I Cannot Tell How Much I Owe

Duke-Ellington-Library-of-Congress
Duke Ellington – Such Sweet Thunder

“Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”

James Baldwin

The Giver  (For Berdis)

By James Baldwin

If the hope of giving
is to love the living,
the giver risks madness
in the act of giving.

Some such lesson I seemed to see
in the faces that surrounded me.

Needy and blind, unhopeful, unlifted,
what gift would give them the gift to be gifted?
 .     . The giver is no less adrift
 .     . than those who are clamouring for the gift.

If they cannot claim it, if it is not there,
if their empty fingers beat the empty air
and the giver goes down on his knees in prayer
knows that all of his giving has been for naught
and that nothing was ever what he thought
and turns in his guilty bed to stare
at the starving multitudes standing there
and rises from bed to curse at heaven,
he must yet understand that to whom much is given
much will be taken, and justly so:
I cannot tell how much I owe.


James Baldwin was a prolific writer but not a prolific poet. At first glance The Giver is not a sonnet.  However, look closer. From the line Needy and blind, unhopeful, unlifted to the close every line is exactly 10 syllables long except the two lines: The giver is no less adrift than those who are clamouring for the gift.  The entire final two stanzas are 15 lines, because of one triplet.

If they cannot claim it, if it is not there,
if their empty fingers beat the empty air
and the giver goes down on his knees in prayer

I have written several sonnets which could not be contained by traditional rhyming sequences or by fourteen lines. These sonnets fall under the umbrella of protection of the same muse, but force their way out into unique forms because the poet has a need to break the rules and let the poem find its own way. Atypical sonnets can challenge us with questions about why the poem is structured the way it is. The themes of The Giver fall squarely in the purview of sonnets throughout literature with its personal first person voice and its message of reconciliation and atonement.

Another great artist of the Harlem renaissance, Duke Ellington, wrote and recorded a series of jazz songs that were inspired by the plays of William Shakespeare and titled several of the songs sonnets as a way to honor the great bard. I have included the Sonnet for Caesar below, preformed as a collaboration between Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, as a sound track, as you read The Giver a second time and ponder the question whether Baldwin’s opening line is true, and why many artists who give their art to the world are a little mad;  If the hope of giving is to love the living, the giver risks madness in the act of giving.

 


 

The Giver  (For Berdis)

By James Baldwin

If the hope of giving
is to love the living,
the giver risks madness
in the act of giving.

Some such lesson I seemed to see
in the faces that surrounded me.

Needy and blind, unhopeful, unlifted,
what gift would give them the gift to be gifted?
 .     . The giver is no less adrift
 .     . than those who are clamouring for the gift.

If they cannot claim it, if it is not there,
if their empty fingers beat the empty air
and the giver goes down on his knees in prayer
knows that all of his giving has been for naught
and that nothing was ever what he thought
and turns in his guilty bed to stare
at the starving multitudes standing there
and rises from bed to curse at heaven,
he must yet understand that to whom much is given
much will be taken, and justly so:
I cannot tell how much I owe.

That’s What Hopping’s All About

hopscotch
Hopscotch at a Harlem Community Center

“If a person is not faithful to their individuality, then they cannot be loyal to anything.”

Claude McKay

Harlem Hopscotch

by Maya Angelou

One foot down, then hop! It’s hot.
.   .Good things for the ones that’s got.
Another jump, now to the left.
  .   .Everybody for hisself.

In the air, now both feet down.
 .    .Since you black, don’t stick around.
Food is gone, the rent is due,
.    .Curse and cry and then jump two.

All the people out of work,
.    . Hold for three, then twist and jerk.
Cross the line, they count you out.
  .    .That’s what hopping’s all about.

Both feet flat, the game is done.
They think I lost. I think I won.

Source: The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (Random House, Inc., 1994)

Life can take surprising turns when you least expect it. I am convinced that poetry is a vehicle for change and always has been.  The power of poetry is in its ability to transport the human condition from a current state to a future state, a state in which you win. Poetry can be therapeutic, it can be a form of anarchy, a way to protest, a celebration or a way to reveal a truth beyond which the world is ready to see at that time, but a time capsule waiting for the future where it will be better understood. Writers like Maya Angelou and Claude McKay used poetry and novels to move themselves and society towards a better future and a better version of themselves.

