Wee Willie Winkie runs through the town,
Up stairs and down stairs in his night-gown,
Tapping at the window, crying at the lock,
Are the children in their beds, for it’s ten o’clock?
Hey, Willie Winkie, are you coming in?
The cat’s singing purring sounds to the sleeping hen,
The dog’s sleeping on the floor, doesn’t give a cheep,
Why then such a wakeful boy, who will not fall asleep?
Anything but sleep you rogue! glowering like the moon,’
Rattling loud your iron jug, with your iron spoon,
Rumbling, tumbling round about, crowing like a cock,
Shriekin’ like some kinda ghost, waking sleeping folk.
Hey, Willie Winkie – the baby’s in her creel!
While you’re still a wriggling, squirming like an eel,
Tugging at the cat’s ear, confusing all her thrums
Hey there Willie Winkie – grab him here he comes!”
Weary is the mother with a dusty child,
Small short sturdy ones, that run a country mile,
Children that wage a battle, before they’ll close an eye
But one more kiss, from rosy lips, is strength anew to try.
I have been using this time of staying put indoors to clean out some closets and sort some items. I still have boxes from after my Mother’s death that I can’t quite figure out what to do. There is a box of children’s books that are not the originals from my childhood but are sturdier copies, less love worn, of some of the classics that she used in her kindergarten classroom for the final 20 years of her career. Books like the Velveteen Rabbit, Make Way For Ducklings, A Toad for Tuesday and many picture books. I sorted a box and a half and only found a couple that didn’t make sense to keep, not much help in winnowing the pile.
In among them was a newer book of children’s poetry. A mixture of modern verse and old classics and nursery rhymes. I was struck as I read so many of the nursery rhymes how perfectly metrical often the first stanzas that sound familiar to our ears and then subsequent stanzas of many feel broken and halting when read aloud. Is that because the words were not smoothed by millions of mothers and fathers reciting them each night? The first stanza is the one that was told, over and over and over again. Prior to all these screens that litter our houses, what did you do after the sun went down but read, make music and tell stories. Children learned the literature of their family through the rhymes they were told.
What is the literature of your family? Are their specific songs and rhymes that are part of your inner book? How many short verses can you recite from heart because someone in your life told them to you so many times to fill that space between bedtime and sleep? What poems are you keeping alive with your little ones, making sure the family treasure is passed down to the next generation?
Two Little Black Birds
Traditional Nursery Rhyme
(With a new verse by T. A. Fry)
Two little blackbirds sitting on a hill.
One named Jack and one named Jill.
Fly away Jack, fly away Jill.
Come back Jack, come back Jill.
Two little blackbirds flying in the sky.
One named Low and one named High.
Fly away Low, fly away High.
Come back Low, come back High.
Two little blackbirds sitting on a pole.
One named Fast and one named Slow.
Fly away Fast, fly away Slow.
Come back Fast, come back Slow.
Two little blackbirds sitting on a gate.
One named Early and one named Late.
Fly away Early, fly away Late.
Come back Early, come back Late.
Two little blackbirds sitting in a tree.
One named Fool and one named Free.
Fly away Fool, fly away Free.
Come back Fool, come back Free.
Jack and Jill
Retold in equity by T. A. Fry
(For no sister should be whipped for her brother’s clumsiness).
Jack and Jill
Went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down
And broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.
Up Jack got
And home did trot,
As fast as he could caper;
And went to bed
With a plastered head
Of vinegar and brown paper.
When Jill came in
How she did grin
To see Jack’s paper plaster;
And Mother smiled
All the while,
Suspectin’ which of them was faster.
Oh for a poet—for a beacon bright
To rift this changless glimmer of dead gray;
To spirit back the Muses, long astray,
And flush Parnassus with a newer light;
To put these little sonnet-men to flight
Who fashion, in a shrewd mechanic way,
Songs without souls, that flicker for a day,
To vanish in irrevocable night.
What does it mean, this barren age of ours?
