Monday, June 1, 2015

Howard Nemerov, "September, the first day of school"

My child and I hold hands on the way to school,
And when I leave him at the first-grade door
He cries a little but is brave; he does
Let go. My selfish tears remind me how
I cried before that door a life ago.
I may have had a hard time letting go.

Each fall the children must endure together
What every child also endures alone:
Learning the alphabet, the integers,
Three dozen bits and pieces of a stuff
So arbitrary, so peremptory,
That worlds invisible and visible

Bow down before it, as in Joseph’s dream
The sheaves bowed down and then the stars bowed down
Before the dreaming of a little boy.
That dream got him such hatred of his brothers
As cost the greater part of life to mend
And yet great kindness came of it in the end.

Ann from Asia asked a few months back about this third stanza:
楊安平 said...
Hi, my name is Ann from Asia. Recently I was studying on poetry and lukily found your work of analyzing "September, the first day of school" (You wrote it in 2007)
And I am confused about that biblical reference of Joseph in that poem, what does the whole stanza three mean for?
(Though obviously you've stopped writing since 2012:P)I will be really thankful if you reply:)

 Dear Ann from Asia,
Stanza 3 is based on the story in Genesis 37 of Joseph the son of Israel:
 Now Israel loved aJoseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a bcoat of many ccolours.
 And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.
 ¶And Joseph dreamed a adream, and he told it his brethren: and they hated him yet the more.
 And he said unto them, Hear, I pray you, this dream which I have dreamed:
 For, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves stood round about, and made aobeisance to my sheaf.
 And his brethren said to him, Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us? And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words.
 ¶And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it his brethren, and said, Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and, behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me.
 10 And he told it to his father, and to his brethren: and his father rebuked him, and said unto him, What is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to abow down ourselves to thee to the earth?
 11 And his brethren aenvied him; but his father observed the saying.

Because of the envy and resentment Joseph's brothers had for him, they eventually sold him into slavery into Egypt where he suffered various trials but gradually worked his way from prison to being one of the pharaoh's top advisers, suggesting and organizing the storage of grains that saved all the Egyptian people and then Joseph's repentant brothers themselves from starvation during a later famine.

So a quick response to your question, to get you moving toward an answer:  the father sees his son on the brink of mastering the data and knowledge that is power in our culture today.  Not necessarily the full wisdom of deep knowing, but the data that moves the machinery of the world, the science and numbers that everything bows down to these days.  This unfairness of what we study and who has access to this study reminds the father of the unfairness of Joseph's vision which though it caused resentment was also eventually the source of salvation for Joseph's resentful brothers.  So the father hopes his son's education, though necessarily focused on the data and knowledge of today's technical and scientific bias will lead eventually to solving the problems, healing the pain, and mending the rifts that are also a part of our society's tehno-scientific culture. 

Do you agree?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

I forgive you, Wislawa Szymborska

photo from The Art of Reading: Wislawa Szymborska

Under One Small Star
by Wislawa Szymborska

My apologies to chance for calling it necessity. 
My apologies to necessity if I’m mistaken, after all. 
Please, don’t be angry, happiness, that I take you as my due.
May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade. 
My apologies to time for all the world I overlook each second. 
My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first. 
Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home. 
Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger. 
I apologize for my record of minuets to those who cry from the depths. 
I apologize to those who wait in railway stations for being asleep today at five a.m. 
Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time. 
Pardon me, deserts, that I don’t rush to you bearing a spoonful of water. 
And you, falcon, unchanging year after year, always in the same cage, 
your gaze always fixed on the same point in space,
forgive me, even if it turns out you were stuffed. 
My apologies to the felled tree for the table’s four legs.
My apologies to great questions for small answers. 
Truth, please don’t pay me much attention. 
Dignity, please be magnanimous. 
Bear with me, O mystery of existence, as I pluck the occasional thread from your train. 
Soul, don’t take offense that I’ve only got you now and then. 
My apologies to everything that I can’t be everywhere at once. 
My apologies to everyone that I can’t be each woman and each man. 
I know I won’t be justified as long as I live, 
since I myself stand in my own way. 
Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,
then labor heavily so that they may seem light.
 -- Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Stanislaw Branczak and Clare Cavanagh

It's always so much easier to forgive those who ask,
and those who make me laugh.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Poetry in the Skies. Bronte's Eve in Shirley.

The Astronomical Poems beg for attention, beginning as one feels one must with selections from Milton's Paradise Lost.  But Milton is Milton - grand, sublime, oblique, ponderous.  I have been a long time coming to read him with anything but irritation.  His heavy self-righteousness -  just in the fall of his lines.  His uncharitable irritability.  The blind father of modern poetry in the English tongue.

And so before, or maybe instead of, beginning with Father Milton, I will give space for the prose-poetry of Charlotte Bronte from her novel Shirley, BOOK II, chapter vii, entitled "WHICH THE GENTEEL READER IS RECOMMENDED TO SKIP, LOW PERSONS BEING HERE INTRODUCED:
" . . . The gray church and grayer tombs look divine with this crimson gleam on them.  Nature is now at her evening prayers: she is kneeling before those red hills.  I see her prostrate on the great steps of her altar, praying for a fair night for mariners at sea, for travellers in deserts, for lambs on moors, and unfledged birds in woods.  Caroline, I see her!  and I will tell you what she is like: she is like what Eve was when she and Adam stood alone on earth."