I have spent the past 4 months editing and re-editing poems that have become two separate chap books.  It is work that goes back 5 years.  I have begun the process of socializing that work, handing out copies and inviting people to read it and give me feedback.  And in that process of welcoming vulnerability, and being open in my mind to change, a door has opened for a relationship to the future that is not predestined, nor constrained.

I had the pleasure again over the weekend of seeing how words and experience braid themselves together perfectly until you can’t tell which one is a testament to the other, which one the record, which one the experience, which is action or the corresponding reaction.   So in these final days of February if you are in need of a change in your life, find the right words to describe that change as best you can, whether they are your own or someone else’s. Keep reading them, keep absorbing them. Keep editing them, keep reading them. Invite others to read them too. And then be open to the power of transformation those words might create in your life.  Find the words that say to you, in whatever form they may be; “I win.”


The Harlem Dancer

by Claude McKay

Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes
And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway;
Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes
Blown by black players upon a picnic day
She sang and danced on gracefully and calm,
The light gauze hanging loose about her form;
To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm
Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.
Upon her swarthy neck black, shiny curls
Profusely fell; and, tossing coins in praise,
The wine-flushed, bold- eyed boys, even the girls,
Devoured her with their eager, passionate gaze;
But, looking at her falsely-smiling face,
I knew her self was not in that strange place.

Go Ahead, See Where It Goes

Dove
Rita Dove

“There are times in life when, instead of complaining, you do something about your complaints.”

Rita Dove

Demeter’s Prayer to Hades

by Rita Dove

This alone is what I wish for you: knowledge.
To understand each desire and its edge,
to know we are responsible for the lives
we change. No faith comes without cost,
no one believes without dying.
Now for the first time
the trail you have planted,
what ground opened to waste,
though you dreamed a wealth
of flowers.
  .                 . There are no curses, only mirrors
hold up to the souls of gods and mortals.
And so I give up this fate, too.
Believe in yourself,
go ahead – see where it gets you.


I got shivers when I read for the first time Rita Dove’s poem titled Sonnet, which I have shared below.   It cut into me, the words laceratingly familiar as I read them.  Does that ever happen to you with poetry? The hair on the back of your ,neck goes up after the second line, you suddenly feel naked before the author’s words, as if they had burst in on you in a dressing room at Macy’s by accident, witnessing all your humanness and then had the audacity to write a poem about it.

My friend Liz described to me her thrill in hearing Auden lecture in person at the University of Minnesota and the lightning bolt that experience created in her mind. She had been trained in college to think that poetry was something academics interpreted and then they told you what to think. Auden declared, use your own brain, let poetry speak to you in your own voice and make of it what you will. (A bit ironic coming from a retired Presbyterian minister who was already ordained at the time, since wasn’t the reformation about not needing an elite group of academics to interpret what you find sacred?) But we all learn through parables in our lives at our own pace and at the proper time.

Rita Dove’s sonnet, Demeter’s Prayer to Hades’ cements in my mind my feeling that these sonnets about Persephone are not solely about parenting in the traditional sense, except the parenting we all do of ourselves.  The truth is, we never truly parent our children, we live by example. Our children have their own minds, their own filters, their own experiences. We pretend we help them grow when in reality we feed and clothe and shelter them and what they learn of love and life they learn by watching us how we parent ourselves. If we parent ourselves with wisdom, forgiveness and compassion they likely will be influenced by the example. If we parent with excessive anxiety, then do not be surprised if they follow suit. I learned as much from my parents humbly admitting their mistakes than from the 98% of their lives they lived in prosperity. If we parent ourself with consistent recklessness, stupidity and anger, they will either by seduced by its ugliness or become orphans to find their own way.  So like Dove says – “believe in yourself – see where it goes.”  Parent yourself in ways, you will be honored if your children follow suit, and if nothing else, “one learns to walk by walking.”


Sonnet

by Rita Dove

Nothing can console me.  You may bring silk
to make skin sigh, dispense yellow roses
in the matter of ripened dignitaries.
You can tell me repeatedly
I am unbearable (and I know this):
still, nothing turns the gold into corn
nothing is sweet to the tooth crushing in.