Here are the men, the women, and the flowers,
The seasons, and the sunset, as before.
What does it mean? Shall there not one arise
To wrench one banner from the western skies,
And mark it with his name forevermore?
I have written about the poet Edward Arlington Robinson in an earlier blog post; https://fourteenlines.blog/2018/10/18/trust-busting-not-exactly-at-its-word/ so I won’t recount his history again. Robinson, though largely forgotten, is interesting to revisit as a poet that was writing during the last great pandemic the 1918 Spanish Flu. I like his image of little sonnet-men hanging banners to mark the names forevermore of those lost in “this barren age of ours?”
One of the most poignant and simple narratives about the Spanish flu pandemic and about how quickly a life, a marriage and family can be changed by illness during this period was written by an unlikely source – Peter Freuchen, a renowned Danish explorer who alongside Knud Rasmussen completed many first ascents on Greenland and the polar Arctic in Canada. Freuchen’s wife Navarana, with which he had two children, went from the peak of health to death, in a week in 1919. Navarana was an an accomplished explorer alongside her husband Freuchen on many journey’s. She was his partner at his home and trading post in Thule, injecting his life with happiness and joy in a harsh environment. The story of their love affair and partnership is told poignantly in his book Arctic Adventure, along with the prolonged depression that followed her death. You have to read the book to understand the level of physical fitness that both of them had to tackle the adventures they did together, traveling by dog sled with no support, in the open and how shocking her death is in the book. Freuchen is so stricken with grief even many years later recounting it in his memoir, he writes very little about her death, words inadequate. It is inconceivable as you read her life story in her husband’s words, that a woman as lovely, athletic and healthy can be stricken with an illness and die in so short a time. This kind of death is like an accident, a shock wave to loved one’s senses, just like the shock wave being felt around the world again today by too many.
I worry what our neighborhoods and communities are going to be like when this is all done, when we come out of our homes and some level of normalcy is restored. I fear that after social distancing will come a great social scattering. I fear small businesses and shop keepers, restaurants and their staff we have taken for granted as part of the fabric of our lives, will suddenly be out of business, and disappear, scattered out of our lives. Many others with unpaid bills will be forced to relocate, start again. There will be too many houses on the hill that are shuddered where once we waved to friends and neighbors. Let us hope for brighter days ahead and to rally around our families, friends and communities.
The House On The Hill
by Edwin Arlington Robinson
They are all gone away,
The House is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.
Through broken walls and gray
The winds blow bleak and shrill:
They are all gone away.
Nor is there one to-day
To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say.
Why is it then we stray
Around the sunken sill?
They are all gone away,
And our poor fancy-play
For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.
There is ruin and decay
In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,
There is nothing more to say.
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.
Courage After Sixty
by Eugene McCarthy
Now it is certain.
There is no magic stone.
No secret to be found.
One must go
With the mind’s winnowed learning.
No more than the child’s handhold
On the willows bending over the lake,
On the sumac roots at the cliff edge.
Ignorance is checked,
The coat has been hung on the peg,
The cigar laid on the table edge,
The cue chosen and chalked,
The balls set for the final break.
All cards drawn,
All bets called.
The dice, warm as blood in the hand,
Shaken for the last cast.
The glove has been thrown to the ground,
The last choice of weapons made.
A book for one thought.
A poem for one line.
A line for one word.
“Broken things are powerful.”
Things about to break are stronger still.
The last shot from the brittle bow is truest.
