said, Whom have I blessed more than I have blessed you?
And I looked at the mini bar
and the bad abstract hotel art on the wall
and the dark TV set watching like a deacon.
And God said, Survive. And carry my perfume among the perishing.
My parents-in-law watched the baby yesterday. While they’ve done this tons of times for us, I think it was the first time I was A) alone, and B) didn’t have some ridiculous insurance mish-mash or other I had to use that baby-free time to straighten out. So I went to get coffee and read the March issue of Poetry, to which Marshall had subscribed me for Christmas. (syntax?) It was so, so lovely. Unlike the February issue—was utterly underwhelmed—what do you call that kind of post-postmodern poetry that reads like Berryman but is way less coherent/interesting/more fragmented/cryptic, drops words like “meniscus” and “trenchant” into whichever random stanza where they bob around like eyeballs, and is so self-conscious you can hardly summon the energy to connect the threads (partly because the point is that the threads will not connect)? the February issue had mostly those.
If it sounds like I’m just jealous—draw your own conclusions.
Regardless, I have actually loved several of the poems in the March issue, and I didn’t even get past the first 5 or 6! I thought I would share two of them.
Edit: I just realized both poems I’m posting today have echoes of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, one of my favorite poems of all time. Huh!
* * *
Small fact and fingers and farthest one from me,
a hand’s width and two generations away,
in this still present I am fifty-three.
You are not yet a full day.
When I am sixty-three, when you are ten,
and you are neither closer nor as far,
your arms will fill with what you know by then,
the arithmetic and love we do and are.
When I by blood and luck am eighty-six
and you are some place else and thirty-three
believing in sex and god and politics
with children who look not at all like me,
some time I know you will have read them this
so they will know I love them and say so
and love their mother. Child, whatever is
is always or never was. Long ago,
a day I watched a while beside your bed,
I wrote this down, a thing that might be kept
a while, to tell you what I would have said
when you were who knows what and I was dead
which is I stood and loved you while you slept.
— Poetry, January 1985
“Incidentally, if I were young today, I would absolutely look for a daily, very heterogeneous way of applying myself and try to install myself in a tangible domain to the best of my abilities. Art today might be served better and more discreetly when it becomes the quiet affair of certain special days or years (which does not then have to mean that it has to be carried out on the side or amatuerishly; [Stephane] Mallarme, to cite the highest example, had been a teacher of English all of his life), but the ‘profession’ itself is overcrowded with intruders, with interlopers, with exploiters of the increasingly hybridized trade, and it can be renewed and reinvested with meaning only bu the quiet solitary individuals who do not consider themselves part of it and who accept none of the customs brought into circulation by literary authors. Whether as a private individual or by remaining inconspicuous behind a well-executed trade, the writer will be all the more likely to correct conditions that have long become impossible if his poetic silence will then carry a certain significance next to his most profound eloquence” (86).
from The Poet’s Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke, Trans. Ulrich Baer
Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Eavan Boland after Against Love Poetry—one of the most perfect collections of poetry ever written—was published. The poems in Against Love Poetry have been recently brought to mind. Thanks Amanda.
“Eavan Boland ‘s new book Against Love Poetry is her ninth. Her other books, including An Origin Like Water, In A Time of Violence and Object Lessons, have established her as one of the leading poets of our time, Irish or otherwise. Her poems often deal with what one critic has referred to as ‘women’s secret history’; her latest book confronts and refutes the myths and conventions of traditional love poetry, choosing instead to discover ‘the code marriage makes of passion/duty dailyness routine.’ The arguments against love poetry result in a powerful book which should interest long time readers as well as those who are new to her work.
“Born in 1944 in Dublin, Eavan now teaches at Stanford University while also maintaining a home in Ireland. She took time to answer the following questions.
“CD: How did your new book take shape for you?
“Eavan Boland: It was a series of separate poems. I didn’t consciously connect them. They began to be connected as they accumulated, as I saw the same images and ideas coming back again. These are marriage poems – I’ve been married thirty-two years. They’re also poems that are in an argument with traditional or conventional love poetry. It was hard to manage the different strands. But there’s a poem in the sequence of marriage poems in the book – there’s eleven of them in all – called “Quarantine”. And that was a shaping poem for me. It’s about an incident in Ireland in the nineteenth century: A man and a woman left the workhouse at the time of the 1847 famine. It was in Carrigstyra in West Cork. Those were very desperate times -there was famine fever and starvation. This incident must have been like hundreds of others and would probably have been forgotten but it was left as an anecdote by a man writing sixty years later. The man and woman walked north, back to their cabin. They died that night. In the morning when they were found, her feet were against his chest. He had tried to warm them as she died -as they both did. When I thought of that account, when it came into the poem in the sequence, it was no longer a local, Irish incident. It had become a dark love story, and an exemplary one. And that tied together things for me. All the things I wanted to get at -the stoicism of dailyness, the failure of conventional love poetry- all came together there. […]
“CD: I read Object Lessons when I was a new mother, and I remember being struck by your saying something along the lines of ‘once I learned to write with children in the background,’ and I always wondered – how old were your kids when writing with them awake and around became possible?