"And that is not Milton's Eve, Shirley."

"Milton's Eve!  Milton's Eve!  I repeat.  No, by the pure Mother of God, she is not!  Cary, we are alone: we may spake what we think.  Milton was great; but was he good?  His brain was right; how was his heart?  He saw Heaven: he looked down on Hell. He saw Satan, and Sin his daughter, and Death their horrible offspring.  Angels serried before him their battalions: the long lines of adamantine shields flashed back on his blind eyeballs the unutterable splendor of heaven.  Devils gathered their legions in his sight: their dim, discrowned, and tarnished armies passed rank and file before him.  Milton tried to see the first woman: but, Cary, he saw her not."

"You are bold to say so, Shirley."

"Not more bold than faithful.  It was his cook that he saw: or it was Mrs. Gill, as I have seen her, making custards, in the heat of summer, in the cool dairy, with rose-trees and nasturtiums about the latticed window, preparing a cold collation for the Rectors, - preserves, and 'dulcet creams' puzzled 'what choice to choose for delicacy best; what order so contrived as not to mix tastes, not well-joined, inelegant; but bring taste after taste, upheld with kindliest change.'"

"All very well too, Shirley."

"I would beg to remind him that the first men of the earth were Titans, and that Eve was their mother: from her sprang Saturn, Hyperion, Oceanus; she bore Prometheus ---"

"Pagan that you are!  what does that signify?"

"I say, there were giants on the earth in those days: giants that strove to scale heaven. The first woman's breast that heaved with life on this world yielded the daring which could contend with Omnipotence: the strength which could bear a thousand years of bondage, - the vitality which could feed that vulture death through uncounted ages, - the unexhausted life and uncorrupted excellence, sisters to immortality, which, after millenniums of crimes, struggles, and woes, could conceive and bring forth a Messiah. The first woman was heaven-born: vast was the heart whence gushed the well-spring of the blood of nations; and grand the undegenerate head where rested the consort-crown of creation."

"She coveted an apple, and was cheated by a snake: but you have got such a hash of Scripture and mythology into your head that there is no making any sense of you. You have not yet told me what you saw kneeling on those hills."

"I saw - I now see - a woman-Titan: her robe of blue air spreads to the outskirts of the heath, where yonder flock is grazing; a veil white as an avalanche sweeps from her head to her feet, and arabesques of lightning flame on its borders. Under her breast I see her zone, purple like that horizon: through its blush shines the star of evening. Her steady eyes I cannot picture; they are clear - they are deep as lakes - they are lifted and full of worship - they tremble with the softness of love and the lustre of prayer. Her forehead has the expanse of a cloud, and is paler than the early moon, risen long before dark gathers: she reclines her bosom on the ridge of Stilbro' Moor; her mighty hands are joined beneath it. So kneeling, face to face she speaks with God. That Eve is Jehovah's daughter, as Adam was his son."

"She is very vague and visionary! Come, Shirley, we ought to go into church."

"Caroline, I will not: I will stay out here with my mother Eve, in these days called Nature. I love her - undying, mighty being! Heaven may have faded from her brow when she fell in paradise; but all that is glorious on earth shines there still. She is taking me to her bosom, and showing me her heart. Hush, Caroline! you will see her and feel as I do, if we are both silent."

"I will humour your whim; but you will begin talking again, ere ten mintues are over."

In the silence that Shirley and Caroline keep, standing there side by side, watching the sun set, but seeing differently, can we stand with them?  And as we do, what questions rise?

Do we look to the skies to try to see ourselves?

Why does Bronte feel she must intersperse Shirley's rhapsody with Caroline's pragmatic forebearance?  - to undercut the unorthodox mysticism? to excuse it?  Is this the only way Bronte could allow space for the words to work their glamour and this vision sink into the reader's inner self, depsite rational or irrational bias? 

Why does Bronte hide this hymn to Nature in a chapter readers are encouraged to skip over?

And how does this speak to my own reluctance to speak full-throatedly?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Frank O'Hara, "Autobiographia Literaria"

Upstairs the young people are baking chocolate cake and reading picture books out loud. A mixed group from Middlest's French class. On a kind of field trip to their disappearing childhood, I gather, revisiting a protected pocket of that endangered habitat.

Honestly, I am surprised they would entertain themselves this way.  Did young people when I was one ever gather like this?So innocently? It was all videos and practicing dance moves, I think, back then. One house had a foosball table. Sometimes we would go skating - roller (Xanadu <shudder>) and iceskating.  Sometimes we would get a pizza. In other circles, according to reports that were common property at school, there were the keggers and partying and the cops showing up. That kind of fun.

Boys and girls baking together belonged to the realm of grandmas and Christmas storybooks and the childhoods we all were fleeing.