There’s an old Sven and Ole joke that goes like this:
Sven and Ole are out snowmobiling on a January Saturday afternoon and stopping along the way to have a few drinks at some taverns on the outskirts of small towns in Northern Minnesota. And as men are want to do, they are not the most responsible of drinkers and have a few too many. Heading back home in the dark, driving too fast, beyond their headlights, feeling no pain, snow starting to come down heavy, they approach a set of train tracks riding side by side and just as they are crossing are hit by a train and die. Now the devil likes to greet the new souls he is welcoming to an eternity of deprivation and agony and so he stops by to see how Sven and Ole are getting along with eternal damnation the next day. The devil is quite surprised to see them sitting around in their down vests, smiling and laughing and seemingly enjoying themselves. The Devil asks, “How’s it going?” Sven says, “It’s going fine, you know, winter’s are long in Minnesota, we are kinda enjoying this early spring weather you got down here in Hell.” Well this made the devil quite upset and so he left the two nitwits and decided to turn the heat up in Hell and see how that suits them. The next day he returns with the rest of the miserable souls howling in agony and there’s Sven and Ollie stretched out on folding chaise lounge chairs in swim suits with reflectors under their chins having a relaxing afternoon nap. The Devil is shocked, ” isn’t it hot enough for ya”, he growls? Ole replies, “Well you know Mr. Lucifer, Sven and I never had much money and we never made it to Florida, so this here is like our first real spring break! We are thinking about playing some volleyball, want to join us?” The Devil storms off, furious at his failed attempts to torture these two and he thinks to himself, well, I’ll fix ’em. So the Devil turns down the thermostat in Hell to minus 60 degrees F. He stops back the next day to check on them, and there are Sven and Ole, dressed in their snowmobile boots, mittens and fur parkas dancing around, arm and arm, whooping and hollering, happy as can be. The Devil loses his temper, and bellows with the force of a hurricane, ‘What is the matter with you two idiots?” Sven says, “Are you blind? Hell’s frozen over, it means the Vikings have von da super bowl!”
The Minnesota Vikings have the ignominious mantle, along with the Buffalo Bills, of being the only NFL teams to have played in four super bowls and lost them all. Minnesotan’s proudest sons have not fared well in Presidential politics either. Hubert Humphrey, the greatest statesman and civil rights leader this state has ever produced and the Democratic Presidential candidate in 1968, entered the race too late to participate in any primaries. Despite this, he won the nomination but couldn’t stop Richard Nixon’s sweeping conservatism into his troubled Presidency. Eugene McCarthy, born in Watkins, Minnesota, followed Humphrey in 1972 and had even less success as the Democratic candidate. Despite being on the ultimately victorious moral side of opposing the Vietnam war and warning against the increasing subordination of our federal economy to the industrial war complex, he never had any real momentum on his side. And to complete the trifecta of love-able losers, Walter Mondale was tapped to fall on the sword for the Democratic Party in 1984 and oppose Ronald Reagan in his second term, a losing battle from the start, taking just one state in a sea of red in the electoral college, with only Minnesota affirming him with their votes as most worthy to be President.
Politics in the short term is a tale told by the winners, but righteous losers have a way of cementing their greatness as time passes. McCarthy was too liberal for his time and in the end became disliked by the very liberals who had placed their hope in him for a new approach than military intervention to communism. McCarthy’s post-war liberalism isolated him within the Democratic party, and his failure to win in 1968 created a lingering animosity that rapidly turned to apathy.
But McCarthy had the soul of a poet. He understood that in the end a man has to live with himself for the choices he has made before he goes to bed each night. McCarthy slept well, living to the ripe old age of 99, writing books, writing poetry, able to recite not only his own poems but large chunks of Yeats right up until the end. McCarthy was confident in his leadership, both his successes and failures. He was on the right side of his moral conscience and probably better represented this country’s majority views on how we as a society look back on that point in history, even if the vote tally was not on his side in 1972.
We are at a time when leadership is essential to the success of the long term path we are heading down. We are in need of leadership that does not squander resources or let ego get in the way of collaboration and good decision making. We are in need of selfless leadership that is invested in the good of the many, regardless of their economic status or political power. In short, we are in need of exactly what we don’t have, competent effective candidates, on both sides of the isle. Let us hope, that out of this troubled times, new leaders arise that can restore hope, prosperity, peace and well being as well as a functioning, bi-partisan balanced moderate government. A leadership that can help humanity deal with the larger more complicated issues facing us in restoring the health of this planet and it’s inhabitants and deliver health care that is within the reach of all.