I’ll not ask for the impossible
One learns to walk by walking.
In time I will forget this empty brimming.
I may laugh again at
a bird, perhaps, chucking the nest –
but it will not be happiness,
for I have known that.

This Is Important, Stop Fooling Around!

Rita Dove
Rita Dove (1952 –

The poetry that sustains me is when I feel that, for a minute, the clouds have parted and I’ve seen ecstasy or something.

Rita Dove

Persephone, Falling

by Rita Dove

One narcissus among the ordinary beautiful
flowers, one unlike all the others! She pulled,
stooped to pull harder—
when, sprung out of the earth
on his glittering terrible
carriage, he claimed his due.
It is finished. No one heard her.

No one! She had strayed from the herd.
(Remember: go straight to school.
This is important, stop fooling around!
Don’t answer to strangers. Stick
with your playmates. Keep your eyes down.)
This is how easily the pit
opens. This is how one foot sinks into the ground.


There are several well-reasoned analysis of this poem which say that it is about parenting and cautioning children about the dangers of strangers, with Hades in his carriage from the underworld a pretty grandiose stranger. But that is not what this poem speaks to me.  I find in her words an artist’s admission to the lure of poetry and writing. The splendid terribleness of having to let go and fall and fall into your own pit of your imagination. And then find in that falling the beautiful truth of whatever it is that you are going to write about and the courage to share.

The goddess Persephone is a crazy metaphor to begin with in shaping this sonnet.  She is the goddess of the plant kingdom and prosperity of the harvest.  Yet she is kidnapped by Hades into the underworld to be his wife, bringing famine to the world as nothing can grow where no light reaches. There is not a true poet alive who feels they have any choice but to write even if they starve in some ways for it. Their purpose in life has been kidnapped in search of the right words, to write words, to impart the intangible in a way that they themselves and possibly their readers can grasp ecstasy for a moment.

Artists, teachers, clergy and everyone else who peddles in matters of the soul eventually have to give themselves wholly over to the pursuit of their vocation, even if it means entrapment in a place that does not always serve their best interest.  It is not a choice that can be made halfway. You either commit and succeed or are reticent and fail. Hades’ Pitch, the sonnet below, I think is a continuation of this admission, that in finding her artistic voice, she had to accept the lure of fire and darkness that comes with commitment, passion and desire.  A poet experiences unpleasantness, the process of writing comes easy to some, but for most is hard work and not everything they are going to write is going to be about subjects that want to visit or revisit. Great art sometimes is about scars or leaves them in its creation. Fisherman have callouses on their hands. Writers have callouses on their reputations, for half the critics will evaluate you for your best work and the other half judge you only by your worst.

I love the quote from Audre Lorde below and believe it to be true of all great artists like Rita Dove as well; “that poets must teach what they know if we are to continue being.”  What are you teaching or creating today to continue being?  

Audre Lorde

I am Black, Woman, and Poet—fact, and outside the realm of choice. I can choose only to be or not be, and in various combinations of myself. And as my breath is a part of my breathing, my eyes of my seeing, all that I am is of who I am, is of what I do. The shortest statement of philosophy I have is my living, or the word ‘I.’

Having made homes in most parts of this city, I hang now from the west edge of Manhattan, and at any moment I can cease being a New Yorker, for already my children betray me in television, in plastic, in misplaced angers.

Last spring, under a National Endowment to the Arts Grand, I spent some time as Poet in Residence at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, where I became convinced, anti-academic though I am, that poets must teach what they know if we are to continue being.

At the City University of New York, I teach young people.


Hades’ Pitch

by Rita Dove 

 

If I could just touch your ankle, he whispers, there
on the inside, above the bone—leans closer,
breath of lime and pepper—I know I could
make love to you.
She considers
this, secretly thrilled, though she wasn’t quite
sure what he meant. He was good
with words, words that went straight to the liver.
Was she falling for him out of sheer boredom—
cooped up in this anything-but-humble dive, stone
gargoyles leering and brocade drapes licked with fire?
Her ankle burns where he described it. She sighs
just as her mother above ground stumbles, is caught
by the fetlock—bereft in an instant—
while the Great Man drives home his desire.

I Am The Darker Brother

langston hughes 2
Langston Hughes

 

“I am so tired of waiting,
Aren’t you
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?

~ Langston Hughes

 

I, Too

by Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967)

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

Then.
Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.