I wouldn't have imagined this cozy homeyness when I imagined the social goings-on that went on beyond me. A year or two later, in the library stacks at the university, Frank O'Hara's "Autobiographia Literaria" spoke to me like a post card from my past, a promise from a future self:

When I was a child
I played by myself in a
corner of the schoolyard
all alone.

I hated dolls and I
hated games, animals were
not friendly and birds
flew away.

If anyone was looking
for me I hid behind a
tree and cried out "I am
an orphan."

And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!

But I did not go there.  Instead here I am, not the center, but the encircling perimeter. 

From the other room, their voices, the intermittent sound of piano, laughing, the smell of baking - all this warmth that happens with no doing on my part.  A sense of wholeness, of things coming right for this moment. 

I have only ever been the empty stage my daughters' plays have been produced upon.  I am the closet of properties, the light crew.  They are the maestros, director and cast, musicians and dancers - the costumes of hospitality inhabited.  And I love it.  Being part of the performance from the privacy of the sidelines.  I talk to their friends.  I come down to my work.  But am still here at the edges of happiness and conviviality.  And it is this, hugely, that I fear I will miss with my daughters' departures, coming and come.
[cross-posted on Imaginary Bicycle]

Thursday, December 24, 2009

"I Wonder as I Wander"

from the Wilton Diptych

"I Wonder as I Wander"
Appalachian Carol (collected by John Jacob Niles)

I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
How Jesus, our Savior, did come for to die
For poor ornery people like you and like I:
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

When Mary birthed Jesus, ‘twas in a cow’s stall,
With wise-men and farmers and shepherds and all.
But high in God’s heaven’s a star’s light did fall
And the promise of ages it then did recall.

If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing:
A star in the sky, or a bird on the wing;
Or all of God’s angels in heav’n for to sing,
He surely could have had it, for he was the King.

I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
How Jesus, our Savior, did come for to die
For poor ornery people like you and like I:
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Jane Kenyon: "Mosaic of the Nativity: Serbia, Winter 1993"

Nativity icon from Rena Andreadis collection

"Mosaic of the Nativity: Serbia, Winter 1993"
by Jane Kenyon

On the domed ceiling God
is thinking
I made them my joy,
and everything else I created
I made to bless them.
But see what they do!
I know their hearts
and arguments:

“We’re descended from
Cain. Evil is nothing new,
so what does it matter now
if we shell the infirmary,
and the well where the fearful
and rash alike must
come for water?”

God thinks Mary into being.
Suspended at the apogee
of the golden dome,
she curls in a brown pod,
and inside her the mind
of Christ, cloaked in blood,
lodges and begins to grow.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Marina Tsvetaeva: "I Bless the Daily Labor"

I have loved this poem for years now - even before I knew anything about the life of its author. And even though I'm still not quite sure what she means by "dusty purple" (her art? her passion? her memories? the majesty of her inner fire?), nor what her dusty staff is "when all light's rays are shed" (her enduring stubbornness? her hope beyond hope?), nor what is the "law of blessings and law of stone" (the gospel of Jesus and the Ten Commandments? grace and justice? the sudden miraculous serendipity that walks hand in hand with relentless reason and unforgiving consequence?)

But I love this poem because, even without knowing exactly what she means - I know what she means.

After WWII, Marina Tsvetaeva faced starvation in Moscow - even mistakenly (and tragically) placing a daughter in a state orphanage where she thought the girl would be better fed. She and her surviving daughter fled to Berlin, where she was reunited with her husband. They moved to Prague, where their son was born, then settled in Paris where she contracted tuberculosis. Then faced ostracism when her husband was revealed as a spy for the Soviet secret police.

Without other options, Tsvetaeva followed her husband to Moscow, but in Stalin's USSR found all doors closed to her. Her sister had already been imprisoned and the two sisters never saw each other again. Friends, afraid for their own lives and reputations, refused to help. Within a few years her daughter (who had increasingly turned against Tsvetaeva) was also imprisoned and Tsvetaeva's husband was shot for espionage. Tsvetaeva and her son were evacuated to an area where she could not find work to support them. She spent the last months of her life desperately looking for any kind of job. Some believe she was at last forced by a squad of secret police to hang herself. She lies in an unmarked grave.

Not so encouraging reading for our Thanksgiving Feast?

But this story traces the shapes of all the things I fear most - the monsters of my nightmares - torn by war, not being able to feed my children, losing the people I love, estrangement, doors closed against me, betrayal, despair - and still, in the face of all these nightmares, Marina Tsvetaeva wrote this poem.

I Bless the Daily Labor
I bless the daily labor of my hands,
I bless the sleep that nightly is my own.
The mercy of the Lord, the Lord’s commands,
The law of blessings and law of stone.

My dusty purple, with its ragged seams—
My dusty staff, when all light’s rays are shed.
And also, Lord, I bless the peace
In others’ houses—others’ ovens’ bread.

A poem which still lives.

Which still carries on, whispering her words into my ears, and now yours, lighting a small and comforting fire on other hearths many years and many miles from her own.

Blessings on all of you,
wherever you are, whoever you are.
Peace to your houses.
May you have peace as your daily bread.

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