To Pierce Our Mean Content

The Mowing

by Sir Charles G. D. Roberts

This is the voice of high midsummer’s heat.
The rasping vibrant clamour soars and shrills
O’er all the meadowy range of shadeless hills,
As if a host of giant cicadae beat
The cymbals of their wings with tireless feet,
Or brazen grasshoppers with triumphing note
From the long swath proclaimed the fate that smote
The clover and timothy-tops and meadowsweet.

The crying knives glide on; the green swath lies.
And all noon long the sun, with chemic ray,
Seals up each cordial essence in its cell,
That in the dusky stalls, some winter’s day,
The spirit of June, here prisoned by his spell,
May cheer the herds with pasture memories.


 

The Cow Pasture

by Sir Charles G. D. Roberts

I see the harsh, wind-ridden, eastward hill,
By the red cattle pastured, blanched with dew;
The small, mossed hillocks where the clay gets through;
The grey webs woven on milkweed tops at will.
The sparse, pale grasses flicker, and are still.
The empty flats yearn seaward. All the view
Is naked to the horizon’s utmost blue;
And the bleak spaces stir me with strange thrill.

Not in perfection dwells the subtler power
To pierce our mean content, but rather works
Through incompletion, and the need that irks, —
Not in the flower, but effort toward the flower.
When the want stirs, when the soul’s cravings urge,
The strong earth strengthens, and the clean heavens purge.

And Not To Yield

 

Ulysses (An Excerpt)

by Alfred Lord Tennyson  (1809 – 1892)

….Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
 

Of Old Sat Freedom On The Heights

by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Of old sat Freedom on the heights,
The thunders breaking at her feet:
Above her shook the starry lights:
She heard the torrents meet.

There in her place she did rejoice,
Self-gather’d in her prophet-mind,
But fragments of her mighty voice
Came rolling on the wind.

Then stept she down thro’ town and field
To mingle with the human race,
And part by part to men reveal’d
The fulness of her face—

Grave mother of majestic works,
From her isle-altar gazing down,
Who, God-like, grasps the triple forks,
And, King-like, wears the crown:

Her open eyes desire the truth.
The wisdom of a thousand years
Is in them. May perpetual youth
Keep dry their light from tears;

That her fair form may stand and shine,
Make bright our days and light our dreams,
Turning to scorn with lips divine
The falsehood of extremes!

I Now Have A Scar

 

The Chinese Food Dilemma

by Evelyn Curtis

I stopped after class for some Chinese food
I figured I would just grab a quick bite
For sesame chicken is always good
and I hadn’t had much to eat that night.

I got my food and I got in the car,
and I felt my stomach begin to growl.
So before I had gotten very far,
I decided to sneak a taste of fowl.

I waited until I’d stopped at a light;
I grabbed something tasty without concern.
I took one and then another small bite,
but soon I felt something hot start to burn.

Alas! on my chin, I now have a scar
from eating Chinese food inside my car!


Statistics are an imperfect way to share information.  Stats are notoriously unreliable in that they sound factual but are inevitably outdated or biased in some manner in which the data was collected and summarized.   So when I share that I read recently that nearly 70% of Chinese restaurants have closed in the United States since the start of the pandemic, you can feel free to object and say the stat is wrong, because from your perspective it is either too big or too small.   Yet the statistic is directionally correct.  Chinese restaurants have born the brunt, more than any other type of restaurant, during the pandemic not only because of closure of in-restaurant dining reducing income but also because of the blatant anti-Chinese racism that is occurring from the misinformed and small minded who are blaming China and by extension Chinese-Americans and Asian businesses.  Despite being ridiculous, the economic downturn has resulted in successful Chinese restaurants that have been institutions for decades, from New York to San Francisco, from small towns to large, to confront the sad reality of bankruptcy and closure. Behind this glaring statistic are family businesses, many passed down through generations, that are having to confront the reality of a change in American dining habits and questioning the opportunity for Chinese food as a profitable venture in or out of traditional urban centers with diverse ethnic populations.  If the only Asian food that is going to survive in the United States are chain restaurants, then America will be all the more culturally impoverished in the future for lack of finding ways to help authentic small ethnic restaurants flourish and thrive through the pandemic. 