“Eavan Boland: It’s a good question. My memory is that they were at least four and two before I could let them play near me -say in a room next door with both doors open. I felt strongly about that. My own mother was a painter. She was a wonderful painter, and is a great friend. But I remember my frustration – I was the youngest child of five – when she locked the door to paint. So I made up my mind to have open doors, to make my work interruption-proof if I could.And maybe that was too ambitious. But to be honest, I came to love the background hum and music of children – providing they weren’t fighting! And to a certain extent it made me relaxed and fatalistic about writing, which was actually helpful. I knew I couldn’t set out two hours to work in, because it mightn’t happen. So I took what I could, and in some magical way that was always enough. […]”
“It is a happy thing that there is no royal road to poetry. The world should know by this time that one cannot reach Parnassus except by flying thither. Yet from time to time more men go up and either perish in its gullies fluttering excelsior flags or else come down again with full folios and blank countenances. Yet the old fallacy keeps it ground. Every age has its false alarms” (189).
Hopkins: Poems and Verse
The Country of Marriage
by Wendell Berry
I dream of you walking at night along the streams
of the country of my birth, warm blooms and the nightsongs
of birds opening around you as you walk.
You are holding in your body the dark seed of my sleep.
This comes after silence. Was it something I said
that bound me to you, some mere promise
or, worse, the fear of loneliness and death?
A man lost in the woods in the dark, I stood
still and said nothing. And then there rose in me,
like the earth’s empowering brew rising
in root and branch, the words of a dream of you
I did not know I had dreamed. I was a wanderer
who feels the solace of his native land
under his feet again and moving in his blood.
I went on, blind and faithful. Where I stepped
my track was there to steady me. It was no abyss
that lay before me, but only the level ground.
Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in.
How many times have I come to you out of my head
with joy, if ever a man was,
for to approach you I have given up the light
and all directions. I come to you
lost, wholly trusting as a man who goes
into the forest unarmed. It is as though I descend
slowly earthward out of the air. I rest in peace
in you, when I arrive at last.
Our bond is no little economy based on the exchange
of my love and work for yours, so much for so much
of an expendable fund. We don’t know what its limits are–
that puts us in the dark. We are more together
than we know, how else could we keep on discovering
we are more together than we thought?
You are the known way leading always to the unknown,
and you are the known place to which the unknown is always
leading me back. More blessed in you than I know,
I possess nothing worthy to give you, nothing
not belittled by my saying that I possess it.
Even an hour of love is a moral predicament, a blessing
a man may be hard up to be worthy of. He can only
accept it, as a plant accepts from all the bounty of the light
enough to live, and then accepts the dark,
passing unencumbered back to the earth, as I
have fallen time and again from the great strength
of my desire, helpless, into your arms.
What I am learning to give you is my death
to set you free of me, and me from myself
into the dark and the new light. Like the water
of a deep stream, love is always too much. We
did not make it. Though we drink till we burst
we cannot have it all, or want it all.
In its abundance it survives our thirst.
In the evening we come down to the shore
to drink our fill, and sleep, while it
flows through the regions of the dark.
It does not hold us, except we keep returning
to its rich waters thirsty. We enter,
willing to die, into the commonwealth of its joy.
I give you what is unbounded, passing from dark to dark,
containing darkness: a night of rain, an early morning.
I give you the life I have let live for the love of you:
a clump of orange-blooming weeds beside the road,
the young orchard waiting in the snow, our own life
that we have planted in the ground, as I
have planted mine in you. I give you my love for all
beautiful and honest women that you gather to yourself
again and again, and satisfy–and this poem,
no more mine than any man’s who has loved a woman.
So, no poet has ever been able to make me cry like Marie Howe. Any single poem in her collection What the Living Do can do it, and sometimes I forget, and pick it up, thinking I will read a gentle, lucid poem like all the other gentle, lucid poems in the world, and suddenly I’m hiccupping, gasping. So here’s one.
Driving out of town, I see him crossing
the Brooks Pharmacy parking lot, and remember
how he would drop to his knees in the kitchen
and press his face to my dress, his cheek flat against
my belly as if he were listening for something.
Somebody might be waiting for coffee in the living room,
someone might be setting the dining room table, he’d
place his face under my dress and press his cheek
against my belly and kneel there, without saying anything.
How is it possible that I am allowed to see him
like this—walking quickly by the glass windows?
—what he wears in the world without me,
his hands swinging by his side, his cock quiet
in his jeans, his shirt covering
his shoulders, his own tongue in his mouth.
My thesis is done, and now I’m studying for the oral exam on the English literary canon. I have been told that I should know about William Blake. So, despite my efforts to avoid the Romantics, I am now reading and making erudite notes on Wordsworth and Blake, especially Blake’s Songs of Innocence & of Experience. Here are some of the enigmatic & wonderful pages of this book:
Oh they’re so small! Oh well.