Thursday, December 6, 2007

“A Poem for Emily,” by Miller Williams

p. 169

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 someplace else and thirty-three
believing in sex and God and politics
with children who look not at all like me,

sometime 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 awhile beside your bed,
I wrote this down, a thing that might be kept
awhile, 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.

This is not so much tongue-twister of a poem — it’s a brain-twister, playfully joyous in its language like something you’d chant to jump rope to. I like how it leaps over the years, replaying the way you instantly start to figure how old you’ll be when this new baby is such-and-such an age. And I like the love in this poem: the grandfather’s confidence that she will grow up to repeat to her children this poem about how much he loves her. His unquestioning confidence that he loves her children, too, sight unseen. And his unspoken confidence that just as he “stood and loved you while you slept,” so she’ll stand and love him while he lies “sleeping” in death.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

“Written to the Tune: River Town,” by Su Tung-P’o

p. 157

Lost to one another, the living and the dead, these ten years.
I have not tried to remember
What is impossible to forget.
Your solitary grave is a thousand miles away,
No way to tell you my loneliness.
If we were to meet, you would not recognize me—
Face covered with dust,
Hair like frost.

Last night in a dark dream I was all at once back home.
You were combing your hair
At the little window.
We looked at one another without speaking
And could only weep streaming tears.
Year after year I expect it will go on breaking my heart—
The night of the full moon
The hill of low pines.

(The twentieth of the first month, 1075, to record a dream)

Things I like in this one: “No way to tell you my loneliness”—that’s what grief is—that the one who would understand that loneliness is the one you cannot tell. He says “At the little window” and I feel it’s that one specific window in their old home. The last three lines are so concrete and non-indulgent—they don’t beat the breast and moan and so I believe the emotion more. I imagine the “night of the full moon” was their married happiness, their joy together. The note says “the hill of low pines” is another way of saying the place where she is buried.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

“Elegy for My Father, Who Is Not Dead," by Andrew Hudgins

p. 142

One day I’ll lift the telephone
and be told my father’s dead. He’s ready.
In the sureness of his faith, he talks
about the world beyond this world
as though his reservations have
been made. I think he wants to go,
a little bit—a new desire
to travel building up, an itch
to see fresh worlds. Or older ones.
He things that when I follow him
he’ll wrap me in his arms and laugh,
the way he did when I arrived
on earth. I do not think he’s right.
He’s ready. I am not. I can’t
just say good-bye as cheerfully
as if he were embarking on a trip
to make my later trip go well.
I see myself on deck, convinced
his ship’s gone down, while he’s convinced
I’ll see him standing on the dock
and waving, shouting, Welcome back.

I liked the image of those two ways of seeing death—one standing on the deck of his own boat grieving the drowned ship, one standing on the dock looking forward to welcoming the other when he comes in to shore. The thing that’s nice about this poem is that it respects the beliefs of both the father and the son, honors the faith of one and the grief of the other and re-enacts again their love for each other.

Monday, December 3, 2007

“Grace,” by C.K. Williams

p. 140

Almost as good as her passion, I’ll think, almost as good as her presence,
her physical grace,
almost as good as making love with her, I’ll think in my last aching
breath before last,
my glimpse before last of the light, were her good will and good wit,
the steadiness of her affections.

Almost, I’ll think, sliding away on my sleigh of departure, the rind of
my consciousness thinning,
the fear of losing myself, of—worse—losing her, subsiding as I think,
hope it must,
almost as good as her beauty, her glow, was the music of her thought,
her voice and laughter.

Almost as good as kissing her, being kissed back, I hope I’ll have the strength
still to think
was watching her as she worked or read, was beholding her selfless
sympathy for son, friend, sister,
even was feeling her anger, sometimes, rarely, lift against me, then be
forgotten, put aside.

Almost, I’ll think, as good as our unlikely coming together, was our
constant, mostly unspoken debate
as to whether good in the world was good in itself, or (my side) only
the absence of evil:
no need to say how much how we lived was shaped by her bright spirit,
her humor and hope.

Almost as good as living at all—improbable gift—was watching her once
cross our room,
the reflections of night rain she’d risen to close the window against
flaring across her,
doubling her light, then feeling her come back to bed, reaching to find
and embrace me,
as I’ll hope she’ll be there to embrace me as I sail away on that last
voyage out of myself,
that last, sorrowful passage out of her presence, though her presence,
I’ll think, will endure,
as firmly as ever, as good even now, I’ll think in that lull before last,
almost as ever.

Another wonderful C.K. Williams poem. I’m going to have to check out a book of his poetry and read him more fully. I love it that he never says that all those “deeper” and more spiritual qualities are better than the physical love between them. First of all, I think I believe him more when he says “almost as good.” Secondly, how wonderful to be cherished as a desirable woman and treasured as a good person. The repetition of “almost as good as” seems to erase the comparison though between spirit and body, and by the end, seems to erase the line between life and death. If it’s almost as good as—and what he describes is so beautifully good— maybe, really, it is as good. I think the last lines are especially graceful. Reading it out loud to my husband I realize that this poem almost needs to be read silently and with full attention. I like the pictures made by “sliding away on my sleigh of departure” and “the rind of my consciousness thinning.” I like the little vignette he shares about her getting up to close the window, approaching her own reflection in the glass, and coming back to bed “reaching to find and embrace me”—I get the feeling that’s what he’s most grateful for—her reaching to find and embrace him over and over in all the things she was and did. I can’t but believe with him that “her presence will endure as firmly as ever.”

Sunday, December 2, 2007

from "Last Days," by Donald Hall


“Dying is simple,” she said.
“What’s worst is . . . the separation.”
When she no longer spoke,
they lay alone together, touching,
and she fixed on him
her beautiful enormous round brown eyes,
shining, unblinking,
and passionate with love and dread.

Those eyes stay with me after I’ve put the book down. Everything of their love seems to be in that gaze. I admire how spare and sure Hall’s writing is, nothing extraneous.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

“Alzheimer’s: The Husband,” by C.K. Williams


He’d been a clod, he knew, yes, always aiming toward his vision of the
good life, always acting on it.
He knew he’d been unconscionably self-centered, had indulged himself
with his undreamed-of good fortune,
but he also knew that the single-mindedness with which he’d attended
to his passions, needs and whims,
and which must have seemed to others the grossest sort of egotism, was
also what was really at the base
of how he’d almost offhandedly worked out the intuitions and moves
which had brought him here,
and this wasn’t all that different: to spend his long-anticipated retirement
learning to cook
clean house, dress her, even to apply her makeup, wasn’t any sort of
secular saintliness—
that would be belittling—it was just the next necessity he saw himself as
being called to.

I like how conversational the tone is - the sound of someone talking to himself. I love “wasn’t any sort of secular saintliness—that would be belittling—it was just the next necessity.” Like the other poem of Williams’ earlier, this poem make me feel hopeful—that there is a good instinct within even the most unlikely. How wonderfully Williams celebrates goodness manifesting itself.
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