If you haven’t stumbled across the blog – Putasonnetonit – I highly recommend it.   Evelyn Curtis set herself the herculean task of writing and sharing a sonnet everyday for a year.  I can’t imagine myself writing a limerick every day for a year, let alone a sonnet, so I have huge respect for the undertaking.  It would be interesting to ask her what she feels are her top 5 sonnets from that year looking back?  I have no idea where this one would rank, but since it is a sonnet about an actual scar she will carry forward for the rest of her life, I thought it might rank up there a bit.  Its a great example that sonnet writing doesn’t have to take itself too serious.  It can be simply a Polaroid picture of the moment, that might take on more meaning with time, even unexpected meaning.  I wonder if the restaurant in which she purchased the food that the sonnet is based still exists?

For many years I had a subscription to The New Yorker and I enjoyed Calvin Trillin’s regular contributions.  Trillin shared a view of New York that was illuminating to a Midwesterner.   It felt like I had an irascible great Uncle giving me the inside scoop on how the big city works.  I was saddened when Trillin was hit with criticism and blow back on his poem below.  It wasn’t quite cancel culture, but it was roughing up a veteran journalist who had been sharing his unique perspective for decades with gentle humor and a tinge of grumpiness.  I personally don’t think Trillin’s poem rose to the level of the accusations – racism.   But since that criticism was invoked, it felt to me that the The New Yorker drifted into blander and blander territory, less interesting while more politically correct.  Which is why my subscription eventually lapsed, I ceased to find it compelling.  Cancel culture works in both directions and I must admit from the subscription department I am assuming that the editors can’t tell which is the cause; the loss of Trillin like pieces causing subscriptions to dwindle or is it because of “vocal” critics of such work being so outraged they cancel their subscription.   In the end the result is the same. 

I had a boss many years ago who teased me all the time, teased me in ways that were definitely not always politically correctly and did it in front of the entire group.   After several years, I asked a co-worker about it and he said; “You have to realize that he only teases the people he likes.  Its when he stops teasing you that you should be worried.”  I had never thought about it before in that way.  I stopped worrying.  I’m not saying that being emotionally inept in your approach to interacting with others is a role model for success as a current business leader, but the truth is the worst insult is to be ignored.  Teasing is an acknowledgement that you like the person or institution enough to think about them. Teasing taken too far is bullying and I acknowledge teasing can be racist.  But teasing in and of itself is not inherently racist.  I consider Trillin’s poem a form of literary teasing, something that has a long history- think Cervantes.  In my opinion, its far worse for people to stop supporting Chinese restaurants and see them fail, then to publish a silly poem about all the different kinds of Chinese restaurants and to take the time to make it rhyme.   I am guessing that the New York Chinese Restaurant Owners Association, if such a thing exists, would be happy to have Calvin Trillin writing silly poems about the diverse array of thriving Chinese food options in New York in 2021.   It would mean that people were walking through those doors and dining.  Its far worse that 70% of them have had to close their doors for lack of business. 


Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet

by Calvin Trillin

Have they run out of provinces yet?
If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret.
Long ago, there was just Cantonese.
(Long ago, we were easy to please.)
But then food from Szechuan came our way,
Making Cantonese strictly passé.
Szechuanese was the song that we sung,
Though the ma po could burn through your tongue.
Then when Shanghainese got in the loop
We slurped dumplings whose insides were soup.
Then Hunan, the birth province of Mao,
Came along with its own style of chow.
o we thought we were finished, and then
A new province arrived: Fukien.
Then respect was a fraction of meagre
For those eaters who’d not eaten Uighur.
And then Xi’an from Shaanxi gained fame,
Plus some others—too many to name.
Now, as each brand-new province appears,
It brings tension, increasing our fears:
Could a place we extolled as a find
Be revealed as one province behind?
So we sometimes do miss, I confess,
Simple days of chow mein but no stress,
When we never were faced with the threat
Of more provinces we hadn’t met.
Is there one tucked away near Tibet?
Have they run out of provinces yet?

Then It Was Over

 In the Spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin’s breast; In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest. In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnished dove; In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. 

Alfred Lord Tennyson

The Wild Iris

by Louise Gluck

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.

Hear me out:
that which you call death
I remember.

Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.

It is terrible to survive
as consciousness
buried in the dark earth.

Then it was over:
that which you fear, being
a soul and unable

to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.

You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:

from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.


Iris have a way of waiting until the first week of June in Minnesota before they make a splash in our gardens.  The timing of their flowers coincide with peonies filling the air with their unique fragrance, while iris fill our eyes with unparalleled splendor.   There is nothing really like the blue/purple color of iris with their yellow beardish highlights.   Iris have six petals, not unusual in the flower world, but the way they present themselves is unique at least for Minnesota gardens, a visual treat we wait for anxiously each summer.  Sadly this year, we have been hit with an unprecedented early heat wave with temperatures in the high 90’s for 7 days in a row just as the iris started blooming.   The iris and peonies are both showing the stress effects of the high temperatures, dropping petals much too quickly.    There will be no slow languor of color this year in our iris beds, just a quick visit and then the promise of next year in their foliage the rest of the season. 