Dreams were a constant theme in Langston Hughes writing from his first published poem, Weary Blues, to one of his most famous, Harlem:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load

Or does it explode?

When Elmer Rice, a playwright, sent out a questionnaire to others on the black list from Senator McCarthy’s investigation into “Anti-American” activities, Langston Hughes, who was at the top of the list replied in a 1952 letter:

Dear Elmer,

Here are my answers to the questionnaire re the FCC and blacklisting in TV and radio:

  1. The publication of my name in RED CHANNELS has not affected my employment in TV or radio. Being colored I received no offers of employment in these before RED CHANNELS appeared, and have had none since—so it hasn’t affected me at all.

He goes on to give a more thorough scorching of the racism and lack of opportunity he has faced in career, because of racism. I am always drawn to Hughes for his honesty. There is a righteous anger that runs through the back bone of his verse, even in his poems of joy, that gives it validity and strength. I have shared other Hughes poems in earlier posts, including his poem Let America Be America Again a much more compelling vision for change than our president’s red MAGA hat – which represents to me when I see it, a buffoon puffing his chest to “Make Assholes Great Again.”

Hughes’ poem below, As I Grow Older, brings the imagery of walls into focus. It is a powerful reminder that walls have symbolism far beyond their physical presence. Walls can serve a purpose in making peace between neighbors and providing physical security. But walls that are meant only to keep people corralled in ways that prevent them from seeing their hope for the future serve no one’s best interest and will eventually be torn down with time.

Let’s spend our money wisely.  Let’s support the arts with federal tax dollars with equal zeal with which we invest in the military and border security and see which one in the end moves us further forward in meeting the ideals of what America can be, with a just, strong and safe, civil society.


As I Grew Older

by Langston Hughes

It was a long time ago.
I have almost forgotten my dream.
But it was there then,
In front of me,
Bright like a sun—
My dream.
And then the wall rose,
Rose slowly,
Slowly,
Between me and my dream.
Rose until it touched the sky—
The wall.
Shadow.
I am black.
I lie down in the shadow.
No longer the light of my dream before me,
Above me.
Only the thick wall.
Only the shadow.
My hands!
My dark hands!
Break through the wall!
Find my dream!
Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night,
To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
Of sun!

 

 

Where Shall We Meet

paul-laurence-dunbar
Paul Lawrence Dunbar

On An Old Book With Uncut Leaves

by Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872 – 1906)

Emblem of blasted hope and lost desire,
No finger ever traced thy yellow page
Save Time’s. Thou hast not wrought to noble rage
The hearts thou wouldst have stirred. Not any fire
Save sad flames set to light a funeral pyre
Dost thou suggest. Nay,–impotent in age,
Unsought, thou holdst a corner of the stage
And ceasest even dumbly to aspire.

How different was the thought of him that writ.
What promised he to love of ease and wealth,
When men should read and kindle at his wit.
But here decay eats up the book by stealth,
While it, like some old maiden, solemnly,
Hugs its incongruous virginity


I wonder if you have to be a writer to understand the sadness of this poem?  Only writers think about such things as whether the words they put forth are destined to languish, untouched and unbidden, between the pages of a fading dust jacket.  Dunbar is one of the those writers who does everything well.  He wrote beautiful classical poetry, he wrote free verse and he also wrote lyrics to songs and poems in the vernacular of his day.  He just flat out wrote.


 

A Song

by Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Thou art the soul of a summer’s day,
Thou art the breath of the rose.
But the summer is fled
And the rose is dead;
Where are they gone, who knows?

Thou art the blood of my heart o’ hearts,
Thou art my soul’s repose
But my heart grows numb
And my soul is dumb;
Where art thou, love, who knows?

Thou art the hope of my after years —
Sun for my winter snows;
But the years go by
`Neath a clouded sky.
Where shall we meet, who knows?

 

Be Justly Proud and Gladly Safe

file-8 (9)
Poinsettia in need of a drink.

 

“When people get married because they think it’s a long-time love affair, they’ll be divorced very soon, because all love affairs end in disappointment.  But marriage is a recognition of a spirtual identify.”