With the surreal nature of our current days, it is hard for my brain to function. I have written next to nothing in terms of poetry this year, 2020 starting out as a barren desert in terms of my creativity. I have never understood where most of my poetry originates, but this sonnet came about very slowly over the past two months, with far too many revisions to feel like it has any real purpose. I still read it and think its jiggly goobly-dee-gook. At present, I am mostly annoyed with it, having spent far too much time indoors with it as my only companion and tired of its nagging persistence to continue on fussing with it, thinking something interesting might yet emerge. I am sharing this working draft, only as an admission that even writing is a poor companion when cooped up indoors alone, in need of human contact. My fellow bloggers and poets, may all of you fare better. At the same time, I see a little spark lurking somewhere in it. I hope this sonnet is my self conscious, goading me on, with age 60 still a few years away, to stay optimistic in these surreal days and weeks, and keep dancing.
To Dance The Jig At 60
By T. A. Fry
Rounding to the final quarter lap,
Most ready, eccentric with intention;
No hero’s welcome in my tattered maps,
Semi-precious stones and pretense of direction.
Abundant, a love surrounds me,
A threnody? To dance the jig at sixty.
Unwind old creaks and pangs and zings,
It’s frisky, if not quite wholly steady.
Wearied, more or less, pedestrian these pains,
The stuff of age and overuse, retread
Or lose the stage, for much is left to gain!
I can hear sweet nothings; revisiting your words,
Humming old refrains. Hoping murmurs aural,
Are love’s echoes, the ones my soul sustains.
Those humid hours that lingered on for days.
The body stretched in breathlessness for days.
In Ohio dies caniculares
meant something: virus, Sirius, Dog Star days.
Whatever it was was like catching cold.
Bad headaches, swelling, fevers, chills for days.
(The boy in braces for the March of Dimes
lurched toward the lights of the camera dazed.)
When the night sky cleared of vapor: there
in Canis Major the stars that fixed our days.
We knew if we died we could join these stars.
For the girl in the iron lung dies were days.
We knew if we survived Labor Day, then school:
another year of colds and growing pains for days.
My parents grew up in the 1930’s, before a polio vaccine had been developed. Childhood disease and death were a very real threat to the well being of communities and families in their childhoods. Poliomyelitis or Polio as it more commonly referred, is almost an inverse to COVID-19 in some ways of who it impacts and when. COVID-19, though it can infect all age groups, appears to have the most serious complications in those over age 65, and is currently most prevalent in Northern hemisphere during colder temperatures, whereas polio is a childhood disease that struck during the heat of the summer months.
Plumly deftly remembers the child hood phantom that for his generation was polio. How terrifying it must have been to watch a brother, sister, friend in the neighborhood, cousin or school mate, go from active healthy boy or girl, to suddenly in a fight for their lives. And then for those stricken to the point they couldn’t continue to breath on their own, an eternity of living in an iron lung.
Polio is a difficult poem to interpret unless you understand the latin words dies caniculares. It refers to the roughly 30 day period when the greek astronomers predicted the hottest weather based on the position of the Dog Star in the night sky; July 20 to August 20. Dies = Days. That it also means dying or the process of death in English is where the poet is trying to get us to join his childhood world.
I saw a Sixty Minutes broadcast a couple of years ago that told the story about the last remaining technicians that know how to repair iron lungs and keep them in good working order. Only a few polio patients that require iron lungs were/are still alive. It had become an oddity, novel, something that once was commonplace, both the people and the parts to keep iron lungs working.
Is it ironic or simply the random course of nature, that a new phantom is haunting our winter months, and the thing that is in shortest supply is the modern version of an iron lung, respirators, to help the sick, fight the good fight in living? Though this new phantom has begun in the depths of the cold of winter, it will change our days ahead, well into the rising of the Dog Star in our summer skies.