The origins of the English word iris – with meanings for both the flower and the colored portion of our eyes are the same; Greek for rainbow.   Apparently, flattery will get you everywhere, even in the ancient world, with a whispered compliment in your lover’s ear about the beauty of their eyes reminding you of flowers and rainbows the perfect way to set the mood. 

I was pleased to find multiple poems in which one form or the other of iris are used as inspiration to paint a verbal picture.  I was recently in California at a house with an incredible array of gardens and landscaping.  There was a very old pond that was in need of a bit of attention, but still had vestiges of a former gardener’s deft touch.  There was a wild iris overhanging its reflecting surface, long and gangly and brilliant green, with a single yellow flower that was utter perfection.  As I stared at it silently and took in the broader view of the entire pond, I realized there was a golden hued frog, with only its head and a bit of its back showing above the water line, directly below the embankment on which the iris stood prominently.  As I crouched down to get a better look at this fine froggy friend, it jumped and dove beneath the duck weed and lily pads and disappeared.  That encounter was a great reminder of how brief beauty can enter and exit our eye in a flash, and the need to let it live on in our memory and in our art to inspire us to keep looking for it to return when we least expect it. 


The Sadness Of The Moon

by Charles Baudelaire

THE Moon more indolently dreams to-night
Than a fair woman on her couch at rest,
Caressing, with a hand distraught and light,
Before she sleeps, the contour of her breast.

Upon her silken avalanche of down,
Dying she breathes a long and swooning sigh;
And watches the white visions past her flown,
Which rise like blossoms to the azure sky.

And when, at times, wrapped in her languor deep,
Earthward she lets a furtive tear-drop flow,
Some pious poet, enemy of sleep,

Takes in his hollow hand the tear of snow,
Whence gleams of iris and of opal start,
And hides it from the Sun, deep in his heart

We Forever Choose

William Blake (1757 – 1827)

“Art can never exist without naked beauty displayed.”

William Blake

 

Dreams

by Helen Hunt Jackson

Mysterious shapes, with wands of joy and pain,
Which seize us unaware in helpless sleep,
And lead us to the houses where we keep
Our secrets hid, well barred by every chain
That we can forge and bind: the crime whose stain
Is slowly fading ’neath the tears we weep;
Dead bliss which, dead, can make our pulses leap—
Oh, cruelty! To make these live again!
They say that death is sleep, and heaven’s rest
Ends earth’s short day, as, on the last faint gleam
Of sun, our nights shut down, and we are blest.
Let this, then, be of heaven’s joy the test,
The proof if heaven be, or only seem,
That we forever choose what we will dream


A Cradle Song

By William Blake

Sleep, sleep, beauty bright,
Dreaming in the joys of night;
Sleep, sleep; in thy sleep
Little sorrows sit and weep.

Sweet babe, in thy face
Soft desires I can trace,
Secret joys and secret smiles,
Little pretty infant wiles.

As thy softest limbs I feel
Smiles as of the morning steal
O’er thy cheek, and o’er thy breast
Where thy little heart doth rest.

O the cunning wiles that creep
In thy little heart asleep!
When thy little heart doth wake,
Then the dreadful night shall break.

 

We Have No Time

William Henry Davies (

No matter where the body is the mind is free to go elsewhere.

William Henry Davies

Leisure

by William Henry Davies

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

 

All in June

by William Henry Davies

A week ago I had a fire 
To warm my feet, my hands and face; 
Cold winds, that never make a friend, 
Crept in and out of every place. 

Today the fields are rich in grass, 
And buttercups in thousands grow; 
I’ll show the world where I have been– 
With gold-dust seen on either shoe. 

Till to my garden back I come, 
Where bumble-bees for hours and hours 
Sit on their soft, fat, velvet bums, 
To wriggle out of hollow flowers.

I Smile To Think

Motherhood is priced of God, at price no man may dare to lessen or understand.

Helen Hunt Jackson

 

Poppies On The Wheat

by Helen Hunt Jackson (1830 – 1885)

 
Along Ancona’s hills the shimmering heat,
A tropic tide of air with ebb and flow
Bathes all the fields of wheat until they glow
Like flashing seas of green, which toss and beat
Around the vines. The poppies lithe and fleet
Seem running, fiery torchmen, to and fro
To mark the shore.
The farmer does not know
That they are there. He walks with heavy feet,
Counting the bread and wine by autumn’s gain,
But I,—I smile to think that days remain
Perhaps to me in which, though bread be sweet
No more, and red wine warm my blood in vain,
I shall be glad remembering how the fleet,
Lithe poppies ran like torchmen with the wheat.