Joseph Campbell

The Blossom

by John Donne

LITTLE think’st thou, poor flower,
Whom I’ve watch’d six or seven days,
And seen thy birth, and seen what every hour
Gave to thy growth, thee to this height to raise,
And now dost laugh and triumph on this bough,
Little think’st thou,
That it will freeze anon, and that I shall
To-morrow find thee fallen, or not at all.

Little think’st thou, poor heart,
That labourest yet to nestle thee,
And think’st by hovering here to get a part
In a forbidden or forbidding tree,
And hopest her stiffness by long siege to bow,
Little think’st thou
That thou to-morrow, ere the sun doth wake,
Must with the sun and me a journey take.

But thou, which lovest to be
Subtle to plague thyself, wilt say,
Alas ! if you must go, what’s that to me?
Here lies my business, and here I will stay
You go to friends, whose love and means present
Various content
To your eyes, ears, and taste, and every part ;
If then your body go, what need your heart?

Well then, stay here ; but know,
When thou hast stay’d and done thy most,
A naked thinking heart, that makes no show,
Is to a woman but a kind of ghost.
How shall she know my heart ; or having none,
Know thee for one?
Practice may make her know some other part ;
But take my word, she doth not know a heart.

Meet me in London, then,
Twenty days hence, and thou shalt see
Me fresher and more fat, by being with men,
Than if I had stay’d still with her and thee.
For God’s sake, if you can, be you so too ;
I will give you
There to another friend, whom we shall find
As glad to have my body as my mind.


I am at that stage in my relationship with my Poinsettia every year from Christmas, where I inevitably go a little too long on watering it and it starts to wilt.  Poinsettia’s are like every other relationship, over water it and it gets damp feet and dies from a smothering mold.  Under water it and it will hit the critical wilting point, which by definition is the stage at which no amount of watering will bring it back from the brink of death, because cells have been damaged beyond repair, the essence of the plant is gone even if a little green remains.  Fortunately, I caught mine in time that it perked right up and looked happy by the end of the day, giving me a bright red smile knowing I was thinking about it.

However, I have learned over the years, that let it get to that early wilty point a couple of times and things will go down hill quick. The plant will come back vegetatively but the shine is off the bloom. Consistent, even though it be unintentional, lack of attention to watering, going just a wee bit too long of not being present with your poinsettia, will cause it to drop its top red leaves, scale back and try to hold on with buds at the bottom.

My father has poinsettias that are many years old, so careful is his watering and care for them.  He has an ivy plant that is over 60 years old and several others over 30 years old. My sister called and we chatted about her approach with poinsettias. She lives in Oakland, CA and said that she throws her out in the backyard by the steps early in the new year and let’s it go feral, free to try and make it on there own.  She said some don’t have the stamina and die and others make it to spring and she plants them in her garden, survival of the fittest with a minimalist approach to care and nurturing.  What’s your approach to house plants? Does it mirror your approach to your romantic relationships?

I found these two poems by John Donne recently and instantly knew how I wanted to share them.  Each is a remarkable poem, though the old English makes it a little more difficult to wade through.  A Jet Ring Sent shows that marriage and separation are no different now than 400 years ago, in partnerships wedded in love.  I read the ending, not as divorce but commitment, paraphrasing;  “Circle this finger’s top, with your thumb.” What a simple beautiful way to acknowledge your wedding with your lover and the contentment of seeing a physical reminder of those vows on each other’s fingers. I read the poem as an affirmation of being attentive to your most important relationship. “Be justly proud and gladly safe, thou that dost dwell with me.”  When both partners affirm that sentiment getting up from bed every morning and having a cup of tea together, you know you are in it for the long haul.

John Donne wrote some of the most beautiful religious sonnets of the past 500 years. A true man of God, who did not forsake his flesh, or his family, but lived well on this earthly plain as well.


A Jet Ring Sent

by John Donne

THOU art not so black as my heart,
Nor half so brittle as her heart, thou art;
What wouldst thou say? shall bout our properties be thee be spoke,
—Nothing more endless, nothing sooner broke.

Marriage rings are not of this stuff,
Oh, why should ought less precious, or less tough,
Figure our loves? except in thy name though has bid it say,
“–I’m cheap, and nought but fashion; fling me away.”

Yet stay with me, since thou art come,
Circle this finger’s top, which didst her thumb,
Be justly proud, and gladly safe, that thou dost dwell with me.
She that O! broke her faith, would soon break free.