The Iron Lung
by Stanley Plumly
So this is the dust that passes through porcelain,
so this is the unwashed glass left over from supper,
so this is the dust in the attic, in August,
and this is the down on the breath of the sleeper
If we could fold our arms, but we can’t.
If we could cross our legs, but we can’t.
If we could put the mind to rest.
But our fathers have put this task before us.
I can neither move nor rise.
The neighborhood is gathering, and now
my father is lifting me into the ambulance
among the faces of my family. His face is
a blur or a bruise and he holds me
as if I had just been born. When I wake
I am breathing out of all proportion to myself.
My whole body is a lung; I am floating
above a doorway or a grave. And I know
I am in this breathing room as one
who understands how breath is passed
from father to son and back again.
At night, when my father comes to talk,
I tell him we have shared this body long enough.
He nods, like the speaker in a dream.
He knows that I know we are only talking.
Once there was a machine for breathing.
It would embrace the body and make a kind of love.
And when it was finished it would rise
like nothing at all above the earth
to drift through the daylight silence.
But at dark, in deep summer, if you thought you heard
something like your mother’s voice calling you home,
you could lie down where you were and listen to the dead.
We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love.
Dr. Sigmund Freud
by Margaret Atwood
Marriage is not
a house or even a tent
It is before that, and colder:
the edge of the forest, the edge
of the desert
the unpainted stairs
at the back where we squat
where painfully and with wonder
at having survived even
we are learning to make fire
Marriage is a never ending quest of learning how to make fire, fires that can kindle the warmth of our hearts and if you’re not careful, a fire that can get away from both of you and burn the house down. I wrote the sonnet My Courage Be in March of 2016. I had finished a rough draft of a chap book that contained poems written the previous two years, wrestling with the difficult separation from my wife, having lived together for 32 years. I asked a friend to read it and give me some feedback. After doing so, she said, “something’s missing, think about it.” I did think about it. This sonnet emerged.
My Courage Be
By T. A. Fry
Pale though my courage be, I stand adorned by love’s wreath of thorns. Astride her gracious steed. Her hounds hackles raised ready for the horn, with a bay-full mourn all straining at their leads. Then it sounds! The whippers-in loose the pack to attack as is their want. To find a trace pleasing to them this day. Though it may lack the former grace of youth’s alluring face. All this has come before and shall again. There is but one story before my fall. An old tale of love, a trusted friend. What else awaits at the end of it all? Please. Of my faithfulness, let it be known. I carry still your love within my bone.
“And now each day seems,
Like my own soul, farther and farther off,
Lost in its light as in a dream in which I meant to ask you something.”
Five Flights Up
by Elizabeth Bishop
The unknown bird sits on his usual branch.
The little dog next door barks in his sleep
inquiringly, just once.
Perhaps in his sleep, too, the bird inquires
once or twice, quavering.
Questions—if that is what they are—
answered directly, simply,
by day itself.
Enormous morning, ponderous, meticulous;
gray light streaking each bare branch,
each single twig, along one side,
making another tree, of glassy veins . . .
The bird still sits there. Now he seems to yawn.
The little black dog runs in his yard.
His owner’s voice arises, stern,
“You ought to be ashamed!”
What has he done?
He bounces cheerfully up and down;
he rushes in circles in the fallen leaves.
Obviously, he has no sense of shame.
He and the bird know everything is answered,
all taken care of,
no need to ask again.
—Yesterday brought to today so lightly,
(A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift).
I enjoy the connections that poets make as inspiration in their work. I like to try and connect those dots between poems. A test of a poet’s prowess among the academic community is often the unique quality of their voice in their work, this idea that poetry has to be constantly evolving. I am not sure that’s possible or even always interesting. Everything is built on the foundation of something, influenced by something. Poetry written with no influences is likely not poetry in my mind, the poet disingenuous in giving credit where credit is due. We all have to start with something, start somewhere. We travel to what we think are unique destinations of the mind, only to find the cairns of past adventurers, awaiting us in literature and art.