 


Helen Hunt Jackson’s poetry is filled with the loss she experienced in her life.  By 1865, at age 25, Jackson had lost her first husband and two children to disease and accidents.  She moved to Colorado Springs and a sanitarium seeking a cure for tuberculosis.  There she met a wealthy banker and married.  The final 20 years of her life she became devoted to the cause of improving the rights and conditions of Native Americans, after having met Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca Tribe from Nebraska at a lecture in Boston. Upset about the mistreatment of Native Americans, Jackson became an activist on their behalf, publicizing the government’s misconduct.  She began circulating petitions, raising money, and writing letters to The New York Times on behalf of the Ponca.  Jackson’s became so focused on this issue she was quoted as saying, “I would wake up in the morning and write 2,000 to 3,000 words, faster than I could write a letter, as if I could do anything else.”  She would go on to write A Century Of Dishonor (1881) which describes the mistreatment of Native Americans by the American Government.  In 1884 she shrewdly wrote a romance novel to popularize the issue among a broader audience in the novel Romana, which used the backdrop of romance to tell the plight of Native Americans in Southern California after the Mexican-American war for her heroine.   The novel was a success and reprinted over 300 times.  It attracted a large readership to the issues surrounding Native American rights. 

“If I could write a story that would do for the Indian one hundredth part of what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for slaves I would be thankful for the rest of my life.” 

Helen Hunt Jackson

Jackson obviously had sufficient wealth to travel, her opening line giving it away with the reference to Ancona.  Poppies are not a frequent flower in the wheat fields of North America, but are in Europe and England.  The poppies she is referring to come from a picturesque field in Italy to which she must have traveled.  Both Jackson’s and Kemble’s poems deal with the brevity of life and use the metaphors of weeds in our own plot of land that we till.  In Jackson’s case the poppy is the carefree interloper to remind us of the enjoyment of life’s pleasures, despite her losses, whereas Kemble’s weed is more poisonous, an “evil weed of woe” that casts its shade upon the productive soils of her youth.  Both poems are a bit melodramatic and old fashioned for my tastes, but solid reminders of how the sonnet form has inspired writers over hundred of years in expressing their emotions and memories.  One of the reasons I think the sonnet lends itself to theme’s of loss, is its relatively short.  The sonnet allows the author to release and heal while not wallowing in past.   Of the two sonnets, I enjoy Jackson’s more, with the optimism and the beauty of the red poppies a reminder that even in the solidarity of wheat’s goodness, it can’t quench the exuberance and defiance of the poppy to spice up life. 


Thou Poisonous Laurel Leaf

by Frances Anne Kemble (1809 – 1893)

Thou poisonous laurel leaf, that in the soil
Of life, which I am doomed to till full sore,
Spring’st like a noisome weed! I do not toil
For thee, and yet thou still com’st darkening o’er
My plot of earth with thy unwelcome shade.
Thou nightshade of the heart, beneath whose boughs
All fair and gentle buds hang withering,
Why hast thou wreathed thyself around my brows,
Casting from thence the blossoms of my spring,
Breathing on youth’s sweet roses till they fade?
Alas! thou art an evil weed of woe,
Watered with tears and watched with sleepless care,
Seldom doth envy thy green glories spare;
And yet men covet thee—ah, wherefore do they so!

Good Night, Dear Heart

Late Street Bridge separating Minneapolis and St. Paul on Mississippi River

Summer Sun

by Mark Twain

Warm summer sun,
    Shine kindly here,
Warm southern wind,
    Blow softly here.
Green sod above,
    Lie light, lie light.
Good night, dear heart,
    Good night, good night.
 

The Mississippi river is an omnipresent force in the Twin Cities.  It snakes its way down from the northern suburbs, through the heart of Minneapolis and then along stunning bluffs through downtown St. Paul  and Minneapolis, separating the two cities.   The river has a bi-polar personality along its banks on this stretch. Minneapolis and St. Paul are positioned where they are because of the commerce and transportation the river provided from the very founding of these towns.   Saint Anthony Falls in downtown Minneapolis is the only natural water fall along the entire length of the Mississippi of any size and strength, and that power fueled the rise of the milling district and the wealth of Minneapolis, while St. Paul grew up around the barge and steam boat traffic that would help it prosper.   There are stretches of the river throughout the Twin Cities that from its banks look industrialized, yet get on any kind of boat and float its waters through the locks and dams of this stretch and you’ll find yourself surrounded more by its natural beauty tucked into this urban environment, than the concrete embodiments of industrialization along its shores.
 