Freud is quoted as saying, “Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.”
I thoroughly enjoyed both of these poems. The fact they are connect by one line, “-Yesterday brought to today so lightly,” gives them an interesting push/pull when read back to back. For the time being, my yesterday’s are not as impossible to lift as the uncertainty of my tomorrows. I’ll get more used to this new uncharted territory of worry for our loved ones and the unthinking way we took for granted our good health in the past, but it will take a while. If there is blessing of this pandemic is to make our today’s more mindful and not a thing we take for granted. Be well.
Variations on a line from Elizabeth Bishop’s “Five Flights Up”
by Stanley Plumly
Sometimes it’s the shoes, the tying and untying,
the bending of the heart to put them on,
take them off, the rush of blood
between the head and feet, my face,
sometimes, if I could see it, astonished.
Other times the stairs, three, four stages
at the most, “flights” we call them,
in honor of the wings we’ll never have,
the fifth floor the one that kills the breath,
where the bird in the building flies to first.
Love, too, a leveler, a dying all its own,
the parts left behind not to be replaced,
a loss ongoing, and every day increased,
like rising in the night, at 3:00 am,
to watch the snow or the dead leaf fall,
the rings around the streetlight in the rain,
and then the rain, the red fist in the heart
opening and closing almost without me.
“ — Yesterday brought to today so lightly!”
The morning, more and more, like evening.
When I bend to tie my shoes and the blood
fills the cup, it’s as if I see into the hidden earth,
“The armored cars of dreams, contrived to let us do so many a dangerous thing.”
by Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
One Art is a villanelle. Villanelle’s are kissing cousins to sonnets. Like sonnets they are highly structured poems with precise rhyming schemes and line arrangements, but with less emphasis on syllable count per line while always being 19 lines. Villanelle’s have been around since the 1600’s but the most famous villanelles are from the 20th century, including; Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, Sylvia Plath’s Mad Girl Love Story, W. H. Auden’s If I Could Tell You and Edwin Arlington Robinson’s The House On The Hill. I have written a couple of villanelle’s in all their goofy complexity. They are kind of fun because they take on a life of their own about half way through the writing process. If you have never tried writing one, give it a go and let the rhyme and structure guide the process and see what your subconscious has been hiding from you. If you have written a villanelle and would like to share it, send it to Fourteenlines10@gmail.com and I’ll post it along with one of my own.
Elizabeth Bishop had the luxury of wealth throughout her lifetime and it afforded her the opportunity to go to Vassar, then travel the world, write poetry and paint. An independent woman of means, she often painted and wrote about subjects that were more aligned with the working class. Bishop understood strife and loss, both of her parents having died when she was very young. She invested her time well in pursuit of her art, her poetry critically acclaimed, winning the Pulitzer in 1956.
We are adaptable as a species, if at a different rate and to a different extent as individuals. Change and loss is something that is integral to the human experience. I was watching the movie A Little Chaos, and Kate Winslet’s pivotal moment in the film is when she addresses the King with a metaphor, the wise rose, as a way of reminding the King about the beauty of his aging lovers. She give’s the King a rose and tells him the rose is oblivious to all the stages of its life, wilting, dropping its petals and forming a seed head to foster the next generation. She shifts the King’s perspective by saying it is only the gardener who tends the rose that morns its fading beauty. Many of us are mourning the things we are losing or have lost. Its good to remember loss is part of our nature too, and even faded or remembered beauty is beautiful, as well.
by Elizabeth Bishop
My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue.
I kiss your funny face,
your coffee-flavored mouth.
Last night I slept with you.
Today I love you so
how can I bear to go
(as soon I must, I know)
to bed with ugly death
in that cold, filthy place,
to sleep there without you,
without the easy breath
and nightlong, limblong warmth
I’ve grown accustomed to?
—Nobody wants to die;
tell me it is a lie!
But no, I know it’s true.
It’s just the common case;
there’s nothing one can do.
My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue
early and instant blue.