It is a little more than the one year anniversary of George Floyd’s death from a calendar perspective but it wasn’t until Monday morning of Memorial Day that it felt like the anniversary was upon us.   What’s changed in a year?  Certainly an openness to understanding of the issues facing people of color past and present, but has there been any real change in terms of racial equity?   Change is hard.   It doesn’t come as easily or as quickly as we want, but at least it feels like the discussions are more direct and open on paths forward to real change than they once were on these issues and that in itself is a step in the right direction.
 
Twain as a writer and in particular the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as books may not be relevant to today’s discussions on racial justice.   Regardless, they certainly had an influence on me as a young person.   I was inspired by the idea of floating down the Mississippi, something I still hope to do someday in some type of water craft.   I enjoyed the humor and the adventure in Twain’s writing.  It was also one my first introductions to understanding America’s history of racism and slavery, made all the more real for myself as told through the eyes of two young white boys befriending a black man and their river journey and adventures together.  The books are not a perfect morality play for today’s times, nor a model by which we should measure or teach racial equity, but they deal with human issues of friendship as part of literature in ways that in our efforts to make everything politically correct we may lose sight of; the ability to be imperfect and still genuinely kind to each other.  Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Jim are imperfect characters.  They both assist and  betray each other, love and fear each other,  and in the end are friends and care about each other as human beings in ways that go beyond their differences and focuses on what they have in common.  It’s a bit harder today to relate to the world of Mark Twain.  Sometime this summer I will put my kayak into a stretch of the Mississippi for a day trip, and it won’t be that difficult to transport myself back to Twain’s time on the river, to the mystery and adventure that Twain explored in those books; the idea that we all have something waiting for us around the next corner as we float along in our journey called life.
 

 

On The Mississippi

by Hamlin Garland (1860 – 1940)

Through wild and tangled forests
 .     broad, unhasting river flows—
.   Spotted with rain-drops, gray with night;
 .   Upon its curving breast there goes
A lonely steamboat’s larboard light,
.   A blood-red star against the shadowy oaks;
Noiseless as a ghost, through greenish gleam
Of fire-flies, before the boat’s wild scream—
.       A heron flaps away
  .     Like silence taking flight.

Look Again, In the Coming Summer

miguel-cervante.jpg

Sonnet

by Miguel de Cervantes

When I was marked for suffering, Love forswore
All knowledge of my doom; or else at ease
Love grows a cruel tyrant, hard to please
Or else a chastisement exceeding sore
A little sin hath brought me. Hush! No more!
Love is a god! All things he knows and sees,
And gods are bland and mild! Who then decrees
The dreadful woe I bear and yet adore?

If I should say, O Chloe, that ’twas thou,
I should speak falsely since, being wholly good
Like Heaven itself, from thee no ill can come.
There is no hope; I must die shortly now,
Not knowing why, since, sure, no witch hath brewed
The drug that might avert my martyrdom.


How many connections can you find between these two poets, these two poems?   The obvious ones and the personal that are only meant for you?   It is interesting to use poetry as a way to connect ourselves to others that we will never meet, either through time or place.   Poetry forgives all the things left out and unexplained.  There is no requirement in poetry the author must footnote each sentiment and expression.  There is no journalistic standards to which a poet must abide.  Poetry allows for more than casual punctuation, it encourages the reader to usurp the writer’s words and find in them something personal, intimate that only the two of you know to be true in the way the words speak to you.  What secret do you share with Cervantes, Lorna Dee and Miguel?


First Thought

by Lorna Dee Cervantes

best thought, you had taught
me — a river runs through it,
the foot of the soul standing
stubbornly in the freeze, all
the shards of ice crumpling up
the banks, what survives
in the ignorance. Play it away.
Be ceremony. Be a lit candle
to what blows you. Outside,
the sun gives a favorite present,
mountain nests in ironic meadows,
otter takes off her shoes, the small
hands of her feet reaching, reaching; still,
far away people are dying. Crisp
one dollar bills fold another life.
You taught me to care in the moment,
carve day into light, or something,
moving in the west that doesn’t destroy
us. Look again, in the coming summer,
the cruelest month alive still eats up
the hours. Regret is an uneven hand,
a rough palm at the cheek — tender
and calloused. I drink another glass
of water, turn on the tap
for what grows, for you,
for what lasts, for the last
and the first found thought of you.